Friday, 4 September 2009

Revised: Pierre van den Berghe on dominance and hierarchy in ethnic relations

Although published first in 1981, The Ethnic Phenomenon by Pierre L. van den Berghe remains a standard work on ethnic relations and its theory underpins a more recent work popular with nationalists, Frank Salter’s On Genetic Interests.

In On Genetic Interests (2007 edition) Salter wrote:

Pierre van den Berghe … implied the existence of ethnic genetic interests in his analysis of family systems. ‘[R]eproduction is almost always a bad economic bargain for parents. Consequently, there must be more in it for them, and that “more” is, of course, fitness.’ In his classic 1981 sociobiological analysis of ethnicity, The Ethnic Phenomenon, van den Berghe argued that ethnic groups constitute extended families, both subjectively in the perception of their members and objectively in the genetic commonality produced by common descent. Since in his view ethnies are large families, van den Berghe’s theory implies that they represent a store of their members’ distinctive genes. [p.40]

It was Salter’s achievement to quantify the individual’s genetic interest in the extended family that is his ethnic group. For example:

Ethnies are indeed super families as van den Berghe argued. Although being more dilute stores of genetic interest than families, ethnies can number in the millions and so are often orders of magnitude more precious. If immigrants replaced one quarter of the English nation of approximately 50 million people, the remainder would suffer a very large loss even if their own relatives were not affected. If 12.5 million Danes and similar peoples moved to England, the genetic loss to the remaining English would be the equivalent of 209,000 children. The corresponding loss due to the same number of immigrants from India would be 2.6 million children, and due to Bantus over 13 million children. [p.67]

Now, back to The Ethnic Phenomenon, specifically chapter 4, ‘Ethnicity and Coercion: The Politics of Hierarchy’ in which van den Berghe describes the normative processes of group hierarchies and ethnicity’s relation to the state. This is interesting because it shows how unprecedented is the situation of today’s Western majorities: numerically dominant but politically powerless and somehow feeling compelled to accept/welcome our dispossession.

By Pierre L. van den Berghe, The Ethnic Phenomenon (Praeger, New York, 1987)


Coercion and its resulting hierarchies are not unique to humans. Many social animals establish what ethologists call “hierarchies,” “dominance orders” or, in birds, “pecking orders.” There is considerable discussion among students of animal behavior about the nature of hierarchy. Some animals establish linear hierarchies; others do not. In some species, there are separate male and female hierarchies; in others, the order of dominance varies depending on the resource competed for; in others yet, an animal’s condition (e.g. oestrus and lactation) changes its relative position. There is much disagreement on how best to measure hierarchy, or on whether hierarchy is a unidimensional concept. Many ethologists measure hierarchy, indeed define hierarchy, as order of access to resources, especially food or, for males, receptive females; yet others focus on rituals of submission and dominance (which, among many primates, frequently take pseudosexual forms such as mounting or presenting the genitalia); some stress “displacement behavior” (i.e. the yielding space to an approaching animal); some insist that, among primates, “attention structure” (who pays attention to whom) is crucial.

Underlying all these interesting disagreements, differences of emphasis and fine points of methodology and measurement, however, students of animal behavior broadly agree that dominance or hierarchy is a concept abstracted from the observation of animals competing for access to resources. In the last analysis, what defines the hierarchy of a group is an order of access to resources. The master paradigm explaining how resources are distributed in a social group is, again, maximization of individual inclusive fitness. The strongest do not always get all; in fact, they seldom do. Animals predisposed to eat their helpless young, for instance, would not reproduce successfully! Yet there clearly is an important element of coercion, or the threat thereof, in the establishment, maintenance and challenge of hierarchies. Outside of the context of kin selection (especially parental care) and reciprocity (especially between mated reproductive adults) animals maximize their fitness by outcompeting others for resources, directly or indirectly. Speed and deceit play a role in that contest, but coercion, i.e. the use of force or the threat thereof, is the main method by which dominance is exerted, maintained and indeed challenged.

Indeed, it is safe to generalize that there is no hierarchy without underlying coercion. Coercion is the use of force or its threat to increase the fitness of the dominant animal at the expense of subordinate ones. The more or less stable result of their multiple contests over resources is what we call the dominance order of a group of social animals.


Complex as dominance is among nonhuman animals, it is nothing compared to what hierarchy has become in the human societies of the last few millenia. Human hierarchies are vastly more complex than anything found in other species because of the following:

1) Humans form not only individual dominance hierarchies, as do other animals, but also establish group hierarchies. So far, nothing beyond small, unstable coalitions of two or three individuals has been found in the more intelligent nonhuman mammals such as baboons. Only human societies are organized on the basis of stable group hierarchies and, even in our species, this is a relatively recent development of the last few millenia.

