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What If Rousseau Was Right?

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Sid Meier’s iconic Civilization computer games all start the same way. A band of hardy settlers is poised to emerge from an undifferentiated mass of shaggy, subsistence-level nomads and begin the arduous task of building a sedentary, urbanized civilization. Cultural progress, technological advancement, and higher standards of living beckon, but only if you, the player, assume the mantle of responsibility and lead your people into a brighter and, crucially, more settled future.

The Civilization paradigm of human progress has been recycled, tweaked, and overhauled by five massively popular sequels, a testament to how well it works as a gameplay mechanic and how deeply its assumptions are embedded in our cultural understanding of human progress. The imagery of the series’ cut scenes—a loincloth-wearing cave dweller becomes a toga-clad senator, then a knight, then a Renaissance inventor, then a posh industrialist, then a suit-and-tie wearing modern—reflects the just-so story we are taught in school. The history of humanity is a gradual progression from nomadic savagery to urbanized civilization, interrupted only by the occasional dark age or barbarian invasion.

Against the Grain, James C. Scott’s new history of humanity’s transition (devolution may be the more appropriate term) from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming challenges the very foundations of this narrative. After finishing the book, one can’t help but wonder if our nomadic ancestors would have been better off slinking back to the hills and forests and giving up on the idea of ever settling down.

Scott, a Yale political science professor whose eccentric views—in an earlier book, he explains that he views everything through an “anarchist squint”—have made him one of the most consistently interesting academics writing today, says his latest work is merely an attempt to “connect the dots” between academic disciplines that study our earliest sedentary ancestors. He is too modest. Against the Grain may not include much in the way of original research, but it presents a comprehensive and convincing case that the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to permanent, agriculturally dependent settlements was a complete disaster for humankind.

This may come as a profound disappointment to those who have gloried in the role of chieftain-cum-emperor-cum-president to a fledgling digital civilization. But in the process of revising our understanding of the earliest permanent human settlements, Scott also raises several fascinating questions about governance, freedom, and human society.

Take natural rights, a venerable political tradition that has largely been banished from our public discourse. Rights are socially constructed, a product of contingent historical circumstances, a tarnished artifact of Western culture. Only the truly gauche—hardcore libertarians, say, or Christian conservatives—believe that we are endowed with certain inalienable and unalterable rights. Rousseau’s famous dictum, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” sounds like something you might hear from a particularly obnoxious teenage Objectivist.

But what if Rousseau was right? Scott persuasively argues that sedentary agriculture is a critical prerequisite for state formation and all its attendant miseries, from slaving to war-making to the spread of pestilence and disease. For hundreds of thousands of years, a period that encompasses the vast majority of our existence on Planet Earth, man was born free, into groups of mobile hunter-gatherers who, if the fossil record is to be believed, lived longer and healthier lives than their civilized successors. It was not until comparatively recently that we were chained by the plow, the ox, and the overseer. The historical record of our earliest ancestors is the most compelling evidence yet that there is something deeply unnatural about being socialized into a rules-based, hierarchical society.

Whatever your political leanings, the implications of Scott’s book are as fascinating as they are wide-ranging. Scott argues that sedentary agriculture was both more oppressive and precarious than a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which relied on a diverse array of nutritional resources and was thus more resilient than depending on one or two staple crops. Why, then, did our ancestors allow themselves to be herded into farms and cities? Were they coerced, or were they forced to adopt labor-intensive agriculture by climate and environmental pressures?

The book’s title gestures at another provocative argument: namely, would the earliest states have emerged without the development of grain cultivation? In Seeing Like a State, Scott explored what he calls “legibility,” the idea that governments depend on a certain regimented understanding of their subjects and territory to exert control and extract resources. Grain, unlike most sources of nutrition, is eminently legible. It’s easy to count, store, and transport, and because its cultivation depends on a regular and predictable growing cycle, the first bureaucrats knew exactly when to send in the tax collectors.

This radical perspective on settled agriculture, long thought of as a foundational human achievement, is just one example of Scott’s talent for gently upending history’s conventional wisdom. In Against the Grain, ancient cities are transformed from thriving centers that attract the ambitious and upwardly mobile to “late neolithic multispecies resettlement camps,” sedentary concentrations of filth, pestilence, and a variety of animals—some domesticated, some parasitical—that only exist because of the presence of a dense human population. Historical “dark ages,” meanwhile, are best understood as voluntary flights from these oppressive and unhealthy urban centers.

The book’s speculative digressions are particularly stimulating. Scott suggests that the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden might have been inspired by a hazy ancestral memory of our idyllic existence before the advent of settled agriculture, while the Epic of Gilgamesh is reinterpreted as a blueprint for ancient state-building. These stimulating detours inspire a host of other questions. In most pre-modern societies, hunting, sport, and country homes were the preserve of a privileged aristocracy. Did these elite prerogatives reflect a fundamental unease with sedentary life that lurks deep in the heart of every human? And what of learning and culture, the signature achievements of urbanized civilization? The emergence of art and literature is usually explained by the accumulation of an agricultural surplus, which liberated artisans, scholars, and craftsmen from the demands of tilling the soil. But what if these pursuits only became a necessary outlet for our creative energies once the freedom and leisure afforded by nomadism had been replaced by the backbreaking drudgery of sedentary agriculture?

His own “anarchist squint” notwithstanding, Scott almost certainly does not intend Against the Grain as a brief for any political ideology. But if you squint at his book from the right direction, a tentative defense of good old-fashioned classical liberalism, perhaps the least fashionable doctrine of our era, emerges. In one of his many thought-provoking asides, Scott suggests the arc of human history is best understood as the onward march of progressively more regimented societies, from hunting and gathering to farming to the factory floor. Each new stage of human development is more legible to the state than its predecessors, allowing for greater surveillance, exploitation, and control. By attempting to claw back a little space for autonomy, dignity, and personal freedom, liberalism has been one of the few historical brakes on this progression, and it is a considerably less disruptive brake than civil unrest or external invasion.

Against the Grain may upend Sid Meier’s gamified vision of human progress, but it recalls the wisdom of an older childhood favorite. One of the best chapters in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King follows the future King Arthur’s transformation into a goose by the wizard Merlyn and his subsequent introduction to the good-natured anarchy of avian society. Later in the book, Merlyn remarks that “[he] is an anarchist, like any sensible person.” At the time, Merlyn had been aging backwards for centuries, so perhaps he was already familiar with Scott’s thesis. Maybe the good wizard was onto something.

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

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