book-reviews

Against the Grain

by James C. Scott

Rating: ★★★★

James Scott gives me hope. In a world where state power proclaims itself to be -- and sometimes really seems -- all-pervading and inescapable, Scott writes these gently enthusiastic, provocative books about the limits and drawbacks of the state model of human existence. Seeing Like A State exposed how necessarily poorly states understand the things they nominally control. Here, in Against the Grain, Scott is highlighting how, despite the lens our standard history gives us, sedentary states were neither inevitable nor on the whole beneficial for mankind.

You could of course write a far more angry book along those lines, a book of anarchist fury and theory, snapping and biting at injustices. That is not Scott's style at all, which is why I enjoyed his writing so much. He is, while certainly predisposed to certain perspectives, primarily an academic exploring and describing the evidence on a fascinating topic.

In a nutshell, the point is this: grain agriculture did not lead straightforwardly to the development of settled states, the timeline for this narrative simply does not cohere. It is however true that settled states needed grain agriculture to enforce taxation, and made use of it to feed their slave workforces. States more often 'collapsed' than survived, which should not obscure that the actual people living in the area were probably just as happy -- if not more so -- without these irregular and self-aggrandising regimes. Settled agriculture, with its fragility and tendency to attract raids, was surely a significantly worse way of living than the flexible patchwork of subsistence means that had previously been the norm, and only the increased fertility of 'domesticated' man allowed this approach to rise to such dominance.

The book is filled with revelations about early statehood and agriculture, and well rewards reading. Like with Seeing Like A State, some of the overall structure seemed to be lacking, and certain points were repetitious, but you can easily forgive that for the compelling and edifying topic.