Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Art of Not Being Governed

I just finished reading James Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed, an examination of cultures of resistance to state and civilization, mostly focused on hill and mountain peoples of southeast Asia. I wound up skimming through some parts of the books, where the subject matter didn't interest me enough to plow through the somewhat academic and dry prose, but much of the content gave me some good insights into how we might craft our own lifestyle as a tribe to minimize state encroachment on our freedoms.

Before I go into some of the strategies which might help us, I'll mention an interesting but not directly relevant argument from the book. Civilized lowland valley farmers in southeast Asia have long considered their upland neighbors as primitive ancestral relics who stayed in the hills to continue their nomadic or semi-nomadic, horticultural (as distinct from agricultural) lifestyles while their descendents moved down into the valleys and progressed into civilized life. From my layman perspective on popular anthropological accounts of various hunter-gatherer and horticultural tribes, it seems the authors and the general public make the same assumptions or tell the same origin stories about non-settled tribes in other parts of the world--their cultures have endured for thousands of years in roughly the same form, lasting this long because they worked sustainably with their landbase. Scott makes a compelling argument in his book that, at least in the case of upland southeast Asia, the groups living there have formed and chosen cultures over hundreds or one thousand plus years of intertwined coexistence with civilization. The "friction of terrain" of steep mountains, dense jungles, malarial swamps, etc limited the reach of states, creating "shatter zones" of refuge. Millions of people chose Daniel Quinn's option of "walking away" from civilization, whether refugees of war or famine, escaped slaves, or peasants who decided the benefits of civilization didn't justify the taxes, corvee (forced) labor, dangers of plague, mass famine, war and conscription, and so on.

In good times for the states, and in good and bad times as a result of slavery, many hill people moved into the valleys to replenish the unsustainable population base of civilization. (Apparently, in southeast asian civilizations, and in western civilizations until about 200-300 years ago, civilized people died out faster than they could reproduce--civilizations could only keep themselves going by continuous population raids of mostly slaves from the hinterlands.) Waves of refugees would either integrate into existing hill populations, or push those populations further up into the mountains, creating complex frequently changing populations of no firm ethnic identity or tribal unity; just people adapting to pressures and circumstance. These people did not necessarily lack the knowledge of farming, hierarchical social structure, domestication of animals, literacy and so on. Rather, they chose to incorporate or leave out different elements to support the relationship to civilization that made the most sense to them in their situation. It makes me wonder how many of the "primitive" tribes of other areas of the world in fact have the same complex history of interactions with and partial origins in other collapsed civilizations. (The author specifically mentions the Siriono of Bolivia, whom Allan Holmberg in Nomads of the Longbow described as primitive, timeless hunter gatherers "apparently lacking the ability to make fire or cloth, innumerate, having no domestic animals or developed cosmology...Paleolithic survivors living in a veritable state of nature". New information since his book has definitively shown them to have formerly lived as crop-growing villagers until influenza & smallpox and enemy attacks with the risk of slavery led them to abandon their crops and become fully nomadic around 1920.)

Now on to lessons we can use for shaping our own choices of how to subsist and relate to civilization. Note that I don't much fear a scenario of zombie hordes from the cities pillaging the countryside for potatoes. Instead, I expect the greatest dangers to our freedom to come, as it presently does, from the monopoly of force of civilization. I think about the adaptations below primarily in terms of resisting gunpoint taxes, tribute, forced labor, etc, not in terms of evading individual people or loosely organized bands (though the principles will help with those sorts of relations, too.)

"Escape Crops"

Horticultural (such as permaculturally designed) cultivation of crops can support mobility and freedom from civilization. "Escape crops" meet one or more of these criteria:

  • Well adapted to terrain difficult to access - high rugged mountains, swamps, deltas, etc
  • Staggered maturity to avoid easy harvesting of large quantities all at once
  • Easily hidden
  • Fast growing
  • Requiring little care
  • Little value per unit weight and volume (not worth transporting great distances)
  • Grow below ground (root crops)

State repelling features

  • Physically mobile group, widely dispersed, likely to fission into new and smaller units when under external pressure. This probably requires skill in hunting and gathering, nomadic pastoralism, or dispersed horticultural cultivation of escape crops.
  • Living far from centers of control, or in areas like roadless rugged mountains where "friction of terrain" increases the effective distance.
  • Highly egalitarian social structure which doesn't allow the state to get a foot in the door by making deals with a single person of power and influence. Elements which support such an egalitarian social structure:

    • Radical instability of tribal structure and identity
    • Autonomy of local groups
    • Capacity to shift to new territory and alternate subsistence strategies quickly
    • Ability to divide into small independent units whenever advantageous
    • Common property resources such as pasture, hunting grounds, and potential swiddens allows groups to strike out on their own and impede development of large, permanent distinctions in wealth and status characteristic of inheritable private property
    • Mixed portfolio of subsistence strategies -- foraging, shifting cultivation, hunting, trade, livestock raising, and sedentary agriculture
    • Different social relations, settlement patterns, and cooperation structures arise based on those different methods

After reading this book, I feel even more confident about the value of our plan to cgreate a permaculture homestead adjacent to national forest for hunting and gathering. That gives us secure "owned" property to allow us to experiment with crops and have a stable home base, while providing us the "commons" to allow relatively easy dispersal and fissioning once we have the necessary skills and if and when it becomes necessary or desirable.