Friday, November 19, 2010

The peasant strategy

There are quite a lot of alternative systems running in parallel to the prevailing system. One alternative which we often don't notice is the peasant, the small farmer. While indeed almost all farmers in the world are part of the global markets, or at least heavily influenced by them , peasants, small farmers, are all over the world struggling to limit the influence of capitalism and markets on their daily lives, for a multitude of reasons, but in particular to keep their autonomy. Traditional farmers are not only producing, but they are also reproducing the means of production. While the “normal” economy is extractive and exploitative and assigns no value to natural capital, for farmers that are tied to their turf for life and for generations to come, reproduction of the natural capital is as natural as reproduction of the own species . And this way of working is and should be a role model for any future society. To integrate production, consumption and reproduction in a harmonious model.

In The New Peasantries, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg shows how farmers in the country with the oldest commercialized farm sector in the world, for some five hundred years already, the Netherlands, try to avoid making their farms too dependent on the market: The first strategy is with pluriactivity; some 50 percent of the income in household on arable farm is derived from outside of the farm. The other, more important, strategy is to rely on the market for the sales but limit the market dependency on the input side, i.e. on the reproduction of the system. A farm which is based on family labour, has not debt, uses local nature resources, own seeds, limited machinery and the production system itself (soil re-generating technologies such as crop rotations), instead of being dependent on the market for its production, can sell in the market without being so totally in the hands of the market. The production process itself is not subject to the market for its organization, the link to the market is only at the end of the chain. Market failures may be painful but it doesn't throw the family into poverty. In addition, the strategy is mostly based on diversification and therefore less vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. Most Dutch farms are able to operate – and operate well – precisely because they don't make themselves dependent in input markets. “If all the resources used on the farm had the function as capital (i.e. generate at least the average level of profitability) and all labour was to be remunerated as wage labour, then nearly all Dutch farms, as well as the Dutch agriculture sector as a whole would be broke” say van der Ploeg 2009. And this in the country with the most modern and efficient farming system in the world!

This strategy is common all over the world and in particular in developing countries, where risk aversion and the lack of social security make farmers even less inclined to wager their livelihoods for possible short term gains. These farms also nurture craftsmanship and skills, i.e. human capital, rather than entrepreneurial management. The craftsmanship is about working with remoulding and improving what there already is, and what you have under your control, while the entrepreneur just buys in whatever he needs. The peasants don't represent an outlier or a curiosity. They still represent a third of the world population. But I also believe their approach to how to interact with the capitalist economy can be a model for what will grow in the future. "Backyard economist" Harriet Fasenfest explains why we should all be peasants:

The truth is, we city folks are all serfs, only fancier. We all work for the land owners and pay our way. Oh we may own our plot, but our goods and services are mostly delivered from far and wide which, in fact, is what separates us from peasants. They may be cash poor but they buy less. They produce the goods and services they require. And they supply for their needs within the balance of the commons - what it allows, how many it will naturally support. They do not speak stewardship but live it. We westerners must work for the company store. We must leave our land. All of us, day laborers for the man. Which could have worked, I suppose, if it had not been the betrayal -- the greed, the indifference, the stealing of the common resources for a privileged few. Yes, pity us.

While not always being conscious of its meaning and its character of civil obedience or sabotage, this is also behind the strive for mechanisms that put us outside of the reach of the monetary system, such as bartering and or swapping services as well as LETS currencies. The informal economy and urban agriculture are also partly based on the “peasant principle”. De-linking from the world capitalist economy, or simply ignoring it, is one of the most important strategies both for individuals, communities and countries that want to enter a new path of development. “if increasing numbers of people move to the slow lane where they can live satisfactory without consuming much then capitalism is doomed” says Ted Trainer.

(an extract from my book Garden Earth , forthcoming)

1 comment:

  1. I love where you are going with this. Well, why wouldn't I? You quoted me but still......the new peasantry has a truth to it. Not only as theory but in practice which, in the end, is where all this theory should lead us to. Darn if I don't want to go to Denmark or anywhere where the obviousness of a live outside the markets (in greater or smaller degrees) seems both environmentally and economically obvious.