Pertaining to peasants

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final post of 2015. And what a year it’s been. We’ve battled with the over-optimism of perennial grain breeders, ecomodernists and perennial polyculture proponents. We’ve been endorsed by George Monbiot, chastised by Tom Merchant, dismissed by the Land Institute, ridiculed by the Breakthrough Institute and publicised by the good folks at Resilience.org. We’ve had spinoff articles in The Land, in the august academic journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, at Dark Mountain and at Statistics Views. We’ve even managed to sell some vegetables, raise some livestock, and harvest some wood for the winter. And, despite losing some commenters on this site for our anti-growth pessimism, we end the year optimistic about the growth in the number of comments. We’ve also had our first financial donations to the site (button on the top right, if you’re infused with the Christmas spirit…)

I’d really like to thank everyone who’s visited the site, and even more to those who’ve taken the trouble to comment – especially valued regulars like Clem, Brian, Vera, Ruben, Jahi, David, Andy, John and, um, anyone else I may have forgotten. And that goes for Paul, too, who is with us in spirit. I’ve learned a lot from all of you and I hope you’ll keep visiting. I read every comment on the site, though I’m finding that I don’t always have the time to reply. But I sincerely appreciate the input of everyone who stops by.

Well now, I’ve been cranking out the writing recently and have a few more seasonal offerings for the small farm connoisseur – an article over at Resilience.org called ‘From growth economics to home economics: towards a peasant socialism’ continuing my engagement with Leigh Phillips’ book which, as Brian rightly says, is a gift that keeps on giving. And I think I’ll have a piece next week on the Dark Mountain blog about the COP21 agreement in Paris. I’ll also be at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in, er, Oxford on 6-7 January, talking about peasants among other things. Since peasants are looming rather large in my writing at the moment, and since there are some things that trouble me slightly about the concept, I think I’ll end the year with a few remarks on a peasanty theme.

Earlier in the year, I read the late Daniel Nugent’s book Spent Cartridges of Revolution about the agrarian history of Chihuahua. In it, he made the point that the better off farmers in his study region were happy to embrace the term campesino as a self-identifier, whereas poorer farmers, recoiling from its negative connotations, would never dream of doing so, preferring to call themselves agricultores (farmers). That made me stop to think about my own motivations for identifying with the ‘peasant’ term. Is there an element of pretension involved? Or is it OK for middle-class folks to reappropriate it? Pejorative ethnic and sexual labels have similarly been reappropriated – I’d guess most often by people who for whatever reason don’t feel so hurt by the negative histories of the terms. Still, there’s undoubtedly a class dimension here which shouldn’t be erased. Peasant groups like La Via Campesina and the Landworkers’ Alliance, of which I’m a member, have been criticised on these grounds, and certainly one of the political fault lines in agrarian populism strongly (over?)-emphasised by Marxists is the class tensions between so-called ‘poor’, ‘middle’ and ‘rich’ peasants.

Another problem of course is those negative connotations. It interests me that my fellow speakers at the ORFC from central Europe describe the idea of peasant farming, however remote from contemporary life, as something that provides people with “feelings of existential security, an eternal constant within society”. Whereas in the Anglophone world I’d say the mood is more “thank God we’re not peasants any more – you’re not telling me you seriously want to go back to all that, are you?”, as indeed was the gist of one or two of the comments beneath my recent Resilience piece. So, contrary to the reappropriation position, a counter-argument is that anyone who uses the word ‘peasant’ as part of a vision for the future is immediately hobbling themselves with a whole bunch of unnecessary negative baggage, a point which I can find some sympathy for.

The recent debate between Giorgos Kallis and Kate Raworth on the use of the term ‘degrowth’ covered a lot of similar ground to the preceding point. I can see both sides of the argument, though ultimately I find myself more persuaded by Giorgos. I think there’s a bit too much pussyfooting around trying to find inoffensive terms for ideas that in fact are very radical, and on balance I favour some peasant bluntness in calling a spade a spade while agitating for a small farm future, despite recognising the political risks of doing so.

