Is Government a Protection Racket? How Wheat and Taxes Built the Ancient States

By Antonio GilmanJanuary 6, 2018

Is Government a Protection Racket? How Wheat and Taxes Built the Ancient States

Against the Grain by James C. Scott

THE DEVELOPMENT OF the state is the most important event in human political history. Before then, all human societies were organized by kinship alone. Differences between individuals were restricted to those of age, gender, and personal ability. Beginning around 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia and independently thereafter in Egypt, south Asia, China, Mesoamerica, Andean South America, and as recently as three centuries ago in Hawaii, simple kinship-organized societies were replaced by complex class societies with intensified systems of production, differential access to resources, an elaborate division of labor, hereditary differences in wealth and power between households, and a political organization involving an army, a state religion, and a fiscal bureaucracy that administers the tribute collected to maintain the above. We live in this world today.

The nature of state societies is the principal object of study of political science, but their origin is the subject of prehistoric archaeology. In his earlier 1985 work Weapons of the Weak, James C. Scott (in his own description, “a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist […] by courtesy”) developed an account of the nature of states from the point of view of its exploited classes. This perspective is particularly useful, as he “trespasses” into prehistory and anthropological archaeology, because it challenges the dominant view arguing that social stratification developed because elites provide the leadership needed to organize and fund public works, craft specialization, and commerce. As Elman Service summarized:

Redistribution (and especially trade), military organization and public works were all basic in the classic civilizations, but all must have had small beginnings in the simple attempts by primitive leaders to perpetuate their social dominance by organizing such benefits [emphasis added] for their followers.

A hereditary chief, as Marshall Sahlins put it,

creates a collective good [emphasis added] beyond the conception and capacity of the society’s domestic groups taken separately. He institutes a public economy greater than the sum of its household parts.

This organic view of the benefits of social complexity goes back at least to Plato, and alternative views go back at least to Machiavelli. James C. Scott, of course, will have none of the positive-functions just-so story, and in Against the Grain he examines in detail the nature of the Mesopotamian state system in order to document more fully his view of the “benefits,” “the public good,” that accrue to commoners in states:

[M]uch, if not most, of the population of the early states was unfree; they were subjects under duress. […] Living within the state meant, virtually by definition, taxes, conscription, corvée labor, and, for most, a condition of servitude.

Scott’s essential argument is that states are made possible when primitive cultivators begin to grow grain: wheat and barley in the Near East, millet and rice in East Asia, maize in the Americas. These are crops that are “legible” — they grow above ground, are harvested predictably and at once, and so can be the object of taxes and rent.

Scott begins with a brisk account of how the human species came to be dependent on grain cultivation. Paleolithic foragers used fire to concentrate new growths of plants and thus of the animals they hunted, the first of a series of improved foraging techniques that permitted the foragers to establish more permanent camps and manage the herding animals they hunted and the occasional cultivation of the annual grasses whose seeds they gathered. This process (the “Neolithic Revolution”) eventually led to a full dependence on domesticated plants and animals. Next came protection agreements and taxes.

Mesopotamia was the natural starting point for this chain of events because of topography. Here lay the possibilities for flood recession cultivation, a productive and non-laborious form of cultivation. The relatively mobile life of the forager is incompatible with long-term storage of surpluses: life may be affluent and leisurely most of the time, but when a bad year occurs (and sooner or later it will), there is little on which to fall back. To put matters another way, most foraging strategies are not subject to intensification. Working harder does not necessarily lead to more production: if the fish aren’t biting (or aren’t there at all), casting your lure more frequently won’t help. But the harder farmers and herders work, the more they produce, and the more they produce the more surplus they can store in granaries or live on the hoof.

The state grew like grain from the soil, an analysis consistent with V. Gordon Childe’s analysis of 80 years ago:

All through the Near East the best sites were reclaimed with toil. Capital in the form of human labor was being sunk into the land. Its expenditure bound men to the soil; they would not lightly forego the interest brought in by their reproductive works.

Once Neolithic farmers cleared fields, raised oxen to pull the plow, and developed simple irrigation systems, they created productive resources and generated surpluses that were of general value and required defense. But who guards the guards, the famous question of Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Scott’s view that “the state originated as a protection racket” is at the center of his arguments in the rest of the book. These are that cereal grain provided “the basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable”; that control over the stored surpluses and the tax-paying commoners required the development of fortified towns and systems of record-keeping; and that various forms of servitude (ranging from temporary recruitment to corvée labor battalions, through debt bondage and serfdom, to outright slavery) formed the basis of such tax collection.

The coercive force at the basis of the system is one cause of the fragility of particular states. Over-exploitation of the primary producers leads to constant desertions and occasional revolts (sometimes successful), and the constant warfare required to defend surpluses (and recruit captive labor) may not be rewarded by victory. If the coercion is mismanaged and that mismanagement is combined with other not unlikely disasters (drought, soil exhaustion, outbreaks of disease in concentrated populations, et cetera), states could collapse, as they frequently did.

From my point of view as a practitioner of the disciplines onto which Scott is trespassing, his emphasis on class distinctions is a welcome alternative to the somewhat Panglossian functionalism of all too many of my colleagues. Scott’s perspective might be strengthened, however, by paying greater attention on the archaic agrarian states outside the Near East and China. His view that “history records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states” is simply incorrect. The principal crops of the Yoruba kingdom were yams and cassava. The Inka state and its predecessors in the Andean highlands collected much of its tribute in the form of potatoes. The pristine, extremely state-like society that Captain Cook encountered in Hawaii was based on taxing commoners who cultivated no grains at all, but taro and sweet potatoes. Commoners can be caged in many ways. This gap in a world survey is a major one.

The sorry condition of the producers in early states provides ample justification for Scott’s anarchist sympathies (see his 2012 book Two Cheers for Anarchism). His account of the nature of the societies that developed on the periphery of early states in the concluding chapter (“The Golden Age of the Barbarians”) recognizes, however, that life outside the state presents difficulties. It may be that barbarians in the Zagros Mountains lived longer, healthier lives than commoners in the Mesopotamian plains, but the barbarian was more likely to be sold into slavery. The absence of political centralization does not translate into absence of hierarchy: some barbarians were more equal than others. In a state, members of the ruling class have a collective interest in the welfare of their subalterns: they wish to tax them next year, too. In a chiefdom, however, each leader is only interested in the welfare of his own followers. And nobody is looking out for the world at large. But stable hierarchies still have their virtues. Most anarchists would not wish to live in true chaos.


Antonio Gilman is emeritus professor of Anthropology at California State University-Northridge. He studies the political economy of prehistoric Europe.

LARB Contributor

Antonio Gilman is emeritus professor of Anthropology at California State University-Northridge. He studies the political economy of prehistoric Europe.


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