COLUMN: On Inequality and Hierarchy

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
August 15th, 2016

We deserve equal rights, though we are not equally-talented beings

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”

I think very few readers cannot identify this ringing phrase from the American Declaration of Independence, composed by Thomas Jefferson. Canadians are as much a part of the cultural consciousness which produced this ideology as Americans are, and we too accept the self-evident truth of human rights.

At the very moment of saying we are created equal, we are aware we do not fully believe it. We may wonder at the word “created” and “Creator” – that kind of belief is not so common now as in 1776 – and we know for a fact that inequality in this world is immense. We know what the label “the 1%” means, and it is not an idea congruent with a world where equality is real.

There are ideals, and there is reality. Jefferson was asserting that an ideal was a truth, a reality, when he declared humans are equal. It was part of his Christian heritage, to say all are equal in the sight of God. He said it in full knowledge that the reality of his time denied that women were equal to men in politics, economy or society, and that non-Europeans were equal to Europeans.

We continue to live in this profound state of cognitive dissonance. The flowery rhetoric of democracy continues to flourish on the lips of the uber-privileged cultural and social elites of earth while beneath their cloudy heights the reality of inequality is manifest every moment.

Americans are reacting to the fact of deterioration of the dream of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – three of the Rights Jefferson named – in various ways, one of which the chattering media elite has focused on: the Trump conundrum. There are millions of people refusing to listen to their betters, and putting their faith in a man of no “character, values, or experience” (in the words of an open letter from men of high position in the Republican party).

Trump speaks to American men who want the realities of 1776 to come back, when white males were privileged above all in the vast land of the two Americas — and could reasonably expect they would flourish by working and accumulating. Land was the passport to social mobility.

Nobility: hierarchy appears in human history

Jefferson’s contemporaries in Western cultural leadership were fascinated by what they called “Nature” and how humans would be happy if only they could arrange their affairs in harmony with natural law. The imagined State of Nature was one where a man could appropriate land to his ownership by working on it, improving it, rising in prosperity. Upward mobility was possible, even probable, in that time, for a hard-working man with a farm and family.

It was necessary first for white men to dispossess the aboriginal people, and this was accomplished with the accompaniment of ideologies exalting the Christian European civilization and white race as the zenith of humanity.

But some intellectuals questioned whether civilization was truly a good thing. Rousseau idealized native American Indians as “Noble Savages” unspoiled by the artificial and unnatural trammels of civilization. In his thinking, Rousseau was trying to understand why humanity had come so far from Nature, and that is a question worth digging into when one considers the origin of inequality and hierarchy. Pre-human social animals like chimps and baboons have hierarchy. Is that why humans evolved this way? I wrote about this last year and will not repeat the arguments here.

Recorded human history is not a long chronicle. We have written sources for our history only as far back as 5,000 years, in Egypt. All else is prehistory, and the archeologist rules that sphere rather than the historian. The Egyptian record of a King, Narmer, who united lower and upper Egypt, provides us with a mystery right from the start: why is there a king? How did one man come to be ruler over masses of other humans? Why did humans separate into strata of social leadership, with a top, a middle, and a bottom layer?

We do not know, and cannot know, the answers. All is conjecture and reasoned theory, nothing is fact, when we try to understand how the species homo sapiens invented agriculture, urban living, civilization, and social hierarchy.

What I can say for sure is that history, as opposed to prehistory, has no example of peoples who lacked leaders and who organized a completely egalitarian social order. (Western anthropologists have recorded “uncivilized” societies where leadership is not hierarchical, but those examples are described by outsiders to the society, and I for one never trust Western intellectuals who think they understand alien ways.) Hierarchy and a social layer of “nobles” are intrinsic to the historical societies we can know as far back as Sumer and Egypt, the first human civilizations. War makes its appearance at the same time as civilization. Hierarchy seems as natural to us as food, sleep and sex.

Patriarchy may plausibly be argued as the first hierarchy, elevating masculinity over the feminine from a time deep in the past. Feminist writers on the subject such as Margaret Meade, Riane Eisler, Merlin Stone, and Marilyn French, have delved into the reasons why men came to be considered superior to women.

Nobility is an idea of both social and moral dimensions. A noble man is both above a common man, exercising power and owning more material than his social inferiors. But noble also denotes fine moral sensibility. For example, the Buddha’s teachings refer to “noble” truths and noble qualities. China has a long tradition of extolling the virtues of The Sage, or the superior man, as found in Confucius and Lao Tzu, and the acceptance of division of humans into the class of lords and kings above the common people is unquestioned.

In our tradition, of Greek and Israelite sacred texts, the social fact of nobles and commoners is not explained with explicit origin myth.

