Against the Grain

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* Book: Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. James C. Scott. Yale Un. Press, 2017



1. From the publisher:

"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."


2. From the Wikipedia:

"sets out to undermine what he calls the "standard civilizational narrative" that suggests humans chose to live settled lives based on intensive agriculture because this made people safer and more prosperous.[1] Instead, he argues, people had to be forced to live in the early states, which were hierarchical, beset by malnutrition and disease, and often based on slavery. The book has been praised for re-opening some of the biggest questions in human history.[2] A review in Science concludes that the book's thesis "is fascinating and represents an alternative, nuanced, if somewhat speculative, scenario on how civilized society came into being."



From the Wikipedia:

Chapter 1. The Domestication of Fire, Plants, Animals, and... Us

Scott describes the gradual process of transforming their environment that was undertaken by early humans. He begins by recounting the impact of mankind's use of fire, calling it "a species monopoly and a trump card" and detailing its desirability for its capacity to reduce the radius of a meal by concentrating foodstuffs in a smaller area around human encampments. Scott describes the beginnings of sedentism in wetlands prior to the cultivation of cereal grains. He then tackles the 4,000-year "gap" between the cultivation of domesticated grains and the emergence agricultural societies, claiming that it was in the best interests of early people to supplement their existing diets with cereal grains and other domesticated crops rather than to rely upon crops exclusively. He thinks adaptability in subsistence strategies was a better option than early agriculture for our ancestors.

Chapter 2. Landscaping the World: The Domus Complex

Scott's point in this chapter is that humans domesticated the planet more extensively than taming cattle and planting crops, and that this had deep consequences. He examines the changes that mankind has brought to its environment by being an artificial natural selection of sorts, to bring out plant types that are now unrecognizable from their progenitors and are also unable to survive without human care. We also domesticated animals by casting out those with undesired characteristics and cultivating that which pleases us. This changed animals both in behavior and physiologically, making them permanently docile and un-reactive, while also having smaller brains. These changes have negative effects upon the animals themselves, though they do result in a positive effect in output for their domesticators.

Scott then turns to what he calls "Human Parallels," ways in which human beings themselves might have been transformed by domestication. From the altered bone structures of women who were forced into agricultural labor to general size difference and proof of nutrition deficits in post-agriculture mankind, Scott argues that humans have bred their own irreversible change. Scott speculates that we may ourselves have become more docile and less aware of our surroundings. He also argues that the needs of domesticated plants and animals almost make us slaves to their meticulously specific and daily needs.

Chapter 3. Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm

In this chapter, Scott emphasizes the idea of Agro-Pastoralism, i.e. "plowed fields and domestic animals." He questions why a hunter-gatherer, whom he believes has a relatively good and fulfilling life, would turn to this. Subsistence farming is mundane and contains more drudgery than the hunter and gatherer societies. He then asserts the reason as to why these societies transformed into agro-pastoral societies was due to coercion by the state. He cites research on an archaeological site in Mesopotamia named Abu Hureyra. Scott concurs with other scholars in the field that, "'No hunter-gatherers occupying a productive locality with a range of wild foods able to provide for all seasons are likely to have started cultivating their caloric staples willingly.'"[5] Finally, Scott also points out that early states were beset by zoonoses, i.e. disease spread from animals to humans, that results in high morbidity rates.

Chapter 4. Agro-Ecology of the Early State

Scott explains in this chapter that many apparent achievements attributed to the state were actually present before state formation. Scott states that "If civilization is judged an achievement of the state, and if archaic civilization means sedentism, farming, the domus, irrigation, and towns, then there is something radically wrong with the historical order. All of these human achievements of the Neolithic were in place well before we encounter anything like a state in Mesopotamia."[6] Scott then gives his definition of a state, emphasizing the indicators "that point to territoriality and a specialized state apparatus: walls, tax collection, and officials."[7] The Sumerian city of Uruk is an example. Scott cites that in Uruk, early agriculture required a very difficult lifestyle. Many people had to be forced by the state to do hard labor, for instance, creating irrigation channels. As a result of this, warfare between rival polities was very prevalent during this period in order to gain slave labor or to take over areas that had already been irrigated. Scott goes so far as to claim that "Grains Make States." The introduction of a staple food source allowed the state to heavily tax the people. Grains, especially wheat, became the best way to tax the people. Grains like wheat or rice are more valuable per weight than other sources of food, and much easier to transport. As he puts it, "The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and 'rationable.' Other crops--legumes, tubers, and starch plants--have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages."[8] Making people pay taxes in grain forced people to shift away from other sources of food that they may have preferred.

Chapter 5. Population Control: Bondage and War

Scott describes early states as population machines. Rulers were focused on the productivity and number of "domesticated" subjects. The early states had to collect people, settle them near the center of power, and force them to create a surplus in excess of their own needs. He also notes that since early states were full of disease, population tended to fall unless people could be replaced by new slaves.

In early states this population control often took the form of forcefully settling peoples on fertile land, and then preventing them from fleeing to avoid bondage and labour. One piece of evidence Scott cites is the earliest legal codes, stating that they were "filled with such injunctions" intended to "discourage and punish flight." One code that Scott cites specifically is the Code of Hammurabi. This contains six laws intended to discourage the flight and escape of slaves.[9]

The end product of this system was that the states with the most people were often the most powerful. This created compelling incentives for early states to try and increase their population and prevent the "leakage" of the population through bondage and war.

Chapter 6. Fragility of the Early State: Collapse as Disassembly

Scott sees early states as liable to undermine the conditions for their own existence. Some self-inflicted causes for this vulnerability were "climate change, resource depletion, disease, warfare, and migration to areas of greater abundance."[10] For instance, areas upstream would be logged so that the logs could be floated down to the state center, but this could lead to flooding in the spring. The very first state-builders knew no prior examples that would have warned against such problems. Regardless of the causes, Scott's view is that the archaeological evidence suggests that early human communities were constantly collapsing, dispersing, coming back together and collapsing again. Scott believes that state collapse has been viewed as bad by academics due to the loss of cultural complexity, but in fact he thinks it may have been good for the majority of people involved. Building on his critique of the State from earlier chapters, Scott asserts that living in early states meant you were subjected to large scale warfare, and slavery, and that the historical periods following state collapse may have brought a higher standard of living, and freedom. To support this view, he highlights how state collapse led to a dispersion of the population resulting in easier access to food as well as freedom from the brutality of the state and the need to produce a surplus to sustain the elite.

Chapter 7. The Golden Age of the Barbarians

Scott views "barbarian" raiders as having a symbiotic relationship with the early states. They raided the grain centers, but also traded many goods from more remote areas such as metals or animal parts. Scott thus theorizes that up until 400 or so years ago humanity was in the "Golden Age of the Barbarians." This was an era when the majority of the worlds population had never seen a tax collector. Part of this was due to the existence of "Barbarian Zones," i.e. great tracts of land where the state found it either impossible or prohibitively difficult to extend its rule. Places like "mountains and steppes," as well as "uncleared dense forest, swamps, marshes, river deltas, fens, moors, deserts, heath, arid wastes, and even the sea itself."[11] Not only did this place a great many people out of the reach of the state but also made them significant military threats to the state's power.

The traditional narrative is that some "barbarian" communities became sedentary and then developed into early states and civilization. Meanwhile, those who did not undergo this transition remained "barbarian." Scott argues that the history of "barbarians" and the state is much more fluid, that in fact some people "reverted" back to being barbarians precisely because of the failure and excesses of the state. This implies that civilization and state making was not the inexorable march of progress but rather a brutal project that people avoided when possible."



Barry Cunliffe:

"Scott rightly emphasises the considerable benefits of the hunter-gatherer way of life. By exploiting a range of environments, each producing different types of food, a varied and nutritious diet could be provided; if one source failed the others would compensate. Life was energetic and healthy and the comparatively small size of the community militated against the spread of disease. But change was inevitable once people began to rely on domesticated animals and cultivated plants. Humans became less active as they had to weed and guard the crops and to tend the animals kept near the home base. With less time to hunt and to gather, diets became more restricted, reduced largely to cereals and milk products, and with the decrease in foraged foods, so the varied mineral intake they had provided declined, further affecting health. With more people living together, in close proximity to their animals, disease increased. In other words, farming was bad for your health.

All this could explain why there was a gap of 4,000 years between the first domestications and the rise of the state. Rather than embracing farming with enthusiasm, communities chose to adopt subsistence strategies that combined hunting and gathering with a low level of domestication and cultivation. It was the best of both worlds: the crops provided an assured fallback while foraging added a welcome variety. But over time, some groups allowed themselves to become increasingly dependent on cultivated grain, and by about 5000BC there were hundreds of agricultural villages scattered around the fertile crescent. As populations grew, new villages colonised the alluvial lands in the valley bottoms and it was from these that the early states began to develop around 3300BC.

A state can be defined as a territory over which an elite exercised coercive power maintaining itself by taxing the population either through its produce or its labour. Scott takes a rather bleak view of early states but his critique provides a fascinating insight into just how they worked. He argues that for a state to exist it needed to be reliant on a staple that could easily be taxed – and grain was the ideal. Because the fields were fixed and the crop ripened over a short period of time it was impossible for the farmer to avoid the tax collector. Communities elsewhere in the world reliant on tubers or root vegetables such as yams and manioc as their staple were more able to avoid tax since the crop can be left in the ground and harvested over a long period. Such societies seldom develop into states. Another advantage of grain to the state was that it had a higher value per unit volume than most other foodstuffs and was easy to store in the protection of the city, from where it could be doled out to slaves and soldiers or used to feed the population when under siege. Through taxation the state became the quartermaster and producers became subjects. The non-productive elites who emerged in such a system had a keen interest in protecting the grain-producing farmers and so some of the surplus they controlled was invested in city walls and armies.

Old Man Jagger from the Ju/’hoansi community in the Kalahari desert. Why 'Bushman banter' was crucial to hunter-gatherers' evolutionary success Read more Scott argues convincingly that early states are “population machines” designed to control labour, domesticating them as a farmer domesticates his herd. Maintaining the numbers of workers was vital and if numbers fell a new crop had to be gathered through warfare, adding to the ranks of the unfree. Raiding to acquire goods and manpower – an aspect of what Max Weber referred to as “booty capitalism” – became a normal part of life. Women were also herded into state enterprises. Around 3000BC there were 9,000 textile workers in the city of Uruk (in today’s Iraq) – about 20% of the population – most of them women. From the farmer paying his dues to the state, either as a tithe of his crop or as labour, to the captive slave, all the working population were in some kind of bondage, their efforts supporting the ever-increasing luxury in which the elite demanded to live. Underpaid fast-food workers standing out against employment conditions that allow their companies’ CEOs to pay themselves vast salaries can be excused for thinking that little changes.

Early states were fragile constructs and Scott offers a particularly revealing analysis of this. Within the system lie the seeds of its own destruction. Large urban populations living in close proximity are prone to epidemics, a threat that increased as trade developed, bringing strangers to the city carrying diseases to which the locals had no resistance. Then there was ecocide – the degeneration of the environment through overuse – deforestation and overgrazing causing sedimentation and floods that, in turn, led to increased salinisation and the development of malaria. Add to this social unrest and endemic warfare and it is surprising that early states managed to survive. In fact, most did not, and episodes of “collapse” punctuate the historical record. Scott sees collapse not as a disaster but as an opportunity. The oppressive state system is dismantled and the population disperses, redistributing itself across a wider territory – it is a bolt for freedom.

Early states were surrounded by a sea of “barbarians”, who were essentially mobile, adopting varying subsistence strategies – hunting and gathering, foraging, slash-and-burn cultivation and pastoralism. In contrast to the state, they were complex and diverse but the two had to live together in some sort of unstable equilibrium. The natural tendency of the barbarian was to raid – after all, why go through the drudgery of cultivation if you can get all the grain you need by spilling a little blood? But then why go to this effort at all if a symbiosis could be established through an exchange of goods and services, the state offering grain and manufactured goods while the barbarians could provide raw materials and slaves and offer themselves as mercenaries. And so the system moved to another stage of complexity."



From a review of the book by James C. Scott, Against the Grain, by Alex Sager:

"Against the Grain focuses on Mesopotamia to overturn the dominant narrative of the state’s rise. According to this, the domestication of plants and animals led to people settling in one place. Agriculture allowed for the support of large groups of people and increased specialisation (along with stratification). People migrated to cities for the opportunities and splendour of civilisation. The decline or collapse of states was always a tremendous loss.

Scott considers much of this narrative false. Sedentism does not have its origins in plant and animal domestication. The first stratified states in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley appeared ‘only around 3,100 BCE, more than four millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism’ (7). Sedentism has its roots in ecologically rich, preagricultural settings, especially wetlands (10). Agriculture co-existed with mobile lifestyles in which people gathered to harvest crops. Domestication itself is part of a 400,000 year process beginning with the use of fire (38-42). Moreover, it is not a process (or simply a process) of humans gaining increasing control over the natural world. People find themselves caring for dogs, creating an ecological niche for mice, ticks, bedbugs and other uninvited guests, and spending their lives ‘strapped to the round of ploughing, planting, weeding, reaping, threshing, grinding, all on behalf of their favorite grains and tending to the daily needs of their livestock’ (19).

The shift to agriculture was in some respects also harmful. Osteological research suggests that domiciled Homo sapiens who depended on grains were smaller, less well-nourished and, in the case of women, more likely to be anaemic, than hunter-gatherers (84). They also found themselves vulnerable to disease and able to maintain their population only through unprecedentedly high birthrates (113). Scott also suggests that the move from hunting and foraging to agriculture resulted in ‘deskilling’, analogous to the move in the industrial revolution from the master tradesman’s workshop to the textile mill (92). State taxation compounded the drudgery of raising crops and livestock. Finally, the reliance on only a few crops and livestock made early states vulnerable to collapse (112), with the reversion to the ‘dark ages’ possibly resulting in an increase in human welfare (xii).

Why, then, would people choose to join the state? Scott’s answer is that they didn’t. An ecologically rich area is not a sufficient condition for a state to arise; it may even be a barrier since people can easily thrive outside of its grasp. State survival depends on the ability to immobilise and administrate populations so that they can be recorded, measured, taxed, conscripted and enslaved. As a result, states arise in floodplains, not deserts or mountainous regions, and their walls may have served to keep taxpayers in as well as invaders out (30).

Scott observes that almost all classical states had their basis in grain – hence the title of his book (21). Unlike many crops, grain ripens simultaneously and is thus visible and accessible to the tax collector (132). The ability to measure and record allows for state control of other humans: slaves, state subjects and women in the patriarchal family (xii-xiii). In response, many people fled the state to join the ‘barbarians’ (232) who thrived by raiding, extracting tribute and trading with states as well as by supplying them with slaves and mercenaries (256)."