Zomia and OWS: What the Movement Can Learn From Independent Asian Tribes


The upland people of Southeast Asia who populate the abstract mountainous space of “Zomia” — a region-concept coined by the Yale scholar James Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed — have been living for a long time vis-à-vis a more powerful lowland state core. 

Zomia is a symbolic geographic conglomeration of people-groups that live on the periphery of states in upland Southeast Asia; some of the last humans resisting assimilation into the modern nation state. Although a highly diverse group of ethnicities and tribes, the pattern of characteristics common to many upland Zomian people can show us how a highly mobile, flexible, socio-political movement (not unlike the one emanating from Wall Street to the streets of America and the world) may be a new model for a sustainable and effective resistance movement.

The relationship between lowland state core and upland peripheral hill tribe has been one of dynamic evasion – high levels of cultural mobility have allowed upland groups to evade the state core’s intentions to tax, centralize, and assimilate them. These “anarchic” societies have evolved to live in relation to a resource rich administrative powerhouse, not unlike the position Wall Street protestors and the American middle class find themselves in. 

A pliable oral history, less-than-transparent agricultural methods, egalitarian social structures, the ability to physically get up and move — these constitute some of the highly mobile characteristics that so many of these upland tribal peoples share, argues Scott. While historically stigmatized by lowland ethnic populations as “backward,” this is in fact a reaction to the overt decisions of upland peoples to be “post-state,” resisting the taxation and administration of classical statecraft.

These societies are not in complete isolation though – the upland people at times use the lowland state for trading and security. The hill tribes of Zomia operate on a sort of continuum with the state core – taking advantage of the benefits while possible, with the escape route of cultural evasion if the arm of the state reaches too far. Is this in any way similar to the dynamics of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the future of popular uprising in America? 

Hard and fast social-political movements have been aplenty in the history of our country. Often, a so-called radical movement has gotten swept up into a political party, diluted by the ballot box. See populist labor movements and the civil rights movement, to some extent. Maybe then, there is value in a highly mobile, uber-flexible, social movement — one that is not tied down to a strict code of demands or a precise definition of change.

Although oft-criticized for the lack of a unified core set of principles, the Wall Street protests have a lot of the qualities that have allowed upland Zomian regions to maintain autonomy and in some cases, have frustratingly huge impacts on the policies of the lowland state core. The protesters certainly have adopted a malleable oral history – one not necessarily codified but passed on by word of mouth and adaptable to the situation. Devoid of a strong leader or organizational hierarchy, the protests seem to take on a certain egalitarian structure not unlike social structures common in upland Southeast Asian societies. Furthermore, the mobility of the movement can be clearly seen from the fact that it is actually moving, from New York to Las Vegas to Asia, Europe to Australia.

Clearly there are many practicalities separating the current Occupy Wall Street protesters with the hill tribes of Southeast Asia, who have existed perpetually on the periphery of a modern state. But then again, some of the protesters may be described as occupying a political periphery themselves. And just as the friction of terrain between remote mountainous villages and the lowland state core separates two groups existing in relation to each other, so do the elevators and panes of glass between the Zuccotti park protestors and the economic political elite that reside in the polished offices towering above them. 

 Maybe this “new” model of political movement is a more sustainable one, one that’s fluidity can allow it to seep into the hardened political ideologies that can conceptualize only the linear progression of the status quo.

Photo Credit: IRRI images