The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia Paperback – Nov 30 2010
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"'Scott's panoramic view will no doubt enthrall many readers... one doesn't have to see like a Zomian nor pretend to be an anarchist to appreciate the many insights in James Scott's book.' Grant Evans, Times Literary Supplement"
About the Author
The author of several books including Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science, professor of anthropology, and codirector of the Agrarian Studies Programme, Yale University, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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- There exists a zone in Southeast Asia and South Asia, for the most part at higher elevations, where people have always actively resisted incorporation in anything like a state.
- These people have generally been called primitive and been considered to be lesser on an evolutionary scale, inferior versions of "us," whether "us" means the traditional and precolonial state societies in the region, colonial powers, or postcolonial "independent" nation-states.
- But in reality these people are not and have not been primitive traces of the past; instead they have actively resisted taking part in what we have always been taught is "progress." They have chosen to flee taxes, forced labor/slavery, conscription, and authority in general.
- In fact (a) these "hill people" have always been in a symbiotic relationship with states, providing economic resources, for example, via trade, and (b) people have moved back and forth across the actually permeable boundary between these non-state social milieus and the realm of states. People have, in other words, throughout history fled states for the hills and sometimes (when perceived as advantageous) left the hills for the state.
- Sadly, this may not be as possible as it used to be, but Scott's work suggests to this reader that what the non-state realm of Zomia actually means for us is that resistance to what one might call "capture" is always possible. This doesn't necessarily have to mean not paying taxes or living in the woods, perhaps. It can also mean thinking freely, in ways that are not pre-fabricated, in ways in which we were not taught, in creative ways....
The Art of Not Being Governed
Modern Society in the 21st Century has adopted the perception that anarchist principles are beliefs that can only exist outside the concepts of civilization. Hence, it is customary to equate such conditions to those peoples that embrace the freedom and liberties that exist outside of a defined Nation-State. Peoples that fall within that category are generally considered to be untamed barbarians, savages, anti-state or otherwise classified in similar derogatory terms which translate into being outside the norm. Conventional wisdom, at least in the minds-eye of 21st Century adherents is that those living outside State control are primitive, backward societies existing in the backwaters of ever advancing civilizations.
In this book, author James C. Scott dispels many of these myths and suggests strongly that those people living outside the confines of statehood do so of their own conscious, deliberate actions to avoid the onerous dictates of those who would seek to enslave them. Obviously, his expertise is in the examination of societies in that portion of the world that he terms Zomia, i.e. those regions comprised of Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Siam, Burma, Southern China and portions of India and Afghanistan. Obviously, as an anthropologist and political scientist, he is well qualified to comment with some authority on the subject. He does not however neglect to comment on similar conditions amongst other societies that have shunned civilization to avoid the onerous effects of confiscatory taxation, forced corvette labor, military conscription and enforced religious edicts.
In the cited example of Zambia, he classifies the two groups simultaneously dwelling in the region as Valley people and Hill people. The distinction is primarily based on the altitude inhabited by the two distinct groups; the Hill people are further stratified by the approximately how many meters of altitude segregate various bands or groups one from another.
The Valley people that occupy the lower terrain are principally identified as being fixed grain producing farmers that cultivate wet-rice (irrigated) crops. Hence they are much easier to identify, catalogue, and transformed into tax paying subjects owing allegiances to their rulers. Consequently, they are transformed into not necessarily willing members of the State and are considered part of a civilized society. The downside of this upward gain in status is the attendant increase in their exposure to exorbitant often confiscatory taxes, forcible servitude as corvee laborers, military conscription, and put at the risk of becoming fair game for slave traders in either the commercial sense or as enslaved by adjacent Nation-States.
The Hill people, on the other hand, living at higher altitudes in much rougher terrain are best adapted to hunting and foraging, swindling, cultivation of root crops that are less observable by the tax authorities, and living in much smaller groups; all factors that greatly enhance their mobility. Therefore they can escape the less than tender mercies of the Valley people's rulers. While they may dwell within the boundaries of the territories established by the Valley rulers, a combination of the Hill people's impenetrable terrain and the other factors mentioned make them essentially non-statists.
