Impressive and intriguing: Against the Grain tells the story of early state-building as a story of agriculture – that’s not new. What’s new is that James Scott has spent years aggregating the current insights of history and archaeology to paint the same idea from a new angle: What if early states did not naturally arise with the cultivation of grain – what if they required a food staple as grain (divisible, countable, and with a strict yearly cycle) to establish a bureaucracy?
Scott poses that living within a state was, contrary to popular impressions, not actually good for its people. Working a field and then losing parts of your crop to the state, and another to non-state raids, was vastly more work than using various food sources as non-state people did. He traces the cultivation of grain, the invention of writing, and especially the meaning of the various “dark ages” and “collapses”. I don’t completely buy his lens, but it’s a good lens regardless: not only for how it changes my perception of state structures, but also how it gives me access to an interesting angle for all kinds of human communities.
That said: while every single paragraph is insightful and every single chapter has its place, the book still manages to feel like a giant slog, and at some point just … ends? I would have liked an actual ending and was a bit perplexed. I’m now very motivated to read Seeing Like a State, Scott’s most popular work, … next year, perhaps.