James Scott Contra Constructivist Theories Of Ideology

Download: Destroying the Master’s House With the Master’s Tools: Some Notes on the Libertarian Theory of Ideology

This paper considers, more specifically, liberatory or nonstate ideology as a weapon against power and exploitation. As described by Scott, Zomian religion frequently borrows from the same pool of myths and cultural themes as the dominant religion in state spaces. But it recuperates them—in a classic example of “using the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house”—inverting the state religion and standing on its head. Scott, in the context of his discussion of “great traditions” vs. “little traditions,” writes: “In this ‘counterpoint to the leading melody,’ as Wertheim has described it, many of the central values of elite culture are symbolically rejected or stood on their head.” [44] The religion of the lower orders frequently reflects “the appropriation of religious symbolism in the service of class interests…. Little tradition syncretism… represents a reworking, a selective appropriation, of those elements of a religious doctrine that answer the needs of a subordinate class.” [45]

Scott takes issue especially with the assumption that ideological hegemony necessarily leads to a loss of agency by subordinate groups—“that the ideological incorporation of subordinate groups will necessarily diminish social conflict.”

And yet, we know that any ideology which makes a claim to hegemony must, in effect, make promises to subordinate groups by way of explaining why a particular social order is also in their best interests. Once such promises are extended, the way is open to social conflict. How are these promises to be understood, have they been carried out, were they made in good faith, who is to enforce them? Without elaborating, 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.  [46]

In fact the great mass of popular demands, in the periods of radicalization immediately preceding revolutions, have typically been reformist. The factory committees that spontaneously emerged in Russia in early 1917 were overwhelmingly concerned with wages, hours, accommodations like toilet facilities, grievance procedures, etc. But that did not stop them from rapidly evolving into tools of direct self-management, as the crisis progressed.

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. “Falsely conscious” subjects are quite capable, it seems, of taking revolutionary action. [47]

Scott interprets Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony as working “primarily at the level of thought as distinct from the level of action.”

The anomaly, which the revolutionary party and its intelligentsia will hopefully resolve, is that the working class under capitalism is involved in concrete struggles with revolutionary implications but, because it is in the thrall of hegemonic social thought, is unable to draw revolutionary conclusions from its actions. It is this dominated consciousness that, Gramsci claims, has prevented the working class from drawing the radical consequences inherent in much of its action:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity…. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed. But this verbal conception of not without consequences… the contradictory state of consciousness does [often] not permit of any action, any decision, or any choice, and produces a condition of moral and political passivity.

We have explored, however, something of the imaginative capacity of subordinate groups to reverse or negate dominant ideologies. So common is this pattern that it is plausible to consider it part and parcel of the religiopolitical equipment of historically disadvantaged groups. Other things equal, it is therefore more accurate to consider subordinate classes less constrained at the level of thought and ideology, since they can in secluded settings speak with comparative safety, and more constrained at the level of political action and struggle, where the daily exercise of power sharply limits the options available to them. To put it crudely, it would ordinarily be suicide for serfs to set about to murder their lords and abolish the seigneurial regime; it is, however, plausible for them to imagine and talk about such aspirations providing they are discreet about it. [48]

Despite Orwell’s rhetorical excesses regarding the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary in 1984, it is impossible to prune language of concepts in such a way as to render a subordinate class incapable of articulating criticism of a dominant ideology. Concepts are far too easily adapted.

Official ideologies can, in fact, very easily be stood on their heads and turned into weapons of radical opposition to the existing social order. A good example is the popular Russian belief in the Tsar-Deliverer, who would save his people from oppression. In the standard form of the myth, the good Tsar was held captive by wicked counselors and officials who kept him in ignorance of the true suffering of his people. Sometimes the myth went so far as to postulate that the throne had been usurped by a false Tsar. Either way, the Little Father circumvented the captivity of the unjust regime and traveled in disguise as a pilgrim among his people, where he witnessed first-hand their suffering at the hands of wicked officials and landlords. At a climactic point, the Little Father reveals himself as Tsar, reclaims the throne, punishes his wicked counselors, and institutes justice for the peasantry. This recurring myth was at the heart of the major serf uprisings in Russia, with the peasants either resisting rents and corvees in the name of a secret ukaz from the Little Father which had been suppressed by wicked officials, or rising in support of a pretender who claimed to be the true Tsar. As late as 1902, Ukrainian rebels defended themselves before a magistrate by claiming to act in obedience to an ukaz by the Tsar which authorized them to requisition grain from the gentry. [49]

In a form of symbolic jiujitsu, an apparently conservative myth counseling passivity becomes a basis for defiance and rebellion that is, in turn, publicly justified by faithful allegiance to the monarch!… As Field concludes, “Naive or not, the peasants professed their faith in the Tsar in forms, and only in those forms, that corresponded to their interests. Peasant leaders, finding the myth ready to hand in its folkloric expressions, used it to arouse, galvanize, and unify other peasants.” [50]

Ruled populations can challenge the hegemonic ideology with a counter-ideology by an expedient as simple as standing it on its head. Scott objects to the assumption that a hegemonic ideology, by suppressing knowledge of other possible social arrangements, “normalizes” an existing system of power and makes its replacement unimaginable.

It is… mistaken in assuming that the absence of actual knowledge of alternative social arrangements produces automatically the naturalization of the present, however hated that present may be. Consider two small feats of imagination that countless numbers of subordinate groups have historically performed. First, while the serf, the slave, and the untouchable may have difficulty imagining other arrangements than serfdom, slavery, and the caste system, they will certainly have no trouble imagining a total reversal of the existing distribution of status and rewards. The millennial theme of a world turned upside down, a world in which the last shall be first and the first last, can be found in nearly every major cultural tradition in which inequalities of power, wealth, and status have been pronounced…. These collective hidden transcripts from the fantasy life of subordinate groups are not merely abstract exercises. They are embedded… in innumerable ritual practices (for example, carnival in Catholic countries, the Feast of Krishna in India, the Saturnalia in classical Rome, the water festival in Buddhist Southeast Asia), and they have provided the ideological basis of many revolts.

The second historical achievement of popular imagination is to negate the existing social order. Without ever having set foot outside a stratified society, subordinate groups can, and have, imagined the absence of the distinctions they find so erroneous. The famous ditty that comes to us from the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman,” was imagining a world without aristocrats or gentry. In the fifteenth century the Taborites anticipated both a radical equality and the labor theory of value: “Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone would have enough. The time will come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread”…. Most traditional utopian beliefs can, in fact, be understood as a more or less systematic negation of an existing pattern of exploitation and status degradation as it is experienced by subordinate groups. If the peasantry is beset by officials collecting taxes, by lords collecting crops and labor dues, by priests collecting tithes, and by poor crops, their utopia is likely to envision a life without taxes and duties and tithes, and with an abundant, self-yielding nature. Utopian thought of this kind has typically been cast in disguised or allegorical forms in part because its open declaration would be considered revolutionary. What is beyond doubt is that millennial beliefs and expectations have often provided, before the modern era, a most important set of mobilizing ideas behind large-scale rebellions when they did occur. [51]

In class societies throughout history—even comparatively stable ones—the idea of a “world turned upside down” has persisted among the peasantry. Jubilee year, both in origins as practice of communal peasant society with Open Fields, and its persistence (much like the Good Laws of King Alfred and the myth of the Norman Yoke) as the basis of an insurrectionist ideology long after it had ceased to have any effect.

