March 7, 2014

"I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him." --Richard Rumbold, Speech on the Scaffold (just before his execution -- essentially for propounding such views), June 26, 1685

"There's a constant battle between people who refuse to accept domination and injustice and those who are trying to force people to accept them." --Noam Chomsky
"The German people have no idea of the extent to which they have to be gulled in order to be led." -Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf Epigraph, 1926 [1]

Hierarchy and Leadership? Not in MY Group You Don't!

So just what was it about our ancestral cultures that most "stunned Europeans" and made explaining them to "urban literates" - - - such as ourselves - - - an "enormous task"? According to Boehm (1999:30), it was that
"These small local groups ["bands" and "tribes"] had no leaders with any real authority; in contrast to the societies of their [sixteenth century] discoverers, every individual seemed to come and go just as he or she pleased."


Politically, nations like the Arawaks--without monarchs, without much hierarchy--stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas More's Utopia, based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru, challenged European social organization by suggesting a radically different and superior alternative. -James W. Loewen, LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, (New York, NY: Touchstone 1996), p. 67

Contrast this "without much hierarchy," "every individual seemed to come and go just as he or she pleased" situation in the "new world" with its contemporary situation in feudal, monarchical England, culminating in The Statute of Artificers (1563) and The Act of Settlement (1662) which froze people (in the feudal version of the caste system,) to their parish (county), class, and job. [2]

If almost complete absence of hierarchy and "no leaders with any real authority," not to mention that "every individual seemed to come and go just as he or she pleased" seems a bit strange to you, you're not alone:

"These [19th century European] hierarchical strangers usually wanted something from the "natives," and for that reason regularly asked to speak with the "chief." Given their own political backgrounds in nations where figures of authority were abundant, it was perfectly natural to ask for the person in charge. The absence of any individualized authority at the group level led sometimes to practical frustration, and often to political wonder--or amazement." --Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1999) p. 61
And our urban literate American ancestors also regularly had a closely related reaction to native American "leadership." This couldn't have been stated any more clearly than it was in an address by an Associate Commissioner of Indian Affairs, given in May of 1963 to explain certain conceptual difficulties to some of his new colleagues:
"There is a basic fallacy concerning Indian leadership of which nearly all are guilty. For purposes of discussion, we can refer to it as the 'fallacy of the chief.' Sometime in the pioneer era, we fell victim to the belief that the prevailing pattern of political organization among all American Indians was hereditary dictatorship; in other words, that a ruler from a particular lineage exercised unlimited power over a group of obedient subjects. ... So ingrained is this belief that today the average tourist, when visiting an Indian reservation, is likely to ask 'which one is the chief?' ... The North American Indians had 'chiefs' but often these were mere advisors and virtually never dictators. Except in emergencies, they had no power over the lives and property of their fellows." --Journal of American Indian Education, Volume 3 Number 1, October 1963, INFORMAL POWER STRUCTURES WITHIN, INDIAN COMMUNITIES, James E. Officer

And, from the "other" side - - -

"Before the white man came, we Indians had no chiefs. We had leaders, of course, men and women chosen by consensus for their wisdom and courage. The idea of a pyramidal hierarchy with a single person at the top was European. When whites first demanded to speak to a "chief," my ancestors didn't quite know how to respond. They pushed somebody out in front as spokesman--not necessarily the brightest or the bravest guy around, just someone willing to talk to the strangers and find out what they wanted in our country. But as far as the whites were concerned, he was our monarch, a sort of petty king, and therefore entitled to special privileges."-Russell Means, Where White Men Fear to Tread (Los Angeles, Ca: General Publishing Group December 1996) p. 222

Another source - - -

"The white world puts all the power at the top, Nerburn. ... When your people first came to our land they were trying to get away from those people at the top. But they still thought the same, and soon there were new people at the top in the new country. It is just the way you were taught to think.
"In your churches there is someone at the top. In your schools, too. In your government. In your business. There is always someone at the top and that person has the right to say whether you are good or bad. They own you.
... "When you came among us, you couldn't understand our way. You wanted to find the person at the top." --Lakota elder Dan, Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf nor Dog, New World Library, 2002, pg.157

