The false dichotomy between the state and noble savages

James Scott wrote a highly critical review of Jared Diamond’s latest book concerning what we can learn from non-westernized societies that have existed and still exist on the face of the Earth. Scott makes three main interrelated points.

1. Diamond is deeply mistaken in his attempts to infer truths about the social organization of prehistoric hunter-gatherer/nomadic (non-agricultural) societies from the way the present such societies exist.

2. The way such societies exist now and how they interact with other such societies (including high incidence of violent conflict) has very much been determined by the interaction of such societies with states from the moment of their entrance into the scene.

3. The thesis of Steve Pinker also endorsed by Diamond that we owe the current high level of civilization to the states, or, more specifically, that without the states the humanity would have been much worse is unfounded because it is based on comparisons of the modern states with modern non-agricultural societies that suffered terribly from the former. Implicit is the idea, that had some humans not chosen settled agriculture, the humanity could have achieved a higher level of civilization.

I am not even remotely an anthropologist, so I will not tackle Scott’s claim (1) here. Rather I will make five different points of my own related to Scott’s (2) and (3).

1) Scott implicitly contradicts himself at least two times in the article. While he claims that we cannot know anything for certain about prehistoric non-agricultural societies, he himself appeals to the lifestyle of modern hunter-gatherers to claim that the prehistoric ones were the original affluent society. He also appeals to the history of Celtic and Germanic peoples who fought terribly among one another only because of the presence of the Roman Empire and that thus without states prehistoric hunter-gatherers would not have.

2) As I mentioned Scott thinks that prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies were the first affluent societies (because they had abundant food and a lot of leisure). But then he perfectly demonstrates that the members of such societies were not (and are not in the present days) really satisfied with their plight. The examples that Scott invokes seem to suggest that whenever some neighbors of such societies start to live better than them they start to try to plunder. One is tempted to ask here if it were not for such misguided attempts to plunder instead of imitate and trade that those societies that discovered and embraced agriculture were driven mistakenly (as I will claim further) to create the state.

3) Scott makes it sound as if the choice for agriculture necessitated the creation of the state. He probably has something like Wittvogel’s irrigation theory of the state in mind. However, it does not seem that the choice for agriculture necessitated the state, it only made its emergence possible through the emergence of agricultural surpluses. The choice to create the state was quite probably dictated by exaggerated fear of non-agricultural peoples and by religious dynamics. I cannot find the source yet but a couple of years ago I read about the theory that the state emerged from the religious practice of providing gifts to priests that eventually became institutionalized. Various historical facts lend credence to the hypothesis that the first states were thoroughly theocratic. And it does not seem to be a coincidence that a religious justification was necessary to create states. As Michael Huemer demonstrates in his superb book on the problem of political authority, what state agents routinely do would never have been recognized as legitimate if people stuck to their moral intuitions that it is wrong to murder, steal, hijack people, etc. It probably required no less than divine justification to overcome the force of those moral intuitions.

4) The fact that non-agricultural societies have throughout history turned violent wherever their neighbors become wealthier suggests that there is probably something about such societies that makes their members unable to appreciate the advantages of innovation, production and exchange and casts grave doubt on the idea that had they been left alone they would have given rise to an even higher civilization than we know. This something is probably just primitivism of life in such societies, of a life under which everyone did the same stuff. The advent of agriculture allowed some people time to concentrate on thinking, rather than on getting food, and the precursors of modern science, the geographers and long-distance traders soon followed. The rest is history.

5) This leads us to the final point. Scott is correct to doubt the civilizing influence of the state. But it would be too quick a logical jump to attribute the high level of civilization achieved by modern societies with states to the states. In fact a strong case can be made that this level of civilization has been achieved in spite of the states, and in spite especially of slavery which was probably humanity’s greatest mistake. It has been achieved because the states have not managed everywhere to extinguish the creative power of the quest for knowledge, improvement of one’s lot and exchange. Thus, the dichotomy between happy savages who might have developed into something greater and predatory states is at least prima facie false. Had prehistoric people shown the middle finger to the chief-priests with their claims to semi-divine status, the humanity would have probably achieved much greater heights.


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