Against the Grain

Against the Grain explodes traditional views of the origin of civilisation, but lacks an analysis of the formation of class, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh


James C Scott, Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States, (Yale University Press 2017), xvii, 312pp.

The traditional view of the Neolithic agricultural revolution (9000– 2000BC) is that it was a great leap forward for humanity. The development in Mesopotamia of plant and animal agriculture enabled people to change from their hunter-gatherer lifestyles and settle down in villages. Some of these villages then developed into towns, and then into states. These were capable of organising public-works projects like irrigation systems, and of attracting new settlers to their luxury, culture and opportunities. Civilisation was born; from then on it was simply a matter of steady upward progress from Sumer and Ur to London and New York. In fact, it was not quite like that. It is right that established historical stories should undergo revision as new interpretations emerge, but it is nevertheless striking in this case how every part of this particular traditional account turns out to be wrong.

It started perhaps with a failure to understand the nature of the terrain. Archaeologists and historians working in the heat of the arid plains of southern Iraq and Iran might be forgiven for leaping to the conclusion that irrigation would have been a crucial requirement for the development of agriculture in the region. This does not however take into account the profound effects of historical climate change. As Scott explains, new research has shown that during the Neolithic, the region between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers was a complex wetland area, providing a wide range of different resources for its human population.

In this varied environment, it was not that agriculture enabled the population to become sedentary, but that a sedentary population started rearing livestock and growing grain. This was an extremely gradual development, as there are about 4,000 years between the first appearance of domesticated livestock and grains, and evidence of fully agricultural settlements. Scott argues that for the most part, these populations would have been practising flood retreat agriculture – planting in the silt left behind by river floods – as this is the least labour-intensive method. By around 4000BC however a number of agriculture villages seem have existed, followed in around 3200BC by the earliest state, Uruk.

Civilisation as decline

The early Mesopotamian states may have been a new development as the first evidence of walled settlements with tax collection and government bureaucracy, but as Scott sets out, they were hardly positive developments for most of their people. Far from attracting settlers with their various advantages, these states had to capture much of their working populations. Boasts of victory in war against other states from this period, for example, are usually made in terms of captives carried off, rather than in goods captured or territory annexed. The collapse of a state would often therefore be more a matter for celebration than for dread; the escape of an oppressed population rather than a disaster. As the Lamentation over Ur shows, the end of a regime meant the escape, rather than the massacre, of its people: ‘Hunger filled the city like water … its king breathed heavily in his palace, all alone, its people dropped their weapons’ (pp.207-8).

Our perception of sedentary societies and the remaining nomadic groups around them is shaped by the fact that the only written sources we have come from ‘civilised’ states. These not only defined themselves in opposition to the ‘barbarians’ but had a vested interest in deterring their people from trying to abandon sedentarism and exploitation. In fact, Scott points out, ‘going over to the barbarians’ would often have been an improvement: ‘far from being seen as regrettable backsliding and privation, it may well have been experienced as a marked improvement in safety, nutrition and social order. Becoming a barbarian was often a bid to improve one’s lot’ (p.232).

The early states, from available evidence, appear to have been notably unpleasant and oppressive, particularly where their populations had few other options. Workers in Egypt, for example, may well have been treated even worse than their Mesopotamian counterparts were, as they had fewer alternatives to which to escape. This comparison does not, however, let Mesopotamia off the hook. In Scott’s view, not only state formation but sedentarism at all was a mistake. Humans were domesticated by agriculture as surely as various species of animals and plants were domesticated by humans. Just as domestication tended to shrink animal species, so too domesticated humans were smaller, less well-nourished and more prone to injuries from repetitive work than their hunter-gatherer neighbours. They were also subject at a far greater rate to epidemic disease, as diseases endemic to domesticated animals spread with disastrous effect to human populations in what Scott dubs the ‘late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camp.’

Why be sedentary?

Why any human groups opted a sedentary life, let alone the hard work and uncertain subsistence of a mostly grain-based agricultural lifestyle, is therefore unexplained. Contrary to previous belief, there is no very good evidence that populations in Mesopotamia were forced into sedentary agriculture by environmental changes. As Scott points out, the mosaic of resources available to the people living in the wetlands of Mesopotamia meant that

‘so long as there were abundant stands of wild foods they could gather and annual migrations of waterfowl and gazelles they could hunt, there was no earthly reason why they would risk relying mainly, let alone exclusively, on labour-intensive farming and livestock rearing’ (p.63).

While there is evidence for a decline in the availability of large game, there is nothing to suggest that the whole range of wild foods had fallen off to such an extent that grain-growing was the only answer. There is a more convincing case to be made that local climate changes, such as a diminishing of water resources, may have pushed already-sedentary populations into closer proximity, aiding in state formation, but this does not explain why the sedentary villages existed at all.

For Scott, this remains unsolved, but it is perhaps not quite such an impenetrable mystery as it might appear. In Scott’s account, sedentarism means only increased labour and reliance on a less diverse and therefore more risky range of food sources. There do not appear to have been any advantages to sedentary living, which indeed presents a difficulty in understanding how it was that once populations, like those in Mesopotamia, were able to settle down, they chose to do so. In fact, sedentarism may also have its advantages. Despite the smaller stature of late Neolithic agriculturists, populations of farmers tend to have higher birth rates than hunter-gatherers, who have to limit the numbers of those who rely on others to help them travel. Staying in one place enables people to spend time and resources constructing more robust shelters and to amass useful tools and equipment without having to worry about transporting them or leaving them behind. It may be that agricultural labour for a solid roof over your children’s heads seemed a price worth paying.

Part of the objection to sedentary agriculture appears to be that it inescapably leads to exploiting states like Uruk. If the barbarians had freer lives and better standards of living than their farming counterparts, this was because they had eschewed the fatal mistake of settling down in one place. Scott sets out a convincing case for how grain-growing, as opposed to other forms of settled agriculture, was a prerequisite for state formation. Only grain has a clearly-defined harvest on which tax can be levied, and only grain can be easily seized, transported, stockpiled and used as the basis for ruling-class wealth. The assumption seems to be, however, that the ability to tax agricultural production is all that is needed to create a tax system. The oppressive state, in other words, is always immanent in human society, waiting only for the right conditions in order to emerge.

This is essentially a technological-determinist view of human society, where sedentary, grain-growing settlements of a certain size automatically give rise to a particular social formation. In fact, there are examples of sizable settlements which did not follow the Mesopotamian pattern. Neither cities in Anatolia like Catal Hüyük, nor the cities of the Indus valley (the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilisation) were exploitative and expansionist like Mesopotamian states. The important difference here is class, which Scott does not mention. States like Uruk were class societies, with a ruling class and an exploited lower class, whereas the cities of Anatolia and the Indus Valley, despite their size and sophistication, were not. While grain-growing may have enabled the state, the pre-requisite for state formation was the development of a class system. Blaming the grain is blaming the vehicle, not the cause.

The origins of class

A class-based analysis of the development of exploitative states in the Mesopotamian Neolithic would presumably start with how early Neolithic societies dealt with the need to control the distribution of material goods. This would be, of course, a particular issue in sedentary communities which allowed for more resources to go into the creation of more substantial and long-lasting material possessions, although it is important not to underestimate the distribution needs of nomadic communities as well. This might be expected to take the form of a chief whose role was to ensure the equal sharing of goods and resources. Thus, we would expect the early sedentary communities to be egalitarian with little in the way of hierarchy, as indeed is indicated by the archaeology. Over time, however, some hierarchy developed, so that the villages around 4000BC would probably have been ranked peasant societies. At some point after that, the chiefs ceased to be a distributor and become controllers of material wealth on their own account. It would have been at that point that the walls would go up around the centre of chiefly power and the chiefs’ retainers become the tax collectors preying on the exploited villagers, who would then have been at the bottom of the hierarchy in a class society.

This was, of course, very unfortunate for the peasants of Mesopotamia, especially if we do not see them as culpable for having been so foolish as to settle down in the first place. There might be a question however about why this matters now. Why should we care about 6,000-year-old states? The answer is that the history of class formation can give us clues not just to how it happened but to whether or not it was inevitable then, and inescapable now. Scott’s presentation of the Mesopotamian Neolithic leads very clearly to the conclusion that the development of a class society would be automatic once you have the prerequisites for it. Once you have something to tax, you have tax. The only way of escaping class in this view would be to ‘go over to the barbarians’; to live in small-scale, mobile societies with insufficient material wealth to support state formation.

If we accept this as true, then it would follow that any hope of overthrowing a modern class society would be false, unless we were prepared to contemplate a dramatic fall in both living standards and numbers of people. If, however, we see the development of class as a historical occurrence, enabled but not necessitated by developments in sedentarism, agriculture and so on, then we do not have to be so pessimistic about the possibility of creating a complex human society on egalitarian lines. The existence of complex, agricultural societies in the Neolithic without class show that class is not inevitable. They also show that the development of class is not an inevitable progression once it has started. In one Anatolian city, Cayönü, for example, there appears to have been a revolution to overthrow a particularly unpleasant ruling class and put an egalitarian society in the city in its place. Scott’s description of how recent research has overthrown the traditional Neolithic narrative is welcome, but contrary to his assumptions, we don’t have to be hunter-gatherers to be free.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.