Since the book is well summarized by Scott’s own abstract for a conference paper, I’ll start by quoting that:
The hill peoples of mainland Southeast Asia have been viewed, until recently, by scholars and valley peoples, a ‘backward population’ that has failed to make the transition to settled, wet-rice cultivation and incorporation into state structures. This paper, instead, treats the hill-dwellers as essentially a maroon, runaway, state-fleeing population which has, over the past two millennia, peopled the hills. Moving away, especially from Han expansion, into this ‘zone of refuge’, hill people are best conceived of as a “state-effect”. Their social structure, agricultural practices, and cultural values make most sense in this light. The concept of “escape agriculture” is introduced to explain how swiddening and foraging are practiced, in large part, because they are resistant to appropriation, unlike irrigated, wet-rice cultivation which is tailor-made for appropriation. The concept of “escape social structure” is introduced to account for practices of dispersion, fission, and acephaly designed to evade capture by slave-raiding and incorporation into state structures. The history of conscription, warfare, epidemics, crop-failure, taxes and corvée in the valley states is examined to show how they may account for patterns of demographic flight from lowland state cores. Much of the distinctiveness of the “hills” as an agro-ecological and cultural zone, I argue, stems from the fact that the hills have been populated by those who have voluntarily fled or have been driven out of the alluvial valleys. (Abstract to the paper “Zomia as a ‘State-Repelling Space’”, to the conference ”’Zomia’ as a Framework for Conceiving Scholarship on Upland Mainland Southeast Asia”).The word "Zomia" used by Scott refers to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and lower ranges that run from the Central Highlands of Vietnam through most of Laos, southwest China, northern Thailand, northern Burma, and into Northeastern India. It was originally coined by van Schendel and is derived from “zo” which means “hill” in some dialects along the Burma-India/Bangladesh border (Scott 2009:14).
Scott's portrayal of hills and mountains is that it can be linked to ideas I've been interested in myself, such as those of no-man's-land or the common. The people depicted in his book flee to spaces that are still free to use - leftover spaces that offer refuge and access to subsistence resources. Scott calls them “non-state spaces” – “locations where, owing largely to geographical obstacles, the state has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority” (Scott 2009:13). Such spaces were always the subject of derison from people adopting the point of view of the "civilizations" of the plain. In Vietnam, people without a fixed abode or ancestral place were stigmatized as “people of the four corners of the world”, while the Chinese described the Lahu of Yunnan as “people of the mountains, forests and streams” (ibid. 102f). The colonial and early postcolonial regimes, like the classical states, considered these areas terra nullius or inutile, in the sense that they did not even repay the costs of administration in terms of grain or revenue (ibid. 340 n16). Not surprisingly, civilizational discourses of all kinds - such as the Chinese distinction of "raw" and "cooked", or the Western idea of civilizational progress - come in for grinding attacks by Scott. Such views, Scott emphasizes, disregard that statelessness can be a deliberate choice.
For this choice to be possible, however, open and equal access to subsistence resources was crucial. “Common-property land tenure and an open frontier are… the material conditions that underwrite egalitarianism" (ibid. 279). Such access made possible the foraging and swiddening which Scott calls "two major state-repelling subsistence routines". The rice paddy, by contrast, is ideal for the ruler: not only is rice the crop that feeds the greatest population per area unit, but it also ties the peasantry to the place, it imposes a regular, collective rhythm on life, and it can easily be confiscated or burned or destroyed as retaliation. By contrast, in the hills sweet potatoes or cassava could be grown individually, without need of cooperation, according to the needs of the family, almost anytime during the year. It could be grown by swiddening farmers in the hills, out of reach of the eyes of officials, and being below ground, it could not be easily harmed (ibid. 207). The Irish, Scott remarks, chose to cultivate the potato not only because it provided many calories but also because it could not be confiscated or burned (ibid. 196).
Among the conditions that facilitated escape were also "a large open frontier" with access to open stateless spaces, mobility, peripheral location, a flexible social structure that could change size and institutions, availability of crops that could be used in the mountains, and knowledge of foraging, hunting, swiddening or pastoral nomadism.
Being surrounded by plentiful "stateless space" and lacking the capability to check people's freedom of movement, it is no wonder that ancient states were desperate for means to keep or increase their populations. This certainly puts the famous Chinese philosophical texts in perspective. I'm thinking of when Mencius says that if rulers are benevolent and virtuous, people will flock to them out of their own accord, from all directions, as water flows downwards.
There is a way to win the people; win their hearts and you will win the people. There is a way to win their hearts; amass what they want for them; do not impose what they dislike on them. That is all. The people turn to the benevolent as water flows downwards or as animals head for the wilds. Thus the otter drives fish to the deep; thus the hawk drives birds to the bushes... (Mencius, tr. D. C. Lau, Penguin, 2004:81)Even while reading Mencius, I remember I was vaguely reflecting on the social background of such statements. Clearly, this must have been a period when the population in general was much more "nomadic" and less settled than it would later become, much more ready to move if it didn't please it to stay. Their freedom to move gave them leverage. What Mencius was saying was basically that rulers had to be benevolent because otherwise their subjects would escape, to the mountains or elsewhere.
