1.3. Stateless societies

Even from an alternative perspective, however, there will be many things that we still cannot see. Every perspective allows us to notice some things while making us blind to others. For example, we still take it for granted that states are the proper subject of history. We assume that world history is equal to the history of the state. Yet there are good reasons to question this conclusion. Before we proceed to compare different international systems, let’s say a few words about what this book fails to discuss.

Today the world is completely divided up between political entities. All territory belongs to one state or another and no land belongs to more than one state. States are mutually exclusive and together exhaustive of political space. Yet this has not always been the case. It was only as a result of the introduction of farming some 12,000 years ago that the first states appeared. Before that, during some 95 percent of human history, we were hunters and gatherers who moved around in response to the seasonal variations in the availability of food. Since they are on the move, hunters and gatherers are difficult for political authorities to control. As a result, they live in “stateless” societies. Moreover, since they constructed only temporary buildings, there are few ruins for archaeologists to investigate. As a result, a history of a society of hunters and gatherers is difficult to write. Hunters and gatherers “have no history.”

Farmers are far easier to subdue and exploit. They live in a particular place and cultivate a given piece of land. After the harvest, the tax collectors dispatched by the king show up and demand their due. This was how the first states were established in the valleys of great rivers — Euphrates and Tigris, the Nile and a few others — around three thousand years BCE. The transition to agriculture and the rise of the state, we have often been told, constituted a great improvement on the nomadic state of statelessness. It was only now that human beings could acquire a culture and that human history, properly speaking, began. However, whether the shift to agriculture really constituted an improvement can be questioned. Hunters and gatherers seem to have enjoyed a more varied diet than farmers, and they were less exposed to contagious diseases. In addition, stateless societies were far more egalitarian than state-dominated societies. There are still hunters and gatherers in the world today, but they are not many. [Read more: “People of the forest”]

There are other kinds of nomadic people who make a living by moving around. Pastoralists are one example, and they have been at least as difficult for states to control. Pastoralists are people who keep animals such as sheep, cows, horses, and reindeer. Their animals graze the land and when they run out of food in one place their owners move in order to find new pastures for them. As a result, pastoralists are difficult to tax, and they have little respect for borders. The interior of the Eurasian continent and the savannas of Africa have been good places for pastoralists. Here farming has been impossible to pursue since there are little rain and not many rivers. What there is, however, is an abundance of grassland.Relying on their fast horses, the pastoralists have raided the sedentary communities of farmers and laid their hands on all kinds of things that life on the steppe cannot provide. Such “barbarian invasions” is a theme in both Chinese and Indian history. Indeed, invasions by peoples of the steppes have been important in European history as well.[Read more:The Mongol invasion of Europe”]

The point, for our present purposes, is that a study of comparative international systems will misrepresent the past by telling the history of the state, not the history of stateless people. Or rather, when stateless people show up, they will do so only to the extent that they have an impact on states and their sedentary subjects. How incomplete this account is becomes obvious when we remember that much of the world until recently was populated by nomads. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the first railways were built, that the interior of the great continents came under the effective control of states. It was only now that the government of the United States finally subdued societies of Native Americans and that the Chinese government was able to properly police its borders with Mongolia. States, until recently, were like little islands in a large stateless sea. A comparative study of international systems is a study of these islands.