With a combination of social initiative and the staying power of big organisations, we might yet become better equipped to deal with our problems. (Credit: Sona Manukyan/Flickr)

This report might seem unusual in historical scope and daring in its arguments. The hope is to provoke a reasoned discussion about our world system’s present and near future. In turn, this requires serious theoretical foundations in order to establish and evaluate the hypothesis. I maintain that such foundations can be discovered in the historical reconstruction of social evolution, by which I mean very long-term social evolution, from the origins of human species to the present and the future. This is not an abstract exercise. The evolutionary logic currently being discovered by the joint efforts of numerous researchers at the turn of the twenty-first century sheds light on the origins of inequality and social power in human societies. Furthermore, rational knowledge concerning power and inequality is itself a critically necessary condition for purposeful change.

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In the years after 1945, post-war reconstruction mightily boosted modern intellectual ambitions to scientifically explain patterns of human societies, from both the beginnings of history and projecting forwards into the future. The departure point was perhaps the new grave awareness of threats to life due to the fascist exterminationism of the recent past and the looming possibilities of nuclear war and global environmental disasters. The fears, however, were outweighed by tremendous optimism and the ‘can do’ spirit of the age. The universal expectation of renewed progress was supported by victory in 1945, post-war economic growth and welfare expansion, the end of terror, and the beginnings of democratisation in communist Eastern Europe, and the independence of former colonies with their resolve to ‘develop’. Not least, the worldwide expansion of university education and the rapid accumulation of research led to renewed hopes for modern scientific abilities. The key collective actors of post-1945 transformation were nation-states and the popular movements aspiring to become nation-states in former colonies. Hence, the centrality of states, state-directed development, movements, revolutions, and their ideologies for a research agenda of what came to be called (arguably too narrowly) historical sociology.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, historical sociology experienced its ‘golden age’, supported by an accumulation of social science research across many countries and academic disciplines (Collins, 1999a). Theoretical formulations reconsidering the canonical social scientific topics arrived in rapid succession. This ‘unthinking’ of the nineteenth-century paradigms cleared a lot of underbrush (Wallerstein, 2001). It also left a lot to be filled in, tested, reconnected, and eventually returned to non-academic, accessible discourses. In short, we have much work to do.

The founding narratives of historical transformation were mostly telescopic in their macro-vision, beginning with the grand ambitions of modernisation and culminating in more critical, and at the same time careful, theories like the neo-Weberian synthesis of Michael Mann, or the world-systems perspective of Immanuel Wallerstein. Once the parameters of a new paradigm were established, the focus of research shifted to more microscopic studies, even if research subjects were still as big as state formation, elites, revolutions, demographics, or commodity chains. The crassly material factors of political economy and armed force typically dominated recorded history. Still, there were also rare moments when passionate ideologies seemed to prevail. Such moments typically arrived with the breakdown of political economies due to military defeat, fiscal strains, relative overpopulation (especially among elites), and the usual causes of revolutions (Hanson, 2012). Therefore, it should be not the abstract ‘whether’, but rather the more specific question of ‘when’, and under what conditions, that we ask regarding human agency’s prevailing in ideological vision and political action to re-shape inherited structures of economy and geopolitics.

In their golden age of the 1970s and 1980s, the new generation of macro-historical theorists encountered two different kinds of opposition, both typically emerging in moments of heightened intellectual creativity. One was the rear-guard defensive action from established schools: orthodox ‘party-line’ Marxism, while it lasted, and liberal modernisation theory reincarnated in the enthusiasm for globalisation of the 1990s. Neoclassical economics, meanwhile, essentially withdrew into the formidable protection of its institutional ramparts, where mainstream economists could continue their work in splendid isolation. The other critique was more avant garde. It called for an even newer wave of intellectual innovations incorporating the sensibilities of identity or the latest tools of mathematical modelling. Avant-garde manifestos, however, did not translate into fundamental books of the calibre that had once marked macro-historical sociology. Instead, the morass of what arrived under the generic rubric of postmodernism left social thought with dislocation of will and profound pessimism regarding social change.

The interest in macro-historical sociology and its allied intellectual projects in anthropology, history, and development economics dramatically receded after 1989. At this turning point in contemporary history, the lightening conversion of Eastern European dissidents to the neoliberal orthodoxy of the West essentially sealed an enormous change in the global intellectual climate. Whatever the inconsistences of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, they expressed and further channelled hegemonic expectations towards the normality of market liberalism or the nationalist fundamentalisms taken for ‘civilisations’. We can now see the consequences in the impasse of popular revolts seeking greater egalitarianism in the West, Arab countries, Russia, Ukraine, and all over the world. Social energies are evident. What is missing is a reliable map of existing social realities and a compass directing these energies to act on emerging possibilities. Indeed, a useful map must carry warnings alongside directions to better destinations. Still, what could those better destinations be? Can they be predicted on the basis of what we have now learned about the changing patterns of human societies?

Let me briefly explain what I mean by social evolution and how could we reason about it. Social evolution has at least two distinct yet dialectically meshing drivers. The original mover might be called, following the eminent Weberian sociologist Michael Mann, the collective power of humans (1986). Anthropologists and archaeologists prefer to call this process ‘productive intensification’, meaning the cumulative changes in technology, knowledge, and social organisation that have enabled humans to expand in numbers and overcome environmental constraints (Johnson and Earle, 2000). Two evolutionary streams could be further distinguished under this rubric. The first strategy of survival followed what biologists call ‘adaptive radiation’, here meaning the spread of human groups into new productive environments, from the shallow oceanic littorals with their abundance of seafood to the northern ‘mammoth tundra’ where big mammals had once roamed. Then around eight thousand years ago, once the post-glaciation climate had stabilised, it made eminent sense to many of our ancestors to intensify production through the domestication of plants and animals, thus shifting to agriculture and pastoralism (Ristvet, 2007).

And here came the great bitter paradox of social evolution. While the majority of humans were domesticating plants and animals, aggrandising individuals among them had also been learning how to ‘domesticate’ other humans. To emphasise this, the transition to agriculture unwittingly turned agriculturalists themselves into beasts of burden (Scott, 2017). The early aggrandisers were able to establish themselves as chiefs and rulers, exploiting what Michael Mann pithily called the “caging effect” of sedentary economies (1986). Caging effects were able to coalesce, irregularly, in groups of foragers extraordinarily endowed by nature, perhaps as early as the Upper Paleolithic age. But considerable investment of labour in agriculture (especially irrigated agriculture) and enlarged surpluses created the self-reinforcing combination of caging and ratchet effects, driving up social complexity in agrarian populations. This included the new institutions of warfare, because it now made sense not merely to raid but also to conquer and enslave productive neighbours. The growth of social complexity implied evolutionary progress. Yet along these winding paths we encounter in archaeological records novel, specialised, and quite expensive tools like swords or daggers shaped solely in order to disembowel humans, as well as the increasingly imposing temples, where humans might be sacrificed to dramatise new ideological spectacles of power (Flannery and Marcus, 2012).

Chieftaincy imposes itself upon the collective powers of humans. Its coercive and entrepreneurial aspects become the second mover of social evolution. Chieftaincy corresponds to Michael Mann’s notion of despotic power, in turn relying on three pillars: economic; military; and ideological controls. I suggest calling them elemental powers. Political power comes only later in history with new state institutions. States greatly intensified the pace of historical transformation, reaching truly revolutionary proportions in recent centuries. The question for us now, as in fact it was for the first evolutionary thinkers of the late nineteenth century, is where might this progression go next?

Theoretically, there are three possibilities. Social evolution overreaching beyond humanity’s ecological and social conditions could always produce extinction. We now know that extinction has threatened many human populations in the past. Today the usual suspects are environmental degradation, epidemics of new untreatable diseases, and atomic weapons. There could be other, yet unrecognised threats to human existence on the planet. The second evolutionary possibility is stasis at the pinnacle of achievement. Indeed, this has been the long-standing modern hope of many liberals and conservatives who would have liked social evolution to stop where it was. The analytical problem with this expectation is the lack of a clearly defined mechanism (except, of course, elite sermonising) by which social evolution can be slowed down to a comfortable halt in a society still characterised by class and ethnic-status inequities. The third logical possibility then is the continuation of social evolution. But what can we meaningfully say about this possibility if our recent past and present are already without historical precedent?

Only through careful historical reconstruction might we glean some logic in the kaleidoscopic succession of ‘power crystallisations’. A common doubt in theories of social evolution points to the problematic applicability of Darwinian principles beyond biology. But must all evolution be Darwinian? The key mechanisms of cultural change do seem more Lamarckian than Darwinian: the inheritance of knowledge through learning, the purposeful amalgamation and anastomosis of different traditions (Gould, 1996). In the last couple of centuries, the very period of modernity, science has hugely enhanced and directed these two mechanisms of changing knowledge.

Is knowledge power? It is arguably a core component in any kind of power, although perhaps not a source of power on its own. The production and use of knowledge depend on conditions flowing from the main sources of social power. Yet macro-historical sociology has consistently shown that social change emerges interstitially. Modern universities were created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries out of the administrative, military, and industrial concerns of states and their ruling elites. After 1945, universities have vastly expanded their enrolment numbers and spread around the world with the newly added concern of incorporating rising lower social strata and previously dominated groups which had been politically empowered by the effects of world wars and subsequent revolutions, reforms, and decolonisations. Despite neoliberal policies of economisation, universities have generally proved remarkably resilient. They have been defended by the prestige and collective powers of their professoriate, who in fact have become the newest variety of a labour aristocracy. But for the most part, higher education in post-1945 world transformation became central to the life-cycle reproduction of educated middle class specialists and it was therefore also central to the hopes of new arrivals to middle-class positions. In effect, universities turned into a major site of class and identity contention.

The interstitial situation of universities under late capitalism, their extensive organisation, and the positional interests of their numerous inhabitants, both permanent (faculty) and temporary (students), together create the potential for advancing political claims that could change the existing distribution of powers. The collective power achieved by the humanity could yet become less monopolistic and more collectively distributional. If this reminds you of rebellious 1968 hopes, this is not coincidental. The period between 1956 and 1989 (precisely the golden age of macro-historical sociology) registered the first waves of contention against ‘the system’ by educated specialists. Their failure, followed by a lasting period of reaction, was fundamentally a failure of ideological vision. The educated dissidents in advanced industrial society, guided by pre-rational aversion more than good reason, did not take the path of former revolutionaries epitomised by the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks. The extreme experiences of the early twentieth century showed that this revolutionary strategy, centred on the seizure of individual states amidst contemporary military geopolitics, was fraught with the risks of totalitarian dictatorship and war. Instead, the dissidents of the 1968 generation earnestly embraced the dominant reformist ideologies of their states, demanding socialism or liberal capitalism ‘with a human face’. Macro-historical sociology arrived a little too late to spread its newly gained insights into the ideology and politics of practical social change towards greater egalitarianism. Will we be too late again?

In this article, I want to sketch a necessarily grand evolutionary argument. It starts in prehistory and extends to the present age of globalisation, where the old elemental powers of personal chieftaincy are still operating above, between, and within the modern institutions of state and private bureaucracy. We can see this most clearly in the current proliferation of warlords, mafia dons, religious and secular ideological entrepreneurs, and above all, in the corruption of politicians and corporate bosses. Modern states and business corporations, however, have grown far larger than the typical range of control by personalist rulers, as much as they attempt to retain control. Here is the key political contradiction of our times: the juxtaposition of individual despotic power and public infrastructural power (collective due to its sheer extent and complexity). Chiefly powers corrupt public power by channelling institutional regulations and resource flows to the benefit an elite few. Yet within this very contradiction exists the possibility for a political agenda that could cause social evolution to take a more egalitarian turn. Situations whereby social powers are monopolised in the hands of chieftains or ‘bosses’ may yet prove to be only an episode — an episode lasting several thousand years, but still just one episode in the evolution of human societies. Let us briefly retrace its main threads.

All graves were created equal in the beginning. Typically, burials were collective. They began appearing in archaeological record as small groups of humans acquired permanent stakes in their productive ecologies. These could have been particularly rich hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds or various kinds of rudimentary gardens. Past attempts to tie stages in social evolution to particular technologies have proven inadequate (Johnson and Earle, 2000). What rather seemed to matter was the size of the human group that could be maintained in a given ecological niche, using available productive techniques. The varied and increasingly sophisticated data on the very long span of prehistory indicate that the egalitarian collective power of human groups long predated vertical social power over human collectives. Evidently, collective powers had also kept in check the social powers of aggrandising individuals, the potential chiefs. In recent decades, portrayals of nastier chimpanzee behaviours as if they model human individualism have produced a stream of bestsellers that advocate an overtly ideological line. The knowledge obtained by social science, however, can help to evaluate the relative claims of ideologies, too.

The professional observations of primatologists have demonstrated that between the different behaviours of modern apes, such as gorillas, chimps, and bonobos, none can be directly applied to humans (Boehm, 2001). Our range of behaviours is much wider than those of other species, evidently because human motivations are mainly cultural and situational. Outside the context of vicious inter-group violence – which is also a very human behaviour, although it was probably rarer among earlier, sparser populations – humans are demonstrably more cooperative and altruistic than any other social primates (Turchin, Currie, and Whitehouse, forthcoming). As the aphorism suggested by the biologist Clive Finlayson puts it, we are the species where individual weakness is not immediately lethal (2009). After all, it is humans, rather than apes, who are now found on all continents and who have gained possession of improbable acquired abilities like fishing with hooks, hunting with deliberately designed missiles, and later in history, milking cows and mounting horses. Individual aggrandisers, both male and female, are found widely among humans. Anthropologists, however, have documented a range of countering social behaviours, from ridicule and shaming to threats of expulsion and killing, to simply ignoring demands, which limit and channel the entrepreneurial energies of aggrandisers in favour of collective goals (Cashdan, 1980). This is a fundamentally important baseline that needs to be established.

At some historical points, however, richer individual tombs began appearing in archaeological records, to the delight of museum curators. Who were these exceptional individuals staring at us from their lavish burial places, typically looted long ago by their enterprising contemporaries? They were the archaic aggrandisers who succeeded in establishing chokepoints on networks of group conflict, collective belief, or material exchange. Chokepoint is the keyword here: these controlling devices became possible only after networks of social interaction expanded beyond the collective abilities of small and cosy groups of relatives and good neighbours. In other words, intensification created resource structures which made control, protection, and spiritual sanction possible. Hence came the historical emergence of personages that could generically be referred to as the warrior, the priest, and the trader, although these were not yet great rulers, because in prehistory aggrandisers could hardly support the logistics of state-building.

The archaic chiefs were too busy anyway. If you decided to become a great chief yourself, which of the elemental powers would be your prime choice: warrior might; economic wealth; or ideological belief? This is a tricky question. If you proved naive enough to make a choice, then you failed the test as prospective chief. Long before Machiavelli, or for that matter, the Japanese videogame Pokemon, the logic of social power accumulation prescribed the imperative, Gotta catch ‘em all! Elemental powers have no trump card. Nobody would fight for a destitute chief; wealth calls for protection by force; and few would be convinced to pray and sacrifice at a self-styled temple unless one were able to invest in impressive decorations and ritual spectacles whilst policing against ‘detractor prophets’ and other heretics.

Sources of social power are not free-standing abstractions. Power is the never ending and challenging process of braiding together strings of human interaction from social networks that only appear distinct under scholarly analyses. But not all powers are equally important or accessible in different geographical and historical contexts. In some epochs, armed conquest takes the lead. Yet in other times and places, conquest may prove unfeasible, especially over longer distances. Trade might then be more profitable. Such crafty calculations and contingent possibilities are mainly responsible for the motley and seemingly aimless succession of historical forms of power: tribal chiefdoms; temple communities; trading city-states; nomadic hordes; feudal lordships; and rising and falling empires.

This conclusion has been a stumbling block for many evolutionary theories too straightforwardly derived from empirical generalisations. Power is indeed elemental — like water, fire, and wind. Chieftaincy is then a human-made node, a gathering of chokepoints on social networks. Chiefs have dominated human history since the invention of the village in the Neolithic era, if not earlier. They are found, to stress a fundamental point, wherever the extension of social networks has created the potential for the establishment of monopolistic chokepoints.

Personalist chieftaincy, in the most abstract formulation, represents a particular ‘braiding’ of three elemental powers. This carries all the advantages of a hand-made tool. It is custom-fitted to specific circumstances and can be, and in fact must continuously be, refitted under ever-changing circumstances. Crucially, each chieftaincy snugly fits the hand of its principal maker and owner. As an utterly personal and highly adaptive process of domination, chieftaincy must be arbitrary and despotic. Chieftaincy is made, after all, to remain within the same chiefly line. Otherwise, chiefs are unable to ever enjoy safe retirement, either in the archaic past or in present-day Arab ‘presidencies for life’ and Putin’s Russia. Chieftaincy offers numerous advantages to its masters, which is what has ensured the survival of this old social design well into our present day. It is the exercise of despotic will over subordinates, multi-tasking adaptability, relative insulation from popular claims, and, of course, the sweet fruits of power and the energising sense of exclusive status.

