Check the Soil: Agriculture and Democracy

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By Quentin Choy

For one of my college courses on democracy, our assigned reading is The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today by David Stasavage.

Stasavage argues that Athens and Greek democracy is overpraised as the foundation of modern democratic government.

He offers some interesting factors for what contributed to what he calls “early democracy.”

These societies were often ruled by councils, assemblies, or confederations.

Societies like the Huron ruled with confederations and councils.

Societies must be small-scale, and rulers must have a lack of knowledge of what their people produce. This lack of knowledge nullifies the creation of a bureaucratic expert class who can assess productivity and revenue collection from individuals.

Certain democratic rights were granted in societies that often went to war to justify citizens’ entrance into the military.

A balance must also exist between rulers and their people, where people grant a certain degree of consent to be governed.

Perhaps the most interesting argument made by Stasavage on early democracy is that agriculture also plays a role in whether early societies were democratic or autocratic.

The argument goes that societies with highly productive and efficient agricultural systems were more likely to be autocratic, whereas societies with limited or poor agricultural production were more likely to be democracies.

According to Stasavage’s theory, high agricultural production and population caused Aztec society to be more autocratic rather than democratic.

Stasavage paints his argument with broad brushstrokes, but it is interesting to follow.

Some early democracies he uses in his argument include Athens, the Huron along the St. Lawrence River, as well as the Tlaxcala.

If we follow his argument on agriculture, societies that grew to large populations because of productive agriculture required a greater central state and bureaucracy to govern society.

An example he cites is early China with high levels of production along the fertile banks of the Yangtze River. A large bureaucracy arose to accompany a growing population.

The Yangtze River in China.

He also cites the Aztec and Mississippian Cultures including Cahokia, who had highly productive agricultural yields and were far more autocratic than some other societies.

While I’m just starting this book, the concepts of early democracy can be seen in our modern democracies today. Large nations such as China, Russia, and the United States have large central states and bureaucracies behind them.

The United States and other large nations wield powerful central states, bureaucracies, and militaries.

Smaller nations such as those in Central Africa and Oceania can be argued to be more democratic as they have less agricultural production and are smaller in population.

A farm in Namibia.

Stasavage’s argument surely has its limits, but it is definitely an interesting theory to entertain.

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3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This can probably also be connected with the argument that some of the restrictions we see in our culture, such as an oppressive patriarchy and economic inequality, appeared with the rise of agriculture and thus the concept of private property. I’ve heard sociologists argue that those issues were much less present in pre-agricultural nomad cultures.

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