The Art of Not Being Governed
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2010) by
James C. Scott is a great book for anarchists, all people who value freedom over material well-being and those who think that anarchy equals chaos. The book is about the history of Zomia (the Southeast Asian massif), the mountainous region of Southeast Asia, where diverse people resisted being integrated into one of the bordering states for much longer than in most other areas of the world.
Scott wants nothing less than destroying the standard view that incorporating these “barbarians”, as they have been traditionally called, into a state meant bringing them the progress of civilization:
The logic of the argument made throughout this book would essentially reverse this logic. Most, if not all, the characteristics that appear to stigmatize hill peoples-their location at the margins, their physical mobility, their swidden agriculture, their flexible social structure, their religious heterodoxy, their egalitarianism, and even the nonliterate, oral cultures-far from being the mark of primitives left behind by civilization, are better seen on a long view as adaptations designed to evade both state capture and state formation. They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.
The formation of states is closely tied to agriculture and the hierarchical social structures and the necessary conformism that (irrigation) farming required. As Scott rightly points out, not all people were happy being part of this thing called state. People on the periphery of states always had this tendency to evade being swallowed up by states. Who were those people at the periphery? The world around 7,0000 years ago generally looked like this: farmers made up the most densely populated areas and were surrounded by pastoralist tribes, who frequently traded with farmers and occasionally raided them as pastoralism was an even more unstable subsistence strategy than farming. Foragers generally retreated to non-arable, non-pasturable areas for as long as they could, which is why the last remaining foragers are mostly found in remote areas such as jungles, deserts and the tundra.
As far as we know, there was little interbreeding between these three “tribes” until the Bronze Age, when the “great mixing” occurred. This means that evolution had a few thousand years to tweak adaptations for these three modes of subsistence. The reason for this mixing was probably that there was no easy way for the three tribes to avoid each other anymore:
[…] sedentary agriculture leads to property rights in land, the patriarchal family enterprise, and an emphasis, also encouraged by the state, on large families. Grain farming is, in this respect, inherently expansionary, generating, when not checked by disease or famine, a surplus population, which is obliged to move and colonize new lands. By any long-run perspective, then, it is grain agriculture that is “nomadic” and aggressive, constantly reproducing copies of itself, while, as Hugh Brody aptly notes, foragers and hunters, relying on a single area and demographically far more stable, seem by comparison “profoundly settled.
So, when states spread, foragers and pastoralists were naturally reluctant to be part of something that didn’t comply with their evolutionary programming. Where did they go? Non-arable areas, mountainous areas being ideal for pastoralists (transhumance) and somewhat less ideal for foragers. These mountain people certainly show a lot of similarities with pastoralist tribes:
Hill polities are, almost invariably, redistributive, competitive feasting systems held together by the benefits they are able to disburse. When they occasionally appear to be relatively centralized , they resemble what Barfield has called the “shadow-empires” of nomadic pastoralists, a predatory periphery designed to monopolize trading and raiding advantages at the edge of an empire. They are also typically parasitic in the sense that when their host-empires collapse, so do they.
Is there any empirical evidence that these mountain people are actually evolutionarily different from valley/farming people? Genetic studies should be able to show that. However, there may also be indirect evidence. We can assume that many people from the periphery were incorporated into states fairly recently and have fewer adaptations for farming. In fact, DeYoung has shown that there are two metatraits dominating the famous Big Five factors:
It’s not unreasonable to assume that the stability profile is associated with farming (compliance with hierarchy and authority, dutifulness as well as hard work), whereas the plasticity profile is associated with foraging (openness) and pastoralism (extraversion). The plasticity profile is also associated with ADHD as well as higher imprisonment rates. People with a plasticity profile have had to carve out their own paths within a farmer society and have striven for maximum freedom/independence: artisans, traders, mercenaries, healers (e.g. druids) and so on. Nowadays, people with a stability profile would feel at home in a modern corporate environment that provides structure and routine, whereas people with a plasticity profile would much rather become entrepreneurs.
Political scientists have determined four basic political “temperaments”, which are most likely the product of evolutionary adaptation to our past subsistence strategies:
Hunter types would be the most likely anarchists. Foragers do not “command” other people, a leader can only be a leader because of his competence or charisma, there is simply no way to make people “comply”.
James Scott demonstrates nicely how the price for our civilization has always been a part of our freedom. While we are all human beings, we aren’t equally prepared psychologically for this trade-off between comfort and material well-being and lack of self-determination. Western liberal democracies are typically far less taxing in this respect than illiberal states. However, even James Scott, despite all his sympathy, agrees that there is no way back to hunter-gatherer anarchy. Anarchism would fail for the same reason communism failed: only a small proportion of people are really programmed for it to work.
A final note: the ideology most closely associated with anarchy nowadays is actually capitalism (non-interference from the state), which — a bit paradoxically — is associated with the political right, conservatism. However, all political research shows that ( social ) conservatives really tend toward authoritarianism, the very opposite of anarchy (anti-conformity).
While anarchism is no real alternative, we should at least pay homage to hunter-gatherer anarchism. We shouldn’t punish children who have this anarchistic/hunter mindset for what they are. These are the kids who grow into adults with the most potential to help humankind. Einstein was a hunter and this isn’t hard to see from his quotes on authority like “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” and
„School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn’t worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave. This was a Catholic School in Munich. I felt that my thirst for knowledge was being strangled by my teachers; grades were their only measurement. How can a teacher understand youth with such a system?… from the age of twelve I began to suspect authority and distrust teachers. I learned mostly at home, first from my uncle and then from a student who came to eat with us once a week. He would give me books on physics and astronomy.
Einstein made it, he managed to be his own boss and thrive as a hunter type in a farmer society. However, there are many who don’t, many who end up as homeless people. Sounds unrealistic? Native Americans (foragers) are the group of people with the highest rates of unemployment in the US, generally struggling to integrate into a farmer society.
For more check out my book Different Kinds of Minds: The Evolution of Us
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on June 21, 2022.