James Scott on the earliest states

In 2011 James Scott gave a pair of Tanner Lectures at Harvard. He had chosen a topic for which he felt he had a fairly good understanding, having taught on early agrarian societies throughout much of his career. The topic was the origins of the earliest states in human history. But as he explains in the preface to the 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, preparation for the lectures led him into brand new debates, bodies of evidence, and theories which were pretty much off his personal map. The resulting book is his effort to bring his own understanding up to date, and it is a terrific and engaging book.

Scott gives a quick summary of the view of early states, nutrition, agriculture, and towns that he shared with most historians of early civilizations up through a few decades ago. Hunter-gatherer human groups were the primary mode of living for tens of thousands of years at the dawn of civilization. Humanity learned to domesticate plants and animals, creating a basis for sedentary agriculture in hamlets and villages. With the increase in productivity associated with settled agriculture, it was possible for nascent political authorities to collect taxes and create political institutions. Agriculture and politics created the conditions that conduced to the establishment of larger towns, and eventually cities. And humanity surged forward in terms of population size and quality of life.

But, as Scott summarizes, none of these sequences has held up to current scholarship.

We thought … that the domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture. It turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared. (xi)

The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state — life as a “barbarian” — may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization. (xii)

There is an element of “who are we?” in the topic — that is, what features define modern humanity? Here is Scott’s most general answer:

A sense, then, for how we came to be sedentary, cereal-growing, livestock-rearing subjects governed by the novel institution we now call the state requires an excursion into deep history. (3)

Who we are, in this telling of the story, is a species of hominids who are sedentary, town-living, agriculture-dependent subjects of the state. But this characterization is partial (as of course Scott knows); we are also meaning-makers, power-wielders, war-fighters, family-cultivators, and sometimes rebels. And each of these other qualities of humanity leads us in the direction of a different kinds of history, requiring a Clifford Geertz, a Michael Mann, a Tolstoy or a Marx to tell the story.

A particularly interesting part of the novel story about these early origins of human civilization that Scott provides has to do with the use of fire in the material lives of pre-technology humans — hunters, foragers, and gatherers — in a deliberate effort to sculpt the natural environment around then to concentrate food resources. According to Scott’s readings of recent archeology and pre-agriculture history, human communities used fire to create the specific habitats that would entice their prey to make themselves readily available for the season’s meals. He uses a strikingly phrase to capture the goal here — reducing the radius of a meal. Early foragers literally reshaped the natural environments in which they lived.

What we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create, over time, a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking. (40)

Most strikingly, Scott suggests a link between massive Native American use of fire to reduce forests, the sudden decline in their population from disease following contact with Europeans and consequent decline in burning, and the onset of the Little Ice Age (1500-1850) as a result of reduced CO2 production (39). Wow!

Using fire for cooking further reduced this “radius of the meal” by permitting early humans to consume a wider range of potential foods. And Scott argues that this innovation had evolutionary consequences for our hominid ancestors: human populations developed a digestive gut only one-third the length of that of other non-fire-using hominids. “We are a fire-adapted species” (42).

Scott makes an intriguing connection between grain-based agriculture and early states. The traditional narrative has it that pre-farming society was too low in food productivity to allow for sedentary life and dense populations. According to Scott this assumption is no longer supported by the evidence. Sedentary life based on foraging, gathering, and hunting was established several thousand years earlier than the development of agriculture. Gathering, farming, settled residence, and state power are all somewhat independent. In fact, Scott argues that these foraging communities were too well situated in their material environment to be vulnerable to a predatory state. “There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone taxed” (57). These communities generally were supported by three or four “food webs” that gave them substantial independence from both climate fluctuation and domination by powerful outsiders (49). Cereal-based civilizations, by contrast, were vulnerable to both threats, and powerful authorities had the ability to confiscate grain at the point of harvest or in storage. Grain made taxation possible.

We often think of hunter-gatherers in terms of game hunters and the feast-or-famine material life described by Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics. But Scott makes the point that there are substantial ecological niches in wetlands where nutrition comes to the gatherers rather than the hunter. And in the early millennia of the lower Nile — what Scott refers to as the southern alluvium — the wetland ecological zone was ample for a very satisfactory and regular level of wellbeing. And, of special interest to Scott, “the wetlands are ungovernable” (56). (Notice the parallel with Scott’s treatment of Zomia in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)

So who are these early humans who navigated their material worlds so exquisitely well and yet left so little archeological record because they built their homes with sticks, mud, and papyrus?

It makes most sense to see them as agile and astute navigators of a diverse but also changeable and potentially dangerous environment…. We can see this long period as one of continuous experimentation and management of this environment. Rather than relying on only a small bandwidth of food resources, they seem to have been opportunistic generalists with a large portfolio of subsistence options spread across several food webs. (59)

Later chapters offer similarly iconoclastic accounts of the inherent instability of the early states (like a pyramid of tumblers on the stage), the advantages of barbarian civilization, the epidemiology of sedentary life, and other intriguing topics in the early history of humanity. And pervasively, there is the under current of themes that recur often in Scott’s work — the validity and dignity of the hidden players in history, the resourcefulness of ordinary hominids, and the importance of avoiding the received wisdom of humanity’s history.

Scott is telling a new story here about where we came from, and it is a fascinating one.

Small farmers in Indian agriculture

Agriculture remains the primary source of income for India’s population, and the majority of India’s farmers subsist on small farms, less than two hectares (five acres). It is all but self evident that these facts imply continuing poverty and low quality of life for rural Indians. And yet the basic facts and economics of the small farm sector are poorly understood. 

The most recent product of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI) focuses on exactly this question (link). Madhura Swaminathan and Sandipan Baksi’s recent volume, How Do Small Farmers Fare?: Evidence from Village Studies in India, attempts to provide a multidimensional appraisal of the complex realities of the small farm economy in India, including labor, crop productivity, incomes, costs, fertilizer use, credit, climate change, education, living standards, and an overall assessment of how small farmers fare. The book draws upon largescale statistical data collected by the Indian government, but the fundamental insights offered in each chapter are drawn from the intensive village studies conducted by PARI researchers over the past dozen years (link). And, as the resolution and quality of the essays in this volume attest, the PARI village studies constitute an enormously valuable source of information on the rural economy in India in spite of the small number of villages included.

T. Sivamurugan and Madhura Swaminathan provide an excellent survey of the methodology and scope of the PARI project in their chapter on this subject. Their chapter provides detailed information about the methodology pursued in designing and carrying out these village studies in a range of regions in the country.

The Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI) began in 2006. One of the objectives of the Project is to analyse village-level production, production systems and livelihoods, and the socio-economic characteristics of different strata of the rural population. As of 2016, 25 villages from 11 States of the country, covering a wide range of agro-ecological regions in the country, have been studied under PARI. In this volume, we have used data on 17 villages from 9 States. (25)

It is apparent that the PARI project considers only a small percentage of India’s villages and farming regions. However, the locations chosen have been selected to provide a useful indication of the economic status of villages and farm households in a variety of locations.

