"Everyday resistance" is the most common form of opposition to oppression. It consists of footdragging, non-compliance, pilfering, desertion, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, flight etc... James C. Scott's article is the classic statement on "everyday resistance".
The argument which follows originated in a growing dissatisfaction with much of the recent work - my own as well as that of others - on the subject of peasant rebellion and revolution. It is only too apparent that the inordinate attention to large-scale peasant insurrection was, in North America at least, stimulated by the Vietnam war and something of a left-wing academic romance with wars of national liberation. In this case interest and source material were mutually reinforcing. For the historical and archival records were richest at precisely those moments when the peasantry came to pose a threat to the state and to the existing international order. At other times, which is to say most of the time, the peasantry appeared in the historical record not so much as historical actors but as more or less anonymous contributors to statistics on conscription, taxes, labour migration, land holdings, and crops production.
The fact is that, for all their importance when they do occur, peasant rebellions, let alone peasant 'revolutions', are few and far between. Not only are the circumstances which favour large-scale peasant uprising comparatively rare, but when they do appear, the revolts which develop are nearly always crushed unceremoniously. To be sure, even a failed revolt may achieve something: a few concessions from the state or landlords, a brief respite from new and painful relations of production and, not least, a memory of resistance and courage that may lie in wait for the future. Such gains, however, are uncertain, while the carnage, the repression, and the demoralization of defeat are all too certain and real.
In a larger sense one might say that the historiography of class struggle has been systematically distorted in a state-centric direction. The events that claim attention are the events to which the state and ruling classes accord most attention in their archives. Thus, for example, a small and futile rebellion claims an attention all out of proportion to its impact on class relations while unheralded acts of flight, sabotage, theft which may have far greater impact are rarely noticed. The small rebellion may have a symbolic importance for its violence and for its revolutionary aims but for most subordinate classes historically such rare episodes were of less moment than the quiet, unremitting guerrilla warfare that took place day-in and day-out.
It is perhaps only in the study of slavery that such forms of resistance are given due attention, and that is clearly because there have been relatively few slave rebellions (in the antebellum South at any rate) to whet the historian's appetite. It is also worth recalling as well that even at those extraordinary historical moments when a peasant-backed revolution actually succeeds in taking power, the results are, at the very best, a mixed blessing for the peasantry. Whatever else the revolution may achieve, it almost always creates a more coercive and hegemonic state apparatus - one that is often able to batten itself on the rural population like no other before it. All too frequently the peasantry finds itself in the ironic position of having helped to power a ruling group whose plans for industrialisation, taxation, and collectivisation are very much at odds with the goals for which peasants had imagined they were fighting.
A history of the peasantry which only focused on uprisings would be much like a history of factory workers devoted entirely to major strikes and riots. Important and diagnostic though these exceptional events may be, they tell us little about the most durable arena of class conflict and resistance: the vital, day-to-day struggle on the factory floor over the pace of work, over leisure, wages, autonomy, privileges, and respect. For workers operating, by definition, at a structural disadvantage and subject to repression, such forms of quotidian struggle may be the only option available. Resistance of this kind does not throw up the manifestos, demonstrations, and pitched battles that normally compel attention, but vital territory is being won and lost here too. For the peasantry, scattered across the countryside and facing even more imposing obstacles to organised, collective action, everyday forms of resistance would seem particularly important.
For all these reasons it occurred to me that the emphasis on peasant rebellion was misplaced. Instead, it seemed far more germane to understand what we might call everyday forms of peasant resistance - the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labour, food, taxes, rents, and interest from them. Most of the forms this struggle takes stop well short of collective outright defiance. Here I have in mind the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: footdragging, dissimulation, false-compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth. These Brechtian forms of class struggle have certain features in common. They require little or no co-ordination or planning; they often represent a form of individual self-help; and they typically avoid any direct symbolic confrontation with authority or with elite norms. To understand these commonplace forms of resistance is to understand what much of the peasantry does 'between revolts' to defend its interests as best it can.
It would be a grave mistake, as it is with peasant rebellions, overly to romanticise these 'weapons of the weak'. They are unlikely to do more than marginally affect the various forms of exploitation which peasants confront. Furthermore, the peasantry has no monopoly on these weapons, as anyone who has observed officials and landlords resisting and disrupting state policies which are to their disadvantage can easily attest.
On the other hand, such Brechtian (or Schweikian) modes of resistance are not trivial. Desertion and evasion of conscription and of corvee labour have undoubtedly limited the imperial aspirations of many a monarch in South-east Asia or, for that matter, in Europe. The process, and its potential impact is nowhere better captured than in R.C. Cobb's account of draft resistance and desertion in post-revolutionary France and under the early Empire.
"From the year V to the year VII, there are increasingly frequent reports, from a variety of Departments ... of every conscript from a given canton having returned home and living there unmolested.
Better still, many of them did not return home; they had never left it in the first place In the year VII too the severed fingers of right hands - the commonest form of self-mutilation - begin to witness statistically to the strength of what might be described as a vast movement of collective complicity, involving the family, the parish, the local authorities, whole cantons.
Even the Empire, with a vastly more numerous and reliable rural police, did not succeed in more than temporarily slowing down the speed of the hemorrhage which ... from 1812, once more reached catastrophic proportions. There could have been no more eloquent referendum on the universal unpopularity of an oppressive regime ; and there is no more encouraging spectacle for a historian than a people that has decided it will no longer fight and that, without fuss, returns home ... the common people, at least in this respect, had their fair share in bringing down France's most appalling regime."
In a similar fashion, flight and evasion of taxes have classically curbed the ambition and reach of Third World states - whether pre-colonial, colonial, or independent. Small wonder that such a large share of the tax receipts of Third World states is collected in the form of levies on imports and exports; the pattern is, in no small measure, a tribute to the tax resistance capacities of their subjects. Even a casual reading of the literature on rural 'development' yields a rich harvest of unpopular government schemes and programmes which have been nibbled to extinction by the passive resistance of the peasantry. On some occasions this resistance has become active, even violent. More often, however, it takes the form of passive non-compliance, subtle sabotage, evasion and deception. The persistent efforts of the colonial government in Malaya to discourage the peasantry from growing rubber which would compete with the plantation sector for land and markets is a case in point. Various restrictions schemes and land use laws were tried from 1922 until 1928 and again in the 1930s with only modest results because of massive peasant resistance. The efforts of peasants in self-styled socialist states to prevent and then to mitigate, or even undo, unpopular forms of collective agriculture represent a striking example of the defensive techniques available to a beleagured peasantry. Again the struggle is marked less by massive and defiant confrontations than by a quiet evasion that is equally massive and often far more effective.
The style of resistance in question is perhaps best described by contrasting paired forms of resistance, each aimed at much the same goal, the first of which is 'everyday' resistance in our meaning and the second the more open, direct confrontations that typically dominate the study of resistance. In one sphere lies the quiet, piecemeal process by which peasant 'squatters' have often encroached on plantation and state forest lands; in the other a public invasion of property that openly challenges property relations. In one sphere lies a process of gradual military desertion; in the other an open mutiny aiming at eliminating or replacing officers. In one sphere lies the pilfering of public or private grain stores; in the other an open attack on markets or granaries aiming at the redistribution of the food supply.
Such techniques of resistance are well adapted to the particular characteristics of the peasantry. Being a diverse class of 'low classness', geographically distributed, often lacking the discipline and leadership that would encourage opposition of a more organised sort, the peasantry is best suited to extended guerrilla-style campaigns of attrition which require little or no co-ordination. Their individual acts of footdragging and evasion, reinforced often by a venerable popular culture of resistance, and multiplied many-thousand fold may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors in the capital. The state may respond in a variety of ways. Policies may be recast in line with more realistic expectations. They may be retained but reinforced with positive incentives aimed at encouraging voluntary compliance. And, of course, the state may simply choose to employ more coercion. Whatever the response, we must not miss the fact that the action of the peasantry has thus changed or narrowed the policy options available. It is in this fashion, and not through revolts, let alone legal political pressure, that the peasantry has classically made its political presence felt. Thus any history or theory of peasant politics which attempts to do justice to the peasantry as an historical actor must necessarily come to grips with what I have chosen to call 'everyday forms of resistance'. For this reason alone it is important both to document and to bring some conceptual order to this seeming welter of human activity.
Everyday forms of resistance make no headlines. Just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so do thousands upon thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political or economic barrier reef of their own. There is rarely any dramatic confrontation, any moment that is particularly newsworthy. And whenever, to pursue the simile, the ship of state runs aground on such a reef, attention is typically directed to the shipwreck itself and not to the vast aggregation of petty acts which made it possible. It is very rare that the perpetrators of these petty acts seek to call attention to themselves. Their safety lies in their anonymity. It is also extremely rare that officials of the state wish to publicise the insubordination. To do so would be to admit that their policy is unpopular and, above all, to expose the tenuousness of their authority in the countryside - neither of which the sovereign state finds in its interest.
