The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A stone age social revolution

We begin with 'a patriarchal society of bitter destructiveness: the gloomy temples dug into the mountain like caves served to maintain power in a society that was obviously rigidly organized through open terror: human sacrifices. In the temples of all building levels huge amounts of blood were shed which the excavators retrieved in thick crusts on daggers, altars or draining funnels which were designed specifically for that purpose. The analysis of the isolated blood pigment haemoglobin revealed that it was generally human blood. In the chambers of one of these temples there were the skulls of more than 70 people and parts of skeletons of more than 400 different individuals "neatly stacked up to the ceiling".'

So far, so familiar. We've all seen depictions of societies like that, in Conan movies if nothing else. However ...

'On a certain day 9200 years ago the manorial houses at the north side of the large square in Çayönü were burnt down, and this happened so fast that the owners were not able to save any of their treasures. The temple was torn down and burnt, and even the floor was ripped open, the stone pillars around the free space were taken down and the taller of them were broken up. The place itself - previously maintained and kept meticulously clean for more than 1000 years - was converted into a municipal waste dump. After a short chaotic transition all houses had been torn down. The slums in the west disappeared for good, but only a few steps away from the spot where the ruins of the manorial houses had burnt the new Çayönü was erected. The new houses were comparable in size to the old manors but there were no more houses or shacks built to an inferior standard. In all houses, work was done and all hints to social differences were erased.'

I can't help being thrilled at the thought of these stone age revolutionaries, burning the big houses of the masters and storming that terrifying temple, perhaps fearfully at first, then joyfully turning the gruesome house of the gods into a tip.

But we all know what happened next, don't we? The new society of equals was crushed by outside invasion, or a new caste or class of officials arose and things were soon worse than before ... something like that, yes?

Actually, no. The new type of society spread for thousands of miles and remained free, equal, happy and peaceful for three thousand years.

The site from which I've excerpted the above quotes (stripping out the numerous references to the archaeological literature) interprets this stone age classless and stateless society as communism. (Thanks to the latest issue of International Socialism for the pointer.) This may be controversial, but the archaeology is entirely mainstream, and there is no disagreement that the neolithic societies of ancient Anatolia, whose best-preserved site is Çatalhöyük, were very remarkable indeed.

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That's an interesting bit of history. But, you know, I'm not sure I would apply the category of "communism." It could just as well be interpreted as a conflict between two different versions of private property: In English terms, the monopoly-grants version and the version favored by the Levellers.

It sounds as if the key to the rich people's power was that they held stocks of vital raw materials, and denied the poor people access to them except on ruinous terms; and eventually the poor people got sick of this and overthrew the rich people. But how did the rich people maintain that monopoly in the first place? All right, it was over imported goods. Was it impossible for a poor person to accumulate some resources, and travel to where the goods are cheap, and bring some back, and undersell the rich people, in the classic cartel-breaking move? Well, it may have been if the rich people prohibited such expeditions. But such a prohibition would have to be maintained by force . . . and so you're talking about a state-controlled economy. And the antithesis of a state-controlled economy is not so much a communist one as a decentralized one. So maybe the nonoligarchic society that followed was communist, or maybe it was based on competitive markets, or maybe it even mixed the two. I'm not sure if we could tell at this great a remove. Though maybe some archaeologist is subtler than I am!

I'm reminded of a book I read on comparative agricultural economics, which suggested that you can have free land (as opposed to all workable land being owned), free labor (as opposed to coerced labor), or rent-earning landlords . . . choose two. There seems to be an analogy here.

Yeah, these are interesting speculations, and I think all kinds of social anarchists might be just as interested as communists in this 'archaic utopia'. Whatever it might be called, it upsets a lot of apple carts - no evidence so far of any social division between the sexes, and no evidence of any deaths by violence, over a very long time. That's staggeringly unusual.

Societies compete primarily with other societies in terms of force concentration, not to make the lives of those living in them pleasant. (The enlightenment can be seen as the argument that individual quality of life had value...)

Before someone figures out how to have a professional military *or* requires-specialization civil engineering or record-keeping, getting a minimal division of labour economy to be peaceful ought to be relatively straightforward; people are good at co-operating in groups, and if you don't have either a resource war or strong control of sex going on the *basis* for violence is greatly reduced.

But once someone has figured out how to have a scribal class, a professional military, or an economically vital specialization, this goes away and can't readily be recovered. It would only work because the degree of choice in the society was relatively small -- families were big enough to manage all of the divisions of labour -- and very stable. (In other words, I think agriculture probably *killed* it, rather than enabled it.)

Doing something similar now is constrained by needing complexity management beyond the ability of individuals to perform.

Jane Jacobs' discussion of city formation in "Cities and the Wealth of Nations" specifically discusses Çatalhöyük; you might find her take on why they were there interesting.

Agricultural stateless societies with communal economics have been a long interest of mine.

The trouble with Çatalhöyük is that we are limited to archaeological reference, with no historical or ethnographic studies. A similar problem exists when analyzing Harappan civilization, which at first glance appears relatively egalitarian.

A stateless, agrarian communal society we do have a wealth of historical and ethnographic information (as well as archaeological) is that of the Iroquois. Whether those records are from accounts from Jesuit missionaries, treaty documents, speeches to congress, captive narratives, or anthropological inquires--it seems that as in comparison to what we typically regard as a statist society with private property--the Iroquois we're far from that. Their importance as a model for stateless communism was not lost on Marx and Engels. Marx's ethnographic notebooks are filled with analysis of the Iroquois, and his work was used by Engels in his classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. American feminism (Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott) certainly owes a debt to Iroquois gender relations, and depending on the pillow talk of Gilber Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft... perhaps British feminism as well. Even the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 might have some levelling influence from the Iroquois by way of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The Iroquois influence debate on the U.S. Constitution is well trod ground on academic circles--though to communists that might not be much of an endorsement.

A few year ago, I published a paper with Northeastern Anarchist, Where License Reigns With All Impunity: An Anarchist Study of the Rotinonshón:ni Polity. I hope you will find it of interest.

The struggles of the Rotinonshón:ni continue, from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawà:ke, to Ohswé:ken, to Kenhtè:ke, to Ahkwesáhsne.


Several years ago, you also read my Blood Money: The Human-Capital Equation of the U.S. Occupation of Iraq. You were even so kind as to wish well for my sister's well being in Iraq. I am happy to say that she returned safely and is no longer able to be called to duty for the U.S. military, having completed her commitment.

Would it be too far a leap to wonder whether this event is what gave rise to the Atlantis myths?

Flint, many thanks for your comment and all those interesting links. Good news about your sister, too.

Gwenhwyfaer: I don't see much resemblance between Çatalhöyük etc and Atlantis. Mind you, I do wonder if the historical memory influenced the city burners.

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