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Paleo Politics

What made prehistoric hunter-gatherers give up freedom for civilization?

Illustration by Hokyoung Kim

Four years before World War I shattered the empires of Europe, the Encyclopaedia Britannica predicted an indefinite age of peace and commercial prosperity. Published at the high-water mark of imperial self-confidence, the entry on “civilization” was particularly optimistic. Thanks to technology and moral enlightenment, the writers judged, an increasingly connected world was hurtling toward the age of “cosmopolite man,” who would enjoy leisure and freedom in a global community of equals. “When this ideal is attained,” the Encyclopaedia promised, “mankind will again represent a single family, as it did in the day when our primeval ancestors first entered on the pathway of progress.”

It was a long pathway, measured in millennia, but a straight one. The Encyclopaedia took its readers through a panorama of universal history, from “the lower status of savagery,” when hunter-gatherers first mastered fire; to the “middle status of barbarism,” when hunters learned to domesticate animals and became herders; to the invention of writing, when humanity “graduated out of barbarism” and entered history. Along the way, humans learned to cultivate grains, such as wheat and rice, which showed them “the value of a fixed abode,” since farmers had to stay near their crops to tend and harvest them. Once people settled down, “a natural consequence was the elaboration of political systems,” property, and a sense of national identity. From there it was a short hop—at least in Edwardian hindsight—to the industrial revolution and free trade. Some unfortunate peoples, even entire continents such as aboriginal North America and Australia, might fall off the Progress train and have to be picked up by kindly colonists; but the train ran along only one track, and no one would willingly decline to board it.

We pride ourselves today on having overcome such condescending myths. But James C. Scott, an eminent and iconoclastic political scientist, is not so sure that we have. In Against the Grain, Scott argues that we still think of our world as the fruit of a series of undeniable advances: domestication, public order, mass literacy, and prosperity. We chide the ancient Greeks for relying on enslaved labor and the Romans for their imperial wars, but our own story, as we imagine it, still starts with those ancient city-states and their precursors in the Mesopotamian Middle East (basically modern Iraq), when some clever primates first planted rows of seeds, built mud-brick walls, and scratched cuneiform on a crude tablet. In our own minds, we are the descendants of people who couldn’t wait to settle down.

The truth, Scott proposes, may be the opposite. What if early civilization was not a boon to humankind but a disaster: for health and safety, for freedom, and for the natural world? What if the first cities were, above all, vast technologies of exploitation by a small and rapacious elite? If that is where we come from, who are we now? What possibilities might we discover by tracing our origins to a different kind of ancestor?

In his rich and varied career, Scott has found many ways to second-guess structures that prop up the powerful. He has written a classic study of peasant resistance, Weapons of the Weak, and another on the “moral economy” of village life, where neighbors live by a system of values that derive neither from the market nor from the state. In Seeing Like a State, he explained how the modern state imposes schematic visions on the world. To administer a territory and population, it needs to standardize reality, to make it measurable by ensuring that there is one system of property ownership, one currency in circulation, a naming practice that enables bureaucrats to keep track of people (first name, last name), and so forth. What you cannot measure and monitor, you cannot rule, and so the world must become orderly and legible. This ambition can become a kind of administrative mania. Bureaucratic modes of administration—from Le Corbusier’s vision for Brasilia’s streets to Prussian state agriculture to Soviet collectivization—have run roughshod over the complexity of actual life on the ground. Such governance can be tyrannical but also ironically fragile, as the state’s selective blindness makes it a stumbling giant.

Yale University Press, 336 pp., $26.00

Scott’s 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed examined Southeast Asia from the standpoint of the highland regions that have evaded imperial authority up to the present day. Whereas most stories about empire tell how the dominant power expands and asserts itself, Scott emphasizes the places where people have retained their freedom by moving up mountain valleys, staying mobile, and practicing livelihoods that are hard to track or tax. From the highlanders’ perspective, the empires lapping at their edges are peripheral, fallen places. The effect is often like reading a fantasy novel, in a very good sense: Scott leaves you with the feeling that the world is packed with more ways of life, more stories, and different kinds of heroes and villains than you encountered in history class. Although Against the Grain is not a large book, it is a kind of thematic summa of Scott’s work so far, as it reworks the entire canvas of history by reconsidering its origins through the lens of state-formation.

