Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Chiefs Came to Power (2)

This is the second part of my review of Timothy Earle’s How Chiefs Come to Power: the Political Economy in Prehistory. The first part is here.

Warrior worries
Having started, in Chapter Three, with Sources of Economic Power, Earle then moves to, in Chapter Four, to Military Power: The Strategic Use of Naked Force. Since coercion would seem to be the basic element in rulership, one would think that is where one would start but Earle is determined to have economic power to be causally primary. (Note, this is not to be confused with the reality that a controllable surplus in excess of subsistence is needed for rulership to be possible: my point is that force is likely to be basic to control of such a surplus – a property right you cannot enforce is not much of a right, let alone a basis for rule.)

Earle starts the chapter with:
The military is a segment, group, or institution of warriors or other fighting specialists. They conquer, defend, police and intimidate (p.105).
The term ‘military’ has organisational implications I am uncomfortable applying to such early forms of rulership. Earle sees military power as basic to creating regional chiefdoms by conquest of other rulers and notes the ‘protection racket’ analysis of the creation of stratified and centrally organised society.

An approach Earle regards as insufficient:
Inherently warfare is limited in its effectiveness as a power for central control. Although military force may created a broadly integrated polity, it can as well dissolve it by intrigue, coup and rebellion. The power of force rips at the social fabric, the institution of society. To be effective as a power of centrality, coercive force must itself be controlled, a difficult task that is achieved by binding the military with economic and ideological tethers (p.106).
Well, warriors have to be paid, there has to be some basis for loyalty and giving warriors a vested interested in social stability greatly encourages said stability. But, again, Earle seems to have underlying his analysis a view of “natural” social processes that is not well grounded in actual social processes: particularly not the dynamics of specialist warriors.

Earle then takes us through the scholarly debate over the role of coercion in the development of societies and rulership. Earle identifies the key question as:
whether the warfare of chiefdoms represented the political failure of chiefs to organize stable regional systems or a successful chiefly tool to construct such systems (p.109).
Or both? Depending on local dynamics.

The point Earle wishes to make is that:
Only with the evolution of complex chiefdoms does the nature of warfare change fundamentally. It then ceases to be an outcome of unregulated competition and become a means of conquest. … Conquest warfare seizes control over the subsistence base in an emergent system of stable finance (p.109).
Which seems to be a way of saying that chiefs need access to sufficient surplus, sufficient military force and sufficient control capacity to achieve substantial regional power. That stable power must be broadly based. For:
the problems faced by elites who depend on tribute; when payments are withheld, costly and unpredictable punitive missions must be carried out. But the warriors are always a threat, whose demands quickly turn to treachery (p.110) .
Earle just does not like military force, or the folk who use it.

Yet plenty of societies manage to evolve quite stable systems of warrior loyalty. To the extent that, in early Central Eurasian societies, a ruler’s warrior band was expected kill themselves on his death and be buried with him. Even when that level of loyalty was not required, the notion that you did not survive a battle where your lord was killed remained a powerful idea for centuries. Warrior honour was not some invented figment, it has been a real and powerful force down the ages. Why is a fascinating question.

All societies need ways to distinguish warriors from murderers. But a warrior who cannot be relied upon is neither of use to his (or sometimes her) comrades nor attractive to a possible lord. Warriors have powerful reasons to communicate that they are honourable and to shun or reject those who are not. The commitment not to survive one’s sworn lord communicated that reliability in a very compelling way. Again, the notion of beneficial exchange, let alone social signalling, seems to pass Earle by.

In his analysis of the Andean highlands, Earle concludes that warfare was endemic, and there was a persistent failure to consolidate regional chiefdoms, because chiefly power rested solely on military power: chiefs were not able to extend their bases of power into broader and more enduring structures (Pp 113ff). By contrast, the Inkas were able to organise their state for war and conquer the squabbling chiefdoms with greater military force (p.122).
After characterising the world of the Icelandic sagas as one of chiefs and their families living in constant fear, Earle traces the development of association of male status with weapons in Danish burials. The low population, the lack of evidence for fortified settlements and the pattern of weapons and barrows suggests a warrior elite focused on control of cattle to sustain prestige goods trade based on control of the craftspeople who produced the bronze weapons that dominated warfare (Pp124ff). Earle concludes that:
Warfare alone is an unstable source of power except where the very technology of warfare can be controlled and its spoils can be invested effectively in expanding the political economy (p.131).
Or simply dominated. The knightly class of medieval Europe did not depend on the control of the crafters that produced their armour and weapons for their position. Rather, their position was based on a high level of training being required to use the technology to maximum effect and that the combination of weapons, armour, trained warhorse was expensive. That being so, purchasing their weapons and armour from free crafters worked fine.

Earle then returns to the Pacific to illustrate the example of Hawai’i as warfare being part of an integrated structure of control. The evolution of warfare amongst the Maori as population strained resources (particularly after the Moa were hunted to extinction, though that specific trigger is not mentioned) resulted in endemic warfare with highly fortified settlements (pa) which provided excellent defence given the available technology and greatly impeded building large chiefdoms (Pp132-3). Until, that is, until potatoes and European military technology were imported, followed by an attempt to create a unifying figure to protect Maori interests.

By contrast, despite the histories being full of chiefly warfare where defeated enemies were reduced to food and utensils, in Hawai’i there was little evidence of fortified settlement or warfare affecting the pattern of settlement at all. The military technology was fairly egalitarian, with the canoes used to ferry troops being the only element with any inherent tendency to elite control. Like the Maori, the Hawai’ian chiefs attempted to adopt European technology as soon as it was available. Dying in bed seems to have been a rare event for a Hawai’ian chief. Those who reached any age were often greatly scarred while maintaining the support of one’s warriors seem to have been a matter of constant wariness (Pp133ff).

Yet even exemplifying Earle’s analysis of the inherently unstable nature of military power, the Hawai’ian chiefdoms still managed to construct complex structures of rule that hovered on the edge of being states by the time the Europeans arrived.

The structure and objects of warfare differed in the three cases – land and defence of settlements in the Andes, control of cattle in Denmark, control of commoners and the system of staple finance in Hawai’i. Earle quotes Machiavelli who contrasts strong rulers who can put large, well-equipped forces in the field with weak rulers who rely on friends and high walls. Earle interprets this to mean that walls are a sign of weakness: surely, Machiavelli’s point is that relying on walls is a sign of weakness (Pp141-2). Even the strongest of agrarian empires built fortifications, since they can be so useful for dominating a region.

Idea power
Which brings the analysis to Chapter Five, Ideology as a Source of Power. Earle defines ‘ideology’ as:
the proportion of cultural meaning that is used strategically to institute political domination or resistance (p.143).
Ideologies are thus associated with particular social segments. Earle has already framed consideration of ideas and culture such that it has elements systematically politicised and patterned to particular social groups. Why would ideology exist like that and did it actually conform to social segments in that neat way?

Earle argues that to be used strategically, ideology:
must be made concrete in forms such as ceremonies, symbols and monuments (p.143)
Certainly such activities can express power and send messages. An ideology:
as a view of the world, set forth an understanding of what is right, what is natural. It contains theories of the world and the place of human society and its segments within it …
An ideology also sets up institutional patterns of knowledge and meaning on which patterns of control are logically constructed and legitimized (p.144).
Which seems to be a way of not quite saying that rulership requires legitimacy based on some implicit (or even explicit) social contract to have any stability and the more complete and broadly based that legitimacy is, the more stable it is likely to be. Except that ‘legitimacy’ has implications that do not seem to fit into Earle’s analysis.

We then get a survey of the literature on ideology leading to an extended analysis of ideology and on to consideration of the ‘materialization of ideology’. The key question being:
how an individual’s motivations and worldview can be controlled and directed to work to the interests of one segment and potentially against the individual’s own interests (p.152).
There is a ‘delusion/false consciousness’ dynamic underlying this analysis which I am very uncomfortable with. But that rather goes with the discounting of human rationality and beneficial exchange that pervades the analysis.

One of the blessings of Earle’s analysis is that, with occasional lapses such as ‘materialisation’, he generally expresses himself in clear language and makes points of great simple sense:
Monuments convey a simple message of power and wealth. This elemental message comes regardless of the viewer’s language, age, gender or cultural affiliation. (p.156).
Quite so. Earle goes on to intelligently consider the utility and role of monuments for expressing and buttressing power (Pp156ff).

He begins his discussion of ideology in Denmark by reference to sagas such as Beowulf that, though they date from much later, do express the outlooks of a warrior elite. He notes that:
Dishonor is worse than death because it means loss of respect and the support on which all warriors depend (p.159) .
Correct, but a view rather lacking in his earlier analysis of military power.

