First published in the Greenmentality Blog.
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell recounts in his volume on power a story told by Confucius about a woman he saw wailing by a grave:
“Your wailing”, said he, “is that one who has suffered sorrow on sorrow”. She replied, “This is so. Once my husband’s father was killed here by a tiger. My husband was also killed, and now my son has died in the same way.” The Master said, “why do you not leave this place?”. The answer was “There is no oppressive government here.” The Master then said, “Remember this my children, oppressive government is more terrible than Tigers”. (quoted in Russell 2004 , 224.)
Interactions between humans and ‘nature’
This story epitomizes the complicated ecological interactions between humans and ‘nature’, as well as the added complexity occurring through the politics of ‘nature’. Studies of such political ecologies have documented the human dimensions of landscapes through tensions that occur when politics restricts the sense of embeddedness that people have towards their ‘nature’. These tensions are expressed through the application of asymmetric power, which is then resisted by acts of disobedience.
In the context of political ecology, more often than not, projections of power encounter the recalcitrant qualities of both humans and ‘nature’ (Scott, 2012: 37). If we observe natural phenomena through the laws of physics, we see that when power moves objects against each other, the friction generates resistance. In classical physics these phenomena are predictable and quantifiable. In the social world, the action/reaction associated with a variety of projections of power cannot be reduced and explained by formulas. Acts of disobedience in reaction to a projection of power are in effect the social analogue of physical resistance in the sense that resistance is bound to occur against power.
As documented by countless examples, when power is projected by humans upon other humans (and in many cases upon ‘nature’), various forms of resistance manifest. Humans deploy a range of strategies and tactics, as well as a variety of tools to resist power. The observations and attempted categorization of the vast range of resistance options and their deployment by victims of dominating power has been the subject of many studies. The short discussion below bridges two conceptualization of resistance, visible and invisible/hidden resistance, both highly relevant to the political ecology context of the Greenmentality project.
One way of categorizing resistance is based on observable recalcitrancy, in the sense that both the projector of power as well as a detached observer may detect the acts of resistance. Such strategies of resistance include: nonviolent, militant, discursive and formal-legal action (Cavanagh and Benjaminsen 2015, 727). Another form of resistance is described through the Ethiopian proverb quoted by Scott in the beginning of his study on ‘Hidden Transcripts’ (Scott 1990: v):
When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts.
While this action has no observable effect on the Lord, it does indicate that resistance has a hidden form, that may be uncovered through access to hidden transcripts (Scott 1990). To flesh-out the importance and impact of hidden forms of resistance, we need to acknowledge that resistance is a distinct consequence of a projection of power. Additionally, resistance can be described as a form of empowerment (Divon & Derman 2017, 17), and as such, resistance is a projection of power in reaction to a projection of power (Foucault 1978, 95; Foucault 1982, 781). Keeping in mind the main sources of social power: ideological, economic, military and political (Mann 2013, 2), resistance can be described as the application of the social sources of power to counter various projections of power.
Three strategies of power projection
Lukes (2005 ) describes in his seminal work three strategies of power projection employed in attempts to exercise domination: coercion, controlling the agenda, and shaping systems of beliefs and ideologies. If we view resistance as a projection of power against an act of domination, then it becomes clear that Lukes’ strategies of power projection are not available to the dominated as they are available to the dominator. An effort to formalize how to view and deal with the different faces of power has been devised through Gaventa’s Powercube (Gaventa 2006; Gaventa & Pettit 2011). The Powercube is an attempt to demonstrate that decisions on where and how to confront power take different forms. Research that describes resistance strategies employed by the dominated in face of projections of power reveals that there are both visible as well as hidden and invisible strategies of resistance (Lukes 2005; Scott 1985; Scott 1990; Gaventa & Pettit 2011). This can be described as such:
Assuming that A is the powerful individual or entity who consciously exercises power over B to achieve A’s own ends; often B finds ways to use the exercise of power by A: to undermine A; to give A the impression that A is more powerful than s/he really is; to allow A to exercise parts of his or her power but concede other parts; or to gain power, to ends that serve B’s purposes and/or interests (sometimes against A’s own interests and intentions). This can be achieved: with knowledge of A, without knowledge of A, or with partial knowledge of A (Divon 2015, 33; Divon & Derman 2017, 17).
Examples that illustrate some of the strategies described in the quote above were documented through research conducted under the Greenmentality project and include:
- A group of farmers in Tanzania were forced by the authorities to grow certain exotic varieties of trees and abandon their own customary practices. These farmers did not openly resist the authorities, and gave them the impression of acceptance and compliance. In reality, these farmers choose not to water nor take care of the exotic varieties. Through this, the farmers undermined the edict while giving the authorities the impression of compliance.
- Another similar example is of another community in Tanzania who rented the services of poachers to illegally harvest their own plantations. In this case, the authorities believed that the plantation was poached by criminals, thus the community gave the impression of compliance while in essence it was engaged in resistance.
- In another case, during a visit to conservation area in India, a group of researchers observed together with a park ranger, a group of local people ‘illegally’ extracting resources from the conservation area. In this case the authorities were aware of such acts of resistance, but choose to tolerate those as long they remained within certain limits. This was accepted for a variety of reasons, including lack of resources to pursue acts of ‘petty theft’ (as observed by the rangers), as long as the community did not extract wildlife from the conservation area.
What these examples illustrate is that resistance can be viewed as means of empowerment that exist where projections of power are employed. Acts of resistance are the projection of power through visible, invisible and hidden strategies. Invisible and hidden strategies have the advantage of harming the interests of the powerful, undermining their objectives while protecting the interests of the powerless\subjugated\less powerful.
It is important to note that we have been focusing here on power by examining how it manifests, or in other words, relations of power. But to be able to unpack “complex strategic situation in a particular society” (Foucault 1978, 93), we should also wear Foucauldian lenses that assist delineating the myriad of constraints bounding physical and cognitive choices. For such an analysis Foucault offers the concept of ‘Governmentality’. In other words, beyond the manifestation of power relations, we could also examine power by fleshing out the means through which it is exercised, or as Foucault suggests, by questioning the ontology that regulates both power and resistance (Foucault 1982, 786).
Cavanagh, C.J. and Benjaminsen, T.A. (2015). Guerrilla agriculture? A biopolitical guide to illicit cultivation within an IUCN Category II protected area. Journal of Peasant Studies 42: 725-745.
Divon, S.A. (2015). Exceptional Rules – US Assistance Policy in Africa. Aas: Universitetet for miljø- og biovitenskap.
Divon, S.A. & Derman, W. (2017). United States Assistance Policy in Africa: Exceptional Power. London & New York: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.
Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry 8(4): 777-795.
Gaventa, J. (2006). Finding the spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. IDS Bulletin 37(6): 22-33.
Gaventa, J. & Pettit, J. (2011). A response to ‘Powercube: understanding power for social change’. Journal of Political Power 4(2): 309-316.
Lukes, S. (2005). Power: A Radical View. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mann, M. (2013). The Sources of Social Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Russel, B. (2004). Power: A New Social Analysis. London & New York: Routledge.
Scott, J.C. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Scott, J.C. (1990). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press
Scott J.C. (2012). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Shai André Divon is Head of Department at Noragric. His main research focus is on power through foreign assistance, development politics, and post-conflict reconstruction.