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Posts Tagged ‘james c scott’

prelude

Escape is the oldest story of freedom, and it is among the simplest.[1]

Half a century ago, an anarchist scholar decided to write a heroic story of peasants.When bodies started piling up in Vietnam, he was intrigued that people actually cared about peasants for once. Even then, his task was not easy, given that peasants usually serve as the stage upon which more dramatic disputes between nationalists and colonizers are performed. However, in the archives he uncovered books and records that he wielded against those who had dismissed his humble peasants.

The heroic peasants were a good start for the scholar. While national liberation struggles claimed that the heart of the nation beat within the peasant, the scholar focused an even more elusive class of people: hill peoples, those who buck authorities with a run to the hills. Through diligent scholarship, he was able to bring together an impressive array of theories and terms to describe why certain peoples are poor materials for state-making.

What the scholar loved most about the hill people was their slash-and-burn culture. Dismissed by others as hillbilly backwardness, he knew that their whole way of life was an elaborate trick that they used to be left alone. But everything is different now, he reluctantly admitted; it had all changed after World War II. Most States developed technologies, both mechanical and human, that eliminated their ‘dark twins’ hiding in the mountains. Space was spanned and the hill sanctuaries were found, he said. The few peoples still in the hills were the last ones to escape; but even they are on the verge on disappearing, he lamented.

Not far away, a similar discovery was made.

A young college student was tired of the usual posturing of campus activism. The daily barrage of manufactured urgency and its politics of guilt did not interest him. What he did have was a plan to fight Reagan’s imperialist interventions in Latin America. So after gaining a little know-how in engineering with a focus on alternative energy, he headed south to make a real contribution to ‘the people who could use help.’

But the student felt out of place after he got there and was nagged by the feeling that this struggle was not his. The projects he worked on were practical, no doubt – computer donations from the States were not hurting the people of El Salvador – but they were not really helping that much either. When he looked for guidance, the El Salvadorians were kind but blunt. Their war torn country did not need engineering solutions to political problems, they said. So the student went back home to ponder.

Look, just go to the mountains, a comrade said while visiting the student. The student shot back an incredulous glance. Look, you have mountains here. Just go to the mountains. That’s what we do. Get some guns, go to the mountains, and wage a revolution. The student responded thoughtfully, agreeing that, yes, there were mountains in Seattle, but he was not sure about the rest of the suggestion. A few moments later, with an embarrassed grin, he admitted that it simply did not correspond to his reality at all.

Though quite different, the two stories agree on a basic point: today, there is no sense in running to the hills. The hills may have previously been a non-place, a u-topia, where a people existed without a history. And while it is said that the history of people is the history of class struggle, it would be at least as truthful to say that the history of the peoples without history is the history of those who escape. But with the great latticework of surveillance and control that now spans most of the developed world, the veil of spatial isolation has been pierced. So today, the hills cannot help make class struggle or freedom a reality.

Even with hill peoples now under State control, however, is it not obvious that escape still does and always will exist? Of course it all depends on context – but there is a political danger in the desire to always want more context. The greatest risk is that providing context becomes a purely academic exercise that defers judgment or action. This deferral is an expression of postmodern relativism, most commonly voiced as the desire for complexity (“well, it’s complicated…” or “let me complicate this a bit first…”). Such an incessant demand for context is to be expected, however, as protesting simplicity is a critical move in today’s dominant ideology.[2] So I will begin there. Yet it is my ultimate aim to demonstrate how a reworked concept of escape is essential to understanding contemporary power. Therefore, after I finish examining the demolition of the distinction between the valley and the hill or the town and the country, I shift to the new paths of escape that have opened up under the towering figure of the Metropolis. Because to escape today, one does not run to the hills but burrows deeper into the dark underside of the Metropolis. (more…)

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priestly

The Archaic State of Conquest
They were on the run. As they made their hurried escape through the fields, neither of them wanted to look back. Everyone traded tales about life in the mountains but they were the ones daring enough to seek it out. On more than one occasion during their getaway, fatigue threatened to consume them. And even though they were cloaked in the dark cover of night, they thought for sure that they would be seen. But dread provided more than enough fuel for their flight. Both of them had heard frightening stories about the catchers – cruel, bloodthirsty men said to taunt and toy with runaways just for fun. And so they amputated the burn in their legs and the ache in their bellies with the searing horrors of being caught.

Then, right as they caught of a glimpse of a campfire in the hills, their exodus came to an abrupt halt. The frightening figure of their captor stood out against the pale, moonlit clearing. The opaline glow of his toothy grin alone made them freeze, stupefied. But right above his devilish smirk were his sickening eyes, or really, where they should been – for the one that was still there smoldered like fire while the other was simply a dark crater pouring out venom. This was no usual catcher but an emissary from the sovereign himself, for his clothing was too ostentatious and his weaponry too ornate, which made his presence that much more awesome. As the terror took hold, they dropped to their knees. Whether it was thoughtful or just reflex, they timidly demonstrated subservience in a bid for mercy…

And then he awoke. (Where was the other?) Alone and feverish, he heard the slow advance of an overseer. Knowing that it meant he would soon be set to work in the throbbing heat, no matter his delirious state, he lay there for just a moment longer, contemplating his misery.

At their most peaceful, all States dreams of capture. Yet one State-form is nothing but unbridled conquest: the Archaic State. In a recent work, The Art of Not Being Governed, anarchist academic James C Scott describes the advent of such a State. Setting the scene, Scott details the alluvial plains of Southeast Asia where he says that the simplest states formed in fertile valleys. The key to Scott’s account is his political economy of their emergence, which emphasizes the mass cultivation of rice. Further dramatizing the centrality of rice for these states, Scott calls them ‘padi states.’ Among the many aspects of the padi state particular to Southeast Asia, there are two more general characteristics of padi states that are crystallized in the Archaic State: first, a heavy reliance on slave labor, which is secured through raiding and trading to produce the rice; and second, an inability to span elevation, which results in State power leaving a non-contiguous footprint. Abstracting these characteristics from what is historically specific to padi states in Southeast Asia, it becomes clear that the basic process of the Archaic State is not cultivation but conquest.

Raiding and Trading
A Burmese proverb, “Yes, a soil, but no people. A soil without people is but a wilderness,” exemplifies the first relevant characteristic of the padi state (Scott, Art of Not Being Governed, 70). Dispelling a common misunderstanding, this adage clarifies that manpower is the basic element of padi state political order, and not arable land. Of course land must be conquered and controlled, but labor-power is the source of power for two essential functions for the padi state: wealth, as the fruit of laborer’s work is taken as tribute, and security, as the workers are made to defend the resource intensive infrastructure needed for rice cultivation. And for this reason, the foremost indicator of a padi state’s power is its ability to capture and maintain slaves, which eventually leads to slave majorities or super-majorities in many padi states, as well as to slavery being such a common commodity that it serves as the medium of exchange. Yet this labor-power does not come voluntarily from workers hired or invited but is bled from slaves captured through war or trading and therefore requires a constant application of force, else the source of its power disappears back into the hills. State conquest thus avoids salt-the-earth wars of annihilation because humans are the State’s most precious resource and their lives should be preserved not wasted. But while labor-power fuels padi states, its power grows and recedes with the forces of capture and escape and not innovations in production. Because the padi state’s hunger for slaves is never satisfied, wars are not rare bloody events locked away deep in the annals of the State but myriad moments in a never-ending campaign compelled by the endless need for new labor. (more…)

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This post contained an draft version of a dissertation section. A more recent version is now available on the works page.

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This post contained an draft version of a dissertation section. A more recent version is now available on the works page.

Read Full Post »

This post contained an draft version of a dissertation section. A more recent version is now available on the works page.

Read Full Post »

This post contained an draft version of a dissertation section. A more recent version is now available on the works page.

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