Peasant rebellion in comparative historical perspective
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Occurred in Burma and Vietnam. Rice prices, which had been increasing ... In the Saya San revolt in Lower Burma, nearly 3,000 peasants were injured or ...

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Peasant Rebellions in SE Asia

  • Study of Upper Burma and Northern Vietnam

  • Much of the area was prone to droughts and famines

  • Result: recurrent subsistence crises

  • Site of large rebellions in the 1930s and, of course, the Vietnam war in the latter half of the 20th century


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The Moral Economy

  • Fear of food shortages gave rise to a “subsistence ethic” in peasant society

  • Focus of peasant households was on making income stable in order to avoid starving to death in droughts

  • Comprised of both technical arrangements and social arrangements


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Technical Arrangements

  • Used cropping and agricultural techniques to make the harvest as reliable and stable as possible

  • This was important because the demands of the state (i.e., taxes) could not be changed by peasants


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Social Arrangements

  • Norms of cooperation between members of the peasant community

  • Examples:

    • Reciprocity

    • Forced generosity

    • Communal land

    • Work-sharing


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Moral Economy and Peasant Rebellion

  • Scott argues that the moral economy is the key to understanding peasant rebellion

  • This subsistence ethic means that peasant households are not “profit maximizers”

  • Rather they are risk averse and try most often to minimize losses rather than maximize gains

  • This is a “safety first” principle


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How the Moral Economy Worked

  • Social pressure put on rich peasants to be charitable, sponsor festivals, give generously to local shrines and temples

  • Effect was to help redistribute some wealth

  • In times of hardship landlords might reduce taxes


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Moral Economy under strain

  • Two factors put the moral economy under strain in the 1930s

    • Capitalism

    • Development of modern nation state under colonialism


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Capitalism

  • Transformed land and labor into commodities that were for sale

    • Villagers no longer enjoyed control of land

    • Rise of a class of wage laborers with no land

    • Greater fluctuations in the market prices of agricultural products


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The State

  • Provided legal basis for capitalism

  • Enforced capitalist system through coercion

  • Demanded fix tax rates based upon population (head taxes) and land holdings

    • More stable than tax on actual income

    • Easier to assess


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Implications

  • Capitalism and the state undermined the “moral economy”

  • Made more serious the problem of having securing a “minimum income”

  • Explains the two main themes of peasant protest


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Theme 1: Taxation and Minimum Income

  • The tax demands (or rent demands) of landlords, moneylenders or the state were never legitimate when they infringed on the minimum culturally defined subsistence level.


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Theme 2: Distribution of Income

  • The products of the land (especially rice) should be distributed so that all in the village could subsist


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The Depression Rebellions

  • Occurred in Burma and Vietnam

  • Rice prices, which had been increasing in the 1920s, fell in the 1930s

  • Peasant incomes fell dramatically with the decline of rice prices

  • State demands (taxes) stayed basically the same


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Why didn’t the state reduce taxes?

  • At least one colonial official proposed a tax cut that would have reduced state tax revenue yields by almost 20%

  • Rejected in favor of a small increase in taxes

  • Reasons:

    • Great Depression led to decline in incomes from customs duties

    • Smaller government revenues would mean cutting officials from payrolls

    • Had coercive power to enforce tax collection


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Tax collections

  • Tax revenues fell from 22 million in 1929 to 17 million in 1931

  • State and landlords forced auctions of peasant belongings

  • More peasants jailed and beaten to force them to pay taxes


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Landlords under pressure

  • Many landlords in this period were themselves in debt

  • Falling rice prices also squeezed their profits

  • Previously lent money to peasants to pay their head taxes and land taxes and to plant their crops

  • Now under pressure from moneylenders at the very least refused to do this


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Peasant responses

  • Tenant peasants confiscated crops before the harvest or attacked grainaries

  • Increase in social banditry

  • Attacks on police stations

  • Often tried to burn tax records


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Increasing pressure on peasants

  • Communal lands disappeared as a result of corruption among mandarins and local notables

  • Tax burdens increased because of local corruption and became higher than mandated rates

  • These factors further undermined the moral economy


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Result: Rebellion

  • Several revolts took place in rural Vietnam and Burma during this time, the largest of which had as many as 20,000 participants.

