AGGRANDIZERS AND THE BEGINNING
OF SOCIAL STRATIFICATION
by Juan José Castillos
I have recently suggested that I find the interpretation for the beginning and development of complexity in predynastic Egypt based on the activity of aggrandizers, that is, individuals seeking to benefit from favourable circumstances to create a power base for themselves and emerge like god-like rulers of a larger community than the one to which they originally belonged, as a persuasive and compelling explanation for this process, based on basic drives that have been present in some individuals at all times in human history.
Nevertheless, some scholars have not found this interpretation a satisfactory solution for the problem at hand. For example:
First, by proposing that resource abundance is a necessary condition for the emergence of inequality, the authors have to assume that the subordination of non-aggrandizers occurs out of choice not obligation. There is nothing to compel non-aggrandizers from remaining autonomous except the possibility that they would miss some opportunities to share in the aggrandizer’s success. But if that success is more costly than autonomy to subordinates, as it surely must have become under conditions of inequality, there would appear to be nothing to bond groups of unequal individuals together........To accept the aggrandizer’s model, we have to assume that egalitarian mechanisms are already largely abandoned or dysfunctional when aggrandizers begin to pursue self-appreciating strategies.
My second objection is that the motor of change is really situated in different personality types (aggrandizers and non-aggrandizers). Hayden has expressed this assumption most clearly when he has suggested that aggrandizer personalities are relatively rare and will be regular components of co-residential groups, only when they grow to exceed a given population density (Hayden 1995:20). The real drive behind change then is getting population density to the point that personality differences can play a driving role in structural change. In Hayden’s models we find little justification for the assertion of critical personality differences. Such an assumption leaves the agents of Hayden’s model stripped of their ability to make decisions when confronting unique social and environmental problems. It seems unrealistic to assume that individuals do not have strategic flexibility to choose either to pursue or to shun prestige competition and to resist or accept subordination depending on their understanding of the opportunities and outcomes of different behaviors. In other words, the personality-type models are unsatisfactory because they do not consider the role of strategic choice in socio-political evolution.
Of course, I don´t think that these objections are valid. They may apply and explain the many cases in which the attempts by aggrandizers failed, but do not sound convincing or realistic to me in a larger perspective. As to the first one, it underestimates the resourcefulness of aggrandizers and the wide variety of ways they can persuade, bribe, coerce, manipulate many of the other members of their communities, using their accumulated wealth as leverage, in order to secure support for their plans to change the nature of the group to which they belong. It would seem unrealistic, in view of developments at all times and almost everywhere in history, that resourceful and determined individuals cannot find many ways to impose their will on others on a permanent basis. As to egalitarian restraints having to be dysfunctional or relaxed for aggrandizers to succeed, that is precisely one of the conditions that those who support this interpretation argue must be present for them to carry out their policies. I think Eastern Europe, for example, in the last couple of decades provides, bearing in mind the huge differences in social organization and time that separates it from early developments, good examples of the success of many such individuals once egalitarian restrictions are relaxed or eliminated. And the second objection exaggerates the importance of population density, which has a relevant role in the process but that has never been found, working by itself, to lead to significant and drastic changes towards more complexity. It also exaggerates the ability of individuals acting as such to manage to consistently resist the activity of aggrandizers, something that history also disproves by the success of countless such people and their descendants who ruled small or large communities and even empires for often long periods. Certain ambitious and power-hungry individuals are at the root of the process, whenever external and internal conditions in their communities make their actions acceptable or at least tolerable, to others. Denying this is denying a reality we can perceive in many parts of the world even now on a large or a small scale.
Maybe these ideas can be made more acceptable if I dramatize the process and try to go back several thousand years in time in an attempt to convey what might have happened in many places and at different times, when conditions were ripe.
Suppose I am one of those individuals whose main goal in life is to achieve power over others, wealth, status, which hopefully I can transfer to my descendants as their legitimate dynastic right.
I am not a freak of nature but rather an example of a minority that has always been with us, we only have to look around us to find everywhere and at all times, some of those people willing to sacrifice most of their time and efforts to attain those goals.
Many thousands of years ago I have been people whose names have been forgotten but later on I have been Julius Caesar, Attila, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Pancho Villa, Stalin, Mao, more or less successful in my expectations but equally significant for the history of the countries in which I have been active.
Currently I live in a village of about 300 people. We live by agricultural work and by the resources procured by herding, hunting, gathering and trading. Our patch is fortunately fertile and our industry has allowed us to grow in number to be the most populous community in the region.
Thus, the resentment, envy, narrow-mindedness of others, that have led elsewhere and at other times people like me into exile or into repression of my basic drives, is not as strong as it used to be.
Being acquisitive by nature I devote much of my time to produce and accumulate resources, a stategy in which my immediate family is convinced or compelled to cooperate.
I try to keep the true extent of my wealth secret, as much as possible, from others, quietly stacking up food, furs, various types of useful artefacts that my family can produce.
Then, little by little, I show generosity to those I consider favourable to my goals, freeloaders, people in distress for one reason or other, the shaman, those who can be influential without been potential competitors.
So, I gradually build a body of supporters, indebted to me, with whom I can convince my community to expand, to impose its authority over some other weaker one nearby. Those people are not killed, expelled or reduced to the condition of slaves but instead reduced to being serfs, working as before, perhaps a bit more, paying a share of their resources and labour to the original community and retaining enough to cover their basic needs. In exchange for that, they get protection from hostile raids by others, some degree of security in case of a bad harvest or some other natural disaster, a situation that is not much worse than before and better in some aspects.
The new wealth thus generated is used to enable the original community and its innovative leader, as a ruling elite, to enjoy an easier lifestyle through the work of others. It allows the release of members of the community, most likely from the new elite, to change their previous agricultural or other activities for managing specialized craft workshops which can produce superior quality artefacts. It also allows an intensification of trade, that adds good useful objects to the life of the many and exotic, prestige artefacts for the leader to display and underline his superior status, in the eyes of his kin and of the serfs.
As time goes by, the operation is repeated and the enlarged community grows to incorporate many other neighbouring weaker communities, increasing the wealth of the elite and especially, of the leader, who also establishes alliances with other like- minded individuals who are attempting similar changes elsewhere, in order to offer mutual support in case of need or of any active resistance to their rule.
Perhaps more important to the new powerful leader is the alliance he tries to establish with the shaman (unless he himself is such), which will give to the new situation the approval of the gods, the ancestors or the forces of nature. Mystical revelations, dreams, indicate that the current arrangement is the will of those forces and that their leader is not a mere man, but instead their representative on earth, or alternatively, a god-like being destined to rule over others.
In fact, for whoever lived under the new conditions, everybody had benefited, the members of the elite enjoyed special status and wealth, the serfs looked around themselves and saw that when adverse conditions brought famine, hardship, pestilence, despair, to others not in this scheme of things, they were to a great extent safe by the generosity and forethought of their new leader who kept them with the head above water, the only active resistance could come from potential rivals to the chief, but those could be dealt with harshly under a number of pretexts.
As time went by, the aggrandizer in full control of the situation, passed on his power to his descendants and if those proved able and willing, the chiefdoms gradually became regional kingdoms on their way to bigger things.
Imaginative? Yes, but I see no reason for it not being a likely and at least in its broad lines, a reasonable interpretation of how social complexity arose and developed in the past.
My publications (the latest have to do with this subject):
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