Book notes: Against the Grain, by James C. Scott
January 1st, 2020
Here are some notes and quotes that particularly stood out to me from each chapter of Against the Grain. This isn't a summary of the book. It's mostly for my future self to refer back to (and thus probably missing a lot for someone who hasn't read it), but the tidbits are so interesting that I figured I'd share it nonetheless in case it's remotely helpful to someone else.
You can read my more coherent review of the book here.
- The narrative of the agrarian ecological complex "has typically been told as one of progress, of civilization and public" ... "ascent of man story"
- fire was the first great hominid tool for niche construction
- States appear 4 millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism
- States dominate the archaeological and cultural record
- Institutional bias
- Nomadic life was generally biodegradable
- ... the state has dominated only the last 0.2% of our species' political life
- "Strapped to the metronome of a major cereal grain" (ch 1, p. 20)
- "History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, bread fruit, or sweet potato states...only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing."
- "Stateness" is an institutional continuum (p. 23)
- Bondage appears to have been a condition of the ancient state's survival
- "I want to question the use of the term 'collapse' to describe many of these events... 'Collapse' denote the civilizational tragedy of a great early kingdom being brought low, along with its cultural achievements." (31)
- Barbarians are a political category, not a cultural one. In China, when they began to enter from the frontier and begin to enter the spectrum of Chinese rule, "they were said to 'have entered the map'"
Ch 1 – The Domestication of Fire, Plants, Animals... and Us
- Niche construction: "Unlike optimal foraging theory that takes the disposition of the natural world as a given..., what we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking." (40)
- Fire externalizes the digestive process
- S. Mesopotamia was not at all arid
- "The very breadth of a subsistence web ... poses insurmountable obstacles to the imposition of a single political authority" (49)
- "The first fixed villages were at the seam of several different ecological zones ... to buffer themselves from the risk of exclusive dependence on any one." (52)
- "Wetland societies were environmentally resistant to centralization and control from above. There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone easily taxed." (57)
- "The populations avoiding full reliance on fixed-field crops for the bulk of their caloric needs might actually have known what they were doing." (58)
- "Large portfolio of subsistence options" 59
- "Most discussion of plant domestication and settlement assume that early peoples could not wait to settle down in one spot." 62
- Subsistence insurance policy. 63
Ch 2 – Landscaping the World: The Domus Complex
- Homo sapiens have been domesticating whole environments, not just species. 70
- Full cultivation was taken up not as an opportunity but as a last resort when no other alternative was possible. 71
- Demographic transition to drudgery
- "Domus" = household
- Less diversity in more predictable environments
- "Fully domesticated" = in effect, our creation; it can no longer thrive without our attentions. Like a housewife. Why it's fragile to be a 50s housewife. 75
- "Superspecialized floraba 'basket case', and its future is entirely dependent on our own. If it ceases to please us, it will be banished."
- "Emotional dampening as a condition for life in the crowded Domus, where instant reaction to predator and prey are no longer powerful pressures of natural selection. With physical protection and nutrition more secure, the domesticated animal can be less intently alert." 81
- Rates of fertility increase so dramatically as to offset the losses through mortality. 82
- The spread of sedentism transformed Homo sapiens into far more of a herd animal.
- Only 240 human generations have elapsed since the first adoption of agriculture.
- Hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal-grain farming as cereal-grain farming is to repetitive work on a modern assembly line. Each step represents a substantial narrowing of focus and simplification of tasks. 90
- Our species was already disciplined and subordinated to the metronome of our own crops. 91
- Deskilling. 92
Ch 3 – Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm
- Pressing on the carrying capacity of their environment's resources, they were obliged to work harder for their subsistence. 95
- Planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided as long as posible because of the work they required. 96
- Fragile and vulnerable
- Ag revolution -> increase disease
- Sudden and otherwise unexplained abandonment of previously well-populated sites... made posible by the crowding enabled by the Neolithic
- They understood that long-distance travelers, traders, and soldiers were likely carriers of disease
- Virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past 10k years... arose as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and agriculture
- Before extensive human travel, migratory birds that nested together combined long-distance travel with crowding to constitute, perhaps, the main vector for the spread of disease over distance. 101
- Sedentary agriculturists had unprecedented high rates of reproduction—enough to more than compensate for the also unprecedentedly high rates of mortality. 113
- Larger spacing of children for hunter-gatherers due to logistics of moving camp
- Earlier puberty, more regular ovulation, later menopause
- Greater value of the children as a labor force
- Infants can be weaned earlier on soft foods
- Miracle of compound interest!
Ch 4 — Agro-ecology of the Early State
- state arose by harnessing the grain and manpower module as a basis of control and appropriation. Grain easier to control than a diverse economy.
