In the cases I present in this book we will see office-holders (headmen, chiefs, shamans, lairds, priests, counts, kings and a variety of viziers) creating mystifications, obfuscations, camouflages and illusions in order to fashion and maintain domination of others.  These are forms of lies that office-holders have been telling people ever since there was something worth lying about i.e., wealth and power. 

To be sure, this is only one aspect of office-holding.  Many office-holders throughout history have served their people well; but others have not.  This book is about the later.  Furthermore, as political institutions were carried from generation to generation, they built up the potential for exploitation by those wielding power.  In other words, exploitative potential is embedded in many of the political institutions that came down to us from the past.  Thus, exploitation by leaders is not merely a problem of personality or individual makeup; but rather it is a structural problem.

The potential for domination is embedded in two aspects of the fabrications of the past: (1) ideology or cosmology and (2) institutions.  These were created, in the first instance, by go-getting men who wished to be community leaders.  The Egyptologist Barry Kemp (1989), writing about the Egyptian State, says “Ideology emerges with the state: a body of thought to complement a political entity…Containment of disorder and unrule was possible only through the rule of kings and the benign presence of a supreme divine force manifested in the power of the sun.” 

However, in a more generic sense, ideology was always present in human society in the form of stories, legends, myths etc.  In the beginning it was more or less benign, having little to do with privileged access to power, prestige and property.  Once a storable-stealable-surplus became available, however, men began to compete for the right to control storytelling.  That control certainly dramatically accelerated with the rise of states; but it began, as we will see, long before.  It likely began with the activities early shamans and was continued by big men and chiefs prior to the crystallization of formal states. 

Shamanism is an ancient tradition, one that likely formed along with the early cognitive awakening of hominids.  Shamans were those persons who began to think about the nature of existence and formulated concepts to explain human life on earth.  In other words, they formed cosmological systems. 

When the shamans began to connect the cosmological ideas they were developing with the division of labor, tasks began to be assigned spiritual qualities.  We know from the ethnographic record that tasks such as hunting, raiding and warfare are typically ritualized.  In these ritualizations the possession of sacred knowledge or supernatural power was established and/or enhanced, with given tasks being imbued with special value (Kelly 1993:481).  These were the beginnings; but later on, when a surplus was available, aggrandizers began to apply such ritualized qualities to positions of leadership.

In these early non-literate societies the body of cosmological ideas would have resided in the minds of the shamans and story tellers and would have been fluid and transformable in the telling and retelling of myths and legends.  In this way, creative men could have slowly injected new ideas to influence cultural values and structural rules, especially those pertaining to social inequality. 

Based on Anthropological studies of shamanism in contemporary tribal societies we can safely conclude that ancient conceptions about social inequality were the products of shamanic élite (Schieffelin 1985:720).  For instance, Kelly (1993:483) notes that “Etoro male mediums construct cosmological realities from a male perspective and in ways that glorify masculinity and define virtue in masculine terms.”

Yet we don’t find shamans emphasizing social inequality in every society, even ones that have similar social structures and economies.  Why is this?  Kelly (1993:484) gives us cogent insight on this matter:


Systems in which shamans are self-selected as a result of dream experience or illness tend to evidence practitioners of both genders, while systems in which shamans are nominated by established practitioners tend toward pronounced male predominance or exclusivity.  Self-selection followed by apprenticeship constitutes an intermediate form in which females tend not to attain the higher levels of the profession or do not train and/or induct novices.  These three types thus appear to constitute a developmental sequence that progresses from self-selection to self-selection followed by apprenticeship, to nomination followed by apprenticeship.  Coincident with this is a progression from gender-neutral to gender-stratified to male-exclusive shamanism.


The point is that over time shamans very likely developed ideas that legitimated social inequality on cosmological grounds.  Gender inequality within the community of shamans was merely the beginning, since today there is a definite predominance in the ethnographic record of males dominating occult authority, as they have done in most political, religious and economic domains throughout history.

As male shamans and other  opportunists fiddled with the cosmological ideas they inherited from their ancestors, perhaps questioning the hegemonic ideology of their forbearers, they would have done so carefully, building on a solid base of ideas that the members of the society would have considered a body of inherited truth.  They would have had to have taken care to make their additions appear commensurate with the underlying premises of the hereditary ideology. 

Anthropologists have determined that sociocultural reality is culturally constructed but not in an even fashion i.e., not all members of a cultural group participate in its formulation on an equal basis.  Male dominance in shamanism and in such a formulation of a body of cultural truths is ancient and widespread in the ethnographic and historical records.  For eons of time humankind has lived in a world shaped by an androcentric hegemonic ideology and since the advent of a storable-stealable-surplus that inequality has had added to it more ideas about the supremacy of one cohort or another vis-à-vis the general population. 

In reference to Egypt, Professor Kemp pointed out one aspect of the fabrication of domination that we will see again and again: kings tended to present themselves as divinely sanctioned leaders and Deity was always portrayed as a beneficent overseer of society and, by association, kings assumed that mantle.  In their construction of the machinery of the state, kings and their viziers created a nexus between a fabricated cosmic order and sanctified power.  But the kernel of such domination by association with the supernatural began much earlier, when early man made the first ancestor shrine and claimed the privilege of sacrificing upon it to honor and placate the ancestors, who were – as the story was told – still alive in the netherworld and still interested in the activities of the living.




Case I.3.  Sumerian Domination by Mystification

We see an example of mystification in the Sumerian legend of Etana of Kish, who is reputed to be the first ruler of Sumer (though there are others before him on the Sumerian king list) and an empire-builder.  The Sumerian king list notes that he was “a man who ascended to heaven,” not after his death; but during his reign (Kramer 1963:43). 

The legend goes something like this: Etana was childless and wanted to leave an heir to the throne so he befriended an eagle with whose aid he flew to heaven, communicated with god and returned to earth to rule in piety.  Apparently he was successful because he left a son, King Balih (Dalley 2009).  Such myths were used by subsequent kings of Sumer to validate their claims that kingship descended from heaven and that kings were therefore divine or had the right to divine rule.

The deification of Etana is but one example of how priests earned their bread in the service of kings.  By fabricating legends such as the ascension of Etana into heaven they spin myths that essentially indicates that the kings do not rule for themselves; but rather do so in the service of Deity.  As the tale was told, “kingship is unquestionable and therefore unchangeable.”  

In Sumer the efforts to dominate the minds of the masses extended to architecture.  The ziggurat or temple was the largest, tallest and most important building in the city-state.  This monumentalism was in accordance with the myth that the city-state had been assigned to the kings by god at the creation of the world (Kramer 1963:73-74).  We will see more of monumental architecture in the service of power throughout this present work.




Why all this mythologizing?  It paid off.  Sumerian kings stayed in power and they and their scribes and viziers were able to live off their labor of the farmers, for the temple corporation owned a portion of the land and rented it out to sharecroppers.

We will see other examples of how state leaders monumentalized this cosmic order and, again by association, their political order.  For example, in Teotihuacán political leaders laid out the city’s monuments and the city plan according to some deep underlying celestial order, with the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon as prominent points of reference in the layout.  We see similar plans in Egypt, the Inka Empire, Ankor Thom and in most advanced civilizations.  The planned city in conjunction with state-controlled public religion was a political statement in each.  The idea of the fabricators was to re-create the cosmic order with grandiose terrestrial constructions.  One can see the plans of the Ming emperors in the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing, with its Temple of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, where the emperor carried out the appropriate observances at the correct times and places in order to ensure that order would prevail on earth as in heaven (Renfrew 2007:162).

The idea in all these great urban centers was that the state was vulnerable to anarchy and that order on earth must be created by the authorities of Deity.  Only through their actions could peace and order be maintained by leaders seeking alignment and harmony with a higher celestial organization.

