The Art of Not Being Governed (2010) By James C. Scott – A Weapons-grade Meme
For providence ordained that the people with gigantic proportions and the greatest strength would wander the mountain heights like beasts with natural strength. Then, on hearing the first thunder after the universal flood, they entered the earth in its mountain caves, and subjected themselves to the superior force which they imagined as Jupiter. All their pride and ferocity was converted to astonishment, and they humbled themselves before this divinity. Given the order of human institutions, divine providence could not conceivably have acted otherwise to end their bestial wandering through the earth’s forests, and to establish the order of human civil institutions – Section 1097
So says Giambattista Vico in the conclusion to his masterwork of political philosophy The Principles of a New Science of the Common Nature of Nations (1725). Cruelly overlooked at the time of its publication, Vico’s work has since gone on to capture the imagination of thinkers and artists including Isaiah Berlin, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Northrop Frye and Samuel Beckett. What has ensured the immortality of Vico’s vision is neither the fundamental correctness of his argument nor the soundness of his methods but the power of his central narrative. Vico argues that all of human affairs can be accounted for in terms of a cyclical progression through three distinct ages: the divine, the heroic and the human. As humanity moves from stage to stage its approach to language changes and as its approach to language changes, so do its attitudes to law, reason and the nature of government. Ever upwards humanity tumbles until its thinking becomes so efficiently rational that it becomes incapable of seeing beyond its own selfish interests resulting in societal collapse amidst what Vico called “Barbarie della Reflessione” — the barbarism of reflection. Having returned itself to an age of primitive superstition and savagery, humanity begins again its upward journey. Forever moving upwards. Forever passing out of the shadow of barbarism and into the light of civilisation.
Echoes of this picturesque rendering of the process of civilisation can also be found in the 14th Century Arab polymath Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (1377). Ibn Khaldun argued that there was a fundamental currency to civilisation known as ‘Asabiyyah’. Asabiyyah represents not just social cohesion and in-group solidarity but also group consciousness and the capacity to think and act as a single political unit. The social groups with the greatest amounts of asabiyyah were nomadic tribesmen and this great sense of social togetherness allowed them not only to accumulate wealth and power but also to assure the smooth transition of wealth and power from one generation to the next allowing the creation first of hereditary dynasties and then of civilisations. As the generations pass and the descendants of the tribesmen become increasingly used to the trappings of civilisation, their asabiyyah slowly ebbs away. Eventually, the dynasty’s asabiyyah levels are no longer sufficient to maintain a grip on power and the civilisation falls into decline until another group of nomadic tribesmen turn up and use their greater levels of social cohesion and political unity to make a grab for power. As Voltaire so memorably put it:
History is only the pattern of silken slippers descending the stairs to the thunder of hobnailed boots climbing upward from below.
These traditional accounts of the rise of civilisation emphasise the role of the state as agent. Growing and developing in a structure-less vacuum where life is nasty, brutish and short, the state is presented as the only institution capable of providing the sort of stable and conflict-free communal living that is necessary for human flourishing. Under this view, people existing outside of the state system are either passive entities waiting in misery and poverty to be embraced by a nearby state or they are highly organised state-like entities poised to make the final step up to civilisation by themselves. The circularity of this definition is obvious: only states have agency and if an institution has agency but is not a state then it must be about to become a state.
James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed takes a hammer to this neat little circle. Scott suggests that, far from being the passive victims of Hobbesian circumstance, many non-state groups actively choose to adopt such ‘uncivilised’ characteristics as illiteracy, religious extremism and reliance upon hunter-gathering modes of subsistence as part of a coordinated strategy for evading state control. This suggestion that one can be uncivilised by choice is not only a radical departure from traditional state-based models of civilisation, it also provides us with a central narrative so powerful that it rivals that of Vico’s tumbling savages, Ibn Khaldun’s decaying nomads and Voltaire’s fleeing slippers. The Art of Not Being Governed is a book that shakes our notions of civilisation to the very core and, as a result, can only be described as a masterpiece that deserves to influence the artists and thinkers of the future in the same way as Vico’s works have influenced those of the past.
