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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States Hardcover – 1 Sep 2017
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"[Scott's work] has focussed on a skeptical, peasant's-eye view of state formation. . . . His best-known book, Seeing Like a State, has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and 'high modernism.' . . . Scott's new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong."--John Lanchester, New Yorker
"Against the Grain delivers not only a darker story but also a broad understanding of the forces that shaped the formation of states and why they collapsed -- right up to the industrial age . . . an excellent book."--Ben Collyer, New Scientist
"Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn't purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we are used to."--Steven Mithen, London Review of Books
"Forget the Paleo Diet: Scott goes all the way in showing how early nomadic peoples in the Fertile Crescent were fitter, happier and more productive than the semi-enslaved ziggurat-builders of the ancient Mesopotamian cities."--James Whipple (M.E.S.H), Frieze
"This is an important book, which should be read by every educated person. The story it tells is so different, so opposed, to the received narrative it deserves to be everywhere known. Scott's presentation of evidence is so complete that the received narrative simply can no longer stand. Additionally, Scott writes extremely well: a clear, unambiguous, approachable style, with occasional sparkles of gentle humour to ease the way. The book is an intellectual delight."--George Gale, Metascience
"Scott's original book is history as it should be written" -- Barry Cunliffe, Guardian
"History as it should be written--an analysis of the deep forces exposed to the eternal conflict between humans and their environment. What makes it even more welcome is that it has been written with the enthusiasm of discovery."--Barry Cunliffe, Guardian
"Written with great enthusiasm and characteristic flair . . . Scott hits the nail squarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilisation and political order."--Walter Scheidel, Financial Times
An Economist Best History Book 2017
"Fascinating."--George Monbiot, Guardian
"The most interesting non-fiction read of the year. . . . Urgently recommended, and fun to read as well."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
"Fascinating. . . . Our agrarian-biased view of history, Scott concludes, could use some reworking. Most of the world's early human populations likely enjoyed semisettled, semiagrarian lives beyond the state's grasp."--Suzanne Shablovsky, Science
"Fascinating. . . . Thinkers like Scott remind us that who we thought we are might not necessarily be the case. Such knowledge is empowering."--Derek Beres, Big Think
"[Against the Grain] presents a comprehensive and convincing case that the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to permanent, agriculturally dependent settlements was a complete disaster for humankind. . . . Whatever your political leanings, the implications of Scott's book are as fascinating as they are wide-ranging."--Will Collins, The American Conservative
"James C. Scott [is] an eminent and iconoclastic political scientist. . . . In his rich and varied career, Scott has found many ways to second-guess structures that prop up the powerful. . . . Although Against the Grain is not a large book, it is a kind of thematic summa of Scott's work so far, as it reworks the entire canvas of history by reconsidering its origins through the lens of state-formation."--Jedediah Purdy, The New Republic
"One of those rare books that really changes your worldview -- or somehow crystallizes where your mind has been trending."--Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine
"For more than 40 years, James Scott has written about those who resist being incorporated into political-economic systems. . . . In a provocative new book, Against the Grain, Scott now challenges us to rethink legends about the state and its origins."--Jacob Levy, Reason
"The story of a complex pattern of grain agriculture, early states, forced labor, and the extraction of surplus, and how all of these things were connected in ways that researchers previously never suspected. . . Scott is a writer of extraordinary talent. . . . The constant interplay between the present and the distant past is one of the most appealing aspects of this book."--Jason Kuznicki, Cato Journal
"Extremely well written and informative. . . . A very important and original contribution to the growing literature on the political economy of the state."--Ennio E. Piano, Public Choice
"Against the Grain . . . is bound to shape how we think about this topic for years to come."--Johann Strube, Agriculture and Human Values
Finalist for the 2018 CT Book Award
"A sweeping and provocative look at the 'rise of civilization, ' focusing particularly on those parts, peoples, and issues that are normally overlooked in conventional historical narratives."--Alison Betts, The University of Sydney
"This book is fascinating and original, containing a lesson on every page. Brilliant. James Scott is a legend."--Tim Harford, author of Messy and The Undercover Economist
"Scott is at his most intellectually omnivorous in Against the Grain, drawing on a vast array of sources to upend our basic assumptions about state formation and civilization."--Edward D. Melillo, author of Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection
"Against the Grain is not just a "counternarrative," an outsider's skeptical reaction to received wisdom about the evolution of agricultural systems and the first states in Mesopotamia. Vainglorious kings with their generals and armies, sycophantic scribes, and royal architects and engineers are not Scott's heroes. His concerns are with urban laborers, peasants, and barbarians and the cleavage planes of resistance to rulers. Those studying Mesopotamia--and other early states--take heed."--Norman Yoffee, editor of Early Cities in Comparative Perspective
"A contemporary master of the political counter-narrative has produced a book on the origins of civilization - this is, quite simply, a must-read."--David Wengrow, author of What Makes Civilization?