The nature of the acts themselves and the self-interested muteness of the antagonists thus conspire to create a kind of complicitous silence which all but expunges everyday forms of resistance from the historical record.
History and social science, written by an intelligentsia using written records which are also created largely by literate officials, is simply not well equipped to uncover the silent and anonymous forms of class struggle which typify the peasantry. In this case, its practitioners implicitly join the conspiracy of the participants who are themselves, as it were, sworn to secrecy. Collectively, this unlikely cabal contributes to a stereotype of the peasantry, enshrined in both literature and in history, as a class which alternates between long periods of abject passivity and brief, violent, and futile explosions of rage.
"He had centuries of fear and submission behind him, his shoulders had become hardened to blows, his soul so crushed that he did not recognise his own degradation. You could beat him and starve him and rob him of everything, year in, year out, beforehe would abandon his caution and stupidity, his mind filled with all sorts of muddled ideas which he could not properly understand; and this went on until a culmination of injustice and suffering flung him at his master's throat like some infuriated domestic animal who had been subjected to too many thrashings"before he [Zola, 1980: 91].
There is a grain of truth in Zola's view, but only a grain. It is true that the 'onstage' behaviour of peasants during times of quiescence yields a picture of submission, fear, and caution. By contrast, peasant insurrections seem like visceral reactions of blind fury. What is missing from the account of 'normal' passivity is the slow, grinding, quiet struggle over rents, crops, labour, and taxes in which submission and stupidity is often no more than a pose - a necessary tactic. What is missing from the picture of the periodic 'explosions' is the underlying vision of justice which informs them and their specific goals and targets which are often quite rational indeed. The 'explosions' themselves are frequently a sign that the 'normal' and largely covert forms of class struggle are failing or have reached a crisis point. Such declarations of open war, with their mortal risks, normally come only after a protracted struggle on different terrain.
II. TWO DIAGNOSTIC EXAMPLES
In the interest of pursuing the analytical issues raised by everyday forms of resistance, I offer a brief description of two examples, among many encountered in the course of field research in a Malaysian rice-farming village from 1978 to 1980. One involved an attempt by women transplanting groups to boycott landowners who had first hired combine-harvesters to replace hand labour. The second was a pattern of anonymous thefts of harvested paddy which appeared to be increasing in frequency. Each of these two activities had the characteristic features of everyday resistance. Neither the boycott, as we shall see, nor the thefts presented any public or symbolic challenge to the legitimacy of the production and property arrangements being resisted. Neither required any formal organisation and, in the case of the thefts of paddy, most of the activity was carried on individually at night. Perhaps the most important characteristic of these and many other such activities in the village is that, strictly speaking, they had no authors who would publicly take responsibility for them.
Before examining the two proposed examples of resistance more closely, a brief sketch of the village in question and its recent economic history should help to situate this account. The village, which we shall call Sedaka, is a community of some 74 households (352 people) located on the Muda Plain in the state of Kedah, Malaysia. The Muda region has been, since the fourteenth century, the main rice-producing area on the peninsula and rice production is by far the dominant economic activity. Village stratification in Sedaka can be read, for all practical purposes, directly from the data on paddy-land ownership and farm size. The land-poor half of the village in 1979 owned only three per cent of the paddy-land farmed by villagers and farmed (including land rented in) 18 per cent of the cultivated acreage.
Average farm size for this poorest half of the village was barely over one acre, less than half the paddy-land judged necessary to provide a minimum standard of living to a family of four. Ten families are entirely without land and just over half Sedaka's households have incomes below the government-established poverty line. At the other end of the stratification the ten best off households own over half the paddy-land held by villagers and cultivate, on average, over eight acres. These households constitute the economic elite of the village. Those among them (seven) who belong to the dominant Malay party (UMNO) dominate the quietly contentious political life of the village.
For our purposes, the major change in the economic and social life of Sedaka during the past decade was the beginning of double-cropping in 1971 and the mechanisation of the paddy harvest which came in its wake. Doublecropping, by itself, was something of a boon to virtually all strata of the village; landlords got double rents, owner-operators and tenants increased their annual profits, and even the roughly 28 families who depended on field labour for a substantial share of their income prospered as never before, transplanting and harvesting two crops. In a brief period of euphoria, homes were repaired and rebuilt, heads of households who had left earlier to find work elsewhere in the off-season found they could remain at home, and everyone had enough rice to feed their family the year round. Other consequences of double-cropping were, however, working to undermine the gains made by poorer villagers and they were decisively compounded by the introduction of combine-harvesters.
In 1975, virtually all the paddy in Muda was cut and threshed by hand. By 1980, huge western-style combines costing nearly M$200,000 and owned by syndicates of businessmen, were harvesting roughly 80 per cent of the rice crop. If it is hard to imagine the visual impact on the peasantry of this mindboggling technological leap from sickles and threshing tubs to clanking behemoths with 32-foot cutting bars, it is not so hard to calculate their impact on the distribution of rural income. Paddy wage-labour receipts have been reduced by nearly half and transplanting remains the only major operation which still requires manual labour. The losses in income have, of course, been greatest among those most in need: smallholders, marginal tenants, and above all landless wage labourers. If the impact of mechanisation is added to the effects of stagnant paddy price for producers, rising input costs and rising consumer prices, the poorest half of Sedaka's households has lost nearly all of their original gains from double-cropping. Income distribution, meanwhile, has worsened appreciably as the gains of doublecropping have gone largely to the big farmers who own most of the land and local capital.
As with many technological changes, the secondary effects of combineharvesting have been at least as important as its primary effects. To reduce what is a very complex story to its barest essentials, the following major consequences of combine-harvesting may be noted:
(1) It virtually eliminated gleaning by grinding up the stalks which were previously left beside the threshing tubs. Gleaning had been a subsidiary food for many poor village families.
(2) It favoured the substitution of broadcast sowing for hand transplanting since the machine could more easily harvest paddy sown broadcast and of uneven height and maturity. By 1980 nearly half the paddy acreage was sown in this fashion thus eliminating that much employment for hand transplanting.
(3) It greatly reduced the demand for harvest labour thereby allowing a reduction in the effective wage-rate for the employment still available.
(4) It made it easier for larger landowners inside and outside the village to dismiss the tenants they had previously rented to and resume cultivation themselves by hiring machine services.
(5) It created a new class of wealthy, entrepreneurial leasehold tenants willing and able to rent in large tracts for many seasons at a time, paying the advance rent in a lump sum.
The transformations in paddy-growing since 1971 have not only resulted in the relative impoverishment of poorer villagers but also in their marginalisation so far as production relations are concerned. Until even 1975 rich landlords and farmers had more paddy-land than they could cultivate alone; they needed tenants, ploughing services, transplanters, reapers, and threshers.
To ensure a reliable supply of labour it was common for better-off villagers to 'cultivate' the goodwill of their labour force as well as their land. They did this by giving occasional feasts, by extending zakat (the Islamic tithe) bonuses to harvest labourers, by small loans or gifts, and by socially tactful behaviour. Now, the well-to-do have little need to take on the poor as tenants or labourers. Correspondingly, they have little incentive to continue to cultivate their goodwill and the marginalisation of the poor is reflected in a much remarked decline in feast giving, in zakat and charity, and in overt respect flowing from the rich to the poor.
Obstacles to Open, Collective Resistance
Despite the economic reverses experienced by Sedaka's poor, despite the deteriorating quality of class relations evident behind the scenes, there have been no striking instances of overt class conflict. The reasons why this public silence should prevail are worth mentioning briefly precisely because they are, I believe, common to so many contexts of agrarian class relations as to suggest that the resistance we shall find here is the rule and not the exception.
The situation the poor confront in Sedaka and on the Muda Plain is, after all, part of the ubiquitous and undramatic struggle, against the effects of capitalist development in the countryside; the loss of access to the means of production (proletarianisation), the loss of work (marginalisation) and income, and the loss of what little respect and recognised social claims that went with their previous status. Most readings of the history of capitalist development, or simply a glance at the odds in this context, would indicate that this struggle is a lost cause. It may well be just that. If so, the poor peasantry of Sedaka finds itself in numerous and distinguished historical company. The quiet resistance of the victims in this case may be traced to two sets of reasons: one concerns the nature of the changes confronted by the poor as well as the nature of their community while another concerns the effects of repression.
Forms of resistance in Sedaka reflect the conditions and constraints under which they are generated. If they are open, they are rarely collective, and, if they are collective, they are rarely open. Here the analogy with small-scale, defensive, guerrilla skirmishes is once again appropriate. The encounters seldom amount to more than 'incidents'. The results are usually inconclusive, and the perpetrators move under cover of darkness or anonymity, melting back into the 'civilian' population for protective cover.
Perhaps the most important 'given' that structures the options open to Sedaka's poor is simply the nature of the changes which they have experienced. Some varieties of change, other things being equal, are more explosive than others- more likely to provoke open, collective defiance. In this category we might place those massive and sudden changes which decisively destroy nearly all the routines of daily life and, at the same time, threaten the livelihood of much of the population. Here in Sedaka, however, most of the changes that constitute the green revolution have been experienced as a series of piecemeal shifts in tenure and technique. As painful as the changes were, they tended to come gradually and to affect only a small minority of villagers at any one time. When landlords decided to resume cultivation themselves or to lease (pajak) their land to wealthy commercial operators, only a few tenants were threatened at a time and their difficulties at first seemed an individual misfortune rather than a general trend. Much the same can be said for the raising of rents and for the substitution of broadcasting for transplanting. The screws were turned piecemeal and at varying speeds so that the victims were never more than a handful at a time. In this case as in others, each landlord or farmer insisting on the change represented a particular situation confronting one or, at most, a few individuals.
The only exception to this pattern was the introduction of combine harvesting and, as we shall see, it provoked the nearest thing to open, collective defiance. Even in this case, however, the impact was not instantaneous, nor was it without a certain ambiguity for many in the village.
For the first two seasons the economic impact on the poor was noticeable but not devastating. Middle peasants were genuinely torn between the advantage of getting their crop in quickly and the loss of wage earning for themselves or their children. At no single moment did combine-harvesting represent a collective threat to the livelihood of a solid majority of villagers.
Another striking characteristic of the agricultural transformation in Kedah - one that serves very powerfully to defuse class-conflict is the fact that it simply removes the poor from the productive process rather than directly exploiting them. One after another, the large farmers and landlords in the Muda Scheme have eliminated terrains of potential struggle over the distribution of the harvest and profits from paddy-growing. In place of the struggle over piece-rates for cutting and threshing, there is now only a single payment to the machine-broker. In place of negotiations over transplanting costs, there is the option of broadcasting the seed and avoiding the conflict altogether. In place of tense and contentious disputes over the timing and level of rents there is increasingly the alternative of hiring the machines and farming oneself or of leasing to an outsider for a lump sum. The changes themselves, of course - dismissing a tenant, switching to the machines - are not so simple to put across. But once they have been put across, the ex-tenant or ex-wage labourer simply ceases to be relevant; there is no further season-by-season struggle because the poor have become redundant. Once the connection and the struggle in the realm of production has been severed it is a simple matter also to sever the connection - and the struggle - in the realm of ritual, charity, and even sociability. This central aspect of the green revolution, by itself, goes a long way toward accounting for the relative absence, here and elsewhere, of mass violence. If the profits of the green revolution had depended on squeezing more from the tenants, rather than dismissing them, or extracting more work for less pay from labourers, the consequences for class conflict would surely have been far more dramatic.
As it is, the profits from double-cropping depend far less on exploiting the poor than on ignoring and replacing them. Class conflict, like any conflict, is played out on a site - the threshing floor, the assembly line, the place where piece-rates or rents are settled - where vital interests are at stake. What double-cropping in Muda has achieved is a rather massive bulldozing of the sites where class conflict has historically occurred.
A related obstacle to open protest is already implicit in the piecemeal impact of double-cropping. The impact of each of the changes we have discussed is mediated by the very complex and overlapping class structure of Sedaka. There are well-off tenants and very poor tenants; there are landlords who are (or whose children are) also tenants and labourers; there are smallholders who need wage-work to survive but also hire the combines.
Thus each of the important shifts in tenure and production creates not only victims and beneficiaries but also a substantial strata whose interests are not so easily discerned. Sedaka is not Morelos where a poor and largely undifferentiated peasantry confronted a common enemy in the sugar plantation. It is in fact only in comparatively rare circumstances where the class structure of the countryside was such as to produce either a decisive single cleavage or a nearly uniform response to external pressure. The situation in Sedaka is, I believe, the more common one. The very complexity of the local class structure militates against collective opinion and, hence, collective action on most issues.
The obstacles to collective action presented by the local class structure are compounded by other cleavages and alliances which cut across class. These are the familiar links of kinship, faction, patronage, and ritual ties that muddy the class waters in virtually any small community. Nearly without exception, they operate to the advantage of the richer farmers by creating a relationship of dependence that restrains the prudent poor man or woman from acting in class terms.
Lest one gain the impression from the foregoing that the obstacles to class conflict in Sedaka are entirely a matter of the complex local stratification and the piecemeal character of changes in production relations, I hasten to add that repression and the fear of repression are very much involved as well. Here it is sufficient simply to note that popular efforts to halt or impede the growth of combine-harvesting occurred in a climate of fear generated by local elites, by the police, by the 'Special Branch' internal security forces, by a pattern of political arrests and intimidation. Open political activity was both rare and firmly repressed. A popular demonstration in Alor Star, the state capital, in early 1980, demanding an increase in the farm-gate paddy price was greeted with arrests of many opposition figures, threats of detention, and promises of even more draconian action if the protests continued. The fear of reprisal or arrest was mentioned explicitly by many as a reason for maintaining a low profile.
A final obstacle to open defiance might be called 'the duress of the quotidian'. The perspective I have in mind is best expressed in the words of Hassan, a poor man who was given less than the expected wage for filling paddy stacks. Asked why he said nothing to his wealthy employer, he replied, 'Poor people can't complain; when I'm sick or need work, I may have to ask him again. I am angry in my heart.' What is operating here is something which Marx appropriately termed 'the dull compulsion of economic relations' - a compulsion which can occur only against a background of expected repression [Marx, 1970:737]. Lacking any realistic possibility, for the time being, of directly and collectively redressing their situation, the village poor have little choice but to adjust, as best they can, to the circumstances they confront daily. Tenants may bitterly resent the rent they must pay for their small plot, but they must pay it or lose the land; the near-landless may deplore the loss of wage-work, but they must scramble for the few opportunities available; they may harbour deep animosities toward the clique which dominates village politics, but they must act with circumspection if they wish to benefit from any of the small advantages which that clique can confer.
At least two aspects of this grudging, pragmatic adaptation to the realities merit emphasis. The first is that it does not rule out certain forms of resistance, although it surely sets limits that only the foolhardy would transgress. The second is that it is, above all, pragmatic; it does not at all imply normative consent to those realities. To understand this is simply to grasp what is, in all likelihood, the situation for most subordinate classes historically. They struggle under conditions which are largely not of their own making and their pressing material needs necessitate something of a daily accommodation to those conditions. If much of the 'conforming' day-to-day public behaviour of the poor in Sedaka reflects the realities of immediate power relations, there is surely no need to assume that it drives from some symbolic hegemony, let alone, consensus. The duress of the quotidian is quite sufficient.
The Effort to Stop the Combine
The introduction of combine-harvesting, the most sudden and devastating of the changes associated with double-cropping, also stirred the most active resistance. This resistance went well beyond arguments about its efficiency, the complaints over lost wages, and the slander directed against those who hired the combine. Throughout the rice bowl of Kedah there were efforts physically to obstruct its entry into the field, incidents of arson and sabotage, and widespread attempts to organise 'strikes' of transplanters against those who first hired the machine. All of these actions ultimately failed to prevent the mechanisation of the paddy harvest, although they undoubtedly limited and delayed it somewhat.
Sabotage and obstruction of the combines began as early as 1970 when a few small experimental machines were used in field trials. It was only in 1976, however, that large-scale commercial machine harvesting - and therefore widespread acts of vengence - began. Officials of the Muda Agricultural Development Authority chose to speak simply of 'vandalism'.
Batteries were removed from the machines and thrown into irrigation ditches, carburettors and other vital parts such as distributors and air filters were smashed; sand and mud were put into the gas tank, and various objects (stones, wire, nails) were thrown into the augers. At least one combine was burned. A small group of men awoke the night watchman sleeping in the cab, ordered him down, and, using the kerosene they had brought along, set the machine on fire. In a good many villages, veiled rumours of possible violence persuaded many large farmers to hesitate before hiring a combine.
Such tactics in one village actually prevented any machine harvesting for three full seasons. Two aspects of this sabotage and associated threats deserve particular emphasis. First, it was clear that the goal of the saboteurs was not simple theft, for nothing was actually stolen. Second, all of the sabotage was carried out at night by individuals or small groups acting anonymously. They were, furthermore, shielded by their fellow villagers who, if they knew who was involved, claimed total ignorance when the police came to investigate. As a result, no prosecutions were ever made. The practice of posting a night watchman to guard the combine dates from these early trials.
At about the same time there were the beginnings of a quiet but more collective effort by women to bring pressure to bear on the farmers who hired the machines. Men and women-often from the same family-had, of course, each lost work to the combine, but it was only the women who still had any real bargaining power. They were, for the time being, still in control of transplanting. The group of women (kumpulan share) who reaped a farmer's land was typically the same group that had earlier transplanted the same field. They were losing roughly half their seasonal earnings and they understandably resented transplanting a crop for a farmer who would use the combine at harvest time. Thus, in Sedaka and, it appears, throughout much of the Muda region, such women resolved to organise a boycott (boikot) that would deny transplanting services to their employers who hired the combine.
Three of the five 'share groups' in Sedaka made some attempts to enforce such a boycott. Each group was composed of anywhere from six to nine village women. The remaining two groups did not participate but they refused to help break the boycott by planting for any farmer who was being 'boycotted' by one of the other three gangs. Why the groups of Rosni, Rokiah, and Mariam took the initiative is not entirely clear. They are composed of women from families which are, on average, slightly poorer than those in the remaining two groups, but only slightly. If we rely on local explanations for the pattern of resistance, the consensus is that Rosni and Rokiah depend heavily on wage labour to support their families and are, at the same time, 'courageous' (berani).
The boycott actually represented a very cautious form of resistance. At no time was there ever an open confrontation between a farmer who used the combine and his transplanters. Instead, the anonymous and indirect approach of rumours and hints (cara sembunyi tau) with which we are familiar was employed. The women let it be known through intermediaries that the group was not pleased (takpuas hati) with the loss of harvest work and would be reluctant (segan) to transplant the fields of those who had hired the combine the previous season. They also 'let it be known' that when and if a combine broke down in the course of the harvest, a farmer who then wanted to get his crop in by hand could not count on his old workers to bail him out.
When it came time, at the beginning of the irrigated season of 1977, to make good this threat, circumspection again prevailed. None of the three groups refused outright to transplant paddy for those who had harvested with the combine in the previous season. Rather, they delayed; the head of the share group would tell the offending farmer that they were busy and could not get to his land just yet. Only a dozen or so farmers had used the combine the previous season, so the share groups had a good deal of work to occupy them just transplanting the crops of those who had not mechanised.
The transplanters thus kept their options open; they avoided a direct refusal to transplant which would have provoked an open break. Fully abreast of the rumours of a boycott, the farmers who had been put off became increasingly anxious as their nursery paddy (semai) was passing its prime and as they feared their crop might not be fully mature before the scheduled date for shutting off the supply of water. Their state of mind was not improved by the sight of their neighbour's newly transplanted fields next to their own vacant plots.
After more than two weeks of this war of nerves - this seeming boycott that never fully announced itself- six farmers 'let it be known' indirectly that they were arranging for outside labourers to come and transplant their crops. The six were large farmers by village standards, cultivating a total of nearly 70 acres. They claimed in their defence, that they had pressed for a firm commitment for a transplanting date from their local share group and, only after being put off again, had they moved. At this point, the boycott collapsed. Each of the three share groups was faced with defections as women feared that this transplanting work would be permanently lost to outsiders. They hastily sent word that they would begin transplanting the land in question within the next few days. Three of the six farmers cancelled their arrangements with the outside gangs while the other three went ahead either because they felt it was too late to cancel or because they wished to teach the women a lesson. Transplanters came from the town of Yan (just outside the irrigation scheme) and from Singkir and Merbuk, further away. One farmer, Haji Salim, using his considerable political influence, arranged with local authorities to bring in a gang of Thai transplanters - a practice he has continued and for which he is bitterly resented.
The brief and abortive attempt to stop the combine by collective action was the subject of demoralised or self-satisfied post-mortems, depending in which side of the fence one happened to be. Aside from the pleasure or disappointment expressed, the post-mortems converged on the inevitability of the outcome. Even those with most to lose from mechanisation had realised that if their bluff were called, it would be nearly impossible to move beyond talk and vague threats. They agreed sadly that 'it was just talk and we planted anyway. What could we do?' To have continued to refuse to transplant once outside labourers had been brought in would have meant further jeopardising an already precarious livelihood. The futility of such a refusal was more than once characterised by the use of a Malay saying closely approximating the English 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'. Or as the villager who became the local machine-broker put it: "The poor have to work anyway; they can't hold out." A healthy interest in survival required them to swallow their pride and return to work. In fact, the possibility of this outcome was implicit in the indirectness with which the boycott was conducted; an open confrontation and boycott would have meant burning their bridges behind them. Instead they left open an avenue of retreat. In terms of public discourse the boycott was a non-event; it was never openly declared; it was thus never openly defeated; the use of delays and barely plausible excuses meant that the intention to boycott itself could be disavowed.
The goals of the attempted 'strike' in Sedaka and innumerable other villages on the Kedah Plain were ambitious. The women aimed at nothing less than blocking a momentous change in production relations. Their means, as we have seen, however, were modest and disguised. And while they certainly failed to stop the mechanisation of the harvest, their attempt has not been completely futile. There is little doubt that combine-harvesting would have been adopted more rapidly had it not been for the resistance. For poor villagers living at the margin the time gained has proven vital. Five years after the introduction of combines there are still five or six farmers who hire hand labour for some or all of their, paddy harvest because, they say, their neighbours need the work. There is little doubt that they have been influenced by the underground campaign of slander and defamation waged against those who invariably hire the machines.
The Theft of Paddy: Routine Resistance
The attempt to halt combine-harvesting, while hardly the stuff of high drama, was surely out of the ordinary. It took place against a rarely noticed background of routine resistance over wages, tenancy, rents, and the distribution of paddy that is a permanent feature of life in Sedaka and in any stratified agrarian setting. A close examination of this realm of struggle exposes an implicit form of local trade unionism which is reinforced both by mutuality among the poor and by a considerable amount of theft and violence against property. None of this activity poses a fundamental threat to the basic structure of agrarian inequalities, either materially or symbolically.
What it does represent, however, is a constant process of testing and renegotiation of production relations between classes. On both sides - landlord-tenant, farmer-wage-labourer - there is a never-ending attempt to seize each small advantage and press it home, to probe the limits of the existing relationships, to see precisely what can be got away with at the margin, and to include this margin as a part of an accepted, or at least tolerated, territorial claim. Over the past decade the flow of this frontier battle has, of course, rather consistently favoured the fortunes of the large farmers and landlords. They have not only swallowed large pieces of the territory defended by wage-workers and tenants but, in doing so, they have thereby reduced (through marginalisation) the perimeter along which the struggle continues. Even along this reduced perimeter, however, there is constant pressure exerted by those who hope to regain at least a small patch of what they have grudgingly lost. The resisters require little explicit coordination to conduct this struggle, for the simple imperative of making a tolerable living is enough to make them dig in their heels.
The dimensions and conduct of this more 'routine' resistance could fill volumes. For our purposes here, however, most of the basic issues raised by resistance of this kind can be seen in a particularly 'popular' form it takes: the theft of paddy.' Rural theft by itself is unremarkable, it is nearly a permanent feature of stratified agrarian life whenever and wherever the state and its agents are insufficient to control it. When such theft takes on the dimensions of a struggle in which property rights are being contested, however, it may become an essential element of any careful analysis of class relations.
The amount of paddy stolen over a single season, while not large as a proportion of the total harvest, is alarming to the large farmers and, what is more, they believe that it is growing. No firm statistics are available, of course, but I made an effort to record all the losses of paddy reported to me during the 1979-80 main season. By far the largest category of thefts were whole gunny sacks of threshed paddy left in the fields overnight during the harvest. These are listed below.
REPORTED THEFTS OF THRESHED PADDY BY THE SACK IN MAIN SEASON 1979-80
Fanner Reported Loss
Haji Kadir 1
Abu Hassan 2
Ghani Lebai Mat 1
Tok Long 2
Lebai Pendek 2
(Approximate cash value = M$532.)
To this total one must add paddy that was spirited away in other ways. At least four gunny sacks of paddy drying in the sun on mats disappeared. Two very well-off farmers each lost a gunny sack which was stored beneath their respective houses. Something like the same quantity of paddy was reported stolen from rice barns (jelapang) in the course of the season. A small amount of paddy was reported taken on the stalk from the fields. How much is difficult to say, but the quantity is not substantial; villagers point out that the sound of threshing and the disposal of the straw would present a problem for the thief, while the rich claim that thieves are too lazy actually to put themselves to the trouble of threshing. Finally, a thorough accounting of paddy thefts would have to include some estimate of the grain which threshers are said to stuff into their pockets and inside their shirts at the end of the day's work. Such pilfering is 'winked at' by most farmers and I have made no attempt to calculate how much paddy is appropriated in this way during the harvest.
