In the Crevasses Between Submission and Revolution (Part II)

Public and Hidden Transcripts of Resistance in Caste, Slave and Feudal Societies

Summary of Part I

In Part I, I argued that the relationship between political subordination and revolution is ill-conceived if framed in a dualistic way. We are either totally submissive or at the other extreme there is revolution. However, following the work of James C. Scott’s great book Domination and the Arts of Resistance I claimed that people don’t go from being subordinate to wanting to overthrow a government overnight. There is a spectrum of growing dissatisfaction in between. I presented three in between stages: thick submission, thin submission and paper-thin submission. Then I presented Scott’s three-dimensional theory of subordination: a) material, economic and technological; b) social-psychological; and c) cultural. I included examples in each dimension. Then I described three movements from submission to revolution. The first is the “public transcript” controlled by elites; second is a hidden transcript controlled by subordinates and the third is a public transcript controlled by subordinates on their way to becoming insubordinate. In Part I I covered the public transcript controlled by elites. These included parades and coronations, control of public discourse and use of language. They include body language, gestures and postures. In this second part I will describe what hidden transcripts are like and lastly, I will explain the process by which the hidden transcripts become public and controlled by the lower classes.

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The Hidden Transcript for Resistance

The hidden transcript requires two performances: a) performance of correct speech acts and gestures; and b) control of rage, insult, anger and violence in the face of the ruler’s appropriation of labor, public humiliations, whippings, rapes, slaps, leers, contempt, ritual denigration, and abuse of the children of the oppressed. When the public transcript is disrupted, it is difficult for the true feelings of subordinates not to surface. For example, in the twentieth century, the sinking of the Titanic was such an event. The drowning of large numbers of wealthy and powerful whites in their finery aboard a ship that was said to be unsinkable seemed like a stroke of poetic justice to many blacks. Here is a verse that was turned into a song:

All the millionaires looked around at Shine (a black stoker) say

“Now Shine, oh Shine, save poor me.” Say “We’ll make you wealthier than Shine can be”. Shine say, “you hate my color and you hate my race”

Say, “Jump overboard and give those sharks a chase”

Another example is the boxing victory of Jack Johnson over Jim Jeffries in 1910 and Joe Louis’ victories later in the 20th century. These were instances where black men took out their revenge on all whites for a lifetime of indignities. This was so disturbing to the local and state authorities that they passed ordinances against these victories being shown in local theaters.

But in order for hidden transcripts to take root, they need to be rehearsed backstage. Here is an example of a hidden transcript of slaves talking to each other after the master had left the kitchen:

That’s a day a-comin! That’s a day a comin’! I hear the rumbling ob de chariots! I see de flashin ob de guns! White folks blood is a runnin on the ground like a ribber, an de deads heaped up dat high! Oh Lor! Hasten de day when de blows, a de bruises, and de aches and de pains, shall come to de white folks, an de buzzards shall eat dem as dey’s dead in the streets. Oh Lor! roll on de chariots, an gib the black people rest and peace. Oh Lor! Gib me de pleasure ob livin’ till dat day, when I shall see white folks shot down like de wolves when dey come hungry out o’de woods. (5)

There are 4 characteristics of hidden transcript which merit clarification:

  1. The hidden transcript is specific to a given social site and to a particular set of actors. It happens among a restricted public. A slave speaking with a white shopkeeper during the day is not the same way he would speak in encountering whites on horseback at night.
  2. The frontier between the public and the hidden is a zone of constant struggle. For example in medieval Europe if a woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would spit beetle juice over her dress.
  3. Dominant groups also have hidden transcripts, but this is not the subject of Scott’s work.
  4. The hidden transcripts of dominant and subordinate are never in direct contact with each other except in rebellious situations, as we shall see.

Scott develops an interesting spectrum of the range of possible reactions that slaves might express. It seems reasonable that this could also apply to serfs and untouchables. I’ve reorganized Scott’s spectrum so that it conforms with the traditional political spectrum. At the most extreme, right wing of the spectrum of subordination are the performances for a harsh overseer. This requires the most work. The responses to a more liberal lord or overseer is next on the spectrum and last and least demanding of public transcripts are the performances of whites who have no direct authority over slaves, but who still have privileges. The last four parts of the spectrum are the hidden transcripts, moving from sympathetic to the most trusted.

