Scott writes about the normalising effects of state collapse. Often it was the best thing possible for a people now emancipated from disease, taxes and labour. In the subsequent ‘dark ages’ – a propaganda term used by the elite – democracy and culture could flourish. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey date from the dark age of Greece. This is in marked contrast to the consequences of state collapse today, now that there is no longer an external barbarian world to escape into. When Syria collapsed its refugees had no choice but cross the border to another state, whether Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.
According to Scott, the period of early states was the Golden Age for the barbarians. They could prey on a state as if it were just another resource for hunting or harvesting; the Berbers of North Africa described raiding as their version of agriculture. Or they could take part in trade. Hunters, foragers and marine collectors supplied sought-after goods from mountains and forests such as ivory, rhino horn, spices, feathers, beeswax and furs; others controlled the trade routes, and along with them the traffic of slaves. When it was in their interest, the barbarians could become mercenaries for a state, or even conquer it and themselves become the new ruling class.
In Scott’s picture, the barbarians and the city-states were entirely dependent on each other for their existence. They rose and fell together: the Huns and the Romans; the ‘Sea People’ and the Egyptians. And for the vast part of recorded history the majority of people lived in the barbarian world. Scott’s view is that the barbarian Golden Age ended as recently as four hundred years ago, when the power of the state finally became overwhelming, partly due to the invention of durable gunpowder. Which is, of course, a means to make fire sparked by flint – a return to the ‘moment’ 400,000 years earlier which marked the beginning not of the steady rise of civilisation, but rather the muddled and messy affair that is the human past.