The Emergence of the State

10 minute read
Depiction of Acropolis located in Athens, Greece with the name in meaning “akron”, or highest point, and “polis”, or city

Humans partition the earth into subsections of governance and control often without regard for pre-existing communities. A once-nomadic species that moved in tune with the world now has privileges dependent on birth place and requires permission to cross superimposed borders that confine and divide. For generations, the current system of statehood has evolved until many of westernized society no longer recognize the emergence of the modern world as anything other than a natural progression. Though the concept of what defines a states remains a heated debate amongst political scientists, a state can generally be defined as a system of governance over a sovereign territory. The modern definition contrasts with older forms of empires, with ever-changing borders and states without territory (such as Palestine).

Nevertheless, states are often viewed by western theorists as the natural form of human communities. Early Greek theorist Aristotle contends humans removed themselves from the world as political animals that formed city-states. The gregarious, eusocial qualities of humans enable them to make communal decisions and develop complex systems of governance. The progression of the natural theory of human states continues throughout history, with even the Declaration of Independence citing America’s transition to a self-sufficient state as a step in the course of human events. The common ideology that claims the current form of states are a part of human development overshadows the ways in which hierarchy and exploitation have increased under state rule, to the detriment of much of our world.

The First States

The earliest states formed because of advantageous regional ecosystems that supported agriculture and a growing population. According to Near Eastern historian Petr Charvat, the areas of modern Egypt and Palestine witnessed the creation of the first states. In the Neolithic Age, the Nile River and a moderate climate created an oasis of flora and fauna with abundant fisheries and wildlife not seen today. The fertile soil of the river valley allowed for the settlement of early Egyptian agricultural communities. Archaeologists believe the societies worked communally in the beginning, based on shared food storage and graves that indicate egalitarian social positions. In the Maadi site of lower Egypt, egalitarian origins extended to mammalian cousins, shown by animals and humans buried in the same position of reverence. Before power became consolidated in states, humans lived communally in tandem with the living world. 

Later, the formation of a larger, organized ancient state correlated with more highly differentiated statuses. Agricultural communities produce surplus that feeds a growing population but may also seed the establishment of hierarchies. Communal storage of food can give rise to rulers that control redistribution, leading to the consolidation of power. Societies can also increase in complexity due to surplus, as less time and labor is required for food collection. Historically, this increasing complexity has also involved increasing gendered divisions of labor, as men spend more time doing trade work such as building tools and begin trading with members of the community and other settlements. This has often led to women playing a decreased role in food production, while having more children and further increasing the population and its need for food. As civilizations rise, they engage in trade, causing state power to grow through control of currency and taxes.

“When the first civilizations, as distinct from the initial cultures, made their appearance, they were, without exception, the byproduct of a surplus, generally agriculture; and the size and distribution of that surplus determined the elevation and spread of that civilization”

Frederic Paxson, expert on the history of agriculture

In upper Egypt, the burial grounds included large, ornamental graves storing valuables as of 3400 BCE. The state became organized, collecting taxes and consolidating the power that gave birth to the ruling class. Pharaohs claimed private property rights and received goods from local estates, allocating power to regional governors. At the same time, religion emerged, giving Pharaohs the divine, unquestionable right to rule, granted by gods that were believed to control the world. People shifted from equal members of society and the environment into “society’s division into the ruling and the ruled“. Early statehood began with the development of classes, including a ruling class which assumed power to control all the borders of the state. 

The relationship between ancient states and the earth is clearly displayed through the rise of Chinese civilizations. Like Egypt, China created the basis for its early society through the use of agriculture, with rivers and water beds sustaining local communities. The settlements started as egalitarian, with burials and only began to display social status in the Longshan culture’s Chalcolithic Period. In Yanpeng Li’s study covering 2000 years of climate change and civilization in the Hexi Corridor of ancient China, climate change strongly impacted regional development through arable land and population growth. When the region experienced temperatures and precipitation that were more favorable to agriculture, the community developed an increased amount of arable land, leading to a larger population and a larger territory. Since the population and territory increased, the state became more complex in order to retain its central control. The state instituted provincial administrative units that gave regional elites power over a territory to allow for greater regulation while solidifying social hierarchies. China transformed from small village communities into a relatively complex system of centralized government and social hierarchy by gradually expanding the population and territory.

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Hexi Corridor, China

States of the Classical Era

In the classical era of Greece and Rome, the conception of a state led to the westernized understanding of citizenship and governance. Ancient Athens is often viewed as the founding model of democracy in which citizens act as both subjects and rulers in the polis, Greek for city center. Aristotle argues that a city-state is the natural form of humans, where free citizens act as equals to ensure justice. However, the only citizens in Greece were men, “the natural superior,” who ruled all other members of their households, including slaves and women. The rulers of the city-states came to power by their status in social hierarchies and economic independence while touting equality and moral superiority. It was only the elites of society that had the power to develop the laws of governance and learn how to participate in politics. The non-citizens were seen as natural inferiors, and they were compared to domesticated animals because they were valued solely for the labor their bodies could provide. Non-citizens were excluded from the rights and privileges of the state while exploited for their labor and subjugated in a stratified social order. Ancient Greece’s supremacist model is idolized by democracies for its virtues of equality and freedom, perpetuating the intended domination paradigms.

“Non-citizens were excluded from the rights and privileges of the state while exploited for their labor and subjugated in a stratified social order”

Ancient Rome shares similar influence over westernized forms of government, in addition to developing a republican form of citizenship. Roman citizenship was more inclusive than the Greek model, extending to all free men. The citizens would partake in government by practicing their right to participate in popular assemblies where government representatives were chosen. However, the expansion of the empire began to preclude mass participation because of distance to the capital and population growth. Participation lowered as local municipalities acquired political power and organized authority in local elites. The legal system became the primary form of protection for the rights of citizens. Legal protections ensured private property, inheritance, and contracts, but excluded the poor and slaves from the justice system. The empire and its hierarchies continued to expand while citizenship and rights gradually shrank until Rome eventually became a dictatorship instead of a republic.

File:Giovanni Paolo Panini - View of the Roman Forum - Walters 372366.jpg
Giovanni Paolo Panini: View of the Roman Forum

Modern States

Modern states emerged from these ancient governmental systems and continue to protect the privileges of male elites while exploiting fellow humans and the natural world. The Declaration of Independence asserts the rights of all men as free and equals; however, white men were the only ones included in its vision of citizenship. Slave labor created the basis for the American agricultural and production system that funded the economy and its industrial expansion. Modern-day slavery continues to prevail through a loophole in the 13th Amendment that exempted prison labor from abolition. The prison-industrial complex criminalizes being black so that elites can profit off of the free labor of enslaved humans. Everyday humans are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes that threaten the livelihoods of white men and the hierarchies from which they benefit.

“The prison-industrial complex criminalizes being black so that elites can profit off of the free labor of enslaved humans”

Along with prison labor, exclusionary citizenship and unfair compensation for equal labor also propagates the expansion of hierarchy and exploitation. In many western states, citizenship is granted by birth within its territory in a seemingly universal expansion of the rights of inhabitants. By defining citizenship and belonging based on borders, the status is inherently exclusionary, and thus designed to protect the wealth and power of states by preventing outsiders from enjoying its privileges. For example, environmental refugees can be excluded from entering the so-called United States because of they are not citizens, despite the US being responsible for environmental degradation that led those refugees to seek refuge. When people do enter the US without legal means, they, as unprotected inhabitants, become targets for lower wages and even sex trafficking. The egalitarian origin of human settlements is no longer recognizable, as humans are divided by exclusionary citizenship status and identities that do not conform with the interests of ancient elites. 

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Kibumba Refugee Camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Furthermore, the sustainable lifestyles of early villages are being lost as technology grows the complexity of societies, alongside several negative implications. The first villages relied on agriculture for the basis of the community, creating ways of living suited to environmental constraints. Increasing complexity and resource consumption led to the collapse of both the Roman and Mayan empire since higher complexity diminishes the sustainability of a society. Jevons Paradox, as witnessed in ancient Rome and post-industrial Britain, increases in technology efficiency actually accelerate the consumption of a resource, leading to greater amounts of it being consumed. The agricultural and industrial revolutions both came with great costs for human societies by requiring higher levels of energy usage. Today, many human societies respond to problems with growing levels of complexity in an ever-increasing persistent pressure for technology, regulation, and organization. Our society is now in a precarious position, as heavy reliance on the finite fossil carbon industry threatens the long-term viability of large, complex states.

Modern governments are built off of models of ancient states that diverged from egalitarian villages into hierarchies that allowed for higher complexity but decreased their sustainability. While perceived as human advancement, the advantages of development were mostly constrained to the elite who acquired wealth and political power from the labor of fellow humans and the exploitation of the natural world. Modern states continue the trend of exploitation using a legal system to protect their rights and resources while benefiting from hundreds of years of systematic oppression. A history of oppression cannot be undone, but a thorough examination of history can reveal proven alternatives to the present status quo.

“While perceived as human advancement, the advantages of development were mostly constrained to the elite who acquired wealth and political power from the labor of fellow humans and the exploitation of the natural world.”

Works Cited
 Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle, trans. into English with introduction, marginal analysis, essays, notes and indices by B. Jowett. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1885. 2 vols. Vol. 1.

Bouzek, Malina, Janeček, Ziegler, Hamsíková, Řezáčová, Charvát, Bouzek, Jan, Malina, Jaroslav, Janeček, Martin, Ziegler, Zdeněk, Hamsíková, Dagmar, and Řezáčová, Kateřina. The Birth of the State : Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. First English ed. Prague, Czech Republic]: Karolinum, 2013.

Cooper, Frederick. “Imperial Citizenship from the Roman Republic to the Edict of Caracalla.” In Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference: Historical Perspectives, 27-40. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press, 2018. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? Open Media Book. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Li, Yanpeng, Quansheng Ge, Huanjiong Wang, Haolong Liu, and Zexing Tao. “Relationships between Climate Change, Agricultural Development and Social Stability in the Hexi Corridor over the Last 2000 Years.” Science China Earth Sciences 62, no. 9 (2019): 1453-460.

Lord, Carnes. Aristotle’s Politics. Second ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Paxson, Frederic L. “The Agricultural Surplus: A Problem in History.” Agricultural History 6, no. 2 (1932): 51-68. Accessed June 22, 2020.

Tainter, Joseph A. “14 Collapse and Sustainability: Rome, the Maya, and the Modern World.” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 24, no. 1 (2014): 201-14.

Väyrynen, Raimo. 2005. “Illegal Immigration, Human Trafficking and Organized Crime.” In Poverty, International Migration and Asylum, edited by George J. Borjas and Jeff Crisp, 143–170. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.