Confiding in other slaves and free blacks in general is certainly more direct than with any whites. More intimate still are the conversations had between slaves of the same master. Next is trustworthiness of one’s closest slave friends. Lastly are those with whom one can be most confidential – the immediate family of slaves.

Spectrum of Hidden and Public Transcript

Hidden Transcript                            Public transcript
dominant

For members of the same subordinate group

Immediate family of slaves Closest slave friends Slaves of the same master Slaves and free blacks Whites having no direct authority, but privileges Indulgent master/ overseer Harsh master/ overseer

Hidden transcript will be least inhibited when two conditions are fulfilled:

  • When it is voiced in a sequestered social site where control, surveillance and repression are the least able to reach. This is where they can talk freely.
  • When this milieu is composed entirely of close confidants who share with each other similar experiences of domination (in-common subordination).

The first condition is to have a place to discuss, fantasize, plot and scheme and the second is to have something to talk about.

Need for social spaces for the hidden transcript

Slaves made use of secluded woods, clearing gullies, thickets and ravines to meet and talk in safety. In quarters at night, slaves hung up quilts and rags to muffle the sound. They gathered in circles on their knees and whispered with a guard to watch for the authorities. English historian Christopher Hill points out that the heretical movement, the Lollards, was most rife in pastoral forest, moorland and fen areas where social control of the church did not effectively penetrate. Familists, Ranters and Levellers thrived best in those areas where surveillance was least – the pastoral, moorland and forest areas with few squires or clergy. In European culture, the alehouse, tavern, inn and cabaret were seen by secular authorities and by the church as places of subversion. But what do you do if no site is available? Resistance is rawer when showing itself in linguistic codes, dialects, gestures.

Social spaces are not empty, neutral areas where subordinate groups simply slip into. Social spaces are an achievement of resistance – won and defended in the teeth of domination. Scott emphasizes the importance of having someone to share your perspective with in order to keep resistance alive. He refers to the social psychological Asch experiment. People are very likely to doubt their individually formulated perceptions of a line if enough people volunteer different perceptions. However, with even a minority of support for the individual’s perception, they are likely to stick with their original perception.

Are there subordinate groups that are more likely to stick together than others? Scott argues that among working class men some types of work are more likely to produce solidarity than others. These exist when a social group lacks mobility outside of their trade; there are high levels of cooperation necessary to do a job; there is high level of physical danger involved In the work; and workers are geographically isolated from other workers. That group is the most likely to be militant. What kind of workers are these? They are miners, merchant seamen, lumberjacks and longshoremen.

Conversely, in subordinate positions where there is likely to be an upward mobility built into the job: when the work involves contact with many other workers doing other jobs; the work does not require a great deal of cooperation and the occupation is not dangerous.  Those subordinate groups are not likely to build social solidarity.

Furthermore, the lower classes have horizontal mechanisms for controlling defection. These are not pretty and include slander, character assassination, gossip, rumor, public gestures of contempt, shunning, curses, backbiting, and out-casting. Anger will be disciplined by the shared experiences and power relations within that small group, ranging from raw anger to cooked indignation. Sentiments that are idiosyncratic, unrepresentative of the group’s feelings have weak resonance and are likely to be selected against or censored. 

Striving to atomize individuals – the dominant at work

The best social institutions at isolating individuals are what have been called by Erving Goffman “total institutions.” Examples are Jesuits, monastic orders, political sects, and court bureaucracies which enact techniques to try to prevent the development of subordinate loyalties. Preventive atomization of caste, slaves and feudal societies includes the following:

  1. The introduction of eunuchs into an organization to undermine the possibility of competing family loyalties.
  2. Bringing together a labor force with the greatest linguistic and ethnic diversity.
  3. Requiring that the subordinates all speak the language of the authorities.
  4. Planting informers to create distrust among the subordinate groups.
  5. Recruiting administrative staff from marginal, despised groups.
  6. People who were isolated from the populace and entirely dependent on the rulers for status.

As these techniques are usually only partly successful, heavy-handed strategies follow like:

  1. Severing autonomous circuits of folk discourse such as seizing broadsheets and printing presses.
  2. Detaining singers and itinerant workers who might be passing on information.
  3. Arresting and questioning anyone caught discussing the subversive topics in markets and inns.

In short, a form of domination creates certain possibilities for the production of a hidden transcript. Whether these possibilities are realized or not depends on the composition of the workers as well as on the constant agency of subordinates in seizing, defending and enlarging a spatial power field and resisting the techniques of atomization by the authorities.

Methodological problems with the hidden transcript

The problem with detecting the hidden transcript is not merely that the standard record is one of the records of elite activities and the ways that reflect their class and status rather than the lower classes. An even more important difficulty is that subordinate groups have an interest in concealing their activities and statements which might expose them. For example, we know little about the rate at which slaves in the US pilfered their masters’ livestock, grain and larder. If the slaves were successful, the master would know as little about this as possible. The goal of slaves is to escape detection.

Resistance through Disguise

Steeling for guerilla warfare

The upper classes sense the lower classes’ resistance which the dominant group interprets as cunning and deceptive. Both classes train themselves in maintaining their cool in the face of insults. Aristocrats are trained in self-restraints in the face of insults by competing aristocrats. Among blacks, “the Dozens” serves as a mechanism for teaching and sharpening the ability of oppressed groups to control anger by deliberately taunting each other with the most personal, family-related and interpersonal insults without blowing up. This is training for dealing with the insensitivity and obliviousness of white racism.

Elementary forms of disguise

Elementary forms of disguise can be divided into types. In one, the message is clear but the messenger is ambiguous. In spirit possession, gossip, witchcraft, rumor, letters and mass defiance, the message is hostility to the authorities but no one can locate the messenger.

In the second type, the messenger is clear but it is their message that is ambiguous. Euphemisms and grumbling and words with double meaning allow the lower classes to communicate dissatisfaction without taking full responsibility for it. If they get “called” on their message, they retreat to the public transcript meaning of what is literally being said.

Disguising the messenger

One form of elementary disguised resistance is possession states. Unlike vision quests which are actively engaged in by egalitarian hunting and gathering societies, possession states are altered states which are more of a reaction. As I.M. Lewis writes, possession states are a covert form of social protest for women and for marginal oppressed groups where they can openly make grievances known. They can curse the authorities and make demands they would never dare to make under non-altered states. The incidence of actual afflictions laid at door of these spirits tends to coincide with episodes of tension and unjust treatment in relations between master and servant.

Two other forms of anonymity are rumor and gossip. Gossip is a way in which the lower classes may comment on the everyday affairs of a lord, slave master or brahman for the purpose of ruining their reputation. Witchcraft is a step beyond gossip. It turns spiteful words about another into secret aggression acts of magic against the authorities. Sorcery is a classic resort by vulnerable subordinate groups who have little or no safe open opportunity to challenge a form of domination that angers them.

Unlike gossip, rumor is a reaction, not to everyday events but to events that are vitally important and about which only partial information is available. Rumors elaborate, distort and exaggerate the information which is given in which oppressed groups can interpret their hopes for the situation they are in.

On the other hand, mass defiance requires effective coordination. These are informal networks of the community that join members of subordinate groups through kinship, labor exchanges, neighborhood and ritual practices. After the State socialist declaration of martial law in Poland in 1983 against the formation of the Solidarity trade union:

Supporters of the union in the city of Lodz developed a unique form of cautious protest. They decided that in order to demonstrate their disdain for the lies propagated by the official government television news, they would all take a daily promenade timed to coincide exactly with the broadcast, wearing their hats backwards. Soon, much of the town joined them.

There was a sequel to this episode when the authorities shifted the hours of the Lodz ghetto curfew so that a promenade at that hour became illegal. In response, for some time many Lodz residents took their televisions to the window at precisely the time the government newscast began and beamed them out at full volume into empty courtyards and streets. A passerby who, in this case would have had to have been an officer of the “security forces”, was greeted by the eerie sight of working-class housing flats with a television at nearly every window blaring the government’s message at him. (140)

Even in prisons without the relative freedom of neighborhood connections, kinship, labor exchanges or the opportunity for collective rituals, prisoners demonstrate mass defiance when they rhythmically beat meal tins or rap on the bars of their cells. Scott describes a more elaborate form of mass defiance that prisoners used against guards in reaction to an up-and-coming race between the two:

