Most resistance in the world is not about protests, but ‘everyday resistance’

James C. Scott discusses how political science only registers the tip of the iceberg of resistance in history.

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In a rural, traditional white wooden house with a library and writing desk, among some chickens, two cows and a vegetable garden, lives James C. Scott, the professor of political science and anthropology and director of the agrarian studies program at Yale University.

In 1985, “everyday resistance” was introduced by Scott in the book “Weapons of the Weak” to describe a different kind of resistance, one that is not as dramatic or visible as rebellions, riots, demonstrations, revolutions, civil war and other such organized, collective or confrontational articulations of resistance. According to Scott, everyday resistance is quiet, dispersed, disguised or otherwise seemingly invisible to elites, the state or mainstream society — something he sometimes also calls “infrapolitics.”

Over the years, Scott has shown through his research how certain common behavior of subordinated groups — for example, foot-dragging, escape, sarcasm, passivity, laziness, repeated misunderstandings, disloyalty, slander, avoidance or theft — is not always what it seems to be. Instead it can productively be understood as “resistance.” Scott argues these activities are tactics that exploited people use in order to survive by gaining small and material advantages and simultaneously, temporarily undermine repressive domination, especially in contexts when rebellion is too risky. As such, these are the preferred “weapons of the weak.”  

According to Scott, the form of resistance depends on the form of power. Resistance always needs to adapt to the context and the situation of the people who use it. Those who claim that “real resistance,” he writes, “is organized, principled, and has revolutionary implications … overlook entirely the vital role of power relations in constraining forms of resistance.” They overlook the fact that they prefer a form of resistance that is suitable to their own more liberal context, while it might be ineffective and even suicide for others, living in a repressive context.

Contrary to others before him, Scott suggests that the primary resistance activity in history, at least among the repressed “classes” — which includes all subordinated groups, such as women, slaves, prisoners and migrants — is instead happening through the micro politics of a small class war in the everyday. Over the years, Scott has developed his argument in several books, taking up new examples and aspects of this low-key everyday form of resistance. In “Decoding Subaltern Politics: Ideology, Disguise, and Resistance in Agrarian Politics,” he summarizes his main arguments in a condensed way.

Through his many years of work on everyday resistance, Scott has fundamentally transformed our understanding of politics, literally making the ordinary life of subordinated groups part of political affairs. He also directly played an inspirational role in the establishment of Subaltern Studies as a distinct school that reformulated a “history from below” of India, and has inspired numerous empirical studies on everyday resistance (see an extensive overview in a book I co-wrote with Anna Johansson, called “Conceptualizing ‘Everyday Resistance’”).

Since the Journal of Resistance Studies is inspired to a high degree by the work of Scott, we spoke with him about his research and some questions that arise from it.

Could you say what is your most important intellectual inspirations for understanding resistance?

I started teaching during the Vietnam War and was a Southeast Asia specialist. I was one of those left-wing people in love with the wars of national liberation. That’s why I did this book called “The Moral Economy of the Peasant,” to try and understand how peasant revolutions happened. Two things impressed me. The first thing is that peasants ideologically are not revolutionary. Peasants make revolutions because they want a little piece of land. They want to get out from under debt, sharecropping debt and so on. Their aspirations are not very expansive. They will fight like crazy and die for tiny little gains which are actually important because they live at the edge. It struck me that the people who made revolutions, like artisans, weavers and shoemakers, ended up making revolutions in order to achieve what we consider non-revolutionary gains, but gains that make all the difference between living and dying, comfort and dignity.

At the same time, I realized that when there was an actual revolution — [with] Sékou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, Ho Chi Minh, not to mention Lenin, Trotsky and Mao — it was often the case that they created a stronger state that was able to fasten itself on its people and govern their lives more brutally in many ways than the ancien regime. There was usually this moment with land reform and possibilities, and then a stronger state. Especially in the socialist bloc, one has to admit.

I realized that my hopes for revolution were, if I was honest with myself, that they ended up not actually improving the freedom and autonomy of much of the population. The one thing that communist revolutions did actually, almost everywhere, was increase literacy. They actually did a good job at making a more literate population, and in some cases improving the distribution of health care. But I became disillusioned by the way in which revolutions produced a stronger state that was more oppressive than the one it replaced.

And then I found myself in Malaysia in a village for two years in which there was all kinds of class struggle, but it was not a revolutionary situation. It wasn’t a democratic setting either; there were elections, but they were fake elections. Nobody imagined that the ruling party, the United Malay nationalist organization, could be replaced. So, all of the clashes that I saw were these everyday struggles in order to stop the mechanization of the harvest, to keep one’s job, to shame and humiliate the rich, to make small gains — things like small-scale theft from the rich people, and efforts to make sure that they paid as little of the Islamic tithe [tax] that was essentially collected by rich people in the capital city as possible. And if they paid it, it was with bad rice, dirt, stones and things like that.

That got me to thinking that for most of history, people have been operating in non-democratic settings in which given their local perspective they imagine their chances of changing the world are extremely small. Sometime there’s a cascade of these events when the world is changed. But they’re unlikely to realize it until it actually happens. And it seems to me that what we underestimate radically is how the aggregation of these small acts of resistance — whether it was desertion from armies, poaching or land squatting — are struggles over food and life and property. And it seems to me that these are class struggles and they take place in a cautious, everyday way that doesn’t result in what my asshole discipline political science sees as political activity. That is to say, there are no organizations, banners, petitions, marches, public demonstrations and so on.

All of this takes place with a subterranean understanding and collusion among people in the same situation, and they help and don’t betray one another generally. I realized that this form of struggle — which is below the radar on purpose — has probably constituted most of history’s class struggle, [while] political scientists and social scientists concentrate on the visible patch of the spectrum of resistance. That’s why it’s important.

In your definition of everyday resistance, class stands out as being very important. But why is class and not domination or power key? Because we could imagine gender, race or other things that could be key here.

In “Domination and the Arts of Resistance” I spend a fair amount of time talking about slaves and slave resistance. So that’s race and class together. That is a subordinated class of people who aren’t free. So, it’s not that I ignore race and ethnicity. Although I’m dealing with it in the context of people who are oppressed, for lack of a better word.

If you get historically the idea that untouchables and [Indigenous] Adivasis in India are seen as less than fully human, that Jews are less than fully human, that [Black people] are less than fully human, then you combine class oppression with a dehumanization that allows exploitation to take on extra power in which these people’s lives are not worth much. That combination of class plus race has produced more horrors than pure class has.

When you describe everyday resistance in your different texts, it is very clear how it can be creative and innovative when it comes to finding ways of cutting corners and undermining exploitation and relations of power when it’s possible. But you don’t describe as much the possibility of everyday resistance to create more proactive, self-governing autonomous institutions that can strengthen the subaltern group. Do you see that as part of everyday resistance, or is that something completely different for you?

Yes. Except that it can’t declare itself. So, for example, let’s say with poaching, how do you know poaching isn’t just the desire of someone to have rabbit stew, because it tastes good? And why should we treat this as a kind of class thing, rather than just theft? Well, first of all, because you don’t. Theft from the people of the same class is not tolerated, you’ll get beaten to shit if you do. And if you’re poaching on aristocratic land, none of your village neighbors will ever go to court and give witness against you. And we know in general from folk sayings that God created the commons for everybody, that there’s an atmosphere of solidarity that is acted in practice by game wardens never being able to get a villager to testify against another villager. So, there you have evidence of complicity and a kind of tacit coordination, and agreement — it never has to take a formal form — but it actually protects everybody. Because they know that if they take a rabbit from aristocratic land their neighbors are not going to screw them.

That idea can create a climate of opinion and maybe it’s whispered at the tavern. And heroes like Robin Hood are celebrated. It’s a kind of culture, a kind of solidarity. But it’s not formalized. When you get what you would think of as a sort of public display of solidarity, what you’re seeing is one of those rare moments in which this complicity which is generalized suddenly bursts to the surface, in a crisis. But it wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t the other nine-tenths of the iceberg that had been created by practical acts of solidarity.

If people go on strike in a factory, they go on strike because they have the relations of solidarity with the people on the next machine — the people they go drinking with. They are talking all the time about how they hate the fucking bosses, how they’re not well-paid, how the factory is dirty and dangerous. So, when you get an uprising and an actual strike, you’re seeing the kind of visible poking through of the quiet fabric that this creates. You don’t get the things you’re interested in without the things that are left unspoken.

You’re saying that in the process of doing everyday resistance there is the creation of a culture of self-rule, autonomy, that it becomes like a resource?

It’s absolutely essential. It wouldn’t exist without it. So, this kind of everyday resistance — the desertion, the squatting on the land —requires a sort of complicity and tacit cooperation that’s not public, but which is the tissue binding all these people together.

Would it go too far to say that that kind of tissue — that kind of cooperation and solidarity between exploited and marginalized classes — is the basis that makes strikes, protests and public mass mobilizations possible? But they don’t see that these social bonds of everyday resistance are behind it all, making it possible, and researchers are focusing only on the public articulations of it.

Sure, you could say that. In the sense that in every strike you decide whether you’re going to stay at your machine or go out on strike, you’ve got to do one thing or another. Your decision depends, in a fundamental way on how your social relations are with the people who are going out on strike, as opposed to the boss or the foreman. Maybe if you need the money and your children are starving, you’re not going to go out on strike. But the point is, whether you go out on strike or not is dependent on all these other things, these social network ties and loyalties.

It seems to me, that at different places in the world we do not find the same level of everyday resistance everywhere, right? In some places there is a very high level of everyday resistance, like for example among the Palestinians, who call their everyday resistance sumūd. There is a whole culture of everyday resistance, where people even talk about it very explicitly, whereas in other places it seems like it’s difficult to even detect it. Is this variation only a matter of degrees of power?

Again, I haven’t thought seriously about this, but … let’s take the Palestinian case. These people have been living with the daily presence of surveillance, oppression and danger, for the last 40 or 50 years. And so, they have always had to work around these situations. I may be wrong, but my guess is that there are not any strong cultural influences in terms of how people respond to oppression. I do not believe that the Buddhists are more long-suffering than the Tamils. I think it’s a question of practice and experience.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

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