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The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia

JAMES C. SCOTT is a professor of political science at Yale University.

Yale University Press (First Published, 1976)
246 pages including Index

RM116.00

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Through The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, James C. Scott places the critical problem of the peasant household—subsistence—at the center of this study. The fear of food shortages, he argues persuasively, explains many otherwise puzzling technical, social, and moral arrangements in peasant society, such as resistance to innovation, the desire to own land even at some cost in terms of income, relationships with other people, and relationships with institutions, including the state.

The basic architecture of The Moral Economy of the Peasant has a classical leanness and clarity. Its major premise is that, in the face of the unpredictable and largely uncontrollable violence of natural and man-caused calamity, traditional peasant communities are everywhere obsessed with the problem of survival. Peasants’ typically communitarian values, attachment to their land, dependence on personalized patronages, hostility to imported technical innovation, and suspicion of the state are both “logical corollaries” of this obsession and readily demonstrable traits of actual peasant societies.

All such attitudes and values reflect the need to minimize the risk of going under in time of adversity. This means, Scott argues, that the moral touchstone for peasant evaluation of landlords, officials, taxes, corvees, or commercial crops is their impact on the chances for survival, rather than for progress or profit. Peasant rebellion comes not when rising expectations are unexpectedly frustrated, but when the abyss of famine yawns.

Scott proceeds to show how the colonial experience inexorably drove many peasants to the brink of that abyss. Subjection to metropolitan capitalism exposed colonized peasantries to the incomprehensible vagaries both of nature and of world demand; the spread of cash caused a cancerous growth of usury, landlordism, and absentee ownership. The colonial state, far more powerful and “rational” than its predecessors, and obedient to the will of the metropole, not only imposed unprecedentedly heavy taxes, but gave the ruthless regularity of their collection priority over everything else. Whereas traditional princes had either been willing to or had been compelled to relax their tax demands in bad times, the white rulers calmly maintained their implacable exactions, thereby goading their peasant subjects to despair and rebellion.

After developing this argument with a subtlety, Scott moves on to apply it to certain peasant movements in Southeast Asia. Taking as his main examples the Saya San rebellion, which broke out in Lower Burma in 1930, and the so-called “Nghe-Tinh” insurrection that erupted in Annam in the same year, he suggests that they were the products both of a secular deterioration of the agrarian order and of the sudden catastrophic impact of the World Depression. Faced by what they perceived as a massive violation of their right to survival, Burmese and Vietnamese peasants reacted with a ferocity that horrified their colonial and native masters.

Demonstrating keen insights into the behaviour of people in other cultures and a rare ability to generalize soundly from case studies, Scott offers a different perspective on peasant behaviour that will be of interest particularly to political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and Southeast Asianists.

Preface

Introduction

1. The Economics and Sociology of the Subsistence Ethic

2. Subsistence Security in Peasant Choice and Values

3. The Distribution of Risk and Colonial Change

4. The State as Claimant

5. The Depression Rebellions

6. Implications for the Analysis of Exploitation: Reciprocity and Subsistence as Justice

7. Revolt, Survival, and Repression

Index

Weight 0.322 kg
Dimensions 20.2 × 13 × 1.6 cm
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Year Published

  1. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “A major work on peasant economy and cultural configurations which provides an original theoretical framework for comprehending peasant behavior and which explains the peasant’s existential dilemma.” — Sociology

  2. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “This work is a profound and fundamental contribution to the issues addressed.” — Sociology

  3. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “In many ways this is a gem of a book. To a high level of scholarship conceptualization, analysis, and an original and consistent approach, it adds clear and readable prose… The book should be useful to a wide variety of readers.” — The Annals

  4. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “Dr. Scott’s book is a thoroughly researched, well-written, sometimes stimulating examination of peasant economies and behavior.” — Allan W. Cameron, Perspective

  5. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “In this major work, … Scott views peasants as political and moral actors defending their values as well as their individual security, making his book vital to an understanding of peasant politics.” — Library Journal

  6. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “[This book] is regarded in the field of Southeast Asian studies as one of the most important works of its time.” — Asia Bulletin

  7. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “Scott bases his explanation of the technical, social and moral conditions of peasantry on the fear of food shortages. He states that their relationships with each other and with the government form an integral part of the peasant’s leanings towards rebellion and revolution. Based on several case studies, Scott’s investigation into the behavior of these people is rare and sympathetic.” — Asia Mail

  8. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “This is an important and interesting book. It is good analytical social science which successfully draws on economics and historical, sociological, anthropological, and political science literature in an attempt to understand peasant politics and rebellion. Highly recommended to those interested in economic history and development, Southeast Asia, peasant politics, and theories of rebellion. One hopes it will stimulate further research to test, elaborate, and extend its results.” — David Feeny, The Journal of Economic History

  9. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “The basic architecture of The Moral Economy has a classical leanness and clarity. Its major premise is that, in the face of the unpredictable and largely uncontrollable violence of natural and man-caused calamity, traditional peasant communities are everywhere obsessed with the problem of survival. … This means, Scott argues, that the moral touchstone for peasant evaluation of landlords, officials, taxes, corvees or commercial crops is their impact on the chances for survival rather than for progress or profit. Peasant rebellion comes not when rising expectations are unexpectedly frustrated but when the abyss of famine yawns.” — Benedict Anderson, The Journal of Asian Studies

  10. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “In this excellent discussion of social change in agrarian society Scott argues compellingly that problems of a secure subsistence are basic to an understanding of peasants’ reactions to development. His evenhanded, well-written argument uses this central theme and its implications for social justice to examine the violence wrought on peasants’ ‘moral economy’ during the colonial histories of Burma and Vietnam, but it goes far beyond by stressing regional variation and making use of an impressive range of comparisons.” — John W. Gatrell, Rural Sociology

  11. Kawah Buku (store manager)

    “This book will last. No one interested in peasant societies in Southeast Asia, or for that matter elsewhere, can afford to ignore it, and paying it the attention it deserves causes little pan, because it is as well written as it is sophisticated and enlightening. It should be assigned, at least in parts, to undergraduates in ‘Third World’ courses, recommended as a matter of course to graduate students working on social change, and mentioned always to anyone puzzled by the intricacies of economic, social, and political structure in countries with large peasant populations.” — Daniel S. Lev, The Journal of Politics

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