In this first of a three-part contribution to Agroecologynow, Paulo Petersen and Denis Monteiro present the current moment as a crisis in capitalism that demands systemic and structural responses based in solidarity and feminist economics. This lays the foundations for agroecology as a new organizing paradigm for food systems that holds the key to preventing the collapse of our living systems as we know them. Earlier versions of these pieces were previously published in Portuguese. Part II available here.
As we try to reimagine our world, we must look at the countryside. There we can find a cooperative and sustainable production system based on peasant agriculture. Underestimated, even by orthodox Marxism, it is being rediscovered. Recognized and reinforced by the agroecological perspective, the peasantry will be one of the foundations for post-capitalism. Based on the Brazilian experience, the political meaning of this proposal is presented in this historic moment of extreme gravity marked by the sudden deepening of pre-existing crises triggered by the spread of the coronavirus
The need for a systemic perspective
The growing number of ecological, health, economic and social crises situations are compounding and are based in an exceptionally complex political reality that demand a systemic and holistic perspective. Yet, governments and public policy around the world are plagued by sectoral approaches. These need to be overcome if we can respond to this crisis in a way that dismantles the vicious regressive circles that make the causes seem like the effects, and vice versa.
In this sense, there is an urgent need to undo the false dichotomy between health and the economy that polarizes public debate and government initiatives in Brazil, and elsewhere, while the death toll of Covid multiplies, and the economy falls apart. In both cases, the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population are hit the hardest.
Two points are vital to give rise to public intervention strategies that are capable of promoting virtuous circles between just and democratic economies and collective health. First understanding health as a right to be actively promoted by the State. Second, approaching “the economy” as the administration of social wealth for the promotion of the common good.
More than ever, public support for healthy food production and distribution shows itself as a win-win strategy that is indispensable for combining long-standing social and economic challenges, now aggravated by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Furthermore, it is a win-win-win (triple win) strategy, in that it also brings with it the potential to produce extremely relevant environmental benefits when we take into account the fact that food systems organized according to agribusiness’ technical-economic logic are responsible for emission of almost 40% of greenhouse gases, and are also responsible for accelerated rates of deforestation and loss of biodiversity, degradation of land and water bodies. In addition to these destabilizing effects of the planetary ecological dynamics, numerous experts have been pointing to the direct relationship between the emergence of pandemics and the mega confinements in the agribusiness industrial farms.
In the end, the coronavirus crisis sheds a light on the limits of neoliberal capitalism as a model of political and economic management in contemporary societies. Similarily, corporate food has met its limits and agroecology has emerged as an alternative model for the transformation of the dominant patterns of production, processing, distribution and consumption of food.
Institutional procurement policies, such as the Food Acquisition Program from Family Farming (PAA – by its acronym in Portuguese) and the National School Meal Program (PNAE), which are based in a systemic perspective and enable agroecology are vital in Brazil and elsewhere both as an emergency measure and to address broader structural issues. The immediate resumption of the PAA according to the proposition defended by civil society in the beginning of the pandemic is inserted in this context as an emergency measure of a structural nature. This is a politically feasible measure as long as it is strongly supported by an active citizenship and its organizations at a time when the neoliberal prescription is in check.
End of the line for the neoliberal order?
Many have said that we will not return to the world we had until March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the state of the pandemic. A red light went on and suddenly there was an abrupt reduction in the frantic flows of people and goods all over the world due to the social isolation adopted as a measure to restrict the spread of COVID-19. Overnight, neoliberal dogmas fell apart, leading exponents of conservative thinking to cry out for state interventionism. Unanimity was formed across the ideological spectrum: without the decisive action of governments, it would be impossible to face the pandemic and its economic and social consequences.
The surprising April 3rd editorial in the Financial Times, a prominent vehicle for liberal thinking, said that “the coronavirus pandemic exposed the fragility of the economy in many countries”, that “radical reforms are needed to forge a society that works for all” and that “governments must accept a more active role in the economy, viewing public services as an investment”. A card went viral on social networks, summing up the phenomenon with overwhelming irony: “We believed that the fear of dying converted atheists into believers. In reality, it converts neoliberals into Keynesians”.
