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…


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.

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

  1. 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.

    I can think of a couple Journals whose mission up front would be to abolish the objects of their enquiry… and while at it most researchers who would publish in these might take the view that their own chosen profession is not jeopardized by their efforts… the pests to conquer will likely never be completely eliminated. Titles such as Weed Science; Plant Disease; Plant Pathology; Journal of Applied Entomology; and many others… focus most of their effort on eliminating or at the very least ameliorating the impacts of their pests.

    Given this observation coupled with your assessment I now have to wonder if the Journal of Peasant Studies is a pest control periodical masquerading as a beneficent effort to cure the world of the bane of peasantry. And along the lines of the successes of the sciences of plant pathology, weed science, and applied entomology whose long-term prospects are not in doubt because the target pests are not being driven to extinction… then one could suppose peasants are safe from extinction by this same logic.

    With my propensity to drive a metaphor or simile beyond its ‘safe by’ date I could ponder whether there is a connection between the government licensing of pest control professionals and the political rising of revolutionaries who would campaign on behalf of peasants only to ultimately seek the end of their lifestyle. I’m guessing there’s a thesis to be written on the matter and I’m guessing J of Peasant Studies is where it should be proffered? 🙂

    • Droll, Clem. I would actually like your thoughts on something I ran into the other day. During a meeting about sustainable agriculture, I was listening to another farmer protesting a proposal that could, uncharitably, be considered leftist drivel or in more in a more kindly frame of mind aspirations for agriculture’s place in a more equitable society. He thought that such talk and the general admiration for small farms that go along with it was misplaced. He thought that if we wanted to move sustainable agriculture forward we needed to present it in a way that was most helpful and palatable to the big farmers, since they controlled the largest number of acres, and therefore their acceptance and implementation of sustainable practices (cover-cropping, no-till, etc.) would be the most effective means of increasing agricultural sustainability. I could see his point but I wondered if this strategy would just water down sustainable practices and discourage the kind of innovations that generally start on smaller farms. You’re a person with a foot in the big ag world, what do you think?

      • Droll? I suppose… guilty as ever. But over time here @ SFF there has been a sometimes subliminal message that the term peasant is more than a bit unfriendly. Curing the world of the bane of peasantry (the term) – this is where I see Chris headed (or more succinctly – making the world safe for peasantry).

        But to the more pressing matter. Scale. The ‘big ag world’ as you put it. Certainly a mine field – particularly for someone like myself who tries to move back and forth between sectors without being tarred and feathered by one side or the other.

        First off I might want to take some time to tease apart exactly what is meant by: a way that was most helpful and palatable to the big farmers, since they controlled the largest number of acres

        Here in Ohio we have farm sizes ranging from a few acres of fresh vegetable production to several tens of thousands of acres managed by one company. In between we have farms of scale where a typical producer may own and operate say 400 acres while renting or leasing an additional 800 to 1000 acres. One can reasonably suggest that the latter farmer “controls” 400 acres – especially if she owns the land outright and is not in debt to some financier for it. One could suggest she “controls” the land rented, BUT this is quite temporary – likely on a year to year basis. So who controls the 800 to 1000 acres she rents? Her mother-in-law perhaps. A retired school teacher… some land speculator from out of state… a trust for a disabled person… but likely a collection of several different land lords. These rented acres are part of a marketplace that ebbs and flows sort of like a futures market. Indeed the amount of rent she could be asked to pay will be influenced by the futures market. In other words I’m suggesting land security is tenuous at the biggest end of the scale distribution. ‘Controlling the largest number of acres’ could be code for something else.

        Having laid that out I would want to deflect the notion that innovations generally start on smaller farms. Some innovations yes, others maybe not. No-till here in the Midwest likely gained more traction on larger farms early on. Organic methods are still a small farm domain.

        Cover crops appear to be a very appropriate way to husband the land in our part of the planet. They are making inroads here, and I’m hopeful this trend will continue. For some of the largest operators there is real difficulty finding a method to add cover crops to the mix. Timing the principal reason. I know no one who would come out and suggest cover crops are stupid, are bad, or are otherwise a waste of time. Those who aren’t there yet are trying to figure out the financial value, the management approach, risks, and so forth. Thinking about it and doing it are quite different when you might already be working 16 hours a day for weeks on end right now. But where there’s a will, there will likely be a way.

        To a human behavior angle – particularly in a male dominated industry such as Midwestern US ‘big ag’ [and I used the female pronoun above deliberately to set up the following point] there is often a ‘mine is bigger than yours’ bravado. Immature and capricious perhaps, but examples continue to pop up. Economies of scale help some of the knuckle draggers stay afloat. One can point to these guys and suggest they ‘control’ most of the acres. They don’t. And if their only claim to fame is size they won’t be around after the dung hits the fan. Business cycles weed out the pretenders in all industries – ag is no different.

        • I appreciate the pronoun and thanks for making a track across the mine field where culture, politics, and agriculture intersect and overlap. Coming from a very small, very blue state, I get the feeling when I’m in mainland ag circles that I’m not grasping “the codes” entirely well.
          Your (and Chris’) questioning and elaboration on the concept of control is surprising and interesting to me. To be sure, the market and financing pressures that a grain or soy farmer must be under make the idea of control possibly inappropriate. Just to be clear, are most Midwestern farm leases an annual contract, or are longer term leases more common?
          Also thanks for saving me the trouble of pointing out the defects in that paragraph on seeds in Seymour, you are much better at it.

          • In the circles I roam the annual rent (or lease) is much more common than a longer term situation.

            I’ve been party to conversations here where sustainability issues are discussed and the issue of longer term stewardship is frequently brought up. As the benefits of a practice such as planting cover crops will not appear immediately there is no incentive for someone with an annual lease to pursue them. Even raising a winter annual cereal such as winter wheat can complicate the logistics of annual leases.

            One absentee land owner I know (who has always been a year-to-year sort) has considered longer term leasing if cover cropping would be introduced. The theory is that the benefit will eventually be realized by the tenant (higher soil organic matter, better tilth and water holding capacity, better water infiltration rate, improved weed control, and higher crop yields). On that list the only item of practical interest to the tenant is the last one. The land owner ends up with better land.

            Sharing costs within leases is also possible – I’m not aware of anyone doing this right now, but I’ve heard it talked about.

            I’m glad you’ve pushed a little further on this… I hadn’t thought of it in the earlier reply where we were talking about large vs. small and where innovation occurs. On a handful of larger farms I know of that fit the small acreage owned and larger acreage rented format you see the innovative practices tried out on owned land first. If something goes sideways you don’t risk losing a lease… and if it does work you get to enjoy all the benefits. So in this sense there would tend be more innovation on smaller vs. larger.

        • It might be interesting to discuss the ways in which business cycles weed out the pretenders – but also the doves who don’t play the financial bottom line game.

          Maybe it’s a naive question, but it touches on something important that I’ll look at in later posts. We often say something like ‘it would be nice to do X in our farming, but the short-term financial returns are lower, so no one’s going to do it.’ But why not? People do all sorts of things for reasons other than financial reward – like having children. It was mentioned in a recent thread that US farmers generally aren’t poor. It’s also widely agreed culturally that more money doesn’t necessarily buy you happiness. So what’s the nature of this widespread assumption that farmers won’t do something because of a lower immediate financial return – an assumption I confess I often make? Economists will say that if everyone pursues an individual income-maximising strategy, then society benefits collectively, but I’m not sure anyone really believes that any more, if they ever did. So what’s wrong with this logic: plant a cover crop – nobody’s going to starve as a result, including you. You’ll make a bit less money, but so what? You’ll be safeguarding your soil…so maybe you’ll make more money in the future from planting it now. And if you don’t, why should you care? You have a nice life, and it’ll be more interesting if you try something different.

          I can think of reasons why we don’t do this – bureaucratic tie-ins, peer pressure, fiscal dogmas. But they don’t seem very good ones…

  2. “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.”

    Equalization of land and removal of taxes sounds pretty good to me. As for the rest, read Animal Farm.

  3. In a kind-of connected vein, people might find the following post interesting. Professional scientists will accurately investigate and describe symptoms, but then move discussion into the ‘safe space’ of a contentious theoretical argument ( in this case population) without feeling able to tackle the economic and political causes of their data more directly. This struck me as similar to the practice of peasant studies academics discussed above, and perhaps Michelle’s big-farmer appeasing thinkers. The status quo is a demanding master.

    • Good point, Andrew. I like your “moving discussion into the safe space of contentious theoretical argument” — I am adding it to my list of fallacies.

    • Andrew – thanks for the pointing to the Partreon piece. Richard seems to enjoy hyperbole even more than I enjoy pushing metaphors too far. Sifting through the morass I imagine there are a few points where I could find common ground with him… but in general I’m unimpressed.

      I have to give him credit for pointing to Jason Moore’s work. I managed to find a copy of Jason’s paper but have only skimmed a few paragraphs so far. My sense is Richard has not abused Moore’s thesis. But Mr. Seymour made a major mess of a paragraph later in his piece (here in italics):

      Thus, for example, the state-supported spread of patented hybrid seeds in US farming beginning in the 1930s put an end to long, efficient traditions of saving seeds from each new generation of crops. Now, on a global level, the World Trade Organisation enforces Trade Related Intellectual Property agreements which outlaws the saving of seeds, thus increasing costs of production for the mainly small farmers who produce 70% of the global food supply.

      Seeds were not patented in the US beginning in the 1930s. [In point of fact seed patenting didn’t begin here until the mid 1990s] What did happen in the 1930s was the advent of hybrid seed corn. These hybrid varieties were not patented. These hybrid varieties did not put an end to the practice of saving seed. The hybrids DID make for far more productive grain yields than the former “long, efficient traditions of saving seeds” – for open pollinated corn. Saving seed has not been outlawed – though selling saved seed has been. If you want to save seed of public domain varieties for your own farming, you may.

      Sorry, had to get that off my chest.

      All that aside I do want to call attention to your ending thoughts here… where I agree – there could be something in Richard’s rant that could fit into a narrative which works alongside the remarks to the big farmers Michelle wrote about. And I’d also second the notion the status quo is a demanding master.

      • Thanks Clem – yes, Mr Seymour does sometimes appear to have one eye on his point and the other on himself making it…

        Thanks for the correction as well. I don’t know nearly enough about these kinds of issues. However, there is presumably a point to be made about the market-dominating trajectories of corporations like Monsanto, and their patented anti-herbicide genes. One could argue farmers ‘choose’ to buy this stuff, but that would overlooks the overall systemic bias toward big capitalist agriculture and specific strategies such as lawsuits against small farmers whose seeds happen to contain their genes.

  4. Thanks as ever for the interesting comments. I’m currently doing a chainsaw course on a 12,000 acre estate owned by the National Trust, comprising several tenanted farms and a bunch of unpaid volunteers doing a lot of the conservation work – an interesting place from which to contemplate the virtues of large scale.

    In response to Michelle’s big ag colleague, I’d endorse Clem’s distinction between farming on a large scale and ‘controlling’ large acreages, and I’d add that one advantage (albeit double-edged) of small-scale operation is the lack of a middleman, which gives you more ‘control’ over the acres that you do farm. But as Andrew says, there’s some ‘safe space’ thinking going on here. If our problems were ‘merely’ agronomic, then perhaps he’d have a point. Inasmuch as they’re political, or indeed cultural as per the previous discussion, then the reasons for shifting the balance towards smaller scale farming take on a different complexion.

    In relation to farming styles and scales, there seem to me to be a number of complexities. For example, no till is popular both with permaculture gardeners and with large-scale arable farmers. The former employ copious amounts of labour whereas the latter employ copious amounts of glyphosate. You don’t get medium-scale organic no till farming because you can’t use glyphosate and it’s too much labour. But really, they’re scarcely the same thing. In my experience of debating with pro-big ag anti-organic types, they’ll say that big ag is now very switched on to soil organic content, crop rotations, minimal pesticide use etc so that organic has no real advantage – except that it shows the organic movement was always right to emphasise these things, and big ag is only just catching up, basically because it has to.

    Thanks for the link, Andrew. I’ll think some more about ‘eco-malthusianism’. I’m currently reading Danny Dorling’s ’10 billion’ book, which is very interesting. I’ll be writing another post on population in the light of it soon. I do get a bit tired of the superficial trashing of Malthus though – Dorling is a repeat offender. I see that A.N.Wilson is now trying to do something similar with Darwin. His book sounds like total nonsense, but I can’t help feeling it’s about time the ‘trashing Victorian forebears’ net was cast a bit wider than just Malthus.

    And thanks for stringing out the metaphors, Clem. It did occur to me when I wrote those lines that indeed there were journals of the sort you mention which are dedicated precisely to eradicating the object of their enquiry – but it didn’t occur to me to press the analogy between peasants and pests in the way you did. A nice setup for the last two posts in this cycle.

  5. Up above Chris pondered:
    It might be interesting to discuss the ways in which business cycles weed out the pretenders – but also the doves who don’t play the financial bottom line game.

    It does seem a shame when those we would cheer for end up on the losing end. And from a different angle, picture yourself a banker who is responsible to depositors and other investors to make sure loans are repaid. You may have a loan customer with a great idea, vision, hard work… but alas, is an inept money manager. Failures occur for all sorts of reasons, and when unpredictable forces push someone aside it is even easier for us to feel bad for them. The aspect of capitalism that most reflects evolutionary forces is the “Nature, red in tooth and claw” idea. Fortunately for most, an economic failure is not fatal. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

    One of my brothers is a banker. And if he weren’t my brother, he would be my banker. And the stories he can share of folk who easily qualify as ‘dove’ but still fall prey to market forces they aren’t prepared for can be quite unsettling. The most common failure he reports is that folk wait until their plight is too far along before seeking help. Not that everyone can be saved… some turnabouts in life are just too onerous. But many might avoid financial demise by turning to help before the roof caves in.

