Notions of the "state" take for granted a set of organizing principles that don't adequately reflect all human groupings over time. In Chapters 9 and 19 of The Dawn of Everything, the Davids ask: Why not?

Reading Time: 15 minutes

One of my favorite Old English poems is called “The Ruin”. Written in the 8th or 9th century, this elegy ruminates on the structures of an ancient city, imagines what life might have been like for its occupants, and depicts its possible downfall. It is a reminder, for me, of the curiosity of those who came before us: people who wandered the Earth long before our present city structures, our schools of learning and founts of collected knowledge, and wondered about what they saw. Do we espouse such curiosity today?

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is a work of speculative anthropology that encourages us to imagine our ancestors as creative and thoughtful and flexible as ourselves. In our last foray into Humanist Book Club, we looked at ancient large-scale urban sites absent signs of kings or tyrants, and even a potential site of pre-Grecian civic activity that might have been more democratic than the version we’re taught came first. The next two chapters begin with a similar invitation to remember that the past has layers. Specifically: that civilizations before our own were built on ruins, and told stories about them, too.

One of the most important takeaways from these chapters, though, is a lesson about incuriosity. As David Graeber and David Wengrow (“the Davids”) note, early historians were often quick to assume that ancient Amerindian cultures couldn’t possibly have had systems of eloquent discourse, or more elaborate collective governance, because such features of a pre-contact world would go against the myth that, even as colonizers brought ruin to Amerindian regions, they brought “civilization” too.

We’ll dive into key examples below, but this feels important to stress:

Familiarity with a given story can impede our ability to assess new evidence effectively. That’s not a “bad” thing so much as a human response. But where skepticism arises, pay attention. Is our reluctance to re-frame history built on sturdy evidence, or simply resistance to ideas that contradict our status quo?

The Dawn of Everything: Chapters 9 & 10

Key terms: Aztec Triple Alliance • the Chavín • the Chichimec • collective governance • Jean Bodin • Jared Diamond • Ancient Egypt • heroic politics • Thomas Hobbes • Alfred Kroeber • Charles C. Mann • the Mayans • Mesoamerica • the Natchez • Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttal • the Olmec • the Otomí • Popol Vuh • primitive democracy • Jean-Jacques Rousseau • schismogenesis • social revolution • the state • Teotihuacan• Tlaxcala • Rudolf von Ihering • Max Weber • the Zapatistas

Teotihuacan was an early site of cultural appropriation. But whose culture, exactly, was being appropriated? No one quite knows. When the Mexica of the Aztec Triple Alliance migrated in the 12th century and built their capital of Tenochtitlan, they modeled this island-city on the ruins of a city a day’s journey off, and started building myths around its famous pyramids of the sun and the moon, along with a “Way of the Dead” between them. Even today, it’s these sites and their relevance to Aztec history that draw tourism in Mexico. The deeper history behind these appropriated monuments took more time to recover.

As we learn in Chapter 9, “Hiding in Plain Sight”, current archaeological research now recognizes Teotihuacan as the site of a major social revolution. Founded around 100 B.C. and declining around 600 A.D., the city took a striking turn away from the early governance structures that yielded its most famous architecture. Like many Mesoamerican cities of the time, it bore signs of top-down, brutal, warrior-culture governance. It reached urban size around 0 A.D., and grew from an influx of people from surrounding regions between 50 to 150 A.D. A coalition of “elders, priests, and wise men” from smaller settlements yielded a collision of religious beliefs manifesting in local shrines in shanty-town barrios. Up until around 200 A.D., the city cultivated a sacred center through the construction of monuments, with sacrificed infants and war dead lining the foundations of its famous pyramids.

But then something happened. Around 300 A.D., one of its great temples was desecrated, and the beginnings of a new pyramid went up nearby, never to be completed. All signs of ritual killing fell away, and a very different urban project took place: the building of high-quality stonework for apartment-style single-story complexes, laid out on a grid where nuclear-family units could live comfortably in groupings of 100 or so, in a residential zone housing some 100,000, at around 3,600 square meters per residence. These families had access to a good diet with a mix of local and even imported materials, and their homes supported internal drainage, with well-plastered walls and floors, and murals and other signs of decoration and veneration in communal spaces. Throw in some wi-fi and penicillin, and their middle-class existences could have been considered equivalent to our own.

