Reconstitution of the Peasantry in the 21st Century

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Article: Douwe van der Ploeg, Jan(2010) 'The peasantries of the twenty-first century: the commoditisation debate revisited', Journal of Peasant Studies, 37: 1, 1 — 30



"This article examines the re-emergence of the peasantry. It argues that farming is increasingly being restructured in a peasant-like way. This restructuring is an actively constructed response to the agrarian crisis that has grown out of five decades of state-induced modernisation and is currently being accelerated by the financial crisis and the generalised economic depression. Through a process of restructuring that is both multi-dimensional and multi-level farmers are reconstituting themselves into peasants (although important features of operating as peasants have never been completely absent), a process that is occurring as much in developed countries as in developing ones. At more or less the same time theoretical concepts of the peasantry and the peasant way of farming are being rediscovered and revisited. Earlier debates are highly relevant for understanding the current situation of a generalised crisis and the responses that are being triggered among farmers. The rediscovery of the peasant as theoretically meaningful concept reflects the socio-material re-emergence of the peasantry, and helps to explain the particular features of this process. The article concludes by arguing that the reconstitution of the peasantry is strategic to future world food security."


Jan Douwe van der Ploeg:

"In this respect the most telling reversal is that at present (due to the financial and economic crises) relatively small scale, peasant-like farms are generating incomes that are often superior to those of far larger, entrepreneurial farms.2 But such apparent paradoxes are not restricted to this moment. They have been germinating for a long time and provide a collective memory that increasingly orients farmers away from the entrepreneurial trajectory and into the re-creation of a peasant trajectory.

Several decades ago, Harriss rightly asserted that ‘the process of commoditization . . . or the linking of rural household producers with capitalist production in various ways . . . is perhaps the dominant process of change in contemporary agrarian societies’ (1982, 22). We are now again witnessing a major process of change: a complex and sometimes contradictory re-adjustment of the balance between commodity and non-commodity relations, in which specific forms of decommoditisation play a key role.

From Land to Ecological Capital

"the beginning of the twenty-first century represents a clear rupture: land is back again as major issue. This is evident in the way that land is once again becoming the object of peasants’ struggles (Martinez-Alier 1995, 140) and of ‘land-grabbing’ (van der Ploeg 2006, 425–37, Borras 2009, 9). More than either of these, it is also evident in the way in which land is now being considered as ecological capital. Farming is again being understood, and practised, as co-production: the interaction and mutual transformation of human actors and living nature. Farming is not only based on ‘economic exchanges’, but also on ‘ecological exchange’ (Toledo 1992). The interaction with nature is not unimportant, nor marginal. A noncommoditised exchange with nature allows the building of an important line of defence: the more that farming is grounded on ecological capital the lower the monetary costs of production will be. Ecological capital, if cared for, also allows for patterns of growth that are independent of the main markets for factors of production and non-factor inputs.

In synthesis: peasant farming moved from a situation in which the centrality of land was self-evident (albeit politically highly contested) towards a situation in which it is becoming central again, i.e. as ecological capital.6 While in this respect the centrality represents a major continuity, there is also a major dissimilarity since what was once a taken-for-granted-reality now emerges as the outcome of purposeful and knowledgeable behaviour. In the past peasants were obliged to use their land as ecological capital. There simply was no alternative. Today there are many, sometimes seductive alternatives. In the new context, using (and further developing) the land as ecological capital is increasingly a choice that reflects agency and preference. The new peasants are not obliged to do so; they opt for it, even if it often implies a tough struggle with the socio-technical regimes in which they operate. Through revitalising and further unfolding of their ecological capital they both use and enlarge their autonomy.

This major change, which has been theoretically elaborated in agro-ecology (Altieri 1990, Sevilla Guzman 2007),7 is one of the main ways in which the peasantries of the twenty-first century are reconstituting themselves.

It also helps to differentiate the new peasants from agrarian entrepreneurs. Today’s peasants tend to ground farming, as much as possible, on ecological capital, whereas agrarian entrepreneurs primarily develop their farming activities by extending commodity flows. Entrepreneurial farming replaces natural growth factors (e.g. soil biology, manure, varieties and breeds adapted to local ecosystems, and multiple cropping as a means to suppress pests and plant diseases) by artificial growth factors obtained from the market. When ‘living nature’ enters the process of production it does so as a commodity.8 It is acquired through market transactions and its use is governed by the logic of the market. In contrast to agrarian entrepreneurs, the peasants of the twenty-first century put ecological capital centre stage and actively unfold, strengthen, and use it. They reground farming on nature, as Caporal and Costabeber (2007) describe for Brazil. This choice does not imply a decline in production. On the contrary, it often augments productivity, efficiency, income levels, and sustainability."

