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The Genesis of the State

Tags Free MarketsWorld HistoryEntrepreneurshipInterventionism

10/25/2010Franz Oppenheimer

One single force impels all life; one force developed it, from the single cell, the particle of albumen floating about in the warm ocean of prehistoric time, up to the vertebrates, and then to man. This one force is the tendency to provide for life, bifurcated into "hunger and love."

In the beginning of human society, and as it gradually develops, this tendency pushes itself forward in various bizarre ideas called "superstition." These are based on purely logical conclusions from incomplete observations concerning air and water, earth and fire, animals and plants, which seem endowed with a throng of spirits both kindly and malevolent. One may say that in the most recent modern times, at a stage attained only by very few races, there arises also the younger daughter of the desire for causation, namely science, as a logical result of complete observation of facts — science, now required to exterminate widely branched-out superstition, which, with innumerable threads, has rooted itself in the very soul of mankind.

But, however powerfully, especially in the moment of "ecstasy," superstition may have influenced history, however powerfully, even in ordinary times, it may have cooperated in the development of human communal life, the principal force of development is still to be found in the necessities of life, which force man to acquire for himself and for his family nourishment, clothing and housing. This remains, therefore, the "economic" impulse. A sociological — and that means a sociopsychological — investigation of the development of history can, therefore, not progress otherwise than by following out the methods by which economic needs have been satisfied in their gradual unfolding, and by taking heed of the influences of the causation impulse at its proper place.

Political and Economic Means

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one's own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others.

Robbery! Forcible appropriation! These words convey to us ideas of crime and the penitentiary, since we are the contemporaries of a developed civilization, specifically based on the inviolability of property. And this tang is not lost when we are convinced that land and sea robbery is the primitive relation of life, just as the warrior's trade — which also for a long time is only organized mass robbery constitutes the most respected of occupations. Both because of this, and also on account of the need of having, in the further development of this study, terse, clear, sharply opposing terms for these very important contrasts, I propose in the following discussion to call one's own labor and the equivalent exchange of one's own labor for the labor of others, the "economic means" for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the "political means."

The idea is not altogether new; philosophers of history have at all times found this contradiction and have tried to formulate it. But no one of these formulae has carried the premise to its complete logical end. At no place is it clearly shown that the contradiction consists only in the means by which the identical purpose, the acquisition of economic objects of consumption, is to be obtained. Yet this is the critical point of the reasoning.

In the case of a thinker of the rank of Karl Marx, one may observe what confusion is brought about when economic purpose and economic means are not strictly differentiated. All those errors, which in the end led Marx's splendid theory so far away from truth, were grounded in the lack of clear differentiation between the means of economic satisfaction of needs and its end. This led him to designate slavery as an "economic category," and force as an "economic force" — half-truths that are far more dangerous than total untruths, since their discovery is more difficult, and false conclusions from them are inevitable.

On the other hand, our own sharp differentiation between the two means toward the same end will help us to avoid any such confusion. This will be our key to an understanding of the development, the essence, and the purpose of the state; and since all universal history heretofore has been only the history of states, to an understanding of universal history as well. All world history, from primitive times up to our own civilization, presents a single phase, a contest namely between the economic and the political means; and it can present only this phase until we have achieved free citizenship.

Peoples Without a State: Huntsmen and Grubbers

The state is an organization of the political means.

No state, therefore, can come into being until the economic means has created a definite number of objects for the satisfaction of needs, which objects may be taken away or appropriated by warlike robbery. For that reason, primitive huntsmen are without a state; and even the more highly developed huntsmen become parts of a state structure only when they find in their neighborhood an evolved economic organization that they can subjugate. But primitive huntsmen live in practical anarchy.

Grosse says concerning primitive huntsmen in general,

There are no essential differences, of fortune among them, and thus a principal source for the origin of differences in station is lacking. Generally, all grown men within the tribe enjoy equal rights. The older men, thanks to their greater experience, have a certain authority; but no one feels himself bound to render them obedience. Where in some cases chiefs are recognized — as with the Botokude, the Central Californians, the Wedda and the Mincopie — their power is extremely limited. The chieftain has no means of enforcing his wishes against the will of the rest. Most tribes of hunters, however, have no chieftain. The entire society of the males still forms a homogeneous undifferentiated mass, in which only those individuals achieve prominence who are believed to possess magical powers.1

Here, then, there scarcely exists a spark of "statehood," even in the sense of ordinary theories of the state, still less in the sense of the correct sociological idea of the state.

The social structure of primitive peasants has hardly more resemblance to a state than has the horde of huntsmen. Where the peasant, working the ground with a grub, is living in liberty, there is as yet no "state." The plow is always the mark of a higher economic condition that occurs only in a state; that is to say, in a system of plantation work carried on by subjugated servants.2 The grubbers live isolated from one another, scattered over the country in separated curtilages, perhaps in villages, split up because of quarrels about district or farm boundaries. In the best cases, they live in feebly organized associations, bound together by oath, attached only loosely by the tie that the consciousness of the same descent and speech and the same belief imposes upon them. They unite perhaps once a year in the common celebration of renowned ancestors or of the tribal god. There is no ruling authority over the whole mass; the various chieftains of a village, or possibly of a district, may have more or less influence in their circumscribed spheres, this depending usually upon their personal qualities, and especially upon the magical powers attributed to them. Cunow describes the Peruvian peasants before the incursion of the Incas as follows: "An unregulated living side by side of many independent, mutually warring tribes, who again were split up into more or less autonomous territorial unions, held together by ties of kinship."3 One may say that all the primitive peasants of the old and new world were of this type.

In such a state of society, it is hardly conceivable that a warlike organization could come about for purposes of attack. It is sufficiently difficult to mobilize the clan, or still more the tribe, for common defense. The peasant is always lacking in mobility. He is as attached to the ground as the plants he cultivates. As a matter of fact, the working of his field makes him "bound to the soil" (glebae adscriptus), even though, in the absence of law, he has freedom of movement.

What purpose, moreover, would a looting expedition effect in a country that throughout its extent is occupied only by grubbing peasants? The peasant can carry off from the peasant nothing he does not already own. In a condition of society marked by superfluity of agricultural land, each individual contributes only a little work to its extensive cultivation. Each occupies as much territory as he needs. More would be superfluous. Its acquisition would be lost labor, even were its owner able to conserve for any length of time the grain products thus secured. Under primitive conditions, however, this spoils rapidly by reason of change of atmosphere, ants, or other agencies. According to Ratzel, the Central African peasant must convert the superfluous portion of his crops into beer as quickly as possible in order not to lose it entirely!

For all these reasons, primitive peasants are totally lacking in that warlike desire to take the offensive, which is the distinguishing mark of hunters and herdsmen: war cannot better their condition. And this peaceable attitude is strengthened by the fact that the occupation of the peasant does not make him an efficient warrior. It is true his muscles are strong and he has powers of endurance, but he is sluggish of movement and slow to come to a determination, while huntsmen and nomads by their methods of living develop speed of motion and swiftness of action. For this reason, the primitive peasant is usually of a more gentle disposition than they.

To sum up, within the economic and social conditions of the peasant districts, one finds no differentiation working for the higher forms of integration. There exists neither the impulse nor the possibility for the warlike subjection of neighbors. No "state" can therefore arise; and, as a matter of fact, none ever has arisen from such social conditions. Had there been no impulse from without, from groups of men nourished in a different manner, the primitive grubber would never have discovered the state.

Peoples Preceding the State: Herdsmen and Vikings

Herdsmen, on the contrary, even though isolated, have developed a whole series of the elements of statehood; and in the tribes that have progressed further, they have developed this in its totality, with the single exception of the last point of identification that completes the state in its modern sense, that is to say, with exception only of the definitive occupation of a circumscribed territory.

One of these elements is an economic one. Even without the intervention of extra-economic force, there may still develop among herdsmen a sufficiently marked differentiation of property and income. Assuming that, at the start, there was complete equality in the number of cattle, yet within a short time, the one man may be richer and the other poorer. An especially clever breeder will see his herd increase rapidly, while an especially careful watchman and bold hunter will preserve his from decimation by beasts of prey. The element of luck also affects the result. One of these herders finds an especially good grazing ground and healthful watering places; the other one loses his entire stock through pestilence, or through a snowfall or a sandstorm.

Distinctions in fortune quickly bring about class distinctions. The herdsman who has lost all must hire himself to the rich man; and sinking thus under the other, become dependent on him. Wherever herdsmen live, from all three parts of the ancient world, we find the same story. Meitzen reports of the Lapps, nomadic in Norway, "Three hundred reindeer sufficed for one family; who owned only a hundred must enter the service of the richer, whose herds ran up to a thousand head."4

The same writer, speaking of the Central Asiatic Nomads, says, "A family required three hundred head of cattle for comfort; one hundred head is poverty, followed by a life of debt. The servant must cultivate the lands of the lord."5

Ratzel reports concerning the Hottentots, of Africa a form of "commendatio": "The poor man endeavors to hire himself to the rich man, his only object being to obtain cattle."6

Laveleye, who reports the same circumstances from Ireland, traces the origin and the name of the feudal system (systeme feodal) to the loaning of cattle by the rich to the poor members of the tribe; accordingly, a "fee-od" (owning of cattle) was the first feud whereby so long as the debt existed the magnate bound the small owner to himself as "his man."

We can only hint at the methods whereby, even in peaceable associations of herdsmen, this economic and consequent social differentiation may have been furthered by the connection of the patriarchate with the offices of supreme and sacrificial priesthood if the wise old men used cleverly the superstition of their clan associates. But this differentiation, so long as it is unaffected by the political means, operates within very modest bounds. Cleverness and efficiency are not hereditary with any degree of certainty. The largest herd will be split up if many heirs grow up in one tent, and fortune is tricky. In our own day, the richest man among the Lapps of Sweden, in the shortest possible time, has been reduced to such complete poverty that the government has had to support him.

All these causes bring it about that the original condition of economic and social equality is always approximately restored.

The more peaceable, aboriginal, and genuine the nomad is, the smaller are the tangible differences of possession. It is touching to note the pleasure with which an old prince of the Tsaidam Mongols accepts his tribute or gift, consisting of a handful of tobacco, a piece of sugar, and twenty-five kopeks.7

This equality is destroyed permanently and in greater degree by the political means. "Where war is carried on and booty acquired, greater differences arise, which find their expression in the ownership of slaves, women, arms and spirited mounts."8

The ownership of slaves!The nomad is the inventor of slavery, and thereby has created the seedling of the state, the first economic exploitation of man by man.

The huntsman carries on wars and takes captives. But he does not make them slaves; either he kills them, or else he adopts them into the tribe. Slaves would be of no use to him. The booty of the chase can be stowed away even less than grain can be "capitalized." The idea of using a human being as a labor motor could only come about on an economic plane on which a body of wealth has developed, call it capital, which can be increased only with the assistance of dependent labor forces.

This stage is first reached by the herdsmen. The forces of one family, lacking outside assistance, suffice to hold together a herd of very limited size, and to protect it from attacks of beasts of prey or human enemies. Until the political means is brought into play, auxiliary forces are found very sparingly; such as the poorer members of the clan already mentioned, together with runaways from foreign tribes, who are found all over the world as protected dependents in the suite of the greater owners of herds.9

In some cases, an entire poor clan of herdsmen enters, half freely, into the service of some rich tribe.

Entire peoples take positions corresponding to their relative wealth. Thus the Tungusen, who are very poor, try to live near the settlements of the Tschuktsches, because they find occupation as herdsmen of the reindeer belonging to the wealthy Tschuktsches; they are paid in reindeer. And the subjection of the Ural-Samojedes by the Sirjaenes came about through the gradual occupation of their pasturing grounds.10

Excepting, however, the last named case, which is already very state-like, the few existing labor forces, without capital, are not sufficient to permit the clan to keep very large herds. Furthermore, methods of herding themselves compel division. For a pasture may not, as they say in the Swiss Alps, be "overpushed," that is to say, have too many cattle on it. The danger of losing the entire stock is reduced by the measure in which it is distributed over various pastures. For cattle plagues, storms, etc., can affect only a part; while even the enemy from abroad can not drive off all at once. For that reason, the Hereros, for example, "find every well-to-do owner forced to keep, besides the main herd, several other subsidiary herds. Younger brothers or other near relatives, or in want of these, tried old servants, watch them."11

For that reason, the developed nomad spares his captured enemy; he can use him as a slave on his pasture. We may note this transition from killing to enslaving in a customary rite of the Scythians: they offered up at their places of sacrifice one out of every hundred captured enemies. Lippert, who reports this, sees in it "the beginning of a limitation, and the reason thereof is evidently to be found in the value which a captured enemy has acquired by becoming the servant of a tribal herdsman."12

With the introduction of slaves into the tribal economy of the herdsmen, the state, in its essential elements, is completed, except that it has not as yet acquired a definitely circumscribed territorial limit. The state has thus the form of dominion, and its economic basis is the exploitation of human labor. Henceforth, economic differentiation and the formation of social classes progress rapidly. The herds of the great, wisely divided and better guarded by numerous armed servants than those of the simple freemen, as a rule, maintain themselves at their original number: they also increase faster than those of the freemen, since they are augmented by the greater share in the booty that the rich receive, corresponding to the number of warriors (slaves) that these place in the field.

Likewise, the office of supreme priest creates an ever-widening cleft, which divides the numbers of the clan, all formerly equals, until finally a genuine nobility, the rich descendants of the rich patriarchs, is placed in juxtaposition to the ordinary freemen.

  • 1. Grosse, Formen der Familie. Freiburg and Leipzig, 1896, p. 39.
  • 2. Ratzel, Völkerkunde. Second Edition. Leipzig and Wien, 1894-5, II, p. 372.
  • 3. Die Soziale Verfassung des Inkareichs. Stuttgart, 1896, p. 51.
  • 4. Siedlung und Agrarwesen der Westgermanen, etc. Berlin, 1895, I, p. 273.
  • 5. l. c. I, p. 138.
  • 6. Ratzel, l. c. I, p. 702.
  • 7. Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 555.
  • 8. Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 555.
  • 9. For example with the Ovambo according to Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 214, who in part "seem to be found in slave-like status," and according to Laveleye among the ancient Irish (Fuidhirs).
  • 10. Ratzel, l. c. I, p. 648.
  • 11. Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 99.
  • 12. Lippert, Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit. Stuttgart, 1886, II, p. 302.

Franz Oppenheimer

Franz Oppenheimer (1864–1943) was a German-Jewish sociologist and political economist, best known for his work on the fundamental sociology of the state. His book The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically was the prototype for Albert Jay Nock's writing, for Frank Chodorov's work, and even for the theoretical edifice that later became Rothbardianism.

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