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The Journal of Peasant Studies
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Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long
history of blaming peasants
Jim Handy
a
a
University of Saskatchewan , Canada
Published online: 22 Jul 2009.
To cite this article: Jim Handy (2009) Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long history of blaming
peasants , The Journal of Peasant Studies, 36:2, 325-344, DOI: 10.1080/03066150902928306
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150902928306
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Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long history of blaming peasants
1
Jim Handy
From the late eighteenth century in Britain to the late twentieth century in
predominantly rural societies in the global south, most descriptions of peasants
provided by government planners or economists have been remarkably similar.
These descriptions focus on ve alleged elements of peasant life: (1) peasants are
backward and uncivilised one aspect of that backwardness is their inability to
control their sexual urges and thus their tendency to have too many children, (2)
peasants are not suciently enamoured with consumption and their too easily
met needs stie economic development this is often considered to be a function
of laziness and thus peasants need to be compelled to labour harder, (3) peasants
are inecient and do not use land eectively and thus need to be compelled to
labour more eciently, (4) peasants get in the way of the necessary process of
allowing capital to be applied to the land and thus need to be swept from the land,
(5) peasants are dangerous and dicult to incorporate into states as responsible
citizens. This paper provides examples of the rhetoric used to describe peasants in
four dierent periods and places: during the enclosures and the consolidation of
capitalism in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Irish potato
famine in the middle of the nineteenth century, the spread of colonialism and a
type of modernity in other than European locales in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, and the rise of development practice and national
consolidation in what was then called the third world after the second world
war. The paper argues that these descriptions were both the result of faulty
imaginings of peasants and deemed necessary as a way to sell economic and social
policies that worked to expel peasants from the land and turn them into wage
labourers.
Keywords: peasants; commons; enclosures; capital; development; Malthus; potato
famine
The most immediate food crisis has produced not very surprising responses: the
revival of fears about over population and a call for increased intensity in the eorts
to industrialise agricultural production around the world (Trewavas 2008, Zoellick
2008). These arguments t the predominant approach to agricultural policy around
the world for much of the last three centuries: an assertion that industrial or scientic
agriculture carries with it dramatic eciencies in production and that such
1
In this article, I use peasant to mean a rural cultivator who produces both for subsistence and
the market, employing primarily family labour, very limited capital, and for whom signicant
non-market considerations are in place concerning production decisions, returns to labour,
and access to and disposal of land.
The author wishes to thank the organisers of the Food Sovereignty: Theory, Praxis and
Power conference held at St. Andrews College, University of Saskatchewan, 1718 February,
2009 and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council for its support of that
conference.
The Journal of Peasant Studies
Vol. 36, No. 2, April 2009, 325344
ISSN 0306-6150 print/ISSN 1743-9361 online
2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/03066150902928306
http://www.informaworld.com
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eciencies may be our only hope to outrun population increases. It seems
appropriate therefore at this time to pause to examine the history of those ideas,
to try to understand the roots of the preference for scientic agriculture and to
determine if understanding that history helps us explain why these arguments are so
prevalent.
This paper argues that the roots for this argument can be found in a long history
of blaming peasants for economic backwardness and social underdevelopment. They
stretch back to the propaganda surrounding land enclosures in England in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A parade of English writers sought to justify
the eects of the accumulation of private property and increased inequality by
espousing the economic and productive eciencies of scientic agriculture on
relatively large, capital intensive estates. They also painted their opposite peasants
and commoners as backward, ignorant, rude, and lawless, a threat to the economy,
society and stability of the nation. Following the Reverend Thomas Malthus, they
crafted a confused but nonetheless powerful and enduring argument that peasants
constituted the major threat to the worlds food supplies by being the most
immediate cause of population increase. While these works represent only one
stream of commentary on peasants between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries
in Britain, partly because they beneted powerful sectors of society and partly
because they reinforced existing cultural stereotypes, these views have proven to
be tremendously enduring, helping to determine agricultural and economic
development policy around the world.
