James Scott’s provocative work scrapes at some long-held virtues of bread when he places grain — that visible, storable and rationable commodity — at the core of state formation
Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 3 November, 2017
Of all the perversions of the internet age, my wife and I have a predilection for one in particular: we enjoy watching videos of people making bread. Social media platforms such as Instagram offer an endless stream of delectable baking. I savour the sight of Uzbek bakers levering naan from tandoors, paratha-makers coiling greased spirals of dough, butter resolving into glistening croissants, and fresh phulkas lifting like balloons off the flame.
Watching bread become bread, I feel a kind of satisfaction that is more than just aesthetic or culinary. It’s the sense of being taken into the intimacy of a fundamental act, something banal and yet so marvellous. I have always thought that if you journeyed to the heart of human civilisation, you would find an oven. I joke with friends who disavow bread, who cut gluten from their diets. “Don’t you realise that bread is what makes us human? It’s what separates us from the wilderness.”
I’ve long imagined bread as a kind of line in the sand. On one side is the warmth of community, the bustle of towns and cities and everything they accomplish; on the other is the cold darkness of the breadless cave.
But perhaps I look at bread too kindly. After reading a provocative book by the “anti-statist” American scholar James Scott, I’m less certain of the social virtues of bread. In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Scott offers a radical retelling of the early history of humanity.
Most of us learned the history of society as a process of evolution from primitive simplicity to urbane complexity. First, all human beings were nomadic hunter-gatherers; then some discovered agriculture and settled down in sedentary communities (and began baking bread); these eventually became cities and states, which developed writing, sciences, and complex ritual and art forms that became the kernel of what we consider “civilisation.”
Historians no longer subscribe to this linear scheme. Drawing from the work of archaeologists and ecologists, Scott complicates our understanding of sedentarisation and the formation of states. The first sedentary communities were not, as we long imagined, those produced by the demands of agriculture. Instead, they grew in wetland areas where people could find a great diversity of food sources. Agriculture was embraced fitfully, with many communities trying and then abandoning the agricultural way of life because it was too hard or yielded too little.
But states — large, hierarchical, at least somewhat centralised communities — needed agriculture to come into being. Crucial to this story is bread, or, more precisely, grain. It’s no surprise that the oldest states in the world (in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Indus Valley) were “grain states,” springing up around wheat, barley, millet, and rice. Scott contends that these grains gave rise to states because they were taxable.
Cereal grains grew above ground, ripened about the same time, and could be transported in bulk. You could not have a “cassava state” in West Africa or “potato state” in the New World because farmers might easily bury those tubers, hiding them from the tax collector. Similarly, legumes such as chickpeas or lentils could be slyly picked over a period of time as they ripened. Cereal grains, on the other hand, were “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’”.
Even today, a state exists in its ability to discipline and extract resources from a populace. The cultivation of cereal grain allowed the emergence of hierarchical societies, where an elite could entrench itself and thrive off the toil of others. The earliest evidence we have of “wages” are the ration bowls of barley beer given to labourers in Mesopotamia. Where nomadic, pastoral, and even sedentary wetland communities were more egalitarian, states rested on the creation of haves and have-nots.
In turning to the deep past, Scott is in effect searching for the roots of the pathology he has spent his career diagnosing. He has always been alert to the failures of liberalism in protecting marginalised people from the ravages of free markets, but he doesn’t repose much faith in the state’s ability to safeguard the welfare and dignity of its citizens. His work paradoxically appeals to both left-wing critics of free markets and right-wing libertarians.
Delving into this ancient period of state formation, Scott sees tragedy — and his book often strikes a mournful tone — not just in how cereal grains helped produce systems of subordination, but in how they limited the human experience of the world. As the cultivation of grain spread around the globe, he writes, “it represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life.” So many religions structure their ceremonies around the harvest calendar, yoking human beings in holy practice to the rhythm of grain.
While I find Scott’s scope of argument compelling, I struggle to accept the values he ascribes to the varying systems of the Neolithic world. Was the alternative to the grain-cultivating state really so much better? Independent foragers or periodic swiddeners or transhumant pastoralists may have been fundamentally freer. But would they never have felt the temptations of living among more people, being protected by walls and laws, and having the possibility of urban vocations?
Scott would insist that they didn’t. But perhaps, when wandering into an early city, a nomad might have caught a tantalising smell coming from an oven. He followed his nose until he arrived at its source. Asking what this miraculous substance was, he would be met with a shrug. The baker would say: “It’s just bread.”