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.

Scott, as he himself writes, has a ‘simple, suggestive and controversial’ thesis regarding this area. Hitherto, he says, most of these minority populations have been seen by anthropologists as well as policy-makers as archaic vestiges, survivors from another time. He argues that, on the contrary, ‘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 labour, epidemics and warfare’. Central to the book is the argument that Scott used as the title of the lecture that he delivered widely in anticipation of its publication: ‘Why Civilisations Can’t Climb Hills’.

There is an evident continuity between this book and Scott’s earlier work, but there are also some shifts, a few highly visible, a couple rather more subtle, in his style of reasoning. To begin with, The Art of Not Being Governed is heavily and explicitly influenced by the work of the French political anthropologist (described in some quarters as a Nietzschean) Pierre Clastres (1934-77). While Clastres broke to an extent from Lévi-Strauss, his master, and became associated for a time with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he nevertheless remained true to Lévi-Strauss’s fieldwork techniques, structuralist orientation and geographical preference for Latin America. After a long series of essays and fieldwork reports in the journal L’Homme (published from about 1962 on), his first substantial monograph, Chronique des Indiens Guayaki (1972), concerned a Native American group in Paraguay on which he had done fieldwork from 1963 onwards. Two shorter works followed in rapid succession before his death in a car accident: Le Grand Parler: Mythes et chants sacrés des Indiens Guarani (1974) and La Société contre l’état: Recherches d’anthropologie politique (1974).

Writing in the early 1960s, Clastres was inclined to see the Guayaki as a vestige of a lost world, a small group (250 to 300 people in his estimation) that would shed light on the origins of the far larger grouping of Guarani Indians. Later, he would change his mind radically, and mount a ferocious attack on those who saw matters in such an evolutionary – and thus, he argued, ethnocentric – light. (This may have had something to do with his experiences as a soixante-huitard.) It became increasingly evident to him that such groups deliberately chose to avoid certain institutions, and remained ‘savage’ by preference (it’s here that one sees the Nietzscheanism most clearly, as well as the growing distance from Lévi-Strauss). Scott draws on La Société contre l’état time and again, beginning with his rather curious epigraph: ‘It is said that the history of peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle. It might be said with at least as much truthfulness, that the history of peoples without history is a history of their struggle against the state.’ In this book, rather than a history of class struggle, Scott wishes to present us with the history of a ‘struggle against the state’, i.e. an ‘anarchist history’.

The Art of Not Being Governed is thus based on a neat and radical opposition. Scott claims that large-scale state-making in his chosen region is and has always been the business of plains and lowland people, with relatively high population densities and a proclivity to rice (or padi) cultivation requiring a good deal of labour. These lowland polities have an inbuilt logic of expansion, which leads them to deploy the usual technologies of the state, including military mobilisation, cadastres, generalised record-keeping, ethnography and written histories (here we return to some of the themes of Seeing like a State). Inevitably, the process of expansion comes up against physical limits: elevated territories are intrinsically less accessible to their technologies and also less interesting economically in terms of their tax yield. It is these upland regions which have for long centuries, Scott argues, defined the limits of ‘civilisations’, whether for states in Vietnam, Thailand and Burma, or for the Chinese imperial state at its south-western limits. He states his position bluntly enough: ‘Political control sweeps readily across a flat terrain. Once it confronts the friction of distance, abrupt changes in altitude, ruggedness of terrain, and the political obstacle of population dispersion and mixed cultivation, it runs out of political breath.’ In sum, lowland-based polities and their associated ‘civilisations’ suffer from altitude sickness.

In putting forward this thesis, Scott is well aware of two problems. One is of falling into a geographical determinism whereby altitude becomes a ready predictor of state centralisation and reach. He comes close to this on quite a few occasions, but draws back. A second issue is that altitude may not be significant in and of itself, but be just one of many natural obstacles to the deploying of state technologies. Marshlands, deserts or even large bodies of water can defeat the expansionary ambitions of states for a time, even for centuries. Indeed, as Clastres recognised, tropical forests can perform this function very well. Yet Scott is still enamoured of his altitude-based ‘friction-of-distance’ model, which he comes at in various ways (and with a certain degree of repetitiveness) in the early chapters of the book. At one point, he proposes a mental experiment involving a white map with altitudes marked on it in high relief and ‘each rice-growing core’ with ‘a reservoir of red paint filled to the very brim’. Tilting the map this way and that, and laying it flat again, the spread and concentration of the red ink would mark the strength of the state, while the white blotches of higher altitudes would be ‘rarely if ever directly ruled’ by lowland, rice-based states.

It follows, as the second half of the book seeks to demonstrate, that those who wish to ‘keep the state at arm’s length’ would congregate in the less accessible zones. What is involved are deliberate strategies of ‘state evasion’ or ‘state prevention’, not chance movements of population. In such areas, we would find groups defining first subsistence strategies and then the agricultural patterns that are their direct consequence, which are ‘designed to escape detection and maximise their physical mobility’ should the population ‘be forced to flee again at a moment’s notice’. This part of his thesis Scott sums up as follows:

The techniques of evasion practised by desperate Karen villagers represent an extreme instance of strategies that characterise much of the history and social organisation of Zomia as a whole. A good deal of what we have come to consider ‘hill’ agriculture, ‘hill’ social structure and ‘hill’ location itself is, I would argue, largely defined by patterns of state evasion (and prevention). Such strategies have been devised and elaborated over many centuries in constant ‘dialogue’ with lowland padi states, including the colonial regime. This dialogue is, in important respects, constitutive of both hill societies and their padi-state interlocutors. Each represents an alternative pattern of subsistence, social organisation and power; each ‘shadows’ the other in a complex relationship of mimicry and contradiction. Hill societies operate in the shadow of lowland states. By the same token, the lowland states of South-East Asia have been surrounded, for the whole of their existence, by relatively free communities in the hills, swamps and labyrinthine waterways that represent, simultaneously, a threat, a zone of ‘barbarism’, a temptation, a refuge and a source of valuable products.

I will return to this set of somewhat abstract propositions, but here again Scott is drawing on Clastres to make an important, in this instance anti-teleological argument, noting that many Native American groups ‘adapted to a more mobile life as a means of escaping the servitude and disease that civilisation had to offer’: they adopted ‘nomadic subsistence strategies to stay out of harm’s way’. He also insists that many of the groups characterised as pre-literate are in fact ‘post-literate’, having deliberately given up literacy in order to disengage from certain state forms. Once more, there is a portentous epigraph from Clastres: ‘For, in its severity, the law is at the same time writing. Writing is on the side of the law; the law lives in writing.’ Those who wish to escape the law will hence naturally want to escape writing as well. They may become ‘barbarians’ by virtue of this, but this is a form of barbarism that is constructed rather than the result of being in a state of nature. While the thrust of the argument may be anti-teleological, there is a strong whiff of functionalism hanging over the intellectual enterprise as a whole.

The intriguing Chapter 7, devoted to the subject of ‘ethnogenesis’, develops what Scott himself calls this ‘radical constructionist’ point of view, and in so doing departs significantly from his own past work. His extensive writings on resistance, as well as on the moral economy, had always had a touch of the romantic about them, and, even more significantly, were highly communitarian in their logic. The bounds of the moral economy were often the same as those of a primordial community of some sort, to which were opposed the twin external forces of state and market, appearing in the role of a deus ex machina. In this chapter however, Scott proposes a quite different reading. Community and ethnicity now become constructions, in part imposed by states (which ‘fabricate tribes in several ways’), in part created by the constant movement and reshuffling that characterise these processes of ‘state evasion’. Scott agrees that ‘named tribes with self-consciousness of their identities do most certainly exist,’ but adds that ‘rather than existing in nature, they are a creative human construction – a political project – in dialogue and competition with other “tribes” and states.’ Here, he is obviously drawing on the vast and growing literature on the ‘invention of tradition’, but he also makes explicit use once more of material on Latin America following the Iberian conquest, including the work of Frank Salomon and Stuart Schwartz on forms of adaptation, ethnic reinvention (or ethnogenesis) and mestizaje in its aftermath. This famously brought down on the two American historians the Olympian wrath of Lévi-Strauss, who denounced them in L’Homme in 2001. Salomon and Schwartz, so far as I can see, did not share Clastres’s Nietzscheanism, and were less inclined to interpret historical change in terms of resistance and radical agency. Lévi-Strauss’s complaint was that their version of the story of the conquest was inadequately tragic and thus tantamount to a form of Holocaust denial. Scott’s story is still broadly tragic, but the tragedy is long and slow in its unfolding, leaving time for adaptation and ethnogenesis in the medium term. In his view, after a ‘stateless’ era, an era of ‘small-scale states’ and an era characterised by the ‘expansion of state power’, we are now finally entering ‘an era in which virtually the entire globe is “administered space” and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant’; he adds that ‘about the long-run trend there can be not a shred of doubt.’ For him, then, the Zomia he describes is now essentially dead and gone, which will perhaps confirm the view of those who have regularly demanded why Scott does not produce ‘optimistic stories of resistance and protest’.

How in fact does Scott arrive at his conclusions? What materials does he use, and how does he deploy them? Where does this book stand in relation to the social sciences today? Intriguingly (and modestly), he tells us in his preface that to his ‘mild astonishment’, and even though he is still a professor of political science and anthropology, he has ‘become a kind of historian – not a particularly good one, perhaps, but a historian nonetheless’. The book for the most part rests on two pillars: a massive (and sometimes difficult to digest) sweep of the secondary literature relating primarily to South-East Asia but also to the world at large; and some ethnography, conducted principally in Burma. Covering as it does a huge amount of territory, and spanning more than a millennium, it proceeds in a manner that will not always be found persuasive by empirically rigorous historians. Few individual actors appear, and those who do have some importance are – disconcertingly – colonial ethnographers, whose work is analysed and reframed. It is therefore difficult to grasp how exactly we are to know that we are witnessing examples of ‘state evasion’ and ‘state prevention’ on the part of the groups concerned.

The difficulties are twofold, and have to do, on the one hand, with functional explanations and, on the other, with the difficulty of determining people’s intentions. Suppose we could indeed demonstrate that certain social institutions, crop patterns and physical locations make state penetration difficult. That doesn’t prove they have arisen for that reason, and to assume so would be an elementary fallacy. As regards intentions, we have seen that Scott has allied himself with a growing trend among anthropologists of South-East Asia which asserts that states, in effect, create tribes. He cites the claim of Geoffrey Benjamin that ‘all historically and ethnologically reported tribal societies are secondary formations, characterised by the positive steps they have taken to hold themselves apart from incorporation into the state apparatus (or its more remote tentacles), while often attempting to suppress the knowledge that their way of life has been shaped by the presence of the state.’ These are strong claims regarding ‘strategy’ and ‘choice’ (Benjamin has argued, for example, that ‘tribality has resulted largely from choice’), which are naturally hard to demonstrate if one simultaneously holds that those who make these choices suffer from amnesia regarding them.

A further uncomfortable fact is that much contemporary discussion regarding the rights of these ‘minority’ or ‘tribal’ peoples rests on the notion that they somehow are the ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ occupiers of lands, and victims of yesterday’s railways and today’s mining companies. One sees this time and again, for example, in what writers such as Ramachandra Guha and Arundhati Roy – otherwise not the closest of intellectual allies – have had to say about the current Maoist insurgency in Central India. The Malay term orang asli (often translated as ‘aboriginal’) exemplifies this claim well, as it derives from orang (‘man’) and asli (itself a loan-word from Arabo-Persian meaning ‘rooted’, ‘authentic’ or ‘original’). It is devilishly difficult to make a case for radical ethnogenesis, on the one hand, and for deep aboriginal rights on the other (as Lévi-Strauss was surely aware). Ideas of choice and agency thus come into rude conflict with notions of victimhood and the rights of victims of ‘displacement’. Further muddying the waters is that such analyses usually place the origins of all historical processes outside such groups, which are essentially seen to react to pressure rather than initiating action.

This makes it difficult to account for a number of historical situations. There are clear instances of groups from the less productive uplands expanding into the more productive lowlands rather than the other way around, for example when the Mon kingdom of Pegu was incorporated into the larger Burmese state in the course of the 16th century. What’s more, it seems to fly in the face of a good deal of accumulated evidence to suggest that the story of collective resistance by groups to the state can substitute for a study of internal tensions within the groups, which often provide a reasonable explanation of dynamic processes without there being any need to make resort to the state as deus ex machina. One can see why a historian of state formation in South-East Asia such as Victor Lieberman should be made so uncomfortable by Scott’s analysis. For Lieberman, state formation is something to be explained, not taken for granted; for Scott, states in general can now be treated as colonial states have usually been treated – namely, as violent intrusions from outside, without a corresponding dimension of ‘capillary action’ (in Foucault’s celebrated phrase).

The brush that Scott uses here is very broad, and his conception anything but Popperian; no alternative hypothesis or contrary body of evidence is allowed much oxygen. One may suspect that this is because his method is usually to choose his examples once his hypothesis has been defined, and even if he is ‘mistaken in some particulars’, he isn’t worried that these will have any significance for the overall thesis. By taking such a stance, Scott is as far distant from the mainstream of political science and anthropology as he is from the mainstream of history. Like the work of Clastres, this book may well become a cult classic. But it equally runs the risk of leaving readers scratching their heads, not because it is obscure or incomprehensible, or because its claims are bold, but because its epistemological foundations are so unclear. Then again, perhaps it should be read not with the head but with the heart – which would only be to confirm that Scott’s work remains above all that of a pessimistic romantic.