Why Civilizations can't climb hills, was the odd title for Professor James Scott's talk at the London School of Economics earlier this year. I missed it in the LSE podcast, but fortunately picked it up from UChannel. This has been the most inspiring and thought provoking podcast I have listened to in the past year. I think I have learned and come to understand something about our history that wasn't clear to me at all until now.
Professor Scott is a political scientist and an anthropologist specialized in an area of South-East Asia he calls Zomia(?) (The South-East Asian Massif) which is the hill and mountain range that stretches from the East of India to Vietnam. He admits his analysis is still tentative and lacks sufficient supporting data, but what little there is, not only seems to make the ideas applicable in SE Asia, but also in other places, such as the Atlas, Central Asia and the fringes of the Roman Empire. The idea here is that there is and always was the stateless areas that border state areas, not only coinciding with rugged terrain such as hills and mountains, but also marshes and deserts. And these stateless, small entities are not just remnants of an old tribal past (though that may also be so), but they are also a conscious alternative to the state. They are a refuge for those who want to escape the grip of the state, for whatever reason.
The bottom-line that appeared to me is not that people on the fringe are backward, but that they are choosing their lifestyle and organizational structure of their own accord. It also shows that there must have always been an exchange between the barbarians and the civilized. It enriched my historical awareness. I already learned thanks to so many historical podcasts that there has always been more exchange between civilizations than I have always thought. But not only that, there always must have been also exchange with the allegedly uncivilized world. Consequently, uncivilized is not the correct term. There has always been an alternative to the state. The whole mechanism of civilization takes on a different capacity, an entirely non-Hegelian quality: it is not a matter of progress, it is a continuum of increasing order and decreasing freedom. And people make choice what depth of organization they appreciate.
There has always been movement in and out of the state. In and out of order. In and out of complex organization. We all carry the traditions of both, I venture. Scott makes this visible with loads and loads of examples from the region he has come to know so well.
New World Order,
The Invisible Hand,
The Second World,
Repairing Failed States,
The Collapse (Republicans and America).