25 October 2010

This is Politics

Do all primitive societies have government? Here again we immediately come up against another of the unfortunate interpretations of the word "primitive." Some writers, particularly in the nineteenth century, have thought that many of the institutions which are fundamental to western society developed fairly late in the history of mankind, so that we might expect not to find them among peoples who had not advanced along the path of civilization as far as ourselves. Government and law are among these, and if politics is defined as that which pertains to government, those who hold this view would consider that primitive societies pursue no activities which deserve the name politics.
  But there is another way of looking at politics, according to which it indubitably does exist in primitive societies. One definition of politics is the struggle for power; and even if one is not willing to agree that power is the only thing that men struggle for, one must admit that in every society there are conflicts which must somehow be reconciled if the society is not split into separate independent parts. Conflict and competition begin within the family, however little we care to admit it; in fact, this is recognized in such phrases as 'fraternal enmity'. But every society has an ideal of family unity such that disputes between kinsmen are expected to be settled without any outside intervention. Some anthropologists would hold that the sphere of politics begins where that of kinship ends. In the case of primitive societies it is not always easy to say where this line comes, for in such societies people trace the links of kinship much further than they do in the western world. But what one can say is that between people who are in close daily contact throughout their lives, sentiments are expected to develop (and often do) which limit the expression of conflict, whereas outside these narrow circles one cannot rely on sentiment alone to reconcile conflicting interests. In these wider fields of social relationships there are always and everywhere persons with conflicting and competing interests, seeking to have disputes settled in their favour and to influence community decisions ('policy') in accordance with their interests. This is politics.
  The seventeenth-century philosopher Hobbes contrasted the state of nature, in which every man's hand was against his neighbour, with civil society, in which authority had been surrendered to a sovereign ruler (not necessarily a single man). This was a logical rather than a historical argument; it followed from Hobbes' assumptions about human nature that if there were no supreme authority there could only be a war if each against all. But he did refer to "savage people in many places of America" whose condition he thought approached this. We shall see that in a number of primitive societies fighting is recognized as a legitimate means of obtaining redress for an injury, though in those cases it is not, as Hobbes imagined, a means of dominating others. The question whether societies of this kind can or cannot be said to have government or law is an interesting one, and contemporary anthropologists have answered it in many ways.
  Many modern writers have assumed that government must be carried on through the type of organization which we call the state - a body of persons authorized to make and enforce rules binding on everyone who comes under their jurisdiction, to settle disputes arising between them, to organize their defence against enemies, and to impose taxes or other economic contributions upon them, not to mention the multifarious new functions which the state has undertaken in the present century. Some primitive societies have this kind of organization, but others do not, and the question then arises whether they can be said to have government.

Lucy Mair, Primitive Government (1964: 9-11)