1. Blanton and Fargher have come up with a new and rigorous analysis of key dynamics of ancient state governments.
They start with a branch of collective action theory associated with political scientist Margaret Levi that she has labeled the "predatory theory of rule" (Levi 1981, 1988). Levi argues that state revenues (a crucial part of state dynamics that is seriously undertheorized in archaeology) are determined by three factors: the bargaining powers of rulers and subjects; transaction costs; and the discount rate of rulers (i.e., how long a ruler expects to stay in power). She assembles empirical data and theory to support her model, which started a productive line of research in political science and historical sociology. Blanton and Fargher build on Levi’s insights, but they approach the topic from a different direction. They take fiscal organization as their starting point and examine its effects on key political and social variables. They come up with a scale of popular participation in government that runs from autocratic regimes to more collective or democratic regimes. In their causal model the internal or external origin of state revenues causes or determines the scores on the governance scale (see the diagram). In short, reliance on internal revenue sources leads to greater bureaucratization, greater popular control over rulers, and more provisioning of public goods. Rulers rely on their subjects for taxation, so they must treat them better. External revenue leads to the opposite pattern. Rulers get their revenue from elsewhere, so they have no incentive to treat their subjects well by providing public goods or giving them any say in governance.
|Blanton & Fargher 2008: 254|
Blanton and Fargher's scale of rulership, which runs from autocratic to democratic or collective, is a major advance in understanding ancient states. Not all states were the same. Some rulers were despotic and seriously exploited their subjects, but other states had more collective forms of rule, which means that commoner subjects had some say in governance. They analyze the thirty polities in their sample on a host of variables, which are scored in various ways to produce three numerical scales: public goods provision; bureaucratization; and control of the ruler. The scores for these scales are summed to produce their governance scale, which runs from a low of 23.5 (Bakitara; Aceh, Nupe, and 12th century England are near the bottom) to a high of 52 (Classical Athens; also near the top: Republican Rome, Ming China and Lozi in Africa).
2. Blanton and Fargher come up with some fascinating counter-intuitive results.
The standard archaeological view of ancient states is that they had powerful despotic rulers who stomped all over their subjects. People's lives were strongly controlled and dominated by rulers and the state, and ordinary households had few options to succeed. This image of powerful autocratic rulers dominates archaeological writing on states; Yul Brenner as Ramses in the film The Ten Commandments comes to mind here. I know this was my view prior to reading Blanton and Fargher. Few of us used language as stark as this, but we have fancier ways of saying the same thing.
But in their model, it turns out that the most despotic rulers (who ran the least collective states) generally left their subjects alone. Taxes were not very high, and while few public goods were provided, people had a lot of autonomy to do things as they like. A classical formulation of this kind of state is Max Weber's concept of the "patrimonial state." In the more collective states, on the other hand, rulers had many bureaucrats and they kept track of people by counting, measuring, recording, and generally watching the population. Taxes were much higher, and they were harder to shirk. So in this sense, commoner subjects had LESS autonomy from state interference, and they were far more subject to state surveillance, in the more collective states. Hmmmm, does this sound odd? It certainly did to me when I first read Blanton and Fargher.
You don't have to take their word for this, however. The key concepts (which they mention but do not employ as extensively as I would have thought) are from Michael Mann: despotic and infrastructural power (Mann 1984, 1986, 2008). Despotic power is the ability of the ruler to do what he wants,
This is just a quick taste of Blanton and Fargher's model. The first reaction of an archaeologist, however, is that these are all historical case studies. How can we do this kind of analysis archaeologically? Blanton and Fargher have produced a series of journal articles since 2008 that begin to extend their insights to archaeology, but they have so far not come up with a rigorous method to apply their model to archaeological data. This is a big need, and if they won't do it, then some enterprising Ph.D. student should take this on.
If you deal with states at all, you have no excuse not to read Blanton and Fargher, and you really should start using their concepts in your work. This is really ground-breaking stuff, a major contribution to knowledge. Six years after publication, however, I am surprised that more of us aren't citing and using this work.
Levi, Margaret (1981) The Predatory Theory of Rule. Politics and Society 10:431-466.
Levi, Margaret (1988) Of Rule and Revenue. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Mann, Michael (1984) The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie 25:185-213.
Mann, Michael (1986) The Sources of Social Power, volume 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Mann, Michael (2008) Infrastructural Power Revisited. Studies in Comparative International Development 43:355-365.
The basic model:
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher (2008) Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher (2009) Collective Action in the Evolution of Pre-Modern States. Social Evolution and History 8(2):133-166.
Fargher, Lane F. and Richard E. Blanton (2007) Revenue, Voice, and Public Goods in three Pre-Modern States. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49:848-882.
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher (2011) The Collective Logic of Pre-Modern Cities. World Archaeology 43(3):505-522.
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher (2012) Neighborhoods and the Civic Constitutions of Pre-Modern Cities as Seen from the Perspective of Collective Action. In The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities, edited by Marie Charlotte Arnauld, Linda Manzanilla and Michael E. Smith, pp. 27-52. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Fargher, Lane F., Richard E. Blanton and Verenice Y. Heredia Expinoza (2010) Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlascallan. Latin American Antiquity 21:227-251.
Fargher, Lane F., Verenice Y. Heredia Expinoza and Richard E. Blanton (2011) Alternative Pathways to Power in Late Postclassic Highland Mesoamerica. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30:306-326.