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Presented March 27, 2016, by Neil Wright


I teach at QU, but I live in Macomb - I drive a lot. I imagine that many of you, like me, have spent countless hours looking out at the apparent desolation of Western Illinois - a place that was a few decades ago lovingly dubbed "Forgottonia". When my friends and family visit, they, without fail, complain about how boring their drive was, and they kindly hint at how sad they are for me that I live so far away from the more important parts of the state and country. Some days, I share their pity for myself.

But I like to remind myself that more optimistic early Americans saw not desolation in this sparsely populated land, but possibility. It is no doubt strange for those unfamiliar with this history, but from Nauvoo and Bishop Hill, Illinois, to Corning and Amana, Iowa, to Bethel Missouri, to New Harmony, Indiana, there were societies that saw here the fertile soil from which a new and better world might grow. They created communities rooted in ethical principles that ran contrary to what they saw to be the corrupted economic and political systems that had governed their lives. It is both striking and humbling to me that although they lacked many of the means that we have come to consider essential to life - like cell phones, automobiles, . . . and indoor plumbing - they thought it not only within the realm of possibility, but also within the realm of what little power they had, to make a better world.

To be fair, these so-called utopian movements all eventually died out. - It is not the program offered by any of these communities that gives me any sense of hope, but rather it is the simple realization that alternatives to the prevailing order exist and that even those of us with humble means have it within our power to pursue them. We are living in a land of forgotten possibility.


We, today, live during a time of comparative hopelessness. We might have our pet reforms for our political and economic institutions, but most of us consider the basic systems in place - the state and capitalism - to be our only options. We look across a globe dominated by states, and we conclude that human life must be impossible without them. We look at the manifest failure of state communism, and we convince ourselves that no economic alternatives to capitalism are viable. Humans, we imagine, are too selfish, lazy, and violent to live together in peace absent the fear of force, or to be productive without the fear of poverty and the prospect for great riches.

This prevailing belief in the necessity of capitalism and the state prevent us from evaluating their ends. You do not apply moral scrutiny to what you take to be a necessity. As Leo Strauss put it, "Necessity excuses: what is justified by necessity is in need of excuse." Necessity serves to quell our pangs of conscience. We all intuitively understand that to take $10 from someone and only return to them $8 is unjust, but the necessity of capitalism excuses this. We all understand that to be ruled, to be forced to do things we do not think should be done, is unjust, but the necessity of the state excuses this.

These institutions, however, are human creations, not natural necessities. Just as we choose these, we could choose others. The state - that is, the notion that some get to coerce others to obey their will - only exists because we resign our power to it. Capitalism - that is, the notion that some get to control the earth's resources and profit by exploiting the need of the dispossessed - only exists because we lend our support to a government that protects it. Rulers and capitalists are not necessary for our survival; rather, we are necessary for theirs.

It is one of the distinctive possibilities of human nature to freely create our social structures; we are not, like bees, subject to the necessity of instinct. Rather, humans have the unique potential for self-government. If we fancy ourselves as free, as capable of making free moral decisions, we must subject our prevailing institutions to moral scrutiny. If we are to acquiesce to these hierarchies, let us at least understand the choice we have made and the sacrifice we have performed.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson lays out the position that government is only justifiable by consent; elsewhere, he clarifies that it is the responsibility of each generation to determine their form of government. It is our obligation to evaluate the distribution of power in our society for ourselves, and to establish institutions that best provide for human happiness.


We Americans are not, at present, a happy lot. Recent surveys indicate increasing dissatisfaction with our core political and economic institutions. Most are dissatisfied with the size and power of both corporations and the federal government. Most believe that the American economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. Large majorities of Americans disapprove of Congress, and most believe that money has too big of an influence in politics. Recent findings in political science have confirmed the people's suspicion that public policy primarily serves the interests of the wealthy.

This has happened alongside a general social decline. There has been a decline in active participation in civil society. Most believe that they cannot trust their fellow Americans and that they are witnessing a decline in moral values in the country. Americans are suffering from increasing rates of social isolation, depression, and suicide.

