During my long discursion on the history of money, the academic James C. Scott published an important book called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the First States.
Regular readers will know that this has been a longstanding area of research (or obsession) of mine. I’ve referred to Scott’s work before, particularly Seeing Like A State, which I think is indispensable in understanding many of the political divisions of today (and why left/right is no longer a useful distinction). We’re in an era where much of the “left” is supporting geoengineering and rockets to Mars, and the “right” (at least the alt-right) is criticizing housing projects and suburban sprawl.
It’s a shame that Scott’s book shared the same title as another one of my favorite books on that topic by journalist Richard Manning that came out a while ago: Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization. Manning’s book is not only a historical account about how the rise of grain agriculture led to war, hierarchy, slavery and sickness, but a no-holds-barred examination of today’s grain-centric agribusiness model, where wheat, corn, soy and sugar are grown in mechanized monocultures and processed by the food industry into highly-addictive junk food implicated in everything from type two diabetes, to depression to Alzheimer’s disease (via inflammation):
Dealing with surplus is a difficult task. The problem begins with the fact that, just like the sex drive, the food drive got ramped up in evolution. If you have a deep, yearning need for food, you’re going to get along better than your neighbor, and over the years that gene is going to be passed on. So you get this creature that got fine-tuned to really need food, especially carbohydrates. Which brings us to the more fundamental question: can we ever deal with sugar? By making more concentrated forms of carbohydrates, we’re playing into something that’s quite addictive and powerful. It’s why we’re so blasted obese. We have access to all this sugar, and we simply cannot control our need for it—that’s genetic.
Now, can we gain the ability to overcome that? I’m not sure. You have to add to this the fact that there’s a lot of money to be made by people who know how to concentrate sugar. They have a real interest in seeing that we don’t overcome these kinds of addictions. In fact, that’s how you control societies—you exploit that basic drive for food. That’s how we train dogs—if you want to make a dog behave properly, you deprive him or give him food. Humans aren’t that much different. We just like to think we are. So as an element of political control, food and food imagery are enormously important.
The Scourge of Agriculture (The Atlantic)
In that interview, Manning also makes this point which got so much attention in Yuval Noah Harari’s blockbuster, Sapiens (which came out years later):
…it’s not just human genes at work here. It’s wheat genes and corn genes—and how they have an influence on us. They took advantage of our ability to travel, our inventiveness, our ability to use tools, to live in a broad number of environments, and our huge need for carbohydrates. Because of our brains’ ability, we were able to spread not only our genes, but wheat’s genes as well. That’s why I make the argument that you have to look at this in terms of wheat domesticating us, too. That co-evolutionary process between humans and our primary food crops is what created the agriculture we see today.
As for the title, I guess Against the Grain is just too clever a title to pass up 🙂
I’m still waiting on the book from the library, but I have seen so many reviews by now that I’m not sure I’ll be able to add too much. What’s interesting to me is the degree to which the idea that civilization was a great leap backward from what we had before is starting to go mainstream.
The old, standard “Whig version” story of directional, inevitable progress is still pretty strong, though. Here’s one reviewer describing how it was articulated in the turn-of-the-century Encyclopedia Britannica:
The Encyclopaedia took its readers through a panorama of universal history, from “the lower status of savagery,” when hunter-gatherers first mastered fire; to the “middle status of barbarism,” when hunters learned to domesticate animals and became herders; to the invention of writing, when humanity “graduated out of barbarism” and entered history. Along the way, humans learned to cultivate grains, such as wheat and rice, which showed them “the value of a fixed abode,” since farmers had to stay near their crops to tend and harvest them. Once people settled down, “a natural consequence was the elaboration of political systems,” property, and a sense of national identity. From there it was a short hop—at least in Edwardian hindsight—to the industrial revolution and free trade.
