Barbarian Virtues

Barbarian Virtues

James Scott has spent a lifetime documenting the horrors of the modern state. But does he miss the freedoms only it can afford?


People are going paleo; it is the height of trendiness. Edit wheat out of your diet, the multiplatform advice goes, especially if you want lower blood pressure or rock-hard abs. James C. Scott says there is much more at stake. Grain is not just bad for one’s health; it is the fruit of a ghastly disaster long ago that brought with it the domestication of other plants and animals, and even of ourselves. Worst of all, it is bound up with the origins of that most baleful thing, the state, which has bred horrors from its beginnings, propagating vast moral and material hierarchies and the murderous violence of resource wars over the ages. What began with fire, the state set ablaze: Grain cultivation, according to Scott, helped inaugurate the “Anthropocene,” in which humanity continues to change its own environment beyond all recognition. The “bounty” of civilization under the auspices of the state has proved to be a lie, and it is going to take a lot more than giving up gluten for life to improve.

In his sparkling new book, 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.

With its dramatic leap backward into ancient Mesopotamia, Against the Grain is a departure for Scott, who before now has stuck much more closely to his expertise in 20th-century Southeast Asia. Yet the new book is also a kind of fulfillment. Like all of Scott’s work, it forces you to reconsider your most basic commitments about freedom and politics in response to his caustic doubts. But if his career reaches a climax in this book, it also makes clear the need to resist his conclusions—and not only for the sake of your daily bread.

For decades, Scott has cut a remarkable and unique figure in the academic landscape. No one provides a better model of how to operate in the modern university and reap the benefits of its learning, while transcending the worst shortcomings of compartmentalization and wooden thinking. Trained as a political scientist, Scott has since departed from any single field, refusing cramped horizons for the sake of free inquiry. He has developed a model of social theory that combines insightful description with grand speculation, allowing his books to flit across diverse areas and, in turn, to be widely read. Above all, he has a preternatural gift for illustrating the power of states and the creativity of those responding to them with details from everyday life. And his disarming style makes him most enjoyable company—even when he is accusing civilization of evil, extolling “barbarian” virtues, and telling his readers that they have had the bad luck to be born amidst the moral ruins, mesmerized by the distracting grandeur of the states that enslave them.

Scott was born along the Delaware River in small-town New Jersey in 1936. He grew up a follower of Franklin Roosevelt, like his father, who was a country doctor. After his father’s early death, Scott attended a Quaker school on a scholarship and went to Williams College, before spending a year traveling around the Burmese countryside and in Paris as a representative of the National Student Association.

Scott opted for a doctorate in political science at Yale in the early 1960s, and his first work was dutiful but undistinguished. A disciple of the now-forgotten scholar Robert Lane, who argued that the best insights into the ideology of groups depended on interviewing their members in-depth, Scott went to Malaysia and applied Lane’s method to the country’s new postcolonial elite. What became his first book, Political Ideology in Malaysia, was a monument to the sort of derivative and workmanlike scholarship that his whole subsequent career has attempted to topple.

When Scott’s debut was published in 1968, it was the height of the Vietnam War. He had taken a job as a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Wisconsin and put himself at the center of the campus antiwar movement. As with so many others of his generation, the war was decisive for his intellectual life. It made him critical of American power abroad, and in later years he would still recall his contempt for his fellow political scientist Samuel Huntington, who had advanced the theory that the displacement of peasants from their homes would make them more compliant—effectively an argument that the American forces should bomb the Vietnamese into resettlement.

Many Southeast Asia experts, unsurprisingly, were in the vanguard of academic resistance to the war, and Scott’s political views from this period—gained through teach-ins and amid fractious faculty politics—pervade his scholarship. Even when he is writing about ancient Mesopotamia, Scott is not far from his youthful preoccupations, labeling the origins of civilization a “late-Neolithic -multispecies resettlement camp.” But the larger lesson he drew from Vietnam was to be skeptical of the theories and practices of modernization of all stripes, including those of Marxism. When one looks at the sweep of postcolonial history, including the genocidal sequel to the American involvement in Cambodia, capitalist and communist states alike reveal themselves as recipes for cruelty.

