Resources & Relationships

Conventional wisdom is that modern societies, at least, can be divided into three such spheres – political, economic, and social orders – and that ideally the three should be supported within the everyday lives of individuals with different rules, norms, and the like. In this paradigm, the normal relations of friendships, enmity, family, etc… appear to carry expectations of communalism and reliance upon precedent to decide if a person should be accepted or rejected in friendship, hated, or ignored. The schedule of reasoning is variable between sub-groupings within the population, but peer pressure almost always plays its part. Economics, on the other hand, emphasize that the things transacted are important, and not the “from whence” or “whom” they come. The only thing that is supposed to matter is the financial or material advantage of the individual decision-makers. And politics are supposed to address the subversion of violence, restricting all of human behavior through control of how and when violence can be employed. In this sphere, influence over the mechanism of control is of paramount importance with aspects of social and economically described relations seen as suspect.

These three spheres can be seen as somewhat similar to the anthropologists’ three realms of communism, exchange, and hierarchy. To a degree, these follow much the same form. Social relationships behave much like the communistic ideal of sharing, once a person is a friend, spouse, or family member, there is an expectation that people will help those so designated along the lines of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Likewise, economic relationships can be related to exchange, and political relationships to hierarchy. The associations are not perfect, however, as social, economic, and political relationships can each have aspects following the forms of communism, exchange, and hierarchy. Why is this correlation skewed? Is it that one or both conceptual models are intrinsically flawed?

The disjuncture has been caused by the changes in relations between people through history. A significant part of this is hypothesized with help from the field of anthropology – the steps in development which came before the advent of written history. The first was the hunger-gatherer stage. Without really anything by way of records regarding this period beyond the stunning artwork left behind in some places, the details of societies from this time can’t really be known with any certainty. The vague outlines seem to be that population density was low, populations were small, and organized violence was unlikely to have been common. In such an environment, relationships of hierarchy were probably rare, to ensure the acquisition of resources suggests that what formalized relations which occurred could have as likely been consequential of communism as of hierarchy.

Relations of any of the three axises – communism, hierarchy, and exchange – belong more to a spectrum than the discrete separateness of “spheres.” When individuals become enamored with their communistic designation or leadership, the relationships which otherwise maintained an egalitarian equivalence can easily become similar to the inequality of hierarchy. So also can the mode of the principles of exchange, when for whatever reason the process is prevented from being completed and the relationship between parties is stuck in perpetual inequality – also developing the trappings of hierarchy. This might tend to suggest that hierarchy can only exist causally subsequent to either communism or exchange, but evidence from studies of other great ape societies shows that hierarchy is present far more frequently than communism, and exchange is almost entirely absent in the findings of such studies.

It would be easy to assign a mythical standard to the forms of human interaction – that originally all people lived within egalitarian communist societies, developing into hierarchy at an unknown point when some individuals chose to enforce their desires on others by means of force, and developing exchange only where imposed from above within an hierarchical organization as a means of facilitating the flow or resources from hierarchically subservient populations to the ends assigned by those holding power. Karl Marx and subsequent generations of communist and socialist thinkers have claimed as much. But I believe that the more complete explanation is significantly more complex.

The more reasonable explanation is that all three types of interaction coexisted in prehistoric societies, the frequency of each being subject to variables such as degree of trust between individuals, availability of resources, and the duration and frequency of exposure to and interaction with individuals alien to the symbolic “us.” When trust is high and resources are ready at hand, interactions tend to be communistic. When trust is high and exposure to alien individuals is frequent, those interactions might tend more strongly towards exchange. And when trust is low and/or resources are scarce, hierarchy is more likely. These are trends, and should not be treated as absolute claims, for each interpersonal interaction is carried out by human choices and only informed by – not decided by – predispositions. There is, indeed, a relationship between the familiarity of interacting individuals, the availability of resources, and the level of trust such individuals might be predisposed to feel for one-another. Again, though, these would be descriptive predispositions accounting for only a part of those informing the choices of participant individuals.

Perhaps the most significant distinction between the hypothetical prehistoric and subsequent historic societies from those of other great apes is the presence and variability of trust. Herein, that faith in the reliability of the actions of others, facilitated by means of the increased precision of the communication of concepts and intentions which go hand-in-hand with verbal or written language. Through language, it becomes possible for individuals to precisely describe the motivations behind actions and partially lift the veil of separateness inherent to individuality. It may even be possible to draw a general assessment of human interactions in general – the more information one person has about another, the more familiarity is present, and there is at least a positive correlative relationship between familiarity and trust. This is not to say that there cannot be familiarity and trust without language, but instead that such is more easily and more completely possible with than without.

But what does any of this have to do with an explanation of the origins of the types of social relationship in prehistoric and early historic societies? Well, if verbal language facilitated an increase in trust between individuals, this was necessarily moderated by the general unreliability of humans in the accuracy of information exchanged over time – either through intentional deception or the natural imperfection of memory recall (see the telephone game and studies on witness reliability in court testimony). With the advent of written records, the accuracy of recall increased. Consider that while a person can be swayed by argument, violence, or time to recall past events differently from their original occurrence, once something is put down in writing, so long as it is not actively altered, the words will not change no matter who the reader is, or the circumstance of the reading. There is not a perfect security of the information, but the presence of written words – or even of other physical symbolism – creates the opportunity for more reliable exchange of information over time and across distance.

This can be seen in the use of symbolon in pre- and early-historic eras in Greece, as well as fu in ancient Chinese cultures. In both cases, the symbolon or fu were physical objects representative of a promise between individuals. Whereas a purely verbal agreement may be denied by one or more parties, forgotten, or ignored, the presence of a physical symbol representing the pact decreases the likelihood of these by most relying wholly on the memories of those witness to the actual event. For these to exist suggests the presence of norms of behavior between persons within a social population – norms which promoted trust between individuals by means of holding honesty and adherence to agreements in esteem – but which have significant risk of being violated for convenience or lack of agreement regarding adherence.

It isn’t too great a supposition, then, to postulate that before the advent and spread of written language – the advent of history in the proper sense – societies were relatively egalitarian, with the intermix of the designated spheres of relationships varying but relying predominantly on the trust which is the foundation of (local) communism and (alien) exchange.

Maybe communism and exchange aren’t so much wholly separate, as the academic literature heretofore has suggested, but rather are two sides of the same coin. In this, I would propose that the key difference between the two is that communist relations involve the expectation that gifted or exchanged resources need not be immediately reciprocated – a consequence of the trust and social familiarity leading people to accept that in the future resources will come back in kind eventually – and the exchange between strangers, which assumes that the return reciprocation cannot wait because the interaction is temporally limited and thus will end. The anticipated duration of the relationship is ultimately what determines the difference between baseline communism and exchange. Hierarchy, then, could be described as a social structure (at least at the baseline), which controls the flow of resources initially as a consequence of limited access to resources.

Somewhat ironically on the historic scale, the very factor increasing trust – writing – was likely a consequence of the leadership of a baseline hierarchy attempting to secure its authority. Doubly ironic because it was probably conquest at the hands of nomadic peoples whom had rejected that baseline authority and exodused from the population centers which promoted the use of writing beyond its original purpose of recording economic holdings and transactions and transformed it into a method of laying out indisputable laws explicitly restricting the behavior and relationships of subject persons.

In such a general sense, the written record appears to support this theory, as the earliest known Mesopotamian tablets recorded by ruling temple complexes for the purpose of accounting for the accumulation and distribution of resources. It was only later that kingship came into the record, apparently modeled after the preceding temple systems, and using writing to preserve records of edicts and laws handed down through the hierarchy. While the Indus Valley civilization did not leave sufficient records to adjudge, the later Ganges culture did leave writings describing ideals of human behavior. And early Chinese writings similarly attempted to describe why people should be subject to hierarchical authority.

From the perspective of modern literate society, in which the distinction between fact and fallacy (or nonfiction and fiction) is closely guarded and enforced, it is not difficult to lose sight of how and why early writing was so significant. But when the natural expectation among a population is that knowledge can only exist within a mind, and that people is exposed to a technology which preserves knowledge outside of a mind – capable of recall by any who have the skill of deciphering it – the philosophical significance will not be lost on the members of that society, even if, perhaps, it is not explicitly or accurately described at the time.


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