Anarchist Horticulture


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Had this book been written in a less academic tone, I think the Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, could have been the next Guns, Germs, and Steel. The thesis is fascinating enough that had it been enhanced by more stories, it could have been the sort of book to suffuse cultured conversations at dinner parties. But if you are willing to read what is essentially a school book, I definitely recommend this. It has changed my ideas about many things and I could easily do several posts on it.

One of the best-titled books ever, in my opinion, is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. In the Bible, Leviathan is a gatekeeper of hell and the Book of Job portrays him as being something like a sea-dragon.

To give a very rough summary, Hobbes said that in a "state of nature" human life was "nasty, brutish, and short." To live a better life, we make a social contract with Leviathan— the state, and must endure its abuses as the price of peace.

But those who have delved into the paleo diet probably have read of evidence that shows that humans in nature did not live miserable lives, just as Jared Diamond's excellent The Worst Mistake in The History of The Human Race.

And it all-encompassing state is in fact a very recent invention. As Scott notes

Avoiding the state was, until the past few centuries, a real option. A thousand  years ago most people lived outside state structures, under loose-knit empires  or in situations of fragmented sovereignty." Today it is an option that is fast vanishing.

Why would people want to avoid the state? Isn't it the bringer of roads and all kinds of nice things? Well, that's debatable even now, but for most of history that state can be seen as a highly repressive extractive entity that people fled for very good reasons. When I talk of oppressive governments in this post, I'm not talking about it in the somewhat-trivial modern form of OMGWHYdoIhavetopaythisannoyingtax, but what amounted to serfdom or outright slavery. For most of the history of government, slaves were a must to support the state.

After Stephan's talk at Wise Traditions, a girl asked despondently if any group of people had ever chosen to go backwards. Actually, many tribes we consider to be primitive remnants of stone age tribes are actually descendants of people who chose to flee oppressive governments and give up settled agriculture in the process. Scott gives many examples of such tribes both in SE Asian and in the Americas. In most instances the border between settled and unsettled was blurred due to slave raids in the hills, military conscription, government expansions, and other events. These populations may not have been genetically distinct, but they chose a very different way of life.

The histories of such people have largely been lost because few of them posess writing, though Scott gives evidence that some of these tribes once did and gave it up in response to oppression. For these people writing represented something that state used to create records used to tax, indebt, and enslave people. Once they fled to the uplands, they had no need for it.

This is particularly relevant to this blog because these tribes developed an agricultural system that helped them resist the state and provided them greater health then their governed counterparts. It's interesting because when I first started studying agricultural economics, we were told how horribly backwards a "shifting cultivation" AKA slash and burn agricultural system was. We were told that agencies and governments should make an effort to replace it with settled agriculture. From an anthropological standpoint, shifting cultivation is really a form of horticulture rather than agriculture. The difference is that horticulture involves many shifting plots of varied crops rather than the land-ownership settled field monocultures that are characteristic of agriculture. There are other differences. Gene Expression recently had an excellent post on the social implications of plough vs. hoe agriculture. Horticulture generally involves hoes.

Ultimately this goes back to the foragers & farmers debate. I have argued for years that the “traditional” and “conservative” values which emerged after the rise of agriculture, and crystallized during the Axial Age, are actually cultural adaptations to existence in the Malthusian mass societies which arose as the farmers pushed up against the production frontier. As the world “filled up” there was a necessary switch from extensive to intensive agriculture, and social controls needed to be more powerful so as to keep the masses of humanity in some sort of meta-stable equilibrium. The rise of institutional religions, conscript armies, and national identities, all bubbled up as adaptations to a world where a few controlled the many, and the many persisted on the barest margin of subsistence.

I luckily had one very intelligent professor who asked his students to consider shifting cultivation in a different light. There is much evidence that it's not as detrimental to the environment as other forms of agriculture and that most of the problems blamed on it have other causes. Scott argues that horticulture allowed many tribes to resist onslaughts of the state and that this is the reason that it has been portrayed so negatively.

Horticulturalists generally enjoyed better health because their diet was more diverse, but also because permanent human settlements, particularly cities and towns, were places where human, animal, and crop disease and pestilence flourished. Greater concentration generally equaled greater disease. Cities were population sinks, where humans labor was extracted, but human death rates were high enough that many governments relied on raiding the uplands for slaves to replenish their base*. Slavery was required to keep people in agrarian states because there: 

were positive reasons for preferring hill swiddening  or foraging to wet-rice cultivation. So long as there was plenty of open land,  as was the case until fairly recently, swiddening was generally more efficient  in terms of return to labor than irrigated rice. It offered more nutritional  variety in settings that were generally healthier. Finally, when combined with  foraging and hunting for goods highly valued in the lowlands and in international commerce, it could provide high returns for relatively little effort.  One could combine social autonomy with the advantages of commercial exchange. Going to the hills, or remaining in the hills if you were already there,  was not, in most circumstances, a choice of freedom at the cost of material  deprivation.

Horticultural crops favored by these people were fairly easy to plant surreptitiously and leave alone to be collected later such as sweet potatoes, cassava, and yams. At more secure sites they planted bananas, plantains, dry rice, maize, groundnuts, squash, and vegetables. Sounds a lot like the Kitavan diet right?

These crops also were perfect for resisting the state because they had staggered maturities rather than one big harvest, dispersal of cropping into small hill gardens rather than large fields, and root crops can remain in the ground for some time until harvested. This meant less vulnerability to military raiding and pillaging. Such a chaotic form of agriculture also was more difficult to keep records on and thus to tax.

In general, roots and tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and  cassava/manioc/yucca are nearly appropriation-proof. After they ripen, they can be safely left in the ground for up to two years and dug up piecemeal  as needed. There is thus no granary to plunder. If the army or the taxmen wants your potatoes, for example, they will have to dig.

It's no coincidence that root crops have been favored by other state-resisting people outside of Asia as well, such as the Irish. The major difference was that Irish potato growing was less well-suited for the environment of Ireland and the use of field monocropping of just a single crop had serious repercussions. Other state-resistant Europeans crop up in the book as well, though cold-weather state-resistance was in the form of pastoralism rather than horticulture. The Highland Scots, the Cossacks, the Swiss, the Welsh, and Montenegrins went through many periods of resisting the encroachment of the state. 

The introduction of new world crops like the potato and sweet potato/yam had a large impact in Asia as well, contributing to the flight of populations in New Guinea and the Philippines to the hills in response to colonial expansions. Cassava had an even greater impact, as it can be planted by nomadic peoples, left alone, and then harvested up to three years later. The leaves can also be eaten and it can survive even if the foliage is destroyed by fire. It earned the nickname "farina de guerra", which means "flour of war" because it was so relied on by hill guerrillas in Latin America. 

Tropical horticulturalists also took advantage of the forest's fish, game, and wild plant populations. This quasi-forager lifestyle has led some to mistakenly label them hunter-gatherers or to erroneously portray them as stone age remnants.

Many of these Southeast Asia hill cultures cultures resisted state-integrated Eastern religions like Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism or they have their own unorthodox versions of these religions. But American Baptist missionaries have found many takers for their religion. Perhaps because the Baptist form of Christianity has its roots in Southern hill culture, which has its own reputation for rebellion. When I think about my own ancestors, many of them ended up in this country because they were resisting the state. I'm the descendant of deported Scottish rebels and Puritans fleeing persecution by the state-sponsored Church of England. I still have some "hill relatives" that eat mostly wild food. I always joke that if the apocalypse happened I'd survive by joining them :) 

Much like my view on Sex at Dawn, I'm not sure how this history weighs on how we should live today. It does challenge many preconceptions that many of us have about history and the role of the state. And also about foragers. I talk to a lot of people who assume jungle horticulturalists are "paleolithic tribes" when a lot of them have had much influential contact with civilization and might have farmed in the past. It's clear paleo dieters can learn a lot from them, but they are still just analogues. 

Their diets are very intersesting, as they are similar to what I eat and what is recommended by sites like The Perfect Health Diet.

Hmong Goat Head Soup anyone?

Sadly, many of these tribes continue to be persecuted by their respective governments, particularly in Burma. It's hard to share recipes from these tribes because most of them are so busy running from troops that they don't have time to really cook. I don't really view any government as benevolent, but it's clear that in America we are somewhat lucky that ours at least pretends to be.

Check out this Boston Globe article on the book.

*cities are once again population sinks, but this time due to low fertility rather than high death rates. What are the implications?