James Scott: Non-State Spaces And Zomian Culture

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We commonly look at ideology from the perspective of the ruling class, as a legitimizing tool. But ideology serves the purposes of the ruled, as well—as a guide to action in their class interest.

The respective ideologies of rulers and ruled tend to be interdependent. The official legitimizing ideology of a ruling class appeals to standards of legitimacy that have cultural resonance with the ruled. At the same time, ideologies of resistance frequently use the ruling classes’ own standards of legitimacy as weapons against them.

The latter phenomenon, the contesting or inversion of symbols from the official ideology and their use as a tool of resistance, is the theme of this paper.

James Scott: Non-State Spaces and Zomian Culture

James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia treats Zomia—the highland areas of southeast Asia—as a paradigmatic example of what he calls “nonstate spaces.”

What Scott calls “state spaces and nonstate spaces” are the central theme of The Art of Not Being Governed. State spaces, Scott wrote in Seeing Like a State, are geographical regions with high-density population and high-density grain agriculture, “producing a surplus of grain… and labor which was relatively easily appropriated by the state.” The conditions of nonstate spaces were just the reverse, “thereby severely limiting the possibilities for reliable state appropriation.” [1]

This might have served as the topic sentence for his next book, The Art of Not Being Governed. In fact, according to Scott, [2] Seeing Like a State was actually an offshoot of the research that eventually led to The Art of Not Being Governed. His original line of inquiry was “to understand why the state has always seemed to be the enemy of ‘people who move around’….” In his studies of “the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill peoples on one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other,” along with assorted nomads and runaway slaves, Scott was diverted into a study of legibility as a motive for state policies of sedentarization. Having developed that topic, he came back to his original focus in The Art of Not Being Governed.

In the latter book, Scott surveys the populations of “Zomia,” the highland areas spanning the countries of Southeast Asia, which are largely outside the reach of the governments there. He suggests areas of commonality between the Zomians and people in nonstate areas around the world, upland and frontier people like the Cossacks, Highlanders and “hillbillies,” nomadic peoples like the Romani and English and Irish Travelers, and runaway slave communities in inaccessible marsh regions of the American South.

States attempt to maximize the appropriability of crops and labor, designing state space so as “to guarantee the ruler a substantial and reliable surplus of manpower and grain at least cost…” This is achieved by geographical concentration of the population and the use of concentrated, high-value forms of cultivation, in order to minimize the cost of governing the area as well as the transaction costs of appropriating labor and produce. [3] State spaces tend to encompass large “core areas” of highly concentrated grain production “within a few days’ march from the court center,” not necessarily contiguous with the center but at least “relatively accessible to officials and soldiers from the center via trade routes or navigable waterways.” [4] Governable areas are mainly areas of high-density agricultural production linked either by flat terrain or watercourses. [5]

The nonstate space is a direct inversion of the state space: it is “state repelling,” i.e. “it represents an agro-ecological setting singularly unfavorable to manpower- and grain-amassing strategies of states. States “will hesitate to incorporate such areas, inasmuch as the return, in manpower and grain, is likely to be less than the administrative and military costs of appropriating it.” [6]

The greater the dispersal of collect, in the same way that grab. To the degree that such to that degree will they prove the crops, the more difficult they are to a dispersed population is more difficult to crops are part of the swiddener’s portfolio, fiscally sterile to states and raiders and be deemed “not worth the trouble” or, in other words, a nonstate space. [7]

Nonstate spaces benefit from various forms of “friction” that increase the transaction costs of appropriating labor and output, and of extending the reach of the state’s enforcement arm into such regions. These forms of friction include the friction of distance [8] (which amounts to a distance tax on centralized control), the friction of terrain or altitude, and the friction of seasonal weather. [9] In regard to the latter, for example, the local population might “wait for the rains, when supply lines broke down (or were easier to cut) and the garrison was faced with starvation or retreat.” [10]

In Zomia, as Scott describes it:

Virtually everything about these people’s livelihoods, social organization, ideologies, …can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arm’s length. Their physical dispersion in rugged terrain, their mobility, their cropping practices, their kinship structure, their pliable ethnic identities, and their devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders effectively serve to avoid incorporation into states and to prevent states from springing up among them. [11]

In order to avoid taxes, draft labor and conscription, they practiced “escape agriculture: forms of cultivation designed to thwart state appropriation.” Their social structure, likewise, “was designed to aid dispersal and autonomy and to ward off political subordination.” [12]

Zomia is one of many nonstate spaces throughout the world—whether territorial or nomadic societies—populated by secessionists voting with their feet: they include the Cossacks, Romani, English and Irish Travelers, and the “pirate utopias” and American “tri-racial isolates” described by Hakim Bey.

The latter category, unfortunately, got its name from the American eugenics movement at the turn of the 20th century. They descended from runaway black slaves, white indentured servants and Indians who formed autonomous communities in swamps and other back country areas. Where native tribes were sufficient in number, they frequently retained their tribal structure and absorbed runaway blacks and whites. Elsewhere, they amalgamated into new ethnic identities. Some of the newly amalgamated groups created synthetic identities as Indian tribes or claimed to have been adopted. [13] Something like this was probably at work, as we shall see below, in the “retribalization” of the runaway Canaanite peasant population of Israel and the mythical eponymous ancestry they adopted from the sons of Jacob.


1 Scott, Seeing Like a State, p. 186.

2 Ibid., pp. 1-2.

3 James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 40-41.

4 Ibid., p. 53.

5 Ibid., p. 58.

6 Ibid., p. 178.

7 Ibid., p. 196.

8 Ibid., p. 51.

9 Ibid., p. 61.

10 Ibid., p. 63.

11 Ibid., x .

12 Ibid., p. 23.

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