James C. Scott Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN #: 9780300182910
Southern Illinois University
With his 5 decades of writing on questions of local resistance to state control and state planning, James Scott has been anthropology’s favorite political scientist. In groundbreaking books including Weapons of the Weak, Hidden Transcripts, Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott traces an approach that suggests the many ways that ordinary people evade the mechanisms of power, rather than submitting to hegemonic structures. And he explains why scholars have largely ignored these acts of resistance and hidden transcripts, indeed precisely because they are meant to remain “under the radar” of official accounts and practices of accountability. Scott’s “ordinary people” often refers to peasant life and agriculture. In his first book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott first develops arguments and critiques of the concept of false consciousness in the context of looking at peasant relations with land owners and the “moral economy” of traditional definitions of acceptable subsistence and peasant calculation of acceptable risk and reward.
So Scott’s work has a particular and longstanding relevance to food studies scholars. Perhaps all the more so with his most recent book. Against The Grain, which enters into what has become a popular discussion in venues such as The New Yorker of the so-called Neolithic transition to agriculture and its implications for human health and well-being. This discussion has reached popular consciousness in anarchist circles and in debates about the “Paleo Diet,” and recently the discovery of 14,000-year-old “bread-like” substances at a hunter gatherer site, made, it seems, from wild grains and tubers, sparking another round of popular discussions of “the diet of our ancestors” and its implications for contemporary health. Popular or scholarly, this ongoing debate concerns the implications of grain agriculture in the story of human history. Scott’s contribution in some ways adds weight to the critique of the development of grain agriculture as human staple, but in other ways adds considerable complexity to how we might approach such questions. Scott wants to blur boundaries of institutions and processes that have been thought to imply each other. Scott separates the state form both from domestication of agriculture and livestock and the former two from sedentism. Sedentism could arise without domestication, as Scott shows with multiple examples of niche construction, and exploitation of diverse food sources in rich, wetland environments. This often involved niche construction through fire and other techniques of sculpting the environment. He notes, ““Unlike optimal foraging theory that takes the disposition of the natural world as given and asks how a rational actor would distribute his or her efforts in procuring food, what we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create, over time, a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking” (40). Major sculpting was not always necessary, however. In the Southern Mesopotamian alluvium wetland marshes would have provided “an exceptionally rich riparian life” which drew all kinds of animals “preying on creatures lower on the food chain” (50), thus making sedentism perfectly feasible in the absence of agriculture. Many of the practices of hunter-gatherer-forager-pastoralists, as Scott sees them, were not inherently different in conception than agriculture, insofar as they involved planning for “delayed returns”—from landscape sculpting to preserving through drying and fermenting. Thus, the introduction of small-scale agriculture did not necessitate the creation of different “kinds of people,” another blurring that Scott suggests: “To treat those engaged in these different activities as essentially different peoples inhabiting different life worlds is again to read back the much later stigmatization of pastoralists by agrarian states to an era where it makes no sense” (62). Indeed, Scott argues that evidence suggests a common shifting between different subsistence strategies “along a vast continuum of human rearrangements of the natural world” (71).
Scott also argues that the shift from this situation to the Neolithic Revolution in which agriculture became predominant in some communities held many disadvantages. While it allowed for greater concentrations of human and animal populations in smaller spaces, it at the same time encouraged the possibility of zoonoses, all the diseases transmitted to humans and domesticated animals from agricultural pests of various kinds and from the concentration of human waste. The literal meaning of “parasite,” Scott is pleased to point out, is “beside the grain,” and most human infectious disease developed in this context beginning 10,000 years ago, thus playing into the pun in Scott’s book title. The Neolithic Revolution also, in Scott’s view, led to a vast deskilling of human populations, as the flexibility and knowledge that was part of shifting subsistence strategies was lost in the specialization of agriculture. Indeed, he intriguingly suggests, but does not develop, the notion that among the de-skillings that he associates with the Neolithic Revolution, we should include ritual life: “let us at least say that [the Neolithic revolution] represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life” (92). This is because of what he imagines as the centralization or funneling of ritual around the harvest (and eventually its centralized control by elites), as opposed to the multiple tempos, and presumably multiple localized rituals, of shifting subsistence. As suggestive as this is, one wishes that Scott further developed these ideas, and suggested what evidence we might want to see for them. All of these problems of concentration make up one of the reasons why agriculture does not lead to states in some inexorable way as old evolutionary theories might have argued. Rather agriculture (and sedentism) were necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of states, and that is why there tends to be a time lag of hundreds or thousands of years between the development of agriculture and of states in different parts of the world.
