Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
By James Scott
Published in August 2017
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Against the Grain is another brilliant book written by the always excellent James Scott. Against the Grain is a popular history written to survey and summarize the academic literature explaining the rise of the state.
Scott also advances a number of more controversial points, likely informed by his anarchist background.
The main thesis made in Against the Grain is that the early states arose when small scale “guerilla” farmers were coerced into city states. He points out that hunter-gatherers had more free time, more food, and healthier lives than their compatriots living in cities. He concludes that the only reason why a small scale farmer or hunter-gatherer would adopt the lifestyle of a sedentary farmer is due to coercion.
Based on these assumptions, Scott also concludes that the periodic collapses of the early palace states actually often resulted in better living conditions for the masses. He concludes that the collapses must have been non-violent and that the ensuing “dark ages” were actually much freer and more prosperous.
Most controversially, this line of reasoning also leads him to condemn state-building technologies such as writing.
Due to my lack of historical knowledge of the period, I have no means by which to access Scott’s claims. On one hand, it seems plausible that hunter-gatherers were coerced into states and that the people on whose backs the states were built suffered. On the other hand, Scott’s condemnation of writing and technology seems dubious. I simply do not know what to make of Scott’s arguments.
Either way, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the origins of the state.
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