Posts Tagged ‘James C. Scott’

Anti-authoritarianism in a time of pandemic

April 15, 2020

James C. Scott, in his wise and witty book, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, reviews ways we the people would be better off if we were less submissive to authority than we are.

He isn’t a full-fledged anarchist.  He understands the need for government.  That’s why he gives two cheers for anarchism instead of a full three cheers.

But he says the anarchists have a point.  Governments, corporations and other big institutions are more repressive than they need to be, and we the people have given up too much of our self-reliance and self-determination.

I read and liked Two Cheers when it first came out, and later read and liked two of Scott’s weightier books, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed and The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

I recently read it again, one chapter a month, as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek.  We stopped meeting before we finished the book because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing requirements.

The pandemic makes the issues Scott raised all the more important.  In times of pestilence, famine and war, we the people submit to authority as we never would normally, and concede rights that we might or might not get back after the emergency is over.

Alternatively, we have a rational fear of anarchy in the bad sense—a war of all against all for the scarce means of survival.

Here are Scott’s six arguments.

Chapter One: The Uses of Disorder and Charisma

Scott wrote about how anonymous individual defiance of law sets limits to government authority and sometimes is a prelude to revolution.  His examples include desertions from the Confederate army, English poachers violating the nobility’s game laws, armed farmers in the U.S. Midwest stopping foreclosures during the Great Depression, wildcat strikes in the same era and spontaneous civil disobedience of U.S. segregation laws in the 1960s.

He also pointed out how “charismatic” leaders, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt, acquire their popularity by noting carefully how their audiences respond, and adapting their message to their audience.

Scott recommended the practice of “anarchist calisthenics”—harmless disobedience of pointless laws and regulations.  He says this will mentally prepare you to resist actual tyranny if tyranny comes.


The case against government and civilization

April 19, 2014

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.


James Scott and the Art of Not Being Governed

February 25, 2014

Some time ago I read and admired James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism, in which he pointed out how nowadays most Europeans and Americans are overly ready to obey authority.

I also read Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which is about how the modern world has been shaped by the desire of rulers to make their subjects legible, so that they can be more easily taxed, conscripted and controlled, and the disasters that have followed from rulers’ illusion that information is the same as understanding.

I haven’t yet got around to reading his other great book, The Art of Not Being Governed, which is about 100 million people in the uplands of southeast Asia who have successfully escaped the control of governments in the region.  This video is a good preview.

As Scott pointed out, the ungoverned people he studied were not primitives who had failed to catch up with civilization.  Rather they were the descendents of people who centuries before had escaped the control of governments of China, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries.

He noted that only during the last few centuries has it been possible to even argue that there is a  net benefit to being under the jurisdiction of a government.  Prior to that you were better off being a free hunter-gatherer.  All government did was tax you, conscript you, enslave you and possibly provide some protection for other governments.

[Added later]  I did eventually finish reading The Art of Not Being Governed.  Click on the link for my review.

Why I like Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism

July 30, 2013

I’ve been interested for a long time in thinkers—seemingly with little in common—who understand that the knowledge of policy-makers is inherently uncertain and incomplete, that knowledge is widely distributed in society, and that a well-ordered must be able to draw on that knowledge.

My list includes W. Edwards Deming, John Dewey, Jurgen Habermas, Friederich Hayek, Jane Jacobs, Karl Popper and the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   I have long been interested in libertarianism and anarchism because, even though I am neither a libertarian nor an anarchist, I believe they understand this central truth better than conservatives, liberals and socialists do.

twocheersThe newest addition to my list is James C. Scott.  In a previous post, I reviewed his book SEEING LIKE A STATE, which I like a lot.  But for people with limited time, which includes most people these days, I recommend TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM in which Scott presented his ideas in a more readable form, as a series of vignettes and anecdotes.  I read it a few months ago, but I thought it so profound and wise that I re-read it.

He touched on many topics, ranging from everyday life to the nature of political and social change.  He celebrated common sense, local self-government and the creativity of ordinary people, and warned about how we modern Americans have been accustomed to obeying orders and submitting to hierarchies.

He gave two cheers for anarchism rather than three because he does not think that government and hierarchy are always wrong.  But he affirmed the anarchist values of individual freedom, voluntary co-operation and mutual aid and pointed out that even  justifiable restrictions on freedom come at a price.


A critical look at Two Cheers for Anarchism

July 30, 2013

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six East Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play by James C. Scott;
Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2012. 169pp.
ISBN 9780691155296

Reviewed by Peter Stone

In Two Cheers for Anarchism, political scientist/anthropologist James Scott makes the case for the ‘anarchist squint,’ which is less a theory and more a way of looking at the world. ‘What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle’ (xii). I make no claims to being a master anarchist squinter, but I cannot deny that since I first picked up Scott’s book, everyday life has provided me with many examples illustrating the strengths—and weaknesses—of Scott’s book.

twocheersA few months ago, for example, I encountered a news story about a Dublin grandfather who gave his grandson a voucher from the entertainment store HMV as a Christmas gift.  When grandfather and grandson went to redeem the voucher, the company (which was in the midst of financial collapse) refused to honor it.  The outraged grandfather took three computer games off the store’s shelf—roughly equivalent in value to the voucher—and walked out of the store with them.  Store security followed him, but no arrest was made (arresting the grandfather would hardly have improved the company’s already-tarnished public image), and HMV subsequently decided to honor such vouchers again  (‘Irish Grandfather Defies HMV Voucher Policy,’

This incident seems to bear out well a disturbing and yet undeniable point made by Scott.  Liberal political institutions were supposed to generate channels for correcting injustices and enabling positive social change.  Those institutions were meant to ensure that if ordinary people had grievances, they could find a way ‘within the rules’ to get them addressed.  But things haven’t quite turned out that way, even in more-or-less well-functioning democracies.

It is a cruel irony that this great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practice.  Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompanied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreaking, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war.  Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about (16-17).

‘We are obliged,’ Scott concludes, ‘to confront the paradox of the contribution of lawbreaking and disruption to democratic political change’ (Scott’s emphasis; 17). Sometimes, this involves social movements or large-scale rioting, but quite often it requires ‘what was once called “Irish democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people’ (14).  Without the Irish granddads of the world, and the brand of ‘democracy’ they practice, liberal democracies would not function nearly as well as they do.


James C. Scott on Seeing Like a State

July 30, 2013

I’ve posted a lot about dysfunctional organizations, both governmental and corporate.  I recently finished reading a brilliant book, SEEING LIKE A STATE: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, which shows that the things that bother me are not aberrations caused by the Bush and Obama administrations or by current corporate management, but are part of a long historical process.

seeinglikeastateThe author, James C. Scott’s, described how our institutions and ways of thinking evolved to give  rulers the means to monitor their subjects in order to control them.

Not many centuries ago, most people didn’t have surnames and given names, just local nicknames.  In the little town I grew up in, most people were better known by their nicknames than the names than the names on their birth certificates.  This may have been confusing to outsiders, but we knew who we were.

In order for individuals to be taxed and conscripted into military service, it is necessary for the ruler to know who they are.  That is why everyone must have a name that is a unique (for all practical purposes) identifier and, nowadays, an identification number as well.

Odd as it may now seem, there was a time when governments did not have records of everybody’s address (not every location had an address), marital status, criminal record and employment history.   People did not carry identification papers and were not required to show them.

But governments want their subjects to be visible, and over time this process accelerates.  There are benefits to this, of course.  But the more that governments have on file about us individually, the harder it is to escape the web of control.  The  culmination of the process Scott describes is the National Security Agency’s goal of having a data base that includes every human being on the planet.

Administrators’ growing knowledge leads to the pitfalls of what Scott called Authoritarian High Modernism (which Nassim Nicolas Taleb called the Soviet-Harvard illusion)—the application of  theory without a reality check.


A little bit more anarchism would do us good

April 23, 2013

Anarchism is the political credo that rejects all forms of compulsory authority and believes society can be organized on the basis of individual freedom and voluntary cooperation.  Yale professor James C. Scott is not a full-blown anarchist, but in his short and highly readable book, TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, he makes the case that a bit more anarchism in American life would do us good.

We are so used to obeying authority that many of us have lost the habit of acting for ourselves, Scott wrote.  Once he shocked a friend of his, a Dutch college professor who considered himself a Maoist revolutionary, by crossing the street against the traffic light when there was no traffic on the street.  Scott advocates “anarchist calisthenics”—occasionally violating a rule or law that makes no sense just to break the habit of submission.

twocheersHow necessary are traffic lights?  Scott told how Hans Moderman, a traffic engineer in the city of Drachten, the Netherlands, noticed that traffic flow improved when electrical failures put traffic lights out of commission.  In 1999, he replaced traffic lights at the city’s busiest intersection with a traffic circle, an extended bicycle path and a pedestrian area.  The number of traffic accidents fell dramatically.  Relying on drivers to use good sense was more effective than demanding they obey signs.  In fact, the traffic signals may have been counterproductive, because they distracted drivers from the road, and they created a false sense of safety.

Many Dutch towns now advertise themselves as “free of traffic signs.”  The lesson learned from this experiment can be applied to other things besides traffic.

That is one of Scott’s examples of mild anarchism in action.  Another is a children’s playground in Denmark in 1943 which, instead of building swings, seesaws and sliding boards for the children to use, simply opened up a raw building site with lumber, shovels, nails and tools and left them to the children to do as they wished.  It was hugely popular, but soon ran into trouble.  Some children hoarded lumber and tools for their own use.  Fighting and raids broke out.  Adults were on the verge of closing the playground down when the youngsters themselves conducted a salvage drive to retrieve the hidden materials and organized a system for sharing tools and lumber.  The children learned a valuable lesson in self-government, which they would not have learned from adult supervision.

“Adventure playgrounds” have since become popular in many parts of the world.  Scott pointed out that to the casual observer, they look messy and disorderly, but in fact are not.  That is the planner’s disease—to impose external order for the sake of appearances, and disregard the hidden order that already exists.

James C. Scott

James C. Scott

Scott said the limitations of hierarchy and top-down planning are shown by the fact that one of the most effective forms of labor union action is “work to rule”—to simply carry out orders and follow procedures as given, rather than use individual judgment.   Bureaucrats and executives think they are in charge, and do not realize how much they depend on the initiative and knowledge from below.

In government, he wrote, it is better to put up with the messiness of democracy than to abdicate to supposedly neutral experts and technocrats.   Sometimes it is better to put up with the even greater messiness of direct action than to insist that people work within the system.  Most of the great reform movements in American history—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the labor union movement, the civil rights movement—were achieved by people who were willing to break laws and defy authority.

Scott devoted a section of his book to praise of the “petty bourgeosie”—independent farmers, craft workers and shopkeepers, who are not subject to bosses.  This social class has a bad name among left-wing radicals, but, as he pointed out, it is during the periods of history that the petty bourgeosie have been in the majority that society has come closest to worker ownership of the means of production.

He entitled his book Two Cheers for Anarchism instead of three cheers because he does not think it really is possible to do without government.  Nor does he think authority is always wrong or the masses are always right.  When the federal government imposed school desegregation against the wishes of the majority of the people of the South (that is, the overwhelming majority of the white people), it promoted liberty.  But such examples are rare, he said.

Click on The American Conservative, The Coffin Factory, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Wall Street Journal for other reviews of the book and The New York Times for a profile of Scott.