Scott, semiotics, and development

Reading Scott’s piece on Civilization and the Unruly got me thinking about the power of language used in the context of development, and how it insidiously frames our perceptions. Scott uses semiotics to describe the construction of the ‘barbarian frontier’; “the padi state…coded those who were not incorporated…as ‘barbarians’”.

This got me thinking about a controversial dam project on the Narmada river in India, which displaced thousands of families, predominantly hill dwellers classified as tribals. The case was one of India’s most politicized conflicts, with successful activism drawing the attention of international media, ultimately leading to the World Bank’s departure from the project. The dam was eventually constructed, and rehabilitation policies put in place after a long struggle.


Image Source:

Tying this back to Scott’s piece, I began thinking of the ‘barbarian frontier’ in this context, and paid more attention to the vocabulary used in state and activist discourse.

The state in its initial attempts to avoid having to provide resettlement packages coded the displaced tribals as:

  • ‘Backward poor people who live in the hills’ – framed in opposition to a World Bank Report that represented the displaced population as indigenous tribals, thus arguing that they had a historic claim on the land and were entitled to rehabilitation. The state’s argument was that they were not tribals as in the North American and Australian sense (i.e. ‘original settlers’ who had occupied the land for centuries) but rather, simply impoverished hill dwellers.
  • ‘Landless encroachers’ – this discourse stemmed from the initial resettlement package which agreed to provide land in compensation to those who had formal titles to land. By definition, this did not include the indigenous population who under the eyes of the law were illegal squatters on Forest Department land.
  • ‘Uneducated gande (backward)’ – this narrative was framed in the early days of the conflict, and used to justify why the government failed to officially notify residents of their impending displacement (most learnt of this through rumours). Officials claimed that it was pointless to inform them, because they were uneducated and would not understand anything.
  • ‘Thieves of government property’ – accounts by anthropologists and activists in the field report that even after the government officially began to hand out resettlement packages to displaced tribals (thanks to successful campaigning by activists), they were treated with contempt by officials.
  • ‘Naxalites’ (communist guerrillas) – At later stages of the conflict, this discourse was used to justify brutal violence and arrests of activists and affected people who staged demonstrations and refused to leave their homes.

The language used to frame the displaced populations was also used as a tool by activists to achieve their agenda (which was also controversial, due to misrepresentations)

  • The most controversial, and most successful NGO to be involved (the Narmada Bachao Andolan) framed the tribals as ‘Mother Earth’s children’, disseminating videos of tribals referring to themselves as ‘Mother Earth’s children’ and claiming to have a close connection with nature and the affected land plots. An anthropologist in the field (Baviskar) debunked this narrative when she discovered that the tribals had never conceptualized themselves as such, and had been instructed to use that phrase in the video; further, their way of life was ecologically destructive and unsustainable, and was not based on the notion of closeness to nature.

In brief, this is the point I wish to make – we as development practitioners, need to be aware of language, words used, and who is framing the discourse, and how the discourse is constructed.

At the risk of making this a terribly long blog post – feel free to stop reading here – I thought it might be interesting to write briefly about my former life as a market researcher/brand consultant. Some of the work I did used semiotics to construct brand identity; easily some of my most exciting projects! For instance, I worked on a project in Thailand that deconstructed the cultural meaning of water – from the origin of the word, to the use of water in religious and cultural customs, to cultural associations with water and associated language used. Unfortunately, I can’t share the end product of that piece of work here because of confidentiality clauses – but I found this image online that perfectly captures how advertisers use semiotics (note how colour code subtly cues seriousness/a sense of mortality). The semiotics of branding goes beyond advertising to include brand logos, brand identity, color combinations, brand personality and so on.

Semiotics-in-Advertising-Guns-and-Lives.jpgImage source:


Baviskar, A. (1995a). In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Joshi, V. (1997). “Rehabilitation in the Narmada Valley: Human Rights and National Policy Issues” In: J. Drèze, M. Samson and S. Singh (eds.) The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlement in the Narmada Valley Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 168-183.

Parasuraman, S. (1997). “The Anti-Dam Movement and Rehabilitation Policy” In: J. Drèze, M. Samson and S. Singh (eds.) The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlement in the Narmada Valley Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 26-65.

Patel, A. (1997). “Resettlement Politics and Tribal Interests” In: J. Drèze, M. Samson and S. Singh (eds.) The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlement in the Narmada Valley. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 66-92.

Scott, J. (2009) The Art of not being governed – an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Brexit: A liminal moment and angry masks

Is it necessary that the ‘truth’ that is spoken to power be full of facts? If these ‘facts’ are believed to be true by the listener? It’s just that the Brexit campaigns weren’t too concerned with ‘facts’ that could be substantiated.

One ‘fact’, that was contentiously claimed during the Brexit campaign was that a lot of people didn’t feel they’ve shared the fruits of globalization, at least not as much as those residing in London, who it was claimed are all: rich, liberal finance types. However, the argument was not framed as a critique of the neo-liberal model of global capitalism. It was framed as the result of ‘uncontrolled’ ‘unfettered’ ‘mass’ immigration.

The dominant public mask worn by the elite for the last 20+ years, that endorsed the Chicago school of trickle-down economics, all of us in it together etc, became usurped by a much older one. One of imagined communities, nationalism and identity.

The dominant narrative (Growth benefits all) encountered its greatest fear. Ridicule. The dominant mask had slipped.

Once strong communities, now bereft of cohesive industry, the likes of which collective identity can be built around had a chance to express their rampage. Via the ballot box of all places.  Private transcripts of loss and anger had a space to express this rage that wasn’t an election.



Boundaries were tested, as ever more contentious signage was printed. Did this watershed moment in political rhetoric represent a collective liminal moment? A leave of the expected boundaries and an opportunity to rally against the ‘politically correct’ liberal elite. 

Did this vulgarity have consequences? Had this change in rhetoric, of what ‘could be said’ help move the process beyond the realm of the rational?

What resulted could be read as an opportunity for the private transcripts: of a world working for the few, against the many; of democratic deficits; of change that didn’t explain let alone ask, and a loss of narratives not yet forgotten. Of very real and substantive anger. The result in this new fog of chance, two fingers firmly waved at the few. Regardless of the consequences for the many.

Following the 23rd June, this society entered a new realm of collective experience, yet unlike Alves’ Portuguese boys this rampage isn’t through gardens and it threatens to break more than a few flower pots.

On Prefiguration, Horizontality and Love


First of all, I want to say that I’m really uncomfortable writing this blog. Through the last year, and fuelled by my engagement with MAP, I have come to regard my own thoughts and opinions as momentary truths that are constantly open for challenge and change. I feel I am constantly walking the tightrope of wanting to hold opinions that reflect my values, but being open and self-critical enough to have these be moulded by each new experience and encounter. To not get paralyzed and retain the capability to act, I have come to understand my opinions as transient reflections of the present state of my thought process that still retain enough substance to be valid sources of action. But the nature of writing a piece can never reflect this fluidity of thought as it gives the illusion of a manifest solid opinion fixed in time and space. One of the things that I have enjoyed most about this class is how what everybody shared challenged, complemented and deepened my understanding and changed me as a result. This blog will not be able to reflect this dialectic. It will rather be a chaotic conglomeration of open questions, open-ended thoughts and partially articulated feelings.

Bearing this in mind, I want to say that I was very moved and inspired by the session on prefigurative politics. As my politicization happened largely in anarchist thought and action, it has for some time been a concept that I have been holding very close to my heart and drawing a lot of inspiration from. The hard questions and good challenges that people brought to the class made me really question my relationship to this concept, but I have come out of it feeling renewed in my conviction of how important it remains for my own political organizing today. I want to write a few lines about why that is.

Just upfront a few words on definition. When I think of prefiguration, I think mainly of Boggs definition of embodying the social relations, decision making structures etc. that one strives for in ones practice. Thus I think that prefiguration is actually not by definition linked to horizontality. If a very hierarchical group organizes hierarchically to achieve a hierarchical society, that to me is also prefigurative. The main implication for politics of resistance is that if you want to shape a different world, you need to also embody the founding principles of that world in your actions.

Many important questions were raised in the seminar about the possibility and usefulness of horizontality and diversity, the central principles of the alterglobalization movement. We questioned whether horizontality would be possible on a larger scale, what its limits are, and whether centralization of power might actually have more equalizing forces and may be more efficient. The article we read was speaking about the nature of power to centralize and establish hierarchy, and the continuous process of attempting to decentralize power. As an anarchist, I have approached hierarchy and power with utter questioning, but not with absolute rejection. I think that some power relations are useful, as for example in the relation between a student and a teacher. If the teacher is sincere and good, the power dynamic is set up to resolve itself: the student will one day be as knowledgeable and skilled as the teacher.

In the same way, in political organizing some power might be useful. In my experience of working in larger groups on political campaigns, such as the occupation of Bramber House to combat privatization of services at Sussex, the general meeting split off into smaller working groups. These worked on particular tasks, and fed back their progress and open questions to the general meeting, which made the important decisions. In some way, power and representation reappear in this setup. Horizontality thus becomes a maxim that is never achievable, but always strived for. Given, then, that horizontality is an unattainable end-state that will never be reached and that power reappears with its tendency to centralize, the important question in my mind becomes where the right to reject a decision, the sovereignty and responsibility, comes from. In our democracy today it is very hard to reject a decision made by the powers-that-be. In most cases, power is exercised from the top-down. All important decisions in the general meeting/working group set-up are made by the group as a whole. In this way, the efficiency of power is retained in smaller groups, but the ability to shape the course of action lies within the collective. Power is exercised bottom-up. To me this is much closer to horizontality, and much more desirable, than the democracy we presently live in. Acknowledging that power will always be there, and finding ways of organizing that make use of the efficient sides of power whilst retaining the sovereignty in the mass thus becomes a more helpful way to conceptualize and strive for horizontality to me.

The question of whether this can be applied for larger groups still remains. Having political conversations with pretty much anybody and arguing an anarchist opinion usually conjures up the question: Well, all your ideals are good, but what exact system do you propose? Chomsky helpfully argues that nobody is smart enough to come up with a perfect system. We just have to trust in our ability to experiment and shape it as we go along. That is prefiguration. And my experience with working groups, general meetings and large scale decision making makes me hopeful that we can develop creative ways of making this happen. Working on deepening democracy, participatory budgeting, and participatory community-run projects are all pieces of the puzzle to my mind. Depending on one’s definition of the concept, it could be argued that they are all prefigurative in some way.

Still, many hard questions have to be posed to prefiguration and horizontality. In my experience, it has all too often been an insular, exclusive and white space that retained characteristics of a bubble. What happens when we actually apply this on a larger scale, how ready are we to embrace real difference in a prefigurative spaces, is consensus debilitating or useful? Might a prefigurative space be a space of explosive creativity that creates a vision and faith in the possibility of crafting another world, which in itself is inherently transient? Complexity theory teaches us that systems remain in relative equilibrium unless perturbed significantly, and then they only change if there is another ‘state’ (not in political terms) that the system can transform into. May prefiguration present a vision for another ‘state’, which needs to be complemented with sustained larger-scale action in order to create lasting change? Looking at these questions on a larger historical scale, is the mere contact with a prefigurative space, the possibility of another world, meaningful enough to create sustained action, sustained challenge to the system? May prefiguration thus be an inherently transitory state that serves to sustain itself on a longer scale? As with anything, prefiguration is not the whole answer. But what role can it retain in a more comprehensive appraisal of change, social action and resistance?

I want to write about another aspect of prefiguration and horizontaliy that I find very important, which is often overlooked. In my experience, conversations about questions such as ‘how do we structure horizontality practically’ can get very conceptual, systemic, and othering. I’ve heard and done much a talk about systems and structures out there that we need to reconceptualise and change, and that is important. But another aspect that in my mind is equally vital is our own position, our internal process, our self-transformation, that contributes to this process.

I want to start making this point by telling a story. I was working in a non-profit food coop a while back that had as its goal to provide organic staples at accessible prices. The main team were around 10 people, making most decisions together. The discovery of my own agency to shape a process that I was also part of and working for was absolutely transformational, that on the side. At some point, we had gotten into some debt, and one of our members proposed to introduce a significant price mark-up and save some money for when that would happen again. For some time, there was a lot of unspoken tension and talking behind the backs of others, and animosity build up. Many of us seemed to feel an inherent moral high ground, as if we all knew what this coop was about, just this one person was wrong. At some point it got too much, one of our members named the elephant in the room, and we had the conversation about the principles of the coop that was long overdue. The conversation was hard and long and we never reached a consensus, but we all came out changed and strengthened by it and could continue the work in a satisfying way for all. I realized then that truly working horizontally with other people is beyond structures and organization. It requires so much internal work, so much questioning of ones own assumptions and a significant step away from the socially conditioned belief that ones opinions are more right than those of others. It requires constantly being open to the possibility that one is wrong, which is existentially painful and threatening. In the same way, I think that this process entails a significant giving up of power one already holds. Due to my relatively privileged background I have been accustomed to holding a whole lot of power. Giving this power up has not been and is not easy, but when striving for horizontality I think that it is essential.

Following this line of thought, I believe that in a capitalist system that preaches competition, individualism and division, loving, caring for each other, and listening, are absolutely radical acts (I don’t take credit for this thought – somebody said it the other day and I would love to reference them, but I forgot who it was!). In my experience, these qualities are absolutely vital for working horizontally. By its nature, you will be making decisions with people you disagree with, and mustering up kindness after a two-hour discussion, or shutting up when you really want to say something and reflecting on whether what they have to say might actually teach you more than speaking, is difficult but essential. Beyond horizontality, I believe that in the present political climate it is vital to come together with people who hold very different opinions, and creating spaces for exchange. In the case of the UK, I think that the grievances that lie at the heart of anti-establishment sentiments left and right are real, and it would do so much good to be able to express them with each other after they have been shunned for so long, and build bridges across what divides us. This requires openness, love, curiosity, kindness and critical self-reflection. If we cannot realize these values this in our communities, how can political systems possibly function on their basis?

Discussions around whether horizontality is desirable and feasible are important. But I think that they need to be complemented by an inquiry into the personal qualities that make it possible in the first place. Fostering these is prefigurative practice, and I think that horizontality without such an inquiry is indeed impossible. Somebody said in the seminar that it is egoistic to just rely on personal transformation. I agree. But likewise, focusing on structural change without inquiring into one’s own position is futile. I think that anybody engaged in work that tries to make the world a better place should also be encouraged to reflect on the power one holds and how one perpetuates systemic inequalities, and question whether the ideals one strives for are realized in the very relations to the people one is surrounded by. Inquiry and action, personal and structural change, have to go hand in hand. Otherwise, I believe that sustainable change cannot be achieved.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that prefiguration and horizontality are contextual. As we discussed in the seminar, in Tahrir horizontality might have mainly been a way of protecting oneself. In my experience of political action, however, and in my future aspirations of working politically in this country, prefiguration for the moment retains its radical appeal. After some hard discussions, I still believe that in the context of this country, there is value in experimenting with new ways of organizing that question and decentralize power, of shaping these through a learning process as one goes along, thereby working to realize the desired world in the here and now. And I believe that our inquiry into our own role in this process, and a constant questioning of how we realize our ideals in our lives and relationships, are essential. I understand though that the argument might not apply at all in different contexts.

As a postscript. I kept pondering on the transformative power of being in a prefigurative space, of experiencing the reality of difference when everything that surrounds you is rupture, the explosive character and formation of vision and faith. A little haiku was the product of this pondering. Here it is.

Though thunderstorms reign

Buds raise their shy, sturdy heads

We have awoken