The State of the State

Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States by James C Scott has been reviewed in all the right places, and favorably, and yet all these reviews discourage one from reading it. Here, for example, is John Lanchester in the New Yorker:

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire.

Now it is true that Scott mentions this in the book, but this is not what the book is about. The use of the expression “plausible contender” wearies us in anticipation of one of those inconclusive arguments so popular among modern intellectuals who, like all bureaucrats, find a need for more of whatever they are doing.

Here is Steven Mithen in the London Review of Books:

In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker.

Again Scott does talk about this, but it’s not earth shattering news. I mean so what? Since it started so long ago it’s certainly not my fault, nor could I do anything about it. Think I could skip this one. Neither of these reviewers actually faces Scott’s thesis. Against the Grain is an argument that the earliest states were not an advance in civilization, that people did not flock to the states for culture, but that the states were enclosures to contain slaves. The state is an enslavement mechanism, and culture is just a device to pacify the slaves. It’s all basically bread and circuses.

The states did not increase food security, did incubate disease, made most of their inhabitants miserable and were, always, pretty much what they are today. States produced writing to keep their slaves “legible.” The elites had to keep track of who owed what in taxes. It follows (though Scott does not claim) that Democracy was a way for the slaves to blow off steam harmlessly. Hey, you can’t complain. You voted for it. Culture was nothing more than distraction from often soul crushing labor. Grain, that has to be cooked to be edible, for hunters and gathers a minor food source, are the basis of states because grain is all harvested at the same time, can be preserved, and so can be easily taxed. Grain requires slaves to do agricultural work hunter/gathers would disdain. The state is a machine to extract a pound of flesh from a large number of its inhabitants for the benefit of the very few.

Now the question that should pop into the head of anyone who reads Against the Grain is, “If life was so good without states why on earth would anyone create one?” What got into these elites to want slaves when they really had almost nothing onerous to do themselves! Hunting and gathering is not onerous. For a hunter-gather, life, unlike previously thought, was not nasty, brutish and short. On the contrary, it was pretty darned okay. It is not too hard to imagine that life was easy for a family who had lived in the same neighborhood for several millennia. They might, you know, cop to the lay of the land. They had what they needed to do down. What a boon it must be to live in a condition in which the young do not dread adulthood. Hunters find hunting ennobling. Mithen offers the solution of “unintentional self-entrapment” to the question of “Why slavery?” I can see that if agriculture was attractive, but it is obviously a grind. If I had to choose between hunting and following a plow behind an ass it would be no contest. Nor does farming offer food security. Of course Mithen’s theory does avoid the problem of the motivation of an apparently evil elite that enslaved the population for, shall we say, perverse motives. It was all the slaves’ fault. They kind of fucked up.

Nietzsche anticipated the problem and offered a more honest solution.

If we now see how, in no time at all, the subjected hardly bother about the dreadful origin of the state, so that basically history informs us less well about the way those sudden, violent, bloody and at least in one aspect inexplicable usurpations came about than about any other kind of event: if, on the contrary, hearts swell involuntarily towards the magic of the developing state, with the inkling of an invisibly deep intention, where calculating reason can only see the sum total of forces: if the state now is actually viewed enthusiastically as the aim and goal of the sacrifices and duties of the individual: then all this indicates how enormously necessary the state is, without which nature might not succeed in achieving, through society, her salvation in appearance [im Scheine], in the mirror of genius.

How much knowledge does not man’s instinctive pleasure in the state overcome! One should really assume that a person investigating the emergence of the state would, from then on, seek salvation only at an awestruck distance from it; and where we do not see monuments to its development, devastated lands, ruined towns, savage men, consuming hatred of nations! The state, of ignominious birth, a continually flowing source of toil for most people, frequently the ravishing flame of the human race – and yet, a sound that makes us forget ourselves, a battle-cry that has encouraged countless truly heroic acts, perhaps the highest and most revered object for the blind, egoistic mass which wears the strange expression of greatness on its face only at tremendous moments in the life of the state! (Nietzsche, The Greek State)

In short, the state is necessary for creativity, genius, a “salvation in appearance.” Whereas the slavish find existence precious and tolerate slavery to preserve it, the noble find it worthless, and need to redeem it through their own creativity. The state is always notable for monumental architecture and other grandiose cultural attainments including atrocious wars for ostensibly noble causes. Pericles praises the Athenians for setting up monuments for both good and evil in their wars. It’s the monument to war and its dead that matters. The noble can only create these works of art by freeing themselves from the daily grind by enslaving others. The slaves are repaid with the feeling of participating in something grand. The bloodiest war, won or lost, resounds to the glory of the state, something to either be proud of or come back from. It feels so good to be American or French or whatever with the state’s rich history, heroes, and high ideals.

Nietzsche imagines the slave enraptured with the creations of the state. Patriotism transforms and elevates him when he remembers the “tremendous moments in the life of the state!” Thus, though he is a slave he is repaid with a palpable vision of splendor that his otherwise slavish nature could never provide, Pericles’s monuments. But from this perspective it is all bread and circuses. The elite creates “culture” to delude the slaves into believing they participate in the noble state whose only real purpose is to enslave the population to create these cultural objects. The value of these creations becomes all important. Producing cheap knock-offs is an act of treason. If we look behind the curtain it is all simply tawdry. But it is the slave who peaked behind the curtain. The noble must believe in the grandeur of the state or go mad.