This de-centralized urbanity, in which different barrios most probably tended to and governed their own while collaborating on a broader council, lasted until around 550 A.D. So what happened? For an explanation of the city’s eventual dissolution, the Davids point to art in one residential sector that hints at warrior ancestry for a subgroup of citizens. Residents were certainly bound by familial ties, and even neighborly ties, but the whole city-space was also home to a diverse range of cultures. Though there are no signs of a violent end, it seems likeliest that at some point these different groups simply went their own ways.

The Davids contrast this example of a shift away from tyrant-kings with an episode in which a democratic urban sphere decided to ally with Spanish conquistadors.

The basic story is straightforward. What happened to that story is more curious. After internal deliberation, the city-state of Tlaxcala decided to join the Spaniards in fighting the Aztecs, a longstanding bane on their existence. Maxixcatzin was in favor of the alliance, and gave a compelling speech to that end. An ancient Tlaxcalan, Xicotencatl, was against it, and criticized his people for being so quick to consider these outsiders like gods. The assembly deliberated, and came up with a compromise: they would invite Hernán Cortés into their city, and let their warrior-allies the Otomí ambush his men. If they defeated Cortés, clearly these weren’t gods. Problem solved! But if Cortés bested the attackers, Tlaxcala could blame the attack on the Otomí and go ahead with their alliance against the Aztecs.

History has since downplayed all of this, such that a famous pop-history text, 1491 by Charles C. Mann, goes so far as to say that the kings of Tlaxcala joined forces with Cortés. Incorrect: there were no kings. But it took significant reclamation of lost documents to patch together the original deliberations among this Mesoamerican community: work by the likes of pioneering archaeologist and anthropologist Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttal in the early 20th century, who reclaimed texts gathering dust for centuries in religious library collections.

The problem comes from our knee-jerk reaction to histories that don’t fit our baseline assumptions. As the Davids note,

We like to tell ourselves that Europeans introduced the Americas not just to these agents of destruction but also to modern industrial democracy, ingredients for which were nowhere to be found there, not even in embryo. All this supposedly came as a single cultural package: advanced metallurgy, animal-powered vehicles, alphabetic writing systems, and a certain penchant for freethinking that is seen as necessary for technological progress. ‘Natives’, in contrast, are assumed to have existed in some sort of alternative, quasi-mystical universe. They could not, by definition, be arguing about political constitutions or engaging in processes of sober deliberation over decisions that changed the course of world history; and if European observers report them doing so, they must either be mistaken, or were simply projecting on to ‘Indians’ their own ideas about democratic governance, even when those ideas were hardly practised in Europe itself.

As we’ve also seen, this way of reading history would have been quite alien to Enlightenment philosophers, who were more inclined to think their ideals of freedom and equality owed much to the peoples of the New World and were by no means certain if those ideals were at all compatible with industrial advance. We are dealing, again, with powerful modern myths.

This last part ties into the argument the Davids made in our opening chapters, around how the dissenting political theories of Hobbes and Rousseau emerged from a context of Europeans shocked by Amerindian cultures, and the different approaches to freedom that existed there. In Chapters 1 and 2, we saw how European supremacy was gravely challenged by forms of liberty and egalitarianism that didn’t exist in European culture, such that Hobbes, Rousseau, and others got to work developing our familiar myth of human progress by arguing for the inevitability of our shift from a “primitive” state into modern Western politics.

The historical acrobatics that the Davids explore here are even messier, though, because they’re dealing with an awkward, retroactive skepticism among more recent scholars. When academics contest the plausibility of a “primitive” civilization holding debates wherein two figures present opposing views and consensus is reached through compromise, what we’re really dealing with is an argument from incredulity on par with thinking that aliens must have built the pyramids because we can’t imagine our ancestors coming up with “advanced” solutions on their own.

Today elaborate debate seems intrinsic to democratic society, which we like to believe came out of Greece and Western tradition, and then was dropped onto others. That’s what led some, at least, to claim that the history of Tlaxcala must have been fudged by Western writers to make Indigenous peoples seem more advanced. But how on Earth does this argument make any sense when the people first reporting on these debates were scholars like Diego Muñoz Camargo (Historia de Tlaxcala, 1585) and Francisco Cervantes de Salazar (Crónica de la Nueva España, 1558-1563)? People who supported European hierarchies, monarchism, and the conquistadors? From what possible foresight of how the West would eventually consider democracy superior would they be falsifying reports of Tlaxcala politics to depict a style of governance so different from their own?

Why such historians imagine that a collection of sixteenth-century Spanish friars, petty aristocrats, and soldiers were likely to know anything about democratic procedure (much less, be impressed by it) is unclear, because educated opinion in Europe was almost uniformly anti-democratic at the time.

