Tag Archives: James C. Scott

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.


Weapons of the Weak

978-0-300-03641-1-frontcoverRock Creek   Reading a short book on revisiting the practice of anarchism by James C. Scott during the last year I became aware of his earlier work, Weapons of the Weak:  Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, which I was sure was even more up my alley.   The book, published in 1985, is based on anthropological observation and field work undertaken by Scott in a rural, farming community in Malaysia where he and his family lived for more than a year.

            Scott was in Malaysia as the so-called green revolution took hold so was able to see the impact of the transition of the farming community as tractors became dominant and “double-paddy” production took hold under larger landlords altering the work relationships that had been common in peasant society for centuries.  I’ll save the theoretical arguments for another day, but Scott fascinatingly documents the myriad ways, not easily visible to many, that the poor resisted with what tools they had, which was often their labor, cooperation, and consent.  The “weapons” were not mass actions, strikes, or new organizations so much as seemingly passive resistance including foot dragging, tardiness, unpredictability, lack of communication, and so forth to refuse to submit to power and even change.  The examples included the concerted lowering of a landlord’s reputation in the community and access to labor when finally needed based on the constant “grading” of the rumor mill from the workers to avoid labor on power’s paddy or rice crops. 

            One of my favorite was the way a community erected a toll gate of sorts on a village road to keep trucks from rutting the road especially during the monsoon season and making travel difficult, if not impossible.  With a simple log and a lock attached, a truck was required to pay a fee to travel the road at these times and to stop and be unloaded by the peasants so that the trucker’s load could be transported by their bicycles or motorcycles, allowing many to make needed income.  Another was the subtle, skilled negotiations between tenants and landlords, during the period when many landlords in the area where trying to wrest higher rents and advance payments from tenants. 

            Part of why this is so interesting to me is what it says about the prospects for new tactics for workers in this period of diminishing union power.  Certainly, during the wave of concession demands in the 80’s the use of “work to rule” particularly in some industrial settings was often effective.  More commonly, I have argued to our union organizers that no matter what the work setting there is always a history of worker action and resistance to their employers way before the union emerged on the scene, if we are only willing to ask often and listen deeply for what the history of “organization” has been, so that we can build on it.  This is not to say that the history will always have been a situation where workers won and in fact it is as likely that the response to the resistance was harsh and the leaders may have been fired or disciplined.   A critical organizing tool in any work situation is realizing that you are just another stage in an endless battle so that you have to take the time as an organizer to find out what has gone before you in terms of direct active or passive resistance and build from that history and culture of struggle to find success.  It’s always there, but it has to be found in the conversations with workers on these job-sites.

Management often bends this history over time to their purposes.  Sometimes it is anything but subtle.   At the large Avondale Shipyards outside of New Orleans on the yard’s water tower in the late 1960’s, the results of the last union election and how badly the steelworkers were defeated were painted in giant numbers looming over the workforce.  In hotels in New Orleans like the Hilton, the boss-legend of our organizing there in the early 1980’s was so twisted twenty years later that there were supposedly scores of Hilton workers fired for organizing a union, which was a total fiction.   

A secondary rule of organizing might be that when we are arrogant and don’t search out the history of struggle we may find that our ignorance of the ancient history of workers in these workplaces may also doom our contemporary efforts to failure, lacking an antidote to the fear that has been deeply embedded.   As Scott argues that the weak have weapons in peasant society, we have to find and build those weapons in contemporary society to have a shot a winning.