Even the trained ethnologists and anthropologists who study such groups regularly have a problem getting it straight. Typically it took early observers a long time to figure out who "the leader" was. The problem was that there weren't any, particularly not in the Western tradition, and so these ethnographers had difficulty when they attempted to project their internal hierarchical preconceptions on the essentially leaderless "egalitarian" [3] small-group reality they confronted. Our cultural hierarchical biases have become so strong, it took even our trained anthropologists until the 1950's and 60's to seriously focus on the "apparent anomaly" of leaderless groups.

"In 1958 the British social anthropologists Middleton and Tait (1958) focused squarely on egalitarian politics as they labeled a series of small African groups "acephalous" ["acephalous" translates as "without heads" -lrw]. The studies focused specifically on political leadership, and the ethnographers took interest in the apparent anomaly mentioned above, that no headmen or chiefs with any real political authority seemed to exist in African tribes. ... Anthropologists continued to face a behavioral aberration that raised profound questions about human nature itself, and attempts to classify egalitarian politics continued."-(Boehm 1999:32) [italic emphasis added]

Anthropologists are still attempting "to classify egalitarian politics" and deal with the "profound questions" it raises "about human nature itself." So are we. So, if "egalitarian politics" continues to perplex even cultural anthropologists, almost certainly the most striking contrast between us - - - beginning even with our "civilized" (citified) renaissance European ancestors - - - and our more distant ancestral hunter-gatherer face-to-face groups is that in sharp contrast to us, our ancestral groups had no strong, persistent leaders and no noticeable hierarchy. And, far from being a "behavioral aberration" or some sort of fluke induced by chance and limited observation of just a few anomalous African tribes ---

"It became clear that when people live in small, locally autonomous groups, they are almost always "equalitarian." Modern anthropology therefore faced a dilemma. Politically equalized [egalitarian] bands and tribes had been found on every continent, so this anomaly could not be explained as some kind of local historical development. They were found in a bewildering array of ecological niches, so environmental influences did not seem to be a major determinant: egalitarians foraged, farmed, and herded animals. They also used many different residence and descent rules and a variety of kin terms." (Boehm 1999:30)

Clearly such "acephalous" egalitarian groups were the overwhelming rule, not the rare, quaint and curious exception they misleadingly appear to our "modern" westernized cultures today. And, not only is egalitarianism a defining characteristic of virtually all small groups, it can and does persist in larger groups as well:

"It is also noteworthy that tribesmen have been able to stay egalitarian even when their functioning political units became quite large. ...It is safe to say that with the advent of the Neolithic era most foragers became tribesmen. However, by no means did tribal societies always turn into chiefdoms [hierarchies -lrw]. Indeed the bulk of ethnographic descriptions on record today are of tribal societies whose egalitarianism extends back to the acquisition of domestication, and farther back into the Paleolithic era." (Boehm 1999:90&91)
"The Iroquois Confederacy perhaps stunned the Europeans the most. Created hundreds of years before the U.S. constitution was written, five Northeastern Indian nations came together to form a united council. Although they had once been at war with each other, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca eventually allied themselves (adding Tuscarora in 1722) to protect one another from invasion by other tribes (and later European invasion)." --Rebecca Dispatch, Of the People, By the People, and For the People... Iroquois Style

It helps to realize that as strange as leaderless groups may seem to us, our ubiquitous hierarchist organizations and persistent leadership would seem just as strange -- if not even stranger -- to our archaic ancestors. This shows in the rare attempts of members of small groups, at least the few able to understand our odd arrangements, to explain their normal arrangements in terms we can understand. As one nomadic Kalahari Desert !Kung forager explained, "Of course we have headmen . . . each of us is headman over himself," [4]


"A certain scientist visited our part of the world and, in answer to his inquiries on this matter, I told him that the Ona had no chieftains, as we understand the word. Seeing that he did not believe me, I summoned Kankoat, who by that time spoke some Spanish. When the visitor repeated his question, Kankoat, too polite to answer in the negative, said: "Yes, senor, we, the Ona, have many chiefs. The men are all captains and all the women are sailors." -1948 English missionary Bridges on the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, quoted in (Boehm 1999:62)

It's difficult for us "urban literates," inured as we are to extreme and unnatural levels of "hierarchy" and persistent "leadership" to even imagine just how antithetical our ancestors were to both. "Egalitarianism [among the !Kung of the Kalihari] is not simply the absence of a headman and other authority figures, but a positive insistence on the essential equality of all people and a refusal to bow to the authority of others ..." (Lee 1979:457) quoted in (Boehm 1999:61) In fact to the !Kung, even just the arrogance of leadership amounts to a crime.


"The Utku, like other Eskimo bands, have no formal leaders whose authority transcends that of the separate householders. Moreover, cherishing independence of thought and action as a natural prerogative, people tend to look askance at anyone who seems to aspire to tell them what to do." -Jean I. Briggs, Never in Anger, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1970) p. 42 - 44, quoted in (Boehm 1999:53)
"Wilson and Sober (1994) have discussed the very similar egalitarian arrangements of modern Mennonites, emphasizing their militant concern for avoiding any development of individual authority or other individual advantage within the group. Their antihierarchical political dynamics are much like those experienced by Utku foragers, and by Navajos as tribal pastoralists." (Boehm 1999:60)

There is only one context where our ancestors tolerated dominance and hierarchy, and, sorry girls, it was in the family with the male as the head, and kids under the adults. Men were captains and all the women were sailors, remember? You probably still remember how that works, right? The degree to which this dominance within the family is exercised varies greatly from culture to culture, but in our small face-to-face ancestral groups, it simply wasn't tolerated outside the family:

"All humans have nuclear families, and these minimal social units are scarcely devoid of hierarchy or authority, for children are always controlled decisively by parents, and women and younger adults may be controlled by their elders (Service 1962). By contrast, at the band level the main political actors behave as equals. The same is true of tribes." (Boehm 1999:32) [emphasis added]

This isn't to say that some of our ancestors didn't have genes giving them hierarchical tendencies, just that their group mates kept the expression of these genes repressed and well under control -- most of the time. There were good, practical, reasons for keeping such expression under control as we'll see, even if our ancestors weren't necessarily consciously aware of those reasons and were only following other of their (and our) instinctive tendencies. Remember, our genetic heritage was set during that small-group egalitarian face-to-face anti-hierarchical anti-authoritarian stage - - - and it hasn't had time to change.

There was a "minimum necessary force" sort of approach to discouraging those who were disposed to try to dominate others outside the family. The first and simplest tactic was gossip followed by criticism and ridicule. When that didn't work, the next step was to just simply ignore directives or potential commands. Here's an example:
"Briggs (1970:55-58) tells us in detail how religious services were conducted in iglus [igloos] and how Inuttiag (in the role of religious coordinator) tried at certain points to get his tiny congregation to stand. The community initially conformed, but then more and more people began to disregard his orders until the majority were ignoring him. At that point, he simply stopped trying to command them."(Boehm 1999:54)

This also illustrates just how sensitive members of small egalitarian groups can be to being manipulated or told what to do by others. Is it really a big deal to stand on cue for a church service? It was for our ancestors.

If a potential hierarchical leader doesn't take the clue and still insists on trying to impose his will, he would soon find he and his family increasingly shunned, ostracized, or even banished. Mass desertion is also a possibility. In extreme situations, execution or assassination of a would-be insistent leader can be the ultimate outcome.

"As members of a moral community, egalitarians may submit individually to dangerous upstarts in their midst, yet as a community they may become collectively and unambivalently dominant over such individuals, and even kill them." --(Boehm 1999:232) [5]
If you were to enter any still-existing hunter-gatherer group -- or travel back in time and encounter one of our ancestral groups -- and you said, "Take me to your leader," you would get, at best, quizzical looks. And as the result of such a politically incorrect and nonsensical request, you could begin your association with said group under a bit of a cloud. And clearly, coming across as an "alpha male" would get you ostracized. Even in larger tribal-size groups, "leadership" was a transient and situationally dependent thing. You would not endear yourself to the group for teaching "leader-ship skills." Quite the contrary. You might, on the other hand, make points by demonstrating your independence and skill at co-operation.

Clearly the notion of "leader" was a very different idea within our egalitarian ancestral groups than it is for us hierarchical moderns. Further, particularly an insistent leader meant "undesirable and rude person to be avoided - - - or, if too persistent, eliminated."


We discovered that what most baffled and "stunned Europeans" about small-group humans in the "New World" was that they "had no leaders with any real authority" and, "in contrast to the societies of their [sixteenth century] discoverers, every individual seemed to come and go just as he or she pleased" -- these groups were "without monarchs, without much hierarchy." Since under such non-hierarchical arrangements everyone is on an equal hierarchical (political) level, such groups are often called "egalitarian."

We discovered that, handicaped by the subliminal biases of modern hierarchical cultures, we -- including our trained scientific observers -- have extreme difficulty accepting, let alone understanding, groups that don't have persistent leaders. We discovered, for example, that we are infected by the "fallacy of the chief" (Indian agent James E. Officer) and that, "Before the white man came, we Indians had no chiefs" (Russell Means).

Despite our biases however, research proves that this leaderless egalitarianism was the rule not the exception and was "found on every continent," "in a bewildering array of ecological niches", that "egalitarians foraged, farmed, and herded animals" and "used many different residence and descent rules and a variety of kin terms." (Boehm 1999:30) Further, even larger groups were "able to stay egalitarian even when their functioning political units became quite large" -- The Iroquois Confederation for example.

One way for us "urban literates" to get perspective on leaderless egalitarianism is from perceptive members of small-groups attempting to explain themselves in our terms. Seeing things from their perspective, we discover that, "Of course we have headmen . . . each of us is headman over himself," and "...the Ona, have many chiefs. The men are all captains and all the women are sailors." Perhaps we can learn something about ourselves from this perspective.

But hierarchy is tolerated within the family -- "children are always controlled decisively by parents, and women and younger adults may be controlled by their elders."

We also discovered that not only were our ancestors leaderless for all intents and purposes, but they were militantly anti-hierarchical and independent to the extent that in one case they wouldn't even stand during a church service on direction of their spiritual leader.

In dealing with insistent or persistent potential hierarchical leaders, our small group ancestors used minimum necessary force, running the gamut from criticism, ridicule, ostracism, etc. and in rare instances, execution or assassination.

Clearly the notion of "leader" from the viewpoint of our egalitarian progenitors was very different than for us hierarchical moderns. Coming across as an "alpha male" or an insistent leader in small ancestral groups would result in your being considered rude, cause you to be avoided, and possibly get you killed.


[1] Omitted after 1932 edition, according to Sebastian Haffner, The Meaning of Hitler, 1979 return

[2] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. (Boston: Beacon Press 1957), p. 86 return

[3] The word "egalitarian" carries a lot of mis-directive baggage in it's normal modern usage. In my usage, I assume "egalitarian" refers to equality of hierarchical ("political") status only. No other "equalities" should be assumed. return

[4] Richard B. Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997) p. 457 quoted in (Boehm 1999:61) return

[5] We'll find a hauntingly suggestive connection between those who would be persistent leaders and psychopathy, especially as we invent super-sized groups, too big to be controlled by regular face-to-face interactions.

Most psychopaths are male, although the reasons for this sex difference are unknown. Psychopathy seems to be present in both Western and non-Western cultures... In a 1976 study anthropologist Jane M. Murphy, then at Harvard University, found that an isolated group of Yupik-speaking Inuits near the Bering Strait had a term (kunlangeta) they used to describe "a man who repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and takes sexual advantage of many women-someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment." When Murphy asked an Inuit what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, he replied, "Somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking." Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz, What "Psychopath" Means, It is not quite what you may think, Scientific American, December, 2007 ^^w return

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