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against the grain

26 february 2018

I'm as prone as anyone else to seeing global history through the lens of "civilization." When I was a kid, I read Hendrik Willem van Loon's Story of Mankind, a civilization-centered master narrative if there ever was one. I wished that my family could afford the multi-volumed Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant, which was continually advertised on the endpapers of the magazines we subscribed to. In recent years I've taught a western-civ course that ranges from Homer to Amara Lakhous and his clash of civilizations over the use of an apartment-building elevator.

But it is fair to say that a focus on civilizations misses much of what is essential to human experience, even in relatively recent eras. Peter Bogucki's recent study of The Barbarians makes a strong case that "uncivilized" peoples in ancient Europe were as smart, resourceful, and artistic as their Greek and Roman neighbors to the south – the barbarians simply failed to leave behind stone monuments and textual traditions.

In Against the Grain, James C. Scott goes further, and further back, to argue that civilization, in its earliest forms, wasn't necessarily much of an improvement on barbarity. The frequent "collapses" of early states were often a welcome respite for early populations in terms of health and well-being. When we read ancient history back through the supposed success of our own agriculturally-supported states, we usually root for the farmers and the rulers; but maybe they were not the good guys all along.

Scott locates his exploration in Mesopotamia, and starts very early indeed, long before the first states, in the time of "sedentism." Sedentists settle down, as the term suggests, but they continue to follow hunter-gatherer ways. They make versatile and opportunistic use of all kinds of local resources: fish, fruit, game, even grain and garden vegetables; they simply don't turn their main efforts to large-scale fixed cultivation of staple crops. Such sedentist cultures, in the early Middle East, tended to coalesce in floodplains where a number of ecosystems converge.

Sedentists, nomads, slash-and-burn farmers, and other "uncivilized" folks would seem to inhabit a libertarian paradise. Scott doesn't go quite that far in extolling the barbarian lifestyle, but he cites evidence to show that uncivilized people, including diversified sedentists, tended to be healthier and more secure than early agriculturalists. They ate better, worked less, were freer from disease, and would have had more time to sit around and read Ayn Rand novels, if they had bothered to invent writing.

The question is why anyone would take up farming if they could live free as sedentists or nomads. Scott (following the work of many others) suggests that most had no choice. Early agriculture was likely to have been inseparable from slavery – like most later agriculture, for that matter. The original steps in the development of slave states are perhaps lost to history and archeology, but it's easy to see, and indeed to read about, their culmination in big cities like Uruk and Ur. Such towns erected walls as much to keep servile populations in as to keep invaders out. Grain surpluses supported warrior classes who went out and captured barbarians in order to work them on farms to produce grain surpluses, and the system reinforced itself.

Increasingly, these early cities – we can now call them "states," as well – exhausted local resources of wood, metals, and potential slaves, so they turned some of their slave labor to the task of producing trade goods (especially textiles) which could be shipped to the hinterlands (via river networks) and exchanged for materials and people to keep the cities growing.

These early states never lasted long. A century was an extremely good innings. Sometimes the historical and material records help us interpret their downfall: crop failure, floods, defeat in battle. At other times, we just have to infer the reasons for "collapse"; epidemics, climate change, and the failure of monocultures are reasonable inferences, and some combination of "all of the above" was doubtless often in play.

Scott puts "collapse" in scare quotes, though, because the result of states collapsing was usually that people fanned out into the countryside and got healthier and safer again for a generation or two, till the next wave of urban expansion. Even though central authority disappeared and tax collection ceased, population may not have shrunk much at all during periods of "collapse," and standards of living, if anything, got better for a lot of people. Chris Wickham and other historians have noted something similar happening on a continental scale in Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. Such dispersals of people and breakdowns of bureaucracy are naturally disappointing for historians – and also for archeologists, because freewheeling rural communities build out of wood and earth instead of constructing monumental edifices of stone. But except for small elites, nobody may have perceived such interregna as collapses.

At the same time, Scott warns that we should not think of early barbarian life as Edenic. Once states got started, people beyond their margins had to cope with them. Stateless people were vulnerable to the slave-catching armies of the cities. But they also had new sources for hunting and gathering: the granaries of civilization. Raiding became the new foraging. Over time, marginal peoples developed a symbiosis with early states, a kind of barbarian protection racket (240-41), and states in turn exerted a form of coercion and patronage over the peoples just beyond their walls.

Scott's is a contrarian interpretation, but not a wild speculation. He is at pains to note that his work is something of a foraging expedition, a higher-order literature review that reaches across many disciplines to think in big-picture ways about the origins of civilization. He does so in terms of environments, habitats, and of the emerging Anthropocene, an ecosystem irrevocably altered by human practices.

The view that Scott argues against is familiar from old-school world histories like those I devoured as a child. In such received views, there is inevitable linear progress from hunting/gathering through horticulture to agriculture. Each stage proves more productive than the next, and inevitably prevails over its predecessors. Magically along the way, the old histories go, a "surplus" pops up, and people are then "freed" from labor and start to build pyramids, systematize theology, develop the higher math, design jewelry, write "Gilgamesh," or paint hieroglyphics. Arts and culture flourish, except for the regrettable falls and the ensuing dark ages, which are usually attributed to weakening moral fiber or poisoning from copper pots or whatever.

Scott does not abandon the concept of surplus. A surplus of grain, storable and commodified, was the essence of the early state. He just has a different take on its control and distribution. Instead of being a wonderful reservoir of the general good, Scott argues, a city-state's surplus was the treasure of that city's elite. It enabled inequality. It enabled leisure for non-productive pursuits, but in the eyes of 99% of the early population, that was perhaps not a popular purpose. "Be a scribe," advises one early Egyptian text. "It saves you from toil and protects you from all manner of work" (164). I can certainly relate to that, but that's perhaps the problem with having academics study the ancient world. We identify with the scribes, not with the field hands.

Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A deep history of the earliest states. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.