Scott recognizes the state’s self-aggrandizing cultural productions as its hallmark, but doubts that the slaves fell for them. The walls of the state were designed not to keep the barbarians out, but to keep the slaves in. The slaves escaped from the state whenever they could, for the state rarely persuaded them of its attractiveness. That great American myth, the western, ends with the hero riding off into the sunset. He rides off to escape the state, euphemistically, “civilization.” This great American myth is a myth of escaping the state into a wilderness that provides true, stateless, freedom. The great American myth is to escape from America. No wonder that now with the frontier gone the entire population is having a nervous breakdown.

“War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne famously said, and, given that the state is, by definition, a slave master, it is easy to see that he was right. For where else to get a juicy crop of slaves but in another state where they are already trained, cooped up and ready to go. War is the great creative act of the state, the great monuments that glorify its existence. Early states were always at war and the booty they sought was slaves. When a state lost, the women and children were taken into slavery, the men slaughtered, the walls torn down. The victorious state got healthier. Since war takes at least two to tango, the health of the state requires other states. During the World Wars the elites need the slaves to embrace war, they need an argument for it, and the most convincing argument for it is the looming danger from another state. The purpose of the state is to protect you from other states. War justifies the existence of both warring states to their slaves, helping to pacify them. War leaves the Periclean monuments that are the creative act of the state.

But is Nietzsche right that the state, with its wholesale slavery, was required to produce culture? The Homeric Gods had already lost their luster when Homer composed the Iliad. Like all religions, that of the Iliad is the dying ember of a religious experience. It is from this religious experience that the entirety of what we call Western Civilization, and Islam for that matter, flows. And this experience clearly predated the existence of states. From this perspective it seems that states leech from pre-state illuminations the archetypes of their self-serving counterfeits. But just how much this view puts in this category! Shakespeare, Mozart, Plato, each in his work extols the state. The Parthenon is nothing but Pericles strutting. Civilization is a wrong turn. For the Homeric Gods are works of art whose materials are nothing but the human being itself. No state necessary.

Is the state today still nothing but a slave processing office, or has it, in the course of time, become something of higher value? If we need the state it must be doing something right, right? Of course it is absurd to think that we could do without it at this stage of the game, isn’t it? The planet no longer provides the bounty of pre-state days. And to be honest, according to Scott, homo sapiens began fire-scaping the landscape long before there were any states. So homo sapiens began the sixth mass extinction prior to state formation. But, when you realize the near end of civilization, you have to wonder just what, aside from war monuments, the state provided.

Scott points out that until quite recently large portions of the globe were still free of state domination. We, in a world entirely controlled by states, find it hard to imagine it being otherwise, but states only existed for about 3% of the history of homo sapiens and dominated human existence for far shorter time. We got along quite well without them for hundreds of thousands of years. The absence of the state did not preclude settled living and even domestication of animals. Scott eliminates the possibility that states just naturally grew from these conditions.

Scott posits an element of gradualism in the growth of states, but somebody had to force or talk you into taxes, a warrior or a priestly class. War or a more subtle priestly conquest was the creative act that gave birth to the state. The Greeks believed that slaves were slaves by nature. The proof was that they were slaves, for they should have died defending their city if they were free men. Enslaving natural slaves was only, well, natural. Therefore, so was state creation.

Since the state is the state, and at best one is only slightly less onerous than another and remains a slave master, revolutionaries joust at windmills. There is no real difference between fascism, communism, and capitalism. There is no use for any of it. The atrocities attributed to each are about equal. They are strategies to be employed be the state at different times depending upon the restlessness of the natives. Each can turn into the other with very little fanfare. Look how the paragon of freedom, the Former United States, turned fascist overnight. In the end these words are just tools of states that justify their existence by pointing to the existential threat due to the fascism, communism or whatever that is the essence of the existence of the other state. At most the difference between them is in the composition of the elites. For if the state has one saving grace it is that the elites frequently lose control to other elites. The position is, to some extent, open.

But states are actually quite fragile, and the system of states seems to be coming apart. Until recently, a new state followed the collapse or defeat of an old state. But now states become failed states. The Former United States is in the process of such disintegration. In hindsight it now looks like it was always a dubious enterprise. To found a state on an idea is kind of coo coo. Especially now that Scott’s researches have shown so clearly that the Enlightenment assumptions the idea requires are false. States were not formed by compacts. People did not come together willingly out of the state of nature into states for protection. They were dragged. States weren’t attractive centers of culture. They were foul incubators of pestilence. People fled them when they had the chance.

With just about all the glory of the Former United States looking like yesterday’s balloon, there is nothing glorious left for the slaves to believe they are part of. Their slavery stands naked. The best they can hope for is a little fun on the weekend. All that holds the Former United States together is force and habit, the last resorts for the slave master. And they will disappear in the next financial crash when the state will have to admit it is bankrupt. The armies of repression will become criminal gangs accountable to no one when no one is there to pay them. The slaves will crumble into opiate addiction. No new constitutional convention will ever unite these states again. Why would rich California join with impoverished Montana? The states of Europe also seem to be dissolving. Civil War is on the horizon in many of them. What will happen to China when peak oil and ecological degradation put an end to their belt and road initiative?

All states have marshaled their slaves to consume mother earth in the production of war toys with which to build monuments to themselves. Soon all will be buried in the rubble. The elites, like those in the Former United States, are palpably clueless, but no one is ready to replace them. Though we know it is madness, war preparation races on and everyone follows along blindly like good little slaves. We simply follow the mountebank down the primrose path. A species ready to be gone. At any other time in history the coming apart of states would be good news, but the ability to clean up the states’ mess does not exist.

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: