Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
James Scott’s influential Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance offers a compelling thesis on peasant politics and social change in agrarian societies. Peasant revolutions are few and far between, he says; the real “action” is the everyday, more ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot-dragging, sabotage, gossip, feigned ignorance, and dissimulation. Widespread citation of the book normally refers to these more patient and silent acts of “small arms fire” in the low-intensity conflict (or Cold War) of “normal” class struggle. With few exceptions, less discussed are Scott’s strong arguments against notions of hegemony, mystification, and ideology—concepts he considers synonymous.
This incredibly generative book has been much criticized; for me, it proved incredibly useful for stirring up debates in my own mind, particularly around the concept of hegemony. For instance, gossip, as a weapon of the weak, is particularly adept for generating ideological crossfire. “The stories that swirl around these two men must also be recognized as cornerstones of an ideological edifice under construction. They embody, as ideology, a critique of things as they are as well as a version of things as they should be” (23). Scott is referencing gossip concerning one of the poorest residents of Sedaka and one of the richest—both derided, the former for being a lazy free-loader and the latter for being famously stingy.
Gossip concerning both men polices the bounds of proper community behavior and, by extension, wages class struggle. “Like effective propaganda, they signify—they embody—an entire argument about what is happening in this small place” (22). Scott couches such practices, on the part of peasants, in terms of vernacular critiques of capitalism, or as he puts it, “folk descriptions” (182). What’s more, he says that the stories and personal nature of the social relationships makes such critiques much more visceral and palpable than any ideological discourse ever could (182). Scott puts such critiques, however, in terms of off-stage and on-stage performances, partial and full transcripts. Critiques of landlords might be voiced in private among peasants, but (false) deference is the order of the day in inter-class relations.
The advantage of these means of resistance is that they “require little or no coordination or planning; they often represent a form of individual self-help; and they typically avoid any direct symbolic confrontation with authority or with elite norms” (29). Classes are engaged in a constant sizing up, and the conflict is slightly more circumscribed then any frontal assaults; peasants engage perhaps not a massive land occupation, but a quite encroachment (32)—a marginal moving of the stakes. Peasants even tried to slyly block the introduction of combine harvesters by a labor boycott (a kind of veiled strike). Scott says this was not a revolutionary vanguard, but…
What it does represent is a constant process of testing and renegotiation of production relations between classes. On both sides—landlord-tenant, farmer-age laborer—there is a never-ending attempt to seize such small advantage and press it home, to probe the limits of the existing relationships, to see precisely what can be gotten away with at the margin, and to include this margin as part of the accepted, or at least tolerated, territorial claim. (255)
The sorts of activities found here require little coordination, let alone political organization, though they might benefit from it…. Providing we are careful about the use of the term, these activities might be called primitive resistance, or perhaps ur resistance. The use of the term primitive does not imply, as Hobsbawm does, that they are somehow backward and destined to give way to more sophisticated ideologies and tactics. It implies only that such forms of resistance are the nearly permanent, continuous, daily strategies of subordinate rural classes under difficult conditions. (273)
The context of Scott’s study is the Green Revolution and the Malaysian government’s New Economic Policy (NEP). The reforms created fundamental changes in rice production, such as the use of new planting practices, combines and other new technologies, sapping poorer farmers of needed opportunities for wages. The fragile moral economy of the village was thrown off kilter. The richer farmers suddenly found themselves operating in “something of an ideological vacuum” (184). Culturally and religious mechanisms of redistribution began falling apart, leading to greater (yet veiled) antagonisms in the village.
The rich of Sedaka thus find themselves in an anomalous, though powerful, position. The precondition of their new wealth has been the systematic dismantling of the practices that previously rationalized their wealth, status, and leadership. Thwie economic domination has come at the cost of their social standing and of their social control of their poorer neighbors—the cost implied by their having broken their own hegemony. (345)
His main critique of hegemony and associated concepts (ideology, false consciousness, mystification)—not that I agree with this conflation—is that he does not believe that peasants are somehow unaware of their exploitation nor does he think that they have somehow approvingly internalized the politics of the rich farmers. Nor are peasants really giving their consent anywhere along the way. A more modest version of hegemony that Scott feels more comfortable with is that which implies an ideological struggle that aims “to define what is realistic and what is not realistic and to drive certain goals and aspirations into the realm of the impossible, the realm of idle dreams, of wishful thinking” (326). This definition jives nicely with my own.
This book also forces us to reconsider the sometimes crude distinction between “mere” survival tactics and political agency or resistance. In my experience, particularly amid much more dire situations that Scott describes and with even more dramatic forms of power imbalances, survival and the means used to achieve this survival can be a forceful political statement made with forceful and explicit political efforts/challenges. Sometimes “merely” holding certain forces at bay is a revolutionary act in itself. And labeling such political victories as “just” survival is both cynical and arrogant. The means to achieve such movements are not limited “to weapons of the weak”; they are somewhere between small arms fire and a B-52.