The one god, YHWH, in the Israelite text of Genesis, creates humans, expels them from Eden, observes humans as they become wicked, and so wipes them out and starts again with Noah’s family – but it is taken for granted that kings exist, and lords, and ordinary humans who are simply “the people.” God chooses extraordinary individuals such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel, for his purposes, but how society evolves into social classes is not part of the divine area of interest, apparently. And when Israel’s “People” ask God to give them a king so they can be like other nations, God gives them Saul, David and Solomon, and it evolves politically like all other societies even though Israelites are a chosen people. Israelite prophets rage against oppression of the poor by the mighty — yet nowhere is there a divine command that there should not be hierarchy in social order. God accepts slavery and poverty. God wants justice for the poor, not an egalitarian society.

The profound philosophers of Greece, among whom Socrates, Plato and Aristotle hold first place, did not doubt that hierarchy and inequality in social power was the human norm. Socrates was interested in goodness, truth, and beauty more than the “right” of all humans to equality (he accepted slavery as natural), and he himself was brought to trial by Athens at a democratic moment of its political order, for “corrupting the youth” by his philosophic attitudes. He was judged guilty and sentenced to capital punishment by the democracy – he drank hemlock rather than be executed – and the fact that such a great man was killed by the demos, the (common) people, was to prove a liability to future thinkers trying to praise democracy. Plato certainly did not think highly of democracy, and in his attempt to imagine an ideal Republic, there were definite ranks of society, with philosopher-kings at the top with the best men, who would be Guardians of the lesser ranks. Aristotle did not hold democracy to be best, arguing that politics cycled constantly; oligarchy or aristocracy led to monarchy, then to democracy, then back to oligarchy.

Ancient India, another place of early civilization and sophisticated cultural forms, knew hierarchy at least since the time of the “Sons of Aryas” invading from the north-west, the authors of the holy texts of “Hindu” religion. The caste system is hierarchy as paradigm: Brahmins at the top, the “purest” social order, with warrior nobles beneath, down through middle levels to the miserable untouchables. Lighter skin originally denoted higher caste.

The People

One might think that there is a lot to be said about the masses, the vast majority of people, but this is not so. The masses are undifferentiated. Only when a minority of people are distinguished by extraordinary qualities do they merit attention from the writers of historical and religious records.

The Bible, the Iliad, the Vedic texts, the Tao de Ching – these texts are simply uninterested in how they describe The People. Individual leaders invariably are distinguished from the people by qualities the mass lacks. The man of divine purpose, the warrior of superior ability, the Sage – by their very nature, these are never part of the people. The People admire them and follow them in stories where leaders achieve glory and fame, since the People are known for their mistakes and their low appetites, not for their fortitude or intelligence. Bible stories abound in the people wanting the wrong thing (e.g., worshipping false idols and golden calves) and the Tao assumes the people only need to eat and have peace to be content, having no other, nobler motivations.

In sum, the ordinary cannot be extraordinary; the general lot of humanity are generalized, homogenized.

This blandness of the masses means I have only to mention them here before describing two other major grouping of humans in society, the Middling and the Underground. The Middling Classes appear late in history, since before the modern era men of commerce were fused into a mass of commoners. However, Underground Classes have been around in history for much longer; I call them by this name to indicate that they are less seen in the light of historical writing. The class of misfits, outcasts and non-conformists defy generalization, and they challenge the noble lords’ order more than the people do.

Under the surface: criminals, rebels, artists, nomads, marginals

There have always been people who are neither in the elite nor of the common people by virtue of being engaged in activity that is neither lordly, nor labour-on-the-land, the basic categories of social role that typified so many societies.

The noble class rules, makes law, and decides who is socially legitimate, with a great deal of help from the class of men who specialize in religious ideas and standards of godly behaviour. Underground people don’t fit well into the order the lords and priests want to impose. Nobles like common people who stay in one place, pay taxes, know their proper place and accept it, and are not violent. That leaves a large number of underground people out.

Thieves do not respect property laws, and the nobles absolutely demand strict obedience to laws of property, since the lords’ property is noble privilege. But the People might admire thieves because their poverty is caused by lordly laws, and there is satisfaction seeing the oppressor defied: hence the many tales of merry outlaws in popular folklore, such as Robin Hood. Other sorts of violent criminals, as murderers and pillagers, are feared by commoners, and the lords exult in their role as defenders of the common weak against criminal strong.

Pirates were another category of underground folks who might plausibly be romanticized by common people, depending on how much damage the sea robbers could accomplish against the ruling classes without hurting the small folk. When the rulers needed them, pirates might be declared legitimate as “privateers with letters of marque” from a king, and thus co-opted into the purposes of the ruling class when one nation waged naval war with another.

Artistic people whose art did not serve the lords and priests in their own version of culture were not held in esteem by the ruling classes. If one’s music or visual art or dance or teaching were not patronized by the nobility, one was not readily fit into the social order the rulers desired. But the simple facts of economy militated against artists of this sort ever being very numerous.

