Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott

1 “The state originated as a protection racket in which one band of robbers prevailed.” [1] It is rare today to read this kind of sentence anywhere but under the pen of radical libertarians. And yet we do not owe this sentence to one of them, but to an anarchist anthropologist, James C. Scott, who, in his last work Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, strives to show that there is nothing extravagant about such a claim. Unknowingly following the advice provided by Deleuze & Guattari in TP: once again not to write history “from the sedentary point of view and in the name of a unitary State apparatus,” [2] he eludes the commonly accepted evolutionary presupposition which leads us to see in the formation of the first states of the agrarian type in Mesopotamia, during the recent Neolithic period (-3300 BC), an unavoidable stage in the great inexorable march of progress and of civilization. Indeed, determined to free himself from the myth of progress going hand in hand with the development of the State and agriculture, the anthropologist, in his book, goes against the grain of this great traditional narrative, and defends instead several counter-intuitive theses which deserve to be studied and discussed.

2 Firstly, the emergence of the State [3] and the shift from a plurality of subsistence activities to agriculture as the dominant (and soon to be exclusive) source of food probably meant not improvement, but degradation of living conditions among the first sedentary peoples who placed themselves under the aegis of this type of political entity.

3 Secondly, given this lack of advantage or handicap (in terms of health and food security) that the laborious existence under the tutelage of a central authority implied, the emergence of the State (as a product of a certain degree of domestication of plants, animals, and men) was absolutely not necessary but entirely contingent.

4 Thirdly, the agro-ecological conditions conducive to such an emergence (i.e., cereal agriculture, high population growth, and sustainable land use), in this case areas rich in water and loamy soils, were rarely met; this explains why the first micro-States emerged in restricted ecological niches (such as the alluvial plains of Lower Mesopotamia), and regularly collapsed or disintegrated (due to climatic hazards) before reaching a respectable size.

5 Fourthly, these archaic States, once they appeared, were often more predators than benefactors, jeopardizing the very subsistence of the farmers, by levying heavy taxes on their poor harvests or by waging war against each other, thus transforming simple temporary food shortages into real human disasters (to say nothing of the epidemics linked to “zoonoses” with devastating consequences on the populations of these States).

6 Fifthly, these early states were inherently fragile, due to the frequent infectious diseases, unintentional ecocides, and incessant conflicts (internal and external) that undermined them. They could only sustain themselves by building walls, trading with the outside world (other nomadic, itinerant, semi-sedentary peoples, etc.), and enlisting ever greater numbers of men and women (slaves, war captives…) in the service of their maintenance, administration, and expansion.

7 By documenting all these points, the author is led to insist on the multiple mechanisms that for a long time hindered the emergence and consolidation of the State, in spite of the (archaeologically) proven existence, several millennia earlier, of all the elements of the “domus complex” [4] that were indispensable to its appearance: cereal farming, domestication of animals (and correlatively, of men), sedentary dwelling, practice of irrigation, urbanization, and demographic concentration.

8 Among these mechanisms, the anthropologist dwells, in particular, on the diversification of sources of nutrition (edible plants, legumes, cereals, livestock, marine animals, flying animals…) and modes of subsistence (hunting, gathering, pastoralism, horticulture, agriculture…) which went against the cereal monoculture favored by the nascent State for its ease of taxation, collection and storage of crops.

9 Scott pays particular attention to it because this voluntary diversification contradicts our most ingrained prejudices about nomads and their diet (supposedly poor and bad for their well-being). Sedentary agriculture did not naturally impose itself as the superior mode of subsistence to all others, able to compensate for the hypothetical deficiencies of a previous diet that was deficient and vulnerable to seasonal, climatic, and environmental hazards. On the contrary, all the archaeological data at our disposal suggest that humans, before the emergence of the State, “seem to have been opportunistic generalists with a large portfolio of subsistence options spread across several food webs” [5] and that their physical condition was much better as a result (even if their fertility rate was lower).

10 Thus, short of postulating a mysterious collective desire for sedentariness, it is not clear why populations of herders, hunter-gatherers, and itinerant farmers would have risked “relying mainly, let alone exclusively, on labor-intensive farming and livestock rearing” from a mass of docile and captive people, rather than “[relying on] abundant stands of wild foods” [6] especially in wetlands where many plant and marine resources proliferated. As Scott writes:


Most discussions of plant domestication and permanent settlement, for example, assume without further ado that early peoples could not wait to settle down in one spot. Such an assumption is an unwarranted reading back from the standard discourses of agrarian states stigmatizing mobile populations as primitive. The “social will to sedentism” should not be taken for granted. Nor should the terms “pastoralist,” “agriculturalist,” “hunter,” or “forager,” at least in their essentialist meanings, be taken for granted. They are better understood as defining a spectrum of subsistence activities, not separate peoples, in the ancient Middle East. Kin groups and villages might have pastoralist, hunting, and cereal-growing segments as part of a unified economy. A family or village whose crops had failed might turn wholly or in part to herding; pastoralists who had lost their flocks might turn to planting. Whole areas during a drought or wetter period might radically shift their subsistence strategy. To treat those engaged in these different activities as essentially different peoples inhabiting different life worlds is again to read back the much later stigmatization of pastoralists by agrarian states to an era where it makes no sense. [7]

