The Feasting Theory – Part 4 – From Chiefdoms to States

In our previous posts, we looked at how feasting may have led from informal Big Men to hereditary chiefs.

Brian Hayden’s analysis does not explain how chiefdoms may have developed further along into what archaeologists call “pristine” states. Pristine states are the earliest states. They did not have other states to look to for examples; they had to develop everything on their own from scratch. Later on, “secondary” states form due to their exposure to earlier states. Sometimes they are also called “competitive” states because they form in response to completion from established states.

Marvin Harris, in his book “Cannibals and Kings” speculates as to a gradual process by which this may have occurred. He starts out with Big Men feasting as described by the Feasting Theory, then progressing to “redistributor” chiefs” brought about by increasing warfare, eventually leading to true kings, where the king is the nominal “owner” of the land, and a feudal/peonage system developed where power flows down from the ruler through a branching hierarchy of intermediaries. More and more of the redistributed wealth is retained by the king’s household and invested in “image-building” activities like a formal retinue of retainers and advisors, palace guards, a full-time priesthood, skilled craftsmen, and large-scale building projects. An administrative bureaucracy is established to manage the king’s interests in regards to labor management and taxation. Taxes are collected and law and order is enforced. The entire state is the king’s personal household. Out of such “patrimonial” states develop states and empires proper.

In the absence of a formal theory that takes us from feasting to states, I will combine Harris’ ideas with my own to speculate on how this may have happened.

First, we must define what we mean by states. Here, I will define something I call state capacity. When most or all of the features of state capacity are present, we can then be said to have a formal state. State capacity waxes and wanes over time; when state capacity withers or disappears altogether, we can be said to have a collapse.

These are my (somewhat arbitrary) determinants of State Capacity.

  • The ability to manage and conduct large-scale warfare.
  • The ability to make binding laws and enforce them.
  • The adjudication of disputes in a fair and impartial manner.
  • The ability to guarantee the personal safety of average citizen.
  • The ability to undertake diplomacy, pay war reparations, and negotiate peace treaties.

The above concepts are often grouped together and described as the state having a monopoly on violence. In addition, we can name several more related to the economic sphere:

  • The ability to conduct long distance trade.
  • The ability to regulate commercial transactions (leading to markets).
  • The ability to set standardized weights and measures (e.g. a price schedule and a unit of account that eventually evolves into a universal currency i.e. money).
  • The ability to collect taxes and redistribute wealth and resources throughout the territory.
  • The ability to organize and undertake large-scale communal labor projects for the benefit of society as a whole (e.g. temples, roads, canals, flood embankments, civic buildings, monuments, defensive works, aqueducts, etc.).
  • Control over certain critical key resources–the “commanding heights” of the economy, such as forests or mines.
  • The ability to make provisions for the unfortunate, often expressed as providing for the general welfare (widows, orphans, the disabled, war veterans, the ill, and so forth).

And we can add spiritual factors as well:

  • In previous (pre-Enlightenment) societies, the ability to undertake religious functions to intercede with the gods or ancestors on behalf of the whole society.

All of these functions rest on claims of legitimacy. In the past, legitimacy seems to have always derived some sort of divine sanction, whether from gods or ancestors. Religious concepts are what bound society together–the word religion comes from the Latin word ligare, meaning “to bind together.” In some cases, the priest caste ruled directly (as in Mesopotamia); in others, there was some sort of connection between religious and secular authorities, such as between a priesthood and a ruler as in Egypt.

In post-Enlightenment societies, however, as in certain classical formations, legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed, although divine sanction still played a role (e.g Rome had a state religion and a high priest [Pontifex Maximus], Greek cities had a patron deity, such as Athena for Athens). Because the state is not kinship-based, it needs to claim legitimacy, and uses religion to do so. This religious claim may grow out of the supernatural descent claims of certain paramount chiefs who constructed temples to validate their relationship to the gods. In some states, as Egypt, the ruler may be seen as divine, in others, acting on behalf of the gods, and in others, as simply a leader with a good pedigree. The state religion is the endgame of the spiritual beliefs extending all the way back to cultic ritual centers like Göbekli Tepe and before that, the candle-lit caves of Chauvet and Lascaux.

…virtually every other state has relied on religion to legitimate itself. The founding myths of the Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese states all trace the regime’s ancestry back to a divinity, or at least to a semidivine hero. Political power in early states cannot be understood apart from the religious rituals that the ruler controlled and used to legitimate his power. (OPO: 88)

Francis Fukuyama defines a state in the following terms:

First, they possess a centralized source of authority, whether in the form of a king, president of prime minister. The source of authority deputizes a hierarchy of subordinates who are capable, at least in principle, of enforcing the rules on the whole of the society. The source of authority trumps all others within its territory, which means that it is sovereign. All administrative levels, such as lesser chiefs, prefects, or administrators, derive their decision-making authority from their formal association with the sovereign.

Second, that source of authority is backed by a monopoly on all the legitimate means of coercion, in the form of an army and/or police. The power of the state is sufficient to prevent segments, tribes, or regions from seceding or otherwise separating themselves (This is what distinguishes a state from a chiefdom.)

Third, the authority of the state is territorial rather than kin based. Thus France was not really a state in Merovingian times when it was led by a king of the Franks rather than the king of France. Since membership in a state does not depend on kinship, it can grow much larger than a tribe.

Fourth, states are far more stratified and unequal than tribal societies, with the ruler and his administrative staff often separating themselves off from the rest of society. In some cases they become a hereditary elite. Slavery and serfdom, while not unknown in tribal societies, expand enormously under the aegis of states.

Finally, states are legitimized by much more elaborate forms of religious belief, with a separate priestly caste as its guardian. Sometimes that priestly class takes power directly, in which case the state is a theocracy; sometimes it is controlled by a secular ruler, in which case it is labeled caesaropapist; and sometimes it coexists with secular rule under some form of power sharing.

With the development of the state, we exit out of kinship into the realm of political development proper…Once states come into being, kinship becomes an obstacle to political development, since it threatens to return political relationships to the small-scale, personal ties of tribal societies. It is therefore not enough to develop a state; the state must avoid retribalization or what I label repatrimonialization. (OPO: 80-81)

For Fukuyama, the critical feature of the state is that it is not based on kinship, or recourse to kinship, unlike the tribal and chiefdom political arrangements we’ve already seen. In fact, kinship ties actually impede effective state formation, and thus are constantly having to be suppressed or mitigated for the state to function properly. Fukuyama calls this “The Tyranny of Cousins.” It’s notable that in instances of state collapse, such relationships often come back to the fore. Fukuyama see the Chinese state, with its vast impersonal bureaucracy chosen by  merit rather than family ties (nepotism), as the first true state in the modern sense:

…the state that emerged in China was far more modern in Max Weber’s sense than any of its counterparts elsewhere. the Chinese created a uniform, multilevel administrative bureaucracy, something that never happened in Greece or Rome. The Chinese developed an explicit antifamilistic political doctrine, and its early rulers sought to undermine the power of entrenched families and kinship groups in favor of impersonal administration. This state engaged in a nation-building project that created a powerful and uniform culture, a culture powerful enough to withstand two millennia of political breakdown and external invasion. The Chinese political and cultural space extended over a far larger population that that of the Romans. The Romans ruled an empire, limiting citizenship initially to a relatively small number of people on the Italian peninsula. While that empire eventually stretched from Britain to North Africa to Germany to Syria, it consisted of a heterogeneous collection of peoples who were allowed a considerable degree of self-rule. By contrast, even though the Chinese monarch called himself an emperor rather than a king, he ruled over something that looked much more like a kingdom or even a state in its uniformity. (OPO: 92-93)

This is in contrast to other locations, where:

In China, the state was consolidated before other social actors could institutionalize themselves, actors like a hereditary, territorially based aristocracy, an organized peasantry, cities based on a merchant class, churches, or other autonomous groups. Unlike in Rome, the Chinese military remained firmly under the state’s control and never posed an independent threat to its political authority. This initial skewering of the balance of power was locked in for a long period, since the mighty state could act to prevent the emergence of alternative sources of power, both economic and political…Unlike China and like Europe, India’s institutionalization of countervailing social actors–an organized priestly class and the metastacization of kinship structures into the caste system–acted as a brake on the accumulation of power by the state. The result was that over the past twenty-two hundred years, China’s default political mode was a unified empire punctuated by periods of civil war, invasion, and breakdown, whereas India’s default mode was a disunited system of petty political units, punctuated by brief periods of unity and empire. (OPO: 93-94)

Let’s take a look at some of Marvin Harris’ theories on state formation:

Redistribution: Harris speculates that early states developed out of redistributive chiefdoms. In these chiefdoms, the leader (typically a paramount chief)  takes in the surplus production of the whole society–subsistence farmers, households and other corporate groups and redistributes it across the wider society through intermediaries by maintaining a series of storehouses. The chief uses a portion of the surplus to manage and undertake large-scale efforts on behalf of the whole society, such as undertaking long-distance trade to procure distant commodities, building temples to the culture’s major deities, supporting full-time religious specialists, leading military efforts, and supporting specialized craftsmen and artisans out of his household (e.g. weavers and smiths). Chiefs also used a portion of the surpluses to maintain a specialized caste of warriors (specialists in violence) for territorial conquest and defense.

Redistribution was also done to take care of the “unfortunates”—people who fell on hard times, had no family or clan, or whose families could not care for them for some reason such as widows, orphans, war veterans, the elderly, the disabled, etc. Often times such people were put to work by the chief in specialized tasks; for example, the blind often became bards, and widows and orphans wove textiles. In this way, taking care of people who fell on hard times would have been a common pro-social expectation provided by elites and expected by the commoners.

In these cases, feasting was no longer necessary to gain “prestige,” since there was no longer any dispute over formal leadership roles or dynastic succession. Chiefs still redistributed the surplus, but it was no longer through feasting. Rather the undertaking of long-distance raids and the building of great monuments and temples would take its place. Feasting still occurred, however, under the guise of religious holidays. The dates of these public festivals were determined by the managerial elites using the astronomical calendar and served the former purposes of communal feasting  such as reaffirming cultural identity and deploying large amounts of communal labor, as Piotr Steinkeller describes:

…it is generally recognized that in the ancient and premodern societies feasts constituted an exceedingly important strategy to mobilize labor for public projects. As stated by Michael Dietler and Ingrid Herbich at the outset of their exhaustive study of this subject, “The use of feasts to mobilize collective labor has been a widespread and fundamental economic practice of societies around the world. In fact, variants of the practice are so strikingly omnipresent in the ethnographic and historical literature that a good case can be made for acknowledging it both as virtually a universal feature among the agrarian societies and as nearly exclusive means of mobilizing large voluntary work projects before the spread, of the monetary economy and the capitalist accommodation of labor and creation of a wage labor market.”

These authors argue for the need of a fully theorized understanding of the specific range of practices that enable voluntary labor to be mobilized on a scale above the household level, how the possibility for labor exploitation inheres [sic] in some of these practices, and, crucially, the ways that feasting operates as a mechanism of conversation within this realm. ” They further define “work feast” as “a particular form of the ’empowering feast’ mode in which commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labor.’ Although Dietler and Herbich focus on the feast as a means to mobilize voluntary labor for communal works, it is certain that their conclusions are equally applicable to the societies in which participation in such operations was outright obligatory or, at the very least, sanctioned by Custom ‘such as the Mesopotamian and Egyptian ones. Even though the builders of Tummal and the pyramids of Giza were compelled by their governments to work on these projects, the expectation of communal feasts must have been an important inducement for them to work on such undertakings with a positive attitude. (LIW: 200-201)

Harris believes these redistributor chiefs eventually became so powerful that they became kings:

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 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. (C&K: 113)

The entire society becomes, in essence, one giant “household” under the command of the redistributor chief, whose lineage becomes the ruling family and whose headman becomes a hereditary “king” (ancient Egypt provides an example of this model).

Harris names several other factors that would lead to state formation:

Hydraulics – One of the earliest theories of state formation was proposed by Karl Wittfogel back in the nineteenth century. He noted that all early states were in places of scant rainfall and hence were dependent upon massive irrigation works for their food production. He argued that the managers of such projects were the first elites, and the bureaucracy required to build and maintain such large-scale projects were the first governments. He also argued that the control such leaders exercised over water made them “despotic” because they had exclusive control over the critical resource (water) that the rest of the society needed to survive. This led him to concepts such as “Oriental Despotism” and an “Asiatic Mode of Production,” that had a big impact on Karl Marx’s materialistic theories, which argued that the social structure of any given society derived primarily from the mode of production of its food and goods.

“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…”

Wittfogel’s ideas have fallen out of favor, due to the discovery that the canals were managed on the village, not the state, level. His theories were also heavily criticized by later archaeologists, notably Karl Butzer. However, the need for much closer levels of cooperation and coordination would have clearly been necessitated by canal usage, and it would have required much more complex bureaucracy than the simple farming societies which were governed by chiefdoms with scant bureaucracy. Thus, irrigation no doubt must have played at least some sort of role in the rising complexity of early Near Eastern societies, which certainly had knock-on effects on incipient state formation. Marvin Harris at least partially endorses Wittfogel’s theory:

In my opinion, the actual record of discoveries made by archaeologists has consistently favored the hydraulic theory. When the theory was first formulated, almost nothing was known about the conditions that had given rise to the agro-managerial states and empires of the New World. Wittfogel stimulated the first attempt by archaeologists in the late 1930’s to detect the presence of irrigation during the formative phases of native states in South America. Recent work by archaeologists at Columbia University and Harvard continue to support the view that the growth of cities, states, and monumental architectures in the pre-Columbian cultures of highland and coastal Peru grew step-by-step with an increase in the size and complexity of their irrigation systems. Excavations carried out in Mesoamerica by William Sanders and Richard MacNeish have also tended to confirm the importance of irrigation. As I showed in an earlier chapter, hydraulic agriculture was the basic source of subsistence for Teotihuacan and for the Aztec’s cannibal kingdom. (C&K: 245)

It’s notable that the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Ukraine has been “lost” to history because it never crossed over the threshold of becoming a true large empire or state from chiefdom level, despite settled agricultural villages and population density equivalent to that of ancient Mesopotamia. Could this be because agriculture was rain-fed rather than irrigated?  Some estimates (although disputed) have the “cities” of this culture as the largest on earth at one point.

Cereals – All the early centralized states arose where cereal grain cultivation was practiced – wheat and barley in the Middle East, millet and rice in China and India, maize and quinoa in the Americas. Places which primarily grew fruits, tubers or legumes did not become more stratified than chiefdoms.

A recent paper argued that this was because the latter types of foods were fairly perishable, and hence not readily “approriable.” Cereal grains, by contrast, were easy to appropriate by would-be leaders; they were easily moved around and stored for very long periods of time, contributing to incipient state formation:

…consider a hypothetical community of farmers who cultivate cassava (a major source of calories in sub-Saharan Africa, and the main crop cultivated in Nigeria), and assume that the annual output is well above subsistence. Cassava is a perennial root that is highly perishable upon harvest. Since this crop rots shortly after harvest, it isn’t stored and it is thus difficult to steal or confiscate. As a result, the assumed available surplus would not facilitate the emergence of a non-food producing elite, and may be expected to lead to a population increase.

Consider now another hypothetical farming community that grows a cereal grain – such as wheat, rice or maize – yet with an annual produce that just meets each family’s subsistence needs, without any surplus. Since the grain has to be harvested within a short period and then stored until the next harvest, a visiting robber or tax collector could readily confiscate part of the stored produce. Such ongoing confiscation may be expected to lead to a downward adjustment in population density, but it will nevertheless facilitate the emergence of non-producing elite, even though there was no surplus.

Cereals, appropriability, and hierarchy (VoxEU)

In the case of the Trobriand Islanders, for example, their method of food gathering made the emergence of despotic elites less likely to occur:

…even though they feared and respected their “great provider” war chiefs, the Trobriand commoners were still a long way from being reduced to peasant status. 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. But with more intense forms of agricuture and large harvests of grains, the power of “great providers” evolved far beyond that of the Trobriand chief. (C&K: 110)

Impaction – The areas where the first states arose were all surrounded by areas of sharply reduced productivity. Egypt was confined to a narrow strip along the Nile surrounded by vast and inhospitable deserts. Mesopotamia outside of the river valleys was surrounded by pastoral nomads, mountains, deserts, and other conditions unsuitable for intensive agriculture on a large scale. Similar conditions are found in the river valleys of China, India, Mexico and Peru. Harris argues for Carneiro’s circumscription theory

Under what circumstances would the conversion of a redistributive chieftainship to a feudal state be likely to occur? To intensification, population growth, warfare, storable grains, and hereditary redistributors, add one more factor: impaction. Suppose, as Robert Carneiro 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 to these zones.

Very little 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 or 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 assimilated 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.

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…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 deserts or at least very dry zones. The dependence of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India in the flood plains of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus is well-known. In ancient China conditions of climate, soil, and topography limited intensive forms of agriculture beyond the river margins of the Yellow River Basin. Central highland Mexico south to Tehuantepec is also dry and in addition “suffers from severe rain shadow effects in the highland basins and stream valleys that were the aboriginal population centers.” And finally, the Peruvian coast is notable for the stark contrast between the lush vegetation bordering the short coastal rivers that flow down from the Andes and the desert conditions that prevail everywhere else. 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. (C&K: 114-117)

Density – The first states all began in the broad alluvial river valleys suited to intensive year-round agricultural production, and hence, places which could support much larger and denser populations than regions where shifting cultivation was practiced. With more and more people working cheek-to-jowl in a small area year after year, no doubt more and more conflicts arose, leading to new needs for social management and conflict resolution. Hunter-gathers have very limited population density, horticulturalists would have somewhat higher, but it’s likely that the old tribal systems of conflict resolution and dispute adjudication would have been sadly inadequate for the kinds of densities produced by irrigation agriculture.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that all of these regions were the scene of rapid population growth prior to the emergence of the state. I mentioned earlier that the population of the Middle East increased fortyfold between 8000 and 4000 B.C. Karl Butzer estimates that the population of Egypt doubled between 4000 and 3000 B.C. William Sanders estimates that population tripled or quadrupled in the highland zones of early state formation in Mexico, and similar estimates also apply to Peru, China, and the Indus Valley. “For all areas one receives the impression of an increase not only in the total number of sites but also in the density of distribution, size, and elaboration of sites.” (C&K: 117-118)

It’s notable that the very existence of the state itself caused population growth. With its ability to do things like to build canals, store large surpluses, and restrict violence, as well as the advantages of scale, states would have engendered the very growth they sought to manage. This would have led to a feedback loop as growing populations due to state power would have created the need for more powerful elites and even more state power.

The organization that we call a “city-state” is the logical, indeed the inevitable, outcome of the invention of agriculture by an animal of social habits. Agriculture requires settlement. An unchanged breeding strategy makes that settlement dense. Government in a dense community requires specialization. And a dense settlement containing both rulers and ruled must inevitably divide up the country into land to live on and land to farm. The city-state has emerged, along with a rationale that requires people within it to have different specialties—that is, different niches…The need for government in dense communities did more than just save a few individuals from the worst consequences of our change of niche. It also allowed further increases in the carrying capacity. Government could ration, distribute and hoard. Surplus and deficit could be balanced from place to place, and from season to season, ensuring an even flow of the necessities for life, making the luxury of large families the more safely enjoyed. (FON)

Nutrition & Disease – Both nutrition and disease must have played a role in hierarchy after the emergence of the state  – officials could stay out of the heat and the moisture and escape the overcrowding and disease which beset increasingly densely packed-in food producers. And elites would have had differential access to better nutrition, which would have made their offspring healthier. We know that certain nutrients are critical for proper brain and body development, nutrients that would have become scarce as the means of getting food shifted. We now know thanks to the emerging science of epigenetics, that deficiencies in certain nutrients, as well as changes in status, causes differential gene expression – different genes are switched on and off. Moreover, these deficiencies persist through generations.  David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, writes, “Some of the most provocative work in this field suggests that these epigenetic marks-and not just the genes themselves — may be altered by experiences and passed down to subsequent generations.” Elites with better access to nutrition early on could have passed down these advantages across generations. William McNeill writes in Plagues and Peoples:

Whatever the ancient distribution of schistosomiasis and similar infections may have been, one can be sure that wherever they became widespread they tended to create a listless and debilitated peasantry, handicapped both for sustained work in the fields and digging irrigation channels, and for the no less muscularly demanding task of resisting military attack or throwing off alien political domination and economic exploitation. Lassitude and chronic malaise, in other words, of the kind induced by blood fluke and similar parasitic infections conduces to successful invasion by the only kind of large-bodied predators human beings have to fear: their own kind, armed and organized for war and conquest. Although historians are unaccustomed to thinking of state building, tax collection, and booty raids in such a context, this sort of mutual support between micro- and macroparasitism is, assuredly- a normal ecological phenomenon.

How important parasitic infection of agricultural field workers may have been in facilitating the erection of the social hierarchies of early river valley civilizations cannot be estimated very plausibly. But it seems reasonable to suspect that the despotic governments characteristic of societies dependent on irrigation agriculture may have owed something to the debilitating diseases that afflicted field workers who kept their feet wet much of the time, as well as to the technical requirements of water management and control which have hitherto been used to explain the phenomenon. (P&P: 63-64)

Charismatic Authority – Sometimes a bold new idea or a particularly charismatic leader can use powers of persuasion or belief to unite disparate people and cause them to surrender their autonomy and bind together in some sort of collective endeavor, sort of like a religious cult on a larger scale. Francis Fukuyama writes:

Archaeologists who speculate about the origins of politics tend to be biased in favor of materialistic explanations like environment and level of technology, rather than cultural factors like religion, simply because we know more about the material environment of early societies. But it seems extremely likely that religious ideas were critical to early state formation, since they could effectively legitimate the transition to hierarchy and loss of freedom enjoyed by tribal societies…Religious authority allows a particular tribal leader to solve the large-scale collective action problem of uniting a group of autonomous tribes. To a much larger degree than economic benefit, religious authority can explain why a free tribal people would be willing to make a permanent delegation of authority to a single individual and that individual’s kin group…the only problem, however, is that you need a new form of religion, one that can overcome the inherent scale limitations of ancestor worship and other kinds of particluaristic forms of worship.

There is a concrete historical case of this process unfolding, which was the rise of the first Arab state under the Patriarchal and Umayyad caliphates. Tribal peoples inhabited the Arabian peninsula for many centuries, living on the borders of state-level societies like Egypt, Persia, and Rome/Byzantium. The harshness of their environment and its unsuitability for agriculture explained why they were never conquered, and thus why they never felt military pressure to form themselves into a centralized state…Things changed dramatically, however, with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 570 in the Arabian town of Mecca…There is no clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad. The Arab tribes played an utterly marginal role in world history until that point; it was only Muhammad’s charismatic authority that allowed them to unify and project their power throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The tribes had no economic base to speak of; they gained economic power through the interaction of religious ideas and military organization, and then were able to take over agricultural societies that did produce surpluses. (OPO: 87-88)

Even today we frequently see people surrender their initiative and independence to a larger religious group of their own volition with no coercion whatsoever. This is evident in cults from ones as small as the People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians, to massive cults such as Mormonism and Scientology. As Dostoyevsky said, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”

Warfare – Harris also points out that warfare tends to increase the power of elites. He argues that warfare is what allowed the big men to become war chiefs, and points out that earlier big men had not only thrown great feasts, but had also been great war leaders as well (which is why Flannery and Marcus argued that warfare, not feasting, was the root cause of inequality). The original big men also became the generals. Thus, in ancient times, it may be more accurate to speak of a “feasting-fighting” complex, rather than just feasting alone:

Formerly, the mumis [Big Men] were as famous for their ability to get men to fight for them a they were for their ability to get men to work for them. Warfare had been suppressed by the colonial authorities…but the memory of mumi war leaders was still vivid among the Siuai. As one old man put it: “In the olden times there were greater mumi than there are today, They laid waste to the countryside and their clubhouses were lined with the skulls of people they had slain.”

In singing the praises of their mumis, the generation of pacified Siuai call the “warriors” and “killers of men and pigs.”…Oliver’s informants told him that mumis had more authority in the days when warfare was still being practiced. Some mumi leaders even kept one or two prisoners who were treated like slaves and forced to work in the mumi’s family gardens. And people could not talk “loud and slanderously against their mumis without fear of punishment.” This fits theoretical expectations since the ability to redistribute meat, plant food, and other valuables goes hand-in-hand with the ability to attract a following of warriors, equip them for combat, and reward them with spoils of battle…the mumi who wanted to lead a war party had to be prepared personally to pay an indemnity for any of his men who were killed in battle and to furnish a pig for each man’s funeral feast. (C&K: 106-108)

Similarly, warfare was also a catalyst for early state formation:

Egypt’s legendary history begins with a tale of conquest, and specialized instruments of war and fortification appear early in the archaeological record. In Mesopotamia weaponry and representation of slaves and battles are present in early predynastic times. Fortifications and documentary evidence indicate that 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.” The kind of warfare that was conducive to the evolution of the state obviously must have involved long-distance external combat by large coalitions of villages rather than internal warfare…(C&K: 118)

Fukuyama cites warfare as key to the formation of the Chinese state:

The chief driver of Chinese state formation was not the need to create grand irrigation projects, nor the rise of a charismatic religious leader, but unrelenting warfare. It was war and the requirements of war that led to the consolidation of a system of ten thousand political units into a single state in the space of eighteen hundred years, that motivated the creation of a class of permanent trained bureaucrats and administrators, and that justified the move away from kinship as the basis for political organization. As Charles Tilly said of Europe in a later period, for China, “war made the state, and the state made war.” (OPO: 94)

Peter Turchin has argued that warfare is the crucial factor in state formation. States form in order to defend accumulated wealth from raiders, in his estimation. He argues that early states arose in transition zones between nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists. In his view, it is not that these areas are circumscribed, but rather that they sit at the intersection of these two contrasting modes of living, what he calls “steppe frontiers.” He argues that such steppe frontiers are the crucible of state formation: “over 90% of mega-empires arose within or next to the Old World’s arid belt, running from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert.” More recently, he has also pointed to warfare as critical to state formation and inequality:

I have argued…that conditions of endemic warfare between human groups create enormous selection pressures for larger group size (“God is on the side of big battalions”) and for effective (which means centralized) military organizations. Under such conditions, emergence of centralized military hierarchies becomes virtually inevitable. The result is the rise of increasingly complex centralized societies – chiefdoms, complex chiefdoms, and archaic states…Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal… alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level? (Cliodynamica)

The Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism (Cliodynamica)

Even today, warlords tend to be the first form of “government” to form in the absence of a formal state caused by a breakdown in civil order. These warlords tend to be charismatic individuals who can command enough followers skilled in the application of violence to enforce civil order. They put an end to the widespread crime, looting, rape and other assorted violence that occurs during periods of state breakdown. This makes them the de facto government, and over time, they may evolve to become the de jure government as well. We see such a dynamic in post-collapse regions such as Somalia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. Eventually, the warlords seek legitimacy, which, as we saw, they typically get from some sort of external (usually religious) authority, or else they are put in their position by a stronger power. This exact same sequence may have happened in the distant past as well, except the violence was not caused by state breakdown, but rather by the absence of any state in the first place!

Regarding state formation, Francis Fukuyama concludes:

We seem to be getting closer to a fuller explanation for pristine state formation. We need the confluence of several factors. First, there needs to be a sufficient abundance of resources to permit the creation of surpluses above what is necessary for subsistence. This abundance can be natural: the Pacific Northwest was so full of game and fish that the hunter-gatherer-level societies were able to generate chiefdoms, if not states. But more often abundance is made possible through technological advances like agriculture. Second, the absolute scale of the society has to be sufficiently large to permit the emergence of a rudimentary division of labor and a ruling elite. Third, that population needs to be physically constrained so that it increases in density when technological opportunities present themselves, and in order to make sure that subjects cannot run away when coerced. And finally, tribal groups have to be motivated to give up their freedom to the authority of a state. This can come about through the threat of physical extinction by other, increasingly well-organized groups. Or it can result from the charismatic authority of a religious leader. Taken together, these appear to be plausible factors leading to the emergence of a state in places like the Nile Valley.

Thomas Hobbes argued that the state or Leviathan came about as a result of a rational social contract among individuals who wanted to solve the problem of endemic violence and end the state of war… I suggested that there was a fundamental fallacy in this, and all liberal social contract theories, insofar as it presupposed a presocial state of nature in which human beings lived as isolated individuals. Such a state of primordial individualism never existed; human beings are social by nature and do not have to make a self-interested decision to organize themselves into groups. The particular form that social organization takes is frequently the result of rational deliberation at higher levels of development. But at lower ones, it evolves spontaneously out of the building blocks created by human biology. (OPO: 89-90)

In addition to this excellent list, I would add two other critical factors: The role of climate, and The role of bronze.