Some unfortunate peoples, even entire continents such as aboriginal North America and Australia, might fall off the Progress train and have to be picked up by kindly colonists; but the train ran along only one track, and no one would willingly decline to board it…
What made prehistoric hunter-gatherers give up freedom for civilization? (The New Republic)
But,it turns out that the reality was quite different. In fact, hunter-gatherers resisted agriculture. Even where farmers and H-G’s lived side-by-side, the H-G’s (and herders) avoided farming as long as they could. When Europeans equipped “primitive” societies with seeds and hoes and taught them to farm, the natives threw away the implements and ran off into the woods. The dirt farmers of colonial America often ran away to go and live with the nomadic Indians, to the extent that strict laws had to be passed to prevent this (as documented in Sebastian Junger’s recent book Tribe).
At the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium in Chicago in 1966, Marshall Sahlins drew on research from the likes of Richard B. Lee among the !Kung of the Kalahari to argue that hunter-gatherers enjoyed the ‘original affluent society’. Even in the most marginal environments, he said, hunter-gatherers weren’t engaged in a constant struggle for survival, but had a leisurely lifestyle. Sahlins and his sources may have pushed the argument a little too far, neglecting to consider, for instance, the time spent preparing food (lots of mongongo nuts to crack). But their case was strong enough to deal a severe blow to the idea that farming was salvation for hunter-gatherers: however you cut it, farming involves much higher workloads and incurs more physical ailments than relying on the wild. And the more we discover, as Scott points out, the better a hunter-gatherer diet, health and work-life balance look.
Why did we start farming? (London Review of Books)
So why did they do it? That is a question that nobody know the answer to, but it appears they stumbled into not because it was a better way of life, but due to some sort of pressures beyond their control. As Colin Tudge put it, “People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way.” Rather than taking up agriculture because it presented a better, more secure way of life as the Victorians thought (due to chauvinism and ignorance), it was actually much more unpleasant and much more work.
The shift to agriculture was in some respects…harmful. Osteological research suggests that domiciled Homo sapiens who depended on grains were smaller, less well-nourished and, in the case of women, more likely to be anaemic, than hunter-gatherers. They also found themselves vulnerable to disease and able to maintain their population only through unprecedentedly high birthrates. Scott also suggests that the move from hunting and foraging to agriculture resulted in ‘deskilling’, analogous to the move in the industrial revolution from the master tradesman’s workshop to the textile mill. State taxation compounded the drudgery of raising crops and livestock. Finally, the reliance on only a few crops and livestock made early states vulnerable to collapse, with the reversion to the ‘dark ages’ possibly resulting in an increase in human welfare.
Book Review: Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott (London School of Economics)
Circumstances beyond their control must have played a role. Climate change is most commonly implicated. Overpopulation must have played a role, but this raises a chicken-and-egg problem: overpopulation is a problem created by agrarianism, so how could it have caused it?
One novel idea I explored earlier this year was Brian Hayden’s idea that the production of ever-increasing surpluses was part of a strategy by aggrandizing individuals in order to gain political power.
Periodic feasting events were ways to increase social cohesion and deal with uneven production in various climatic biomes–it was a survival strategy for peoples spread-out among a wide geographical area (mountains, plains, wetlands, riparian, etc.). If food was scarce in one area, resources could be pooled. Such feasting/resource pooling regimes were probably the earliest true “civilizations” (albeit before cities). It was also the major way to organize mass labor, which lasted well into the historical period (both Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts testify to celebratory work feasts).
At these events, certain individuals would loan out surplus food and other prestige items in order to lure people in debt to them. Cultural expectations meant that “gifts” would have to repaid and then some (i.e. with interest). These people would get their relatives and allies to work their fingers to the bone in order to produce big surpluses in societies where this was possible, such as horticultural and affluent forager ones. This would be used for feasting. They would then become “Big Men”–tribal leaders lacking “official” status.
Would-be Big-Men would then try and outdo one another by throwing larger, richer feasts than their rivals. Competitive feasting provided an opportunity for aggrandizers to try and outdo one another in a series of power games and status jockeying. But the net effect such power games had across the society was to ramp up food production to unsustainable levels. This, in turn, led to intensification.
