Sunday, October 21, 2018

Disease, Famine, Drudgery, Bondage: A Lively Look at the Birth of the Modern

Not that kind of bondage. Not that lively a look, sorry.
Refunds available at the entrance.

A first rate review of James Scott's "Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States" by George Scialabba, contributing Editor at The Baffler.

From Inference Magazine:

Great Scott
A  Whiggish history is a narrative of social or intellectual progress whose terminus is more or less the social or intellectual location of that history’s narrator. For obvious reasons, Whiggish histories should be regarded with a measure of suspicion. Not all of them, of course, are self-serving or deluded. The history of science, in most versions, is a narrative of progress, and rightly so. Notwithstanding its exploitation in all too many destructive technologies, the edifice of scientific thought, eliciting near-universal and uncoerced assent, remains one of humankind’s few unambiguous cultural triumphs.
Political history is another matter. Narratives that celebrate “British liberties broadening down the years from precedent to precedent” (the original Whiggish history), or the American discovery and peopling of a virgin land from sea to shining sea, or virtually every nation’s exceptionalist account of its unique mission and destiny, all leave out a great many inconvenient facts and therefore, intentionally or not, serve partisan purposes. Academic social scientists have in recent decades become very sensitive to the ideological work done or attempted by such historical accounts, to the point that the exposure and denunciation of hegemonic master narratives that privilege someone or other has begun to seem routine. There is, however, nothing routine about the work of political scientist James Scott.
In a series of remarkable books beginning with The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976), Scott has written a history of the civilizing process from the outside, from the point of view of its objects, variously savages, barbarians, primitives, raw, wild, and other names suggestive of people still awaiting their entry into history and full membership in humanity. His best-known and most influential work, Seeing Like a State (1998), surveyed a number of ambitious civilizing projects, including forest monoculture in nineteenth-century Germany, Soviet collectivization, high modernist city planning, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania. All of them sought to impose a particular vision of order: simplified, scaled up, predictable, measurable, legible—in a word, governable. The forms of life and culture they proposed to improve out of existence—old-growth forests; traditional, mixed-use working-class neighborhoods; peasant communes and customs; the improvisational subsistence strategies of indigenous Africans—were hardly beyond improving. But each had its own functional wisdom, and each resisted, in its own way, the reformers’ attempt to conscript them into more easily administered, bureaucratically convenient formations.
Scott devoted part of his career to anthropological fieldwork, studying peasant politics in Southeast Asia. Weapons of the Weak (1985) dwelt on the small, cunning acts of insubordination and resistance short of explicit rebellion—
the surreptitious expansion of private plots, the withdrawal of labor from state enterprises for household production, the failure to deliver grain and livestock to the state, the “appropriation” of state credits and resources by households and work teams, and the steady growth of the black market1
—by which peasants, tenant farmers, and other subaltern groups in a Malay village coped with a system they were not strong enough to challenge outright. The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) broadened this focus, chronicling the centuries-long struggles of the region’s hill peoples to avoid incorporation in the lowland political units determined to capture them as subjects. The book took aim at the “official story most civilizations tell about themselves”—and that many, perhaps most, social scientists subscribe to—according to which “a backward, na├»ve, and perhaps barbaric people are gradually incorporated into an advanced, superior, and more prosperous society and culture.” On the contrary, Scott argued:
Most, if not all, the characteristics that appear to stigmatize hill peoples—their location at the margins, their physical mobility, their swidden [slash-and-burn] agriculture, their flexible social structure, their religious heterodoxy, their egalitarianism, and even the nonliterate, oral cultures—far from being the mark of primitives left behind by civilization, are better seen on a long view as adaptations designed to evade both state capture and state formation. They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.2
The essence of the civilizing process, on this view, is the extension of state power: the relocation of barbarians from “nonstate spaces where they were generally more autonomous (and healthy!) to places where their labor could be appropriated.”3
Scott is a part-time farmer and founder of Yale’s agrarian studies program. Invited to give some prestigious lectures, he decided to delve into recent scholarship on the origins of agrarianism. To his surprise, he found that his anarchist perspective holds true back to the farthest reaches of prehistory. The standard view—not implausible given the paucity of available evidence until recent developments in radioactive dating, paleobotany, paleogenetics, microbial biology, parasitology, and other disciplines were pressed into service by archaeologists—has been that plant and animal domestication was followed in rapid sequence by population increase, sedentism, and state formation. It was a dramatic narrative, with clear causal links: technological change made possible a new way of life more like our own, which we naturally regarded as progress and therefore assumed that our Neolithic ancestors must also have regarded as desirable and willingly embraced. In fact, however, it appears that a gap of approximately four thousand years separates the domestication of the main cereal grains and the rise of the first enduring states. What were our ancestors up to in those millennia? This, roughly, is the question Scott sets out to answer in Against the Grain.
Domestication, it turns out, was a decidedly mixed blessing for humans. Judging from fossils, cereal-based diets were associated with shorter stature, bone distress, iron-deficiency anemia, and other deficits. The domus—the module including house and outbuildings, livestock yards, gardens, etc.—attracted hordes of commensals: not only dogs, pigs, and other mammals but also rodents, sparrows, insects, and weeds, as well as all their associated parasites and disease organisms, for which the domus was an ideal environment. A loss of alertness and emotional reactivity—the invariable result of animal domestication—may have similarly occurred among human domus-dwellers. And so labor-intensive was life in the domus that, Scott writes, “if we squint at the matter from a slightly different angle, one could argue that it is we who have been domesticated.”4
Hunting and foraging, by contrast, was a significantly healthier lifestyle. “Nomads,” one historian writes, “were in general much better fed and led easier, longer lives than the inhabitants of the large agricultural states.”5 Drawing subsistence from several food webs—fish and shellfish, game and birds, wild grains, roots, and tubers, fruits, berries, and nuts—not only allowed a more varied diet, it also made for greater food security. Mobile, skilled, and relatively leisured, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists had good reasons to resist domestication. Even apart from its dietary and medical disadvantages, life in the domus seems to have introduced drudgery into human history. The routines of plowing, harrowing, sowing, weeding, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, bundling, threshing, gleaning, winnowing, drying, sorting, and storing, all on a fixed timetable, year in and year out, could hardly have attracted most free-living Neolithics into the domus. It represented a drastic de-skilling, as Scott observes:
It is no exaggeration to say that hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal-grain farming as cereal grain farming is, in turn, removed from repetitive work on a modern assembly line.6
Why, then, did anyone submit to it? The reasons are unclear. Some researchers believe that, in alluvial Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, one of the regions where agriculture first flourished, population pressures may have played a role. The Younger Dryas ice age from 10,500 to 9,600 BCE was followed by a warmer, wetter period that may have spurred population growth and competition for game and forage, resulting in more intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. Scott is skeptical, pointing to current estimates that the earth’s population grew from only 4 to 5 million in the five millennia between 10,000 and 5,000 BCE—a nearly infinitesimal rate of increase. On the other hand, fewer large animal bones appear in archaeological records of the period, suggesting that overhunting may have forced a turn to sedentism. It’s also possible that much early agriculture was flood-retreat farming, using the fertile silt deposited by river flooding. Flood-retreat farming is considerably less demanding than dry-land farming....MORE
If it seems familiar, I swiped the end of the headline from Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830"

In an attempt to make things right for anyone who came to visit based on a perfectly understandable misapprehension, here's a parting gift
Money, Murder and Sadomasochism: A Look At the L.A. Tech Scene