Monday, February 26, 2018

Some notes on James C. Scott: Against the Grain

‘If you take a walk,  I'll tax your feet.
'Cause I'm the taxman, …’
George Harrison

‘Property is theft.’

James C. Scott is one of our most prominent anthropologists.  He has had a long career researching the life-ways of peasant culture and the various methods that traditional farmers employ to resist the encroachments of the state.  His earliest field-work (1970's) was with rice cultivators in Burma and in Viet-Nam.  Now in his eighties, he has produced a book, Against the Grain, which amounts to a distillation of his entire scholarly experience.[1]

Hawaii's O'o bird.  Taxable!

In sum, this book is an examination of the formation of the earliest states in the fertile crescent around Uruk.  He attempts to find similarities between these proto-states and other state societies.  He thinks to have found certain consistent factors in state formation; the primary of which is the presence and cultivation of grain.  He clearly feels that grain is the culprit behind what he sees as the coercive tax-gathering state.  Remove cereals, restore a broader ecological range of food alternatives and the state must fall.  This is his thesis: cultivation choices are the major factor in determining political forms.

It seems, therefore, that we could look to Scott for a description of how states come into being and, indeed, he is always on the edge of providing such an explanation.
But he never actually does.

If we examine the way in which he uses the word ‘state’ we see the problem.

‘…virtually everywhere, it seems, [the] early state battens itself onto this new source of sustenance.’[2] 

The source of sustenance in question is that clutch of concentrated cereal-oriented Mesopotamian riverine settlements that have formed on rich alluvial land.

‘The state form colonizes this nucleus as its productive base, scales it up, intensifies it, …’[3]  

The ‘nucleus’ here is, again, the settlements already alluded to.

Do you see?  The state ‘battens itself’ onto pre-existing agricultural settlements.  Or the state ‘colonizes’ an agro-nucleus.  The state ‘scales it up’, ‘intensifies it’.  Scott really should be more forthcoming with his pronouns.  In his mind the state is an external actor.  Like a ravening lion it seizes on these innocent settlements as though they were so many sheep.  But we are not told what this actor is or where it comes from.  They are elites.  That’s all he knows.

The reason for this curious omission is that Dr. Scott doesn’t really care how the state came to be.  He is an anarchist.  He opposes the State.  For him the State is literally a bunch of gangsters[4] who, given the right opportunity, will convert settlements into states that they might more easily rob them.  Against the Grain is not an anthropological but a moral case against those early state-forming elites who subjected mankind to misery in perpetuity in order that they could batten and grow rich.

But who were these elites?  How did they come to gain control over free peasants and convert them into slaves of the grain?  Why were they able to maintain their power?  And what happened on those frequent occasions when the elites lost their power and the State disintegrated?  Why did all this happen?

We are not told.

We are given the after-picture.  Scott suggests that there are characteristics that, when we find them – or most of them – together, we may infer the presence of a state.  Scott explains here:

“…, ‘stateness’, …, is an institutional continuum, less an either/or proposition than a judgment of more or less.  A polity with a king, specialized administrative staff, social hierarchy, a monumental center, city walls, and tax collection and distribution is certainly a ‘state’ in the strong sense of the term.  Such states come into existence …”[5]

All these things might very well be found in conjunction with states and much ink has been spilt debating which of these is ‘essential’ for inferring the existence of a state.  

This only answers a ‘what’ question.

To the question of ‘why did the state originate as a model for human association?’ there is no answer.   For Scott it’s all just a criminal conspiracy. 

As I mentioned above, the most important requirement for state formation, according to Scott, is the presence and cultivation of cereals: wheat, barley, oats, rice, rye.  These are the culprits.  As he says

‘…only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.”’[6]

and ...

‘The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier.  If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation.  For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation.  Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.’[7]

And even though many societies grow tubers – potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), taro (many varieties but basically Colocasia esculenta), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), yams (Dioscorea spp.) – such crops cannot be the foundation of state societies because they are not suitable for tax collectors.  Scott gives these reasons:

“Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two.  They can be dug up as needed and the remainder stored where they grew, underground.  If an army or tax collectors want your tubers,  they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly.”[8]

And this: "History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states."[9]

And: “It follows, I think, that state formation becomes possible only when there are few alternatives to a diet dominated by domestic grains.”[10]

So Scott’s thesis is that the natural characteristics of the several tubers make them unsuitable for the tax collector and, as a result, cannot be the basis for a state.  He claims priority for this thesis.[11]

Scott’s thesis is interesting, deeply researched, it appears to explain a great deal …

and it is stone-cold false. 

Are there state societies (or even hierarchical societies) based on tuber crops? 

Of course there are.

Scott’s inability to see this follows directly from his lack of interest in explaining the rise of state societies in the first place.    Instead of an explanation involving people's decisions and how they adapt their associative practices to specific environments, he substitutes a crude deterministic theory about crops and their putative socio-political effects.[12]  He trims off the troubling anomalies and … presto-change-o … we have a new theory of states.  In order to support his deterministic theory of state formation he tries to fit the crop to the tax-collector and is forced to make ludicrous assumptions about how tax collectors really go about their work. 

