Farmer Power: The Continuing Confrontation between Subsistence Farmers and Development Bureaucrats

Day by day, the peasants make the economists sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their plans and prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam (Shanin 1966:5)

Economists, politicians, and strategists since at least the end of World War II dream of the world’s rural farmers becoming a wealthy, healthy, and modern middle class.  Implicit to this dream is peasants moving off the farms of China, India, Africa, and Latin America to staff factories in an ever-wealthier world.  When this doesn’t happen, the Ph.D.s do indeed sigh, sweat, and swear not at themselves, but at the peasants that frustrate the models on which their development plans are based.  In the process though, they forget one thing: the very nature of the world’s subsistence peasants.  Subsistence peasants farm, feed themselves, build their own houses, have children, grow old, while producing little for the world markets that the economists celebrate.  In short, peasants resist the siren song of the economists’ models, no matter how effectively it might be packaged by cheerleaders for globalization and free markets including U2 frontman Bono, UN Secretary Generals, US Presidents, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, or economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The Two Great Transitions in Human History

Anthropologists and historians talk about the two great transformations in human organization.  The first began 8,000-10,000 years ago when Neolithic farmers emerged from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers.  During the following millennia they became clans who as a small unit together tilled the earth, raised animals, built permanent houses invented village life, and even at times created empires.  The economists dream though of a second transition begun only about 400 years ago, and continuing today.  In this transition, the same farmers—heirs to the Neolithic—are moving into a modern market economy in which tasks are highly specialized, and trade in the global marketplace is key.  In this transition there are governments and banks gambling big money that millennia are not needed before a world-straddling market economy emerges.  Indeed, economist William Easterly estimates that since World War II over $2.3 trillion was spent to entice these farmers into the new global marketplace by the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development, European Community Humanitarian Organization, and so forth.

So why didn’t such a big investment necessarily work during the five and ten year plans of the economists?  Simply put it is because subsistence farmers of the Neolithic are outside the ethic of the economist’s modern marketplace, and relatively immune to its enticements.  Subsistence farmers traditionally grow most of what they eat, build the houses they live in from local materials, and make the clothes they wear independently from the marketplace.  Their small surpluses go to harvest celebrations, or as tribute to the chief, prince, king, or other leader who provides relief supplies in the event of famine.  Indeed, what is produced by subsistence farmers never even has a market price put on it.  But life was good for farmers with access to hoes, plows, unclaimed arable land, and rainfall; in good years there was enough food to support a rapidly expanding population.  In better years there was something left over that could be traded for minor luxuries, or offered as tribute to a potentially rapacious warlord. And so, across the millennia, values, norms, and culture emerged to justify and accommodate the nature of subsistence farming.  First was loyalty to kin, and tribute to a feudal leader who maintained the famine socks and organized defense.  The abstract nation-states, citizenship, and market principles of the economists and politicians were yet to be invented as the organizing principle for larger societies.

In short, subsistence peasants, while vulnerable to catastrophe, were more independent of the marketplace than we moderns.  If markets failed, life on the farm was more uncomfortable, but there was still food to eat, and a place to live.  In the modern market though, market failure means that unpaid workers are evicted from their houses or unable to buy food.  Subsistence farmers, when viewed from this perspective, had it quite good as long as land was plentiful and rains came.  Indeed, this is why Karl Marx when dreaming of world revolution, compared France’s unrevolutionary nineteenth century subsistence peasants to an inert sackful of potatoes.  Marx complained that like potatoes in a sack, no peasant household was much different from any other.  The French peasants contributed little to the efficient globalized markets emerging in Europe’s cities: a potato was always just a potato, each pretty much like the other.

Nineteenth century European factories initiated this transition by hiring masses of former peasants to work in textile mills, meat packing plants, mono-crop agriculture, and the other specialized assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution in which skilled workers do a single simplified task, but do it efficiently.  This transition is what development agencies like the World Bank call ‘development’.  Given that this is such a massive project, it is perhaps surprising that it occurred in many countries in only a matter of decades or a century, rather than the millennia of the first transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agrarian populations.  Nevertheless, this transition is not yet over.  It is continuing in the third world today, as the subsistence peasants continue to defeat the plans and prophecies of hyper-educated economists, politicians, and planners.

The Long Successful Run of the World’s Peasants

The world’s subsistence peasants had a long and successful run.  Emerging out of scattered hunter-gatherer communities 8,000-10,000 years ago, they settled down in fertile river valleys where they raised more human food per hectare than nature had ever produced for their forbearers.  As hoe wielding farmers cleared the land, rapid population growth resulted from the increases in food production. Surpluses, though small by modern standards, still eventually supported great empires in places like Ancient Egypt, Rome, China, Europe, and the Americas.   True, a “terrible compromise” in which freedom and liberty were traded for the protection of a tribute-seeking King often emerged.  But life and culture were similar for the vast majority who remained on the farm, growing and consuming what they needed to eat, building housing, producing clothing, and having children.  In this context, rarely did more than ten or twenty percent of all production enter the marketplace—the bulk of consumption remained on-farm where peasant families, each doing the same thing as the other, continued to resemble that unrevolutionary sack of potatoes which so frustrated Marx.

Take a potato out of the sack, and the bag is still a sack of potatoes, just a little lighter.  Take a smaller specialized piece out of a specialized machine, and not only is the machine only a little lighter, but it also might not work.  This is why peasantries are so resilient when compared to a system of differentiated economy organized by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and the principles of supply and demand.  The problem is that from the retrospective and comfortable position of today’s economists, this change appears magical and painless in societies celebrating individual achievement, and the accumulation of capital.  But it is not painless for the peasant whose old way of life is slowly destroyed, family loyalties dissipated, land appropriated, clans disrupted, and replaced too often with life in the urban slums of modern industrial cities.

Scotland’s subsistence peasantry is a good example.  Scotland’s clans from time immemorial occupied the hills and glens where they farmed, raised livestock, built stone houses, and paid in-kind tribute to patron clan chiefs.  However, following English military victories in 1748, a new way of looking at the land emerged.  Clan chiefs siding with the British were granted personal title to the clan lands, while at the same time new factories demanded wool, flax, and labor. The Scottish highlands provided an excellent place to graze sheep and raise fields of inedible flax for the textile mills of the growing cities, and Scotland’s peasantry provided laborers who could work in the newly industrialized economy as wage laborers.  In modern words it was a “win-win” for the “Clan Chiefs” who could now sell or rent “their” personal lands in the free land market, and the expanding industrialist class which needed cheap labor.  But left out of course were the peasants who lost uncommodified traditional rights and privilege to use the land their ancestors had, the right to the famine stocks kept by the clan chief, who now preferred the global market’s measure of productivity, i.e. hard cold cash.

In this context, expropriation of Scottish peasant lands occurred by hook and by crook across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Threats of famine pushed former peasants into factory towns where they became the new urban working class.  When the bright lights of the labor market were not alluring enough, sheriffs and military often played a prominent role.  And as the survivors gained market skills needed in the rough urban environment, they lost subsistence skills and the old way of life: No longer could they grow their own food, or build their own stone houses even had they been so inclined.   The lucky survivors after a few generations were though able to serve the needs of the world-straddling labor market, and become the middle class consumers which today’s economists celebrate.  But this was not the only strategy of Europe’s eighteenth and nineteenth century peasants.

For a time Europe’s subsistence farmers had another strategy to deal with the disruptions coming with the transformation to market society: They could flee to places like North America where arable land was available after the native population died from European contact. And so when the European peasants arrived in North America in the eighteenth century, many left for the nearby forest where it appeared they might resume life as a subsistence peasantry.  In fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not only the Scottish peasantry fled to the North American forest, but also English, German, French, and others displaced European peasants.  Hacking, clearing, hunting, and fighting their way across the North American continent, Europe’s subsistence peasantry peopled the land east of the Mississippi between about 1750 and 1850.  The expansion was one rooted in the conservative subsistence peasantry’s greatest traditional strengths, especially the ability to have many children, organize social life around clan-based loyalties, and a penchant to clear land for new farms.  This happened across decades (rather than millennia), as the United States and Quebec experienced one of the highest population growth rates ever-recorded: Populations of North America’s subsistence farmers doubled every 20-30 years.

A paradigmatic example of the consequences of such rapid demographic growth is the frontiersman Daniel Boone.  In his long life (1734-1820), Boone hunted, and cleared farms across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri along with his 13 siblings, 10 children, and more than 60 grandchildren.   For a time of course, subsistence farmers like Boone even made it in the rough land markets of Kentucky where he settled in the 1770s.  But like millions of other rural peasants dabbling in the unfamiliar impersonal marketplace with its emphasis on cash rather than the handshakes, Boone was conned by land speculators from the city.  Fortunately for him, there was still land left further west in Spanish Missouri, to where he moved his clan in 1799.

Neither Daniel Boone, his extraordinary clan, nor Europe’s peasants prospered for more than a few decades whilst hacking, clearing, and hunting—the modern industrial world was too close.  And as in Scotland, the actual profits, and the land itself, slowly but surely made its way into the hands of the newly emerging investors who controlled the government, banks, law firms, and land offices.  So in a slow but recurrent fashion, the United States’ Northwest, settled by prolific hunters and farmers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, passed into the modern global land market.  Most dramatically, what was in 1830 a remote trading village for hunters—Chicago—by 1870 was a large modern industrial town, coordinating the production of maize, wheat, lumber, cattle, and hogs across several states. Just like in Scotland, in North America the peasants were slowly but surely moved onward—into factories, production for the market, or further west.  As in Scotland, the movement was facilitated by urban market power in the form of land speculators and bankers—whose eviction notices were backed up by the sheriff.  And so, North America’s subsistence peasantry faded into history as the land they cleared passed out of their hands whether violently, or through the maneuverings of mortgage bankers.

It will be no surprise to readers of Current Intelligence that markets are enormously successful in concentrating and increasing economic productivity.  But I doubt that any of Current Intelligence’s readers, myself included, can raise what they eat, build their own house, and make their own clothing like Daniel Boone, a Scottish clan, or an African subsistence farmer today.  We are very much part of the finely-tuned world in which labor is specialized, and worldwide trade is critical.  But even Bono, Thomas Friedman, and Jeffrey Sachs likely have ancestors who in the recent past were such self-sufficient farmers.

In place of subsistence farms are the large corporate and government bureaucracies who use the invisible hand of the marketplace to produce for the world. But to say that this happened, is not to say the process was just, nor came without suffering.  Nor was it necessarily welcomed by the world’s peasants whose passive resistance to market incentives still throw askew econometric forecasts. And if more evidence is needed of this conflict, one need look no further than  Africa today, where vast numbers of subsistence peasants continue to live, farm, and resist government attempts to exclude them from lands reserved for cash-generating timber reserves, hunting blocks, plantations, or national parks even as promises of cash for wage labor entice them into the cities.

Africa’s Peasants Confront Markets and Its Bureaucrats

In pockets of Asia, Latin America and especially Africa peasant clans are still often like those Marx compared to a bag of potatoes: similar to each other, and not particularly suited to a fine division of labor. Perhaps all that is particularly new is that they have access to clothing purchased from the bales of the wealthy world’s cast-offs.  But like the peasants in Scotland or even Daniel Boone, they resist with the tools of the subsistence peasant: high birth rates, clearing land, reliance on clan loyalty, and demands for relief commodities when crops fail.

The problem is that few development bureaucrats or businessmen see Africa in terms familiar to its subsistence peasantry, i.e. as a conservative, well-tested, and secure way of life.  Rather they see it in terms of its incapacity to produce for a global marketplace in which land and labor are capital.  Thus African development programs are typically about the tools and measures of the marketplace, like trade balances, currency stability, mineral production, agricultural extension, clothing manufacture, and oil.  Unseen in such analyses are the subsistence peasants who are effectively invisible because they primarily produce outside the global market.  In this context, they will always frustrate the highest ideals of the development agencies.  The way they frustrate the modern marketplace is through the same messiness seen in eighteenth century Scotland, and nineteenth century North America.  They have babies who as young men and women eventually push into forest reserves, national parks, and other cash-producing concessions only lightly policed by the central government.  And when these traditional strategies no longer work, the survivors demand relief supplies from their patrons, just as surely as Scottish peasants asserted rights to famine relief from patron clan chiefs in the eighteenth century Highlands.  And perhaps most threatening, when land does indeed run out, the peasantry creates vast numbers of youth who no longer have access to land for a subsistence life, and few market skills of interest in urban labor markets.  And ominously, these displaced youth are the targets of extremists seeking to create the militias needed for the type of revolution Marx dreamed of.  Or in a post Cold War world, they are susceptible to the ethnic ideologies found in places like Rwanda, Congo, Colombia, Afghanistan, The Middle East, and elsewhere.

The Limits of Modern Economics for Understanding Peasant Life

There are of course advantages to modern neo-classical economic models: They do predict how people embedded in the marketplace respond to incentives.  Today though, the trick is knowing which farmer is embedded in the marketplace, and which in older persistent ways of thinking about economic life.  The former will respond to incentives in manners development bureaucrats will understand.  But for those still embedded in older subsistence ethics, the bureaucrats encounter people who do not remain at factory benches consistently, hire based on clan loyalties, appeal to personal relationships in the awarding (and repayment) of loans, lose their land to hucksters, and withdraw from confrontation when working conditions become onerous.  Most frustrating for the bureaucrats are the emphases on the age-old method of resistance; especially having more children than the development bureaucrats think economically wise.  And of course when food shortage looms, they look to the new patrons in the aid bureaucracies for relief supplies.

Such techniques, whether called peasant stubbornness, resistance, weapons of the weak, or simple laziness are in fact the old means used to resist the intrusion of the outside world into the older world of the subsistence peasant.  But after $2.3 trillion spent in development assistance to change the peasantry into the finely tuned producer in a market economy directed by the guiding spirit of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, you would think something else might be tried.  There are rational reasons the world’s subsistence peasants avoid capture by the world market—and unless these reasons are evaluated, not even another $2.3 trillion will provide the alchemy needed to transform Marx’s bag of potatoes into a finely tuned watch.  And as long as this happens, the sighing of the economists, and sweating of the politicians will continue.

Tony Waters

Chico, California