Daniel Little has an excellent post on the “subsistence ethic,” tracing the moral values of peasants that can lead to widespread social action. You should read the whole thing. Little writes,
Thus the subsistence ethic functions as a sense of justice–a standard by which peasants evaluate the institutions and persons that constitute their social universe. The subsistence ethic thus constitutes a central component of the normative base which regulates relations among villagers in that it motivates and constrains peasant behavior. And the causal hypothesis is this: Changes in traditional practices and institutions which offend the subsistence ethic will make peasants more likely to resist or rebel. Rebellion is not a simple function of material deprivation, but rather a function of the values and expectations in terms of which the lower class group understands the changes which are imposed upon it.
Little then analyzes how James Scott, who theorized about this ethic, links this ethic causally to rebellion:
We may now formulate Scott’s causal thesis fairly clearly. The embodied social morality (ESM) is a standing condition within any society. This condition is causally related to collective dispositions to rebellion in such a way as to support the following judgments: (1) If the norms embodied in the ESM were suitably altered, the collective disposition to rebellion would be sharply diminished. (That is, the ESM is a necessary condition for the occurrence of rebellion in a suitable limited range of social situations.) (2) The presence of the ESM in conjunction with (a) unfavorable changes in the economic structure, (b) low level of inhibiting factors, and (c) appropriate stimulating conditions amount to a (virtually) sufficient condition for the occurrence of widespread rebellious behavior. (That is, the ESM is part of a set of jointly sufficient conditions for the occurrence of rebellion.) (3) It is possible to describe the causal mechanisms through which the ESM influences the occurrence of rebellious dispositions. These mechanisms depend upon (a) a model of individual motivation and action through which embodied norms influence individual behavior, and (b) a model of political processes through which individual behavioral dispositions aggregate to collective behavioral dispositions. (That is, the ESM is linked to its supposed causal consequences through appropriate sorts of mechanisms.)
As Little points out, this explanation makes no account of organizational features that lead to rebellion. I think that the idea of subsistence ethic emphasizes the challenge of social action in the developed world. We are no longer a country with pitchfork rebellions. In fact, most everyone I know (and obviously this is a function of my upbringing), who has engaged in social action has first engaged at an intellectual level. Can there be massive transitions from this- will enough people engage that way? I wonder if we can come up with a parallel ESM for American society and determine the conditions necessary to move it to widespread action. Of course, these questions might be better answered by a budding anthropologist- cough (Sean) cough.