The transition from capitalism to feudalism

Historians have spilled a lot of ink on the question of how capitalism supplanted feudalism, but what will happen in the future if by design, default or disaster our present capitalist society is supplanted by a lower energy alternative with more people devoting themselves to the agrarian arts? Will historians of the future be writing of the transition from capitalism to feudalism?

‘Feudalism’ can be a misleading term. Really, it refers to situations of weak political centralisation, parcellized sovereignty and low population density that were uncommon historically and were arguably limited only to parts of Europe and Japan. But people often use it as a shorthand term for more or less any kind of agrarian society, and those of us who advocate a small farm future are often met with the horrified response that it would amount to the return of feudalism or serfdom. Fortunately, these are only two among many of the forms that past agrarian societies took, and they occupy pretty much the least appealing part of the spectrum. Still, the question remains – would the social structure of a small farm future look anything like that of the small farm past, and if so shouldn’t we be worried about it?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that until I get my crystal ball back from the cleaners, but what I can do is offer some wider reflections on the structure of agrarian societies that might at least cast some light on the issue. The historical sociology of the transition to capitalism has been dominated by Marxist thinkers who emphasise the nature of production, energy capture and class relations between the owners of capital and the owners of labour. Illuminating stuff, but what I want to stress here is the nature of agrarian society as a status order (the relevant sociological pioneer here being Max Weber – cue boos and hisses from the Marxists). As I’ll discuss below, and still more in my next post, the interesting thing about this approach is the continuities rather than the differences that emerge across the divide between pre-modern agrarian societies, modern capitalist ones (which are also, of course, agrarian) and most likely the post-modern post-capitalist agrarian societies of the future.

I’ll spare the reader a precis of Weberian sociology, and instead come at my theme obliquely with an analysis of the varna categories bequeathed from ancient Indian thought. This is only by way of exemplification – should you wish to follow up the particularities, the key analysts I’m drawing on are McKim Marriott and Murray Milner1, both summarised in this superb book. Should you wish otherwise I hope you’ll bear with me anyway – I trust the relevance of my argument will emerge, in the next post if not in this one.

The varna categories – priest, king, farmer, servant – are outlined in a famous passage from the Rig Veda:

When they divided The Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers/’people’]; and from his feet the shudra [servants] were born.

When we look at how the varna categories were actually filled in Indian society historically there are various ambiguities, most importantly for my present purposes around the vaishya category, which rather than being a category heavily populated by a mass of farmers in fact is sparsely populated by merchant castes, with farmers mostly occupying the shudra category. I’ll come back to this shortly.

The varna categories replicate a basic structure common to numerous non-industrial agrarian societies (see, for example, David Priestland’s Merchant, Soldier, Sage or Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book), which roughly speaking is:

  • king/warrior/noble
  • priest
  • merchant
  • farmer
  • servant/client/slave/outcast

Of course, these groups interact with each other materially in various ways. In India, as in all societies, material transactions are freighted with numerous social meanings – but perhaps in India more than in most societies. Depending on exactly what’s being transacted, it’s possible to speak very broadly of a kind of ‘hot potato’ or scapegoat way of thinking about transactions there: certain material things typically embody bad qualities, inauspiciousness (or maybe what we’d call ‘sin’ in Western religious traditions), which means that generally it’s good to give, and not so good to receive. Perhaps we can sense an echo of this even in contemporary capitalist society. To be the recipient of a gift isn’t always morally innocent – it can lower your social status with respect to the donor.

So each of the four varna categories has a characteristic transactional strategy associated with it. The king adopts the ‘maximal’ strategy of both giving and receiving extensively (as benefactor and tribute-taker). The priest adopts the ‘optimal’ strategy of giving but not receiving (seeking purity by passing on inauspiciousness and not receiving it). The vaishya (let’s keep it ambiguous for now who the vaishya actually is) adopts the ‘minimal’ strategy, neither receiving nor giving. The shudra (farmer/servant) adopts the ‘pessimal’ strategy of receiving but not giving, putting them at the bottom of the social pile.

