The Peasant Revival
Economic theory posits the disappearance of peasants as a consequence of the law of rising productivity, reinforced by the low-income elasticity of demand for food, predicting that farm populations decline in relative and absolute terms.
Unexamined here are assumptions about the conditions and consequences of rising agricultural productivity. Economic logic fetishses growth in quantitative terms, standardising agriculture in input–output terms.
By externalising the ecological effects such as chemical pollution, soil and genetic erosion, carbon emissions, and discounting energy costs and subsidy structures for agribusiness, this logic seriously undervalues the true economic costs of agro-industrialisation. 1
The newly enlivened field of Peasant Studies interrogates all forms of self-provisioning, from villages in Africa, family farms in Europe, to Community Supported Agriculture enterprises (CSA) from France to Japan. Previous descriptions of the peasant lifestyle has usually highlighted its social, political and cultural dimensions rather than its daily activity: of artisanal farming. To foreground peasant productivity as a farming mode Ploeg contrasts ‘the manufactured invisibility’ of peasants with their striking omnipresence—‘some two-fifths of humanity’. 2
An overall trend away from the entrepreneurial model of converting inputs to outputs re-positions such agriculture within nature, rather than in the logic of the market. Peasant productivity is characterised by lower input costs for higher yields, higher labour inputs but greater autonomy, greater self-sufficiency and a multiplying of local benefits. 3 Such re-peasantisation reasserts the right to farm as a social act of land stewardship, not so much as a ‘return to the past’, but rather by using ‘new processes of emancipation’ for reconstituting elements of the past together with the needs of our globalising world in ‘more adequate and attractive ways’. 3
Ploeg’s concept of co-production, which includes ‘the ongoing encounter and mutual interaction of man and living nature, or, more generally, of the social and the material’ extends beyond the epistemological space occupied by ‘organic-farming’ and ‘agroecology’ both of which it embraces.
Co-production assimilates the yield-driven trend, one which already …
‘involves a majority of European farmers, represents a sturdy, strong and promising, albeit contested and somewhat hidden process of re-peasantisation. It is a process through which autonomy is again created, an autonomy that is simultaneously converted into new forms of development.’ (Ploeg, 2005).
This growing farmer autonomy, expressed as a resistance to entrepreneurial farming, agro-industrial inputs and its prescriptions, is the key identifier for the linking up of First and Third World peasant movements (see Global Linkages).
Professor van der Ploeg on the role of agriculture in development. (2010 – 4mins.)
In the First World farmer resistance connects to strands of consumer resistance within local food networks (LFN) through domestic markets. Food, livelihood security and environmental advantages all extend out from peasant-style farming to perceptions of health, ecological and future benefits. Markets identified as ‘local’, ‘slow’ or ‘organic’ have gained recognition as ‘good’ food by promoting resistance to supply-chain foods. 5 Noteworthy are the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprises in France, Switzerland, Japan and U.S. – which deliver produce to subscribers direct from the farm each week, mostly organically grown vegetables.
A study in California found that CSA members represent 0.2% of the region’s population. 6 To date (localharvest.org) lists over 4000 CSAs in America, which is increasing by roughly 1200 annually. Inter-farmer networks and hybrid schemes are also emerging, such as workplace CSAs or mercantile cooperatives where member subscriptions get ‘banked’ then re-issued as vouchers to spend at local participating farmers’ markets. 7
Alternative Food Networks: The reasons why consumers participate in alternative food networks (AFNs) are well-researched, predominantly in support of the local economy, and next for environmental reasons. Health concerns might be the initial motive but eventually drop back to third priority. 8 Ongoing interaction with AFNs often spurs participants to consider wider issues. Cox calls this shift towards resistance concerns the ‘graduation effect’. 9 This turning, whether to quality or resistance, is building an ever-widening pathway for farmer re-peasantisation in the First World. Meanwhile the South, driven by more urgent imperatives, shows pockets of an emerging political commitment to a more deliberative re-peasantisation.
‘Since at least the early 1990s, alongside a growing awareness and interest in environmental and food politics, we are rather witnessing a growing and very dynamic resistance from small-scale farmers and peasant movements all over the world. Peasants are organizing and fighting back.‘ ~ (Massicote, 2008).
Neoliberal solutions propose competition: winners compete with winners, and losers are increasingly excluded, each in isolation. The ‘reciprocal alienation’(Sartre, 1995) of the unemployed, landless or insolvent replaces their social bond, and so capital can deny them the means for their own survival. They may collectivise to create a political voice but historically capital has always triumphed over resistance.
But internet networking has changed that forever. Organising support to threaten some broad process within capital enterprise or to confound the neoliberal order only requires a keyboard. The grassroots of the Third World poor, long tired of neoliberal consequences, has begun evolving capabilities to integrate its political prerogatives as never before. In the First World the poor are largely unaware of this socialist groundswell of global change, and are still clinging to hopes of capitalist recovery.
The political space which today’s peasant movements are opening for themselves can be easily read as unsophisticated rebellion, while in fact it is signaling the deliberated emergence of an unrelenting focus on news-catching visibility. The moralised principles articulated in the Zapatista documentary ‘Communique’ (1995) heralded a new sophistication of the anti-capitalist message which captured global attention. Likewise La Via Campesina uses a boisterous, non-negotiable manner when campaigning its principles to strategically maximise visibility. Another illustration is the Piqueteros of Argentina who were able to block the main arterial routes in Argentina with burning tyres for days before Christmas. Once only a small band of protestors they have now developed into a large well-organised movement in their fight against poverty and unemployment. Their spontaneous and disruptive street demonstrations are a political embarrassment to the government, visibilised for all the world to see.
