Inverse-Weber in the Atlas  
Friday, March 29, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

We have been reading and thinking about the traditional political institutions of the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

A key idea in Why Nations Fail is that one of the pre-requisites for inclusive economic institutions is to have an effective state, what we called “political centralization”.

According to traditional anthropology, the Berbers did not have a state. They were a segmentary lineage society and in the famous taxonomy of Edward Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes’s 1940 book African Political Systems, this was a stateless society. Instead they had the Saints, religious figures who mediated disputes and even oversaw the election of the holders of secular political office. The Saints ruled over a society divided into lineages and clans, groups of extended families.

But if we want to look at the closest thing that Berber society has to a state, it would be the Saints. If we thought of it in this way it would feature a peculiar inversion of Weber’s notion of a state. Weber argued that a state was the entity that exercised the legitimate use of violence in society. Yet the Saints had no coercive capacity; their authority relied on not having such capacity. They were revered for their peacefulness. Rather, it was the lineages and clans that had the legitimate use of violence, not the state. Thus if one argued that the Berber’s had a state, it would be characterized by the opposite of what Weber argued a state was, maybe an “Inverse Weberian State”.

This fact was pointed out by the social anthropologist Ernest Gellner in his seminal ethnography of the Berbers Saints of the Atlas. Gellner noted (p. 65):

It is curious to reflect that this hagiarchy inverts Max Weber’s famous definition of the state: here we have a state, if we were to class it as such, in which it is the subjects who have the monopoly of legitimate violence, and the rulers ere ex officio excluded from employing force.”

Now of course one could say that this is irrelevant because the Berbers did not have a state. So why all this pedantry?

Because, as we will see over the next few posts, it is arguable that Weber’s and Evans-Pritchard and Fortes’s analysis wasn’t quite on target: they had in mind a particularly Eurasian model of state formation and what characterized statehood. When they ran into other social organizations that looked different, they decided that they were not states. But as we will see, the type of “state” that the Berbers had is quite common in the modern world. Indeed, this is more or less what Lebanon looks like today.

And who could argue that Lebanon does not have a state?

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.