[Marxism] The First Mean Streets

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 24 08:05:02 MST 2020

NY Review of Books, MARCH 12, 2020 ISSUE
The First Mean Streets
by Tim Flannery

Cities: The First 6,000 Years
by Monica L. Smith
Viking, 293 pp., $30.00

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
by James C. Scott
Yale University Press, 312 pp., $18.00 (paper)

A panel from the Sumerian Standard of Ur depicting fish, animals, and 
goods being brought in procession to a banquet, circa 2600 BC
The rise of the city is looked upon as the dawn of civilization, but a 
deep mystery surrounds the first city-dwellers. All we are left with as 
we strive to understand their lives are fragments unearthed by the 
archaeologist’s trowel, and that is a slender basis on which to 
reconstruct entire lives. In two recent books, Monica Smith and James 
Scott offer highly contrasting interpretations of these enigmatic, 
long-vanished people. Smith’s Cities: The First 6,000 Years imagines the 
world’s first citizens as happy folk, dedicated to festival-going, 
shopping, and displaying their social status. In contrast, Scott’s 
Against the Grain, published in 2017, depicts them as disease-ridden, 
subjugated, and desperate to escape the city’s bounds.

Smith is a professional archaeologist who has excavated many ancient 
ruins around the world. As she conjures the lives lived among those now 
tumbled stones, she depicts people who bear an uncanny resemblance to 
contemporary, urban Californians. If she has conjured aright, the nature 
of the urbanite has been more or less set from the start. Scott, an 
anthropologist and political scientist, has never wielded a trowel, but 
his research is extraordinarily meticulous and detailed, and the lives 
of his imagined first citizens are unlike anything existing today. His 
analysis implies that the history of the metropolis has been marked by 
one long struggle by ordinary citizens to free themselves from oppression.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Smith and Scott disagree on the starting point 
of cities. Smith posits that the first urbanites lived six thousand 
years ago, in a now-abandoned settlement called Tell Brak, in what is 
today northern Syria. Scott traces their advent to a few hundred years 
later, in a constellation of cities that sprang up on the Mesopotamian 
alluvium around what was then the northern end of the Persian Gulf. 
Before the shallow sea was filled with sediment, its shore lay just two 
hundred miles south of Baghdad, half the current distance.

What makes a city different from a large village? In the 1930s the 
Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe laid out ten criteria for 
identifying cities that are still used by researchers, though some in 
modified form. Childe noted that cities are larger and more complex than 
the settlements that preceded them and possess monumental architecture 
and specialized workers. They conduct trade over long distances, and 
their citizens pay taxes to a central authority.

A fundamental question, addressed most fully by Scott, concerns why 
cities only emerged some five millennia after the first crops and herds 
were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. According to Scott, one of 
the most convincing explanations has been put forward by Melinda Zeder, 
a theorist of early domestication at the Smithsonian Institution. She 
thinks that a village-based lifestyle, which mixed agriculture with 
hunting and gathering, provided a more sustainable and stable resource 
base than the less diverse sources of sustenance available to the 
inhabitants of cities. Shifting to a city meant reliance on a few 
species of grains and domesticated animals, and giving up hunting and 
gathering, because wild resources within reach of a city are quickly 
exhausted by the large, sedentary population. If Zeder is correct, then 
some strong force must have acted upon the first citizens to cause them 
to give up the benefits of a hunting-gathering-farming life. What that 
force may have been is hinted at by the existence of central taxing 

The issue of taxation looms large in the arguments put forward by Scott. 
It is a remarkable fact, he says, that many crops—such as grains, 
potatoes, taro, and breadfruit—can support high human population 
densities. But it was only in the grain-based societies that the world’s 
first cities arose. This is because, Scott claims, grain is the perfect 
crop for taxation. It is storable, allowing for the accumulation of 
wealth; it matures simultaneously and predictably and is impossible to 
hide before harvest, making the tax collector’s job easy; and because 
grain is divisible, rulers can maximize their take, leaving the grower 
with only enough for bare subsistence. Compare that with a crop, like 
potatoes, that grows underground. A portion of any root crop can easily 
escape the tax collector’s notice, providing the grower with a measure 
of independence. For a ruler, that can be dangerous: well-fed and 
economically independent people are less likely to be induced to labor 
on monumental buildings, or indeed to accept any impositions from above.

