Monday, January 31, 2011

Radical Agrarianism 4

The Food Politics Group at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt recently read and discussed James C. Scott's new book, The Art of Not Being Governed. In addition to being a professor of political science and anthropology, Scott is also the director of the Center for Agrarian Studies and the editor of its book series, all at Yale. At once intuitive and unorthodox, the "crudest version" of Scott's thesis turns on the following basic formula:

"Political and military supremacy requires superior access to concentrated manpower close at hand. Concentrated manpower, in turn, is feasible only in a setting of compact, sedentary agriculture, and such agro-ecological concentrations are possible, before the twentieth century in Southeast Asia, only with irrigated rice. These relationships are, however, not deterministic.... Irrigated best understood politically as the most convenient and typical means of concentrating population and foodstuffs."

Drawn from what was for me the most revelatory chapter, "Concentrating Manpower and Grain," here are a few more choice selections:

"The abundance of arable land in Southeast Asia favored shifting cultivation, a pattern of farming that often yielded higher returns for less labor and produced a substantial surplus for the families practicing it. What constituted an advantage for the cultivators, however, was profoundly prejudicial to the ambitions of would-be state-makers. Shifting cultivation requires far more land than irrigated rice and therefore disperses population....[C]oncentration is the key. It matters little how wealthy a kingdom is if its potential surplus of manpower and grain is dispersed across a landscape that makes its collection difficult and costly."

"Conditions in a flourishing wet-rice heartland, then, were favorable to the development of what might be called the premodern state's ideal subjects. That ideal is represented by densely packed cultivators of permanent grain fields who produce a considerable annual surplus."

"The paramount importance of manpower rested, in the final analysis, on military considerations. Occupation of a fertile rice plain, of an important temple complex, of a choke point along vital trade routes was of little avail if it could not be successfully defended. This homely fact goes to the very heart of the analysis of power in such premodern political systems. Rather than wealth begetting power, as it might in Lockean systems, where the state's first duty is to defend citizens' life and property, in premodern systems only power can guarantee property and wealth. And power, before the technological revolution in warfare, was largely a matter of how many men a ruler could field; power in other words, boiled down to manpower."

"Less reliant on volatile trade, more hierarchical, more insulated from food-supply crises, and capable of feeding quite massive armies, these ['coercion-rich and capital-poor,' landward'] agrarian states might lose a battle or even a war, but their staying power over the long haul tended to prevail."

"The imperative of concentrating population and grain production, in fact, confronts all would-be state-makers who must operate in an environment where open land is abundant and military technology simple. Some means must be devised to counteract the tendency of the populace to disperse widely so as to take full advantage of the hunting, foraging, and less labor-intensive farming techniques available to them."

"The objective of this [early modern state-making] policy was, it seems, to starve the population into grain farming and subjecthood by separating them from the open commons."

If you're interested in hearing Professor Scott speak at length on this book, check out the following lecture; for a more informal interview, have a look here; for the relationship of Scott's work to the libertarian tradition, have a listen to this.

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