Robert McC. Adams (1966: chapter 4) made a comparison between the Mesopotamian and Aztec States, finding several similarities, especially in that both began by fabricating an elaborate cosmology to back the activities of the king and his priests and then, as the state matured, developed expansionist ideas and moved away from the regenerative cosmology and beneficent gods to a harsher militaristic sets of deities.  The actions of these two states correspondingly became more oriented toward conquest and warfare.




Case 2.5.  Piety & Public Service in Mesopotamia & Mesoamerica 


In Mesopotamia the sacerdotal En or Lord was a beneficent god oriented toward the regeneration of crops and the fecundity of women.  This humanitarian orientation denoted that political leaders had religious responsibility for the generative forces in nature and for this-world management of the temple estate as god’s demesne.  This approach continued until the Early Dynastic II Period (4,750 to 4,600 B.P.).  Subsequently, the new term for king was lugal (literally, great man) and thus secular in etymology, although the lugal still held some cult responsibilities and administrative control over the temple complex (Adams 1996:137).

It would seem from the data from both Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica that in the rise of kingship, some aspiring leaders were competing with other political forces in society e.g., councils of elders or strong corporate descent groups and that those aggrandizers who desired to head society had to battle these conflicting political interests.  One strategy employed in both the Old and New Worlds was the invention of a special relationship with Divinity, the promulgation of the idea that the residents of the palace-temple complex had a hotline to Deity.  Both the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and the Aztecs in Mesoamerica had a “common tendency to buttress the position of an essentially secular authority with divine sanctions and powers” (Adams 1966:138).

For Mesopotamia, Thorkild Jacobsen (1957) suggests that rising political stars had to compete with other kinds of political forces and had to displace them as royal powers increased and became institutionalized.  As legend would have it, these were elders of a council or an assembly of prominent men, presumably heads of corporate descent groups.  They were said to have rendered judgments and executed them, sometimes delegating a war leader to defend their community.

Such a Mesopotamian elder’s council can be easily compared to the council of calpullis, which was the dominant political force at the founding of Tenochtitlán in the fourteenth century (Kurtz 1978).

The rise to the status of Divine King is not an easy road and aspirants always had to deal with competing political groups, for instance in Mesopotamia, the descendants of earlier war leaders who had succeeded in varying degrees in assuming elevated status, perhaps an élite social class.

A rising king would have to deal with such councils and any nobility, weakening or co-opting them.  When the state conquered other city-states, their political forces would also have to be reduced in power, as their lands were subsumed by the spreading hegemony of the conquerors.  And not all political forces were necessarily institutionalized e.g., the Uruk King, Gilgamesh (r. ca. 4,700 B.P.), who was later deified, wanted to go to war; but was turned down by the elder’s council.  He then convoked an assembly of the young men of the city-state of Uruk and was able to impose his desire to go to war against Kish using their power against the wishes of their elders (Adams 1966:141).

It would seem that charisma and force of personality were traits that helped catapult a leader of a given faction to the head of society and to help him play other political factions off against each other; but also we find that their fabrication of a cosmology giving them privileged access to Deity was a common strategy in the rise of early states.  In other words, the fabrication of he ideological basis of domination was important for the long-term survival of kingship. 

State leaders, from the very first city-states to the nation states that exist as I write this have blatantly proclaimed that they are in power to serve the people and to protect the reputation of the city-state or nation, whichever they were heading.  Early aggrandizers in Mesopotamia were often rich men who saw a quick way to political prominence in sponsoring canal works in their neighborhoods (Snell 1997:32).  Public service could be a method of elevating oneself in the public eye, an avenue to more power, prestige and property.  For example, Urukagina of Lagash in Mesopotamia phrased his responsibilities in terms of a covenant with the god of his city: “That he deliver not up the orphan and the widow to the powerful man …” (Jacobsen 1963:480).  Piety and public service are great protections for ambition.  In summary, in many cases aspiring men competed for high office with rivals and part of their competitive approaches entailed the creation of ideas to justify their aspirations.  More often than not these ideas formed an ideology that claimed that newly installed leaders would act in ways to benefit society at large.





The Jural Revolution   


The surplus created by the Agricultural Revolution spawned another revolution – a proliferation of rules and institutions designed to control people, the transformation I call the Jural Revolution.  These were not revolutions in the sense of a quick coup d'état; but rather a series of changes over time that created a new world of political control in human society.

As a surplus became available in the early Neolithic, it became more important to control people because they could help defend the surplus and also could help produce it.  Thus, a have/have-not world arose where some men controlled material assets and people and others began to work for them or attack them to steal their wealth and/or subjugate them.

Since outsiders strove to get at the surplus through warfare, there arose a need for defense, which became a justification for the fabrication of political and economic rule-sets.  Writing about Philippine chiefdoms, Laura Lee Junker notes the rise of warfare in the Iron Age (1,200-550 B.P.):


The rising emphasis on militarism in Early Iron Age society is evidenced archaeologically in technological developments in military equipment (e.g., iron weaponry and armor), the construction of sophisticated fortification, the introduction of mounted cavalry as a widely used military strategy in later phases, and direct evidence of periodic destruction of major town centers (e.g., the periodic burning a rebuilding of the massive fortifications at Heuneberg).  Enhanced military capacities in expanding polities not only served to impede production and trade in their militarily weaker neighbors; but also were likely to have enhanced the ability of these militaristically strong polities to mobilize export goods to attract foreign traders, because the threat of violence was an effective tool for coercion of the internal work force (1999:7-8).


The other reason why it became important to control people was that armies were used for more than defense.  Leaders often became aggressive and went after the surpluses and workers of their neighbors.  War became a means of getting the surplus of others and slaves that could be put to work at home producing more food and performing labor for conquerors.  Furthermore, as land had become valuable, leaders wanted to conquer more territory.  As Sahlins has pointed out, predatory territorial expansion became an option for opportunists (1961).

To a certain extent, the Neolithic Revolution was about new technology and greater productivity; but it was also a Jural Revolution i.e., the emergence of newly fabricated rights and duties, with the few fabricators getting the bulk of the rights and the majority of people being burdened with duties e.g., responsibilities in the corvée service and even slavery.

Corvée labor is considered by some scholars to be less onerous than outright slavery and some have even noted that the building of the pyramids in Egypt was part of government make-work projects that used idle peasants when they were not engaged in farming (Snell 1997:27), making it seem like the Egyptian government was doing them a favor; but these workers most likely did not want to participate in corvée projects.  Corvée labor requirements were just one of the institutions created by political leaders in order to siphon off the labor of those they considered beneath them.  But these rights and duties, no doubt, took time to develop.

I assume that early leaders time and again couched their institutional development in terms of public service and, in fact, many early rules handed down from on high may have provided some benefits for the general population e.g., in Mesopotamia peasants lived in small villages at the time of the rise of city-states and sporadically paid taxes to nearby city-rulers who, in turn, protected them from other city-rulers.  The rise of competing and often warring city-states in the region became a self-generating system, with the aggrandizement and aggression of leaders creating an ongoing need for peasants to attach themselves to a powerful center in order to protect themselves from other powerful centers.

Early leaders were able to operate in wealth-seeking ways behind the shield of public service.  That “shield” was a set of fabricated rules and an ideology that stated that the state was a necessary benefit to the people.  It is likely that state leaders both shared some accumulated wealth with th people, providing material benefits and services; but also siphoned off wealth for themselves.  Furthermore, it was not a simple matter either of holding wealth for oneself or sharing.  No doubt, at first, men gained prestige by being, or appearing to be, “good citizens.”  Ownership of property and control of people in Neolithic times would have slowly come to be grafted into the way of life that had long prohibited individual ownership and personal aggrandizement.  However long it took, eventually ideas of private ownership and exclusive rights to wealth and labor evolved.

The world of farming and herding provided fertile ground for self-advancement.  As soon as necessity changed the historical-material world of our Neolithic ancestors, opportunists rose to the top of society and began to put together a new social, political and economic world.  They created a doctrine of rule.  Sometimes they did this by conquest and the use of force; but long-term control of societies came through the use of the Pen, not the Sword i.e., through lawmaking.  Metaphorically I am saying that they fabricated rules using the Pen; but many of these early Neolithic societies were preliterate and their “scriptwriting” was done through the creation of oral codes – proverbs and legends; and also by establishing rites and ceremonies, which, when repeated, were materializations of ruling power.  Written, oral or behavioral, these constructed codifications laid the basis for domination. 

My perspective is that once food was produced,(not simply gathered or hunted) calories were no longer stored in Nature’s Larder, as had been the case in the Paleolithic; but now came to be stored under the control of leaders.  First food was controlled by elder officers of the kin group; then by emergent community rulers.

Tribal life in the early Neolithic communities must have been simmilar to that which anthropologists find today in their ethnographic investigations.  Regulating access to food is still practiced in some tribal societies today.  Among the Sisala people I studied in Northern Ghana, who live not unlike those who farmed in the early Neolithic, lineage headmen store food in granaries, which are easily accessed physically by anyone in the group.  However, only the headman has the right to do so.  There are strong sanctions (fabricated supernatural ones) against anyone even putting a hand into the granary without his permission.  Prevention of theft or illegal distribution of food is not thwarted by a physical lock of some sort; but rather by means of fabricated ideas.

The ancestors, according to legend, will kill such a thief.  Physically, the mud granary is a storage bin.  It could easily be violated.  Yet, to prevent theft, Sisala headmen also define it as a vene, a shrine of the owning kin unit.  Ideationally, mystical ideas over the centuries evolved in such societies to give headmen control over the distribution of food and the allocation of labor.

Thus, historically and ethnographically we see in food producing societies the proliferation of fabricated codes and mystifications to control access to the surplus.  There were more artificial boundaries created and imposed on the natural landscape in early years of the Neolithic than had ever existed in the Paleolithic.

With rule proliferation, space became social.  Some space was also specialized as socioeconomic space e.g., farmland.  In the Paleolithic, land had not been valuable in a political or economic sense.  It just housed Nature’s Larder.  After the Agricultural Revolution, all productive space came to be governed by access and use rules.  Socially defined, productive space had to be controlled; not so much for itself; but because it was now productive (or strategic in a military sense).  Land took on a new meaning in human life.  It could produce food and be held against invaders.  It could be a chief’s hegemonic slice of the terrain.  Warfare became “rational” because the land of others was valuable for the same reasons.

Perhaps because women were the carriers of children and also of sexual gratification for men, access to them was always regulated by rules, albeit to a lesser extent in the Paleolithic than after the Agricultural Revolution.  After domestication of plants and animals, more regulation of women became necessary.  As Gerda Lerner (1986) notes, patriarchy was in the offing.  Once food was produced and stored, not gathered and eaten immediately, women become doubly valuable in an economic sense.  First, they could work to produce food and, secondly, they were a means by which new laborers and soldiers were produced, though of course leaders also figured out that laborers and other women could be taken from nearby groups through capture as well.  Protection of women, alongside food, became one of the justifications for the rise of managers in society and the fabrication of patriarchy.

The point is that in the production of food a Jural Revolution was born – one that justified hierarchical control of resources and personnel, especially women.  All sorts of new rules about the control of food and women came into being and it was senior men, the cultural equivalent of alpha males in primates, making rules and enforcing them.  In kin-based societies the rules of control also applied to junior males, who were valuable as laborers and warriors.  Senior kinsmen created and applied rules to junior kinsmen and women.  As chiefdoms developed, chiefs applied the rules to commoners.

Land was a valuable resource, as were women and young laborers.  All had to be controlled.  It now paid to store food, guard it and to raid for food and labor.  These activities took a level of organization beyond simple descent groups.  Both production and reproduction needed to have overarching governing rules and cultural codes and men set about to create them, usually linking these jural artifacts to imagined powers. 

In the Jural Revolution, early aggrandizers had to redefine the nature of community and reciprocity in order to be able to begin the processes of accumulation, exaction and domination.  They had to replace what Hanna Arendt calls “common interest" with self-interest.  Arendt (2003) makes the point that “common interest" separates a class of self-interested individuals apart from the community.  In the Neolithic Revolution a new kind of limited common interest arose.  It was the interest of the privileged few.  The common good began to be eroded as élites started to construct cultural explanations why they should receive and hold privileges, eventually passing these on to their offspring or chosen office-holders.  The only societies where radical hierarchy and exploitation have not grown are those in which the material base would not support it.




Case 2.6.  Sisala War Chiefs 


I have shown that situational chiefs arose among the Sisala only when conditions demanded leadership (Mendonsa 2001).  In that small relatively egalitarian farming society, with the coming of economic and political opportunities after contact in 1906, slowly élites began to emerge in the larger towns.  Prior to that there was little to control beyond the family.  There was little need for chiefly rule until wealth arose beyond subsistence production, distribution and consumption within the lineage.  Once there was surplus wealth beyond this level in Sisalaland, aggrandizers moved to formulate rules and roles to have access to it.

The other reason why chiefs arose in Sisalaland was attacks by slave raiders.  This led opportunists to organize people, build fortifications, move to defensible spots (such as the hilltop called yalingbong – the “war rock”) and generally create a new form of society that could withstand harassment by raiders.  These were situational leaders but chiefship did not become widely practiced in Sisalaland, nor was it firmly entrenched before the Colonial Era (Mendonsa 1975a).

Hierarchy emerges when there are opportunities for aggrandizers.  In chapter 2 of Continuity and Change in a West African Society I chronicle the life of a Sisala big man named Dolbizon who rose to prominence in the heat of the slave wars (Mendonsa 2001).  Leadership presented itself and he rose to the occasion.  According to the archaeologist Natalie Swanepoel (2004), it seems that Dolbizon’s control was more political than economic.  Her excavations in Sisalaland show that he was working with a limited material base and merely commanded his hill fortress to defend his followers without developing a personal material lifestyle much beyond the average.  We will not know if such incipient leadership would have gelled into full-blown chiefship in time because the activities of the slave raiders were cut short by the coming of the British. 

Furthermore, the Sisala operated within the well-known “wealth-in-people” system of Africa in which social banking is more important than possessing great material goods (Guyer 1993).  It is likely that Dolbizon invested in social relations and followers rather than goods.   Furthermore, there was little material surplus available in Dolbizon’s time, when slave raiders were ravaging the area.




What the larger historical record shows is that the greater the surplus available for control, the greater the severity of hierarchy and domination.  Political control was a platform upon which economic control could be built if and when changes in the historical-material conditions allowed it.

When did aggrandizement become widely institutionalized among humans?  For most areas the fabrication of domination came with the Neolithic Revolution – after the domestication of plants and animals.  In resource rich areas before that, some hunter-gatherer-fishers may have developed complex social structures because resident aggrandizers were able to fabricate rules preventing universal access to highly desirable resources, as indicated ethnohistorically in Case 1.5.  Data on such societies as the Northwest Coast Amerindians, about which we have historical and archaeological data, reinforces my point that selfism and factionalism become institutionalized when there were political and economic incentives to do so.  In the few cases of resource rich environments, where access to a valued wealth-generating opportunity could be curtailed, chiefs emerged to manage access to wealth-producing resources.  Where no such resource-limiting-opportunities existed, hunter-gatherers remained egalitarian.  In these few cases, and in the more numerous examples from farming and herding peoples, there was one common denominator associated with the emergence of political and economic complexity: the existence of a storable-stealable-surplus. 

Julian Thomas (1991) makes the point that economic activities in the Neolithic were quite varied, with foraging continuing to be important.  Furthermore, he says that it was not one economic system, not even in farming communities where agriculture produced dramatic changes in sociocultural formations.  In other words, the storable-stealable-surplus most likely came from a combination of sources.  Some hunter-gatherer-fisher-storers may have begun to farm and/or herd; but continued to harvest nature as well.  Likewise, those who began farming and herding did not stop foraging and hunting.  This said, it must be restated: the mode of production is insignificant and non-causal in the rise of complexity.  Any way in which a surplus is stimulated is sufficient cause for aggrandizers to begin to formulate ways to control it.

Aggrandizement and domination emerged in all kinds of economies with such a surplus.  From then on in history, whatever the socioeconomic structure, aggrandizers engaged in strategic efforts to control productive resources and other kinds of wealth-generators beyond agriculture or herds e.g., craft production and long distance trade.

