The View from the Top

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South-East Asia by James C. Scott
    Yale, 442 pp, £16.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 300 16917 1

The researcher starts out with fieldwork data from a village or set of villages, or material from a set of archives, or even a set of conversations between friends in a pub, and then proceeds to weave these into a convincing set of hypotheses which with luck will stand the test, either of a vertical transformation in scale or a horizontal movement in space (some economists like to call such generalisations ‘stylised facts’). But not all places are equally suggestive, or indeed seductive. South-East Asia, so often marginalised in relation to its neighbours to the west and east, the ‘Great Civilisations’ of India and China, has had a particular problem in this respect. Nevertheless, over the last 50 years major interventions in the social sciences have begun life there.

Three quite different figures in the Western academy can claim the credit for this: Clifford Geertz, Benedict Anderson and James C. Scott. Geertz, one of whose many talents was for the writing of superbly perfidious book reviews, was the master of the catchy phrase: he gave us ‘theatre state’, ‘agricultural involution’ and quite a few others, which then travelled from their initial South-East Asian lodgings to distant résidences secondaires the world over. Anderson, who has worked in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, has also prodded readers and audiences to venture into parts of tropical South-East Asia where they might otherwise never have set foot – literally or metaphorically. Scott, the youngest of the three by a bare few months, has been equally tireless in using South-East Asia as his laboratory, and also as a point of departure for very broad claims that have stimulated, provoked and sometimes irritated over the past three or four decades.

Though sometimes presented as a marginal figure, Scott has in fact published a steady stream of influential books and successfully directs the agrarian studies programme at Yale. His major publications began modestly more than 40 years ago with Political Ideology in Malaysia (1968), which was followed by the better-known Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976), a book that was vigorously (and simplistically) attacked for its logical and empirical failings by neoclassical proponents of peasant rationality such as Samuel Popkin. Popkin argued that if peasants were properly and individualistically rational (in Milton Friedman’s sense), they would not have the forms of collective solidarity that Scott suggested because they would prefer to be ‘free riders’; which was, of course, the point Scott was making. A decade later came Weapons of the Weak (1985), and then a widely cited and controversial work, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990), which widened the split between Scott and many others on the traditional left, who saw him as abandoning the class struggle for a more romantic vision of ‘resistance’. Most recently, Scott has written Seeing like a State (1998), a work that can be paired for certain purposes with The Art of Not Being Governed.

These later books have been concerned to elaborate the dialectic between an oppressive, modernising state on the one hand, and various ‘everyday’ forms of resistance to it on the other. In this way, Scott’s work has run parallel to, and at times intersected with, the sub-discipline known as Subaltern Studies, which (before it became a global brand) had its origins in writings not on South-East but on South Asia. Both have drawn on Foucault, and in the late 1980s, the two modes – Scottism and Subalternism – were at times posited as being different but complementary. Over time, however, Subalternism has evolved by way of its gingerly embrace of postcolonial doxa while Scott has followed his own distinctive path, in a direction he likes to term ‘anarchist’.

At the heart of this new book is the political theorist’s rediscovery of geography: not the new-fangled cultural geography of the past two decades, but old-fashioned physical geography. Geographers have had a good deal to say about state-formation processes in South-East Asia, and a common enough conceptual framework to use when writing about the maritime regions (especially the Malay-speaking world) has been the opposition or tension between hulu (or ulu) and hilir, or the upstream and downstream centres in polities organised along riverine axes. This was set out as a ‘functional model’ of coastal state-making some years ago by the archaeologist Bennet Bronson and has since been the starting point for a number of debates, especially regarding Sumatra (Palembang, Barus etc), but also western Java, the Philippines and other areas. The model is seductive, and based on what appears to be an ‘indigenously rooted’ opposition; the chief problem it poses for analysts is its lack of historicity.

Scott’s contention in The Art of Not Being Governed is that once we move away from a preoccupation with the coasts, much can be gained by thinking simply in terms of altitude. His focus is on the area known as the mainland massif, recently rechristened ‘Zomia’ by Willem van Schendel. It is a huge area currently populated by more than 100 million members of ‘minority peoples’ (such as the Akha, Chin, Hmong, Kachin, Karen, Khmu, Lahu, Miao, Wa and Yao), occupying some 2.5 million square kilometres from western China to north-eastern India and including the upland areas of five other countries: Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in