The Persistence of the Peasantry

September 25, 2007

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank reported that for the first time in history less than half the world's labor force—49%—worked in agriculture.[1] While the numbers are declining, and while orthodox Marxists and conservative free marketeers alike have long predicted and hoped for the disappearance of the peasantry, as we enter the twenty-first century, peasants are very much still with us. And the same can be said for peasant-based political movements. Not only are large numbers of rural people engaged in struggles over longstanding peasant demands for land, credit and technical assistance, but peasants have been at the forefront of unprecedented confrontations with governments, international agencies and multinational corporations over a multitude of issues, including land reform, free trade and biotechnology policies.

Today's rural movements—like the rural population itself—defy easy characterization. In some countries, large and small farmers have united to press sectoral demands for price supports or access to markets, while in others large landowners routinely hire gunmen to assassinate squatters and peasant leaders. The rural upheavals of recent decades are not easily pigeonholed in an arid taxonomy of "identity" versus "class-based" organizations, or "new" or "old" social movements. The pro-peasant or campesinista left once spoke of "the peasant movement" as if all peasant movements in all parts of Latin America shared similar objectives, forms of organization and constituencies. The phrase shifted easily and imperceptibly from convenient shorthand expression to bedrock analytical category, concealing the tremendous variation within and between movements, as well as disputes, divisions and dropouts—for, in contrast to the epic accounts that have peppered the publications of the pro-peasant left since the 1960s, many movements lose adherents along the way, sometimes faster than they gain new ones.

Heroic portrayals of contemporary social movements have also tended to present unproblematical views of how organizing takes place. Stories about "the movement" have frequently assumed high levels of agreement among leaders, as well as congruence between the aspirations of leaders and grassroots participants.[2] They have often taken for granted an almost Pavlovian conception of how mobilization takes place, whether the stimulus is a threat to an identity, the pursuit of resources, or an offense to an historically acceptable standard of living or moral economy. In this reactive conception of human agents, the role of organizing as a purposeful, long-term process can slip out of view, as can the very important part that organizations play in social movement activity.[3] To some extent, scholars have uncritically accepted organizers' downplaying of their own impact and their related efforts to represent movements as spontaneous expressions of discontent. Nor are movement activists always exemplary; more than a few end up suffering burnout, engaging in corruption or exhausting their political energies in factional battles which have little relation to the broader objectives they claim to pursue.

Fortunately, activists and scholars increasingly appreciate that real episodes of collective action are vastly more complicated than is suggested in some of the left media or "new social movements" literature.[4] This probably reflects a longer acquaintance with the movements themselves, as well as a greater willingness in the less polarized post-Cold War era to eschew the earlier overidentification with and romanticization of both "insurrectionary others" and "everyday" resisters.

At the other extreme, for many technocrats and social scientists, it no longer makes any sense at all to speak of "peasants" or "peasant movements." Several considerations underlie this assurance that the rural poor are politically and economically irrelevant or even destined to disappear. First, almost everywhere, the rural poor depend on nonagricultural activities for a significant and growing portion of their income. Second, together with accelerating migration out of rural communities, this has created multifaceted and sometimes transnational identities that now generally supersede the rural poor's old, primal identity as "peasants" rooted in particular places. Third, the rural poor of today typically participate in a range of cultural practices—from dress and music to technology—that implicate them in a thoroughly modern, or even postmodern, world.

While the "peasant" concept may need rethinking, however, designations such as "campesino" and "small farmer" remain a significant aspect of the self-identification of the protagonists of many rural movements. This would argue for taking such labels seriously as significant cultural and political categories even if they are not always very serviceable analytical ones. The rural movements' embrace of the label "peasant"—in organizations' names and in their participants' definitions of self—is suggestive of an identity with profound historical roots. It also points to that identity's "reinvention" in the midst of contemporary crises as a statement about political and economic marginality which, among other things, opens doors to international recognition, alliances and funds.

The argument that the "peasant" classification ought to be jettisoned rests ultimately on the idea that an individual cannot be both a peasant and sophisticated or modern at the same time. This antinomy has, of course, a long history in Marxism and the social sciences. It was evident in Karl Marx's disdainful description of French peasants as "potatoes in a sack" and afterward, in striking and appalling form, at the very founding of North American peasant studies, when anthropologist Robert Redfield nonchalantly labeled residents of the outlying barrios of Tepotzlán, Mexico, "tontos" ("fools"), uncritically accepting the derisive category employed by his middle-class informants ("los correctos") from the center of town.[5]

Later social scientists felt free to make generalizations about peasants that would have been viewed askance if they referred to any other human group. Some, like Redfield, had posited "low cognitive capacity" as a "universal" peasant "trait," while others suggested that peasants were "out of touch with the modern trends of [the] nation."[6] Yet the encounter with modernity, which many view as undermining "peasants," has also, paradoxically, permitted them to redefine their conception of the social world and their place as peasants in it. Writing about Ecuador, geographer Anthony Bebbington points out that when rural people incorporate new ideas and technologies into their practices, they may see this as a sign that they are more distant from a time when they were oppressed, that they are becoming empowered in their relations with other social groups, and that they are claiming rights of access to resources and knowledges previously closed off to them.[7]

Contemporary campesinos have had to adapt to major technological changes in agriculture—first "green revolution" input "packages" for basic grains and then delicate, high-risk "nontraditional" export crops. They have also had to navigate the labyrinthine financial, marketing, extension, cooperative-sector and land-tenure institutions which for decades have sought to govern every aspect of smallholders' productive activities. Urban and rural culture have also converged. This is not just because of rural-urban migration or electronic media reaching into the countryside—with televisions powered by automobile batteries bringing national newscasts and ads for stylish boutiques into candle-lit homes in remote zones beyond the electric grid. In much of Latin America, a significant proportion of the economically active population in agriculture now resides in urban areas and a growing portion of the economically active rural population is engaged in nonagricultural activities.[8] A profusion of pro-peasant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has imparted courses on topics as varied as accounting and entomology, communications software and marketing, forestry and soil chemistry. No wonder that today's movement activists aim, in the words of one veteran campesino leader from Costa Rica, to "struggle against discrimination," to replace the image of "peasants" as atavistic rustics with that of "peasants" as politically savvy, dignified and efficient small producers.[9]

In the 1970s, in a debate with continental reverberations, Mexican social scientists clashed, often bitterly, over the ultimate fate of the peasantry.[10] Observing the unprecedented penetration of the countryside by large agribusiness, one side argued that the peasantry was undergoing proletarianization and would soon disappear as a distinct social group. Unable to compete with capitalist agriculture because of problems of productivity, scale, and access to capital, markets and technology, peasants would have to abandon the land and become wage workers or part of the unemployed "reserve army" of labor. These "descampesinistas," generally sympathetic to the Mexican Communist Party, believed this melding of the peasantry into the working class was a step forward, since most of Latin America had many more peasants than proletarians. The newly proletarianized would presumably recognize their "true," revolutionary class interests, something impossible as long as they retained access to land and "petty bourgeois," entrepreneurial values. Anthropologist Roger Bartra even suggested that "the Mexican peasantry, as we know it today, is an invention of the bourgeoisie, which engendered it in its own image and likeness."[11]

On the other side of the discussion, campesinista social scientists pointed out that capitalism, at least in Mexico, required a large peasantry, and that the peasantry would therefore be around for a while. The cost of reproducing the labor force could be borne by small farms instead of becoming part of capitalists' wage bill. Self-provisioning or petty commodity production during part of the year or part of the incompletely proletarianized peasant's lifetime constituted a subsidy to capitalist entrepreneurs, who could feed their employees low-cost foodstuffs and would not have to pay a high social wage as long as peasant households absorbed the costs of rearing children and of sustaining the unemployed, disabled and elderly. Some campesinistas indicated that women were disproportionately responsible for generating this subsidy, through unwaged household, artisanal and subsistence production which permitted men to temporarily leave farming and enter the wage-labor force.[12] Other transfers of "value" or "surplus" from small farms to capitalists—via unequal exchange, intermediation, loan sharking and so on—made it "logical" to maintain campesinos in the countryside.

Key campesinista theorists emphasized that while peasant households did not operate according to the same profitability criteria as capitalist firms, they nonetheless employed creative and flexible methods of allocating scarce resources. In rural Morelos, for example, Arturo Warman described the unity of the "modern" and the "traditional" in rural production as a "devilish dialectic." "To graft fruit trees, to fertilize with chemicals, to harvest products that are too expensive for them to consume... the campesinos have had to become more 'traditional,'" wrote Warman. "They have to plant the corn that they will eat... [and] establish reciprocal relations for the direct, noncapitalist exchange of labor and resources."[13]

Other campesinistas argued that it was primarily through political struggle, rather than through the "logic" of the rural household or the economic system that peasants had historically guaranteed their survival.[14] The upsurge of new peasant movements in Mexico in the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed to suggest that this dynamic would persist well into the future.

Descampesinistas marshalled census data that showed a rapid growth of the "landless peasantry," while campesinistas argued that apparently landless people frequently had access to land through family members or informal tenure arrangements. By the mid-1980s the discussion had subsided, unresolved, only to re-emerge in the early 1990s with the reforms to the Mexican Constitution's Article 27, which permitted privatization of agrarian reform lands.[15] A few years later, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) exacerbated the problem of U.S. dumping of "surplus" grain. In Mexico, as in much of Latin America, it appeared to many that this time the peasantry really was going to succumb to a free market onslaught far more ferocious than that which had provoked the debate nearly 20 years earlier.
In this new free-market context, we can suggest some ways in which today's rural movements resemble or differ from earlier peasant struggles.[16] First, even after more than a decade of neoliberalism, state agencies remain central points of reference, foci of demands and sites of struggle, despite the undermining of traditional power centers that accompanies economic globalization and the by now old assertions of "new social movements" theorists that emancipatory politics takes place primarily in spaces outside or at the margins of the state. The state may have diminished its size and activities, but it still remains a fount of resources in a situation of extreme scarcity, a potential source of amelioration for specific problems and an essential element in the political legitimation—as well as the certification, licensing, even incorporation—of "new social subjects" who seek to survive by engaging the market.[17]

Second, this central role of the state makes social movement assertions of "autonomy" problematic, whether they originate with organization leaders or with those who study or accompany them. State agencies in various places in Latin America have demonstrated that the old practice of co-opting or "mediating" popular movements is alive and well, despite ongoing fiscal austerity. Government officials often recognize the dangerous potentials of charismatic leaders and the notorious tendency of peasant movements to rise and fall, to manifest sudden shifts of ideology and practice, and to grow virtually undetected in remote areas where the state's presence is weak. Both state officials and movement leaders may also stand to gain by the substitution of prolonged negotiations for militant actions and threats of disturbances.

Part of the reason why organization leaders may stand to gain less from immediate results than from never-ending negotiations with the state has to do with a third aspect of contemporary social movement practice that is increasingly widespread in Latin America and elsewhere. Social movements are frequently "mediated" not only by the state, but by the vast numbers of NGOs that now pervade the Third World landscape. Some effectively foster development or the building of new civil society structures, while others assume functions that used to be carried out by government. Others simply provide a comfortable living for their directors, typically professionals "downsized" from public-sector agencies.[18] In the late 1980s, Costa Rican peasant leaders were fond of remarking that there are "two ways to kill an organization—with repression or with money." When leaders receive salaries from NGOs, or when base organizations receive "soft" loans from international "cooperation" agencies, it is hardly surprising that militancy subsides and grassroots activists disperse.

A fourth and final generalization may be ventured about contemporary Latin American rural movements. This is an age when at least some campesinos routinely use computers as political and economic tools, when indigenous people attend universities, when the discourses (and sometimes the practices) of environmentalism penetrate the countryside, and when poor rural people rooted in particular places have nonetheless traveled and lived elsewhere. Much discussion of such "hybrid" phenomena comes perilously close to making peasants or Indians with computers, camcorders or law degrees a new kind of "exotic other," with a charming combination of sophistication and primitiveness. Nevertheless, it remains true that today's forms of organization and resistance, and today's peasant movement leaders, will only occasionally and partially resemble the peasants we have known, or thought we knew, in the past.

All these discussions have had powerful reverberations in Central America, though during the civil conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s these were faint in comparison with more pressing polemics over war and human rights. As peace returned to the isthmus, and development was once more on the agenda, the debate over the fate of the peasantry resumed.[19]

The persistence of the peasantry—as well as the end of the Cold War and the crisis of Marxism—has made it difficult to carry out the discussion in the sweeping, unconditional terms that had characterized the debates of the 1970s. Nonetheless, several tendencies appeared undeniable to those on all sides of the discussion: In much of the region the proportion of the economically active population working in agriculture was declining; the percentage of rural household income derived from agriculture was also falling; and migration from rural to urban areas was accelerating.

Yet while these processes would seem to confirm old predictions about the demise of the peasantry under capitalism, several countervailing trends were also evident. First, rural households diversified their already diverse survival practices, combining artisanal, rural and urban, informal and proletarian activities, and producing a bewildering mix of agricultural products, often for both household consumption and for high-priced markets, domestic and foreign. Second, migration to cities often figured in overall household strategy not as a permanent transition for the entire unit, but as a temporary expedient for one or a few members, intended to generate remittances for maintaining a base, however tenuous, in the countryside. This reflected the widespread realization that living standards and social status for the poorest of the poor in the cities—those sleeping in the streets, in the squalid markets, or in shacks on the urban periphery—compared unfavorably with those of poor rural dwellers.

And, finally, capitalism could be cruel to capitalists too, which sometimes redounded to peasants' advantage. In areas where large, modern farms had failed, such as United Fruit's vast properties in southern Costa Rica, for example, thousands of squatters—many former company laborers who, though proletarianized, had never lost their hopes of becoming smallholders—moved in and carved peasant farms out of abandoned banana plantations. As sociologist Carlos Rodríguez Solera observes: "There, where they once produced for export, they now produce for self-consumption; where they once utilized tractors, they now use wooden ploughs; and where the great proletarian masses were concentrated, we now find only campesino producers."[20]

Rodríguez Solera's research is one of the most detailed contributions to the debate on the future of the peasantry. While the Costa Rican focus may attract little attention elsewhere, this careful study does draw several significant conclusions. Most importantly, Rodríguez Solera suggests that processes of "descampesinización" and "recampesinización" occur simultaneously in different, often adjacent, zones. If the overall tendency was "descampesinización" during 1950-1973, "this halted by 1984 as a result of the economic crisis." Moreover, while the relative importance of the peasantry in the economically active population fell throughout the 1950-1984 period, its absolute size grew.

To explain this mix of contradictory tendencies, we may distinguish between two groups within the landed peasantry. On the one hand, there are peasant units capable of accumulating capital and competing in commercial agriculture, even under difficult conditions. On the other hand, there are "sub-family" units which form a "refuge sector" and whose number varies inversely with economic growth.[21] The survival of the first group—well represented in peasant organizations in Mexico, Central America and elsewhere—depends not only on market conditions, but on assuring affordable credit, technical assistance, transportation and storage and processing facilities. The second group—the "refuge sector"—expands and contracts depending on the availability of other options. Economists might describe these peasants as having to estimate the trade-off between the potential income generated from their plots of land and the opportunity cost of their labor. This invocation of a coolly calculating homo economicus, however, conceals more complicated cultural, psychological and even economic dimensions of the problem.

The instability of waged employment sometimes keeps alive and strengthens campesino aspirations. Campesino migrants and the working-class and informal-sector descendants of campesinos with an insecure and subordinate position in the urban labor market may be less likely to develop a proletarian consciousness than to crave the self-sufficiency and autonomy which they imagine—rightly or wrongly—that they or their ancestors once enjoyed. Until a model of development offers sustained employment at adequate wages or a stable and remunerative insertion in the urban informal sector, their dreams will, at least during economic contractions, continue to focus on land and the countryside.

Writing in Pig Earth, his lyrical paean to rural France, John Berger captures better than many academic theorists the dilemmas of a social group that struggles to reinvent itself in each generation. "The peasantry everywhere," he says, "can be defined as a class of survivors.... The word survivor has two meanings. It denotes somebody who has survived an ordeal. And it also denotes a person who has continued to live when others disappeared or perished."[22]

As Nicaraguan campesino activist Sinforiano Cáceres put it, peasants have had to manage their microeconomies in spite of all the economists who surround them.[23] This occurs in dynamic interaction with all the elements that traditionally affected survival—soils, water, seeds, animals, pests and pathogens—as well as with state agencies and banks, non-peasant citizens' groups, the urban informal sector, the news media, foreign NGOs, and with, and sometimes in spite of, their own organizations and leaders. Berger's appreciation of how the rural poor see what is to come is as germane in today's Latin America as in France three decades ago:

How do peasants think or feel about the future? Because their work involves intervening in or aiding an organic process most of their actions are future-oriented. The planting of a tree is an obvious example, but so, equally, is the milking of a cow: the milk is for cheese or butter. Everything they do is anticipatory—and therefore never finished. They envisage this future, to which they are forced to pledge their actions, as a series of ambushes. Ambushes of risks and dangers.[24]

In their organizations, in their dreams of autonomy and security, in their agonizing physical labor, in their protests and negotiations, campesinos today have their sights set on survival—and, they hope, survival with dignity. Many of the perils are clear to them, but they also know there will be unanticipated ambushes. Steeling themselves to weather this onslaught is the stuff of everyday activity, a process of constantly reinventing themselves in new situations. It means assuring in large and small ways, as campesinos and landless workers continue to proclaim: "They won't take away our future!"—"¡No nos arrebatarán el futuro!"

Marc Edelman is Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College and a member of NACLA's Editorial Board. He is author of Peasants Against Globalization: Rural Social Movements in Costa Rica (Stanford, 1999), from which this article is adapted.

