Friday, October 15, 2010

Footnotes on things I've been reading: James C. Scott's "The Art of Not Being Governed"

I’ve been reading James C. Scott’s latest, The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, which had been highly recommended to me by a number of people. All I can say is, what are you waiting for? Go read it! It’s great!

Scott starts from a couple of observations that are obvious when you think about them but are illuminating when stated explicitly and applied systematically. First, the vast majority of the subjects of pre-modern states (in all parts of the world, not just Southeast Asia) have been unfree – slaves, bondsmen, serfs, etc. In fact, the pre-modern state (a problematic term, but let’s let that pass for the moment) was basically a technology for coercively extracting surpluses from sedentary agricultural laborers. Second, for most of human history the geographical reach of any state was sharply limited by the characteristics of the terrain, especially elevation (moving grain by oxcart quickly becomes prohibitively expensive over relatively long distances or as the elevation increases, for example).

Going up (or into swamps or other inaccessible terrain) thus meant going out of what Scott nicely calls “state space.” It is worth stressing that stateless spaces do not imply a lack of sociality, or a horrendous Hobbesian "state of nature." Stateless societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, small, mobile, and based more on gift exchanges than on the coercive extraction of resources – just like the forager bands that dominated human history for most of the 100,000 years or so since Homo Sapiens Sapiens emerged as a distinct species of primate. In comparison to many pre-modern states, the stateless hill societies Scott describes had a more varied diet and more leisure, and in general they could be said to be far “freer” (less hierarchy and subordination, not to speak of taxes, corvée labor, strict gender roles, and the like). Leaving the state has not been a very bad thing for most people for most of human history, pace Hobbes.

Thus, so long as terrain imposes significant limits to state-building projects, you get a situation where many “subjects” of the state can and often do exercise their “exit” option: they can move to the hills. And state-makers, in turn, try to prevent them from moving, especially since under the typical conditions prevailing in most of human history (e.g., limited military specialization) manpower is identical with power. The primary project of pre-modern state-building has been to “sedentarize” people – to keep them near at hand to the ruler so that they can be mobilized for his purposes and his glory. (The “problem” posed by people leaving – for state-makers, not for the emigrants themselves - is not confined to pre-modern states; the communist regimes went to great lengths to try to prevent people from leaving as well, and like pre-modern states, they collapsed when they could not manage to keep them in.)

One might think that one way of preventing people from leaving would be to produce good government. And indeed, Scott notes how the desperate need for people of most Southeast Asian rulers produced a great deal of “social mobility” in what are otherwise highly hierarchical societies, and a certain amount of redistribution of material resources: slaves quickly became regular exploited peasants, for example, and there was lots of redistributive feasting. And there were some attractions to being near the culture of the court. But when there are always other petty tyrants busy trying to build their own tiny empires (full of "cosmologial bluster" about universal rule), there is a strong incentive for each of them to steal other people’s people. Pre-modern warfare (not only in Southeast Asia, but also in the Mediterranean world) is thus often indistinguishable from pure slave-raiding.

Moreover, producing good government is often actually contrary to the interests of the ruler. The ruler is interested less in the total amount of production (GDP) than on the total amount of accessible resources – men and storable crops; and these were often (and are often) very different things. While the farmer might want to plant root crops (which are not easily visible to the state officials), practice less labor-intensive swidden (“slash and burn”) agriculture, and in general have a more varied diet and life, the ruler would prefer that he stick to planting rice, which is easily surveyed and seized. (This continues a theme of Scott’s other great book, Seeing like a State; state-making has been historically concerned above all with making things visible to state officials so that they can be more easily controlled and seized). Indeed, rice made states in Asia; no rice, no states. (I wonder if the fact that Australia is and has been pretty dry explains why it was, until extremely recently in historical time, basically a stateless area; concentrated agriculture of the kind that can make states was probably not worth the trouble, and so political entrepreneurs intent on creating durable hierarchies simply did not have the sorts of resources necessary for the task).

Thus, at least in Southeast Asia, people often had both the incentive and the opportunity to escape states. But the availability of exit didn’t necessarily produce “good government,” though it might have mitigated petty tyrannies occasionally, and it certainly produced states that where cultural assimilation was possible and often quick. Competition between state-builders did not produce good Tiebout effects but rather a lot of what Weber called “booty capitalism” (and, it seems, a lot of misery; the history he tells is at bottom a dismal chronicle). More importantly for Scott, this dynamic also led to the formation of hill societies that were extremely concerned with avoiding the state. I haven’t gotten this far yet, but from the earlier sections it seems clear that Scott argues that, far from being “primitive,” many features of these societies – their forms of agriculture, their social structures, even their orality – are basically designed to prevent their incorporation into valley states – to become less legible and less controllable. The culture of the hills is the art of not being governed.

Yet I suspect that Scott makes too much of the “primitive”/ “civilized” dichotomy; the art of not being governed seems suspiciously like the art of living like a forager band, even if the hill societies he is interested in are not necessarily foragers (they practice swidden – “slash and burn” – agriculture, for example).

A couple of things I was thinking as I was reading. First, how far could you go in refining and formalizing Scott’s implicit model of statemaking? Scott is a classical “thick description” scholar, distrustful of simplified models, but I’m an unreconstructed theorist, and would like to understand more about the parameters governing the significance of exit and voice in the development of tolerable or bearable states. Maybe “voice” (e.g., democracy) only becomes a significant possibility once the possibility of exit is foreclosed yet production technologies are such that states cannot simply survey and seize productive resources at will?

And what about the significance of different technologies? Scott argues that his analysis does not apply today, when “distance destroying technologies” – helicopters, all-weather roads, etc. – make extending state spaces easier than ever, but those who wish to avoid the state are not standing still either; one thinks of the many ways in which financial technologies serve to take production away from the reach of the state, even as at the same time newer military technologies make the state less dependent on manpower and so less intent on "fixing" people in place.

I was also thinking about the hill/valley relationship in political thought. Scott notes how Ibn Khaldoun’s great work, the Muqaddimah (which is great, by the way!), is basically concerned with the complex dialectical relationship between state and non-state spaces, the Bedouin and the “civilized;” but he basically claims that for the most part political thought has simply reiterated the basic dichotomy of hill and valley (or civilized and barbarian, “raw” and “cooked,” and so on), valuing the valleys and dismissing the hills. This may be true in the aggregate, yet I kept thinking of the speculative histories of the origin of the state in Plato, especially the Laws, with its complex and by no means one sided evaluation of the virtues of the hills and the vices of the cities. (More on this later).

Anyway, there’s much more to it (I’m not finished with it yet), and it’s well written to boot. (I love the term “cosmological bluster,” for example). I'm considering assigning it to my honours seminar in political theory, even though it's not really a political theory text; yet it really makes you think about the nature of states from a "universal history" perspective that is too often obscured in the usual texts and debates on power and the state in contemporary political theory. 

No comments:

Post a Comment