From subsistence to self-provisioning

"The classical peasant household primarily produced to satisfy its own nutritional needs and only the surplus was marketed. Today, however, the concept of self-provisioning embraces the provisioning of all the resources required for the unit of production (as opposed to the unit of consumption). In the past the supply of non-agrarian resources (i.e. industrial and financial resources) was very limited, as was access to the relevant markets. Hence, it was taken for granted that farm units provided themselves with the objects of labour and instruments that they needed. This was either done directly or through socially regulated exchange.

In peasants’ daily lives self-provisioning and resistance are closely tied together. From the late 1980s onwards self-provisioning again gained significance in reshaping considerable parts of the agricultural landscape. This was largely a response to the decline of the previous mercantile industrial regime and the rise of the ‘imperial’ or ‘corporate food regime’ (van der Ploeg 2008, 256, McMichael 2009, 148) – a change that led to a considerable sharpening of the ‘squeeze on agriculture’. Faced with this squeeze many farmers responded by developing self-provisioning. In practice this brings about an often considerable cost-reduction, but in a way which is diametrically opposed to the entrepreneurial script (in which cost-reduction is a function of scale increase). Self-provisioning (i.e. reducing dependency on external resources while simultaneously enlarging and improving the stock of internal resources, including ecological capital) is radically different: it reduces monetary costs while overall levels of production are maintained or even slightly improved. European farmers often describe this strategy as ‘farming economically’ (Kinsella et al. 2002, van der Ploeg 2000); in developing countries it is often referred to as ‘low external input agriculture’ (Reijntjes et al. 1992). Self-provisioning augments and sustains autonomy as a central feature of both farm and farming.

Comparative research in seven European countries10 showed that 60 percent of professional farmers are actively engaged in cost-reduction through greater self-provisioning.

In recent years European farmers have actively begun to reshape pluriactivity by reallocating parts of their ‘plural activities’ into the heart of their farms. Currently this is known as ‘multifunctionality’. From an analytical point of view, the development of different expressions of multifunctionality (e.g. energy production, agro-tourism, on-farm processing, direct selling, management of nature and landscape, care-farms, etc.) composes yet another circuit of reproduction: it allows the peasants of the twenty-first century to reproduce their existence in new and original ways that are often very resilient."

From partial integration to actively constructed distantiation

"If ‘the chief unifying and distinguishing characteristic of the peasantry is partial integration into markets’ (Friedmann 1980, 166), then from an analytical point of view, a considerable proportion of European farmers should be viewed as peasants.18 Their mode of farming is probably patterned in a far more peasant-like way than that of most peasants in developing countries.

There are many different mechanisms that farmers can use to govern, adapt, and change the balance of commodity and non-commodity relations. Augmenting self-provisioning in, and of, the farm, and building upon ecological capital have already been discussed. A wide range of social and material resources can be decommoditised, especially when co-operation and reciprocity extend the process beyond single farm households.

Sharing specific and expensive machinery among groups of farmers brings down the monetary costs per farm (and through reciprocity they might be lowered further) thereby significantly reducing the penetration of commodity relations into the core of peasant agriculture.23 Hence, ‘use-value repeatedly takes precedence over exchange-value in the peasant’s consideration’ (Shanin 1973, 70), which in turn makes partial integration into markets into a distinctive feature.

From fixed regularities and routines to co-production

"the agro-ecological approach, which basically views agriculture as co-production between man and living nature. Growing (as a co-activity of humans and nature) is seen as central. Co-production represents the ongoing combination, interaction, and mutual transformation of social and material resources which constantly differentiates and transforms agriculture.

Co-production feeds back on the resources on which it is built. Farming is not simply based on ecological capital, but also entails feedback effects through which ecological capital is unfolded and improved in different ways. Co-production is intrinsically dynamic.

When the politico-economic arrangements upon which entrepreneurial farming is grounded began to erode (due to liberalisation), peasant agriculture re-emerged again as a far more resilient and economically effective alternative."

From subordination to multiple resistance

"For a long time, resistance has been conceptualised as occurring outside labour and production processes. This applies especially to those forms of resistance that occur as overt struggle: strikes, demonstrations, road blocks, occupations, and goslows. The same applies to covert resistance, the hidden and camouflaged resistance described by James Scott (1985). Overt struggles and covert sabotage occur on the margins of the labour and production processes. The latter are not altered; they are, at most, interrupted or hindered. Neither are such alterations aimed for; the objective of overt struggles mostly is an improvement of the exchange relations within which the labour and production process are embedded. However, from the 1960s onwards new forms of resistance have been developed that are located within spaces of production. These have been theoretically elaborated in the Italian operaismo tradition (Holloway 2002). Such forms of resistance are actively used to alter the techno-institutional structures of labour and production processes. Routines, rhythms, patterns of co-operation, sequences, machines, their tuning, and the mix of materials used are all altered so as to improve labour and production processes and align them with the interests, prospects, and experiences of the workers involved.

