Title: The Origin of the State
Author: Harold Barclay
Date: 2006, Spring/Summer
Source: From AJODA #61
Notes: Chapter 3 of "The State" abridged. AJODA #61, Spring/Summer, 2006, vol. 24, no. 1

The seeds of the state have been sown in every human society. Yet only a very few of these seeds have ever come to fruition. Most states have been created by being imposed on a people or as a defensive mechanism to allow for better interaction with an already existent state. It is the purpose of this chapter to investigate how the state emerges primarily as a pristine or autochthonous entity. First let us consider some of these seeds of statism as they appear in what have been called egalitarian and rank type societies and why they do not mature.

Significant elements of state development

It is important to recognise that any social phenomenon is an emergent from the interaction of a variety of factors. Monocausality is an error and at best a simplistic attempt at explanation. Most of the theories of state origin, some of which will be dealt with below, have sought to reduce the explanation of the state to a single cause, which means they have overlooked the significance of other things.

Ronald Cohen has written: “there is no clear cut or simple set of causal statements that explains the phenomenon of state formation ... The formation of states is a funnel-like progression of interactions in which a variety of pre-state systems responding to different determinants of change are forced by otherwise irresolvable conflicts to choose additional and more complex levels of political hierarchy.” Once this is achieved there occurs a convergence of forms towards the early state (142). Pre-state systems are placed on the track towards the state if they have already an existent hierarchy and there are attempts by some elite to achieve and maintain power and domination. When such an attempt is successful one has a state or, put another way, the state is born when an elite can claim for itself a monopoly on the use of violence and can institute legal sanctions. The hierarchy is built upon a number of factors. The significant elements in state development are, then:

  1. Population

  2. Sedentary settlement

  3. Horticulture/agriculture

  4. Redistribution

  5. Military organisation

  6. Secondary significance of kinship

  7. Trading

  8. Specialised division of labour

  9. Individual property and control of resources

  10. Hierarchic social order

  11. Ideology of superiority/inferiority


A hunting-gathering band of a few dozen members could never constitute a state simply because it lacks the necessary manpower and resources. However, earliest Sumerian city-states survived with a few thousand inhabitants. Each was able to do so because it was about the same size as all the other states and they were all eventually consolidated into a single Sumerian state under Sargon I. The Athenian city-state as well had but several thousand inhabitants, but initially it too competed with entities of about the same size. Soon it was forced to form coalitions to deal with external conflicts and, finally, like the Sumerian city-states, it disappeared in an empire.

In modern times it has already been noted that there are a great number of what may be called micro-states. A few of these, too, have less than thirty thousand inhabitants.

To be viable a state must have a certain minimal size and that depends upon the particular social milieu within which it is located. In Medieval Europe a state with a million inhabitants would have been quite effective, other considerations being equal. Today this would be questionable.

Geographic size may be less important than population, although clearly the importance and viability of sovereign states with a bare few square miles are questionable. At the same time the substantial city-state of Singapore with three million people and 239 square miles seems to maneuver reasonably well in the halls of power.

It is apparent, however, that the larger the territory one has, the more self-sustaining the economy can be and the potential for resources is likewise greater.

Carniero has argued that population growth is a major impetus for state creation. A people may reside in an area exploiting its agricultural potential, resulting in population increase and demands or pressures for more arable lands. Eventually this provokes aggression and conquest of other areas and peoples and, in order to achieve success in such an enterprise, necessitates armies which are organised by states. Population and conquest are here seen as the two motivations for state creation. But they are in fact only two pieces of a much more complex puzzle. The state does not rise like a phoenix out of an enlarged and predatory population alone. Most of the factors mentioned later in this chapter are ignored.

Researchers believe that humans no doubt understood the process of plant and animal reproduction and growth thousands of years before actually domesticating such things as wheat, barley, pulses and sheep. As hunter- gatherers they were free of the more arduous tasks which would be associated with cultivation. But population increases would eventually challenge their sources of food. In addition climatic changes occurring at the end of the last Ice Age may have threatened traditionally exploited wild plants and game. Horticulture would have been a reasonable resolution of the situation. There is, however, no reason to believe that in every case there should soon arise an absolute limit to available arable land and a necessity to expand by military aggression. States in Egypt and Sumer did not arise because of pressure for arable land. Early horticultural societies would also have still no little dependence upon gathering and hunting to supplement their supplies. Finally, a sometimes fashionable explanation for the spread of inventions and peoples has been migration. Rather than conquest a people might merely move to a more profitable location: no need for conquest or the state.


All states with few exceptions have arisen out of sedentary popula-tions. This is clearly so with both the earliest states of the Old and the New World: Sumeria, Egypt, India, China, Mexico and Peru. The only exceptions to this rule have been those states created by pastoral nomads, such as the Huns and the Mongols and early Turks. These were all, however, secondary states created on the model of already existing states and in response to them. But as far as sedentarism is concerned it is necessary to point out that once these nomads adopted the state they became sedentary. In addition it must be borne in mind that the nomadism of pastoralists is not the nomadism of hunter-gatherers. No hunting-gathering nomad group could ever produce a state, if only because it lacks the adequate resources and infrastructure. Pastoralists, on the other hand, possess great wealth in their herds and in their ancillary, often predatory, activities. They possess, as has been said, a walking larder.

Ibn Khaldun developed a theory of state development based on the proposition that pastoral nomads invade and take over an already decaying city to establish their own new state. But, observe that both the sedentary community and the state already exist independent of any nomads.

Why is sedentarism fundamental to state development? States require some concentration of population wherein there is some specialisation of labour; they require centres for administration and extensive horticulture or agriculture. (Pastoralists engage in a bit of indifferent cultivation, but nearly all of them are dependent upon sedentary farmers for part of their food.)

The most concentrated type of sedentary life is that of the city. In almost all cases, where you find the city you will find the state. Polynesian states and the earliest Mayans do not seem to have had true cities, but cities seem to be integral elements of states and they are clear signs of civilisation. Not only are they administrative centres, they are industrial and craft centres and important sites for trade. Perhaps a majority of cities have arisen as market places; others have appeared as objects of religious pilgrimage or as capitals of states or military centres. Perhaps sedentarism, and particularly urban life, is so universal in state development because it provides the sense of permanence and stability so important in the wielding of power.

Horticulture/ agriculture

A third minimal requirement for the creation of a state is the cultivation of domesticated plants and primary dependence upon them as a source of food. Again, all of the pristine centres of the state were characterised by the maintenance of large cultivated areas. Initially this was by digging stick and hoe involving large gardens: technically, horticulture. In the Ancient Near East the use of domesticated draft animals—oxen and later donkeys, mules and camels—along with the plough and wheeled vehicles arose almost coterminously with the state. The employment of such power, plus the extensive cultivation of fields, distinguishes agriculture from horticulture. In Mexico and Peru the early states remained dependent upon the latter engaging in very intensive gardening. They also contrasted with the Old World in paying little attention to animal husbandry. In Peru they kept llamas as pack animals and for their wool, while in the Eastern Hemisphere a host of animals were eventually domesticated for meat, milk, wool and draught. Horses and mules pulled chariots which were the formidable tanks of the ancient Eastern states.

In the East as well pastoralism became an important adjunct specialisation, exploiting the vast non-arable and arid lands. It would appear that with irrigation systems it is not that they demand a centralised, hierarchical control in the form of state management. It is that they require coordination of some kind—a coordination which can be achieved through a variety of different means, but that coordination is most commonly a matter of very local control.

There are several reasons why a complex horticulture or agriculture is fundamental to state development. Early gardening was not much more productive or efficient than gathering and hunting, but as people became more dependent upon domesticated plants and animals, yields increased because of the effort in improving seed and agricultural techniques. Not only did this allow for much larger populations, but it also permitted a few individuals to become specialists in given tasks and not be engaged in the production of their food. What is more, it laid the groundwork for a tiny minority to become a leisure class of administrators and aristocrats.

A dependence upon domesticated plants and animals as well as irrigation greatly enhanced land and livestock values. Particularly once kinship was no longer the basis for having rights to land, some individuals were able to acquire more land than others.

Some became Big Men through their ability to manipulate others, through supernatural powers, through force or their ability to gather a body of clients in large part by making the less successful indebted to them. The Big Men became then the landlords; agriculture reinforced hierarchy. Agriculture also produced peasants—the largest single segment of humanity for the last five thousand years. Although the peasant life is not totally depressing, everyone will agree that it has been characterised by poverty, disease and insecurity.

Work as a pejorative was invented with peasantry. Not only does the peasant work long hours, but the labour is back breaking and mostly drudgery.

The peasant is continually harassed by his lord. Thousands of years of subservience have sought to train a body of duly obedient servants, necessary ingredients for any state. It has been hypothesised that the slave mentality is further maintained by the fact that the more intelligent and those who do not fully learn subservience in the peasant community are siphoned off by migration to the towns, where any rebellious spirit can be sublimated by other challenges.


There are three different kinds of economic exchange: reciprocity, redistribution and the market. Reciprocity is universal in human societies and the oldest method of exchange. It is a kind of gift-giving in which one provides a product or a service for another on the, usually implicit, understanding that there will be a return of something of equivalent value in the future by the recipient. Reciprocity may be immediate or delayed. It is quite likely that the immediate reciprocity is widespread among mammal species. For instance horses and apes groom one another. Humans, too, resort to reciprocity of this type, but with their greater mental capability they can readily remember various details which allows them to indulge in delayed reciprocity. George recalls that two years ago Stanley contributed $100 to the marriage of George’s daughter, Now Stanley requires repairs on his house and George is obligated to contribute to the repairs in an equivalent fashion. Even in present day market-dominated society reciprocity survives. Last year my sister sent me a Christmas gift and so I will duly send her one again this year in anticipation that she will do the same. Among other things reciprocity stresses that there are no free gifts. It is also a method of exchange between equals—one does not require some kind of hierarchical arrangement.

Redistribution does require hierarchy, at least in some minimal form. It requires several individuals to assemble some kind of wealth in one location and one person is assigned the responsibility for redistributing this wealth. Again, as with reciprocity, there is the appearance of gift giving, especially in its simplest expression.

With the Near Eastern archaic states such as Egypt, the pattern of redistribution was more complex. Peasants were expected to deposit part of their crop in a local storehouse. In Egypt a great number of storehouses were created by the state throughout the country and what was not consumed in a locality was sent on to central depositories at the royal court. While in New Guinea and in the Northwest Coast [of North America] the redistribution serviced a general populace, in the Near East it benefited primarily aristocrats, priests and the military, functioning as a means of collecting tribute for their benefit. There, as well, it was the chief type of economic exchange.

For the past several hundred years redistribution has declined in favour of market arrangements. Nevertheless, redistribution persists as the means by which the state acquires its operating funds, in the form of taxation. Modern states extract part of the wealth of every citizen and redistribute it. Part goes to support an enormous bureaucracy, part for a military establishment; another part provides subsidies to wealthy corporations, while, especially in the so-called welfare state, no small amount is diverted to health, welfare and education of the common folk. Thus, we have three different kinds of redistribution systems. One is essentially an elaborate feasting and is extremely close to reciprocity. A second provides for centralised storehouses and siphons the wealth off to a dominant minority, the wealth having been appropriated from the labour of the poor. In the third the state collects taxes from the rich and the poor and recirculates the money to various groups. Until a century ago most of it went to the military and administrative branches of the government, including large sums to a royal family. In recent times more has been returned to the lower echelons, because, one might suggest, governments have learned that it is easier and less expensive in keeping the peace if one can ensure a few crumbs to the hoi polloi.

Military organisation

Robert Carniero finds the origin of the state in population expansion and conquest. Others have singled out conquest alone as the source of the state. Oppenheimer saw in the expansion of one group to conquer another the creation of an apparatus aimed at maintaining domination. But the several examples he presents are of social entities which were already states when they commenced expansion. This cuts to the heart of the problem with this monocausal explanation.

All animals engage from time to time in intra-species fights. Yet the deliberate attempt to kill an opponent is more characteristic of humans. Among other animals one or both combatants may be killed by accident, not so much by design or intent, although in cases of overcrowding fights do lead to killing. Ordinarily among animals a losing combatant runs away or performs an instinctive ritual of submission which triggers an inhibiting reaction in the victor so that he no longer continues his aggressive behaviour.

Humans apparently lack any genetically programmed inhibitors that restrain a combatant from killing his opponent. What is controlled by instinctive ritual among animals is restrained by cultural regulation among humans. “Thou shalt not kill’ is a commandment with some degree of validity in every human community. It is not always effective; so it is argued warfare is a natural part of human behaviour.

A war aims at conquest, a warring party seeks to capture and control the lands, wealth and people of another group. The intentions of the feud or raid are much more modest—to even a score, to steal livestock, to abduct women, or, on rare occasions to acquire territory. There are no motives to subdue an opponent or absorb his group. In the feud once a member of one side has been killed or maimed a revenge attack can be expected in which a member of the guilty party will be killed or maimed. On the achievement of this mission the aggressors return home to await retaliation or a proposal for mediation.