    Perhaps appropriate to the land scale discussion going on here… a farmer with a very strong equity position in his holding is far less likely to succumb to the vagaries of a bad season or a foul market condition. Opposite this, an operator who is overextended is far more likely to suffer ruin in similar circumstances. Knowing how to raise carrots is only the first part of the job.

  6. Above, Chris also offered:

    So what’s wrong with this logic: plant a cover crop – nobody’s going to starve as a result, including you. You’ll make a bit less money, but so what? You’ll be safeguarding your soil…so maybe you’ll make more money in the future from planting it now. And if you don’t, why should you care? You have a nice life, and it’ll be more interesting if you try something different.

    I won’t go at that one on logical grounds. I think the notion is very sound and it should win the day in most instances. I might be able to offer a few ideas about why cover crop adoption has lagged more than we might like.

    First – in a very conservative field such as agriculture the tendency to try new ideas is often held up merely by the fact that there is risk, and risk is to be avoided or insured against. There’s no insurance for cover crops (yet… at least that I’m aware of). The timing of when to plant (or more precisely… how to plant when you are up to your armpits in alligators trying to get a current crop out of the field); what species to plant; where to get seed; where to get advice… There are fair answers for all these questions. But there are also buzzkill type horror stories. Tillage radishes get huge and die in the winter freeze. Dead rotting radishes smell horrible in the spring when the weather warms up. The neighbors will complain.

    Winter hardy covers need to be killed so that a cash crop can be planted. Too much cover holds too much moisture at the surface and can seriously delay planting dates. Corn yield is very sensitive to planting date – holding out for 2-3 weeks because the field is too wet will more often than not reduce yield (and income). These are real risks. But still, your argument is strong in my mind. There are ways to manage these risks (or keep them tolerable) – and the upside is very real.

    Cover crops are turning many heads. I don’t have statistics to hand to share rates of adoption, but I believe here in the US Midwest we’ll continue to see their adoption increase. More vendors will handle the seed, more advisors will pop up to hold the hands of growers wishing to experiment, insurance policies may enter the marketplace, landowners may encourage their tenants financially. And if you haven’t already guessed – I imagine there will be breeding efforts to improve the species used as cover crops [actually there are a couple nascent efforts in this regard… and I expect they’ll pick up].

    So there are some hurdles to overcome… but human ingenuity and pluck will win the day.

  7. Thanks, Clem, again. I had no idea that tenure was so short-term. That would make a difference in adoption of cover-crops, as there would be a high risk of losing the lease and not reaping the benefits of a cover crop.
    I get frustrated with in-group/out-group cultural wrangling that gets everyone on the defensive, and shuts down conversation. (Love that it is tempered by ag practice here.) But its also important to look at the big picture of the structures in which we operate and what they are designed to do. And you are absolutely right in divining, Chris, that the question at at the crux of the specific wrangling I was referring to was whether agriculture is primarily about making money (the near-term survival of the individual farmer/operation) or is it (could it be) about conserving and restoring resources for the long term. The better operators figure out how to do both, and never stop figuring. Helping the other operators to adopt practices that are not directly about making money in the near term without feeling like they “lost” the argument is part of the equation. Which might be a little patronizing but you have to be guilty of something in this world.

    • Michelle, since Thomas Jefferson and other enlightened farmers then, they have been trying to get others to adopt better practices, and always, it gets worse, save for a small minority. I suspect it’s not about persuasion, it’s something systemic.

      Correction: Jefferson was just a dabbler, not a real farmer. But he did have some good ideas, and people listened to him.

      Once I saw pictures of Gabe Brown’s farm in N. Dakota after a massive rain. All the surrounding fields were flooded for days save his own. The pic made its rounds…. it would be interesting to know if any of his neighbors changed their practices pronto. I am not holding my breath on that one.

  8. Thanks for the additional comments. The smell of rotting brassicas is the best reason I’ve heard yet for not planting cover crops…though it’s still not quite good enough…

    I’m now going to be offline for a week. The final instalments of my global history are coming right up – and then it’ll be time to ring in the new.

  9. Another great recuperation of Marx’s later thinking inspired by Russian peasant communism and the People’s Will party (Narodnaya Volya) is Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the ‘Peripheries’ of Capitalism edited by Teodor Shanin, especially his brilliant chapters ‘Late Marx: gods and craftsmen’ and ‘Marxism and the vernacular revolutionary traditions’. Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies, is also relevant (a review is here:

    • Thanks for that, Alex. I’ve not read those Shanin chapters, but I’ve heard they’re good. Another one for the in tray.

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