The Evolution of Geopolitics and

Imperialism in Interpolity Systems

Marquesan Warrior

Christopher Chase-Dunn and Dmytro Khutkyy

Institute for Research on World-Systems,

University of California Riverside

This is IROWS Working Paper #93 available at

v. 9-10-15, 17720 words. Thanks to Evan Heimlich and E.N. Anderson for helpful suggestions on an earlier draft.

Prepared for The Oxford Handbook World History of Empire

Abstract: This article discusses the sociocultural evolution of relations among human polities especially focusing on warfare and imperialism, but also taking account of the emergence of cultural agreements and institutions that facilitate intergroup cooperation. We employ the comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective for the spatial bounding of whole human interaction networks. The comparative and evolutionary world-systems perspective applies an anthropological framework of comparison for studying world-systems, including those of hunter-gatherers. The evolution of geopolitics is due to changes in the character of the interacting polities as well as changes in the nature of their interaction. World history and global history are the most important evidential bases, along with prehistoric archaeology, for the comparative study of world-systems. All world-systems small and large exhibit some similar patterns of interaction regarding conflict and cooperation among autonomous polities. But there have also been qualitative tranformations as these networks, and the polities within them, grew more complex and larger.

            Human geopolitics and imperialism are of prehistoric provenance in the sense that human groups fought with each other, made alliances, and some used coercion to extract resources from others well before the invention of writing, cities, or states. Moreover, territoriality is afeature of interaction among microorganisms, insects, plants and animals so a complete prehension of the roots of human imperialism would need to take this larger biogeographical context into account.[1] But we will not try to reach for such a lofty goal in this chapter. Rather we will confine ourselves mainly to what is known about the sociocultural evolution of interpolity competition, conflict and cooperation among humans since the Paleolithic Age. We focus on the emergence of imperialism and the development of geopolitics among humans since the Stone Age in order to provide evolutionary and historical perspective for recent changes in the structures and processes of global governance.

 Many political scientists who study international relations see a universal logic of power in the competition and conflict that occurs among ostensibly autonomous states. This game-theoretic geopolitical logic is thought to be an eternal feature of power itself. The idea is that competition among states is a dog-eat-dog churning struggle in which states seek to take territory and resources from one another. The main restriction on the big eating the small is that the small sometimes band together to re-balance power differentials enough to prevent the large from conquering them. Other political scientists emphasize the logic of the struggle for power among autonomous polities in terms of that logic’s reinforcement by underlying cultural and institutional structures. These scholars are more likely to see important differences across systems and to allow for the evolution of geopolitics over long periods of time. Both of these approaches have merit.

We seek here to outline how geopolitics actually works over the long run in order to sort out those aspects that change from those that do not. We agree with those theorists of social change who view multilevel interpolity selection as an important force, with the emphasis on the transhistorical importance of warfare (e.g. Mann 1986; 2013). But we also suppose that warfare itself evolves and that a world without war is at least a theoretical possibility that could emerge in the future despite the long history (and prehistory) in which humans have legally and frequently killed one another.

Over time, as polities have become more complex and hierarchical, have human institutions and cultural constructions come to matter more, or less? Was there an age in which competition among polities was completely unmediated by shared cultures? Is there a sociocultural evolutionary trend that is analogous to the tendency in biological evolution to transition from predation to parasitism to mutualism in interpolity systems, or do they all operate according to a similar underlying geopolitical logic in which might makes right? Suitable answers to these questions emerge through considering how geopolitics remained the same or evolved as chiefdoms, states and empires emerged and as trade networks and economic institutions became more important.

            The world-systems perspective emerged during the world revolution of 1968 and the anti-war movement that produced a generation of scholars who saw the peoples of Global South (then called the “Third World”) as more than an underdeveloped backwater. Stimulated by dependency approaches to the history of Latin America and Africa, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and Samir Amin formulated a theoretical perspective on the emergence and evolution of the modern world-system.[2] They conceptualized the global power structure and wrote an analytic narrative in which the peoples of the non-core, by resisting and rebelling, had been active participants in the shaping of the emergent global structures of power. The history of colonialism and decolonization were seen to have importantly shaped the structures and institutions of the whole global system. A more profound awareness of Eurocentrism was accompanied by the realization that most national histories had been written as if each country were on the moon. The nation state as an inviolate, pristine unit of analysis was now seen to be an inadequate model for understanding world history. National societies came to be understood as socially constructed parts of a larger global political economy and geoculture that was itself evolving.

            The comparative evolutionary[3] world-systems perspective emerged when some of the world-system scholars became interested in the long-term continuities and qualitative transformations that only become evident when the modern world-system is compared with earlier world-systems (Frank and Gills 1993; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997). Important controversies still rage over the right way to spatially bound whole systems, but here we will employ the network interaction approach developed by Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997; see also Chase-Dunn and Jorgenson 2003).

The comparative world-systems perspective is a strategy that focusses on whole interpolity systems rather than single polities. Its main insight is that important interaction networks (trade, information flows, alliances, and fighting) have woven polities and cultures together since the beginning of human sociocultural evolution. Explanations of social change need to consider interpolity systems (world-systems) as the units that evolve.

Though interpolity interaction networks were rather small when transportation was mainly a matter of carrying goods on one’s back or in small boats, globalization, in the sense of the expansion and intensification of larger and larger interaction networks, is hardly new. Indeed it has been increasing for millennia, albeit unevenly and in waves (Chase-Dunn 2006; Beaujard 2010; Jennings 2010).

World-systems are whole systems of interacting polities[4] and settlements.[5] Systemness here means that these polities and settlements are interacting with one another in important ways – such interactions are two-way, necessary, structured, regularized and reproductive. Systemic interconnectedness exists when interactions importantly influence the lives of people and are consequential for social continuity or social change. All premodern world-systems extended over only parts of the Earth. The word “world” here refers to the importantly connected interaction networks in which people live, whether these are spatially small or large. All of these worlds are large from the point of view of the people living within them. Core/periphery relations are important aspects of many world-systems and the evolutionary world-systems perspective sees semiperipheral development as an important cause of human sociocultural evolution.

            Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) asserted that it had most often been polities out on the edge (in semiperipheral regions) that had transformed the institutional structures and accomplished the upward sweeps. This hypothesis is part of a larger claim that people in semiperipheral locations usually play the transformative roles that cause the emergence of greater sociocultural complexity and hierarchy within world-systems. This hypothesis of semiperipheral development is an important justification supporting the claim that world-systems rather than single polities are the right unit of analysis for explaining human socio-cultural evolution. Semiperipheral development has taken various forms: semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms, semiperipheral marcher states, semiperipheral capitalist city-states, the peripheral and then semiperipheral position of Europe in the larger Afroeurasian Prestige Goods Network, modern semiperipheral nation-states that have risen to hegemony (the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States), and contemporary peoples in semiperipheral locations that are engaging in, and supporting, novel and potentially transformative movements.

Eschewing the politics of boosterism and progress, we nevertheless assert that the real evolution of political entities in world prehistory and world history approximates the sequence shown in Figure 1.




Figure 1: The evolution of political entities


There is a rise-and-fall cycle in all interpolity systems: moreover occasional upsweeps occur. In upsweeps, a polity of greater size and complexity emerges. Subsequently comes a process by which others catch up.

We see a general evolution in the institutions that facilitate cooperation among human groups. Small-scale human polities are egalitarian; they establish integrity primarily via kinship—that is, via an ideological construction of identities and associated rights and obligations that are understood as ”blood” relations. Ethnographers have established that various societies of homo sapiens have deployed radically different kinds of kinship systems – this is why the identities are ideological rather than biological. In matrilineal systems descent is reckoned in the female line. The mother’s brother is the social father. Kinship is a socially constructed moral order based on consensus about what is proper, what is improper, and the obligations and rights associated with social roles such as mother, child, father, uncle, brother, sister, grandfather, etc. Obviously some polities use words like ”cousin” or ”uncle” to designate alliances or obligations, so-called fictive kin. But the main point here is that all kinship systems are fictive in the sense that they greatly rely on consensual definitions that are culturally constructed. Some anthropologists refer to societies that are primarily integrated by kinship obligations as kin-based modes of production (e.g. Wolf 1997). Sociologists see them as normatively integrated by a moral order, what Emile Durkheim called ”mechanical solidarity” .

As polities get larger, more complex and more hierarchical, normative integration based on consensus about what exists and what is good becomes less effective, and so institutions are invented that enforce the rules even in the absence of consensus. States with specialized mechanisms of regional control emerge. Writing allows the invention of the law -- written rules that must be obeyed. Thus do consensus-based norms become official written rules that can be applied to different peoples who are within the jurisdiction of the state whether or not they share the same value systems as the rulers who promulgate the laws. Taxation and tribute also become important sources of support for authorities. Normative regulation does not disappear but it becomes shored up by institutionalized mechanisms of legitimate coercion – the state, the military, the police, courts, the law and prisons. These institutions allow polities to become even bigger and to shore up even greater hierarchies. These kinds of systems are sometimes characterized as tributary modes of accumulation.

Historically the importance of state power--as an organizing force in the economy and as an instrument in competition among states for territory and control of trade routes--increased as states became more centralized and larger. Warfare became a central mechanism of both survival and expansion, and group, rather than individual, selection became an even more important driver of social change. with the rise of states

In the Bronze Age, at the same time that institutionalized coercion was becoming predominant over the top of normatively integrated kinship structures, something like money, market exchange, and the sale of land and interest-bearing loans emerged. They were not yet the main ways that social labor was mobilized or the economy was regulated. At first theocracies produced what is known as the ”temple economy” and then battle kings emerged. But the seeds of commodification were sown. At interstices of the tributary states and empires, some city-states specialized in long-distance trade. In these trade-based city-states the rulers acquired wealth and power by successfully organizing and facilitating the making of profits from long-distance trade. The tributary states and empires became more monetized and wage labor appeared in some sectors. Debt became a major element in class relations, and slavery and prostitution became widespread (Graeber 2011). The rise of markets and money became an important element in geopolitical competition among polities for the provisioning of armies and navies.

But ruling classes of most states remained primarily dependent on the control of state institutions themselves for accumulation. A group of capitalist city-states in the Mediterranean was followed by the emergence of nation-states that were to a greater degree dependent on finance capital. Eventually came the emergence of a nation-state in which capitalists themselves held state power – the United Provinces of the Netherlands in the late 16th and 17th centuries CE. The logic of geopolitics was changed by the emergence of commodified economies, the growing predominance of profit-taking over taxation and tribute, and the growing power of money. Warfare did not disappear, but it was waged for somewhat different purposes.

          In addition to the evolutionary sequence from normative regulation to institutionalized coercion and then to market integration, we also see continuities that seem to characterize driving forces behind expansion and complexity in all periods. Population pressure is a relationship between population density, technology, organization and the availability of resources. Population growth often causes increases in population pressure, but these can be ameliorated by technological change or by increases in available resources because of climate change or migration to new regions. Thus population pressure varies, and this causes variation in the rate of within-polity and between-polity conflict. When population pressure is high there is more conflict. So there is a cycle of increasing and decreasing warfare in all systems. Warfare reduces population pressure by killing people[6] and by giving preference to males, rather than females, as the former increase manpower while the latter generally increase population (Harris 1977). This is the kind of predator/prey demographic regulator that operates among animals and insects. Humans sometimes transcend this challenge by inventing new methods of production and new forms of organization that­ allow for higher population density without increasing population pressure. So the warfare rate is cyclical in all world-systems.

            Geopolitical institutions emerge in periods of increased warfare, but they do not usually dissolve during periods of less warfare, so there is a rachet effect in which polities get more and more organized to deal with warfare over time. This is one important mechanism driving the emergence of hierarchy – chiefdom formation, state formation, empire formation, etc. in which authorities emerge that regulate violence and make rules about property.

The Geopolitics of Foraging Bands

            Nomadic hunter-gatherer bands cooperated and competed with other bands when they met. These were autonomous polities[7] in the general sense of an authority structure that was not subject to the control of a larger human authority. Decisions were made by discursive communications among adults using a linguistically constructed moral order based on consensual definitions of kinship. Labor was mobilized by a consensual system of obligations based on kinship in which sharing and reciprocity were the main forms of exchange. Relations among bands involved both positive and negative reciprocity (Sahlins 1972). A form of territoriality existed among nomadic foragers (hunter-gatherers) when different groups arrived at the same resource site (food, water, lithic raw materials) at the same time. If the sought resource was plentiful relative to demand, peaceful coexistence or even cooperation was more likely. If the resource was not plentiful, conflict was more likely. Conflict is dangerous and so the smaller or weaker group was likely to retreat.

Competition among nomadic groups for territorial resources was one of the main causes of the migrations of modern humans out of Africa, across Eurasia and to the Americas. In addition to resource scarcity, linguistic and kinship ties also influenced the likelihood of competition vs. cooperation. Kinship categories allowed for the construction of cooperative ties among bands. Individuals not present could be categorized as cousins or uncles thought to be related by blood or spiritual kinship to members of the band. Acknowledged family connections among bands (tribes) often prescribed cooperation and proscribed violent competition (Kelly 1985). And relations with non-kin others or strangers were also culturally constructed in the sense that humans who were not classified as kin were usually thought to be inferior and dangerous. Thus were the interpolity interactions among nomadic foraging bands already cultural because both kinship and otherness were socially constructed. And, as Georg Simmel (1955) pointed out, conflict itself is an important form of sociation both within and between polities. Nomadic foragers thus participated in interpolity systems of alliances and enmities that greatly affected their life chances. These were small-scale international systems.

The elaboration of othering continued as population density increased: nomadic foragers developed yearly circular migration routes, and, with further increases in population density, these routes became more compact and groups developed differentiated regional identities that are indicated by stylistic differences in tool kits, especially projectile points (Nassaney and Sassaman 1995).[8] Further population growth and the emegence of a more diversified foraging strategy (hunting smaller game, fishing and gathering more vegetable materials) eventually led to the emergence of sedentary foragers living in winter villages.

Yet migration continued to fill up the lands. At first the sites most suited to prevailing technologies and cultures were occupied. Later migration filled in remaining spaces. Even then some areas remained unoccupied. Competing territorial groups often left unoccupied buffer zones in order to minimize the chances of encountering dangerous competitors for space.

Mesolithic Geopolitics

            Geopolitics among territorial sedentary hunter-gatherers is a complex mix of defending resource spaces from trespass and organizing cooperation among groups (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1996). Between groups of ethnohistorically known, sedentary, diversified foragers, trespass was the most frequent cause of disputes. In indigenous Northern California before the arrival of the Europeans a small-scale world-system composed of sedentary hunter-gatherers was organized as an interpolity system of autonomous territorial ”tribelets” --- usually two or three villages recognizing the authority of a single headman (Kroeber 1976). Leadership in these polities was based mainly on the ability of the headman (sometimes a headwoman) to make coherent speeches on important occasions such as those ”big times” in which a tribelet would invite people from other tribelets to come to a feast. But headmen also tended to be able to afford more than one wife, sometimes as many as four. A preference for sororal polygyny meant that the headman’s second wife was usually a sister of his first wife, but the third (or fourth) wife was likely to be the daughter of a headman of another tribelet. Thus sororal polygyny was a partial constraint on the ability of headmen to form interpolity alliances cemented by marriage. Intermarriage was still an important mechanism for forging intertribelet alliances, but the kinship system was not efficiently tuned to maximize such alliances. This limitation tended to help cap the small spatial scale of these polities and interpolity alliances.

            Reciprocal gift exchanges, dancing, feasting and gambling were important integrative activities that occured during big times, also called ”trade feasts” by ethnographers. These trade feasts usually occured when the host polity had a surplus of food. Ethnographers such as Vayda (1967) think that these trade feasts were opportunities for groups to develop cooperative alliances that would have been useful during periods of scarcity and/or conflict.

There was intertribelet warfare even among speakers of the same language. Violent interpolity encounters took two forms. There were raids in which one group would attack another, killing and taking captives, stealing stored food and other valuables. Raids occured more frequently between tribelets that did not share a common or related language, and in areas in which control of some important resource was in dispute (e.g. a valuable lithic outcropping). A more frequent type of warfare was sometimes called a line war. In line wars the headmen of two disputing tribelets would bring warriors dressed for war and carrying weapons to an appointed place. At a signal the two squads would shoot arrows or throw rocks at one another until some were injured. Then the two headmen would confer to see if an agreement resolving the conflict could be reached. If no agreement were reached another round of shooting and throwing might ensue. This encounter continued until the headmen could reach an agreement. Line wars were more likely to occur between tribelets that shared a common language or linguistically related dialects. Charges of trespassing (unauthorized use of gathering or hunting sites claimed by a tribelet) often led to line wars. The institution of the line war allowed conflicts to be resolved with relatively little damage to the contending parties. But the more damaging raid wars also occured and some intertribelet relationships were understood as particularly confictual—for instance, the valley-dwelling Wintu’s name for the hill-living Yana translates as ”Enemy in the East.”

But even across these conflictive divides there was occasional trading and intermarriages. It should be said that even though there was warfare among tribelets in this system, war itself was not a very central preoccupation of these polities. They were mostly focussed on subsistence pursuits and forms of recreation such as dancing and gambling.

The geopolitical logic in such a system is already one that might be termed antagonistic cooperation, because it interlinks both competitive and cooperative modes. The clashes involved assessments of the relative fighting power of adversaries, risk, and the array of weapons available to each side. Ethnocentism intensified warfare, though weapons were lethal enough to motivate foraging bands to tame the hostilities (Gintis, van Schaik & Boehm 2015). Economic exchange (reciprocal gift-giving between the headmen of tribelets) provided a buffer against times of scarcity and helped to produce alliances that were useful when conflicts emerged. Reciprocal exchanges also reduced the propensity to raid during periods of shortage (Vayda 1967).

Chase-Dunn and Mann (1996) conclude that the Northern California world-system was an instance of an interaction network based on reciprocal gift-giving and warfare, without much of a core/periphery hierarchy in which core polities dominated and/or exploited non-core polities. Population density and the size and effectiveness of intervillage alliances were crucial factors in determing who won when raid wars broke out. Thus the Wintu (valley people with larger villages) tended to have the upper hand in warfare with hill people such as the Yana, who had smaller villages and thus fewer warriors to call on when a conflict broke out. Demographic power was the main arbiter in intergroup competition based on violence. But this demographic advantage was not used by the valley people to dominate and exploit the labor of the hill people. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Wintu had been very slowly encroaching on the territory of the Yana at the rate of around 30 years per kilometer (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1996:120-123). This hardly constitutes a case of expansionist conquest of the kind known from the history of states and empires.

