The Origin of the Polity

There is one question which fascinates me about the history of political thought.  It has fascinated me for about 20 or so years.


The background to the question is as follows: once upon a time, perhaps up to about 20,000 years ago, humans presumably conducted their politics much like any other mammal.  There would be a group, and someone would become dominant.


Within this group – a troop or a tribe – power would be exercised entirely on a face-to-face basis.  From time to time, a dominant figure  would emerge, and that figure’s dominance would be on the basis of personal qualities or relationships.


Let’s call this figure ‘Silverback’.


If Silverback lost his (or her) life, or face, then their power would be lost, and a new dominant figure would then emerge.  And that new figure’s power would in turn rest upon their personal qualities and relationships.


If this was the case, then there would be no wider concept of “leader” or “king”.  It would just be that Silverback or whomsoever was dominant, and so they got their way.


But at some point – in an event which could be regarded as the political-linguistic equivalent of making a stone axe or controlling fire – there seems to have developed the abstract concept of political power, in the form (it would seem) of kingship.


As such, a figure – let’s call him Arthur – would have power not just because of personal qualities or relationships but also by reason of both he and his subjects sharing a concept of political power.


Arthur would be supported because he was king (or chief or general) as well as – or perhaps despite of – the force of personality in a web of face-to-face relationships.


Against this, the question which has long puzzled me is this: was the development of such an abstraction inevitable?


Or was it a mere ‘contingency’, as some philosophers would say.


Could human civilization have still developed without the notion of kingship (or similar), with a series of Silverbacks instead?


Indeed, could we have a society of any size or complexity (beyond a troop or tribe) without there being any abstract notion of political power?


A society, that is, without any conception of a ‘polity’?


And, if so, how different would such a society be from what we have today?


Any thoughts welcome.




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28 thoughts on “The Origin of the Polity”

  1. Yes, but it is less likely. One of Arthur’s big advantages is the oak tree. Let’s keep this at the metaphorical level. Nobody plants oak trees for themselves. They plant them for grandchildren. Arthur has imagination and he has heirs. He can think about a future that does not contain him, and therefore he is not entirely selfish.

    You could have a dozen generations of Silverbacks that all help and promote the populace’s good, but a single selfish one could destroy that pattern. For a Silverback-ruled society to thrive, the citizenry has to be strong enough (and have enough imagination and foresight) to make up for the short-termism of their ruler. The closest I can see to that is the Witan, where a group of Ealdormen get to be a continual memory for a community. That is a stretch, though.

    I think, though, that the Silverback model could not be consistent enough to pass on mutable habits consistently with generations.

  2. Whilst it is obvious that you are thinking considering on a macro scale, can we not be informed by our conduct on a micro scale, for instance co-operatives and social clubs, run by committees? Whilst committees are chaired, the chair is not necessarily a dominant force. I have performed this role, and am far from the architypal “silverback”.

  3. I would have thought that a polity would be inevitable where there are scarce resources. Such a state will inevitably lead to collaboration to manage resources better. A dominant force, be it a king or religious figure/institute would follow.

    Circumstances where there is an absence of a ‘polity’ would be similar to those in The Culture of Iain M Banks’ novels where effectively there are no finite resources.

  4. It’s an interesting question. There are some more concepts that need to be considered though, I feel. For instance, property, knowledge, personal connections and personality can all be passed on to one’s offspring. I mean that in a very practical sense that has nothing to do with legal systems, wills and so on. My guess is that evolutionary theory would tell us that it is in our nature to do so.

    In the context of the blog post, the political-linguistic equivalent of controlling fire might be the evolution of language itself. Once Silverbacks can pass on enough to their children, perhaps they more often than not grew up to be the next Silverback, and so effectively a series of Arthurs came about. It’s then easy to imagine that becoming a process that people learn to accept from birth, reinforcing the new model.

    The development of language probably relied upon the development of abstract notions. It therefore simultaneously makes the Arthur model both possible (in the practical sense) and probable (in the evolutionary sense). Therefore my instinct would be to lean towards “a society with a concept of polity is very close to inevitable”.

