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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

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An Economist Best History Book 2017
“History as it should be written.”—Barry Cunliffe, Guardian
“Scott hits the nail squarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilization and political order.”—Walter Scheidel, Financial Times
Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grains, and governed by precursors of today’s states? Most people believe that plant and animal domestication allowed humans, finally, to settle down and form agricultural villages, towns, and states, which made possible civilization, law, public order, and a presumably secure way of living. But archaeological and historical evidence challenges this narrative. The first agrarian states, says James C. Scott, were born of accumulations of domestications: first fire, then plants, livestock, subjects of the state, captives, and finally women in the patriarchal family—all of which can be viewed as a way of gaining control over reproduction.
Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture, the advantages of mobile subsistence, the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain, and why all early states are based on millets and cereal grains and unfree labor. He also discusses the “barbarians” who long evaded state control, as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and nonsubject peoples.

312 pages, Hardcover

First published August 22, 2017

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About the author

James C. Scott

37 books647 followers
James C. Scott is an American political scientist and anthropologist specializing in comparative politics. He is a comparative scholar of agrarian and non-state societies, subaltern politics, and anarchism.

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Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
490 reviews700 followers
August 5, 2017
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 readers 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 (Stephen 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 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 mostly 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.

[Review completed as first comment.]
Profile Image for Marc.
3,040 reviews1,047 followers
December 21, 2021
An Anarchist Look at Early History
I'm sorry to say, but the subtitle of this book is completely off: this is not a deep history of the earliest states at all, but a very selective, ideological reading of a very limited segment of history. James C. Scott (° 1936) is an esteemed political scientist who is best known for his sharp analysis of the negative sides of centralist and dirigistic forms of government, especially states. Hence his reputation as an 'anarchist'. Now I am not going to deny that anarchism as a theory and analysis tool definitely has its attractive sides. But when you project a vision that was developed in the 19th century back into the distant past, you run great risks. And that's exactly what happens in this book.

Scott is determined to prove that the first states were no good, nor were they attractive at all. For this he takes a selective number of studies on the Southern Mesopotamian civilization as a point of reference. I'm not going to argue that everything he says is nonsense, but he is very selective, putting forward statements that are empirically questionable. He claims, for example, that people were constantly running away from the first cities and states, trying to regain their freedom in the non-statal 'barbarism'. He also repeatedly argues that classical archeology presents a completely outdated picture of the developments before and during the Neolithic; his book is full of twists and turns such as 'contrary to'. But this is pure nonsense, because archeology has left the Gordon Childe stage (with its glorification of the 'Neolithic Revolution') behind for decades.

Moreover, what Scott fails to explain is why sedentary, agrarian societies, if they were so unhealthy and unloved, have broken through anyway. His strongest argument is that it took at least 4 millennia between the beginning of agriculture and the appearance of the first real states, suggesting that only when agriculture produced sufficient surplus, a state administration could be developed that forcibly could bind the inhabitants. And in this process grain – in all its forms – played a very important role indeed, because it is relatively easy 'manageable', especially as a taxation commodity. There's something to this, but I think Scott has his chronology a bit wrong. So, this book is not really convincing to me, but at the same time I have to admit that Scott regularly puts up theses that make us think about our current view on human development. I'm looking into these in my larger review in my History-Account on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
203 reviews6 followers
July 3, 2017
Can't stress enough how important it is for progressives/leftists to engage with James C. Scott's work. He's done more than probably anyone to shift my understanding of how states operate and their effects on their subjects, on ecosystems, and on nonstate peoples—the three of his books I've read have all had a pretty significant impact on how I look at the world, which is not something I can say of many writers. His latest, Against the Grain, synthesizes a range of recent research into a new narrative of the emergence of agrarian states, highlighting their coercive nature, their fragility, and the role of domestication—of nonhumans and humans alike. Perhaps his most famous work is "Seeing Like a State," but where he really excels is being able to see like a *nonstate* actor: a citizen, a slave, or even a "barbarian."
Profile Image for Richard Reese.
Author 3 books155 followers
September 24, 2017
James C. Scott teaches political science and anthropology at Yale. He’s a smooth writer and a deep thinker. A while back, he decided to update two lectures on agrarian societies that he had been giving for 20 years. He began studying recent research and — gasp! — realized that significant portions of traditional textbook history had the strong odor of moldy cultural myths. So, a quick update project turned into five years, and resulted in a manuscript that I found to be remarkably stimulating, from cover to cover — Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

While the human saga is several million years old, and Homo sapiens appeared on the stage maybe 200,000 years ago, the origin myth I was taught began just 10,000 years ago, with domestication and civilization. We were transformed from hungry, dirty, dolts into brilliant philosophers, scientists, and artists, who lived indoors, wore cool clothes, and owned lots of slaves.

As a curious animal interested in ecological sustainability, I’m amazed that every other animal species has, for millions of years, lived on this planet without destabilizing the climate, spurring mass extinctions, poisoning everything, and generally beating the out of the planet. These are the unintended consequences of our reckless joyride in a hotrod of turbocharged progress. They define the primary aspects of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, the era when tropical primates with huge throbbing brains left permanent scars on the planet.

Experts argue about when the Anthropocene began. Did it start with the sorcery of nuclear fission, or the curse of fossil-powered industry? Many point to the domestication of plants and animals, and the birth of civilization. Scott is among the few who say it began with the domestication of fire, which occurred at least 400,000 years ago, sparked by our Homo erectus ancestors. Every other species continues to survive via the original power source, the sun’s wildfire. Plants grow green solar panels that produce the nutrients that keep the fauna alive and happy, a perfectly brilliant design.

Imagine waving a magic wand, and eliminating everything in the world made possible by domesticated fire — no metal, no concrete, no plastic, no glowing screens. Would humans still be around? Fire historian Stephen Pyne concluded, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness.” We wouldn’t be able to survive outside the tropics. The plant and animal species that enabled civilization lived north of the tropics (see THIS). Without domesticated fire, we’d still be wild and free — and far less crowded.

Scott focused on southern Mesopotamia, because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states. What are states? They are hierarchical societies, with rulers and tax collectors, rooted in a mix of farming and herding. The primary food of almost every early state was wheat, barley, or rice. Taxes were paid with grain, which was easier to harvest, transport, and store than yams or breadfruit. States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces or ritual centers, slaves, and maybe a king or queen.

The moldy myths imply that domesticated plants and animals, sedentary communities, and fixed-field agriculture emerged in a close sequence. Wrong! There is scattered evidence of sedentary hunter-gatherers by 12,000 B.C. Domestication began around 9000 B.C. It took at least four thousand years (160 generations!) before agricultural villages appeared, and then another two thousand years before the first states emerged, around 3100 B.C.

Moldy myths assume that the Fertile Crescent has been a desert since humans first arrived. Wrong! Southern Mesopotamia used to be wetlands, a cornucopia of wild foods, a paradise for hunters and gatherers. There was so much to eat that it was possible to quit wandering and live in settled communities. “Edible plants included club rush, cattails, water lily, and bulrush. They ate tortoises, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals, and migrating gazelles.” In a land of abundance, it would have been absolutely stupid to pursue the backbreaking drudgery of agriculture.

Moldy myths often give us the “backs-to-the-wall” explanation for the shift to agriculture, which was far more work. Simply, we had run out of new alternatives for feeding a growing mob, while hunting was producing less meat, and wild plants were producing less food. We had no choice! But in the Middle East, there appears to be no firm evidence associating early cultivation with the decline of either game animals or forage.

Cultivation seems to have emerged in regions of abundance, not scarcity. Every year, floods deposited silt along the riverbanks, moist fertile soil ready for sowing. So, flood-retreat farming would have required far less toil than tilling fields, while producing useful nutrients. More nutrients enabled further population growth, which eventually pressed the shift to miserable labor-intensive irrigated agriculture.

The root of “domestication” is “domus” (the household). In early Mesopotamia, “the domus was a unique and unprecedented concentration of tilled fields, seed and grain stores, people, and domestic animals, all coevolving with consequences no one could have possibly foreseen.” As a result of living on the domus, animals (including humans) were changed, both physically and behaviorally. In this process, wild species became domesticated. Over time, some species became “fully domesticated” — genetically altered, entirely dependent on humans for their survival. Domestication was also about deliberate control over reproduction, which “applied not only to fire, plants, and animals but also to slaves, state subjects, and women in the patriarchal family.”

Domesticated sheep have brains 24 percent smaller than their wild ancestors. Pig brains are a third smaller. Protected from predators, regularly fed, with restricted freedom of movement, they became less alert, less anxious, less aggressive — pudgy passive dimwit meatballs. They reached reproductive age sooner, and produced far more offspring.

“The multispecies resettlement camp was, then, not only a historic assemblage of mammals in numbers and proximity never previously known, but it was also an assembly of all the bacteria, protozoa, helminthes, and viruses that fed on them.” The domus was a magnet for uninvited guests: fleas, ticks, leeches, mosquitoes, lice, and mites. Unnatural crowds of animals spent their lives walking around in poop, and drinking dirty water. It was a devilishly brilliant incubator for infectious diseases. Humans share a large number of diseases with other domus animals, including poultry (26), rats and mice (32), horses (35), pigs (42), sheep and goats (46), cattle (50), and dogs (65).

Other writers have noted that, prior to contact, Native Americans had no epidemic diseases. With very few domesticated animals, they lacked state of the art disease incubators. Scott goes one step further, asserting that prior to the domus, there was little or no epidemic disease in the Old World. “The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can hardly be overestimated. It means that virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand.” Thus, the humans that first crossed from Siberia to North America 13,000 years ago were free of disease because little or no infectious disease existed anywhere in the world!

Dense monocultures of plants also begged for trouble. “Crops not only are threatened, as are humans, with bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases, but they face a host of predators large and small — snails, slugs, insects, birds, rodents, and other mammals, as well as a large variety of evolving weeds that compete with the cultivar for nutrition, water, light, and space.” Once harvested and stored in the granary, grain could be lost to weevils, rodents, and fungi. The biggest vulnerability of states was that they were almost entirely dependent on a single annual harvest of one or two staple grains. Crops could be wiped out by drought, flood, pests, storm damage, or crop diseases.

Mesopotamian life was largely human powered. Workers grew the grain that the tax man hauled away to the plump elites. More workers meant more wealth and power for the big shots. In screw-brained hierarchical cultures (including ours), it’s impossible to have too much wealth. Therefore, peasants and slaves were husbanded like livestock. The diabolical “more is better” disease was devastating. Some believe that monumental walls were built as much for defense as to prevent taxpayers and slaves from escaping to freedom.

Early states were vulnerable in many ways, and they frequently collapsed. Collapse sounds like a tragedy. But it could simply mean breaking up into smaller components. Larger was not necessarily better. A drought might cause a state’s population to disperse. For the non-elites, life in a Mesopotamian state could be oppressive and miserable. Sometimes, collapse was a cause for celebration. Yippee!

Anyway, the book is fascinating. Readers also learn about the tax game, the vital slave industry, trade networks, deforestation, erosion, soil salinization, irrigation, looting and raiding, mass escapes of workers, the challenges and benefits of being surrounded by large numbers of aggressive nomadic herders, and on and on. It’s an outstanding book!

WARNING: The expensive Kindle edition contains numerous charts, maps, and diagrams. When downloaded to the Kindle for PC application (v 1.20.1), most are unreadably small, even on a 24” monitor. Clever nerds can tediously capture the images to another application, expand them, and read them. Strong reading glasses (3.75 lens or higher) also work with a big monitor.
Profile Image for Nick Grammos.
193 reviews72 followers
May 31, 2021
A quick note only. The formation of the state through elite control of the agricultural surplus. The state and the threat of violence against its citizens arose out of the need to gain control of surplus agricultural resources. In a foraging, hunting and gathering society, there is no surplus. Everyone is as equal as any other since everyone contributes what they can. It may have been our early idyllic state of being, no hierarchy, morality based on the value of each individual in small well fed dynamic societies. But settlement disrupts all this, agriculture brings about social division. It also brings malnutrition and fear. Soldiers are required, they need to feed off agricultural surplus. The poor farmer is screwed.

Scott suggests that settlement was not a foregone conclusion. Life before agriculture was pretty good especially in places where an abundance of natural feeding resources gave a year round well balanced diet and nutritional variety. Early farming communities were likely forced. But people resisted is his theory. And why wouldn't they? Early humans possibly had autonomy, a wide range of skills and creative opportunity to use their wide knowledge of landscape and food harvesting.

Scott is an anarchist looking at the formation of the state as a means of control by an elite. It all makes sense now. If only we'd known then. But some obviously knew they were losing so much and fought against it. Sadly we can't go back to the abundance of Mesopotamia and such places.
287 reviews4 followers
July 8, 2018
I have a few complaints against this book.

The primary one is how repetitive it is. It’s like wandering in circles in the forest. I keep reading and reading and it seems like it’s always the same paragraph. It’s not — it’s just the same information being rehashed yet again in a new chapter.

The other thing is that the subtitle of this book is accurate but it’s advertising (including the summary paragraph on Goodreads) is misleading.

The author spends a reasonable amount of time talking about how hunter-gathering really isn’t bad, and how cultivation may have risen alongside it, but states necessarily followed it. Then he summarizes 5000 years of Neolithic Revolution until the rise of states with a giant question mark in about two paragraphs, and goes on to describe the early states. We literally jump from individuals scattering seeds in the river delta to tax collectors and armies in a single page.

I was left with a lot of questions, such as “I understand why states would prefer grain cultivation, but why would Neolithic cultivators have selected for the determinate grain that makes the state possible, when there are perfectly good legumes to grow?” No theories provided.

It also seemed a bit odd that he thought the collapse of a state brought harm to nobody. People just “disperse” and return to different ways of subsistence. C’mon really? After going on about how complex hunting and gathering is, and how much knowledge it requires, does he really think someone who was a professional scribe is going to be able to make it work without a government to scribe for? He mentions populations disappearing, but seems confident it wasn’t due to death. I have my doubts.

Anyway, there’s some good stuff in here, and you’re bound to come across it even if you just skim, because it’s likely covered at least three times in depth.
Profile Image for Sense of History.
364 reviews411 followers
December 8, 2021
I’m rating this book rather low, I know, and that’s foremost because Scott offers a very selective and ideologically inspired look at the earliest history of humankind. I’ve summed up my most important points of critique in my review in my general account on Goodreads, see https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... But it’s not all nonsense Scott offers. In this review I’m looking at some of his arguments that seem to make sense, or that could inspire an original way of looking at early civilizations. But, on second thought, almost all his so-called new insights, have to be amended.

First, there are Scott's methodological remarks. Of course, he’s right that our image of the earliest development of mankind has long been determined by the fact that most of the sources and traces came from settled civilizations, early states, which could set up a bureaucracy, left many material traces and even quite quickly left narrative sources (in written form). This led to a distortion: “Once written documents—say, hieroglyphics or cuneiform—appear in the historical record, the bias becomes even more pronounced. These are invariably state-centric texts: taxes, work units, tribute lists, royal genealogies, founding myths, laws. There are no contending voices, and efforts to read such texts against the grain are both heroic and exceptionally difficult. The larger the state archives left behind, generally speaking, the more pages devoted to that historical kingdom and its self-portrait.”. Scott is right that especially in the beginning those early states were very fragile and only represented a very small part of the then inhabited world: “They were tiny nodes of power surrounded by a vast landscape inhabited by nonstate peoples—aka “barbarians.”

It is therefore best that the historiography takes this distortion into account. But let's be honest: she does! With a few exceptions archaeology and cultural history have long settled this distortion. Numerous are the studies that point to the more widespread and highly influential phenomenon of pastoralism and nomadism, which lived in a kind of love-hate relationship with so-called "civilized" cores. As early as the 1960s, William McNeill (1917-2016), the patriarch of Global History, paid a lot of attention to the important role of nomadic peoples in the dynamics of history. So in this regard, Scott himself clearly is biased.

Another point where he has a point is in stressing the importance of grain, in its various forms: wheat, barley, rice, maize, etc. They indeed were very defining in offering an economic base to the earliest civilizations and states. Scott rightly points out the interaction that existed here with the formation of the state. Grain was such an easy commodity to cultivate, harvest, measure, store, and exchange that the taxation systems in virtually all states to a large extent were based on those crops. But here too there is a distortion: Scott bases his claims mainly on the great empires, such as the Roman Empire and the first great dynasties in China. For the earliest states, the taxation mainly consisted of the ‘corvee’ work for the collective; after all, the yields of the first farmers were limited; all archaeological records indicate that for many millennia after the so-called Neolithic Revolution, farmers practiced multifarious cultivation, using multiple crops, combining animal husbandry and, in some cases, the elder hunting and gathering practices.

Finally, Scott points to the fragility of the earliest civilizations, and rightly so. In line of Marshal Sahlins (1930-2021), he cites the already well-known list of elements through which agrarian societies with an urbanistic slant have long balanced on the edge of the liveable: the greater efforts required by agriculture, the diseases and epidemics that are produced through the handling of domesticated animals and the concentrated habitation, the depletion of the soil, the crucial consequences of local climate changes, etc. All these elements made that it indeed took a very long time for agricultural societies to last a little longer than a few decades. But that too is now a well-known story, albeit with many variations.

There’s definitely still much that we do not yet know or fully understand about the earliest history of agrarian mankind and the first state formation. And Scott rightly points out some weaknesses. But his vision, inspired by anarchist ideology, does absolutely no justice to historical reality. It is striking that almost all of his concrete examples are limited to the relatively small area of southern Mesopotamia. This was an area with very specific geographical features, such as the proximity of higher plateaus where rather well-organized nomadic tribes ruled. So, this is absolutely not representative of, say, the Nile Valley in Egypt or the Yellow River in China. Scott circumvents this by relying on very outdated studies of Southern Mesopotamia from the 1960s and 1970s (Robert McCormick Adams and Hans J. Nissen), supplemented with articles from 1 congress from 2011. This seems to me to be a much too narrow foundation on which to build a bold new theory.

It is good that Scott asks critical questions of the earliest state formation, pointing out imperfections and gaps in the narrative built up by the archaeological finds. And in itself, going against the grain (hence his title) shows a healthy, critical attitude. But if you, like Scott, are systematically cherry-picking and distorting history on ideological grounds, there are strong caveats to be made.
Profile Image for Canon.
603 reviews57 followers
July 29, 2022
The upshot of this enjoyably provocative little book, which is pervaded with that peculiarly emeritus-professorial air of argument-by-erudite digression, is encapsulated in a phrase he actually uses: “Normalize collapse.”

Scott persuasively disputes “civilizational just-so” stories that put sedentary states at the apex of historical development from nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies. Scott shows that sedentary forms of society long predated states per se, that states were not the inevitable result of sedentary modes of life. For Scott, the defining characteristic of early states was instead the imposition of coercive forms of legibility such as taxation on their (growing) populations within a narrow geographic region — often against the backdrop of climatic or environmental stressors. The hypothetical ancient tax collector’s need for legibility explains the importance of grains as opposed to other less predictable crops in early states.

I find Scott’s arguments aimed at undermining anti-Barbarian “early state discourses” and latter day imperial appropriations or inventions of such discourses highly congenial. Scott’s analysis of slavery and oppression in ancient states (which helps prime his rejection of state-centric propaganda) is fascinating, and his focus on the role of epidemics and disease in early state dispersal is (in the present quasi-post-Covid moment) of course fascinating.

A practical application that is perhaps not directly intended, but that I nevertheless drew, is to care rather less about U.S. political polarization and civil war talk. Scott really does make concern with abstractions like “the nation” or “Culture,” etc., or one’s dependency on such constructs, feel extremely quaint. I’ll get on well enough.
Profile Image for ThereWillBeBooks.
78 reviews13 followers
August 20, 2020
Remember the paleo/keto diet craze? I suppose it’s still going on, hard for me to say because both regimens frown upon pizza and beer. But, from what I understand the principle of Paleo is that humans function better, physiologically, when they eat a diet composed of pre-civilized foods. No cereals or grains or anything that came about after the dawn of agriculture. Humans evolved to thrive in pre-agricultural revolution conditions and you will drastically improve your health if you eschew grains and other civilized foods.

Fair enough, interesting thought experiment at least. If this is the case though, wouldn’t there be sociological implications? If our assumptions about something as basic as what we eat have been wrong these last 10,000 years, what does that mean for our assumptions about history and politics and sociology?

This is the mindset to approach Against the Grain with. It’s hard to wrap your head around the notion that all of our assumptions about the world and our place in it may be mistaken, but the wedge provided by the paleo craze can lead to some mind blowing conclusions.

For instance, those 8,000 year old walls that archaeologists find and tell us were defensive in nature? Meant to keep invaders out? It looks as though they were built for the purposes of keeping an unwilling populace in.

Did you know that long ago most people likely wouldn’t have wanted to live in cities? They did just fine hunting and gathering and weren’t forced to work all day in the mines or the fields. The first city dwellers were herded into cities against their will, as an involuntary labor force. In fact, up until around 1600 A.D. there were places for the uncivilized to escape and live as “barbarians.”

Barbarian is really just a civilized word for those who would rather not subjugate themselves to work for the benefit of a civilized elite. Up until relatively recently on the historical timeline these uncivilized barbarians would have comprised the majority of the human population.
The implications go on and on.

Scott is a wonderful narrator and the book is scholarly without being off putting to novices or newbies to the subject. Oh, and I should add that all that silly paleo diet stuff mentioned above was my doing, this isn’t a gimmick book meant to capitalize on a dieting trend.

James Scott is one of those authors who can radically reshape the way you look at the world and Against the Grain is an excellent place to start.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
March 23, 2018
One of the most thought-provoking books I've read. I don't think I'm fully convinced by his idea, but the book gave me so much to think about. He seems to start with the premise that states are mostly parasitic, but why do humans keep creating states? There must be some benefit besides just tax goodies for the rich. Perhaps the non-zero sum arrangements that Robert Wright has highlighted? Reducing collective action issues? It's not all war and slavery.
Profile Image for Carlos.
588 reviews288 followers
November 3, 2018
Good and interesting read, if you are into anthropology, early history and archaeology then this is the book for you, It has a lot of information about early states and it puts them into perspective with how the progress of domestication influenced the rise of states and kingdoms. Highly recommend it .
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews196 followers
November 14, 2017
Against the Grain is a popular science summary of the now substantial case that agriculture was not the products of innovation but rather ecological circumstance, that the state was not the beginning of the end of deprivation, savagery, and oppression, but the start of the worst examples in human history. It focuses entirely (with reference to some other systems for comparison) on the first beginning of civilization, in Mesopotamia. While the general ideas here are very familiar to me, one of the big novelties was the depth of research on the transitional period in Mesopotamia, which now gives a complete enough picture that we can start the process of rewriting all of "modern human history" as an extension of human evolution in deep time and an expression of human niche construction. Starting this process in Mesopotamia is reasonable because it's the chief battleground for this argument as the site of the "original sin"; many of these conversations are content to simply trace a causal lineage back to Mesopotamia as the uncaused causer. Scott is inaugurating a reevaluation of all of human history, but it still makes a certain amount of sense to start here; after all, history before the start of agriculture has generally already been interpreted in a primarily ecological framework.

In a sense, Against the Grain is the culmination of the main thrust of my nonfiction reading since Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization 10 years ago. I suppose that, insofar as I didn't write it, it's less a culmination for me, but it's still a remarkable opportunity to look back. The citations of this book include everything from Manning's original Against the Grain, which was tremendously influential on me, to many of the sources I read in my anthropology independent study in undergrad, to much of the literature in human evolution, domestication, and niche construction I've been reading in the past year. There's a decent amount of other sources, of course, that I haven't read, and one conspicuous omission of what I have (which I'll get to later) but the overlap is remarkable (and validating).

The nice and somewhat relieving thing about this book is that its summary of the literature comes down in pretty much the same place I've arrived at. It doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of the beginning of agricultural civilization by any stretch (and indeed, that thesis is clearly still meant to be the novel one for most readers even in 2017) but it doesn't treat it as something metaphysical or in the language of propaganda. It's refreshingly constrained by the evidence and takes care to constrain its conclusions to the places and senses the evidence supports. That is, it's very much a scientific/archaeological approach to civilization as an ecological phenomenon, which is awesome particularly since many of the existing sources come with such annoying/obfuscating ideological commitments.

I was a bit apprehensive about Scott taking on this job for this very reason, since he has a reputation as an "anarchist academic" and I feared his take on the state might be tinged with that bias. Fortunately, that was totally unfair. Scott's experience with the state as a unit of anthropological interest pays off in two really interesting angles here--though ultimately one of them plays up his strengths while the other highlights a big missed opportunity. He treats the state as an ecological unit of its own, rather than some kind of intellectual or cultural subset of an undifferentiated humanity. It has particular food needs-not just calories, but calories that can be easily counted and collected, divided and transported, etc--that constrain its niche to areas where grains are domesticated and grow well. The state is also a particular kind of ecosystem engineer, not only in its effects on the landscapes it rules (city walls, irrigation, etc) but also in the way it changes the subsistence options of non-state peoples in the area.

Scott's focus on these non-state groups was one of the big novelties here for me. They're people who exacted tribute from states in a way that functionally expanded the population of parasitic "elites" outside of the ruling class of the city itself. On the more productive side, the existence of state elites enabled non-state peoples to become part of a trading class, harvesting materials that were previously not especially valuable and trading them for grain they otherwise couldn't access. Thus highly value-dense natural products, including many non-timber forest products, were harvested at much higher rates even very far from states simply because states now existed. Scott positions these non-state peoples (Scott uses the term barbarian interchangeably) as the true winners of the development of states. They maintained a level of flexibility that the state elites lacked, and thus stood to lose less when they inevitably fell.

The big missed potential synergy here is with Peter Turchin's demographic-structural cycle hypothesis. His lengthy discussion of "collapse" draws heavily on ideas in Questioning Collapse but in a way that could not make the mechanisms of the demographic-structural cycle clearer if he'd been doing it on purpose. His focus on the state as a parasitic niche imposing an adversarial order on the peasant class mirrors Turchin's elite-peasant predator-prey ecology pretty directly. And while he doesn't identify the cause of such events, he describes Turchin's contracting phase precisely, with elites squeezing more from peasants than they can produce and losing control because of it.

While he doesn't consider elite population growth as a cause, he does Turchin one better by describing the spatial pattern associated with these phases, starting with a loosening grip on the hinterlands and pulling back into the center as a declining controlled landbase heightens demands and tension in areas historically easier to project power. More simply, Scott integrates the costs of transporting grain and manpower and extrapolates their consequences where Turchin does not. The most interesting implication here, which Turchin never makes, is that in the early era of civilization (unclear if the relevant trait here is population, technology, epidemiology, or competition with other states?), the contraction phase reads as a "collapse" to a non-state baseline instead of a blip of conflict and strife in the history of a continuous state. The state is a human ecotype analogous to a species in some ways, but unlike the predators in a Lotka-Volterra cycle, they can return on the next cycle even if their abundance hits 0.

The addition of Scott's non-state peoples as members of the same parasitic niche as internal elites is also a fascinating addition to Turchin's theory. In Secular Cycles, non-state bandits are an internal force that arises periodically when state enforcement is weak. But as Scott points out, from the peasant's perspective they're a similar sort of predator as the state, and from the state's point of view it matters little whether the surplus production of peasants goes to peasants or to bandits. Turchin poses bandits as the cause of a "landscape of fear" in which production is reduced, but Scott points to a much richer set of more stable ecological outcomes including ransoms, tributes,
and outright conquest. Changing relationships between state and non-state "elites" seems like a productive question for a niche construction theory of history.

So while Scott approaches some of Turchin's ideas with uncanny precision, he neglects or downplays the role of population in practically everything he discusses. This is perhaps understandable, given the apparent lack of time-specific population estimates on anything close to the timescale needed. But it's a conspicuous absence. Scott summarily dismisses the notion that agriculture arose as a response to population pressure, for instance, but doesn't provide enough evidence to justify that, for my mind. Similarly, there's a very suggestive section on epidemiology and population growth that seems fruitful but not sufficiently examined here. It's maybe the second central question of niche construction history: after agricultural states were established, why did it take as long as it did for population growth to really take off. Scott points to disease ecology, implying population was bottlenecked by the time it took for resistance to density-dependent epizootics to evolve. I'm a bit skeptical of this idea because humans can in many cases out-reproduce disease mortality and under those circumstances resistance would evolve very quickly. I feel like a process of cultural and technological evolution among states seems more plausible but regardless it's one of the most compelling open questions the book raises and Scott doesn't necessarily treat it as such.

The final unfulfilled potential here is in ecology. Scott focuses extensively on ecology and evolution, while Turchin barely mentions them at all. I'm very curious to see how well the classic processes of ecological degradation--deforestation, salinization, soil erosion, defaunation, etc--map onto demographic-structural cycles. Mesopotamia is an interesting case for this because state niche construction activities here literally rendered it uninhabitable by states. Lots of questions here: does degradation increase the frequency of cycles or just reduce their amplitude? Does it change the nature of future growth cycles if eg timber is no longer available? Is there a single driving variable that determines elite carrying capacity or is it more like a minimum basket of goods that timber, food, etc could all choke? How does degradation affect the relationship of future cycle states with non-state peoples? What kind of selective pressures does degradation impose on peasants? Elites? Domesticates? How do secular cycles differ by climate/ecoregion? So yeah tons of fertile ground there.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,350 reviews462 followers
August 1, 2021
There is nothing new in the idea that there were huge trade-offs in embracing sedentary agriculture with respect to health, individual liberty, etc. What the author seems to be adding is an argument about "states" vs "non-states" but this is somewhat fuzzy since--as he admits towards the end-- the Mongol "barbarian" polity, for example, was a pretty awful top-down society for the average person too. He also repeatedly points out how the barbarians were twins/parasites of the farmer-states, so then what is the completely-non-state alternative that he recommends if he doesn't like states? If the idea is that we should have vast open areas instead of nation-states where nomads can roam around as they please, then he should clarify that and make that case.

Of course all of this is about pre-history so a lot of it is speculative. I'm not an expert in this area, but the logic just seems fishy, so I am inclined to believe the Goodreads reviewers who report that they find factual errors when they double-check things.

Half-baked editing. Very redundant.
Profile Image for Randall Wallace.
524 reviews379 followers
December 28, 2020
On the dearth of pre-state knowledge: If you built cool looking stuff in stone and left your trash all in one place, history might remember you. If you were a tribal pre-state hunter/gatherer leaving “bio-degradable trash thinly across the landscape”, history won’t remember you. Domestication caused the change in society; it even changed the genetic makeup and morphology of crops and animals. Those new crops often offered less nutrients and required constant attention and protection. Farming was much harder than being a hunter-gatherer. Ester Boserup and others have stated that they could think of no good reason a forager would have turned to farming without external pressure. Then think of all the diseases which began because of dumping lots of people and animals in one place for the first time, like measles, mumps, and diphtheria. Did you ever notice that classical civilization created grain states, but not taro states or cassava, sago, breadfruit, plantain, sweet potato states? James thinks it was because grains could be concentrated for storage and best for tax collection. Tubers were easy to hide from the tax collector because they grew hidden under ground. The Roman empire rarely existed beyond “the grain line”. Tax collectors saw barbarian territory as “non-appropriable subsistence practices” – in other words, how do you tax moving people when you can’t even track them? Swiddeners moved their homes and fields every few years. The Ottoman Empire meanwhile learned how hard it was to tax the herders. And so, non-grain people, that is to say, most of the world, lived outside the early tax zones. Tribalism defeated taxation. Trade existed between “barbarians” and the “civilized” but it was “uncoerced”. Barbarians ate meat and dairy products, while Romans ate grain. “Barbarians” was simply the catch-all term for anyone outside of state control. Where taxes and grain ends, the barbarians began. “Tribes begin where the states end.”

James calls this massive non-state v. state separation of peoples, the Great Divergence. Since that event, the reader has dozens of amazing anti-Civilization books available to choose from that lament its occurrence. For a time, people moved to and from freely, from state to non-state because there was often as much an incentive to run away from a state, as to join it. Christopher Beckwith wrote that Nomads, “were in general much better fed and led easier longer lives than the inhabitants of the large agricultural states. There was a constant drain of (state) peoples escaping.” Endless taxes actually made some Romans pick up and go join Attila the Hun. I picture them leaving while chanting, who’s the barbarian now, eh? Owen Lattimore writes, “There were times when the law and order of the barbarians was superior to those of civilization.” A lot of barbarians were merely refugees who earlier had fled city states. Outliers of note were Amorites, Scythians, Xiongnu, Mongols, Alemanni, Huns, Goths, and Junghars (Oyirads). These were not cohesive societies with a cultural identity (although my Goth niece would beg to differ). It was said by a Scythian raider, “we Scythians have no towns or planted lands” – nothing to defend, nothing to tend. Such raiders acted as protection rackets; if they took all your shit you wouldn’t travel their way again, so they only took part of it and would say to you, “Please come again, and tell your friends.” Those Mongols were a “competitive” human trafficking protection racket. The Romans actually paid the Celts “one thousand pounds of gold to prevent raiding”. It worked so well they also paid off the Huns and Goths. I then picture Michael Palin and Graham Chapman in togas upset that they didn’t get their Roman pay-off because they couldn’t come up with a fierce enough barbarian name. The great cities of Ur and Uruk showed the power of being built downstream from very heavy things you want, like trees, copper, gems, gold and captives. What stuff would traders travel over great distances with back then? “obsidian, precious and semiprecious stones, gold and carnelian beads.”

There is evidence of humans using fire 400,000 years ago. Before the plow, was fire. We, like trees, plants and fungi, are pyrophytes: a fire adapted species. Indigenous Americans used fire for landscape architecture (to favor elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, ruffed grouse, turkey, and quail) just as tribal cultures did for millennia. Over the ages, fire’s “aggregate effects were momentous.” Long before the bow and arrow, humans were using fire to catch/trap game. But before Jim Morrison, nobody thought of babies lighting fires.

Travel was cheapest on water. Transport by reed boats was easy. Charcoal became valuable because of its “superior transportability”. Early states flourished near game migration routes in the alluvium with its nourished soil ready for growing grains. The wetland origins of early states without a written record has often been overlooked – most of us were instead taught agriculture began with irrigation.

When your world is built in reeds, sedges, bamboo, wood and rattan, not much will last for historians. When these early states came up against nature, nature lost. Is that a marsh? Let’s drain it and we can grow more grain. Growing for hunter gatherers had been at best a “subsistence insurance policy”. Wild seeds tend to grow where they thrive, and so domestication wasn’t always the best choice compared to the old way. Non-state pastoralists point to the future, for as a tribal community they quickly embraced new-comers because they had many labor intensive tasks. Some historians said that agriculture made man less lazy by introducing delayed gratification though waiting for plants to grow with agriculture, but anyone watching a Bushman track for days knows how crazy that is. By 5000 BCE, hundreds of Fertile Crescent villages were growing grain and using ploughs, which Ester Boserup thinks happened because of population pressure, grain growing normally being too much work.

What was the most hunted animal “for several millennia”? The gazelle. But they refused to be domesticated. Malnutrition shows up in human bones, diseases usually don’t. Was there epidemic disease among tribal man? That is the “loudest” silence in Neolithic archaeology. By 3,200 BCE Uruk was the biggest city in the world with 25,000 to 50,000 people living with their livestock and crops. Fun fact: hunter-gatherers were actually several inches taller on average than farmers. That baby is the height of freedom. When agricultural women were studied for malnutrition, they found the biggest cause was iron deficiency. Pre-agricultural women got plenty of omega 6 and omega 3, while in agricultural women, their cereal diets inhibited the uptake of iron. We know this because those cereal intensive diets led to iron-deficiency anemia which left a tell-tale forensic bone signature. How did the new people thrive, kicking out more babies while with a crappier diet? James says the answer is “sedentism”. While non-sedentary people limited reproduction for mobility reasons like the !Kung bushmen, sedentary people have tended through history to park their asses in front of crappy food and pop out babies like a Pez dispenser.

All early states were built on alluvial soils to support grain growing. The earlier agrarian grain states produced wheat and barley (although Yellow River did millet). Only the richest soils could support a larger population and that meant you needed either loess (wind) or alluvial (flood deposited) soils. I picture early city dwellers with placards that say, “No Alluvium, no State”. What was the appeal of state building? A taxable surplus of grain. And if you were on a waterway you take advantage of how water is the king of transporting goods. For context: Rome would send supplies via the Mediterranean at less expense than travelling overland for more than 100 miles. And travelling from London to Edinburgh by stagecoach in 1800, actually took the same time as going from Southampton England all the way to the Cape of Good Hope by ship. And you could have easily moved tons more cargo in the bargain by ship. The joys of frictionless transportation – I felt it once with a Rasta cabdriver.

Navigable waterways are the nexus of grains and states, once you have an enforceably taxable commodity that keeps once tribal people working for you. Other crops could provide more calories and were easier to hide underground but grains worked best for tax collection precisely because they were: “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and rationable.” Good to bear in mind is that, unlike chickpeas and lentils, grains ripen roughly at the same time which made it the darling of the tax collector. Potatoes would spoil too fast and good luck with a tax collector finding your tubers.

Towns in the alluvium soon became walled. Walls meant you were protecting something valuable like food storage. After you conquered a town, you tore down its walls. They were labor intensive to put up and labor intensive to tear down, so both sides lost. Owen Lattimore observed the Great Wall of China was built as much to keep taxpayers in and to keep nomads out. City walls were done “to keep the essentials of state preservation inside.” A symbol of political control, were both city gates and records. In rebellions, peasants would rush to burn the records. The last rebellion happened when John Lennon said the Beatles were more famous than God. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates to one thousand years after cuneiform writing appeared; so, writing was developed first for controlling people and things, not art or recording history.

Population became the wealth of the state, more important than territorial expansion. An early Chinese Manual on Governance stated, “If the multitudes scatter and cannot be retained, the city state will become a mound of ruins”. Grab a bunch of people and hold them there and make them produce a surplus. Now you’ve got Civilization, Taker Culture, Wetiko Culture; forced to work, forced to accelerate the destruction of the planet. Forced to create excess at the expense of one’s land base. People on their own don’t create surpluses. They meet their basic needs. As Ester Boseup wrote, people didn’t work unless you made them unfree but when population is dense enough, “it is sufficient to deprive the working class of the right to be cultivators – foragers, hunter-gatherers, swiddeners, pastoralists.” Peasantries must be “compelled” to produce a surplus. Civilization is compelling people - like today in the U.S. with bipartisan war compelling others permanently abroad. Adam Hochschild wrote that as late as 1800, three-quarters of the world’s population was held in bondage. Non-state peoples might have slavery but their kind usually involved the opportunity for social mobility and assimilation. At the time of Augustus, Rome was one quarter to one third slaves. Slaves were two-thirds of Athenian society, and good luck finding talk of abolition back then with Aristotle defending slavery. Slavery then was used for textiles, canal and wall building and onerous work, and as rewards to elites.

Wars were fought when the grain was ripe to maximize the plunder. Slamming people together in tight spaces created new problems for health, the sixth-century CE Plague of Justinian killed thirty to fifty million people. The fear became, what if disease wipes out a state? That almost happened in 166 CE when Roman troops brought home a disease that took out one third of Rome. There is a nasty history also of deforestation at this time, especially around river banks (also see John Perlin’s wonderful book “A Forest’s Journey”). The search for naval timber throughout history by the Greeks, Romans, and later the British, was particularly fierce. Progressive salinity takes out the first states after 2,400 BCE; irrigation water contained dissolved salts that built up and bingo – a problem with dramatically lowered yields.

You build places in stone like Borobudur or Angkor Wat and people might remember you, the Srivijaya on Sumatra were a huge empire that didn’t build in stone and who remembers them now? No, wait - two of the “Three Little Pigs” clearly used inadequate building materials and yet we still remember them, so never mind. The Odyssey and the Illiad date from Greece’s Dark Age (1,00 to 700 BCE) and had to be transcribed from continual repetition and performance through multiple sources. This book reminds the reader that the official history of non-state people was written long ago by state people, so why would we expect it to be glowing?

States at their start “would have looked like small alluvial archipelagoes” and outside of their “ecological sweet spot”, they could not rule. Barbarians were merely hostile pastoral people. Picture Billy Connolly and John Cleese spouting rude anti-state epithets from a distance while waving sticks. State people saw from the start they needed to “stigmatize” non-state people with pejorative terms indicating backwardness or stupidity.

Sadly, we were all taught only the Entertainment Tonight Barbarian Celebrity All-Star Team: the Mongols, the Manchu, The Huns, the Mughals, and Osman rather than “the countless bands of non-state peoples who gnawed relentlessly with raids on sedentary grain-farming communities”. Non-state people were basically still foraging even when raiding states for their grain. Non-state people traded animals and slaves for luxury items from state people. Mountains, steppes, and un-cleared areas belonged to non-state peoples.

In the end, this amazing book teaches us to see barbarians as “the connective tissue between the various cereal–intensive states”. Lattimore nails it with his take that Civilization happens by displacing others from their land and then it calls people without land, barbarians. When some of the non-state people with land taken from them turned instead to raiding, Civilization cried foul - but Lattimore says, the crimes of “Civilization itself created its own barbarian plague.” Let’s face it, aggressive nomads were merely “the strongest competitors of the state for control of the agrarian surplus. And, those “mounted pastoralists were designed to extract wealth from sedentary states.” One of the best books, I’ve ever read. A must-read, actually. Mind blowing.
Profile Image for Jayesh .
178 reviews101 followers
August 13, 2017
Too short...

Interesting counterpoint to the "ascent of man" kind of story we tell about ourselves when we think about history. The major point Scott is arguing is:

The shift from hunting and foraging to agriculture—a shift that was slow, halting, reversible, and sometimes incomplete—carried at least as many costs as benefits. Thus while the planting of crops has seemed, in the standard narrative, a crucial step toward a utopian present, it cannot have looked that way to those who first experienced it

It's not as far reaching as Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed and seems to largely cater to my biases, so I am probably not the best judge to say how compelling his arguments are. Still given how most history is written, with "barbarians" described as "plundering" and "looting" the civilization's achievements, it is an interesting perspective to instead see it as a contest between two parties for the right to appropriate the surplus from the sedentary grain and manpower base.

Some other interesting highlights:

Just as the meaning of collapse merits close and critical inspection, so the term “dark age” needs to be queried: “dark” for whom and in what respects? Dark ages are just as ubiquitous as storied dynastic highpoints of consolidation. The term is often a form of propaganda by which a centralizing dynasty contrasts its achievement with what it casts as the disunity and decentralization that preceded it. At a minimum, it seems unwarranted for the mere depopulation of a state center and the absence of monumental building and court records to be called a dark age and understood as the equivalent of the civilizational lights being extinguished. To be sure, there are in fact periods when invasions, epidemics, droughts, and floods do kill thousands and scatter (or enslave) the survivors. In such cases the term “dark age” seems appropriate as a point of departure. The “darkness” of the age, in any event, is a matter of empirical inquiry, not a label that can be taken for granted.

Guillermo Algaze puts the matter even more boldly: “Early Near Eastern villages domesticated plants and animals. Uruk urban institutions, in turn, domesticated humans.”

It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets. History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana republics” don’t qualify!) My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing. On suitable soil wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects.

As Owen Lattimore and others have observed for the Great Wall(s) of China: they were built quite as much to keep Chinese taxpaying cultivators inside as to keep the barbarians (nomads) outside. City walls were thus intended to keep the essentials of state preservation inside. The so-called anti-Amorite walls between the Tigris and Euphrates may also have been designed more to keep cultivators in the state “zone” than to keep out the Amorites (who were, in any case, already settled in substantial numbers in the alluvium). The walls were, in the view of one scholar, a result of the vastly increased centralization of Ur III and were erected either to contain mobile populations fleeing state control or to defend against those who had been forcibly expelled. It was, in any event, “intended to define the limits of political control.”
Profile Image for Robert Muller.
Author 17 books24 followers
March 29, 2018
While I love the idea of the book, I think the execution leaves something to be desired. Scott notes that this is very preliminary, but I think even for a preliminary book, he argues far ahead of his data. He relies too much on secondary sources, and I don't trust everything he says.

I ran across this statement about disease and collapse (page 194): "In one documented example, a devastating plague in the 1,320s BCE that came to Egypt from the Hittites sparked a famine, as surviving cultivators resisted taxes and often deserted their fields, while unpaid soldiers turned to banditry. (10)" Footnote 10 leads me to the book by Morris, Why the West Rules--For Now, which states precisely the opposite: the Hittites were decimated by the plague, not the Egyptians. I then checked my Egyptian history books, which agree with Morris, who is talking about the invasion of the Sea Peoples a bit later on (they vanquished the Hittites). This was the Tutankhamun-Ay period, where Tut's widow tried to make a deal with the Hittites. Unfortunately, the entire Hittite ruling class died of plague, their core collapsed after invasion by the Sea Peoples (Greeks/Philistines/Sicilians etc.) and Egypt went on to the Ramesid dynasty and Mernepetah. I don't know where Scott got the bit about unpaid soldiers, nothing in Morris or my Egyptian history about that. So, I don't know if this is just an aberration or indicative of a larger inattention to detail on Scott's part, but it lead me to distrust his data sources.

I also found the writing repetitive and tedious in structure.
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
964 reviews321 followers
July 23, 2020
Fascinating book. I knew parts of some parts of the story, such as the unhealthiness of early city living, the fact that nonsedentary agriculture, or agriculture as part of a combination food strategy, was common for centuries, and that people millennia ago often moved back out of agriculture to hunter-gatherer roles or, after the domestication of the horse, to pastoral nomadism.

I hadn't realized just how fluid that the back-and-forth was. Nor had I realized how common nonsedentary agriculture was.

I did not know at all that the first city-states, especially if we emphasize the second half of the compound, did not arise for millennia after sedentary agriculture started taking root. And, that's one of the key takeaways of the book. In the lower Mesopotamia, where we have the most information, people combined a mix of agriculture of both types, fishing and shellfishing, and other foraging at the dawn of the city-state world. That made it harder to force them into city-states.

Another key takeaway is Scott's discussion of the fragility of these city-states. Many lasted no more than three generations or so of a ruling dynasty before falling back apart.

I've not touched on everything in this book by any means. Other Scott writings should also be insightful, I'm sure.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
909 reviews314 followers
January 17, 2021
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott (1936- https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James...
https://politicalscience.yale.edu/peo... )
2017, 312pp., ISBN 9780300182910, Dewey 900.

Not to be confused with
Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization
by Richard Manning, 2004, 240pp., ISBN 9780865477131.
James C. Scott cites Richard Manning's book, in Scott's preface. (p. xv)

Short version: "King, eh? Very nice. How'd you get that, then? By exploiting the workers!" --Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Focuses on Sumer, in the river-watered area "south of what's now Basrah, Iraq," 6500 BCE-1600 BCE. States formed 4000-2000 BCE. (pp. xiii-xiv, but see the maps on pages 25, 45, and 48: Eridu, Ur, Uruk, and Umma are at least 50 miles upriver from Basrah. The mouths of the Euphrates and Tigris have silted in the thousands of years since these places were settled: there are miles of newly-dry land, formed by 10 vertical meters of silt (p. 48), around the lower Euphrates and Tigris, where, at the time of settlement, there was Persian Gulf. The maps on pages 45 and 48 show Basrah underwater, 4000 BCE, with the shore near Ur and Uruk. These settlements were in a marsh in the Euphrates delta. Marsh map p. 51.):
6500-3800 BCE Ubaid
4000-3100 BCE Uruk: world's largest city 3200 BCE, 25,000-50,000 population, pp. 100, 119; walls enclosed about a square mile, p. 120 (Athens, 300 BCE, was half that size.)
3100-2900 BCE Jemdet Nasr
2900-2335 BCE Early Dynastic
2334-2193 BCE Akkadian
2112-2004 BCE Ur III
2004-1595 BCE Old Babylonian
(p. xiv)
1800-700 BCE Ruralization after the fall of Ur III: pastoralist incursions. p. 188

The earliest states appear around 3300 BCE, "nearly 2000 years after" towns of 1000 inhabitants. p. 117. (Isaac Asimov, in his Chronology of the World, goes farther, saying Jericho had 2500 population in 7000 BCE. https://www.goodreads.com/trivia/deta... )

Pre-state marsh towns had up to 5,000 population. Early states 20,000-50,000 (p. 191).

Homo erectus domesticated fire. p. 17. Roughly half a million years ago. p. 19. We have adapted ourselves so massively to fire that our species would have no future without it. p. 42. Raw-foodists who insist on cooking nothing invariably lose weight. p. 43.

What modern humans had that Neanderthals didn't have, that let us outcompete, was the dog. p. 259 see Pat Shipman, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.

There are, even today (2017), large stands of wild wheat in Anatolia from which, as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year. p. 11.

Between 8000 and 6000 BCE, cereals, lentils, peas, chickpeas, and flax are being planted; goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle are domesticated. pp. 42-43.

Until about 1600 CE, 1/3 of the globe was still occupied by hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists, and independent horticulturalists; states, being essentially agrarian, were largely confined to that small portion of the globe suitable for cultivation. p. 14. In much of the world, even a strong state could project power only seasonally, such as, not during monsoon. p. 15.

States did not have hegemony until at least 1600 CE. p. 253.

States used nonstate peoples as slaves and mercenary soldiers. Nonstate people raided and traded with states.

From 3500 BCE to 2500 BCE, Sea level and Euphrates flow both fell substantially. p. 121. This concentrated population. Required labor-intensive irrigation. Umma & Lagash fought over water rights and arable land.

Recommends Robert Adams, /Heartland of Cities/, 1981, online at

Recommends (p. 62): Anne Porter, /Mobile Pastoralism/, pp. 351-393: Shows in early versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 2100 BCE (p. 141), Enkidu was an ordinary herder. 1000 years later he was uncivilized, barbarian, subhuman. One of /those people/, who knows not grain, nor houses, nor cities, or how to "bend the knee." Now, it's only subjects of the state are who are "us." Outsiders are "them."

/Reliance/ on farming and herding was a last resort. A lot of work. Resorted to when the abundant prey was gone. p. 96.

World human population estimates (log10 of population vs. year BCE/CE, p. 6):
Shows slow growth to 5000 BCE; rapid growth since. (Graph stops at 1800 CE at 1 billion people. Population reached 4 billion around 1980, and has increased about 1 billion per 12 years since.)
See also Wolfram's estimates,
which shows much-faster growth since 1800.

Recommends (p. 99) Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, /Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia/, p. 80: reads tuberculosis, typhus, bubonic plague, smallpox in ancient texts.

6th century CE Plague of Justinian killed 30,000,000-50,000,000 people. Disease pools of the Mediterranean, India, China merged around 1 BCE. p. 192.

Deforestation causes erosion, silting, formation of malarial wetlands. Irrigation causes salinization:
By 6300 BCE, there were no trees in walking distance of the town of Ain Ghazal (p. 197). The community dispersed.
Salinization caused decline of Sumer after 2400 BCE. pp. 200-201.

Writing appears just before early states appear. pp. 140, 269.

The earliest administrative tablets of Uruk, 3300-3100 BCE, are lists of barley, war captives, slaves, and taxes. p. 142

It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the centrality of slavery in the development of the state. pp. 155, 173, 180. There were no free men in the ancient Near Eastern states (much less free women). p. 157. As late as 1800 CE, 3/4 of the world's population was in bondage. Rome's Gallic wars netted 1,000,000 new slaves. p. 157. Most wars in the ancient Near East were fought to gain captive laborers. p. 158. 9,000 slave women worked in Uruk state textile workshops. Marsh-state elites traded the cloth for metals from the hills. p. 159. Uruk total population was 40,000-45,000 then, 3000 BCE. Elites considered workers as domestic animals. p. 160.

[The book doesn't say so, and it may not be called slavery, but the world economy /still/ rests on destitution-level work.]

"Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself. … Writing is a strange thing. … The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals … into a hierarchy of castes and classes. … It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind." --Claude Lévi-Strauss (p. vi)

The code of Hammurabi bristles with punishments for helping slaves escape. p. 162.

Writing wasn't initially a means of representing speech. p. 145.

"Raiding is our agriculture." --Berber saying, pp. 34, 237.

Wheat, barley, rice and maize make up, even today, more than half of humans' calorie consumption. p. 23. (An overestimate? No source citation.)
Some data: https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i...



The price of a wagon-load of wheat doubled after 50 miles (in the Roman Empire under Diocletian). p. 54.

James C. Scott edited Yale University Press's Agrarian Studies book series. Doesn't show well on a phone. Use a computer to see them:
p. xviii

Successive attempts to get Wolfram Alpha to plot the population estimates on page 6:
Plot[{-35000, 3000000}, {-5000, 5000000}, {-2000, 25000000}, {-1000, 50000000}, {0, 170000000}, {1000, 275000000}, {1400, 375000000}, {1800, 1000000000}]

Plot[{-35000, Log 3000000}, {-5000, Log 5000000}, {-2000, Log 25000000}, {-1000, Log 50000000}, {0, Log 170000000}, {1000, Log 275000000}, {1400, Log 375000000}, {1800, Log 1000000000}]

Plot[{-35000, 6.477}, {-5000, 6.699}, {-2000, 7.398}, {-1000, 7.699}, {0, 8.23}, {1000, 8.439}, {1370, 8.568}, {1400, 8.574}, {1800, 9}]

Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 28 books393 followers
November 7, 2017
Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent, South China, the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan, and Central America. To secure enough food once their population had grown to a level unsustainable by hunting and gathering, those communities turned to agriculture. Food surpluses, seized by local rulers, enabled the establishment of the empires that dominated the world.

However, as modern scholarship has shown, little of that is true. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott tells a somewhat different story that will challenge everything you've been taught about ancient history.

For example, by about 10,000 BCE, small human communities had begun to form, domesticating plants and animals, irrigating crops, and growing some of their own food while obtaining the rest from the land around them. In other words, humans were tilling the soil thousands of years before the first empires even began to form. Even “[s]lavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples.” However, “civilized societies” perpetuated and expanded the institution. “As Adam Hochschild observed, as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage.”

The conventional view that life grew gradually better once states and then empires (“civilization”) had begun to take shape is simply wrong. Archaeological evidence has shown that people lived longer and healthier lives as hunter-gatherers. Their diet was more varied, and they suffered fewer diseases. They grew taller and lived longer. They worked far less time to secure food, fuel, and other resources than farmers engaged in backbreaking work tilling wheat, barley, rice, millet, or other grain crops. (Why the emphasis on grain? Because only with predictable and measurable grain crops could elites collect taxes.)

Early human communities were, as Scott asserts, “multispecies resettlement camps.” Both humans and animals clumped together in ever-larger numbers. Because of the crowding, epidemic disease became common among both people and animals. Infant mortality soared. Domesticated animals steadily became smaller than the wild species from which they originated. Humans, too, grew shorter and died earlier, partly from a diet almost exclusively limited to grain and partly from the effects of disease. “[V]irtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in a strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’”

“[A]n even-handed species history would give the state a far more modest role than it is normally accorded,” Scott notes. The earliest states were fragile, ephemeral constructs that frequently fell to the ravages of disease or marauding pastoralists. They were “minuscule affairs both demographically and geographically. They were a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly twenty-five million in the year 2,000 BCE . . . Even at the height of the Roman and early Han ‘superstates,’ the area of their effective control would have been stunningly modest.” Nonetheless, historians typically focus on states and empires (since written records make history possible, and writing came into use only in settled communities). But it was not until about 1,600 CE that established states encompassed most human populations—in other words, fewer than 500 years ago. For many thousands of years before then, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists greatly outnumbered the grain-growers who lived in cities.

Against the Grain is full of surprises. What I’ve cited above is only a smattering of the book’s revelations.

Here's another: Fire was first harnessed by hominids 400,000 years ago, long before we human beings appeared on the scene. Scott regards fire as the most consequential tool in human history. Fire made cooking possible. In turn, cooking “allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it . . . It allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before”—and archaeological evidence shows this is associated with the increasing size of our brains.

Reading Against the Grain is likely to upend your understanding of ancient history. But it’s tough going. I found myself rushing to the dictionary on virtually every other page. Scott uses words that I would swear have never seen the light of day anywhere else but obscure academic papers and technical dictionaries.

James C. Scott confesses in his preface that he is “an amateur” historian but “a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist and environmentalist by courtesy.” Against the Grain offers a multidisciplinary approach to ancient history—what elsewhere is called “Big History.” Although Scott primarily turns his attention to Mesopotamia, where the first states appear to have been established, he extends his arguments to all the other regions where “civilization” first emerged.
Profile Image for Athan Tolis.
309 reviews573 followers
July 8, 2018
This is a controversial, if highly erudite, book. It owes its title to a hymn sung in ancient Ur ahead of the construction of a major temple, when the ordinary life of slaves and enslaved debtors was temporarily suspended in favor of a brief egalitarian moment (pp. 162 – 164). The main thesis of the book is that civilization as we know and celebrate it is a prison, of sorts.

The topic is rather fashionable. Everybody who’s read the 2011 blockbuster Sapiens can repeat the cute little argument about how wheat domesticated man, rather than the other way round, citing that it was man, not wheat, who moved from the wild into a domus -Latin for house- to pursue agriculture and tend to his crops. And that foragers had a much healthier and varied diet, lived better and longer and grew to be taller than their civilized counterparts inside the walls.

This is a rather more serious effort, in that it provides the reader with a very wide background before any such thesis is made. And it sets the record straight: when it comes to the eating, it’s man who eats the wheat / pork / whatever so that’s who’s been doing the domesticating. But there is a story to tell here and there’s a message too.

First things first: not only was the history we’ve been taught written from the perspective of the paradigm that prevailed, but any gaps that had to be filled were filled from that angle too. And now that we know better, it’s time to set a number of important records straight:

1. Man had been cultivating the earth for millenia before he settled down in cities; the idea that once man had discovered how to work the earth there was no turning back is a false narrative.

2. For millenia, hunter-gatherers had the better diet, better life and more leisure than their agriculturalist counterparts who worked the land in and around city walls.

3. The original agriculture-based settlements in Mesopotamia only survived because they were placed on the cusp of four different climate zones and took advantage of other sources of food, besides, like fishing.

4. Most illnesses and plagues we know originated only after man settled down with his domestic animals in one place; prior to the establishment of these settlements it was impossible for smallpox, measles etc. to spread, for lack of hosts. Possibly even malaria and other illnesses were caused by (inadvertently) man-made marshes, in combination with the emergence of cities.

5. The original agriculture-based settlements were unstable and constantly on the verge of catastrophe due to two vulnerabilities: to any disasters involving their main crop and to the new threat of the plague.

6. The original city-state may be unthinkable in the absence of slave labor to do much of the drudgery.

7. The barbarians who lived outside the walls and the city dwellers were, first and foremost, each other’s trading partners and had complementary lives (much as city dwellers lived under the constant threat of being raided)

8. As far back as we can look, slaves were both an important trading commodity and the main objective of war, which was seldom, if ever, waged for territory. Territory was ample.

After he gets all these basics straight, the author shows his true colors and moves on to the meat of his book, a paean to the barbarian life and a lament for the fact that it is no longer a legitimate choice. Bottom line, the man is an anarchist!

This is the place to mention that every single page of the book contains a lesson. If it’s not a lesson in history or anthropology or sociology, you’re always guaranteed a lesson in English! Keep a dictionary handy as you’re reading this. It’s written for the author’s university professor colleagues, not for you and me. We’re welcome to read it, but we’re not the intended audience.

I say it’s a lesson in English, but actually I learned plenty of Greek from it too! So I’m reading the word zoonoses (the title of chapter 3, no less) and I’m like “what on earth is a zoonosos?” I’ve spoken the language for fifty years, so I’m like “OK, zoon is animal and nosos is illness, so OK, I’ve got this” but it was like that the whole time. The dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a total amateur compared to James C. Scott, basically. I’d never given any thought to the fact that “parasite” means “next to” (para) “the wheat” (sitos) so that was a bit of a knockout, too.

He repeats a lot. The reason is that every chapter can stand alone. But the fourth time I read that the purpose of the Great Wall of China was not to keep out the Mongols, as our historians claim, but actually to wall-in Chinese laborers who might be entertaining notions of escaping their drudgery and join the much happier savages north of the border, I thought I’d had enough. Hadrian’s Wall gets described both ways, btw. So there are some consistency issues there too.

Oh, and he DOES NOT WRAP UP. It’s chapter, chapter, chapter and then The End.

So it’s a bad book and a great book at the same time, if you know what I mean. And after he’s set the scene, the author lets rip:

On wheat, for example: do you want to know what’s special about wheat? It’s that the taxman can tax it efficiently. Your whole crop has to be planted at the same time and it needs to be harvested at the same time. You can’t hide from him. Oh, and after you’ve harvested it, it’s not only simple to keep, it’s also infinitely divisible and transportable, so the taxman can come take it from you and even pay his army with it. He can’t do that with potatos, can he? So wheat and barley are favored by the state because it’s got you, the farmer, where it wants.

On writing he goes one better: did you know that on at least three separate instances (Chinese, Greek and cuneiform writing) the whole point was for the state to keep tabs on things and quite possibly had zero correspondence to speech? Greek and cuneiform writing both preceded by 500 years the next version of writing (imported from the Phoenicians in our case) that was any good for poetry, for example. Indeed, the Chinese form of writing persists to our days precisely because it does not correspond to how anybody talks, and can thus be used by conquered peoples as well!

Scott has a field day with “collapse” as well: who is to say a civilization collapsed just because our archaeologists have found that the palace was deserted? Why do we frown on the “geometric” period that followed the Doric invasion of Greece around 1,100 BC when it gave us the Iliad and the Odyssey? Yes, the early state was extremely fragile, but that’s something to celebrate. What’s so awful about peasants abandoning the drudgery of their fields and going back to becoming hunter-gatherers? So why do historians want to see grand monuments? He provides the answers too: because our history is written to serve our current polity, which likes to draw a straight line back to the grand civilizations that built the monuments, that’s why!

Predictably, then, the author’s admiration is reserved for the barbarians and the best ideas in the book are the ones regarding the demise of their lifestyle. They lost out for a number of reasons:

1. Demographic reason #1: Barbarian women who were “on the run” could only have one baby every four years, because they had to be mobile; settled women did not only have worse skeletal structure, bad knees and curled toes to show for a life confined to drudgery, they also had a baby every year. Once the first five millenia of settled life had gone by and settled people had developed resistance to the illnesses that came with their settled lifestyle, the growth in their population left that of the barbarians in the shade.

2. Demographic reason #2: the barbarian peoples were not naturally selected against and therefore did not develop resistance to the epidemics, as best exemplified by the decimation that befell Native Americans after the conquistadores arrived.

3. They often sold other barbarians to the state as slaves, further diminishing their collective ranks.

4. They often fought as mercenaries for the states, chiefly helping them conquer other barbarians. It was Celts to subjugated other Celts for the Romans, apparently.

5. We’ve now filled all space; they’ve got nowhere to go!

The last chapter of the book is, almost inevitably, a paean to the barbarian life and a celebration of the barbarians' golden age. The author is genuinely sad that their lifestyle is no longer an option. Sad enough that he could not get himself to finish the book!

No idea how accurate this all was, but it was well worth reading!
Profile Image for Nick.
Author 2 books14 followers
June 6, 2021
Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”-Robert E Howard.

Robert E Howard, the spiritual father of Conan the barbarian and sword and sorcery Fantasy had a weary outlook on life, watching the oilboom in central Texas bringing in money, pollution and abuse in all forms to his rural home town. But the man’s concerns went beyond a local concern and I am sure that a lot of the points made by James C Scott would have resonated both with him and his titular barbarian Warrior.

James C Scott sets out to tackle in 7 chapters assumptions on sedentary communities, statehood, barbarism, taxes, control and above all domestication. To James C Scott, domestication was not limited to plants and animals, but to humans themselves first to an agricultural life and then as subjects of early states with the corvee labor, obligations, rules and drudgery that it entailed.
Against the grain is not setting out to go in great depths tough, this is more an attempt to make an analytical framework, an open invitation to look at early states over the world from this point of view that states were more fragile, sedentary communities more fluid in composition and people lived more precarious lives then is often assumed. Scott is real big on the collapse phenomenon to stress his point; take the first intermediary period in ancient Egypt, after the building of the pyramids and grand dynasties with vast building projects and expeditions, the state disintegrated for a period of roughly a hundred years. The popular image is one of devastation and chaos but, as James Scott putts it, that is because archeology dotes on big building projects, palaces and high culture in part because it leaves obvious imprints in the geological record . A second reason is because these histories of dynasties are the focal point of our political discourses and concepts of big history= the story of civilization as understood to be the tale of cities, kings and the monumental. But if you look at the period differently, one could argue that people no longer had to contribute to big projects that saw little for them and sure the big state was gone but that did not mean it was mad max out there.

I definitely see what James Scott is going for but as it would happen I am following an excellent podcast on the history of Egypt by Egyptologist Dominic Perry https://www.egyptianhistorypodcast.com/ and when he talked about the first intermediary period his analysis is exactly what Scott is hammering at. Dominic focuses on a grave left by a scribe who goes on describing a horror period in this intermediary period. Then Dominic turns to archeology of villages and has to conclude; that off course a scribe, a tool of the centralized state and its ideology of maat or true order would be horrified by the lack of central state but in reality, people did not die off or starve to death. Everything it seems, just lumbered on on a more local pace and focus. The point I am making here is that James Scott’s ideas are perhaps less confrontational, disputed or out there as you might assume based on this book.

That is not to say that everything will have a resonance as of yet let alone accepted, but it is not that easy for me to say which is and which isn’t. Off course in popular media and history narrative the classic farm, town, city, state, king litany is still the core concept, the huns, vikings and the like the horrid monsters unleashing horror onto the proper order for petty selfish gains. The image of these “barbarians” form the last two chapters of James Scott book. The barbarian as the unwanted twin of civilization and shaping each other trhouh interaction is another concept I have read before, Chinese history of the Han and Tang and three kingdoms has a huge component of dealing with the steppe nomads to get horses for the imperial and frontier armies, the commercial bonds between the early settlers of north america and the local communities. These examples are given in the book but I could add a few more that aren’t; such as the Ainu of Hokkaido and their connection with Shogun Japan or the Touareg and the Sahel states. Here we come to something that I personally found disappointing, namely that I wasn’t presented with that many ideas that were controversial or hadn’t read about before. The examples tend to be a bit superficial because his focus is on constructing the framework rather then testing out the theory.

What was new to me was just how much evidence there is for sedentary lifestyle before agriculture. Marshlands offered enough food and resources for people to stick around without the farm that one would expect to be crucial. The question though that I found most intriguing and would definitively want to have an in depth look into is the final question Scott leaves us with; did the barbarian help bring about the end of his/her lifestyle and help usher in the state global dominance? Scott seems to be convinced of this because these barbarians were active trade partners, engaged in raids against fellow neighbors because of that trade and served as mercenaries in the armies of the states. See I am not as convinced by that argument but I am genuinely interested in exploring it deeper especially the role of the mercenary as a vehicle of state power. I recall a study of celtic coins that sprouted up in celtic regions a generation after celtic warriros hired themselves out to either Hellenistic kingdoms or Carthage as did walled towns growing into cities and a more hierarchic religious life with druids as formal separate priest cast. So there is something to it but I am not an expert enough to do this research myself.

I do feel it is definitvly a worthwhile book and especially if your conducting research a must read. The questions raised should be taken serious and given a proper answer. Accessible for a non academic audience, people who have held to assumptions on the big story that popular history tends to emphasize will be challenged on these assumptions in a constructive way. For me personally, I fell between these audiences and thus did not gain as much from this book as I could have. Still I will recommend it to a few people so no time wasted here.
Profile Image for Christopher.
Author 3 books87 followers
March 23, 2018
The primary thesis of how grain based states came into being in a see-saw back and forth with the stateless societies around them as the equivalent ancient class of modern day lanyards drove their growth is fundamentally correct, but the 'barbarian states' which served as often successful counter-states are often relegated just to the final chapter...which makes me question the need to have early Mesopotamia be the primary case study. One would have thought China, Iran, and Rome might have given much better bang for the buck at compare-contrast case studies. I also felt there may have been a bit too much of a moral delineation on state vs non-state, especially because later on the author basically admits many of the barbarian kingdoms he references as these late coming counterpoints are basically states themselves-if in a different form.

But an enlightening and interesting read nonetheless.
Profile Image for Koen Crolla.
727 reviews174 followers
October 19, 2018
Starts off very weakly and repetitively, insistent that it's overthrowing a ``traditional narrative'' that hasn't been the narrative in the field since before Scott was born (and he was born in 1936), and that I honestly haven't even seen mentioned in popular works except in the context of ``people used to believe [x], but...''—yes, early states were fragile, for all the reasons you would expect, and most people in the world were never part of them.
The real meat of the book is about slavery and other non-free labour in early states (which Scott tries to stretch to everything up to the 18th century), how that interacted with non-state barbarians, and how states didn't just create state/barbarian frontiers, but also the actual barbarians themselves. Because Scott either doesn't realise that or doesn't want to do the work, that really just stays a vague exploration rather than a well-supported thesis, and the entire thing disappoints.
Profile Image for Andreas Hofer.
Author 60 books11 followers
June 16, 2022
This is my favourite book about the transition from foraging to farming, much better than Sapiens by Harari. The author is clearly politically biased against the bureaucratic state, but so am I. The price for civilisation has been nothing less than freedom.
Apart from that that it seems very objective with lots of details and food for further thought.
Profile Image for Tamara Agha-Jaffar.
Author 6 books245 followers
September 29, 2020
It has been generally believed that state formation was a consequence of the domestication of animals and plants. The theory was that when humans no longer had to hunt and gather food, they settled down in agricultural communities which eventually evolved into the modern state. In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott argues this is a false narrative. He proposes an alternative narrative for state formation based on more recent archaeological and historical evidence.

Focusing his analysis primarily in ancient Mesopotamia as the birthplace of the earliest state, Scott cites evidence showing sedentism and animal and plant domestication existed at least 4,000 years before the appearance of agricultural villages. The one did not give rise to the other. Instead, states materialized with the gradual emergence specifically of domesticated grain crops that required labor for planting and harvesting. Unlike other crops which grow underground, grain is visible, portable, storable, ripens at the same time, and, more significantly, is measurable for tax purposes. And with that comes the need for a large pool of laborers; hierarchically structured societies; tax collectors; city walls to prevent grain-theft by non-state dwellers (stigmatized as “barbarians),” and as a deterrence for a mass exodus of laborers.

Movement between sedentary and non-sedentary populations was fluid in either direction. Scott argues the shift to sedentary communities was not necessarily advantageous. Non-sedentary populations were mobile when they needed to be, ate a more diverse diet, and the dispersed nature of their communities impeded the rapid spread of disease. The more densely populated areas, especially those sharing living space with animals, were subject to the rapid spread of epidemics, viruses, and parasites; ate a diet poor in proteins consisting primarily of cereal grains. They were taxed, their movements restricted; and their labor exploited to serve the elite.

The study is full of fascinating insights, for example, while we domesticated animals and crops, they domesticated us as evidenced by the development of our husbandry skills; the “collapse” of states may simply mean population dispersion, not disappearance; the “barbarians” living outside of state control were healthier and happier than their sedentary counterparts; the birth rate of sedentary populations outstripped the nomadic birth rates in spite of their higher mortality rate; writing was invented to tabulate crop production and allocation; state formation was about intentional control over reproduction of crops, animals, and people; slave labor was essential to state formation; states were fragile entities vulnerable to crop devastation and the spread of disease among people and animals; states grew in size by absorbing more of the surrounding resources, displacing the neighboring population who either had to move further afield or be absorbed into the state.

This is a fascinating study articulating an alternative narrative for the shift from non-sedentary to sedentary populations and the consequences of the shift. Although a lay audience may require a dictionary for some of the technical terms, the effort is well worth it.

Highly recommended for those interested in the study of early populations and state formation.

More of my book reviews are available at www.tamaraaghajaffar.com
Profile Image for Anima.
432 reviews54 followers
September 29, 2019
“Still more remarkable, for those interested in the state form, is the fact that the very first small, stratified, tax-collecting , walled states pop up between Tigris and Euphrates Valley between 3100 BCE more than 4 millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism. This massive lag is a problem for those theorists who would naturalize the state form and assume that once crops and sedentism, the technological and demographic requirements, respectively, for state formation were established state/ empires would immediately arise as the logical and most efficient units of political order.[...] Agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed –field crops, on the other hand were the origin and guarantor of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws...
It turn out that the greater part of what we might call the standard narrative has had to be abandoned once confronted with accumulating archeological evidence.[..] Hunters and gathers have, in fact, never looked so good in terms of diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad- in terms of their diet, their health , and their leisure.[..] The shift from hunting and foraging to agriculture- a shift that was slow, halting, reversible, and sometimes incomplete- carried at least as many costs as benefits.[..]
It has been assumed that fixed residence-sedentism-was a consequence of crop-field agriculture. ...There, in ancient southern Mesopotamia (Greek for ‘between rivers”) , one encounters sedentary populations, even towns, of up to five thousands inhabitants with little or no agriculture. The opposite anomaly is also encountered.[..]
[..]And yet the first state to appear in the alluvial and wind-blown silt in southern Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Yellow River were minuscule affairs both demographically and geographically. They were a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly 25 million in the year 2,000 BCE. They were tiny nodes of power surrounded by a vast landscape inhabited by nonstate people-aka ‘barbarians.’ When, precisely, the political landscape becomes definitely state-dominated is hard to say and fairly arbitrary. On a generous reading, until the past 400 years, ..much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector”
Profile Image for Steve.
352 reviews1 follower
January 19, 2023
What came first, the state or the farm? Professor Scott noted it has been long assumed that grain domestication was a precondition of the permanent settlements that soon led to the formation of towns, cities, and civilization. Not so fast, he argued, for what is certain "is that domesticated grains and livestock are known long before anything like an agrarian state appears—far longer than previously imagined." He estimated that gap at approximately four thousand years. The rise of the state, therefore, was not directly linked to the rise of agriculture.

I wondered for the real significance of Professor Scott's conclusions. What difference does it make whether agriculture accompanied the emergence of cities and states? To this question I remain without an answer. I also observed that Professor Scott made a number of statements about social structures and behaviors that may take the historical record too far. He focused his analysis on southern Mesopotamian cultures from roughly 10,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE. Just how much can be inferred from that era’s fragmentary archaeologic evidence? My cynical default cautions against drawing too many conclusions.

Professor Scott dwelt on several themes that have significance to this day. His discussions of slavery, taxation, disease, the substantial effects of climate change, and the use of fire to control plants and animals across large areas of land all have important implications through the long march of history. In particular, his commentary on history's Dark Ages was of interest.
There are splendid and instructive documentaries on archaic Greece, Old Kingdom Egypt, and mid-third millennium Uruk, but one will search in vain for a portrayal of the obscure periods that followed them: the "Dark Age" of Greece, the "First Intermediate Period" of Egypt and the decline of Uruk under the Akkadian Empire. Yet there 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.
He then challenged the notion that the rise of the large state implies a triumph of civilization. The remarks on barbarian behaviors were worth bookmarking, those peoples living apparently good lives, apart from any state. What better way to participate in the rise of agriculture than to plunder in an afternoon what was carefully nurtured and harvested through the year.
192 reviews35 followers
March 5, 2020
For a non-fiction, “Against the Grain” is an unusually engaging and fun read. Primarily this is due to Scott’s good writing, but he is also an outsider to the field which affords certain advantages. He claims to merely review existing literature, and this allows him to take some liberties with interpretation and selection of the data to paint a remarkably irresistible story.

OK, Scott’s story is a bit too tidy, but it does present a well-supported challenge to a classic theory of rise of civilization. The typical narrative claims that state was necessary to organize agriculture, and it is through these organizing and centralizing activities that state brought about the rise of first civilizations (Mesopotamia, Nile, Indus Valley), all around 3,000 BC. But Scott points out that between 8,000 and 5,500 BC Mesopotamia already featured sedentism, towns, trade, and farming. In other words, the unmistakable signs of civilization were already in place for at least a couple of thousand years before the first state emerged.

Well, what happened after the state emerged? In short, bondage and zoonotic diseases. Small-scale occasional farming in the villages around towns got replaced by large-scale state-driven agriculture within the walled perimeters of the early state centers. The walls kept other states and barbarians out, just as much as they kept indentured farmers in. The primary goal of interstate warfare in the early state period was not territory, but slaves. Agriculture is labor-intensive indeed.

It is instructive that all early states were grain-based: unlike legumes, tubers, and starch plants, only cereal grains could serve as a basis for taxation. After all, in order to tax something, it must visible, divisible, storable, assessable and transportable. Cereal grains were uniquely suited for such purpose.

Scott proceeds with painting an often-overlooked picture of barbarians. In short, while the “civilized” population within a state territory was subject to heavy taxation, terrible diet, back-breaking labor and diseases, the barbarians were free, ate better, and were generally much healthier. It is not surprising that secondary primitivism (i.e. ex-state subjects “going over to the barbarians”) was quite wide-spread, leading to porous boundaries between “civilization” and barbarians.

In this context Scott also criticizes the “dark ages” framing that “collapse” of various civilizations typically means to entail. Yes, it may have been a collapse for the machinery of the state and a “dark age” for the ruling class, but for the majority of the population it was often an adaptation to a different lifestyle that was often healthier and not subject to forced labor.

I’ll stop here, but there are many more interesting points and meta-narratives in the book. Scott’s framing is pleasantly unconventional, but may not be as revolutionary as he often makes it sound, for example if you are familiar with McNeill and Harari you will have encountered some of the themes. But Scott does put it all together very nicely in a non-specialist book which is short, enjoyable and informative for all, and potentially eye-opening for some.
Profile Image for Ed .
479 reviews31 followers
January 17, 2018
This book takes a long look--very long, mainly from 12.000 BCE to 1600 CE at an area that begins in the alluvial basin of modern day Iraq and broadens out to include the Nile valley, Southeast Asia, the Yellow River valley and modern day Central America. Scott examines the effect of grain farming--wheat, corn, barley and millet--on the inhabitants of those areas and finds that it was very dire indeed necessitating slave labor, war in order to capture more slaves and more land to farm, conscription to provide the masses of soldiers for war, taxes to a pay for it and to pay for the non-productive elite class plus support for the infrastructure necessary to plant, tend, harvest, store and guard the cereal crops.

Scott posits that the majority--a large majority--of the population were much worse off while commercial farming than they were as hunter-gatherers, nomadic herders or subsistence farmers, quoting the archaeological record to show that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls these places not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” (His original work in Southeast Asia and his political work in opposing the war in Vietnam as a young academic shows in his choice of epithets). For millennia the agricultural and social revolution that made commercial farming both possible and necessary was a disaster for those living through it, punctuated as is was--and still is--by drought, famine, epidemic and pestilence.

Like all of Scott’s work, “Against the Grain” forces the reader to reconsider one’s most basic beliefs about freedom, political life and the function of the state. He demolishes the idea that the holy of holies of political theory from Locke and Hobbes to the present day, the city-state whether in ancient Greece, the Mali empire or Hanseatic Germany, was a positive development for its citizens or subjects. He finds that the contrast between the barbarian world and its civilized counterpart is in favor of the less civilized and therefore not taxed, conscripted or forced into slavery. A state can be defined as a territory over which an elite exercised coercive power maintaining itself by taxing the population, not an experience that led to a healthy and prosperous group of people.

I am now on the fourth of Scott’s books (this is the third, I just started “The Art of Not Being Governed”) and recommend him so highly because, while I don’t agree with his outlook on the social and economic world, he makes me think about it and to think of defending my own views. He writes elegantly if occasionally repetitively from book to book or even from chapter to chapter, perhaps falling in love with the sound of his own prose but none of his books are written solely for the specialist and all of them (so far) repay close attention.
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