James C. Scott’s fascinating book argues that we have enslaved ourselves to grain production and the ‘civilisation’ that followed. The inevitable outcome of grain cultivation and sedentism’s propensity to increase birth rates has led to both a patriarchal system that reduces women to breeders and promotes warfare to enslave yet more people to sustain the demands of grain production for the sake of control, taxation and even more war. It’s pretty bleak reading.
This was a hugely educational book for me. Mainly a read to improve the quality of my worldbuilding, I was surprised by the complete destrution of my, and presumably many others’, perception of the path of civilisation being a smoothly progressive one of nomads/hunter-gatherers/barbarians -> Settlements/agriculture/domesticated livestock -> States/education/sophistication; that we’ve evolved on a continuum from a state of savagery and ignorance to a state of enlightenment. While, since the Industrial Revolution, the West’s technological progress has truly created the capability to address our needs for food, warmth, shelter and good health in abundance, most of the world, Western and otherwise, nevertheless fails to benefit. It cannot be a coincidence that the notion of ‘barbarians’ and ‘the civilised’ is propaganda that survives because record keeping was necessary to the latter for the purposes of taxation and measurement and thus has provided historians with only one perspective on the lived experience of our forebears.
Scott’s thesis is a distillation of recent (academically speaking) advancements in ‘archaeo-anthropology’. My notes on the book were extensive, so if you’re a writer of fiction, and particularly if you care about worldbuilding, trust me that this is an important and fruitful text to read. But principally Scott takes that notion of the smooth progression of humanity towards civilisation and dismantles it. Sedentism and agriculture-based communities of thousands, with commerce, existed many thousands of years before states, predating the domestication of grains and animals for greater yields. Even as recently as four hundred or so years ago, a good third of the world did not live in a state, and that proportion only increases the further back you go. As Scott puts it: “the state can be said to dominate only the last two-tenths of one percent of our species’ political life.”
States would form then fall apart. Sedentary communities would shift to foraging and back again according to climate and the land in which they lived. The earliest states to form, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, were able to do so because of the ecologically rich environment; the rulers were able to extract surplus from the peasants because grain crops are visible, divisible, transportable and rationable, unlike, say, tubers or wild animals or fish. No person would produce more food than they thought they and their kin would likely need unless they were forced to. If you’re a Marxist, you might say that this was the start of the extraction of surplus value from labour under coercion. If you’re not a Marxist, it’s the same thing. One might argue that the state apparatus provided protection from raiders, but there’s a plethora of evidence that those on the fringes of the state would voluntarily leave and join the hunter gatherers/raiders, that raiding is a fact blown out of proportion by propagandising state rulers and their cronies. It’s true that grain production yields for the effort involved are far lower value calorifically, that the amount of work one has to do to produce grain, to weed fields, protect them from animals and then to process the grain far outweighs the work to derive the same calories from hunter gathering. No rational person would choose the former unless they were forced to. This would be one of the reasons, alongside bad harvests and what Scott sees as the hugely undervalued epidemiological causes of state collapse, for why states in around 2000BC and after would struggle to survive for more than a century.
History could arguably be framed instead as a millenia-long resistance to states that slowly failed.
It’s interesting, too, that times when states collapse are called ‘dark ages’, either by other states or their people’s subsequent recreation of them. Cultures don’t die when they are decentralised. Arguably they evolve and diversify. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey came out of Greece’s dark age. Oral traditions will remain where record keeping does not, yet these are ever evolving, they lack the reified context of documents. The lack of artifacts for historians to point to shouldn’t of itself support the idea of there being a recession of a people into a state of savagery. It’s worth noting that Scott does a good job of outlining the skills hunter gatherers would have had over their sedentary counterparts. They would have needed strong advance planning and group co-ordination skills for the ‘drive corridors’ necessary for hunting and mass capture, good practical skills for setting nets and traps, facilities for smoking and drying their catch, a good knowledge of the lands they roamed in all seasons for the sources of food (more necessary where land wasn’t ecologically as rich as that where we find states first forming). Long before states, people were breeding plants for greater yields and using fire to adapt the land to their benefit. A view that hunter gatherers were somehow more spontaneous or opportunistic is laughably false. Later on, nomadic cultures that were demonised as raiders were far more involved in extracting tithes from states, or, Scott argues to their ultimate demise, hiring themselves out to states as soldiers in return for the subsistence they needed. But mainly they would have been traders. Trade throughout history has been widespread, with only the size of the goods traded and the distance traded over changing with time. Nomads would have been essential to early states for the goods they could acquire from afar that states did not.
Ultimately, I learned that in this field of study, as in so many others where knowledge is sought, certainty and simple truths are very hard to come by. Any serious study should induce a humility in the student. Scott’s bold case is a study in humility and reason and deserves to be widely read.