Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Rise of States, Inequality and Economics

How did humans go from living lives of relative autonomy and freedom, to living under the yoke of control and domination? This is a complex story, but I'm going to put forward one theory that I find compelling, the one proposed by anthropologist Marvin Harris in "Cannibals and Kings," in his chapter entitled "The Origin of Pristine States" (by pristine, he means not brought about by borrowing from other cultures).

It's difficult to top Marvin Harris' description of the transition from hunter-gatherer/foraging band-level societies to state-level societies, and how most people aside from a tiny rarefied elite were made much worse off, so I will quote him in full:
In most band and village societies before the evolution of the state, the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoy today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at—or if they would work at all. Women, too, despite their subordination to men, generally set up their own daily schedules and paced themselves on an individual basis. There were few routines. People did what they had to do, but the where and when of it was not laid out by someone else. No executives, foremen, or bosses stood apart, measuring and counting. No one said how many deer or rabbits you had to catch or how many wild yams you had to dig up. A man might decide it was a good day to string his bow, pile on thatch, look for feathers, or lounge about the camp. A woman might decide to look for grubs, collect firewood, plait a basket, or visit her mother. If the cultures of modem band and village peoples can be relied upon to reveal the past, work got done this way for tens of thousands of years. Moreover, wood for the bow, leaves for the thatch, birds for the feathers, logs for the grubs, fiber for the basket —all were there for everyone to take. Earth, water, plants, and game were communally owned. Every man and woman held title to an equal share of nature. Neither rent, taxes, nor tribute kept people from doing what they wanted to do.  
With the rise of the state all of this was swept away.For the past five or six millennia, nine-tenths of all the people who ever lived did so as peasants or as members of some other servile caste or class. With the rise of the State, ordinary men seeking to use nature's bounty had to get someone else's permission and had to pay for it with taxes, tribute, or extra labor. The weapons and techniques of war and organized aggression were taken away from them and turned over to specialist-soldiers and policemen controlled by military, religious, and civil bureaucrats. For the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, penitentiaries, and concentration camps. Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. In many ways the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.
How did this change happen?

Harris analyzes the evolution of the state by looking at a number of societies at different stages of development. Harris uses these different societies around the world to chart the various steps toward the full-fledged state systems that arose in various locations around the globe.

In Harris' account, he sees the first steps toward the state as arising out of foraging societies settling down and becoming sedentary agricultural/horticultural societies based in villages and capable of creating large surpluses. In such societies, aggrandizing members of the society whom anthropologists term "big men" encourage the production of surpluses by which they throw lavish public feasts to enhance their prestige and social status. Competitive feasting brings about surpluses over and above simple production for daily consumption. But, and this is key, the surpluses are given over to the wider society, not hoarded by the big men, and the big men do not have coercive institutionalized or hereditary powers. In essence, the society becomes "indebted" to the big men and their followers for the bounty:
The rise of pristine states would appear to be best understood as a consequence of the intensification of agricultural production. Like hunter-collectors, agricultural villages tended to intensify their food production efforts in order to relieve reproductive pressures. Unlike hunter-collectors however, agriculturalists in favored soil zones can intensify their efforts for a relatively long time without suffering sharp depletions and efficiency losses. Sedentary village agriculturalists therefore tend to develop special institutions which encourage intensification by conspicuously rewarding those who work harder than others...

Anthropologists refer to the intensifiers of agricultural production as "big men." In their purest, most egalitarian phase, known best from studies of numerous groups in Melanesia and New Guinea, "big men" play the role of hard-working, ambitious, public-spirited individuals who inveigle their relatives and neighbors to work for them by promising to hold a huge feast with the extra food they produce. When the feast takes place, the "big man," surrounded by his proud helpers, ostentatiously redistributes-parcels out—piles of food and other gifts but keeps nothing for himself...Under certain ecological conditions, and in the presence of warfare, these food managers could have gradually set themselves above their followers and become the original nucleus of the ruling classes of the first states.
Harris cites the research that describes how the "big men" operate:
...Among the Siuai a "big man" is called a mumi and to achieve mumi status is every youth's highest ambition. A young man proves himself capable of becoming a mumi by working harder than everyone else and by carefully restricting his own consumption of meat and coconuts. Eventually, he impresses his wife, children and near relatives with the seriousness of his intentions, and they vow to help him prepare for his first feast. If the feast is a success, his circle of supporters widens and he sets to work readying an even greater display of generosity. He aims next at the construction of a men's clubhouse in which his male followers can lounge about and in which guests can be entertained and fed. Another feast is held at the consecration of the clubhouse, and if this is also a success his circle of supporters—people willing to work for the feast to come—grows still larger and he will begin to be spoken of as a mumi.  
What do his supporters get from all this? Even though larger and larger feasts mean that the mumi's demands on his supporters become more irksome, the overall volume of production goes up. So if they occasionally grumble about how hard they have to work, the followers nevertheless remain loyal as long as their mumi continues to maintain or increase his renown as a "great provider."
So, and this is important, production was ratcheted up for certain individuals to earn prestige and status, not as a response to out-of-control population increase. In the chicken-and-egg scenario, it is overproduction which comes first, and population growth later, as storable surpluses enter the picture.

