Only the modern state, in both its colonial and its independent guises, has had the resources to realize a project of rule that was a mere glint in the eye of its precolonial ancestor: namely to bring nonstate spaces and people to heel. This project in its broadest sense represents the last great enclosure movement in Southeast Asia. It has been pursued—albeit clumsily and with setbacks—consistently for at least the past century. Governments, whether colonial or independent, communist or neoliberal, populist or authoritarian, have embraced it fully. The headlong pursuit of this end by regimes otherwise starkly different suggests that such projects of administrative, economic, and cultural standardization are hard-wired into the architecture of the modern state itself.

Seen from the state center, this enclosure movement is, in part, an effort to integrate and monetize the people, lands, and resources of the periphery so that they become, to use the French term, rentable—auditable contributors to the gross national product and to foreign exchange. In truth, peripheral peoples had always been firmly linked economically to the lowlands and to world trade. In some cases, they appear to have provided most of the products

valued in international commerce. Nevertheless, the attempt to fully incorporate them has been culturally styled as development, economic progress, literacy, and social integration. In practice, it has meant something else. The objective has been less to make them productive than to ensure that their economic activity was legible, taxable, assessable, and confiscatable or, failing that, to replace it with forms of production that were. Everywhere they could, states have obliged mobile, swidden cultivators to settle in permanent villages. (…) They have encouraged, whenever possible, cash, monocropping, plantation-style agriculture in place of the more

biodiverse forms of cultivation that prevailed earlier. The term enclosure seems entirely appropriate for this process, mimicking as it does the English enclosures that, in the century after 1761, swallowed half of England’s common arable land in favor of large-scale, private, commercial production.

The novel and revolutionary aspect of this great enclosure movement is apparent if we open our historical lens to its widest aperture. The very earliest states in China and Egypt—and later, Chandra-Gupta India, classical Greece, and republican Rome—were, in demographic terms, insignificant. They occupied a minuscule portion of the world’s landscape, and their subjects were no more than a rounding error in the world’s population figures. In mainland Southeast Asia, where the first states appear only around the middle of the first millennium of the common era, their mark on the landscape and its peoples is relatively trivial when compared with their oversized place in the history books. Small, moated, and walled centers together with their tributary villages, these little nodes of hierarchy and power were both unstable and geographically confined. To an eye not yet hypnotized by archeological remains and state-centric histories, the landscape would have seemed virtually all periphery and no centers. Nearly all the population and territory were outside their ambit.

Diminutive though these state centers were, they possessed a singular strategic and military advantage in their capacity to concentrate manpower and foodstuffs in one place. Irrigated rice agriculture on permanent fields was the key. As a new political form, the padi state was an ingathering of previously stateless peoples. Some subjects were no doubt attracted to the possibilities for trade, wealth, and status available at the court centers, while others, almost certainly the majority, were captives and slaves seized in warfare or purchased from slave-raiders. The vast “barbarian” periphery of these small states was a vital resource in at least two respects. First, it was the source of hundreds of important trade goods and forest products necessary to the prosperity of the padi state. And second, it was the source of the most important trade good in circulation: the human captives who formed the working capital of any successful state. […]

The enormous ungoverned periphery surrounding these minute states also represented a challenge and a threat. It was home to fugitive, mobile populations whose modes of subsistence […] were fundamentally intractable to state appropriation. The very diversity, fluidity, and mobility of their livelihoods meant that for an agrarian state adapted to sedentary agriculture, this ungoverned landscape and its people were fiscally sterile. Unless they wished to trade, their production was inaccessible for yet another reason. Whereas the early states were nearly everywhere the creature of arable plains and plateaus, much of the more numerous ungoverned population lived, from a state perspective, in geographically difficult terrain: mountains, marshland, swamps, arid steppes, and deserts. Even if, as was rarely the case, their products were in principle appropriable, they were effectively out of range owing to dispersal and the difficulties of transportation. The two zones were ecologically complementary and therefore natural trading partners, but such trade could rarely be coerced; it took the form of voluntary exchange.

For early state elites, the periphery […] was also a potential threat. Rarely […] a militarized pastoral people might overrun the state and destroy it or rule in its place. More commonly, nonstate peoples found it convenient to raid the settlements of sedentary farming communities subject to the state, sometimes exacting systematic tribute from them in the manner of states. Just as states encouraged sedentary agriculture for its “easy pickings,” so, too, did raiders find it attractive as a site of appropriation. The main, long-run threat of the ungoverned periphery, however, was that it represented a constant temptation, a constant alternative to life within the state. Founders of a new state often seized arable land from its previous occupants, who might then either be incorporated or choose to move away. Those who fled became, one might say, the first refugees from state power, joining others outside the state’s reach. When and if the state’s reach expanded, still others faced the same dilemma. […]

Once we entertain the possibility that the “barbarians” are not just “there” as a residue but may well have chosen their location, their subsistence practices, and their social structure to maintain their autonomy, the standard civilizational story of social evolution collapses utterly. The temporal, civilizational series—from foraging to swiddening (or to pastoralism), to sedentary grain cultivation, to irrigated wet-rice farming—and its near-twin, the series from roving forest bands to small clearings, to hamlets, to villages, to towns, to court centers: these are the underpinning of the valley state’s sense of superiority.

What if the presumptive “stages” of these series were, in fact, an array of social options, each of which represented a distinctive positioning vis-à-vis the state? And what if, over considerable periods of time, many groups have moved strategically among these options toward more presumptively “primitive” forms in order to keep the state at arm’s length? On this view, the civilizational discourse of the valley states—and not a few earlier theorists of social evolution—is not much more than a self-inflating way of confounding the status of state-subject with civilization and that of self-governing peoples with primitivism.

The logic of the argument made here would essentially reverse this logic. Most, if not all, the characteristics that appear to stigmatize hill peoples—their location at the margins, their physical mobility, their swidden agriculture, their flexible social structure, their religious heterodoxy, their egalitarianism, and even the nonliterate, oral cultures—far from being the mark of primitives left behind by civilization, are better seen on a long view as adaptations designed to evade both state capture and state formation. They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.