  5. This happened for an extremely lengthy period in some groups. Germanic tribes, for instance (who form the basis of modern England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany…most of Europe, in fact) were a loose collection of families who united under a war leader when they needed to – a pretty cool ceremony culminating in raising the chosen chap on all of their shields. An almost endless succession of leaders elected in this way as Silverbacks – firsts among equals, really – very deliberately didn’t leave their power to their sons when exposed to this notion by contact with the Roman / Byzantine empire because there were so many issues around succession. Which is why late Classical / early medieval Europe has what seems to be a ceaseless shifting of boundaries as ‘nations’ come into being under one leader, and dissolve again on his death.

    I think it’s the interest in permanent(ish) culture that changed this, mostly under the influence of the massive and impressive Roman / Byzantine empire – and a similar process occurred, I think, in the Far East where the legacy of the ancient Chinese empire brought loads of Silverbacks to the north and west round to the idea of establishing education systems, civil services, and formalised law codes – all of which require stability of rule.

    So it’s possible to grow to significant size, and attain significant complexity (of organisation, economy, religion, manufacture) – but the things we admire and call ‘civilized’ are still essentially the products of empires like the Roman and Chinese, which require dominance over a simply huge area (for a range of resources and to demonstrate administrative competence) to be sustained for a long time and to result in a range of both written and structural legacies. It’s a hangover, if you like, that we’ve had for a few thousand years and which makes it tough for us to conceive of anything else being of much value (in the same way as it’s really tough for us to imagine ‘progress’ in terms of anything other than expansion0. But other options for ‘civlisation’ and ‘success’ still exist!

  6. “The background to the question is as follows: once upon a time, perhaps up to about 20,000 years ago, humans presumably conducted their politics much like any other mammal.”

    Good heavens, what a big assumption. Firstly, just what sort of mammal are you talking about? At the very least you must be confining yourself to social mammals as there are many species that don’t. I also assume we have to take the idea that what you mean by politics in mammals is how power structures work in their social structures (which is surely a bit wider than what we mean by politics in a human sense). Even if we confine this to “social mammals”, there are still many models which don’t fit well with human structures. What many mammal social animals are primarily interested in is breeding rights (and how females select mates). The alpha male syndrome often does, of course, apply there but purely on a might-is-right basis. There are other social mammals (like elephants) which are matriarchal, which are different again.

    I suppose by calling this putative alpha male/female “Silverback”, you might be implying by mammals you mean primates, or possibly even just apes. However, among apes there’s no single social model.

    I rather suspect that human beings had evolved much more subtle and powerful social behaviour long before humans started permanent settlements (generally dated from about 12,000 years). Jacob Bronowski believed that modern civilisation, as we understand it, couldn’t develop until humans had given up its nomadic ways as it simply didn’t allow for the time for specialisation and development of the technology and management required to develop it. Indeed, the whole basis of his series “The Ascent of Man” was essentially about the role of technological insight by humans and its effects on society. Indeed he went so far as to ascribe much of the development of civilisation and politics into such insights. The effective exploitation of these techniques and thought patterns essentially required specialist elites (including management castes), which surely were what lead to a more modern plurality of social management and control. Indeed, the emergence of democracy (in a modern western sense) seems to owe rather a lot to these elites.

    Now this is not to argue that there aren’t those who, through personal qualities, rise to the leadership or influence of such groups, but I find the idea that, somehow, the important issue is the nature and quality of the singular individual who climbs to the top to be rather missing out a huge part of the picture.

    So I would strongly argue that it is the democratising effect of technology (in its widest sense) and the rise of meritocratic, specialists elites which has been the most important matter. For this to be exploited (and for society to thrive), political control structures have to emerge or, simply, it will fail.

  7. For Marshall Sahlins hierarchy, property, domination etc. come with sedentarism. This sits with Jones’s point from Bronowski, and suggests that this may be the developmental point on which to focus. On the other hand, is it possible that Silverback, like Arthur, is sensed in some way to embody – that is, to represent – his tribe? An issue of cognition here which is beyond me. But thanks for the question.

  8. David – I’m currently reading ‘The Origins of Political Order’ by Francis Fukuyama, which tackles these questions. It’s quite the tome, but is an utterly fascinating read with regard to how political power came about, how hierarchical structures emerged, etc etc. Thoroughly recommend it – even though I’m not done yet.

  9. There is a certain amount of evidence the society as we know it is an emergent property. This has been suggest since the philosophy of 4th century BCE Chinese Philosopher, Zhuangzi. There is also some evidence that relates the size of a part of the brain to the size of units with society to between 10-14, and this unit is the unit size for any human hierarchy is repeated from at least the organization of the Roman army to modern arms and likely before.
    Also structures similar have been observed in the Temple Troop of Macacques in Sri Lanka.

    In short we are slaves to Physiology.

  10. As a companion read to Bronowski, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years’ which has some interesting stuff on what happens to politics as communities/societies get larger and adopt new technologies.

  11. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you are asking “Is Monarchy a vital step in the path to civilization, or could we have reached the same point via committees or senates without ever having called someone King or Queen?”

    If so, I agree with John Bradley in that the physiology of our brains may be important. As humans, we seem to have a natural tendency to assign a personality to things we don’t understand – hence the prevalence of religion. I think the same is probably true of organized society – we don’t seem to be able to believe that a society can act in a coherent way without a single person at its helm. Even today, in our “advanced” democratic societies, we still insist on electing Mayors, Governors, Prime Ministers and Presidents, so that we can “put a face” on our government.

    We still believe that those people we elect make a difference to the success or failure of our societies. For example, when the economic bubble bursts and we hit a recession, the electorate almost always dumps the incumbents and puts in the opposition, assigning the blame to the people in charge at the time.

    Just look at Europe – it seems that across the board, if there was a socialist government in power in 2008, it’s being swapped for a conservative government, and vice versa. We see patterns in randomness and refuse to believe that randomness could just as effectively guide our society in the right direction.

    This coalition government is a case in point – it was formed because there was “no alternative”. But there was an alternative – the Belgians did perfectly well without a government for 18 months. Maybe, its time for humans to try a society without a single person at the helm? The LibDems certainly would’ve done better to try it, I think.

  12. Before offering any answers, let me try to clarify some of these questions.

    As other posters have noted, it is a simplification to suppose that mammals in general are organized along the lines of Dominant Animal and Subordinates. Chimpanzees, it is true, come close to this, in that a group of chimpanzees will usually have a Dominant Male, but the actual power relations may be more complex than this model implies. Consequently, we need not suppose that the first human bands to have a polity were monarchies, with a singe Commander In Chief – it has been postulated that humans have a strong tendency to form coalitions against any individual who becomes too powerful. A King may be the product of civilization – a society where surplus food is stored, allowing the possibility of specialization, including specialists in fighting – and so the simple One Ruler/Many Subjects model may not be the oldest human polity. (And, of course, everything I just said could also be attacked for being too simplistic).

    However, sometimes it can be useful to consider over-simplistic models in order to clarify certain basic questions. I take it that is the case here – the issue is not whether the first human society to have the abstract concept of a polity was, in fact, a monarchy, but to ask what difference having such an abstract concept makes, whichever kind of social structure it arose in.

    Was the development of this abstract concept inevitable or contingent? Surely contingent in the sense that it might never have happened – humans might have been wiped out before we even got started, had it not been for the intervention of the Doctor, and a thousand other chance events. But, and this is what the series of questions really seems to focus on, an event might be contingent in that sense, and yet necessary in the sense that without it, the later developments we have would be impossible. My car is a contingent entity through and through – it was not inevitable that such a vehicle would ever exist. But, given that such a vehicle does exist, certain features are necessary for it to function, others are not. The central locking system and alarm were optional extras, and it could have been a different colour. But the fuel tank is not an optional extra – it is necessary to the functioning of the car. A car without a fuel tank, or even without wheels would be possible (a solar-powered Imperial Walker perhaps), but to design a working model is not straightforward, given the role that the fuel tank plays in the way the car actually does function.
    One view would be that having a concept of the polity is a mere epiphenomenon. To use an example from Wittgenstein someone who, when playing chess, puts a paper crown on their King does not, in doing so, make a move in the game of chess. On the other hand, one might maintain that having the concept of a polity makes it possible to make political moves that would otherwise be impossible. The ability to describe our society as it is gives us the ability to describe it as it might be, and consciously to try to change it.

  13. The way the development of an abstract notion of political power parallels the development of a society with a mutual interest in peaceful coexistence is covered by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature … convincingly so to my mind. Certainly worth a read:

    “The key to explaining the decline of violence, Pinker argues, is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.”

  14. It feels as if the real question you are asking is about the nature of cooperation, and the nature of trust within a cooperative relationship.

    The idea of a shared future must lie at the heart of cooperation of the type you describe as ‘political power’. It is this abstract concept, and the ability to both articulate it and understand it, which allows a vision to transcend one person (and their own qualities) to achieve a goal.

    This leap forwards involves innovation on an individual level, and the ability of others within the group to understand that idea. Articulate a vision which people can share helps to build trust.

    I do, however, question how far the concept you describe entails a change of course away from the ability of an individual to apply their own qualities to the surroundings in which they find themselves, and lead by virtue of this application.

    Having a view of recent strong leaders within movements is interesting here, particularly when the waning of these movements can be seen in their absence (or not as the case may be).

    Polity perhaps only changes the nature of the qualities and relationships required to become the ‘Silverback’ figure. Kings may exist, but they may also be controlled (Leo Strauss / Wolf Hall / Machiavelli – Discuss…)

    A cynical observer might remark at this point that creation of ‘a polity’ merely turns the ‘Silverback’ into The Prince.

  15. I think you start from a mistaken assumption:
    Within this group – a troop or a tribe – power would be exercised entirely on a face-to-face basis. From time to time, a dominant figure would emerge, and that figure’s dominance would be on the basis of personal qualities or relationships.

    You can’t say that this is how early people were organised unless you look at how the precursors of homo were likely to be organised. Many primates have strict social hierarchies and rules for assigning group members’ positions in those hierarchies. So the dominant figure does not emerge from “time to time”; instead, the group is structured around one or more dominant / leader animals, which are regularly displaced if they get too weak to uphold their position. If early homo was similar, then something like “kingship” may have been the result of traditional alpha animal rules + myths and stories. (Plus religious leadership as a rival way to domination, built mostly on myths and stories).

    My guess would be that something like kings, alpha males, or warlords are a fairly early form of organisation – what’s uniquely human are courts, courtiers, and the associated cabals.

    And even if power is exercised face-to-face, it is still governed by tight social rules. Unless you’ve already read it, I’d recommend Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France as an interesting description of different political structures in supposedly centralised France. The first few chapters (100+ pages) should be enough to give you a flavour. It’s a great read very well written, something for the train.

  16. I think a related idea I’ve been pondering is “what can we learn about social self organisation and leadership from the existing open source software development model”.

    I think, for these purposes, Linus Torvalds, is more “Silverback” than “Arthur”. His “power” comes from his public & personal relationships, and his skills at what he does. The project could “fork” at any point, anyone is free to rock up and demonstrate being a stronger leader, or just ignore the existing Silverback and start their own tribe.

    And in many ways, in the technical world, whilst this isn’t a trivial event, it’s a healthy one that is explicitly tolerated and allowed to happen, albeit with some inertia due to it’s costs.

    How do the politics and social structures and self-organisation of big (and small) open source projects compare to their political equivalents? Just like in “regular” politics, you have flavours.

    Firefox, via Mozilla, is open source, but Mozilla org is a pretty well organised/controlled organisation with fairly substantial cash flow. Java & MySQL are open source, but currently lead by Oralce. Wikipedia and Debian both exhibit very strong social frameworks to compliment their technical operations.

    I don’t see this as “can we replace traditional politics with an open source software project”. That’s naive and overly simplistic. But open source (and some closed source) software development work involves large numbers of motivated people, often with a wide variety of self interest and motivation … and despite all that, manage to find a way to work constructively together to a greater goal, without any real legal, formal or top down dictorial king or alpha figure.

    Linus does not retain his power thru force. IMHO, he’s there because the community have granted him his role, and they can take it away any time they want to, albeit that would be a big thing … but it’s entirely possible, and based on other big open source projects, not always as terrible an event as say a large corporate organisation or politcal party loosing it’s figure head.

    This domain has, by it’s nature, embraced and been on the front of the wave of adapting modern technology to help with social self organisation and “getting shit done”. And to my mind, proven suprisingly successfull and efficient, relative to many existing models.

