Then: Was Sumer a great leap forward or a monstrous aberration?

Steven Welzer
6 min readAug 2, 2021


Sumer is the earliest known civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia. Living along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, Sumerian farmers grew an abundance of grain and other crops, the surplus from which enabled them to form urban settlements. The earliest written texts come from the Sumerian cities of Ur and Jemdet Nasr, and date to between c. 3500 and c. 3000 BC.

We’re taught that the ascent into civilization constituted a progressive leap. Fredy Perlman describes how it was a regrettable aberration; then writes:

Here we reach a problem that has plagued people since the age of the first Ur, the problem of resistance. Some of us will wish, in retrospect, that the communities within Ur’s reach had destroyed the first monster in its lair, while it was isolated and not very large.

Apparently numerous communities in the Zagros mountains and in the Persian plains try to do precisely that, and they fail.

Others, less sanguine, perhaps less confident of the might of their gods in the face of armor and wheels, do the next best thing to fleeing: they wall themselves in, thus walling the moster’s claws out. The walls protect these resisters from Ur’s claws but do not keep the resisters out of Leviathan’s entrails.

Why do the resisters fail? This is an important question, the question of Life against Death. Norman O. Brown will make it the title of a very informative book.

Pre-state communities were gatherings of living but mortal individuals. All their secrets and all their ways were passed on directly, by word of mouth. If the keeper of important uncommunicated secrets died, her secrets died with her. Enmities and grudges died with their holders. The visions and the ways were as varied as the individuals who experienced and practiced them; that’s why there was such a richness. But the visions and ways were as mortal as the people. Mortality is an inseparable part of Life: it is Life’s end.

We tend to project modern institutions into the state of nature. There were no institutions in the state of nature.

Institutions are impersonal and immortal. They share this immortality with no living beings under the sun. Of course they are not living beings. They are segments of a carcass. Institutions are not a part of Life but a part of Death. And Death cannot die.

Sumerian Ensis [bosses] died and zeks die, but the labor gang “lives” on. Generals and soldiers die, but Ur’s army “lives” on and in fact grows larger and deadlier. Death’s realm grows though the living die. This creates problems that resisters have not, so far, been able to deal with.

Those who try to destroy the first Leviathan by storming its walls, the Guti and others in the Zargos mountains, the Elamites in the Persian plains, the Canaanites and other Semites of the Levant, cannot dispatch a simple war party with an informal chieftain as in the old days. A war party from a single camp won’t reach even the outskirts of Ur. They have to gang up with other camps, with as many as possible, before even contemplating a serious raid. And once they do gang up and attack, they cannot disperse and return to village life as they always could before. They may even defeat Ur’s main army, but before their victory celebration ends they get word that Ur’s undying army has already massacred more of their kin.

So, since they bothered to gang up, they stay ganged up. The young men don’t lay down their spears. This is unprecedented, but how else are they to resist the monster? They’ve committed themselves to staying and they feel constrained to accept the consequences.

Their armed men do unto the foreigners what the foreigners do to them. They return with captured Sumerians, and the captives are put to work on local shrines and fortifications.

Technology progresses. Death’s realm expands. Soon there are many Leviathans. There’s Elam in the Persian plains, there’s Mari and Ebla and others in the Levant, and there’s talk of a Guti Leviathan somewhere in the mountains. The brave fighters succeed in defeating only themselves.

* * *

Those who wall themselves in fall into a similar trap.

Communities built walls before, at Jericho for example. But they built a wall once. Wall-building was not an institution among them. The hostiles camped outside were not Urlugal’s undying army. They were another community who either moved to another site, or who found husbands and wives among those of Jericho, and ceased being hostiles.

This is no longer the situation faced by the builders of walls on the banks of the Nile, by those raising the walled Mohenjo Daro on the banks of the Indus, by those who would slightly later enclose themselves in fortresses in Central Anatolia.

The Leviathanic intruders are not communities of free mortals. They are emissaries from something that neither leaves nor dies. Even their memories are not human but are stones carried in pouches. Jericho’s walls will no longer do. The walls have to be high and strong, and they have to be repaired as often as the ditches of Erech.

The seasons pass and the generations pass, yet the walls must still be maintained. And maintained they are, generation after generation.

The seeress who dreamt of the need for these walls has experienced her last important vision. From that day on her kin have paid her scanty attention; they’ve been hovering around her brother, Pharaoh, who in his person combines the offices of Sumerian priest and Sumerian Lugal (overseer).

Walls cannot be permanently maintained with a temporary division of labor. At first free cultivators of the soil are invited to help build the walls, in exchange for stimulating visions as well as grain plundered by Pharaoh’s men from other cultivators. And the free peasants do build, apparently of their own accord, sublimely beautiful walls and pillars and shrines, with surfaces covered by sculptured and painted motifs rich with meaning to everyone on the Nile.

But a permanent division of labor is compulsory simply by being permanent, and compulsion is soon as common on the banks of the Nile as on those of the Tigris. What was done voluntarily by one generation is expected of the next, and is imposed. Egypt is no longer a place where people share ways; it is now a place where some impose laws on others. Ways were always living ways; laws are not ways of free people. Laws are Leviathan’s ways.

The tasks performed for Pharaoh are not freely chosen; they are imposed tasks, forced labor.

And like a living worm that reconstitutes itself from a mere segment, a complete Leviathan is excreted by the Pharaoh’s household. The builders and craftsmen are no longer invited. Pharaoh now leads armies northward to Sinai and the Levant, southward to Nubia. He returns with captives. He imposes heavy tribute on those not captured and leaves tribute collectors in distant garrisons. Like the Lugal, he now has scribes who keep track of the tribute, and he sends punitive expeditions.

Pharaoh too has an artificial memory now, a data bank as we will call it. His scribes have devised a script of their own as have scribes in distant Mohenjo Daro on the Indus. The characters and the materials are different, but the aim is the same. And Pharaoh’s scribes, like the Lugal’s, have devised an artificial year, a calendar, the earliest form of clock, to be able to foresee the days when the tribute crops turn ripe.

How sad! All this is being done to protect the Old Ways from the onslaught of a beast with “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” All this is being done for the sake of the spirits of the valley, for the ancient community’s gods. But the struggle against a Leviathan state requires a militarization and institutionalization that breeds a counter-Leviathan state just as aberrant.



Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).