An anarchism of the vernacular: James C. Scott’s “Two Cheers for Anarchism”

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was”. … It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

Walter Benjamin, Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Human cognition tends to simplicity, to clean surfaces marked by types, classes, with readable relations of interaction between them.  Though not intrinsically problematic, it becomes so when our understanding is taken for reality, when our cognitive maps and the practices they inspire force reality into correspondence with what we imagine and desire.

History and the social sciences are notoriously guilty in this regard.  The consequence is that “the confusion, flux, and tumultuous contingency experienced by the historical actors, let alone the ordinary by-standers” are given little or no notice.(134)  Happenstance, accident, ignorance and the unintended are substituted by narratives with clearly identified agents whose acts fall within event-series with clear causal sequences.  But the order thereby engendered is a retrospective one, and illusory.

“The historical fact of the French Revolution has, understandably, recast virtually all of French eighteenth-century history as leading inexorably to 1789.  The Revolution was not a single event but a process; it was contingent on weather, crop failures, and the geography and demography of Paris and Versailles far more than on the ideas scribbled by the philosophes.  Those who stormed the Bastille to free prisoners and seize arms could not possibly have known (much less intended) that they would bring down the monarchy and aristocracy, let alone that they were participating in what later would come to be known as the “the French Revolution”.”(135)

The codification carried out by historical consciousness is false and is unjust towards those who experienced the events at the time.(135)  More significantly, it obscures the fact that the condensation of historical events is, beyond any natural human proclivity, the result of “a political struggle with high stakes”.(137)  For the “revolutionary politics” of the 20th century, this is nowhere more evident than in the telling of the Russian Revolution.  Simplifying in turn, the Left would be seduced by a story of an organized event led by the foresight and courage of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in opposition to the far more plural and confusing contingency of actors and events which the Bolsheviks were indeed finally to master, but never to lead.  The radical contingency of events is “erased, the participants’ consciousness is flattened and too often inoculated with a preternatural knowledge of how things tuned out, and the tumult of different understandings and motives is stilled.”(136)

The political consequences of such misreadings are obvious.  Most dramatically, as revolutions are conceived as the triumph of one sovereignty (the people’s, the working class’s, the Party’s) over another, effective revolutionary politics is then poured into the mold of programs and organizations.  And success or failure is measured by efficiency and effectiveness in the conquest of State power.

The plurality of historical actors are thus passed over: “actors with wildly divergent objectives mixed with a large dose of rage and indignation, actors with little knowledge of the situation beyond their immediate ken, actors subject to chance occurrences (a rain shower, a rumor, a gunshot) – and yet the vector sum of this cacophany of events may set the stage for what later is seen as a revolution.”(138-9)

Scott’s conclusion: “The condensation of history, our desire for clean narratives, and the need for elites and organizations to project an image of control and purpose all conspire to convey a false image of historical causation.  They blind us to the fact that most revolutions are not the work of revolutionary parties but the precipitate of spontaneous and improvised action …, that organized social movements are usually the product, not the cause, of uncoordinated protests and demonstrations, and that the great emnacipatory gains for human freedom have not been the result of orderly, institutional procedures but of disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below.”(141)

Scott’s apology for anarchism is not that of the ideologist or of the sectarian militant.  It is born rather of an “anarchist squint”,(xii) a way of looking “at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state” from “below”, from a perspective freed from the State.  What is then revealed (and Scott’s rich anthropological work bears testimony to this) is “that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism and anarchist philosophy.”(xii)

His adherence to the traditions of the anarchist movement is accordingly open.  He rejects the scientism that so many anarchists of the 20th century embraced.  He also does not believe that the State “is everywhere and always the enemy of freedom.”  Historical evidence of States acting “progressively” belie any blanket condemnation of the institution.  That such action is recent (a possibility that appears only in the last two hundred years), Scott acknowledges; and this only “when massive extra-institutional disruption from below threatens the whole political edifice.”(xiv)  And nor is the State the only institution that endangers freedom ; pre-State social relations were not “an unbroken landscape of communal property, cooperation, and peace.”(xiv)

Anarchism’s great virtue, according to Scott, has to do with what it teaches us about “how political change, both reformist and revolutionary, actually happens, how we should understand what is “political”, and finally how we ought to go about studying politics.”(xvii)  The “anarchist squint”, in other words, allows us to see that it is not organizations which bring about protest movements.  “In fact, it is more nearly correct to say that protest movements precipitate organizations, which in turn usually attempt to tame protest and turn it into constitutional channels.  So far as system-threatening protests are concerned, formal organizations are more an impediment than a facilitator.”(xvii)  Structural changes tend to occur when massive, institutional disruptions contest established institutions, something the organized Left rarely encourages or initiates.(xix)  And beyond defiance and insurrection, most of the everyday life of ordinary folk takes place outside any formal organizations and public manifestations.  It is not however for that reason apolitical.  For Scott, there are vast territories of human activity that happen outside “the visible spectrum of what usually passes for political activity” which he calls “infrapolitics”.  This includes such “acts as foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squating, and flight.”(xx)  These are forms of mutual aid and direct action that seek not to, cannot, express themselves in open political organization.  “And yet the accumulation of thousands or even millions of such petty acts can have massive effects on warfare, land rights, taxes, and property relations”, that is, a “a political change from below”.(xx-xxi)

Human social life, in this respect, is comprised of a remarkable plurality of acts of disobedience, which when exemplary, can set off chain reactions of emulation.  What begins as an individual act of cowardice or conscience (e.g. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, in December of 2010) becomes then a social phenomenon “that can have massive political effects”.(7)  These acts, Scott reminds us, “are virtually all anonymous”; an anonymity which from the perspective of the State and State inebriated politics, “paradoxically” contributed to their effectiveness.(10)  Such actions make no public claims, issue no manifestos, and yet historically, they have been the “preferred mode of political action for peasant and subaltern classes, for whom open defiance is too dangerous.”(11)  And it is typically when such an infrapolitics fails that it gives “way to more desperate, open conflicts such as riots, rebellions, and insurgency.”(12)

For Scott, more “regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish democracy”, the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.”(14)

What this argues for, we contend, is a micro and plural politics of creative resistance.  The grand narratives of revolution and their organizational children are the illusions and mistakes of cognitive hubris, retrospective blindness, ignorance and political fantasy that today end in the domesticity of the work place-shopping mall and the generalised surveillance of a society of control.

Scott’s subalterns, or what Saskia Sassen has recently called the “expelled”, are today literally everywhere and almost everyone.  And the resistance is equally everywhere.  What is perhaps significant in our time of insurrections is that the anonymous now enter upon the stage explicitly as anonymous.  The movement of occupations that has marked our present does so without leaders, central organisations, programs.  It makes few demands and often refuses consciously any direct confrontation with the State, instead proliferating through the interstices and cracks of the social relations that sustain it.  In this sense, one may perhaps be able to speak of an approximation, even a coincidence, between the anonymity of everyday resistance with forms of collective oppposition grounded in an explicit recognition of fragility and uncertainty: an anti-politics of destituente power, to employ Giorgio Agamben’s expression.

Scott’s infrapolitics are the expression of the resistances to State ordering and capture of the broader fabric of social life that he designates by the concept of the vernacular.  In this instance, the term applies not to language in its everyday use, but to the largely unsystematised, informal ways of doing that are grounded in local, practical wisdom, rather than in universal, standardised instrumental reasoning.  The warp and woof of human societies, for the greater part of their history, have been woven through affective, plural and informal relations, largely held within local and contingent circumstances; the very stuff that States have sought to discipline, but which until recently, could be and were resisted with relative success through the kinds of infrapolitics that Scott celebrates.

“Over the past two centuries”, however, “vernacular practices have been extinguished at such a rate that one can, with little exaggeration, think of the process as a mass extinction akin to the accelerated disappearance of species.  And the cause is also analogous: the loss of habitat.  Many vernacular practices have made their final exit, and others are endangered.”(53)   The principal agent of this extinction is the modern nation-state.  And its principal strategy: “homogenizing its population and the people’s deviant, vernacular practices”, with the aim of fabricating a nation.(54)

State driven homogenisation (paralleled today by that of international organisations and global corporations) today touches virtually every sphere of human life.  “A huge variety of languages and dialects, often mutually unintelligible, were, largely through schooling, subordinated to a standardized national language – often the dialect of the dominant region.  This led to the disappearance of languages; of local literature, oral and written; of music; of legends and epics; of whole worlds of meaning.  A huge variety of local laws and customary practices were replaced by a national system of law that was, in principle at least, everywhere the same.  A huge variety of land-use practices were replaced by a national system of land titling, registration, and transfer, the better to facilitate taxation.  A huge number of local pedagogies – apprenticeships, tutoring by traveling “masters”, healing, religious instruction, informal classes – were typically replaced by a national school system … .  This utopian image of uniformity was seldom achieved, but what these projects did accomplish was the destruction of vernaculars.”(54-5)

If not all vernaculars’ passing call for mourning (oppressive, hierarchical patriarchies, for example), the powerful agencies of homogenization do not discriminate.  “They have tended to replace virtually all vernaculars with what they represent as universal, but let us recall … that in most cases it is a North Atlantic crossed dressed vernacular masquerading as a universal.  The result is a massive diminution in cultural, political, and economic diversity, a massive homogenization in languages, cultures, property systems, political forms, and above all modes of sensibility and the life-worlds that sustain them.”(56)

In our everday, vernacular ways of life have been increasingly substituted by institutional forms, institutions which “to some considerable degree shape our expectations, our personalities, and our routines.”(76)  However varied and changing the institutions are, they bring about general consequences.  Since “the Industrial Revolution and headlong urbanization, a vastly increasing share of the population has become propertyless and dependent on large, hierarchical organizations for their livelihood.”(77)  Secondly, “those institutions are, with very few exceptions, profoundly and, typically, authoritarian.”(77)  The family, the school, the factory, the office, the work-site and the like, train us in habits of hierarchy.  Indeed, this has been accomplished to such a degree that Scott asks “whether [or not] the existence, power, and reach of the state over the past several centuries have sapped the independent, self-organizing power of individuals and small communities.”(xxi)  He himself, understandably, has no final answer to the question.  But he does leave us with a question that might serve to animate a radical politics of the vernacular.  The question serves as the basis for the evaluation of any human activity or institution: “How open is it to the purposes and talents of those who inhabit it?”(61)

On this ground, most of the institutions through which we pass would fail; a failure for which they are blind, as they are governed by a logic of costs and benefits that excludes all ethical and political evaluation of the ends of these institutions.  Scott’s critique of our time then is not simply a nostalgia for vernacular pasts, but an appeal for the politicization of our forms of life, a politicization that is participatory, egalitarian and free: an anarchist vernacular.

To defend the vernacular against that which may be designated the “official” is of course to risk reifying both, to then praise the former as good and the latter as evil.  Scott however never falls to the temptation.  His work is sensitive enough to neither blindly celebrate one, or categorically condemn the other.  What may though render his position problematic is the observation that the distinction between the vernacular and the official is itself neither stable nor unequivocal.  In other words, the border between the two is porous and in constant movement, and each contributes to the definition of the other.  And the task of laying out the separation between the two is an eminently political one and the object of political struggle.  Consequently, anarchism is less, should be less, a defense of the vernacular (and of the “squint” that allows us to see it, against the habitus of history and the social sciences), than a politics of overcoming the distinction itself.  The latter is an instrument of power.  To then set one perspective off against the other (the anarchist vernacular against the officialdom of the State), threatens either to make of the vernacular a new officialdom, or to end in impotent melancholy for worlds lost.  Instead , it would seem to us, that anarchism should seek to do away with any officialdom altogether, and thus with the vernacular as well.  The two categories stand or fall together.  The “anarchist squint” then becomes not the beacon of truth, opposed to the ignorance of scientism, but the re-collection of a past that remains a present possibility, the possibility of autonomy.  It is for the anarchist, to use Walter Benjamin’s expression, “to blast open the continuum of history”.

(All references are to James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism, published by Princeton University Press, 2012).

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