Jayesh 's Reviews > Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Against the Grain by James C. Scott
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction

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.”
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Reading Progress

May 25, 2017 – Shelved
May 25, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
August 5, 2017 – Started Reading
August 6, 2017 –
page 15
August 6, 2017 –
page 68
August 7, 2017 –
page 150
August 12, 2017 –
page 240
August 13, 2017 –
page 240
August 13, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction
August 13, 2017 – Finished Reading

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