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

By Orrego, Agustin Goenaga | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Orrego, Agustin Goenaga, Journal of East Asian Studies


The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. By James C. Scott. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. 442 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Three theoretical concerns have constituted the spinal cord of James C. Scott's academic production since the 1970s: first, a reconceptualization of resistance that takes into account the piecemeal, quotidian, uncoordinated actions whereby subaltern individuals oppose domination structures (Weapons of the Weak and Domination and the Arts of Resistance); second, a case for the rationality of peasant behavior, challenging the view of rural communities as governed by atavistic impulses and superstitions (The Moral Economy of the Peasant and Weapons of the Weak); and, third, an interrogation of the modern state and its dependence on the homogeneity, legibility, and normalization of its population (Seeing Like a State).

In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott offers a masterful synthesis of these three lines of thought and blends them into an innovative argument about the social history of the Southeast Asian highlands. Scott's argument contests a Whig interpretation of history (a progressive and inexorable sequence of stages, ever more complex and advanced), which would see hill peoples and their lifestyles (swidden agriculture, illiteracy, constant mobility, sparse populations, thin social structures, and small governmental apparatuses) as "traditional" societies, reminders of who we once were, "barbaric" spaces where civilization has not yet arrived. On the contrary, many of these communities, Scott argues, are not remnants of the past but the result of purposeful decisions to run away from the different states that have settled in the lower valleys over time. In his own words, "They represent, in the longue duree, a reactive and purposeful statelessness of peoples who have adapted to a world of states while remaining outside their firm grasp" (p. 337).

The first key move in Scott's argument is a provocative rearticulation of the geographical boundaries that determine regional comparisons. Scott avoids the horizontal perspective of national boundaries and focuses instead on the orographic dimension of the region. This brings the distinction between valley and hill societies to the forefront and, with it, Zomia, the enormous massif that includes parts of the southern provinces of China (Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Guanxi, and Guangdong), northern Burma, northeastern India, and parts of Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. This is an area roughly the size of Europe that hosts an estimated 80 million to 100 million people and represents the largest space in the world that has not been fully absorbed by the nation-state.

The lowland-highland distinction is not framed in terms of a set of dichotomies, but as a mutually constitutive, symbiotic relationship. According to Scott, for thousands of years, state structures have entailed high costs for their populations, either extracting resources in the form of taxation, slavery, corvee labor, and conscription, or imposing the onerous risks of tyranny, warfare, and epidemics. Hiding in rugged terrain, in the depths of forests and swamps or in the altitude of the mountains, rural communities often escaped the reach of the state. Moreover--and this is the second important move in Scott's narrative of the Zomian hill peoples--these groups (Hmong, Karen, Kachin, Lahn, among many others) transformed their practices of subsistence in order to more effectively resist the subjugation of the valley states (precolonial, colonial, and contemporary). Once sedentary valley cultivators, many of these groups found in shifting agriculture and the trade of valuable objects (precious stones, opium, spices) strategies to escape from the state while benefiting from the huge markets and technological improvements that it offered. They abandoned the cultivation of rice, which is easily taxable and collectible, for other "escape crops" (potatoes, yams, maize, cassava) that do not need to be harvested all at the same time, that can remain underground indefinitely, or that can be disguised under the taller vegetation of the forests. …

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