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James C. Scott


Subtitle: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 2017, 312 pgs., index, bibliography, notes, illustrations, paperback


Reviewer comments:

This is a very polemical work written in a highly defensive style as the author attempts to promote his theories about the development of the first cities in southern Mesopotamia. He provides much useful information, but draws his own very dubious conclusions (to say the least). The prose is very combative in style and vocabulary but it is difficult to determine exactly what he opposes the most: despotic government (which he calls 'state') - or sedentary versus nomadic living - or grain consumption versus meat and berries of the 'hunter-gatherer'. He devotes so many pages and attention to disparaging grain consumption versus meat that I wonder if he is part of the current 'paleo' diet fad.

He frequently uses technical "scientific' vocabulary to impress the reader. One finds the term 'domus' frequently. the large Webster dictionary does not contain the term so the reader has to guess at his meaning. But 'domus' was a Latin term for the relatively extensive home of the wealthy elite Romans - so perhaps Dr. Scott is using it to mean the typical palace of the 'lugal - ruler' in these cities. More likely, he is simply trying to be pretentious. In his prose he frequently does state that a conclusion is his opinion - conjecture, presumption, assumption, supposition. This or that might have happened, or may be extrapolated from analogy.

First: He insists on terming these cities with their surrounding territories as 'states'. He has repeated his term beyond count throughout the book. They were NOT states. The 'state' is a very specific term - a modern western European abstract concept that originated in the Renaissance era to take the place of the discarded 'great chain of being' as the concept for legitimizing the actions of rulers by assigning responsibility to one or more GODS. The 'state' exists only in the minds of people who believe in it as their justification for rule and act accordingly. He defines his idea of 'state' purely in secondary physical (mostly archeological) terms. Despite the ready availability of documents, he does not 'ask' the actual inhabitants of Mesopotamia what they thought about the societies in which they lived. They recognized implicitly the necessity of every social group to have a leader (ruler) to prevent internal (in society) chaos and one or more gods to ward off external chaos and to which the rulers continually sought to justify their actions. Dr. Scott does not even mention the role of religion and religious belief in these societies.

He apparently is a materialist who cannot imagine that anyone would consider transendental reality.

Second he claims that the essential defining factor on which all this developing civilization depended was grain. But grain was first cultivated not in southern Mesopotamia but in the northern foothills and plateaus. What was the defining factor characteristic of agricultural civilization in southern Mesopotamia (and also Egypt and China, which he includes) was irrigation rather than rainfall agriculture. This was well described by Karl Whitfogel years ago in his study Oriental Despotism Yes, these societies had highly bureaucratic and nearly despotic central government command structures in which the rulers shared authority and economic power with the local priesthoods. They had to have central government command in order to create and maintain elaborate irrigation systems.
He explicitly claims that without 'grain' there could be no 'states' (meaning cities). but there were such cities in the foothills and plateaus north of the river delta. Of course there could be no villages even, let alone cities, without significant grain production surplus to the consumption of the farmers themselves, otherwise the whole economy based on specialization of labor with many artisans and government functionaries who consume food without having produced it could not develop. But the agricultural surplus did not need to be created by the city population itself. It could be and frequently was obtained by trade. The late medieval European 'agricultural revolution' also enabled the development of cities that were able to trade local surplus for imported goods and services.

Third, there are other exaggerations stemming from these two basic mistakes. For instance, the matter of taxation. Tax is another term for tribute and it certainly was a characteristic of these societies as it has been ever since (and before). But the author places great stress on the fact that the records indicate that people 'fled' from one place to another to escape taxation. Of course people do that but not only from taxation, don't forget military service (or corvee labor). Now, in America. people are fleeing from one state (different meaning) to another to escape high taxation.

Another idea the author presents is that the 'states' conducted offensives to capture slaves due to population shortages and they needed more people to produce their grain. But according to the actual inscriptions of the greatest of the conquerors, such as Sargon, they were indeed seeking to expand their territorial dominion, not necessarily acquire people. In reverse to his idea, population increases required more agricultural land. In Mesopotamia local inhabitants frequently became slaves due to owing debt and the rulers periodically issued decrees freeing them from debt. Rulers did NOT encourage slavery.

The author digresses to Ancient Greece and Rome - real slave societies - but both coped with population increases (not decreases initially) by founding colonies to which they sent surplus people. And the Romans especially would confiscate land to provide it to their military supporters.

The boastful inscriptions of Mesopotamian rulers stressed that they had added land to the society, not so much that they had added population. And they did so by order of their 'GOD' and prided themselves with the construction of Temples. The secular rulers even performed annual liturgies showing their continued obiesence to the city GOD.

What the author does show us is that rulers of the earliest cities practiced domination just as they do today. They expropriated a significant fraction of the production of the common people for their own consumption just as they do today. Actually in was mostly the reverse - they and their people believed that it was the GOD who owned everything, including the means of production, and the temple and palace officials were rationing a share to the workers. They practiced the same kind of authority as some economists today term 'public choice'. Their inscriptions frequently expressed the same justifications for their actions as those today - statements boasting that everything they accomplished was for the betterment of the people. Some rulers (including both the palace and the temple authorities) claimed that they were agents of the GOD as owners of the land, hence the farmers and others worked for them so they were paid rations. When the society grew too large and the agricultural and other production and distribution became to complex for a few officials to supervise then some rulers (either palace or -most often - temple officials) gave or assigned land to friends or subordinates and then charged rent (in form of taxes and corvee labor). At that it soon became a political struggle between the rulers and the appointed local collectors who attempted to take increasingly large cuts out of the taxation. One method of domination was for the rulers to establish the official relative value of labor and production, initially recording this using money as a standard of value. Money is the metric by which the relative values of different things (including labor) can be quantified. Early money was actually simply notations on clay tablets showing assets and liabilities - from the relative values of production and consumption of goods and services.

If the reader can ignore the use of the term 'state' and consider irrigation rather than grain as the basis for the agricultural community, the author provides a 'valuable' support for libertarian politics today.




Introduction - A Narrative in Tatters: What I Didn't Know


Chapter One - The Domestication of Fire, Plants Animals, and ... Us


Chapter Two - Landscaping the World: The Domus Complex


Chapter Three - Zoonoses: A Perfect Epidemiological Storm


Chapter Four - Agro-ecology of the Early State


Chapter Five - Population Control: Bondage and War


Chapter Six - Fragility of the Early State: Collapse as Disassembly


Chapter Seven - The Golden Age of the Barbarians


Here are some alternative views of Mesopotamia and especially aspects that Dr. Scott ignores such as ideas, beliefs, religion, motivations.

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Podany, Amanda - Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

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Podany, Amanda - Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped The Ancient near East

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Whittfogel, Karl - Oriental Despotism

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Landes, David & Joel Mokyr & William Baumol - The Invention of Enterprise

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Wilson, Andrew R - Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture

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Roaf, Michael -Cultural atlas of the World - Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East

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Bates, John & Jaromir Malek - Cultural Atlas of the World- Ancient Egypt

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Hitti, Philip K. -The Near East in History; A 5000 Year Story

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Saggs, H. W. F. The Greatness that was Babylon: A sketch of the ancient civilization of the Tigris-Euphrates valley

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