Is the Collapse of Civilizations A Good Thing?

Early states did not form how we've been taught, writes James C Scott in his new book. His research offers a clue as to where we might be heading. 

People enjoy the view over the city with 'La Sagrada Familia' in the background on October 26, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. 'La Sagrada Familia' Foundation announced on October 21 that the temple has entered final construction phase. (Photo by David Ramos/Ge

You’ve probably heard the story. For 250,000 years humans were hunters and gatherers. About 10,000 years ago a group figured out agriculture, settled down in the Fertile Crescent, and the seeds of industrial farms were planted. Sure, a few tribes resisted, but the urban life that grain and livestock provided proved too seductive. Enter modernity. 

Humans have short memories and long for fantasy. History has never been neatly wrapped up in a tidy bundle. The reasons for pretty much everything are complex. In 1998 British science writer Colin Tudge tore apart the notion of a sudden appearance of agriculture. He dated porto-farmers back forty thousand years, into the late Paleolithic: 

The changes of the Neolithic Revolution were not really revolutionary, but merely a consolidation of established trends. People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way. 

Political scientist and anthropologist James C Scott is the latest to take a stab at this agriculture myth. In his fascinating new book, Against the Grain, the Yale professor concurs with Tudge’s assessment: our ancestors did not submit readily to the state. The transition from sedentism to domestication took at least four thousand years. 

Today Americans willingly move to big cities. Diversity, community, and opportunity draw restless youth to urban centers. While there is much talk about tribalism in our national politics, given that our biological hardware is not much different from the era Scott covers, you’d have to wonder why nomadic societies would choose to settle into lands under rule—and, more importantly, taxation—by a centralized power. While now it seems like that’s just how life is, the novelty of bureaucracy took millennia to take hold. 

And the reasons are not pretty. Contributing factors include “climate change, resource depletion, disease, warfare, and migration to areas of great abundance.” Most startling is slavery. Scott writes that the state did not invent warfare or slavery, but it certainly exacerbated it. First, however, you needed a resource that tied everyone together: grains. 

Most early crops could not provide a source of taxation. Potatoes and tubers are easily hidden underground. Lentils produce annually and can be eaten as they’re picked. Grains, however, have determinate ripening times, making it easy for the tax collector to show up on time. They cannot be eaten raw. And because grains are so small, you can tax them down to the grain. Unlike squash or yams, grains are easy to transport. Spoilage time is nothing like that of vegetables. All these factors played into the first widespread form of currency. 

Taxation meant record keeping. Scott isn’t the first to point out that written languages weren’t invented to dream up mythologies. Letters are the latest incarnation of marks that were devised to keep track of grains and cattle. As you read this sentence you’re likely sounding out the words in your head. But written languages weren’t created to reflect speech. That was a consequence, a future relationship. Once farm land was allotted and records were being kept, humans settled into sedentism. Once that happened, states were formed.

The imperative of collecting people, settling them close to the core of power, holding them there, and having them produce a surplus in excess of their own needs animates much of early statecraft.

The formation of states required that one critical factor, slavery. Today we talk of Left and Right, conservatives and liberals. This in-group/out-group phenomenon is nothing new. Once these early states were founded, the “others” were those primitive hunter-gatherers who didn’t understand the beauty of life by grain. And once you outcast a society it’s easy to enslave them.

The bureaucracy relied on two tiers of slavery to thrive. First, farmers had to be committed to their land, which meant politicians relied on rationing. They held surplus crops, doling out just enough food for citizens to subsist, but not enough for them to capitalize. As the structures of the states grew, more labor was required. That meant conquering others. 

If such states had had to extract such labor exclusively from their own core subjects, they would have run a high risk of provoking flight or rebellion—or both. 

Early states did not embark on conquests of land, but of people. Slaves were among the earliest trading items, a process that continued to an uncomfortably close date. Scott cites research that three-quarters of the human population was in some form of bondage until 1800. While we can define bondage in various ways—one can argue that a high percentage of humans are now enslaved to their phones, whose apps are extensions of different bureaucracies—slavery and states have long been troubling bedfellows. 

While Scott’s topics are timely—tribalism, taxation, trade, warfare—one is particularly relevant: the collapse of civilizations. Shifting landscapes, battles, and resource depletion are all factors that forced newly sedentary societies to pack it up and move on once again. Scott does not see this as a necessary evil, but rather part of the natural order of things. 

We should, I believe, aim to “normalize” collapse and see it rather as often inaugurating a periodic and possibly even salutary reformation of political order.

Paying homage does not imply that such transitions were easy. There have been numerous theories as to where American politics, and more broadly, culture, is heading, given the crumbling of institutions once perceived as immortal. As those ancestors who gathered to farm the alluvium beaches of the Tigris and Euphrates knew, everything is transient. 

We can be enslaved to bureaucracies, but we can also be enslaved to ideas. Identity is one such idea. We’re nothing more than a collection of the stories we tell ourselves. Thankfully thinkers like Scott remind us that who we thought we are might not necessarily be the case. Such knowledge is empowering; it gives you perspective, keeps you flexible as the future rolls in. Right now we need such flexibility in our comprehension of reality, for the rigidity of our discourse is causing a collapse that will provide no immediate comfort. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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