    Then question then is what can be learned and replicated from this techie focused world into broader domains. What bits are reliant on the “professional use of skilled tools” (and thus always likely to remain in niche use by the select few with those skills) and what bits can be generalised and applied to other contexts.

    One example would be mailing lists and IRC. Typically featuring (a) public archives/logs of all key discussion in easily referenced and searchable formats and (b) generally open to all based on merit and contribution. Constrast with how the debate around, say, libel reform. Along with some largely poorly (by comparison) documented public debate, I would guess a fair bit of closed/private/back-room discussion amongst the priviledged elite. A learned and skillful and educated elite, but not somewhere that anyone with something to say can just rock up, post a message to a mailing list and easily get a few little changes to the “code” applied.

    In short, I think open source software has over the last couple of decades demonstrated a working model of an alternative way to socially self-organise. Sure, it’s a very narrow domain, but that doesn’t mean some lessons can’t be taught in other contexts.

  17. I think this is an issue of continuity and of group awareness of that continuity. In your first example the group is asking the question “what should we do?” and a leader emerges when a member of the group can answer the question. When the group becomes aware of itself and of its history and its likely continuation into the future its members can say “In the past a single member has directed us and when that member has died or stopped directing us another has always stepped into the space left. The position must exist independent of the group member filling it. This position needs a name and characteristics…” if you view the position as independent of the person filling it and important to the survival of the group then you may start to prioritize the filling of the position over the appropriateness of the filler. So I don’t know that it is inevitable but it does seem likely that a group will decide that it is better to be certain that they have a leader (king) rather than trust that the best person for the job will be available as and when needed.

  18. I see that several other people have started recommending books, so I’ll add some to the list: Making It Explicit and Articulating Reasons: An Introduction To Inferentialism, both by Robert Brandom. The former is a magnum opus, the latter a gentler introduction to the same ideas. Brandom has nothing to say about the history or prehistory or politics, but a lot to say about the difference between acting on an implicit concept (as animals do when they submit to the dominant animal) and having an explicit concept (as we do when we say “Open Up, in the name of the King!”). He supplies the kind of theoretical framework that would help us make sense of whatever historical (or prehistorical) data we can find from studying issues like the links between chimpanzee politics and social structures of small bands of humans.

    Explicit concepts must rest on implicit concepts. That is the lesson, or a lesson, of Wittgenstein’s observations on rule-following. When I state a rule (e.g. the definition of a word), you must be able to follow those instructions in the same way that I do. But if I have to state a rule about how to follow those instructions, and a rule about that rule, and so on, we will get lost in an infinite regress. The reason that we are confident the person will not always get lost in an infinite regress is that we are human beings, sharing the same biology, and therefore the same basic reactions.
    Ovid never tasted Diet Pepsi, but I am confident that, if he had done, he would have described it as ‘dulcis’, and it is because of this confidence that I can translate ‘dulcis’ as ‘sweet’. This confidence is not based on any rule that Ovid states about the concept of ‘dulcis’, but if honey was classed as dulcis and grapes were too, then his taste buds were responding to a potential source of high energy food, a response that triggers the English word ‘sweet’.
    Stating concepts explicitly is impossible without some implicit concepts in place, but having explicit concepts then brings advantages. We can develop concepts that are more complex. Also, and this might be particularly relevant with the concept of a polity, when we can state a concept explicitly, we can also subject it to questioning. Other primates have social rules that they follow implicitly, and the social hierarchy can be very complicated. Animals can go up and down in the hierarchy – the authority of the dominant male chimpanzee, at any one time, is subject to questioning. What they cannot do is question the very rules themselves, because they do not have any explicit statement of those rules.

  19. The Silverback model – a leader exerting influence through direct relationships – can’t work for more than about 150 individuals. This is Dunbar’s Number, the maximum number of interpersonal relationships the human brain can process.

    For a larger group, you need indirect relationships, which means a hierarchy of some sort – Arthur directly leads some, who then lead others. Arthur rules ultimately everyone, but there are people in the middle who have power granted to them… and that is the origin of polity.