Those are cases from great civilizations; but the fabrication of domination began much earlier in kinship-based societies.  In chapter 2 we will see some data from my fieldwork in Sisalaland, Northern Ghana that illustrates this (Case 2.17).  This is a case of lineage headmen using divination to control the behavior of fellow kinsmen through the use of mystical ideas surrounding soothsaying and ancestral sacrifice.

We will see the beginnings of mystification in a case concerning little chiefs and shamans among the Yokut-Mono of early California (see Case 3.2).  In this example, together chiefs and shamans tried to control people through the use of magic and fabricated ideas related to curing and witchcraft.

In the case of the Amerindians[1] of the Northwest Coast we will see a different kind of mystification – the use of elaborate display through feasting, designed to impress lesser people in society, for after all, that is what domination is about – impressing the minds of subalterns (see Case 4.10) .  Men seeking power long ago learned that ceremonies and feasts were effective displays providing them with a mystical shield of uniqueness, setting them apart from the masses.

We will also encounter other means of mystifying the minds of English peasants in our discussion of the Enclosure Movement in England (see Case 4.11).  In England, élites used the Power of the Pen and legislation to extract more and more wealth from those toiling to make a living out of the soil.  We will see more of the Power of the Pen at work in the creation of serfdom by Catalan élites in the Middle Ages in (see Case 8.1).

In the case of the Scottish Highlands (see Case 6.1) we will see lairds[2] ruling their clans through mystified concepts handed down through generations, acting as war chiefs who were to provide protection and redistribute goods in time of need.  This “benign mystification” provides us a case that demonstrates how a less-extractive polity can quickly become converted into a highly exploitative one, as changes in the historical-material conditions in the Highlands led lairds to become avaricious landlords.  It is a case of the benign mystification melting away in the heat of avarice, though the newly rapacious landlords developed a new form of mystification to justify evicting people from their lands.  It was an ideology revolving around the “rational” Enlightenment concepts of efficiency, profitability and progress.

When we get to the Nyim of the Kuba Kingdom, we will encounter elaborate efforts to create mystifications to define the monarch as a Divine King, and therefore an absolute ruler who could operate from behind a deified shield of invincibility (See Case 7.4).

In the case of the fabricated structures of domination in Catalonia, we will see two forms of scripting at work: that which transformed peasants into serfs (see Case 8.1) and that which allowed the formation of an Extortionist State (see Case 9.1).  In Case 10.1 we will see how Enron executives mismanaged their responsibility to their stockholders.  In that same chapter we will see how Mobutu Sese Seko, as the Congolese leader mismanaged a whole nation (see Case 10.2).

Finally, in the concluding chapter, we will see how the American government has evolved into a system of official secrecy, obfuscation and malfeasance to feed the military-industrial complex (and its newer incarnation, the state management system), all in the name of “spreading democracy” to the world (see Case 11.1).[3]  


The Power of Ritual


Aggrandizers are the main focus as agents of change in this book.  In their pursuit of power, prestige and property they sought to use ritual to validate and reinforce their claims of leadership.  Ritual helped them to become successful surplus takers i.e., those capable of siphoning off the surplus value created by those doing the work in society.

The corporate kin group was an early form that was constituted to organize labor and production but within the sphere of kinship there was little opportunity for aggrandizing men to become surplus takers from surplus producers.  In the small-scale kin groups of the early Neolithic, leaders were not able to significantly rise above their fellow kinsmen in material terms, although they were often given special symbolic consideration e.g., receiving the choicest portion of a sacrificed animal or being addressed by honorific terms.  Material consumption was more or less carried out equitably on the basis of a shared belief that kin group members were equal within the minimal division of labor based on sex and age.

As with all human groupings, corporate kin groups – for example lineages and clans – were constructed sets of symbols and were always subject to challenge by those wishing to reconstruct them or construct alternative forms.  Thus, as a produced system of symbols, kinship ideologies were problematic i.e., they were not conflict free.  It is a finding of social anthropology and sociology that in the ordering or structuring of any institution tensions are created and contradictions emerge.  These are the seeds of social change. 

Humans are creative and in the formation of different institutions in society they strengthen some and weaken others (Bateson 1936).  Contradictions and threads of conflict are the fault lines and fissures within a group and they are the interstices that can be exploited by men wishing to change the social structure in ways that will benefit them, that will enable them to tap into surplus production and become surplus takers.

Those wishing to bring about change that would be beneficial to them in terms of achieving more power, prestige and property had to challenge existing social and cultural arrangements.  To do so they had to convince others that their pronouncements were fraught with more social power that the words of others.  One way this has been accomplished time and again throughout history has been for aggrandizers to create a special context for their pronouncements.  This often has been a ritual domain established and controlled by political leaders and their priests.  This led one Enlightenment thinker, predating similar ideas from Marx and Engels, to boldly state that “mankind will never be free, until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” (Wolf 2001[1985]:379).  Marx and Engels also came to understand that it was the politicos and clerics of the palace-temple complex, working in concert, who throughout the ages were largely responsible for the creation of misleading myths designed to control the minds of the working population.  The leading ideas that were promoted by those wearing the robes of power functioned as masks or veils that hid class interests and rendered the general public unable to see actual social reality (Merquior 1979).  The enrobed ones declared: “Things are the way we say they are!”  Such aggrandizers clearly wanted to promote their versions of Exclusive Right and Exclusive Truth.

Ritual was often the operating theater of such pronouncements, for ritual has the capacity to resonate with many different kinds of people and ramify its significations through many social domains and levels in society (Wolf 2001[1985]:381).  It can function in this way because ritual symbols are unbounded and ambiguous signifiers that appear to be the foundation of being and are therefore difficult to criticize.  Because ritual symbols lack defined meaning:


they can absorb any number of additional attributes, both meaningful and nonsensical.  Thus they act as incubators for symbolic representations that impart an aura of corporeal reality to what is literally an illusion.  That illusion, however, becomes a master “operator” in the signifying network, without possessing any defined meaning in itself (Wolf 2001[1985]:382).


Such an operator can be seen in Case 7.4., where shamans were considered to have supernatural powers and, along with the king, controlled constituted rituals, the performances of which were thought to harness and channel social energy.  Such ritual performances were promoted from on high as serving the needs of society when, in fact, they functioned to enable élites of the palace world to siphon wealth from the labor of most others in society.  Such rites also functioned to underwrite and expand the fund of social power exercised by the officials in the pursuit of greater control over prestige position and property.  Such promotion by rulers is explicit or implicit in the other cases in this book.




In every case I present in this book, élites hoard, manipulate and fabricate information creating a camouflage of office.  We call them state secrets today; but office-holders kept information from the public long before the state was created.  Keeping secrets was crucial to the process of dominating the masses once leaders sensed the need to create a separate informational set for themselves and another (less informative) set for the general populace.

We will see societal managers using secrets to rule – beginning with a very ephemeral political system of the little chiefs of the Yokut-Mono Amerindians (see Case 3.2) and ending up in the well-developed state system in Washington DC (see Case 11.1) .   


Malfeasance in Office


Using the techniques of scripting false information for the public and developing other forms of mystification, office-holders throughout history have created a shield of office that allows them to manipulate the stated intent of office, its official reason for existing.  Behind closed doors, under the camouflage of office, office-holders in our empirical cases will attempt to hoodwink their followers and engage in personal aggrandizement and activities that benefit their small cadre of family, friends and advisors.  In a more general sense, the few feed at the trough of officialdom at the expense of the many.

Most of our examples will come from the politico-jural domain i.e., from government office-holders operating behind closed doors in pursuit of private goals.  Yet, recent disclosures of sexual-abuse in the Catholic Church offer a sobering look at how office-holders, in this case religious ones, can commit crimes while in office and be protected by their fellow officers behind what might be termed the “shield of hierarchy.” 



