Suicide as High Risk Activism (?!)

Individual involvement in social movement activity—once Molotov Cocktails, but lately petition-signing with the occasional occupation—has had us wringing our hands for a few decades now. Grievances, opportunities, networks, availability, cute protestors … ah yes, and the issues themselves—all serve as key motivators.

But something caught my eye the other day. Something like a quarter of a million farmers are estimated to have committed suicide in India over the last year, or so the papers say. Sorry for the moribund turn, but it got me thinking about what sort of status we should accord these acts.

A woman who was arrested by the police for attempting suicide was charged by the courts for the crime of attempted suicide (yes, still on the books in India). In an act of resistance against what she saw as an unjust law (and doubtless, an unjust verdict) she refused to eat. So she’s being fed through a tube—for the past decade. Ten years of protest.

So where does this fit? Are these hardcore cases of the weapons of the weak, as James Scott so famously dubbed the efforts of the marginalized to undermine those in power? Well, suicide is a touch more costly than pilfering. And what would Olson say? Presumably what answers there are lie in anthropological work on more collectivist cultures. But since most of the social movement work has come out of Western experiences over the past five decades, I’m just guessing.


Filed under Daily Disruption

5 responses to “Suicide as High Risk Activism (?!)

  1. chrishausmann

    Really like this post. Weapons of the weak? Perhaps. It certainly seems that the woman you mention is engaging in active, subtle (or maybe not so subtle) resistance. This intentionality is an important part of Scott’s argument against notions that the marginalized are plagued by false consciousness. Of course, it’s hard to know whether we can impute the same sort intentionality to, say, the other quarter of million farmers you mention.

    But we might not have to. If we’re thinking about suicide as a social movement anyway, why and stretch a bit further and also dust off our copies of Durkheim’s Suicide? Durkheim is less concerned about reasons given for any particular suicide than the less-obvious social causes of suicide. This seems to loosen Scott’s argument that individuals recognize resistance as resistance. In this case, even suicides that admit total defeat to oppressive power can “participate” in mobilization (reminds me of Einwohner’s piece on the Warsaw Ghetto, though I don’t think she goes this far).

    All of this to say: Fascinating, disturbing post.


    • Rachel Einwohner

      Austin, this post grabbed my attention immediately (and thanks, Chris, for the mention). Suicide might indeed be the ultimate weapon of the weak, if those who take their lives have no control over any aspects of their lives other than the ability to end their lives (Durkheim’s fatalistic suicide). But is there a broader resistant message behind these acts, and do the targets of the resistance (the government? The global economy?) recognize the resistance as such? Also, many acts of resistance (not limited to collective mobilizations) are understood to be both accommodative and resistant, that is, drawing on some existing cultural understandings/repertoires while at the same time resisting them. If suicide is illegal in India, is there anything here that can be understood as accommodative?

      Super interesting and worth pondering further.


  2. Brenda

    Couldn’t help but think of “Can the Subaltern Speak” as I read this, Austin…you brought me back to Spivak for me today! Suicide as resistance?/transgressive?


  3. CCOX

    I agree that this is a matter of weapons of the weak. If indeed the farmers discussed in the post have the same grievances as the woman, we can conceptualize the use of suicide as we do other forms of activism in social movements. If the use of suicide is to challenge the government and is collective; it is indeed acting outside the existing institutional arrangements. Is there any degree of organization to their use of suicide is my question.
    Very Interesting Post


  4. Pingback: Greatest Hits | Mobilizing Ideas

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