The supersedure state

I said that I wanted to focus on the shape of possible agrarian, post-capitalist states of the future in my forthcoming writing, so I thought I’d anticipate that here by reproducing my article from the current issue of The Land magazine (Issue 22, 2018, pp.28-30). The editors of that august journal in their wisdom entitled it ‘The human hive’ (and accompanied it with some beautiful woodcut illustrations of an apian nature), but here it goes under my preferred title of ‘The supersedure state’. My next few posts are going to attend to various other items of business – though some of them do bear on this theme – but I thought I’d lay this out now as a kind of organising concept for the things I want to write about agrarian states, which I’ll try to fill out in more detail on this site shortly. So I’ll be coming back to this – but in the meantime, of course I’d welcome any comments. I’m not sure if this is exactly the same version as the one that appeared in The Land, but I think it’s close enough.


The tumult of recent political events in many western countries has brought a new word to the lips of political commentators – populism. Generally, populism and its personification in figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage has been presented in mainstream circles as a dangerous political turn, a threat to the established order of things, and not without good reason. But for those who’d like to replace the present global neoliberal economy with a more local, more equitable and more land-based or agrarian society there are overlaps with populism that raise a few questions – in particular, these three:

  1. ‘Populism’ means a politics of or for ‘the people’, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – so what’s the problem with it?
  2. Are there any fruitful links between the populisms now emerging in contemporary western countries and an older and now largely forgotten politics associated with peasant parties in various countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a politics known as ‘agrarian populism’?
  3. If populism threatens the established order, perhaps that’s no bad thing and represents a political opportunity of some kind – but what kind?

The answer to the first question is that populist positions often involve an over-simplified contrast between ‘ordinary people’ and a scapegoated ‘elite’, which is seen as thwarting the interests of the former – and there are tacit rules of inclusion and exclusion regarding membership in both categories that aren’t politically innocent. In the populist politics of Brexit, for example, ‘ordinary people’ has a nationalist coding that excludes migrants, including long-term residents from continental Europe, especially East Europeans. And the ‘elite’ has a class and political coding that mostly references liberal, urban, left-wing ‘chattering classes’ rather than the chief wielders of economic power.

So the problem with a populist politics of the people is that ‘the people’ is usually a less inclusive term than it appears, and the solution to their problems is usually more complicated than the humbling of the elite that’s proposed. Nevertheless, it might still be plausibly argued that in the present era of neoliberal globalisation, there are elites which organise against the interests of ordinary people, and the latter have not been well served by the game of ping-pong between lookalike politicians that passes for democratic politics. That argument can be taken in numerous directions, some of which might endorse an anti-elitist politics for ‘ordinary people’ without endorsing any of the populisms currently on the table, from Donald Trump’s Republican presidency to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership.

Spooling back a century or so, it becomes a little easier to grasp what a populist politics of ordinary people against the elite meant. In various countries – the USA, Russia, Mexico and India, to name a few – most ‘ordinary people’ were small-scale and typically self-sustaining (or ‘peasant’) farmers, many of whom considered their interests to be in conflict with various political, financial, colonial or aristocratic elites in their home countries, and organised an anti-elitist populist politics of the people accordingly, for example in the form of the US Populist Party, which put up presidential candidate James Weaver in 1892. In the 1920s, economist Alexander Chayanov published key works of the Russian ‘neo-populist’ school, which emphasised the resilient and self-perpetuating nature of the Russian peasant household economy1. The US Populist Party merged with the Democratic Party in 1896 and fizzled out thereafter, partly because US politics ultimately delivered a good deal of what the populists had wanted, albeit not quite in the form they’d wanted it – a greater share for workers in national wealth, but in the form of an urban-industrial workforce and depopulated farmscapes2. For his part, Chayanov was summarily tried and shot in Stalin’s gulag in 1937. Perhaps these two contrasting endpoints for populism in the USA and the USSR symbolise the 20th century fate of agrarian populism in general: squeezed out in the Cold War rivalry between capitalism and communism, neither of which were notably sympathetic to independent peasantries. Even so, agrarian populism has had a complex afterlife through the 20th century and into the 21st, inflecting pro-peasant and anti-globalisation politics represented in figures like Vandana Shiva and in the food sovereignty movement. And there are also various points of crossover here with the traditions of right-wing populism that typically emphasise the local and the rural, ‘indigenous’ traditions over cosmopolitanism, individual independence over state dirigisme, and so on.

I can’t trace here the complexities of these inflections and crossovers – though it’s unfortunate that the eclipse of agrarian populism as a living political tradition obscures the lessons that today’s agrarian activists might infer from it in negotiating those complexities. But to answer my second question above, I’d suggest that, yes, there probably are fruitful connections to be drawn between these populisms old and new – but the issues facing us today aren’t exactly the same as those facing the small farm populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most obvious difference is that there are hardly any small-scale farmers in the ‘developed’ countries any more. Peasant or agrarian populism as a politics of ‘the people’ makes sense when a large proportion of the people are peasants or agrarians. It looks less convincing in a modern urban world where only a small minority of people directly work the land. However, the chances of sustaining this world indefinitely in the face of the numerous environmental crises it’s provoked seem slim, as do the chances of achieving a fair distribution of resources in the neoliberal global political economy that sustains it by systematically rewarding the few at the expense of the many. For these reasons, a contemporary agrarian movement has arisen which has a lot in common with the agrarian populist and neo-populist movements of a century ago, emphasising self-reliant, low impact, low energy, land-based lifestyles, a fair distribution of resources, greater political autonomy and so on – in other words, the kind of world described by the Land’s manifesto on the inside cover of this magazine.

But that movement remains quite small and – compared to the stormy agrarian politics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which toppled numerous empires, aristocracies and colonial powers – it operates in a world where revolutionary thirst for change no longer has much traction. This seems to have prompted a few alternative thinkers among leftists and greens to embrace the ersatz tumults of recent electoral politics in the west such as the Trump and Brexit results as at least some kind of new opening in the moribund politics of neoliberalism-as-usual, and therefore something to be welcomed3. The death of liberalism and globalism in the face of the new populisms has been gleefully embraced by these thinkers as a hopeful sign that a more egalitarian green localism may be in the offing – perhaps in much the same way that Marxists of old used to think that a dose of capitalism was a necessary evil for every society to go through if it was ever to experience the joys of socialism. But the path from right-wing populism to green localism doesn’t seem intrinsically more likely than numerous other possible paths, and though it’s tempting to share in the schadenfreude directed at once sanctimonious centrists in their dismay at the current turn of events, there are some problems with cheerleading the death of liberalism. Chief amongst them is the danger that with the death of a globally-oriented liberalism might come the death of the public sphere, defined as “rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions”4, as seems to be happening under the star of the new populism in countries such as Russia and Turkey. The outlook for an equitable and sustainable agrarian localism is bleak in these circumstances – so maybe defending the liberal public sphere from the Trumps, Putins and Farages of this world is a pressing task for a contemporary agrarian populism.

However, we’re undoubtedly now living through a populist moment in which such figures are at least temporarily ascendant while familiar liberal-global institutions such as the EU appear to be unravelling, so it’s as well to try to plot a course from where we now are to where the contemporary agrarian movement might like us to go. It seems clear that the populist politicians now in power are unequal to the task of their sloganeering: they will not be able to “make America great again” or “take back control”. But perhaps they’ve nonetheless instinctively realised what still escapes the mainstream – that liberal-democratic global capitalism is dead in the water and needs refashioning. Academic political economist Wolfgang Streeck comes to much the same conclusion in his recent analysis of the chronically growing debt, stagnant growth and rising inequality gnawing away at the vital organs of the global capitalist beast:

“Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions, and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies – who…have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to assume a new form. What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum…a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder”5

There are various ways in which this interregnum might get filled, some of them extremely worrisome. But I’d like to suggest how an equitable agrarian populism might step into the breach on the basis of the following four ‘might-come-true’ predictions:

  • National and individual incomes in most of the rich western countries will decrease along with the volume of international trade – a process that in the UK will be hastened by Brexit but is likely to happen anyway. The possibilities for ducking the implications of this scenario through scapegoating are numerous, but there’s a chance that eventually it’ll prompt a more sober reorientation of national and local economies to the more immediate needs of the citizenry.


  • The de jure territorial reach of the central state in the west is likely to remain much as it is now for the foreseeable future, but its de facto power outside its core regions (in England, London and the southeast) is likely to wane as the ratio between public service benefits and tax income becomes ever more unpromising. Weakened governments will retrench around core areas and industries, leading to (semi-)benign (semi-)neglect elsewhere.


  • The returns to large-scale commodity-crop farming and large-scale landownership outside the state cores will diminish to the point of redundancy. Large-scale landownership in these areas will start to become politically and morally risky in the context of impoverished local populations looking to supply their needs from local resources increasingly through non-monetary means.


  • The preceding developments will resist resolution by any singular means – no high-tech solutionism, fiscal windfalls, sweeping political or religious revitalisation movements and so forth. Attempts to organise and provide for regional populations will be predominantly local, piecemeal, experimental, practical and plural, and they’ll enjoy varying degrees of success…


…or to put it another way, something like Detroit may soon be coming to a sleepy English village near you.

If this situation occurs, there will doubtless be scope for numerous elements of our present political traditions to recombine in various more or less successful ways in the changed circumstances, and the same is true of landholding traditions – rentiers and tenants, owner-occupiers, collective property and commons. Streeck is probably right that a single defined social order won’t prevail. Since Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), political scientists have been fond of using apian metaphors for politics, so I’m inclined to do likewise and call what I’m describing here a ‘supersedure state’. In the normal succession of a bee colony, the mass society decides that the ruling queen is no longer fit for purpose, builds some orderly alternative structures, and after a brief power struggle a singular new ruling queen emerges. Supersedure occurs, by contrast, when the existing queen goes missing in action without any orderly alternative structures to replace her. In these circumstances, the workers try to cobble together a new queen out of whatever’s to hand that will best do the job of maintaining the colony, but usually end up producing a smaller, weaker queen. I think our human colonies may likewise see more of such weakened, cobbled-together successor states – ‘supersedure states’ – in the disorderly future that Streeck predicts, and less of the smoothly revolutionary politics of the past. As the Land’s manifesto persuasively states: “Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.” The traditions of agrarian populism seem best suited to creating a modicum of stability, prosperity and justice in this politically weakened, land-oriented aftermath of capitalism – better, at any rate, than obvious alternatives such as neo-feudalism, neo-fascism or revitalising cargo cults seeking to restore capitalism, communism and other modernist nightmares.

However, a network of pluralist agrarian supersedure states probably isn’t the most likely contender for the future shape of the world. If the curve of politics in disparate countries of the world today – the UK, the USA, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, China – is anything to go by, we may be more likely to see ruthless neo-mercantilist international economic competition between countries, fractious distributional conflicts within them, and nationalist-nativist populisms trying to breathe life into all sorts of arbitrary boundaries between people and peoples. This is not an enticing prospect, so perhaps it’s a good idea to address how an agrarian populist future of supersedure states might be wrested from this other mode of populism.

The short answer is a two-pronged approach, the first of which aims to buttress wherever possible any or all permutations of peasant, family-based, small-scale, local market oriented, diverse and high nature-value farming. Historically, this fits comfortably into various populist agendas, agrarian and otherwise, and is the sort of thing readily found in UKIP election manifestoes. The second aims to buttress wherever possible a liberal public sphere, rational-critical debate, small state local democracy based on the power of arguments rather than statuses accruing from membership in closed categories of ‘the people’, ‘the real people’ or ‘ordinary people’, an egalitarian economic localism combined with a plural political internationalism, and so on. These sorts of things won’t be found in UKIP election manifestoes, and doubtless sound a lot more like the old-fangled neoliberal globalism which most populists, with some justification, want to overturn. But the key is the combination of the two prongs. The first without the second creates a reactionary nationalist back-to-the-landism which can conceal all sorts of modernist horrors under the pretence of a romantic peasantism – the ‘Ringing Cedars’ movement in Russia being one contemporary example. The second without the first easily results in neoliberal globalism as usual. Each prong draws on old political traditions. The intention, however, is not to replicate those traditions but, just as with Peter Kropotkin’s idea of creating a new anarchist future out of communal past traditions, to build “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”6.

There’s no inevitability about successfully creating this kind of ‘absolutely new’ politics, but it does seem possible that it will become a more obvious and attractive option than it presently seems as the drawbacks of conventional agriculture and conventional politics of both the mainstream and reactionary-populist varieties make themselves apparent. Admittedly, I’ve barely addressed the numerous difficulties and contradictions that would be involved in making this politics work. But here, in a nutshell, is the opportunity I mentioned in my third question above: the opportunity to create a tolerably prosperous, egalitarian, sustainable future based on an agrarian localism of supersedure states from the political tumults of the present moment.


  1. Chayanov, A. [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  2. Postel, C. 2007. The Populist Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Examples here include green thinkers like Paul Kingsnorth and John Michael Greer, and august voices on the left like the New Left Review.
  4. Calhoun, C. 1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  5. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso.
  6. Kropotkin, P. 1993. Words of a Rebel. Montreal: Black Rose

Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

As I’ve mentioned, I recently visited Nicaragua as part of a research project on ‘Transitions to agro-ecological food systems’ that I’ve been involved with, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The research involved working with agro-ecological farmers in the UK, Senegal and Nicaragua, and the trip brought together some of the farmers and researchers from each country. In this post, I thought I’d offer a few informal reflections on the research, and the Nicaragua trip.

In each country, the researchers took a kind of ‘citizen’s jury’ approach to the project, getting the farmers to map their experiences of the food system and then to define specific issues that they wanted to research further in order to ease the desired transition to an agro-ecological food system, followed by a workshop with ‘change agents’ – people with some capacity to help realise these changes. At the Nicaragua meeting, we came together and discussed the similarities and differences between the three countries in the focus of our deliberations and the ways forward. Here are some of the issues that came up:

Seeds: maintaining local farmer control of seed production and markets (and fighting the encroachment of transgenic crops) was a major theme both in Nicaragua and Senegal, but wasn’t much discussed in the UK. There certainly are concerns around seeds in the UK – quite similar ones to the concerns in the other two countries – but few farmers or growers here take responsibility any longer for their own seed production. There are those who argue that this is a good thing – plant breeding is a highly specialist business, and farmers benefit from leaving it to the experts and sticking to their own skill set. One problem here is that what suits the ‘business’ of plant breeding doesn’t necessarily suit the business of being a local agroecological farmer. There’s much to be said for farmers and plant breeders working in concert, but the structure of the agricultural industry often puts them at loggerheads. On that note, I enjoyed meeting actual farmers from relatively low income countries who told me point blank that they wanted to retain control over local seed production and didn’t want GM crops. No doubt there are other shades of opinion in their countries, but I’ve been told more than once by other privileged westerners/northerners that GM crops are an unquestionable boon to the world’s poorer places and that my scepticism about them merely indicates my white, western/northern privilege (or, in the words of one especially apoplectic ecomodernist, that my ideology was akin to stealing wheelchairs from Bangladeshi children), so it’s good to know that my views are shared by others less white and geopolitically privileged than me. In truth, I already knew it – any claim that a particular kind of plant-breeding technology must be inherently pro-poor is obviously bogus. Still, you can’t beat hearing a story straight from the root, rather than one filtered through layers of researcherly foliage.

An additional problem with giving up seed-saving is that it’s another small step on the journey that alienates farmers from the wide suite of skills they need to fully inhabit the land. I for one am a little envious of other countries who haven’t yet taken that step.

Traditional cuisine: finding ways to encourage people to eat traditional, locally-grown foods rather than processed foods heavy in global commodity crops was a theme in all three countries – though again it emerged least strongly in the UK. Teaching cookery skills and sponsoring local restaurants were avenues that were being explored. In the UK, one project has involved doctors prescribing fresh vegetables for low income patients on poor diets, with local authorities paying small-scale local producers to provide the food – a use of public money with a reportedly good social return on investment.

Markets: ‘the market’ is one of those words that conflates things which ought to be separated. In each of the three countries, albeit in different ways, the farmers wanted to strengthen ‘the market’ in the sense of local venues where buyers and sellers come together physically for the exchange of things they need. In order to do this, we agreed that we needed less of ‘the market’ in the sense of a non-physical, globalised abstraction in which a minority of people launch money in order to receive more of it in return. Though, saying that, there can also be problems with local markets – especially when their control falls into the hands of a few. The best solution is for the majority of people to have access to land, the ultimate source of the values able to come to market… Perhaps I should qualify that statement by way of a quotation from IDS big cheese Ian Scoones, whose interesting if rather turgidly academic book Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development: Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies I’m reading at the moment:

“The real world is of course more complex than the usual default policy debate constructed around a set of simple dichotomies – large versus small, external versus local, food production versus cash crops, backward versus modern” (p.59)

Indeed, a case can be made along these lines for allowing markets to be complemented by ‘the market’, but as Scoones himself points out ‘the market’ is supported by a “strong coalition of investors, private sector agribusiness players, national governments and local elites” whose “expert-accredited narrative” (ibid.) has much more influence over economic reality than the food sovereignty agenda we were articulating in Nicaragua. Therefore I’m happy to line up with my fellows in the marketing discussion group at the meeting (pictured) and press for the food sovereignty agenda. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…

Land: access to land for agro-ecological farming was a big issue in the UK, less of a concern in other countries. I’ve probably harped on about it often enough on this blog to keep it brief here. The UK farmers put some emphasis on the role of the planning system in relation to private land purchases, because this is an easy hit for improving the situation without having to introduce any major political or economic changes. Issues around farm tenancies and publicly owned farmland were also highlighted in the UK. In Nicaragua, the government programme that provides women with a plot of land sufficient for personal needs, together with some household livestock, excited some interest…particularly among a few of the women from the other countries who suddenly expressed a hitherto latent enthusiasm for emigrating to Nicaragua. Which brings us to…

Female empowerment: I heard some conflicting views about gender oppression (and thence the need for the aforementioned programme) in Nicaragua. While we were travelling around the country I saw a few placards in communities stating “Aquí respetamos a las mujeres”, which kind of implies that maybe there are folks allí que no respetan a las mujeres. Not that the UK is innocent of gender oppression. Certainly, gender issues loom large in what I’ll tentatively term “sustainable development”. Which reminds me…I need to round off my ‘return of the peasant’ blog cycle with a look at gender soon.

Commodification & self-reliance: another issue in relation to making markets more functional is reducing their levels of commodification – ‘commodities’ in the sense of traded objects entirely torn from their local contexts of production. In Senegal, this manifests in peanut farming, which is environmentally destructive and makes growers dependent on global commodity prices. The common refrain is that such commodity crops are the route to wealth which, through specialisation and the magic of ‘the market’, enables farmers to buy themselves out of the kind of miserable subsistence existence associated with mixed cropping of local food crops, where they can barely scratch a living from the unforgiving earth. Each of the three countries had their own local manifestations of this ideology, and each country’s farmers also had distinctive counter-narratives insisting that it ain’t necessarily so.

Subsidies: I mentioned the attraction to female farmers of moving to Nicaragua, but some of the farmers from the other countries kinda liked the sound of moving to the UK to harvest some of the EU farm subsidies they’d heard about. So we from the UK had to explain the realities of the system: in a few years of stressy bureaucratic wrangling, I managed to wrest no more than a thousand quid or so out of HM’s government, before it decided to stop small-scale farmers from claiming altogether. Meanwhile, and talking of HM, the queen netted a cool half a million a year from the scheme. Oh well, I guess she needs it more than me. But, more important than the inequities between small and large-scale landowners farmers in affluent countries is the way that US and EU subsidies punish farmers in less affluent countries – such as the anti-competitive $1 billion or so going to US peanut farmers, to pick an aforementioned crop. So, to get a little technical, here’s a brief primer on the clean economic logic of free markets: the greatest net benefit results when countries remove protectionist measures and compete on equal terms in liberalised global markets, except when the most powerful countries decide not to.

There are also, of course, the numerous implicit subsidies associated with fossil fuel use and other nasty economic externalities – a general experience common to all three countries, albeit with some differences of detail.

Farmer networks and change agents: there are more small-scale and agroecological farmers in Nicaragua and Senegal than the UK, with richer interactions between them and the organs of government, and more powerful small-farmer organisations such as (talking of peasants, as we were under my last post) Nicaragua’s Programa campesino a campesino. In the UK, I think it would be fair to say that – despite the researchers’ best efforts – we struggled to get any ‘change agents’ to talk to us who had significant power to change the status quo. This seemed to be less true of Nicaragua and Senegal, though that’s not to say that the life of the small-scale agroecological farmer in those countries is all plain sailing. Perhaps one of the reasons it was hard to engage policymakers in the UK is that they’re all so busy trying to work out what the hell is going to happen to UK farming after Brexit. And here it’s fascinating to note that Michael Gove, arch Brextremist and now head honcho at DEFRA, is giving the keynote speech at the forthcoming Oxford Real Farming Conference – unless he accidentally booked himself into the wrong conference. I’ll be reporting back with interest on what he has to say.

At the end of the trip we paid a visit to the 10 acre holding of one of the Nicaraguan participants, where I took this picture of citrus fruits growing under the shade of a coconut palm, hard by the cassava, yams and coffee bushes. Here, where the sun shines and the rain falls copiously, my strictures against perennial staple cropping are no longer operative. Perhaps I’ll see if I can persuade La Brassicata to move there and get herself on the waiting list for a holding, where I can skivvy for her in the tropical warmth. Oh, alas, ‘tis but a dream – so now I must leave you to schlep out into the snow and empty our compost toilet.

But not without first offering my thanks to Elise Wach, Santi Ripoll, Clare Ferguson and Jorge Irán Vásquez Zeledón for their work on the project and the trip, and to everyone else involved in it for making is so interesting.

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.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 10. The current impasse

I’ve just returned from a short but fascinating meeting in Nicaragua on small-scale farming, which I plan to write about soon. But first I want to finish my history of the world. Apologies if the latter has dragged on too much, but we’re in the home straight now, and we’ll be moving on to other stuff soon. As ever a fully referenced version of this essay is here.


By the end of World War II, of the four key modern political doctrines I identified above it was liberal-democratic capitalism and communism that were left standing. Agrarian populism had its moments in post-war decolonisation, while fascism has recurred here and there, usually in diluted forms after the image problem it acquired during World War II. But essentially the end of that war marked the start of the capitalist-communist Cold War death battle, with the USA taking over from Britain in the driving seat of global capitalism and enforcing a global and far from peaceful Pax Americana, which has gradually lost its proselytizing zeal in favour of narrower self-interest.

The capitalist west’s answer to the threat of communism – other than naked military power – was a Keynesian settlement between capital and labour, in which the working class was offered full (male – and then, increasingly, female) employment and rising prosperity in return for political docility. This was quite easily achieved in the thirty years after World War II – the ‘trente glorieuses’ – with prodigious economic growth keeping both the owners of capital and the owners of labour happy. There were a few dissonant voices – environmentalists arguing that the cost of economic growth was ecological damage and the drawdown of non-renewable resources, prophets foretelling the impossibility of endless compound growth, and malcontents bemoaning the absurdity and ennui of a hyper-materialist modernity, but they gained limited traction at best. In the face of such activism it’s often said nowadays that most people aren’t very political and only want a quiet life. That’s true, I’d argue, partly because the liberal-democratic capitalist polities have put a lot of work into ensuring that most people aren’t very political, in particular by systematically dismantling most forms of collective political organisation and ridiculing the very idea of them. “Our place in history is as clock watchers, old timers, window shoppers”, as Billy Bragg nicely put it. Still, whatever the reasons, the ideal of the quiet suburban life in the west is indeed a reality that more activist political forms must confront.

It’s been getting harder to live a quiet life of late, though. The cracks started appearing in the capitalist façade in the 1970s when the stalling of economic growth re-sharpened the contest between capital and labour. Since then, governments in the democratic capitalist west have tried to manage the contradiction through two strategies whose basic outlines, if not their precise details, would have been recognisable to any Axial Age ruler: (1) buy off both the workers and the capitalists by stealing from the future in the form of inflationary monetary policy or building up private and public debt; (2) side with capital by disciplining and casualising labour, breaking unions, offshoring jobs or inshoring low-waged migrant workers, allowing unemployment to rise and curtailing public expenditure on social welfare.

The first strategy has a time limit on it. You can’t live beyond your means indefinitely by mortgaging your future. This was signalled by the 2008 crash, though governments in the ‘developed’ world have struggled to adopt policies likely to prevent a repeat of the experience down the road due to their excessive dependence on the finance industry that caused it. The belt-tightening response of ‘austerity’ policies pursued by some governments – the UK included – punished the poor for the excesses of the rich and brought few benefits to anyone but a wealthy few. Perhaps a bit of Keynesian demand stimulus would have been a better bet, but it would still be unequal to the task of restoring prosperity to a chronically stagnant and indebted economy.

The second strategy nowadays goes by the name of neoliberalism, and is not much different from the logic of the classic capitalist economy as formulated by the likes of Adam Smith, except for Smith and the early economic thinkers the point of capitalism was to augment a country’s prosperity – it was, precisely, about ‘the wealth of nations’ – whereas in the contemporary neoliberal phase, capital assumes an increasingly non-territorial logic which often has the opposite effect of diminishing national prosperities. Smith famously coined the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ which engineered common good out of private selfishness, while his successor to the crown among the classical political economists, David Ricardo, developed the concept of ‘comparative advantage’ to show how national prosperity was augmented when a country focuses on its most remunerative industries (though only when capital flows are restricted and can’t travel the world in search of absolute advantage as they do today, a point that often seems to be forgotten in contemporary encomiums to economic specialisation).

