One of the books I decided to read this summer (before taking summer courses) is a book called Cannibals and Kings (1977) written by anthropologist Marvin Harris.

The book discusses a whole range of topics relating to the origin of culture (origin of agriculture, origin of warfare, origin of male supremacy, origin of the state, origin of food taboos, origin of hydraulic despotism, origin and consequences of capitalism and the industrial bubble, to name a few). The main theory revolves around the idea that humans react to their natural surroundings. Much of our actions revolve around a cost-benefit analysis based on ecology, intensification, and reproductive pressures. Obviously I cannot do the book justice here, so I suggest you read it, especially if you’re interested in the origin of culture, economic incentives, the effects of statism, and about the current-day modes of production that also influence human behavior. I can guarantee the book will make you look at certain things differently–it certainly did for me.

A refrain one notices later in the book is that the rise of the state has coincided with the abysmal treatment, pauperization, and stratification of human beings (i.e. “the descent of the world from freedom to slavery”). This has been the case for most of human history; only very recently have people begun to gain rights and control their governments (and not in all places). Harris warns his readers that to think the current form of the state is permanent and inevitable is both folly and dangerous.

Last month, I quoted a passage in the book about the rise of the state, which can be read here. There is another paragraph about the state that I would like quote, appearing in the chapter about hydraulic despotism on page 235:

Western observers have always been astonished by the static or “stationary” nature of these ancient dynastic systems. Pharaohs and emperors came and went decade after decade; dynasties rose and fell; the life of the coolies, ryots, and fellahin, however, went on as always, just a notch above barest subsistence. The ancient empires were warrens full of illiterate peasants toiling from morning to night only to earn protein-deficient vegetarian diets. They were little better off than their oxen and were no less subject to the commands of superior beings who knew how to keep records and who alone had the right to manufacture and use weapons of war and coercion. The fact that societies providing such meager rewards endured thousands of years—longer than any other system of statehood in the history of the world—stands as a grim reminder that there is nothing inherent in human affairs to ensure material and moral progress.

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