The Art of Not Being Governed

Scott followed up Seeing Like a State with another important book on the state, The Art of Not Being Governed. The thesis of this book is simple but provocative. Focusing on South East Asia, Scott points out that historically (roughly up until the middle of the 20th century) many countries like Burma, Thailand and Vietnam were divided into core areas controlled by the state, and peripheries that are largely outside the state’s control. These peripheries are typically more ethnically diverse, culturally distinct, poorer and often in conflict with the state in the core. On way of viewing these is that they are backward places, which are simply waiting for the state to integrate them into “civilization,” or to use Scott’s terminology, they were waiting to be made legible.  

But this view is wrong, Scott argues. Instead, he suggests that they are places of refuge from the state. His view is that states are coercive entities taxing, regulating and conscripting people and that the normal situation is that people oppose the state. The margins/periphery are not then backward static places waiting to be integrated into the state, they are rather places where people have gone to actively oppose the state and indeed many of the institutions and cultural features of these areas are deliberately designed to stop the state integrating them.

Like all Scott’s books, this one is full of immensely creative ideas and historical and ethnographic examples that make you think hard. Maybe the most provocative chapter is Chapter 7 where he argues that the social institutions of the periphery are an adaption to the goal of fending off the state.

The idea that people may not want the political centralization that a state brings is a familiar one in political anthropology. Scott refers to the work of anthropologist Pierre Clastres whose book Society Against the State argued this in the case of many indigenous societies in Latin America, but actually the idea was common far before this, as we will show in some posts coming up. Many stateless societies or chiefdom had elaborate social and political institutions that made it very difficult for anyone to accumulate too much power and thus in effect stop in its tracks the process that could have cumulated in state formation. Though Scott’s focus is more on innovations in institutions that stop state’s spreading, rather than what archaeologists call “pristine state formation,” the ideas are closely related.

Nevertheless, Scott put this idea on the table and argued that it explained big patterns in the world in a way that nobody had done before. In a way it is related to our argument in Why Nations Fail about the “dual economy”.

Development economists from the 1950s right up to today conceptualize poor countries as consisting of a developed (maybe urban and industrial) modern sector and a backward (rural and agrarian) sector. The problem of development is to transform the backward sector and make it more modern. What we showed, building on seminal historical work, particularly on Southern Africa by Colin Bundy, Robin Palmer and Neil Parsons, is in fact that dual economies were not at all natural; they were typically created in the process of colonization.

Moreover, just as Scott argues it is incorrect to think of peripheries as traditional places waiting to be modernized, in dual economies the typical situation was that modern and backward were in symbiotic relationships. For example, in Apartheid South Africa, the backward areas, mostly the black Bantustans, were part of an elaborate set of institutions designed to provide cheap labor to white owned farms and mines.

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