Some resources may also have been manmade.  For instance, Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis centered on control of water resources by élites (1957).  He claimed that élites emerged to construct, maintain and operate large-scale irrigation systems in farming societies.  For example, the first important king of the Twelfth Dynasty in Egypt – Amunemhet I (3,991-3,962 B.P.) was instrumental in the development of the Fayyum Oasis, an impression of a dried swamp area to the west of the Nile River.  The idea was to fill this ancient lake bed with water so that it could be used for irrigation purposes.  His engineers built a canal between the impression and the river and improved irrigation works to expand the amount of farmland under cultivation in the area (Grajetzski 2006).  Such endeavors by the state must have been impressive to local farmers, increasing the power of the government in their eyes. 

Since Wittfogel’s day, scholars have concluded that there were many other kinds of management opportunities that led to state formation; but clearly centralized management of irrigation works and other forms of state projects eventually yielded coercive power. 

Aggrandizing leaders were not only constructing physical objects – irrigation works, temples, pyramids etc. – but also ideologies to explain the bases of their authority to the general population from whom they needed service and taxes, as well as social structures of power to give them opportunities to siphon wealth off productive processes.

Sometimes management was good for society and at times it was beneficial for individuals, factions and not society at large.  As a form of cover, élites constructed scripts to justify their self-interestedness based on social benefit.  In time these ideologies worked, creating defenses against intruders or organizing production.  In this way opportunists became formal office-holders who came to have the right to rule.  As chiefs, they had access to fabricated authority and could use that newfound power to harness labor value and other resources for public and private ends.  Thus, domination was a constructed effort.  In other words, in the Jural Revolution we can see a connection between resource management and the composed rules that led to political development.

The Jural Revolution was about the fabrication of rules giving individuals, factions or groups rights to property and labor.  At the same time, as property and labor came to be “owned,” rules also defined who did not own them – who could not possess, distribute or alienate them.  It became a world of haves and have-nots.  Rule-sets can be both inclusive and exclusive.  The Jural Revolution, then, was a time when aggrandizers constructed norms that specified who had what kind of rights to receive and hold natural resources, tools, products, trading links and people (labor) and also who did not have such rights.  As Earle (1998, 2000) notes, the core of property is the right to exclude.

Property, in the broad sense, became something to be possessed and guarded.  It had to be regulated through the construction of a ruling normative formation, script or discourse.  Bourdieu (1998) notes that a discourse can be created through the use of symbolic force.  For example, the law is full of legal fictions e.g., adoptio,[1] or the idea that a paterfamilias can transfer rights over a child.  Such fabricated or assumed rights are also found in Roman law’s concept of in manus, the right of the father to give away a daughter in marriage.  These were social constructions, ones that gave the ancients rights to labor and property, even defining some people as property.  All such imagined rights were absent in the non-storing Paleolithic peoples.

The Jural Revolution saw the emergence of these formalized conventions, which I call scripts.  Theoretically speaking, I see a script in the same manner as when Foucault (1977, 1982) discusses the “law of truth.”  Ancient scriptwriters or spindoctors (shamans, priests), all decked out in feathers, paint and headdress, intended to create the aura of verity in their symbolic productions; just as the White House press secretary does at a press conference standing behind the presidential seal and flanked by U.S. flags. 

No doubt, the first scripts, those dealing with politics and economics, were presented as unquestionable truth.  Faced with a new material base, life in the Neolithic became a contest between élite scripts.  Some scripts were deemed good; while others were defined by élites as deviant.  Privileged rulers moved to coalesce power in order to be able to eradicate such “nonstandard” ideas.  It is highly likely that, as in our world, there was competition between aggrandizers with different scripts.  Factionalism, probably present in all human groups in the Paleolithic, would have accelerated in the surplus-rich Neolithic.  Different sets of aggrandizers with varying ideas about governance would have competed for the prize of controlling productive processes.

I have said that aggrandizers existed in the Paleolithic; but there was no reason for them to fabricate domineering norms because there was no political or economic payoff in doing so.  After the emergence of a storable-stealable-surplus there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Aggrandizers set about constructing discourses to justify their desire for control.  The aim of a script was the “subjectivization” of others, the control of the minds of those who came to accept the script as truth.  The subject’s mental and emotional acceptance of a dominating script was the means by which s/he was subjugated, transformed – script-wise – into a follower.

In the Agricultural Revolution, privileged élites began to restrict access to wealth by constructing ideologies or scripts that limited the distribution of a portion of the surplus i.e., ideas that allowed them to siphon off a part of the productive efforts of others.  Once the scripts were fabricated, the general population had to abide by ideas, rules and institutions created by a managerial élite.  In other words, this was the beginning of the foundations of ranking and stratification  – of inequality more broadly defined.

Because of agricultural productivity, land became important after domestication.  Land and people became something to be specified in scripts, allocated and defended.  Men claimed it through a variety of imaginations.  One was original possession – “we were here first.”  Another was that ownership rested on the fact that the “owners” had improved the land by investing their labor in it.  Yet again, land was claimed to be heritable, attached to a bloodline, so to speak.  It could be passed to one’s heirs in the next generation.  Or it could be sold.  Finally, land could be taken and held by conquest, possession being nine-tenths of the law.

After the Agricultural Revolution, theft and warfare became possible on a large scale, presumably leading, in time, to an increase in warfare (organized violence) and attempts to conquer other people’s property (organized theft).   And, as I show in The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia, extortion – even imperialism – became very much a part of the polity of ancient Catalonia (also see cases 8.1 & 9.1 below).

