Chapter 16 Zomia and the Art Of Not Being Governed

Throughout this book we have suggested that people of various cultures, ethnicities, religions and philosophical backgrounds can share the same geography in relative peace without a government for long periods of time. This is no fairy tale or utopian pipe dream, but a documented historical fact.

Until recently, a mountainous region of Southeast Asia the size of Europe was completely stateless. 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. In the preface to The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott writes,

“these people’s livelihoods, social organization, ideologies and oral cultures can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arms length.”

Rather than seeing humanity as having evolved towards the conveniences of the modern state, he argues that until recently, humans organized through self-governing kinship units that would cooperate in hunting, fighting, trading and peacemaking.

“In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard of the human condition,” (The Art of Not Being Governed, page 3).

Instead, he argues, we should recognize that many people purposefully live and operate outside of the state for as long as possible.

“Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporations into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them. State evasion and state prevention permeate their experiences and, often, their ideology as well,” (page 8).

The establishment of villages allowed the state to encourage the peasantry to remain sedentary, and thus, able to be taxed and brought into the fold of State control and influence. In Zomia, attempts to assimilate non-state communities were less about development and economic progress than they were about ensuring that economic activity in these communities was taxable and confiscatable if needed. This highlights the importance of building counter-institutions through Agorism. As Scott mentions,

“the main, long-run threat of the ungoverned periphery, however, was that it represented a constant temptation, a constant alternative to life within the state,” (page 6).

Once free communities are established and thriving outside of the State, those living under state rule will be quick to consider the alternative. Scott also notes that the myth of state powers being able to save peasants from the clutches of barbarians is largely false. He argues that refugees of the State were quite common as people recognized that life under a State might mean taxes, conscription in wars, forced labor and servitude. This cycle of state-making and state-unmaking created zones of refuge, or “shatter zones”, where those escaping the clutches of the State came together to form complex groupings of various ethnicities and family units. This complexity, along with “relative geographical inaccessibility”, were common characteristics of these shatter zones. Groups seeking to escape the State would form partnerships and reside in areas that growing government influence could not reach.

When discussing the differences between the valleys of the state and the mountainous regions that make up Zomia, Scott remarks

“The hills, unlike the valleys, have paid neither taxes to monarchs nor regular tithes to a permanent religious establishment. They have constituted a relatively free, stateless population of foragers and hill farmers,” (page 19). 

Zomia has been the site of indigenous struggles, secessionist movements and armed opposition movements. The spiritual beliefs of Zomia often leaned towards Animism, a rather decentralized viewpoint that sees God in all objects, rather than exclusively in spiritual traditions and religions that have been used to centralize the people, such as Theravada Buddhism. In the same way Native Americans saw their belief systems threatened or completely extinguished by Christian missionaries, residents of Zomia faced similar threats from the Buddhist orthodoxy that sought to ban local deities and practices. Scott believes the animist practices and other forms of belief outside the accepted canon

“represent zones of resistant difference, dissent, and, at the very least, failures of incorporation and domestication by state-promoted religion,” (page 300).

Zomia was not the only stateless region throughout history. Prior to the advent of modern travel and technology, many cultures of many lands found freedom living in a wide variety of decentralized, anarchist societies that were outside the city walls and outside the reaches of the empires. It has been written in the history books that these people were savages and primitives who had no knowledge or contact with the so-called “civilized” world. However, in the case of Zomia and other breakaway cultures, we see that these societies were well aware of the empires and wanted nothing to do with them.

The struggles of American Indians best exemplify this concept. Far from the fairy tale Thanksgiving, the history of the relations between the United States government and the Indigenous peoples of North America has been filled with violence and war. American Indians recognized that the colonizers were not after cooperation and partnership, but were using their doctrine of Manifest Destiny to take what they wanted from whomever they wanted. For five hundred years governments of the world have failed to recognize the sovereignty and autonomy of indigenous communities.

George E. Tinker, Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions at Iliff School of Theology and a member of the Osage Nation believes it is this failure that has caused so much harm to indigenous peoples who do not wish to assimilate. In his book Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation, Tinker writes,

“Namely, the political and economic bias in the international discourse is to recognize only states as the fundamental actors in the international political discourse. As such, the natural national identities that make up indigenous peoples’ communities are seen today as merely ethnic minorities within state structures, who may have individual rights but do not have any distinct set of community or cultural right as an independent people,“ (page 7).

Tinker believes the growing state could not accept Indians living amongst themselves; it needed them to join the coming status quo. The colonizers had a burning desire to “civilize” the natives.

“The result was the consistent imposition of european cultural values, norms, societal structures, and technologies on peoples who had lived remarkably well with their own values, norms, structures, and technologies for some thousands of years,” (page 10).

This trend continues today in the form of “sustainable development” projects that only further colonize and damage indigenous communities. Whether we are speaking of those indigenous to the North American landmass or Zomia, there is a consistent history of oppression by states and refusal to accept the autonomy of these groups. (For further reading on indigenous communities that operated in an essentially stateless fashion read Pierre Clastres’ Society Against the State.) However, indigenous communities are not the only populations oppressed by the state.

Despite the seeming normalcy and convenience of living under the control of a state, there is a much freer world waiting outside the imagined boundaries of state institutions. Learning that Freedom truly begins within is a huge lesson we hope to impart. We believe that once we work to know ourselves more deeply and begin the process of healing on an individual level, the ideas of living in cooperative, autonomous Panarchist communities built around the ideas of mutual-aid, non-aggression, voluntaryism and mindfulness will become much more appealing. In fact, as these ideas grow they seem so obvious that it makes us wonder– what has taken humanity so long? As usual, all things happen in the time and space they are supposed to.

We see much hope in the growing interest in Freedom, Anarchy, SelfReflection and Cooperation. Together we are creating a paradigm shift that will allow our planet to heal and evolve towards a more peaceful, free, awakened state of being. We thank you for being a part of this journey.

Remember, if you can see this, you are The Conscious Resistance.

UPDATE 8/31/15: Since the release of this book in April 2015 we have made several edits to fix grammar and spacing issues, as well as to further elaborate a few of our points. We plan to continue updating the book in future editions.

We have also realized that this book is the first in a trilogy we are writing. The second book, tentatively titled “Finding Freedom in an Age of Confusion”, will be a collection of essays which further elaborate upon some of the ideas presented within this book.

The third book will be dig further into implementing Agorist strategies, engaging in counter-economics, and building counter-institutions. Think of it as a “How to Escape the Matrix” type of book.

We look forward to sharing more of our words and ideas with you. Thanks for the support. – Derrick Broze and John Vibes

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 16 Zomia and the Art Of Not Being Governed

  1. Pingback: The Conscious Resistance: Reflections on Anarchy & Spirituality | Josey's Libertarian Page

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