James C. Scott
AGAINST THE GRAIN
A deep history of the earliest states
312 pp. Yale University Press
James C. Scott, whose work straddles many disciplines, including sociology, political philosophy, agrarian studies, economics, linguistics, anthropology, aesthetics, and historiography, is sometimes called for short an 'anarchist anthropologist.' On the face of it, that's a odd thing to be. One might think that the last things that should be combined are a scientific discipline and a political ideology. A demand of science is to respond to the data as they come in, developing a framework for understanding them from the data themselves, rather than imposing such a framework a priori.
Nor does anarchism suggest any definite approach or methodology, as does its historical rival on the left Marxism, for example. It is perhaps more of an anti-authoritarian stance than an empirical framework or theory. Indeed, Scott has stopped just short of referring to himself as an anarchist (a collection of his essays, published in 2014, is entitled Two Cheers for Anarchism) and is, for that matter, hesitant to call himself an anthropologist, as he has, he says, inadequate formal training.
It might be preferable, then, to think of Scott, who is Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale, as a generalist who takes an anti-authoritarian approach to the human sciences. This approach, like that of Michel Foucault at his best, for example, is concerned above all to clear the ground of a set of authoritarian prejudices through careful empirical investigation. In that sense, the approach can hope to help uncover hidden truths and neglected materials in the disciplines it engages. In political theory and in historiography, this sort of genealogy serves in the hands of figures such as Pierre Clastres, David Graeber, and Scott much the same the function that scepticism serves in epistemology: by its own account, it starts by revealing unexamined and unjustified assumptions.
Scott has applied this procedure - deeply and delightfully, I must say - to all sorts of things in a distinguished scholarly career: scientific forestry, the architecture of Brasilia, his own immersive residence with Malay villagers, Stalinist forced collectivization, the novels of Balzac, and much else besides. He draws examples as deftly from literature and popular culture as from 'native informants.' He is a careful scholar who often hedges his bets a bit, but he is also quite an intellectual swashbuckler, and the reader is liable to find a series of detailed observations accumulating into surprising, and often convincing, overturnings of wisdom both common and scholarly. Nor should the whole edifice be considered a mere argument for a political position: Scott's forays consistently yield insights and challenges no matter what your political orientation.
One of Scott's basic theoretical structures derives in part from Clastres, but is developed in Scott's books with more care and coherence. It is stated most elaborately in The Art of Not Being Governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (reviewed in the TLS 26 Feb 2010). In many regions, states or empires form in lowland river deltas (such as the Nile, the Euphrates, the Mekong, the Yellow), which among other things are suitable to the large-scale production of grain. These are pictured, by themselves and often by the people studying them now, as centers of civilization, surrounded by 'barbarian,' 'tribal,' or 'primitive,' or 'stone-age' groups of hunter-gatherers. The story of humanity, as told even by philosophers of history such as Hegel, is the story of these lowland civilizations, leaving the tribal groups behind to disappear slowly or suddenly as history proceeds. The groups on the 'peripheries' are pictured in much traditional anthropology as our living ancestors or origin, and for a century and more anthropologists traveled to the most isolated groups they could find, in order to elucidate the origins of the 'high' culture and complex polities from which the anthropologists themselves emerged.
With extremely rich empirical data, Scott paints a different picture. The lowland kingdoms and the highland peoples (or, in different cases, people living in other sorts of terrain that are difficult to control - swamps, rain forests, deserts) are in a mutually dependent relation in a thousand ways, including, typically, people moving back and forth between them. The lowland kingdoms raid or recruit highland peoples, in particular as laborers to produce grain. And they continually extrude people into their peripheries, for extremely comprehensible reasons. States typically rely on forced labor of various sorts; they often go to war and require conscripts; taxes, particularly in times or war or crop failure, can be onerous to the point of destitution; diseases rampage in the relatively densely-populated kingdoms and people flee.
In many cases, Scott argues, the evidence suggests that tribal and primitive cultures consisted in part or indistinguishably of escapees from the state. In any case, these groups were typically perfectly aware of the state alternative, and consciously took measures to prevent similar structures of coercive authority from emerging among themselves. Clastres and Scott both describe some of these mechanisms, partly on the basis of their own fieldwork.
If this picture is even roughly or partly true, mainline anthropology has been profoundly distorted by what we might call a statist presumption, by the equation, for example, of civilization with large-scale political authority. And then perhaps we ought to think about who did the research, and for whom. The historical narrative, for many reasons, has been dominated by large states and empires that engaged, for example, in elaborate record-keeping and monumental architecture; what persists in time is inordinately the self-interpretation and self-presentation of political power. Then it seems that more than half of history, the history of the 'shatter zones' around major kingdoms, remains to be explored, though information is difficult to come by.