Smith broadly agrees with Childe’s criteria for defining cities, so it 
is remarkable that the subject of taxation does not even merit an entry 
in her book’s index. Instead, she focuses on opportunity. She speculates 
that Tell Brak’s pioneers formed the world’s first city because they 
“were captivated by the opportunity to make a permanent festival 
atmosphere,” and that the social and economic patterns resulting from 
the unprecedented density of settlement and population size stimulated 
new forms of entrepreneurship and “staggering new projects of religious 
architecture.” In Smith’s view, these first urbanites lived lives much 
like ours, enjoying conspicuous consumption and accumulating vast piles 
of trash. You can recognize their spirit in the modern shoppers who 
purchase knockoffs of high-end fashions, carry them home in nonreusable 
plastic bags, then toss the clothes away after a few uses. In ancient 
Rome, enough broken pots were discarded at Testaccio to form a hill 115 
feet high and 10,000 feet wide.

The symbol for kingship in ancient Sumer was the “rod and line,” “almost 
certainly the tools of the surveyor,” Scott informs us. Surveyors are 
benign figures in modern societies, but in the earliest cities they were 
more sinister, for they provided the raw data for taxation. The earliest 
administrative tablets, from Uruk, are lists of grain and manpower 
compiled by surveyors, and the taxes levied based on their work. These 
writings suggest that the ancient state was all about classifying and 
controlling land, livestock, and workers.

The names of the earliest cities that have come down to us—Ur, Uruk, and 
Eridu (Tell Brak is more recent)—appear not to be Sumerian in origin, 
though all were in Sumer. This, Scott suggests, indicates that these 
cities had been seized and colonized by foreign armies. He speculates 
further that “the bas reliefs depicting prisoners of war in neck 
shackles suggest another means by which the population was augmented.” 
And in the first cities, population was in perpetual demand. So severe 
were the conditions in Sumer that the population of prisoners/slaves 
could not replace itself through reproduction.

Indications that the early cities were conquered by outsiders, along 
with the tight control of workers documented in the clay tablets of 
Sumer, give rise to the possibility that the inhabitants of the earliest 
cities were, in effect, slaves. Frustratingly, it’s uncertain to what 
extent slavery existed in the earliest cities, but, Scott argues, 
“provided that we keep in mind the various forms bondage can take over 
time, one is tempted to assert: ‘No slavery, no state.’” Certainly, by 
around 4,500 years ago in Egypt, slavery had taken on a truly horrific 
nature, with prisoners of war being branded and forcibly resettled to 
labor on royal plantations. The connection between slavery and the state 
has proved tenacious: the writer Adam Hochschild has noted that as late 
as 1800, up to three quarters of the world’s population was still living 
in bondage.*

The bevel-rim bowl, Smith tells us, regularly wins the “ugly artifact” 
competition at an annual archaeology curators’ ball. It is coarsely 
made, and one of the most abundant items unearthed during excavations of 
Mesopotamia’s early cities. She sees it as the Styrofoam cup of 
antiquity. Because the bowls were manufactured thousands of years before 
the first money, Smith suggests that their contents were obtained by 
barter. But it’s difficult to comprehend how people could have kept 
track of frequent and small transactions such as those for daily meals.

Scott sees this artifact quite differently. The bevel-rim bowl, he tells 
us, holds almost exactly two liters of barley—the daily food ration for 
the lowest class of workers in Umma, Mesopotamia. According to Scott, 
the bowl held rations rather than food obtained through barter, and the 
workers who ate from them were little better than slaves, if not 
actually slaves. Under this interpretation, the difficulty of keeping 
track of bartered goods vanishes, because trade is monopolized by a 
ruler who doles out a bare subsistence to his workers.