For Earle, ideology becomes a way of building and reinforcing chiefly power through routines of compliance – rituals, common building processes and so forth. Thus the Inka had much more extensively articulated routines of compliance, monuments and material provision than the Andean chiefdoms (Pp188-9). In the three case study studies, the Andean chiefdoms were not able to expand their warrior leadership into the routines and practises of the society while the Danish chiefs were somewhat more able to gain some supporting symbols with the advent of bronze weapons. It was only in Hawai’i where chiefs were able to dominate and control key productive capacities (the irrigation channels and associated land) and to weave routines of compliance with supporting claims of divine connections into a system of power which verged on becoming states (Pp190ff).

Framework uber alles
Hence Earle’s conclusion:
To build political institutions, chiefs shape their positions from three primary power media – economy, military and technology.
The consolidation and institutionalization of power depends on the systematisation of power strategies. Power strategies are the means by which ruling segments combine the sources of social power to pursue their political goals (p.193, emphasis in original).
In the cases considered, the primary determinant appears to have been the nature of the developing political economy. The operationalization of one power strategy versus another rested on the ability to intensify and control aspects of the political economy and to use the mobilized surplus to develop power sources. (p.194, emphasis in original).
The nature of the power strategies adopted then deeply influence future social evolution. The Andean chiefdoms were never able to extend beyond specific walled-villages, the Danish chiefdoms beyond specific herds, so chiefdoms remain limited in both resources and territorial coverage (Pp194ff).

The Hawai’ian chiefdoms did much better, turning control over highly productive irrigation facilities into extensive social dominance. A small change in technology (the Western introduction of cannons and guns) was sufficient to turn rule of individual islands into a multi-island state (Pp 200ff).

Well yes. States originally evolved in river valleys, for they had the population density and surplus to support social complex societies with extensive social control structures. Pastoralist states evolved later and did so where there was enough trade with farming communities to provide sufficient surplus to support a dominant ruling clan and enough effective military mobility (chariots, then cavalry) to consolidate control over a sizeable area. This seems to be a long journey to get to a very unsurprising conclusion.

But Earle does not consider such wider patterns. His case studies are not enough of a basis to examine the origins of state-formation.

What he wants to draw from his case studies is a general analytical framework. So he identifies ease of control and the ways it might be extended to be crucial variable characteristics of power so:
The first critical variable appears to be how power may be restricted to (and controlled by) a few hands (p.203, emphasis in original).
Such leads directly to:
Economic power is the most easily controlled. The essence of the economy is its material nature (p.203).
Really? When we look around human societies, which is more centrally controlled: the means of violence or the means of production and exchange? Clearly the means of violence is almost always more centralised than economic activity (and then leads into control of the same). Earle is correct when he notes that economic activity can grow but such growth is often contra-indicated by highly centralised control.

Farmers are more easily controlled than foragers or herders, but that is a feature of being a stationary form of production. Indeed, binding peasants to the land is a classic way of extracting a surplus. The extractable surplus gives on reason to bind them to land, but it does not give the power to do so. (All these points apply even more so to mines, which often used slave labour.)

Control begins with control of violence. The question becomes how much one can embed that control within the society to provide stable control of a sufficiently substantive extracted surplus. But that does not provide the right answer, because it does not start with a Marxian ‘material basis’. A friend recently cruelly observed to me that Marxist academics’ notion of research is to look for footnotes, as they start with the answers. Earle’ concluding few pages are where that element in How Chiefs Come to Power is most obvious. (Particularly when he goes on about the features of the material nature of the economy Pp203-4.)

Earle agrees that military power is the essence of coercion, but sees it as hard to control. Hence the importance of:
Ideological power is the essence of social law. People act in certain ways because it is proper and necessary (p.205).
Which leads to:
The second critical variable of power appears to be how the media power may be used to co-opt and control one another (p.203, emphasis in original).
Each media of power has limits to intensification, so it is their interaction and mutual support which gives the most powerful effect.

So, in the three examples, the Andeans were hill-fort chiefdoms, the Danish were prestige-goods chiefdoms but the Hawai’ian were staple-finance chiefdoms, so had the most complete level of control and came closest to developing full states (Pp209-10). Earle’s conclusion being:
the sources of power are effectively co-opted by using the surplus generated from intensified agriculture to finance control over warriors and police, craft specialists and managers, priests and ceremonies. But if the political economy cannot be centrally controlled, the various sources of power also are difficult to control, and multicentric societies develop (p.211).
Sort of: the way I would put it is that turning power into authority is a matter of resources, coercion and legitimacy. The more broadly authority is based on these things, and the more it is embedded in patterns of life, the greater and more stable such authority is. Stationary intensive agriculture is easier to control, and provides more resources, so is a far easier path to state-building.

Part of my problem with Earle’s approach is that I do not see ideology as a separate “thing” to be managed. It pervades a society and is built on such things as the need for meaning, the need for rules, the operation of property and exchange that pervade social existence long before chiefly authority. Yes of course these are things that power-seekers have to pay attention to and seek to mould and use for their benefit. But the process is interactive, with resource possibilities, and what patterns and institutions exist or can be developed, playing off each other. Earle misses out those deeper connections, so starts his analysis at too reified a level.

This is also true in his consideration of violence. Why bother fighting? This is a basic question. Hunting wrests subsistence violently from nature: it is deeply part of the origins of our species. Hunter-gatherers are, by far, the most violent mode of human existence. For millennia, warrior elites emphasized their hunting prowess as way to display their effectiveness, virtues and utility as violence users.

Farming and herding are distinctly less violent modes of human life for the simple reason that they represent repeated interactions between individuals, families and groups with vulnerable assets. Farming is less violent than herding, since one is more tied down and so more vulnerable. If you are going to examine the origins of basic human social forms, they need to be connected to the basic patterns and frameworks of life, something Earle is very erratic at doing.

Not that there is any mystery as to why: it comes from the Marxian framework he wishes to use and vindicate. The problem is not from having an analytical framework. Far from it, economic historians and lawyers are often advantaged in their use of evidence precisely they have an analytical framework: it forces a useful analytical discipline – provided one remains grounded in the actual evidence (which economists do not always manage to do but the better economic historians are generally very good at). But they are analytical frameworks built up by prolonged engagement with reality: they represent distilled engagement with evidence, not deduction from first principles.

Marxism suffers from not being a framework built up in such a way. Its basic contours are pre-determined and Earle’s analysis is just another example of the common flaw of Marxist analysis of reality being forced into maximum conformity with the framework. The Marxist framework often does prompt people to ask good questions. Alas, it does not encourage answers anywhere near as good. As Earle's How Chiefs Come to Power demonstrates.


  1. This is also true in his consideration of violence. Why bother fighting? This is a basic question. Hunting wrests subsistence violently from nature: it is deeply part of the origins of our species. Hunter-gatherers are, by far, the most violent mode of human existence. For millennia, warrior elites emphasized their hunting prowess as way to display their effectiveness, virtues and utility as violence users.

    (*nods*) Not only are hunter-gatherer cultures very warlike (even though their wars are very tiny in absolute terms, they are very large in relative terms, where numbers engaged and casualties are considered), but half of their means of production, hunting, is basically "war" against nonhuman animals. Aside from the fact that a hunted animal does not courteously lie down and die for one, even if one walks it to exhaustion, organizing a hunting party is akin to organizing a raiding party. Especially if large animals are to be taken, the tactics involved are also quite warlike, often including laying prepared traps and defenses and then conducting sorties to weaken or kill a large animal quite capable of killing the hunters should something go wrong.

    It's interesting in this regard that hunting evolves naturally into pastoralism, while gathering evolves into agriculture, and that nomads are generally the source of barbarian invasions.

  2. Yes, but you need to be careful pushing the connections/contrasts too hard. Agrarian empires tended to be both poorer and more controlled than the pastoralist states: observers from agrarian empires regularly commented on the ease and freedom of the pastoralists. The trade-managing pastoralists of the Silk Road system were also somewhat different than the trade-and-raid pastoralists of the Middle East. Dig into the "barbarian invasions" and it is striking how often bad behaviour by the agrarian empire is part of the pattern. Those walls built by agrarian empires could be about blocking raids: they could also be about holding seized land.

  3. Nice stuff. I suggest looking into Canadian archeologist Brian Hayden.

    Why bother fighting? Because it serves the interests of the Big Men. They intrigue behind the scenes to inflame conflicts, then orchestrate various patterns of extortion from their panicked fellows. Just like today.

    "Divide and rule" is a very very old strategy.

  4. Glad you liked it and thanks to the reference to the work of Brian Hayden, does look of interest.