Trade in such systems was highly structured by the small territorial and demographic scale of polities. Long distance trade ventures or procurement treks were extremely dangerous because inviduals or small groups of ”strangers” found in teritory claimed by unknown others were likely to be killed. All interpolity exchange of goods was between headmen of immediate neighboring polities or neighbors of neighbors who were also known. This ”down-the-line” form of exchange nevertheless allowed highly valuable goods (such as bow staves and woodpecker scalps) to move rather long distances, and so linked polities that had no direct interactions with one another in a larger network of exchange. The geopolitical point here is that the absence of larger authorities and the very local nature of cooperative arrangements among polities restricted the size of trade networks. But even in these small-scale systems there were transregional phenonomena such as the use of claim-disc shell beads as a medium of transregional exchange, and a transregional sign language and counting schema. Via these cultural inventions, prestige goods and information could move from polity to polity, linking the people of the Northern Sacramento Valley and surrounding mountains with those living in the delta region of the Sacramento and the adjacent Clear Lake region of California. Geopolitics was local, but it facilitated the emergence of long-distance down-the-line exchange networks.

The comparative study of group identity and feelings of solidarity in anthropological perspective sheds important light on the issue of whether or not nationalism and the nation-state are entirely modern phenomena tied to the emergence of civic culture in Europe and analyzed as a process of nation-building in the post-colonial world. A bright line often divides modern nationalism, with its emphasis on popular sovereignty, from earlier multicultural empire states in which central culture was carried by elites but not by masses (e.g. Anderson 1991; Gellner 1991). Modern nationalism is undoubtedly the most important socially constructed solidarity in the contemporary world-system. Global culture contains a template that is filled in by all states that claim membership in the club that is the United Nations (Meyer 2009). The ”people” must have a unique historical identity, language, traditions, styles, etc. that distinguish them from their neighbors and national pomp and ceremony are important ritual occasions that must not be mocked.

But group solidarity is an important variable in all polities and an anthropological framework of comparison suggests that sentiments of group solidarity have long played an important role in geopolitics. Early forms of we-feeling need to be carefully compared with modern nationalism in order to prehend the similarities and the differences.

Within Wintu tribelets group solidarity was reinforced by invidious comparisons with neighboring tribelets. According the Sacrament River villages the people that lived on the Middle River (McCloud River) did not know how to properly prepare acorn mush. The Middle River people contend that duckbill created the universes while all right-thinking people know that coyote created the universe as a kind of joke. Correct behavior and beliefs were contrasted with those of the neighboring polities, and geographical distance as well as linguistic differences increased the strength of othering until to point is reached in which distant strangers are seen as malevolent beings with which no cooperation is possible. Collective solidarity within the tribelet and among tribelets was expressed mainly in kinship terms, but these terms themselves were rather flexible. Group solidarity was important, especially when collective labor needed to be mobilized or when interpolity conflicts broke out. The polities that had more internal solidarity were better able to defend themselves.


A Case of Non-commodified and Indirect Economic Imperialism

            It would simplify matters if we could conclude that all systems of stateless foragers were like the one in Northern California, lacking a core/periphery hierarchy. But the Pacific Northwest featured a large, hierarchical system in which the core polities had enough economic power to motivate the peripheral polities to employ warfare against one another. Within the coastal polities (Haida, Kwatkiutl, Tlingit, etc.) hereditary ”big men” maintained their status and power in a system of competitive feasting and gift-giving known as the potlach. These maritime polities were hunter-gatherers with access to valuable coastal food resources (marine mammals, fish and shellfish): they had enough economic power to extract war captives from peripheral polities. The peripheral polities raided one another and sold captives in exchange for food and other valuables. The coastal polities had ranked lineages, slaves, and a very strong ideology of superior birth. Between five and twenty-five percent of the population of the coastal polities were slaves (Mitchell and Donald 1985). This was an unusual kind of core/periphery hierarchy.

This development differs not only from the world-system of indigenous Northern California, but moreover it differs from the model of core-polity armies conquering and exploiting non-core peoples that we know so well from historical sources. The Pacific Northwest shows the existence of economic imperialism in the absence of pronounced commodification. A proto-money (dentalium shells) was used as medium of exchange. But most exchange took the form of reciprocal gift-giving carried out by village heads. This down-the-line trade relocated war captives from distant slave raiders to the maritime core polities.[9] Slaves and their children in the core polities often became integrated into the local kinship system by marriage and adoption: so this was a very different kind of system from the better-known chattel slavery that emerged in more commodified and more hierarchical polities (Patterson 1982).

This differential shows that core/periphery hierarchy (exploitation and domination) can exist

even among polities that are not in direct contact with one another, and in a situation in which the core does not use coercion on the non-core to extract resources. A core-periphery hierarchy can operate without any direct coercion exerted by core polities if these have a resource that is in great demand. In this situation peripheral polities will be motivated to coerce one another in order to be able to obtain valuables from the core. This is an unusual case, in which core polities, lacking ability to project military power, still were able to extract resources from non-core polities, and in which economic power was exerted in the absence of commodified relations. All the polities in the Pacific Northwest were integrated by kin-based sharing and reciprocity. Interpolity relations consisted of raiding, line wars and gift exchanges among polity heads. Dentalium shells were a symbol of value that facilitated reciprocal gift-giving among polity heads in this large regional network, but they were not really money (a generalized medium of exchange). This was a system in which something like economic imperialism existed, but in the absence of commodified exchange or the projection of force to extract tribute. It was the high value of trade items that motivated peripheral polities to use force on one another.

Chiefdoms and Tribute

            So far we have been discussing the nature of geopolitics in world-systems in which polities were relatively small in scale. The Pacific Northwest was unusual in the extent to which rather small core polities were able to extract labor from non-core polities. Most small-scale polities were not able to do this. The Northern California example is much more typical. There is a general pattern in which the degree of hierarchy within polities is associated with the degree of interpolity exploitation and domination. Marshal Sahlins’s (1961) classic article about how segmentary lineages facilitated large alliances among households and communities within a tribe, and how those lineages that were more successful at organizing large-scale cooperation were able to conquer and extract resources from relatively smaller lineage confederacies. Raymond Kelly’s (1985) study of the Nuer-Dink relationship is a good example of this kind of demographic power. Both the Nuer and the Dinka were pastoralists, but the Nuer had a kinship structure that facilitated the mobilization of larger alliances, and so they were able to extract both cattle and slaves from the Dinka in a system that Kelly calls ”tribal imperialism.”

            Classes and more centralized hierarchies (called chiefdoms) are known to have emerged in many different regions in which sedentism and horticulture had already appeared (Wright 2006). According to Gerhard Lenski (2005:95) intense warfare and conquering other polities became economically profitable for the first time among advanced horticultural societies (those that employed metal, copper or bronze, not iron, tools for gardening). He contends that more technologically advanced and complex polities had a higher probability of engaging in systematic warfare. Using a cross-cultural sample he found that among hunting and gathering polities none had perpetual warfare and only 27% had frequent warfare; among simple horticultural polities 5% had perpetual warfare and 55% had frequent warfare; among advanced horticultural polities 34% had perpetual warfare and 48% had frequent warfare (2005).

Despite the fact that chiefdoms continued to rely on hierarchical forms of kinship (ranked lineages, conical clans, etc.), some paramount chiefs are ethnohistorically known to have extracted tribute from neighbors over whom they held a military advantage (Rountree 1993; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014: 109-118). Chiefdoms experienced a rise and fall pattern that was somewhat similar in form to that of larger states and empires (Anderson 1994). Some of the rises were the result of conquest by semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms, but others may have been the outcome of a demographic process somewhat similar to the ”secular cycles” described for state-based systems by Jack Goldstone (1991) and Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov (2009). Turchin and Nefedov formalize Jack Goldstone’s (1991) model of the secular cycle, an approximately 200 year long demographic cycle, in which population grows and then decreases. Population pressures emerge because the number of mouths to be fed and the size of the group of elites get too large for the resource base, causing conflict and the disruption of the polity. Turchin and Nefedov test their model on a number of agrarian empires, confirming the principle that population growth and elite overproduction leads to sociopolitical instability within states. However, we think that somewhat similar processes may have been operating within chiefdom polities.

Marshall Sahlins (1958) describes chiefs as ”eating the land too much.” The size and wealth of the class of sacred chiefs is limited by the productivity of workers and the availability of resources. But chiefs are able to husband resources and to mobilize labor in projects that sometimes increase the availability of food. Chiefs also regulate land use and invent forms of property that facilitate their continued ability to appropriate surplus product from commoners. Thus the functional theory of stratification works, except that overshoot is a common mistake and this leads to the dissolution of the paramount chiefdom back into smaller and less centralized polities.

Chiefdoms also exhibit another pattern known from historical systems, the creation of larger conquest-based polities by semiperipheral marcher chiefs who come from less favored ecological locations. Patrick Kirch (1984) notes this pattern on Pacific islands and archipelagos. Kirch also studied an instance when island-wide chiefdom formation repeatedly failed. The Marquesas Islands are steep with narrow valleys that can only connect with one another by sea, but boat traffic is difficult because of the lack of poor landing sites. Kirch (1991) shows that archaeological evidence shows a cycle of periods intense warfare and cannibalism among the polities of the steep valleys followed by periods of relatively less conflict as populations and population pressures recover. This is the kind of demographic regulator referred to above. No polity was able to conquer the others to create an island-wide chiefdom because of the difficult transportation and communication barriers.

            In a situation of a relatively high population density, the frequency and intensity of warfare increases and polities begin to devote resources to turning their boys into warriors. Men are the warriors among the sedentary hunter-gatherers of California described above, but the warrior identity is not more important than the hunter identity for the males in the California polities. On the Chesapeake Bay warfare was more intense. Buffer zones or ”no-mans-land” regions in which warring groups had abandoned territory so as not to run into one another were found by John Smith during his exploration of the bay. Boys were trained from a young age to withstand torture. Thus did the masculine identity become warriorized. This was a piece of the evolution of interpolity relations in which the selves within polities became specialized for the purposes of interpolity conflict. Ritual cannibalism and scalping were often part of this transition, demonstrating a form of respect for the powers of the enemy.[10]

            The phenomenon of rise and fall, which seems to exist in all world-systems with even a modicum of interpolity hierarchy, sheds important light on the controversies about when and where chiefdom formation and state formation first occured. If a cycle of centralization and decentralization within a set of polities is the norm it makes it hard to identify crucial cases that embody whatever distinctions we want to make between chiefdoms and states. In addition to scale and complexity, archaeologists Johnson and Earle (1987) define the difference between chiefdoms and states in terms of specialized institutions of regional control – bureaucracies and dedicated military organizations. This is a useful distinction that has implications for geopolitics. The existence of a dedicated military caste, as opposed to a temporary group of allies of the chief, means the emergence of a group of military specialists who are often closely linked to the king’s household or his authority. States are usually larger and more complex and more internally hierarchical than are chiefdoms. It also seems to be always the case that so-called ”pristine” states only emerged in regions that already had chiefdoms (Wright 2006).

            A long-lasting system of competing and allying city-states emerged in Mesopotamia, while in Egypt an empire joining Upper and Lower Egypt emerged rather quickly. The Mesopotamian system was more often a multicentric international system of competing states while the Egyptian system was more frequently under the control of a single central state.

On the flood plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, the great productivity of large-scale, irrigated agriculture enabled the formation of Uruk, the word’s first city, and its state. Uruk was at first a theocracy that defined its priests and subjects as slaves of the city-god. The redistributive temple economy came to overlay the kin-based reciprocities of lineages within the city. The early Bronze Age Mesopotamian Uruk expansion (studied by Guillermo Algaze 1993, 2000) combined short-range tribute-taking with long-distance trade. It did so primarily by establishing Uruk quarters in the settlements of regions that were important sources of imports for the world’s first city (Stein 1999). 

The emergence of competing city-states on the flood plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates produced a situation of hegemonic rise and fall. It caused cities to build walls and increased the power of their battle kings. Sumerian rulers imported labor from adjacent regions. Eventually a Semitic-speaking working class rebelled under the leadership of Sargon, a cup-bearer to the king of Kish.

Sargon’s revolt produced the upsurge of the Akkadian Empire. This was primarily an ethnic revolt yet the non-core ties and characteristics of the Akkadians played an important role in the revolt and in the success of the subsequent conquest empire (Diakonoff 1973). Balance-of-power dynamics were operating, but not strongly enough to prevent the emergence of the first of the world’s large empires. Sargon built a new capital city, Agade, standardized weights and measures, and used the cuneiform symbols that had been invented by the Sumerians to produce records and documents in the Akkadian language. But the empire was too big to hold together with the available ”technologies of power” (Mann 1986). It collapsed and was succeeded by the Third Dynasty of Ur, a Sumerian restoration.

The Ur polity was much smaller territorially, but the trade networks that had emerged under the aegis of the Akkadian Empire allowed the city of Ur to grow to a very large population size, constituting an urban upsweep (Inoue et al 2015). The Sumerian interpolity system also refined a distinction between civilization and savagery as can been seen in the epic of Gilgamesh. A Sumerian description of the invading Guti as wild animals is a version of othering that strongly prefigures modern racism.

            In all the world regions in which states had emerged (Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Mesoamerica and the Andes) new technologies of power--such as professional soldiers and the expansion of trade networks—yielded empire upsweeps. As the battle king became the model of authority in tributary states and empires, the world’s main form of imperialism focused on the conquest, subjugation and exploitation of adjacent territories. This was a classical imperialism. The main instrument of expansion was the army.

Next, in order to make empires work as machines for extracting resources from distant peoples, deeper techniques of power needed to be developed to incorporate more distant peoples into the larger structures of the empire. It was not enough to send a large army to defeat whatever resistance might be offered. Booty was good, but sustaining an empire meant developing instititions that facilitated a degree of consent. Thus did conquerors take advantage of the rise of world religions, in which membership in the larger ”universal” moral community was increasingly delinked from kinship. This reconfiguration facilitated larger empires by reducing the level of resistance to taxation and tribute.[11]

As empires layered their tributary mode of accumulation over older, kin-based, normative social regulation, they made larger cities possible by reducing the transaction and protection costs of trade, which encouraged the formation of larger and denser trade networks (Mann 1986). Empires meanwhile built specialized, imperial cities as the symbolic centers of their power.

These empires fell after expansion eventually reached a point of diminishing returns beyond which further expansion was too costly. At that point resource scarcities caused prices to change and swollen ranks of elites began to fight with each other over the remains. Then political weakness within the empire encouraged challengers from within and from outside.

            Historians and political scientists who compare the interstate systems of the East and West have noticed a great divergence that occured after the fall of the Han Empire and the Western Roman Empire (Hui 2008; Scheidel 2009). Though a new empire as large as the Han soon emerged in China, the fall of the Western Roman empire did not soon yield an imperial recovery. Instead a number of smaller empires emerged in the space of Rome’s imperium. This distinction is thought to reveal important differences that emerged between the East and the West. Both regions continued to experience cycles of rise and fall, but the size difference among polities was greater in the East: Unified China was much larger than the other large polities in East Asia, whereas the West contained a number of smaller polities and a less centralized and more competitive system of power.

            International relations theorists often emphasize the importance of certain institutions that emerged in the competitive, interstate system of the West. They see the invention of international agreements regulating diplomacy among the Italian city-states, and later the treaty of Westphalia, as important for preventing the emergence of a core-wide empire in the West.

George Modelski (1964) noted an important difference in the rules of the interstate system in South Asia and those that emerged in the European interstate system: namely, because the institutional nature of the European interstate system allowed for the existence of equal relations among states, it was more efficient in facilitating a balance of power, which prevented the emergence of the core-wide empire. On the other hand, Khautilya’s Arthaśāstra, sage advice provided to the Chandragupta Maurya(who founded the first large empire in South Asia), set up a system of verticle relations among superior and inferior polities that did not allow, in principle, for the possibility of equal relations among polities. Modelski noted that this was also a feature of other early interstate systems. According to David Chandler’s (1996:113-116) study of diplomatic relations among the kingdoms of Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand--all of which were influenced by the Chinese model (Fairbank 1968; Hamashita 2003)--relations among states were described in terms of hierarchical kinship relations. Cambodia was cast as the child while Vietnam was the mother and Thailand was the father. The hierarchical pronouns of the languages made it nearly impossible to describe relations between equal states.

Modelski contended that the institutional nature of the European interstate system, which allowed for the existence of equal relations, was more efficient in facilitating the balance of power and the prevention of the emergence of a core-wide empire. While this was probably not the most important way in which Europe was different, it may have played a role in the reproduction of a more multicentric and competitive interstate system in Europe.

Most of the literature on modern nationalism focusses on the comparison between empires in which a dominant center sought to govern and extract resources from a culturally diverse periphery. Victor Lieberman’s (2009: 40-43) important study of the emergence of political and cultural integration in mainland Southeast Asia notes a process that he calls ”politicized ethnicity”that emerged in waves in Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam, and somewhat less successfully in Cambodia and in island Southeast Asia (Malaya, Indonesia and the Philippines). A process of the standardization of language and religion had been going on since the emergence of what Lieberman calls the ”charter states” in the period from 800 to 1200 CE in the Southeast Asian mainland. Though there was nothing like the notion of popular sovereignty, people out in the villages came to see themselves as members of a political collectivity with a distinct culture, language, historical heritage and religious beliefs that was centered in the capital and embodied by the king. This was not multicultural empire,but neither was it what we think of as modern nationalism. According to Lieberman this process meant that when the European colonial powers arrived and tried to promote national identities to facilitate their adminstrative control they had much more to work with on the mainland than they did in island Southeast Asia, where nationalism became a post-colonial project carried out by nation-building elites.

Because Lieberman’s study focusses mainly on the formation of the charter states (Pagan, Angkor, Dai Viet and Ahutya) and their efforts to break down the local cultures of the hill peoples, he only occasionally mentions how collective solidarities had also emerged on a smaller scale in the peripheral chiefdoms that preceded state formation in Southeast Asia. There was already an interchiefdom geopolitics going on before the emergence of the states, and we-feeling was already an important aspect of that process.

