Sunday, 21 August 2011

James Scott and the anarchist history of Zomia

Like James Scott's other books, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009) is interesting and has a simple message that sticks in the reader's memory. It will certainly stick in mine for a long time. Many hills and mountainous regions in South-East Asia were first populated by refugees. These mountains functioned as a no-man's-land, as a refuge for people fleeing the state. The so-called "tribes" inhabiting these hills and mountains have often been portrayed - especially by the agricultural "paddy kingdoms" from which they escaped - as barbarians or backward populations stuck at a primitive stage of social development. But as Scott points out, the hill peoples were not backward or primitive at all. They knew only too well what civilization amounted too: taxes, forced labor and conscription. They knew civilization and had freely chosen to escape it.

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.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Conflagration in Britain

When I saw the first reports from the unrest in Tottenham, my first thought was that it followed the classical pattern of urban disorder in Britain and France in recent decates, with an act of police brutality triggering the conflagration. A difference to what happened in France 2005 was that this time no-one tried to describe the unrest as an immigrant riot or race riot. It seemed like a riot by all the young people, regardless of race, who had ended up socially excluded and with no future. Was there hope in this, I wondered - hope that race and religion would be forgotten and common experiences of exclusion would unite people? But another difference, less hope-inspiring, was the sheer scale of the violence in London, and the fact that people trying to stop fires or protect their shops were among the victims. By contrast, the riots in the banlieus had seemed comparatively controlled, rational or even ritualized, the violence being directed against the police or against cars, but not really against any other unrelated people.  

As I've written before about the riots in France, the causes of urban unrest are seldom exhaused by economic grivances. Economic marginality is certainly an important background factor. But to say that economic betterment is all the rioters want seems unconvincing. In episodes of unrest, the paramount desires seem to be those of freedom and respect. To pay back against humiliation, to restore "justice" and to revel in new-found freedom almost always seems like more important concerns to rioters than economic deprivation per se.

Some commentators have argued that the brutal cuts and austerity measures of the present Cameron government cannot have caused the riots since they haven't really started to have effect yet. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if the measures were an important factor anyway, not for economical reasons, but as a final insult and proof of the establishment's arrogance and contempt for the lower classes.

That pur joy and revellation in freedom is an important factor in rioting is apparent from the following gleanings from various texts on the riots.
It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about. Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. (Laurie Penny, "Panic on the Streets of London", Open Democracy, 9 August 2011)
At around 5pm, watching the live coverage of the start of the night's violence on Mare Street, it struck me that things were kicking off in broad daylight. The disturbances on Sunday seemed opportunistic, "copycat" - people taking advantage of the overstretched police to launch a relatively minor spree of theft and destruction. On Monday, this "opportunism" had become a strategy. A daylight confrontation meant open defiance of the police, not simply taking advantage of darkness and overstretch. It was as if, all of a sudden, groups across London realised that the police could not be everywhere. [...] It looked as if the rioters were revelling in their mobility, flowing from place to place without pattern but simply because they could. It looked like a kind of sudden freedom. Call it mob rule, call it Hobbesian anarchy; condemn these robberies, the arson, the assaults on passers-by, the destruction of small businesses. All those things were disgusting. But the kids doing them were clearly dizzy with a kind of liberation. (Will Wiles, "Riot Thoughts")
Everyone was on a riot, just goin’ mad like, chuckin’ fings, chuckin’ bottles. . .it was good tho’. . .it was good fun . . . ‘course it is! [...] Yeah. . .it’s the governments fault . . . conservatives whatever, whoever it is, I dunno’. We’re showin’ the police we can do what we want. That’s what it’s all about (interview with riot girls, BBC)
The second quote above continues with a statement on how frightened the author feels about the breakdown of  rule of law, since that is a rule he benefits from. The interview with the "riot girls" seems to have been the object of much derison on the net, but aren't what they are doing simply that they are celebrating freedom in all its ugliness and beauty? Against the tendency to idealize freedom and turn it into a harmless slogan, these quotes are, I think, a good a reminder of how explosive this ideal really is. Whenever freedom is realized, it tends to frighten people or scandalize them.