Case I.4.  Ecclesiastical Mischief

In our modern world, the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops and other high ranking officers of the Church live in a world that resembles a Medieval fortress, perhaps only highlighted by the vanities of their miters and capes (Miller 2010:38).  But the problem is not architecture or costumes; but rather that “the bishops and cardinals who manage the institutional church live behind guarded walls in a pre-Enlightenment world.  Within their enclave they remain largely untouched by the democratic revolutions in France and America” (Miller 2010:38). 

In this cloistered milieu, church officials have developed a subculture in which they have taken on an air of invincibility and privilege, which in most cases can merely be seen a silly arrogance; but which, in a few cases, has led to sexual deviance by some in the church, while other ecclesiastical officers have participated in concealing these crimes from the public and secular officials.  After it was publically revealed that as a Cardinal, the present Pope (Benedict XVI), failed to defrock a priest who abused 200 deaf children and slowed down the process of defrocking another priest in California accused of raping a girl in his parish, the Pope lashed out at the news media.  “Faith, he said, allows one not ‘to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion’” (2010:38). 

The cases of church embezzlement are too numerous to mention; but three will suffice:  The New York Times (March 10, 2007) reported Catholic priests misappropriated funds amounting to $8.6 million from monies donated by their parishioners.  The Chicago Tribune (December 15, 2005) reported that over a five year period, more than $600,000 in collections and other church funds to were stolen to feed a gambling habit.  Investigations revealed a total extraction of $1.8 million.  The Archdiocese of San Francisco filed a lawsuit accusing a priest of embezzling more than $250,000 donated by nuns and parishioners during his 16-year tenure at the two churches, according to The San Francisco Chronicle (June 17, 2000). 




The point is: behind closed doors, all kinds of office-holders have the power to act in secret.  The grillwork of their institutions serves to wall off the public from their mischief and malfesience.

We will see examples of dishonesty in office and cover ups in the public domain by government officials, corporate officers and, in this last instance, a religious hierarchy.  We will also trace the rise of the power structures that have allowed such misconduct by office-holders, beginning with the advent of the first chiefships in the early Neolithic.


Which is Normal: Cooperation or Competition?


Official mischief and mismanagement began to occur when men began to compete for public office and property.  Once a storable-stealable-surplus was available the long-established body of values supporting cooperative behavior in society began to erode.  But both cooperation and competition are part and parcel of human life.

Cooperation had been adaptive for human populations over eons of time.  Brian Fagan (1995:131) says, “In later prehistoric times, relationships with neighbors were to assume ever-increasing importance in adaptive strategies for long-term survival.”  As with other animals, the individual human being only has to do two things in life: eat and avoid being eaten (harmed or killed).  The problem is we have a limited physique to compete with lions or a charging bull elephant.  Most animals can easily outrun us or harm us.  What we have is a well-developed brain, communicative skills and cooperative groups.  Living and cooperating in groups throughout the Paleolithic allowed human society to survive and prosper and spread around the globe.

But individuals have the capacity to be selfish as well and, given a chance, some will compete for scarce resources.  I call this kind of person an aggrandizer (see more definitions below).  But the evidence we have for Paleolithic human beings is that foraged vegetable foods were abundant in most cases and hunters did not have trouble killing large game.  Not only did humans use weapons to hunt; but also successfully set traps.  As archaeologists report, the wide variety of animals taken by Peking Man included: two species of deer, elephants, two kinds of rhinoceroses, bison, water-buffalos, horses, camels, wild boar, roebucks, antelopes, sheep, saber-toothed tigers, leopards, cave bears and hyenas (Clark 1972:37).  Even in the Weichsel Ice Age in North Central Europe (ca. 11,5000-20,000 B.P.) there existed ample game and forage at the edge of the ice.  Fagan (1995:131-132) says:


A rich mammalian community flourished in these diverse environments.  It included bison, horses, reindeer, and mountain goats in more rugged areas; large herbivores like the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, and wild ox were common in the open steppe.  The human inhabitants could exploit not only a rich animal biomass but also a wide variety of plant foods, including blueberries, raspberries, acorns, and hazelnuts.


In Southwest France between 35,000 and 12,000 B.P. climatic conditions were even milder, which led to high concentrations of humans living off of abundant reindeer, wild ox, bison, ibex, red deer, chamois, woolly rhinoceros and mammoth (Fagan 1995:132).  The human population there made direct adaptive responses to highly favorable ecological conditions.  In addition to foraging for plant life, these early humans also fished, as fish hooks and harpoons have been recovered by archaeologists. 

Early humans also scavenged for meat (Fagan 1995:120).  With archaic scrapers they were able to salvage scraps of meat left by predators, which they may have been able to scatter upon encountering the feeding frenzy.  We have evidence of human scavengers from both archaeology and ethnography.  J. G. D. Clark (1952) reports that there is archaeological evidence of scavenging among several Mesolithic groups.  Ethnographically, among the modern-day Hadza of Tanzania, twenty percent of all medium/large animal carcasses acquired by hunters are through savaging (O’Connel, Hawkes & Blurton Jones 1988).  The authors infer that scavenging could have been an important source of animal tissue in the hominid world if they could displace large carnivores from the carcasses. 

Between 30,000 and 10,000 B.P. a series of hunting and gathering societies in Central and Eastern Europe, known to archaeologists as the Eastern Cravettian Complex scavenged mammoth cemeteries, places where lots of animals died in floods; but they were less interested in meat, than in the massive bones, which the Cravettians used to build houses in a more or less treeless environment (Soffer 1993).

Another strategy, similar to trapping, was driving herd animals over precipitous cliffs, a practice common in Southwest France during the last Ice Age and a strategy also used by early Amerindians (Powell 1987).

With plentiful roots, fruits and other vegetable sources, this meat diet, obtained by hunting, scavenging and trapping, would have been more than adequate.  It seems unlikely that Paleolithic humans would have had any significant reasons to come into major conflict over food.  It is more likely that they sought cooperation with neighbors.

Cooperation and balanced reciprocity (equal giving and receiving) is ancient, embedded in the psyche of Humankind and ubiquitous among tribal peoples in our world today (though selfism and selfish people are always present too).  Noncentric, reciprocal exchange is the dominant prehistoric exchange system and among many rural peoples today (though it can also exist in urban networks too).  In reciprocal exchange systems, transactions are bundled with, and channeled by, social obligations.  In the main, in such societies the ethos of sharing stresses the group over the individual.  This cooperative system was one of the key components in the ability of bodily-weak human beings to survive and thrive in nature.

Sharing resources developed as an evolutionary strategy in human populations and is as ancient as human consciousness.  Studies have shown that sharing food buffers against daily variance in types and amounts of food acquired by foragers.  It levels risk.  It is part and parcel of our ancient social nature, the human tendency to live in groups and seek approval of others.

It is my thesis that once a storable-stealable-surplus came into being, reciprocity was slowly replaced by redistribution, flows of resources beginning to go through the hands of ambitious men.  With the passage of time, these men were able to justify siphoning from the resource flows to build up an authority structure, often called a chiefdom (see chapter 5).  At that point in history, reciprocal exchange and redistribution were joined by a new flow of resources, what Frederic Pryor (1977) calls a transfer.  This is a one-way transaction whereby goods and services were given to the leader without a direct return (though leaders always couched transfers as being reciprocal exchange).  They spoke of “intangibles” that group members would receive by giving up tangibles i.e., their property and labor.  Centric transfers included services performed and tribute and taxes paid by the masses to the leader or a leadership institution e.g., a priesthood in control of a palace-temple complex.

How is it that the long-established ethos of sharing was supplanted with redistribution and finally with a centric (one-way) transfer of wealth from producers to a non-working élite?  The key lies in the fact that once an opportunity for self-interestedness arrives through the emergence of historical-material conditions, there are always aggrandizers ready to seize the opportunities these new conditions offer.  Furthermore, reciprocity itself in real human societies is an unreached goal.  Pryor shows that Sahlins’ balanced reciprocity, in ethnographic practice, is not always perfectly balanced.  Almost always it remains an un-reached ideal.  Acquisitive people fudge reciprocity when they can. 

It is likely that at the start of the move away from balanced reciprocity, men seeking power would have first created dependencies within corporate lineages, by manipulating reciprocal exchanges.  They would have used the ethos of group sharing and protection to their advantage, ever so slightly altering it as time passed.

Furthermore, historically, with increasing complexity and development, balanced reciprocity declined.  What is more, anthropologists have found that reciprocity faded as community size increased (which has been growing through history).  It was harder to maintain face-to-face kin exchanges in larger more complex settlements and people were forced to interact with non-kin in new and different ways.  “New and different” was music to the ears of men seeking power because in the new conditions they perceived opportunities.

Of course, this is what Polanyi (1944) meant in his title, The Great Transformation – the shift from sharing within the context of kinship structures to a societal form in which integration based on reciprocity was replaced by forms and processes that allowed wealth to flow upwards into the hands of the powerful – the newly self-appointed scriptwriters. 


What is power?


Much of this book focuses on political economy and in it I am trying to provide theory and cases that shed light on how inequality has developed through the ages.  Any such discussion necessarily entails an analysis of power.  Eric Wolf (2001 [1990]:384) outlines four different modes of power: (1) power as an attribute of the person.  I will not focus on this type of power except to point out that  opportunists or those seeking high positions in the political economy tend to be individuals with drive, with a special need to achieve; (2) the ability of an individual to impose his will on another individual, or dyadic power.  The aggrandizers of note in this book may have had this type of power; but that is not our main concern; (3) tactical or organizational power – that which is useful for understanding how operating units (individuals or cadres) circumscribe the actions of others within determinate settings.  This comes closer to how politicos operate to access and maintain control of the labor value of society’s workers.  Here power is exercised within an institutional frame or domain.  They do so within a social context and use that institutional frame (office) to exercise power.  This is very important for our exploration of the evolution of political economy because our aggrandizers have certainly used high office to siphon off value from the general public; but there is a fourth type of power that is also my focus in this present work – (4) structural power.  This is the power that organizes and orchestrates social settings.  It is the power to govern the minds of society’s members by occupying the offices of the political economy (by using tactical power). 

Structural power is the capacity to deploy and allocate social labor; but it is also important to point out that early aggrandizers had to fabricate the institutions of the political economy by using tactical power.  Put another way, early opportunists, those of the first centuries of the Neolithic for example, had to create the institutions of the political economy.  Later aggrandizers aspiring to attain power could move into established offices – the usurper taking over the throne – and attain structural power in so doing.  They did not need to create it, merely to access it. 

It is these twin aspects of power that will be my focus – tactical and structural power.  Together they provide motivated men with the ability to constrain the options available to others within a given society.  As officers within political structures, which they either created or inherited, they gained the ability to inhibit certain social actions and promote others.  In short, they could tell people what to do and what not to do. 

In creating or attaining office (structural power) aggrandizers realized the power to utilize, control and expand human and natural resources (Adams 1967).  This is the power of an aggrandizer or a cohort to control the social and natural environments of others.

I take it that social units – be they households, tribes, kingdoms, lineages or nations – are never fixed; but rather are entities in flux.  Aggrandizers can create, reformulate or replace them by exercising agency.  They do this by interdicting the flow of action, channeling it into pathways they deem especially beneficial to themselves.  Since the advent of a storable-stealable-surplus in the world aggrandizers have been at work to control it and, consequently, social organization is always at risk.  That is because power balances continually shift and change (Balandier 1970).  As ambitious men compete for scarce resources tactical power can shape, reshape, maintain, destabilize or undo social structures, institutions and official organizations.

This is the crux of my work i.e., that aggrandizers have been at work since the emergence on the world stage of a storable-stealable-surplus, struggling with one another to control it.  As such, social organization is to be seen and studied as process, as a flow of action set in motion by agency (Arensberg 1972:10-11).  This is especially true of agency that affects the political economy.

Once a material surplus was available, aggrandizers developed many different forms in order to access it.  Consequently we see in history various forms of chiefdoms and they are always fragile institutions that get created, altered, destroyed and usurped by the actions of powerful men.  Even seemingly stable nation-states must be seen “as process” (Gailey 1987). 

Because of the competing actions of aggrandizers in history, all polities have been subject to penetration by conflicting forces that create the contradictions that force change.  Therefore, polities may be internally divided (Bright & Harding 1984:4) or subject to assault by external aggrandizers.  The exercise of power by various competing factions in society is, for that reason, always in flux.

One way in which leaders have historically attempted to maintain social uniformity and prevent competing factions from gaining an upper hand was to promote an overarching cultural diagram; but as A. F. C. Wallace pointed out “all societies are, in a radical sense, plural societies ...” (1970:109).  Competing factions also create countervailing and challenging cultural schemata.  Eric Wolf (2001 [1990]:395) says, “Power is implicated in meaning through its role in upholding one version of significance as true, fruitful, or beautiful, against other possibilities that may threaten truth, fruitfulness or beauty.”

The leaders of any given society carve out significance and try to stabilize their institutions against possible alternatives.  They sense that things could be different and since they benefit from the way things are, they have a vested interest in maintenance, not change.  Although their arrangements are arbitrary, as all cultural orders are (Rappaport 1979), societal leadership always presents their cultural representations as anchored in reality, not as subjective postulates.  They declare that their cultural schemata must be treated as unquestionable and to do so they often surround their presentation with sacredness, lest they become “unstuck.”  Ritual is especially useful in this regard because it creates a contrast to the “everydayness” of life, a distinguishing moment in the humdrum of normalcy.  Ritual sets certain selected elements of experience off against normal life experiences and in so doing imbues them with special relevance (Valeri 1985).

Over and against these efforts by leaders, power is never finished i.e., no hegemony created by powerful leaders is entirely secure.  Another way of putting this is that the consequences of the exercise of power are never safe from counter-exercises by other internal or external aggrandizers.

The cases in this book are about the misuse of power.  Power is the central most cogent defining characteristic of civilization, that complex social organization that emerged primarily after the domestication of plants and animals (Foucault 1981; Haas 1982).   

Power is the ability to make others do what they do not want to do or would not otherwise do without some kind of pressure or inducement.  Power is more complex than force.  In reality, as Phillips and Sebastian note:


the ability to apply force is only one factor in the complicated equation of political power.  Such power is an amalgam of traditional rights, individual prowess, charisma, inheritance, threatened or actual force, persuasion, gifts or outright bribes, available social and religious sanctions, and more (2004:234-235).


Additionally, men seeking power have to constantly weigh the possibility or probability of resistance to their exercise of power.  If they encounter resistance they need to adjust the kind of pressure they will apply.  Rather than pressure, they may decide to use inducements, real or imagined.

Simple influence can be powerful and that would have been the only source of social power in most groups in the Paleolithic Era, since there was no way to gain more material leverage over others since weapons were weak and available to all equally.  Also, a Paleolithic person could not store up wealth to move ahead or on top of others.  Power is the obverse of dependence and Paleolithic people were very independent, having access to everything others could access.  Power can be formulated as:




The power of A is equal to the dependence of B on A, A and B being either individuals or groups (Emerson 1962, Martin 1977, Weber 1994).  Paleolithic peoples were under what Dennis Wrong (1977:165) terms social control, a variant of power in which the individual is under diffuse coercion based in the very fact of interaction with others; while intended power by authorities was lacking.  Also lacking was any diffuse structural power (Martin 1977), for example officialdom, beyond the direct influence of interaction with others.

