This Research Bulletin has been published in N. Van Nuffel (ed) (2007) Van Christaller tot Wallerstein. Liber Amoricum Prof. Dr. Pieter Saey Zelzate: Nautilus Academic Books, pp. 119-130.
Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.
Unthink and new think
Immanuel Wallerstein (1991) has led the way in demonstrating that social scientists need to ‘unthink’ their embedded nineteenth century concepts and theories. In Kuhnian terms, the time for ‘normal social science’ – accruing knowledge within paradigms – has come to an end and new thinking beyond our old and trusted theories is required. World-systems analysis is a classical exercise in such unthinking through its undermining of conventional development/modernization theories. Within this framework, my contributions have focused upon exposing the state-centrism inherent in conventional social science scholarship (Taylor 1996, 2000, 2004). This critique of embedded statism with its too handy ‘state-istics’ has been directed at social science understanding of modern society based upon the chaotic conception of ‘nation-state’. In this short paper I wish to transfer my concern to earlier times, a period that emerged from the nineteenth century with the label ‘ancient’, the beginning of civilization no less.
I have recently (Taylor 2007) argued that the study of cities has been a notable victim of statist social science in terms of the weight due to it for understanding social change. But this is not necessarily the case before the modern world-system. National histories maintain a territorial fetish of course, but outside this genre, cities appear as more central to the research agendas as epitomised by Abu-Lughod ‘s (1989) choosing ‘to focus on cities rather than countries’ (p. 14) in her attempt to delineate a thirteenth century ‘world system’. Ironically, given the unprecedented urbanization in the modern world, the further back in historical time you go, the importance of cities is increasingly recognised culminating in ‘ancient history’ where cities are deemed essential to the origins of civilization. In fact, cities and states appear on the historical stage at the same time as ‘city-states’ in Mesopotamia to define the very first civilization. The latter story is the target for my contrarian intrusion into conventional scholarship.
The paper has a very simple structure. I begin by briefly telling the conventional history. I do this through highlighting two examples of the story, one overtly ‘developmentalist’, Paul Bairoch’s (1988) classic economic history of cities, and one from a world-systems perspective, Chris Chase-Dunn’s bringing cities into systemic history. Using examples from opposing schools of thought is intended to emphasise the power of the paradigm through which ancient history has been constructed. In the second section, I introduce some new social science concepts as tools for both unthinking and rethinking the conventional story. These ideas derive from Jane Jacobs’ work on cities (1969, 1984) and moral syndromes (1992), from Manuel Castells’ (1996) concepts of social space construction, and builds upon Ed Soja’s (2000) revisionist notion of there being three not two urban revolutions. In the third section, I relate a new story of early city and state origins as my alternative offering. This employs generic concepts of cities and states from section two and applies them to rethinking how cities and states came about.
The conventional story
Two works dominate this story telling: Gordon Childe’s (1943) What Happened in History and Lewis Mumford’s (1961) The City in History; the longevity and importance of their ideas is shown by the fact they have found a place in the most recent city reader (LeGates and Stout 2000). It is the Marxist scholar Childe who invented the phrase ‘urban revolution’ to describe the city development in early Mesopotamia. However, as noted, I will tell the story through more recent publications of Bairoch (1988) and Chase-Dunn (1992) that emphasize the materialist side of cities. My later interpretation will be explicitly materialist and therefore these sources match closely my starting point. I will summarise the conventional story as a sequence of changes.
Agriculture Revolution before Urban Revolution
The Neolithic revolution creating agriculture enables higher human population densities and therefore is a necessary precursor of city development according to Bairoch (1988, 13). He recognises that relatively large settlements have been found in Neolithic sites ( Jericho and Çatal Hüyük) which he treats as ‘preurban towns’ (pp 9-10); they remain villages because they have no complex division of labour. ‘International trade’ (i.e inter-cultural) is also recognised between ‘non-urbanised regions’ (p. 21) but this does not feature in the evolutional process.
For Chase-Dunn (1992, 54) these agricultural societies create ‘world-systems without cities’: kin-based systems that are also classless and stateless. There is a socially constructed space constituted by settlement patterns (villages) within a world-system and interactions (prestige and basic goods) between system territories (p. 55). In this rural world, class formation precedes the origins of cities and states in the form of hierarchical chiefdom polities.
City-States in the Urban Revolution
Bairoch (1988, 21-2) emphasises scale and density changes to identify ‘true cities’ in bronze age Mesoptamia from c5000 BP. This urban revolution occurred in this ‘most fertile’ region in ‘areas where agriculture was particularly well established’ (p. 26). The cities are city-states, defined as urban centres ruling over a relatively large rural hinterland as an ‘integral economic unit’ with the administration decisive in external trade (p. 26). Thus Mesopotamia initially consisted of a set of independent states each centred on a major city.
Chase-Dunn (1992, 58) describes this ‘pristine state’ emergence as an ‘interstate system composed of city-states’. This was a world of autonomous city-states, with shifting alliances creating a balance of power mechanism. The state emerged as a ‘new technology of control’ in this more complex world-system (p. 59). He rehearses the debate about whether the cities thrived through exploiting their hinterlands or through exploiting peripheral places in an unequal exchange mechanism (pp. 60-1).
For Baroich (1988, 26) the rise of Babylon represents a ‘new kind of culture’ with a population of about 250,000 and conquered hinterland area to match: it was ‘practically a ‘city-empire’’ (p. 27). This is the beginning of a world of great empires in the Middle East from Persia and Egypt to Alexander and Rome. Egypt is seen as ‘a special case’ (p. 28) because it appears to be a civilization without major cities until Hellenization and the establishment of the great city of Alexandria. This dearth of large cities is due to their relative lack of economic functions.
Chase-Dunn (1992, 61) identifies Sargon of Akkad, conqueror of Mesopotamia, as the first empire-builder. This was an example of a semi-peripheral marcher state devising new military techniques to take control of a core region ( Mesopotamia), a pattern repeated on several occasions in later times. The products are the world-empires that Wallerstein (1979) identifies as world-systems based upon a redistributive-tributary mode of production, although Chase-Dunn notes that they often had interactions with areas beyond their political control (p. 62).
Inter-city Trading Systems
Baroich (1988, 29) treats the Phoenician city-states as ‘the first commercial towns’: ‘the first major instance of commercial cities taking their place in a geographical setting far wider than that provided by their immediate hinterlands (p. 33). As well as trade (high value e.g. jewellery), they also became production centres (e.g. ship-building); these came together in their famous purple dye production for cloth exports (p. 31). Phoenicians planted colonies around the Mediterranean many of which grew to become important cities in their own right (e.g. Carthage).
Chase-Dunn (1992, 62) argues that Phoenician cities were ‘capitalist city-states’: as active agents of commodification ‘they ought to be designated as the first capitalist states’ (p. 63). From the interstices between empires they expanded economic networks across the Mediterranean as merchant capitalists buying cheap and selling dear, and also engaged in production capital (p. 64). These city-states used their naval power to pursue capital accumulation through commodity trade and commodity production (p. 65).
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Although the two authors use different terminology we can see that they are effectively telling the same story: how the ancient world became an ensemble of agricultural settlements, city-states, empires and trading networks. Two types of state and two types of city are identified and each pair appear in sequence: city-state then empire; cities based on local hinterlands followed by others enmeshed in wider networks. But is this, as Childe’s (1943) book title would have it, “What Happened in History”? I seriously doubt it. This is a paradigm long overdue its revolution.
New thinking, new tools
My tools for pursuing this putative paradigm-shift are from Jane Jacobs’ (1992) moral syndromes analysis interpreted through the lenses of Castells’ (1996) constructions of social spaces. This is based upon generic thinking about cities and states that has been used previously (Taylor 2007) for interpreting city/state relations in the emergence of the modern world-system. Of course, generic thinking is particularly relevant to questions of origin but it is conspicuous by its absence in much of the work reported above: cities and states appear in the story without asking what cities and states actually are.