Each of the four varna categories also has a characteristic ‘alter ego’, which represents a possibly disreputable version of themselves who in a sense stands outside acceptable society. The alter ego of the king is the bandit, who takes tribute by predatory violence. The king distinguishes himself from the bandit by two possible strategies. One is by legitimating his rule with respect to some kind of sacred authority (hence the close associations between kings and churches or priests), being a generous benefactor of temple building etc. The other is by being a ‘good king’ who protects and nurtures the people. In agrarian societies this amounts to a kind of protection racket, in which the king’s tribute-taking from ordinary people in order to endow his temples and generally act in a kingly manner is at least orderly and regularised, and he offers protection from the arbitrary violence of the bandit. But kings need a lot of tribute for their projects, so it’s easy for their exactions to become itself a kind of banditry and to be seen as such. Hence the numerous Robin Hood style myths – Good King Richard, Bad King John etc.

The alter ego of the priest is the renouncer – archetypically the penniless holy wo/man, the ascetic or the hermit who gives everything away and begs only enough to keep from starving. From this position almost outside society, they can critique its worldliness and corruption and attain great spiritual purity.

The alter ego of the vaishya as farmer is also the renouncer, who aspires to agrarian self-reliance. They don’t need many external inputs to furnish their household, nor do they need to go often to market. The strategy of the self-reliant ascetic, standing somewhat outside society is available to them.

On the face of it, the vaishya as merchant can’t adopt the minimal transactional strategy – after all, they’re buying and selling stuff the whole time. Potentially, and often actually, this is highly compromising to their social status. The ways around it are to act as if trade in mere objects is a trivial matter in which the merchant is not existentially implicated, allowing the cultivation of higher spiritual virtues (Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism would be a westernised version of this). Or else to use the profit to act like a king, and hope to convince people that you really are one.

The alter ego of the shudra is the outcast or untouchable. Receiving but not giving, and especially receiving polluting and inauspicious substances, puts you at the bottom of the heap, and potentially outside the heap altogether.

In terms of status ordering – well, the king is at the top, but in an agrarian society there can’t be many kings and it’s a high risk business. You have to exact a lot of tribute, endow a lot of benefices and fight off a lot of bandit would-be kings. The priest and the renouncer may also enjoy high status of a non-material kind if they can convince other people of their spiritual virtues. The vaishya-merchant is in a risky status position – nobody likes a usurer – but they may have ways of pulling the wool over people’s eyes and adopting a different status. The vaishya-farmer can’t claim much highfalutin status, but can effect a certain haughty independence and homespun honour. But in practice this status is often beyond the ordinary farmer’s means – a more likely result is that they’re a mere client or retainer of a higher ranking patron. Hence the relative lack of farmers in the vaishya category, and their strong showing among the shudras or, worse, in some unfree category – serf, debt-peon or slave. An awful lot of socio-historical drama in agrarian societies turns upon the way people try to augment social status – sometimes as a multi-generational strategy exceeding their own lifespan – according to their inherited potential in these various social roles.

I’m interested in this agrarian status structuring for two reasons. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I wonder if it or something like it are generic to relatively low energy, localised agrarian societies. That would seem to be the case for many pre-modern agrarian societies. So in the event of a post-modern turn to agrarianism, could we expect things to look much different? I’m not drawn myself to the idea of a status order with everyone trying to climb up the greasy pole towards the few high status positions at the top, while seeking at all costs to avoid the miserable and deprecated ones at the base. Therefore, if this status structuring does seem particularly fitted to fully agrarian societies, I’d like to think of some ways to avoid this outcome.

Second, the rise of modernity, capitalism and industry seems to have swept away much of this pre-modern status order, but – as I’ll argue in my next post – much of it has arguably been retained in only a somewhat different guise, which adds further weight to the first point.

