James C Scott is arguably the most perceptive of social science scholars, belonging to the highest standards of cross-disciplinary enquiry. He's been a trenchant critique of the modern state for over half a century.
Seeing Like a State is only one among a pile of classic works. I have recently been listening to his lectures on how the domestication of fire, grain, and animals created the conditions for emergence of the modern state (this and this). They form the basis of his last work chronicling the role of grain in creating the state. It contains fascinating historical and anthropological portraits and stories.
The sequence goes something like this. Homo sapiens can be traced back to 200,000 years, and 50,000 years outside of Africa. The first signs of sedentary communities can be traced back to 11000 years ago, roughly the same time as evidence of domestication of animals and plants. But there is no evidence of villages with domesticated animals and plans and settled agriculture till about 7000 years back. The first form of a state appeared in the Mesopotamian lowlands (Uruk etc) about 6000 years ago, which was the last 3% of human history on the planet. The first forms of modern impersonal bureaucratic states can be traced to the Qin China of 3rd century BC. In other words, states are a very recent part of human history.
This sequence raises questions on the conventional narrative of civilisation, which goes something like this. The domestication of plants allowed us to settle in one place, make small villages and then towns, and ultimately create civilisations. If civilisation is an achievement of the state, and if early civilisation was about sedantism, farming, irrigation, and towns, then there is something odd with this historical sequence. All these existed before anything like a state emerged on the horizon.
A reconstructed story on civilisational development would go something like this. Human beings domesticated fire, animals, and grains. Fire ended up vastly reducing the radius of a meal. By allowing for cooking and storage, it enabled people to increase the types of foods they could consume. All this, over a long time, engendered spatial, societal, cultural, and organisational norms and practices that were appropriate for sedentary lives. This, in turn, led to the emergence of large and dense human settlements like villages and towns, which, in turn, created the conditions for state formation.
The impact of domestication of grain and animals was transformational on the lives of human beings. It meant organising our lives around the requirements of often a single plant. Routines around preparing the field and sowing, managing the crop, harvesting and post-harvest activities, and preparing them for cooking, and finally cooking transformed human lives. It impacted even the shapes of our physical bodies, created their patterns of cooperation and coordination, and organised our work life, settlement patterns, social structures, our built environment of domus, and even our rituals.
Moving from hunting and foraging to settled agriculture, and that too involving just one or two crops, meant a substantial narrowing of focus and simplification of tasks. In this context, Scott points out that the differences in complexity at all levels associated with the life of foraging and even slash and burn cultivation compared to sedentary agriculture based communities are of an order similar to the difference between early and Taylorised manufacturing. He argues that the transition to sedentary agriculture as similar to that of a skilled worker being reduced to the role of an assembly line worker. Alexis Tocqueville made the perceptive observation in the context of Adam Smith's pin factory example, "What can one expect from a man who has spent the last 20 years putting heads on pins?"
Fixed field agriculture is very labour intensive. Plough agriculture was avoided till population pressure and scarcity of land forced people into it. People tend to avoid it if they could. Settled agriculture was an extremely drudgery filled task, especially so for the homo sapiens who spent no more than 10-15% of their time on gathering food.
This also meant that there is nothing natural in terms of the progress from hunting and foraging to slash and burn cultivation and then to settled agriculture. He points to the physical drudgery and risks associated with domestication and settled agriculture. Unlike hunting, foraging and slash and burn cultivation, fixed field agriculture involved ploughing and other field preparatory works which entailed intense physical activity. Also, unlike foraging with its diversity of food sources, domestication of a few woodgrains concentrated risks and exposed people to risks of plant diseases and vagaries of the weather. For these reasons, people had a strong incentive to avoid domestication and sedentary agriculture.
Accordingly, Scott points to the long time of nearly four millennia it took for people to adopt agriculture and assume settled lives. He also points to how episodes of large population destructions were generally followed by reversion away from settled agriculture towards either slash and burn cultivation or increased focus on animal husbandry. Even the Great Plague of Europe in the fourteenth century was accompanied by such reversals from settled agriculture.
Further, unlike foraging and hunting, settled cultivation was also amenable for greater participation by women. Most of the tasks associated with settled cultivation, including cooking, were tasks that are historically associated with women. Therefore societies that took to settled cultivation were associated with greater involvement of women in production and also greater drudgery of their lives.