The conventional story of human development, he shows, is based on faulty chronology. It turns out that cultivating grain—long thought to be the crucial step from roaming to civilization—does not naturally lead people to stay put in large settlements. New archaeological evidence suggests that people planted and harvested grain as part of a mix of food sources for many centuries, perhaps millennia, without settling into cities. And there were, in fact, places where people did settle down and build towns without farming grain: ecologically rich places, often wetlands bordering the migration routes of birds and animals, where foraging, fishing, and hunting made for a good life in all seasons. There is nothing about grain that fastens humanity’s foot to the earth, as President John Quincy Adams put it in one of the innumerable retellings of the standard story.

Grain is special, but for a different reason. It is easy to standardize—to plant in rows or paddies, and store and record in units such as bushels. This makes grain an ideal target for taxation. Unlike underground tubers or legumes, grain grows tall and needs harvesting all at once, so officials can easily estimate annual yields. And unlike fugitive wild foods, grain creates a relatively consistent surplus, allowing a ruling class to skim off peasant laborers’ production through a tax regime of manageable complexity. Grain, in Scott’s lexicon, is the kind of thing a state can see. On this account, the first cities were not so much a great leap forward for humanity as a new mode of exploitation that enabled the world’s first leisured ruling class to live on the sweat of the world’s first peasant-serfs. As for writing, that great gateway to history, Scott reports that its earliest uses suggest it was basically a grain-counting technology. Literary culture and shared memory existed in abundance both before and after the first pictographs and alphabets—consider Homer’s epics, the products of a nonliterate Greek “dark age” before the Classical period. Writing contributed a ledger of exploitation.

Scott’s retelling, however, goes deeper than scrambling the chronology and emphasizing the dark side of early institutions. Life in cities, he argues, was probably worse than foraging or herding. City dwellers were vulnerable to epidemics. Their diets were less varied than those of people on the outside. Unless they were in the small ruling class, they had less leisure, because they had to produce food not just for their own survival, but also to support their rulers. Their labor might be called on to build fortresses, monuments, and those ever-looming walls. Outside the walls, by contrast, a fortunate savage or barbarian might be a hunter in the morning, a herder or fisherman in the afternoon, and a bard singing tales around the fire in the evening. To enter the city meant joining the world’s first proletariat.

So why would anyone come into the city? Scott argues, based on reconstruction of ancient soils and climate, that around 5,000 years ago, droughts in the fertile wetlands of Mesopotamia made wild foods critically scarce, which meant that foragers had to rely more and more on grain to feed themselves. Once a system of labor was in place, fresh bodies could be hustled into it by the new sub–ruling class of soldiers, or swept up en masse in slave raids. Enslavement was nothing new, but the tax-grain-surplus regime enabled the new cities’ rulers to scale it up immensely. Once the exploitation machine called civilization was running, it was self-perpetuating.

Except that it often was not, because cities were acutely vulnerable—both more powerful and fragile than the more diverse and dispersed ways of life that preceded them. Besides epidemics, they tended to produce ecological crises, such as gradual salinization of the soil, sediment buildup in canals, and other environmental choke points that degraded grain production. And although urban ruling classes wielded organized military power, they were often sitting ducks for barbarian raiders. Many stories of civilizational flowering end with raiders riding in from the plains or their black sails appearing in the harbor, bringing looting, fire, and the end of days.

The barbarians beyond the walls are the charismatic figures in Scott’s book. Their hierarchies were flatter and perhaps looser, and, compared to laborers on the grain corvée, they seem free. Part of Scott’s goal in recasting the story of civilization is to open a new space for its “dark twin,” the great majority of human experience that has been lived outside cities and empires. Such lives are easily neglected in hindsight. Precisely because they were stateless, their labor did not produce many stone monuments, and their stories did not enter the annals of the early historians. They burned up their surpluses feasting together, in camps or villages whose materials decayed a few generations after they died. They left no Ozymandias.

But Ozymandias needed them. Barbarians were a threat but also a resource. They traded with city dwellers, supplying them with goods from the wild—such as honey, hides, and amber—as well as slaves and mercenaries. (Think of the Gauls in Rome, who fought as gladiators and labored as slaves.) The great flourishing of pre-modern states, from China west through Rome, brought with it the era of great barbarian nations that preyed on the cities, traded with them, and fed them their own people as slaves. When cities declined or failed, their laborers might slip across the frontier and join the barbarians; such escapes from exploitation were probably a safety valve at all times. What we still tend to call civilization was always intimately and ambiguously linked with what “civilized” people called barbarism. This is easy to miss, Scott argues, because we still imagine history through the self-serving and binary stories that the earliest civilizations have passed on to us.

Scott is well aware that much of this story is not entirely new. Big-picture historians such as Jared Diamond have acknowledged that for most people quality of life fell when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. Yuval Noah Harari’s idiosyncratic, best-selling story-of-everything, Sapiens, describes settled agriculture as “history’s biggest fraud” for the same reasons. Even Adam Smith acknowledged that hunter-gatherers were more egalitarian than settled folk, and saw the state as arising “for the defense of the rich against the poor.” Highlighting the state’s role in ruling-class exploitation is central to the Marxian tradition of writing history, in which ancient slave societies serve as an early example of the extraction of surplus labor.

Part of what makes Scott’s story novel is the central and esteemed place he gives the barbarians. The infrastructure-building, law-codifying, biopolitical states of antiquity are not the starting points of universal history for Scott, as they were for both Marx and liberal historians. They are instead a kind of usurpation of a longer and quite possibly richer human practice of mobility and freedom. Here, too, Scott is echoing strands of a long tradition: The Roman historian Tacitus suggested that German barbarians were more virtuous than settled Romans; Anglo-Americans often traced their democratic identity to the “Anglo-Saxon” liberty of the forest rather than the cities of the Mediterranean; and today both paleo diets and the popularity of the bearded, nomadic wildlings on Game of Thrones suggest a hankering for rude barbarian health and liberty.

Scott ends on an elegiac note, suggesting that the golden age of the barbarians ended about the year 1600—that is, at roughly the same time that early-modern state-building began and legal discourses of sovereignty were developing. The barbarians began to decline partly because they sold out to the state, becoming slavers and mercenaries, until the enhanced state made its borders universal. In North America, for the first time, the “frontier” was not simply where imperial civilization stopped; it formed a presumptively (and actually) advancing vanguard of universal history. A different way of life, a vital and persistent alternative, and its people—the barbarians—receded into the story of the Encyclopaedia.

It isn’t just that the barbarians are gone. The sense in which we are caught in a world we have built is even stronger than that. The built world that sustains us is so vast that, for every pound of an average person’s body, there are 30 tons of infrastructure: roads, houses, sidewalks, utility grids, intensively farmed soil, and so forth. Without all that, global population would fall to ten million or so, where it stood during much of Scott’s story, or perhaps 200 million, as it was at the beginning of the Common Era. We are creatures of the artificial world that began with Scott’s walls and canals. The Earth is so thoroughly the world we have made that our domestic animals outweigh wild terrestrial mammals by a factor of 25 to one.

We are the only things here, and “here” is a planetary version of the infrastructure state. There really is no more outside. All of this leaves us to ask how far we, on the inside, can overcome the inherited logic of our exploitation machine, and how much of the nonhuman world will be left if we do. Any answers will unavoidably come through political projects to remake this world in gentler and more inclusive forms, so that it can house more kinds of lives. The state got us into this. It is only by using the state for new purposes that we can hope to get ourselves someplace else.