The nessesity of a surplus to complex societies.

It seems based on the readings about the rise of Mesopotamia as well as the lecture this morning that ancient states were heavily dependent on there being a surplus of resources. We already learned that intensive agriculture is one of the necessary traits of an ancient state and this is because it increases the carrying capacity of a piece of land. This allows for enough food to be made by a smaller number of specialized farmers so there can be specialization in other types of work. Places of water are very important to this because they allow for irrigation. When Egypt underwent a climate change, it forced the people to move closer to the river. Eventually, they figured out that they could grow large amounts of food. This was more successful than each individual hunting and gathering. It could also support a larger amount of people. Birth rates must have increased and the surplus must have attracted other people to the area.

In Mesopotamia, some of this urbanization is even thought to have been forced. Patterns in Prehistory states, “…Adams, argues that early Mesopotamian urbanization may have been imposed on a rural populace by a small, politically conscious superstratum that was motivated by military and economic interests,” (Wenke, 348). However, this indicates a chicken and the egg type of conundrum. Complex economy comes out of complex society and so does political and military organization. How could there even be political leaders, let alone ones with the power to enforce mandatory immigration? It seems as if urbanization is one of the first steps of a society becoming complex (more people are needed to build irrigation canals, which then support more and more people). To me, this indicates that there was already some time of infrastructure in place that then began forcibly sucking up rural people from around the area.

As agriculture becomes more intensive, the surplus increases. This then requires some handling. Who takes care of the surplus? Who is in charge of distributing it? I think it just started out as a specialized profession like any other but the importance of food was so great that the position became glorified. The person who distributed the surplus might have found a way to restrict access to it, thereby increasing his importance. Whoever has control over the surplus, has the power in an ancient state.

This explains the ability of ancient states to grow but ti also explains their eventual collapse. The reason given today for Egypt’s first collapse was a possible drought. There was no surplus so the centralized state lost a great deal of power. No surplus = no centralized power= no ancient state. When food production becomes more successful, (for example, when the Nile’s drought was over), there becomes more of a surplus. When there is a surplus, people who are in charge of distribution rise to power and the whole cycle continues again.

Of course, this is nor the only reason for the rise and fall of the ancient states but it does prove the necessity of agriculture to civilization. When humans exceed carrying capacity, centralized government breaks down. It begs the question, when will modern states reach that carrying capacity if they haven’t already. When will our first intermediate period begin?

2 thoughts on “The nessesity of a surplus to complex societies.

  1. Kari Edington

    I think this is really interesting, Alison, that you’ve connected the intermediate periods to the present day. I’ve also found it interesting the agriculture plays such a central role in the states we’ve talked about, especially since, now, we have become so used to grocery stores and the like that we tend to forget that we’re dependent upon the same processes as the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. I am wondering whether our ignorance of these processes and the fact that they are going on puts us in a significantly different position than the Ancient Egyptians?
    That is, it seems like, from the lectures and readings, that the class structure was so well stratified and in place during the periods of strong centralization that everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do and why, making very clear that the ‘blame’ for the drought and the subsequent starvation were at the feet of the pharaoh. However, in the modern day, while we do have fairly strict class divisions, we do have more opportunity for social movement, as well as recognizing that the government (or president) don’t have all the power – that’s why we’re a democratic republic. Does this social decentering make the fault of future (or present) starvation and lack of resources also spread out? If so, wouldn’t that make our government less likely to become decentralized, as they are not the ultimate redistributors of food? If this were the case, what would the reaction be (or what is it)?

    I think you’ve asked us to think about a lot of different things within your question, Alison. It’s helpful to think of what makes our present state different than the Ancient Egyptians, as well as what makes us similar. Most of my ideas above are just that – ideas – and not actual theories in place (that I know of). However, I do think that asking questions is an excellent place to start, and I hope that we can continue to think about the ways in which we can compare ourselves to the cultures and states we are learning about.

  2. Manesha

    The economics behind the development of complex societies was also of interest to me. But I have to disagree with you when you say that surplus is the cause. I actually believe that the scarcity of resources is what drives economies to their peak. Competition (whether between monarchs, workers, or scholars) pushes individuals to innovation. For example, even in times of starvation, famine, drought, trade for pyramid construction/mortuary artifact did not cease. Trade does not happen unless certain commodities were unavailable in a particular area. By creating wealth though trade, merchants amass capital to expand not only their inventory, but also their transaction networks. As economic grew, so did the power of the elites.
    To answer your chicken-egg conundrum, maybe it is possible that competition led to polarization in a particular group (socioeconomic stratification). This diversion created a hierarchy consisting of laborers and elites that imposed not only a complex economy, but also religion. My theory is that religion, after being stretched more and more tenuously to support the upper echelons of society, wielded tyrannical power over its followers. Elites could use religion in their favor to gain military/economic power through tax, temples, and penance. Being physically closer to a prayer hall is more convenient when people must pay tribute, thus, urbanization. This is just one of the many scenarios I thought of when reading your blog post.
    The final question you posed has been asked so many times before. The Club of Rome (an international think tank) developed a theory in the 1970s stating the economic collapse will occur in 2030, which human beings will exceed their carrying capacity. For further reading: http://globaledge.msu.edu/blog/post/1456/the-end-of-growth

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