Since the day man awoke from the wilderness, he has been pondering the question of how to live in a society with others. What we call society today emerged over five thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia,1 the area located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in present-day Iraq.
But apart from rapid developments in science and technology, the basic pillars of civilization have changed very little. Just like the old Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, today’s societies still rely on farming, rearing cattle, educating children, building cities and planning economies. For thousands of years, the prospect of booze and women has seduced young men to come and live in the big city,2 where ruling families would either exploit their labor, or send an occasional surplus of men away to fight wars.
In contrast to democratic times, ancient kings and pharaohs used to rule their subjects as their property. Ruling families often justified their privileged lives by feigning some form of divine descent. Gilgamesh, ruler of the Sumerian city of Uruk, believed he was a demigod.3 King Hammurabi of Babylon claimed God had elected him “Shepherd of Salvation” to rule his people.4 Long before Christianity opened the doors of heaven to all believers, ancient Egyptians reserved a deceased’s new-birth in the afterlife exclusively for members of wealthy families.5
In a time when some bored Egyptian kings fancied partying with harems of virgin maidens dressed in fishnets,6 ordinary people were told they were “fashioned from clay and created for one purpose only: to serve the gods by supplying them with drink, food, and shelter so that they might have leisure for their divine activities”.7
History shows us that ruling elites, upper classes and other self-declared royalty have always easily been able to enrich themselves by abusing their subjects’ gullibility. And like Gilgamesh and Hammurabi, the wealthiest members of our own societies still practice this dark art of self-deification, because people still fall for it.
Behind velvet ropes, the rich and famous flaunt their pharaonic personalities before hysterical crowds of mere mortals hoping to catch a glimpse of heaven. Some American capitalists, for example, refer to themselves as job creators, an unblushing attempt to ally themselves with God’s creative powers.8
During the past few centuries, though, things have begun to change. An increasingly educated and articulate citizenry is renouncing its servitude to the rich and powerful. A collective self-awareness has taken root in the minds of ordinary men and women, propelling them from serfdom and slavery. Wrestled free from autocratic rule, the world’s democratic peoples are demanding their fair share of progress and prosperity.
For the first time in history, We the People matter. Looked down upon as peasants, plebs, proletariat, hoi polloi, the masses or the multitude, people have now either successfully placed themselves on an equal footing with those they deem fit to govern, or are actively pursuing to depose those they think unfit. As people of the modern age, they expect their needs to be met, their voices to be heard and to be granted inalienable rights to a dignified and meaningful life.
Never before have so many people opened their eyes to the truth that kings, pharaohs and ayatollahs were never God’s emissaries, but simply people driven by a desire to deceive. To the frustration of this caste of parasites, ordinary people have come to recognize and embrace their equality to one another, denouncing the unfair distribution of wealth, power or status between any group of people.
Since the Second World War, a progressive movement has gained considerable momentum that seeks to establish equal treatment and fair justice for all. This movement has already changed the very purpose of society. No longer do people expect to live as sheep among shepherds, but as free individuals among peers.
But the progressive movement only represents part of the story. It was not until the invention of capitalism that a middle class could acquire the economic means to free itself from its slave masters. Through economic independence alone, burgeoning middle classes subsequently helped lift the poor out of poverty, as well as diminish the power their ruling classes could wield over them.
The transition from serfdom to freedom is far from complete. Even in modern democracies, We the People rely on bureaucratic governments and elected officials supposedly working day and night in our best interest. Do they really? And why can’t we do without them? After economic independence, middle classes are historically positioned to abandon government in favor of self-rule.
With today’s internet and communication technologies, the world’s middle classes should already possess the means to break away from government. And if We the People act now, this next step in the evolution of civilization won’t have to take another five thousands years.