The role of climate – The formation of the earliest states seems to coincide with a climatic transition. The final dessication of the Sahara desert and the end of the “Green Sahara” period coincides with the formation of the Egyptian state circa 3100BC. Southern Mesopotamia seems to have been unified at around the same time, although the first true Mesopotamian “empire” under Sargon uniting northern and southern Mesopotamia formed later in around 2700BC. A climate anomaly called the Piora Oscillation has been identified by climate scientists at around this time, although its cause is unknown–possibly a volcanic eruption.

How would climate change have spurred the formation of large states? In several ways: 1) An increased need to provide for the general welfare due to cascading crop failures of subsistence farms and loss of arable pasturelands 2.) Increased external conflicts spurred by more intensive competition between polities over a shrinking pool of resources, and 3.) Internal conflicts caused by climate refugees migrating into already occupied areas, spurring a greater need for conflict resolution, suppression of violence,and formal laws, and 4.) Farm failures would have put the unfortunates in debt to the fortunate and lucky, increasing debt slavery and the amounts of labor and control commanded by elites. This command over labor would have spurred the state to form.

A change in climate would have rapidly reduced the carrying capacity of the land. Dust bowl conditions caused by climate change would have led to numerous “climate refugees”–farmers whose subsistence lands had failed, or herders no longer able to find pasturage–migrating into the remaining agricultural areas to seek work. The only way such welfare could be provisioned was through the storehouses of powerful redistibutive elites. This would have further increased their political power. The people now fed through the rulers’ “generosity” would have been “in debt” to him, allowing him to command increasingly larger pools of labor This could be used for handicraft production, construction, or even warfare. The story of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible is illustrative here – perhaps the source of Hebrew slavery was debt slavery caused by famine?

The archaeologist Frank Hole has found numerous villages throughout Northern Mesopotamia which were apparently prosperous for hundred of years and then suddenly abandoned seemingly overnight. He believes this was due to climate change. He argues that the people from these villages became migrants into more prosperous areas, and that these climate refugees became the first “internal proletariat” who built and maintained the canals, city walls, and temples, all under the careful management of the priestly bureaucracy and scribes.

Yale University archaeologist Frank Hole believes that …”the landless and destitute,” … fled their traditional villages when the rain failed. He believes that they became a labor pool that could be mobilized to transform the village-based agricultural system of the ‘Ubaid farmer into a much more productive system under the aegis of growing cities. The same laborers, fed on public rations, could also build temples, city walls, and other public works. All this labor was carried out in the name of the gods, who controlled the fate of humankind and the malevolent forces of the cosmos. The villiages had coalesced into cities, each surrounded by brilliant green tracks of densely cultivated farmland in a brown and yellow landscape.(LS:)

Climate change would also have spurred the potential for increased interpersonal violence, and the need to tamp it down. As unrelated families and clans were forced into circumscribed areas due to a reduction in carrying capacity, the old tribal systems of conflict resolution would have failed in the face of rising numbers. Informal standards of behavior that worked at tribe or village level would no longer have sufficed. This would have spurred  the need for more formal lawgiving, and that is exactly what we see. Informal tribal systems were replaced with formal laws given by the rulers, often claiming sanction from the gods themselves.

Most early kings are associated with lawgiving in some form. The Law Code of Hammurabi is the most famous, but his was not the first law code.  It was preceded by The Law code of Urukagina and the Law code of Ur-Nammu. These codes are specifically attributed to rulers, typically under the tutelage of a deity. The Hammurabi basalt stele famously depicts him receiving the laws from the sun god Shamash (intestingly, legal ocdes at this time first begin to regulate sexual, in additional to social, behavior). Moses, of course, recived the twelve tablets of the law directly from God himself atop Mount Sinai  according to the Old Testament. The Salic Law (Lex Salicus) was first compiled by the Frankish King Clovis. Rulers and lawgiving have always gone hand-in-hand; Napoleon considered his reform of the French legal code an achievement on par with (if not above) his military conquests, and even today our power elite is dominated by lawyers.

In addition, most ancient cultures developed a concept of “order” emerging from primordial chaos, and the maintenance of that divine order on earth was the responsibility of the ruler. Often, this order was seen as a reflection of cosmic order on the earth. To the extent that that ruler was able to maintain such an order and to contain “misrule” he was seen as earning the divine sanction of the gods. For example, the Egyptians had their concept of Ma’at, and the Chinese developed the “Mandate of Heaven,” to justify centralized rule in the person of the emperor.

Of course, laws are useless without someone to enforce them.  Warlords, who were initially appointed to conduct external warfare, may have become the enforcers of internal warfare as well, or what we now call the police. Those who controlled this internal warfare become the de-facto rulers of the society by combining external warfare with internal law enforcement (Wittfogel’s “internal and external bureaus of plunder”).

External conflicts over shrinking resources would have also led to increasing conflicts between polities. In Mesopotamia, increasing diplomatic conflicts over canals and farmlands are well attested to in the historical record. Often times, these conflicts escalated into “hot wars” in which one city and its resources would be absorbed into another. The winner of such a conflict would get the vanquished polity’s resources, soldiers and tax base, given them an advantage in any future conflicts. This would have kicked off autocatyltic process in which “the big fish ate the little fish,” as advantages to larger scales would have become ever greater. (see The Law of Cumulative Advantage, below) For example, the numerous farming villages along the Nile River were eventually absorbed into three major polities by 3000BC : Naqada, This (Abydos), and Hierakonoplis. Eventually, one of these three (Hierakonopolis) conquers the other two, and the leader of this polity becomes the ruler of the Egyptian state (Dynasty 0). A similar process occurs in Mesopotamia as certain larger, more powerful city states “gobble up” other states, eventually resulting in Sargon’s Akkadian empire.

As resources became increasingly under the control of elites due to climate change, control over these resources would have also led to political centralization. A vivid example is provided by  a movie called “The Age of Consequences” which examines the climate devastation of modern-day Syria:

It starts by examining the history of Syrian civil war, which undoubtedly is rooted in centuries o[f] conflict, yet accelerated by a severe three-year drought in the mid-2000s which forced 1.5 million people from the agricultural countryside into major cities.

“A bunch of unemployed young men in a major city is not a recipe for stability,” says Brig. Gen. Stephen Curry, of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Today, Syria is the headquarters for the Islamic State, and they’re using resource scarcity to their advantage, the movie explains. With less water, extremists leverage the resource to take over local populations, as seen with ISIS’ withholding of water storage facilities in Syria.

“Water becomes an instrument of war,” he says.

So, what’s often called the “welfare/warfare state” is not a recent invention at all, but rather the very reason for state formation in the first place!

Ironically, it is also climate which is increasingly being indicted in the collapse of ancient states. For example, the 4.2 Kiloyear BP event is implicated in the fall of both Sargon’s Akkadian Dynasty and the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Rather than just runaway population growth, it seems to be a rapid decline in the carrying capacity caused by climate changes (drought, etc.) that is associated with state failure and a reduction in social complexity throughout history.

The Role of Bronze – The onset of the Bronze Age would have led to two other critical factors for state formation: 1.) Increasingly complex and specialized techniques of warfare and the need to provide “high-tech” weaponry such as bronze swords, armor and chariots, and 2.) Increased requirements for trade, and 3.) Elite control of the trading networks and critical resources to smelt and work bronze, such as mines and smiths.

As noted above, the earliest states seem to have been born in a climate of persistent warfare. With the rise of states come walls around cities, indicating that warfare was ratcheted up a significant degree. Walls around cities only appear in the archaeological record with the early Bronze Age, indicating increased warfare (Jericho is the exception, and many archaeologists believe its walls were a form of flood control) This was the same time that bronze weapons and tools became widespread in use, supplanting bronze’s earlier use in ritual or prestige goods of little practical value.

Warfare at the Bronze-Age level was an order of magnitude more complex than the small-scale tribal battles and skirmishes which preceded it. Societies which could uses bronze weapons and armor would have been able to easily overrun cultures which could not utilize this resource. And, obviously, effective warfare requires a clear top-down hierarchy and formal chain of command. Societies which could mage this level of organization would become predominant, but this would obviously lead to a much more extreme “ranking” system, and larger bureaucracies to manage large-scale warfare. It would have also led to greater coercive power in the hands of elites. The organizers of warfare became the secular ruling class, claiming legitimacy by cultivating ties to the priesthood.

We see in Mesopotamian bas-reliefs massive siege engines built to conquer walled cities. We also see graphic depictions of whole populations being put to the sword. All of these are signs of increasing complexity and state capacity. Warlords who could deploy bronze weapons and armor, and provision the large armies required during this period, would have been the first kings and emperors. Most likely, what eventually became the “palace” began as a prominent household which had workmen attached who were able to work bronze and forge weapons and armor, and who could also organize the massive resources it took to conduct large-scale Bronze Age warfare.

Unlike iron, which is fairly evenly distributed throughout the earth’s crust, the key resources for bronze–copper and tin–are fairly concentrated in very specific and far-flung, geographical areas. This meant that the control of the mines and trade routes for bronze may have played a role in the centralization of power in the hands of elites. In most instances, rulers retained control over critical resources such as mines. In others, the bronze trade was carried out under the aegis of the ruling caste:

Archaeologists have suggested a theory linking the use of bronze to political centralization. Copper and tin are both scarce and need to be traded, their supplies can be monopolized, and so can trade. This seems to have created both the incentive and the opportunity to concentrate power and develop urban centers, for example in Knossos in Crete which was the core of Minoan Greece. While the Greek Bronze Age cities were destroyed around 1200 BCE and some, like Mycenae, never re-emerged, many, such as Athens re-emerged on the same spot so the early centralization of the Bronze Age may have left a path dependent legacy.

Later on, war chariots would have been added to the mix. In the Near East, horses first appeared in battle not as cavalry, but as chariots. Although the exact date and location of horse domestication his unknown, it is though that were first domesticated by the Botai people of Central Asia somewhere around 3200BC. By 2000BC they had found their way to the Near east, but the people there would not have known how to ride them, instead using them to pull  mobile war platforms.

Horses require an enormous amount of land to feed and pasture, meaning that throughout history, only the very rich (i.e. those who controlled large tracts of land) could afford to provision them. Due to their critical role in ancient warfare, this meant that only the rich could practically project force, and thus effectively became society’s ruling class. The connection between horse ownership and the ruling class is an old one extending back thousands of years. From the Roman equites class to the medieval knights, to the Mongols, horse ownership has always been intimately connected with wealth and political power in agrarian societies. Even today, the word for gentleman in most European languages is the same as that for horseman (caballero, chevalier, etc.). As horses became critical to warfare, this would also have empowered significantly wealthy households to acquire enough power to establish state capacity through violence.

What I suspect is that the arrival of mature Bronze technology caused an escalation in the complexity as well as the intensity and urgency, of warfare. Only societies that could manufacture and deploy bronze weapons and armor in battle could expect to survive in this new world. This led to much more social complexity and hierarchical leadership. As such warlords became the new leaders, their specialization in the techniques of violence and coercion allowed states to be much more aggressive and despotic. This was the beginning of the vast empires and conquests of the old world.

The Law of Cumulative Advantage: – Barry Kemp, in his book Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, proposes a theory of state formation that ties many of the above threads together. It is based on what is known as The Law of Cumulative advantage, or sometimes as the Matthew Effect:

The arise of leading elites happened in fact in various regions and therefore we theorize a situation that the author compares with the game of ‘Monopoly’.

All the players begin to play from a similar point , but when, for combination of chances (environmental and local factors) and personal decisions, they come into contact and conflict with each other, the initial equality begins to tremble until the equilibrium falls : this in turn distorts “the whole subsequent progress of the game. It has a knock-on effect out of all proportion to its original importance… We can imagine thousands of games proceeding simultaneously, with winners promoted to join a progression of increasingly select games ” (note that each player involves a time-scale of many generations).

The ‘victory’ of a small agricultural village over its neighbours takes it on a path towards an higher level of prosperity and power, because the winner can take the wealth of the defeated through taxes; furthermore a ‘multiplier effect’ caused by the interaction of different factors (religion, symbols of power, technology, population, war, elites’ building and tombs, trade routes control and others) increases the size of the village and that of the territory it controls.

” Two factors determine how far and how fast along this path particular communities journey… The natural resource base, the potential for accumulating pockets of surplus commodities which form the basis of power … and the creative power of imagination to fashion a distinctive ideology which through a wealth of symbol and ritual commands widespread respect “.

Kemp discusses 3 ‘foundations of ideology’: the local tradition, the containment of unrule and architecture as political statement.

‘Local tradition’ is all the complex of beliefs and symbols displayed by the elites to reinforce their right to rule. Many of these (some myths, traditions, religious beliefs, symbols of power) became part of the dynastic culture, while others disappeared.

“Containment of the unrule” is the concept which creates the ‘need for kingship’: the mythical golden age where and when ‘maat’ ruled is continuously menaced by the forces of chaos. The divine king is the only power that can make maat prevail over chaos. The ‘Architecture as political statement’ is another complex concept: a number of symbolic (religious, political,social) and also psychological factors are linked with (monumental) architecture; the meaning of ‘palace facade’ enclosure walls and of buildings within them (mounds) and other monuments lies in the sphere of the religious beliefs (think about the Djoser’s complex symbols), but it also has an heavy impact on the minds of the ruled masses, astonished by the elites’ display of richness.

Such a ‘conspicuous consumption’ of wealth for building larger and larger tombs reinforces the right to reign and augments the authority of the leaders over the submitted classes which marvel at the creations of their rulers (made by their own hands).

This “Law of Cumulative Advantage” not only provides an explanation for the centralization of states, but also for the escalating gap between the rich and the poor that resulted in permanent ruling classes and caste systems.


I suspect that any one of the above factors were necessary, but not sufficient, for the formation of early states and large empires (because many places had a handful of these factors, but only the cradles of pristine states had all of them in effect simultaneously). In other words, where all of these functions arrive, you get a perfect “cocktail” that leads to the formation of kingdoms and proto-states out of earlier centralized chiefdoms, with hereditary kingship, hierarchy, formalized offices and aristocracy, standing armies and military specialists, industrial arts, long-distance trade, taxes, universal written laws and courts, large-scale construction and infrastructure projects, and a literate bureaucracy. Construction, art, writing and music become much more prominent and built from non-perishable materials.

Once these states form, the rest just falls into place:

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 people–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 Ducth colonialists invading their homeland.(C&K 121-122)

Marvin Harris ends his chapter on the formation of pristine states with a meditation on the power of creeping normalcy:

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 imperceptable shifts in the redistributive balance from one generation to the next, the human species bound itself over to 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 of the king, no one would remember the time when the king had only been a glorified [big man] whose exalted status rested on the charity of his friends and relatives… (C&K: 122)

Next: summary and concluding remarks.

C&K: Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings.
OPO: Francis Fukuyama,The Origins of Political Order.
FON: Paul Colinvaux, The Fates of Nations.
LAW: Piotr Steinkeller, Michael Hudson (eds.), Labor in the Ancient World.
P&P: William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples.

The Feasting Theory – Part 3 – The Origin of Agriculture


Not only does feasting explain the rise of hierarchy in various cultures, it also provides a good narrative about how domestication came to replace big game hunting and foraging as humans primary survival strategy.

1. What is domestication?

It might be helpful to briefly consider what domestication is. Simply put, everything that helps a plant or animal survive in the wild tends to disappear, which is how we can tell them apart from their wild counterparts (the ones which aren’t extinct, anyway). Characteristics that would be ‘disadvantageous’ to survival, but ‘advantageous’ to humans, can only survive with active human intervention. This is how archeologists can tell from the archaeological record that certain plants and animals are being subject to artificial selection by humans, rather than just being gathered or hunted from the wild.

For example, the things that help a grass propagate its seeds are reversed in domestication: the seeds are heavier, and they are more resistant to “shattering”— breaking off the stalk. Naturally, when a grass tends to ripen, it wants to spread its seeds far and wide. These mutations would harm any plant trying to survive in the wild, but from the human standpoint they are highly desirable. Similarly, animals become smaller, weaker and more docile as a result of artificial selection, because such animals are easier to manage. In the wild, it’s doubtful that such genes would propagate of their own accord. So archaeologists look for the telltale signs to determine the origin of domestication—plumper seeds, tougher rachis (the part that holds the seeds onto the stalk), and smaller bones in the case of animals. The pattern of bones is also a clue – herders tend to slaughter males disproportionately and keep the females for breeding (and later, milking).

Other changes took place as well. Grass seeds tend to require certain stimuli, such as light or heat in order to germinate, to ensure that they only sprout under favorable conditions. If they do not find these conditions they will go dormant. This was bad for farmers, however, who want seeds to germinate immediately after sewing during planting season. The seeds which grew right away were favored, so seeds which suppressed dormancy were propagated, and seeds that went dormant were not. Similarly, seeds tend to germinate and ripen at different times of the year as a survival mechanism, but farmers want to sew and harvest all the seeds all at the same time. This favored a reduction of variation in the growing time window. This was bad from the plant’s point of view, since an entire crop could fail if conditions were not right.  But it is much more convenient for human growers. Another end result is that genetic diversity as drastically reduced, another telltale difference between domesticated and wild varieties of both plants and animals.

After you collect wheat, you have to thresh it, which is separating the wheat from the chaff. Chaff is a dry husk, or hull surrounding the grain that needs to be removed during processing. This is accomplished by milling or pounding. The grains are then tossed into the air, allowing the lighter chaff to blow away (called winnowing). Some seeds have a mutation which caused the chaff to separate more easily, making the wheat easier to process. After threshing, seeds with the chaff still attached would have been discarded, propagating the mutation for the “self threshing” variety.

An Edibale History of Humanity by Tom Standage, Chapter One: The Invention of Farming (Washington Post)

Due to this intense selection pressure, cereal grains became domesticated over the course of as little as 200 years. A similar process took place for all sorts of vegetables— the ones which had traits most convenient for human farmers became propagated by them causing genetic changes which resulted in domesticated cereals, legumes, pulses, sedges, fruits, and so forth. Due to these mutations, such plants became utterly dependent upon us to propagate them. In essence, domesticated plants and animals became a co-dependent species with us–we are now the “vehicle” they use to propagate themselves. Take away humans and these mutant varieties would quickly go extinct. A vast field of wheat or corn could never exist in nature; it can only be sustained by human activity.

What this means is that not only did we domesticate wheat, but wheat domesticated us. And by doing so, these cereal grains made themselves the most “successful” plant species on the planet. Humanity’s staple crops – wheat, rice, and maize – are grown all over the world in millions of tons. We have wiped out entire ecosystems with the plow and planted monocrops of grains that are useful to us in their place. We have altered the face of the planet to suit one particular species—us. What this also means is that there are less and less resources for other animals, leading to mass extinctions. It is worth noting that mass extinction is what kicked off this cycle in the first place.

Evidence from the bones and teeth of ancient skeletons shows that more and more of the diet was proved by these cereal grains over time. Their diets are higher in carbohydrates than hunter gathers, indicating a shift to more plant foods and less meat. The natural sugars in grains also cause teeth to rot. Neolithic skeletons show signs of repetitive labor, arthritis, inflammation, dental caries–a whole host of ailments. It’s clear that grass seeds, probably harvested initially for beer brewing, eventually became the primary food source for a growing population of low-status individuals.

Wheat, it turns out, is a terrible thing to base a human diet around. These plants produce a number of semi-toxic “anti-nutrients” in their seeds to discourage them from being eaten by predators, as Mark Sisson explains:

Living things generally do not want to be consumed by other living things. Being digested, for the most part, tends to interrupt survival, procreation, propagation of the species – you know, standard stuff that fauna and flora consider pretty important. To avoid said consumption, living things employ various self defense mechanisms…Plants, though, are passive organisms without the ability to move, think, and react (for the most part). They must employ different tactics to ensure propagation, and they generally have to rely on outside forces to spread their seed. And so various methods are “devised” to dissuade consumption long enough for the seed to get to where it’s going. Nuts have those tough shells, and grains have the toxic anti-nutrients, lectins, gluten, and phytates…

Lectins…bind to insulin receptors, attack the stomach lining of insects, bind to human intestinal lining, and they seemingly cause leptin resistance. And leptin resistance predicts a “worsening of the features of the metabolic syndrome independently of obesity”…

Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. Around 1% of the population are celiacs, people who are completely and utterly intolerant of any gluten. In celiacs, any gluten in the diet can be disastrous… compromised calcium and vitamin D3 levels, hyperparathyroidism, bone defects…

Phytates…make minerals bio-unavailable, thus rendering null and void the last, remaining argument for cereal grain consumption.

…Is there a good reason for anyone (with access to meat, fruit, and vegetables, that is) to rely on cereal grains for a significant portion of their caloric intake? The answer is unequivocally, undeniably no. We do not need grains to survive, let alone thrive. In fact, they are naturally selected to ward off pests, whether they be insects or hominids. I suggest we take the hint and stop eating them.

Also, the protein in grains is incomplete. A complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids. These amino acids are used to construct proteins that the body needs to build healthy bones, skin, hair, muscles, etc. Animal-based proteins (from meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, etc.) are complete proteins. Vegetable based proteins from beans, grains, legumes and vegetables are not (except for soy and quinoa).

Incomplete proteins can be combined with other incomplete proteins to form complete proteins–beans and rice, for example. However, if one does not have this proper mix of complimentary foods, or enough meat, getting only incomplete proteins impairs health and the body’s ability to grow and repair itself naturally. This leads to the phenomenon of malnourished grain farmers.

Grain also does not have enough essential vitamins on its own. Essential vitamins that the body cannot produce internally need to be consumed in the diet to remain healthy, mainly through plant foods. One common example is vitamin C. Humans, unlike most animals, cannot produce vitamin C in their livers, indicating that we probably got enough of it in our ancestral diet. If we do not get enough vitamin C, we get a disease called scurvy, with all sort of health problems including hair and teeth falling out. Other vitamins need to be consumed through plant foods as well – vitamins A, B-complex, K, etc.

As populations increased, the masses increasingly had to rely on cheap grains to keep them alive. As farmers increasingly focused on grains, they had to get other sources of nutrition from elsewhere if they could. Such farmers often lacked access to sufficient meat or vegetables. The food producing class increasingly became dependent upon grains, and hence became increasingly malnourished. “Man cannot live by bread alone” as the Bible says, and it is very true.

As grains formed a greater and greater part of the human diet in these parts of the world, we see a dramatic decline in health. This is most directly observed in the skeletons. Basically, as we made more and more people, grains were the only food source abundant enough to feed the large masses  of people. What began as a supplementary food source became the only thing that kept most people alive, as it still is today.

2. The Rise of Agriculture

It’s been known by anthropologists since at least the 1960’s that the transition to agriculture was profoundly detrimental to overall human health and well-being. Rather than an improvement as formerly thought, they discovered that it led to worse health, more work, more crowding, more conflict, and the spread of contagious diseases. Higher populations caused greater competition for limited resources, and hence engendered increasing warfare and interpersonal violence (and the need for specialists in violence to control both). Mark Nathan Cohen writes in “The Food Crisis in Prehistory:”

“If agriculture provided neither better diet, nor greater dietary reliability, nor greater ease in the food quest; if it did not of itself confer the capability of sedentism, but conversely provided a poorer diet, less reliably, at equal or greater labor costs; why did anyone become a farmer? According to Lee (1968), Bushmen, who like other contemporary hunting and gathering groups know all about planting seeds, argue that this would be foolish since there is so much wild food available to harvest.” p. 39

It’s also plagued by an intractable chicken-and-egg problem. It used to be thought that runaway population growth caused the need to intensify food production and thus led to the creation of settled agriculture. But this leads to an obvious contradiction, since agriculture is what causes runaway population growth in the first place! Besides, hunters-and-gatherers managed to maintain their population under the resource base for hundreds of thousands of years, even millions if we consider prehuman ancestors. Many hunters-and-gatherers still do so today. Why would population suddenly race ahead of the food supply?

Most previous theories concerning the rise of settled agriculture centered around two major themes:

1.) Overpopulation. This has been a common theme: that the increasing population pressure drove an intensification of previously unknown or little-used techniques into full-blown agriculture, and with the growing populations that resulted, hunting and gathering was no longer a viable way of life. As agriculture scaled up into expansionist agrarian empires, they just displaced all other modes of life. This thesis was argued by Mark Nathan Cohen. He writes: “…population growth and population pressure are essentially ubiquitous in the archaeological record and can readily be perceived as leading to economic and technological growth culminating in the origins of agriculture.”

The problem with this is the above question. Why, after countless millennia of successful foraging lifestyles would this suddenly be abandoned? What would account for such explosive population growth, especially as the large megafauna were disappearing?

2.) Climate. The climate argument has become increasingly common in recent times. This theory was first proposed by V. Gordon Childe in his “Oasis Theory.” He argued that as the climate became cooler and drier, population centers concentrated near available water supplies, and the subsequent density, combined with the abundance of wild cereals growing near water, led to experiments in cultivation.

Childe coined the term “Fertile Crescent” to describe this geographical area. Later, Robert Braidwood made a similar argument, instead looking to the “Hilly Flanks” of the Zagros Mountains as the origin of domestication. Others argued that the stable and wet climate of the incoming Holocene era at the end of the Ice Age simply made agriculture a viable possibility for the first time; in other words, we were always going to do agriculture, it’s just that the climate was too unstable for it to be a viable replacement for hunting and gathering before the Holocene.

Lately, climate research has focused specifically on a period called the Younger Dryas, during which societies all over the world appear to have independently made the the switch to permanent settlements and domesticated cereal grain cultivation. This was a period of a much cooler and drier climate conditions around the world from about 11,500 – 9,500 B.C. It is thought that this period of climatic stress coming after the abundance of the warm centuries caused people to take up agriculture to cope with shortages resulting from the deteriorating climate conditions.

The Younger Dryas climate anomaly was thought to have been caused by the rapid collapse of the Laurentide Ice Sheet spilling water into the North Atlantic and shutting down the thermohaline circulation that warms Northern Europe and Western Asia. More recent research has pointed to a comet impact as the primary cause.

Hayden disagrees with both of these these as causes. Instead, he claims it was abundance, not scarcity, that allowed for the experimental behaviors that led to full-time settled agriculture. A period of climatic change and food stress would be the worst possible time to transition to a highly experimental, unreliable, and highly variable source of food such as cultivation of grains, he argues. Rather, people would most likely fall back to a lower level of population in such a situation.

“The most common explanations for the social changes emerging from domestication involve chains of causality in which environmental and population pressures led to crises that forced people to adopt cultivation and participate in complex societies, which then enabled specialization and technological advances, empowering these groups to dominate others. However, the high risks, lower returns, and nutritional disadvantages of cultivation do not seem to support exclusively subsistence-oriented explanations of domestication. Moreover, a link between population pressure and domestication or cultivation is far from certain. The assertion that sedentism produces complex societies is also problematic, since some hunter-gatherers became sedentary without developing social complexity, and conversely, there are highly mobile societies, such as pastoral nomads, that have developed chiefdoms and even empires.”

The feasting model solves several of the above problems. It solves the chicken-and-egg conundrum by proposing that human social behaviors led to the production of reliable surpluses first, with population growth resulting thereby. The need to generate greater and greater surpluses for feasting led to intensification, not some sort of pressing environmental need. T. Douglas Price writes:

But what caused the adoption of agriculture? Population, climate change, and circumscription are impossible to indict as immediate causes of change. More people per se do not dictate the adoption of agriculture; how are mouths to feed directly translated into the cropping of hard-grained cereals? The consequences and conditions…suggest that human populations were pulled into the adoption of farming rather than pushed. Answers to such questions about the transition to agriculture clearly have more to do with internal social relations than with external events involving climate and the growth of human population. (FSI: 144)

In an examination of the origins of agriculture Barbara Bender argued that “the enquiry into agricultural origins is not, therefore, about intensification per se, not about increased productivity, but about increased production and about why increased demands are made on the economy.” Bender pointed out that food production was a question of commitment and social relations, about alliance structures and the individuals operating within such structures, not about technology or demography. Bender was among the first to point out that leadership, alliance, and exchange gave rise to a need for surplus production. (FSE: 145)

The people who occupied the Levantine corridor and Near East during the early Holocene are referred to as Natufians by archaeologists, after a cave where their settlements were discovered. The time period immediately prior to the Neolithic is called the Late Paleolithic, or the Epipaleolithic. Hayden et. al. make the case that the inhabitants of the Levant in the Natufian period were very similar to the complex foragers of the West Coast areas of North America:

All of these indications of feasting (large hearths, surpluses, dense faunal remains, high cost serving and processing vessels, prestige items, special locations) conform to what we know ethnographically about other complex  hunter-gatherers such as those in California, the North American Northwest Interior, and the Northwest Coast who characteristically engaged in feasting utilizing shells as feasting gifts for social and political purposes as well as sometimes serving valued foods in prestigiously carved bowls. While there may still be reluctance in some circles to use ethnographic parallels to interpret Paleolithic or Epipaleolithic contexts, the Natufian is often referred to as “the best known example of a complex hunter-gatherer society in southwest Asia.”

