I have been writing about walls. I first described my reaction to David Frye’s book Walls, then took a rough turn to the poetic and considered Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”. Here I will finish by discussing James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain, which is, like Frye’s book, a history of walls, albeit an account with a heavier emphasis than Frye’s on the interconnected cultural systems that grew up on both sides of them.
In bringing the subject of walls center stage Frye’s book has a touch of the counterintuitive to it. It is not so much that we are oblivious to the roles played by walls in the development of civilization, and that we need Frye to push us to accept hidden truths. We know at an intellectual level that walls helped repel barbarians. But in the modern era bridges are valorized and walls disparaged. That can result in one of those situations where people might not see what is in front of their noses, and they may need a gentle reminding nudge. As I wrote, Frye is not pro-wall as much as he is anti-anti-wall.
Scott’s book is counterintuitive as well, but on a different level. Whereas Frye wishes us to grasp the essentiality of walls in the civilization we value so deeply Scott questions whether the development of civilization was such a hot idea in the first place. In Frye’s telling bridges get more cultural credit than is due and walls are unfairly discounted. In Scott’s civilization gets more credit than is due and anarchy (or, to use a less fraught term “non-state social organization”) has been unfairly discounted . Both books are looking to rebalance scales, using a dose of historical realism as a corrective tool.
It is not that Scott is anti-civilization exactly. It is more that he is anti-pro-civilization, skeptical of the unthinking bias in favor of the agriculturalists, the more complex world they created behind their walls, and the fact that they got to write the history. So his story cuts deeply against the grain, so to speak (the title is a nifty double entendre since Scott is not only taking a contrarian view overall but is in the matter at hand suspicious of the world that grain, and grain surpluses, made possible).
As Scott sees it while the lives of barbarians outside the city walls were no doubt nasty, brutish and short by today’s standards life inside the walls was nastier, more brutish and shorter. Barbarians were more egalitarian in their social relations, consumed a more varied diet that included meats and other proteins, were exposed less to diseases that were spread through contact with strangers and animals, lived longer and healthier lives, grew taller and stronger and enjoyed more leisure time. By contrast life among the peasants inside the walls is described as quite gruesome: diseases, slave (or effectively slave) labor, cruel treatment, poor diet.
Scott gives the devil his due: to those who instinctively favor the walled city’s view of things it perhaps seems quite sensible that
a peasantry would do what it could to hold on to its fields and its orchards, its homes and its granaries, and its livestock as a matter of life and death. . . . (M)ight one see the creation of the state as a joint creation — a social contract perhaps? – between cultivating subjects and their ruler?
But Scott is suspicious of this social contract account as a just-so story. It could well be that that Hobbe, Locke and their intellectual descendants have been relying too much on the histories written by victors and rulers.
(T)he matter is more complicated. . . . state elites have an overwhelming interest in safeguarding the sinews of their own power: a cultivating population and its grain stores . . . walls were built quite as much to keep . . . . taxpaying cultivators inside as to keep the barbarians (nomads) inside. City walls were thus intended to keep the essentials of state preservation inside.
Scott goes on to describe the complex and dialectical ecology of the city/barbarian relationship. It would be a mistake to think of the two ways of being as separate, with the occasional violent foray. Rather the two sides comprise “dark twins”.
Cities, with their insatiable need for people to keep the machinery going, grew up in large part by importing slave labor from outside. The slave economy is to Scott a valid “HR strategy”—no need to expend the effort to raise someone from birth if you can put them to work when they are strong and ready to work, and if they are used up quickly there will always be more slaves.
Looked at from the other side the growth of cities presents to a foraging population an excellent new opportunity to do what they know best: forage.
The “dark twins” need each other. Barbarians “forage” from the cities but don’t always burn the place down since that would be killing the goose. Instead a set of strategies emerge—bargaining, tribute, threats, shakedowns—in which the barbarians get what they need but keep the enterprise going. In turn cities need barbarians, with the latter often playing the role of a protector from raids by other, more distant, tribes while in turn supplying the city with needed slave labor from conflicts with other barbarian groups.
So the picture that emerges is far from a binary one. Even if the walls are high and strong the systems that develop around them are complex and indeterminate. We often think of the big cities like Ur and the big barbarian “tribes” like the Huns or the Mongols. But what this way of thinking misses is that most cities were small and unstable, and most “tribes” not tribal at all but rather opportunistic gatherings of many different peoples.
The essential instability of the state in its early development is a particular interest of Scott. The deck is, after all, stacked against state order. It took a variety of factors coming together, including flat land, good soil, and navigable waters. And even when those factors were present, as in Babylonia, most state efforts failed. Early cities were exceedingly fragile things.
What Scott makes of this shows his underlying sympathy for non-state social orders. He argues that the entire notion of “collapses” of this or that city evidences a bias in favor of state order. Why do we have to describe these things as “collapse” when a better term might be “disassembly”. OK the walls came down, the surpluses vanished and the palaces stopped getting built. But that’s the view from the elites. From the point of view of the peasants taxation stopped, personal freedom increased and power was decentralized.
But if things were better in the main without the heavy hand of the state why did it emerge in the long run victorious? In Scott’s view that victory was achieved in a dialectical fashion. The two sides were engaged in an elaborate dance of sorts for millennia. But the eventual growth and success of cities did not lead to an analogous growth and success of barbarians.
Barbarians responded to the growth of cities with practices that ended up undermining the basis for their success. If you do too good a job at turning other barbarians over to the city as slaves in trade you can undermine the overall strength of the fragmented groups outside the wall. And if cities engage you too often and too readily as a kind of protective army you end up making the city stronger.
Scott writes in conclusion:
By systematic replenishing the state’s manpower base by slaving and by protecting and expanding the state with its military services the barbarians willingly dug their own grave.
And that’s where the book ends.
Frye added an epilogue to his book to connect his historical view with the current era, which he describes as a new era of walls. But Scott does not look to find lessons in the past, at least in as direct a manner as Frye does. He just kind of leaves the reader hanging. “That’s why we ended up doing things that seemed not that sensible and perhaps it is a shame.”
His sympathies are with the barbarians. But what does that mean?
It is hard to be a full-fledged anarchist from the civilized comfort of one’s study. Political philosophy, if it aspires to usefulness, typically presumes a civilized community, and inquires about different ways of ordering it. If anarchism is best understood as describing “non-state activity” then is it worthwhile to think of it in political philosophy terms?
Anarchism in practice has been unsuccessful, too, as the habits useful in non-state settings are poorly adapted to circumstances that require some sort of political order like that provided by states. Thus the best Scott can muster is “two cheers” for anarchism, not recommending the immediate “disassembly” of the state but calling for an appreciation of the anarchist way of seeing.
That seems right. Just as there are no hard and fast distinctions between city and barbarian, and just as order and flux co-exist, so too there is no reason to demand Anarchism Now! It may be enough to consider deeply the import of our long history with the walls that separate hierarchical order from other kinds of order, and to cultivate a healthy skepticism for solutions that require more state and more scale.