“Against the grain,” as an idiom, tells us something about rebellion or bad behavior. Despite this, James C. Scott deploys it as a tongue-in-cheek en garde against a taken-for-granted history of the organization of society. Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States takes a new lens to the production of society as we know it today: drawn up by border and orchestrated on high by a roiling apparatus filled with bureaucrats. Scott starts with an incendiary, as well: it’s us, the people (the heroes of the story, usually) who have been domesticated against our will.

It all starts with who and where. In the beginning, of course, there were no states or cities from which they precipitated. This forms the foundation of Scott’s argument as the the kind of location was, invariably, incredibly important to survival. Scott takes a very sympathetic approach to early nomadic settlements—he finished the book, after bringing us all the way to statehood, with their own chapter, after all—and really cares to peel away preconceptions surrounding early peoples, particularly taking the time to dispel any idea that they may have been stupid or somehow stumbling through the world, lucky. It’s a refreshing view on human history and he brings it forward with a quite a bit of clarity. Inevitably, people found The Good Spots and stayed; communities grew denser. Then disease.

Scott moves from reframing history to reinterpreting it with his re-inscription of infectious disease and virological readings of population changes in early settlements. While it is logical, of course, for there to be have been diseases and viruses that readily affected human populations—especially as density grew—and that there would be no record, necessarily, of the cause of these affected populations, Scott very readily makes the claim and uses it as a tentpole for the thrust of the rest of his argument. Not being an epidemiologist myself, I take it at Scott’s word; it sounds right! But I often myself questioning what I was reading…many assumptions at work here, which is what the book is doing from the outset: this is a a new frame for a new lens to consider state formation.

This chapter, “Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm,” also left me reflecting on the current pandemic; how could it not? The chapter works through how aware early peoples were of infection and contagion, as the uninfected would avoid “…[the infected’s] cups, dishes, clothes, and bed linen” (98). I’m left thinking of packages delivered and left in a corner. Newspaper and social media stories about influencers and other well-to-do people fleeing cities; the work-from-home turn beginning to look like an exodus-from-the city turn: “When isolation and quarantine failed, those who could fled the city,…and returning, if ever, only well after the epidemic had passed” (99). It is a bit shocking to see these practices laid out millennia before our present time and very vindicating for Scott’s argument, three years after the publication of this book.

Following the chapter on disease, the state enters proper. It is worth mentioning that, just as Scott wishes to reframe our view of early, nomadic populations, he, too, wants to reframe what an early state is. It is not Illinois, nor is it something as enduring as an empire; he makes a point worth remembering that these “protostates” were often highly volatile and would collapse and reform, sometimes like themselves and sometimes not. But the protostates had something in common: food, feeding hungry mouths and the labor to produce it all. The protostate, in Scott’s view, is a monster: a panopticon that props itself up and then consumes more and more people to keep propping itself up. Here Scott begins the full comparison and contrast with nomadic peoples and settled peoples: the nomads had an easy life! Moving as they will in small(er) groups, healthier and (more) disease free, well fed…meanwhile, the protostate produces the food to feed the population, which labors over the field and is taxed for this labor; disease comes, population is decimated and the state needs more laborers, so it goes to war. Walls are built to keep labor in and other states enslaving laborers out…it’s a nightmare of domestication and clear which side Scott prefers.

As Scott is excavating this “deep history,” it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that his sources are archaeological. There are no written records per se, aside from cuneiform accounting,  and, given that Scott opens his book with a Lévi-Strauss quote excoriating writing, this cuneiform tablets are nails in the coffin (and we have to wonder how he perceives his own writing; does he think the apparatus can be taken down from within?). Much like the leaps with epidemiological guesses, his writing is first removed from the received wisdom of human history. This is Scott’s goal, in the end: we must get rid of our idea of the “state” wholly, this social organization that never actually had to be. It’s a bittersweet goal, for despite his wishes, he has to reckon with the history he uncovered.

“The Golden Age of Barbarians” does not discuss those same people Scott opens the book with. Instead, he is introducing the other side of the fulcrum to the protostate: these loosely banded peoples, not timed to a location like the settled populations are (but then again, tied to the settlement), relied on the protostate as much as the protostate would come to rely on them for labor and (re)capturing laborers. It is a capture of defeat: Scott’s dream of unaffiliated peoples wandering the world comes to another sort of entrapment that both nomads and settlers lay on themselves.


References

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