‘Everyday resistance’: Poor People’s Politics


‘Poor people’, though contribute to the vast majority of the developing world, their role in shaping the political dramas [within state] is always over-looked.  They hardly get noticed in the political spectrum. Not because they do not participate in the political exercises but their representation as ‘poor people’ is significantly underestimated in many parts of the Global South. With this in mind, James Scott introduced a theoretical concept ‘everyday resistance’ in 1985, to study how people act in their everyday lives in ways that might undermine power which is typically hidden, individual and not politically articulated.

On the contrary to the New Social Movements (NSMs), ‘everyday resistance’ rarely makes news because the resistance of the powerless (ordinary citizens, the working class) against the powerful (landlords) does not use coercion (violence, threats) and their avoidance of confrontation with authority makes no dramatic changes on their plight. For Scott (1992), ‘everyday resistance’ comprises of ‘foot-dragging, non-compliance, pilfering, desertion, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, flight and so on’ of which primary objective is to oppose oppression.

In his book Hidden Transcripts: Domination and the Arts of Resistance, James C Scott explains the power relations between ‘the powerful’ and ‘the powerless’ of which he argues that the relationship is controversial though its influence remains strong. Scott presents the idea that oppression and resistance are in constant fighting.   He further claims that the powerful (in this case the officials of the state) have an interest in keeping up the status quo and may not wish to publicise the insubordination behind the everyday resistance. To do so would be to admit that their policy is disliked and, above all, to expose the fragility of their authority in the countryside – neither of which most sovereigns find in their interest. The nature of the acts themselves and the self-interested silence of the rivals, therefore, conspire to generate a kind of ‘complicated ‘silence which may all but remove everyday forms of resistance from the official record.

Scott’s view of ‘transcripts’ (hidden and public) further explains the fact that the established resistance forms fit particular actors in particular social settings, whether dominant or oppressed.  As such, resistance is a delicate form of contesting ‘public transcripts’ by making use of prescribed roles and language to resist the abuse of power – including things like ‘rumour, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, and anonymity’.Scott (1992) emphasis the point that these forms of ‘everyday resistance’ apply to the scenarios where excessive power is used to oppress the marginalised and their status quo is maintained allowing ‘a veiled discourse of dignity and self-assertion within the public transcript… in which ideological resistance is disguised, muted and veiled for safety’s sake’. These forms of resistance require little coordination or planning and are used by both individuals and groups to resist without directly confronting or challenging elite norms.

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An engraving depicting slave women in Saint-Dominque.

This is certainly true in the case of peasant ‘resistance’ to Vietnamese official economic policy to keep the price low.  In her book Everyday resistance, socialist revolution and rural development: The Vietnamese case,  Christine cities key examples of ‘everyday resistance’ from Vietnamese peasants’ non-official compliance with their government’s proposal ,as a principle of socialism, that basic food grains should not be a commodity thereby should be no free market. However, this policy related the circulation of rice to a combination of need and work through the complex workings of the rural co-operative, procurement and urban rationing systems. Though the system worked well from the onset, it cracked down later due to the combination of factors, notably the pressures of war, the foreign aid reduction, which all led to rapid inflation and shortfalls in state rations. However, peasants were not contented with government’s interventions particularly with the procurement price of rice and thereby they resisted by reducing the amount of energy expended to harvest the co-operative rice land.

More importantly, with his idea of ‘transcripts’ Scott recognises that the dominant, as well as the weak, are often caught within the same web of socialised roles, and behaviour often expressed without any explicit intent. In this sense, Scott holds a psychological view that the hegemony is concealed and internalised (through transcripts) rather than as harmonised acts of domination. But with ‘resistance’ he sees power as lying somewhere between structure and agency. While the pressure driving everyday resistance varies with the needs of subordinate groups, it is rarely likely to disappear altogether. The point is that any weakness in surveillance and enforcement is expected to be quickly exploited; any ground left undefended is likely to be ground lost. Nowhere is this pattern more evident than in the case of repetitive appropriations such as rents or taxes.

The critics of Scott’s ‘everyday resistance ‘approach  emphasise that  “the effectiveness of resistance is not considered of primary importance nor is it specified what is being resisted (landlords? Capitalism? the state?).”  Therefore the marginalised groups can hardly achieve tangible results in coming out from the ashes of domination because the ‘everyday resistance’ emphasises on negative manifestations of power rather than the question of how the powerless can exercise real political power.

In summary, the notion that ‘if you pinch me, I will pinch you more’ makes the ‘everyday resistance’ less influential. This means that the powerless and marginalised ‘will not always affect power, but sometimes they will even reinforce their domination’. As such, Scott concerns that the ‘everyday resistance’ are marginal because they are unorganized, unsystematic and individual; hence the ‘weapons of weak’ is relatively insignificant in making dramatic changes on oppression and dominance settings. However, this does not negate the usefulness of the concept of ‘everyday resistance’ in situations where the marginalised are so severely repressed while utilising ‘hidden transcripts’ to oppose oppressions and sustain their survival activity and sense of dignity.

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