Certain facts about the pattern of theft are worth noting. The first is that, with the exception of two farmers who are only modestly well-off, all of the victims are among the wealthiest third of Sedaka's households. This may indicate nothing more than the obvious fact that such households are likely to have more paddy lying in the field at harvest time and that smallholders, who can ill afford the loss, take pains to get the threshed paddy to their house quickly. It is certainly true that large farmers with plots far from their houses that cannot be threshed (and hence stored) in a single day are the most prone to such losses. But here it is significant to realise that the pattern of theft is an artifact of the pattern of property relations prevailing in Sedaka. The rich, by and large, possess what is worth taking while the poor have the greatest incentive to take it. No one doubts either that poor men, local poor men at that, are responsible for the vast majority of the paddy thefts.
The total amount of paddy stolen, perhaps 20 to 25 gunny sacks, is less than one-hundredth of the paddy harvested in a season by all village farmers. By this measure, the losses are fairly trivial and are borne largely by those who produce a substantial surplus. If, however, we measure its significance by what it may add to the food supply of a few of the poorest families in the village, then it may be quite significant. It is of some interest that these 20 to 25 gunny sacks of paddy are more than half the quantity of grain given voluntarily by farmers as an Islamic tithe (zakatperibadi) after the harvest.
The comparison is apt precisely because I twice heard poor men refer smilingly to paddy thefts (curian padi) as ' zakat peribadi that one takes on his own' (zakat peribadi, angkat sindiri). This evidence is certainly not conclusive - but it is entirely possible that some of the poor, at any rate, consider such acts not so much as theft but as the appropriation of what they feel entitled to by earlier custom - a kind of forcible poor tax to replace the gifts and wages they no longer receive. In this connection, two other items of circumstantial evidence are relevant. Only one of the farmers who lost paddy (Samat) was among those ever praised by the poor for their reluctance to hire the combine, while all the others have used the machine whenever possible. There is also some indication that paddy thefts may be used as a sanction by disgruntled labourers. Thus Sukur once told me that farmers were careful to hire the threshers they had customarily invited since anyone who was omitted might, in his anger, steal paddy from the fields. If, indeed, the theft of paddy has a certain element of popular justice to it, the scope for such resistance has been considerably narrowed by the use of combines which make it possible to gather and store (or sell) a farmer's entire crop in a single day. Combines thus not only eliminate hand reaping, hand threshing, in-field transport, and gleaning; they also tend to eliminate theft.
The attitude of wealthy farmers toward such thefts is a combination of anger, as one might expect, and also fear. Haji Kadir, for example, was furious enough over his loss to consider spending the following night in the fields guarding his paddy with his shotgun. He did not follow through because he reasoned that the mere rumour that he might lie in wait would be sufficient to deter any thief. The element of fear can be gauged, in part, by the fact that no police report of a paddy theft has ever been made in Sedaka.
Wealthy farmers explained to me that if they made such a report and named a suspect, word would get around quickly and they feared that they would then become a target for more thefts. Haji Kadir, the wealthiest farmer in the village, once spied someone stealing a gunny sack at night from a neighbour's field. Not only did he fail to intervene to stop the theft, but he would not even inform his neighbour, even though he was certain about the identity of the thief. When I asked him why, he replied that the thief had seen him too, would know he was the informer, and would steal his paddy next. In an earlier season, Mat Sarif lost two gunny sacks but told me that he did not want to know who did it. Old and quite frail, he added simply, 'I'm afraid of being killed (takut mampus)'. For a handful of the more daring village poor, it would appear that something of a small balance of terror has been struck that permits such limited pilfering to continue.
Other forms of resistance by the poor of Sedaka vary in particulars but not in general contour. One distinguishing mark of virtually all resistance in Sedaka is the relative absence of any open confrontation between classes. Where resistance is collective, it is carefully circumspect; where it is an individual or small group attack on property, it is anonymous and usually nocturnal. By its calculated prudence and secrecy it preserves, for the most part, the on-stage theatre of power which dominates public life in Sedaka. Any intention to storm the stage can be disavowed and options are consciously kept open. Deference and conformity, though rarely cringing, continue to be the public posture of the poor. For all that, however, backstage one can clearly make out a continuous testing of limits.
Resistance in Sedaka has virtually nothing that one expects to find in the typical history of rural conflict. There are no riots, no demonstrations, no arson, no organised social banditry, no open violence. The resistance we have discovered is not linked to any larger outside political movements, ideologies, or revolutionary cadres - although it is clear that similar struggles have been occurring in virtually any village in the region. The sorts of activities found here require little co-ordination, let alone political organisation, though they might benefit from it. They are, in short, forms of struggle that are almost entirely indigeneous to the village sphere. Providing that we are careful about the use of the term, these activities might appropriately be called primitive resistance. The use of 'primitive' does not imply, as Hobsbawm does, that they are somehow backward and destined to give way to more sophisticated ideologies and tactics. It implies only that such forms of resistance are the nearly permanent, continuous, daily strategies of subordinate rural classes under difficult conditions. At times of crisis or momentous political change they may be complemented by other forms of struggle which are more opportune. They are unlikely, however, to disappear altogether so long as the rural social structure remains exploitative and inequitable. They are the stubborn bedrock upon which other forms of resistance may grow and they are likely to persist after such other forms have failed or produced, in turn, a new pattern of inequity.
III. WHAT COUNTS AS RESISTANCE
But can the activities we have described and others like them be seen as resistance? Can we call a boycott that was never even announced, class resistance? Why should we consider the theft of a few gunny sacks of paddy as a form of class resistance; there was no collective action nor was there any open challenge to the system of property and domination. Many of the same questions could be raised about gossip and character assassination which is one of the principal means by which the poor of Sedaka consistently try to influence the behaviour of the well-to-do.
As a first approximation, I propose the following definition for peasant class resistance - one that would include many of the activities we have discussed. The purpose behind this definition is not to settle these important issues by fiat, but rather to highlight the conceptual problems we face in understanding resistance and to make what I believe to be a plausible case for a rather wide understanding of the term.
Lower class resistance among peasants is any act(s) by member(s) of the class that is (are) intended either to mitigate or to deny claims (e.g. rents, taxes, deference) made on that class by superordinate classes (e.g. landlords, the state, owners of machinery, moneylenders) or to advance its own claims (e.g. work, land, charity, respect) vis-a-vis these superordinate classes.
Three aspects of the definition merit brief comment. First, there is no requirement that resistance take the form of collective action. Second-and this is a very nettlesome issue - intentions are built into the definition. We will return to this problem again but, for the moment, the formulation allows for the fact that many intended acts of resistance may backfire and produce consequences that were entirely unanticipated. Finally, the definition recognises what we might call symbolic or ideological resistance (for example, gossip, slander, rejecting imposed categories, the withdrawal of deference) as an integral part of class-based resistance.
The problem of intentions is enormously complex and not simply because the as-yet-unapprehended paddy thieves of our earlier example are unwilling to be identified, let alone to discuss their intentions once they have been located. The larger issue has to do with our tendency to think of resistance as actions that involve at least some short-run individual or collective sacrifice in order to bring about a longer-range collective gain. The immediate losses of a strike, a boycott, or even the refusal to compete with other members of one's class for land or work are obvious cases in point. When it comes to acts like theft, however, we encounter a combination of immediate individual gain and what may be resistance. How are we to judge which of the two purposes is uppermost or decisive? What is at stake here is not a petty definitional matter but rather the interpretation of a whole range of actions which seem to me to lie historically at the core of everyday class relations.
The English poacher in the eighteenth century may have been resisting gentry's claim to property in wild game, but he was just as surely interested in rabbit stew. The South-east Asian peasant who hid his rice and possessions from the tax collector may have been protesting high taxes, but he was just as surely seeing to it that his family would have enough rice until the next harvest. The peasant conscript who deserted the army may have been a war resister, but he was just as surely saving his own skin by fleeing the front.
Which of these inextricably fused motives are we to take as paramount? Even if we were able to ask the actors in question and even if they could reply candidly, it is not at all clear that they would be able to make a clear determination.
Students of slavery, who have looked into this matter most closely, if only because such forms of self-help were frequently the only option open, have tended to discount such actions as 'real' resistance for three reasons. All three of these reasons figure in Gerald Mullin's analysis of slave 'rebelliousness'.
In assessing these observable differences in slave behavior, scholars usually ask whether a particular rebellious style represented resistance to slavery's abuses or real resistance to slavery itself. When slave behavior is examined in light of its political content, the most menial workers, the field slaves, fare badly.
Speaking generally, their 'laziness,' boondoggling, and pilferage represented a limited, perhaps selfindulgent type of rebelliousness. Their reactions to unexpected abuses or to sudden changes in plantation routine were at most only token acts against slavery. But the plantation slaves' organized and systematic schemes to obstruct the plantation's workings - their persistent acts of attrition against crops and stores, and cooperative night-time robberies that sustained the black-markets - were more 'political' in their consequences and represented resistance to slavery itself [Mullin, 1972: 35; emphasis added]. Although Eugene Genovese's position on this issue differs in some important particulars, he too insists on distinguishing between 'pre-political' forms of resistance and more significant resistance to the regime of slavery. The distinction for him, as the following quote indicates, lies in both the realm of consequences and the real of intentions.
