Against the Grain and the State

James C. Scott has rewritten the history of the “civilization” in his recent book Against the Grain. He turns the mainstream narrative of civilization on its head with the help of evidences coming from various fields of sciences. In doing so, he rewrites the history of man himself. In rewriting  the mainstream narrative, Scott has twofold goals in his mind: first, the more modest one of condensing the best knowledge we have of these matters and then second, suggesting what it implies for state formation and for both the human and ecological consequences of the state form.

The mainstream narrative of civilization that James Scott turns on its head goes like this:

  • Domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture.
  • Sedentism and the first appearance of towns were typically seen to be the effect of irrigation and of states.
  • Sedentism and cultivation led directly to state formation.
  • Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition and leisure.
  • The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities.
  • People living outside the urban city state centers were barbarians and their lives were horrible compared to the lives of city dwellers.

Scott takes these mainstream narratives in turn and reexamines them under the light of evidences from various fields of research. I will review this reexamination in brief here. In his reexamination exercise, the main focus area of Scott is the cradle of civilization i.e., the ancient Mesopotamia (the region between two rivers Euphrates and Tigris. A place also known as ‘the fertile crescent’). Whenever needed Scott also uses evidences coming from the Americas, Europe as well as South East Asia for this purpose.

Domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture

As Scott examines the evidence against the above claim he reaches a very different and opposite conclusion. The evidences suggest that, in fact, it turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared on the land of ancient Mesopotamia. Scott discusses this paradox of state and civilization narrative:

A foundational question underlying state formation is how we (homo sapiens sapiens) came to live amid the unprecedented concentration of domesticated plants, animals, and people that characterize states. From this wide-angle view, the, the state form is anything but natural or given. Homo sapiens appeared as a subspecies about 200,000 years ago and is found outside of Africa and the Levant no more than 60,000 years ago. The first evidence of cultivated plants and of sedentary communities appears roughly 12,000 years ago. Until then – that is to say for ninety-five percent of the human experience on earth – we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, relatively egalitarian, hunting-and-gathering bands. Still more remarkable, for those interested in the state form, is the fact that the very first small, stratified, tax-collecting, walled states pop up in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley only around 3,100 BCE, more than four millennia after the first crop domestication and sedentism. (emphasize added)

This evidence suggests that the whole civilization narrative that naturalizes the state form and assume that once crops and sedentism, the technological and demographic requirements, respectively, for the state formation were established, states/empires would immediately arise as the logical and most efficient units of political order. Nothing like this happened in the past. What actually happened was that 4000 years before any state arose, people domesticated plans and animals and were living a sedentary life in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. If the rise of state is so natural, and a sign of progress for human beings, then why did it not arise for 4000 years after we decided to settle down? It didn’t rise among us because the conditions for its rise were very different from what the civilization narrative tells us.

Before we discuss these conditions, it is better to examine the reasons that made humans settle down and live a sedentary life. We will see below that our ancestors were not living only one type of, hunter-gatherer or sedentary, life.     

Sedentism and the first appearance of towns were typically seen to be the effect of irrigation and of states

It turns out that this claim is also not correct. Instead of both sedentism and the first appearance of towns typically a product of irrigation and states, they were usually the product of wetland abundance.

People started to settle down in one area to live sedentary lives millennia before any state arose amidst them. The reason for sedentism turns out to be the availability of wetland areas. Scott throws light on this issue:

What might have been an earlier trend toward population growth and settlement in the Fertile Crescent owing to warmer and wetter conditions ended abruptly around 10,800 BCE. A millennium-long cold snap that followed is believed by some to have been caused by a massive pulse of glacial melt from North America (Lake Agassiz) suddenly draining eastward into the Atlantic through what we now call the Saint Lawrence River. Population receded, the remainder shrank back from marginal highlands to refugia where the climate, and therefore the flora and fauna, were more favorable. Then, around 9,600 BCE, the cold snap broke and it became warmer and wetter again – and fast. The average temperature may have increased as much as seven degrees Celsius within a single decade. The trees, mammals, and birds burst out of the refugia to colonize a suddenly more hospitable landscape – and with them, of course, their companion species, Homo sapiens.

… As we shall see, the earliest large fixed settlements sprang up in wetlands, and not arid settings; they relied overwhelmingly on wetland resources, not grain, for their subsistence; and they had no need of irrigation in the generally understood sense of the term. Insofar as any human landscaping was necessary in this setting, it was far more likely to be drainage than irrigation. The classical view that ancient Sumer was a miracle of irrigation organized by the state in an arid landscape turns out to be totally wrong.              

This means, the state didn’t organize agriculture and started civilization. Exactly opposite happened in the past. People were already living a sedentary life in wetlands which were teeming with rich resources of all kinds. Instead of simply living on agriculture grain diet, people had very varied diet of fruits, nuts, river fishes, turtles, tubers etc. etc. These people also domesticated some of the wild plants, like wheat, barley and maize that we state subjects heavily rely on today, as well as animals like goats, sheep, mules, chicken etc. well before any state came into being.

Sedentism and cultivation led directly to state formation

The evidence suggests that states pop up only long after fixed field agriculture appears.

As we have seen above, for four millennia and more there was no state to be seen among our ancestors who were living a sedentary life. So, naturally the question arises that why after four millennia delay the state finally arose? We now turn to answer this question.

Scott looks at the evidence and provides the answer:

If civilization is judged as an achievement of the state, and if archaic civilization means sedentism, farming, the domus, irrigation, and towns, then there is something radically wrong with the historical order. All of these human achievements of the Neolithic were in place well before we encounter anything like a state in Mesopotamia. Quite the contrary. On the basis of what we now know, the embryonic state arises by harnessing the late Neolithic grain and manpower module as a basis of control and appropriation. The module was, as we shall see, the only possible scaffolding available for the design of the state.

Settled populations growing crops and domesticated grains, and small towns with a thousand or more inhabitants facilitating commerce, were an autonomous achievement of the Neolithic, being in place nearly two millennia before the appearance of the first states, around 3,300 BCE.

… This complex, however, represented a unique new concentration of manpower, arable land, and nutrition that, if “captured” – “parasitized” might not be too strong a word – could be made into a powerful node of political power and privilege.

This finding is in line with other important works re the origins of the state like that of the German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer. He divided the means of sustenance into two categories: first, economic means where people sustain their lives by producing goods and selling the surplus in the market in exchange for other goods that they want, and second, the political means where people live their lives by appropriating goods produced by others i.e., parasitism.

The domus complex i.e., sedentary human settlements with their domesticated flora and fauna, as well as accompanying unique diseases like plague, cholera etc., which came into existence when humans started living in crowded towns with their domesticated animals, were already in place which the state appropriated for itself using coercive methods. Scott explains this history of origins of the state:

If state formation depends on the control, maintenance and expansion of the concentrations of grain and manpower on the alluvium, the question arises how the early state could have come to dominate these population-and-grain modules. The would-be subjects of this hypothetical state, after all, had direct, unmediated access to water and flood retreat agriculture as well as a variety of subsistence options beyond cultivation. One convincing explanation for how this cultivating population might have been assembled as state subjects is climate change. Nissen shows that the period from at least 3,500 to 2,500 BCE was marked by a steep decline in sea level and a decline in the water volume in the Euphrates.

… The shortage of irrigation water confined the population increasingly to well-watered places and eliminated or diminished many of the alternative form of subsistence, such as foraging and hunting.  

… Climate change, then, by forcing a kind of urbanization in which 90 percent of the population lived in settlements of thirty hectares or more, intensified the grain-and-manpower modules that were ideal for state formation. Aridity proved the indispensable handmaiden of state making by delivering, as it were, an assembled population and concentrated cereal grains in an embryonic state space that could not, at that epoch, have been assembled by any other means.

… The state form colonizes this nucleus as its productive base, scales it up, intensifies it, and occasionally adds infrastructure – such as canals for transport and irrigation – in the interest of fattening and protecting the goose that lays the golden eggs. (emphasize added)

Once the state came into existence in this way, it added extra dangers in already problematic crowded domus complex. The crowded settlements were suffering from natural disasters like droughts and diseases, and the state added more layers of insecurity of taxes and warfare over those dangers.   

Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition and leisure

This claim is ubiquitous. Agriculture revolution is generally seen as a great leap forward for the humanity, which before that was living a life of uncivilized hunter gatherer barbarian! Something like the opposite was initially the case.

The precise reason for the start of the so-called “agricultural revolution” is not yet pinned down by the researchers, but once cultivation started and grains like wheat, barley and maize etc., with animals domesticated, it transformed the cultivars, livestock and the soils and fodder on which they depended, and, most importantly, homo sapiens themselves. Scott explains,

The domus was a unique and unprecedented concentration of tilled fields, seed and grain stores, people and domestic animals, all coevolving with consequences no one could have possibly foreseen. Just as important, the domus as a module of evolution was irresistibly attractive to literally thousands of uninvited hangers-on who thrived in its little ecosystem. At the top of the heap were the so-called  commensals: sparrows, mice, rats, crows, and (quasi-invited) dogs, pigs, and cats for which this new Ark was a veritable feedlot. Each of these commensals in turn brought along its own train of microparasites- fleas, ticks, leeches, mosquitoes, lice and mites –  as well as their predators; the dogs and cats were there in large part for the mice, rats, and sparrows. Not a single critter emerged from its sojourn at the late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp unaffected.

