Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (James C. Scott)

This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.”  The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant.  Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgment that more organized is always better.

Against the Grain is erudite, smoothly written, and gives the reader a lot of food for thought—not just about how to view early states and other social groupings, but also about how human flourishing should be viewed and understood.  Should we prize the material and cultural milestones generated by a society, even if they come at the price of hardship for most, commanded by elites who appropriate their output?   Or should our touchstone be the immediate happiness of the masses, even if what the society produces is therefore utterly unmemorable and does not advance mankind?  That is—in what does human “flourishing” consist?  These are issues that Scott only touches on, but it seems to me they necessarily arise from his arguments, which are not complete without answers to these questions.

Most of Scott’s analysis revolves around the Mesopotamia of 3000 B.C. or so, although he touches on a few other societies of different times and places to illustrate and flesh out his points.  The backbone of Scott’s book is his claim that “sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared.”  Thus, contrary to the usual linear view of state formation, some humans settled in more-or-less one place, but did not form social groups more complex than bands, or perhaps tribes in some cases (Scott does not use the traditional group nomenclature of band, tribe, chiefdom, etc.).  Therefore, the traditional story arc, of states automatically arising (though for reasons which are disputed) as soon as crops and sedentism appeared, is, Scott tells us, wholly wrong.

Of course, before domesticated crops, sedentism was possible only where local conditions were ideal—that is, where what nature (modified to some degree by man, most of all by fire) provided the bounty and diversity that enabled humans to live off the land.  Where this was true, though, people were able to live well for centuries, and to live much better, healthier lives than later state dwellers.  (Scott is fond of referring negatively to early states, hotbeds of disease, vermin, and drudgery, as “the late Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp.”)  Alluvial plains with intermittent water flows from rivers or oceans were ideal, including southern Mesopotamia and China around the Yellow River.  Such wetland societies are Scott’s main focus.  “They were based on what are now called ‘common property resources’—free-living plants, animals, and aquatic creatures to which the entire community had access.”  The rest of the world, of course, remained nomadic to the degree a particular locale lacked such resources.

Having established that sedentary lifestyles did not immediately, or even soon, result in states, the core of Scott’s project is not just to distinguish sedentary life from state life.  It is also to explode the idea that pre-state societies were somehow inferior to the first states.  (Scott might even say they were not inferior to modern states, either, but he does not address that question.)  In fact, sedentism itself is not necessarily forward progress, whether it ends in states or not.  There is no “social will to sedentism,” and alternatives to sedentism were at this time highly varied, both in type and over time, with porous borders and frequent movement along a gradient between sedentism and nomadism, depending on everything from climatic conditions to migratory patterns of wild animals.  And for most people who were not state elites, living with that variability was highly desirable, because the diversification of food sources and methods of acquisition created a much more stable, enjoyable, and healthy life environment, in most cases, than states based on a small number of grain crops requiring constant heavy labor to ensure a decent harvest.  Therefore, living in a state was neither a necessary nor a desirable development, from the perspective of any individual Neolithic person.

So, if four thousand years elapsed between the time people settled and when states formed in those same area, and people were getting along fine, why did states form at all?  Not for Scott a Hobbesian vision of the state offering people a relief from the horror of life outside the state—on the contrary, for most people, the Hobbesian state is a step down.  Scott’s project is effectively to invert Hobbes’s claim that the life of pre-state man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” to be “social, comfortable, enjoyable, (relatively) peaceful and longer.”  Scott says little about warfare among non-state peoples in Mesopotamia; I suspect he understates its prevalence, but it does appear that non-state people were better fed, and they certainly worked less.  And in these naturally productive geographic areas, at least, there was no need to adopt the drudgery of agricultural labor, organized on the state level, to survive.

