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Peasant Studies, Vol.
19, No. 3 & 4 (Spring & Summer 1992)
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY
IN THE WORK OF JAMES C.
SCOTT
A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi
I Introduction
The work of James C. Scott has, over the last twenty years, made a
profound impression upon the study ofthe economy and society ofpeasants.
In the 1970s Scott made a seminal contribution to the study of the circum­
stances which promote peasant rebellion. In the 1980s Scott had an even
greater impact when he studied the forms by which peasants carry out re­
sistance to perceived injustice. Since he first presented these latter insights
Scott's approach to peasant studies has informed a veritable "school" of
work. Much of the work of Scott's followers comes nowhere near the rich­
ness, elegance and rigor of his own work. Regardless, it is now the case that
any detailed investigation of peasant life can no longer choose to refuse to
engage the questions that he has raised. In this sense, Scott has affected the
very nature of the discipline in which he works.
Scott's work has not however gone unchallenged. For example, in a
recent paper Hart has drawn attention to Scott's ungendered mode of analy­
sis (Hart (1991]). Hart argues that a gendered analysis raises doubts about
some of the central assumptions which inform his work, and particularly
"the processes through which class identity is produced or undermined"
(Hart [1991]: 117). On the other hand, Brass has argued that Scott's work
assists in providing Chayanovian theory...with its missing politico-ideo­
logical dimension" (Brass [1991]: 174). Brass goes on to argue that central
to Scott's work are efforts to deny the core of the modernist project, namely
the grand narrative of history-as-progress. Brass argues that such "a proce­
dure ... banishes emancipation" (Brass [1991]: 183).
Clearly then the work of Scott has been as controversial as it has been
influential. The purpose of the present paper is to contribute to the contro-
f
180
PEASANT STUDIES
versy. This paper will closely examine the framework used by Scott. It will
argue that his analysis can be criticized for having an insufficient command
of the concept of hegemony. Scott conceives of hegemony as the compliant
acquiescence of subordinate groups to the dominant ideology. His account
of everyday forms of resistance confronts such an approach. However, Scott
is misdirecting his censure. It will be argued that hegemony negotiates the
unification of multiple social realities in a manner consistent with class
domination. Everyday forms of resistance are a vent for inconsistent indi­
vidual experience which do not threaten such domination. Interestingly, the
critique of Scott which is developed lays the groundwork for the use of
many of his ethnographic insights by a currently unfashionable approach,
that of agrarian marxism. The plan of the paper is as follows. The following
section outlines Scott's analytic framework. Such a discussion highlights
both the central role of ideological contestation in Scott's understanding of
peasant social relationships and his misgivings concerning the concept of
hegemony. Sections III and IV critically assess his understanding of he­
gemony and develop an alternative formulation of hegemony. The alterna­
tive formulation is both consistent with classical marxist analysis of the
agrarian question and with aspects of Scott's methodology. Section V offers
some final remarks.
II. Scott on the Peasantry
i) The moral economy
Scott's theorization of the social relations of peasant life is rooted in
the analysis of his first book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (Scott
[1976]). In that work, Scott's starting point is that peasants are exposed to
subsistence risks. Efforts to avoid such risks impact upon both the technical
and social arrangements which surround the production process of the peas­
ant. For example, "[t]he use of more than one seed variety" or "European
traditional farming on scattered strips" are "classical techniques for avoid­
ing undue risks" (Scott [1988]: 306). More importantly for the thrust of his
argument, Scott also argues that social arrangements such as "patterns of
reciprocity, forced generosity, communal land and work-sharing" (Scott
[1988]: 305) reduce risk by acting as a form of insurance which produces,
through redistributive mechanisms and social pressures, an assured mini­
mum standard ofliving for all members of a peasant community. He argues
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
181
that in exchange for such an entitlement a peasant has to forego some status
and some autonomy. He thus conceives of the social relations of peasant
life as being forged around a kind of tacit "social contract" (Scott [1985]:
345) which is based upon a community-specific "vision of social equity"
(Scott [1988]: 306). Such a vision is not egalitarian but is rather "socially
experienced as a pattern of moral rights" (Scott [1988]: 307) which are both
implied and reciprocal in character. Within a peasant community there are
thus
a set of expectations and preferences about relations between the
well-to-do and the poor. By and large, these expectations are cast
in the idioms of patronage, assistance, consideration, and helpful­
ness. They apply to employment, tenancy, charity, feast giving, and
the conduct of daily social encounter. They imply that those who
meet these expectations will be treated with respect, loyalty, and
social recognition. What is involved.. .is a kind of"politics ofrepu­
tation" (Scott [1985]: 184-5),
a politics which constructs the "moral context of village life" (Scott [1985]:
184). It is this construction which Scott defines as the "moral economy" of
the peasant: a peasant's "notion of economic justice and their working defi­
nition of exploitation- their view of which claims on their product [are]
tolerable and which [are] intolerable" (Scott [1988]: 306). The moral econ­
omy, derived as it is from a peasantry's subsistence ethic, thus defines by
reference to the entire community the parameters of what is an acceptable
claim on productive activity.
. Scott argues that in general the colonial and postcolonial periods un­
dermined the moral economy. This is because they have served to erode the
reciprocal expectations upon which it was based. Capitalist development
has weakened the dependencies of previous production relations by facili­
tating a deepening economic polarization within communities. The result
of such polarization has been a divergence between the members of a com­
munity in their perception of the unspoken "rules" governing social rela­
tions. For the emergent elite, capitalist development has altered their
position within mechanisms of surplus appropriation. Such changes to the
"normative raw materials" (Scott [1985]: 309) from which the rules ofsocial
relations were derived renders the old practices invalid. Scott argues that,
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182
PEASANT STUDIES
as a consequence, the emergent elite will be no longer willing to underwrite
the provision of subsistence insurance. Instead, the new elite prefers that
orthodox capitalist mechanisms of domination such as the market and the
state be allowed to function for the benefit of the better-off. By way of
contrast, for the subordinate classes the increased insecurity surrounding
the subsistence ethic which comes with capitalist development represents
a violation of the previously understood moral economy. For these classes
that which has been lost becomes their reference point for restoration. Scott
thus argues that capitalist development results in a disagreement between
the members of a moral economy concerning the customs governing social
relations within the moral economy. According to Scott, this sows the seeds
of social conflict.
Scott's views on social conflict, and particularly on the capacity of the
poor to attempt collectively to restore the violated parameters of the moral
economy, developed considerably between 1976 and 1985. In 1976, he
argued that the violation of the moral economy by the rich had consistently
led to "indignation and rage which prompted [peasants] to risk every­
thing... [and thus] come to provide ... the shock troops ofrebellion and revo­
lution" (Scott [1988]: 306). While Scott conceived of such rebellions as
defensive, backward-looking revolts of consumers which did not by and
large succeed, he maintained that collective action remained the logical
outcome of the violation of the conventions of community relations.
When Scott wrote in 1985 that "revolution ...now seems all but fore­
closed" (Scott [1985]: 350), it was apparent that his self-professed pessi­
mism had led to an important development in his argument. As in 1976, the
violation of the moral economy "by the rich generates efforts by the poor
to resist...economic and ritual marginalization" (Scott [1985]: xviii). As in
1976, such efforts are defensive and backward looking, appealing to vio­
lated values of equity and community constructed around a subsistence
ethic disregarded by the rich .. By 1985 however the content of the effort to
secure retribution had been radically transformed. The anger which had
previously fostered collective action he had reworked into "everyday forms
of peasant resistance" consisting of "the ordinary weapons of relatively
powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering,
feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth" (Scott [1985]:
29). Being by and large individualistic and spontaneous, these "weapons
JI
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
183
of the weak" "require little or no coordination or planning; they often rep­
resent a form of individual self-help; and they typically avoid any direct
symbolic confrontation with authority or with elite norms" (Scott [1985]:
29). Scott argued, however, that everyday forms of resistance share with
public confrontations the intention
to mitigate or deny claims made by superordinate classes or to ad­
vance claims vis-a-vis those superordinate classes. Such claims
have ordinarily to do with the material nexus of class struggle-the
appropriation of land, labor, taxes, rents, and so forth. Where eve­
ryday resistance most strikingly departs from other forms of resis­
tance is its implicit disavowal of public and symbolic goals (Scott
[1985]: 32-3).
Scott presents two fundamental reasons for the disavowal of overt public
resistance. In so doing, he develops themes found in his work of the 1970s.
First, as in the earlier work there remains the continuing and indeed deep­
ening need for "a social insurance policy" which guards "against the thou­
sand contingencies of agrarian life" (Scott [1985]: 24). In such
circumstances, public acts of defiance make little sense because insurance
is built by a record of deferential behaviour, service at feasts and
house movings, a willingness to work without quibbling too much
about wages, and tacit support for the village leadership. It brings
tangible rewards in terms of employment, charity, help at time of
death or illness, and access to whatever subsidies the ruling party
in the village has to distribute. It brings intangible rewards in terms
of inclusion both in the informal pleasantries and in the rituals of
village life (Scott [1985): 24).
Further, Scott notes that subordinate classes are "under no illusions
about the outcome of a direct assault" (Scott [1985]: 22) on the rich as an
alternative means of attaining subsistence guarantees. Probability of failure
in collective efforts brings with it the certainty of severe retaliation in the
form of a further denial of subsistence guarantees. Coupled to the need for
a subsistence guarantee must thus also be added the superior coercive
strength of the rich. Such strength pushes subordinate classes to remain
wedded to individual, private acts of resistance.
184
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PEASANT STUDIES
Second, Scott argues that the underlying need for collective, public
action to redress violations of the moral economy is reduced through the
use of everyday forms of resistance. It seems fair to state that Scott believes
that the deployment of the weapons of the weak demonstrates the highly
contingent nature of the implicit social contract underpinning the moral
economy. This contingency is the result of the processes of ideological
formation which occurs within peasant communities, a phenomena to which
Scott devotes a good deal of attention in his later work.
Scott argues that in the circumstances of peasant life the different ma­
terial environment people face and the different concrete practices they
consequently pursue will produce divergent interpretations of "seemingly
straightforward social facts" (Scott [1985]: 304). He thus believes that in­
dividual experience provides the foundation of both understanding and ac­
tion. He goes on to argue that amongst the members of a community there
must be differing sets of values, sets of values which are derived from
alternative experiences and which have "major points of friction and cor­
respondence" (Scott [1985]: 41). For the members of the community it is
the resolution of the friction between alternative ideologies which is vital
to the securing of a subsistence guarantee. Scott is clear on this point: within
a community superordinate and subordinate classes have competing ide­
ologies. The site of such a resolution is the ideological contest between
what comes to be deemed as acceptable social values and what comes to
be deemed as unacceptable social values. Scott thus appears to believe that
a broadly understood definition of the acceptable will forge a peasant com­
munity into a moral economy.
