(ANTIMEDIA) Everything we know about history is wrong—in many ways. Even so, there is one particular lie that is especially damaging to the consciousness of the general population. It is the idea that most of humanity has existed under governments and empires throughout history.
To be clear, it is true that governments, empires, and other forms of organized thuggery took place throughout history, but these plantations only stretched so far. Vast areas of the planet were inhabited by free and relatively peaceful groups of people. They traded amongst themselves and helped each other through hard times—without authority and organized violence. Since the word “government” means so many different things to so many different people, for the sake of this conversation we can define the term as: “A territorial monopoly of force within a specific geographical region.”
One of the most popular misconceptions about human history is that there is no example of a thriving and peaceful anarchist society in our past. This idea couldn’t be more wrong, because although tyrants may have drawn lines on maps that stretched across the entire continent, they did not have the resources or technology to reach very far outside of their capital cities. Even the largest empires were not able to patrol the full reaches of their kingdoms. Large populations would not come into contact with government agents for many generations. It has only been the past few hundred years that empires have been able to stretch from ocean to ocean, controlling and taxing all the people within that entire geographical area.
One of the clearest historical examples of this dynamic is that of Zomia. As Derrick Broze and I explain in our recent book, The Conscious Resistance: Reflections on Anarchy and Spirituality:
Zomia is a mountainous region of Southeast Asia the size of Europe that was completely stateless for many generations. In fact, the area was almost entirely inhabited by anarchists who had fled into the mountains to escape the reaches of various governments. Naturally, there was no official name or flag for this area, but it has been thoroughly studied and in 2002, European historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam named the region Zomia. In 2009, Yale Professor James C. Scott expanded on the study of the region with his book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.
Zomia was an area of around 2.5 million square kilometers, spanning from the central highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India, covering five Southeast nations including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma. The area contained around one hundred million minority peoples. It was not an actual state, but a collection of many peoples and regions mainly living in the hills and mountainous regions that were largely unwanted or inaccessible to the State. Scott’s argument is that these widely varied peoples came together to trade among each other and developed customs and practices that were inherently anti-state. As evidenced by their agriculture, politics and spirituality, they sought to live in ways that were not congruent with Statism.
I explored this idea deeper during my talk last week at Jackalope Freedom Festival in Arizona: