The Inconvenient History of the State

Here’s an illuminating passage from James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009):

At a time when the state seems pervasive and inescapable, it is easy to forget that for much of history, living within or outside the state — or in an intermediate zone — was a choice, one that might be revised as the circumstances warranted. A wealthy and peaceful state center might attract a growing population that found its advantages rewarding. This, of course, fits the standard civilizational narrative of rude barbarians mesmerized by the prosperity made possible by the king’s peace and justice — a narrative shared by most of the world’s salvational religions, not to mention Thomas Hobbes.

This narrative ignores two capital facts. First, as we have noted, it appears that much, if not most, of the population of the early states was unfree; they were subjects under durress. The second fact, most inconvenient for the standard narrative of civilization, is that it was very common for state subjects to run away. Living within the state meant, virtually by definition, taxes, conscription, corvée labor, and, for most, a condition of servitude; these conditions were at the core of the state’s strategic and military advantages. When these burdens became overwhelming, subjects moved with alacrity to the periphery or to another state. . . . And, finally, the early states were warmaking machines as well, producing hemorrhages of subjects fleeing conscription, invasion, and plunder. Thus the early state extruded populations as readily as it absorbed them, and when, as was often the case, it collapsed altogether as the result of war, dought, epidemic, or civil strife over succession, its populations were disgorged. . . . For long periods people moved in and out of states, and “stateness” was, itself, often cyclical and reversible.

The book traces the history of “Zomia,” an isolated, upland region stretching across seven Southeast Asian countries. Scott’s thesis is that its inhabitants chose a particular culture and lifestyle — farming technology, housing, social structures, language, art, and so on — for the specific purpose of avoiding entanglement with the coercive state. A very interesting read.

Peter G. Klein is a Research Fellow, Associate Editor of The Independent Review, and Member of the Board of Advisors of the Center on Culture and Civil Society at the Independent Institute.
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