CHAPTER 3 [PART 1]. REDISTRIBUTIVE SOCIETIES – THE BEGINNING OF AGGRANDIZEMENT

(From the book: The Creation of Political Domination: From the Paleolithic to the Present by Eugene L. Mendonsa, Ph.D)  Part 2 follows

Acephalous Societies

As I have said, aggrandizers are born in every society in every epoch.  Some are born into a cultural habitus (milieu) that is conducive to their acquisitive nature – the need to control others and desirable material goods.  Others were not born into conducive circumstances and their aggrandizing tendencies butted up against the existing ethos of egalitarianism. 

In early Neolithic acephalous farming or pastoralist communities the surplus was limited and primarily maintained, if at all, to protect against bad years.  Self-interested pursuits had to have been carefully planned and to have mainly revolved, initially, around the search of prestige alone or property that was amassed by the prestige-seeker and given back to augment his prestige.  In so doing, he strove to be the quintessential big man.

At that time, political leadership was minimal and embedded in kinship and religious structures for the most part, with perhaps some leadership roles in nascent sodalities.  Institutions evolved out of the human tendency to value the past over the present, to imbue institutions with greater value as time passed.  As headmen formulated codes and techniques of keeping the peace, controlling people’s labor and protecting their meager surplus – granaries and/or herds – they tried to link institutions of governance to the past or to something timeless like the ancestors or Deity.  In time, such innovations could and did become time-honored institutions. 

The Neolithic Revolution didn’t start out with a bang.  Food was scarce at first and control was minimal, staying more or less at the level of family.  In the kin group the headman ruled, controlling food distribution and labor allocation; but strong chiefs had not yet emerged to rule over all the family groups.  The job of the headman was to redistribute the food within the family group so that no one got more than anyone else and that the group would survive.

This redistributive function was based on altruistic moral values – the good of the family over and against any one individual kinsman.  Nevertheless, in this ethos existed the seed of exploitation, domination and the emergence of highly non-egalitarian societies.  Professor Boehm (1999) makes the point about big men that they struggled to be “hypergenerous” and in so doing they lost much of their humility.  The headman of a lineage was supposed to be fair and generous; but in playing his role he did acquire a modicum of privilege.  This was just the beginning.

In a way, the value of generosity did not go away after the Agricultural Revolution but rather we see that men began competing to be hyper-generous, folding generosity in with their private pursuit of prestige.  In this process, beneficence became a political tool, a mask for the desire for power and (later) wealth. 

In fact, what happened in big man societies and titular chiefdoms[1] – classic redistributive societies – was that aggrandizers had to be subtle and shrewd in their political dealings, always appearing to be altruistic, while at the same time pursuing their own interests.

What is redistribution?  It is accomplished when someone secures material goods and hands them out to others.  This took place in the Paleolithic but was different because material goods – food, clothing materials, house-building items – were free in nature.  Schematically Paleolithic reciprocity looked like this:

 

Gatherer/hunter’s goods > Receivers in band

 

That is, if a hunter killed game or a band member found food in the bush; it was brought back to camp and parceled out to band members (clothing materials and house-building items were likely collected personally).  This was repeated everyday with no storage involved and a different person each time might do the redistributing.  No one had the permanent status of redistributor or was aspiring to be such.

Once there was a surplus, redistributors or managers arose to handle such goods.  Schematically Neolithic reciprocity looks like this:

 

Producer/gatherer’s goods > Redistributor > Receivers

 

Once managers began to control the surplus they went after other rare and critical resources besides food e.g., water, metals, prestige trade items, the production of weapons, etc.  This gave them the financing to construct and maintain a political power base.

Early redistribution was based on the morality of sharing, with the redistributor not keeping any more of the goods than any other receiver.  He was simply a go-between, liaison or intermediary.  He did not siphon off much material wealth, if any.  The redistributor merely garnered prestige from the transaction.  This is often called the classic big man pattern (Sahlins 1963; Godelier & Strathern 1991).   

As more food allowed larger populations, distribution was limited to family groups, little corporations, if you will.  Now it looked something like this:

 

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

Producer  >

Goods  >

Redistributor   >

Receivers

 

More often than not, these little corporations were families, wherein food and other vital goods were shared.  As populations grew, distribution beyond this small family corporation became symbolic e.g., small bits of food being shared by a larger clan at a sacrifice or feast, for example.  As time passed and as society became more complex other kinds of corporate groups emerged, which can be thought of as “sharing-groups,” with the mini-redistribution cycle staying within the group.  Society now looked something like this:

 

Family group

Cult

Secret society

Special interest

association

Family group

Family group

Secret society

Family group

Special interest

sodality

 

Each of these formed a circle of redistribution with the group head managing the process.  But now we have different kinds of managers, something like this:

 

Head of family

Cult leader 

Secret society

headman

Special interest

association leader

Head of family

Head of family

Secret society

headman

Head of family

Special interest

sodality leader

 

Prestige, power and property were bundled within each group.  Each headman had his own sphere of influence, his own poleconomic domain, as it were.  Of course, now we had, on a miniature scale, perhaps within a given village, the potential for conflict over prestige, power and property.  There would be some need for rules to handle this conflict and a manager or cadre of managers to enforce the rules.

This is where we observe the need for an overall manager.  For example, if in a settlement there were now several family heads, a couple of cult leaders, two headmen of secret societies and two more leaders of special interest associations, someone could arise to mediate between the different interests of each leader.  The result would look like this:

 

Overall Manager

Head of

family

Cult

Leader

Secret society

headman

Special interest

sodality leader

Head of family

Head of family

Secret society

headman

Head of family

Special interest sodality

leader

 

At first such overall managers were of the genre we might call big men/little chiefs.  Exactly what label we put on them is less important than what they did.

These men functioned as redistributors of goods and services and mediated between the various groups in society.  They also solved situational problems facing the group as a whole.  Their formal power (authority) was limited.  They ruled weakly based on their prestige, which was to some extent greater than that of the other leaders, a primus inter pares.  In so doing they had more power and their prestige was reinforced and perhaps enhanced; but they did not have significantly more property.

This system was still communalistic and based on reciprocity and sharing of wealth; but prestige was being bundled in leadership.  If any siphoning was going on it was limited to two of the three desirables – prestige and power.  Property was still held and distributed more or less equitably.  But a subtle move had been accomplished: from acephaly to cephaly i.e., from a society with no overall manager to one with a nascent office-holder – the big man-redistributor.  Significantly, whether the big man siphoned any wealth off that surplus which passed through his hands, he was in a position to do so.  The stage was set for aggrandizers to take material advantage of the emerging system.

 

The Manipulation of Kinship

Symbols of power evolved out of the early mode of production we call the corporate kin group.  That early symbolic production that produced the social relations of kinship was a series of creative acts instituted by men who created a system of mobilizing and deploying social labor i.e., a mode of production.  Labor within the kin group was organized and controlled by imprinted symbols e.g., the ancestor cult, periodic ceremonies and the use of kin terms.  These social relations of production gave kin group leaders power over a limited group of persons who shared a common heritage.  Some aggrandizers, however, wished to move beyond the limits of kinship power and create a wider hegemony, one encompassing several kin groups.

Kinship is not a sui generis fully-developed system or entelechy.  It is, rather, an amalgam of symbols put together by men who became, over time, a line of petty rulers, often called elders within corporate kin groups.  Kinship was created by manipulating symbols and it can be changed by the same means.

Kinship was a key basis of all early societies, those before the rise of territorially-based polities; but kinship continued to be useful to those wishing to form non-kinship relationships as well.  Early aggrandizers who wished to become rulers outside their own natal kin group had to have an armamentarium of acceptable symbols by which they were able to convince people to move beyond kinship as a primary means of organizing their political economy.  Hopeful aggrandizers, those aspiring big men wishing to become powerful chiefs over various kin groupings, used the principles of kinship to create acceptable symbols to clothe their new polities in terms that were familiar to the people they wished to rule.  We will see this in the following case taken from the development of Mecca in early times.

