Early statecraft

"The imperative of collecting people, settling them close to the core of power, holding them there, and having them produce a surplus in excess of their own needs animates much of early statecraft... The means by which a population is assembled and then made to produce a surplus... is less important... than the fact that it does produce a surplus available to non-producing elites." -- James C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 151

There are two problems I see in this passage:

1) The "needs" of the people are regarded as a fixed amount of goods, and they have to be "made" to produce more. Now, undoubtedly taxes and other coercive measures might make people produce more than they otherwise would, but also they might have already been producing a "surplus" that attracted state formation in the first place. My point here is simply that there is no obvious criteria for what constitutes a surplus, other than "what the state can take," which, of course, is circular. Scott does later claim that evidence shows that pre-state people would not produce beyond "the locally prevailing standards of subsitence and comfort" (p. 152), but I see no reason to think this might not change with advances in technology.

2) Scott seems to have a physiocratic view of the nature of production: people who produce food are productive, and others are "non-producers." But elites in most societies produce a variety of things, such as law, defense, ceremonies, monumental architecture, texts, and so on. Now, it is one thing to claim that "the people" would not have purchased such production, or at least as much of such production, on their own, but it is quite another to simply write it off as not production.


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