In the Crevices Between Submission and Revolution: Disguised and Public Resistance in Caste, Slave, and Feudal Societies Part I



Simplistic notions of Domination and Resistance: Polarized Dualities

When we examine the relations between those in power and those who are subordinate, a typical way of framing these relationships is as a duality. On one hand, those in power are ruling using various power bases such as force, coercion, and/or charisma. The impact of these power bases keeps people passive. In fact, some claim that powerless people come to agree they deserve to be in the position they are in. At the other extreme are open insurrections where the powerless temporarily rebel or even enact a revolution to overthrow those in power. The problem is that there are no in-between stages or a spectrum between pure submission on the one hand and revolution on the other.

From force to coercion

The ultimate basis of domination in complex state societies is force. However, the use of constant force only works in times of conquest or open rebellions. When domination acquires a kind of social continuity, other forms of dominance are set in motion. James C. Scott, in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance uses his experience as a sheep herder to compare the situation of sheep penned in by an electric fence with the dominant relations in human society.

If sheep are pastured in a field surrounded by a powerful electric fence, they will at first blunder into it and experience the painful shock. Once conditioned to the fence, the sheep will graze at a respectful distance. Occasionally, after working on the fence, I have forgotten to switch on the power again for days at a time, during which the sheep continue to avoid it. The fence continues to have the same associations for them despite the fact that the invisible power has been cut. (48)

In human affairs, this captures the movement from the use of force to coercion or the threat of force. However, the analogy breaks down when we compare the difference between the motivations and actions of sheep and humans.

With sheep we may only assume a constant desire to get to the pasture beyond the fence – it is generally greener on the other side of the fence since they will have grazed everything on their side. With tenants or sharecroppers, we may assume both a constant testing through poaching, pilfering…and a cultural capacity for collective anger and revenge. The point is that the symbols of power, provided that their potency was once experienced may continue to exert influence after they may have lost most or all of their effective power. (48)

The problem with social scientific understandings of power dynamics is that there is not much explanation of what is in between submission and revolution. But James C. Scott argues that rarely can we see a case where an individual slave, untouchable, or serf is being either entirely submissive or entirely insubordinate. In between submission/acceptance and open revolution there are other states of power.

Barrington Moore widens the spectrum between complete submission and revolution by arguing there are two other grades of resistance before the third stage of revolution:

  • lower classes criticize some of the dominant stratum for having violated the norms by which they claim to rule;
  • the lower classes accuse the entire stratum of failing to observe the principles of its rule; and,
  • the lower classes repudiate the very principles by which the dominant stratum justifies its dominance. This would be to identify with alternatives to the dominant system.

Scott argues that the historical evidence clearly shows that subordinate groups have been capable of revolutionary thought that repudiates existing forms of domination. However, subordinate groups are not born with revolutionary consciousness. They prefer squatting to a defiant land invasion. They prefer evasion of taxes to a tax riot. They would prefer poaching or pilfering to direct appropriation. It is only when these behind-the-scenes measures fail that they might be open to more drastic measures. Scott argues that there is a whole spectrum of resistance that occurs before even the first of Moore’s three gradients, as we shall see shortly.

My presentation of Scott’s work has five parts. In this introductory section, I will discuss three theories of submission, “thick”, “thin” and “paper thin” states of submission. Then I will probe into Scott’s three dimensions of submission including material, status and ideological dimensions. In the second section I will cover what Scott calls the “public transcript“ which is dominated by elites. These forms include things like parades and coronations and control of language. There are also forms of resistance such as the gathering of crowds and how terrifying they were to elites because they were public gatherings of subordinates without authorization. Interpersonal forms of resistance include mocking body language and verbal language including voice intonation and sarcasm. This will conclude Part I of this article.

In Part II I describe Scott’s notion of the hidden transcript. Hidden transcripts require secret social sites in which to discuss, rehearse and resist elites. Elites attempt to minimize this hidden transcript by taking away social sites and attempting to atomize individuals. In the second section of Part II, I discuss two forms of resistance that come out of the hidden transcript. One is social-psychological strategies and the other is the cultural strategies of resistance. In the last section of Part II, I describe Scott’s analysis of how the process of resistance turns into open insubordination. This is the electrifying time when the hidden transcript goes public. The general movement of both articles goes from the public transcript controlled by elites, to hidden transcripts controlled by subordinates to a return to the public transcript, this time controlled by subordinates who are now becoming insubordinate.

