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September 5, 2011 3:12 PM   Subscribe

The Battle Over Zomia. "Scholars are enchanted by the notion of this anarchistic region in Asia. But how real is it?" [Previously]
posted by homunculus (33 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's like all these people in East Asia googled Ron Paul...
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:19 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought his book was fantastic and I recommend it to everyone. A lot of the ideas were already out there, but he does a great job corralling them in a readable form. There are some controversial ideas that may not hold up to further scrutiny, but I think the entire book is itself a call for such further scrutiny. I bet a lot of dissertations will be born from it. It's possible I will be able to credit it for mine.
posted by melissam at 3:21 PM on September 5, 2011


This sounds like a great read.

A while back I got really interested in early Iceland, which developed directly from people mainly fleeing a strong state in Norway, and setting up an essentially anarchistic system on the new island. Thanks to a certain literary bent in the society, this ended up being very well recorded within a couple centuries in the Sagas, which feature stories with women as protagonists as well as exiles and criminal types, in stark contrast to the literature of mainland Europe from this period.

I'm fascinated by questions of how to make anarchistic societies run on their own steam, partly because I lived in a small society of anarchists for about four years and had a truly fantastic time of it. I'm on the look-out for ways to build new temporary autonomous zones in my future life...
posted by kaibutsu at 3:27 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh please, please let this be yet another thread with lots of anti-libertarian hate.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:45 PM on September 5, 2011


Oh please, please let this be yet another thread with lots of anti-libertarian hate.

No. Just hate toward the ones who use fake anecdotes and false histories to prove their points. For whatever reason, you seem to see way more of this in libertarianism than you do in any other political philosophy.
posted by schmod at 3:54 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Holy crap, like a real Uqbar!
posted by sinnesloeschen at 3:55 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]



Oh please, please let this be yet another thread with lots of anti-libertarian hate.


As someone with at least theoretical anarchist sympathies, the routine conflation of libertarianism and anarchism is painful to see. Scott has a lot of blindspots, but at least he doesn't make that mistake.

I haven't read this book yet, but I've read all of his other books. He's a good writer, and his books are fun and provocative, though in the end (for me at least) somewhat unsatisfying. I met him at a conference some years ago, right after Seeing Like a State came out; he was friendly enough but was clearly loving being the center of attention (as no doubt I would as well, were it on offer).
posted by Forktine at 4:06 PM on September 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


No. Just hate toward the ones who use fake anecdotes and false histories to prove their points. For whatever reason, you seem to see way more of this in libertarianism than you do in any other political philosophy.

Scott is not a libertarian, he is an anarchist. But the book is refreshing in that unlike certain anarchist tomes it's not "omg look at these wonderful free forest people and how the state does not oppress them, we should be more like that!" It's a very academic book and doesn't fall into the "noble savage" trap. If anything, it would be very valuable as a textbook because people who rely on foraging are often portrayed as being remnants of a Paleolithic way of life, when in reality they are often people who were once agriculturalists. And a modern libertarian or anarchist would probably be very unhappy in most of these societies, since while they might want to avoid some genuinely repressive governments, the radical individualism that defines many libertarians and anarchists in the West really isn't their thing.
posted by melissam at 4:07 PM on September 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Libertarian/anarchist whatever. I never thought such societies were at all feasible (any more than socialism/communism whatever).

Too bad the choice was between civilisation + taxes and illiteracy + freedom.

Also too bad technology and 3rd world nationhood has vastly increased state power since then and libertarians are left looking to failed states like Somalia.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 4:25 PM on September 5, 2011


Essentially he argues that pre-modern agrarian societies were only able to impose their rule over a tight radius of perhaps 300 kilometers, when it came to collecting taxes, grain, and manpower. Moreover, this radius of power reduced significantly when population was distributed over mountainous country.

Consider the European highlands and hills. The Greek city states and Swiss cantons were not at all anarchic. They were democratic and/or oligarchic with strong governments. Highlands have never guaranteed zero government, but they did promote relatively accountable local government.

Should we count the Scottish Highlanders count as anarchistic? Very little formal government and considerable individual freedom. They seemingly had government by contract, a flexible feudalism that allowed individuals and small clans to voluntarily put themselves under the authority and protection of larger clans. Phrase of the day: bond of manrent.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:27 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ooh, he wrote 'Seeing Like a State,' too? That one's been languishing on my reading list purely based on the awesomeness of the title. I saw it on a friend's coffee table a few months back and have been meaning to track down a copy ever since.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:29 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Correcting myself: government by contract sounds far more like libertarianism than anarchism. Anarchist communities that need to defend themselves militarily seem to lean more toward spontaneous militias than formal hierarchies. (see the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union militias circa 1936)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:32 PM on September 5, 2011


Kaibatsu, you should definitely read Seeing Like a State. It's fantastic.

