James Scott’s work drives me nuts, but there is no doubt about it: his review of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday is one of the best is one of the best that has been written, and deserves a wide audience.
Scott repeats several common criticisms of Diamond in his review: he likes Diamond’s discussion of endangered languages and is disappointed by how obvious Diamond’s advice on how to live is. It is the final third of his review which really shines.
Scott’s first argument will be familiar to anyone who has read Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History: Diamond’s “fundamental mistake,” Scott writes, is to try to “triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies… show what we were like before we discovered crops, towns, and government.” Rather, he argues,
The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the 35 societies he canvasses [Scott excepts PNG]. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies… So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’… Contemporary foraging societies, far from being untouched examples of our deep past, are up to their necks in the ‘civilised world’ (this quote and all others are from Scott’s review)
This is an important point for people to realize: the people Diamond discusses were not on pause until The West showed up with a giant remote control labelled “colonialism” and pressed its play button. They are the results of colonial history, not something that proceeded it. Every single one of them (Papua New Guinea included).
Scott’s second point deals with the idea that “maintenance of peace within a society is one of the most important services that a state can provide” and that people naturally chose to live in them for the security they provide. Scott disagrees. First, he points out that the state centralizes violence, rather than curbing it. Second, and more importantly, Scott points out that, frankly, it sucked to live in an early state. Reading Diamond’s account, Scott writes, ” one can get the impression that the choice facing hunters and gatherers was one between their world and, say, the modern Danish welfare state. In practice, their option was to trade what they had for subjecthood in the early agrarian state.” This included a world of slavery, patriarchal authority, wars and rebellions, and labor exploitation. Diamond argues that the ever-present threat of violence in ‘traditional societies’ led people to embrace living in states. But in fact, Scott argues, hunter gatherers had many methods to avoid violence such as compensation and migration — methods which, I might add, Diamond himself praises at great length in his book. Their diet was healthier (another Diamond point) and their lifestyle was as well — Scott points out the dangers of germs (another Diamond favorite) in large, unhygienic early cities. “It’s hard to imagine Diamond’s primitives giving up their physical freedom, their varied diet, their egalitarian social structure, their relative freedom from famine, large-scale state wars, taxes and systematic subordination in exchange for what Diamond imagines to be ‘the king’s peace’.” Scott concludes.
Furthermore, Scott points out that violence in ‘traditional societies’ the Diamond examines is the result of living in “a world of states,” not living in one free of them. Much ‘tribal fighting’ is the result of non-state people scrambling to access the rare goods that state-dwellers desired but non-state people had access to: ivory, pelts, and so forth.
Those familiar with Scott’s work will not be surprised to see the angle of approach that he takes in this essay. Those who are familiar with the critical reception Diamond has received in the blogosphere will also see that Scott’s points have been made before, most especially in a post on Jason Antrosio’s Living Anthropologically blog. Still, it is nice to have these points made by a ‘big name’ in a ‘real publication’ and in under 4,000 words. To some — for instance: me — the idea of James Scott criticizing Jared Diamond for writing a big-picture book about that falls apart when subject to scrutiny by specialists will seem a little ironic. But this is a worthwhile review that deserves wide readership.