Chapter 14 of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, titled “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy,” focuses primarily on the development of political entities as concentrations of humans grew in size. Beginning with “bands” as the initial congregation of usually related individuals, and numbering from five to 80 people, Diamond proceeds to demonstrate how, as “societies” took shape with growing populations (a product of increased capacity to grow food), becoming more complex and heterogeneous they transitioned from bands to “tribes,” “chiefdoms,” “cities,” and, finally, “states.” With each stage, economic systems and governing institutions emerged to address those societies’ needs. Diamond provides a table setting out each of these societies and the characteristics of each in terms of population size and diversity, nature of relationships, and governing institutions, ranging from the chiefs who dominated chiefdoms to larger, more institutionalized governments in the case of cities and states. With that growth, Diamond argues, the nature of society was transformed from an egalitarian one in which each member of a band or tribe functioned as part of a unit, sharing the proceeds of all activities, mainly the accumulation of food, to one of increasingly centralized government with authority to resolve conflicts among members and to distribute wealth. It is at the state level, unsurprisingly, where formal institutions of government like laws and individuals and groups dedicated to their enforcement evolved. It is with the transition away from egalitarian societies, beginning with chiefdoms, characterized by single autocrats or committees of autocrats, that governing structures assume the form of kleptocracies, “transferring net wealth from commoners to upper classes,” as Diamond notes, rather than collecting wealth and redistributing it among the masses.
It is in his discussion of kleptocracies where Diamond’s cynicism regarding the integrity of governing institutions, no matter how well intended, becomes apparent. Distinguishing between such venality and what he labels “the wise statesman,” Diamond suggests that this distinction is barely perceptible:
“The difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a percentage of the tribute extracted from producers is retained by the elite, and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put.”
Having established the inherent venality of governing institutions, and noting the disparity between large states like the United States and small ones like Papua New Guinea, where Diamond has devoted much of his time and which is his model of egalitarianism, he begins his transition into the cynical application of religion to justify autocratic policies or, as he put it, “[t]he remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.” He then devotes the next several paragraphs to expanding upon this indictment of religion as a means to an end before concluding this discussion with a more restrained summation of the political utility of religion, noting that ideologies and religion provide a way to organize and unify disparate peoples behind a common cause while providing a justification for the most violent actions in support of the political entity (i.e., using religion to justify war].
Diamond’s next discussion within this chapter focuses on the state and its monopoly on power and ability to influence the decisions and actions of smaller political entities. As he writes, “part of the reason for states’ triumphs over simpler entities when the two collide is that states usually enjoy an advantage of weaponry and other technology, a large numerical advantage in population.”
In addition, he notes, centralized decision makers, characteristics of chiefdoms and states, have an advantage in their ability to concentrate troops and resources, while exploiting ideological or religious beliefs to convince those troops to carry out violent acts at their behest. Larger, more densely populated entities, Diamond argues, are inherently unegalitarian and are more avaricious in their pursuits.
Integral to the ability of states to control their populations is their control over food production, or, as Diamond writes, “all states nourish their citizens by food production.” Population growth will occur in accordance with the existing society’s capacity for food production, with the evolution of technology creating a self-sustaining pattern of increased food production generating increased population growth, which in turn increases the manpower available to produce food. Advances in food production also enabled the diversification of society and the development of specialization. The more food produced by farmers beyond that necessary to sustain them, the more surpluses of food enabled other individuals to pursue other activities, leading to divisions of labor.
To illustrate one manner in which states form – and diverging from his previous discussion in Chapter 14 in which he argued that coercive means were instrumental in uniting small tribes or clans into larger political entities – Diamond uses the example of the North American Cherokee tribes of the U.S. Southwest, which united out of necessity in the face of onslaughts by vengeful white settlers who, unable to differentiate between Cherokee tribes, simply attacked whichever one they encountered, whether it was responsible for attacks on whites or not. As they transitioned from small, independent tribes to a large unified entity, they adopted those measures necessary to ensure conformity of purpose. Describing their formation into a confederacy, Diamond notes their adoption of a tribal council and, eventually, a constitution outlining rights and responsibilities.
Another example Diamond cites in his depiction of the formation of larger political entities from disparate smaller ones involves the Zulu of southern Africa. Tracing the conflicts and evolution of independent small Zulu chiefdoms into a larger Zulu nation, he discusses the myriad conflicts that arose between Zulu chiefdoms, and how those conflicts were ultimately settled through the conquest by one chief, Dingiswayo, over his rivals from other chiefdoms. Dingiswayo, according to Diamond, unified the Zulu through force, and then solidified both his position and the dominance of the Zulu through the creation of a strong centralized political regime and through the established of a “superior centralized military organization by drafting young men from all villages and grouping them into regiments by age rather than by their village.” Through the establishment of a centralized military comprising recruits from all villages, Dingiswayo was able to forge a sense of unity among these disparate individuals.
In discussing the formation of states, including those in Polynesia and central Africa, as well as the Aztec and Inca Empires of the Americas, Diamond notes the prevalence of war as the central factor in those developments. Small political entities (bands, tribes, chiefdoms) were compelled to unite into larger political entities (states) either in the face of external aggression or through the unifying efforts of a militarily stronger and better organized leader. Diamond could have included in this discussion the military conquests of Ibn Saud, the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, whose military campaigns unified the previously independent tribes scattered around the Arabian peninsula, unifying them and creating the current kingdom.