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Case 3.1  The Use of Kinship in Early Islam

 

In ancient times, in the desert tribes of the Middle East, kinship formed the ideological glue that held distinct units together and also that which set one group against another.   

 

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Case 3.2  The Decline of Kinship in Mecca

In pre-Islamic Mecca, a newly formed urban settlement of the Koreish tribe, economic desires led tribal decision-makers to begin to formulate new non-kinship ways of relating to one another, a process that was accelerated with Mohammad’s religious innovations.  Clientship and slavery are two examples.  The revolution began with the fabrication of fictive kinship relations and ended with Mohammad declaring that the new society would be based on an Islamic state:

 

Credit, pricing, and wages set up relationships between individuals and groups of individuals that were not part of the preceding system of kin relationships.  Under the impact of commercial development, Meccan society changed from a social order determined primarily by kinship and characterized by considerable homogeneity of ethnic origin into a social order in which the fiction of kinship served to mask a developing division of society into classes, possessed of considerable ethnic diversity.

The accumulation of wealth and power in some clans of the Koreish tribe divided the Koreish into rich and poor (Wolf 2001 [1951]:105-106).

 

In order to create a social climate where Meccan leaders could become wealthier and more powerful they created new kinds of social relationships that afforded them the opportunity to interact commercially and without the restrictions that applied to those caught up in kinship relationships.  The new non-kin ties were sanctified by a ceremony in which the two parties to a relationship mixed their blood and were “surrounded by a mythology of common descent” (Wolf 2001 [1951]:111-112).

The shift was one of kinship to fictive kinship in the pre-Islamic climate of Mecca.  When Mohammad established a religious following the members of the “brotherhood” were supposed to be subservient to the Islamic State, presumably presided over by Allah.  Mohammad’s revolution made possible a transformation from kinship and fictive kinship as practiced by most pre-Islamic tribes in the Middle East to a society that possessed the elements of an early state.  His success permitted these elements to crystallize out of the previous social organization in which kin relations had already been moving away from a pure kinship-based form. 

Such were the types of innovations aggrandizing leaders could make within the context of a kin-based society.  As such, kinship and groups based on kinship principles formed a stepping stone out of the freer band-based world of the Paleolithic into societies led by state officials.  Once corporate kin groups were in existence, innovators created imitative relationships like the patron-client relationship and others, such as Mohammad, were able to build on these to form a state, wherein relationships were subject, not to kinship governance; but to the judicial system of the state.

Nonetheless, the Islamic move away from kinship was not a complete break.  As with many other aggrandizing innovators, Mohammad felt the need to link his new form to kinship.  Like others hoping to create a new econo-political order, Mohammad attempted to invent a new functional kind of kinship for Islamists.  In order to reorganize his followers he ordered “that those who migrated with him and the believers in Medina should regard themselves as brethren and therefore be able to inherit from one another, while all the bonds of relationship between the Muhadjurun [Islamists] and their relatives left in Mecca were to be regarded as broken” (Encyclopedia of Islam 1913-1934:3:508, my insertion).

This is validated scripturally in the Qur’an, which states:

 

Verily, they who have believed and fled their homes and spent their substance for the cause of God, and they who have taken in the prophet and been helpful to him, shall be near of kin to one another (8:73:381).

 

 

Innovators wishing to establish themselves as leaders used such linking devices to create new social conditions that favored their leadership desires without being excessively threatening to the populace.  In addition to new non-kinship ways of relating, innovative religious ideas based on previous pagan forms were common as men struggled to gain control of society and its economic production.  For example, in the context of early Islam the ways of a pagan seer or soothsayer called kahin were employed by Mohammad and his immediate followers:

 

The manic knowledge is based on ecstatic inspiration … They are interrogated in all important tribal and state occasions … in private the kahins especially act as judges … They interpret dreams, find lost camels, establish adulteries, clear up crimes …The prophet Mohammed disclaimed being a kahin.  But … his earliest appearance as a prophet reminds us strongly of the manner of the soothsayer.  He was an ecstatic and had “true dreams” like them … Even the forms which he was still using for administering justice and settling disputes in Medina during the early years of his stay there correspond in their main features to those of the pagan kahin [soothsayer] and hakam [wise man] (Encyclopedia of Islam 1913-1934:2:625-626 – my insertions).

 

Thus, early aggrandizers would have been cognizant of the power of linking their new ways to old kinship and religious forms, the two most important organizational modes of early societies.

What Mohammad did was to replace old institutions such as the blood feud with new ones.  Blood feud implied the exercise of power based on corporate kin groups and he saw fit to replace that with blood feud as connected only with war for righteous purposes (jihād), an attribute of the theocratic state.  Blood feud did not disappear, rather it was merely renovated, reappearing not as being connected to relations between corporate kin groups but as those between the brethren and non-believers.

Judicial matters were also the purview of the state.  Mohammad claimed that Allah was the sole judge in human affairs, yet he cleverly co-opted local chieftains and authorities to become officials in his new state.  The new Islamic State – with is flow of booty, taxes and trading profits – attracted petty chiefs, some of whom converted to the new religion; but also others who merely sought alliances with Islamic leaders in order to benefit from that flow of wealth.

Mohammad and his theocratic deputies replaced old ways with new ones; but made an attempt to link innovations with old institutions and, of course, framed them as the word of God rather than being of Mohammad’s own making.

In addition to judicial matters, Mohammad’s state also took on the power to tax.  One-fifth of all booty derived from war was assigned to the Prophet, deemed “the part of God.”  In the pagan tribes of the desert this had previously gone to the chief.  Under Islam the theocracy became the chiefly recipient of all taxes.  The payment of taxes, especially the alms tax, or zakāt, was phrased as a religious duty.  As Wolf indicates, “The use of the poor tax to finance the newly established state structure implies the transference of a mechanism that had previously functioned on the lineage level to the level of the state” (2001 [1951]:119).  Non-Muslims within the state were also required to pay the gizja tax.  Wolf claims that Mohammad was more interested in them paying the gizja than their conversion to Islam (2001 [1951]:121).

Islam was a new theology; but Mohammad linked it to old ways.  For example, in pre-Islamic times, there were sacred places around religious sanctuaries that could be used form common pastures i.e., precincts that could not be monopolized by any given tribe.  In Islam, these sacred precincts became state property, with Allah and his prophet as the legal successors of any pagan Deity (Wellhausen 1884-1899:3:104, quoted in Wolf 2001 [1951]:118-119).

Taxes were one source of wealth for the theocracy; but Mohammad also changed social relationships in such a way as to permit increased trade, a fact that brought him, Abu Bekr and Omar increased personal wealth (Wolf 2001 [1951]:119).  With a control of trade, plunder and taxes, these early religious leaders came to function not unlike chieftains and kings in so many of our other cases throughout this book.

Even in pre-Islamic Mecca the Koreish leadership had caused the emergence of class groupings.  They had evolved out of the preceding networks of kin relations in order to free up commercial transactions.  Mohammad built on that transformational base as he put together his theocratic state.  Centralization of worship went hand in hand with the centralization of trade in an urban context and the replacement of kinship governance with state control.  The former allegiance to the corporate kin group was replaced by the requirement to pledge allegiance to the theocracy.  The new religion and its political structure put an end to the extension of ritual ties functioning as links between tribes.  This permitted religious warfare and taxation by the state to emerge as special prerogatives of state power.  By redefining the theocratic state as an organization of brothers, Mohammad astutely linked his innovative formation to previous kin-based corporate groups.  In this way aggrandizing innovators often functioned in ways that did not completely overturn traditions; but rather tapped into them in ground-breaking ways.

