Grains made states. This is the thesis of James C. Scott’s 2017 book Against the Grain.1 He argues that no central authority could control and tax people who had diverse seasonal diets of roots in the ground, fruits in trees, meat in migrating herds, and wild or semi-cultivated cereals. In contrast, royal goons could easily steal grains from a storage house. By forcing others to become the first full-time farmers of grains, rulers emerged in Mesopotamia, creating the first large-scale fixed social hierarchies. Scott reckons that people outside these early states were likely freer and better off than those within them. Against the Grain, like much of Scott’s work, might be better titled Against the State.
Food historian Rachel Laudan (“With the Grain,” Issue 9) apparently interpreted Scott’s book as a treatise against agrarianism. She makes Scott the spokesperson of an invented “anti-grain consensus” that includes prominent scholars, environmentalists, and “Paleolithic” dieters. Then she launches into a passionate defense of grains and farming, as if serious scholarship had been dedicated to advocating their abolition. Laudan finishes by telling us to “resist the deceptive lure of a non-agrarian world in some imagined past or future dreamed up by countless elites.” The only appeal to end agriculture I’ve seen came from a blog post on the Breakthrough Institute website that proposed manufacturing food in factories rather than growing it in fields, in order to “re-wild” the planet.2
There is no anti-grain consensus. Laudan lumps these diverse thinkers together because they cast inconvenient caveats on her conviction that the evolution from foraging to increasingly mechanized farming has made life unequivocally better. For her, grains make progress: “Unlike the foraging, herding, and gardening alternatives, grain-based societies were able, over time, to reduce labor and inequality while increasing access to good food and political participation.”
But to reject the progress narrative does not mean accepting its opposite, that humanity has fallen from a utopian Eden. Researchers do not study the role of grains in the emergence of states or how non-agricultural societies function simply to compare whether hunter-gatherers live better than we do. It is demeaning to equate Scott and others’ contributions to understanding our world and its origins with the doctrine of the Paleo diet. While my intention is not to participate in Laudan’s imagined debate about whether grain-based societies are better, let me point to some factual inconsistencies in her work.
First, work need not be a bad thing. Anthropologists have written that hunter-gatherers work only a few hours each day or a few days each week to obtain their nourishment and other necessities.3 Laudan claims that this finding omits countless hours of food processing labor. Because the work that fed grain-based societies before industrialization was repetitive, strenuous, and involuntary, she assumes that all food processing is grueling forced labor, denigrated and delegated to marginalized groups like women and immigrants. But food processing need not be undesirable drudgery imposed on subjugated people. Those anthropologists did not count food processing as work because they found that hunter-gatherers did not perceive it as work. In egalitarian societies, food processing can be something to do with one’s hands while sitting, talking, and laughing with friends and family. Even when physically demanding, it can be a ritual performed together, synchronized by sacred songs. This opens possibilities for thinking about our own future, not in the sense of returning to hunting and foraging, but by rediscovering the fun in tasks that are today performed for wages. Meaningful work is a human need; what is more meaningful than feeding each other?
Second, non-farming societies did, and do, well on equality and nutrition. Evidence from today’s tribal peoples and the archaeological record strongly suggests that human societies were astoundingly egalitarian — including between genders, some argue — right up until they settled down and began to farm for a living.4 The skeletons our ancestors left behind also indicate that their nutrition, longevity, and overall health deteriorated significantly in the transition from hunting and foraging to sedentary agriculture.5
Third, the improvement grain-based states have made on nutrition is patchy and counteracted by inequality. Stanford historian Walter Scheidel finds that established inequalities have been reduced only by plagues, wars, and, tellingly, the collapse and overthrowing of state governments — a finding partially replicated by economist Thomas Piketty in the industrialized world.6 Because of today’s enormous inequality, undernourishment and overnourishment together jeopardize the health of somewhere between one-fifth and one-half of humans, even as more than enough grains are produced to feed everyone.7 When Laudan recounts grain-based states’ periodic famines, which have nearly all resulted from unequal access to food, not insufficient availability, one wonders whether more egalitarian societies would have suffered similarly.8 Today’s “anti-grain” Paleo dieters in high-income countries gorge on grain-fed cattle, while the global poor struggle to afford grain for staple sustenance. The market system achieves unequal outcomes just like authoritarianism did in early states.
Laudan and Scott both focus on the special traits of grains: they are uniform, divisible, storable, shippable, countable, and determinate (they ripen all at once). For the historian Laudan, grains make good commodities and thus facilitate capitalist modernization. For the political scientist Scott, these very characteristics enable kleptocratic elites to sustain themselves on others’ work. These related, fascinating findings need not fuel an inane debate over whether grains are good or bad.
J. C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
M. Lind, ‘The Future of Food -- Ending Agriculture to Feed and Re-Wild the Planet’, The Breakthrough Institute, 2012, https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/michael-lind/the-future-of-food.
M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1974).
D. Graeber and D. Wengrow, ‘How to Change the Course of Human History (at Least, the Part That’s Already Happened)’, Eurozine, 2018, https://www.eurozine.com/change-course-human-history/; C. Power, ‘Gender Egalitarianism Made Us Human: A Response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s “How to Change the Course of Human History”’, Libcom.Org, 2018, http://libcom.org/history/gender-egalitarianism-made-us-human-response-david-graeber-david-wengrows-how-change-cou.
M. N. Cohen, Health and the Rise of Civilization (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989); K. Latham, ‘Human Health and the Neolithic Revolution: An Overview of Impacts of the Agricultural Transition on Oral Health, Epidemiology, and the Human Body’, Nebraska Anthropologist (2013).
W. Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017); T. Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014).
M. J. Chappell, Beginning to End Hunger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).
A. Sen, ‘Ingredients of Famine Analysis: Availability and Entitlements’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 96 (1981).