“Aside from the utter hegemony of the state form today, a great deal of and throughout the world is state-sponsored and often amounts to a narcissistic exercise in self-portraiture.”

Starting “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States” by Yale professor James C. Scott.

One of Scott’s premises is that early states developed specifically around certain grains because taxation requires a material that is “legible” — meaning fungible and easy to collect and store on a schedule. So tubers and fruits are out; rice, wheat, barley and millet are in.

Scott challenges the notion that sedentism arose in tandem with crop domestication. Rather, he argues, sedentism was a precondition of domestic agriculture, itself made possible by the domestication of (or, conversely, our domestication by) fire, which shrank the “radius of a meal” by letting hominids remake the environment and externalize heavy digestion.

Recent work (especially Pournelle, “Marshland of Cities”) flips the old assumption that Mesopotamian urban civilization grew out of the need to organize labor for the purpose of combatting Gulf aridity with irrigation. Rather, the region around Ur was an alluvial wetland, and sedentary life adapted itself to seasonal flooding and migration.

Some reading synchronicity:

Asking why the wetlands origin of early urbanism has been overlooked, Scott speculates that the cultural association of civilization with the major grains posits wetlands as the antithesis of civilization. (p. 55)

Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, which I was reading a week ago, has a chapter on the 17th c. colonial American horror of swamps as the hiding place of Native Americans.

That’s rather elegant corroboration, in that it gives a historical pedigree to the cultural bias against wetlands, while at the same time providing an example of a non-urban culture that was societally adapted to navigating and making use of wetlands.

“H.R. Hall wrote of early Mesopotamia in ‘the state of chaos, half-water and half-land, of the [alluvial] fans of southern Babylonia before civilization began its work of draining and canalizing.’” p. 56

Echoes of the Biblical creation story: God separates the land from the waters.

The theory that agriculture added a “delayed-return” activity (planting and tending in expectation of an uncertain ROI) to early societies sustinence “suggests, by an implied contrast, that the hunter-gatherer is an improvident, spontaneous creature of impulse” (p. 65) — a carryover of Enlightenment tropes, a la Rousseau. Actually, hunter-gatherer lifestyles involve seasonal planning and preparation, as well.

Scott theorizes that the earliest form of agriculture (as opposed to gathering of wild grains) was “flood-retreat” — planting in the flood plain after the water has retreated, leaving naturally harrowed, nutrient-rich soil. Less work than agriculture requiring irrigation, compatible with seasonal hunter-gathere routines, with a potentially high return relative to effort.

“As a sheep breeder myself for more than 20 years, I have always been personally offended when sheep are used as a synonym for cowardly crowd behavior and a lack of individuality. We have, for the past 8000 years, been selecting among sheep for tractability — slaughtering first the aggressive ones who broke out of the corral. How dare we, then, turn around and slander a species for some combination of normal herd behavior and precisely those characteristics we have selected for?” Scott, p. 80

Scott portrays the process of domestication — that is, of adapting humans to the pattern of sedentary life organized around a domus — as one of “deskilling,” stripping away the hunter-gatherer’s encyclopedic knowledge of their environment to the narrower range of skills clustered around the life-cycle of the few grains dominant in the diet of their society. Farther on is the extreme specialization of Adam Smith’s pin factory worker.

How do we explain what looks like a bottleneck in global population growth between 10,000 and 5,000 BCE? Scott suggests epidemiology: the advent of urbanism increases population density, crowding people and livestock together, which in turn gives rise to the first human pandemics, like typhus and measles.

To my mind, that suggests a 5,000 year arms race. Humans work to develop cultural responses to these previously unexperienced diseases. The diseases evolve to maintain their viability. Cities form, grow, then disperse when plagues take hold. At some point around 5,000 BCE, the two factions reach a kind of equilibrium that allows human populations to break out of the bottleneck.

Climate change figures prominently in one major theory for how sedentism and early urbanism led to the formation of the first states. Receding water levels and the decline of arable land forced urban populations into smaller regions. That, in turn, concentrates grain production, making it more exploitable as the basis for a system of taxation.

Still reading, of course, but that seems, to me, to skip a step. Concentration of grain power provides the opportunity for taxation, but not the motive. You could posit, for example, that clustering of previously distinct communities around newly shared resources created conflicts, which required mediation, which led to social organization, which creates costs that had to be paid for somehow, with taxation as the innovation that solves that problem.

