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Friday, 27 August 2010

Anarchist history - getting away from the state in Southeast asia

James C Scott's latest work The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009) is fascinating for the way it opens up the possibility of a fresh take on political theory as well as providing an analysis of the history of upland Southeast Asia.

For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the organized state societies that surround them—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvĂ©e labor, epidemics, and warfare. This book, a self consciously “anarchist history,” examines the huge literature on state-making in a frame of mind that questions the accounts offered by the states themselves.

The author evaluates why people would deliberately remain stateless. Among the strategies employed by the people of Zomia to remain stateless are physical dispersion in rugged terrain; agricultural practices that enhance mobility; pliable ethnic identities; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture that allows them to reinvent their histories and genealogies as they move between and around states.

James Scott, recognized worldwide as an eminent authority in Southeast Asian, peasant, and agrarian studies, tells the story of the peoples of Zomia and their unlikely odyssey in search of self-determination. He redefines our fundamental ideas about what constitutes civilization, and challenges us with a radically different approach to history that presents events from the perspective of stateless peoples and redefines state-making as a form of “internal colonialism.” 

This is an engaging read and offers fresh perspectives for all those who are suspicious of the self agrandising and claims to self evidence offered by theorists of the emergence of the state.

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