Specialized trading states and commercializing empires

            The logic of tributary empires always had an economic aspect in the sense that empires use institutionalized coercion to extract resources. But very early in the Bronze Age, world-systems in which tributary states predominated show, in the interstices between tributary states, the emergence of marginal polities that specialized in profiting from trade. These were semiperipheral capitalist city-states: the elites in control of state power in these small states used what political and military power they had to facilitate profit-making rather than the gathering of tribute. Here we are using a rather inclusive definition of capitalism in order to highlight a niche that emerged within the networks of exchange and military interaction: some polities were able to specialize in trading commodities.[12] The first of these was Dilmun, probably located on the island of Bahrein in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. The Dilmunites were intermediaries in the trade between Mesopotamia and Harrapan cities that emerged in the valley of the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. Most of the polities that specialized in trade were maritime polities, because transportation over water is much less expensive than over land, and can be combined with seapower--the use of watercraft for exercising coercion. A A partial exception was the Old Assyrian City-State loated on the Tigris River in Northern Mesopotamia. This was the city-state of Assur, controlled by merchants who used donkey caravans to transport tin and copper along the trade routes connecting Cappadocia (now Turkey) with Mesopotamia (Larsen 1976, 1987, 1992).

Much better know are the Phoenician city-states (Byblos, Sidon, Tyre) that emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean. These combined merchant capitalism (buying cheap and selling dear) with the production of commodities for the carrying trade (Imperial purple cloth, glass, Greek-style statuary, etc.). The Phoenicians are also famous for spreading the use of the alphabet, in which written symbols represent sounds instead of ideas. These semiperipheral capitalist city-states not only took advantage of existing trade networks. They expanded and intensified trade networks and provided incentives for producers to increase production for sale. The Phoenicians and the Greeks both established settler colonies in the Western Mediterranean, and the Phoenicians also had an entrepot at Moghador down the West African coast in what is now Mauritania. These colonies generally became independent competitors of the city-states that had founded them rather than parts of a larger empire. Carthage was somewhat of an exception in producing a rather large empire in the Western Mediterranean and Iberia during its period of contention with the expanding Romans.

            The West produced semiperipheral capitalist city-states specializing in trade including, some of the Italian city-states and the Germanic Hanseatic League in early modern times. Southeast Asia produced some of its own (Chase-Dunn et al 2015).

The actions of the semiperipheral capitalist city-states had a commercializing effect on the tributary empires, as kings became more savvy about ways to benefit from the profit-making activities of merchants without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. The main challenge was letting the merchants and capitalists make money--and taxing them—while barring them from taking over. Tributary empires increasingly succeeded at this challenge as world-systems became larger and more complex.

The Evolution of Global Governance

Ancient and classical imperialism primarily was mainly a matter of one state conquering an adjacent states and extracting tribute. The Aztec, Incan, Persian, Macedonian and Roman Empires are all examples. This was the use of state power, especially military power, to extract resources from peoples. Empires of this kind expanded, reached their limits and then eventually fell.

Why did some states succeed at conquest while others failed and collapsed? Gerhard Lenski (2005: 114-116) performed a factor analysis of cross-cultural data that examined the intensity of warfare among polities. Lenski found that crucial advantages tended to accrue to polities that had larger populations, and hence greater military manpower, better weapons, and higher sociopolitical complexity. Efficient bureaucratic organization also facilitated the appropriation of resources. Most importantly, according to Lenski, the strongest cause was technological advantages, especially more efficient subsistence technologies.[13]

In a similar vein, Jared Diamond (1997) lists crucial factors that made a particular polity more likely to be able to defeat others:

·         A large, dense population, so that the polity was relatively immune to epidemic diseases;

·         A location within a continent oriented horizontally to the equator, so that the polity included large areas of temperate climate, rapid species spreading, and rapid cultural diffusion (see also Turchin et al 2006)

·         Suitable indigenous candidates for domestication of flora and fauna, so that the polity featured, in the form of extensive food surpluses and storage, an abundance of energy-efficiency;

·         Sedentariness and internal stratification;

·         Relatively efficient, basic technologies of production, transportation and communication, which in turn led to more proximate factors including the wide spread of epidemic diseases, the use of horses, steel weapons, gunpowder, guns, and oceangoing ships; and deployment of complex political organization and writing.

Using historical data on Asian and North African empires from ancient Sumer to Sung China, Sergey Nefedov (2008) demonstrates the interplay between geographical conditions (including ecological carrying capacity and abrupt oscillations of it), demographic cycles (reckoning with epidemics as well as growth or contraction phases), and a wide range of other factors--including social structural transformations (accounting for bureaucracy, army structure, and balancing of powers between the state, elites, and commoners), cultural diffusion, fundamental technological and military innovations, revolutions, wars, and empires -- in order to predict the cycles and crises of polities. As with Lenski, the principal factor in Nefedov’s theory is technology -- meaning fundamental innovations that increase the production of food and thus extend ecological capacity. Military innovations in weaponry or tactics, as well as new forms of social organization such as tax reforms or state bureaucracies, were also important factors. These innovations generated competitive advantages and the capability to expand territorially at expense of neighbors (Nefedov 2008: 23).

Certain developments eventually set the stage for human rights as an ideology that would increasingly moderate class relations within polities, and moderate both warfare and cooperation among polities. Although state power itself was a key to the success of the empires and tributary states, they also needed to overcome the resistance of the conquered populations in order to effectively gather resources. World religions that separated kinship from membership in a moral community emerged in the peripheral and semiperipheral regions of the world empires, and were eventually taken over by the imperial centers (Harris 1977). These religions (Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam) located the agency for incorporation into the moral community at the level of the individual, rather than through kin ties. These world religions constituted both the conquerors and the conquered as members of the same moral community. This reduced resistance but it also provided a vocabulary for conquered peoples to make claims on the emperor.

Sex and Empire

Walter Scheidel’s (2009b) fascinating discussion of empires and harems employs an evolutionary psychology approach to explain why men with power wanted to gain sexual access to large numbers of women. Wealthy and powerful kings could have both the r and the K reproduction strategies.[14] However, Scheidel in his 2009b article did not try to explain why monogamy became the predominant form of marriage in modern global culture, even for rich and powerful men. Most polities had allowed polygyny (one husband, more than one wife) for a small number of men. Human instincts probably have not changed much over the past 2000 years, but there are few polities remaining that allow wealthy and powerful men to have more than one wife (at the same time). So evolutionary psychology cannot supply the answer.

 In subsequent work, Scheidel (2009c) has tried to address what is known about the causes of what he calls the institution of “socially imposed universal monogamy” (SIUM) and its displacement of polygyny[15] in world history. A purely historicist explanation would note that the Romans and the Greeks were monogamous and the polities that descended from them eventually took over the world and so monogamy was imposed by the powerful. Christianity got monogamy from the Romans, as a perusal of the Old Testament will make plain. Christians took over most of the world as a result of European colonialism and the rise of industrial capitalism. Thereby, the rules of the winners became the global moral order. This is probably the best overall explanation, although Scheidel (2015) points out that there is very little research on the history of colonialism and monogamy that would substantiate this account.

In the meantime, Henrich et al 2012 have published a study of polygyny and monogamy that suggests a number of ways in which SIUM is functional for society. This raises the issue of the direction of the causal arrow between winners and monogamy. Is SIUM a competitive advantage in competition among polities, and if so how does that work? Since the gender birthrate is naturally 50/50 elite polygyny deprives some men of wives. This is a well-known problem for modern religious groups who practice polygyny. Many young men have no prospect of marrying because older richer men have taken most of the women. Henrich et al (2012) contend that monogamous marriage systems reduce competition among males for mates and decrease the number of unattached males who are an important group in the commission of violent crimes. So monogamy decreases competition among men and lowers the crime rate. And women also benefit from SIUM because it reduces the average male/female age difference within marriages, lowers the fertility rate, and reduces gender inequality and within-household violence. Henrich et al. (2012) also contend that polygyny may have been functional for war-making empires because it increased the size of the pool of unattached young males who could serve as soldiers who were strongly motivated to capture women from other polities.

But it also possible that SIUM facilitates greater solidarity between elites and their soldiers than does elite polygyny. Greater solidarity between classes is a big advantage in competition among states. Soldiers and citizens are more likely to identify with, and to support, leaders who seem to follow the general moral rules regarding legitimate access to women. This might have been an important source of Greek and Roman advantages over their polygynous opponents. However, once monogamy became sanctified by the religion of the European West, it became part of the cultural package that European colonialism imposed on most of the rest of the world. So economic and military power, as well as possible functional advantages must be an important part of the explanation of the spread of SIUM. And once a global moral order has emerged emulation of global modernity, it is also should be noted as a factor.. China was never a colony, but the Peoples Republic made polygyny illegal in 1955. Laws prohibiting polygyny were adopted in 1880 in Japan as part of the modernization effort that was the Meiji Restoration.  Post-colonial India made polygyny illegal in 1953 (Henrich et al 2012: 657). Therefore, the spread of monogamy was a matter of both imposition and emulation. This is relevant for our examination of geopolitics and imperialism because it demonstrates the emergence of a global moral order that somewhat modifies the operation of the might makes right logic of geopolitics.

