The State in World History: Perspectives and Problems

By Melleuish, Gregory | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The State in World History: Perspectives and Problems


Melleuish, Gregory, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Introduction

The publication of S.E. Finer's magisterial History of Government (1) has raised questions regarding the nature of government and the state and its relationship to what might be termed the "human condition". What might roughly be called "politics" is fundamental to the human experience in the same way as language, religion and the material struggle for existence. The exercise of authority by some human beings over others is a constant in human history. But it is clear that what is meant by "politics" has varied according to the type of society in which it has been practised, ranging from the informal and quasi-democratic practices of small hunter-gatherer groups to the authoritarian structures of agrarian empires to the liberal structures of modern democracies. This movement of human beings from small hunter-gatherer groups to large and complex states can be viewed as one of the two or three defining characteristics of world history during the last 10,000 years. Considered in the 100,000 year span of human history it has been revolutionary. Understanding this process as a world historical event is a major concern of political science, in particular for the light that it throws on the fundamental question of what is politics.

Amongst the wide spectrum of political societies only a relatively small number are designated as states or governments, generally those which are deemed to be associated with civilisations. Hence the first "pristine civilisation", that of the Sumerians, is often held to have created the first states. Sumer is Finer's starting point because, he argues, this was the first political community to have left behind written records that can be read. (2) Mesopotamia's early political development is better understood than that of other civilisations because other civilisations have either left inadequate written records as in the case of China, or indecipherable records as in the cases of the Indus valley or Minoan Crete. Before the advent of writing one must rely on archaeological evidence and extrapolations from contemporary groups assumed to be socially and politically roughly equivalent to these pre-literate peoples. Both of these approaches have their limitations. Archaeological evidence can establish what people ate, the houses they lived in, and their burial customs, but it is a big step from such information to establishing the political organisation of a people. Similarly, as Gellner has argued, it is not necessarily appropriate to argue from the circumstances of modern hunter-gatherer peoples, who often occupy a specialised ecological niche, to pre-historic times when all humans were hunter-gatherers. (3)

Is there then some sort of qualitative leap from some sort of pre-state to state, of which the development of writing and "civilisation" are indications? That this is not an arcane issue is illustrated by the discussion surrounding terra nullius. It is apparent that eighteenth century Englishmen did not recognise in Aboriginal social organisation anything resembling a state. (4) In fact there is not a great deal of consensus regarding what is meant by the term state or its relation to what we understand as politics. Modern anthropology distinguishes between small hunter-gatherer bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states and sees human evolution as the movement or progression through these stages. (5) Jared Diamond, for example, ascribes changes in political structure and the movement from one type to another as a function of the number of people involved. (6) Although there is a certain logic to this explanation it is somewhat mechanistic and open to Michael Mann's criticism that humans traditionally avoided living in states and have only done so when compelled by necessity. (7) It has been recently argued by Moshe Berent that the Greek polis, the entity that invented "politics", should properly be described as a "stateless society". …

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