Scott’s “Art of not being governed,” in a nutshell

I read James Scott’s 2009 “The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia.” I’ve reproduced a quote that concisely captures a nice chunk of the ~400 page book. The terms raw and cooked are Chinese euphemisms, possibly outmoded, for distinguishing between “barbarians” and “citizens.” It would seem to describe refinement, but it could as easily have come down to whether the person was someone who paid taxes.

As a political location — outside the state but adjacent to it — the ethnicized barbarians represent a permanent example of defiance of central authority. Semiotically necessary to the cultural idea of civilization, the barbarians are also well nigh ineradicable, owing to their defensive advantages in terrain, in dispersal, in segmentary social organization, and in their mobile, fugitive subsistence strategies. They remain an example — and thus an option, a temptation — of a form of social organization outside state-based hierarchy and taxes. One imagines that the eighteenth century Buddhist rebel against the Qing in Yunnan understood the appeal of “barbarian-ness” when he exhorted people with the chant: “Api’s followers need pay no taxes. They plow for themselves and eat their own produce.” For officials of the nearby state, the barbarians represent a refuge for criminals and rebels, and an exit for tax-shy subjects.
The actual appeal of “barbarity,” of residing out of the state’s reach — let alone forsaking civilization — has no logical place in the official state narratives of the four major civilizations that concern us here: the Han-Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Burman, and the Siamese. All are “produced on irrevocable assimilation in a single direction.” In the Han case, the very terms raw and cooked imply irreversibility: raw meat can be cooked but it cannot be “uncooked” —though it can spoil! No two-way traffic or backsliding is provided for. Nor does it allow for the indisputable fact that the core civilizations to which assimilation is envisaged are, themselves, a cultural alloy of many diverse sources.

This is one of those books where the Conclusion is a good synopsis of
the whole book, so if you want more after these notes, read that

(2011). Life without the State The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia . New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. James C. Scott , Anthropology Now, 3 (3) 111-114. DOI:


This entry was posted on Saturday, January 17th, 2015 and is filed under books.