But tax-collectors don’t work the way Scott thinks they do:

‘Hawaiian scholars David Malo and Samuel Kamakau described the system of annual Makahiki tax collection, when an image of Lono was carried in a clock-wise procession around the island.  As the Lono image entered each ahupua’a territory, two poles were set in the ground; the distance between the poles was close for a small ahupua’a, farther apart for a large territory.  The gap had to be filled, from pole to pole, with baskets of sweet potato, calabashes of poi, pigs, dogs, bark-cloth, fishnets, fine mats, and other offerings.  If the konohiki or ahupua’a manager failed to make sure that his people filled the space between the upright sticks, then the chiefs attending the Lono image would order the territory to be plundered.  As Kamakau drily remarked, “Only when the keepers [of the image]  were satisfied with the tribute given did they stop this plundering.”' [13]

The first thing that strikes us when we compare Scott’s simplified ideas about tax collection and Kamakau’s description of the Hawaiian system is how limited Scott’s conception is.  It's not just that tubers were the basis of Hawaiian taxation.  The Hawaiian system levies contributions from the entire ecosystem; not just products of the ground but hand-manufactures as well as products from the forest and ocean.  And there is another division in the Hawaiian system which is invisible in Scott.  The Hawaiians not only levy necessities but items of high status: feathers from the  ‘o’o and mamo birds as well as fine handicrafts in the form of malos, woven mats, skirts, and a wide variety of tapa cloths.

This is what taxation looks like in an actual society, not in the abstract state of Scott’s imaginings.

In the light of this his image of tax collectors digging up their own tubers looks strange and perverse.  Why would Scott ever have thought such a thing?

And what about Scott’s idea that tubers cannot be the foundation of a state because they cannot be stored?  Taro, yams, and sweet potatoes were all subject to appropriation during the Makahiki.   Taro (Colocasia esculenta) was the primary food crop in ancient Hawaii.  The plant (either wet-land or dry-land) produces a tuber (a corm) after 9 months to 2 years of cultivation. When the large corm is harvested the tough rind is scraped off and the rest is baked in a Hawaiian oven (imu).  After cooking the meat is ground and mashed (with a minimum of water) into a thick paste that the Hawaiians called pai’ai.   To prepare it for eating a portion of pai’ai would be mixed with water to a desired consistency.  This poi was then consumed.  Pai'ai could be stored in calabashes, wrapped in ti (Cordyline fruticosa) leaves, or placed in baskets.  It is in the form of pai’ai, which keeps indefinitely, that taro would have been presented to the royal tax-gatherers.[14]

So Scott’s idea that tubers cannot form the basis for taxation or a state is simply false.

Nor can Scott and his supporters claim that ancient Hawaii was not a state.  In fact Hawaii, though ethnographers often overlook it, is of extreme interest.  It was one of only five or six places in the world where, with no models to follow, a true monarchy developed.[15]  More than that, unlike other primary kingships, Hawaii’s system survived until contact by modern explorers in the late eighteenth century.  And its customs, moeurs, and folk-ways could still be researched and voluminously recorded in the early nineteenth century by young western-educated Hawaiian students.  It’s no exaggeration to say that we learn more about the process of earliest state formation from Hawaii than any other culture complex. 

A shame that this did not come to Scott’s attention.


[1] For Scott’s early intellectual development and his anarchist outlook see the deeply appreciative review of Against the Grain in The Nation.  Samuel Moyn, “Barbarian Virtues”, October 5, 2017 (  And with interesting remarks about Pierre Clastres and his influence on Scott.

[2] Scott [2017]  122.

[3] idem.

[4] 268, footnote 23.  ‘My view, …, is that the state orginated as a protection racket in which one band of robbers prevailed.’    And see Moyns review alluded to in footnote 1.

[5] 23.

[6] 129.

[7] 130.

[8] 130.  And see Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, Yale Agrarian Studies Series, [2010] esp. 195 ff. “In general, roots and tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cassava/manioc/yucca are nearly appropriation-proof.  After they ripen, they can be safely left in the ground for up to two years and dug up piecemeal as needed.  There is thus no granary to plunder.  If the army or the taxmen wants your potatoes, for example, they will have to dig them up one by one.”

[9] 21.

[10] 22.

 [11] In footnote 23, pp. 268-9.  And at this point Scott appeals for support to J. Mayshar et al. [2015]  who have entertained a similar thesis. (See Joram Mayshar on for a downloadable version of this paper).  Indeed they do make similar claims: ‘…this theory also explains why complex hierarchies did not develop among non-storing societies, whether foragers or tuber-dependent farming communities’, 19.  Their thesis, like Scott’s, is false.

[12] To see how this might be done see Flannery and Marcus [2012] ‘The Rise and Fall of Hereditary Inequality in Farming Societies’, 187 ff.  Beginning on 187 they discuss a scenario involving a clan that becomes dominant.  On 191 ff. they discuss what happens in a society (in Burma, I’m surprised that Scott seems not to have heard about it) that cycles between regimes characterized by hierarchy and equality.  On pp. 199 they discuss a case of inequality arising from debt slavery.   The arguments of Flannery and Marcus may convince or not.  Either way, unlike Scott, they do grapple with the problems of how inequality, social stratification and, ultimately, the state come into being.

[13] Kirch [2012] 232.  More detail in Malo [1951] 141 ff. ‘Concerning the Makahiki’.  Also in Kirch [2010] 62-63.  And see Kamakau [1964] 20-1 who gives a more expanded list than Kirch’s:  ’pigs, dogs, fowl, poi, tapa cloth, dress tapas (‘a’ahu), ‘oloa tapa, pa’u (skirts), malos, shoulder capes (‘ahu), mats, ninikea tapa, olona fishnets, fishlines, feathers of the mamo and the ‘o’o birds, finely designed mats (‘ahu pawehe), pearls, ivory, iron (meki), adzes, and ‘whatever other property had been gathered by the konohiki, or land agent, of the ahupua’a.’  Iron items (meki) would be post-contact, during the reign of Kamehameha I.
    The Tongan inasi and the Hawaiian Makahiki have their roots in the proto-Polynesian first-fruits festival.  See Kirch [2017] 194, 214, 255.  Items appropriable in the Tongan inasi listed in Clark [2014], p. 10494, 'Imported items included yams, ...'.

[14] MacCaughey [1917] 76,  “…and pounded into a starchy paste, pai-ai.  In this form it kept indefinitely,”;  Bryan [1915] (no page numbers) “, '...; or made into good-sized bundles wrapped with ki leaves.   In this way the paiai could be kept for months at a time and was often shipped from place to place.”   Ki is the ti plant (Cordyline fruticosa).  Also cf. Huang et al. [1994] 45 and Greenwell [1947] passim.  For photographs that show the hand manufacture of poi see this.

[15] Followed closely by near-kingships and proto-kingships in the Society Islands, Samoa, and Tonga.  See Goldman [1970], on Tonga 279, on Samoa 243, and on the Societies 169.  


Bryan [1915]:  Bryan, William Alanson, B. Sc.,   Natural History of Hawai`i; Being an Account of the Hawaiian People, the Geology and Geography of the Islands, and the Native and Introduced Plants and Animals of the Group.  The Hawaiian Gazette Co., Ltd.  (no page numbers) 1915.  Online here:

Clark [2014]: Clark, Geoffrey R., Christian Reepmeyer, Nivaleti Melekiola, Jon Woodhead, William R. Dickinson, and Helene Martinsson-Wallin. 'Stone tools from the ancient Tongan state reveal prehistoric interaction centers in the Central Pacific', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (111:29), 10491-10496, July 22, 2014.  Online here.

Flannery and Marcus [2012]:   Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus.  The Creation of Inequality; How our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire.  Harvard.  2012.  ISBN:  978-0-674-06469-0

Goldman [1970]:   Goldman, Irving   Ancient Polynesian Society   The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.  1970.   ISBN: 0-226-30114-1.

Greewell [1947]: Greenwell, Amy B.H.   ‘Taro: With Special Reference to Its Culture and Uses in Hawaii’, Economic Botany (1:3), 276-280, 1947.  Online:

Huang et al.[1994]: Huang, Alvin S, See Y. Lam, Tracey M. Nakayama, Hui Lin  “Microbiological and Chemical Changes in Poi Stored at 20° C”,  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (42), 45-48, 1994.   Online here.

Kamakau [1964]:  Kamakau, Samuel Manaiakalani.   M.K. Pukui (trans.)   Ka Po’e Kahiko: The People of Old.  Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 61.  Honolulu, Hawaii.  1964.   ISBN: 978-0930897819

Kirch [2010]: Kirch, Patrick Vinton. How Chiefs Became Kings; Divine Kingship and the Rise of Archaic States in Ancient Hawaii.  University of California Press. 2010.   ISBN: 978-0-520-26725-1.

Kirch [2012]:   Kirch, Patrick Vinton. A Shark Going Inland is My Chief; The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai’i.  University of California Press. 2012.    ISBN: 978-0-520-27330-6.

Kirch [2017]:  Kirch, Patrick Vinton   On the Road of the Winds; An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact.  University of California Press. 2017.  ISBN: 978-0-520-29281-9

Malo [1951]:  Malo, David,  Nathaniel B. Emerson (trans.).  Hawaiian Antiquities; Mo’olelo Hawai’i.  Bishop Museum Press. 1951.    ISBN: 978-0-910240-15-4.

Mayshar et al. [2015]:  Mayshar, Joram and Omer Moav, Zvika Neeman, Luigi Pascali.  “Cereals, Appropriability and Hierarchy.”  Discussion Paper No. 10742, August 2015.  Centre for Economic Policy Research. London, UK.

MacCaughey [1917]: MacCaughey, Vaughan.  The Food Plants of the Ancient Hawaiians”, The Scientific Monthly (4:1) 75-80, 1917.  Online:

Scott [2010]: Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed, Yale Agrarian Studies Series, 2010.  ISBN: 978-0300169171

Scott [2017]:    Scott, James C.   Against the Grain; A Deep History of the Earliest States.  Yale University Press, 2017.    ISBN:  978-0-300-18291-0

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