The prisoners, knowing that they were expected to lose, spoiled the performance by purposely losing while acting an elaborate pantomime of excess effort. By exaggerating their compliance to the point of mockery, they openly showed their contempt for the proceedings while making it difficult for the guards to take action against them. (139)

Disguising the message

It is easy to think that if anonymity is not possible, complete deference is the only option. But, as Scott says, if anonymity encourages unvarnished messages, the veiling of the message represents the application of varnish. At its best, euphemisms are code phrases to protect the frank description of things that are too personal to speak about in public. However, as we saw, euphemisms are used by the upper classes to mask what they are really up to. The lower classes can also exploit the use of euphemisms. The oppressed can disguise a message just enough to skirt retaliation. However, euphemisms are not just phases that can have double or triple meaning. They can take place when people do not change the words at all but say them in the wrong place at the wrong time. Scott retells a more in-your-face use of this.

Slaves in Georgetown, South Carolina apparently crossed that linguistic boundary when they were arrested for singing the following hymn at the beginning of the civil war:

we’ll soon be free (repeated three times)
When the Lord will call us home
My bruddeer, how long (repeated three times)
Fore we done suffering here?
It won’t be long (repeated three times)
For the Lord call us home
We’ll soon be free (repeated three times)
When Jesus sets me free
We’ll fight for liberty (repeated three times)
When the Lord will call us home.

In another time and place, the same song could be interpreted by slave masters as the slaves pining for an ideal afterlife, rather than justice in this one. Grumblings are a groan, a sigh, a moan, chuckle, a well-timed silence, or a wink. Like euphemisms, grumbling must walk the line between being too cryptic, when the antagonist fails to get the point, but not so blatant that the bearers risk open retaliation.

Elaborate forms of disguise: collective representations of culture

Elaborate forms of disguise tend to be more “built-in” to a subculture and less spontaneous.  These include dance, dress, drama, folktales, religious beliefs and symbols which reverse the cultural domination of the elites. In oral countercultures, what is communicated is less precise than when communicated in writing. However, communication through face-to-face, whether voice, gestures, clothes, or dance, the communicator retains control over the manner of its dissemination. Anonymity is retained because each enactment is unique to time, place and audience. With writing, once a text is out of the author’s hands control over its use and dissemination is lost.

Myths

In sacred ceremonies managed by elites, slaves were expected to control their gestures, facial expressions and voices. Dancing, shouting, clapping and participation countered the elites’ attempts to make a coronation out of a religious ceremony. Just as the lower classes were expected to be passive in public secular activities, they were also expected to sit still and keep their mouths shut in sacred contexts. But in their own clandestine services, slaves did the opposite.

This form of disguise also played itself out in the choice of which myths to emphasize. African slaves chose deliverance and redemption themes: Moses in the Promised Land, along with the Egyptian captivity and emancipation. The Land of Canaan was taken to mean the Northern United States and freedom. Conservative preachers emphasized the New Testament with meekness, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile. Needless to say they were unpopular with slaves. On some occasions, slaves walked out of these services.

In the cultural conflicts that preceded the German Peasants’ War on the eve of the Reformation, there was a struggle over a pilgrimage site associated with the “Drummer of Niklashausen”. This tradition held that Christ’s sacrifice had redeemed all of humankind, including serfs. Access to salvation was democratically distributed. For a while, this church became a social magnet for pilgrimages and subversive discourse.

Folktales

In folktales, the trickster is a main player in folk resistance. Just as the lower classes can rarely stand toe-to-toe with the dominators, so the trickster, Brer Rabbit, makes his way through a treacherous environment of enemies by using wit and cunning. He knows the habits of his enemies and deceives them. North American slaves:

By identifying with Brer Rabbit, the slave child learned…that safety and success depended on curbing one’s anger and channeling it into forms of deception and cunning. (164)

Inverted imagery

There is a pan-European tradition of world-turned-up-side-down drawings and prints in which the hare snared the hunter, the cart pulled the horse, fishermen are pulled from the water by fish, a wife beats her husband, an ox slaughters the butcher, a goose puts the cook into the pot, and a king on foot is led by a peasant on horseback. Needless to say, this did not go over well with the authorities. In 1842 czarist officials seized all known copies of a large print depicting the ox slaughtering the butcher.