In colonial regimes, peasants were even more thoroughly vilied. Here not only
were peasants backward, threats to economic progress, modernity, and political
authority, but they often were perceived to have the deepest attachments to the most
dangerous elements of pre-colonial society: attachments to place, community,
ethnicity, and tribe. These fears were perhaps most clearly expressed about cottiers in
Englands rst overseas colony, Ireland, but followed English and other European
colonizers around the world.
Elites in the former colonies, as they sought to carve modern nations and modern
economies out of the debris of empires, expressed similar sentiments. After World
War II, they were supported in these arguments by development experts. In
mainstream economic development thinking two parallel streams worked against
peasants: on the one hand, development economic theory argued that economic
growth required shifting unproductive labour from the countryside to the city, from
agriculture to industry; on the other, modernisation theory explicitly argued for the
elimination of the stultifying eects of tradition, the most obvious expression of
which was the peasantry. Both of these arguments relied on a misreading of English
economic history and a process of imagining peasants as the antithesis to modernity
and a major threat to food security.
The Goths and Vandals of the commons
Beginning in the sixteenth century, agricultural land in England began to be
enclosed into private property. Much of this land had been common or waste land
that had been used by villagers for pasturage or cultivation. A signicant percentage
had been village land that was allotted to individual families for cultivation but was
controlled by the village and reallocated every year or so, or was owned by
landlords, but long tenure contracts and custom insured that tenants had relatively
326 Jim Handy
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guaranteed access to land. Most of the land enclosed in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries was converted to sheep grazing as wool became Englands
biggest export.
It was also during this period that the most draconian laws were passed against
vagabonds and masterless men; during the reign of Henry VIII perhaps as many as
75,000 of them were whipped, mutilated or hung (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, 17
18). Enclosure of common lands was seen as part of the process necessary to control
these dangerous poor, as James I expressed in 1610 when urging the House of
Commons to take action against cottagers in the common forests, which were
nurseries and receptacles of thieves, rogues, and beggars (Hill 1972, 51). Those
defending enclosures talked about the dual benets that resulted: they would both
control the poor and by taking away their access to common land, induce them to
labour. As one commentator expressed it, enclosure will give the poor an interest in
toiling, whom terror never yet could enure to travail (Hill 1972, 52).
As E.P. Thompson (1963, 218) has argued, this process was a plain enough case
of class robbery. But, by the eighteenth century, enclosure was given legal status
through acts of parliament. These later enclosures were more often associated with
bringing land into cultivation rather than pasture. In the best cases, the propaganda
assured people (as did later commentaries and historians who seem to have believed
the propaganda) that the landlords would benet from higher rents, the small
farmers would benet despite higher rents because of increased productivity, and the
country would benet by increased production of foodstus. In most cases, though,
commoners were thrown o the land, sometimes with a small settlement paid to
them as part of the cost of enclosing.
The vision of a generalised benet stemming from enclosures was promoted by
most of the Enlightenment writers, who saw improvement as a particularly
important practical application of Enlightenment ideas. Indeed, the enclosure of
common or open eld lands in private hands became synonymous with the more
general idea of improvement in eighteenth-century Britain. Those advocating
enclosure were supported by a host of reports from the eld that purported to detail
objectively and scientically the improvements wrought through enclosure. Arthur
Young was perhaps the most important such writer. He engaged in a series of tours
through areas of Britain and Ireland in the second half of the eighteenth century,
sponsored and paid for by the Board of Agriculture. He often portrayed enclosed
elds as civilization and the commons as barbarism: in one district he reported, the
Goths and Vandals of open elds threatened the civilization of the enclosures and
commented on how when talking with commoners, I seemed to have lost a century
of time. John Sinclair, the President of the Board of Agriculture, writing in 1803,
was even more explicit. After news about further British victories abroad, he
remarked, Let us not be satised with the liberation of Egypt, or the subjugation of
Malta, but let us subdue Finchely Common; let us conquer Hounslow Heath; let us
compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement (Neeson 1993, 28).
