The beginnings of politics

The Greeks invented the word “politics” to mean the art and science of how we manage our life together in society. It concerns questions like: who makes the decisions, what limits are there to his power (it’s usually a man’s power) and how can we keep him to those limits. But the reality of politics goes back long before the ancient Greeks. Our monkey ancestors had a few rules, but they didn’t discuss them. Our story really begins when we began to think and discuss

For most of human history, societies were fairly simple because they were small. Before our ancestors invented agriculture, probably a bit more than 12,000 years ago, people had to live in small groups because the land couldn’t feed many people. I don’t know how big a territory a family needed to live by hunting for meat and gathering edible fruit, roots, leaves, and occasional treats like honey. I guess 100 square kilometres would not be too much.

That meant our ancestors, for most of human history, lived in small family groups. The next family, whose territory started across the hills or river that marked the end of ours, did not have the weapons or the numbers to control our family, and we couldn’t control them. Both groups were independent.

That didn’t mean one might not be stronger than another. If they were, either because they were more numerous or because they had better weapons for hunting and fighting, they might expand their borders, forcing the neighbours to move further away, but they weren’t strong enough to enslave their neighbours. Families might intermarry, but rarely could one absorb another.

The head of the family ruled it because he was accepted as the strongest and wisest. He might, while he had his full strength, boss his wives and children around, but he couldn’t be a dictator when his sons grew strong enough to challenge him. If he tried to dictate then, one or more of his sons was likely to depose him, maybe kill him, or, if he wasn’t strong enough for that, to break away with his wife or wives and children and become independent.

Even without big disagreements, if a family became larger, they needed more territory. If they secured more territory, they would need to spread themselves fairly evenly across it or there would be too many people trying to live off too small an area. Once they were spread away from the old man’s home, his grownup sons would slowly begin to become independent because the old man didn’t have the strength or the weapons to enforce his rule over a larger territory.

And so, for a long time, each family ruled itself and extracted what advantages it could from other families, using negotiating skills or any advantage they might have because they had more men able to fight or better weapons. One group might make better stone tools and weapons or perhaps control a supply of better stones to make those tools and weapons. If they did, they might be stronger than their neighbours, but they could rarely conquer them.

Nothing like a modern state, or even a large tribe, could exist because the technology of the time did not allow it. Within each family and in relations between families, there were no great differences in power because nobody had much better weapons, tools or communications than anyone else.

That doesn’t mean there were no people who might have wanted to become a Napoleon, a Shaka, or a Hitler. Those people didn’t get the opportunity to exercise that kind of power, because the technology (weapons, tools and communications) did not exist that made one person able to concentrate power in his own hands. Those things developed slowly and so did people’s ability to use them. I’ll try to outline in coming articles how modern politics developed and what limits still exist to the abuse of power.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *