Alternatives to large scale agrarian cultures:
Other peoples, like the Karen on the Myanmar-Thailand border, have a similar history of revolt against lowland governments – inspired, in many instances, by charismatic prophets – followed by suppression and retreat into the highlands.
The cultures that have emerged have tended to be fiercely nonhierarchical. The Wa, for example, limit ostentatious feast-throwing and forbid the wealthy from conducting sacrifices that might be seen as giving them chief-like status. The Kachin have a long tradition of killing chiefs who are seen as overreaching. The Lahu, of China’s Yunnan province, have no level of political organization above the hamlet. All of these traditions actively prevent a larger, more complex society from emerging.
The antistate orientation of these societies extends, in Scott’s description, even into the sort of agriculture they practice. Slash-and-burn, or “swidden,” agriculture – clearing patches of woodland for crops and moving on after each harvest to allow the soil to replenish itself – is usually seen as a crude antecedent to the more intensive farming practiced in the lowlands and most of the developed world. But swiddening and other forms of itinerant agriculture, Scott argues (borrowing from the work of the mid-20th-century French anthropologist Pierre Clastres), are often adopted in preference to fixed agriculture, by people who know how to do both. The reason, Scott says, is that swiddening provides a freedom that fixed agriculture does not. Not being tied down to one laboriously cultivated piece of land, farmers can pick up and move on if they find political conditions onerous.Continued…