Scott soon left Wisconsin to return to Yale, where he has taught for decades. On arrival, he published The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976), his first book in a remarkable series of classics. In their interpretations of European history, Karl Polanyi and E.P. Thompson had argued that before capitalism, there existed a premodern “moral economy” organized by the lower classes that centered on the importance of a subsistence minimum. People demanded—of one another and their political masters—the fulfillment of basic needs and organized their lives around this demand. Scott globalized Polanyi’s and Thompson’s claims by attributing the same ethics to peasants everywhere—including the Southeast Asian peasants so visibly in revolt in the 1960s. Beyond seeking basic subsistence, Scott also claimed, the peasants neither desired nor sought modern affluence or material equality; they treated the politics of the state not as a world to win, but rather as an officious interference with their own premodern self-insurance against disaster or, at most, as a backstop when their own strategies failed. The trouble, Scott explained, was that modern rulers, colonial or postcolonial, mainly interfered, often stoking massive uprisings. The lesson was plain: Outsiders should either stay out of the way or concentrate on helping peasants help themselves.

The book marked Scott’s break with political science as usual and, perhaps above all, his development of a winningly independent style that has since emerged more and more clearly. Scott’s political ambition was to save the depiction of a premodern moral order in Polanyi and Thompson from what he apparently believed was their own devotion to state-centered forms of social democracy (in Polanyi’s case) or socialism (in Thompson’s). In showing how political authorities were most interested in taxing peasants, rather than guaranteeing their basic livelihoods, Scott may have already been harboring a deeper skepticism about the state. But he had not yet become an anarchist—after all, in Scott’s picture, good political authority could indeed respond if collective self—insurance broke down (usually because harvests failed). Scott’s study of the peasantry was a transitional book: It was both more professional in its tone and less concerned with the implacable rivalry that he has since taken up between the state and its opponents.

It must have been around this point that Scott started reading one of his most enduring influences, the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres. Clastres, who died in a car accident in 1977, was an anarchist who wrote studies of “primitive” life based on his time among South American tribes. According to Clastres, states of all kinds were pretty much equally bad, however different they were from one another, and all portended the climacteric of 20th-century totalitarianism. Primitive humans, somehow in advance, already knew enough to preserve themselves from the inevitably slippery slope into the horror of the state. A peasantry self-insuring against starvation, then, looked like it was far gone down the road to perdition and already condemned to a life of penury under a political authority destined to become terroristic sooner or later. Scott differed in personal style, shunning the more melodramatic features of Clastres’s vision in favor of a plainspoken and well-researched scholarship. But he embraced the main thrust of Clastres’s argument and, armed with his insights, he now broke through to the subject of his mature inquiry: state oppression and ordinary resistance.

Scott’s study of resistance came in two remarkable books: Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990). With the memory of Vietnam receding and the high tide of peasant revolt going out, Scott concluded that it was a rare thing for agrarian miseries to explode into revolutions, which always devoured their own children in any case. When the state held all the cards, most often peasants were thrown back on their own creative attempts to game the system. After two years in a small village in Malaysia, Scott reported back in Weapons of the Weak with an extraordinary inventory of peasant “infrapolitics.” These were “prosaic” forms of opposing power, such as “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.”

Scott warned against romanticizing these prosaic forms, for their effect was always defensive in nature and usually softened the blow of state power without capturing or -reimagining it. But his new books on “the arts of resistance” marked a shift in Scott’s own politics: If, in his earlier work, he had referred to peasant defiance as “an alternative moral universe in embryo,” he now lost faith in any real form of redemptive politics. Scott was not alone in this. Many ’60s radicals, by the 1980s, had given up on their radical dreams of emancipation, and future intellectual history may record how Scott’s work played a role in helping them to recover, especially on the far left after its identification with Marxism. Scott still claimed a vestigial affiliation with Marxism by casting peasant resistance as “class struggle,” but he no longer believed in a historical exit from it, especially since the struggles for national liberation around the world were going south.

