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Through the study of civil society, the evolution of social relations
and the breakdown of social order, Order and anarchy re-examines
the role of violence in human social evolution. Drawing on anthro-
pology, political science and evolutionary theory, it offers a novel
approach to understanding stability and instability in human soci-
ety. Robert Layton provides a radical critique of current concepts
of civil society, arguing that rational action is characteristic of all
human societies and not unique to post-Enlightenment Europe.
Case studies range from ephemeral African gold rush communities
and the night club scene in Britain to stable hunter-gatherer and
peasant cultures. The dynamics of recent civil wars in the former
Yugoslavia, Chad, Somalia and Indonesia are compared to war in
small-scale tribal societies. The author argues that recent claims for
the evolutionary value of violence have misunderstood the com-
plexity of human strategies and the social environments in which
they are played out.

Robert Layton is Professor of Anthropology at the University of
Durham. Recipient of the Royal Anthropological Institute™s Rivers
Medal for his research, Professor Layton has written widely on
anthropological themes, including The anthropology of art (1991),
Australian rock art (1992) and An introduction to theory in anthropology
Civil society, social disorder and war

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Acknowledgements page vi

1 Civil society and social cohesion 1
2 Self-interest and social evolution 46
3 The breakdown of social order 92
4 Warfare, biology and culture 138

References 174
Index 193


Warm thanks to all of the following for their helpful comments:
Frances d™Souza; Chris Hann and Julia Eckert on chapter 1,
Rob Aspden on chapter 2 and Elizabeth Chilton on chapter
4. The constructive editorial advice of the three anonymous
readers has also helped immensely in making this a more
readable book. Much of the library research was carried out
while I was a Visiting Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for
Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany, and I™m also grateful
to Chris Hann™s colleagues for their help and advice.

c h a pt e r 1
Civil society and social cohesion

i n t ro d u c t i on
Background to the book
Order and anarchy grew out of several of my research interests.
One originated in my doctoral research on social change in a
cluster of French villages close to the Swiss border (see Layton
2000). I conducted several periods of ¬eldwork between 1969
and 1995, and relied on local archives to reconstruct continuity
and change over a period extending back to the ancien r´gime
that predated the French Revolution of 1789. The overwhelm-
ing impression I gained was that village life had remained
remarkably orderly through a period that encompassed the
1789 Revolution, the agricultural revolution of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries (associated with the turmoil of the
enclosures in England), military occupations in the Franco-
Prussian and Second World Wars, and the post-war mech-
anisation of agriculture. Knowing something about English
village life, I was also impressed by the comparative vital-
ity of local democracy and the freedom ˜my™ villages had to
manage common pasture and forest. While I was analysing
this material, however, state socialism in Eastern Europe was
collapsing; sometimes in a more or less orderly fashion, else-
where disintegrating into civil war. Political thinkers in both

Order and anarchy
Eastern and Western Europe saw the creation of ˜civil soci-
ety™ in the Eastern bloc as the key to future political stability,
and believed this would be facilitated by the development of
a market economy. Through my involvement in the World
Archaeological Congress, I also learned about the civil disor-
der in northern India that surrounded the 1992 destruction
of the mosque at Ayodhya, which Hindu fundamental-
ists claimed stood on the site of a Hindu temple marking
the birthplace of the culture hero Rama. The World Ar-
chaeological Congress met in India on the second anniversary
of the mosque™s destruction, and plans to debate the role of
nationalist archaeologists in promoting the mosque™s destruc-
tion were met by angry demonstrations. WAC deferred the
debate and subsequently met in Croatia, where it was able also
to examine the destruction of churches, mosques and other
cultural property in the recent war between Serbia, Croatia
and Bosnia (Layton, Stone and Thomas 2001). These experi-
ences demanded a better understanding of the processes that
sometimes allow society to change peacefully but at other
times create violent con¬‚ict. Throughout the 1990s ¬rst-hand
anthropological accounts of violence and civil war were accu-
mulating, providing ways of investigating the topic in closer

The argument
Order and anarchy is a study of civil society, of the construc-
tion and breakdown of social order and of the role of violence
in human social evolution. ˜Anarchy™ has two meanings. It is
generally understood to refer to the breakdown of authority in
society, leading to social disorder. For Kropotkin and his fel-
low anarchists in later nineteenth-century Russia, however, it
referred to the freedom of local communities to organise their
Civil society and social cohesion 3
lives through voluntary co-operation, the essence of civil soci-
ety. Kropotkin actually visited the region in which my PhD
research was conducted. He described how he drew inspira-
tion from the voluntary associations he found among Swiss
watchmakers: ˜after a week™s stay with the watchmakers, my
views on socialism were settled. I was an anarchist™ (Kropotkin
1972: 4). These opposed meanings reappear in recent debates
about the de¬nition of civil society. It is arguable whether the
term ˜civil society™ can be applied to the institutions through
which people pursue self-help and mutual aid against the state;
the term is frequently con¬ned to those non-governmental
institutions that contribute to good order in the state.
Chapter 1 argues against restrictive de¬nitions of civil soci-
ety. It suggests the term can usefully be de¬ned simply as ˜social
organisations occupying the space between the household and
the state that enable people to co-ordinate their management
of resources and activities™. The chapter argues against the
view, proposed by Ernest Gellner (1994), Adam Seligman
(1992) and Keith Tester (1992), that the capitalist market econ-
omy is uniquely conducive to the creation of civil society. It
shows that John Locke and Adam Ferguson, the originators
of the concept of civil society in the seventeenth and eigh-
teenth centuries, regarded civil society as much more widely
applicable, associating it with social co-operation based on
rational self-interest in all human societies. Historical and
recent non-Western examples are given in support of Locke™s
and Ferguson™s position. Civil society may support or it may
undermine the unity of the nation state, depending on his-
torical circumstances. Chapter 1 traces the origin of current,
restrictive characterisations of civil society to the political
agendas of those who debated the English agricultural enclo-
sures that took place between the sixteenth and early nine-
teenth centuries. It argues that the currently popular usage of
Order and anarchy
the term ˜civil society™ is unhelpful to the general understand-
ing of social dynamics.
In the course of chapter 1, a number of salient theories
are introduced. Locke and his contemporaries are located in
the Enlightenment, when the divine right of kings was chal-
lenged, and philosophers encouraged rational debate concern-
ing how human society should best be organised. During the
seventeenth century it was common practice to draw a con-
trast between the complex, seemingly contrived societies of
contemporary Europe and the supposed natural condition of
humanity. The dif¬culty was that no one had much idea what
that natural condition might have been. It was therefore gen-
erally viewed through the mirror of the type of society the
author sought to promote: as perpetual war or innocent peace.
A century later, writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and
Adam Ferguson had better anthropological accounts to draw
on. The task of reconstructing the history of human society
assumed greater interest with the geological revolution of the
nineteenth century. Sudden understanding of the immense
period over which humanity had existed led writers to place
a series of intermediate stages between humankind™s original
condition and modern European society. Social evolution was
held to move from the simple to the complex, and also from
superstition to rationality. It was this beguiling equation that
promoted more restrictive, idealistic notions of civil society.
lier stages in the universal process. The theory of evolution as
progress was turned against English rural society during the
enclosures, decisively shaping recent understandings of civil
society. Even twentieth-century social scientists have found it
dif¬cult to shake off the notion that evolution is progressive.
The sociologist Anthony Giddens, in rejecting evolutionary
approaches, characterises them as seeking a mechanism of
change that must be linked to a sequence of changes in which
Civil society and social cohesion 5
types or aspects of social organisation replace each other across
the whole spectrum of human history (Giddens 1984: 232).
This conception of evolution is utterly opposed to Charles
Darwin™s theory of natural selection, the theory that under-
pins biological scientists™ approach to evolution. I shall argue
that because Locke™s work preceded the substantially mis-
guided theory of evolution as progress, and because Ferguson
stated it in an early and innocuous form, their ideas speak
directly to current issues in Darwinian theory. Darwin argued
that random variations between individuals in a population
have different consequences for survival in a particular envi-
ronment. Those individuals whose physiology or behaviour
is best suited to the local environment will have a higher
probability of surviving and producing viable children than
will those bearing less appropriate variants. Adaptations are
judged solely in relation to local conditions; no adaptation
is universally ˜better™ or ˜more evolved™ than another. Even
Darwin had dif¬culty grasping the inherent relativity of his
model of natural selection and had to write to himself that ˜I
must not talk about higher and lower forms of life™ (Trivers
1985: 32). If Darwinian hypotheses are applied to the analysis
of human social behaviour they do not ask whether some forms
of behaviour are intrinsically better than others, merely inves-
tigate how social strategies aid individuals™ survival through
social interaction in speci¬c circumstances. After completing
my PhD in 1971, I spent seven years in Australia working with
Aboriginal communities. Traditional Aboriginal social life is
adapted to survival in often harsh and unpredictable environ-
ments. I became interested in the work of socio-ecologists such
as Bruce Winterhalder and Eric Alden Smith, who had used
Darwinian theory to show how variations in human behaviour
can be explained as adaptations to different environments and
modes of subsistence. Socio-ecology offers a scienti¬c expla-
nation for uniformity and variation in the construction of
Order and anarchy
social relations and will be relied upon at several points in the
following analysis.
Chapter 2, ˜Self-interest and social evolution™, explores
ways of applying a Darwinian approach to human social evo-
lution. Chapter 2 contends that John Locke was right to argue
that rationality is not a prerogative of Western civilisation,
but characteristic of behaviour even in the simplest forms of
social organisation. Game theory provides well-established
models for exploring the rationality of social interaction in
small groups, and I outline such key concepts as non-zero-
sum games, the Prisoner™s Dilemma, free-riding and ways of
avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons.
The natural human condition is not, as Thomas Hobbes had
claimed, one of perpetual war. The ¬rst part of the chapter
gives ethnographic examples of the ways in which social order
can be sustained in self-governing local communities, ranging
from ephemeral gold rush communities to long-established
villages. The second part argues that, since the breakdown of
social order cannot be attributed to a natural human anarchy
breaking free as the state loosens its grip, a more sophisti-
cated theory of social order is needed. It draws on Darwinian
theory to represent the evolution of social strategies, and the
environments in which they are put into action, as a form
of adaptation. A simplistic Darwinian model, which focuses
only on the interaction of an organism and its environment,
turns our attention away from the way that the interaction
of individuals of different species, or people in different soci-
eties, can have cumulative effects on the ecology of individual
behaviour. Chapter 2 therefore also introduces the concept of
evolutionary ˜¬tness landscapes™ to represent the cumulative
effects of social interaction.
Chapter 3, ˜The breakdown of social order™, argues that if
social order is to persist it must be economically sustainable.
Civil society and social cohesion 7
Many recent ethnographic studies of social disorder impli-
cate globalisation and ˜structural adjustment™ in the erosion
of the nation state™s ability to ful¬l its social contract with
citizens. Moreover, given the level of income created in the
market economy and the state™s limited ability to collect tax
revenue, many Third World states cannot afford to sustain
the bureaucratic government they inherited from the colonial
era. Under such conditions, local civil society may offer better
security. The existing social order breaks down when changes
in the economic and social ¬tness landscape undermine the
effectiveness of previously dominant social organisations and
empower other strategies. Often these strategies already exist
as part of the local cultural repertoire. They include adherence
to kin and ethnic groups, feud and inter-ethnic violence. The
distribution of force may drift away from the state to become
concentrated in competing organisations within civil society.
The numerous cases of violent con¬‚ict in Europe, Africa
and Asia during the 1990s seem to show that contempo-
rary society is increasingly vulnerable to apparently mind-
less acts of destruction. Hobbes™s pessimism appears justi¬ed.
Chapter 4 looks carefully at this view, and criticises some of
the more deterministic applications of Darwinian theory to
human social behaviour. Evolutionary psychology, for exam-
ple, argues that humans™ capacity for social behaviour evolved
during the time we were hunter-gatherers and has sometimes
become inappropriate in the more complex societies of recent
times. Some authors have even concluded that humans share
a genetic disposition to violence with chimpanzees, and that
culture provides an inadequate safeguard. Chapter 4 therefore
looks at evidence for the evolutionary signi¬cance of human
warfare. It argues that warfare and peacemaking are equally
important in human social evolution. The chapter highlights
common characteristics in tribal warfare and civil war within
Order and anarchy
nation states that arise from the pursuit of competing strate-
gies in situations where resources are scarce, trust under threat
yet the means to violence prevalent.

Characterising civil society
In the work of in¬‚uential recent writers such as Ernest Gellner
(1994) and Adam Seligman (1992), the concept of ˜civil society™
is central to the analysis of stability and instability in the nation
state. As the post-Second World War socialist regimes of East-
ern Europe began to crumble, there was widespread optimism
about the ability of people to come together to promote a com-
mon interest in self-determination, in democracy, through the
medium of civil society. Western governments who aided the
dismantlingofsocialismcontendedthatafree market economy
promoted self-reliance, and thus participation in civil society.
The alleged absence of civil society under socialism was taken
as proof of its intrinsic connection with capitalism. During the
next few years, however, faith in the universal development
of civil society was shaken by events such as the rise of eth-
nic nationalism in former Yugoslavia. Whether civil society
could be said to exist in such cases was questioned. Relation-
ships based on kinship and ethnicity appeared categorically
opposed to those underpinning civil society; they seemed, in
Adam Seligman™s (1992) terms, primordial, not rational. A
number of questions are therefore addressed in the ¬rst part
of the chapter.

How should ˜civil society™ be de¬ned?

Is civil society necessarily associated with a commercial

economy (as Gellner and Seligman argue) or can it occur
under different regimes (as Hann and White contend)?
Does civil society necessarily tend to support or undermine

the state?
Civil society and social cohesion 9
In the second part of the chapter I review what John Locke
(1632“1704) and Adam Ferguson (1723“1816) actually wrote
about civil society, showing that they intended the concept
to have much wider application than its current usage. The
third part of the chapter therefore explores how the cur-
rent, circumscribed and politically biased approach originated
and how alternative, equally useful approaches have been
The Enlightenment concept of civil society was ¬rst for-
mulated by Locke (1960 [1689]) and Ferguson (1995 [1767]).
During the mid-1980s, political scientists in both Eastern
and Western Europe advocated creating a civil society in
Eastern Europe as a way of pushing back the state (Hann 1990;
Khilnani 2001). The fact that the concept of civil society was
coined during the period when Western European society was
undergoing the great transformation from feudalism to mer-
cantile capitalism was considered decisive by analysts writing
in the 1990s. Because the concept was invented at the time

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