Anarchy: The Unknown Ideal

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The Art of NOT Being Governed, by James C. Scott.

This book looks specifically at one region of the world in order to tell the story of anarchy – anarchy in the sense of no sovereign authority able to define the law and live above the law (it is in this sense that I use the term throughout). The region the author describes is the highland area of Southeast Asia, from Vietnam west to the easternmost tip of Northeast India.

The subtitle of the book is: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia. I find this intriguing. One of many objections raised to anarchy as a means of organizing society is that of a lack of examples where anarchy has “worked” in the past.

Anarchy: It Can’t Work Here and There Are No Examples in History

Consider this query: where has anarchy worked? Those who defend anarchy have likely had this question thrown at them in every conversation. Those who believe anarchy equals chaos likely have thrown out this question in every conversation.

First, what does “worked” mean? Worked for whom? Worked how? The same can be asked about the state. When has the state (defined as the legal monopoly of force over a given geographic region) worked? Worked for whom? How?

For those who don’t want to be under the threat of coercion, inherently anarchy works. For those who prefer peaceful means of relationships, anarchy works. For those who believe the initiation of force is wrong, again anarchy works. For such people, in fact it is the only form of structuring society that “works.”

For those who believe it is right that man lords over man, anarchy does not work. For such people, the state certainly works. For those who believe that the same act could be either legal or illegal, depending on the employer of the actor, the state works. For those who believe that force and coercion is the proper means by which to order society, the state works.

But where has the state worked in regards to those areas of our lives the state says it is working on? The state has taken on many challenges, supposedly for the benefit of its subjects: managing the economy, peaceful coexistence with others in the world, elimination of poverty, teenage drinking, illicit drugs, health care, etc. Can any of these endeavors undertaken by the state be deemed successful? The list of state failures is exactly as long as the list of state-run programs. Should the burden of proof of the benefits of considering anarchy and opposing the state really be on the proponent of anarchy?

Anarchy: The Historical Record

That there is a lack of historical record regarding successful anarchist societies is not necessarily a reflection of the possibility that there were no such societies. In fact, much of the world for much of history was without a state as that term is known today.

But even if there were no examples in history, certainly if enough people believed in living peacefully with their neighbors, anarchy would work. Is it really more difficult to educate members of society that voluntary relationships are a preferable method of organizing society than the utilization of force? Most major religions throughout the world have as a basic tenet some form of the golden rule. If taught and respected, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” already has a good foundation laid (although I personally prefer “do NOT do unto others that which you would not want others to do unto you).

Certainly, much of our lives are lived in a condition of anarchy. There is no central authority in developing our personal relationships, food choices, vacation destinations, vacation destinations, choosing our favorite sports team, etc. (although the state restricts our choices in some of these areas). Why could not more / most / all of our actions be developed in a similar manner, free from coercion? It certainly COULD work if enough people wanted it so.

As to the history, or lack thereof, of anarchist society, I return to the book:

It is said that the history of peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle. It might be said with at least as much truthfulness, that the history of peoples without history is a history of their struggle against the state.

Pierre Clastres, La societé contre l’état

Why is there so little documented and available information of people living outside of the organizing power of the state? I offer two thoughts:

First, those outside of the control of the state didn’t bother documenting much of anything. Why would they? No need for a census, birth certificates, tax records, W-2 forms, etc. No rulers bent on documenting or fabricating a legacy. A lack of documentation results in a lack of recorded history.

Second, what benefit is there to the state (the gatekeeper for much of the education of the world) to educate people on the true history of those who lived outside of the state? We are taught that living in a civilized manner outside of the state is not possible. Why would the state teach anything else?

The Fight for Control

The book uses the name “Zomia” to describe the region under question: all the lands at altitudes roughly 300 meters and higher, stretching from the Central Highlands in Vietnam all the way to the far northeast tip of India. This region, up until approximately 50 years ago, was fundamentally an ungoverned region. The book goes on to explain how and why.

Other parts of the world have shared similar geographic and political characteristics (and concepts developed in the book also apply to these regions) – any region where mass travel (by road and train) was difficult, or where mass-production of crops was difficult, in both cases due to the rugged geography; regions where the geography made it difficult for outside authorities to gain access, or for the authorities to count crops for taxation. The author allows that Zomia could extend even further west, all the way to Afghanistan, however the further region is not his area of study in this book.

Vietnam on one end and Afghanistan on the other. These two bookends have a couple of shared relationships.

I have come to appreciate that the underlying objective of the wars of the West over the last 100 years and more is for control. Not for oil, not to stop the spread of Communism, not to make the world safe for democracy, not for women’s rights, not for WMD. Just control.

If a region can be brought under control, then all exploitation is available to the conqueror. Yes, this may also include exploitation of local natural resources, but mostly it appears it is for exploitation of the population through the mechanisms of western style regulatory democracy: central banking and funny money, taxes, corporate-state mercantilism, etc.

Has there ever been a more thorough system of control developed than this western style of democracy? Better than slavery and serfdom, as the victims of the modern western state are groomed to one day (perhaps after a generation or two) be voluntarily plucked.

So what of the two shared relationships? Let’s go to the less obvious (at least to me before I read this book) first. The two bookends (and the regions in between) shared the feature that they were quite ungoverned in the altitudes above approximately 300 meters. No state was receiving the benefit of exploiting the population.

Now to the more obvious shared relationship: the two share the position of being on the opposite side in multiple and various wars against western powers. In hindsight, it is very difficult for any standard explanation regarding the purpose and objectives for the war in Vietnam to hold together. For Afghanistan, we don’t even need much hindsight. This war and its objectives cannot be explained in any conventional manner.

So what if the objective in each case was merely control, control for exploitation of the populace via the mechanisms of western political and economic levers? Tried and proven levers useful to extract wealth from a (eventually) compliant population.

Left alone and outside of the sphere of state control, the people in these Southeast and Central Asian highlands worked primarily for their own benefit, and that of family and community. However, once controlled, they could be counted, taxed, and conscripted. They could be added to the base utilized to increase the wealth of those in power – wealth being one of the byproducts of such control.

The control does not have to be direct – it was not necessary that Vietnam became the 51st state. With the mechanisms of mercantilism in place, wealth can be extracted. This is sufficient.

Anarchy is Uncivilized?

It seems to be the standard commentary that the people of the hills, of lands not yet subsumed to the state, are uncivilized. With the state comes order and civilization. The natural progression is for people, once ungoverned, to move into a condition of being governed, and eventually governed by a fully formed state bureaucracy.

The author views this differently:

I argue that hill peoples are best understood as runaways, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppression of state making projects in the valleys – slavery, conscription, taxes, corveé labor, epidemics, and warfare. Most of the areas in which they reside may be aptly called shatter zones or zones of refuge.

The relationships between individuals in a society can be viewed in two alternative environments:

First, consider a voluntary society: most, if not all relationships are voluntary. Family lives and works together, with multiple generations caring for and helping each other. Neighbors work with neighbors to build a better community. Trade is developed in a voluntary manner. Protection is provided in a mutually agreed manner amongst people within a common geographic region. No one is afforded power of coercion over others in a significant (and certainly not unlimited) manner. Any form of “law” (likely in the form of custom) is applicable to all, with adjudication carried out either amongst the involved parties or by a mutually respected third party. Property is private, and this is absolute or virtually so.

Alternatively, consider a society where one or a small handful of the members have special privilege. This privilege allows these few to lord over the rest. For example, laws that are applicable to the common man are not applicable to the lords – those with privilege are granted immunity from judgment in such cases. What is called “theft” if committed by a commoner is called “redistribution of societies’ resources” if committed by the privileged. Murder instead becomes collateral damage.

Judgment on the common man is passed by the same privileged group that establishes the laws, with little or no regard for the desires or benefits of the victim. The privileged few hold a monopoly on creating and interpreting laws and adjudicating disputes. Force can be legally initiated by the privileged. Property either belongs solely to the privileged, or can be claimed by the privileged whenever desired.

The first environment I would describe as an anarchist society. The second environment is descriptive of a society managed a controlled by what would be recognized as the modern state. Which society would be described as civilized?

The more the extent of “state” the more a lack of civilization in society. It is civilized to live voluntarily with our neighbors. It is uncivilized to use coercion and initiation of force as a means to order society.

Zomia was a region where statelessness was real. It was possible for those who did not want to live under control of the state to escape to a land where voluntary relationships were the norm. Is it a wonder that many would willingly choose the option of escape? Is it at least reason for pause that we are taught to believe option two is the civilized society?

We are not taught that statelessness was a purposeful choice for many. We are not taught, according to the author, the state was often and largely populated by slaves – victims of capture from war, for example. We are taught that the advance of civilization and the advance of the state were one and the same, and advancement of the former is not possible without advancement of the latter.

We are taught that the barbarians were…barbarians, that the gypsies were…gypsies (with all of the negative stereotypes associated with these terms). We react to these terms by thinking of such people as living outside of proper society. In fact, for these groups and others, this was most certainly a conscious choice – after all, the closest state never turned away people willing to become subjects. The primary reason residents of Zomia were not incorporated into the so-called “civilization” of the state was because they chose not to be.

Creating Subjects

Avoiding the state was, until the past few centuries, a real option. A thousand years ago most people lived outside state structures, under loose-knot empires or in situations of fragmented society.

What changed? Why did more fall under the heel of the state? What tools were used to make this happen?

Referring to earlier comments about lack of roads, trains, etc., the hills were difficult for the state to access efficiently – roads and trains solved the issue of access (consider the impact to the American Indians of the government funding of the railroads). The second fundamental tool to which the author points is sedentary agriculture: grain farming. In the region of the world he is studying, this means rice. He views this as the foundation of the state’s power.

What are the characteristics of sedentary agriculture that the author identifies that makes this so? Some examples:

  • The location is fixed, making it easy for the state to find both the people and the assets.
  • The crop is uniform, making it easy for the state to count and assign value.
  • Absent disease or other famine causing events, grain farming is expansionary – the excess is turned into ever larger families and thus ever-larger populations under control.

This as opposed to what is otherwise a more hunter-gatherer lifestyle familiar to those in Zomia:

  • The location varies. Follow the buffalo, if you will.
  • The crop often grows underground, out of the eyesight of the state. It can be left underground – depending on the crop – for months or years, stored neatly out of sight.
  • The crop is diverse. Various forms of regional fruits, nuts, and vegetables are grown. This adds difficulty to assigning value, or assessing tax.
  • The population grows more naturally and consistently with the surrounding environment. Fewer people to “control.”

How is this applicable today? In the modern West only a very small fraction of the population farm for a living – in other words, the population is no longer controlled by means of agriculture. Despite this fundamental difference, the control mechanisms are the same:

  • The population is quite fixed. We have homes or apartments with physical locations. These locations are registered with a local agent of the state. We are assigned various forms of personally identifying codes: Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and passports. Our financial transactions can be tracked in complete detail.
  • The crop is uniform: a standardized accounting unit (locally approved legal tender), easy to count and measure. We are greatly discouraged by penalty of tax or prison from using non-sanctioned tender.
  • There is something here in the relationship of government and big business as well. Laws, regulations, agreements, etc., are passed by the state. Inherently, whatever these are they favor large business over small or family run business. It takes resources to comply with edicts. It takes resources to influence the form of those edicts. In both cases, large business has an advantage over small business.

It is the large business that is easier to track. Payroll records, tax withholding, transactions in forms other than cash, monitoring of activities by regulators, and other activities: these are all much easier the fewer and larger the number of employers. There is more certainty that the large entity will comply.

Without making any social or economic commentary about Wal-Mart, consider this from the point of view of the state: is it more likely that Wal-Mart will comply with all declarations of the state, or that the same level of compliance will come from every one of the millions of small shopkeepers that Wal-Mart replaced? I believe it is safe to say that amongst the many small shopkeepers prior to Wal-Mart, there were countless unreported cash transactions, less than full compliance with labor laws, etc.

The point is: anchor the people to the land; make the people and their assets easily identifiable; make the accounting uniform. All of these allow for counting and tracking, statistics for the planners. With this, control is possible. The times have changed. The specific tools employed by the state are different. However, the philosophy behind the mechanisms is quite the same.

Zones of Refuge

There is strong evidence that Zomia is not simply a region of resistance to valley states, but a region of refuge as well….Far from being “left behind” by the progress of civilization in the valleys, [Zomians] have, over long periods of time, chosen to place themselves out of the reach of the state.

The standard narrative of progress is one where barbarians are slowly and systemically brought into civilization via the natural growth of the state, as if it is unfortunate for the poor barbarians that some have not yet been brought under the protective umbrella of the state.

Instead, it seems that many purposely and intentionally chose to remain outside of or to otherwise avoid the state.

…the history of hill peoples is best understood as a history not of archaic remnants but of “runaways” from state-making processes in the lowlands.

As mentioned previously, this is not only true for Zomia, but in many other regions and for many other people around the world.

The Cossacks…were, at the outset, nothing more and nothing less than runaway serfs from all over European Russia…The history of the Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) in late-seventeenth-century Europe provides a further striking example.

Instead of being the outcasts, in fact these groups and others chose to “cast-out” the state. These people are not the unfortunate remnants of others who chose to voluntarily move into the state-controlled lowlands and “civilization”. They are the ones who purposely chose to stay out, or who had otherwise escaped from the lowland states.

State-Accessible Product

A premodern ruler in mainland Southeast Asia would have been less interested in what today would be called gross domestic product (GDP) of his kingdom than what we might call its “state-accessible product”….Given a choice between patterns of subsistence that are relatively unfavorable to the cultivator but which yield a greater return in manpower or grain to the state and those patterns that benefit the cultivator but deprive the state, the ruler will choose the former every time. The ruler, then, maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and his subjects.

It is unimportant to the ruler that the wealth of society is maximized. It is only important that the amount of wealth accessible to the ruler is maximized.

In Southeast Asia, the preferred method of creating a legible field of appropriation was often rice. It was uniform product with a uniform growing season – easy to count, easy to value, easy to tax. Make the people dependent on it for diet, by eliminating many other choices, and the result is that to sustain life one must work in a manner fully exposed to the state. The sedentary grain growing made it easy to develop the tax role, as the population and the crop was fixed to a location.

Though shifting-cultivation agriculture might provide a higher return to the cultivator’s labor, this was a form of wealth that was inaccessible to the state.

There were many crops besides rice that were grown in the region. Many continued to be grown in the hills after the development of the state in the valleys. However, these were not uniform, could not be easily valued, were not tied to a uniform growing season, and therefore very difficult to appropriate by the state (or other predators for that matter). Often they were root crops, growing and maturing underground and out of sight (the underground economy). Such patterns allowed for easy movement by the cultivator.

Things have not changed much, over the centuries and over the miles. A subtle form might be in the form of the currency. Society is coerced into a very singular uniform product, that being the currency of the state. Taxes are required to be paid in this currency; therefore everyone must earn or otherwise acquire it. The counting is easy.

There are, of course, other forms. People often complain about the struggles of a small business. All of the regulations, ordinances, requirements, etc. these may be possible for a large company to absorb, but not so easy for the small businessman. What is the result? Larger businesses can succeed for the same reason that smaller businesses fail – state regulation. They are much easier to regulate – a few large players as opposed to an infinite number of small players. The penalties of not complying with requirements such as a W-2 form or a 1099 are great. Withholding and submitting payroll taxes? It is impossible to imagine a large corporation taking such a risk purposefully.

However, small business? They are already on a shoestring. Not that I suggest they are less ethical, but it is easier to miss a requirement, more of a struggle for cash flow, more possibilities for cash transactions that later get missed in the accounting in a small firm.

Bigger and uniform is better for the state: easier to count, easier to control, and easier to measure. Most important of all: easier to appropriate. Times have changed, tools haven’t.

