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Book description
Scott spent two years (p. xvii) in (fictionally named),Sedaka, Malaysia collecting empirical evidence of “everyday forms of peasant resistance” for this book. While there, he observed the locals experiencing socio-cultural and economic change due to agricultural capitalism; a large-scale irrigation project and mechanization of farming in the form of double-cropping leading to a misdistribution of wealth. While productivity initially improved, as the value of land steadily increased, larger, non-native entrepreneurs started dominating the agrarian landscape. This negatively affected the livelihoods of tenants and landless workers, effectively marginalizing them and denying them access to land and work. The plights of the peasants warranted resistance. However, in Sedaka, their forms of opposition remained characteristically and deliberately subtle, non-confrontational and anonymous. Some examples include: false compliance, feigned ignorance pilfering, slandering, flight and foot-dragging. From time to time, they aggravated to sabotage of machinery and arson, but they never mass-mobilized to a large-scale “peasant-revolution”. In summary, he presents many reasons why protests had not drastically escalated. Some of the notable ones are: 1) their local “moral economy” (See Scott, 1976) had not been completely eroded and some locals were still persistent in continuing its practice, 2) There was a third “party” where misdistribution of wealth had occurred, and much of the wealth leaked to non-native entrepreneurs, 3) the peasants were not completely exhausted of manners to cope with their increased poverty, 4) the peasants were rational enough to know that feigned compliance and performed subordination to the capitalist class was less risky (while they were still able to benefit from it) than staging a large-scale rebellion and 5) the changes brought about by agricultural capitalism had not been instantaneous but gradual, affecting small monitories at a time. He strongly rejects classic and simplistic hegemonic literature that presents peasants as for example, recipients of “mystification” and “false consciousness“. The peasants to him are no “sacks of potatoes” indeed but capable of recognizing their own disadvantaged position and consciously reacting to it accordingly through their “everyday forms of resistance”. While much of the writing was done through the lens of “moral economy”, he also expanded his analyses by factoring in political actors that also contributed to Sedaka’s changing economic and socio-cultural landscape. Interference by UMNO, Malaysia’s ruling political party shaped inter and intra social class relations too. It further stratified the community between PAS and UMNO supporters, with UMNO supporters receiving preferential treatment, giving them greater access to credit and patronage, furthering the economic gap within both the peasant and landowner classes. The collaborative contributions of opinions and voices of the peasants presented in this book is crucial in helping readers understand the socio-politico-economic changes that agricultural capitalism had caused them. This is precious because typically scholars are presented with literature that renders them “voiceless”, analyzing them instead from a “top-down” approach, unjustifiably linking them to larger-scale violence, thus misrepresenting them. Unfortunately, here, their opinions and experiences will only remain with just a single academic alone: Scott. Readers are left to their own agencies, whether or not take interest in this “bottom-up” approach that Scott adopts in order to dispel those “mega-theories” that peasant are frequently subjected to in much academia. His case study, Sedaka also brings to light, “passive resistance” that does not fit “mega-narratives” because their resistance does not “make the news”. These peasants do not experience monopoly capitalism in great extent, but readers will have to decide for themselves if the Sedaka natives can really be seen as “rebels”, even though no blatant, open revolt has occurred. Much of Scott’s sources for this book consist of interviews, including gossip, jokes, name-calling, etc. in the vernacular, thus “unofficial”, un-archived, and to many: “un-academic”. Even so, in my opinion, questions as to whether his sources are reliable, can be addressed in the manner he writes them: coherently (either between or within the classes, thus not producing a messy “web” of varied accounts), unlike other literature that attempt to present their work using secondary resources, but fail to consolidate secondary sources that are understandably more fragmented and inconsistent (for e.g., see Stoler, 1992), thus making an easier case for unreliability. Furthermore, the contributors of the gossip, jokes, name-calling, etc. in the vernacular, as mentioned above, do not remain anonymous. He identifies most of the locals he interacted with (for e.g. see Scott, 1985, pp. 92-94), and this helps to a certain extent, reduce questions of authenticity and unreliability in the remarks, opinions and grievances that he had quoted in the book (for an e.g. for comparison, see Pandey, 1997). In a way, Scott can be seen as the “champion” of the voiceless peasants, who have suffered the dominating and unkind hegemonic models and “grand scale” theories that present them as passive and without agency. Even as a political scientist, he has gutsily gone against dominant and revered classic models and theories by producing opposing theories and ideas that have been conjured “from below”, with great effort not to objectify them like classic political science writings typically do. While discussing this book, it is very hard not to mention his previous book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant of which claims can be made that this book was written to empirically justify and support the claims he made in it. At first glance it can be easily wondered if its contents are just “The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Part 2”. Some segments are actually quite repetitive. Having been heavily criticized as over-romanticizing peasants in The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott had tried to express more “objectivity” in this book by avoiding sensitive issues like for example, racial politics and stratification which otherwise could have given his analyses more depth. For example, he only briefly mentioned that the wealthiest landowners are ethnically Chinese, with predominantly, the poor peasants being Malays. However, an elaboration on this (sensitively) could also have shown further dimension and depth when illustrating how the locals are not just divided economically but racially too, and how they affect their moral economy as well. He also was very focused on just Sedaka alone, even though, increasingly non-native landowners had taken over much land previously owned by Sedaka locals, adding on to the its changing economic landscape. This a vivid and engaging book filled with carefully recorded details of accounts from the Sedaka community from the different social and economic classes. Scott manages to illustrate Sedaka’s genuine sense of community and his “undetached” treatment of his respondents is praiseworthy. They were not (scholarly) presented as subjects (or objects), but as individuals with important and meaningful views and concerns. They were just not part of a bigger mass-mobilized violence, thus their grievances were effectively watered down and neglected though other forms of resistance do exist and persist.ReferencesPandey, P. (1997). In defense of the fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim riots in India today. In R. Guha (Ed.) A Subaltern Studies Reader 1986-1995.Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press.Rozenweig,R. (2006). Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past. The Journal of American History, 93(1).Scott, J. (1976). The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.Scott, J. (1985). Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.Stoler, A. L. (1992). In cold blood: Hierarchies of credibility and the politics of colonial narratives. Representations, 37, pp. 151-189.
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