This multispecies resettlement camp brought behavioral and physiological changes in the domesticated species. The hallmark behavioral differences between domesticated animals and their wild contemporaries is a lower threshold of reaction to external stimuli and an overall reduced wariness of other species – including Homo sapiens. The shorthand that we use today to describe these behavioral traits is “sheepish herd behavior” i.e., cowardly crowd behavior and a lack of individuality. The physiological changes were, the reduction in male-female differences (sexual dimorphism), higher fertility rate, reduction in brain size etc. The reduction in brain size, particularly the limbic system, resulted into general reduction in emotional reactivity. The crowded living space also meant deteriorated health among these domesticates. Various pathologies like weaker bones due to reduced quality of common agriculture diet, gum diseases as well as far higher mortality rate was the result.

All these changes that we see in domesticate animals are also seen in humans who are coevolving in this multispecies camp. The spread of sedentism transformed Homo sapiens into far more of a herd animal than previously. With this sedentary lifestyle,  Homo sapiens traded a wide spectrum of wild flora for a handful of cereals and a wide spectrum of wild fauna for handful of livestock. Scott sees this late Neolithic revolution as something of a deskilling. The agricultural revolution contracted our living space, our diets, our attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world and the breadth of our ritual life.

The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities

This is also not true. The early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuring “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.  

People living outside the urban city state centers were barbarians and their lives were horrible compared to the lives of city dwellers

We, who live in cities, always think or actually are made to think that those people who live in forest areas away from urban city state centers are tribal and primitive. They are somehow the lesser beings. But the facts are actually the opposite. As Scott shows, that life outside the state – life as a “barbarian” – may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization.

The fragility of the states

Once the states came into being via the use of coercive means, it was very difficult for them to survive and thrive. These early states, and the modern ones too, face multiple on-going problems that threaten their existence. We have seen that for continual existence the state requires huge amount of settled population with its agricultural domus complex. Without these conditions, it cannot survive. Depopulation is the biggest danger that the state faces. When the host becomes smaller than the parasite, the parasite dies. The earliest, and modern, states faced many issues which resulted into their subjects exiting their territories making them vulnerable and liable to “collapse”. These issues are, epidemics, crop failures, floods, salinization, taxes, war and conscription. These factors provoke sometimes steady leakage of population from the state boundaries and sometimes mass exodus e.g., thousands of uber rich Indians have left the Indian nation state in last few years due to heavy taxes and other such burdensome governmental policies.


James C. Scott by turning the whole civilizational narrative upside down thus does a great job of making us aware about what is going on in present. The nation state that we see today are parasitic organizations, and these parasites are vulnerable to collapse. When they collapse, life outside and without them becomes much more easier and better. The so-called dark ages are actually an improvement in standard of living for millions of people. As I have mentioned somewhere else, today’s nation states are also collapsing. Once they are gone, life for billions of people will surely improve.

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2 thoughts on “Against the Grain and the State

  1. PI says:

    Religion also has been shown to be a progress. Aquinas actually had to borrow from the barbarian Aristotle as believers in Christianity had become stupid.

    Religion needs to be countered as it attempts to make state into God.

    How does one tacke Buddhism (it can be very murderous as seen by Bikkus of Sri Lanka) which looks like materialism?

    All religions are system of beliefs. Science is a SYSTEM OF NONBELIEFS. It starts from null hypothesis.

    Why is above important?

    Mieses (agnostic) “Make an issue a religious issue, and the indifferent and apathetic suddenly become interested. Connect religion with a cause and someone will be willing to die for it.”. Ambedkar wanted to create a sena. Hence he conciously chose religion of Buddhism. Perhaps he did not believe in afterlife. Creator of constitution was an opportunist. Pun is intended in using the word creator.

    • PI says:

      How is science a system of non- eliefs? Science demands assuming the opposite direction of anything one sets out assert. By negation of assumption one accepts the opposite of assumption.
      For example I like to believe I exist. The null hypothesis is opposite to what I like to believe. So, null hypothesis is I don’t exist.
      Next I note I have weight. Null hypothesis is absurd. Therefore I exist.

      It should be everready to examine any new assertion by above method.

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