And the real clincher? Cortés himself describes Tlaxcala as a civilization governed by a council of elected officials: an “order of government … resembling very much the republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa for there is no supreme overlord”. Friar Toribio of Benavente, also called Motolinía, would confirm this observation in an account (Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España, 1541) that highlighted the qualities of speech, public comportment, and ritual subjugation necessary for an aspiring politician to gain his role as public servant.

So where did the locals source their democracy, if not from the monarchical imperialists who had come a-looting? From surrounding desert cultures, as descendants of the Chichimec. From smaller groupings, where the idea of collaborative decision-making makes perfect sense. Why are we so quick to believe that democracy had to start with massive states?

Reimagining much richer historical tensions

This was one point in the reading where many of the book’s arguments fell into place for me, because Tenochtitlan is the more popular story of Mesoamerica in Western history, with its brutal rituals and sports, its grand palaces and temples. Fascination with the Aztecs runs so deep that there’s little room for the role of schismogenesis in local Indigenous cultures: the idea that if Tenochtitlan was populated by a nation that had built itself one way, it would only stand to reason that neighboring nations might expressly take other approaches to organizing themselves, to cultivate opposing identities.

So it is that Tlaxcala, like Teotihuacan a few centuries after construction, abandoned its interest in elaborate monoliths and centralized sacred spaces, and became home to residences of high and uniform quality for its citizens. It also has a civic complex outside the city, built to sustain substantial public gatherings (as would be necessary for active participatory governance).

Which, then, was the outlier? Tenochtitlan’s predatory empire? Or the collaborative democracies and shared living spaces of Tlaxcala and pre-Aztec Teotihuacan?

In Chapter 10, “Why the State Has No Origin”, we bust another persistent myth in human history that muddies the question for us. Jean Bodin gave us the term “the state” in the late 16th century, yet now it’s used ubiquitously, as if a self-evident way of describing how human beings live. This has a lot to do with Rudolf von Ihering, who offered a systematic definition around “any institution that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force within a given territory”, only to have his definition more commonly associated with Max Weber.

Although this term has proven fairly functional for modern states, the Davids argue that it makes a real hash of our ability to understand and categorize human history. (I’d go one further, and say that it’s also made a real hash of our ability to understand and categorize the world today, too, but that’s another essay.) What follows is a sprawling chapter that attempts to reorient our thinking not just about the nature of the state, but also about our overall categorization of human history into periods, empires, and relevant organizations of labor and custom.

The problem with the definition is two-fold: one, it doesn’t cover the practical chaos of many historical societies, like Babylon, ancient Athens, and medieval England. Two, it’s too top-down even to cover classic histories in early state-building, like how Egyptian and Incan kingdoms arose from an extension of kinship to include more elaborate demonstrations of familial care through commitment to the machine of empire in exchange for bread, beer, and blessings.

Marxists have argued that states emerge to “protect the power of an emerging ruling class”, which better covers some of these outlier and bottom-up cases. This definition won’t fly for most liberals, though, because this kind of “state” isn’t a benevolent organization, whereas liberal projects rely on the belief that the state does more good than harm.

Are the Marxists right, or is Weber? As with the debate between Hobbes and Rousseau, the Davids wonder if this is the wrong question. While trying to figure what a state is, have we leapt past the possibility that not every complex society merits the term at all?

Running away from definitions of ‘the state’

In Chapter 8, we saw examples of human beings living en masse, as in ancient Uruk, in ways that did not show signs of “statehood” as an administrative principle. Nor did the concept manifest in Northwest Coast societies, which managed to self-rule and differentiate between tribal groupings without formal governing institutions.

Is defining a state necessary? Why do we try to? What does this categorization of human society do for questions of freedom and equality, or the loss of either?

Rousseau thought that the loss of cultural innocence was the inevitable consequence of gaining a sense of private property. As the Davids explore, “landed property” isn’t a physical domain so much as a “legal understanding, maintained by a subtle mix of morality and the threat of violence”: a kind of mini-state. From here, it seems, we might first have gone ideologically astray.

To explore the scholarly misstep, the Davids develop three bases of social power from theories of property: control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma. Together, these form the institutions most critical to the modern state, and the idea of “sovereignty”. Without control of violence, information, and charisma, enforcement of one’s dominion falls apart. With them, in various combinations, we get different societal formations.

For instance, even under dynastic rule, ancient Mesopotamian cities didn’t have much in the way of genuine territorial sovereignty. A divine king of the Nilotic people in East Africa could call for the murder of citizens, but he couldn’t translate that power into fuller territorial control. He had some administrative savvy and the use of heroic politics, but not sovereignty. Conversely, Egypt’s early leaders went without competitive contest and heroic politics for long eras in which rigid sovereignty and administration dominated. And Classic Mayan leaders? There, sovereignty and heroic politics flourished, but administrative systems didn’t keep up.

These varying second-order regimes complicate a linear idea of state history, as something that moves naturally from administration to sovereignty to charismatic politics (including today’s notion of democratic contest). Broader historical range gives us at least two other paths to modern states: administration, then charismatic politics, then sovereignty; or charismatic vision, then sovereignty, and finally administration. Or maybe two of these, without the third at all!

The key point (which the Davids wander about extensively to reach, slipping through many exampes of how information and charisma are performed and secured to create the kind of dominion we associate with statehood) is that only one of these histories matches more recent ideas about how humanity was supposed to develop. The development of Ancient Egypt accords best with a notion of stable sovereignty and advanced administration that returns in the later work of Robin Dunbar and Jared Diamond, among others who view the establishment of more elaborate enforcement mechanisms (state projects) as necessary to large societies.

But Egypt was only one civilization, and even it didn’t keep cleanly to that prioritization of sovereignty and administration over all its dynasties. The Davids don’t agree, then, that today’s military, administration, and political processes follow cleanly from our past, or at least from the past we think they do. Elections, for instance, weren’t seen as democratic by later ancient Greek societies: lottery or sortition was. What we have today extends more naturally from heroic sport.

In other words: there is no single, unifying model for our arrival at the mess we now call modern states. Nothing in our history necessitates moving from one more “primitive” organization of human beings to an inevitable teleological endpoint in the world today.

So why do we think otherwise?

Is our reluctance to re-frame history built on sturdy evidence, or simply resistance to ideas that contradict our status quo?

For the answer, let’s go back to the parts of this chapter focused on Aztec and Inca history. The Aztec Empire has so thoroughly consumed our collective imagination not just because of the horrors of its human-sacrificial imperialism and violent expansionism, but also because its top-down hierarchy was more comprehensible to Spaniards than the sociopolitical structure of many other Amerindian societies.

Like the Spanish, the Aztecs, with their “monarchy, ranks of officialdom, military cadres, and organized religion… kept a respectable distance between governing and governed, dictating everything from fashion to sexual mores”. They even had tax collectors and patronage!

Similarly, the Inca made for easy targets for conquest because they were recognizable. As a society broadly governed by a Habsburg-esque religio-monarchy, they had “easily identifiable kings who could be captured or killed, and [were] surrounded by peoples who were … long accustomed to obey”.

What the Spaniards could not understand were the more decentralized cultures, like the Maya-language-speaking peoples of the Yucatán Peninsula, the highlands of Guatemala, and the Chiapas. Wave after wave of revolt emerged from Spanish conquest in these regions, because the cultures had never concentrated territorial dominion within a few hands in the first place.

Even today, the Zapatista movement of Chiapas advances collaborative, anti-colonial, egalitarian, and Indigenous-led armed resistance in the region. But we don’t have much room for such cultures in our histories of Aztec, Maya, and Inca peoples, because they don’t match our understanding of states, as given to us by our own social histories. Through the lens of our own experiences as Western cultures, we pay close attention to archaeological evidence that highlights periods of monument-building, and downplay eras when great cities were abandoned, decentralized into un-kinged townships, or transformed into more egalitarian living quarters.

Breaking up historical periodization

This oversight is acculturated more than malicious. When anthropologist Alfred Kroeber studied patterns of cultural boom and bust, he found that the seemingly self-evident terminology of growth and decay shaping his mid-20th-century analysis of past civilizations didn’t work in practice. There were no coherent and consistent patterns to the rise and fall of preceding human societies.

And yet, that terminology abides. We frame so much of our understanding of human history not only through supposedly inevitable states of progress toward elaborate and concentrated power, but also of decline from one and the same. We’re not sure what to do with cultures where governance varied without clear signs of ruin, and our academic language reflects this oversight.

In a similar way, terms like “Proto-palatial Crete”, “Predynastic Egypt”, or “Formative Peru” convey a sense of impatience, as if Minoans, Egyptians, or Andean peoples spent centuries doing little but laying the groundwork for such a Golden Age – and, it is implied, for strong, stable government – to come about.

