Stateless Peoples and Anarchism :
Indigenous Peoples and the Invasiveness of Nation-States
James Scott’s thesis “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist history of Upland Southeast Asia” takes us through a convincing yet complex phenomenon of the invasiveness of empires, kingdoms and subsequently the nation-state as these entities seek to legitimize their control and presence against the will of stateless people, indigenous communities as well as those that live in mountainous or forested regions.
His book has received international recognition and staged at various platforms at conferences. His thesis about the repelling nature of the state against what has been term as “Zomia.” He referenced the works of different scholars in various field of studies including social anthropologies, ethnographers, etc. Some of the explicit questions that Scott seems to be answering in his thesis include how the nation-state continuously seek to use the ordinary people for its own gain through the process of standardization, legitimatization, citizenship, taxation, etc. These are paramount issues that Scott addresses in his thesis.
In the text and preceding chapters of his book “The Art of Not Being Governed,” Scott takes us through his analytical framework, which is specifically directed towards the relationships between various ethnic groups dwelling in hilly and mountainous regions of the so-called “Zomia.” Geographically, Zomia is known to be areas situated in rigid mountainous regions of Southeastern Asia. Specifically, this area includes countries such as Cambodia, Burma, India, Laos, China, Vietnam, Thailand and parts of Malaysia. His interest of the dense and forested mountainous region of Southeastern Asia is partly due to the fact that this region is one of the existing regions on earth that still has primitive and native groups that have not being subsequently incorporated into the fabrics and legal frameworks of the nation-state vis-à-vis ‘modernity’ and ‘globalization.’ Comparatively, this is similar to the Amazonian region as well as indigenous groups in the highlands and lowlands of Papua, Indonesia known as the Memberamo of the mountainous and forested hills and other part of Indonesia that are commonly being marginalized. Some of these indigenous include the Memberamo of western and eastern New Guinea, and the indigenous communities of Lombok.
The peoples of the highlands of the Zomia have live for about two thousand years out of the reach of the nation-state. The conventional perception of people living in highlands is that they are fragments of the pre-state era and as such they are characterized by primitive form of living. In contrast to this view, those who migrate into the lowlands systematically become part of the nation-state system are view as civilized and also regarded literate.
This is likely the case of most international humanitarian organization as well as development agencies that penetrate these cultures in the name of their so-called ‘development apparatus.’ Their view is to exploit these indigenous communities with their westernized ideological perception of what is right and what is wrong. It should be explicitly noted that even though Scott’s thesis is directed to Zomia, most governments, national and transnational development agencies are guilty of this dilemma; that is, they tend to believe that indigenous people are helpless, primitive and they are better equip and educated in assisting them address their problems and this would eventually lead to modernity, which in turn would eradicate their disease; that is, their “primitiveness.”
Scott also argues against the perception that natives are primitive leftovers of modernized societies or as some authors coined as the residues of the pre-state era of progress. He argues that those indigenous people living outside the nation-state so deliberately decide as such knowing their rights and attachments to nature. He also added that the predatory nature of the state; that is, its progressiveness to gain for its own led to such decisions by those who so choses to live in the highlands away from the detrimental progressiveness and invasiveness of the nation-state and its developmental apparatus.
Scott’s thesis can also be linked to situation in Liberia after the arrival of free slaves from the Americas in the 1820s. Those free slaves haven been educated and trained by their slave masters considered themselves “better off” or so to say “more civilized” when they were settled in what was called the “Green Coast” amongst the indigenous peoples whom they consider primitive, salvages and severely illiterate. With their new environment and their learned skills and knowledge, they subjugated, suppressed and marginalized the indigenous people of Liberia into slavery and the imposition of their ideologies and thoughts during the formation of what is now known as “Liberia,” which got its name from the so-called ‘Liberty.’ The natives were alienated, isolated and their land were taken from them and formalized by the governmentality of the new system and held them in atrocious conditions for over 100 years. Local chiefs and their clans had to leave their existing territories, because the new governments had to be seated and as such never wanted their support. It took almost a century before situations gradually changed with a counter social movement led by the natives.
Scott’s thesis on “The Art of Not Being Governed” can also be paralleled to his earlier book “Seeing Like a State” where he argued that the failures of the nation-state has led to dysfunctional systems in the development discourse (Scott 1999).
Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Scott, James C. 1999. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.