Consider the European highlands and hills. The Greek city states and Swiss cantons were not at all anarchic. They were democratic and/or oligarchic with strong governments. Highlands have never guaranteed zero government, but they did promote relatively accountable local government.

I think Scott's argument is more about the relationship between central governments and relatively-distant governed areas than the qualities of local governing apparatuses in remote areas.
posted by clockzero at 4:37 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


A while back I got really interested in early Iceland, which developed directly from people mainly fleeing a strong state in Norway, and setting up an essentially anarchistic system on the new island. Thanks to a certain literary bent in the society, this ended up being very well recorded within a couple centuries in the Sagas, which feature stories with women as protagonists as well as exiles and criminal types, in stark contrast to the literature of mainland Europe from this period.

Early Icelandic society was not especially anarchic. It was made of small groups with their own centralized leadership -- a farmer and his (very rarely her) servants, hired hands, and slaves. Extremely small communities but hierarchical ones nevertheless, and generally tied into a local hierachy of patronage led by a chieften. Aud, the Depeminded, altghough a rockin' figure, was not about sharing her power with anyone, after all.

Furthermore, if the sagas as a whole tell any story, beyond the broad outlines of the early history of Iceland, it's that it was doomed by the lack of a central government. Over and over in the sagas we see that, while it's usually easy to see where justice lies and definitely possible to get the community to recognize it in court, the lack of a central authority to see the will of the courts done leads to bloodshed as the only recourse, which means either a) the weak get trampled or b) the cycle of violence escalates. Njal's Saga is a great example -- despite their best efforts to maintain peace, Njal and Gunnar are brought down by the inability of the courts to resolve anything because the rulings of the courts are essentially unenforceable except through battle, which leads to another round of unenforceable court cases.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:38 PM on September 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


I only accept the average despot's definition of anarchy, which is to be mob ruled, or democratic. The perfect libertarian state is feudalism itself.
posted by Brian B. at 4:49 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Early Icelandic society was not especially anarchic. It was made of small groups with their own centralized leadership -- a farmer and his (very rarely her) servants, hired hands, and slaves. Extremely small communities but hierarchical ones nevertheless, and generally tied into a local hierachy of patronage led by a chieften. Aud, the Depeminded, altghough a rockin' figure, was not about sharing her power with anyone, after all.

Actually that was the main thing I was skeptical about in Scott's book. He claims that the hill tribes he writes about have almost no hierarchy at all. I think the evidence is clear that while they don't have a stereotypical hierarchy like a "chief" that they do have hierarchies, mainly embedded in their clan structure. I think the only societies that you can claim are "flat" are true foragers, perhaps the San or the Mbuti for example, but there is debate there too.
posted by melissam at 4:51 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Scholars are enchanted by the notion of this anarchistic region in Asia.

Not really, though. More like one scholar, working far beyond his area of expertise, and picking cherries so aggressively he could make the world's largest cobbler. Academic outsiders/iconoclasm is soooooooo over-rated imho. Hard, regular work in the field yielding ambiguous and heterogenous results is boring, but it's solid, and more than a thought experiment.

I stand by my original comment.
posted by smoke at 4:52 PM on September 5, 2011


More like one scholar, working far beyond his area of expertise

I don't quite follow how it is that a Political Scientist with an anthropological focus who's area of focus is South Asia is working "far beyond his area of expertise" in writing a politico-anthropological book about an area in Southeast Asia....
posted by Chipmazing at 4:57 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


"More like one scholar, working far beyond his area of expertise"

I don't quite follow how it is that a Political Scientist with an anthropological focus who's area of focus is South Asia is working "far beyond his area of expertise" in writing a politico-anthropological book about an area in Southeast Asia....


I think that may be the issue...I haven't seen many works about those areas recently, except those studying their immigrant diasporas. It's easier to talk about the horticulturalists in places where they are extensively studied. Smoke, maybe you can recommend some?
posted by melissam at 5:02 PM on September 5, 2011


It's ironic to me that Scott has written a book that appears to extol the virtues of not having a written language.

Also, I look at what happened to the Hmong as an example of when an ethno-linguistic minority is pushed to the margins and has to survive on the run. It seems like a much more likely "cities collapsing" endgame scenario than a small nuclear family holding out on a farm, or even a fortified farm with a few families.

