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The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia
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The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia

4.07  ·  Rating Details  ·  452 Ratings  ·  45 Reviews
For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the organized state societies that surround them—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. This book, essentially an “anarchist history,” is the first-ever exami ...more
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published September 30th 2009 by Yale University Press (first published September 29th 2009)
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This volume is a history of Southeast Asia from three thousand feet - or rather, the lives of the 'hill peoples' who lived in the more mountainous and forested areas of southwest China, Himalayan India, northern Burma, Laos, and Thailand. This broad mass of land, with a current population of almost 100,000,000 people, is called 'Zomia'.

Now these areas have been targets of anthropological study for decades. What's newer here is Scott's assertion that these areas are populated by refugees from be
Sep 14, 2013 11 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: woldview

This is one amazing book. The early chapters cover a lot of cool background information, the notes of which eventually became part of my Green Eggs and Ham review, so I won't dwell on that stuff so much. Author James C. Scott takes the very long view of history, and breaks it up into four eras: (1) the stateless era; (2) the era of miniature states surrounded by vast unruled areas; (3) the period of expanding states and shrinking peripheries; and (4) the era where the entire world is administrat
Masterful, and even though I've been studying many aspects of history for forty years, for me it lives up to the front cover blurb by one reviewer who said it would "change the way readers think about human history - and about themselves." It's dry in places, and it took me a while to get into it, but once I did it kept me up at night reading it.

The author's theme is that in many places, peoples who have historically eked out subsistence livings in isolated and rugged environments have not been
Bryn Hammond
Apr 28, 2013 Bryn Hammond rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: steppe-history
So. I've always been an anarchist in principle (didn't Merlin say in The Once and Future King, every decent person is?) and I come to this, not with a special interest in upland SE Asia, but after this on hunter-gatherers Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior and after this on pastoral nomads Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, And The State, and after a brave foray into the classic Pierre Clastres too. Wherein I've learnt statelessness is common, and clung to stubbornly, ...more
Jul 04, 2015 André rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to André by: Patrick McCormick, Mathias Jenny
Shelves: not-my-own
Just as promised, the book changed my understanding of human history indeed. At least of the history of "Zomia", the mountainous region stretching all over continental Southeast Asia. And also other commentators here were right: The author *is* very repetitive. So repetitive in fact, that I now wish I hadn't spend all that time reading through every chapter. The introduction and the conclusion chapters might have been sufficient to get the general idea Scott wanted to bring across: namely that t ...more
Jose Palafox
Sep 07, 2009 Jose Palafox rated it really liked it
Simply an amazing work of scholarship with tremendous political implications, particularly for anarchist historiography.

I think this is by far the Scott's most important work to date.

I have followed Prof. Scott's work since the mid-1990's while I attended graduate school. In particular, I found his ability to highlight the agency/resistance of a people without a history insightful and extremely useful in discussing and analyzing my own work on social movements along the U.S.-Mexico border.

I'd read Scott's Seeing Like a State and had absolutely loved it - in my review, I'd described my experience reading it "as if someone's opened a window to let the light in". I wanted to love The Art of Not Being Governed and ten pages in, I had high hopes for the book - just as Seeing Like a State sought to provide a new lens with which to understand how our landscape/operating context is shaped and managed, The Art of Not Being Governed seeks to provide a new lens with which to view the relati ...more
"Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly?
Everyone's going home lost in thought
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come
And some who have just returned from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer
And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution." -C. Cavafy

An illuminating read about the relationship between "civilization"
This book is impressively multidisciplinary — the closest comparison that comes to mind is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel in the way it sets out to explore interlinked concepts across history, varying political systems, and the physical world. I have to acknowledge that my Southeast Asian history and political knowledge is minimal, one class in undergrad aside, so I’m not in a position to confirm or correct the historiography involved. That said, this book offered me insights relevant to ...more
Dec 17, 2012 Liz rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, a history book about how a number of nonstate peoples in upland southeast asia have limited the influence of various configurations of state power on their autonomy. Has a fair amount of details about agriculture and terrain, which I appreciate -- I like an eye to those kind of material conditions. I particularly got into the bit about the kinds of social structures fostered by different staple foods, I've been telling everybody that sweet potato is t ...more
Dorsey Bass
Oct 03, 2013 Dorsey Bass rated it it was ok
Shelves: radical
A fairly interesting read on a region I knew little about, but this book has several problems. It feels pretty repetitive—Scott tends to make the same points over and over again. He also relies on a concept of political "choice" that is never really defined, but allows him to view pretty much all aspects of SE Asian hill societies as aligning with his own anarchist politics. Although (because?) I'm an anarchist myself, it doesn't make for a convincing or enlightening read. In many ways this book ...more
Apr 02, 2016 nick rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a bit of a letdown. The idea behind the book, the content, the new vision are all worthwhile but the style and order of the book are a real challenge to keep on reading.

On the plus side. The book brings us a radical new view on what used to be savages, heathens, primitives; scoundrels and are coined ethnic minorities or marginal identities today but always on the fringes of centralizing bureaucratic homogenizing states. These hill people are no living fossils but represent alternative
Jan 19, 2016 Catherine rated it it was amazing
Shelves: diy-canon
A comprehensively argued case for cultural fluidity and “simplification” as a political response of state-evasion. This is enormously helpful in looking at history with fewer state-friendly assumptions, even if it can be a little overwhelming to a reader unfamiliar with Southeast Asia. It doesn't pretend to ring true today, but it's enlightening in creating more complete histories. So good. So good and so needed.
Oct 26, 2015 Tom rated it it was amazing
I came across this book more or less randomly (I think it was briefly mentioned in an article by Matthew Yglesias). I'm not even sure why I decided to read it, as the topic is somewhat outside my usual areas of interest. Nevertheless, I found the it fascinating. Before I picked it up, I would have told you that I knew nothing about the subject matter; it turned out, however, that my brain was actually full of various preconceived notions about stateless people that were mostly incorrect. I can h ...more
Sep 25, 2014 Dave rated it liked it
He has some really interesting things to say but basically just keeps repeating himself over and over. If this was something like a hundred pages it would be a lot easier for me to recommend it.
Oct 04, 2014 Andy rated it it was amazing
An excellent and exciting work by an old master. We are so used to seeing history from the standpoint of the state (as Scott demonstrated in his earlier work Seeing Like a State), but this is history from the standpoint of people who refuse to be subject to the state, in one of the last areas of the world where such a thing is possible. Interesting for students of history in general, and especially historians of Southeast Asia. After reading this work, one sees a deep continuity between the earl ...more
Phil Boyle
Nov 22, 2015 Phil Boyle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There's the idea that our world is one of states, rulers and the arrangements we are bound to with each. Herein we ruminate, worry, plan, coerce and be coerced. We flirt with poetic and picturesque escapes, declaring how we "leave it all behind" for a beach, a hiking trail, a mountain top. But we are never far from the clutches and designs of our masters.

Enter the perennially stateless peoples of Zomia, named for a continental span of highlands that elude any significant influence from nearby s
Jul 22, 2012 Brian rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
James C. Scott's landmark book about the "maroon societies" of upland southeast Asia is riveting in its scope and imagination, though dense and academic in its execution. It concerns the intentional decision by roughly 80-100 million people, spread across an area spanning five Asian countries ("Zomia"), to seek a less fixed, less "civilized" life. It's an anarchist history because it involves people who chose to flee the predations of states and state-making (anarchy = absence of any form of pol ...more
Jan 31, 2012 Tom rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A look at the history and culture of stateless people in Southeast Asia. Scott's book challenges the idea that tribal people living in remote or hard-to-access areas have been "left behind" by "civilization". Instead he constructs an alternative history in which statelessness is often a choice and a survival mechanism by people seeking to avoid the burdens of living within a state.

