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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States”, James C. Scott (2017) ISBN 978-0-300-18291-0

Sounds like an interesting title, right? Sadly, Mr. Scott is an academic. Thus his book is larded with a thick layer of Political Correctness. More brain-dead BCEs than you could shake a stick at. Women & minorities always being hardest hit. This is so disappointing, because it could have been a fascinating book.

The author wonders how in only the last 5% of our species time on Earth we came to live in crowded communities depending mainly on only a handful of types of grain?

Archaeology in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) shows that humans were putting down roots (“sedentism”) and domesticating plants & animals for at least 4,000 years before the first states appeared about 6,000 years ago. And people seemed to have had better diets and been healthier then, before they gathered in communities and focused on growing grains. Why did people decide to abandon a life where they had a reliable varied diet including hunting & gathering and some limited degree of crop-raising to one in which they took the risk of depending mainly on grains? And how does this relate to the appearance – and subsequent disappearance – of the many short-lived earliest states?

Mr. Scott does not mention the hypothesis advanced by the late L.F. Ivanhoe, among others: Mankind discovered beer; beer was good, and brewing beer required grain; our ancestors traded the good life of hunting & fishing for the enjoyment of alcohol. Instead, Mr. Scott advances a more disturbing hypothesis – the rulers of the earliest states forced their subject people to depend on grain because grain was easy to tax, collect, and redistribute.

Mr. Scott is rather vague about what constitutes an early state. He appears to identify a state as a walled community with some control over its hinterland. Why the walls? Although Mr. Scott does not explicitly draw the connection, it clearly had much to do with protecting the inhabitants from other marauding humans. He details the evidence for extensive raiding and slavery in those far-off years. The walls may also in part have been intended to keep the grain-growing (i.e. tax-paying) residents from heading out for a better life in the hills.

Implicit in Mr. Scott’s analysis is that the transition from self-sufficient well-nourished barbarians in an Edenic world to less well-nourished subjects of a State involved the evolution of a non-producing overhead Political Class. In the happy earlier days, people in Mesopotamia cooperated in what must have been substantial effort to build walls which focused migrating animals into kill zones. I can imagine a situation in which the leaders of the tribe were the first to start moving stones. Once states developed, the ruler presumably sat back and told the peons to tote those bales and build the walls around the city.

That brings us to one of Mr. Scott’s fascinating speculations: at the same time as our ancestors were domesticating grains and animals, they themselves were being changed by that domestication process. Is this why today’s human beings so often seem to seek the comfort of being part of a herd?

This could have been a wonderful book, an important book. But Mr. Scott ruined it by staying within the herd of the Politically Correct.


Yeah. I’ve noticed that as an increasing trend in history books nowadays. I’ve dropped several books from being reviewed due to being too PC. I think the first one was a history of barbed wire that started out great, but went off in the weeds when the author hit the 20th century. She went into raptures about Earth Liberation Front (a violent terrorist group) and was using Matthew Shepard’s death as an example of troglodyte homophobic conservatives. Of course Shepard was beaten to death by his gay lover over a drug dispute. Nary a homophobe to be seen. That was four-five years ago.

More recently I tossed reviewing a history of transportation when the author went off about how the automobile is evil and how we need to learn to do more with less and a bunch of other green weenie nonsense, When the publisher checked to see if I was reviewing it, I responded I only wrote positive reviews and I could not in good conscience give this book a positive review.


I believe this was described by Victor Davis Hanson in Carnage and Culture as playing a part in the origin of Western warfare. By adopting a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle, the production of food increased dramatically, allowing a larger population, less risk, more leisure, and an increasingly complex society with division of labour. But an agricultural society is a sitting duck ready to be plundered by maurauding nomadic bands or other settled groups envious of their land and wealth. The result of this was walled, fortified settlements to protect the granaries and population in case of raids, and the creation of armies, initially raised from agricultural workers when necessary, to defend against attacks when they happened. The armies, of course, required a permanent professional cadre to organise, train, and command them, and weapons to equip their troops. That, in turn, required taxes, which took a fraction of the crops and other products to support the common defence. As this scales up, you end up with a ruler and whole parasitic class sitting on top of the pyramid.


It may be implied with division of labor, I would state it more explicitly. Agriculture allowed civilizations to leverage (many orders of magnitude of leverage) the very small percentage of people that make everyone’s life better. This is by far the biggest impact of an agriculture based group. My guess is this became apparent immediately. Imagine how much easier and impactful it was for a smart individual to show people a better way to harvest versus try to show them a better way to kill a bison.


While I agree with the hypothesis that a tiny percentage of human beings are responsible for much of human progress, it cannot have been easy to persuade people to give up hunting & gathering (with its obvious immediate rewards) for farming (with its long time lag between planting and later harvesting, subject to the unpredictabilities of weather, insects and foraging animals). Just look today at how many stock market “investors” focus on short-term gains versus long-term returns. We all tend to apply a very high discount rate in our decisions. I want it now!

Something which Mr. Scott complete ignores in his book is the advantages of sedentism for the manufacture of cloth. It is difficult for a mobile group to deal with the tedious equipment-heavy work of spinning and (especially) weaving by hand. It may have been the weavers (primarily women) who insisted on settling down. That would in turn have more or less forced people to give up hunting & gathering and turn instead to agriculture – both for food and for the crops required for making cloth.


If the question is why did humans choose agriculture over hunting and gathering, the short term (once demonstrated) is actually on the side of farming. The downside of things like crop failure are in the future. The biggest negative consequences was the formation of the State where the competent are replaced by the politically competent robbers. This was far into the future.

The flip side to my thought is that the American Indians didn’t seem to adopt farming once they saw it demonstrated. I suspect this is because it was a threat to the hierarchy. If you are highly respected in the community for your hunting skills, you may not like the new technology that doesn’t rely on your skill set.

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Indeed. It may be that “Parasite Class” would be a better term for what I have tended to think of as the “Political Class”. In many circumstances, there are advantages in having a leader – someone who can induce people to coordinate their activities to reach a common goal. Scale is the critical point. When that leader gathers an ever-growing group of non-productive hangers-on around himself – well, history will repeat itself.

A book worth reading (& buying!) is Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”, 1988 ISBN 978-0-521-38673-9. From archaeological evidence in many parts of the world, Tainter hypothesizes that societies tend to accumulate an unproductive ruling class which consumes more than it contributes. As this parasite grows, it eventually kills the productive host society. This has happened to every society before ours. Do we feel lucky?