“Of course, the overall resistance of swiddening to state appropriation lies both in its hilly location and dispersal and in the very botanical diversity it represents. It is not uncommon for shifting cultivators to plant, tend, and encourage as many as sixty or more cultivars. Imagine the bewildering task facing even the most energetic tax collector attempting to catalogue, let alone assess and collect taxes, in such a setting. It is for this reason that J.G. Scott noted that hill peoples were ‘of no account whatever in the state’ and that ‘it would be a sheer waste of energy in the eyes of an official to attempt to number the houses or even the villages of these people.’ Add to this the fact that nearly all swidden cultivators also hunt, fish, and forage in nearby forests. By pursuing such a broad portfolio of subsistence strategies they spread their risks, they ensure themselves a diverse and nutritious diet, and they present a nearly intractable hieroglyphic to any state that might want to corral them.”
“After a demographic collapse following a famine, epidemic, or war — if one were lucky enough to have survived — swiddening might become the norm, right there on the padi plain. State resistant space was therefore not a place on the map but a position vis-a-vis power; it could be created by successful acts of defiance, by shifts in farming techniques, or by inanticipated acts of god.” (emphasis mine).
I’ve been reading The Art of Not Being Governed, An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott. It is full of fascinating food for thought. One of the most interesting topics it raises is the relationship between socio-political forms and agricultural strategies of certain peoples.
Scott makes the point that in Southeast Asia — and fairly generally worldwide — the food system that has historically been part and parcel of the state and state-making is sedentary agriculture, usually of a grain monocrop. This allows for legible, taxable, storable food surpluses and requires a dense peasant population close to the state core, which feeds the state’s need for manpower. It is the foundation for standing militaries, large building projects, vast solidified hierarchies, dense populations, etc.
The food-system strategies used by non-state, often egalitarian peoples are foraging, hunting and gathering, nomadic pastoralism, and shifting agriculture (a.k.a swidden).
Scott really starts to get somewhere interesting with his discussion of “escape agriculture” and “escape crops.”
The traits of escape crops being:
— crops that cannot be stored long post-harvest without spoiling
— crops that have low value per unit weight and volume
— root crops: easy to conceal and storable in-ground.
— crops that grow on marginal land
— crops that require less care
— diversity of crops: provide more health & nutrition and mature unevenly.
Escape agriculture usually provides a higher return per unit labor — it is consummately “lazy gardening,” and the reason so many marginal groups have been seen as lazy by state-makers.
By being the opposite of sedentary grain monoculture produced by peasant cultivators, escape agriculture becomes “a form of wealth inaccessible to the state” (and one might widen that inaccessibility to encompass capital as well. The “appropriation-resistance” of this form of agriculture often also means resistance to commodification. )
I have been pondering the question of what food system, then, would be part and parcel of a social form that was both egalitarian & state-resistant and sedentary. Not because mobility is undesirable, but because it is probably not possible for all of us to practice mobile agriculture considering the present world population and the degraded state of our ecosystems.
It would be good to know more about non-state societies that were sedentary, or at least not primarily mobile — it was suggested to me that Native Americans in the Northeast (pre-Columbus), and Hawaiians (“pre-warlord take-over-and-enslavement-of-the-peaceful first inhabitants”) may have fit this bill.
In this sense the “permanence” referred to in the word Permaculture has to signify permanence of place, in addition to sustainability or permanence over time. One of permaculture’s original definitions was “a perennial agriculture for sustainable human settlement.” Indeed, Bill Mollison, the co-founder of the permaculture concept, sources its genesis for him in the anger over the ecological devastation that made a mobile, dream-like life now impossible. (“As a child I lived in sort of a dream, and I didn’t really awaken until I was about 28 years old, I spent most of my early life working in the bush or the sea, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that I noticed that large parts of the system were disappearing. First fish stocks became extinct. Then I noticed the seaweed around the shorelines had gone. Large patches of forest began to die. I hadn’t realized until those things had gone that I’d become very fond of them…Fury is what drives me; not love of people, not love of the earth.”)
The escape agriculture described by Scott is mobile, indeed must be mobile to escape the state’s grasp. But for most of us, there is nowhere left to run. If we are to live in an egalitarian, free social form the whole world must be turned upside down. Out of this we must design a kind of permanent escape agriculture that incorporates state- and capital- prevention into its core strategies. Permaculture could, and I think, should, be seen as this set of strategies.
Permaculture is frustrating precisely because it does does not jive with the routines and patterns of capitalism. Organic farmers attempting to make a living by growing food for the market are rightly annoyed with its prescriptions which mostly do not fit the geometry of commodity food production. It is a food system more appropriately aligned explicitly with a social form that is yet to be created. In its ideal form it shares many traits with the “escape agriculture” outlined by Scott: extreme crop diversity; patterning that is illegible to state/capital; appropriation-resistant, non-commodifiable crops; crops that require less care, that have a high productivity per unit labor. It starts to resemble permanent foraging within an artificial, recombinant ecology.
We should start thinking and talking more about what it means to have a system of cultivation that is state-resistant, commodity-resistant, that is suited for free and egalitarian social relations — because one thing I have learned from Scott’s book is that the one is inextricably tied up with the other.
Peasants of the world, self-abolish!
Mien gardens, Oakland