Scott can talk up his variant of anarchism all he wants but in the end high infant mortality, lack of vaccines and constant vulnerability to larger, better armed groups is no way to live.

I also kind of doubt his idea that everything is done via mutuality and that there isn't a hierarchal structure -- that has not been my limited experience with the Hmong community, which seemed to me to be clan based with clear deference to clan elders and various individuals who perform religious rituals. But that is in the US, I have no idea how it works overseas.
posted by wuwei at 5:16 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Smoke, maybe you can recommend some?

None recently, I'm afraid, at least certainly not at level; I've been 'out of the game' far too long. There is some anthro about different hill tribes and what they really highlight is the different aspect. Scott is super-selective in focussing only on the commonalities, and it makes the hilltribes appear far more homogenous than they are in reality. It frustrates me a lot because I think there is certainly some insight to be made here, but this constant oppositional between "lowlander" and "highlander" I feel presents a false dichotomy and will hampers them.
posted by smoke at 5:58 PM on September 5, 2011


Interesting - I think the Scottish highlands work against Scott's thesis: when the lowland state got oppressive (after 1715 and esp after 1745) the hills were no refuge. Nor is there any evidence of earlier fleeing to highland areas in Scotland or England - but then pre-modern Britain had very weak states compared to pre-modern Asia.

though very low areas may have provided an escape - not from political oppression, but economic: migration into certain wetland parishes in eastern England jumped during the late 16-17th century as landless people moved in.
posted by jb at 6:03 PM on September 5, 2011


Smoke, what do you think of Alfred McCoy's work in the highlands of S.E. Asia?

I read the Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, and some of his articles about how bad it got when the hill tribes were sending all their young men to fight, and spending all their agricultural expenditures on growing opium to pay for the war effort. Truly disturbing.
posted by wuwei at 6:19 PM on September 5, 2011


Libertarian/anarchist whatever. I never thought such societies were at all feasible (any more than socialism/communism whatever).

Wow, brilliant insight there. Capitalism/fascism whatever is clearly the better way to do things.
posted by sfenders at 6:25 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I just found this article by Fred Branfman about Vang Pao's "secret army" in Laos, which I thought some of you might find informative:
http://www.tomvater.com/laos/vang-pao´s-life-death-by-fred-branfman.
posted by wuwei at 6:25 PM on September 5, 2011


It's ironic to me that Scott has written a book that appears to extol the virtues of not having a written language.

Ew, wait, really? Did you read the book, or, even, any of the linked articles? What you mention, not having a written language, seems to be one point in a larger story or discussion or argument - about how some characteristics of these societies have been used to keep the state at an arm's length. Nowhere did I read anything suggesting the author extolled the virtues.

You're looking for cheap shots.
posted by entropone at 6:31 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Too bad the choice was between civilisation + taxes and illiteracy + freedom.

Sad lack of a dialectic view of history; you just wait until thesis and antithesis come together and we realise our species-being, comrade.
posted by Abiezer at 6:33 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


We should have a sticky sidebar reminder linking to every instance of an author coming into a thread where The People of Metafilter has trashed that author. Before going off on how incompetent a given author is, I recommend at least reading the link (or ideally, the actual book). I only say this as someone who has regretted my own pulled-out-of-my-ass criticisms of things I knew nothing about.
posted by serazin at 6:35 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, and seeing as the late, great Owen Lattimore is mentioned as one of Scott's inspirations, this seems as good a place as any to post this interview with the man I came across recently. It's up on Youtube too, I believe.
posted by Abiezer at 6:45 PM on September 5, 2011


We should have a sticky sidebar reminder linking to every instance of an author coming into a thread where The People of Metafilter has trashed that author.

After what just happened with David Graeber, that might not be a bad idea.
posted by homunculus at 6:52 PM on September 5, 2011


I actually would be fine with having a discussion with Scott regarding his book, should he choose to join the discussion. I'm not going to engage in any bullshit discussions regarding his "tone" either.
posted by wuwei at 7:02 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read the article, will likely read the book as soon as possible. I read Seeing Like A State previously.
posted by wuwei at 7:07 PM on September 5, 2011


I'm not an expert, but I've visited northwestern Viet Nam. I don't think you could describe the societies there, or the ones that were there as anarchistic at all, at least not in the way that we think about it in the West. Rather, the center of control was just more local.

For example, in at least one region, pregnant women had to leave the village and go into the mountains to have their baby, alone, to return a few days later. Hardly libertarian.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:35 PM on September 5, 2011


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