[PDF] Against the Grain A Deep History of the Earliest States BY James C. Scott – Epub, Kindle and eBook Online

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An Economist Best History Book 2017  “History as it should be written” Barry Cunliffe Guardian  “Scott hits the nail suarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilization and political order” Walter Scheidel Financial Times   Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grains and governed by precursors of today’s states Most people believe that plant and animal. Worth reading once It s an interesting look at the impact of agriculture on ancient societies The author is a contrarian who attempts to poke holes in the standard historical interpretation of the period He takes a largely negative view of agriculture societies as opposed to hunter gather societies However he doesn t always manage to make a good argument Often he tries to argue from logic and first principles rather than evidence That s fine but it s still at bottom speculation based on limited evidence and as such there s rarely a winning argument He does a bit better when covering the ancient states But while I appreciate his argument as food for thought I m not either wholly convinced or swept away by it The other flaw in this book is that the writing is somewhat dry and repetitive at times Still worth reading once though I would not pay full price for the book

read Against the Grain A Deep History of the Earliest States

Against the Grain A Deep History of the Earliest States

Be viewed as a way of gaining control over reproduction   Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture the advantages of mobile subsistence the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants animals and grain and why all early states are based on millets and cereal grains and unfree labor He also discusses the “barbarians” who long evaded state control as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and nonsubject people. Against the Grain is a popular science summary of the now substantial case that agriculture was not the products of innovation but rather ecological circumstance that the state was not the beginning of the end of deprivation savagery and oppression but the start of the worst examples in human history It focuses entirely with reference to some other systems for comparison on the first beginning of civilization in Mesopotamia While the general ideas here are very familiar to me one of the big novelties was the depth of research on the transitional period in Mesopotamia which now gives a complete enough picture that we can start the process of rewriting all of modern human history as an extension of human evolution in deep time and an expression of human niche construction Starting this process in Mesopotamia is reasonable because it s the chief battleground for this argument as the site of the original sin many of these conversations are content to simply trace a causal lineage back to Mesopotamia as the uncaused causer Scott is inaugurating a reevaluation of all of human history but it still makes a certain amount of sense to start here after all history before the start of agriculture has generally already been interpreted in a primarily ecological framework In a sense Against the Grain is the culmination of the main thrust of my nonfiction reading since Endgame Vol 1 The Problem of Civilization 10 years ago I suppose that insofar as I didn t write it it s less a culmination for me but it s still a remarkable opportunity to look back The citations of this book include everything from Manning s original Against the Grain which was tremendously influential on me to many of the sources I read in my anthropology independent study in undergrad to much of the literature in human evolution domestication and niche construction I ve been reading in the past year There s a decent amount of other sources of course that I haven t read and one conspicuous omission of what I have which I ll get to later but the overlap is remarkable and validating The nice and somewhat relieving thing about this book is that its summary of the literature comes down in pretty much the same place I ve arrived at It doesn t shy away from the negative aspects of the beginning of agricultural civilization by any stretch and indeed that thesis is clearly still meant to be the novel one for most readers even in 2017 but it doesn t treat it as something metaphysical or in the language of propaganda It s refreshingly constrained by the evidence and takes care to constrain its conclusions to the places and senses the evidence supports That is it s very much a scientificarchaeological approach to civilization as an ecological phenomenon which is awesome particularly since many of the existing sources come with such annoyingobfuscating ideological commitments I was a bit apprehensive about Scott taking on this job for this very reason since he has a reputation as an anarchist academic and I feared his take on the state might be tinged with that bias Fortunately that was totally unfair Scott s experience with the state as a unit of anthropological interest pays off in two really interesting angles here though ultimately one of them plays up his strengths while the other highlights a big missed opportunity He treats the state as an ecological unit of its own rather than some kind of intellectual or cultural subset of an undifferentiated humanity It has particular food needs not just calories but calories that can be easily counted and collected divided and transported etc that constrain its niche to areas where grains are domesticated and grow well The state is also a particular kind of ecosystem engineer not only in its effects on the landscapes it rules city walls irrigation etc but also in the way it changes the subsistence options of non state peoples in the area Scott s focus on these non state groups was one of the big novelties here for me They re people who exacted tribute from states in a way that functionally expanded the population of parasitic elites outside of the ruling class of the city itself On the productive side the existence of state elites enabled non state peoples to become part of a trading class harvesting materials that were previously not especially valuable and trading them for grain they otherwise couldn t access Thus highly value dense natural products including many non timber forest products were harvested at much higher rates even very far from states simply because states now existed Scott positions these non state peoples Scott uses the term barbarian interchangeably as the true winners of the development of states They maintained a level of flexibility that the state elites lacked and thus stood to lose less when they inevitably fellThe big missed potential synergy here is with Peter Turchin s demographic structural cycle hypothesis His lengthy discussion of collapse draws heavily on ideas in uestioning Collapse but in a way that could not make the mechanisms of the demographic structural cycle clearer if he d been doing it on purpose His focus on the state as a parasitic niche imposing an adversarial order on the peasant class mirrors Turchin s elite peasant predator prey ecology pretty directly And while he doesn t identify the cause of such events he describes Turchin s contracting phase precisely with elites sueezing from peasants than they can produce and losing control because of it While he doesn t consider elite population growth as a cause he does Turchin one better by describing the spatial pattern associated with these phases starting with a loosening grip on the hinterlands and pulling back into the center as a declining controlled landbase heightens demands and tension in areas historically easier to project power More simply Scott integrates the costs of transporting grain and manpower and extrapolates their conseuences where Turchin does not The most interesting implication here which Turchin never makes is that in the early era of civilization unclear if the relevant trait here is population technology epidemiology or competition with other states the contraction phase reads as a collapse to a non state baseline instead of a blip of conflict and strife in the history of a continuous state The state is a human ecotype analogous to a species in some ways but unlike the predators in a Lotka Volterra cycle they can return on the next cycle even if their abundance hits 0 The addition of Scott s non state peoples as members of the same parasitic niche as internal elites is also a fascinating addition to Turchin s theory In Secular Cycles non state bandits are an internal force that arises periodically when state enforcement is weak But as Scott points out from the peasant s perspective they re a similar sort of predator as the state and from the state s point of view it matters little whether the surplus production of peasants goes to peasants or to bandits Turchin poses bandits as the cause of a landscape of fear in which production is reduced but Scott points to a much richer set of stable ecological outcomes including ransoms tributes and outright conuest Changing relationships between state and non state elites seems like a productive uestion for a niche construction theory of history So while Scott approaches some of Turchin s ideas with uncanny precision he neglects or downplays the role of population in practically everything he discusses This is perhaps understandable given the apparent lack of time specific population estimates on anything close to the timescale needed But it s a conspicuous absence Scott summarily dismisses the notion that agriculture arose as a response to population pressure for instance but doesn t provide enough evidence to justify that for my mind Similarly there s a very suggestive section on epidemiology and population growth that seems fruitful but not sufficiently examined here It s maybe the second central uestion of niche construction history after agricultural states were established why did it take as long as it did for population growth to really take off Scott points to disease ecology implying population was bottlenecked by the time it took for resistance to density dependent epizootics to evolve I m a bit skeptical of this idea because humans can in many cases out reproduce disease mortality and under those circumstances resistance would evolve very uickly I feel like a process of cultural and technological evolution among states seems plausible but regardless it s one of the most compelling open uestions the book raises and Scott doesn t necessarily treat it as such The final unfulfilled potential here is in ecology Scott focuses extensively on ecology and evolution while Turchin barely mentions them at all I m very curious to see how well the classic processes of ecological degradation deforestation salinization soil erosion defaunation etc map onto demographic structural cycles Mesopotamia is an interesting case for this because state niche construction activities here literally rendered it uninhabitable by states Lots of uestions here does degradation increase the freuency of cycles or just reduce their amplitude Does it change the nature of future growth cycles if eg timber is no longer available Is there a single driving variable that determines elite carrying capacity or is it like a minimum basket of goods that timber food etc could all choke How does degradation affect the relationship of future cycle states with non state peoples What kind of selective pressures does degradation impose on peasants Elites Domesticates How do secular cycles differ by climateecoregion So yeah tons of fertile ground there

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Domestication allowed humans finally to settle down and form agricultural villages towns and states which made possible civilization law public order and a presumably secure way of living But archaeological and historical evidence challenges this narrative The first agrarian states says James C Scott were born of accumulations of domestications first fire then plants livestock subjects of the state captives and finally women in the patriarchal family all of which can. One of the most thought provoking books I ve read I don t think I m fully convinced by his idea but the book gave me so much to think about He seems to start with the premise that states are mostly parasitic but why do humans keep creating states There must be some benefit besides just tax goodies for the rich Perhaps the non zero sum arrangements that Robert Wright has highlighted Reducing collective action issues It s not all war and slavery


10 thoughts on “Against the Grain A Deep History of the Earliest States

  1. says:

    This outstanding book by the anarchist tending academic James C Scott might be but isn’t subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier Fatter and Better Looking” The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is on average a lot better off than the peasant Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early day

  2. says:

    Can't stress enough how important it is for progressivesleftists to engage with James C Scott's work He's done than probably anyone to shift my understanding of how states operate and their effects on their subjects on ecosystems and on nonstate peoples—the three of his books I've read have all had a pretty significant impact on how I look at the world which is not something I can say of many writers His latest Against the Grain synthe

  3. says:

    Worth reading once It’s an interesting look at the impact of agriculture on ancient societies The author is a contrarian who attempts to poke holes in the standard historical interpretation of the period He takes a largely negative view of agriculture societies as opposed to hunter gather societies However he doesn’t

  4. says:

    James C Scott teaches political science and anthropology at Yale He’s a smooth writer and a deep thinker A while back he decided to update two lectures on agrarian societies that he had been giving for 20 years He began studying recent research and — gasp — realized that significant portions of traditional textbook history had the str

  5. says:

    Good and interesting read if you are into anthropology early history and archaeology then this is the book for you It has a lot of information about early states and it puts them into perspective with how the progress of domestication influenced the rise of states and kingdoms Highly recommend it

  6. says:

    One of the most thought provoking books I've read I don't think I'm fully convinced by his idea but the book gave me so much to think about He seems to start with the premise that states are mostly parasitic but why do humans keep creating states? There must be some benefit besides just tax goodies for the ric

  7. says:

    Against the Grain is a popular science summary of the now substantial case that agriculture was not the products of innovation but rather ecological circumstance that the state was not the beginning of the end of deprivation savagery

  8. says:

    Too shortInteresting counterpoint to the ascent of man kind of story we tell about ourselves when we think about history The major point Scott is arguing isThe shift from hunting and foraging to agriculture—a shift that was slow halting reversible and sometimes incomplete—carried at least as many costs as benefits Thus while t

  9. says:

    This is a controversial if highly erudite book It owes its title to a hymn sung in ancient Ur ahead of the construction of a major temple when the ordinary life of slaves and enslaved debtors was temporarily suspended in favor of a brief egali

  10. says:

    Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5000 to 10000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent South China the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan and Central America To secure enough food once their population had grown to a lev

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