George Walford: From Village to Empire

Some ten thousand years ago Expediency, and the communities relying upon it, began to go down before an ideology and a way of life formerly unknown. The new methods, even in their earlier stages, permitted the formation of units up to a thousand times bigger than the previous ones and the changes, taken together, constitute the transition from community to society.

Among the most prominent features of the development was a shift from foraging to reliance upon cultivated foods. Gordon Childe christened this change the Neolithic Revolution [1] but it extended over some 2,000 years and, in some locations at least, took even longer; in the Tehuacan Valley cultivation began around 7200 B.C., but not until almost five thousand years later did agricultural products come to make up 70 per cent of the diet. [2] Only the fact that the preceding Palaeolithic had lasted at least two hundred thousand years enabled such a leisurely transition to rank as a revolution.

The introduction of agriculture, and the changes in diet which it brought, have sometimes left physical traces, but the social structures which originally accompanied them have vanished. We have to infer the characteristics of these, mainly from observation of ways of life surviving into modern times, and the indications are that in social structures of the new type the inconsequence, segmental structure and person-to-person relationships of the Expedient community came to be overridden by recognised obligations, hierarchical organisation and relations between groups distinguished by occupation and status. The transition once achieved, the society did not have far to go before the new features consolidated into a state and a system of government.

Our study began with a survey of the range of political movements, and in order to bring the whole of this into view we had to stand back far enough to lose sight of many details. Selection of an appropriate scale is a condition of useful enquiry, the map showing each field and building will not display the outline of the country, and close study of individual societies would not help us to establish any clear distinction between Expediency and its successor. We shall not plunge into the complexities which arise when seeking to specify exactly the differences between a headman a bigman and a chief, or the regularity with which a particular form of social organisation accompanies one or another type of horticulture. We shall not need even to take account of the difference between horticulture (using the hoe) and true agriculture (with the plough), distinguishing only between societies which produce the food on which they depend and exhibit institutions of government on the one hand, and communities which do neither of these things on the other. I shall bring forward one society close to the borderline in order to show that even here changes in the way the means of life are obtained accompany major changes in the political-intellectual structure, but it is in the flower rather than the seed that distinctive features appear in full and accordingly our main attention will focus upon kingdoms and above.

In his classic study of the Nuer of the Southern Sudan Evans-Pritchard presents them as naked cattle-herders, seasonally nomadic, living in grass huts and supplementing their diet of animal products by horticulture. They form a congeries of tribes, sometimes gathering into loose federations but without central administration, rulers or grading of warriors or elders, and the age-sets into which they are divided have no corporate function. Evans-Pritchard speaks of ‘leopard-skin chiefs’ among them, but makes it clear that this position is backed by no coercive force. They show some specialisation but nothing amounting to a profession and cannot be said in any strict sense to have law, for there is no authority with power to adjudicate or enforce a verdict. In sum, ‘their state might be described as an ordered anarchy.’ [3]

When these people are compared with those of developed states their way of living seems primitive; only when we set them against the Expedient communities does the full force of other observations in the same book become clear. The leopard-skin chief is a sacred person with a specialised function, and blood must not be shed in his presence. The Nuer pride themselves upon their cattle (sometimes obtained in war), fighting among themselves over them and using them to buy brides; their herding cannot be accomplished by families acting independently but requires an extensive tribal organisation using recognised conventions in the settlement of disputes. Small local groups tend to act together, forming ‘economic corporations’ and a political system involving ‘structural relations between territorial segments larger than village communities.’ War with the neighbouring Dinka ‘may be called an established institution.’ Within each tribe blood-wealth is paid in compensation for homicide, meaning that there is a limited form of law within though not between the tribes. One clan is sometimes dominant in one or more tribal areas and the Nuer occupy a dominant position among their neighbours. Ceremonial sacrifice of sheep and oxen is regular practice, and the life requires the shepherd virtues of courage, love of fighting and contempt for hunger and hardship. Regarding herding as their proper occupation they yet accept the necessity for the hard, unpleasant labour of horticulture.