In spite of the sudden “statist turn”, nothing indicates that the reviving Keynesian policies are here to stay. On the contrary, in the current context, emergency intervention by governments seems more to them to be a bitter medicine that is indispensable in times of acute crisis than a change in lifestyle necessary to prevent new crises. In any case, the tragedy reveals the fallacies imposed as unquestionable truths during the 40 years of neoliberal hegemony. Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister in the 1980s, decreed that “there were no alternatives” to the new order that was then imposed. Along the same line, Francis Fukuyama, a conservative philosopher and ideologist of the Reagan government, announced the “end of history” with the arrival of a supposed ideal model of society.
The current crisis, already considered the most serious of the last century, recalls that history does not advance in pre-established straight lines, but in bifurcations, making it clear that political authoritarianism and intellectual arrogance are a dangerous combination when we face one of these historical ruptures. Possibly, we are facing one of the most decisive crises among which we have already experienced in our planetary adventure as a species. A crisis that did not arise with the current pandemic, but from the progressive exhaustion of a power system that is unable to reproduce its own basic principle of functioning, that is, the rampant accumulation of capital. Critical arguments for capitalism, including recently deceased Immanuel Wallerstein and David Harvey, have long pointed to the fact that the contradictions of this system reached their terminal limits in their neoliberal phase.
The pandemic illuminated these contradictions, making them more visible. It is as if the coronavirus emitted a cry at the deaf ears of opportunists and deniers who for decades have prevented the political construction of a new social contract capable of making coexistence between and within nations more harmonious. Overcoming the power system that perpetuates and deepens the abysmal social disparities is a condition for such harmony to be built and maintained. But the message of the current crisis goes further. With the realization a new geological era marked by the dominant imprint of humans on ecosystems, the climate and the planet as a whole, the Anthropocene, the pandemic has further revealed our deep connections with nature. It is clear a new viable social contract will only be possible if it is also assumed as a “natural contract” between the planetary human community and the other beings of the Biosphere. We are, therefore, facing yet another call from Nature, perhaps the last, as agroecologist Victor Toledo, Mexico’s until recently Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, warned.
The need for structuring urgencies
Given the exceptional gravity of the historic moment, even prominent right-wing ideologues call attention to the need to implement emergency measures that simultaneously point to structural changes in a system on the verge of collapse. This is the case of Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, according to which we live in an “epic period” in which “the historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future”. In a tenuous balance between the emergency and the structural, the measures taken immediately will influence the objective conditions of the post-pandemic future, a future in dispute, as many analysts warn.
From the far right perspective, an ideological field that recently ascended to institutional power in Brazil, Hungary, India, amongst several other countries in the legitimacy vacuum created by the crisis of neoliberal hegemony, we would be introduced to the path that would lead us to the deepening of demagogic authoritarianism, of voracious capitalism with a nationalist and every-man-for-himself approach in the competitive market arena. A second path, also on the right, points to the continuity of liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism, precisely the style of political management that has exhausted its repertoire of responses to the accentuation of the crisis of capitalism. With the help of the corporate media, these are the paths that have been hegemonizing the speeches at the institutional level and with public opinion.
In counter-hegemony, there are progressive forces. In broad strokes, they could also be identified in two large blocks. On the one hand, there is a bet on the possibility of reconciling neoliberal management with redistributive policies, without making structural reforms necessary for a substantial change in the relationship between capital and labor. A tense conciliation, by some called neo-developmentalist, that was sustained politically in several Latin American countries during the period of exceptional performance of the economy driven by the export of agricultural and mineral commodities. On the other hand, there are forces that question liberal democracy, fighting for the deepening of an economic democracy guaranteed by a state that guarantees rights and based on values of solidarity and cooperation in defense of common goods and ecological sustainability.
Pushing the values and practices of a democratic left committed to environmental care will depend fundamentally on the ability to articulate popular struggles at this moment when we are crossing the dark tunnel of the pandemic without knowing what we will find on the way out. It is exactly the immediate struggles waged in the territories in order to alleviate the human suffering caused by the coronavirus crisis that may illuminate paths for overcoming neoliberal reason, opening space for the development of radically democratic institutions based on practices of social solidarity and caring for the common goods of nature.
Solidarity as an economic principle
Talking about the deepening of democracy and the generalization of solidary economy practices in today’s dystopian times may seem like an escape from an unrealizable utopia. However, while a pandemic hit a nation ruled by an obscurantist extreme right like Brazilian people, a significant portion of the population is self-organizing in decentralized local networks, unleashing its creativity and its spirit of cooperation to proliferate extraordinary practices of solidarity throughout the country. While the federal government feeds the paralyzing polarization between the management of the economy and that of public health, delaying the implementation of social protection measures approved by the National Congress by weeks, the civil society solidarity networks make it clear that caring for life and individual and collective well-being must be the central objective of the economy.
In a letter sent to social movements on Easter Sunday (April 12th, 2020), Pope Francis praised precisely the role of these invisible networks that are multiplying in Brazil and in the world.
“If the fight against COVID-19 is a war,” said Francisco, “you are a true invisible army that fights in the most dangerous trenches. An army whose weapons are solidarity, hope and a sense of community that resonates in these days when no one is saved alone. You are for me true social poets, who from the forgotten peripheries create worthy solutions to the most pressing problems of the excluded”.
However, anyone who understands solidarity as a value triggered only in times of crisis is mistaken. Were it not for the cooperative practices typical of the solidarity economy disseminated in the daily lives of our societies, the “satanic mill” of capitalist markets (in the accurate image created by Karl Polanyi) would have already led humanity to complete barbarism. We are not referring here to the ephemeral expressions of corporate solidarity. Important as they may be, these punctual charitable actions tend to pass along with the crisis, not without first receiving their counterpart in terms of corporate marketing. Meanwhile, the permanent and diffuse forms of social solidarity will remain active, although invisible by corporate media, reproducing the rhetoric proper to neoliberal orthodoxy.
Breaking this hegemony is the primary challenge so that solidarity economy practices in the defense of the commons are socially recognized and, if necessary, developed with the decisive support of public policies. Women organized in feminist movements denounce one of the most eloquent expressions of this paradoxical combination between omnipresence and the invisibility of solidarity practices responsible for the maintenance of modern societies. By shedding light on the determinant role of care and housework in the circuits that reproduce capital, the feminist economy’s critique of capitalism reveals the indispensable role of these unpaid activities exercised predominantly by women.
Similar to feminist anti-systemic movements, the largest professional category in the contemporary world, peasant family farmers, also associates its struggles for socio-political emancipation with the fight against the invisibility of solidarity work practices intrinsic to its economic modus operandi. Predictions related to the inevitable disappearance of the peasantry in the face of the advance of capitalism in the countryside have been reiterated since the 19th century by liberal and Marxist theorists. To a large extent, this almost unanimity explains why, even today, the methods of production and reproduction of peasant family farming are so poorly understood and devalued, although, as we defend here, they are indispensable pillars for sustaining the dynamic, democratic and sustainable economies that we will need in the future.
Fortunately, after more than a century of open political and economic hostility from governments located in all positions of the ideological spectrum, peasant agriculture remains among us, contrary to the dominant economic theories, obsessed with the productive bias of economies of scale and the idea of growth. And there is no doubt that the world would be much worse if it had indeed disappeared. As Teodor Shanin, a notorious peasant thinker who recently died, identified, “day by day, peasants make economists sigh, politicians sweat and strategists swear, defeating their plans and prophecies all over the world.”