In Randian parlance, the mumi and his followers are the "makers" and the rest of the tribe the "takers." But the "big man" cannot rest on his laurels, for there is always someone else looking to take his place by throwing even more elaborate feasts which will ratchet up food production even further:
Finally the time comes for the new mumi to challenge the others who have risen before him. This is done at a muminai feast, where a tally is kept of all the pigs, coconut pies, and sago-almond puddings given away by the host mumi and his followers to the guest mumi and his followers. If the guest mumi cannot reciprocate in a year or so with a feast at least as lavish as that of his challengers, he suffers great social humiliation and his fall from "mumihood" is immediate. In deciding on whom to challenge, a mumi must be very careful. He tries to choose a guest whose downfall will increase his own reputation but he must avoid one whose capacity to retaliate exceeds his own.
So it becomes a competition as to who can produce the most. But the surplus is made by voluntary, not coercive means. The surplus is not kept and skimmed off by the mumi and his followers; rather, it is shared with the rest of the tribe:
At the end of a successful feast, the greatest of mumis still faces a lifetime of personal toil and dependency on the moods and inclinations of his followers. "Mumihood"...does not confer the power to coerce others into doing one's bidding, nor does it elevate one's standard of living above anyone else's. In fact, since giving things away is the lifeblood of "mumihood," great mumis may even consume less meat and other delicacies than an ordinary, undistinguished Siuai. Among the Kaoka...there is the saying: "The giver of the feast takes the bones and the stale cakes; the meat and the fat go to the others."
What I find most satisfying about this account is that it accords with human nature as we observe it today. The mumi is the ancestor of the hardworking capitalist who is in his office from dawn until dusk six days a week, comes in early and stays late, works weekends, and skips vacations. He provides the jobs and economic activity for his community,  invests the surplus in future production, participates in key social activities, and lives a relatively modest life.

For the capitalist or CEO, no matter how much money is made, it is never enough. Capitalists surround themselves with sycophants and followers who gain prestige by their associations with them. They are considered "great men," and "rainmakers." They always exhort others to "work harder" and set the pace for their followers. They exhort their employees to work ever harder and "distribute" the surplus to the wider society, and to a lesser extent their employees. "It is by hand, you are fed," claims Immortan Joe, the prototypical "big man" leader in Mad Max. To a large extent extent we still lionize this type of person today even in our high-tech modern societies, from Thomas Edison to Henry Ford to Bill Gates.

Harris uses the example of the Trobriand islanders as a sort of intermediate step along this path - from big men to hereditary chiefs. Harris sees warfare as a key to this transformation of social relations, as the big men and their allies transform into war chiefs and raid neighboring villages.

The Trobriand islanders engage in frequent and sustained warfare, sometimes with raiding parties attacking islands hundreds of miles away. The Trobriand chiefs were still redistributors, but now they were clearly higher rank than the commoners. They wore royal regalia. And, their power was passed down along family lines rather than changed over generations by others:
Unlike the Siuai mumis, the Trobriand "big men" occupied hereditary offices and could be deposed only through defeat in war. One of these...the "paramount chief" of all the Trobrianders, held sway over more than a dozen villages containing several thousand people all told...Chieftainships were hereditary within the wealthiest and largest subclans, and the Trobrianders attributed these inequalities to wars of conquest carried out long ago. Only the chiefs could wear shell ornaments as the insignia of high rank, and it was forbidden by any commoner to stand or sit in a position that put a chief's head at a lower elevation than anyone else's...
However, the Trobriand chiefs did not have coercive power over people the way that a king or lord does. They were not unproductive elites who "owned" everything and who made people work for them when they didn't want to:
Despite such displays of reverence, a chief's actual power was limited. It rested ultimately on his ability to play the role of "great provider," which depended on ties of kinship and marriage rather than on the control of weapons and resources....Living on islands, the Trobrianders were not free to spread out, and their population density had risen in  Malinowski's time to sixty persons per square mile. Nonetheless, the chiefs could not control enough of the production system to acquire great power. There were no cereal grains and yams rot after three or four months, which means that the Trobriand "great provider" could not manipulate people through dispensing food nor could he support a permanent police-military garrison out of his stores. An equally important factor was the open resources of the lagoons and ocean from which the Trobrianders derived their protein supply. The Trobriand chief could not cut off access to these resources and hence could never exercise genuine permanent coercive political control over his subordinates.
It's worth noting that early human communities spread out and lived along the ocean shore where access to resources was plentiful. As the ice age ended and the ice melted, coastal areas would be inundated and humans would flee to higher ground inland. This is likely the origin of the universal flood myth. They fled along the river paths inland, and settled beside the rivers where there were plentiful wild grasses- the ancestors of today's wheat, barley and millet.

Large megafauna were wiped out, and people turned to smaller prey such as small rodents, hares, turtles and insects. Large ungulates were domesticated in what Harris calls "the greatest act of conservation in history," but people were now dependent upon farmers for their calories and herders for protein, and the herders in turn were dependent upon grazing areas and grain for fodder. Land, instead of being freely available for all members of the tribe, could be "owned," by individuals and families, and passed down through generations. In a recent paper, scientists argued that the storability of cereal crops as opposed to tubers was an indication of where coercive power was likely to occur due to centralized food control:

Cereals, appropriability, and hierarchy: The Neolithic Roots of Economic Institutions (VoxEU)

The next step would be facilitated by the control of long-lasting cereal grain stores combined with population increases brought about by the surpluses. This would be especially likely in environments that were surrounded by barriers to people opting out of the system such as rivers, mountains, valleys, deserts, oceans, and hostile tribes. Harris uses the example of the Bunyoro of Uganda, whose staple crops are millet and bananas, as the next step in the evolution from hereditary war chiefs to true rulers:
The Bunyoro were organized into a feudal, but nonetheless authentic state society. Their mukama was a king, not a mere redistributor chief. The privilege of using all the lands and natural resources was a dispensation granted by the mukuma to a dozen or so chiefs, who then passed on the dispensation to commoners. In return for this dispensation, quantities of food, handicrafts, and labor services were funneled up through the power hierarchy into the mukama's headquarters. The mukama in turn directed the use of these goods and services on behalf of state enterprises... 
[T]he Trobriand....chiefs....were dependent upon the generosity of the food producers; the Bunyoro food producers were dependent upon the generosity of the king...failure to contribute to the mukama's income could result in the loss of one's lands, banishment, or corporal punishment. Despite his lavish feast giving and reputation as a "great provider," the mukama used much of his income to bolster his monopoly over the forces of coercion. With his control over the central grain stores he maintained a permanent palace guard and heaped rewards upon warrior who displayed bravery in combat and loyalty to his person.  
The mukama also spent a considerable portion of the state treasury on what we would today call "image-building" and public relations. He surrounded himself with numerous officials, priests, magicians, and such regalia keepers as the custodians of spears, of royal graves, of the royal drums, of royal thrones, and of royal crowns, and well as "putters-on" of the royal crowns, cooks, bath attendants, herdsmen, potters, bark-cloth makers, and musicians.... Also present were the mukama's extensive harem, his many children, and the polygynous menages of his brothers and of other royal personages. To keep his power intact, the mukama and portions of his court made frequent trips throughout Bunyoro land, staying at local palaces maintained at the expense of the chiefs and commoners.
This is similar to the feudal system as it existed in Europe (and other places - feudalism originated in modern-day Iran). English kings would tour the countryside and stay at the palaces of the lords to whom they granted permission to rule the individual fiefdoms. The peasants, in turn, were given permission to farm the earl's land by paying a portion of their crop in a sharecropping arrangement. The English word "lord" originally meant "giver of loaves."

Over time, the 'big man" or "giver of loaves," keeps more and more of the surplus for himself and his entourage even while demanding more and more taxes for redistribution. This is also similar to how money is funneled up through ownership of stocks. A company is owned by another company and so on, in a pyramid of ownership. Franchises are also similar--a McDonald's franchisee is given "permission" to run a franchise by the owners, to whom he must pay a fee for participation. Thus we see the same basic social structures at work even today in our supposedly high-tech, post-Enlightenment world.
The larger and denser the population, the larger the redistributive network and the more powerful the redistributor war chief. Under certain circumstances, the exercise of power by the redistributor and his closest followers on the one side and by the ordinary food producers on the other became so unbalanced that for all intents and purposes the redistributor chiefs constituted the principal coercive force in social life. When this happened, contributions to the central store ceased to be voluntary contributions. They became taxes. Farmlands and natural resources ceased to be elements of rightful access. They became dispensations. And redistributors ceased to be chiefs. They became kings.
Harris then asks under what circumstances would this evolution occur? If people lived in an area where they could flee, the could avoid this outcome. They could decide to live without the surpluses in exchange for freedom. But what about places where that was extremely difficult or impossible? Once farmers had invested in a piece of land for generations, it would be hard to walk away.
Under what circumstances would the conversion of a redistributive chieftainship to a feudal state be likely to occur? To intensification, population growth, warfare, storageable grains, and hereditary redistributors, add one more factor: impaction.
Suppose, as Robert Cameiro has suggested, a population being served by redistributors has been expanding inside a region that is circumscribed, or closed off, by environmental barriers. These barriers need not be uncrossable oceans or unclimbable mountains; rather, they might merely consist of ecological transition zones where people who had broken away from overcrowded villages would find that they would have to take a severe cut in their standard of living or change their whole way of life in order to survive. With impaction, two types of groups might find that the benefits of a permanently subordinate status exceeded the costs of trying to maintain their independence. First, villages consisting of kinspeople forced to enter the transition zones would be tempted to accept a dependent relationship in exchange for continued participation in the redistributions sponsored by their parent settlements. And second, enemy villages defeated in battle might find it less costly to pay taxes and tribute than to flee into these zones.
There is some evidence that during the formation of these early settlements in the ancient Near East, people did abandon them when elites attempted to exercise too much coercive control:
Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It's one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.

