Saturday, January 13, 2018

Is Government a Protection Racket? How Wheat and Taxes Built the Ancient States

From the Los Angeles Review of Books, January 6:
Against the Grain
A Deep History of the Earliest States
Published 08.22.2017
Yale University Press
336 Pages
THE DEVELOPMENT OF the state is the most important event in human political history. Before then, all human societies were organized by kinship alone. Differences between individuals were restricted to those of age, gender, and personal ability. Beginning around 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia and independently thereafter in Egypt, south Asia, China, Mesoamerica, Andean South America, and as recently as three centuries ago in Hawaii, simple kinship-organized societies were replaced by complex class societies with intensified systems of production, differential access to resources, an elaborate division of labor, hereditary differences in wealth and power between households, and a political organization involving an army, a state religion, and a fiscal bureaucracy that administers the tribute collected to maintain the above. We live in this world today.

The nature of state societies is the principal object of study of political science, but their origin is the subject of prehistoric archaeology. In his earlier 1985 work Weapons of the Weak, James C. Scott (in his own description, “a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist […] by courtesy”) developed an account of the nature of states from the point of view of its exploited classes. This perspective is particularly useful, as he “trespasses” into prehistory and anthropological archaeology, because it challenges the dominant view arguing that social stratification developed because elites provide the leadership needed to organize and fund public works, craft specialization, and commerce.

As Elman Service summarized:
Redistribution (and especially trade), military organization and public works were all basic in the classic civilizations, but all must have had small beginnings in the simple attempts by primitive leaders to perpetuate their social dominance by organizing such benefits [emphasis added] for their followers.
A hereditary chief, as Marshall Sahlins put it,
creates a collective good [emphasis added] beyond the conception and capacity of the society’s domestic groups taken separately. He institutes a public economy greater than the sum of its household parts.
This organic view of the benefits of social complexity goes back at least to Plato, and alternative views go back at least to Machiavelli. James C. Scott, of course, will have none of the positive-functions just-so story, and in Against the Grain he examines in detail the nature of the Mesopotamian state system in order to document more fully his view of the “benefits,” “the public good,” that accrue to commoners in states:
[M]uch, if not most, of the population of the early states was unfree; they were subjects under duress. […] Living within the state meant, virtually by definition, taxes, conscription, corvée labor, and, for most, a condition of servitude.
Scott’s essential argument is that states are made possible when primitive cultivators begin to grow grain: wheat and barley in the Near East, millet and rice in East Asia, maize in the Americas. These are crops that are “legible” — they grow above ground, are harvested predictably and at once, and so can be the object of taxes and rent.

Scott begins with a brisk account of how the human species came to be dependent on grain cultivation. Paleolithic foragers used fire to concentrate new growths of plants and thus of the animals they hunted, the first of a series of improved foraging techniques that permitted the foragers to establish more permanent camps and manage the herding animals they hunted and the occasional cultivation of the annual grasses whose seeds they gathered. This process (the “Neolithic Revolution”) eventually led to a full dependence on domesticated plants and animals. Next came protection agreements and taxes.

Mesopotamia was the natural starting point for this chain of events because of topography. Here lay the possibilities for flood recession cultivation, a productive and non-laborious form of cultivation...MORE
If interested see also:

Jan. 2, 2017
To Create A "1%" In A Social Hierarchy You Don't Need An Economic Surplus, Just A Storable Form Of Wealth

So there I was, reading the abstract of "Hazelnut economy of early Holocene hunter–gatherers: a case study from Mesolithic Duvensee, northern Germany", thinking about Nutella and Frangelico when this grabbed my eye:
...High-resolution analyses of the excellently preserved and well-dated special task camps documented in detail at Duvensee, Northern Germany, offer an outstanding opportunity for case studies on Mesolithic subsistence and land use strategies. Quantification of the nut utilisation demonstrates the great importance of hazelnuts. These studies revealed very high return rates and allow for absolute assessments of the development of early Holocene economy. Stockpiling of the energy rich resource and an increased logistical capacity are innovations characterising an intensified early Mesolithic land use...
Stockpiling, storage, commodities, well that's right in our wheelhouse,* and if I can combine it with the last remnants of interest in Piketty's approach to inequality.....maybe I can synthesize something halfway original...

Yeah, it's already been done.

Here's VoxEU, September 2015:

Cereals, appropriability, and hierarchy
The Neolithic Roots of Economic Institutions....