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.