James C. Scott
(image by James C. Scott) DMCA
This is part one of the transcript of my interview with James C. Scott. We talk about anonymity, anarchism, domination, resistance, underdogs and people who have little or no power...
Here's the link to the podcast and notes
Rob: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM
My guest tonight is James C. Scott. He's a professor of politics and anthropology at Yale University. He's the founder of Yale's Agrarian Studies program and he's been described as an anarchist and a Marxist. Some of his books include The Art of Not Being Governed, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Resistance, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, and his most recent I believe is Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, published by Princeton University Press.
Welcome to the show!
JS: Happy to be here.
Rob: So you have a long career of publishing very interesting books and titles. How would you describe the collection of your work?
JS: Well, it's hard, you know, one moves from one interesting thing to another and there's a continuity that I can understand by looking back, but it's not a continuity that I was conscious of at the time. So I think, actually, I came of age as a person working on Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. So, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin and found myself speaking against the war and I decided then that maybe the most important thing I could understand was why peasants risked everything in order to join a revolutionary movement. so I set out to decide, set out to understand peasant wars of national liberation, mostly in the context of Southeast Asia. That's how it all began. I can draw out the thread of then what led me to subsequent work, if you like, but I don't know where you'd like me to take it.
ROB: What I really want, what I'm trying to get with all these books that you've written, is a big picture of your idea of the continuity of it all in as simplified a way as possible. Now, we'll go into details and I know I'm breaking I'm not exactly breaking rules, but you've got a whole book that you've written about the problems with centralization which, in a sense, is what I'm trying to get you to do. I'm sorry about that. I just wanted to see if there is a way that you could kind of summarize it.
JS: Well, I spent yes, I think it's actually to try to understand the world from the point of view of the underdog, to put it in it's simplest way, and that means for me, historically trying to understand the world of peasants and their relationship to the larger world in which they're a subordinate class often treated very badly and exploited. More recently of hill peoples in Southeast Asia who've been running away from the state. The book that you referred to called Seeing Like a State was my effort to understand why government schemes to improve the human condition ended up actually making things worse in many cases. But, the kind of effort to understand the world from the point of view of underdogs, in particularly peasants in the third world, that's what I've spent a good deal of my time doing and the most recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, is an effort in a much more breezy way to talk about my relationship to anarchist thought and the kinds of things that I think we can profitably learn from it.
Rob: You know, I've got to say that in reading a number of your books and a New York Times review of one of them and listening to some interviews of yours, one thing I came up with is that there are so many terms I want you to define. Not necessarily in the dictionary definition, but your definitions. In Wikipedia, it says your work focuses on the ways that subaltern people resist dominance. What do you mean by "subaltern"?
JS: Oh, I guess underdog would do just as well. The word subaltern actually is there's a Marxist thinker named Antonio Gramsci, of whom you may have heard, who wrote something called The Prison Notebooks and he used the word subaltern for, if you like, under, lower classes in general and it was picked up, I think, in left-wing circles and I think that's the reason why you found that in the Wikipedia entry, but it means underdog essentially. It means subordinate classes, that is to say, not landowners, not the one percent, not elites, not government officials, but people who, if you like, take instructions rather than giving them.
Rob: Would you consider the American middle class to be subaltern?
JS: Sure! That is to say, I suppose, one of the hallmarks of subaltern classes is that they feel that they live in a world that's not of their own making and a world in which they have very little influence and I think that increasingly is the case for American middle classes whose average income has not increased since 1970. So we're talking about already the better part of a half century during which the kind of American promise of upward mobility and progress and increasing material standards of living have been an empty promise for much of the middle class.