An anarchist history of the state (or the one book you should read this year)

Zomia [the highland region straddling China, Thailand, Burma, and the rest of Southeast Asia] is the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples have not yet been fully incorporated into nation-states. Its days are numbered.

Not so very long ago, however, such self-governing peoples were the great majority of humankind. Today, they are seen from the valley kingdoms as “our living ancestors,” “what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization.”

On the contrary, I argue that hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys-slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.

Most of the areas in which they reside may be aptly called shatter zones or zones of refuge. Virtually everything about these people’s livelihoods, social organization, ideologies, and (more controversially) even their largely oral cultures, can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arm’s length.

Their physical dispersion in rugged terrain, their mobility, their cropping practices, their kinship structure, their pliable ethnic identities, and their devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders effectively serve to avoid incorporation into states and to prevent states from springing up among them. The particular state that most of them have been evading has been the precocious Han-Chinese state.

…The huge literature on state-making, contemporary and historic, pays virtually no attention to its obverse: the history of deliberate and reactive statelessness. This is the history of those who got away, and state-making cannot be understood apart from it. This is also what makes this an anarchist history.

If you visit the hill country between Thailand and Burma (as I am doing now) there are few better books to read than Jim Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.

Even those outside the Southeast Asian highlands, however, must read this book, especially students of development and state-building. It’s certainly among the best books I’ve read this past year, prompting many deep thoughts about war, states, and the development machine.

One of many quotable bits:

While the rhetoric of high imperialism could speak unselfconsciously of “civilizing” and “Christianizing” the nomadic heathen, such terms strike the modern ear as outdated and provincial, or as euphemisms for all manner of brutalities. And yet if one substitutes the nouns development, progress, and modernization, it is apparent that the project, under a new flag, is very much alive and well.

The link from ancient hill tribes to modern-day development is this: many of the poor who states and institutions aim to develop (notice I did not say “help develop”) exist in spaces and cultures perceived as primitive and waiting for advancement into something more modern. But many of these cultures and peoples formed and exist largely in opposition to states.

The economies, practices and cultures of the supposedly uncivilized are not primordial but adapted, in self-preservation. Why? Well, states historically (and in too many contemporary cases) have been coercive and extractive. Evading rather than entering states has often been the most sensible way to improve well-being. Only recently have (some) states become less predatory. (Or perhaps they remain as destructive in their assimilation, but the lure of consumer products has become too great?)

I don’t think this story applies to all peoples (maybe not even most peoples), but Somalis, or the pastoralists straddling Sudan, Kenya and Uganda (like the Karamojong), or Afghans suddenly look different (and yet more familiar) to me after reading this book.

Scott writes that his book may apply little after the Second World War. Fine, warrant us caution, but I’d argue that self-appointed statebuilders in Africa or the Central Asia have a great deal to gain from this book. See it here.

7 thoughts on “An anarchist history of the state (or the one book you should read this year)

  1. There’s also a concept known as “enforced primitivism” where the state decides not to absorb, integrate or “develop” the culture but ensures it stays the way it is for various reasons – in one place, they figured it would be good for tourism.

  2. I’m surprised to see such a glowing endorsement of Jim Scott’s work on your blog. It’s hard to imagine a scholar whose approach is more at odds with your own regarding the possibilities of development interventions and such things as randomized control trials, the measurability of human capital, micrometrics and quantitative field methods, etc. Most of the approaches you advocate correspond precisely with the sort of High Modernist approach that Scott criticizes at length in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. The fact that The Art of Not Being Governed is quite seriously an anarchist approach, and intensely oppositional to the sorts of intervention you advocate, makes me wonder about your reading of the book and its relevance to your own approach. Are you rethinking some of the basics?

  3. Well, in general one can accept positive conclusions without the normative judgments.

    Also, I would not characterize Seeing Like a State as an anarchist approach. Rejecting Le Corbusier in favor of Jane Jacobs doesn’t make you anti-state. Likewise, micro-development programs do not have to have to take a high modernist approach. I’d argue many of mine do not. But that is for another day when I have more time to write….

  4. I haven’t read this book, but it reminds me a lot of the points raised in David Graeber’s work, most concisely in his wonderful Prickly Paradigm book, “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” (I don’t know whether the title is a nod to that book or not). For a book that deals with ways that the (Ottoman) state could engage with and “include” these types of rebellious peoples, one should check out Karen Barkey’s “Bandits and Bureaucrats”.