The case against government and civilization

Montani Semper Liberi: Mountaineers Always Free

==State Motto of West Virginia

James C. Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist, in his book, THE ART OF NOT BEING GOVERNED: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, (2009) calls into question accepted ideas about government versus anarchy, civilization versus barbarism and the nature of progress. It is an account of a mountain region including parts of Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, plus northeast India and four provinces of southern China, which is home 100 million people.

Scott’s argument is that the tribal people of this region, which he calls Zomia, are not backward and not at an earlier stage of human development.  Rather they have made a rational choice not to be subject to government and to be free of despotism, serfdom, taxation, military conscription and slavery, which is what civilization has meant to most people for most of history.

scott.notgoverned.coverHe tied it in with a larger framework which is not the familiar story of the rise and spread of civilization, but an unfamiliar story of evasion and  escape from the spread of civilization.

The invention of agriculture made civilization possible.  It created a food surplus large enough to allow people to be employed full-time as overseers, priests and soldiers.  This was beneficial to rulers, but not necessarily to their subjects.  I recall reading that ancient remains of hunter-gatherers show them to have been bigger and healthier than those who worked the land.   The lives of laborers who built the Pyramids were more nasty, poor, brutish and short than the free nomads in the deserts beyond.

There always were people who fled to inaccessible mountains, forests (like Robin Hood), jungles, marshes and the open sea to be free of control — the Berbers in North Africa, the runaway Russian serfs who formed the Cossack nation, the runaway slaves who joined with natives to form the “maroon” communities of North and South America, even those white American pioneers like Daniel Boone who preferred life beyond the frontier of settlement.   But their story has been neglected, Scott wrote, because they left few artifacts and virtually no written records.   Upland southeast Asia is part of that story.

Civilization in China, as elsewhere, originated in fertile river valleys where there was enough of an agricultural surplus to support a government and an army, which gave rulers the means to bring more people under their control.  Scott said that the rulers of China, and their imitators in the small kingdoms to the southeast, were less interested in increasing the territory under their rule than in increasing the number of people under their rule.  Conquering generals were expected to bring back captives to increase the subject population.   The Great Wall of China and the Chinese border troops were more to keep their subjects in than to keep invaders out, according to Scott.

Southeast Asia was largely populated by people whose ancestors were pushed out of what’s now southern China by the expanding Han Chinese.   Some organized governments on Chinese and Indian models, based on royal courts and hierarchies of rank.   These centered in rice-growing areas.  The advantage, from the standpoint of governments, is that rice and other grain crops are easy to identify, hard to relocate and easy to confiscate.   Rulers wanted their subjects, in Scott’s phrase, to be “legible”.

The hill people of southeast Asia didn’t want to live like this.  They chose to live in mountain regions that were hard to get to.  Ethnic groups, according to Scott, were differentiated not so much by location on the map as by altitude.   They defined themselves by how much hardship they were willing to endure to make themselves inaccessible, versus how much they wanted to trade with or raid the more settled people below..

Zomians mainly engaged on foraging, or in slash-and-burn agriculture (swiddening), which involves cutting down the trees, burning the underbrush, planting a crop for one growing season and moving on.   They planted root crops, which were hard to spot and hard to seize.  New World crops such as the sweet potato quickly found their way to Zomia.   (The Irish took to the potato for the same reason.  Potatoes were hard for English landlords and tax-collectors to seize, and the potato mounds tripped up the Irish horsemen.)

The hill peoples had flexible and changeable social structures, much to the frustration of the valley kingdoms whose rulers never were completely sure who or what they were dealing with.   They often were multi-lingual  and multi-cultural, adopting different customs depending on whom they dealing with.   When invaders came, they tended to scatter and fade away, breaking up into smaller units.

Southeast Asia kingdoms had established religions, usually based on Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism.   The upland peoples followed individual shamans with fluid doctrines and, in times of crisis, often followed charismatic prophets who appeared seemingly from nowhere, but often were defectors from the civilized communities.

In his most debatable chapter, Scott argued that there was an advantage to being an oral culture rather than an illiterate culture, and that rejection of literacy may have been a choice rather than a pre-existing condition.

Written laws and histories are a means to give kingdoms a fixed identity and hold them together.   An oral tradition is easier to adapt and change.   This, of course, is contrary to the idea that people who lack a recorded history live in a culture that is timeless and unchanging.  I think of the Comanche Indians, who wandered the Great Plains on foot for centuries, but as soon as they encountered stray horses left by the Spanish conquistadors, transformed themselves into some of the fiercest and most effective mounted warriors the world has ever seen.

These are all generalities, but, as Scott noted, every upland culture was different.  Each had its own mix and match of traits from different cultures.   He made had a lot of specific things to say about the Hmong, the Karen and other peoples, most of which didn’t register on me.  I’m more interested in the overall picture.

The inhabitants of Zomia were not angels and their societies did not represent an anarchist idea of utopia.  Some had a trading relationship with neighboring civilized communities.  None of them were barbarian invaders like the Vikings, Mongols or Huns, but  some were thieves and bandits, and some have been slave traders.   The region includes the Golden Triangle, a central of the world opium trade.

However, the main objection to the upland peoples by the Chinese, by the southeast Asian kings, by the British and French colonial rulers and by the modern governments is the same — that they are hard to pin down and command.   The possibility of evading control of government becomes less every year, barring some civilization-destroying catastrophe, which Scott does not consider.

The main thoughts I took away from this book were:

1.  The desire for freedom – that is, the desire to live one’s life without taking orders from overseers – is not limited to American or European culture.  It is found in many different cultures, probably all or almost all of them.

2.  As the world’s cultures go, we Americans are not, as a whole, especially freedom-loving.  As somebody pointed out, we think of ourselves as heirs of Athenian democracy, but the way the USA is organized is more like the Persian Empire.   We accept much more supervision in our daily lives than not only our ancestors, but than much of world’s peoples through history.

3.  As an offset, we have the possibility, which has only emerged since the American and French revolutions, of creating governments that serve the welfare of their subjects, and are accountable to their subjects.   This is a new experiment in human history, not certain to succeed, but worth trying to make succeed.


I admire other books by James C. Scott.  The first one I read, lent to me by my friend Steve Badrich, was TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, (2012),which is about how people nowadays are conditioned to obey authority even when there is no point in doing so. He makes two cheers rather than three because he does not, of course, contend that disobedience to authority.


The next book of his I read was SEEING LIKE A STATE: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), which is about how our present society and system of governance is based on the need of rulers to make their subjects “legible,” so that they may be better controlled, and how the illusion by rulers that they have complete knowledge can lead to disaster.

Here is a post showing Scott on video.

Here are links to reviews of The Art of Not Being Governed.

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3 Responses to “The case against government and civilization”

  1. whungerford Says:

    The suggestion that Americans are subjugated by an overbearing government akin to that of ancient Persia is nonsense. I have had little interaction with government in 70 years, and almost all of that has been benign. I benefited from a public education, registered for the draft, obtained a drivers license, paid taxes, enjoyed pure tap water and sewer service, occasionally had interaction with police or fire departments, went to the hospital when necessary, and drove on public roads. Whatever shortcomings American government may have, it isn’t oppressive.


  2. philebersole Says:

    The Persians weren’t all bad. They practiced religious toleration. Cyrus the Great released the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity, and allowed them to return to their homeland.

    They established a courier service, described by Herodotus in terms that became an unofficial motto for the U.S. Postal Service.

    “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

    The citizens of the Greek city-states, unlike the Persians, never figured out how to create a postal service or any of the other administrative structures for governing a large territory.

    So, yes, our governmental and corporate forms of organization are more like ancient Persia than ancient Greece. I don’t deny their benefits, but I have to admit they require a submission to authority that an ancient Athenian would have considered intolerable.

    This is a rewrite and condensation of my original comment.



  3. whungerford Says:

    If not like Greece, not like Persia either. Actually our disputatious and ineffective government is much like the world of the Greek City States. And ancient Persia, where there were no citizens but only slaves of the king is nothing like America today. Ryszard Kapuscinski, in “Travels with Herodotus,” in the chapter titled “The Oath of Athens,” writes: “There is a war going on, after all, one in which Persia is to conquer Greece–meaning, Asia is to seize Europe, despotism is to destroy democracy, and slavery is to prevail against freedom.” Writing of the Persian king Xerxes and the Greek leader Themistocles, Kapuscinski writes: “Xerxes rules absolutely, issuing orders at will; before Themistocles can issue an order, he must first secure the consent of military commanders who only nominally answer to him, and he must also win the approval of the populace. Their roles, too are different: one rides at the head of an army advancing like an avalanche, in a hurry to attain a decisive victory; the other is merely a “primus inter pares,” and spends his time convincing, debating, and discussing with the continually convening disputatious Greeks.”


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