Although the true definition of "peasant" has lost its value in modern times, there are some general characteristics that still ring true throughout history. Aside from select groups of minorities , the peasant class usually represents the least paid individuals, the least respected or honored, and the most ignored when it comes to politics and legal rights. Throughout history peasants have existed solely as an afterthought to societal changes, and continue to be repressed and exploited by their affluent counterparts. In Weapons of the Weak, James Scott explores why the struggling peasantry do not openly rise up in candid, united rebellion after years of subjugation.
One of the first messages Scott opens with is, "peasant rebellions--let alone peasant revolutions--are few and far between. The vast majority are crushed unceremoniously. When, more rarely, they do succeed, it is a melancholy fact that the consequences are seldom what the peasantry has in mind" (Scott xvi). This excerpt shows one of Scott's explanations for the lack of overt peasant revolution--that even when the peasantry rebel, their poor socioeconomic status will remain intact or pushed farther down the societal food chain. In order to argue his point further, Scott uses a case study of a Malaysian village called "Sedaka" during the time of the Green Revolution. He chooses this particular village to understand the struggle between the rich and the poor as Sedaka applies capitalist methods to their preexisting agricultural methods.
He characterizes "the struggle between the rich and the poor in Sedaka" as "not merely a struggle over work, property rights, grain and cash" but also "a struggle over the appropriation of symbols, [a struggle] over how the past and present shall be understood and labeled, [a struggle] to identify causes and assess blame, and a contentious effort to give partisan meaning to local history" (xvii). Specifically Scott uses the stories of two members of Sedaka, Haji Broom and Razak to illustrate the struggle, and the relationship between the rich and the poor. Razak and Haji Broom are on polar spectrums of the socio-economic society. They depict the general way Sedakan society reacts to the exploitive, arrogant, rich farmers, as well as how they react to the the dishonest, poor, and lazy peasant.
After Scott establishes the interactions between the rich and poor in Sedaka, he discusses the political and social influence they have on each other. Scott's critical argument here is targeted toward a specific (and popular) Marxian theorist named Antonio Gramsci. Unlike Gramsci's theory about false consciousness and hegemony, Scott argues that the peasants do not comply with the will of the bourgeoisie because they don't know better--but because of a multitude of largely material and some ideological reasons. Scott critiques Gramsci, saying that, "the concept of hegemony ignores the extent to which most subordinate classes are able, on the basis of their daily material experience, to penetrate and demystify the prevailing ideology" (38). One reason among others that peasants passively comply with their exploitive employers is called "self-protecting compliance" (280). Instead of active rebellion, peasants quietly resist, soil the reputation of the large farmers (bourgeoisie) and constitute what Scott calls, "the weapons of the weak" (29).
Scott continues his arguments more in depth throughout the chapters, and at the end he asks readers to question Gramsci's strict argument on hegemony and false consciousness. Not only that, but he also brings up Marx's theories, who argues that because the peasants perceive their place in society as normal, they will not rebel because they do not know any better to do so. Scott concludes by conceding that his own theories might seem pessimistic for the prospects of revolutionary change because "petty amenities and minor humanities" (350) are too small of actions to ever create change for the peasantry class. However, he does say that his theories are "a realistic assessment of the fate workers and peasants in most revolutionary states--a fate that makes melancholy reading when set against the revolutionary promise" (350). Because open, universal peasant revolution is rare and often unproductive, Scott writes that it is all the more reason to hold on to the abstract optimism that comes in "ridicule, in truculence, in irony, in petty acts of noncompliance, in foot dragging...to hold one's own against overwhelming odds--a spirit and practice that prevents the worst and promises something better" (350).