Most Resistance Does Not Speak Its Name: An Interview with James C. Scott

JAMES C. SCOTT is known as something of a hybrid scholar: part-political scientist, part-anthropologist, part-agrarianist; a “crude Marxist,” a cautious anarchist. While a young doctoral student at Yale University in the late 1950s, he had been warned by a colleague that his planned two years of fieldwork in a remote Malaysian village would prove suicidal for his career. But that experience provided the basis for Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, published several decades later, that explores the subtle techniques used by peasants to defy state power, and which helped launch the contemporary field of resistance studies and established Scott as one of the world’s leading political scientists. 

Breaking with his principal focus on Southeast Asia, in September of last year, he published his ninth book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In it, he interrogates long-held beliefs about how early civilizations formed. The book also serves as a blistering critique of the supposed function of states as “civilizing” instruments. Scott, who is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University, lives on a farm outside of New Haven, Connecticut, where he tends to his hens and Highland cattle.


FRANCIS WADE: What first drew you to your field of inquiry — the question of how states develop, how they control their subjects, and how they are then resisted?

JAMES C. SCOTT: Originally, this goes way back to my period as a graduate student and a Southeast Asianist when I was speaking against the Vietnam War. I was mesmerized by Sékou Touré, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and others, and it was only toward the end of the 1960s that I realized that all these kinds of revolutionary struggles led to a stronger state that was able to batten itself on the population in a more authoritarian way than the state that it replaced. My first book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant, was an effort to understand peasant rebellion. That led to subsequent works on forms of resistance that were not revolutionary — everyday forms of resistance. Most recently I’ve become interested in the deep history of the state, and a previous book relevant to that question was a history of the hill people in Southeast Asia. Against the Grain was a natural progression from this, but I wanted also to give an ecological side to this. Scholarly work is infused these days with a deep sense of doubt about the place we’ve gotten to, and how we’ve gotten there — whether it’s global warming or extinction of species. Just this morning I was thinking that all the studies on how animals think and reason, and how they are agents, provides an interesting angle for a species — ourselves — who think of themselves as a class apart in terms of our intelligence. At some deep level I share this worry that the state forms and ecology of agrarian life that prevailed until fossil fuels were used are partly responsible for some of the problems we now face. So I was determined to go back as far as I could to look at how this thing called the state and its concentration of animals and crops and people in sedentary spaces got established in the first place.

Some reviews of Against the Grain have accused it of going too hard on the state. Can the state be the provider of freedoms as much as it can limit them?

I try to think about this question carefully in terms of the French Revolution, because that was the first time that an entire, at least male, adult population was enfranchised. And it was the first time that anyone anywhere in France, no matter their estate or property or occupation, was equal before national French law. France after the revolution was a great emancipatory state, but prior to it, the state only had access to the population through the different parliaments and different estates of the feudal order. Once the revolution occurred, the state for the first time had direct access to every citizen. That was the birth of citizenship, and that made possible the total mobilization of the population under Napoleon. So you had organization and mobilization of total war and emancipation being linked integrally to the achievements of the French Revolution.

What I object to in some of the critical reviews of Against the Grain is that they seem to assume that hunters and gatherers had the option of either continuing with their existence or joining the Danish welfare state. They’re choosing, or more likely being forced to join, an agrarian autocracy of one kind or another. Insofar as the state has any welfare aspects, it’s only what is necessary to hold a population at the center that can be useful for them.

Weapons of the Weak explores the material and ideological ways in which elite power is resisted by society’s most vulnerable. Had you gone to this Malaysian village specifically to look at these tools of resistance?

Actually in some respects Weapons of the Weak is the book I’m proudest of, partly because it’s based on two years of fieldwork in this Malaysian village where nothing revolutionary was happening. And I found that it’s not just ideological, subtle ways of resistance that the villagers were using. Struggles for people with no citizenship rights, which is to say most of the world’s population most of the time, are always material in a sense. Between 1650 and 1850 the most popular crime in the United Kingdom was poaching. And there were never any great marches on London, no parliamentary petitions, no riots — this was a struggle over common property that went on for two centuries and yielded real benefits on a daily basis for the peasantry. Similarly, look at the difference between a land invasion on the one hand, and squatting: squatters don’t make any public claim; they’re interested in de facto results. The same is true for army desertions as opposed to mutiny, because mutiny makes a public claim. So it dawned on me that most resistance in history did not speak its name, and actually a lot of it was cloaked by an apparent loyalty to the king or the tsar. It seems to me that the historians, by paying attention to formal organization and public demonstrations, have missed most acts of resistance throughout history.