While specific mechanics are not his focus, Scott believes instead that what drove state formation was the gradual emergence of fully domesticated grain crops.  “What is required is wealth in the form of an appropriable, measurable, dominant grain crop and a population growing it that can be easily administered and mobilized.”  Grain is thus the root of all state formation.  No grain, no state.  Scott relates the characteristics of domesticated grains, and then contrasts how those grain crops are far superior to other crops, such as tubers (cassava, potatoes) from the perspective of state administrators and tax collectors (because grain is portable, storable, and all ripens at the same time).  Scott directs the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale, and he is clearly extremely knowledgeable about crops, which increases the reader’s interest by allowing well-chosen examples that bring the topics at hand to life.  The book’s title, Against the Grain, is actually a double pun—first, in that the book is contrarian to received wisdom on state formation; second, in that the crux of that contrarian view is that domesticated grain is largely a negative for most early humans, because it prevented the type of egalitarian flourishing that Scott favors, rather favoring the elite and the flourishing that comes from elite dominance of the masses.  But we will get to that.

Scott also spends quite a bit of time on the more general process of domestication, of “niche construction.”  He speculates (his word) on human parallels, suggesting that as humans domesticated crops and animals, they were also domesticating themselves, giving themselves some of the same characteristics of domesticated herd animals—including, perhaps, a reduced tendency to violence (Steven Pinker, call your office).  Scott apparently raises sheep himself, and he defends sheep against those who think they have, um, sheep-like characteristics—not that they don’t have those characteristics, just that it’s not fair of us to make fun of them when we created those characteristics ourselves.

Subsumed within this agrarian focus on state formation are topics on which Scott focuses in his other books, including the luminous Seeing Like A State, such as the importance of “legibility” of the population to the state and the tendency of the state to ignore the knowledge of people that cannot be systematized and reduced to transferable data (and therefore the inevitable failure of many state projects, especially those of “high modernism”).  Along with grain becoming an available and dominant crop, for a state to form the population must have few options other than participating in the state, since Scott is convinced no rational person would choose to live in a state, at least as a member of the mass rather than the elite, if he had the option of a reasonable non-state life.  Exit options can be constrained by simple lack of alternatives, such as no nearby place that can support a hunter-gathering lifestyle reliably, or by violence, either outside threats or the state coercing its subjects to remain in place.  To the extent people cannot be constrained, and leave, they can be replenished with slaves, purchased or won in combat.  Thus, the state is inherently unnatural, compared with a semi-sedentary, hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

To buttress this argument, Scott notes that early states were extremely fragile.  They were subject to the same stresses faced by subsistence peoples, such as climactic changes, along with additional ones, such as vastly increased risks for disease (for which increased rates of reproduction were necessary to compensate, something Scott darkly implies is bad without saying why, probably by reflex), and the results of deforestation and salinization.  They also featured the tendency of elites to squeeze the population too hard in times of external crisis.  Yet they lacked the flexibility of movement or dispersal that allowed subsistence peoples to react gradually and with reasonable grace to changes or problems.

But Scott sees the inevitable end of fragility not so much as collapse in the sense of, say, Troy, but as “disassembly” of the state back into constituent units of subsistence people.  And, critically, he does not see this as necessarily bad, or even often bad.  He seems to think, though he never exactly says so, that the people are better off.  After all, he’s clear that pre-state peoples mostly find their lives worse off in states—so after a collapse, their lives must, on average, be better.  “Unlike many historians, I wonder whether the frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a ‘dark age’ signaling collapse of a civilization.”  Our view is conditioned by largely being transmitted by two negative pieces of evidence:  writings about “collapses” by those most negatively affected, and archaeological evidence of disaster.  Dispersed (happy) populations with a light footprint, gamboling through the meadows, leave neither writing nor much archaeological evidence.  Maybe the collapse of early states, at least, was often for the best.  In fact, collapses of states don’t, in Scott’s view, even cause a deterioration in culture.  “[A] collapse at the center is less likely to mean a dissolution of a culture than its reformulation and decentralization.”  We will return to this bold claim below.

Scott seems to march to the beat of his own drummer.  His entire project, and much of his academic output, does not fit neatly into any category.  Seeing Like A State, his best-known book, attacks as ignorant and failed most large-scale state social engineering, and should be required reading for all politicians and well-informed people.  His books aren’t political books in the sense of didactic, though; they’re much more works of political anthropology.  And while no conservative, he refuses to pander to political correctness, using (horrors!) terms like “mankind,” while noting in passing that Europeans didn’t originate the African slave trade, but merely “had joined the Arabs in scouring the slaving ports of the African continent for slaves.”  Scott also repeatedly notes that slavery was universal among non-state peoples, contrary to the common myth that slavery is somehow a byproduct of (usually European) civilization—and, in fact, was especially common among “manpower-hungry Native American peoples.”  All of these points are anathema in most academic circles today, but I suppose when you’re eighty and mighty in your field, you do what you want.

Scott rejects that non-state peoples are lazy, or, in the language sometimes used, have “high time preference.”  He maintains that hunter-gatherers, contrary to myth, frequently delay returns and engage in complex long-term behaviors to acquire food, rather than just stumbling across berries—in particular “mass capture” of animals during migrations, as well as sculpting the landscape through fire, weeding, and so forth.  Nor are they ignorant; they know an enormous amount about their environment and the living things in it.  Yes, the tempo of their lives is different, dictated by nature, but often it involves “bursts of intense activity over short periods of time.”  The reader gets the impression that Scott thinks that a Mesopotamian hunter-gatherer would be a much more interesting dinner companion than a modern factory worker (which is probably correct).  He cites Tocqueville’s comment upon reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:  “What can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life putting heads on pins?”  In other words—the drudgery inherent in increased productivity crushes the individuality out of humans.  It kills human flourishing, at least mental flourishing, for the masses.

Finally, Scott sums it all up by focusing on the “Golden Age of the Barbarians.”  As with much of the book, this is fascinating because it turns the focus from the way we normally think of populations outside of civilizations.  As Scott repeatedly points out, until very recently (roughly 1600 A.D.), the vast majority of the human populations were “barbarian” (a term Scott explicitly uses ironically to mean merely any people outside state control).  Being barbarian was, for the reasons he outlines throughout the book, much better for an individual.  In fact, contrary to the usual practice, Scott ascribes the creation of many tribes (rather than bands, implicitly) not to pre-state groupings, but to those fleeing state control and becoming barbarians.  And a great many barbarians didn’t just live in savagery—they merely, as with states, competed for the surplus produced by grain centers, but differently, through raiding and the imposition of tribute requirements, rather than by directly coercing the sedentary masses to produce crops.  Barbarians weren’t so much uncivilized as differently civilized.  The reader gets the distinct impression that Scott would be happy to have been a Gothic tribesman of, say, 400 A.D.

All this is very well done.  But where Scott lets the reader down somewhat is in failing to distinguish between two very different modes in which non-state early societies could be judged superior, or at least not inferior, to early states.  The first, on which Scott exclusively focuses without acknowledging he is doing so, is the health and happiness of individual humans, viewed through the utilitarian frame of the greatest good for the greatest number of people alive at any given time.  The second, which Scott almost totally ignores, is human accomplishment, both in its high points accomplished at great cost, and in its movement forward of the baseline of human health and happiness.

Put most bluntly, is human flourishing maximized if mankind were to have remained hunter gatherers forever, not subject to states and largely free, but not advancing in any material way, or is it maximized if, through what we can stipulate is a great deal of additional suffering, the average human of a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years later is made better off, materially and culturally?  Maybe an anarchist thinks the former, especially if he denies that forward progress is more likely under states (a hard argument to make with a straight face; collective accomplishment under the command of an elite is probably necessary for any real progress), and especially if he is the end point of that improvement and is looking backwards over a glass of Chardonnay bought at Costco.

As a starting point to examine material and cultural progress, we can agree with Scott that overall production, GDP if you will, is greater with states.  “[U]ntil the state extracts and appropriates this surplus, any dormant additional production that might exist is ‘consumed’ in leisure and cultural elaboration.”  Thus, humans outside of states are producing less than they could.  The problem, though, is that “cultural elaboration” here is mostly a nice word for carving bones to put through your nose—there is no evidence that non-state peoples had any culture, except in the broadest sense.  Scott does not define culture, but he clearly believes that the culture of a band of humans who, several generations back, fled a city due to epidemic or invasion is by no means inferior to the culture of a city.  To most people, these things cannot be compared, because one is much greater.  The glory of man consists in the highest products of his culture, which, unfortunately, almost always rest to a greater or lesser degree on the suffering of others.

