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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