To Escape Notice

In the historical struggle over property rights, the antagonists on either side of the barricades have used the weapons that most suited them. Elites, controlling the lawmaking machinery of the state, have deployed bills of enclosure, paper titles, and freehold tenure, not to mention the police, gamekeepers, forest guards, the courts, and the gibbet to establish and defend their property rights. Peasants and subaltern groups, having no access to such heavy weaponry, have instead relied on techniques such as poaching, pilfering, and squatting to contest those claims and assert their own. Unobtrusive and anonymous, like desertion, these "weapons of the weak" stand in sharp contrast to open public challenges that aim at the same objective. Thus, desertion is a lower-risk alternative to mutiny, squatting a lower-risk alternative to a land invasion, poaching a lower-risk alternative to the open assertion of rights to timber, game, or fish. For most of the world's population today, and most assuredly for subaltern classes historically, such techniques have represented the only quotidian form of politics available. When they have failed, they have given way to more desperate, open conflicts such as riots, rebellions, and insurgency. These bids for power irrupt suddenly onto the official record, leaving traces in the archives beloved of historians and sociologists who, having documents to batten on, assign them a pride of place all out of proportion to the role they would occupy in a more comprehensive account of class struggle. Quiet, unassuming, quotidian insubordination, because it usually flies below the archival radar, waves no banners, has no officeholders, writes no manifestos, and has no permanent organization, escapes notice. And that's just what the practitioners of these forms of subaltern politics have in mind: to escape notice. You could say that, historically, the goal of peasants and subaltern classes has been to stay out of the archives. When they do make an appearance, you can be pretty sure that something has gone terribly wrong.

If we were to look at the great bandwidth of subaltern politics all the way from small acts of anonymous defiance to massive popular rebellions, we would find that outbreaks of riskier open confrontation are normally preceded by an increase in the tempo of anonymous threats and acts of violence: threatening letters, arson and threats of arson, cattle maiming, sabotage and nighttime machine breaking, and so on. Local elites and officials historically knew these as the likely precursors of open rebellion; and they were intended to be read as such by those who engaged in them. Both the frequency of insubordination and its "threat level" (pace the Office of Homeland Security) were understood by contemporary elites as early warning signs of desperation and political unrest. One of the first op-eds of the young Karl Marx noted in great detail the correlation between, on the one hand, unemployment and declining wages among factory workers in the Rhineland, and on the other, the frequency of prosecution for the theft of firewood from private lands.

The sort of lawbreaking going on here is, I think, a special subspecies of collective action. It is not often recognized as such, in large part because it makes no open claims of this kind and because it is almost always self-serving at the same time. Who is to say whether the poaching hunter is more interested in a warm fire and rabbit stew than in contesting the claim of the aristocracy to the wood and the game he has just taken? It is most certainly not in his interest to help the historian with a public account of his motives. The success of his claim to wood and game lies in keeping his acts and motives shrouded. And yet, the long-run success of this lawbreaking depends on the complicity of his friends and neighbors who may believe in his and their right to forest products and may themselves poach and, in any case, will not bear witness against him or turn him in to the authorities.