Pharaohs and other ancient kings and queens were often buried with sacrificed servants and soldiers to serve them in their purported afterlife. Rulers often had harems full of what we might call sex slaves. There were hierarchies topped by rulers with god status, administrators beneath them, then free men and women, some living well, some like exploited not-really-so-free serfs; and at the very bottom officially-unfree slaves, human beings denigrated to the status of cattle.
How did past populations put up with these huge disparities that scattered people across a spectrum ranging from god-like to animal status? In part, they were controlled through violence. Especially slaves were. However, another very important method of control was mentality, in the forms of commonly held beliefs, both in terms of religion and worldly world view.
As far as I know, today’s pharaohs, known as billionaires*, are not buried with a sacrificed staff, and only some still keep harems. But have things significantly changed in other ways, as well?
We do still have a gigantic wealth and income gap in the U.S.A. It may, in fact be even bigger than in classical times. When 8 men “own” as much as half of all humanity you can wonder if the ancient pharaohs throned that high. As in classical times, many of today’s money aristocrats are born rich, while some started out on a lower rung (though practically never at the bottom rung, unless they took the path of a drug lord or mafioso, no other opportunities being truly open for those of us at the bottom).
Oddly, we are always told, and many of us actually believe it, that the rich earned their wealth and the poor are to be blamed for their condition, much as with pharaohs and slaves in the past. When populations share such creeds, systems that work as injustice machines are upheld by the majority.
The richest modern pharaoh of these days is Jeff Bezos, who gains a whopping $11.5 million per hour (all 24 hours each day)! As the founder of Amazon, he allegedly earns this flood of income. But can any single person create so much wealth through their own work, producing $11.5 million of worth per hour 24/7? Obviously, no corporate founder produces such wealth alone. They have hundreds or thousands of workers who realize their ideas, add countless ideas of their own, and do practically all the work, but get only a small cut of their joint fruit of labor (the median annual 2017 income of a Bezos employee is $28,446), whereas the super-rich get a ridiculously huge cut. They are just like pharaohs, considered to be awesome, admirable gods deserving to live in a financial stratosphere. Capitalism thus is not only an economic system, but a form of religion, as well.
This religion hasn’t changed much at all: Ramses is a god and therefore deserves to rule Egypt and live in unlimited opulence. Jeff Bezos is a CEO and therefore deserves to rule Amazon and live in unlimited opulence.
Middle classers are raised to work for their fairly small wealth, and as long as they can do so in our socio-economic system and their wealth is comfy, they tend to buy the capitalist religion and support the status quo. They form the foot soldiers, the pikemen and longbowmen, protecting the system together with the knights of the gentry (the millionaires); both groups lending the headcount to the hierarchical pyramid which the small handful of billionaire pharaohs can’t supply.
All of these elevated persons have their own control sphere as work supervisors, housing landlords, mid-to-upper level managers, high-ranking politicians, CEOs, and so forth. Together they make the system work (primarily for themselves), a system which creates god-like billionaire pharaohs, lucky millionaire knights, fairly lucky middle class infantry, and the peasants and slaves at the bottom who find it difficult to reject a system which the top and middle of the pyramid constantly preach to them as the divine rule of the world or some such, nowadays known as capitalism, the free market mythology often coupled to a fake democracy which hides the oligarchy which is truly running things from the top.
The system of today’s plutocratic oligarchy carries a poisonous sting: It tends to quickly replace any well-meaning capitalist lord with a more cruel one thorough the built-in market competition. An employer who more unjustly underpays his employees makes more profits with which to beat out the rare case of a friendlier competitor. Sociopathic behavior is built into our capitalist economy through both structure and creed.
The creed that stabilizes the system is based on religious or quasi-religious mentality and myths that declare all this rampant creation of material inequality as completely natural and holy. The cruel world and countless broken lives that result are claimed to be exactly as things should be. Whereas in classical times, invisible gods were pointed at as the source and justification of socio-economic systems that elevated the pharaohs and squeezed the serfs and slaves, today it is the invisible hand of the market that is preached to us and believed by still way too many as both real and good.
The pharaohs at the top, just like in classical times, feel fully justified by this creed** and are so far removed from the rest of us in their lifestyles and social circles that they have no more regard or concern for you and me than for ants and roaches. The millionaire knights are little different. The middle-class infantry teeter between acceptance and condemnation of the system depending on how well they are allowed to live***, and the serfs and slaves feel powerless at the bottom rungs of the command structure where they have so little individual power and their brains have been soaked all their lives in the national religion of “natural”, “merited”, or “divinely granted” wealth and authority floating above them out of their reach and questionability. Even as their fury over their dismal lives explodes, many tend to not call our modern pharaonic system into question. Instead, they vent their frustration and anger on themselves and each other or on whomever a right-wing demagogue sics them on.
As you can see, whether we are at the bottom or the top of the wealth pyramid, the only way we can decide to alter a system which creates a lot of suffering and is rapidly destroying the very living sphere on Earth on whom humanity’s survival depends, is to shed our capitalist religion.
This move, in the past, has been labeled “leftist”, “socialist”, or even “communist”. It has been partially co-opted by progressive “liberals” who in turn were co-opted by neoliberals who don’t substantially differ from neocons who co-opted conservatives. The move has been smeared with all sorts of reality-warping and even upside-down turns of the meanings of these labels and attached to authoritarian regimes of failed leftist revolutions (like the Soviet Union) in order to discredit any challenge of our capitalist continuation of the pharaonic religion.
All I can recommend is to drop the labels and look at the world without them, take the blinders off that the status-quo defenders have strapped on us, and think matters through. Follow the flow of money and power, recognize how rigged that flow is, and reject the rigging for good. Then we can get together and discuss working solutions to make things good for everybody and end the pharaonic rule once and for all.
* For the “owner” of $1 billion to spend all his money selfishly (instead of giving it to world improving organizations like the World Progress Inc. I have suggested), he would have to squander $1000 every day for 2738 years. Do you know anyone who is going to live this long?
** Whether you are born rich or whether you are wage-gouging your workers or interest-gouging people who had to loan money to try and study or live, or whether you are gambling with people’s livelihoods, homes, and pensions on Wall Street, you are a god, a pharaoh, beyond criticism, beyond social responsibility, to be admired as a “job creator” from whom some wealth will surely trickle down. Instead of giant pyramids we build you giant business empires which give you even more control over our lives than stone pyramids ever did.
*** This is why our system is currently getting called into question after the middle class has been squeezed too long and hard from the top (and it is why establishment politicians overtly speak out for the middle class but still tend to ignore the underclass).
Dirk Droll is the publisher, main writer, and senior editor of Beanstock’s World where many of his articles found here originate.