Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott

Book cover

This is sort of the academic version of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. It’s an exploration of the current state of knowledge about the emergence of agriculture and the first states, mostly focusing on Mesopotamia but with occasional mentions of early civilizations in China and the Americas. Scott writes it as an academic whose work is “adjacent” to these fields of study, and has an interesting preface about the instigation of the project when he went to update a lecture of his and realized that the field had been pretty much upended since the last time he looked into it.

Scott has a nice statement near the beginning to the effect that he sees history as the most radical of academic disciplines, because it has the power to show us that the status quo has not always been the case. There’s a ton of interesting and potentially subversive material here, and I think the book has some affinities with David Graeber’s Debt. The broad thrust of the book is to upend the standard narrative that people settled down, became agricultural cultivators, and organized into states because all of these things offered such great advantages over the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Scott says that the archaeological evidence shows pretty conclusively that early cultivators had to work more, and had worse health and longevity outcomes, than their hunter-gatherer contemporaries, so in some sense the real question is why people adopted agricultural cultivation at all. Unfortunately Scott’s answer to this key question is basically “we’re not sure.” He discusses a leading theory that sedentary cultivation was a last resort in the face of particularly lean circumstances, but says that the evidence is very mixed on this.

There’s so much more interesting material here. Scott discusses how the rise of early states was tied up with forced labor of various kinds, and how early conflicts were fought much more around slaves and people rather than territory. There’s some interesting discussion of the “domus” (household in a broad sense) served as an incubation center for disease, connecting to the way diseases from colonizers often wiped out native hunter-gatherer populations. There’s quite an extended discussion of the nature of “barbarian” groups (Scott uses the term tongue-in-cheek), what life was like for them (pretty good) and the symbiotic relationship between these groups and settled state-oriented groups (there is some isomorphism between barbarian raids and regular tax collection). And there’s a very interesting discussion questioning our concept of civilizational “collapse” and arguing that such collapses may often have resulted in an increased quality of life for most people.

Overall I think Scott succeeds entirely in showing how history can be a radical area of inquiry. Looming over all of the book, though Scott only mentions it briefly, is a critical view on the idea of the social contract. If states were initiated primarily by enslavement and forced labor, rather than by people voluntarily banding together for mutual benefit, what does that mean for our political theory of the state?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars