In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.
We’re at Chapter 10 already and DofE has only two more after this one. Chapter 10 is titled ‘Why the State Has No Origin’ but would be better called ‘Why there is no state’ or ‘Why the state has no single origin.’ It’s the good and bad of our two Davids, since they’re introducing ethnographic and archeological material that is fascinating but framing it as usual around What We Think and Why Its Wrong. In this case they plumb the literature on the origin of ‘the state’ which tends to equate ‘the state’ with government, culture, and civilization, and argue in contrast that ‘the state’ is an unnecessary and misleading intellectual construct.
Of course 95% of readers aren’t familiar with these arguments and probably haven’t thought twice about ‘the state’ so the Davids are asking readers to learn a bunch of stuff that they think is wrong, then tell you why it’s wrong, before going to what they think is right. They could just skip the whole concept of the state instead. Still, for me this is not as annoying as their fixation on Rousseau since I’ve always been interested in ‘origin of the state’ arguments. At least their description of these ‘state’ assumptions is pretty accurate from what I’ve read, more so than their description of the Enlightenment. But what’s interesting to me is probably not helping this book become the sort of new approach to human history that they authors set out to write.
They start with the invention of the idea of ‘the state’ by the German Rudolf von Ihering in the late 19th century (based on the use of the word by French writers since the late 16th century). People in Europe before the 16th century lived in kingdoms which were part of Christendom. Von Ihering defined states as territories and governments with a ‘monopoly on legitimate use of force’ and I’ve seen journalists and essayists (Josh Marshall springs to mind) using this formulation for modern government, usually in criticism of gun nuts or mob violence. The Davids point out this is a weird idea since most of the governments of the past (including govts of Rome, Athens, Ancient Egypt) did not actually claim anything like a ‘monopoly on force’ in theory or practice. (And even today they might have added there are many contexts when non-governmental entities and individuals are allowed to use force: bouncers, crime victims, etc)
The Davids instead propose (p365) three kinds of domination that come together in the modern states: control of violence, control of information, and charisma. These types of power are restated elsewhere as:
- Bureaucracy or administration
- Heroic politics or heroic competition.
But none of these ideas are particularly well defined–at least not well-enough for the reader to be able to use the terms easily. The shift from control of information to bureaucracy I can sort of see, and I think I get the feeling of where they’re going with the heroic politics, which is a sort of throwback to the heroic kings of the hills from the earlier chapters. But the relationships between violence and sovereignty is never explained (Aren’t heroic politics are also violent?) beyond references to earlier chapters when they describe the notion of equality before the sovereign. The Davids do give examples:
- The Natchez monarchs of Louisiana (introduced in earlier chapters) claimed absolute sovereignty but they had no bureaucracy and no political competition.
- Tell Savi Abyad, an excavated town from 8000 years ago in the Middle East, was extremely bureaucratic with everything counted using tokens, but no one claimed sovereignty and there is no evidence of public political competition.
- Maya elites competed heroically in ball games and war but claimed no sovereignty and had no bureaucracy to speak of.
The Davids see the road to the state beginning with any of the three types of domination after which some institution or force manages to gradually add the other two, though most ancient civilizations from the past don’t actually have all three.
For example in the Old Kingdom of Egypt the Pharaoh claims sovereignty and the government has a bureaucracy (The Inca were similar) but no competitive public politics, while in the Roman Republic they had competitive public politics and a bureaucracy but no claims of sovereignty.
The chapter goes into the possible origin of this monarchy in Egypt, the pre-Inca city of Chavin de Huantar, the Olmec, the Shang rulers of China, and finally Minoan Crete. There’s lots of interesting asides and descriptions. (For instance I knew nothing about Chavin de Huantar.)
The three types of domination are certainly interesting, but it all seems too doomed to endless debates over how open does competition between powerful figures have to be in order to be ‘heroic’ or what constitutes sovereignty? As one aside they point out that the old notions of Republic, Monarchy, and Empire work better than all this discussion of the state. So why didn’t they just stick with those. I think they really miss the boat by not developing further their arguments about cities. They seem to be more invested in getting the reader not to assume anything about a city. A city can be the bustling civic community of Uruk, or it could be an empty ceremonial center, but writers who don’t like discussion of the state should be sharper in their definitions. The words town, city, and polis are assumed in their native languages by their native speakers to mean Uruk-type of settlements, which as it happens commonly all over the world in all sorts of settings. Monasukapanough, for example, the old Monacan town just north of Charlottesville, was clearly a real town like Uruk or so many others, with houses near each other and public or ritual space. Just because there are mostly uninhabited ritual or governmental places that imitate the geography and architecture of cities or towns or villages, doesn’t mean we should abandon words to silly uses. Cities especially clearly matter in history a lot. I’d love to see a Jane Jacobs-meets-archeology-meets ethnography chapter that starts with villages and cities and how the self-government these always seem to create allows for empires to exploit them. That’s how the Inca worked, adding themselves as a layer over the pre-existing village governments. Empires depend on the productivity of villages, towns, and cities. That’s a dependency worth exploring. A simpler story to tell is that ‘the state’ comes into being when some sort of entity manages to take control of multiple villages and towns (monarch, priesthood, warrior band, whether they be outsiders or the inhabitants of one of those towns). The fact that historians tend to reflexively love states while ethnographers tend to know better, and archeologists are divided by temperament, shouldn’t change this simple and pretty-accurate origin.
But that’s a tale they didn’t tell and a chapter they didn’t write.
Next: Chapter 11 Full Circle