The weirdly conservative world of J. David Schloen

As part of my sacred economy project, I have finally finished working through J. David Schloen’s The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East (2001). It is eminently useful, obsessive, rambling, conservative, and ultimately flawed. The basic thesis is that Max Weber’s patrimonialism (patronage) is a valid category for understanding the politics and economies of pretty much every society in the ancient Near East, at least until the ‘Axial Age’ in the first millennium when ‘rationalisation’ began. He also deploys Paul Ricoeur for his theoretical armoury in order to provide what he feels is a ‘dialectic’ between fact and symbol (it is really more of a wooden correlation).

Useful: it is one of the few works on ancient politics, society and economics that is concerned also with theory. It also engages with the work of the heterodox Marxist of the USSR, Igor D’iakonoff, although it slips too quickly into the work of those who developed some of D’iakonoff’s ideas. And it supplies a wealth of data, even if the material leads to different conclusions than the ones Schloen wants to find.

Obsessive and rambling: it runs for over 400 large-format double-column pages, which would be well over 800 pages in a standard book. Endless pages are devoted to obscure Ugaritic terms, to discussions of architectural ground plans, to just about anything. In short, it is one of those books that took well over a decade to write, attempting to say everything. Where was the supervisor (it began as a PhD thesis) or editor? Where was the wise friend who could say, ‘David, drop that, that, and that’?

Conservative: the reading of Weber is a highly idealised one, with heavy emphasis on the force of ideas on history and a dismissal of any materialist analysis as ‘functionalist’. The choice of Ricouer is no accident in this respect, since that gentle conservative was able to wield a knife in such a way that you knew you’d been stabbed only when the blood began to flow. It is conservative on a historical register as well: Schloen accepts the hypothesis that the settlements in the Judean highlands during the prolonged economic crisis at the end of the second millennium BCE were Israelite, that one can speak confidently of the divided monarchy, that there are clear ethnic differences between Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Israelites (even though they could all speak their own dialects and understand one another). Above all, he attempts to wash away any form of social conflict. It matters not whether one is slave or free, rich or poor, exploited or exploiter, monarch or nomadic pastoralist, for we are all part of a patrilineal household, whether with our joint family, with our monarch, or with our god. There are no social contradictions, no reasons for conflict, but an over-arching social harmony in which everyone knows their place.

That last point leads onto the flaws, which are many. In his effort to paint a picture of patrimonial harmony, Schloen cannot deal with tension and conflict. That makes him curiously impervious to Marxist approaches, the discussions of which are among the worst in the book. To those approaches he attributes strange motives (a desire for a rigid sequence of modes of production), adduces strange arguments (Stalin was vitally concerned that scholars of the ancient Near East toe the party line), and simply misses the key points of Marxist analysis. He also makes the rookie mistake of announcing the next book, concerning the ‘Axial Age’, in some detail. You do that only when the manuscript is complete and with the press, not when it is an idea in your head and maybe a few notes. Why? Obsessive habits delay plans and thoughts shift. Basically, things change, don’t they?

But the main flaw is that he takes a particular feature and makes it the key to his argument. That is, he focuses on the specific institutional form of patronage and then universalises it as a template that explains everything. He thereby fails to see that it is but one institutional form among others – subsistence survival, kinship-household, state and estate, tribute-exchange, and credit-debt. The specific combinations and adjustments of these produced both the possibilities and fault-lines of the shifting economies of the ancient Near East.


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