Moral Syndromes for Making a Living
Jacobs (1992) develops a basic materialist approach defined as making a living (work). She argues that there are only two ways of making a living: taking/guarding/stewarding and trading/making/servicing. This basic division of labour can be found in all human societies and the latter – trading – is unique to humans. Her key point is that the two ways of making a living are based upon two different, contrary, ethical logics or moral syndromes which she terms guardian and commercial.
The guardian and commercial moral syndromes are sets of precepts that are necessary for the medium/long term reproduction of their respective ways of making a living. The two key contrasting precepts are ‘be loyal’ in guardian work, and ‘be honest’ in commercial work: loyalty in a market situation is dangerous leading to bad deals and economic bankruptcy, honesty in a battle situation is dangerous leading to being outmanoeuvred and military defeat. Jacobs’ complete sets of precepts constituting the two syndromes are given in Table 1. I have organised them into functional sub-sets to emphasize their differences. Ultimately they lead to two opposing mindsets. Guardians play zero-sum games in a fatalistic world-view; for instance, battles produce just winners and losers. In contrast, commerce is a win-win situation in an optimistic world-view; for instance, in a market (without coercion) both seller and buyer are satisfied with the deal or else it would not go ahead.
Jacobs (1992) does not claim to have invented these concepts; rather she has uncovered them from documents and texts purporting to guide behaviours or to describe ethical violations of expected behaviours. She argues that these syndromes have been developed and honed over millennia by people making a living in these two ways. They are, of course, normative and therefore violated in the real world: if the violation reaches a certain level, then making a living will become impossible and work will collapse and disappear. Too much disloyalty undermines an army; too much dishonesty undermines a market.
I have argued (Taylor 2007) that guardian and commercial work as practised through these moral syndromes are essential generic categories that will be expressed in different social forms across time and space.
Construction of Social Spaces
Space is not a platform on which social practices take place. A basic materialist approach to space treats it as socially constructed by social practices. In this argument social space is produced by work. It is made through carrying out social practices (work tasks) and the resulting space itself impinges on subsequent social practices (work).
Following Castells (1996), socially constructed spaces come in two basic forms: spaces of places and spaces of flows. Spaces of places are constructed by territorial practices, the making, designing and defending of territories. Spaces of flows are constructed by movement practices, the making of paths, chains, networks and circuits. These two types of spaces always exist together. As social constructions their limiting cases (an inert mosaic world, a totally fluid world) do not exist. Thus their salience is to be found in their relations over time and space; for instance, for Castells (1996) modernity was dominated by spaces of places but new spaces of flows are beginning to dominate contemporary (network) society.
My basic contention is that Castells’ spaces of places and spaces of flows are generic concepts applicable to all human societies and, as such, are closely associated with Jacobs’ moral syndromes. For the guardian syndrome spaces of places are predominant; for the commercial syndrome spaces of flows are overriding. Cities and states are a critical expression of these conceptual associations.
Cities as Commercial Products, States as Guardian Products
If the moral syndromes guide practices to create two different forms of space, it follows that each way of making a living is embedded in a contrary space; one that is predisposed by the practice of making a living and which, in turn, is necessary for making that living.
Guardian agents are essentially territorial in their behaviours; they fight over, lose or gain, control and organise territories. They create the world as a space of places. Guardian practices can take several forms depending upon how political power is distributed. States are complex centralizations of political power; the guardian side of the primal division of labour is itself divided into numerous leadership, military, administrative/bureaucratic, religious, and other ways of making a guardian living. The resulting state apparatus is the means through which states are supreme authorities in their territories (be they city-states, empire-states, or modern nation-states).
Commercial agents are essentially networked in their behaviours; they connect with each other to trade, make deals, and produce commodities. They create the world as a space of flows. Cities are nodes where commercial practices are strongly concentrated; the commercial side of the primal division of labour is divided further into a much more complex pattern of work than for the guardian side noted above. This economic complexity is the hallmark of a city. Cities are the most complex inventions of humanity: this is true of contemporary world/global cities, but is also the case for all cities in their own eras, right back to the first cities.
Monstrous Hybrids and Syndrome-friendly Inventions
As processes, these moral syndromes and their spatial formations are by no means exclusive, quite the opposite in fact: they occur simultaneously. This is because all human societies encompass both guardian and commercial work; Jacobs insists that commerce needs guardians (an institutional economics type of argument) and guardians need commerce (a materialist theory of the state type of argument). The relationship between the two ethical logics is a central feature of moral syndrome analysis.
The first point is that each moral syndrome has an integrity that has to be respected for its particular making a living to survive in the medium/long term. Therefore mixing the ethics is inherently dangerous. It can result in what Jacobs calls ‘monstrous hybrids’ to produce catastrophic results. An ephemeral tributary empire is an example: these guardian entities are not able to productively incorporate commercial work in cities into their social reproduction (i.e. killing the goose that lays the golden eggs). By definition monstrous hybrids are relatively rare since they leave minor historical footprints.
On the other hand, there are examples where the two syndromes relate for mutual benefits. Jacobs calls these ‘syndrome-friendly inventions’ producing positive results and they create relatively continuous social reproductions. In more stable world-empires, ‘traditional societies’ are socially organised to keep the syndromes separate in hierarchies that demean commerce. Caste societies are the limiting case of this relation. The hierarchy leaves guardians in political control; the separation allows commercial work to progress without direct interference. The Mesopotamian city-states may be such an early example of a syndrome-friendly invention. In later, larger world-systems, such separation is indexed by the relative autonomy of cities, not necessary as city-states but as constellations of relatively autonomous commercial work. This will be in cities within and without the empire since guardian territorial space will not coincide with commercial spaces of flows.
I treat the concentration of commercial work to form cities and the centralization of guardian work to form states as two different processes.
An elementally revised story
This new story challenges the conventional story at its heart: it disputes the notion that the city was invented in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago. The first and best evidence for doubting Mesopotamian city primacy can be found in ceramics. According to Reader (2005, 15) ‘Pottery is the key’, pots are city products for city needs. Ceramic containers are necessary for large-scale sedentary life and are therefore ubiquitous in city excavations. Among this multifarious mass of evidence Reader emphasises one simple finding: in the earliest layers of Mesopotamia’s ‘first city’, Eridu, a wide range of sophisticated pottery products are found. Because there is no sequence from early crude pots upwards (Leick 2002, 10), the resident potters of this city must have started with a well-developed knowledge of ceramic production. If they did not invent pottery then ceramics must have developed in cities pre-dating Eridu. Since Eridu is Mesopotamia’s earliest known city it follows that the origin of cities (and ceramics) can be placed before and outside Childe’s Mesopotamian urban revolution.
This requires a fresh look at the ‘preurban towns’ whose significance is dismissed in the conventional story.
The Earliest Cities
If not Mesopotamian Eridu, where? Without the conventional story’s identification of a ‘first civilization’ in which to search out the earliest city, we will not find an equivalent ‘first city’. But there are excavations of much earlier settlements that provide evidence for city development: the classic cases are
Çatal Hüyük and Jericho (Soja 2000). In the conventional interpretation these are deemed to be nothing more than ‘large villages’, Jacobs (1969) and Soja (2000) review the evidence and identify cities. Two features are emphasized. First, the size of the settlements implies urban activities not rural ones: 3,000 people lived in Jericho about 10,000 year ago, and Çatal Hüyük’s estimated population varies between 6,000 and 10,000 about 8,000 years ago. Second, there is evidence of a complex division of labour that is a sure sign of urban development: over fifty different types of work are found in Çatal Hüyük leading Jacobs (1969, 32) to conclude that ‘it was a city of crafts, of artists, manufacturers and merchants’.
