Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Art of NOT Being Governed: Introduction

This is the first of what I anticipate will be a series of commentaries regarding the above titled book, authored by James C. Scott.

A description of the book can be found here:

I do not intend this to be a traditional book review. I have found several comments and thoughts within the book that I find valuable, and my intent is to expand on these.

The subtitle of the book is: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia. I find this intriguing. Whenever the idea of anarchy is discussed (in the sense of no sovereign authority), one of many objections raised is that of looking for examples where anarchy has "worked."

Before moving on with the book, consider this query: where has anarchy worked? Those who defend anarchy on whatever grounds have likely had this thrown at them in every conversation. Those who believe anarchy equals chaos likely have thrown this out in every conversation.

First, what does “worked” mean? Worked for whom? Worked how? The same can be asked about the state. When has the state (defined as the legal monopoly of force and the resultant violence) worked? For whom? How?

For those who don’t want to be under the threat of coercion, inherently anarchy works. For those who prefer peaceful means of relationships, again anarchy works. For such people, in fact it is the only form of structuring society that “works.”

For those who believe it is right that man lords over man, anarchy does not work. The state certainly works. For those who believe that the same act could be either legal or illegal, depending on the employer of the actor, the state works.

But where has the state worked in regards to those areas of our lives the state says it is working on? The economy, peaceful coexistence with others in the world, elimination of poverty, teenage drinking, illicit drugs, health care, etc. the list is exactly as long as the list of state-run programs. Should the burden of proof really be on the proponent of anarchy?

That there is a lack of historical record regarding successful anarchist societies is not necessarily a reflection of the possibility that there were none. In fact, much of the world for much of recorded history was without a state as that term is known today.

But even if there were no examples in history, certainly if enough people believed in living peacefully with their neighbors, anarchy would work. In fact, much of our lives are lived this way. There is no central authority in developing our personal relationships, food choices (once you get past the government approved list), vacation destinations (once you get past the government approved list), etc. Why could not more / most / all of our actions be developed in a similar manner, free from coercion? It certainly COULD work if enough people wanted it so.

As to the history, or lack thereof, of anarchist society, I return to the book, and a quote:

“It is said that the history of peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle. It might be said with at least as much truthfulness, that the history of peoples without history is a history of their struggle against the state.”

Pierre Clastres, La societé contre l’état

Why is there so little information of people living outside of the organizing power of the state? I offer two thoughts:

1) Those outside of the control of the state didn’t bother documenting much of anything. Why would they? No need for a census, birth certificates, tax records, W-2 forms, etc. No rulers bent on documenting or fabricating a legacy.

2) What benefit is there to the state (the gatekeeper for much of the education of the world) to educate people on the true history of those who lived outside of the state? We are taught that this is not possible. Why would the state teach anything else?

Where are the examples of anarchist society? Look around you. Much of what you truly enjoy in life is based on choices and relationships that you make without being forced into these.

Look at history, the state as it is known throughout the world has not always been so all-encompassing throughout every corner of the planet. Those derogatorily referred to as barbarians, gypsies, the “raw”, natives, aborigines, etc., are those who lived outside of the state.

This book looks specifically at one region of the world in order to tell this tale. It is the highland area of Southeast Asia, from Vietnam west to the easternmost tip of Northeast India. But the story is applicable elsewhere, as the author makes clear and as I will further explore.


  1. Thank you for the lucid insight into this book. I look forward to reading more. Thank you,
    Myron Goodrum

  2. This post is far more revealing of your intellect and the breadth of your interest than your usually more terse comments to the Feedback of DB. And your points are well-taken.

    However, it has been my experience that the state is indeed interested in those who live outside its jurisdiction; take, for example, the IRS and the various lists being maintained by the security apparatuses of the state(s).

    Despite this quibble, your review was excellent and provided me with a context within which to read the book itself.

    Eyes To See, Ears To Hear

  3. Terse? Terse!? :-))

    Usually, my terse comments at DB come out in response to another, when I feel someone is being derogatory toward me as opposed to just dealing with what was said. Sometimes, I fire for effect, as there are a few topics for which I have a bright line, and make a strong statement in defense. Sometimes, I guess I am just...terse. When I feel afterwards I was out of line, I usually apologize.

    I do not disagree with your comment that the state is interested in those who live outside its jurisdiction (thank you for this comment, as it points to something I wrote that was less than clear). It seems to be the case that as technology makes it possible, the state casts wider nets. Roads, railroads, now communication technology, securities laws, etc.

  4. Hmm-mm, perhaps "terse" was an ill-chosen word to use. No disrespect was intended, I'm one of your great admirers for being one who sticks to the point without extraneous blither-blather and provide his sources. I do appreciate sound reasoning and thoughtful critiques that add to the furtherance of the subject at hand. The fact that English is a second language often gets in my way in this regard.

    I did post a reply at DB Feedbackers about why I appreciated the link to the download of the PDF file of James Scott's book. I happen to live here in the Andes Mountains of South America and cannot count on decent mail service for purchased and mailed books, such as Mr. Scott's. There was no intent of defrauding the author of his rightful pay or the deprive his publishing company of its deserved profits. It won't be long before Internet delivery supersedes snail mail with downloads directly into one's computer ... for a proportionate fee.

    The current publishing business model if antiquated, to say the least, and deprives the author of his or her fair share of the purchase price. I do what I can to hasten its demise. 8-)

  5. Thank you for the clarification and kind words.

    I was joking with Mr. Pisano about the PDF and getting in the way of "my brother-in-law's" book sales.

    Your English skills are admirable, and I would never have suspected it was your second language had you not mentioned it.

    Kindest regards.