The Problem With The Spear
An article preview about the history of inequality and hierarchy
I have been thinking a lot about power recently: how it’s exercised, how to wield it, and most importantly, what happens when it’s misused. My partner and I have a thought experiment where we imagine a society without a formal government. The specifics don’t matter that much. Maybe it’s in the distant past or the post-apocalyptic wastelands, but regardless of the circumstances, people live by consensus and mutual aid. If you have a disagreement or conflict, you hash it out with your neighbors and community.
There is some evidence that certain parts of the world have lived like this for parts of history. For example, the ancient neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey seemed to have no rulers or courts. This was not a society of hunters and gatherers but rather a city of thousands. This was a complex society with its own rituals and art. For example, researcher Ian Hodder notes what he calls “history houses,” which had elaborate decorations and were where people’s dead were stored.
Ineviably, though, there is a problem that occurs. Power arises. In Çatalhöyük, while there was no money or much food hoarding, some researchers speculate that a social or prestige-based economy developed among various houses. As Holder noted to the John Templeton Foundation: “These history houses aggrandize over time. Then tended to become more elaborate over [a] two-to-three-hundred-year period. Then they suddenly stop. There’s evidence that some of them were even burned. Then the cycle started up in another location again.”
My partner and I call this “the problem with the spear.” It is the idea that even in the most ideal of circumstances, someone will try to usurp control. Someone picks up a weapon, such as a spear, to guard resources from other’s use: to hoard them. They then deputize others to safeguard the resources in their stead, under the promise of also being able to have privileged access to said resources, and from here, we get hierarchy.