Map of the world in 1000 BCE, color-coded by type of society. At this time, stateless societies were the norm.
  simple farming societies
  complex farming societies/chiefdoms
  Area of iron working, c. 1000 BCE
  Area of bronze working, c. 1000 BCE

A stateless society is a society that is not governed by a state.[1] In stateless societies, there is little concentration of authority. Most positions of authority that do exist are very limited in power, and they are generally not permanently positions, and social bodies that resolve disputes through predefined rules tend to be small.[2] Different stateless societies feature highly variable economic systems and cultural practices.[3]

While stateless societies were the norm in human prehistory, few stateless societies exist today; almost the entire global population resides within the jurisdiction of a sovereign state, though in some regions nominal state authorities may be very weak and may wield little or no actual power. Over the course of history most stateless peoples have become integrated into external state-based societies.[4][need quotation to verify]

Some political philosophies, particularly anarchism, regard the state as an unwelcome institution and stateless societies as the ideal, while Marxism considers that in a post-capitalist society, the state would become unnecessary and would wither away.

Prehistoric peoples

In archaeology, cultural anthropology and history, a stateless society denotes a less complex human community without a state, such as a tribe, a clan, a band society or a chiefdom. The main criterion of "complexity" used is the extent to which a division of labor has occurred such that many people are permanently specialized in particular forms of production or other activity, and depend on others for goods and services through trade or sophisticated reciprocal obligations governed by custom and laws. An additional criterion is population size. The bigger the population, the more relationships have to be reckoned with.[5][6]

Evidence of the earliest known city-states has been found in ancient Mesopotamia around 3700 BCE, suggesting that the history of the state is less than 6,000 years old; thus, for most of human prehistory the state did not exist.

For 99.8 percent of human history people lived exclusively in autonomous bands and villages. At the beginning of the Paleolithic [i.e. the Stone Age], the number of these autonomous political units must have been small, but by 1000 BCE it had increased to some 600,000. Then supra-village aggregation began in earnest, and in barely three millennia the autonomous political units of the world dropped from 600,000 to 157.

— Robert L. Carneiro, 1978[7]

Generally speaking, the archaeological evidence suggests that the state emerged from stateless communities only when a fairly large population (at least tens of thousands of people) was more or less settled together in a particular territory, and practiced agriculture. Indeed, one of the typical functions of the state is the defense of territory. Nevertheless, there are exceptions: Lawrence Krader for example describes the case of the Tatar state, a political authority arising among confederations of clans of nomadic or semi-nomadic herdsmen.[8]

Characteristically the state functionaries (royal dynasties, soldiers, scribes, servants, administrators, lawyers, tax collectors, religious authorities etc.) are mainly not self-supporting, but rather materially supported and financed by taxes and tributes contributed by the rest of the working population. This assumes a sufficient level of labor-productivity per capita which at least makes possible a permanent surplus product (principally foodstuffs) appropriated by the state authority to sustain the activities of state functionaries. Such permanent surpluses were generally not produced on a significant scale in smaller tribal or clan societies.[9]

The archaeologist Gregory Possehl has argued that there is no evidence that the relatively sophisticated, urbanized Harappan civilization, which flourished from about 2,500 to 1,900 BCE in the Indus region, featured anything like a centralized state apparatus. No evidence has yet been excavated locally of palaces, temples, a ruling sovereign or royal graves, a centralized administrative bureaucracy keeping records, or a state religion—all of which are elsewhere usually associated with the existence of a state apparatus.[10] However, there is no recent scholarly consensus agreeing with that perspective, as more recent literature has suggested that there may have been less conspicuous forms of centralisation, as Harappan cities were centred around public ceremonial places and large spaces interpreted as ritual complexes.[11] Additionally, recent interpretations of the Indus Script and Harappan stamps indicate that there was a somewhat centralised system of economic record keeping.[12] It remains impossible to judge for now as the Harappan civilization's writing system remains undeciphered. One study summarised it best, “Many sites have been excavated that belong to the Indus Valley civilization, but it remains unresolved whether it was a state, a number of kingdoms, or a stateless commonwealth. So few written documents on this early civilization have been preserved that it seems unlikely that this and other questions will ever be answered.” [13]

In the earliest large-scale human settlements of the Stone Age which have been discovered, such as Çatalhöyük and Jericho, no evidence was found of the existence of a state authority. The Çatalhöyük settlement of a farming community (7,300 BCE to c. 6,200 BCE) spanned circa 13 hectares (32 acres) and probably had about 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants.[14]

Modern state-based societies regularly pushed out stateless indigenous populations as their settlements expanded,[15] or attempted to make those populations come under the control of a state structure. This was particularly the case on the African continent during European colonisation, where there was much confusion about the best way to govern societies who, prior to European arrival, had been stateless. Tribal societies, on first glance appearing to be chaotic, often had well-organised societal structures that were based on multiple undefined cultural factors – including the ownership of cattle and arable land, patrilineal descent structures, honour gained from success in conflict etc.[16]

Uncontacted peoples may be considered remnants of prehistoric stateless societies. To varying extents they may be unaware of and unaffected by the states that have nominal authority over their territory.

As a political ideal

Some political philosophies consider the state undesirable, and thus consider the formation of a stateless society a goal to be achieved.

A central tenet of anarchism is the advocacy of society without states.[1][17] The type of society sought for varies significantly between anarchist schools of thought, ranging from extreme individualism to complete collectivism.[18] Anarcho-capitalism opposes the state while supporting private institutions.[19]

In Marxism, Marx's theory of the state considers that in a post-capitalist society the state, an undesirable institution, would be unnecessary and wither away.[20] A related concept is that of stateless communism, a phrase sometimes used to describe Marx's anticipated post-capitalist society.

Social and economic organization

Anthropologists have found that social stratification is not the standard among all societies. John Gowdy writes, "Assumptions about human behaviour that members of market societies believe to be universal, that humans are naturally competitive and acquisitive, and that social stratification is natural, do not apply to many hunter-gatherer peoples."[21]

The economies of stateless agricultural societies tend to focus and organize subsistence agriculture at the community level, and tend to diversify their production rather than specializing in a particular crop.[22]

In many stateless societies, conflicts between families or individuals are resolved by appealing to the community. Each of the sides of the dispute will voice their concerns, and the community, often voicing its will through village elders, will reach a judgment on the situation. Even when there is no legal or coercive authority to enforce these community decisions, people tend to adhere to them, due to a desire to be held in esteem by the community.[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Anarchism". The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. p. 14. Anarchism is the view that a society without the state, or government, is both possible and desirable.
  2. ^ Ellis, Stephen (2001). The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War. NYU Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-8147-2219-0 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ Béteille, André (2002). "Inequality and Equality". In Ingold, Tim (ed.). Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1042–1043. ISBN 978-0-415-28604-6 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Faulks, Keith (2000). Political Sociology: A Critical Introduction. NYU Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8147-2709-6 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Francisconi, Michael Joseph. "Political Anthropology." Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by H. James Birx, vol. 4, Sage Reference, 2006, pp. 1868–1872.
  6. ^ "complex society". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 2022-02-19.
  7. ^ Carneiro, Robert L. (1978). "Political Expansion as an Expression of the Principle of Competitive Exclusion". In Cohen, Ronald & Service, Elman R. (eds.). Origins of the State: The Anthropology of Political Evolution. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues. p. 219.
  8. ^ Krader (1968). Formation of the State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hallm. ch. 6.
  9. ^ Claessen, Henri J.M. & Skalnik, Peter, eds. (1978). The Early State. The Hague: Mouton. ISBN 978-9027979049 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ Possehl, Gregory L. (1998). "Sociocultural Complexity Without the State: The Indus civilization". In Feinman, Gary M. & Marcus, Joyce (eds.). Archaic States. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press. pp. 261–291.
  11. ^ Sinopoli, Carla (2015). "Ancient South Asian Cities in their Regions.". In Yoffee, Norman (ed.). Early cities in comparative perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 319–342.
  12. ^ Pao, Rajesh P.N. (2017). "The Indus Script and Economics. A Role for Indus Seals and Tablets in Rationing and Administration of Labor". In Frenez, Dennys & Jamison, Gregg M. (eds.). Walking with the Unicorn. Social Organization and Material Culture in Ancient South Asia. Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd. pp. 518–525.
  13. ^ Trigger, Bruce G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 31–33.
  14. ^ Scarre, Chris, ed. (2009). The Human Past (2nd ed.). Thames & Hudson. p. 222.
  15. ^ Richards, John F. (2004). The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. University of California Press. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-0-520-24678-2 – via Google Books.
  16. ^ Tosh, John (1973). "Colonial Chiefs in a Stateless Society: A Case-Study from Northern Uganda". The Journal of African History. 14 (3). Cambridge University Press: 473–490. doi:10.1017/S0021853700012834. S2CID 163037517.
  17. ^ Sheehan, Sean (2004). Anarchism. London: Reaktion Books. p. 85.
  18. ^ Slevin, Carl (2003). "Anarchism". In McLean, Iain & McMillan, Alistair (eds.). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280276-7.
  19. ^ Morriss, Andrew P. (2008-08-15). "Anarcho-Capitalism". Retrieved 2022-08-21. Although most anarchists oppose all large institutions, public or private, anarcho-capitalists oppose the state, but not private actors with significant market power.
  20. ^ Engels, Frederick (1880). "Part III: Historical Materialism". Socialism: Utopian and Scientific – via Marx/Engels Internet Archive ( State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not "abolished". It dies out...Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible. The development of production makes the existence of different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism. In proportion as anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the State dies out. Man, at last the master of his own form of social organization, becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master—free.
  21. ^ Gowdy, John (2006). "Hunter-Gatherers and the Mythology of the Market". In Lee, Richard B. & Daly, Richard H. (eds.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 391. ISBN 978-0-521-60919-7.
  22. ^ Chase, Diane Z. & Chase, Arlen F. (2003). Mesoamerican Elites: An Archaeological Assessment. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8061-3542-7 – via Google Books.
  23. ^ Fleming, Thomas (1993). The Politics of Human Nature. Transaction Publishers. pp. 165–166. ISBN 978-1-56000-693-0.

Further reading