2) Humans have the capacity to magnify, indeed to reverse, through an increasingly lethal technology of violence, biological inequalities of strength or intelligence between individuals. Biological differences of strength based on age and sex still explain human dominance orders within small groups, such as families or gangs, but human group-based hierarchies are explainable almost entirely in terms of social organization of the technology of violence. Socially oppressed groups are not necessarily made up of weaker or dumber individuals. Indeed, typically they are not. Instead, they are composed of individuals who owe their inferior position to technological and/or organizational inferiority in using the means of violence.

3. The human capacity for conscious deceit (through ideology, inter alia) further enhances our species' capacity for group inequality beyond anything known in other species. Human systems of group inequality, especially the ones perpetuated by all large, centralized states, are almost invariably bolstered by an ideology that disguises the parasitism of the ruling class as either kin selection or reciprocity. Subjects are told that they are ruled (i.e. exploited) in their own best interests, either by a benevolent despot who claims some kind of fatherly interest in them and who supposedly saves them from their own greed and ineptitude, or through a supposedly freely entered social contract wherein the rulers are held to be chosen representatives and servants of the people entrusted with promoting the common good and arbitrating and regulating individual conflicts of interest.

The first type of ideology used to legitimize the status quo - paternalism - is the most common one in pre-industrial societies. It has been repeatedly reinvented in countless monarchies of Europe, Asia and Africa, in defense of colonialism and chattel slavery in the Americas and Africa - indeed almost everywhere powerful agrarian states developed. The second and more recent justification for tyranny and exploitation - often misnamed “democracy,” either of the liberal or of the socialist “people’s” variety - is characteristic of industrial societies since the French Revolution.

This is not the place to trace the development and analyze the operation of complex systems of group coercion and exploitation in human societies, as that would take us too far afield. I shall largely confine my remarks to tracing the relationship of group coercion to ethnic relations. Nevertheless a few preliminary observations are in order:

1) Group stratification is a relatively recent phenomenon in human evolution: it accompanied the so-called Neolithic Revolution, that is, the domestication of plants and animals that greatly increased human population density, led to sedentarization into more permanent settlements and made possible the accumulation (and, hence, the appropriation) of surplus production.

2) Group stratification co-evolved with the state. The essence of the state is intraspecific - indeed, intrasocietal parasitism. The state is the coercive apparatus used by the few to exploit the many. The state is, in fact, the ruling class organized to extract surplus production through the use of deceit or violence or the threat thereof. By parasitizing the exploited classes through control of labor and its products (forced labor, slavery, taxation), members of the parasitic class convert, in effect, organized coercion into higher fitness for themselves at the expense of the exploited. Plunder and predation between human societies existed long before the rise of states. With the emergence of the state, however, parasitism was extended within societies.

3) Ideology will be treated as a form of organized, collective deceit whereby parasitism is disguised-usually as either kin selection or reciprocity. To say that ideology reflects class interests is not to say that it is unimportant. Some forms of deceit are successful - successful, that is, in terms of consequences for fitness - and are therefore important.

The reader will readily see that the above formulations on the nature of the state, stratification and ideology, while formulated within the general paradigm of maximization of individual inclusive fitness, is fully congruent with Marxist class analysis and, indeed, owes a great deal to it.


Innumerable authors have stressed the fundamental distinction between nation-states and multinational states. Certainly many of the key words used by social scientists in the analysis of domestic and “international” politics rely implicitly or explicitly on that distinction: state, nation, nation-state, nationality, nationalism, subnationalism, communalism, internationalism, tribe, tribalism, ethnicity, colonialism, imperialism, plural society, multiethnic state, multinational state, ethnic nationalism and so on. Yet the literature on these subjects is so hopelessly muddied by inconsistent and, indeed, blatantly conflicting usages of these terms that the urge to create neologisms is almost irresistible. In an effort to clarify the muddle without introducing new terms, I shall set forth a few straightforward definitions.

A state is a collectivity headed by a group of people who exercise power over others (who are neither kinsmen nor spouses), in order to extract surplus production for their own individual and collective benefit.

A nation is a politically conscious ethny, that is, an ethny that claims the right to statehood by virtue of being an ethny. Such a ideology is called nationalism.

A nation-state is a state made up almost exclusively of a single nation.

A multinational state is a state made up of two or more nations.

A multiethnic state is a state made up of two or more ethnies that do not claim statehood.

