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The Silent Majority

The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia

by James C. Scott
Yale University Press, 246 pp., $4.45 (paper)

The “modernization” of peasant societies is one of the great themes of contemporary history. No longer as acute an issue in Europe as it once was, it is more urgent than ever in Asia and Africa and Latin America. “Peasants”—i.e., self-supporting land laborers and cultivators living in small village communities—make up most of the population in the world’s poorest countries. How they are affected by economic and political changes remains inadequately understood, notwithstanding the outpouring of scholarly studies of peasant cultures for the benefit of those who plan “development” and make policy. Peasants have frequently and often violently resisted attempts to change their lives. Most of the Western ideas designed to advance modernization of peasant societies have been sharply criticized by prominent third world and radical intellectuals speaking on behalf of the peasantry.

But they are spokesmen for a largely silent class. What do peasants themselves believe and value or deplore, and what reasons lie behind their reactions to economic and political change? Why have rural development programs for improved farming, small industry, and health services failed so often? The answers to these questions are much disputed. All that is certain is that peasants have throughout history been a potent political force for both progress and reaction. Their actions have not always met with the approval of either liberal reformers or the revolutionaries who have led them into battle, whether in the sixteenth-century German peasant wars, in the Vendée during the French Revolution, or during the more recent revolutions in Russia and China, Mexico and Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam.

James Scott and Samuel Popkin are both Southeast Asia scholars who look to the past in order to support views about what peasants are like, and what they want. They wish to speak to current problems of peasant politics and rural development. Both of them deal with Vietnam—not directly with the recent war there but with the effects on the Vietnamese peasants of the centralized bureaucracy and capitalist economy introduced early in the century by the French colonial regime. This experience caused a historical transformation, they would both claim, that contained the seeds of the revolution of 1945 and the ensuing war of “national liberation.”

Their common enterprise is a doubly risky one: the peasants of a half-century ago may not be very similar to those in our own era of “transitional societies” straddling the old and the new. Views about what “peasants” are like are usually based on evidence from the distant past and may overlook the teeming variety and constantly evolving character of peasant societies and puzzling “borderline” cases like the nomads of Africa, the production brigades of China, and the farmers of Japan who are equipped with tractors, washing machines, and refrigerators. More than this, the available information on the particular aspects of precolonial Vietnam with which they are both most concerned is spare and unreliable, so that the reader is not sure how, or on what basis, their views are to be appraised.

James Scott’s book is a particularly sophisticated statement of a perspective on peasant institutions that has become something of an orthodoxy. A political scientist and a Quaker, Scott has done field research on peasant politics in Malaysia and Burma; he read widely in the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia in order to write this book. He recently said that the aim of his work on peasants is “to do justice to a class which seldom speaks for itself, and to its culture and values which are treated with no small degree of arrogance by Marxist and bourgeois scholars alike.” His work is marked by a powerful capacity for understanding what he calls the “moral universes” of others.

Woven into the tissue of peasant behavior,” he writes, “whether in normal local routines or in the violence of an uprising, is the structure of a moral universe.” The peasant “as a political actor is more than a statistical abstract of available calories and outgoing rent and tax charges.” Scott is preoccupied above all with describing what this universe is like to those who live inside it. Clifford Geertz, perhaps the most distinguished contemporary specialist in this kind of research, has written that Scott’s work is “extraordinarily original and valuable” and that he believes its “central thesis is correct and compelling.”

Scott’s thesis is that peasant politics is shaped by the predicament most peasants share—the problem of subsistence, of getting enough just to live—and by the distinctive moral outlook that arises among them in response to this predicament. This argument is illustrated in great detail in his study of Vietnam under the French.

Before colonialism, he claims, peasants lived in “closed villages,” semi-autonomous agricultural communities where social life revolved about the dinh, the village meeting house where the effigy of the guardian spirit of the village was kept. This was a kind of New Deal society, in which an ideology of the survival of the weakest prevailed. A council of elders selected for their age and wisdom periodically leased out communal lands to the more unfortunate peasants who needed them—those whose crops had failed, the helpless and the ill, the aged and the widowed. Tax charges assessed on the village by the local authorities were distributed by the council so as to put the burden on those who were better off; the council members also would give elaborate feasts to spread their wealth among the less fortunate. Peasant landlords would adjust their claims on their tenants according to the yield of the harvest. In bad times, they would provide tenants with loans, food, medicine, assistance with birth and burial ceremonies. In prosperous times they would demand much more, but this did not strike the peasants as exploitative: they valued stability and security above risk.

How did this mutual assistance network arise? Scott believes the answer lies partly in the unstable agricultural and climatic environment in which the peasants lived. The southern part of Vietnam has a more benign climate than the north, where there are periodic droughts and floods; but the position of the Vietnamese peasant in both regions was for the most part, in the words of one author cited by Scott, “like that of a man standing permanently up to his neck in water, so that even a ripple might drown him.” Peasants were pre-occupied with subsistence and so it was reasonable for them to value safety and security above all; they were averse to taking chances and hostile to any changes which interfered with their ways of assuring themselves an adequate living. They had little room for the bourgeois calculus of profit—they wanted to be insulated from risk. A common morality arose among them—the “subsistence ethic,” as Scott calls it—that legitimized this desire and affirmed the right of every villager to a bare livelihood; and this served to bring into existence a “moral economy” in which the weakest were protected from ruin.

French colonialism brought improved communications, transport, disease control, education, and roman script. But it also introduced new legal and administrative systems, commercialized agriculture, and cash crops. The peasant provinces, Scott argues, were forcibly transformed into “capillaries of a network of financial arteries leading to the banks of London and Paris,” and peasants were brusquely exposed to the flukes and instabilities of markets. The harmonious balance that had existed in the precolonial village was rudely upset: the communal lands and “free” forests and fisheries were nationalized and sold off. The guarantees for the poor—the village’s welfare and insurance schemes and the system of feasts—were gradually stripped away. The colons introduced a vast bureaucracy and obstructive regulations, together with a host of census takers, surveyors, registrars, road overseers, vaccinators, irrigation experts, forest rangers, subinspectors of excise, veterinary assistants. The French levied head taxes, land taxes, salt taxes, alcohol taxes, tea and drug taxes, fishing taxes, bird taxes, oxen taxes—all on the ground that they represented, as one French official put it, “the manifest benefits of living in an ‘organized society’ from which all profited.”

Not surprisingly, this judgment about public finance seemed wholly capricious from the standpoint of the “subsistence ethic.” For in reality the profits of society were not trickling down to the peasant. In the countryside, the richer and more powerful villagers acquired new habits. Instead of honoring flexible and informal agreements and displaying traditional paternalism, they started using the new French courts to enforce what the peasants dreaded most: contracts specifying both rigid terms of tenancy and fixed rents, without regard to the cycles of good and bad harvests. Overnight, large numbers of small-holders fell into the class of the dispossessed as a result of the deed juggling and corruption of landowners and village elders, and huge inequalities in landholdings followed.

With the double calamity of the worldwide depression and the famines of 1930, during which peasants were forced to eat waterbugs, crickets, ant eggs, and bees, and landowners would sprinkle cinders into the edible fertilizer to prevent starving day laborers from surreptitiously eating it,1 agrarian relations—the balance of exchange between landlords and tenants—fell apart. The landlords installed grilles on their windows, collected rents through agents, and surrounded themselves with toughs paid with alcohol and opium. The peasants in turn finally exploded in rage, as in the Nghe-Tinh uprisings of 1930, when bands of peasants carrying only sticks and amulets stormed mandarin residences and were in turn bombarded by the French planes.

Scott believes that the particular local causes of such insurrections are complicated, but a main cause is a moral one: the peasants rebelled because their standards of justice and legitimacy were violated by the new economic and political order, and they acted to restore a moral agrarian regime. To do so was not self-deceptive or a matter of “false consciousness,” as some Marxists say. The peasants lived, as they had for centuries, in a different world of meaning from that of their conquerors—different but genuine all the same, intelligible, rational, based not on some incapacity to see clearly, but on different values.

In Scott’s view, those concerned with development in the third world today must take pains to grasp the peasant’s “moral universe”; they must attend to experiences quite different from those that economists usually look for. They must see that the life of the peasant takes place within a distinctive moral pattern marking out a territory of conduct over which its dictates have jurisdiction. For planners to provide “incentives” for personal gain or higher incomes may be beside the point. We will not get far, Scott concludes, by “treating the peasant purely as a kind of marketplace individualist who amorally ransacks his environment so as to reach his personal goal.”

Samuel Popkin, a political scientist who studied the Vietnamese peasantry at first hand while doing research on “pacification programs” for the Simulmatics Corporation and for this book from 1966 to 1970, follows the very approach repudiated by Scott, while attacking Scott’s findings. Peasants in his view are not very different from small business people in Western countries. Like other “economic actors,” they “maximize expected value.” Popkin believes the categories of economics can be helpful in explaining human action outside the market as well as within it. His view of peasant society emphasizes the “political economy” and contains many references to “political capital,” “selective incentives,” “family firms,” the “start-up costs” of religions. For Popkin, the more enterprising peasants are “marketplace individualists,” and such people do far more to shape peasant institutions than do the moral norms of the group.

  1. 1

    This information is to be found in Martin J. Murray, The Development of Capitalism in Colonial Indochina, 1870-1940 (University of California Press, 1981), p. 400. Murray’s book—whether or not one believes in its central theses—is the most thorough and extensively researched account to be found in English of the misery of the peasantry during the high tide of French colonialism in Indochina.

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