George Walford: The First Big Step

In order to form any clear ideas about the probable social future we need a rational conception of the course followed in the past, a curve to extrapolate. Beyond Politics presents a stadial conception in which the first major step occurs when the state succeeds the foraging communities, a transition intimately linked with the emergence of the ideology of principle / domination. Nobody suggests a jump directly from the hunting-camp to the Reichstag, Dunbar, Sublime Porte or House of Commons, and a leap from nomadic foraging to archaic civilisation, to Rome or even Sumer, has hardly greater plausibility. The change cannot have taken place without a succession of intervening steps; does this not call in question the stadial conception, obliging us to accept in its stead a movement so constantly transitional as to defy categorization of its phases? Apparently not. Anthropologists who have taken up this question, Morton H. Fried, Marshall Sahlins and Elman R. Service for examples, all speak of a series of stages, such as egalitarian, rank, status, or bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states.

A surprise comes when one finds that “tribe,” one of the most familiar words in this connection, does not indicate any very definite stage in development. The term has no firm agreed meaning, and at least one investigator, Morton Fried, regards the tribal condition as “a way-station between band and state,” but not one substantial enough that theory needs to take it into account. He has also suggested that the tribal form of organisation may often have arisen as a reaction to, or even an imposition by, another, dominating, society which finds it easier to rule tribes than diffuse bands; the Romans and Chinese adopted this course even before the Europeans.

Fried rings a bell when he warns that “few things are more conducive to unsupported conclusions than the perception of political organisation in simple societies by observers from more complex cultures”; one has only to recall the imaginary condition of “primitive communism,” with group marriage and goods held in common, to see the danger. Any attempt at distinctions much finer than that between state and non-state societies calls for extreme care and can hardly produce more than tentative results.

Bearing this in mind, it still seems useful to suggest that, in the transition from band to state, a crux occurs when the figure known as the “big-man” gives way to the chief. The big-man has to create his position for himself acquiring a following largely by performing services for his clientele. As modern equivalents the Mafia “Godfather” the American “ward-boss” come particularly to mind, but patrons, clients and patronage probably appear in all sophisticated societies, they constitute one of those relationships which, once they have emerged, may be repressed but not eliminated.

The chief stands on different ground. He may have to win his office against competition, but he does not create it; he steps into a recognised niche in the social structure: “The chief is dead; long live the chief.” This transition, from a condition in which the most prominent figure in the group creates his own position, to one in which the community possesses a structure for the ambitious to scale, can perhaps be taken as the
point in social development at which the ideology of principle and domination supersedes that of expediency.

GRAVEYARD Humour: The tombstone of Margaret Replogle Shore, Chase County, Kansas, gives the usual information about the deceased and adds: “Thanks for stopping by. See you later.”

from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.