312 pages, 13 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grains, and governed by precursors of today's states? Most people believe that plant and animal domestication allowed humans, finally, to settle down and form agricultural villages, towns, and states, which made possible civilization, law, public order, and a presumably secure way of living. But archaeological and historical evidence challenges this narrative. The first agrarian states, says James C. Scott, were born of accumulations of domestications: first fire, then plants, livestock, subjects of the state, captives, and finally women in the patriarchal family – all of which can be viewed as a way of gaining control over reproduction.
Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture, the advantages of mobile subsistence, the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain, and why all early states are based on millets and cereal grains and unfree labour. He also discusses the "barbarians" who long evaded state control, as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and nonsubject peoples.
"A contemporary master of the political counter-narrative has produced a book on the origins of civilization – this is, quite simply, a must-read."
– David Wengrow, author of What Makes Civilization?
"This is a brilliant, accessible, and highly original account of the origins of sedentism, farming, states, and the relations between agrarian and nomadic communities. It should attract a wider audience than any of Scott's earlier books."
– J. R. McNeill, co-author of The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945
"A sweeping and provocative look at the 'rise of civilization', focusing particularly on those parts, peoples, and issues that are normally overlooked in conventional historical narratives."
– Alison Betts, The University of Sydney
"Brilliant, sparkling, dissident scholarship. In Scott's hands, agriculture looks like a terrible choice, states and empires look fragile, ephemeral, and predatory, and the 'barbarians' beyond their borders lived in relative freedom and affluence."
– David Christian, Macquarie University, Sydney
"This book is fascinating and original, containing a lesson on every page. Brilliant. James Scott is a legend."
– Tim Harford, author of Messy and The Undercover Economist
"Wonderfully thought-provoking [...] the insights Scott developed in Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed combine to throw new light on the birth of states and consequences that flowed from their emergence [...] It provides a salutary lesson for those who wonder why states fail."
– Thomas Barfield, Boston University
"Once again James Scott upends conventional wisdom with this riveting account of the entangled relations of humans, plants, and animals that created the first agrarian states. A provocative and eye-opening analysis of the dark side of our civilized world."
– Peter C. Perdue, author of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia
"This is a telling and timely argument at a time when the Anthropocene is beset by the harrowing histories of migrants and refugees who claim the rights of mobility in a desperate search for a life of security that is as urgent as it is elusive."
– Homi Bhabha, Harvard University
"Scott is at his most intellectually omnivorous in Against the Grain, drawing on a vast array of sources to upend our basic assumptions about state formation and civilization."
– Edward D. Melillo, author of Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection
"Against the Grain is not just a "counternarrative," an outsider's skeptical reaction to received wisdom about the evolution of agricultural systems and the first states in Mesopotamia. Vainglorious kings with their generals and armies, sycophantic scribes, and royal architects and engineers are not Scott's heroes. His concerns are with urban laborers, peasants, and barbarians and the cleavage planes of resistance to rulers. Those studying Mesopotamia – and other early states – take heed."
– Norman Yoffee, editor of Early Cities in Comparative Perspective
"The most interesting non-fiction read of the year [...] Urgently recommended, and fun to read as well."
– Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
"Fascinating [...] Our agrarian-biased view of history, Scott concludes, could use some reworking. Most of the world's early human populations likely enjoyed semisettled, semiagrarian lives beyond the state's grasp."
– Suzanne Shablovsky, Science
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James Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University. His previous books include Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed. He lives in Durham, CT.