  20. Perhaps the reason most societies accepted a hereditary monarch was to reduce the costs associated with competition for the role of leader? In the animal kingdom, the competitors bear scars and develop oddities like large antlers because of that competition. Once human societies started to organize themselves, a competitor for the chiefdom would normally require supporters. Figthing between the factions would weaken the society. By accepting an (admittedly chauvinistic and nepotistic) rule like “the first borne son of the king shall become king when the king dies”, the society strengthens itself by avoiding the costs of succession struggles.

    Admittedly, sometimes the monarch selected turns out to be unfit for purpose, whether just stupid, overconfident or cruel and tyrannical. Sometimes, this is bad enough to lead to usurpation, civil war or even the overthrow of the monarchy. But these events would happen only occasionally instead of every time a leader needs to be chosen, thus the net cost of succession is reduced.

    Eventually, of course, we came up with the system of representative democracy to determine the succession. But that is not a “zero-cost” method – there are obvious costs of campaigning, plus the hidden costs of cosying up to media companies and rich donors. And there is “populism”, the tendency for the politicians to do what will win them votes, rather than what is best for the country. Within limits, an absolute monarchy does not bear that cost. A true democracy, with citizens voting on every issue, would bear huge populist costs and would make the media even more powerful.

    We may think that representative democracy is a great system. But it doesn’t always produce the best leader for the country, as Hitler, Reagan and Bush prove.

  21. Adding yet another book to the list- David Lord Smail’s “On deep history and the brain” is fantastic. Chapters four and five have this lovely scientific myth of cooperative, non hierarchical, original homo sap/homo erectus behaviour while the invention of property c10 000 years ago reactivates ape-like cruelty and bullying.

    I would ignore, unless you have a real taste for historiography, chapters two and three.

  22. You asked for answers to the following questions: (My answers are underneath)
    Against this, the question which has long puzzled me is this: was the development of such an abstraction [political power] inevitable?
    Could human civilization have still developed without the notion of kingship (or similar), with a series of Silverbacks instead?
    Indeed, could we have a society of any size or complexity (beyond a troop or tribe) without there being any abstract notion of political power?
    A society, that is, without any conception of a ‘polity’?
    And, if so, how different would such a society be from what we have today?
    Not applicable.

    The questions confuse several points, which need to be disentangled. First, political power has to be differentiated from familial power or tribal loyalty. When we move outside of the family, to the wider tribe, we still do not have politics. As such, politics occurs when familial or tribal relationships cannot resolve the issue. The exact origins of government, when we moved from the concept of familial or tribal structures to a political structure, are unknowable.

    The earliest recorded ideas of government only date from Sumerian period. (See SE Finer’s excellent The History of Government from Earliest Times)

    Second, the question of political power is phrased here as the willingness to obey, which is different from the question of why should we obey. We do know when those questions were being asked and answered. The Greek city-state (the polity specifically understood) was the first to have these questions 2500 years ago. Before that period, we would have had the political organisation based on familial relationships (ancient worship) or religious worship. In addition, we need to remember that there was not an idea of society as distinct from the polity then.

    The genius of the Greeks was that could create a polity where such questions could emerge. Philosophy flourished, some would say emerged, but most importantly, political philosophy (what is the best way to live) was “invented”. From that “invention”, the Greeks did something else, they began to organise their polity based on human reason discovering, or at least answering, the question: What is the best way to live? One has to marvel that such a pre-modern society could be so advanced in its thinking. Sir Peter Hall does an excellent job of exploring how Athens (as a city) achieved it success. His wonderful book Cities in Civilisation covers Athen’s importance.

    Human reason could determine why and how we live as we do. The opinions of our ancestors, or the gods, were being challenged and replaced as sources of authority. The individuals, working together in a political community, could decide the answers to these questions. From those ideas, a different worldview emerges. From there, we see the decline in tribal loyalties, a belief in kingship, and a rise in political systems (like democracy) that respond to individual rights.

    The ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are best at explaining the origins of politics in their own respective ways. What we had to wait for, through the medieval period, were the rise of “social contract” theorists, like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, to understand, based on Christianity, the idea of a society. We need to remember that the Greeks did not have a word for society as distinct from the polity. As such, the idea of society is a relatively modern idea.

  23. I’m late here, and if there’s a prize for ‘least helpful comment’ then this is possibly it: I think the question is unanswerable because it is a tautology.
    The only tools at our disposal to judge this question are those structures and concepts that we ourselves have fashioned, broadly speaking: socio/political studies. We have no absolute from which to judge, only the tools and practices available to us.

    So the question really becomes: is it possible to envisage a society whose polity we might designate as “absence of polity”!! …Which is obviously circular.

    Unless we feel so inclined as to refer everything back to some transcendent ‘absolute’ then all human endeavours must recognise the limits and constraints of their own practice: science, yes; and religion too (shock horror!)

    Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer wrote an excellent book that charts the emergence of scientific and social practice through the persons of Boyle and Hobbes. It’s worth having just for the title: “Leviathan and The Air-Pump”!

  24. I’m going to ramble on if that’s ok ?

    I think that there is one important point missed here and that is the extent to which structures of polity and society are not invented at all. They are discovered.

    The silverback scenario is often presented as somehow perfectly ‘neutral’ ie. as the one emergent  ‘fact of nature’. This is a uniquely capitalist distortion that attempts to explain competition as the natural order, and all else as ‘mere’ opinion.  (Thatcher’s “no such thing as society”)

    As Lynn Margulis was always at pains to point out “we are symbiots on a symbiotic planet.” And this presents us with a set of relationships that are quite different from those of silverback. We are constrained to recognise the overwhelming degree of mutual ‘cooperation’ and interdependence that exists not only within a single species, but between us all; and in full relationship with our environment (Margulis and Lovelock).

    The question of ‘the social entity’ is now discovered. If this weren’t the case then we would have to consign the entire study of animal behaviours to the rubbish heap, and along with this would have to go much of Darwin. (not to mention human behaviourists…psychologists!).

    How could we possibly make a studies of ants, for example, without recognising that societies are real and that they are naturally occurring entities that enact patterns that reflect a certain ‘policy’ with regard to survival and environment? 

    Of course we are not free to say that ants are conscious of policy, but nevertheless they enact it. They marshall their society with a tight array of communicated gestures. In some cases animals might even be said to ‘inscribe’ policy with markings and scents that delineate territories and pathways. Borders.

    Empirically we discover this to be true. And against claims of rampant anthropomorphism we must see the alternative. The alternative is an anthropocentric world view that is positively messianic: structures only exist in so far as mankind has become conscious of them/invented them. Intuitively this is absurd and lacks all pragmatism. Before our discovery of atoms they did surely exist. And so too with societies and polity. The entire planet reflects the polity of ‘life sustained’. This is Lovelock’s contention. And we go on to discover the mechanisms.

    This is why the question of a world without polity is circular. We might as well ask how science might look without the discovery of atoms (an old debate in fact). But this is impossible, for by confirming atoms as real, we are constrained to interpret our world within these terms. 

    If we want to know science without atoms then it falls upon us to disprove the results of particle physics. Similarly if we want to imagine the Anarchic dream of an Utopian world without polity, then we must disprove the polity that we see spontaneously enacted all around us. Both pretty hard tasks.

  25. It seems to me that the posted dichotomy of “Silverback” and “Arthur” is about the concepts of contingent political power and determined political power. Why did societies opt for the latter (hereditary kings) during much of history? Of all the respondents, in my view only Hamish Atkinson points at the answer to this (most others seem to divert to side issues about society that were not explicit in the original question): social cost avoidance by circumventing competition (could be war) among ‘wannabee’ successors. In principle at least, the rule “when the king dies his first born son is king” avoids such social strife. But this seems to me just one half of the answer, namely explaining why society accepted it. It was not necessarily the (altruistic) driver from the part of the ruling king. More likely the driver of the selfish gene was at play with him. During the European middle ages for instance the Greco-Roman concept of the State had largely been lost and kingdoms were treated as property to be kept as much in the family as the contents of your treasure chest. In due course the selfish gene tended to prevail over the common good and at least in Europe the absolute monarchy (presented as god-given) was gradually dismantled, ending up in little more than an iconic figurehead. Elected heads of state are in a way the modern “Silverbacks” but they needed to be constrained, too, maily by term time limits. Presidents for life have seldom if ever continued to serve the purpose for which they were elected.

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