At these feasts, highly prized foodstuffs would be used by aggrandizers to lure people into debt and other lopsided obligations, as well as get people to work for them. Manning notes above how food has been traditionally used to control people. And, Hayden speculates, the foods most commonly used were ones with pleasurable or mind-altering effects. One common one was almost certainly alcohol.
He speculates that grains were initially grown not for flavor or for carbohydrates, but for fermentation. It’s fairly certain that alcohol consumption played a major role in feasting events, and it’s notable that the earliest civilizations were all big beer drinkers (Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica). Most agricultural village societies around the world have some sort of beer drinking/fermentation ritual, as Patrick E. McGovern has documented. The first “recipe” ever written down was for beer brewing. Hayden speculates that early monoliths like Göbekli Tepe and Stonehenge were built as places for such feasting events to take place, wedded to certain religious ideologies (all of them have astronomical orientations), and archaeology tends to confirm this. It’s notable that the earliest sites of domestication/agrarianism we know of are typically in the vicinity of these monoliths.
In other words, the root of this overproduction was human social instincts, and not just purely environmental or climatic factors. Is there some connection between plant/animal domestication and religious ideology? Is it any wonder that religious concepts in these societies transform to become very different from the animist ones of hunter-gatherers? Flannery and Marcus point out that the establishment of a hereditary priesthood that constructs temples and interprets the gods’ wishes (replacing the shaman) is always a marker of the transition from an egalitarian society to a hierarchical one with hereditary leadership. Even in the Bible, king and temple arise more or less simultaneously (e.g. Saul/David/Solomon).
Scott considers whether the Younger Dryas, a period of markedly colder and drier conditions between 12,900 and 11,700 years ago, forced hunter-gatherers into farming. But while the change in climate may have inspired more experimentation with cultivation and herding, the Younger Dryas is too early: communities committed to cereals and livestock didn’t arise until about ten thousand years ago. Scott overlooks another possible factor: religious belief. The discovery of the Neolithic hill-top sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey in 1994 went against the grain of conventional archaeological understanding of the Neolithic. Here, around 11,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers had constructed a vast complex of massive decorated stone pillars in exactly the same place that domesticated strains of wheat had evolved.
The quantities of food needed to feed the workforce and those who gathered for rituals at Göbekli must have been huge: if the Neolithic gods could persuade people to invest so much effort in construction, and to suffer the physical injuries, ailments and deaths that came along with it, then perhaps expending those extra calories in the fields would have seemed quite trivial. Even then, Göbekli doesn’t help us explain why cereal farming and goat herding took such a hold elsewhere. Personally I find it difficult to resist the theory of unintended self-entrapment into the farming lifestyle, which was then legitimated by Neolithic ideology. We find evidence of burial rituals and skull cults throughout the Fertile Crescent.
Why did we start farming? (London Review of Books)
Scott’s book emphasizes the key role that grain cultivation played in the rise of the early states (even in the title). Cereals grown it river bottoms were easy to assess and tax, unlike other foodstuffs which would ripen at different times of the year, could be hidden, or grown in patches. They were storable and divisible. In some ways, grain may have been the earliest form of money:
Most early crops could not provide a source of taxation. Potatoes and tubers are easily hidden underground. Lentils produce annually and can be eaten as they’re picked. Grains, however, have determinate ripening times, making it easy for the tax collector to show up on time. They cannot be eaten raw. And because grains are so small, you can tax them down to the grain. Unlike squash or yams, grains are easy to transport. Spoilage time is nothing like that of vegetables. All these factors played into the first widespread form of currency.
Is the Collapse of Civilizations A Good Thing? (Big Think)
Grain is special, but for a different reason. It is easy to standardize—to plant in rows or paddies, and store and record in units such as bushels. This makes grain an ideal target for taxation. Unlike underground tubers or legumes, grain grows tall and needs harvesting all at once, so officials can easily estimate annual yields. And unlike fugitive wild foods, grain creates a relatively consistent surplus, allowing a ruling class to skim off peasant laborers’ production through a tax regime of manageable complexity. Grain, in Scott’s lexicon, is the kind of thing a state can see. On this account, the first cities were not so much a great leap forward for humanity as a new mode of exploitation that enabled the world’s first leisured ruling class to live on the sweat of the world’s first peasant-serfs.
What made prehistoric hunter-gatherers give up freedom for civilization? (The New Republic)
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t simply agriculture, but cereal production that relied on artificial irrigation that saw the rise of the first states. The need to coordinate all that labor, partition permanent plots of land, and resolve settlement disputes, must have led to the rise of an elite managerial class, as Ian Welsh points out:
Agriculture didn’t lead immediately to inequality, the original agricultural societies appear to have been quite equal, probably even more so than the late hunter-gatherer societies that preceded them. But increasing surpluses and the need for coordination which arose, especially in hydraulic civilizations (civilizations based around irrigation which is labor intensive and require specialists) led to the rise of inequality. The pharoahs created great monuments, but their subjects did not live nearly as well as hunter-gatherers.
The Right Stuff: What Prosperity Is and Isn’t (Ian Welsh)
Wealth inequality has been increasing for millennia (The Economist)
And sedentism, as I’ve noted, is not so much a product of agriculture as a cause. Likely sedentary societies needed to be around for some time in order to build up the kind of surpluses aggrandizing elites needed to gain power. These probably started as “redistributor chiefs” who justified their role through some combination of martial leadership and religious ideology:
Sedentism does not have its origins in plant and animal domestication. The first stratified states in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley appeared ‘only around 3,100 BCE, more than four millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism’. Sedentism has its roots in ecologically rich, preagricultural settings, especially wetlands. Agriculture co-existed with mobile lifestyles in which people gathered to harvest crops. Domestication itself is part of a 400,000 year process beginning with the use of fire. Moreover, it is not a process (or simply a process) of humans gaining increasing control over the natural world. People find themselves caring for dogs, creating an ecological niche for mice, ticks, bedbugs and other uninvited guests, and spending their lives ‘strapped to the round of ploughing, planting, weeding, reaping, threshing, grinding, all on behalf of their favorite grains and tending to the daily needs of their livestock’.
This was also noted in the Richard Manning interview, above:
…we always think that agriculture allowed sedentism, which gave people time to create civilization and art. But the evidence that’s emerging from the archeological record suggests that sedentism came first, and then agriculture. This occurred near river mouths, where people depended on seafood, especially salmon. These were probably enormously abundant cultures that had an enormous amount of leisure time—they just had to wait for the salmon runs to occur. There are some good records of those communities, and from the skeleton remains we can see that they got up to 95 percent of their nutrients from salmon and ocean-derived sources. Along the way, they developed highly refined art—something we always associate with agriculture.
Of course, urban societies using irrigation and plow-based agriculture, with their palaces and temples, are very different from horticultural village societies practicing shifting cultivation (which Scott terms “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.”). This is likely why early agricultural societies were roughly about as egalitarian as their immediate predecessors, as Ian Welsh pointed out above. But once the plow allowed men to wrest control of food production away from the garden plots of women, the fortunes of females declined rapidly. Political control became exclusively centered in the households run by patriarchs, with women becoming little more than chattel. And because there was now property to be passed down, women’s sexual behavior became strictly regulated and monogomy enforced (for commoners but not for elites). Several thousand years of increasing surpluses and population led to the Neolithic “experiment” metastasizing into the first city-states and empires in various parts of the world. This was not a swift process, but instead took thousands of years to develop–longer than all of “recorded” history:
…why did it take so long – about four thousand years – for the city-states to appear? The reason is probably the disease, pestilence and economic fragility of those Neolithic villages. How did they survive and grow at all? Well, although farming would have significantly increased mortality rates in both infants and adults, sedentism would have increased fertility. Mobile hunter-gatherers were effectively limited by the demands of travel to having one child every four years. An increase in fertility that just about outpaced the increase in mortality would account for the slow, steady increase in population in the villages. By 3500 BCE the economic and demographic conditions were in place for a power-grab by would-be leaders.
Why did we start farming? (London Review of Books)
How agriculture grew on us (Leaving Babylon)
Once such societies were established, they were under an obligation to expand. This was due to the depletion of their agricultural resource base thanks to overgrazing, salinization, erosion, deforestation, and numerous other environmental problems caused by agriculture, along with rapid population growth. New farmers require new land, since their birthrates are higher. As such societies expanded, their neighbors had only three options: fight back by adopting similar measures, succumb and be assimilated, or run away. Many did run away, which is why so much of the the world’s inhabitants lived outside of state control until the 1600’s, as Scott points out (Scott calls them ‘Barbarians’; he uses it a term of respect rather than Victorian derision).
Scott also emphasizes the key role played by slavery in agrarian states. In Scott’s view, slavery was absolutely essential to the functioning of the state. Because sedentary, agricultural societies tended to have so much unpleasant “grunt” labor to be done, there was a strong incentive to acquire slaves to do the dirty work required to keep the society running. Three major ways labor was compelled in the ancient world were corvée labor, chattel slavery, and (we often forget) debt bondage. This only ended once we got “energy slaves” to do much of this grunt work for us. Yet even today, we use wage slavery compelled by poverty along with migrant labor to do the grunt work necessary for us. Non-mechanized agricultural labor is still completely dependent on migrant labor in the U.S. and Europe, as are many low-skill, non-automated professions (driver, nanny, gardener, etc.) Ancient slavery was less about skin color or point of origin, as it was in the Americas (where a racial hierarchy was instituted by Europeans). Instead it was simply more of a legal status, much like a temp or migrant worker in countries today (or the Chinese Hukou system):
In the world of states, hunter-gatherers and nomads, one commodity alone dominated all others: people, aka slaves. What agrarian states needed above all else was manpower to cultivate their fields, build their monuments, man their armies and bear and raise their children. With few exceptions, the epidemiological conditions in cities until very recently were so devastating that they could grow only by adding new populations from their hinterlands. They did this in two ways. They took captives in wars: most South-East Asian early state chronicles gauge the success of a war by the number of captives marched back to the capital and resettled there. The Athenians and Spartans might kill the men of a defeated city and burn its crops, but they virtually always brought back the women and children as slaves. And they bought slaves: a slave merchant caravan trailed every Roman war scooping up the slaves it inevitably produced.
The fact is that slaving was at the very centre of state-making. It is impossible to exaggerate the massive effects of this human commodity on stateless societies. Wars between states became a kind of booty capitalism, where the major prize was human traffic. The slave trade then completely transformed the non-state ‘tribal zone’. Some groups specialised in slave-raiding, mounting expeditions against weaker and more isolated groups and then selling them to intermediaries or directly at slave markets. The oldest members of highland groups in Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma can recall their parents’ and grandparents’ memories of slave raids. The fortified, hilltop villages, with thorny, twisting and hidden approaches that early colonists found in parts of South-East Asia and Africa were largely a response to the slave trade.
Crops, Towns, Government (London Review of Books)
In describing the early city-states of Mesopotamia, Scott projects backwards from the historical records of the great slave societies of Greece and Rome. His account of the slaves and the way they were controlled seems strangely familiar. Much like migrant labourers and refugees in Europe today, they came from scattered locations and were separated from their families, demobilised and atomised and hence easier to control. Slaves, like today’s migrants, were used for tasks that were vital to the needs of the elites but were shunned by free men. And slaves, like refugee workers, were gradually integrated into the local population, which reduced the chance of insurrection and was necessary to keep a slave-taking society going. In some early states human domestication took a further step: written records from Uruk use the same age and sex categories to describe labourers and the state-controlled herds of animals. Female slaves were kept for breeding as much as for manual labour.
Why did we start farming? (London Review of Books)
How we Domesticated
I’ve often wondered if, when certain humans learned how to domesticate plants and animals, they used it as much on their fellow man as they did their flora and fauna. In this Aeon article, this passage really struck me:
When humans start treating animals as subordinates, it becomes easier to do the same thing to one another. The first city-states in Mesopotamia were built on this principle of transferring methods of control from creatures to human beings, according to the archaeologist Guillermo Algaze at the University of California in San Diego. Scribes used the same categories to describe captives and temple workers as they used for state-owned cattle.
