27 January 2010

Weapons of the Weak -- The Review

I like reading James C. Scott in the same way that I like reading Bill Easterly, Nassim Taleb or Hernando de Soto. His books contain good ideas, carefully explained, that change the way I see the world; see this post on his masterful Seeing Like a State.

In Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance (1985), Scott documents and explains the impact of the Green Revolution on peasants in "Sedaka," a Malaysian village Scott lived in for 18 months.

The major components of the Green Revolution were a move to double-cropping paddy (wet) rice and the adoption of combine harvesters for the harvest and threshing of this rice. Scott pays attention to the impact of these changes on the poor of Sedaka (a pseudonym), their relations with the rich, and how their interactions represent a microcosm of the larger movement towards "dehumanized" capitalism and away from less-efficient, yet more "social" class relations in a small village.

The book begins with sketches of two caricatures: Razak, the lazy and greedy poor man, and Haji Broom, the tricky and greedy rich man. Although these people actually exist, members of the opposite social class use their archetypes to excuse their attitudes and behavior towards the (real) people with whom they struggle.

In Chapter 2, Scott presents his thesis -- that peasants engage in "everyday resistance" against situations that they deem unfair. This resistance (negotiation, gossip, petty theft, reduced effort, and so on) is not only more common but also more realistic. Scott points out that large-scale resistance ("aux armes, citroyens!") is not only rare, but often futile. It's not unusual for new "revolutionary" governments to impose even more restrictions and burdens on peasants. (This is obviously true with communist victories in Russia, China, Cuba and North Korea.) Scott makes the important -- and disheartening -- point that most of the intelligentsia overlook everyday forms of resistance because they (we!) are looking for symbols, outcomes and rhetoric that suit our book learning and theories.

Chapter 3 sets the stage with details on land ownership, farm size, tenure (renting vs leasing; cash vs sharecropping), mechanization, income, equality and institutional access (party and industry affiliations). It's important to note that income inequality increased and that quality of life decreased; not only did the pace of work increase, but the quality of diet decreased -- more rice meant less fish -- they don't like pesticides and fertilizers in the paddy -- and fewer vegetables grown on "fallowed" land.

Chapter 4 gets into the meat of change: how the revolution improved the lot of the rich and harmed the poor. Although double-cropping initially improved the lot of the poor -- by giving them more wage-labor -- that improvement was reversed by the arrival of combines, which were more profitable because they were used twice per year and because they displaced "expensive" labor. Smaller wage income combined with reduced access to paddy for farming; combines made it possible for a land-rich, but labor-poor, farmer to farm, instead of rent, his land. Scott gets into the political and class dynamics of the village, underscoring the many ways in which political and economic power reinforced each other (a la North et al.'s "Natural State"). We also learn the sad truth: that the rich who are able to substitute capital for labor are able to ignore labor both economically and socially, leaving them to their poverty, with little choice but penury or migration to the city. Although economists have recognized this dynamic of "creative destruction" as a good thing, they often under emphasize the disruption that accompanies it. Workers cannot just "retrain" for their new roles in the capitalist system. Even ignoring time and effort, this re-purposing has dramatic, negative impacts on psyche, family and social harmony.

Chapter 5 goes into the details of how mutual insurance among the villagers broke down (also see this post), how combines displaced labor, how rents turned into leases, how share-rents turned into cash rents, etc. It details how the poor villagers bled to death through a thousand cuts. It also discusses how the rich and poor talked past each other in their attempts to rationalize the new normal or hearken back to an imagined past.

Chapter 6 delves into the breakdown in income redistribution and the social habits that had supported it for years. As the rich farmers decreased their dependence on the poor laborers, they began holding fewer village feasts, reduced their seasonal gifts, and so on. They no longer had to acknowledge the poor to assure their availability at harvest, and the poor felt this in their bellies.

This chapter also goes into the crude and cruel ways that the rich removed work (and money and honor) from the poor and stole state aid directed to "the poor." On the first instance was the replacement of (poor) men on bikes with (rich) men on motorcycles for moving paddy from the fields to the road. In the second instance, there was the outright theft of materials for home improvements. Instead of going to the poor, they went to members of the ruling party, and the rich party members often got more than the poor. It's sad to read the transparent-lies of rich people seeking to justify these thefts.

[I was having a drink with a Dutch guy who noted that "the Indonesians cannot manage their lives; that's why they are poor and we are rich." Although this non-PC comment is slightly rude, it's also true: Indonesians are poor because they suffer from poor governance (corruption), illiterate citizens, and weak institutions. What the Dutch guy failed to mention (through oversight or ignorance) is the role that the Dutch colonial government played in creating this situation. Poor and ignorant coolies are much easier to exploit. Although some developing countries have never been colonized and/or have been independent for a long time, many were and have not yet had time to evolve useful institutions such as the Magna Carta, which came out in 1215 but didn't deliver results to peasants for centuries...]

Scott also goes into the difficulties in organizing collective action against exploitation (or progress) when competition for labor or capital can come from the village next door. Those who are losing cannot coordinate to oppose the loss of livelihoods; those who are winning cannot coordinate to reduce competition. As a result, the cheapest production process is adopted and the lowest price results. In a way, BOTH the rich and the poor lose -- their way of life, their social harmony -- and the government wins, with cheaper rice to feed urban migrants and industrialization.

Scott's last chapters detail the mostly futile efforts at resistance and how peasant revolutionary conscienceless evolves. Scott takes some time here to take apart the Marxist (?) views on false-consciousness and proto-proletarian thought. In my mind, he is attacking a strawman (holding that peasants really CAN imagine changes that serve their needs), but perhaps I underestimate social theorists ability to tie themselves in elitist deconstructions of post-industrial thought :)

Bottom Line: This book is important for people interested in economic progress and development, class relations and political economy. It puts paid to the "smooth" process of development and Pareto improvements -- showing how the Kaldor-Hicks Criterion (a change is good if it increase social welfare, even if there are losers, since they can be compensated in THEORY) is really bullshit. It reminds me of the social breakdowns and LACK of progress in "progress," and gives more reason for me to think that Schumpeter had the right idea in general but Schumacher got the details right. I give it FOUR stars only because it's a lot of reading for a powerful message.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Good post. I might add to your bracketed section on the Dutch in Indonesia to say that, perhaps, by looking at societies through our own "evolution" - and even looking through societies through "evolution", which carries its own baggage as a term - we limit our ability to understand other institutions. Perhaps, for example, no Magna Carta was supposed to ever come to Indonesia, perhaps it was something else which could have instituted a system as valuable and loving of mankind as the concept of rights. Perhaps, even, it was already there, and wiped out.