The organisation of warfare is vastly more complex than other forms of group hostility. Wars are fought with armies and similar military forces. There are large numbers of men organised according to a chain of command and a division of labour. There are no democratic armies, since there are always some individuals who give orders to others who are expected to obey without question. Occasionally, an army falls into disarray because those at the top cannot agree, but armies are clearly distinguished by the fact that not only do those at the bottom do all the dirty work and face all the danger, but they take all the orders and give none at all. In addition, in a military force the chain of command is quite explicit and obvious to everyone. It is never ambiguous.

In feuding and raiding groups there is invariably no chain of command or, if it does exist, it is a reflection of pre-established relations among the combatants. There may be deference to a senior kinsman or one who has a reputation as a great warrior. Fighting is often quite individualistic with participants each ‘doing his own thing.’

Not only are there commanders and the commanded in warfare, but some of the latter may be assigned to actual fighting, others to providing supplies to the fighters, some to repair materiel, yet others to gathering intelligence, to reconnaissance or to tending the wounded. And in each of these categories there is invariably a further refinement in the division of labour.

Warfare requires at least a few semi or full professionals and, for those who are neither, some kind of minimal training is involved. Warfare depends as well on tactics, that is, the organisation and plans for battle, the deployment of troops and the arrangement of the most efficient way in which to achieve a precise goal. Feuds and raids have no professionals and tactics are minimal.

Because warfare entails the mobilisation of substantial numbers of men and supplies, it demands a complex and large organisation which can mount and maintain it. War technology is very expensive even in ancient times where it took substantial wealth to maintain war horses and their gear or chariots and their teams. This is why it is that true warfare seems only to appear with the advent of the state—a substantial predatory structure with the power to command adequate resources. Further, as we have already said, an army is based on unquestioned obedience to command. Such a condition can be associated with a kinship relation or with state management. Thus one may say that army discipline means that some kind of state structure has already been instituted since it has nothing to do with kinship. Warfare is also the health of the state as Randolph Bourne said. As all states compete with one another, victory in the competition depends ultimately upon war and the threat of war. Those who advocate a conquest or militarist explanation for state origin are not entirely wrong. Rather than saying warfare and conquest precede the state, I would suggest that the two work in tandem, both evolving together and feeding each other. One thing is certain, and that is in the game of statecraft and international politics no state can expect to achieve importance and prestige unless it does have a good army and pursues the road to dominance.

The seeds for an army and any consequent warfare are to be found in the body of clients that some Big Man at the centre of a complex redistribution system can cajole, deceive and manipulate.

The secondary significance of kinship

The state is a very jealous god. It cannot tolerate competition. Before the appearance of the state the glue which held society together was kinship. The family and secondary kin groupings were paramount demanding prior obligations over all else. As the elements of state formation achieved increasing pre-eminence, the role of kinship was eclipsed. As Maine argued, with the state, place of residence overrode kinship ties.

Within a few millennia prior to the emergence of the state in the Near East, or at a time coterminous with that development, numerous fundamental innovations had occurred. Not only had there been the domestication of numerous plants and animals, but animals were employed for draught purposes; yoking and harnessing devices, copper and other metallurgies, pottery, irrigation, the plough, the looms, more sophisticated methods for measurement, writing, among other inventions, all appeared. Manufacturing and using such items required some training. This in turn provoked the rise of specialisation in labour which was also made possible because agriculture had become sufficiently efficient that it could support a minority of the population as nonfood producers. Populations increased and there was a greater movement and mixing of different peoples. Consequently, there came to exist a rather heterogeneous population that was not related by kinship, residing in congested areas like cities. The different occupational specialists had their own interests: conflicts among groups arose which could not be settled by ordinary kinship mechanisms since so many of those involved were unrelated.

Into this situation the state appears to make residence the basis for control. Some Big Man, some preeminent, ranking person with adequate resources and clientele marches onto the scene.

It has also been proposed that some people may become so tired from internal fighting that they acquiesce to the rule of a noted and respected mediator, although I have not found any specific case of this in the literature except the one given by Southall in which a non-Alur people invited Alur chiefs to come to judge and rule them. These Alur (who live in East Africa) presumably had “rain- making and conflict resolving powers” (Southall).

