Finding Everyday Resistance in the Working Class and the Oral History Transcript
When I began collecting oral histories of people's working lives in Barre, VT this past summer, the work of James C. Scott percolated into my mind. James C. Scott is a political scientist and anthropologist who is perhaps best known for theorizing the politics of everyday resistance, as opposed to major historical events, such as a outright rebellion or revolution. These days, the word "resist" has become popular among those who are opposed to Donald Trump, his administration, and his policies. While resistance to his barbarism in all of its myriad forms is needed, resistance is something that all oppressed people have been practicing since the very first class societies arose. Too see this, and how we may locate resistance in the oral histories of working people, first we need to understand the theoretical framework Scott developed in order for scholars and others to be able to do just that.
Central to his theory are his concepts of public and hidden transcripts. Public transcripts are those actions and communications which we feel compelled to perform in the face of power, that is, domination. For those in power, the dominating/ruling class, the public transcript is that which must be performed in order to enforce their power over subordinates and affirm their power among their peers. A common example of this may be a boss being harsh or taking extra punitive measures with their employee to make "an example" out of them. For those lacking in power, the dominated/oppressed group, a public transcript is that which must be performed in order to demonstrate their obsequiousness. Unlike the dominating class, the oppressed have a lot more at risk if they fail to perform the public transcript: they risk their jobs, their livelihood, and, in certain situations such as slavery, their lives.
Hidden transcripts are all the myriad of mostly prosaic ways in which power, and thereby the public transcript, is critiqued or challenged. To continue with the examples I've just outlined, a hidden transcript of the dominating/ruling class might be revealed in the boss lamenting to a trusted friend that they would like to be lenient but fear further insubordination or being perceived as weak. For the dominated/oppressed class, they might confide to their friends or coworkers that they wish they could've told the boss off or just walk right off the job. Instead, because of the threat to their livelihood, they had to absorb the criticisms and do as the boss said.
These are, of course, grossly simplified situations made to clearly communicate the fundamental dynamics of these concepts. It is important to understand that hidden transcripts are not only found in speech acts. Non-verbal actions may also indicate the performance of a hidden transcript. For example, let's say our worker was being disciplined for shutting down a social media account that was committing hate speech but nonetheless didn't quite violate the platform's community policy. The worker could acquiesce temporarily, but decide to continue to shut down accounts spewing hate speech and claim ignorance of policy and request further training if they are reprimanded again. The book in which Scott elucidates these concepts, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, includes many other excellent examples of non-verbal performances of a hidden transcript on the part of the oppressed classes. Below is a list of some historical performances of the hidden transcript and everyday resistance:
"In the case of slaves, for example, these stratagems have typically included theft, pilfering, feigned ignorance, shirking or careless labor, footdragging, secret trade and production for sale, sabotage of crops, livestock, and machinery, arson, flight, and so on. In the case of peasants, poaching, squatting, illegal gleaning, delivery of inferior rents in kind, clearing clandestine fields, and defaults on feudal dues have been common stratagems. " (Scott 188)
While he gives examples of slaves and peasants -- which constitute the bulk on the book's examples due to the significantly more personal quality to their systems of domination -- the proletariat, or the working classes, under capitalism are also an oppressed class that performs public and hidden transcripts. The oppression of the working classes is less personal because instead of working under one master or lord, they work for various employers whom they are free to leave -- if they have another job, money, or are willing to live in poverty and possibly starve. However, Scott writes that "virtually every instance of personal domination is intimately connected with a process of appropriation" (Scott 188). We can also assume that the inverse of this statement -- that virtually every instance of appropriation is intimately connected with a process of personal domination -- may also apply.
Under capitalism, surplus labor is appropriated from some workers in the working class in the process of production. Other workers in the working class may maintain these workers so they can keep producing surplus labor through what is often called reproductive labor, which is all the work required to give keep us healthy and educated, etc. In other words, the capitalist class materially appropriates a portion of labor, of time and vitality, from the working class. Then, of course, there are also regressive tax systems and a myriad of other ways to appropriate resources and wealth from the working classes. They are also symbolically taxed -- especially by the hegemonic idea that we live in a meritocracy and therefore our worth is correlated with our wealth and socioeconomic status. According to this idea of meritocracy, the fact that someone is poor or struggling is a mark of their inferiority.
The working class is defined by material appropriation beyond the extraction of surplus labor. The working class is the class that doesn't own the means of production; it has long ago been appropriated from them by the privatization of lands and resources. They have nothing to sell but their labor, making them dependent upon the capitalist class as a whole (and it should be noted that the capitalist class is dependent on the worker to produce surplus labor that they can turn into capital). From here, it is not hard to imagine the ways in which the working class may then be personally dominated. Bosses, as capitalists or acting on behalf of capitalists, can and have exploited this dependency to abuse employees with impunity. A boss may ask for sexual favors, for extra work, demand specific acts of deference, etc.
So it is not a question of whether the working class would constitute a dominated class in Scott's system, but there is the problem of finding as many performances of an hidden transcript, particularly among the more privileged sections of the working class (e.g. full-time workers with good wages and benefits). Scott argues that the dominated class is more likely to resist and perform a hidden transcript when domination is more personal -- when it attacks their very dignity. And, more importantly, the performance of a hidden transcript through acts of everyday resistance is more likely to be performed by oppressed groups who have very little power in the public sphere -- or by individuals in a situation in which they have little to no power.
We, fortunately, still live in a liberal democracy -- albeit one that is under threat -- which means that public campaigns will constitute the bulk of the working classes' political life. Protected political liberties, such as the freedom of speech and association, means that resistance may take an open form in many cases. Clandestine resistance, which Scott calls the "infrapolitics" of the hidden transcript, is the strategy of dominated classes "under the conditions of tyranny and persecution" (Scott 201). In other words, the infrapolitics which are part of the hidden transcript are the clandestine, everyday resistance to various forms of oppression that would otherwise be too risky to the oppressed group to resist publicly. And, rather than acting as a safety valve that releases tension without challenging power, the hidden transcript and everyday forms of resistance often are the foundation and fuel to more open confrontation.
Collecting workers stories have illustrated powerful instances of open resistance through campaigns and unions, but, even still, hidden transcripts emerged. It came as no surprise to me, given that only 6.7% of private-sector workers and 34.4% of public-sector workers are unionized in the United States. The percentage of workers in unions, private and public sectors combined, is 10.7% for 2017, meaning that 89.3% of the workforce in the United States is not unionized and, therefore, has little power and voice in the workplace.
This very un-democractic situation that exists in the workplaces for the majority of workers means that, in most states, workers can be fired for any reason, that is, without just cause in union parlance. I did an interview with a worker employed by a local restaurant as a server who was laid off because her boss just decided one day that too many of their family members were working there. No family conflict or anything of the sort gave rise to the boss's sudden inclination, he just decided it was a good idea one day. Apparently, after telling them they were laid off, he expected them to continue working for two more weeks or so until they could find a replacement for them. Well, this worker decided that they had enough and left the job right there and then; they weren't going to give the restaurant extra time to find their replacement. And, like most cases of infrapolitics, this bit of resistance wasn't just a cathartic moment for them: this worker now wants justice. They want to see the complete end to all "at-will" employment. Everyday resistance is the fuel for organized and open confrontation, just as Scott argued.
While researching oral histories of the working class, I came across an interview from a kind of worker that has some of the least amount of power on the job: the temp worker. Working for an employer on a short-term basis, often without any opportunities for advancement or benefits, there is little incentive for a worker to follow the various autocratic mandates of the workplace. The worker -- whose interview I found in Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, and Sabin Streeter -- shows a cynical awareness of his precarity. Rather than obediently accepting it or outright rebelling against it, he uses it to his advantage. He walks off the job the second someone aggressively bosses him around or treats him unfairly: no two weeks notice, no one week notice, no notice at all. Just walks off. Or, he leaves a job when he feels like it: takes a vacation on a whim. Or, he surfs the web while answering calls. Without the framework of domination and hidden transcripts, this behavior could just be written off as someone who is being an annoyingly bad employee. And that is true. But, it must be imagined that feudal lords must've found it obnoxious when their peasants returned to them inferior goods as rent, for example. We can applaud the peasant's clever act of minor rebellion -- that is their performance of the hidden transcript in the form of what Scott calls infrapolitics -- because we understand now, for the most part, that the relationship between the lord and peasant was one of hierarchy and domination: there is an imbalance of power. However, in our capitalist society, the guise of the labor market as something both employer and employee enter into as equals keeps us from recognizing that this too is a relationship of hierarchy and domination. We forget that if the worker does not sell their ability to work to an employer, they may not survive. The amount of the worker's time purchased by the employer belongs entirely to the employer, during which the worker has little has little say in what they do or the conditions under which they do them, save for some government regulations and any union presence to amplify workers' voices. In a temping situation, the work given is usually the most distasteful, the most tedious, monotonous, and least valued despite how much an organization may depend on it, and the temp worker is likewise devalued -- not even considered a real employee of the organization. Sometimes, the work is outright dangerous, as explored by a new documentary film on the temp industry, called A Day's Work. It is only after analyzing power and domination in this situation that we can see this worker's behavior as a form of silent, everyday resistance, a hidden transcript. This resistance can protect the worker's emotional and physical energy -- energy that they may then instead direct towards fighting for better working conditions, a union.
To find everyday resistance among the working class, we need to throw middle class morals aside and recognize that an imbalance of power and exploitation are inherent features of the capitalist workplace. It should then be of no surprise that workers who have little to no voice at their workplace may quietly rebel. As a researcher of oral histories, one needs to analyze power -- of which, class is a strong indicator -- to find it. As an oral historian, one needs to suspend all judgement and establish trust with their interviewee: by revealing their everyday acts of resistance to you, they are trusting you to be sensitive with that information so they aren't fired or their reputation isn't ruined.
Locating everyday resistance among the working class acknowledges their agency even when they have lost much of their power in the public sphere over the years: even though the percentage of unionized workers has been decimated over the last 50 years, that does not mean that the working class has come to fully consent to the whims of capital. The working class is still oppressed, and they still don't like it. With Scott's framework of everyday resistance, perhaps we can start believing in them again, and, if we are among them, believe in ourselves and use this fuel of resistance to organize and build power.
I am an interdisciplinary artist who brings together images, narratives, and social theory to reveal the lived and imagined systems that construct our lives.