Textiles, the most important trade goods generated in the early 
Mesopotamian cities, were produced in state-supervised workshops (Scott 
refers to them as “gulags”) that engaged as many as nine thousand women 
and children, who are referred to as slaves in most sources. 
Astonishingly, these laborers accounted for around 20 percent of Uruk’s 
population. The textile workshops were, Scott writes, critical to the 
elites, as it was only through bartering textiles that the city’s rulers 
could obtain metal, stone, timber, and other desirable products that 
could not be had on the alluvial plain.

It is telling, Scott says, that Mesopotamian scribes use identical marks 
for laborers as they do for “state-controlled herds of domestic 
animals.” To Scott, this indicates that “in the minds of the Uruk 
scribes…such laborers were conceptualized as ‘domesticated’ humans, 
wholly equivalent to domestic animals in status.” The practice, alluded 
to by Scott and Smith, of sacrificing and burying large numbers of both 
animal and human subjects in royal graves upon the death of a ruler, 
gives some credence to these ideas.

Let us think for a moment about what life must have been like for the 
average citizen of Uruk some five thousand years ago. At the time, Uruk 
contained the largest concentration of humanity ever, its population of 
25,000–50,000 being ten to twenty times greater than any earlier 
community. Its humans cohabited not only with their livestock but also 
with commensal species such as rats, mice, and sparrows. Uruk, which is 
located on a low-lying, flood-prone plain, must often have been muddy, 
feces-soaked, and pestilential. The bones of livestock preserve evidence 
of chronic infections, high mortality among newborns, and a 
proliferation of pathologies resulting from inactivity—maladies that 
humans likely shared.

The humans of the first cities also suffered health crises: deadly 
epidemics are attested to in the earliest written records, as are the 
practices of isolating the stricken and quarantining new arrivals. It is 
evident that density-dependent diseases such as measles (which requires 
a population of 300,000 to persist) arose around the time that the first 
cities were established. And measles, which probably originated in sheep 
and goats, is just one of a host of ills that leaped from herds to 
humans as population densities and proximity to livestock increased. The 
scale of disease transfer in the early cities must have been 
overwhelming: we share twenty-six diseases with poultry, thirty-two with 
rats and mice, thirty-five with horses, forty-two with pigs, forty-six 
with sheep and goats, fifty with cattle, and sixty-five with our oldest 
companion, the dog. In the majority of cases, the transfer was 
one-way—humanity is a “dead end” for most infections. In effect, a new 
ecology was taking shape in the first cities, within which diseases and 
parasites did as well as, if not better than, the city’s human and 
animal inhabitants.

Smith deals with the issue of disease in the first cities rather 
summarily, stating that “trade-offs were constant: there was a greater 
chance of communicable diseases, but also more doctors to treat them.” 
Given the lamentable state of medicine before the scientific 
breakthroughs of the twentieth century, one wonders how effective such 
treatments were. Early writings from cities provide some answers—the 
Akkadian word for epidemic disease translates literally as “certain death.”

If the rise of the first cities was a boon for diseases and parasites, 
so too, Scott argues, were they a boon for barbarians. Barbarians have 
been variously defined by different cultures at different times, but 
Scott suggests that they are best understood as people who are not 
“domesticated” by city rulers. “Barbarians are to domesticated subjects 
as wildlife, vermin, and varmints are to domesticated livestock,” he 
says. The relationships between barbarians and the cities they lived 
close to are complex. Barbarians have at times devastated cities, 
demanded tribute, or offered themselves as militias to a city’s rulers.

If we follow Scott’s definition, some remarkable parallels between 
barbarians and diseases emerge. Diseases often kill their hosts when 
they first arrive in a native population, but over time they become less 
virulent, so that infection leads to chronic illness rather than death. 
This situation, which can be thought of as a sort of taxation on the 
host’s health, is far better for the disease, since the host lives long 
enough to transmit the infection to others. When barbarians first 
encountered cities, they destroyed some entirely. But soon they stilled 
their hand, learning that they could demand tribute instead, thereby 
turning the city into a sustainable resource.

Pity the poor inhabitants of Scott’s first cities. These malnourished 
citizens would go out into the fields or other worksites to labor under 
a triple burden: they had to produce enough excess to support their 
elites, the nonhuman parasites and commensal species that lived on, in, 
and with them, and the tribute-demanding barbarians as well. They were 
fortunate if enough food remained to support their bare existence.