From Territorial to Neo-colonial Imperialism

In the Bronze Age some powerful city-states who specialized in trading, rather than conquering adjacent neighbors developed a different kind of empire: they established colonies in distant regions to facilitate their trade. In the modern world-system, core nation-states deployed this commercial form of colonialism. This development marked a shift in emphasis from tribute-gathering to profit-making. A capitalist world-system eventually emerged.

Modern colonial empires replicated, on a much larger scale, a tactic that some Phoenician and Greek city-states had pioneered at interstices between tributary empires. Imperialism evolved through three epochs: tributary imperialism, colonial empires, and neo-colonial dependency. The old form of tributary empire--which involved conquering adjacent territory and extracting tribute and taxes--yielded to the emergence of thalassocratic empires in which a “mother country” established dominion over distant colonies in order to facilitate competitive commodity production and profit-making. Meanwhile commodification had been expanding and deepening since the Stone Age.

The modern, Europe-centered world-system has become increasingly capitalist in waves of commodification and decommodification since the 13th century CE (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014). These waves of capitalism corresponded to the increasing size of the hegemonic core state, and to changes in the structure of interpolity relations. 

The question of when capitalism became the world-system’s predominant mode of accumulation remains contentious. No human society has ever commodified everything: moral and political orders shelter some aspects of life from market forces and privatization. Waves of deepening commodification, interspersed by periods of decommodification, have accompanied shifts in the dynamics of political power and in the logics of domination and exploitation.

All world-systems large and small have something like global governance in the sense that patterns of interaction among polities become at least partly institutionalized and develop a distinct logic. In Europe the interstate system (what Political Scientists usually call the “international system”) was formalized in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which proclaimed that states should recognize and protect each other’s territorial sovereignty, The Treaty required that any state breaching the territorial sovereignty of another state would face punishment by all the other states. This formal interstate system did not apply to colonies outside of Europe, and many of the European great powers continued to hold or expand colonial empires in distant regions. But the Westphalian system became extended to the rest of the world as a result of decolonization movements that established sovereign states in what had formerly been dependent colonies. These occurred in two main waves (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Waves of Decolonization as shown by the Number of Colonial Governors Sent Home (Source: Henige 1970)


The European interstate system extended to the rest of the world via these waves of decolonization and by incorporating China and the few other states that were never colonized by European empires. The result is a single global system of states.

The shift toward profit-making as the main form of accumulation changed the game in which core powers rise and fall. In the contemporary system the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers has replaced the rise and fall of territorial empires. Contemporary core powers do not try, or do not succeed if they try, to conquer neighboring core states. Rather they use their military power to set up a world in which they can succeed at making profits.

  Waves of decolonization since the late 18th century transformed the system of colonial empires into a system of neocolonialism in which global power is exercised through the hegemony of the United States, International Governmental Organizations, financial exchanges and property arrangements that allow actors in rich and powerful countries to exploit non-core peoples. The demise of the old territorial and colonial empires resulted in a single global polity of formally sovereign states and a system in which economic power is stronger than it has ever been at the level of a whole world-system. Such a system may be ripe for the emergence of a true world state, though that has not happened yet and may not happen soon because the interstate system is highly institutionalized.

            The political globalization evident in the trajectory of global governance evolved because the great powers and the largest firms were in heavy contention with one another for geopolitical power and for economic resources, but also because resistance emerged within the polities of the core and in the regions of the non-core. The series of hegemonies, waves of colonial expansion and decolonization, and the emergence of a proto-world-state occurred as the global elites tried to compete with one another and to contain resistance from below. We have already mentioned the waves of decolonization: other important forces of resistance were slave revolts, the labor movement, the extension of citizenship to men of no property, the women’s movement, and other associated rebellions and social movements. These movements affected the evolution of global governance in part because the rebellions often clustered together in time, forming world revolutions (Arrighi et al., 1989; Wallerstein 2004).

World Revolutions

Institutions of global governance have evolved as they have over the centuries because core states and core capitalists compete with one another for global hegemony in a context in which subordinate classes and peoples in non-core areas resist the power structures of global governance. Hegemony and resistance co-evolve and this tension is a major factor in structuring world historical social change. Resistance and rebellion from subordinate classes and from the non-core have tended to cluster together in time as the contradictions of power, domination and exploitation have produced somewhat similar conditions in non-core regions distant from one another. Even though the non-core rebellions and resistance movements were not very directly connected with one another in earlier centuries, their synchronous consequences converged on the core states, and especially on the hegemon. This phenomenon of wide-spread synchronous resistance and rebellion is termed “world revolution”.

            The world revolution of 1789 involved the colonial rebellion in North America, the French revolution, numerous slave revolts in the Western hemisphere, and the Haitian revolution. The outcome of the struggle between Britain and France for hegemony was shaped by rebellions in the periphery:  the Haitian revolution cost the French state the loss of a major source of revenue, and the newly decolonized United States battled the British in the War of 1812 while Britain was engaged in deadly combat with Napoleon.

            The world revolution of 1848 involved democratic, labor and nationalist demands in Europe, but in the U.S. it mainly resulted in the emergence of several new Christian sects and utopian communities, many of which perpetuated socialist and communist ideas already popular in Europe. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), advocated community ownership of property. In China the Taiping rebellion combined the impetus of earlier Chinese landless peasant rebellions (e.g. the White Lotus religion) with the impetus of Christian millenarianism. A preacher from Tennessee gave Christian tracts to the leader of the Taiping, who concluded that he himself was Jesus’s brother.  With this development, an Asian cycle--of dynastic rise and fall, and of peasant rebellion—converged with the Western world revolution of 1848.

            The world revolution of 1917 included the upheaval in Russia during which the Bosheviks came to state power, the collapse of the Second International’s vow that European workers should not fight one another, and the foundation by Vladimir Lenin of the Third International that met in Moscow from 1919 to 1927. It also included the Mexican and Chinese revolutions and the Seattle general strike of 1919. American communist John Reed from Portland in 1919 authored a famous account of the Russian Revolution entitled Ten Days that Shook the World.

            In the world revolution of 1968, workers in France and Italy, and students in Mexico and China joined a revolt of students and soldiers in the U.S. The world revolution of 1989 was a rebellion against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe that brought global issues of human and civil rights to the attention of more progressives in the West. And the current revolution of 20xx is a rebellion against the neoliberal globalization project and the neoconservative imperial project of the U.S.

            World revolutions have become much more directly interconnected as social movements have become increasingly transnational, and popular groups and global parties have emerged to engage in politics on a global scale. They also have become more frequent, and now seem to be overlapping one another in time.

            We are still in the midst of the current world revolution of 20xx (Chase-Dunn and Niemeyer, 2009). The ongoing evolution of capitalism and of global governance is significantly a response to resistance and rebellions from below. As Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) contend, capitalism and socialism have dialectically interacted with one another in a positive feedback loop resembling a spiral. Labor and socialist movements came obviously in reaction to capitalist industrialization. In addition, the World Revolution of 1917 and the waves of decolonization spurred the rise of U.S. hegemony and of post-World War II global institutions.

Hegemony in the contemporary interstate system primarily refers to a time period, “in which the ongoing rivalry between the so-called "great powers" is so unbalanced that one power can largely impose its rules and its wishes… in the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and even cultural arenas” (Wallerstein 2000: 255) (see Figure 4). Elaborating on Immanuel Wallerstein’s conception of hegemony, we would suggest a more comprehensive list of comparative advantages that are involved in contemporary rise and fall. These include technological-economic (technological, production, commercial, and financial), military-political (military, political, and diplomatic), socio-cultural (institutional, normative, and cultural). Alternately, a more Gramscian understanding of hegemony deepens perspectives on the geopolitical evolution of the modern world-system. According to Giovanni Arrighi (1994), the hegemon necessarily inculcates a universalistic ideology portraying its interest as the general interest. The moral high ground matters because power based only on coercion is far too expensive. The “civilizational mission” or “making the world safe for democracy” serves\ to paint hegemony as leadership. Further advantage accrues when the hegemon also has a comparative advantage in leading technologies and can sell or give away goods that are widely valued.

            Figure 4: Core Configurations with and without Hegemony

From the beginning the interstate system was led by a series of hegemonic core powers that rose and fell – the Dutch in the 17th century; the British in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century. Global governance has been, and still remains, largely governance by hegemony, with a cycle of hegemonic rises and falls consolidated in violent contests among contenders – world wars. World wars (land-based, destructive wars involving almost all the major military powers of the epoch) in the modern capitalist world-economy were: the Thirty Years' War from 1618-48, when Dutch interests triumphed over Hapsburg in the world-economy; the Napoleonic Wars from 1792-1815, when British interests triumphed over French; and long Eurasian wars from 1914-45 when U.S. interests triumphed over German and Japan(Wallerstein 2000: 258).

