The awkward class

Time to talk about peasants, who I claim in Chapter 3 of my book A Small Farm Future will soon be returning to tend (or create) a small farm near you. Or may in fact include you or your descendants.

This claim is at odds with most of what’s been written about rural trends over the past century or so, along two dimensions. The first is historical: peasants will be liquidated by the march of progress. As Karl Kautsky (quoted on page 246 of my book) famously put it in his ‘agrarian question’ in 1899: “In what ways is capital taking hold of agriculture, revolutionizing it, smashing the old forms of production and of poverty and establishing the new ones that must succeed?”

The second dimension is sociological: internal tensions among small-scale farmers destabilize any coherent notion of ‘the peasantry’ as an enduring entity – an argument usually framed in relation to the separate class interests of ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ peasants. So in the standard view, for reasons both external and internal, peasants are on their way to being something else.

There’s no denying that recent history furnishes evidence for this. Capital has certainly done its share of revolutionizing and smashing peasant agriculture since Kautsky’s day, and plenty of rural class conflict has accompanied the process. But most people heralding the demise of peasantries have been enthusiastic cheerleaders for the process rather than disinterested observers, and it’s possible they’ve enthused a little too much.

On the one hand, Marxists like Kautsky have generally tried to divvy up peasantries into the more comfortable terrain of Marxism’s Ur-conflict between free-flowing capital and free-flowing labour, making landless or land-poor lower peasants over in the image of their preferred revolutionaries, the proletariat. On the other, market liberals have seen peasants as frustrated would-be capitalist entrepreneurs, waiting only for the right moment to escape the stasis of rural society and launch more lucrative careers. Given that the clash between Marxism and liberal capitalism was among the biggest historical scripts of the 20th century, and that peasantries were among the biggest demographic element in the period, it’s hardly surprising that both these forms of peasant-hustling were pretty successful in the short-term. All the major communist regimes of the period were built on the back of peasant participation, and so was a good deal of capitalist development.

Yet while few truly autarkic, pre-capitalist peasantries like the Finnish swiddeners I mentioned in my previous post have survived this 20th century politics, nevertheless small-scale farmers oriented to producing a livelihood directly from the land using low-energy, labour-intensive methods (let’s call them peasants) still haven’t been as comprehensively eradicated as the likes of Kautsky anticipated. Why this is so remains a matter of debate. Perhaps because of a residual peasantness, a grit in the gears of modernization or a light from the past that grimly refuses to die. Or perhaps because modernization has never been quite as successful at organizing economic life as its proponents claim, leaving people to make do with peasant forms of livelihood-making. Or because modernization has been all too successful, extracting what surplus it can from impoverished rural people and then abandoning them to take care of themselves as best they can. Or because impoverished people hedge their bets in the global economy, striving to retain a footing on rural land in case other livelihood strategies fail.

The last three of these four possibilities are basically variants of the same idea, each with a particular political spin. Modern scholarship in the peasant studies field has largely devoted itself to charting this exact terrain, inking the fine detail of the encounter between peasants and capitalist development in any number of specific times and places. Yet for all its achievements, I can’t help feeling that much of this scholarship will become increasingly irrelevant with the profound changes now occurring from climate change, energy descent, nature loss and political-economic crisis. These changes demand an update to Kautsky’s agrarian question, that I’d put like this: in what ways is capital losing control of agriculture and other spheres of production, and failing to revolutionize itself adequately with the result that it’s smashing itself – and what are the new forms of agriculture and production that will follow?

A dissident strand of agrarian populism within peasant studies has kept alive the notion that these new forms might look a lot like older ones – rural, low-capital, labour-intensive, small-scale peasant production as the necessary corrective for a waning urban industrialism. This is often dismissed as mere nostalgia for the past in the face of modern progress, or an ahistorical (‘essentialist’) romanticization of the peasantry as a kind of sui generis category. The sometime editor of the Journal of Peasant Studies, Terence Byres, criticized peasant populism on these grounds in a 2004 article, along lines that are still prevalent within the discipline: “To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes …. One also has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past”.

