The Golden Age of the Barbarians

James C. Scott closes Against the Grain with a chapter entitled "The Golden Age of the Barbarians." In it, he notes how geographically insignificant was the area controlled by states, up until perhaps 1600 CE. For millennia after the rise of the first states, the vast majority of the globe's population lived outside of states. But among those non-state peoples, a few took on special status as "barbarians": they were the non-state people at the periphery of a state. They were the "dark twin" of the "civilized" people who lived within states, and their lives and their economies were deeply intertwined with those of their state-dwelling counterparts.

At times, they interacted with their neighbor states simply by raiding. But this risked destroying the state which was producing the agricultural surplus that was the target of their raids. More often, they sought to achieve a more stable arrangement: in return for agreeing to abjure raiding, they received "gifts" or trade monopolies or payments for "military service." In short, the barbarians realized that running a protection racket is a better long-run strategy than wiping out the source of revenue. Scott notes that "a stable protection racket like this is hard to distinguish from the archaic state itself" (p. 141).

At times, the "subsidies" the barbarians received often amounted to as much as one-third of all state revenues. In fact, Scott claims, the "barbarian-state relations can be seen as a contest between the two parties for the right to appropriate the surplus from the sedentary grain-and-manpower module" (p. 241).

Scott notes that during the several millennia during which barbarians lived on the periphery of states, their lives often would have been both healthier (with a more varied diet, less drudgery, and less susceptibility to crowd diseases) and freer than their neighbors who lived within states. However, he cites "melancholy" aspects of this golden age of barbarians: "By systematically replenishing the state's manpower base by slaving and by protecting and expanding the state with its military services, the barbarians willing dug their own grave" (p. 256).


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