Today I’m going to weave a tale from several threads, including more insights from the golden pen of Geert Mak, a comment posted recently by the equally golden Clem Weidenbenner, and various historical researches from a cast including a Nobel Prize-winning economist and the more unsung efforts of the Aberdeen and Northeast Scotland Family History Society (which I promised to regale you with many moons ago, but never did).
Let’s start with Geert Mak. In my previous post, I described the changes in the Frisian dairy economy analysed by Mak, but that was in a farming sector that was already highly commercialised from as early as the 16th century. In more isolated parts of the country, Mak reports, “farming continued for a long time to be practised in almost medieval fashion”. In such places, he says, quoting a contemporary source, “One ate and drank what the farm provided. Because very little could be sold, the farmer had ample to eat”, adding that “In the isolated world of the smallholders it was apparently possible to develop an epicurean lifestyle”1.
I think that’s worth repeating. In the backward regions, unreached by commercial trading networks, farmers couldn’t sell much and therefore had ample to eat, enjoying ‘an epicurean lifestyle’. Hardly the script we’ve learned from 200 years of economic theory, from Adam Smith to the contemporary prophets of globalisation, in which the ramification of trade is the sine qua non of improved social welfare.
Well, maybe Mak’s example is just an aberration. So let’s turn to the historian Mark Overton’s analysis of English agricultural development. Overton argues that, as in the Netherlands, English agricultural trade networks expanded markedly from the 16th century to serve an emerging urban/national demand for food commodities. Dreadful famines occasionally punctuated English rural society in this early modern period when food prices spiked to the extent that small commercial (typically livestock) farmers lacked the money to buy the grain they needed, but remote areas were spared such hunger – not being tied to food markets, they easily produced the food they needed2.
Hmm, do we need to revise our view of what the economists have been telling us? Perhaps we should consult the work of a distinguished economist, and they don’t come much more distinguished than Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and Harvard professor. In his analysis of the 1943 Bengal famine that killed 1.5 million people, Sen shows that peasant cultivators and sharecroppers were least affected by the famine, whereas transport workers, landless agricultural labourers, craftsmen, non-agricultural labourers and the like – that is, wage labourers dependent upon food markets – were the most affected3.
I’ve always been inclined to think that if you have little but your own land and labour to rely upon, the risk of famine must weigh heavily, and that this is one of the strongest arguments against the romanticisation of peasant autarky. But perhaps these examples tell us that since the risk of famine does weigh so heavily for the peasant it’s necessary to plan for that eventuality, and if you’re in full possession of your own land and labour this isn’t too difficult to achieve. The people who really suffer are those not in full possession of their land and labour – in other words, those drawn more fully into commercial exchange.
Even so, there’s doubtless some comfort to be derived from knowing there’s at least the possibility of obtaining food from elsewhere through trade in times of dearth. Here’s where I found the article in the Scottish Family History Society Journal4 interesting, because it addresses the other side of that couplet. Whereas the harvest in much of Scotland in 1846 was poor, with many parts of the country suffering from food shortages, in the Moray area the harvest was a reasonable one. The result was that Moray merchants shipped as much local grain as they could get their hands on out of the local ports to take advantage of the demand for grain elsewhere in Scotland, leading to high grain prices for local working people, who responded by blockading the ports and attempting to stop the exports. In this case at any rate, one person’s much needed (if expensive) meal gained through trade, turns out to be at the cost of somebody else’s. Interesting in that respect that in 16th century England grain-trading middlemen required a license, and hoarding was forbidden.
Well, perhaps everything’s moved on nowadays from these ‘medieval’ farming examples – though judging by the fact that nearly 1 in 7 people globally still go hungry, maybe not quite as much as we’d like to think (development specialist Edward Carr has recently argued against simple access to improved marketing as a panacea for farmer poverty). No doubt in many contemporary situations there’s much to be said for increasing the flow of money into the pockets of poor small-scale farmers. Nevertheless, I do wonder if these tales of ‘medieval’ peasant epicurean autarky contain morals for us in the present day…
…to which my answer is ‘yes’ (isn’t blogging a wonderful thing?) I’m not going to make some over-generalised inference that commerce is always a bad thing and autarky is always a good thing. But I do want to suggest the opposite inference handed down to us by orthodox economic theory and its latter-day prophets, that commerce is always a good thing and autarky is a dead end, to be equally flawed. These prophets come in various guises, from crude techno-fixers who are convinced that GM crops, nuclear power or whatever other technology du jour currently enthuses them will deliver the poor from their misery. More sophisticated proponents historicise such arguments, as in an interesting article by the anthropologist Keith Hart, which argues that the commercial middle classes of modern times were a world-liberating force, whose efforts to upset the established order regrettably turned counter-revolutionary when they made their peace with the old landed aristocracy5. My feeling is that this isn’t a one off: once their power is assured, usurpers of the economic order usually make their peace with the old ruling class, and increasingly come to resemble it – not least through acquiring land, where value so often accumulates. Indeed, the distinction between old money and new money in 18th/19th century England is less clear cut than Hart suggests. It’s not that nothing changes – it does – but from the perspective of the people who these days go by the title of ‘hardworking families’ you could be forgiven for not noticing.
Anyway, I think the implications of all this are that, minimally, we should stop talking about ‘peasants’ past or present as a monolithic category, whose lives we assume to have been uniformly miserable. As Clem Weidenbenner nicely put it in a comment on this site recently, perhaps “a significant degree of the difficulty comes from our tendency to project our individual experience to interpret how others must feel…if we ‘have’ then we immediately project that those who ‘have not’ are miserable (for we would be miserable if we lost what we have)”. As a child of the high tech 20th century, I doubt I’d much like living in the manner of an 18th century ‘epicurean’ peasant. Nor, on the other hand, do I think we should suppose that they would be overly impressed with the world that we’ve created, with our vast trading regimes and our billion undernourished people.
The misery of small farmers and other working people historically has usually resulted from their vulnerability to losing control of their land and labour to predatory ruling classes. One response to that is to hope for a technological and commercial revolution that will bring a comfortable middle-class lifestyle within the reach of all. I don’t think the historical portents there are great, and nor are the ecological ones. So my preference is to work instead towards making the self-possession of land and labour for ‘hardworking families’ a realistic goal. To be honest, the historical portents there aren’t too great either, but ultimately I think you have to go with the politics that your historical, social and ecological analysis lead you to. I’ll say a bit more about that soon.
1. Mak, G. 2010. An Island In Time, pp.55-6.
2. Overton, M. 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, p.141.
3. Sen, A. 1981. Poverty and Famines.
4. Bishop, B. 2013. ‘Burghead and Findhorn meal riots, 1847’ Aberdeen & Northeast Scotland Family History Society Journal, 127, 48-54.
5. Hart, K. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’ in Lien, M. and Nerlich, B. (Eds) The Politics of Food.