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Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015

A belated happy new year from Small Farm Future. I’ve been off the farm (and blessedly computer-free) for quite a while over the holidays, most recently at the ever-informative Oxford Real Farming Conference. So I have a lot of farm work and a lot of writing and blogging to catch up on. The former is going to start asserting its priority over the latter, so please forgive me if the blog posts become a bit more sporadic. If in the coming weeks you should need to fill that Small-Farm-Future-shaped hole in your life – a problem no doubt shared with aching multitudes – you could always feast your eyes on my Dark Mountain piece about COP21.

But moving swiftly on, I want to start the new year by mourning a loss at the end of the old one. Early in 2015 I commemorated the sad death of Patrick Whitefield, whose writing and teaching greatly influenced me. I now want to mark the passing at the year’s end of another good man, whose work has likewise left its mark.

I only knew Sid briefly, in the course of what turned out to be a short and rather ill-fated sojourn as a graduate student in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. I suppose I was in awe of him as something of an icon of American anthropology (I think the ecumenical conception of ‘America’ in Sid’s work permits the term ‘American’ in this case, when I’d otherwise want to resist the colonization of the term by the USA, which after all is only one of many American countries). But, as various obituaries have rightly stressed, for someone of his standing he was remarkably genial and free of egotism, and my interactions with him and with his thinking were one of the few unalloyed positives I took from my time in Baltimore.

Probably the best way for me to honour Sid here is to share some thoughts on why his work still matters to me in the different life I’ve chosen as a small-scale farmer and small-scale farming activist. At the time early in his career when anthropology still inclined towards the study of supposedly authentic and pristine ‘non-modern’ or ‘tribal’ societies, Sid chose to focus on the Caribbean, the decidedly non-pristine crucible and forerunner for our modern world system. To understand the small world of the Caribbean, Sid had to understand much bigger worlds – Africa, Europe, and the Americas more generally – in their interactions with it. And he had to understand them historically, still quite a novel approach in the functionalist-dominated anthropology of the time, though perhaps less so in the US than in Europe. So his work was painted on a vast historic canvas, for which he used the tools of Marxist structural and economic analysis, but (unlike many Marxists) without ever losing sight of the actual people living the structures of history. His writings like Worker in the Cane and The Birth of African-American Culture were theoretically sophisticated, but also moving and intensely human accounts of the way that people made sense of the hand dealt them by history, and the way they tried to make the most of it too, even when the hand was as unpromising as the one typically dealt to Africans in colonial America, and to many of their descendants today. In contrast to the abstruse Marxist and post-Marxist social theorising which were the stock-in-trades of much of my anthropological education, Sid was exemplary in his ability to use clear, simple language to convey sophisticated ideas, while maintaining a steady, sympathetic gaze on ordinary people as they went about making history through living their lives. I wish I could better follow his example.

Sid was probably best known for his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. It launched a thousand imitations about the role of this or that commodity in shaping the world as we know it, few of them with the erudition of the original. As Sid documented in his book, the importance of sugar in the development of globalization and global capital is hard to overestimate – shaping the fortunes of people on three continents and fostering many facets of modern public culture in the development both of slave plantation agriculture and of opposition to it. It’s easy to forget how recent these events are. I remember Sid mentioning that as a young anthropologist he’d met an old man in Puerto Rico who had been born a slave. Slavery itself is still with us today in illicit forms, of course, but even full-blown slave societies are less than two lifetimes distant.

I guess the brute historic facts of Atlantic chattel slavery are implicit in my thinking about small farm futures, because they dramatize in extreme form what strikes me as integral to capitalist globalization – an inhumane privileging of profit over people, which insinuates itself in barbaric forms wherever the agents of capital accumulation can get away with it, most often in colonial or neo-colonial situations. True, chattel slavery was abolished and its abolition in some ways reflected the emergence of a universalist humanitarianism which has been a mostly positive force in the modern world. True, too, that a localist agrarian world isn’t necessarily an egalitarian one. But the development of American plantation slavery contemporaneously with the development of the ‘Enlightenment values’ that so many people seem anxious to defend today as exemplary of a western developmental superiority over the ‘barbarism’ of others strikes me as an adequate rebuke to such hubris, and illustrative of what naked power gets up to behind its many veils. The prospects for achieving a sustainable, egalitarian small farm future perhaps seem pretty slim – it’s just that, for me, the prospects for achieving any other kind of sustainable, egalitarian future seem slimmer still.

Another aspect of Sid’s work that I find relevant to my present concerns, albeit a bit tangentially, is his writing on the ‘reconstituted peasantries’ of the Caribbean, and on Caribbean societies more generally as reconstituted creole societies, creating new, functional American wholes out of their European and African parts (his 1974 book Caribbean Transformations is the key text here). Just as Caribbean peasantries and Caribbean societies were post-modern responses to modernity in one of its most horrifying manifestations, so I think we need reconstituted peasantries and reconstituted societies in many parts of the world today as a post-modern response to modernity in its less immediately horrifying (at least for the fortunate denizens of the world’s wealthier countries) but therefore more insidious forms of globalized capitalist commodity agriculture and contemporary consumerism.

When I went to Jamaica in 1989 under Sid’s tutelage I wanted to study ‘peasant consciousness’ among small-scale farmers involved in both subsistence production and commodity sugar production, as a result of what with retrospect strike me as a set of rather arid and over-theoretical Marxist concerns, while armed with absolutely no knowledge at all about how people actually farmed. It’s probably best to draw a veil over my brief and hapless efforts to be an anthropological fieldworker (a book by one of Sid’s students who enjoyed a rather more successful academic career than me – Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Peasants and Capital – is worth a look as an example of the kind of good anthropology to which I aspired, and perhaps sort of still do). But in recent years, I’ve become a fieldworker in the more direct sense of having spent time actually working as a farmer in my field, and I’ve also come back to the issue of peasant consciousness – in particular, as manifested in the balance between personal or community self-provisioning and commodity production as a critical global question for contemporary times, even if it’s not one that is yet being widely asked.

I haven’t kept up with Sid’s more recent work on the anthropology of food – from what I’ve seen, his intellectual productivity stayed with him to the last – and I have to admit that I don’t think his work provides any simple answers to my current questions about peasant consciousness. Indeed, I don’t think there are any simple answers to it. One of the nice things about being an academic – even a politically-engaged, Marxist-oriented academic – is that you can eschew the activist’s tendency to propound simple solutions to complex problems. There’s plenty of activist posturing within academia, but Sid’s specific, engaged, humane work floats serenely above it, offering not answers but at least the possibility of better historical understanding, and better questions.

As I said of Patrick last year: rest in peace, Sid, and thanks for what you gave us.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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