Imperialism is the domination of one or more ethnies over others. Colonialism is long-distance imperialism, usually over noncontiguous territory and over culturally unrelated ethnies.

These simple definitions may not solve all problems, but at least they eliminate much of the needless confusion that arose from such careless usage as calling multinational states like Nigeria, Za'ire or India “nation-states.” If “nation-state” is to be used synonymously with “state,” then the term is superfluous. Similarly, “ethnic nationalism,” by our definition, is a redundancy. Terms like “tribe” and “tribalism” become altogether superfluous since they really mean “nation” and “nationalism” and are used mostly invidiously to refer to Africans. (Why should the Hausa or the Zulu be tribes, but not Danes or French Canadians?)

Now let us return to the distinction between state and nation. Why is it important? At the outset, it is obvious that the two are far from being coterminous, despite the pious fictions of international conferences where delegates pretend that all states are “United Nations.” We know better, of course. Only about 10% of the “United Nations’ ” 150-odd states are genuine nations or at least come close to it by the criterion of having 90% or more of their population speaking mutually understandable dialects of the same language. The remaining 90% are multinational or multi ethnic states, some of which may still hope to become nation-states, but many of which do not even try or have long since given up the attempt.

Conversely, many nations are divided between several states and may thus be called multistatal nations: Kurds, Armenians, Germans, Basques, Koreans, Yorubas and Ewes, to mention but a few examples on three continents. The extent to which these multistatal nations are nationalist and irredentist varies enormously - both from place to place and cyclically. Nationalist movements are volatile and highly responsive to historical opportunities such as wars, revolutions and the breakdown of imperial systems.

One thing is clear: the real nation-state is a rare entity. But, rare though it is, it seems to be seductively attractive as a basis of political organization. Much bloodshed has accompanied the efforts to create nation-states. In every age since the recorded history of states, nationalism has inspired masses of people to veritable orgies of emotion and violence. Nationalist conflicts are among the most intractable and unamenable to reason and compromise. The problems of political integration and legitimacy, while present to some extent in all states, are compounded in multinational states. In short, it seems that a great many people care passionately whether they are ruled and exploited by members of their own ethny or by foreigners. Where many grudgingly put up with the former, they lose little opportunity to rebel against the latter. Why?

On the face of it, it should make little difference whether one is fleeced by people who speak one's own language or a foreign tongue. Yet, it clearly does make an important difference - often the difference between passive, reluctant acquiescence and sometimes suicidal rebellion. I have already suggested the answer as to why the nation-state is a more viable political entity than the multinational state. The nation-state is legitimated by kin selection - the most fundamental basis of animal sociality. Conversely, that basis of legitimacy is not available to the multinational state. Queen Victoria could cut a motherly figure in England; she even managed to proclaim her son the Prince of Wales; but she could never hope to become anything except a foreign ruler of India. Similarly, the fiction that the Emperor of Japan is the head of the most senior lineage descended from the common ancestor of all Japanese might convince the Japanese peasant that the Emperor is an exalted cousin of his, but the myth lacks credibility in Korea or Taiwan.


Before looking at the systems of ethnic domination imposed on multinational states, let us look more closely at the emergence of the nation-state and at the legitimation of rule in the nation-state. There are basically two ways in which primary states are formed: externally through conquest and internally through centralization of power.* That is, an ethny can conquer its neighbors, impose itself as a ruling class over them and thus create a multi ethnic state. Alternatively, within an ethny, an individual or group can gradually assert authority over the rest of the ethny, thus giving rise to a nation-state. Though the two processes are distinct, they are often complementary. Centralization of power within the ethny, as it typically gives rise to a more cohesive political and military organization, often facilitates enlargement by conquest. Conversely, if the fruits of conquest are to be reaped, the conquering group must develop a system of permanent domination, and this fosters the development of centralized power within the conquering group. In practice, then, states are typically seen to emerge out of a double process of external conquest and internal centralization of power.

*Secondary states can be formed from existing states through secession. of course.

When political (and, indeed, other social) scientists think of nation-states, they generally tend to project the European experience since the Renaissance. This is unfortunate since nearly all European states for the last 2000 years or so are secondary formations that fragmented or emerged from previously existing states. Many European states, including some comparatively small ones (e.g. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and Switzerland), are multinational states - not nation-states. As for those European states that come close to being real nations, they were created either through the political and military consolidation of multi-statal nations (e.g. Germany and Italy in the 19th century) or through the disintegration of multinational empires (e.g. The Netherlands in the 16th century, Poland, and Hungary and, briefly, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in the 20th century). In both cases, the nation and the state had coexisted for centuries, but they were not coextensive. Either the nation was split up into a multiplicity of squabbling statelets (as in Germany, Italy and, earlier, France) or a multiplicity of captive nations were ruled by large empires dominated by one or more ethnic groups (such as Austria-Hungary, Russia, Ottoman Turkey and Spain).

