The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott, Yale University Press, 442 pages, $35
In the dominant narrative of civilization’s march, cultured people are ruled by centralized law-giving institutions (city-states, kingdoms, empires, and now nation-states), usually centered in relatively flat lowlands and sustained by grain agriculture. By contrast, according to this view, people who live in the mountains, in swamps, or in “remote” jungles are rude, primitive, and backward, relying on nomadism, slash-and-burn agriculture, and hunting and gathering. They live not in cities or nations but in bands, clans, and tribes. The way they live is the way everyone used to live before some of us became civilized; they are windows onto our past, living museums of prehistoric life.
How lucky we are not to be backward. How fortunate we are to be ruled by wise kings and far-sighted legislators, by shepherds who protect us from barbarian wolves. Surely, as Oliver Wendell Holmes instructed us, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” Those who evade taxes are evading civilization and all that it entails.
Now along comes James C. Scott to show how absurd that narrative is. In his dazzling, enlightening, and enjoyable new book, The Art of Not Being Governed, the Yale anthropologist and political scientist boldly challenges the age-old story of “rude barbarians mesmerized by the peace and prosperity made possible by the king’s peace and justice.”
To begin with, people who live in relatively “ungovernable” peripheries do not really live like people before states existed. They live alongside state-governed populations, in constant contact with their cousins who live under state control. The inhabitants of such peripheries, Scott shows, are overwhelmingly refugees or descendants of refugees from states’ predatory behavior: slavery, war, and taxation. Their ways of life have made it more difficult for states to control them.
Their agricultural products are not harvested all at once, so it is harder to tax them. Their kinship systems decentralize power through networks of families. Their residence on difficult terrain, such as hills and swamps, makes them less accessible to slave raiders, tax collectors, or press gangs (or draft boards, “revenuers,” or drug agents). Their ways of life are adaptations to living near, and attempting to escape from, predation and violence. Those adaptations have made them harder to rule.
Once you understand Scott’s point, you can’t see such people the same way again. They are not a museum of ancient life. They are a display of what people will go through to escape being enslaved, robbed, and pressed into war. Their agriculture, social structures, religions, and other features, Scott writes, are “better seen on a long view as adaptations designed to evade both state capture and state formation. They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.”
As Scott notes at the outset, the “standard civilizational narrative” leaves out “two capital facts. First…it appears that much, if not most, of the population of the early states was unfree; they were subjects under duress. The second fact, most inconvenient for the standard narrative of civilization, is that it was very common for state subjects to run away. Living within the state meant, virtually by definition, taxes, conscription, corvée labor, and, for most, a condition of servitude; these conditions were at the core of the state’s strategic and military advantages. When these burdens became overwhelming, subjects moved with alacrity to the periphery or to another state.”
Political and military history, with its palace coups, religious conflict and persecution, wars, looting, rapine, and subjugation, produced not only victors but vanquished, some of whom escaped into regions inaccessible to their pursuers. Each successive wave of refugees carried new languages, religions, and other cultural accoutrements with them. Thus, “Much of the periphery of states became a zone of refuge or ‘shatter zone,’ where the human shards of state formation and rivalry accumulated willy nilly, creating regions of bewildering ethnic and linguistic complexity. State expansion and collapse often had a ratchet effect as well, with fleeing subjects driving other peoples ahead of them seeking safety and new territory.” Even the tribal systems of such peoples are, to a significant extent, the creations of the states they are fleeing, who foster them as means of “institutional linkage and control.”
Scott focuses his attention on the region of upland Southeast Asia he calls “Zomia” (from a term for “highlander” in the Tibeto-Burman languages). “Much of the Southeast Asian massif is, in effect, a shatter zone,” he writes. Similar “shatter zones” can be found in the mountains of the Caucasus (the ethnic, linguistic, and religious complexity of the region is staggering, with at least 13 languages spoken in Georgia alone), in the Balkans, in highland West Africa, in highland South America, in the Mekong Delta, in the Don River Basin, and elsewhere—even in Appalachia and the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia/North Carolina border.
For millennia, rulers have attempted to eliminate such zones of refuge, sometimes through relatively benign methods, such as road building in highland areas, and sometimes with brutal methods, such as forced relocation, “ethnic cleansing,” or habitat destruction. An example of the latter would be Saddam Hussein’s destruction of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands, an effort to bring the Marsh Arabs under control following their unsuccessful 1991 uprisings against him.
Scott illustrates the case in great detail, drawing on his remarkable knowledge of Southeast Asia. The early public choice theorist Amilcare Puviani asked what tax collection systems would minimize taxpayer resistance to taxation, a question that led him to the study of “fiscal illusion.” Scott focuses our attention on the geography of predation, asking what conditions “would be most favorable to the state and its ruler” and “what arrangements are most likely to guarantee the ruler a substantial and reliable surplus of manpower and grain at least cost.”
From the perspective of the rulers, but perhaps not of the ruled, wet rice cultivation seems ideal. It requires large concentrations of manpower (i.e., taxpayers and soldiers) and produces a crop that is relatively easy to appropriate and that can be stored to support armies in the field in ways that yams, vegetables, and other foodstuffs cannot. Scott finds a close relationship between states and agriculture, one that helps explain the rise and fall of the region’s various kingdoms, empires, and other state formations.
In addition to discussing the appropriation of agricultural surpluses to sustain the ruling houses and their wars, Scott focuses attention on the appropriation of population itself, noting that “most powerful kingdoms constantly sought to replenish and enlarge their manpower base by forcibly resettling war captives by the tens of thousands and by buying and/or kidnapping slaves.” Successful rulers were preoccupied with keeping subjugated people under the state’s thumb; as Scott notes, the Great Wall of China was built not merely to keep barbarian raiders out but to keep Chinese peasants in.
Having a large supply of manpower was “the only means by which wealth could be securely held.” To keep subjects from escaping, various states established means of tattooing, branding, and otherwise designating the human population as chattel. In Freedom and Domination, his great libertarian work of sociology, Alexander Rüstow notes that some early rulers, typically nomadic pastoralists who had conquered farmers, insisted that their subjects approach them on all fours, with tufts of grass in their mouths, to underscore their chattel status.