The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 1. Origins

So it’s time for the first of my 10½ blog posts detailing the history of the world – essential (?) background reading for my forthcoming effort to lay out the basis for a plausible-ish and sustainable future peasant republic.

Just one further preliminary note on references – I’ve found it too much of a faff trying to mirror the footnotes and references in the full text into each successive blog post, so I’ve just stripped out all the references from the blog posts. You can find a fully referenced version of the entire essay here.

oOo

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’

Old Crow Medicine Show

 

1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas. It bequeathed to us its descendants, so the primatologists suggest, a tendency towards (particularly male, but also female) status ranking. Do we need to go that far back into our evolutionary past in order to understand the nature of status competition in contemporary societies? Perhaps it’s a sociological heresy to say so, but I think the answer is quite possibly yes.

For a long time the direct ancestors of our genus were a rather minor lineage in the great ape family, condemned to life on the margins of the vast African rainforests where their betters reigned supreme. But climate change brought the thinning of the forests, a descent from the trees onto more dangerous ground, and powerful selective pressures to develop our intelligence for self-defence. Suddenly, those dumb fruit-eaters of the remnant rainforest didn’t seem quite so clever after all. In this respect, our evolution exemplifies an important process captured by the Nobel-prize winning scientist and leading theorist of biological and social change, Bob Dylan, in a much-cited research paper4 from the 1960s entitled ‘The times they are a-changin’’:

The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

This, indeed, is a recurrent theme through natural and human history. Perhaps something worth pondering as we reflect on humanity’s past successes and our uncertain future – for the wheel’s still in spin and there’s no telling who that it’s namin’.

Anyway, for a few million years our genus Homo and its ancestors mastered the art of foraging and hunting for food, mostly in Africa but with major forays by relatives like Homo erectus and then the Neanderthals and finally modern Homo sapiens across vast swathes of the globe. Humans were widely, if thinly, spread across the land masses of pretty much the entire planet bar Antarctica by about 11,000 years ago (by this time Homo sapiens was the only surviving species of our genus – more by luck than judgment, according to some paleoanthropologists). This primordial colonisation is arguably still one of humanity’s more impressive achievements. Indeed, there’s a view that most of the really important aspects of human history were pretty much done and dusted by the end of the Ice Age. If below I ignore this large sweep of history in favour of the whizz-bang of the last couple of millennia, it’s not because I necessarily think the latter is more important in any cosmic sense – just more important in terms of helping to think through where we go from here.

There is, however, one aspect of humanity’s long hunter-gatherer prehistory which is perhaps of ongoing importance. The characteristic form of social organisation during this period was the small nomadic band. The evolutionary contradiction here is that it’s in any one member of the band’s interests to exert their apelike dominance over the others, but it’s in the collective interests of the band’s membership not to let that happen – hence, the ubiquity in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies of what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls ‘reverse dominance hierarchies’ organised against would-be dominants by the majority of their colleagues. So humans have a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise status orders elevating themselves above their fellows using whatever relatively unexpansive status markers are to hand, and also a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise against them and assert some notion of equality. Political systems, I’d suggest, that push too hard at enforcing only one pole of this inequality-equality dyad don’t usually succeed for too long (though often enough for way too long when measured against the individual human lifespan), and they tend to cause a lot of human misery. So maybe it’s best to let people strut their stuff, but then be sure to take them down a peg or two. That, at any rate, explains the general character of human status dynamics from the perspective of evolutionary ecology. If you’d prefer it served up as a philosophy of being, then perhaps I could offer you Nietzsche’s ‘slave revolt in morals’. As a story of human motivation? Max Weber’s ‘Class, status, party’ is the go-to text. But if you’re pushed for time, Dr Seuss’s story The Sneetches pretty much tells you all you need to know. I’m not sure about the happy ending, though. And one long-term aspect of inequality stressed neither in Seuss’s analysis or in my account here is gender. I aim to write about that separately soon.

Anyway, the relatively egalitarian foraging band lifestyle generally succumbed quite quickly with the emergence of agriculture. Actually, let me complicate that a little. The distinction between foraging and agriculture isn’t as clear-cut as might be supposed, and there was undoubtedly a long prehistory of agriculture-lite habitat manipulation and semi-domestication which formed part of the adaptable toolkits of many foraging peoples stretching far back into the Palaeolithic. But in various parts of the world starting around 10,000 years ago, this take-it-or-leave-it agricultural style gave way to more rigorous crop exploitation – typically of cereals and grain legumes – the so-called agricultural or Neolithic revolution. It generally seems to be thought that the shift from foraging to farming was one of degree not kind, but that this ultimately created a positive feedback loop between population and cultivation intensity. There are plenty of reasons to think that with hindsight this development wasn’t such a great idea, but the fact is that arable agriculture can support vastly more people per acre than foraging – people, moreover, who are invested in specific places because they have to bring the harvest in, and who typically require more finely specified entitlements over land usage. Hence, there are strong affinities between the emergence of agrarian society and the emergence of centralised polities or states.

At this point, ‘history’ begins in the sense that we enter a story of ever-compounding inequality backed by state power. The clan, lineage or ‘big man’ societies often associated with a so-called ‘primitive’ agriculture can organise more people than a nomadic hunting band, and therefore tend to prevail in any conflicts between them – but the kind of political authority they organise is unstable and rarely lasts beyond an individual’s lifetime or the vicissitudes of kin dynamics. However, the agrarian dynamic easily fosters more accumulative regimes of surplus and status extraction which can found hereditary inequality – chieftaincies, aristocracies, kingdoms, empires. It can take a long time for such regimes to emerge out of a primal turn to agriculture but, once they have, secondary versions quickly replicate within their wider geopolitical sphere through a kind of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ ratchet effect. Each successive form can organise ever larger numbers of people which it can direct against its rivals. So it’s not that agrarian societies are ‘better’ than foraging ones in any general sense – it’s just that they’re better at getting more feet on the ground and more hands on sword hilts.  Hence the paradoxical dynamic of agrarianism – sedentary peoples prey to ever-spiralling forms of hierarchy, and producing offshoots of their own societies through a cycle of food surplus production and demographic pressure yielding migratory farmer-colonists able to overwhelm less centralised and surplus-oriented societies. Thus was the fate of foraging peoples sealed as early as the Neolithic in much of the Old World, and not a whole lot later in parts of the New. And so at this point foragers largely fade from my story.

I should, however, nod to the thesis of Pierre Clastres that various foraging societies clung on to their lifeways because they had a pretty good idea of what life would be like in an agrarian society under a centralised state, and didn’t much like the sound of it. Other thinkers have also worked along this grain of the non-inferiority of the foraging life – a minority theme in scholarship, I think largely because of the power of contemporary ideologies of progress (see Section 7). Personally, I wish there was a bit more of the former, and a bit less of the latter. The point is not a full-on romanticism, that everything about the old ways was better than the new. It’s that historical change can involve losses as well as gains, and if we can attune ourselves to them, we might ease our future path.

I should probably also mention that agriculture makes possible much more elaborate divisions of specialised labour than is possible in foraging societies, a point that’s related to the rise of centralised states with their political, military and religious specialists, but not entirely reducible to it. Modern economic theory makes much of the division of labour as the foundation of prosperity, but you can have too much of a good thing. However, a problem with societies that have too little in the way of a division of labour – too little in the way of economic exchange – is not so much their lack of prosperity (which has little meaning for such a society) but their lack of political stability. Finding the Goldilocks zone where the division of labour is ‘just right’ strikes me as a major historical problem, which is all the harder to solve in our contemporary society with the availability of cheap and abundant but-with-strings-attached energy. I plan to discuss this more in a future post.

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

About a year ago I started publishing on this site various projections for how the future population of southwest England where I live might be able to feed itself substantially on the basis of small-scale, relatively self-reliant ‘peasant’ farming – convincing myself, if no one else, in the process that such a ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ might be feasible. The notion that a small farm future of this sort may occur and may even be desirable and worth striving for is, I confess, hardly a mainstream political position. And yet it’s one that I’ve come to, for reasons that I’ve documented here over the years. Essentially, I think that humanity faces a series of interlocking ecological, economic, political, cultural and social crises that, if they’re resolvable at all, are most resolvable through a turn to small-scale, predominantly self-reliant farming. Actually, I see this way of life less as a ‘solution’ to modern ‘problems’ as a non-modern way of being that’s intrinsically less problematic. But I’m anxious to avoid easy dualities – not everything about modernity is necessarily bad, and not everything in a turn to small farm agrarianism would necessarily be good. I’ll say more about that in due course.

The main difficulties in achieving a turn to small-scale agrarianism are not agricultural, but social and political. So I now want to turn my attention away from issues of farm scale and structure towards these socio-political issues. As I started thinking about them, I found myself constantly drawn to history and to what the past may be able to teach us about the possible course of a small farm future. I’m still not really sure whether it does have much to teach us. I said above that a small farm future would be non-modern, but that’s not the same as pre-modern: a non-modern small farm future needn’t necessarily much resemble a pre-modern small farm past. Nevertheless, since the past is the main guide we have to the future, it seems like a good place to start. Originally I planned to write a blog post that was to be sardonically entitled ‘The history of the world in 10½ paragraphs’ (with apologies to Julian Barnes) in which I was going to lay out a few broad historical themes before moving on to examining the socio-political shape of my future Peasant’s Republic. But the task kept growing – there has, after all, been quite a lot of history. Almost before I knew it, it had turned into ‘The history of the world in 10½ blog posts’ – still, of course, without going much further than laying out a few broad themes. So this is what I’m now publishing. The entire c.27,000 word essay is now available from the Publications page of my website, but I’m also going to publish it in hopefully more digestible week-by-week blog-post size instalments over the next couple of months.

