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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States review: Taming the barbarians

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States James C. Scott Yale University Press ₹1,478  

In his magnum opus, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott, political scientist and professor of anthropology, describes one of the most important transitions in human history: the shift from being hunter-gatherers to practising settled agriculture. Most importantly, he outlines the compulsions of early states and their precarious conditions. Political philosophers are captive to the “narrative of progress and civilization as codified by the first great agrarian kingdoms” and assume that the savage lives of early humans were replaced by fixed fields for farming; that states provided safety, law, religion and institutions and were therefore the logical, desired and most efficient units for humanity.

A violent history

Scott, however, disagrees strongly with this evangelism for the state. Using the work of scholars from many disciplines (archaeologists, biologists, ecologists and epidemiologists), he weaves a magical history of how the early state’s foundation was built on violence and how it extorted benefits from settled agriculture by ensnaring people who were otherwise leading healthier lives, did not have to engage in wars for the state, consumed food from diverse sources and had more time for leisure. There is plenty of evidence of strong resistance from those forced to settle and come under state control.

Our Hominid forebears transformed the earth’s landscape through the discovery and use of fire, which Scott says was the start of the Anthropocene. Homo sapiens became a subspecies around 200,000 years ago but human settlements, agriculture and pastoralism appeared only around 12,000 years before the present. The first states in Mesopotamia showed up several thousand years later — some 6,000 years ago. This implies that for most of the time, humans have been on earth (95%) they have been foragers and hunters.

The early state, itself was not a stable entity and those in the flood plains in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China did not survive long, repeatedly collapsing due to epidemics, war, or under attacks by the “barbarians” — people living outside the ambit of the state and who were the larger force. These “unadministered” many had either escaped from the state or were part of nomadic communities that foraged in waters, forests, hills, or grasslands. These nomads may themselves practise swidden or shifting cultivation, grow root vegetables, which since they do not mature synchronously make it difficult for the state to extract taxes. Agriculture therefore coexisted with nomadic lifestyles where the metronome of daily life was quite different from a permanent domus. It depended on the seasons, migratory patterns of large animals, availability of fish, maturing of plants and fruit, and so on.

The role of cereals

States became possible with the growing of cereals, for which the state used slaves and others conscripted to its advantage. Cereals ripened simultaneously, grew above ground, could be measured, stored, rationed and taxed. Bondage, according to Scott, was a necessary condition of early states. He points to plenty of evidence of all kinds of indentured labour, bondage, forced settlements and even slaves. Their labour was sunk into the building of cities and into the soil for agriculture. All this hard work led to agricultural surpluses that were stored, taxed and protected. It led to fortified towns and record keeping. Some people managed to escape and became part of the unadministered barbarians.

Scott does not romanticise the foragers or pastoralists, as some readers may begin to suspect, but instead goes on to describe how they would strategically engage with the state on different occasions. They also had their own challenges and became predators raiding granaries of states. Nevertheless, barbarians posed the biggest threat for early states, raiding them over land or sea. And there were the barbarian stars — the “Mongols, the Manchu, the Huns, the Mughals, Osman.” At least until 200 BCE, barbarian disruptions of the state posed the biggest threat.

Some critics of Scott’s work argue that there were ancient states among the Inca, Yaruba and Andean kingdoms that relied on root crops. But perhaps they too simply offered other ways to enslave people. According to Bennett Bronson, quoted by Scott, it is due to nomadic raiders that state consolidation was limited on the Indian subcontinent producing only two long-lasting states — the Guptas and the Mughals.

Scott quotes a Sumerian myth in which “the goddess Adnigkidu is admonished not to wed a nomad god, Martu, as follows: He who dwells in the mountains... having carried on much strife... he knows not submission, he eats uncooked food, he has no house where he lives, he is not interred when he dies . . .” This narrative has similarities with Indian mythology and his book surely calls for studies into early South Asian states through the lens of their relationship with those enslaved, and the retreat of the barbarians into the forests and hills.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States; James C. Scott, Yale University Press, ₹1,478.

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