Theories of submission

When the upper class has power in everyday life, force is not used directly to keep the lower classes continuing to produce a surplus but by enacting a public display of their submission though speech, gesture and manners. How do we make sense of how this can happen? For liberal pluralists, the absence of significant protest or radical opposition is taken as a sign of lower-class satisfaction with the existing order. James C. Scott disagrees.

Thick and thin forms of submission

At the other extreme of the political spectrum, “fundamentalist” Marxists contend that on a deep level, perhaps on an unconscious level, the lower classes are aware that their position is unjust and in revolutionary situations will discover what has been buried inside them. According to them, in revolutionary situations the lower classes will become a “class-for-itself”. How do these Marxists explain the consciousness of the lower classes in non-revolutionary situations? They contend that in these times the working class has been convinced that the upper-class justifications for their power are legitimate – and they actively believe in those values. They consent to their position. This is what Marx called “false consciousness” or class-in-itself mind-set. Scott labels these Marxist depictions of the lower classes as “thick forms of consciousness.” This means that as people become socialized, the mask that they wear to do their job and reproduce hierarchical relations grows slowly onto their face and over the long-haul the face becomes the mask.

I find this term “fundamentalist” useful to describe a scholastic approach of some Marxists to socio-historical issues which rely too heavily on original texts to explain new events in the world and resist dialectical incorporation of new research which has emerged since the text was  written. In addition, there is a denial of the fact that some of Marx’s predictions were simply wrong.

Both liberals and fundamental Marxists agree that the lower classes in their normal conditions are satisfied or have “bought” the existence of class society. More skeptical of this are those left-wing critics who think the lower classes are unhappy with their situation but they think it is natural and inevitable. Instead of being satisfied or yielding consent, they are resigned to their situation. Scott calls this theory “thin” forms of lower-class submission. This is close to what Gaventa calls intimidation or the rule of anticipated reactions. This means the lower classes elect not to challenge elites because they anticipate the sanctions that will be brought against them. It is an estimate of the hopeless odds which discourage a challenge. Zygmunt Bauman sees power relations as being kept intact because alternatives to the current structure are excluded. He says “The dominant culture consists of transforming everything which is not inevitable into the improbable.” Here there is still a mask but it is thinner. The lower classes are less “snowed”.                                                           

Scott’s super-thin forms of submission

From Scott’s research, he thinks there is little evidence for the ideological incorporation of the lower classes and much evidence that the dominant ideology gives support and cohesion to the upper class rather than the lower classes, similar to pep rallies.  For Scott, what both thin and thick forms of consciousness don’t explain is how social change could ever originate from below. Instead, he argues that all these theories miss the disguised and public forms of resistance which are the subject of this essay. Scott says that these “in-between” forms of resistance are predominant in caste, feudal, and, slave societies.

Besides historical study, Scott draws from social reactance theory. Social reactance theory works on the assumption that there is a human desire for freedom and autonomy. When subordinates feel that their subordination is freely chosen, they are most likely to comply. When subordination is perceived as not freely chosen, there is resistance. In persuasive communication studies, when threats are added to a persuasive communication, they reduce the degree of attitude change. In fact, threatened choice alternatively tends to become more attractive. For Scott, there is little chance that acting with a mask will appreciably affect the face of the actor. If it does, there is a better chance the face behind the mask will, in reaction, grow to look less like the mask, rather than more like it. Nevertheless, Scott specifies 3 conditions under which a “paper thin” mask metaphor may be apt:

  • when there is a good chance a good many subordinates will eventually come to occupy positions of power. This encourages patience, emulation and explains why age graded systems of domination have such durability; and
  • when subordinates are completely atomized, kept under close observation and have no opportunity to talk things over or engage in either public or disguised resistance. This might occur when subordinate groups are divided by geography, culture and language.
  • When there is a promise of being set free in return for a record of service and compliance. 

