Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States 

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4 stars
Provocative inquiry into the nature of human progress

As of this writing, James C. Scott is 81 years old. Best known for Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (reviews), he is an accomplished scholar of non-state societies. Near the end of his career, Scott is not pulling any punches. Against the Grain seeks to dismantle the standard civilizational narrative — that early state-based agricultural societies were part of a linear progression towards civilization as we understand it today.

Scott demonstrates that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that preceded sedentary agriculture was egalitarian, relatively peaceful, and allowed for significant leisure time, and that early human cultures combined a variety of approaches to survive. Beyond hunting and gathering, these included shifting agriculture, pastoralism (raising livestock and moving the herd in search of new pastures), and even sedentary agriculture, well before the emergence of states.

Our ancestors were opportunistic and looked for the quickest way to make a living. Agriculture wasn’t necessarily a response to population pressure — depending on the environment, it just offered a more reliable return than hunting and gathering.

In Scott’s narrative, the creation of what he calls “late-Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps” — settlements where humans, livestock, other domesticated animals like dogs, and domesticated plants lived together for extended periods of time — caused never before seen levels of drudgery and misery. The high population concentration led to disease and crop failures, and agricultural cultivation created tedium and reduced cultural complexity.

But it also created opportunities for those who accumulated power to attempt to preserve it. The settlements could be strengthened by abducting and enslaving nomads or members of other communities. By standardizing on cereal grains — “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’” — early states were able to sustain their bureaucracies (and increase elite wealth) through taxation.

A polemic against civilization

War and slavery were not inventions of the state, Scott acknowledges, but it is only through the concentrated power of early states that they could they be brought to a previously unseen scale. When state societies collapsed, many of the enslaved or coerced members (if they survived—a big “if” Scott glosses over a bit too readily) were better off. And state collapse occurred frequently, due to disease, war, starvation, rebellion, and other causes.

Meanwhile, the “barbarians” who did not join state-based societies (and who could not easily be captured because of where they lived) became more sophisticated, extracting tribute from the state — but also selling each other out to serve as mercenaries for hire.

Where Scott’s writing turns into polemic is when he dismisses the idea of “dark ages” (such as the Greek Dark Age or, though he barely writes about it, the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire). The fact that we don’t find monumental buildings, wall paintings, or a strong written tradition, he reminds us, doesn’t mean nothing of interest happened — after all (a point Scott repeats), Homer’s great epic was composed during a “dark age” and transmitted orally.

Scott persuasively marshals the evidence that concentration caused many new hardships, and led to societies which were frequently (if not always) deeply unjust. But he does not attempt to examine the arguments against dispersal, or for large numbers of humans living with each other in close proximity, sharing ideas and beliefs at a pace previously unimagined.

He dismisses “elite displays” such as monuments and temples, but does not write about roads, aqueducts, libraries, poverty relief such as the Cura Annonae, or any legitimate effort to better the life of a community’s members, if such life was organized partially through a state.

Indeed, the word “science” does not appear in the book’s index. Human progression that is the result of better understanding our world and applying that knowledge is too readily dismissed in an effort to keep the book true to its title.

Here, Scott’s book — so critical of ideological views of “civilization” — is itself ideologically committed to rejecting an evidence-based view. “But what of the slaves?” one can imagine Scott saying. “But what of the elites, enriching themselves?” Yes, but what of Euclid, Democritus, Ovid? What of the Library of Alexandria, or the Antikythera mechanism, or the art of Pompeii? What of the religious extremism that followed Rome’s collapse, and probably followed earlier collapses as well?

The verdict

Scott uses language not to obfuscate, but occasionally in ways I would describe as performative. Against the Grain makes frequent use of technical terms from agriculture and anthropology; the writing is dry (though suffused with a dark academic humor) and sometimes repetitive. What keeps the book interesting is its challenge to orthodoxies and its willingness to put things plainly when required, e.g., when writing about slavery.

Against the Grain does re-cast our understanding of history. Scott is correct to critique those who want to see linear progression in human history; a rise from savagery. Deep history that looks at the distant past of our species is crucial to get a clear picture of how we became who we are. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were far from stupid, and their minds were far from simplistic compared to our own, nor were their lives especially brutal or difficult.

History cannot be understood without examining the accumulation of power and resources, all too often including slaves and other coerced labor. If we want to build morally just societies, we must understand how this accumulation of power is at odds with moral progress, even as it has often enabled scientific or technological progress.

But here ends the usefulness of Scott’s book. The fact that his work celebrates the dispersed life beyond the reach of the state is perhaps precisely why his colleagues can celebrate him as an anarchist academic. His writing poses no threat to real systems of power, because it offers no alternative. It is an important read, but only as a starting point for developing a more nuanced understanding of the human story, correcting misconceptions in the common narrative still taught in schools. In the final analysis, Scott is a rebel without a cause.