It seems a bit odd to attribute theories of state origins as coercion to Marx (I know in this case it's the 'hydraulic' theory of state formation that's motivating that thought) when I'd point instead to anarchist social theory (they even cite Scott) or for that matter to right-libertarian thinking.

There's one part of the interpretation that I'm not sure I understand, which is how they infer the novelty of the state in the cities within their study data. It seems it's via the appearance of an administrative building, but it's entirely possible that this post-dates the appearance of a "state lineage"--that the ziggurat's appearance is not at the same moment that a kind of lineage-above-the-lineages comes into being. (Indeed, given what they want to argue about the contractual character of the emergence of the state lineage, it has to precede the building of an architecture to match--this can't be a chicken-and-egg problem, because you wouldn't build an administrative structure prior to the appearance of a stable administrative social formation. But this is important because their argument hinges so much on timing--that state emergence is tied to fairly precise shifts in the river.

I think there's also a kind of naive understanding of lineages as being contractual rather than coercive or extractive. Economic historians who study African societies are quite able to point to examples of lineage-based political economies where lineages are intensely hierarchical and extractive, where you would never think to call agreements between lineage heads in a multi-lineage community anything like a social contract. There's a big problem with taking the basically liberal conception of personhood embedded inside social contract and applying it to societies where most persons would not in any sense be consulted or agree to decisions to form some new kind of high-level coordination of multi-lineage decisions. More importantly, in a society fundamentally organized around lineage, there is no "outside" the lineage--e.g., persons dissenting from the choices of lineage heads cannot opt out because there is no alternative form of social being available to them, no "stranger" status. Which kind of loops right back to theories that suggest the extractive nature of these early states.

(In that regard, it's a bit odd that they take no note of Scott's argument that early Mesopotamian walls are not the provision of public goods but instead a sign of extractive coercion--that those walls served to keep people in, not to keep enemies out.)

It seems to me they've got a good argument for the endemic rather than external origin of small states in the region (e.g., that these are not the extension of larger states like Uruk into a hinterland) but not necessarily for "states were created to solve collective action problems rather than to enable extraction".

Expand full comment

Dear Timothy, thank you for your comments!

This is Leander, one of the authors of the paper, I'll respond to you point by point (paraphrasing what you said):

1. Marx vs Scott. Yes, this was an interesting debate we had. As you know, the debate on the origins of the state goes across many disciplines, philosophy, history, anthropology, political science, and now also economics. We needed a concise way to introduce the two broad positions, and we thought it expedient to attribute the ideas to one central author. In my mind this didn't have to be Marx, but he is recognizable after all. Many others of course have taken this position, although many of those could be thought of as Marx-inspired themselves.

2. Novelty of states. This is a great point, and this can be done in many ways. We used admin. buildings plus an accepted set of boundaries from a core source we use. We can also go with either just buildings or just boundaries, it doesn't change the results much. In an older version of the paper, we also looked at whether a record of a dynasty appears. This works due to lack of complete lineages, which is why we reverted to the archeological material in the first place. Note, too, that for most cities we have stratigraphy that is quite detailed, so we can date buildings reasonably precisely. That said, I substantively agree of course that a lineage-of-lineages could already be somewhere, I'm afraid we can't know this. Buildings in this part of the world pre-date writing!

3. Lineages. Note that nowhere in the paper do we say that lineages are inherently contractual. I work on Africa myself and am very well aware that, like all political forms, they have coercive and consensual elements. Note also that the emergence of a lineages is not the way we test for the emergence of a state. We just note that a state emerged and summarize the modern literature of what we know of its organization. This turns out to be lineage based.

The key intellectual step that allows testing of the two clusters of theories is that a river shift creates different incentives in space. When a river shifts away, coercive states will form elsewhere than consensual states. We see that states for where consensual states should, and describe their lineage-based organization. This is never to say that lineages are fully consensual!

4. Scott's walls. As far as I recall, Scott's argument on walls is no more than that. There is - for the period of the first states - no evidence to say that walls kept people in. Later on (that is, about 1000 years later) in the URIII period we get much better evidence that politics has become more repressive (and we write about this very briefly towards the end of the paper). I of course fully accept that walls in principle do both, but the balance of the evidence on the earliest states as at the very least not clear that a ruler could boss anyone around, let alone somehow trap them in a city.

5. Endemic states. Thank you for this comment! For whether "states were created to solve collective action problems rather than to enable extraction" you'd have to believe the central natural experiment around the shifting rivers in space + the reading of modern historians of the middle east. We thought this was OK considering the importance of the question and the lack of previous empirical progress in distinguishing the two.

Thanks a lot for your questions!

Expand full comment

Terrific answers! Thank you.

I think the deeper work that suggests Scott might have a point shows that older walls in much of the Near East don't seem to have been defensive in a meaningful sense--but then again that cuts against Scott in that they might not be tall enough to confine people who have been subjected to extractive servility. I recall seeing some discussions on early walls that posited that they were as much aesthetic as anything else--or that they helped to mark some kind of 'commons' or boundary of an early city, which is very compatible with your arguments.

Expand full comment