Acemoglu & Robinson in their book The Narrow Corridor use Tiv people as an example of a stateless society.

The statelessness among Tiv was achieved by penalizing or eliminating those who grew successful or powerful enough to become an eventual condensation point for creation of a state. The traditional mechanism for doing so was accusing such people of witchcraft.

This, on one hand, left Tiv without the state and the associated oppression, but, on the other hand, kept them dirt-poor.

That sounds all right on the theoretical level, but what made me really visualize the process was a story about how Shaka Zulu, the builder of the Zulu Kingdom, broke the power of stateless elements in the traditional Zulu society.

When a hammerhead crane flew over his kraal and a porcupine wandered into it, when a crow perched on a fence and began to utter human words he summoned a team of witch doctors led by a woman called Nobela:

The Zulus were lined up and Nobela and here associates began "smelling out" the witches who had brought on the evil omens. They picked on prosperous people. One had grown rich through frugality. Another had put cattle manure on his lands as fertilizer, producing a bountiful harvest much greater than his neighbors'. Yet another was a fine stock breeder who had picked the best bulls and taken great care of his stock and as a result had seen a prodigious expansion of his herds.

Shaka took offense, accused the witch doctors of false accusations and demanded that two of them must die in compensation. The witch doctors panicked and asked Shaka for protection. He agreed, conditional on that they "won't cheat any more". That way he broke the power of the institution of witch doctors.

Zulu kraal

Another interesting data point about stateless societies is this paper by Lowes, Nunn, Robinson and Weigel (yes, the same Robinson as in The Narrow Corridor book).

In turns out that in Congo there is a set of tribes which are ethnically and culturally pretty homogeneous, except that while all of them are historically stateless, one tribe managed to establish a state. The researchers made the people from this area play different economic games and find out that people with a state are less cooperative than stateless people.

This is a single study and may eventually prove to be non-reproducible, but do have a look at the paper: The methodology is pretty rigorous and the experiments are cleverly devised. Moreover, I am inclined to believe the results just because how genuinely confused the researchers seem to be. (They have done the experiment with the expectation that people with the state will be more cooperative.)

The above has challenged my implicit assumption that stateless societies are in the permanent Hobbesian "warre". That they are, basically, failed states.

But from the above it looks like that stateless societies aren't kept around by the failure to coordinate. In fact, they survive by actively cooperating to prevent the hierarchical structures to emerge. From that point of view, it's rather the state that is the result of coordination failure. For whatever reason the traditional mechanisms of coordination suddenly break and the resulting societal collapse is what we refer to as a "state".

In should be said that given how oppressive many early states have been it's hard to blame the Tiv for wanting to avoid it. The approach, interestingly, proved useful also in the colonial era. From Wikipedia:

These socio-political arrangements caused great frustration to British attempts to incorporate the population into Colonial Nigeria and establish an administration on the lower Benue. The strategy of indirect rule, which the British felt to be highly successful in regards to ruling over the Hausa and Fulani populations in Northern Nigeria, was ineffective in a segmentary society like the Tiv. Colonial officers tried various approaches to administration, such as putting the Tiv under the control of the nearby Jukun, and trying to exert control through the councils of elders ("Jir Tamen"); these met with little success.

Now, this may be just a matter of semantics, but I wonder whether we could possibly interpret the results of Lowes & al. study showing that stateless people are more cooperative from this perspective: In the beginning people are behaving fair and cooperating with each other to punish anyone who tries to get an unfair advantage or even exercise power over the others. But then suddenly the society breaks, some people get more powerful, more rich, more oppressive. Others are left behind. It may or may not be that people were often starving before and now everyone is better off, but in either case the sense of fairness is gone. In the new dog-eat-dog society there are no rules. Everyone fights for himself and there's no shame in behaving in an anti-social way.

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Is the primary mechanism by which stateless societies cooperate to prevent unequal distributions of power really just to suppress the innovators? You would think that some tribe would instead consider forcing the innovators to share their methods with everyone else, which would allow everyone to prosper while still preventing anyone from getting too far ahead. I guess punishing the one is easier than educating the many, but I would like to think that humanity could evolve toward doing things the other way around.

I think that's not the way how people instinctively think. Consider following statement: "Wall Street bankers should be stripped of their wealth/heavily taxed/prosecuted." Ignore whether it would be a good policy or not. Still, it's a human way to think and many do adopt that kind of stance. Now consider the opposite: "Wall Street bankers should be forced to share their methods so that everyone can prosper." That's quite an alien approach and one would be hard pressed to find many people who actually think that.

For the psychology behind it consider this article which describes how !Kung people of Kalahari were insulting an ox they were given, calling it a bag of bones and similar. When asked why, they've explained:

Yes, when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle

You would think that some tribe would instead consider forcing the innovators to share their methods with everyone else

Interesting that some states seem to do the opposite of this. (Like with Disney's eternal copyright.)

Is the primary mechanism by which stateless societies cooperate to prevent unequal distributions of power really just to suppress the innovators?

