by Brian Bergen-Aurand
The argument, in short, is that the history of hill peoples is best understood as a history not of archaic remnants but of “runaways” from state-making processes in the lowlands: a largely “maroon” society, providing that we take a very long historical view. Many of the agricultural and social practices of hill peoples can be best understood as techniques to make good this evasion, while maintaining the economic advantages of the lowland connection.
~James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia
Zomia is not about ancestors or primitive, uncivilized forebears who eventually came down from the hills and built civilizations. This traditional model assumes a state-centric, progressive worldview the privileges centralized governments and hierarchical social relations. (Thomas Hobbes, for example, teaches us that civilization works to protect us from the war of all against all. Hobbes, of course, also teaches us that wherever political authority exists, we ought to obey those in power.)
No. Zomia takes a different view of life practices and the political arts—a horizontal rather than vertical one. Zomia is about people refusing state command and control or, at least, resisting it as a permanent centralized arrangement. Zomia is about evading the state’s authoritarian functions through parallel and antagonistic polities and practices. And such parallelism and antagonism are what make the argument more interesting than any essentialist, identitarian, or cultural studies assertions about authentic or genuine peoples and societies.
Zomia is an argument about dialogical, coevolutionary polities. It is about alternative ways of forming societies, ways that function precisely to counter centrality and hierarchy. It is about societies that might even turn toward centrality and hierarchy, if only temporarily, to resist ever more static absorption into a state polities. And, it is about societies that might turn to one state for help in resisting another state.
Finally, then, because it is a dialogical, coevolutionary process, a “barbarism by design” (in terms of structural arrangements that develop historically, not in terms of some intentional organizational agency), Zomia is also about the process of state formation as much as it is about state resistance. States form in response to resistance as resistance forms in response to states. The art of making states is intimately linked to the art of unmaking states.
In Zomia—as in other ungoverned sites—this unmaking is bound to geography and climate and the evolutionary art of making polities in response to location through a positioning or performing of ethnicity, a resistance to moneyed capitalism, a shift from mainstream religion, a refusal of established agricultural practices, a move away from literacy. The cults of ethnic identity, civilized demeanor, and literacy may well be just cults—evolved dynamic, deviant practices.
Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed was first published in 2009. (A new edition with a new preface appears forthcoming.) Almost as soon as the book appeared, so did much of the controversy. Scott has rewritten many of the questions we ask about South East Asia, about the dynamics of geography, climate, and politics, and about the art of being governed and the art of not being governed. For some, his claims seem to go to far. For others, his claims appear over general; they warn he tries to include too many diverse peoples in Zomia. For yet others, there remains the question of what is to be done in response to “the fading away of Zomia” since even Scott admits that after about 1950 state actions and technological developments (helicopters, all-weather roads, global positioning, drones, etc.) have reached higher and higher into the hills and better and better brought these populations under state command and control.
The answer to these many of these concerns seem to be to keep looking for other examples, in other locations, for the arts of not being governed: to evermore develop horizontal rather than vertical maps, looking across societies for pockets of dynamic resistance, not necessarily contiguous political entities.
For now, I want to raise two further speculative questions regarding this art and its practitioners.
First, in Society Must Be Defended, the collection of Michel Foucault’s public lectures from 1975-1976, Foucault argues that the art of governing populations relies upon coercing them into believing precisely that their society must be defended. To rule a state, you must convince the population they are invested in the state. (I am reminded of this warning whenever I encounter Libertarian Patriotism.) In that light, how much has the concept of “Zomia” served state purposes since it was first coined by Willem van Schendel in 2002? How much does naming and locating Zomia govern it? How much have we come to believe in Zomia? How much do we want to defend Zomia? (I have been struck in writing these entries how much “Zomia” has been adopted as a rallying cry.)
Second, building off my first question, how much might Scott’s research, when flipped on its head, serve to further the interests of state power? In analyzing the details of practices that resist governance, how might Scott be supplying states with the tools to better practice the art of governing? (This is a feeling I have had for some time in regard to reading Marx. If capitalists ever really read Marx carefully, they might truly be able to exploit labor!) I suppose this is the catch-22 of any such analysis, a fine risk to run?