The Urban Revolution
We’ve seen that cities grew out of sacred ritual/cultural sites, many of them connected with feasting, built by chiefs/shamans. These centers formed the nucleus of cities even before population growth caused by irrigation and agrarian (plow) agriculture. These forms of agriculture caused not only rapid population growth, but also great differences in wealth, and the emergence of hereditary status.
There are a number of theories or “models” which have been proposed for the emergence of cities in southern Mesopotamia over the years.
Some theories argue that rapid immigration to urban centers was brought about by the transformation of marshland into productive farm fields. People would have fled to the temple complexes seeking work, and this drove the rise of cities. Farmers fleeing adverse environmental conditions like erosion and salinization would have also contributed to this.
Others focus on the emergence of social classes, in particular the priest class which gained a monopoly on intercession between men and the gods, and their managerial role centered in “temple cities.” Occupational specialization (such as potters, carpenters, jewelers, smiths, weavers, merchants, etc.) is also thought to have led to the emergence of class structures.
These managerial elites are often depicted as the world’s first “governments” supported by taxes collected from food producers in the surrounding agricultural villages. Specialized producers of luxury goods would have settled down in cities to be close to their customers and the critical trade routes, the thinking goes. The canal system, and later the invention of oxcarts (probably emerging from chariot technology) made the transport of goods easier, and as trade grew, so too would cities in certain favorable locations. This view sees classes and professions emerging at about the same time, and intimately entwined with the emergence of cities and, later, the state.
At least that’s how the standard story goes. But as we’ve seen, early temple complexes were nothing like states in the modern sense. They did not have the power to tax, nor the power to make binding laws over the whole society. They undertook various pro-social activities for the benefit of the community, but did not control them in a governmental sense. Craft specialists were attached to various households; they were not “separate” professions, as we have today. This is a projection of our modern times onto the past. And there is actually no indication of a “separate” class of managers emerging – there is no distinction made between an office and the person who occupies it. Even the form of buildings in the cities does not differ from that of households on the land, unlike what we would expect to see in the emergence of totally new social structures.
Rather than some new concept called social classes, it makes sense that these transformations would grow out of earlier ones. Early cities were most likely ordered by kinship and householding, not the emergence of separate classes or professions in any modern sense. This is the view of Jason Ur of Harvard University, who sees the urban “revolution” as less of a revolution than initially thought.
In his view, rather than “economic rationality,” or “a radical transition to a bureaucratic organizational structure, in the Weberian sense of the term,” he argues that such changes were “the result of cumulative changes in existing kinship structures.” He writes,
“Far from the adaptive outcome of problem-solving deliberations, the enormous urban agglomerations at Uruk and Tell Brak were the unintended outcome of a relatively simple transformation of a social structure. It is only ‘revolutionary’ to outside observers of the longue durée; to the actors themselves, this transformation fit neatly within existing understandings of the social order.”
In his view, kinship was not supplanted at all, but continued to be the principle organizing factor in social relationships, and not just at the village level. The ruling class was simply one among many influential households, and were still dependent upon maintaining social relationships for their authority.
For example, it’s true that the inhabitants of cities far exceeded Dunbar’s number of 150. This is thought to engender the necessity of a separate “managerial” overclass to coordinate all the activities of the society.
But in a society organized around households, households rarely exceeded 150 people, usually close kin. In addition, households were usually managed by a single “head” of the household. These heads typically managed the activities of, and represented their respective households politically, so it would have not been been difficult for 150 heads to coordinate activities among themselves. In addition, not only would people within the households be ranked by age, seniority, skills and gender (as indeed they still are in modern-day families), but the households themselves would have been ranked against one another by various criteria, such as seniority, lineage, household size, and craft specialization. Temples were also organized on this basis, and would have been just another household in this mix; albeit one that was granted special provisions due to its character as a “public utility” and religious institution. Many of these temple activities have been misconstrued by later historians as the first “governments” or as a proper “state.”
So it’s far more likely in my opinion that this “natural” hierarchy most likely led to the inequality that we see in early cultures than the emergence of some sort of wholly new parasitic ruling class. Indeed, we see similar hierarchical structures even in non-state people who lack any sort of professional bureaucratic organizations. As I’ve alluded to earlier, the “state” was really more of a proto-state; essentially the ruler’s personal household writ large. The impersonal bureaucratic “Westphalian” state model that we associate with the term was a much later invention:
Despite the emphasis on administration and bureaucracy in early state models, the concept of an office, which exists independently of the person occupying it, is…not present in Sumerian or Akkadian. No general term for “office” or “officer” may exist, but administrative roles with various “official” or religious (and often both) duties certainly did exist…individuals (“officials”) who filled these roles attained their positions by virtue of kinship proximity to elites, and retained them through continual maintenance of those relationships…
If bureaucracy was an unknown concept, what then was the structural basis for urban solidarity?…Often it is suggested that kinship remained important mostly in rural areas. To the contrary, kinship, in the metaphorical but meaningful form of the household, remained a durable organizing principle long after the first cities.
This observation was first made by Max Weber, who recognized that polities in the Near East and Egypt were run as royal households, headed by a patrimonial ruler who treated it as his own personal property. These oikoi (singular oikos), as Weber called them, were not capitalistic in motivation; rather, they were entirely focused around the want satisfaction of the patrimonial ruler and were essentially self-sufficient. Weber’s patrimonial state is the opposite of the rational bureaucracy assumed by many earlier models. “In the patrimonial state the most fundamental obligation of the subjects is the material maintenance of the ruler, just as is the case in a patrimonial household; again the difference is only one of degree”. In a patrimonial state, “offices” are flexible and without fixed boundaries. “Powers are defined by a concrete purpose and whose selection is based on personal trust, not on technical qualification… In contrast to bureaucracy, therefore, the position of the patrimonial official derives from his purely personal submission to the ruler, and his position vis-à-vis the subjects is merely the external aspect of this relation”.
Weber wrote at a time when knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages was still rudimentary, but nonetheless his understanding has proven to be remarkably accurate. The standard study of social structure (Gelb 1979) shows the predominance of household organization at multiple scales. The Sumerian term e2 could designate a building, ranging in size from a single room to a palace or a temple, but it could also designate a family or a household; with regard to the latter, “the term ‘household’ extends in meaning to cover social groupings ranging from a small family household living under one roof to a large socio-economic unit, which may consist of owners and/or managers, labor force, domestic animals, residential buildings, shelter for the labor force, storage bins, animal pens, as well as fields, orchards, pastures, and forests”. The Akkadian word for house, bitum, had exactly the same semantic range. For Gelb, this Weberian oikos organization pertained only to large-scale “public” households, most typically those of the palace and temples; alongside of them, and presumably subsumed within them, were “familial households” which were much smaller and kinship-based. Nonetheless, this distinction is absent in the native terminology, which used e2 or bitum for both. Despite its firm grounding in the textual record, Gelb’s oikos model has been largely overlooked by archaeologists, with a few notable exceptions…
In fact, the household was an almost universal structuring metaphor in the pre-Iron Age Near East. .. Societies were structured as a series of interrelated and nested households that varied in scale from nuclear families to institutional households (many of them with a religious component, i.e., “temples”) to the entire polity, which was either the household of the king or of the main god of the its capital city. In Schloen’s “Patrimonial Household Model,” these vertical and horizontal connections between households are not disembedded, as in a bureaucracy. Political organization depended entirely upon the maintenance of personal relations between the king (the “father” or “master” in both Sumerian and Akkadian) and the heads of sub-households (“sons” or “servants”).
As a result, here were real limits to centralized authority. The effective power of the ruler is diluted by his need to exercise authority through subordinates (and their subordinates), whose ‘household’ domains are smaller in scale but similar in structure to his own. As a result, all kinds of private economic activity and jockeying for political and social advantage can take place beyond the ruler’s direct supervision. What looks at first glance like an all-encompassing royal household reveals itself, when viewed from another angle, to be a complex and decentralized hierarchy of households nested within one another and held together by dyadic ‘vertical’ ties between the many different masters and servants who are found at each level of the hierarchy. Such an arrangement was inherently dynamic…
Similar social structures existed in ancient Egypt, where the running of Egypt as the household of the Pharaoh was more obvious:
Pharaonic Egypt was organized around a system of phyles (as called by the Greek invaders). These social units were based on the clan structure of previous tribal society which continued to form the foundation of class society in the post-3000 BC period.
Initially, the administrators of the economy were all related (kin) to the king. As the bureaucracy grew more extensive, non-clan individuals who had demonstrated competence in such activities were drawn upon to serve in the administration of the economic and political arrangements of the kingdom. …Strong evidence exists for an ongoing rotation of work in the service of the king by clan membership, including rotation through the various religious cults and royal mortuary temples. This rotation appears to have been organized around the principle in which a regular portion of the available (male?) labour would have been sent for yearly duties in the king’s service. …the construction of the pyramids was undertaken precisely on this basis …the limited redistribution that existed in the Egyptian economy was organized on the basis of clan membership).
As the economy of the Nile Valley grew more extensive and increasingly interconnected, the organization of society by phyle ‘ . . . allowed the king to maintain a central authority by preventing the growth of rival institutions independent of royal control’. Essentially, the continued dependence on the original tribal structure permitted the continuation of the form of that structure even as the king and priesthood usurped the social control previously exercised by the various clans. In short:
“The phyle system as an institution…played an important role in the development and success of Egyptian kingship in the Old Kingdom. The concept of a centralized government and its attendant bureaucracy . . . developed from the clans and village societies of predynastic Egypt. The evolution of the phyle as an institution parallels the development of the state. Emerging from its original character as a totemic system of clans that served to identify and regulate the personal and family loyalties that form the basis of a primitive society, it developed into a bureaucratic mechanism that organized a large number of people for tasks as varied as building pyramids and washing and dressing the statue of a dead king.”
Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money pp. 87-88
So the emergence of an “impersonal professional bureaucracy” managing society on behalf of a single absolute ruler has little basis in fact. Neither does the emergence of separate classes or professional associations until much later. It is yet another Flintstonization of history.
On Oriental Depotism
Religious and military specialists are invariably depicted in the standard history books as a non-productive overclass that extorted tax contributions by the threat of violence from a hapless peasantry in order to fund their lavish lifestyles, or so we’re told. The rise of this overclass—”macroparasites” in William McNeill’s terminology—far wealthier than the peasants, spawned a demand for luxury goods, hence the establishment of monumental “palatial” architecture, specialized luxury goods, fine art, and long-distance trade. The bureaucrats used writing and mathematics to push around a cowering underclass, which is why we see the development of writing and mathematics at this time.
Here’s a textbook example of the narrative from the book By The Sweat of thy Brow (emphasis mine):
Whatever the details of the “Neolithic Revolution, Gordon Childe’s famous phrase, it had by 3000 B.C. transformed the egalitarian communities of the earlier Stone Age, in the advanced food-producing regions, to totally different social structures. In these the masses of the people were reduced to servile status and kept economically at subsistence level by the systematic expropriation of their surplus production for the benefit of a small class of kings, noble warriors, and priests, and to support the army and the bureaucracy (whose chief function was tax collecting, in other words, expropriating the surpluses). Class division, representing a division of labor, thus became the foundation of the social structure. As the elite groups at the top continued to concentrate wealth in their own hands they inspired still more specialists to come into existence to serve their increasingly sophisticated needs. Besides potters, weavers, armorers, and metalworkers, there now appeared clerks or scribes, possessing the mysterious arts of writing and mathematics. In the irrigation civilizations the large agricultural surpluses called into being a class of merchants, in whose train lawyers and other auxiliaries of commerce followed.
Such “despotism” is usually contrasted to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, with it’s lack of centralized governments and class divisions, which were based on private ownership and individuals striving in markets, eventually leading to Western capitalism. Yet we now know that chattel slavery only played a very minor role in Asian economies, mostly in domestic work. Most prisoners of war were maimed or killed, not enslaved, as the technology to hold large ethnic groups in permanent subjugation simply did not exist in the Bronze Age. In fact, the first societies where slavery was critical to the functioning of the overall economy were the “freedom-loving” Western economies of Greece and Rome! Certainly “free market” capitalism before 1860 had far more slaves (including “indentured servant” debt slaves) than the “despotic” systems of the ancient Near East. Most unfree labor was due to debt servitude, rather than systematic oppression from elites. The Sumerian word for slavery made no distinction between these various forms of unfree labor.
The emergence of of priests and bureaucrats is depicted in most history books as the emergence of a new class practically overnight, bullying the productive classes, stealing all their money, and forcing them into permanent servitude to build the temples and monuments which served little purpose besides aggrandizing themselves.
This inevitably leads to an obvious question when modern-day people read this: why would ancient people have allowed this to happen? What were they thinking? It’s depicted as some sort of great mystery and endless speculation has been devoted to the emergence of the “state” which is depicted as a useless development serving no purpose whatsoever.
This “mystery” comes from an ignorance of how such people saw their own culture. It’s also heavily corrupted by the ideas promulgated by the modern-day religion of economics. For example, the economist Robert Allen writes: “it is difficult to discern any productive contribution that the Pharaoh, the priesthood, or the aristocracy made. The main function of the Pharaonic state was to transfer a considerable fraction of the income produced by Egypt’s farmers to an unproductive aristocracy.”
But there is no evidence whatsoever that the people themselves saw their societies this way.
Is it so hard to see the bureaucratic and managerial activities performed by priests and scribes as having a pro-social purpose, or at the very least, the perception on the part of society that that their activities served a pro-social purpose? The idea that leaders kept the majority of people at the permanent edge of starvation while seizing nearly every last morsel for themselves is hard to square with the historical evidence.
In fact, we saw that the activities performed by centralized chiefs did allow for economic expansion that would not be possible at village-level societies. We’ve already seen the need for specialization and allocation of goods was enabled by such redistribution-fishing villages gave donations of excess fish, farming villages excess grain, and each received the fish and grain that they could not produce themselves. We also saw how such networks wold have provided a safety net–some villages may have had a bumper crop, others a bad harvest, while redistribution networks would have made sure no one went without. For example, the Inka redistribution system of storehouses was so efficient and abundant that even its detractors acknowledge that poverty was unknown in the empire (per Charles Mann’s 1491). Skilled craftsmen engaged by chieftains engaged in specialized labor such as pottery, metalsmithing and weaving, often as a form of public welfare provision. Long-distance trade has been managed by elites from the very beginning using their social connections as a way to acquire and maintain social standing.
As for the monuments, there is no evidence whatsoever that they were built through coercion. This was most likely a misconception caused by depictions of the enslavement of Jews in the Bible coupled with the staggering size of such monuments. “Only slaves could have built such things,” went the logic, “and we know there were plenty of slaves back then because the Bible tells us there were!”
The modern-day economic priesthood sees any and all work as a “disutility” needing either the threat of force or the reward of money to coax people to lift a finger, since all people are inherently “lazy” by nature (very similar to Judeo-Christian concepts seeing mankind as “fallen” and “sinful”). Since there were apparently no labor markets as we know them, the thinking went, all such work must have been coerced, leading to “Oriental Despotism.” After all, where else would all those ancient monuments and irrigation works come from? But are people truly as inherently “lazy” as economists depict them?
It’s hard to square this with the evidence. Would lazy people have built Göbekli Tepe, with its massive T-shaped carved stone pillars of several tons apiece? Would lazy people have transported the stones of Stonehenge 160 miles? Would they have erected standing stones in the Orkney islands? Would lazy people have erected hundreds of Moai on remote Easter Island?
In fact, all the evidence shows that the people who built these ancient monuments did so voluntarily as a way to define and assert their cultural identity. Besides, ancient “despots” would not have had access to the necessary force to compel people to do these things if they didn’t want to. Nor they could they have “paid” people when the means of subsistence were freely available to all. Metals were very rare in this time period. Are we expected to believe that massive amounts of labor were coerced by aggrandizing elites wielding nothing more than stone spears and flint knives? The amount of metal used by ancients at this time probably could not forge even a single chain, much less enough chains to enslave an entire population as depicted in the Cecil B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments. Michael Hudson writes:
No doubt maintaining Neolithic practice, corvee activities had to attract and hold their participants. For Babylonia, Richardson cites rulers emphasizing their efforts to promote “public joy” in corvee projects by “invest[ing] such occasions with an atmosphere of feasting and plenty. This made the tasks “something closer to a prebend, an opportunity; a festival” with the benefit of group membership and identity. Indeed, he asks:
“Would it even be possible to create a corps of ‘forced,’ , to semi-free’ laborers to toil under adverse conditions-for no more than one week a year? Would workers who had toiled for 150 days of the year in the dirt and mud to grow barley for state and bare survival choose to resent a few days of collective labor, in the company of neighbors and with the prospect of feasting and song? Should we really imagine teams of tens of thousands groaning under the weight of massive building blocks under the stern eyes of whip-wielding overseers, when the average work .. account text deals with teams of workers numbering fewer than two hundred?”
Richardson estimates that institutional building work in Babylonia “only comes to something like 40% of the farming work'” needed for families on the land to produce their own sustenance- ‘not more than a week of’ work compared to six months of farming.”And most corvee labor was seasonal so as not to interfere with the crop cycle. In Egypt, the workers’ town housing the specialized labor force that “worked hard on the pyramids (such as moving megaliths)” was, in Lehner’s description, “a rather elite place of high-status royal service and possibly higher-quality” recompense than recruits might have known in their home districts.
Labor in the Ancient World, pp. 652-653
This was also exacerbated by the unfortunate choice of the term “rations” to initially transcribe the cuneiform texts. This choice has been lamented by Orientalists ever since. It implies a bare minimum of food from a severely limited supply, as if workers were the inhabitants of a particularly nasty concentration camp or gulag. But these “rations” were often quite generous and far beyond bare subsistence. Modern Assyriologists prefer to describe these as “salaries” or “wages” instead. Professor Piotr Steinkeller writes of ancient Larsa: “National building projects were an extremely important tool of political and cultural integration,” a “nation-building” effort instilling an idea of protonational solidarity as workers came to think of themselves as “fellow members of a united Babylonia.” Similarly, Sir Leonard Wooley writes of Egypt, “The building of the colossal tombs of the Egyptian kings was as much an ac of faith as was the building of the great cathedrals of mediaeval [sic] Europe, and its object was not simply to minister to the vainglory of the ruler but to take out, as it were, an insurance policy for the country.” (The Beginnings of Civilization, p. 324)
As for taxes, were these really “extorted” from an unwilling population by the constant threat of violence as we’ve been led to believe by the history books? Again, there is really no evidence of this.
First, it should be noted that taxes were paid by villages and households, not by individuals. Rather than taking all the surplus, taxes were actually assessed based on the harvests. Egyptians used a device called a Nilometer to measure Nile flooding, and assessed taxes accordingly–A poor harvest meant lower taxes. In this, they may be more generous than modern states—thanks to concepts like “national debt,” taxes often become more onerous in times of economic hardship, not less. In addition, since households on the land usually produced what they needed internally for direct use, there was little individual surplus to tax in any case. These were not market-based consumer economies like our own.
Additionally, the payment of taxes was couched not only as a social, but also as a religious duty. Even today, churches promote tithing (as described in the Bible), and many people gladly hand over a tenth of their income with no coercion whatsoever. And it’s likely they get much less benefit to this arrangement than people get from official duties to nation-states.
This is the so-called Managerial Model of state formation. Many Egyptolgists see the establishment of the Egyptian “state” emerging out of these activities. Peter Turchin, in this blog post, describes the managerial (or functional) model (while at the same time dismissing it):
The theories underlying (explicitly or implicitly) the discussions of the Egyptian state by Egyptologists that I have read so far are resolutely functionalist. ..I am going to base my discussion on an article by Fekri Hassan, “The Predynastic of Egypt,” published in 1988 in Journal of World Prehistory, because Hassan makes very explicit the conceptual underpinnings of his model. …Here’s what Hassan says:
” the process leading to the state was set in motion by factors inherent in the socioecology of agricultural production. Attempts to dampen the effects of agricultural fluctuations by pooling the resources of neighboring communities led ultimately to the emergence of the chiefs. Further enlargement of the economic unit led to a hierarchy of chiefs and the emergence of regional political units. Legitimation of power led to an emphasis on funerary offerings and status goods. This political technology stimulated trade. Skirmishes with “Libyan” and “Asiatic” raiders provided a raison d’etre for “military” power and added to the image of chiefs as keepers of world order.”
Note that warfare (“skirmishes with raiders”) plays decisively secondary, if not tertiary role in the process of state formation.
There are two problems with the Hassan hypothesis. The first one is that it goes against everything we know about people living in small-scale egalitarian societies (here I follow Chris Boehm, e.g. his Hierarchy in the Forest). Hassan says
“In its initial stages, the people were able to see the material benefits of representatives and cooperation. The chiefs also had to work harder than others to maintain their position.”
And a couple of pages later:
“The representative may have thus acquired by group consent and support a political power—the ability to act upon the actions of others. … The increase in the power of chiefs probably resulted from the continued benefits to the community resulting from their managerial activities. The extension of the group interaction over larger territories is likely to have led to the rise of a hierarchy of chiefs.”
The problem with functionalist explanations like this one is that it proposes an end point of an evolutionary process in which a new structure arises that fulfills a certain function—in this case, dampening the effects of agricultural fluctuations by integrating many villages within a large-scale society with managerial elites that can take surpluses from one area and direct them to where shortages are. But this explanation does not propose a plausible mechanism of how we get to this end point.
In fact, egalitarian societies are very resistant to the idea of creating permanent chiefs and endowing them with structural power to order everybody else around. Furthermore, the chiefs themselves would be less than eager to submit to the power of a paramount chief above them. Even today, and in dire straits, people coming from egalitarian societies find it extremely difficult to constitute and uphold hierarchies….why should we expect that ancient Egyptians would willingly give up autonomy and submit to the rule of chiefs? This is not just a theoretical argument. By Naqada IIIC (Dynasty I) the rulers of Egypt practiced massive human sacrifices. That’s what happens when you submit to chiefs and kings. It’s almost better to starve during a periodic famine than become a powerless peasant in a despotic archaic state.
Evolution of the Egyptian State – The Managerial Model (Cliodynamica)
Turchin’s favored models focus exclusively on martial explanations for state formation. But as we’ve extensively seen in the past few posts, such societies went through a long transegalitarian period before the emergence of hierarchical societies. The road to hereditary managerial aristocracies would have been paved by the long transegalitarian phase preceding it. The feasting theory does, in fact, provide a plausible model of how we get to such a point. Redistributive chiefdoms have been extensively documented all over the world, complete with monumental architecture, craft specialization, trade networks, and pyramidal levels of hierarchy (paramount chiefs, subchiefs, clan elders, etc.). It’s hard to account for this by warfare alone.
It’s far more simple to explain the emergence of proto-states by seeing them as a mutual social contract rather than the establishment of blatantly exploitative relationships by a parasitic minority as depicted in most history books. Over time this social contact became more and more lopsided, to be sure, but it makes it far easier to understand the emergence of such social structures in the first place by seeing them as 1) perceived at least in the beginning as being pro-social, and 2.) emerging out of existing organic relationships rather than being the result of entirely new ones.
Part of this distorted perception comes from the discipline of economics, which is inherently hostile to the very idea of a social contract. Instead, it sees society as nothing more than countless transactions between isolated individuals. But ancient people did see themselves so much as individuals but as members of various groups.
Besides, is the lopsided relationship between primary producers and managerial elites really so hard to understand?
For example, consider the banking and investor classes of modern-day capitalism. They justify their outsized rewards and staggering wealth by claiming that only they can “allocate capital” appropriately, and through such activities, each and every single one of us is made better off! They claim that if capital was allocated by, say, democratic consensus instead of private individuals, it would inevitably be “wasted” and “misallocated.” “Only we,” the bankers proclaim, “and we alone, have the talent and skills to accomplish this task!!” In this, they are perennially backed up and reinforced by the religion of economics, which argues that institutions of collective governance are always rife with “cronysim,” and that “central planning” is always a recipe for disaster (if not dictatorship, c.f. Hayek).
In fact, we clearly see that more and more of this capital is being “allocated” to support their own lavish lifestyles-exotic vacations, exclusive mansions, private jets and helicopters, palatial condos, rare artwork, luxury goods like sportscars, jewelry, watches and handbags, expensive suits, cocktail parties, and lavish weddings and graduation parties for their offspring that cost more than the average person’s yearly salary.
And yet, in spite of all of this, the bankers and executives still claim that their activities are not only necessary, but pro-social! Take away our ‘incentives’ they say, and society will fall back to a more primitive level. “Only we have the ‘special skills’ to do this work,” they claim, just as the ancient rulers claimed to have “special powers” to intercede with the gods and maintain the social order. In fact, during our latest financial crisis, one CEO banker famously claimed to be doing “God’s work”–most likely word-for word the exact same phrase uttered by the pharaohs, kings, princes and potentates of past eras. Has anything really changed?
Yet do we “rise up” and correct this? Why, then, would we expect ancient people to so? Are we really so radically different than the peasants of past eras?
Just like as the temple scribes and priests used their insider knowledge of writing and mathematics to maintain their privileged position vis-a-vis the rest of society in the ancient world, so too do modern bankers use their knowledge of the complex and opaque banking system to bamboozle the public and claim that only they have the “highly specialized knowledge” to manage the economy. In both instances, specialists make recourse to esoteric knowledge unavailable to the common people.This would have made even more sense in ancient times, when only the scribes and priests could manipulate the symbols of mathematics and writing required to maintain the activities of the government bureaucracy, unlike today where literacy and numeracy are commonplace.
After all, were not the households of redistributive chieftains not also “allocating capital”? Would they, too, not justify a earning premium on such “pro-social” activities, exactly as do today’s banking and investor elites? Is not the control and management of labor and resources the key factor in both? Today’s bankers constantly make reference to their brilliance and their “talent.” The average person could not possibly do these things, they argue. “Just trust us,” they say, “our activities are absolutely indispensable to the smooth running of the economy.” By performing this role, they say, we “deserve” to earn these outsized rewards. After all, we are doing “God’s Work!” Furthermore, they claim that without them and their managerial prowess, society would descend into chaos; “misrule” as the ancient Egyptian leaders called it.
Over time, more and more capital would be kept and less and less redistributed as the wealth of society grew. This wealth would have been increasingly diverted into the coffers of the managerial elites in order to maintain their lavish living standards. But again, this is no different than modern-day society. Eventually those who kept the least and redistributed the most became those who kept the most and redistributed the least. But that is long way from describing elites as merely “parasites” who played no role whatsoever in the emergent social order besides collecting taxes and whipping slaves in order to build stone monuments for purely egotistical purposes.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that ancient proto-states were always benign and never despotic. Or even that they were “necessary” in an objective sense. However, it doesn’t seem as though the people of these societies felt as though they were being “oppressed” any more than most people do under modern-day capitalism (which is to say, somewhat). Most routine activates took place at the village and household levels, and must have gone on relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Nor does it seem like the leaders coerced most behaviors from their citizens, acted in cruel and arbitrary ways towards them, or “enslaved” them in any way. Respect seems to have been mostly given voluntarily, as it is towards today’s heads of state.
Collective festivals and rituals must have reinforced this spirit. No doubt threats to the “stability” of the social order were dealt with swiftly and harshly, but again, that is no different than modern states. I can find few tales of widespread and arbitrary cruelty or coercion on that part of these “despotic” leaders in any account. Rather, harshness and cruelty was reserved towards members of various “out groups.” There are many stomach-churning accounts of the horrible and shocking things victorious armies would do to the vanquished in many ancient accounts; all one has to do is read the Bible for examples of that. But internally, if one was member of the “in-group,” it appears that the “Oriental Despotism” of ancient rulers may have been greatly exaggerated, again often to discredit the idea collective governance. In any case, it would have been far easier to “run away” during this time period if one had wished to than it is in modern-day capitalist societies where all empty lands are filled and widespread private ownership greatly limits the ability for self-sufficiency.
In fact, often times governments acted a curb on the rapacious behavior of “private” elites. Debt slavery was a major driver of inequality in ancient societies-conflicts between creditor and debtor classes became endemic throughout the ancient world. “Populist” leaders appear often in history, claiming to restore the balance between the first “one-percent” and everyone else. In fact, we see “oppression” more often as the result of the activities of “private” individuals rather than governments! A prominent example is given by one of the first law codes in history, that of the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu. He writes of the corruption and abusive practices he put an end to and decrees “equity in the land”:
“…After An and Enlil had turned over the Kingship of Ur to Nanna, at that time did Ur-Nammu, son born of Ninsun, for his beloved mother who bore him, in accordance with his principles of equity and truth… Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep, and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure, standardized the one-mina weight, and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina… The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.”
Very commonly, new rulers would declare a “clean slate” upon their ascension to leadership, annulling previous debts. The famous law-giving king Hammurabi did so, for example. He declared amdurarum (debt annulment) upon taking the throne. This hardly seems like “oppressive” behavior to me.
The key, then, to understanding past structures is to look at today’s. We are fundamentally the same creatures, with the same brains and social instincts, despite our increased technological capabilities. Our technological ability compounds over time, building on previous discoveries, but our social structure is largely limited by how our brains work. Over the past few centuries, our technological evolution has far outstripped our social evolution, as noted by many commentators including Edward O. Wilson:
“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
― Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth
In fact, the difference in lifestyles between our executive and banking classes is likely far greater than that between the peasants and the rulers of past eras. For example, the bonus of bankers in one year in the United States–just the bonuses , mind you, not the actual salaries–was greater than the combined income of all of every single minimum wage worker in the country-our modern-day equivalent of serfs. Its doubtful that Egyptian royalty could claim the same. Forty million children in the U.S go to bed hungry every night, yet one single hedge fund manager will “earn” over a billion–1000 million-dollars in a single year, even while sleeping and going to the toilet. Would early “despots” have gotten away with such disparities in wealth? And yet we tell ourselves that we are somehow more “advanced” than these ancient societies. Really???
So it’s not hard to figure this out – it’s just the same old manipulation of the social logic, and we are just as susceptible as people thousands of years ago, despite us telling ourselves that we are all much too “smart” and “rational” to fall for any of that that stuff in our high-tech modern era of “science” and “reason.”
Is it so hard to understand why ancient peoples put up with the lavish lifestyles and sybaritic excesses of their ruling elites? Why did they? It is more appropriate to ask, rather, why do we? Answer that question and we have definitively solved the “mystery” of state formation once and for all.