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Book Review: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott

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A foundation of the “academic method” in the Western world is contradiction, turning established knowledge and ways of things on its head, challenging established assumptions. It’s something that James C. Scott does in spades in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

At its heart is one region of the world, one of the last areas of the world to be brought into the nation-state system. “Zomia is a new name for virtually all the lands at altitudes above roughly three hundred meters all the way from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India and traversing five Southeast Asian nations (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma) and four provinces of China (Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and parts of Sichuan). It is an expanse of 2.5 million square kilometres containing about one hundred million minority peoples of truly bewildering ethnic and linguistic variety.”

And there’s huge amounts of fascinating detail there – from the role of the New World crops of maize and sweet potato in allowing what I was taught of at school as “traditional” slash and burn (what Scott calls swidden) agriculture, to the egalitarian politics of the Lahu, which on Scott’s account is strongly anti-authority and built around many stories of the felling of over-mighty, over-ambitious headmen.

But it’s the overarching frame of this book that really makes it a must-read for those who like finding new ways of looking at history and the shape of the modern world. Scott points out (unarguably) that the state is a very recent arrival on the human scene, and that most humans, through almost all of our history, have lived in far smaller, freer, often anarchic and flexible units.

We can’t now, however, know what they were like, for contrary to the view (established by people writing from within, and usually in support of the nation state) the usually independent, often anarchical groups in Zomia are not some historical hangover, “primitive” people who couldn’t manage for one reason or another to “modernise”, but groups who chose to avoid the restrictions of the state, the “discipline” of padi farming, and choose the freer (and almost invariably better nourished) life of the forest and hill. (Scott comprehensive rebuffs the traditional tale of Malaysia’s orang asli “original people” once thought to have been descendents of earlier waves of migration less technically developed than the Austronesian populations who followed. They are not genetically different, he says, but part of a “political series”.

And they’re not tightknit “tribes”, but highly flexible groupings that can change identity for practical advantage almost at will, and absorb a huge range of disparate incomers, from runaway slaves, peasants and soldiers to adventurous traders and general malcontents.

It doesn’t quite deliver, but hints at an alternative world history in which the nation state, rather than its traditional portrayal as “civiliser”, “developer”, “stabiliser” is in fact a destroyer of rights, a deliverer of poor health and nutrition, a veritable Kali of woes. And one where the non-state societies are the defenders of functionality, freedom and hope.

There are critical things you can say about this book – definitely overlong and annnoyingly repetitive, and also frustrating in that it begs at least a brief exploration of more small-scale, modern attempts to create “new Zomias” – and an exploration of what this might mean to, say, the Occupy movement (although perhaps being published in 2009 it was a little early to see the desperate hunger for new ideas so evident today.)

But it’s generally highly readable, and absolutely fascinating in detail. And great at debunking well-established myths.

So tribes aren’t some pre-existing, fixed genetic entity (at least in most cases), but very often a creation of states trying to control their non-state peripheries, by creating “chiefs” and “sub-chiefs” that can mimic – and they eventually hope become – state structures. He quotes Leach on an event in the Shan hills of Burma in 1836: “All my example really shows is that the Burmese, the Shans, and the Kachins of the Hukawng Valley … shared a common language of ritual expression; they all knew how to make themselves understood in this common ‘language’. It doesn’t mean that what was said in this ‘language’ was ‘true’ in political reality. The statements of the ritual in question were made in terms of the supposition that there existed an ideal, stable, Shan state with the soahpa (ruler) of Mogaing at the head of it and all the Kachin and Shan chiefs of the Hukawng Valley his loyal liege servants. We have no real evidence that any real aopa of Mogaing ever wielded such authority, and we know for a fact that when this particular ritual took place there had been no genuine soahpa of Mogaing at all for nearly 80 years.”

People, even large groups of people, choosing to opt out of “civilisation” and run for the freedom of the hills was common. So much so that the Han Chinese empire had a term for them – “Han-traitors” (Hanjian). In times of dynastic decline, natural disasters, wars, epidemics, and exceptional tyranny, what was a steady flow of adventurers, traders, criminals and pioneers might become a population hemorrhage.”

