This is the sixth article (and conclusion) in a series of posts on historical free and anarchic societies by guest-author Daniel Hawkins.
Where is Zomia?
You won’t find it on most maps. You can’t buy a plane ticket to it. You can’t even get directions to it with your GPS or phone. If you dig around long enough, though, you’ll learn that Zomia is another name for the highlands in the Southeast Asian massif, which is still confusing for most Westerners.
So for those who aren’t experts in Asian geography, it generally covers parts of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, China, Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and India. But Zomia is more than just a place. Zomia is really a group of people. It’s a society.
There are two things that make it very special:
1. Zomia, in which there are more than 100,000,000 people, has operated without any government to speak of, and
2. Zomia exists right now.
But what is Zomia, exactly? Who lives there? What is its history? There’s a decent amount of literature on Zomia, including articles in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, but the most thorough and thought-provoking illustration comes from Yale professor James C. Scott’s (brilliantly titled) The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. I can’t say I’ve read the whole book, but from the variety of sources there are on the subject, I think I’ve come to the answers to the previous three questions.
To sum it up, the Zomians are dispersed, Stateless, marooned peoples. They are neither heterogenous or homogenous. The various sub-cultures within Zomia (and there are many) can be thought of as patches within a vibrant and beautiful quilt. Each have their own unique patterns and identity, but are woven together as part of a larger society.
So how did this happen?
Well, the governments of Southeast Asia are kind of peculiar. I say that because they are rather bad at governing. The Chinese government, for example, is so centralized and cumbersome that it cannot feasibly keep track of its colossal population. Vietnam, in both contrast and kind, has such a weak government that many people manage to come and go without being noticed. So, administration is confined to the heavily populated lowlands. Though geography once granted these areas abundant resources, the wages of the State have triumphed. War, disease, economic disparity, sociopolitical tensions, and other ills plague these “civilized” regions. So, it’s not uncommon for people to flee to the highlands.
Zomians, over time, have basically rejected the life of lowlanders. They are somewhat analogous to what some people call gypsies or hillbillies (not in any derogatory senses) – a society of outlaws too out of reach, both geographically and socially, for the State to spend its efforts on. Together, these dissidents have made a sort of anti-nation.
The different peoples of Zomia have made for themselves a unique way of life. They do not live with most modern amenities, which is regrettable, but they do find methods of sustainability and sustenance off the grid (mainly through hunting, gathering, and Swidden agriculture).
They are also decidedly anti-government. Throughout history, Zomians have rebelled against States (from the Mughal Empire to Maoist China) and each time, more people have defected to Zomia. They also maintain very little if any sense of governance within communities. They value equality as well as faith.
Yet, defying most modern thought, traditions are taught and kept by families and communities, not instilled through schools or propaganda. There are anywhere between five and thirty ethnic groups within Zomia. Though they have dozens of languages and dialects, the Zomians operate on a more or less market economy with distinct primitivists roots, valuing material wealth as well as hard work and sacrifice. Their traditions are widely varied, especially because they hold fast to them as a way to distinguish themselves from their governed neighbors.
However, what really boggles the mind is that these seemingly separate cultures have come together to form a pretty much cohesive civilization, where everything from language to religion constantly adapt to fit the people themselves.
Zomia seems, then, to be a sort of Wild West Hong Kong, where life is wild and free and organic. It is simultaneously regressing and progressing. It’s the principle of spontaneous order in action today. If you have not read more into Zomia, I encourage you to do it today.
So what can we learn from Zomia?
First, we know that government, particularly centralized government, is on the whole unnecessary for life. It is unnecessary for health, prosperity, trade, faith, family, community, and equality. Where we see strife in the governed world, we see harmony in the ungoverned.
Secondly, we know the State is not inevitable. There seems to be this fatalistic belief held by most people that the State will spring up unaided. No one knows how long Zomia has existed, but for what record we have, we known Zomia has never had a government, so that rules it out. We can also conclude that though the cultures within Zomia are indeed different, conflict (particularly war) is not a necessary or certain result of cultural differences. It’s been generally thought that States form through cultural similarities combined with the need for survival, and that war has always followed the clash of civilizations. Zomia (as well as all other examples within this series) shows this simply isn’t true. The Hmong or Lahu peoples of Zomia, as different they may be, have not felt the need to form States to go to war with one another. No, it’s quite the opposite. They trade. They communicate. They thrive.
Thirdly, we know that spontaneous order can supplant the State. Look at the Internet. A white Christian in Connecticut can communicate and debate with a black Muslim from Egypt and an Asian atheist from Japan all in the span of a minute. There are millions upon millions of Facebook pages and blogs and podcasts and encyclopedias devoted to the concept of an open forum. Yet, despite all differences, there is no need for armed conflict. I’ll say it again: there is no need for it. The keyboard is mightier than the sword. And it is civility and tolerance that will open the gates for the most logical and best ideas to win. The market of ideas is exactly that, an open market where anyone is free to sell their ideas and to defend them as right or wrong. As people choose to follow more efficient and ethical ideas, products appear that satisfy this progressive trend. Bitcoin, and all that it facilitates, is a wonderful example of this.