Not only was there good reason to go to war, defensive or offensive; but also there evolved newer and better weapons that increased the scale of destruction involved.  Unlike the equality of weaponry of the Paleolithic, some societies could develop better weapons than their neighbors and more easily conquer them.  Moreover, aspiring men sought to control trade in raw materials that could be used to make superior weapons, giving them advantage over their neighbors  Sometimes these “neighbors” were members of one’s own society, as when the Catalan castle-lords rampaged against each other in search of land and peasant workers (see Case 8.1).  Between élites it was more or less a fair fight; but when the mounted aristocracy swooped down with their steel swords and lances on barefoot peasants, the wooden pitchfork was all but useless; just as when these self-proclaimed élites later swooped down on them with penned documents claiming the right to enserf them in perpetuity peasant protestations and appeals to ancient customs were all but useless.

As the domestication of plants and animals proceeded, opportunists slowly created rules of domination.  That is, they fabricated norms to limit access to natural resources and the surplus provided by domestication.  For the first time in the long existence of our species, a small contingent of agents came to define how access to nature and its bounty would proceed.  In other words, they constructed social relations through which value had to be mediated.  Of course, they also defined themselves as the managers of that process – as office-holders.  Another way of saying this is that, for the first time, humankind had to approach nature and its produce through social structural means.  An institutional barrier had been erected between an individual and nature.

Within the social structure of domination, aggrandizers manipulated and maneuvered to promote the interests of special groups e.g., kith, kin, networks of friends, sodalities or their ethnic group (later in history we would have to add economic corporations to this list – see: Case 10.1). 

Such promotion would have been unacceptable in the Paleolithic.  Even in the Neolithic, aggrandizement must have run up against the communalistic ethos (what Sahlins [1972] calls generalized reciprocity) that did not go away overnight.  Certainly, the fabrication of domination was an incremental process that proceeded slowly and unevenly.  Élites could not merely bully others; but found it necessary to slowly script their management of vital resources. 

This fabrication of power and ownership occurred through oral means at first; then was codified in writing in later literate societies (see my: Literacy and the Culture of Domination in Medieval Catalonia [Mendonsa 2008b]).  Medieval Catalan managerial élites ruled by the Sword; but also later by the Pen, with many fabricated oral histories (legends, myths, proverbs, ritual practices) in between.  From the dawn of history, illiterate peasants relied on ancient customs to govern their relations with landlords.  The latter reacted to changing historical-material conditions by trying to circumvent or replace such customs with new laws.  In early open-air courts Catalan lords and peasants challenged one another over interpretations of custom.  There were peasant scripts and there were élite scripts and in the contestations over ancient customs and new ways of doing things evolved a system of serfdom.

The building blocks of these scripted constructions were rules about power and access to wealth and labor.  Broadly, these social structures go by various names – patriarchy, gerontocracy, serfdom – but they all were designed to give some men (and occasionally women) privileged access to poleconomic value – wealth, prestige and power.  The men behind these structures were often organized at the top of the hierarchy, lording it over others.  They participated in networks comprised of those considered to be “in the know.”  Hierarchy was not only a system of signification; but also a configuration of domination and the holding and withholding of information from the public.  A script could explain and also fail to reveal alternate explanations.  Today we call this spin.


Neolithic Offices and Normative Manipulation


There were no offices in the Paleolithic, in the sense of an inherited status passed from generation to generation, not even family headmen or chiefs (storers being the exception, if some hunter-gatherer-fishers established themselves before the advent of the Neolithic).  The prestige of an influential leader died with him or her.  That changed after the Agricultural Revolution.  Offices such as kin group headman, chief and king emerged.  Some especially oportunistic men emerged to claim that they were emperors, even gods (see Case 7.4).

The rationale behind an office was usually that the occupant would benefit society in some way.  This was valid in some ways; but I am more concerned with the illegitimate functions of office because their exercise is how the tyranny of domination began and continues today. 

Office-holders can do good and bad from their perches.  In early times, many of these offices were overtly political; but men very quickly learned how to make them economic i.e., to use their offices to amass personal fortunes and to lodge those riches in family lines.  Today, we can see the reverse process.  Executives within corporations, and even more so those holding great wealth, can exert undo influence over politicians, corrupting political processes (see: Case I.1).  Some use their wealth more straightforwardly to secure political office.  This is the sense in which I sometimes use the term poleconomic instead of using political and economic separately.  Both political power and the possession of wealth have gone together so often in history, either at the start of the Neolithic or recently, that the two must be considered together in any theoretical analysis of the rise of complexity.

How did office-holding lead to domination?  An office can be a shield, hiding covert behavior that is not in the interests of society.  In the next case we see an embryonic example of misbehavior in office.




Case 2.7.  Yakut-Mono Chiefly Malfeasance 


Among the 19th century Yokut-Mono Amerindians of California, chiefs sometimes took bribes to allow someone to be killed, even within their own Eagle Moiety, according to Gayton (1930).  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.  In the Yakut-Mono case, 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 enriched him (also see: Case 3.2 ).

Chiefs and other office-holders usually portray themselves as public servants and holding office is depicted as a burden.  Politicians nauseatingly do this all the time today.  Gayton indicates that a Yokut-Mono 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.  The chief was supposed to appear to be giving lavishly in spite of the fact that it was the people who paid for the performances.  No public dues were levied and placed in a general fund; but the simpler expedient of having the persons present at any ceremony contribute on the spot produced the same result.  The end result was the appearance of the chief providing a public service.

The control of ceremonies gave the Yakut-Mono chief a means of making a profit.  This was the generally accepted picture of the chief; however a chief who was not a good man and who had a desire for personal aggrandizement could make illegitimate arrangements with equally malevolent shamans (winatums).  Thus, one avaricious strategy open to chiefs was criminal collusion with occult entrepreneurs.  The fear of self-interestedness by officials and co-conspiratorial shamans, 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.   

