New working paper alert: Tubers and its Role in Historic Political Fragmentation in Africa by myself @nonso2. Link: https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/113201/ What do tubers have to do with politics and political organization? A simplification.
Modern societies are organized in variants of this basic structure: People live in a country (the state) & are governed by some type of political structure. The structure funds itself by extracting value from people via taxes (mostly) & in exchange deliver some public goods.
Finance and money make this relatively easy nowadays (at least for some countries 😊). Whatever value is created is monetized and a share of that value is collected as taxes, and then used to administer the state.
However, imagine a hypothetical society 1000 years ago without money or finance, and mostly engaged in agriculture. Taxation and the functioning or existence of the state becomes more complicated. For the state to exist it needs to be able to extract value in some way.
As it turns out, what people choose to grow matters for the capacity of any structure to extract value. For instance, Scott in “Against the grain” argues that the emergence of states in Mesopotamia could not have happened w/out cereals & the relative ease of appropriability.
Mayshar et al provided evidence in the JPE earlier this year, that historically, groups that cultivated cereals were more likely to have more centralized states. This, they argue, is driven by the relative ease with which cereals could be appropriated and accumulated.
The question, however, is what happens to groups that don’t produce cereals? Do they just not develop centralized states? Or do they develop other types of political structures? In this paper, I argue that tuber cultivators instead move along a different political trajectory.
Summary: if surpluses -> power and surpluses are difficult to appropriate, then surpluses, and power, remain local. Even at the local level, since the surpluses & power, are difficult to appropriate, they remain distributed within local communities a.k.a. fragmentation.
I demonstrate this by first showing that tubers were not disadvantaged in their capacity to produce surpluses, or in supporting large populations. Indeed, more than half of the most densely populated groups were tuber cultivators.
Secondly, using Murdock’s ethnographic atlas and the SCCS, I show that tuber cultivators were more likely to have high level of political fragmentation, defined as the number of distinct groups in villages and town with some political authority.
I use a combination of the proximity to the likely location of the domestication of yams and the environmental conditions that define the potential caloric yield of yams vs cereals to identify the effect of tuber cultivation on fragmentation.
Of course, nowadays there is money and finance and almost every economic activity can be appropriated or taxed in the same way. So why does this historical relationship still matter? My answer is social norms.
I show that currently individuals who identify with tuber-cultivating groups are more likely to reject the accumulation of power by singular authorities, specifically, one-party rule, military rule, or rule by one man. No word on if they were likely to reject consensus.
These social norms continue to define the way in which people engage with the state, government, and politics. Anyway, this is a working paper and (emailed) comments and suggestions are welcome.