The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. By James C. Scott. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. 464p. $35.00.
The book under discussion is James C. Scott's latest contribution to the study of agrarian politics, culture, and society, and to the ways that marginalized communities evade or resist projects of state authority. The book offers a synoptic history of Upland Southeast Asia, a 2.5 million–kilometer region of hill country spanning Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and China. It offers a kind of “area study.” It also builds on Scott's earlier work on “hidden transcripts” of subaltern groups and on “seeing like a state.” The book raises many important theoretical questions about research methods and social inquiry, the relationship between political science and anthropology, the nature of states, and of modernity more generally. The book is also deeply relevant to problems of “state-building” and “failed states” in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. As Scott writes, “The huge literature on state-making, contemporary and historic, pays virtually no attention to its obverse: the history of deliberate and reactive statelessness. This is the history of those who got away, and state-making cannot be understood apart from it. This is also what makes it an anarchist history” (p. x).
In this symposium, I have invited a number of prominent political and social scientists to comment on the book, its historical narrative, and its broader theoretical implications for thinking about power, state failure, state-building, and foreign policy. How does the book shed light on the limits of states and the modes of resistance to state authority? Are there limits, theoretical and normative, to this “anarchist” understanding of governance and the “art of being governed”?
—Jeffrey C. Isaac, Editor