Crossing the Street With James C. Scott

Last week I started to read James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak. Most of the book is based field research from his stay in a rice producing kampung in Kedah. It is concerned with examining class conflict between peasants and those who seek to extract labour, food, taxes, rents, and interests from them, however the emphasis is not on outright peasant rebellion but what he refers to as ‘everyday forms of peasant resistance’.

These everyday forms of resistance are those such as “foot-dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage and so forth.” These forms of resistance (or ‘weapons of the weak’) require little coordination, represent a form of individual self-help, and typically avoid a direct confrontation with authority or elite norms. Scott warns that we should not overly romanticise such forms of resistance, however we should not dismiss them completely as they do have a potentially strong impact in limiting the aspirations of states, monarchs and other elite groups (using examples such as draft dodging in post-revolutionary France and evasion of conscription and unpaid labour in Southeast Asia prior to European colonisation).

At the end of the first chapter Scott uses the analogy of pedestrians and cars to illustrate one way in which those with power are not in total control, even if they continue to believe that they are:

A banal example, familiar to any motorist or pedestrian, will illustrate the kind of behaviour involved. The traffic light changes when a pedestrian is halfway across the intersection. A long as the pedestrian is not in imminent danger from oncoming traffic, a small dramatisation is likely to ensue. He lifts his knees a bit higher for a step or two, simulating haste, thereby implicitly recognising the motorist’s right-of-way. In fact, in nearly all cases, if my impression is correct, the actual progress of the pedestrian across the intersection is no faster than it would have been if he had simply proceeded at his original pace. What is conveyed is the impression of compliance without its substance. But the symbolic order, the right of the motorist to the road, is not directly challenged; indeed, it is confirmed by the appearance of haste. It is almost as if symbolic compliance is maximised precisely in order to minimise compliance at the level of actual behaviour.

The next day, I crossed the road and noticed myself feigning haste as I crossed in front of a car while the lights were still green. Now I can’t cross the street without thinking of my actions in terms of outward compliance and inward non-compliance within the symbolic balance of power between vehicles and pedestrians using the road. I like.

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