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.