Although a hunt for the ‘first city’ to replace Eridu may appear an attractive game to play, this is most definitely not how I interpret either Jericho or Çatal Hüyük. This is not an empirical point – there will be other equivalent settlements discovered that may be older than these two cities – rather my objection to first city designation is theoretical: cities do not exist singularly, they depend on each other, they exist in packs (Jacobs 1969). Thus what we are looking for is the development of networks of cities not a putative ‘mother city’ out of which urbanization diffuses to other settlements. And this is exactly what Soja (2000, 28-9) finds: ‘a broad T-shaped region … linked together in a trading network of cities’. Of course, this region has no historical name; Soja lists 15 cities (including Jericho and Çatal Hüyük) in the No Name region consisting of the Levant, the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris, and the Anatolian plain in the ‘prehistoric world’ of about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. No Name may well be the first city-coordinated world-system.
Cities before Agriculture: Jacobs’ Controversial ‘Cities First, Rural Agriculture Later’ Argument
The timing of this networked world-system leads to a second critical feature of this reinterpretation: it places cities before the development of agriculture. Thus whereas the conventional theory has cities emerging from surpluses derived from highly productive agriculture, in this new interpretation there is no agriculture at all when cities develop. Cities are the creation of hunter/gatherer societies. However, the latter are mis-named: the term hunter/gatherer emphasizes their territorial work (space of place) but they also had well developed trading patterns (spaces of flow) and are better called hunter/gatherer/traders. Jacobs (1969) was the first to theorise the implications of the new timing.
As well as being the crucible of cultural attributes deemed to form civilizations in the conventional story, Jacobs (1969) argues that cities are also the crucibles of economies, specifically the locales for economic expansion. Cities are where high population densities generate massively increased inter-personal and inter-group contacts that stimulate innovations to produce new work. The agricultural revolution is just such new work: the idea that this economic transformation could have occurred before the enabling context of cities she dismisses as conventional ‘dogma’ (p. 6, 41-8; the old emphasis on prior food surpluses is a curious supply-orientated economics so beloved of orthodox Marxists). Rather, it is the high density of humanity in cities that has invented agriculture to meet its own growing food needs.
Jacobs (1969) derives the above argument deductively from her theory of cities; my conjecture is that the settlement of the US west – cities first, then agriculture - may have been an empirical clue towards her theories. But the conventional ‘agricultural surplus’ theory of city origins is so embedded we tend not to recognise when cities predate agriculture. One major exception can be found in the work of Bertha Becker (1995) where she reveals the myths of economic development in the Amazon region: cities come first, the economy is, in her so salient term, ‘an urbanized forest’. More generally, we can say that it is trading posts that develop into cities not agricultural villages – for an excellent example of such development of pre-agricultural cities see Price’s (2000) description of the rise Viking Kiev.
Cities First, Towns Later: City-ness and Town-ness as Processes
It follows from the above argument that the conventional village-town-city evolutionary sequence no longer holds. In other words, despite what dictionaries tell us, a city is not a large town. Jacobs (1969) is explicit on this and defines cities as places where economic expansion through creation of new work has or is occurring in a network of similar locales. In other words, a city is not treated as simply a place: it is interpreted as process; Castells (1996) has made the same point. Combining some of their ideas I have proposed ( Taylor, 2006) that the urban is constituted by two processes that define town-ness and city-ness. The former is theorised as central places whose main work is to service local hinterlands. This simple set of urban-rural relations contrasts with the complexity of city-ness, a process of economic expansion through import replacement; imports enter a knowledge-rich conduit through which value is added as new commodities are both consumed and exported. This work involves many non-local value chains organised through city networks. Thus town-ness is associated with spaces of (local) places at various scales (a central place hierarchy) whereas city-ness is associated with spaces of flows including critical non-local flows.
A key point about treating urban settlements as processes is that processes can occur in the same place simultaneously: urban settlements are produced and reproduced by various and varying degrees of town-ness and city-ness. But city-ness come first, town-ness can only begin once rural production for cities has been created. Thus unlike, say, Mumford’s (1961) idea that villages coalesce to form the first cities/towns in Mesopotamia; here the sequence would be city-village-town. The argument is that as city food demand increased, the necessary land would get larger and at some point some food producers would have to move permanently into the larger hinterland. This would initially create villages, further hinterland expansion would require some local servicing of villages thus leading to the creation of ‘country towns’.
