I just finished James Scott’s 2009 book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, and I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to introduce the book to those not familiar with it. I quite enjoyed his last book, Seeing Like a State, which I wrote about back in 2007, and this book picks up where that book left off. Whereas Seeing Like a State discussed the strategies by which states exert bureaucratic control over unruly populations, The Art of Not Being Governed looks instead at the strategies people adopt to resist centralized state control. [The title of this post comes from one of the chapters in the book.]
His focus is on Southeast Asia, specifically a region he calls “Zomia” which, to quote Martin Lewis:
denotes the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, along with adjacent parts of India and China, that have historically resisted incorporation into the states centered in the lowland basins of the larger region.
In chapter after chapter he lays out his argument, showing how virtually every aspect of Zomia hill society exists as a means of resisting state authority: If states like the flat plains, people move to the hills to avoid the state. If states like cultivating rice because it concentrates much needed manpower where it can easily be tapped, people adopt shifting cultivation for the very same reason. If states employ writing as a way of keeping track of who’s who, people ditch their books and rely upon easily modified oral genealogies instead. If states like organized religion, people engage in heterodox traditions that defy centralized control. And, perhaps most strikingly, if the state wishes to impose a shared ethnic identity upon its subjects, people choose “tribal” identities as a way of avoiding such ethnic ties.
This last one is likely to draw the most attention (although I personally found the brief section on orality the most provocative – perhaps I’ll write more about that later), although few anthropologists will have a problem with his view of ethnicity as socially constructed. Still, it is worth quoting him at length:
There is, clearly, no such thing as a “tribe” in the strong sense of the word — no objective genealogical, genetic, linguistic, or cultural formula that will unambiguously distinguish one “tribe” from another. But, we might well ask, who is confused? The historian and the colonial ethnographer might be mystified. The mixed villages in northern Burma were “anathema to the tidy bureaucratic officials” who, until, the last moment of imperial rule, were still trying in vain to draw administrative lines between the Kachins and Shans. But hill people were not confused; they were in no doubt who they were and who they were not! Not sharing the researcher’s or administrator’s mania for mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories, hill people were not paralyzed by identities that were plural and variable over time. On the contrary, as we shall see, the ambiguity and porosity of identities was and is, for them, a political resource.
Nor does Scott wish to limit his argument to Zomia. Throughout the book he makes comparisons to indigenous people in Latin America, Gypsies, Cossacks, Afghans, and other tribal and semi-nomadic populations. In an interview with the Boston Globe Scott “cheerfully” conceded “the possibility that he may have overgeneralized in the pursuit of a cohesive argument.” Yet he is careful to restrict his argument to the pre-modern era, saying “if my analysis does not apply to late-twentieth-century Southeast Asia, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” It would be interesting to compare this book with Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject which discusses the role of Colonialism in constructing African ethnic identities. Whereas Scott treats all “states” as essentially the same, Mamdani draws interesting distinctions between French and English strategies of rule, arguing that they led to very different dynamics of ethnic formation.
Of course, much of what Scott says is not new. Anthropologists will be especially aware of the tremendous debt to Edmund Leach and Pierre Clastres, both of whom are cited at length throughout the book. Here’s what he says about Clastres:
The French anthropologist Pierre Clastres was the first to argue that many of the hunting-and-gathering “tribes” of South America, far from being left behind, had previously lived in state formations and practiced fixed-field agriculture. They had purposely given it up to evade subordination. They were, he argued, quite capable of producing a larger economic surplus and a larger-scale political order, but they had chosen not to so as to remain outside state structures.
And Regarding Leach’s classic text, he writes:
Nothing in this distinguished critical literature, however, questions the fact that there are important differences in the relative openness and egalitarianism of various Kachin social systems or that there was, near the close of the past century, something like a movement to assassinate, depose, or desert the more autocratic chiefs. At its core, Leach’s ethnography is an analysis of escape social structure—a form of social organization designed to thwart capture and appropriation either by Shan statelets or by the petty Kachin chiefs (duwa) who attempt to mimic Shan power and hierarchy.
What Scott has done is woven together a huge literature on Southeast Asia and the Chinese border regions into a sweeping (if occasionally repetitive) narrative about the strategies hill people use to resist state power. If I have any reservations about his argument it is that, as someone who spends a lot of time looking at how specific state formations have led to the development of specific ethnic formations, it is more than a little disconcerting to take such a “long view” of history where these details seem so unimportant.