Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | February 21, 2008

Boundaries and Gellner’s Foragia, agraria and industria


Philosopher Gellner divided the human history into three major stages: foragia, agraria, and industria (Gellner 1964, 1983, 1988a, b in O’Leary et al. 2001: 16). His logical evolution of human society is going from primitive – foragia, to more complex societal systems – agraria and industria.

‘Foragia is a state-free zone, both in space and time. Hunters and gatherers and nomads do not require statal organisation…. arbitration is performed by holy men rather than governors’ (Gellner 1969 in O’Leary at al. 2001: 16). ‘Foragers are not easily taxed; their mobility and lack of fixed properties make them free. Foraging collectors are, at least potentially, pacific; nomads, however, are more likely to be thieves and thugs. In a solely foragian world nomads recognize prey and roam through landscapes, but they do not have political borders. … Likewise, hunters and gatherers slash, burn, and roam, but do not settle permanently, and do not have territories or borders in our senses – though they may confine their slashing, burning, and roaming to specific ‘‘natural” locations’ (O’ Leary et al. 2001: 16)

Agraria, unlike foragia, already possesses somewhat ‘statal characteristics’. Urbanized populations settled, city-states, beside great rivers are under constant threat of conquest by militarized nomads (O’Leary et al. 2001: 17-18). ‘The major form of production, agriculture, creates fixed investment in fertile land that can be captured.

O’Leary suggests that agraria, unlike egalitarian foragia, is ‘caste-ridden’. ‘… [Gellner’s] ‘‘agro-literate empire”, is significantly assisted by its most important cognitive techniques, writing and counting, monopolized by castes of specialists. Agraria is in this respect, and many others, profoundly inegalitarian; and made so by scarce surplus of extractable resources, and by pervasive lack of (social) cognitive power on the part of most of its populations. It is typically severely caste-ridden: people are hunted and gathered, shepherded and ‘‘domesticated”, ranked and sorted, generally tied to the land by force and dependency, and, not least, by ignorance’ (O’Leary at al. 2001: 17). ‘The typical agro-literate empire had external frontiers, not borders in our sense…. It is most sharply delineated political borders were internal: structured by past conquest and fiscal imperatives’ (O’Leary at al. 2001: 17).

Industria looks like a ‘happy end’, the long awaited paradise, with almost everything being perfect, at least, to compare with previous stages of human history. ‘Industrian’ people, according to O’Leary (2001: 20), ‘have escaped the Malthusian trap’. ‘Its most fortunate – liberal democratic welfare capitalist – peoples continue to experience sustained economic growth across generations, cumulative and positive-sum growth. Wealth no longer lies primarily in land or landed serfs, slaves, and debtors. Wealth is capital, produced in goods and services – increasingly in weightless and invisible media – produced by literate and numerate urban peoples, engaged in an exceedingly complex division of labour. These people are culturally homogenized’ (O’Leary at al. 2001: 20-21).

Modern borders, resembling a line are created by ‘great powers, genocidal officials, ethnic cleansers, and coercive assimilationists’ (O’Leary at al. 2001: 21). Industria is both statal and national (O’Leary at al. 2001: 21). Agrarians, on the contrary, ‘expressed and recognized their identities in their social status. They were not co-nationals’ (O’Leary at al. 2001: 21). Co-nationalism, O’Leary argues, ‘requires egalitarianism of industria’. ‘A nationality must not only be conscious of itself from others, ought to be a political one – that the boundaries of nationality should also be the borders of the state or a political unit, and, above all, that at least some of the rulers of the state should be of the same nationality as the ruled. Foreigners are generally unwelcome – though calibrated immigration programmes are possible and widespread’ (O’Leary at al. 2001: 21).

O’Leary repeatedly agrees with Rummel (1997 (1994) in O’Leary 2001: 6, 21) that the modern states ‘have been the greatest terrorists and mass-killers in human history’. In a footnote O’Leary argues, that ‘no barbarians, not even Genghis Khan and his hordes, are guilty of the magnitude of mass murder of modern state-killers’ (ibid. 21).  He reminds us that Rummel names Soviet Union, Communist China, Nazi Germany, and the Kuomintang Chinese regime as ‘dekamegamurderes’ (ibid 21).

Industria has sharp territorial shape. ‘Modern states have borders – precise cartographically represented lines, entrenched in bilateral and multilateral treaties, which specifically demarcate their territories from those of other states. Sometimes these cartographic statements are physically expressed in electric fences and walls, but they are more often signified by border posts and patrols on land, at sea, and in the air. By contrast, pre-modern, or pre-statal systems had ‘frontiers, that is, their cores were surrounded by military zones in which they disputed and faced the enemy. Frontiers were zones of conflict rather than demarcated lines or borders’ (O’Leary at al. 2001: 22).


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