James Scott’s lucid Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States provides a fascinating refutation of mainstream narratives of civilization.
In an earlier book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Professor Scott argued that states seek to make everything “legible” to control society. That’s a stark contrast to the Hobbesian idea of the state as having formed in opposition to the “nasty, brutish and short” state of nature. Scott proceeds to upend this in detail with this well-argued and lucid work.
The conventional narrative of civilisation, dutifully learned by every student in school, is that Homo Sapiens discovered agriculture, found that it was a better way to live than hunting and gathering, and so settled down in villages. Agricultural villages produced a surplus which allowed states to form. And they’ve been with us ever since. Whoever was not controlled by a state was a barbarian.
Archaeological evidence, however, points to the idea that early states were far from havens of order and plenty, and hunter-gatherers were generally better off than farmers under a state. The question, then, that Scott sets out to answer is: how and why did the earliest states form? His answer: domestication.
The domestication of fire was the first step along this path. With fire, humans could reshape the environment, burning away forests, letting grasslands with smaller prey and edible shrubs and roots grow. Next, they domesticated plants and animals, consuming food from a variety of food webs – hunting at some point of the year, gathering edible vegetation at another, slaughtering livestock sometimes, harvesting crops at another. Life was good for these early humans, and they could afford to settle down and enjoy the bounty of nature at the intersection of all these different food sources.
Yet as we changed plant and animal species to suit ourselves, so they changed us to suit themselves. In what Scott calls “Late Neolithic Species Resettlement Camps”, the process of domestication and selective breeding made these more docile, reduced their response to stimuli, and reduced gender dimorphism. Some of these arguably happened to humans as well. The unprecedented concentration of species that had never lived together in the wild led to the creation of new diseases, new daily routines for humans, and new cultural traditions (such as harvest festivals).
But then something changed: perhaps some of those food sources failed, perhaps populations in these villages increased, perhaps people were prevented from migrating to greener pastures by climate change. But states formed. And states embarked on the final domestication: the domestication of humankind.
Scott argues that through the construction of walls, the institution of writing for record-keeping, and ideas of gods, slavery, even patriarchy, states forced their subjects to live in miserable conditions and yet produce as much of a surplus in terms of revenue and population as possible. One of the book’s most startling insights is on the staple crop of these early states – they tended to be grains, the author guesses, because grains were the easiest to quantify, assess, and collect. This produce was used for the development of culture, and ever more efficient ways of extracting surpluses, including irrigation and calendars.
These radically new experiments in controlling people were, however, ridiculously fragile. Whether by the overexploitation of natural resources, through disease in overcrowded settlements, or warfare, states fell easily and often. This is a fascinating and likely theory. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to verify, because cause of death is hard to prove 8,000 years after the fact – like many of the more interesting ideas in the book.
The only evidence we can find of ancient states are their own records, necessarily a narcissistic self-portrait which castigates non-state peoples as barbarians. What did the non-state peoples (the majority of humankind, until roughly the 1600s CE), think of the states? We cannot know- because they left little to nothing behind.
Non-state peoples and the concept of the “collapse” of the state receive considerable attention from Scott, who points out that considering how early states depended on extracting as much of a surplus from their subjects as they could, and used that to develop culture, their collapse may have led to a sort of “democratization” of culture as well as better health outcomes for their erstwhile subjects. An example would be the Greek Dark Ages after the fall of the palace culture of Mycenae – after all, the great epics of Homer were composed in this period. However, we cannot be sure that the decline of a state did not also lead to an increase in violence and raiding.
One of the most striking insights of the book is Scott’s exploration of the relationship between the state and its “dark twin” – the non-state. Non-state raiders, such as the Mongols versus China, and the Huns versus Rome, threatened the state’s grip over the surplus generated by its “grain core”. So the state would pay them tribute, or offer them profitable trade, or employ them as its mercenaries. Essentially, both power structures survived by the extraction of surplus. While the relationship between them swung wildly over the centuries, the advent of gunpowder finally allowed the state to win, consuming its twin and ending up as the primary form of global organization today.
All in all, Against the Grain is a fascinating refutation of mainstream narratives of civilization. It also serves as an introduction to a more complex conception of how human civilization evolved, and does a commendable job of connecting the dots of existing thinking, with some ideas of its own that deserve further research. Though many of these are constrained by the difficulty of finding irrefutable evidence to support them, they’re well worth the read.