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.

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

  1. I think a case can be made for free peasantry or independent farmers in the context of democracy. The possibility of good life – based on self-production and self-directed market exchange – is immense. Peasant utopia should not be devoid of market relations. Rather peasants can be active protagonists of the market places. In a context like Nepal, where land is the most widely distributed resources (about 99% of holdings under 2 hectares in size, held by almost 4 million households in Nepal). I tend to imagine creating a sound distributed urbanism emerging out of these distributed peasant production system with accountable/democratic state mobilizing resources (some from peasantry, but also from other resources) to provide intellegently-designed health care system and education.

  2. Here’s something that might be coming in later installments, but as the progeny of German immigrants to the US (four generations removed) I have never been able to get my head wrapped around hereditary peerage. My first confusion is over the length of its existence (if it didn’t exist and someone suggested hypothetically it might, I’d suggest such a thing couldn’t last). Next is my confusion over their political significance – though on this front I’m to understand their political significance might be waning. And further there is the manner of their social position. Lords and Ladies…Dukes and Duchesses… Counts and, well you see where this goes… has always struck me as something, well… over the top.

    So now we discuss the merits of a peasant republic… we can’t even capitalize the ‘p’ in peasant for crying sake. Perhaps what is wanted is a peasant hierarchy. His Majesty, First Peasant of Cornwall; and Her Majesty, First Peasantess of Cornwall – or maybe the Right Honorable Peasant Duke of Frome. If you’re in need of a crown, let me know… we Germans might be able to fashion something from iron that will last.

    The real merit (if there might be any) for such a strange approach might be that it would cause the aristocrats to have a look in the mirror, ponder whether longish contrived titular monikers have any further value, and allow civilization to move on without such garbage.

  3. Thanks for those comments. Interesting ideas, Anil. I’ll try to address the issue of marketing in a ‘peasant’s republic’ in a future post. Lack of market dependence is a critical issue, I think.

    Couldn’t agree more, Clem. Though it’s strange how few of my compatriots share my republicanism – and even a few Americans seem to feel strangely warm about the British monarchy. Anderson argues that European aristocracy was formed in the admixture of Germanic war retinues under charismatic kings and Roman imperial structures – footnote 56 of my essay. Well, it’s a theory…

    Or there’s the (probably apocryphal) story of the English aristocrat trying to turf a trespassing commoner off his land. Asked to justify his right to do so, he said that his ancestors had fought for his land. “Well, I’ll fight you for it now” came the swift reply.

  4. “But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes [], as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they [] could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable”

    I’ve been arguing for a few years that this is one of the most significant factors underpinning inequality. The obligation to pay taxes in money makes the poor subservient to the rich in a way that voluntary transactions don’t (or wouldn’t in the absence of monopolies of essential resources). In a healthy society, I think authorities need to be constitutionally barred from demanding payment of taxes in a form that people have no natural capacity to supply (i.e. labour).

    On Clem’s point about hereditary aristocracies, my view is that the origins of it made good sense. In close-knit societies, rulership/administration can be regarded as essentially just another functional specialisation and a ruler’s children will absorb some understanding of rulership in the same way that a farmer’s children will absorb an understanding of farming, simply from being in close proximity to their parents. As long as parents retain a special relationship with their offspring, children will grow up with a familiarity with their parents’ work that others won’t have. From that perspective, the core of the hereditary principle is not that children have some right to follow in their parents’ footsteps, it’s simply that they have a natural advantage.

    However, that benign foundation did get distorted fairly early on. I didn’t get round to commenting on the post where Chris talked about the development of centralised states, but I’d say there were critical stages during that process whereby rulers ceased to be servants of their communities (and much of the political history of the last few centuries can be seen as an on-going attempt to put that right).

    As long as societies were small enough for everyone to judge how well their leaders were behaving, then those leaders could be easily replaced. So, at the small scale, I suspect most societies were probably fairly democratic. And when groups of small communities started making treaties with each other, it was perfectly reasonable for trusted rulers to meet and talk together, while everybody else got on with their own business.

    But that process both eroded the ability of local communities to observe their rulers, and also created new webs of relationships and loyalties. Ultimately it led to the position that, if a small society did decide it wanted to replace its ruler, the one being deposed could call on outside help to sustain his position.