Given the extent of their influence on human civilisation, Scott also draws attention to the epistemological point about who is getting domesticated. He quotes Michael Pollan and Evans Pritchard to say that while it is argued that human beings domesticated plants and animals respectively, it can just as well be argued that human beings ended up being domesticated or enslaved by the forces unleashed by domestication of animals and grains. Their personal behaviours and practices, livelihoods, daily routines, familial relationships, social organisations, and so on were all deeply impacted and transformed. Indeed the entire human life, including even their biological processes, was transformed by the process of domestication of fire, grains, and animals.
At another level, there is also the role of slavery in motivating the earliest wars so as to get state residents who can be captive cultivators and thereby tax payers.
Scott characterises domesticated animals, like domesticated fire, as expanding our scope of food. They go far and wide, eat up different kinds of food, metabolise them, and provide us with valuable proteins and fats. They therefore become the dedicated foragers of human beings.
Scott describes a "domus complex", whereby stable groups of humans gathered themselves and an assortment of nonhuman animals, to highlight the emergence of densely populated communities.
Density, in turn, brings with it a proliferation of diseases, as populations provide the necessary concentration of hosts for viruses and bacteria to survive. Combined with domestication of animals, it also provided the perfect opportunity for transmission of zoonotic diseases contracted from animals. The examples of how whole populations got exterminated in the New World from diseases brought by invaders from the Old World highlights the point.
On state formation, sedentary agriculture was central to the project. Consider a few snippets. One, all early states were slave states. Most early wars were fought to conquer populations who could then be brought home and made to undertake agriculture which could then be taxed to support the state. Besides, these slaves also could fight more wars. In fact, most early trade was trade in slaves. Two, the big walls, like Great Wall of China, were built just as much to keep farmers inside the state as it was to prevent barbarians from invading.
Scott points to the domestication of three grains - rice, wheat, and maize - as critical in the process. Incidentally, these three grains make up nearly half the calories consumed by human beings even today. These three grains had pre-defined production cycles, were standardised, had to be harvested and the production could be easily assessed through routinised processes (unlike tubers which could be left inside the ground or millets whose production cycles were less certain). It became possible to assess production and levy taxes, which was a critical requirement to support the state. In fact, only these cereal grains can form the basis for taxation.
Root crops are a form of state resisting crops, since they are easy to grow, and have no specific harvest requirement and can be left underneath for a long time. Scott describes growing them as agriculture of evasion.
In fact, even among grains, there is nothing like wet rice cultivation in concentrating state making. Rice grows above the soil, is grown the same times of the year, ripens at the same time, can be easily confiscated after threshing, stores quite well, high value per unit weight, and can be transported easily over long distance.
Scott points out that sedentary agriculture by itself did not lead to the formation of states. But he's not clear (using his narrative on domestication of grain) about what forced state formation in the Mesopotamian lowlands. It is likely, as others have pointed out, that when faced with climate related pressures, those residing in those areas doing settled agriculture consolidated to form states.
States in turn fought with each other, which necessitated more taxes, and organised armies to fight those wars. This, in turn, called for bureaucracies to collect taxes and manage the logistics of recruiting and managing armies. The modern state gradually evolved.
In sum, as Scott says, states need alluvium or loose soils (to grow grains), navigable waters, and places where you can cram large numbers of people into small areas (grain-manpower module). Sedentary agriculture is an essential requirement for state formation.
In summary, Scott characterises state making as being associated with several undesirable features for its populations - forced agriculture, slavery, diseases, wars, weakening of kinship ties etc. In fact, he calls state a "late Neolithic multi species resettlement camp"! Therefore, populations most often preferred to remain outside state limits. Given the central role of settled agriculture in state formation, populations made strategic choices to remain as nomads and foragers. In fact, the term barbarians is used to refer those residing outside state limits. They were nomadic, pursued foraging, and were governed by kinship norms, and did not live under states.
Reading Scott, one gets the impression of a historical narrative which is so tightly fitted into a prior hypothesis. It appears like a mega history. What makes him by orders of magnitude more formidable than the likes of other faux mega historians (Yuval Harari, Jared Diamond, Peter Turchin etc) is the rigour of his research and the orthodoxy of his conceptual frameworks. In many respects, I feel only another equally formidable and granular scholarship can refute Scott.
At a higher level, Samuel Moyn has a very good critique of Scott's works,
Scott rarely mentions the forms of social justice that only modernity and its states have permitted and put into practice, however faulty and outweighed by state crime and excess they are. Instead, he has sought to project an immemorial dialectic between the state and its enemies onto the whole of human history. This has made him one of the greatest teachers of how costly modernity has been; yet it has also caused him to obscure the fact that modern states could strive not simply for civilizational splendor, but also for the freedom and equality of all.