For me, the key relation in agrarian society is between the farmer and the king, or to put it in more generalised terms between the ‘citizen’ and ‘the state’. What is it like to be an ordinary person (ie. a farmer, generally speaking, or a tradesperson, in the agrarian economy) as a matter of political experience? The answer that seems burned into the modernist memory as it’s emerged from many pre-modern societies is that it’s pretty grim – the powerlessness of, say, an 18th century Russian serf or a 13th century English villein. But this kind of setup isn’t a given. In varied historical circumstances, it’s possible to distinguish a category of substantially independent small-scale farmers from more dependent categories of client or unfree (peasant/villein/serf) cultivators.

What circumstances? I’d suggest essentially only two. The first is situations of relative geographic isolation from the remit of the state – dwellers of mountains or forests, or occupants of colonial frontiers depopulated by disease or genocidal violence. The second, and for my purposes more interesting, case is when the semi-independence of the cultivator gains explicit recognition by the state and is incorporated into its political culture. Sometimes this arises through the military defeat of state forces by peasant militias – a rare occurrence historically, and one usually associated with a degree of geographical isolation as per the first circumstance. But it can also arise in situations where the state transcends the predatory warrior-aristocracy mode and constitutes itself to some degree in a more mutualistic relationship as part-benefactor of the cultivating classes. There are various examples of this, the most important surely being much of China through much of its imperial and arguably indeed its communist history.

In terms of the varna categories, the peasant as low-ranking, dependent cultivator corresponds with the shudra status – the servant, the client, the inferiorised recipient of the gift. The independent small-scale farmer corresponds with the vaishya status – the non-dependent, ascetic and thrifty yeoman who takes no gifts. If a possible future post-capitalist, low-energy agrarian society were to replicate the status categories of past agrarian societies – which seems to me quite likely, but not foreordained – then the agrarian style that most appeals to me is the vaishya one. It has the added benefit of elaborating status and a secure sense of self around not buying or consuming things excessively, which would be a useful attribute in a low energy society where there was less stuff to buy in any case. In fact, I’d venture to say that a little bit of vaishya sensibility mightn’t go amiss in contemporary capitalist society to help usher us towards something a bit more sustainable – but I’ll say more about that in my next post.


  1. Marriott, M. 1976. Hindu transactions: diversity without dualism. In Kapferer, B. (Ed) Transaction and Meaning. Philadelphia; Milner, M. 1994. Status and Sacredness. New York.

24 thoughts on “The transition from capitalism to feudalism

  1. The process of transition from capitalism to agrarianism will have a profound impact on the shape of the resulting agrarian society. Unfortunately for some places, like North America, the vast quantity of residual weaponry will make it likely that high levels of banditry and warlordism will develop during the transition, making it likely that lots of small kingdoms will be created.

    If “parcellized sovereignty and low population density” are precursors for feudalism, we are likely to see a lot of it, especially considering that most people transitioning from urban capitalism to agrarianism will not initially have the skills required to maintain a high population density.

    On the other hand, the transition to agrarianism just might be a graceful devolution of power from nation states to multitudes of small democratic agrarian societies, but I think that a society capable of managing such a transition would also be one that could avoid the dangers of capitalistic population and resource-consumption overshoot. I think the odds are against an orderly transition, but one can hope.

    Since agrarianism is inevitable, there should be a lot of urgent discussion about how we get the agrarianism we want. Thank you for doing a good job of keeping that subject front and center. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    • Thanks Joe. In the light of your comment and others, there’s probably a need to revisit in greater depth the ideas of parcellized sovereignty, population density, and future political dynamics – another one for the future, I think.

  2. An interesting post, which explains where the focus on a priestly analogy in the last post came from! I’m reluctant to comment too much here if there’s to be a follow-up, although apparently that won’t stop me from doing so…

    As ever my comments focus on elements that I personally find problematic. I appreciate that the Varna categories are acting as analogies here, and that you’re not really taking them literally (or are you?), but I find their explanatory potential troubling nonetheless.

    To start with, they mistify much about the society they purport to describe. We learn of different kinds of people defined by different qualities, but these are not explained, appearing instead as naturalised categories. Likewise, they each behave differently in relation to gift exchange situations, but the reasons they might have for exchanging gifts are not given. The whole thing therefore appears very much as a series of natural laws, which explain things along the lines of ‘it is because it is’.

    Naturalised categories reek of hierarchy (‘you must do that for me because that’s what your kind do’). The most important question here should surely be ‘what was the Rig Veda intended to do?’, or at least ‘what was it used for?’ Granted, that may seem beside the point in this context, but I think it gets at the heart of the matter. It comes as no surprise that the text survives because it became (and perhaps alsways was) a canon within a religiously-informed social system geared to upholding the status order it describes.

    I think this matters here in a couple of ways. First, the link with feudalism, which you define as (amongst other things) ‘parcellized sovereignty’. I don’t like the term, but that’s a debate for another time. My point here is that the Varna categories can be seen as an example of such ‘parcellization’ (albeit the word not being used in the way intended by the feudalism definition); each category represents some aspect of control over social resources, such as physical force, spirituality, productivity, and the very act of distributing them amongst different kinds of people admits that sovereign isn’t, in this case, a single holistic thing. The manner in which these elements interact is therefore crucial to understanding (and controlling) society, but is the very thing mistified by the scheme, which instead offers a bald hierarchical order.

    This has implications for the way you use the vaishya category, even as analogy. I can understand and sympathise with the qualities that you emphasise as ‘good things’ for a new-peasant farmer here, certainly by contrast with some of the more destructive effects of capitalism. However, I can’t see how describing neo-peasants as a Varna-like category does anything other than mistify their role in society, and ultimately to their detriment.

    Whether or not you think the qualities emphasised by the Varna categories accurately describe the elements of sovereignty in any given society, it is almost certainly a truism that control over people in any society will be exercised in several different ways by different poeple simultaneously, whether a ruling group have engineered some kind of hegemony over most of those controlling elements (as in the society shaped by the Rig Veda) or a more diffuse mass of people has been given some say through some kind of democratic mechanism. By relegating neo-peasants to a category defined by qualities such as relative independence, and by relegating recognition (and protection) of those qualities (most especially independence) to some kind of state, I think you relinquish any real influence for the peasants over how their control over agrarian productivity will shape society, and turn them into a lever to be used by the state. Naturalising peasants as a category mystifies the details of their relationships with other elements of society and turns them into a parcel of the sovereignty wielded by someone else.

    I’m of course prepared to look foolish should the next post explain all this…

    • Andrew, I’m a bit baffled by the inferences you’re making about my analysis here, but I’ll do my best to respond to some of your main points.

      1. Are the varna categories a mystification of power relations? Yes, of course they are. My point, however, is that a fairly similar structuring of power relations has been widespread across many low energy agrarian societies historically. That poses a problem for those like myself who advocate low energy agrarian societies or who think the advent of such societies is likely whether we advocate them or not, and who dislike a varna-style structuring of power. How can we prevent such a power structure? Not, I think, by pointing to it and saying ‘Look, it’s really inegalitarian’. The response of the powerful to that would be ‘Yes, I know’.

      2. But I have a bit of a problem with the concept of ‘mystification’. Varna ideology, like many ideologies, certainly does act to justify inequality and there’s much to be said for making that explicit. However, the problem with the language of ‘mystification’ is that it promotes a kind of epistemic privilege for the analyst who coins it – the emic categories of the society under scrutiny are ‘mystifications’ while the etic categories of the analyst are seen as getting to the ‘real’ truth of the matter. This is a problem with the whole modernist and rationalist and most especially Marxist tradition. As a child of the radical Enlightenment myself, I put a lot of store by human equality. But I don’t think one should make the mistake of supposing that it’s somehow the natural or given state of things, stymied only by mystifying ideologies (or material practices). This is where I think the Weberian status framework is more sophisticated and persuasive than most professions of Marxist realism, and also provides a ‘thicker’ description of status contests as a lived reality in human interaction – those who think that power and status are neutralised by calling them out would do well to observe a seminar discussion between radical academics, or a socialist political meeting, and observe who speaks and who is silenced, and in what ways.

      3. You write “The manner in which these elements interact is therefore crucial to understanding (and controlling) society”. Quite so. You add “But is the very thing mistified by the scheme, which instead offers a bald hierarchical order.” Well, I’m not so sure. Exchange relations, which are clearly theorised in vernacular traditions, are in many ways constitutive of the hierarchical order, and provide the vehicle through which people orchestrate their status dramas. An interesting thing in India, which is maybe quite hard to grasp through the filter of our Western cultural ideologies (though we have our parallels), is that while it may seem obvious to the king that he has higher status than the vaishya, the vaishya may see it as exactly opposite (and if you don’t like these ‘king’ or ‘vaishya’ categories, you can substitute any two individuals).

      4. You write “I can’t see how describing neo-peasants as a Varna-like category does anything other than mistify their role in society, and ultimately to their detriment.” It’s not my intention to describe neo-peasants as a ‘varna-like category’ and I don’t think I did so above. However, I do think that the way we predicate ourselves as social persons through exchange relations is important in all societies, and bears crucially on the character of agrarian societies past, present and future – hopefully I’ll be able to clarify this further in my next post. Although of course it’s highly schematic and simplistic, I think the varna scheme, far from mystifying this process, models it with illuminating clarity.

      5. I’m particularly baffled by your last paragraph. I’m not ‘relegating’ peasant independence to the state – I’m arguing that peasant independence is an important quality that is crucially affected by peasant-state relations. Nor do I see how I’m ‘naturalising’ neo-peasants in what I’ve written above or ‘relegating’ them to a ‘category’ simply by identifying independence as an important quality – by that logic, surely any attempt to identify any group of people with respect to a ‘quality’ naturalises them. For example, does Marx ‘naturalise’ the proletariat by defining it as the category of people lacking access to the means of production (and thence as the world-historical class which will destroy capitalism)? Actually, I think he probably does…but now we’re entering an ontological minefield of broader scope, which I don’t think is specific to my analysis here.

      6. Much more could be said about sovereignty and its parcellization, but I’m not sure I really follow the several different senses in which you use these terms in your comment. However, I’d be interested in your further thoughts on feudalism and parcellized sovereignty – a shorthand term I’ve derived from Perry Anderson, of course.

  3. ‘Status’ seems to be an artifice which requires mass indoctrination or delusion, programming that allows the privileged to keep their privileges. How else could it be believed that the shudra, the servant class, does not really contribute? The so-called ‘independents’ typically depend on the shudra (as well as on infrastructure, the military, etc.)

    • Well, yes – though see my response to Andrew regarding status and delusion. I think it’s true there’s a widespread sensibility that producers are deadbeats – the same is true in contemporary western society with its ‘who’d want to be a lowly farmer?’ mindset. However, in hierarchical agrarian societies the point is often not so much that low status producers are thought not to contribute, so much as the nature of their contribution is part of what is thought to make them socially inferior.

  4. A Very interesting read. Looking forward to reading your next post. I am also reading about post-capitalism but in a more broader way, Paul Mason’s book is a good starting point and from there I am looking to branch out into new schools of thought.

    Also, have you tried uploading this to Medium ( Its a place where I feel your writing would suit.


  5. Very interested in the way you’ll be approaching the renunciation aspect, Chris – you didn’t like JMG’s angle, asking people to individually adopt the vaishya strategy as strongly as they can.
    If, as you repeatedly stated, individual action is dependent on societal constraints, how does this Great Renouncer come into being; what are the conditions of vaishyas becoming a whole stratum of society?
    I he forced to manage skeletons in someone else’s closet, someone who provides the privilege of being amember of a stratum?
    Who, other than himself, would have an interest to promote someone that disturbing (and embarassing)?
    Michael Kohlhaas may be a sight to behold, but only in a comfy theatre seat, not if you’re going about your daily business.

    • Michael, maybe you’ll be able to quote something I wrote back at me to make me eat my words, but I wouldn’t say that I ‘didn’t like’ people individually adopting the vaishya strategy. I think it’s a great idea on several fronts – however, I don’t think it’s a very effective strategy for tackling the world’s problems and it runs the risk of counterproductively generating a small cadre of self-preening status-aggrandizers (among whom JMG is a shining example) whose net effect on overcoming said problems is probably negative.

      Anyway, I’ll try to answer your question about how to bring a vaishya stratum into being in my next post, or if not there in the comments if you further take me to task over it. For now, all I’ll say is that your question seems to me critical for a tolerable future, and regrettably I don’t think my answer to it is very good. But it’s the best I can do and, looking around, I’m not seeing many other people coming up with anything much better… (Almost) everybody knows that the system sucks and is in its last throes, but nobody knows what to do about it…

  6. I’m reading Soil and Soul by Alistair McIntosh, a Scottish Land reformer who once defended tenants being evicted by their (feudal) landlord on the grounds that under Scotland’s feudal land ownership law the ultimate owner of the land was God. It’s interesting – feudalism continued in Scotland until right up to the 21st century and he traces its imposition (starting in the 16th C.) and contrasts the culture/mind that imposed it with that which existed before – perhaps Scotland is, or at least was, a case of relative geographic isolation, an isolation that was only broken when James VI of Scotland got hold of the English throne.

    Going forward I suspect its energy that is the thing that will push us toward an exploitative feudalism. In low energy systems stealing energy from others is always a possible strategy for survival – colonialism and neo-colonialism are versions of such a strategy – so it’s not like the idea’s gone away – but maybe fossil fuel energy has blunted its edges a little. And the culture that’s moving toward this future of lower energy is a consumptive and competitive one – a culture that seems far more likely to adopt exploitative strategies for dealing with that future than one’s based on cooperation and renunciation. More than that I suspect that it only takes a relatively small % of the population to adopt a survival strategy based on appropriating others energy for the whole feudal/protection racket to take over the whole.

  7. As I was reminded by another commenter on Kurt Cobb’s site, there are plenty of agrarian peasants around the world who are well prepared for a low energy future, since they are already there. There are even countries that have high percentages of the population in subsistence agriculture and also maintain a fairly well developed liberal democracy. Botswana is one of them.

    According to a UNDP brief about agriculture in Botswana, “About 70% of rural households derive their livelihoods from agriculture, through subsistence farming. Crop production is mainly based on rain-fed farming. The industry is dominated by small traditional farms with an average size of five hectares. About 63,000 arable farms fit under this category, while only 112 farms are larger than 150 hectares(Statistics Botswana, 2012).” And Botswana ranks only slightly behind the United States and just ahead of France on the Economist’s Democracy Index 2017, which evaluates every country in the world for democratic attributes.

    Botswana is only one example, but it may be that there are enough examples of countries in which large populations of agrarian peasants have avoided feudalism or totalitarianism that valuable lessons could be learned from them.

    • Botswana may be bad example.

      Even though “70% of rural households [in Botswana] derive their livelihoods from agriculture, through subsistence farming”, the vast majority (75%) live in urban areas.

      Botswana’s ranking on the Democracy Index may be relatively okay, but looking at the GINI index, it’s one of the world’s worst countries for inequality.

      Some quotes from a relevant article:

      “At present, diamonds account for roughly 70 percent of export revenues and 50 percent of government revenues.”

      “Botswana’s agricultural is, in essence, all about beef…”

      “In 1968 agriculture represented over 40 percent of GDP, but it had declined to 2 percent in 2006.”

      “…Botswana has one of the highest degrees of income differences in the world, with a national GINI coefficient of 0.54 .”

