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

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.

16 thoughts on “The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 10½: The reckoning

  1. Quite the task you’ve set for yourself. Perhaps with the posting of the whole of the history portion you’ve earned a bit of a rest and can pause to collect more thoughts.

    A single individual is invested with one pair of eyes, one pair of ears, one pair of hands, a single brain and a single heart. Taken together these can still muster a fairly powerful argument. Two people double the resources and with the hope of some alacrity for peaceful discussion a still more powerful effort can be made. Mathematically one could reason that 3, 4, 5, etc. people might, in a linear way, propose solutions to issues at hand better than our first individual. But I’d imagine the increase is not linear – indeed I imagine there is some sort of decay as more are brought to the effort. Is there a ready sociological explanation for this?

    You have private property on the list… and I’ll put my opinion on record as in favor of it. But how private, what rights and responsibilities go along with it? These are questions I’d imagine will yield fertile exploration.

  2. The list of things you’ll need to “concern yourself with” is quite imposing. It’s tempting to just rely on the certainty “that when empires crumble what’s left is gardening” (together with some hunting and gathering) and not even bother to guide the chips as they fall, but I think most people would consider it a duty to sound the alarm when danger is present and to try to help mitigate that danger as best as possible.

    I look forward to your struggles with not only developing the plan for a sustainable political economy but also trying to figure out how to get that plan implemented. You are certainly fulfilling your responsibility to be part of a responsible future, I just wish there were more people in positions of political and economic power trying to do the same.

  3. Thanks for those comments, gentlemen. Yes to (circumscribed) private property, and yes to trying to guide the chips where they fall, however futile it seems. More on all this soon, I hope.

  4. I believe that most of us here already live in a semi-alternate economy – this full time farmer/gardener/rancher, part time unpaid theorist/networker/creative thing that we do. A small part of the question for me is how to name this arrangement or legitimize it as a real thing rather than two halves that donʻt, on the surface, fit together, but in actuality are importantly connected and feed each other (and even more importantly the actual, manual agricultural work focuses and disciplines oneʻs intellectual time and energy). And there are many more out there doing some version of it, actually, the reverse arrangement is probably even more common.
    And then thereʻs the other question of getting away from this practice of going to conferences as the only way to legitimize oneʻs intellectual work and build a network, because they are just modern-day potlatches, really, and eat up way too much money and fuel. As much fun and useful as they can be.
    Not criticizing you with that, Chris, Iʻll be going to a sustainable agriculture conference thousands of miles away too, in April. But this site may be more bang for the energy buck than a conference?

    • Yes, agreed on those issues around farmer-activism. I could write more about it, but I’m more interested to listen at the moment and hear any other views.

      On attending conferences, not seeking to justify myself here (I agree on their bad energy return) but I go to very few conferences because (a) I usually find the hassle of going/what I get out of them ratio unfavourable (b) I no longer feel any need to legitimise myself (c) sustainability considerations, and (d) hardly anyone ever funds me to go to them any more. The one in Nicaragua involved meeting practicing farmers from Nicaragua and Senegal, which interested me more than most academic-style conferences, as part of a project I’ve been involved with for a while. Oh and it was paid for! Generally I’m quite into the internet as a way of interacting interestingly with people on issues, and I don’t go with the usual critiques of it on that front. But I’ve got to say on the basis of my recent trip – even talking to Senegalese farmers in my terrible French – that there’s still no real substitute for meeting people (and their farms) in the flesh. But I’m planning to write a little more about the conference very soon. Not really disagreeing with you though…

  5. Darn, just when you need Clem to say something coy, heʻs off having a mind-bending conversation with my friend Jody about (the theological implications of) bacterial quorum sensing.
    Iʻll admit straight up that I have no idea what a political economy is, except rather murkily sensing the ways in which politics and economy reinforce each other to shape peopleʻs life trajectories – shaping what kinds of investments are made, what kinds of knowledge is valued and what kind of livelihoods one is steered towards. We all got the messaging: this way is the “smart” choice (ex. STEM) because our massive investment in technology means lots of money flowing all over the place, and that way is hopelessly wrongheaded (being a farmer) because you have to wrest your money out of the literal dirt.
    So what Iʻm getting around to asking using very blunt conceptual tools is: is even a reconstituted peasant a good model of a political-economic-historic subject? Or does it erase too much that must not be erased, let us off the hook for all of the terrible things that have been done in the name of the ascent of “civilized” man?

    • Michelle, “political economy” was a phrase used by the early economic theorists, eg. David Ricardo’s “The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation” (1817). Generally, you can take it just to mean ‘the economy’ but the reason I prefer to use it is that it acknowledges what the likes of Ricardo knew but that we today seem to have forgotten, namely that the ‘economy’ isn’t some actual, autonomous entity with its own rules and characteristics that our politics have to respect – rather, it’s a product of our politics.

      In relation to your question about reconstituted peasantries as historical subjects, if I understand it rightly, I’d say that, yes, the idea would be problematic if it’s used for any kind of ideological closure around the idea of peasants as privileged historical subjects – which is one reason why I want to distance myself from romantic invocations of past peasant societies as superior to our contemporary ones. Equally, though, I think it’s necessary to avoid closure around what we might call ‘western man’ as a privileged historical subject, which I consider a deeper problem within our contemporary political economy. I don’t think there are any perfect solutions – there IS no privileged historical subject, which is why populist politics (but not all forms of populism) appeals to me. But in our imperfect world I think there’s a lot to be gained from reconstituting the possibilities of peasantism as a better alternative to the cursed trajectory of ‘western man’.

    • The return of the coy boy… (hmmm, that needs work…) Not so sure Jody and I were being theological, but it was a nice conversation from my perspective. Sort of a get to know each other chat. I will say Michelle, you seem to travel in good company.

      But I will also toss a brief admonishment upon the author who has suggested that farmers “have to wrest your money out of the literal dirt”… while I have no quarrel with the general notion… I would have chosen ‘soil’ over ‘dirt’. It’s cleaner. And as a bit of segue to my next point let me observe that those who wrest their money from the literal ‘dirt’ are those who clean up behind the rest of us. Some who would scavenge from a landfill give witness to some of modern man’s worst behaviors. Less onerous, but still relegated to an undesirable status in most cases are the housekeepers who quite literally clean up behind us. Noble work, seldom recognized. Sort of like peasantry.

      I, for one, particularly enjoy wresting a living from the soil. And perhaps I’ve been very fortunate in this regard. More folks should try it. The carrots taste better.

      Coy enough?

  6. Youʻre the bomb, Clem. See, thatʻs exactly it.
    I apologize for putting it like this, Chris, but you (or should I say we because as far as I can tell I donʻt disagree with you on much) have a serious PR problem. As in, “more folks” are not going to sign on to being a peasant, just because itʻs too medieval. What we have is a serious case of Otherness; farmer/peasants are the exalted and scorned, the noble and the dirty, the saints and whores. (Case in point: the comment section of Guardianʻs story yesterday on US farmer suicide) It is, as Clem gestures to, quite possibly a question of caste more than class. Which is where we get down into the weeds of the religion of progress, and who are the untouchables and the unthinkable in that religion. Which would be farmers, along with quite a few other useful folks.
    The populist idea has possibilities, I see why youʻve stuck with it, but still a lot of work to be done redefining and separating it from the evils that have been done in its name in the past and present.
    Iʻm liking this core-periphery idea that youʻve been talking about in your history of the world. Itʻs quite easy to see these gradients of the central-peripheral (geographical, political, economic, etc) and how they are gradients of exploitation. Peripherals of the world, unite! Wait, I think thatʻs one of those contradictions you were talking about. Darn, back to the drawing board.

  7. Thanks Michelle. I’ve debated the terminology of ‘peasant’ a few times on this site and in some of my other writings – words do matter, but I kind of agree with the point Jahi made on here a while back that the movement is more important than the epithet. ‘Peasant’ plays pretty badly in English, better in some other languages and places. ‘Agroecology’ doesn’t work that well for me but is building up a following. Small farm future and its variants is an option. Agreed, contesting the ‘religion of progress’ is key. A difficult task, but it’s getting easier: older people still like to say things like “nobody wants to farm any more” whereas a growing number of younger people are more likely to say “nobody wants to work minimum wage jobs order picking on zero hour contracts any more. You don’t want to farm? Great, give me the keys”. But there’s still a long way to go.

    Also agreed on the work that needs doing to extract a serviceable populism from the evils that have been done in its name. Then again, I’d say the same about socialism, liberalism, anarchism and conservatism…

  8. Ha! I like Michelle’s joke, that is good.

    But maybe it does work for the diffuse haze of non-core people in the outer orbits to unite. The rings of Saturn clumping into a variety of small moons.
    Seems to me that it is a question of ambition. Are we proposing a new world order, or are we instead looking for ways that our family and friends can live reasonably well?

    Just the business of getting along with my friends and neighbors is work enough for me, so my political ambition must stay small. But I think there is great power in small groups. I often recall the plumbers in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’.

    I am awfully white and middle class, so ‘Peasant’ is not so near my purview, exactly, but I like the word in an aspirational way. Also ‘Campesino’. Of the terrain. We can start addressing each other ‘compay’, as in ‘Ayudame compay’. Spanish has a number of advantages over English, but I digress.

    There is also Dmitry Orlov’s bit about communities that abide, and how they tend to have cultures that purposely look weird to outsiders. If your ambition is small, an unattractive name might be just the thing.

    I also know plenty of people who would like to be small farmers. And plenty of small farmers who would like to quit their other jobs and farm full time. But land is too expensive and food is too cheap, and the forces that drive the monetary economy are pressing really hard to keep us safe inside it.

    Cheers, and thanks for keeping up the good work.

    • land is too expensive and food is too cheap

      I don’t see this dynamic reversing in the context of our global market economy unless the wherewithal for industrial farming has ended. And if that happens, a lot of folks are going to be severely lacking in food. I suspect such a situation will not be conducive to an orderly transition to agroecology.

      The trick will be to get lots of people and animals on ag land before there is a desperate need to do so. This would mean deliberately shutting down industrial ag (and the cheap food it supplies) via non-market ‘inducements’ and persuading lots of people to become agrarian peasants selling very expensive food to those few people who remain in cities.

      In other words, we need a Cultural Revolution. We need leadership as powerful as Mao, but also competent enough to pull it off this time. At this point we have Chris. The competency is there, but the power might be somewhat lacking.

  9. To state the obvious: With that incredulity you mention we are back with Pocock, and Swift with his aversions towards “commerce” – gardening as the equivalent to being landed, and therefore safe from degeneration. Nice.

    “Class distinctions in both city and countryside with which central state actors can ally or organise against”
    Is a case study planned? Thailand might be a good one.

    “The tendency for extractive ecological linkages from core to periphery”
    And perhaps its present-day corollary, the precision farming-driven extraction ever closer to the core, rendering the principle more and more visible to the urban public?

  10. Just to say what a great series this has been. I’ve really enjoyed the ride, and will no doubt keep your history close to my desktop. This feels like a pause for breath now – the past is done, the future not yet born. I’m as curious as some of the other commenters: what next? Eric’s question in particular, new world order or advice column (or perhaps, more likely, something in between)?

    And on labelling peasants, I wonder if the more important thing is not to worry so much about distinguishing them from everyone else as to try to get everyone to think like a peasant, whether they farm or not. All people must be land-lovers if our relationships with it are to be as ‘fruitful’, in all its senses, as we all here hope they one day will be.

  11. Eric, Joe, Michael, Andrew – thanks for those thought-provoking comments. My thinking has only ever been likened to Mao before by critics, not as a compliment. I’m going to need some time to process that, possibly with the help of my therapist. Meanwhile, I have an article coming out soon in ‘The Land’ magazine, which I’ll reproduce here after it’s published, laying out some preliminary ideas about that possible switch to getting people onto agricultural land before there’s a desperate need for it.

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