Skip to content

Against the Grain

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James C. Scott. Yale University Press, 2017. 312 pages.

Why did human beings abandon their hunter-gatherer livelihoods, build the first towns and cities — and therefore create the first governments? This book uses new findings from archeology, epidemiology and climatology that may radically change our views on this radical period in human history that completely upset how we live as human beings.

The long-prevailing view was that farming and sedentary human communities were a great advance in human wellbeing and comfort that led to rapid advances in human cultures. But maybe not. Farming and pasturing actually were harder work than hunting and gathering and took more time and labor. Crop failure and famine were frequent. Sedentary people were sitting ducks for raiding. The greater density of people and domesticated animals, not to mention their wastes, brought all sorts of new diseases and epidemics. The diets of sedentary people were far less varied. Settled people weren’t nearly as healthy as hunter-gatherers. Grain was easily taxed. Elites arose to lord it over the peasants. Walls were built not just to keep raiders out but also to keep the peasants in. People actually liked their hunter-gatherer lifestyles and did not necessarily take up farming eagerly. Slavery was already well known, but slave labor was especially needed to keep the towns and cities running. If a town went bust (as frequently happened), the survivors would return to hunting and gathering. The move from wild to domesticated living was not a sudden and permanent switch. There was a lot of back and forth for centuries.

The only environments that were rich enough to support the early towns and cities were the mouths of rivers where the rivers slowed and spread into alluvial plains where the soil was enriched by siltation. Water was plentiful and provided transportation as well as irrigation. But all sorts of things could go wrong — floods, droughts, war, epidemics, environmental degradation and soil exhaustion, and natural changes in the climate. It was a risky, dangerous life. Child mortality was easily 50 percent.

The author has so much to say about taxation and the oppression of states that I was afraid I was being set up for a libertarian message. That did not happen. Scott, who is at Yale, is too good a scholar for that.

Part of the beauty of this book is that it sheds so much new light on how our Paleolitic and Neolithic ancestors lived. Their lives were not unappealing! They were free, they were bigger and healthier than city people, and most of them preferred a wild life to a life as a domesticated human, which was not all that different from the life of a domesticated animal. When cities and their governments squeezed the people too hard, people would often flee back into the wild. Returning to the frontier, Scott points out, was easier than revolution.

The sad thing is that, today, we have run out of wildness and frontiers. We are all domesticated now. We all are subjects of states. Though it’s terrain that this book is not concerned with, nevertheless these two opposites — wild vs. domesticated — beg some thought experiments. How can we do as much for ourselves as possible and disengage as much as possible from domestication and corporatization? To our overlords — who are now stronger and richer than they have been in a hundred years — we are just livestock. They exploit our surplus. They abhor us, but they also are afraid of us because we outnumber them and we are the source of their wealth and power. In that sense, nothing has changed in 10,000 years.


  1. chenda wrote:

    Sounds like a very interesting read. Does he touch on how religious or mythological beliefs changed as a result of agricultural settlement ?

    Sunday, November 19, 2017 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Chenda… He does not elaborate. However, on page 7, he makes a very powerful statement: “Fixed-field crops, on the other hand, were the origin and guarantor of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws…. In virtually all early agricultural settings the superiority of farming was underwritten by an elaborate mythology recounting how a powerful god or goddess entrusted the sacred grain to a chosen people.”

    Are you an academic, Chenda?

    This book has been reviewed in a number of publications for the American literati and has become required reading over here.

    Sunday, November 19, 2017 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    It sounds like state or government intervention in the early days was designed to systematically control people, and that’s kinda what it does nowadays, too. It’s what has led to each succeeding economic system into whatever we want to call what we’re living now: late-capitalist service economy? Most jobs are so irrelevant they could be automated and the former workers could be given a lump sum severance to do whatever they want.

    I don’t think disengaging from our current prevailing political economy is a possibility when our government, including the democratic socialists that are becoming more popular, depend so much on credit, interest, and surplus value to keep the train moving. Cost isn’t the limit of price outside of Utopian dreamscapes, and the interest accrued on excess capital accumulation is factored into economic growth measurements. True libertarian philosophies that promote decentralized power have been hijacked by neocons and alt-righters and dismissed by liberals that likely misunderstand them deliberately or equate them with Gary Johnson and Ron Paul, both very wealthy men that made millions off the government. Ted Kaczynski advocated a return to pre-industrial society and could be even seen as a prophet of our surveillance state, and his ideas were even supported by prominent anarchists like John Zerzan. Obviously, the methods he chose to spread his message were a bit extreme.

    Regardless, that narrative is prevalent in political science and economics departments but isn’t given much credence beyond theoretical discussions. Elite academic economists and political scientists don’t consider legislation and fiscal spending as the best method of economic stimulation; monetary policy through the Fed by raising and lowering the funds rates or quantitative easing through bond buying programs are all we’ve got until the government gets real and implements guaranteed basic income. What monetary policy does is give investment banks arbitrage opportunities that never trickle down to regular folks.

    Piketty’s 2013 book Capital in the 21st Century is probably the best current treatise that calls for more aggressive taxation on the super wealthy. I guess the problem is that fear mongering will always have an audience. Rural areas and the South will always be a hotbed for evangelicals and demagogues. Liberals and conservatives on both far ends will always be reactionaries, swinging the pendulum harder and farther every election season. I wish people would quit with the headline politics and get real about problems that affect all of us that the government can work to solve. Eight years under Obama were wasted on the individual mandate, Denali, and the best rebound in stocks in history for the 1%.

    Sunday, November 19, 2017 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  4. chenda wrote:

    Thanks David, no I just have a lay interest in these topics. I think I’ll have to give this a read.

    Monday, November 20, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  5. daltoni wrote:

    Chenda, I’m currently reading Kyle Harper’s “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire.” I’ll have a review, but it may be a while; it’s a dense book. Harper is a superb historian who also wrote “From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity.”

    Harper applies to Rome the same kind of new research that Scott applies to the Neolithic — archeology, climatolgy, and epidemiology.

    Monday, November 20, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  6. chenda wrote:

    I’ll look forward to hearing about that David. I inherited a copy of Edward Gibbon’s seminal ‘Decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ Someday I must read it, although its 8 volumes. I expect much of his analysis has now been superceded although it still seems very readable.

    Monday, November 20, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *