From Kinship-Based Societies To Tributary Modes of Accumulation

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Christopher Chase-Dunn:

"The main significance of the 5,000-year time horizon is to point us to the rise and decline of modes of accumulation. The story here is that small-scale human polities were integrated primarily by normative structures institutionalized as kinship relations – the so-called kinship-based modes of accumulation. The family was the economy and the polity, and the family was organized as a moral order of obligations that allowed social labor to be mobilized and coordinated, and that regulated distribution. Kin-based accumulation was based on shared languages and meaning systems, consensus-building through oral communication, and institutionalized reciprocity in sharing and exchange.

As kin-based polities got larger they increasingly fought with one another and those polities that developed institutionalized inequalities had group selection advantages over those that did not. Kinship itself became hierarchical within chiefdoms, taking the form of ranked lineages or conical clans. Social movements utilizing religious discourses were important forces of social change within these small-scale polities. Kin-based societies often responded to population pressures on resources by ‘hiving-off’ – a subgroup would emigrate, usually after formulating grievances in terms of violations of the moral order or disagreements regarding spiritual knowledge. But migrations were mainly responses to local resource stress caused by population growth and competition for natural resources. When new unoccupied, or only lightly occupied but resource-rich, lands were reachable the humans moved in to them, eventually populating all the continents except Antarctica.

Once the land was filled up a situation of ‘circumscription’ emerged in which the costs of migration were higher because unoccupied or lightly occupied land was no longer available. This raised the level of conflict within and between polities raising the mortality rate and serving as a demographic regulator (Fletcher et al. 2011). In these circumstances technological and organizational innovations were stimulated and successful new strategies were strongly selected for by inter-polity competition, leading to the emergence of complexity, hierarchy and a new logic of social reproduction based on institutionalized coercion. Around five thousand years ago the first early states and cities emerged in Mesopotamia over the tops of the kin-based institutions. This was the beginning of the tributary mode of accumulation in which state power (legitimate coercion) became the main organizer of the economy, the mobilizer of labor and the accumulator of wealth and power. Similar innovations occurred largely independently in Egypt, the Yellow (Huang-Ho) river valley, the Indus river valley, and later in Mesoamerica and the Andes. These developments are a strong case of the phenomenon of parallel evolution in which similar forces cause the emergence of similar innovations in social structure. The tributary mode of production evolved as states and empires became larger and as the techniques of imperialism, facilitating the exploitation of distant resources, were improved. This was mainly the work of semiperipheral marcher states (Alvarez et al. 2011). Aspects of the tributary mode (taxation, tribute-gathering, accumulation by dispossession) are still with us, but they have been largely subsumed and made subservient to the logic of capitalist accumulation based on profit-making.

Crises and social movements were often involved in the wars and conquests that brought about social change and the evolution of the tributary mode. The tributary mode became the predominant logic of social reproduction in the Mesopotamian world-system in the early Bronze Age (around 3000 BCE). The East Asian regional world-system was still predominantly tributary in the nineteenth century CE. That is nearly a 5,000-year run. The kin-based mode lasted even longer. All human groups were organized around different versions of the kin-based modes in the Paleolithic, and indeed since human culture had first emerged with language. If we date the beginning of the end of the kin-based modes at the coming to predominance of the tributary mode in Mesopotamia (3000 BCE) this first qualitative change in the basic logic of social reproduction took more than 100,000 years."