Friday, November 10, 2017

The Lockean Social Contract in Ancient Mesopotamia

In various posts in recent years, I have argued that John Locke's evolutionary history of politics has been largely confirmed by the modern research of evolutionary anthropologists and archaeologists. 

Locke was correct in seeing that most human beings throughout history have lived in a state of nature in which they were free, equal, and independent.  They lived in families in small bands of hunter-gatherers, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  They organized their social lives through customary laws of mutual cooperation, and they settled conflicts through informal negotiation and arbitration, with each individual having a natural right to punish those who violated the customary laws. 

In time of war, they might appoint someone as a temporary chief to lead them in war.  In time of peace, some prominent men might act as informal leaders.  But they resisted any attempt by anyone to exercise dominant rule over them as an violation of their natural freedom and autonomy, and so they had no government.  Despite the occasional wars between bands, this state of nature without government was generally a state of peace. 

But then, a few thousand years ago, as human beings moved from hunting and gathering to farming--harvesting domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals--it became harder to settle disputes peacefully.  They consented to a government that would act as a common superior over them in making, judging, and executing laws.  But those rulers who abused their governmental powers in oppressing their people rather than securing their natural rights could provoke popular resistance and rebellion, which could overthrow a tyrannical government and lead to establishing a new government that seemed more likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Locke saw evidence for all this in the anthropological history of the New World, because he believed that "in the beginning all the world was America," and that "the Kings of the Indians in America" is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (Second Treatise, paras. 49, 108).  Archaeological studies over the past two centuries suggest that the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled farming villages and then to cities with centralized states occurred for the first time in Mesopotamia between 5,200 BCE and 3,200 BCE.

Does this new history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia confirm or deny Locke's history?  James C. Scott's new book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States helps to answer this question, because he provides a survey of how new evidence from the fields of prehistory, archaeology, ancient history, and anthropology brings into view how states arose in ancient Mesopotamia for the first time in human history.

Beginning around 5,200 BCE, there is evidence in Mesopotamia for small towns of sedentary foragers, farmers, and pastoralists who manage their collective affairs and trade with the outside world.  So even after the development of agriculture, with the farming of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals, human beings still lived in societies without states.

If one is looking for those attributes of "stateness" that point to "territoriality and a specialized state apparatus: walls, tax collection, and officials" (Scott, 118), then Uruk was the first state.  A city wall was first built at Uruk around 3,200 BCE.  By then Uruk was the largest city in the world, with a population somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000.  Following the model of Uruk, roughly twenty other city-states arose in the Mesopotamian alluvium.  As Scott indicates, each city was small enough that one could walk from the center to the outer boundary in a day.

Scott is best known for a series of books (Scott 1976, 1998, 2009, 2012) that shows an anarchist scorn for organized state societies, based on fixed-field agricultural production, as a plague upon humanity--bringing slavery, conscription, taxes, forced labor, epidemics, and warfare.  For Scott, this explains why many people have rightly chosen to remain stateless; and in doing so, they have shown how ordinary people are capable of organizing their lives through spontaneously cooperative enterprises without any need for oppressive regimentation by the central planning of a state bureaucracy.  Although libertarians and libertarian anarchists have pointed to Scott's books as supporting their opposition to statism, Scott himself rejects libertarian anarchism in favor of the socialist anarchism of those like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. 

You can see this in a YouTube video of a debate between Scott, David Friedman, and Robert Ellickson, with Ellickson speaking for classical liberalism as opposed to the anarchism of Scott and Friedman.
Some of my posts on anarchism can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Although Locke was not an anarchist, he shows an anarchist propensity in his account of the state of nature as showing that life in stateless societies is natural for human beings, that there have been no governments throughout most of human history,  and therefore formal governmental institutions are artificial creations of human will that have arisen only recently in human history. 

The evidence surveyed by Scott confirms this line of thought in Locke by showing that indeed most of human evolutionary history, for hundreds of thousands of years, has been a history of stateless societies without government in bands of hunter-gatherers.  About 7,000 years ago, some people in Mesopotamia formed settled villages with farming and herding, but they still organized their social life without a state apparatus.   It was only about 5,000 years ago that the first states began to appear first in Mesopotamia.  Moreover, Scott shows, even after the emergence of states, most human beings continued to live outside the state as "barbarians."  Even at the time of Locke's birth in the seventeenth century, a majority of the human population around the world was probably living in stateless societies.

If this supports Locke as correct about the state of nature, then this sustains Locke's fundamental claim that human beings by nature have the ability and propensity to live in the natural and voluntary associations of stateless societies without centralized governmental rule.  If this is so, then this also supports Locke's claim that human beings naturally can and will withdraw their obedience to a government that they see as oppressive in depriving them of their liberty and failing to secure their lives and property: they are naturally inclined to assert their natural right to resist and rebel against despotic government.  It's in this way that we can understand all government to depend upon the consent of the individuals subject to its rule.  This is what has been called the social contract theory of government, although Locke himself does not use the term "social contract."

Scott, however, seems to deny that this is true for the history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia.  In Against the Grain, he casually dismisses Locke's social contract theory in one sentence: "If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social-contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined."  But then in the next two sentences after this passage, Scott seems to concede Locke's point that people can and will resist an oppressive state: "The early state, in fact, as we shall see, often failed to hold its population; it was exceptionally fragile epidemiologically, ecologically, and politically and prone to collapse or fragmentation.  If, however, the state often broke up, it was not for lack of exercising whatever coercive powers it could muster" (26-27, 29).

"Walls make states," Scott observes.  And while walls might protect a city's people from invaders, the walls should also be seen as keeping the city's people inside--walls demonstrate "that the flight of subjects was a real preoccupation of the early state" (139).  Repeatedly, Scott notes that the records of the Mesopotamian states are full of evidence of people running away from their states--slaves running away from their enslavement, soldiers running away from their conscripted service in war, taxpayers running away from oppressive taxation, laborers running away from coerced labor, and people generally running away from cities racked with famine and contagious diseases (150-64, 205-218).  Scott also notes the evidence for frequent rebellions.

When rulers were threatened by external invaders or internal enemies, the rulers were inclined to increase their extraction of resources from their people--increased confiscation of grain, increased taxation, increased conscription of laborers and soldiers.  This increased exploitation of the people would provoke flight or rebellion that could bring the disintegration of the state.  Commonly, historians describe this as a "collapse" of the state following by "dark ages" of stateless barbarism.  But as Scott indicates, this language assumes an unjustified bias in favor of the state.  A "collapse" of the state that brings a "dark age" might be better described as "a bolt for freedom by many state subjects and an improvement in human welfare" (209, 255).

Scott doesn't reflect on how this "bolt for freedom" shows the people withdrawing their consent from the state, which confirms Locke's account of how people through resistance and rebellion against governmental tyranny reclaim their natural freedom.

Seth Richardson (2010, 2016) has noted the evidence that over 3,000 years of Mesopotamian political life, there were hundreds of rebellions.  He has also noted how these rebels were described by the state authorities: "characterizations of rebels as the violators of contracts (mitgurtu, rikistu) necessarily implied that some bilateral obligations were incumbent on the state through the framework of the social contract" (2016, 35).  The Akkadian words mitgurtu and rikistu denote agreement, consent, contract, or treaty.  Richardson suggests: "Those motifs relating to violation-of-contract strike a familiar chord to us moderns, since they suggest the premise of a social contract between ruler and ruled, or at least the existence of legal treaties and loyalty oaths" (2010, 9).  The importance of contracts is clear in the "Laws of Hammurabi" (paras. 7, 47-48, 123, 128).

Not only in ancient Mesopotamia, but also throughout the ancient Mediterranean world--the Near East, Greece, and Rome--one sees the same pattern of rebellions against the state in which rebels assert their natural freedom from oppression, and thus confirm Locke's understanding of government as dependent on the consent of the governed (Howe and Brice 2016).


Howe, Timothy, and Lee Brice, eds. 2016. Brill's Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Richardson, Seth. 2010. "Writing Rebellion Back Into the Record: A Methodologies Toolkit." In Seth Richardson, ed., Rebellions and Peripheries in the Cuneiform World, 1-27. New Haven, CN: American Oriental Society.

__________. 2016. "Insurgency and Terror in Mesopotamia." In Howe and Brice 2016, 31-61.

Scott, James C.  1976.  The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2009.  The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2012.  Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

__________.  2017.  Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

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