Did Wheat Create the Extortion Racket We Call a State?

An essay in the  LA Review of Books may have unintentionally exposed what many of us who strive to tilt the balance of power towards individuals and free associations already know, that the state, or, as I like to call it, the coercive enterprise, is built around extortion, theft, or, as the title of the review says, a protection racket.

The central idea is that not until there emerged a fixed commodity (in this case, wheat) that could be regularly ‘taxed,’ did the ‘state’ emerge.

The article is worth a read in its entirety, so be sure to go there.  Here is a key excerpt from the article:

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

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.

Read More at LA Review of Books

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Paul Gordon is the publisher and editor of iState.TV. He has published and edited newspapers, poetry magazines and online weekly magazines. He is the director of Social Cognito, an SEO/Web Marketing Company. You can reach Paul at pg@istate.tv