Academic journal article Humanity

"Transforming the Nature of the Struggle": An Interview with James C. Scott

Academic journal article Humanity

"Transforming the Nature of the Struggle": An Interview with James C. Scott

Article excerpt

Humanity co-editors Nils Gilman and Nicolas Guilhot talked with Yale anthropologist James C. Scott on March i8, 2013.

Humanity: Your book The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) has recently been translated into French, and we'd like to start the conversation by discussing the relationship between your work and that of French thinkers.' How has your work been affected by Pierre Clastres, who provides the epigraph of the book and who is obviously very much in the background of its central thesis?

James C. Scott: I had read Clastres long before I started to work on The Art of Not Being Governed, in connection with my interest in egalitarian societies and in anarchism, but it was only after I was halfway through writing that book that I decided that I should return to Clastres and read again La société contre TEtat. The reason it was useful for me-and I'm not sure I appreciated this the first time-is that he was the first person to understand that modes of subsistence are not just grades on some evolutionary scale-from hunting and gathering to swiddening, foraging, agriculture, and so on-but rather that the choice of a mode of subsistence is in part a political choice about how you want to relate to existing state systems, in this case the systems characterized by forced labor and disease in the Spanish reducciones. Clastres provided a kind of Latin American counterpart to what I thought I was discovering in the context of Southeast Asia. As near as I can tell, he is the first person who wrote about people who are considered to be Neolithic survivors and tried to create an interesting history for them, as people who were not only distancing themselves from the Spanish settlements but also creating a social structure that prevented the state from emerging in their midst.

H; Early on in your career, in books like The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976), you focused in a more or less traditional Marxist manner on the claims that "the weak" make against states and landlords.2 But over the course of your career, your work has increasingly resonated with the sort of suspicion of the state as a locus of claim-making, in a way that to a French reader seems to resonate with the sorts of disillusionments and disappointments associated with 1968. How do you think the cultural and intellectual context of the 1960s and 1970s affected your theoretical development?

JCS: After I graduated from college, before I began graduate school, I spent a year in Burma, and when I came back, I spent the 1959-60 academic year in Paris, at Sciences Po, as an auditeur libre. At that time, I was also working for the National Student Association as a kind of overseas representative, as I had a fellowship from them. And as many leftists at the time, I was very taken by Sékou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, Mao, and the socialist movements of national liberation. I think it's fair to say that, within five or six years, it dawned on me, as it dawned on a good many other people, that the revolutions had ended up creating a more hegemonic state that was able to control its population in a completely nondemocratic way, more than the anciens régimes had been able to. This disillusion with socialist revolutions and the fact that they created more hegemonic and more oppressive states impressed me at the time, and that's the reason why I started reading the anarchist literature, because the anarchists were the first people to see through the modernist state.

H: The Art of Not Being Governed sometimes resonates with the classic distinction that the Moroccan sultan used to make between the Bled es-Siba ("the land of insolence," which was governed indirectly if at all) and the Bled el-Makzhen ("the land of governance," which was directly administered and taxed), a distinction which was central to French Marxist anthropological theory in the 1960s. While you restricted the scope of your discussion to the uplands of Southeast Asia, what you call "Zomia," did (French) thinking about premodern governance in other parts of world affect your conceptualization of the dynamics of resistance? …

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