Scott argues that Neolithic peoples were rational in avoiding states, and in fleeing them at the first sign of fragility or collapse.  “The first and most prudent assumption about historical actors is that, given their resources and what they know, they are acting reasonably to secure their immediate interests.”  True enough—but this is not enough to ensure the march of civilization.  One can reasonably differ on whether that march is actually good—maybe we’d all be better off as subsistence collectors of shellfish, rather than as masters of nuclear weapons.  Of course, there would be a lot fewer of us—not that Scott seems to think more is better, given his disapproval of state attempts to boost populations.  The reader still can’t shake the feeling that, deep down, Scott wishes he were not here, but was cracking mussels on a rock, somewhere overlooking the wetland plain around what is now Basra, five thousand years ago.  Like Minniver Cheevy, Scott was born too late.

Yes, a Mesopotamian barbarian of 3000 B.C. might well have been happier than the Mesopotamian peasant.  But, other than perhaps Scott himself, who would choose to be a Mesopotamian barbarian today?  A few people might, but once they realized that their lot would be plenty of leisure, along with filariasis and a zillion other diseases, they would not persist.  If, however, humans as a whole had magically been given, in 3000 B.C., the data offered by Scott, and the choice whether to form states, and had chosen to avoid states, we would still be hunting, gathering, and “marine collecting.”  Scott seems to think that would have been preferable.

Or, to take a non-health example, do we prefer the cultural achievements of Greece with city-states, or that of the Greek “Dark Ages” (roughly 1100 B.C. to 800 B.C.)?  The answer is obvious, though Scott tries to evade the answer by muttering that the Iliad was an oral creation of the Dark Ages.  True enough, but the exception proves the rule.  “[T]here is a strong case to be made that such ‘vacant’ periods represented a bolt for freedom by many state subjects and an improvement in human welfare.”  Thus, the fall of Rome was arguably an improvement—it “restored the ‘old regional patchwork’ that had prevailed before the Empire was cobbled together from its constituent units.”  Scott thus denies that the cultural whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, certainly a bold claim.  “What is lost culturally when a large state center is abandoned or destroyed is thus an empirical question [not that he addresses it].  Surely it is likely to have an effect on the division of labor, and scale of trade, and on monumental architecture.  On the other hand, it is just as likely that the culture will survive—and be developed—in multiple smaller centers no longer in thrall to the center.  On must never confound culture with state centers or the apex of a court culture with its broader foundations.”  Maybe.  But is it really likely that Michelangelo would have “developed” in a village, or a band of near-savages sitting on a midden of discarded oyster shells?  The reader suspects that Scott sees no hierarchy of culture, and thinks that oyster shell beads cannot be judged inferior to the Sistine Chapel.  This suspicion is reinforced when Scott goes on, in the context of denying that “dark ages” are bad, about the importance of the “democratization of culture” resulting from collapse (again citing the Iliad as superior, because supposedly egalitarian, to “texts that depend less on performance than on a small class of literate elites who can read them.”).  “There may well be, then, a great deal to be said on behalf of classical dark ages in terms of human well-being.”  Namely, less taxes, less war, less disease, and they “may even usher in a modest degree of egalitarianism” and “a reformulation and a diversity of cultural production.”

Maybe.  But almost certainly not.  The whiff of anarchist utopia pervades this set of conclusions.  Not that that undermines this excellent book—actually, it feels a bit like the old man at the corner bar, who knows a lot of interesting things and is happy to share, but every so often veers off into talking about the Illuminati.  The digression does not reduce the value of his thoughts, and it is the same here.



Against Nostalgia

Elon Musk (Walter Isaacson)

Tucker (Chadwick Moore)

On Marriage

On Manual Work for Men