Yet this becomes its own epitaph. A generation ago it might have been reasonable to dismiss the relevance of peasantries to the economic future, but history has indeed been changing before our eyes. This, as people often say, is the 21st century – and in the 21st century it’s likely that peasantization will become a major trend. This is not, it must be repeated, out of a desire to go ‘back’ to an idealized past but out of a desire to go ‘forward’ to a realistic and tolerable future.

But what exactly is it about peasant lifeways that makes them relevant again? Not some essence of unchanging peasantness, but basically three other things. First, rich local traditions in how to farm renewably with little capital or exogenous energy, from which much can be learned today as we face a future with similar constraints. Second, similarly rich local traditions – especially where aristocratic power has been weaker – in the forms of social organization conducive to a thriving agrarian society, from which we can also learn.

On this second point, for all the dismissiveness dished out to we agrarian populists for romanticizing peasantries, ironically it’s precisely the unromantic nature of these peasant traditions that commends them. As described in my book, numerous local farming societies thrashed out social arrangements for optimizing land use, sharing and husbanding resources, delivering welfare and managing intergenerational succession. Typically, these were hardbitten, long-term, real-world arrangements not based in the airy generalities of modern meta-theories like the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or the ‘collectivization of the means of production’. For sure, peasant social arrangements, like all social arrangements, weren’t perfect. And they were often offensive to modernist conceptions of the good life, whether capitalist, socialist or liberal – an issue I wrestle with in Part III of my book.

But whatever else they were, these arrangements are informative for the issues we will face in weathering the small farm future to come – more informative, at any rate, than the dubious verities of capitalism and communism we’ve inherited from modernist thought, as for example in these words of V.I. Lenin:

the peasantry dreamed of equal land tenure and no power on earth could have prevented them, when freed from landlordism and from the bourgeois parliamentary republican state, from trying to realize this dream. The proletarians said to the peasants: We shall help you to reach “ideal” capitalism, for equal tenure is the idealizing of capitalism from the point of view of small producers. At the same time we will prove to you its inadequacy and the necessity of passing to the cultivation of the land on a social basis1

There’s much in this rich passage to which I want to return in later posts. But for now I’ll just suggest that ‘the proletarians’ of 20th century communist regimes signally failed to prove the necessity of cultivating the land on a social basis (as opposed to mixed peasant economies of common and private tenure), and little now remains of their efforts on this front – a point that I think needs more serious analysis than it typically gets from those on the left who still herald the virtues of collective production and the vices of private property. At the same time, profit-oriented private capitalist farming has been ecologically and socially disastrous, and it seems clear that it can’t continue much longer.

Which is why I proclaim the return of the peasant in my book. Possibly I should have avoided the ‘p’ word altogether in view of its heavy historical baggage. But ultimately the baggage must be confronted, whatever words we use. And this brings us to the third relevant aspect of peasant societies, namely their status ordering.

The classical question animating so much of peasant studies, especially its Marxist versions, is how peasantries differentiate into separate status groups or classes in circumstances of capitalist economic integration. But the most urgent agrarian question before us today is the reverse: how non-peasants might aggregate into unified peasantries in circumstances of capitalist economic disintegration. I’m not suggesting there will be no class or status differentiation among future peasantries. On the contrary, I’m anxious to identify ways to prevent it – and a good deal of Parts III and IV of my book is devoted to that task, as I’ll outline in later posts. But here, I’ll just reiterate a simpler point made on page 95 of my book which is a necessary prior assumption for those posts: some people do actually want to be peasants, and in the future their numbers are likely to increase.


  1. V.I. Lenin The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky quoted in David Mitrany. Marx Against The Peasant (1951), pp.60-1.

27 thoughts on “The awkward class

  1. I’ve a question. Chris forecast:

    At the same time, profit-oriented private capitalist farming has been ecologically and socially disastrous, and it seems clear that it can’t continue much longer.

    Before I get to the specific question, I do want to quibble a bit with the predicate – that private capitalist farming has been ecologically and socially disastrous. Does one imply that ALL private capitalist farming occurring today bears this ugly mantle? Is it possible that some forms of private capitalist farming in practice today do not lead to ecologically and socially disastrous outcomes?

    But my specific question comes from the final clause – and here I mean to wonder what the timetable meant by “much longer” might be?

    • I think it might be helpful here to differentiate between private property (including land), and capital investment (using money to get more money, most usually by extracting wealth from the labour of others or exploiting externalities not currently reflected in market prices; you can do this by investing in farming, or just about anything else). This profit-oriented capitalist investment usually doesn’t mean individual working farmers get rich.

      Further, it isn’t necessary for all capital investment-funded farming to be 100% harmful, to be able to say that in general, profit-oriented capital investment in agriculture has caused harm. If you know of instances where profit-oriented capital investment in farming has been regenerative rather than harmful, that’s great — we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. But the cry of “not all crapitalism!” doesn’t help us very much if most of it is bad.

      The timescale is an interesting problem, because the ecosystem is large and complex, and so are the markets, and systemic change often takes time. But it seems to me that the forms of agriculture favoured by profit-oriented capital investment in farming over the 20th century are not likely to be ecologically viable forever, and it also seems to me that the reality of agricultural subsidies on staple foods indicates that it isn’t economically viable, either. (Perhaps someone more in the know than I am can talk about how such subsidies encourage different forms of farming.)

    • The “can’t continue much longer” aspect of the forecast is entirely separable from the ecological aspects of capitalist, or socialist, industrial farming.

      Even if all modern agricultural practices and subsequent food processing and delivery were ecologically benign, they still depend on energy supplies and machines that can only be supported by an industrial civilization. Like many other truly good and admirable side effects of industrial modernity (plentiful clean water, advanced health care, easy ability to communicate over long distances, etc.) mechanized farming will end when industrial civilization ends.

      I will speculate that industrial farming will be one of the last industrial practices to be abandoned when civilization begins its decline. Too many lives are totally dependent on agricultural commodities making their way into cities from far afield. It will only be when life in the city becomes really unpleasant that urbanites will consider the advantages of living as peasants do.

      I can only hope that the unpleasantness arrives with Goldilocks speed, fast enough to ensure rapid reduction in CO2 emmissions and slow enough to allow a methodical return of people from the city to the land. My guess as to a likely timetable: modernity disappears within the next three decades. Slowly at first and then all at once, punctuated by resource wars.

      So, the earlier we get going with a final back-to-the-land movement, the better. Become a smallholder now and avoid the rush.

      • My spouse’s ability to do his “no, you have to come in to the office” desk job from home for the last eleven months makes me think that a fair number of people who couldn’t previously afford to try back-to-the-land may well be able to make that transition more gently, now.

        Me, I’m waiting to see what happens when covid restrictions are less necessary; and in the meantime the allotment lets me practice skills. If he only has to go into the office one or two days per week, leaving London becomes viable in a way it hasn’t been previously. That said, we do have extremely low rent for our area, which does make staying more attractive than it would otherwise be; and I’m embedded in quite a bit of local and quasi-local community stuff.

    • Pretty much with Kathryn here. I wouldn’t suggest that every conceivable instance of capitalist farming is necessarily destructive in its own terms, but the systemic logic of capital is essentially destructive and, in the long-term, subordinates almost everything in agriculture and other economic sectors to this logic. The non-capitalist aspects of capitalist farming then present some of the more promising future avenues. I’ll say a bit more about this in my next post, including some remarks on capital.

      Regarding timescales, while it seems increasingly certain to me that we’re on the cusp of epochal transitions, regrettably this still gives me no clairvoyant edge over anyone else. So I admire Joe for looking into his crystal ball and boldly interpreting what he sees. For my part, I’m seeing little beyond fine words regarding climate change from the decision-makers who matter – by the next US general election I think the die will more or less be cast. Likewise in relation to economic inequality, which I think will prompt major political change within Joe’s timeframe – probably more likely in fascist than communist directions, but I can’t see fascist regimes stabilizing themselves long-term. Also, major water stress and unprecedentedly large-scale migration seems virtually certain now.

      Putting that together, I’d suggest that while capitalist farming and other attributes of the present economy may still be going in 30 years time, unless there are vast changes to the global political economy over the next 5-10 years, I think it won’t just be obscure blogs like this that are heralding the end of capitalism and the end of the present epoch.

    • Thanks Joe. Seems like an interesting guy – I’ll definitely take a look at that. Jeez, though … he makes my blog posts look like haikus!

    • Wow, interesting site- thanks for sharing. I needed one more blog to follow. At least in winter, there is more time to read. -14F forecast for the low this weekend.

  2. His August 26, 2020 post about the book by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, “Capital as Power”, may also interest you. The book is available as a free download, but I have not yet read it.

  3. Until or if we return to hunter gatherer mode, humans, or at least a subset, will be forever tied to the land, growing food. What title we bestow doesn’t matter, but how the society organizes cannot disconnect from this reality. Seems sad to me that in the past, the very people generating food for everyone often end up with the least control over their lives. Peasants would be fine if centralized power hierarchies didn’t always emerge and coerce, control, and rule those who feed them.

    Just leave the peasants alone!

    Who knows, maybe with depleted soils and ravaged resources, there won’t be enough surplus food to enable much stratification or for anyone to become social elites. They will all be too tired and hungry to do more than tend their own patch.

    Anyway, I just finished reading “Surviving the Future”, an edited, condensed version of Fleming’s Lean Logic. As with our host, he is trying to describe and spark in to existence a less dire future. While a bit different than “A Small Farm Future”, they share some DNA. I note that Fleming is referenced in SFF a couple times. Some interesting ideas there, but I had a harder time digesting them and getting a sense of the likelihood of Fleming’s ideas bearing fruit. He does agree that the future will be local and less complex.

    Right now, I still fall in the camp that this turn of the wheel will most probably be the same as those in the past, just much bigger and global. There will be warlords, chiefdoms, slowly accreted kingdoms, overshoot, and collapse, just not to the levels we are living through now. Man’s nature, as I think E.O. Wilson describes, will have to change genetically before we emerge into a long term stable keystone species that is well integrated into the local biome.

    Kinda sad, but there it is. In the mean time, I’m still rooting for the vision being talked about here, and so I plant food trees.

    • “Just leave the peasants alone! ”
      That sounds a he’ll of a lot like what the rednecks want ! ,the header also fits rednecks .
      The awkward class .

  4. Chris wrote above that “the most urgent agrarian question before us today” is “how non-peasants might aggregate into unified peasantries in circumstances of capitalist economic disintegration.”

    The crux of that question seems to be the “unified” condition. How can the neo-peasants be unified to avoid subjugation, for example. This is a real puzzler, in today’s factious society. “Divide and conquer” seems to be working well for an influential minority (including the billionaires).

  5. Thanks for the further comments. Indeed, the challenges of creating a unified peasant society and of avoiding the kind of bad outcomes to which Steve C refers loom large. I try to thread a course through them in the later parts of my book, but the truth is there’s no straightforward course and in any case it’s a route that has to be travelled in practice, not written down in a book. All the same, hopefully we can get into some of these points in a bit more detail later in this blog cycle. But I’ll be touching on some aspects in the next few posts.

    David Fleming was an interesting thinker, and my relationship to his thought has been quite complex! I recently gave a lecture on a course based on David’s book curated by Shaun Chamberlin, who edited David’s work posthumously. It was a good session, with a really good discussion – recommended for the next time Shaun runs it:

    • David Fleming was an interesting thinker, and my relationship to his thought has been quite complex!

      As an incorrigible lumper, I have to say that I put you both in the same basket. From my point of view – which is simply”what can I do? What can I expect?” – your differences are irrelevant. The future is going to be local. It’s going to be very different from the current situation. It’s started changing already.

      (and just to pull your tail, I also lump you with the dreaded John Michael Greer as well – if three such disparate thinkers have a core of opinion about the future, then maybe there’s something in it?)

      • Nice framing. Indeed, the bigger picture is pointing to localism, which surely points in turn to creating concord where we can, albeit perhaps without papering over differences.

        Even so, I can’t see Trumpworld as a means of creating local concord, so Greer left me at the door when he entered it. I haven’t been reading his stuff lately, but unquestionably there’s much he’s written about localism that’s informative.

    • I’m not so sure this is all that far off topic.

      Is the farm (ranch) in this article an example of industrial agriculture?
      Is the notion of a market in carbon offsets a potential help to our current malaise?
      Is the notion of a market in carbon offsets an example of capitalism as a force for good or merely more of capitalism as an oppressor to the poor?

      The details were not made public, so it could be difficult to suss out finer bits. But the actors here are real, not hypothetical. Will this sort of relationship help or hinder our cause?

      Thanks Diogenese – fresh grass to graze on.

  6. Hi all, I’m a recent discoverer of this blog via the excellent book. Its given me a lot to grapple with, and I’m wondering if I can lean on you agrarian populists to guide this urbanite to resources that can help me answer a question.

    How can I begin to analyze my current locality through its potential as a de facto small farm republic in 50-100 years’ time?

    Pittsburgh, my home, seems well suited at the intersection of three rivers, and we seem to have a lot of farmland on our periphery. But we still have 300,000 people – putting us firmly within “modern mass society”. I’d like to understand things like the likelihood of civil strife, and whether to think about investing in where I live now, versus striking out for somewhere more optimal.

    • As far as I know, there is no comprehensive guide to evaluating an urban area’s potential for an agrarian makeover. I already live in a sparsely populated county that is rich in agriculture and agricultural potential, but I would love to be able to refer people to a good analysis of the vulnerability/potential of specific types of location within a conurbation.

      In the meantime, I would start by considering how much of everyone’s needed provisions (food, water, shelter/fuel) could be produced within a reasonable walking distance, say a 2-3 hour walk. If your share of that production, as determined by the expected number of people in the walking radius, would not be enough to keep you fed and watered, I would consider moving right away.

      If your present income does not depend on where you live (trust fund, remote worker), it only makes it easier. Of course, that income will only last as long as the financial system or modern civilization lasts, so I would spend as much money on productive land as possible. Then start the interminable agrarian learning curve.

      I have harped on the vulnerability of modern cities ad nauseum but it can’t be pointed out too many times; modern cities can only exist with the support of modern industry and industrialized agriculture. Any number of sudden crises in those support systems could cause a city to become unliveable virtually overnight. In my opinion, waiting for a crisis to happen before taking precautionary action is foolhardy.

      And as the internet permeates every aspect of modern society, it becomes a gigantic single point of failure. Even now, if the internet went down on a worldwide basis, modern civilization would grind to halt in hours. Since the vast majority of financial transactions depend on a functioning internet, imagine living without money for several months. If you can’t do it, you need to move to a place where you can.

    • Hi Tim, I’m glad you liked the book and welcome to the SFF community (apologies by the way if I’ve missed off greeting & engaging with any other new commenters here. The Small Farm Future office is in a terrible state of disorganisation at the moment).

      I can’t add anything much in detail to Joe & Steve’s comments. My feeling is that in the long term de-urbanization will certainly be necessary, so if you can make a rural move that seems plausible in the context of your life then there’s a lot to be said for doing it and trying to help create a regenerative rural community that later-comers can join.

      On the other hand, since nobody can tell how the disintegrative forces upon modern society will play out exactly, there’s something to be said for helping create a regenerative community as best you can wherever you happen to be among the people and places you know – there’s a lot that can be done in urban settings, and plotting a rural escape that doesn’t plausibly fit into your narrative of your life may be counter-productive.

      So … yet another possibly insoluble dilemma among many 🙂

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