Statist Just-So Stories

The author of Seeing Like a State casts a skeptical eye on the conventional wisdom about the cradle of civilization.


Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James C. Scott, Yale University Press, 336 pages, $26

Yale University Press

For more than 40 years, James Scott has written about those who resist being incorporated into political-economic systems. Initially focused on Southeast Asia, he later expanded his field of vision to large-scale bureaucratic institutions around the world. He has consistently emphasized the ways that such structures try to transform the populations they govern into well-behaved, easily supervisable units—laborers, taxpayers, soldiers—but also the ways those populations work around and subvert the aimed-for transformations.

In a provocative new book, Against the Grain, Scott now challenges us to rethink legends about the state and its origins. Populations ruled by states tell stories about their emergence into civilization, stories that cast the non-state peoples around them as primitives and barbarians. These stories are familiar from the era of European imperialism and from early modern philosophers like Locke and Rousseau, but they're common to state-governed populations around the world and throughout history. Scott calls them into deep doubt.

His early work focused on agriculture, including colonial regimes' forcible transformation of peasant communities into plantation workers. Where Marxists looked at the absence of revolution and charged farmworkers with false consciousness, Scott argued that they understood their interests fully well and fought back as best they could, using "the weapons of the weak" and "the arts of resistance," from foot dragging to sabotage to mockery.

In Seeing Like a State (1998) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), Scott shifted his attention to political institutions. States seek to make their populations "legible," he argued: countable, mappable, surveyable, and thus easily taxable and conscriptable. People seek to protect themselves from all that, sometimes by escaping into anarchic regions where the projection of state power is impractical.

In his emphasis on institutional surveillance, Scott overlapped with the French social theorist Michel Foucault. But in his insistence that states' efforts could never entirely succeed because too much social knowledge is local and tacit, he shared more with F.A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. And with his attention to the resistance of governed populations, he stood out from any of those. As he puts it in his newest book, "the first and most prudent assumption about historical actors is that, given their resources and what they know, they are acting reasonably to secure their immediate interests." While Foucault sometimes seems to see no human agency anywhere, Scott sees it everywhere.

Against the Grain applies all these ideas to the study of the origins of the state in the Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization." This is a shorter, more accessible text, not based on Scott's own original research. He is not an archeologist or ancient historian; indeed, he was inspired to write the book when he learned that he subscribed to a narrative about the era that specialists regarded as out of date. In that narrative, crop and animal domestication allowed our ancestors to abandon their difficult search for food, to settle down in one place, and to benefit from the productive bounty of fixed-field agriculture. As settlements grew into cities, political rule emerged and further facilitated farming, especially through public irrigation projects.

It turns out that settlement, statehood, and farming were separated by thousands of years in ancient Mesopotamia. Scott sets out to interpret this evidence, in ways that radically undermine traditional stories about the state's function.

He argues that even partly settled populations that were able to cultivate crops still generally avoided the fixed-field, full-time farming of a small number of grains and animals, preferring the range of foods and the very different rhythm of labor they had access to in the flood plains of the region. Those who did settle and farm paid a price not only in terms of calories, food variety, and labor, but also in terms of disease. Scott takes morbid delight in detailing the germs and epidemics bred in the stew of animal and crop domestication combined with densely settled towns.

But some populations resorted to farming and stuck with it, partly in response to a changing climate. They thereby made themselves vulnerable to a new social development, thousands of years later. Their way of life could be "'captured'—'parasitized' might not be too strong a word"—and "made into a powerful node of political power."

The early state rested on and encouraged grain farming, because it required "wealth in the form of an appropriable, measurable, dominant grain crop and a population growing it that can be easily administered and mobilized." And this state power allowed the conquest of more populations, forcibly turned into more grain farmers.

In The Art of Not Being Governed Scott noted the vulnerabilities of different kinds of food production to surveying and taxation. Those seeking to escape state authority in Southeast Asia, for example, favored root and tuber crops: easily hidden, able to be left in the ground until it was safe to get to them, and requiring neither visible fields nor conspicuous labor. This book combines that insight with Seeing Like a State's account of social "legibility." Grain must be harvested at a fixed time, is storable after harvest, and is easy to divide and measure, so it is easily taxed. As peasants understand, "the state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine. So when a government surveyor arrives with a plane table, or census takers come with their clipboards and questionnaires to register households…trouble in the form of conscription, forced labor, land seizures, head taxes, or new taxes on crop land cannot be far behind."

Scott is no libertarian, as he has sometimes been at pains to emphasize. But libertarians should find a great deal to appreciate here, including Scott's understanding of non-state "barbarians" as engaged in long-distance trade, but also, more fundamentally, his sense of where freedom lies.

Consider his account of the periodic downfall of states. "The well-being of a population must never be confounded with the power of a court or state center," he writes. People often deserted early states if they could, "to evade taxes, conscription, epidemics, and oppression. From one perspective they may be seen to have regressed.…But from another, and I believe broader perspective, they may well have avoided labor and grain taxes, escaped an epidemic, traded an oppressive serfdom for greater freedom and physical mobility and perhaps avoided death in combat. The abandonment of the state may, in such cases, be experienced as an emancipation." This despite the disadvantages—including other sorts of violence—of the lives into which they dispersed. He proposes that we think in terms of "cycles of aggregation and dispersal" of population, rather than civilization and collapse.

Some critics will charge this book with romanticizing non-state "barbarian" peoples. Scott attempts to disarm this in advance, not least by emphasizing that states bought slaves from such groups, which seized their rivals. Here, as in The Art of Not Being Governed, I'm struck by crucial differences from the "noble savage" narrative popularly associated with Rousseau. That myth always placed barbarian life firmly before the state. Scott is interested in the co-evolution of state and non-state life—in the ways that non-state spaces are shaped in response to and as refuges from neighboring states.

Anarchic life isn't primitive, primordial, natural; it is adaptive and deliberate. Non-state peoples throughout history have both raided and traded with settled agricultural states. With tongue in cheek, Scott discusses the long "golden age of the barbarians" during which they benefitted from the existence of neighboring states without being subjected to them.

It is hard to be certain what we learn from this about the present. Urban populations had worse health than rural populations for a long time; through the 19th century, cities couldn't reproduce themselves but had to draw populations in from the countryside. But that changed. It is increasingly accepted that the turn to agriculture was a net loss in health for millennia, but the gains from agricultural productivity eventually outstripped the losses to disease and diminished food variety. Scott has shown us that states, like the settlements and farming that give rise to them, were worse for us, for longer, than we are prone to think, but the same pattern might hold. How much this history can tell us about the state under liberal democratic capitalist modernity isn't so clear.

But Scott's willingness to throw cold water on state-centric intellectual habits is always admirable. "People gave themselves chiefs to defend their freedom, and not to enslave them," Rousseau said; "if we have a prince, it is to save ourselves from having a master." The American Declaration of Independence similarly held that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." Scott suggests that these are little more than soothing fables—the just-so stories that those already living under chiefs, princes, and governments like to tell themselves.

NEXT: British Think Tank Report Says EU Food Policies Raise Food Prices

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  1. It’s funny how people embrace the mythology of the evil barbarian raiders, overcome by the noble tax chief, without seeing the continuum in between.

    1. Indeed. What about pastorial lifestyles? Managing a herd of grazing animals falls somewhere in between grain agriculture and hunting-gathering. Wasn’t a lot of that going on in the ancient Middle East?
      Also, why didn’t states arise so readily in North America, even though most of the east coast and southern Native Cultures were primarily agricultural?

      Nevertheless, great article. I love this kind of stuff.

      1. Native American Indians farming practice was different than that of Europeans. It’s described in the review article. Indians avoided monoculture, which led to a difficulty in taxation.