Let me return to the comparison between the unrest in Britain with the 2005 riots in France. Sophie Body-Gendrot has written a lucid analysis about it. She expresses one of the similarities in a laconic sentence: "What is striking is that these youths ask for nothing." This is indeed a striking, important fact. It's true that they don't ask for anything, they act. What's happening is that they take the opportunity of freedom as it offers itself, trying to expand it and keep it alive. They know that no one is ever going to help them with that. They can't ask anyone, since no-one can do it except they themselves.

Pointing out that the desire for freedom, or joy in freedom, can be an important factor behind riots is not to defend them. I too would have felt frightened by looting and arson. As a researcher, however, I think it is undeniable that much rioting is simply impossible to understand without taking this desire - along with the desire for respect - into account. That said, I also admit that I do have a weakness for this desire, that I find comfort in how strong and pervasive it has proven to be (even though I do not approve of all the manners in which it has been realized), and that I do wish that all downtrodden souls will have the opportunity at least once in a lifetime to feel the joy of freedom. It goes without saying that no one else should come to harm and that the freedom must be shared with others.

To return to Body-Gendrot, she also mentions a few differences between the urban unrest of Britain and Frace. Apart from the fact that racial conflict seems to play so little role in the British unrest, she also discusses the different configuration of Paris and London - affluent Paris being like a "medieval fortress" with outbreaks taking place at the margins while the boundaries of London neighbourhoods are more porous - and the differences in public reaction to the riots in Britain and France which reflect differences in political culture. The only thing I wonder about in her discussion is the seeming discrepancy between the early part of her paper that stresses how much rioters usually have in common with other residents in their neighborhoods (whim whom they share the same "reservoir of grievances" regarding police harassment, poor housing and lack of jobs), and the middle part that mentions their "detachment from their communities that allowed actions without remorse".

End of blogging for today. A privilige of writing a blog is that you can indulge in impressions and on-the-spur comments, without having to be systematic or reaching conclusions. Writing a blog can be very dreamlike, but such dreamlikeness is also true of reality itself.

A friend found this Google map linked to by the Guardian. A snapshot of the situation in London on Monday night August 8. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Hangenpatsu, Kimigayo and idyllic talk in Tokyo

A few days ago, I went to Osaka to take part in the demonstration against nuclear power ("Natsu Datsu-Gen-Patsu sound-demo").

One thing that surprised me was the participation of young people in black robes who looked like Buddhist priests. First I thought: no way they can be real priests. After all, they had fancy-looking straw hats - except of one of them, a muscular sunburned fellow with a Hanshin Tigers towel tied around his head. Some had sneakers instead of the customary zôri sandals. I complimented them for their nice outfit and asked why they had dressed up like that. "It's because we are priests", they answered. It turned out that they belonged to the Ôtani-ha of Jôdo Shinshû (True Pure Land Buddhism).

As the demonstration started, the air was rattled by the hard sound of a bongo drum and the priests picked up their black and white flags (nobori). With the text "We take our refuge in Amitabha Buddha" (Namu Amida Butsu), they nicely and incongruously complemented the "Hasta la victoria siempre" of the Che banner further ahead. Many participants were carrying sunflowers, the new symbol of the anti-nuclear power movement. The priests had placards on their backs with images of the Buddha and texts in the Osaka dialect like "Watashira mo iikagen okoru de" (We're angry too).

"We too are angry" (picture borrowed from the blog Raita M no nikki)
Perhaps it's only one of my own private idiosyncrasies, but in so-called "sound demos" I always enjoy the live music - drums, saxophones, or any instrument really - best and try to walk as close to it as possible. The priests had brought various things from their temples which they used as instruments. One of them made a sharp penetrating sound with a metal bell in the shape of a bowl (o-rin) and another had what looked like a small mokugyo (a wooden instrument in the shape of a fish).

As we approached Namba, near the end of the demonstration, I got my second surprise when the DJ started to play Kimigayo, the controversial national anthem. As far as I could see, nobody protested. Maybe it was only in my imagination, but the entire demonstration seemed to grow quiet, as if in deference. It felt a bit like a sports event. Although I had felt stupid when I asked the priests why they were dressed like priests, I think I felt even more stupid walking along with the demonstration to the solemn tunes of the anthem and wondering why I was participating in this spectacle.

I later found a participant report ("Afugan Iraku Kitachôsen to Nihon") that mentions that the anthem was accompanied by a change of slogans, something which I hadn't noticed from where I was walking. The new slogans included "We are neither right nor left, just ordinary citizens", "Please, participate in the demonstration regardless of whether you are right or left" and "Let us sing Kimigayo in a normal way, without being coerced". As the blog author points out, the intention behind the arrangers is easy to sympathize with. Surely, the entire citizenry are victims when a nuclear accident occurs.

However, if the intention was that everybody should be able to participate regardless of ideological conviction, then why on earth play the Kimigayo at all?

What I think needs to be said clearly is that the idea that a national anthem is "neutral" and stands above politics is a delusion. My intention is not to single out the Kimigayo in particular, despite its controversial status. The same can be said about any anthem. If I had participated in a demonstration in Sweden, and the organizers had suddenly decided to play the Swedish anthem, I for one would certainly have refused to walk along. Playing a national anthem is divisive - just as divisive as playing an overtly "leftist" or "rightist" song - for the reason that nationalism is itself an ideology, propagated for political reasons by political actors in all modern states.

My intention today is not to criticize nationalism - although that is an ideology I detest. What I want to point out is simply that the idea of trying to use nationalist symbols to reach out beyond ideological barriers is unworkable.

Not only does it seem insensitive towards the Korean or Taiwanese participants in the demonstration. Doesn't it also seem like an almost intentional affront against those on the left who have long fought against the ordinances forcing teachers to stand in fron of the Hinomaru-flag and sing the Kimigayo in school? Such an ordinance was in fact passed by the Osaka Prefectural Assembly on June 3, less than two months ago.

Maybe it's time for a brief digression into the history of ideas here. As I said, my intention is not to single out Kimigayo as worse than any other anthem. Looking specifically at the Japanese context, however, it's possible to trace back the idea of Kimigayo's "neutrality" to the distinction between the kokutai (national body) and seitai (political body), with the former standing for the nation organically united under the emperor while the latter stood for the institutions of politics, such as parties, assemblies or govenments (I recommend this piece by John Brownlee for a brief history of the idea of kokutai from the Meiji era onwards). Using this ideology, it became perfectly logical for nationalist zealots in prewar Japan to assassinate prime ministers and other politicians in the name of the emperor, hoping to "dispel the clouds" that had hidden the imperial sun.

The ideology was also expressed in the official prewar doctrine that Shintô was not a religion - a doctrine that sounds like a funny curiosity today but which had real political import, since it meant that citizens and colonized subjects could be forced to participate in emperor worship without violating the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Meiji constitution. Although so-called "State Shintô" was abolished after the war (and Shintô is today officially regarded as religion), I don't think it is farfetched to claim that the ideas behind it still live on in the widespread "common sense" that nationalism is not a political ideology. It is on the basis of this "common sense" that teachers are today forced to resign if they refuse to sing the Kimigayo or stand in front of the Hinomaru flag. An obvious continuity exists behind such events today and the famous incident in 1891 when the Christian Uchimura Kanzô was fired as a teacher after refusing to bow to the portrait of emperor Meiji and the Imperial Rescript on Educaction.

Korean schoolchildren worshipping at a Shinto shrine. Freedom of religion?
The effect of portraying things like anthems or flags as "non-political" or "non-ideological" is to marginalize dissent and rob it of legitimacy. After all, if these act of standing, singing or bowing are essentially non-political acts, how could they possibly go against the political or religious convictions of anybody who's in his right mind? And if they do, surely those oddballs must be somehow so "different" from to rest of us reasonable, mainstream citizens that we don't need to pay much attention to them?

But let me end by shifting subject. The last three days we've spent in Tokyo, and, oh how idyllic it has been. My heart goes out to everyone we've met there. Some day, perhaps, I'll write more about the places we visited - Asakusa, Kanda, the countryside in Saitama, and peaceful Enoaru Café, the best café in Tokyo.
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