Someone on SSC Discord summarized James Scott’s Against The Grain as “basically 300 pages of calling wheat a fascist”. I have only two qualms with this description. First, the book is more like 250 pages; the rest is just endnotes. Second, “fascist” isn’t quite the right aspersion to use here.
Against The Grain should be read as a prequel to Scott’s most famous work, Seeing Like A State. SLaS argued that much of what we think of as “progress” towards a more orderly world – like Prussian scientific forestry, or planned cities with wide streets – didn’t make anyone better off or grow the economy. It was “progress” only from a state’s-eye perspective of wanting everything to be legible to top-down control and taxation. He particularly criticizes the High Modernists, Le Corbusier-style architects who replaced flourishing organic cities with grandiose but sterile rectangular grids.
Against the Grain extends the analysis from the 19th century all the way back to the dawn of civilization. If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, “The Devil was the first Whig”, Against the Grain argues that wheat was the first High Modernist.
Sumer just before the dawn of civilization was in many ways an idyllic place. Forget your vision of stark Middle Eastern deserts; during the Paleolithic, the area where the first cities would one day arise was a great swamp. Foragers roamed the landscape, eating everything from fishes to gazelles to shellfish to wild plants. There was more than enough for everyone; “as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough [wild] grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year”. Foragers alternated short periods of frenetic activity (eg catching as many gazelles as possible during their weeklong migration through the area) with longer periods of rest and recreation.
Intensive cereal cultivation is miserable work requiring constant toil with little guarantee of a good harvest. Why would anyone leave this wilderness Eden for a 100% wheat diet?
Not because they were tired of wandering around; Scott presents evidence that permanent settlements began as early as 6000 BC, long before Uruk, the first true city-state, began in 3300. Sometimes these towns subsisted off of particularly rich local wildlife; other times they practiced some transitional form of agriculture, which also antedated states by millennia. Settled peoples would eat whatever plants they liked, then scatter the seeds in particularly promising-looking soil close to camp – reaping the benefits of agriculture without the back-breaking work.
And not because they needed to store food. Hunter-gatherers could store food just fine, from salting animal meat to burying fish and letting it ferment to just having grain in siloes like everyone else. There is ample archaeological evidence of all of these techniques. Also, when you are surrounded by so much bounty, storing things takes on secondary importance.
And not because the new lifestyle made this happy life even happier. While hunter-gatherers enjoyed a stable and varied diet, agriculturalists subsisted almost entirely on grain; their bones display signs of significant nutritional deficiency. While hunter-gatherers were well-fed, agriculturalists were famished; their skeletons were several inches shorter than contemporaneous foragers. While hunter-gatherers worked ten to twenty hour weeks, agriculturalists lived lives of backbreaking labor. While hunter-gatherers who survived childhood usually lived to old age, agriculturalists suffered from disease, warfare, and conscription into dangerous forced labor.
Scott argues that intensive grain cultivation was a natural choice not for cultivators, but for the states oppressing them. The shift from complicated and mobile food webs to a perfectly rectangular grid of wheat fields was the same sort of “progress” as scientific forestry and planned cities thousands of years later:
Why should cereal grains play such a massive role in the earliest states? After all, other crops, in particular legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and peas, had been domesticated in the Middle East and, in China, taro and soybean. Why were they not the basis of state formation? More broadly, why have no “lentil states,” chickpea states, taro states, sago states, breadfruit states, yam states, cassava states, potato states, peanut states, or banana states appeared in the historical record? Many of these cultivars provide more calories per unit of land than wheat and barley, some require less labor, and singly or in combination they would provide comparable basic nutrition. Many of them meet, in other words, the agro-demographic conditions of population density and food value as well as cereal grains. Only irrigated rice outclasses them in terms of sheer concentration of caloric value per unit of land.
The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.
The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier. If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation. For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation. Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.
Compare this situation with, say, that of farmers whose staple crops are tubers such as potatoes or cassava/manioc. Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two. They can be dug up as needed and the reaminder stored where they grew, underground. If an army or tax collectors want your tubers, they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he ordered his subjects to plant potatoes, understood that, as planters of tubers, they could not be so easily dispersed by invading armies.