Taxation is a central concern in the book — Scott seems to regard it as an indispensable trait of statehood — but I’m skeptical of the character he assigns to its role in the development of early states. “How do we get the taxation?” often feels like it implies that taxation is a teleological end unto itself, not merely an historical or sociological one.

Another way to put it: Scott writes as though it were obvious that the innovation of taxation and the emergence of an elite class were simultaneous, rather than that class stratification arose as an unforeseen an initially unintended side-effect of taxation. That’s a possibility, I suppose, but one in need of demonstration.

On the hypothesis that the purpose of the earliest states was to defend grain stores against robbers: “My view, by contrast, is that the state originated as a protection racket in which one band of robbers prevailed.” (269)

Seems at odds with another of his arguments: that early agriculturists often reverted to hunting-gathering when conditions were unfavorable. Why wouldn’t they abandon agriculture rather than submit to exploitation? Seems like there must have been an attractive incentive.

Seems to me that supposing a coercive, appropriator origin to the state creates a chicken-or-egg problem. If taxation is the source of state power (e.g. in that it pays for armies and the tools of control) then how do the elites amass enough power to impose taxes in the first place? A cooperative model of state formation avoids that paradox.

Getting into the development of slavery now. Seems like there’s a fair amount of evidence based on primary sources for ancient Mesopotamian slavery, but it’s spread out over multiple societies (Uruk, Ur III, Babylonia) spanning more than 2,000 years, so it’s not always clear which practices arose when or how broadly they applied.

To my mind, the issue of slavery raises more questions about Scott’s position on taxation and coercion. If early agriculturists would tolerate neither slavery nor taxation without coercion, then why bother with taxation? Why extort a proxy for labor if you could just extort the labor directly?

Seems more likely that they’re built on one another. Slavery required a power base sufficient to coerce the enslaved population, and the basis for that power was taxation. Taxation also required some base, but (at least early on) that base was mutual benefit. The accumulation of surplus from taxation facilitates the construction of power, which in turn facilitates institutional slavery.

Scott argues that “collapse” may be too dramatic a term for the ultimate fate of most early states. It suggests a traumatic upheaval. The reality may have been more gradual and benign to the population itself: the dissolution of institutional control, followed by the dispersal of residents away from the urban core. The latter may have even improved average health.

“Why deplore ‘collapse,’ when the situation it depicts is most often the disaggregation of a complex, fragile, and typically oppressive state into smaller, decentralized fragments?” (209) Scholars deplore it, Scott suggests, because states leave more records and archaeological traces. There’s often little to study left by dispersed populations.


Scott draws a distinction between two groups described from the POV of agriculturalist states…

Barbarians: hostile pastoralists who could threaten the state militarily


Savages: hunter-gatherer bands not amenable to the civilizing influence of the state.

“When Aristotle wrote of skates as tools, one imagines that he had in mind ‘savages’ and not all barbarians (for example, Persians).” (221)

I’m not so sure about that.

@lrhodes there's a third category " the sea people" 2500-1500 BC. Pirates and sailors of the mediterrean sea, came out from nowhere and destroy the hitite empire.

@luisprof Reading on, it looks like he’s including those groups under “barabarians,” one principle activity of which is raiding.

@lrhodes Could you clarify? The Achaemenid-era Persians were peasant farmers paying tribute to a nework of storehouses run by professional clerks whose elite ruled the most powerful kingdom in the world. If Scott thinks they were "hostile pastoralists who could threaten the state militarily" then there is a big gap in his and his reviewers' reading lists.

@lrhodes Also, I would have to check Ar. Pol., but I don't get the sense that Greeks and Romans who described slaves as "talking tools" or "movable property" thought that had anything to do with ethnicity ... they just took it for granted that slaves were not people. As Scott must know, in Sumerian slaves are often given the inanimate/impersonal gender ... the 18th century idea of universal human rights was radical.

@bookandswordblog Yeah, I think Scott is aware that Greek slaves had a certain amount of social mobility that would belie the idea that they were innately objects. Although, I seem to recall Aristotle talking about suitability to freedom or slavery as a character trait in some persons.

@lrhodes well, that is the thing: many Greek and Roman thinkers insisted that one could change from a person to a nonperson to a person by being enslaved and then freed. When some agricultural theories divided property into articulate (slaves), semiarticulate (cattle), and mute (wagons, Varro, de Re Rustica 1.17.1) that had nothing to do with ethnicity ("some of my most expensive slaves are Greeks!") and everything to do with justifying atrocity.

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