    Personally, I don’t see how any large society can function without a hierarchy of decision makers. What’s crucial, though, is for there to be effective mechanisms for the public to monitor them and ensure that no more power gets passed up any higher than is absolutely necessary, and that it can be reclaimed at any time (which is what the principal reforms I advocate are designed to ensure).

    • I’m a bit more cynical about the nature of political specialisation. Sure, it could doubtless be argued that, after the event, the offspring of rulers will make better rulers than others on average (though there are historic enough counter-examples to suggest to me that heritable rule isn’t really such a great idea) But it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you say, heritable rule occurred early in the history of agrarian states (consider the archaeological finds of babies and infants buried with sumptuous grave goods, clearly not based on anything they’d actually achieved). I find Flannery & Marcus’s argument persuasive that heritable hierarchy always emerges as a result of manipulation of social ideologies by self-interested actors.

      I’d go along with the need for ‘a hierarchy of decision-makers’ in the technical sense of ‘hierarchy’ (ie a whole subsuming its parts), but not in the sense that the decision-makers have higher status than anyone else. Modern liberal democracies (and most foragers) have gone a long way to realising this aim but not, alas, quite far enough. I like the idea of states disbarred from ‘unnatural’ forms of revenue-raising, but I can’t see how that would emerge in practice outside of a particular class project – specifically, that of small-scale and essentially self-reliant cultivators who aren’t much in need of a state.

      • I can certainly buy the idea of heritable hierarchy becoming entrenched as a result of ‘manipulation of social ideologies by self-interested actors’, but it seems to me there had to be a pre-existing foundation that would make that manipulation possible. I was speculating about the pre-historic dynamic. Any virtue in heritable rule (which I agree is only slight) would depend on the community having the power to easily replace rulers (though ‘ruler’ is maybe not the right term in those circumstances) and, without some explicit process to prevent it, that power would probably have been compromised as soon as a society got bigger than a single village. So historic examples are all likely to be of an already corrupt system. But the basic principle seems to me to be marginally benign rather than intrinsically harmful.

        As far as I’m concerned, democracy is very much a work in progress and I don’t see any insurmountable barrier to democratic processes that effectively allow the people to reclaim power. In that context, I’d expect there to be various ways of challenging laws that lead to injustice, so I don’t think ‘unnatural’ forms of revenue-raising would in fact persist in a properly democratic society.

        I’ve been struggling to imagine ‘small-scale and essentially self-reliant cultivators who aren’t much in need of a state’ – unless they’re living on a remote island, or are themselves so powerful that they don’t need to worry at all about neighbouring communities. It seems to me that (when you look beyond the many ways in which its function has been corrupted) the state is, at root, a mechanism for managing disputes between communities. I don’t really see how stable communities might be able to do without that.

        • Pre-existing foundations to heritable hierarchies – yes indeed, usually in the form of lineage societies in which one lineage mounts a claim to be closer to some kind of sacred power or ancestor.

          A point I’d make here is that it isn’t fundamentally a matter of scaling constituent units – of autonomous & undifferentiated ‘villages’ trying to figure out how to get along, because the village isn’t prior to wider political society. It’s more that there are cultural possibilities within every relatively egalitarian political society to institute more hierarchical relations. When that happens, I’m not sure I’d even go so far as to call it marginally benign, though I also wouldn’t necessarily argue against any kind of impetus towards human distinction.

          In my phrase you quoted – ‘small-scale and essentially self-reliant cultivators who aren’t much in need of a state’ – the key word is ‘much’. This allows me to basically agree with your final paragraph, while continuing to insist on the need for substantial self-reliance outside any norms or forms sanctioned by the centralised state if that state is not to become ultimately dysfunctional. How to achieve that outcome from where we presently are is a perplexing question.

  5. I guess this takes us past 1492 then. That is a date that sticks in my mind, but I have been puzzling how exactly to relate it to your narrative. The shock of 1492 is still reverberating here where I sit, but nearly everyone has acclimated to the roar of it by now. Everyone who gained from it anyway.

    Maybe we can just look at the disaster that overtook two continents as being an example of what happens when we have bad governments, but I can’t escape the feeling that there is more to it than that. At the very least, the new world provided a huge pressure relief for Western Europe. A place to send excess population, and the source of all that plunder to lubricate the economy.