We are persuaded that the case is strong for viewing the major Late Epipaleolithic communities of the Near East as complex hunter/gatherers similar in fundamental ways to ethnographic groups in California and the Northwest Interior. To iterate, these similarities included: sometimes large community sizes, high population densities, seasonal or more pronounced degrees of sedentism, exploitation of rich resources, private ownership, wealth items, storage practices, burial practices, and socioeconomic differentiation at the transegalitarian (not chiefdom or stratified) level…the large sedentary Natufian communities communities are associated with “the development of exchange systems based on principles other than generalized reciprocity, non-kinship-based status distinctions, and the development of more complex organizational systems than typically occur under hunter-gatherers. [R.] Kelly concurs that increased sedentism implies a relatively rich resource base and storage, which would have loosened the cultural constraints on self-interested pursuits, allowed aggrandizing individuals to obtain benefits for themselves, and eventually develop inequalities.

All these effects are hallmarks of transegalitarian complex hunter-gatherers. Sharing networks could be expected to have become restricted, and economically based strategies for reproduction and survival would have become predominant, espcially the use of surpluses in feasts. Thus, it appears that in the Late Epipaleolithic, there were well-established contexts and motivations for producing surplus-demanding, labor intensive beverages like nut oils and brewed liquids.
(WWBiN: 137138 – emphasis in original)

First evidence of farming in Mideast 23,000 years ago (Science Daily)

Population boom preceded early farming (Science Daily)

This leads to the following observations:

• Rather than inequality being a result of agriculture, it was actually a cause. Transegalitarian societies even before the Neolithic Revolution already had levels of social stratification and hierarchy, as we’ve already seen. The need to repay elites during feasting events motivated people to work harder and to use intensified growing and breeding techniques that eventually gave rise  to fully-fledged domestication.

• Rather than agriculture leading to sedentism, sendentism leads to agriculture. Rather than a nomadic existence, complex foragers and horticulturalists had enough abundance to settle down in one place for long periods of time long before domestication. The abundance of wild plant foods  allowed people to settle down in the ancient Near East while still maintaining a primarily hunting/fishing and gathering lifestyle centered on figs, nuts, gazelle and seafood, supplemented with beans, seeds and legumes. For example, during the warming period, the Levantine corridor was a woodland covered with oak and pistachio forests, separated by grasslands where abundant herds of wild gazelles roamed.

• Rather than large-scale communal labor and occupational specialization being a result of agriculture, large amounts of cooperative labor for building feasting and religious complexes and other tasks would have been long present prior to the rise of agriculture, with feasting as a motivator for the summoning and command of labor pools, and the demand for prestige goods. Long-distance trading networks maintained by elites would have been present prior to agriculture.The discovery of Göbekli Tepe, a large stone monument built prior to domestication appears to confirm this idea. Clearly, a society which could construct such a structure was far more complex than autonomous groups of small foraging bands.

Remarkably, similar patterns of collective work and the role of feasting and psychological inducements as a means of compelling individuals to contribute their labor toward communal building projects may be discerned already at Göbekli Tepe, a monumental ceremonial center in south-eastern Turkey, which dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B (10,000-8,000 B.C.),. The builders of this cultic center were disparate groups of hunter-gathers, who, over a period of many generations, were drawn periodically from a wide geographical area to participate in repeated construction work. As recently argued by Oliver Dietrich and his co-authors, a prerequisite for the long life of the ceremonial center and its complex symbolic system “must have been an extensive network of supra-regional contacts sustained on a regular basis. For the large amount of quarrying, stone-carving and construction work required to build a monumental sanctuary like Göbekli Tepe, there had to be a means of bringing together groups from different areas and organizing communal work. An answer on how this was achieved lies in the widespread evidence for extensive feasting, including the consumption of—most likely alcoholic—beverages, in the PPN archaeological record.” In view of the patently religious character of that center, it is virtually certain that the feasts that took place at Göbekli Tepe, and the various festive activities (such as dancing and musical performances) that undoubtedly were associated with them, has a “strong cultic significance.” Because of this, what motivated the builders of Göbekli Tepe to contribute their labor likely was not just the expectation of free food and drink. An equally (if not more) important motivation in that respect must have been the possibility of participating in Göbekli’s cultic rituals and, through that, of coming into direct contact with the divine world—or, in other words, of partaking in a profound religious experience. (LAW: 202-203)

In fact, many people posit an Anatolian origin for domestication. The earliest evidence of domesticated einkorn wheat is found there, close to the similar cultic structure of Nevalı Çori. Evidence also points to the domestication of grapes, goats and cattle in the same region.


Animal domestication is older than previously thought (Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog)

All this causes Hayden to argue that agriculture could only arise in conditions of abundance, rather than being an adaptation to declining resources or population pressure:

“The social competition model proposes that a wealth rather than a dearth of resources enabled people to engage in high risk production activities such as cultivation and domestication. In this scenario, a failure of food production for feasts could not affect basic subsistence, but success would provide important sociopolitical advantages. Neolithic domesticates are proposed, in part, to have been used as costly status symbols, helping to bring an end to egalitarianism largely via feasting.”

It was the need to generate greater and greater surpluses for feasts, argues Hayden, that caused people to intensify their production of certain particularly palatable or desirable foodstuffs, and thus provided the real impetus for domestication of plants and animals.

“Since individuals were vying with each other to acquire mates or allies using surplus production, there could never be enough food produced. Lower-ranked individuals could always be expected to try to produce more in order to improve their chances of obtaining better allies or partners, no matter what the absolute level of production was…”

I expect the first evidence of domestication to appear in complex hunter gatherer societies organized at the Reciprocator the Near East, Cauvin has argued that domestication was not a function of ecological pressures, but of social changes. He notes, for example, that the bull became an important symbolic animal before it was domesticated. Both of these observations fit well with the model of feasting that is being proposed here since feasting is expected to develop under conditions of surplus and involve difficult-to-procure animals like bulls that could be used as symbols of bravery, power and prowess.

This is a new dimension of food demand and production that is simply lacking among egalitarian foragers. It first appears among the complex hunter-gatherers that emerged at the end of the Pleistocene, *prior* to the domestication of plants and animals…transegalitarian feasting based on the production of surpluses is a new, powerful force that relentlessly produces food production to its maximum limit under favorable technological and environmental conditions. Feasting and other characteristics of complex hunter-gatherers (increased sedentism, storage, socioeconomic inequalities, prestige goods) are well documented in the Natufian culture of the Near East and in the Jomon culture of Japan, while good cases can be made for similar developments in China, and northeastern North America.

I argue that domestication is not simply the ultimate end product of incremental population growth over the span of 2 million years, or of gradual improvements in human intelligence, or other cumulative changes. Rather, domestication was one element of a constellation of entirely new traits that emerged rather abruptly with the appearance of complex hunter-gatherers involving economically based competition and the conversion of economic surpluses into other desirable goods, debts, and services. Underlying all these developments were the new strategies adopted by transegalitarian societies to reduce risks involving subsistence, reproduction, and conflicts. The strategies with the most far-reaching consequences were storage and feasting, and under favorable conditions, these strategies repeatedly resulted in domestication in many places in the world in order to meet the inherently escalating demands for more staples and more prestige foods (and ordinary foods) used in feasts.

More recently, Hayden has argued that the need to throw competitive feasts would have led to the cultivation of certain favored foods, such as wild cereal grains. Cultivation of cereal grains (wheat, barley, millet, rice, sorghum, maize) has always been linked with civilization. Yet, such foods are universally considered “unpalatable” by hunter gatherers; in other words, such foods were exploited on occasion, but only if there was nothing else available. Plus, they would have taken a lot more work to process. Why would hunter-gathers, facing extreme conditions, have gone through all the extra work necessary to procure foods that they by-and-large did not like to eat, rather than just reducing their numbers as they had always done in times past?

Hayden has endorsed the idea, advanced by many others, that cereal grains were first cultivated as a “luxury” food, and they would have been used primarily for brewing the alcoholic beverages, which were central to Neolithic feasting. This would explain why hunter-gatherers, who considered such foods unpalatable, would not have bothered much with them: the simply didn’t have the equipment or sedentism necessary to turn them into alcohol, unlike complex foragers:

…all experimental, ethnographic, and comparative observations…have tended to support an important role for grains in brewing for feasts. We thus endorse the earlier suggestions made by Sauer, Braidwood, Katz and Voigt, McGovern, and others to the effect that increasing demands for brewing beer was likely a major motivating factor for cultivating and domesticating cereals in the Near East. Similar arguments might also be advanced for breadmaking…We conclude that feasting and brewing very likely provided a key link between increasing “complexity” and the adoption of cereal cultivation….(WWBiN:142)

“… Epipaleolithic populations exploited and then cultivated cereals, not primarily for food but to brew alcohol for use in competitive feasting…. In this view, aggrandizing individuals used alcohol to attract people to feasts and then to manipulate them to acquire political power via reciprocal feasting debts. This ‘alcohol model’ when combined with feasting models explicitly addresses the co-occurrence of two key Neolithic phenomena – cereal agriculture and social inequality – and is supported by a range of archaeological and ethnographic data…”

Hayden has recently argued that foods that contained, or could be converted into, psychoactive substances, would have especially been the main focus of the competitive feasting menu for social reasons:

“Extensive archaeological evidence shows that a significant portion of the effort of early cultivators globally was probably directed to the production of psychoactive substances (PAS), including the use of cereals, poppies, coca, sugar cane, tobacco, and cannabis. We propose a model involving PAS in two phases of Neolithication. First, people were attracted to PAS, and accorded them prestige because of their rewarding, mood-altering properties. Second, as cultivation enabled PAS use to become widespread and regular, the power of PAS to influence social behavior helped to create and reinforce complex social structures by inducing acceptance of crowded conditions, heirarchical power, and regular, hard work for others.…feasting and brewing very likely provided a key link between increasing “complexity” and the adoption of cereal cultivation.”

Psychoactive substances (PAS) would have made living in the newly developing agricultural societies, with their long hours of toil, overcrowding, lack of sanitation, rigid laws, and hierarchy, more tolerable. Even today, we see the widespread use of alcohol to cope with living in dense, crowded, hierarchical, urbanized societies, and as a social lubricant allowing communication with unrelated strangers (“liquid courage”). We also see the widespread consumption of numerous “comfort foods” such as breads, cereals and sugars, essential components of today’s processed foods (and hence widespread obesity). Such foods also help to make “civilization” more tolerable.

A number of people have pointed out the connection between the widespread use of stimulants (tea, coffee, tobacco) and the early Industrial Revolution, particularly in regards to its brutally long working hours (alcohol consumption, interestingly, became suppressed for the first time). More recently, the use of opioids is epidemic, and cannabis is increasingly being used to take the edge off modern societies where social mobility is gone, working hours ever longer, and working conditions are ever more dull and alienating. In fact, we could argue that antidepressants are merely the latest continuation of this long-term trend: the development of psychoactive substances (PAS) to make living in the type of profoundly unnatural society which allows Tripe-A personalities to flourish tolerable for the rest of us:

Mood-altering PAS stimulate brain reward pathways. They are highly prized and sought for effects such as amicability, reduction of stress, and feelings of liberation. They are widely used in many cultures, and they have been major trade goods throughout history and prehistory. Psychoactive substances were not the only products of early cultivators, but they were typically the most highly valued and were given religious and social significance. Even today, the majority of adult humans regularly use PAS derived from early domesticates including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and sugars.

Ancient users may not have perceived these as drugs in the modern sense but simply as desirable, good tasting, good feeling foods. In early modern times, PAS played a facilitating role in global colonization, used first to entice indigenous peoples into labor arrangements, and then to reward individuals for labor and production outputs. The effects of PAS upon mood and motivation are critical: “Habitual users tend to develop psychological or physiological dependency on them and, in turn, on the trader or merchant who provides them,”


Psychoactive substance use does not represent merely a problematic behavior indulged in by a minority; rather it is an important and routine shaper of behavior for the vast majority of post-Neolithic humans. Is this mere coincidence, or is there a causal link between widespread adoption of mood altering PAS and the emergence of Neolithic cultures? PAS induce pro-social behavior and conformity to social constraints, and reduce scalar, work, and status-related stress. Thus, PAS should promote tolerance of larger, more impersonal social structures and the behaviors required of individuals participating in them. They provide substitute rewards in the present that facilitate commitments to work for uncertain future rewards, and they are used to elicit appropriate emotional responses during work. Over the millennia, sociopolitical and economic organizers have promoted their use by workers.

Interestingly, the use of psychedelics appears to have been suppressed in hierarchical societies (as they still are). I speculate that the reason for this is because one way chiefs and high priests gained power was by claiming to be the representatives of the gods on earth, or being able to communicate with the ancestors. In traditional tribal cultures, this role is consigned to the shaman, often aided by various psychoactive substances. If such substances were widespread, they might allow “ordinary” people to commune with the gods and ancestors directly, undermining any supernatural claims to power on the part of the elites. This recourse to spiritual power has been used by leaders throughout history. Research indicates that the regular use of psychedelics causes personality changes that would be highly undesirable from the standpoint of elites (openness, resistance to authority, questioning belief systems, etc.), and thus they were suppressed in early civilizations, as they still are today.

Parenthetically, cereal cultivation wasn’t the first alteration of the environment to favor special foods. It appears that the earliest residents of the Near East during the Holocene may have been practicing “forest gardening” long before the cultivation of wild grasses. The earliest evidence of domestication actually comes not from grains, but from figs and broad beans:

Some Ancient Farmers Grew Fava Beans Before They Grew Grains (NPR)

Tamed 11,400 Years Ago, Figs Were Likely First Domesticated Crop (Science Daily)

3. The Younger Dryas

Most likely climate did indeed play a role in plant domestication. It was not to cope with a diminishing food supply, however. Rather, it was to maintain access to the favored foods for feasting in the face of changing climatic conditions. The fact that climate played a role is attested to by the fact that the transition to agriculture occurred more-or-less simultaneously all across the world during the Younger Dryas, which would be difficult to explain with just “cultural” explanations:

The most striking fact about early agriculture, however, is precisely that it is such a universal event. Slightly more than 10,000 years ago, virtually all men lived on wild foods. By 2,000 years ago the overwhelming majority of people lived on farming. In the four million year history of Homo sapiens, the spread of agriculture was accomplished in about 8,000 years. As Charles Reed pointed out at a recent symposium on agricultural origins, the problem is not just to account for the beginnings of agriculture, but to account for the fact that so many human populations made this economic transition in so short a time.(FCP: 5-6)

To understand how this may have happened, we need to consult the work of the Russian scientist Nicolai Vavilov.

Vavilov traveled the world to find the places where cultivated plants had their greatest natural genetic diversity. He discovered eight major “centers of domestication” around the world. During times of warmer, wetter, climates, the plants in these areas would expand their range, only to contract during periods of cooler, drier weather. Spencer Wells explains this phenomenon in his book Pandora’s Seed:

In his extraordinarily influential work on domesticated plants, [Nikolai] Vavilov described many primary centers of plant domestication. One was the Fertile Crescent…other major centers were in China, Mesoamerica, and the Andes of South America. A wide range of places, but all are similar in one way: they are all mountainous regions.

Why not coastal areas or prairies? Primarily because mountains serve as so-called refugia of biological diversity–places where species continue to thrive when the surrounding plains are too dry to sustain them, due to climatic shifts such as those that have occurred frequently throughout the past few million years. Because mountains draw more rainfall, they serve as relatively safe havens in times of climatic stress, so they are the places where genetic diversity is typically the highest. And high genetic diversity allows for the development of advantageous traits that can be selected for by humans, including seed retention and other characteristics that suit species use as food crops.

Humans can’t live easily in high mountains–we tend to prefer lowlands for climatic reasons–but plants advance and retreat, “breathing” in and out of the lowlands during wetter and drier phases. This provides us our first clue as to why domestication happened in all of these places at the same time.

Mesoamerica, for instance, has given us many crops that are indispensable components for the modern diet: corn tomatoes, beans, chiles, chocolate, vanilla, squash, pineapples, avocados, and pumpkins. Many were domesticated in the region of present-day Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, which has a rugged, mountainous terrain that has served to fragment human populations, resulting in a tremendous amount of cultural and linguistic diversity to match its biological horn of plenty. Corn is far and way the most important Oaxacan crop, and evidence shows that it has been cultivated since around 10,000 years ago. There is some debate about corn’s botanical ancestor–its closest wild relative, teosinte, is so different in form that many scientists find it difficult to believe that one developed from the other–but not about its geographical origin.

…Similarly, rice seems to have been domesticated first in the mountains of southern China and northern India, where its wild ancestor Oryza rufipogon still grows. …hunter-gatherers living on the Yangtze River in central China were eating rice around 13,000 years ago. With the onset of the Younger Dryas and the cooler temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, however, the rice phytoliths disappear from the archaeological record, reappearing only around 11,000 years ago, when warmer and wetter conditions returned–and judging from changes in the phytoliths, these appear to have been cultivated. It seems that during the Younger Dryas the rice retreated back to a more hospitable environment, and humans–as in the Middle East and the mountain valleys of Oaxaca–were forced to start planting it to keep the grain in their diet.

Thus, in the centers of domestication for the three main crops around the world, we see a similar interaction between hunter-gatherers and their local grains. Intensive foraging at the end of the last ice age, coupled with warmer, wetter conditions, led to specialized gathering of particular plant species and an increase in population. The onset of the Younger Dryas created a crisis in food supply, which forced these sedentary foragers to start cultivating grains that had previously been plentiful in the wild. The combination of a demographic expansion followed by a climatic stress probably explains why we see the development of agriculture independently at the same time around the world. Cultivating food allowed these populations to survive the cold snap of the Younger Dryas, and when favorable conditions returned, agriculture was ready to take off. All that was needed was one final step: domestication. (PS: 42-46)

The only part missing from Dr. Wells’ account above is that the ultimate reason for the harvesting of these plants was to maintain and expand the Neolithic feasting complex, especially to procure the plants required to produce psychoactive substances desired for such feasts.:

“Feasts are essential in traditional societies for creating debts, for creating factions, for creating bonds between people, for creating political power, for creating support networks, and all of this is essential for developing more complex kinds of societies,” Hayden explained. “Feasts are reciprocal — if I invite you to my feast, you have the obligation to invite me to yours. If I give you something like a pig or a pot of beer, you’re obligated to do the same for me or even more.”

“In traditional feasts throughout the world, there are three ingredients that are almost universally present,” he said. “One is meat. The second is some kind of cereal grain, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of breads or porridge or the like. The third is alcohol, and because you need surplus grain to put into it, as well as time and effort, it’s produced almost only in traditional societies for special occasions to impress guests, make them happy, and alter their attitudes favorably toward hosts.”

The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. Hayden said circumstantial evidence for brewing has been seen in the Natufian, in that all the technology needed to make it is there — cultivated yeast, grindstones, vessels for brewing and fire-cracked rocks as signs of the heating needed to prepare the mash.

“We still don’t have the smoking gun for brewing in the Natufian, with beer residues in the bottom of stone cups or anything like that,” Hayden said. “But hopefully people will start looking for that — people haven’t yet.”

Beer Lubricated the Rise of Civilization, Study Suggests (Live Science)

So what happened may have been a scenario something like this:

• The onset of the Holocene causes a “broad spectrum revolution” of abundant wild plant foods, centered around the eight “founder crops” in the ancient Near East, and different grains elsewhere (millet, rice, maize, sorghum, etc.).

• The landbase was rich enough to tolerate the much more intensive cultivation of these crops, leading to sedentism, and then, to feasting. Long-term storable surpluses kick off the conditions for the Neolithic feasting complex. Ritual centers begin to be constructed.

• Triple-A personalities start to throw giant feasts to gain power and prestige. The need to participate in these feasts causes the founder crops, and others, to be more intensively harvested and probably cultivated in garden plots, in order to pay back the loans of the aggrandizers and remain in the feasting circle. At first meat is still obtained primarily through hunting, fishing and trapping. Such early “abundance” attracts more and more followers. Psychoactive and addictive substances are cultivated to provide the impetus for participation in this work-intensive, highly unnatural lifestyle. The people who refused to go along with this are, by and large, not our ancestors.

• This snowball accelerated for a few thousand years, until the changing climatic conditions of the Younger Dryas caused the desirable plants to “retreat” back to their mountain refugia. The oak and pistachio forests disappear, along with the wild gazelle herds. Many villages are abandoned.

• In order to keep the feasting complex going, aggrandizers in the Levant and elsewhere convince people to adopt intensive cultivation methods of wild plant crops leading to domestication, and hence, agriculture. To cope with the disappearance of wild animal herds, they began to “manage” certain favored herds, protecting them and periodically culling them. This eventually leads to domestication, first of wild sheep and goats, and then later of cattle, pigs, and other animals.

• By the time the 1,200 year Younger Dryas period ends, locations all over the world had switched over from wild collection of plant foods and hunting to intensive growing of cereals and animal husbandry as their primary mode of production, never to look back. Crops were now dependent on human labor, rather than natural conditions, and people had now committed themselves to a life of unremitting hard work and toil (“by the sweat of they brow…”). With the return of warmer and more hospitable conditions after the Younger Dryas period, cultivation takes off big-time.

About a thousand years into the Holocene there was a veritable explosion in agricultural settlement throughout South-West Asia and beyond to the west and east. Communities based on mixed farming can now be identified from Cyprus, south-central Anatolia, and the Levant eastwards across the Zagros and possibly into the Iranian plateau as well…the principle new characteristic in the composition of these settlements was the construction of substantial square or rectangular dwellings, often with stone foundations and walls made of either tauf or pise (mud on a withy frame, baked in the sun) or mud-brick…the floors were often plastered with a mortar made by mixing burnt and pounded limestone with water, especially of buildings that seem likely to have been of higher status. Storage pits, silos, and hearths are common, invariably within the house. It seems certain that the household was now the primary unit of production and consumption. (ARP: 137-138)

• Cultures that switched over to the new lifestyle and “worked harder,” had many more offspring, who took over more and more land, displacing hunter-gathers and others who “ran away” from the oppressive, overcrowded conditions of incipient civilization. Hunter-gathers ended up occupying the marginal areas unsuitable for crops and animal husbandry. Workaholism genes propagate through the population, and aggrandiers become more and more reproductively successful. We know that sometime after the introduction of agriculture, only one man reproduced for every 17 women.

• Population growth explodes, and the natural environment is degraded, preventing any return to the easier, more genial conditions of hunting and gathering. Cultures all over the world incorporate a lost “golden age” into their mythology, when life was simpler and better for the average person.

• The “Neolithic Garden Cultures” eventually settle in the great river valleys of the world— the Nile River Valley, Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley. They abandon shifting cultivation and begin to grow domesticated crops year-round, thanks to the alluvial soil deposits caused by annual flooding. “Mixed” farming of plants and animals emerges. Population density explodes. To control floods and expand the water supply, they construct vast canal systems and embankments. This sets the stage for civilization, states, empires, and for onset of recorded history. This process also occurs separately in the Americas on a somewhat later timeline.

• And intensification just keeps going, ushering the Malthusian feedback loop, which pretty much explains all of human history up until the last couple of hundred years or so:

…the adoption of food production exemplifies what is termed an autocatalytic process—one that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, going faster and faster once it has started. A gradual rise in population densities impelled people to obtain more food, by rewarding those who unconsciously took steps toward producing it. Once people began to produce food and become sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and produce still more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link between food production and population density explains the paradox that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter gatherers whom they succeeded. That paradox developed because human population densities rose slightly more steeply than did the availability of food.

Taken together, these… factors help us understand why the transition to food production in the Fertile Crescent began around 8500 B.C., not around 18,500 or 28,500 B.C. At the latter two dates hunting-gathering was still much more rewarding than incipient food production, because wild mammals were still abundant; wild cereals were not yet abundant; people had not yet developed the inventions necessary for collecting, processing, and storing cereals efficiently; and human population densities were not yet high enough for a large premium to be placed on extracting more calories per acre. (GGS: 111-112)

How did domesticated agriculture contribute to incipient state formation? That’s what we’ll be talking about next time.

PS: Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed

GGS: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

ARP: Graeme Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory

WWBiN: Brain Hayden, Neil Canuel & Jennifer Shanse, What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic. The Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2013.

FCP: Mark Nathan Cohen, The Food Crisis in Prehistory.

LIW: Labor in the Ancient World. Edited by Piotr Steinkeller, Michael Hudson.

The Feasting Theory – Part Two

Read Part 1

Last time we saw that at the end of the Ice Age, humans all over the world started increasingly focusing their efforts on acquiring abundant plant foods, allowing them to establish consistent, reliable, and storeable surpluses. These surpluses gave rise to a “feasting complex” which was a standard feature of human social communities all over the world. Such feasts served not only as a way of spreading out periodic shortage risks over diverse areas, but also as a means of integrating larger human social groups, engendering cooperative behavior on a level no other species could match. This likely meant that even as far back as the late Paleolithic era, although immediate groups were still mostly quite small (20-150 individuals), such bands were already part or much larger ethnolinguistic networks spread out over broad geographical areas consisting of potentially thousands of individuals who could cooperate on a large-scale basis for reasons of labor pooling, mate exchange, trade, warfare, and other efforts.

During these feasts, certain individuals, or “Triple-A” personalities (aggressive, ambitious, acquisitive, aggrandizers, or I would just say “assholes”), devised various underhanded means to gain control of the surpluses in order to enhance their status and prestige by supplanting reciprocal (equal) exchange with debt/credit relationships. Such cunning social manipulation allowed them to control people, even in the absence of any formal institutions. The subsequent alteration of the social logic of the tribe (caused by abundance) caused people to work ever harder in an attempt to reciprocate the “gifts” of the aggrandizers, leading to an arms race of intensification. As the capacity to produce surpluses increased, feasts became larger and more elaborate. In response, these aggrandizers devised additional means of engendering even greater surplus production and gaining control of the goods produced thereby in order to further enhance their standing and influence in the feasting community and set themselves up over the rest of the tribe.

Hayden describes this sequence by examining the ethnographic record and broadly categorizing societies into three separate levels. Of course, there are no hard-and-fast divisions here, but this framework allows us to describe the sequence from egalitarian foraging bands to chiefdoms in a more comprehensible manner.

1. Despot Societies

In these societies, warfare is the chief rationale for surplus production. In these societies, the deaths of relatives and allies in battles and raids are compensated by death payments. In addition, military alliances are sealed and treaties ratified by wealth exchanges between villages. These payments are typically more than any single individual can produce on their own. This engenders the need for surpluses that the “Despots” can then control by acting as generals and diplomats. Such places have significant warfare, but minimal population density and minimal food surpluses (for example, the eastern New Guinea highlands which are unsuitable for taro production). As such, they do not have competitive feasting, rather feasting is used to recruit allies and make restitution payments.

“Despot communities do not have competitive feasts, but feasts of solidarity and alliance; Great Man despots are not necessarily wealthy as a result of their own productive efforts, but they typically play prominent roles in warfare, and, more importantly, they play central roles in peacekeeping and in arranging death compensation payments that provide access to benefits unavailable to others, such as choice foods, prestige goods, coercive power in demanding surpluses, and power in negotiations…only exchange of equivalent items occurs in Great Man societies; however…death compensation payments are used to create peace everywhere in New Guinea, and…death compensation payment is a key factor in changing the practice of ‘equivalent exchange.'” (FOI: 30)

Hayden portrays these societies as ones in which ambitious individuals are constantly scheming and conniving in an almost Machiavellian manner to foment conflicts in order to provide a rationale for producing the surpluses which are then turned over to them for peace negotiations and death compensation payments.

It is essential to realize that …what makes warfare a useful tool for ambitious aggrandizers is not necessarily the conflict itself, but the creation of debts that can be partly managed or manipulated by those with ambition. This is what differentiates transegalitarian warfare from warfare in egalitarian communities. Debt is created in three ways:

(1) when individuals are killed in battle, retaliatory killings can be avoided by paying for the initial death with economic surpluses.

(2) in order to secure allies for battles, surpluses can be used to pay potential or actual allies for their support.

(3) when allies suffer losses in battles, they must be compensated by wealth payments for their losses.

All of these situation are predicated on the practice of substituting the value of economic surpluses for a human life–a practice that does not appear to occur to any great extent among strictly egalitarian societies where a human life must be paid for with a human life (i.e. strict equivalent or revenge)” (p. 32)

In some rare instances, straight-up extortion and intimidation was used as a means of increasing wealth and prestige:

“By generating a climate of danger, Despots could make strong demands in the rest of their communities for power and goods. In some instances, the strategy clearly led to the concentration of considerable power in the hands of Despots who married up to 20 wives and who killed members of their own community at whim. These individuals were supported by the community because their fearsome reputations provided increased security from attack” (p. 32)

Nevertheless, the main emphasis was on generating conflicts, and the using surpluses to manage the conflicts and acquire power through such efforts:

Of importance for the present discusion is the fact that transegalitarian warfare required both military and economic strength. It is as the organizer of the compensation payments, generally entailing subsequent exchanges, that ambitious individuals could acquire additional advantages for themselves. They could motivate community members in a positive fashion to produce and surrender surpluses rather than obtaining these through extortion and protection racketeering that was unstable at best…Typically, the amount of wealth deemed to equal the value of a human life for compensation payments was far more than normal individuals or families could amass…I feel that the appropriation of surplus for peacemaking was a key strategy of economically ambitious individuals.” (p. 34)

Corporate Kin Groups

What are corporations doing in traditional foraging societies? Typically, in traditional societies, key resources such as garden plots or water wells are not alienable property owned by solitary individuals to control as they see fit, but owned and managed by what anthropologists call corporate kin groups.

