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The early state and the bad old days March 4th, 2018 by

In his new book Against the Grain, Yale University’s James C. Scott argues that early states, like the ones in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, were not most people think they were like. The popular notion of the march of civilization goes rather like this: agriculture was an invention that allowed for more food, more leisure and freedom from wandering. Early farmers were able to settle down in villages and towns and this quickly spared some craftspeople from the toil of farming. Civilization, literacy and statehood soon arose.

The model is deeply flawed, Scott explains. First, in certain environments, such as the alluvium of Mesopotamia, people actually settled down before they became cultivators, because the abundance of wild food meant that people could hunt, gather and fish year round from a single place.

People may have started farming because of climate change or population growth. No one knows for sure why. But whatever the reason, early farming was more work than hunting and gathering.

But farming appeared 4000 years before states arose. During this long period of sustainable agriculture, people lived in farms, villages and small towns where they were able to keep everything they produced.

(I recall seeing just a few small cases in the National Museum in Cairo devoted to the settled villagers who lived well-fed for centuries before the Pharaohs arose.  Museums and their visitors much rather like to see the statues and monuments of kings than the farmers’ sickles).

The first states all arose in grain-producing areas, where farmers could be taxed in wheat, barley or rice, which could be stored and then distributed as rations. There were no early states based on cassava or bananas.

Early states relied on forcing grain farmers to work harder and then taxing them: expropriating labor and food beyond what farmers needed for their own comfort. Early states were based on crushing taxes and bondage. All states took slaves until the nineteenth century. Wars by early states were usually more important for taking captives than for conquering land.

Early states were also fragile. The crowding of ancient cities meant that infectious disease were common for the first time in human history. Early states often collapsed because of pests, crop disease, drought, and war. Scott argues that after an early state collapsed, the people left behind were better off for being left alone.

For a very long time, states saw people as a resource to be tapped, rather than as citizens to be served. Until as recently as the 1800s, three fourths of humankind was living in some form of slavery, serfdom or other form of bondage.

Most of Scott’s ideas are well-known to archaeologists, but he brings them together in an engaging narrative that tells the story in a fresh and compelling way.

Although Scott doesn’t say so, it is only since the mid twentieth century that most farmers have been allowed to keep more of their harvest, and to spend the profit instead of giving it to the tax collector.

I’m writing this week’s blog from Bangladesh, a country I have had the pleasure of visiting for the past 15 years. Things are definitely improving here. I asked one group of farm women how many had cell phones. They laughed at the question. “We all have one,” they said. Just in the last year or two, men who carry the bricks, timber and other heavy loads on cargo bicycles have acquired little electric motors to power their bikes and ease their drudgery. The village shops are stocked better than ever before, with sweets and seeds, with clothes and jewelry.

Life is definitely getting better on this part of the Gangetic Delta, which was also the site of early states. In a world of so much bad news, it is good to remind ourselves that for many rural people, the standard of living is improving, and that part of the reason is democracy, trade and technology.

Further reading

Scott, James C. 2017 Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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