100 Days of Writing

Of States and Civilizations

Chapter 10 in Dawn of Everything presents Graeber and Wengrow’s theory of states. They assert three characteristics, in different combinations, that best describe various prehistoric cultures:

1) sovereignty, or violent power, e.g. of a king;

2) bureaucracy, involving special record-keeping or (possibly esoteric) knowledge;

3) charismatic or heroic leadership, in a competitive field.

Graeber and Wengrow work through examples of “first order” societies that have only one of these characteristics. These societies usually aren’t called “states” in conventional terms. Examples like the Aztecs, Incas, and ancient Egypt, on the other hand, involve the convergence of at least two of the dimensions, usually sovereignty and bureaucracy (which extends the reach of a sovereign king), and are thus “second order” societies. These do tend to be labeled as the earliest proper “states.”

The role of charismatic or heroic leadership in a competitive field tends to be found in hill peoples, barbarians, or in the interstices or liminal periods between major, named kingdoms or periods, i.e. times of decline or deterioration (pp 379-383; cf. 416-418).

Interestingly, bureaucracy (administration) does not appear on the scene only when societies reach a sufficiently large scale, as is usually thought (pp 418-422). Neither is bureaucracy necessarily correlated with sovereignty. Evidence from prehistoric Mesopotamia, coming from “more than 2,000 years before the appearance of anything even vaguely resembling a city,” and before any writing, indicates the functioning of egalitarian “village bureaucracies,” which used special geometric tokens to keep track of a complex division of labor and resources. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon, either. Over time, and across a large region covering modern day Iran, Iraq, and the Turkish highlands, “people living in small-scale communities (villages) began to act as if they were already living in mass societies” due to a “principle of cultural uniformity.” It was the first era of, literally, a “global village” (p. 422).

Only with the later addition of sovereign power does such a society become genuinely state-like (p. 426). It also becomes oppressive for locals as outside forces begin to use local bureaucracies for their own purposes, for example to provision an external royal court, military, priesthood, and other administrative classes (pp. 423-427).

At the end of the chapter, Graeber and Wengrow consider what all this means for civilization, which they say is not necessarily tied to cities, nor to states, again as is usually thought. Rather, civilizations are best described as these global-village “culture areas” or “interaction spheres,” which “archaeologists can now trace back into periods far earlier than kingdoms or empires, or even cities” (p. 432). The true history of civilization(s) has yet to be written.

Not only this, but the benevolent qualities of this kind of genuine civilization come much closer to the actual meaning of the Latin civilis: qualities of “political wisdom and mutual aid… social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality, or simply caring” — all in a system of voluntary coalition (p. 432).

If the traditionally conjoined entities of “civilization” and “state” really can be disjoined from each other (p. 431), with genuine civilization coming well before anything resembling an early city or state… If states really are “amalgams” consisting of various combinations of the three basic features proposed, with the implication that a much wider range of societies can be variously classified — and even full-faceted “third order” modern-day states may be in a process of drifting apart… IF the human situation really is as Graeber and Wengrow propose, they may be right in concluding that, “Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself” (p. 431).