The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia

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Yale University Press, 2009 - Political Science - 442 pages
For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the organized state societies that surround them--slavery, conscription, taxes, corvee labor, epidemics, and warfare. This book, essentially an anarchist history, is the first-ever examination of the huge literature on state-making whose author evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless. Among the strategies employed by the people of Zomia to remain stateless are physical dispersion in rugged terrain; agricultural practices that enhance mobility; pliable ethnic identities; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture that allows them to reinvent their histories and genealogies as they move between and around states. In accessible language, James Scott, recognized worldwide as an eminent authority in Southeast Asian, peasant, and agrarian studies, tells the story of the peoples of Zomia and their unlikely odyssey in search of self-determination. He redefines our views on Asian politics, history, demographics, and even our fundamental ideas about what constitutes civilization, and challenges us with a radically different approach to history that presents events from the perspective of stateless peoples and redefines state-making as a form of internal colonialism. This new perspective requires a radical reevaluation of the civilizational narratives of the lowland states. Scott's work on Zomia represents a new way to think of area studies that will be applicable to other runaway, fugitive, and marooned communities, be they Gypsies, Cossacks, tribes fleeing slave raiders, Marsh Arabs, or San-Bushmen.

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An examination of the upland region of southeast Asia (which Scott calls "Zomia"), seen as the world's largest Maroon region. Scott defines the region as one which has resisted governance and explains ... Read full review

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I reviewed this in 2011 elsewhere: "Scholars, with the exception and vision of a few such as Jared Diamond and David Christian, do not usually cut such a huge swathe of territory and time as James C. Scott does in The Art of Not Being Governed. The present book though represents the latest installment of a series of studies by Scott that speak at least at some level to anyone interested in the relationship that society has with the state. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, although he admits that research for the current volume has rendered him a historian in a sense. Certainly, his ideas and conclusions are as relevant to historians as much as to anyone else.
Histories with lens wrought wide are popular both because they are accessible and because they are relevant. Anyone who reads this volume will find themselves frequently pausing to reflect on their own society and their relationship with state institutions. This is, in a more limited sense of the term grand history, although it is mainly limited to the historical period. It follows that there is little attention to individuals (King Bodaw-hpaya of Burma is one among several exceptions)– one will find few personalities here. The focus here is one huge generalizations, some of which will surely evaporate upon close scrutiny, but many that are truly – if not absolutely convincing – thought provoking. Scott admits as much in the introduction but argues that even if some of his assumptions are wrong, the basic ideas he has offered, he is convinced, will hold to be true.
In seeking to escape the state’s stamp on history and on the register by which we interpret (and have interpreted) the world around us, Scott is unable to escape it himself in his analysis. This is, after all, not a history outside of the state but, as Scott has aptly subtitled his book, An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. The state as leviathan captures free, mobile populations, and makes them sedentary, controllable, and taxable and the survivors, those not dragged heel before head by state administrators and armies, have sought refuge in topographies ever more distant from and difficult to the state, until we arrive at the last major remaining bastion of non-state space, the Southeast Asian massif (elsewhere more broadly defined by Willem van Schendel as Zomia).
It follows from such a broad handling of societies, states, and geography, on such a large terrestrial canvass that the reading has been relatively broad. One cannot, perhaps, hold one seeking to write an anarchist history to the task of dealing substantially with the general literature focused on the lowland states whose reach Scott’s highland refugees have thus far skirted. There are weighty volumes of documentation of highland groups that raided the lowlands for people and things and dragged both up into the hills despite the best efforts of lowland states to secure their frontiers. For Scott, this story is an illusion, the product of state-centred historical narratives to use Prasenjit Duara’s (a scholar who is clearly influential here) terminology or “standard civilisational narrative” to use Scott’s, that obscures and warps the story of people versus the state. That narrative, Scott argues, ignores two chief facts—many (and perhaps most) people in early states were only there “under duress” and that state subjects frequently ran away.
In the untold (until now) story, nearly all people lived outside of the early states (classical Greece or Republican Rome, for example). States were mere blips on the map whose existence would have been indiscernible to the untrained eye a
millennium ago: “To an eye not yet hypnotized by archaeological remains and state- centric histories, the landscape would have seemed virtually all periphery and no centers” (5). For the last thousand years and more, state administrations in Southeast Asia have steadily expanded, displacing non-state spaces with state spaces, close on the heels of fleeing populations that wanted to


An Introduction to Zomia
Zones of Governance and Appropriation
Slavery and Irrigated Rice
4 Civilization and the Unruly
The Peopling of the Hills
The Culture and Agriculture of Escape
6½ Orality Writing and Texts
A Radical Constructionist Case
8 Prophets of Renewal
9 Conclusion

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