States didn't just rely on virtue, however, to prevent population loss. They also systematically tried to block escape routes. Echoing an old suggestion made by Owen Lattimore (which is today supported by scholars such as Christopher Beckwith), Scott argues that the Great Wall was as much for keeping the population inside as to keep barbarians out (ibid. 110). The state also tried to prohibit subsistence activities in the mountains and wetlands or - as in the case of the Legalists - to systematically starve the population into grain or paddy rice farming by separating them from the open commons (ibid 72). As the wars of the Burmese and Siamese kings show, states went to war to capture populations and force them to relocate in the paddy deltas.
Gradually the agricultural kingdoms and empires grew in size and power, pushing back the frontiers of the "stateless" areas. Scott's book contains much historical material illustrating this process. Chinas' southward expansion, for instance, was accompanied by brutal military campaigns of expulsion and extermination that created wave after wave of refugees of various origin, often lumpted together under the name "Miao". Scott points out that this term was applied indiscriminately to almost any acephalous people on the frontier and that "miao" hence lacked any specific ethnic identity over time (ibid. 140). Generally, Scott adopts a radical constructivist view of ethnicity in his work, pointing out that ethnicity and tribes are state-effects rather than natural givens. “Ethnicity and ‘tribe’ begin exactly where taxes and sovereignty end” (ibid. 114f).
Rather than being primitive and unaquainted with civilization, many of the hill peoples that populate today's Zomia are people who actively fled civilization. Many are descendants from refugees escaping civil wars and strife in China such as the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) or the Panthay Rebellion in Guizhou and Yunnan (1854-73). For instance, many Chinese entering northern Siam in the late nineteenth century were remnants of the Taiping forces. Even as late as in the 20th century, defeated Kuomintang troops ettled in what is today known as the Golden Triangle, where they came to control much of the opium trade together with their hill allies. In 1958, under pressure from Chinese party cadres and soldiers, fully one third of the Wa population crossed the border from the People’s Republic into Burma seeking refuge (ibid. 154).
What is the situation for non-state spaces today? Private property and the modern national state have eradicated them. Sovereignty now reaches all the way to the border of the next state, the hills are increasingly incorporated into the state-space for the extraction of various resources and cultural assimilation is encouraged. Demographic factors are making valley people migrate into the hills, engulfing them and bringing with them their state (ibid. 11f).
Certainly, one might fantasize about new zones where state control is weak. Criminal networks, black economies, moments of chaos, situations when the apparatus of control is overburdened and breaks down, as during the recent urban unrest in Britain. We might even try to imagine ways to increase our subsistence knowhow in order to become less dependent on the regular labor market or our employers. I cannot help recalling here a book I read a year ago, Boku wa ryôshi ni natta (I became a hunter, 2008). It's written by Senmatsu Shin'ya, a former student activist in Kyoto who kept fowl and pigs on the university campus and who is now a hunter, using traditional methods to catch deer and wildboar in the mountains. Although he claims to have dropped out of political activism, in the light of Scott's book his life-style is political indeed!
If I should voice one objection to Scott's book, it would be that it is not entirely clear what the "state", "government" or "sovereignty" is that the hill people escape. States are not only integrated by taxes and forced labour, but also symbolically. If I look at Japanese history, for instance, there are many "hill peoples" that have been regarded as primitives or outcasts and who also in other respects appear comparable to the ones described by Scott. But as Amino Yoshihiko and others have pointed out, many of these peoples have played important roles in symbolically underpinning imperial power through their association with the religious or sacred power of the hills - for instance through being employed as religious specialists on ritual occasions or through special offerings to the court in exchange for which they would be offered imperial protection. This mechanism is connected to a fact which Scott does discuss at length - namely the fact that the hills were also the abode of holy men and women, prophets and hermits. What I want to suggest is that the exchanges between the hills and the imperial centre often made the hill populations part of the symbolic edifice of the state, and this, it seems, was also a role that many of these people relished. While I realize that it is unfair to use Japan as a case to criticize a work on South-east Asia, a question I would like to pose to Scott is whether he sees any similar symbolic mechanisms of incorporation in the societies he studies. If he does, does the "art of not being governed" also extend to how such mechanisms can be evaded?
Scott's book is rare in trying to look at history from a non-state perspective, taking the side of the "primitives"", "mountain peoples" or "nomads" who have always been looked down on by the "civilized", settled peoples of the plain, the empires and the paddy-kingdoms. In seeing through the self-conceit of civilization, it belongs with other refreshing books, such as Marshall Sahlin's Stone-age Economics, Pierre Clastres' Society against the State, the books of Amino Yoshihiko or the essays of Bruce Chatwin.