The Arts of Resistance

James C. Scott wrote "Weapons of the Weak" (1985) and "Seeing like a State" (1998), which have been widely influential (cited over 10,000 times each), and each are covered in earlier posts. Scott's 1990 book "Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts" has similar been widely read and referenced (also over 10,000 citations) and is an important read for those interested in gaining insight into how power is expressed and challenged. In it, Scott aims to "suggest how we might more successfully read, interpret, and understand the often fugitive political conduct of subordinate groups" (p. xii). For this, he argues, "the notion of the hidden transcripts helps us understand these rare moments of political electricity when, often for the first time in memory, the hidden transcript is spoken directly and publicly in the teeth of power" (p. xiii).

Unlike the author's more ethnographic work, this book jumps around and pulls examples from different time periods and locations to explore different aspects of this 'hidden transcript.' Scott focuses attention on examples wherein there is great disparity between dominant and subordinate groups, as in these instances "the public transcript of subordinates will take on a more stereotyped, ritualistic cast. In other words, the more menacing the power, the thicker the mask." (p. 3).

The 'hidden transcript' is hidden because it is almost always not recoded in the 'public transcript', but occurs outside of the view of the official (or when within view goes unrecorded). "The social sites of the hidden transcripts are those locations in which the unspoken riposte, stifled anger, and bitten tongues created by relations of domination find vehement, full-throated expression. It follows that the hidden transcript will be least inhibited when two conditions are fulfilled: first, when it is voiced in a sequestered social site where the control, surveillance, and repression of the dominant are least able to reach, and second, when this sequestered social milieu is composed entirely of close confidants who share similar experiences of domination" (p. 120).

Readers might wonder why all this matters – Scott argues that the "undeclared ideological guerrilla war that rages in this political space requires that we enter the world of rumor, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity. For good reason, nothing is entirely straightforward here; the realities of power for subordinate groups mean that much of their political action requires interpretation precisely because it is intended to by cryptic and opaque" (p. 137). He explains that the term infrapolitics "seems an appropriate shorthand to convey the idea that we are dealing with an unobtrusive realm of political struggle. For a social science attuned to the relatively open politics of liberal democracies and the loud, headline-grabbing protests, demonstrations, and rebellions, the circumspect struggle waged daily by subordinate groups is, like infrared rays, beyond the visible end of the spectrum. That is should be visible, as we have seen, is in large part by design – a tactical choice born of a prudent awareness of the balance of power" (p. 183).

To be clear, the author emphasizes that infrapolitics "is, to be sure, real politics. In many respects it is conducted in more earnest, for higher stakes, and against greater odds than political life in liberal democracies. Real ground is lost and gained. Armies are undone and revolutions facilitated by the desertions of infrapolitics. De facto property rights are established and challenged. States confront fiscal crises or crises of appropriation when the cumulative petty stratagems of its subjects deny them labor and taxes. Resistant subcultures of dignity and vengeful dreams are created and nurtured. Counterhegemonic discourse is elaborated. Thus infrapolitics is, as emphasized earlier, always pressing, testing, probing the boundaries of the permissible" (p. 200).

Neglecting to study this important form of politics, can limit the vision of researchers – consider the Arab Spring: "Social scientists, not to mention ruling elites, are often taken surprise by the rapidity with which an apparently deferential, quiescent, and loyal subordinate group is catapulted into mass defiance. That ruling elites should be taken unaware by social eruptions of this kind is due, in part, to the fact that they have been lulled into a false sense of security by the normal posing of the powerless. Neither social scientists nor ruling elites, moreover, are likely to fully appreciate the incitement a successful act of defiance may represent for the subordinate group, precisely because they are unlikely to be much aware of the hidden transcript from which it derives much of its energy" (p. 224). A small spark may ignite a forest fire: "When the first declaration of the hidden transcript succeeds, its mobilizing capacity as a symbolic act is potentially awesome… That first declaration speaks for the trolled, choked back, stifled, and suppressed. If the results seem like moment of madness, if the politics they engender is tumultuous, frenetic, delirious, and occasionally violent, that is perhaps because the powerless are so rarely on the public stage and have so much to say and do when they finally arrive." (p. 227)

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Seeing Like A State – Prescribing Society

Thought provoking quotes from Scott's (1998) Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed.

The rationale:

  • "The publicly stated rationale for planned settlement schemes was almost always couched in the discourse of orderly development and social services (such as the provision of health clinics, sanitation, adequate housing, education, clean water, and infrastructure). The public rhetoric was not intentionally insincere; it was, however, misleadingly silent about the manifold ways in which orderly development of this kind served important goals of appropriation, security, and political hegemony that could not have been met through autonomous frontier settlement." (p. 191)

The response:

  • "Rural Tanzanians were understandably reluctant to move into new communities planned by the state. Their past experience, whether before independence or after, warranted their skepticism. As cultivators and pastoralists, they had developed patterns of settlement and, in many cases, patterns of periodic movements that were finely tuned adaptations to an often stingy environment which thy knew exceptionally well. The state-mandated movement threatened to destroy the logic of this adaptation. Administrative convenience, not ecological considerations, governed the selection of sites…" (p. 235)
  • "What is significant, however, is that the modern planned village in Tanzania was essentially a point-by-point negation of existing rural practice, which included shifting cultivation and pastoralism; polycropping; living well off the main roads; kinship and lineage authority; small scattered settlements with houses built of higgledy-piggledy; and production that was dispersed and opaque to the state. The logic of this negation seemed often to prevail over sound ecological or economic considerations." (p. 238)

When it all falls apart:

  • "Lest there be any doubt that villagization meant central control and not simply village formation and communal farming, the sorry fate of the Ruvuma Development Association (RDA) settled the matter. The RDA was an umbrella organization representing fifteen communal villages scattered over one hundred miles in the Songea, a remote and poor district in the southwestern part of the country. Unlike most ujamaa villages, these were the spontaneous creation of young local militants in TANU. They began in 1960, long before Nyerere's policy declaration in 1967, with each village inventing its own forms of communal enterprise. Early on, Nyerere singled out one of the villages, Litowa, heralding it as a place where he could send people to see rural socialism in action. Its school, milling cooperative, and marketing association were the envy of neighboring villages. Given the high level of patronage and financial backing the villagers attracted, it is hard to tell how economically sound their enterprises were. They did, however, anticipate Nyerere's declared policy of local control and nonauthoritarian cooperation. The villagers were, on the other hand, independent and assertive vis-à-vis the state. Having won over many of the local party officials and having pioneered village cooperation on their own, they were not about to let themselves simply be absorbed into bureaucratic party routines. When each family in these villages was ordered to one acre of fire-cured tobacco, a crop they considered to be labor-intensive and without profit, they openly protested through their organization. In 1968, following a high-level visit by TANU's central committee, the RDA was officially banned as an illegal organization, its assets seized, and its functions assumed by the party and bureaucracy. Although it put into practice Nyerere's espoused goals, its refusal to fit into the centralized scheme of the party was fatal." (p. 233-234)

What is lost:

  • "The logic of actual farming is one of an inventive, practiced response to a highly variable environment, the logic of scientific agriculture is, by contrast, one of adapting the environment as much as possible to its centralizing and standardizing formulas." (p. 301)
  • "It goes without saying that the farmer was familiar with each of several varieties of any crop, when to plant it, how deeply to sow it, how to prepare the soil, and how to tend and harvest it. This knowledge was place specific in the sense that the successful growing of any variety required local knowledge about rainfall and soils, down to and including the peculiarities of each plot the farmer cultivated. It was also place specific in the sense that much of this knowledge was stored in the collective memory of the locality: an oral archive of techniques, seed varieties, and ecological information. Once the farmer was moved, often to a vastly different ecological setting, his local knowledge was all but useless." (p. 251)
  • "Diversity and certain forms of complexity, apart from their attractiveness, have other advantages. In natural systems, we know, these advantages are manifold. Old-growth forest, polycropping, and agriculture with open-pollinated landraces may not be as productive, in the short run, as single-species forest and fields or identical hybrids. But they are demonstrably more stable, more self-sufficient, and less vulnerable to epidemics and environmental stress, needs far less in the way of external infusions to keep them on track." (p. 353)

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Seeing Like A State – Describing Society

Thought provoking quotes from Scott's (1998) Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed.

On simplification:

  • "… state simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft, were, I began to realize, rather like abridged maps. They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer. They were, moreover, not just maps. Rather, they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade. Thus a state cadastral map created to designate taxable property-holders does not merely describe a system of land tenure; it creates such a system through its ability to give its categories the force of the law." (p. 3)
  • "State simplifications have at least five characteristics that deserve emphasis. Most obviously, state simplifications are observations of only those aspects of social life that are of official interest. Second, they are also nearly always written (verbal or numerical) documentary facts. Third, they are typically static facts. Fourth, most stylized state facts are also aggregate facts…. Finally, for most purposes, state officials need to group citizens in ways that permit them to make a collective assessment. Facts that can be aggregated and presented as averages or distributions much therefore be standardized facts." (p. 80)

On standard setting:

  • "Because local standards of measurement were tied to practical needs, because they reflected particular cropping patterns and agricultural technology, because they varied with climate and ecology, because they were "an attribute of power and an instrument of asserting class privilege," and because they were "at the center of bitter class struggle," they represented a mind-boggling problem for statecraft. Efforts to simplify or standardize measures recur like a leitmotif throughout French history – their reappearance a sure sign of previous failure." (p. 29)
  • "…typifications are indispensable to statecraft. State simplifications such as maps, censuses, cadastral lists, and standard units of measurement represent techniques for grasping a large and complex reality; in order for officials to be able to comprehend aspects of the ensemble, that complex reality must be reduced to schematic categories. The only way to accomplish this is to reduce an infinite array of detail to a set of categories that will facilitate summary descriptions, comparisons, and aggregations." (p. 77)

On legibility:

  • "Legibility is a condition of manipulation. Any substantial state intervention in society – to vaccinate a population, produce goods, mobilize labor, tax people and their property, conduct literacy campaigns, conscript soldiers, enforce sanitation standards, catch criminals, start universal schooling – requires the invention of units that are visible. The units in question might be citizens, villages, trees, fields, houses, or people grouped according to age, depending on the type of intervention. Whatever the units being manipulated, they must be organized in a manner that permits them to be identified, observed, recorded, counted, aggregated and monitored. The degree of knowledge required would have to be roughly commensurate with the depth of the intervention. In other words, one might say that the greater the manipulation envisaged, the greater the legibility required to effect it." (p. 183).

The impact:

  • "The point is simply that high-modernist designs for life and production tend to diminish the skills, agility, initiative, and morale of their intended beneficiaries. They bring about a mild form of this institutional neurosis. Or, to put it in the utilitarian terms that many of their partisans would recognize, these designs tend to reduce the "human capital" of the workforce. Complex, diverse, animated environments contribute, as Jacobs saw, to producing a resilient, flexible, adept population that has more experience in confronting novel challenges and taking initiative. Narrow, planned environments, by contrast, foster a less skilled, less innovative, less resourceful population." (p. 349)
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Revisiting Scott’s (1985) Weapons of the Weak

On 'weapons of the weak':

  • "Here I have in mind the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage and so forth. These Brechtian forms of class struggle have certain features in common. They require little or no coordination or planning; they often represent a form of individual self-help; and they typically avoid any direct confrontation with authority or with elite norms…" (p. 30)
  • "It would be a grave mistake, as it is with peasant revolutions, to overly romanticize the "weapons of the weak." They are unlikely to do more than marginally affect various forms of exploitation that peasants confront. Furthermore, the peasantry has no monopoly on these weapons, as anyone can easily attest who has observed officials and landlords resisting and disrupting state policies that are to their disadvantage." (p. 30-31)
  • "Everyday forms of resistance make no headlines. Just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so do thousands of upon thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political or economic barrier reef of their own." (p. 36)

On capitalism and community:

  • "Double-cropping and mechanization in Sedaka have presented rich peasants and landlords with a host of unprecedented new opportunities for profit. These opportunities have, with few exceptions, been eagerly seized. To exploit these new chances for capital accumulation, however, large farmers and landlords have stripped away many of the economic and social ties that previously bound them to poorer villagers. They have had to hire machines in place of village laborers, raise rents, dismiss tenants, and cut back their ceremonial and charitable obligations within the community." (p. 184)

On the creation of customs:

  • "It is not that their memory is faulty. The older customs and practices to which they point did exist and worked to their advantage. Their memory is, however, quite selective. It focuses precisely on those beneficial aspects of tenure and labor relations that have been eroded or swept away over the last ten years… There is no doubt, for example, that the losses suffered by Sedaka's poor in the last few years have inspired them to cast a new a sympathetic eye on older arrangements. Ten years ago these arrangements would not, in all probability, have elicited such praise; they were then part of the taken-for-granted practices that had governed rice production for some time. It is only against the backdrop of the new threats posed by double-cropping that such routines have been elevated to the status of revered customs, rights and entitlements. It is only now that the revalued past has become necessary to assess a menacing present." (p. 179)

On the revolution:

  • "The reader will detect, correctly, a certain pessimism about the prospects for revolutionary change that will systematically and reliably respect the insistence on small decencies that are at the core of peasant or working-class consciousness. If the revolution cannot even delivery the petty amenities and minor humanities that animate the struggle of its subjects, then there is not much to be said for whatever else is may accomplish. This pessimism is, alas, not so much a prejudice as, I think, a realistic assessment of the fate of workers and peasants in most revolutionary states – a fate that makes melancholy reading when set against the revolutionary promise. If revolution were a rare event before the creation of such states, it now seems all but foreclosed. All the more reason, then, to respect, if not celebrate, the weapons of the weak. All the more reason to see in the tenacity of self-preservation – in ridicule, in truculence, in irony, in petty acts of noncompliance, in foot dragging, in dissimulation, in resistant mutuality, in the disbelief in elite homilies, in the steady, grinding efforts to hold one's own against overwhelming odds – a spirit and practice that prevents the worst and promises something better." (p. 350)
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Logan Cochrane

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