Scott’s work is the study of forms of resistance which exist in everyday life and are not revolutionary but exist as a kind of guerrilla warfare. His studies are drawn from pre-capitalist hierarchical societies including the reports of slaves, serfs, and untouchables. He ignores the specific differences between slave systems in North America or South America as well as differences between agricultural civilizations in China and India and European feudalism. He claims that his analysis has less relevance to forms of domination in industrial capitalist countries such as scientific techniques, bureaucratic rules or capitalist forces of supply and demand. Scott’s work is an attempt to track how struggles of lords and serfs, slave owners and slaves, Brahmins and untouchables are played out under coercive, rather than force conditions in everyday life.

Scott’s three-dimensional theory of subordination and resistance: material (technological and economic) status and ideological

James Scott divides the political economy of domination and submission into three dimensions: material domination and material resistance; status domination and status resistance; and ideological domination and ideological resistance. Please see Table 2 for an overview of how these dimensions play themselves out in dominance and resistance situations. Material domination includes the appropriation of grain, taxes, and labor by agricultural elites. Status domination consists of forcing subordinates to enact their subordination through ritual humiliations, etiquette, demeanor, gestures, verbal language such as “my lord,” or “your highness”. Soft speech levels include who speaks first to whom, codes of eating, dressing, bathing, cultural taste, and who gives way to whom in public.

Status indignities form a social-psychological bridge between the subordinates’ material condition and cultural ideological justifications for why they are in the state they are in. Status indignities are the subjective and inter-subjective experience of being poor and landless. For example, they are in psychological despair because they cannot afford to feed guests on the feast of Ramadan; they are upset by wealthy people who pass him on the village path without uttering a greeting; he cannot bury his parents properly or their daughter will marry late, if at all because she lacks a dowry. The worst indignities are suffered by audiences of those who form the social source for one’s sense of self-esteem – that is closest friends, families, and neighbors. Ideological domination includes whatever religious justifications exist for why the upper classes deserve to be in the position they are in. Scott calls all three dimensions the “public transcript”.

Material resistance is divided into two types, public resistance and disguised resistance (cells 2 and 3 of table 2.) Public material resistance is what you might suspect. The usual tactics used by subordinate groups in reformist or revolutionary situations include petitions, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and land invasions. Public status resistance includes insubordinate gestures, postures, and open desecration of status symbols. This might include the victim’s pleasure at seeing superiors dressed down by their superiors. Once this occurs, things are never the same. Public ideological resistance includes counter ideologies which propagate equality, such as liberalism or socialism. They might also include religious heresies of spiritual equality.

The three dimensions of public dominance correspond to what most sociologists and theories of power address. Scott might call this “high politics”. Formal political organization is the realm of elites where resolutions, declarations, and laws are enacted by politicians used in written records, news stories, and law suits.  In countries with a liberal industrial capitalist orientation, an exclusive concern with open political action will capture and normalize some forms of resistance such as petitions, demonstrations, boycotts and group organizing to make them ineffective. Political liberties of speech and association have lowered the risks and difficulty of open political expression.

But in conservative, dictatorship, industrial capitalist societies or in the slave, caste, and feudal societies most people are subjects, not citizens. If high politics is considered to be all of what politics is, then it appears that subordinate groups in these societies lack a political life, unless they engage in strikes, rebellions, or revolutions  – that is, “resistant” politics (second cell).

“Infrapolitics” is the circumspect struggle waged daily by subordinate groups and is like infrared rays, beyond the visible end of the spectrum. If formal political organization is the realm of elites, infrapolitics is the realm of informal leadership of nonelites, of conversation and oral discourse. “Infrapolitics” provides much of the cultural and structural underpinning for the more visible political resistance that may come later. Infrapolitics is a kind of guerrilla warfare where one side advances to see if its tactics survive or are attacked and if so, with what strength? This is the subject of Scott’s work. He argues that to focus on the visible coastline of high politics misses the continent of infrapolitics.

Forms of disguised infrapolitics fall into three dimensions, material disguised resistance, status disguised resistance and ideological disguised resistance. Together all three are called “the hidden transcript.” Scott’s interest is in the status and ideological dimensions rather than the material dimension of infrapolitics because the material dimension has already been covered by Marxist fundamentalism.

Direct resistance by disguised resisters includes masked appropriations of food or land and anonymous threats. Practices of material disguised resistance include poaching, squatting, desertion, evasions, or fraudulent declarations of the amount of land farmed. In addition, direct resistance can include simple failures to declare land, underpayment, delivery of paddy spoiled by moisture or contaminated with rocks and mud, and foot-dragging. The lower classes can use gullibility and ignorance that are elite stereotypes of them such. These may include “laziness” to do less work and resist taxes, land dues, conscription and grain appropriation. In playing dumb, subordinates make creative use of the stereotypes intended to stigmatize them. Refusal to understand is also a form of class struggle.