Strictly speaking, only insurrection represented political action, which some choose to define as the only genuine resistance since it alone directly challenged the power of the regime. From that point of view, those activities which others call 'day to day resistance to slavery' - stealing, lying, dissembling, shirking, murder, infanticide, suicide, arson - qualify at best as prepolitical and at worst as apolitical But 'day to day resistance to slavery' generally implied accommodation and made no sense except on the assumption of an accepted status quo the norm of which, as perceived or defined by the slaves, had been violated [Genovese, 1974: 598].
Combining these overlapping perspectives, the result is something of a dichotomy between real resistance on the one hand and 'token', incidental, or even epiphenomenal 'activities' on the other. 'Real' resistance, it is argued, is (a) organised, systematic, and co-operative, (b) principled or selfless, (c) has revolutionary consequences, and/or (d) embodies ideas or intentions that negate the basis of domination itself. Token, incidental, or epiphenomenal 'activities' by contrast are (a) unorganised, unsystematic and individual, (b) opportunistic and 'self-indulgent', (c) have no revolutionary consequences, and/or (d) imply, in their intention or logic, an accommodation with the system of domination. Now these distinctions are important for any analysis which has as its objective the attempt to delineate the various forms of resistance and to show how they are related to one another and to the form of domination in which they occur. My quarrel is rather with the contention that the latter forms are, ultimately, trivial or inconsequential, while only the former can be said to constitute real resistance.
This position, in my view, fundamentally misconstrues the very basis of the economic and political struggle conducted daily by subordinate classes - not only slaves, but peasants and workers as well - in repressive settings. It is based on an ironic combination of both Leninist and bourgeois assumptions of what constitutes political action. The first three of the paired comparisons will be addressed here. The final issue of whether intentions are accommodationist or revolutionary would require a lengthy, separate analysis.
Let us begin with the question of actions which are 'self-indulgent', individual, and unorganised. Embedded in the logic of Genovese and, especially, of Mullins, is the assumption that such acts intrinsically lack revolutionary consequences. This may often be the case, but it is also the case that there is hardly a modern revolution that can be successfully explained without reference to precisely such acts when they take place on a massive scale. Take again the matter of military desertion and the role it has played in revolutions. The Russian Revolution is a striking case in point.
Growing desertions from the largely peasant rank-and-file of the Tsarist army in the summer of 1917 were a major and indispensable part of the revolutionary process in at least two respects. First, they were responsible for the collapse of the main institution of repression of the Tsarist state - an institution which had earlier, in 1905, put down another revolutionary upheaval. Second, the deserters contributed directly to the revolutionary process in the countryside by participating in the seizures of land throughout the core provinces of European Russia. And it is abundantly clear that the haemorrhage in the Tsarist forces was largely 'self-indulgent', 'unorganised', and 'individual' - although thousands and thousands of individuals threw down their arms and headed home. The attack into Austria had been crushed with huge losses of troops and officers; the ration of bread had been reduced and 'fast-days' inaugurated at the front; the soldiers knew, moreover, that if they stayed at the front they might miss the chance to gain from the land seizures breaking out in the countryside. Desertion offered the peasant conscripts the chance of saving their skins and of returning home where bread and, now land, were available. The risks were minimal since discipline in the army had dissolved. One can hardly imagine a set of more 'self-indulgent' goals. But it was just such self-indulgent ends, acted on by unorganised masses of 'self-demobilized' peasant soldiers which made the Revolution possible [Carr, 1966: 103].
The disintegration of the Tsarist army is but one of many instances where the aggregation of a host of petty, self-interested acts of insubordination or desertion, with no revolutionary intent, have created a revolutionary situation. The dissolution of the Nationalist armies of Chaing Kai-shek in 1948 or of Saigon's army in 1975 could no doubt be analysed among similar lines. And long before the final debacle, acts of insubordination and noncompliance in each army - as well as in the US Army serving in Vietnam, it should be added - had set sharp limits on what the counter-revolutionary forces could expect and require of their own rank-and file. Resistance of this kind is, of course, not a monopoly of the counter-revolution as George Washington and Emiliano Zapata, among others, discovered. We can imagine that the eminently personal logic of Pedro Martinez, a some-time soldier with the Zapatista forces, was not markedly different from that of the Tsarist soldiers leaving the front.
That's where [battle of Tizapan] I finally had it. The battle was something awful! The shooting was tremendous! It was a completely bloody battle, three days and three nights. But I took it for one day and then I left. I quit the army ... I said to myself, 'It's time now I got back to my wife, to my little children. I'm getting out.'... I said to myself, 'No, my family comes first and they are starving. Now I'm leaving.' [Lewis, 1964: 102].
The refreshing candor of Pedro Martinez serves to remind us that there is no necessary relationship between the banality of the act of self-preservation and family obligations on the one hand and the banality of the consequences of such acts. Multiplied many times, acts that could in no way be considered 'political' may have the most massive consequences for states as well as armies.
The issue here is by no means confined to desertion from armies which has been chosen only as a diagnostic illustration. It applies with nearly equal force to the tradition of peasant flight, to theft, to the shirking of corvee labour; the consequences of such acts of self-help may be all out of proportion to the trifling intentions of the actors themselves.
While the consequences of peasant, self-serving behaviour are essential to any larger analysis of class relations or of the state, I do not wish to argue that resistance should be defined with reference to its consequences alone. Such a view runs into formidable difficulties of its own, if for no other reason than the 'law of unintended consequences.' Any definition of resistance thus requires at least some reference to the intentions of the actors. The problem with existing concepts of resistance is therefore not that they must inevitably deal with intentions and meaning as well as with consequences. Rather, the problem lies in what is a misleading, sterile, and sociologically naive insistence upon distinguishing 'self-indulgent', individual acts on the one hand from presumably 'principled', selfless, collective actions on the other and excluding the former from the category of real resistance. To insist on such distinctions as a means of comparing forms of resistance and their consequences is one thing; but to use them as the basic criteria to determine what constitutes resistance is to miss the very wellsprings of peasant politics.
It is no coincidence that the cries of 'bread', 'land', and 'no taxes' that so often lie at the core of peasant rebellion are each joined to the basic material survival needs of the peasant household. Nor should it be anything more than a commonplace that everyday peasant politics and everyday peasant resistance (and also, of course, everyday compliance) flows from these same fundamental material needs. We need assume no more than an understandable desire on the part of the peasant household to survive - to ensure its physical safety, to ensure its food supply, to ensure its necessary cash income - to identify the source of its resistance to the claims of press gangs, tax collectors, landlords, and employers.
To ignore the self-interested element in peasant resistance is to ignore the determinate cont
ext, not only of peasant politics, but of most lower class politics. It is precisely the fusion of self-interest and resistance that is the vital force animating the resistance of peasants and proletarians. When a peasant hides part of his crop to avoid paying taxes, he is both filling his stomach and depriving the state of grain When a peasant soldier deserts the army because the food is bad and his crops at home are ripe, he is both looking after himself and denying the state cannon fodder. When such acts are rare and isolated, they are of little interest; but when they become a consistent pattern (even though uncoordinated, let alone organised) we are dealing with resistance. The intrinsic nature and, in one sense, the 'beauty' of much peasant resistance is that it often confers immediate and concrete advantages while at the same time denying resources to the appropriating classes and that it requires little or no manifest organisation. The stubbornness and force of such resistance flows directly from the fact that it is so firmly rooted in the shared material struggle experienced by a class.
To require of lower class resistance that it somehow be 'principled' or 'selfless' is not only a slander on the moral status of fundamental human needs. It is, more fundamentally, a misconstruction of the basis of class struggle which is, first and foremost, a struggle over the appropriation of work, production, property, and taxes. 'Bread-and-butter' issues are the essence of lower class politics and resistance. Consumption, from this perspective, is both the goal and the result of resistance and counterresistance.
As Utsa Patnaik has noted, 'consumption is nothing but the historically "necessary labor", the share of net output allowed to be retained by the petty producers as the outcome of their struggle with the surplus appropriating classes' [1979: 398-9]. This is then the self-interested core of routine class struggle: the often defensive effort to mitigate or defeat appropriation. Petty thefts of grain or pilfering on the threshing floor may seem like trivial 'coping' mechanisms from one vantage point; but from a broader view of class relations, how the harvest is actually divided belongs at the centre.