Agriculture is often dubbed the "neolithic revolution," so University of Notre Dame anthropologist Ian Kuijt dubs these collapses "failure of the neolithic experiment." He describes the expansion and abandonment of a mega-village called Basta, located in what is now Jordan. Like Çatalhöyük, Basta grew larger than other villages around it. To cope with growing populations, the people of Basta invented two-story architecture, and began sub-dividing their living spaces into smaller and smaller rooms. Many homes contained specialized areas for living and for food storage. But Kuijt doesn't believe people abandoned Basta because its population outstripped its resources. Instead, its population outstripped its belief systems.

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone's house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours...But once you have a thousand people living together, it's harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages, Kuijt speculates, may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them. He believes that major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It's an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.

It's possible that the mega-village model of life wasn't sustainable because it was propped up by belief systems that could only exist in small communities where everybody shared resources. That would explain why people abandoned these sites for smaller villages that never grew beyond about 200 people.
How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization (io9 - disregard the oxymoronic title)

Harris takes a look at the historical record and sees whether it stacks up with where we know about where the earliest states were formed. It turns out that early locations of state formation were sites of circumscription, warfare, population growth, arable land, fresh water, and storable grain surpluses:
How well does the theory of environmental circumscription and impaction accord with the evidence? The six most likely regions of pristine state development certainly do possess markedly circumscribed zones of production. As Malcolm Webb has pointed out, all of these regions contain fertile cores surrounded by zones of sharply reduced agricultural potential. They are, in fact, river valleys or lake systems surrounded by desert or at least very dry zones. The dependence of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India on the flood plains of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus is well-known...All of these regions present special difficulties to villages that might have sought to escape from the growing concentration of power in the hands of overly aggressive redistributor war chiefs.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that all of these regions were the scene of rapid population growth prior to the emergence of the state...Malcolm Webb has also reviewed the evidence for warfare. Egypt's legendary history begins with a tale of conquest, and specialized instruments of war and fortifications appear early in the archaeological record. In Mesopotamia weaponry and representations of slaves and battles are present in early predynastic times. Fortifications and documentary evidence indicate that Shang China, at the time of the emergence of the first Yellow River states, was an extremely militaristic society. Recent discoveries in the heartland of the earliest Indus River states have confirmed the existence of strongly fortified neolithic villages that were destroyed by conquest. In the New World "both coastal Peru and Mesoamerica show a long history of warfare"; archaeological "indications of fighting are present no later than the start of the first millennium B.C."
Once the hereditary chief becomes a king, the system would become self-justifying:
Very little direct physical coercion would be needed to keep the emergent peasantry in line. Kinship would be used to justify the legitimacy of differential access to resources on the part of junior and senior lineages or of wife-giving, wife-taking alliance groups (those who gave wives would expect tribute and labor services in return). Access to the stored grains might be made contingent upon rendering craft or military services. Or the "big men" of the more powerful group could simply begin taxation by redistributing less than they took in. External warfare would increase and defeated villages would be regularly assumilated into the tax and tribute network. A growing corps of military, religious, and craft specialists would be fed out of the central grain stores, amplifying the image of the rulers as beneficent "great providers." And the social distance between the police-military-priestly-managerial elite and the emergent class of food-producing peasant drudges would widen still further as the scope of the integrated food production facilities increased, as trade networks expanded, as population grew, and as production was intensified still further through more taxation, labor conscription, and tribute.
Later, we'll see evidence that this is exactly what happened in the ancient Near East, especially Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ecological degradation caused the former abundance of hunter-gatherer times to slowly vanish, making people dependent upon the farmers and redistributor chiefs, who eventually became Pharoahs after the conquest and unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Study traces ecological collapse over 6,000 years of Egyptian history (Science Daily)

As Vera describes:
Complex or transegalitarian foragers were people who forged new pathways into competition, accumulation, increasingly violent conflict, and ratcheting economic growth. Individuals known in the literature as Big Men or aggrandizers led this “elitist revolution,” becoming quite the experts on getting people to crank out work and surpluses, by hook or by crook.
In the beginning, these hardworking, enterprising, and generous leaders couched their projects in the language of altruism and community. But being “triple-A” (aggressive, acquisitive, ambitious) personalities, they were also surreptitiously looking out for number one. As more and more wealth of the tribe flowed through their hands, they learned to skim a little, then a bit more, for themselves. They finessed a plethora of strategies that created social imbalances among the people of the tribe. At first, only a few families were left behind, and most did well in the aftermath of Big Men’s projects. But in time, poverty spread apace with increasing social stratification. And after a few millennia of these increasingly manipulative and coercive tactics, the very individuals who early on worked the hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.
As the ratchet picked up speed, wealth and power inequalities grew to such an extent that a genetic bottleneck shows up around 8,000 years ago in various communities of the mid to late Neolithic. Just like in the days of our apish ancestors, the most aggressive alphas grabbed the best food and most of the mates. H. sapiens went baboon.
More work meant more food meant more people. Aggressive, accumulative, highly competitive societies gained a short-term advantage and were pushing out those who stayed with the old relaxed, egalitarian lifestyle. The needs of power came to trump the needs of life on the “Parable of the Tribes” planet. Elite-run societies are very good at producing goods; they nevertheless have a variety of disadvantages. The key one being this: aggrandizers have a problem with brakes. In the long run, they drive their societies off a cliff.
Ready for the revolution? (Leaving Babylon)

