Skip to content Skip to footer

Refugees’ Descendants in Southeast Asia Prove Stateless Society Is Possible

(Image: Yale University Press)

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia
Yale University Press, 2009

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.

Get Truthout in your inbox every day! Click here to sign up for updates.

Besides remote physical location and the practice of what Scott terms “escape agriculture,” Zomians also employ social structure toward the end of both keeping existing states at a distance and preventing the rise of internal statism. The tendency among Zomians to be organized into acephalous small bands by its nature inhibits control by external powers – a negative mirror image, in this sense, of the Jewish councils which philosopher Hannah Arendt famously denounced as having facilitated the Shoah.[2] The imperialist method of indirect rule, whereby a native hegemon is tasked with governing a given region in the interests of the colonial power, is made difficult if subjects have few ties among themselves or simply ignore claims to power. When Zomians have faced incorporation into state systems, writes Scott, they have often engaged in further dispersal and scattering, or “social disaggregation into minimal units,” from bands to households. The idea here follows the Berber slogan, “Divide that ye be not ruled.” Echoing, inter alia, the historical efforts of runaway slaves to establish Palmares in rural Brazil, Zomians have sought refuge from subjugation by means of desertion of state spaces and conscious atomization processes that leave administrators facing spaces that are not easily managed. Though Scott notes that some Zomian groups at times have assassinated or deposed particularly authoritarian chiefs, he claims the historical tendency among Zomians to be more toward exodus from, rather than armed struggle against, states.

An additional critical means by which Zomians have resisted statist expansion is their use of religion. In many cases, writes Scott, the peoples of Zomia have adopted religions that have taken hold of valley populations, but Zomians tend to radically reinterpret the teachings of these schools of thought in an attempt to maintain their autonomy. Similar to the case of Christianized African slaves brought to the Americas, the major religions are shaped by Zomians in heterodox manners that promise future or even imminent emancipation from rule by the state (Buddha or Jesus is expected to return, for example, and usher in a state of redemption, social equality, and so on). As an “escape social structure of a high order,” millenarianism represents a method through which Zomian political communities have instituted thoroughgoing societal changes. Scott describes how prophets claiming religious inspiration have prepared Zomian communities for mobilization or exile, calling first for significant changes in dietary habits and the attendant adoption of mindfulness. More speculatively, Scott finds religious experience among marginalized Zomians to amount to a theodicy of their suffering, their “long histories of defeat and flight”; millenarian religion has, “kept alive a reservoir of hope for a life of dignity, peace, and plenty in the teeth of very long odds,” and it is within such parameters that concepts of right and justice have long been framed among Zomians. Such perspectives are of course relevant for reflection on theistic communities beyond the reaches of Zomia, from Bahrain to Chiapas.

The value of Scott's account as hitherto summarized notwithstanding, there is little comparative exploration in “Art” of patriarchy and women's status in Zomia relative to the padi states. This omission is rather strange, given the in-depth treatment of a number of other important social issues. The question of Zomian women is treated only in passing by Scott, when he notes that women enjoy a “relatively higher status” among the more egalitarian Zomians as compared to in the valleys. Clastres famously held women's subordination to be a given among the stateless, putatively nonhierarchical societies that he studied, yet this recognition bizarrely did not lead him to question whether such groups could in fact be said to be nonhierarchical. It is to be imagined that Scott himself does not share Clastres' lack of sensitivity to this question, but “Art” does little to dissuade the reader of such concerns.

The minimal effort dedicated to examining patriarchy among Zomians in “Art” aside, Scott has done a great service with his latest book, continuing from his earlier works. He has reminded his audience of the highly coercive nature of the state-form – the padi states were all slave states until relatively recently, he asserts, their subjects captives – and demonstrates the contingency of its existence. The importance of both such perspectives today should not be underestimated, what with the criminalization of migration, imperial war, generalized material impoverishment, and catastrophic climate change that attends the present system of state sovereignty and capitalism. In emphasizing the importance of common spaces – eclipsed as they are in the present by statism and private-property regimes – for the maintenance of social relations not governed by states, Scott demonstrates the dire threat such an alternative could represent to the prevailing state of affairs. In this sense, he presents a political task to us all. While it is to be doubted that a return to Zomian-esque hunter-gatherer lifestyles would be the most rational future course of action, and though the diffuseness of Zomian groups seems largely to preclude collective action (as it did with the native inhabitants of the Americas, with maddening genocidal consequences), it is to be imagined that such problematics could readily be resolved by conscious political movements. Like Yemelyan Pugachev, Stenka Razin, Emiliano Zapata and other insurrectional agrarian-radicals, humanity can come to abolish the present state of affairs in favor of a far more humane social existence.

1. Society Against the State (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Zone Books, 1989), The Archeology of Violence (New York: Semiotext[e], 1994 [1980])

2. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963])

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.