Stop Signs for Social Change with James C. Scott

stopsigns-LRock  Creek  Frankly, part of the quest in reading is not only the search for knowledge, entertainment, and active resistance to boredom, but the hope of finding external confirmation for your own thinking and work.  The first 325 pages of James C. Scott’s, Weapons of the Weak:  Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale 1985) can be a lift for those with less patience for his painstaking, though lively, examination of the intricacies of the lives and work of rural farmers in the rice paddies of Malaysia, but every community organizer who has ever knocked on a door should read the last chapter with relish, even though the title, “Hegemony and Consciousness,” might be off putting to some.

            Like it or not, Scott indirectly articulates better than most of us could ever hope to do so a scholarly, political science framework for explaining why we believe that beginning organizations from the rudiments of simple actions that are immediate, specific, and winnable, yes, even stop signs, can lead to dramatic social change.  For those with a theoretical bent and background, what Scott, a political science professor, is tackling in this last chapter are theories on the left from thinkers from Sarte to Gramsci to Marx and many others about the ideological preconditions to change or in clearer terms, how people are likely to be thinking, and what they are likely to be thinking about, when they suddenly hit the streets and demand changes as we are seeing all over the world these days.  

            Inside the tent where people are doing the real work of organizing for change, we know that you have to organize people from where they are, about what they want, not from where you wish they were, and what you might hope they would want.  Outside the tent, it is popular to talk about the real work as “reformist,” meaning just an effort to win modest improvements, rather than more sweeping, even radical changes.  In simplest terms, such theorists would dismiss community organizing as just being about winning some stop signs, paving potholes, and the like.  In more extravagant terms the old school theorists would dismiss community organizing as  practicing what Scott (341) refers to as “trade union consciousness” which focuses “on limited and concrete benefits rather than ‘revolutionary consciousness’ that might make radical change possible.”

            What Scott found with the peasants of Malaysia is what community organizers have repeatedly found hitting the doors on countless streets in our cities:  the secrets to how change is really made. Where the “hegemony” part of his last chapter comes into play is the way that this constant organizing process defines justice, truth, and morality, and pushes back at dominant, top down ideologies that others would have us constantly believe, which defines hegemony in the first place.  As Scott correctly observes, peoples’ thoughts are always more radical than their actions, not the other way around.

            In a nutshell Scott argues, “Resistance…begins as…all historical resistance …begins:  close to the ground, rooted firmly in the homely but meaningful realities of daily experience.  The enemies are not impersonal historical forces but real people….The values resisters are defending are equally near at hand and familiar.  Their point of departure is the practices and norms that have proven effective in the past and appear to offer some promise of reducing or reversing the losses they suffer.  The goals of the resistance are as modest as its values.  The poor strive to gain work, land, and income….The means typically employed to achieve these ends – barring the rare crises that might precipitate larger dreams – are both prudent and realistic.”

            I could go on and on, but the message is clear.  Scott has ground tested political theories in Malaysia just as many of us have across the United States and the world, and we have found some truths about what makes change possible, even if not inevitable, and attention must be paid.

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