Except for Switzerland, a loose confederation that grew from within over the last seven centuries, and a few statelets left over from the Middle Ages like Monaco, Andorra and San Marino, all contemporary European states emerged as complex bureaucratic machines from other complex states. Belgium, for instance, a relatively new state born in 1830 out of the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire and the shambles of the Congress of Vienna, was, from the outset, a full-blown, modern, bureaucratic state (but not a nation), and in barely over half a century, it launched on a vast colonial adventure in the Congo.

Clearly, then, Europe in recent centuries is a poor exemplar of either the nation-state or, much less, of how nation-states first developed out of state¬less societies. Africa, which until recently still had many stateless societies and where a number of states had recently emerged or were emerging at the time of the European conquest, is much more instructive in this respect. States start in agricultural and/or pastoralist societies, usually from modest and inconspicuous beginnings, at the village level. Indeed, the core unit around which state institutions slowly emerge is typically small enough to be a sub-ethny, a single local community within an ethny. Certain basic conditions have to be present before a state can emerge: sedentary villages, agriculture and/or livestock raising, some storable surplus production, and the beginnings of inequality in status and access to resources between adult men.

From these general background conditions characteristic of many tropical horticulturalists, the embryonic state typically develops around village chieftaincy. An individual, because of luck, skill, political acumen, manipulation of religious functions or simply the help of a large group of kinsmen, begins to assert his authority and to claim privileges over villagers other than his wives or junior kinsmen over whom his domestic authority would extend in any case. The germ of chieftaincy is thus the assertion of authority and privilege beyond the domestic sphere of marriage and kinship relations that characterize all human societies, including stateless ones, and which are based principally on sex and seniority. If an individual claims and is granted authority over people who are not related to him by blood or marriage, that group has an embryonic state.

The specific bases of chieftaincy vary somewhat from society to society, but the basic ingredients of it are few and repeatedly found. One is religious charisma, as noted long ago by a number of social scientists. A person acquires power by performing religious functions and by claiming special powers of healing, divination or witchcraft. Theocracies and divine kingships are very common. Indeed, the notion of totally secularized power is quite recent (barely 200 or so years old) and, even today, seldom realized in practice. The king is typically a priest (and magician as well) and his power hinges on the gift of grace and the magical properties (especially fecundity) attributed to him. Monarchical power rests almost invariably on a basis of religious ideology. When that basis of legitimacy is extended from an individual to his kin and is hereditarily transmitted, then a clear transition occurs from incipient chieftaincy to an established monarchy.

Another frequent component of incipient chieftaincy is the principle of seniority inherent in kinship organization. This is especially effective in unilineal descent societies (either patrilineal or matrilineal) in which one line of descent (male or female) is stressed, thereby giving rise to large, cohesive kin groups, known as lineages and clans. In nearly all human societies, authority over kin is allocated on the basis of seniority (often qualified by mental competence). A man has authority over his junior relatives. If a lineage is numerically important in a village, its head obviously has a political advantage over heads of smaller lineages and may use that advantage to extend his authority over them. This extension of authority over nonkin often becomes institutionized through a claim (often mythical) that a particular clan or lineage is collectively senior to other clans and lineages - for example, by representing the descent line of the eldest son of the mythical founding ancestor. When the principle of seniority is extended from individuals to descent groups, the kinsmen of the chief automatically acquire an aura of superiority; they begin to constitute a royal clan on which the power of the king rests and from which his successor will be chosen.

A third common, indeed practically universal, feature of emergent chieftaincy is polygyny. Polygyny is also found, on a limited scale, in stateless societies, but the scope of it is greatly extended in politically centralized societies. One of the very first privileges and benefits accruing from political power is access to reproductive women. This occurs long before marked differences in lifestyle, diet, dress, consumption, housing and so on develop between rulers and ruled. Even in small-scale village-level societies where the chief lives much like everyone else, he already has more wives. Power, in short, is immediately converted into fitness, i.e. reproductive success.

Since political power is predominantly wielded by men, our discussion of it is in the male gender. But it must be noted here that there is a simple biological reason why polygamy is a uniquely male reward of power. A man can greatly increase his fitness by having several wives; a woman does not derive a comparable advantage by being polyandrous.