The “aboveground” simultaneous ripening of cereal grains has the inestimable advantage of being legible and assessable by the state tax collectors. These characteristics are what make wheat, barley, rice, millet, and maize the premier political crops. A tax assessor typically classifies fields in terms of soil quality and, knowing the average yield of a particular grain from such soil, is able to estimate a tax. If a year-to-year adjustment is required, fields can be surveyed and crop cuttings taken from a representative patch just before harvest to arrive at an estimated yield for that particular crop year. As we shall see, state officials tried to raise crop yields and taxes in kind by mandating techniques of cultivation; in Mesopotamia this included insisting on repeated ploughing to break up the large clods of earth and repeated harrowing for better rooting and nutrient delivery. The point is that with cereal grains and soil preparation, the planting, the condition of the crop, and the ultimate yield were more visible and assessable.
Scott’s great advantage over other writers is the care he takes in analyzing the concrete machinery of statehood. Instead of abstractly saying “the state levies a 10% tax”, he realizes that some guy in a palace has resolved to take “ten percent” of the “value” produced in some vast area, with no natural way of knowing who is in that area or how much value they produce. For most of the Stone Age, this problem was insurmountable. You can’t tax hunter-gatherers, because you don’t know how many they are or where they are, and even if you search for them you’ll spend months hunting them down through forests and canyons, and even if you finally find them they’ll just have, like, two elk carcasses and half a herring or something. But you also can’t tax potato farmers, because they can just leave when they hear you coming, and you will never be able to find all of the potatoes and dig them up and tax them. And you can’t even tax lentil farmers, because you’ll go to the lentil plantation and there will be a few lentils on the plants and the farmer will just say “Well, come back next week and there will be a few more”, and you can’t visit every citizen every week.
But you can tax grain farmers! You can assign them some land, and come back around harvest time, and there will be a bunch of grain just standing there for you to take ten percent of. If the grain farmer flees, you can take his grain without him. Then you can grind the grain up and have a nice homogenous, dense, easy-to-transport grain product that you can dole out in measured rations. Grain farming was a giant leap in oppressability.
In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states. Within a few centuries, Uruk and a few other cities developed the full model: tax collectors, to take the grain; scribes, to measure the grain; and priests, to write stories like The Debate Between Sheep And Grain, with immortal lines like:
From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised. People should submit to the yoke of Grain. Whoever has silver, whoever has jewels, whoever has cattle, whoever has sheep shall take a seat at the gate of whoever has Grain, and pass his time there
And so the people were taught that growing grain was Correct and Right and The Will Of God and they shouldn’t do anything stupid like try to escape back to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty.
…turns out lots of people in early states escaped to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty. Early states were necessarily tiny; overland transportation of resources more than a few miles was cost-prohibitive; you could do a little better by having the state on a river and adding in water transport, but Uruk’s sphere of influence was still probably just a double-digit number of kilometers. Even in good times, peasants would be tempted to escape to the hills and wetlands; in bad times, it started seeming crazy not to try this. Scott suggests that ancient Uruk had a weaker distinction between “subject” and “slave” than we would expect. Although there were certainly literal slaves involved in mining and manufacturing, even the typical subject was a serf at best, bound to the land and monitored for flight risk.
In one of my favorite parts of the book, Scott discusses how this shaped the character of early Near Eastern warfare. Read a typical Near Eastern victory stele, and it looks something like “Hail the glorious king Whoever, who campaigned against Such-And-Such and took 10,000 prisoners of war back to the capital.” Territorial conquest, if it happened at all, was an afterthought; what these kings really wanted was prisoners. Why? Because they didn’t even have enough subjects to farm the land they had; they were short of labor. Prisoners of war would be resettled on some arable land, given one or another legal status that basically equated to slave laborers, and so end up little different from the native-born population. The most extreme example was the massive deportation campaigns of Assyria (eg the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel), but everybody did it because everybody knew their current subjects were a time-limited resources, available only until they gradually drained out into the wilderness.
Early states were pretty time-limited themselves. Scott addresses the collapse of early civilizations, which was ubiquitous; typical history disguises this by talking about “dynasties” or “periods” rather than “the couple of generations an early state could hold itself together without collapsing”.
Robert Adams, whose knowledge of the early Mesopotamian states is unsurpassed, expresses some astonishment at the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III), in which five kings succeeded one another over a hundred-year period. Though it too collapsed afterward, it represented something of a record of stability.
Scott thinks of these collapses not as disasters or mysteries but as the expected order of things. It is a minor miracle that some guy in a palace can get everyone to stay on his fields and work for him and pay him taxes, and no surprise when this situation stops holding. These collapses rarely involved great loss of life. They could just be a simple transition from “a bunch of farming towns pay taxes to the state center” to “a bunch of farming towns are no longer paying taxes to the state center”. The great world cultures of the time – Egypt, Sumeria, China, whereever – kept chugging along whether or not there was a king in the middle collecting taxes from them. Scott warns against the bias of archaeologists who – deprived of the great monuments and libraries of cuneiform tablets that only a powerful king could produce – curse the resulting interregnum as a dark age or disaster. Probably most people were better off during these times.
The book ends with a chapter on “barbarians”. Scott reminds us that until about 1600, the majority of human population lived outside state control; histories that focus on states and forget barbarians are forgetting about most humans alive. In keeping with his thesis, Scott reviews some ancient sources that talk about barbarians in the context of people who did not farm or eat grain. Also in keeping with his thesis, he warns against thinking of barbarians as somehow worse or more primitive. Many barbarians were former state citizens who had escaped state control to a freer and happier lifestyle. Barbarian tribes could control vast trading empires, form complex confederations, and enter in various symbiotic relationships with the states around them. Scott wants us to think of these not as primitive people vs. advanced people, but as two different interacting lifestyles, of which the barbarian one was superior for most people up until a few centuries ago.
Overall I liked this book. I’m not sure how convinced I am – Scott occasionally mentions how much denser (in terms of calories produced per unit land) grain is than other forms of subsistence, and this surely deserves more consideration as an alternative explanation for its success. But overall the theory is plausible as at least one of many explanations for the grain/state correlation.
My only other complaint is the constant insistence throughout the book that we should be having our minds blown by it. Scott talks about how he wanted to give a lecture on the rise of civilization in Sumeria, hadn’t studied the subject for a few decades, thought he’d do a quick review of what had been discovered in the interim, and instead found that everything he knew was wrong. He talks a lot about how the conventional narrative of the dawn of agriculture has been turned on its head, overthrown, debunked, etc, and how you need to unlearn all your brainwashing about the superiority of states to hunter-gatherers.
But Jared Diamond was calling agriculture The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race back in the 1980s. And the changes to the Sumeria story I learned in school seem like updates rather than paradigm shifts. Yes, people were sedentary agriculturalists long before Uruk – but I remember a page in my elementary school textbook (so we’re talking 1995 or so) going over Catal Huyuk and its neighbors in 6000 BC. Yes, early city-states sucked – but does anyone think of “Bronze Age god-king” and imagine a nice guy committed to egalitarianism? The Epic of Gilgamesh was talking about the suckiness of Bronze Age city-states before the Bronze Age even ended. The most surprising revision to the standard story in Against The Grain was the setting of early Sumer in wetland rather than desert. And even that is only a small change; the first cities were on a kind of flat alluvium separate from the wetland proper, and their environmental damage quickly dried the region up into the irrigation-heavy desert we know today.
Scott tries to downplay his own role in the book, emphasizing how much he is just relaying the discoveries of more accomplished Sumer experts than himself. But the part I most appreciated was the part that was most clearly Scott-ish: the role of grain as a state-builder. In this story, the beginning of civilization – like the progress of the High Modernists – wasn’t an advance in human welfare or economic growth. It was an advance in tax collecting and the machinery of oppression; everything else followed.
“From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised”, said the Sumerians. And the ancient Greeks had their Eleusinian Mysteries, where “the mighty, and marvelous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest truths” was the “revelation of the mystic grain”. Can we trace a direct line from there to the sheaves of wheat that feature on fifteen out of fifty US state seals? On the National Emblem of China? The Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union? Does this last one really show the Earth caught in a pincers between two giant stalks of wheat? Should we really make impressionable schoolchildren sing songs of praise for “amber waves of grain”?
Read this book, and you may never think about cereal crops the same way again.