The Despotic Chimpanzee and the Ultra-Rich

2014 1010 chimp st(Image: Monkey in suit via Shutterstock)Because of escalating economic inequalities, the ultra-rich are becoming increasingly dominant and oppressive. This applies to democratic countries too, where the rewards and incentives in politics are such that elected politicians are constantly captured by oligarchic power and end up serving the interests of the ultra-rich rather than those of the electorate. Current democracies are oligarchic democracies. Some argue that large wealth inequalities are inevitable in a free society where people can freely develop their talents and freely compete in order to obtain what they want. But how can a society where all the political power is effectively in the hands of a miniscule ultra-privileged minority be genuinely free? How can a society like this be properly respectful of the equal dignity of all people?

In one of his books, primatologist Frans De Waal recounts what he once observed in a group of chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Park Primate Research Center. What he saw can tell us something important about political power. Chimpanzees are a hierarchical species. They have what primatologists call a dominance hierarchy, and at the top of this hierarchy is the dominating alpha male. In chimpanzees, domination is obviously not gained through the accumulation of wealth, as it so often is in humans, but rather through the direct threat of physical violence and through various kinds of social and manipulative skills. Domination consists in being able to coerce others to live and behave in certain ways. In chimpanzees, this primarily applies to sex (who is allowed to mate with whom) and to the display of power. Everyone in the group is coerced to show deference and submission toward the alpha male and, moreover, the alpha male has privileged access to females.

What did De Waal see? On one occasion, Jimoh, the alpha male of his chimpanzee group, was in an angry mood since, earlier that day, one of his favorite females had repeatedly refused to mate with him. He then spotted that very female mating with Socko, a juvenile male. Alpha males are normally relatively tolerant of juvenile males, as they do not – at least not yet – constitute a threat to their domination over the group. Normally, in a case like this, an alpha male would have simply chased off the youngster. But this time, no doubt because of the anger he had accumulated, Jimoh started chasing Socko around the enclosure with what were clearly ill intentions.

Jimoh wanted to catch Socko and punish him with violence. Alpha males are extremely strong and can, especially through biting, inflict deep and sometimes deadly wounds. Socko, understandably, tried to escape. He started screaming loudly and, because of intense fear, had an attack of diarrhea. While Jimoh was intent on catching Socko, several females that were nearby started manifesting their distress and disapproval at what was happening. They did this by producing the characteristic waa-barks that chimpanzees use in protest against intruders and aggressors. Initially, there were only a few females doing this. Their barking was not very loud and they looked around to see how the rest of the group was reacting. But, slowly, other females joined in, and when the top-ranking females finally participated, the barking became more confident and, therefore, louder. The intensity of the barks increased until, as De Waal puts it, “everyone’s voice was part of a deafening chorus.” At that point, Jimoh suddenly stopped the attack and left Socko alone. As he did that, Jimoh showed a nervous grin on his face, a grin that in chimpanzees usually signals fear and submission. It is called the “Grin of Fear” and it is often seen on the faces of nondominant members of the group when they interact with the alpha male.

In chimpanzee groups, even the lowest-ranking adult male is normally dominant over each and every female. The males are physically much stronger and, through the threat of violence, they keep all females at the bottom of the hierarchy. In the case of Jimoh, the dominant male in the group had been put into submission by the collective action of the lowest ranking members of the group. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls this reverse dominance: It occurs whenever the nondominant members of a group – the rank and file – join forces and are able to neutralize and control the abusive behavior of the alphas. It does not happen very often with chimpanzees.

But it happened regularly in human foraging societies. Before agriculture and the domestication of animals, humans lived in small egalitarian groups of hunter-gatherers. These bands were egalitarian in the sense that important resources and political power were equally shared among the families in the group. It is through reverse dominance that, according to Boehm, these egalitarian bands controlled and eliminated the would-be bullies and would-be alphas, that is, those who wanted to take a larger share of resources and dominate everyone else. Through reverse dominance, the hunter-gatherers made sure that political power was not in the hands of any single individual, let alone a violent and despotic one.

What does all this tell us about political power today? It tells us that we need a new form of reverse dominance. We need a new way for ordinary people to join forces and to counteract and neutralize the power of the alphas. The dominators of today are more difficult to identify and to control than those of the past. Their primary tool of domination is concentrated wealth. They are those who, directly or indirectly, control enormous financial and economic resources. They are the oligarchs and they live in a sort of parallel universe. They are not your neighbors and you do not meet them on the bus or at the cinema. Thanks in part to the financialization of the economy, their concentrated wealth and their oppressive actions are hidden from view, and so are the mechanisms with which they defend and accumulate the huge economic resources they control. You never see them, but they are there. They control many crucial aspects of society, especially those that dictate how the economy is run. Because economic processes are fundamentally important for everyone’s life, there are many fundamental aspects of your life that the oligarchic dominators control.

In our large-scale, globalized society, it is much more difficult for the rank and file to join forces against the dominators than it was in hunter-gatherer bands, where individuals lived in close contact and interacted face-to-face every day. Organizing collective action against the oligarchs is an arduous challenge, but one that must be met. Only a new form of reverse dominance – one that works in our financialized and globalized world – can free us from oligarchic domination and make us genuinely free. Only a new form of reverse dominance can properly respect our equal right to participate in collectively deciding the best way to run our community, both local and global. Only a new form of reverse dominance can give us the chance to create a human society that properly respects the equal dignity of all people.