      “…There have for decades been reports of prevailing and even increasing rural poverty and polarization of resources. Distribution of wealth is to a high degree associated with distribution of cattle, which has a long history of being unequal with traditional chiefs and their relatives being the largest cattle holders. Cattle continue to be amassed in the hands of a minority of large holders while the numbers of cattleless smallholders are increasing.”

      “Today, 75 percent of the population live in urban areas, making it one of the most urbanized countries in Africa. While wealth originating from national diamond incomes is concentrated in the modernizing urban sector, the rural areas, inhabited by below-subsistence farmers employed in a low productive agriculture, are being marginalized.”

      “Attitudes towards inequality and poverty are rooted in normative values and there appears to be an acceptance of the increasing disparities that is inherent in the existing social values.”

      “It can be argued that the state in Botswana is no longer poor, and that diamond incomes could be used to fight poverty and to include those who have been previously excluded from development strategies. The lack of significant change in state strategies and the continuation of the dual society can be traced back to a lack of incentives and interest from the ruling elite.”

      Botswana: A development-oriented gate-keeping state
      Ellen Hillbom
      African Affairs, Volume 111, Issue 442, 1 January 2012, Pages 67–89,
      Published: 21 December 2011

    • I wonder if there are any good examples still out there. I posted a comment about Botswana (currently awaiting moderation, due to an extra link I left in by mistake), with some tidbits such as:

      Botswana is one of the most urbanized countries in Africa (with 75% of the population in living in urban areas).

      Based on the GINI rankings, Botswana is one of the world’s worst countries for inequality.

  8. Thanks for your comprehensive reply Chris. It may be immodest to say so, but sometimes I baffle even myself. I’ll respond to some of your points below…

    First, the notion in point 2 that the language of mistification implies superiority on the part of the social analyst seems fair, and I probably shouldn’t have used it. It implies a deliberate intention to deceive rather than a more ‘innocent’ expression of a certain way of seeing the world. Nevertheless, to make a petulant ‘well you did it too!’ kind of point, in our discussion in the last post you suggested that ‘to my mind macroeconomics is largely a matter of politics, which orthodox economics essentially mystifies as technical, ‘scientific’ or empirical knowledge’. Presumably you think all orthodox economists are villains!

    The emic/etic point is presumably something relevant to ‘decolonising’ sociological practice more generally, and I can see its utility. However, I’m not sure of its relevance here. The Rig Veda and my analysis are two very different ways of seeing for very different purposes. The Varna categories are not a sociological analytical ‘scheme’ or ‘model’ in anything close to a modern sense. If I restricted myself to the emic Varna categories I’d simply reproduce them. Analysis has to be framed somehow, but I wouldn’t claim that my own has access to any greater ‘truth’ than the Varna author, only, I suppose, that it has more relevance in our contemporary context. After all, the creation of different ways of seeing things is the essence of thinking about them.

    Having read your post again, I can see how I misrepresent you in suggesting that you want to see the peasantry as a ‘Varna-like’ category (point 3). You see the virtue of the Varna categories mainly as an analogy for the kind of agrarian social structure you see in the past and possibly the future, and you would prefer to understand the mechanics of that structure using a more ‘modern’ analysis of its creation based on exchange relations (point 4). If so, I still think it’s problematic to understand society as a set of distinct social groups in this way.

    Your Marx example is quite illuminating here (point 5). As you point out, Marx probably does ‘naturalize’ the working class by defining them as a distinct group with certain properties – or perhaps in relational terms, defined by a certain relation to capital. But he wasn’t describing an actually existing society in its entirety, only one aspect of it that he thought worth emphasizing for political reasons. Thompson’s ‘Creation of the English Working Class’s makes this point – as a distinct group the working class had to be created by disentangling its members from all sorts of other relationships (and I agree Weber’s analysis of social status is useful here in defining such other relationships) and actively welding them together through unions and the like.

