The previous blog set the framework for a discussion of the evolution of the state in Egypt, and promised that I would next consider some of the theories proposed by Egyptologists. First, though, let’s put this theoretical discussion in a broader context.
At a very broad level, most theories of the evolution of the state belong to one of two categories. The conflict theories emphasize conflict between societies (warfare) and/or conflict within societies (class struggle). Functionalist theories (called so because they assume that complex societies arose to fulfill some important function) explain evolution of the state as a solution to organizational and redistributive problems. For example, in an influential book, The Evolution of Human Societies: from Foraging Group to Agrarian State, Allen Johnson and Tim Earle argue that complex societies arise (1) to reduce production risks, (2) to manage resource competition, (3) to allocate resources efficiently and to make capital investments, and (4) to conduct interregional trade. Conflict enters their theory as a relatively unimportant factor, under (2) resource competition.
It’s important to note that the Cultural MultiLevel Selection theory that I favor in my own research integrates these two perspectives: cooperation within societies (the functional aspect) evolves as a result of competition between societies (the conflict aspect).
The theories underlying (explicitly or implicitly) the discussions of the Egyptian state by Egyptologists that I have read so far (such as David Wengrow, Kathryn Bard, and Fekri Hassan) are resolutely functionalist. For example, Wengrow never uses the word ‘warfare’ in his book even once, as far as I could determine. It’s not in the index. Neither is ‘conflict’ or ‘class.’
I am going to base my discussion on an article by Fekri Hassan, “The Predynastic of Egypt,” published in 1988 in Journal of World Prehistory, because Hassan makes very explicit the conceptual underpinnings of his model. For the non-scientist readers of this blog it might be worth adding that my critique of his argument doesn’t mean that I think he is a bad person – my attack is directed at hypotheses, rather than people behind them. In fact, Hassan is to be commended for the clarity of his model, as well as for his engagement with the broader theoretical frameworks discussed by social scientists (in this he differs from the majority of Egyptologists – perhaps because his first degree was in geoarchaeology).
Here’s what Hassan says:
the process leading to the state was set in motion by factors inherent in the socioecology of agricultural production. Attempts to dampen the effects of agricultural fluctuations by pooling the resources of neighboring communities led ultimately to the emergence of the chiefs. Further enlargement of the economic unit led to a hierarchy of chiefs and the emergence of regional political units. Legitimation of power led to an emphasis on funerary offerings and status goods. This political technology stimulated trade. Skirmishes with “Libyan” and “Asiatic” raiders provided a raison d’etre for “military” power and added to the image of chiefs as keepers of world order.
Note that warfare (“skirmishes with raiders”) plays decisively secondary, if not tertiary role in the process of state formation.
There are two problems with the Hassan hypothesis. The first one is that it goes against everything we know about people living in small-scale egalitarian societies (here I follow Chris Boehm, e.g. his Hierarchy in the Forest). Hassan says
In its initial stages, the people were able to see the material benefits of representatives and cooperation. The chiefs also had to work harder than others to maintain their position.
And a couple of pages later:
The representative may have thus acquired by group consent and support a political power—the ability to act upon the actions of others. … The increase in the power of chiefs probably resulted from the continued benefits to the community resulting from their managerial activities. The extension of the group interaction over larger territories is likely to have led to the rise of a hierarchy of chiefs.
The problem with functionalist explanations like this one is that it proposes an end point of an evolutionary process in which a new structure arises that fulfills a certain function—in this case, dampening the effects of agricultural fluctuations by integrating many villages within a large-scale society with managerial elites that can take surpluses from one area and direct them to where shortages are. But this explanation does not propose a plausible mechanism of how we get to this end point.
In fact, egalitarian societies are very resistant to the idea of creating permanent chiefs and endowing them with structural power to order everybody else around. Furthermore, the chiefs themselves would be less than eager to submit to the power of a paramount chief above them. Even today, and in dire straits, people coming from egalitarian societies find it extremely difficult to constitute and uphold hierarchies.
Just think of eastern (Ghilzai) Pashtuns, who, unlike their more hierarchical Durrani cousins, have historically lived in egalitarian tribes. In an article in Cliodynamics, Thomas Barfield wrote
an eighteenth century Muslim pir … proclaimed that the Ghilzais would live under Durrani control for seven generations, “Badshahi da Durrani, tura da Ghilzai” [Kingship to the Durrani, but to the Ghilzai the sword].”
The leaders of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government [which came to power as a result of the Saur Revolution in 1978], who were eastern Pashtuns, almost completely purged the old Durrani elite from power. However, they proved unable to consolidate their authority among their own people and had a disturbing tendency to murder one another. In the war that followed the Pashtun military leaders on both the PDPA and the mujahideen sides were overwhelmingly eastern Pashtuns and few Durrani military leaders emerged on either side. … The Taliban leader Mullah Omar (of eastern Pashtun tribal origin) attempted to break the old model of power by declaring a clerical regime, but his Islamic amirate collapsed in the face of the American invasion of 2001. … The easy reestablishment of a Durrani ruler [Hamid Karzai] once again demonstrated the fractiousness of the eastern Pashtuns and their inability to coalesce politically.
So why should we expect that ancient Egyptians would willingly give up autonomy and submit to the rule of chiefs? This is not just a theoretical argument. By Naqada IIIC (Dynasty I) the rulers of Egypt practiced massive human sacrifices. That’s what happens when you submit to chiefs and kings. It’s almost better to starve during a periodic famine than become a powerless peasant in a despotic archaic state.
To be continued