Continuing my summaries of readings that I come across, here’s an annotation of a classic:

James C. Scott’s (1977) breathtaking analysis of the “moral economy” of the peasant society provides a useful framework in looking at the condition of migrations from the countryside. He first locates the “economic dilemma” of peasants, arguing that often, the lives of those who live “close to the subsistence margin” are affected by the insecurities in their livelihood, weather and environment conditions, and the interest of outsiders. Scott argues that it is useful to reflect on the relationships of the peasant within the village economy and to pose this against the peasant’s contemporary social relationships within the ever increasingly commercialized countryside and the (neoliberal) state. Scott calls “subsistence ethic” (2) the moral principle of peasants that is rooted in social and economic exchanges. The pre-capitalist village, according to Scott, operated within “redistributive” relations. The subsistence ethic is circumscribed within a world of values from which peasants carve out a model and vision of equality and justice. Within this ethic, the peasant is more interested in a stable and secure subsistence than in higher returns for her labor. Scott recognizes the danger in romanticizing such traditional arrangements but as he draws from a range of examples around the world, he provides convincing evidence of the subsistence ethic as an important moral-economic practice that opens space for peasants to mitigate risks. It is also Scott’s position that the changes in social structure brought by colonialism did not erode the practice of redistribution in the village, despite the colonial governments’ often stringent demands on village agricultural production.  

Scott (1977, 9) suggests that this economy was disrupted by “outsiders” whose interests collided with the redistributive arrangement in the rural areas. Scott argues that eventually, the idea of the “minimum income” displaced the redistributive social arrangement of the village. Scott argues that while the minimum income may be adequate for barel survival, such economic environment opens up new insecurities for the poor because employment opportunities are irregular and the market prices for the products produced in the countryside are unstable. In addition, the formalization of land ownership (i.e. colonial grants) began to strip away from the peasant her access to natural resources which were once free or arranged within negotiable reciprocal economies. Within the new world of standardized wages and incomes, the household is placed under the threat of falling behind social obligations in the community – an imperative activity on which survival during times of scarcity is anchored. As Scott (1977, 10) writes, “The colonial period in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere for that matter, was marked by an almost total absence of any provision for the maintenance of a minimal income while, at the same time, the commercialization of the agrarian economy was steadily stripping away most of the traditional forms of social insurance.” Scott recognizes that the colonial economy may have in fact “created more jobs than it destroyed,” but he adds that these jobs were often located elsewhere such as the rapidly expanding cities (62). It is fruitful here to return to one of the allegories of “development” that Scott’s deploys in his book. He writes that colonialism, “did, on the one hand, create transportation networks and political capacity that could move grain from surplus to deficit areas, thereby easing the threat of local famine. On the other hand, that same transport and political capacity could be used to move grain out of an area in the form of rent and taxes” (56).

Peasants, still following Scott’s illuminating analysis, direct their petitions to the state in the same way that they would have asked their patrons. The impositions of the state, and of the increasingly global market, often tend to overlook the vulnerabilities (weather, natural calamities, etc.) that threaten the marginal subsistence of the poor. Finally, the peasant who continues to stay in the village, finds herself along routes that lead to an even deeper level of dispossession: the peasant is forced to go further into the market to sell or to borrow or the peasant seeks out wage labor. A relationship bound within the cash economy, Scott argues, is one that erodes the protection of those merely living in the subsistence margin. Those who require labor for their enterprise, have a surplus of laborers to draw from, and as Scott finds, the obligation of the landowner/entrepreneur to think about the workers’ security is obliterated by the piecework and wage system. Thus, the “social insurance” that was once strengthened by a village moral economy – negotiated by patrons and clients within their complex relations of power – is weakened or lost. It is at this point that the peasant begins to search for sources of subsistence that is beyond the bounds of the countryside. Scott refers to this as “makeshift migration,” a means for the poor to “raid(ing) the cash economy” or to “scavenge(ing) possibilities” (212). The peasant finds herself in the city, holding the city’s most marginal positions. Scott’s forecast of the condition that emerges was reproduced many times by the craftspeople I came to know in Nabua. He writes about the coming of a bleak setting of displacement and dependency that many craftspeople in Nabua are already familiar with: that the “pattern of parasitic and tenuous dependence of the leavings of the modern sector will become far more prevalent” (214-215).

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