The state is systematic coercion requiring hierarchy to operate and revenues to sustain itself extracted from a given territory. The development of farming does not, of itself, create the preconditions for the development of the state, apart from requiring the storing of food across seasons (and so able-to-be-expropriated). Indeed, the first wave of proto-cities rose and fell without creating states.
Foraging society strongly tends towards egalitarian norms, as sharing of food within the band lowers the risks of variability in garnering food. So, plants–gathered by child-minding women, with low day-to-day variability–tend to be shared within the family. Meat–hunted by men, with high day-to-day variability–tended to be shared within the band. It was possible, though not common, to have foraging inequality, if prestige could be parlayed into control of productive assets (such as large fishing canoes, particular inlets), possession of ritual knowledge, or other levers of social inequality.
Farming, as it started and spread from the Fertile Crescent, was originally hoe-based, thus largely women’s work, as hoe-based farming can be done while child-minding. The men hunted and later herded, the women farmed. There was no inherent reason to shift away from egalitarian norms and beliefs. But the larger population led to the development of substantial permanent settlements, which persisted for centuries or even millennia, and then collapsed. Settlements which were physically structured in a way that did not reflect any apparent social hierarchy.
It has been suggested that such settlements failed because the belief system could not longer sustain them (pdf). But it had for many generations. It is more likely that some new factor destabilised the social arrangements, leading to the abandonment of the concentrated settlements. Otherwise, they would more likely have simply reached an upper limit and plateaued in size.
One factor could be climate change: the productivity of the region declined. Though there is apparently no correlation between a drop in regional surges and collapses in population in Europe and climatic conditions.
A possible disrupting factor could be pastoralist raiders; disrupting the productivity of the region. This has been suggested as reason for the collapse of “Old Europe“, the farming settlements of the Danube valley.
The disruptive plough
A third possible factor could be the introduction of the plough, disrupting the social logic of the egalitarian settlements. The earliest evidence of ploughs in the the Levant is in the 6th millennia BC, or around 8-7,000 years BP (Before Present), which is around the time in which the first wave of urban settlements in the region drop dramatically in size.
Ploughs have two effects–they increase the productivity of farmers and they concentrate farming in the hands of males. More productivity means (1) more people, (2) more possibility for social differentiation, (3) a more sizeable possible extracted surplus. Moreover, ploughing is men’s work–both because of the greater grip and upper body strength required and, more crucially, as it is not compatible with childminding. As neither is animal herding, that leads to a male monopoly of the major productive assets and, as a consequence, male domination of public social space.
Suddenly, family relations become much more hierarchical. Hierarchical families provide easier support for wider social hierarchy: ploughs predate the first states. Contradiction between the egalitarian social logic which originally sustained the first wave of urban settlements–manifested in their physical construction–and the new logic of male domination of productive assets, and so public social space, could have been so disruptive as to lead to the abandonment of the first wave of concentrated settlements–which reflected, and were associated with, the previous social logic–and dispersal into new villages, which could now reflect physically the new social logic. Possibly helped by the plough increasing the land area which could be cultivated. A social logic that had not yet developed the means to support larger aggregations of population.
When sizeable settlements arise again, they are both significantly larger in population–they are undoubtedly cities–and physically reflect much more hierarchical social arrangements. Including explicit physical public spaces, which Çatalhöyük, the largest of the earlier settlements, had entirely lacked–it had no streets, one went from house to house via roofs.
Hierarchical families, based on unequal gender relations, may well make the generation and acceptance of wider social hierarchy more acceptable, but that is hardly enough in itself to generate states. Though the larger populations, higher individual productivity and capacity for social differentiation from the plough created a much larger possibility for the creation of states.
Conflict and coercion
Which comes back to states being coercive: so the obvious path for the creation of coercive structures large and coherent enough to be called “states” is via inter-group conflict. Specialist warriors (or at least war-leaders) arise to block raids. That creates the basis for a coercive hierarchy, which can then extract a surplus: since farming on its own merely supports more babies and some increased specialisation, so it takes expropriation to create a significant surplus. The bigger the area controlled, the more effectively raids can be countered. So an upward process of building a coercive surplus-extracting hierarchy is created, whereby outside pressure provides crucial motivation for key stages in the process of state-building, turning what would otherwise be a “chicken-and-egg” problem of how to get the hierarchy to extract the surplus to support the hierarchy into a more interactive feedback process which spirals into state building.
There would be an element of experimenting involved, trying things to see what works. And the process would be aided if hereditary elites could be established, as genuine state-building is likely to be a multi-generational process.
Those pastoralists again
If conflict occurs across an ecological frontier–that is, a persistent division in ways of life which militate against unification across said frontier; as, for example, between farming and pastoralism–then a mutual spiralling up could occur. A chief aggregates villages to block raids, so the nomads gang together to manage bigger raids, which encourages even more aggregation of farming villages. And so it goes. If the farmers have a big enough hinterland, a large agrarian empire could be created. If the pastoralists have a big enough steppe, a large pastoralist empire could also be created. Which is Peter Turchin‘s model for the creation of large agrarian empires (pdf).
A process which incorporates state-building, but such empires need not be the end result of any particular state. Once we have hierarchical family structures, the logic of hierarchy has a point of origin; a point to rest the social lever to leverage into ever greater hierarchy until we end up with ancient autocrats disposing of huge social surpluses largely created by the process of extraction: since farming on its own merely supports more babies and some increased specialisation. It was required to have (1) persistent conflict; (2) the notion that one person could control (a) productive assets that others do not and (b) other people; and (3) enough accessible production to support the required surplus. Indeed, monumentalism is a rational pattern in such autocracies, since a continual series of autocrat-controlled labour service projects signals, manifests and preserves the authority of the autocrat. Still, having all three conditions for long enough was sufficiently rare that states still took centuries or millennia to evolve, and only in a fairly small number of locations.
Once the trick was known, the creation of states spread. But as late as the first half of the C19th, large sections of territory were outside effective state power, or even claimed authority, because the necessary conditions had never applied–either long enough or at all. Up until at least the C15th, states had never controlled more than a minority of inhabited territories. And, for millennia, only a relatively small proportion of inhabited territories.
The Americas did generate states from hoe-based farming. Only in a few regions and much later than in Afro-Eurasia (the Monte Alban polity of the Zapotec in central Mexico around 100BC, the Moche of the Andes around 100AD and the Classical Maya of Guatemala around 250AD) eventually leading to the Aztec, Incan and late Mayan civilisations the Spanish conquistadors encountered and destroyed. The Americas also had unusually productive hoe-based agriculture via maize, potatoes and a wide range of vegetables. They had (1) persistent conflict; (2) the notion that one person could control (a) productive assets that others do not and (b) other people; and (3) enough accessible production to support the required surplus. They just did it without the plough.
It also seems to have been done with relatively balanced gender roles. Women could typically own property and divorce, often had a significant role in farming, dominated cloth and feather production, were priestesses, local merchants and (occasionally) rulers–though the most common instances were Mayan royal women acting as temporary regents for male relatives.
Warriors and war-leaders were male, while rulers were strongly predominantly male. So key aspects of state-building were male-dominated.
Herd animals played much less role in American societies than in Afro-Eurasia, being limited to some domestication of deer in Mesoamerica and the llamas and alpacas in the Andes region. The lack of herd animals likely encouraged a hunting mode of warfare, where a central aim was the capture of slaves and sacrifices. In particular, the limited availability of herd animals, especially in Mesoamerica, also probably encouraged the widespread use of human sacrifice (where the sacrificed were also eaten: we might call them protein wars), which may have had an intensifying effect on conflict; remembering that war is a great device for social differentiation. While acceptance of slavery brings together control of productive assets and control of others.
So, state-building (and even empire-building) was possible without the plough or pastoralists, it just apparently took longer. Lacking the higher productivity, stronger gender imbalance and quicker social differentiation that ploughs produced or the spiralling-up effect of farmer-pastoralist conflict.
So, the existence of substantial herd animals in Afro-Eurasia, hence balancing the roles of hunting-herding males with hoe-farming women, meant the development of very egalitarian proto-cities. Yet the existence of the same herd animals led to the development of the plough, unequal gender relations, pastoralist raiders and then a relatively quick path to states.
The much lower significance of herd animals in the Americas led–especially in Mesoamerica–to human sacrifice, with the intensification of conflict that implies, a hunting mode of warfare, yet rather more even gender relations and a slower path to the state.
This also suggests answers to two puzzles of Ancient Egypt: (1) why were gender relations in Pharaonic Egypt unusually even? and (2) why did Egypt move in the shortest known period from farming to territorial state? The answer to the latter is because farming arrived after the plough had been developed and production along the Nile was very “transparent” to observers (pdf): the plough had the increased productivity noted above while accurate expropriation was unusually easy.
The answer to the former is; because production was so transparent and based on irrigation managed at the village level, there was no private ownership of land, which meant male ploughing was simply a task, not a basis for gender-differentiated asset ownership. Nor was there any large-scale pastoralism in the Black Land–that was left to folk such as the wretched Kush (aka the vile Kush). So men did what men did, women did what women did and neither dominated productive assets, leading to relatively even gender relations.
Karl Wittfogel’s theory of hydraulic civilisation got things the wrong way around. It was not management of irrigation that provided a basis for state power–irrigation was managed at very local levels. Irrigation provided the basis for easier expropriation, with the highly observable (i.e. transparent) irrigated productivity of the Nile (with its regular inundations) making for particularly easy and thorough expropriation. The ability to expropriate drives the state: the more total the expropriation, the more total the state. States where expropriation is based on active bargaining are a rather different beast, but the only developed in a few places and were, for most of the history of human states, odd outliers.
Leninism’s development of the totally expropriating state was, indeed, profoundly atavistic. So atavistic that, as I have noted before (here and here) the Soviet Union managed to pass through ibn Khaldun‘s state cycle in a single life time.
Lenin famously claimed that communism was socialism + electricity. Actually, it was an attempted return to the origins of the state + electricity. But bargaining states had let loose technological dynamism on the world, and mere expropriation was no longer the cutting edge in organising societies. The gap between Leninist pretension and economic reality became de-stabilisingly obvious. So, we have collapsed Leninist regimes or societies with notionally Leninist ruling regimes ruling very not-totalitarian societies or, in the case of North Korea, a regime that has embraced its atavism. History is how the present was created, but only provides understanding if we accurately grasp that history.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]