Book Review: Against the Grain


Manage episode 244622727 series 1755998
By Jeremiah Prophet. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.


Someone on SSC Discord summarized James Scott’s Against The Grain as “basically 300 pages of calling wheat a fascist”. I have only two qualms with this description. First, the book is more like 250 pages; the rest is just endnotes. Second, “fascist” isn’t quite the right aspersion to use here.

Against The Grain should be read as a prequel to Scott’s most famous work, Seeing Like A State. SLaS argued that much of what we think of as “progress” towards a more orderly world – like Prussian scientific forestry, or planned cities with wide streets – didn’t make anyone better off or grow the economy. It was “progress” only from a state’s-eye perspective of wanting everything to be legible to top-down control and taxation. He particularly criticizes the High Modernists, Le Corbusier-style architects who replaced flourishing organic cities with grandiose but sterile rectangular grids.

Against the Grain extends the analysis from the 19th century all the way back to the dawn of civilization. If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, “The Devil was the first Whig”, Against the Grain argues that wheat was the first High Modernist.

Sumer just before the dawn of civilization was in many ways an idyllic place. Forget your vision of stark Middle Eastern deserts; in the Paleolithic the area where the first cities would one day arise was a great swamp. Foragers roamed the landscape, eating everything from fishes to gazelles to shellfish to wild plants. There was more than enough for everyone; “as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough [wild] grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year”. Foragers alternated short periods of frenetic activity (eg catching as many gazelles as possible during their weeklong migration through the area) with longer periods of rest and recreation.

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