About the Author
James C. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science and codirector of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University.
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The topic is rather fashionable. Everybody who’s read the 2011 blockbuster Sapiens can repeat the cute little argument about how wheat domesticated man, rather than the other way round, citing that it was man, not wheat, who moved from the wild into a domus -Latin for house- to pursue agriculture and tend to his crops. And that foragers had a much healthier and varied diet, lived better and longer and grew to be taller than their civilized counterparts inside the walls.
This is a rather more serious effort, in that it provides the reader with a very wide background before any such thesis is made. And it sets the record straight: when it comes to the eating, it’s man who eats the wheat / pork / whatever so that’s who’s been doing the domesticating. But there is a story to tell here and there’s a message too.
First things first: not only was the history we’ve been taught written from the perspective of the paradigm that prevailed, but any gaps that had to be filled were filled from that angle too. And now that we know better, it’s time to set a number of important records straight:
1. Man had been cultivating the earth for millenia before he settled down in cities; the idea that once man had discovered how to work the earth there was no turning back is a false narrative.
2. For millenia, hunter-gatherers had the better diet, better life and more leisure than their agriculturalist counterparts who worked the land in and around city walls.
3. The original agriculture-based settlements in Mesopotamia only survived because they were placed on the cusp of four different climate zones and took advantage of other sources of food, besides, like fishing.
4. Most illnesses and plagues we know originated only after man settled down with his domestic animals in one place; prior to the establishment of these settlements it was impossible for smallpox, measles etc. to spread, for lack of hosts. Possibly even malaria and other illnesses were caused by (inadvertently) man-made marshes, in combination with the emergence of cities.
5. The original agriculture-based settlements were unstable and constantly on the verge of catastrophe due to two vulnerabilities: to any disasters involving their main crop and to the new threat of the plague.
6. The original city-state may be unthinkable in the absence of slave labor to do much of the drudgery.
7. The barbarians who lived outside the walls and the city dwellers were, first and foremost, each other’s trading partners and had complementary lives (much as city dwellers lived under the constant threat of being raided)
8. As far back as we can look, slaves were both an important trading commodity and the main objective of war, which was seldom, if ever, waged for territory. Territory was ample.
After he gets all these basics straight, the author shows his true colors and moves on to the meat of his book, a paean to the barbarian life and a lament for the fact that it is no longer a legitimate choice. Bottom line, the man is an anarchist!
This is the place to mention that every single page of the book contains a lesson. If it’s not a lesson in history or anthropology or sociology, you’re always guaranteed a lesson in English! Keep a dictionary handy as you’re reading this. It’s written for the author’s university professor colleagues, not for you and me. We’re welcome to read it, but we’re not the intended audience.
I say it’s a lesson in English, but actually I learned plenty of Greek from it too! So I’m reading the word zoonoses (the title of chapter 3, no less) and I’m like “what on earth is a zoonosos?” I’ve spoken the language for fifty years, so I’m like “OK, zoon is animal and nosos is illness, so OK, I’ve got this” but it was like that the whole time. The dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a total amateur compared to James C. Scott, basically. I’d never given any thought to the fact that “parasite” means “next to” (para) “the wheat” (sitos) so that was a bit of a knockout, too.
He repeats a lot. The reason is that every chapter can stand alone. But the fourth time I read that the purpose of the Great Wall of China was not to keep out the Mongols, as our historians claim, but actually to wall-in Chinese laborers who might be entertaining notions of escaping their drudgery and join the much happier savages north of the border, I thought I’d had enough. Hadrian’s Wall gets described both ways, btw. So there are some consistency issues there too.
Oh, and he DOES NOT WRAP UP. It’s chapter, chapter, chapter and then The End.
So it’s a bad book and a great book at the same time, if you know what I mean. And after he’s set the scene, the author lets rip:
On wheat, for example: do you want to know what’s special about wheat? It’s that the taxman can tax it efficiently. Your whole crop has to be planted at the same time and it needs to be harvested at the same time. You can’t hide from him. Oh, and after you’ve harvested it, it’s not only simple to keep, it’s also infinitely divisible and transportable, so the taxman can come take it from you and even pay his army with it. He can’t do that with potatos, can he? So wheat and barley are favored by the state because it’s got you, the farmer, where it wants.
On writing he goes one better: did you know that on at least three separate instances (Chinese, Greek and cuneiform writing) the whole point was for the state to keep tabs on things and quite possibly had zero correspondence to speech? Greek and cuneiform writing both preceded by 500 years the next version of writing (imported from the Phoenicians in our case) that was any good for poetry, for example. Indeed, the Chinese form of writing persists to our days precisely because it does not correspond to how anybody talks, and can thus be used by conquered peoples as well!
Scott has a field day with “collapse” as well: who is to say a civilization collapsed just because our archaeologists have found that the palace was deserted? Why do we frown on the “geometric” period that followed the Doric invasion of Greece around 1,100 BC when it gave us the Iliad and the Odyssey? Yes, the early state was extremely fragile, but that’s something to celebrate. What’s so awful about peasants abandoning the drudgery of their fields and going back to becoming hunter-gatherers? So why do historians want to see grand monuments? He provides the answers too: because our history is written to serve our current polity, which likes to draw a straight line back to the grand civilizations that built the monuments, that’s why!
Predictably, then, the author’s admiration is reserved for the barbarians and the best ideas in the book are the ones regarding the demise of their lifestyle. They lost out for a number of reasons:
1. Demographic reason #1: Barbarian women who were “on the run” could only have one baby every four years, because they had to be mobile; settled women did not only have worse skeletal structure, bad knees and curled toes to show for a life confined to drudgery, they also had a baby every year. Once the first five millenia of settled life had gone by and settled people had developed resistance to the illnesses that came with their settled lifestyle, the growth in their population left that of the barbarians in the shade.
2. Demographic reason #2: the barbarian peoples were not naturally selected against and therefore did not develop resistance to the epidemics, as best exemplified by the decimation that befell Native Americans after the conquistadores arrived.
3. They often sold other barbarians to the state as slaves, further diminishing their collective ranks.
4. They often fought as mercenaries for the states, chiefly helping them conquer other barbarians. It was Celts to subjugated other Celts for the Romans, apparently.
5. We’ve now filled all space; they’ve got nowhere to go!
The last chapter of the book is, almost inevitably, a paean to the barbarian life and a celebration of the barbarians' golden age. The author is genuinely sad that their lifestyle is no longer an option. Sad enough that he could not get himself to finish the book!
No idea how accurate this all was, but it was well worth reading.
The Book is an easy read and you will from time to time stop and wonder why some of it is new to you. It gives you new ideas and at times a new platform to stand upon when you look at ancient history. The idea that we do not make the potato grow as we want but the opposite, the potato makes us take care of it. We are as much domesticated by our food as it is providing us nourishment. That is just one of the things that at least made me stop and realize that he is right.