Rituals of Reversal, Carnival 

Much of the writing on carnival emphasizes the spirit of physical abandon – dancing, gluttony, open sexuality – as a reaction to Lent, which will follow carnival on the Catholic calendar. Michael Bakhtin argues that Carnival focused on functions we share with lower mammals, that is, the level at which we are all alike. But cutting the upper classes down to animals was only part of Carnival. Bakhtin also treats Carnival as the ritual location of uninhibited speech – the only place where undominated discourse prevailed – no servility, false pretenses, obsequiousness or etiquettes of submissiveness. It was a place where laughter with and at the upper classes was possible. For Bakhtin, laughter was revolutionary. Only equals may laugh together. Traditionally, the lower classes may not laugh in the presence of the upper classes. While the serf, slave and untouchable may have difficulty imagining other systems than serfdom, slavery and the caste system, they will have no trouble imagining a total reversal of an existing organization where they are on top, and the elites are on the bottom. This was also part of Carnival. These reversals can be found in nearly every major cultural tradition: Carnival in Catholic countries, Feast of Krishna in India, Saturnalia in ancient Rome, and the Water Festival in Buddhist Southeast Asia, to name a few.

Scott imagines carnival as a kind of people’s informal courtroom: the young can scold the old, women can ridicule men:

Any local notable who had incurred popular wrath, such as merciless usurers, soldiers who were abusive, corrupt local officials, priests who were abusive or lascivious – might find themselves a target… They might be burned in effigy.  (174)

In Andalusia in Spain, initially both classes participated in Carnival, but as agrarian conditions worsened, the landowners withdrew and watched Carnival from the balcony. They understood the reversals as getting uncomfortably close to the real thing.

Cultural reversals: hydraulic co-optations or rehearsal for revolution?

Fundamentalist Marxist theorists imagine that carnival is the invention of the elites. They also imagine that the effect of participating in these cultural traditions is to drain off energy that would be better utilized for making a revolution. Scott objects to both this claim and its analysis. If the first notion were true, elites would encourage Carnival. The opposite is more the case. Carnival was seen by the Church and state as a potential site for disorder and it required surveillance. In fact, the Church tried to replace Carnival with mystery plays. The proposal that elites create these rituals as hydraulic drainers confuses the intentions of elites with the limited results they are able to achieve. Rather, the existence and evolving form of Carnival is the outcome of social conflict, not the stage-managed concoction of elites.  Bread and circuses are political concessions won by subordinate classes. Carnival was the only time of the year the lower classes were permitted to assemble in unprecedented numbers behind masks and make threatening gestures. It was dangerous indeed!

Now to the issue of whether these cultural acts drain energy away from political action. Scott agrees with the hydraulic theory that systematic subordination elicits a reaction and this reaction involves a desire to strike or speak back. But the hydraulic theory supposes that the desire to strike back can be substantially satisfied in any of the cultural forms mentioned – myths, folktales, reversal imagery and rituals. For theories of hydraulic human interaction, the safe expression of aggression in joint fantasy yields as much or nearly as much satisfaction as direct aggression against the object of frustration. Scott argues against this.

Social psychological experimental studies of aggression today show that aggressive play and fantasy increase rather than decrease the likelihood of actual aggression. Additionally, many revolts by slaves, peasants and serfs occurred during seasonal rituals. The discourse of the hidden transcript is not a substitute for action. It merely sheds light on revolutionary action but it doesn’t explain it. Cultures of resistance help build the collective action itself.  The hidden transcript is a necessary but not sufficient condition for practical resistance. In response to Boudreau’s claim that conditioning from childhood socializes the lower classes to miss revolutionary opportunities, Scott argues it is equally important to be explained how working classes have imagined a sense of historical possibility which was not objectively justified, as the Lollards and Diggers of the English revolution found out.

From Resistance to Insubordination and Rebellion: When the hidden transcript goes public

How is it possible that so many people immediately understood what to do and that none of them needed any advice or instruction?

