Do People Really Dislike the State So Much? (with thanks to Joshua Walker)

Scott’s work emphasizes the fact that people don’t really like living in states and they get away from them if they can. This argument certainly mirrors a great deal of anthropological evidence from small scale and stateless societies and it is certainly true in some cases as our last several blogs (here and here) suggested. But our argument has a logical corollary which ends up looking like the opposite of Scott’s thesis: if people think they can control the state and use it in their interests, then they will demand that it takes action and expands.

This argument has been developed in a series of brilliant works by the anthropologist David Nugent, most centrally his book Modernity at the Edge of Empire with a summary of some of the key ideas being presented in his article “Building the State, Making the Nation: The Bases and Limits of State Centralization in “Modern” Peru”.

Nugent presents us with a detailed history of the department and city of Chachapoyas in Northeastern Perú over the past century. Early in the 20th century the national capital in Lima exercised little direct authority over the department given its physical isolation and the fact that it was not connected by a proper road to the rest of the country. Instead, the department was controlled by a group of powerful families, castas, who controlled not land, but local politics. They used this political hegemony to staff and control all the positions of the state, most importantly the police force. Their main source of income was the taxes that they were able to extract from the population. The castas ruled, but they did so by occupying the positions of the state that in the early 1930s began to change its relationship to these local elites. In 1931 the National Election Law introduced a secret ballot, extended the franchise and made voting obligatory and generally weakened the control of the castas over local elections. In 1933 the local police force was abolished and a well-trained Guardia Civil composed of people from outside the region took its place. The national state began to exert its control over local administrative appointments and particularly the collection and allocation of tax revenues. Also important was educational transformation. Prior to 1930 the castas had appointed all the teachers in the department and did so as part of a clientelistic political strategy to keep power. After 1930 the national Ministry of Education gradually began to exercise control over appointments.

Clearly what was going on here was the extension of state authority and power to integrate Chachapoyas more firmly into the Peruvian state. Nugent shows that though this might have been highly adverse for the castas, it was not so for everyone. Most important, what put this dynamic of expansion into motion was not some autonomous impulse from Lima coercively imposed, but local demands from Chachapoyas.

Chachapoyas was the fiefdom of the castas, but Perú had a constitution which enshrined things like the rule of law, security of property. During the 1920s Nugent shows how social mobilization in Chachapoyas, mostly started by a few elites who had got an education in Lima, began to demand the end of casta rule. Critically, they demanded the expansion of state power as a tool to free the society from the rule of the castas who they saw as violators of their basic rights as Peruvian citizens. As Nugent puts it

In the first phase (in the 1930s) the state was proclaimed the legitimate protector and potential liberator of a self-defined “moral community” – a local, marginalized group that sought to free itself from the control of local powerholders – who actively assisted the state in effecting a more complete integration of regional territory and nationalization of regional population.

So this is James Scott’s thesis upside down! Rather than fleeing from the state and resisting it, ordinary people are demanding the expansion of its authority in order to attain freedom from arbitrary and coercive local elites.

As we have already argued and will continue to argue in the next post, this underscores the necessity of a conceptual framework in which the politics of state formation, and in particular whether different groups expect to be able to control the state, is at the center stage.

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