Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Art of Not Being Governed

This time we'll be taking a quick look at a book by James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed, an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. This is a scholarly work and heavy going to read, but I think I can, for a change, distill the ideas that are relevant to our discussion here down to fit into a single blog post.

Scott is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is Director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale. His research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism. He is currently teaching Agrarian Studies and Rebellion, Resistance and Repression.

I am writing this post with my fellow Canadians in mind. States have to work at retaining their citizens, either by coercion or by providing sufficient benefits to balance the cost of maintaining the state, a burden which is borne by the populace. Traditionally there has been a striking degree of inequality between the upper classes who operate the state and the rest of the people. This is simply because those who are running things take advantage of their power to make sure that the surpluses created by economic activity are allocated to them and not to the people doing the work.

Here in Canada, we have been very fortunate in the 150 year history of our country to have had legitimate governments, with a minimum of corruption and a pretty steady effort to rule for the good of the country and its people. We do have party politics so of course there are disagreements as to exactly what that good might be. And we do have some inequality, with the rich having a disproportionate share of political power, though less so than in many countries. But I think there is broad agreement that while our system might benefit from minor tweaks in one direction or another, the idea behind it is basically solid.

And to a certain extent I can agree with this. It is an essential element of the human condition that we work together in groups for our mutual benefit. And this can work very well, but when the group gets larger than Dunbar's number (around 150) there are costs associated with organizing and administration, costs which increase disproportionally as the group gets larger.

Those costs are paid mainly in terms of energy and only the onetime windfall of fossil fuels has made possible an organization as large as our modern global civilization. But as fossil fuel depletion progresses, states are finding themselves less able to provide the benefits that they rely on to maintain their legitimacy. More and more of their citizens are beginning to wonder if the social contract is such a good deal.

Canada is no exception, although we are not quite as far along this curve as many other countries. Most Canadians don't realize that the good times we've had here have been made possible by generous amounts of energy from our huge forests, large amounts of falling water and, of course, generous reserves of fossil fuels. We certainly don't want to admit that we face the depletion of our energy resources, even though we certainly do—just like other countries.

Anyway, my intention here is not to dwell on energy issues, but rather to introduce the idea that having a government and being governed may not always be such a fine proposition. That's why I'm reviewing The Art of Not Being Governed. It talks specifically about "the anarchist history of upland southeast Asia", and more generally the ongoing conflict between the expansionary state and its agents on the one hand and the zones of relative autonomy and their inhabitants on the other. Historically speaking, those zones have been able to maintain some degree of autonomy because their geography made them difficult to subdue. Only in the most recent era have states gained sufficient power (fossil fuels again) to make subduing those zones an achievable project.

When Europeans reached Southeast Asia we found it populated by "civilized" valley people and "wild" hill people. The initial assumption was that the hill people were the remnants of the original inhabitants, who had never yet been "civilized". It turns out that this was wrong—but we'll get to that in a bit....

The area was settled not more that 60,000 years ago, and...

the region's first small concentrations of sedentary people appeared not earlier than one millenium before the common era (CE) and represent a mere smudge in the historical landscape—localized, tenuous and evanescent. Up until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been a standard human condition.

The founding of agrarian states, then, was the contingent event that created a distinction between a settled, state-governed population and a frontier penumbra of less governed or virtually autonomous peoples. Until at least the early nineteenth century, the difficulties of transportation, the state of military technology, and, above all, demographic realities placed a sharp limit on the reach of even the most ambitious states. Operating at a population density of 5.5 persons per square kilometer in 1600 (compared with 35 for India and China), a ruler's subjects in Southeast Asia had relatively easy access to a vast, land rich frontier. That frontier operated as a rough and ready homeostatic device—the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had. The frontier underwrote popular freedom. Richard O'Connor captures this dialectic nicely:"Once states appeared, adaptive conditions changed yet again—at least for farmers. At that moment mobility allowed farmers to escape the impositions of states and their wars. I call this tertiary dispersion. The other two revolutions—agriculture and complex society—were secure but the state's domination of its peasantry was not, and so we find a strategy of 'collecting people... and establishing villages.'"

So people were rounded up and put to work at rice paddy agriculture. This yields a high productivity in terms of the amount of food produced per land area, though it is quite labour intensive. Still, there were some advantages to such a settled existence, enough to keep the peasants around as long as the demands of the state did not grow too onerous.

There were always taxes in the form of a share of the rice crop and a certain number of days of labour on state projects or service in the army. If the ruler decided to build a new temple or palace, or wage yet another war against a neighbouring state and those taxes became too high, it was not too difficult for the peasants to head for the hills where it would be hard for the agents of the state to track you down. There they could take up a life of nomadic slash and burn agriculture, growing mainly root vegetables which are harder for state officials to find and take. And of course the forest itself provided much in the way of food and other useful materials, some of which were luxuries not available in the valleys that could be traded for goods that couldn't be produced in the hills.

So it turns out that, by the time Europeans arrived, the population of hill people was made up almost entirely of escaped peasants from the valleys and their descendants. Scott goes into a great deal of detail about the societies of the hill people in highland Southeast Asia (what he calls "Zomia"), but I think the idea is clear: that living in a state was often a chancy proposition and many people did just fine on their own.