    I tend to see it as all the example any thinking person needs to see that Western Civilization is rotten all the way down to its philosophical foundations. When we westerners have been living close by one another, and our power relationships have reached some kind of equilibrium, things can look fairly pleasant sometimes. But in a case like the European invasion of this continent, where there were no constraints other than the military power of the natives, and where real wealth was just laying around for anyone to pick up, then massacre became the norm.
    I have heard some people say that we Americans did that kind of thing so long and so often that it became a national habit. Having looked at the news today, I am not going to disagree.

    • Thanks for that, Eric. I do have a fair bit to say about colonialism in the Americas and elsewhere later in the piece (especially in instalment #6). So maybe I’ll leave it at that for now – I’ll certainly be interested in your comments when we get there. I’d agree that 1492 is a pretty significant year in global history – I suppose I could try to justify why I haven’t highlighted it here if anyone’s interested…but maybe that’s less important than the analysis of colonialism to come…

    • Perhaps I might need to wait as well… but I’m not inclined to benchmark 1492 as anything more than the year ‘IT’ happened… IT being a successful trans-Atlantic crossing and return that was well documented.

      Sailing in boats had a 5,000 year history by that point. Massacring a people who had something you wanted… perhaps an even longer history.

      Mankind spreading out from one homeland into new territories… a still longer history. And for that matter, mankind had already spread to this continent.

      I agree with Eric – North and South America did pose a certain windfall (there’s a pun in there somewhere) for the Europeans. But given the developments underway in Europe at the time I think it was only a matter of time – something inevitable.

      If in a few centuries we find some means to colonize other points in space then one could point to 1969 as a similar landmark year. I suppose we now might hope that by the time such is feasible (if ever) that the conquistadors of that time might be more civilized.

    • Thanks Chris.
      When you first posted the link, I started reading your whole treatise, but I find I digest it better in installments, so I can wait for colonialism to come around.

      I didn’t think that you would skip over these issues, given your thoughtful treatment of history; my comment has mostly to do with my strong gut reaction to the Columbus episode.

      And yes Clem, you are right that we have been pillaging for a very long time, and the winners have been writing their histories and destroying the histories of the losers since history was invented.

      You are also correct about Columbus having the first well documented Atlantic crossing. Though the act of crossing of the Atlantic isn’t really what I am interested in. There is at least one other well documented contact with Europeans and American natives before 1492, and it played out much differently. As did whatever other contacts between the old and new world that we only have tantalizing hints of.

      Chris is talking about forms for organizing society, an important topic, since the current organizations are showing their fractures. I am talking about a different but related topic that I can’t seem to leave alone. The organizing ethos, or spirit of the society that organizes itself. And for we denizens of the post-Columbian world, his story is a stark rebuke. Columbus and his merry band of proto-Enlightenment brigands happen upon a society that has not yet decided that the world is only just dead rocks in the service of humans, and Columbus’ very first impulse is to enslave them for the mining of gold. Iterate that for 500 years, and here we are.

      Also, we are not going to colonize space. Ever. There is no other ecosystem that can sustain us within a radius we are capable of traveling, and we will not be producing an artificial ecosystem. See Biosphere 2 for all the reasons. They are mostly not technical reasons.

      • It’s an interesting debate. I guess one reason I didn’t highlight 1492 specifically is, as Clem says, that you could look at it as just some bloke going on a glorified yachting trip – and not even the first European to reach North America. But on the other hand, it was clearly the harbinger of a colonial project that soon had most of the Americas in its grip (partly through exploiting tensions in indigenous American colonialisms as per the Mexica). In that sense, also as Clem says, it fitted into a much longer global history of people uncomprehendingly trashing other people’s societies for their own short-term benefit – not something that’s unique to early modern Europeans, though they were certainly impressive exponents of it. What perhaps is unique and important about the European colonial project in the Americas is that it created for the first time a truly global political economy that linked together the fortunes of people and civilisations in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. 1492 was the start, but it didn’t really come together until the 18th century – so most of my discussion of colonialism focuses on it in this more mature phase, from the 18th-21st centuries. Perhaps a question for the future that it poses is whether it’s realistic to imagine humanity transcending the motivations and practices of colonial or imperial domination…

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