Harris argues that expanding villages were matrolocal (that is, female kin groups were important than male i.e. who your mother is defines your family more than who your father is). As warfare became more common, patriarchy eventually took over. Add to the fact that as land inheritance became paramount, descent had to be assured. Since there is no dispute over maternity, only paternity, women's sexuality would need to be heavily monitored by males to ensure that their genes were passed down to the inheritors of the farmland which was passed down through generations. Monogamous marriage became the norm. As we'll see, ownership of land was the main differentiator of social status until the Industrial revolution. This is why only 1 in 17 men were able to pass down their genes, beginning about 8,000 years ago. Ancestor cults were common. In ancient Chinese villages, ancestors were buried directly underneath the dwellings, most likely as a claim to ownership the land.
 ...Matrilocality being a recurrent method of transcending the limited capacity of patrilineal village groups to form multi-village military alliances, it seems likely that societies on the threshold of statehood would frequently adopt matrilmeal forms of social organization...But if there was such a phase, whether for pristine or secondary states, it must have been short-lived. What we glimpse through the writings of the classical Greek and Roman historians are the lingering traces of systems that had already reverted back to patrilineal descent. Very few ancient or modern state societies have matrilineal descent or practice matrilocality ...With the rise of the state,  women again lost status. From Rome to China they were legally defined as the wards of their fathers, husbands, or brothers. The reason for this, I believe, is that matrilocality was no longer functionally necessary for recruiting and training the armed forces.
Farming would also provide the impetus for population increase. Farm families breed children to be farm workers, and more workers means more productivity, and hence more wealth, so there was an incentive to have high birthrates, unlike for hunter-gatherers. In productive agricultural areas, production could always be intensified to deal with the higher population, under the leadership of the chiefs and kings, of course. It was then that intensification became driven by population, rather than status. By this time, the "big men" had long ago become kings.

But more children would mean partitioning the land into ever smaller plots over time, so the only thing to do was to expand and take more land, beginning the cycle again. Add in the fact that annual crops deplete the soil and cause erosion, meaning shifting cultivation required new inputs of land on a regular basis to feed a growing population. This fueled expansion into the territories of remaining hunter-gathers, pushing them into ever more marginal areas. We know from both genetic studies and the historical record that hunter-gathers resisted adopting agriculture wherever they could. Farmers from the Near East spread throughout Europe around 7,000 years ago, but the hunter-gatherers of the north slowed their advance for around 15 centuries.

Farmers slowed down by hunter-gatherers (Science Daily)

Stone Age farmers, hunters kept their distance (Washington Post)

We see evidence of centralized redistributed systems all over the ancient world before the advent of writing. Most likely these were voluntary contributions of surpluses to the central store to tide the villages over over in times of famine. These structures were also inanimately tied in with religious ideas, and may have also functioned as ceremonial sites under the aegis of priest-kings who detailed a new vision for humanity than that of their forbears - the idea of dominion and control over the earth. Large-scale cultivation would no doubt encourage such belief systems:
Redistribution undoubtedly provides the key to the understanding of numerous ancient monuments and structures which for centuries have puzzled scholars and tourists. As we have seen, from mumis on up, "big men," headmen, and chiefs have the capacity to organize labor on behalf of communal enterprises. Among such enterprises was the construction, involving hundreds of workers, of large canoes, buildings, tombs, and monuments. Colin Renfrew has drawn attention to the rather striking similarity between the circular wooden Cherokee feast center council houses and the mysterious circular buildings whose wooden post holes been found within the precincts of neolithic ceremonial enclosures, or "henges," in Great Britain and northern Europe. The increasingly elaborate burial chambers, earth mounds, and megalithic alignments characteristic of the period from 4000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. in Europe have rather precise parallels among the mounds erected by prehistoric inhabitants of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, the stone burial platforms and monolithic statuary of Polynesia, and the monolithic tombs and memorials of modem Borneo. All of these constructions played a role in the smooth functioning of pre-state redistributive systems, serving as the locus tor redistributive feasts, community rituals dedicated to controlling the forces of nature, and memorials to the generosity and prowess of deceased "big man" hero chiefs.
...Since we cannot see the investment of extra labor in agricultural production, monument-building appears to be a kind of irrational obsession among these ancient peoples. But viewed within the living context of a distributive system, tombs, megaliths, and temples appear as functional components whose costs are slight in comparison with the increased harvests which the ritualized intensification of agricultural production makes possible.
These temples played a key role in the formation of the state, as we'll see. It was once thought that complex civilization preceded monumental stone architecture. Now, with Göbekli Tepe, we know that this is not true. Monumental stone ceremonial centers were created by complex village cultures who derived a significant amount of food from hunting as well as gathering and cultivation.

Structures built for large-scale storage of  surpluses most likely predate large-scale intensified agriculture and the origin of formal states and kingship.  In a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers announced the discovery of a granary for storing wild barley and oats, which was built well before the advent of agriculture.

Ancient Granary Predates Agriculture (Scientific American)

Indeed, we know that Mesopotamian temples were centralized distribution centers and were the first entities in the world to make loans and distribute money, under the aegis of a priestly class who worshiped gods dedicated to the fertility of the earth, connected this to the fertility of the people. It is these central houses/temples in which the economic/monetary system as we know it today was developed, as we'll see later.

An older theory of state formation proposed by Wittfogel proposed that the need for large-scale irrigation works to farm lands also led to the formation of an elite class able to organize the requisite labor to build such irrigation works. It is likely this played a role in the Near East. The cultures able to build Göbekli Tepe 12,000 years ago could certainly build large-scale irrigation works. Elites in these societies would not only organize agricultural production and distribute the surplus, but they would also coordinate the labor required to build the irrigation works that were necessary for the intensified agricultural production that resulted in the surplus. This is why we see temples and irrigation works emerge about the same time and in the same places. This was true especially in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, where the flooding did not correspond to the harvest time. Irrigation works, while not alone responsible for elites, would help them cement their power even further. It would also make such societies more rapacious for materials and give them an edge on large-scale building, and possible even metallurgy, which would give them an advantage in war as well.
"During the four thousand years before Christ, in the great river valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, the state took on the function of building grand hydraulic works, which in turn required centralized managerial bureaucracies to operate. Whoever controlled those means of production--in such cases it was a group of agromanagerial experts--became perforce the effective ruling class. The common techno-environmental basis in all those ancient Oriental civilizations, giving rise to similar social structures in them, was water control, mainly a program of irrigation made necessary by inadequate or unseasonal or undependable rainfall..."
WigWams, Wittfogel, and Joan Didion: All in One Post (The Atlantic)

As the kingly elites acquired more power and surrounded themselves with various specialists and artisans making everything from cloth, to jewelry to drinking vessels, to paintings and statues, along with artists and musicians and retainers, they would build cities to house all these specialists who were ultimately dependent upon the surpluses of the countryside to feed them. This was the birth of cities, hence, civilization, which derives from civitas, the Latin word for city. Jane Jacobs argued that it was such cities which drove social complexity and the expansion of technology and trade, rather than vice-versa.
Jane Jacobs long ago argued that cities are the cradles of civilization and of economic development and that density and human interaction hold the key to economic progress. The findings of a major new study published in Science finds that density is a key factor in the emergence of modern human behavior.

Increasing population density, rather than boosts in human brain power, appears to have catalysed the emergence of modern human behaviour, according to a new study by UCL (University College London) scientists published in the journal Science. High population density leads to greater exchange of ideas and skills and prevents the loss of new innovations. It is this skill maintenance, combined with a greater probability of useful innovations, that led to modern human behaviour appearing at different times in different parts of the world.

In the study, the UCL team found that complex skills learnt across generations can only be maintained when there is a critical level of interaction between people. Using computer simulations of social learning, they showed that high and low-skilled groups could coexist over long periods of time and that the degree of skill they maintained depended on local population density or the degree of migration between them. Using genetic estimates of population size in the past, the team went on to show that density was similar in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Middle-East when modern behaviour first appeared in each of these regions. The paper also points to evidence that population density would have dropped for climatic reasons at the time when modern human behaviour temporarily disappeared in sub-Saharan Africa.
Homo Urbanus (The Atlantic)

The surrounding forests would be cut down and cleared to provide more farmland for a growing population, and irrigation works would transport water to these marginal lands. The wood from the forests would go toward the construction of houses, boats, and other implements of war, as well as burned in kilns to provide early industries with the fuel for clay bricks, pottery, and smelting. As farms expanded and forested areas receded, the natural bounty of the forests would be replaced with the artificial bounty of the farmland and grazing areas under control of the kings and pharaohs. People could no longer go to the forests themselves to find food or fuel. the few areas of forest which remained became the "private property" of the king, and only he could hunt there; anyone else attempting to hunt would be considered "poaching" and suffer penalty of death.

Of course, we know that an increasing population constantly needs to be chasing more land to feed its people. It began the cycle of more food = more people who then need more food, which produces more people and so on. Pristine states would expand, and this contract would force neighboring cultures to adapt the behaviors of their expansionist, warlike neighbors or be assimilated and ruled. The dynamic is essentially that proposed by "the parable of the tribes;"
In a finite world, societies all seeking to escape death- dealing scarcity through expansion will inevitably come to confront each other. Civilized societies, therefore, though lacking inherent limitations to their growth, do encounter new external limits – in the form of one another. Because human beings (like other living creatures) have "excess reproductive capacity," meaning that human numbers tend to increase indefinitely unless a high proportion of the population dies prematurely, each civilized society faces an unpleasant choice. If an expanding society willingly stops where its growth would infringe upon neighboring societies, it allows death to catch up and overtake its population. If it goes beyond those limits, it commits aggression. With no natural order or overarching power to prevent it, some will surely choose to take what belongs to their neighbors rather than to accept the limits that are compulsory for every other form of life.
In such circumstances, a Hobbesian struggle for power among societies becomes inevitable. We see that what is freedom from the point of view of each single unit is anarchy in an ungoverned system of those units. A freedom unknown in nature is cruelly transmuted into an equally unnatural state of anarchy, with its terrors and its destructive war of all against all.
As people stepped across the threshold into civilization, they inadvertently stumbled into a chaos that had never before existed. The relations among societies were uncontrolled and virtually uncontrollable. Such an ungoverned system imposes unchosen necessities: civilized people were compelled to enter a struggle for power.

Some families would inevitably be more prosperous than others for whatever reason- harder work, better soil, cunning political alliances, good fortune, etc. They would take over more and more land, and wealth would become consolidated in fewer and fewer families. The Law of Cumulative Advantage and Disadvantage would come into effect, pushing this process along. Based on modern studies, we could expect 80 percent of the land to fall into the hands of twenty percent of the population, causing disparities in power (the Power Law).

It was once thought that the rulers were somehow able to compel their followers to create the temples and the monuments. We now know this is not true. The monuments were built voluntarily, as we'll see, and feasting, as in the "big man' system, was an integral part of this process. As we'll see, this labor was donated in mutual obligations to the state as a form of taxation, similar to the donations of grain that drove the construction of cities and temple complexes.

But as these cultures expanded, they conquered neighboring tribes and enslaved them. This is where slavery began. Because farming is such hard and back-breaking work, there would have been every incentive to compel others perform this work. Hunter-gatherer "wars" are mainly small-scale brawls, raids and skirmishes where some people are killed but prisoners are not taken because there are not enough resources to sustain them. But with the large surpluses provided by intensified agriculture, you could not only sustain an unproductive ceremonial elite, but a large servile class as well, and this servile class becomes a "product" which is bought and sold by other people. In other words, slaves. Slavery became a standard feature of all state societies, to a greater or lesser degree, until well into the Enlightenment era, only fading definitely when replaced by the energy slaves of the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago.
Once pristine states have formed in a given region, secondary states begin to develop under a variety of special conditions. Some secondary states form as a matter of defense against the predatory inroads made by their more advanced neighbors; others develop as a result of attempts to capture control over strategic trade routes and the increased volume of goods in transit which usually accompanies the growth of states in any region. Still others form as part of an attempt by nomadic peoples living on the margin of a state to plunder its wealth. States found in relatively low-density, unimpacted regions must always be examined with these possibilities in mind before concluding that intensification and reproductive pressures did not cause the evolution of the region's pristine states. For example, low density pastoralist peoples—Turks, Mongols, Huns, Manchus, and Arabs—have repeatedly developed states but only by preying upon the preexisting Chinese, Hindu, Roman, and Byzantine empires. In West Africa secondary states developed as a result of Moslem and European attempts to control the slave, gold, and ivory trades, while in southern Africa the Zulu developed a state in the nineteenth century to meet the military threat posed by Dutch colonists invading their homeland.
Creeping normalcy would take care of the rest of the process. Charismatic power would give way to hereditary, or dynastic, power. We see dynastic power at work even today in our so-called liberal democracies (Bush versus Clinton, Justin Trudeau, etc.) Eventually, this would cement into institutionalized (state) power, such as that seen in Ancient Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, the Ottoman Empire, etc. Elites would adorn themselves with markers of special status, such as gold crowns and jewelry, beginning the long association of gold with wealth, and hence, money. Gold was money because it was worn by elites, no other reason.

Like the apocryphal frog in the pot of boiling water, social dynamics would evolve in such a way that more and more people would live under such despotic systems based on violence and lose their self-sufficiency. Free and open land would disappear under ownership claims. There would be less and less land for foraging, and it would be ever more marginal, supporting fewer people. Inside the walls of the agricultural state, specialists in the use of violence would keep the state growing, so long as people submitted to the will of the ruler. People surrendered their autonomy for comfort.Ownership and private property became markers of status. Wealthy people would cement alliances through associative mating, a behavior which continues down to this very day.

Thus, out of our early "abundance," we would evolve to a system where a small sliver of humanity lived lives of fantastic excess, taking advantage of all the finest art and music and possessing numerous wives and retainers, while the majority of people were desperately poor and malnourished peasants, or maybe even slaves, condemned to be dirt farmers scratching a bare subsistence from the  unforgiving earth.

Marvin Harris concludes:
What I find most remarkable about the evolution of pristine states is that it occurred as the result of an unconscious process: The participants in this enormous transformation seem not to have known what they were creating. By imperceptible shifts in the redistributive balance from one generation to the next, the human species bound itself over into a form of social life in which the many debased themselves on behalf of the exaltation of the few. To paraphrase Malcolm Webb, at the beginning of the lengthy process no one could foresee the end result. "Tribal egalitarianism would gradually vanish even as it was being appended, without awareness of the nature of the change, and the final achievement of absolute control would at that point seem merely a minor alteration of established custom. The consolidation of governmental power would have taken place as a series of natural, beneficial, and only slightly (if at all) extra-legal responses to current conditions, with each new acquisition of state-power representing only a small departure from contemporary practice." By the time the remnants of the old council finally sank into impotence before the rising power the king, no one would remember the time when the king had been only a glorified mumi whose exalted status rested on the charity of his friends and relatives.
As The Ten Thousand Year Explosion puts it:
The advent of agriculture changed life in many ways, not all of them obvious. It vastly increased food production, but the nutritional quality of the food was worse than it had been among hunter-gatherers. It did not materially increase the average standard of living for long, since population growth easily caught up with improvements in food production. Moreover, higher population density, permanent settlements, and close association with domesticated animals greatly increased the prevalence of infectious disease.
The sedentary lifestyle of farming allowed a vast elaboration of material culture. Food, shelter, and artifacts no longer had to be portable. Births could be spaced closer together, since mothers didn’t have to continually carry small children. Food was now storable, unlike the typical products of foraging, and storable food could be stolen. For the first time, humans could begin to accumulate wealth. This allowed for nonproductive elites, which had been impossible among hunter-gatherers. We emphasize that these elites were not formed in response to some societal need: They took over because they could.
Combined with sedentism, these developments eventually led to the birth of governments, which limited local violence. Presumably, governments did this because it let them extract more resources from their subjects, the same reason that farmers castrate bulls. Since societies were generally Malthusian, with population growth limited by decreasing agriculture production per person at higher human density, limits on interpersonal violence ultimately led to a situation in which a higher fraction of the population died of infectious disease or starvation.
These changes took place gradually over enormous spans of time. From Göbekli Tepe to the great bottleneck in the male gene we see about 8,000 BCE was about four thousand years. From that to the large-scale abandonment of villages we saw above in 5,000 BCE was three thousand years. From that the the emergence of Mesopotamian temple complexes and writing about 3,000 BCE was two thousand years. By contrast, the Industrial Revolution is only about two hundred years old. All of it took place long before the advent of writing and historical records.

But the end result was the same all over the world - enormous populations, poor and miserable, engaged in farming, occasionally dying off in famines, engaged in incessant organized warfare against their neighbors, and ruled over by power-hungry sociopathic, aggrandizing elites desperate for status. Welcome to "progress."

Next time we'll take a look at how the redistributive temple complexes gave birth to complex economies with some help from Michael Hudson and David Graeber, and how that development drives our thinking about economics to this day.


  1. Under the Big Men, its not makers and takers, its cooperative work and distribution of products.

    You lose credibility by mentioning Ayn Rand. Her psychopathic ideas bear no relation to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, or Harvey Firestone. Maybe the cruelist of the old southern plantation owners, or ones in Belgian Congo. She actually openly admired a serial killer who was notorious in her time and wrote a sappy paen to him. The bitch was nuts.

    1. It doesn't mean he loses credibility by mentioning her. he didn't do so admiringly.

  2. Awesome summation. I think I'll reblog it. Come over onto Leaving Babylon to discuss!


  3. Thanks for another excellent post.

  4. It's curious there is no mention of talent in this tale of inequality. Just this vague story about one individual outworking everyone else.

    What about the private property? Wasn't it Rousseau who wrote that private property brought about inequality? Private property came about when someone got it in their minds to stake off an area, call it theirs and find people that agreed. It seems Rousseau thought the consent of others was the important part.

    I don't really think you explain anything unless you explain the psychology that leads a group of people to willing subordinate themselves. Freud of course explain it in his short book on mass psychology. Transference, the mental habit of projecting one's fears and fantasies onto power figures explains much.

    First it explains that this story that man lived in freedom and equality until something changed to bring about inequality is just a fanciful idea. Man was never free and cannot be free from his own nature. He is born with a need for authority.

    I think the straight forward explanation of inequality is that men wanted visible gods.

    1. Private property plays a role too. This came about as land was "worked" by people rather than foraged collectively. Since people worked the land, it was seen as fair that they owned it. Once that principle was established, it was then a leap to absentee ownership. Most likely this was accomplished the same way it is today - it's the nature of farming that you need upfront investment in order to produce a future surplus. If that investment is secured via debt and the surplus does unexpectedly not materialize, the farmer can forfeit the land (see the description of mortgage later in the series). Thus debt is used to consolidate land in the hands of an oligarchy. This oligarchy then becomes the ruling class. And because "one must pay one's debts," it all seems fair!

      Absentee ownership is very strange. Wall Street produces nothing. "I don't work, I own," as Gordon Gekko put it. Always seemed absurd to me, but people buy it. I think the visible gods idea is compelling. I think it's the same impulse harnessed by leaders for their own advantage. That's why religious people tend to be more obedient and deferential to authority (I know, I grew up in that environment). We also know that humans do have some built-in tendency for hierarchy as do all social primates - see the last entry in the series.

  5. There is a good reason Marvin Harris is mostly a footnote in the history of anthropology. His grand theories just don't hold up. You could see this even when I was the University of Colorado in the 1980's - and at the time Paul Shankman was head of the Department and the overriding cultural focus was on cultural materialism. Now the head of the department is a biological anthropologist - Bert Covert. This is indicative of where anthropology has been heading in the last 30 years - away from cultural drivers and more towards a Darwinian perspective. I thought Marvin Harris was bosh in the 1980's and I still do today. Bow down to his legacy all you want, but I suggest you read criticisms of his work too.

    1. I think a lot of Harris' work doesn't hold up (that's the nature of social science, esp. social science), but the ideas outlined in that particular chapter seem to accord very well with the evidence as it has come in. That's why I used it as the basis of this post. If you have specific criticisms, you can outline them.


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