It seems to be the standard commentary that people of the hills, of lands not yet subsumed to the state, are uncivilized. The state brings order. The state brings civilization. The natural progression is for people, once ungoverned, to move into a condition of being governed by the state.
The author views this differently:
"I argue that hill peoples are best understood as runaways, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppression of state making projects in the valleys – slavery, conscription, taxes, corveé labor, epidemics, and warfare. Most of the areas in which they reside may be aptly called shatter zones or zones of refuge.”
The relationship of civilization and state are rather interesting. Let’s consider two alternative environments:
1) Most, if not all relationships are voluntary. Family lives and works together, with multiple generations caring for and helping each other. Neighbors work with neighbors to build a better community. Protection is provided in a mutually agreed manner amongst people within a common geographic region. No one is afforded power of coercion over others in a significant (and certainly not unlimited) manner. Any form of “laws” (likely in the form of custom) is applicable to all, with adjudication carried out either amongst the involved parties or by a mutually respected third party. Property is private, and this expectation is absolute, or virtually so.
2) One or a small handful of the members of the community are granted special privilege. This privilege allows the few to lord over the rest. For example, to collect tribute for various means: protection, subsidy for retirement, etc. Laws that are applicable to the common man are not applicable to the lords – those with privilege are granted immunity from judgment in such cases. Judgment on the common man is passed by the same group that establishes the laws, with little or no regard for the desires or benefits of the victim. Property either belongs to the privileged directly, or can be claimed by the privileged whenever desired.
Which society could be described as civilized? Which society describes the relationship of the state to the subjugated? Is the answer to these two questions the same, or is it different?
The extent of “state”, I would suggest, is a reflection of the lack of civilization in society. It is civilized to live voluntarily with our neighbors. It is uncivilized to tax (steal from) our neighbors for our own benefit. In polite society, this would be called theft or slavery. It is no less so when carried out by a man with a badge.
Zomia was a region where statelessness was real. It was possible for those who did not want to live under control of the state to escape to a land where voluntary relationships were the norm. While certainly there was trade between those in Zomia and those under state rule – in fact some would travel from one to the other depending on personal circumstance – when looked at in the light as portrayed above in my two examples, is it a wonder that many would choose option one? Is it at least cause for pause that we are taught to believe option two is the civilized society?
We are not taught to understand that statelessness was a choice for many who purposely chose to avoid the grasp of the state. We are taught that the advance of civilization and the advance of the state were one and the same event. In fact, the state was often and largely populated by slaves – victims of capture from war, for example.
We are taught that the barbarians were…barbarians, that the gypsies were…gypsies. In fact, for these groups and others, this was most certainly a conscious desire – after all, the closest state certainly would not have turned away people willing to become subjects. The only reason residents of Zomia were not incorporated into the false “civilization” of the state was because they chose not to be.