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8.6: States, Law, and Warfare

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    At the level of the state, the law becomes an increasingly formal process. Procedures are more and more regularly defined, and categories of breaches in civil and criminal law emerge, together with remedies for those breaches. Early agricultural states formalized legal rules and punishments through codes, formal courts, police forces, and legal specialists such as lawyers and judges. Mediation could still be practiced, but it often was supplanted by adjudication in which a judge’s decision was binding on all parties. Decisions could be appealed to a higher authority, but any final decision must be accepted by all concerned.

    The first known system of codified law was enacted under the warrior king Hammurabi in Babylon (present day Iraq). This law was based on standardized procedures for dealing with civil and criminal offenses, and subsequent decisions were based on precedents (previous decisions). Crimes became offenses not only against other parties but also against the state. Other states developed similar codes of law, including China, Southeast Asia, and state-level Aztec and Inca societies. Two interpretations, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, have arisen about the political function of codified systems of law. Fried (1978) argued, based on his analysis of the Hammurabi codes, that such laws reinforced a system of inequality by protecting the rights of an elite class and keeping peasants subordinates.[64] This is consistent with the theory of a stratified society as already defined. Another interpretation is that maintenance of social and political order is crucial for agricultural states since any disruption in the state would lead to neglect of agricultural production that would be deleterious to all members of the state regardless of their social status. Civil laws ensure, at least in theory, that all disputing parties receive a hearing—so long as high legal expenses and bureaucratic logjams do not cancel out the process. Criminal laws, again in theory, ensure the protection of all citizens from offenses ranging from theft to homicide.

    Inevitably, laws fail to achieve their aims. The United States, for example, has one of the highest crime rates in the industrial world despite having an extensive criminal legal system. The number of homicides in New York City in 1990 exceeded the number of deaths from colon and breast cancer and all accidents combined.[65] Although the rate of violent crime in the United States declined during the mid-1990s, it occurred thanks more to the construction of more prisons per capita (in California) than of schools. Nationwide, there currently are more than one million prisoners in state and federal correctional institutions, one of the highest national rates in the industrial world.[66] Since the 1990s, little has changed in terms of imprisonment in the United States. Funds continue to go to prisons rather than schools, affecting the education of minority communities and expanding “slave labor” in prisons, according to Michelle Alexander who, in 2012, called the current system the school-to-prison pipeline.[67]


    Warfare occurs in all human societies but at no other level of political organization is it as widespread as in states. Indeed, warfare was integral to the formation of the agricultural state. As governing elites accumulated more resources, warfare became a major means of increasing their surpluses.[68] And as the wealth of states became a target of nomadic pastoralists, the primary motivation for warfare shifted from control of resources to control of neighboring populations.[69]

    A further shift came with the advent of industrial society when industrial technologies driven by fossil fuels allowed states to invade distant countries. A primary motivation for these wars was to establish economic and political hegemony over foreign populations. World War I, World War II, and lesser wars of the past century have driven various countries to develop ever more sophisticated and deadly technologies, including wireless communication devices for remote warfare, tanks, stealth aircraft, nuclear weapons, and unmanned aircraft called drones, which have been used in conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Competition among nations has led to the emergence of the United States as the most militarily powerful nation in the world.

    The expansion of warfare by societies organized as states has not come without cost. Every nation-state has involved civilians in its military adventures, and almost everyone has been involved in those wars in some way—if not as militarily, then as member of the civilian workforce in military industries. World War II created an unprecedented armament industry in the United States, Britain, Germany, and Japan, among others, and the aerospace industry underwent expansion in the so-called Cold War that followed. Today, one can scarcely overlook the role of the process of globalization to explain how the United States, for now an empire, has influenced the peoples of other countries in the world.