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




Lest we think this violence is the purview of “primitive” people, as I was writing this a mayor in a tiny village in the Pyrenees was murdered and the Spanish police are holding all thirty-seven villagers as suspects, extracting DNA from all in order to find the murderer or murderers.  Some villagers explained that they thought the mayor was murdered because he was using his office to impose his private wishes on the community.

It has always been dangerous to act out of step with the public image of office.  Richard Nixon found that out and that is why he and his aides spent so much time and effort in the cover-up.  Shenanigans of office-holders need to be hidden from public scrutiny.  When Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew resigned and then pleaded no contest to criminal charges of tax evasion, this was part of a negotiated settlement concerning a scheme wherein he was accused of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes while serving as governor of Maryland.  

Furthermore, as I first began to write this chapter, the Alberto Gonzales affair raged in Washington DC and, amid several controversies and allegations of perjury before Congress, on August 27, 2007 Gonzales announced his resignation as Attorney General, effective September 17, 2007.  About a year later Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York resigned in the wake of the exposure of his involvement as a client in a high-priced prostitution ring.  Even potential office-holders have to be careful, as John Edwards found out when it was revealed that he fathered a child with his mistress while his cancer-stricken wife was undergoing therapy.  The list of recently disgraced politicians includes: Congressman Eric Massa, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, House Majority Whip Tom Delay, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy, Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. 

There is also the case of the hugely successful lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to charges of conspiracy, honest services fraud and tax evasion.  This list goes on.  Disgrace and prison sentences being the penalties in modern-day political scandals, office-holders take extreme caution behind the shield of office to avoid exposure of their wrongdoings.  In the case of the Yakut-Mono chiefs, if one became too blatantly corrupt he could be ambushed and killed, as reported by Gayton’s informants.

I mention these cases of official disgrace because, as I will bring into greater focus in chapter 11, one hope we have for the future, in which we and our grandchildren will be living under the governance of the nation state, is for the general public to have greater access to what goes on behind the shield of office.  Official opacity is the enemy of democracy.

Official opacity exists because office-holders have the power to act in public and in secret.  Anthony Giddens (1976, 1979) sees power as transformational, something that, when exercised by agents, can change the course of history or intervene in a flow of events to alter its direction.  In this perspective, power resides in action.  Office-holders are especially powerful agents.  An office-holder can decide on a course of action and effectuate a desired outcome, overcoming obstacles and countermanding the interests of others.  This can be done in accordance with the official duties of the agent; or contra his responsibilities as an officer. 

Famously, we saw contrary power exercised in the actions of Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers scandal.  Less meritoriously, we also saw it in the actions of the Enron finance chief, Andrew Fastow.  He has pleaded guilty to using his office to break laws and pursue his private interests contra the wellbeing of Enron stockholders, company employees and society at large (Case 10.1).  The point in both cases is that there is a backstage to office.  While offstage, office-holders are free to act in ways that are not always observable to the general public, nor are such actions always in the public interest.

Agents exercising power have at their disposal potent tools of legitimization, to wit: cultural capital, their knowledge of office and the general culture of the people.  All make office-holders appear bigger than life, clothed in heroic garb.  Giddens sees agents exercising power in office by using stored resources or capabilities.  I am saying that one of those resources, a significant one, is office itself; but not only in the Parsonian sense that authority provides legitimate capability to act; but in the opposite sense i.e., that an office-holder can act in dishonest ways behind the shield of office, the apparent authority of office acting as a opaque breastwork against scrutiny by outsiders. 

The reason a Yakut-Mono chief who openly alienated the community could easily be killed was that it was difficult to hide misbehavior in the context of a small, face-to-face community (Cases 2.7 & 3.3).  Kings and emperors became more sophisticated through time, controlling information and isolating themselves behind the walls of the palace-temple complex and a mountain of ideological camouflage.  They developed or inherited professional staffs that inabled them to control the flow of information.  It is interesting that today office-holders may be finding it somewhat more difficult to hide their mischief or malfeasance because of leaks, purloined official documents and their easy dissemination on the worldwide web.  For example, the 2010 leak of secret official documents on the war in Afghanistan has some claiming that it hurts the war effort against an evil element; while others say the Afghanistan leaks serve democracy.  The online site named WikiLeaks, which is an international non-profit organization that publishes submissions of secret and classified media from anonymous news sources and leaks, is a new wrinkle in the search for greater transparency in officialdom.  They slogan is, “We open governments.”  How this recent development plays out is yet to be seen.

Conspirators face a troublesome quandary if they attempt to design communication networks that maximize both secrecy and efficiency.  Secrets are better kept in a diffuse or decentralized network.  This is why Al Quæda is not a traditional hierarchical organization.  It is also why the CIA operates on a need-to-know basis.  Secrecy requires decentralized communication networks; but task efficiency is better performed in centralized ones.  Within centralized structures illegal behavior is best kept hidden by developing a buffer to maintain secrecy.  Historically, strong leaders have formed stalwart bulwarks against the prying eyes of the public.  Office can cushion deviant behavior because investigators may have to respect the office e.g., those investigating possible wrongdoing by White House officers.

Aggrandizers throughout history have developed offices and organizations as shelters.  Noble jurisdictions, charters granted to towns, guilds, marketing leagues, ecclesiastical units, were essentially poleconomic shields, fabricated “shells of immunity,” within which privileges were encapsulated.  They shielded élites from commoners and from being considered common.  They also gave acquisitive operators a protective domain inside of which they could pursue their interests with greater power and increased stealth.

I am addressing a key empirical question in this study: what immunities can élites fabricate to protect their political and economic interests?  In other words, what structural shields do they invent to allow them to pursue their private interests in spite of the fact that those pursuits may not coincide with wider human interests?  What activities do opportunistic office-holders pursue behind closed doors that may be detrimental to the social good?  What are the various normative ways in which avaricious élites can cover their antisocial activities?  I believe that the ethnographic and historical cases in this work are a small step toward helping us answer such questions and possibly taking measures to open up officialdom to greater public scrutiny.

One of the strategies used by office-holders from time immemorial has been to reify[2] the structure in which they operate.  This made their behavior unquestionable.  Our little chief of the Yokut-Mono Amerindians of California (Cases 2.7 & 3.3) didn’t have a well-developed reified structure in place to completely insulate him against societal retribution; but as societies evolved beyond this stage political structures became more and more reified and protective of office-holders.

Reification is a feature of all social life.  Reifications are accepted scripts.  Yet, such longstanding scripts (traditions) can be reworded and reworked for specific applications by knowledgeable office-holders.  These rewrites can be performed to shield backroom dealings or to stimulate the public to think along certain lines conducive to the interests of the office-holders.  Official scripts are ways of dealing with resistance to officialdom.

As James Scott (1990) indicates, ideological resistance can develop best when it is shielded from direct observation – as with a subversive group operating within the bowls of society – but this is equally true of the secret machinations of the powerful within the establishment.  The real nature of office-holders’ domination must be mystified and shielded from public scrutiny if they are to remain in office e.g., Richard Nixon may have been able to ride out the crisis of Watergate if information of White House wrongdoing had not seen the light of day, that which came into public view through insider testimony and the revelations of the Oval Office tapes.

Sometimes office-holders do not act in ways that personally benefit them in the short term or while they are in office; but make secret decisions that, if they came to light, would alter significant events in history.  Such was the case with Operation Condor.




Case 2.8.  Secretary of State Kissinger & Operation Condor 


In 1976, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay were engaged in a program of repression, code-named Operation Condor, which targeted their political opponents around the world.  In April of 2010, 34 years after the assassination of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, newly declassified documents offered evidence that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger canceled a warning against carrying out a secret program of international political assassinations just days before Letelier was killed by operatives of Operation Condon in Washington, DC. 

These secret documents show that Kissinger blocked the issuing of a demarche (a diplomatic denunciation) to the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet that would have likely indicated to the dictator and operatives of Operation Condor that the U.S. government would disapprove of the planned assassination of the former Chilean ambassador, who had turned against the Pinochet regime.  Apparently, Kissinger was deterred from issuing the demarche because the U.S. Ambassador in Chili felt that Pinochet would be angered by such a warning and that Washington had received a communiqué from the U.S. ambassador in Uruguay who claimed to fear for his life if he had to present the demarche to that government. 

When such documents see the light of day through declassification and demands by activists through the Freedom of Information Act, we are given some insight into the secret workings of office-holders in Washington D C.  But if we had that knowledge at the time, perhaps international assassinations, renditions (handing over prisoners to countries where torture is allowed) and torture of political prisoners by our own operatives would be curtailed.  Without transparency into such matters, however, those who work against the principles of the U.S. Constitution behind closed doors go unpunished.

Some, as with Kissinger, go on to honorable retirements from public service and to consultancies and employment that brings them great wealth.  For example, Henry Kissinger, a Nobel Laureate, is chairman of Kissinger Inc.  He is also associated with Kissinger McLarty Associates, which provides strategic advisory and advocacy services to a select group of U.S. corporations and multinational companies.  Kissinger McLarty Associates provides high-level intervention on special projects, assists its clients to identify strategic partners and investment opportunities and advises clients on government relations globally.  The Chairman and Vice Chairman of the firm are Dr. Henry Kissinger and Thomas F. "Mack'' McLarty, who worked with Presidents Carter, Bush, and Clinton, including service as President Clinton's Chief of Staff and Special Envoy for the Americas.  Such insiders are able to greatly profit from their “public service.”  Recently Dr. Kissinger had to resign from the 911 Commission because he refused to reveal his sources of income (Hobbs 2002). 

It is not that we should deny office-holders like Kissinger and McLarty their foreign contacts and sources of income; but we should expect that decisions in office are not being unduly influenced by anticipation of exploiting those links after they leave office.  Transparency is the only antidote to undue influence by unscrupulous officials.




What I am saying is that the institutionalized arena of officialdom was (and remains) a special case, one giving advantage to the office-holder, who could (and do) operate behind the shield of authority.  This has had portentious implications for the accumulation of power over time. 

Power has an accretional nature.  Historically, little by little, it became lodged in privileged structures.  In history there have been aggregate consequences to manipulative strategies taken by men with conflicting interests.  Aggregated power can sometimes be boldly deployed (Alexander the Great or Saddam Hussein, to name only two dictatorial leaders).  But it can also be discretely hidden within democratic institutions.  More on this later.

A main strategy of aggrandizers throughout history has been to hide power within corporations, using this term in a broad sense.  By that I mean that secret societies, men’s clubs or voluntary associations can be seen as corporations. 

Let's look at this in more detail.  Lewis Henry Morgan's discovery of the corporate nature of descent groups is perhaps his greatest contribution (Morgan 1877 and see Fortes 1969).  This development of corporatism in surplus-holding societies both set them apart from non-storing foragers and provides the link between early accumulation and domination and the continuation of these processes in the modern world.  In other words, Morgan realized that when humans began to associate with each other under conditions of surplus and sedentarism, social relations tended to move from association to aggregation, to form corporate groups that acted as a single legal entity, a corporation sole.  

Webster defines a corporation as "a body formed and authorized by law to act as a single person although constituted by one or more persons and legally endowed with various rights and duties including the capacity of succession."  As Fortes rightly points out, this discovery led to a jural approach to the study of kinship and the social order by social anthropologists.

But Morgan and Fortes missed the importance of corporatism in terms of the development of a political economy, though Morgan had threads of it in his discussion of egalitarianism and the lack of private property in early societies.  Fortes saw the corporation as a stabilizing structure in society.  I see it as containing the seeds of change.

In part, but importantly, corporatism was about the use of political power to control the economically-produced surplus.  This control was a monumental step away from egalitarianism, fueled by the advent of a storable-stealable-surplus.  Following Marx and Engels, I see economics as a prime cause of change, though not the only one.  As Engels put it:


The economic situation is the basis; but the various elements of the superstructure … also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles [between the owners of the means of production and workers] and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.  There is an interaction in all these elements in which, maid all the endless host of accidents … the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary (Marx & Engels 1970:487, my insert, italics in the original).


According to these early thinkers, the first societies were classless, being based on a “common ownership of land” (Marx & Engels 1969:108-109) and private property was the spur to the development of classes.  But they glossed over the importance of corporatism in the development of inequality in society.

Corporations contained the seeds of classes in that one segment of the kin group often took control of the economic surplus and directed economic behavior within the corporate group.  Once the concept of a corporation sole was implanted in the minds of humans, and once it became an accepted part of the culture of human beings, it provided a basis for the formation of a political economy, an institutional framework that allowed some men to dominate others.  Corporations enabled some men to be office-holders in corporate structures holding rights and duties over the production, distribution and use of wealth and to act as governors in the passing of such wealth and also offices to the next generation.  The corporation was a great new shield, albeit a limited one.

Such corporations formed as descent groups, age-sets, secret societies, guilds and franchised municipalities.  They came to have rights and duties independent of the occupants of their offices, so the focus was on the structure and not the persons in office.  Later, this came to apply to chiefdoms and states.

Descent groups were likely the first corporations.  Early on, clans developed rights over individuals and those corporation members with rights had, ipso facto, duties to perform and responsibilities toward the group as a whole.  The leaders might not have performed their duties diligently; but the members owed allegiance to the group, not to any occupant or occupants of office.  The reification of the descent group was a shield for very minor deviant behavior by office-holders, should they have wished to use the kinship structure in that manner.  It was a perfect place within which to siphon off a minimal surplus value of human labor and other corporations were on the way in which greater value could be siphoned – chiefdoms.  Mostly kinship officers – the elders – merely received “first fruits” honorifics and a bit more prestige that most kin group members.

Accordingly, the reified structure of such corporations – especially in sodalities – became a veritable shield for behind-the-scenes manipulation of rules and maneuvers to secure greater power, prestige and property.  Using justifiable structures and offices, men began to find ways to use such forms to accumulate property and wealth, to place themselves and their kind above others, to mandate rules governing economic activities like agricultural production, trade, craft production, feasts and ceremonies, herding, management of water resources and the like. 

Furthermore, élites had to find ways to fund these enterprises.  By using their offices in corporations to enlarge their control beyond the limits of office, a little bit farther than the last occupant did, men extended their hegemony over not only the means of production; but the means of destruction, thereby gaining control of the physical means of coercion in society, in addition to the mystified political structure.

Armed with these tripartite powers – physical force, the means of production and the means of mystification – men began, generation after generation, to alter and extend their rights over people and property, in order to garner increasing amounts of power, prestige and property.  In short, they extended their dominion.  As anthropologists, we owe the pith of this approach to political economy to the germinal ideas of Lewis Henry Morgan, a theoretical perspective that has been built upon by subsequent political anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.

Pertaining to corporations, my thesis is that the seeds of change were established when corporate groups were formed because such structural entities gave aggrandizers an armature within which to maneuver, a justificatory shield for their accumulating processes and their building of ever greater institutions of domination.  Did this lead to more conflict?  Yes; but it was not the conflict per se that lead to change; but the very process of structure-creation itself.  In the first corporations the conflict and exploitation was minimal; but it accelerated with the rised of chiefdom.

Rather than being the primary cause of change, conflict between groups and classes resulted from such formations.  This is not to say that conflict was unimportant as a change agent.  It was significant.  There was internal conflict between the scripts of various aspiring élite factions, as well as the conflict between societies.  Conflict has been established by social historians as a major mover of history; but I am focusing on the less observable aspects of structuration, the process of creating structures, which laid the seeds of domination.

Why did men form these corporate structures?  Once the relationship between humans and the environment reached a point where there was a surplus of wealth, openings became apparent to opportunists.  At that point, aggrandizers began to construct the substantiating scaffolding by which they would be able to bring off their accumulation of wealth and their power over the labor of others.  Social construction was about access to resources, both social and material.

A constructionist perspective of sociocultural formations sees social relations as contingent and mediated.  They came about as the result of agency and negotiation, the distillate in the process of bargaining, maneuver and manipulation.  Rules do not exist in a vacuum.  They can be perceived by office-holders as ways to shield their personalistic intentions and means to capitalize on opportunities.  If rules block such aggrandizing intentions, then office-holders who wish to advance their personalistic interests while in office are inclined to jettison or change them, though that process in history undoubtedly led to the need for negotiation and even conflict.

[1] In Rome, the ceremony by which a person who was in the power of his parent (in potestate parentum), whether child or grandchild, male or female, was transferred to the power of the person adopting him.

[2] To make something more concrete.

Views: 56


You need to be a member of Open Anthropology Cooperative to add comments!


OAC Press



© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service