Cities First, States Later: Mesopotamian Invention of the State
According to Soja (2000, 51), the second urban revolution is a matter of size and new needs for organization (irrigation works) leading to innovations in governmentality. The result is a competitive mosaic of city-states that lead to ‘the urban invention of the imperial state’ (p. 59). Thus defence becomes a critical necessity leading to city walls, something absent from Çatal Hüyük. Evidence from the latter shows little military activity. This does not mean a lack of guardian work in early city networks, but rather that the process had not become centralised into a state-form. Herein lies the origin status claim of Mesopotamia: the invention of the state (as city-state) constituted as new concentration of political power. It is the product of these city-states with their numerous urban political/cultural innovations that has led to its designation as cradle of civilization. But this identification of the ‘first civilization’ treats cities and states as societal ‘twins’ that appear historically at the same time (e.g. Tilly (1990, 2) treats them as ‘a couple’ with a love-hate relationship). But this is because such arguments are based upon a singular ‘rise of civilization’ process; our recognition of two prime processes – commercial and guardian – shows that cities precede states by millennia.
Conventional theorists have argued that concentration of power in a state is a necessary concomitant to city life. This can be shown not to be the case empirically. Hansen (2000, 15) accepts that Jericho, Çatal Hüyük and other early cities existed in a stateless society but recognises that this is, given the dearth of evidence, not proven. However, he does show that by moving from archaeology to anthropology urban centres without states are possible because they have been recorded. He describes (p 26-7) the Yakö peoples of West Africa who lived in a network of four small cities; their populations ranged from 2,000 to 11,000 and therefore are similar in size to the earliest cities reported above. The key point is that these cities operated successfully with no centralization of political power; they developed a complex pattern of overlapping decentralised power relations that were most unstate-like in nature but which provided all guardian requirements.
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Moving back city origins five thousands years is the headline interpretative change but this has numerous knock on effects for the conventional story: the city-village-town sequence undermines the simple size-evolution settlement, and the Phoenicians are robbed of their role as first commercial/capitalist cities. But there is one outstanding episode of the conventional story that is not covered by the new story. Empire formation is obviously a guardian activity but the idea that it arises in the semi-periphery is yet to be interpreted. In the case of Sargon’s successes the new guardians were city-based and were able to subdue other cities through superior military practice. But this can be interpreted as a monstrous hybrid in which the guardians disrupt commercial activity and are not able to create a sustained world-system (the empire lasted less than a century). This is in contrast to the prior multiple city-states where the balance of guardian and commercial activity had led to sustained reproduction over several centuries.
Time to ditch a guardian story
Why should the new interpretation be favoured over the conventional story? Certainly the evidential base of the latter is much stronger than my No Name regional speculations derived from Jacobs and Soja. But the latter are buttressed in two ways. First, although there is very little evidence for my reinterpretation, I have been able to find some ‘black swans’ to illustrate assumptions embedded in the conventional interpretation are problematic. Second, and crucially, I have been able to employ some basic theory that makes the new ideas at least plausible. And finally there is a historiographical reason for supporting a paradigm shift.
History generally suffers from practitioners imposing their present on the past of others (Carr 1961). Thus we would expect modern scholars from a world dominated by nation-states (the most powerful states ever created) to cast state-centric eyes on the origins of states and cities. And this is what is found: the conventional story is largely a guardian story. But also, the argument I have produced above can itself be interpreted in a similar manner: I am adding the neglected commercial side of making a living, casting my eyes back from our contemporary globalising economic world.
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Table 1: Moral syndromes by clusters of precepts
Source: Taylor (2007) derived from Jacobs (1992)
Edited and posted on the web on 11th June 2007
Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in N. Van Nuffel (ed) (2007) Van Christaller tot Wallerstein. Liber Amoricum Prof. Dr. Pieter Saey Zelzate: Nautilus Academic Books, pp. 119-130