Capitalist development undermines the moral economy by shifting the
terrain of what is acceptable to particular members of a community, thus
creating a fresh site of contestation between the alternative ideologies of
the superordinate and the subordinate classes. The struggle over the appro­
priate definition of economic justice within a moral economy in turn be­
comes "a contest...to control the concepts and symbols by which current
experience is evaluated" (Scott [1985]: 27) by the members of a community.
Conflicts over meaning and value can be expressed through language, sym­
bolic acts and culture: the weapons of the weak. The use of the weapons of
the weak represents an opportunity for the poor to pursue "incessant and
offensive action" (Brass [1991]: 183) against the well-to-do, action which
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
185
by being both atomistic and private is relatively safe from reprisal against
remaining subsistence guarantees. Action may consist "of words, feints and
counterfeints, threats, a skirmish or two, and, above all, propaganda (Scott
[1985): 22). Scott argues that the continued symbolic slander of the rich by
the poor can be taken to demonstrate the extent to which social facts are
contested, the extent to which the rich may have authority but not control,
and the extent to which the values of the rich and the poor diverge.
Despite the widespread use of such "small arms fire in the class war"
(Scott [1985): Ch.I) Scott argues that the continuing need for subsistence
guarantees amongst the poor can lead them to accommodate "themselves
publicly to ... [changing] social relations" (Scott [1985): 306). Concurrently,
however, subordinate classes are "continually striving to redefine [social
relations] to their advantage" (Scott [1985): 306) through the use of indi­
vidualistic, private and symbolic everyday forms of resistance. In determi­
nate material circumstances the deployment of the weapons of the weak
are indicative of the reemergence of a fundamental ideological conflict
between rich and poor over meaning and values, in which the poor appeal
to the past and the rich appeal to the present.
ii) Hegemony and the moral economy ofthe peasant
Scott argues that given both the presence of a fundamental if unresolved
ideological conflict and the pursuit of private, atomistic acts of resistance
it is at the level of beliefs rather than action that subordinate classes are
most radical in their dealings with superordinate social forces. In turn, the
assignation of a pivotal role to ideological conflict in the circumstances
surrounding the emergence of everyday acts of resistance leads Scott to
question the efficacy of the concept of hegemony.
For Scott hegemony is a
process of ideological domination. The central idea behind it is the
claim that the ruling class dominates not only the means of physical
production but the means of symbolic production as well. Its control
over the material forces of production is replicated, at the level of
ideas, in its control over the ideological "sectors" of society--cul­
ture, religion, education, and the media-in a manner which allows
it to disseminate those values that reinforce its position (Scott
[1985): 315).
I
186
PEASANT STUDIES
Scott discounts the theoretical sustainability of such a conception of
hegemony. He argues that such an approach substitutes "a kind of ideologi­
cal determinism for the material determinism" (Scott [1985]: 317) found
in much orthodox marxist work and is as such subject to the same kind of
pitfalls as the latter.
He gives five reasons to support his proposition that the ideological
determinism found in the concept of hegemony is theoretically unsustain­
able. First, he argues that "the concept of hegemony ignores the extent to
which most subordinate classes are able ...to penetrate and demystify the
prevailing ideology" (Scott [1985]: 317). Second, he b.elieves that hegem­
ony confuses the pragmatic resignation of subaltern classes with a legiti­
mation of class domination. Third, he argues that hegemony is at best an
idealization which contains within it the nucleus of a critique when such
ideals are not attained; as a result, the initial ideal can never be truly
hegemonic. Fourth, the limited aims of most mass action indicates the lack
of a need for the development of an all-encompassing counter-hegemonic
ideology to challenge existing structures. Lastly, he argues that when alter­
native ideologies do emerge "the breaking of the norms and values of a
dominant ideology is typically the work of the bearers of a·new mode of
production" (Scott [1985]: 318) and is not done by subaltern classes. Taken
together, Scott argues that "the notion ofhegemony...not only fail[s] to make
sense of class relations ...but also [is] just as likely to mislead us seriously
in understanding class conflict in most situations" (Scott [1985]: 317).
The exposition of the ideas of James Scott given above attempts to
demonstrate the broad continuity in his work. His account ofeveryday forms
of peasant resistance builds upon and substantially develops the concept of
the moral economy. In particular, the implicit denial of ideological domi­
nation within peasant communities found in his 1970s work becomes cen­
tral to his analysis of peasant resistance in his 1980s work. It is to this very
important aspect of his work that the paper now gives its critical attention.
III. The question of hegemony
Scott's doubts concerning hegemony are not surprising. Questioning
the efficacy of the concept is of central importance to his overall theoretical
approach. It is only as a result of such questions that he is able to posit an
autonomous role for subordinate classes in the implicit bargaining processes
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
187
surrounding the construction of the moral economy. Further, when the moral
economy comes under pressure from the forces of capitalist development,
his doubts permit him to attempt to establish the reality of the reemergence
of a previously dormant yet ever-present ideological conflict which leads
to the use of the weapons of the weak. The existence ofhegemonic structures
of the sort criticized by Scott would certainly diminish the extent to which
subordinate classes could be viewed as independent social actors capable
of sustained yet private resistance.
His reasoning is not so much mistaken as it is misdirected. Many users
of the concept of hegemony would support the position that peasants are
aware of their subordinate social position but do not challenge that position
because of the overwhelming need to get on with the often mundane but
necessary intricacies of day-to-day life. Similarly, many would accept that
peasants construct alternatives from within the bounds of their own expe­
rience. Finally, any student of history would recognize the central role of
newly-emerging classes in shaping the development of ideology. For many
social theorists Scott's points are not only broadly acceptable but they also
do not compromise the concept of hegemony. The grounds on which Scott
questions the logic of hegemony are thus still not entirely apparent.
In order to make Scott's position clearer, it is useful to examine his
account of the origin the idea of hegemony. Scott traces the concept of
hegemony back to The German Ideology where Marx and Engels wrote
that
the class which has the means of material production at its disposal,
has control at the same time over the means of mental produc­
tion ...The individuals composing the ruling class ... rule also as
thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and
distribution of the idea of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling
ideas of the epoch (quoted in Scott (1985]: 315; see also Marx and
Engels (1965]).
Scott traces a consistent lineage in the development of the concept of
hegemony, from Marx and Engels, through Lenin to Gramsci, and up to
Miliband and Althusser. He argues however that the pivotal figure in the
development of the concept of hegemony was Gramsci. Scott recognizes
that Gramsci's Prison Notebooks can be read in a multiplicity of ways, and
188
PEASANT S TIJDIES
as a result it is not clear the extent to which Gramsci believed hegemony
to be voluntary or involuntary, complete or incomplete (Scott [ 1 985] : 3 1 6).
Despite such difficulties, however, Scott advances an authoritative reading
of Gramsci. He states that Gramsci believed that
elites control the "ideological sectors" of society-culture, religion,
education, and media-and can thereby engineer consent for their
rule. By creating and disseminating a universe of discourse and the
concepts that go with it, by defining the standards of what is true,
beautiful, moral, fair, and legitimate, they build a symbolic climate
that prevents subordinate classes from thinking their way free (Scott
[ 1 985]: 39).
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As a result, the "substratum of values and perceptions" of subordinate
classes are "socially determined from above" (Scott [ 1 985]: 3 1 6}
His reading of Gramsci is however subject to a fundamental problem.
In asserting a linear development of the concept of hegemony from the
mid-nineteenth century to the present day, Scott is in effect arguing that
hegemony is but a moment in the development of what has come to be
known as "false consciousness." Indeed, he maintains that there is a close
relationship between hegemony and false consciousness (Scott [ 1 985] : 3 1 51 7). The proximity of the relationship between Scott's conceptualization
of hegemony and false consciousness can be further witnessed in a standard
definition of the latter, whereby false consciousness is seen to be a phe­
nomenon which "conceals the contradictory character of the hidden essen­
tial pattern by focusing upon the way in which the economic relations appear
on the surface ... (It is) a negative ... concept. It is negative because it involves
a distortion, a misrepresentation of contradictions" (Larrain [ 1 983] : 222).
Dominant classes distort contradictions in order to sustain their posi­
tion. Scott's equation of hegemony with false consciousness is still further
indicated by his choice of words such as control, create, dictate, engineer,
penetrate and prevent. These words present a vision of social forces impos­
ing a particular conception of social relations upon subaltern groups, an
imposition which both originates outside the lived experience of the sub­
alterns and which is detrimental to their position within the relations of
production.
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
189
Yet as Sassoon notes "hegemony... cannot be reduced to legitimation,
false consciousness, or manipulation of the mass of the population" (Sas­
soon [ 1 983]: 202). By asserting a linear form to the development of the
concept ofhegemony, Scott does not recognize the extent ofthe elaboration,
evolution and indeed transformation that resulted from Gramsci 's theoreti­
cal excursions when he explored the idea in the 1 930s. As a result of his
theoretical reformulations, Gramsci rendered obsolete much ofthe prevail­
ing understanding of false consciousness. There was, to a significant degree,
an epistemological break.
Gramsci rerouted theory by advancing an explanation of the political
economy of ideological formation, within which ideological forms and
practices could be both consistent with classical marxist analysis and with
the relative autonomy of subj ectivity. Gramsci conceived of hegemony as
a fabric of domination woven from multiple social realities. This fabric was
constructed by determinate social forces. Fundamental to such construction
was the capacity of the dominant classes to compromise narrow class in­
terests, if necessary by meeting to a limited extent certain demands of sub­
ordinate classes. The purpose of such compromises was to secure consent
to class domination and thus unite society behind the power ofthe dominant
class. By crudely equating hegemony with false consciousness, Scott fails
to take account ofthe role ofcompromise and consent. He thus demonstrates
the extent to which he does not fully appreciate the essence of Gramsci 's
theory of hegemony.
In order to sustain the validity of such an argument, it is useful to com­
pare and contrast Scott's understanding ofhegemony with one derived from
the work of Gramsci. It is not proposed that the derivation of the political
economy of ideological formation offered below is in some sense the "cor­
rect'' reading of Gramsci. Rather, it is presented because it opens up inter­
esting possibilities regarding Scott's rich ethnographic insights.
IV Scott, Gramsci and the fabric ofdomination
The domain within which hegemony is or is not constructed is that of
ideas and ideology. Scott argues that an ideology is "a critique of things as
they are as well as a vision of things as they should be" (Scott [ 1 985]: 23).
Ideology is thus "a generic term for the processes by which meaning is
produced, challenged, reproduced, transformed" (Barrett [ 1 980] : 97).
190
PEASANT STUDIES
Through the transformation of experience into meaning ideology invests
individuals with subjectivity. Scott argues that within Gramsci's theoriza­
tion of hegemony such subjectivity and indeed such ideology is in fact a
false consciousness, one which is imposed upon subaltern classes by social
forces located outside the realm of lived experience. He argues that such a
conception is wrong. For Scott, meaning must come from within the realm
of lived experience.
Gramsci's understanding of subjectivity is not the one put forward by
· Scott. According to Gramsci, subjectivity is not imposed rather, it is nego­
tiated within determinate material conditions: "it may be ruled out that
immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historical
events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination
of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving ques­
tions" (Gramsci [ 1 971]: 184).
The material terrain is thus a framework, an arena of ideological nego­
tiation and struggle between social forces, including classes, within which
several outcomes are possible. That this is consistent with Scott's own ap­
proach can be seen in both his remark that "social being determines social
consciousness" (Scott [ 1985]: 38) in determining the selection of possible
alternative courses of action and in his central emphasis on continued class
contestation. Yet Gramsci did not merely prefigure Scott. As will be dem­
onstrated, Scott's understanding ofsubjectivity differs from that ofGramsci.
Gramsci assigned a central role to class relationships in the negotiation
of subjectivity. He believed that dominant class forces would pursue strate­
gies that furthered outcomes favorable to the sustenance of their continued
domination. A necessary but not sufficient condition for the furtherance of
favorable outcomes was unity. Gramsci argued that a "historical act can
only be performed by a collective man, and this presupposes the attainment
of a "cultural-social unity" through which dispersed wills, with hetero­
genous aims, are welded together on the basis of an equal and common
perception of the world" (Gramsci [1971]: 349). Gramsci thus argued that
an integral aspect of the negotiation of subjectivity was the construction of
"an equal and common perception of the world."
For Gramsci, "dispersed wills" are welded together into a common
perception upon the explicitly ideological terrain of what he termed "com­
mon sense": "a chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions" (Gramsci
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTI
19 1
[1971]: 422), a set ofattitudes, moral views and empirical beliefs reflecting
an individual's concrete experiences in society but lacking in consistency
or cohesion. The need to render individual experience cohesive so as to
transform it into meaning was at the core of the process by which subjec­
tivity was negotiated.
Again, first impressions would indicate the broad similarity of Scott's
position with that of Gramsci. Echoing Gramsci, Scott writes that "the study
of class relations ... (is) a study of meaning and experience" (Scott [1985]:
45). Scott then goes on to argue that "divergent understandings are... rooted
in daily experience" (Scott [1985]: 319). It is therefore the case that "for
class to become a social reality it must become a subculture ofshared values,
social contact and distinctive life-styles. This distinctiveness may take a
variety of forms: language, dress, religion, ethnicity, residence, shared his­
tory, and so forth" (Scott [1977]: 276).
For Scott the development of such distinctiveness is "anchored in a host
of commonplace material practices" (Scott [1985]: 305). Determinate
shared material conditions thus permits the peasantry to construct a "relative
cultural autonomy" (Scott [1977]: 275) based upon "its own cultural tradi­
tions... and.. .its own shadow institutions" (Scott [1985]: 21). This in turn
becomes the basis by which peasantries forge themselves into a cohesive
community capable of engagement with other classes in the context of
implicit negotiations over subsistence guarantees. The outcome of such
implicit bargaining between social forces is the construction of a moral
economy, an economy which is predicated upon the cultural specificity of
the negotiating sides.
Scott's implicit bargaining model of class relations is flawed in two
ways. First, Scott provides no insight into precisely how a common culture
is constructed. When Scott writes of a peasantry's "cultural traditions" and
"shadow institutions," the agents and instruments by which the phenomena
of the past become the culture of the present are not described, other than
by vague references to the material circumstances. Yet it is only through a
specification of the agents and instruments of cultural construction that it
becomes possible to understand why only particular "values" and "tradi­
tions" become integral to culture, and thus why experience comes to be
interpreted in a given, meaningful way.
PEASANT STUDIES
192
Second, the relative cultural autonomy ascribed to the peasantry by
Scott is at best based upon a "partial transcript" of the complete range of
peasant experience. He explicitly presents cultural construction as a process
which occurs within a class. At the same time however he recognizes that
"the rich have the social power generally to impose their view of seemly
behaviour on the poor" (Scott [ 1 985]: 24). Yet at no point does he adequately
examine the ways in which the relationship between classes can dynami­
cally interact with the construction of a culture within a class. That such a
dynamic is important cannot be a matter of dispute, given the relational
character of classes and class formation. He thus ignores a central aspect
of cultural construction in his implicit bargaining model.
Gramsci addressed both of these issues. He did so through the intro­
duction of a fresh analytic category: the intellectuals. What Gramsci termed
"organic intellectuals" are the
thinking and organizing element of a particular fundamental social
class. These organic intellectuals are distinguished less by their
profession, which may be any job characteristic of their class, but
by their function in directing the ideas and aspirations of the class
to which they organically belong (Hoare [ 1 97 1 ]: 3).
Intellectuals arise because
every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of
an essential function in the world of economic production, creates
together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals
which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function
not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields
(Gramsd [ 1 971]: 5).
The role of organic intellectuals is thus to render common sense con­
sistent by mediating the transformation of lived experience into "aware­
ness" and meaning. Gramsci therefore conceived of the agents which
inscribe meaning during the negotiation of subjectivity as being a specific
social group within a class.
Intellectuals do not however only foment unity on a economic, social
and political plane within the dominant class; they also translate this unity
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
1 93
into a moral and intellectual leadership which transcends class divisions.
As Gramsci argued,
the intellectuals are the dominant group's "deputies" exercising the
subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.
These comprise: 1. The "spontaneous" consent given by great
masses of the population to the general direction imposed upon
social life by the dominant fundamental group (Gramsci [1971]:
12).
Intellectuals of the superordinate class mediate the lived experience of
subaltern classes through reflection, interpretation and explanation. As a
result they invest it with a meaning that is consistent with both empirical
observation and class domination. The ideologies which arise from the me­
diation of experience "have a validity that is psychological" (Gramsci
[1971]: 377) due to the fact that while their concrete content is premised
upon the moral and intellectual leadership of a dominant class force it must
be consistent with the lived experience of the subaltern social forces. Sub­
ordination is thus not externally imposed but, more crucially, through the
mediation of the intellectuals, is internalized as a part ofculture, conscious­
ness and identity. Intellectuals thus give flesh to bare skeletons of subordi­
nation by building the moral and intellectual hegemony necessary for
domination to be reproduced through a broad social consensus rooted in a
common culture which unifies multiple material realities. The attainment
of this result Gramsci characterized as a "historic bloc," an alliance of social
forces led by the dominant class force.
Gramsci's analysis of the construction of hegemony can be applied
across a range of social relationships. For example, it can be used to under­
stand the processes by which gendered identities are constructed and gender
relations cemented (see Akram-Lodhi [1992]: Ch.3). It should however be
noted that with regards to the peasantry Gramsci argued that "the mass of
the peasantry, although it performs an essential function in the world of
production, does not elaborate its own 'organic' intellectuals" (Gramsci 26
[1971]: 6). Hoare states that "Gramsci's general argurnent...is that the per­
son of peasant origin who becomes an 'intellectual' (priest, lawyer, etc.)
generally thereby ceases to be organically linked to his class of origin"
(Hoare, in Gramsci [1971]: 6).
1 94
PEASANT STUDIES
Gramsci's position that the peasantry is unable to elaborate its own
organic intellectuals is however open to question. In a masterly obituary,
Byres has demonstrated that the Indian politician
Charan Singh, of Jat peasant stock, became a lawyer, but did not
"cease to be organically linked to his class of origin." On the con­
trary, he was, for most ofhis adult life, quintessentially an "organic"
intellectual, "directing the ideas and aspirations of the [rich peasant]
class to which he organically belonged," and, without doubt, gave
that class a "homogeneity and awareness of its own function not
only in the economic but also in the social and political fields"
(Byres [1988): 168).
I
If Charan Singh was unusual in this regard, he was by no means unique.
Other examples can be deployed to demonstrate that on this point Gramsci
was mistaken: the peasantry is capable of elaborating its own organic in­
tellectuals.
Regardless of the acceptability or otherwise of such a position, the life
of Charan Singh does illustrate an aspect of the intellectuals which was
central to Gramsci's conception of their role within peasantries; namely,
that irrespective of their origin the intellectuals act as a fulcrum, linking
class as a structural phenomenon with class as a lived experience. At the
level of everyday experience, the role of the organic intellectuals is to render
acceptable vertical relations of exploitation which are a part of day-to-day
village life. That is why hegemony can be so resilient. It is not some distant,
external social institution imposing its mode of thinking but is rather a
neighbor, a friend, a priest, a teacher: someone who can shape and structure
subjective experience through their ability to interpret it. The capacity of
an individual to assist in the explanation of diverse events cannot but act to
render peasant social structures more cohesive.
At the same time, however, village level relations of exploitation must
be made consistent with aggregate social structures of domination. Here
too the intellectuals play a key role, horizontally integrating village and
community social structures with regional and national relations of produc­
tion. Indeed, Scott provides a good example of this process in his exami­
nation of the role of the national ruling political party in the village (Scott
[1985]). Active party participants-and indeed, active members of the op-
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
1 95
position party-assist in shaping the meaning derived from everyday oc­
currences. At the same time, through their links with regional and national
political machines, village politics are integrated into the wider political
economy and its attendant relations ofproduction. Another example of such
processes can be provided by religion, which can both adapt to fit local
needs and realities and yet remain broadly consistent with wider political
and economic forces. The intellectuals are thus a crucial agent in the struc­
ture of class domination. By cementing horizontal and structural social
relations with vertical and experiential social relations, they allow expansive
processes of capital accumulation to be integrally tied in with individual­
ized, village-level realities.
Scott fails to recognize the dual, structural and experiential nature of
hegemony. This is because to Scott hegemony has no internal dynamic.
Rather, it is an external force that is imposed from outside a community.
He writes that peasants have a culture which is "frequently antithetical to
the values of hegemonic institutions" (Scott [ 1 977]: 278), institutions that
are "most firmly rooted in the state and among ruling elites" (Scott [ 1 977] :
27 5) and which must "penetrate the rural sector and organize the experience
of the peasantry" (Scott 1 977]: 273). The consistent impression given is
that hegemony is an alien force, one that is far removed from peasant ex­
perience. As has been demonstrated, this is not Gramsci's conception of
hegemony, for it is not rooted in the mediation of reality by individuals
within the peasant community itself.
It is interesting to note that Scott's own approach raises questions con­
cerning village-level ideological formation which he fails to satisfactorily
answer. As has already been noted, he writes that the peasantry is "heir to
a culture" that is "passed along by word of mouth from generation to gen­
eration" (Scott [ 1 977] : 275, 282). In this process, "the oral traditions of the
peasantry are plastic: they are embroidered and transformed according to
the needs of social groups" (Scott [ 1 977]: 283). He thus recognizes that
cultural transmission is subject to intervention. The process ofcultural trans­
mission conflicts with Scott's understanding that hegemony is imposed
from outside; he therefore dismisses the relevance of hegemony. Such a
dismissal allows him to avoid investigating what for Gramsci would be key
aspects of the hegemonic process: who is passing along the traditions, and
in whose interests are they being transformed?
!
J
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1
196
PEASANT STUDIES
There are, however, reasons behind Scott's failure to adequately address
these important aspects of cultural transmission. As has already been
stressed, his analysis falls short in its discussion of the process by which
hegemony is constructed within a village setting and as a result has no
means of investigating the process of cultural transmission. More funda­
mentally, to address these issues he would have to accept that hegemony is
not an alien force but is rather a localized process which reflects differential
interests within a village. The basis of such differential interests would to
some extent have to be material, rooted in both unequal access to assets
such as land and capital and in alternative productive purposes. Differential
access to the means of production and differential productive purposes
would in turn however require an acceptance oflocalized processes ofagrar­
ian class formation. There can however be little doubt that this position
would be anathema to Scott, who often refers to the peasantry as a single,
unified social class. He thus writes that "the pattern of resistance to
hegemonic thought that we find in so many peasant cultures may be traced
to precisely those characteristics that distinguish the peasantry as a class"
(Scott [1977]: 288). That class is composed of "small-holding as well as
share-cropping and tenant cultivators who have some degree of control over
the production process" (Scott [1977]: 267). While he accepts that there
may be a range of interests within the peasant class, he consistently refuses
to accept the argument that as a social entity the peasantry may in fact be
fragmenting into distinct social classes, with different relationships to the
means of production.
Scott's approach limits the focus of his ethnographic insights. It is thus
the case that when attempting to establish the class status of households,
his methodology relies upon establishing differences between land-poor
and land-rich farms, small and large farms, income levels and tenancy ar­
rangements. These are then compressed into the categories "rich" and
"poor," regardless of the fact that Scott fails to precisely define the meaning
of each category. The arbitrary and inconsistent nature ofsuch an approach
is illustrated by three of the households on which his 1985 work is based.
Scott groups together a household owning and operating 11.5 relong, a
household that exclusively rents in 4 relong, and a household that exclu­
sively leases out 9.75 relong (Scott [1985]: Table 4.1). The vastly different
characteristics of these households in terms of production possibilities
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
1 97
means that they may have differing production purposes. If such is indeed
the case, it is possible that they do not occupy similar locations in the set
of production relations within which they are enmeshed. What is therefore
required is a more rigorous method of specifying the class status of these
households, one which locates them according to their position within a set
ofproduction relations (see for example Patnaik [ 1 987]). At the same time,
absence of a rigorous treatment of class status and differentiation has im­
portant implications for his understanding of everyday forms of peasant
resistance. Simply put, the use of everyday forms of peasant resistance by
households may imply different things to households in different classes,
in a way which is quite different to that put forward by Scott.
Scott's problem in ascertaining the class status of households is rooted
in his essentially neo-populist approach. According to neo-populism the
peasantry is a fairly homogenous class able to operate in relative isolation
from markets and hence evaluating production according to non.market cri­
teria. Such an approach does not seem far removed from Scott's analysis.
Neo-populism does not locate hegemony within a village community; to
do so would imply differentiation within a village, which would not be
consistent with its general tenets. It is his recognition of neo-populism that
leads Brass to argue that despite Scott's extensive use of the language of
class, '"class' is either used incorrectly, questioned, downgraded or re­
jected" (Brass [ 1 99 1 ] : 1 79).
Peasant class differentiation is of course a central facet of the agrarian
marxist approach. Placing some of Scott's rich ethnographic insights within
a creative agrarian marxist approach allows these insights to be integrated
within a framework which is both more rigorous in its deployment of class
and more nuanced in its exploration of the political economy of ideological
formation and conflict. According to agrarian marxism, the emergence of
the possibility of market-oriented reproductive strategies amongst house­
holds in the context of villages undergoing processes of capitalist develop­
ment leads to a transformation in property relations and the formation of
agrarian classes. As stratification amongst households takes place, emerg­
ing dominant classes can be expected to seek to secure consent to a direction
of development consistent with continued accumulation. Scott is correct in
arguing that the construction of hegemony requires particular interests to
be presented as universal, in order to facilitate an accession to relations of
198
PEASANT STUDIES
l
exploitation. Gramsci's understanding of the construction of hegemony is
however superior to Scott's. For Gramsci, the construction of hegemony is
performed by the organic intellectuals of the dominant class, who negotiate
the subjectivity of subaltern classes in a manner which invests common
sense with a meaning consistent with both lived experience and class ex­
ploitation. An .acceptable notion of exploitation is thus constructed, in the
sense that surplus extractions do not invite immediate and sustained retali­
ation. Such a process Scott calls the establishment of a moral economy. If
such is the case, then the establishment of the moral economy is no more
than the establishment ofhegemony, a process whose basis lies in changing
material relationships.
The construction ofhegemony within a village does not however imply
the creation of a monolithic, all-encompassing set of ideas. As Gramsci
stressed, hegemony is a process of interpretation, mediation and negotia­
tion, and as such the ideologies formed through the process can never be
universal. This is because such ideologies cannot successfully give meaning
to all the experiences ofall the people all of the time. Hegemonic ideologies
therefore cannot produce total, unyielding acceptance to all the actions car­
ried out by dominant classes. Indeed, this is not the purpose of hegemony.
Rather, the construction of hegemony involves the acquisition of consent
to the broad contours of class domination. Along with a general acceptance
of the broad contours of exploitation comes the possibility if not in fact the
probability of dissent, when explication fails to render common sense con­
sistent. When ideological constructions fail, the possibility of struggle
emerges. Scott is thus absolutely correct to assert that members of subor­
dinate classes may not view domination as inevitable.
Similarly, dominant classes do not view domination as inevitable and
monolithic. If individual fissures in hegemony emerge, dominant classes
can be expected to deploy organic intellectuals in an attempt to renegotiate
subjectivity. The successful fruition of such a process is however unlikely
to be immediate or inevitable because it comprises a process ofnegotiation
over the meaning of lived experience. Dissent within a village over the
social structures of domination can therefore be expected despite the pres­
ence of hegemony.
With the possibility of dissent comes the form by which dissent is ex­
pressed. Atomistic, individualistic and private acts allow resistance to be
PEASANTS AND HEGEMONY IN THE WORK OF JAMES C. SCOTT
199
expressed in a way which does not threaten the basis of class power and
which at the same time can form the foundation upon which subjectivity is
renegotiated so as to resecure a broad consent to class domination. The
recurrence of everyday forms ofpeasant resistance could thus act as a safety
valve for dominant classes, because such acts do not challenge the over­
arching structure ofhegemony and indeed can positively assist in preventing
the creation of militant counter-hegemonic struggle. The weapons of the
weak can thus be taken to express the fact that hegemony is never all-en­
compassing but is rather contingent, being concerned with broadening and
deepening the scope of consent.
Given this perspective, Scott's formulation of peasant resistance and
rebellion is open to doubt. The history of peasant resistance and rebellion
is one which does not blindly adhere to a normative past, as asserted by
Scott. Rather, as the moral economy breaks down the weapons of the weak
may transform into collective action by using the past as a building block
for the future. The refashioning of the past in order to build the future can
occur in a myriad of ways, encompassing the process of cultural transmis­
sion, the invention of tradition, and everyday acts of resistance. However,
the precondition of building a potentially successful transformative move­
ment is to unify atomistic struggles into collective action. Precisely because
of their content, on their own the deployment of the weapons of the weak
cannot bring about a better future for those marginalized by capitalist de­
velopment.
Indeed, even Scott recognizes the at best partial role played by the
weapons of the weak in the resistance to dominant class power. Despite
such a recognition however Scott downplays the possibility of class-for-it­
self action. He argues the need "to respect, if not celebrate, the weapons of
the weak. All the more reason to see in the tenacity of self-preservation... a
spirit and practice that prevents the worst and promises something better"
(Scott [ 1 985]: 350). It is not clear however that for those torn asunder by
capitalist development the use ofthe weapons of the weak does prevent the
worst. Indeed, by avoiding the hard and difficult choices that need to be
made regarding collective action, the deployment of the weapons of the
weak may assist in preventing the emergence of something better.
200
PEASANT STUDIES
V Concluding remarks
James C. Scott's analysis of everyday forms of peasant resistance has
invigorated an often neglected aspect of peasant studies. It has also contrib­
uted to developing a more critical approach regarding the role of personal
behavior in the patterns of resistance studied by anthropological political
economists. Finally, it has produced a rich if varied body of ethnographic
insights.
Despite these achievements however the work, like its unstated neo­
populism, is plagued by a weak grasp of the concept of hegemony. Scott
views hegemony as the passive acceptance of a dominant ideology by sub­
ordinate groups. His exposition of the everyday forms which resistance can
take decisively challenges such a conception; yet Scott is tilting at wind­
mills. Hegemony invests experience with meaning not by imposition but
by a negotiation which unifies multiple social realities in a manner consis­
tent with class domination. Such unification does not however preclude
dissent by individuals when meaning fails to explain reality. In such cir­
cumstances, everyday forms of peasant resistance act as an outlet which
challenge inconsistencies in individual experience without challenging the
structure of class domination. At the same time, the deployment of the
weapons of the weak can form the basis by which multiple social realities
are broadly if loosely reunified. It would thus appear that despite Scott's
efforts, the need to unify individualistic acts of resistance into transforma­
tive movements for change remains if the further peripheralization of the
weak is to be prevented.
Notes
My thanks to Ardeshir Sepehri of the University of Manitoba, Graham Dyer of the School of
Oriental and African Studies, Susan Johnson of ActionAid, Kate Hudson and David Styan of South
Bank University, and R.S.M. Fletcher ofTouche Ross. Any errors and omissions remain the respon­
sibility of the author.
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