        They also did not house stock animals in or near their living quarters, which led to lower disease rates, but also [much] lower resistance to the European settler’s diseases, which is why a North American population similar in size to that of Europe’s succumbed so devastatingly quickly to the arrival of a few dozen pox-carrying Europeans with hardy immune systems.

        1. Native Americans did not have stock animals, because there were no native animals in North America that could easily be domesticated. The only animals that were domesticated in the New World were the dog, the turkey, and the llama. It is interesting that corn, which was the basis of most agriculture in North America, does not require stock animals for harvest, unlike wheat. Corn can be harvested by hand. I am not sure taxation was even a concept that existed among Native Americans. Was this because it would have been difficult to implement with a corn-based agriculture? I don’t know.

          The reason North American Indians succumbed to European diseases so easily does not have to do with their living arrangements. I doubt they would loose, or develop, immunity to particular diseases within the 10,000 years that they lived on this continent (though I am not ruling that out – the ability to digest dairy evolved among Europeans in such a short time frame). Rather, the populations came from limited genetic variety, as they all descended from a relatively small group that came across the Bering Strait.

          1. I doubt they would loose, or develop, immunity to particular diseases within the 10,000 years that they lived on this continent

            The Roma originated in India (roughly 500 AD) – migrated to Europe by roughly 1100 AD. There are roughly 20 ‘immunity’ genes where Roma and Europeans co-evolved without cross-breeding but the Roma differ from their kin in India – and the Black Death specifically is prob the major cause. Any population that survives a major disease/epidemic can

            It’s often difficult to realize HOW immune Old World populations were because disease transmission was so widespread – and near constant. The biggest mistake historians make is attributing the New World impact to particular diseases (notably smallpox). When in truth it was hundreds of diseases (malaria, yellow fever, influenza, chicken pox, typhoid, etc) that most all Europeans – and the rats on their ships – and their livestock/food – carried but had either recovered from or were genetically immune to. It was the entire toxic cocktail that resulted in the high death rates and rapid spread in the New World.

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            2. 1st person Indian accounts from that era report that entire villages of several hundred would die out over a year or so, leaving one or two survivors, who would then make their way to a neighboring tribe/village, only to watch the process repeat, not knowing that they themselves were the cause.

              European settlers reported finding whole villages without population. They unearthed some graves and found corpses recently buried with their tools and farming implements. They praised god for this wonderful bounty.

            3. 1st person Indian accounts from that era report that entire villages of several hundred would die out over a year or so, leaving one or two survivors, who would then make their way to a neighboring tribe/village, only to watch the process repeat, not knowing that they themselves were the cause.

              European settlers reported finding whole villages without population. They unearthed some graves and found corpses recently buried with their tools and farming implements. They praised god for this wonderful bounty.

      2. Recent Archaeologists and Anthropologists have ‘found’ that North America supported a number of ‘states’ over time. How much of this is just current fashion for admiring anyone white people fought with is anyone’s guess. The Nation States I do know of in pre-columbian Americas do not inspire me with warm-fuzzies.

        1. Post-Columbian Amerindian states aren’t so sympathetic, either. Someone here suggested “The Comanche Empire”; I second that recommendation.

        2. The Nation States I do know of in pre-columbian Americas do not inspire me with warm-fuzzies.

          Bah! You and your cis-normative, Eurocentric, privileged white male viewpoints!

          If pre-Columbian Americans liked to enslave and kill people by the millions because that was their culture, then that is obviously OK.

          Why do you hate brown people?

          — Prog

      3. I was thinking more about he blurry line between the barbarian raider and the tax chief as people.

        Does the tax chief come from a farmer, or a barbarian? Both?

        I could see it going either way.

        Is government a noble alternative to barbarians, when the raiding barbarians become the government?

        1. To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to.

  2. Winners write history. I wonder if Scott brings that in explicitly, or if it’s just an obvious corollary. Because the state requires writing to record what it measures, and because writing and saving written records was incredibly expensive and slow for so long, barbarian history was never preserved in writing.

    I’ve never bought any of Scott’s books, but always been fascinated by the ideas in them. Amazon reviews are clearly divided ideologically, not politically, into state lovers and haters. Some reviews do poke holes or raise arguments, but most have an undercurrent of “how dare you denigrate government!” because it’s so hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea of government not being necessary, as exemplified by “you didn’t build that” and the people who can’t imagine anyone building roads on their own for for profit, even though that’s how it was done for a long long time, and logic dictates that people built roads on their own just as a matter of course; when they wanted to get from point A to point B, they didn’t say “ah shucks no” and wait for the government.

    1. If you want to read all kinds of examples of how people did things without the government, check out I Must Speak Out by Carl Watner.

      1. Thanks — looks interesting, but the pdf has terrible fonts. Oh well, still readable.

    2. Speaking of roads for profit, the first highway built in America was the Reading Road, from my hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. It was privately built, I believe by merchants along the route.

    3. Government IS necessary, for most people, most of the time. Nowhere near as MUCH government as the Governors always seem to want, mind.

      Government is like fire; if you are young, strong, healthy, and (let’s face it) male, you CAN live without it. It isn’t pleasant, but it is possible. We see it in various ape species; young males are kicked out of the group to fend for themselves or force their way into a new group. The Boss male doesn’t want them around, sniffing his females and possibly challenging him.

      But most of us need fire. Most of us need government. We don’t want to have to enforce contracts, build roads, police the recalcitrant, and so on, on our own. And if we band together, well that’s government of a sort, isn’t it?

      1. Hmm, too bad a group of people never tried to define a government with specific and limited powers focused on enabling free individuals to life as they choose…

        1. Wait, … Oh, I see what you’re doing!

          Didn’t work that (by that I mean this) time, either.

      2. We don’t want to have to enforce contracts, build roads, police the recalcitrant, and so on, on our own. And if we band together, well that’s government of a sort, isn’t it?

        No. Private enterprise is also “banding together” but it is not government.

        The key difference is that private enterprise comes with property rights and personal risk; government, in contrast, does not.

        Private enterprise is perfectly capable of building roads, policing the recalcitrant, and enforcing contracts, with no need for government.

  3. I think the narrative that humans were somehow “tricked” into agriculture and patriarchal oppression out of the freedom and healthiness of a hunting and gathering matriarchy has been prevalent (in the circles you’d expect) for some time. It’s always seemed suspect to me simply because successful hunting and gathering would be expected to gradually increase a population up to and beyond the level that the land could support hunting and gathering — with climate variations aggravating the situation — leaving the alternatives of agriculture or death.

    Scott’s work seems like a good, balanced, gradualist view of such situations. When one group settles down and increases its productivity, its neighbors may benefit to the extent they can steal or trade for some of that group’s surplus. Settled groups, playing to their own strengths, develop a more structured culture in the interest of defending the property they work, and that structure incentivizes and facilitates the development of a ruling class. There’s a guarded, periodically hostile, symbiosis between the two groups, with the “better” alternative being ultimately a kind of arbitrary judgment.

    1. “…the freedom and healthiness of a hunting and gathering matriarchy …”
      “…its neighbors may benefit to the extent they can steal or trade for some of that group’s surplus…”

      I’d suggest reading some actual history before you spout such nonsense publicly.

    2. > patriarchal oppression out of the freedom and healthiness of a hunting and gathering matriarchy

      Matriarchies never existed for any length of time after coming into contact with any patriarchies of any kind, either agricultural or hunter/gatherer. Ever. Never Ever. [Have you ever seen a group of women try to make a decision? Emphasis on the ‘try’.] Matriarchies are neither free nor healthy. Do some research into the Yanomami. There is no monogamy and about 1/3 of the male population dies violently.