In our modern use of the term, a corporation is a legal entity allowing unrelated people come together to pool capital and labor for some sort of business purpose, such as the production of goods or services. As defined by anthropologists in traditional societies, however, “a corporation is composed of a plurality of individuals; the life of the corporation is independent of its individual members; and, membership is limited to individuals of certain qualification.” Corporations can either be economic, political or religious, or some combination of all three: (1)“economic,” material satisfaction of human needs; (2) “political,” the ordering of human relations; and (3)“religious,” relations with the supernatural. Membership in corporate groups is usually through kinship – relatives by blood, marriage or adoption, and you don’t ever get fired from these corporations:

A landowning group of kinsmen that is autonomous politically and maintains its own system of social controls is often called a “corporate kin group.” Such a group exists in perpetuity, and serves as a ceremonial group and a primary or face-to-face group, in which each individual is responsible to and for other members and they are responsible to and for him…Kin groups are based on ties of blood or marriage. Groups in which all the members claim descent from a common ancestor are called “descent groups,” and one of the most important of such groups is the “lineage”–a descent group in which the members can actually demonstrate (and not merely assume) their relationship…Several lineages whose members claim (but cannot necessarily demonstrate) common descent are generally referred to collectively as a “clan.”

The groups that people develop are among the instruments by which they make use of energy potentials in their habitat. Thus, it is neither necessary nor possible for hunter-gatherers to form corporate kin groups because their relationship with the habitat involves little investment of energy in land and because their groups must split up recurrently. But horticulturalists plant seeds and must wait for crops to grow and to be harvested, and because of these different relationships with the land and with other resources, they develop different kinds of groups, more suitable for coping with their habitat.

Consider a lineage, for instance. This is a corporate kin group designed to deal with the allocation of land and other resources, to maintain legal and social control, to engage in short-term political relations with other groups, and to undertake religious and ceremonial activities. Hunter-gatherers do not face the horticultural problem of allocating land and other resources; hence, lineage organization is never found among the former but is widespread among the latter in one form or another.(MIA: 27)

Gaining control over such corporate kin groups is another method of gaining power used by aggrandizers, according to Hayden.

Since the ability to produce consistent surpluses is quite low, there are too few resources to be used by Depots to generate indebtedness. Instead, feasting is used to ensure social solidarity, make peace, and generate alliances. It is also used as an opportunity for Despots to prominently display rare and valuable artifacts that they have in their possession and thus increase their status and prestigein the eyes of the rest of the tribe:

“The ostensible reason for holding these feasts and dances from the community’s point of view was to attract and consolidate labor in the form of productive workers in the community, good mates, and good military allies–all essential for survival in the Despot community environment. Large communities were critical for success in warfare…from the Despot’s point of view…The important element was …marshaling community or kinship labor…used … to acquire prestige goods used for display in dancing or rituals, all of which Despots could manipulate much in the same fashion as they manipulated death compensation payments…

“Critical to displaying wealth and success was the ability of the host or hosts to procure, display, and give away difficult to obtain or specialized labor-intensive items. Obtaining such objects via regional trade networks and/or by supporting local craft specialists therefore eventually became absolutely essential features of reciprocal and competitive feasting in most cases…The obligations and bonds incurred at feasts could be strengthened even further by carrying them out in ritual or sacred contexts. This is undoubtedly one reason why ritual performances are integral parts of almost all transegalitarian feasts.”

2. Reciprocator (Leadership) Societies

These are societies which can produce much greater surpluses than Despot Societies can. In these societies economic competition between aggrandizers begins in earnest. They represent an intermediate stage between Depot societies and true Big Men societies:

“The distinguishing characteristics of Leaders…are that the communities are openly nonegalitarian, that Leaders compete openly with each other within their communities, there is more emphasis on their organizing and financial role (combined with their ongoing role as warrior leaders) although still nominally for the benefit of the group, and that they initiate exchange with ex-enemies for their own benefit. Leaders are also described as being wealthier, having more wives, having larger social networks and followers, and as participating in many marriage exchanges…they are clearly an evolutionary step toward the Big Man Entrepreneurs, and differ only in degree.”

In these societies, additional means are used besides warfare to enhance the standing and prestige of aggrandizers, the major ones being bridewealth and child growth payments.

Bridewealth is wealth that must be given to the family of a bride by a suitor before a marriage can be contracted. It is an outgrowth of bride service, where the groom is expected to perform services for the brides’ family for a species period of time (bride service is found in the story of Jacob and Rachel/Leah in the Bible). In Reciprocator communities, bridewealth becomes a major avenue of acquiring wealth and power for Reciprocators. In such societies, more wealth = more (and better) wives:

“Communities without Big Men (i.e. Despot or Reciprocator communities) often give wives or pigs to allies that have sustained battle losses on their behalf…and that substitution of wealth for human lives is fairly common in societies without Big Men. By extending this principle to marriage, that is, by transforming the egalitarian ethic of exchanging a woman for a woman into the transegalitarian ethic of exchanging wealth for a woman, Reciprocators could achieve several self-serving goals:

(1) Bridewealth enables Reciprocators with economic advantages to obtain more desirable (generally more productive) wives by simply paying more than other men in the community. Bridewealth may easily have begun as a supplemental payment to bride service or other more egalitarian wife exchange arrangements.

(2)The substitution of wealth for wives enabled wealth Reciprocators to obtain more wives than they might otherwise be able to acquire, thereby acquiring more productive labor to increase their economic advantages.

(3) Bridewealth was an extremely powerful and effective mechanism for creating and enhancing wealth an power inequalities between families in the same community.

(4) Bridewealth could eventually obligate everyone who wished to marry to produce substantial amounts of surplus as well as going into debt.

(5) Bridewealth payments exceeded the net worth of most junior members of the community, thus placing junior men who wished to marry firmly under the control of, and in contractual debt to, aggrandizers with wealth. Men that wanted to marry had to attach themselves to corporate kinship groups or unrelated aggrandizers. Marriage  could thus become largely a contract (and alliance) between corporate kin groups.

(6) Bridewealth payments, like death compensation payments, could be promoted by aggrandizers as “loans” of wealth rather than payments (or a combination of the two). Reciprocators from different corporate groups could agree between themselves to reciprocally pay back these loans in a neverending cycle of exchange that not only could be portrayed to the community as solidifying relations between the groups (and ensuring the flow of mates for the future), but would also continually create a demand for the production of surpluses and of debts both between groups and within groups.” (FOI: pp. 42-43)

Maturation events were used as a means to increase the future marriage value of children. The additional investments in wealth and training only available to certain elite members of the community contributed to establishing a ranked society of elites and commoners. In such cultures, initiation ceremonies became much more complex and elaborate, and required much more costly expenses and specialized training. Think of these as a sort of primitive bar mitzvah.

“Child growth payments are simply the logical extension of bridewealth where surpluses are abundant enough to warrant still higher marriage payments…By investing wealth in children at specified life events (birth, namings, first menstruation, initiations, tattoos, piercings) and in costly training for specific roles, the parents (or corporate group) successively raises a child’s value, especially as a marriage partner. Anyone wishing to marry such a child would therefore have to provide a marriage payment (and/or funeral payment) comparable to or exceeding the amount invested in the child in order to compensate the investing group for the loss of their investments in an explicitly valued corporate member…Clearly advantageous for aggrandizers, such practices would increase the volume of exchange, stimulate expropriatable wealth production even further, and create larger, more binding debts between groups as well as within groups…This investment of labor and resources in children for exchange purposes is not fundamentally different from the investment of labor and resources in the raising and fattening of pigs or cattle for exchange.” (FOI: pp. 44-45)

In Reciprocator societies, feasts are given, and wealth is given away, but the expectation of repayment with interest by the receivers of gifts is still limited. It is encouraged, but not absolutely mandatory. This is probably because the surpluses were not yet abundant enough for people to feel confident in their ability to repay loans, so to get them to agree to accept gifts, exchanges are still considered mostly reciprocal rather than debt-based:

“It is at the Reciprocator level that individual household economic production and exchange becomes the lynchpin for acquiring wealth and power. Like contemporary small capitalists starting businesses, Reciprocators work especially hard to amass the capital necessary to begin the somewhat risky investment cycle and to enhance their subsequent relative position…Leading Reciprocators vigorously promoted a strong work ethic among all their community coresidents to pay off debts. It is also at the Reciprocator level that the manipulation of ideology to consolidate positions of power can first be discerned…for example, success at gardening and especially in producing large yams was largely attributed to the personal magical abilities of the male gardeners…”

3. Entreprenuerial Societies

These are the most productive areas with the highest capacity for regular surpluses, the richest resource base, the densest populations, and the greatest overall abundance. Many places have a significant food resource, such as salmon or tubers such as yams or taro, where they derive most of their calories. In addition to all of the tactics and strategies above, feasts are now used to generate much more formalized contractual debt obligations in which interest payments are now expected and demanded. Economic competition is ratcheted up to a prodigious level due to the richness of the tribe’s natural environment.

“Besides the intensive food production efforts of the immediate family, loans and investments become the major avenue to wealth, success, and power. Entrepreneurs therefore use all previous pretexts for establishing exchange relationships (especially death compensation and marriage payments), they initiate more individual exchange relationships, they organize larger and more elaborate feasts of many types with blatant competition between participating corporate groups and individuals, and they invest considerable amounts of wealth in child growth payments.” (FOI: pp. 51-52)

A key point is that authority is created by this achievement in overproduction, rather than invested in an inherited leadership role. Also the power of the Entrepreneur is not rooted in coercive power, but rather through social prestige. Anthropologists generally describe this as the difference between achieved status and ascribed status. Achieved status is where prestige is attained by personal efforts during one’s own lifetime, such as being a fearless warrior or skilled hunter. Such societies are described by anthropologists as “achievement-based.” Ascribed status is one where one’s status and role are determined at birth, regardless of individual achievement.

Michael Dietler describes the nature of the Entrepreneurial feast:

[Entrepreneurial feasting] involves the competitive manipulation of commensal hospitality toward the acquisition of “symbolic capital” which translates into informal political power and economic advantage. By informal political power I mean what is often called “prestige,” or…”free-floating power.” That is an ability to influence group decisions or actions which derives not from authority vested in a particular formalized status or role, but rather from the relations created and reproduced in the process of personal interaction. In this case, those are multiple relations of reciprocal obligation and sentiments of social superiority/subordination between hosts and guests, created through generous displays of hospitality…(p. 92)

This type of feasting has been described by various anthropologists in many contests ranging from Melanesia to Central America to Asia to Africa. In societies with an egalitarian political ethos, the self-interested manipulative nature of the process may be concealed or euphamized by the fact that it is carried out through the socially valued and integrated institution of generous hospitality, and it may even be perceived as a leveling device. However, this apparent leveling is merely the conversion of economic capital into “symbolic capital”. Feasts may be used as a form of…”indebtedness engineering” every bit as much as the prestation of valuables. This is quite clear in the cases where feasting is recognized by participants to be openly aggressive, but is equally operative in cases where competitive manipulation is subtly euphamized. (p. 93)

Hayden describes the proto-capitalistic behavior of these so-called Big Men Entrepreneurs:

“At the Entrepreurial level, aggrandizers had “capitalist” characteristics. Entrepreneurs had a great deal of wealth and many wives and engaged in a great deal of transactional, investment and administrative work. They sought wives and children that were hardworking and productive. Entrepreneurs tended to establish crafted prestige goods (through their regional connections to other entrepreneurs or their control over high-labor investments) to further increase their control over the finance system (e.g. the control of the coastal shell trade necessary for marriage in Highland New Guinea or the dentalium shells necessary for marriage among many groups of the Northwest)…this control over important prestige items may have been critical in the emergence of chiefdoms…In addition to controlling exchange, wherever possible, aggrandizers attempted to extend their control over basic subsistence resources to the point of even charging fees for passage through owned territories.”

“In addition to death compensation payments and competitive feasts, marriage became a primary sphere of exchange and for acquiring wealth. Not only were child growth payments elaborate, but children of elite families underwent prolonged and costly training for various roles: elite wives, political leaders, warriors, hunters, runners, ritualists. In some cases, menstrual seclusion or boys’ initiatory vision quests could be very costly and last many years. The apparent motive behind this functionally unnecessary and costly elaboration of training was to increase the value of children in terms of marriage payments and subsequent exchanges. Thus, bridewealth increased considerably in Entrepreneur communities, and affinal relationships were sought for their economic value while establishing a biological family was often of only secondary importance…”(FOI: pp. 57-58)

In these societies, warfare was no longer in the interest of Entrepreneurs, so it waned. Warfare actually got in the way of wealth acquisition and reciprocal feasting. Instead, trade networks expanded, under the control of the Entrepreneurs, who used them to acquire prestige and promotional technologies. These goods were used to burnish their own importance, and to attract supporters and followers. For example,the Kula Ring trade was a trade of prestige items (armbands and necklaces) between Trobriand Island chiefs, (and only chiefs), and a way of enhancing their power and prestige. Wealth leading to declining warfare is actually not a new, but a very old concept. The lure of profit was another new way in which Entrepreneurial Big Man attracted sycophants and supporters who were willing to work hard to increase the surpluses that they controlled. Hayden describes two major changes between Reciprocator and Entrepreneurial societies:

1. The first change involves the use of profit as a means of attracting supporters. The greater the return for profit that Entrepreneurs could offer their supporters for contributions to competitive feasts, the stronger would be the motivation of supporters to produce surpluses and to permit Entrepreneurs to influence the use of the surpluses. This would also indirectly increase the total contractual debt in the community. . .

2. The second major change from Reciprocator to Entrepreneur systems was in the importance of warfare. While warfare was still important and was avowedly manipulated by Entrepreneurs for their own economic interests, warfare could also be viewed as interfering with profitable exchange…The New Guinea ethnographers …suggest that it was more difficult to gather large numbers of warriors together for raids in Entrepreneur communities because increasing numbers of people viewed fighting as being contrary to their own marital and exchange interests. (p. 53)

It should be pointed out here that some anthropologists argue that warfare was the chief means of generating prestige in transegalitarian societies, and feasting only came to prominence after warfare was suppressed by formal states and colonial authorities in countries like New Guinea, Melanesia, and the Northwest coast of the United States.

Attracting the best possible labor was a major task of potential Entrepreneurs; only by surrounding themselves with fellow workaholics could the Entrepreneurial Big Man hope to produce the surpluses necessary to build his empire. Hayden quotes the remark of a Northwest Coast Big Man to a visiting anthropologist: “If his ‘tenants’ are good…then…he can do much (i.e. potlatching). If they are not good…he can do nothing.” Attracting and retaining the best labor thus became a major factor in the Entreprenuer’s success, or lack thereof, which is why prestige and promotional technologies become so important, leading to wider trade networks and more elaborate goods. In fact, Entrepreneurs often retained specialized craftsmen just to produce prestige and promotional technologies in order to attract desirable labor to their villages and steal them away from their rivals:

“Another important feature of transegalitarian communities [is] the central importance of attracting energetic, productive, competent, skilled, and successful labor.  It is upon the ability to attract such labor that the success of the aggrandizers, as well as their supporting or corporate groups, depends…Many ethnographies stress the strong, almost Puritan work ethic promoted by aggrandizers at all levels of transegalitarian communities and the work-oriented values sought by aggrandizers in recruiting supporters and tenants. (p. 66)…the expenditure of surpluses or profits for conspicuous displays of wealth …constituted essential advertising and self-promotion to indicate which groups were the most successful, the most wealthy, the most powerful, thereby enabling them to attract the best labor. Many types of artifacts and features were created with no apparent purpose other than to advertise success. (p. 67)

“While practical technologies served to produce food or solve material requirements of life, and while prestige technologies had inherent value that could be traded or invested, “promotional” technologies …could not be used in a practical sense, nor could they be exchanged as valuables. Promotional (advertising) technologies included objects specifically made for grave offerings or ritual offerings (and never used in other contexts), many luxury feasting foods, monumental ancestral poles, megalithic tombs and burial mounds. Obviously prestige objects sometimes were also used as promotional objects, especially when they were destroyed…”

Max Weber claimed that Protestantism led to the austere work ethic and self-denial necessary to produce capitalism, but it turns out that such attitudes extend all the way back to the Stone Age.

Three fundamental changes take place in societies at the Entrepreneurial level that set the stage for the transition to the next level in social complexity–chiefdoms. One, the leaders now begin to regularly claim to have some sort of supernatural power or esoteric knowledge; that is, they begin to manipulate the religious belief systems of the tribe as a method of legitimizing their own authority. The second change is that leadership roles increasingly begin to be passed down to the Entrepreneur’s descendants, although still not through any formalized institutions. There is no heredity “office” of Big Man, yet most Big Men strongly encouraged their sons to follow in their footsteps, much like ambitious Entrepreneurs do today. And third, Entrepreneurs use their influence and authority to command massive labor pools to build much more elaborate feasting facilities and ritual structures with which to enhance their image and emphasize their special connection with the ancestors or gods (as exemplified by structures such as Göbekli Tepe and Stonehenge).

“Beginning in Reciprocator communities, supernatural claims to power constitute one strategy that aggrandizers in most areas of the world attempted to use in order to bolster their influence and power. Supernatural claims could…be used as important validation or legitimization for Reciprocator, Entrepreneur and chiefly privileges…aggrandizers…promoted death cults for their ancestors who were portrayed as supernaturally powerful (often involving the reverence of preserved heads or bodies)…In all transegalitarian societies, aggrandizers have probably attempted to promote and manipulate belief in their own supernatural powers and in the powers and in the power of their ancestors for their own benefit. But it is only as the economic power of aggrandizers increases that they can convince other community members to accept these claims, and can appropriate more overtly the prerogative of being the primary communicator with, and spokesman for the will of, powerful ancestors or other spirits.”

“Aggrandizers therefore frequently devised the construction of ancestral “ritual” structures, including burial grounds and shrines that made manifest the power and importance of their ancestors…Such structures included death cult structures; men’s houses used by the Entrepreneur and his ceremonial support group as residences, sacrificial huts, feasting and cooking shelters; wealth display huts; ceremonial grounds; and “temples.” (p. 56)

“Finally, there is some tendency for roles to be inherited even in Despot communities, the tendency is stronger in Reciprocator communities, and much stronger in Entrepreneurial communities. About 75% of New Guinea Entrepreneur Big Men had fathers that were also Big Men…”

In addition to feasting facilities, Entrepreneurs also begin to construct “men clubhouses” where they and their allies can segregate themselves from the rest of society, and where invitation is by “members only.” Gaining access to the clubhouse thus becomes another motivating factor for supporting a Big Man and economic overproduction. Entrepreneurial Big Men set themselves apart from the rest of society by claiming some sort of esoteric knowledge that only they possess such as an ability to communicate with distant ancestors or the ability to intercede with the gods on behalf of the tribe. They often liked to depict their success as being due to supernatural forces, and depicted themselves as  “rainmakers” (which in some cases, they literally claimed to be!) The importance of elites setting themselves apart from the herd is evident even today with our exclusive resorts, gated communities, members-only golf clubs, downtown athletic clubs patronized by wealthy business elites, invitation-only black tie events, and executive washrooms, just to name a few.

4. Chiefdoms

Chiefdoms were a very common political arrangement before the rise of states. Chiefs were now hereditary offices, passed down from father to son (or within a ruling family). Per Wikipedia, “A chiefdom is a form of hierarchical political organization …usually based on kinship… in which formal leadership is monopolized by the legitimate senior members of select families or ‘houses’. These elites form a political-ideological aristocracy relative to the general group…chiefs lead because of their ascribed status, not their achieved status.”

Hayden ascribes the following four characteristics that distinguish chiefdoms from Entrepreneurial societies:

“First, chiefdoms occur in environments that lend themselves to even greater surplus production and intensification than Entrepreneur communities, often involving intensive agricultural practices and irrigation.” (FOI: p. 63)

“Second …Entrepreneurs could …invest so much wealth in the growth payments for their children that only families of other chiefs (or elites) could provide the requisite bridewealth. Even at the Entrepreneur level, the tendency for children of Entrepreneurs to marry the children of other Entrepreneurs is pronounced…This practice would have excluded a large number of people from being able to compete with the chief for the ultimate control of the debt system, resulting in an almost closed class system in which strict heredity of resources, wealth, and power became established. Thus, the hereditary aspect of chiefdom may be incidental and not central to the emergence or functioning of chiefdoms…” (FOI: pp. 63-64)

Third, because of this development, profit-based Entrepreneur competitive feasts (used primarily by the general populace as a means to select aggrandizers or corporate groups for support when succession was not fixed) were emptied of their function and disappeared…ostentatious material displays became most pronounced when there was uncertainty in reckoning relative status…Nevertheless, the chief is still expected to “give” considerable quantities of goods to community members and especially to other elites…However, power and support no longer appear to be predicated on providing direct investment profits to supporters in return for their feast contributions. Rather, benefits to contributors seem to be of a more indirect nature. (p. 64)

A fourth observation… is the extension, intensification, and elaboration of the importance and use of ancestors to validate claims to power. Chiefs become the direct descendants of the most powerful ancestors and the main priests of the ancestral cult. Communities are organized into real and fictitious lines of descendants from founding ancestors (clans). Chiefs, like transegalitarian corporate heads, erect monumental ritual structures to promote their ancestors as powerful supernatural agents. (p. 64)

That last point becomes especially important in a book by anthropologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus called The Creation of Inequality, which surveys anthropological literature from all over the world to determine the prehistoric origins of hereditary inequality. Flannery and Marcus point out that heredity inequality is a product of manipulation of the social logic of any society in order to justify hereditary claims on leadership. They also argue that such a change in the social logic is indicated archaeologically by the  construction of temples to replace men’s clubhouses, indicating that one particular lineage or clan has achieved primacy over all the others, signifying that it alone has a special and unique  relationship with the tribal deities:

“We…take note of a change that accompanied the rise of many rank societies: men’s houses were replaced by temples. This change reflects an important social and political transition. Men’s houses were built by clans or Big Men and tended to be places where men sat around communing with their ancestors. Temples tended to be places where actual deities lived on a full-time or part-time basis. Temples were staffed not by initiated clansmen but by people trained as priests. Often the construction of a temple was directed by the chief because, after all, there were supernatural spirits in his ancestry.” (COE: 210)

Flannery and Marcus dismiss feasting as a source of hierarchical power. They write:

[some archaeologists]…have argued…that hereditary inequality was generated by competitive feasting. There are several problems with this oversimplification. As we have seen…competitive feasting in achievement-based societies usually escalated only after warfare had ceased to be a path to prominence. Instead of creating hereditary rank, it produced individual Big Men who had no way of bequeathing renown to their offspring…if feasting were all it took to produce hereditary inequality, there would have been no achievement-based societies left for anthropologists to study (COE: 199)

I think they misunderstand the feasting theory, however. The feasting theory does not argue that every society that practices competitive feasting will end up with hereditary inequality. As Hayden indicates above, whether or not that happens depends on a constellation of other factors such as the amount and nature of the surplus, how easily it is controlled and appropriated, the nature of the labor it takes in order to produce it (cooperative versus individual households), the population density, the presence or absence of warfare, and the supernatural belief systems. Feasting in delayed-return societies begins the snowball of inequality, but whether that process ends with Big Men, Chiefs or Kings varies by location, culture and time period.

Flannery and Marcus argue that hereditary inequality begins when one segment of society actively manipulates the social logic of the society in order to set themselves up as superior. Often times this was accomplished by an appeal to supernatural forces. This is why the segment of society that sets itself above the rest builds temples: such sacred structures demonstrate their claim on a connection to divine authority as the justification for their favored status vis a vis the rest of the society.

They use the example of the Kachin, a Burmesese hill tribe who have both ranked and non-ranked societies, studied by Edmund Leach in the 1940’s. In the ranked societies, one lineage convinces all the others that is descended from the spirits (nats) who control the village, and therefore, it has a right to rule over the village. They note that a ruling class often recounts a special claim to descent from a either favored elder ancestor or higher-level spirit. For example:

Anthropologist Jonathan Friedman’s scenario begins with a [Kachin] society whose lineages are equal in rank…Each local lineage has its own set of ancestor spirits, arranged in short genealogies of three or four generations. There is also a village nat (spirit) whose domain is the local territory. On a higher plane than earth lie the earth nats and sky spirits which, in the egalitarian mode of Kachin society, can receive sacrifices from any lineage through the intervention of ancestral spirits….the creation of hereditary rank takes place when one lineage convinces all the others that the village nat is its ancestor. That move converts one Kachin social unit into a chiefly lineage, descended from the nat who rules the whole territory. At this point the Kachin revise the cosmology to allege that their most highly ranked lineage is descended from Madai, while their lower-ranking lineages are descended from the lesser nat Thunder. (COE: 198)


In Kachin society the lineages that worked the hardest and produced the greatest surplus could sponsor the most prestigious sacrifices and feed the most visitors. Their fellow Kachin, however, did not attribute such success to hard work; they believed that one only obtained good harvests through proper sacrifices to the nats. Wealth was seen not so much as the product of labor (and control over other’s labor) as the result of pleasing the appropriate celestial spirits. The key shift in social logic was therefore from “They must have pleased the nats” to “They must be descended from higher nats than we are.” (COE: 199)

Another key insight is that leaders achieved power not by becoming the “alpha” of a particular group, but rather no leader could ever rise higher than a “gamma” in any particular society. They note that Chimpanzees naturally set themselves in a natural hierarchy of alphas, betas, and gammas. In hierarchical human societies, however, the alphas were always the gods (or God), the betas were the ancestors or ancestral spirits, and the leaders were merely the “gammas,” the “bottom” tier of the supernatural hierarchy. By invoking this logic they were able to convince others of their claims on power. In many of their anthropological descriptions, a ruling lineage or clan typically claims descent from a first-born ancestor (or last-born in societies where the youngest inherits property), and thus they “inherit” the leadership claims of that society. The leaders of these clans serve as paramount chiefs, with “lower-ranked” clans serving as lesser chiefs and subchiefs, all determined by the lineages of long-departed ancestors.  No doubt this became more common as societies became larger and more complex, and more heirachical leadership was called for. Why not look to the ancestors for justification?

Interestingly, Flannery and Marcus also raise the possibility of debt dynamics giving rise to ranked societies:

There is a third scenario for the establishment of rank society among Tibeto-Burman speakers…Its premises are to be found in Leach’s description of Kachin marriage and the mayudama system.

In the 1940s a moderately well-to-do Kachin groom might have to give his bride’s lineage four head of cattle, plus valuables such as slit-gongs, swords and spears, coats and blankets, and pottery vessels. In many cases the haggling over bride-price went on for a long time, with negotiators using tally sticks to represent cattle and valuables.

Often a groom had to go into debt to pay for a bride. This was as true for wealthy grooms as for ordinary grooms, since bride-price was set higher for the former. One of the contradictions of Kachin logic was that bride-price was supposed to reflect the prominence of the bride’s family, while in practice it reflected what the bride’s family believed the groom could pay. A prominent groom could thus go even further into debt than a man of modest means. It is no accident that the Kachin word hka meant both “debt” and “feud.” Although debts might be left unpaid for long periods, thereby allowing social relations to continue, failure to pay could eventually have repercussions.

In Charles Dickens’s England there were debtors’ prisons for those who failed to repay their creditors. The Kachin punishment was just as grim: debt slavery. Many Kachin, unable to pay their loans, had to sell themselves into bondage to work off such debts. Leach estimates that in days of old, up to 50 percent of the Kachin may have been mayam, or slaves, nearly all owned by the chiefs or village headmen who extended the loans. A rule …held a debtor’s whole lineage accountable for his failure to pay. This swelled the ranks of the mayam.

Slaves in societies such as the Kachin, to be sure, do not fit our stereotype of chattel slavery in the pre-1860 United States. Mayam status was more like that of an illegitimate child, or a poor son-in-law working off his bride service. Debt slaves were considered Kachins, but of a particularly low lineage. Some eventually worked off their debts or married into nonslave lineages.

