The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 10½: The reckoning

And so we come to the final instalment in my history of the world blog cycle. Thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – it’s been a long haul, but I’ve found it useful to inform my thinking on agrarian futures, and I’ve learned a lot from the comments. Back to normal service on this blog after this, I hope. A full version of the essay is available here.

oOo

To continue… I think it’s about time we headed in a different direction. The mulcting of ordinary people described by Goubert for the peasants of 17th century France has being going on long enough around the world in various guises, often in service of top-down notions of ‘development’ that have rarely returned full value to the people it subjects. So maybe it’s time to draw a line under the cargo cult utopia of capitalism with its promise of more ‘stuff’ ever-receding into the future, and explore the other pole of the peasant experience described by Wolf’s narrative of the peasant utopia (p.16). In 1984, Jean-François Lyotard announced the arrival of the ‘postmodern condition’, involving an ‘incredulity to meta-narratives’. Postmodernism soon disappeared into an impenetrable cloud of its own self-reflexivity, but I like the idea of incredulity towards grand abstractions such as ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Unfortunately, as I argued on p.31, it’s hard to do away entirely with universalism in a universalist age. But if we still need universalist categories to work with, I’d suggest they should be as grounded in practical realities as possible. So I’d like to submit for your consideration the peasantry as the universal class – a class that predates capitalism, has coexisted with it, and is most likely to survive it. Because when empires crumble what’s left is gardening – and gardeners are better placed to know the limits of their ecological and economic practice than almost anyone else.

However, the historical narrative I’ve offered here suggests to me that it’s no simple thing to create a sustainable and prosperous peasant society. Such a society has to be wrested from the grip of the state and, beyond the state, from the human will to power – so it therefore needs to be defended from the disintegrative effects of its own internal tensions. And, as I’ve argued here in relation to various examples like frontier peasantries, military entrepreneurs, religious revitalisation movements, nationalist and nativist ideology and the seemingly inherent tendency towards capitalist logics of peasant differentiation in the conditions of modernity that underpin both liberal-democratic capitalism and its communist twin, there’s no reason to assume that peasant societies will necessarily evince any of the characteristics that seem to me prerequisites for a satisfactory long-term human flourishing: ecological sustainability, personal or community autonomy, substantial economic equality, a material practice grounded in the here-and-nowness of self-subsistence. It’s just that it seems to me they’re potentially more likely to do so than any other social arrangement. Henry Bernstein, a fairly sympathetic Marxist critic of ‘agrarian neo-neo-populism’ writes,

“advocates of the peasant way argue that it does not represent nostalgia – worlds we have lost – but that contemporary peasant movements incorporate and express specific, novel and strategic conceptions of, and aspirations to, modernity, and visions of modernity alternative to that inscribed in the neoliberal common sense of the current epoch. This is a plausible thesis…but the principal weakness of the new agrarian question qua the peasant way, as articulated to date, is its lack of an adequate political economy”

It’s a point well-made, though I’d argue that the ‘lack of an adequate political economy’ is a problem that afflicts all the alternatives to ‘neoliberal common sense’, including Marxism, and not just peasant way thinking. In fact, it’s a problem that also afflicts neoliberal common sense, which is precisely the problem. So in future posts I plan to sketch as best I can what a peasant way political economy might look like – in other words, how the human flourishing I mentioned above may possibly be achieved by reconstituted peasantries of a post-capitalist future. But to conclude I’d just like to list in note form some of the things that I think I’ll need to concern myself with in that sketch that have emerged from the historical precis I’ve offered here.

  • A human tendency towards both status ranking and equality
  • A tendency for modes of human organisation to ‘leapfrog’ each other through time
  • A tendency for new forms of centralised political organisation to elicit secondary versions around them
  • A difficult balance between under- and over-development of the division of labour
  • An ambiguity within the centralised state as both predator and benefactor
  • Class distinctions in both city and countryside with which central state actors can ally or organise against
  • Religious or spiritual traditions that cleave either towards or against extant political power
  • The (slender) possibilities for more-or-less autarkic agrarian production in the interstices of centralised political power
  • The possibilities for cooperation as well as conflict within a class or caste stratified agrarian society
  • The enabling effect on agrarian society of alternative ways of life (urbanism, or the public sphere, for example)
  • The numerous geopolitical forms of state power, which are not limited to the nation-state
  • The difficulties of distinguishing sharply between lord and peasant, or between landowner, tenant and labourer
  • The significance of militarised or demilitarised frontiers for economic development
  • The core-periphery geographic structuring of the economy in one or more ‘world systems’
  • The possibilities for stable income/population equilibria (‘high level equilibrium traps’) that limit ‘unnatural’ expansion or technological hyper-development
  • The tendency for economic ‘cores’ to export the responsibility for less remunerative agrarian activities to the ‘periphery’
  • The tendency for extractive ecological linkages from core to periphery
  • The tendency to find ‘reconstituted peasantries’ where centralised polities fail
  • The differentiated nature of peasantries, and the unequal power relations within them
  • The inherent (and growing) tendency towards crisis in the capitalist economy
  • The tendency for capitalist economies to virtualise money, leading to instability
  • The multiple stories we tell ourselves about the nature of the modern – as development, as regress, as the coming-to-history of ‘a people’, as possibility, as despair
  • The tendency for people to avoid overt politics if they can, and seek a quiet life
  • The tendency for virtually all forms of economic production (‘peasant’, capitalist, communist etc.) under the modernist shadow of capitalism to tend towards or revert to capitalist production
  • The need to develop a political economy that’s not based on compound economic growth and the associated drawdown of non-renewable resources
  • The need to learn open-mindedly from the past and to acknowledge that historically people sometimes may have found some better solutions to their problems than we’re currently finding for ourselves – but without extolling the special virtues of those times or wishing ourselves back to them, so much as using them to build what Kropotkin called “an absolutely new fact” for ourselves.

In my upcoming cycle of posts I hope to work through some of these points to provide the best answer I can – which isn’t, I fear, a very good one – as to how we can best confront the ‘wicked problems’ bequeathed us by history to create a more sustainable and widespread human flourishing. Still, the problem with history is that it keeps on happening. Doubtless there’ll be a few more surprising turns before we’re all through.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 10. The current impasse

I’ve just returned from a short but fascinating meeting in Nicaragua on small-scale farming, which I plan to write about soon. But first I want to finish my history of the world. Apologies if the latter has dragged on too much, but we’re in the home straight now, and we’ll be moving on to other stuff soon. As ever a fully referenced version of this essay is here.

oOo

By the end of World War II, of the four key modern political doctrines I identified above it was liberal-democratic capitalism and communism that were left standing. Agrarian populism had its moments in post-war decolonisation, while fascism has recurred here and there, usually in diluted forms after the image problem it acquired during World War II. But essentially the end of that war marked the start of the capitalist-communist Cold War death battle, with the USA taking over from Britain in the driving seat of global capitalism and enforcing a global and far from peaceful Pax Americana, which has gradually lost its proselytizing zeal in favour of narrower self-interest.

The capitalist west’s answer to the threat of communism – other than naked military power – was a Keynesian settlement between capital and labour, in which the working class was offered full (male – and then, increasingly, female) employment and rising prosperity in return for political docility. This was quite easily achieved in the thirty years after World War II – the ‘trente glorieuses’ – with prodigious economic growth keeping both the owners of capital and the owners of labour happy. There were a few dissonant voices – environmentalists arguing that the cost of economic growth was ecological damage and the drawdown of non-renewable resources, prophets foretelling the impossibility of endless compound growth, and malcontents bemoaning the absurdity and ennui of a hyper-materialist modernity, but they gained limited traction at best. In the face of such activism it’s often said nowadays that most people aren’t very political and only want a quiet life. That’s true, I’d argue, partly because the liberal-democratic capitalist polities have put a lot of work into ensuring that most people aren’t very political, in particular by systematically dismantling most forms of collective political organisation and ridiculing the very idea of them. “Our place in history is as clock watchers, old timers, window shoppers”, as Billy Bragg nicely put it. Still, whatever the reasons, the ideal of the quiet suburban life in the west is indeed a reality that more activist political forms must confront.

It’s been getting harder to live a quiet life of late, though. The cracks started appearing in the capitalist façade in the 1970s when the stalling of economic growth re-sharpened the contest between capital and labour. Since then, governments in the democratic capitalist west have tried to manage the contradiction through two strategies whose basic outlines, if not their precise details, would have been recognisable to any Axial Age ruler: (1) buy off both the workers and the capitalists by stealing from the future in the form of inflationary monetary policy or building up private and public debt; (2) side with capital by disciplining and casualising labour, breaking unions, offshoring jobs or inshoring low-waged migrant workers, allowing unemployment to rise and curtailing public expenditure on social welfare.

The first strategy has a time limit on it. You can’t live beyond your means indefinitely by mortgaging your future. This was signalled by the 2008 crash, though governments in the ‘developed’ world have struggled to adopt policies likely to prevent a repeat of the experience down the road due to their excessive dependence on the finance industry that caused it. The belt-tightening response of ‘austerity’ policies pursued by some governments – the UK included – punished the poor for the excesses of the rich and brought few benefits to anyone but a wealthy few. Perhaps a bit of Keynesian demand stimulus would have been a better bet, but it would still be unequal to the task of restoring prosperity to a chronically stagnant and indebted economy.

The second strategy nowadays goes by the name of neoliberalism, and is not much different from the logic of the classic capitalist economy as formulated by the likes of Adam Smith, except for Smith and the early economic thinkers the point of capitalism was to augment a country’s prosperity – it was, precisely, about ‘the wealth of nations’ – whereas in the contemporary neoliberal phase, capital assumes an increasingly non-territorial logic which often has the opposite effect of diminishing national prosperities. Smith famously coined the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ which engineered common good out of private selfishness, while his successor to the crown among the classical political economists, David Ricardo, developed the concept of ‘comparative advantage’ to show how national prosperity was augmented when a country focuses on its most remunerative industries (though only when capital flows are restricted and can’t travel the world in search of absolute advantage as they do today, a point that often seems to be forgotten in contemporary encomiums to economic specialisation).

Neoliberalism is effectively the death knell for Smith’s invisible hand and Ricardo’s comparative advantage. Inequality is on the rise in the west, and although this has been offset by the rise of a middle class in a few populous Asian countries the general picture remains one of extreme inequality in most of the world (44% of the rise in real per capita income since 1988 has gone to the top 5% of earners), stagnant growth, irredeemable debt and chronic joblessness. The mechanical automation that deprived blue collar workers of gainful work through the 20th century has been augmented by an electronic automation that’s now likewise depriving white collar workers. Yet ‘work’ in the form of wage labour is still the only realistic route to economic wellbeing available to most people in the capitalist west. The new phenomenon of ‘jobless recoveries’ points, however, to who is actually making the money – not workers, but the owners of capital (for example, in some years after 2008, the entire increase in the US economy went to the highest 0.01% of earners). Increasingly, businesses in the west have financialised and virtualised their operations in accordance with the cycle of decline mentioned earlier, using their money to make more money through a deregulated and ever-proliferating thicket of bewildering financial gerrymandering. Sovereign states no longer have any real purchase on these processes of capital accumulation, but they need to stake a claim to their piece of the resulting pie in order to keep their electorates in the manner to which they’re accustomed.  ‘Government’ has become ‘governance’; ‘democracy’ has become ‘technocracy’. This has led to a waning of political legitimacy for liberal-democratic governments in the eyes of their electorates, as the penetration of private market ideology ever further into the structures of everyday life ceases to feel like the liberating ‘development’ or ‘progress’ of an earlier capitalism and becomes more manifestly dysfunctional and predatory. Neoliberalism has become another ‘prison of nations’, caging the citizenries of nation-states. Hence, no doubt, the nationalist and anti-establishment turn in various recent elections in the west.

But at least in the west it’s still a gilded cage. In many of the countries of the ‘periphery’ that emerged from de facto or de jure colonialism in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, political freedom has not resulted in economic self-determination. Political freedom in itself has been hard enough to negotiate in postcolonial countries inheriting multi-ethnic populaces with historically arbitrary boundaries, weak economies geared to the extractive designs of the old colonial core, and weak, corruption-prone political institutions. The neoliberal turn from the 1970s compounded these problems economically through institutions such as the World Bank, the WTO, the IMF, the EU and – while I’m with the acronyms – the USA, which imposed more ‘imperialism of free trade’, tariff barriers, debt, and structural adjustment programmes based on spurious neoclassical models that gutted the social provision of healthcare, education and other human services and removed agricultural price supports. On the upside, the stain of rank hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty has been slightly ameliorated in recent years through multilateral global commitments, and arguably (only arguably) through agrarian technology in the form of the Green Revolution. But lowering the proportion of people earning a dollar or two a day doesn’t set the bar very high – inequality in general seems as intractable as ever.

Indeed, as I remarked earlier, poverty or ‘underdevelopment’ isn’t something separate from global capitalism in ‘developing’ countries hitherto excluded from the charmed circle of capitalist development, but is integral to the centre-periphery structuring of the global capitalist economy. One of the results of this is that, from a periphery country perspective, neoliberalism in the core looks a better bet than neoliberalism in the periphery. Likewise, cheap undocumented labour from the periphery often suits the designs of capital-owners in the core as a means of disciplining labour. Hence the pressure of global labour migration from periphery to core. At the same time, due to Malthusian fears for the future and the vagaries of global private markets, some of the world’s wealthier countries are reverting to the neo-colonial method of the land grab and directly-controlled plantation agriculture – sometimes to the benefit of the landless and marginalised in the target country, but usually to the detriment of those with a stronger foothold in the local economy.

Still, the issue of economic growth from a periphery country perspective doubtless raises tricky issues for environmentalists and ‘post-capitalists’. In the words of global poverty expert Branko Milanovic, economic growth is:

“the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality….One can hardly over-estimate its importance in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical”.

It is, for sure, no fun at all being a poor person living in a growth-oriented economy that isn’t growing. But objections of the sort Milanovic raises were brusquely, and to my mind quite effectively, dismissed long ago as “crocodile tears from latter-day Marie Antoinettes” by steady-state economics pioneer, Herman Daly: “We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future!….what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor”. It is, in any case, impossible for a growth-oriented economy to grow forever. This is partly because of the destructive effects on the wider planetary ecology which, despite all the talk of ‘decoupling’ growth from resource drawdown, remain stubbornly correlated with economic growth. It’s also because economic growth is not continuously sustainable according to its own economic logic.

All this surely suggests there’s an urgent need to break new ground and start figuring out not only how economies might ‘take-off’ but also how they might ‘land’ in the sense of delivering acceptable human health and wellbeing without seeking to grow their resource take endlessly. There’s a long tradition of heterodox economic thinking that tries to think through exactly this point. I plan to write more about it elsewhere, but in brief I’d say it’s hard to see how this could work without people in the ‘developed’ economies living lives that are considerably less resource intensive. Of the four modern political doctrines I identified earlier, agrarian populism is the only one that seems to me capable of addressing this reality attractively (fascism or feudalism would be less attractive alternatives). But at present this is all rather academic, since nobody with significant power in the world is challenging the growth model. As Wolfgang Streeck drily notes,

“what matters for global oligarchic wealth defence…is control over American politics to ensure, for example, that the American Congress will never agree to a global wealth tax as proposed, among others, by Thomas Piketty. As long as this is certain, it does not really matter who governs with what ambitions in France or Germany”

Streeck doesn’t say much about the shifting momentum of the global economy towards Asia, but it seems unlikely that Piketty’s proposals will play any better in Beijing.

Nearly home now – just a few more pieces in this post-neoliberal jigsaw. The modern world has seen various religious fundamentalisms – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist to name a few. These are often seen as some kind of throwback to the premodern past, but are better viewed as modern phenomena – typically an ‘invention of tradition’ by people excluded from the major circuits of wealth and influence in modern polities who seek revitalisation by a ‘traditionalist’ critique of the modern and a validation of their role. Another developing phenomenon under the pressure of contemporary geopolitics and the neoliberal economic order is the spread of ‘failed’ or ‘warlord’ states – either ones like Somalia or Libya that fail more-or-less endogenously, or ones like Iraq and Afghanistan where the intervention of global and/or regional powers does the failing on their behalf. Likewise, there can be ‘failed regions’ within states, where organised crime and banditry proliferates. All such areas can become potent zones for the export of violence against the wider global system – criminal, terrorist or fundamentalist – potentially with disproportionately destabilising effects. The desert nomads of the Axial Age who railed against the corruption of the great cities of their day might have been at home there.

At the same time, an increasingly large number of people can now count themselves among those left out of the major circuits of global wealth and influence, but religious reaction remains something of a minority taste in the contemporary world. Instead, in the face of the fiscalised and technocratic turn of democratic polities, populist articulations of the interests of the ‘little people’ against elite actors have a growing pull. Hence the trajectory of Russia from communism to oligarchic turbo-capitalism and thence to populist nationalism under the aegis of an ex-communist strongman reining in the oligarchs and the liberal public sphere along with them. Various other countries, including perhaps the UK and the USA, seem to be travelling similar roads, or are poised to. Among the many problems with these populisms is the fact that despite their rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ from global institutions and their spurious, undeliverable promises to spend more on the National Health Service (UK) or revive the coal and steel industries (USA), they offer no more solutions to stagnant growth, inequality, debt and the changing global distribution of economic power than the ‘elite’ liberal capitalism they contest, and have neither the capacity nor the stomach to contest the global neoliberal economy in the face of the further impoverishment of their electorates. With wealth in these two countries (among many others) concentrating into ever fewer hands, it’s maybe not so difficult to see why their electorates went for the populist options of EU exit and a Donald Trump presidency, but it’s harder to see what solutions these choices will deliver.

Many voices across the political spectrum – left, right, green – have united to celebrate this apparent death knell for liberalism, including such august voices on the left as the New Left Review, green gurus like John Michael Greer and, on the right, well take your pick. I think it’s correct to argue that there are different kinds of populism, and attempts to vilify them all as a common threat to the liberal democracy that ‘we’ hold dear are both futile and ill-conceived. On the other hand, though persuasive in many respects, the John Judis position endorsed by New Left Review as a “level-headed antidote to the bien-pensant Atlantic hysteria of the hour” with its “fashionable fear of fascism” seems complacent to me, as does the uncritical endorsement of populisms among many left/green thinkers apparently on the grounds that at least Donald Trump isn’t Hilary Clinton, and at least Theresa May isn’t Jean-Claude Juncker. Even NLR’s own reviewer of Judis’s book says that it’s “difficult to share his nonchalance about our stable political future”. Fascism, nativism or something like them is one very obvious future trajectory for the populism of the moment to take – as the curve of politics in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and India may already suggest. If that seems less likely in the US or Western Europe, it’s surely because of the strength of the liberal public sphere that it’s become so fashionable to deride. In future posts I plan to make a cautious pitch for a certain kind of agrarian populism, one that tries to retain elements of the liberal public sphere that’s so derided by people like Donald Trump and John Michael Greer. That, I think, still makes me a ‘populist’, but not one supportive of any kind of populism. Let me whisper it – there are some things that may be even worse than Hilary Clinton.

A possibly anomalous case in all this is China, probably the country most likely to step into the shoes being vacated by the USA as the leader of global capitalism in the leapfrog race that started back in medieval Europe with the Italian city states. There are those who argue that despite Deng Xiaoping getting the credit for modernising China in the aftermath of Mao’s excesses, the foundations for contemporary China’s capitalist success were laid by Mao with his rural, agrarian focus, which allowed later rulers to build capitalist industry out of small-scale labour-intensive rural industry from the ground up without an urban middle-class to contest for political and economic power.

Hsiao-Hung Pai is having none of that: “The Chinese ruling class is not short of supporters in the West. Certain Orientalist apologists in the Western media – for instance, British journalist Martin Jacques – have embraced the party rhetoric of China developing ‘on its own terms, with its own rules’”. This, she says, is ‘blatantly untrue’, and her work documents the way that China’s recent economic miracle has been built to a considerable degree on the tried-and-tested method of squeezing a surplus out of the peasantry, who are bureaucratically prevented by the household registration system from enjoying the fruits of their own exploited labour. When Ecomodernist Manifesto co-author Mike Shellenberger multiply-tweeted his disdain for my pro-peasant critique of his magnum opus, he wrote “efforts to keep people in villages oppressive”. So I find it quite ironic that this, precisely, has been the strategy of the world’s fastest-growing capitalist power. The question for contemporary agrarian populists such as me is whether we can ‘keep people in villages’ without compelling them to stay there. As I’ll argue in a later post, I think the only way we can keep people in the village is by not compelling them to be there, but that in itself doesn’t take us far in answering the question.

Here though, I think China does present some worthy historical lessons. Pai is probably right that we shouldn’t overdo the ‘Asian path to capitalism’ shtick, but what interests me more is the Asian pre-capitalist path – particularly in the context of Smith’s critique of Europe’s ‘unnatural development’. Looked at from the perspective of the emergence of capitalism and colonialism in the early modern world, maybe it makes sense to talk about the ‘involution’ or ‘equilibrium traps’ that ‘blocked’ parallel developments in Asia. But looked at from the perspective of the godawful mess created by capitalist and colonial ‘development’, it seems to me that a touch of agricultural involution here and a dash of high level equilibrium trap there would be no bad thing at all. For me, the question is how to create a ‘world system’ involving tolerably prosperous and stable agrarian livelihoods, without too much self-overcoming, too much reaching beyond itself for counter-productive ‘development’.

So as I see it humanity now faces a choice. We can continue extolling the virtues of ‘development’, pin our hopes on a rapid decarbonisation of the energy system while retaining something like present levels of energy usage, and imagine that a further iteration of the capitalist economy will somehow overcome the grinding poverty that afflicts so many people in the world today. Or we could take the view that the forms of development offered by this ‘modernism’ have failed. They haven’t increased the efficiency of agriculture or industry, they’ve merely increased the speed with which non-renewable resources are drawn down. They haven’t abolished poverty, but in fact are predicated on its constant re-invention. And, for all my appreciation of Berman’s thinking on the excitement of modernity, I don’t think they’ve provided satisfactory accounts of what modern life is all about. They’ve merely provided endless distractions and projections of a better future built from the never-quite-satisfactory present, which do little more than celebrate ‘progress’ for progress’s sake – as in Leigh Phillips’ panegyrics for a dismal-sounding future of ‘growth, progress, industry and stuff’. There are other thinkers who provide much more sophisticated defences of the amplifying material basis of contemporary capitalism than Phillips, but this scarcely negates the fact that there are better ways of construing social life than a gigantic potlatch.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 9. The 20th century – four doctrines

And so we come to instalment #9 of 10½ in my history of the world – a rather lengthy one, but the 20th century was a busy old time. As ever, a fully footnoted and referenced version of the essay is here. And just to note, I’ll be completely offline next week as I’m going to a meeting of small-scale farmers from various parts of the world in Nicaragua. I generally try to avoid flying these days, but the prospect of an expenses-paid trip to look at Nicaraguan farms and talk to other small-scale farmers was too much of a temptation, I’m afraid. Normal service here again from 27 November. I’ll try to weight each word I speak during the trip with such a payload of carbon negativity that its associated emissions will be offset by my utterances alone…That’s doable, right? Talking of words, do feel free to debate (constructively) on here in my absence…unless you’ve never posted before, in which case I’m afraid you’ll have to await my return. And on that note, it’s been good to have a few new voices on here recently…so if you’re reading this but haven’t yet commented…go on…

oOo

Let me continue with my chronology by saying that the first part of the 20th century saw the contradictions in the previously-described nexus of capitalist, colonial, modernist, alt-modernist, nationalist and imperial orders transformed in the massive shakedowns of global war and revolution. Pre-modern empires such as Habsburg Austria-Hungary – “the prison of nations” according to Balkan nationalists – along with Tsarist Russia, imperial China and the Ottoman empire came crashing down. To simplify just a bit, there were essentially four main political doctrines contesting for power in this period. First, liberal-democratic capitalism, encompassing both more elitist and more social-democratic variants. Second, communism – and specifically the idea that the industrial wage-earning working-class had a privileged world-historical role to play in overcoming capitalism and installing an egalitarian, socialist, non-market society (which was not how communism turned out in practice). Third, agrarian populism – the idea that the state should focus primarily upon supporting small-scale farmer-proprietors, the backbone of many contemporary societies. Fourth, fascism – a weird amalgam of most of the others, encompassing a mixture of egalitarian workerist ideology with private sector capitalism and state dirigisme, a kind of hyper-development of the nationalist identification between the people and the polity in which ‘the people’ were more or less sublimated within the agency of a neo-imperialist state, a vaunting of the peasant and the countryside as nationalist ideals (rarely a vaunting of actual peasants, who weren’t much moved by fascism) and an often racialized treatment of pariah groups traversing the spectrum from discrimination to genocide – all of which drew in some ways upon the alt-modernist tradition and in other ways represented a politics of ressentiment which was its absolute negation.

A further word on agrarian populism, an almost forgotten idea today but one that had powerful traction in many parts of the world around the turn of the 20th century and one that, in my opinion, sorely needs reviving. In the USA, the People’s Party seriously contested for power in the late 19th century, but quickly fizzled out. Historical orthodoxy on what US agrarian populism stood for has been subject to various revisions over time – in the mid-20th century the populists were commonly dismissed as hayseeds who failed to adjust to the invigorating winds of modernity. By the 1960s, when those winds had soured, historians were treating them as prescient anti-capitalist communitarians, who saw what corporate capitalism had in store for the world and wisely rejected it. In more recent scholarship, the US populists have been portrayed as rural progressive-capitalists who were pretty much on-message with the major trends in the emerging contemporary capitalist order, but just had a more agrarian and ruralist vision for it than the course that history actually took. Certainly, it could be argued that an anti-capitalist peasant populism was never deeply rooted in the USA or Canada because of the historical peculiarities of their settler-colonial ‘American path’ to capitalism that I mentioned earlier. But where does that argument lead? Well, we’ll come back to that question soon.

First, though, another example of agrarian populism – the US’s southern neighbour. The Mexican Revolution was the first of six major ‘peasant wars of the twentieth century’ analysed by Eric Wolf in his classic text (the others being Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba). In Wolf’s analysis, what distinguished these 20th century peasant insurrections was that they weren’t simply reactionary attempts to slough off the capitalist state and ‘turn the clock back’ – they were attempts to find new social forms that overcame the depredations worked by the capitalist world economy on peasant producers. In Mexico, this manifested in a rather complex set of alliances between peasant cultivators steeped in indigenous rural-communal traditions (eg. the Morelos peasants under Zapata), the caudillo cowboy capitalists of Villa’s northern army and its military entrepreneurs (perhaps a modern variant of that age-old archetype, the predatory pastoralist) and a disaffected professional-intellectual class of ‘marginal men’, which in the Mexican case was influenced by the anarchism of Ricardo Flores Magón but elsewhere looked to other sources of inspiration such as communism. The category of the disaffected intellectual seems to me an important player in the new anti-establishment politics of modernity, if I say so myself. I think Marshall Berman analyses it beautifully in the case of Russia in his aforementioned book. But in Mexico, although the convention forces represented by Zapata and Villa effectively won the war, they didn’t win the revolutionary peace. The iconic moment was Zapata and Villa meeting in the Palacio Nacional, having taken Mexico City. Villa, sitting in the presidential chair, allegedly said to Zapata that it was “too big for us”. The peasant revolutionaries had no real plan for controlling the country as a whole, and drifted back to their regional strongholds. In Wolf’s words “final victory rewarded an elite which had created a viable army, demonstrated bureaucratic competence, and consolidated its control over the vital export sector of the economy”. Revolutionary hostilities ended in 1920, and the country fell under the strong-arm rule of the PRI, the ‘Institutional Revolution Party’, right through to the 21st century – a party that retained some vestiges of agrarian populist sentiment and a lot of socialist and anti-colonial rhetoric, but essentially followed a private sector-friendly and in some respects quasi-fascist corporate structure.

The logic of Wolf’s analysis, then, is that peasants – even in their contemporary guise as savvy modernist anti-capitalists – don’t quite cut it as revolutionaries. This was Lenin’s view too, which was roughly that if you leave revolution in the hands of peasants all you’ll get is equalisation of land and the removal of taxes. He wasn’t much more complimentary about industrial workers, considering their typical politics to amount to little more than the ‘trade unionism’ of better pay and conditions. So, for him, you needed party cadres to push revolution successfully beyond these ‘capitalist’ limits towards communism.

Lenin and communism: I’ll take that as a cue to bundle up some more 20th century history with a few conceptual issues concerning peasantries. So, one of the numerous embarrassments for 20th century Marxism was that while the master himself had predicted that communist revolution would occur in the most advanced capitalist countries where the arc of history decreed the purest of final battles between capital and labour, in fact all the major communist revolutions of the century were peasant-dominated ones in countries of the semi-periphery. With some, albeit limited, justification, Lenin recuperated the capital-labour clash within the peasantry by defining a stratum of ‘rich’ proto-capitalist peasants, and ‘poor’/landless proto-proletarian peasants in Russia, amongst other places. He also identified the stratum of the middle peasant which, he wrote, “inevitably vacillates” between the capitalist/proletarian interests of the other two. It therefore had to be “neutralised” by the revolutionary proletariat – neutralised, he explained, in the sense of “rendered neutral in the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie”, but without coercion.

With a bit more history at his disposal, Eric Wolf argued on the contrary that in the peasant wars of the 20th century it was precisely the middle peasants who were the most revolutionary class. But, as I’ve mentioned, Lenin wasn’t an enthusiast of peasant revolutions of whatever stripe. His criticism of the left agrarian populists – the narodniki – and their vision of an egalitarian peasant society is instructive,

“The more decisive and complete the success of the peasant revolution, the more speedily will the peasant transform himself into an independent capitalist farmer and wave good-bye to the socialism of the narodniki

As things turned out, the Russian peasantry was ‘neutralised’ more or less in its entirety by Lenin’s successor, and with a great deal of coercion. There are those who argue that this ruthless forced industrialisation enabled Russia to become the powerful modern capitalist country that it is today, which adds a layer of irony to Lenin’s strictures against the narodniki. But it surely wasn’t a surprising development. For all the Cold War duality of the late 20th century between the liberal-capitalist and communist paths, they were both scions of high modernist thought and shared more similarities than differences: an emphasis on disciplined labour, revolutionary breakthroughs, scientific and social progress – including ‘scientific’ leadership of mass society – and large-scale technological solutions. In China, Mao’s (equally ruthless) communism was more grounded in an agrarian productivism of a peasant-dominated countryside – though as Wolf cautions, the Chinese communists weren’t a ‘peasant party’ despite the fact that most of their membership were peasants. Rather, like their Russian counterparts they “were able to harness peasant energies, but for ends never dreamed of by the peasantry”. Though, conversely, Maoist movements have also tended to harness their own energies for dreams of a purified peasantism that were anti-modernist in content but modernist and totalitarian in design. This would apply, for example, to regimes like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. I’d like to think that the ideology of peasantism is capacious enough for me to espouse a version of it without having to expend a lot of energy differentiating my position from the Khmer Rouge, but in case there’s any doubt let me state categorically that I don’t think Democratic Kampuchea is a good model for a peasant republic.

In the event, it was Russian communism that collapsed under the weight of its crypto-capitalist contradictions, whereas Chinese communism after Mao transmogrified into an emerging global capitalist power while retaining its authoritarian regime, which remained nominally committed to communism. Some argue that this was potentiated by the rural-peasant economic focus of Maoism – in which case, do we have to generalise from Lenin’s critique of the narodniki and conclude that all roads ultimately lead to capitalism? I’d argue a qualified ‘yes’ – like a replicating virus, once the capitalist economic machinery is unleashed it ultimately becomes hard for other economic forms to do anything but turn themselves into replicas of it, regardless of the damage it causes to the host. Perhaps the recent capitalist development path of Japan and the so-called ‘Asian tiger’ economies like Taiwan and South Korea, which built industrial societies partly via public sector investment from a platform of support for small-scale farming, further underlines the point.  But the ‘yes’ is qualified – for reasons I’ll examine in a later post.

A relevant contemporary coda to the modernist enthusiasm for technical progress and increasing scale shared by capitalism and communism is the embarrassing fact for them that small-scale farming often out-produces large-scale capitalist enterprises on an acre for acre basis – a finding that, despite the best efforts of Marxist and/or modernist critics to argue otherwise, isn’t completely explicable in terms of peasant self-exploitation in circumstances of economic stress (though it partly is). One of the problems with the ‘inverse productivity relationship’ literature is that ‘productivity’ is measured in different ways – typically farm income or yields of a key staple crop, but rarely human flourishing. Nor are upstream and downstream input costs usually incorporated – fossil energy used, greenhouse gases emitted, nitrate pollution caused. If they were, it’s a fair bet that the inverse productivity relationship would intensify. The truth is that agriculture has been far less amenable to trade-off free efficiency improvements through technological transformation than other economic sectors, and there are good scientific reasons why putting humans at the ecological centre of the small farm pays dividends. It’s still the orthodoxy to decry the ‘inefficiency’ of the small peasant farm relative to the large, mechanised capitalist one, but I’d argue that it’s a less forgivable mistake now than in 1899. Anyway, I suspect small farmers may have the last laugh. I like David Mitrany’s prescient comment from 1951: “Experience would almost suggest that often it is the smallholder and not the capitalist farmer who could best satisfy the Marxist demand for scientific, prolific cultivation”. Unfortunately, contemporary Marxists and capitalists alike still seem a bit too in thrall to Lenin and Kautsky.

Still, I don’t want to discount the benefits of the Marxist tradition in drawing attention to class and other conflicts in the rural or peasant world. Numerous rural populist movements have tended to conceal specific class, gender or ethnic interests. As I’ve previously mentioned, ‘the peasantry’ isn’t a unified category, and it’s important to remain attuned to whose interests are being represented within agrarian populist movements and whose are being sidelined – a point both tirelessly and tiresomely documented by the Marxist analyst and sometime editor of The Journal of Peasant Studies, Tom Brass.

The problem with Brass is that he defines class conflict a priori as effectively the only true basis for human action – so for him any movement or theory that invokes any other motives is by definition a mystification. The mystifications that he especially disdains are anything essential or emotional – love of place, of home, of the rural, of nature, of local culture, or perhaps of what the pioneering anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus called “the mystery of the wheat shaft breaking through the hard crust of earth” – in keeping with the preference for relations over essences or ‘reification’ exhibited by social scientists in general and Marxists in particular, who often seem too busy revelling in the relational dynamics of their grand historical dialectics to revel in the world as it’s experienced. I chose the epigraph from Old Crow Medicine Show at the start of my essay to exemplify this way of thinking – “the land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a hurtin’” and the song from which it comes captures a mode of agrarian thinking that’s critical of its circumstances but fully inhabits the imperfect present in a way that’s alien to Marxism and to most social science. Of course, it’s as well to ask whose interests are being advanced in any particular situation, but reading Brass prompts the question of what kind of life would ultimately satisfy him? My guess is something that would look a lot like the Ecomodernist Manifesto – an egalitarian, urban world of limitless energy, consumer items, scientific marvels, labour-saving devices and mental stimulation, tantalisingly within reach but always just receding from the disappointing present into the achievable perfection of the near future. You’ve got to admire him for spending so much time studying peasants.

Few adopt so dogmatic an anti-populism as Brass, but the same ambience invests a good deal of academic writing about peasantries, particularly in the Journal of Peasant Studies which must surely be one of the few academic periodicals that has been so resolutely dedicated to abolishing the object of its enquiry. Terence Byres, for example, another erstwhile editor of the journal, has written some incisive critiques of contemporary agrarian populism, essentially along the lines that naïve ‘peasant way’ thinking can be insufficiently attuned to the subtleties of class conflict and the insinuation of capitalist economic relations in the countryside. But the problem is that Byres’ subtle understanding of rural class relations is yoked to an unsubtle Marxist teleology in which capitalism seems to be regarded as a necessary and superior, if painful, stage for peasantries to go through before they can exit from its other side, presumably into some kind of socialist utopia of material plenty. So, for example, in critiquing neo-populist calls for rural land reform Byres argues,

“industrial growth….with concomitant shifts of labour from the countryside, has been a crucial means by which rural poverty has been reduced and eradicated historically”

…a statement of orthodox, unilinear pro-capitalism of the kind you’d expect to cross the lips of a Walt Rostow or a Stewart Brand – which just goes to show once again the close affinities between Marxism and capitalism. Still, there’s undoubtedly some truth in the remark – except that it isn’t a radical solution to rural poverty because, as argued earlier, industrialisation conforms to a dynamic of uneven development, turning poverty into a whack-a-mole game of shifting centres and peripheries. Industrial wage labour is certainly one strategy pursued by the rural poor when they can, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward route out of poverty either at the individual or the global level. In a likely future context of slowing economic growth and ecological crisis, neo-populist attempts to understand why poor people stay poor and redress them locally through the structures of agrarian life seem to me well conceived.

So there’s a growth or accumulation fetish in much writing on poverty and development (grow the economy and poverty will ultimately reduce) which is understandable but, I think, increasingly problematic. In this sense, I’d argue that Byres’ critique of agrarian neo-populism for its ahistorical utopianism becomes the epitaph for his own anti-peasant Marxism:

“To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes….one…has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past. They are déjà passé.”

Quite so. The days when it was a good idea to advocate for the capitalist transformation of peasant farming as a route to improved wellbeing and ultimately to socialism, if they ever existed, are now clearly in the past. What’s emerged more strongly since Byres wrote those words is the contemporary food sovereignty movement associated with the international peasant movement La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’) – perhaps what could be called a ‘neo-neo-populist’ movement, with British offshoots in the form of the Scottish crofters’ federation and my own organisation, the Land Workers’ Alliance. Food sovereignty arguably transcends the old debates between populists and Marxists – a new discourse of “growers and eaters” which is “re-envisioning the conditions necessary to develop sustainable and democratic forms of social reproduction. Still, it remains vulnerable to critique at both its less radical and more radical edges. At the less radical edge, it doubtless runs risks of the kind identified by both Lenin and Byres – a successful local agrarianism that gradually turns itself into a landholder-dominated or ‘yeoman’ capitalism, which abandons its sustainable and democratic founding principles. At the more radical edge, it’s perhaps vulnerable to the kind of criticisms levelled by Henry Bernstein against the food sovereignty movement – the implausibility of local, small-scale, low-tech farming feeding the world’s swelling billions who are increasingly located in urban areas dependent on an industrial and globalised agroecosystem. That surely invites a counter-critique: it’s unlikely that the global-industrial agroecosystem will ultimately prove able to feed the urban billions either, with the rather radical implication that perhaps the time has come for governments to pursue de-urbanisation (though maybe not so radical – they did, after all, pursue urbanisation policies at a time when they seemed a good idea, and could presumably do the opposite in changed circumstances). The usefulness of these critiques is perhaps in encouraging the food sovereignty movement to develop wider political and policy frameworks that are more specifically grounded than its founding utopian visions – and in not assuming that local markets are necessarily any more benevolent in and of themselves than distant ones. That’s something I hope to contribute to in future posts that build on the historical analysis offered here.

For their part, the economic founding fathers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx usually avoided explicit utopian visioning, so the utopianism of neoliberals and Marxists alike tends to remain rather hidden, but not absent, as a result. However, even Marx provided a famous utopian image of an achieved communist society:

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

…which, aside from ‘society regulating the general production’, sounds a lot like your average peasant utopia. That passage is from The German Ideology, published in 1845 when Marx was 27 – a hinge point in his thinking according to Louis Althusser, who argued that Marx achieved an ‘epistemological break’ at this point and put aside such whimsies thereafter for a truly ‘scientific’, anti-humanist and structuralist socialism. Althusser’s work was highly influential in its time and was still being inflicted in the 1980s on bemused undergraduates like me, but it hasn’t aged well. Another and almost opposite recuperation of Marx’s later thinking that I find much more attractive has been set out in a fascinating recent book by Kristin Ross about the influence of the short-lived Paris Commune on radical thought. According to Ross, the events in Paris and the rise of peasant  communisms in Eastern Europe led Marx to retreat from his grand Hegelian narratives concerning the dialectical progress of history from peasant to capitalist society and only thence to communism. Instead, she says, he developed a more contingent sense of the possibilities for radical egalitarian government in specific times and places, such as a peasant communism in Russia grounded in traditional peasant communal institutions like the ‘village council’ – the mir or obshina. Ross traces the same idea in the crossover of anarchist and communist thought represented by such figures as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus. A somewhat ‘backward-looking’ contemporary Russian nationalism is also reinvesting these institutions with political meaning, but Ross stresses that in the hands of radicals like Marx and Kropotkin the point wasn’t to fetishise the communal institutions of the past, but to build from them, in Kropotkin’s words, “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”.

The difficulty, I think, is that the conditions in which it’s feasible to build plausible ‘bottom-up’ anarchist-communist societies are unusual, and their chances of longevity are slight – either because they’re annihilated by the stronger forces of the centralised state (as happened with the Paris Commune), or because they succumb to the internal contradictions of their own somewhat hidden power dynamics. Still, Ross’s analysis raises a lot of interesting questions concerning the course that a free, egalitarian peasant society of the future might take.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts – 8. Of reconstituted peasantries and alternate modernities

Continuing with my ‘History of the world’. As ever, the fully referenced version of this essay is available here.

I’m going to come back to the issue of peasantries as the ‘universal class’ at the end of this essay. For now, I’d just like to broach the issue by returning to the question of peasantries under capitalism by way of what the doyen of Caribbean anthropology, Sidney Mintz, called ‘reconstituted peasantries’. Mintz was referring specifically to the rise of peasant farmers in the Caribbean around the edges and in the aftermath of the slave plantation system – people who weren’t originally peasants, but workers in the capitalist world economy (plantation slaves) who turned to peasant farming as the best available option open to them under changing circumstances.

I’d like to submit Mintz’s concept for more generalised use – at points of breakdown in the capitalist world system, peasant production can present itself as an attractive or, at least, as a least-worst option. For those of us who suspect that major breakdowns in the capitalist world system are likely in future, the possibility of a more widespread emergence of ‘reconstituted peasantries’ becomes interesting. If that’s how things turn out, an intriguing question is the extent to which post-capitalist reconstituted peasantries of the future might resemble any peasantries of the capitalist or pre-capitalist past. In other words, is the history of agrarian production and its social structures prior to and during the development of the capitalist world system relevant to its future after capitalism – does agrarian society have a predictable structuring – or have I been wasting my time reading and writing about all this history? The answer will surely depend on how capitalism might end, and what form post-capitalist states might take – questions that remain rather disreputable to mainstream thought, particularly when one starts talking about a future return to peasant farming. But, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s a growing sub-genre of ‘post-capitalist’ writing available. One of the problems with it is precisely that it doesn’t adequately talk about peasants or the contemporary ‘agrarian question’ – what Mazoyer and Roudart call a world agrarian crisis that requires the development of the ‘poor peasant economy’.

In any case, to summarise where we’ve got to in this survey of capitalism, I’ve charted above three main dimensions of capitalist development – agriculture, manufactures and commerce – and given some weighting to commerce in its military-colonial expansionary drive as the main engine of the ‘Great Divergence’ that has made the west the core region of the world economic system over the last two centuries or so. But as well as looking at what actually happened, is it also worth applying some normative judgment to the ‘proper’ course of economic development? Well, we could surely do worse than follow the example of Adam Smith, much feted pioneering theorist of the modern capitalist economy who, among other things, has posthumously donated his name to the eponymous institute much beloved of Margaret Thatcher and succeeding generations of neoliberals, which has done more than its share in spreading the neoliberal doctrine of untrammelled private markets as the solution to all the world’s ills. Smith emphasised the “soft, gentle and amiable virtues” necessary to the commercial society his work foretold, but he argued that such “general security and happiness…afford little exercise to the contempt of danger, to patience in enduring labour, hunger and pain” which he seemingly preferred. He identified a “natural course of things” in which “the greater part of capital…is, first, directed to agriculture, afterwards to manufactures, and last of all to foreign commerce”. He found this ‘natural course’ in the history of China, whereas in Europe he considered the ordering reversed – which he found “unnatural and retrograde”. Buried within the ur-text of capitalism’s impetus to commercialisation and genteel progress, perhaps there lurks a hankering for the more muscular virtues of an agrarian republic?

So let me now trace some of the ways the virulent new capitalist political economy played out across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century ended as it began with many of the world’s people working primarily as small-scale, self-providing cultivators under the weaker or stronger suzerainty of large empires whose rise predated capitalism. But things weren’t the same at century’s end as at the beginning – a globalising capitalist economy had thoroughly penetrated the existing order and dominated it politically through direct or indirect colonial rule. As I’ve already mentioned, in some cases apparently ‘traditional’ lifeways of peasant subsistence were augmented or even created through colonial processes that sapped the economic lifeblood of conquered polities and their peoples, making subsistence cultivation a strategy of last resort. In others, the surplus-producing aspects of peasant production were redirected to the ends of the capitalist world system. There are numerous variants of this capitalist appropriation of peasant surplus production across the modern global economy – including the increasingly demonised and disciplined category of impoverished international labour migrants, many of whom remain connected to a farm and village back home, and may indeed be working in the short-term for low wages in a ‘developed’ country in order to generate sufficient wealth to establish themselves as a landowner or ‘rich peasant’ able to be relatively independent locally of world market forces. So whereas there are those who say that more capitalism is needed in order to end the misery of peasant life, there are also those who seek more peasantism in order to end the misery of capitalist life.

Meanwhile, nationalism took shape on the political stage – essentially a family of doctrines which weaponised differences of language, religion, phenotype or putatively shared culture-history. Such differences had long prompted human conflicts back into antiquity (perhaps with the exception of phenotype). What was different with modern nationalism was the notion that these differences coincided organically with the boundaries of sovereign political states, which were the only legitimate representatives of ‘the people’. With undeniable emotional power, nationalism makes us think that an entity like ‘Britain’ is a natural political unit (or ‘England’ at any rate – oh dear, we’re running into difficulties already). But as Immanuel Wallerstein points out, nationalism is always a case of “First the boundaries, later the passions” – historically, an Angevin polity of England, Wales and western France could plausibly have stabilised itself after Henry II. What then of an immemorial ‘Englishness’?

The genesis of these nationalisms was multi-factorial. I wrote earlier of their gestational phase in the absolutist states of the late medieval period, but they only assumed their contemporary form in the clash between egalitarian Enlightenment rationalism and Counter-Enlightenment romanticism. Bruce Kapferer nicely summarizes the problem raised by this clash and the way that nationalism tries to resolve it:

“Among nation-states formed within the conditions of egalitarian individualism the issue of legitimacy has an enduring problematic specific to it. This is so because the individual autonomy preached as a central part of egalitarianism potentially conflicts with the loss or surrender of this autonomy to others, specifically agents of the state. One resolution, part of the fury of Western political discourse from the seventeenth century on, is precisely the argument that the state embodies the pure spirit of the people and is the guardian of this spirit.”

Other elements of the nationalist package included an emerging biological-racial consciousness of human difference, secularization and the eclipse of religion, and the emergence of mass societies in which people no longer lived in rural face-to-face communities of known others, but large conurbations of strangers – mass circulation newspapers, sports and other 19th century innovations enabled the creation of new ‘imagined communities’ and new ‘invented traditions’, to use the powerful metaphors invoked by two influential theorists of nationalism.

But alongside these efforts to forge a mass common purpose within the exclusive boundaries of the nation, a counter-tradition developed that sought to recuperate the sovereign individual from the tawdriness of the emerging capitalist mass society. The tradition defies easy summary, partly because it’s scarcely unified, but in an interesting recent essay Gopal Balakrishnan calls it a ‘revolution from the right’, involving a “miscellany of opposition to the welfare state, godless Marxism and a more nebulously conceived cultural levelling…a call to true elites to stand their ground against a world-wide revolt of the masses”. Balakrishnan traces its lineages through the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler’s Decline of the West, the ‘Nazi jurist’ Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss. It’s not a tradition, I confess, in which I’m especially well versed or feel comfortable with – and in its cruder variants it’s one that’s easy to dismiss as a kind of disgusted reactionary response to what struck its proponents as the unstoppable rise of the (sometimes racialized) hoi polloi, a kind of counter-modernity to the one described by Berman. Still, I can see that a figure like Nietzsche, for example – with his pronouncements on the death of God and modern disenchantment, on the slave revolt in morals, on the vengeful politics of ressentiment – has important things to say about living in the modern world and the issues of political sovereignty it involves. But I find it all a bit overblown, and if I wanted to ground my politics in a consistent theory of being I think I’d want to look towards cooler philosophies like stoicism or Taoism as a basis for a self-reliant agrarian politics.

Balakrishnan’s ‘revolution from the right’ is important, though – partly because of its influence on the radical right-wing politics of the present and recent past, and partly because of the new crossovers it has with leftist thought on the terrain of contemporary environmentalism, which I’ve been butting up against recently on this blog. From Spengler to John Michael Greer, Heidegger to Paul Kingsnorth, maybe even Nietzsche to David Fleming (or maybe not…), there’s an undertow of Balakrishnan’s right-wing ‘alternate modernity’ as well as an egalitarian leftism in these contemporary radical ecological thinkers. I mention this here not primarily to criticise them for it. I think there’s something in the counter-tradition they’re invoking that’s necessary and largely absent from the left-green politics that’s more comfortable terrain for the likes of me – something that’s easily traduced by crude polemicists of the doctrinaire left as just another iteration of the far-right nature mysticism investing early 20th century environmentalism. Even so, I think Kingsnorth and Fleming’s cautious flirtations with nationalism, and Greer’s (and to some extent Kingsnorth’s) uncritical approbation of Donald Trump as a kind of avatar of Spenglerian decline and/or avenger of liberal-capitalist complacency are problematic. I plan to write more about this soon when I’ve got to grips with it better – meanwhile, I’ve found Balakrishnan’s essay useful for placing this current of contemporary environmentalist thought into a deeper historical context.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 7. Capitalism, the state and historical progress

Continuing with my history of the world…

Earlier, I characterised the emergence of capitalism in relation to the transformation of the four medieval figures of the lord, the peasant, the merchant, and the king. But I haven’t yet said anything about the king – except in relation to the strengthening of royal houses under absolutist state-forming enterprises which prefigured capitalist development. By the time the star of capitalism was rising, kings had largely lost their medieval role as military strongmen. And as we enter the early modern epoch, the idea of royal sovereignty in the form of an embodied individual – the monarch – started giving way to something more figurative, the fertile but troublesome idea of the sovereignty of the people. Classics of early modern political philosophy such as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan enable us to peek under the bonnet and watch the workings as the king was thus turned into the modern state. So, likewise, I’ll interpret the question of the role of the ‘king’ in capitalism more figuratively in terms of the role of the state.

The basic point is that despite our contemporary post-socialist tendency to counterpose ‘the market’ of the capitalist economy with ‘the state’, capitalist development has always been a state project, albeit in partnership with private actors. Without the state, there’d certainly be no capitalism, and probably not even all that much of a ‘market’ in the sense of places where people come together to buy and sell goods. The commercial ventures of early European capitalism both within and beyond the subcontinent’s borders were joint public-private efforts. Their success made countries like Britain and the Netherlands the richest tax-states the world had yet seen. An important feature of them was that state exchequers no longer functioned as the essentially private booty of warrior aristocracies but were redirected towards the aggrandisement of the state as a more organic national body. It’s not necessary to succumb to the delusion that capitalist states held the wellbeing of all their constituent people in equal regard in order to acknowledge this broad difference between a modern state grounded in the idea of the sovereignty of the people and a medieval one grounded in the idea of the sovereignty of the monarch. But whatever the rights or wrongs of the early modern capitalist states, it does seem to me that all the potential jockeying between lord and yeoman, yeoman and labourer, merchant and lord and so on implicit in my preceding account could easily have gone in directions that would have interrupted the smooth progress of capital accumulation. The fact that it didn’t testifies to the importance of the state in mediating between these various factions in the interests of capital.

So to summarise, when it comes to deciding who among our cast of medieval characters – the king, the lord, the peasant or the merchant – was the prime architect of capitalism, my inclination is to let the historians keep arguing among themselves, and say with a shrug ‘all of the above’. But if I were forced to choose, I’d go for the merchant, with a little help from the king. Perhaps this makes intuitive sense inasmuch as one thing we can surely say about contemporary capitalism compared to its medieval forerunners is that ‘the market’ looms much larger in the former, and markets are what merchants are all about, right? Well, yes – except that under capitalism ‘markets’ in the medieval sense (traders selling their wares in a market square, or middlemen clinching hard-wrung business deals in harbour-front warehouses) have lost ground to vast vertically- and horizontally-integrated corporate enterprises whose very modus operandi is, with the collusion of the state, to defeat competition and destroy the market.

Now, as I mentioned above, one of the main ways that champions of the capitalist economy justify it is in terms of the stuff it produces – the wonderful panoply of consumer goods and technological marvels that it makes available to ordinary people. And two of the main ways that its critics counter this argument are by suggesting, first, that this wonderful panoply is socially dysfunctional, and, second, that it’s environmentally unsustainable. But a third criticism is that it’s economically unsustainable in its own terms. Going back to the definition of capitalism on p.18, I want to note that the driving force of the system is capital accumulation, which secures the reproduction of society only as an ‘unintended side-effect’. The incentive in a capitalist economy is to accumulate capital in whatever way is easiest, and only in certain special circumstances does that involve manufacturing goods, improving the technical efficiency of goods production and spreading the resulting stuff generously among ordinary people.

Consider William Cronon’s history of Chicago. In the 1830s the city was a fur-trading post of the early capitalist kind – a merchant capitalist enterprise linking foraging peoples of the world system’s outer periphery to the international clothing market. By the 1850s, the fur was mostly gone and Chicago was in its agrarian-industrial phase, using technological developments in transport and storage to link its prairie hinterlands with global markets for meat and grain. Part of this package in the 1850s included the invention of futures markets by the Chicago Board of Trade to help ease the flow of trade in agrarian commodities afflicted by ecological uncertainty. By the 1870s, Chicago was trading about $200 million in actual grain, but $2 billion in grain futures markets where the actual price of grain and the ecological factors affecting the crop no longer mattered. In this virtualisation of the productive economy, the debt state was (re)born in its modern guise – and at what a rate! Karl Marx described capitalism as a process of M → C → M’ (money is turned into commodities, which in their turn are transformed into more money than you started with). But why bother with that troublesome middle ‘C’ if it becomes easier simply to turn money into more money? Well, here’s one reason: Giovanni Arrighi argues that the status of the world’s leading capitalist country has passed from the city-states of Venice and Genoa, to the Netherlands, then to Britain and latterly to the USA. In each case, the period of decline was marked by a growing financialisation in which physical trade or manufacture was supplanted by a virtual economy – a process that seems far advanced in the declining capitalist powers of Britain and the USA today. So maybe there’s a case for keeping the market real. And for remembering that capitalism isn’t fundamentally about ‘the market’ in the sense of furnishing the goods and services that people want, although sometimes it does have that side-effect.

But I’m running ahead of my chronology once again. So a final point about the emergence of capitalism – it had some kind of relation to science, technology and the notion of ‘progress’. But what kind? A common self-conception in the west often conflates various political, economic and intellectual strands into an indissoluble nexus: democracy and political freedom, capitalism, economic efficiency, increasing scientific knowledge and engineering skill, rational enquiry – all flying under the banner of ‘progress’. This particular assemblage came together in the French Enlightenment of the 18th century and has been a pretty immoveable part of the furniture of western thought ever since. According to Immanuel Wallerstein, only a few decades prior to the French Revolution the argument that historical change was desirable and generally moved in a positive direction would have seemed ridiculous to most people, whereas after the Revolution and through to the present the reverse has become true – hence such contemporary panegyrics to modernity as the Ecomodernist Manifesto with its tendentious claim that “humanity has flourished in the last two centuries”. I guess it depends what you mean by flourishing. Certainly, there are a lot more of us than there were two centuries ago. Then again, there are more people suffering malnutrition today than even existed in 1800.

So it’s important, I think, to question the narrative of progress empirically, but it’s even more important to question its generative logic. One of the hallmarks of the modern epoch is its tendency to think that there’s a singular logic to history, usually described with a spatial metaphor. So, according to various modernist schools of thought, history moves ‘forwards’ (progressives), ‘backwards’ (romantics), in circles (Spenglerians) or dialectically (Marxists). I don’t think any of these assertions are wholly true, though doubtless they all capture something of value. The progressive view of history, that it moves ever ‘forwards’, is much the most pervasive in our culture – with the pernicious result that it becomes difficult to suggest there’s anything of value in past ways from which we could learn in the here and now without being indicted for wishing to ‘turn the clock back’. To me, the motion of history seems more multiple, pulling apart the ‘progressive’ nexus of capitalism and Enlightenment: capitalism isn’t intrinsically related to democracy or political freedom, and the pursuit of reason (scientific, technical or political) isn’t always ‘progressive’. But there does seem to be a certain kind of mechanistically reductionist thinking (which I don’t necessarily mean pejoratively) that emerged in Europe coterminously with the rise of capitalism, modern science, and ideas of rationality and social progress as part of the same cultural assemblage. Clearly there are linkages between these phenomena, but I think they’re complex and not simply co-determined – and I’m inclined to pretty much leave that thought there, except for a couple of remarks.

First, the physical and biological sciences in the Enlightenment and the preceding ‘Age of Reason’ made such great strides by looking for hidden, universal patterns in the relations between things that thinkers in the social and political sciences have consistently been in thrall to reductionist, scientific universalism ever since – with results that, by comparison, vary from the disappointing to the disastrous, prompting various counter-movements against universalist reason. But second, on the other hand, one of the features of the modern epoch has been the emergence of a public sphere involving “rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions”. This has been quite consequential for the way that notions like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are construed in contemporary thought, but is also consequential politically – for example, in the mobilisation of middle-class English people (women, especially) against colonial slavery in the 18th century. This wasn’t necessarily the decisive, still less the only, reason for the abolition of slavery, and it’s common to dismiss the significance of such ‘chattering classes’ and their bourgeois concerns for decency – much the same is true today when it comes to issues like climate change and the Transition Towns movement (in both cases the issue turns on the linkages between public culture and private consumption, respectively of sugar and carbon). Though I share this critique of the public sphere up to a point, my feeling is that it can easily slide into complacency, or indeed connivance, regarding the diminished prospects in the absence of a strong public sphere for an information society that can hold power to account, for activism, free association and critical inquiry. Perhaps the modern public sphere has the same function in a virtual realm that the town had for medieval peasants in a physical one – a space unorganisable by coercive power which is therefore able at some level to hold it to account. And while the ‘coercive power’ that I refer to certainly encompasses the kind of formal state power that historically has so often been directed against peasant society from without, it also refers to the more diffuse kinds of power that operate within peasant society – seniors against juniors, men against women, families against individual members threatening their ‘name’, and whole networks of traditional authority operating both independently of and in concert with external power dynamics. My main focus in this essay is on recuperating a version of small-scale, local agrarian society as a vital force for the future prosperity of the world, but the version that I want to recuperate also requires defences against the negative tendencies intrinsic to such a society.

In one way or another, then, the various correlates of capitalism, modernity and ‘progress’ involve political tensions between the universal and the particular. So perhaps more important than the spurious notion of objective historical ‘progress’ is the idea of progress that animates modern thought. In an earlier post, I enthused about the late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, not least for the way it captured the excitement prompted by the concept of the ‘modern’ – the concept of ‘progress’, effectively – for a vast swath of humanity of humble origins who for the first time were able to conceive of themselves as world-historical agents. I was taken to task by various people, not least New York academic Anthony Galluzzo, for falling under Berman’s spell and endorsing his conception of modernity. Anthony – who I confess knows far more than I do about modernist literature and culture – drew my attention to Perry Anderson’s critique of Berman, and registered his own displeasure with Berman for what he saw as a complicity with modernity’s destruction of the non-modern, the violence of ‘progress’ in the face of the non-progressive.

Now, I probably shouldn’t get too side-tracked into this debate here but it raises issues that are relevant to my theme. To my mind, Berman isn’t guilty of a simplistic teleology, a narrative of ‘modernity as progress at all costs’ – rather, he’s interested in tracing some of the new ways in which an idea of ‘the modern’ enabled non-elite people to construct a sense of agency or self-determination in their lives. And in this I think he gets the better of the exchange with Anderson, who has a more elitist and teleological sense of historical progress as a complete overcoming of the disappointing and alienated present: “the vocation of a socialist revolution”, says Anderson, “would be neither to prolong nor to fulfil modernity, but to abolish it”, thereby betraying an ironically modernist urge for radical renewal, rather than a more workaday juggling with the potentialities of the here and now. But perhaps there’s also a paradox in my position inasmuch as ordinary people don’t actually need to conceive of themselves as world-transforming historical agents until they’re enmeshed in a world-transforming historical ideology like modernity. I’d argue that convincing responses to the problems of a given social order do have to be dialectical, subsuming the form of the ideology that they’re striving to overcome. So if the notion of ‘progress’ is the problem, then we need to progress beyond progress! The most promising way of doing so that I can see is via an agrarian self-determination shorn of any ideas about epochal ‘progress’ or ‘regress’. But to achieve it we need a modernist sense of world-historical agency, of collectively bringing something better into being – a better future which is better because it’s not directed to future betterment but because it enables self-realisation in the here and now.

To try to pull together my rather abstract message from the last few paragraphs with a specific example, perhaps I could invoke Roger Scruton’s conservative elegy for the “hard won consolations of the English yeoman farmer” in his book News From Somewhere. There’s much about Scruton’s characterisation of a self-reliant and deeply-rooted local farm community that rings true and would doubtless resonate with agrarian people in other parts of the rural world – a small-c ‘conservative’ world regardless of the more activist political conservatism that Scruton wants to justify from it. But what’s missing from it is the ghost of class conflicts past that delivered this particular version of yeoman England. The difficult job for a modern agrarian populism is to reckon with the reality of contemporary rural life rather than trying to dissolve it, while at the same time remembering that it has a specific history, only one of many possible histories, in which some people’s interests and visions were effaced. It’s easy not to remember this – as, for example, in Robert Macfarlane’s essay on the eeriness of the English countryside, which doesn’t once mention its historical class politics. Well of course it’s eerie – it’s full of defeated ghosts! In the early 19th century, William Cobbett developed a conservative-rural-radical vision for an economy of local self-reliance in the countryside that nevertheless cast a pitiless eye over the exclusionary rural class alliances that immiserated farm labourers, while delivering the world of the yeoman farmer. It’s scarcely been bettered since – certainly not by Scruton, or by other contemporary representations of the ‘countryman’. Ah well, at least we have The Land magazine.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this long analysis of capitalism and the development of the early modern world system together by asserting the following “six things they don’t tell you about capitalism”:

  1. Capitalism isn’t about free wage labour
  2. Capitalism isn’t about political freedom or democracy
  3. Capitalism is achieved by centralised states, not decentralised markets
  4. Capitalism isn’t about science, technology or ‘progress’ – at least, not in any simple sense
  5. Capitalism wasn’t the unique achievement of Europeans
  6. Peasants are the universal class – probably

I hope that the first five points, counterintuitive though they are to the usual stories we tell about capitalism, will make sense on the basis of what I’ve written thus far, even if they might not command your agreement. The sixth may need some further explanation.

Addendum: I’m appending a picture of some soybeans. Clem will explain why below…

 

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 6. Capitalism II – Cores and Peripheries

My post last week on livestock seemed to make a slightly larger ripple in cyberspace than my usual offerings. Ah well, it’s an issue that always has legs – unlike the meat alternatives proposed by George Monbiot. The whole kerfuffle about meat in the media last week stemmed from the Food Climate Research Network’s report Grazed and Confused, a title which aptly summarises not only a good deal of the ensuing media debate but also the state of DEFRA officials as they contemplate a post-EU future for British agriculture. Their boss Michael Gove has apparently been talking enthusiastically about ‘sustainable intensification’. Expect a future in which blandishments about ‘eco-friendly’ feedlot beef and ‘sustainable’ electric cars divert us from the truth that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before, which is what actually matters. I’m not sure that the FCRN is keeping its eye on the ball on this one: maybe they should have called their report The Wood for the Trees.

Still, what can I do? Get back to my history of the world, that’s what. But thanks for all the extra comments last time, and apologies for not responding to all of them – non-response is not indicative of ingratitude or lack of interest on my part. Anyway, this week I bring you an entirely non-controversial topic – European colonialism – so nothing much to comment on there, right? I’ll note as usual that a fully referenced version of the excerpt below is available here.

oOo

So, back to the main thread of my story: in weighing up capitalism’s historical record, it’s also necessary to reckon with the fact that capitalism has never confined itself to single national economies. Doubtless Stalin did everywhere except Russia a favour when he proclaimed ‘socialism in one country’, but there’s never been ‘capitalism in one country’. In one sense, we can look at this in terms of the kind of ‘ratchet effect’ mentioned earlier. Capitalist states are able to generate and direct more money, and therefore more power, than other ones – than agrarian ones in particular. So states that had sufficient resources and institutional capital to be able to play the same game as the leading capitalist powers (in the early modern world, the Netherlands and England) had an incentive to play catch-up, which they did either by imposing capitalism from above (the aristocratic ‘Prussian path’) or, in places conveniently free of aristocracies, building it from below (the ‘American path’).

The catch-up game is still a very common way of thinking about inequalities in the global economy. For whatever reason, the economies of the early capitalist powers ‘took off’, and all that’s needed now is for the ‘developing’ economies to take off too, and then everyone will be happy (…provided we assume that everyone in the ‘developed’ countries is happy). But another line of argument suggests that the early capitalist powers took off at the direct expense of other parts of the world – an idea pursued influentially in Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of ‘uneven development’, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, and Andre Gunder Frank’s dependency theory. In their different ways all these theories suggest that ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ are two sides of the same coin. The title of one of Frank’s papers – ‘The development of underdevelopment’encapsulates the key idea. ‘Underdevelopment’ isn’t something that exists in the absence of ‘development’, but in its presence. So a key question in this tradition is how international commerce created a capitalist world economy with dominant and subordinate geopolitical components – which is still true today, even as the dominance is shifting towards Asia. Since the 1820s, but never before, the average individual’s economic prospects have been conditioned more strongly by their country of birth than by the economic standing of their parents.

Wallerstein introduced the concept of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ into his analysis of the capitalist world system. Essentially, he argued that there was a geopolitical gradation of labour forms, from the ‘free’ wage labour of the European core, to peasantries and/or tenants in the semi-periphery, through to unfree labour (slaves, serfs) in the periphery, and thence foragers or ‘primitive’ agriculturists in the primal world beyond the capitalist world system. I think this remains a useful way of thinking about the geopolitics of contemporary capitalism. The capitalist economy requires a stratum of wealthy consumers who are able to buy its products (hence the ‘free’ wage labourers of the rich world, who have no means of subsistence except their own labour, but a large purchasing power as a result of that labour). But in order to attain the requisite returns on investment it also has to minimise labour costs – which it achieves where it can by giving workers nothing but their subsistence, if that. The geopolitical manifestation of this contradiction is the well-remunerated consumer-wage-labourers of the wealthy core areas, and the poor labourers of the periphery. This creates strong incentives for workers in the periphery to migrate to the core where it’s easier to become a wealthy consumer-labourer, but a capitalist world system can’t be all core and no periphery if it’s to survive – it requires the tension of centre-periphery relations. At the same time, the need for constantly compounding economic growth in the capitalist economy creates the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ – the need to find ever new arenas for investment. This gives capital enormous transformative power in the periphery through its ability to create geopolitical linkage – for example, turning foragers into fur-traders, or self-reliant horticulturists into purveyors of coffee or frozen asparagus, with profound effects on local social relations. Such developments don’t often change the basic geopolitics of core and periphery, but over the longer historical haul sometimes they do. The capitalist economy is globally dynamic. In the long run, core may become periphery and vice versa.

Thus, the “secret scandal of capitalism”, as David Graeber puts it, is that “at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor”. In the Atlantic world system organised by the early modern capitalist powers of western Europe, the chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas was a key dynamic – bequeathing disastrous long-term consequences across large parts of the African continent and a host of problems in American societies down to the present. The Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams first mooted the idea that the profits of colonial slavery in the Americas opened the way for the industrial revolution in Europe – and his general thesis, if not the precise details of his analysis, have gained considerable acceptance.

Meanwhile in eastern Europe, cereal export production for the lucrative markets of a prosperously capitalist western subcontinent reinvigorated serfdom. That was one extreme of the peasant experience under capitalism, but overall the picture was complex and mixed. In some times and places, peasants left or lost their land and became wage labourers with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. In others, things went in the opposite direction – the destruction of local polities in the capitalist world-system led to a ‘re-peasantisation’ of local labour, a process which some argue is ongoing, even in wealthy parts of the world such as Europe. Elsewhere, the capitalist economy merely co-opted and re-directed the peasant labour process. Whereas before peasants had produced their own subsistence and then provided surplus in the form of crops, money or labour-service to local polities, under the emerging capitalist world-system many peasants continued to produce their own subsistence, while surrendering their surplus to an increasingly globalised economy – often in the form of new cash crops demanded from the core like sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, indigo, rubber and tropical fruits, which were grown either directly as peasant cash-crops, or on plantations whose labour demands articulated with local peasant economies. Clifford Geertz’s influential study of ‘agricultural involution’ in Indonesia is a case in point. Geertz argued that yields of wet rice are enormously responsive to additional labour inputs (in technical terms, the marginal productivity of labour remains quite constant – wet rice is a relatively non-Malthusian crop). With the subsistence needs of a crowded peasant populace thus taken care of, local and European entrepreneurs working through existing channels of political authority imposed an ecologically complementary but economically extractive sugar cash-cropping regimen on the rice-growing peasantry. This, in Geertz’s opinion, resulted in stasis and ‘involution’, a blocked economic ‘take-off’, with the vast surpluses generated by peasant production once again going elsewhere, just as they did in Goubert’s 17th century France. This kind of peasantry remains widespread today, and it’s important to understand the manner of its insertion into the global capitalist economy. It’s all too commonly believed, even among those who ought to know better, that poor peasant farmers in the world today have been “left behind by modernity”. The truth is that ‘modernity’ has them exactly where it wants them.

Britain emerged in the early modern period as the dominant capitalist-colonial power, perhaps symbolised by its victories across far-flung territories in the Seven Years War (1756-63), which has sometimes been called the first ‘world war’. But not long after that, it got itself in a tangle trying to remember whether to be a tax-state or a tribute-state, losing the USA to the first and perhaps the most successful modern anti-colonial revolt. Doubtless the US revolt was successful in part because it was essentially a family argument within a group of colonizers. The second modern anti-colonial revolt was the slave uprising that turned French Saint-Domingue into Haiti, but it proved much less successful – nervous colonial and slaveholding powers played their part in making sure of that.

It’s tempting to think of the emerging USA as its own geographic world-system in the manner of Wallerstein, with wage labour in its northeastern core, peasant labour in its western semi-periphery and enslaved labour in its southern periphery – which is possibly illuminating, provided it’s not turned into an evolutionary sequence from a ‘backward’ south to a ‘progressive’ northeast. Criticisms of slave plantation production on the grounds of the superior efficiency of free labour as well as the inhumanity of human bondage have long been made, not least in the antebellum politics of the USA out of which emerged the civil war between the ‘free’ north and the slave south. But, just as in early modern Europe, the truth is that capitalism has components of both industrial wage labour and colonial commerce – deciding which is the ‘purer’ form is of less consequence than the historical reality of how people chose to operate in their given circumstances. The western ‘semi-periphery’ was another front in the battle between proponents of slavery and freedom, though the modernist or humanitarian credentials of those struggling to keep it free from slavery shouldn’t be overstated. The Free Soil Party gained the support of black leaders like Frederick Douglass, but its call was to salvage the west “for the Caucasian race” – and racially-divided politics of this sort continued to invest agrarian populism later on in US history.

The peasants of the US western semi-periphery weren’t much like the ones of Geertz’s Indonesia, still less those of Wickham’s medieval ‘peasant mode of production’. In historian Geoff Cunfer’s words the pioneers of the plains “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”. Cunfer does, however, emphasise the skill with which they figured out how to farm the prairies, and defends them against what he sees as over-simplified censure for soil erosion and the dust bowl, arguing that this stemmed fundamentally from longer-range climatic cycles. It’s an interesting point when set alongside the US tradition of agroecological critique, which sees the arrival of European farming methods with the settlers as inherently unsustainable and destructive. Cunfer’s view that settlers steeped in European peasant farming traditions were able to devise a workable new agriculture on the prairies within a few decades is suggestive for future peasant adaptation – as, alas, is his analysis of their failure to work out an effective property regime around water use, and their susceptibility to larger order climatic constraint. Not for the first time in this essay, though, the strongest force for change that emerges was the socio-economic linkages these farmers had to the wider world system, and not the immediate ecological circumstances.  What Cunfer is describing here is essentially the ‘American’ path to capitalism mentioned earlier, pursued on a sparsely populated, demilitarised and expanding colonial frontier by settler-colonists of peasant extraction, often attempting more or less self-consciously to escape the Geertzian fate courted by their counterparts in their countries of origin. Or perhaps we could draw a parallel with debates on the origins of capitalism in England – was the prime mover the ‘lords’ of the northeast, the ‘peasants’ of the west, or the ‘merchants’ of the south? Probably all of them. There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, about the numerous logics of peasant production in the colonial and post-colonial Americas – but for the purposes of this essay, regrettably it’s time to move on…

…Because we need to look at those parts of the world where there was apparently no path to capitalist development, ‘American’ or otherwise. There’s a long intellectual tradition in Europe or ‘the west’ which contrasts European ‘development’ with the stasis or backwardness of other places. It goes at least as far back as 18th century Enlightenment figures like Montesquieu, and despite influential critiques of this ‘Orientalist’ tendency in western scholarship it’s alive and well today among numerous writers, including public intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Jared Diamond. But it’s now fairly clear that modern economic dynamism originated neither in England nor in Europe alone (and national boundaries can mislead: even though ‘England’ was an early capitalist player, capitalist relations were much stronger in some parts of England than others). Even if we retain a traditional obsession with the emergence of capitalism as the sine qua non of ‘development’, a more even-handed contemporary scholarship suggests that there were incipient forms of capitalist development in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East contemporaneously in the early modern period. It can’t be denied that Europe in general and England in particular – along with its colonial offshoots in the New World later on – did rise to global dominance, but historians’ answer as to when this ‘Great Divergence’ occurred in the fortunes of Europe vis-à-vis other civilisations such as China keeps getting later, and is often now put towards the middle of the 19th century.

The question of why it was Europe and not China that became the core region of the modern world system has attracted much – some might say too much – attention in recent scholarship in view of China’s apparent technological and economic superiorities. I don’t propose to assess this literature in great detail – attention has focused mainly on themes such as the Dylanesque ‘leapfrogging’ that a divided European culture area of nascent nation-states was able to achieve over the more unified imperial structure of China, the Geertzian ‘land-sparing’ efficiency of Chinese wet rice cultivation that dampened the need for territorial expansion on agrarian/Malthusian grounds, the rational-bureaucratic structure of imperial China that prevented an alignment of social forces towards high-risk overseas adventures, and the superior revenue-raising capacities of European-style royal absolutist tax states, which doubtless are all relevant considerations.

One analysis I do want to examine in this arena because of its wider ramifications is Mark Elvin’s influential book The Patterns of the Chinese Past. Elvin argued that imperial China experienced ‘high level equilibrium traps’ (HLETs) where the relative rates of income and population growth created equilibrium points that prevented the accumulation of surplus capital – the economy is ‘trapped’ in a state which is stable and efficient, but with no inherent tendency to per capita income growth, which is pulled back to equilibrium by a declining rate of income growth relative to population. This is different from a Malthusian or low-level equilibrium trap where population growth pulls down per capita income, though in some respects the two equilibria can look similar – in both, there’s a pool of cheap labour which militates against automation and technical radicalisation. In the case of the HLET, however, we find an efficient, dynamic and differentiated but intrinsically labour-intensive economy. Such a ‘trap’ has been common in global agrarian and industrial history. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries provides a detailed agronomic overview of what an HLET looks like from a peasant farming perspective in China – a book which, interestingly, has been influential in the contemporary western permaculture and alternative agriculture movements. In any case, in an HLET situation an invention that raises labour productivity may have an appealing engineering logic but it won’t get adopted unless it occurs within an economic logic that favours increased labour productivity. That logic was alien to the Qing China of the early modern world, despite its surpassing technical sophistication, but did manifest in parts of Europe for the reasons described above. This doesn’t mean that the Chinese economy was ‘static’ – it was historians of East Asia who originally coined the term ‘industrious revolution’ to capture this different, labour-intensive and more agrarian path towards prosperity – a term later adopted by De Vries to capture an aspect of the rather different ‘western’ development path. In the hands of (Orientalist?) western scholars, more pejorative terms are applied to the ‘Asian’ path – the language of ‘traps’ or of an ‘involution’ reliant on hard manual labour on the farm, which is easily transmogrified into putatively anti-romantic dismissals of small-scale farming in favour of the western path of industrial farming. I’ll come back to this point presently – and use Elvin’s thinking on HLETs in a different context to tracking Europe’s divergence from China. Still, Elvin’s thesis that capitalist development in Europe enabled it to overcome the ‘trap’ of agricultural involution, ultimately giving it the economic and military power to dominate the Asian empires, is certainly thought-provoking.

But maybe a more plausible approach to explaining the ‘great divergence’ would focus less on what didn’t happen in China, and more on what did happen in Europe – not so much in relation to capitalist developments in the countryside of the kind emphasised by Brenner, but the structure of its colonial commerce. The arguments that I find most convincing go something like this: the eclipse of the Roman Empire and the travails of feudalism left the European sub-continent rather behind the game compared to the great empires of Asia, but its internecine conflicts within the shadowed shell of Rome produced a handful of competing, tightly-organised and militarily sophisticated proto-‘national’ polities remote from the main currents of the Asiatic trading world, which enabled them to innovate with new political economies – another case of the historical ‘leap-frogging’ I mentioned earlier. Blocked from commercial expansion eastwards by powerful Islamic states, instead they developed trans-oceanic empires, which were given a considerable boost by the discovery of the New World. Trans-oceanic trade was risky, fearfully expensive and offered only long-term (but potentially spectacular) returns on investment, thus prompting the development of complex new fiscal instruments around risk, debt, state-private partnerships and joint stock organisation which were unknown in the east (Qing China didn’t develop debt finance). David Graeber has argued that the violence of Europe’s colonial-commercial expansion, which at times reached almost demented levels, is explicable in terms of these dynamics of debt in highly militarised societies. Maybe so – or else one might look to the specifics of European racism. Whatever the case, trans-oceanic colonial-commercial conquest fed into Europe’s spiral of capital accumulation and ultimately enabled it to win key confrontations in the east – Commodore Perry in Yokohama, the Opium Wars in China, the East India Company turning the tables on India’s textile industry. ‘The imperialism of free trade’ is often an apposite term.

An important issue in the expansion of European trade is what was actually being traded. Attention often focuses on the ‘preciosities’ of bullion and spices driven by elite demand, but as the economy capitalised itself the incentive was for agriculture in the ‘core’ to focus on higher value products (eg. meat and vegetables) while displacing the production of staples to more peripheral areas such as Eastern Europe (and, later, North America). Again, this can be told as a dark story of peasant dispossession by commercially-oriented landowners – most famously in Britain in relation to the Highland Clearances of a later period – but also as a brighter story of peasant release from the travails of growing the lord’s grain on his demesne in favour of a more remunerative small-scale agriculture. And even in Scotland, though it’s true that sometimes ‘the sheep ate the people’ the ‘modernisation’ of Scottish agriculture is a somewhat more complex tale. Ironically, with the advent of mechanised agriculture and the relative costs of fuel and labour the situation is now reversed, with agriculture in the core dominated by the large-scale mechanised production of staples, and agriculture in the ‘periphery’ contributing more of the high value, labour-intensive products.

Another part of this story concerning the focus of European capitalist trade is the way that elite commodities such as sugar were turned into cheap mass commodities available to ordinary working-class people (and indeed crucial to their changing role within the economy). Champions of capitalism often highlight this ability to furnish high value elite items to ordinary people, but maybe sugar – an environmentally-destructive quasi-narcotic crop with negative health consequences, produced historically by millions of chattel slaves and wage slaves – works as a metaphor for what’s left unsaid in this sunny version of the capitalist vision.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 5. Capitalism I – Lords, peasants & merchants

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ blog cycle (a fully referenced version of the segment below is available here):

The stage is now set for the next scene in our whistle-stop tour – the emergence of capitalism. But first a quick aside. Enmeshed in a contemporary global capitalist economy as we are, it’s easy to read it back into history as some kind of inevitable culmination of past processes. But there’s no reason to think that our present was foreordained. There’s nothing wrong, I’d argue, with tracing the lineages of modern societies back into the past, as I’ve largely been doing here – so long as we don’t fall into the trap of presuming that those lineages were determined, rather than contingent. Another issue when we come to talk about the ‘global’ capitalist economy is the tendency to hero-worship those parts of the world most to the fore in driving the globalisation – particularly if we’re from those regions ourselves. Hence the question of why Europe or ‘the west’ dominated the development of the modern capitalist world system – perhaps a necessary question, but one that’s overstressed in western thought. Doubtless this is a failing of the history I’ve been serving up here. I’m inclined to justify it on the basis that, well, I’m European, and my main interest is in using some history to help elucidate where my own society might go from here. But when it comes to telling the story of how capitalism came to take over the world, I want to remind myself to proceed with caution and keep my ‘Eurocentrism’ in view. I’ll return to this point shortly.

With apologies duly made let’s get back to my European stamping grounds where the medieval figures of the king, the lord, the merchant and the peasant are waiting to see how I’m going to turn them into capitalists. I suppose first of all I need to define capitalism – a quick definition might be that capitalism is an economic system which compels the owners of capital to reinvest their surplus in order to create more capital, typically earning a 2-3% additional return per annum historically. Doubtless it’s tempting to respond by asking firstly if the owners of capital don’t use it to try to create more capital in every economic system, and secondly if a mere 2-3% return is enough to result in all the profound changes worked upon the modern world that both capitalism’s admirers and its critics allege. To which the short answers are respectively no they don’t and yes it is. A slightly longer answer to the first question is that people throughout the ages have often dreamed of worldly wealth, but not necessarily of limitlessly compounding worldly wealth, and their societies in any case contained ideologically influential critiques of that dream, which limited its reach. Only with the rise of secular priests like Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith was money-making made a transcendent social virtue (and even Smith was pretty torn on that point). A slightly longer answer to the second point is that, over time, the logic of compound growth is such that a 2% return on investment is quite enough to turn mountains into dust, turn peasant cultivators into either slaves or CEOs, and possibly to turn the entire planet into an uninhabitable waste dump.

Let me now offer a lengthier definition of capitalism which is largely paraphrased from the writings of Wolfgang Streeck: capitalism is a ‘progressive’ society (…‘progressive’ in the sense that it aims for limitless growth of economic productivity and prosperity) that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation, and that puts this accumulated capital in the hands of a small minority with the legal privilege through rights of private property to dispose of it as they see fit, though this minority enjoys no other juridical privilege over other members – all are equal before the law.

Not all of the capitalist society so defined would seem strange to a medieval mind – not the private property and not the inequality, though a practical inequality squared with a formal equality might. But most of it would probably seem very strange indeed. So how, in the last half-millennium, did the king, lord, merchant and peasant of the absolutist age become the capitalist, the worker and the government official?

Needless to say, there are numerous explanations whose complexities I can barely touch on here. For simplicity’s sake, I’d suggest that most explanations tend to emphasise the role of one or another of those four medieval types (I suppose I should also nod to a fifth one, the priest, especially in the guise of an ascetic protestant renouncer).

In Robert Brenner’s influential analysis, the key figure was the lord, in England above all, where landowners further pressed the logic of medieval tenures commuted into short-term monetary leases in the context of the feudal crisis, creating pressures towards an income-maximising capitalist agriculture. The flipside of this ‘history from above’ is a ‘history from below’ which tells of the way that the rural poor were stripped of their access to land through the enclosure of the commons, turning them into a landless or near landless mass of rural labourers obliged to work for wages on the increasingly capitalist farm. But the structure of farming in early modern England is often called ‘triadic’ – the third figure in addition to the landlord and the wage labourer is variously called the ‘farmer’, ‘tenant’, ‘yeoman’ or rich peasant, and much contemporary historical writing emphasises their role in changing the nature of agriculture. Marxist orthodoxy sees this class as the newly emerging capitalist ‘bourgeoisie’, escaping from its peasant roots to contest for power with the fading feudal nobility at the expense of a poorer peasantry on its way to becoming a landless proletariat. But when you look at detailed historical studies, it becomes harder to divide people neatly into three distinct classes in this way. The historical record is full of peasants enclosing their own commons, landlords allying with peasants, yeomen allying with or becoming lords, tenants who were also landlords and so on. What seems to have happened in England is that a landowning class “unusually civilian in background, commercial in occupation and commoner in rank” interacted with a land-husbanding or peasant class that didn’t unite against it as a peasantry but became interdigitated with it in endlessly complex ways at the local level. In leftist and alternative farming circles I often hear people say that the ‘landowners’ took the land from the ‘peasants’, and there’s some truth in it. But it’s also true that peasants took the land from each other, and from themselves.

The result in early modern England was the demise of any kind of peasant ‘moral economy’ by the mid-17th century, a slow overturning of legislation limiting middlemen and national market integration and the spread of a larger-scale, fully commercial agriculture better able to ride market price fluctuations – one that made the feeding of the nation indeed an ‘unintended side effect’ of profit maximization in Streeck’s terms. As I’ll detail in a later post, there are in fact circumstances when a smaller-scale agriculture is better able to ride market price fluctuations – essentially when it’s primarily subsistence-oriented – but in early modern England the situation was otherwise. In some respects, the emergence of the triadic structure and of large commercial farms in England represented a crisis for the absolutist state, but the state quickly adjusted, turning itself into an aggressive fiscal-military unit with strong protectionist policies – not the only western capitalist power to build its initial economic strength through economic protectionism.

So much for the agricultural side of capitalist development in England. Another angle focuses on the merchant, and finds the key to capitalist development in his (I’d guess it was usually a ‘his’) transformation from the hated usurer of the middle ages to the heroically world-creating entrepreneur of modern times. Here, perhaps it’s worth distinguishing between the merchant capitalism that created domestic markets in England and other early capitalist powers, and the merchant capitalism of international commerce. Starting with the first, the question is how did the relatively static wealth of the medieval merchant become the vastly transformative liquid capital of a later era? Medieval merchants could be wealthy enough, to be sure – essentially by taking advantage of fragmented markets and poor transport links to pursue the age-old middleman strategy of buying cheap and selling dear in relation mostly to luxury goods. They received both grudging support from the chronically cash-strapped royal houses of the middle ages, as well as frequent repression because of the obvious political threat they posed, and the spiritual threat to Christian ideology around usury (there is, of course, a story to be told here about the oppression of Jews throughout European history). But the accumulation of merchant capital in the middle ages wasn’t central to the ‘collective reproduction’ of society in the way that the accumulation of capital was later to be, because it operated only at the margins of a society in which reproduction was based fundamentally on access to land and its productive potential. Even the physiocrats who, clustering around François Quesnay (1694-1774), arguably constituted the first systematic school of modern economic thought, considered land to be uniquely productive of value, and other forms of economic activity such as manufactures or commerce to be sterile. It was only when the ‘fictitious commodities’ of land, human labour and money were fully marketised that merchant capital could take centre stage as capital, meeting with the capitalist transformation of agriculture in a new economic settlement where agriculture, commerce and industry conjointly reproduced society as Streeck’s ‘unintended side-effect’ of profit maximization.