This inversion was at the heart of such things as Fools Day (something very like it was probably the ancestor of Greek comedy). And the inversion, once conceived of as an occasional phenomenon, could be extrapolated into the permanent basis of society:

…foolery had a function in medieval society. There was a convention that on certain set occasions—Shrove Tuesday, the Feasts of Fools, All Fools Day and others—the social hierarchy and the social decencies could be turned upside.down. It was a safety-valve: social tensions were released by the occasional bouleversement; the social order seemed perhaps that much more tolerable. What was new in the seventeenth century was the idea that the world might be permanently turned upside down: that the dream world of the Land of Cockayne or the kingdom of heaven might be attainable on earth now. [52]

For our purposes, what is most interesting about carnival is the way it allows certain things to be said, certain forms of social power to be exercised that are muted or suppressed outside this ritual sphere….

…Much of the social aggression within carnival is directed at dominant figures, if for no other reason than the fact that such figures are, by virtue of their power, virtually immune from open criticism at other times…. Institutions as well as persons came under attack. The church, in particular, was an integral part of the ritual mockery of carnival. In fact, every conceivable sacred rite had its counterpart in a carnival parody…. Here was something of an open dialogue, suitably elusive, between a heterodox popular religion and an official hierarchy of piety….

As one might reasonably expect, class and political antagonisms could also be aired through carnival techniques. David Gilmore’s account of how the growing animosity in twentieth-century Andalusia between agricultural laborers and landowners affected carnival is instructive. Initially, both classes participated in carnival, the landowners tolerating the ridicule and satirical verses sung to them. As agrarian conditions worsened, the abuse and threats drove the landowners to withdraw and watch carnival from their balconies. For some time now the landowners actually leave town for the duration of carnival, abandoning it to their antagonists. [53]

Structuralists tend to dismiss things like carnival as “safety valves” that preserve the system by diverting popular resentment into symbolic displays without altering the real structure of power. James Scott devotes a considerable amount of effort to countering the argument that “the offstage discourse of the powerless is either empty posturing or, worse, a substitute for real resistance. [54]

But in fact carnival itself was seized on as a weapon for real struggle in times of heightened class tension, as the example above of Andalusia indicates. In fact it would defy common sense if such institutions weren’t pushed in a revolutionary direction in times of extraordinary discontent.

Carnival, in its ritual structure and anonymity, gives a privileged place to normally suppressed speech and aggression. It was, in many societies, virtually the only time during the year when the lower classes were permitted to assemble in unprecedented numbers behind masks and make threatening gestures toward those who ruled in daily life. Given this unique opportunity and the world-upside-down symbolism associated with carnival, it is hardly surprising that it would frequently spill over its ritual banks into violent conflict. And if one were, in fact, planning a rebellion or protest, the legitimate cover of anonymous assembly provided by carnival might suggest itself as a likely venue…. It is why actual rebels mimic carnival—they dress as women or mask themselves when breaking machinery or making political demands; their threats use the figure and symbolism of carnival; they extort cash and employment concessions in the manner of crowds expecting gifts during carnival…. [55]

Norman Solomon, in The Trouble With Dilbert, dismissed Scott Adams’ popular comic strip on the grounds that it let disgruntled cubicle drones blow off steam making fun of middle management while largely failing to address the nature of corporate power.

But Dilbert is very much an inversion or recuperation of the official corporate ideology, with the cubicle drones using management’s own “efficiency” legitimizing rhetoric against it. Any ruling class is limited and made vulnerable by its choice of legitimizing rhetoric.

James Scott finds the safety valve thesis implausible on the grounds that it requires the assumption that the safe expression of anger through fantasy is a satisfactory substitute for “direct aggression against the object of frustration.” In fact, though, people who “are thwarted unjustly experience little or no reduction in the level of their frustration and anger unless they are able to directly injure the frustrating agent.” What’s more, engaging in such fantasy expression may actually work people up into the mood for the real thing. “…[T]here is much experimental evidence that aggressive play and fantasy increase rather than decrease the likelihood of actual aggression.” It makes sense to think of so-called “safety valve” expressions of anger as preparations or rehearsals, rather than substitutes, for the real thing. It’s worth noting how many “revolts by slaves, peasants, and serfs [have] begun precisely during such seasonal rituals…” [56]

And “safety-valve” ideologies that undermine the legitimacy of the official ideology are themselves frequently used to legitimize covert action in defiance of the ruling class: “any argument which assumes that disguised ideological dissent or aggression operates as a safety-valve to weaken ‘real’ resistance ignores the paramount fact that such ideological dissent is virtually always expressed in practices that aim at an unobtrusive renegotiation of power relations.” [57]

And the cumulative effect of such “petty” individual resistance can amount to vast structural significance. Scott quotes Milovan Djilas observation that “slow, unproductive work of disinterested millions… is the calculable, invisible, and gigantic waste which no communist regime has been able to avoid.” And, Scott adds, “[p]oaching and squatting on a large scale can restructure the control of property. [58] Going slow or “going canny” on the job, historically, has played a central role in defining the normal pace of labor in the workplace.

When hill societies “come to embrace the ‘world religion of their valley neighbors, they are likely to do so with a degree of heterodoxy and millenarian fervor that valley elites find more threatening than reassuring.” [59] Generally speaking, when hill populations share a major religion with state spaces in the lowlands, their clergy tend to be more irregular and prone to forming schismatic sects. In addition, schismatic sects in the valleys were likely to see the less governable valleys as a place of refuge to flee persecution by the official religious establishment. [60] “The pluralism expelled from the valleys can be found in profusion in the hills—shards that tell us what the lowland kingdoms drummed out of the valley….” [61]

The variety of Hinduism practiced in the Tengger hills of Java, for example, has dispensed with the caste system, and maintains a form of Hindu priesthood that reflects the culture’s values of egalitarianism and self-reliance rather than the lowlands’ attachment to social status and rank. [62]

The same is true of populations in marginal or non-state areas around the world.

The frequency with which peripheries—mountains, deserts, dense forests—have been strongly associated with religious dissent is too common to be overlooked. The Cossack frontier of tsarist Russia was notable not only for its egalitarian social structure but also for being a bastion of Old Believers whose doctrines played an important role in both the massive Razin and Pugachev peasant revolts. Switzerland was long marked by egalitarianism and by religious heterodoxy. The Alps generally were seen by the Vatican as a cradle of heresy. The Waldensians found refuge there, and, when threatened with forced conversion by the duke of Savoy in the mid-seventeenth century, they moved to the highest valleys. [63]

When the Roman Empire (and with it the province of Africa) became Christianized, the Berbers also adopted Christianity—but the Arian or Donatist version of it. When north Africa fell to the Islamic Caliphate, the Berbers converted to Islam—but to the Kharijite heresy. The hill people of Afghanistan, similarly, adhere to the Shia Imami sect or Ismailism rather than the Sunnism of the valley people. [64]

The most important point is that “much of the same cosmological raw material” goes into the variants of a major religion shared by state and non-state territories. [65] The religions of non-state spaces include “a mimicry of lowland-state institutional forms [that] can be reshaped so as to oppose lowland agendas.” [66]

Religious heterodoxy and prophetism with millenarian overtones are, historically at least, as common in the lowlands and within populations already part of lowland states as they are in the hills. In fact… the millenarian ideas circulating in the hills are, for the most part, assembled from fragments that have been imported from valley states. [67]

If the central theme of the state or ruling class religion is legitimacy—be in subjection to the higher authorities; the ruler does not wield the sword in vain; as above so below; etc.—the central theme of religion in nonstate spaces is just the opposite: the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; the mighty shall be brought low; woe to the downpressor; etc. Scott refers to this as “[t]he pervasive idea of a reversal of fortunes, of a world turned upside down….” [68] Millenarianism “represents an audacious poaching of the lowland ideological structure to fashion movements that aim at warding off or destroying the states from which they are poached.”

Hill people have, in a sense, seized whatever ideological materials were available to them to make their claims and take their distance from the lowland states. At first, the raw materials were confined to their own legends and deities, on the one hand, and, on the other, the emancipatory messages they could make out in the lowland religions, especially Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. [69]

This general phenomenon also seems relevant to Israel, to which we paid so much attention in the introduction, since the Israelite amphictyony sort of took the Canaanitic El pantheon and turned that aristocratic religion on its head, and attached its own significance to Canaanite holy places like Bethel. According to Gottwald, the

emergence of Israel out of a Canaanite milieu is analogous in some ways to the continuities and discontinuities evident in the emergence of early Christianity out of proto-Judaism and to the development of Protestantism out of Roman Catholicism. [70]

The official Davidic theology, most clearly expressed in the Psalms, was essentially a return to the cosmological religion of other Near Eastern states. As in other such religions, there was a close parallel between the heavenly and earthly order. The heavenly order was established by El (or Yahweh) defeating the forces of primordial chaos (represented by water or by a dragon), enthroning himself, fathering a dynasty of gods, and creating heaven and earth. This was followed by the creation of an earthly order corresponding to the heavenly one, with the descent of kingship to humankind and the establishment of the house of El’s (or Yahweh’s) chosen king at the center of a human hierarchy directly mirroring the divine pantheon. Cultic reenactments of the defeat of Egypt and triumphal march to Zion, portrayed it in symbolic terms closely resembling El’s defeat of the primordial serpent or waters—followed by the establishment of the line of David (“which shall have no end.”). [71] Consider the stock form of many of the Psalms of David, typified by Psalm 29: 1) The Divine Warrior goes to battle against chaos; 2) nature convulses under the Warrior’s wrath; 3) the Warrior God returns to become king of the gods, and is enthroned on the holy mountain; 4) the Divine Warrior utters a voice from the temple, nature responds, the heavens fertilize the earth, and animals writhe in giving birth. [72]

The emergence of the prophetic movement as a liberatory counterweight to the official Davidic theology of the monarchy, and its reworking and revival of persistent underground elements from the older Israelite tradition preserved in Judges and Kings, overlaps to a considerable extent with Jaspers’ Axial Period, Nietzsche’s “slave revolt in morality” described in The Genealogy of Morals, and Voegelin’s transition from cosmological to universal religions (see Appendix). In place of a static-cyclical earthly order which mirrored the order of heaven (as above, so below), and earthly kingship which mirrored the pantheon of Yahweh as originally conceived, they believed they were called into a linear, historical relationship with a transcendent, universal God.


43 Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), pp. 206-207.

44 Scott, “Protest and Profanation: Agrarian Revolt and the Little Tradition, Part I,” Theory and Society 4 (1977) No. 1, pp. 16-17.

45 Scott, “Protest and Profanation: Agrarian Revolt and the Little Tradition, Part II,” Theory and Society 4 (1977) No. 2, p. 226.

46 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, p. 77.

47 Ibid., pp. 77-78.

48 Ibid., pp. 90-91.

49 Ibid., pp. 97-98.

50 Ibid., p. 98.

49 Ibid., pp. 97-98.

50 Ibid., p. 98.

51 Ibid., pp. 80-81.

52 Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 16-17.

53 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, pp. 173-174.

54 Ibid., p. 184.

55 Ibid., p. 181.

56 Ibid., pp. 186-187.

57 Ibid., p. 190.

58 Ibid., p. 192.

59 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, p. 21.

60 Ibid., p. 156.

61 Ibid., p. 157.

62 Ibid., pp.. 134-135.

63 Ibid., p. 157.

64 Ibid., p. 158.

65 Ibid., p. 157.

66 Ibid., p. 289.

67 Ibid., pp. 298-299.

68 Ibid., p. 287.

69 Ibid., p. 322.

70 Gottwald, “Revisiting The Tribes of Yahweh.”

71 Cross, op. cit., pp. 79-80.

72 Ibid., pp. 162-163.

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