Apathy on the job

It is easy to overlook how much the indifference, lack of creativity on the job and low productivity levels can accumulate, not just in individual acts of frustration, but also in collective frustration that becomes a setting in which status infrapolitics builds up:

The aggregation of thousands upon thousands of petty acts of resistance has dramatic economic and political effects. Production, whether on the factory floor or on the plantation, can result in performances that are not bad enough to provoke punishment but not good enough to allow the enterprise to succeed. Petty acts can, like snowflakes on the steep mountainside, set off an avalanche. (192)

From this dissatisfaction on the job, the hidden transcript grows especially when for military, economic or political reasons, the elites have lost ground. As we saw in the argument against the hydraulic theory of inverted rituals, the rehearsal theory of Scott claims that aggression that is inhibited and may be displaced on other objects is rarely a substitute for direct confrontation with the frustrating agent. Repeated public humiliations can be fully reciprocated only with public revenge.

Defiance in public

In reaction to political, economic and religious downturns, the lower classes begin to become defiant in public. They begin wearing clothing not designated for their status such as turbans and shoes. They refuse to bow or give appropriate salutation.  A defiant posture can open acts of desacralization and disrespect. These are often the first sign of actual rebellion.

During the Spanish revolution of 1936 the revolutionary exhumations and desecration of sacred remains from Spanish cathedrals accomplished three purposes according to Scott:

  • It partly satisfied the anticlerical population that had not earlier dared to defy the Church;
  • It conveyed that the crowds were not afraid of spiritual or temporal power of the Church; and,
  • It suggested to a large audience that anything is possible

As an historian of the English Civil War, Christopher Hill argues:

Each facet of the popular revolution unleashed and then crushed by Cromwell had its counterpart in low-profile popular culture long predating its public manifestation. Thus, the Diggers and the Levelers staked an open claim to a fundamentally different version of property rights. Their popularity and the force of their moral claim derived from an offstage popular culture that had never accepted the enclosures as just and found expression in the practices of poaching and tearing down fences.

Differentiating resistance from insubordination

There is a difference between accidental or disguised resistance and open insubordination or aggression. For example: the practical failure to comply is different from the declared public refusal to comply; bumping up against someone is different from openly pushing that person; pilfering resources is not the same as open seizure of goods; standing up and then failing to sing the national anthem is different from publicly sitting while others stand. In the forms of resistance, every act is separate. Insubordination calls into question many subordinate acts which, up until now, were taken for granted.

The last chapter of Scott’s book addresses two points about what happens when the hidden transcript becomes public, First, what is it like emotionally for the lower classes when hidden transcripts become public? He addresses how the first acts of defiance are mixed with fear on one hand and elation on the other. He also addresses how the presence of the hidden transcript explains the apparent gap between the docility of the lower classes during normal times and their rebellious collective acts which appear to come out of nowhere. How do the apparent isolated charismatic acts of individuals gain their social force by virtue of their roots in the hidden transcript of a subordinate group?

Emotional experience of going public with the hidden transcript

At the end of the American Civil War there was the open defiance of slaves. There were instances of insolence, vituperation and attacks by slaves on masters. For example, weakening of a damn wall permitting more of the hidden transcript to leak through, increasing the probabilities of a complete rupture.

Frederick Douglass reported an account of a physical fight with his master. Running the risk of death, Douglass not only spoke back to his master, but would not allow himself to be beaten. Out of pride and anger, Douglass fought off his master while not going so far as to beat him in turn.

He reports:

“I was nothing before; I was a man now…After resisting him I felt as I had never felt before. It was a resurrection. I had reached the point where I was not afraid to die”

Douglass and others write of slaves who have somehow survived physical confrontations and have convinced their masters that they may be shot but cannot be whipped. The master is then confronted with an all-or-nothing choice.” (208)

In the Polish uprising against the Soviet government in 1980, the popular enthusiasm in the context of three decades of public silence was overwhelming:

To appreciate the quality of this “revolution of the soul” one must know that for 30 years, most Poles had lived a double life. They grew up with two codes of behavior, two languages – the pubic and the private – two histories – the official and the unofficial. From their school days they learned, not only to conceal in public their private opinions, but also to parrot another set of opinions prescribed by the ruling ideology. The end of this double life was a profound psychological gain for countless individuals…and now they discovered for certain that almost everyone around them actually felt the same way about the system as they did…The poet Stanisław Barańczak compared it to coming up for air after living for years under water. (212)

“For the first time in our lives we had taken a stand against the state. Before it was a taboo. I didn’t feel I was protesting just the price rise, although that’s what sparked it. It had to do with overthrowing at least in part everything we hated.”