But what if we stopped seeing all these other human histories as mere prefaces, “postfaces”, or intermediary conditions? The Davids raise the example of 19th and 20th century ideas imposed on ancient Egypt. In what was considered by early historians as a period of decline, we find 200 years of Thebes in which “five unmarried, childless princesses … were elevated to the position of ‘god’s wife of Amun'”, where they lived in luxury, with large staffs and strong economic and political roles in daily and ritual life. This was a stable society. It just didn’t fit the mold for how historians felt that societies should progress.

And yet, the tripartite division of ancient history into Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms is very recent to scholarship, a reflection of those historians’ own political contexts and priorities. It also began meeting with push-back within decades of its first use.

In other words: we’re not accessing real history so much as the generational anxieties of scholars making sense of the world in light of contemporaneous politics.

So how do we break free?

The Davids offer a few case studies, including from the Olmec, Chavín, and Natchez. This chapter truly sprawls, so we’re not going to touch on them all. Suffice it to say:

The greatest known Maya epic, Popol Vuh, centers around a ball game. So too did political life in the Olmec society, precursor to the Aztec and Maya. An unusual civilization, it had hierarchical rule and also didn’t rise and fall based on the collapse of a given regime. Its statues of leaders depicted them as ball-players, and sport seemed to figure highly in political ascent. Later extensions of the society would use sport as a substitute for war, and it’s reasonable to assume that similar cultural activities helped unite Olmec’s sprawling, multicultural districts of significant suburbs and scattered farmlands, interspersed with large ceremonial structures where calendrical events and ball games took place.

Was it a “state”? It didn’t seem to have a coherent military or administrative apparatus. Just this shared interest in sport as a unifying feature in political life.

The Chavín de Huántar, a pre-Inca culture on the Peruvian Andes, are a similarly “weird” society. They show no signs of cohesive military or administrative governance, but spread their influence through art, with certain images showing up throughout the region. These images are not written language so much as records of shamanic ritual, as attested to by surrounding archaeological objects used in mystical ceremonies. Also present throughout the sprawling terrain of this society is architecture suited for individual trials and tribulations, attesting to a culture where dominion could have been maintained through the performance of shamanic knowledge, and attendant spectacles of strength and daring.

And the Natchez of Louisiana, as studied by French colonizer? They had their “sun king”: a divine ruler enshrouded with so much mysticism that he lived well away from his people, and his people routinely scattered from central territory for large parts of the year. This society had great respect for its ruler, and great ritual built upon a sovereignty that granted him the use of violence over others… but administration? Anything else resembling modern notions of the state? Not at all.

What all these societies shared, though, was a commitment to collective labor at least on a seasonal or project-specific basis. In Egypt, this seemed to lead to cultivate more elaborate state projects over time, but that end result wasn’t guaranteed anywhere else, and even in Egypt there were whole periods when sovereignty gave way to heroic politics that advocated anew for more egalitarian relationships, or at least for leaders who would provide bread to all their people.

Anyone see anything familiar, for instance, in the words on this rock-cut tomb of Ankhtifi at El-Mo’alla, nomarch during the messily named “Intermediate Period of Egypt” (2181-2055 B.C.)?

I gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked; I anointed those who had no cosmetic oil; I gave sandals to the barefooted; I gave wife to him who had no wife. I took care of the towns of Hefat and Hormer in every [crisis, when] the sky was clouded and the earth [was parched? And people died] of hunger on this sandbank of Apophis. The south came with its people and the north with its children; they brought finest oil in exchange for barley which was given to them… All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children, but I did not allow anybody to die of hunger in this nome… never did I allow anybody in need to go from this nome to another one. I am the hero without equal.

How impoverished our colloquial understanding of human history quickly becomes, once confronted with the great depth of complex ideas and societal arrangements that plainly thrived in other ages, too.

This weekend, we’ll wrap up with Chapters 11 and 12, when all these ideas come full circle. In The Dawn of Everything, the Davids have raised plenty of questions about historical scholarship, political science, Western philosophy, and human agency, but for the next round of Humanist Book Club we’re going to take their underlying challenge forward, with a whole new text and challenges, to see if we can’t re-imagine a better world to come.

Series 1: The Dawn of Everything

Chapters 1 & 2: When philosophy is mistaken for field research

Chapters 3 & 4: The seasonal cycle of rigid human societies

Chapters 5 & 6: On culture and farming, and the myths surrounding both

Chapters 7 & 8: The diverse human ecologies that shaped our earliest cities

Chapters 9 & 10: Myths of the state, historical era, and lost democracies

Chapters 11 & 12: A different history of end states in human progress

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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