One problem I have is that I can’t think of another term that’ll do the job. ‘Smallholder farmer’ or small-scale farmer are OK as far as they go, and in fact I’d like to claim the term ‘farmer’ back from the large-scale, mechanised, so-called ‘conventional’ crew for the free use of anyone who so much as grows some pot herbs on an inner-city windowsill. I’d like everybody to ‘farm’ in that sense and assume it a dereliction of civic duty not to do so, much as drink-driving or chucking food in landfill is now sanctioned. ‘Oh, you don’t farm?’ people might say, disapprovingly surveying an empty windowsill in an urban apartment. How I wish. But the problem with the term, especially when it’s applied to existing peasant societies, is the way it smuggles in a commercial premise. A peasant is somebody who first of all produces food and other necessaries for themselves and their family, whereas a ‘smallholder farmer’ is someone who produces cash crops for market, and often rather fancy niche ones. I don’t mind debating the optimum balance between self-provisioning and marketing, but I think it’s critical to hang on to the distinction between the two in order to found more just and sustainable agrarian futures.

So there you have it – a fine Christmas present from you to me would be to furnish me with a serviceable term to replace the P word.

It only remains for me to wish anyone reading this a happy Christmas and new year if such things have meaning for you and – if they don’t – well then, a happy next few weeks until I update this site again probably in mid January with more peerless ponderings on the prospects for promoting peasantries…or whatever other term you may send my way.

17 thoughts on “Pertaining to peasants

  1. “a serviceable term to replace the P word”
    Smajeist crossed my mind for a second. But I dismissed it, and I hope no ill feeling descends because of it. My reasoning follows from the history of other “-ists”, or “-ians” becoming either whipping posts for adversaries or eventually falling to the sidelines as fashion moves on without them.

    Geek is a label that seems to take various flavors as well. I’m not particularly fond of the epithet being pointed at me, but for matters related to the soybean I suppose I’m somewhat culpable.

    Perhaps what we want is not so much a different word for peasant as more appropriate adjectives to go along with… for example: pleasant peasant; prosperous peasant; plebeian peasant (redundant?). Not sure whether the alliterative nature of those names is meaningful (I suppose Marx would suggest a proletarian peasant now that I think of it).

    Peaceloving peasants, populist peasantry, postmodern peasantry (this one could gain some traction in the modernist debate arena). Precocious, palliative, principled, porcine (Ok, I’ll admit I’m taking this too far). But a porcine peasant does draw a certain image doesn’t it?

    So I’ve beaten that horse sufficiently. Let me turn to the warm gratitude I would like to express for all the effort you go through to share your thoughts here. I will not congratulate your economy of wording… but I will admit that you are not one to wander away from your point. I’ve learned quite a bit, and am always ready to dig into the next edition. 2015 has been an interesting year here, and I am so looking forward to 2016, pleasant peasantry or no.

    Here’s wishing you and all the Smajes the happiest of holidays.

  2. Don’t give up the fight, Chris! You have been a great source of inspiration for me. I am now putting philosophy into practice and soon entering into the wondrous world of mushrooms! Happy Holidays from Brazil!

  3. Thank you for your insightful criticism of the fledgling ecomodernist movement. Through it, I’ve also became more familiar with small-scale farming, which is a good thing in itself.

    The rise of new movements unfortunately rarely seems to happen without some invective and infighting; for my part I’m sorry for any possible unfairness you feel has been directed towards you. We in the Finnish Ecomodernist Society, and I believe most ecomodernists in general, hope that 2016 sees less infighting between those who already agree that humanity is worth saving (the planet will of course survive us, the question is whether we humans do) and that substantial efforts to reduce our environmental footprint are necessary and justified. We’d also hope to promote more cooperation between those with whom we share as much as nine tenths of our values; we are unlikely to ever come to full agreement on everything but let’s not use that as an excuse for not working together on those issues where we can agree. As I have already mentioned, one of the key reasons I believe ecomodernism is important is because it lessens the divisive pressures within the traditional environmentalist movement.

    The small farm movement you’re promoting is very interesting one and is, I think, a good example of more nuanced and more local approaches to ease environmental and social justice issues. I sincerely believe the world needs more activists and more approaches. In this regard any ridicule towards you is misdirected and unfair: there are more than enough problems to go around, and if you or your approaches can ease some of them, that’s very good.

    However, I believe you will also agree if I say that small scale farming may not be the single universally viable or environmentally or socially preferable option. The world is large and conditions differ; there are, for example, grave doubts whether “local food” in Finland is automatically the environmentally preferable option or whether it is more of a marketing gimmick. But wherever small scale farming – or any other potential partial solution – may help improve lives or save the environment or just be more empowering, enjoyable or simply more fun, even if it incurs a modest environmental or financial cost, I wholeheartedly support such initiatives. And I have no doubt the Finnish ecomodernists at least will, too.

    In conclusion, I wish you a merry christmas and a happy new year. And for comic relief, here’s the outcome I expressly wish to avoid with environmentalist movement, brilliantly explained by the inestimable Monty Pythons:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gb_qHP7VaZE

  4. Gene Logsdon, if I remember correctly, struggled with a new term also and settled on “cottage farming”. ‘Peasant’ is a troubling term for me hailing from central Europe… we didn’t really use a term equivalant to “peasant” at all. At that time, I argued that it’s a particularly anglo-world terminology, though of course it’s in much wider use. And it really does imply looking down on certain folk, so I am not surprised people in Mexico objected to it.

    What we really are referring to is about an updated form of subsistence farming. An enlightened form of subsistence farming, if you will. I think neo-agrarian suits the best of all the terms I have pondered. I have studied the Amish extensively, and they don’t use any special terms to refer to their way of farming. Not that I have ever seen in the lit.

    Neo-agrarian can refer to all those who are part of the localized economy, folks that make cheese, say, and buy the milk from their neighbors. It should, IMO, include people who feed the localist economy and have links and sympathies with people who grow food in smallholdings. When you include people whose sympathies and interests and support run along the lines of neo-agrarianism, even though they themselves do not have land (yet), you make space for a reality bigger than just growers themselves.

    There is an advantage to not being settled on a term. Nobody can use you for target practice because the terms shift as the “movement” or the particular culture shifts. Merry Christmas to all here.

    I have just gone out on a limb and published my first musings on a topic that touches closely on localism and the loyalties of home culture. Fraid it’s not very PC, but I decided to shoot from the hip and be honest, as best as I could. I hope you come check it out.
    http://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com

  5. A bit hard to think of a term that fits all cultures. Homesteaders seems to be the best term to fit that type of small farmer culture in the US. And I always liked the British term smallholder. Both seem culturally relevant without carrying too much baggage. Although if the term Smajeist gains traction I promise to form the first splinter group.

    Splitter! Splitter!

    As for your reference to the better off campesinos embracing that term? Well that seems to be the way in most social movements and cultural groupings. I think of the watchmakers in Switzerland carrying the torch of anarchism for so many years. It was mainly a result of their autonomous cultural history. Or the reason why the Kulaks were targeted by Stalin, a self-aware class of peasants. All are groupings having just enough to self-identify with their place in society and to cherish it.

    Hope you and all the Spudlings have a Merry Christmas.

  6. I read the ecomodernists manifesto , wow what a load of twaddle , to be criticized bunch of idiots is a recommendation of your work ! Keep it up .
    I plump for Yeoman farmer .

  7. “indepeasants!” Thanks for all of the writing which I’ve been following on resilience.org. “Peasants” does seem to have some baggage as most people have some image in their minds upon hearing this term so something more forward sounding is probably required. I like the concept of sufficiency as put forward by the Simplicity Collective and it could certainly be applied to the type of life you’re promoting. “sufficiency farms/farmers/homesteads”?

  8. I’ve also been trying (unsuccessfully) to think of a decent alternative to “peasant.” Just as well, since white dudes intentionally conjuring up movement brands may not always be the best approach. Maybe we should take some insult spewed by Phillips or other ecomodernists and just use it approvingly.