    It should be noted that states have a clear tendency toward instability despite trappings designed to induce awe in the wider population. Few states have lasted a thousand years. The American state is more than 240 years old but increases in extreme wealth and poverty, escalating budget and trade deficits, a war initiated under false pretenses, escalating social problems, and a highly controversial presidential election suggest growing instability. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse (2004) compared the decline and fall of Easter Island, Chaco Canyon, and the Maya with contemporary societies such as the United States, and he found that overtaxing the environment caused the collapse of those three societies.[70] Chalmers Johnson (2004) similarly argued that a state of perpetual war, loss of democratic institutions, systematic deception by the state, and financial overextension contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire and will likely contribute to the demise of the United States “with the speed of FedEx.”[71]

    Why states decline is not difficult to fathom. Extreme disparities in wealth, use of force to keep populations in line, the stripping of people’s resources (such as the enclosures in England that removed peasants from their land), and the harshness of many laws all should create a general animosity toward the elite in a state.

    Yet, until recently (following the election of Donald Trump), no one in the United States was taking to the streets calling for the president to resign or decrying the government as illegitimate. In something of a paradox, widespread animosity does not necessarily lead to dissolution of a state or to an overthrow of the elite. Thomas Frank addressed this issue in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). Despite the fact that jobs have been shipped abroad, that once-vibrant cities like Wichita are virtual ghost towns, and that both congress and the state legislature have voted against social programs time and again, Kansans continued to vote the Republicans whose policies are responsible for these conditions into office.

    Nor is this confined to Kansas or the United States. That slaves tolerated slavery for hundreds of years (despite periodic revolts such as the one under Nat Turner in 1831), that workers tolerated extreme conditions in factories and mines long before unionization, that there was no peasant revolt strong enough to reverse the enclosures in England—all demand an explanation. Frank discusses reinforcing variables, such as propaganda by televangelists and Rush Limbaugh but offers little explanation beside them.[72] However, recent works have provided new explanations. Days before Donald Trump won the presidential election on November 8, 2016, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild released a book that partially explains how Trump appealed to the most marginalized populations of the United States, residents around Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana. In the book, Strangers in Their Own Land (2016), Hochschild contends that the predominantly white residents there saw the federal government providing preferential treatment for blacks, women, and other marginalized populations under affirmative action programs while putting white working-class individuals further back in line for governmental assistance. The people Hochschild interviewed were fully aware that a corporate petroleum company had polluted Lake Charles and hired nonlocal technicians and Filipino workers to staff local positions, but they nonetheless expressed their intent to vote for a billionaire for president based on his promise to bring outsourced jobs back to “America” and to make the country “great again.” Other books, including Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal (2016), Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash (2016), and Matt Wray’s Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006), address the decline of the United States’ political power domestically and worldwide. These books all link Trump’s successful election to marginalization of lower-class whites and raise questions about how dissatisfaction with the state finds expression in political processes.

    Editor's Note: Nation, State, and Nationalities

    Although the term nation once referred to a tribe or ethnic group, it has become synonymous with state - "an independent, centrally organized political unit or government" (Kottak 249). When the two terms are used together, nation-state, it is referring to "an autonomous political entity" (Kottak 249),such as a country like the United States. The term nationalities refers to "ethnic groups that once had, or wish to have or regain, autonomous political status" (Kottak 250).

    Works Cited
    Kottak, Conrad P. Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill, 2012.


    Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2004.

    Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

    ______. Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened To the Party of the People? New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016.

    Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning of Our Political Divide. New York: New Press, 2016.

    Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Viking, 2016.

    Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

    Wray, Matt. Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.


    1. Morton Fried “The State, the Chicken, and the Egg or What Came First?” In Origins of the State, edited by Ronald Cohen and Elman Service. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978.
    2. Sam Roberts, “Fighting the Tide of Bloodshed on Streets Resembling a War Zone.” New York Times, November 15, 1993: B12.
    3. Fox Butterfield, “Study Finds Disparity of Justice for Blacks.” New York Times, Feb. 13, 1996 8A.
    4. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
    5. V. Gordon Childe, “The Urban Revolution.” Town Planning Review 21 (1950): 3–17.
    6. Keith Otterbein “The Anthropology of War,” in Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology, John Huntington, ed. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1974) and The Evolution of War: A Cross-cultural Study (New Haven, CT: Human Relation Area Files, 1989).
    7. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2004).
    8. Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empires: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005), 285.
    9. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004).

    Adapted From

    "Political Anthropology: A Cross-cultural Comparison" by Paul McDowell, Santa Barbara City College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    8.6: States, Law, and Warfare is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.