[This month Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman are guest blogging about James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. This post is by Leif]
Understanding or even knowing the state is not an empirical matter entirely. The issue comes down to how we understand our selves and others, and what kind of future we can imagine. Pierre Clastres, who inspired some of Scott’s case, could only imagine history-involving-Indians as a process of destruction. Many scholars shared this view – their notions (of who were the Indian peoples of the Amazon and of what could happen to them) were entangled in these academics’ sense of themselves, the world, and what the future can (or could) hold. There are echoes of Fernand Braudel’s understanding of history, such as how capitalism or Christianity had “penetrated” the Mediterranean countryside and how some “remote” settlements had stood outside these dynamics.
This understanding is quite general among historians of Asia, such as in Lieberman’s (2003:208-09) statement that “the mountain tracts inhabited by illiterate Chins, Kachins, Karens, Palaungs and so forth escaped Burman political control entirely by virtue of their poverty, inaccessibility, and the fragility of their supra-village organizations.” Here, the ontology of hinterland identities and societies is clearly framed by history within Euclidian geometry – cities are central, mountains are remote. The regularity has occasionally been quantified, such as in this 1750 comment quoted by Mary Pratt (1992:35), where a year equals a mile: “Those who live a hundred miles from the capital are a century away from it in their modes of thinking.”
The state that lurks in the narrative in The Art of Not Being Governed is dreadful, in so far as it deprives people (anywhere) of their freedom. This gloomy story goes back to the origins of agriculture, since that was the moment people settled down. Sedentism describes state populations and –spaces. So the attractiveness of the highland peoples of mainland Southeast Asia was that they had fashioned and inhabited non-state spaces. The stereotype of migratory shifting cultivators thus became resignified as a vehicle for acquiring and maintaining freedom. Much of the story appears to fit a US educated-middle-class folk theory, the antagonistic binary of the individual (as freedom) and society (as a regulator, see Ruth Benedict 1934).
Taxation is one sign of the state’s vampire-like character, and as I read this I had a rather European reaction – taxation can enable education, roads, health care, and safety for the general public. Various aspects of the argument for Zomia express particular US American sensibilities. That is perhaps inevitable, in the sense that research always draws on the conditions of work and workers. But can this case be tested or verified? I suggest that the argument for Zomia is bad science, and that this part of the case reflects a long history of bad science in the ostensible tribal zone.
What do I mean by bad science? For starters, the notion of a clear binary between lowland society and highland peoples (oppression vs freedom) is an absolute denial of historical inquiry: The conclusions have already been reached, and the examples are simply chosen to express the truth of the analysis. States are out to eradicate migratory shifting cultivation, to socialize minorities through schools, etc. In some ways this two-part statement is true, but when and how it is true is more complicated. Many highland peoples never were migratory shifting cultivators. The ones that were most studied by anthropologists, those in Thailand, were in some ways on the run away from the state in the period from about 1900 to 1980.
If that situation is telling of how states and highland peoples interacted historically then it is an uncomplicated ethnographic fact. I worked with the descendants of people who never ran away or tried to hide. They had been officially welcomed, recognized, and granted legal settlement. Most highland peoples were not accepted in this way, but were set up for subsequent criminalization (illegal settlement, lack of identity papers and citizenship, lack of land-use rights). Were this “the state” then Scott’s case is of general value for understanding the last two thousand years of SEAsian history. But this was not “the state” but rather a particular, assertive, and arrogant nation state that shaped society in highly specific ways, from Bangkok.
Aside from the population that I learned about, twentieth century highland peoples in Thailand were actively denied recognition and rights. To me this expresses a highly particular political pathology that emanated from the Bangkok elite. It must be specified and examined for how it played out, rather than approached as an example of how the state and the people relate. The wide range of cases that Scott cites in his book do generally fit this designation – they are from settings where any political relations have either not been established or they have either broken down or been denied (in southern China, and in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam).
There are many reasons for the shape of Scott’s case. Central among them are nation-state notions of nation-as-race and the anthropological search for ethnic types, pre-contact peoples, authentic ethnic cases (of livelihood, culture, and whatever) that either normalized a disconnect between lowland societies and the ethnic hinterlands or brushed aside whatever contact there was. Karl Gustav Izikowitz, studying the Lamet of Laos in the 1930s, chose them over the Khmu because they showed less signs of contact with Lao society.
Because of international decisions that led to the establishment of a Tribal Research Center, Western anthropologists in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s were invested in studying six tribes. So they found and conveyed what pertained to each of the officially defined ethnic groups. They did so in a hostile setting: highland peoples were denied recognition and citizenship, and many were at constant threat of arrest for opium cultivation. Their opium was purchased on the black market by itinerant Chinese traders, and this shadow economy helped delay (until 1980 or so) the need for social integration across the ethnic divide.
The hostile interactions between Thai society and various Hmong, Lisu, Mien, and others were not an expression of the state, but of highly particular dynamics that are anomalous only if one wants a different outcome. The facts of ethnography and ethnology are not independent of what world one desires. I would rather that people had recognition and the ability to negotiate for basic rights, and now see some of my earlier work as quite irresponsible. The notion of ethnic minorities tends to import expectations of unity within and antagonism without. This is bad science, in the sense that it denies diversity (internal to a settlement, ethnic group, region, society, and a political community — “a state”). It is also a case of fatalism; what happens across this political and ethnic frontier is predictable.
The combination of bad science and fatalism is anchored to the normalization of violence – there is no surprise in a violent campaign of one or another kind that will deprive the highland peoples of their freedom. In my view, this is also bad science in refusing to prospect for any positive relations with the people whose worlds are “sampled,” and refusing to offer any future to them. In Scott’s book, the possibility of high-altitude freedom came to an end by about 1950, and in this his case is very similar to the tribalist anthropology that he explicitly counters. If scholarship cannot imagine and convey political negotiation as a tool for making the world a better place then I think we are in very deep trouble, at home, away, and between them.