Defying Power: Different Views on How Best to Understand the Evolution of the State

Since its publication, I have come across two reviews of Worshiping Power that I would like to respond to, not to bat a discursive ball back and forth, but to engage with the flow of conversations that form an integral part of our interaction with the world around us. One is William Gillis’ “The Tangled Paths of State Formation and Resistance,” and the other is Kristian Williams’ “Mystifying: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation.”

Much of Gillis’ review focuses on a very interesting question that I want to save for last. First, there are a couple more technical matters. To begin with, I would disagree with the characterization that “The fight between authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism is ultimately a fight over values far more than it is a fight over particular conditions or tools.” Later, this same affirmation resurfaces in regard to markets, when Gillis praises the book for its accuracy about “markets not obliging inequality, hierarchy or states”

There is a constant interplay between values, institutions, and social organization. Agency and the strategies of specific groups play a major role in this process, but structural inertia is also capable of carrying the day. What’s more, there is a crucial difference between tools and machines. Machines produce social realities, whereas tools merely amplify agency. I’m not sure whether Gillis would say there is nothing deterministic about technology (understood as an entire social complex of machines and practices), but I would not.

As far as markets are concerned, Gillis’ second characterization is accurate. Markets do not deterministically create hierarchy or states. However, markets are without a doubt dangerous to freedom and interesting to states.

As far as I can tell, those societies that practiced market institutions over long periods of time, without developing strong hierarchies or states as a result, kept a large part of social life outside of the market and had practices that enabled the self-defense of their economic autonomy. The quantitative logic of markets is potentially damaging to life. It is a virus that if unleashed is capable of destroying everything (even the market itself, if we are to follow Braudel’s assertion that capitalism superseded and consumed market dynamics).

For markets to be made innocuous, a society needs unimpeded, non-monetized access to their basic means of survival. Land, as well as people’s vital activity, must be inalienable, which means they cannot be bought or sold. In a society where the basis of existence is a healthy commons, I believe that people can safely experiment with a wide range of mechanisms for distributing all the other goods and services that round out our lives. But collective mechanisms of self-defense against accumulation, enclosure, and quantification are vital.

James C. Scott expresses the view that markets were actually troublesome to early states. The work of merchants was harder for rulers to track and tax, so they discouraged it at times in favor of a model of accumulation based on landed laborers. I don’t dispute that this was a characteristic of the land-based states of southeast Asia Scott focuses on, at least in certain moments in their development.

But the archipelagos of the Mediterranean and the Java and Banda seas give us quite a different model. While states in those areas did not create commerce and markets, they did not hesitate to pursue them, to redesign them, and then to harness them to extract unprecedented amounts of value that led to an exponential expansion of the technologies of social control and warfare that continues to this day.

On a more trivial level, Gillis claims I made a factual error in dating the appearance of agriculture and plant domestication to 10,500 (actually I give a range of dates), rather than 23,000 years ago. This comes down to a minor confusion regarding the difference between cultivation and domestication. Cultivation, which certainly happened in Palestine 23,000 years ago, and probably in many other places and even earlier, is simply the sowing and harvesting of plant foods, typically wild cereals. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes regarding non-civilized peoples, any hunter-gatherer community is capable of doing this, but in most conditions, it would be a waste of their effort. Domestication, on the other hand, requires far more dedication over a much longer period of time, as it implies the production of new species intentionally selected for human consumption. This is the process that only began about 11,000 years ago.

Another observation Gillis makes regards the “hostility” I evince towards academics. It’s a contradiction I am unable to resolve: admiration for those whose studies have expanded my horizons or challenged my beliefs; hatred for the institutions they work for; scorn for those who make their paycheck fine-tuning this system. But we don’t have to stop at the contradiction of the radical academic. Why not include the radical writer, making a name for himself by talking about revolution?

A certain professor, asked to write a blurb for the book, politely asked me, “Are you sure you want me to?” At first I was surprised, until I realized that in the book I had just written, the hatred and the scorn for academia far outweighed the admiration.

I thank Gillis for highlighting that hostility and also the contradictions that surround it, especially when those lead one to take a utilitarian view of knowledge, as I do, ambiguously, by suggesting that the pursuit of knowledge must be justified. Gillis is right to spurn the idea that “we must interrogate every flight of investigation and demand to know its pragmatic utility for the social order” (their characterization). But I would argue that their interpretation misses out on the ambiguity in my statement. I wrote, “Learning is only worthwhile if it helps us fight, to live healthy, to live free.” They respond:

What a terribly impoverished notion of “living free”! Surely inquiry and creativity are themselves part and parcel of freedom, not merely servants or tools. Is freedom just some passive state of being we’re trying to retreat to? Or is it an active, striving, reaching sort of thing, that necessarily includes learning for its own sake, exploring for its own sake, dreaming for its own sake?

Actually, I haven’t provided any notion, impoverished or otherwise, of “living free.” I leave that to the reader. And if a reader such as Gillis requires unbridled curiosity and independent inquiry to live free, so be it.

Gillis’ warning about a utilitarian view of learning stands. I share those concerns. But let me add a warning about science “unleashed,” a notion that receives praise from the dominant moralists of the day. Museum basements across North America and Europe are filled with bones stolen from indigenous burial grounds across the world. This was done by trained scientists as part of their unbridled search for knowledge. And peace-loving Albert Einstein was indispensable to the invention of the nuclear bomb. To anyone with common sense, this would have been predictable — the military always gets first dibs. But sometimes, highly intelligent people can be really, really stupid.

Then there’s the recent revelation that some of Chomsky’s linguistics works had military applications, and that the Pentagon made use of MIT and other universities by giving scientists there the feeling that they had absolute freedom in their work, they were simply funding free inquiry that would benefit “humanity.”

Okay: utilitarianism is a straight-jacket for knowledge. But curiosity is never neutral. How do we continue to practice free inquiry in the middle of a battlefield? I don’t trust those who claim not to be on any side, because I can see who signs their paycheck, even if they don’t notice.

Gillis’ argument about authoritarianism below the state threshold is the one that interests me the most, but I want to save it for last, to end on a good note.

First, I want to quickly respond to the other review, written by a decidedly grumpy Kristian Williams. Williams’ disapproval lies on two foundations: that I offer no clear thesis regarding the causes of state formation; and that I give tautological explanations for state formation.

From the beginning, Williams uses the snarky tone that is more fashionable among writers trying to build their career profile than those engaged in the solidaristic project of trying to foster stronger collective struggles. One of the many problems with such a tone is that it looks much worse when you get your facts wrong, as all of us will inevitably do at some point, and as Williams does repeatedly throughout his short text. Embarrassingly for Williams, he has missed the last fifty-odd years of anarchist research into state formation, which is a pretty bad omission for someone writing a review on the subject.

It seems that Williams doesn’t recognize the validity of non-academic formats. He complains that “it is not until the final chapter that we encounter anything as definite as a thesis statement.” He says “the approach is opaque” and lacks “any clear direction”. The thesis he identifies, quoted from my last chapter, is that “state formation is a multilineal process and not a teleological, progressive evolution.”

Williams is not above telling a white lie to make his point. He claims I have no thesis until the last chapter, and while I reject his assumption that all critical writing must follow the style of the academic paper, I recognize that his university education might have made him a bit small-minded. But don’t they teach kids not to deliberately misrepresent a source?

Here’s a quote from the introduction. In fact, it’s the last paragraph of the introduction, just the place where they teach those who paid tens of thousands of dollars to certify their brains to look for and find a thesis statement. (Hey Gillis, there’s that hostility again. What should I do about it?)