Each of these features distinguishes this society from the peoples who live Expediently, and the point gets driven solidly home when we read that among the Nuer: ‘The feud is a political institution being an approved and regulated mode of behaviour between communities within a tribe’; bound by custom as each of the expedient communities may be, approved and regulated modes of behaviour play little part in relations between them. Finally, and for our purposes conclusively, Evans-Pritchard credits the Nuer with a state, a headless kinship state which maintains order and establishes social relations over wide areas; when he describes them as living in an ordered anarchy the ‘ordered’ is not to be overlooked. [4]

In order to maintain their way of life the Nuer have to give the needs of the cattle priority over their own convenience and, what they find more onerous, to undertake also the labour of horticulture. They have to respect the property of their fellows in the owner’s absence, and the need to work together in caring for the herds means that each of them has to submit to established methods of resolving disputes.

Those who would depend upon farming need to preserve cattle and crops whatever the stress, giving prudence, foresightedness, thrift and industry priority over immediate convenience. Famine has occurred repeatedly over much of the world throughout history, and Expediency requires that in hungry times all available food be eaten, but if this be extended to the seed-corn and the breeding cattle then the people revert to living on what they can collect. The transition from foraging to dependence upon herding, horticulture or farming cannot be accomplished without the imposition of severe restraint upon the tendency to do what is immediately convenient; it requires acceptance of the assumption that unrestrained Expediency is insufficient. As the approved criterion, of those parts of behaviour which affect public affairs, Expediency comes to be subordinated to Principle.

Expediency cannot he eliminated, for in much of personal life no other criterion can operate, and the same holds for the small actions making up the extended courses of behaviour to which principles do apply. The herdsman is obliged to go and look after the cattle and the housewife to cook the food, but they decide for themselves which foot to step off with, which hand to hold the pot in. These decisions are governed by Expediency alone, but unless they be made the new system cannot function. Where the hunter-gatherer communities exhibited only Expediency, their successor displays both Expediency and Principle, but these two do not stand passively side by side. In order to function Principle has to repress Expediency and this pattern of two levels, one dominating the other, characterises the many features which distinguish the new society from the old community.

Unlike the foraging communities, food-producing societies display stratification, all but the simplest of them possessing institutions of government with coercive force at their disposal. Also – again unlike the expedient communities – they seek to control their environment, deciding how and where their crops and herds shall grow and requiring their members to perform the tasks entailed, from ruling to mucking out, whether it suits them to do so or not. Expediency gets pushed into the background, hierarchical organisation comes to predominate over segments and the community of Expediency becomes the society of Domination.

The change entails the emergence of distinct occupational groups, usually in complementary pairs and almost invariably with one member of each pair dominating the other. Food-producing societies beyond the very simplest live under permanent chiefs – a different thing from the informal and personal influence, with occasional resort to temporary leaders, found among the expedient peoples – and as the societies develop monarchs come to dominate their subjects, employers their workers, masters their servants, teachers their pupils, preachers their congregations and officers their soldiers, specialisations unknown to the expedient communities. Among the people who live by collecting, and even among animals, one may dominate others (Goodall, writing on chimpanzees, indexes twelve entries under ‘hierarchy’) [5] but there the supremacy depends upon the personal qualities of the individuals in question, while as the societies of Domination develop social status comes to be largely divorced from ability, rulers often being inferior, in mentality, physique and charisma, to many of their subjects. The feature in question is not, strictly, domination, it is the institutionalisation of domination, but this being an impossible phrase to use repeatedly I shall continue to use mostly the shorter form, relying on the context to supply the rest.

When kings replace chieftains as supreme rulers, and sometimes even before that, the few who own much begin to stand out from the many who own little, and the distance between them increases with further development. It makes the economic behaviour found in these systems seem more individualistic than what has gone before, but closer examination dispels this appearance. In the Expedient communities what little production took place was almost always for the direct benefit of the maker or the maker’s family, but in the food-producing societies division of labour means that each producer has to interact with others in order to obtain the full range of necessities; production becomes a social enterprise in which people with specialised abilities place them at each others’ service. Also, the collective power of society takes over the task of maintaining approved claims to possession, eventually coming to use trained police and complex legal systems for the purpose. The wealthy individuals, who stand out so boldly in the societies of domination, do so just because they do not depend on their individual abilities alone but benefit from the powers of the collectivity. Although immediate appearances suggest the contrary, in economic life individualism is weaker and collectivism stronger in the societies of Domination than among the Expedient communities. The division of labour marked the beginning of reliance upon co-operation in economic affairs.

