Writing in The Nation, Samuel Moyne has a long review of James Scott's, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States:
Scott makes his case by tracing, step by unholy step, how human beings were led first into the agricultural fields and then into the domain of the state, bringing a vast set of conscripts into the army of supposed advancement. Starting with the fire that introduced “landscaping,” Scott tracks how we domesticated not merely herd animals to do the grunt work of agriculture but also many human beings—notably slaves, who for a long time were conceived as beasts of burden within the human domain. In its own fashion, even the new ruling class became herdlike, tame animals who recast every facet of life in the grim service of their crops, which grew their humans as much as the other way around.
And so it goes, step by remorseless step. But Moyne is skeptical:
By degrees leading to this conclusion:That Scott presents as his major finding that eons separated the development of cultivation and the rise of the state not only cuts against any conclusion that the pathways into state bondage were inevitable; it also goes far to undermine Scott’s entire outlook. The fact that nothing about the innovations of fire and agriculture and “incipient urbanism” necessarily required states and their iniquities means that many of the good things “civilization” has brought are indeed separable from its greatest evils and therefore do not necessarily deserve the opprobrium implied by both the title and the argument of his book. Though Scott does not observe it, the first half of Against the Grain reads like a paean to a different style of agricultural civilization in the making: the best of a stateless hunting-and-gathering society tweaked in the name of bread. It also suggests a lesson that Scott would never draw: that the state itself has never been given on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. He acknowledges that there is no decisive moment when the state emerged and no single feature that defines it. In his challenge to the inevitability of the state after fire and even agriculture, Scott misses the chance to develop a theory of the variety of governments, not only in the past but also in the future.
If freedom and equality are things that only a specific set of events in the modern history of the state has allowed us to value, then Scott’s project to go back before its origin to find earlier expressions of them is a projection onto our ancestors, not the discovery of an alternative world to be won by turning our backs on modernity. And it is surely no excuse to give up the task of saving our civilizations and states in the name of the modern values only they have allowed propounding.
Yet Scott is so enamored with the versatility of our hunting-and-gathering ancestors—especially when compared with the monotonies of grain cultivation—that he never thinks to describe how they -interpreted the freedom and equality he assigns to them. He never confronts the possibility that only a new kind of state could make new kinds of ideals possible, including his own. His fascinating presentation of human self-domestication is a highlight of Against the Grain. But like Clastres—and, more indirectly, Friedrich Nietzsche before him—Scott is implicitly judging the state wanting by criteria that are unthinkable without its rise. He not only ignores the tremendous defects of “uncivilized” life, but he also fails to reflect on the absence in it of the ideals of liberty and equality that alone could justify his admiration. Scott is a product of the modern state who does not care to know it.Worth a look.
H/t Tyler Cowen.