As Scott says:

Any effort to examine history as part of a deliberate political choice runs smack against a powerful civilizational narrative. That narrative consists of a historical series arranged as an account of economic, social and cultural progress. With respect to livelihood strategies, the series, from most primitive to most advanced, might be: foraging/hunting gathering, pastoral nomadism, horticulture/shifting cultivation, sedentary fixed field agriculture, irrigated plow agriculture, industrial agriculture. With respect to social structure. again from most primitive to most advanced, the series might read: small bands in the forest or savannah, hamlets, villages, towns, cities, metropolises. These two series are, of course, essentially the same; they chart a growing concentration of agricultural production (yield per unit land) and a growing concentration of population in larger agglomerations. First elaborated by Giovani Battista Vico in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the narrative derives it hegemonic status not only from its affinity with social Darwinism but from the fact that it maps nicely on the stories most states and civilizations tell about themselves. The schema assumes movement in a single direction toward concentrated populations and intensive grain production, no backsliding is envisioned; each step is irreversible progress.

As an empirical description of demographic and agricultural trends in the now-industrialized world for the past two centuries (and the past half-century in poorer nations) this schema has much to be said for it . Europe's nonstate ("tribal") populations had, for all practical purposes, disappeared by the eighteenth century, and the non-state population of poorer countries is diminished and beleaguered.

My readers will no doubt recognize this story as the same one told by the religion of progress, missing only the conclusion where we shake off the chains of gravity and head for the stars. But is this the only story that history has to tell us? Scott thinks not:

As an empirical description of premodern Europe or of most poor nations until the twentieth century, and as an empirical description of the hilly areas of Southeast Asia (Zomia), this narrative is profoundly misleading. What the schema portrays is not simply a self-satisfied normative account of progress but a gradient of successive stages of incorporation into state structures. Its stages of civilization are, at the same time, an index of diminishing autonomy and freedom. Until quite recently, many societies and groups have abandoned fixed cultivation to take up shifting agriculture and foraging. They have, by the same token, altered their kinship systems and social structure and dispersed into smaller and smaller settlements. The actual archeological record in peninsular Southeast Asia reveals a long term oscillation between foraging and farming depending, it would seem, on the conditions. What to Vico would have seemed to be lamentable backsliding and decay was for them a strategic option to circumvent the many inconveniences of state power.

He goes on to look at several historical examples of this sort of "escape agriculture" in Europe and the Americas. I am reminded of what we covered in my last post on Joseph Tainter's book about the Collapse of Complex Societies: collapse may not be such a disaster if the populace has access to land and can grow their own food. "Escape agriculture" would seem to fit the bill and indeed seems to be pretty much what did happen with many collapsing societies—the peasants voted with their feet and left the state and the upper classes to fend for themselves.

Of course, in the modern world, things are a little different.

The level of comfort and convenience experienced by the populace in modern high energy societies is unprecedented. Royalty in the past did not live so well as our middle class. People are understandably unwilling to give this up. Modern medicine, especially when provided free of charge by the state, provides a huge opportunity for a state to legitimize itself and a wonderful argument for its citizen to stay put, even if the taxes are high.

Despite all this, there are still people who dream of going off grid and practicing "escape agriculture". But those who actually succeed in doing so are a very small percentage of the population. And having decided to escape, where can one go? The options are limited—the world is very full and the hinterlands have shrunk in size and remain in only the least desirable areas.

Furthermore, escape is now much harder to do. Aerial and satellite photography, the global positioning systems, and motorized vehicles, especially aircraft, have rendered the most rugged terrain much more accessible than it was even a century ago. If they really want to catch you, they likely can.

I've been observing a trend, though, that may set all this on its head.

Modern states are now beginning to feel the pinch of resource depletion and economic contraction. Their tax base is shrinking while at the same time (due to unemployment and the demographic bulge of the baby boom) the social safety net is growing more expensive to maintain.

A few countries have raised taxes, redistributing a shrinking pool of wealth to reduce economic inequality. This seems to actually make the economy work better and slow the downhill slide. It will be interesting to see how they cope as things get worse.

Most countries are loath to raise taxes, and have borrowed and accumulated large debts on the assumption that things will get better down the road. This makes their economies even worse and increases inequality. The next step, already underway, is to cut social spending, basically abandoning those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Many of these people end up homeless and starving. Tent cities have sprung up in or just outside a great many North American cities. Sadly, in response to this, many communities (if they can really be called that) have responded by essentially making homelessness illegal, bulldozing tent cities and driving the inhabitants away.

It would seem that people abandoned by the state should find escape agriculture a good alternative. There are even examples of such folks starting gardens, only to have them plowed under by the authorities. These days, all the land is owned by someone and even if it is not being farmed, it is unlikely to be made available to the homeless. At some point, though, the state may not have the resources to harass the poor or to protect land that is not being used. Perhaps the state could just come to the realization that unused land and abandoned people are a good fit, and simply stand back and let those people do what they want.

Some will say that we need every square inch of land to grow food for the growing human population. I have two comments about how that is likely to go as collapse progresses: first, at some point population will quit growing and start to decline; and second, as the rich countries become poorer and less capable, they will be less able and less inclined to help poorer nations and even the poor within their own borders.

I'll be considering the possibilities that lie in that direction a few posts down the road.

Next time I'll be looking at another book by James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. In the meantime, check out YouTube for some videos featuring James C. Scott.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the summary, Irv. Looks like a book worth reading. I wonder how many people actually realise it's where we're heading? The average person wouldn't, I think. I wonder if the people in power realise it. It would seem so, from all the repressive legislation being enacted in many countires. Interesting times!

Irv Mills said...

Hi Bev. Scott has written a number of books that are probably worth reading, though they are quite academic. His lectures on youtube are quite good too, I especially like "How Grains Domesticated Us".
One more book review and then I am finally going to address the details of how I think collapse is going to proceed--continue to proceed, actually.