The Persistence of the Peasantry
1. 1996 World Development Report cited in Timothy J. Finan, "Changing Roles of Agriculture in Global Development Policy," Culture & Agriculture, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 1997), p. 80.
2. Jeffrey W. Rubin, "Ambiguity and Contradiction in a Radical Popular Movement," Sonia E. Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino and Arturo Escobar eds., Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Re-Envisioning Latin American Social Movements (Boulder: Westview, 1998).
3. Joe Foweraker, Theorizing Social Movements (London: Pluto Press, 1995), p. 15.
4. John Burdick, "Rethinking the Study of Social Movements: The Case of Christian Base Communities in Urban Brazil," in Arturo Escobar and Sonia E. Alvarez, eds., The Making of Social Movements in Latin America; Judith Adler Hellman, "The Riddle of New Social Movements: Who They Are and What They Do," in Sandor Halebsky and Richard L. Harris, eds., Capital, Power, and Inequality in Latin America (Boulder: Westview, 1995).
5. Karl Marx, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1968), p. 172; Robert Redfield, Tepotzlán: A Mexican Village (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 209-20.
6. Peter Singelmann, "Campesino Movements and Class Conflict in Latin America: The Functions of Exchange and Power," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1974), p. 48; Charles Wagley, "The Peasant," in John J. Johnson, ed., Continuity and Change in Latin America (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), p. 21.
7. Anthony Bebbington, "Movements, Modernizations, and Markets: Indigenous Organizations and Agrarian Strategies in Ecuador," in Richard Peet and Michael Watts, eds., Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 91-92.
8. Emiliano Ortega, "Evolution of the Rural Dimension in Latin America and the Caribbean," CEPAL Review, No. 47 (August 1992), pp. 115-36.
9. Guido Vargas Artavia, "Nuestra lucha contra la discriminación," in Isabel Román ed., Organización campesina y modelos de gestión productiva en Costa Rica (Heredia, Costa Rica: Fundación UNA, 1997).
10. Cynthia Hewitt de Alcántara, Anthropological Perspectives on Rural Mexico (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), chapter 5.
11. Roger Bartra, "Las vías de disolución del campesinado en México: Notas sobre la coyuntura actual," in Iván Restrepo Fernández, ed., Los problemas de la organización campesina (Mexico: Editorial Campesina, 1975), p. 321.
12. Carmen Diana Deere, "Rural Women's Subsistence Production in the Capitalist Periphery," in Robin Cohen, Peter C. W. Gutkind and Phyllis Brazier, eds., Peasants and Proletarians: The Struggles of Third World Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979).
13. Arturo Warman, ...Y venimos a contradecir: Los campesinos de Morelos y el estado nacional (Mexico: La Casa Chata, 1976), p. 15.
14. Armando Bartra, Los herederos de Zapata: Movimientos campesinos posrevolucionarios en México (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1985); Gustavo Esteva, The Struggle for Rural Mexico (South Hadley: Bergin & Garvey, 1983).
15. Kirsten Appendini, "La 'modernización' en el campo y el futuro del campesinado: Iniciamos el debate de 'los noventa'," Estudios Sociológicos, Vol. 10, No. 29 (1992), pp. 251-62.
16. Marc Edelman, "Transnational Peasant Politics in Central America," Latin American Research Review, Vol. 33, No. 3 (1998), pp. 49-86.
17. Julio Moguel, Carlota Botey and Luis Hernández, Autonomía y nuevos sujetos sociales en el desarrollo rural (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1992).
18. Sonia E. Alvarez, "Latin American Feminisms 'Go Global': Trends of the 1990s and Challenges for the New Millennium," in Sonia E. Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino and Arturo Escobar, eds., Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures, pp. 293-324; and Laura Macdonald, "Globalizing Civil Society: Interpreting International NGOs in Central America," Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1994), pp. 267-85.
19. Eduardo Stein and Salvador Arias Peñate, Democracia sin pobreza: Alternativas de desarrollo para el istmo centroamericano (San José: Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones, 1992).
20. Carlos Rodríguez Solera, Tierra de labriegos: Los campesinos en Costa Rica desde 1950 (San José: FLACSO, 1993).
21. Alain de Janvry, Robin Marsh, David Runsten, Elisabeth Sadoulet and Carol Zabin, "Impacto de la crisis en la economía campesina de América Latina y el Caribe," in Fausto Jordan, ed., La economía campesina: Crisis, reactivación y desarrollo (San José: Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura, 1989).
22. John Berger, Pig Earth (New York: Vintage, 1992), p. xi, xiv.
23. Marc Edelman, "Three Peasant Activists," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 28, No. 3 (November/December 1994), p. 33.
24. Pig Earth, p. xvii.

Tags: peasantry, campesinos, rural politics, social movements, autonomy, land

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