Thursday, April 20, 2006

On the origins of the state (presentation, feedback diagrams)

This powerpoint presentation by Scott A. Lukas on the "The Origins of the State" is a nice read with copious feedback diagrams from some intellectuals you wouldn't at first think were relevant to the study of pre-modern state formation.

State formation is a topic that has been debated for over a hundred years. The debate seems to suffer from several kinds of problems:

1. Insularity of academic disciplines: scholars in one discipline don't know about similar ideas in another.

2. Forgetting: With a hundred years of inconclusive debate, it's hard to remember what individual scholars have hypothesized or claimed, unless of course the scholar is Max Weber.

3. Ideas without empirical evidence: The debate takes place in an intellectual vaccum without trying to map it to empirical evidence. Sometimes it almost seems like throwing all the theoretical machinery away and beginning from the ground up with meticulous intercultural historical comparison is the only way out of the labyrinth.

I still don't buy that Mong Mao was a large and unified early modern Tai state, a segmentary state perhaps. Take the definition of state from Johnson and Earle's survey on evolution of social organization used in the presentation:

"The state is defined as a regionally-organized society with a population (of hundreds of thousands or millions) which is economically and ethnically diverse (Johnson & Earle 1981: 246). By 3500 b.c. we see some of the common characteristics of civilization (inscription; cities; full-time craft specialists; monumental architecture; social stratification become even more distinct; and strong hierarchical systems of centralized organization, what we traditionally classify as being “the state.”)"

As for "strong hierarchical systems of centralized organization" the historical record shows high levels of elite conflict and contention for power along with endemic warfare, i.e. the society was hierarchical in name only. Political fragmentation and lack of unity also reflected in the fragmented nature of the historical record itself, saturated with conflicting place and personal names that no scholar since the time of James Scott with his Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States has been able to sort out. There is a lot of exaggeration in ideologically laden local Tai chronicles about the vastness of Mong Mao. "Mong Mao" or "Meng Mao" is not even used until a lot later, 1588, at least in Wade's polity index for the Ming Shi-lu.)

In general positing a far reaching unified state in the presence of only ideologically-laden evidence like local Tai, Mon, or Burmese chronicles is a fairly common move on the part of pre-modern chroniclers.

I think Di Cosmo's analysis (following Andreski) of how decentralized Mongols or Central Asians, China's northern nomadic "enemies", became much more centralized when faced with the Chinese to their south is pertinent. I'm going to have to thoroughly document the standard accepted interpretation of a strongly unified Mong Mao state (14th-15th century) before I embark on a revisionist argument that it had a decentralized social organization.