Much of this owes to the fact that we live at a time of extreme social, economic, and political centralization. Although rural residents consistently report higher levels of happiness, more than 80% of the American population is concentrated in urban areas. Economically, the wealth gap continues to increase, the economy to corporatize, and most industries (like banking, health care, agriculture and - what Americans really care about - television) are controlled by a few large companies. Politically, power has become increasingly consolidated in the federal government.

Many Americans feel understandably powerless. Most Americans now work for large businesses, do not belong to a union, and have next to no control over the economic decisions that impact their lives. The global nature of the market and the cold, bureaucratized, profit-driven corporations that dominate the modern economy seem beyond our control. We have similarly scant hope of influencing the federal government. There are 535 members of Congress and one president that are taken to represent the whole of our 320+million people. Of these, we get to cast a vote for two senators, one house of representative member, and one president. This distant and complicated political system discourages a sense of efficacy - that is, it discourages us having the sense that we can affect it.

For those disturbed by this reality, there is much cause to wish for better political and economic arrangements.


Our dejected submission to the status quo stands in sharp contrast to the spirit of the American revolution. The historian Gordon Wood stresses the radicalism of the republican political philosophy that motivated the revolutionaries, calling their republican revolution "America's greatest utopian movement." These republicans did not want great wealth or empire, but independence: that is, political, economic, and moral liberty. This independence, they thought, required the decentralization of political and economic power - you cannot live in line with your moral principles if you are subject to the force of another or if you depend on another for your subsistence. Virtue, they argued, would be necessary to maintain the equality that this liberty requires. As Alexis de Tocqueville later argued, the spirit of liberty can only be sustained where the people are active in political and civic life, where they form the habit of using liberty. Participation in local self-government forces us to hear our neighbors out, to sympathize with them, to cooperate with them, and to see their well-being as our own.

Not surprisingly, the first government these revolutionaries created was a decentralized confederation - called the Articles of Confederation - that left political matters primarily to states and localities. As Shays' Rebellion illustrated, however, this system could not protect the property of the wealthy from the more numerous poor. Those who sought to make America a great commercial empire called for a more centralized system, with a strong central government. Today's centralization is all fairly within the design of the Constitution they would frame.

In the debate over ratification of the Constitution, however, the Antifederalists warned of the danger of this centralization. They predicted that the American people would become detached from their government, and that this large, distant government would be incapable of sustaining the spirit of liberty required to keep government free. Such a government, the Antifederalists claimed, would not enjoy voluntary obedience and thus could only rule by force. This system, they thought, was a betrayal of America's republican revolution.

Supporters of the Constitution considered the Antifederalists' reliance on virtue and voluntary obedience to be utopian, that is, beyond the capabilities of human nature. With the Constitution, they placed the nation on low, but solid ground. Taking a very pessimistic view of human nature, the Constitutional framers relied not on virtue, but self-interest. The need for government, according to these modern political theorists, owes to the innate and selfish human desire to accumulate wealth. If you want the ability to own great wealth, which such theorists thought was an essential component of individual liberty, you need a coercive institution to protect it. As the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, argues in Federalist No. 10, the protection of the inequality of property is "the first object of government."

As the Father of Capitalism, Adam Smith, admits, when property is equal, the state is "not so necessary." Maintaining economic inequality, however, requires the state's coercive force, as Smith explains

. . . laws and government may be considered . . . in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.

Similarly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that the origins of the state owe to the rich man ingeniously devising a way to "employ in his favor the very forces that attacked him, to make allies of his enemies, to inspire them with other maxims, and make them adopt other institutions as favorable to his pretensions as the law of nature was unfavorable to them."

Madison argues that the Constitution, which created a society so large and a government so distant that the poor majority would be unable to coordinate to pursue their interests, is specifically designed to check the "levelling spirit" of the masses and protect the rich from the "wicked" egalitarian schemes of the poor. In this, we must admit, the Constitution has been a phenomenal success.