The food the Expedient people lived on cost them only the effort of taking it, and the literature speaks repeatedly of the large amounts of free time they enjoyed, Service calling them the most leisured people in the world. [6] Farmers live in a different way. Their food, especially before the introduction of powered machinery, has cost a great deal of effort; in order to rely upon a continuing supply they need to be secure in the exclusive use of land as well as tools, and the new society was able to provide this where the first communities could not. With the advent of farming, government, sedentary life and the surplus that came with them, both the extent and the effectiveness of ownership leapt beyond all former bounds, advancing towards the condition we know, where it can almost be said that everything on the planet is owned by some person or group, and not just nominally but with support from society that enables them to impose conditions on others for the use of their property. The necessities of life became commodities to be owned, bought and sold, and the occasional barter of the Expedient communities grew into the market. Domination-by-ownership proved so powerful and pervasive that as chattel slavery it was extended even to people.

One can of course conceptually separate farming from social domination and many a designer of anarchistic utopias has done so. Historically, however, they come together. When doctors treat their patients, masters manage their servants, officers command their soldiers, rulers manipulate their officials and farmers deal with their crops their detailed actions have little in common, but the pattern of behaviour is the same in each case: one level super-imposed upon another and dominating it. It is a pattern pervading the societies which produce their own food but playing hardly any part in the Expedient communities.

In their economic activities members of the Expedient communities enjoy almost total freedom from social restrictions, the limitations they suffer being imposed by the natural world; Ituri pygmies may join in the hunt or go off to gather roots as the whim takes them. The societies of Domination, even the least developed of them, function in a different way; any who would live as Nuer must give the needs of the cattle precedence over their personal inclinations, and with further development the requirements to be met become more specific, the socially-imposed limitations more severe.

In the political-intellectual sphere change moves in the opposite direction, independent individuality strengthening as society develops. In the Expedient communities no distinct mechanism for imposing political-intellectual uniformity appeared, but this was because political-intellectual independence hardly appeared among them – it is probably not going too far to say that it remained inconceivable – and when a tendency is not present no means of restraining it are required. The presence of institutions designed to maintain or enforce particular systems of belief indicates awareness of dissension, and it is only in more sophisticated societies that such institutions are found.

The transition from communities of Expedience to societies of Domination entails two parallel but converse movements. In economic-material life, from individualism towards collectivism; in political-intellectual from collectivism towards individualism.

Many an explorer found the expedient peoples willing to fight, but they did so sporadically, responding to the immediate circumstances, while the society displacing them accepts a degree of systematic militarisation as an established feature of its organisation. In organised warfare the two-layer pattern appears once more, each combatant state seeking to subjugate or to avoid being subjugated – objectives unknown among the expedient communities – by means of formed bodies of troops, each of them, once the simplest stage has been passed, under its officers. Pointing out that a hierarchical society, even a chiefdom, can make war more effectively than the hit-and-run bands of the headless communities, Service notes that they also have greater potential for making peace. The society of Domination replaces endemic, small-scale violence with a contest aiming at a peace in which the balance of power has been shifted. [7]

In their writings on military history Keegan and Holmes show how primitive warfare differs from conflicts between states. It tends to be an endemic condition of raid and ambush, its object less to achieve a victory than to assert separate identity. Although weaker tribes may yield space to the stronger, ‘of outright conquest and occupation there is no trace.’ [8] Anything approaching a formal encounter takes the form of ritualised display before an audience, a death or even a serious wound being the signal for peace to break out. Fighting of this type does not extend far beyond the Expedient stage; warfare between Nuer and Dinka had already become a serious affair, and some of the earliest writings tell of Sumerian and Egyptian armies fighting, like modern forces, in order to break the opponent’s will to resist; in the terms we are using here, either to establish domination or to defeat an attempt at imposing it.

Societies of Domination tend to occupy their territory more solidly than the Expedient peoples with their sparse populations ever could, and to spread as it were sideways until encountering another group similarly spreading from another centre. When the two societies possess approximately equal strength an uneasy border results, but an imbalance (more common) leads one to ride up over the other. When the political structure of the conquered group is retained this constitutes the transition from chieftainship, where the head rules directly over the people, to kingship, in which the ruler works through one or more levels of subordinate authority. The process was repeated, the kings in turn being subjected to the king of kings, and Domination eventually reached its peak in the world-spanning empires of modern times.

Empires and imperialism have been favourite targets of the reformers and revolutionaries for most of this century, but the theories attempting to account for them offer surprisingly little help to one trying to grasp their place in the historical development of society. Of those discussed, for example, in Mommsen’s Theories of Imperialism, only Schumpeter’s is said to take in any of the early empires, and that only those of Rome and Persia. Most of them are no more than variations on themes introduced by Marx or Lenin, and nearly all confine themselves to the period after about 1830. It is almost as if the Incas, China, Sumer and Assyria, Ghana, Mali, Songhay and Bornu, the Arab, Mongol and Ottoman empires had never existed. The limitation seems to be one consequence of the view that capitalist productive relations form the substance of existing society, other features being little more than secondary consequences of these. The pre-capitalist empires have almost dropped out of the sight of the theoreticians, and this continues even though the persistence of capitalism after the virtual disappearance of the empires has invalidated Lenin’s view of imperialism as the highest (and final) stage of capitalism.

Michael Doyle’s Imperialism pays greater attention to more modern theorists, but mentions none who trace empires farther back than Bismarck, Disraeli or ‘European industrialism.’ Schumpeter’s view is more inclusive than most, but even he falls short of full integration linking the ancient forces with modern capitalism only as a historical residue which corrupts it. [9]

Modern imperialism can of course be given a definition that separates it from earlier versions; each empire, for that matter, can be shown to differ, and not just in trivial ways, from every other. No definition ever will enable us to say with certainty and exactitude, of every candidate for the title, whether it ranks or not, for no social construct ever has been an empire and nothing else, and every empire throughout its life has been in transition from a pre- to a post-imperial phase. Among the ethno-historians one’s empire is another’s state. [10] The category has fuzzy edges and internal irregularities, but so do others, ‘men’ and ‘women’ for example; they are none the less put to fruitful use, in serious study as well as in everyday life.

The theory being presented here needs no ad hoc additions to account for either empires or imperialism. The ideology of Principle (its presence will be accounted for later) leads its adherents to seek domination or submission according to circumstances, and they have been displaying this dual tendency over the whole period covered by the written record. In the dim light thrown by the first known writing, that of Sumer about 3,500 B.C., what looms out of the shadows is already an empire. To treat the empires of the Nineteenth Century as a species not known before is to create an artificial problem, for Domination, tending towards empire, has been with us since structured society first appeared. What we have to explain, rather, is how any one dominating group should find itself restricted to a particular area, and we do this by reference first to the presence of competing groups and second to the difficulties raised by distance and geography; as technology overcame these so the empires came to extend over most parts of the earth, each of them restricted mainly by the others.

An empire arises as an explicated embodiment of the ideology of Principle. Differences between its two main layers are heavily stressed, the rulers presented as the embodiment of duty, responsibility and justice, the subject peoples as willful and childlike, incapable of seeing beyond the convenience of the moment and needing to be restrained for their own good. The practices adopted go to maintain the firmness of the distinction, the administrators usually being marked off from their subjects by language, costume, education, religion, diet and customs, and sometimes also by skin-colour. The emperor commonly remains far away; Queen Victoria, ruler of the greatest of empires, visited no overseas part of it except Ireland. An empire tends to set a rigid ceiling on the upward mobility of subject peoples, so that ambitious indigenes seeking full domination for themselves can achieve it only by overthrowing their masters. They did this often enough through history, the outcome through long ages being the replacement (not always immediate) of one empire by another.

From its first appearance social domination grew. Starting with headmen and chiefs it slowly strengthened through tyrants, kings and kings of kings, suffering only local and temporary setbacks, until it climaxed in the worldwide empires. The British Empire reached its maximum extension in 1933, [11] when most of the world was incorporated in one empire or another. At that point, with the few who ruled the empires having most of humanity as their subjects, Domination came close to attaining the pyramidal structure towards which it had tended since its first appearance. But in England with the Civil War, in Europe with the French Revolution, in other parts of the world somewhat later, there entered the hero who was eventually to overcome not just this or that empire but imperialism itself.

Continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis