Tuesday, March 20, 2007

the end of the peasantry?

I have spent most of my professional life working in an area that, within the political economy of international development, is called 'the agrarian question'. Simply stated, it is an approach to rural change that tries to understand how changes in rural life do or do not contribute to the development of capitalism, both in the rural economy and more widely.

For the past 10 years or more, there has been a debate within agrarian political economy concerning the relevance of the agrarian question in an era of globalization. The proposition is straightforward: that as a consequence of globalization, the current form of imperialism, the development of capitalism in the rural economy is simply irrelevant to transnational capital. Capital is formed globally, and national capitalisms are now not relevant to its transformative 'project'. This debate is explored at length in my next book, Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question: Globalization and Peasant Livelihoods.

Does agriculture matter any more, in today's globalized economy? Is the peasantry finished, a relic from an age that does not exist anymore? I have been thinking about this over the past month, both in Europe and in Canada, and it has struck me that this kind of thinking is predicated on a particularly modernist reading of change and development.

We live in an age where an ideology of progress holds firm. In other words, we believe, in our very soul, that human history is a constant movement forward, as problems are solved and our species slowly and fitfully 'progresses'. This motion is highly modernist: that we live in a times where science and technology propel change that will eventually be beneficial. Marx held to this notion; so did Adam Smith; and so does the World Bank.

The problem is that history shows us that progress is not inevitable. In the 10000 years since the human race began settled agriculture, and the 4000 years since 'civilization' emerged, ironically, in the modern day hell that is Sadr City, there have been many instances in which, rather than moving forward, societies have come to a halt, and indeed, regressed. Where progress has given way to retrogression. With retrogression has come technological collapse, and a loss of abilities to solve problems that had already been solved. In other words, human history is marked by periods of retreat, not progress. Invariably, this retreat is always associated with some kind of agricultural collapse, and the consequent inability of civilizations to feed themselves, allowing a degeneration of social order into conflict and death.

Our ideology of progress is so firmly rooted in us that we cannot imagine the idea of an agricultural collapse--although many parts of the world live it, day in and day out. Nonetheless, agricultural collapse may--and I hedge my bets here, and stress may--be staring us in the face. The median predictions of climate change that are currently accepted by those more knowledgeable than I suggest that the increase in planetary temperature in the next 40 years or so will result in end of wheat production in the second biggest wheat producer in the world--India. Of course, Indian wheat collapse will be partially offset by wheat production elsewhere--but that offset will only be partial. With this, and with the consequent possible collapse of grain production in many other parts of the world over the next half century (Argentina? Ukraine?), the idea that progress has rendered agriculture redundant to international development seems a non-starter. So it is. Indeed, it is probable that rather than facing the end of the peasantry, the death of the peasantry, we will soon be living in a world where a peasant's ability to feed themselves will be, once more, fought over by those who cannot or will not feed themselves and who have the resources and coercive power to take what they want.

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