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James C. Scott on Everyday Forms of Resistance to State Power


In the Los Angeles Review of Books, author Francis Wade interviews anarchist political scientist James C. Scott, who is Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale and who has spent his distinguished career researching everyday forms of resistance to state power, especially in Southeast Asia. In the interview, Scott observes that most resistance throughout history has not risen to the level of visible revolution and is therefore grossly under-examined. He also comments on the vilification, displacement, and killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which he calls the biggest humanitarian disaster in Southeast Asia since the Indonesian communist purge of 1965–66. Read an excerpt from the interview below. Scott’s books include Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1987), The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2010), and most recently Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017).

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.

Image of James C. Scott via [NY Times]


Wow! I’m rarely impressed but wish this article was longer, will certainly read Scott’s books. I admire a man who can see beyond the obvious.