A few days ago, we met James C. Scott, famous anthropologist, known in particular for its works The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia and Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.
You can watch the interview here
Could you tell us the will that was yours behind the writing of this book, what speeches this book is opposed to and what alternative speeches it proposes?
It was initially an accident, or a detour, that is to say I had just finished a book called “The art of not being governed” on hill peoples in South East Asia and was relaxing after that book. Its translated by “La decouverte” under the title “Zomia”. I was reading things about the Irrawaddy river, which was my next project, and then I was asked to give some very prestigious lectures called “The tanner” that I wanted to postpone as I was enjoying my free reading time and didn’t want to have another task. So I tried to postpone but they told me it could not. So I decided that I could do something quickly, and I have been giving this class with other people for twenty years on the comparative study of agrarian societies. I had always given the first lecture on the domestication of plants and animals in the earliest states and I realized that my lectures were out of date, and I thought, maybe, I can improve these lectures in my class in the “Tanner lectures”. But to make a long story short I spent 20 months reading all the archeology and ancient history of domestication in early states. And I realized that my lectures in the past had been stupid and wrong. So, in fact, when I gave a lecture in Harvard it was basically a report of my ignorance because everything I had thought about the early domestication was largely wrong so I spent three years doing more extensive reading and then put together what I understood on the basis of that knowledge from archeology and ancient history of this process of domestication in the early states. I am a trespasser, an imposter, a “braconneur”. I am not an archeologist, I am not a nation-historian, so this was an effort to bring to an educated public what I understood about how our basic story was incorrect in some fundamental ways.
Could you explain what is incorrect in the fundamental story of the states ?
The standard story we learn as school children is that homo-sapiens around 10 000 years ago managed to domesticate plants and once we domesticated plants we could stay in the same place and grow our food for the first time. This was an increase in our security, our health and in our abundance. And the result of this was that we became sedentary and we could sustain large villages with fix agricultured, and then we had towns and then we had civilization. That’s the standard narrative that we had absorbed. And most of this narrative is wrong in fundamentals ways.
For example, there's evidence in the Mesopotamian, in the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates that there were towns of 1500 to 2000 peoples long before there was any evidence of agriculture on fixed fields. Absolute convincing evidence of domestication of plants appears four thousand years B. C, before that we don't have any evidence of fixed agriculture being common. So the question is : why did it take four thousand years from the domestication of plant to lead to what we think of as fixed agriculture on fixed fields?
The other thing, of course, that I only realized in doing this research is that there was an assumption that we couldn't wait as a species to settle down and stay in one place. So there's a presumption that being sedentary is preferable and more desirable than moving around. And that seems to be untrue as well because there's a period of at least 2000, 3000 years when people move back and forth between forms of local production that involve agriculture, moved from pastoralism to hunting and gathering. The idea that each of these is a stage and once you enter that stage you never go back turns out to be radically wrong.
For those who have not read your book, could you tell us why the birth of the first states is linked to the cultivation of cereals?
The thing that is striking and it’s not just striking for the Middle East, but also for Mesopotamia and Egypt, is that the cereals associated with early towns and civilization are either wheat or barley. Barley virally becomes more important than wheat after a while. In China, of course it's millet and then it's rice, depending on whether you're in the Yellow River valley or the Yansa valley. And in the new world, the earliest states, of course, are states organized around maize. And my argument is that cereals have tremendous advantages for states and state control. First of all, to have a state, you need a flood plain, that is to say you need to be by a river where there are annual floods pulses distributing silt on a flat plane.
And that gives you then a kind of nutritious cultivated fields in which it's possible to grow a large number of crops quite quickly because the soil was already prepared by the flood. This is called flood recession agriculture. So all of the early civilizations arise on floodplains, usually at the base of the river, but sometimes into mountain valleys. And they involved cereal grains. And this importance of cereal grains is that cereal grains grow above the ground, they ripen at the same time. If the state wants your grain or part of your grain it only has to wait until they are busted. You put it in your granary and the State takes 10%, 20%, whatever, as a tax.
The advantage of grain is that it can concentrate a large number of people on a flood plain in a small area that early states can control, and the harvest can be scored. If scored well, it's relatively valuable per unit weight and volume. It can be distributed as rations to an unfree labor force. And so my argument of course is that this is not true with potatoes or yams or Kasama, or root and tuber crops which grow under the ground, which could not be scored easily and then are hard for state to appropriate.
That’s why, for you, there is no states of patatoes or states of beans…
Right. And in Southeast Asia I can demonstrate examples where people change the crops they grow in order to avoid state taxation.
The centralization of power and populations is one of the central characteristics of states, could you tell us about the problems that this centralization has posed in the history of the first states?
That's a very big question. I'll try to be very brief. So the early state has a problem of controlling its population and concentrating food supply in a small area. And that's why, of course, a flood plain, which is flat and a river that is available makes it easy to move grain, to move people, and to move minerals and firewood and so on. That's why that ecological setting is the setting where most early states appear. The states that we're talking about in the early Middle East are rather like old Paris. You can walk from one side to the other in one day. And it's rare for any of these states to be more than 10, 15 miles across, that maximum.
And many of them are much smaller than that. So the problem of controlling populations at a distance from the palace for the center of the state has been a huge problem for the early states. A problem of course is that people who are unhappy because of taxes or crop failures or civil wars and so on, are unlikely to just run away outside the span of state control. And so centralization, the only centralization that was possible in the ancient world was in a very small area characterized by very rich soils and presence cereal grains, outside of those areas, it was extremely rare to get anything that looked like a state, unless it was a choke point on a very important trade route. Then you could have many states that could survive simply by taxing the trade up the river that they controlled and so on.
Could you explain a little bit the demographic problems posed by centralization of population?
Yes, that was actually a surprise for me in the course of my research. It became clear to me that most of the infectious diseases that we are familiar with in the modern world, mumps, measles, chicken pox, or plague, all of these infectious diseases are diseases that are transferred between domesticated animals and human beings. Now, it's clear, by the way that we,homo-sapiens, gave our domesticated animals diseases just as they gave us their diseases. But animals don’t write the history. All of these infectious diseases are called zoonotic diseases because they move from animals to human beings. These diseases require a concentration of population in order to become epidemics. So the early states were the first time that we had large concentrations of people, 20 or 30 times larger than any of the sort of older hunter and gathering communities; so you had then the demographics and the crowding that made possible this trend, and the domesticated animals who were also crowded in these early states. These infectious diseases, most of them, did not even exist before the very earliest states. And so the demography of these states, both the domesticated animals and the human population, was extremely vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. To the point where they're a lot of religious symbolism in the early states and ways of trying to avoid disease by certain spells, and a set of preventative measures. For example, an army from an early Mesopotamian state could not come back after a campaign. They had to stop something like 10 miles away from the city that they lived in. They had to disrobe and burn all of their weapons and their clothes and then come naked back to the city with the idea that they would not be bringing diseases from the other area that they attacked.
We call these in contemporary public health "community acquired infections". The most striking one is measles because it's probably the most infectious. One of the interesting arguments is that the native American population that came across the Bering Straits 15,000 or 13,000 years ago, they came in such small groups and without domesticated animals that they did not bring any of these diseases. So, when the Europeans come to the new world, almost all of them, the first comment they have is how physically robust and healthy the native Americans look like compared to the Europeans.
You show very clearly that the first states were in fact fragile political entities and you describe on several occasions their collapse and you say that the collapse of a state "leads to the beginning of a salutary reformulation of the political order". Could you clarify what is "salutary" in this collapse?
Sure. There are collapses that are the result of crop failures, of disease, of civil wars over succession etc. When one of these states disappears, it has been treated as an unmitigated tragedy. In particular in the old days by the archeologists because there were no new buildings, there were no more things produced that we want to put in our museums. So these were seen as dark ages, the collapse of civilization. My argument is that occasionally they were actually the collapse of the civilization, but in many cases, they were the result of a periodic dispersal that came about because of crop failure and people moving away, or when disease came and there was an epidemic, people spread out because they knew they wanted to get away from the source of the infection.
It may have been a result of actual rebellions in which people formed new communities outside the state. So the point is that the idea of these moments so-called “dark ages” were an unmitigated disaster for the whole population. I want to see it both as periodic redistribution of population depending on, for example, rainfall crop production and disease in which people were in many cases saving themselves. And that it may have resulted in human wellbeing improving in these areas even though the the center of the state with its magnificent buildings and palaces disappeared. We may want to treat this as a tragedy in terms of archaeological objects, but we should not necessarily treat it as a tragedy of human wellbeing.
The notion of "decentralization" is very present in the book and it is also an important notion for us. You use it in particular to describe the life forms of barbarians. Could you tell us what a barbarian is and what were the assets of the barbarians' decentralized forms of life in their resistance to the state?
In areas that are naturally rich in natural resources and in which populations are small you actually have a kind of decentralization, the capacity to live an abundant lifestyle in terms of leisure is extremely high. We understand actually that most hunters and gatherers even today when they are pushed to unfavorable places in terms of natural resources that they only actually work for about half a day in terms of subsistence activities. So if the population is small, and if there is natural sources of abundance the life of hunters and gatherers is good. I'm characterizing barbarians in that sense, a rather affluent life in terms of leisure. The point that I actually want to make the definition of barbarian is, in my terms, very simple. It means people living outside of state control. That of course was most of the world's population for a long time. You could ask, I've asked myself, even in Europe, at what point in European history can we say that a majority of the population had the experience of an annual collection of taxes ? I think this probably didn't happen at least until 1600. The argument is that once you have states, the life of barbarians improved for two reasons. Both because they can raid fixed communities and take away their grain, take away their cattle. A saying of the Berbers in the Middle East is that “raiding is our agriculture”.
So why would you plant and tend and weed crops when you can just go after the agriculture done by others and take their grains up? For people outside the state, the existence of the state and of agriculture meant places that you could raid and also places in which you could trade, which was even more important. So if you look at, let's say the Roman Empire, the barbarians around the Roman Empire, the Germans and the Celts they were almost always located on an important trade routes into the Roman Empire in which they could tax the goods coming into the Roman empire and being dispersed from the Roman Empire, into the periphery. So these were in a sense, very favorable places for barbarians to collect and form small towns. They had the advantages of all the trade and commerce of civilization without the inconveniences of direct taxation and serving under them.
It remember me what we can read about the pirate form of life...
Correct. If the situation is relatively stable, raiders do not want to destroy the communities that they raid. They would rather tax these communities on a regular basis and say : we are coming every year and we want 20% of your harvest, otherwise we will burn down your village and kill your people. So once you do that on an annual basis, you're very close to being a state yourself.
In fact, you see, one of the things I tried to do in the book is to contest a lot of binaries in the sense that in the Middle East and China, depending on conditions, people may move into the state spaces when conditions are favorable and trade and exchange and times are peaceful. When there are epidemics and crop failures and civil wars, they tabled out. And so this line between the barbarians and the civilized is not permeable, people are moving back and forth all the time. We have this idea of the great walls of China to keep the barbarians out and we know that the Great Wall of China was built just as much to keep the taxpayers in because they were often running away. And so that barrier between the barbarians and Chinese are on civilization. People are moving back and forth all the time, either becoming barbarians, if you like or becoming odd depending on how the conditions change over time. So we shouldn't see pastoralists and subjects of a state as opposed to hunters and gatherers. And we shouldn’t see barbarians versus Roman citizens as permanent categories because the human population is moving back and forth depending on the advantages and conditions over time.
In an interview you gave to the newspaper Libération in June 2019, you said: "the only hope for domesticating the State, in my opinion, is to have mass movements that remain disorganized, mixing several demands that can sometimes even be contradictory". Could you develop this hypothesis?
Large scale political movements that change the structure of the states that they were a part of was never a single movement but was a combination of different sectors of the population, each with its own grievances, and aims and its own forms of cohesion that happened in a coalition against the state. You cannot understand the French revolution as a single movement, but as movement in which a whole series of contingent things created a kind of crisis in which the state was brought down.
The same is true for the Russian revolution. I mean it's precipitated. Lenin would like to think of as centralized, but in fact, it's created by the fact that, in the first world war after the Russians lose their western front, the Russian troops just deserted and went back and grabbed the land. Because they know people back home are starting to take the land from the large land owners and Lenin finds himself both with factory workers and peasants who are rebelling for their own reasons. He finds power lying on the streets of Petrograd and picks it up. Whereas he thinks that he made the revolution all by himself. Same is true for the Second World War and the Chinese revolution. And incidentally, the same is true for the civil rights movement in the United States.
Historically you have, let's say, the black power element of the civil rights movement as opposed to the Christian Black churches, as opposed to white liberals, as opposed to some enlightened businessman who thought that segregation was an economic cost for their businesses and all of these things. These were groups with different aims and different histories that were not connected in any organic way, but where the aggregation of their separate demands and militants created what we now call the civil rights movement. They, of course, had no idea that they were participating in the civil rights movement. It became the civil rights movement much later. Just the way nobody who was storming that about steel knew they were participating in the French revolution.
You say in the last chapter that "few empires did not recruit troops among the barbarians, often in exchange for commercial advantages and local autonomy". To read this sentence well, it seems that the barbarians did not care which political side they were on, and that they were only pursuing their own interests. Is the barbarian politically agnostic? And if so, can we say that it was this form of political agnosticism that caused their loss?
It's a very good point. I suppose I should say barbarians, it should be a plural word in the sense that Roman citizens would be a unit. Whereas the barbarians came in many different colors, languages, cultures, traditions, forms of subsistence and so on. So by nature, the periphery of the state is what I'm calling barbarians. People outside the control of the state are politically fragmented. So they come in lots of different segments and they are often competing with one another for either trade with enabling kingdom to control trade routes to raid a city before another barbarian group raids the city. And so the point is that politically barbarians are completely fragmented and it makes it possible then for states to recruit certain groups of barbarians to actually defend the frontier. Jiffy troops, you know, the Gaelic troops in Rome's legions, were fairly common as well. So the fact is that good barbarians are easy to divide and rule, as Caesar understood. To give you an example this is extremely common when the British, during the colonial period in Burma, virtually all of the British colonial troops in Burma came from the hill minorities. And the reason for that was because these were hill peoples who did not like the valley peoples, could be depended on to be the police force and the army get suppressed there rebellions. So British imperialism, if you like, dependent on the so-called barbarians in order to exert control over the Birmans who were the lowland planters. I think it's probably true, like in Algeria the use of Berbers. That in a sense, the people outside the state had been the military allies of the colonial powers.
We often hear about the famous "Dunbar number" which says that an individual cannot cognitively maintain more than 150 human relationships. You never use this "Dunbar number" but reading your book suggests that we humans are biologically made to live in hordes or bands of 20, 50 or 100. Do you agree with that? And if so, do you think that the crisis of meaning we are currently experiencing would be linked to the fact that we too often have the feeling of belonging to these big abstract entities that are the state or "society", because the very form of our world would not allow us to experience a real feeling of "living in community" ?
This is a very interesting point you raised. I confess that my education is incomplete because I had never heard of the Dunbar number. This is new to me. I think I understand the logic that a face to face community where we actually know one another as we do in bands of hunters and gatherers and in small villages. This has a kind of cohesion because of face to face relationships, that is very close and intimate and that anything much beyond this as you say, is a kind of abstract affiliation. I think the person who did this, who understood this in terms of nationalism was Benedict Anderson in his book called “Imagined communities”. For him, I guess,his argument was that it was print capitalism that is to say newspapers, magazines and so on and literature that created this idea of an abstract Frenchmen, not to mention the revolution and Napoleon or write wars, but the idea that it requires a kind of different technology to make people who actually don't know one another feel that they're a member of the same nation.
That is a result of if you like, indoctrination of schools, of markets, of national armies. I mean, the idea that, a Breton is just as much a frenchman as someone in the Languedoc and so on, all of these things depend on a radically different technology. That's not a face to face community and it is abstract. I guess if I understand you correctly, you want to argue that it is a more fragile or more corrupt or a less real community than the face to face communities of people who know one another on a daily basis.
Other question is not from me, it’s from a twitter account called @AgainstUtopia precisely from a market anarchist writer at “Center for a stateless society”, question is: China's Social Credit score is the pinnacle of legibility in statecraft - what is your reaction to this statement?
I completely agree with him. It seems to me that China has perfected the technology that George Orwell could only dream about. The world that George Orwell described is a world that now has the technical instruments for the total surveillance. You know, the civic score, the facial recognition and so on. It's actually one of the most frightening things I can imagine in terms of totalitarian control.
More time should be devoted to exposing this as an instrument of state surveillance and control from the cradle to the grave. Because I gather whether you're part of your civic score in China depends on whether you got good grades in school, whether you've ever been in debt, whether your marriage is broken up, whether you're a good employee. Cause you're total evaluation is organized in this civic score.
Like the joke which say 1984 is a fiction, not a manual...
Right. As you know, there are groups of Chinese ambitious young people who step time writing patriotic letters and manifestos in order to improve their civic score, so that they are more likely to get a job. They are gaming the system to score their ticket.
What is the most threatening development in modern statecraft, and why?
I was deeply impressed actually by what's been happening in Hong Kong. I mean,I cannot remember a peaceful mass movement of 2 million people, right? That was characterized all of the early stages of the Hong Kong movement. It's quite extraordinary. And essentially umbrella movement before was a set the stage.
It was like a dress rehearsal as we call it for these demonstrations. But I think it's the largest peaceful mass movement of whole populations that we've seen in the last 20 or 30 years. I don't know, it's still probably may be burned out and be crushed. But you know, we have to look more broadly at these movements because this movement,I think, has changed the political attitudes and impulse to activism of a huge number of people who will no longer accept state instruction and state indoctrination. That is to say, here's an example, by the way, here are people who have thrown off both a passive attitude as I've asked, actually clone off the idea that they are part of the Chinese nation. Right? So to go back to your earlier question of these abstract affiliations, this is something in which there's a reversal of the usual course of building a national sentiment.
Yes, I agree, it is true that in the case of what is currently happening in Hong Kong, we can see all the violence necessary for imposition that the national "feeling". It is clear that the feeling of belonging to something as big as China is something that is imposed with batons and tear gas, once again, the national feeling is only the dream of a small minority, the police and army have the mission to make this "minor dream" a reality.
You have certainly seen what has happened in the ZAD in France in recent years, in our world where every centimetre is administered almost all the squatting attempts are systematically crushed by the police, that's why some groups try to access to private property as a way to regain autonomy. This is the case of a project called "la suite du monde" which buys lands in France and then organizes a collective governance of the territories. What do you think of this type of strategy?
It's something I thought about. It seems to me that the history of capitalism with respect to land is the history of the destruction of common property. In 1215 and in 1217 there was a Magna Carta for the forest and the idea that the land belong to the people and was not private property. This process is still taking place where people have community, forest, agricultural land and so on. Capitalism is absolutely devoted to the destruction on common property so I'm completely sympathetic with the creation of common property. I wrote a book a long time ago call the “weapons of the weak” where I tried to point a whole series of forms of political actions that were just aggregated, and collected and which was y'all were almost impossible to control. I'm thinking of “squatters”, people who occupy buildings without permission. In rural areas, you have two forms of movement that should be distinguished. One of them is public land invasion. They're people invade land and plant the flag and declare “this is our land”. Then you had the squatters who come in and don't announced themselves, but just sparked landing and behaved as if it was their land. Often they're pushed out. Let's say it's Monday and they're push out but they'll be back on Wednesday. Then started on thursday, push out on wednesday, they're back on Friday. And there are movements in the U.S probably in France too, of people in urban areas in which they lead groups of homeless who break into abandoned buildings and live there until their pushed out and then they find another abandoned building. And so what's interesting to me is that it's comparable to a form of collective action that doesn't have a formal organization of the leadership that could be a co-opted, or bought off, or bribed or imprisoned.
And the same is true, for example, in resistance to military service, the difference between what might be called a mutiny, in which you arrest your officers and tried to just go to the army as opposed to a desertion in which you just leave in small groups or as individuals and so on. So the squatting and desertion are forms of social movements that are almost impossible to control and destroy.
You live in the United States where Donald Trump deploy all his idiocy and stupidy, the silly nature of Donald Trump made me think of a quote from Michel Foucault, in 1975 in his course entitled “Les Anormaux” where he said:
"From Nero to Heliogabalus, the functioning, the machinery of grotesque power, of infamous sovereignty, has been perpetually implemented in the functioning of the Roman Empire. The grotesque is one of the essential process to arbitrary sovereignty. (...) That the administrative machine passes through the mediocre, null, stupid, pellicular, ridiculous, grated, impotent civil servant, all this has been one of the essential features of the great Western bureaucracies.. (...) The power gave itself the image of being from someone who was dramatically disguised, drawn like a clown."
A french philosopher Stéphane Legrand said that the grotesque of Trump is not a failure, it's a symptom. It's not a bug, it's the feature. Power is obscene: it repels us and fascinates us. What do you think about this idea that power is inherently obscene ?
Power (if unaccountable and total) is always obscene. In my view the perfect text to ‘capture the Trump phenomenon’ is not just Michel Foucault but Albert Camus in his play Caligula. For him Caligula is the true “existential god” sent to teach mankind the lesson of Existentialism --- “the absurd” (not the same as obscene)-- and the absence of any order, plan, logic to human affairs. Caligula, by his violence, arbitrariness, caprice, and destruction plays the Existential god lest mankind forget that there is no logic or meaning tom history, Hegel not withstanding. e.n In the Hegel system everything rational is real and everything real is rational, there is no (or very little) place for contingency in the Hegelian system - the history is only the deployment of a concept.