  • Many seemed to participate because they supported the Communist program of lower taxes

  • In the Saya San revolt in Lower Burma, nearly 3,000 peasants were injured or killed


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Criticisms of the Moral Economy

The Political Economy Perspective


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Popkin – The Rational Peasant

  • Starts with a criticism of the Moral Economy perspective

    • peasants aren’t risk adverse and trying to ensure subsistence, they try to maximize long term income

    • Peasants often benefit from markets because it reduces their dependence on landlords

    • What determines the subsistence level?

    • how are competing claims for resources assessed?


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Rational Peasants

  • Peasant behavior governed by “investment logic”

  • When contributing to village project, peasants consider:

    • The amount of resource expenditure required

    • Positive rewards

    • The probability of success

    • Leadership viability and trust


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Why Use an Investment Logic?

  • Many peasants are free riders

  • Would prefer not to contribute to village social insurance systems if they can still reap the benefits


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How can peasant rebellion be explained?

  • Popkin argues there was no connection between subsistence crises and collective action

  • The key is organization – particularly by “political entrepreneurs”

  • In Vietnam these were Catholics and Communist cadres


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What did political entrepreneurs do?

  • Provided selective incentives to participants (courts for dispute resolution, social insurance, moral codes, even religious salvation)

  • Provided credible leadership

  • Focused on small projects first

  • Built a “revolutionary surplus” they could use to finance further projects


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Rare Rebellions

  • Although spectacular, peasant revolts are usually rare

  • But this doesn’t mean that peasants do not resist authority or that they accept the government or upper classes as legitimate

  • Rather they tend to engage in “everyday forms of peasant resistance”


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Everyday Forms of Resistance

  • Examples:

    • Foot dragging

    • False compliance

    • Feigned ignorance

    • Manipulation

    • Flight

    • Slander

    • Theft

    • Arson

    • Sabotage

    • Murder passed off as crime


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  • Everyday resistance stops short of overt resistance (such as rebellion)

  • Under most circumstances rebellion could be suicidal

  • Those who practice it try to hide their resistance

  • Relies upon a “conspiracy of silence”

  • But everyday resistance can undermine the goals and plans of states and authorities


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A Challenge to Dominant Ideology rebellion)

  • Everyday forms of resistance represent a challenge to the dominant ideology that is used to justify the repression of peasants

  • But peasants don’t accept this

  • No “false consciousness”

  • Instead they see through the ideology used to repress them


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How Effective is Everyday Resistance? rebellion)

  • Three main advantages

    • Can help peasants enhance their material welfare

    • As more and more participate in everyday resistance, it can erode unpopular laws, norms, practices or policies and in the extreme can even erode the regime

    • Practices of everyday resistance can lay the groundwork for more overt resistance


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Everyday vs. Outright Resistance rebellion)

  • Everyday

    • Desertion

    • Squatting

    • Pilfering graineries

  • Outright

    • Mutiny

    • Public land invasions

    • Open attack on markets


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Why it goes undetected rebellion)

  • Everyday resistance is small scale

  • Covert

  • Relies on cooperation of others


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Important forms of everyday peasant resistance rebellion)

  • Poaching

    • Most common crime in England for hundreds of years

    • Originated as a subsistence strategy

    • Became illegal because of changes in property rights laws

    • Capital offense (“Black Act”)

    • Peasants were complicit in poaching – by refusing to testify against poachers or even identify them


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Tax resistance rebellion)

  • Very common form of resistance to Islamic tithe in Malaysia.

    • Originally were voluntary, but then made mandatory by the state

    • Strategies:

      • Refusing to register cultivated acreage with tithe agent

      • Underreporting cultivated acreage

      • Delivering less rice than required

      • Handing over grain of poor quality


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Results of Tax Resistance rebellion)

  • Actual percentage of tithe paid 2% (as opposed to the 10% mandated by law)


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Desertion rebellion)

  • At an individual level may seem insignificant

  • When occurs in mass numbers can undermine armies

  • In the American civil war, poor white farmers deserted in mass numbers from the Confederate Army


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Kerkvliet rebellion) discussion questions

  • What are everyday politics?

  • Why are they important or powerful?

  • Why were collectives implemented in Vietnam starting in the 1950s?

  • How was collectivization viewed early on by villagers?

  • What were the problems with it? (no incentive to work hard, no disincentive for bad farming, collective property not well cared for, living conditions stagnated, administrative deadweight, undermined family as production unit)


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  • How did peasants respond to collectivization? rebellion)

  • How did central authorities view the performance of the collectives?

  • As we move into the 1980s what do we see happening in the agricultural sector in terms of state policy?

  • How can we interpret these changes?

  • What can this process tell us about state-society relations?


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