And so we come to the final instalment in my history of the world blog cycle. Thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – it’s been a long haul, but I’ve found it useful to inform my thinking on agrarian futures, and I’ve learned a lot from the comments. Back to normal service on this blog after this, I hope. A full version of the essay is available here.
To continue… I think it’s about time we headed in a different direction. The mulcting of ordinary people described by Goubert for the peasants of 17th century France has being going on long enough around the world in various guises, often in service of top-down notions of ‘development’ that have rarely returned full value to the people it subjects. So maybe it’s time to draw a line under the cargo cult utopia of capitalism with its promise of more ‘stuff’ ever-receding into the future, and explore the other pole of the peasant experience described by Wolf’s narrative of the peasant utopia (p.16). In 1984, Jean-François Lyotard announced the arrival of the ‘postmodern condition’, involving an ‘incredulity to meta-narratives’. Postmodernism soon disappeared into an impenetrable cloud of its own self-reflexivity, but I like the idea of incredulity towards grand abstractions such as ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Unfortunately, as I argued on p.31, it’s hard to do away entirely with universalism in a universalist age. But if we still need universalist categories to work with, I’d suggest they should be as grounded in practical realities as possible. So I’d like to submit for your consideration the peasantry as the universal class – a class that predates capitalism, has coexisted with it, and is most likely to survive it. Because when empires crumble what’s left is gardening – and gardeners are better placed to know the limits of their ecological and economic practice than almost anyone else.
However, the historical narrative I’ve offered here suggests to me that it’s no simple thing to create a sustainable and prosperous peasant society. Such a society has to be wrested from the grip of the state and, beyond the state, from the human will to power – so it therefore needs to be defended from the disintegrative effects of its own internal tensions. And, as I’ve argued here in relation to various examples like frontier peasantries, military entrepreneurs, religious revitalisation movements, nationalist and nativist ideology and the seemingly inherent tendency towards capitalist logics of peasant differentiation in the conditions of modernity that underpin both liberal-democratic capitalism and its communist twin, there’s no reason to assume that peasant societies will necessarily evince any of the characteristics that seem to me prerequisites for a satisfactory long-term human flourishing: ecological sustainability, personal or community autonomy, substantial economic equality, a material practice grounded in the here-and-nowness of self-subsistence. It’s just that it seems to me they’re potentially more likely to do so than any other social arrangement. Henry Bernstein, a fairly sympathetic Marxist critic of ‘agrarian neo-neo-populism’ writes,
“advocates of the peasant way argue that it does not represent nostalgia – worlds we have lost – but that contemporary peasant movements incorporate and express specific, novel and strategic conceptions of, and aspirations to, modernity, and visions of modernity alternative to that inscribed in the neoliberal common sense of the current epoch. This is a plausible thesis…but the principal weakness of the new agrarian question qua the peasant way, as articulated to date, is its lack of an adequate political economy”
It’s a point well-made, though I’d argue that the ‘lack of an adequate political economy’ is a problem that afflicts all the alternatives to ‘neoliberal common sense’, including Marxism, and not just peasant way thinking. In fact, it’s a problem that also afflicts neoliberal common sense, which is precisely the problem. So in future posts I plan to sketch as best I can what a peasant way political economy might look like – in other words, how the human flourishing I mentioned above may possibly be achieved by reconstituted peasantries of a post-capitalist future. But to conclude I’d just like to list in note form some of the things that I think I’ll need to concern myself with in that sketch that have emerged from the historical precis I’ve offered here.
- A human tendency towards both status ranking and equality
- A tendency for modes of human organisation to ‘leapfrog’ each other through time
- A tendency for new forms of centralised political organisation to elicit secondary versions around them
- A difficult balance between under- and over-development of the division of labour
- An ambiguity within the centralised state as both predator and benefactor
- Class distinctions in both city and countryside with which central state actors can ally or organise against
- Religious or spiritual traditions that cleave either towards or against extant political power
- The (slender) possibilities for more-or-less autarkic agrarian production in the interstices of centralised political power
- The possibilities for cooperation as well as conflict within a class or caste stratified agrarian society
- The enabling effect on agrarian society of alternative ways of life (urbanism, or the public sphere, for example)
- The numerous geopolitical forms of state power, which are not limited to the nation-state
- The difficulties of distinguishing sharply between lord and peasant, or between landowner, tenant and labourer
- The significance of militarised or demilitarised frontiers for economic development
- The core-periphery geographic structuring of the economy in one or more ‘world systems’
- The possibilities for stable income/population equilibria (‘high level equilibrium traps’) that limit ‘unnatural’ expansion or technological hyper-development
- The tendency for economic ‘cores’ to export the responsibility for less remunerative agrarian activities to the ‘periphery’
- The tendency for extractive ecological linkages from core to periphery
- The tendency to find ‘reconstituted peasantries’ where centralised polities fail
- The differentiated nature of peasantries, and the unequal power relations within them
- The inherent (and growing) tendency towards crisis in the capitalist economy
- The tendency for capitalist economies to virtualise money, leading to instability
- The multiple stories we tell ourselves about the nature of the modern – as development, as regress, as the coming-to-history of ‘a people’, as possibility, as despair
- The tendency for people to avoid overt politics if they can, and seek a quiet life
- The tendency for virtually all forms of economic production (‘peasant’, capitalist, communist etc.) under the modernist shadow of capitalism to tend towards or revert to capitalist production
- The need to develop a political economy that’s not based on compound economic growth and the associated drawdown of non-renewable resources
- The need to learn open-mindedly from the past and to acknowledge that historically people sometimes may have found some better solutions to their problems than we’re currently finding for ourselves – but without extolling the special virtues of those times or wishing ourselves back to them, so much as using them to build what Kropotkin called “an absolutely new fact” for ourselves.
In my upcoming cycle of posts I hope to work through some of these points to provide the best answer I can – which isn’t, I fear, a very good one – as to how we can best confront the ‘wicked problems’ bequeathed us by history to create a more sustainable and widespread human flourishing. Still, the problem with history is that it keeps on happening. Doubtless there’ll be a few more surprising turns before we’re all through.