It’s time to “demolish the narrative of progress, of civilization and public order, and of increasing health and leisure” embodied in the standard story of the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, cities, and states.
That, at least, is the argument that James Scott, political scientist and anthropologist, Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale (and owner of a small farm), makes in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, published in 2017.
The demolition hinges on what Scott calls “the grain hypothesis.” Now grains are one of my favorite topics. Indeed my book Cuisine and Empire (2013) might as well have been called Grains and Empire. I am fascinated by the intersection of food and politics, which again is a major theme in Cuisine and Empire. I have spent years kicking around the question of progress, particularly in the sciences. I admired Scott’s earlier work. So Against the Grain was a must-read.
Much of Scott’s story I agreed with. Indeed, it’s not even clear that a demolition story is needed. Anthropologists have been talking up the good life of hunter gatherers for years, often wrongly in my opinion. The historian, Yuval Noah Harari, covers similar ground in his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity (2015). Even high school students following the Advanced Placement World History syllabus (p. 45) and studying the practice exam questions (p.188) encounter these ideas minus the voiceover about progress.
Other parts of Scott’s story made me go “Whoa. That not right. Why does he ignore other evidence?”
I will discuss the “whoas” in future posts. For now, a bit of background on Scott and an outline of his story.
Background to Against the Grain
Scott’s is a name to conjure with. His pioneering field work on Southeast Asian peasant societies showed how they resisted the power of the state. Over the course of his career, his sparkling books and articles sympathetic to the oppressed and to anarchism spread his reputation from political science to the other social sciences and the humanities. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), in which Scott used intriguing historical examples such as the spread of German forestry techniques in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to denounce the central state planning, spread his reputation well beyond the academy. Back in the universities, it’s become standard reading as I learned when every time I managed to borrow a copy from the University of Texas at Austin Library, it was promptly recalled.
To have such a figure write an engaging, revisionist account of the “agricultural revolution” has rightly been welcomed. Against the Grain has been widely, and generally favorably reviewed in the press, often by distinguished scholars. In the Guardian, the eminent archaeologist Barry Cunliffe called it “well founded and highly provocative,” in the New Yorker, John Lanchester hailed it as “the case against civilization,” and in the London Review of Books, Steven Mithen, another distinguished archaeologist pronounced it “fascinating.”
The Story of Against the Grain
Scott’s story, like any good tragedy, comes in five acts.
In the first, he argues that humans came to live within ever smaller areas thanks to four domestications that took place over millions of year. The domestication of fire, he says following Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire (2009) made previously undigestible plants nutritious and enabled us to resculpt the landscape. The domestication of plants and animals further concentrated the food supply and, in turn, brought about the fourth domestication, that of humans. Then in biodiverse wetlands the first settlements took hold.
In the second act, here indebted to the New Zealand anthropologist, Helen Leach, he extends the notion of domus, of household to the creation of an entire culturally modified, artificial environment.
The third talks about the burdens that accompanied domestication and farming. Daily life for many became drudgery, parasites multiplied and diseases went back and forth between animals and humans, and taxes were extracted by the state as they have been ever since.
The fourth introduces the grain hypothesis, namely that only grains could support the classical states. Since grains mature at the same time, can be easily viewed since the seed heads are above ground, and can be readily measured and transported, they could easily be seized, providing the wealth undergirding the first states in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China.
Finally, the early states were constantly on the brink of failure. Their unfree labor wanted to escape their walls, disease and ecological disaster constantly threatened. In short, farming was regress not progress. Far from being a step forward for humanity, made for lives that were worse, not better, than those of the hunter gatherers.
So Stay Posted for the “Whoas.”