Continuing with my ‘History of the world’. As ever, the fully referenced version of this essay is available here.
I’m going to come back to the issue of peasantries as the ‘universal class’ at the end of this essay. For now, I’d just like to broach the issue by returning to the question of peasantries under capitalism by way of what the doyen of Caribbean anthropology, Sidney Mintz, called ‘reconstituted peasantries’. Mintz was referring specifically to the rise of peasant farmers in the Caribbean around the edges and in the aftermath of the slave plantation system – people who weren’t originally peasants, but workers in the capitalist world economy (plantation slaves) who turned to peasant farming as the best available option open to them under changing circumstances.
I’d like to submit Mintz’s concept for more generalised use – at points of breakdown in the capitalist world system, peasant production can present itself as an attractive or, at least, as a least-worst option. For those of us who suspect that major breakdowns in the capitalist world system are likely in future, the possibility of a more widespread emergence of ‘reconstituted peasantries’ becomes interesting. If that’s how things turn out, an intriguing question is the extent to which post-capitalist reconstituted peasantries of the future might resemble any peasantries of the capitalist or pre-capitalist past. In other words, is the history of agrarian production and its social structures prior to and during the development of the capitalist world system relevant to its future after capitalism – does agrarian society have a predictable structuring – or have I been wasting my time reading and writing about all this history? The answer will surely depend on how capitalism might end, and what form post-capitalist states might take – questions that remain rather disreputable to mainstream thought, particularly when one starts talking about a future return to peasant farming. But, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s a growing sub-genre of ‘post-capitalist’ writing available. One of the problems with it is precisely that it doesn’t adequately talk about peasants or the contemporary ‘agrarian question’ – what Mazoyer and Roudart call a world agrarian crisis that requires the development of the ‘poor peasant economy’.
In any case, to summarise where we’ve got to in this survey of capitalism, I’ve charted above three main dimensions of capitalist development – agriculture, manufactures and commerce – and given some weighting to commerce in its military-colonial expansionary drive as the main engine of the ‘Great Divergence’ that has made the west the core region of the world economic system over the last two centuries or so. But as well as looking at what actually happened, is it also worth applying some normative judgment to the ‘proper’ course of economic development? Well, we could surely do worse than follow the example of Adam Smith, much feted pioneering theorist of the modern capitalist economy who, among other things, has posthumously donated his name to the eponymous institute much beloved of Margaret Thatcher and succeeding generations of neoliberals, which has done more than its share in spreading the neoliberal doctrine of untrammelled private markets as the solution to all the world’s ills. Smith emphasised the “soft, gentle and amiable virtues” necessary to the commercial society his work foretold, but he argued that such “general security and happiness…afford little exercise to the contempt of danger, to patience in enduring labour, hunger and pain” which he seemingly preferred. He identified a “natural course of things” in which “the greater part of capital…is, first, directed to agriculture, afterwards to manufactures, and last of all to foreign commerce”. He found this ‘natural course’ in the history of China, whereas in Europe he considered the ordering reversed – which he found “unnatural and retrograde”. Buried within the ur-text of capitalism’s impetus to commercialisation and genteel progress, perhaps there lurks a hankering for the more muscular virtues of an agrarian republic?
So let me now trace some of the ways the virulent new capitalist political economy played out across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century ended as it began with many of the world’s people working primarily as small-scale, self-providing cultivators under the weaker or stronger suzerainty of large empires whose rise predated capitalism. But things weren’t the same at century’s end as at the beginning – a globalising capitalist economy had thoroughly penetrated the existing order and dominated it politically through direct or indirect colonial rule. As I’ve already mentioned, in some cases apparently ‘traditional’ lifeways of peasant subsistence were augmented or even created through colonial processes that sapped the economic lifeblood of conquered polities and their peoples, making subsistence cultivation a strategy of last resort. In others, the surplus-producing aspects of peasant production were redirected to the ends of the capitalist world system. There are numerous variants of this capitalist appropriation of peasant surplus production across the modern global economy – including the increasingly demonised and disciplined category of impoverished international labour migrants, many of whom remain connected to a farm and village back home, and may indeed be working in the short-term for low wages in a ‘developed’ country in order to generate sufficient wealth to establish themselves as a landowner or ‘rich peasant’ able to be relatively independent locally of world market forces. So whereas there are those who say that more capitalism is needed in order to end the misery of peasant life, there are also those who seek more peasantism in order to end the misery of capitalist life.
Meanwhile, nationalism took shape on the political stage – essentially a family of doctrines which weaponised differences of language, religion, phenotype or putatively shared culture-history. Such differences had long prompted human conflicts back into antiquity (perhaps with the exception of phenotype). What was different with modern nationalism was the notion that these differences coincided organically with the boundaries of sovereign political states, which were the only legitimate representatives of ‘the people’. With undeniable emotional power, nationalism makes us think that an entity like ‘Britain’ is a natural political unit (or ‘England’ at any rate – oh dear, we’re running into difficulties already). But as Immanuel Wallerstein points out, nationalism is always a case of “First the boundaries, later the passions” – historically, an Angevin polity of England, Wales and western France could plausibly have stabilised itself after Henry II. What then of an immemorial ‘Englishness’?
The genesis of these nationalisms was multi-factorial. I wrote earlier of their gestational phase in the absolutist states of the late medieval period, but they only assumed their contemporary form in the clash between egalitarian Enlightenment rationalism and Counter-Enlightenment romanticism. Bruce Kapferer nicely summarizes the problem raised by this clash and the way that nationalism tries to resolve it:
“Among nation-states formed within the conditions of egalitarian individualism the issue of legitimacy has an enduring problematic specific to it. This is so because the individual autonomy preached as a central part of egalitarianism potentially conflicts with the loss or surrender of this autonomy to others, specifically agents of the state. One resolution, part of the fury of Western political discourse from the seventeenth century on, is precisely the argument that the state embodies the pure spirit of the people and is the guardian of this spirit.”
Other elements of the nationalist package included an emerging biological-racial consciousness of human difference, secularization and the eclipse of religion, and the emergence of mass societies in which people no longer lived in rural face-to-face communities of known others, but large conurbations of strangers – mass circulation newspapers, sports and other 19th century innovations enabled the creation of new ‘imagined communities’ and new ‘invented traditions’, to use the powerful metaphors invoked by two influential theorists of nationalism.
But alongside these efforts to forge a mass common purpose within the exclusive boundaries of the nation, a counter-tradition developed that sought to recuperate the sovereign individual from the tawdriness of the emerging capitalist mass society. The tradition defies easy summary, partly because it’s scarcely unified, but in an interesting recent essay Gopal Balakrishnan calls it a ‘revolution from the right’, involving a “miscellany of opposition to the welfare state, godless Marxism and a more nebulously conceived cultural levelling…a call to true elites to stand their ground against a world-wide revolt of the masses”. Balakrishnan traces its lineages through the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler’s Decline of the West, the ‘Nazi jurist’ Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss. It’s not a tradition, I confess, in which I’m especially well versed or feel comfortable with – and in its cruder variants it’s one that’s easy to dismiss as a kind of disgusted reactionary response to what struck its proponents as the unstoppable rise of the (sometimes racialized) hoi polloi, a kind of counter-modernity to the one described by Berman. Still, I can see that a figure like Nietzsche, for example – with his pronouncements on the death of God and modern disenchantment, on the slave revolt in morals, on the vengeful politics of ressentiment – has important things to say about living in the modern world and the issues of political sovereignty it involves. But I find it all a bit overblown, and if I wanted to ground my politics in a consistent theory of being I think I’d want to look towards cooler philosophies like stoicism or Taoism as a basis for a self-reliant agrarian politics.
Balakrishnan’s ‘revolution from the right’ is important, though – partly because of its influence on the radical right-wing politics of the present and recent past, and partly because of the new crossovers it has with leftist thought on the terrain of contemporary environmentalism, which I’ve been butting up against recently on this blog. From Spengler to John Michael Greer, Heidegger to Paul Kingsnorth, maybe even Nietzsche to David Fleming (or maybe not…), there’s an undertow of Balakrishnan’s right-wing ‘alternate modernity’ as well as an egalitarian leftism in these contemporary radical ecological thinkers. I mention this here not primarily to criticise them for it. I think there’s something in the counter-tradition they’re invoking that’s necessary and largely absent from the left-green politics that’s more comfortable terrain for the likes of me – something that’s easily traduced by crude polemicists of the doctrinaire left as just another iteration of the far-right nature mysticism investing early 20th century environmentalism. Even so, I think Kingsnorth and Fleming’s cautious flirtations with nationalism, and Greer’s (and to some extent Kingsnorth’s) uncritical approbation of Donald Trump as a kind of avatar of Spenglerian decline and/or avenger of liberal-capitalist complacency are problematic. I plan to write more about this soon when I’ve got to grips with it better – meanwhile, I’ve found Balakrishnan’s essay useful for placing this current of contemporary environmentalist thought into a deeper historical context.