    I recently finished Walden Bello’s The Food Wars, which I thought you might appreciate. He helpfully narrates a brief history of capitalism versus the peasant and then uses Mexico, the Philippines, the African continent, China, and the agrofuels industry as specific examples of this ongoing war. His research on the effects of structural adjustment and trade liberalization on productivity is compelling. I was recently asked to write an essay on “the war against the earth” for a journal issue focusing on war and peace. This book helped detail such an exhaustively comprehensive topic.

    I look forward to more blog posts after the new year!

  9. Well, you start with an innocent-seeming holiday farewell, and end with some tough gristle to chew on.

    First off, I hope you have a relaxing holiday beside a warm fire. Thank you for your thinking and your writing, and I look forward to what comes in the next year.

    Also, thank you for doing battle with the Armies of Idiocy. As I have said, I am not sure there is any point to it, especially when compared to the high return of growing potatoes, but I enjoy watching the show.

    As far as terms go, I have recently enjoyed using deceleration instead of degrowth, to suit my audience.

    My focus is on writing about the great gap in impact between system change and personal change campaigns, so I generally find it pointless to engage in one-on-one discussions. But I do find my self occasionally with a pint in my hand and conversation in the air. So, while degrowth much more accurately captures our future, deceleration seems to be easier for people to accept without shutting off their brains. Baby steps. But degrowth is the more honest term.

    On the peasant front, we generally call ourselves Urban Homesteaders, or say we are interested in a Hand Made Life. I like the cottage farmer, smallholder and homesteader—though in North America I worry homesteader has too much genocidal baggage.

    I often say I am striving for a peasant life, but when I say that I am actually pushing back agains the myopic obsessiveness of internet geek culture.

    What I mean is that our modern culture is lousy with obsessive cliques. So, the espresso clique gets together and obsesses over the 49 microfactors critical to the perfect shot of espresso. The salami clique obsesses over the 18 gadgets fundamental to perfect salami. The sourdough clique waxes rhapsodic over the genetics of ancient grains. Et c.

    And what i am trying to do is feed my family quality homemade food.

    So, our cider is good, especially on a hot day after hard labour. Is it excellent? No. World Class? Certainly not. But I have 60 gallons of it in the basement, waiting to intoxicate me.

    Our salami is quite enjoyable, and puffs me up with pride. When we have guests over we go shop for meats and cheese for the charcuterie board, and offer our own as a novelty. It stands up well, but is clearly not the product of highly-trained professionals.

    My sourdough is a constant source of frustration. But, it is nutritious, and tasty from fresh-ground grain. It is not as fluffy as I would like, nor does it have the artisinal holes in the crumb.

    Our canned goods and pickles are quite good. I tend to make the same kind of jam each year, and look forward to gifts to add variety. I am not interested in new recipes.

    In fact, I have made my own soap for 15 years or so, and just tried a new scent on my very last batch.

    So, when I talk about peasant, I am speaking of producing good, tasty, nutritious, useful provender for our home economy. I am not trying to compete with the commercial shops, and I am devoting as little time to each product as possible. This is function, not fashion.

    Anyhow, I don’t think that is what you are looking for, but I thought you might find it worth mulling over.

    Lastly, loosely related to all of this, I would like to recommend Ralph Borsodi to all on this blog.

    There is an overview of Borsodi here:
    http://newschoolofliving.blogspot.ca/2013/04/the-life-of-ralph-borsodi-unsung.html

    And links to download his book Flight From the City here:
    https://archive.org/details/flightfromcityan00borsrich

    Borsodi wrote this book in the 1930s. They left New York City and moved to a small farm nearby. The interesting thing about Borsodi is that he repeatedly advocates the farmer NOT SELL THEIR GOODS.

    Borsodi sees self-provender in a way I have likened to Jane Jacobs’ Import Replacement model. The point is to not spend money in the outside economy by producing goods in the domestic economy.

    Certainly a lot has changed in the 80 years since Borsodi wrote this. Industry and agriculture have both become more “efficient”. Nonetheless, Borsodi offers a headshakingly different way of thinking about this, and I think many here would enjoy it.

    Again, best wishes to you Chris, and thank you for your generosity of time and thought. And best wishes to the other readers here. And I will raise a toast; To the Workers and the Strangers.

    Grace Before Meals
    “As we begin this meal with grace,
    Let us become aware of the memory
    Carried inside the food before us:
    The quiver of the seed
    Awakening in the earth,
    Unfolding in a trust of roots
    And slender stems of growth,
    On its voyage toward harvest,
    The kiss of rain and surge of sun;
    The innocence of animal soul
    That never spoke a word,
    Nourished by the earth
    To become today our food;
    The work of all the strangers
    Whose hands prepared it,
    The privilege of wealth and health
    That enables us to feast and celebrate.”
    ~John O’ Donohue

    • Fascinating stuff about Borsodi. Nice to see someone using financial analysis techniques to give an underpinning to efforts in the self-sufficiency space. I’ve just been using cost-accounting techniques to price posts cut from farm forestry thinnings on a local farm. All going well the farmer will get a return and the thinned trees will see a higher value waste than cut for waste.

      Pricing decentralised goods at the retail rate rather than the wholesale as Borsodi suggests can provide useful insights. In renewable energy, for example, it doesn’t make sense to compare the cost of locally generated energy with wholesale costs at a distant generator. The return from the decentralised energy production if consumed locally is the replacement of the energy otherwise bought at the retail rate. Retail energy cost is generally much higher than wholesale cost as it includes generation, transmission, distribution and the energy retailer’s cut.

      An interesting exercise would be to take Borsodi’s approach to pricing common household cost drivers when produced in the home and compare these to common retail prices for the same goods. A common failing of conventional economics is to assume that a price comparison of this nature should include the earnings that the person making the bread at home, for example, could otherwise earn. There are a number of criticisms of this assumption, perhaps the most pertinent one is if the home economist is unemployed or can’t work for some other reason.

      Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family, Chris. I look forwards to more of your writing next year.

    • Ruben,
      Thanks for the info. I’ve got a couple of books on my shelf that have chapters on his life and works (The Simple Life by David Shi and The New Agrarian Mind by Allan Carlson). Both are surveys of the literature on the topic.I am attracted to the idea of a “self-sufficing” life outside of the drive for markets. Sounds like you and yours are doing an excellent job on the provider front.

      Now, I’m off to read those chapters again and search out more on Borsodi.
      Cheers,
      Brian

  10. Thanks for all the comments above – I’ll let you know if the peasant session at the ORFC turns up anything else of interest. I found Ruben’s ‘function not fashion’ point quite liberating – homegrown often is better than commercial in taste if not appearance, but it isn’t always and it still doesn’t matter when it isn’t because that’s not the point… Amen to that.

  11. It’s been my thorough pleasure to find and start engaging with this blog, Chris!!! Perhaps we’ll meet in “meatspace” one of these days. (Such an instinctively vulgar term, but I find it amusing.)

    My quick thoughts on a couple of things… (1) on degrowth, I never understand how folks think we would be able to sneak in the actual measures we’re talking about more easily than the term. Especially considering the forces arrayed in opposition. I also would be curious about examples of such a strategy working for a large-scale change. I mean, there are some things we can do to moderately slow the problems without making radical changes, but it seems to me an unlikely strategy to say “See these measures we’ve been taking that haven’t involved much change or sacrifice? Well, now we’re going to do those, but four times as hard! Isn’t that ok as long as we call it something palatable?” I guess, and this is my issue with a chunk of the natural capital work and most of ecomodernism–there are required shifts in power relations, as far as I can see, and I don’t see any way these are going to happen technocratically or beneath-the-radar. It is quite plain, for example, that the mere possibility of a majority-minority nation freaks the White (current) majority out in the US (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/04/demographics_conservatism_and_racial_polarization_could_america_become_mississippi.html). While human well-being is not a zero-sum game, to some extent, *politics are*. If those who are poor, marginalized, dispossessed, and repressed right now get greater voice, those who are more comfortable and politically powerful will lose some of their ability to pass their own agendas. This will not escape their notice. When we start aggressively barring expanding development to decrease climate change or conserve biodiversity, developers will not go into the good night because we launched a great marketing plan.

