Historically, stratified societies have outnumbered egalitarian societies. By “stratified”, I mean the separation of people into (more or less) clear, hierarchical levels of class or rank. All of the great ancient civilizations were made up of stratified societies, and it could be argued that American society is the first to attempt to be explicitly egalitarian.
However, American society is changing back into a stratified state. Modern American conservatism has all but destroyed the role of the Federal government in its ability to regulate us into a more egalitarian framework. More and more people seem to believe that it is more “natural” to let the “market” take its natural course and distribute wealth how it shall. This has caused a great debate regarding wealth inequality and the disappearance of the middle class.
Because Americans (as a group) seem to have no problem with abandoning our core values, letting the wealthy get wealthier, and allowing society to be segregated into distinct socioeconomic classes, it begs the question about how “normal” or “abnormal” social stratification is. Certainly in the context of post-modernist and feminist America, stratification is a deadly sin. But what if it is the egalitarian ideal itself that is not “normal”? That’s not a hard argument to make. Societies, left to their own, tend to become stratified. Among large groups and organizations, such as corporations or the military, stratification and hierarchy are the norm, because they promote stability.
Perhaps that is the key: stability? In society as a whole, the one thing that seems to promote instability is access to resources. Whether those resources are made up of money, gold, water, food, property, slaves, or women of child-bearing age, the scarcity of them causes instability, which in turn leads to stratification. Perhaps, then, the age-old battle for resources, and the instability it causes, is the main reason why social stratification has always been present among humans.
Going further we can even speculate that social stratification seems to be innate to humans. It is likely that the idea of banding together with your tribe/family and defending resources is something that is part of our evolutionary past, because it has worked in the past to preserve our species.
Rogers, Deshpande, and Feldman (2011) used agent-based computer simulation to demonstrate that unequal access to resources causes “destabilization” of societies such that they become more stratified. These stratified societies also experience more migration, which leads to the spread of stratification. They also found that survival of the society was enhanced when the society was stratified, as death and suffering was confined to the lower classes.
Stratified societies are tied to the struggle for resources, and are likely the result of our evolutionary past. This being the case, it raises questions about the foundations of modern American society and American government. The American experiment in egalitarianism has been in a slow death spiral since the end of World War II. Ronald Reagan sealed the ending of the US as we know it in his first inauguration speech when he declared that government is the problem, not a solution. Egalitarianism requires an active and strong government to counter our natural evolutionary tendencies. With the US government now in the control of the upper classes, the end of egalitarianism is a forgone conclusion.
Rogers, D., Deshpande, O., and Feldman, M. (2011). The spread of inequality. PLOS ONE, 6(9), e24683.