One of the main arguments for the state has been an ‘integrative’ one which largely follows the view that the state is necessary to maintain order in a highly heterogeneous, densely populated situation. But this theory overlooks at least two important points. It ignores the possibility of alternative approaches. For example, all kinds of voluntary organisations exist composed of a variety of different peoples and they all manage to avoid descending into chaos and violence.[1] Even the inculcation of ethical standards acts as a strong restraining force. The vast majority of people do not kill and maim because of the presence of the police, but because they have been trained that killing is a ‘mortal sin’.

The second problem with the integration theory is that it overlooks the ulterior motives of the would-be heads of state. Obviously there are many individuals who are members of parliaments, governors of states, etc., who honestly believe they have a genuine concern for the public welfare. They believe they can use the state to achieve the good life. Consequently some improvements may occur. But in the end their sincere, yet naive, efforts are overridden by obligations to defend the state and enforce the law. Other politicians are clearly more crass, believing that the welfare of General Motors is the public welfare or, like George W. Bush, that the welfare of the oil industry is the public welfare. Ultimately, for all, domination is the name of the game, and in dominating one can produce some degree of integration and order.

Deceptive tricks are important techniques by which the state is enabled to maintain control with a minimum of effort. In its attempt to draw the allegiance of its subjects, the state will try to make it appear that it is a family or larger kinship group to which all belong. Kinship terms are frequently applied to rulers: the king is the father or grandfather, the queen is the mother and fellow citizens are brethren. The state also assumes the traditional functions of the family and clan. In modern times it has taken over the education of the young, the welfare of the needy, the protection of the homestead; it determines the limits to disciplining family members and attempts to manage life in the bedroom. Once, not long ago, the elderly and retired were supported by their kin group; now they depend upon old age pensions from the government. Increasingly the state has encroached upon and usurped the traditional role of the family and clan. In so doing it promotes a dependence upon the state. Indeed, the old dependence upon the family and other kin groups is transferred to the state. But the state is no loving mother. The more astute heads of state have calculated that it is cheaper in the long run to give the appearance of concern and direct some of the wealth to the common people and avoid otherwise discomforting altercations and revolts.

In many Asian and African states today the kinship network remains a determined competitor to the state. It challenges the state’s claim to a monopoly of the use of violence by carrying on blood feuds; those who break the clan’s code of honour are killed. But all states are having increasing access to highly sophisticated surveillance devices, transportation and armaments and so seek to suppress such activities. They may, however, be able to employ the kin group as a proper instrument of the state. The state arises when the kin groups yield to it.


Practically any society engages in some sort of trading activity. It is part of the life of hunting-gathering peoples, whether Inuit in the far North or Australian Aboriginals and Bushmen in the South. And it may be even more important to horticultural and agricultural folk. In earlier societies trading was limited almost exclusively to luxury items. The necessities of life were all locally provided and only materials which were unavailable in the homeland were sought after. Even in Medieval times trade was limited to such things as spices, furs, precious metals, silk, quality horses and the like. Only modern states have come to trade in every conceivable item, and this may reach what appear to be ridiculous degrees, as when Canada exports lumber, pigs and cattle to the United Slates and the United States exports lumber, pigs and cattle to Canada.

Trading does not occur purely for the purpose of acquiring some goods, it is also an opportunity for making marital arrangements, for establishing diplomatic ties, for mutual planning for war against another group or for consolidating peace. Above all, it is a time for the exchange of ideas. New tools, techniques, medicines, religions, and a host of other practices and ideas, are spread in the trading context. The merchant trader has been a major vehicle for the spread of Islam into the African interior.

Trading entails points of trade—locations where goods are traditionally brought for exchange. These may be redistribution centres under the control of a Big Man, so that as chief trader he is able to enhance his wealth and power. They may also be market centres which eventually come to replace the redistribution system. Trading activity in such situations provokes a mixing of different peoples. To simplify relations a lingua franca is introduced as is a common ‘currency’ of some kind. The increasing complexity of trading activity and the greater the value of what is traded promote increasing hierarchical differences. Some individuals are already advantaged and in the competition of trade are able to garner to themselves further advantage so as to become bigger men standing at the threshold of state creation.

Mention has already been made of stateless societies on the borders of giant states themselves engendering a state as a consequence of their proximity to those states and their trading activity with them.

For hundreds of years the Badawin, among other desert nomads, operated a lucrative protection racket controlling trade routes and centres in the Sahara. This created a rather odd quasi-state condition in which the Badawin extracted tribute by force from the caravans and towns, leaving them otherwise to conduct their own affairs. The Badawin themselves maintained a political organisation in which the Big Men—the shaykhs—were first among equals unable to command as monarchs and forced to achieve their ends by influence, manipulation, cajoling and oratory.

Property and the control of resources

The focus of the concept of property is on prior rights to exploit some thing; it is not on the thing directly. If a piece of land or an automobile is the property of Wycliffe, this means Wycliffe may use the property as he pleases within the limits set by law, while Tom, Dick and Harry may not use it without Wycliffe’s permission. Wycliffe may drive his car only on any legal road; he may paint it green with black dots; he may even give it no oil so that the engine burns out. But he cannot drive it down the wrong side of the street or use it to run down pedestrians or smash other vehicles. The idea of property reaches far back into antiquity. There does not appear to have been any primitive communism as dreamed by Marxists, although some very basic items may have been thought of as the property of a group, such as land and water. In a hunting-gathering society the territory within which it moves in search of food might be seen as the collective property of the local band. Tools, animals, houses were all individually owned; even among some there was private property of songs or fishing sites.

That some become large landlords and others very small ones or persons driven into landlessness results from a competition in which all do not start out on an equal playing field. It has not been uncommon for individuals to lose their property by the use of overt force by another. Some own land which is less productive; others are less astute and crafty in their business dealings, as others are superior con men. Many a person has lost the homestead through indebtedness and such indebtedness did not arise through laziness or drunkenness as so many conservatives would have it. A few do lose out because of their personal inadequacies. Some landholders are able to ingratiate themselves, or otherwise find favour with those having greater wealth and power, and extend their holdings. After all, one of the features of the Big Man is the ability to extend largess to his friends and flunkies, thus reinforcing the ties and securing their future support.

In the above discussion I have concentrated upon land because this is the most valuable resource in any agrarian society. Property in other resources has also been important. European colonialism instilled in many peoples new conceptions of property. The North American fur trade taught countless Indians that their trap lines were valuable assets to be protected from outside intruders. Amongst pastoralists livestock is individual property with which one can amass a fortune or descend into abject poverty.

Pure luck may determine whether one man is wiped out by epidemic disease while another is able to keep a healthy herd. One loses stock to rustlers, while another is unharmed—he may even be the rustler. Land holdings with copper, gold or timber reserves afford yet further devices for acquiring wealth and power. Clearly property is a most important road to power, possibly the most important road. It is crucial for the elaboration of a redistribution system. Marxist theory identifies property accumulation with the evolution of the state, but since a most central part of the theory concerns class conflict I will reserve discussion of it for the following section on hierarchy.

Hierarchic social order

Redistribution, the division of labour, trading and private property all produce social difference of a more fixed sort. Yet social differences are features of all societies. Australian Aboriginal society granted higher status to the elders of the band; women were inferior to men. A good hunter gained higher repute. Granted this is a simple kind of differentiation, but it lays the basis for more elaborate forms. The differences amongst Australians or most any hunter-gatherer people were considered so minimal that such societies were called egalitarian and compared to most other societies they appeared so.

Rank societies, according to Fried, are those “in which positions of valued status are somehow limited so that not all those of sufficient talent to occupy such statuses actually achieve them. Such a society may or may not be stratified. That is, a society may sharply limit positions of prestige without affecting the access of its entire membership to the basic resources upon which life depends” (Morton Fried, Evolution of Political Society, p 10).

The political role of redistributors varies considerably. At one pole we have the examples of the Yurok and Northwest Coast Indians who were subjected to diffuse and religious sanctions; their Big Men lacked authority to impose regulations. At the other extreme were some African and Polynesian redistributors who were petty kings, some with great authority... But it is important to bear in mind that it is primarily through the evolution of a redistribution system that a ranking system becomes established. The redistribution may begin as a feast and the guests eventually become clients or dependents of the host, obligated to him as a feast sponsor. These obligations are reciprocated by the provision of goods and services to the feasting enterprise, which then becomes larger and more elaborate. The Big Men invent titles for themselves, assume a central role as mediators of disputes, assert supernatural claims, and as a result of their influence and growing status become central figures in trading activities. They are the holders of rank in the community. The redistribution system shifts from elaborate feasting in which there was once an equal distribution of goods to one favouring those with rank. Now the society may be said to be at the threshold of a stratified state, that is, provided that the other factors we have discussed above, along with ideology, have also moved to favour greater stratification as well.

For Fried a “stratified society is one in which members of the same sex and equivalent age status do not have equal access to the basic resources that sustain life” (p 186).

I believe stratified societies with only the rarest exceptions would have a state structure. This would be only reasonable and predictable. Once one has an aristocracy all the trappings of government are going to be established by that stratum in order to protect its position and interests. An aristocracy would already have an adequate infrastructure and sufficient resources well in place so that the creation of a state would be like placing the capping stone on a structure. For Marx it is with the appearance of individual private property during ‘barbarian’ times that we have the commencement of a movement towards the state. For property accumulation means the rise of a propertied class which in turn exploits the non-propertied and makes them ever more dependent and depressed. In order to protect their interests the propertied create a state and it has served the wealthy throughout history, whether these were large landowners or, in modern times, capitalists. Competing economic classes produce conflict within the society eventually resulting in an open clash of interests. The English Revolution of mid-seventeenth century was a conflict between an old land-owning class' and a rising bourgeoisie which eventuated in the triumph of capitalism. This conflict in turn has generated yet another dialectic process pitting capitalists against the proletariat which it is believed will eventually produce a new synthesis in communism.[2]

The Marxists Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst have claimed that with “the primitive and advanced communist modes of production” there is no state because there are no social classes. Such a view ignores the bureaucratic managerial elite as a social class, thus unveiling one of the weaknesses of Marxist analysis. That is, the bureaucrats as non-property holders are not seen as a class and so are unworthy of further consideration. Yet they are, nevertheless, a potent social force which perpetuates the division of society into the powerful and powerless. Such observations are not intended to demonstrate the falsity of a class theory of state origin. Rather it is intended to question the absoluteness and dogmatism with which this theory is sometimes enunciated. Modern world events have demonstrated that a dominant ruling group or ‘class’ need not be the capitalists or anyone cornering the wealth of society. The technocratic-bureaucratic-military element prevails in much of the world and is fierce competition in the rest. Neither government nor social class (however it might be composed) can be developed to any extent without the other; they must develop in tandem.

Presumably stages in an “evolutionary sequence” should be somehow preparatory for the stages to come. Here the ultimate goal of the process is the achievement of the state, so that the character of any tribal level or stage should be less egalitarian than the band and indicative of more social differences. But such is not the case. Among the cognitive groups mentioned above most of the Polynesians —such as Hawaiians and Tongans—and all of the Amhara and Scots are or were part and parcel of already existing states. For the remaining so-called tribal peoples the egalitarianism of the band is no less in the tribe.

The chiefdom has already been mentioned. Here I would only like to note that as a category it includes an enormous variety of quite different social organisations. In large part this difficulty arises from the fact that the definition of chiefdom centres on redistribution which itself is more of an umbrella term, an issue discussed in the section on Redistribution. The chiefdom category is made to include Northwest Coast hunter-gatherers carrying on potlatches, New Guinean Big Men sponsoring feasts, and the kings of simple states like ancient Hawaii or the many such entities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Obviously an enormous gulf separates the administration of the king of Bunyoro from the role of a Kwakiutl potlatch sponsor. Be that as it may, redistribution is a major vehicle in pushing a society towards the state. Fried’s sequence proceeding from egalitarian to rank and to stratified society derives in a much modified fashion from Morgan, but has fewer pitfalls since it focuses directly on the question of status and at the same time simplifies the sequence of changes. What I suggest is that any stratified society will have the characteristic features delineated in this chapter and it would, therefore, be a state. Further, any society characterised by an elaborate redistribution system in which wealth is siphoned off to a dominant power elite would be a stratified state society.


An ideology is, more broadly, any set of beliefs, explicit or implicit, which acts as a guide for daily living and an explanation of the world. The point is that a society, especially one which is highly specialised and multicultural, may have several, often competing, ideologies. The most popular one is that associated with the dominant group and it will be the one that is preached in its schools, most of its religious edifices and elsewhere.

In materialist theory, which seems so popular today, ideology is a pure epiphenomenon of the basic economic- technological aspects of society; it is a by-product which allows of no causal significance itself. Max Weber, among others, well demonstrated that ideology was indeed a potent force in all social affairs and one to be reckoned with in its own right. Thus, he showed that capitalism was not purely the natural result of ongoing economic processes, but was assisted in its flowering by the presence of a way of thinking, an outlook on life, that he called the Protestant ethic, and is now more commonly referred to by the more secular term, the work ethic.

Essential to the existence of any state is an ideology of superiority/inferiority, of ruler and ruled; that it is only right and proper that persons holding certain offices should be above others and enjoy the legitimate right to compel others to obey them. In societies characterised by the presence of ranks this kind of ideology is not fully developed. There may be a recognition that some individuals are better or superior, but not sufficiently so to be a ruler commanding obedience.

One of the reasons Christianity and Islam have been so successful is because their monotheism appeals to the rulers of states, since the notion of one god reinforces that of a single supreme ruler.

Almost all ideologies are founded in religious belief if they are not complete religious systems themselves. Such beliefs are expressed and reaffirmed by ritual practices. A.M. Hocart stressed the role of ritual in state formation. He goes on to say

that to our intellectuals only economic interests can create anything as solid as the state. Yet if they would only look about them they would everywhere see communities banded together by interest in a common ritual; they would even find that ritual enthusiasm builds more solidly than economic ambitions because ritual involves a rule of life, whereas economics are a rule of gain, and so divide rather than unite (35).

The history of early states clearly demonstrates the immense importance of religious ideology. Pharaoh was a god-king and the temple, the priests, the ritual and myth were integral to the maintenance of the entire state apparatus. Similarly in Sumer, and later Babylon, the temple and the priest provided the ideology identifying the state with divinity. Throughout history little has changed. Even in the United States, presumably a secular state which keeps the church allegedly divorced from the state, religious ideology is invoked to provide the underpinning for the whole structure. God is continually called upon in the halls of Congress; god and mammon are made one in the currency; god and nation are made one in a pledge of allegiance.

While the old Soviet Union and its Communist satellites did not invoke the name of god, they all gave a strong religious ritual bent to their so-called communism. Marx and Engels works were treated like bibles; their enormous portraits like holy icons; their persons like prophets; there were hymns and grand processions. They did not have god, but they had the dialectic.

Everywhere it appears the state must justify itself by reliance upon some extra-human, superhuman power. The ideology gives legitimacy to the state.

Before concluding this chapter it is necessary to explain why writing has not been included in the list of essentials for state development. It is indeed difficult to imagine how a state could survive for long without some techniques for recording necessary information. And so it is true that the great majority of states did have access to a writing system, but there are enough which did not to justify excluding it from the list. The Peruvian states, the majority of those in pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa, and those in ancient Polynesia all lacked writing.


The state is an emergent out of the interacting preparatory factors discussed in this chapter. Using another metaphor one may say that all these factors converge in slightly different ways so that a given society slides down a slippery slope to the state condition. There is a multilineal evolution wherein in one case there is an intensive elaboration of the redistribution system or, in another, more emphasis on the military and so on, there are different emphases and different styles and impetuses. Population, sedentarism, agriculture, a complex division of labour, a redistribution system and private property constitute a kind of platform upon which hierarchy and an ideology of superiority/ inferiority are built. It might be possible that a society with only a weakly developed hierarchic social order and ideology of superiority/inferiority could avoid the descent into statehood. This is even more likely where private property is not of major importance. Examples of such a phenomenon are most likely to be found in the acephalous societies of pre-colonial Africa. The moment of state creation occurs when all the factors, however achieved, fall into place. This is so for pristine and secondary states. The latter, despite having the state imposed upon them, would still have had to develop those preparatory characteristics in some minimal fashion in order to maintain a state.

No state would ever develop if there were no drive on the part of at least some individuals to acquire power over others and at the same time a conditioning of a great majority of the populace to submit to the power of the few.

[1] It has been said that if private enterprise cannot properly provide a managed health care, then the state must provide it. But these are not the only alternatives. Individuals can organise their own co-operative health service independent of state or capital

[2] The dialectic is no universal social process. First, there is no reason to believe that every cultural system must resolve its conflicts. Cultures may well persist by riding on their internal conflicts and achieving a kind of dynamic equilibrium through the balanced opposition of the conflicting forces. Even granting eventual resolution of a conflict does not mean it will be a synthesis. The dialectic allows for a variety of explanations because it is so ambiguous. It seems perfectly legitimate to argue that capitalism as an ideology is one thesis which generates an opposing thesis of socialism and the synthesis of the two is fascism (where capitalist private property is retained and socialist governmental contro instituted). Finally, in the case of the Marxian dialectic are we to assume that once communism has been achieved there will be no more conflict and so no need for a dialectic process?