Scott theorizes that when conditions in the Valley deteriorated or became more onerous the Valley people would tend to migrate into the hills and renounce their claim to statehood. Hence, in frequent waves of migration the Hill People's population would increase somewhat in proportion to the severity of social/economic conditions in the valleys. These new immigrants would tend to settle at lower elevations and the established Hill People would move into bands of lands at higher elevations. The point being that by relinquishing their statehood, so-called civilized members of society would consciously and deliberately join the stateless barbarians to escape persecution by their rulers. He also notes that in the dying days of the Roman Empire a considerable number of ex-Roman citizens sought refuge and asylum amongst the ranks of the barbarians. So his observations as they relate to Zambia are apropos to similar conditions in many other parts of the world. Persecuted settled societal groups would become nomads or herdsmen, etc, etc.
The balance of Scott's thesis is a detailed examination of how and by what means the residents of Zambia adapted their living conditions, their culture, their religions, and even their language patterns in order to avoid being absorbed by the State. This adaptation has been going on for a long time - a time-frame measurable in centuries - from pre-colonial times up to and including the colonization by European States. And, continues up into the present day and age.
In today's 21st Century World there are fewer and fewer regions that are suitable uninhabited to lend themselves to those seeking to escape tyranny. In America, for example, and in many parts of Western Europe there are scant places were a liberty-minded or freedom-loving people can escape absorption and the States imposed enforcement and coercion that accompanies their forced adoption of state-hood. At best perhaps is the ability to distance ones self from the grasp of the State as much as possible.
There is, of course, a rather radical solution which is finding favor amongst a growing number of individuals who are willing to become expatriates and migrate to other countries where onerous taxation, over-regulation and the erosion of liberties are less stifling. It could be expected that as monetary controls expand and the freedom of mobility are eroded the flight to more hospitable social/economic climes will cease to be a trickle and become a gush.
R. David Read
May 5, 2012
Word count: 919
The fundemental thing that the author misses is that the peoples of this region have been shaped as much by the region as by any sort of intent on their part. The characteristic of the Kachin and Chin areas of Burma, for example, is their low economic value. A government administration can only come into being when there is an economic surplus that can support the cost of that administration. There was no economic surplus in the hill tracts. The people barely had enough for themselves. Older governments realized the basic truth that administering a territory with no economic value was pointless. Modern governments have taken the opposite point of view and are obsessed with creating a uniform administration over every square foot of territory regardless of economic sense.
In the case of Burma, the author overlooks a long history of British attempts to make the hills "pay" for the cost of their administration in some way. In particular the role the British military recruiting in breaking the isolation of the people in the hills and introducing them to a different way of life. In the case of the Kachins, the British eventually curtailed recruitment because it was creating a demographic crisis among the hills.
The book is correct (though derivative) in terms of its understanding of the fluid nature of identity among the hill peoples. But I think he over-analyzes the reasons behind the lack of state formation in the hills. The social structures created in the hills were those that were best in the hills rather than an overt rejection of state society. Peoples have migrated in large numbers down from the hills into the plains in the past. And when they leave the hills, they often leave the ethnic identity and social organizations of the hills behind because its no longer useful or appropriate.
I dont find the notion of "Zomia" all that convincing. "Zomia" is more a matter of geography than a unit of understanding. The same characteristics can exist in places like the deserts of central arabia or the plains of northern asia. The historic relationship between the tribes of central arabia and the "civilized" towns along the edges of arabia isn't much different than what can be seen in southeast asia. Its just a different form of the same thing.
I think the author reads too much politically into the lives of the hill people and doesn't focus enough on how the land itself tended to shape social organization until recent times when states began to be willing to pay any price to ensure uniform administration.
As as alternative, I would strongly suggest "Political systems of highland Burma: A study of Kachin social structure" by Leach.