We consider debt slavery a third scenario that might have brought about the inequality of lineages, both among the Kachin and (as we saw earlier) the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest….(COE: 199-200)

An even more grim depiction is provided by David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years:

…One extreme possibility might be the situation of the French anthropologist Jean-Claude Galey encountered in a region of the eastern Himalayas, where as recently as the 1970s, the low-ranking castes–they were referred to as “the vanquished ones,” since they were thought to be descended from a population once conquered by the current landlord caste many centuries before–lived in a situation of permanent debt dependency. Landless and penniless, they were obliged to solicit loans form the landlords simply to find a way to eat–not for the money since the sums were paltry, but because poor debtors were expected to pay back the interest in the form of work, which meant they were at least provided with food and shelter while they cleaned out their creditors’ outhouses and reroofed their sheds.

For the “vanquished”–as for most people in the world, actually–the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals. There required a good deal of money, which always had to be borrowed. In such cases it was common practice, Galey explains, for high-caste moneylenders to demand one of the borrower’s daughters as security. Often, when a poor man had to borrow money for his daughters marriage, the security would be the bride herself. She would be expected to report to the lender’s household after her wedding night, spend a few months there as his concubine, and then, once he grew bored, be sent off to some nearly timber camp, where she would have to spend the next year or two as a prostitute working off her father’s debt. Once it was paid off, she’d return to he husband and begin married life.(DF5KY: 9)

Another argument for hereditary inequity is simply this: why not choose leaders via heredity? How else to do it? Heredity inheritance prevents squabbles over leadership succession and ensures an orderly transition. We have notions of “meritocracy” and “fairness” ingrained in us by Western Liberal Democracy, but ancient people did not have such conceptions, by-and-large (Greek city-states were highly unique even in the ancient world). Thus, choosing leaders by descent is not so illogical as we might think at first, as this review of The Creation of Inequality points out:

…Students in my global history class at Notre Dame struggle to understand societies that esteem birth more highly than wealth and that rate breeding above achievement. Yet such values are normal—or have been for thousands of years—because, despite the unwillingness of Americans to acknowledge it, heredity is a rational, practical, scientifically grounded basis for selecting leaders.

Societies that adopt the hereditary principle do so because it is consistent with common observations: Leadership qualities often run in families and, as we now suppose, can be encoded in heritable genes. By limiting contenders for power, heredity makes violent disputes less frequent than in societies run by competing alpha males. Inherited authority discourages corruption and reduces factionalism and partisanship. There is, on balance, less chance of tyranny than under the rule of toughs or visionaries. As with every system, there are disadvantages: Some leaders are bound to be incapacitated by incompetence, sickness or insanity; dynasties become extinct. In the U.S., however, the advantages of a hereditary system elude most people’s attention, perhaps because Americans are so used to seeing themselves as models for the world. “Why can’t others be more like us?” is the implicit question. The often unnoticed answer is: “Why should they be?”

We see in societies that allow unlimited jockeying for power by elites, society is torn apart and riven by civil strife and conflict. A classic case is the late Roman Empire (as well as the late Republic), where constant internal divisions and civil wars tore the empire apart and contributed to its downfall. Although Greek cities sometimes chose their leaders by ballots from the polis, on a larger scale this was difficult given the resources limitations in the ancient world. Hereditary leadership – essentially running the entire proto-state as the “household” of the ruling family, had a certain logic to it.

I would also point to the distinction between de facto hereditary leadership, and de jure hereditary leadership. I suspect the former was present for thousands of years before gradually evolving into the latter by osmosis. For example, in the United States, most contenders for higher office come from a closed circle of elite dynastic families (Bushes, Clintons, Kennedys, etc.), and as inequality becomes more and more pronounced, that circle grows ever tighter. George W. Bush managed to become president despite almost total incompetence even in our “merit-based” democracy. Another Bush son ran for office this year against the wife of a former president, but was upset by the scion of another wealthy elite family who is clearly intent on setting up a dynasty of his own (much of his transition team is comprised of close family members). People are encouraging the wife of the current president to run for elected office. The current prime minister of Canada is the son of a former prime minister. And in Russia, Vladimir Putin has established essentially permanent rule despite the formal existence of elections and democracy.

My guess is that the Iron Law of Oligarchy kicks in over time and limits leadership to a small circle or hereditary elites in any complex society over a few thousand people, regardless of what the nominal system of government happens to be. Eventually, one individual or family wins out over all the others. But such leaders have always been mostly symbolic; in a complex society, no one individual has any hope at all of controlling all the parts and pieces. The difference is, post-Enlightenment societies have to pretend that it is otherwise in order to maintain a veneer of legitimacy.


5. Archaeological Indicators

Hayden considers what sort of archaeological evidence would help determine where along this spectrum a past society would have fallen. Some of the archaeological indicators he cites are:

1.) A Despot society would show evidence of lots of warfare; therefore skeletons showing signs of wounding and violent death would be common.

2.) Beginning with Reciprocator societies, much wealth was expended in marriages and child maturation events. Thus, we would expect to see much more lavish burials of women and children, with rare and luxury grave gods advertising their higher status than commoners.

3.) Obviously, as certain people became more important in their respective societies, we would expect to see either much more elaborate and lavish burials of these individuals, or such individuals and families buried separately from the “commoners,” often in different burial grounds. More elaborate grave goods and personal adornment (jewelry, etc,) would be found in such elite graves. Mummification indicates the sacred status of certain elites.

4.) The need for prestige and promotional goods for Entrepreneurs to display their wealth and status and attract supporters from other villages would lead to greatly expanded regional trading networks. Increasingly, “luxury” goods which were much finer and of higher quality than those used by commoners would be found in such societies. Goods used especially for feasting such as elaborate storage and drinking vessels would be expected to be found. Elites begin to support full-time specialized craftsmen and establish trading networks among themselves over wide geographical areas.

5.) Houses of leaders would be expected to be much larger and more elaborate than those of the average person.

6.) Ritual structures not used for everyday purposes like habitation or food storage would be found in societies where Entrepreneurs emphasized their connection to the ancestors and manipulated religious beliefs for their own benefit. Feasting centers, men’s clubhouses, ritual centers, sacrificial altars and eventually primitive temples would be found in the remains of Entrepreneur settlements, indicating greater and greater degrees of hierarchy.

“In brief, emphasis on death compensations and the management of warfare should be reflected in fortifications, armor, violent deaths, parry fractures, and settlement patterns. Emphasis on the control of brideprice payments can lead to the formation of residential corporate groups in extreme cases, possible female-oriented cults and figurines, and richly endowed adult female burials in cultures where wealth is buried with the dead. Use of child growth payments can generally be expected to lead to rich child burials in cultures where wealth is interred with the dead. Use of surpluses to obtain political power and some control of others’ products will involve the development of prestige technologies. Reliance on reciprocal and competitive feasts can result in the development of prestige food vessels, initial forms of public architecture, regional trade, and domesticated feasting foods. Investment strategies with interest payments can be expected to lead to wider regional trade networks, higher volumes of of prestige goods, increased craft specialization, and, frequently, systems of numeration in physical form. Finally, the auxiliary emphasis on ancestral power to justify claims to supernatural abilities should affect burial practices, evidence for cults (e.g. the keeping of skulls), and the occurrence of special burial or cult structures.” (p. 76)

Feasting also gives us a very good explanation about how we eventually stumbled into agriculture as a way of life. The need to produce greater and greater surpluses to repay the requisite interest to Entrepreneurs and to throw increasingly elaborate feasts as a means to acquire power and prestige led to ever more intensification, which eventually resulted in domestication proper. That’s what we’ll be considering next time.

FSI: Foundations of Social Inequality. edited by T. Douglas Price, Gary M. Feinman

MIA: Man in Adaptation: The Institutional Framework. Yehudi Cohen, editor.

COE: The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus

DF5KY: Debt, The First 5000 Years. David Graeber.

The Feasting Theory

1. Prologue

Powerful, selfish, aggrandizing individuals on the top of society work night and day to produce a surplus with which they lure everyone else into debt. Those debts must be paid back with interest. In order to pay back the interest on the debt, everyone else in the society is forced to work harder and longer. The need to pay back loans with interest necessitates a system of constant growth. As the debts are paid back, the elites plow the capital and the interest back into even more surplus production and more loans to keep everyone else indebted to them, forcing another ratcheting up of the system. In the end, the environment is stripped bare and people end up working harder than ever in an effort to pay back the interest on loans, and a feedback loop is created of surplus, debt, interest, growth, and intensification.

Sound familiar?

Am I describing the modern capitalist economy? The modern money system? No, I’m describing the economy in prehistory.

2. The Dawn of Feasting

Early archaeologists used to depict all humans prior to the introduction of agriculture as small, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands numbering between 20 – 150 individuals moving about following the seasonal cycles of plants and animals. They owned no private property, had few possessions, cultivated no crops, had no art, mathematics, writing or literature, and constructed nothing more complex that the odd humpy, when they weren’t living in a cave, that is. Most significantly, they had no government and no social hierarchy.

As anthropologists went around the world studying various cultures, they realized that this simplistic narrative was not entirely accurate. They were amazed to find many examples all over the world of societies which practiced no agriculture, and yet nonetheless had permanent and semi-permanent settlements, made complex works of art and other objects, had rich oral traditions, possessed certain rudimentary forms of “property rights,” used sophisticated tools, constructed large monuments and temples of wood and stone, and, most significantly, had a complex hierarchy and leadership structure bordering on “government.” There are many subtleties, but anthropologists broadly characterized these societies as “complex hunter-gatherers” (or complex foragers , or sometimes “affluent foragers”), and “horticulturalists.” Furthermore, they distinguished between “immediate return” and “delayed return” hunter gatherers.

Immediate-return hunter-gatherers are what most people imagine when they use the term – they simply live off the fat of the land. Delayed-return hunter-gatherers still get most of their food from hunting and collecting plant foods, yet they make “investments” in their environment such as planting seeds, cultivating certain crops, burning underbrush, protecting favored herds from predators, breeding animals, and a host of other behaviors that will lead to increased returns of food at a later date, yet do not qualify as “agriculture” as we commonly define it. Delayed return hunter-gatherers also store food.

Complex hunter-gatherers typically concentrate on one superabundant food source that allows them to remain in one location. The classic example is the fishing cultures of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America which relied on abundant salmon runs as their principle food source. Key differences between complex foragers and simple hunter-gatherers include (taken from this source):

  • Mobility: Complex hunter-gatherers live in the same place for most of the year, or even for longer periods, in contrast to generalized hunter-gatherers who stay in one place for shorter periods and move around a lot.
  • Economy: Complex hunter-gatherers subsistence involves a large amount of food storage, whereas simple hunter-gatherers usually consume their food as soon as they harvest it. For example, among Northwest Coast populations, storage involved both meat and fish desiccation as well as creating social bonds that allowed them to have access to resources from other environments.
  • Households: Complex hunter-gatherers don’t live in small and mobile camps, but in long-term, organized households and villages. These are also clearly visible archaeologically. On the Northwest Coast, households were shared by 30 to 100 people.
  • Resources: Complex hunter-gatherers do not harvest only what is available around them, they focus on gathering specific and very productive food products and combining them with other, secondary resources. For example, in the Northwest Coast subsistence was based on salmon, but also other fish and mollusks and in smaller amounts on the forest products. Furthermore, salmon processing through desiccation involved the work of many people at the same time.
  • Technology: Both generalized and complex hunter-gatherers tend to have sophisticated tools. Complex hunter-gatherers don’t need to have light and portable objects, therefore they can invest more energy in larger and specialized tools to fish, hunt, harvest. Northwest Coast populations, for example, constructed large boats and canoes, nets, spears and harpoons, carving tools and desiccation devices.
  • Population: In North America, complex hunter-gatherers had larger populations than small size agricultural villages. Northwest Coast had among the highest population rate of North America. Villages size spanned between 100 and more than 2000 people.
  • Social hierarchy: complex hunter-gatherers had social hierarchies, and even inherited leadership. These positions included prestige, social status, and sometimes power. Northwest Coast populations had two social classes: slaves and free people. Free people were divided into chiefs and elite, a lower noble group, and commoners, who were free people with no titles and therefore with no access to leadership positions. Slaves were mostly war captives. Gender was also an important social category. Noble women had often high rank status. Finally, social status was expressed through material and immaterial elements, such as luxury goods, jewels, rich textiles, but also feasts and ceremonies.

Horticultural (or Gardening) societies are ones which cultivate certain key or desirable food resources which provide the bulk of their calories in small garden plots. They often breed certain animals for food, such as pigs or chickens. They sometimes store food, or use surplus food to feed to their animals as a form of storage (in New Guinea, excess yams are used to fatten pigs which are subsequently used for food). These garden plots and animal pens mean that such societies are usually at least semi-stationary, often occupying “home bases” throughout much of the year. Horticultural societies can be defined as:

A horticultural society is a social system based on horticulture, a mode of production in which digging sticks are used to cultivate small gardens. This type of society emerged around 7000 BC in Asia and it was the first type of society to actually grow their own food rather than simply gather existing food and hunt animals. As a result, the accumulation of food and goods was possible and with it, a more complex division of labor, more substantial dwellings, and a small amount of trade.

Examples of the above were found by anthropologists in places like the Pacific Northwest coast, the New Guinea highlands, certain other parts of North America and Southwest Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands and Melanesia. By studying these societies, anthropologists gained key insights into how hierarchy, leadership, and government slowly emerged from egalitarian nomadic foraging bands.

One of them is archaeologist Brian Hayden of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. His work centered around one of the world’s major complex foraging societies: the salmon fishing cultures of the Pacific Northwest. These were cultures which practiced no agrarian farming, and yet had a rich, complex culture, with various levels of chiefs, rank stratification, permanent villages, and even slaves. Hayden wondered how societies transformed from ones where everything was once accessible to all and hierarchy minimal, to ones in which key resources were under the exclusive control of individuals and families, and people became ranked from birth.

Hayden characterizes societies undergoing this transition as transegalitarian societies. There are societies where there is a clear ranking of individuals, yet there are no “formal” offices or any kind of institutional “government.” Leadership is by consensus on an ad-hoc basis rather than coercion and cannot be inherited. Anthropologists recognized that these societies were the bridge between Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and the complex states most of live under today.

Transegalitarian hunter-gathers, also known as complex hunter-gatherers, have been defined as those hunter-gatherer societies that display some degree of socioeconomic inequality, follow a sedentary or semisedentary settlement pattern with permanent dwellings grouped in relatively dense settlements, and exhibit socioeconomic inequality through the use of prestige goods or other such measures. Many groups also possess methods for storing surplus foods. (PRP: 125)

It is now thought that a number of human societies in certain resource-rich and favorable locations prior to the Neolithic Revolution can be thought of in the above terms rather than as simply “immediate return” or simple hunter-gathers. Archaeologists refer to a “broad spectrum revolution” in human prehistory where we began relying more on plant foods that could be harvested, processed, and stored, rather than exclusively on big-game hunting. For example, nuts and seeds could be shelled, pounded, soaked and stored in pits; salmon could be smoked. In fact, granaries actually predate agriculture, indicating that food storage goes back a long way. It is thought that this emphasis on plant foods was an adaptation to the changing climate at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (Ice Age), when the great herds disappeared or moved north, the megafauna died off due to a changing climate or perhaps human predation (most likely a bit of both) and carbon in the atmosphere was increasing, spurring the growth of plants. Plant foods were just easier to get, so that’s what we focused on  (even though they were much more work to process).

In such complex societies where the food production could be steadily increased through individual and cooperative effort and stored for long periods of time, people no longer had to worry about absolute scarcity; they could instead produce a fairly reliable surplus. This surplus was used as a way for certain individuals to gain power and prestige, and snowball that into hereditary leadership positions and hierarchical social rank as the society grew and became larger and more complex. This explains how societies where everything was once held in common were transformed into ones where key resources were “owned” by certain individuals and families, and decision-making become confined to prominent elites rather than being determined by group consensus. It is important to recognize that such changes took place over very long stretches of time, sometimes thousands of years.

In the Pleistocene, humans and their immediate ancestors made their living primarily as big-game hunters. The hunting of large mammals required extraordinary coordination and teamwork which is only possible with a social group species. But why cooperate in the hunt if some alpha is just going to keep all the meat for himself? Hoarding and autocratic control would undermine the cooperation necessary for successful group hunting. Therefore, equal sharing of the kill prevailed, and overt hierarchy was suppressed, as Christopher Boehm, author of Hierarchy in the Forest explains:

People started hunting large ungulates, or hoofed mammals. They were very dedicated to hunting, and it was an important part of their subsistence…my theory is that you cannot have alpha males if you are going to have a hunting team that shares the meat fairly evenhandedly, so that the entire team stays nourished. In order to get meat divided within a band of people who are by nature pretty hierarchical, you have to basically stomp on hierarchy and get it out of the way…My hypothesis is that when they started large game hunting, they had to start really punishing alpha males and holding them down. That set up a selection pressure in the sense that, if you couldn’t control your alpha tendencies, you were going to get killed or run out of the group, which was about the same as getting killed. Therefore, self-control became an important feature for individuals who were reproductively successful. And self-control translates into conscience.

Boehm calls this “a conspiracy of the weak to dominate the strong.” Under this system, aggressive bullies would not be tolerated. They would be ganged up on and rejected by the group, or otherwise humiliated. One way to accomplish this is through gossip; another is through ridicule, and both were likely deployed on a regular basis, as they still are today, in fact. Notice how the antics and foibles of today’s celebrities and politicians provide grist for thousands of media outlets and comedians. The “social brain hypothesis” posits that navigating the complex world of social interactions was what drove human intelligence, and by extension, brain growth, which roughly doubled during the Pleistocene. Large amounts of meat would have provided the raw material for such growth, and quite possibly, fire would have freed up scarce bioenergetic resources. Cooked food would have unlocked more energy from food allowing our teeth, jaws and guts to shrink, allowing our skulls to expand and more food energy to be dedicated to brain growth.

By contrast, in societies where everyone was assured a minimal food supply in good times and bad, and the landbase could tolerate more intensive growing/breeding efforts, the old social restrictions against excess accumulation were lifted and the requirement to share with the rest of the tribe were relaxed. In places where “individual effort” and “hard work” could bring forth fairly reliable food surpluses without damaging the resource base, it was determined that this increase would belong to the person or persons who produced it in the interest of “fairness.” This was the beginning of intensification and private property.

“Under conditions where resources become significantly more abundant, more dependable, and less vulnerable to overexploitation than in generalized hunter-gatherer communities (due to a new extractive and/or storage technology combined with favorable productive environments), it is no longer critical to share all resources since most domestic groups can be assured of adequate food under normal conditions. In contrast to egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities where even the most determined efforts to procure food could often meet with limited success, resources in transegalitarian communities could be had easily enough in normal times so that lack of food was due more to laziness than bad luck.”

“Under these conditions families began to produce food exclusively for themsleves and claim ownership rights over the food they produced and stored. Direct ownership over procured food became especially important where extra effort was required to properly prepare foods for long-term storage and where there was a need to conserve stored foods for use during lean seasons. One’s self-interest dictated that the effort spent to obtain food (where everyone could satisfy their own needs) should primarily benefit oneself. Direct ownership was essential to prevent excessive “mooching,” a pervasive emic theme in many transegalitarian ethnographies…”(FOI)

This is in stark contrast to simple foraging societies where:

“Economic surpluses  are limited or inconsequential or unreliable. The uncertainties of success in hunting and gathering render sharing necessary for survival. For similar reasons, there is no restricted access to resources, no competition over resources, and no accumulation of wealth.”(FOI)

Anthropologists have noted that nearly every culture across the world throws regular feasts. Moreover, such behavior goes very far back in history:

A huge ancient settlement used by the people who built Stonehenge has been found, archaeologists have said.

Excavations at Durrington Walls, near the legendary Salisbury Plain monument, uncovered remains of ancient houses. People seem to have occupied the sites seasonally, using them for ritual feasting and funeral ceremonies. In ancient times, this settlement would have housed hundreds of people, making it the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain.

Professor Parker Pearson …thinks the settlement was probably not lived in all year round. Instead, he believes, Stonehenge and Durrington formed a religious complex used for funerary rituals. He believes it drew Neolithic people from all over the region, who came for massive feasts in the midwinter, where prodigious quantities of food were consumed. The bones were then tossed on the floors of the houses. “The rubbish isn’t your average domestic debris. There’s a lack of craft-working equipment for cleaning animal hides and no evidence for crop-processing,” he said. “The animal bones are being thrown away half-eaten. It’s what we call a feasting assemblage. This is where they went to party – you could say it was the first free festival.”

Stonehenge builders’ houses found (BBC)

It began with the excavation of an oval grave pit in the cave floor. Next, a layer of objects was cached between large stones, including seashells, a broken basalt palette, red ochre, chalk, and several complete tortoise shells. These were covered by a layer of sediment containing ashes, and garbage composed of flint and animal bones. About halfway through the ritual, the woman was laid inside the pit in a child-bearing position, and special items including many more tortoise shells were placed on top of and around her. This was followed by another layer of filling and limestones of various sizes that were placed directly on the body. The ritual concluded with the sealing of the grave with a large, heavy stone.

A wide range of activities took place in preparation for the funerary event. This included the collection of materials required for grave construction, and the capture and preparation of animals for the feast, particularly the 86 tortoises, which must have been time-consuming. “The significant pre-planning implies that there was a defined ‘to do’ list, and a working plan of ritual actions and their order,” said Prof. Grosman.

Reconstruction of 12,000 year old funeral feast brings ancient burial rituals to life (Science Daily)

With abundant and reliable surpluses, throwing large feasts became a way to convert those surpluses into wider social food-sharing networks that would act as hedges against periodic shortages in one particular geographic area. In other words, it was an early form of risk-pooling (or insurance). Such feasts also acted as bonding events where people would reaffirm their connections to the gods and to each other through ritual, song, and dance. At such feasting events, marriages would be arranged, goods would be exchanged, and military alliances would be sealed, all under the watchful gaze of the gods and the ancestors:

“Once people began keeping and, where necessary, storing produce for themselves, it would have been natural to produce surpluses as hedges against periodic shortages or even to produce surpluses for minor exchange or gifts as had always been the practice among hunter-gatherers at a small scale to create alliances… Thus, it should be adaptive for most families to store somewhat more than needed on an annual basis but not so much that the extra surplus can never be used. This leaves many families with a regular overproduction of surplus in normal years. Can this unneeded surplus be used to further reduce risks? In order to do so, some means must be found that is capable of transforming food surpluses into other useful goods, services, debts, or relationships. I argue that the transegalitarian feasting complex constitutes the primary mechanism for doing this.”

Regular feasting was a thus a risk-reduction strategy that was possible in places with a suitably abundant resource base. In hunter-gatherer societies where food was not grown or stored, risk reduction strategies were much more limited. Your options were pretty much confined to simple food sharing, moving on to other locations, or expropriating the resources of other tribes through raiding. Feasting would have been an ideal strategy for complex foragers/horticulturalists because it would have differentiated those individuals and groups capable of producing large, reliable food surpluses from those who could not. This served as a way to ensure that only those who could could contribute were allowed into the ‘feasting circle,’ and exclude any outsiders and moochers, thus spurring continuously higher production which hedged against future shortages. Think Stone-Age potluck:

“Simple hunting and gathering bands overwhelmingly relied on sharing, territoriality, regional alliances, mobility, and the creation of enemies to cope with high-risk situations. Due to the overriding importance of the obligatory sharing of resources in most band societies…agriculture was incompatible with simple forager risk-reduction strategies…semiprivate ownership and storage had to be established before agriculture could be expected to develop.”

“…it is likely that with the emergence of complex hunting and gathering societies (where individual ownership of produce and resource areas was the norm), a number of new risk-reduction strategies developed while some previously used strategies underwent major transformations. The new strategies emphasized by complex hunter-gatherers included storage, manipulation of plants and animals (encompassing transplanting and cultivation, clam gardens, stocking of fish, and “fire-stick farming”), exchanges of wealth for food, improved subsistence procurement and extraction technologies, feasting, and possibly centralized redistribution. In place of reciprocal sharing, strategies such as the long-term storage of privately owned produce by individual families or kin groups provided the most reliable means to manage the variability in resource availability from day to day and from year to year. Those who could produce surpluses on a large enough scale could also acquire prestige items that could be exchanged for food in times of need (simple food exchange).”

“…private ownership of resources and produce were incompatible with community-wide obligatory sharing as a risk-reduction strategy. However, pooling risk through restricted reciprocal-sharing networks involved selected productive and reliable individuals would have been a very effective risk-reduction strategy. The result, I suggest, was the emergence of adaptive feasting-based “social safety networks” that pooled risks within certain segments of communities but demanded continuous surplus contributions from members.”

“Because feasting is repeated at regular intervals and because it demands surplus economic production and contributions, it is performance grounded and capable of easily and effectively eliminating freeloaders and cheaters. They are simply not invited to participate in subsequent events and are thus excluded from support networks. Undesirable noncontributors can be, and are, eliminated from the network even if they are kin. Thus, successful feasting dramatically reduces the risks surrounding food production, procreation, and survival in unstable and conflict-ridden environments but effectively ties this to being productive in subsistence and committed to contributing goods and labor to networking endeavors. Feasting establishes the personal ties upon which transegalitarian social safety networks are predicated.”

Such food-sharing networks would have been manipuated by elites or those with wider social connections, such as headmen or shamans. Therefore, food-sharing regional networks would also have played a role in contributing to inequality:

“Elite members of transegalitarian societies created unusually long-distance networks based on kinship, ritual ties, and exchange relationships. Maintaining such networks entailed great expenditures and considerable time. In contrast, normal community members maintained, on average, much smaller and more local networks. Thus, elites would have had greater flexibility to cope with resource fluctuations.”

“In addition to kinship networks, ritual continued to be used as a means of establishing or reinforcing close reciprocal cooperative bonds between members of different communities only involved elite and wealthy individuals. I suspect that such elite ritual organizations took the form of regional secret societies with costly membership fees and specialized facilities and paraphernalia (hence the regional archaeological ritual centers such as Gobeckli Tepe in Turkey and Kfar HaHoresh in the Levant). Ritual links to distant communities were probably not possible to establish from most nonelites due to the high costs involved.”

Hayden realized that such regular, ritual feasting events opened the door to certain highly-motivated individuals to come up with a way to use the surpluses created thereby as a means to gain higher rank and power.

“Once the egalitarian fetters (that were developed to deal with highly variable individual foraging success and recurring shortages) were relaxed under improved resource conditions, ambitious individuals must have realized that there were surpluses, or potential surpluses, capable of being generated within their communities that were going to waste. If they could but devise a means to manipulate community interests, these ambitious, accumulative aggrandizers could control some of the surplus and derive considerable benefit for themselves. The best and most highly motivated minds of an epoch began to scheme….”(FOI: 29)

“The primary problem that ambitious individuals would have faced when starting out in egalitarian communities would have been, first, how to get people to produce surpluses, i.e. to do more work than necessary for their own subsistence needs, and secondly, how to concentrate the benefits of those surpluses in the hands of the ambitious. I have called such ambitious individuals “accumulators”, while others have called them “aggrandizers”, or “acqusitors.” To accommodate all these terms, one might refer to these people as individuals with “Triple A” personalities.” (p FSQ: 131)

Hayden describes Triple-A personalities as:

“…any ambitious, enterprising, aggressive, accumulative individual who strives to become dominant in a community, especially be economic means. The term subsumes Great Men, Head Men, Big Men, elites, and chiefs.”

Every society has a certain portion of these people due to the natural range of human personality types:

“Any human population numbering more than 50-100 individuals will include some ambitious individuals who will aggressively strive to enhance their own self-interest over those of other community members. This is a simple given of variability in human psychology…Such individuals have always been a force to be reckoned with, in some cases being repressed, in some cases being channeled into noneconomic domains such as ritual competition, and in some cases being given greater freedom to compete. This is equivalent to the assumptions of others that a tendency toward inequality is inherent in all societies, and is only restrained or permitted free reign by a system of checks and balances reflecting economic conditions and the self-interest of other community members.”

Hayden therefore posits that inequality thus develops not out of the addition of certain factors, but rather by the removal of them. That is, a tendency toward inequality is inherent in all societies due to the natural variation in personality described above, and it is only kept in check by group dynamics and social norms developed during the long period of big-game hunting. Once those systems of “checks and balances” were lifted, inequality starts to metastasize largely of its own accord, like a cancer. In other words, it is not something added to a society, but rather something taken away, that begins the snowballing path toward inequality. He writes: “Inequality….can therefore be explained best not as the development of any formal organization of ‘ranking’ or ‘stratification,’ but rather, as the inevitable result of the lifting of the constraints that produce strict egalitarianism.”

What Hayden realized is that these feasts were the main driver of the production of surpluses in complex foraging and horticultural societies, and that aggressive, aggrandizing, ambitious “Triple-A” individuals could use these feasts in various ways to manipulate the society around them by overproduction and getting everyone else in debt to them (feigning generosity), and then converting that debt into social power, or prestige. The evidence from anthropologists all over the world showed that the people who generated the greatest surplus production and entered into contractual debts through feasting were invariably the most important people in any transegalitarian society:

“In order to answer the question of how ambitious individuals starting off in egalitarian societies could transform excess production into personal power …I realized that ethnographic accounts of competitive feasts involving contractual debts provided an important key that has been largely neglected …. ”

“The key feature that I saw as important did not involve redistribution as a central mechanism, but rather debt (FSI: 24)…It is relatively clear how competitive feasts (versus other feast types) can generate power and how they appeal to the self-interest of supporters. The Entrepreneur/Big Man organizers benefit by establishing a wide network of contractual debt relationships that motivate people to produce and surrender surpluses that Entrepreneurs can disproportionately control. If successful, Entrepreneurs therefore exert more control over labor and also obtain direct material profits in the form of increases in wealth. The supporters hope to profit from their investments in feasts by promises from entrepreneurs of repayments with interest for their contributions, as well as increased influence in the affairs of the community through their close association with the aggrandizers of the community.”(FSI: p25)

“The bottom line of using feasts in the quest for wealth and power is (1) that people commit themselves to producing a surplus, (2) that the surplus is loaned out, (3) that lenders expect to benefit, and (4) that feast organizers expect to benefit even more.
The specific benefits or other details may vary, but these core features are probably constant. “(FSI: 47)

Feasts were given for a number of different reasons:

1. Economic feasts, which in turn can be broken down into competitive-producing feasts involving loans and interest in relation to food production, and “festive work-party feasts,” where organizers try to attract people (labor) to work for them on a one-time basis to accomplish a specific task that will benefit the organizers, such as gathering iron ore or smelting it.

2. Redistribution feasts, which seek to bond (or control) labor (people) to organizers on a more permanent basis than the festive work-party feast. In both cases material distributions are used to achieve the respective goals, although the quantities, value, and types of materials used are often quite different. Where control of labor is the key to wealth or military success, redistibutive feasts become highly competitive.

3. Diacritical feasts are used to create exclusive elite circles that exclude lower classes, display status and belonging of the participants, and engage in rank competition within the group. (FSQ: 128-129)

These different reasons for feasting and different levels of surplus production based on the environmental conditions lead Hayden to develop a continuum of societies from petty despots all the way up to hereditary chiefdoms to describe the gradual path toward permanent social stratification. As the resource base becomes more abundant, and hence the ability to produce surpluses ever greater, the aggrandizers develop new and more effective techniques and strategies to enhance their control over key resources, labor, and decision making. Anthropologists had long recognized these techniques, and had given various terms to the Triple-A personalities found within these groups: Great Men, Head Men and Big Men. Each one differed in the techniques they used to gain power and influence in their group, but they all had one thing in common–the desire for power. Hayden classifies these societies on a ladder from the least amount of surplus to the greatest: Despots, Reciprocators and Entrepreneurs.

“I will suggest that as the potential for surplus production increases, inequalities also progressively increases [sic] through Despot, Reciprocator, and finally entrepreneur types of organization…These are roughly equivalent to the social anthropological terms of Great Men (Despots), Head Men (Reciprocators), and Big Men (Entrepreneurs)…various kinds of public feasts constitute one of the most critical strategies at all three of these levels and have direct archaeological consequences.”(FSI: 25)

The techniques they used, and this ladder of inequality, is what we’ll be discussing next time.

FSI: Foundations of Social Inequality. edited by T. Douglas Price, Gary M. Feinman

FSQ: Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Pauline Wilson Wiessner, Polly Wiessner, Wulf Schiefenhövel

PRP: Prehistoric Rites of Passage: A Comparative Study of Transegalitarian Hunter–Gatherers. D’Ann Owens and Brian Hayden, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology Article NO. 16, 121 – 161 (1997)

When Did Voters Suddenly Start Caring?

It looks like I’ll be able to start the Feasting Theory posts just in time for Thanksgiving, which is serendipitous timing, at least for those of us in the United States, anyway.

For now I just want to write up a few concluding thoughts about the election before moving on. I’d like to respond to this from the latest Archdruid Report:

To judge by what I’ve heard [Trump voters] say, they want a less monomaniacally interventionist foreign policy and an end to the endless spiral of wars of choice in the Middle East; they want health insurance that provides reasonable benefits at a price they can afford; they want an end to trade agreements that ship American jobs overseas, and changes to immigration policy that stop the systematic importation of illegal immigrants by big corporate interests to drive down wages and benefits; and they want a means of choosing candidates that actually reflects the will of the people.

The fascinating thing is, of course, that these are things the Democratic Party used to offer. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact, that the Democratic Party made exactly these issues—opposition to reckless military adventurism, government programs that improved the standard of living of working class Americans, and a politics of transparency and integrity—central not only to its platform but to the legislation its congresspeople fought to get passed and its presidents signed into law. Back when that was the case, by the way, the Democratic Party was the majority party in this country, not only in Congress but also in terms of state governorships and legislatures. As the party backed away from offering those things, it lost its majority position. While correlation doesn’t prove causation, I think that in this case a definite case can be made.

Now, my recollection may be a bit hazy here, but that’s not how I recall it. I can’t speak to his part of the country in Appalachia, only to the Rust Belt where I live. But what I recall of those years during the 1980’s when Reagan was president and it seemed like a major factory was shutting down and locking its gates every other week, there WERE plenty of Democratic politicians who warned where such policies would lead. They truly were friends of unions (common in Milwaukee where unions were still strong), and were willing and able to stop the flight of factory jobs overseas and stand up for unions. There were plenty of op-eds in the newspapers here (there were a lot more newspapers back then) warning of the dangers of deindustrialization and globalization, and expressing concerns over the numerous devastated communities and wrecked urban areas as fallout from these policies. Many politicians repeatedly warned in their campaign literature and speeches that the effects of gloablization and unrestrained free trade would be a race to the bottom leaving wrecked communities and downward mobility in their wake. They were skeptical of the supposedly wonderful “service economy” touted by professional economists, and how “retraining” would solve all the messy problems such policies produced.

Do you know what happened to those politicians? They lost, that’s what happened.

The working classes, the same ones whose jobs were disappearing and communities were cratering, faithfully turned out election after election and threw every Democrat out of office that they could find. Not only that, but they actively despised the Democratic party, the party that was theoretically the only thing standing up for their interests in Congress and local statehouses.

Now, put yourself in the minds of Democratic party politicians during that period. Your whole purpose, and the historical purpose of your party, had always been championing the cause of the working class, and standing up for the little guy’s interests against those of the big bosses and financiers. And how did those working classes and little guys reward your concern for their well-being and advocacy for their issues?

By consistently turning up and voting against you, that’s how. Over and over and over again. This is what actually happened during the 1980’s.

So, you’ve got to wonder this: Why in hell would Democrats continue to advocate for a class of people that reliably and enthusiastically voted against them? That actively despised them?

They wouldn’t. During the Reagan years, when Democrats honestly did support the working class and trade unions, and the spirit of Roosevelt was still a guiding force within the party, there was very serious concern that the Democrats would not even survive as a party at all. So dramatic were their defeats, so catastrophic were their losses, so numerous were their failures, so deep was the antipathy of the white working classes towards them, that it was thought in many quarters that the Democratic party would cease to exist as an entity. Walter Mondale’s epic loss of 49 states was the catalyzing event here. And that was bookended by similarly catastrophic defeats of Carter and Dukakis. At the local and state levels, things weren’t looking much better, either.

So here’s how I recall the situation: The democrats didn’t abandon the working classes, the working classes abandoned the Democrats! And they did so primarily for reasons of racial grievance.

The Republicans were (and are) rabidly anti-worker and pro-wealth. And the working classes, the ones slowly being destroyed and ground into the dust by their policies, were their most fervent supporters. Vast swaths of the country became a de-facto one-party Republican state, and remain so today. Were were the concerns about these issues back then? Where was all the concern about deindustrialization back then, you know, when it was actually happening? Where was the concern about disastrous foreign wars and militarism during two Gulf Wars and the invasion of Afghanistan? About affordable heath care as premiums were rising with every passing year and employers were shedding responsibilities to their employees as fast as possible?

Looked at from that perspective, it’s easy to see why the majority of the Democratic Party abandoned the cause of the working class. Why keep advocating for a constituency that actively hates you and votes against you? That undermines you at every turn? That reliably and enthusiastically turns out to vote for your opponents? Furthermore, why would you do so when it puts your party at a serious fundraising disadvantage? With the enormous money advantage the Republicans got as being reliable handmaidens to the wealthy, the banks, and corporate interests, they could vastly outspend the Democrats and run television ads night and day convincing the working classes that the Democrats were their true enemy, regardless of any policy positions. And if there’s one reliable feature of Americans, they will do whatever the glowing box in the corner of the room tells them to do, even if it destroys them.

It was a recipe for party suicide.

So the Democrats did what I think was the completely rational and logical reaction. They stopped advocating for the working classes that hated them anyway. Instead, they adopted more wealth-friendly and banker-friendly positions, mitigated by a less rabidly simplistic anti-government philosophy. They embraced competent technocratic management as the same time as the Republicans were taken over by grifters and sociopaths. They embraced balanced budgets instead of the unrestricted looting promoted by the Republicans or generous social programs, shedding the old the “tax-and-spend” label. They played to the racial fears of the whites by taking up welfare “reform” and passing a series of “tough on crime” laws. They took the moderate positions abandoned by the Republican party during their takeover by the John-Bircher wing of the party. The Republicans had gotten into bed with Dixieland racists and the Religious Right as part of their electoral strategy during their rise under Reagan, so the Democrats could subsequently appeal to the more socially moderate sections of the country who were horrified by these extremist radicals. The tolerant areas of the country in urban areas that benefited under globalization, deregulation and tax cuts could now become a reliable source of campaign cash, offsetting the Chamber of Commerce money funneled to Republicans, closing the fundraising gap. Wall Street could now become a reliable source of money thanks to discarding the pro-working class polices that weren’t getting Democrats elected anyway.

They could become a less-extreme version of the Republicans. They could move to the abandoned middle.

And do you know what happened? They won! They started winning elections again, after more than a decade of humiliating defeats and wandering in the wilderness.

So what conclusions would you draw from this, dear reader? I’m guessing the same ones that the Democratic Party leaders did – that the old strategy of advocating for the interests of the working classes by being skeptical of globalization and deindustrialization was a bona-fide loser, and the new “third way” strategy of seeking the abandoned middle ground between business interests on the one hand and worker interests on the other based on running poll numbers was a clear winner. How can you blame the Democrats for doing what the cold, hard evidence told them to do? What should they have done, continue to lose over and over again like they did during the nineteen-eighties, like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football???

Why did “third-way” politicians take over the Democratic Party apparatus? Because they f*cking won, that’s why! Why did Democrats that advocated for the working classes lose power within the party? Because they lost! It’s just that simple. The leadership didn’t purge them, the voters did. The only reason that Bernie Sanders is still in in Congress at all is because he comes from a reliably left-wing state on the East Coast. If he had been a politician anywhere in the Heartland, his career would have been over a long time ago.

Want proof? Consider the Russ Feingold/Ron Johnson congressional race. Johnson, a wealthy businessman and “Tea Party” favorite, has been a reliable rubber-stamp for pro-corporate, anti-worker policies since day one. Plus he’s no longer an unknown entity, having served a full term in congress and shown his true colors. He’s not truly against offshoring, deindustrialition, tax evasion, foreign wars,or any of that stuff, as his voting record amply demonstrates. Feingold, by contrast, was one of the more leftist politicians in Congress–his signature issue was campaign finance reform (the McCain-Feingold bill); he was the only senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT act; and has repeatedly expressed concerns about the devastation that globalization has wrought in small communities all over Wisconsin. He has also been amenable to a single-payer health care plan in the past.

What happened? Wisconsinites voted to send Johnson back to Congress. How is that consistent with the supposed “We’re so concerned about wars/globalization/free trade/health care” narrative that supposedly led working-class voters to turn out and vote for Trump in Greer’s estimation?

Or consider Paul Ryan. This past election, Ryan was the standard-bearer for the “traditional” Republican values and their pro-corporate, anti-worker positions. Ryan ran as vice-president under Mitt Romney just four years ago, fully backing the standard Republican policies of deregulation, globalization, outsourcing, open borders, tax cuts for the rich, dismantling Medicare and Social Security, and all the rest of it.

Janesville (Ryan’s home district) is a small rural Wisconsin Rust Belt town that has been utterly decimated by factory closures over the years, particularly by General Motors. It’s also home to a large recently-arrived Hispanic community. Many populist politicians have run against Ryan over the years, pointing these facts out. Do you know what happened to them? They all lost! The overwhelmingly white residents of this devastated, hollowed-out Rust Belt community reliably choose to send Mitt Romney’s running mate back to congress over and over and over again. How exactly does that square with the alleged fact that Trump voters were so very concerned about job losses, immigration, and affordable heath care?

So when I hear that the working classes turned to Trump because of their concerns over globalization, or jobs, or war, or affordable health care, or falling incomes, I’ve got to wonder, where the hell have these people been for the last thirty-five years!!! Now, only now, long after the wreckage been assessed, are we told that people are suddenly concerned about the loss of factory jobs, affordable health care and other kitchen-table issues. These trends have been going on for the better part of the past four decades. Where they f*ck were these people then??? Why only now, do they suddenly start caring about these issues when an orange-haired reality TV star billionaire raises them? WTF? Are you kidding me???

So when they say, “race has nothing to do with it,” I kind-of roll my eyes. And when the Democrats are castigated for their “abandonment” of the working class, I have to wonder, too. If my recollection of the history above is correct, why wouldn’t the Democrats have abandoned the working class? Because, you see, when they DID advocate for working class interests, they were repeatedly and soundly defeated. And when they threw the working class under the bus just like Republicans, they stared winning again! What conclusion would you draw? The working classes actively turned to the right; the Democrats simply followed where the voters led. And yet, somehow, in this election, it’s their fault?

In other words, the working classes in this country spent decades voting for a party that actively wanted to destroy them, and now they bitch and moan that nobody is representing their interests? Who could have imagined? Seriously? Are you f*cking kidding me???

The same goes for war-mongering. Greer writes:

War isn’t an abstraction here in flyover country. Joining the military is very nearly the only option young people here have if they want a decent income, job training, and the prospect of a college education, and so most families have at least one relative or close friend on active duty.  People here respect the military, but the last two decades of wars of choice in the Middle East have done a remarkably good job of curing middle America of any fondness for military adventurism it might have had.

Gee, where was that concern over the past 36 years since Reagan’s election when the people in “flyover country” overwhelmingly sent Republicans to Congress and the White House over and over and over again? Where was all the concern about war casualties and body bags during the Republicans’ military escapades, from Grenada to Panama, to the first Gulf War? Let’s not forget who initiated all those wars of choice in the Middle East in the first place–the Republican president George W. Bush, who “defeated” Al Gore back in 2000 and who won reelection twice despite his almost total incompetence. Did those people vote for Gore because of their concern over military adventurism back then? Did they angrily show up to toss Bush out of office in 2004 after he revealed his true colors and embarked upon the most ambitious nation-building program in American history using American blood and treasure to do so?

No, they didn’t. Not even close. Plus, it’s common knowledge that military servicemen overwhelmingly vote Republican in every election. But now they’ve suddenly become pacifists? Really??? it’s interesting that only now, when a centrist Democrat is running for office, do they suddenly care about potential military conflicts, just as they suddenly care about outsourcing and the loss of well-paying factory jobs after not giving two shits over the better part of the past three decades.

The Obamacare Disaster…was nearly as influential as Clinton’s reckless militarism. Most of the people I know who voted for Trump make too much money to qualify for a significant federal subsidy, and too little to be able to cover the endlessly rising cost of insurance under the absurdly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” They recalled, rather too clearly for the electoral prospects of the Democrats, how Obama assured them that the price of health insurance would go down, that they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, and so on through all the other broken promises that surrounded Obamacare before it took effect.

Ah, yes, Obamacare. Suddenly, suddenly, these people are also concerned about health care costs too, after two decades of steadily rising premiums and endemic medical cost-induced bankruptcies? Again, where the f*ck have these people been the past couple of decades? Perhaps they are unaware that the reason we ended up with Obamacare in the first place is because it was thought that only way to get any sort of reform through a bought-and-paid-for congress was to choose one that had been dreamed up in a right-wing thinktank and put into place by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Are these the same people who reliably destroy the career of anyone who dares advocate Canadian-style “socialized medicine”???

What have the Republicans historically done to make health care more accessible to the average worker over the years? I hear crickets chirping. This is also the party that fought tooth-and-nail against the introduction of Medicare, and is still trying to eviscerate the program through privatization and voucher schemes (championed by the aforementioned Mr. Paul Ryan). Yet now the working classes turned out en masse to pull the lever for a Republican due to their concern over the affordability of health care? WTF???

All of the working-class concerns Greer touted above were abandoned for a simple reason–because the politicians who advocated them were reliably and soundly trounced at the polls over the years by a white working class that was far more concerned with “values” and fighting “socialism” than policies that actually helped out them and their families. Now, we’re supposed to believe that THIS election cycle they suddenly started caring about the bread-and-butter issues that they’ve stubbornly ignored for countless prior election cycles?

Greer seems to think that a Bernie Sanders candidacy would have had a chance at winning. That suddenly, positions that had been the kiss of death for Democratic presidential candidates in decades prior (tax and spend!!!) would have succeeded this time.

Maybe. But consider me skeptical.

Trump won because of racism, all right, but not in the way that most people people think. After Civil Rights, the Republicans became an authoritarian white ethno-nationalist party. When that happened, the working classes reliably turned out to vote for a party whose policies were destroying them. But there’s the thing–they didn’t seem to mind that fact too much until this year! Now, suddenly, they supposedly care about these issues–war, globalism, immigration, offshoring and health care, but only because it’s a Republican who’s bringing them up. The Democrats who had the temerity to raise these same issues over the years (less and less as time went on)  were reliably and soundly rejected by these exact same voters for decades.

So I find parts of Greer’s explanation of Trump voters a little perplexing.

Seen in one light Trump’s victory isn’t all that surprising. I mentioned that today’s Republican Party is basically identical to the John Birch society (headquartered in Wisconsin, BTW). But there was one traditional Bircher position that stood out as an anomaly–the Birchers were historically very suspicious of free trade agreements and globalization, believing they undermined American sovereignty (in this, they were actually correct). So, really, Trump’s victory is finally bringing them fully into the Birch orbit. From the “Values” part of its Wikipedia entry:

The [John Birch Society]supports limited government and opposes wealth redistribution and economic interventionism. It opposes collectivism, totalitarianism, and communism. It opposes socialism as well, which it asserts is infiltrating U.S. governmental administration…The society opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming it violated the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution …The society opposes “one world government”, and it has an immigration reduction view on immigration reform. It opposes the United Nations, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and other free trade agreements. They argue the U.S. Constitution has been devalued in favor of political and economic globalization, and that this alleged trend is not accidental. …The society has been described as “ultraconservative”, “far right”, and “extremist”. Other sources consider the society part of the patriot movement…

Sound familiar?

Trump was also able to combine white working class racial grievance with a politically popularist Producerist platform (try saying that fast). In this, he was able to meld concerns of both the Left and Right. What do I mean by Producerist? Producerism is a political position that has a lot of advocates at the grass-roots level, but few in mainstream politics. Wikipedia defines it this way: “Producerism is an ideology which holds that those members of society engaged in the production of tangible wealth are of greater benefit to society than, for example, aristocrats who inherit their wealth and station.” I would, however, characterize it as the belief that there are “parasites” at both the top and bottom of society–Wall-Street and other “crony capitalist” tycoons at the top sucking money out of the productive economy through crooked financial deals and usury, and “lazy” blacks, immigrants, and other minorities at the bottom living large on the dole paid for by taxes on the productive (i.e. white) working classes.

I realized this again while reading the last post from the University of Wisconsin professor who went out (like a colonial official visiting the natives) to talk to rural voters to find out what they think. Recall that “hard work” was at the heart of their world view, and that they expressed hostility to *both* minorities and to educated professional like the professor, claiming that both seemed to be living well by hardly working at all (“why are you interviewing me, shouldn’t you be at work teaching, or something???). Note also that both of these demographics are overwhelmingly located in wealthy, multicultural, and Democratic-leaning urban areas far away from the communities devastated by offshoring, mass immigration, and financialization.

I’m not the first to figure this out, by the way. Michael Lind pointed this out a while ago, and here he’s cited in this piece:

…[Michael] Lind [adds] one important piece of historical context that helps explain Trump:

‘ Trump is no libertarian; quite the opposite. He is a classic populist of the right who peddles suspicion of foreigners—it’s no accident that he was the country’s leading “birther” raising questions about Barack Obama’s citizenship—combined with a kind of “producerism.” In populist ideology, society is divided not among rich and poor but among producers and parasites.’

‘Populists are suspicious of unearned wealth, including the interest charged by bankers who manipulate “other people’s money” (to use the phrase of Louis Brandeis). And populists the world over are hostile to the idle or undeserving poor who allegedly live on welfare at the expense of productive workers and capitalists. Populists tend to attribute the existence of large numbers of the idle rich and the idle poor to government corruption. In the words of the 1892 People’s Party platform: “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”’

From this perspective, Trump’s proposal to kill the carried interest tax exemption, and his scorn for the “hedge-fund guys” who benefit from it, makes perfect sense.

Now you might find it strange that a guy who’s made his fortune from real estate speculation and “brand management” poses as the champion of the horny-handed sons of toil as opposed to financial sector “parasites.” But then again, real estate is the great source of middle-class wealth for white Americans, and and the people who got lucky from being on the right side of various real estate bubbles are pretty heavily represented in the GOP rank-and-file, where contempt for the “losers” and “looters” who lost their shirts in the housing and financial collapses was the original impetus for the Tea Party Movement.

In any event, it’s a very good thing that outside some fever swamps, Americans don’t especially associate the financial sector with Jews. European producerists (or right-wing “populists,” if you will) in the last century rather conspicuously did, with lethal consequences. It seems Trump is satisfied with making immigrants and the politicians who speak Spanish to pander to them the personification of evil. But it should be clear his kind of politics involve fishing in all sorts of dark waters of resentment and bigotry.

Trump and Producerism (Washington Monthly)

Wikipedia also takes note of the Producerist rise in Europe and elsewhere:

Producerism has seen a contemporary revival, sparked by popular opposition to the machinations of globalized financial capital and large, politically connected corporations. Critics of producerism see a correlation between producerist views, and views that are antagonistic toward lower income people and immigrants, such as nativism. These critics see producerism as analogous to populism. Examples of politicians or groups that are cited by these critics include the Reform Party of the United States of America, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and Lou Dobbs, as well as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Björn Höcke in Germany and similar dissident politicians across Europe.

So, in summary, I find the ‘concerns’ of Trump voters a little hard to take at face value, given the way these people have consistently and overwhelmingly behaved over the past few decades, and whom they have supported at the ballot box, even when faced with viable alternatives. I suspect the ‘concerns’ Greer cites are little more than post-hoc emotional rationalizations for what they would have done anyway. And I suspect that even if (let’s be honest, when) these legitimate concerns are summarily thrown out the window, these exact same people will find new and different reasons to show up and vote in the next Republican into office, all while claiming the whole time that racial attitudes have nothing whatsoever to do with any of it.

Economics and the Election

Noah Smith points out that economists are not very well-liked:

This week, there have been not one, but two open letters by some of the most eminent economists in the U.S., urging the American public not to vote for Donald Trump. One letter, published in the Wall Street Journal, was signed by 370 economists, including eight Nobel prize winners. It slams Trump for questioning the accuracy of economic data, for attacking free trade and immigration, for getting facts wrong and for having misguided policy proposals on a variety of fronts. The second letter is by Nobel laureates only — 19 of them. They write:

“Donald Trump…offers an incoherent economic agenda. His reckless threats to start trade wars with several of our largest trading partners, his plan to deport millions of immigrants, his trillions of dollars of unfunded tax cuts, his casual suggestion that the United States could threaten default on its debt in order to renegotiate with our creditors as if Treasuries were a junk bond—each of these proposals could jeopardize the foundations of American prosperity and the global economy.”

This is all true. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and make a bold prediction: Essentially no American voters will listen to these economists.

The reason? Despite spending much of their time thinking about public policy, economists don’t have much success when it comes to actually persuading the public of anything. ..Part of the problem is that economists don’t think about politics very much. After years of interacting with the general public, I’ve concluded that there’s another factor — economists are adored by U.S. business and political elites, but held in contempt by much of the rest of the country.

370 economists wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal telling us not to vote for Trump? I’ve got to be honest here, when I heard that, even I considered voting for the guy.

Economists are held in contempt in much of the country. Do you want to know why? I’ll tell you exactly why. It’s because economists have not only presided over the transformation of much of the United States into an immiserated third-world shithole, but actively cheered it on every step of the way!

They berated us as spoiled crybabies when the good-paying manufacturing jobs went abroad, and when that didn’t work, they told us that the deterioration we were witnessing around us with our own two eyes in the Rust Belt simply wasn’t happening at all! Wages were up, household sizes were down, food was cheap, even the poor had indoor plumbing, we had Google and the Facebook at our fingertips; we literally never had it better! They had an answer for everything. Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes? They told us we were better off than ever before thanks to the cheap, shoddy goods littering the aisles Wal-Mart and the ever-expanding size of our TV screens (and waistlines), despite that fact most of us were now in debt up to our eyeballs and one personal emergency away from bankruptcy. When that didn’t work, they told us it was our own fault for not getting the “skills” required to “compete” in the new high-tech global economy, which we had to pay for out of our own pockets, naturally.

Economists told us that there was no jobs crisis, and browbeat us with statistics whenever we said there was despite the fact that these statistics were highly manipulated and intentionally misleading. We’re at full employment! Never mind that if you ever managed to dig deeper into the data you would find that most of the jobs created in this country are low-wage McJobs with no benefits, inadequate hours, demeaning working conditions, and scant opportunity for advancement. Yet to economists in their ivory towers, human beings are just undifferentiated widgets to be plugged in wherever “the economy” needs them. They are just numbers on a spreadsheet. America’s largest employers used to be places like General Motors, Boeing and General Electric, now they’re Walmart and McDonald’s, and economists don’t see any problem with that at all. They told us that regulating big business would take away their “freedom” even as we workers were told we now had to pee in a cup as a condition of employment. Flexibility and efficiency would lead to a paradise for all of us in the wonderful new “service” economy, they told us.

Regular readers will be familiar with the landscape of the Rust Belt that I invoke so many times here on this site. The shuttered and abandoned factories rusting in the rain. The potholed streets that never seem to get fixed. The boarded-up storefronts, abandoned strip malls, and mom-and-pop stores that have withered away and been replaced with fast-food joints, dollar stores, and payday loan outfits. The panhandlers whose cars always seem to be just a dollar short of the gas they need to get somewhere. The odd-smelling bus passengers carrying on conversations with themselves. The perennially shrinking public services alongside rising property taxes. The people toting cardboard signs at every freeway off ramp. The people rummaging through the trash for tin cans who roll around all their worldly possessions in a shopping cart. The visible rebar and concrete spalling off the crumbling railroad bridges and freeway overpasses. The empty and abandoned weedlots where houses used to stand. The formerly middle-class bungalows stripped of copper wiring and the trailer homes converted into meth labs. The people waddling through the aisles at Walmart at two in the morning with the thousand-yard-state of a grizzled combat veteran. The diabetic 40-year-olds riding around in motorized scooters. The people spending half their income on the pills they need to keep them alive another month. The bloated and distended bodies resulting from a lifetime of processed food consumption. The choice between buying food or paying the heating bill. The broken water mains. The rusty pick-up trucks with the mufflers held on by a coat hanger. The local food banks overwhelmed with demand from needy families during the holidays. The foreclosure down the street. The ghettos where nature is slowly taking back the built environment and wild dogs roam the streets. The vast swaths of the city that now resemble the bombed-out Bantustans of Third World nations where no white person besides a policeman has set foot since 1984.

This is America. For most of us in the Rust Belt, this is the reality we live with every day.

And what did the economists say while all this was happening? Nothing to be done – it is just inevitable like the changing of the seasons or the phases of the moon. Government intervention in the “Free Market” would just make us all worse off, don’t you know. Comparative advantage and all that.

It didn’t used to be this way. Milwaukee was once known as the German Athens. It was a beacon of hope for the Central European peasants who flocked here by the boatload to live a life that was denied to them in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Kaiser’s Germany. We had Socialist mayors for the first half of the twentieth century. Our infrastructure was the envy of the world thanks to the “Sewer Socialists,” and beautiful Beaux-Arts civic monuments adorned the city thanks to the City Beautiful movement. There were public parks, zoos, fountains, libraries, that were the equal of anywhere on earth. Milwaukee was the very international emblem of 1950’s middle class American prosperity thanks to Richie, Potsie, Ralph, Fonzie, and the rest of the gang from Arnold’s Drive-In. Working-class neighborhoods featured people living next to one another with German, Polish, Irish, Serbian, Italian, and other surnames while Europe was tearing itself apart along ethnic lines. On the weekends people would meet at the corner tavern or bowling alley to socialize and kids played in the sandlots; no one had to work late in those days.

