Against the Grain by James C. Scott

The untold story of early state formation in Against the Grain, a challenge to traditional views on the rise of complex societies.

Against the Grain

A Deep History of the Earliest States

Author: Scott, James C.

Link to Amazon
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publish date: 07/24/2018
Language: English
Pages: 336
ISBN-10: 274 757 091

Genres: Early states, History, Non-Fiction

“Scott hits the nail squarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilization and political order.”—Walter Scheidel, Financial Times

From the Back Cover

”An Economist Best History Book 2017

“History as it should be written.”—Barry Cunliffe, Guardian

Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grains, and governed by precursors of today’s states? Most people believe that plant and animal domestication allowed humans, finally, to settle down and form agricultural villages, towns, and states, which made possible civilization, law, public order, and a presumably secure way of living. But archaeological and historical evidence challenges this narrative. The first agrarian states, says James C. Scott, were born of accumulations of domestications: first fire, then plants, livestock, subjects of the state, captives, and finally women in the patriarchal family—all of which can be viewed as a way of gaining control over reproduction.

Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture, the advantages of mobile subsistence, the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain, and why all early states are based on millets and cereal grains and unfree labor. He also discusses the “barbarians” who long evaded state control, as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and nonsubject peoples.”

– Summary from Amazon

My Review

A single book on a topic covering the emergence of early states, using interdisciplinary scientific research might not cover exactly all points of the debate. This is natural, and no such book in history have existed. That said, Against the Grain does quite a good job trying!

I love books like this, that think outside the box and use knowledge from different fields, compare them and come up with entirely new theories. A lot of what we do today are the complete opposite, increasing specialization and compartmentalisation. Against the Grain does that in a great way, balancing out some of the negative aspects that otherwise come with too broad of a spectrum.

The most radical idea of the book, I’d argue, is why the first states emerged at all. We’re mostly learned in today’s schools that states emerged so that we could have a better life, not because of neccessity. And Scott does raise some great questions and concern in regards to why we would leave the comfort of our 100-150 man strong tight-knit groups for larger groups and the drudgery of farming. We should remember that farming is NOT an easy way to make a living. It takes time, hard work, knowledge, more hard work, and you essentially become the slave of the crop you’re trying to raise. This quote comes to mind:

”For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for pricesly the same reasons.”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

One could argue that the first few states where also the first slave states, either to a human master, or to a simple potato. We should not just assume that life was better with farming just because of the luxurious life it gave us thousands of years later. To the first potato slaves, life weren’t all that great!

The book was also quite an easy, albeit not simple, read. Taking complex topics and distilling them into portions that any reader interested in the topic could handle with ease. The style is generally engaging and, to some extent, even entertaining.

Highly recommended read to anyone interested in history, forming of nation states, food, health, civilization, and the great price our ancestors have paid so we as a humanity can rise and spread our wings after all these years.

5/5 thumbs up!