the bear necessities

My previous post used Kurosawa’s classic 1954 film The Seven Samurai to illustrate the basic components of Franz Oppenheimer‘s conquest theory of the state.

I wrote,

If the bandits had won, would they have destroyed the village, raped the women, packed off the rice, and gone elsewhere? Maybe. But the fact that they invest so heavily in attacking the village suggests that they don’t have anywhere else to go. If that’s the case, then they can’t afford to destroy the village. How would they eat next year? Better to take some large fraction, but leave the villagers with enough to survive another year, and to survive well enough to bring about another harvest.

Once again, where I appeal to Kurosawa for my analogy, Oppenheimer himself reaches for the bear:

The herdsman in the first stage is like the bear, who for the purpose of robbing the beehive, destroys it. In the second stage he is like the bee-keeper, who leaves the bees enough honey to carry them through the winter.

His analogy is more concise and probably more effective than mine. So far so good, but Oppenheimer’s next point caught me completely off guard:

Great is the progress between the first stage and the second. Long is the forward step, both economically and politically. In the beginning, as we have seen, the acquisition by the tribe of herdsmen was purely an occupying one. Regardless of consequences, they destroyed the source of future wealth for the enjoyment of the moment. Henceforth the acquisition becomes economical, because all economy is based on wise housekeeping, or in other words, on restraining the enjoyment of the moment in view of the needs of the future. The herdsman has learned to “capitalize.” It is a vast step forward in politics when an utterly strange human being, prey heretofore like the wild animals, obtains a value and is recognized as a source of wealth. Although this is the beginning of all slavery, subjugation, and exploitation, it is at the same time the genesis of a higher form of society, that reaches out beyond the family based upon blood relationship. We saw how, between the robbers and the robbed, the first threads of a jural relation were spun across the cleft which separated those who had heretofore been only “mortal enemies.” The peasant thus obtains a semblance of right to the bare necessaries of life; so that it comes to be regarded as wrong to kill an unresisting man or to strip him of everything.


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