    It takes a great deal of effort to create polarised groups in this way, and I don’t think you’ll find many examples of societies in which they actually existed in any kind of pure form for any length of time. Hindu caste society is a good attempt I suppose. I agree with you on the point that relations, such as those created through material exchanges, are at the heart of processes that create social structures and hierarchies, but to assume that operate between rather monolithic groups of different kinds of people presupposes what it sets out to prove. My misgivings with ‘parcellized sovereignty’ come from a similar argument, but that probably ought to wait for another day.

    In light of the above, I would redo the last paragraph of my last comment, and hopefully get rid of the baffle! I agree that peasant independence is affected by peasant-state relations. Independence may well be a desirable quality in some ways (though this needs unpacking – the last paragraph of your post gets at some of this. I’m wary of linking notions of independence to the relations of a peasant group to other such groups, for reasons discussed above). My main point here is that protecting such independence by an advantageous relation with the state (though I’m not sure you’re arguing for this either) misses an opportunity to fiddle with the state side of the equation. Rather than see peasants as a separate group, I’d like to see them thoroughly entangled with many of the functions of the state but exercised largely at a local level. I used to call myself a socialist but I’m not sure I trust Big States so much at the moment!

    • Thanks for that Andrew. Just to focus on a couple of key points, I think I must have created the misleading impression that I consider the varna scheme to be a sociologically accurate representation of Indian society historically and that I would like to see actual social groups in a future agrarian society constituted in some of the same ways that the varna scheme creates social categories. But this is not what I think. What I actually think is that the varna scheme posits some ideal types that broadly characterise a common structuring of historic agrarian societies, and that it draws attention to material exchange relations as a constitutive part of that structuring in interesting ways that I think are worth pondering in present circumstances – but hopefully I’ll make this clearer in my next post.
      On the question of the state-peasant relationship I agree with you about the desirability of fiddling with the state side of the equation, though I’m not optimistic about the short-term prospects there. But, as you say, I’m not arguing for peasant independence specifically in terms of an advantageous relation with the state, but as an outcome of peasant entanglement with the state. I’ll try to say more about this in another forthcoming post.
      On ‘mystification’ perhaps I should confess that you got me there with that quotation, but I do think there’s an epistemic difference between engaging critically with the intellectual categories of modern analytic thought from within the traditions of that thought, and engaging critically with ancient religious ideologies from within modern analytic thought – but it sounds like our views may not be too dissimilar on this ultimately.
      Thanks for engaging.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Chris. Whether or not I disagree with elements of the analysis, it’s certainly got me thinking – I look forward to the next post…

  9. It isn’t exactly on topic, but I suspect this study summary might be of interest to everyone here:

    Agricultural productivity and rural-urban wage gaps revisited: Lessons from panel data

    The tentative conclusion of the authors is that “cities don’t make workers (much) more productive, but productive workers move to cities.” They continue: “Our research suggests that correcting sectoral ‘misallocation’ and encouraging workers to leave agriculture and rural areas is not likely to be a silver bullet anti-poverty measure. Much of the observed sectoral productivity differences are driven by differences between individuals rather than differences in sector.”

  10. I guess there are even more ways to cut the cake than the Marx and the Weber way. In my view, one of the failing of traditional Marxist perspectives is that is not understanding markets well enough. The Market Economy (which is something very different from the markets from where it got its name) is as important as class struggles and capital accumulation, and for the understanding of agriculture in the tradition from feudalism to capitalism it is much more relevant. Ellen Meiksins Wood is one of the few Marxists that have grasped this quite well.

    I envision that “the Market” also needs to be fundamentally altered (or replaced) in any meaningfull transition. Otherwise small farmers will continue to compete with other small farmers for eternity…..with or without the king, the priest and the merchant.

    Looking forward to where your coming posts will lead…..

    • Gunnar – thanks for the Ellen Meiksins Wood mention… Chris has mentioned her here before, but I’d never looked into her work.

      In her last book(?):
      Liberty & Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment

      She contrasts access to land between feudal systems and the Italian city state system. She specifically used the term ‘parcellized sovereignty’ (pg 34). Food for thought.

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