The summary data provided by this research are striking:

According to the Agricultural Census of 2010–11, there were a total of 138.35 million operational holdings in India. The total area operated was 159.59 million hectares and the average size of an operational holding was 1.15 hectares. The average size of all holdings of size 2 hectares or less – which constituted small and marginal holdings as per the official definition – was 0.60 hectare. Holdings of size 2 hectares or less accounted for around 85 per cent of all holdings and 45 per cent of the total area operated. The number of persons who were part of small farmer households was close to half a billion. (2)

Almost 50% of India’s total population consists of small farmers and their families, and 85% of all farms are less than two hectares. Plainly the situation of small farms is of enormous importance to the overall social wellbeing of India.

A particularly important topic in this volume is the assessment of small farmers’ incomes that the studies permit. The summary conclusion is that India’s hundreds of millions of small farmers earn incomes only slightly higher than subsistence. Rural manual workers earn even lower income.

The levels of income received by small farmer households were low, in both absolute and relative terms. The average incomes received by small farmers were not much higher than the minimum wages in agriculture stipulated by State governments. Minimum wage in India is defined as subsistence wage; hence incomes received by small farmer households were inadequate to meet investments or any requirements other than daily consumption needs. (162)

An important measure of quality of life of poor people is number of years of schooling. The PARI studies show that children in small farmer households have extremely low levels of schooling, and that there are significant difference between boys and girls. Chapter 11 finds similar evidence of deprivation with regard to other material features of quality of life: access to clean drinking water, toilets, electricity, and living space and housing.

Moreover, the studies demonstrate that these kinds of deprivation are further exacerbated by facts of caste and religion.

While small farmer households are the worst off among the peasantry, there exist disparities and differences within the class of small farmers on the basis of social identity. The analysis presented in this chapter shows that SC, ST, and Muslim households among small farmers are far more deprived in terms of housing and access to basic household amenities than households belonging to other social groups. This points to the fact that in Indian society, and more so in rural society, deprivation is not merely economic but social as well. Even though a uniform criterion was used to define small farmer households, we find that higher levels of deprivation among SC, ST, and Muslim households are an outcome of the historical exclusion and accumulated disadvantages faced and inherited by these social groups. Continued practices of untouchability, physical and residential segregation, and isolation shape current outcomes for these groups. (327)

It has sometimes been maintained that small farming is potentially as productive as largescale commercial farming. It is maintained that intensive family labor has the potential for producing crops as efficiently as mechanized capital intensive farming — presumably because of the lack of efficiencies of scale in farming. The research reported here by Venkatesh Athreya and colleagues rebuts this longstanding assumption about small-scale farming:

At the core of the argument in favour of small-scale farming in terms of its efficiency is the alleged inverse relationship between land productivity and size. It states that small farms are more efficient, de ned in terms of yield per acre, than large farms. It is argued that this relationship holds true more or less universally. This assertion was also the basis of the debate in India on farm size and productivity based on findings from the Farm Management Studies. This argument, which continued through the 1960s, has seen a recent revival. Apart from the empirical challenge posed to this formulation (especially by the green revolution), it has also been theoretically rebutted by Terence Byres…. The body of empirical evidence from FAS surveys too does not support the hypothesis of an inverse relationship between farm size and output per unit of land.

One thing that is noteworthy in this collection is the significant use that the authors make of classical Marxist analysis of agricultural development and the peasantry. Unlike other national traditions in the social sciences, Indian researchers continue to find insights and valuable frameworks in the writings of Marx, Lenin, Kautsky, and other Marxist writers on these topics. And, as the many texts cited in the introductory chapter illustrate, these figures were in fact careful observers of the agrarian systems of Europe. Here is how Athreya et al summarize the Marxist perspective in the Indian context:

The attitude towards the peasantry in the context of India’s development, especially after the country won political independence, has been a matter of much discussion in Indian Marxist literature. Comprehensive land reform is essential to the completion of the democratic revolution in India. Achievement of the democratic revolution under a working class leadership in alliance with the peasantry, especially poor peasants and agricultural labourers as key rural classes in this process, is necessary for further democratic advance. Such a view envisages the continued presence of a large population of small and middle peasants for a long time. We need public policy that supports the peasantry, especially focusing on developing the productive forces among them. (14)

This volume is a very important contribution to development studies in India and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. The dynamics of agriculture remain a critical factor in the social progress of these countries, and this careful and detailed research will provide a basis for constructing more effective development policies in India and elsewhere. And the data suggest that the situation of the rural sector in India is in crisis: incomes for small farmers and landless workers are extremely low with few indications of improvement, and measures of quality of life mirror these findings.

Change in peasant China

Image: Shanxi countryside

In 1978 China’s government initiated a major change in the agricultural economy. It began a rapid transition from communal agriculture to the household responsibility system, which returned the responsibilities and incentives associated with farming to the farmer rather than the commune. This was the beginning of the market-friendly reforms that led to the transformation of agriculture, industry, and transport in a remarkably short time.

These market-oriented reforms have also stimulated a continuing economic revolution in China, with growth rates exceeding 10% in many years and an intensive period of infrastructure build-out (roads, high speed rail, telecommunications).

Much has transpired in the Chinese countryside since 1978. Rural incomes have risen; significant numbers of rural people have transitioned from farming into better-paying market and logistical activities; and many millions of young people have exited the countryside in search of work in manufacturing and construction. On balance, how has this tumultuous 35 years affected the quality of life for China’s rural population?

In 1990 William Hinton offered his own predictions about the effects of the rural reforms in The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989. Hinton believed the future was dire for China’s peasants, as they would be squeezed by market forces into even lower-productivity farming techniques and the wealth of the countryside would be extracted by urban elites. Hinton was a continuing supporter of collective agriculture because he believed it permitted economies of scale and more reliable support for the welfare of the people in the countryside. It seems that no one in China continues to advocate this view.

Deng Xiaoping took a different perspective. He believed that all of China would benefit from the accumulation of wealth created by market incentives. His famous words — “To get rich is glorious” — legitimated the workings of the market in creating inequalities. And he evidently believed that these processes of economic growth and market incentives would be good for the rural sector as well as the urban sector.

So how has it worked out? How has China’s agricultural economy performed in the past three decades? Is China food-self-sufficient? Have rural people gained income? Is rural poverty falling significantly? What is the trend in the quality of life of China’s rural populations? And what happened to the range of income inequalities in the countryside?

Here are a few important data points.

First, it appears to be true that China has made rapid progress in reducing poverty in its population. According to Li Xiaoyun’s tables below, just under 13% of China’s population lives in extreme poverty at incomes lower than $1.25 per day in 2011. (The next three slides are taken from an extensive presentation on China’s poverty strategies by  Professor Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University; link.) This is a dramatic reduction from an estimate in excess of 80% at this level in the late 1970s. This means that rural incomes have risen substantially since 1978.

Moreover, there have been nationally coordinated programs of poverty alleviation that have been supported by meaningful levels of central and provincial resources.

The central government has attempted to target its poverty alleviation efforts towards the most backward regions in the country. 

Here is a very interesting poverty map for Yunnan Province in the southeast part of the country (link):


Second, it is also true that China’s income inequalities have increased sharply during the same period. The share of income flowing to the poorest 40% has fallen from 20% to 14% from 1990 to 2009. Studies indicate that the Gini coefficient for income inequality has risen sharply during that time. It seems likely that wealth inequalities have increased even more. Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):

The following figure documents the overall rise in urban/rural income inequalities in China since 1997 extending the data represented in Fig. 2.2 above through 2010 (Liu M., link). Interestingly, this graph suggests that urban/rural inequalities leveled off in about 2003.

Third, food security has improved. China is a net exporter of rice (link) and has substantially increasing its production of pigs and poultry, and it has not suffered famine or extensive malnutrition since the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959. Nutritional levels throughout poor areas have improved in the past twenty years, although there are still significant levels of underweight or stunted children under 5 (fig. 3.14, CHDR 2005).

What has been less visible to the western public is the dynamics of life quality that these changes have created in the countryside. What is needed is disaggregated studies of quality-of-life indicators like education, health, nutrition, and longevity. World Bank reports and China’s own major statistical reports do not highlight these kinds of data. However, the UNDP has prepared six triennial reports on China’s performance with respect to the Human Development Index (link), and it turns out that Chinese researchers are in fact doing careful work on the task of measuring these characteristics in rural areas. Three leading Chinese scholars focused on poverty alleviation (Wu Guobao, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Liu Minquan, Peking Univerisity; Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University) provide a good snapshot into a world of policy research currently underway in China.

How are the government’s pronouncements about poverty alleviation viewed by the Chinese public? I had a very interesting conversation with a man in his thirties in Taiyuan, Shanxi on this question. He is employed in a semi-professional job. His view was very skeptical. He believes the government says it is working toward helping the poor and reducing inequalities, but he doesn’t think these efforts are very broad. His view is that anti-poverty programs are directed towards just a few locations and a relatively small part of the rural population. And he thinks it is very unfair that the inequalities between rich and poor are increasing so rapidly. When I asked him what he thought the greatest problems were that China faces, he listed these: a one-party state that gives ordinary people no voice in the issues they care about; a lack of freedom of expression; and the unfairness of increasing inequalities between rich and poor. This was a very frank assessment by one person which perhaps sheds some light on how many young people are thinking in China today.

(Here is a 2003 volume on poverty alleviation in China published by the Development Studies Network in Australia, including a number of valuable research articles on the subject; link. The China Health and Nutrition Survey conducted by the Carolina Population Center and the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is also a valuable data source; link.)


Varieties of economic progress

The study of economic history reveals a number of different patterns when it comes to agricultural production and the standard of living of a given population in a region.  Let’s think about the issue in very simple terms.  Imagine that the standard of living for a population in a region is determined by the amount of grain that each household is able to acquire in a time period.  Grain is produced on farms using labor and technology (water, traction, fertilizer, pesticides, harvest tools).  Output is influenced by the existing agricultural technology and the quantity of labor expended in the farming process.  At a given level of technology and a given practice of labor use, a certain quantity of grain Q can be produced for the population P (farmers and their families).  If population is stable and if land area, technology, and labor use remain constant, then the total amount of grain produced remains constant as well and the standard of living remains level at Q/P.

Now several things can begin to change.  First, consider a steady population increase over time.  If land, technology and labor remain constant, then the standard of living falls, since Q remains constant while P increases.  So how can this population sustain and perhaps improve its standard of living?  It needs to increase the output of grain at a rate at least equal to the rate of increase in population.  And this can be done in several ways.

First, the population can bring more land into cultivation.  Population increase leads to more farm labor; more farmers can farm the additional land; and if agricultural technologies and practices are unchanged, then output will increase proportionally to the increase in population; so the standard of living will remain constant.  This assumes, however, that the new land is of equal productivity to existing land; but as the physiocrats observed, generally new land is of lower productivity.  So in this scenario, output would increase more slowly than population, and the standard of living would slowly decline.  We might call this extensive growth; technique and labor practices remain constant, but the arable land area increases (at the cost of deforestation and loss of common lands).

Second, more labor can be applied to the process of cultivation to increase output, using traditional farming practices.  More frequent weeding and destruction of pests takes time, but it increases output.  So if population is rising and land extent and productivity are constant, it is possible to offset the tendency for average output to fall, by applying more labor to the process.  Family labor, including children, can be expended more and more intensively in order to achieve additional gains in output.  But, of course, the marginal product of these additional hours of labor is small.  This process is familiar from the history of agriculture; Chayanov calls it “self-exploitation” (The Theory of Peasant Economy) and Clifford Geertz calls it “agricultural involution” (Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia).  The standard of living may remain fairly constant, but the work load for the farm family increases over time.  Naturally, this process reaches a limit; eight hours a day of farm labor is sustainable; twelve hours is difficult; and eighteen hours is unsupportable.  (Here is an explanation and application of Chayanov’s theory to the circumstances of Sri Lanka; link.)  We can call this involutionary growth or labor-intensive growth.

A third possibility is somewhat more positive for the standard of living and quality of life.  Intelligent farmers can recognize opportunities for improving and refining existing techniques and practices.  A better kind of sacking material may do a better job of protecting the harvest from rats; a bicycle-powered irrigation pump may increase the amount of water available for crops, thus increasing the harvest; a different form of labor cooperation across households may permit more effective seeding during the appropriate season.  So the traditional practices can be refined, permitting an increase of output with a constant quantity of land and labor.  This is what Mark Elvin refers to as “refinement of traditional practices” in his pathbreaking analysis of the “high-level equilibrium trap” (The Pattern of the Chinese Past).  It is an incremental process through which the productivity of the traditional farming system is increased through a series of small refinements of practice and technique.  Improvement in productivity permits an improvement in output per person; but if population continues to increase, then soon these gains are erased and the standard of living begins to decline again.

A fourth possibility is even more dramatic.  The fundamental technologies in use may be qualitatively improved: manure may be replaced by bean curd, which in turn may be replaced by chemical fertilizers; seed varieties may be significantly improved through selective breeding; electric-powered pumps may improve the availability of irrigation; small tractors may replace oxen and many person-hours of labor.  This kind of improvement in productivity can be represented as a jump from one of the heavy curves above to a higher “production possibility frontier.”  And this enhancement of agricultural productivity can result in massive increases in the quantity of grain relative to the farming population — thereby permitting a significant improvement in the standard of living for the farming population.  This can be referred to as modern technological productivity growth.

Two problems arise at this point, however.  First is Elvin’s fundamental point about Chinese agriculture: these significant technological improvements require a significant social investment in scientific and technical research.  And if a population has already approached a subsistence trap — a level of population at which intensive labor and existing farm technology only permits a near-subsistence diet for the population — then there is no source of social surplus that can fund this research investment. (This is the core of his theory of the high-level equilibrium trap: farming techniques and practices have been refined to the maximum degree possible, and population has increased to the point of subsistence.)

Another problem is equally important.  The sorts of productivity improvements described here are “labor-expelling”: the size of the labor force needs to fall (unless more land is available).  So the standard of living may rise for the farm population; but there will be a “surplus population” that is excluded from this improvement in productivity.  (This is a process that James Scott describes in Green-Revolution Malasia in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.)  And at this point, the only hope for improvement of the standard of living for this segment of the population is for economic growth in another sector — manufacturing or service — where the labor of displaced farmers can be productively used.

So there are three large patterns, with several structural alternatives among the growth scenarios.

(See several earlier posts on farming, agriculture, and development; link, link, link.)

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative — his ideas of the “moral economy of the peasant” and “weapons of the weak” are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I’ve treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott’s work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena — peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between “material circumstances” and “culture”; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro — he examines the ways that states think; and more micro — he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls “high modernism” — essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:

It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)

Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state’s agenda of “sedentarianization” — reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into “legible” formations.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level….  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century … He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)

The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott’s view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of “scientific management” to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China’s Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)

A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science — social and natural — and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment — what he calls “metis”.  “Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability” (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott’s discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott’s perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories — whether of forests, bees, or cities — has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott’s most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott’s contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

Alleviating rural poverty

What theories and values ought to underlie our best thinking about global economic development?  Along with Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), I believe that the best answer to the ethical question involves giving top priority to the goal of increasing the realization of human capabilities across the whole of society (The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development). We need to put the poor first.  However, I also believe that our ability to achieve this goal is highly sensitive to the distributive structures and property systems that exist in poor countries.  The property institutions of developing countries have enormous impact on the full human development of the poor.  As a result, ethically desirable human development goals are difficult to attain within any social system in which the antecedent property relations are highly stratified and in which political power is largely in the hands of the existing elites.

The fundamental question of poverty is this: how do people earn their livings? The economic institutions of the given society (property relations and market institutions, for example) determine the answer to this question. An economy represents a set of social positions for the men and women who make it up. These persons have a set of human needs—nutrition, education, health care, housing, clothing, etc. And they need access to the opportunities that exist in society—opportunities for employment and education, for example. The various positions that exist within the economy in turn define the entitlements that persons have—wages, profits, access to food subsidies, rights of participation, etc. The material well-being of a person—the “standard of living”—is chiefly determined by the degree to which his or her “entitlements” through these various sources of income provide the basis for acquiring more than enough goods in all the crucial categories to permit the individual to flourish (Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). If wages are low, then the consumption bundle that this income will afford is very limited. If crop prices are low, then peasants will have low incomes. If business taxes are low, then business owners may retain more business income in the form of profits, which will support larger consumption bundles and larger savings. There is thus a degree of conflict of interest among the agents within the economic system; the institutions of distribution may favor workers, lenders, farmers, business owners, or the state, depending on their design. And it is very possible for economic development to proceed in a way that gives the greatest benefit to the upper levels of society without leading to much change at the bottom.

Here I want to review an important empirical example of economic development without commensurate gain for the poor of the region: the effects of the Green Revolution in the rice-growing regions of Malaysia. James Scott provides a careful survey of the development process in Malaysia in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985). The chief innovations were these: a government-financed irrigation project making double-cropping possible; the advent of modern-variety rice strains; and the introduction of machine harvesting, replacing hired labor. Scott considers as relevant factors the distribution of landholdings, the forms of land tenure in use, the availability of credit, the political parties on the scene, and the state’s interests in development.

Scott’s chief finding is that double cropping and irrigation substantially increased revenues in the Muda region, and that these increases were very unequally distributed. Much of the increase flowed to the small circle of managerial farmers, credit institutions, and outside capitalists who provided equipment, fertilizers, and transport. Finally, Scott finds that the lowest stratum—perhaps 40%—has been substantially marginalized in the village economy. Landlessness has increased sharply, as managerial farms absorb peasant plots; a substantial part of the rural population is now altogether cut off from access to land. And mechanized harvesting substantially decreases the demand for wage labor. This group is dependent on wage labor, either on the managerial farms or through migration to the cities. The income flowing to this group is more unstable than the subsistence generated by peasant farming; and with fluctuating consumption goods prices, it may or may not suffice to purchase the levels of food and other necessities this group produced for itself before development. And these circumstances have immediate consequences for the ability of poor households to achieve the development of their human capabilities. Their nutritional status, their health, their literacy, and their mobility are all directly impaired by the fact of low and unstable household income. Finally, the state and the urban sector benefits substantially: the increased revenues created by high-yield rice cultivation generate profits and tax revenues that can be directed towards urban development.

Scott draws this conclusion:

The gulf separating the large, capitalist farmers who market most of the region’s rice and the mass of small peasants is now nearly an abyss, with the added (and related) humiliation that the former need seldom even hire the latter to help grow their crops. Taking 1966 as a point of comparison, it is still the case that a majority of Muda’s households are more prosperous than before. It is also the case that the distribution of income has worsened appreciably and that a substantial minority—per­haps 35‑40 percent—have been left behind with very low incomes which, if they are not worse than a decade ago, are not appreciably better. Given the limited absorptive capacity of the wider economy, given the loss of wages to machines, and given the small plots cultivated by the poor strata, there is little likelihood that anything short of land reform could reverse their fortunes. (Scott 1985:81)

This example well illustrates the problems of distribution and equity that are unavoidable in the process of rural development. The process described here is one route to “modernization of agriculture,” in that it involves substitution of new seed varieties for old, new technologies for traditional technologies, integration into the global economy, and leads to a sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture. Malaysia was in effect one of the great successes of the Green Revolution. At the same time it created a sharp division between winners and losers: peasants and the rural poor largely lose income, security, and autonomy; while rural elites, urban elites, and the state gained through the increased revenues generated by the modern farming sector.

Gillian Hart, Andrew Turton, and Benjamin White’s Agrarian Transformations: Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia (1989) provides detailed case studies of these sorts of processes of property and power in development in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Food security

Food security is a crucial aspect of life, both for a population and a household. By “food security” specialists often mean two different things: the capacity of a typical poor household to secure sufficient food over a twelve-month period (through farm work, day labor, government entitlements, etc.); and the capacity of a poor country to satisfy the food needs of its whole population (through direct production, foreign trade, and food stocks). This involves both food availability and the ability to gain access to food (through entitlements).

A representative description of food security is offered by Shlomo Reutlinger in Malnutrition and Poverty: Magnitude and Policy Options:

Food security … is defined here as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Its essential elements are the availability of food and the ability to acquire it. Conversely, food insecurity is the lack of access to sufficient food and can be either chronic or transitory.  Chronic food insecurity is a continuously inadequate diet resulting from the lack of resources to produce or acquire food.  Transitory food insecurity, however, is a temporary decline in a household’s access to enough food.  It results from instability in food production and prices or in household incomes.  The worst form of transitory food insecurity is famine.

Here is how Sen formulates his “capabilities” understanding (developed, for example, in Hunger and Public Action):

The standard of adequacy is best understood functionally: a person, household, or population has food security if it has sufficient access to food to permit full, robust human development and realization of human capacities.

There is an obvious connection between the two definitions at the household and country levels; but from a human point of view it seems more useful to focus on household food security rather than national food security.  A country may in principle have more than sufficient resources to satisfy the food needs of its population, but fail to do so because of internal inequalities.  Thus achieving household food security in the less‑developed world requires both equity and growth.  Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have made major contributions on hunger and famine in the developing world, and their work can almost always be linked back to the household level.  Here is a good source on their writings: The Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze Omnibus: (comprising) Poverty and Famines; Hunger and Public Action; India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity.

Michael Lipton has also been an important voice on this set of topics.  His central task in Poverty, Undernutrition, and Hunger is an attempt to provide criteria for distinguishing between the poor and the ultra-poor.  The ultra-poor have incomes and entitlements that are absolutely below that required to gain access to 80% of 1973 FAO/WHO caloric requirements.  Below this level is likely to lead to undernutrition (the failure of food security).  Lipton constructs a “food adequacy standard” as a way of measuring the incidence in a given country of absolute poverty.  Here is his statement of a food adequacy standard:

Income or outlay, just sufficient on this assumption to command the average caloric requirement for one’s age, sex and activity group (ASAG) in a given climatic and work environment, will be taken as meeting the poverty FAS; this is income or outlay on the borderline of poverty, indicating a risk of hunger. Income or outlay, just sufficient to command 80% of this average requirement, will be taken as meeting the ultra-poverty FAS; this is income or outlay at the borderline between poverty and ultra-poverty, indicating a risk of undernutrition and a severe risk of important anthropometric shortfalls. (Lipton 1983): 7.)

Food security can be put at risk in a variety of ways. Natural conditions can lead to a shortfall of grain production — flood, drought, or other natural disasters can reduce or destroy the crop across a wide region, leading to a shortfall of supply. Population increase can gradually reduce the grain-to-population ratio to the point where nutrition falls below the minimum required by the population or household. And, perhaps most importantly, prices can shift rapidly in the market for staple foods, leaving poor families without the ability to purchase a sufficient supply to assure the nutritional minimum. It is this aspect of the system that Amartya Sen highlights in his study of famine (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). And it is the circumstance that is most urgent in developing countries today in face of the steep and rapid rise in grain prices over the past year.

The results of a failure of food security are dire. Chronic malnutrition, sustained over months and years, has drastic effects on the health status of a population. Infant and child mortality increases sharply. Often the gender differences in health and mortality statistics widen. And economic productivity falls, as working families lack the strength and energy needed to labor productively. Famine is a more acute circumstance that arises when food shortfalls begin to result in widespread deaths in a region. The Great Bengal famine, the Ethiopian famine, the Great Leap Forward famine, and the famines in North Korea offer vivid and terrible examples of hunger in the twentieth century.

So what is needed to maintain food security in a poor nation? Some developing countries have aimed at food self-sufficiency — to enact policies in agriculture that assure that the country will produce enough staples to feed its population. Other countries have relied on a strategy of purchasing large amounts of staple foods on international markets. Here the strategy is to generate enough national income through exported manufactured goods to be able to purchase the internationally traded grain. This is the strategy recommended by neoliberal trade theory. If agriculture is a low value-added industry and the manufacture of electronic components is high value-added, neoliberals reason, then surely it makes sense for the country to generate the larger volume of income through the latter and purchase food with the proceeds.

This logic has given rise to several important problems, however. First is the vulnerability it creates for the nation in face of sharp price shocks. This is what we have seen in many countries over the past year. And the second is the reality of extensive income inequalities in most developing countries — with the result that the “gains of trade” may not be sufficiently shared in the incomes of the poorest 40% to permit them to maintain household food security.

These considerations suggest the wisdom for developing countries to expend more resources on agricultural development (which often has an income-inequality narrowing effect) and a greater emphasis on national and regional food self-sufficiency.

Technology innovation in Chinese agriculture

It is a commonplace in world history to observe that China had achieved a high level of sophistication in science, medicine, and astronomy by the Middle Ages, but that some unknown feature of social organization or culture blocked the further development of this science into the expansion of technology in the early modern period. Chinese culture was “blocked” from making significant technological advances during the late Ming and early Qing periods — in spite of its scientific advantage over the West in medieval times; or so it is believed in a standard version of Chinese economic history.

A variety of hypotheses have been offered to account for this supposed fact. For example, Mark Elvin argues that China’s social and demographic system created conditions for a “high-level equilibrium trap” in the early modern period in The Pattern of the Chinese Past. According to Elvin, Chinese social arrangements favored population growth; innovative and resourceful farmers discovered all feasible refinements of traditional agricultural techniques to refine a highly labor-intensive system of agriculture; and population expanded to the point where the whole population was at roughly the subsistence level while consuming virtually the whole of the agricultural product. There was consequently no social surplus that might have been used to invest in discovery of major innovations in agricultural technology; so the civilization was trapped. (Here is a more developed discussion of Elvin’s argument.)

Other historians have speculated about potential features of Confucian culture that might have blocked the transition from scientific knowledge to technology applications. The leading Western expert on Chinese science is Joseph Needham (1900-1995), whose multi-volume studies on Chinese science set the standard in this area (Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 1: Introductory Orientations; Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West). And Needham attributes China’s failure to continue to make scientific progress to features of its traditional culture.

But here is a more fundamental question: is the received wisdom in fact true? Was Chinese technology unusually stagnant during the early-modern period (late Ming, early Qing)? Agriculture is a particularly important aspect of traditional economic life; so we might reformulate our question a bit more specifically: what was the status of agricultural technology in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (late Ming, early Qing)? (See an earlier posting on Chinese agricultural history for more on this subject.)

Economic historian Bozhong Li considers this question with respect to the agriculture of the lower Yangzi Delta in Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. And since this was the most important agricultural region in China for centuries, his findings are important. (It was also the major cultural center of China; see the concentration of literati in the map above.) Li makes an important point about technological innovation by distinguishing between invention and dissemination. An important innovation may be discovered in one time period but only adopted and disseminated over a wide territory much later. And the economic effects of the innovation only take hold when there is broad dissemination. This was true for Chinese agriculture during the Ming period, according to Li:

The revolutionary advance in Jiangnan rice agriculture technology appeared in the late Tang and led to the emergence and development of intensive agriculture composed of double-cropping rice and wheat. But this kind of intensive agriculture in pre-Ming times was largely limited to the high-fields of western Jiangnan. In the Ming this pattern developed into what Kitada has called the ‘new double-cropping system’ and spread throughout Jiangnan, but only in the late Ming did it become a leading crop regime. Similar were the development and spread of mulberry and cotton farming technologies, though they were limited to particular areas and cotton technology’s advances came later because cotton was introduced later. Each had its major advances in the Ming. Therefore, technology advances in Ming Jiangnan agriculture were certainly not inferior to those of Song times which are looked at as a period of ‘farming revolution’. (40)

Li also finds that there was a significant increase in the number of crop varieties in the early Qing — another indication of technological development. He observes, “The later the date, the greater the number of varieties. For example, in the two prefectures of Suzhou and Changzhou, 46 varieties were found in the Song, but the number rose to 118 in the Ming and 259 in the Qing” (40). And this proliferation of varieties permitted farmers to adjust their crop to local soil, water, and climate conditions — thus increasing the output of the crop per unit of land. Moreover, formal knowledge of the properties of the main varieties increased from Ming to Qing periods; “By the mid-Qing, the concept of ‘early’ rice had become clear and exact, and knowledge of ‘intermediate’ and ‘late’ strains had also deepened” (42). This knowledge is important, because it indicates an ability to codify the match between the variety to the local farming environment.

Another important process of technology change in agriculture had to do with fertilizer use. Here again Li finds that there was significant enhancement, discovery, and dissemination of new uses of fertilizer in the Ming-Qing period.

A great advance in fertilizer use took place in Jiangnan during the early and mid-Qing, an advance so significant that it can be called a ‘fertilizer revolution’. The advance included three aspects: (a) an improvement in fertilizer application techniques, centring on the use of top dressing; (b) progress in the processing of traditional fertilizer; and (c) an introduction of a new kind of fertilizer, oilcake. Although all three advances began to appear in the Ming, they were not widespread until the Qing. (46)

And the discovery of oilcake was very important to the increases in land productivity that Qing agriculture witnessed — thus permitting a constant or slightly rising standard of living during a period of some population increase.

There were also advances in the use of water resources. Raising fish in ponds, for example, became an important farming activity in the late Ming period, and pond fish became a widely commercialized product in the Qing. Li describes large-scale fishing operations in Lake Tai in Jiangnan using large fishing boats with six masts to catch and transport the fish (62).

So Li’s estimate of agricultural technology during the Ming period is that it was not stagnant; rather, there was significant diffusion of new crops, rotation systems, and fertilizers that led to significant increases in agricultural product during the period. “In sum, in the Jiangnan plain, land and water resources were used more rationally and fully in the early and mid-Qing than they had been in the late Ming” (64).

Two points emerge from this discussion. First, Li’s account does in fact succeed in documenting a variety of knowledge-based changes in agricultural practices and techniques that led to rising productivity during the Ming-Qing period in Jiangnan. So the stereotype of “stagnant Chinese technology” does not serve us well. Second, though, what Li does not find is what we might call “science-based” technology change: for example, the discovery of chemical fertilizer, controlled experiments in rice breeding, or the use of machinery in irrigation. The innovations that he describes appear to be a combination of local adaptation and diffusion of discoveries across a broad territory.

So perhaps the question posed at the start still remains: what stood in the way of development of empirical sciences like chemistry or mechanics that would have supported science-based technological innovations in the early modern period in China?

Agrarian history — the Weber edition

One of Max Weber’s early areas of research was what might be called “macro agrarian history”. This was a field of research that Weber himself largely invented. He undertook to document and explain the large patterns of economic development in the ancient world, including especially the social systems surrounding farming and animal husbandry. Weber’s cases include Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. How did the fundamental material activities of farming, trading, and consuming contribute to the development of major civilizations? This research culminated in several important manuscripts, including in particular Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations (1909; translated and edited by R. I. Frank in 1976). Weber was particularly interested in the causal and structural features of the specific forms of property relations, labor, trade, taxation, and consumption that characterized the social economies of the ancient world. And he tries to show how certain features of the agrarian system influenced the emergence of certain political and legal forms.
The title “Agrarverhältnisse in Altertum” is translated as “Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations”; but this is a little misleading. It’s not so much a work of sociology as it is a work of economic and political history at a civilizational level. The essay is offered as an account of the history and particularity of the rural economies of the ancient world — closer to economic history than sociology.

Weber’s treatment of ancient Greece is particularly detailed. So let’s inventory some of the main components of his account to get a flavor of his approach. This will give us a better idea of how he set about trying to understand and explain the social world that is presented through ancient Greek literature. Here are the first few paragraphs of his description of the agrarian society of “historic Greece” — the contemporary society of Homer, or roughly 1000 BCE:

The Greeks raised spelt, barley, and wheat, alternating this in each field with grass (hence leases were for an even number of years). This system continued to be followed except in those areas specializing in a particular crop. Occasionally, it seems, the three-field system was used, but there was no change of crops, except that legumes were grown on fallow land. The use of manure is mentioned in Homer (but green manure was not used until later times); in general, however, agricultural techniques were stabilized at a rather primitive level and thereafter did not develop.

Thus the main features of Greek agriculture continued to be ploughing with a hooked plough (for long entirely of wood) drawn by oxen, sowing seed in furrows, hacking and weeding the grain fields, and harvesting with sickle and threshing board. Hence labour intensity was considerable, and since virgin land was no longer available, it was difficult to shift from subsistence agriculture to market production, even though grain prices were high in later times.

Cattle raising does not seem to have been much reduced in extent by farming until the age of the tyrants, who favoured the peasantry. The Homeric epics indicated a diet based mainly on cheese, milk, and — among aristocrats — meat. Clothing was made of wool and skins. (147)

So — crops, technology and practice, labor productivity, and consumption patterns. And what about the social relationships within which these farm activities took place?

In historical times the prevalent form of living unit was the patriarchal nuclear family. Women and children were in much the same position as among Semitic peoples: women could be bought or else married with dowry; husbands had the right to send away their wives, and could sell, rent, expel, or kill their children. Later the laws governing legitimacy, and the feeling for kin ties cultivated among the great families combined to reduce these powers of the father over his children; by the time when the Gortyn Code was first framed these changes had all taken place. (148)

But whereas the masses lived in nuclear families, nobles and kings — at first the same — lived as elsewhere in large households including agnates of a clan (genos). The purpose of this was to preserve the unity of inheritable landed estates. Thus both separate and group inheritance are mentioned in the Homeric epics; see the homosipuoi of Charondas, equivalent to the homogalaktes of Attic law. (148)

Here we have some social detail: the family, property in land, inheritance, and a “class” distinction between the farmer class and the elite families. And we have regular reminders of the primary historical sources underlying these descriptions: the Homeric epics and other surviving texts from Greek literature and history.

Weber quickly identifies social inequality in ancient Greek society and points to a system of wealth extraction from the masses to the elite families:

Those people who did not belong to a numerous and economically established clan, who were in short without land, found themselves forced to enter the clientele of one or another aristocrat. This was a later development, as the supply of new land declined and differences in wealth developed; originally membership of the community and ownership of land each presupposed the other. (149)

What about politics — the use of military force to extract resources and compel population behavior?

The Dorian cities were fundamentally military states, and so everywhere they maintained the same three tribes. Elsewhere there was great variety, but everywhere and always the formal division of a community into tribes signified one thing: that a people had constituted itself as a polis ready for war at any time. It should be noted here that the proper word for a tribe in a non-urbanized community was ethnos, as is shown by the documents of the Delphic Amphictyone. (151)

More precise information is not available for the political and social structures of autonomous communities in early times. If, however, we rely on analogies with other peoples, then we can assume that in each community the position of ruler (anax) came to be hereditary in a family made prominent by wealth in cattle and marked out as favoured by the gods by success in war and equity in judgment. (151)

When he moves on to the later period in ancient Greek history he extends the list of concepts used to characterize society; he describes the development of cities, the extension of long-distance trade, the social and cultural influence of Asia Minor, and the growth of political power wielded by aristocratic kings.

This is just a small snapshot of Weber’s historical reasoning in Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations. The book is methodical, and it moves through an orderly series of objective concepts of social organization in order to provide a description of the historically given society.

So the text is full of interesting claims and details about the agrarian regimes of human society 3,000 years ago. But here is the question that needs posing in the context of UnderstandingSociety: What is Weber trying to accomplish in this piece of writing? And how does his analysis shed light on his intuitive views of social and historical knowledge? What can we discover about Weber’s sociological imagination from this book? Several summary comments seem fairly clear.

First, much of the intellectual work here is devoted to de-coding the social and economic implications of surviving Greek literature, including particularly the Homeric poems. Weber is trying to piece together a coherent story of the modes of farming, technology, property, family, kinship, and kingship that are implied in the many small clues about social life contained in the Homeric corpus. So there is a large part of the work that is intended to be conceptual and descriptive.

Second, Weber lays bare one of his own interests in his construction of the text: a concern for viewing large social formations — civilizations or social-economic regimes — and discovering some of the material and situational factors that influence their development. This introduces an explanatory ambition to the work; Weber wants to be able to explain how some developments are the causal result of other developments.

Third, there is an important element of comparison involved in the book. Weber is plainly interested in noticing the differences as well as the similarities in the agrarian regimes he describes in Egypt, Greece, or Rome.

Fourth, there is not much attention given to the role of ideas or ideologies in this book — in contrast to the central role that ideas play in his comparative religion research some years later. And there is no trace of “interpretive” inquiry in this book either. Weber is trying to discover an objective vocabulary in terms of which to describe the material and social arrangements that are implied by the Homeric corpus, without attempting to say how the agents experienced or represented these social relations. This is not a “hermeneutic” book; if anything, it more resembles an ethnographically sensitive materialism. We might even say that the book is Weber’s, but it is something other than Weberian.

Finally, the topic of power returns repeatedly throughout the book. Weber demonstrates his recurring interest in the role that coercion and military force play in the organization of society and the concentration of wealth.

Several generations later, the great classical historian M. I. Finley undertook a parallel investigation of the agrarian economies of Greece and Rome in The Ancient Economy (1973). Finley’s work is more clearly organized by the goal of showing how the material, technical, and social relations he describes constitute an economic system — a system of production and reproduction. And it reflects a modest kind of Marxism in its effort to describe the forces and relations of production in the ancient world. Certainly the body of historical data that was available to Finley about the social arrangements of the ancient world was much greater than what was available to Weber; in this sense we are likely to judge that Finley’s account is more likely to be accurate in detail. But it is very interesting to read the two books side-by-side; they have a lot in common. And each presents an ambitious view of what is involved in knowing how ancient societies worked.

(It is interesting to discover that M. I. Finley and R. I. Frank, the translator and editor of Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations, had a bit of a dust-up in the New York Review of Books in 1970 over a review that Finley wrote of several books on the Roman Empire.)

Malthus blogging on the Corn Laws

I think that Thomas Malthus would have been very much at home in the blogosphere. He weighed in on the issues of the day, bringing careful logical analysis of economic theory to bear on the policy issues that were up for debate. And he was very interested in making the connection between economic principles and real empirical evidence. This is particularly true in his contributions to the debate on the Corn Laws in 1814 and 1815. Malthus authored pamphlets on these issues in 1814 (“Observations on the effects of the corn laws”; link) and 1815 (“Grounds of an opinion on the policy of restricting the importation of foreign corn”; link), and they repay scrutiny today; they are powerful instances of a very smart economist probing the theory and the facts surrounding a complex policy issue. (Here is a nice survey of Malthus’s theories; link.)

The Corn Laws might be thought of as a form of “stimulus package” for the British economy in the early nineteenth century. By setting a high tariff on the import of wheat and other grains, Parliament aimed to protect the agricultural sector and to encourage the expansion of grain production to make Britain more independent from external grain providers. One might also compare the debate to the NAFTA debate or to policy deliberations in the 1960s concerning “import substitution” strategies. Opponents argued that removal of the tariffs would bring down the price of grain, a central component of the wage basket; this would help the poor and would also permit a significant reduction of the wage as well. So the issue divides the interests of land owners, industrialists, and the poor.

Malthus’s position in the two essays is somewhat different. In the first article he promises to lay out the issue dispassionately, dispelling false opinions about what the effects of the proposed policy might be and diving into the advantages and disadvantages of the policy. He writes that “some important considerations have been neglected on both sides of the question, and the effects of the corn laws, and of a rise or fall in the price of corn, on the agriculture and general wealth of the state, have not yet been fully laid before the public.” A bit further on, he writes:

My main object is to assist in affording the materials for a just and enlightened decision; and whatever that decision may be, to prevent disappointment, in the event of the effects of the measure not being such as were previously contemplated. Nothing would tend so powerfully to bring the general principles of political economy into disrepute, and to prevent their spreading, as their being supported upon any occasion by reasoning, which constant and unequivocal experience should afterwards prove to be fallacious.

So–“let’s do rigorous and systematic analysis based on the principles of political economy and our best understanding of the facts.” Good advice for a policy debate.

Quite a bit of the analysis is devoted to refuting an idea that Malthus attributes to Adam Smith — that “corn” is a unique commodity because increases and decreases in its price have no effect on agricultural production. The idea seems to be that the price of corn determines the wage and thereby determines all other prices in the economy; a small increase in the price of corn immediately causes an equal increase in the price of labor and all other prices. So corn is a “numéraire” to the whole economy; therefore the economy cannot be influenced by tariffs that alter the money price of corn. This is a notion that Malthus quickly and efficiently dispatches. Referring to the poverty studies of Frederick Morton Eden (1797) (whom Marx also relies on in the Grundrisse), Malthus examines the budget of the laboring poor and finds that only 40% of this budget is directly influenced by the price of grain. So the effect of the price of grain on the wage is only partial. (If we assume that the wage is at equilibrium when it equals the cost of the minimum wage basket, then an increase of 10% in the cost of the bread in the basket (40%) will have only 4% effect on the total cost of the wage basket.) Moreover, he points out that labor markets are different from many other commodity markets in the sense that it is not possible to quickly decrease the supply of labor; so the effect of changes in the price of corn will work only slowly into changes in the price of labor. “It is manifest therefore that the whole of the wages of labour can never rise and fall in proportion to the variations in the price of grain.”

Second, on the production side, Malthus goes into quite a bit of detail in the micro-economics of farming: land quality, choice of crops, improvements of land, amount of hired labor and draft animals. And he demonstrates that an increase in the price of the crop will give a clear economic incentive to investors to expand and intensify agricultural production. so quantity responds to rising prices. Higher prices => higher profits => rational incentive to invest more capital in expanded production. In short, the Smithian idea that “corn is unique” is untenable.

The central “general principles” of political economy that Malthus attributes to Smith — and which he endorses himself — are essentially these: that the price of a good varies over time according to fluctuations in supply and demand; that the quantity of a good increases when producers have a price-based incentive to invest more capital in its production (and vice versa); and that capital will flow across productive uses in such a way as to bring about an equal rate of profit across sectors and industries. Malthus argues that the idea that corn is a unique commodity directly contradicts these principles. “Corn is subjected to the same laws as other commodities, and the difference between them is by no means so great as stated by Dr Smith.”

This conclusion has a direct relevance to the topic of the corn laws. Malthus hereby concludes that a tariff or other restriction on imported grain will in fact have the effect of stimulating additional domestic production. So Britain’s grain production would increase under this set of laws. However, here Malthus makes a point about Britain’s agricultural potential and the density of its population:

On the whole then considering the present accumulation of manufacturing population in this country, compared with any other in Europe, the expenses attending enclosures, the price of labour and the weight of taxes, few things seem less probable, than that Great Britain should naturally grow an independent supply of corn.

So food self-sufficiency is impossible for Britain (in 1814!). Moreover, there is a Malthusian demographic consequence of free trade in grain that Malthus directly recognizes:

As one of the evils therefore attending the throwing open our ports, it may be stated, that if the stimulus to population, from the cheapness of grain, should in the course of twenty or twenty five years reduce the earnings of the labourer to the same quantity of corn as at present, at the same price as in the rest of Europe, the condition of the lower classes of people in this country would be deteriorated.

Malthus explicitly avoids coming to a conclusion of the overall advisability of the corn laws in this essay; but it is hard not to feel that the balance of arguments here appear to favor “open ports” — no tariffs or restrictions on the import of grain.

So it is surprising to turn to the second essay, less than a year later (“Grounds of an opinion”), because here he lays out a specific argument in favor of the tariffs. He offers as a central reason for this conclusion the fact that protection will stimulate more agricultural production which will make Britain more nearly grain-sufficient. The argument turns less on economic principles and more on the predicted behavior of grain-producing nations such as France in times of dearth. Recent historical experience demonstrated to Malthus that countries will limit their exports of grain at times when the supply is short and prices are high; but this is precisely when Britain would need to continue to have unfettered access to foreign grain markets. In effect, we might read the first essay as creating the argument in principle for free trade in grain, and the second essay as an argument based on the specific historical facts of international trade that make the free trade policy unwise. Here is how Malthus tries to reconcile theory and empirical experience:

I am very far indeed from meaning to insinuate, that if we cannot have the most perfect freedom of trade, we should have none; or that a great nation must immediately alter its commercial policy, whenever any of the countries with which it deals passes laws inconsistent with the principles of freedom. But I protest most entirely against the doctrine, that we are to pursue our general principles without ever looking to see if they are applicable to the case before us; and that in politics and political economy, we are to go straight forward, as we certainly ought to do in morals, without any reference to the conduct and proceedings of others.

It is interesting to observe that Malthus refers on more than one occasion to the effect that a proposed policy will have on the condition of the poor; he affirms that it would be decisive in favor of free trade in grain if it could be shown that this would improve the standard of living of the poor.

If I were convinced, that to open our ports, would be permanently to improve the conditions of the labouring classes of society, I should consider the question as at once determined in favour of such a measure. But I own it appears to me, after the most deliberate attention to the subject, that it will be attended with effects very different from those of improvement.

However, he believes he can show that this is not the case. (The passage quoted above, for example, follows a line of argument something like this: cheaper food => larger families => more competition for work => lower wages.) Moreover, free trade in grain would have the effect of rapidly reducing British agricultural production, and expelling more thousands of agricultural workers from the farm economy. But industrial labor is unlikely to increase sufficiently to absorb this influx in the medium term:

Our commerce and manufactures, therefore, must increase very considerably before they can restore the demand for labour already lost; for a moderate increase beyond this will scarcely make up the disadvantage of a low money price of wages.

Malthus offers something of a paean to the positive effects of industrialization that is worth quoting from “Observations”:

Yet, though the condition of the individual employed in common manufacturing labour is not by any means desirable, most of the effects of manufactures and commerce on the general state of society are in the highest degree beneficial. They infuse fresh life and activity into all classes of the state, afford opportunities for the inferior orders to rise by personal merit and exertion, and stimulate the higher orders to depend for distinction upon other grounds than mere rank and riches. They excite invention, encourage science and the useful arts, spread intelligence and spirit, inspire a taste for conveniences and comforts among the labouring classes; and , above all, give a new and happier structure to society, by increasing the proportion of the middle classes, that body on which the liberty, public spirit, and good government of every country must mainly depend. If we compare such a state of society with a state merely agricultural, the general superiority of the former is incontestable.

Who says economics is the dismal science?

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