The downside of chieftaincy, however, flows from the very same advantages, i.e., those of despotic power vested in individual chiefs. Personal domination is unavoidably constrained in space and time. Simple chiefs (that is, pre-state chiefs or those operating at the margins of states as mafia dons and warlords) are able to personally know, bark commands towards, and bestow personally obligating rewards on, at most, a few hundred retainers. They can only securely control a small realm, one which can be crossed in a couple days. Chieftaincy is confined by the physical limits of interpersonal surveillance and control. Moreover, the chief must appear fit and capable of enforcing his commands. Senility and disease are the perennially merciless nemesis of all successful chiefs. Succession poses the moment of highest danger and fragility, precisely because all chieftaincies are custom-made to fit their personal ruler, usually the founder himself.

It is then not too difficult to see why the archaic aggrandisers sought to establish states and also why they failed repeatedly. States are essentially machines. Like all machines, states extend human abilities beyond what is humanly possible. State power is far more extensive than what any individual chief could ever organise and supervise. In a strikingly consequential dialectic, however, state power, in order to remain as extensive as possible, must also become intensive. Many great chiefs throughout world history have approached the threshold of state power but only a select few were able to cross this threshold and remain alive for long enough to ensure the longevity of their dynasties at the state level of power organisation. This is because techniques of social intensification — literacy, bureaucracy, and the market commercialisation of life — remained rudimentary until the improbably high levels achieved by the Roman empire, Han China, and, especially, the modern capitalist West. The pre-modern chieftaincies, whatever their greatly varied shape and colouring, were limited to the elementary morphology of a syphon. They sucked resources upwards, often mercilessly as in raiding and slaving, and even then, only resources that could be detached and sucked from the elementary production units of peasant and pastoralist households. In their own manner, Karl Polanyi’s ‘redistributive economy’, Charles Tilly’s feudal ‘racketeering’, and Mancur Olson’s ‘roaming bandits’ refer to broadly the same reality. The limitation was not the despotic power to extract but rather in what could effectively be extracted and deployed for state-building purposes.

State power irresistibly attracted the most ambitious chiefs precisely because states promised so much more wealth and power. For several millennia, however, states remained necessarily crude and despotic. What else could one expect from domination of rudimentary agrarian societies? Continued control and extraction of tribute from territories beyond immediate purview remained ever problematic.

The early states, in the absence of markets and individuation, could only imperfectly institutionalise their principal-agent problem. Pre-modern rulers experimented with all sorts of personalist arrangements: breeding many sons in royal harems (who then, alas, often killed each other); elevating slaves to administrative positions; employing eunuchs; promoting ethnic aliens as dependent merchants or mercenaries and mamelukes; reshuffling personal clients and ‘friends’, as did Roman emperors with their amici viceroys to the provinces. No arrangement, however, proved satisfactory in the long run because clients dispatched to provinces tended to disappear into local societies; that is, they started their own dynastic chieftaincies with local support.

Another grand solution was the fostering of imperial civilisations, more precisely, the sharing of elite patterns of conspicuous consumption, religious ritual, language, and literacy. But, again, the cohesion of elites in ancient civilisations depended on expectations of material career rewards from conquests and booty, or once there remained little to profitably conquer, from elite trade and collective defence. All such civilisations inescapably generated various ‘barbarian’ chieftaincies along their outer frontiers, fed by trade and military raiding across imperial boundaries. The best-known examples were Germanic tribes in Europe and Steppe nomads in Asia.

This is, roughly described, what propelled the familiar rhythm of empires periodically collapsing into decentralised ‘feudal’ eras. Yet periods of reversion to smaller, autonomous, and more quarrelsome chieftaincies progressively acquired lesser degrees of ‘darkness’. During such ages of fragmentation, imperial techniques were spread and recycled with the important additions of various barbarian innovations.[1] The alternation between empires and feudalisms in the very long run betrays a distinctly evolutionary dynamic.[2]

The ‘rise of the West’ is the canonical example of evolutionary breakthrough. There are certainly other examples of such synthesis, wherever previously barbarian tribesmen from outlying regions were able to pick up and inventively recombine the valuable pieces left over from centralising empires. Examples include Arab caliphates and medieval Burma and Japan. The classical Greek polis itself provides an example of older civilisational sub-strata from which Ionian and Doric tribesmen had grown their own peculiar civilisation of slave-owning democracy. Instructively for our theory, the ancient Greeks had emerged from the collapse of Bronze-Age empires in the 12th Century BCE (Cline, 2014). In the following ‘dark age’, the Greeks evolved into cooperatively-organised farmers specialising in the export-oriented production of olive oil and wine and doubling as early Iron-age foot warriors. The early modern West might also appear unique in lots of respects, from its rich Roman inheritance to its lucky geography (which also spelled disaster for native Americans). Yet placing Western developments in a larger perspective suggests that at some point the transition to ‘modernity’, including modern economic growth, had to click somewhere across Eurasia and launch the capitalist dynamic. There were many barriers but there were also many movers pushing in the same direction (Collins, 1999b).