However, once accumulation became possible in some societies, powerful men could emerge and make others dependent on them.  If a big man had more wealth, better weaponry, was braver in battle, had more people backing him and so forth, he could rise to prominence and situationally develop followers during his lifetime.  There had been situational leaders in the Paleolithic Era e.g., men who were expert hunters leading a hunting party.  But there were no hereditary “hunting chiefs.”  When a good hunter died, he could not pass an “office” on to his son or any other man.

Situational leadership lapped over into early surplus-available societies.  These leaders had influence, not authority.  Such were the war chiefs of many Amerindian tribes; but also Greek chiefs (sing. basileus).   




Case I.5.  Greek Little Chiefs


Twenty-eight centuries ago, the minor Greek chief named Odysseus was putting together a raid into Egypt.  He had to outfit nine ships and secure the services of enough raiders to make the assault successful.  Even though he held the “office” of basileus he had to induce Greek men to follow him.  He brought this off with an enormous six-day feast.

Odysseus was what I will refer to below as a little chief/big man or influence chief or titular chief.  He could not simply command his men; but rather had to coax them with material rewards before and after the foray.  In this regard, Pomeroy writes:


Reciprocity – mutual and fair exchange – which governs all social relationships in the Homeric world, is the core of the leader-people relationship.  The giving and the receiving should ideally balance one another.  So, too, fairness is the rule in the apportionment of the spoils of war.  Following a raid, the booty is gathered together.  First the leader takes his share (and something extra as the leader’s “prize”) and, under his supervision, special rewards for valor are given out.  The rest is then given to the men “to divide up, so that no one may go cheated of an equal share.

A leader who keeps more than he deserves or distributes prizes unfairly risks losing the respect of his followers.  For a chief, being called “greedy” is almost as devastating as being called “cowardly.”  In short, a basileus cannot afford not to appear generous and openhanded.  Similarly, Homeric chiefs engage in a constant exchange of gifts and feasts with other chiefs and important men.  This is both a way of showing off their wealth and a means of cementing relationships, winning new friends, and establishing obligations through a display of generosity (Pomeroy et. al. 1999:57).


As an influence chief, Odysseus put together a political package comprised of inherited wealth, authority, generosity, individual bravery and strong managerial skills.  In spite of this impressive amalgam, there were several occasions when Odysseus’ hetairoi (subalterns) simply refused to obey him.  Once, when his followers decided to do the opposite of what he had ordered, Odysseus could only say that as ‘one man alone’ he was forced to abide by the “will of the many.”  Later in history, many chiefs, kings and emperors will not act as ‘one man alone.’  They will have armies, viziers, priests, “truth-scripts[4]” and a whole array of cultural ideas and institutions to back up their commands.




One of the trends in history has been the steady conversion of situational power into official power i.e., an office-holder came to have authoritative power by virtue of occupying a hereditary position in the social structure.  This kind of power is simply called authority.  Unlike the fragile quasi-authority held by Odysseus, eventually power-seekers formulated strong chiefdoms and kingdoms where leaders came to have great authority and sometimes absolute authority.  We will see this later in the case of the Kuba Kings (Case 7.4) and we will see in the case of the lairds of the Scottish Highlands how influence chiefs were able to transform themselves into landlords so powerful that they could eventually throw their followers off their land and replace them with more profitable sheep (see Case 6.1).

Thus, power is something that can be built; but it can also be lost, as in the case of the Kuba Kings who held the power of life and death over their subjects at one point; but eventually lost control and the kingdom disintegrated.

An individual or societal bully can be stronger and initially overpower a weaker opponent; but for lasting control, the use of authority (institutionalized power) is a better option.  This is because authority is about controlling the minds of the people.  It is for this reason that aggrandizers in history have fabricated rules, truth-scripts, roles, offices and institutions to install themselves and their heirs in positions of authority.  Nevertheless, if historical-material conditions change, as we will see in the Kuba case, the fragility of authority is exposed and we will see Kuba leader-managers lose control of their society.

Increasingly through history’s course the quest for power became more and more about using power and prestige to access wealth, often through controlling the labor of the masses; but archaeologists tell us that finding the absence of wealth is not evidence for absence of power.  Once great wealth was accumulated, obviously it became a source of power and prestige; but initially, in the beginning of the development of complex societies, there were likely many domains of power in which aggrandizers could seek power and prestige without necessarily leaving behind evidence of personal wealth for the archaeologists to find.  There must have been many false starts to the institutionalization of aggrandizement.

And power is not like a single thread that once found can be fashioned into a rope.  Power can be created and accessed in many places in society.  But it is not fixed or finite.  There can be a constant reworking of power by community leaders and different groups at times share, sometimes subvert the power of others and at other times forcibly assert themselves unilaterally over and against others.  Again, power can be loose, conditional and unstable.

In sum, the power that concerns our investigation of the emergence of inequality in history is social power.  It is a sociological truism that power exists in all social relationships; but the power of any one individual over another vastly increased once there was a surplus of food over which to compete.  R. N. Adams (1967:31) distinguishes between two forms of development in cultural evolution: (1) Primary development is that evolution concerning technological innovations e.g., the ways and means of storage, the manufacture of the implements of production, etc.  (2) Secondary development is “distinguished by the central concern with control over social behavior.”  This is our primary focus, as the power of a few members of society greatly increased once primary developments were sufficient to produce a surplus of food.  In other words, power “has grown as a part of advancing cultural evolution.”  Adams (1967:35) continues:


Essentially, what happens to power during cultural advance is that as technological ability to control the environment increases – with increased skills, new inventions, and the discovery of new resources – the amount of available power grows.  Since power is defined in terms of control over the environment, the increase in this control enlarges the amount of power available.  When this increase occurs, a disproportionate and differential control develops so that some individuals or sectors of society have greater control than others.


Thus, we see that the people of the Paleolithic who lived in non-storing mobile bands did little to control their environment.  They merely fed off of it.  In Adams’ terminology, primary evolution had not begun with any force or major social consequences.  Once humans began to control their environment – by building fish weirs or carving irrigation canals, for example – secondary evolution began to kick in and political economy was born.  That is, primary evolution gave some ambitious individuals time to do things other than producing food.  One of the very important “other things” to evolve was the attempt to control people (Adams 1967:37).  With the surplus revolution a concern for power was born.


Power Structures


In and of themselves, social structures have force.  Once they exist, they influence how people think and behave.  This is especially true of political organizations.  Note Schattschneider’s famous and oft-quoted words:


All forms of political organisation have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others, because organisation is the movilisation of bias.  Some issues are organised into polities, while others are organised out (1960:71).


In the next section, Strategic Man, I will lay out the behaviorist approach to better understand how the decisions and actions of politicos have influenced history.  But in an historical sense, action does not stand alone.  It coalesces into social forms that have power that extend over time.  Once created, officialdom was comprised of individual officers that inherited political rule-sets and institutions that would have influenced their decision-making, stimulating it in some ways and inhibiting it in others.  Both decision-making and existing forms would have “mobilized bias.”  As Karl Marx pithily stated, “Men make their own history; but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances; but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (1963 [1869]:1).

Revolutionaries overturn set forms and in the early Neolithic those men seeking to become political leaders of large groups, amalgams of several kin groups, sought to overthrow the old communitarian values of the kinship order and replace them with a new order.  In the beginning, they had the power of persuasion and perhaps personal charisma; but in time that power came together as new authoritative structures of power. 

These leaders sought to establish a new form of thought control, to be those in society who shaped the preferences of the public.  In forming a new order they had both decision-making and non-decision-making power (Lukes 1974:24).  They had the task of creating new societal conditions that would seem functional, normal and unchangeable and, at the same time, enrich themselves.

These new Neolithic leaders had value-assumptions that were different from those that had been held for eons of time.  They contested the old value system and replaced it with a more achievement-oriented one.  In generating new social forms, they were creating new power for themselves, since all social relations are power relations. 

As the political forms established by these early leaders grew over time, politicos built monuments to symbolize their authority – palaces, temples, ziggurats and the like.  These too had the power to influence people’s minds.  They were part of what Hannah Arendt (1970:40) called “the command-obedience relationship.”  They were part of what Talcott Parsons (1967) called “a system property,” something that made society seem solid in the minds of the people.

The societal functionalism these men projected and the social solidarity they were trying to create was accompanied by private agendas.  Anthony Giddens, in critiquing Parsons, pointed out that authoritative decisions very often have a basis in the vested interests of the decision-makers or sectional interests (1968).  In their pursuit of limited and personal interests these early reformers had to overcome the res publica, “the public thing,” that is, the force of existing social forms.  To do this they had to form a solid bond among themselves and organize in a manner that would change society without seeming to threaten the old ways of life.  They had to seem to provide new functions in the face of new challenges. 

To establish a long-term order with themselves as rulers these revolutionaries did not use violence; but rather influence and persuasion.  They also had to produce results.  For instance, if society needed an irrigation system, these were the powerful men who could make it happen.  If people wanted trade goods, these men acquired them.  If societal members needed protection against raids, these new leaders formed a defensive army.  Results-oriented creations enabled them to formulate and expand a new political order, one based on an acceptable command structure.  As Arendt noted, “Even the most despotic domination we know of, the rule of master over slaves, who always out-numbered him, did not rest on superior means of coercion as such; but on a superior organization of power – that is, the organized solidarity of the masters” (1970:50).  Lasting authority and violence are opposites.  Chiefdoms were able to come into existence not because of strong arm tactics; but rather because of strong-minded policies by men with a cause.  Rather than brutality, they used inducement, encouragement and persuasion (Lukes 1974:32, figure 1).  These early leaders, as well as their historical descendants, were intent on controlling the political agenda of society, which required a united leadership.  Lasting power came from unity and where we see that unity falter in history, we see rebellions and revolutions. 

Once chiefly structures were in place, however, they took on the force of res publica – the public thing.  They were the building blocks for kingdoms and empires, even nation-states.  Power had moved from the early decision-making of aspiring Neolithic men to become invested in political formations and the symbolic representations of power.


Strategic Man


Following Bourdieu (1977) and Giddens (1976, 1979) I see sociocultural systems as being formed and maintained as people, in the process of pursuing their own subjective interests, converse and interact with others and realize the social and cultural institutions that shape their understanding of their world.  They may not understand all the conditions that influence their choices; but in deciding and acting they construct and reconstruct the sociocultural worlds in which they live.

Aggrandizers are especially prone to strategic reasoning as they attempt to gain more power, prestige and property in societies with a material surplus.  In non-storing societies they simply struggle to achieve more prestige; but in all societies human beings have been or are engaged in strategic behavior.

The strategies of ancient people can be evidenced by two means: archaeology and ethnography, the later being data that would shed light on how people in the past consistently behaved, from which consistencies we can infer intentions (see Hayden 1995:298-299 on this point).

With the appearance of the first food surplus aggrandizers jumped at the chance to begin strategic behavior to access and control it.  Mainly this occurred after the domestication of plants and animals (the Neolithic Revolution or Agricultural Revolution, ca. 10 thousand B.P.).  Robert Adams (1966:39) indicates that the Agricultural Revolution led to a second revolution, the Urban Revolution:


The domestication of cereals immensely expanded the environmental range within which [cereal] crops were an effective subsistence source, and it surely also increased substantially the size and reliability of yields in relation both to labor input and to available land.  As the numbers and range of sheep and goats also expanded following their domestication, an assured supply of milk and meat products came to overlap the expanding ranges of distribution of the cereals, further establishing the superiority of agriculture [my substitution].


But in a few cases, such as among the fishers of the Northwest Coast of the Americas, a storable-stealable-surplus was possible and complexity arose in their societies (see these cases: Case 1.5., Case 3.4., Case 4.7.; & Case 4.10).

These hunter-gatherer-fishers of the Northwest Coast were unlike the non-storing hunter-gatherers[5] of the Paleolithic because they engaged in large-scale wars and enslaved their captives.  They developed chiefdoms, a stratified society and even institutionalized slavery.  Their strategic actions were prompted by the existence of massive fish runs that enabled them to catch and smoke large quantities of dried fish, which became a storable surplus, which strategically-thinking men used as a power base.

This set up competition between chiefs and between these wealthy fishers or as I will refer to them – storers – and their neighbors.  Some of these warlike peoples living on the northern Canadian coast raided as far south as California for loot and slaves.   

These people had simple tools and weapons and lacked agriculture or herds, yet their surplus wealth generated institutions of inequality and warfare.  When Humankind learned to domesticate plants and animals, warfare and political domination grew to far greater heights than among the Northwest Coast Amerindians; but the impetus was the same: a storable-stealable-surplus that generated strategic, self-enhancing behavior among aggrandizers.

As Colin Gray notes in his book on military strategy: war and strategic thinking are part and parcel of human history.  “It does not really matter whether strategy is ‘done’ by ‘food, horse, and guns,’ or by cruise missiles, spacecraft, and cyber-assault.”  His point is that war always has been a historical fact and will be with us in the future because human beings think strategically i.e., they strive to “power up over the next guy.”  It is a fact of history that aggrandizers want the prestige, power and property that derive from war and think and act strategically to increase their accumulation through warfare.  Professor Gray continues:


The most basic reason why strategy appears, alas, to be eternal lies in our human nature.  I do not mean to imply that human beings, either individually or as security communities, are in some essential way incapable of learning ‘the ways of peace.’  Many, perhaps most, people can and do ‘construct peace’ by doing it, which is to say by acting and thinking in a cooperative rather than a conflictual mode.  The fatal problem is that history as we know it yields no grounds for optimism that a positive kind of peace can be constructed to a degree which precludes the appearance of objective threat to security.  As the aphorism has it: we have seen the problem and it is us (1999:68).


The ethnographic and historical examples in this book confirm Gray’s perspective, if from a slightly different angle.  War is one form of domination; but there are many others, especially in the formation of political orders and the performance (and misdeeds) of officers in chiefdoms, kingdoms, states, empires and nation-states.

In the last chapter, I turn again to war and its relationship to our American government.  We will see the same ancient processes at work in what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex that has been transformed into the even more powerful state management system.  As the creation of domination and inequality have occurred throughout history by means of élite fabrications, scripting, mystification, manipulation of information, secrecy and in-office shenanigans, they continue within the bowels of our government and in the backrooms of the state management system (see Case 11.1).

My attempt here is to blend our understanding of what has happened in history and what is going on today so that we can begin to get a handle on what to do about the fact that our democracy is being eroded by the manipulation of aggrandizing officers in Washington DC.


The Evolutionary Sequence


I am going to briefly sketch the evolutionary sequence as nicely outlined in The Evolution of Human Groups by Johnson & Earle (1987:15-18).  I will then elaborate on the meaning of the evolutionary process, which I see as having transpired against a background of potential aggrandizement.  That is, self-seeking tendencies in some small portion of the population have always existed in the long run up to the Neolithic and the explosion of material wealth; but that surplus was like gasoline to the aggrandizing fires that smoldered in the non-storing societies of prehistory.

