Book Notes: Against the Grain

This year I read both Seeing Like a State and Against the Grain, two books by anthropologist James C. Scott.

Seeing Like a State showed how governments systematize and abstract information about a populace in order to make it visible, measurable, and above-all administrative — in particular, Scott talks a lot about how that process of abstraction necessarily loses important on-the-ground information and that this explains why top-down state-mandated agricultural programs tend to fail: because the state just doesn’t have (and really, can’t have) sufficiently detailed information to be able to make the sorts of expertise-driven location-specific decisions that agriculturalists have to make every day in order to maximize their yields. If you’re going to read one of the two books, I’d probably recommend Seeing Like a State over Against the Grain

Against the Grain provides a study of early states and how they developed (e.g., in Mesopotamia) and Scott makes a few really interesting assertions that I had never thought about. The over-arching thesis is that, in contrast to the way these states are generally portrayed in the history books, these early states were actually incredibly fragile — our historical focus on these states has generally been because … those are the ruins we have to study. For most of history the majority of the human population lived outside of the control of formal states, and our focus on studying the ruins of high-powered states probably leaves out the experience of how the majority of humanity lived.

Historians often refer to the inter-state periods after a collapse as “dark ages”, and Scott make the compelling point that while those times may be dark to us, from an archaeological-record point of view, to the people living in those times the ages were probably anything but dark. In fact, the collapse of the state probably meaningfully improved the lives of those citizens who no longer had an overbearing tax man to pay and an easier time feeding and caring for their family. (In general, ancient hunters and gathers were much healthier than their sedentary counterparts.) In fact, the epic poem the Odyssey dates back to just one of these “dark ages” before it was eventually written down when a new state was formed that invented a written alphabet.

Below I’ve copied in some of my notes on key take-aways and some quotes from the book:


  • Sedentism predated early states
  • Early states were incredibly fragile, generally.
    • Sedentary farming is more susceptible to crop-loss leading to famine
    • New diseases were able to catch hold in city centers
  • Early states were brutal — they tended to be generally bad for the health and wellbeing
    • Slavery was always a huge and lasting part of maintaining the early state
  • Nomadism and pastoralism were the norm until /very/ recently — Up until 400 years ago 1/3 of the world’s population was still non-sedentary.
  • Transportation by water was incredibly important — without the ability to ship wood (in particular) over long distances via a body of water, new states could never get off the ground
  • Writing was not invented as a means of communication or passing along culture — it was /invented/ for administrative purposes — generally keeping track of grain stores or warehouse administration. Only later was writing co-opted for cultural purposes
  • The “dark ages” that followed the collapse of states are only dark from *our* perspective
    • Without states, we don’t have ruins (at least not those made of stone) and so modern day anthropologists can’t get much insight into what was happening. But that /doesn’t/ mean that /nothing/ was happening.
    • The Odyssey (the pre-writing oral version) is dated to the “dark ages” of Greece — it may be the case that the so-called “dark ages” of ancient cultures were actually /more/ culturally productive to the extent that the people weren’t suffering under the yolk of an oppressive state intent on confiscating their farming surplus to fund the building of stone palaces and temples
  •  Population management was hugely important to early states (for the tax base, generally) and, because life outside of the state was often better than life inside of the state (higher caloric intake, longer lives, etc) the state had to invest a lot of time in trying to keep its citizens from fleeing. They did this with:
    • walls built to keep people in, not just to keep barbarians out
    • culture and religion attempting to “other” those who lived outside of the state
  • “Barbarians” can be thought of as the yang to the early states’ yin — the barbarian “states” don’t actually seem that different from the early “true states” if you squint a bit:

The early agrarian states and the barbarian polities had broadly similar aims; both sought to dominate the grain-and-manpower core with its surplus. The Mongols, among other raiding nomads, compared the agrarian population to ra’aya, “herds.”38 Both sought to dominate the trade that was within reach. Both were slaving and raiding states in which the major booty of war and the major commodity in trade were human beings. In this respect they were competing protection rackets.

Highlighted Quotes:

The first states in the Mesopotamian alluvium pop up no earlier than about 6,000 years ago, several millennia after the first evidence of agriculture and sedentism in the region.


Yet there is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement, even under relatively favorable circumstances. Pastoralists and hunting-and-gathering populations have fought against permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control.


Compounding this institutional bias is the archaeological tradition, until quite recently, of excavation and analysis of major historical ruins. Thus if you built, monumentally, in stone and left your debris conveniently in a single place, you were likely to be “discovered” and to dominate the pages of ancient history. If, on the other hand, you built with wood, bamboo, or reeds, you were much less likely to appear in the archaeological record. And if you were hunter-gatherers or nomads, however numerous, spreading your biodegradable trash thinly across the landscape, you were likely to vanish entirely from the archaeological record.


One is reminded in this context of Owen Lattimore’s admonition that the great walls of China were built as much to keep Chinese taxpayers in as to keep the barbarians out. Variable as it is over time and hard as it is to quantify, bondage appears to have been a condition of the ancient state’s survival. Early states surely did not invent the institution of slavery, but they did codify and organize it as a state project.


Civilizations should never be confused with the states that they typically outlast, nor should we unreflectively prefer larger units of political order to smaller units.


 On paper, at least, it was even more ambitious. Neither in China nor in Mesopotamia was writing originally devised as a means of representing speech.


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.

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By michael