Status disguised resistance includes what subordinates say and do with each other behind closed doors to counter status insults. This includes rituals of aggression, tales of revenge, gossip, rumor, and the creation of autonomous social sites. Gossip and rumor are designed to have a double meaning. This applies also to folk tales, jokes, songs, rituals, codes, and euphemisms.

Ideological, disguised resistance includes the development of dissident subcultures, millennial religions, myths of social banditry, and the return of the good king, carnival and world-upside down arts and crafts, which was also very powerful. Ideological disguised resistance also has a double meaning such as jokes, euphemisms, and the Br’er Rabbit stories of slaves. Altogether, there are six forms of resistance, three forms of public resistance, and three forms of disguised resistance. The table below helps to differentiate them.

The Public Transcript of Domination and Resistance

The public transcript is the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate them. The public transcript is the self-portrait of the dominant elites as they would have themselves seen. This can take the form of collective performances such as public displays with little interpersonal interaction and interpersonal performances where there is actual dialogue.

Dominance performances: parades and coronations

Formal ceremonies such as parades, inaugurations, processions, and coronations celebrate and dramatize the rule of dominators. They are choreographed in such a way as to prevent surprises. All parades imply a hierarchical order, a precise gradation of status, with the king at the head and the lowliest at the rear. They are authoritarian gatherings. In formal ceremonies, subordinates only gather when they are authorized.

Rather like iron filings aligned by a powerful magnet, subordinates are gathered in an arrangement and for purposes determined by their superiors…

In a parade, there are no horizontal links among subordinates. Without the hierarchy and authority that knits them into a unit they appear as  mere atoms with no social existence….subordinates are nothing but potatoes in a sack (61-62)

Who are these performances for? At first guess, you might think that coronations serve the purpose of displaying to their subordinates the might and coordination of the dominant. But according to Scott, they are not very successful in doing this. He claims that this domination performances is a kind of self-hypnosis within ruling groups to buck up their courage. The authorities want to create appearance of unanimity among ruling groups. This is why it is very important that ruling classes suppress members of their own class from disagreeing publicly.

Public Transcripts of Domination: Interpersonal

Deferential behavior by subordinates in public interactions includes encouraging smiles, appreciative laughter and conformity in facial expression and gesture. Gender differences in language are interesting here. For example, women use tag questions and a rising tone at the end of a declarative sentence, including the use of hyper-polite tones, linguistic hedges, stammering, and no public joking. (Scott says it is interesting to consider that there are few women comedians.) Subordination and domination are built into the different usages in terms of bodily functions. Scott sites the following examples: “Whereas commoners bathe, the Sultan sprinkles himself; while commoners walk, the Sultan progresses (assuming a smooth, gliding motion); while commoners sleep, the Sultan reclines.” In slave societies, slaves are referred to as boys, whereas whites are referenced as “mister”.

The upper classes also use euphemisms, that is verbal language, gestures, architecture, ritual actions, and public ceremonies to obscure the ultimate force-basis use of rule. For example, in terms of language,  “pacification” is used instead of “armed attack and occupation”; “calming” for “confinement by straightjacket”; “capital punishment” for “state execution”; “re-education camps” for “prison for political opponents”; and “trade in ebony wood” for “traffic in slaves”. Scott says when bosses fire workers they say “we had to let them go”, as if workers in question were mercifully released like dogs straining on their leashes.

On the other hand, the practices of their opponents are vilified and presented in categories which delegitimize their opposition. Authorities deny rebels the status of public discourse and try to assimilate their acts into a category that minimizes the political challenge by calling them bandits and criminals, hooligans, or mentally deranged. Religious practices that challenge the corrupt practices of the authorities are labeled heresy, Satanism, or witchcraft.

Public transcripts of resistance: crowds

An unauthorized gathering was potentially threatening. It is so threatening to the upper classes that they call such gatherings “mobs” or “rabble”. In other words, they think people run amok because they have no authorities ruling over them. A gathering is an unauthorized coordination of subordinates by subordinates.

In an agricultural bureaucratic state in the East or a feudal society in the West, the presentation of a petition to the ruler to redress peasant grievances was itself a capital crime.  Gatherings of five or more slaves without the presence of a white observer were forbidden. The authorities were uneasy about the holidays because they lacked the structure of work and brought together large numbers of slaves. This is why there was a law in France in 1838 forbidding public discussion between work peers.

Pubic transcripts of resistance: interpersonal

Those in subordinate positions may refuse to enact submissive facial gestures, make way for elites on the street, or addressing them with mock intonations or exaggerated submissiveness, refusal to laugh at jokes of the upper classes.

Public transcripts of resistance: ideological

Holding the elites’ feet to the fire

Elites cannot do just as they please. Because much of their power is legitimized, they must at least make a passable attempt to perform some valuable social functions. This requires that it must:

  • specify the claims to legitimacy it makes;
  • develop discursive affirmations it stages for the public transcript;
  • identify aspects of power relations it will seek to hide (its dirty linen);
  • specify the acts and gestures that will undermine its claim to legitimacy;
  • tolerate critiques that are possible within its frame of reference; and,
  • identify the ideas and actions that will represent a repudiation of profanation of the form of domination in its entirety.

Elites are vulnerable to attack if these conditions are compromised.

For example, in feudalism, honor, noblesseoblige, bravery, and expansive generosity are expected from the aristocrats. The feudal contract would be negated by any conduct that violated these affirmations such as cowardice, petty bargaining, stinginess, the presence of runaway serfs, and failure to physically protect serfs. In the case of the Brahmins, elites would need to possess superior karma, vital ritual services, refinement in manner, presiding at key rites of birth, and observance of taboos are expected.

Return of the Just King

Very often the lower classes play off the king against the aristocracy. It is the king who represents the true interests of the serfs, untouchables, or slaves against the abuses of the nobles. Scott argues that, Lenin notwithstanding, there is simply no evidence that the myth of the Czar promoted political passivity among the peasantry. Furthermore, there is a fair amount of evidence that the myth facilitated peasant resistance. When petitions to the Czar failed, instead of turning on the Czar, serfs then suspected that an imposter, a false czar was on the throne. Under the reign of Catherine II, there were at least 26 pretenders. Pugachev, the leader of one of the greatest peasant rebellions, owed his success in part to his claim to be Czar Peter III. The myth of the czar could transmute the peasantry’s violent resistance to oppression to any act of loyalty to the Crown.

Fundamentalist Marxists, using thick forms of subordinate consciousness, claim that the myth of the kind czar is an ideological creation of the monarchy, then appropriated and reinterpreted by the peasantry. Scott argues that these myths were the joint product of a historic struggle rather like a ferocious argument in which the basic terms – simple peasant, benevolent czar – are shared but in which interpretations follow wildly divergent paths in accordance with vital interests.

Throughout Europe and southeast Asia there are long traditions of the return of a just king. Indian untouchables have imagined that Orthodox Hinduism has hidden sacred texts proving their equality. Slaves have imagined a day when they would be free and slave owners punished for their tyranny. Contrary to Gramsci, radicalism may be less likely to arise among disadvantaged groups who fail to take the dominant ideology seriously because they haven’t yet constructed an alternative.


Subordination requires a credible performance of humility and deference, while domination requires a performance of haughtiness and mastery. Transgresses of script have more serious consequences for subordinates, and subordinates are closer observers of the dominant because there is more to lose. The same is true for women in relation to men and children and in relation to their parents. People in dominant positions think characteristics of subordinates are inborn, rather than staged for them.

Coming Attractions

Up to now all the resistance offered by subordinates does not include any systematic interpersonal discussion by them. There must be a specific social gathering site, usually in secret, where subordinates can speak freely. Secondly, those subordinates must be trustworthy, often members of the same slave master family, kin or neighbors, and have very specific working conditions as we shall see in Part II. We will explore two forms of disguise. Disguising the message and disguising the messenger. What is the place of myth and folktales? Are these stories diversions from revolution or rehearsals for it? Is smashing statues or reversing roles in carnival cathartic releases which then make people more docile or do they provide people with a structure for systematic revolt? Finally, what are the conditions when the hidden transcript of resistance finally turns into a public transcript of insubordination or revolution?

All of this will be covered in Part II.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.