The state is often portrayed as a critical early step in humanity’s march of progress away from barbarism and toward civilization, right up there in importance with writing and agriculture. Some even treat all of civilization’s boons, including especially peace and material prosperity, as gifts of the state.
Proponents of this view cite statistics that show how state societies are, on balance, more peaceful and prosperous than pre-state societies. Steven Pinker, in his book A History of Violence, argues that even western society during the statist and blood-soaked 20th century was, per capita, more peaceful (and much more prosperous) than a typical tribal society.
If civilization and its boons correlate with the existence of the state, does that mean that the former was only possible thanks to the latter?
No, it is quite the opposite. It was civilization that made the state possible, and not vice versa. Indeed, it is necessarily true that civilization is, as Murray Rothbard put it, “anterior to the State,” since, “production must always precede predation.” More specifically, the massive, dead-weight millstone that is a state can only be borne by production levels that only a division-of-labor civilization is capable of. The parasitic state could never have come into existence without the prior existence of a civilized, productive host society to sustain it.
The state is not the only institution that can keep a people chronically impoverished and beset by violence. Helmut Schoeck, in his book Envy, discussed extensive anthropological research (excellently summarized by Rothbard in “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labor”) that shows how envy-based, egalitarian, anti-private-property customs can be just as debilitating as a totalitarian state. Such pernicious customs explain the arrested economic development of largely stateless primitive societies.
Such societies are not primitive because they do not have organized states. It is quite the opposite. They cannot sustain organized states because they are primitive. They are primitive, because they do not have a thoroughgoing tradition of private property. This necessarily results in economic autarky and extreme poverty. Autarky (“If goods do not cross borders, armies will”) and poverty (the ravenous are apt to ravage) in turn result in both constant inter-tribal warfare (what Ludwig von Mises referred to as “biological competition”) and the fact that there are not enough means of subsistence to sustain a parasitic state in addition to its productive host. It is the development of private property traditions and the resulting division of labor that led both to a decline in inter-tribal warfare and enough wealth in societies for parasitic states to feed off of. That is why the two so often occur together.
The state owes its existence to civilization, not vice versa. And the wars and acts of plunder that interrupt the civilizing process have been made more common and more destructive by state encroachment into the market-and-civil society.
The truth that civilized production must precede state parasitism is nicely illustrated by the archaeological record.
Civilization first arose along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia (“the land between the rivers”) which basically corresponds with modern-day Iraq. However, as can be learned from Georges Roux’s excellent book, Ancient Iraq, many civilizational advancements can be seen in the archaeological record to have long antedated the advent of the state in that region.
Paleolithic Iraqis had commerce with people as far away as Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and Palestine, many millennia before the rise of the first city-states. Village life arose in Mesolithic times. And the Neolithic agricultural revolution and development of pottery developed quite nicely under stone age statelessness.
Throughout the stone age near east, and especially at Neolithic Jarmo, Iraq, remains have been found of a mathematic, commodity accounting, and trade verification system using numerical tokens of various shapes, hollow clay balls that hold the tokens, and token imprints on the surface of the balls. The archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat argues that the evolution of this system, “illustrates no less than the transition between an archaic abacus and writing…”
Then, three successive (though overlapping) prehistoric cultures arose in Mesopotamia: the Hassuna, Samarra, and Halaf cultures. All three made great strides in art, in trade, and in the technologies of building, pottery, and agriculture: even irrigation. And none of them showed any signs of having a centralized state. The Hassuna culture developed stamp seals, an important development in verification, as well as a precursor to the written language. The Samarra culture invented irrigation with which they produced amazingly abundant harvests, as indicated by the possible remains of capacious granaries. The Halaf culture even had cobbled streets and specialized industrial centers which mass produced a distinctive pottery (which Roux called, “the most beautiful ever used in Mesopotamia”) for peaceful exchange abroad. Stateless civilization in Mesopotamia advanced amazingly.
Then something big happened. Several Halaf towns were for some reason abandoned. In other towns, the exquisite Halaf pottery was supplanted by a cruder style: an archaeological indicator of cultural displacement. A very different people, the Ubaid culture, had come from the south and replaced the Halaf people.
Who were these Ubaid people? Some scholars believe they were prehistoric Sumerians, who later populated the same region, and who are widely considered to be the first civilization to develop both writing and the city-state.
There are indications that the Ubaid culture was, like Sumer, a state society: particularly the appearance of it being dominated by a priesthood. Throughout early history, priestly castes were indispensable legitimacy-manufacturers for state power. As Rothbard wrote,
“…since the early origins of the State, its rulers have always turned, as a necessary bolster to their rule, to an alliance with society’s class of intellectuals. (…) The alliance is based on a quid pro quo: on the one hand, the intellectuals spread among the masses the idea that the State and its rulers are wise, good, sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives. In return for this panoply of ideology, the State incorporates the intellectuals as part of the ruling elite, granting them power, status, prestige, and material security.(…)
Before the modern era, particularly potent among the intellectual handmaidens of the State was the priestly caste, cementing the powerful and terrible alliance of warrior chief and medicine man, of Throne and Altar. The State “established” the Church and conferred upon it power, prestige, and wealth extracted from its subjects. In return, the Church anointed the State with divine sanction and inculcated this sanction into the populace.”
In the earlier Hassuna, Samarra, and Halaf cultures, there were signs of religion on a household level; but there were no temples, and no signs of an official cult. In contrast, the Ubaid culture had shrines, altars, offering tables, and enormous temples: sure signs of a priestly elite. And that priestly elite seemed to consolidate its power as the ages went by, as their temples steadily grew in size and grandeur.
The Sumerian city of Eridu (called the “firstling of the cities” in Sumerian literature) has roots in the Ubaid period, when that city not only saw the rise of ever-larger temples, but eventually what seems to be the earliest known state palace, which was distinct from the temples by its absence of altars and by the presence of gates, chambers, courtyards, guard’s rooms, and living quarters. This process can be seen in this online stratigraphic “tour” of the remains of Eridu. Might this be a record of the “indoctrination wing” of the state first spinning off a separate, specialist “military wing”: the altar begetting the throne? If so, then a literary echo of this process might be found in the Sumerian “King List,” which, like so much royal propaganda in subsequent millennia, posits a divine origin of (and thus a divine sanction for) the kingship:
After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king
The priests taught, according to Roux, that the Sumerian king, “governed the city-state on behalf of the gods,” and “some royal couples were considered as ‘living gods’ or, more correctly as human replicas of the divine couple to whom the city-state belonged.”
The excavation of Sumerian royal tombs have uncovered a chilling “practice of collective burials involving from three to seventy-four attendants, mostly female here — practically a whole royal household.” Sir Leonard Woolley, the discoverer of the most famous of these tombs, the Royal Cemetary of Ur, posited that Sumerian kings were considered, as Roux put it, “more than monarchs: they were gods, or at least they represented the gods on earth and, as such, were entitled to take their court with them into another life…” Such were the perquisites of this novel institution, the divine state, and such were the duties of its subjects.
The written word/number, which, as we have seen, was first developed in the region before the advent of the state for economic purposes, was hijacked by the Sumerian priesthood to consolidate its power even further. Advanced literacy and numeracy, so vital for tax-gathering and other bureaucratic functions, became the purview of the priestly caste. The priest had become the bureaucratic “scribe”; the cleric had become the clerk (“clerk” actually being derived from “cleric”). And the first formal schools were instituted in Sumer to train scribes to staff the temple-state bureaucracy, as well as the priestly offices still concerned with ritual and indoctrination.
Unlike the pre-Ubaid cultures, state-afflicted Sumer was a warlike civilization, torn by constant strife among its city-states. Its annals are filled with mobilized armies, massacres, and burning cities. Prior to the Ubaid culture, and for a millennium and a half, the people of Mesopotamia had heroically developed the world’s first civilization, and thereby progressively escaped barbarism. Now, with the advent of the state, potentates and clerics hijacked the abundance of civilization, and thereby created a new, more organized and well-funded kind of barbarism, unprecedented in its horrors.
The Sumerian temple-state served as a model for all subsequent temple-states in Mesopotamia, including the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires, the last of which was particularly brutal. Here is an inscription in which the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II boasted of his treatment of the rebellious city of Tela.
“I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. I cut the limbs off the officers who had rebelled. Many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I consumed with fire. The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.”
The Assyrians also invented much of the imperial logistics which were adopted by the Persian Empire to effectively conquer and rule vast territories, as explained by Tom Holland in his book Persian Fire. The Persian and Neo-Babylonian Empires influenced Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Greek empires established in his wake, which in turn influenced the Roman Empire, and which in turn influenced the rise of the modern imperial state, especially in Britain. And of course the British Empire has had a huge influence on its successor, the American Empire.
Mesopotamia is often aptly called, “the cradle of civilization.” Tragically, the primordial civilization that arose there was hijacked by the first states. And it is a particularly poignant further tragedy that the “land between the rivers” has seen its modern-day civilization utterly shattered, and its once-prosperous modern-day population reduced to primeval barbarism by the modern barbarism of the U.S. government, which also happens to be the foremost spiritual descendent of those first states: the most powerful imperial state in history, living parasitically off the most productive civilization in human history.
The U.S. government devastated Iraq’s infrastructure and economy in the Gulf War, prevented recovery and killed a million people with the decade of sanctions that followed, killed another million with an invasion and brutal occupation, poisoned the wombs of Iraqi women with depleted uranium, and fomented a sectarian civil war that has riven a once-secular country between the mad, mass-murdering Sunni theocrats of ISIS on one side, and Sharia-law-imposing Shia theocrats, aerial bombers, militias, and death squads on the other side. And now, after a brief hiatus, U.S. bombs are raining down on the cradle of civilization once again.
All-in-all, the state—especially the hegemonic would-be world state headquartered in Washington, D.C.—has been to Iraq, and to civilization in general, not a beneficent progenitor, but a “malicious storm,” like the one a Sumerian poet sang of 4,000 years ago in his lament over the sacking of his city of Ur:
…the malicious storm which swept over the Land, the storm which destroyed cities, the storm which destroyed houses, the storm which destroyed cow-pens, the storm which burned sheepfolds, which laid hands on the holy rites, which defiled the weighty counsel, the storm which cut off all that is good from the Land, the storm which pinioned the arms of the [Sumerian] people.