It is thus the inequality of property that necessitates the state. We may need the state if we want capitalism; but if neither are strict necessities, and if both are morally suspect, we must re-examine the justification for both.

My skepticism of the necessity of our prevailing order is not intended to imply that human possibilities are limitless. Political possibilities are limited by the content of human nature. As animals, we need to make use of the scarce material resources available to us to provide our livelihoods. That is, economic power will always exist. As social creatures, it is necessary that we live together in society to flourish. That is, political power will always exist. That said, these natural necessities do not settle for us the relations of power that should exist between ourselves, our fellows and the resources at our society's disposal. Political power and economic power will exist so long as humans do, but how these powers are distributed and to what ends they are used is up to us.

Although we take hierarchy for granted in modern societies, it is actually very new to the history of our species. My students are always astonished to learn that, as the anthropologist Christopher Boehm demonstrates, the vast majority of human history - well over 90% of it - was spent in stateless societies that were economically and politically egalitarian. So much so, in fact, that these societies constitute our species' "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" - that is, definitive faculties of human nature like symbolic language, conscience, and morality were evolutionarily selected in and for this egalitarian environment.

The faculty of conscience provides humans with a natural impetus toward cooperation, an innate sense of the fundamental equality they share with their fellows, a natural desire for reciprocity in their interactions with one another, and an instinctual intolerance for exploitation and oppression. Boehm argues that we instinctively dislike those who try dominate us and those who "[take] more than they give." Boehm describes how "moral feelings of inappropriateness enhance these feelings," which in turn inspires the sacrifice that maintaining egalitarianism requires. Allan Young explains that humans developed the capacity for "empathic cruelty," which spurs humans to partake in "altruistic punishment." Rational, self-interested calculation alone would be insufficient to inspire individuals to incur the severe risks of challenging upstarts; they find their reward, rather, in the feeling of justice earned by punishing the unjust.

The faculty of language allowed humans, unlike our more despotic ancestors, to communicate their ideas of right and wrong. This allowed us to construct "moral communities" and to relay reputations of individuals, which facilitated the complex cooperation necessary to suppress potential dominators. In contrast to modern American society, egalitarian societies encourage their members to adopt an egalitarian code, what Boehm calls an "egalitarian ethos," by esteeming actions that reinforce economic and political egalitarianism - things like cooperation, the sharing of economic resources, respect for individual autonomy, the equality of political rights and privileges, and generosity - and sanctioning their opposites.

Among egalitarians, Boehm describes "an indigenous recognition that the control of economic resources can lead to political as well as material self-aggrandizement." Egalitarians understand that such accumulation presents an opportunity for others to dominate them. To maintain egalitarianism, group members intentionally construct and enforce what Boehm calls "reverse dominance hierarchies" whereby they actively and preemptively suppress members that try to accumulate economic and political power.

Of these societies, Boehm marvels,

"their ingenious invention is to define the ideal society in a way such that no main political actor gets to dominate another. Then they see to it, as a group, that anyone who tries to infringe seriously on this rule is himself dominated." Their commitment to their egalitarian ethos "enables a stable coalition of potential subordinates to dictate the tenor of political life in the band, and thereby remain politically autonomous as individuals."

Boehm concludes that human nature is "inherently contradictory or 'ambivalent'"; it contains within it the potential for both despotism and egalitarianism. While more recent genetic adaptations introduced egalitarian traits, hierarchical traits lie deep within our primate DNA. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were able to employ their despotic tendencies in service of egalitarianism. Reverse dominance hierarchies depend both on our natural aversion to subordination and our willingness to dominate dominators..

Benoit Dubreuil also stresses that just as extreme egalitarianism is a human possibility, so too is extreme hierarchy. Reverse dominance depends upon cooperation. In large societies, such cooperation becomes more difficult; it becomes less costly to shirk the responsibility and risks of challenging dominators, and it becomes more costly to coordinate action to suppress the powerful. Just as human brain development made reverse dominance possible, it is also made possible the concept of representation - that is, the collective attribution, and resignation, of political power to a few individuals. Through such symbolic representation, hierarchy re-emerged in human history. Through representation, revered (or feared) leaders foster a degree of trust amongst individuals and groups that can facilitate collective action in large, anonymous societies. Due to the collective action problems of large groups, it becomes much harder to check abusive leaders. In this environment, rulers are able to co-opt the power of social cooperation for themselves.

What does this evolutionary account show us about our political possibilities? - As we see, the resources exist within our natures to create both despotism and egalitarianism. As humanity does not require hierarchy, when we go to consider how to distribute the economic and political power that necessarily attends human life, the question becomes what ends do we want to realize with our social institutions? Do we want wealth? Do we want glory? When someone asserts that capitalism and the state are necessary, we must ask: necessary for what?

Personally, I am concerned with how well our political and economic institutions align with the development of our unique human faculties. The exercise of political and economic power seems essential to the full development of these faculties, and thus those that seek an economy and polity most compatible with human development should aim at the decentralization, universalization, and equalization of such power.

The inequalities of power created by political and economic hierarchies, on the contrary, enable exploitation and impede human development. The ruler, like the proprietor, leeches off this social power. Both the state and the proprietor thrive by turning the combined force of society against itself. Both depend upon productive members of society in order to survive. The proprietor is only wealthy because he sits atop a social system wherein wealth is produced and its producers are forced, because of their exclusion from ownership over the means of production, to surrender to him the products they create - that is, the proprietor exists by way of a social privilege secured by the coercive force of the state. The state, for its part, expropriates its subsistence through taxation, again from value generated by those it rules. These hierarchies rely on the ignorance, fear, and cowardice of those subordinated by them. As for the rulers, the age old truism seems to hold that power corrupts. Empathy relies on our ability to imagine ourselves in another's shoes; the conceit that accompanies power prevents this.

It should give us pause, especially on Easter Sunday, when we reflect that two of the most important and revered people in the Western tradition were so blatantly set against our economic and political hierarchies. Both Jesus Christ and Socrates denounced the money-making life, and in exhorting their fellows to live morally free lives, were put to death by the state. It seems, as Henry David Thoreau well understood, that the true friends of humanity are considered enemies by the state, while the rich, who depend on the state's force for their wealth, are the state's greatest friends.


Those that aim to revive egalitarianism must find means of reclaiming social power. The political theorist Gene Sharp argues that the way to challenge centralized power structures is to develop what he calls "loci of power" within society. The long-term realization of egalitarianism, he contends, depends upon the devolution and diffusion of social power throughout society. It requires small-scale groups with experience coordinating and exercising social power through cooperation and collective decision-making.

Centralized social power is most easily co-opted. Despite our repudiation of capitalism, we see that communism is thus no solution either. As Sharp argues, communist centralization allows the state to subject people to an even greater dependence than capitalism and thus poses an even greater threat to individual liberty. Capitalism at least provides a choice, however marginal, between masters.

Egalitarianism requires, by contrast, that power be organized such that no one is capable of exploiting or dominating another. Political and economic power would have to be decentralized and universalized. Balance between these loci of power would require an equitable distribution of productive resources, economic relationships that prevent the consolidation of such resources, and social norms that reinforce these ends.


The prospects for such egalitarianism ultimately rest with the viability of voluntary cooperation. Important theoretical support for voluntary cooperation can be found in Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation. Axlerod demonstrates the viability of cooperation absent coercion, even while assuming humans to be self-interested egoists. In iterated "Prisoner's Dilemma" games, he found that the long-term cumulative gains of players employing cooperative strategies were superior to gains from players employing exploitative strategies. The success of cooperation, however, depends on some telling conditions that might guide those seeking alternatives to the prevailing order.

Axelrod found the most successful cooperative strategy to be that of reciprocity, where one starts out cooperative and reciprocates the cooperation or exploitation of those they encounter. Importantly, participants in his game had equal amounts of power. To sustain voluntary cooperation, individuals must have the same ability to resist exploitation. As power dynamics change, so too does one's ability to suppress cooperators and coerce exploitation. Another important condition is that cooperative individuals must cluster together to ensure that they encounter fellow cooperators repeatedly and indefinitely. If we modify Axelrod's egoistic assumptions and instead consider the interaction of actual human beings, the benefits of clustering would only be amplified. Humans have an innate proclivity for cooperation and desire to punish defectors. Clustering reinforces these moral sentiments, which become more powerful with closer proximity.

Promisingly, Axelrod's study also demonstrates that by clustering together, cooperators can actually invade and overtake exploitative societies. Interestingly, Boehm posits that the egalitarian ethos - our ancient cooperative strategy - spread in prehistory through a similar process. As other cultures observed the benefits of the egalitarian model, they decided to copy it. Boehm goes as far as to label this process "revolutionary". As Axelrod summarizes, "the main results of Cooperation Theory are encouraging. They show that cooperation can get started by even a small cluster of individuals who are prepared to reciprocate cooperation, even in a world where no one else will cooperate."


The most fundamental political decision you can make is whether to submit to power or to wield it. Many today would no doubt be surprised to learn that for the great majority of the history of man, our ancestors opted for the latter. We, in our day, tend to be overawed before colossal modern institutions like the state and the corporation; we submit to them from a sense of necessity, and excuse them from moral scrutiny. We do not realize that, as Gene Sharp argues, obedience is not a necessity, but rather is essentially voluntary. We either consent to the government openly or acquiesce to it begrudgingly, but either way, we must grasp that, as he put it, "without the obedience, cooperation, assistance and submission of the subjects and agents, power-hungry men claiming to be rulers would be 'rulers' without subjects, and therefore only 'objects of derision'."

Happily, Boehm confirms the importance of political philosophy, for he shows that our vision of the just society can have a real, physical impact on individuals and on their willingness and ability to realize that society. Of course, alternatives will never be envisioned or realized until they are considered possible. Hopefully I have at least established that human nature does not render alternatives to our modern order im-possible.

Perhaps part of our problem is that our centralized society causes us to expect progress on too large a scale. We don't need to transform the globe, or to remake human nature - we have all the materials at the ready to create a better world. We just need some friends, some space, and some courage. Indeed, our means seem ripe for such an attempt. We have cheap 3D printers that could decentralize production, renewable energy technologies to decentralize energy, agricultural advances that allow us to grow more with less, and cell phones and computers that make communication cheap and instantaneous. Even if an egalitarian world is not immediately or purely realizable, it does not mean we and our communities cannot carve out political and economic relations more conducive to human flourishing.

As the late historian Howard Zinn put it,

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

As utopian as all I have said may ring to modern ears, we must see that egalitarianism has quite the historical pedigree. Our innate capacity to form moral communities allowed our ancestors to sublimate domineering aspects of their nature to suppress oppressive and parasitic members of their societies for the purpose of maintaining economic and political equality. The conscience and its occasional pangs may seem vestigial in our modern age of hierarchy, but our modern age is the aberration. The faculties which enabled those societies to persist are still there; what has changed is our vision of the ideal society and our will to realize it. Our hierarchical modern order is a regression, not a progression. Our egalitarian potential lies dormant.

*Portions of this talk are excerpted from "Proudhon as a Guide to Socialism with a Human Face" in A New Social Question: Capitalism, Socialism, and Utopia, ed. Casey Harison, Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.

Works Cited:

Axelrod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Boehm, Christopher. "Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy [and Comments and Reply],"CurrentAnthropology 34.3 (1993): 227-254
---. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1999
Dubreuil, Benoit. Human Evolution and the Origin of Hierarchies: The State of Nature. New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2010.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. Trans. Roger Masters. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.
Sharp, Gene. Social Power and Political Freedom. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1980.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
Young, Allan. "Empathic Cruelty and the Origins of the Social Brain." Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of theSocial and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience. Ed. Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby. Malden: BlackwellPublishing, 2012.
Wright, Neil. Anarchist Property. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University, 2012.
Zinn, Howard. You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.

©2016 Neil Wright

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wright, Neil 2016. Political Necessities and Possibilities, /talks/20160327.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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