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Sunday, 23 January 2011

An anarchist history of upland southest Asia - a way of rereading the history of Israel

I have just finished a great read - James C Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009).

Here Scott offers a history of the estimated 100 million people who live in a vast hill and mountain zone that runs across southwest China, northeast India, and parts of five Southeast Asian countries. Contrary to the usual account that sees these people as the original inhabitant who have been left behind by history, he provides an account that turns the usual assumptions upside down.

These populations fled into the hills over the course of two millennia, he argues, to avoid the imposition of slavery, indentured labor, and taxes by expanding states. they have developed their community, economic and religious life as an active effort at state evasion and state resistance

That is, they evolved languages, economies, and ways of life that were designed to keep the state at bay, or to be engaged with on their own terms. He draws attention to some examples of this process outside of Asia, as well. Scott often returns to the complex example of Myanmar (also called Burma) to explain how states mapped terrain, classified populations, and acquired resources as they expanded -- and to show how the Kachins, the Hmong, and others resisted. often successfully this process.

Beyond the relevance of this work for studies of the region, this work raises tantalising questions about the role of the state in history and enables us to deconstruct the assumed, taken for granted account that the state is all important and acts of resistance to the state are marginal. We have here a framework for questioning the taken for granted character of this narrative.

Beyond that it also occurred to me that this account of resistance to the state might be of interest to Old Testament scholars in thinking about the emergence of Israel and helping to reread that history through the pentateuch and especially during the time of the Judges. I'm not an Old Testament scholar but it seems to me that there might be a PhD thesis of two in exploring the relevance of Scott's model for our understanding of the dynamics of the formation of Israel.

For example:
  • the hills as a region of refuge or escape from the state making projects of the valleys (pp.22-3)
  • pp122-3 to leave state space is to become characterised as a "barbarian" or a "tribal"
  • "State expansion when it involves forms of force labour fosters (geographical conditions permitting) extrastate zones of flight and refuge. The inhabitants of such zones often constitute a composite of runaways and earlier-established peoples. (p.133) 
  • the hill population were those without kings, operating with non-hierarchical patterns of limited local authority,
  • the religious commitments of the hills were resistant to religious uniformity of the valley states - the hills are the source of prophetic movements.
 Scott's account of the development of tribal identity as not being driven by long lasting ethnicities but by the development of identity by all those fleeing to the hills to escape the valley states centralising authority.

The history of Israel has coded within it a resistance to centralising authority, in the escape from Egypt, the initial tribal form of non-hierarchical authority and the limited power of the judges. Even under the kings there was always ready to emerge the strain of prophetic critique and resistance to that authority.

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