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Traditionally, Marxist analyses have taken `exploitation' as a uniform relationship, mostly referring to an unjust transfer of `surpluses' from the lower strata to the upper ones, which creates resentments among the former and eventually results in mass rebellions. Contrary to the conventional Marxist thinking, James Scott believes that the "nature of exploitation" is as important as the exploitation itself (p. 4). In his The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Scott sets out to solve the puzzle why some types of exploitative relations give way to grassroots revolutions and others not.
Scott complains that approaches to exploitation hitherto have been "too one-sidedly materialistic," (p.165). Accordingly, his goal is to shed light to the moral/psychological aspects of rebellions and thus fill an important gap in the analyses of exploitation and rebellions, for "the problem of rebellion is not just a problem of calories and income but is a question of peasant conceptions of social justice, of rights and obligations, of reciprocity," (p. vii).
The key elements in Scott's analysis are norms of reciprocity in a society and right to subsistence of the members of that society. Scott argues that traditional (pre-capitalist) societies differ substantially from modern (capitalist) societies with respect to these two elements. Traditional societies in general maintain a "subsistence ethic" that prefers safety and reliability to long-run profits (p. 13). This "safety-first" principle leads peasants to favor those institutions that "minimize the risks to subsistence", although they may claim much of the surplus (p. 55). On the other side, informal relations between the members of traditional societies provide means to secure the survival of individuals. Collaborative family and kinship ties as well as tacit tenancy and citizenship rights and obligations set up "safety valves" that rescue individuals at times of adversity: "a family that is hard-pressed will expect help from others who have fared better and will expect to reciprocate when the situation is reversed," (p.168). The relationship between the landlord and his tenant are quite paternalistic in traditional societies. The landlord undertakes the risks of cultivation and gives financial assistance to his tenants. The tenant is considered "an inferior member of the extended family" of landlords in these societies (p.186). Thus, tenants under the traditional system "seem willing to put up with its injustices for the compensating security," (p. 37).
By contrast, Scott argues that commercialization of agriculture and agrarian class relationships in capitalist societies strip the individual from the "security valves" of the traditional ones. In his in-depth analysis of the Burma and Cochinchina cases, Scott demonstrates that the intrusion of capitalist economic system into, and the integration with the world economy of, these regions throughout their colonial administration undermined the subsistence security of the peasantry in five ways: introduction of market-based insecurities which increased the variability of peasants' income, erosion of the village protection, elimination of the traditional safety-valves, imposition of a fixed charge on tenants' income, and stabilization of the taxes at the expense of the cultivating class (p. 57). On the one side, elimination of the norms of reciprocity results in the growth of permanent disparities and increases the polarization within the society; on the others side, disregard to peasants' right to subsistence causes to the marginalization of masses and creates massive penury and hunger. While the new system creates small and privileged labor force, "it eliminates the main source of food for e greater number of landless Javanese. The potential for class polarization and conflict here is ominous," (p. 211). It is these negative changes in peasants' lives that undermine the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the peasants, for a peasant whose subsistence hangs on a balance faces not a personal but a "social" failure (p. 189).
Scott's analysis of the moral economy of the peasants in Asia portrays that the underdevelopment and poverty of today's less developed countries is not simply a result of their failure to develop; yet it is an active process of impoverishment and social destruction which results from "the way in which they are joined to the international system." In Scott's words, "It is possible to speak of peasants in both Cochinchina and Lower Burma in virtually the same breath, this is precisely because the integration of these two areas into the world market had, even before the 1930s, produced a convergence in their social histories," (p.90).
An implication of Scott's arguments is that "stabilization of real income for those close to subsistence may be a more powerful goal than achieving a higher average income," (p.34). Yet the current global economy completely disregards this point. While financial liberalization increases the insecurity of the masses in less developed countries, the general `laisses-faire' economics widens the income distribution gap both within and between countries, thereby marginalizing the majority of the world population. The `survival of individual' is not a concern of a capitalist economy, and this is what makes it "the most efficient expression of organized crime" for some.
In this critically underread book, arguably the central thesis of his work in Southeast Asian studies, Scott forcefully demonstrates that not only is the modern state unnecessary to the everyday life of a Southeast Asian peasant, but that the success of a Southeast Asian state depends in no small part on leaving the peasants to their own devices.
Due to the existence of local security nets, predating the formation of the state, that they already pay into, peasants have already been "taxed" and rewarded with their primary goals-- a steady food supply and protection from criminals-- before the state ever reaches them. Furthermore, the bureaucratic Southeast Asian states seem to be utterly clueless or purposefully ignorant as to the dramatic variations on crop yield from year to year. Unlike the ancient patron-client system which expects annual variations, the state demands the same tax every year, or sometimes even increasing taxes to fund some special project, a system which can easily bankrupt peasants and force them to sell critical possessions such as food animals, plows, and their own clothing. States which see the peasantry as a bottomless, untapped source of wealth write the script for their own downfall due to peasant rebellion, or in the worst case, mass starvation. States that leave the peasants alone prosper. But in any form the state resembles nothing less than organized robbery; they give the peasants very little in exchange for the taxes.
Using his years of field research, Scott links the historical injustices of the Southeast Asian state to modern political problems as well.
Honestly, I am enthralled by the work of this man. Writing against the premise that profit maximization is (or should be) the goal of individuals in developing countries, Scott's thesis is that peasant social order is predicated on the fact that the worst-case scenario is starvation. Peasants seek to minimize the risk of this, and as such, to not maximize profits.... which is what the 'West' has tried to force them to do.... (and failed...) I do not know who you are who is reading this review. I am a student of political economy specializing in South Asia.... for my studies into the rise of Sinhalese nationalism in Ceylon, this book was invaluable. I'd read this book just for fun, too.... This book is a must read, though, for any student of south and east asian development, agricultural development, or developmental theory in general. Bon chance.
I find the basic premise interesting. However, I do feel it gets repeated often and there is a lot of fluff. Take out the repetition or bits that are superfluous and you would probably only have half of the book left. It's an interesting read but definitely a frustrating one at times.