Although the subject matter may appear obscure at a glance - Southeast Asia receives little attention in the US (whe
I found The Art of Not Being Governed far more disappointing than I had hoped. Perhaps this is an unfair judgment-- if the book had been written by someone other than James Scott, I would have been happy to have accepted it as a lackluster but well-written anthropological history of Burma, but between his authorship and the titillating subtitle, I can't help but feel disappointed by the final product. In my opinion, the theoretical arguments were retreads of his Seeing Like a State , and the res ...more
Nov 10, 2012 E.H. rated it really liked it
This was supposed to be about Zomia, a proposed region running through the mountainous area between India to Vietnam. Scott spends less time discussing that and more time discussing state rejection in general. In essence, he argues against Hobbes, claiming that there are good reasons not to want to be part of a state. I think I generally accept his arguments on that front. The part of the book that is about Zomia, especially chapter 6 1/2, is a bit more difficult to swallow--so for example, he a ...more
Dec 07, 2013 Thomas rated it it was amazing
Can't recommend highly enough and frankly isn't getting enough attention for the way it revolutionizes our conceptualizations of societies- yes, I didn't say 'tribes'- living on the outside of the historic state/empire making projects. Many complained it was repetitive, though reiterating his thesis was necessary throughout as it would have been easy for a reader- even a specialist- to get lost in the myriad of details on hill societies examined and other historical examples he frequent weaves i ...more
Would have gotten 5 stars, but was too long winded. This is labeled as a history/politics book, but it could also have been an anthropology book or even an agriculture studies book. After reading this I understand more fully (and sympathize with) some of the claims which anarcho-primitivists make about the aggressive and detrimental nature of early agricultural states.

It was also nice that the author brought in some stuff from outside SE asia to give the reader a frame of reference. The best sec
Margaret Sankey
Feb 09, 2015 Margaret Sankey rated it it was amazing
Scott brilliantly lays out how, despite not looking like what we think a state should be, the peoples of upland Southeast Asia have a system which works perfectly well for them, despite lacking literacy, a head of state, bureaucracy or firm borders. I've loved Scott's stuff since Seeing Like a State, and this work has great application to historical "people without history."
Chris Hamby
Nov 04, 2012 Chris Hamby rated it really liked it
Really impressive, well-argued and researched look at the shifting political and ethnic identities in Southeast Asia. I saw this as a more convincing enumeration of Scott's thesis in Seeing Like A State - that only certain ways of life are easily captured by state systems, and other strategies are formulated in opposition to them.
My only issue with the book is that Scott seems overly careful in returning to his main theses, reiterating previous statements with only a small additional detail or
J Scott Shipman
Aug 28, 2012 J Scott Shipman rated it really liked it
Professor Scott's history of stateless peoples in SE Asia is thought-provoking and relevant. Scott provides examples of peoples who persistently avoid the strictures and confines of the traditional state. This work is valuable for providing a glimpse into the lives of those who chose to truly "opt out." Given the pressures of the state, the days of these people are probably numbered; Leviathan continues on the march.

In the concluding chapter, Scott nails the challenge facing humanity: "For virtu
Aug 23, 2014 Kyle rated it it was amazing
Jim Rimmer
An engrossing work filled with clarity of purpose and rich observations. Informed by a growing body of anarchist history and focusing on communities living in the 'shatter zones' of world affairs this is incredibly unlikely to attain the anything near the readership of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, and more's the pity.

Highly recommended to those with a deep interest in SE Asia, and the very real current impacts of political histories which reach back centuries (and on occasion millennia).
Mar 02, 2011 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thought it was great. A fascinating argument (that the majority of human history has been a stateless one until the last few hundred years) and a incredibly throughough argument about the hill people versus the valley people, in that usually valley states thrive by slave labor (historically), and hills are populated by people who have fled those from those states and intentionally "live free".

Its very long, and really is very expansive an argument.
Carlos Burga
Jun 13, 2014 Carlos Burga rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This book made the most novel argument that I had ever read about understanding the impact of geography in the political history of an area. Scott's detailed analysis of the ways in which the altitude gradient of a geographical area can be so impactful is immediately obvious to anyone who has tried to cross a mountain range, but for those of us who grew up used to seeing two dimensional representations of our world it was truly mind-blowing.
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received his bachelor's degree from Williams College and his MA and PhD (1967) from Yale. He taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison until 1976, when he returned to Yale. Now Scott is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is Director of the Agrarian Studies Program. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has held grants from the N ...more
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“Not so very long ago, however, such self-governing peoples were the majority of humankind. Today, they are seen from the valley kingdoms as “our living ancestors,” “what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism and civilization.” on the contrary, I argue that hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.” 5 likes
“New World escape crops made the economics of escape as tempting as its politics. Colonial officials tended to stigmatize cassava and maize as crops of lazy natives whose main aim was to shirk work. In the New World, too, those whose job it was to drive the population into wage labor or onto the plantation deplored crops that allowed a free peasantry to maintain its autonomy. Hacienda owners in Central America claimed that with cassava, all a peasant needed was a shotgun and a fishhook and he would cease to work regularly for wages.” 3 likes
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