So part of that new settlement involved the rise of domestic manufacturing and commerce. The growth of manufacturing implies the growth of a market on the demand side for the sector’s products. The dark story to tell here is of an expropriated peasantry, turfed off the land, now forced to purchase the necessities of life from capitalist markets. But there are brighter stories, such as the one associated with the historian Jan De Vries, who raises the idea of an ‘industrious revolution’ in which ordinary households rationally chose to devote themselves to wage labour rather than agrarian subsistence, finding it easier that way to secure their subsistence – and, more than their subsistence, a hitherto unimaginable array of consumer goods besides. Of course, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – in England above all, but not only in England – the industrious revolution became the industrial revolution, when human industrial labour combined with steam power to create consumer societies in the modern mould. Again, some historians tell a dark story of the industrial revolution as a catastrophe for working people, while others tell a brighter tale, a virtuous circle of rising productivity and rising wages. It seems clear that there was little nostalgia for agrarian life in the England of the industrial revolution era among working-class people, but by then the countryside had long been transformed into an arena of capitalist agriculture, so the choice was mostly about what kind of capitalist wage labour was preferable. There’s no doubt that some people (including some working-class people, particularly adult men) benefitted from industrialisation, but I’m not sure that anyone can easily draw up the balance sheet.

To draw up that sheet, you’d have to reckon with something that’s haunted capitalist economies since the industrial revolution – the substitution of human labour by machine labour, which is typically faster, cheaper and less prone to labour disputes. Fellow farmers who own an aged tractor like me might question that last point, but there are those who argue that labour discipline rather than ‘efficiency’ has always been a key to the introduction of new technologies. I for one find this a more plausible tack than orthodox economic theory’s assumption that redundant labour will fit smoothly into another economic niche. The problem of a jobless economy increasingly exercises contemporary economic minds – particularly since automation is now diminishing white collar jobs such as law, medicine and architecture, thereby undermining the old argument that education or social ‘improvement’ is the way to get ahead in the face of a tightening unskilled job market. Indeed, technology nowadays is pushing at the boundaries of what it means to ‘discipline’ human minds or bodies, and posing troublesome questions about the very nature of being human. How that story unfolds will surely be conditioned by global energy futures as well as climate change, though debates on automation and energy seem curiously disconnected. I’d argue that this story isn’t unilineal – a more energy-constrained future won’t necessarily look like a more energy-constrained past. But perhaps that’s better framed as a historical question implicit to this essay: to what extent does energy (and, for that matter, climate) determine social forms?

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 4. Peasantries and the absolutist state

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ cycle of posts (which appears in full, with footnotes and references here), we come to the pre-dawn of the modern age in Europe:

Tracking forwards now over the later middle ages in Europe, one story to be told is the slow erosion of the peasant autonomy that had characterised the ‘Dark Ages’ – not only by the growing power of local lords, but also of royal houses which increasingly brought aristocrats to heel under the aegis of centralised, proto-modern royal absolutist states. Perry Anderson famously describes absolutism as “a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position” involving “a displacement of politico-legal coercion upwards towards a centralized, militarized summit – the Absolutist State”.

In Anderson’s account, the rise of absolutism in Europe followed the ‘feudal crisis’ that began in the 13th century when a combination of over-population relative to agrarian capacity, state fiscal crisis, wars prompted by the declining revenues of warrior aristocracies, and plague convulsed the region – a case of Malthus and the four horsemen, perhaps? In these circumstances, unfree or servile status largely disappeared, often being commuted into money rents, and attempts to shore up the old feudal order were of limited success. Peasant uprisings were common in this period – the revolt in England of 1381 being one example among many. Few of them were fully successful (Switzerland being a notable exception) but perhaps they bequeathed what Rodney Hilton calls “one of the most important if intangible legacies of medieval peasants to the modern world”, namely “the concept of the freeman, owing no obligation, not even deference, to an overlord”.

In some ways this was a contradiction at the heart of absolutism. On the one hand, the exactions and repressions bearing upon the peasantry worsened. But at the same time, centralizing royal power created more of an impetus towards something like citizenship for ordinary cultivators. A serf disaffected with the behaviour of their manorial lord had relatively few options for redress, but that became somewhat less true under absolutist regimes as royal hegemony and royal courts began asserting themselves. Or at least it became less true in western Europe where the nobility was less successful than its eastern counterpart in “clamping” the peasant masses. On the face of it, it probably should have been the other way around – peasants in the west suffered the disadvantage of occupying a more populous region where it was harder to migrate beyond the reach of state or seigneurial power. In Anderson’s account, the difference was the towns – thriving in the west but marginal in the east – and the possibility they held out, even if only theoretical, for escape and a different way of life. In his words, “The typical Western constellation in the early modern epoch was an aristocratic Absolutism raised above the social foundations of a non-servile peasantry and ascendant towns; the typical Eastern constellation was an aristocratic Absolutism erected over the foundations of a servile peasantry and subjugated towns”. In essence, it’s harder to oppress people who have other options.

Not that peasant life in absolutist western Europe was a bundle of fun. Here’s Pierre Goubert’s account of it in the absolutist France of the 17th century:

“The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable”

I often think of this quotation when people say peasant life is miserable. Well, yes it is if you’re being mulcted for every last egg and morsel of cheese by the state. Think about the splendours of Louis XIV’s court, largely built on the backs of the kind of people Goubert is describing here – who I doubt got much from the state in return. More subject than citizen. Think about what their lives might have been like without such exactions. Hence, the vision of peasant utopia sketched by Eric Wolf:

“the free village untrammeled by tax collectors, labor recruiters, large landowners, officials. Ruled over, but never ruling, they also lack acquaintance with the operation of the state as a complex machinery, experiencing it only as a “cold monster””

Those of us who nowadays speak up for the peasant way are routinely derided for our backward-looking romanticism. So it’s entertaining to note in the light of this quotation that backward-looking romanticism is in fact a real peasant trait, based to some extent on actual historical instances – Athens, the early middle ages, the feudal crisis, Switzerland, the pre-servile Russian mir (though medieval peasants also opted for forward-looking religious millenarianism, thus founding a lineage that still thrives today – see, for example, The Ecomodernist Manifesto).

But of course the critics are on firm enough ground in arguing that the historic peasant experience has generally been more like the one described by Goubert. Here, at any rate, we establish two possible paths for peasant political activism to have taken. One was to try to install something resembling as much as possible Wolf’s utopia – a ‘moral economy of the peasant’ involving non-market relationships, whether of a customary patron-client type, or something more radical and egalitarian, as sometimes emerged in medieval peasant millenarian movements. The other was to embrace the struggle for economic power which was opening up in an early modern Europe now largely free of servile labour, comprising aggressive absolutist tax states which held out at least the theoretical possibility for their subjects to become citizens. At the end of this essay I’ll come back to the former possibility – but the main drive in early modern Europe was the latter, in the context of an emerging European state system in which the complex mix of overlapping political entities that had characterized the medieval period was giving way to the sovereign national royal-military state. This system of states was solemnized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which concluded the bitter carnage of the Thirty Years’ War, in which it’s estimated that as many as a third of Europe’s inhabitants died.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 3. From the ancient to the medieval

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ series (a fully referenced version of which is available here), I finished last time by saying we should take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states…

…Well, that would be the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – ‘dark’ if only because of a relative paucity of historical evidence to illuminate them in comparison with what went before. The successor states to the great Axial Age empires were smaller geopolitical units, but the idea that this constituted some kind of civilizational collapse has been subject to considerable debate and revision in recent years, for example in post-Maurya India and in post-Roman Europe. Let me say a little about the latter in particular, as a kind of case study for our times of what a putative ‘collapse’ and a return to more local polities and more agrarian production might look like. Of course, it’s a dodgy business making inferences about the possible future fall of modern London or Washington on the basis of the fall of ancient Rome. But it’s ground we’ve been traversing a little of late in discussions on this site, and when people are confronted with the idea of a ‘return’ to small-scale farming they commonly reach for medieval notions either in order to critique the idea or to express foreboding: a small farm future would be like a small farm past, a return to ‘feudalism’ or to ‘serfdom’.

So let’s start with some terminology. ‘Feudalism’ strictly speaking refers to a situation of so-called ‘parcellized sovereignty’ in which a ruler – typically a politically weak king of a tributary rather than a tax-raising state – grants land (a fief) to a subject, over which the subject has complete jurisdiction, as part of a reciprocal if often unequal bond of loyalty. It was never a common way of organising things in the medieval world, being restricted largely to parts of western Europe and also perhaps to Japan – in both cases where weak successor polities tried to extend their rule within the ruins of a larger empire. ‘Serfdom’ is a type of labour coercion in which a rural cultivator is juridically tied to a particular estate – a widespread but far from ubiquitous arrangement in (mostly European) medieval history. I guess what people really mean by a ‘return to feudalism’ is the possible end of a brief capitalist-industrial modern interlude in global history when landownership and/or direct control of people wasn’t an especially important route to economic or political power (though even in modern societies economic power usually finds its way back to landownership). That may turn out to be the case, but control of land and control of people played out in innumerable ways across medieval history. If there’s to be a ‘new medievalism’ in the future, how that’ll feel will depend an awful lot on what kind of medievalism it is. There have been extensive debates among historians about whether powerful pre-modern states outside Europe – in China, India and the Islamic world, for example – were ‘feudal’, and if not what exactly they were. Some writers talk about ‘the tributary mode of production’ to encompass all pre-modern states built upon agrarian labour, though perhaps this conflates the ideas of tax states and tributary (land rent) states I introduced earlier. So others prefer the idea of a ‘feudal mode of production’ – but this risks in turn making all the rest of the world seem like mere variants of the peculiar fief-based post-Roman successor states of medieval Europe.

Well, I’ll leave that difficulty hanging for a moment and try to make some progress by saying a little more about those European successor states, building on the discussion we had on this site recently about the precariously non-resilient and interdependent nature of civilisations past, present and future. That discussion encompassed an essay by eco-prophet John Michael Greer invoking the loss of wheel-thrown pots in post-Roman Britain as exemplary of the precipitous collapses that can occur when the interdependencies of civilisations unravel. I’ll invoke that example as a motif in the paragraphs below.

The best known grand narrative for the demise of the Roman Empire is that it was weakened from within by the kind of fiscal crises I described earlier and then assassinated from without through invasions by ‘barbarian’ Germanic tribes. More recent revisionist history emphasises the continuity of the Empire into the early middle ages. Partly, it depends on where we’re talking about because the decline of Rome wasn’t monolithic. In Britain – a frontier region, only ever weakly Romanised – the collapse was sudden and dramatic, leaving the country in the hands of warring petty kings and indeed without its wheel-crafted pots (the artisanal products available to the average household declined with the departure of the Romans – I stand corrected on this point relative to my comments some time ago). In Gaul, the Romano-German Franks exercised a strong, imperial, tax-state hegemony, which nonetheless gradually declined in its geopolitical reach as the first millennium wore on, despite rallying points such as the Carolingian period when Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor in 800AD. In Italy, Spain and North Africa, Romano-German rule under groups such as the Lombards, Visigoths and Vandals was weaker and more regionalised – but despite the fracturing effect of events such as the Vandal withdrawal of grain exports to Rome (a situation that was soon reversed), a circum-Mediterranean trading world long persisted into the middle ages as a kind of shadow empire of Rome.

In the east, the Byzantine Empire succeeded the Eastern Roman Empire relatively smoothly, maintaining a strongly centralised imperial tax-state rule despite various ups and downs long into medieval times – probably, as I argued above, because of the peasant-citizen structure emphasised by the likes of Anderson and Wood. In summary, Britain’s post-Roman meltdown is certainly a thought-provoking example for anyone concerned about a contemporary collapse, but a rounded consideration ought to include such places as Gaul, Byzantium and Spain as well. On the other hand, the demise of Rome was largely a political and fiscal crisis – not a crisis of agrarian production, energy economics or climatic change. So there are grounds for thinking that the clouds on the horizon of contemporary civilisation may greatly overtop those that gathered over late imperial Rome. Greer’s general point that people are often almost wilfully oblivious to the contradictions threatening their civilisations seems wise, and has also been made by historians of civilizational collapse like Joseph Tainter – though in general Tainter emphasises collapse in ancient civilisations as an active strategy pursued by people who no longer found large-scale centralised political organisation expedient, in circumstances where it was possible for them to go elsewhere or do something different. “Collapse occurs,” he writes, “and can only occur in a power vacuum. Collapse is possible only where there is no competitor strong enough to fill the political vacuum of disintegration”. In contemplating the future of the 21st century global economy, some may find that a reassuring thought. Others may not.

Certainly there were some ‘vacuums’ around the margins of Europe’s post-Roman successor states in the early middle ages, and they were often filled with what Chris Wickham calls ‘the peasant mode of production’. By this, he means not the stereotypical medieval peasant doing service for a lord but, on the contrary, petty cultivators working on their own account beyond the reach of more-or-less centralised successor states or local lords. Wickham suggests that the early middle ages was a time when such peasants were relatively ascendant, and others have argued along similar lines that after the heavy fiscal burdens placed upon cultivators by Axial Age states such as Rome, the early middle ages was a good time to be a peasant. This idea that the rural working class does better in the absence of lords has recurred often enough through agrarian history in England and elsewhere – as for example in William Cobbett, writing in the early 19th century, of an inverse relation between “rich land and poor labourers” since “Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye, [the labouring people] can get but little”.