Scott skips around the world to look at parallel examples, citing Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrain’s Regions of Refuge on Latin America and regions that evaded control by the Spanish colonisers, and subsequent research which showed these were almost all not “indigenous”, but once cultivators living in highly stratified societies that had chosen to flee the Spanish (and/or their epidemics) and re-form their societies in forms emphasising mobility and adaptation. He also cites the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, the sea gypsies of much of Southeast Asia (for whom mangroves were a refuge), and the nomads of central Asia.

So what did such societies look like? Scott admits there are many variations, but is clearly drawn to the relatively egalitarian ones, citing the words of a forestry officer visiting the Tengger Highlands (“the major redoubt on Java of an explicitly non-Islamic, Hindu-Shaivite priesthood, the only such piresthood to have escaped the wave of Islamicization that followed the collapse of the last major Hindu-Buddhist kingdom (Majapahit) in the early 16th century”): “You couldn’t tell the rich from poor. everyone spoke in the same way to everyone else too, no matter what their position. Children talked to their parents and even to the village chief using the ordinary ngoko. No one bent and bowed before others.”

And, after Geoffrey Benjamin, he sees these societies as often practicing dissimilation – positioning themselves ecologically, economically and culturally as oppose to the state societies. e.g. “We are the foragers; we do not touch the plough.” And the Akha (now some 2.5m strong across southern Yunnan, Laos, Burma and Thailand): “A key figure in their legends is the would-be Akha king of the 13th century, Dzjawbang, who instituted a census (the iconic tax and state-making move!) and was slain by his own people. His son Bang Dhzui is an Icarus figure whose shamanic horse with wings mended with beeswax flies too close to the sun and is killed. Both stories are cautionary tales about hierarchy and state formation.”

Many societies, he says, maintained some or even extensive knowledge of the settled past – citing for one example the Ganan, now numbering some 8,000 at the head of the Mu River in Sagaing Division in Burma.”They were, or had become, it seems a lowland people and an integral part of the Pyu paid state until its centers were sacked and destroyed by Mon, Burman and Nan Chao state forces between the 9th and 14th centuries. They fled up the Mu river watershed because it was ‘away from the battlefields'; there they became, and remain, swiddeners and foragers.They have no written language and they practice a heterodox variation of Buddhism.”

The choice of crops was important, Scott says. “Cultivars that cannot be stored long without spoiling, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, or that have low value per unit weight and volume, such as most gourds, rootcrops and tubers, will not repay the efforts of a tax gatherer. In general, roots and tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes and cassava/manioc/yucca are nearly appropriation-proof. After they ripen, they can be safely left in the ground for up to two years and dug up piecemeal as needed. There is thus no granary to plunder. If the army or the taxman wants your potatoes, for example, they will have to dig them up one by one.”

And the arrival of New World crops in the 16th-century — most notably maize and cassava — created many new opportunities, making hill areas previously untenable possible homes. “The opportunity was seized by so any people that it prompted a significant redistribution of population. .. The reasons for moving away from state space could vary dramatically – religious division, war, corvee, forced cultivation under colonial schemes, epidemics, flight from bondage – but the availability of maize was a new and valuable tool for potential runaways.”

And when under most pressure, some groups chose to resort to a wholly foraging lifestyle – as did the Semang of the Malay Peninsula – was a sensible adaptation for a small, militarily weak minority group that did not wish to join a strong group of agriculturalists. Scott cites the historical case of the Siriono of eastern Bolivia, who have been written up as Paleolithic survivors lacking the ability to make fire or cloth, living in rude shelters, innumerate, having no domestic animals or developed cosmology. Actually “we now know beyond all reasonable doubt that the Siriono had been crop-growing villagers until roughly 1920, when influenza and smallpox swept through their villages, killing many of them. Attached by numerically superior peoples and fleeing potential slavery, the Siriono apparently abandoned their crops, which, in any event, they did not have the numbers to defend. Their independence and survival in this case required them to divide into smaller bands, foraging and moving whenever threatened. They would occasionally raid a settlement to take axes, hatchets and machetes, but at the same time they dreaded the illnesses the raiders often brought back with them. They had become non-sedentary by choice – to avoid both disease and capture.”

It make sense of an early manual of Chinese statecraft which urged the king to prohibit subsistence activities in the mountains and wetlands “in order to increase the involvement of the people in the production of grain.” Otherwise “the common people who detest farming, are lazy, and want doubled profits, will have nowhere to find something to eat.” Scott adds “the shrill tone of the advice suggests that the policy was not a complete success.”

Sounds familiar today!

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.