In Against the Grain, Scott assays a systematic application of this conceptual framework to a set of fundamental interlocked questions about what used to be called 'the dawn of civilization': how human beings, in particular in Mesopotamia around in the seventh to second millennia BCE, entered into sedentism, large-scale agriculture, domestication of animals, and the political state. The book, by way of comparison and confirmation, also considers other early civilizations such as those arising in China and Egypt. It manages both to coordinate much recent research on these matters and to present a fundamentally new picture in a variety of respects.
In numerous cases, Scott breaks down traditional distinctions, especially in cases where they amount to simple dualisms. He points out that "hunter-gatherers" engaged in many techniques to increase the yield of food from their environments, including "burning of undesirable flora, weeding wild stands of favored plants and trees to eliminate competitors, pruning, thinning, selective harvesting." Agriculture, asserts Scott, forms a continuum with other food-gathering practices, and, employing the research of Melinda Zeder and others, he argues that agriculture preceded state formation by millennia.
The conventional 'subspecies' of subsistence modes - hunting, foraging, pastoralism, and farming - make . . . little historical sense. The same people have practiced all four, sometimes in a single lifetime; the activities can and have been combined for thousands of years, and each of them bleeds imperceptibly into the next along a vast continuum of human re-arrangements of the natural world.
On the other hand, the earliest Mesopotamian states, which he identifies with such cities as Uruk and Ur II, which came into existence around 3000 BCE, were indeed centered around large-scale grain monoculture and the ferocious demands for labor which it entailed.
As with agriculture, Scott agrees that war of various sorts long preceded the state, but he emphasizes that states characteristically engaged in war and were invariably organized both for defense against attack and with the ability to project force, at least into the surrounding frontiers - in search, above all, of laborers - but also often against neighboring states. As large-scale grain monoculture, so systematically prosecuted and enduring wars, as well as developments in barrier and weapons technologies, were characteristic state innovations.
He presents nomadic and settled communities as, likewise, more a continuum than a duality, with every variation on offer, for example seasonal but enduring settlements. What is and what is not a state, likewise, is for Scott a complex matter involving multiple criteria, and he suggests that many intermediate cases between state and non-state societies have emerged in the archeological fragments.
In short, Scott subtilizes or multiplies many fundamental concepts and distinctions, and in a number of respects his treatment bolsters his credibility. It would be all too easy for someone who has (hesitantly) associated his own position with anarchism to condemn the state as simply a war machine or to ignore the reasons that life within it could also be attractive. Scott's position ends up in its own way underpinning anti-authoritarian conclusions, but he doesn't hammer them home as dogmas, and he takes the multiplicity and ambiguity of the evidence with the utmost seriousness. (He describes slavery and systematic forced labor, however, as not only central to the early state, but as impossible without it.)
Nevertheless, there is an element of what has come to be called 'anarcho-primitivism' in Scott's work. This is a position for activists or a guideline for communal living rather than primarily a research program or a well-worked-out political theory but, in the hands of figures such as John Zerzan, it often asserts that humanity went terribly wrong - politically, environmentally, and morally - when it settled down to large-scale agriculture and the political state. (As we speak, anarchists in Oregon may be engaged in a "paleolithic" foraging lifestyle.)
Scott's position is both more subtle and more substantial, but one of his primary themes is the strength of various sorts of non-state and non-sedentary groups. Such groups are able to straddle several ecological zones, for example, and still find nutrition in times of flood or drought, or even in eras of climate change, which Scott argues (following many recent anthropologists and historians) had a decisive effect on many of the developments he describes.
The state and early civilizations [are] often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, 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 ensuing 'dark ages' may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state - life as a 'barbarian' - may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life within it.
Scott emphasizes, throughout, that the equation of 'civilization' with large-scale agricultural states has terribly distorted the story we have told to ourselves of our own origins. Archeology, to some extent of necessity, concentrates on groups that built on a large scale, and groups of fishers/cultivators in wetlands might leave almost no recoverable trace. But it does not follow that such a group might not have had great resilience, or a rich and complex culture, or indeed political arrangements that the group itself as well as newcomers from oppressive or collapsing states regarded as preferable to the political state in myriad respects.
It is fairly rare that Scott directly draws philosophical conclusions from his empirical discussion, but he does so here, in understated fashion, in the introduction. "If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social - contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined."
In the richness of its empirical underpinnings, its theoretical sophistication, the lucidity of its writing, and its originality, James C. Scott's oeuvre is among the most important in contemporary political theory. Against the Grain is a significant addition to it, as Scott issues the challenge of an anti-authoritarian approach to our political origins.