Wickham is more cautious – we know almost nothing about what the peasants in his ‘peasant mode of production’ actually thought about their lives. The decline of centralised (Roman) power was generally slow, to the extent that it probably didn’t present itself as an obvious gain (or loss) across individual lives. The discussion on this blog recently about what the lack of specialist wheel-made pots meant to the average English cultivator after the departure of the Romans is a case in point. Was it really a ‘loss’, or did living in a free peasant village come as a liberation, local hand-made pots and all? I think Wickham is right that it’s impossible to say. Still, the point remains that as well as the stereotypically captive serf or villein toiling on the master’s estate in the medieval period there were numerous categories of free peasant – sometimes beyond the reach of seigneurial control in towns, mountains, forests or remote edgelands and sometimes acknowledged as free petty landowners. In this sense, the ‘peasant’ category lacks internal coherence, stretching from people who were virtually slaves to people who were virtually kings, even if their kingdom wasn’t much bigger than a village (to complicate matters, perhaps I should note that in some medieval Islamic polities certain slaves virtually were kings, and also that there was a widespread notion across the medieval world that the ‘social death’ involved in both kingship and slavery brought commonalities to the two roles). And, throughout the middle ages and on into the modern world, peasants contested the terms of their relationships with their social superiors using every means available from crafty wheeler-dealing to pitched battles between standing armies.

I’d like to amplify some of the preceding points by turning my gaze all too briefly away from Europe and towards India – a culture-area that, more than most, has explicitly elaborated the status distinctions of agrarian life as an ideological basis for society at large, in the form of caste thinking. Much has been made of the varna distinctions that first emerged in ancient times, as famously enumerated in this origin myth from the Rig Veda:

When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers], and from his feet the shudras [servants] were born

This warrior-priest-farmer division found an echo in medieval European notions of ‘the three orders’. Less translatable into European terms was the priestly concern over ritual purity, though it’s often argued that this gained a major boost when British colonialism in India sawed off aristocratic rule and created the appearance of a timeless, textually-based Brahmanic ritual dominance over local affairs in which the caste divisions of the self-sufficient village are projected back into immemorial time. But often enough the village is neither self-sufficient nor timeless, representing something akin to Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ in a similar situation of weak state power, in which a ‘dominant caste’ of peasant landowners monopolises local political power, despite lowly ritual status in Brahmanic/varna terms. In a classic article, the anthropologist M.N. Srinivas emphasises the lowly caste status of the ‘dominant caste’ along with their political notability locally. He also notes the commonalities bringing villagers together across caste lines as well as the substantial inequalities dividing them. Without wanting to make over-facile comparisons with Europe, a similar dynamic doubtless occurred within Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ and certainly within the wider ‘tributary mode of production’ within which peasants were to a greater or lesser extent enmeshed. Equality-minded modern people like me tend to think in terms of bald categories like ‘lord and peasant’ or ‘high and low caste’ and see the relationship as entirely antagonistic. There certainly was antagonism, but there was also cooperation, shifting alliances, complex gradations of status across the larger distinctions and different ways of construing the nature of social identity. I plan to develop this point further in another post. I think it’s important.

In early medieval Europe, Georges Duby emphasises the way that the economy was rather statically oriented to household provisioning rather than to the obsession with economic growth of more recent times – which perhaps isn’t surprising since it essentially was a household economy, built around the great manors:

“Wherever economic planning existed, it was seen in the context of needs to be satisfied….It was not a question of maximizing output from the land, but rather of maintaining it as such a level that it could respond to any request at a moment’s notice”

However, the ‘needs’ of the manor could be prodigious in the context of a competitively status-oriented aristocratic society and often enough a powerful pressure on magnates to attract and keep retainers. This moved the economy – not, I would say, necessarily ‘forwards’ but at least ‘onwards’ inasmuch as peasant cultivators, working both within and against the grain of seigneurial power, extended the margins of cultivation and the throughput of local markets.

In ideological terms, these developments eventually resulted in an impressive intellectual and political culture of the high middle ages involving notions of corporate identity and religious transcendence – one that was rigidly inegalitarian, albeit admitting to various critiques of the established hierarchy. Much the same was true in India, although kingship was much less ideologically stabilised there, which provides one key for understanding caste and other aspects of Indian history. There are some contemporary writers who see possibilities in medieval religious ideas of transcendence for a modern religious practice able to tame the furies of our capitalist materialism – certainly a thought-provoking, if troublesome, idea.

The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 2. Agriculture & civilisation

It’s time for the second instalment of ten-and-a-half in my history of the world cycle. But first a couple of brief announcements. First, I just wanted to mention that I’m lucky enough to be getting a number of my blog posts replicated on various other websites. But I’m also finding that I’m spending too much time online and not enough working my holding, so I just wanted to mention that I feel the need to prioritise responding to comments here on my own website at Small Farm Future and may not find the time to respond on other sites, much as I’d like to. Apologies about that – but please do feel free to talk to me if you want to at Small Farm Future where I’ll do my best to respond.

Second, talking of my holding I thought it was time for a new header photo, and what better than this recent drone photograph of (most of) my own humble abode, as fine an example of the gentleman-peasant’s farm as you can find in all of, er, northwest Frome. I’m guessing it’s fairly obvious where the boundaries of my holding are. Something that may not be so clear is where my house is – not the residential cluster on the left, which is outside my boundaries, but the unobtrusive buildings towards the right at the end of the track, which took years of bureaucratic wrangling to gain assent for. Such are the vagaries of the English planning system. But how did we get from the Palaeolithic foraging of my last post to the very apogee of mixed agrarianism shown in the picture? I’m glad you asked. To answer it, I need to go to way back when and return to my main historical thread by looking at some of the tensions within…

2. Agriculture and civilisation*

A major one historically is that between tillers and herders. Livestock herding can’t support population densities to match that of arable cropping but it’s easier to do, it’s compatible with a wider set of ecological circumstances, and its characteristic practices – a wandering way of life, horsemanship, defence of ambiguous boundaries against animal and human predators – provide skills that are readily transferable to warfare. Indeed, much of the history of Eurasia can be understood in terms of conflicts between tillers and pastoralists that only ended decisively in favour of the tillers in relatively recent times as a result of their larger surpluses and more stable forms of political hierarchy. As an advocate of a mixed farming, I’d favour splitting the difference and doing a bit of both. But in historical terms mixed farming is quite a modern high-tech method – which is rather ironic in view of the fact that large-scale commercial agriculture in the wealthy countries today has largely reverted to the old-fashioned separation of arable and pastoral.

There are distinctions worth highlighting within pastoralism too. The classic case is that of grassland peoples who are ethnically distinct from their cropland foes – Mongols, Tatars, Huns etc. But in some cases the distinction maps within a given ‘ethnic’ population over time (eg. the probable abandonment of grain farming in favour of pastoralism in Neolithic Britain as a response to climate change and population decline – lessons for the future there, perhaps?) or space (eg. the distinction between pastoral desert nomads and townsfolk in Arab lands). Then there are mountain or forest pastoralists living a largely self-reliant existence beyond the geographical reach of the hierarchical civilisations bearing down on the tillers of the soil (Switzerland furnishes one later historic example). Extending that logic, there’s the paramilitary pastoralism of frontier or outlaw zones, where growing crops is impossible because it invites enemy expropriation – the reivers of the England-Scotland borders in late medieval and early modern times spring to mind. Finally, there’s the special case of the commercial pastoralist, often in the employ of noble or capitalist landowners. I’ll shortly return to some of these historical types.

But getting back to the political centres, and to my chronology, the agricultural epoch eventually brought forth large-scale Iron Age empires in various parts of the world: to name a few, in the circum-Mediterranean, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia; in the Indian sub-continent, the Mauryas; and in China, the Qin and Han dynasties. Smaller and somewhat more mysterious centralised states also arose contemporaneously in the Americas, such as the Olmecs. In the Old World at least, these strong states typically unified large areas through a tripartite and conjoint package of standing army, standard coinage and market trade. This created a set of centre-periphery dynamics which look fairly familiar in the modern world: population growth, population movement (forced or unforced) between periphery and centre, economic growth and rising court and government expenditures.

It’s worth distinguishing between tax and tribute states in the ancient world. Generally, collecting taxes is much more remunerative than taking tribute or extracting rents from land, but more burdensome to organise – so it was only undertaken by states with high revenue costs such as large standing armies or civic administrations. Once established, tax states tend to be stronger, with a more centralised apparatus and fewer tendencies towards fragmenting into regionalised polities. It would be too glib to superimpose a second distinction – between citizen and subject – neatly onto the tax/tribute distinction, but I’d suggest there’s an association. Subjects typically expect little or nothing in return for paying tribute – perhaps at best military protection from other would-be tribute-takers whose rapacity is worse. Citizens, on the other hand, usually expect a whole lot more in return for their payments – services, legal process, perhaps even a say in governance. It’s generally worth asking the question in relation to any particular social actor – am I a subject or a citizen?

In any case, whether we’re talking about strong tax states or weaker tributary ones, the dynamics of territorial, fiscal and population growth created problems for ancient governments of rising state costs that they could only really try to solve in one (or more) of five ways, which again have endured down to the present. They could (first) squeeze the populace harder through tax or other exactions, or (second) expand territorially through conquest, placing the fiscal burden mainly on the conquered – at least until, in time, the conquered too became citizens (one of the problems in the late Roman empire, with its contingents of wandering, militarised Romano-Germans). The disadvantage of these two options is that they involved annoying a lot of people, thus potentially inciting blowback. A third option was various forms of credit or debt finance – essentially, acting as if you have the resources to achieve your ends even when you don’t – a strategy that can work very well, especially if the economy is growing. But eventually debts are almost always called in.

A fourth strategy is to increase economic productivity, but that’s easier said than done. The simplest way to achieve it is by drawing down harder on (often relatively non-renewable) natural resources like soil (or, later, oil), the problem being the potential ecological blowback. An example here is the renowned Vallis Veg grass-mowing trial, which showed conclusively that the medieval scythe was a trade-off free improvement on the ancient sickle, whereas modern mechanised mowing technology involves a less efficient drawdown on non-renewable resources than the scythe. Another problem with Strategy 4 is that, even if initially successful, it tends to prompt population growth and further expenditures which soon bring the original problem around again. The final option is to fiddle about, perhaps by adopting some or all of the other measures in mild form while tightening the government’s fiscal belt, and hoping to keep the resulting tensions in check.

Most of the early civilisations of this so-called ‘Axial Age’ eventually crumbled through their inability to resolve the various contradictions outlined above, perhaps with the exception of China, whose emperors proved for the most part to be highly adept fiddlers down the centuries. In a moment, I’ll consider the consequences of this crumbling, but first I want to look briefly at some other aspects of the ancient empires, beginning with their class structures.

At the bottom end of the scale were various gradations of unfree workers – perhaps a key distinction being between debt peonage, when locals or insiders fell upon hard times (a fate that could happen to almost anyone), and a more juridically absolute chattel slavery, typically applying to people coming in as strangers, often war captives. In his classic account of the transition from ancient to medieval Europe, Perry Anderson identifies the invention of chattel slavery as a new development in the classical societies of both Greece and Rome – but Greece relied more heavily on free peasant farming, whereas Rome depended on the large estate, the latifundium, worked by the gang labour of those enslaved in the empire’s impressive outward drive. So when that drive finally faltered and the Roman empire entered its terminal crisis, the latifundium-based western empire quickly crumbled almost into nothing, whereas the Hellenized eastern empire fared better – its strong tax state and localised small-farm traditions transmogrified into the Byzantine empire, which persisted through various ups and downs for almost another millennium before being carved up by the successor empires of the middle ages. More recent historical research de-emphasises the importance of slave-based latifundia in the west, but so far as I can see doesn’t wholly undermine Anderson’s thesis about the different eastern and western paths.

A parallel dimension of difference between east and west was the relationship between city and country. Rome institutionalised a chronic exploitation of its peasant-soldiers, as described by Tiberius Gracchus: “the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else…they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and…have not a single clod of earth that is their own”. Gracchus’ attempted agrarian reforms in favour of small farmers, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, contributed to his assassination and paved the way a generation or so later for the proto-fascist structure of military strongman, large-scale absentee landownership, urban mass and subjugated peasantry achieved by Julius Caesar, pioneer of the ‘Caesarist’ political tradition that has recurred often enough down the ages. In Athens, Solon’s reforms abolishing debt peonage, and those of his successors in building a democratic polity that limited aristocratic power, were more successful, allowing representation to the voice of the peasant-citizen. Ellen Meiksins Wood has pressed this point further, rejecting the notion that the flowering of classical Athens stemmed from the luxury of its reliance on chattel slavery, which she suggests was limited and marginal to agricultural production. For her, the glories of democratic Athens were essentially the achievement of a free peasant society, and a beacon of possibilities illuminating later ages. But it was eclipsed through a series of conflicts, starting with its defeat in the Peloponnesian war, typically involving alliances between rival monarchical and oligarchical states and its own disaffected aristocracy. So maybe there’s a warning beacon for later ages there too.

Another aspect of the ancient civilisations worth mentioning is their spiritual-philosophical focus. While rulers imposed political order on the ground, thinkers imposed spiritual order in the mind – this was the time of Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Plato and – much later on the scene – Muhammad. The ideas that these figures came up with had many differences, which were quite consequential for the politics of the societies they influenced, but the traditions they founded shared a tendency towards universalising, systemic thought. Typically, they were cosmologies of town and merchant, which sought to break the particular identities of kin-group or place. “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” as Jesus sternly put it.

From this flowed a tension in most spiritual traditions between a structured religious practice with formal institutional trappings which usually validated the political status quo – the religion of church and state – and world-denying renunciative practices which were usually more individualistic or schismatic, transcending and critiquing church-state worldviews. These two poles of religious practice are endlessly malleable and have been reworked according to the designs of numerous groups, classes and social movements down the ages. In the Axial Age civilisations, they often played out in the form of a spiritual and sometimes a material/military clash between a church closely identified with urban aristocratic rule, and renunciative religion associated with the farmers and herders of the rural fringe who took a dim view of urban decadence. This was often expressed in terms of male asceticism and military virtue, and female chastity, especially in view of the pervasive loosening and marketization of social relations in the cities. Think Babylon, Sodom, Gomorrah – or the idea, curious to the religions of city and trader, that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. This tension too has contemporary resonance.

One other feature of Axial Age spiritual thought in the west worth mentioning in passing was the notion that humanity had acquired godlike powers – the Greek myth of Prometheus (‘Promethean environmentalism’ was a forerunner of what now usually goes by the name of ‘ecomodernism’), or the story of Eden in the Book of Genesis (“Behold the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil”, as God put it). Perhaps it seems laughable to us today that these vanished civilisations with their rudimentary technologies should consider their powers divine. Judging by the titles of the books we now write, or our soi disant geological imprimatur of the ‘Anthropocene’, we seem to feel that our Iron Age predecessors jumped the gun, and should have left it to us to do the God stuff. But it’s at this point that Professor Dylan’s admonitions keep coming back to me “…as the present now will later be past…for the wheel’s still in spin…” And so on. These Axial Age philosophical traditions emphasised the hubris of human claims to divinity – a wise counsel even then, I’d argue, and a still wiser one now. So let us leave the overworked seam of human divinity and take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states.

* A fully referenced version of this essay can be found here.