Nomadic varieties of economic life such as that pursued by migrants or pastoralists, and by wandering sects like medieval European Jews and Roma (gypsies), were suspect of bringing disorder to the society the lords and priests desired to enforce. Against these sorts of marginalized social role, the lords could enlist popular xenophobia and prejudice; pogroms and persecutions of Jews in Europe, or ethnic minorities in India and China, could be murderous when the common people felt entitled to act upon their hatred of aliens. Lords and kings were shrewd enough to protect the marginal group in return for that group’s service, such as when medieval kings kept local Jews as their personal bankers and marked them with a badge as being “the King’s persons” – in effect, a protection racket operated by the legitimate political sovereign.

The heroes of modern revolutionary theorists, and of modern historians who hold revolution against inequality in high regard, are the political rebels of the past. Rebels were not a social role like criminals or marginal artists or travelling folk, but were people out to change a specific circumstance by their rebellious activity. The rebel was never against the People, only against the rulers. Rebels have left records of their purposes and ideology, and for that reason they are studied by historians trying to find the origins of deep movements in the past which have brought us to the present declared norm of modern electoral democracy and the rights of the democratic citizen.

Rebels naturally fill the pages of popular oral and written culture as heroic figures who stood up for the weak against the powerful, but this folklore is not consistently favourable to rebellious acts. Cain is a rebel in Judeo-Christian sacred texts, but not in a good way, whereas David rebels against Saul and wins through to become king himself. The Greek story of Icarus rebelling against the divine order and dying when he flew too close to the sun-god’s realm, is another cautionary tale against the rebel who rejects proper authority. Prometheus is a heroic rebel in the service of humanity who is made to suffer eternal torment for his successful rebellious act. Examples of rebels who are heroes and those who are failures can easily be multiplied from a host of cultures, making the point that rebels as a sub-group within the Underground classes do not conform to any generalized morality tale.

Rebels: agents of political change and their legitimacy

Turning from folkloric legends to historical facts, one may see that political rebels and revolutionaries are, in our modern present popular culture, held in a positive light when their actions and words are shown to have contributed to the desired goal of our own democratic social and political order. They are seen in negative light if they did not uphold the democratic forms which rule us now, so anarchists, terrorists and communists of the past are not heroes of our culture as taught in our schools and popular consumer culture.

America still teaches its children to hold The Founding Fathers of the USA and its sacred Constitution in high regard. Ireland, Hungary, Greece, Italy, France, India, China, Russia (before 1991) are just some of the European nations where revolutionaries are heroes of the dominant culture. Obviously too, many Asian, African and Latin American nations are places where the glory of a successful revolution or rebellion is enshrined in popular history.

There are places where revolution is not held up for admiration. In the UK, a whole tradition of history-teaching, the Whig tradition, taught all English schoolchildren that Britannia was smart to have escaped a bloody Revolution such as France or Russia underwent, because an English genius for moderate political change headed off such trauma. English Canada inherited this way of seeing history; we have no great hero of rebellion against the British Empire and monarchy, and we became free and democratic without violent rebellion — or so the story goes. Quebecois people, of the Quebecois nation recognized by our Parliament, have a different record, with francophone heroes and rebels.

The point of these models of heroic revolutionary professional leaders of the past is to make the people contented with the status quo. This ideological history is one of the ways the ruling class with its auxiliary servant elites (the affluent professional classes, law-personnel, journalists, bureaucrats, clergy, intelligentsia, skilled artisans, scientists and technologists) maintain the hegemony of the system and the legitimacy of its institutions. What do I mean by “hegemony”? I think this is a fine summary of the idea, in the words of a writer of science fiction:

“Hegemony means one group dominating others without exerting sheer force, something like a paradigm that creates unnoticed consent to a hierarchy of power. If the hierarchy comes to be questioned, especially in situations of material want, loss of hegemony can occur…”  [from the novel 2312 by Kim S. Robinson, emphasis added]

As more and more people in the world suffer material want because the top 10 per cent, or 1, or 0.1 per cent, have appropriated obscene wealth, I expect that some kind of breaking down of hegemony will occur, and in fact the inability of the Republican Party elite in the USA to stop Trump becoming the party’s presidential candidate is a breakdown in a minor way of elite hegemony. On the other hand, the near-certainty that Clinton will continue on the elite path of Obama is evidence the USA is still firmly under the hegemony of the rich.

Democracy has triumphed in the modern era as a global-consensus model for modern government; a recent CBC Ideas program with John R. Saul argued this point of view strongly. Yet inequality is rampant. Why did hierarchy not vanish when democracy became prevalent? Our form of democracy is manifestly defective. Equal political and legal rights without equal social and economic power are insufficient. Our present democracy is poorly founded.

Electoral Representative Democracy: the triumph of the middling classes

Listening to the CBC program I refer to [visit www.cbc.ca/ideas], one might be persuaded that the world is in a fortunate place in history when democracy is in fashion – supposing that electoral democracy is the best form of government there is. The guests on the program obviously thought so, and insist it is not a monopoly of the West’s traditions. But I was amazed there was no guest with the basic Marxian education to ask, “whose idea of democracy are we using?” The guests were using the definition of the hegemonic classes.

It was clear the guests were unwilling to reference Marxian texts on what constitutes government, but preferred to ignore what Marx had made clear – one can create forms of democratic government, but the substance is only real when the People have achieved roughly equal power with the ultra-rich and the professional affluent middle. An electoral system of representative democracy without real class equality is not democratic at all. Some disagree with me.

The Rule of Law is one of the features of democracy that those who exalt it most are likely to point out as the insurance that democracy works for all, because all are equal before the law. I have to ask, who really believes this is the case? Money changes everything, and wealth ensures there is no equality before the law. I am not going to belabour this point, which is to me a self-evident truth. Anatole France, a poet, put it this way:

The Law, in all its Majesty, forbids the Rich as well as the Poor, to sleep in public places, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

Democracy of the electoral, representative variety such as Canada and the West generally enjoy, and which is also instituted in many nations of formerly-colonized lands – India and Brazil and South Africa among them — is a democracy created by the middling classes. Middling classes are socially-placed to operate the machinery of government that allows a ruling class to amass enormous sums of wealth in perfectly legal fashion while poverty and its attendant misery continues to be the cause of death for millions of citizens of democracies, even while rule of law and “equality of opportunity” structure their social order. Hierarchy and inequality flourish in democracies.

The Middle

The Middling Classes are of course Commoners, not nobles, but in all other ways, the enormous wealth of capitalists in the modern era has made them as much above the People as nobles and priests of earlier, pre-capitalist ages ever were. Men of the middling classes do not want an end to inequality, and intend to maintain their social superiority over the People. Why should they be at the same level? They have risen by their merit, their intelligence and hard work. Hierarchy is meritocracy; the talented rise, and that is all the social justice that anyone of the lower orders of society can rightly expect. God helps those who help themselves. Level the playing field, let the better man win, and Justice prevails. Thus capitalism and democracy are in perfect harmony ideologically.

Capitalism as the ruling economic and social system spells the termination of land-owning monopoly as the basis of power and wealth; land ownership was the  foundation of aristocracy and the nobility as ruling class from primeval times. When land is superceded by manufacturing, noble power wanes.

The men who wrote about and explained, praised and legitimized, the rise of the new ruling class of Commoners-grown-rich, were English to begin with, since England is where industrial and financial capitalism had their modern origin. John Locke, Adam Smith,  Jeremy Bentham, James Mill (who coined the phrase “middling classes”) J. S. Mill: these are a few of them; Marx critiqued their works. America and France, Germany and Italy, provided other apologists for capitalism. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were their era. Today we live in a post-modern order, and to me it is not clear how we transition to post-capitalism or whether that will be possible.

Over the course of writing this column, I have often described the historical development of Western civilization, its political and economic order, its profound revolutions beginning in the sixteenth century up to the present, the great theorists and leaders of democracy as far back as ancient Athens, the meaning of that development understood with Marxian methods. I will not recapitulate those accounts now but I will name a few authors worthy of study who explain why democracy as we know it is failing to deliver a good life for so many, not only in the Third World but in the West too.

Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hedges are alive and well and still writing about how the middling classes are in service to the corporate capitalist order Chomsky is particularly good when describing how the intelligentsia works for the hegemony of the ruling class, and Hedges lucidly analyses how “the liberal class” has failed the People. Thomas Frank makes it clear in Listen, Liberal why the rich are even richer now than ever, and that the “professional class” has no interest in a more equitable distribution of wealth to help the People.

Those three are writing about class, and one might object to that word as biased because of Marxian historigraphy. If that is the case, one ought to consult the conservative historian Niall Ferguson —The West and the Rest is one of his many solid studies, not at all critical of how the West has come to rule the globe. Ferguson does not deny hierarchy; he merely rationalizes it.

For a perspective not arguing for or against Revolution, not passionate in the fight against a ruling class nor supportive of the status quo, there is the fine writing of Charles Eisenstein in three books and many essays.


Having mentioned Eisenstein, I will conclude with a simple wish. His vision of “a more beautiful world” depends on humanity having a new Story of the People, wherein we give up the narrative of separation from and control over the natural world. He is not exhorting us to go out and defy the fascists as Chris Hedges does; I am no longer interested in that kind of revolution.

I prefer the transformation of human consciousness before we attempt political and social changes through violent confrontation with the men at the top of our hierarchies. My wish is that this is possible.

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