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“Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.'”

November 27, 2011

One of the most striking discoveries of evolutionary anthropology has been that it is perfectly possible to have kings and nobles and all the exterior trappings of monarchy without having a state in the mechanical sense at all. One should think this might be of some interest to all those political philosophers who spill so much ink arguing about theories of “sovereignty”—since it suggests that most sovereigns were not heads of state and that their favorite technical term actually is built on a near-impossible ideal, in which royal power actually does manage to translate its cosmological pretensions into genuine bureaucratic control of a given territorial population. (Something like this started happening in Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but almost as soon as it did, the sovereign’s personal power was replaced by a fictive person called “the people,” allowing the bureaucracy to take over almost entirely.) – David Graeber

Leviathan is an almost wholly modern invention. The ahistorical manner in which we interpret the nature and character of premodern governance says a great deal about us, and very little about the past.


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