The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia

By Thompson, Thomas J. | Independent Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia


Thompson, Thomas J., Independent Review


The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia By James C. Scott New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. xviii, 442. $35.00 cloth, $25.00 paperback.

Until only a few centuries ago, much of the earth was still inhabited by the stateless. Nomadic herders, shifting cultivators, itinerant fisherfolk, and hunter-gatherers were almost everywhere beyond officialdom's reach. What was it like to be stateless in the era of the state? How did stateless people see, understand, and deal with states and their claims? Anyone interested in this sort of question will want to read political scientist James C. Scott's "anarchist history" of the Southeast Asian massif, a work focused on shifting cultivators.

Scott's provocative thesis is that the uplands communities of Southeast Asia (bearing the ethnic labels "Hmong," "Karen," "Kachin," "Yao," and many others) are for the most part descended not simply from lowland farmers (a now wellaccepted idea), but from people who fled the lowland state. Scott holds that the whole of the massif, stretching from northeastern India through southern China and much of mainland Southeast Asia, should be seen as one large "shatter zone" - a place to which one after another breakaway component of state-dominated society (but perhaps also many lone refugees) repaired in defense. Here, people who had reduced but not yet eliminated their vulnerability to state violence and parasitism reorganized every aspect of their lives - their material livelihoods, their social organization, their very cultures - so as to be forever inaccessible to the social force that had harmed them. Other state peripheries Scott offers in broad comparison include the "maroon" territories of highlands Jamaica and the steppes on which runaway Russian serfs became the peoples known as the Cossacks.

Scott's argument that the massif's communities had an antistate design is detailed. Most people, he notes, practiced (as they still do) a kind of "escape agriculture." Shifting cultivation (swidden or "slash and burn" farming) presented a moving target, and enormous mixes of cultivars set up an impossible task for systematic taxation. Many of their crops matured quickly (thus were difficult to "catch" for assessment), could be harvested on a staggered schedule, or were grown underground (yams and cassava could even be left for a while, "hidden," after maturation). If an aggressor thought to force changes on a hill community or perhaps to appropriate its labor, he would encounter "escape social structure": neither specific lineages nor individuals had distinctly superior status (thus, there were no obvious persons who might serve as authority's agents); moreover, the very idea of countenancing social and political hierarchy was often locally hateful. Finally, because records and writing skills would have aided any collaborators who managed to emerge, Scott speculates that the highlanders' lack of sophisticated writing traditions (they used some written symbols only for certain magical purposes) represented strategy. Because highlands folklore holds that such traditions at one time existed, he suggests that originally a few members of some groups were indeed literate, but for safety's sake literacy was allowed to die.

In this context, nomadic mixed farming, quite apart from its inaccessibility to the state, is superior to an intensive farming monoculture in its returns to labor, nutritional consequences, and sheer reliability. It requires only that enough land be available (even if it is steep) and that people control their numbers. It generally favors a flexible, decentralized social structure. Scott's idea, however, is that the security advantages of this life attracted even some in-migrating groups whose original scale, structure, and technical strengths favored sedentary farming (pursuable in the hills) and stronger elements of hierarchy. Thus, only his thesis of an abandonment of literacy is obviously thin as offered - because he posits earlier literacy on the basis of folklore and holds that it must have been limited to a few (making it possible that few literates ever migrated at all).

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