Neoliberalism is effectively the death knell for Smith’s invisible hand and Ricardo’s comparative advantage. Inequality is on the rise in the west, and although this has been offset by the rise of a middle class in a few populous Asian countries the general picture remains one of extreme inequality in most of the world (44% of the rise in real per capita income since 1988 has gone to the top 5% of earners), stagnant growth, irredeemable debt and chronic joblessness. The mechanical automation that deprived blue collar workers of gainful work through the 20th century has been augmented by an electronic automation that’s now likewise depriving white collar workers. Yet ‘work’ in the form of wage labour is still the only realistic route to economic wellbeing available to most people in the capitalist west. The new phenomenon of ‘jobless recoveries’ points, however, to who is actually making the money – not workers, but the owners of capital (for example, in some years after 2008, the entire increase in the US economy went to the highest 0.01% of earners). Increasingly, businesses in the west have financialised and virtualised their operations in accordance with the cycle of decline mentioned earlier, using their money to make more money through a deregulated and ever-proliferating thicket of bewildering financial gerrymandering. Sovereign states no longer have any real purchase on these processes of capital accumulation, but they need to stake a claim to their piece of the resulting pie in order to keep their electorates in the manner to which they’re accustomed.  ‘Government’ has become ‘governance’; ‘democracy’ has become ‘technocracy’. This has led to a waning of political legitimacy for liberal-democratic governments in the eyes of their electorates, as the penetration of private market ideology ever further into the structures of everyday life ceases to feel like the liberating ‘development’ or ‘progress’ of an earlier capitalism and becomes more manifestly dysfunctional and predatory. Neoliberalism has become another ‘prison of nations’, caging the citizenries of nation-states. Hence, no doubt, the nationalist and anti-establishment turn in various recent elections in the west.

But at least in the west it’s still a gilded cage. In many of the countries of the ‘periphery’ that emerged from de facto or de jure colonialism in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, political freedom has not resulted in economic self-determination. Political freedom in itself has been hard enough to negotiate in postcolonial countries inheriting multi-ethnic populaces with historically arbitrary boundaries, weak economies geared to the extractive designs of the old colonial core, and weak, corruption-prone political institutions. The neoliberal turn from the 1970s compounded these problems economically through institutions such as the World Bank, the WTO, the IMF, the EU and – while I’m with the acronyms – the USA, which imposed more ‘imperialism of free trade’, tariff barriers, debt, and structural adjustment programmes based on spurious neoclassical models that gutted the social provision of healthcare, education and other human services and removed agricultural price supports. On the upside, the stain of rank hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty has been slightly ameliorated in recent years through multilateral global commitments, and arguably (only arguably) through agrarian technology in the form of the Green Revolution. But lowering the proportion of people earning a dollar or two a day doesn’t set the bar very high – inequality in general seems as intractable as ever.

Indeed, as I remarked earlier, poverty or ‘underdevelopment’ isn’t something separate from global capitalism in ‘developing’ countries hitherto excluded from the charmed circle of capitalist development, but is integral to the centre-periphery structuring of the global capitalist economy. One of the results of this is that, from a periphery country perspective, neoliberalism in the core looks a better bet than neoliberalism in the periphery. Likewise, cheap undocumented labour from the periphery often suits the designs of capital-owners in the core as a means of disciplining labour. Hence the pressure of global labour migration from periphery to core. At the same time, due to Malthusian fears for the future and the vagaries of global private markets, some of the world’s wealthier countries are reverting to the neo-colonial method of the land grab and directly-controlled plantation agriculture – sometimes to the benefit of the landless and marginalised in the target country, but usually to the detriment of those with a stronger foothold in the local economy.

Still, the issue of economic growth from a periphery country perspective doubtless raises tricky issues for environmentalists and ‘post-capitalists’. In the words of global poverty expert Branko Milanovic, economic growth is:

“the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality….One can hardly over-estimate its importance in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical”.

It is, for sure, no fun at all being a poor person living in a growth-oriented economy that isn’t growing. But objections of the sort Milanovic raises were brusquely, and to my mind quite effectively, dismissed long ago as “crocodile tears from latter-day Marie Antoinettes” by steady-state economics pioneer, Herman Daly: “We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future!….what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor”. It is, in any case, impossible for a growth-oriented economy to grow forever. This is partly because of the destructive effects on the wider planetary ecology which, despite all the talk of ‘decoupling’ growth from resource drawdown, remain stubbornly correlated with economic growth. It’s also because economic growth is not continuously sustainable according to its own economic logic.

All this surely suggests there’s an urgent need to break new ground and start figuring out not only how economies might ‘take-off’ but also how they might ‘land’ in the sense of delivering acceptable human health and wellbeing without seeking to grow their resource take endlessly. There’s a long tradition of heterodox economic thinking that tries to think through exactly this point. I plan to write more about it elsewhere, but in brief I’d say it’s hard to see how this could work without people in the ‘developed’ economies living lives that are considerably less resource intensive. Of the four modern political doctrines I identified earlier, agrarian populism is the only one that seems to me capable of addressing this reality attractively (fascism or feudalism would be less attractive alternatives). But at present this is all rather academic, since nobody with significant power in the world is challenging the growth model. As Wolfgang Streeck drily notes,

“what matters for global oligarchic wealth defence…is control over American politics to ensure, for example, that the American Congress will never agree to a global wealth tax as proposed, among others, by Thomas Piketty. As long as this is certain, it does not really matter who governs with what ambitions in France or Germany”

Streeck doesn’t say much about the shifting momentum of the global economy towards Asia, but it seems unlikely that Piketty’s proposals will play any better in Beijing.

Nearly home now – just a few more pieces in this post-neoliberal jigsaw. The modern world has seen various religious fundamentalisms – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist to name a few. These are often seen as some kind of throwback to the premodern past, but are better viewed as modern phenomena – typically an ‘invention of tradition’ by people excluded from the major circuits of wealth and influence in modern polities who seek revitalisation by a ‘traditionalist’ critique of the modern and a validation of their role. Another developing phenomenon under the pressure of contemporary geopolitics and the neoliberal economic order is the spread of ‘failed’ or ‘warlord’ states – either ones like Somalia or Libya that fail more-or-less endogenously, or ones like Iraq and Afghanistan where the intervention of global and/or regional powers does the failing on their behalf. Likewise, there can be ‘failed regions’ within states, where organised crime and banditry proliferates. All such areas can become potent zones for the export of violence against the wider global system – criminal, terrorist or fundamentalist – potentially with disproportionately destabilising effects. The desert nomads of the Axial Age who railed against the corruption of the great cities of their day might have been at home there.

At the same time, an increasingly large number of people can now count themselves among those left out of the major circuits of global wealth and influence, but religious reaction remains something of a minority taste in the contemporary world. Instead, in the face of the fiscalised and technocratic turn of democratic polities, populist articulations of the interests of the ‘little people’ against elite actors have a growing pull. Hence the trajectory of Russia from communism to oligarchic turbo-capitalism and thence to populist nationalism under the aegis of an ex-communist strongman reining in the oligarchs and the liberal public sphere along with them. Various other countries, including perhaps the UK and the USA, seem to be travelling similar roads, or are poised to. Among the many problems with these populisms is the fact that despite their rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ from global institutions and their spurious, undeliverable promises to spend more on the National Health Service (UK) or revive the coal and steel industries (USA), they offer no more solutions to stagnant growth, inequality, debt and the changing global distribution of economic power than the ‘elite’ liberal capitalism they contest, and have neither the capacity nor the stomach to contest the global neoliberal economy in the face of the further impoverishment of their electorates. With wealth in these two countries (among many others) concentrating into ever fewer hands, it’s maybe not so difficult to see why their electorates went for the populist options of EU exit and a Donald Trump presidency, but it’s harder to see what solutions these choices will deliver.

Many voices across the political spectrum – left, right, green – have united to celebrate this apparent death knell for liberalism, including such august voices on the left as the New Left Review, green gurus like John Michael Greer and, on the right, well take your pick. I think it’s correct to argue that there are different kinds of populism, and attempts to vilify them all as a common threat to the liberal democracy that ‘we’ hold dear are both futile and ill-conceived. On the other hand, though persuasive in many respects, the John Judis position endorsed by New Left Review as a “level-headed antidote to the bien-pensant Atlantic hysteria of the hour” with its “fashionable fear of fascism” seems complacent to me, as does the uncritical endorsement of populisms among many left/green thinkers apparently on the grounds that at least Donald Trump isn’t Hilary Clinton, and at least Theresa May isn’t Jean-Claude Juncker. Even NLR’s own reviewer of Judis’s book says that it’s “difficult to share his nonchalance about our stable political future”. Fascism, nativism or something like them is one very obvious future trajectory for the populism of the moment to take – as the curve of politics in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and India may already suggest. If that seems less likely in the US or Western Europe, it’s surely because of the strength of the liberal public sphere that it’s become so fashionable to deride. In future posts I plan to make a cautious pitch for a certain kind of agrarian populism, one that tries to retain elements of the liberal public sphere that’s so derided by people like Donald Trump and John Michael Greer. That, I think, still makes me a ‘populist’, but not one supportive of any kind of populism. Let me whisper it – there are some things that may be even worse than Hilary Clinton.

A possibly anomalous case in all this is China, probably the country most likely to step into the shoes being vacated by the USA as the leader of global capitalism in the leapfrog race that started back in medieval Europe with the Italian city states. There are those who argue that despite Deng Xiaoping getting the credit for modernising China in the aftermath of Mao’s excesses, the foundations for contemporary China’s capitalist success were laid by Mao with his rural, agrarian focus, which allowed later rulers to build capitalist industry out of small-scale labour-intensive rural industry from the ground up without an urban middle-class to contest for political and economic power.

Hsiao-Hung Pai is having none of that: “The Chinese ruling class is not short of supporters in the West. Certain Orientalist apologists in the Western media – for instance, British journalist Martin Jacques – have embraced the party rhetoric of China developing ‘on its own terms, with its own rules’”. This, she says, is ‘blatantly untrue’, and her work documents the way that China’s recent economic miracle has been built to a considerable degree on the tried-and-tested method of squeezing a surplus out of the peasantry, who are bureaucratically prevented by the household registration system from enjoying the fruits of their own exploited labour. When Ecomodernist Manifesto co-author Mike Shellenberger multiply-tweeted his disdain for my pro-peasant critique of his magnum opus, he wrote “efforts to keep people in villages oppressive”. So I find it quite ironic that this, precisely, has been the strategy of the world’s fastest-growing capitalist power. The question for contemporary agrarian populists such as me is whether we can ‘keep people in villages’ without compelling them to stay there. As I’ll argue in a later post, I think the only way we can keep people in the village is by not compelling them to be there, but that in itself doesn’t take us far in answering the question.

Here though, I think China does present some worthy historical lessons. Pai is probably right that we shouldn’t overdo the ‘Asian path to capitalism’ shtick, but what interests me more is the Asian pre-capitalist path – particularly in the context of Smith’s critique of Europe’s ‘unnatural development’. Looked at from the perspective of the emergence of capitalism and colonialism in the early modern world, maybe it makes sense to talk about the ‘involution’ or ‘equilibrium traps’ that ‘blocked’ parallel developments in Asia. But looked at from the perspective of the godawful mess created by capitalist and colonial ‘development’, it seems to me that a touch of agricultural involution here and a dash of high level equilibrium trap there would be no bad thing at all. For me, the question is how to create a ‘world system’ involving tolerably prosperous and stable agrarian livelihoods, without too much self-overcoming, too much reaching beyond itself for counter-productive ‘development’.

So as I see it humanity now faces a choice. We can continue extolling the virtues of ‘development’, pin our hopes on a rapid decarbonisation of the energy system while retaining something like present levels of energy usage, and imagine that a further iteration of the capitalist economy will somehow overcome the grinding poverty that afflicts so many people in the world today. Or we could take the view that the forms of development offered by this ‘modernism’ have failed. They haven’t increased the efficiency of agriculture or industry, they’ve merely increased the speed with which non-renewable resources are drawn down. They haven’t abolished poverty, but in fact are predicated on its constant re-invention. And, for all my appreciation of Berman’s thinking on the excitement of modernity, I don’t think they’ve provided satisfactory accounts of what modern life is all about. They’ve merely provided endless distractions and projections of a better future built from the never-quite-satisfactory present, which do little more than celebrate ‘progress’ for progress’s sake – as in Leigh Phillips’ panegyrics for a dismal-sounding future of ‘growth, progress, industry and stuff’. There are other thinkers who provide much more sophisticated defences of the amplifying material basis of contemporary capitalism than Phillips, but this scarcely negates the fact that there are better ways of construing social life than a gigantic potlatch.

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

And so we come to instalment #9 of 10½ in my history of the world – a rather lengthy one, but the 20th century was a busy old time. As ever, a fully footnoted and referenced version of the essay is here. And just to note, I’ll be completely offline next week as I’m going to a meeting of small-scale farmers from various parts of the world in Nicaragua. I generally try to avoid flying these days, but the prospect of an expenses-paid trip to look at Nicaraguan farms and talk to other small-scale farmers was too much of a temptation, I’m afraid. Normal service here again from 27 November. I’ll try to weight each word I speak during the trip with such a payload of carbon negativity that its associated emissions will be offset by my utterances alone…That’s doable, right? Talking of words, do feel free to debate (constructively) on here in my absence…unless you’ve never posted before, in which case I’m afraid you’ll have to await my return. And on that note, it’s been good to have a few new voices on here recently…so if you’re reading this but haven’t yet commented…go on…


Let me continue with my chronology by saying that the first part of the 20th century saw the contradictions in the previously-described nexus of capitalist, colonial, modernist, alt-modernist, nationalist and imperial orders transformed in the massive shakedowns of global war and revolution. Pre-modern empires such as Habsburg Austria-Hungary – “the prison of nations” according to Balkan nationalists – along with Tsarist Russia, imperial China and the Ottoman empire came crashing down. To simplify just a bit, there were essentially four main political doctrines contesting for power in this period. First, liberal-democratic capitalism, encompassing both more elitist and more social-democratic variants. Second, communism – and specifically the idea that the industrial wage-earning working-class had a privileged world-historical role to play in overcoming capitalism and installing an egalitarian, socialist, non-market society (which was not how communism turned out in practice). Third, agrarian populism – the idea that the state should focus primarily upon supporting small-scale farmer-proprietors, the backbone of many contemporary societies. Fourth, fascism – a weird amalgam of most of the others, encompassing a mixture of egalitarian workerist ideology with private sector capitalism and state dirigisme, a kind of hyper-development of the nationalist identification between the people and the polity in which ‘the people’ were more or less sublimated within the agency of a neo-imperialist state, a vaunting of the peasant and the countryside as nationalist ideals (rarely a vaunting of actual peasants, who weren’t much moved by fascism) and an often racialized treatment of pariah groups traversing the spectrum from discrimination to genocide – all of which drew in some ways upon the alt-modernist tradition and in other ways represented a politics of ressentiment which was its absolute negation.

A further word on agrarian populism, an almost forgotten idea today but one that had powerful traction in many parts of the world around the turn of the 20th century and one that, in my opinion, sorely needs reviving. In the USA, the People’s Party seriously contested for power in the late 19th century, but quickly fizzled out. Historical orthodoxy on what US agrarian populism stood for has been subject to various revisions over time – in the mid-20th century the populists were commonly dismissed as hayseeds who failed to adjust to the invigorating winds of modernity. By the 1960s, when those winds had soured, historians were treating them as prescient anti-capitalist communitarians, who saw what corporate capitalism had in store for the world and wisely rejected it. In more recent scholarship, the US populists have been portrayed as rural progressive-capitalists who were pretty much on-message with the major trends in the emerging contemporary capitalist order, but just had a more agrarian and ruralist vision for it than the course that history actually took. Certainly, it could be argued that an anti-capitalist peasant populism was never deeply rooted in the USA or Canada because of the historical peculiarities of their settler-colonial ‘American path’ to capitalism that I mentioned earlier. But where does that argument lead? Well, we’ll come back to that question soon.

First, though, another example of agrarian populism – the US’s southern neighbour. The Mexican Revolution was the first of six major ‘peasant wars of the twentieth century’ analysed by Eric Wolf in his classic text (the others being Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba). In Wolf’s analysis, what distinguished these 20th century peasant insurrections was that they weren’t simply reactionary attempts to slough off the capitalist state and ‘turn the clock back’ – they were attempts to find new social forms that overcame the depredations worked by the capitalist world economy on peasant producers. In Mexico, this manifested in a rather complex set of alliances between peasant cultivators steeped in indigenous rural-communal traditions (eg. the Morelos peasants under Zapata), the caudillo cowboy capitalists of Villa’s northern army and its military entrepreneurs (perhaps a modern variant of that age-old archetype, the predatory pastoralist) and a disaffected professional-intellectual class of ‘marginal men’, which in the Mexican case was influenced by the anarchism of Ricardo Flores Magón but elsewhere looked to other sources of inspiration such as communism. The category of the disaffected intellectual seems to me an important player in the new anti-establishment politics of modernity, if I say so myself. I think Marshall Berman analyses it beautifully in the case of Russia in his aforementioned book. But in Mexico, although the convention forces represented by Zapata and Villa effectively won the war, they didn’t win the revolutionary peace. The iconic moment was Zapata and Villa meeting in the Palacio Nacional, having taken Mexico City. Villa, sitting in the presidential chair, allegedly said to Zapata that it was “too big for us”. The peasant revolutionaries had no real plan for controlling the country as a whole, and drifted back to their regional strongholds. In Wolf’s words “final victory rewarded an elite which had created a viable army, demonstrated bureaucratic competence, and consolidated its control over the vital export sector of the economy”. Revolutionary hostilities ended in 1920, and the country fell under the strong-arm rule of the PRI, the ‘Institutional Revolution Party’, right through to the 21st century – a party that retained some vestiges of agrarian populist sentiment and a lot of socialist and anti-colonial rhetoric, but essentially followed a private sector-friendly and in some respects quasi-fascist corporate structure.

The logic of Wolf’s analysis, then, is that peasants – even in their contemporary guise as savvy modernist anti-capitalists – don’t quite cut it as revolutionaries. This was Lenin’s view too, which was roughly that if you leave revolution in the hands of peasants all you’ll get is equalisation of land and the removal of taxes. He wasn’t much more complimentary about industrial workers, considering their typical politics to amount to little more than the ‘trade unionism’ of better pay and conditions. So, for him, you needed party cadres to push revolution successfully beyond these ‘capitalist’ limits towards communism.

Lenin and communism: I’ll take that as a cue to bundle up some more 20th century history with a few conceptual issues concerning peasantries. So, one of the numerous embarrassments for 20th century Marxism was that while the master himself had predicted that communist revolution would occur in the most advanced capitalist countries where the arc of history decreed the purest of final battles between capital and labour, in fact all the major communist revolutions of the century were peasant-dominated ones in countries of the semi-periphery. With some, albeit limited, justification, Lenin recuperated the capital-labour clash within the peasantry by defining a stratum of ‘rich’ proto-capitalist peasants, and ‘poor’/landless proto-proletarian peasants in Russia, amongst other places. He also identified the stratum of the middle peasant which, he wrote, “inevitably vacillates” between the capitalist/proletarian interests of the other two. It therefore had to be “neutralised” by the revolutionary proletariat – neutralised, he explained, in the sense of “rendered neutral in the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie”, but without coercion.

With a bit more history at his disposal, Eric Wolf argued on the contrary that in the peasant wars of the 20th century it was precisely the middle peasants who were the most revolutionary class. But, as I’ve mentioned, Lenin wasn’t an enthusiast of peasant revolutions of whatever stripe. His criticism of the left agrarian populists – the narodniki – and their vision of an egalitarian peasant society is instructive,

“The more decisive and complete the success of the peasant revolution, the more speedily will the peasant transform himself into an independent capitalist farmer and wave good-bye to the socialism of the narodniki

As things turned out, the Russian peasantry was ‘neutralised’ more or less in its entirety by Lenin’s successor, and with a great deal of coercion. There are those who argue that this ruthless forced industrialisation enabled Russia to become the powerful modern capitalist country that it is today, which adds a layer of irony to Lenin’s strictures against the narodniki. But it surely wasn’t a surprising development. For all the Cold War duality of the late 20th century between the liberal-capitalist and communist paths, they were both scions of high modernist thought and shared more similarities than differences: an emphasis on disciplined labour, revolutionary breakthroughs, scientific and social progress – including ‘scientific’ leadership of mass society – and large-scale technological solutions. In China, Mao’s (equally ruthless) communism was more grounded in an agrarian productivism of a peasant-dominated countryside – though as Wolf cautions, the Chinese communists weren’t a ‘peasant party’ despite the fact that most of their membership were peasants. Rather, like their Russian counterparts they “were able to harness peasant energies, but for ends never dreamed of by the peasantry”. Though, conversely, Maoist movements have also tended to harness their own energies for dreams of a purified peasantism that were anti-modernist in content but modernist and totalitarian in design. This would apply, for example, to regimes like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. I’d like to think that the ideology of peasantism is capacious enough for me to espouse a version of it without having to expend a lot of energy differentiating my position from the Khmer Rouge, but in case there’s any doubt let me state categorically that I don’t think Democratic Kampuchea is a good model for a peasant republic.

In the event, it was Russian communism that collapsed under the weight of its crypto-capitalist contradictions, whereas Chinese communism after Mao transmogrified into an emerging global capitalist power while retaining its authoritarian regime, which remained nominally committed to communism. Some argue that this was potentiated by the rural-peasant economic focus of Maoism – in which case, do we have to generalise from Lenin’s critique of the narodniki and conclude that all roads ultimately lead to capitalism? I’d argue a qualified ‘yes’ – like a replicating virus, once the capitalist economic machinery is unleashed it ultimately becomes hard for other economic forms to do anything but turn themselves into replicas of it, regardless of the damage it causes to the host. Perhaps the recent capitalist development path of Japan and the so-called ‘Asian tiger’ economies like Taiwan and South Korea, which built industrial societies partly via public sector investment from a platform of support for small-scale farming, further underlines the point.  But the ‘yes’ is qualified – for reasons I’ll examine in a later post.

A relevant contemporary coda to the modernist enthusiasm for technical progress and increasing scale shared by capitalism and communism is the embarrassing fact for them that small-scale farming often out-produces large-scale capitalist enterprises on an acre for acre basis – a finding that, despite the best efforts of Marxist and/or modernist critics to argue otherwise, isn’t completely explicable in terms of peasant self-exploitation in circumstances of economic stress (though it partly is). One of the problems with the ‘inverse productivity relationship’ literature is that ‘productivity’ is measured in different ways – typically farm income or yields of a key staple crop, but rarely human flourishing. Nor are upstream and downstream input costs usually incorporated – fossil energy used, greenhouse gases emitted, nitrate pollution caused. If they were, it’s a fair bet that the inverse productivity relationship would intensify. The truth is that agriculture has been far less amenable to trade-off free efficiency improvements through technological transformation than other economic sectors, and there are good scientific reasons why putting humans at the ecological centre of the small farm pays dividends. It’s still the orthodoxy to decry the ‘inefficiency’ of the small peasant farm relative to the large, mechanised capitalist one, but I’d argue that it’s a less forgivable mistake now than in 1899. Anyway, I suspect small farmers may have the last laugh. I like David Mitrany’s prescient comment from 1951: “Experience would almost suggest that often it is the smallholder and not the capitalist farmer who could best satisfy the Marxist demand for scientific, prolific cultivation”. Unfortunately, contemporary Marxists and capitalists alike still seem a bit too in thrall to Lenin and Kautsky.

Still, I don’t want to discount the benefits of the Marxist tradition in drawing attention to class and other conflicts in the rural or peasant world. Numerous rural populist movements have tended to conceal specific class, gender or ethnic interests. As I’ve previously mentioned, ‘the peasantry’ isn’t a unified category, and it’s important to remain attuned to whose interests are being represented within agrarian populist movements and whose are being sidelined – a point both tirelessly and tiresomely documented by the Marxist analyst and sometime editor of The Journal of Peasant Studies, Tom Brass.

The problem with Brass is that he defines class conflict a priori as effectively the only true basis for human action – so for him any movement or theory that invokes any other motives is by definition a mystification. The mystifications that he especially disdains are anything essential or emotional – love of place, of home, of the rural, of nature, of local culture, or perhaps of what the pioneering anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus called “the mystery of the wheat shaft breaking through the hard crust of earth” – in keeping with the preference for relations over essences or ‘reification’ exhibited by social scientists in general and Marxists in particular, who often seem too busy revelling in the relational dynamics of their grand historical dialectics to revel in the world as it’s experienced. I chose the epigraph from Old Crow Medicine Show at the start of my essay to exemplify this way of thinking – “the land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a hurtin’” and the song from which it comes captures a mode of agrarian thinking that’s critical of its circumstances but fully inhabits the imperfect present in a way that’s alien to Marxism and to most social science. Of course, it’s as well to ask whose interests are being advanced in any particular situation, but reading Brass prompts the question of what kind of life would ultimately satisfy him? My guess is something that would look a lot like the Ecomodernist Manifesto – an egalitarian, urban world of limitless energy, consumer items, scientific marvels, labour-saving devices and mental stimulation, tantalisingly within reach but always just receding from the disappointing present into the achievable perfection of the near future. You’ve got to admire him for spending so much time studying peasants.

Few adopt so dogmatic an anti-populism as Brass, but the same ambience invests a good deal of academic writing about peasantries, particularly in the Journal of Peasant Studies which must surely be one of the few academic periodicals that has been so resolutely dedicated to abolishing the object of its enquiry. Terence Byres, for example, another erstwhile editor of the journal, has written some incisive critiques of contemporary agrarian populism, essentially along the lines that naïve ‘peasant way’ thinking can be insufficiently attuned to the subtleties of class conflict and the insinuation of capitalist economic relations in the countryside. But the problem is that Byres’ subtle understanding of rural class relations is yoked to an unsubtle Marxist teleology in which capitalism seems to be regarded as a necessary and superior, if painful, stage for peasantries to go through before they can exit from its other side, presumably into some kind of socialist utopia of material plenty. So, for example, in critiquing neo-populist calls for rural land reform Byres argues,

“industrial growth….with concomitant shifts of labour from the countryside, has been a crucial means by which rural poverty has been reduced and eradicated historically”

…a statement of orthodox, unilinear pro-capitalism of the kind you’d expect to cross the lips of a Walt Rostow or a Stewart Brand – which just goes to show once again the close affinities between Marxism and capitalism. Still, there’s undoubtedly some truth in the remark – except that it isn’t a radical solution to rural poverty because, as argued earlier, industrialisation conforms to a dynamic of uneven development, turning poverty into a whack-a-mole game of shifting centres and peripheries. Industrial wage labour is certainly one strategy pursued by the rural poor when they can, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward route out of poverty either at the individual or the global level. In a likely future context of slowing economic growth and ecological crisis, neo-populist attempts to understand why poor people stay poor and redress them locally through the structures of agrarian life seem to me well conceived.

So there’s a growth or accumulation fetish in much writing on poverty and development (grow the economy and poverty will ultimately reduce) which is understandable but, I think, increasingly problematic. In this sense, I’d argue that Byres’ critique of agrarian neo-populism for its ahistorical utopianism becomes the epitaph for his own anti-peasant Marxism:

“To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes….one…has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past. They are déjà passé.”

Quite so. The days when it was a good idea to advocate for the capitalist transformation of peasant farming as a route to improved wellbeing and ultimately to socialism, if they ever existed, are now clearly in the past. What’s emerged more strongly since Byres wrote those words is the contemporary food sovereignty movement associated with the international peasant movement La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’) – perhaps what could be called a ‘neo-neo-populist’ movement, with British offshoots in the form of the Scottish crofters’ federation and my own organisation, the Land Workers’ Alliance. Food sovereignty arguably transcends the old debates between populists and Marxists – a new discourse of “growers and eaters” which is “re-envisioning the conditions necessary to develop sustainable and democratic forms of social reproduction. Still, it remains vulnerable to critique at both its less radical and more radical edges. At the less radical edge, it doubtless runs risks of the kind identified by both Lenin and Byres – a successful local agrarianism that gradually turns itself into a landholder-dominated or ‘yeoman’ capitalism, which abandons its sustainable and democratic founding principles. At the more radical edge, it’s perhaps vulnerable to the kind of criticisms levelled by Henry Bernstein against the food sovereignty movement – the implausibility of local, small-scale, low-tech farming feeding the world’s swelling billions who are increasingly located in urban areas dependent on an industrial and globalised agroecosystem. That surely invites a counter-critique: it’s unlikely that the global-industrial agroecosystem will ultimately prove able to feed the urban billions either, with the rather radical implication that perhaps the time has come for governments to pursue de-urbanisation (though maybe not so radical – they did, after all, pursue urbanisation policies at a time when they seemed a good idea, and could presumably do the opposite in changed circumstances). The usefulness of these critiques is perhaps in encouraging the food sovereignty movement to develop wider political and policy frameworks that are more specifically grounded than its founding utopian visions – and in not assuming that local markets are necessarily any more benevolent in and of themselves than distant ones. That’s something I hope to contribute to in future posts that build on the historical analysis offered here.

For their part, the economic founding fathers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx usually avoided explicit utopian visioning, so the utopianism of neoliberals and Marxists alike tends to remain rather hidden, but not absent, as a result. However, even Marx provided a famous utopian image of an achieved communist society:

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

…which, aside from ‘society regulating the general production’, sounds a lot like your average peasant utopia. That passage is from The German Ideology, published in 1845 when Marx was 27 – a hinge point in his thinking according to Louis Althusser, who argued that Marx achieved an ‘epistemological break’ at this point and put aside such whimsies thereafter for a truly ‘scientific’, anti-humanist and structuralist socialism. Althusser’s work was highly influential in its time and was still being inflicted in the 1980s on bemused undergraduates like me, but it hasn’t aged well. Another and almost opposite recuperation of Marx’s later thinking that I find much more attractive has been set out in a fascinating recent book by Kristin Ross about the influence of the short-lived Paris Commune on radical thought. According to Ross, the events in Paris and the rise of peasant  communisms in Eastern Europe led Marx to retreat from his grand Hegelian narratives concerning the dialectical progress of history from peasant to capitalist society and only thence to communism. Instead, she says, he developed a more contingent sense of the possibilities for radical egalitarian government in specific times and places, such as a peasant communism in Russia grounded in traditional peasant communal institutions like the ‘village council’ – the mir or obshina. Ross traces the same idea in the crossover of anarchist and communist thought represented by such figures as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus. A somewhat ‘backward-looking’ contemporary Russian nationalism is also reinvesting these institutions with political meaning, but Ross stresses that in the hands of radicals like Marx and Kropotkin the point wasn’t to fetishise the communal institutions of the past, but to build from them, in Kropotkin’s words, “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”.

The difficulty, I think, is that the conditions in which it’s feasible to build plausible ‘bottom-up’ anarchist-communist societies are unusual, and their chances of longevity are slight – either because they’re annihilated by the stronger forces of the centralised state (as happened with the Paris Commune), or because they succumb to the internal contradictions of their own somewhat hidden power dynamics. Still, Ross’s analysis raises a lot of interesting questions concerning the course that a free, egalitarian peasant society of the future might take.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts – 8. Of reconstituted peasantries and alternate modernities

Continuing with my ‘History of the world’. As ever, the fully referenced version of this essay is available here.

I’m going to come back to the issue of peasantries as the ‘universal class’ at the end of this essay. For now, I’d just like to broach the issue by returning to the question of peasantries under capitalism by way of what the doyen of Caribbean anthropology, Sidney Mintz, called ‘reconstituted peasantries’. Mintz was referring specifically to the rise of peasant farmers in the Caribbean around the edges and in the aftermath of the slave plantation system – people who weren’t originally peasants, but workers in the capitalist world economy (plantation slaves) who turned to peasant farming as the best available option open to them under changing circumstances.

I’d like to submit Mintz’s concept for more generalised use – at points of breakdown in the capitalist world system, peasant production can present itself as an attractive or, at least, as a least-worst option. For those of us who suspect that major breakdowns in the capitalist world system are likely in future, the possibility of a more widespread emergence of ‘reconstituted peasantries’ becomes interesting. If that’s how things turn out, an intriguing question is the extent to which post-capitalist reconstituted peasantries of the future might resemble any peasantries of the capitalist or pre-capitalist past. In other words, is the history of agrarian production and its social structures prior to and during the development of the capitalist world system relevant to its future after capitalism – does agrarian society have a predictable structuring – or have I been wasting my time reading and writing about all this history? The answer will surely depend on how capitalism might end, and what form post-capitalist states might take – questions that remain rather disreputable to mainstream thought, particularly when one starts talking about a future return to peasant farming. But, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s a growing sub-genre of ‘post-capitalist’ writing available. One of the problems with it is precisely that it doesn’t adequately talk about peasants or the contemporary ‘agrarian question’ – what Mazoyer and Roudart call a world agrarian crisis that requires the development of the ‘poor peasant economy’.

In any case, to summarise where we’ve got to in this survey of capitalism, I’ve charted above three main dimensions of capitalist development – agriculture, manufactures and commerce – and given some weighting to commerce in its military-colonial expansionary drive as the main engine of the ‘Great Divergence’ that has made the west the core region of the world economic system over the last two centuries or so. But as well as looking at what actually happened, is it also worth applying some normative judgment to the ‘proper’ course of economic development? Well, we could surely do worse than follow the example of Adam Smith, much feted pioneering theorist of the modern capitalist economy who, among other things, has posthumously donated his name to the eponymous institute much beloved of Margaret Thatcher and succeeding generations of neoliberals, which has done more than its share in spreading the neoliberal doctrine of untrammelled private markets as the solution to all the world’s ills. Smith emphasised the “soft, gentle and amiable virtues” necessary to the commercial society his work foretold, but he argued that such “general security and happiness…afford little exercise to the contempt of danger, to patience in enduring labour, hunger and pain” which he seemingly preferred. He identified a “natural course of things” in which “the greater part of capital…is, first, directed to agriculture, afterwards to manufactures, and last of all to foreign commerce”. He found this ‘natural course’ in the history of China, whereas in Europe he considered the ordering reversed – which he found “unnatural and retrograde”. Buried within the ur-text of capitalism’s impetus to commercialisation and genteel progress, perhaps there lurks a hankering for the more muscular virtues of an agrarian republic?

So let me now trace some of the ways the virulent new capitalist political economy played out across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century ended as it began with many of the world’s people working primarily as small-scale, self-providing cultivators under the weaker or stronger suzerainty of large empires whose rise predated capitalism. But things weren’t the same at century’s end as at the beginning – a globalising capitalist economy had thoroughly penetrated the existing order and dominated it politically through direct or indirect colonial rule. As I’ve already mentioned, in some cases apparently ‘traditional’ lifeways of peasant subsistence were augmented or even created through colonial processes that sapped the economic lifeblood of conquered polities and their peoples, making subsistence cultivation a strategy of last resort. In others, the surplus-producing aspects of peasant production were redirected to the ends of the capitalist world system. There are numerous variants of this capitalist appropriation of peasant surplus production across the modern global economy – including the increasingly demonised and disciplined category of impoverished international labour migrants, many of whom remain connected to a farm and village back home, and may indeed be working in the short-term for low wages in a ‘developed’ country in order to generate sufficient wealth to establish themselves as a landowner or ‘rich peasant’ able to be relatively independent locally of world market forces. So whereas there are those who say that more capitalism is needed in order to end the misery of peasant life, there are also those who seek more peasantism in order to end the misery of capitalist life.

Meanwhile, nationalism took shape on the political stage – essentially a family of doctrines which weaponised differences of language, religion, phenotype or putatively shared culture-history. Such differences had long prompted human conflicts back into antiquity (perhaps with the exception of phenotype). What was different with modern nationalism was the notion that these differences coincided organically with the boundaries of sovereign political states, which were the only legitimate representatives of ‘the people’. With undeniable emotional power, nationalism makes us think that an entity like ‘Britain’ is a natural political unit (or ‘England’ at any rate – oh dear, we’re running into difficulties already). But as Immanuel Wallerstein points out, nationalism is always a case of “First the boundaries, later the passions” – historically, an Angevin polity of England, Wales and western France could plausibly have stabilised itself after Henry II. What then of an immemorial ‘Englishness’?

The genesis of these nationalisms was multi-factorial. I wrote earlier of their gestational phase in the absolutist states of the late medieval period, but they only assumed their contemporary form in the clash between egalitarian Enlightenment rationalism and Counter-Enlightenment romanticism. Bruce Kapferer nicely summarizes the problem raised by this clash and the way that nationalism tries to resolve it:

“Among nation-states formed within the conditions of egalitarian individualism the issue of legitimacy has an enduring problematic specific to it. This is so because the individual autonomy preached as a central part of egalitarianism potentially conflicts with the loss or surrender of this autonomy to others, specifically agents of the state. One resolution, part of the fury of Western political discourse from the seventeenth century on, is precisely the argument that the state embodies the pure spirit of the people and is the guardian of this spirit.”

Other elements of the nationalist package included an emerging biological-racial consciousness of human difference, secularization and the eclipse of religion, and the emergence of mass societies in which people no longer lived in rural face-to-face communities of known others, but large conurbations of strangers – mass circulation newspapers, sports and other 19th century innovations enabled the creation of new ‘imagined communities’ and new ‘invented traditions’, to use the powerful metaphors invoked by two influential theorists of nationalism.

But alongside these efforts to forge a mass common purpose within the exclusive boundaries of the nation, a counter-tradition developed that sought to recuperate the sovereign individual from the tawdriness of the emerging capitalist mass society. The tradition defies easy summary, partly because it’s scarcely unified, but in an interesting recent essay Gopal Balakrishnan calls it a ‘revolution from the right’, involving a “miscellany of opposition to the welfare state, godless Marxism and a more nebulously conceived cultural levelling…a call to true elites to stand their ground against a world-wide revolt of the masses”. Balakrishnan traces its lineages through the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler’s Decline of the West, the ‘Nazi jurist’ Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss. It’s not a tradition, I confess, in which I’m especially well versed or feel comfortable with – and in its cruder variants it’s one that’s easy to dismiss as a kind of disgusted reactionary response to what struck its proponents as the unstoppable rise of the (sometimes racialized) hoi polloi, a kind of counter-modernity to the one described by Berman. Still, I can see that a figure like Nietzsche, for example – with his pronouncements on the death of God and modern disenchantment, on the slave revolt in morals, on the vengeful politics of ressentiment – has important things to say about living in the modern world and the issues of political sovereignty it involves. But I find it all a bit overblown, and if I wanted to ground my politics in a consistent theory of being I think I’d want to look towards cooler philosophies like stoicism or Taoism as a basis for a self-reliant agrarian politics.

Balakrishnan’s ‘revolution from the right’ is important, though – partly because of its influence on the radical right-wing politics of the present and recent past, and partly because of the new crossovers it has with leftist thought on the terrain of contemporary environmentalism, which I’ve been butting up against recently on this blog. From Spengler to John Michael Greer, Heidegger to Paul Kingsnorth, maybe even Nietzsche to David Fleming (or maybe not…), there’s an undertow of Balakrishnan’s right-wing ‘alternate modernity’ as well as an egalitarian leftism in these contemporary radical ecological thinkers. I mention this here not primarily to criticise them for it. I think there’s something in the counter-tradition they’re invoking that’s necessary and largely absent from the left-green politics that’s more comfortable terrain for the likes of me – something that’s easily traduced by crude polemicists of the doctrinaire left as just another iteration of the far-right nature mysticism investing early 20th century environmentalism. Even so, I think Kingsnorth and Fleming’s cautious flirtations with nationalism, and Greer’s (and to some extent Kingsnorth’s) uncritical approbation of Donald Trump as a kind of avatar of Spenglerian decline and/or avenger of liberal-capitalist complacency are problematic. I plan to write more about this soon when I’ve got to grips with it better – meanwhile, I’ve found Balakrishnan’s essay useful for placing this current of contemporary environmentalist thought into a deeper historical context.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 6. Capitalism II – Cores and Peripheries

My post last week on livestock seemed to make a slightly larger ripple in cyberspace than my usual offerings. Ah well, it’s an issue that always has legs – unlike the meat alternatives proposed by George Monbiot. The whole kerfuffle about meat in the media last week stemmed from the Food Climate Research Network’s report Grazed and Confused, a title which aptly summarises not only a good deal of the ensuing media debate but also the state of DEFRA officials as they contemplate a post-EU future for British agriculture. Their boss Michael Gove has apparently been talking enthusiastically about ‘sustainable intensification’. Expect a future in which blandishments about ‘eco-friendly’ feedlot beef and ‘sustainable’ electric cars divert us from the truth that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before, which is what actually matters. I’m not sure that the FCRN is keeping its eye on the ball on this one: maybe they should have called their report The Wood for the Trees.

Still, what can I do? Get back to my history of the world, that’s what. But thanks for all the extra comments last time, and apologies for not responding to all of them – non-response is not indicative of ingratitude or lack of interest on my part. Anyway, this week I bring you an entirely non-controversial topic – European colonialism – so nothing much to comment on there, right? I’ll note as usual that a fully referenced version of the excerpt below is available here.


So, back to the main thread of my story: in weighing up capitalism’s historical record, it’s also necessary to reckon with the fact that capitalism has never confined itself to single national economies. Doubtless Stalin did everywhere except Russia a favour when he proclaimed ‘socialism in one country’, but there’s never been ‘capitalism in one country’. In one sense, we can look at this in terms of the kind of ‘ratchet effect’ mentioned earlier. Capitalist states are able to generate and direct more money, and therefore more power, than other ones – than agrarian ones in particular. So states that had sufficient resources and institutional capital to be able to play the same game as the leading capitalist powers (in the early modern world, the Netherlands and England) had an incentive to play catch-up, which they did either by imposing capitalism from above (the aristocratic ‘Prussian path’) or, in places conveniently free of aristocracies, building it from below (the ‘American path’).

The catch-up game is still a very common way of thinking about inequalities in the global economy. For whatever reason, the economies of the early capitalist powers ‘took off’, and all that’s needed now is for the ‘developing’ economies to take off too, and then everyone will be happy (…provided we assume that everyone in the ‘developed’ countries is happy). But another line of argument suggests that the early capitalist powers took off at the direct expense of other parts of the world – an idea pursued influentially in Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of ‘uneven development’, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, and Andre Gunder Frank’s dependency theory. In their different ways all these theories suggest that ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ are two sides of the same coin. The title of one of Frank’s papers – ‘The development of underdevelopment’encapsulates the key idea. ‘Underdevelopment’ isn’t something that exists in the absence of ‘development’, but in its presence. So a key question in this tradition is how international commerce created a capitalist world economy with dominant and subordinate geopolitical components – which is still true today, even as the dominance is shifting towards Asia. Since the 1820s, but never before, the average individual’s economic prospects have been conditioned more strongly by their country of birth than by the economic standing of their parents.

Wallerstein introduced the concept of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ into his analysis of the capitalist world system. Essentially, he argued that there was a geopolitical gradation of labour forms, from the ‘free’ wage labour of the European core, to peasantries and/or tenants in the semi-periphery, through to unfree labour (slaves, serfs) in the periphery, and thence foragers or ‘primitive’ agriculturists in the primal world beyond the capitalist world system. I think this remains a useful way of thinking about the geopolitics of contemporary capitalism. The capitalist economy requires a stratum of wealthy consumers who are able to buy its products (hence the ‘free’ wage labourers of the rich world, who have no means of subsistence except their own labour, but a large purchasing power as a result of that labour). But in order to attain the requisite returns on investment it also has to minimise labour costs – which it achieves where it can by giving workers nothing but their subsistence, if that. The geopolitical manifestation of this contradiction is the well-remunerated consumer-wage-labourers of the wealthy core areas, and the poor labourers of the periphery. This creates strong incentives for workers in the periphery to migrate to the core where it’s easier to become a wealthy consumer-labourer, but a capitalist world system can’t be all core and no periphery if it’s to survive – it requires the tension of centre-periphery relations. At the same time, the need for constantly compounding economic growth in the capitalist economy creates the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ – the need to find ever new arenas for investment. This gives capital enormous transformative power in the periphery through its ability to create geopolitical linkage – for example, turning foragers into fur-traders, or self-reliant horticulturists into purveyors of coffee or frozen asparagus, with profound effects on local social relations. Such developments don’t often change the basic geopolitics of core and periphery, but over the longer historical haul sometimes they do. The capitalist economy is globally dynamic. In the long run, core may become periphery and vice versa.

Thus, the “secret scandal of capitalism”, as David Graeber puts it, is that “at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor”. In the Atlantic world system organised by the early modern capitalist powers of western Europe, the chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas was a key dynamic – bequeathing disastrous long-term consequences across large parts of the African continent and a host of problems in American societies down to the present. The Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams first mooted the idea that the profits of colonial slavery in the Americas opened the way for the industrial revolution in Europe – and his general thesis, if not the precise details of his analysis, have gained considerable acceptance.

Meanwhile in eastern Europe, cereal export production for the lucrative markets of a prosperously capitalist western subcontinent reinvigorated serfdom. That was one extreme of the peasant experience under capitalism, but overall the picture was complex and mixed. In some times and places, peasants left or lost their land and became wage labourers with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. In others, things went in the opposite direction – the destruction of local polities in the capitalist world-system led to a ‘re-peasantisation’ of local labour, a process which some argue is ongoing, even in wealthy parts of the world such as Europe. Elsewhere, the capitalist economy merely co-opted and re-directed the peasant labour process. Whereas before peasants had produced their own subsistence and then provided surplus in the form of crops, money or labour-service to local polities, under the emerging capitalist world-system many peasants continued to produce their own subsistence, while surrendering their surplus to an increasingly globalised economy – often in the form of new cash crops demanded from the core like sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, indigo, rubber and tropical fruits, which were grown either directly as peasant cash-crops, or on plantations whose labour demands articulated with local peasant economies. Clifford Geertz’s influential study of ‘agricultural involution’ in Indonesia is a case in point. Geertz argued that yields of wet rice are enormously responsive to additional labour inputs (in technical terms, the marginal productivity of labour remains quite constant – wet rice is a relatively non-Malthusian crop). With the subsistence needs of a crowded peasant populace thus taken care of, local and European entrepreneurs working through existing channels of political authority imposed an ecologically complementary but economically extractive sugar cash-cropping regimen on the rice-growing peasantry. This, in Geertz’s opinion, resulted in stasis and ‘involution’, a blocked economic ‘take-off’, with the vast surpluses generated by peasant production once again going elsewhere, just as they did in Goubert’s 17th century France. This kind of peasantry remains widespread today, and it’s important to understand the manner of its insertion into the global capitalist economy. It’s all too commonly believed, even among those who ought to know better, that poor peasant farmers in the world today have been “left behind by modernity”. The truth is that ‘modernity’ has them exactly where it wants them.

Britain emerged in the early modern period as the dominant capitalist-colonial power, perhaps symbolised by its victories across far-flung territories in the Seven Years War (1756-63), which has sometimes been called the first ‘world war’. But not long after that, it got itself in a tangle trying to remember whether to be a tax-state or a tribute-state, losing the USA to the first and perhaps the most successful modern anti-colonial revolt. Doubtless the US revolt was successful in part because it was essentially a family argument within a group of colonizers. The second modern anti-colonial revolt was the slave uprising that turned French Saint-Domingue into Haiti, but it proved much less successful – nervous colonial and slaveholding powers played their part in making sure of that.

It’s tempting to think of the emerging USA as its own geographic world-system in the manner of Wallerstein, with wage labour in its northeastern core, peasant labour in its western semi-periphery and enslaved labour in its southern periphery – which is possibly illuminating, provided it’s not turned into an evolutionary sequence from a ‘backward’ south to a ‘progressive’ northeast. Criticisms of slave plantation production on the grounds of the superior efficiency of free labour as well as the inhumanity of human bondage have long been made, not least in the antebellum politics of the USA out of which emerged the civil war between the ‘free’ north and the slave south. But, just as in early modern Europe, the truth is that capitalism has components of both industrial wage labour and colonial commerce – deciding which is the ‘purer’ form is of less consequence than the historical reality of how people chose to operate in their given circumstances. The western ‘semi-periphery’ was another front in the battle between proponents of slavery and freedom, though the modernist or humanitarian credentials of those struggling to keep it free from slavery shouldn’t be overstated. The Free Soil Party gained the support of black leaders like Frederick Douglass, but its call was to salvage the west “for the Caucasian race” – and racially-divided politics of this sort continued to invest agrarian populism later on in US history.

The peasants of the US western semi-periphery weren’t much like the ones of Geertz’s Indonesia, still less those of Wickham’s medieval ‘peasant mode of production’. In historian Geoff Cunfer’s words the pioneers of the plains “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”. Cunfer does, however, emphasise the skill with which they figured out how to farm the prairies, and defends them against what he sees as over-simplified censure for soil erosion and the dust bowl, arguing that this stemmed fundamentally from longer-range climatic cycles. It’s an interesting point when set alongside the US tradition of agroecological critique, which sees the arrival of European farming methods with the settlers as inherently unsustainable and destructive. Cunfer’s view that settlers steeped in European peasant farming traditions were able to devise a workable new agriculture on the prairies within a few decades is suggestive for future peasant adaptation – as, alas, is his analysis of their failure to work out an effective property regime around water use, and their susceptibility to larger order climatic constraint. Not for the first time in this essay, though, the strongest force for change that emerges was the socio-economic linkages these farmers had to the wider world system, and not the immediate ecological circumstances.  What Cunfer is describing here is essentially the ‘American’ path to capitalism mentioned earlier, pursued on a sparsely populated, demilitarised and expanding colonial frontier by settler-colonists of peasant extraction, often attempting more or less self-consciously to escape the Geertzian fate courted by their counterparts in their countries of origin. Or perhaps we could draw a parallel with debates on the origins of capitalism in England – was the prime mover the ‘lords’ of the northeast, the ‘peasants’ of the west, or the ‘merchants’ of the south? Probably all of them. There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, about the numerous logics of peasant production in the colonial and post-colonial Americas – but for the purposes of this essay, regrettably it’s time to move on…

…Because we need to look at those parts of the world where there was apparently no path to capitalist development, ‘American’ or otherwise. There’s a long intellectual tradition in Europe or ‘the west’ which contrasts European ‘development’ with the stasis or backwardness of other places. It goes at least as far back as 18th century Enlightenment figures like Montesquieu, and despite influential critiques of this ‘Orientalist’ tendency in western scholarship it’s alive and well today among numerous writers, including public intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Jared Diamond. But it’s now fairly clear that modern economic dynamism originated neither in England nor in Europe alone (and national boundaries can mislead: even though ‘England’ was an early capitalist player, capitalist relations were much stronger in some parts of England than others). Even if we retain a traditional obsession with the emergence of capitalism as the sine qua non of ‘development’, a more even-handed contemporary scholarship suggests that there were incipient forms of capitalist development in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East contemporaneously in the early modern period. It can’t be denied that Europe in general and England in particular – along with its colonial offshoots in the New World later on – did rise to global dominance, but historians’ answer as to when this ‘Great Divergence’ occurred in the fortunes of Europe vis-à-vis other civilisations such as China keeps getting later, and is often now put towards the middle of the 19th century.

The question of why it was Europe and not China that became the core region of the modern world system has attracted much – some might say too much – attention in recent scholarship in view of China’s apparent technological and economic superiorities. I don’t propose to assess this literature in great detail – attention has focused mainly on themes such as the Dylanesque ‘leapfrogging’ that a divided European culture area of nascent nation-states was able to achieve over the more unified imperial structure of China, the Geertzian ‘land-sparing’ efficiency of Chinese wet rice cultivation that dampened the need for territorial expansion on agrarian/Malthusian grounds, the rational-bureaucratic structure of imperial China that prevented an alignment of social forces towards high-risk overseas adventures, and the superior revenue-raising capacities of European-style royal absolutist tax states, which doubtless are all relevant considerations.

One analysis I do want to examine in this arena because of its wider ramifications is Mark Elvin’s influential book The Patterns of the Chinese Past. Elvin argued that imperial China experienced ‘high level equilibrium traps’ (HLETs) where the relative rates of income and population growth created equilibrium points that prevented the accumulation of surplus capital – the economy is ‘trapped’ in a state which is stable and efficient, but with no inherent tendency to per capita income growth, which is pulled back to equilibrium by a declining rate of income growth relative to population. This is different from a Malthusian or low-level equilibrium trap where population growth pulls down per capita income, though in some respects the two equilibria can look similar – in both, there’s a pool of cheap labour which militates against automation and technical radicalisation. In the case of the HLET, however, we find an efficient, dynamic and differentiated but intrinsically labour-intensive economy. Such a ‘trap’ has been common in global agrarian and industrial history. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries provides a detailed agronomic overview of what an HLET looks like from a peasant farming perspective in China – a book which, interestingly, has been influential in the contemporary western permaculture and alternative agriculture movements. In any case, in an HLET situation an invention that raises labour productivity may have an appealing engineering logic but it won’t get adopted unless it occurs within an economic logic that favours increased labour productivity. That logic was alien to the Qing China of the early modern world, despite its surpassing technical sophistication, but did manifest in parts of Europe for the reasons described above. This doesn’t mean that the Chinese economy was ‘static’ – it was historians of East Asia who originally coined the term ‘industrious revolution’ to capture this different, labour-intensive and more agrarian path towards prosperity – a term later adopted by De Vries to capture an aspect of the rather different ‘western’ development path. In the hands of (Orientalist?) western scholars, more pejorative terms are applied to the ‘Asian’ path – the language of ‘traps’ or of an ‘involution’ reliant on hard manual labour on the farm, which is easily transmogrified into putatively anti-romantic dismissals of small-scale farming in favour of the western path of industrial farming. I’ll come back to this point presently – and use Elvin’s thinking on HLETs in a different context to tracking Europe’s divergence from China. Still, Elvin’s thesis that capitalist development in Europe enabled it to overcome the ‘trap’ of agricultural involution, ultimately giving it the economic and military power to dominate the Asian empires, is certainly thought-provoking.

But maybe a more plausible approach to explaining the ‘great divergence’ would focus less on what didn’t happen in China, and more on what did happen in Europe – not so much in relation to capitalist developments in the countryside of the kind emphasised by Brenner, but the structure of its colonial commerce. The arguments that I find most convincing go something like this: the eclipse of the Roman Empire and the travails of feudalism left the European sub-continent rather behind the game compared to the great empires of Asia, but its internecine conflicts within the shadowed shell of Rome produced a handful of competing, tightly-organised and militarily sophisticated proto-‘national’ polities remote from the main currents of the Asiatic trading world, which enabled them to innovate with new political economies – another case of the historical ‘leap-frogging’ I mentioned earlier. Blocked from commercial expansion eastwards by powerful Islamic states, instead they developed trans-oceanic empires, which were given a considerable boost by the discovery of the New World. Trans-oceanic trade was risky, fearfully expensive and offered only long-term (but potentially spectacular) returns on investment, thus prompting the development of complex new fiscal instruments around risk, debt, state-private partnerships and joint stock organisation which were unknown in the east (Qing China didn’t develop debt finance). David Graeber has argued that the violence of Europe’s colonial-commercial expansion, which at times reached almost demented levels, is explicable in terms of these dynamics of debt in highly militarised societies. Maybe so – or else one might look to the specifics of European racism. Whatever the case, trans-oceanic colonial-commercial conquest fed into Europe’s spiral of capital accumulation and ultimately enabled it to win key confrontations in the east – Commodore Perry in Yokohama, the Opium Wars in China, the East India Company turning the tables on India’s textile industry. ‘The imperialism of free trade’ is often an apposite term.

An important issue in the expansion of European trade is what was actually being traded. Attention often focuses on the ‘preciosities’ of bullion and spices driven by elite demand, but as the economy capitalised itself the incentive was for agriculture in the ‘core’ to focus on higher value products (eg. meat and vegetables) while displacing the production of staples to more peripheral areas such as Eastern Europe (and, later, North America). Again, this can be told as a dark story of peasant dispossession by commercially-oriented landowners – most famously in Britain in relation to the Highland Clearances of a later period – but also as a brighter story of peasant release from the travails of growing the lord’s grain on his demesne in favour of a more remunerative small-scale agriculture. And even in Scotland, though it’s true that sometimes ‘the sheep ate the people’ the ‘modernisation’ of Scottish agriculture is a somewhat more complex tale. Ironically, with the advent of mechanised agriculture and the relative costs of fuel and labour the situation is now reversed, with agriculture in the core dominated by the large-scale mechanised production of staples, and agriculture in the ‘periphery’ contributing more of the high value, labour-intensive products.

Another part of this story concerning the focus of European capitalist trade is the way that elite commodities such as sugar were turned into cheap mass commodities available to ordinary working-class people (and indeed crucial to their changing role within the economy). Champions of capitalism often highlight this ability to furnish high value elite items to ordinary people, but maybe sugar – an environmentally-destructive quasi-narcotic crop with negative health consequences, produced historically by millions of chattel slaves and wage slaves – works as a metaphor for what’s left unsaid in this sunny version of the capitalist vision.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 4. Peasantries and the absolutist state

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ cycle of posts (which appears in full, with footnotes and references here), we come to the pre-dawn of the modern age in Europe:

Tracking forwards now over the later middle ages in Europe, one story to be told is the slow erosion of the peasant autonomy that had characterised the ‘Dark Ages’ – not only by the growing power of local lords, but also of royal houses which increasingly brought aristocrats to heel under the aegis of centralised, proto-modern royal absolutist states. Perry Anderson famously describes absolutism as “a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position” involving “a displacement of politico-legal coercion upwards towards a centralized, militarized summit – the Absolutist State”.

In Anderson’s account, the rise of absolutism in Europe followed the ‘feudal crisis’ that began in the 13th century when a combination of over-population relative to agrarian capacity, state fiscal crisis, wars prompted by the declining revenues of warrior aristocracies, and plague convulsed the region – a case of Malthus and the four horsemen, perhaps? In these circumstances, unfree or servile status largely disappeared, often being commuted into money rents, and attempts to shore up the old feudal order were of limited success. Peasant uprisings were common in this period – the revolt in England of 1381 being one example among many. Few of them were fully successful (Switzerland being a notable exception) but perhaps they bequeathed what Rodney Hilton calls “one of the most important if intangible legacies of medieval peasants to the modern world”, namely “the concept of the freeman, owing no obligation, not even deference, to an overlord”.

In some ways this was a contradiction at the heart of absolutism. On the one hand, the exactions and repressions bearing upon the peasantry worsened. But at the same time, centralizing royal power created more of an impetus towards something like citizenship for ordinary cultivators. A serf disaffected with the behaviour of their manorial lord had relatively few options for redress, but that became somewhat less true under absolutist regimes as royal hegemony and royal courts began asserting themselves. Or at least it became less true in western Europe where the nobility was less successful than its eastern counterpart in “clamping” the peasant masses. On the face of it, it probably should have been the other way around – peasants in the west suffered the disadvantage of occupying a more populous region where it was harder to migrate beyond the reach of state or seigneurial power. In Anderson’s account, the difference was the towns – thriving in the west but marginal in the east – and the possibility they held out, even if only theoretical, for escape and a different way of life. In his words, “The typical Western constellation in the early modern epoch was an aristocratic Absolutism raised above the social foundations of a non-servile peasantry and ascendant towns; the typical Eastern constellation was an aristocratic Absolutism erected over the foundations of a servile peasantry and subjugated towns”. In essence, it’s harder to oppress people who have other options.

Not that peasant life in absolutist western Europe was a bundle of fun. Here’s Pierre Goubert’s account of it in the absolutist France of the 17th century:

“The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable”

I often think of this quotation when people say peasant life is miserable. Well, yes it is if you’re being mulcted for every last egg and morsel of cheese by the state. Think about the splendours of Louis XIV’s court, largely built on the backs of the kind of people Goubert is describing here – who I doubt got much from the state in return. More subject than citizen. Think about what their lives might have been like without such exactions. Hence, the vision of peasant utopia sketched by Eric Wolf:

“the free village untrammeled by tax collectors, labor recruiters, large landowners, officials. Ruled over, but never ruling, they also lack acquaintance with the operation of the state as a complex machinery, experiencing it only as a “cold monster””

Those of us who nowadays speak up for the peasant way are routinely derided for our backward-looking romanticism. So it’s entertaining to note in the light of this quotation that backward-looking romanticism is in fact a real peasant trait, based to some extent on actual historical instances – Athens, the early middle ages, the feudal crisis, Switzerland, the pre-servile Russian mir (though medieval peasants also opted for forward-looking religious millenarianism, thus founding a lineage that still thrives today – see, for example, The Ecomodernist Manifesto).

But of course the critics are on firm enough ground in arguing that the historic peasant experience has generally been more like the one described by Goubert. Here, at any rate, we establish two possible paths for peasant political activism to have taken. One was to try to install something resembling as much as possible Wolf’s utopia – a ‘moral economy of the peasant’ involving non-market relationships, whether of a customary patron-client type, or something more radical and egalitarian, as sometimes emerged in medieval peasant millenarian movements. The other was to embrace the struggle for economic power which was opening up in an early modern Europe now largely free of servile labour, comprising aggressive absolutist tax states which held out at least the theoretical possibility for their subjects to become citizens. At the end of this essay I’ll come back to the former possibility – but the main drive in early modern Europe was the latter, in the context of an emerging European state system in which the complex mix of overlapping political entities that had characterized the medieval period was giving way to the sovereign national royal-military state. This system of states was solemnized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which concluded the bitter carnage of the Thirty Years’ War, in which it’s estimated that as many as a third of Europe’s inhabitants died.

The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 2. Agriculture & civilisation

It’s time for the second instalment of ten-and-a-half in my history of the world cycle. But first a couple of brief announcements. First, I just wanted to mention that I’m lucky enough to be getting a number of my blog posts replicated on various other websites. But I’m also finding that I’m spending too much time online and not enough working my holding, so I just wanted to mention that I feel the need to prioritise responding to comments here on my own website at Small Farm Future and may not find the time to respond on other sites, much as I’d like to. Apologies about that – but please do feel free to talk to me if you want to at Small Farm Future where I’ll do my best to respond.

Second, talking of my holding I thought it was time for a new header photo, and what better than this recent drone photograph of (most of) my own humble abode, as fine an example of the gentleman-peasant’s farm as you can find in all of, er, northwest Frome. I’m guessing it’s fairly obvious where the boundaries of my holding are. Something that may not be so clear is where my house is – not the residential cluster on the left, which is outside my boundaries, but the unobtrusive buildings towards the right at the end of the track, which took years of bureaucratic wrangling to gain assent for. Such are the vagaries of the English planning system. But how did we get from the Palaeolithic foraging of my last post to the very apogee of mixed agrarianism shown in the picture? I’m glad you asked. To answer it, I need to go to way back when and return to my main historical thread by looking at some of the tensions within…

2. Agriculture and civilisation*

A major one historically is that between tillers and herders. Livestock herding can’t support population densities to match that of arable cropping but it’s easier to do, it’s compatible with a wider set of ecological circumstances, and its characteristic practices – a wandering way of life, horsemanship, defence of ambiguous boundaries against animal and human predators – provide skills that are readily transferable to warfare. Indeed, much of the history of Eurasia can be understood in terms of conflicts between tillers and pastoralists that only ended decisively in favour of the tillers in relatively recent times as a result of their larger surpluses and more stable forms of political hierarchy. As an advocate of a mixed farming, I’d favour splitting the difference and doing a bit of both. But in historical terms mixed farming is quite a modern high-tech method – which is rather ironic in view of the fact that large-scale commercial agriculture in the wealthy countries today has largely reverted to the old-fashioned separation of arable and pastoral.

There are distinctions worth highlighting within pastoralism too. The classic case is that of grassland peoples who are ethnically distinct from their cropland foes – Mongols, Tatars, Huns etc. But in some cases the distinction maps within a given ‘ethnic’ population over time (eg. the probable abandonment of grain farming in favour of pastoralism in Neolithic Britain as a response to climate change and population decline – lessons for the future there, perhaps?) or space (eg. the distinction between pastoral desert nomads and townsfolk in Arab lands). Then there are mountain or forest pastoralists living a largely self-reliant existence beyond the geographical reach of the hierarchical civilisations bearing down on the tillers of the soil (Switzerland furnishes one later historic example). Extending that logic, there’s the paramilitary pastoralism of frontier or outlaw zones, where growing crops is impossible because it invites enemy expropriation – the reivers of the England-Scotland borders in late medieval and early modern times spring to mind. Finally, there’s the special case of the commercial pastoralist, often in the employ of noble or capitalist landowners. I’ll shortly return to some of these historical types.

But getting back to the political centres, and to my chronology, the agricultural epoch eventually brought forth large-scale Iron Age empires in various parts of the world: to name a few, in the circum-Mediterranean, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia; in the Indian sub-continent, the Mauryas; and in China, the Qin and Han dynasties. Smaller and somewhat more mysterious centralised states also arose contemporaneously in the Americas, such as the Olmecs. In the Old World at least, these strong states typically unified large areas through a tripartite and conjoint package of standing army, standard coinage and market trade. This created a set of centre-periphery dynamics which look fairly familiar in the modern world: population growth, population movement (forced or unforced) between periphery and centre, economic growth and rising court and government expenditures.

It’s worth distinguishing between tax and tribute states in the ancient world. Generally, collecting taxes is much more remunerative than taking tribute or extracting rents from land, but more burdensome to organise – so it was only undertaken by states with high revenue costs such as large standing armies or civic administrations. Once established, tax states tend to be stronger, with a more centralised apparatus and fewer tendencies towards fragmenting into regionalised polities. It would be too glib to superimpose a second distinction – between citizen and subject – neatly onto the tax/tribute distinction, but I’d suggest there’s an association. Subjects typically expect little or nothing in return for paying tribute – perhaps at best military protection from other would-be tribute-takers whose rapacity is worse. Citizens, on the other hand, usually expect a whole lot more in return for their payments – services, legal process, perhaps even a say in governance. It’s generally worth asking the question in relation to any particular social actor – am I a subject or a citizen?

In any case, whether we’re talking about strong tax states or weaker tributary ones, the dynamics of territorial, fiscal and population growth created problems for ancient governments of rising state costs that they could only really try to solve in one (or more) of five ways, which again have endured down to the present. They could (first) squeeze the populace harder through tax or other exactions, or (second) expand territorially through conquest, placing the fiscal burden mainly on the conquered – at least until, in time, the conquered too became citizens (one of the problems in the late Roman empire, with its contingents of wandering, militarised Romano-Germans). The disadvantage of these two options is that they involved annoying a lot of people, thus potentially inciting blowback. A third option was various forms of credit or debt finance – essentially, acting as if you have the resources to achieve your ends even when you don’t – a strategy that can work very well, especially if the economy is growing. But eventually debts are almost always called in.

A fourth strategy is to increase economic productivity, but that’s easier said than done. The simplest way to achieve it is by drawing down harder on (often relatively non-renewable) natural resources like soil (or, later, oil), the problem being the potential ecological blowback. An example here is the renowned Vallis Veg grass-mowing trial, which showed conclusively that the medieval scythe was a trade-off free improvement on the ancient sickle, whereas modern mechanised mowing technology involves a less efficient drawdown on non-renewable resources than the scythe. Another problem with Strategy 4 is that, even if initially successful, it tends to prompt population growth and further expenditures which soon bring the original problem around again. The final option is to fiddle about, perhaps by adopting some or all of the other measures in mild form while tightening the government’s fiscal belt, and hoping to keep the resulting tensions in check.

Most of the early civilisations of this so-called ‘Axial Age’ eventually crumbled through their inability to resolve the various contradictions outlined above, perhaps with the exception of China, whose emperors proved for the most part to be highly adept fiddlers down the centuries. In a moment, I’ll consider the consequences of this crumbling, but first I want to look briefly at some other aspects of the ancient empires, beginning with their class structures.

At the bottom end of the scale were various gradations of unfree workers – perhaps a key distinction being between debt peonage, when locals or insiders fell upon hard times (a fate that could happen to almost anyone), and a more juridically absolute chattel slavery, typically applying to people coming in as strangers, often war captives. In his classic account of the transition from ancient to medieval Europe, Perry Anderson identifies the invention of chattel slavery as a new development in the classical societies of both Greece and Rome – but Greece relied more heavily on free peasant farming, whereas Rome depended on the large estate, the latifundium, worked by the gang labour of those enslaved in the empire’s impressive outward drive. So when that drive finally faltered and the Roman empire entered its terminal crisis, the latifundium-based western empire quickly crumbled almost into nothing, whereas the Hellenized eastern empire fared better – its strong tax state and localised small-farm traditions transmogrified into the Byzantine empire, which persisted through various ups and downs for almost another millennium before being carved up by the successor empires of the middle ages. More recent historical research de-emphasises the importance of slave-based latifundia in the west, but so far as I can see doesn’t wholly undermine Anderson’s thesis about the different eastern and western paths.

A parallel dimension of difference between east and west was the relationship between city and country. Rome institutionalised a chronic exploitation of its peasant-soldiers, as described by Tiberius Gracchus: “the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else…they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and…have not a single clod of earth that is their own”. Gracchus’ attempted agrarian reforms in favour of small farmers, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, contributed to his assassination and paved the way a generation or so later for the proto-fascist structure of military strongman, large-scale absentee landownership, urban mass and subjugated peasantry achieved by Julius Caesar, pioneer of the ‘Caesarist’ political tradition that has recurred often enough down the ages. In Athens, Solon’s reforms abolishing debt peonage, and those of his successors in building a democratic polity that limited aristocratic power, were more successful, allowing representation to the voice of the peasant-citizen. Ellen Meiksins Wood has pressed this point further, rejecting the notion that the flowering of classical Athens stemmed from the luxury of its reliance on chattel slavery, which she suggests was limited and marginal to agricultural production. For her, the glories of democratic Athens were essentially the achievement of a free peasant society, and a beacon of possibilities illuminating later ages. But it was eclipsed through a series of conflicts, starting with its defeat in the Peloponnesian war, typically involving alliances between rival monarchical and oligarchical states and its own disaffected aristocracy. So maybe there’s a warning beacon for later ages there too.

Another aspect of the ancient civilisations worth mentioning is their spiritual-philosophical focus. While rulers imposed political order on the ground, thinkers imposed spiritual order in the mind – this was the time of Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Plato and – much later on the scene – Muhammad. The ideas that these figures came up with had many differences, which were quite consequential for the politics of the societies they influenced, but the traditions they founded shared a tendency towards universalising, systemic thought. Typically, they were cosmologies of town and merchant, which sought to break the particular identities of kin-group or place. “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” as Jesus sternly put it.

From this flowed a tension in most spiritual traditions between a structured religious practice with formal institutional trappings which usually validated the political status quo – the religion of church and state – and world-denying renunciative practices which were usually more individualistic or schismatic, transcending and critiquing church-state worldviews. These two poles of religious practice are endlessly malleable and have been reworked according to the designs of numerous groups, classes and social movements down the ages. In the Axial Age civilisations, they often played out in the form of a spiritual and sometimes a material/military clash between a church closely identified with urban aristocratic rule, and renunciative religion associated with the farmers and herders of the rural fringe who took a dim view of urban decadence. This was often expressed in terms of male asceticism and military virtue, and female chastity, especially in view of the pervasive loosening and marketization of social relations in the cities. Think Babylon, Sodom, Gomorrah – or the idea, curious to the religions of city and trader, that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. This tension too has contemporary resonance.

One other feature of Axial Age spiritual thought in the west worth mentioning in passing was the notion that humanity had acquired godlike powers – the Greek myth of Prometheus (‘Promethean environmentalism’ was a forerunner of what now usually goes by the name of ‘ecomodernism’), or the story of Eden in the Book of Genesis (“Behold the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil”, as God put it). Perhaps it seems laughable to us today that these vanished civilisations with their rudimentary technologies should consider their powers divine. Judging by the titles of the books we now write, or our soi disant geological imprimatur of the ‘Anthropocene’, we seem to feel that our Iron Age predecessors jumped the gun, and should have left it to us to do the God stuff. But it’s at this point that Professor Dylan’s admonitions keep coming back to me “…as the present now will later be past…for the wheel’s still in spin…” And so on. These Axial Age philosophical traditions emphasised the hubris of human claims to divinity – a wise counsel even then, I’d argue, and a still wiser one now. So let us leave the overworked seam of human divinity and take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states.

* A fully referenced version of this essay can be found here.

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

About a year ago I started publishing on this site various projections for how the future population of southwest England where I live might be able to feed itself substantially on the basis of small-scale, relatively self-reliant ‘peasant’ farming – convincing myself, if no one else, in the process that such a ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ might be feasible. The notion that a small farm future of this sort may occur and may even be desirable and worth striving for is, I confess, hardly a mainstream political position. And yet it’s one that I’ve come to, for reasons that I’ve documented here over the years. Essentially, I think that humanity faces a series of interlocking ecological, economic, political, cultural and social crises that, if they’re resolvable at all, are most resolvable through a turn to small-scale, predominantly self-reliant farming. Actually, I see this way of life less as a ‘solution’ to modern ‘problems’ as a non-modern way of being that’s intrinsically less problematic. But I’m anxious to avoid easy dualities – not everything about modernity is necessarily bad, and not everything in a turn to small farm agrarianism would necessarily be good. I’ll say more about that in due course.

The main difficulties in achieving a turn to small-scale agrarianism are not agricultural, but social and political. So I now want to turn my attention away from issues of farm scale and structure towards these socio-political issues. As I started thinking about them, I found myself constantly drawn to history and to what the past may be able to teach us about the possible course of a small farm future. I’m still not really sure whether it does have much to teach us. I said above that a small farm future would be non-modern, but that’s not the same as pre-modern: a non-modern small farm future needn’t necessarily much resemble a pre-modern small farm past. Nevertheless, since the past is the main guide we have to the future, it seems like a good place to start. Originally I planned to write a blog post that was to be sardonically entitled ‘The history of the world in 10½ paragraphs’ (with apologies to Julian Barnes) in which I was going to lay out a few broad historical themes before moving on to examining the socio-political shape of my future Peasant’s Republic. But the task kept growing – there has, after all, been quite a lot of history. Almost before I knew it, it had turned into ‘The history of the world in 10½ blog posts’ – still, of course, without going much further than laying out a few broad themes. So this is what I’m now publishing. The entire c.27,000 word essay is now available from the Publications page of my website, but I’m also going to publish it in hopefully more digestible week-by-week blog-post size instalments over the next couple of months.


It’s probably worth devoting just a few sentences to explaining what this exercise is about and what it isn’t. It’s surely obvious that nobody can really write a ‘history of the world’, however many words or years they devote to it. So I haven’t even tried. What I have tried to do is lay out the main patterns and structures of the past as I see them that I think we have to reckon with today if we’re to wrest a comfortable and sustainable future (which I think will have to be largely a small farm future) from the troubled present. This involves tracing political and economic relationships over large parts of the globe, which partly justifies my title. But I’ve made no attempt to trace human history even-handedly across all times and places. I’m open to comments and criticisms of things I’ve omitted, but if they’re of the form ‘your analysis is wholly lacking in an account of the struggle for self-determination in Mozambique’ my response will be a rather uninterested ‘yep, you got me there’. Challenges to my rendering of the larger structures I discuss will gain more of my interest.

My focus here is mostly on the way that local societies, local farms, local human ecologies, get incorporated into bigger political and economic structures – and conversely how they de-incorporate or resist that process. In general I think de-incorporation is a good idea, and is probably going to happen anyway whether it’s a good idea or not. But I don’t think any kind of de-incorporation or local autarky is necessarily desirable, nor do I think large political structures are necessarily undesirable. For me, the relationship between the state and local human ecologies is problematic precisely because it admits to no easy answers. On reflection, I fear that I haven’t justified here as clearly as I should have done why small-scale or ‘peasant’ farming is so important, but perhaps it’ll be easier to do that in another post in the light of the historical analysis provided here.

Another thing I say little about here, even though it’s the overarching context for the whole essay, is the set of ‘environmental’ problems humanity currently faces in relation to ecological degradation, climate change, energy futures and so on (I’ve written about them fairly extensively elsewhere on this website). This is essentially because I don’t think issues of energy and environment have generally been the fundamental movers of human history in the past (which is not to say they haven’t been important). I suspect they may be prime movers of human history in the future, and one of the problems humanity now faces is learning to acknowledge this novel fact. Joe Clarkson drew my attention to Fred Cottrell’s interesting book Energy and Society, which I might have incorporated more fully here if I’d come across it earlier. Energy capture certainly provides one worthwhile frame on which to hang an account of human history. So perhaps does crop development. These aren’t the frames I’ve chosen here, but that’s not to say that they (along with other aspects of ecological constraint) aren’t crucial factors now facing us. The truth is quite the opposite.

As I wrote the essay, I tried to keep in mind the hope that people other than me might read it, but as per my last post in many ways it’s a rather personal odyssey through my intellectual history, and also a kind of aide memoire for issues I’d like to come back to in the future, so the essay involves a certain amount of personal wrestling with historical issues where I feel the need to work out a position. Which is another way of asking forgiveness for what I fear may seem like various weird digressions in the text. I’ve fretted over this essay, perhaps a little too much, and probably re-edited, cut and pasted it too many times for its own good, so if there are any parts of it that make you think ‘Oh for goodness sake, cut this out and just get on with it’, I’d be interested to hear. If, on the other hand, you feel that way about the entire essay, then there’s no need to contact me – but sorry for wasting your time. For the time-pressed, let me broadcast upfront the main issues I’ve extracted from my historical analysis which I think we need to juggle with in figuring out a just and sustainable small farm future:

  • 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.

If you require any further justification for those points…well, you’ll just have to read my next 10½ blog posts…

In relation to notes and referencing, at the risk of demonstrating my utter unoriginality I decided to reference the essay fairly comprehensively so that I can use it easily as a resource for future writing. I’m publishing the entire essay along with notes and bibliography on the Publications page of the website, and then chopping it up into weekly blog posts with footnotes (but not references) at the end of each post. If you want to chase up a reference, you’ll find it in the bibliography at the end of the full essay on the publications page.

I hope the essay might find some interested readers. I’ve certainly found it interesting to write. The key historical figures in it, ones who lurk forever at the interface between the local human ecologies and larger political-economic structures discussed here, are peasantries – endlessly pitied, exploited, romanticised, derided, expropriated or written off, but unquestionably still here. The essay is dedicated, in more ways than one, to them – though not, I hope, uncritically.

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas.

…well, that’s probably enough for one blog post. We’ll pick up the thread again next week. But if you can’t wait that long to find out what happens next, you know where to look.