Dec/Jan 2010

State of Disarray

Joel Robbins

If you are reading this, you almost certainly live your life as the subject of a state. This state expects you to abide by its laws, pay its taxes, and contribute in one way or another to its military adventures. You may chafe at these demands, but you know there are limits to what you can do to escape them. You are not alone in this. As political scientist James C. Scott puts it, by the nineteenth century to most people "life outside the state came to seem hopelessly utopian."

But not to everyone. Scott's new book, The Art of Not Being Governed, is about some people living in the hills of mainland Southeast Asia (a region he calls Zomia) who, because of the nature of the states around them and the harshness of the terrain they inhabit, were able to evade the state's reach—until recent technological advances made it easier for the surrounding states to tighten control over remote areas. Scott examines the kind of societies these stateless people built and the values of equality, autonomy, and easy mobility they sought to maximize. More than this, he powerfully challenges the ways people living in states tend to think about "primitive," stateless people—and, by extension, their own political options.

Most modern state dwellers view non-state peoples as savages and barbarians, incapable of approximating civilized ways of behaving. More fundamentally, state dwellers have tended to see those who have not joined their ranks not as nonstate peoples, but rather as prestate peoples.

It's not hard to see the appeal of this view for state dwellers—it effectively places them at the top of the ladder of social development. Scott, who is best known for his pioneering work in researching everyday forms of resistance deployed by those subject to state power, now wants to take this evolutionary ladder apart. Key to his argument is the claim that the "tribal" peoples of Southeast Asia are not merely waiting to ascend to a condition of statehood, but instead have self-consciously chosen to evade that condition—an aim reflected in their own social orders. To borrow the title of a book by French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, Scott's acknowledged precursor in this argument, the hill tribes of Southeast Asia are not stateless societies, they are "societies against the state."

Scott anchors this claim in an exhaustive and at times sprawling account of the past two millennia of Zomian history. He explains that the region has long been virtually ungovernable because of its rugged, broken terrain and a climate unsuited to the wet-rice agriculture that has permitted the states in the region to arise. Through much of its history, it's been a classic frontier, offering refuge to those seeking to escape the states that have dominated lowland social life. Zomia is by no means unique as a place of refuge from state control—Scott mentions many other former "nonstate spaces," such as the Appalachian region of the United States. But it commands our attention by its vast scale, which, as Scott notes, renders it "perhaps the largest mosaic of relatively stateless peoples in the world."

Scott convincingly shows that the most striking features of the societies of Zomia, those of groups including the Hmong, the Kachin, and the Karen, among others, are not holdovers from a primitive past but rather deliberate "political choices" made in order to keep the state at bay. Shifting cultivation, where one moves one's fields after every harvest, allows its practitioners easily to run away from an encroaching state. Likewise, scattered fields planted in underground "escape crops," such as tubers, appeal to Zomian growers because states can't easily count or tax their harvests.

Much the same strategy extends, Scott argues, to Zomian social structure. In most Southeast Asian hill societies, people cluster in very small social units—typically, hamlets home to only a few families. Such fragmentation provides the state with no population centers to conquer. And the dominant Zomian ethos of fierce egalitarianism has similar advantages: With no leaders to co-opt, states cannot deploy their favorite strategy of indirect rule: persuading a local leader to keep order and collect taxes in return for enhancing his power. Scott even contends—with a good deal of conjecture—that the lack of literacy in Zomian communities is not so much a matter of being "preliterate" as it is a strategic refusal to adopt an intellectual technology that, politically speaking, aids state expansion via comprehensive record keeping and the drafting of told-by-the-victors official histories that downplay the importance of subversive movements and traditions of resistance.

For those who live in states, savages are those who do not. Yet since the Enlightenment, there have always been Western intellectuals who want to find a critical role for the savage to play. The general idea has been to harness the otherness of indigenous or stateless peoples as a means of interrogating, as the expression goes, the modern state. In the past twenty years or so, this project has dropped off drastically—talk of radical difference, now tied tightly to ideas of discrimination, has come to seem at best offensive, at worst politically dangerous. Scott has found a creative way to revive the tradition of critical thinking about the savage—and to highlight the social goals of equality and autonomy embodied in the Zomian social order that states routinely fall short of realizing. This is not to say that advocates for equality and self-determination should adopt nonstate patterns of living, but rather that the ability of nonstate peoples to realize such ideals—and the resourcefulness they show in doing so—ought to contribute to debate about the best kind of future that state dwellers might hope for.

Joel Robbins is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego.