Waylaid Dialectic

September 25, 2011

Seeing like an Anthropolgist

Filed under: Governance — terence @ 8:15 am

Ok so this isn’t a post on how I’ve just read “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia”, James C Scott’s latest, and how I have considered criticisms of it. This is actually just an explanation of why I doubt I’ll ever read it.

No doubt it’s my own fault for judging a book by its internet reviews, but I can’t quite see what it contains to be interested in.

I mean – it seems that the central argument of relevance to political theory in the book is that: when states are despotic people often try and evade them. And that, compared to the risk of expropriation and the loss of liberty that come with despotism, it’s preferable to be small (in terms of social structures) poor and hidden in the periphery.

Fine. I agree.

However, the central story of the state over the last two centuries is that some states have shed their despotism and become *relatively* benign. Not perfect, but good enough to have presided over increased freedom, greater opportunities, and improved welfare for substantial majorities of their populations. Other states haven’t, of course.

But it seems to me that the real question then is not, whether some people some time in the past were in a sense anarchists, but rather what makes states work for their people and how this can be promoted.


  1. I thought the most interesting bits (so far – I’m still reading it) were about the self-creation of ethnic identity, and specifically, intentionally creating an identity that is hard to assimilate into a state or into a culture which is amiable to state rule.

    The relevance is probably a matter of how you see the state – I’d say that what you call the ‘central story’ of the state is a minor side story on the development of the state, applicable only to some ‘western’ nations and a rare few others. And that story is possibly outdated as ‘democratic’ states slide back into rule of the elite – the current phase is the development of structures that allow control by the economic elite to exist while maintaining electoral processes (Chomsky’s ‘manufacture of consent’). It was notable that the Economist’s last ‘democracy index’ was titled ‘democracy in retreat, and reduced the democratic ratings of most ‘western’ countries.

    The central story of the state in the last couple of centuries is that of increasing encroachment. As Scott points out, historically, many people lived outside the state and many of those able to leave the widening state zone did so, nowadays there’s nowhere to go.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — September 26, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  2. Thanks Sam. I agree the shaping of ethic identity for functional purposes sounds interesting (and there’s quite a bit of pol sci research showing it happening politically in different parts of the world.)

    But I don’t think that the central story of the state over the last two centuries is one of encroachment. Or, at least, I don’t think we really live in a world of greater political cooercion than that which existed 200 years ago. However, I do think that it’s plausible that the democractic moment be about to be reversed (although I’m not sure of this). I also think that economic elites have managed to subvert democracy in a way that means it has never really realised its egalitarian potential.


    Terence (ps. out of internet access from tomorrow).

    Comment by Terence — September 26, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

  3. “Or, at least, I don’t think we really live in a world of greater political cooercion than that which existed 200 years ago.”

    Seriously? A couple of hundred years ago much of the world’s population lived outside the state and even those living within effective state boundaries had little day to day contact with it. Even advanced states hadn’t set up their compulsory education systems, had rudimentary tax systems, military conscription was something that happened in a state of emergency rather than a permanent practice and planning laws barely existed. Policing was weak and ineffective and surveillance and information gathering non-existent. (Japan is probably an exception here – with its highly advanced state that practiced effective censorship and enforced rigid social controls). States were very coercive when they were able to be, but they simply didn’t have the financial, bureaucratic and technological capacity to project their power as today’s states do. Military developments vastly increased the range and effect of state’s coercive power and nuclear weapons have taken it to a whole new level. Even given your pro-state politics, I’m quite surprised you don’t think today’s world is more coercive than it used to be.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — September 27, 2011 @ 7:30 am

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