Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Peasants, states and civilisations

Dilip Menon, The Hindu

James C. Scott, who is due to deliver a major lecture in Delhi this month, discusses his shaping influences, his interdisciplinary orientation and his political outlook.

James C. Scott is one of the most distinguished social scientists writing today, with political scientists, historians and anthropologists claiming him for their own. Born in 1936 and educated at Williams College and Yale, he is currently Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale. He is known for his seminal contributions to the study of peasants, power and resistance marked by extensive fieldwork and a sophisticated engagement with social theory in prose characterised by clarity and passion. The trilogy The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976), Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990) explored issues of patron-client relations, hegemony and the everyday expressions of resistance in peasant societies with literary flair, an ethical commitment and depth of local knowledge. His most recent work, Seeing Like a State (1998), explores forms of state knowledge and what he terms “state simplifications” arising out of the need to govern that run aground on the rocks of the recalcitrance of local facts. Currently, Professor Scott is engaged in fieldwork in Burma (Myanmar) looking at how peoples of the hills evade the reach of states and civilisations. He will deliver the second Indian Economic and Social History Association public lecture on December 19 at the Stein Auditorium, Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Professor Scott responds to questions from Dilip Menon, who teaches history at Delhi University.

Writing about the British Marxist historians, Raphael Samuel made the insightful observation that they produced some of the finest writings on religion because of the influence of a religious upbringing. How important was being raised as a Quaker to the ethical and moral tone of your own writing?

Very important. From age 8 through 17, I went to a small Quaker “country-day” school as we call it. As my father (an avid Democrat and FDR supporter) died when I was 9 years old. I only continued in the school by virtue of being its first scholarship student, working for the school on weekends and during the summer. At Moorestown Friends’ School I was exposed to conscientious objectors who had spent most of the Second World War as medics or in prison, serving as guinea pigs for medical research. I was deeply impressed with their courage even when I didn’t share their reasoning. Most Quakers have the capacity to stand up and be a minority of one in a crowd of one hundred (fairly rare among my countrymen) and that’s one thing I learned from them. Sometimes the Quakers call this “speaking truth to power,” and I began my 1990 book, which I dedicated to the school, Domination and the Arts of Resistance with this theme. The second thing the Quakers did for me was to expose me to fringe thought and fringe populations. I participated in “work camps” in which we lived in the slums, visited asylums, prisons, dock-workers’ meetings, black churches, ate at settlement houses, visited the Soviet Embassy in Washington (at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunts for “Reds”). In short, we went to all the places “nice white people” weren’t supposed to go. It was a real education for which I am enormously grateful. It was also an illustration of the Quaker idea of the “the light of God in everyman.” It was more the practice, courage, and “social gospel” of Quakers than their theology that impressed me.

While your work is resolutely interdisciplinary, it is as a political scientist that you began your career. How does your work fit in, or not, within the American political science establishment?

It really doesn’t fit. My pluralistic department here at Yale treats me well, rather like an interesting and fairly harmless curiosity, but I suspect many of them think my work is not really political science. A recent movement in political science to value qualitative methods has, in a small way, redressed the monopoly that formal methods, rational choice models, and quantitative methods had come to exercise, but I am still very much an outlier in the discipline. I am embarrassed to say how long it has been since I read anything in the American Political Science Review — at least eight years. I throw the APSR straight from my mailbox into the trash.

Vietnam was crucial in putting the peasant on the agenda within American academe, from Eric Wolf through to your own Moral Economy of the Peasant. How would you evaluate the place of Vietnam in your own intellectual development?

The fact that I am a South-East Asianist, which is a complete oddity in many ways, stems from my experiences at Williams. I spent a year in Burma on a Rotary Fellowship in 1958-59 and never looked back — though this stint was not what stimulated my subsequent interest in peasants and rural issues. During the Vietnam War, wars of national liberation were the zeitgeist. I realised that much of the literature on patron-client relations seemed to play an important role in generating the peasant-based revolutions that were happening at the time. This gave me the idea that understanding how vertical chains of authority break down might help explain how class consciousness emerges. Moreover, the best books on peasants and agrarian issues, Eric Wolf’s and that of Barrington Moore, were coming out at that time.

Balzac as much as Marx looms large in your work on the peasants. You turn to literature rather than philosophy for a moral critique. Would you like to comment on this?

A steady diet of social science literature bores me. At Williams, I also picked up a life-long habit of spending an hour or two each day reading novels and poetry — something completely outside of political science. While doing fieldwork for Weapons of the Weak in a Malay village, I would finish writing my field notes at night, working by a kerosene lamp and bitten to death by the bugs. When I finally got into bed under my mosquito netting, I would put a flashlight on my shoulder and read Jane Austen, [Emile] Zola or Balzac, good literature with a strong plot. Novelists, poets, historians understand so much more and are not constrained to say it in a narrow straight-jacket of a language. So to relieve the boredom I read outside social science although often around themes I am thinking about. I tell graduate students on my discipline (or any other) that if all they read are things in the mainstream of their discipline they will almost certainly reproduce that mainstream in their own work. As the information programmers say: “Junk in, junk out.” Most worthwhile ideas in any discipline come from imported ideas. I do believe that the observations of Tolstoy, Gogol, or George Eliot have much political insight that could be put into disciplinary political science terms.

You run one of the most stimulating seminar series in American academe: the Agrarian Studies seminar at Yale started in 1991. What is the relevance of the agrarian in this contemporary world driven by finance and information technology, apart from the basic fact that we still have to eat and there have to be producers?

Well, it’s a long story, but the history of grain agriculture; state-formation to which it is tied; and more recently industrialised agriculture, has shaped what we think of as our civilisations. These very processes now threaten to destroy civilisation altogether via habitat destruction, soil depletion, fragile mono-cropping, carbon dioxide emissions, diet-related diseases, and hard environmental limits (for example, water) to the point where the radical reform of the food system is virtually our most urgent business. Interest in rural issues has been renewed recently by people working on topics like indigenous rights, sustainable development, and environmental issues.

The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Weapons of the Weak, and Domination and the Arts of Resistance form a trilogy as it were of peasant agency and the ethical grounds of political action. What made you turn to a study of high modernism and the schemes of the state in Seeing Like a State?

It was a movement from excavating subterranean forms of resistance and then revealing the hidden transcripts of what is said behind the back of power to studying forms of state knowledge: how state officials domesticate and simplify the world. Seeing Like a State was the result of the seminar the Programme in Agrarian Studies has provided for almost two decades. I got a broad education from our weekly visitors which over time convinced me that there was something systematic about how states restructured personal names, place names, landscape, property, statistics, tax identities, cities, and crops to make them legible and, hence, manipulable. I began to think of this project of legibility as a way in which the world was changed in tone-deaf ways that frequently ran up against local knowledge and the brute facts of ecological limits. There’s nothing very original with me in that book, except perhaps a bringing together of what I consider to be the “state-optic” of “high-modernism.”

There is a deep distrust of the state and a valorisation of forms of community life, in your work. You draw considerably on the works of anarchist theorists like Peter Kropotkin?

I can’t possibly develop this here. I found myself saying things that, before they were fully out of my mouth, I realised was what an anarchist might say. So I taught a course in anarchism to read all the classics. Insofar as anarchism means the fostering of mutuality without hierarchy, I would consider myself an anarchist in spirit. Anarchism is more successful as an argument against states than as a programme on its own. It’s worth noticing that the anarchists and libertarian communists saw the pathologies of state-socialism in Russia and elsewhere long before the rest of the Left. My recent project really is on why the state is the enemy of people who move around.

Fernando Coronil titled his review of Seeing Like a State, cleverly as ‘Smelling like a Market.’ Is it not true that the forces of the market are being seen as the great leveller now rather than the schemes of the modernist developmental state, which as you rightly point out ran aground?

I don’t see how anyone can call the last nearly 20 years of neo-liberalism and “the Washington consensus,” as anything but a redistribution of wealth in favour of the very rich even where it brought high rates of economic growth in previously state-run economies. Today [in mid-October 2008] neo-liberalism hardly seems hegemonic; rather some plausible mix of markets and social democracy seems the only near-term solution although democracy is thoroughly contaminated by the huge and growing inequalities of wealth and hence, access to the means of shaping opinion and buying the opinions that can’t be shaped.

Your recent work looks at non-peasant societies: those on the hills who have managed to stave off civilisation and the state. Where does this fit in within the scheme of your larger intellectual project?

Inasmuch as it’s a study of until-recently state-evading peoples, I suppose you could say it’s part of an anarchist project, but I would take exception to the pairing of civilisation and states in your question. As I try to show in my book, the classical South-East Asian and Han definitions of “civilisation” boil down to being paddy-growing, sedentary, tax-paying subjects of the state. I want to go back to fieldwork. To keep you honest, you have to know something about a particular place. I’d like to do fieldwork in Burma and I want to go to villages where nobody cares that I am Jim Scott and where I have to learn like crazy. I hope that this work will say something about why the state has always been the enemy of people who move around and why there is something about a state that wants to fix people in space.

Some would say that E.P. Thompson was the last of the romantic prophets. Surely that is a role that you continue to play?

I don’t think of myself as a romantic but enough people have called me one that they certainly detect something along these lines. In any case, I am very happy to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Edward Thompson. I’m at least as much influenced by Karl Polanyi, Marc Bloch, A.V. Chayanov and now, Pierre Clastres.