The authority and conformity instincts are survival adaptations and can be observed among all social species. Authority facilitates decisive action. Conformity facilitates group cohesion and coordination. The way human civilization combines these forces however, is unique.
All modern city states (and the vast majority of businesses) are organized as top down pyramids. Those at the top distribute orders to their subordinates, who then give orders to those below. At each layer obedience is reinforced by social conformity. If everyone else is obeying it must be the right thing to do.
With authority stacked above, and peer pressure applied from all sides, very few are strong enough to resist. By the time an order reaches its final destination, physical enforcement is rarely necessary. Examples are made of those who disobey. Fear is enough to keep the rest in line. Sociologists refer to this social structure as vertical collectivism.
Vertical collectivism concentrates power and wealth in very few hands, creating a vast power differential between the top and the bottom strata of society. These power imbalances become entrenched as societal class (in-group and out-group defined by wealth and influence). These imbalances have serious side effects.
The Stanford prison experiments demonstrated that when humans are given total power over others, sadistic and cruel personality traits tend to arise. In these tests, ordinary students were divided into two groups. One group was arbitrarily assigned the role of prison guards. The other group was assigned the role of prisoners. The relationship between these two groups was allowed to develop organically. Within a very short period of time those placed in the artificial position of power began to treat those under their control as subhuman. The behavior of the guards became so cruel and abusive that the experiment had to be halted prematurely.
Studies conducted by the University of Berkeley have found that disproportionate wealth has the same effect. Test subjects consistently display less regard for others, and are more likely to defy laws and social norms when they feel economically superior. These tendencies arise even when the wealth in question is completely illusory (these behaviors express themselves even in unbalanced games of Monopoly).
Numerous studies have also found that highly unequal societies have higher rates of physical and mental illness than societies with small power and wealth differentials. This correlation holds true regardless of the baseline standard of living.
For over 300,000 years prior to the rise of civilization (according to the current anthropological timeline), humans lived in horizontal collectives (aka tribes). It is within this social structure that human biochemistry evolved. We know this, because all social structures found in nature are horizontal. Humans are the only species that stacks authority and conformity in layers.
The dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago marked the beginning of a new approach to production, exchange and social structure; a paradigm designed for war and totalitarian control.
The agricultural revolution began as a military strategy. Excess food production allowed for standing armies which could move and fight abroad as long as supply lines were maintained. This was the first division of labor: soldiers and farmers.
The combination of farming and standing armies provided a distinct military advantage over tribes that had to leave the battle field to forage and hunt. Vertical collectivism further amplified this advantage by enabling strict discipline and totalitarian control which could scale out geographically by adding new divisions and administrative layers.
One by one, neighboring tribes were either conquered or were forced to take up the same strategy. In this way, vertical collectivism spread to claim every square inch of planet earth.
Contrary to popular belief, the military advantage provided by agriculture did not, however, translate into a higher quality of life. In fact, it lead to a measurable decline in health. Comparing the skeletons of early farmers with those of their hunter gatherer counterparts, anthropologists have found that the transition to agriculture was accompanied by poor dental health, stunted spines, bone lesions, a reduction of height and other signs of malnutrition.
The peasants in the field didn’t choose to slave in the fields, producing excess crops to support the ambitions of warlords. The arrangement was forced upon them. They were quite literally slaves.
Over time, excess production, and economic complexity gave rise to monetary systems. Debt, taxation and employment replaced open slavery. The underlying power dynamic, however, remains the same.
The democratic ideal of an empowered populous exerting pressure from the bottom up cannot work in vertical collectives. Stacking authority and conformity in layers will always concentrate wealth and power at the top of the social pyramid. The psychological momentum of such structures always flows down. These imbalances are unhealthy for society as a whole and bring out the worst in those at the top. The accumulation of these imbalances make social pyramid schemes highly prone to revolution and collapse. It is rare for a modern city state to last more than a few hundred years without upheaval. Changing laws or removing specific leaders cannot alter this dynamic. The design flaw is the social structure itself.