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The Art of Not Being Governed

The Art of Not Being Governed

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “The Art of Not Being Governed”]


I figure part of my job around here is to call attention to new books that relate in some way to the libertarian tradition — that is, to the history of libertarian thought. One such book was first published a little over a year ago, in September 2009, by Yale University Press. It has only just now — in November 2010 — been brought out in a paperback edition at about a 30 percent reduction in price. It’s the work of James C. Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale, and its title is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

Except for one highly intelligent review earlier this year in Reason, this book seems to have attracted no attention at all from libertarians. Yet this is a book libertarians with an enthusiasm for history will find very, very interesting indeed — though probably not so much for its extremely illuminating discussion of Southeast Asian history as for its even more illuminating observations on the place of the state in human history generally.

“Until shortly before the common era,” Scott writes, which is to say the last 2000 years, “the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary self-governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.”

According to Scott, world history may be divided into

four eras: 1) a stateless era (by far the longest), 2) an era of small-scale states encircled by vast and easily reached stateless peripheries, 3) a period in which such peripheries are shrunken and beleaguered by the expansion of state power, and finally, 4) an era in which virtually the entire globe is ‘administered space’ and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant. The progression from one era to the next has been very uneven geographically (China and Europe being more precocious than, say, Southeast Asia and Africa) and temporally (with peripheries growing and shrinking depending on the vagaries of state-making). But about the long-run trend there can be not a shred of doubt.

Not surprisingly, Scott thinks the state’s importance is usually exaggerated by historians.

The very earliest states in China and Egypt — and later, Chandra-Gupta India, classical Greece, and republican Rome — were, in demographic terms, insignificant. They occupied a minuscule portion of the world’s landscape, and their subjects were no more than a rounding error in the world’s population figures. In mainland Southeast Asia, where the first states appear only around the middle of the first millennium of the common era [around 1500 years ago] their mark on the landscape and its peoples is relatively trivial when compared with their oversized place in the history books. Small, moated, and walled centers together with their tributary villages, these little nodes of hierarchy and power were both unstable and geographically confined. To an eye not yet hypnotized by archaeological remains and state-centric histories, the landscape would have seemed virtually all periphery and no centers. Nearly all the population and territory were outside their ambit.

Each of these early states, according to Scott, was

an ingathering of previously stateless peoples. Some subjects were no doubt attracted to the possibilities for trade, wealth, and status available at the court centers, while others, almost certainly the majority, were captives and slaves seized in warfare or purchased from slave-raiders. The vast “barbarian” periphery of these small states was … the source of hundreds of important trade goods and forest products necessary to the prosperity of the … state … [as well as] the most important trade good in circulation: the human captives who formed the working capital of any successful state. What we know of the classical states such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as the early Khmer, Thai, and Burmese states, suggests that most of their subjects were formally unfree: slaves, captives, and their descendants.

That “vast ‘barbarian’ periphery” that encircled each of these early states was also a place to which victims of the state could flee in search of greater freedom. As Scott notes, the “nonstate space” beyond the frontier “operated as a rough and ready homeostatic device; the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had. The frontier underwrote popular freedom.” Scott uses the term “nonstate space” to refer to “locations where, owing largely to geographical obstacles, the state has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority.” Historically, Scott maintains, “it is difficult or inaccessible terrain, regardless of elevation, that presents great obstacles to state control,” and it is thus in difficult or inaccessible terrain that nonstate space has been most often found. And, as Scott emphasizes, “such places have often served as havens of refuge for peoples resisting or fleeing the state.”

Scott observes that

since 1945, and in some cases before then, the power of the state to deploy distance-demolishing technologies — railroads, all-weather roads, telephone, telegraph, airpower, helicopters, and now information technology — so changed the strategic balance of power between self-governing peoples and nation-states, so diminished the friction of terrain, that my analysis largely ceases to be useful.

But he stresses that

avoiding the state was, until the past few centuries, a real option. A thousand years ago most people lived outside state structures, under loose-knit empires or in situations of fragmented sovereignty. Today it is an option that is fast vanishing.

Of course, states worked to discourage their subjects from fleeing to the hinterlands where state reach was impaired by difficult terrain. One method they used was propaganda. As Scott writes, “the official story most civilizations tell about themselves” almost invariably concerns “a backward, naïve and perhaps barbaric people” that is “gradually incorporated into an advanced, superior, and more prosperous society and culture.” In fact, he points out, “barbarian was another word states used to describe any self-governing, nonsubject people.” However, “many of these ungoverned barbarians had, at one time or another, elected, as a political choice, to take their distance from the state” and to live instead in a stateless society in which

their subsistence routines, their social organization … and many elements of their culture … are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them. State evasion and state prevention permeate their practices and, often, their ideology as well.

Another way of saying this might be that densely populated, prosperous trading centers, where civilization exists in its most advanced form are usually taken over by a state of some kind before they have been densely populated, prosperous trading centers for very long. The same might be said about the more prosperous and more densely populated farm towns. In effect, ironically, the state is the price of civilization — not, as the statists believe, because the state is necessary to safeguard or protect civilization, but rather because it is civilization the state fastens upon like a leech or a tapeworm, because the most civilized societies are the wealthiest and thus the most profitable to loot. If you want to live in a civilized place, you’ll probably have to put up with the state. Faced with that dilemma, there have been a lot of people who have chosen to walk away from civilization and thereby escape the state rather than stay in civilization and attempt to reform or abolish the state.

Of course, as Scott notes, in the early state’s propaganda counseling against any such walking away from civilization, “the linkage between being civilized and being a subject of the state is … taken for granted.” And countless generations of historians have followed the lead of the early state’s court intellectuals and cheerfully “confounded ‘civilization’ with what was, in fact, state-making.” As a result, Scott argues, we find ourselves today with a “huge literature on state-making, contemporary and historic, [that] pays virtually no attention to its obverse: the history of deliberate and reactive statelessness. This is the history of those who got away.”

Scott understands that a reader in 21st-century America may well regard his argument with a certain incredulity.

At a time when the state seems pervasive and inescapable, it is easy to forget that for much of history, living within or outside the state — or in an intermediate zone — was a choice, one that might be revised as the circumstances warranted. A wealthy and peaceful state center might attract a growing population that found its advantages rewarding.

Still, “it appears that much, if not most, of the population of the early states was unfree; they were subjects under duress.” And “it was very common for state subjects to run away.” For “living within the state meant, virtually by definition, taxes, conscription, corvée labor” — that is, forced, unpaid, short-term labor, such as being required to work a day or two unpaid on a road-repair crew — “and, for most, a condition of servitude.”

Thus the early state extruded populations as readily as it absorbed them, and when, as was often the case, it collapsed altogether as the result of war, drought, epidemic, or civil strife over succession, its populations were disgorged. States were, by no means, a once-and-for-all creation. Innumerable archaeological finds of state centers that briefly flourished and were then eclipsed by warfare, epidemics, famine, or ecological collapse depict a long history of state formation and collapse rather than permanence. For long periods people moved in and out of states, and “stateness” was, itself, often cyclical and reversible.

Of course, it wasn’t only famine, epidemics, or internal struggles for political power that brought down these fragile early states. At least as often, it was greed. As Scott observes, “one might have expected statecraft to consist in sailing as close to the wind as they could: that is, in extracting resources just short of the point at which they would provoke flight or rebellion. … [T]his would be the most reasonable strategy.” But it wasn’t the strategy most of these early states actually pursued.

For example, the early rulers in Southeast Asia knew that

the fiscal capacity of the population varied widely, as it would in any agrarian economy, from season to season depending on harvest fluctuations due to weather, pests, and crop diseases. Even theft and banditry could be a factor here: concentrated above-ground grain crops were just as big a temptation to gangs of thieves, rebels, or rival kingdoms as they were to the state. Allowing for the great variation in the cultivators’ capacity to pay year by year would have required the crown to sacrifice its own fiscal demands for the welfare of its peasantry. All the evidence suggests that, quite to the contrary, the precolonial and colonial states tried to guarantee themselves a steady take, at the expense of their subjects. …

[G]iven a choice between patterns of subsistence that are relatively unfavorable to the cultivator but which yield a greater return in manpower or grain to the state and those patterns that benefit the cultivator but deprive the state, the ruler will choose the former every time. The ruler, then, maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and its subjects.

As long as even the most successful states were adjacent to areas they couldn’t control, however, the oppressed people still had somewhere else to go. “Until at least the early nineteenth century,” Scott writes, “the difficulties of transportation, the state of military technology, and, above all, demographic realities placed sharp limits on the reach of even the most ambitious states.” In Southeast Asia, for example, in 1600, the population density was “only 5.5 persons per square kilometer … (compared with roughly 35 for India and China),” so that any ruler’s subjects in Southeast Asia “had relatively easy access to a vast, land-rich frontier.” And just beyond that frontier lay the uplands, the highlands, the hills, “an area roughly the size of Europe” which Scott, in common with increasing numbers of historians and social scientists, calls “Zomia.”

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. … It is an expanse of 2.5 million square kilometers containing about one hundred million … peoples … at the periphery of nine states.

Zomia is, Scott tells us, “one of the largest remaining nonstate spaces in the world, if not the largest.” In fact, Scott says, “the signal, distinguishing trait of Zomia … is that it is relatively stateless. Historically, of course, there have been states in the hills” but “while state-making projects have abounded [there], it is fair to say that few have come to fruition,” and “those would-be kingdoms that did manage to defy the odds did so only for a relatively brief, crisis-strewn period.”

The human settlements that make up Zomia, Scott maintains, are “best understood as runaway, fugitive … 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.”

And it should surprise no one, he writes, that

virtually everything about these people’s livelihoods, social organization, ideologies, and … even their largely oral cultures, can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arm’s length … to avoid incorporation into states and to prevent states from springing up among them.

For example, the residents of Zomia typically practice what Scott calls “escape agriculture: forms of cultivation designed to thwart state appropriation.” And “their social structure could fairly be called escape social structure inasmuch as it was designed to aid dispersal and autonomy and ward off political subordination.” If we want to understand the folkways, mores, and behavior of these people, Scott insists, we must begin by acknowledging that “the inhabitants of this zone have come, or remained, here largely because it lies beyond the reach of the state.”

This does not mean, of course, that their decentralized societies lack any coherent order. Scott writes, in fact, of his desire to “attempt an account of the elementary units of political order in mainland Southeast Asia” and then comments: “I emphasize the term political order to avoid conveying the mistaken impression that outside the realm of the state lay mere disorder.” And, interestingly, one of the chief points he makes about the “elementary units of political order” that he has found among the people of upland Southeast Asia is that, and these are his words,

Their political structures are, with extremely rare exceptions, imitative in the sense that while they may have the trappings and rhetoric of monarchy, they lack the substance: a taxpaying subject population or direct control over their constituent units, let alone a standing army.

A simpler way of saying this would be to say, employing Albert Jay Nock’s terminology, that the people of upland Southeast Asia have government, but not the state. “As far back as one can follow the run of civilization,” Nock wrote in 1935,

it presents two fundamentally different types of political organization. This difference is not one of degree, but of kind. It does not do to take the one type as merely marking a lower order of civilization and the other a higher; they are commonly so taken, but erroneously. Still less does it do to classify both as species of the same genus — to classify both under the generic name of “government,” though this also, until very lately, has always been done, and has always led to confusion and misunderstanding.

The origin of government, Nock argued,

is in the common understanding and common agreement of society; … [G]overnment implements the common desire of society, first, for freedom, and second, for security. Beyond this it does not go; it contemplates no positive intervention upon the individual, but only a negative intervention.

Nock believed that

the code of government should be that of the legendary king Pausole, who prescribed but two laws for his subjects, the first being, Hurt no man, and the second, Then do as you please; and … the whole business of government should be the purely negative one of seeing that this code is carried out.

By contrast, Nock argued, the state

did not originate in the common understanding and agreement of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation. Its intention, far from contemplating “freedom and security,” contemplated nothing of the kind. It contemplated primarily the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another, and it concerned itself with only so much freedom and security as was consistent with this primary intention; and this was, in fact, very little. Its primary function or exercise was not by way of … purely negative interventions upon the individual, but by way of innumerable and most onerous positive interventions, all of which were for the purpose of maintaining the stratification of society into an owning and exploiting class, and a propertyless dependent class. The order of interest that it reflected was not social, but purely antisocial; and those who administered it, judged by the common standard of ethics, or even the common standard of law as applied to private persons, were indistinguishable from a professional-criminal class.

Yet James C. Scott, not only in his discussion of the refugees from the state who live in Zomia, but also in his more general remarks about the history of the state in human society, makes no distinction between government and the state. About half the time, he refers to the Zomians and to their counterparts in other areas of the world and in other eras of world history as “ungoverned.” The other half of the time, he refers to these same groups of individuals as “self-governing peoples.” But, of course, if they are truly “self-governing,” they are not “ungoverned.” They are governing themselves. They are not practicing “the art of not being governed”; they are practicing the art of not being ruled.

This may seem to be mere quibbling, but, like Nock, I think it’s an important distinction — a distinction that if not taken into account will lead to confusion and misunderstanding. If Scott can excoriate most of his fellow historians for confounding “civilization” with “state-making,” he himself can be excoriated for confounding statelessness with lack of government, particularly when it is clear from his own text that he does grasp the difference — and the difference it makes.

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