Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Some Observations on Dominance Hierarchies and Human Society

Humans are a species of social primate, so we should not be surprised to find we prefer to organize ourselves into dominance hierarchies. In fact, humans are unique in that we will organize ourselves into every kind of dominance hierarchy found among primates, as shown here.

Actually, two kinds -- multimale-multifemale groups and fission-fusion societies -- do not have humans listed, but this is wrong. The other groups in which humans are listed involve "family" units, while larger society actually falls into both  multimale-multifemale groups and fission-fusion societies. Corporations and governments involve the first, and civil society involves the second.

So dominance hierarchies are a natural part of human society and psychology. Thus we should not be surprised if we find people defending various dominance hierarchies, whether corporations or governments. Most interestingly, those most likely to defend them are the alphas (those with the most power) and the omegas (those with the least power). We find defenders of government among those who are in government -- particularly the elected alphas -- but also among what we would now call "marginalized groups," including women, minorities, and the poor. This may seem odd since, historically, marginalized groups are marginalized by the very governments which they defend. However, if we understand the psychologies of the omegas, we can come to understand why they defend the group that most oppresses them.

In wolf packs, the role of the omega is to hold the group together by being the scapegoat -- the one on which everyone's frustrations are expressed. Nobody really wants to be the omega, though it seems the omega is necessary for social cohesion. Since nobody wants to be the omega, we have the Klan dominated by poor whites; the most physically abusive husband are also, not coincidentally, found among the poorest, though anyone who sees himself as the omega male in any organization may become abusive. This also is why physical abuse increases during the Super Bowl among men whose team lost. Your team is a proxy social group, and when they lose, "you" lose, making you submissive to the winning team. To assert you are not an omega, you seek to find someone weaker to make the omega.

The ancient Greeks were brilliant with their development of tragedy, in which they could stage a scapegoat, creating a ritualized scapegoat that would eliminate the need for a real, physical one. In a democracy, this development is particularly necessary, since everyone is formally equal. At the same time, Athens was hardly universally equal -- only land-owning men were equal. This left women and non-citizens, particularly slaves. In the U.S., women have become included, as well as various minority groups, into society on more and more equal footings. While this happened first socially, throughout civil society, it is not uncommon for governments to come along as cap the social changes with legislation -- and, as a result, taking credit for the changes. What this does is ingratiate the former omega group to the alphas, with the result that the omegas in fact stay in place, though they have been ritually included. But they are included on the condition that they maintain loyalty to the alphas who "granted" them safety. Indeed, in social species we often see the alpha showing a certain favor for the omega, protecting them from the rest of the social group if things get too rough. However, the alpha will turn on them if the omega mistakes that favoritism for the granting of any real power. Favor must always be shown to the alpha.

The ones most likely to challenge the alpha are thus not the omegas. More, it is not likely to be anyone close to the alpha, either, as they are part of the coalition that keeps the alpha in power. Coalition politics keeps the alpha in power. No, the ones most likely to really challenge the alpha are those who are neither omegas nor the ones in the coalition. They are the ones always in danger of falling lower, and they are always wondering if they could and should be the ones in charge. It is out of this group within the social group where real challenges occur, where revolutions are spearheaded.

Of course, in order to succeed, the one(s) challenging the alpha will have to form a coalition, persuade enough of the group to join them. This may or may not include the omega, though it typically will not, since the omega is loyal to the alpha. Some in the alpha's coalition, though, may be persuaded to join the revolutionaries precisely because they want to be on the winning side.

These dynamics are most obvious in the political realm, but if we are honest, we find these dynamics among groups of friends, among various social groups, like among artists, and within organizations, like firms. In politics, it is not uncommon to use proxies from other social orders to shore up power. Poverty is such a proxy. Politicians use the omegas from the economic order to create more favoritism for themselves within the political order. Or from other orders (though this may be less obvious). Coalitions are central to maintaining power, regardless of what kind of power one is seeking to maintain. Corporate CEOs seek to maintain economic power through coalitions with governments, and politicians seek to do the same with CEOs -- this is the source of competition-crushing regulations and the regulatory capture that necessarily happens when regulations are passed. These are coalitions among the powerful, and they ingratiate the poor and oppressed to them (through the government more often than not) to help maintain their power. This squeezes out the middle class, from which all real challenges to the system -- political, economic, etc. -- necessarily come.

The fact that the middle class is being squeezed out of existence is thus a feature, not a bug.

As I've noted before, entrepreneurs also tend to come from low in the social hierarchy. 
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