 

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Big Men/Little Chiefs

You can see the potential in a “benign” redistribution system.  So could opportunists.  Little by little; but finding justifications for it, the big man/little chief or titualar chief could begin to skim off the surplus passing through his hands.  This might be warranted by the fact that he could no longer farm because of his “duties” as manager and, therefore, society should support him.  Whatever the local situation, aggrandizers could find reasons to begin to live off the labor of others.  Schematically, instead of this:

 

Overall Manager

Head of family

Head of family

Head of family

power

 prestige

 

Special interest association leader

Special interest association leader

Special interest association leader

Secret society headman

Secret society headman

Secret society headman

 

 We now have this:

 

Overall Manager

Head of family

Head of family

Head of family

property

 prestige

 power

 

Special interest association leader

Special interest association leader

Special interest association leader

Secret society headman

Secret society headman

Secret society headman

 

The big man/little chief began to acquire “office” i.e., responsibilities and rights.  Clastres (1989) sees titular chiefs as special-event chiefs.  Certain events e.g., feasts, ceremonies, building projects, war, called for managers.  In time, these special events became institutionalized and it became routine for managers to control things.  This was the basis of the Jural Revolution. 

Furthermore, such a jural bundle of rights and duties became, in time, to have lots of manufacturing of “rules" on the part of opportunists, for example instituting rules than made their offices more powerful and hereditary.  In other words, this authoritative and comanding bundle of norms was now passed through the generations from office-holder to office-holder by some devised principle of succession e.g., from father to eldest son; or, through the mother’s line from mother’s brother to sister’s son.

This is how and why exploitation became a possibility in the Neolithic Revolution.  Once there was a surplus to administer, managers had their fingers in the till and they manufactured rules to justify the fact that they were now “legitimately” capable of siphoning from the flow of wealth.  They handled the wealth; but what they did with it changed over time.  Perhaps the progression looked something like this:

 

 

Help society >>>

 

Help society and my faction(s) 

and myself >>>>>>

Help myself,

my faction(s)

and society

 

 

 

We have lots of ethnographic studies of big men, which give us a look into what those early redistributive societies must have been like (Sahlins 1963; Godelier & Strathern 1991).  In our ethnographies societies with such incipient leaders exhibit an overall pattern.  Ethnographers have found that a big man is the most influential man in his group.  His power does not come from an authority-based office; but he receives recognition as a leader by virtue of his skill, ability to acquire material possession and then redistribute those possessions at feasts.  There are usually multiple big men who compete for being the “big man of the moment,” or “the biggest of the big.”  The biggest has only influence, not coercive authority and his position in society is unstable. 

This modern ethnography indicates what it was like in the Early Neolithic when competition began to creep into society in a more formal way.  Rules regarding the redistribution of wealth spurred more endorsed competition.  Competition became more acceptable and began to revolve around wealth flows.  Competition, which was minimal and situational in the Paleolithic, became rife when Neolithic redistributive societies emerged.

Nevertheless, this was the beginning of commensal politics i.e., the use of food to create social relationships beyond the family.  In the Neolithic feasting became a part of the political economy.  We find lots of ethnographic and archaeological evidence that feasting was widespread and ritualized; though some theorists point out that feasting can occur as part of ritual or more secularly as part of the political economy.  Both kinds of feasting involve the creation of obligations between hosts and guests and power/dependence relations (Dietler 1996; Hayden 1996).

As a strategy to acquire power and prestige, feasting creates an interplay between food and politics wherein food is used to cement power/dependence relations and create obligations.  Ethnographically, such feasts may or may not involve wealth accumulation and it is likely that early forms in the Neolithic were mainly about big men simply staying big or getting bigger in prestige terms, or being knocked out by another aggrandizer on the rise. 

The power acquired was used to assemble food to give communal feasts, which gave them the influence to repeat this cycle and compete with other big men.  As Phillips and Sebastian (2004) point out for the Amerindians of the Southwest, big men organized feasts to resolve power ambiguities in highly unstable political systems.

The Melanesian big man system of the present-day consists of segmented lineages, locally held together by big men who compete for power in the social structure, which is made up of more or less equal factions that are horizontally arranged.  The system is held together as big men compete with each other in an ongoing process of distributing and redistributing material goods and political resources.  The big man has two audiences: his larger group and his faction.  He has to keep both happy with food distribution and spreading the word of his “bigness,” thereby maintaining his leadership.

Based on give and take, the competition between big men results in a flattening of resources as big men can only attain prestige by giving them away, not by hoarding them indefinitely.  This is temporary siphoning, not exploitative i.e., it does not drain off labor value from producers on a permanent basis.

Melanesian big men command people’s labor, resources and affiliation through their powers of persuasion and personal forcefulness.  For example, the Kapauku Papuans have been described as individualistic, wealth-oriented people who accord their highest kudos and fidelity to self-made big men who give their wealth away in flamboyant displays of generosity.  Marshall Sahlins (1963) characterized Melanesian big men as free-enterprising individuals who combine, with a professed interest in the general welfare, a greater measure of self-interested cunning and economic calculation.  A crucial aspect of the aggrandizer’s success is his ability to put together a network of exchange partners and followers who are indebted to him through his numerous acts of generosity.  Their collecting activities are oriented toward garnering renown. 

These are essentially egalitarian societies that have a system of redistribution that allows aggrandizers the opportunity to be individualistic; but not exploitative.  The Melanesian big man is a coordinator, not a commander.  He achieves influence in return for helping others achieve a range of social, political and religious ends.  Overall disruption of the established social structure is prevented by the fact that one big man’s activities may cancel out those of another.  Reciprocity and redistribution act to level out status and wealth in Melanesia; not advance those valuables of one man or his faction on an ascending basis or permanently.

Egalitarian sharing in the Paleolithic and in kin systems was a model for titular or little chiefs, who, to be big, had to be the most generous men in society.  We have already encountered little chiefs in the Yokut-Mono Amerindians of California (Case 2.7).  Shortly we will see more of them in Case 3.2.  Little chiefs are distinguished from formal chiefs that emerge later in the evolutionary sequence and who had formalized power or authority.  Titular chiefs ruled by force of their personality, having little authority and their “offices” may not have been hereditary in the beginning.  Also, the Yokut-Mono little chiefs linked themselves to shamans (winatums), whose purported supernatural powers gave the titular chief some mystical “punch.”

Big man societies of today are peoples who now live thousands of years after the development of domestication, so we can assume that earlier egalitarian societies had similar systems of reciprocity.  Societies that had a strong principle of reciprocity as a driving force in their worldview would not have needed many formal codifications or legal procedures.  Political power could have been diffuse, as reciprocity allowed persons to build up prestige through giving and hence to acquire influential un-codified power in the community. 

In the complexity-building efforts of titular chiefs of the Early Neolithic feasts and demonstrations of generosity were avenues to establishing enough political leverage to enable them to begin to siphon off value for themselves in the process of handling community affairs.  They were building their political toolkits.  Dietler (1996:87) notes that food is a “prime political tool” but that was not the case in the Paleolithic among non-storing foragers.  Only in the Neolithic and perhaps among any storing societies in the Late Paleolithic do we get public ritual events or feasts revolving around politicized food.  Feasting had a political dimension once there was a storable-stealable-surplus. 

We see this ethnographically in many societies today e.g., Michael Young’s 1971 work, Fighting with Food: Leadership Values and Social Control in a Massim Society.  In Neolithic feasts, as with those in contemporary tribal societies, the ritual event focusing on food was an arena in which power-dependence relations were condensed and expressed in symbolic representations.  These were staged events to represent an idealized version of social relations.  As Dietler (1996:89) says, feasts were “subject to manipulation for both ideological and more immediately personal goals.”  In short, aggrandizers staged such events to amplify their power and prestige while appearing to be society’s benefactors, hiding behind the ancient fact that humans have always expressed commensal hospitality.  Feasts were arenas with symbolic salience in which aggrandizers could build up their political capital (Bourdieu 1977).  Like gift exchange, food distribution at feasts served to establish and maintain power-dependence relations, as the giver gained power over the receiver (Mauss 1967 [1925]).  

To an extent the nascent political feasts of the Early Neolithic were about the expression of social superiority and inferiority.  Aggrandizers were drawn to feasts because of their special attribute, to wit: they were very effective at “subtly euphemizing the self-interested nature of the process” (Dietler 1996:92).  Hayden (1996:128) calls this a “competitive feast” while Dietler calls it an “entrepreneurial feast.”  These feasters were men on the hunt.  They were looking to become “big” and to take on the mantle of leadership.

The politics of reciprocity, therefore, acted to constrain or supplement other forms of political power.  Chiefs often coexisted with big men and sometimes the line between them was obscure.  Which of these types of politicians became dominant often had to do with the availability of a surplus.  Where the surplus was huge, as among the Northwest Coast Amerindians, chiefs acted as big men who held lavish give-away feasts.

More recently, anthropologists have noted that redistributive societies like those governed by titular chiefs change when they come into contact with the capitalist market.  Some have said that this is because of the advent of money; but studies like that done by Charles Piot (1992, 1999) among the Kabre of Togo indicate that money is not the factor.  The Kabre who get money in the modern economy, he found, often plow it back into traditional forms of behavior e.g., making sacrifices to the ancestors.  Rather, it is opportunity that changes the structure of society, not money itself, as I tried to show in Continuity and Change in a West African Society (Mendonsa 2001).  Among the Sisala people I studied, once young people and women get economic opportunities through contact with the marketplace, they can turn their backs on the gerontocrats and the principles and practices of the ancestor cult and lineage mode of production that elders have guarded through time.  Economic opportunity undermines previous social forms, not money per se

By definition, aggrandizers look for opportunities to get ahead.  In a big man system, such as the ones in Melanesa, despotism – though sometimes attempted – is held in check by certain leveling mechanisms e.g., gossip, the need or right to contribute to public feasts, fear of witchcraft or the accusation of being a witch.  Aggrandizers have to be careful not to overstep ethical lines, which are vague to be sure; but known in a general sense.  Wise men know the boundaries well; fools blunder over them. 

In redistributive societies of the Early Neolithic, more formal statuses/roles developed than existed in the Paleolithic.  This gave go-getters a political base from which to control the distribution of food.  All members of society were producers and consumers; but titular chiefs or big men collected and redirected the products of their labor.  Essentially, titular chiefs received and redistributed the goods back to the producers/consumers. 

Thus, an incipient political economy had formed which could be used as a basis to control the flow of food and information; but the titular chiefs who operated in the redistributive structures only derived prestige and influence from their role in channeling that food and information.  They had not yet apprehended the possibilities of skimming wealth out of the flow for themselves, or if they did see such possibilities, they had not yet been able to alter the structure of the redistributive mechanisms to the point where significant extraction was possible.

Nonetheless, this was the institutional base upon which exploitative, appropriational and extractive processes developed.  The growth of exploitation took time, with different generations of office-holders slightly changing the rules to permit greater extraction of value for their own particular self-interests.  In areas with a small surplus, societies got locked into big man systems.  Where the surplus was great, chiefdoms and kingdoms came to the fore.

When opportunities were so great that titular chiefs began to look for ways to institutionalize their status and pass it on to a chosen compatriot or kinsman that institutionalization began to filter down through the generations and hereditary rulers or authoritative monarchs were born.

 

Little Chiefs among the Yokut-Mono of California

 

Robert Lowie (1948) identified two types of chiefs, titular (temporary leadership) and authoritative (hereditary leadership).  The titular chief was a peacemaker who drew his power from public opinion – from the force of the group.  In no way could he elevate himself above others; but had to be generous to a fault.  Rather than authority, his power rested on his oratory, his ability to persuade by reminding his followers of the group's communalistic mores. 

Even in the dirty dealing I am about to describe among the titular chiefs of the Yokut-Mono, they cannot be considered to be at the "big" end of the power continuum, what Lowie called hereditary chiefs.  The Yokut-Mono case shows that maneuvering and strategizing by aggrandizing office-holders began way back, in the earliest times; even though titular chiefs had more societal pressure on them to conform to a set of altruistic rules than we might encounter in societies with hereditary chiefs.  And they lacked full authority to blatantly circumvent principles of communalism and sharing.  However, as the ethnography below will show, that didn't stop them.  Sensing self-aggrandizing opportunities, the went ahead anyway with behaviors that were considered self-enhancing and even evil, in some cases.  Let's look more deeply into this facinating case of how titular chiefs operated. 

 

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Case 3.3  Yakut-Mono Little Chiefs & Shamans

 

The pre-contact Yokut-Mono culture existed in an environment where food collecting and hunting was relatively easy, their California climate being mild.  They were not greatly stressed by their environment, which produced a small surplus for them; nor did they develop the great surpluses we see along the Northwest coast, with their great runs of salmon and candlefish.  The simple nature of these foragers can be seen in this quote from the ethnographer who studied them:

 

the political institutions of Yokuts  and Western Mono were perhaps as simple as any in California.  Clans were lacking.  The moiety, where it existed, regulated marriage ceremonial participation.  Patrilineal families dwelt together in permanent villages but owned no land other than an ill-defined tribal area.  The household group was not large; normally its personnel included a married couple, their immature offspring, and a possible orphaned sister of either spouse, or an aged relative.  A husband and father was head of his own household affairs but bowed to the opinion of elder male relatives when the entire lineage was involved.  These families were entirely free to go about their daily pursuits of hunting, fishing, seed gathering, basket, pottery, and tool making, seeking of supernatural experience, gambling, or idling, without interference from officials.  There were none to interfere.  The sense of right and wrong, of duty to one's relatives and neighbors, was instilled in children as they grew up.  Truthfulness, industry, a modest opinion of oneself, and above all, generosity, were regarded not so much as positive virtues as essential qualities.  Informants today condemn those who are greedy, jealous, or egotistical.  It was largely upon the personal character of individuals that the peace of a community depended (Gayton 1930:408).

 

The idea of chiefship was established among the Yakut-Mono.  Gayton presents detailed myths showing an ideology of chiefship.  The chief was thought to be helped by the eagle, which was his familiar spirit and that of his descent group.  He was always chosen from the eagle lineage or moiety.[2]  In a primordial conference of animals, the eagle was established as the leader, as the tiya (little chief or titular chief) was the surrogate eagle among men, the leader of a Yokut-Mono community.  Because of this mythology, the lineages of chiefs and shamans were “mildly aristocratic."

There were no big chiefs or elaborate hierarchical structures of privilege.  Little chiefs, tiyas (sing. tiya) had to maneuver in not very well defined offices in order to pursue their particularistic interests without drawing too much attention from the community they were supposed to serve.  Gayton outlines the political structure, limited as it was:  

 

Legal authority over the people at large was wielded by chiefs and their henchmen, the winatums [shaman-bailiffs].  The chief's power was expressed as a general jurisdiction having a paternal-judiciary aspect.  He made decisions on village or tribal affairs such as holding fandangos [dances], or building a new sweat-house, he settled interfamily disputes, and granted permission for death punishments.  His judgment operated in place of fixed laws.  The winatums were the coordinating element in the interrelationship of the people and their chiefs: they were the universal joint in the social machinery.  Their official activities were many, as executing orders from the chief, making announcements, carrying private and public messages between individuals and tribes, directing camp organization, and managing all phases of ceremonial activity.  The presence or absence of the minor officials; subchiefs, and dance managers, made little difference in the powers of chiefs or the freedom of citizens[3].  In other words, the chiefs, with their winatums as manipulating instruments, constituted the sole legal authority in the political system of south central California (my bracketed inserts, 1930:408).

 

Yokut-Mono titular chiefs were expected to be good speakers and were always required to say a few words at a public gathering or ceremony.  A chief was primarily a figurehead with little overt power, the office of chief not being well defined with an elaborate status/role attached.  Gayton describes the part played by a chief:

 

The chief, however limited in power, had a social prestige resting upon his position as a protégé of and surrogate for eagle, the mythological creator-chief.  He possessed more wealth than the average citizen in spite of the fact that his position incurred more than average expenses.  His relations with his subjects had a distinctly patriarchal aspect: he provided food for the poor, settled quarrels, generously paid messengers and ceremonial performers, gave advice on debatable projects, protected public safety by permitting bad shamans and poisoners to be killed, and addressed assemblies in words betokening his desire for the well-being of his people (1930:385).

 

Apparently the regulatus[4] of chiefly office was not yet thickened.  These tiyas were titular chiefs and they could not run amok, being under the control of the opinions of elder men and the community at large.  One informant told Gayton:

 

Men often had their wives or daughters taken by a shaman.  If a woman refused to sleep with a doctor or go off with him he would make her fall ill and die.  A man who knew or suspected who the doctor was that had thus victimized women of his family would take steps for revenge.  Instead of going directly to the chief he would consult first the old and respected men of the village or tribe.  He would go to one old man like Joe (Mexican Joe) and explain his case.  If Joe thought the offended man was justified he would say so; but he would then send him on to another old man to get his advice, at the same time telling him to express his (Joe's) views.  The man would go to four or five such prominent elders and have their unanimous consent to action before approaching the chief.  When he went to the chief he would present his case and say that all these men had advised a certain procedure.  The chief might disagree but could not refuse in the face of contrary opinion.  If the vengeful man had gone to the chief first and the chief had disapproved of the proposal to kill the shaman, that would have been the end of the matter (1930:382).

 

Little chiefs had a little bit more property than most, being able to siphon somewhat more than pure big men.  Gayton goes on to say that the chief was more likely than other men to have multiple wives, a situation thought appropriate because the chief always had to have food prepared in his house to serve to unexpected guests, thus multiple wives were seen as beneficial.  The chief had power and some wealth; but people could drop by and eat at his expense, a form of redistribution. 

Sometimes the chief would arrange to have the traders stay at his place and sell from there.  In this case, he would dispatch his winatums to call the people to come.  In this way, the tiya made himself the center of trade and created an opportunity for extracting some value from trading transactions:

 

In monetary wealth the chief always surpassed his fellow-citizens.  The manner in which his worldly goods were acquired is not completely clear but there are several known sources.  One of these was through commercial trading of desirable objects such as eagle down, and of articles traded with trans-Sierra Mono, or between local tribes.  The commerce in eagle down was controlled by the chief as the bird was sacred to him and could not be killed without his permission (1930:374).  

 

Yokut-Mono chiefs were slightly wealthier than others based on this fabricated and mythologized monopoly in eagle down.  Gayton certainly paints a picture of aggrandizing chiefs operating behind paper-thin walls of the machinery of a fragile office.  Since chiefs were always from the eagle lineage, which was no wealthier than other lineages, the level of amassable wealth must have been so low as to prevent the rise of spectacularly wealthy descent groups.  Wealth alone is not what provided prestige in the Yakut-Mono world.

The chief's house was perhaps larger than that of others but not necessarily or markedly so.  Neither was the dress of a chief or of the members of his lineage distinctive.  Stephen Powers (1877) stated that Yokut-Mono chiefs wore their hair long; but so did all men.  The food storehouses of the chief were always well filled.  He did not hunt himself since young hunters in the village provided food for the chief’s family.  Such men were not permanently appointed for the task; but would be dispatched by the winatums (shaman-bailiffs) to get fresh meat or fish for the chief from time to time. 

Informants disagree as to whether the chief paid for his provisions or not; but the weight of evidence indicates that he did not.  The chief had to have a plentiful food supply for it was his duty to offer a meal to every traveler, foreign messenger or stranger who entered his village.  Furthermore, the chief or his wives gave meat to extremely poor people or those who had difficulty in obtaining sufficient food, as the aged or widowed, again based on the principle of communalism and reciprocity.  Such people would accept the food and if possible would return a little acorn meal to the chief when they had an extra supply.  A basket might be given in return, as thanks.  Such a return was prompted by courtesy and gratitude and was not compulsory by rule; but was part and parcel of the system of reciprocity and communitarianism.

Unlike some little chiefs in history, the Yokut-Mono had a loose hereditary system.  Gayton says:

 

As a citizen in the community the chief possessed social prestige based primarily on his revered totem and authoritative office, and secondarily upon the wealth that accrued to him because of his position.  His position was acquired by heredity.  Normally the office passed from an elder brother to the next younger, and then reverted to the elder brother's eldest son.  This rule was not rigid, however, and was modified in accordance with circumstance.  When a chief became too enfeebled with sickness or age to continue his duties he would say whom he wanted to take his place.  If his choice was acceptable to the other chiefs and elder men of the village, a gift of money was sent to the nominee.  The man chosen did not have to accept the office unless he wished to (1930:371-372).

 

Though as we shall see, some little chiefs were “big criminals,” as chiefs they still heard and ruled on petty disputes and quarrels between individuals and families and problems resulting in murder or serious personal injury were usually brought to the chief's attention for settlement.

Even with their scheming, monopolies and accumulating activities, Gayton notes that there was no wealthy class.  He attributes this to the leveling function of such rites as the annual mourning ceremony at which a great deal of property was destroyed and more distributed among those present.  This ritualized feast dispossessed a bereaved family of any surplus wealth it might have accumulated.  The casting away of gifts at mourning ceremonies had the further advantage of keeping money and coveted objects in circulation.

Gayton, in his study of Yokut-Mono titular chiefs and shamans, showed that both used their positions for personal enhancement and that some collaborated to kill people and take their wealth, which was a covert source of income for these aggrandizers.  Shamans, in their unofficial capacities, and little chiefs in their formal roles, would at times conspire to rob and murder, as well as commit a number of lesser misdemeanors.  This seems extreme and dramatic fare for quiet foragers in ancient California who were not known as a warlike people.  Yet, every society has its aggrandizers.

Clearly, even in this early storing society, the little chief was receiving support from his community, although he also had responsibilities.  Chiefs had various strategies open to them; one was just being chiefly, which attracted wealth:

 

Further profit came to the chief through intertribal commerce.  Traders who came from other tribes with baskets, pottery, salt, tanned skins, etc., would first go to the chief's house to state their business, as was customary with all outsiders, and to receive the welcoming meal. Hence the chief had first chance to buy the wares they brought and retail them to his neighbors if he so wished.  As a man of wealth he could take advantage of this opportunity to purchase desirable articles (Gayton 1930:401).

 

Obviously, chiefship had its privileges.  Additionally, Yokut-Mono chiefs also took bribes to allow someone to be killed, even within their own Eagle Lineage.  The killer would approach the chief, tell him of his intended victim, reach an agreement as to the payment, and, with the blessing of the newly enriched chief, proceed with his crime.  Here we see a classic example, if an extreme one, of a public servant using his office as a shield for antisocial behavior because that behavior enriches him. 

But there were more outlays for the chief.  Gayton indicates that a chief always had to pay a little more for entertainers, ceremonial performers or specialists, as it was expected that a chief should pay more; but, on the other hand, chiefs made profits when ceremonies were held.  It was said that the chief "gave a dance" or "made a ceremony," but that was symbolic.  It was in the give-and-take that his position was ratified.  It was the flow of wealth through the hands of the chief that counted.  Or rather the appearance of flow.  While the chief was supposed to be spending more than others, in reality it was the public at large who financed big ceremonies.  No public levies were placed on the people in advance but each person at the ceremony was expected to pay.  It was a siphoning situation for the chief.

Because of their control of trade and ceremonies as well as their hidden criminal activities, Yokut-Mono titular chiefs were on the brink of making a profit.  This was the generally accepted picture of the chief; but a chief who was not a good man at heart, and who had a desire for too much personal aggrandizement, was thought to have attained it through illegitimate arrangements with malevolent shamans.  Chiefs’ selfishness had to be kept hidden, behind the shield of office.