The central point here is that this third form of resistance – direct intervention in, and alteration of, labour and production processes – is widespread in today’s agriculture. It is present in the unfolding of organic farming, just as it is the main driver of the many forms of endogenous rural development that we are witnessing in Europe and in the new forms of production that are being developed in the campamentos created by the Brazilian Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST) and in the inlands of Chiapas (Veltmeyer 1997, Toledo 2000). Resistance, or ‘everyday politics’ (Kerkvliet 1993, 460) is encountered in a wide range of heterogeneous and increasingly interlinked practices through which the peasantry constitutes itself as distinctively different from entrepreneurial and capitalist agriculture. Resistance resides in the fields, in the ways in which good manure is made, noble cows are bred, beautiful farms are constructed, and fresh milk is delivered. As ancient and irrelevant as such practices may seem when considered in isolation, in the current context they are becoming vehicles through which resistance is expressed and organised.

An important feature of these new forms of resistance is that they entail searches for, and constructions of, local solutions to global problems. Blueprints are avoided.27 This results in a rich repertoire with the heterogeneity of the many responses becoming one of the propelling forces that induce new learning processes. This pattern reflects the new relations that prevail in many parts of the world: direct confrontations are increasingly difficult and counterproductive, yet at the same time global solutions are deeply distrusted. Hence, these new responses follow a different road."

From community to extended networks

"over recent decades we have been witnessing the emergence of new markets that have been constructed as a response to, and alternative (even if it is a limited one) for, the global markets controlled by food empires. These are new ‘peasant marketplaces’30 that offer a range of qualities that are difficult for food empires to meet (at least in a non-virtual way): short links and distances between places of production and consumption, freshness, shared quality definitions, and often direct social contacts, since peasant marketplaces are meeting points where producers of food and consumers meet face to face and interact. The important point is that these new circuits (or food networks) embody values that are shared by producers and consumers and these values trigger and sustain the qualities mentioned above. In this respect these new circuits represent a new kind of community. They are, to quote Hobsbawn (1973, 7), ‘little worlds [that] may indeed vary considerably in size, population and complexity’ and which ‘form part of a much wider world’ (1973, 8). However, these new networks are no longer strictly rural (as was the case in the past) – instead, they link the rural and the urban, as Barros Nock (1998, 318–19) has documented among Mexican fruit-growers and Morgan et al. (2006, 135–43) have recorded for the ‘alternative world of food in California’. Public procurement (Morgan and Sonnino 2008) can enable a further extension and institutional embedding of such new networks. This occurs not just in the big cities of the North, but also in the South. For example in Brazil the PPA (programme for food acquisition) provides direct links between peasant agriculture and the Fome Zero programme tapping into (and stabilising) a newly emerging market (Schneider et al. 2004) through the requirement that at least 30 percent of the procured food is purchased from peasant producers.

From a theoretical point of view it is interesting to note the strong link between the emergence of new peasantries and the construction of new food networks and the embedded marketplaces. A key factor in this is that they contribute to the construction of relative autonomy. This is partially related to the re-integration of skills and competences (such as the arts of processing and marketing) that have been externalised to (if not actively expropriated by) middlemen, agro-industries, supermarkets, and, later, the large food empires. It is also related to the fact that farmers can escape, in this way, from the asphyxiating effects of the squeeze imposed by these empires.

The reach of this particular reversal, i.e. the rise of new food networks, is not to be underestimated. The European research programme (discussed above) estimated the contribution of direct marketing in seven countries to be worth 2.5 billion Euros per year."

Rebalancing commodity and non-commodity relations

"If the different reversals are taken together, it turns out that the peasantry is reconstituting itself through a complex, but consistent, reshuffling of the balance of commodity and non-commodity relations. Farm units are actively pursuing decommoditisation on the upstream side, while a seemingly opposite tendency is observable on the downstream side, where the range of deliverable commodities is enlarged with non-commodities, such as hospitality, nature, landscape, local provisioning and care, being turned into commodities. However, the paradox is only on the surface. The changes on the output side of the farms are intended to resist (and/or to partially escape) the control that the food empires exert over the main commodity circuits, and are congruous with increased self-provisioning on the input side that aims to reconfigure relations with food empires. Both tendencies are driven by peasant resistance and both aim for greater autonomy and improved coproduction. There is an important internal consistency as well: the more the farm is distantiated from the large upstream markets (and the imperial control rooted in them), the larger the room for manoeuvre to construct the new alternatives on the downstream side."


Jan Douwe van der Ploeg:

"The discussion so far allows for some general statements about peasant households that are inductively derived through empirical generalisations. These are summarised below.

(1) ‘Numerically, the size of the peasantry has increased rapidly [. . .] both in absolute number and as share of the economically active population in agriculture.’

(2) Worldwide, peasant agriculture continues to be characterised by poverty, although there are many specific locations in time and space where peasants are making material progress and improving their wellbeing. Despite this, many parts of peasant agriculture are currently becoming reservoirs of despair. Through newly introduced imperial relations the available labour force and local resources, such as land and water are increasingly separated from each other and falling idle.34 At the same time, considerable parts of peasant agriculture operate as ‘a refuge sector’ (de Janvry et al. 1989), offering a last resort to the dispossessed.

(3) The presence of the peasantry is not limited to the South and/or to generalised conditions of poverty. From an analytical point of view, peasant agriculture is present as much in developed countries as in developing countries as I have argued throughout this paper (see also van der Ploeg 2008).

(4) When the most salient features of peasant agriculture of the twenty-first century are compared to those of previous times, one cannot but conclude that peasant farming has secured its continuity and its omnipresence through major adaptations that follow the avenues summarised in Table 1. This reaffirms that the peasantry is ‘a process within the broader framework of society yet with a structure, consistency and momentum of its own: emerging [. . .], disintegrating and re-emerging at times’.35 Hence, ‘the campesino of today is usually not the campesino of even 15 years ago’ (Edelman 2008, 83). Today’s peasantries are actively responding to the processes that otherwise would destroy, by-pass, and/ or entrap them. Through these responses, which often are multi-dimensional and multi-level, considerable parts of the world’s agriculture are becoming more peasant-like:36 autonomy is being systematically (and materially) built into the resource-base, into the many networks in which farming is embedded, and into the process of production itself.

By doing so, the peasantries of the twenty-first century are creating an important new frontier that separates them from entrepreneurial farming.37 This frontier embodies two interlinked forms of resistance. First, there is a persistent and multifacetted resistance to the commoditisation of the resource base. This is matched by a strong and richly-chequered resistance to the control that food empires exert over the main commodity markets through which food and services are distributed.38 This is contributing to a diversification and expansion of downstream commodity relations.

In synthesis peasant agriculture represents an important foundation for persistence, i.e. the capacity to continue over long periods. Ecological capital supplies the main natural resources, co-production allows for steady but ongoing improvements in technical efficiency (the ratio between total production and the resources used), and self-provisioning implies that all the technical and social means required to convert natural resources into production are available. Through such mechanisms food production can be sustained over long periods and steadily enlarged. Following this pattern the capacity to respond to increased demand for food is an endogenous quality: growth is not necessarily triggered by external interventions.

The nature and logic of peasant production are at the core of this pattern. Capitalist agriculture does not recognise the importance of value added, but is primarily oriented towards profits and profitability – which are often increased by reducing or containing total production (and the total amount of value added).45 In entrepreneurial farming value added is important, but is more often realised through the take-over of other units of production than produced from within the resource base of an existing unit. This explains the seemingly contradictory situation of rapidly expanding entrepreneurial farms combined with an overall stagnation of production in the agrarian sector as a whole. In peasant agriculture the longing for better incomes translates, both at the level of the single households and at the level of the sector as a whole, into increased production. When all the relevant conditions are the same, peasant farming produces more food in a given area than entrepreneurial farming. Reliable comparisons of this have been made in Emilia Romagna (Italy). In 1971 peasant agriculture produced a total Gross Value of Production (GVP) that was 15 percent above that of entrepreneurial agriculture. In 1979 this difference had grown to 36 percent. And in 1999, the GVP of peasant agriculture was 56 percent higher than that realised through entrepreneurial farming (van der Ploeg 2008, 122– 5).46 The same point has recently been made with regards to Brazil (Sabourin 2007, 28). In short: peasant farming not only allows for, but also needs persistence and ongoing agricultural growth. And it needs it badly.

Whether peasant farming will be able to realise this depends, above all, on its resilience, i.e. its capacity to provide a buffer against shocks and stresses in the short and medium term. I argue that such resilience is increasingly grounded in the last three reversals presented.