Rumbustious Review of Two Books that Dismantle the Myth of Society’s March Toward Egalitarianism

Rumbustious Reviews are short, conversational discussions about books that aren’t specific to behavior analysis. Sadly, the book review is a dying art in our professional journals. These appear with decreasing frequency, and the ones that do appear are often deadly dull, more high school book report than incisive commentary. For what it’s worth, “rumbustious” means “boisterous or unruly.” That might be a slight overstatement of purpose, but I do believe that reading widely has a constructively disruptive effect on our thinking. There are a LOT of books that educate on things about which we are or should be interested. We ought to encourage each other to read them. I believe we can do this effectively by harnessing the tone of a decently elevated bar conversation, without too much stiff academic language and minus that drearily conservative expository style that journals demand of us. 

Scott, J.C. (2017). Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press.

Cantor, N. (2001). In the wake of the plague: The Black Death and the world that it made. Harper.

One of the more hopeful thoughts about the history of civilization is that it represents a gradual march toward a more egalitarian world. For example, we’re told that the advent of communal agriculture (circa 8.000 to 5,000 B.C.E) and city-states (circa 6,000 to 2,000 B.C.E) marked the end of a brutal hunter-gatherer world in which physical might was the only arbiter of power. We’re told that group living bestowed upon the masses greater security, unprecedented cultural traditions of cooperation, and unimagined amounts of food.

We’re also told of a silver lining in the Black Death, the bubonic plague epidemic that devastated Europe and eastern Asia in the 14th Century. A greatly reduced population, paired with the plague’s refusal to discriminate along class lines, loosened a despotic nobility’s grip on society and paved the way for the birth of such modern conventions as trade unions, shared political power, and a middle class.

Against the grain and In the wake of the plague say these accounts are mostly hogwash.

We know that history is written by the victors, and these two books argue, in essence, that when societal disruption comes along the victors are almost always those who would centralize wealth and power in their own hands. The tale they choose to tell is chock full of egalitarian warm fuzzies (see above) that obscure the trend toward disparity.

Against the grain is a polemic whose entire thesis is that concentrating a lot of people in a small area, especially in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East where some of the earliest civilizations arose, made it possible for the few to extend dominion over the many. Hunter-gatherer societies were widely dispersed, with a population density of no more than a few souls per square mile. Although it’s possible that “might made right” in small roving troupes of humans, the power that any one individual could amass was limited by the size of the troupe. By contrast, place 1,000 or more people in close proximity and the opportunities for subjugation grow exponentially.

One of the tales told about early civilizations is that their communal agriculture improved quality of life. Against the grain presents anecdotal evidence that quality of life may have been better in nomadic peoples than in settled cities, not the least because of diseases that could thrive at the conjunction of crowds, squalid conditions, and close proximity to domesticated animals. Contrary to conventional wisdom, once civilization as we know it was invented many nomadic peoples did not drop everything to sign on to this “obviously better” way of life. Rather, bringing them under the umbrella of civilization required forceful conquering, something that became possible because in concentrated populations one can create a dedicated military.

Conventional wisdom says that the walled cities of early civilizations served to keep out uncivilized barbarians, but Against the grain makes the case that walls were constructed to keep people in. With so many people gathered in such close quarters, their labor could be easily coerced or conscripted and their economic output could be readily easily measured and taxed.

In the wake of the plague is more of a conventional chronicle that illuminates a pivotal period in history. It doesn’t seem to be intended as social criticism, but it nevertheless captures what resulted from societal turbulence. Prior to the plague, power was held by a minority, a wealthy hereditary nobility. The plague may have dislodged many of them, but they were soon replaced by other minority players who were equally happy to benefit from disparity. This could even mean selected individuals who previously strained under the yoke of the nobility:

The main social consequence of the Black Death was not the advancement of a workers’ protocommunist paradise but further progress along the road to class polarization in an early capitalist society. The gap between rich and poor in each village widened. The wealthiest peasants took advantage of the social dislocations caused by the plague and the poorer peasants sank further into dependency and misery. class polarization, capital accumulation, social mobility into the yeoman class: These were the tangible outcomes of the Black Death.

The most obvious beneficiary of the plague in Europe was the Catholic Church, whose pre-existing organizational and administrative structures simply expanded to fill the void left by deceased nobility. The church become as much a government as a religion, and while its practices were somewhat different than those of the nobility, the function was the same: Wealth and power accumulated in their hands, at the expense of the masses.

The two books mentioned here are far from the first to suggest that political and economic systems, left to evolve on their own, tend to reward disparity-creating practices. Marx comes to mind, but there are plenty of more contemporary perspectives. Revisiting this theme in concrete case studies, if you will, has the advantage of reminding us that political and economic systems are the result of, and context for, human behavior.

What is it about behavior that so often, when we humans operate in groups, leads to disparities in wealth and power? The late Tony Nevin had a useful take on this in his discussion of our responses to contemporary disruptive developments like climate change. Nevin did a good job of explaining why predictable features of behavior lead individuals who possess control to retain it, even when doing so is ultimately destructive. But the same features of behavior also help to explain why those who lack control seize it when the opportunity arises. Against the grain and In the wake of the plague are worth reading on their own merits, but through the lens of Nevin’s analysis they become easily recognizable as proto-behavioral analyses of inequality.