Are these everyday “weapons” used by the Malaysian villagers — foot-dragging, evasion, gossip — in use at home too, in a developed country like the United States with robust political institutions?

If we’re talking about developed countries, we’re talking about an overall alienation from politics and an unwillingness to give one’s heart and soul to struggle in an arena that one sees as deeply corrupted and compromised. That alienation and withdrawal are the most common forms of resistance. In Eastern Europe they used to call it internal migration — you’d find something else to think about because it was hopeless to think about the public sphere. It was Hobsbawm who said that the peasants’ goal is to work the system to their minimum disadvantage — they can’t beat it but they can nibble around the edges. The other thing I discovered in this Malaysian village is the way in which people misrepresent themselves before different audiences — how the poor misrepresent their agreements and complicity with the elite of the village, how they talk among themselves as opposed to how they talk to power. This is something that happens in daily life everywhere. When the disparities in power are great, the misrepresentation is correspondingly greater. These are the “hidden transcripts” I’ve written of.

But remember that foot-dragging is not just a skill of the powerless; it’s used by bureaucracies too. A long time back in Massachusetts the state government decided it wanted to reduce welfare expenditures. But it didn’t have the courage to do so openly, and it would’ve been too politically difficult to formally change the welfare criteria and welfare stipend. So what they did was to essentially make the bureaucratic process so onerous by using lengthy forms, to make the opening hours of the welfare office as inconvenient as possible for mothers with children — to use a whole series of subtle obstacles, or everyday resistance by elites, if you like, to make sure most people never made it to the candy store. So while that kind of resistance may be the only weapon of the powerless, it is one of the many weapons that elites have.

You’ve devoted entire books to exploring state resistance in Southeast Asia. But I often sense an almost conditioned desire among some communities there for strong authority, without which society might break apart. Thailand and the Philippines are two recent examples that come to mind.

I don’t claim to be a specialist on public opinion but it strikes me that the cosmopolitan, educated middles classes of Thailand have turned against a populist, elected government and are very happy to have military rule. Likewise, the fact that there’s not an uprising against Duterte in the Philippines is part of the same desire for law and order at the expense of democratic freedoms. In Myanmar, one of the military’s long-range goals, in terms of public opinion, is to make people fear the country will fall apart unless a strong military is confirmed in power and has a free hand. This desire is cultivated from the top. I have a feeling that Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to extend ceasefires to all the peripheral nationalities because she wanted that major issue of national security under control and I think the military was perfectly happy to have that break down and conflicts flare — it was in their interests to have it so.

Can these supposedly benevolent campaigns — ceasefires in Myanmar; Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines — instead be strategies to project state power into regions of these countries where it lacks?

Every state intervention and extension of power is seen by state elites as a benevolent move in the interest of the population. Even if the rationale is not cynical, it is still likely to result in an amplification of state power at the expense of its subjects. In the Philippines the effort to extend state power in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago is something that characterizes Philippine regimes back to President Magsaysay in the 1950s and the relocation of peasants into previously Islamic areas. So this effort to move what are seen to be friendly populations to the periphery of a state, among people who are seen as potentially hostile, happens all over Southeast Asia. You saw it with the transmigration efforts in Indonesia, and the efforts of the Vietnamese to move the Kinh majority ethnic group into the hills. This is something that is almost national policy. Some of it is stimulated and subsidized, some is voluntary.

Early states had to deal with a periphery of other peoples, with which they either had to make allies, or turn into mercenaries, or keep at arm’s length. Now, the population explosion of the last century and a half has meant there are land-starved lowland populations that can be used both to create plantations in the hills and new settlements and so on. In a sense the periphery can be controlled in large part through transplanting majority populations to the periphery. But now, modern technology and roads and transport allows the state to project its power in ways that weren’t previously possible. I think the degree to which the state has this control however varies a good deal across Southeast Asia. Most of Laos, for example, except for a few valley areas, is a non-state space.

Could there be something in the early processes of state formation there that accounts for this frequent pendulum swing between authoritarianism and democracy in Southeast Asia?

I guess if I were to address this question I’d want to look at World War II and postwar early independence history. In Myanmar in particular, it’s clear that military mobilization was an absolutely crucial part of the early creation of the Burmese state. Some of that is true in Indonesia too, and in spades in Vietnam. It seems that a lot of these places got a kind of muscle-bound military early on in the game that was accustomed to rule and in many cases to running the economy. They are the major economic interest as well. In that respect I think there’s an institutional military dominance that goes back a long way and the military then represents itself as the savior and soul of nation.

With that swing comes acute anxieties about the stability of society, and nationalist leaders are skilled at propagandizing on the fear that democracy will upend longstanding social orders, whether ethnic, religious, and so on. We’re seeing the lethal results of that in Myanmar right now.

If you ask which countries have the deepest and longest experience of open democratic politics in Southeast Asia, the answers would have to be the Philippines and Thailand, and Indonesia to some considerable extent now as well. The point is that a longer experience of relative stability under peaceful democratic political competition will reduce the fear that the nation will fall apart. I think of open democratic politics as a process of gradual education. On the other hand, if you have a continuous period of authoritarian rule then the only forms of opposition have to be deeply subversive or armed, and that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if the only kind of opposition that the Burmese military permits to its rule is armed secessionist movements. Then, in fact, the country will fall apart. It is, in a sense, a characteristic of politics that military rule has itself created.

On the question of Myanmar, this so-called pacted transition to democracy that Suu Kyi hopes to preside over raises a problem: the military has leased much of the natural resources to foreign companies, and they have grabbed lands and enterprises all over the country and deeded it to themselves and officers. It’s not clear to me, even if this transition were successful over the next eight years or so, that there would be a lot left that hadn’t been seized and made the property of the military or foreign companies with long leases. It’s turned out to be a bad bargain for the democrats.

You’re a longtime Myanmar watcher. Are you surprised at the intensification of ethno-religious violence there during democratization?

I have always remarked ever since I first went to Burma on what I thought as an irrational fear of Muslims in general. It’s a kind of hysteria — that these people are stealing our women, as if women are the property of Burmans [majority ethnic group] only. There’s a deep cultural fear of extinction, especially linked to males and Buddhism in its Burma guise, and it always seemed to be totally out of proportion to any real danger that the Burmese state faced.

There is no doubt that we have a massive humanitarian tragedy unfolding, the likes of which Southeast Asia has not seen at least since the massacres after 1965 in Indonesia. It seems to me that the Indonesians will be dealing with those massacres as a national stain for the next century, in the way that the Turks have to deal with the Armenian massacre. Whatever else one has to say about the Rohingya, they are human beings and they have been treated like cattle or worse — more than half a million have been driven away, their houses burned, their lives destroyed. When the dust settles, any Burmese regime is going to have to deal with this huge humanitarian tragedy for which the military and their allied militias will always be held responsible. This is one of those national stains. I’m not speaking from a positon of a nation that doesn’t have lots of genocides that it has to explain — the United States certainly does. But Burma has a genocide it needs to explain as well.

How does such a vast cross-section of a population come to rally in support of ethnic cleansing? It can’t just emerge from thin air.

I’m actually mystified by the deep suspicion and fears of Muslims that goes back long before the Rohingya crisis. I confess to not understanding this. There are all these links to the Indian population in Rangoon and dockworkers strikes and violence during the colonial period. There is a history there, but I am mystified by such a widespread fear of Muslims among ordinary Burmans, so I throw up my hands. But it’s been fanned and cultivated and whipped up by Buddhist nationalists who have their own particular agenda, and by Rakhine who have their own history and anxieties that are deeply rooted and realistic, and by the military, for whom all this helps to solidify their claims to power and control of the economy and state. These attitudes are there and they are deeply rooted but they have been politically mobilized like no one has ever seen. The Rohingya were quite passive historically but now they have become a point of public mobilization. Yet if one wanted to get upset about an “outside” economic threat in Myanmar then the Yunnan Chinese population, and the Chinese companies that control all of northern Burma, would be the source of a more realistic and palpable concern of economic domination than the Muslims have ever posed.

Is this perhaps a by-product of the creation of a new society — statecraft as pursued by a majority long denied the capacity to do so?

There are lots of groups in Southeast Asia that, like the Rohingya, spill over national boundaries. Outside of Southeast Asia, the Kurds are the most striking contemporary example. It seems to me that if you don’t want wars of secession then the only way to avoid them is for the international system to invent forms of association across borders on questions like culture, language, education, and so on — a whole series of issues that have to do with the cultural cohesion of a people that do not threaten the sovereignty of the nations across whose borders they spread. We need to invent something like that for the Kurds, the Rohingya, the Hmong, and lots of smaller ethnic groups.

The Burmese military could have gotten away with this assault on the Rohingya 30 years ago and the international press would have scarcely noticed. But the world is more closely integrated, such that every nation is going to have to answer for their treatment of helpless minority populations. The only thing that offers an even minor restraint on what is happening in Myanmar is this international scrutiny, and the more scrutiny the better. When it comes to the violation of essential human rights, there should be no place to hide.


Francis Wade is a journalist and author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence And The Making Of A Muslim Other (Zed Books).