Tithe Resistance in Malaysia Holds Lessons for Grassroots Struggle

James C. Scott, in a paper in the Copenhagen Papers series (“Everyday Forms of Resistance,” ), looked at tax resistance as one of the varieties of behind-the-scenes peasant resistance to exploitation.

In particular, he investigated resistance to mandatory tithing of rice yields in Malaysia. This tithe was a traditional Islamic zakāt that had been made mandatory and brought under the control of the central government in 1960, in the course of which the government also added an invasive bureaucracy that “mandated the registration of acerage and yields in order to enforce its collection.”

Says Scott:

Opposition to the new tithe was so unanimous and vehement in the villages where I conducted research that it was a comparatively simple matter to learn about the techniques of evasion. They take essentially four forms. Some cultivators, particularly small-holders and tenants, simply refuse to register their cultivated acreage with the tithe agent. Others underreport their acreage and/or crop and may take the bolder step of delivering less rice than even their false declarations would require. Finally, the grain handed over is of the very poorest quality — it may be spoiled by moisture, have sprouted, be mixed with straw and stones so that the recoverable milled grain is far less than its nominal weight would suggest.

Scott says that the government, in one local sample, got only one-fifth of the grain that it would have if people had complied with the tithe law. But though this was a largely successful tax strike, it was also a quiet one:

There have been no tithe riots, no tithe demonstrations, no petitions, no violent confrontations, no protests of any kind. Why protest, indeed, when quieter strategems have achieved the same results at minimal risk? …it is the safer course for resisters to leave the tithe system standing in name while they dismantle it in practice… without affording the state an easily discernable target. There is no organization to be banned, no conspiratorial leaders to round up or buy off, no rioters to haul before the courts — only the generalized non-compliance by thousands of peasants.

Scott says that there are three factors that aid this mode of resistance:

  1. “a palpable ‘climate of opinion’” — that is, a widespread belief that the tithe is unjust and that resistance is proper
  2. “a shared knowledge of the available techniques of evasion”
  3. “economic interest” — that is, the fact that it is personally economically advantageous to resist paying the tithe

(He refines this in another work to: “the conjunction of a folk culture that encourages some forms of resistance, a set of habits and practices that are part of the practical heritage of the peasantry, and a shared material interest in thwarting appropriation [that] can produce a form of tacit coordination that mimics or substitutes for formal organization.”)

Also important is the political context. The authorities could, Scott says, crack down on evasion, though this would be costly and difficult. But it would also hurt political support for the ruling party among the peasantry.

Scott says that once tax resistance “has become a customary practice it generates its own expectations about what is permissible [and] raises the political and administrative costs for any regime that subsequently decides it will enforce the rules in earnest. For everyday resisters there is safety in numbers and successful resistance builds its own momentum.”

He also notes, in another context, that “the social historian could profitably examine the role of petty tax resistance in producing, over time, the ‘fiscal crisis of the state’ which frequently presages radical political change. Here too, without intending it, the small self-serving acts of thousands of petty producers may deprive a regime of the wherewithall to maintain its ruling coalition and prevail against its enemies.”

In another paper (“Resistance without Protest and without Organization: Peasant Opposition to the Islamic Zakat and the Christian Tithe,” 1987), Scott compared the Malaysian zakāt resistance to earlier resistance to mandatory Christian tithing in France, in support of his thesis that…

…a vast range of what counts — or should count — as peasant resistance involved no overt protest and requires little or no organization.

This look at what Scott calls “everyday resistance” is in reaction to our normal tendency to concentrate on more organized, visible, acute uprisings and to consider other forms to be inchoate, immature forms of real rebellion. Because the duration of and the number of participants in such everyday resistance may be greater than of more well-recognized revolts, their effect on the balance of power between the ruling class and the exploited class may be proportionally greater as well.

By itself, the peasantry’s most common and durable weapon is an everyday resistance that stops short of the more dangerous forms of overt protest and confrontation.

Because members of the exploited class lack access to the legislative and administrative levers of power, they take their political stand instead at the point of enforcement. As Thoreau put it:

I meet this American government, or its representative the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year, no more, in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then.

Scott gives a pleasant oceanographical metaphor about this sort of resistance:

Everyday resistance does not throw up the manifestos, demonstrations, or pitched battles that normally compel attention. It makes no headlines. But just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so do thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political and economic barrier reef of their own. There is rarely any dramatic confrontation, any movement that is particularly newsworthy. And whenever, to pursue the simile, the ship of state runs aground on such a reef, attention is typically directed to the shipwreck (for example, a fiscal crisis) itself and not to the vast aggregation of petty acts that made it possible.

The paper goes into more detail about the Malaysian resistance, and shows how effectively the peasants essentially set their own tax rate rather than complying with the official one. When improvements in irrigation allowed the rice farmers to plant two crops instead of one during the course of a year, which officially subjected them to twice the tax, they instead “simply compensated by paying less than half of what they paid earlier on a single crop.” Collectively, they reduced a nominal 10% tax to an actual 1.5% one.

Scott then looks at the French tithe resisters in the light of this. He notes some overt, acute resistance (“In , the residents of one commune refused to pay the wine tithe and threatened to throw the collector into the Rhône. In , another village, led by its curé, stoned the monks and their tithe agent when they came to collect the grain. In , peasants wearing disguises sacked the granary of the tithe collector, and no witnesses could be found to testify against them.”), but is more interested in the “everyday resistance,” finding that in France the techniques “were far more elaborate and varied.”

These techniques included:

  • introducing novel crops or growing marginal ones that were not covered by existing tithe laws
  • growing taxable crops alongside or interspersed with non-taxable ones and then claiming the whole field as exempt
  • opening new, hidden plots of land to planting without declaring them
  • planting tax-exempt “gardens,” “orchards,” or “meadows” that were functionally equivalent to taxable fields
  • harvesting and hiding a portion of the crop before the tax collector arrived
  • assembling sheaves in such a way as to conceal valuable grain in the non-taxable base
  • taking advantage of the rounding-off process in counting the grain to make large portions of the harvest effectively exempt

Much of this is simply clever loophole-hunting, aided by a culture of tax disgust that celebrates and spreads it. Each technique alone was a petty nuisance to the tax-gatherers, but in the aggregate they took a huge bite out of their cut — one complained “of thirty sacks, it is plausible that they pay only one.”

This individual, canny, shoulder-shrugging, “who, me?” resistance was made possible by “a generalized, often unspoken complicity… the French sources frequently refer to ‘tacit consent,’ ‘unanimity,’ the refusal to give testimony, and conspiracies of silence.”