A further advantage of a concept of resistance which begins with self-interested material needs is that it is far more in keeping with how 'class' is first experienced by the historical actors themselves. Here, I subscribe wholeheartedly to the judgement reached by E.P. Thompson on the basis of his own compelling analysis of working class history.
In my view, far too much theoretical attention (much of it plainly ahistorical) has been paid to 'class' and far too little to 'class-struggle.' Indeed, class struggle is the prior, as well as the more universal, concept. To put it bluntly, classes do not exist as separate entities, look around, find an enemy class, and then start to struggle. On the contrary, people find themselves in a society structured in determined ways (crucially, but not exclusively, in productive relations), they experience exploitation (or the need to maintain power over those whom they exploit), they identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence to struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling they discover themselves as classes, they come to know this discovery as class-consciousness. Class and class consciousness are always the last, not the first, stage in the real historical process [1978: 149].
The inclination to dismiss 'individual' acts of resistance as insignificant and to reserve the term of 'resistance' for collective or organised action is as misguided as the emphasis on 'principled' action. The privileged status accorded organised movements, I suspect, flows from either of two political orientations: the one, essentially Leninist, which regards the only viable class action as that which is led by a vanguard party serving as a 'general- staff, the other more straightforwardly derived from a familiarity and preference for open, institutionalised politics as conducted in capitalist democracies. In either case, however, there is a misapprehension of the social and political circumstances within which peasant resistance is typically carried out.
The individual and often anonymous quality of much peasant resistance is, of course, eminently suited to the sociology of the class from which it arises. Being scattered in small communities and generally lacking the institutional means to act collectively, it is likely to employ those means of resistance which are local and require little co-ordination. Under special historical circumstances of overwhelming material deprivation, a breakdown in the institutions of repression, or the protection of political liberty (more rarely, all three) the peasantry can and has become an organised, political, mass movement. Such circumstances are, however, extremely rare and usually short-lived. In most places at most times these political options have simply been precluded. The penchant for forms of resistance that are individual and unobtrusive are not only what a Marxist might expect from petty commodity producers and rural labourers, but they also have certain advantages. Unlike hierarchical formal organisations, there is no centre, no leadership, no identifiable structure that can be co-opted or neutralised.
What is lacking in terms of central co-ordination may be compensated for by flexibility and persistence. These forms of resistance will win no set-piece battles but they are admirably adopted to long-run campaigns of attrition. If we are to confine our search for peasant resistance to formally organised activity we would search largely in vain, for in Malaysia as in many other Third World countries, such organisations are either absent or are the creations of officials and rural elites. We would simply miss much of what is happening. Formal political activity may be the norm for the elites, the intelligentsia, and the middle classes in the Third World as well as in the West, who have a near-monopoly of institutional skills and access, but it would be naive to expect that peasant resistance can or will normally take the same form.
Nor should we forget that the forms of peasant resistance are not just a product of the social ecology of the peasantry. The parameters of resistance are also set, in part, by the institutions of repression. To the extent that such institutions do their 'work' effectively, they may all but preclude any forms of resistance other than the individual, the informal, and the clandestine.
Thus, it is perfectly legitimate - even important - to distinguish between various levels and forms of resistance: formal-informal, individual collective, public-anonymous, those which challenge the system of domination - those which aim at marginal gains. But it should, at the same time, be made crystal clear that what we may actually be measuring in this enterprise is the level of repression which structures the options which are available. Depending on the circumstances they confront, peasants may oscillate from organised electoral activity to violent confrontations, to silent and anonymous acts of footdragging and theft. This oscillation may, in some cases, be due to changes in the social organisation of the peasantry, but it is as, if not more, likely to be due to changes in the level of repression. More than one peasantry has been brutally reduced from open, radical political activity at one moment to stubborn and sporadic acts of petty resistance at the next. If we allow ourselves to call only the former 'resistance', we simply allow the structure of domination to define for us what is resistance and what is not resistance.
Many of the forms of resistance we have been examining may be 'individual' actions, but this is not to say that they are uncoordinated. Here again, a concept of co-ordination derived from formal and bureaucratic settings is of little assistance in understanding actions in small communities with dense informal networks and rich, and historically deep, sub-cultures of resistance to outside claims. It is, for example, no exaggeration to say that much of the folk-culture of the peasant 'little tradition' amounts to a legitimation, or even a celebration, of precisely the kinds of evasive and cunning forms of resistance we have examined. In this and in other ways (for example, tales of bandits, peasant heroes, religious myths) the peasant subculture helps to underwrite dissimulation, poaching, theft, tax evasion, avoidance of conscription and so on. While folk-culture is not co-ordination in the formal sense, it often achieves a 'climate of opinion' which, in other more institutionalised societies, would require a public relations campaign.
The striking thing about peasant society is the extent to which a whole range of complex activities from labour-exchange to house moving to wedding preparations, to feasts are co-ordinated by networks of understanding and practice. It is the same with boycotts, wage 'negotiations', the refusal of tenants to compete with one another, or the conspiracy of silence surrounding thefts. No formal organisations are created because none are required; and yet a form of co-ordination is achieved which alerts us that what is happening is not just individual action.
In light of these considerations, then, let us return briefly to the question of intention. For many forms of peasant resistance, we have every reason to expect that the actors will remain mute about their intentions. Their safety may depend on silence and anonymity; the kind of resistance itself may depend for its effectiveness on the appearance of conformity; their intentions may be so embedded in the peasant subculture and in the routine, taken-for-granted struggle to provide for the subsistence and survival of the household so to remain inarticulate. The fish do not talk about the water.
In one sense, of course, their intentions are inscribed in the acts themselves. A peasant soldier who, like others, deserts the army is, in effect, saying by his act that the purposes of this institution and the risks and hardships it entails will not prevail over his family or personal needs. To put it another way, the state and its army has failed sufficiently to commit this particular subject to its enterprise so as to retain his compliance. A harvest labourer who steals paddy from his employer is 'saying' that his need for rice takes precedence over the formal property rights of his boss.
When it comes to those social settings where the material interests of appropriating classes are directly in conflict with the peasantry (rents, wages, employment, taxes, conscription, the division of the harvest) we can, I think, infer something of intentions from the nature of the actions themselves. This is especially the case when there is a systematic pattern of actions which mitigate or deny a claim on their surplus. Evidence about intentions is, of course, always welcome but we should not expect too much.
For this reason, the definition of resistance given earlier places particular emphasis on the effort to thwart material and symbolic claims from dominant classes. The goal, after all, of the great bulk of peasant resistance is not directly to overthrow or transform a system of domination but rather to survive - today, this week, this season - within it. The usual goal of peasants, as Hobsbawm has so aptly put it, is 'working the system to their minimum disadvantage' [1973: 12]. Their persistent attempts to 'nibble away' may backfire, they may marginally alleviate exploitation, they may amount to a renegotiation of the limits of appropriation, they may change the course of subsequent development, and they may more rarely help bring the system down. These, however, are possible consequences. Their intention, by contrast, is nearly always survival and persistence. The pursuit of that end may require, depending on circumstances, either the petty resistance we have seen or more dramatic actions of self-defence. In any event, most of their efforts will be seen by appropriating classes as truculence, deceit, shirking, pilfering, arrogance - in short, all the labels devised to denigrate the many faces of resistance. The definition of appropriating classes may, at other times, transform what amounts to nothing more than the unreflective struggle for subsistence into an act of defiance.
It should be apparent that resistance is not simply whatever peasants do to maintain themselves and their households. Much of what they do is to be understood as compliance, however grudging. Survival as petty commodity producers or labourers may impel some to save themselves at the expense of their fellows. The poor landless labourer who steals paddy from another poor man or who outbids him for a tenancy is surviving but he is surely not resisting in the sense defined here. One of the key questions that must be asked about any system of domination is the extent to which it succeeds in reducing subordinate classes to purely 'beggar thy neighbour' strategies for survival. Certain combinations of atomisation, terror, repression, and pressing material needs can indeed achieve the ultimate dream of domination: to have the dominated exploit each other.
Allowing that only those survival strategies which deny or mitigate claims from appropriating classes can be called resistance, we are nevertheless left with a vast range of actions to consider. Their variety conceals a basic continuity. That continuity lies in the history of the persistent efforts of relatively autonomous petty commodity producers to defend their fundamental material and physical interests and to reproduce themselves. At different times and places they have defended themselves against the corvee, taxes, and conscription of the traditional agrarian state, against the colonial state, against the inroads of capitalism (for example, rents, interest, proletarianisation, mechanisation), against the modern capitalist state and, it should be added, against many purportedly socialist states as well. The revolution, when and if it does come, may eliminate many of the worst evils of the ancien regime, but it is rarely if ever the end of peasant resistance. For the radical elites who capture the state are likely to have different goals in mind than their erstwhile peasant supporters. They may envisage a collectivised agriculture while the peasantry clings to its smallholdings; they may want a centralised political structure while the peasantry is wedded to local autonomy; they may want to tax the countryside in order to industrialise; and they will almost certainly wish to strengthen the state vis-a-vis civil society. It therefore becomes possible for an astute observer like Goran Hyden to find remarkable parallels between the earlier resistance of the Tanzanian peasantry to colonialism and capitalism and its current resistance to the institutions and policies of the socialist state of Tanzania today [Hyden, 1980: passim]. He provides a gripping account of how the 'peasant mode of production' - by footdragging, by privatising work and land that have been appropriated by the state, by evasion, by flight, and by 'raiding' government programs for its own purposes - has thwarted the plans of the state. In Vietnam, also, after the revolution was consummated in the south as well as in the north, everyday forms of peasant resistance have continued.
The surreptitious expansion of private plots, the withdrawal of labour from state enterprises for household production, the failure to deliver grain and livestock to the state, the 'appropriation' of state credits and resources by households and work teams, and the steady growth of the black market, attest to the tenacity of petty commodity production under socialist state forms. The stubborn, persistent, and irreducible forms of resistance we have been examining may thus represent the truly durable weapons of the weak both before and after the revolution.
1. See, for example, Barrington Moore, Jr., The Social Basis of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Boston Press, 1966); Jeffrey M. Paige, Agrarian Revolution: Social Movements and Export Agriculture in the Underdeveloped World (New York: Free Press, 1975); Eric R. Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976); Samuel L. Popkin, The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
2. For an example of such temporary gains, see the fine study by E.J. Hobsbawm and George Rude. Captain Swing (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968), pp.281-99.
3. Some of these issues are examined in Scott, 'Revolution in the Revolution: Peasants and Commisars'. Theory and Society, Vol.7, Nos. 1, 2 (1979), pp.97-134.
4. See the account and analysis by Michael Adas, 'From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and Colonial Southeast Asia', Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.23 No.2 (April 1981), pp.21-47.
5. R.C. Cobb, The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789-1820 (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 96-7. For a gripping account of self-mutilation to avoid conscription, see Emile Zola, La Terre, translated by Douglas Parnee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980).
6. For a fascinating account of such resistance in Tanzania, see Goran Hyden, Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania (London: Heinneman, 1980). For the consequences of short-sighted agrarian policy imposed from above see Robert Bates, Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
7. The best, most complete account of this may be found in Lim Teck Ghee, Peasants and their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya, 1874-1941 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977). See also the persuasive argument in Donald M. Nonini, Paul Diener, and Eugene E. Robkin, 'Ecology and Evolution: Population, Primitive Accumulation, and the Malay Peasantry', unpublished ms., 1979.
8. A classic example is the Soviet collectivisation campaign in which the widespread opposition to joining the Kolkhoz was never widely publicised until given official warrant by Stalin in his 'Dizzy with Success' Speech in March 1930. Before this, one would never have imagined that coercion had been used (the euphemism for coercion was 'bureaucratic ordering-about'), that an enormous depletion of livestock had taken place in response to the campaign, or that the opposition to collectivisation was as strong among middle peasants as among the kulaks. See R.W. Davies, The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1928-1930 (London: Macmillan, 1980), Chs.6, 7.
9. But not entirely. District level records are likely to prove rewarding in this respect as district officials attempt to explain the shortfall in, say, tax receipts or conscription figures to their superiors in the capital. One imagines also that the informal, oral record is abundant - for example, informal cabinet or ministerial meetings called to deal with policy failures caused by rural insubordination.
10. The partial exception is, of course, anthropology.
11. I by no means wish to suggest that violence born of revenge, hatred, and fury play no role - only that they do not exhaust the subject as Zola and others imply. It is certainly true as Cobb (op.cit., pp. 89-90) claims, that George Rude (The Crowd in History, 1730-1848 (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1964)) has gone too far in turning rioters into sober, domesticated bourgeois political actors.
12. For an extended account see James C. Scott, Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming), Chs.3, 4.
13. It is worth noting that neither outright repression nor the duress of the quotidian would be as effective in limiting options if the peasantry of the Muda Plain had their backs truly against the wall. Thanks to the booming urban sector in Malaysia a fair number of those most disadvantaged by double-cropping can exercise the historic response of peasants to oppression: flight. Were these alternatives closed off, the same level of repression would undoubtedly be less effective.
14. Rosni, a widow, is renowned for her hard work and independence while Rokiah's husband is considered rather weak-minded, so that Rokiah is normally seen as the head of her household, making all the basic decisions. Such women, especially if they are past childbearing age, are treated virtually as 'honorary males' and are exempt from many of the customary requirements of modesty and deference expected of women in Malay society.
15. The literal translation of the Malay saying is 'Angry with his rice, he throws it out the window - giving it to the chickens to eat' (Marah sama nasi, tauk, bagi ayam makan).
16. The localism of the boycott and the absence of institutions that might have enforced it throughout the regional labour market were devastating handicaps as they are so often in peasant politics. Thus women from Sedaka, while boycotting some local farmers, were accepting work [i]elsewhere thereby occasionally serving unwittingly as 'strike-breakers' in other Muda villages. And, of course, women from these villages, or others like them, were hired to help break the boycott in Sedaka. It was a classic example of the crippling effects of solidarity when it is only local.
17. For an examination of other forms of routine resistance including other kinds of theft, see my Everyday Class Relations (New Haven: Yale Press, forthcoming), Ch.7.
18. This figure is a crude estimate. Such paddy is stolen by prying apart the boards of the granary or by making a hole through which paddy can be collected. Although many farmers mark the level of paddy inside the jelapang periodically, it is difficult to know precisely how much has been taken. As a rule, only well-off farmers have such rice barns; the poor keep their paddy in a corner of the house.
19. There is, however, a more subtle means of 'naming' the suspect which amounts to a traditional form of 'letting it be known' (cara sembunyi tau). This consists of consulting one of the medicine men (bomoh) in the district who have acquired a reputation for finding lost property or identifying the thief. After learning the particulars, the bomoh will use incantations (jampi) and conjure up the form of the thief in water prepared especially for the occasion. Not surprisingly, the visage thus called forth, typically is seen to be that of the man whom the client had all along suspected. In the case of stolen paddy, the purpose is not so much to recover the paddy as to identify the thief. The farmer, when he returns to the village, will tell his friends that the bomoh saw someone who looked like so-and-so. The news will spread and the suspected thief will learn that he is being watched without a direct accusation, let alone a police report, ever having been made. Thus Haji Kadir said that the bomoh had, in his case, seen Taib and another unidentified man in the water. If, indeed, Taib was the culprit, Haji Kadir hoped that this roundabout accusation would prevent any subsequent thefts from that quarter. On at least two occasions, however, villagers recall that some or all of the paddy taken has mysteriously reappeared after consulting a bomoh. The kind of circumspection employed by those few farmers who actually resort to the bomoh is another indication that an open confrontation is considered dangerous.
20. For some interesting parallels, see E.P. Thompson, 'The Crime of Anonymity' in Douglas Hay, et al., Albion's Fatal Tree, pp.255-344.
21. See E.J. Hobsbawm's Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: Norton, 1965). Hobsbawm's otherwise illuminating account is, I believe, burdened unduly with a unilinear theory of lower class history which anticipates that every primitive form of resistance will, in due course, be superceded by a more progressive form until a mature Marxist-Leninist vision is reached.
22. See James C. Scott, Everydav Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), Ch. 8.
23. See Allan Wildman, 'The February Revolution in the Russian Army', Soviet Studies, Vol.22, No. (July 1970), pp.3-23; Marc Ferro, 'The Russian Soldier in 1917: Undisciplined, Patriotic, and Revolutionary,' Slavic Review, Vol.30, No. (Sept. 1971), pp.483-512; Barrington Moore, Injustice (White Plains, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1978), p. 364, and Theda Skopol, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 135-8. There is a consensus that Bolshevik propaganda at the front was not instrumental in provoking these desertions.
24. One may wish to call the land seizures and sacking of gentry property a revolutionary act, and it was certainly revolutionary in its consequences in 1917. But it was a largely spontaneous affair out of the control of any party and it is extremely unlikely that those seizing the land self-consciously saw themselves as bringing about a revolutionary government, let alone a Bolshevik one. See Skocpol, op.cit., pp. 135, 138.
25. The initial successes of Solidarity in Poland can in a similar fashion be attributed largely to the fact that the unpopular regime could not count on its own army to actively suppress the rebellious civilian population and was instead forced to rely on the hated paramilitary police, the 'Zomos'.
26. Such resistance is not, of course, the monopoly of lower classes. Tax evasion and the so- called 'black' economy in advance capitalist countries are also forms of resistance, albeit pursued with most vigour and success by middle and upper classes.
27. See, for example, the article in this volume by Christine White.
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