Johnson & Earle see the primary motor of sociocultural change as population growth, which leads to four problems: (1) production risk, (2) resource competition, (3) capital investment and (4) the depletion of local resources.  All of these problems that arose once a surplus had come into existence called for risk management that was beyond the capacity of a single kin group.  Thus, community managers would have been stimulated to step forward and to try to become problem solvers.  Their classic solution was to create community food storage and to manage the distribution of food within the community. 

For our purposes in this present work it is important to realize that all efforts to cope with these four problems held the potential for control by the managers; but not just altruistic control; but management that could evolve into exploitative restraints on the personal freedom of others and the authority of previous managers at the level of kin groups.  In other words, big men and chiefs arose to deal with these four problems because as the population expanded available food was threatened and that spurred go-getting men to resort to violence to seize territory.  They also sought to manage alliances between groups that banded together for defense against outside wealth-seekers. 

Once community managers were at work trying to solve these problems brought on by population growth, they began to make capital investments.  For instance, we will see in the next chapter an example of how Chumash Amerindian aggrandizers, chiefs and entrepreneurs, invested in the construction of ocean-going canoes to access marine resources that had previously been unavailable to this foraging people (.  In farming communities managers often invested in irrigation systems e.g., in ancient Egypt and also in ancient Hawaii (see Case 2.2).  Others constructed large-scale storage facilities e.g., the Natufians of the Levant in Case 1.3 and Case 1.4.

Economic activity has an impact on nature and rising populations tend to deplete local resources (see Case 5.2 & Case 5.3).  Historically, community managers had to deal with this and the commonest solution was long-distance trade to bring in food, tools or mineral resources.  Again, in the control of trade were the seeds of even greater domination of locals, as well as access to prestige goods that élites began to covet and which gave those controlling imports access to extraordinary wealth.

In short, control of economic processes through constructed political institutions (e.g., big man redistribution systems or chiefdoms) created opportunities for even greater control that in turn led eventually to social stratification.  This was the case for two main reasons: (1) there were aggrandizing men who would seize the opportunity to become elevated to the status of community manager.  (2) Inherent in the low-level kin groups and other corporate groups (e.g., cults, secret societies and the like) were officers who already managed some human affairs and who were likely candidates to try to promote themselves as chiefs.  Sometimes it was these office-holders who came forward and at others it was entrepreneurs, “eager beavers,” who usurped the authority of existing low-level leaders to take the reins of community management.  In either case taking some control of community affairs held the potential for such men to desire even greater authority and even greater control of human affairs, especially the economic rewards of primary production.  To do this, over time, such men created rules and cosmologies (truth-scripts) that amounted to what social scientists call a mode of production.

While the concept of a mode of production usually involves the material means of production – tools, equipment, buildings and land – it also includes the relations of production – those rules and roles associated with the productive process of transforming nature into useable products.  When I use the term “mode of production” I am primarily focusing on the social structural aspect of it, that part which men formulated to organize consanguines into larger more inclusive groups.

Implied in this work is an evolutionary sequence going from the non-exploitative Paleolithic non-storing foraging mode of production to a (largely Neolithic) kin-ordered mode, to a tributary mode of production, which eventually becomes superseded in most human populations by the capitalist mode of production.

I see the seeds of exploitation being embedded in the very first kinship institutions developed, even though the level of exploitation at that historical juncture did not reach what aggrandizing men put together in the later tributary mode of production, those structures controlled by big men, chiefs, kings and emperors.   

I take it that kinship varies in intensity across the human family; but, to a degree, all societies possess some concept of kinship (Parkin & Stone 2004).  I see kinship as a fabricated idiom that masks underlying social, economic and political relations, though it is more than that to those living in its embrace (Fortes 1969).  From the perspective of one interested in political economy, its formulation into lineages and descent groups was a way of framing the organization and control of people and the regulation of production, distribution and consumption.  Kinship was a way of committing social labor to the transformation of nature through appeals its constructed categfories e.g., filiation, marriage, consanguinity or affinity (Wolf 2001:349).

Kinship can be an umbrella concept.  For example, Johnson & Earle (1987:166) note that membership in a lineage (numayma) among the Nootka of the Northwest Coast of Northwestern America and Canada was historically attractive because it provided access to resources and protection in times of warfare.  They write:


Such groups acknowledge kin relationships among their members and are set apart by the possession of distinctive token, crests, and other markers.  When all members of a lineage live in a single village, they are co-holders of rights in specific resources such as streams, berry patches, and offshore islands.  But membership is fluid: many people are eligible on kinship grounds to join two or more groups, and will join the one most advantageous at the moment.  It is also possible for a non-kinsman to buy into a group [my italicized emphasis].


Once men began to put together the fabric of kin groups’ labor became “locked up” in kinship relations, much more so than it was confined by membership in a band during the Paleolithic.  Formalized kinship, the kind connected to corporate lineages for example, involved constructed sets of symbols and concepts that placed people in more confining social relationships that permited some kin to control the labor of others.  In these social constructs, some office-holders in the kinship structure received rights to control others.  Put the other way round, some kin had the duty to obey the office-holder and to work according to his dictates.

This was a giant step transforming how human beings lived and worked in nature.  The creation of kinship groups was the beginning of the development of corporate groups (other early ones being cults and sodalities) or what I am calling the Jural Revolution (see chapter 2 and for corporatism see chapter 4).  Once such corporate groups were formed, the individual member was to live his life according to set rules and suffered, compared to band life in the Paleolithic, a loss of personal freedom.  As a member of a kin group the individual had claims placed on him or her.  Born into a lineage, clan or phratry, a child entered a world of duty and responsibility, as well as one which restricted behavior.  Except under extraordinary conditions this child was not permitted to leave his or her natal kin group or avoid its demands.

The power of kinship as an organizational idiom was a strong one and even where locality was the true organizing principle, kinship was often called upon to incorporate strangers into the group (see Case 6.1 where I discuss fictional kinship in the clans of the Scottish highlands).  Kinship as an idiom or an expression of an economic grouping allowed office-holders (usually elder males) in the structure to monopolistically organize and benefit from the productive labor of non-office-holding members of the group.  It gave office-holders privileged access to strategic goods, however minimal they were in the early Neolithic compared to those of advanced chiefdoms and kingdoms.  It was nascent stratification, hidden under the comforting blanket of kinship.

In the beginning, those claiming to be leaders within the kin group probably worked alongside those they managed, as many such kin leaders do today in tribal societies; but over time, when economic output produced a sufficient surplus, another major transformation in human society occurred – office-holders were relieved of the burden of doing manual labor and were able to live off the labor of others, becoming in the process full-time managers of others.

The creation of corporate kin groups introduced hierarchy into human life because internally there were now juniors and seniors and descent groups were also organized in this way, with junior and senior lines of descent. 


Box I.1 Comparison of Types of Hierarchy


Individual senior kinsman

Senior kin group



Individual junior kinsman

Junior kin group



Inasmuch as the bundle of strategic goods was small in the early Neolithic, hierarchy did not lead immediately to a great deal of stratification; but it was a beginning, a building block upon which the tributary mode of production could be built.  The structural relation between a junior kinsman providing crops to a senior is the same as a subject providing tribute to a chief, king or emperor.  The junior kinsman lacked the ability to go outside the kin-ordered mode of production just as later on people were locked into membership in chiefdoms and kingdoms and ultimately nation states.


Civilization and Cynicism


Certainly, most writers who tackle the rise of civilization and the history of the world focus on all the productive aspects of change through time.  For example, Colin Renfrew writes that the long human trek through prehistory led to the development of civilization (2007:ix).  Other authors stress the rise of the state and other achievements that seem benign. When these writers and scholars ask: “What is it that we have become?” they see progress in the answer.  Professor Renfrew continues:


Prehistory is the story of human becoming.  Five million years ago there were no humans on earth, nor among the then-existing apes and monkeys were there any that we would recognize as closely resembling humans in appearance or in behavior.  Today we see humankind in all its diversity – from hunter-gatherers of the polar ice or the arid land of Africa to city dwellers of every nation in the world.  We see the massive technological achievements – architecture, technology, literacy, travel – and the products of human culture – language, literature, music, the visual arts.


Not unlike ants, humans have been creators, constructing cultural artifacts for the past 60 thousand years, during that stretch of prehistory Renfrew calls “the tectonic phase.”  During this segment of time change in the genome was no longer significant and man began to make himself (Childe 1936).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines tectonics as “the constructive arts in general.”  This stage is typified by new forms of human engagement with the material world e.g., the first use of tools and the systematic production and use of fire.  With the genotype broadly fixed, cultural evolution takes over (Renfrew 2007:chapter 6).

This engagement with the material world, mediated by the use of symbols, began in prehistory but was accelerated in the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of sedentary living.  Once humankind was settled into permanent communities and began to accumulate stores of food, rather rapidly material things began to achieve new importance and new social forms were invented to cope with change.  Change began to benefit some aggressive members of the group and they began to define the new social forms they created as progressive and beneficial to the group.

For example, law codes of the past portray the lawgivers as just, moral and as having the interests of the people at heart.  Take for instance the Ur-Nammu Law Code of Sumer, which was originally chiseled on a stone stele; but comes to us on a clay tablet prepared by a scribe several hundred years later (Kramer 1963:83-84).  It links the polity to the gods, saying that after the world had been created and after the fate of the Land of Sumer and the City of Ur had been decided by Deity, the leading gods appointed the moon-god, Nanna, as the King of Ur.  Then one day, the human Ur-Nammu was selected by Nanna as his earthly representative to rule over Sumer and Ur.

Understandably, the new king’s first acts were concerned with developing a political and military organization to ensure the safety of Ur and Sumer.  Then he turned to eradicate corruption, removing from office the “grabbers” of the citizens’ oxen, sheep and donkeys.  He then instituted a system of honest weights and measures to ensure fair trade in the land, also seeing to it that “the widow did not fall prey to the powerful” and “the orphan did not fall prey to the wealthy” and “the man of one shekel did not fall prey to the man of one mina (sixty shekels).”  All in all, this self-congratulatory law code set out to create the image of a just king who was determined to establish justice in the land and to promote the welfare of its citizenry.  Whether or not the behavioral reality coincided with the rhetoric we do not know.

Certainly when chiefs and kings moved to create defensive structures to protect the citizens from the depredations of attack by aggrandizing neighbors or invading barbarians, they were acting in the interest of society, providing a vital service.  Monies spent in such a way were well spent and the taxes and tolls exacted by politicians were legitimate, serving the people well; but what of the rest of the siphoned wealth spent on enormously grandiose ziggurats, temple, palaces and high living?  What about the fact that an élite few at the top of the hierarchy were living in luxury, while most people in society were less well off?  What about the millions who have lost their lives and livelihoods in unnecessary wars, launched to satisfy the egos and lust of men at the top?   How many people in India were starving while the Taj Mahal was being built?  Or the Shalimar Gardens, which comprised over four hundred fountains?




Case I.6.  Moghul Extravagance in Ancient India .


Let's just take one example – Moghul India.  From the time of Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (a.k.a. Akbar the Great – r.1556-1605) to Shahab Uddin Muhammad Shah Jahan (r. 1627-1658) the court was one of the most sumptuous in the world.  The Moghul rulers supported artisans to lavish themselves, their courtiers and the women of their harems with jewels and fine silks.  They lived in magnificent palaces and spent copiously on bejeweled mosques.  The nobility lived in walled castles with enormous harems, gardens, fountains and large retinues of slaves and servants.  They also sported huge wardrobes of splendid garments in fine cotton and silk (Maddison 2006). 

All the while millions of Indians suffered in poverty.  For example, in spite of India's reputation as a cloth producer, Abul Fazl, the sixteenth-century chronicler of Akbar, makes reference to the lack of clothing in Bengal, “men and women for the most part go naked wearing only a cloth about the loins.” Their loincloths were often of jute rather than the aristocratic cotton.  

In Orissa the women covered only the lower part of their bodies and often had to make themselves coverings of tree leaves (Jarett & Sarkar 1949:134, 138). 

Conditions of the Indian people in the early seventeenth century were described by Francisco Pelsaert in a report to the Dutch East India Company which sums up his seven years in Agra between 1620 and 1627: “the rich in their great superfluity and absolute power, and the utter subjection and poverty of the common people – poverty so great and miserable that the life of the people can be depicted or accurately described only as the home of stark want and the dwelling place of bitter woe.”  He continued: “a workman's children can follow no occupation other than that of their father, nor can they intermarry with any other caste ... They know little of the taste of meat.  For their monotonous daily food they have nothing but a little khichri, made of ‘green pulse’ mixed with rice” (Quoted in Maddison 2006: Chapter 2).

The Moghul State imposed a land tax on the people, which was about a third or more of gross crop production, or a quarter or more of total agricultural output including fruits, vegetables and livestock (Habib 1963).  There were additional taxes, tolls and levies as well, making the tax burden very heavy by European standards (Maddison 2006).  Also, whereas in Europe taxes were used for state purposes, in Moghul India they provided for the consumption expenditure of the ruling class.

The structure of the system of land tenure and inheritance in Moghul India created the incentive for nobles to live extravagantly and die in debt to the state.  They did not own land or have hereditary rights to property and so there was no inducement to improve land.  Furthermore, the state would post a noble to a jagir (district) as a jagirdar (district commissioner).  There he lived off the labor of the district farmers and had no motivation to do anything other than live as well as possible because at death the state would take all his acquired wealth.  Clearly, this system led to a wasteful use of resources.  The jagirdar had an incentive to squeeze village society close to subsistence, to spend as much as possible on high living and to die in debt to the state.  The heads of state were doing the same thing, only on a grander level.

In other words, the uses to which the Moghul State and the aristocracy put their income were largely unproductive.  Their investments were made in two main forms: (1) hoarding precious metals and jewels; (2) construction of elaborate palaces and tombs, particularly under Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal (Moreland 1923:195-197).  In a word, the Moghul State and its attendant nobility were parasitic and unfortunately they were not unique in history  Not only was money spent on profligate hedonism; but military spending was enormous and frequent wars taxed the people incessantly.  Religion also drained resources as nobles felt compelled to spend lavishly on weddings and funerals in a way that satisfied religious principles.




Wherein some see “progressive” as the answer to the question: “What is it that we have become?” I am asking the same question; but I am trying to look a little deeper, to peek below the surface of “apparent progress” and ask if the very construction of civilized institutions has created a set of structures that allow, and even encourage, misbehavior on the part of our government officials, as we have just seen in the case of the Moghul State in India.  Some will see this point of view as a pessimistic and derisive endeavor.  I see it as essential to the effort to create and sustain democracy in a world so badly in need of input from the people.



[1] Contraction of American+Indian.

[2] Chieftains

[3]The Washington DC-based complex of networks between

weapons-manufacturers, political officers, consultants, senior military

personnel and career government workers that has led our country to

spend more on war than all other countries in the world combined.

[4] These come in many forms e.g., dicta of politicos, myths, legends,

cosmologies, religious literature and state constitutions, to name only

a few.

[5] There is some validity in using Barbara Bender’s (1985)

terminology: gatherer-hunter, since in foraging societies that

have been studied ethnographically gathering brings in far more

calories than hunting.

Views: 66


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