From the Archives

By Fatima Tassadiq

Borneman, John. 2005. “The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World by Partha Chatterjee.” American Anthropologist 107 (3): 513–14.

Sivaramakrishnan, Kalyanakrishnan. 2005a. “Introduction to ‘Moral Economies, State Spaces, and Categorical Violence.’” American Anthropologist 107 (3): 321–30.

Sivaramakrishnan, Kalyanakrishnan. 2005b. “Some Intellectual Genealogies for the Concept of Everyday Resistance.” American Anthropologist 107 (3): 346–55.

Witsoe, Jeffery. 2011. “Rethinking Postcolonial Democracy: An Examination of the Politics of Lower-Caste Empowerment in North India.” American Anthropologist 113 (4): 619–31.

This post brings together four articles published in American Anthropologist that engage with the relationship between everyday resistance, popular protest, and political transformation. Sivaramakrishnan’s articles explore James C. Scott’s political theory on agrarian change and relations between hegemony and rural social protest. Borneman reviews Partha Chatterjee’s influential work on politics of resistance by marginalized groups. And Witsoe’s ethnographic piece studies lower-caste politics in India to understand how democratic practice relates to and is changed through relations of everyday life in the postcolony.

I selected these articles to think about formations of citizenship, political participation and democratic practice in Pakistan. In my research, I study the implementation of a mass transit system in Lahore to understand how the social and material worlds of people are shaped by infrastructures that are simultaneously technological objects as well as administrative interventions. I am interested in how people resist, accommodate, or support the changes brought by this transit system. How are political subjectivities formed in the everyday—for example, through assessment of the train as an instance of political programming, by the shaping of bodily practices of commuters and through (re)forming the city space and enabling particular movements, socialities, and publics? I then track how these micropolitics and everyday negotiations translate to larger changes in things like political party affiliations, voting behavior, and support for civilian leadership. I use these articles to reflect on how Scott and Chatterjee have theorized everyday resistance, its relationship to social transformation, and the limitations of their theoretical interventions.

One of the neighborhoods that was demolished for the mass transit project in Lahore. (Photograph by author)

Sivaramakrishnan traces the influence of E. P. Thompson on Scott’s analysis of everyday resistance and its implications for his conceptualization of hegemony (Sivaramakrishnan 2005, 246–55). Following Thompson, Scott argues that the visible deference of the lower classes is a means of self-preservation rather than uncontested acceptance of the gentry’s paternalism. Social transformation is thus informed and limited by a sense of social boundaries that make certain forms of protest impractical. This reading of social hierarchy recovers the agency of the marginalized and informs a more contested understanding of hegemony that was consistent with positions emerging within historical anthropology in the 1980s.

Over the last few decades, Scott’s work has had a major influence on how anthropologists have studied power relations and resistance. Scott’s development of politics of resistance parallels Gramsci’s (1989) conception of counterhegemonic forces, where the latter includes the formation of alliances across subordinate groups and countercultures that posit alternatives to the present social order. Scott similarly argues that everyday forms of resistance are a form of class struggle because they require tacit cooperation among different marginalized groups and this loose coordination relies on popular cultures of resistance (Sivaramakrishnan 2005b). In his later work, Scott focuses on infrapolitics of subordinate groups to identify limits of hegemony through comparisons of “public” and “hidden” transcripts (Scott 1990). It is the persistence of hidden transcripts and their role in everyday forms of resistance that contradict notions of false consciousness of the poor and their apparent complicity in exploitative situations as the result of hegemonic incorporation. The limits of hegemonic control can be understood from the extent to which hidden transcripts of the poor deviate from public transcripts. Anthropologists like Greenhouse (2005, 356–68) thus note that the Gramscian concept of hegemony as total incorporation and naturalization of existing power relations fail the test of “thick description,” which reveals the existence of private transgressions.

Scott’s analysis of infrapolitics provides an entry point into the discussion of the relationship between everyday forms of resistance and political transformation. In my work, I am interested in understanding how a massive infrastructural project impacts the lives of people and whether it changes their behavior and affiliations vis-à-vis institutional politics. While Scott’s work is invaluable in recovering the political consciousness of subordinate groups, it is less clear on how this would translate to broader change. As Sivaramakrishnan (2005b) notes, everyday resistance as formulated by Scott does not seek to overthrow power but only make the current relations more bearable for subordinate groups. However, everyday resistance “can, and occasionally does, contribute to revolutionary outcomes” (Scott 1985, 249) through the figure of the first mover who initiates open confrontation. However, Scott does not really clarify why an individual would suddenly abandon pragmatism and attributes the “sudden acquisition of guts” to individual emotion and resentment (218). More important for my work, though, are issues of what counts as politics and change. Scott appears to privilege open confrontation and conflict as constituting transformation. Instead of trying to understand if the political valence of everyday resistance rests in the ability of the latter to produce violent confrontation, can we think about alternative ways of conceptualizing politics and meaningful transformation? For example, small acts of resistance may accrue over time and bring about incremental change that may not necessitate violent conflict. This conception of political change may be more pertinent to understanding the gradual entrenchment of democratic politics in a country like Pakistan.

Partha Chatterjee’s (2004) influential theory of political society dovetails with Scott’s notion of everyday resistance of the marginalized in multiple ways. He theorizes the disjuncture between formal and substantive rights by contrasting “civil society” with “political society” and then focuses on the paralegal arrangements and use of vote banks by the latter to negotiate the conditions of life. As Borneman’s (2005) review suggests, the commitment to celebrate the agency of subordinate groups perhaps renders Chatterjee and Scott liable to romanticize and overvalue the significance of daily struggles in ameliorating the effects of marginalization. Ethnographic work in different contexts suggests that Chatterjee’s conception of political society is predicated on the very specific structural conditions characteristic of the Indian democracy. Consequently, his insights may not be readily applicable in other settings. For example, Nicolas Martin’s (2015) research in rural Punjab in Pakistan shows that in spite of their majority, peasants are unable to use their votes to bargain for resources from landlords. Economic insecurities, the persistence of debt bondage, and extreme poverty promote intra-class conflict, prevent horizontal organization against the landed elite, and enable landlords to buy votes for small but direct cash payments instead of offering more comprehensive political programming. In addition, weak state institutions give landowners near complete monopoly over violence, which obstructs the ability of the poor to vote freely without fear of retribution. In such an absence of vote-bank mobility, the numerical majority of landless peasants does little to make life more bearable. While conditions of urban constituents in my fieldsite of Lahore may be less dire, vote bank politics has done little to give them meaningful bargaining power. Whereas cities like Karachi are ethnically diverse enough to enable political organization along ethnic lines, the Punjabi-dominated Lahore is largely homogenous. It remains the stronghold of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and no alternative political party is established enough to offer strong opposition in the city or the province. This democratic deficit means that resistance to PML-N programming, such as this mass transit system, by citizens can be difficult to channel through institutional party politics.

Borneman (2005) also questions if we can really elevate tactics that ensure daily survival, even when effective, to the level of “politics”? For his part, Chatterjee limits the political significance of such contestations by arguing that they do not offer a “transformational narrative threatening the course of capitalist development . . . it is not a concept of revolutionary politics” (2011, 148). He also argues that the ad hoc rights and resources provided in this manner are granted as exceptions to the current laws and therefore maintain and strengthen overarching structures of exclusion. In this framework, transformational politics would then entail tactics that result in the formalization of rights. While this is a move away from Scott’s focus on violent confrontation as the legitimate locus of sociopolitical transformation, we can still argue that this analytic approach rests on a restrictive definition of transformative politics (or simply politics as far as Borneman is concerned). For example, the urban poor in cities of the Global South may have been unable to force legislation that decriminalizes informal housing, but they have also consistently prevented thorough implementation of existing laws. The so-called exception has become a sustained albeit precarious means of accessing a particular resource. Does that not count as effective politics? In addition, persistent subversion of law does not always strengthen overarching structures. In the case of Lahore, for example, the state’s tolerance of illegal settlements for decades has now made it extremely difficult to evict their residents—so much so that the state refrains from intervening in such settlements unless absolutely necessary. And even then it must dole out substantial compensation before the residents can be persuaded to leave. In other cases, continuous occupation under certain circumstances and/or over an extended period of time has been sufficient for courts to grant ownership rights to settlers. Lastly, the very disjuncture between formal and substantive rights indicates that the formalization of rights through legislation is no guarantee of actual implementation. Therefore, it is critical to look at the life of laws and their embedded context alongside their content. Thus, the relationship between legal and ad hoc arrangements, rule of the law and negotiation, is often fraught with contradictions and ambiguities. The precariousness of these improvisational tactics notwithstanding, the possibilities of alternative futures contained in these tactics caution us against dismissing their political valence.

Witsoe’s (2011) deployment of Chatterjee’s theorization to study lower-caste politics in India follows a similar line of thought. He uses the two notions of hegemony developed by Gramsci to explain counterhegemonic formations in Bihar that have undermined the political power of the upper castes as well as the hegemony of development discourse that is deeply implicated in upholding their dominance. An alliance of subordinate groups—lower castes and religious minorities—rallied to support the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party under its lower caste Yadav leader, thus effectively channeling the counterhegemonic agenda and grievances of marginalized social groups. RJD’s subsequent electoral victories not only weakened the political dominance of the upper castes but also displaced development related issues with a politics of caste empowerment. RJD mobilized its constituency by explicitly promising honor and dignity rather than development. The popularity and electoral success of RJD troubles the neat binary between civil and political society, where the former is believed to be the locus of discursive and legal rights and the latter is characterized by negotiation for material resources for everyday survival. This also posits important questions regarding the relationship between political transformation and resistance. Is the struggle for respect and empowerment more revolutionary than that based on access to material goods?

A train station under construction in Old Anarkali, Lahore. (Photograph by author)

Witsoe (2011) also attends to the transformative role of everyday resistance in lower-caste politics. He argues that changing political conditions at the institutional level in Bihar were accompanied by an intensification of everyday challenges to landlord authority and crop theft by lower-caste peasants. Two things are worth noting here. The hidden transcripts of peasant resistance signaled political consciousness and a counterhegemonic culture that escalated given the right circumstances to enable a significant restructuring of relations of agricultural production and village-level power dynamics. Secondly, the distinction between struggling for dignity and fighting for access to material resources and substantive rights can be misleading. Even though RJD identified its agenda as that of caste empowerment rather than development, the party’s continued popularity depended on restoring the honor of marginalized groups as well as economic benefits accruing indirectly from RJD policies. Development discourse and political programming are thus not the only means of enabling access to resources and mobilizing marginalized groups through promises of the same.

These works prompt us to think critically about what constitutes the political and meaningful change. As an ethnographer, I am particularly interested in the strategies and discourses people actually use to make claims and access resources, the ways in which they make sense of their relationship with the state, and how they think about sociopolitical change and their own agency in bringing about particular futures. These issues are of particular interest to those of us studying regimes of citizenship and democratic practice in postcolonial societies.

Borneman, John. 2005. “The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World by Partha Chatterjee.” American Anthropologist 107 (3): 513–14.

Chatterjee, Partha. 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Chatterjee, Partha. 2011. Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1989. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith. International Publishers Co.

Greenhouse, Carol. 2005. “Hegemony and Hidden Transcripts: The Discursive Arts of Neoliberal Legitimation.” American Anthropologist 107 (3): 356–68.

Martin, Nicolas. 2015. Politics, Landlords and Islam in Pakistan. Routledge.

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press.

Sivaramakrishnan, Kalyanakrishnan. 2005a. “Introduction to ‘Moral Economies, State Spaces, and Categorical Violence.’” American Anthropologist 107 (3): 321–30.

Sivaramakrishnan, Kalyanakrishnan. 2005b. “Some Intellectual Genealogies for the Concept of Everyday Resistance.” American Anthropologist 107 (3): 346–55.

Witsoe, Jeffery. 2011. “Rethinking Postcolonial Democracy: An Examination of the Politics of Lower-Caste Empowerment in North India.” American Anthropologist 113 (4): 619–31.

Tassadiq, Fatima. 2018. “From the Archives: Theorizing Everyday Resistance and Political Transformation.” American Anthropologist website, May 14.

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