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Resistance, Power and the Everyday

The study of resistance has a lengthy yet shifting eminence within anthropology and indeed the wider social sciences (Hoffman, 1999). Discussed by Marx in his theorizations of peasant rebellion (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2005), resistance as an analytical concept gained greater prominence in the post-World War II period, when organized anti-colonial movements began to proliferate across the self-styled Third World producing a narrow dichotomy of visible, anti-establishment resistance against oppressive state systems (Victoria, 2016). Yet as the following decades saw communities seemingly failing to mobilize themselves based on their class interests, post-structural and post-modernist scholars began to expand the study of resistance towards more indirect and pervasive forms occurring under the nose of the regimes in charge (Reed-Danahay, 1993).

An ethnographic catalyst in resistance studies, James Scott’s landmark Weapons of the Weak (1985) identified the everyday as a site of resistance, shifting attention from organized forms of resistance against institutions to ordinary, indirect strategies (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2009). As such, Scott provided an epistemological shift in how oppressive power structures infiltrate the lives of subaltern populations. Highlighting how the Sedaka villagers of Malaysia employed strategies of self-preservation in their resistance (Scott, 1985), critiquing Scott’s perpetuation of the body/mind binary that studies of power and resistance have become hinged on (Mitchell, 1990; Gledhill, 2014) and finally, drawing on notions of ‘dispersed resistance’ (Lilja and Vinthagen, 2018), this article will reveal how the everyday nature of resistance exposes power as pervasive and multi-sited, whilst maintaining that the everyday is not the only site whereby individualized practices against hegemonic orders occur.

Figure 1: Cover of James Scott's Weapons of the Weak (1985)

Scott’s (1985) study on Malay peasant resistance in the village of Sedaka is a highly influential text that shifts attention to everyday strategies of resistance (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2009) to acknowledge the agentic abilities of subaltern populations, challenging attempts to pathologize these communities as illogical by highlighting their resistive routines as necessary survival strategies (Ortner, 1995). Identifying unremarkable practices that become ingrained in the social fabric of life as a lever for dissent, Scott contested the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’ that argued subaltern apathy to oppressive power structures to be on account of mental domination. Employing Gramsci’s notion of ideological domination, Scott reformulated this concept to explain how domination is achieved through cultural hegemony whereby subaltern populations, aware of the risks that bodily actions entail within an entrenched capitalist order, adopt strategies of self-preservation through being “inhibited from more overt action only by a shrewd assessment of its impracticality” (Gledhill, 2014).

Terming these agendas ‘hidden transcripts’, Scott redefined actions by the Sedaka villagers such as pilfering and foot-dragging as ideological acts of resistance against the reforms of the Green Revolution in the 1970s, where neoliberal agendas become subverted through compromising productivity (Mitchell, 1990), regardless of whether the agents explicitly hold this subversive intent or simply do so as a way of survival. Scott exposed cracks in understandings of how hegemonic control is achieved, where arguing against a subaltern false consciousness through identifying the obdurate persistence of hidden transcripts in everyday forms of peasant resistance (Sivaramakrishan, 2005) worked to de-pathologize their actions as logical forms of self-preservation. This reworking of hegemony thus affords agency to the subaltern to recognize them as historical agents, who by carrying out their hidden transcripts supported their own ethics in the face of oppressive powers.

Furthermore, this analysis of the everyday as a key site for resistance crucially reveals the pervasiveness of global power structures of capitalism that force subaltern individuals to only push back in mundane, routine ways. The fact that communities such as the Sedaka are confined to measures of everyday resistance highlights the ubiquity of power that emanates from the capitalist and neoliberal worldview, where these power structures impinge at the scale of everyday bodily practices (Weitz, 2001). Reflecting on Abu-Lughod’s (1990) assertion that “where there is resistance, there is power”, the everyday behaviours that comprise covert resistance against capitalist powers reinforce the pervasive nature of such power structures at the everyday level.

However, although Scott successfully opened anthropology’s eyes to the ways in which subaltern populations may enact hidden forms of resistance, critics argue his work continues to be informed by a single, master metaphor —the distinction between persuading and coercing— which can actually support workings of domination through constructing a dualistic world that prevents forms of oppression from being recognized as such (Mitchell, 1990). In his influential critique, Mitchell finds that Scott separates how power works on the body and the mind, with the body becoming a site of material coercion and the mind a site for the persuasion of legitimacy, functioning to obscure the reality of capitalist ideologies impinging on the mental autonomy of the Sedaka villagers and consequently shaping their resistive behaviour.

This is revealed through Mitchell’s close r