Origins of Political Order cover

From human nature to a state

Survival of the fittest

Evolution theory can explain how biological organisms evolve over time. Genes determine their nature, which means how organisms behave and what they look like. Genes mutate randomly and this causes variation. It is a reason why humans differ in size, behaviour and skin colour. Mutations are passed on to the organisms’ offspring. These mutations alter the features of organisms. Those that are better suited for their environment are more likely to survive and procreate. This is natural selection or survival of the fittest.

The basic principles of evolution, variation and selection, apply to human societies as well. There has been a lot of variation in political institutions throughout history. Societies that succeeded in adapting to new circumstances usually survived the ones that didn’t. The development of societies can therefore be seen as social and economic evolution. Political institutions are an important part of society. And even though institutions are planned or designed deliberately, while biological variation is random, social evolution looks like natural selection because of competition.

As a consequence later civilisations were wealthier and more powerful than earlier ones. For instance, industrial societies are more powerful than agricultural societies. But social evolution isn’t straightforward. Remnants of earlier phases of development continue to exist once a society moved to the next stage. So, after a society has entered the industrial phase, many farmers still farmed the land in a traditional way without machines. And some modern democratic countries still have a king or a nobility.

Family groups

The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers who didn’t know of property. They lived like chimpanzees in family groups consisting of a few dozen individuals. These groups were self-sufficient. If another family group invaded their territory hunter gatherers could move on as population density was low and there was no property to defend.

Family groups were egalitarian. Social differences were based on age and gender. They had no permanent leader and there was no hierarchy. Leaders were elected based on group consensus. Usually women married outside their group to live in the group of their husbands. Marriage was a means of managing relations with neighbouring groups.

After the invention of agriculture population density increased dramatically and people came into contact with each other more often. Struggles became more intense as farmers invested in the land they cultivated. Harvests had to be protected against thieves. This required a different form of social organisation that included property.

From families to tribes

People became organised in tribes. A tribe consists of a number of related family groups who share common ancestors. Usually descent in a tribe is traced through the male family line. A common ancestor of a tribe might well be a mythical person. In this way it is possible to have large tribes. Tribes are often egalitarian. The family groups of the tribe usually remain independent but they can join their forces for war.

War is the main reason for organising in tribes. A tribe can muster more men for war than a family group. Property rights in tribes usually were related to the family groups rather than individuals. Land remained with the family group and couldn’t be bought or sold. The leader of a tribe usually had no authority over the tribespeople and couldn’t force them to obey. And so there was no rule of law. People had to enforce their rights themselves and blood feuds were common.

Religion plays an important role in organising large scale action. The question whether religion created the social order or that religion was invented to justify the social order is never answered. Most likely the causal relationship went both ways. Tribal organisation isn’t natural so people won’t revert to it once the social order fails. Tribal organisation is sustained by religious beliefs, which are often about common ancestors.

Tribes can develop into chiefdoms. A chiefdom has a lord who has armed vassals. It is the most basic form of political organisation. This type of political organisation came to dominate human history and it still exists today in the form of warlords, militia, drug cartels and street gangs. Chiefdoms have power to coerce people that didn’t exist in group based societies. Chiefdoms already have some features of states.

From tribe to state

Liberal social contract theories assume that states emerged when citizens agreed to subject to a state in exchange for safety and other public services. But tribespeople only temporarily gave up their freedoms to meet an external threat like an invasion. And so the reason for the first states to emerge appears to have been violence or the threat of violence, not the desire for a social contract. States differ from tribes in the following ways:

  • States are the highest authority and have a centralised hierarchy.
  • The state has a monopoly on the use of legal coercive force.
  • The authority of the state is based on territory rather than kinship.
  • States have a justification based on religion or political philosophy.

Population growth and increased population density have been important causes of technological improvements like irrigation works. This allowed for a division of labour and the emergence of elites, which promoted state creation. If the population density is low, conflicts about land and access to resources can be solved by relocation, but this option disappears once population density increases or when physical borders fence in the population. The factors that allowed for the first states to emerge were:

  • There must be a surplus of means of existence to support a state.
  • Society must be large enough to allow for a division of labour.
  • Natural borders must fence in the population so people can’t escape when they are oppressed.
  • Tribespeople must subject themselves to a higher authority either because of an external threat or the charismatic leadership of a leader.

The first states may have emerged when one tribe subjected another. In order to rule the other tribe, the victorious tribe may have introduced centralised repressive institutions and established itself as the ruling class. The threat of being subjected may have induced other tribes to develop more permanent and centralised authoritarian structures. Still many tribes just assimilated conquered tribes and states never emerged.

It seems likely that religious ideas played a major role in the formation of early states as religion can provide sufficient legitimation for the loss of freedom coming from the subjugation to a leader or a hierarchical structure. Religious authority can make it easier to create a large military to subjugate rebellious tribes and to create peace and stability on the home front, which in its turn strengthens the religious authority of the leader.

Certain conditions had to be met for the first states to emerge but there are too many interacting factors to produce a strong theory on how the first states emerged. It may not be important to have such a theory as states nowadays are well-established. States now innovate and copy each other’s institutions because they are in a competitive struggle with each other.

Featured image: Cover of The Origins of Political Order

From: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution of Francis Fukuyama.