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It’s probably worth devoting just a few sentences to explaining what this exercise is about and what it isn’t. It’s surely obvious that nobody can really write a ‘history of the world’, however many words or years they devote to it. So I haven’t even tried. What I have tried to do is lay out the main patterns and structures of the past as I see them that I think we have to reckon with today if we’re to wrest a comfortable and sustainable future (which I think will have to be largely a small farm future) from the troubled present. This involves tracing political and economic relationships over large parts of the globe, which partly justifies my title. But I’ve made no attempt to trace human history even-handedly across all times and places. I’m open to comments and criticisms of things I’ve omitted, but if they’re of the form ‘your analysis is wholly lacking in an account of the struggle for self-determination in Mozambique’ my response will be a rather uninterested ‘yep, you got me there’. Challenges to my rendering of the larger structures I discuss will gain more of my interest.

My focus here is mostly on the way that local societies, local farms, local human ecologies, get incorporated into bigger political and economic structures – and conversely how they de-incorporate or resist that process. In general I think de-incorporation is a good idea, and is probably going to happen anyway whether it’s a good idea or not. But I don’t think any kind of de-incorporation or local autarky is necessarily desirable, nor do I think large political structures are necessarily undesirable. For me, the relationship between the state and local human ecologies is problematic precisely because it admits to no easy answers. On reflection, I fear that I haven’t justified here as clearly as I should have done why small-scale or ‘peasant’ farming is so important, but perhaps it’ll be easier to do that in another post in the light of the historical analysis provided here.

Another thing I say little about here, even though it’s the overarching context for the whole essay, is the set of ‘environmental’ problems humanity currently faces in relation to ecological degradation, climate change, energy futures and so on (I’ve written about them fairly extensively elsewhere on this website). This is essentially because I don’t think issues of energy and environment have generally been the fundamental movers of human history in the past (which is not to say they haven’t been important). I suspect they may be prime movers of human history in the future, and one of the problems humanity now faces is learning to acknowledge this novel fact. Joe Clarkson drew my attention to Fred Cottrell’s interesting book Energy and Society, which I might have incorporated more fully here if I’d come across it earlier. Energy capture certainly provides one worthwhile frame on which to hang an account of human history. So perhaps does crop development. These aren’t the frames I’ve chosen here, but that’s not to say that they (along with other aspects of ecological constraint) aren’t crucial factors now facing us. The truth is quite the opposite.

As I wrote the essay, I tried to keep in mind the hope that people other than me might read it, but as per my last post in many ways it’s a rather personal odyssey through my intellectual history, and also a kind of aide memoire for issues I’d like to come back to in the future, so the essay involves a certain amount of personal wrestling with historical issues where I feel the need to work out a position. Which is another way of asking forgiveness for what I fear may seem like various weird digressions in the text. I’ve fretted over this essay, perhaps a little too much, and probably re-edited, cut and pasted it too many times for its own good, so if there are any parts of it that make you think ‘Oh for goodness sake, cut this out and just get on with it’, I’d be interested to hear. If, on the other hand, you feel that way about the entire essay, then there’s no need to contact me – but sorry for wasting your time. For the time-pressed, let me broadcast upfront the main issues I’ve extracted from my historical analysis which I think we need to juggle with in figuring out a just and sustainable small farm future:

  • 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.

If you require any further justification for those points…well, you’ll just have to read my next 10½ blog posts…

In relation to notes and referencing, at the risk of demonstrating my utter unoriginality I decided to reference the essay fairly comprehensively so that I can use it easily as a resource for future writing. I’m publishing the entire essay along with notes and bibliography on the Publications page of the website, and then chopping it up into weekly blog posts with footnotes (but not references) at the end of each post. If you want to chase up a reference, you’ll find it in the bibliography at the end of the full essay on the publications page.

I hope the essay might find some interested readers. I’ve certainly found it interesting to write. The key historical figures in it, ones who lurk forever at the interface between the local human ecologies and larger political-economic structures discussed here, are peasantries – endlessly pitied, exploited, romanticised, derided, expropriated or written off, but unquestionably still here. The essay is dedicated, in more ways than one, to them – though not, I hope, uncritically.

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas.

…well, that’s probably enough for one blog post. We’ll pick up the thread again next week. But if you can’t wait that long to find out what happens next, you know where to look.