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Cities Without States and Social Scale Without Social Control

What I’ve been reading: From the (generally really fascinating) first chapter on early cities in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Footnotes are from the text unless otherwise indicated. Boldface emphasis is mine.

Dunbar’s Number Is Just A Number:

In the standard, textbook version of human history, scale is crucial. The tiny bands of foragers in which humans were thought to have spent most of their evolutionary history could be relatively democratic and egalitarian precisely because they were small. It’s common to assume — and is often stated as self-evident fact — that our social sensibilities, even our capacity to keep track of names and faces, are largely determined by the fact that we spent 95 per cent of our evolutionary history in tiny groups of at best a few dozen individuals. We’re designed to work in small teams. As a result, large agglomerations of people are often treated as if they were by definition somewhat unnatural, and humans as psychologically ill equipped to handle life inside them. This is the reason, the argument often goes, that we require such elaborate ‘scaffolding’ to make larger communities work: such things as urban planners, social workers, tax auditors and police.[1]

If so, it would make perfect sense that the appearance of the first cities, the first truly large concentrations of people permanently settled in one place, would also correspond to the rise of states. For a long time, the archaeological evidence — from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Central America and elsewhere — did appear to confirm this. If you put enough people in one place, the evidence seemed to show, they would almost inevitably develop writing or something like it, together with administrators, storage and redistribution facilities, workshops and overseers. Before long, they would also start dividing themselves into social classes. **Civilization came as a package. It meant misery and suffering for some (since some would inevitably be reduced to serfs, slaves or debt peons), but also allowed for the possibility of philosophy, art and the accumulation of scientific knowledge.

The evidence no longer suggests anything of the sort. In fact, much of what we have come to learn in the last forty or fifty years has thrown conventional wisdom into disarray. In some regions, we now know, cities governed themselves for centuries without any sign of the temples and palaces that would only emerge later; in others, temples and palaces never emerged at all. In many early cities, there is simply no evidence of either a class of administrators or any other sort of ruling stratum. In others, centralized power seems to appear and then disappear. It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any particular form of political organization, and never did.

This has all sorts of important implications: for one thing, it suggests a much less pessimistic assessment of human possibilities, since the mere fact that much of the world’s population now live in cities may not determine how we live, to anything like the extent you might assume . . . .

— David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Chapter 8, Imaginary Cities, 277-278.

Two Conceptions of Equality; Heavy Lies the Head That Wears the Burden of Proof:

So far in this chapter we’ve looked at what happened when cities first appeared in three distinct parts of Eurasia. In each case, we noted the absence of monarchs or any evidence of a warrior elite, and the corresponding likelihood that each had instead developed institutions of communal self-governance. Within those broad parameters, each regional tradition was very different. Contrasts between the expansion of Uruk and the Ukrainian mega-sites illustrate this point with particular clarity.[2] Both appear to have developed an ethos of explicit egalitarianism — but it took strikingly different forms in each.

It is possible to express these differences at a purely formal level. A self-conscious ethos of egalitarianism, at any point in history, might take either of two diametrically opposing forms. We can insist that everyone is, or should be, precisely the same (at least in the ways that we consider important); or alternatively, we can insist that everyone is so utterly different from each other that there are simply no criteria for comparison (for example, we are all unique individuals, and so there is no basis upon which any one of us can be considered better than another). Real-life egalitarianism will normally tend to involve a bit of both.

Yet it could be argued that Mesopotamia — with its standardized household products, allocation of uniform payments to temple employees, and public assemblies — seems to have largely embraced the first version. Ukrainian mega-sites, in which each household seems to have developed its own unique artistic style and, presumably, idiosyncratic domestic rituals, embraced the second.[3] The Indus valley appears — if our interpretation is broadly correct — to represent yet a third possibility, where rigorous equality in certain areas (even the bricks were all precisely the same size) was complemented by explicit hierarchy in others.

It’s important to stress that we are not arguing that the very first cities to appear in any region of the world were invariably founded on egalitarian principles (in fact, we will shortly see a perfect counter-example). What we are saying is that archaeological evidence shows this to have been a surprisingly common pattern, which goes against conventional evolutionary assumptions about the effects of scale on human society. In each of the cases we’ve considered so far — Ukrainian mega-sites, Uruk Mesopotamia, the Indus valley — a dramatic increase in the scale of organized human settlement took place with no resulting concentration of wealth or power in the hands of ruling elites. In short, archaeological research has shifted the burden of proof on to those theorists who claim causal connections between the origins of cities and the rise of stratified states, and whose claims now look increasingly hollow.

— David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Chapter 8, Imaginary Cities, 321-322

  1. [1]1. E.g. Dunbar 1996; 2010.
  2. [2][This is rather too strong of a statement for the underlying evidence. Graeber and Wengrow’s extended discussion of the Ukrainian mega-sites is really interesting and suggestive, but also highly speculative, with lots of interesting but uncertain interpretation introduced entirely on the strength of the fact that the prehistoric dwellings are arranged in circles, and this would have a deep symbolic meaning in the similarly circular arrangement of modern Basque villages (288-297). Well, maybe; that’s a really interesting thought about how scale might be managed without central organization in a certain kind of settlement, and it ought to be investigated more if possible. But there’s an awful lot more that we can say with clarity and firm evidential grounding about the Uruk Expansion than we can about the Mega-Site settlements. —R.G.]
  3. [3]102. As argued in Wengrow 2015.

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