Capitalism grew from market dynamics that went back many centuries and were broadly diffused across the tri-continent of Afro-Eurasia (Abu-Lughod, 1989). Capitalism obtained its historical breakthrough in the far-western cluster of warring feudal coalitions which, in their medieval form, seemed more chieftaincies than bureaucratic states. The task remains for future generations of scholars to formulate a synthetic theory of capitalist transition but its elements now seem well established — and they are materialist. Even the old (and largely ideological) controversy regarding the role of Christianity is largely settled now thanks to a shift in focus onto the material aspects of ecclesiastical organisational infrastructure and elite conflicts over the appropriation of church assets and authority (Lachmann, 2000).

The driving factor in the rise of the West appears as brutally materialist as military geopolitics. The lasting situation whereby numerous warring monarchs had to attract mobile cosmopolitan capital in order to support the aggrandisement of their respective militaries and states permitted capitalists to collectively lower their protection costs (Arrighi, 2010). In turn, capitalism offered state aggrandisers a qualitatively different kind of power ‘metabolism’. Where the archaic aggrandisers had to rely on extorting bulky staples as tribute, modern state aggrandisers had at their disposal much more versatile and quickly available capitalist finance.

Markets in the early modern epoch afforded the still relatively small-scale Western rulers much larger and more professional military forces than the staple tribute could have ever supported. No less importantly, large sums of money raised from private lenders enabled early-modern state builders in the West to purchase the new and fabulously expensive hardware of guns and ocean-going ships in significant quantities (Cipolla, 1965). World conquest on a truly planetary scale became possible for the first time in history. The perennially fractured West, however, extended several colonial empires simultaneously, whose trading and geopolitical rivalries carried the seeds of their own undoing. Military employment and colonisation maintained wages at relatively high levels, at least in countries like England. In turn, high wages made sustained investments in technological innovation worthwhile (Allen, 2011). Amidst all of this momentous change, states had to and could finally afford to become very large, very bureaucratic, and very invasive.

I need not go to any lengths in relating what subsequently happened to social power in the West because this story, in rich variation, is today among the best established in new historical sociology. States operating in the capitalist environment acquired extensive infrastructural powers and grew an array of ‘tentacles’, penetrating deeply into society. But the same process of infrastructural build-up created backflow effects enabling societies to lay claim to states. In the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century this new possibility fostered two rival ideologies of citizenship: nationalism and socialism. The elite ideological response was mainly gradualist liberalism (Wallerstein, 2011). Citizens now increasingly mattered to their state rulers as compliant taxpayers, skilled labour, and loyal (and preferably healthy) military recruits. Otherwise citizens would organise themselves using the new techniques of literacy and communication, all the way to staging mass protests and revolutions (Tilly, 1990). What made citizen claims effective was ultimately the continuing geopolitical rivalries of states. Successful strikes, revolutions, and decolonisations, as well as elite concessions in terms of welfare reforms, cluster uncannily in the wake of big wars, above all the two world wars of the twentieth century (Silver, 2003).

The historical high point of citizens taking on their states arrived after 1945. This brings us back to our opening arguments. This moment of unprecedented progressive political change and social advance fostered the optimism that was so strong everywhere throughout the 1950s and the 1960s. The Cold War, judiciously constrained from both sides, in fact proved to be exceptionally good for economic growth, welfare reforms, development projects, and, let us not forget, the generous funding of science. The Cold War period also brought an enormous expansion of state power worldwide. No other period in history has witnessed the creation of so many ministries of education, health, and economic planning. Even the various guerrilla armies in Latin America, Asia, and Africa now hastened to start their own schools, clinics, and departments of women’s affairs. This became a required test of their international and domestic legitimacy. In the same period, public order also reached its highest levels in big cities, including notorious places like Palermo, Odessa, Shanghai, and Chicago (Derluguian, 1996).

All this implied a taming of chiefs by states and popular movements. In fact, the taming of chiefs has been the central story in the formation of modern states, which have eliminated, or at least incorporated, chieftaincies as their internal organs. Most explicitly, this was a story of modern militaries growing from the original warrior aristocracies into the officer corps of bureaucratically organised professionals. Another route led former aristocracies to become provincial notables and then elected politicians or elite commercial professionals exploiting the symbolic capital of their good manners and connections – provided their ancestors had been able to avoid the blades of revolutionary terror. The fate of those wielding ideological power in modern times was not too different. Priests and religious hierarchies were gradually brought into bureaucratic conformity and nationalised within their states. The leading voices in modern ideologies became secular journalists, party propagandists, creative intellectuals, or, for that matter, social science professors.

The historical trend of taming the chiefs, however, went through a disastrous lapse in the wake of World War One. The grievous disorganisation of defeated empires and their ruling classes opened the way to the seizure of state power by revolutionary socialists and then counterrevolutionary ultra-nationalists of the fascist kind. Extending wartime mobilisation techniques, these movements built frighteningly effective totalitarian dictatorships that fused the infrastructural reach of the modern bureaucratic state with the despotic power of new revolutionary emperors whose prototype was Napoleon Bonaparte. Fascist totalitarianism was eliminated in war, and it is scarcely imaginable how it could have been ended by anything but war. Communist totalitarianism, which was nowhere near as apocalyptic as its fascist enemies, had longer and more varied trajectories. Let us note that in all communist states the supreme leaders were eventually tamed from within by their own bureaucratic elites and intelligentsia, whose clear preferences were for liberalising reforms rather than the inhumane pressures of political-militaristic mobilisation. The Soviet bureaucratic nomenklatura, however, never figured out how to escape from the institutional shell of their own heavily industrialised and multi-ethnic state. In the end, they broke it into pieces. In the meantime, communist cadres in China successfully rebuilt their apparatus – much simpler, institutionally – to make it the latest expanded edition of the East Asian developmental state. Twentieth-century communism, in the end, proved neither destined to supersede capitalism nor entirely doomed to collapse (Derluguian, 2013).

Totalitarianism, however, should not be regarded as a calamity of the past. Its causes lay not in any particular ideology but rather in the unprecedented capacities of the modern state. To repeat, the state is a machine for generating and directing social power. Like any machine, it can acquire very different uses: from sheltering and providing for its citizens to spying on them or even exterminating whole populations.

The darker side of modern states is still there and could re-emerge in future crises. The conditions have been roughly identified: elites panicking in the face of insurgent masses; ideological polarisation; and paramilitaries emerging from the political fringes and from within the disorganised state. The recent proliferation of private security forces and especially the advanced means of electronic surveillance add new dangers. The theory of social evolution can offer optimistic predictions but it also suggests substantial reasons to remain vigilant. Totalitarian lapses will remain an ongoing possibility as long as we live within states and face the possibility of large and sudden crises.

One variety of modern chiefs, however, has never been fully tamed by states. These are, of course, the private capitalist entrepreneurs themselves. Capitalists operating in the modern world system have been able to survive and mostly get their way in bargaining with state rulers by threatening to withhold their investments and organisational expertise. Some states have been able to expel and eliminate their capitalists, as the communists had once tried. Nationalist states in what was once called the Third World sought to only expropriate assets from certain ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘comprador’ categories of capitalists. This never worked in the long run and often provoked economic disasters in the short run, too. The reason, evidently, was that the various anti-capitalist states of the twentieth century resorted to crude military-style substitutes. In the meantime, the commanding heights of the world economy always remained privately controlled by the biggest capitalists, allied to the most powerful states in the centres of the world system. These centrally-located capitalists could even accept various social-democratic and Keynesian compacts to bolster their positions in the wake of geopolitical and popular internal challenges. States always played a major role in defensive strategies of this kind.

Capitalists have never been entirely averse to state power, despite what their typical class ideology would have us believe. Capitalism evolved and spread around the world apace with modern states. This is no coincidence. Modernising – and at the same time colonising – core Western states were from the outset involved globally in the establishment of safe and profitable social environments for capitalism. For their part, capitalists supported (rarely without handsome profits) the finance-wealth metabolism and legitimacy of states. Nonetheless, in any complex system running for a while the environment irreversibly changes over time. Capitalism originally emerged in a predominantly agrarian world where its main profits were in long-distance trade and the bankrolling of states. In this earlier epoch, the costs of capitalist enterprise were overwhelmingly associated with military protection. Peasant households, as ever before, continued their traditional bearing of the costs of social reproduction while the cost of natural resources was only in their extraction and transport. It made eminent sense to internalise the protection costs of business by merging the interests of state and capitalist elites. As states became more capitalist and thus more modern, capitalists acquired stakes in becoming more national, too. Nonetheless, the truly large capitalists always maintained their elite cosmopolitan networks for the purposes of business, pleasure, prestige, marriage, and, if it came to it, escape.

As the modern world system continued to expand and evolve, capitalists faced further needs to internalise costs. The industrial revolution implied a huge advance in internalising the costs of production. Soon, however, the social classes of the industrial age and their protest movements exerted pressure to internalise the costs of social reproduction, first in Western countries and eventually elsewhere as well. The market upheavals of the nineteenth century elicited an internalisation of transaction costs in sector-specific cartels and next in the corporations. The Great Depression of the 1930s forced state regulation on a truly massive scale. Amidst the world wars and the challenges of fascism and communism, all this looked to many contemporary capitalists as the urgently needed price of survival.

The costs paid before 1945 secured the three extraordinary post-war decades of prosperity, peace, and legitimacy. The strategy of containment, however, clearly had its limits in the eyes of the capitalist class. This limit was evidently reached in the global wave of rebellions in 1968. The protest movements, whatever their rhetoric, did not in fact advance revolutionary demands. They actually wanted more of the same: peace, welfare, and democracy. The crucial and frightening difference was that the 1968 movements demanded all of these as popular rights rather than benevolent concessions. It is revealing that, if those movements in the West, East, and South had anything in common, it was their aversion to big bosses embodying the paternalistic nature of states and big economic enterprises. The nation-state itself was now becoming a cage where capitalist chiefs faced binding regulations all the way to (or so they feared) complete nationalisation.

Globalisation, therefore, was not merely a structural extension of previously local processes or an inevitable stage in historical progress. Globalisation rather emerged as a political and economic strategy devised by a specific set of powerful actors who were, at the time, referred to under the rubric of ‘multinationals’. They insisted on abandoning the compromises dating back to the Great Depression and the world wars. Globalisation, along with deregulation, became the big escape of – primarily American – big business from the constraints of national borders where, they now feared, political demands would be able to corner them and present them with now intolerable concessions. In a major historical contingency, multinationals were helped by the unexpected emergence and failure of Gorbachev’s perestroika, which ended the Cold War along with Soviet Union. Had Gorbachev or a more realist Kremlin leader succeeded in converting the Soviet superpower position into an honourable invitation to re-join the capitalist economic networks of Europe, there would have been no neoliberal Washington Consensus. Instead, a more regulated market might have formed along the axis of Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. Globalisation could then have assumed a different shape and character. But this historical possibility did not come to pass. Another contingency was the equally surprising opening of Maoist China for business. East Asia became a major destination for the new business strategy of outsourcing, or what the eminent geographer David Harvey dubbed the ‘spatial fix’ for capital (2005).

The protests of 1968, to which we must add the popular mobilisations in 1989 in the communist zone of the world system, from East Berlin to Beijing, marked a culmination in the modern-era’s trend towards greater egalitarianism. The agrarian states were highly unequal, to the degree that it may be impossible to quantify the social distance between slaves and slave-owners. The inequalities of agrarian societies were massively and increasingly reversed in the modern epoch of capitalism. The evolutionary reversal first registered in the West, in the construction of national citizenship and welfare provision. In the twentieth century, the reversal rapidly, if also unevenly, began spreading to other regions of the world. Just compare the distance from 1968 to situations around the world that were the norm as recently as around 1868, let alone 1768. A new social class asserted itself in 1968 in the West and in the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. A growing proportion of protesters and surely a great many of their leaders were now institutionally employed wage-earners with university degrees, variously referred to as students, intelligentsia, specialists, or the working classes of the ‘scientific-technological age’. The fundamental reality of this social class (to which, let us recognise, we may belong ourselves) is the dependence on regular wages during adult life. This makes us akin to proletarians. But new wage earners also carry considerable amounts of sophisticated knowledge (we can call it professional or symbolic capital) accumulated during lengthy periods of learning in schools and universities. Another difference with the situation of Western proletarians in the age of Karl Marx is that educated specialists today are overwhelmingly dependent for their employment and life conditions on large impersonal institutions, whether state agencies or private corporations.

The new popular class of late capitalism possesses considerable symbolic capital, high self-esteem, massive numbers, and extensive interconnectedness (yes, the internet make a huge difference, however ephemeral and contradictory it may be). Yet at the same time, this class suffers the subordination and drudgery of relatively ill-paying desk labour, if not the fear and indignities of unemployment. The result is a very contradictory class consciousness. On the one hand, the latest variety of the proletariat is prone to anarchism as a protest against the impersonal and bureaucratic ‘system’. This can be seen in the counter-culture movements of the sixties and seventies and the symbolic rejections of communist officialdom in the eighties. On the other hand, the same inchoate attitudes of self-affirmation against dominating institutions find shape and purpose in consumerism, the fantasies of the ‘creative class’ and ‘independent start-ups’, all the way to market libertarianism. Religious fundamentalism and New Age mysticism represent a complimentary ideological possibility. Should we then wonder that this new class, once its early anti-systemic stirrings went nowhere, was so easily hitched to the neoliberal project in the newest iteration of bourgeois hegemony?

In a consequential irony, however, the inherent contradiction between the demands of legitimacy and profits made the capitalists betray their newly-found political supporters among the educated middle classes. The enthusiasm for globalisation and computer technology crashed at the realisation that both the ‘spatial fix’ (moving jobs to the former ‘Third World’) and the ‘technological fix’ (the invention of ever new products and superordinate markets) had fabulously restored profit rates for a tiny minority at the cost of massively displacing skilled middle-class jobs (Collins, 2013). The pride, as well as the xenophobic prejudices, of popular masses in the capitalist West (now including Russia) is bound to be hurt by the realisation that they must seek help from states which are captive to the oligarchy of big businesses. It does not help that public budgets have been critically depleted by huge financial bail-outs since the great recession of 2008. In the absence of a positive political alternative, this growing despair at the restoration of inequalities could create more ugliness than hope. Hence the urgency for restarting the intellectual enterprise of historical sociology and development economics.

I started by promising to demonstrate reasons for optimism regarding the evolutionary future of humanity. Against the backdrop of the intellectual climate of the last three decades, it may sound counterintuitive to still hope in extending the bureaucratic power of large organisations. Let me explain this paradox. We started from very early prehistory in order to establish an important baseline. Humans differ from other primates precisely in their patterns of social behaviour. The most successful adaptations of our ancestors were apparently in greater levels of egalitarianism and altruism. We are arguably very inquisitive, cooperative creatures, strongly averse to inequality. This unusually positive statement regarding human nature increasingly finds evidence in primatology, anthropology, and the microsociology of individual interactions (Collins, 2008). But things changed with the arrival agriculture and much denser populations, where a minority became social predators while the majority were reduced to beasts of burden (Scott, 2017).

Social inequality and warfare appeared and became institutionalised within the human groups that had acquired fixed assets, mainly the staple surpluses and various kinds of symbolic wealth that could in turn be controlled and manipulated by individual aggrandisers. Complex political economies offered a variety of chokepoints whose specifics reflected their geographical and historical contexts. Several thousand years ago, aggrandisers began evolving into chiefs. Intermittently wearing the hats of warriors, priests, and traders (these were often, literally, spectacular headdresses), our chiefs braided and strengthened their combinations of elemental powers, in time rising above the threshold of statehood. Levels of social inequality in such societies became glaring and brutal, including slavery, mass torture, and human sacrifices.

States, however, evolved over a long and difficult course of history. Limiting and undermining them were the inherent structural weaknesses that even the most formidable ancient empires like Rome and Han China were unable to ever overcome. It is, however, demonstrable that states grew in size and complexity. This progression alternated with periods of ‘dark ages’ when more elemental chieftaincies were able to overcome the hold of state power. Periods of failed empires and proliferating chieftaincies were surely destructive; yet often their heightened evolutionary competition also proved innovative. It was during such periods that the democratic Greek polis, or in another epoch, the medieval city commune, was able to take shape. Feudalism was far from static either. Its synthesis of ‘barbarian’ and civilised traits proved capable of inventing what the top-heavy imperial civilisations could somehow never accomplish. The guns and sails of the original Western European expansion are a case in point, but no more so traditions of popular rebellion and individualism too.

The great historical reversal in social inequality originated in the rapidly changing political economy of the modern West. This is indeed a paradox because there was little that was nice or particularly democratic about early capitalism, let alone European geopolitics of chronic warfare and global colonisation. Capitalism produced and eventually endowed its own democratic insurgents with mobilising resources, if not quite gravediggers. States, in the meantime, fostered national political arenas and citizenries which could now press concerted demands on their rulers. Needless to say, this has been a very contentious process, full of revolutions and counterrevolutions.

Rulers themselves have changed dramatically. They can no longer afford to act as collectively self-serving and capricious aristocracies. Such antiquated personages would perish in modern interstate warfare and revolutionary upheavals. Ruling classes had to recast themselves as bureaucratic servants of the state, whether as regularly promoted civilian and military officers, service clergy, or secular intelligentsia and professionals. The former chiefs in effect tamed themselves by entering state service. Their descendants were further ‘civilised’ by the growing democratic claims over state offices, novel expectations of proper behaviour, and the public usefulness of the elected officials (Elias, 2000). The paradox then is that states, originally designed as war machines and tax-extracting apparatuses, have not been able to escape the issuing of guarantees against themselves. Modern states inescapably acquired wonderfully ‘unnatural’ new functions like market regulation and social provision (Bourdieu, 2014).

Modern democratisation was achieved and consolidated under the threat of wars and revolutions, and then very unevenly. Frightening major relapses occurred during the twentieth century. Only after 1945, the end of the biggest war in human history, was democratisation consolidated in the West and did it begin to rapidly spread to other world regions. At the level of specific histories, this all seems very contingent. But at the level of world-historical generalisation this process appears evolutionary because the ratchet effect of social complexity prevented backsliding by eliminating the intransigent conservatives in lost wars and, increasingly, through successful revolutions and reforms.

Viewed under this lens, the recent neoliberal decades might appear as an evolutionary anomaly. The origins of the neoliberal reaction were contingent: would the phenomenon have acquired global scope without the fall of the Soviet Union? Neoliberalism became hegemonic because a class fraction of Western capitalists, mainly those associated with the United States, for a variety of historical reasons, retained considerable autonomous power into the 1970s and the 1980s compared with other elite fractions. This is ultimately related to the fact that the United States did not suffer directly from the enormous stress of the world wars and subsequent popular rebellions. In America above all, the uppermost capitalists remained personalist chiefs. No, there is no contradiction in their presiding over private corporate bureaucracies. From the hagiographic biographies of top executives, and especially from journalistic investigations in the wake of regularly occurring scandals, we can learn that at the top, corporations are ruled as chieftaincies. The greatest test and perk of one’s power in a modern bureaucratic institution is the ability to exempt oneself from the strictures of bureaucratic routine. When, in the 1970s, capitalist chiefs faced the danger of a new wave of regulations and taxation, i.e., the prospect of being tamed and incorporated as merely economic managers within states, they counter-reacted vigorously and broke loose into the unregulated abode of globalisation.

Neoliberal reaction has had more than enough time to undermine the legitimacy and capacity of the very states that used to protect them. This evidently includes protection against the self-serving destruction of the natural environment. But while this frightening prospect looms on the distant horizon, several decades away, the more immediate effects are seen all around. In recent years, many lesser chieftaincies have gone untamed and become quite predatory. They go by many different names, including those of the ‘wild’ speculators, oligarchs, corrupt members of the political class, populists, gangsters, traffickers, warlords, religious fanatics, and terrorists. For all their differences, these personages share a crucial trait in common: They are self-serving entrepreneurs beyond public control.

But will this latest version of a ‘dark age’ last? Fortunately, too much in our recent history and institutions (which, let us recall, ‘sticky’) militates against this prospect. A large majority of states remain intact while many in Latin America and East Asia continue to consolidate themselves. The Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy that had once purported to become a latter-day Christianity is extinct. The ideological field lost much of its polarising tension with its censorship of orthodox boundaries and was therefore able to become more open to innovation. American hegemony is still flailing in the Middle East but is now obviously in decline. At the moment, there is no geopolitical rival of comparable military might and there is little to indicate that Russia or China could or will become military challengers. Potentially, this is a very promising condition. The world might yet become more peaceful, and large parts of it are already more peaceful than at any time in recent centuries. Demographic dynamics appear stabilising in most regions of the world (with the sole exception of Sub-Saharan Africa). Technological and economic growth continues, even if not at the same pace as in the post-1945 decades.

In short, there is little reason to expect that neoliberalism might end in a colossal war or ferocious revolution. What is more likely is that it will peter out in a protracted recession centred in the United States. The self-serving entrepreneurial aggrandisers will have to be re-tamed, this time almost certainly including the economic variety of chiefs. Then humanity could be able to continue its long evolutionary return to egalitarianism. Let me emphasise the key point. Personalist chieftaincy is by definition despotic. The infrastructural power of modern states, however, is amenable to public control and democratisation.

As a coda, let me call us to think in advance about reasonable substitutes for the inventive entrepreneurialism of economic chiefs. It is still true, and not only affirmed by neoliberal arguments, that bureaucracies are not particularly inventive. As with all big machines, they are prone to inertia. This simply means that bureaucracies alone cannot secure a better future for humanity. Perhaps, the anarchist dreams of the cooperatively creative communities could become more realistic in a world with tamed geopolitics and markets. This does not imply paradise, because we would still face big challenges like environmental degradation and poverty. We would also face many personal-level problems like old age, especially in rapidly ageing populations, without the support of extended (and, let me not omit, patriarchal) families. But with a combination of social initiative and the staying power of big organisations, we might yet become better equipped to deal with our problems. This is what seems to me eminently worthy of debate today.


Georgi Derluguian

Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, New York University Abu Dhabi



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[1] ‘Feudal synthesis’ remains a key insight established by Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974).

[2] Viktor Lieberman recently added a whole cluster of previously ignored histories in his Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830. Two volumes (2003 and 2009).


Picture credit: Sona Manukyan/Flickr https://bit.ly/2MhHEYA


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