Scott sees grain as key, however, to this eventual development, because it afforded certain possibilities that other crops did not. Without cereal grains, Scott notes, one might get sedentism and urbanism in certain alluvial, well-watered areas, but not the state. In particular, the fact that cereal grains ripen at the same time and above ground was crucial for early state building, as it made them assessible, measurable, and thus taxable. It is here that Scott’s argument in Against the Grain intersects with much of his best-known work on the state as constantly attempting to produce legible populations for the purposes of surveillance and control. He thus sees that the development of writing was first and foremost a technology of tax assessment and accountability, making possible the measurement, storage and rationing of resources. Scott also seems aware of the functionalist and determinist sound of some of these arguments, and so includes questions, such as why couldn’t lentils or chickpeas have been bred for simultaneous ripening (133)? This is a question which he doesn’t attempt to answer. Scott’s insistence on blurriness of social categories for long periods of human history also dovetails with recent formulations that argue that different pre-state social arrangements are better seen as temporary collective projects rather than different types of fully-formed “societies” (Graeber & Wengrow 2015).
As to the issue of why anyone would want to live in a state (aside from those who controlled it), Scott’s book is in essence a dismissal of long-held arguments that states provided more security, better health, or better amenities than non-states. In the latter chapters of the book, Scott describes the fragility of the early state based on the notion that many people would have simply fled from its exploitative and dulling routines. Slavery was thus a key aspect of shoring up the state, as slaves, according to Scott, would have been a key source of the state’s agricultural labor force, (while not, of course, being absent from non-state societies). This also means, in Scott’s narrative, that the “Barbarians” living outside of state control were as likely to be refugees from state-making processes as much as they were pristine primitives living untouched by the state (231-2). Those groups living outside the boundaries, but on the margins of states, might often have various interactions with states, from trading, to creating protection rackets with particular states, to selling captured populations as slaves to states to fill labor needs. Scott suggests that in shoring up states in various ways, these “Barbarian” polities may have eventually been squeezed out, contributing to their own demise, though one that happened over a very long time span.
As noted, this work fits into Scott’s larger project of questioning the top-down, synoptic and abstract mechanisms of control and categorization that he argues are at the base of state projects. In Against the Grain, Scott once again suggests that scholars contribute to such views by favoring the legible, in this case, the fact that early states, as opposed to non-state groupings, left many more records for historians to ponder. The bias for “civilization” over “Barbarians”, then, reflects the fact that, winners and losers aside, we read history from the point of view of the writers, or in this case, the states (even if some of this “writing” took the form of stone monuments).
Scott always hedges his claims, though, not arguing that non-state societies were some kind of utopias and that writing and abstraction represented a “fall of mankind” as in the works of some anthropological primitivists, even if everything in his argument suggests that life must have been substantially better for non-state peoples. Thus, Scott offers up only “Two Cheers for Anarchy,” in a recent collection of essays which includes thoughts on the petite bourgeoise, which he sees as potentially resistant to state control and the forces of organization, abstraction and modernity. This comes alongside a plea for generalized everyday rule-breaking, or what he calls “Anarchist calisthenics” (2012). And Scott is eager to dispel the idea that his work should give comfort to Libertarians in their critiques of the state, even if the Libertarians at the CATO institute seem to disagree and offered a published volume in his honor (Scott n.d.).
In terms of offering a final answer for the question of why states arose, given the factors Scott arrays against them, readers may not be satisfied with the lack of a tidy solution. What he suggests, as discussed above, is a combination of force and chance which led to the possibility of states being successful given the degree of human exploitation, disease and general misery that they imposed. So Against the Grain doesn’t directly address questions of how inequality might have arisen, although Scott’s approach typically, in giving credit to the understandings of the oppressed, tends to suggest less of a role for hegemony (in the sense of consent of the governed) or false consciousness (thought not, as noted, unintended consequences).
The value of Against the Grain, then, lies not in its providing radically new theories or new data on the old question of the origin of the state. It is rather Scott’s synthesis of current existing materials and approaches that food studies and other scholars may find most useful. In particular, Scott reveals how these materials can be read in terms of the critique of state abstraction processes, and the lengths many people have gone to avoid or to thwart them—themes he made famous in his earlier work. The focus on abstraction and legibility is certainly all the more relevant to the monocultures and general commodification of agriculture that we are familiar with from the legacy of the Green Revolution and the ongoing demands of contemporary capitalism. Against the Grain helps us to see this as also part of a broader struggle of the very long durée.
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Scott, James C. 2009 The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Scott, James C. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Scott, James C., et. al. n.d.. Seeing Like A State: A Conversation with James C. Scott. Cato Unbound Series. Cato Institute.
Wengrow, David, and David Graeber. “Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’: Ritual, Seasonality, and the Origins of Inequality.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21: 597-619.
Wilson, Peter Lamborne. 2016. “Abdullah Ocalan.” In Dilar Dirik et. al (eds). To Dare Imagine: Rojava Revolution, pp. 33-42. New York: Autonomedia.
 This is where Scott’s argument can also be seen in relation to neoliberalism and its regimes of audit and assessment which he explicitly critiques in education (see Scott 2012)
 See, e.g., Wilson (2012) which draws a line from Ancient Sumer to contemporary anarchist movements in Northern Syria.
 In which he includes small farmholders and artisans.
 Scott 1998, 2009
 Themes that he has also explored in Seeing Like a State.