- Elite niche construction
- Fattening and protecting the goose that lays the golden eggs
- None of the early state centers in Mesopotamia was even remotely self-sufficient
- "Non-state spaces" generally had "friction"—arid deserts, mountainous zones virtually require dispersed subsistence strategies
- Only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and rationable
- One reason for the official distrust and stigmatization of the merchant class in china was the simple fact that its wealth, unlike the rice planter, was illegible, concealable, and fugitive
- Simultaneous ripening of cereal grains is important to a tax collector. One stop-shopping works best, least amount of work. 133
- The Great Wall of China was built as much to keep Chinese taxpaying cultivators inside as to keep the barbarians (nomads) outside. 138
- The first act of many peasant rebellions has been to burn down the local records office. They understand implicitly that behind the coercive machinery lies piles of paperwork. 139
- The entire exercise in early state formation is one of standardization and abstraction. 144
- Land, happily for the tax collector, does not move
- Breeding a tax base and troops
- Writing was resisted because of its association with the state and taxes, just as ploughing was long resisted because of its association with drudgery. 148
Ch 5 — Population Control: Bondage and War
- the state remained as focused on the number and productivity of its "domesticated" subjects as a shepherd might husband his flock or a farmer tend his crops. 151
- The scribal summaries of laboring groups employ the identical age and sex categories as those used to describe "herds of domestic animals". 160
- Relocate them frequently to minimize the danger of revolt or escape. Socially demobilized and atomized = easier to control and absorb. Few local social ties => unable to muster collective opposition. "The principle of socially detached servants"
- Captives of a working age, raised at the expense of another society, and get to exploit their most productive years. 167
- Common to find pervasive slavery alongside rapid cultural assimilation and social mobility
- War was seen as a route to wealth and comfort. 172
- If such states had to extract such labor (as slavery) exclusively from their own core subjects, they would have run a high risk of provoking flight or rebellion
- Domesticating women's prosecuting in general. 181
Ch 6 — Fragility of the Early State: Collapse as Disassembly
- The term "civilizational collapse" doesn't necessarily mean a decline in regional population, health, well-being, or nutrition, and sometimes it represented an improvement.
- "Heroic period of archaelogy" 186
- Much that passé as collapse is, rather, a disassembly of larger but more fragile political units into smaller, more stable components
- Enlargement of the commercial sphere also enlarged the sphere of transmitted diseases
- "Trade, responsible for the monumental splendor of alluvium statelets, may ironically have played a large role in their disappearance"
- Unique and unsuitable demands on the surrounding environment => gradual economic suffocation
- Deforestation => flooding/erosion/siltation, which over time would destroy the civilization doing the deforesting
- Malaria is a "disease of civilization" in the sense that it arose with land clearance for agriculture
- Agriculture => Salinization, soil exhaustion
- Lacked the fine-grained knowledge that would have made it easier to modify their appropriation in line with the capacity of their subjects to pay
- Unlikely that the central authority will cut costs in proportion to the reduction of revenue
- The fact that the Nile was hemmed in by deserts made it possible to press the population harder than if the peasantry had more running room. 208
- Why deplore "collapse" when the situation it depicts is often the disaggregation of a complex, fragile, and oppressive state?
- We should aim to normalize collapse
- The well-being of a population mustn't be confounded with the power of a state center
- "Dark" (as in Dark Age) should refer more to our knowledge than to a characteristic of the period itself
- "The self-documenting court center that offered a convenient one-stop shop for historians"
Ch 7 – The Golden Age of the Barbarians
- States were ecologically confined to the well-watered, rich soils that could support a concentration of labor/grain
- Many terms were invented in state centers to describe and stigmatize those who had not yet become state subjects
- In the Ming Dynasty, the term "cooked" referred to assimilating barbarians. They were said to have "entered the map"
- Threat posted by barbarians was the single most important factor limiting the growth of the states
- It was better to be a barbarian once there were states, so long as those states weren't too strong; pillaging was a lucrative form of hunting and foraging. "The carrying capacity of barbarian ecology is enhanced by the existence of petty states."
- States served as trading posts. Because states represented such narrow agro-ecologies, they relied on products from outside, and the barbarians grew rich providing those products.
- Plunder of and trade with the state made economic life on the state's margins more viable and lucrative.
- "'Barbarians' are not a 'stage' of historical/evolutionary progress in which the highest stage of life is the state as taxpayer."
- "Barbarian" is best understood as a position vis-a-vis a state.
- Barbarian geography is all those geographies that are unsuitable for state making (mountains, steps, forest, swamps, deserts, moors, the sea). They are best defined as the negative space around state making zones.
- Among the Romans, the contrast between their diet of grain compared to the Gallic diet of meat/dairy was a key marker of their claim to civilized status.
- Barbarian societies can be quite hierarchical, but generally not based on inherited property.
- The barbarian story is deeply subversive
- States preceded tribes and, in fact, largely invented them as an instrument of rule
- Contemporary piracy suggests that even today, speed, mobility, and surprise can tactically prevail over quasi-sedentary container ships
- Raiding is self-liquidating. Raiders are most likely to adjust their strategy to a "protection racket". In extracting a sustainable surplus from sedentary community i es and fending off external attacks to protect its base, a stable protection racket is hard to distinguish from the archaic state itself.
- Barbarian-state relations can be seen as a contest for the right to appropriate the surplus from the sedentary grain-and-manpower module.
- The larger and more navigable the river, the larger the potential polity, because these communities were dependent on trade and exchange with other ecological zones.
- As technology improved and population increased, trade became more valuable. Metcalfe's law.
- The peripheries of the agrarian states became valuable commercial landscapes, as sites of valuable commodities.
- "You can conquer a kingdom on horseback, but to rule it you have to dismount."
- Nomads require sedentary communities as depots of manpower, revenue, and trading outlets; they tend to disappear when their host collapses.
- "Political enclosure movement"
- "Fiscally invisible"
- There would've been periods when leaving behind the plough of a state subject to take up foraging, pastoralism, and marine collecting would've represented both a rational economic calculation as we as a bolt for freedom
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