Call me a cynic or an anarchist, but these days I find it impossible to trust anything which comes to me with a seal of authority stamped upon it. I’m not defending this as a healthy response. But it is an increasingly common one, even — and perhaps especially — among people who were trained from birth to follow the rules.
I was once one of those people. I’m a lower-middle class, suburban British bloke from Generation X, who was brought up to believe that the system broadly worked and was mostly fair, at least for people like me. The government did its best, though sometimes the wrong people got in; the police were here to help; there were career ladders and housing ladders, and if you worked hard and behaved responsibly and paid your taxes, then society would reward you for it.
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Of course, this was a partial story, as all stories are. Plenty of people would have cackled cynically at it from the start, while others, including me, disabused themselves of it by degrees. I spent 30 years writing about the degradation of nature and culture by the state-capitalist technocracy that governs us, so I imagined I was a hard-bitten realist. But the last few years taught me that I was still too naive about the mythic “social contract” with the state that I apparently entered into at birth, despite having never signed a thing.
As I say, it’s not just me. The loss of faith across the West in our institutions, leaders and representatives in recent years has been radical. When, I wonder, did that contract expire? Maybe in 2003, when the lies with which the Iraq war was launched were so blatant that even those telling them seemed unconvinced. Or maybe later, in 2016, when Brexit happened and Donald Trump happened and European “populism” happened, and suddenly any opposition to liberal globalism became fascism or bigotry or the work of Russian bots.
But it was the pandemic — or rather, the response to it — that changed everything for me. I hadn’t been prepared see, in my allegedly free and democratic country, a merger of corporate power, state power and media power in the service of constructing a favoured narrative, of the kind which had previously only characterised totalitarian regimes. What the Covid regime brought home to me was that I had not, despite what I believed, really understood the real nature of power until I saw it exercised in its raw form over my life. Specifically, I had not understood the power of the state.
Nothing has the power or reach of a modern state. Its sheer scale and strength gives it the ability to corral, organise, define, measure and control its population in a manner that is unmatched in human history, and that power only grows and deepens. The momentum of a state is always towards the centre, always towards the agglomeration of more power. A state is like a black hole: at a certain point, it begins to suck in everything around it. As it grows, it will tell stories that justify its existence. Democracy, liberty and progress are some of the more recent banners beneath which state power has gathered, but there have been others: racial or ethnic homogeneity, human equality, religious purity. All of these stories have the potential to unite a people around a state core.
What happens, then, when large and powerful states, along with the transnational institutions and corporations they promote and protect, are all driving towards the same goal: the universalisation of an American-style “global economy” and its associated culture? This has been the story of the world since 1945, and the result is the world’s first truly global system. The expansion of this system has created problems — ecological degradation, social unrest, cultural fragmentation, economic interdependence, systemic fragility, institutional breakdown. The system has responded with more expansion and more control, growing bigger, more complex and more controlling.
Modernity can best be seen as a system of enclosure, fuelled by the destruction of self-sufficient lifeways, and their replacement with a system of economic exploitation, guided by states and exercised by corporations. The disempowering of people everywhere, and the deepening of technological control, is the inevitable result, and the pandemic overreach will not be the last example. So what is the correct response to the problem of power, and the reach of the state? Avoid it? Hide from it? Confront it? Ignore it? All of these? Or something else? Can we escape the state and live differently? If so, how?
Jacques Ellul, the great theorist of technocracy, had his own answer to these questions: “The only successful way to attack these features of modern civilisation is to give them the slip, to learn how to live on the edge of this totalitarian society.” Ellul, I think, was right. The state is the chief enemy of human freedom. It cannot be conquered or replaced. But sometimes, under the right circumstances, it can be evaded.
In his 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed — subtitled, “an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia” — the historian James C. Scott offers up some historical examples. Scott’s aim is twofold: firstly, to lay out the history of a vast upland region he calls “Zomia”, straddling territories from India to Malaysia, which has managed over centuries to avoid assimilation by encroaching states. And secondly, to rewrite the standard story of historical progress as it applies to the region. The “hill tribes” and “barbarians” living outside civilisation’s walls, he says, are neither “left behind” by “progress”, nor the “remnants” of earlier “backwards” cultures; they are in fact escapees. “Hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppression of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labour, epidemics and warfare.”
Scott’s thesis is that throughout history, escaping from the reach of oppressive states has been a popular aim, and that in response, some cultures have developed sophisticated ways of living in hard-to-govern “shatter zones”, which allow them to avoid being assimilated. Standard-issue historical accounts of “development”, he says, are really the history of state-making, written from the state’s point of view: they pay no attention to “the history of deliberate and reactive statelessness”. Yet that history — whether of hill tribes, runaway slaves, gypsies, maroons, sea peoples or Marsh Arabs — is global and ongoing. Taking it into account, says Scott, would “reverse much received wisdom about ‘primitivism’”. Instead, we would read a history of “self-barbarisation”: a process of reactive resistance, of becoming awkward, of making a community into a shape that it is hard for the state to absorb, or even to quite comprehend.
The state, says Scott, is fundamentally a colonial entity. In its youthful vigour, it will institute a process of “internal colonisation”, creating a homogenised “national identity” from the various cultures it governs, flattening language and dialect and telling a story in which loyalty to community or place becomes indistinguishable from loyalty to the state. Later that colonisation process may move beyond its borders, as the state projects its power onto more distant peoples, assimilating them too. This is enclosure at work, and it is never voluntary. Like laissez-faire capitalism, or aristocracy, the state — which has only existed for the last 1% of human history — did not simply “evolve” as some logical phase of human “development”. It was created, by the use of raw power, through land seizures, slavery, enforced labour and taxation.
For this reason, escaping from state power and creating different ways of living in the “shatter zones” was an attractive option. Those zones were usually to be found in hard-to-reach places; in Southeast Asia, this meant the hills and mountains. Their peoples — the “tribals” or “Adivasi” or “savages” — would not, in most cases, be entirely cut off from lowland life; they would often trade with urban centres, for example, and some would raid them, too, if they got the chance. But they would keep their distance, wary of being corralled by the state machinery.
The Asian states, as they expanded, sought to impose the religious, cultural and economic practices of the dominant ethnic group — be it Thai, Burman, Han or Kinh — onto disparate peoples. When European colonists arrived in Asia, they simply continued the process, with a new cultural flavour. The official religion now might be Christianity rather than Buddhism, and “civilisation” might mean British rather than Han manners, but to the peripheral peoples the result was little different. British imperialist Sir Stamford Raffles spoke not only for his Empress, but for the mind of the colonial state across history, when he wrote of Sumatra:
“Here I am the advocate of despotism … Sumatra is, in great measure, peopled by innumerable petty tribes, subject to no general government … At present people are wandering in their habits as the birds of the air, and until they are congregated and organised under something like authority, nothing can be done with them.”
But such localised, potentially dispersed cultures can be tough to conquer. In the 1890s, the British found the conquest of the Kachin and Palaung hill peoples in Zomia almost impossible. Because they had “never submitted to any central control”, complained the chief commissioner responsible for the process, they had to be attacked “hill by hill” to ensure their submission. The historian Malcom Yapp invented a wonderful term for this kind of dispersed culture of refusal: jellyfish tribes. In Scott’s words, jellyfish tribalism is “a process of defending cultural and economic autonomy by scattering” to “make the group invisible or unattractive as object of appropriation”. The Berbers of North Africa, faced with colonisation by the Arabs, had their own way of putting this: divide that ye be not ruled. Lois Beck, who studied tribal culture in Iran, pointed to the same tactic in use there: “Large tribal groups divided into smaller groups to be less visible to the state and escaped its reach.”
All of this points to some potential ways forward for those who fear the continued expansion of the increasingly globalised, technocratic state today. The challenge, it seems to me, is to move beyond pat political formulations of “resistance”, and begin to think instead like the hill tribes of Zomia. To think about becoming barbarians by choice. To begin to build parallel systems — economies and cultures — which are hard to assimilate, and have a robustness to them which can last. To construct “cultures of refusal”.
But how could this actually be done? The modern West is not like Zomia — indeed, as Scott himself points out, modern Zomia is not like Zomia used to be either, with many of its stateless people now being rapidly absorbed into state systems, which new technologies have made more powerful and far-reaching than ever. What hope of any kind of alternative life in a hyper-connected, monitored, digital age? Even if we wanted to retreat to the margins to build our own community, how many of us could do it? And what would make that community more robust than the last counter-cultural wave of “intentional communities”, which sprang up after the Sixties, and failed to create utopia?
This is why I find the notion of the jellyfish tribe so intriguing. Any attempt at building utopia will fail — but utopia should never be a goal. Some form of free survival is the goal; survival in order to uphold the values of a true human life. There is no easy or standardised way to emulate what Scott calls the “state-repelling characteristics” of the Zomians, but there is one question it might be useful for anyone who seeks to evade Leviathan to ask themselves: what kind of barbarian do I want to be?
In ancient China, the state distinguished between two different kinds of barbarian outsider: the raw (sheng) and the cooked (shu). A 12th-century document detailing the relationship of the Li people with the Chinese state speaks of the “cooked Li” as those who have submitted to state authority and the “raw Li” as those who “live in the mountain caves and are not punished by us or do not supply labour”. But while the raw Li were clearly enemies of the state, the cooked Li were not exactly friends either. State officials “suspected them of outward conformity while slyly co-operating with the raw Li”. The raw barbarians lived outside the walls and the cooked lived within, but neither were really to be trusted.
What we see here, then, is two potential escape routes: one outside, one inside. Shatter zones do not have to literally be in the hills: they can be within our homes and even within our hearts. My heart soars whenever I hear of some remote monastery or surviving rooted community with no online access or even electricity, whose people know exactly where they stand: outside the state, the better to see God and experience creation. Such places are the work of the raw barbarians, and we need more of them.
But most people are cooked barbarians. We are, to different degrees, in the state but not of it. Perhaps we look like good citizens on the outside. But if we coalesce as a jellyfish tribe, we can begin to dissociate ourselves from the state, while creating alternatives to it. Plenty of people are already doing this. They create cultures-within-cultures, parallel economies and ways of living. Like small furry mammals running unnoticed beneath the feet of the tyrannosaurs, we can thus build our own little worlds on the margins and wait for the coming of the meteor, which we can already see coming in the very un-sustainability of technological modernity. The mice don’t attack the dinosaurs, and neither do they wait for them to die out: they just avoid them as best they can, and get on with their work.
What Scott’s book shows me above all is that the tension between expanding power centres and free peoples is eternal and never-ending. Throughout history there has been an ongoing flow of assimilation and breakout, consolidation and collapse. There has never been any system as large, as overwhelming, as inhuman, as all-seeing, as technological modernity, and yet Rome and Babylon and Han China operated on the same principles. The shatter zones that rise in response are sometimes geographical, sometimes psychological and spiritual, and often all of these at once. Today, some of those shatter zones are at least partly online; and despite my own instinctive Luddism, I have to accept that such spaces are meeting points for state-repelling people who might never meet in real life. I have to accept, too, that using technology to resist technocracy can be of benefit, even though it can also be a trap.
In the age of Starlink, eyeball scans, AI bots and digital passports, it is getting harder and harder to find anywhere to hide. But humans are creative. There are countless practical ways in which cultural refusal can manifest in our everyday lives. I am a writer, for instance, who is currently watching the publishing industry being taken over by political puritans who are purging incorrect thoughts from the shelves, while rooting around in the past for baddies to cancel. I can whine about this, or I can support or start new publishers on the margins who do things differently. The same might be true for music, art, academia, food-growing. Everything is compromised; nothing is easy. But building anew, retreating to create, being awkward and hard to grasp, finding your allies and establishing your zone of cultural refusal, whether in a mountain community or in your urban home: what else is there?
Whatever culture you come from, it will offer up at least one folk hero who earned his or her status through state-repelling behaviour. In England, we have hundreds of pirates, highwaymen, outlaws and rebels to choose from. You all know the name of the most famous: England’s shadow self, Robyn Hode, who flits through his shatter zone, the English greenwood, with his merry band of refuseniks in tow. We could do worse than to find our own greenwood and take our stand there, beneath the shelter of its great, ancient oaks.
A longer version of this essay was first published at the Abbey of Misrule.
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