There are historical circumstances that suddenly lower the danger of speaking out enough so that the previously timid are encouraged. The glasnost campaign of Gorbachev unleashed an unprecedented flurry of public declaration in the USSR. After the fall of the Soviet Union, state socialist heads in Eastern Europe squirmed, but the jig was up.

Millions of Romanians witnessed just such an epoch-making event during the televised rallies staged by President Nicolae Ceausescu on December 21, 1989, in Bucharest to demonstrate that he was still in command.

The young people started to boo. They jeered as the president, who still appeared unaware that trouble was mounting, rattled along denouncing anti-communist force. The booing grew louder and was briefly heard by the television audience, before technicians took over and voiced-over a sound track of canned applause. (204)

Raw vs cooked publicized hidden transcripts

There is a direct connection between the coherence of an open rebellion and the extent to which the hidden transcript has been “cooked”. The more the development of a hidden transcript has been suppressed by authoritarian regimes who have successfully atomized individuals through surveillance; the deliberately placing of people with geographical and linguistic differences in work groups, the more explosive and less coherent the uprising of public rebellion will be. Conversely, the more the hidden transcript has had a chance to be elaborated through repeated gatherings at subversive social sites, the more coherent and constructive the rebellion will be. Scott compares the degree to which hidden transcripts are shared to the electronic resistances on a single power grid:

We can metaphorically think of those with comparable hidden transcripts in a society as forming part of a single power grid. Small differences in hidden transcript within the grid might be considered analogous to electrical resistance causing losses of current. Many real interests are not sufficiently cohesive or widespread to create a latent power grid on which charismatic mobilization depends. (224)

Charisma as a social fire that transforms the hidden transcript into public transcript

When rebellions break out, one of the first things the authorities do is find out who “the leaders” are. Since it is hard for the authorities to imagine that most people are disgusted by their reign, they suppose that a charismatic leader had duped the well-intentioned or gullible masses down the road to damnation. If the first act of defiance succeeds and is spontaneously imitated by large numbers of others, an observer might well conclude that a herd of cattle with no individual wills or values has stampeded inadvertently. But charisma as a personal quality or aura of an individual that touches a secret power that makes others surrender their will and follow is comparatively rare and marginal. It ignores the reciprocity that must take place between leaders and followers for charisma to work. An individual has charisma only to the extent that others confer it upon them.

The hidden transcript is the socially produced rehearsal that has been scripted offstage by all members of the subordinate group over weeks, months and perhaps years. This hidden discourse created, cultivated and ripened in the nooks and crannies of the social order where subordinate groups can speak more freely. It is only when this hidden transcript is openly declared that subordinates can fully recognize the full extent to which their claims, dreams, and anger are shared by other subordinates with whom they have not been in direct touch. If there seems to be an instantaneous mutually and commonness of purpose, they are surely derived from the hidden transcript.

When some member of the lower castes, classes or religious groups has the nerve to voice what everyone else feels, of course,that individual becomes beloved and unforgettable. However, it is because that person has truly articulated something that was long overdue, an act or speech that truly swelled from the ground up that they are treated specially and followed. In other words, it was the time, place and circumstance that made their deed important, more than their individual qualities. Acts of daring might have been improvised on the public stage, but they had been long and amply prepared in the hidden transcript of folk culture and practice. Those who sing the catalyst’s praises are far from simple objects of manipulation. They quite genuinely recognized themselves in their speech or act. They invoked what Rousseau called the general will.

Scott closes his work majestically:

The first public declaration of the hidden transcript has a prehistory that explains its capacity to produce political breakthroughs. The courage of those who fail is likely to be noted, admired and even mythologized in stories of bravery, social banditry and noble sacrifice. They become themselves part of the hidden transcript.

It shouts what has historically had to be whispered, controlled, choked back, stifled and suppressed. If the results seem like moments of madness, if the politics they engender is tumultuous, frenetic, delirious and occasionally violent, that is perhaps because the powerless are so rarely on the public stage and have so much to say and do when they finally arrive. (227)

• 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.