Refugees' Descendants in Southeast Asia Prove Stateless Society Is Possible

Javier Sethness reviews James C. Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia”.


James C. Scott’s latest work, “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia,” is a deeply important book. The text, a historical-anthropological investigation of the highlands of Zomia – a 2.5 million-square-kilometer-area spanning much of Southeast Asia that Scott calls “[o]ne of the largest remaining nonstate spaces in the world” – demonstrates clearly that matters can be radically other than they presently are over much of the globe, as children, dreamers, and science-fiction writers have long insisted. One of Scott’s central contributions with “Art” is to show by means of exploration of the life-world of the “relatively stateless” peoples of Zomia that the state is not a natural condition. In Scott’s estimation, human history to date is to be divided into four phases: a stateless original state, the longest by far; then an epoch that saw states arise amidst expansive stateless peripheries; a subsequent time in which the state came to assert its dominion over such peripheries; and the prevailing period, in which states administer “virtually the entire globe.”

In the opening pages of the work, indeed, Scott reminds his audience that historical reflection on the “standard human condition” reveals this condition to be one free of imprisonment or mediation by the state; the subjects of the earliest historical states and empires – China, Egypt, India, Greece, Rome – are, Scott claims, demographically “insignificant” when juxtaposed with the vast swathe of such subjects’ autonomous contemporaries. The former amounted at the time of their existence to a mere “rounding error in the world’s population figures.” As should be clear, the currently prevailing fourth-stage global system is rather removed from such considerations, given technological asymmetries and extant power-inequalities: Scott himself resignedly notes that his study has been largely invalidated by the course of developments of the past half-century, as Southeast Asian states have engaged in significant internal-colonialist schemes aimed at bringing peripheral Zomia to heel. It is to be hoped that he is mistaken in this sense, both as regards Zomia and the totality more generally conceived, or that future developments could dislodge this dynamic. His examination of the contingency of the state as well as of the numerous societal efforts taken by Zomians toward the end of resisting state encroachment or evading its grip entirely certainly merits reflection, particularly in light of the momentous Arab Spring as well as other popular movements that could conceivably be expected to develop in the near term.

Instead of considering the hill peoples of Zomia as “left-behind” remnants of a bygone era, Scott finds them to be subjects who have consciously opted in favor of existence at the margin of the state, or free from its dominion altogether. Noting many stateless Zomians to be descendants of those who fled subjection to the rice-growing padi states that arose in the valleys below Zomia, Scott observes that this choice for autonomy often entailed relative material deprivation vis-a-vis subordination within valley states – yet this dynamic does not seem to have discouraged such moves, against the claims of capitalist apologists.

The bulk of Scott’s work in “Art,” not dissimilar from the concerns that drive the works of French anthropologist Pierre Clastres,[1] is the cataloguing of strategies by which those who have fled state control maintain their autonomy. Besides geographical considerations regarding the resort to seeking refuge in highly inaccessible highlands in the first place, Scott’s thesis is that much of the social interplay of such groups – their livelihoods, modes of social organization, ideologies and oral cultures – is designed to maintain distance from states and prevent statist structures and practices from emerging internally within these stateless societies. To begin with, then, the reliance of many Zomians on foraging, hunting, pastoralism and root-based shifting agriculture for sustenance is seen by Scott as a means by which such hill peoples work effectively to evade appropriation by states, as such methods allow for great physical mobility and yield only small populations. On Scott’s account, it is no accident that states have arisen in the agriculturalist valleys below Zomia, for the rise of agriculture has permitted large growth in human population – a source of forced labor – together with political centralization, given that agricultural production can be readily appropriated by groups employing violence.

Because Zomians themselves produce little economic surplus and proffer relatively few bodies to be captured for production, raiders and slavers associated with states have not found them to be terribly attractive objects of concern; in turn, Zomian groups have had less need to cooperate and subordinate themselves to the mandates of centralized power. This dynamic nonetheless has changed markedly in recent years, notes Scott, due to the widespread discovery of valuable natural resources in the peripheries of Zomia, with attendant increased militarization, resettlement programs and other internal-colonialist policies.

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