But it was in another pair of works, Seeing Like a State (1998) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), that the stigma Scott applied to “certain schemes to improve the human condition” through government gained its most sophisticated expression. In the first, Scott’s most admired book, he offered an empirical survey married to homespun social theory to show that states around the world, whether capitalist or communist, developed or postcolonial, were projects of subordination. They pioneered unprecedented forms of making social life “legible” and therefore easier to control. In the second book, which begins with an epigraph from Clastres to the effect that history is not so much about class struggle to win control of state power but rather about struggles against the state itself, Scott furthered these arguments. Returning to Southeast Asia, The Art of Not Being Governed vividly depicted how states established iron control in agricultural areas, while those who resisted these encroachments climbed up into highlands beyond their reach.

Like all of his other work, Scott’s portrait of the panoptic ambitions of states—an emphasis that led many readers to liken him to Michel Foucault—was so potent because it was not mere declaration or denunciation but extraordinary description. It was so well-done that it seemed unanswerable as a criticism of governmental tyranny. The parade of horrors to which 20th-century states everywhere led—from the great leaps forward under communism to only slightly less repressive ventures under capitalism, and from global-development schemes to African “villagization” under postcolonial authority—made it hard to imagine celebrating them ever again.

But if you view history as an unalterable dialectic of state oppression and ordinary resistance, inevitably you will also wonder how it got started—and whether it was inevitable. This genealogical task is the central ambition of Scott’s new book. He mentions Clastres only once in Against the Grain, but a remark by one of Clastres’s friends applies perfectly to it: Scott has “the audacity of someone who wants to get to the root of evil and cut.” The story Scott hopes to tell, he explains, will make a start toward a “twelve-step recovery program” from the common belief in the beneficent rise of the state, including the benefits of “civilization” even in its modern form.

Since the book deals not only with the ancient world but what is now the Middle East, Scott disarmingly presents himself as a poacher attempting to provide an outsider’s digest of the already established scholarship in the field. But a lot more is going on in Against the Grain than a book report: Scott believes that he has made several advances thanks to his outsider status, and he has unmistakably imported a prior intellectual project—the prosecution of the state—into the literature about how the first examples of it were born.

Surprisingly, in the first half of the book, Scott demonstrates how many things—including the invention of agriculture itself—were brought about without necessitating the rise of state power. In the beginning, Scott writes, was fire, which domesticated not merely the landscape but humanity itself. Yet the die was not cast here. The same was true of the rise of sedentary communities, which Scott is convinced took place in wetlands that did not commit their denizens to widespread agriculture and did not necessarily develop into states. Scott even applies this disaggregating argument to the rise of a more intense crop cultivation, which he argues began episodically as part of the wetlands mix and may have occurred elsewhere too.

After a chapter on what he calls the “domus complex”—in which stable groups of humans gathered themselves and an assortment of nonhuman animals—Scott turns to the central puzzle of his book: How did the state come about? Interpreting what is known about the ancient kingdom of Uruk (where Gilgamesh may have ruled), Scott ends up casting little light. He observes that the concentration of human beings in increasingly agricultural circumstances was certainly a precondition for the founding of the state, with its political hierarchies, extractive taxation, and mass service. But the gathering of more people in one place did not necessarily birth states. Instead, Scott defers to a traditional explanation on this subject: that it was when these agricultural societies began to falter in the face of aridity that the “assembled population” of the early domus began to transition to something like the state. Like Clastres, he contends that no one wanted this to happen, and so it must have occurred with “a pistol at their collective temple.” Drought was probably the weapon in question.

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.

However, Scott remains so stricken by the sheer evil of the state that he turns in the balance of his book to critically interpret the accoutrements of the Mesopotamian state, accentuating the negative. It vastly transformed agriculture (emphasizing governable cereals), erected walls (as much for confinement as protection), invented writing (“a new form of control” by the budding technocracy), expanded slavery (to convert humans from free spirits into pack animals), and declared war without end (since prisoners were easy prey for the increasingly necessary bondage and drudgery). In its early phases, much-vaunted “civilization”—backed as it was by the instruments and violence of the state—was not a pretty picture. It was a golden age for only one group, Scott opines in a virtuoso chapter: the barbarians who subsisted along its periphery, and who could make their nonstate lives even better than before by poaching what the state had brought about. For those in the state’s clutches, however, life was tedious monotony and servile hierarchy. No wonder that, in another provocative chapter, Scott suggests that when early states self-destructed, it was not necessarily a bad thing, despite all the chaos and disorder that have given their “collapse” a bad name.

