Anthropologists on the state Notes for September 5

Main points

After running through the syllabus we talked a bit about the Diamond article.

The aim was to identify some of the features that distinguish societies that have states from those that do not have them. We also got a start with one of the chief ways of trying to show that the state is valuable. This involves showing that people who don’t have a state would want to create one if they could. The idea is to use this fact to address the concerns that people who live with states have about them. Whether that kind of argument is successful is something we’ll want to discuss.

What is a state?

I said that, according to anthropologists, societies with states have two things that societies without states do not: hierarchy and a monopoly of force.

We talked a bit about what those two things might involve. There were several interesting ideas about what kind of hierarchy is characteristic of societies that have states. The New Guinea Highland tribes, for instance, clearly have some kind of hierarchy: the two unfortunate uncles are described as leaders. But they don’t seem to have a hierarchy that involves what I called authority, meaning there is no one who other members of the society are required to obey. Furthermore, those who occupy higher positions in the Highland society are not superior to the whole society. Rather, the society is made up of independent clans and tribes. The hierarchy they have isn’t as uniform or centralized as the hierarchy characteristic of state societies.

The monopoly on force is easy to recognize but tricky to spell out. It can’t mean that no one else in the society can use force: plenty of societies have both states and muggers. It probably should be taken to mean that the state’s force is superior to that of any other group inside the society.

Callum raised a very nifty question about whether the state had to have force rather than controlling something that everyone very much wants. Say that Serum Man knows the secret formula that everyone needs to take to survive a chronic virus. Callum suggested that Serum Man might be able to rule without having anything as crude as an army. Dylan added that Isaac Asimov described a society very much like that, which is pretty cool if you ask me. It does seem to me that anything worth being called a state would have to enforce rules among the members of the society and it’s not immediately clear how that would work with Serum Man (maybe I need to read Asimov!). And Serum Man is unique in that his resource is in his head and so not accessible by force (provided there’s no other person or thing he cares about that could be threatened). Many states in our world hold power primarily because they control resources like oil. But they need guns in order to do that.

Is Diamond right?

Someone who I can’t identify from the little pictures we get noted that you can’t infer that the state is a good thing on the basis of one example of a society that does very badly without it. What if all the other pre-state societies in the world are quite peaceful? And what if the state itself is much, much worse than the kind of warfare Diamond described?

That’s right. This something that anthropologists debate about. “Rousseauians,” named after Jean Jacques Rousseau, think that war is the product not just of human culture but the specific kind of culture that comes with the state. They think pre-state societies were generally peaceful. “Hobbesians,” named after Thomas Hobbes, hold opinions pretty much like Diamond’s. They think life in pre-state societies is characterized by a very high level of violence. As Diamond put it, the odds of violent death in a pre-state society are worse than they were in Poland during World War II. Since the Nazis represent just about the worst that the state can do (so far!), the state is a better bet, according to him.

What’s the truth? If I had to pick a side, I would go with the Hobbesians. But I’m not an anthropologist and haven’t studied the primary evidence. I have read some of the books and articles, though. Some prominent Hobbesian works include:

Here’s a start for the Rousseauians (whom I know less about):

Actually, I’ll stick the Ferguson piece up on the Sakai site. It will balance Diamond’s point of view.

I also have an article from Science on the Sakai site. It discusses the lawsuit surrounding the Diamond article that I mentioned.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted September 9, 2012.
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