      Patriarchy is not oppression, it is a trade-off. It trades resources for sex and assurance of paternity, the absence of which increases male violence and infant/child mortality by a tremendous amount. It only looks like oppression to women today because, thanks to patriarchy and male honor, civilization was created which provides via division of labor, contract, etc., the capability for women to provision for themselves, without need of a husband/mate. This scenario is manifest most obviously in Black America, which is about 25-30 years ahead of White America in terms of illegitimacy, and lack of fathers. (Incidentally, the incarceration rate differential between whites and blacks goes away when you adjust for lack of a father growing up.)

      Take your Gramscism/cultural Marxism/feminist bullshit somewhere else, we have a civilization to [re]build.

      1. It depends on how you define “matriarchy.” If by “matriarchy” you mean women ruling men, then no, there have been no societies like that. However, if you define it as equality of the sexes, then there were/are some societies like that. Good discussion here.

        And spare us the sexism.

        1. “Equality” really means gyno-centrism, just look at the results coming out of any American or European family court. The West is attempting to create a gynocracy. To find out who is in charge, just ask who you’re not allowed to criticize. Men and women are not now and never have been ‘”equal”, except in the very abstract idea of “equality under the law”, (and even then the ancients had the good sense to make women’s testimony either inadmissible or worth half of that of a mans). Notice a bunch of false rape accusations on campus recently?

          > if you define it as equality of the sexes, then there were/are some societies like that.

          They all suck, they always drift towards despotism and inbreeding, due to the top man seizing all or the vast majority of mating opportunities (concubines and harems), and they will always, 100% of the time be out competed by civilizations built by beta males that have developed and enforced contract, rule of law.

          The institution of marriage and monogamy, while a compromise for the small proportion of alpha males and the vast, overwhelming proportion of women, unleashes the gargantuan productive power of the 80% (beta males) by ASSURING PATERNITY. Men will move Heaven and Hell for the children they know are theirs. Feminism (and the welfare state) is destroying civilization by separating fathers from their families. 70% of divorces in the West are initiated by women. The younger the couple, the higher the percentage initiated by women.

          1. > And spare us the sexism.

            Science denier!!!!!

  4. Check out The Barbarians: “by Terry Jones:

    “Terry Jones’ Barbarians takes a completely fresh approach to Roman history. Not only does it offer us the chance to see the Romans from a non-Roman perspective, it also reveals that most of those written off by the Romans as uncivilized, savage and barbaric were in fact organized, motivated and intelligent groups of people, with no intentions of overthrowing Rome and plundering its Empire.

    This original and fascinating study does away with the propaganda and opens our eyes to who really established the civilized world. Delving deep into history, Terry Jones and Alan Ereira uncover the impressive cultural and technological achievements of the Celts, Goths, Persians and Vandals.

    In this paperback edition, Terry and Alan travel through 700 years of history on three continents, bringing wit, irreverence, passion and scholarship to transform our view of the legacy of the Roman Empire and the creation of the modern world.”


    1. Very interesting, thanks!

    2. The Gauls were very sophisicated when conquered by Rome.

  5. Does he take into account the bi-carmel nature of the human mind in those early days? People hallucinating the voices of the gods and their god kings and the effect it had.

  6. Interesting ideas! I shudder when I see the name Foucault though, dislike that guys ideas. Same thing when I read the word discourse or dialectic, dislike those words and those who use them 🙂

    1. ” I shudder when I see the name Foucault though, dislike that guys ideas.”

      Did you know he was Frinch?

      1. I know he was a dirty commie fag that felt no compunctions about having anonymous unprotected sex with unwitting strangers after he was diagnosed with HIV, and rationalized it away with his shitty “reasoning”.

        What is it with the left and buggery? I just tracked down a connection between some board members of NAMBLA and Bay area Antifa. Wtf?!?!

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