The term “dark ages,” Scott explains, is merely a bit of civilized slander. The freedom that people enjoyed once the flame of civilization went out actually made them better off. Not yet schooled by outside examples in maintaining the conditions of their own continuity, early states were often experiments that regularly failed—until a more enduring oppression set in, enabling later states to speed along the path to a more complete and irrevocable modern domination.

Scott’s view of the state has always been attractive to some leftists, who have found solace in his depiction of the microscopic possibilities of flouting a state power that they cannot overthrow. But Scott has also proved popular with another group: economic libertarians. They understand that he is their ally. Reading him with a squint, they appreciate his vociferous critiques of state power as abetting their own dreams of freedom. Scott is visibly nervous about this fan club, since even after he gave up any flirtation with Marxism, he has always viewed “free markets” as breeding their own sorts of hierarchy and oppression.

Still, the elective affinity of antistatists is far from incidental to understanding the limits of Scott’s project. Both anarchists and neoliberals have combined in our time to obscure the fact that, to date, the state has been the most successful technology known to history for imagining and institutionalizing liberty and equality, even though it has often failed and has never worked perfectly. Scott rarely mentions the forms of social justice that only modernity and its states have permitted and put into practice, however faulty and outweighed by state crime and excess they are. Instead, he has sought to project an immemorial dialectic between the state and its enemies onto the whole of human history. This has made him one of the greatest teachers of how costly modernity has been; yet it has also caused him to obscure the fact that modern states could strive not simply for civilizational splendor, but also for the freedom and equality of all.

Because the state has never developed on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, modern humans have attempted to make it serve their emancipation rather than their oppression. As if modern capitalism were not distinctive in a host of ways, Scott instead emphasizes that the age-old regimentation of human beings marching to the “metronome” of the crop cycle set up the basic template for it. Analogously, the liberty and equality that so many moderns have taken to justify government as an agent of progress are little more to Scott than pretexts for more oppression. He sees no escape other than the flight that barbarians and mountain men have tried since the state arose.

Correspondingly, Scott’s vague suggestions of the “egalitarianism” of nonstate peoples—and especially, in his new book, of our hunting-and-gathering ancestors—are never seriously defended. Where Clastres had the courage of his convictions and lionized primitive torture and war as the price of ostensible equality and freedom (in a particularly vivid scene, for example, he depicted the expulsion of a homosexual as part of the package of prestate life), Scott’s rosy suggestion that life was peachy before bread came is never argued, except by showing the alternative to be terrible.

Scott covers war once the state appeared, and slavery too, but he only glancingly acknowledges that they were endemic among the hunter-gatherers who came before. In his revulsion at state oppression, Scott also says little about the forms of social oppression that government does not impose, even though they have always been part of human existence and have often been a worse taskmaster (perhaps especially for women).

But in the end it is not so much that Scott is unfair to what people have long glorified as civilization, since he shines a powerful light on its dark side. It is not so much, either, that he romanticizes the lives of those who were dismissed as “savages” by their often murderous enemies, dazzlingly highlighting strategies of resistance by ordinary people past and present. In fact, Scott’s case for the prosecution, and his attempt to bear witness to those defending themselves against states, have always been the most arresting and unforgettable features of his work. But when he turns judge, Scott condemns civilization according to standards that are civilization’s—and modernity’s—own, without ever reflecting on this fact.

“Philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of going back to the state of nature,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau once remarked, “but none of them has reached it.” A sometime primitivist like Scott, Rousseau wanted to overturn his predecessor Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of pre-state life as nasty, brutish, and short, by showing that civilized life had produced the evils superimposed on the natural condition of humanity. But two can play that game. What if the very standards by which its inhabitants find their civilization still wanting are owed to civilization itself? 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.

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