A short account of the Deep History of State Evasion by James C. Scott & my comments


been reading James C. Scott’s books on the slave raiding, trading and coerced labor origins & character of the state… the rise of states is co-terminus with the rise of large scale agriculture & settlements in pockets of europe, the middle east, Asia, Africa & the amerikkkas prior to european colonization.  his retelling makes clear that the european slave trade w’d not have been possible without a long history of slave capturing & trading not just in Africa but throughout the world.  often non-state groups main form of inter action with the state was to exchange slaves for food or worked goods.

i began with Against the Grain…a deep history of the earliest states.  currently reading Seeing like a state…how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed.

first an aside

a couple of years ago, i happened on a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa called el hablador.

“el hablador” translates into english as the talker but has the connotation of liar. the narrator recounts the story of a fellow anthropology student. a young man from a Jewish background who in the course of the story sheds his euro-centered identity and adopts the identity of the aboriginals he was studying.

the “hablador” among the aboriginals is a man who takes on the role of traveling from small group to small group…though of the tribe, these groups are isolated from each other…the major link between them is the “hablador” who listens to the latest news of each family group…gossip, hardships, deaths, marriages, births, movements, etc. he relates what he’s heard from other groups he’s visited and then moves on.  a major element of the story is that these groups’ isolated existence is motivated by their aversion to the euro-colonialist…their way of life, their labor demands, their greed for land & resources and especially their diseases. i had not read Scott’s work at that time but the story gives a narrative version of Scott’s thesis.


hopefully, readers of this blog share my interest in the origin and character of the state.

Scott begins his presentation with a quote:  “it is said that the history of people who have a history is the history of class struggle.  it might be said with at least as much truthfulness, that the history of peoples without history is the history of their struggle against the state.”  from having read Against the Grain, this struggle is mainly the struggle to avoid the grasp of states’ need for coerced labor, conscription, sexual slavery & contagious diseases.

he then gives the gist of the author of that quote, Pierre Clastres who suggested that “what anthropologists had thought of as stone age, primitive people were in fact, ex-sedentary cultivators who took up foraging and hunting in order to escape forced labor and the diseases associated with the Spanish (unintelligible) and that they devised a social structure & subsistence practice that kept them away from states and prevented states from arising among them.”  (note:  i haven’t read any material by Clastres.  will do so and if interesting blog about it.)

the information that Scott provides and his conclusions about the origins and nature of states calls into question the view of advocates of state socialism (mainly Marxist-Leninists) that in order to obtain our desired relationships among humans…equality, fraternity, liberty, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need that we would need to create a “worker’s state”, “dictatorship of the proletariat”, five-ten-20 year-never ending industrial development plans guided by “the” vanguard party.

from the framework provided by Scott, i can ask some seemingly awkward but actually sly questions.

if the slave raiding, capturing and holding nature of the state is its main characteristic, its DNA… Lenin referred to the state as an “armed body of men” whose purpose is to crush any opposition to the ruling class whose bidding it is doing…then why do we imagine that creating a more intensive, aggressive, intrusive, repressive state will carry us to liberty, equality, fraternity???

this assertion runs counter to the result seen in Russia, eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba.

state building, creation, existence is the problem not the solution.  Engels, Lenin and the anarchists suggest that in a truly democratic and egalitarian society, there would need to be the administration of things but not a state, armed bodies of men that w’d exist apart from the governed.

Lenin was accused by other bolsheviks of having gone over to the anarchist view of the state when he stated everyone w’d participate in the governance of things in his most democratic minded formulations in the state and revolution.

when in power, the Bolsheviks and later communists, w’d govern on a militaristic, pyramid models of decision making in which centralized decision makers …their own membership and leadership bodies… made decisions and the toiling classes followed these directives.

no successful governing model, entity is a completely closed circle.  one could join the ruling party and work one’s way up the pyramid.  and some very skillful, charismatic folks did just that.  of course, these societies quickly became as stratified as the hierarchies they had displaced.

for the vast majority of the population, discipline or prison were the understood alternatives.  the new boss looked very much like the old boss.  perhaps in different uniforms, with different lingo.

what is to be done?

we cannot return to pre-neolithic times…for one thing as Scott points out states have metastasized and now occupy what was once “frontier” …most of earth’s space.  states have pushed ever deeper into the zones of escape.  areas once open to  the barbarians, nomads, escaped slaves, defeated peoples have been closed.  genocide.  disease.  displacement have taken their toll.

the never ending wars among these slave states have destroyed the infrastructure of the losers (& at times the winners) which is the story of the current middle east, Africa & the resulting massive displacement of peoples with no asylum.

is there a way that we can share in the advances of science, technology, infrastructure and realize our utopian dreams?

no one author, activist, blogger can offer a sure fire solution to this dilemma.

let’s take into account the obvious. if we allow a state apparatus to usurp decision making the result is the state will be our slave master.

Lenin & his progeny made a virtue of central planning & decision making at the expense of direct decision making by the toiling classes…in factories, industries, communities, local representative bodies.  the designated “higher” levels gained veto power over local decision making.  this is the history of the period following the 1917 Revolutions.  oppositions outside the Bolsheviks were suppressed a few months after October.  in 1921, the Bolsheviks banned factions within their own party while suppressing an Anarchist revolt in Kronstadt.  later anyone the slightest out of step with the inner circle was sidelined, jailed or slaughtered.

the entire repressive apparatus of the capitalist states the Bolsheviks claimed they had replaced were recreated and super-charged. Russia went from being the “prison house of nations” under the Tsar to being a massive prison house of its own citizens.  a modern nation slave state.

the solution to the slave-state intolerance of democracy , local decision making is (i thinks) obvious:

advocate for the fullest levels of direct, local decision making.  adopt the rule of the Paris Commune, immediate recall of any elected or appointed public official & extremely high standards & strict term limits for some duties…especially for police duties.  the administration of things not people.

a ridiculous objection

i’ve heard some ridiculous objections to this by otherwise very intelligent Marxists.  one was by David Harvey …and recently at the ISO’s Socialist Conference by Todd Chretien at a session where i questioned the forever character of the dofduP… they both asked by way of analogy, if we w’d get on a plane flown by committee instead of an experienced pilot?  that’s just plain bizzare.

if corporate for profit airlines can staff their flight crews with trained & reasonably experienced pilots, i don’t see where that w’d be a problem when the administration of things is the guiding principle.  policies w’d be set by the widest possible circle of folks involved in that enterprise while direct operation of machinery w’d be assigned to those with known skills and knowledge.  the necessity of expertise in many areas would still operate, be acknowledged as a practical need.

folks w’d not lose their capacity to reason simply because they are now making their own effective decisions.

this ridiculous objection translates into only slave state style directives can manage an airline or other complex operation.  i don’t think so.

often folks who are directly involved in production are key to advances in production.  that was certainly the case prior to state usurpation of the landscape and has continued to be the case for the last 10,000 years in which states have dominated.  in fact, this sense that working folks can determine their own conditions, make their own decisions is the driving element for the socialist, anarchist movements.

interestingly, Scott has a chapter on practical knowledge which he calls by it’s Greek name, Metis in Seeing like a State.

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