Thus, one avaricious strategy open to chiefs was amoral collusion with occult entrepreneurs (winatums).[5]  The fear of aggrandizement by officials and attached shaman-bailiffs, and the recorded cases of both chiefs and shamans being put to death, indicate that office-holders and their henchmen did, from time to time, abuse their offices and their imaginary powers. 

However, if the aggrandizers had stratagems, so did the community.  Given the fact that little chiefs did not control any physical means of coercion, and shamans only had their "imagined powers," it was a simple, direct and straightforward strategy: if a man knew positively that a shaman or chief had killed a member of his family he could take it upon himself to kill the evildoer.  He would just get his bow and go out and hide until he had a chance to shoot the man.

Unlike more technologically advanced chiefdoms, where the chiefs had access to superior weapons, guards or warriors, and where they lived in fortified houses or palaces, the Yokut-Mono were not unlike peoples in the Paleolithic, where everyone had the same weapons and there were no defense mechanisms e.g., court guards, police or the like.  The Yakut-Mono chief lived in a simple, if slightly bigger, house and had to walk around unguarded like everyone else in Yakut-Mono society.  This acted as a leveler.  For instance, it would have been very hard to kill an Egyptian Pharaoh, with his enclosed residence and bodyguards; but the Yokut-Mono people had daily access to both chiefs and shamans and could settle a dispute violently.      

A system of beliefs existed in Yokut-Mono society that divided the cosmos into the mundane world and a supernatural realm.  Anyone with special powers to communicate with the occult world was considered a shaman or winatum.  While the overall ethic of post-Paleolithic foraging societies was still largely egalitarian and democratic, in time some developed ideas about the supernatural that formed the basis of informal statuses that could develop into powerful means of pursuing vested interests for some men once there was a surplus over which to compete.  Among the storing Yokut-Mono, such ideas revolved around curing and sorcery, the work of shamans.  These go-getters were said to have more dream experiences than the average person, which was thought to be an indicator of intense contact with the hidden world of spirits. 

To seek assistance from supernatural powers for success in gambling, hunting, or general good health and fortune was anyone's privilege.  Most Yokut-Mono seemed to rely on their innate abilities, not pursuing the supernatural on their own.  Enterprising men did, however.  They worked to become shamans so that, in their belief system, supernatural powers would aid them to accomplish more and get more than their neighbors.  They were opportunity seekers.

While the path to chiefship was defined genealogically, the tiya always coming from the Eagle Lineage, the road to wealth and power for the winatum was more open-ended, easier to access for the common aggrandizer.  Gayton explains:

 

Shaman's power was not of a peculiar sort nor was it inherited.  It was merely a greater quantity, an accumulation of dream experiences, say six, to an average person's one or two.  The more of such experiences one had the greater his knowledge of the occult would become, and the bond between the individual and the supernatural world increasingly strengthened.  In other words, the difference between a shaman's power and that of a non-professional was one of quantity rather than of quality.  As one informant expressed it:  "A doctor was just a person who had too much power.  They got mean, tried to see what they could do just to be doing it, and finally got so they thought they could do anything by means of their power.  People would be here yet if the doctors weren't so mean" (1930:389).

 

Yokut-Mono shamans had two power bases:  their close association with chiefs and their occult base.  Mystically, they used or created imaginary powers that connected them in the minds of the people more closely with the occult.  This connection came in the form of recurrent dreams and the shaman was more frequently able than the average person to access an animal-familiar for secret information, or that was the theory. 

Thus, like shamans everywhere, they fostered the hypothesis that secret avenues to extraordinary information existed and that they had a special channel to that information, which gave them power over others.  Gayton says that their success was largely due to what was doubtless make-believe powers does not matter; they played an awe-inspiring, dominating role whatever its basis.  Furthermore, this was a dangerous path, as shamans who were thought to have become too aggressive were put to death.  But that did not deter the strong-minded.  The acquisition of wealth and power was worth taking a risk, even though both were minimal in Yakut-Mono society.  These were ambitious men in a quiet society, men with the talents needed for the fulfillment of their ambitions. 

The avenue to prestige, power and property can be material, as in getting better weapons or owning the means of production; but it can also be based on immaterial imaginings, as in the case of Yokut-Mono shamans.  In the altruistic version of the theory of Yokut-Mono mysticism, shamans were supposed to be capable of curing people of illness and protecting them against the evil intentions of others. 

In the antisocial version, the occult powers of the sorcerer could be used to sicken or kill people.  Shamans who were successful at curing people were revered; those who appeared to be performing their trade in an evil fashion, as evidenced by an inordinate number of dead patients, were themselves killed.  Thus, the use of imagined powers had its rewards and its dangers.  Gayton wrote that any shaman who continued to cure after losing lots of patients was the one to be feared.  The dead were an indication that he was causing illness just to make money in curing, without regard for public welfare.  But the doctor whose avidity led him to such extremes could be done away with on slight evidence; so he had but a tenuous hold on life.  One of Gayton's informants, who had winatums in his family tree and had known them intimately, described the activities of shamans in the following words:

 

If a man, especially a rich one, did not join in a fandango[6], the chief and his doctors would plan to make this man or some member of his family sick.  The doctor would sicken his victim with the "air-shot" (toiyuc) used in the doctors' contest.  The doctor sees to it that he is called in to make the cure.  He makes several successive attempts to cure his victim, each time being paid for his services.  He withholds his cure until he has financially broken the man and got him in debt.  If he then cures the patient he sucks the shot out and shows it to the bystanders, saying that Night or a spring (of water) has made him ill[7].  On the other hand, he may let the person die, in which case the family must perforce join in the next mourning ceremony (and pay out much money to the chief and shaman). (1930:399).

 

The real power of the shamans came in their alliances with chiefs.  By working closely with shamans, through their exercise of imaginary powers, chiefs were able to attain more wealth and power.  Gayton wrote that the cozy relationship between chiefs and shamans was a reciprocal back-scratching enterprise.  In essence, it was a system that greatly increased the wealth of the chief on the one hand and protected the shaman from the violence of avenging relatives on the other.

Income from murders was divided by the tiya and winatum who had committed the homicide.  Should the victim's relatives seek vengeance, for which they had to obtain the chief's permission, the chief then simply refused on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  In one case, the chief was report to have told the offended family that the shaman was not at fault because the night had caused the illness, which may have been a reference to the chill of the night air. 

In every Yokut-Mono tribe a powerful shaman was the close friend and associate of the chief.  They operated jointly to extort money from their constituents.  This extractive alliance operated in various ways.  For instance, they used non-payment for important ceremonies as an excuse to kill.  Theoretically no one was compelled to contribute to the annual mourning ceremony, or any other ceremony, for that matter; but dire results often befell those who did not do so.  The chief had to keep the money coming in from the various rites, ceremonies and dances.

Shamans, in addition to their ritualistic duties, also acted as bailiffs or community organizers.  This provided the chiefs and shaman-bailiffs opportunities for extortion.  Conjoining in a political economy of scare tactics, chiefs and shamans would bully the people into contributing to the various ceremonies arranged and controlled by the chiefs and organized by the shamans.  Anthropologically, this can be viewed as a nascent version of the Extortionist State I will describe for medieval Catalonia in Case 9.1.  For the Yokut-Mono, the shaman and chief ran a protection racket not unlike that perpetrated by the Count of Barcelona on the Muslim principalities on the Catalan border.  In the Yokut-Mono case, tribal citizens were supposed to be protected by the chief; but they were also at risk of him using his office nefariously, especially when he hooked up with wicked shamans.  We will see the same kind of misuse of office on the part of the Count of Barcelona who participated in the abuse of the peasants he was sworn to protect (see also: Mendonsa 2008a).

The Count of Barcelona was high and mighty, surrounded by armed guards; but in the Yokut-Mono case both chiefs and shamans had to be careful not to incur the wrath of the community, as they could be killed using traditional means: with a bow and arrow, a lance or a knife.  In a world with no indoor plumbing, even chiefs and shamans had to go frequently and alone into the bush.

It is understandable that there might be a bad egg or two in the basket.  But Gayton's ethnography shows that both chiefs and shamans went against public opinion by engaging in secret dealings, sometimes including multiple chiefs, not just one chief with one shaman.  This happened in spite of the fact that both chiefs and shamans were sometimes killed for such behavior.  It was imperative then, for the perpetrators of malevolence to keep things under wraps, to operate behind the camouflage of office.  Yokut-Mono society was small, a little community of face-to-face foragers.  In such a setting, secrets were hard to keep, yet conspirators tried.  Gayton says:

 

Lacking newspapers, gossip was rife.  Popular sentiment turned against the chief who gave unfair decisions, or was suspected of self-aggrandizement.  Such a man was not deposed from office; but gradually lost prestige.  He was ignored in favor of another chief.  If necessary, a new chief could be selected from among possible heirs, as a brother, or son, or a cousin.  Such a drastic procedure was rare, unless the incumbent was insensible.  The chief, holding the highest place of respect in the community, would not care to lose it.  Loss of respect, loss of prestige, in turn meant loss of wealth, a combination of disasters which no normal man wished to bring upon himself.  The intriguing chief could and did hold office; but his selfish enterprises were carried on secretly and curbed by public opinion (1930:411).

 

Again, Gayton says that peace and public satisfaction were maintained through the covert and antisocial use of sorcery and the fear it instilled in people, and that this was done, not only in the covert one-on-one meetings of a chief and shaman; but that, at times, several chiefs would conspire to murder a man, take his property or steal his wife, using their offices and the occult services of shamans as leverage.  In the following passage, Gayton emphasized the social order functions of such conspiracies:

 

[The fear of sorcery] in civil life worked for public good; it was an awe-inspiring force itself, and served as a tool for chiefs when used by them through their shamans.  The fear of sorcery operated between any one individual and another.  If, as we have said, the peace of a community depended largely upon the personal character of each person, the personal character in turn was determined or molded by belief in supernatural powers which could be turned against one.  A man dared not cheat another at gambling or trading, commit adultery, or neglect any civil or ceremonial duty toward his neighbor, lest the offended person visit sickness or death upon him or some member of his family, either by his own power or that of a shaman hired for the purpose (1930:409; my bracketed insert).

 

In short, in this foraging society, where information was widely spread on an informal basis, aggrandizing chiefs had to use their wiles to avoid detection as they amassed wealth, competed with others and performed crimes.  Yet, crime was sometimes perpetrated by chiefs and shamans to make a moral point.  Gayton says that there was some justification for the back-room dealings and indicates that it was not always easy to separate altruism from selfish pursuits:

 

A chief who hired a shaman to sicken a rich man who did not join in the expenses of a fandango or mourning ceremony was setting a public example at the same time that he was enriching himself.  To the chief and to his shaman, who shared the money paid in fees by the sick man, it was unquestionably a matter of financial profit. But from the point of view of the public at large it was a fair punishment.  Thus: a man of money who neglected or refused to bear his share of a public expense was placing a heavier financial burden upon his fellow-citizens; furthermore, generosity was an ideal, and the man who failed to contribute his share was showing himself to be greedy, and hence received no sympathy if misfortune befell him.  In the absence of any law or system of taxation, it behooved each citizen, especially those of wealth, to participate in the sharing of public expenses, lest he incur the displeasure of the chief and of the public, and sickness or death be visited upon him (1930:410).    

 

This belief system must have operated as a general leveling mechanism; but it was also open to abuse by chiefs who saw the trumpeting of ideal values as a way of making personal profits.  We see here how office, and the ideology of social service, act as a screen for personalistic pursuits of office-holders.

It seems that such secret machinations were a “known secret.”  Gayton shows that the illicit devices of the shamans and chiefs were so institutionalized that it was even possible to make arrangements for intertribal murders.  An informant put it this way, describing the secret meetings of the Yokut-Mono power élite as they hatched up a variation of a protection racket:

 

A chief may be jealous of a rich man in another tribe.  If he wants him killed he sends his winatum [shaman-bailiffs] to several other chiefs of near-by tribes, including that of the ill-fated man, asking them to come to a certain place on a certain night.  Tawatsanahahi (Baker's Hill) was a favorite spot for these meetings.  The various chiefs together with their doctors came at the stated time.  There might be ten to fifteen present, including the doctors and the chiefs' trusted winatums.

The chief who called the meeting addresses the group saying that he and perhaps others want to do away with this certain man, and asks those present for their opinion in the matter.  The people who want the man killed put up a sum of money to pay the doctors who are to do the killing.  If the doomed man's chiefs want him saved they have to double this sum and give it to the opposing chiefs.  If they do not do so they automatically sanction the man's death.  The case is decided right there at the time.  Very often such a man is killed not because he is rich but because "he knows too much" about doings of chiefs, etc., or because some man wants the victim's wife, and has bribed the chief to have the man killed.  If the man is to be killed the doctors start right in to do it.  "No matter how far off that man may be the doctors will be able to kill him (italics & bracketed inserts are mine, 1930:399).

 

Notice that money was involved.  Clearly, the chiefs and shamans were using their offices to enrich themselves, sometimes at the expense of society and sometimes causing death to others.  Furthermore, this was a widespread practice, as it was carried out in tribes other than the Yokut-Mono.  Sam Garfield, an informant, gave this account of a similar political economy concerning chief/shaman collusion in his own and the neighboring Yandanchi tribe:

 

The chief always had money.  People made him presents when he was going to give a ceremony.  If he got short of money he would have his doctor kill somebody who was rich.  If the victim chosen belonged to another tribe he would send a gift of money to the chief of that tribe asking that he have his doctor kill the man.  If the chief accepted the money he had his doctor proceed with the process of sickening and killing the man.  The money received was divided between the chief and the doctor.  Doctors who killed this way made sure that the patient would finally send for him by making him more sick for every other doctor that the sick man sent for.  Usually we had good chiefs with good doctors; but sometimes even a good chief would bribe a doctor to kill some man he thought ought to be killed (1930:400).

 

Thus the Yokut-Mono data show their normative structure not so much as coercive in an automatic sense; but as a set of rules, ideas, customs, procedures that could be used as tools for the public good or private aggrandizement.  The chief/shaman duo could hold a mourning ceremony because custom demanded it; but also they could benefit from that rite economically.  Custom had its uses.

Another entrepreneurial means to advancement open to a Yokut-Mono commoner-opportunist was to become a Prophet in the Ghost Dance, which was a millenarian movement that came to California by way of traders about 1870.  Ghost Dance prophets claimed that the "Father" and a "Host of Dead" were about to return.  This did not last long for the reason that the chiefs suppressed the Ghost Dance because the people were spending too much time, and presumably wealth that usually went to chiefs, on Ghost Dance ceremonies.  The new phenomenon came as the:

 

… first news of the cult to reach the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains was brought by traders.  No attention was paid to this.  A few months later a North Fork apostle visited Western Mono and Yokut tribes of the San Joaquin river to proselytize.  This he did by making public speeches, sending winatums about to near-by tribes, and "making" a Ghost Dance at a site in his own territory (1930:416). 

 

By all accounts this chief, and presumably others who initially became involved, saw this new cult as another means of self promotion.  The movement spread from north to south encompassing many communities.  Whenever the Prophets entered a community, they went to the chief to get permission to hold a dance or ceremony.  Chiefs often consulted powerful shamans to get a second opinion, so to speak.  Presumably the shamans either saw an opportunity or became apostles and Prophets themselves, because the movement raged for more than a year among the Yokut-Mono. 

Eventually, however, the millenarian movement became a social problem.  At first chiefs and shamans supported the new ceremonies; but when the movement seemed to be getting out of hand, as it was taking away their traditional supporters and clients, the chiefs interceded to put an end to their competitors.  Also when the "Father" and the "Host of Dead" did not materialize, the chiefs saw the cult as a drain on the community's energy and resources and they called a halt to the movement.

 

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Clastres' View of Little Chiefs

Pierre Clastres (1989), a philosopher-anthropologist, one who thought and wrote about chiefs and the emergence of government, indicates that the human animal longs to be free of the oppression of culture; but intuitively understands that that is not possible.  Nevertheless, Clastres felt that humans do see some possibility of freedom from coercion.  He says if man is a “sick animal” this is because he is not solely a “political animal” and from his anxiety there awakens the great desire that obsesses him.  This is the desire to cast aside the restraints of culture and rid himself of his constrained condition in life.  In his anti-state rhetoric Clastres is saying that absolute transcendence of the social condition is not possible; but resisting the coercive state is. 

Clastres' Society Against the State contains some wisdom and a giant fatal flaw.  The latter becomes evident the more you read this interesting book.  It is a flaw founded in the ax Clastres has to grind, apparently against the state, which everywhere throughout the book is portrayed as evil.  On the other hand, primitive (his term) society is portrayed as, somehow, being collectively against the state.  In his view, when the state tries to rear its ugly head, people in pre-state societies recognize governmental evil and suppress it.  They seem to automatically want little chiefs and not big chiefs with authority and great power.  Clastres only gives a couple of very weak examples of this – those of the Tupi-Guarani Amerindians of South America and the Apache war leader, Geronimo. 

The latter is such a weak anecdotal tale, that I will not waste time dealing with it.  The case of the Guarani is more interesting, because it actually disproves Clastres’ theory.  The author seems to be saying that early man mystically became conscious of society's power over the individual.  When that happened, in this “just so” story, Clastres says that institutions emerged to curb that power.  Primitive man fears the state, says Clastres and will do everything in his power to resist its emergence.  Of course, his idealized Noble Savage must have failed because we got Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aztecs and many more exploitative states.  He says of early "simple" peoples:

 

They had a very early premonition that power's transcendence conceals a mortal risk for the group, that the principle of an authority which is external and the creator of its own legality is a challenge to culture itself.  It is the intuition of this threat that determined the death of their political philosophy.  For, on discovering the great affinity of power and nature, as the twofold limitation of the domain of culture, Indian societies were able to create a means for neutralizing the virulence of political authority.  They chose themselves to be the founders of that authority; but in such a manner as to let power appear only as a negativity that is immediately subdued: they established it in keeping with its essence the negation of culture); but precisely in order to strip it of any real might.  Thus, the advent of power, such as it is, presents itself to these societies as the very means for nullifying that power.  The same operation that institutes the political sphere forbids it the exercise of its jurisdiction: it is in this manner that culture uses against power the very ruse of nature (1989:44).

 

Let's look at Clastres' argument in some detail because it is crucial to my contrary position.  In short, Clastres says that powerful chiefs or the state cannot emerge out of pre-state societies in a gradual fashion.  This is because in some mystical sense society recognizes that this will mean the end of personal freedom.  For example, he says:

 

In the estimation of the tribe, what qualifies such a man to be chief?  In the end, it is his "technical" competence alone: his oratorical talent, his expertise as a hunter, his ability to coordinate martial activities, both offensive and defensive.  And in no circumstance does the tribe allow the chief to go beyond that technical limit; it never allows a technical superiority to change into a political authority.  The chief is there to serve society; it is society as such – the real locus of power – that exercises its authority over the chief.  That is why it is impossible for a chief to reverse that relationship for his own ends, to put society in his service, to exercise what is termed power over the tribe: primitive society would never tolerate having a chief transform himself into a despot (1989: 207). 

 

It seems that Clastres has fallen into that trap of believing what the natives would like to believe – their ideal model of social life, as it should be, not as it is.  There is much ethnography today to show that societies have an ideal model and real behavior never matches the “should be” ideals.

Clastres seems to speak in absolute terms not in accordance with either the facts he presents, wider ethnography or the more detailed facts of history.  For example, he says that it is impossible for a chief to make society work for him, to exercise what is termed power over the tribe.  Nevertheless, it has happened frequently in history and most definitely in the Yokut-Mono ethnography I just covered. 

According to Clastres’ scheme, the only area of life that seems to escape the all powerful societé primitive is demography or population increase, which of course is standard fair in the study of social change, for example see the fine book by Allen Johnson and Tim Earle (1987), The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State.  Whereas Johnson and Earle dispassionately show the linkage between increasing population and social change, Clastres says it is very probable that a basic condition for the existence of primitive societies is their relatively small demographic size (for a contrary opinion, see Bruce Trigger 1990).

In La société Contre l'État, Clastres claimed that in a "primitive society" there was a mystical fondness to successfully resist the emergence of political authority.  Yet, by Clastres’ own account, and that of colonial chroniclers, the Guayaki Indians studied by Clastres had long-established authoritative chieftainships and even federations of chieftainships ruled by provincial kings.  Thus Clastres’ own ethnography provides us with a conundrum.  How is it that people who naturally resist the emergence of institutions of domination allowed them to emerge?

Clastres does admit that from time to time – as mere asides to his thesis – that these "tribes" entered into alliances.  But Clastres' interest seems to be in showing that state power is not possible in a primitive society

Of course, this is the opposite of what I contend.  I emphasize that in early egalitarian societies men began to fabricate new rules that propelled society, in time, to another level of complexity with a different type of political economy.  According to my thesis, the embryonic state lies within the first kin groups and sodalities i.e., corporations.

Clastres says before coercive authority was created the consensus omnium[8] in egalitarian societies was the rejection of power.  In his view, in such societies there is an utter negation of power.  I would say that consensus omnium against aggrandizement existed in the egalitarian societies of the Paleolithic; but began to disappear once foragers became storers.

In the face of his own ethnographic facts, the history of the Tupi-Guarani area and the larger world stage where states have arisen, Clastres programmatically asserts that there is a natural and mystical resistance to domination in "primitive society."  I would ask: what are we to make of the fact that this indigenous resistance to domination failed?  Not only states; but patriarchy and many forms of domination have evolved out of the egalitarianism of the Paleolithic.

Evidently, since it did overcome the consensus omnium against aggrandizement, the fabrication of domination must have been slow and embedded in the very formation of custom, in the incremental laying down of codes by early people who developed a storable-stealable-surplus.  The people, and even the fabricators themselves, could not have seen where small code fabrications would lead.  Yet, as men invented rules and institutions, they simply did so in ways that permitted later aggrandizers to corrupt those institutions, getting greater and greater access to prestige, power and property as they altered the rules initially laid down. 

What is remarkable is that Clastres seems aware of the contradiction between his theorizing and the very facts that he presents to us.  He says:

 

And here it seems that I have just contradicted myself by speaking of the Tupi-Guarani as an example of a primitive society in which something was beginning to surface that could have become the state.  It is undeniable that a process was developing in those societies, in progress for quite a long time no doubt – a process that aimed at establishing a chieftainship whose political power was not inconsiderable.  Things had even reached a point where the French and Portuguese chroniclers did not hesitate to bestow on the great chiefs of tribal federations the titles "provincial kings" or "kinglets" (1989:43).

 

In the very people he holds up as the poster child of a society that resisted the state, the Tupi-Guarani, there is ethnohistorical evidence that opportunists were forming an official political base from which to operate.

 

 

 

 



[1]Titular chiefdoms have titular chiefs or little chiefs with limited powers

in contrast with later well-developed chiefdoms with long-standing and validated institutions of power.

[2] Gayton uses these terms loosely.

[3] Apparently, some communities had developed greater political complexity than others, having dance managers and sub-chiefs.

[4] Latin for the regulatory machinery of office.

[5] I agree with Gayton that his informants probably overstated the existence of avaricious chiefs and shamans, since the telling of a bad tale is always more exciting than the telling of the good one; but lots of smoke indicates some fire.

[6] Festival or dance.

[7] Springs of water frequently made people ill by sending sickness

in the form

of a water insect.  Night and Water are both personified (Gayton 1930:399 fn. 58).  

[8] Universal consensus. 

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