Worldwide, we are talking about 2 billion human beings involved in the production of food on a daily basis, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization – FAO. In Brazil, according to the last agricultural census (data from 2017 only released in 2019), about 10 million farmers and family farmers represent 67% of the occupation in the agricultural sector and account for the majority of the food that reaches our tables, despite the fact that they have only 23% of agricultural land.
Economic qualities that should be politically promoted
The immense capacity of peasant family farming to persevere in a world increasingly hostile to its existence reveals one of the central qualities to be strengthened in the economic systems of the future: resilience. Resilience that is once again put to the test during the pandemic, when family farmers continue to work in silence, providing a vital service to society, while the economy is virtually paralyzed by the need for social detachment. Where does this virtue of the peasant economy come from? How to reproduce it in the economic system as a whole?
Issues like this have motivated in recent years a prolific intellectual production in the social sciences, especially among economists. The common component that unifies this broad and growing field of rebel economists is the need to overcome the “one-track-mind”, imposed by the “Washington consensus”, as they call themselves, using scientific concepts to superficially legitimize the narrative of neoliberal hegemony. It is evident that counter-hegemonic ideas do not gain ground in society solely for their virtues, even when they carry promising responses to deep crises such as the one we are going through. Considering that the operation of the economy is regulated by pacts established in society and not by theoretical mechanisms related to supposed balances in the markets, as the neoliberal book of rules says, the challenge of building effective economic alternatives shifts to the political level.
Hence the relevance of Pope Jorge Bergoglio’s initiative to propose, in May 2019, a broad worldwide movement for reflection on alternatives to neoliberal thought and policies. When articulating young activists from around the world with critical economists, some of whom are Nobel laureates, the proposed reflection goes beyond the strictly technical dimension of economic science so that the ethical foundations that support the dominant system are also questioned. Had it not been for the pandemic, this decentralized process of critical reflection would have converged on the event entitled “Economy of Francis”, originally scheduled for March 26 and 29 in the Italian city of Assisi, where the friar who stripped himself of his wealth for to be in solidarity with the poorest and with other beings of nature, lived.
Recovering solidarity as the backbone value of the economic systems of the future is the message that today’s Pope Francis wants to rescue from the thirteenth-century friar Francis. To coordinate these reflections in Brazil, the Brazilian Articulation for the Economy of Francis (ABEF) was formed, whose debates resulted in the Brazilian contribution to be taken to Assisi, the Brazilian Charter for the Economy of Francis and Clara. In the midst of the debates that led to the letter, ABEF understood that “for the new economies in the 21st century, men and women have to walk side by side, shoulder to shoulder, neither front nor back, but hand in hand, like “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”. The Economy of Francis and Clara is what we intend to practice and honor”.
Peasant family farming is presented in the letter as one of the main expressions of social and solidarity economy in force to be recognized and developed by public policies. Unlike capitalist economic rationality, oriented towards the extraction and private appropriation of wealth generated by the work of others, in family farming it is the family itself, while an economic micro-community, that activates the capital mobilized by its work process. Because the family is both a worker and owner of the means of production, it depends on the preservation of its productive heritage. This implies a peculiar rationality of technical-economic management aimed at the long-term optimization of the income generated by the family’s work, differing diametrically from the criteria of the capitalist company, structured essentially to obtain profits in the short term.
Betting on the qualities of family farming, in summary, means strengthening food systems founded on redistributive and regenerative economies, as Kate Raworth suggests in her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economy. It means cultivating economic agents socially prone to intra and intergenerational solidarity. It means creating dignified jobs dedicated to the production of food in quantity and diversity to supply the population as a whole with healthy food. It means drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting food systems with greater capacity to adapt to the already inevitable climate change. Finally, it means dismantling the power large agribusiness corporations have over the circuits that globally link food production, processing, distribution and consumption.
Teaser photo credit: Annual demonstrations in defense of women’s lives and agroecology in the territory of Borborema. Foto: Nilton Pereira/AS-PTA