    Which brings me (in short? ha!) to (b), which is that I really don’t think we can get to the changes we need through anything like a marketing approach. The debates over the right word are deeply rooted (as far as I can tell) in the kind of salesmanship that stems in large part from Edward Bernays (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002UEP8UG/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1), who helped consolidate the methods of modern marketing and ideas that added up to “we have to control/govern the people for their own good, even if that sometimes means deceiving them.” While it is true changing phrases can help generate political power, and political power can translate to change (e.g. the success of Luntzian tactics in the US, such as “estate tax” becoming “the death tax”), but such sways are transient and dependent on decision systems that don’t actually directly impact the lives of the middle-class and aspirationally middle class. If one said “we’re cutting X and Y social services to provide tax relief to a generally wealthy 1% of the populace” few would go for it–indeed, even conservative voters in the US favor higher taxes on the wealthy. It’s their wealthy elected officials & friends who do not. Long story short, marketing matters, but it matters most when the direct involvement and effects of the average person is minimal or purely consumption-oriented.

    Which leads to (c), which applies equally to the word “peasant”. While I love a good definitional/marketing debate, in the end, what will matter is organizing. The US Civil Rights Movement, and the Abolitionists before them, did not achieve (eventually, and some of) their objectives because the names were catchy. They organized to the point where they had enough power and voice not to be ignored. So I personally would be happy to call peasants Astrospace Wizardpeople if for some inexplicable reason, that identity/phrase had significant organizing momentum behind it. Peasant — “of the land” — is appropraite and evocative in many ways, and used by a significant number of influential organizations now (like Via). There are regional differences (the word is definitely not used much in the US context), but the farmers in US Via organizations like National Family Farm Coalition have not spent, from what I can tell, significant effort trying to get the word changed in international use, and (as far as I can tell) are content to rally underneath the cause in international forums. I would argue they will continue to do so as long as Via maintains organization and voice. If the US-based members suddenly got Family Farmers (or Wizardpeople) to be a rallying identity on a very large scale, I am sure the terminology would shift in discourse eventually, too.

    (d) My last “brief’ (HAH!) point: I think the considerations of the possible tensions and exclusion (intentional or not) of poorer and the poorest farmers are vitally important. But I also do not think the tensions are, largely, the result of terminology, but rather, the result of lower capacity. Appears to be paywalled now, but Ribot points out (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03066150.2014.894911?journalCode=fjps20) that most of the time, only those with enough “spare” capacity to do better than survival are able to participate sufficiently to exercise whatever agency is available to them. In other words, part of the struggle is matching solidarity with actually providing resources, power, and voice to the poorest–a tough nut to crack that few have successfully solved, truly. But allies who succeed in doing it–or truly attempt it, or show the potential to achieve it–will, I think, find themselves in discussions with poorer farmers where they will learn a lot, and perhaps change their views on proper terms–or see the poorer compatriot’s views change.

    This change in true dialogue among allies of equal dignity is the goal. Any conversation and indeed, resolution we may achieve amongst ourselves almost always definitionally recreates the problem we’re talking about. After all, if “we” decide that “proletariat producers” is a better term, how have we changed the power dynamic, marketing approach, top-down, or class-divided approach at all? I’m more than happy to engage in thoughtful discussion and change my views in a truly inclusive forum. It is amusing, but not ultimately useful, to resolve the best terms in forums that, no matter how inadvertently, do not have a strong presence by the most marginalized to speak for themselves.

    That’s more crotchedy than I’d like to end this comment, but I know that I must needs end it as it is already waaaaay too long, so… there you are.

    • Thanks Jahi – I’m glad you found my blog too. I always learn a lot from your comments & your subtle thinking, not least the above. I’ll post some further reflections on this topic soon-ish.

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