I've seen it used as an example before. I think the reasons are:

a) this book is popular?

b) It's interesting because it's a striking approach. I think it gets mentioned because of the difference, not necessarily the prevalence.

c) Or perhaps that society is closer to us in time, or lasted longer and is easier to study?

d) Maybe its design perhaps helps it last, and maintain stability, at the cost of being a worse approach:

These socio-political arrangements caused great frustration to British attempts to incorporate the population into Colonial Nigeria and establish an administration on the lower Benue. The strategy of indirect rule, which the British felt to be highly successful in regards to ruling over the Hausa and Fulani populations in Northern Nigeria, was ineffective in a segmentary society like the Tiv. Colonial officers tried various approaches to administration, such as putting the Tiv under the control of the nearby Jukun, and trying to exert control through the councils of elders ("Jir Tamen"); these met with little success.

I don't know, frankly. But what I find fascinating is that one finds the tall poppy syndrome in any society. It almost feels like something inherent to human nature. Does it mean that there's something adaptive about it? And if so, are the societies like Tiv just those that that managed to take the full advantage of that potential?

'inherent to human nature'

is it an instinct present in 'feral humans'?

No idea. I was just speculating.

I suspect you'd enjoy The Dawn Of Everything, an anarchist-tinged anthropological survey of the different nonlinear paths stateless societies and state formation have taken. Or, well, it discusses a wide range of related topics, with lots of creativity and decent enough rigor. I haven't finished yet.

I do agree that states can be seen as a game-theoretic trap, though. Once you have some centralized social violence or institutional monopoly on power, for a huge range of goals the easiest way to achieve them becomes "get the state/king/local bigwig on your side to impose what you want." Not direct problem-solving or building up consensus. Just fighting over control of the leviathan, powerful but blunt and low-bandwidth. So in that sense, it's pretty useful to have robust norms curbing power imbalances before they reach that tipping point.

I believe the book is rather fresh, haven't read it yet. But reading Graeber was always fun and thought-provoking, I've even exchanged few emails with him back when it was still possible. On the rigor side though I am not that convinced :)

I highly recommend the dawn of everything as well. It is probably the most recent, up to date book on stateless societies. 

Why do you have a problem with 'rigor' side in his books?

I haven't seen the latest book, but the older ones I've seen were written in the traditional anthropological way, mostly as collections of anecdata. That's not an objection specifically against Graeber. Anthropology was always done that way. But rigor-wise it doesn't compare to more modern stuff, like, say, Joe Henrich.

In this one there is plenty of archeological evidence as it is co-authored by D.Wengrow who is a Professor of Comparative Archaeology.

I believe Graeber could benefit from a more insistent editor. His writing sometimes seems like ‘stream of consciousness’ and outside of the constraints of academic distinction.

On the other hand, his work and ideas circulate well beyond the discipline or anthropology and well beyond academia which allowed him to write in his own way I guess.

I don't think the conclusion "stateless societies are not in a Hobbesian state of constant war" is warranted here. With stateless societies or those in a weak state, the war isn't between members of the group/family/clan/tribe. It's between different groups. Within a group people are still subject to rules, sanctions for bad behaviour etc...

Sounds related to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Boehm 's reverse-dominance hierarchy (paper).

In turns out that in Congo there is a set of tribes

Is this the Tiv, or a different society?

A different one. Tiv live in Nigeria, the study was conducted in DRC.

Typo: "accused the which doctors", which > witch.

The typo still exists two times.

I enjoyed this post. Thanks.

Re. the question where and why the governance pattern transitioned from stateless to hierarchical. This has been traditionally placed into times and places when foragers (hunter-gatherers) became farmers. There is a more modern school of thought that places the transition into locations abundant with natural resources, for example along the salmon-rich rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Canadian anthropologist Hayden is one of the proponents of the idea. See for example here:

Hayden, B., 2011. Big Man, Big Heart? The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230116269_7

An interesting aspect of the stateless societies from the modern economics point of view is the observation that exceptional producers of resources (like a talented hunter) would continue to asymmetrically provide resources to the group, regardless of the group members not being ever able to reciprocate in kind. There are a bunch of theories why this behavior is stable, but I like the one which argues that reciprocity in fact exists in this case also, but the talented hunter gets a non-monetary, psychological reward (reputation) instead.

I think you may be interested in this, it looks into stateless cities around Dnieper Rivers, Ukraine, dating back to 4000 BC. 

I find this very mind opening because the Ukrainian findings which are critical in understanding our past were inaccessible to western scholars for decades.

 

The researchers made the people from this area play different economic games and find out that people with a state are less cooperative than stateless people.

[...]

In the new dog-eat-dog society there are no rules. Everyone fights for himself and there's no shame in behaving in an anti-social way.

Did they control for the size of the village? I'd have thought a smaller village is naturally going to be more cooperative, since they're ingrained with social norms that lean on the fact that everyone knows everyone. E.g. if you screw someone over, then you can't "escape" that reputational damage by moving to a different group of friends - everyone knows what you did. As societies get bigger they can't lean on those benefits of culture as much, so they need to move to a "trustless" model - i.e. lots of laws, formal procedures, etc.

IIRC, the study was done on people living in a nearby big city, but originally coming from the respective region.