Much like Vico, Scott describes the rise of civilisation as passing through a series of stages:
We might identify four eras, 1) a stateless era (by far the longest), 2) an era of small-scale states encircled by vast and easily reached stateless peripheries, 3) a period in which such peripheries are shrunken and beleaguered by the expansion of state power, and finally, 4) an era in which virtually the entire globe is “administered space” and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant. – Page 324
The rise of civilisation, according to Scott, is a process of enclosure whereby the state – desirous of increasing its territory, its tax-base, its manpower and its access to natural resources – gradually extends its power over people living outside of its administrative boundaries. However, far from patiently waiting to be enclosed, peripheral peoples actually play a vital role in shaping the evolution of the state by choosing to step outside of state control whenever the state becomes overly tyrannical or demanding. In other words, state planners are forced to balance their desire for power with their ability to command the obedience of their peripheral peoples; raise taxes too high or demand too much military service and you risk having large chunks of your tax base disappear off into the forest or hills. Of course, the fact that an ungoverned periphery provides an escape route for discontented citizens means that the state has an interest not only in eliminating the periphery but also in stigmatising those who live there.
Aristotle thought famously that man was by nature a citizen of a city (polis); people who chose consciously to not belong to such a community (apolis) were, by definition, of no worth. When whole peoples, such as pastoralists, gypsies, swidden cultivators follow, by choice, an itinerant or semi-itinerant livelihood, they are seen as a collective threat and are collectively stigmatized. – Pages 101-102
This process of stigmatisation also accounts for much of the semantic blurring around the concepts of morality and civilisation and the equation of an uncivilised or barbaric state with one of active moral transgression. But as anyone who has read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898) can tell you, one does not need to be uncivilised in order to be ‘uncivilised’.
There is no evolutionary sequence; tribes are not prior to states. Tribes are, rather, a social formation defined by its relation to the state. “If rulers of the Middle East have been preoccupied with a ‘tribal problem,’… tribes could be said to have had a perennial ‘state-problem.’” – Page 208
According to Scott, the traits that we have come to associate with an uncivilised existence arise from a deliberate strategy of state evasion. For example, in order to remain free of state control, peripheral peoples will move to more remote locations (such as jungles and hilltops), shift towards less rigid social hierarchies (such as villages rather than hereditary chieftainships) and adopt less visible modes of subsistence farming (such as pastoralism) precisely in order to make it more expensive and difficult both for the state to retain military control over them and for it to gain the sort of political intelligence that underlies the state’s ability to construct a tax regime. Nowhere is this sort of evasion more evident than in modern-day Burma where state space means the military-administered concentration camps known as “peace villages” while non-state space means freedom.
For many hill peoples, dissimilation, the process of staking out the difference and distance between one society and another, meant putting a literal distance between themselves and the lowland states. – Page 174
However, while it seems perfectly intuitive to explain these sorts of social adaptation in terms of a policy of strategic evasion, Scott presses his radical constructionist agenda beyond mere geography and into the sorts of cultural and even ethnic characteristics that we generally think of as essential to the groups that possess them regardless of whether or not they are civilised.
A tidy, objective and systematic classification of tribes would require, they believed, a stable trait, or traits, that all members of a tribe shared and that were not to be found outside that tribe. If mother tongue would not serve this purpose, neither would, it turned out, most other traits. – Page 240
Mother tongue, religious practice, ethnic character and the ability to write are, according to Scott, all characteristics that people have shown themselves willing to change in order to evade control by a hostile state. As groups of rebels merge and reconstitute themselves on the run, the group’s lingua franca will change, as will the nature of that group’s religious practice. Scott even goes so far as to argue that ethnicity can be an ossification of the process through which the state stigmatises those who reject civilisation. After all, it is only a short step from saying that it is okay to stigmatise the people living in the hills to saying that the people living in the hills are from an entirely different race to the people who live on the plains. Even the capacity to read and write – long taken to be a benchmark of cultural sophistication and intellectual accomplishment – can be seen as a cultural adaptation meant to keep people in their place as subjects of the state. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that a group of nomadic herdsmen or swidden farmers could quite reasonably see formal education as a useless extravagance and an excuse to keep them tied down in one place while their children attend school.
In the valley imagination, all these characteristics are earlier stages in a process of social evolution at the apex of which elites perch. Hill peoples are an earlier stage: they are “pre-“ just about everything: pre-padi cultivation, pre-towns, prereligion, preliterate, pre-valley subject. (…) However, the characteristics for which hill peoples are stigmatized are precisely those characteristics that a state-evading people would encourage and perfect in order to avoid surrendering autonomy. The valley imagination has its history wrong. Hill peoples are not pre- anything. In fact, they are better understood as post-irrigated rice, postsedantary, postsubject, and perhaps even postliterate. They represent, in the longue duree, a reactive and purposeful statelessness of peoples who have adapted to a world of states while remaining outside their firm grasp. – Page 337
James C Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed is many things…
- It is a forensically detailed, extensively researched and comprehensibly footnoted academic study of the stateless area of Southeast Asia referred to by scholars as Zomia.
- It is a fascinating political analysis of the relationship between the modern-day nation-state and more anarchic forms of self-government.
- It is a profoundly affecting account of the tyrannical practices used by many Southeast Asian governments to control their outlying provinces and peripheral shatter zones.
- It is the best-written academic text I have ever encountered. Scott’s prose style is lucid, analytical, informative and amazingly entertaining given the relative dryness of some of the subject matter.
The Art of Not Being Governed is all of these things and yet to limit it to any of them is to do it a grave injustice. Indeed, while the book limits its analysis to the uplands of Southeast Asia, Scott is fond of allowing his central narrative to creep out of Asia and into other areas of human understanding. For example, Scott refers in passing to Britain’s political structures at the time of both the Norman invasion and the retreat of the Roman legions in 410 CE. While these are only passing references, Scott is clearly hinting at entire programmes of study. Programmes such as looking at sub-Roman Britain not as an early model of a failed state collapsing into post-apocalyptic chaos but as a political complex involving a gradually weakening state and groups of tribal entities that became less and less civilised as part of a conscious process of state evasion. Programmes such as looking into the way in which William the Conqueror’s government was forced to change its policies as a result of people disappearing off into the hills because of ‘Norman saw on English oak/On English neck a Norman yoke’. However, while The Art of Not Being Governed certainly has the potential to inspire a goodly number of historical PhDs, its true power lies in its ability to command the artistic imagination.
Despite the complexity of human thought processes, we have a marked fondness for certain types of narrative. We like to talk about progress in terms of a linear journey out of darkness and into light. We like to think about one thing colliding with another and a third thing arising out of the rubble. We like to think of things in terms of spectrums, balances, battles and tensions. We like our ideas to tell simple stories. Stories that light up a particular neural pathway. Stores that appeal to our intuitions about how the world should work. Scott himself addresses the question of the intuitive appeal of Vico’s narrative by explaining that
The narrative derives its 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 back-sliding is envisioned; each step is irreversible progress. – Page 187
The appeal of Vico’s account lies neither in the fundamental correctness of his argument nor in the soundness of his methods, but in the power of its central narrative to appeal to our imagination and our aesthetic intuitions about how the world should work. We value civilisation and so it seems only right, intuitive and proper that the process of becoming civilised should be a long and winding path. We also realise that we are not as civilised as we should be and so it seems only right, intuitive and proper that we be perennially on a journey back from barbarism and towards the light. We yearn for the world to make sense and ideas as beautiful as Vico’s make the world a more beautiful place. This is why some ideas manage to outlive their usefulness. This is why Vico is still discussed despite his stages of humanity lacking any real basis in fact. This is why Freud’s ideas are still discussed despite their having no basis in real human psychology. This is why popular science writers sell millions of books deploying rough approximations of Darwinian theory in a desperate attempt to ground the political status quo in some reductive vision of human nature. We are intuitive creatures and our intuition is easily misled by a romantic tale.
Scott’s book is compelling because it provides us with a romantic account of our position in the world. The book tells an epic story of oppression and resistance in which a heroically protean and metaphysically indomitable humanity continually destroys and rebuilds itself in doomed attempt to stay one step ahead of the hideous authoritarian tentacles of the modern nation-state. According to Scott’s central narrative religion, race, government, language and home are all discarded when autonomy is threatened. Even the ability to read is abandoned when the holy flame of freedom is under threat. For Scott, we are not only a species that crave freedom, we are a species that is intrinsically tragic as, despite our best attempts at radical reinvention, we stand on the brink of complete state control. Complete enclosure. As Pakistan pacifies its uplands and the Tamil Tigers are permanently snuffed out, humanity is gradually losing access to the primal anarchy that once dominated the entire planet. A primal anarchy which, though in opposition to the state, helped it to function better by serving as a safety valve that allowed people to escape in cases of extreme oppression and exploitation. This vision of identity as something that can be constructed in response to tyranny is a powerful one. One that could easily be applied not just to history and political science but also to our understanding of areas as diverse as literary genre and identity politics. Indeed, might one not understand speculative fiction’s addiction to plot as an adaptation designed to distinguish it from a mainstream literary culture with increasingly little interest in narrative? Might one not understand campness as an adaptation designed to emphasise the difference between people who have sex with people of the same gender and those who do not? James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed is a masterpiece of political thought because it provides us with a new and intensely attractive narrative that can be applied to pretty much anything we turn our minds to. Regardless of its utility and accuracy as an academic study, this book is essentially a delivery vector for what can only be described as a weapons-grade meme.