This governance by hegemony continues to be the strongest institutional element in the contemporary system. Yet over the last 200 years a modicum of global regulation emerged via international political organizations overlaying the interstate system. After the Napoleonic Wars, Britain and the Austro-Hungarian empire created the Concert of Europe, an international organization aimed to help support monarchies and to prevent future revolutions of the French type and episodes of the Napoleonic kind. The Concert of Europe disintegrated over disagreements betwen its main sponsors (England and the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but was followed after World War I by the League of Nations, and after World War II by the United Nations and the international financial multilateral organizations – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and eventually the World Trade Organization. These and regional military treaty organizations such as NATO, SEATO, etc, formed a proto-world-state overlaying the extant national states. These multilateral institutions did not dismantle the interstate system. Rather they supplemented the system of separate territorial sovereign states, which had only recently been extended to newly decolonized regions. (see Figure 5).


Figure 5: Levels of action in the architecture of global governance, (Source: Kennedy et al 2002: 143 (from Held and McGrew 2002: 66).

U.S. founding and support of these multilateral institutions has helped legitimate the hegemonic leadership of the United States. Michael Mann points out a specific feature of the current hegemon: unlike previous empires, the United States does not seek a direct empire of overseas colonies, but rather it exercises influence over an informal empire of client states (2013: 275). Yet because the interstate system and governance by hegemony are still the mainstays of global governance, the multilateral institutions depend heavily on the goodwill of the most powerful states. And the U.S. still unilaterally controls the bulk of global military capability.

Another important aspect of contemporary global governance is based on the expansion and proliferation of non-governmental organization (NGOs). These voluntary associations have become important players in world politics, especially in the non-core, where in the era of neoliberalism they have taken on many of the functions formerly performed or claimed by national states. Some NGOs are supported by core states (e.g. Robinson 1994) and play supportive roles in favor of the interests of their sponsors, while others have important relations with anti-systemic transnational social movements and play an important, if contentious role in global civil society.

So the formation of a true global state, with a monopoly of legitimate violence, is not near. Even the existing institutions of global governance are illegitimate insofar as they violate the notions of democracy that have become accepted by most of the world’s peoples. While global democracy would mean majority rule on a global scale, global governance by hegemony is undemocratic. There is a world military force--that of the United States--but its Commander-In-Chief is not elected by the peoples of the world, only by the citizens of the U.S. The only valid explanation for this power is “might makes right.” So contemporary global governance is, in this sense, illegitimate.

Systemic Crises and Future Possibilities

In the 1970s the world-system entered a long period of economic stagnation. Core states suffered a sharp decline of profits in manufacturing as Germany and Japan finally caught up with the United States (Brenner 2002). Many industries relocated from core countries to semiperipheral and peripheral countries with lower wage levels. Unemployment, underemployment and more precarious employment increased in many areas. Much investment in the core shifted from production to financial services. Governments’ total debt rose. Meanwhile the U.S. had lost a major war against a small country Vietnam. Soon U.S., Western Europe and Japan became economic equals, engaging in a competition among themselves (Wallerstein 2006). U.S. economic hegemony declined in steps since its huge predominance after World War II when it had 35% of world GDP. At the end of 2014 China became the biggest economy in the world (having produced 17.6 trillion measured by GDP PPP in current international dollars, compared to 17.4 trillion of US (IMF 2015)). In addition, the U.S. has lost its commercial edge, as China became the world’s biggest merchandise trader in 2013, (totaling US$ 4,159 billion of imports and exports, compared to US$ 3,909 billion of US (WTO 2015)).

It is likely that U.S. technological, production, commercial, financial, military-political, and socio-cultural comparative advantages will continue to decline.The hegemon’s increasing reliance on military superiority as an instrument of foreign policy may be partly due to the decreasing availability of other advantages. This seems redolent of the ”imperial overreach” that was an important characteristic of British hegemonic decline.

In any case, the contemporary global system is rapidly becoming politically and economically multipolar. Though a new hegemon may rise, meanwhile we face continued political-economic rivalry among increasingly equal contenders. Immanuel Wallerstein (2006) has predicted that the future rivalry among states is more likely to tilt toward Asia as Japan and China increasingly cooperate in alliance with the United States and that this bloc will increasingly compete with Europe. Wallerstein (2000: 439-441) notes the pattern in the modern world-system in which a sea/air power tends to defeat a land-based power. On this basis he contends that the sea/air power of Japan (with China as a partner), with the help of the previous hegemonic power, the United States, is likely to triumph over the land-based power -- the European Union (with Russia as its ally). Another possible outcome is a second round of U.S. hegemony based on comparative advantages in higher education and high technology (in biotechnologies, green technologies and nanotechnologies) and related new lead industries,[16] together with its unusually flexible institutional structures (Chase-Dunn et al 2011: 17-18; Galtung 2009).

Wallerstein (2011:35) also contends that the modern world-system has entered, since the 1970s, into a systemic and structural crisis that will lead to the emergence of a qualitatively different kind of world-system in the next several decades. The systemic contradictions of capitalism have produced system-level asymtotes (ceilings) that cannot be transcended within the logic of capitalism. These are the long run rising cost of labor, increases in taxation and the increasing cost of raw materials. These rising costs will sooner or later make it unprofitable to engage in capitalist investment, and so a new system will emerge. Wallerstein contends that the new system could take the form of global egalitarian democracy or a global tributary state in which the elite uses state power and coercion to continue to extract surplus product from the global working class.

According to Wallerstein the world revolution of 1968 was a turning point that marked a decline of centrist liberal ideology: This decline undermined the global political culture that had undergirded the main institutions of the capitalist world-system (Wallerstein 2004: 77). Moreover, capitalists have experienced new pressures to raise wages, new pressures to source raw materials, and new pressures to pay for a wide range of expenses that they previously were able to externalize--expenses that are ecological (e.g., waste disposal), infrastructural (e.g., roads, communications, electrical power), and transactional (e.g., taxation in exchange for state provision of security, infrastructure, and social services, including education, health, employment and pensions) (Wallerstein 2004).

As capitalism reaches its limits to growth captains of industry can continue to relocate production facilities from urban cores to rural peripheries where costs are lower. , But there are a diminishing number of locales with low ecological standards, cheap raw materials, low taxation levels, modest welfare expectations, and a suitable labor force (cheap, disciplined and skilled). Previously profitable production in China, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan is becoming more expensive. And wages are also going up in Vietnam , Cambodia and Bangla Desh. Due to the export-oriented industrialization in those countries, local workers now expect and demand higher wages, and so earn more. Futher, as these workers access more opportunities for education and employment, and experience a rise of average standards of living, they increasingly decide to have fewer children.

Meanwhile the basic contradictions (or paradoxes or tensions) of capital threaten the perpetuation of the capitalist system. These include the domination of exchange value over use value; financial speculation decoupled from the social value of labor; unresolved tensions that set private property and individual interests against public property and collective interests; the state’s incapacity to mediate these tensions; and capitalists' ongoing, private appropriation of the collective wealth of dispossessed workers, and a general, growing incapacity to slow the redistribution of wealth upwards. At some foreseeable point, previously applied “fixes” will become too costly and politically unacceptable (Harvey 2014). Then only a fundamental transformation or systemic collapse will resolve these contradictions.

The capitalist world-economy –which was itself proceeded by other qualitatively distinct modes of accumulation—is highly unlikely to last forever: Eventually it will evolve into another kind of system, perhaps after some global catastrophy brought on by interimperial rivalry (Patomaki 2008) or ecological disaster or some combination of the two. Given the destructive potential of modern weaponry, such another war among powerful states would likely disintegrate the modern world-system. Aggravated by ecological collapse, it could be a mighty catastrophe from which recovery would be very slow. A happier possibility would be a transformation of existing institutions, granting the global proletariat more rights and providing higher standards of living at the expense of the global capitalist class. But this option may be unlikely, given that the total amount of required resources would be immense, especially during a global economic decline, and especially while rising popular demands might prove impossible to satisfy because of environmental constraints. A more probable future scenario--supported by the long-term trend toward increasing democracy and global state formation—would be the emergence of a democratic global government. A global democracy that represented the interests of the world’s peoples and that required a majority of them to consent regarding major decisions that effect their lives might be successfully promoted by a network of alliances among progressive social movements and political regimes (for example, there have been provocative proposals advanced as alternatives from Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia,Venezuela and South Africa and in many discussions at the World Social Forum (Chase-Dunn et al 2011: 24-25).

A usefull distinction can be made between exploratory and normative forecasts. Exploratory forecasts-- grounded on available data and aiming to analyze future perspectives objectively, in light of known causal interconnections and most feasible outcomes—tend to be reliable for a system that is functioning within known parameters. But in times of systemic chaos, parameters tend to be unpredictable. Then a certain small impetus—particularly at a bifurcation point--becomes more likely to result in systemic change. So the more a system is in chaos, the more relevant normative forecasts--based on agentive social change--become. Such forecasts start from values. They portray a desired vision of a future and seek opportunities to reach it. The transformations can be revolutionary, interstitial (e.g., erecting new structures within the old), or symbiotic with the old system (e.g., social democratic) (Wright 2011: 303-304).

The real utopias approach, elaborated by of Erik Olin Wright, studies and promotes desirable and achievable alternatives to contempory institutional structures that demonstrate the falehood of the claim that there is no alternative to capitalist globalization. Examples range from worker-owned enterprises and crowd funding, to guaranteed basic income and empowered participatory governance (Wright 2011). Wright’s approach complements that of Michael Burawoy’s (2005) promotion of public sociology -- reflexive knowledge for the general public and provision of helpful information to social movements by social scientists who are also social activists .


