Against the Grain

A Deep History of the Earliest States

[Amazon Link]

James C. Scott, a Yale PoliSci prof, writes here (I take it) a contrarian view of how the earliest "states" came into being. He brings a (basically) anarchist perspective to his analysis, which means that he's not buying the standard narrative that increasing numbers of people living under state control automatically implies "progress" toward "civilization".

In the following, you have to remember that I'm not even a worthy dilettante in this field. I may be offbase on a number of issues.

Apparently the mainstream view is that states were automatically brought about by the advent of sedentary agriculture of grain crops. Scott argues that such agriculture preceded the earliest states by centuries, if not millennia. So there must have been some other mechanism in play.

Scott is critical of early states, describing how they were dependent on coerced labor, taxation, and theft (but I repeat myself). They had a number of other non-obvious downsides: peoples' diets were less diverse, probably leading to suboptimal nutrition. Gathering lots of people into a relatively small area gave rise to all sorts of nasty disease; obviously, the sanitation systems appropriate for nomadic hunter/gatherers didn't scale well at higher population densities. And, tyrannies that they were, the earliest states were "planned" economies, where the planning all happened in the rulers' heads. Scientific socialism, without very much science, in other words. Shortages, gluts, thievery, and slacking-off must have been endemic.

So you would expect the early states to have been extremely fragile, apt to break down in response to shifts in climate, marauding bands of nomadic raiders, or simple emigration. Scott points out a couple times that the walls erected by early states may have been to keep people in, not just enemies out.

Also interesting: the early states invented writing, for how else are you going to keep track of taxes, inventories, and the like? OK, that does sound pretty civilized, even in service to oppression.

One thing that troubles me about Scott's argument: although he's pretty convincing that early states were founded on (and depended on) coercive violence, he doesn't seem to compare that to the levels of violence outside the state. Since I've read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, I thought such violence was pretty intense too. Scott doesn't seem to be a believer in the idyllic "noble savage", but it would have been nice to see an engagement with the view that the state improved things, violence-wise.

I requested this book from UNH Interlibrary Loan, but before it showed up, a review was published in the WSJ: I’m From Pharaoh and Here to Help. The reviewer, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, has a number of serious criticisms of Scott's work. So take it with a grain (heh) of salt. [I have Professor Fernández-Armesto's recent book on order from UNH, we'll see how that goes…]