12 To borrow the words of Deleuze & Guattari, one does not easily get rid of the “State-form developed in thought,” [8] of this model of thinking that leads us to deny this rich mosaic of resources and food strategies used as mechanisms of anticipation-conjuration of the state machine, at its most fundamental level (its material conditions of possibility). It is all very well to suspect, as Scott does, that there are “state” crops—such as rice, barley, wheat, corn, millet—that have all the right characteristics for complete “striation” [9] and subsequent taxation (“[because they are] visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’”) [10], and, conversely, “State-evading” crops—such as cassava, potatoes, yams, taro, sago—are resistant to such striation and taxation (because of their continuous maturation, their low transportability, their reduced appropriability linked to their roots and tubers, their limited recourse to intensive labor), both of which are the result of political choices, one does not readily accept such evidence. [11]

13 And yet, the two philosophers had warned us:


[e]conomic evolutionism is an impossibility; even a ramified evolution, “gatherers—hunters—animal breeders—farmers-industrialists,” is hardly believable. An evolutionary ethnology is no better: “nomads seminomads—sedentaries.” Nor an ecological evolutionism: “dispersed autarky of local groups—villages and small towns—cities—States.” All we need to do is combine these abstract evolutions to make all of evolutionism crumble. [12]

15 The original sin of evolutionism is to think that the distinctions it establishes between different stages are relevant for classifying societies according to a certain chronological axis congruent with the degree of civilization. But hunter-gatherers (nomads), herders (semi-nomads), farmers (sedentary) are not fixed categories that are well delimited and applicable to geographically and historically distinct peoples, but movements, changes that affect various populations at different moments in time, without any predetermined direction, under the influence of events (political, natural) that are largely unpredictable. This is why it ultimately took a lot of time and contingencies (historical, ecological) for the threshold of becoming state of the first sedentary communities to be crossed, making possible a continuous accumulation of population (human, animal), resources (energy, nutrients), and wealth (material, financial) on a striated and closed space. And it is Scott’s merit to remind us of this, by relativizing—over time and on the scale of humanity—the current world hegemony of the State-form, even if it means leaving open the important question (for us) of knowing how this hegemony was acquired and whether it can be challenged today.


  • [1]
    Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017, p. 268, 23.
  • [2]
    TP, 23.
  • [3]
    Scott does not define precisely what he means by State but believes that “A polity with a king, specialized administrative staff, social hierarchy, a monumental center, city walls, and tax collection and distribution is certainly a “state” in the strong sense of the term.” [Scott, op. cit., p. 23]. Moreover, like Deleuze & Guattari, he judges that the “stateness” of societies is much more a matter of gradient than of categorizing social arrangements into two homogeneous and antithetical groups: State societies, on the one hand; counter-State societies, on the other hand. “That is, “stateness,” in my view, is an institutional continuum, less an either/or proposition than a judgment of more or less.” To be compared with this passage from A Thousand Plateaus: “the State itself has always been in a relation with an outside and is inconceivable independent of that relationship. The law of the State is not the law of All or Nothing (State societies or counter-State societies) but that of interior and exterior” [Deleuze and Guattari, op. cit., p. 360].
  • [4]
    Scott, op. cit., p. 68.
  • [5]
    Ibid., p. 59.
  • [6]
    Ibid., p. 63.
  • [7]
    Ibid. pp. 77-78.
  • [8]
    TP, p. 374.
  • [9]
    Ibid., p. 441: “The land as the object of agriculture in fact implies a deterritorialization, because instead of people being distributed in an itinerant territory, pieces of land are distributed among people according to a common quantitative criterion (the fertility of plots of equal surface area). That is why the earth, unlike other elements, forms the basis of striation, proceeding by geometry, symmetry, and comparison.”
  • [10]
    Scott, op. cit., p. 129.
  • [11]
    Ibid., p. 268, 23: “I elaborated this argument about the political implications of tuber and root cultivation on the one hand and cereal cultivation on the other at great length in The Art of Not Being Governed, 64–97, 178–219. Here I distinguished “state” crops like rice and “state-evading” crops like cassava and potatoes. I argued both that states depended on grain crops on fixed fields and that populations wishing to evade taxation and state control adopted subsistence strategies such as root crops, swidden—shifting—cultivation, hunting, and foraging to place themselves outside of state control.”
  • [12]
    TP, p. 430.