Indeed, the idea that humans domesticated themselves is another key concept in Harari’s Sapiens. But perhaps that domestication was much more “literal” than we have been led to believe. Perhaps human sacrifice was a way for early religious leaders to “cull” individuals who had undesirable traits from their standpoint: independence, aggression, a questioning attitude, etc. Indeed, hunter-gatherers still do not like obeying orders from a boss. I wonder to what extent this process is still going on, especially in modern-day America with its schools, prisons, corporate cubicles, police, military, etc.:
Anthropologists and historians have put forward the ‘social control hypothesis’ of human sacrifice. According to this theory, sacrificial rites served as a function for social elites. Human sacrifice is proposed to have been used by social elites to display their divinely sanctioned power, justify their status, and terrorise underclasses into obedience and subordination. Ultimately, human sacrifice could be used as a tool to help build and maintain systems of social inequality.
How humans (maybe) domesticated themselves (Science News)
And this is very relevent to our recent discussion of money: writing and mathematics were first used as methods of social control. As Janet Gleeson-White points out in this essay, accounting was our first writing technology. Money–and taxes–were an outgrowth of this new communications technology:
War, slavery, rule by élites—all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” Scott maintains. All the good things we associate with writing—its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory—were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.”
Early tablets consist of “lists, lists and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression.
The Case Against Civilization (The New Yorker)
Collecting cereal grains directly as taxes would have been cumbersome for administrators, which no doubt led to the innovations we’ve been discussing recently: a unit of account and debt/credit records. The temples were the first institutions to create and store surpluses, making them arguably the ancestor to later corporations (and capitalism). They were the first to do economic planning and charge interest. Later, rulers would strongly desire to monetize the economy by issuing coins, because it was far easier to collect coins and record taxes using this method than collecting resources in kind. We’ve already seen how money, markets, and the state are intimately intertwined (and not separate as libertarians claim).
The connection between the earliest writing and domestication/subjugation is powerfully made by this article from the BBC documenting the world’s oldest writing:
In terms of written history, this is the very remote past. But there is also something very direct and almost intimate about it too. You can see fingernail marks in the clay. These neat little symbols and drawings are clearly the work of an intelligent mind.
These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we’re doing now – my writing and your reading – is a direct continuation. But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn’t so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.
Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr Dahl says it’s possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets. The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.
This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like “cattle with names”. Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status – the equivalent of being called “Mr One Hundred”, he says – to show the number of people below him.
It’s possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers. Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer. The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level. However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle.
For the “upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now”, he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today’s poorest countries.
So the earliest writing tends to confirm Scott’s account. And not just Scott’s account, but that of anthropologist James Suzman, who has simultaneously come out with a book about the disappearing way of life of the the !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari. This is also reviewed in the New Yorker article, above. These hunter-gatherers are going through today exactly what those people in the Near East experienced roughly 6-8000 years ago, giving us a window into history:
The encounter with modernity has been disastrous for the Bushmen: Suzman’s portrait of the dispossessed, alienated, suffering Ju/’hoansi in their miserable resettlement camps makes that clear. The two books even confirm each other’s account of that sinister new technology called writing. Suzman’s Bushman mentor, !A/ae, “noted that whenever he started work at any new farm, his name would be entered into an employment ledger, documents that over the decades had assumed great mystical power among Ju/’hoansi on the farms. The secrets held by these ledgers evidently had the power to give or withhold pay, issue rations, and determine an individual’s right to stay on any particular farm.”
Writing turned the majority of people into serfs and enabled a sociopathic elite to live well and raise themselves and their offspring above everyone else.
And here we are at the cusp of a brand new “information revolution” where literally our every thought and move can be monitored and tracked by a tiny centralized elite and permanently stored. And yet we’re convinced that this will make all our lives infinitely better! Go back and reread the above. I’m not so sure. I already feel like “cattle with a name” in our brave new nudged, credit-scored, Neoliberal world.
We’re also experiencing another period of rapid climate change and resource depletion, just like that experienced at the outset of the original coming of the state. We’re now doing exactly what they did: intensification, and once again it’s empowering a small sociopathic elite at the cost of the rest of us. And yet Panglossians confidently tell us we’re headed for a peaceful techno-utopia where all new discoveries will be shared with all of us instead of hoarded, and we’ll all live like gods instead of being exterminated like rats because we’re no longer necessary to the powers that be. Doubtless the same con (“We’ll all be better off!!!”) was played on the inhabitants of early states, too. Given the human social instincts noted above, let’s just say I’m not optimistic. Please pass the protein blocks.
Scott points out that the state is a very novel development, despite what we read in history books. We read about the history of states because states left written history, and we are their descendants. But that doesn’t mean most people lived under them. By Scott’s account, most humans (barbarians) lived outside of nation-states well into the 1500’s:
…Homo sapiens has been around for roughly 200,000 years and left Africa not much earlier than 50,000 years ago. The first fragmentary evidence for domesticated crops occurs roughly 11,000 years ago and the first grain statelets around 5000 years ago, though they were initially insignificant in a global population of perhaps eight million.
More than 97 per cent of human experience, in other words, lies outside the grain-based nation-states in which virtually all of us now live. ‘Until yesterday’, our diet had not been narrowed to the three major grains that today constitute 50 to 60 per cent of the world’s caloric intake: rice, wheat and maize. The circumstances we take for granted are, in fact, of even more recent vintage …Before, say, 1500, most populations had a sporting chance of remaining out of the clutches of states and empires, which were still relatively weak and, given low rates of urbanisation and forest clearance, still had access to foraged foods. On this account, our world of grains and states is a mere blink of the eye (0.25 per cent), in the historical adventure of our species.
Crops, Towns, Government (London Review of Books)
One of the more provocative ideas from Scott’s book is to question whether the withering away of state capacity–that is, a collapse–is really a bad thing at all!
We need to rethink, accordingly, what we mean when we talk about ancient “dark ages.” Scott’s question is trenchant: “ ‘dark’ for whom and in what respects”? The historical record shows that early cities and states were prone to sudden implosion.
“Over the roughly five millennia of sporadic sedentism before states (seven millennia if we include preagriculture sedentism in Japan and the Ukraine),” he writes, “archaeologists have recorded hundreds of locations that were settled, then abandoned, perhaps resettled, and then again abandoned.” These events are usually spoken of as “collapses,” but Scott invites us to scrutinize that term, too.
When states collapse, fancy buildings stop being built, the élites no longer run things, written records stop being kept, and the mass of the population goes to live somewhere else. Is that a collapse, in terms of living standards, for most people? Human beings mainly lived outside the purview of states until—by Scott’s reckoning—about the year 1600 A.D. Until that date, marking the last two-tenths of one per cent of humanity’s political life, “much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector.”
Indeed, is collapse even a relevant concept when discussing history? What, really is collapsing? States can collapse, but cultures transform:
We also need to think about what we apply the term ‘collapse’ to – what exactly was it that collapsed? Very often, it’s suggested that civilisations collapse, but this isn’t quite right. It is more accurate to say that states collapse. States are tangible, identifiable ‘units’ whereas civilisation is a more slippery term referring broadly to sets of traditions. Many historians, including Arnold Toynbee, author of the 12-volume A Study of History (1934-61), have defined and tried to identify ‘civilisations’, but they often come up with different ideas and different numbers. But we have seen that while Mycenaean states collapsed, several strands of Mycenaean material and non-material culture survived – so it would seem wrong to say that their ‘civilisation’ collapsed. Likewise, if we think of Egyptian or Greek or Roman ‘civilisation’, none of these collapsed – they transformed as circumstances and values changed. We might think of each civilisation in a particular way, defined by a particular type of architecture or art or literature – pyramids, temples, amphitheatres, for example – but this reflects our own values and interests.
States collapsed, civilisations or cultures transformed; people lived through these times and employed their coping strategies – they selectively preserved aspects of their culture and rejected others. Archaeologists, historians and others have a duty to tell the stories of these people, even though the media might find them less satisfactory. And writers who appropriate history for moral purposes need to think carefully about what they are doing and what they are saying – they need to make an effort to get the history as right as possible, rather than dumbing it down to silver-bullet theories.
Scott looks at the fragility of states–and their propensity to revert to more simplified forms, as simply a necessary and inevitable part of the process of history. Rather than a catastrophe, a reduction in complexity often leads to an increase in personal freedom, social experimentation, autonomy, and even artistic development and cultural expression. The Middle Ages is often portrayed as a “dark age,” but that depiction was an invention of the Renaissance, and “dark” referred to the lack of written historical sources, not necessarily wail and woe. Note that the tools of the oppressor – written records, taxation, slavery, usury and money – all fade during this time period. This is not to dismiss the very real disappearance of technology, epidemic disease and warfare that accompanies a state collapse, but merely to suggest a more nuanced view. The Middle Ages was centered around the values of the Church, and society was reoriented along these lines.
Scott writes about the normalising effects of state collapse. Often it was the best thing possible for a people now emancipated from disease, taxes and labour. In the subsequent ‘dark ages’ – a propaganda term used by the elite – democracy and culture could flourish. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey date from the dark age of Greece. This is in marked contrast to the consequences of state collapse today, now that there is no longer an external barbarian world to escape into. When Syria collapsed its refugees had no choice but cross the border to another state, whether Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.
Why did we start farming? (London Review of Books)
While Scott’s topics are timely—tribalism, taxation, trade, warfare—one is particularly relevant: the collapse of civilizations. Shifting landscapes, battles, and resource depletion are all factors that forced newly sedentary societies to pack it up and move on once again. Scott does not see this as a necessary evil, but rather part of the natural order of things: “We should, I believe, aim to “normalize” collapse and see it rather as often inaugurating a periodic and possibly even salutary reformation of political order.”
Is the Collapse of Civilizations A Good Thing? (Big Think)
Scott argues that the loss of state capacity, rather than a tragedy, can often be seen as a liberating event. Yes, such periods mean more poverty, but without the yoke of the state, it can also paradoxically mean more freedom and happiness for the survivors of the collapse. And since relative poverty appears more harmful psychologically than absolute poverty, many societies tend to have greater well being after they’ve fallen apart. He writes:
When the apex disappears, one is particularly grateful for the increasingly large fraction of archaeologists whose attention was focused not on the apex but on the base and its constituent units. From their findings we are able not only to discern some of the probable causes of “collapse” but, more important, to interrogate just what collapse might mean in any particular case…much that passes as collapse as, rather, a disassembly of larger but more fragile political units into their smaller and often more stable components. While “collapse” represents a reduction in social complexity, it is these smaller nuclei of power—a compact small settlement on the alluvium, for example—that are likely to persist far longer than the brief miracles of statecraft that lash them together into a substantial kingdom or empire.
Over time an increasingly large proportion of nonstate peoples were not “pristine primitives” who stubbornly refused the domus, but ex–state subjects who had chosen, albeit often in desperate circumstances, to keep the state at arm’s length…The process of secondary primitivism, or what might be called “going over to the barbarians,” is far more common than any of the standard civilizational narratives allow for. It is particularly pronounced at times of state breakdown or interregna marked by war, epidemics, and environmental deterioration. In such circumstances, far from being seen as regrettable backsliding and privation, it may well have been experienced as a marked improvement in safety, nutrition, and social order. Becoming a barbarian was often a bid to improve one’s lot.
Thus, the leveling effects of “collapse” may be not as “disastrous” as we are led to believe.
Scott’s book gives us hope that the collapse of states, rather than being a universally bad thing, might lead to a flourishing of human freedom. In that, there is some hope. I’ll end with this thought from Scott’s review of Diamond:
Anthropology can show us radically different and satisfying forms of human affiliation and co-operation that do not depend on the nuclear family or inherited wealth. History can show that the social and political arrangements we take for granted are the contingent result of a unique historical conjuncture.