Manufacturing continued to define the identity of Milwaukee long after it withered elsewhere. Everywhere one turns one is confronted with the ghosts of Harnischfeger, Caterpillar, Tower Automotive, Ladish, Patrick Cudahy, Allis Chalmers, Allen-Bradley, Harley Davidson, Miller Brewing, and hundreds of other now-defunct small manufacturing shops. Their names still adorn buildings and institutions all over the city. The vestigial remains of the industrial era dot the landscape, some of them now converted into “high end luxury” condos that only the wealthy can afford to live in. Everyone’s dad was a machinist, schools still had shop class, and fixing things with your own two hands was considered to be the true mark of manly competence well into the 1970’s.

All of the above changes unfolded without a hint of resistance. It was like we lost a war or something without a shot fired. It was like something just happened to us, and nobody knew quite what, or why, or whom to blame. There’s a concept in psychology called “learned helplessness,” and it seems to be appropriate here. But it’s not only that. Even as it was happening all around us, economists told that it either wasn’t really happening, or that it was all for the greater good in the long run.

The Heartland is still a fairly traditional “family values” type of place and everybody here still remembers a time when one income was enough to support a family in a modest lifestyle and mom could stay home and take care of the kids. When children could do better than their parents even without an expensive diploma and six-figure debt. When you didn’t have to work from cradle to grave with nothing to show for it and nothing to leave your heirs. They remember a time when you could get a decent job with just a high school diploma. Sure, you might have a better job with a fancy degree, but you didn’t need one just to survive. And you didn’t have to worry whether or not what you studied was lucrative enough to pay for the staggering costs of getting that degree at all.

This wasn’t ancient history. This was within the lifetimes of many of the people living today! By contrast, here’s what life looks like in this country if you haven’t been lucky enough to pick the right parents at birth:

1.) You’ve got to go tens of thousands into debt just to have a shot at any job at all, and then you’re just supposed to “compete” with people who have virtually unlimited resources to acquire all the education, gongs, and social connections for the shrinking pool of “skilled” jobs that pay more than minimum wage.

2.) If you don’t get a degree, or god help you, if you get the wrong degree, expect to have to go through a gauntlet just to get any job at all (online personality surveys, drug tests, dozens of demeaning interviews), and have your shitty pay and lousy benefits be chalked up to a lack of “skills.” The low-wage “fallback” jobs are now all occupied by recent third-world immigrants, so if you have a degree, good luck getting those if you wind up unemployed. Instead, you will wind up in “job purgatory” – too educated for the low-paying jobs, not educated enough for the high-paying ones.

3.) Even if you do manage to be “lucky” enough land a high-paying prestigious job, get ready to be ridden hard and put away wet. Long hours, no raises, no vacations, high stress, impossible deadlines, Machiavellian office politics, burned out co-workers, threadbare benefits…but hey, it beats working at McDonald’s, amirite?

4.) You’ve basically got to own a car to have a job, and you must bear 100% of the costs of that car on your own back – gasoline, maintenance, insurance, registration fees that go up ten bucks a year like clockwork to fund a new sports stadium, tickets issued by overzealous cops trying to raise money to cover budget shortfalls, etc. Even though I’m a white male, I’ve been pulled over numerous times in wealthy suburbs because I was driving a car not expensive enough to be seen there. And if you get into an accident, expect to have the remainder of your car loan rolled onto your next car loan, and your insurance rates jacked up, assuring that you be a debt donkey for pretty much the rest of your life (I speak from personal experience here).

5.) Anyone who thinks we’re at full employment clearly hasn’t had to look for a job recently. I suppose if you’re an economist making $91,301 right out of school, the world looks pretty good to you, right? It seems like more and more economist jobs are passed down generation to generation in wealthy families, just like most other professional jobs nowadays.

6.) “Just move to where the jobs are.” Except that because local and rural economies have been decimated all over the nation, much of the of the nation’s economic activity has been confined to a fairly small number of major cities, meaning that the housing and rent costs are unaffordable to almost everyone who isn’t already rich. Even people already living in these places are having to move away because they simply can’t afford it anymore. The jobs simply don’t pay enough to live there (see point #1), and now they have to commute from way out in the middle of nowhere just to get to work (see point #4).

7.) And if you’re dumb enough to have a kid, what chance does he or she have without getting the “proper” education and having the right connections? Your lot in life is pretty much determined by at birth thanks to the Balkanization of neighborhoods along income/class lines, the local funding of schools where ZIP code determines educational quality, the astronomical costs of higher education, and the defunding of public universities to fund tax cuts for the wealthy. You had better hope that your kid is either a precocious math genius or a super athlete. And God help him/her if they are late bloomer.

Does anyone believe the above conditions would be the case if we really were at full employment, like the economists and politicians in the media constantly tell us we are?

As middle-class jobs were streaming out of this country, and immigrants from third-world countries were streaming in, economists simply told us that any government intervention was bad, that globalization was as inevitable, and that nothing could be done. Anyone who didn’t like it was living in a fantasy world that was never coming back, so suck it up! Just retrain (on your own dime) for the jobs of the future, no matter if you were a fifty-year-old machinist or a forty-year old carpenter.

And then we’re told that the social fallout from this economic devastation is actually the cause of it. That the reason the middle class is struggling is all down to bad behavior! Talk about chutzpah!

Let’s face it, economists are simply whores for the powerful masquerading as scientists. And it turns out shilling for the rich also pays quite well:

Economists’ pay is another sign of the special respect that they command among the American elite. A study found that in 2014-15, the average starting salary for an econ professor at a four-year school was $91,301. For rough comparison, another survey in 2012 found that a starting physics professor made an average of only $56,483. Economists, in other words, make more than many academics with greater average levels of mathematical skill. And that doesn’t count the lucrative fees that many econ professors make from side jobs in consulting — yet another a sign of how highly their analyses and pronouncements are regarded among business elites.

But among the general public, it’s a different story. A 2014 paper by Christopher Johnston and Andrew Ballard looked at how people’s opinions on policy issues changed when they were told what economists think. They found that while the public generally trusts economists on highly technical issues, on politically sensitive issues such as trade and immigration, they basically have no faith in the academics. Anecdotally, I can report that among large swaths of the public, “economist” is a word that often evokes either distrust, derision or incomprehension.

No One Cares What Economists Say About Trump (Bloomberg)

Gee, I can’t imagine why economists have lost all credibility, can you?

Why is this? One favorite answer, especially among left-leaning writers, is that economists are politicized — basically, that they’re in the pocket of the rich and shill for free-market policies that hurt the masses. That’s not actually true…

Er, sorry Noah, but it is actually true, and in fact might be the truest thing you’ve ever written. Economists have been cheerleaders for Market fundamentalism and Neoliberalism (even if they studiously avoided using that term) since the 1970’s. They knew full-well what they result would be. They just didn’t care. They had their meal ticket. Their pay was dependent on telling the rich what they wanted to hear, and justifying it to the masses.

Here’s another good laundry list of what’s wrong: Why You Should Blame The Economics Discipline For Today’s Problems (Evonomics)

  1. Economists write to impress each other in a language only they can understand.
  2. As an economist, you are encouraged to think outside the box–except don’t!
  3. Mainstream economists have next to no knowledge of the schools of thought that did the best job of forecasting the Financial Crisis.
  4. Academic inbreeding has led to dysfunctional theories.
  5. There’s no incentive to fix those dysfunctional theories

It is my contention (and that of many of my colleagues) that the fault lies not with the rich, not with corporations, not with China, not with the Illuminati, not with Al Qaeda, but with the economics discipline. Bad ideas have done at least as much damage to our world as anyone’s bad intentions. Decades of misguided policy from both political parties and in other nations has critically weakened the core of our economy and left us in a situation where, despite our tremendous level of technological achievement, we seem to be regressing. Just as in the Great Depression, we have the ability to solve these problems practically over night. What we lack is sound theory to guide our actions.

People are right not to listen to mainstream economists. The results of the last forty-plus years have utterly discredited them. They are nothing but propagandists and whores.

And the mainstream media is cut from the same cloth. They have lost all credibility too, which is why their dire “warnings” about Trump also went unheeded among the hurting classes. Mainstream media has peddled the lies of economists and their political handmaidens for decades. Just like with economists, the more outlets like The New York Times, the Washington Post, and numerable online outfits abandoned ethical journalism to shill for the failing two-party Neoliberal consensus, the more people reasoned that if these media outlets were afraid of Trump, there might be something in his policies that might actually help out them after all.

Economists and the media have lost all credibility. And with good reason.


In the wake of the Trump victory on Tuesday, the Washington Post published an article entitled “A New Theory for Why Trump Voters are so Angry that Actually makes Sense.” Apparently a University of Wisconsin Academic went out and, you know, actually talked to rural voters here in Wisconsin to find out what they think and believe. I’m reminded of this passage in an article I read last week:

Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid. It’s a profound failure of empathy in the service of endless posturing. There’s been some sympathy from the press, sure: the dispatches from “heroin country” that read like reports from colonial administrators checking in on the natives. But much of that starts from the assumption that Trump voters are backward, and that it’s our duty to catalogue and ultimately reverse that backwardness…

The unbearable smugness of the press (CBS News)

“Reports from colonial administrators checking in on the natives.” That made me chuckle. The analogy between the modern U.S. government as an occupying power ruling over angry natives is an apt one. It’s the reason why “shrinking government” is such a perennial winner among folks far from the centers of the “occupying government” in Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley – our real life versions of Panem from the Hunger Games. It’s all due to placeless, faceless, Neoliberal globalism. I wrote about this a while back. From the article by Mike Lofgren quoted in that post:

Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it. If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension—and viable public transportation doesn’t even show up on the radar screen. With private doctors on call and a chartered plane to get to the Mayo Clinic, why worry about Medicare? In both world wars, even a Harvard man or a New York socialite might know the weight of an army pack. Now the military is for suckers from the laboring classes whose subprime mortgages you just sliced into CDOs and sold to gullible investors in order to buy your second Bentley or rustle up the cash to get Rod Stewart to perform at your birthday party. The sentiment among the super-rich towards the rest of America is often one of contempt rather than noblesse.

The objective of the predatory super-rich and their political handmaidens is to discredit and destroy the traditional nation state and auction its resources to themselves. Those super-rich, in turn, aim to create a “tollbooth” economy, whereby more and more of our highways, bridges, libraries, parks, and beaches are possessed by private oligarchs who will extract a toll from the rest of us. Was this the vision of the Founders? Was this why they believed governments were instituted among men—that the very sinews of the state should be possessed by the wealthy in the same manner that kingdoms of the Old World were the personal property of the monarch?

And what I wrote:

Taken together, these…articles paint a grim but accurate picture of the world at the dawn of the twenty-first century: the global elite of wealthy capitalist billionaires and their mandarins and factotums are essentially an occupying force over the entire globe, controlling governments and using the military and police forces against the citizens of their own country who are essentially colonized populations just like in the era of international colonialism. This is the true state of the world, not “democracy,” which is just a fiction to placate the masses. Neither you nor I as Americans, nor the citizens of Greece or Spain or Ireland, nor the citizens of China or Japan or Korea have any more of a real say in how our country is run that the average Indian or South American or African under British, Spanish or French rule. We are an occupied people, all of us, with no say in how our countries are run. The difference is, we are not controlled from a country outside our own borders, but by a global international elite and their political handmaidens. This elite has no loyalty to any particular country. Hence the increasing use of military and police forces against the citizens of their own country, and wars for control of resources most citizens will never benefit from. Hence the dismantling of nation state outside of the police and military forces, which just serves as an unnecessary and inconvenient check on the rapacity of those elites. This is what is meant by Neofeudalism.

Back to the article. So what did they tell her?

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.

So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

Form the article, I came away with the following narrative:

1.) That at the core of these people’s belief system is that “hard work” is the only valid, moral way to make a lot of money. Three things stem from this:

a) That urban elites don’t get their money by “working hard” but rather through special privileges and connections available only to a select few:

When people are talking about those people in the city getting an “unfair share,” there’s certainly a racial component to that. But they’re also talking about people like me [a white, female professor]. They’re asking questions like, how often do I teach, what am I doing driving around the state Wisconsin when I’m supposed to be working full time in Madison, like, what kind of a job is that, right?

b) That urban minorities don’t “work hard” but instead rely on government handouts:

We know that when people think about their support for policies, a lot of the time what they’re doing is thinking about whether the recipients of these policies are deserving. Those calculations are often intertwined with notions of hard work, because in the American political culture, we tend to equate hard work with deservingness.

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

It’s absolutely racist to think that black people don’t work as hard as white people. So what? We write off a huge chunk of the population as racist and therefore their concerns aren’t worth attending to?

Thus both “lazy” inner-city blacks and “pointy-headed liberal elites” are valid targets for resentment and anger by rural voters. Wealthy businesspeople are not considered evil, however, because the perception is that they “work harder” than everyone else, and that is why they’re rich. That is, “deserve” their millions of dollars by virtue of “hard work.” That was true of Wall Street too until 2008, when people saw the government bailing out the elites by essentially printing up money and giving it to them. Suddenly, the scam was laid bare for all to see, leading to widespread disillusionment.

c) That people who are genuinely “working hard” are getting less and less than what they used to:

Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.

Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.

d) That elites are looking down and them and laughing at them. See the paragraph above from CBS News for confirmation of that.

Another takeaway is that perception has a great deal to do with it:

The other really important element here is people’s perceptions. Surveys show that it may not actually be the case that Trump supporters themselves are doing less well — but they live in places where it’s reasonable for them to conclude that people like them are struggling.

Support for Trump is rooted in reality in some respects — in people’s actual economic struggles, and the actual increases in mortality. But it’s the perceptions that people have about their reality are the key driving force here. That’s been a really important lesson from this election.

There’s just more and more of a recognition that politics for people is not — and this is going to sound awful, but — it’s not about facts and policies. It’s so much about identities, people forming ideas about the kind of person they are and the kind of people others are. Who am I for, and who am I against?

Policy is part of that, but policy is not the driver of these judgments. There are assessments of, is this someone like me? Is this someone who gets someone like me?

Indeed, much of the above comes down to perception. For example, the notion that Milwaukee is getting all this money made me shake my head. Go back and reread what life is like here in the paragraph I wrote above and you’ll see that wherever they money is going, it sure as hell ain’t here! In fact, we’ve been “tightening our belts” for my entire lifetime. Much of our public services have been radically curtailed or are on life support. Any number of studies have demonstrated that rural areas actually receive disproportionately more government money than they pay in, and that most economic activity is generated in cities, rather than in suburbs or in rural areas (which is a problem in itself). Most of the rural economy is kept on life support by eds and meds, both essentially government-funded “socialized” industries, even though it’s unacknowledged.

No, I think the resentment against cities has more to do with the kinds of people who live there more than anything else. Since Civil rights, rioting and Busing, whites hopped on the freeway and fled to the lily-white segregated suburbs of the WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington), where they nursed a deep, abiding grudge against government in all its forms. Now anything “urban” is inextricably bound up with various minorities. Here in Milwaukee, the local joke is that the 27th street viaduct is the world’s longest bridge, because it spans from Africa to Mexico.

I’m struck by this question put to the UW professor in the article: “One of the really interesting parts of your book is where you discuss how rural people seem to hate government and want to shrink it, even though government provides them with a lot of benefits. It raises the Thomas Frank question — on some level, are people just being fooled or deluded?” She tiptoes around the question, not really giving a good answer, but I’m not afraid to say it, yes they are. being fooled and deluded.

I think the bottom line is this: for decades Americans have been told that unrestrained capitalism is good, and that the only reason it wasn’t working for them was “Big Government”. They bought into this message because 1.) The right-wing mighty Wurlitzer fired up and tailored its message especially for them, and 2.) The failed social engineering experiments of the 1960’s and 1970’s turned Americans permanently against their own government.

So Americans got the “unrestrained” capitalism they thought they bargained for, and it did exactly what their forefathers knew it would do: crush labor into oblivion in the name of profit. Under globalized capitalism, labor is simply a commodity to be bought and sold in a marketplace, like any other commodity, but selling your labor today is like selling buggy whips in the 1940’s: it simply isn’t needed anymore. Yet people can’t blame capitalism itself because they have been propagandized from birth that it cannot fail, it can only be failed. And they have internalized that message.

So whom do they blame? Outsourcing and immigration, two results of unrestrained capitalism. Traditionally in America, anyone facing hardship has been angrily told to just go out and “get a job.” But what do you do when there are less and less jobs on offer? What’s your answer to hardship then? It leads to painful cognitive dissonance: capitalism is a perfect system that rewards people exactly in proportion to their hard work according to the belief system of rural America as described in the interview with the professor. But when people are working harder then ever before and still not getting by, how do you reconcile those contradictory observations?

And coupled with the capitalist propaganda, they have been told that socialism is merely “free stuff” for the lazy and undeserving, paid for by higher taxes on people like them. That it is “big government handouts” So any answer that would make their lives better through government spending is a non-starter. They have also been told that social insurance is unaffordable and that the debt is out of control. They have internalized those messages too. So what can be done to help them? The only thing is: bring the jobs back, and that’s exactly what Trump promised them he’d do. But it’s a lie, as this Reddit commenter points out:

Trade is not the big culprit taking away jobs. It is automation.

Trump is a shrewd businessman. He knows real estate. He knows how to negotiate deals. He knows how to work his base. But, he does not know manufacturing, or technology.

He promised to bring jobs back. He won’t be able to deliver, not on any scale that matters. Nor would Hilary, or anyone else. Any profit seeking organization will automate away their labor cost, that is just what they do, and the technology of automation is only becoming more impressive at an exponential rate. Jobs are automated faster than they are replaced today. I wonder what his base will think in a few years when he hasn’t worked his magic?

Let’s face it, these people are never going to understand what Neoliberalism is. They’re never going to understand what the true nature of the problem is, or who is really to blame for their ruined lives and crushed communities. They’re never going to look at capitalism with a critical eye. Instead, they’re going to look for simple answers and bumper-sticker bromides. They’ll turn to false messiahs and con artists. This is going to sound elitist as hell, but I’ll say it anyway: most people in Middle America are simpletons. A Marxist would say they are a lumpenproletariat that lacks “class consciousness;” that is, they are too busy fighting each other to realize their common enemy. Divide and rule is alive and well.

But they’re still angry and they need someone to blame. Watch out colonial administrators, the natives are restless.

Lori Ayers, 47, works in the gas station. She was blunt when I asked her about her life. “Clarington is a shithole. Jobs all left. There is nothing here anymore. When Ormet Aluminum factory closed, jobs all disappeared.” She is also blunt about the pain in her life. “I have five kids and two have addictions. There is nothing else for kids to do here but drugs. No jobs. No place to play.”

These communities are dealing with lost and changing jobs, which are no longer a sources of pride, but simply about getting by. Life for many has become a constant anxiety over upcoming bills. They are also dealing with social problems that always follow economic loss, such as families broken apart, children struggling with little support, eroded institutions, and substance abuse – a quick salve to either forget or numb the pain.

Compounding the anxiety, and helping to morph it into humiliation, is the false national narrative that the US is a meritocracy where anyone can advance with the right education, and hence failure is because of being dumb or lazy.

But in communities I visit, the right education is often beyond most people. Many residents often fail to go beyond high school, and if they do, it is an education cobbled together by night classes and community colleges, together with a concoction of loans, programs and overwhelming debt.

All of this is humiliating and painful, and has made the perfect setting for populist politics built on blaming minorities and immigrants. And that is what Trump has exploited. He has has come into these communities with white identity politics, a message that is both simple and loud: He will make America great again.

What I learned after 100,000 miles on the road talking to Trump supporters (Guardian)

Taco Trucks and Trump

Last night I went to my usual taco truck to pick up a burrito, and was surprised to find a long queue. Someone I used to work with was there, and we chatted a bit. Apparently there were taco trucks at restaurants all over town and people were going to them as a sort of solidarity move against Trumpism. I just wanted a burrito.

1. My first thought is that with so many prominent Republicans publicly declaring their intention to vote for Hillary Clinton (Mitt Romney, Colin Powell, George H.W. Bush, et. al.), it’s hard to see last night as a Republican victory and a Democratic defeat.

2. That said, with the Congress firmly in the hands of the Republican party, I expect that Trump’s proposals that help the super-rich, including tax cuts for the wealthy, the total elimination of all inheritance taxes, and repealing the ACA, will sail through. I expect any initiative that Trump puts forward that actually helps the “forgotten” working class of Middle America will have a snowball’s change in hell of getting through—stemming the tide of illegal immigration, rewriting anti-worker trade deals, closing loopholes that cost American jobs, universal health care, encouraging small manufacturing, raising the minimum wage, reducing education costs, etc. The rich will never allow such things, even under a nominal Republican, so long as they fund congressional elections.

3. That being said, when initiatives that actually help the 99 percent are inevitably crushed by the mainstream Republicans who control Congress, what will Trump supporters do then? Withdraw support? Switch parties? Or just keep voting mindlessly for Republicans like over the last thirty-plus years?

4. With much of the nation and the U.S. Federal government now a de-facto one-party GOP state, who will Republicans blame for the continuing deterioration of the country over the next four (which will happen) now that they don’t have a Democratic scapegoat??? Serious question.

5. Everyone cynically expects that politicians will break their campaign promises after they get elected; why were people so scared that Trump will actually keep his? I expect all his talk about banning Muslims and deporting Mexicans will all be dismissed as empty, unrealistic campaign rhetoric, and much of the hysteria concerning them will dissipate. I fully expect to be eating at my same taco truck four years from now.

6. The worst thing about a Trump victory: Scott Adams will become an even more puffed-up insufferable narcissist asshole than before. Seriously, I can’t stand that guy.

7. Console yourself with a joint—marijuana won big last night.

8. So, I guess the next series of The Apprentice will feature Jeff Sessions, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani. What better way to pick cabinet members in a country like the United States than reality TV?

7. Four years from now, if (more like when, I expect) Trump hasn’t delivered on Making America Great Again™, what will happen? A lot of people around the world feel that American voters were bamboozled by a fraud and a con artist. Will history prove them right???

8. Personally, I’m far more disappointed in the Russ Feingold loss. Feingold is one of the few decent, honest, trustworthy politicians out there, and he lost to the vapid plutocrat Ron Johnson for a second time. Johnson has been nothing but a reliable rubber-stamp for the most extreme pro-wealth, anti-worker legislation over the last six years, yet ran as an “outsider” against “career politician” Russ Feingold (who has actually been in the private sector for the last six years). Feingold, of course, was the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act, which confirms my belief that all the right-wing yammering about standing up to “government tyranny” is just coded racist claptrap, and always has been.

9. Finally, I think one positive note is that this shakes things up a bit. I read mostly UK media, and of course they are all likening it to Brexit. And it is the same in may ways–the forgotten people who have been crushed by globalism and unrestrained capital have finally had enough, and will do anything to hit back against an impersonal, invisible system stacked against them. Slavoj Zizek, who claims he, too, would have voted for Trump, makes some interesting points, whether you agree or disagree:

Also recall that 18-25 year-olds cast more votes for Bernie Sanders in the primaries than for Trump and Clinton combined, and would have delivered this result in the general election:

And if that still doesn’t’ cheer you up, take heart that either four or eight years from know, we KNOW we know we will elect America’s first straight, female president:

The Republican Brain

I’m sure readers can point out the irony in this Facebook post:


Yup, nowhere better to escape the horrors of government medicine than merry ol’ England :). The “Keep Government Off My Medicare” stereotype of Republicans is well warranted.

And the icing on this is that the high-school friend who posted this has been unfortunately cursed with very poor health (stemming from obesity). In fact, last year he posted a health-care bill which, if I recall correctly, was $35,000!!!

But, for election day (or erection day if you’re in Japan) I’ll share my favorite story, this one  from my mom. Being from the white underclass in the Rust Belt, and being over fifty, most of her friends and acquaintances are rabid Republicans. One of her former co-workers/friends is a woman in her thirties, very much the stereotype in my eyes (uneducated, overweight, dumpy, lower-middle class income, etc.). She is a fanatical Republican. One day, my mom, tired of her political trash talking, decided to ask her point blank, “[Person’s name], why are you a Republican?” Would you like to know what her exact response was?

“I don’t know, I just am.”

I don’t know, I just am.

Happy election day, folks. This is the first one in my voting life I’ll be watching from the sidelines, making me part of the largest party in America (the nonvoters). In the end, I just got tired of caring

P.S. Sorry for the radio silence, but I’ve yet again bit off more than I can chew. I’ve written before about the evolution of inequality and states before, most notably in The Rise of States, Inequality and Economics. I’ve also covered the work of Marvin Harris and Brian Hayden before. But lately I’ve been enmeshed in Hayden’s work, particularly his Feasting Theory. What I find fascinating is how much it describes about how inequality works today – workaholic productivist monomaniacal individuals claiming to work harder than everybody else and gaining status by getting everyone else into debt to them. Despite what Max Weber said, the Protestant Work Ethic actually dates back to the Stone Age. And it was apparently the ongoing need to generate surpluses to keep up with these feasts which led us to stumble into agriculture in the first place (if the theory is accurate), with all of the problems that entailed. So, rather than than the need to pay off future debts leading to overproduction leading to intensification being a new thing, it may have been the original thing that led to our downfall!

In any case, I’ve been debating whether to put up a longer version with extensive quotes and detail, or a shorter, “punchier” Medium-friendly version. I’ll probably do both at some point; I’ve got the former mostly written.

Mark Blyth on the past and Future of Capitalism

The indispensable Scottish economist Mark Blyth has written an article for Foreign Affairs Magazine called Capitalism In Crisis where he reviews three recent books on the past, present and future of capitalism. In fact, they break down along those lines:

  • Capitalism: A Short History, by Jürgen Kocka – Capitalism’s past.
  • Buying Time by Wolfgang Streeck – Capitalism’s present.
  • Postcapitalism by Paul Mason – Capitalism’s future.

Although in reality, that’s a vast oversimplification; all three of these deal with both the past, present and future of capitalism, each in their own way. And, at least some of them depart from the hoary standard economic orthodoxy that sees no problems with our current trajectory and everything getting better for everyone in the future forever. Another theme linking all three of these together according to Blyth is the escalating tensions between capitalism and collective governance, i.e. democracy:

Ever since the emergence of mass democracy after World War II, an inherent tension has existed between capitalism and democratic politics; capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through votes. Economists, in particular, have been slow to accept that this tension exists. Instead, they have tended to view markets as a realm beyond the political sphere and to see politics as something that gets in the way of an otherwise self-adjusting system. Yet how democratic politics and capitalism fit together determines today’s world. Politics is not a mistake that gets in the way of markets.

The first book is a straightforward history of capitalism in only 163 pages, but does provide some interesting philosophical insights:

For [Jürgen] Kocka, capitalism is …a set of institutions that enshrine property rights, promote the use of markets to allocate resources, and protect capital. is also an ethos, he claims, a set of principles and ideas. Defining capitalism so expansively allows Kocka to see its earliest forms developing among traders in Mesopotamia, in the eastern Mediterranean, and along Asia’s Silk Road, until, by the eleventh century, the beginnings of a merchant capitalist bourgeoisie had emerged on the Arabian Peninsula and in China.

Capitalism developed later in Europe, boosted by long-distance trade with Asia and the Arab world, between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Merchants formed cooperative institutions that led to greater risk sharing, which encouraged the accumulation of capital. This develop­ment, Kocka writes, led to “the formation of enterprises with legal personalities of their own,” rudimentary capital markets, and, finally, banks whose fortunes became intimately connected with the rise of modern states through the management of their debts.

This alliance between merchant capitalism and the emergent state helped usher in the age of colonialism. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and conquistadors, with increasingly powerful states backing them, propelled European expansion. Critical to this expansion was the tri­angular trade, in which European merchants brought finished goods to Africa, traded them for slaves, and then exchanged those slaves in the New World for sugar and cotton that went back to Europe. This process helped embed capitalism deeper in Europe than in the Middle East and China: the scale of investment that such ventures required led to the rise of what would become known as “joint-stock companies” and the beginnings of what economic historians call “finance capitalism”—stock exchanges opened in Antwerp in 1531 and Amsterdam in 1611.

When discussing the possibility of full employment and the existence of unemployment, a number of readers have pointed me to the work of Michael Kalecki. Kalecki’s insights are central to the second of Blyth’s reviewed books, and he ably summarizes the ideas of the Polish economist in a very clear and concise manner:

Kalecki argued that if full employment ever became the norm, workers would be able to move freely from job to job. Not only would this undermine traditional authority relationships within firms; it would also push wages up regardless of productivity levels, since workers would have more leverage to demand higher wages.

In response, firms would have to raise prices, creating a spiral of inflation that would eat into profits and lower real wages, which would, in turn, promote greater labor unrest. Kalecki argued that to restore profits, capitalists would rebel against the system that promoted full employment. In its place, they would seek to create a regime in which market discipline, with a focus on price stability rather than full employment, would be the primary goal of policy. Welfare protections would be rolled back, and the discipline that unemployment provides would be restored.

The response to this situation was to unleash Neoliberalism, one of the central tenets of which is the “disciplining” of labor through various means, outsourcing, mass immigration, automation, union-busting, student debt, and so forth:

Kalecki’s predictions proved aston­ishingly accurate. By the 1970s, as Kalecki had foreseen, inflation had risen dramatically, profits had fallen, and capital began its rebellion. Organ­izations…pressured governments to reduce taxes, especially on high earners. But cutting taxes in the recessionary early 1980s meant that revenues fell, deficits widened, and real interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, set out to weaken labor and shrink the role of the state as they dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of finance since the 1940s.

This “financialization” of the economy reduced taxes on wealth and shrank the tax base by hollowing out the middle classes of the formerly industrialized world. To finance government expenditures in the era of haute finance, politicians turned to debt instead, but government debt is also an asset on the balance sheets of major financial institutions and the one percent, giving them effective control over the politics of nation-states. As I have described it before, we stopped taxing the rich and started borrowing from them instead:

The financial industry could now grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries. This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes. But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since World War II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. Now, as govern­ments began to rely more and more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of the contemporary neoliberal era.

The debt-based states of the Neoliberal era were hamstrung by the investor class who demanded safe returns and high interest rates, and could exercise veto power over government spending through the bond market. So not only were the workers forced to compete against the labor pool of the entire world thanks to Neoliberalism, but governments could do nothing to ease the pain of the transition or redistribute the spoils of globalization even if they wanted to:

This transformation has had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed transnational capitalists to override the preferences of domestic citizens everywhere: bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt. In the most extreme cases, investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina, or they can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015. The financial industry has become, Streeck writes, “the second constituency of the modern state,” one more powerful than the people.

The use of debt financing initially seemed to restore prosperity to nations and citizens after the crisis of capitalism that occurred during the stagflation and oil shortages of the 1970s. But it was all illusory, created by bringing spending forward in time through the unrestrained extension of credit (following Catton’s Overshoot, let’s call this “phantom wealth”). This blew up giant bubbles of indebtedness which were certain to burst at some point. In other words, none of this solved the basic underlying problems of capitalism that have been festering since the late 1970’s:

This shift from taxes to debt initially bought time for capitalism: it restored profits, destroyed labor’s ability to demand wage increases, tamed inflation to the point of deflation (which increases the real value of debt), and even seemed to provide prosperity for all after the crisis of the 1970s. Mortgages and credit cards allowed private citizens to rack up deficits of their own—a process the sociologist Colin Crouch has described as “privatized Keynesianism.” But it was all an illusion. Credit sustained the appearance of pros­perity for the lower classes. In reality, the rich captured most of the newly created wealth. In the United States, for example, the top one percent more than doubled their share of the national income over the last three decades, as wages for the bottom 60 percent stood still.

In 2008, as we know, it all came crashing down, and the world has been in stagnation mode ever since, thanks in part to debt overhangs. Another factor is the fact that “disciplining” labor has been so effective that the incomes are not there to drive consumer spending anymore, increasing the severity of the downturn and preventing expansion (since your spending is my income). The hourglass shaped incomes caused by Neoliberal economic policy also mean that escalating housing and education costs (both underwritten by lending) are eating up much of the spending power of the former middle class. Much of the wealth captured by the rich has been plowed back into the political system in order to throttle any attempts at reform and catapult propaganda messages that argue that system is doing just fine, and no one is to blame but the workers themselves (“the Chinese are getting rich!!!!”) It all leads to a downward spiral:

In 2008, the financial crisis shattered this illusion. Governments bailed out the banks and transferred the costs of doing so to public budgets. Public debt exploded as governments bailed out the rich, and austerity measures, intended to reduce this new debt, have only com­pounded the losses of the majority of citizens. Capital continues to dominate democracy, especially in the EU: in Greece and Italy in 2011, technocrats replaced democratically elected govern­ments, and in 2015, the so-called troika—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—bulldozed Greek democracy.

So where Kocka blames profligate governments and debt-laden citizens for the current crisis, Streeck instead sees them as the victims. It’s not lavish public spending, he shows, but rather falling tax revenues and financial bailouts that have created so much government debt and empowered capital. If states are spending extravagantly on voters, as Kocka and those who fetishize austerity maintain, there is precious little to show for it. “Had the rise in public debt been due to the rising power of mass democ­racy,” Streeck writes, “it would be impossible to explain how prosperity . . . could have been so radically redistributed from the bottom to the top of society.” Streeck foresees a prolonged period of low growth and political turmoil ahead, in which states commanded by creditors, allied with transnational in­vestors, struggle to get resisting debtor states into line…

Blyth then turns to Paul Mason’s book, Postcapitalism, which I have written about before.

In Postcapitalism, [Paul] Mason writes that capitalism is “a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” The roots of capitalism’s demise, Mason argues, lie in the 1980s (also when Kocka saw problems arise), when capi­talism was taken over by neoliberalism: an ideology and a set of policies that recognize no limits to the commodification of the world. Unfortunately for capi­talism, “neoliberalism is broken.” To explain why, Mason turns to the work of Nikolai Kondratieff, a brilliant Soviet economist whom Stalin had murdered in 1938. According to Kondratieff, capitalism goes up and down in 50-year cycles. At the bottom of a cycle, old technologies and business models cease to function. In response, entrepreneurs, both public and private, roll out new technologies to open up untapped markets, and an upswing begins. This leads to a loosening of credit, which accelerates the upswing.

Blyth then summarizes Mason’s description of the various Kondratieff waves that have determined the course of market capitalism since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the English Midlands:

Mason’s first cycle runs from 1790 to 1848. The upswing began when British entrepreneurs first harnessed steam power to run their factories, and it ended with the depression of the 1820s. The subse­quent downswing produced the revolutions of 1848, when the emergent bourgeois classes of Europe burst onto the historical stage.

Mason’s second cycle runs from 1848 to the mid-1890s. The spread of railways, the telegraph, and shipping drove growth until the depression of the 1870s. In the decades that followed, strong labor movements gained momen­tum all over the world, and capital, in response, became more concentrated.

Electricity and mass production then powered a third upswing that crashed in the Great Depression and the massive capital destruction of World War II.

After the war, a fourth cycle began with innovations in electronics and synthetics, improvements in the organization of production, and labor’s relative victory over capital in the institutions of the welfare state. That cycle’s upswing peaked in the mid-1970s, but this time, there was no major depression. The fourth cycle stalled.

Why did the fourth cycle stall? Mason’s analysis has four components:

  • After U.S. President Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard in 1971, the United States moved to a paper standard, which eliminated the constraints on deficit financing that the gold standard entailed.
  • The financialization of the developed economies masked the reality of stagnant incomes by substituting credit for wage increases.
  • The emergence of global imbalances in finance and trade allowed the United States to keep consuming as Asian countries stepped in as producers.
  • Advances in infor­mation technology empowered capital and weakened labor, and helped spread neoliberal practices across the globe.

This where automation comes into the picture. In all of the previous crises, labor managed to organize and fight for more rights and higher living standards. This caused capitalism to adapt, to the benefit of all stakeholders (including the capitalists themselves). However, this time, automation, globalization and mass immigration (and, I would add, the influence of the corporate mass media), have combined in an engine that has succeeded in crushing labor. Add to that the fact that the proliferation of digital goods has meant that Markets can no longer price goods correctly, since markets rely on excludable goods and scarcity, and digital goods are abundant, non-rival, and non-excludable:

Mason borrows from Marx and Kalecki the idea that average profits in any market will fall due to both compe­tition and the flood of capital into a new market, which reduce returns on investment. As a result, capitalists will always try to replace human labor with machines to protect their share of profits.

During a downswing, as profits shrink, capitalists will do everything they can to boost their share of profits at the expense of labor: they will force employees to work intensively and will accelerate their attempts to replace workers with machines…In the past, such attempts to restore profits simply by crushing labor failed. In each of the first three waves, one way or another, workers managed to resist. The best examples of such resistance were the postwar constraints on capitalism: strong unions, rigorous regulations, and generous welfare systems. When workers defy capitalists’ attempts to squeeze profits from them by building such institutions, firms have to adapt. Rather than fight labor over the fixed distribution of income, they are forced to invest in improving workers’ produc­tivity, to the benefit of both parties: this was the post–World War II growth story.

But under neoliberalism, capitalists have managed to squeeze labor in an entirely new way. Globalization oblit­erated the power of workers to resist, because if they did, capital—and jobs—could easily flow elsewhere. This explains why the number of labor strikes has declined so steeply all over the world. As Mason writes, “The fourth long cycle was prolonged, distorted and ultimately broken by factors that have not occurred before in the history of capitalism: the defeat . . . of organized labour, the rise of information technology and the discovery that once an unchal­lenged superpower exists, it can create money out of nothing for a long time.”

Hence the plummeting living standards all over the industrialized world–North America, Western Europe, Japan. Meanwhile the abundance of digital goods has meant that copyright and legal protection have become onerous and excessive to protect corporate profits (and no other reason). Mason’s hope is that digital technologies will allow new para-capitalist and extra-capitalist (my terms) structures to emerge which will be the seeds of a new and growing economic arrangement that will ultimately be better for people and for the planet:

Still, Mason believes that these factors have only delayed capitalism’s inevitable collapse. Where Marx thought that organized labor would rise up and overthrow the system, Mason bets that information technology will destroy it from within. Digital goods, such as music files and software, create a real problem for markets: they destroy the role of price in balancing supply and demand. People can copy digital goods freely forever: they have zero marginal cost and are nonrival in consumption. When one person downloads a music file or a piece of code from the Internet, for example, she makes it no harder for anyone else to do the same. So the only way that firms can maintain their profits is by enforcing monopoly property rights…

Mason is optimistic about what will replace the profit motive. He points to decentralized networks such as Wikipedia…and the rise of the so-called sharing economy: nonmarket peer pro­duction systems, where work has value but cannot be priced in a traditional manner. The result is a “contradiction in modern capitalism . . . between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information.” In such a world, the central battle will be between those who want to preserve property rights and those who wish to destroy them in the name of democracy. The stakes, Mason argues, could not be higher. Without the revolution he calls for, the world will be vulnerable to a much greater threat: catastrophic climate change.

Mark Blyth makes a major, major mistake in this otherwise excellent review, however. The fact that even someone as knowledgeable and aware as Mr. Blyth has fallen for the propaganda is both astonishing and very depressing: “A group of experts called the Club of Rome famously published The Limits to Growth in the 1970s, forecasting economic and environ­mental crises—and those predictions have failed to come to pass. But this time may be different.”

No, no no! Limits to Growth did not make any predictions. Let’s say that again: Limits to Growth did Not make any predictions!!! It used models to forecast a number of possible scenarios. The standard run scenario is actually very close to how the world economy has unfolded over the past few decades. In fact, one could argue that it’s so-called “predictions” are far more accurate than any economists’. As Ugo Bardi has explained multiple times:

Now, you may have heard that “The Limits to Growth” (let’s call it “LTG”) is an outdated work; that it was all a mistake, that they made wrong predictions and the like. Those are just urban legends. People tend to disbelieve what they don’t like and that is why LTG was so widely rejected and even demonized. ..Limits to Growth was a very advanced study for its times; it was not a mistake and its predictions were not wrong. In any case, these models are there to show you trends; not to give you exact dates for what will happen.

Mason argues that capitalism in its current form will engender catastrophic climate change:

The world is in trouble…The world cannot burn 60 to 80 percent of remaining known carbon fuel stocks without causing catastrophic warming. But under capitalism, this is exactly what the world will do. Carbon taxes will do little to change this reality…Add to this mix an aging developed world with huge pension liabilities and a climate-shocked developing world of young people who have nowhere to go, and it’s little wonder that the Organiza­tion for Economic Cooperation and Development has forecast stagnant growth for the global economy for the next 50 years and an almost 40 percent rise in inequality in the world’s rich countries…Mason thinks that climate change may be the one bullet that capitalism cannot dodge. Neoliberals often naively assert that capitalism will generate a miracle technology at just the right moment to stave off catas­trophe. But Mason argues that previous Hail Mary passes, such as geoengineering and carbon capture, have failed to pay off. What gives him hope is that large-scale technological innovations may not be as important as micro-level changes in the structure of property rights themselves…

Blyth concludes:

Mason emphasizes an aspect of capitalism that both Kocka and Streeck underplay: its adaptive potential…Although capitalism may be reaching its adaptive limits, it has been more robust than most doomsayers realize…Whether or not such a restructuring will be enough to save the world remains unclear. But Mason is right to hold out hope. Capitalism, in its current form, has reached a dead end. If ever there were a time for pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, it is now.

Or, it could all lead to collapse. I guess we’ll see. But that’s another column…

More Mark Blyth:

Austerity’s Big Bait-and-Switch (Harvard Business Review) (P.S. the joke’s on him–in Milwaukee we all have thick Scottish accents!)

In a highly indebted world, austerity is a permanent state of affairs (Aeon)

The World Is Run by Folk Theories

I noticed my thoughts on democracy, or the lack thereof, were echoed very closely in a recent column in The Guardian by George Monbiot. Monbiot asks a trenchant question:

What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairytale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?

You’ve gotta hand it to the guy, he’s willing to go where other journalists aren’t. He is riffing off a book called Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. That book refers to something that they term “The folk theory of democracy,” which is something I was also trying to get at in my post. The folk theory of democracy that we learn in our civics textbooks bears little resemblance to the reality we all live with:

[T]he “folk theory of democracy” – the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act – bears no relationship to how it really works. Or could ever work…

In the real world, however, instead of rational people coming together to consider the best course of action on various important issues, people form antagonistic tribes and vote based on emotion, rationalizing their decisions after the fact based on their preconceived notions or social group affiliation. I find it endlessly amusing to see all the “Trump/Pence” signs in the white separatist enclaves and rural exurbs outside of the city given that four years ago those same signs were for Mitt Romney, someone who believed the 180-degree opposite than what Mr. Trump currently espouses on any number of issues. Heck, Mr. Romney’s very business was carving up American companies and offshoring jobs! But, of course, we’re told that we vote for candidates based on “issues.” Yeah, right. Anyone who has ever tried to have a “rational” discussion about the issues with an American voter has had a rude awakening.

Voters, [Achen and Bartels] contend, can’t possibly live up to these expectations. Most are too busy with jobs and families and troubles of their own. When we do have time off, not many of us choose to spend it sifting competing claims about the fiscal implications of quantitative easing. Even when we do, we don’t behave as the theory suggests.

Our folk theory of democracy is grounded in an Enlightenment notion of rational choice. This proposes that we make political decisions by seeking information, weighing the evidence and using it to choose good policies, then attempt to elect a government that will champion those policies. In doing so, we compete with other rational voters, and seek to reach the unpersuaded through reasoned debate.

In reality, the research summarised by Achen and Bartels suggests, most people possess almost no useful information about policies and their implications, have little desire to improve their state of knowledge, and have a deep aversion to political disagreement. We base our political decisions on who we are, rather than what we think.

In other words, we act politically not as individual, rational beings, but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity. We seek out the political parties that seem to correspond best to our culture, with little regard to whether their policies support our interests. We remain loyal to political parties long after they have ceased to serve us.

The idea that parties are guided by the policy decisions made by voters also seems to be a myth; in reality, the parties make the policies and we fall into line. To minimise cognitive dissonance – the gulf between what we perceive and what we believe – we either adjust our views to those of our favoured party or avoid discovering what the party really stands for. This is how people end up voting against their interests.

Lies, fearmongering and fables: that’s our democracy (Guardian)

My argument was a little different. I argued that it doesn’t matter anyway, since the government is run by technocrats. As I pointed out earlier this year, since the rise of Market Liberalism the economy has been “disembedded” from society by design, and operates within its own strict set of rules and limits, walled off from any political “interference.” So what can politicians do anyway? It is the Market which determines whether people can or can’t find work, or afford to rent an apartment, or whether they have to live on the street and go without necessary health care. What can the government—any government— do under these circumstances? The answer is usually some sort of “program,” but we’re constantly told over and over again that programs don’t work, that they distort the Market and cause “inefficiencies,’ and that there simply is not enough money around to fund them, anyway.

There’s another different, but related, argument. Reader Apneaman points out this article: The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge (Aeon).

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. Democracies tend to pass laws and policies that appeal to the median voter, yet the median voter would fail Econ, History, Sociology, and Poli Sci 101. Empirical work generally shows that voters would support different policies if they were better informed.

Voters tend to mean well, but voting well takes more than a kind heart. It requires tremendous social scientific knowledge: knowledge that most citizens lack. Most voters know nothing, but some know a great deal, and some know less than nothing. The goal of liberal republican epistocracy is to protect against democracy’s downsides, by reducing the power of the least-informed voters, or increasing the power of better-informed ones.

The author of this article also wrote a book, called Against Democracy. In it, he champions the idea of epistocracy–voting would be restricted to those with a basic level of competence. In this case, voting would still determine the leadership of the nation, and be done in some sort of regular time period, but there would need to be qualifications to vote. Not just anyone, no matter how ignorant, would be allowed to cast a ballot:

…most of of us still believe that the voters have a right to rule, no matter how ignorant and biased they might be. As political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels put it in another important new book on political ignorance, “the ideal of popular sovereignty plays the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era.” Much like the kings and emperors of an earlier age, the people are seen as having an inherent right to wield political power, whether or not they do it well. Unlike Achen and Bartels, Brennan is willing to knock our multiheaded king off his pedestal.

In most situations, he points out, we readily assume that people should not be allowed to make important decisions for others unless they have at least a reasonable degree of competence to do so. Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle.” We don’t allow quacks to make medical decisions, for example. This is especially true when the medical decisions in question are extremely important, and the “patients” have no choice but to obey the doctor’s orders.

Voting, of course, often literally involves matters of life and death, and the politicians who get elected rule over the entire society, including those who voted against them or chose to abstain. Ignorant or illogical decisions by voters can easily lead to ill-advised wars, economic recessions, abusive law enforcement, environmental disasters, and other catastrophes that imperil the lives, freedom, and welfare of large numbers of people. If we refuse to tolerate ignorant medical practice or ignorant plumbing, we should take an equally dim view of ignorant voting.

Democracy vs. Epistocracy? (Washington Post)

The technocracy idea I was proposing is somewhat similar, but it eliminates the idea of voters. The idea that we could find enough average voters to weigh in on, say, atmospheric science, or nuclear regulation, is slim to nil. What exactly are even these “knowledgeable” voters going to vote on, then? And furthermore, I contended that voting doesn’t change much anyway, since most departments are bureaucracies staffed with professionals that run themselves regardless of who is elected into office.

The “Folk Theory of Democracy” reminds me of the “Folk Theory of the Market” that I always like to bring up. It’s just as much of a fairy tale. The folk theory of the market usually describes some sort of idealized farmer’s market-type situation where relatively equal sellers are competing against one another with simple products, and rational consumers have enough time and knowledge to pick and choose among them, so that everyone ends up better by “mutually agreeable” trades in perfectly “free and open” markets. Much of economics (practically all of it, actually), is attempting to describe this idealized situation using advanced mathematics. However, the above situation bears no resemblance whatsoever to the anything that has ever existed in reality. In economists’ conception of the Market, there is no coercion, no monopolies, no externalities, no advertising, no marketing, perfectly rational omniscient consumers, buyers sellers on an equal footing, etc.

In reality, the market is plagued with constant bubbles, manias, booms, busts, panics and crashes, always swinging from overproduction to underproduction and threatening to tear the whole fabric of society apart. Markets do not lead to “rational allocation of goods and services,” but are fueled by “animal spirits” and driven by things like the cognitive biases, the herd mentality, Ponzi dynamics, and the Greater Fool Theory. This is what history shows outside of economic textbooks and academic papers. The other thing that economists spend a lot of time doing is trying to get markets to work the way the textbooks say they should, while simultaneously extolling “private enterprise” and berating government “distortion.”

This article pointed out something relevant – we’re almost a decade into slow/stagnant growth that’s causing the world to progressively deteriorate poltically and socially, and economists have no answers. Instead they award the “Nobel prize” to economists who study contract theory. Really, that’s all the relevance the mighty economics discipline has anymore? It’s like the economic discipline has become so far removed from actual reality that it just can’t provide any real answers to our mounting problems.

This is predictable, and, I submit, is the most predictable phenomenon within the ambit of the discipline. Economics is in disrepute, and its current elite are determined to keep it there. The latest ersatz Nobel prize went to a couple of guys who theorize a lot about contracts. This is the kind of work that now dominates much of economics. Tinkering with mathematics, incentives, and other aspects of minutiae whilst steadfastly turning away from the rapidly approaching storms that threaten the lives of real people outside the tenured redoubts professors hide within.

The Market and Nobels (Real World Economics Review)

The whole article is an excellent summary of the history of economics – where it came from, and why it is inherently hostile to the state from its inception:

All mainstream economics begins with the proposition that there exist markets endowed with utopian qualities. These magical places are populated with people who behave in only one way: they exercise rational choice. Indeed, so rational are they that they exhibit no choice in any real world sense of the word choice. When presented with an array from which to choose these people will make only one choice. They are, thus, perfectly predictable. They can be accorded incentives to induce predictable behavior. They will never err. They will never fail prey to human weaknesses. Nor will they alter. They are, in sum, the perfect grist for the mathematical modeling mill. Which is why they were invented.

With this nirvana thus established, economists systematically explore various forms of relaxation of their utopian rules. This, they argue, allows them to home in on sundry “inefficiencies”. For it can only be that a fall from the sublime grace of utopia is to decline into a less than sublime underworld. That underworld inevitably includes the state.

So, from its very inception, economics was designed to “prove” that state intervention into markets was inherently to disrupt this utopian order.

One example of market irrationality I always like to point out is the farmers who poured milk down the drain during the Great Depression while many people were unemployed, starving and hungry. I used to have to refer to the 1933 Wisconsin Milk strike. But now I can use a much more relevant example, as milk is currently being poured down the drains thanks to a massive dairy glut:

Dairy farmers in the United States have dumped more than 43 million gallons of milk between January and August of 2016. This milk has been poured into fields, manure lagoons, and animal feed, or down the drain at processing plants. According to the Wall Street Journal, this amount of milk is enough to fill 66 Olympic-sized swimming pools and is the most wasted in at last 16 years.

The problem is that the United States is in the midst of a massive dairy glut. Farmers responded to a shortage two years ago that is now catching up with a nation unable to absorb the quantity of dairy being produced. Prices are so low – down 36 percent from in 2014 – that “many can’t even afford to transport raw milk to market at current prices.” Two years ago, U.S. dairy farmers were exporting tons of milk, but it has all crashed…

43 million gallons of milk have been dumped so far this year (Treehugger)

Traditionally, the solution has been for the government to buy up excess, and then release it to the market when the price is high. This has “smoothed over” the repeated boom-and-bust cycles and prevented wild price swings. In truth, the “cheap abundance” we enjoy today is as much due to government intervention as free market capitalism, yet our indoctination will not allow us to accept this fact (another example of irrationality related to the above). As economist William Mitchell has often argued, this same system could be theoretically used to keep the price of labor high and eliminate the wasted excess, but the powers that be will not allow it.

And continuing on the idea of the Folk Theory of the Market, while looking for something else I came across this excellent blog with several posts pointing out how many parts of standard economic theory make no sense. For example, No One Has Time For A Completely Free Market:

The free market often sounds quite simple and straight forward. Consumers simply decide whether product A or B benefits them more and then choose accordingly. If the same or similar product is sold by shop A or B consumers simply choose whichever is cheaper, better quality or otherwise benefits them. It is easy and doesn’t require any complicated plan or someone telling consumers what is best for them, people simply decide themselves. This is the market as described by economists, politicians and writers, especially when they are trying to make a political point. After all, if the market is so simple and straight forward, why do we need the government interfering? All these rules and regulations only get in the way, surely it is better for everyone if we just leave the consumers to decide for themselves.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and although this sounds like a completely reasonable idea, it is completely unworkable in reality. As tempting as it is to simply remove regulations and let people figure it out for themselves, the free market is not simple and straight forward. It is an extremely complex mechanism that none of us fully understand. The biggest reason we shouldn’t remove regulations is because simply do not have the time.

Let me use an example. I once went to the shops to buy some bacon. In my economics classes this was always presented as a simple affair. I would just compare two types of bacon see which was better (in terms of price or quality) and choose whichever gave me the most utility. However, when I came to the aisle, to my surprise, I saw that there were 40 different types of bacon. There were different sizes, different brands, different parts of the pig etc. How was I supposed to know which was best? Perhaps I could give each one a taste test and rate them accordingly and devise a system that combines taste and price to calculate the most efficient option. But I would have to cook each piece identically with similar food in order to give a fair test and perform it more than once, to avoid the risk of getting an unusually good or bad piece. Needless to say this would be an enormously time consuming task that would take weeks (by which time need bacon products would probably be released) and no one has the time for.

Yet this is only one product. Supermarkets contain thousands of products that all must be considered, compared and a decision made on them. I am a skinny lad with incredibly unimaginative tastes in food (I’ve never cooked myself a meal with more than three ingredients) who only shops for myself, yet a full shopping involves buying 30-40 goods. More imaginative people and those with families have even more decisions to make. Plus there is also all the other goods you decided not to buy, meaning that doing the shopping involves over a hundred decisions and hundreds of comparisons. All of this occurs in one supermarket but there are also a dozen others that you could go to instead (also containing hundreds or thousands of products) further multiplying the calculations that could be made. No human has the time or willingness to do a full and comprehensive comparison of all the economic costs and benefits.

So what do people do instead? Sometimes they just choose randomly. As an economics student it always struck me as odd that I was spend all day learning complex equations that supposedly related as to how consumers made their decisions and then randomly choose what to eat for dinner. Most times, people just buy the same product they did before. Or they’ll choose one with nice packaging or that they recently saw an ad for. I usually buy the cheapest.

No One Has Time For A Completely Free Market (Whistling In The Wind)

Remember, economic “science” assumes that we all have “perfect information” about literally everything we do. No, I am not making that up. The author then points out what would happen if we repealed all consumer protection, environment, anti-discrimination, worker protection, and other laws, and let the unregulated market decide as libertarians demand that we do:

So without regulations the already complicated decision of picking which bacon to buy, becomes exponentially more difficult. Now I have to compare the 40 or so brands based on their relative price, taste, quality, risk of disease, treatment of animals, environmental impact, working conditions, sanitary conditions, attitudes towards minorities and women, both in terms of willingness to hire, pay an equal wage and promote, nutrition, origin (people like to support local businesses), honesty (is this actually bacon?) and a dozen other factors I have probably forgotten. Needless to say your brain would melt if you tried to calculate all these factors (assuming you had all the information you needed), so instead people pick one or two that matter and ignore the others. This means that I’ll buy the cheapest, even if the workers aren’t treated well or the quality is shoddy. So contrary to what some would have you believe, consumers don’t have the power to compel businesses to act as they wish and the threat of switching brands merely means switching some disfavourable factors for others.

This is why regulation is actually helpful to consumers and simplifies life. This might sound odd and contrary to what you’ve always heard about regulations, so I’ll repeat it. Regulations simplify decisions. When I go to the supermarket, I know that the products have to meet some basic standards such as health & safety, environmental impact and working conditions. This means I don’t have to worry as much about it and reduces the number of factors by which I judge products. By standardising other factors, I am freed to focus mainly on price and quality, which makes comparison and competition much easier to determine. It also means this is where businesses have to compete instead of undercutting each other where consumers don’t see.

So contrary to what most people think, removing regulations would actually complicate, not simplify our life. No one has the time to make the endless calculations that are necessary for a completely free market to function.

Another good post is this one, skewing the idea that markets exist on some sort of platonic, frictionless universe and somehow reach equilibrium.

Even on its own grounds, the argument for equilibrium to naturally occur is flawed. The market forces that are supposed to push the price towards equilibrium and hold it there are either too weak or non-existent. But won’t a business that charges too much have too few customers? Won’t a business that sells too cheaply not be able to pay its costs? True, but this does not mean it will reach equilibrium. You see, not all costs are equal, rather they all run on separate time frames. Repaying your mortgage on the building is a fixed cost not related to production. Not all employees are directly productive (managers and security guards provide benefit but are not directly related to the production of goods). Therefore it is not as easy as simply equating supply and demand when it is such a variable cost. It is quite possible for a business to run a loss for quite some time and still remain in business.

Do we ever reach equilibrium (Whistling In The Wind)

So, we’re told that choosing in the market as consumers is the only kind of choice that matters. Yet we clearly see in both markets AND democracy that it really amounts to no choice at all. Instead we cling to outdated folk theories as the world goes to hell around us. So much for “rational choice.”