The following quotations are from:

James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, pp. 1-17. Yale University Press, 2017.


A foundational question underlying state formation is how we (Homo sapien sapiens) came to live amid the unprecedented concentrations of domesticated plants, animals, and people that characterize states. From this wide-angle view, the state form is anything but natural or given. Homo sapiens appeared as a subspecies about 200,000 years ago and is found outside of Africa and the Levant no more than 60,000 years ago. The first evidence of cultivated plants and of sedentary communities appears roughly 12,000 years ago. Until then—that is to say for ninety-five percent of the human experience on earth—we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, relatively egalitarian, hunting-and-gathering bands. Still more remarkable, for those interested in the state form, is the fact that the very first small, stratified, tax-collecting, walled states pop up in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley only around 3,100 bCE, more than four millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism. This massive lag is a problem for those theorists who would naturalize the state form and assume that once crops and sedentism, the technological and demographic requirements, respectively, for state formation were established, states/empires would immediately arise as the logical and most efficient units of political order.

            These raw facts trouble the version of human prehistory that most of us (I include myself here) have unreflectively inherited. Historical humankind has been mesmerized by the narrative of progress and civilization as codified by the first great agrarian kingdoms. As new and powerful societies, they were determined to distinguish themselves as sharply as possible from the populations from which they sprang and that still beckoned and threatened at their fringes. In its essentials, it was an ‘ascent of man’ story. Agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-field crops, on the other hand, were the origin and guarantor of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws. Those who refused to take up agriculture did so out of ignorance or a refusal to adapt. In virtually all early agricultural settings the superiority of farming was underwritten by an elaborate mythology recounting how a powerful god or goddess entrusted the sacred grain to a chosen people.

            Once the basic assumption of the superiority and attraction of fixed-field farming over all previous forms of subsistence is questioned, it becomes clear that this assumption itself rests on a deeper and more embedded assumption, that is virtually never questioned. And that assumption is that sedentary life itself is superior to and more attractive than mobile forms of subsistence. The place of the domus and of fixed residence in the civilizational narrative is so deep as to be invisible: fish don’t talk about water! It is simply assumed that weary Homo sapiens couldn’t wait to finally settle down permanently, could not wait to end hundreds of millennia of mobility and seasonal movement. Yet there is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement, even under relatively favorable circumstances. Pastoralists and hunting-and-gathering populations have fought against permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control. Many Native American peoples were confined to reservations only on the heels of military defeat. Others seized historic opportunities presented by European contact to increase their mobility, the Sioux and Comanche becoming horseback hunters, traders, and raiders, and the Navajo becoming sheep-based pastoralists. Most peoples practicing mobile forms of subsistence—herding, foraging, hunting, marine collecting, and even shifting cultivation—while adapting to modern trade with alacrity, have bitterly fought permanent settlement. At the very least, we have no warrant at all for supposing that the sedentary ‘givens’ of modern life can be read back into human history aspiration…

            It turns out that the greater part of what we might call the standard narrative has had to be abandoned once confronted with accumulating archaeological evidence. Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the marginal refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famished, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gatherers have, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. The current fad of ‘Paleolithic’ diets reflects the seepage of this archaeological knowledge into the popular culture. The shift from hunting and foraging to agriculture—a shift that was slow, halting, reversible, and sometimes incomplete—carried at least as many costs as benefits. Thus while the planting of crops has seemed, in the standard narrative, a crucial step toward a utopian present, it cannot have looked that way to those who first experienced it: a fact some scholars see reflected in the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.”

  1. 5, 7-8, 9-10

            “… Despite enormous progress in documenting climate change, demographic shifts, soil quality, and dietary habits, there are many aspects of the earliest states that one is unlikely to find chronicled in physical remains or in early texts because they are insidious, slow processes, perhaps symbolically threatening, and even unworthy of mention. For example, it appears that flight from the early state domains to the periophery was quite common, but, as it contradicts the narrative of the state as a civilizing benefactor of its subjects, it is relegated to obscure legal codes. I and others are virtually certain that disease was a major factor in the fragility of the early states. Its effects, however, are hard to document, since they were so sudden and so little understood, and because many epidemic diseases left no obvious bone signature. Similarly, the extent of slavery, bondage, and forced resettlement is hard to document as, in the absence of shackles, slave and free-subject remains are indistinguishable. All states were surrounded by nonstate peoples, but owing to their dispersal, we know precious little about their coming and going, their shifting relationship to states, and their political structures. When a city is burned to the ground, it is often hard to tell whether it was an accidental fire such as plagued all ancient cities built of combustible materials, a civil war or uprising, or a raid from outside.

            To the degree that it is possible, I have tried to averty my gaze from the glare of state self-representation and have probed for historical forces systematically overlooked by dynastic and written histories and resistant to standard archaeological techniques.” Pp. 16-17

The following quotations are from:

James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, pp. 207-219. Yale University Press, 2009.

“There are, as we have seen, agricultural techniques and crop regimens that are resitant to appropriation, and hence are state repelling. By the same token, there are patterns of social and political organization that are resistant to monitoring and subordination. Just as shifting cultivation and cassava planting represent a ‘positionality’ vis-á-vis the state, so, too, do various forms of social organization represent a strategic position with respect to the state. Social structure, like agricultural technique, is not a given; it is substantially, especially over time, a choice. Much of that choice is in a broad sense political. Here a dialectical view of social organization is necessary. Peripheral political structures in mainland Southeast Asia are always adjusting to the state systems that make up their immediate environment. Under some circumstances they, or rather the human actors who animate them, may adjust that structure so as to facilitate alliances with or incorporation into a nearby state. At other times, they may pattern themselves so as to break loose from ties of tribute or incorporation.

            Social structure, in this view, ought to be seen not as a permanent social trait of a particular community but rather as a variable, one of the purposes of which is to regulate relations with the surrounding field of power…

            Broadly speaking, whenever a society or part of a society elects to evade incorporation or appropriation, it moves toward simpler, smaller, and more dispersed social units—towards what we have earlier termed the elementary forms of social organization. The most appropriation-resistant social structures—though they also impede collective action of any kind—are acephalous (‘headless’) small aggregates of households. Such forms of social organization, along with appropriation-resistant forms of agriculture and residence, are invariably coded ‘barbarian,’ ‘primitive,’ and backward’ by the low-land padi ‘civilizations.’ It is no coincidence that this metric of more or less civilized agriculture and social organization should so perfectly map onto their suitability for appropriation and subordination, respectively.”

  1. 207-208

“When nonstate peoples (aka tribes) face pressures for political and social incorporation into a state system, a variety of responses is possible. They, or a section of them, may be incorporated loosely or tightly as a tributary society with a designated leader (indirect rule). They may, of course, fight to defend their autonomy—particularly if they are militarized pastoralists. They may move out of the way. Finally, they may, by fissioning, scattering, and/or changing their livelihood strategy, make themselves invisible or unattractive as objects of appropriation.

            The last three strategies are options of resistance and evasion. The military option has, with a few exceptions, rarely been available to nonstate peoples in Southeast Asia. Moving out of the way, inasmuch as it often involves adoption of shifting cultivation or foraging, has already been examined. What remains to be explored is the final strategy of social reorganization. It involves social disaggregation into minimal units, often households, and is often accompanied by the adoption of subsistence strategies that favor small, scattered bands. Ernest Gellner describes this deliberate choice among the Berbers with the slogan ‘Divide that ye be not ruled.’ It is a brilliant aphorism, for it shows that the Roman slogan ‘Divide and rule’ does not work past a certain point of atomization. Malcolm Yapp’s term for the same strategy, jellyfish tribes, is just as apt, for it points to the fact that such disaggregation leaves a potential ruler facing an amorphous, unstructured population with no point of entry or leverage. The Ottomans, in the same vein, found it far easier to deal with structured communities, even if they were Christians and Jews, than with the heterodox sects that were acephalous and organizationally diffuse. Most feared were such forms of autonomy and dissent as, for example, the mystical Dervish orders, which deliberately, it seems, avoided any collective settlement or identifiable leadership precisely to fly, as it were, beneath the Ottoman police radar. Faced with situations of this kind, a state often tries to find a collaborator and create a chiefdom. While it is usually in someone’s interest to seize this chance, nothing, as we shall see, prevents his would-be subjects from ignoring him.

            The elementary units of the tribal structure were like bricks; they could lie scattered or in heaps without discernible structure, or they could be joined together to build large, sometimes massive, tribal confederations. As Lois Beck, who has examined this process in exquisite detail for the Qashq’I of Iran, describes it, ‘Tribal groups expanded and contracted. Some tribal groups joined larger ones when, for example, the state attempted to restrict access to resources or a foreign power sent troops to attack them. Large tribal groups divided into small groups to be less visible to the state and escaped its reach. Intertribal mobility [shifting ethnic identity’ was a common pattern and was part of the process of tribal formation and dissolution.’ In a Middle Eastern version of Pierre Clastres’s argument for Latin America, Beck points to agriculturalists who shifted to nomadism and sees both social organization and subsistence strategies as political options, sometimes deployed in the service of illegibility. ‘The forms that many people identify as primitive and traditional were often creations responding to, and sometimes mirroring, more complex systems.’ Beck adds: ‘Such local systems adapted to and challenged, or distanced themselves from, the systems of those who sought to dominate them.’ Social structure, in other words, is, in large measure, both a state effect and a choice; and one possible choice is a social structure that is invisible and/or illegible to state-makers.”

  1. 209-210