It is now undeniable that there are multiple pathways in the evolution of states. I will not offer a single cause nor a single evolutionary model. There are several models we could consider, building off the work of a great many specialists. However, within each model, I find more particularities than similarities. As such, throughout the following chapters, which are divided thematically, I highlight the basic models when they appear, but place the weight of the narrative on the particularities of each case. This may not be the best format for rapid summarizing, but its advantage is in avoiding potentially dogmatic simplifications.

Hmmm. That looks pretty damn similar to the thesis that Williams claims I don’t express until the last chapter of the book. It also looks like I explain what my approach will be, and what direction I’ll be going in. Williams might have been comforted by a chronological organization to the book, instead of my “wandering” thematic approach, but I explained that too in the introduction. Putting all the emphasis on the original states props up the “Pandora’s Box” fallacy of state superiority, and a progressive telling of history tends towards white supremacist mythologizing backed by the fallacy of a unilineal history.

History unfolds in loops and spirals, full of backtracking or sudden changes in trajectory, far more often than in a progressive series of A-B-C… It also unfolds simultaneously on all continents. A truly chronological telling is impossible. Many historians have created such a narrative by ignoring non-European populations until the West invaded and conquered them. These historians’ perspective follows the hegemonic center and ignores the margins, to the point of completely dismembering history and making it impossible to perceive relations of influence and evolution. I could have been more explicit on this last point, but I guess I wasn’t expecting such bad faith readings, and from an anarchist no less.

What about the other shortcoming Williams picks up on? His perceived tautology is as follows:

Gelderloos slides toward a kind of cultural determinism, and disastrously pushes the notion to the point of outright tautology: “Placed in the same adverse situation, a society with anti-authoritarian, cooperative, and reciprocal values will find an anti-authoritarian solution, while a society that values hierarchy may likely form a state.” On that same page, he puts it more strongly, adds in primitive accumulation, and reverses the cause and effect: “economic accumulation is inconceivable without the hierarchical structures and spiritual values that states and proto-states create.

Both of my statements are in line with Clastres’ groundbreaking studies in the sixties and seventies and reconfirmed in detail by James C. Scott’s current work. Williams is looking for a materialist explanation for the State, but he has arrived half a century too late. I recommend Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which was discredited ages ago. The materialists offered a mechanical explanation for state formation, which is appealing to the scientific mind. But their hypothesis is simply not born out by the historical record. It gives us a theoretically useful lens for studying certain moments of state formation, but it fails to take into full account the political and spiritual production of that which is considered material and natural.  

Williams’ bemoans my failure to provide explanations for how a state-forming culture might emerge. Sadly, he missed that too. Every single chapter contains historical examples of how state-forming cultures were strengthened, sometimes as a product of social evolution, sometimes as the result of strategic decisions by would-be elites. Every. Single. Chapter.

Perhaps Williams is looking for a single, tidy, deterministic cause that brought state-forming cultures out of a smooth, egalitarian, prelapsarian past. Maybe, the temperature and rainfall levels at which such a culture forms, or the specific components and fuel source of the authoritarian culture machine. But state formation is not that simple, nor was there ever an innocent human past free of power dynamics.

For those who like it simple, I suggest the following exercise. Spend a day with your housemates, trying to come up with all the ways that you could make the street you live on more prestigious than the next street over, and also ways that it might become more prestigious by chance, without you lifting a finger. Now imagine you had years, generations, to do this. If you think, at the end of the exercise, that there would be a common thread linking all of your devious plans, or one external factor that would determine their success or failure, then you are inferior specimens of human creativity. Such nefarious creativity is hard to contain within a tidy theoretical model.

Anyone can have a bad day and write a stupid article. Lord knows I have. I just hope that’s the case with Kristian, and that his future writing is as good as Our Enemies in Blue.

The most interesting question, I have saved for last, but it will have to wait until the next installment: William Gillis’ question about hierarchies that thrive below the state threshold. In Part II: how to confront the kind of authoritarianism that could exist in non-state societies, post-state societies, and even our own countercultures…

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