In history and many ethnographic treatises we see office-holders and their subordinate officials seeking to create upward flows of tribute. They essentially used five means to produce rents: (1) They inexorably moved to control a portion of primary producers’ output. (2) They also conquered neighboring communities to transform them into tribute-paying clients. (3) Another tactic was to control artisans and the production of prestige items. (4) A further device was to control traders in order to exact from them a portion of their wealth. (5) They controlled the flow of information and created fictions presented as truths.
To establish a political economy that would allow them the chance to extract value from the people, élites fostered the fiction of governmental redistribution. The state was said to be necessary in order to solve societal problems e.g., construction of water-control facilities or defense against enemies. To some extent, government did operate in this way; but office also provided self-seekers a shield for private pursuits concocted behind closed doors in conversations between leaders and their viziers. Much like a silkworm constructs a cocoon, office-holders and their cohorts fabricated rules-of-office that functioned as a screen or protective barrier against public observance of their deliberations. In short, the constructed an opaque partition that allowed them the opportunity to devise ways of siphoning value from primary producers while broadcasting to the public that they were there to provide value for them.
Redistribution in the political context is the process by which a political center extracts value from the dependent periphery, for instance a palace-temple complex extracting rents from farmers or even a city from outlying districts. The center then stores that value, usually foodstuffs, to be given back to the producers as the leaders in the center deem.
But was redistribution really returning value to the people? My perspective is that by setting up systems of redistribution, broadcast to the general public as being in their own interest, aggrandizers were able, over time, to draw off value, accumulate it and invest it in three means of control: the means of:
2) Destruction (war)
Production and destruction are clear. By construction I mean the creation of nontransparent institutions, offices and roles that allowed élites to extract value from producers, while still proclaiming the ethos of communalism, egalitarianism and group solidarity. Today we could add “democracy.”
The created opaque institutions also can be seen as constituting a means of mystification, a way of influencing the minds of societal members. The power of aggrandizers to exploit non-élites, then, was present in their control of a production-destruction-construction complex; but before those means were openly pursued and held by opportunists, they were pursued covertly by skimming off the flow of goods and services through the hands of big men, titular chiefs and others such as the shamans of Yokut-Mono society (see my OAC blog, Political Domination's Origins: Speculation or Ethnohistory?). In other words, in redistribution systems men in positions of power who claimed to merely be primus inter pares could foster private aggrandizement, becoming monarchs in the process.
By allowing redistributors to gradually develop symbols of office and power, followers were slowly lulled into accepting subjugation, its fabrication appearing to be benign in its imperceptible gradualness and redundancy. Either by being elevated to the pedestal, or by climbing up there, a long series of aggrandizing office-holders spun the ideological fabric of coercive power in which future monarchs could wrap themselves.
In the beginning decades of the Neolithic redistribution was a common way for big men to establish and maintain high prestige in societies lacking fixed political leaders. By amassing wealth and giving it away such men were able to gain influence in their societies. But redistribution does not disappear in established polities. Rather, it becomes more complex.
For instance, the palace-temple complex in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Aztec Empire becomes a center of redistribution, at least in theory one that recycled wealth to all members of society. But in reality the records we have from these societies indicate that redistribution in chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires functioned more as a way of rewarding favorites and those who performed military service for the monarch e.g., the ilku “service” to the Babylonian King, which was more or less a means of dispensing salaries to those whose political support the king needed.
Whereas in simpler societies redistribution functioned to garner influence for aggrandizing men, in politically complex societies it came to serve as a means of establishing and maintaining political support among the powerful families of the realm. Gifts of land and other valuables, acquired by extracting value from primary producers and through warfare, thus acted as a means of firming up the authority of the top political leadership.
We can take a cybernetic perspective of this. Domination is about control of people and economic processes. Clearly, beginning roughly twelve thousand years ago, self-promoters began the process of formulating rules to allow more and more control of the means of production and destruction (the production-destruction-construction complex). Looked at another way, this entailed the control of information. By encoding certain strategic bits of information in unquestionable forms e.g., divinatory revelations, legends, proverbs, sacrificial customs, annual ceremonies, monumental structures etc., opportunists were able to slowly formulate the institutional outlines of a hierarchical society.
Once redistributive structures were created – headmanships of lineages, big man systems, titular chiefs – some encodements began to restrict the flow of information through the auspices of the redistributors. In other words, they began to filter what the general populace should know.
At this early stage, with big men and little chiefs, information was not blocked to any great extent from the general public, nor was information exclusive enough to allow the exercise of a fully developed political economy. However, with the passage of time, managers were able to fabricate new rules and structures, which can be seen as encodements of information. By doing this, they were able to extract wealth from people and there were many more blockages of information flows, as well as the creation of misinformation. Of course, one especially clever way of blocking the public from key information was to create mystical ideas to support one’s leadership, ideas that could not be checked or easily countered by opponents.
The important information concerning how to control people and wealth became embedded in legends and sacred texts and carefully constructed codes, a poleconomic treasure for aggrandizers intent on controlling the storable-stealable-surplus and on attaining more and more prestige, power and property.
Furthermore, once hierarchical structures were formed, only some members of society had access to this information. Early gerontocracies, for example, kept information from women and younger men. For the Sisala of Africa I have shown that this still existed at the time of my initial fieldwork (1970-1971) within the patriarchal structures of ancestor sacrifice and divination (Mendonsa, Eugene L. 1976. Elders, Office-Holders and Ancestors among the Sisala of Northern Ghana, Africa 46:57-65; 1982a. The Politics of Divination. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2003. Political Economy in a Goatskin Bag: Attempted Symbolic Creation of Power through Sisala Divination. In: Ghana's North. Research on Culture, Religion and Politics of Societies in Transition. F. Kroeger & B. Meier (Eds.). Frankfort am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 225-241).
In short, only the most senior Sisala men could approach their ancestors through divination and only elders could call upon the dead to help with problems within the family group. Since deviance was thought to be punished by the ancestors, divination and piacular sacrifice functioned as a political economy, permitting senior men to control the behavior of younger men and women (My 2003 article shows that this is deteriorating under the influence of modernity).
In any case, under the traditional system, information about how to solve problems of health and interpersonal conflict was ritually walled off. Subordinate males and all females were not able to access this encoded information except by going through the auspices of the patriarchal structure. Since patriarchy did not exist for eons before the Neolithic, these limiting structures and ideas had to be constructed, most definitely in a slow, accretionary fashion in order to control the flow of information and subjugate an uninformed public.
In the early Neolithic leaders likely emerged to deal with problems, exigencies and opportunities. To accomplish this they controlled information and also created misinformation – in other words, they had to be able to influence public opinion. Sisala elders do this (or try) today through already institutionalized means – divination and ancestor veneration. But in earlier societies, management was more fluid. Most early chiefs were titular chiefs, men of influence rather than officers with authority. For them controlling information must have come in the form of negotiation, persuasion and exercising influence achieved in their past actions e.g., success in combat or the appearance of solving problems through magical means.
In the modern context the term “voodoo economics” comes to mind. Governments today siphon off wealth from primary producers in the form of taxes and fees. Furthermore, through foreign aid programs that require receiving countries to use the money to buy from the donor country, they approximate ancient dominance of the periphery by the palace-temple complex. Controlling information continues and obfuscation and release of misinformation has also not disappeared from the arsenal of power-holders.