Polygyny, and thereby reproductive success, is not merely a reward of power. It is also a means of consolidating and perpetuating it. This is done in two ways: first, by producing more kinsmen and thus enlarging the size of one’s kin group and, second, by establishing ties of alliance and reciprocity with other kin groups through marrying off one's daughters to other groups and taking wives from other groups. The king, through matrimonial politics, can thus easily become father-in-law, son-in-law or brother-in-law to many of his subjects and be at the hub of a network of matrimonial alliances. Indeed, fertility is frequently associated with kingship. The king is expected to have many children, and his powers of fertility are, by extension, assumed to be magically related with the well-being of the nation, so that his continued potency is a prequisite to his retention of political office. Regicide of aging kings is a common feature of many monarchies.

Since the setting within which states emerge is typically a sedentary agricultural village, the state originally encompasses a single ethny or, indeed, only a section thereof. Ethnic homogeneity is, of course, one of the facilitating conditions in the emergence of states. To the extent that the ethny or subethny is already conceived of as an extended kin group, chieftaincy itself is seen as a mere extension of the preexisting authority structure within the corporate kin group. The village chief is not yet an exploiter: he is merely a primus inter pares among lineage or family heads - a kind of superfather of a superfamily. At that embryonic level, there is not yet a clear stratification between rulers and ruled, although many such societies already have one variety or other of domestic slavery. There is not yet any systematic exploitation (except of slaves who are generally outsiders), not any taxation, not any appropriation of surplus production by the few, and not any evident signs of wealth, status and hierarchy between free men. The chief is still mainly an influential leader, a mediator and an adviser, rather than a boss, a judge or a policeman. His authority is still bound by custom and relies on consent rather than coercion.

This embryonic state of affairs can last a long time if there are no strong pressures toward further centralization of power (such as endemic warfare sometimes fosters), and if the system of production limits the amount of storable surplus and thus the exploitability of human labor. Where wealth is created in substantial, storable and stealable quantities (which can happen in pastoralist societies and in the more intensive forms of tropical horticulture), states can develop, consolidate and expand quite rapidly. Villages on the road to chieftaincy often have an organizational advantage in warfare and can thus establish hegemony over neighboring communities, giving rise to loose confederations of villages. At this level, we are still typically within the confines of a single ethny. We are witnessing in fact the birth of a nation-¬state.

Loose village confederacies headed by a nominal priest-chief can in turn coalesce into a full-blown statelet headed by a real king with executive powers of life and death, and with a retinue of wives, relatives, courtiers, appointed officials and bodyguards. His powers may still be limited by custom and checked by a council of elders, but he is now a genuine monarch who gives orders, passes judgement, distributes rewards and punishments, accepts and collects tribute. In short, the king now exercizes a definite amount of coercion, derives direct material benefits from his rule and relies on a circle of supporters who constitute the germ of a ruling class and who are the beneficiaries of the king’s favors.

So long as all this takes place within the ethny, the problems of legitimacy are still mitigated by an ideology of extended kin selection. The growth of national consciousness that accompanies this process of political centralization is usually fostered by a myth of common origin in which the king is the living head of the royal clan, which, in turn, is only one branch of the descendants of the common ancestor.

The ideology of kingship is one of extended kinship. The king is a paternal figure, a superfather of a superfamily, tied to his subjects by multiple bonds of blood and marriage. He is, in fact, often looked upon as the living symbol of the nation, the embodiment of its collective spirit, the last incarnation of the common ancestor and the symbolic father of the nation. Kingship is merely the political expression of the nation. With even considerably more justification than Louis XIV, the king can truly say, L’etat c’est moi or, better yet, La nation c’est moi.

Because of its ready-made ideology of extended kinship, the ethny is, one might say, the natural matrix of the nascent state. Political institutions of kingship find a ready justification so long as they grow within the confines of a pre-existing ethny. An embryonic state can extend without much difficulty to the outer boundaries of the ethny and assimilate neighboring groups that speak mutually understandable dialects, share similar traditions and see each other as, somehow, related. However, where conquest crosses an ethnic boundary (that is when the state becomes multinational), a whole new order of problems of legitimacy arises, and a set of important thresholds are crossed. The multi ethnic or multinational state is a qualitatively different entity from the nation-state. It necessarily grows out of external conquest; it lacks prima facie legitimacy; it rests on naked coercion; it results in a sharp group hierarchy; and it leads to visible and resented exploitation by foreigners. While, in the nation-state, coercion and exploitation are both blunted and concealed by the pre-existing ideology of extended kinship that underlies the concept of ethny and nation, the multiethnic state stands naked as the instrument of the ruling group, typically the conquering ethnic group as a whole, or a smaller group drawn overwhelmingly from it.

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