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Put Up or Shut Up: On Domination and Resistance

Thomas Whitley

In his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, James Scott has this to say about how revolutionary action often comes about:

The point is simply that the subordinate classes to be found at the base of what we historically call revolutionary movements are typically seeking goals well within their understanding of the ruling ideology.

What is most interesting in Scott’s analysis is that the subordinate classes often buy in to (at least to a degree) the ideology which has been created mostly by and for those in power and in cases where they do not fully “buy in to” the “ruling ideology,” they often make demands and seek goals that fall within the ideology. It is these seemingly banal goals (as opposed to seeking to do away with the system entirely and replace it with another system) are the ones which most often spark revolutionary action.

In other words, those in power construct a ruling ideology that, in part, must offer a justification for itself; this often takes the form of telling the subordinate classes what the ruling classes are doing for them, how they care for/about them, etc. The subordinate classes then seek goals that fit into the constructed ideology and force the hand of those in power. So Scott says that

it is reasonably clear that some of the most striking episodes of violent conflict have occurred between a dominant elite and a rank-and-file mass of subordinates seeking objectives that could, in principle, be accommodated within the prevailing social order.

Thus, the subordinates put those in power in a precarious situation: either be outed as a hypocrite or acquiesce. Scott’s argument, through the first half of the book that I have read thus far, puts theories about domination and resistance in very understandable terms and has given me another lens through which to see the recent Arab Spring protests, the Tea Party protests, and now the Occupy Wall Street protests. In every case, the demands, at least initially, have been well within the ruling ideology - that is, there were calls for “reform” of government and regulations on the financial sector, etc., but in most cases the calls have not been for the complete downfall of a system. It is notable, then, that in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya it was total downfall of a system (or at least total downfall of one representation of a system) that resulted. Thus lending support to Scott’s observation that some of the most dramatic results come about from initial demands that are well within the bounds of the system.

I don’t have any great takeaways to leave you with, but I definitely think Scott is on to something. If you’re looking for a good read on these issues over the upcoming Thanksgiving break I would definitely recommend Scott’s work, as he looks at the “public transcript” that is created and maintained and the “hidden transcripts” that are constructed both by those in power and those under power.