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

Barbarians: hostile pastoralists who could threaten the state militarily

and

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.

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“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 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.

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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.

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?

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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