The purposes of enclosing walls, which Childe identified as a crucial 
marker of cities, remain disputed. Smith emphasizes the importance of 
city walls in delineating the “metropolis as a distinct place with 
distinct rules.” She imagines Mesopotamians debating “for centuries” 
over the need for “flashy” new additions such as the Ishtar Gates, with 
their brilliant blue enamel glaze and images of animals and gods (today 
they can be seen in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum). Interestingly, neither 
Scott nor Smith sees city walls as primarily defensive structures. Scott 
instead posits that city walls were used chiefly to keep people in. In 
his view, the inhabitants of the first cities would escape at the first 
opportunity, to pursue the more leisurely life of the mixed 

Escape from cities seems to have been common enough that bounty hunters 
specializing in tracking down and returning fugitives are well 
documented in early writings. But on occasion the entire state would 
collapse, its inhabitants evaporating into the hinterlands. The causes 
of collapse of early cities seem to have been many and varied, from 
military assault to disease and environmental deterioration. But one 
cause championed by Scott is particularly enlightening. “Politicide,” he 
says, occurs during times of resource stress, when a city’s elites 
refuse to share the burden by reducing their incomes. Their subjects, 
reduced to desperation by the insupportable burden they must bear, 
either meekly starve or are forced to rebel.

Smith thinks too much is made of the collapse of cities, Scott too 
little. Smith’s claim that “the ‘collapse’ part of ancient urban life is 
greatly overplayed” is based on the observation that many cities, from 
Athens to Samarkand, are thousands of years old. But that hardly rules 
out collapse, for many old cities have collapsed and then been built up 

Scott imagines the early cities as five-tiered human pyramids, which 
usually collapse before they are completed, the few successes swaying 
and trembling briefly before their inevitable demise. Most historians 
seem to side with Scott, agreeing that individual Mesopotamian 
city-states were fragile and short-lived; one expert expressed 
astonishment at the longevity of the Third Dynasty at Ur, during which 
five kings ruled for over a hundred years.

When an ancient city collapsed, its great temples, walls, and other 
monumental constructions were left to rot, giving a sense of general 
decay. Scott says that archaeologists pay little attention to the people 
who fled from a city after its collapse, for they built no monumental 
architecture and left no writings. But these periods deserve study, not 
least because the lives of the city’s workers may have greatly improved 
as a result of fleeing: they would no longer have to pay taxes, labor on 
others’ projects, or be as exposed to disease as they had been. Rome, in 
the centuries after its fall, saw vigorous independent communities 
reassemble in hovels built into the niches of formerly imposing 
amphitheatres and temples. Indeed, Scott says, such periods may have 
been looked upon as golden ages by those released from behind the city 

Smith seems to view inequality as a natural condition for humans, and 
writes that in the first cities it led not to oppression but 
opportunity. She sees the elites of ancient cities as “patrons.” Nor is 
there the slightest sense in her book that the consumption that occurs 
in cities, with its rapid uptake and discarding of the latest fads, is 
related to the current environmental crisis. She finds city life—with 
its consumerism, fashion, and constant interaction—so attractive that 
she can’t conceive of life without it. I put down her book filled with 
dread, fearing that if cities have always generated prodigious mountains 
of waste, then perhaps our environmental problems have no solution.

Against the Grain deserves a wide readership. It has made me look afresh 
at the urban world. Now when I see monumental architecture, I think of 
the workers who in many cases literally slaved over its construction. 
And, having been awakened to the concept, I see cases of near-politicide 
everywhere, from the growing inequality of wealth in our societies, to 
the taxpayer-funded bank bailouts following the 2008 financial crisis. 
If Scott is right about the world’s first citizens, then cities and 
their inhabitants have been on quite a journey. Over the millennia the 
ordinary people of the city have, with some measure of success, striven 
to wrest back control of their lives. But the journey is not yet 
complete: slavery continues to exist, and even in our modern democracies 
the wealthiest continue to exert vastly disproportionate political 
influence. Viewed this way, movements like Occupy and Extinction 
Rebellion are the latest manifestations of a struggle that is as old as 
cities themselves.

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