This stems from a review of an interesting new book by the always interesting James Scott: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. As the reviewer, Daniel Little, states,
The book takes up the argument that Scott began in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed: that a central task of the state it to render its territory and population "legible". The state needs to be able to regiment and identify its subjects, if it is to collect taxes and raise armies; so sedentary, mobile, peripheral peoples are antithetical to the needs of the state. This argument begins in Seeing Like a State; and it gains substantial elaboration here.
What's significant about that argument is the way in which it provides us with quite a different view of the state as an institution than we're used to -- here the state starts to appear as a kind of predatory social entity, benefiting its own political class at the expense of the mass of people whom it must make "legible" in order to prey upon. Somewhere, I think, Scott refers to himself as a kind of Marxist-lite, and this view of the state is certainly in keeping with Marxist notions of the state as an instrument of class oppression. But, if you adjust the notion of "class" -- throwing out the outmoded Marxist categories based upon economic role, and substituting a simpler and clearer classification based upon proximity to state power -- then this view is also quite familiar to modern conservative and libertarian critiques of our current political systems.
What's also interesting, then, is the portrayal of resistance to state predation, something that people seem to do when- and wherever they can, which is typically in mountainous as opposed to lowland regions*. Contrary to Hobbes' famous summary of the life of man in the state of nature -- his notion of what "not being governed" meant -- their lives may be harsh but seem quite sustainable, and they've adapted their cultures in a number of ways to make them illegible to the state; in contemporary terms, they've opted to live "off the grid". Their very persistence is a testament to the fact that not being governed is not only possible but, in many ways, preferable.
Perhaps not in all ways, however. The cultures being examined here are not complex in comparison with the modern world and not what we would call "advanced" in terms of wealth and individual opportunity. And were it not for the surrounding modern world, from which they can borrow, their conditions of life would no doubt be worse than they are. There is, in other words, a limit to what can be achieved by anarchic societies. To get beyond those limits, we need to add more complex forms of property than simple anarchy can manage -- we need, in other words, as Hernando de Soto has argued, codified and legible property rights, and a justice system to enforce them. Which gets us back to the state, true, but a state restricted in its predatory inclinations by its limited mandate -- it gets us, in fact, to the state of classical liberalism.
*See also a comment to this effect referring to a passage in Braudel's The Mediterranean.