So what can be concluded regarding the questions we raised about the evolution of geopolitical institutions, imperialism and warfare? We asked whether or not there was ever an age in which competition among polities was completely unmediated by shared cultures? And we wondered whether or not institutions and culture have come to matter more (or less) as polities became more complex and hierarchical. And we also asked whether or not there was a sociocultural evolutionary trend that was (is) analogous to the tendency in biological evolution to transition from predation to parasitism to mutualism in interpolity systems, or do they all operate according to a similar underlying geopolitical logic in which might makes right?

             As we said in the beginning, competition and conflict among groups of organisms are not unique to humans. The ecology of territoriality is an important component of Darwinian selection in biological evolution, and this sometimes involves competition among groups. But in this study we focus mainly on humans who already had language and institutions even when competing groups were very small nomadic foraging bands. So our survey begins with the Paleolithic, the old stone age, when nomadic hunter-gatherer bands were autonomous polities that competed with one another for natural resources. It is clear that geopolitics has always been important, but it has changed its form as polities and relations among them have become more complex and more hierarchical. Geopolitics was already cultural and institutional when societies were very small because the definitions of group membership and of otherness were culturally constructed using a discourse about kinship. The consensual moral order was even more consequential in these small scale systems than it became later, because markets and states that are relatively less dependent on normative consensus had not yet emerged. So the moral order was more important when it was the only institutional game in town. Imperialism, on the other hand, did not exist among very small scale human polities. It emerged and has evolved, taking different predominant forms in different epochs. But it emerged much earlier than is usually supposed by scholars who study states and empires. We found that territoriality and interpolity alliances and enmities were very important in relations among sedentary hunter-gatherer tribelets in precontact Northern California. Interpolity alliances were cemented by reciprocal gift-giving and by marriage alliances in which a head man would marry the daughter of a head man from another polity. Warfare was institutionalized as line and raid wars, but the intensity of warfare was relatively low. Masculine identities were constructed more around the role of hunter than the role of warrior. Though there was competition and conflict among small-scale polities in this system, there was nothing in way of imperialism in which some polities systematically extracted resources or labor from other polities.

            We described a somewhat unusual instance of economic imperialism in the Pacific Northwest where core societies were able to use their surpluses of food to obtain slaves from peripheral societies who exercised coercion on one another in order to obtain war captives for trade. This was an interesting early instance of economic imperialism even in the absence of commodified economic relations or the direct projection of force. We also discussed the importance of demographic power as revealed in the segmentary lineages of the Neur and Dinka pastoralists. This was another instance of prestate imperialism, but one in which, unlike the Pacific Northwest, the Neur core exercised coercion over the Dinka periphery.

Geopolitics and core/periphery exploitation are still important, though the rise of economic power and transnational instutions have altered the way that geopolitics works. The rise of chiefdoms and states led to the invention of new techniques of power that allowed core states to extract resources from distant peoples. This involved institutions that facilitated the extraction of tribute and the control of distant conquered polities. Administrative techniques allowed conquest to evolve from plunder to more sustained exploitation. But empires were still limited by the amount of resistance that was mounted against them. The emergence form the noncore of social movements with universalistic religious ideologies were appropriated by empires to more effectively legitimate their rule. This reduced resistance and made it possible for empires to last longer before they collapsed.

            The emergence of commodified wealth (money), goods, land and labor reduced the importance of conquest as the main mechanism supporting complexity and hieararchy. The semiperipheral capitalist city-states who were the agents of commodification since the Bronze Age eventually produced large-scale regional trade networks. This led to the development of more sophisticated approaches to economic development even within the tributary empires, as kings learned to tax wealthy merchants rather than simply taking their property from them. The capitalist city-states pioneered a new form of imperialism – the colonial empire in which distant colonies were brought under control because of their important role in the provision of raw materials for the production of commodities or to facilitate transportation and communications. During the rise of Europe core states themselves adopted colonial imperialism and the older territorial empires faded away. And then the nature of imperialism changed once again as a result of the waves of decolonization that have occured in the modern world-system. Rather than formal colonialism, a system of unequal exchange is reproduced through the use of hegemonic foreign policy, clientelism and international political and economic institutions. We contend that the hierarchical form that global governance now takes should not be called empire because it relies much more on consent and economic power than most empires did. But a true world empire could emerge in the future if mechanisms of control are further monopolized by a minority that is willing to use them to sustain its privileges. Thus geopolitics and imperialism are still important. An emerging global moral order is also important, but remains in the backround as military/political and, increasingly, economic logics predominate in the contemporary global system.


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[1] Organized warfare and competition for territory first emerged among social insects, especially ants, about 50 million years ago. In an early version of imperialism some ants kill the queen in an invaded colony and substitute their queen for dispatched old queen and thus harness the labor of the invaded colony for raising and feeding the offspring of the invaders. The ant/human comparison reveals a fascinating case of parallel evolution in which rather similar behaviors and social structures emerged by very different processes of selection--Darwinian in the case of insects, cultural in the case of humans (Gowdy and Krall 2015).

[2] Still the best introduction to the world-system approach for the general reader is that by Thomas Richard Shannon (1992). Chase-Dunn and Lerro (2014) have also written a textbook for upper division undergraduates that uses the comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective to tell the story of globalization since the Paleolithic Era.

[3] Use of the word “evolution” still requires explanation. We mean long-term patterned change in social structures, especially the development of complex divisions of labor and hierarchy. We do not mean biological evolution, which is a very different topic, and neither do we mean “progress,” a normative notion that is unnecessary for the scientific study of social change.

[4] We use the term “polity” to generally denote a spatially bounded realm of sovereign authority such as a band, tribe, chiefdom, state or empire. We designate polities as subsystems of world-systems because they are easier to bound spatially than are societies.

[5] The term “settlement” includes camps, hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Settlements are spatially bounded for comparative purposes as the contiguous built-up area.


[6] Warfare sometimes also destroys resources such as irrigation systems and so can also increase population pressure rather than reducing it.

[7] The modern definition of sovereignty as a legal concept emerged in the 16th century European interstate system, but the condition of autonomy obviously existed and was theorized in earlier interpolity systems.

[8] Long-distance diffusion and adoption of new weapon technologies such at the atlatl (spear-thrower) and the bow and arrow increased the efficiency of both hunting and warfare, and once neighbors had adopted these devices the pressure to follow suit was great. Nevertheless the transition from atlatls to bows seems to have occured gradually and unevenly over a period of about 500 years on the American plains, during which both technologies were in use (Tarabek 2013; see also Erlandson, Wats and Jew 2014).

[9] The Modocs, who were neighbors of the Wintu in Northern California, were within the southernmost edge of this network.


[10] When the Maori say ”I ate your grandfather” it is an insult to be sure, but it is also a claim to have appropriated the power of your ancestor.

[11] Though quantitative estimates of scale, such as the territorial sizes of polities, are imperfect as indicators of state formation, it is still useful to examine these because they allow us to compare different regions using the same indicator and to study change over very long periods of time. We can determine which instances were unprecedented increases in scale. These scale upsweeps can be identified once we have fairly frequent estimates of the sizes of largest polities in a region (see Inoue et al 2012). Identifying these cases, which are the events that led to the long-term trend toward larger and larger polities, allows us to test different explanations of state formation. The results so far for twenty-one territorial size upsweeps show that just more than half were caused by conquests made by semiperipheral or peripheral marcher states (Chase-Dunn et al 2015). Most of the others were caused by the internal (within-polity) secular cycles described by Turchin and Nefedov (2009).


[12] We use the term commodity in the Marxist sense of a standardized product that is produced for sale in a price-setting market in order to make profit. So this includes both raw materials and finished luxury goods that were produced for sale.

[13] Of course, these forms of power cannot explain all successful conquests. The principle of semiperipheral development points to the numerous instances in which less centralized and technologically backward polities conquered older core polities to produce unusually large empires. Our study of polity upsweeps shows that more than half of these were the result of conquests by peripheral or semiperipheral marcher states (Chase-Dunn et al 2015).

[14] In ecology the r strategy is pursued by weeds and most fish. They have a large number of offspring and only a few survive. The K strategy, which is better in more stable contexts, involves having only a few offspring spending a large amount of resources on these as the bearers of the genetic future of the parents. Kings could do both by having a legitimate male heir with their primary wife (the queen) and by also having a lot of children with their concubines.

[15] Polygamy is a general term that includes both polygyny (one husband, more than one wife) and polyandry (one wife and more than one husband). Polyandry exists but is very rare. Polygyny was allowed in the majority of human societies. It attained extreme forms in the gigantic harems of kings in ancient and some classical empires (Scheidel 2009b), but has now been replaced by monogamy as the predominant form of marriage.

[16] Modelski and Thompson (1994) point out the importance that the rise of industries that apply new technologies have been in the process of hegemonic rise and fall (what they call the power cycle). New lead industries, such as factory production of cotton textiles in the early 19th century, were important for the growing centrality of the British hegemony in the world economy, but eventually the comparative advantage in a new lead industry declines as competitors emerge abroad. Keeping hegemony means staying ahead of the curve, but this is difficult to sustain so hegemons end up using their centrality in global economic circuits to make profits on financial services rather than production. This sequence describes well both the British and the U.S. hegemonies.