Population Increases and Control via Slavery

…none of these padi states flourished except by slave-raiding on a substantial scale….there was no state without concentrated manpower, and there was no concentration of manpower without slavery.

Such observations fly in the face of the standard history: as the state progressed, so did civilization; people voluntarily migrated to the protection and luxury of the state. According to the author, this certainly was not the case.

But is it so surprising that many live under such delusions? When one (unencumbered by the state education system) is offered the choice of a life free from legalized coercion or one where your living and breathing are by permission, which choice would most people make?

Was The Great Wall built to keep invaders out, or to keep the subjects in?

In any case, the history of slaving is not obscure; it is well documented because the taking of captives was one of the prime public purposes of statecraft.

In the past, before roads and trains, where people had some choice of living under a state or living outside of it, the choice was overwhelmingly to live outside of it; conversely the primary means of populating the state was by force.

Today, the options of living outside of the state are virtually non-existent. But can this be used as an argument against the benefits of living life outside of the state? Certainly not. When there was the option, it was clear to the common man that living under the state was slavery.

The Defense Benefits of Being a Non-State

Acephalous communities like the gumlao were subversive to British – or any other – administration; they provided no institutional levers or handles with which to enter the community, negotiate with it, or govern it….Egalitarian acephalous peoples on the fringes of states are hard to control. They are ungraspable. To the command “Take me to your leader” there is no straightforward answer. The conquest or co-option of such peoples is a piecemeal operation – one village at a time and, perhaps, one household at a time – and one that is inherently unstable.

It is often wondered how a society can defend itself against outside aggressors absent a centralized state providing such defense. I do not take the above quoted passage as the last word on this topic, (for example, Hoppe has edited a thorough book on the subject, “The Myth of National Defense”) however an interesting idea is presented. Without a leader to defeat or co-opt, without central levers of command and control for the aggressor to assume, it becomes rather difficult for anyone to take power. This is quite an effective means of defense as it relates to an outside aggressor. In order to control, the aggressor must conquer one house at a time.

Such is the society in much of the world still uncontrolled by a state – societies ordered by tribe, by family. Bringing such societies under control has proven difficult. Such a structure certainly offers a grand alternative of “defense.”

State-ordered Society is a Civilized Society?

If we examine the centripetal narrative of civilization closely, it is striking how much of the actual meaning of “being civilized” boils down to becoming a subject of the padi state.

Reactions by reflex: there is the state or there is anarchy (in the wrong definition of the word: violent chaos); civilization requires state-enforced rules; man living outside of the control of the state is a barbarian, uncivilized.

Are these true? In reality or in reflex? Consider: the state is the monopoly of legalized force over a given jurisdiction. How is living under such a system described as “civilized”? Some men have a legalized authority to force others to do as ordered, to pay as ordered, to ingest as ordered, whenever ordered. With disobedience comes punishment, up to and including death.

Relationship backed and defined by force is called civilization? How is this so? If your neighbor told you to trim your hedge or he will shoot you, would you describe him as civilized? If he said he didn’t want to work and that you should pay his rent, or else he has the authority to put you in jail, with what term would you define the relationship? “Civilized” does not come to mind.

Voluntary relationships or forced relationships: if you were able to passively observe two societies, one organized by voluntary exchange and the other by force, which would you call civilized? In which would you choose to live if offered the choice?

There is nothing civilized about using force to satisfy desires. There is everything civilized about a society where voluntary relationships define the society. I avoid for now the concern of “you are dreaming of utopia, it will never work.” This isn’t the point. The issue is to confront what we consider as civilized, and what we consider as barbaric. The accepted wisdom is that without the state, society would collapse into lawlessness and crime. In fact, lawlessness and crime define the very nature of the state and the society organized by it.

Altogether, I highly recommend this book by James C. Scott. In addition to learning the details of a society structured outside of government as we know it today (yes, there ARE examples of anarchic society in history!), it has proven to me to be very thought provoking on the issues of society and civilization.

Reprinted with permission from the Bionic Mosquito.

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