The environmental challenges facing the First World, the dispossession challenges facing the Third and the global challenges of metropolitan poverty, can all meet on the peasants’ bridge. Although the links between both agrarian hemispheres are at best tentative and discursive, the framework for bridging them already exists in the socially principled structures evolving around La Via Campesina (LVC), particularly at this moment through its association with the FAO.
Grounded in the experience of ubiquitous marginalisation and a reinvigorated style of democracy, the ‘Food Sovereignty’ campaign (under IPC) has amalgamated massive grassroots support, on a scale equivalent to a world war. So while the leadership of the First World is bunkered within its peak-oil neoliberal mentality some Third World leaders, particularly from empire-battered Latin America, are championing an agroecological reintegration for the entire world. Their message at large might have reached academia but is yet to break through the prejudices of First World media and its paternalistic repackaging of resistance into versions of rebellious discontent. Unfortunately, promoting cooperative engagement across this divide is mostly hindered by entrenched First World attitudes, political preconceptions, and media characterisations such as failed modernity, materialistically deprived and unpalatable. Although (LVC) has embarked upon a struggle to dismantle this perception they too need to revise their brand, become more visible to the First World in places other than street demonstrations, and to inspire the emotions of good times and better futures through proximity with their peasant counterparts in Western societies.
Language might well be their greatest barrier in this endeavour. Most of the websites associated with peasant movements are presented in Spanish, English, and or French, but other nationalities must rely on their local action groups to connect them to what they hope may be their link to a better life. Keeping this dialogue alive is important to their future. Recognising this, LVC updates its website at least once a week.
In the South American heartland of grassroots agrarian reform is Venezuala, globally now fifth-equal in national well-being (gallup, 2011), — a flagship for modern peasant movements. The Chavez government recently built nine metropolitan universities and 120 satellite-fed classrooms: for presenting courses in agroecology. Although training is only provided in Spanish, anyone from anywhere in the world may take the courses, for free.
In 2008 LVC moved its headquarters from Honduras to Jakarta partially to de-link its brand from Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution but specifically to improve its accessibility for other countries, especially where landlessness issues are continuing to escalate (farmlandgrab.org). Encouragingly, many African groups have shown increasing interest in these involvements.
Viewed agriculturally humanity exists in two spheres more or less corresponding to the Third and First Worlds, but the division is blurring. Big agribusiness is rapidly colonising the Third World stirring up peasant resistance from indigenous farmers in Africa, Indonesia, India and the Pillippines. Their resistances target the desperate failings and tragic consequences of neoliberalism – for their own world, and the world as a whole. Meanwhile peasantisation in various guises is spreading back into First World farming, following a similar but more conservatively localised logic.
Resolving the economy of crises facing both spheres will require restraining neoliberal capitalism universally. Grassroots resistance movements are gaining concessions. The peasant-led agrarian transition has become the primary vehicle for spreading the understanding of neoliberalism’s roots, ideas and false logic amongst the world’s agrarian poor. It assumes a new relevance when considering the bridging of otherness between the dispossessed majorities across cultural divisions.
- Martinez-Alier, J. (2011). The EROI of agriculture and its use by the Via Campesina. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(1), 145-160.
- GRET. (2007). In defence of family farms: Which ones and why?; Overview of the Report produced by the Agriculture and Food Commission of ‘Coordination SUD’, from http://www.familyfarmingcampaign.net/files/documentos/305043968_2.pdf
- Ploeg, J. D. v. d. (2005). The Peasant Mode of Production Revisited Retrieved 26/04/2011, from http://www.jandouwevanderploeg.com/EN/publications/articles/the-peasant-mode-of-production-revisited/
- Ploeg, J. D. v. d. (2008). The New Peasantries : struggles for autonomy and sustainability in an era of empire and globalization. London: Earthscan.
- Connell, D., Smithers, J., & Joseph, A. (2008). Farmers’ Markets and the “Good Food” Value Chain: a Preliminary Study. Local Environment, 13(3), 169–185.
- Goodman, D., & Goodman, M. (2007). Localism, Livelihoods and the ‘Post-Organic’: Changing Perspectives on Alternative Food Networks in the United States. In L. H. Damian Maye, Moya Kneafsey (eds.) (Ed.), In: Alternative food geographies: representation and practice: Elsevier.
- Adam, K. (2006). Community Supported Agriculture Retrieved from www.attra.ncat.org
- Brehm, J. M., & Eisenhauer, B. W. (2008). Motivations For Participating In Community Supported Agriculture And Their Relationship With Community Attachment And Social Capital. Southern Rural Sociology, 23(1), 94-115.
- Cox, R., Holloway Lewis, Venn Laura, Dowler Liz, Ricketts Jane, Moya Kneafsey Hein, & Tuomainen, H. (2008). Common ground? Motivations for participation in a community-supported agriculture scheme. Local Environment, 13(2), 203–218.
- Gallup poll. (2011). Venezuela Comes Fifth in Gallup “Wellbeing” Survey Retrieved 18/5/2011, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/147167/High-Wellbeing-Eludes-Masses-Countries-Worldwide.aspx#1
- farmlandgrab.org. (2010). The World Bank in the hot seat Retrieved 22 May, 2010, from http://farmlandgrab.org/12717
- Friedmann, H. (1982). The political economy of food: the rise and fall of the postwar international food order. American Journal of Sociology, 88 (Supplement), 248-286.
- Friedmann, H. (2005). From Colonialism to Green Capitalism: Social Movements and the Emergence of Food Regimes. Research in Rural Sociology and Development, 11(227-64).
- Friedmann, H., & McMichael, P. (1989). Agriculture and the State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to present. Sociologia Ruralis, 29(2), 93-117.