By Andrew M. Mwenda
In his book, Weapons of the Weak, James Scott argues that studies of peasant resistance focus a lot on large scale revolts. ‘For the historical and archival records were richest at precisely those moments when the peasantry pose a threat to the state,’ Scott writes, ‘the historiography of class struggle has been distorted in a state-centric direction.’ Why?
According to Scott, the events that claim attention are those to which the state and the ruling classes accord most attention in their archives. ‘For example a small rebellion claims attention all out of proportion to its impact on class relations,’ Scott writes.
So what are the everyday forms through which peasants resist those who seek to extract from them labour, food, taxes, rents and interest? Scott says peasants resist through foot-dragging, false compliance, dissimulation, slander, feigned ignorance, pilfering, arson, sabotage etc. Scott calls these ‘weapons of the weak.’
Scott argues that this focus on mass peasant uprisings against the state is misleading because the circumstances which favour large scale peasant uprisings are rare and when they do appear, the revolts are always crushed unceremoniously.
‘The small rebellion may have symbolic importance for its violence and for its revolutionary aims,’ Scott argues, ‘but for most subordinate classes historically, such episodes were of less moment than the quiet, unremitting guerrilla warfare that took place ‘˜day in day out’ in peasant lives.’
Scott’s point is that peasants are scattered across the countryside and therefore face more imposing obstacles in the way of organisation and mobilisation making it difficult for them to effect collective action like, say industrial workers. In this sense, ‘everyday forms’ of resistance become particularly important.
Why do peasants choose these forms of resistance? First, these forms of resistance require little or no co-ordination or planning; second, they often represent a form of individual self help; third, they typically avoid any direct confrontation with authority or elite norms.
Scott’s point is that to understand these commonplace forms of resistance is to understand what much of the peasantry does ‘in between revolts’ to defend its interests as best as it can.
I think this lesson can also be applied to corruption in most of Africa. All too often, we complain that everyone who holds a slice of state power uses it to plunder the public treasury for private gain. But could some of Africa’s thieves in politics and the civil service be using corruption to actually resist the regimes they serve?
In her powerful book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Michela Wrong shows that the billions in dollars Mobutu is alleged to have stolen from Congo actually did not exist.
According to Michela, for Mobutu money was not an end but a means to an end; the end being power. Therefore, his loot was not aimed at building a private fortune but rather to pay for the loyalty of those who helped him stay in power.
But as Wrong weaves her story, she shows how overtime, the predator became the prey. If Mobutu wanted $100m and sent an aide to pick it from the central bank, the aide would inform the governor that Mobutu asked for $150. The governor would withdraw $200m and retain $50m for himself. The aide would do the same.
Looking at it conventionally, Mobutu’s arbitrariness created opportunities for his aides to join him in looting Zaire (now DR Congo). But looking at it creatively, these aides could have been revenging against their boss in a malicious way: ‘If you are going to enrich yourself and family with this public money, we can do the same.’
However, Mobutu may not have withdrawn the $100m to buy a mansion in Spain. It could have been to pay off some troublesome politician to cross from the opposition. But even here, a similar logic would have applied. If the politician wanted $50m, the intermediary would claim that he asked for $100m.
Nothing brings this inversion of motive out more clearly than David Buss’s new book, Why Women Have Sex. Co-authored with Cindy Meston, the book reveals women’s motives to range from the mundane (‘I was bored’) to the spiritual (‘I wanted to get closer to God’), from the altruistic (‘I wanted my man to feel good about himself’) to the vengeful (‘I wanted to punish my husband for cheating on me’).
Writes Buss and Meston: ‘Some women have sex to feel powerful, others to debase themselves. Some want to impress their friends; others want to harm their enemies (‘I wanted to break up my rival’s relationship by having sex with her boyfriend’). Some express romantic love (‘I wanted to become one with another person’); others disturbing hate (‘I wanted to give someone else a sexually transmitted disease.’).’
Just assume you are a corrupt president. You have appointed your wife to cabinet; your brother is a minister, your son commands the army, your uncle runs the central bank, your brother-in-law is in charge of the revenue service and you recently bought yourself a luxury jet and built a new presidential palace worth $200m.
What would your ministers think? Possibly they envy you. The minister of health may appropriate a huge chunk of his budget to buy a mansion in Los Angeles. This of course makes him richer. But the motivation could actually be that he is jealous of your lifestyle and has decided to become malicious well knowing that by indulging in such loot he is undermining the credibility of your regime.
I know a minister in Uganda who has told friends that ‘this is the time of okushahura (looting)’ adding that if the president is enjoying the national cake, he has the right to join too. But behind the rush to loot also lays the desire to revenge against a powerful president whose subordinates feel he acts out of personal rather than national interest.
From Scott’s interpretation of peasant motivations for action to Buss and Meston’s findings on female sexual motivation, it is clear that there are always hidden agendas behind actions whose initial motivation seems obvious. A large part of corruption in Africa could be a form of resistance against our big men.