James Scott is a political scientist at Yale University, an advocate of anarchy lite — not “smash the state” but “make the state more wise and fair.” Originally, the ancestors of all humans were wild folks living in sweet freedom on open lands owned by no one. Then came agriculture, private property, inequality, and the rise of creepy states, in which well-fed rulers exploited mobs of unlucky subjects and slaves. The Art of Not Being Governed examines the power dramas between free folks and states in Southeast Asia.
In this region, states first arose in the valleys and lowlands, especially in locations suitable for growing rice in flooded paddies. Rice produces high yields, but is labor intensive. Land that is ideal for raising crops only generates wealth when there is an adequate workforce of fairly obedient taxpayers and slaves. Alas, wading in paddies, in clouds of mosquitoes, baking in the heat, constantly bent over, was not everyone’s idea of a good time. Persistent misery inspired many non-elites to envision a beautiful alternative — escape!!!
Most of the landscape surrounding the valley states was mountainous and rugged, unsuited for conventional agriculture, but ideal terrain for state-evading sanctuaries of freedom. So, the higher elevations were home to small groups of hill people who preferred autonomy to subservience. They hunted, foraged, and grew food in scattered locations. Root and tuber foods, like yams, cassava, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, did not ripen at once, or require storage. They could be left in the ground up to two years, and dug up as needed. Scattered amidst the natural vegetation, they were not easy for outsiders to discover.
These scattered communities of hill people often had little, if any, contact with outsiders. Their primary desire was to live in freedom. All of them were refugees, coming from a diverse mixture of cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions. Hill folks had no official name, so a scholar invented one. He called them Zomians, the people of Zomia (highlands). The numerous remote hill communities that comprised Zomia were widely dispersed across an area the size of Europe. Zomian groups inhabited a region that spanned across five nations, and four Chinese provinces. [MAP]
Down in the valleys, the rice producing states were often disrupted by ongoing conflicts and instability. Scott noted that these states “tended to be remarkably short-lived.” The lives of subjects and slaves were miserable, which is why they never stopped running off into the hills. From most rice paddies, the hills of Zomia were always visible. In a prison without cages or walls, freedom was just a walk away. Physical flight was the primary check on state power. It was usually less dangerous than revolt.
The constant loss of manpower was a serious challenge that required constant efforts to snatch fresh replacements. Military campaigns brought home prisoners who were forced to begin exciting new careers in slavery. States often sent slave raiders into the hills of Zomia, in efforts to find free folks and drag them back to the rice paddies.
Classroom history books focus on stuff like wars, empires, heroes, and progress. Slavery gets slight mention, if any. Students will read about classical Greek intellect, art, and architecture; not slavery. There were times when the population in Athens had five times as many slaves as full citizens. Around the world, slavery was a standard component of most agriculture-based civilizations, until recently, when mechanization sharply reduced the need for two-legged farm implements. Your extended family tree likely contains more than a few slaves. Visit Wikipedia’s article on slavery. [HERE]
Clive Ponting published an excellent history that focused much attention on how the hungry dirty commoners actually lived, suffered, and died. He wrote, “Until about the last two centuries in every part of the world nearly everyone lived on the edge of starvation.” J. R. McNeill noted that in preindustrial times, horses and oxen were often luxuries that were too expensive for poor farmers. Humans were far more energy efficient than draft animals, and they were capable of performing clever tricks, like digging up spuds, or planting rice. Having a gang of slaves boosted the net profits for their masters. Lords adored hoards of gold.
In the hills, Zomians were wizards at utilizing “geographical friction” to make it harder for slave raiders to find them. Rather than courteously providing their pursuers with smooth well-marked paths, they deliberately preferred to reside in locations that were not highly visible, or easily accessible. Some locations were perfect for defensive warfare, because they enabled a small number of guardians to block or ambush a larger force of aggressors. The most secure refuges were places “only accessible to monkeys.”
Geographical friction is an interesting idea. Our wild ancestors lived in lands where free movement originally had many natural obstacles. Friction was provided by rugged mountains, swamps, dense jungles, vast deserts, rivers, seas, etc. Friction hampered the expansion of early states. It wasn’t quick or easy to suppress a revolt ten miles away. Friction could be reduced by roads, bridges, boats, beasts of burden, and contraptions with wheels. Today, far less geographical friction remains. We have long distance travel via highways, railroads, air travel, and cargo ships. We can instantly send info anywhere. Scott refers to these as “distance demolishing technologies.” With great pride, we have dumped trash on the moon.
Scott was fascinated by the deep human desire to live in freedom. Genetically, we are alert and intelligent wild omnivores, not dimwitted feedlot critters, or hive insects. His discussion of Zomia revealed patterns that parallel a similar downward spiral of trends around the world. Folks went from nomadic to sedentary, which led to plant and animal domestication, slavery, patriarchy, population growth, perpetual conflict, civilization, industrialization, and our remarkably victorious world war on everything.
For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors enjoyed the freedom of living in small nomadic groups. Our mental equipment is fine-tuned for this way of life. The hill people of Zomia focused on equality, autonomy, and mobility. For them, the concept of “chief” was incomprehensible. Lads who got too assertive sometimes had to be ethically euthanized, in order to maintain the coherence of the group. Smooth cooperation worked far better than compulsory obedience to sharp orders from big daddy buttheads.
Societies took a sharp turn for the worse with the shift toward private property, when the open commons got chopped into chunks of exclusive, inheritable, real estate. Equality was displaced by hierarchies based on wealth, class, and status. Social rank was based on wealth. More was always better. Strive to climb the social pyramid. Primary emphasis shifted from “we” to “me.” It’s like a silly goofy bratty children’s game.
When our wild ancestors evolved in the tropics, food was available year round, nobody owned it, and it was acquired when needed. Later, when folks colonized temperate regions, food storage was required for winter survival. This eventually inspired plant and animal domestication, which created food that was owned, and held in concentrated locations — granaries and enslaved herds. These treasure chests of valuable grain, meat, and muscle power were “appropriable and raidable.” They provided irresistible temptation to ruthless geeks who were allergic to hard work and honesty.
Indeed, this led to the creation of a new career path. Stealing food required far less labor than producing it, and raiding was far more adventurous and exciting for adults who had testicles. At this point, the need to eradicate looters led to the emergence of armed defenders, a military class. These warriors could also serve as armed aggressors, looting the treasure chests of other communities. Since then, the military sphere has never stopped growing in size and power.
With the transition to hierarchy, the old fashioned tradition of mutual support took the back seat to a competition-based, winner take all culture. When you’re a slave in a rice paddy, and your master is a cruel bastard, and your foreseeable future is perpetual misery, you begin to contemplate the meaning of life. You can go crazy, you can flee into the hills, or you can float away into magical thinking.
The hill people were primarily animists. They enjoyed a life of freedom in places of healthy wild nature. They developed intimate relationships with the surrounding flora, fauna, and landscape — here and now reality that you could see, touch, and smell. For them, the living world was spiritually alive. Directly experiencing this profound coherence did not require imagination or belief. It was deeply meaningful.
The stressed and oppressed valley people were more inclined to seek solace in salvation religions, primarily Buddhism and Islam. Christianity arrived more recently. Slavery was an institution with deep roots in many cultures around the world. Until recently, salvation religions treated it as normal. Slaves must be obedient. What these religions promised was that the sucky life you have today will pass, and your soul will continue its journey forever via reincarnation, or admittance to a beautiful eternal paradise (if you weren’t too naughty). Religion provided something to hope for, a better future.
Multinational salvation religions can be practiced anywhere on Earth. They are highly portable because their focus is on great mysteries. Worship often takes place inside buildings, shut away from the family of life. Paradise is somewhere unseen, a faraway realm. Some preach millenarian visions of a new and enduring era of peace, justice, and prosperity — a miraculous transition that is inevitable, and may arrive soon. Wickedness will be destroyed, and the righteous will receive their just rewards.
Even though the hill people enjoyed some advantages over the valley slaves, nobody in the realm of Zomia enjoyed a life of bliss. Hill folks were frequently pursued by hostile outsiders, and valley slaves were frequently abused by their masters. Many folks passionately dreamed that their painful way of life would somehow someday be completely turned upside down, and then move in a new and better direction.
Prophets and messiahs often fell out of the sky, describing their divine revelations, fanning the flames of resentment, and triggering thousands of uprisings and rebellions. Make Zomia great again! Folks desperate for any possibility of emancipation were vulnerable to the tempting promises of ambitious, slick talking, charismatic blowhards.
Sadly, a better tomorrow missed the bus somewhere down the road. States got bigger and more powerful, and then they got blindsided by steamroller colonizers from outer space, like the empire-building British, French, and Japanese. By 1945 it was pretty much bedtime for Zomian freedom. Variations of this tragic drama took place around much of the world. Today, virtually all humans are subjects of states. Fleeing to zones of refuge is nearly impossible. Tyrants now have fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, missiles, cluster bombs, land mines, drones, satellites. Good luck with that rebellion.
Scott laments the outcome. “The future of our freedom lies in the daunting task of taming Leviathan, not evading it.” He says that our best tool for the challenge is representative democracy. Good luck conjuring virtuous government. He was writing in 2009, back in the happy days when there were a billion fewer primates on the ark. More recently, hopping mad, power-hungry, nationalist psychopaths have been popping up in nations all over the place, like mushrooms after an autumn shower.
Oh wow! Look! A pair of 800 pound gorillas has jumped into the brawl — the climate crisis and resource limits — two invincible giants spawned by the unintended consequences of our obsession with idiotic cleverness. Their plan is to act like bulls in a china shop, and smash up Fantasyland. This should be interesting.
Scott, James C., The Art of Not Being Governed, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009.