Societies without the State

Can we humans organize our societies without the help of the State aka government? is the question people ask me whenever I talk about free markets or a free society without a presence of the State. Few go as far as saying that without the State life itself will become impossible! Some of the questions people ask are fairly typical Statist responses e.g., who will build the roads in the absence of the State or who will run the schools, hospitals, gardens etc., or who will provide protection – police as well as national defense etc.

Not only this, many people ask me for some real life examples of Stateless societies. In this article I intend to give those examples. People will be surprised to know that in our own backyard, i.e., in Indian neighborhood, there use to be and still are many Stateless self governing societies. Specifically, I want to discuss the Stateless people of a region called, Zomia (figure 1 below). Yale political scientist Prof. James C. Scott discusses this area and its self governing Stateless people in detail in his important book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

Figure 1: James C. Scott’s Zomia

Scott’s book is a welcome contribution to the Libertarian literature. It is an important anthropological work throwing much needed light on the history of people who are deliberately living outside the reach of the State; People who are repelling the State from their lives by using different techniques like swidden (slash and burn shifting) agriculture, having no written language but only oral histories, living on highland mountain regions where the State cannot enslave them easily, living in small groups and remaining very mobile, and reliance on millenarian religious prophets for waging a constant revolution against the State. These people are self governing themselves. They have deliberately adopted such unique culture to avoid being State subjects.

Scott begins his book by turning the official narrative of ‘people living in urban valley States as civilized’ and ‘people living in highland mountains away from the State as uncivilized tribal or barbarian’ on its head. Such type of history is a product of court historians who work for the State. It is important for the State to demonize people who are deliberately escaping their enslavement, and so they hire intellectuals to write such propaganda history depicting state evading people as tribal or barbarian. They will call them primitive people who are untouched by urban modernity. It is important for the State to demonize these self governing people to stop its own enslaved population from getting attracted to such zones of refuge and running away. As Scott says, the rulers of Han China built the Great Wall of China not only to repel the outside invasion, but also to stop its own population from running away to outside zones of refuge. According to Scott, the so-called civilized people are actually State’s slave subjects and thus living a horrible life of paying taxes, doing force labor work for State officials and dying in State wars as cannon fodder. Whereas the so-called uncivilized tribal barbarians are not State subjects, and thus they live freely without facing any of the predicaments which State subjects face.

These Stateless Zomia people use different State repelling techniques. I discuss them very briefly here.

Tough Location, Mobile Lifestyle and Shifting Agriculture

The State officials will enslave the population if it is living in an easily accessible area like valley plains. But it will be very difficult to enslave people who are living in tough terrain like upland mountains or hills. These kind of inaccessible locations are the places of refuge for these Stateless people. Scott writes,

Briefly put, such strategies include fleeing to inaccessible areas, scattering and breaking up into smaller and smaller groups, and pursuing subsistence techniques that are invisible or unobtrusive.

The quickest available refuge lies, generally, farther up the water courses and higher in the hills. “If we have to run, we will run up into the hills”, reports a Karen village elder. If they are pursued, they retreat still farther upstream to higher altitudes. “Then they came and looked for us so we fled upstream”. And: “The third time they came we came up here”. 

We are seeing people fleeing State depredations even today in the on-going economic crisis e.g., many Americans are now renouncing their citizenship because of heavy tax burden, and around 61000 Indian millionaires have left India in last decade. The difference between these US or Indian State subjects and the Stateless people of Zomia is that these State subjects are running away only when the exploitation burden is becoming unbearable whereas Zomia people don’t want to get exploited by the State at all; They want to live free forever.

Dispersal in small family groups and communities is also important because that way they won’t be visible to the State officials who are always looking out for people for enslavement. Zomia people are also very mobile. Mobile lifestyle is again important for running away from the State if they are pursued.

These people also rely on shifting agriculture called swidden (slash and burn farming). Such techniques help them in remaining invisible and mobile. Scott writes,

The pattern was to open many small, scattered, unobtrusive plots; the same principles of dispersal and invisibility governing the behavior of human refugees also governed their agricultural choices. Where possible, they chose crops needing little care, crops that matured quickly, root crops that could not easily be destroyed or confiscated and which could be harvested at leisure. People, fields, and crops were each deployed to evade capture.  

Oral History and Absent Writing

Zomia people don’t have any writing or texts. In the language of the valley State officials they are so-called ‘non-literate’ people. As Scott says, Bringing preliterate people into the world of letters and formal schooling is, of course, a raison d’être of the developmental State. But, as Scott shows in his book, these people are not preliterate but post-literate. They left writing and texts deliberately to escape the State. They adopted an oral culture to stop the State from emerging from their own societies. Orality is one of their defense techniques against the State. These people knew writing before they escaped the encroaching State. Here is Scott again:

The case for the “strategic” maintenance (if not creation) of nonliteracy, however, is cut from the same cloth. If swiddening and dispersal are subsistence strategies that impede appropriation; if social fragmentation and acephaly hinder state incorporation; then, by the same token, the absence of writing and texts provide a freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines.

To understand the full details of this technique of orality I will advise readers to go through Scott’s book thoroughly. In brief, writing is a tool mostly used by the State officials as Scott says, but the social value of literacy, in turn, depended on the state bureaucracy, an organized clergy, and a social pyramid where literacy was a means of advancement and a mark of status. And, as in the Roman case, so much of the practice of literacy was directly dependent on the existence of a particular state and its bureaucratic routines: knowledge of state documents, law codes, chronicles, record keeping in general, taxes and economic transactions, and, above all, the structure of office holding and hierarchy linked to that state made literacy a sough-after prestige good.

Scott declares that, an oral tradition is, in most respects, inherently more democratic than a written tradition.

Millenarian Prophets

Zomia people are also big followers of millenarian prophets and their prophesies. The major reason for such following is that such religious movements help these fragmented people to get united and rebel and fight against the encroaching State. As Scott mentions,

In settings that range from Buddhist to Christian to Muslim to animist, messianic holy-man rebellions seem prevalent. It is surely worth considering the proposition that such movements are the characteristic form of resistance among small, divided, acephalous societies that have no central institutions that might help coordinate joint action…..To put it somewhat differently, one might say that the shape-shifting and simplified forms of escape social structure among egalitarian groups had the consequence of stripping them of the structural means for concerted action. Mobilization was possible only though charismatic prophets who stood above and outside kinship and lineage rivalries.

By using above discussed varied techniques these people are evading the State since last two thousand years. Although with the advancement in technologies in the 21st Century, modern nation States are more in a position to bring these diverse people under its yoke, but still these people are resisting and fighting to remain free. Fortunately, the nation States themselves are becoming weak in present as we are seeing across the globe in this on-going economic crisis. Bankrupt States are so desperate that they have started exploiting their own subject population beyond reasonable limits, and because of that many citizens are now fleeing. With the weakening States, the probability is increasing that more and more people will be able to escape the State tyrannies. And if the valley States become weaker then the people of Zomia can also continue their free existence.

As the example of Zomia people shows, it is not only possible to live without the nation State, but, in fact, live freely, survive and thrive. The only thing which is impeding humanity’s freedom from the State is the mental enslavement of subject population. State citizens simply can’t imagine their life with their governments! Their lack of imagination of a Stateless society is what is stopping them from escaping their enslavement. As I said, in the backyard of India itself many people are living without any kind of State apparatus. We just need to study and understand them. Once people will know and realize that their life without the State is very much possible, they will be free like the people of Zomia.

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2 thoughts on “Societies without the State

  1. Gene C says:

    Primitive highland societies escaping state structures in the best way possible – by going away. Things have not changed much in modern times. To escape the state today, one does pretty much the same thing – go away to a low tax jurisdiction with good weather.

    A pity that more … firm options against the state do not exist for the individual. Many such attempts have ended in failure – ie. creating a new state, destroying the existing one or fomenting revolution. The nation state concept has become too entrenched and no serious alternative to it exists.

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