But improvement depended on the eye of the beholder. Many of the reports on
enclosure were clearly predestined by self-interest or a blinkered vision to support the
process. Many of those who wrote about the benets of enclosure like Adam Smith
had invested in the enclosures themselves. Some of those who supported enclosures were
more honest about the expected results. The Reverend John Howlett, a friend of Adam
Smith and a Chief Justice, argued in 1788 that enclosures were benecial precisely
because this would turn poor farmers into even poorer labourers and encourage
The Journal of Peasant Studies 327
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population growth. In particular, he said, enclosure would provoke a rapid and
general increase of labouring and then of indigent poor. This would lower wages,
benet industry, and lead to an increase in population (Neeson 1993, 27).
But as enclosures continued in the eighteenth century, some of the defenders of
enclosure changed their mind. Even Arthur Young began to have doubts about the
wisdom of enclosure by the end. The Board of Agriculture, which had sponsored all of
his tours and published his reports, refused to publish his last report because of his
description of increased poverty in rural England. In his diary he recounted how he
turned his eorts to getting land for those left landless through enclosure, commenting,
I am well persuaded that this is the only possible means of saving the nation from the
ruin fast coming on by the misery of the poor . . . (Turner 1984, 23).
By the end of the eighteenth century, the enclosure of most English and Scottish
open elds was accomplished. Still, for the next half century there were regular
campaigns designed to uproot those left landless and turn them into labourers. The
most enduring of the arguments designed to support this process was provided by
the Reverend Thomas Malthus, in a short essay rst published in 1798, entitled An
Essay on the Principles of Population as it Aects the Future Improvement of Society.
His argument was deceptively simple: there was a tendency for the population to
outstrip the means of subsistence; population levels grew geometrically (2-4-8-16-32-
etc.) while food supplies only increased arithmetically (1-2-3-4-5-etc.). This human
reproductive urge would forever doom mankind to a losing struggle between
ravenous and multiplying mouths and production.
But there was nothing simple about the intent or the impact of Malthus
argument. Malthus was not, primarily, arguing about the dangers of over
population. Rather he was defending the right of private property in the face of
poverty and participating in a political debate about policies designed to reshape the
British countryside and free the rural poor from the binds that held them to their
locality. Malthus was concerned not about a generalised population increase but
rather about the propensity of the poor to propagate, given their rights to a level of
relief in the parish through the existing poor laws. These rights were dangerous not
only because they provided a false sense of security which prompted the poor to
marry young and, lacking moral restraint, bear excessive numbers of children, but
also because they tied the poor to the parish, maintaining their connection to the
natal soil and preventing them from leaving for the city.
Malthus arguments were reprinted numerous times through the rst couple of
decades of the nineteenth century, often with slight alterations to allow them to
address more fully the political question of the time. His defence of inequality earned
him a position as the rst Professor of Political Economy at the East India Company
University, where he not only educated those bound for careers in the East India
Company but kept in close contact with the more than 100 members of parliament
who were servants of the company or tied to it in various ways.
2
2
Along with the various editions of Malthus An essay on the principles of population as it
aects the future improvement of society, with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M.
Condorcet, and other writers (London, 1798) including most especially the 2nd ed. in 1803
entitled, An essay on the principles of population or, a view of its past and present eects on
human happiness, with an inquiry into our prospects respecting its future removal or mitigation
of the evils which it occasions (London, 1803), see Ross (1998), Avery (1997), and Polanyi
(1957).
328 Jim Handy
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By the 1840s, another inuential voice was added to those who championed the
dispossession of the rural poor still clinging to land. The Economist magazine was
started in 1843 specically to pressure for free trade in agriculture. Along the way, in
authoritative editorials that belittled those favouring more equitable agricultural
systems, it also became the most powerful voice in favour of scientic agriculture,
against any attempt to support small holder agriculture in Britain, and most
decidedly against any form of landholding that was not private property. Indeed,
the magazine argued that the accumulation of land in private property was the rst
step in the progression from barbarism. Land not held in private property was
inconsistent with a civilized state. It even railed against landlords who charged
only moderate rents to tenants, labelling them remnants of feudalism (Economist
1851a).
It was most decidedly against any form of provision of land to the rural poor.
In the late 1840s, as a movement began to try to reallocate small portions of land
to the destitute rural poor in the form of garden allotments, the Economist
opposed it vigorously, denouncing the scheme as, fraught with the most serious
and frightful consequences. In language dripping with concern for the welfare
of poor labourers, the magazine argued that welfare depended precisely on their
not being tied to the land in any particular locale; that they, therefore, should
be left free to circulate to those areas most needing their services (Economist
1844a). It even argued that history showed that providing small amounts of
land to people to meet their subsistence needs rst was the primary cause of
the downfall of the Roman Empire and of the French Revolution (Economist
1844b).
The Economist engaged in extensive discussion about the ideal size of agricultural
enterprises. In 1851, it argued that the idea that small farms, even when cultivated
with great industry could be as productive as large capitalist estates was
a fallacious notion . . . everywhere contradicted by facts and experience. Usually
petit-farming is a miserable aair. It was prepared to admit that small capitalist
farms of 150 acres or so could be productive and signicant stepping stones allowing
energetic and educated people to begin to accumulate wealth. However, these
farmers needed to have the lessons provided by neighbouring large estates constantly
at hand (Economist 1851b).
In the Economists view, the necessary companion to the natural tendency for
farm size to increase was the magic of capital. The Economist assured readers that
the great secret of farming we think is this the judicious application of a sucient
amount of capital to the soil . . . (Economist 1849). This t well with the temper of
the times; British liberals in the rst half of the nineteenth century were obsessed
with the purported magic of capital and fought ardently to remove everything
they believed stood in the way of it being employed of nding its natural level as
they were fond of saying. Not everyone was so taken with its eects; a book
written by a British author in 1821 under the pseudonym of Piercy Ravenstone
argued that:
Where reason fails, where argument is insucient, it operates like a talisman to silence
all doubts. It occupies the same place in their theories, which was held by darkness in the
mythology of the ancients. It is . . . the great mother of all things, it is the cause of every
event that happens in the world. Capital, according to them, is the parent of all industry,
the forerunner of all improvements. It builds our towns, it cultivates our elds, it
The Journal of Peasant Studies 329
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restrains the vagrant waters of our rivers, it covers our barren mountains with timber,
it converts our deserts into gardens, it bids fertility arise where all before was desolation.
It is the deity of their idolatry which they have set up to worship in the high places of the
Lord; and were its powers what they imagine, it would not be unworthy of their
adoration. (cited in Pasquino 1991, 1056)
The British experience in agriculture has developed mythic qualities. Both then
and now, historical accounts of Britains prosperity have argued that a large
portion of that economic growth was the result of such agricultural improvement,
of the victory of private property over the commons, of scientic agriculture over
the backwardness of the family farm, and of the agricultural entrepreneur over
the peasant. Such works usually point to increased agricultural productivity as a
major component in Britains ability to feed itself despite an increasing percentage
of the population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits (Fagan 2000, Bernstein
2004).
These arguments conveniently ignore the fact that through much of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, England was importing close to 30 percent of
its foodstus, from the Baltic countries, from Ireland, and later in the nineteenth
century, from the Americas. Moreover, it was doing so in the context of having
retooled nascent industrial production from woolen textiles to cotton imported rst
from slave America and, later in the nineteenth century, from Egypt and India,
freeing up large amounts of land for agriculture. Industrial cotton cloth required, for
the rst few decades, a mixture of linen to maintain the strength of the cloth, linen
from ax grown primarily in Ireland. To a very large extent, then, English food
security was created not by the eciency of English agricultural improvement, but
through the process of exporting famine (Ross 1998, 41, Pomeranz 2000, 227, Davis
2001).
Martyrs to the cause of human improvement: the Economist, Malthus and the Irish
famine
These arguments about the superiority of enclosed, scientic agriculture and the
danger of proliferating peasants were employed to devastating eect in Ireland. By
the beginning of the nineteenth century, over 500 years of English dominance had
insured that the Irish economy was thoroughly tied to the fortunes of England. Over
90 percent of the land in Ireland was owned by 5,000 individuals, many of them
absentee English landlords. These estates exported signicant amounts of wheat,
pigs and cattle to England and the British Caribbean (Edwards 1973, 182, 21018,
Ranelagh 1994, 6470).
Increased prosperity for the landlords was directly related to heightened
levels of poverty for Irish peasant and small farmers. By 1841, there were about
2.3 million landless labourers out of a population of 8.5 million. There were a further
135,000 holdings of less than one acre, and almost half of the rest of the 440,000
farms in the country were no larger than 10 acres (Donnelly 2001, 13, OGrada
1994).
Virtually all accounts of rural Ireland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries stressed this poverty. A typical cottier lived in a one room cottage, poorly
constructed, with few furnishings. Money income was desperately low and most had
only the very tiniest amounts of land for their own cultivation. One article in a
Belfast newspaper in 1845 recounting a visit to the countryside expressed clearly the
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sense shared by many that the cottiers were barely human. Many of the dwellings I
saw upon the road-side, the author wrote,
looked to me like the abodes of extinguished hope forgotten instincts grovelling,
despairing, almost idiotic wretchedness. I did not know there were such sights in the
world. I did not know that men and women, upright, and made in Gods image, could
live in styes like swine, with swine sitting, lying down, cooking, eating in such lth. . .
(Killen 1995, 32)
While it was generally agreed that Ireland was poor, the reasons given for such
poverty were often disputed. Few commentators seemed to believe that the
dispossession of the Irish peasantry was a logical cause. Instead, most often Irish
poverty was blamed on too many people. While Ireland had traditionally been
viewed as a relatively empty land, the population began to increase rapidly in the
eighteenth century. Between 1750 and 1800, the population had grown from 2.6
million to 5 million, increasing to 7 million in 1821 and to 8.5 million by 1845 and the
beginning of the famine. This meant that Ireland was more densely populated than
some parts of Europe, but it was less so than England and Wales, and growth levels
were actually lower after 1821 than the European average. The facts seemed not to
matter to English commentators. Thomas Malthus, for one, argued in 1817 in a
letter to his friend David Ricardo, The land in Ireland is innitely more peopled
than in England, and to give full eect to the natural resources of the country a great
part of the population should be swept from the soil (Mokyr 1983, 34). It soon
would be.
One item was mentioned more often than any other in discussions of Irelands
poverty: the potato. No other place on earth relied on the potato to the same extent.
By 1845, as many as 4.7 million of Irelands 8.5 million people depended on the
potato as the primary item in their diet (Donnelly 2001, 13, Zuckerman 1998). The
potato was a wondrous crop because it provided an enormous amount of nutrition
and calories on small amounts of bad land. The potato was considered a curse for
many of the same reasons. In the words of one commentator, If there was no potato,
there would be no cottier that foe to the agriculturalist and land would be
legitimately cultivated by capital (Stanley 1836, 16). For many contemporaries, the
potato encouraged laziness and procreation, the two greatest sins of the poor. As one
writer in 1847 suggested, The Celtic peasants . . . contentment has made him rest
satised with shelter and turf re, and potatoes and water to live upon . . . and is
happy so long as he can get them (Mokyr 1983, 8).
If potato-induced laziness was not sucient cause for alarm, the potato also
prompted the Celtic peasant to have more children. An ocial government report
on the state of rural Ireland in 1845 asserted, The potato enabled a large family to
live on food produced in great quantities at a triing cost, and, as a result, the
increase of the people has been gigantic. Malthus, too, had his view of the potatos
cussedness. The cheapness of this nourishing root, he wrote, joined with the
ignorance and barbarity of the people, which have prompted them to follow their
inclinations with no prospect than immediate bare subsistence, have encouraged
marriage to such a degree that the population is pushed much beyond the industry
and present resources of the country (OGrada 1994, 4).
Thus, long before the famine of 184548, the Irish cottier and the potato were
seen as major concerns for much the same reason common lands had been
denounced in England: the potato allowed the cottier to continue to pay rents and
The Journal of Peasant Studies 331
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maintain access to small amounts of land. His and its eciency allowed them to
maintain a family despite their poverty and prompted them to turn a blind eye to
those who would try to get them to abandon their land and permit more widespread
agricultural improvement.
This changed in 1845. That year a fungal infection hit the potato crop
throughout Europe, including Ireland. The blight spread in Ireland, partly because
government experts had advised that blighted potatoes could be used as seed
potatoes, and devastated the potato harvest for the next four years. For many,
the resultant famine was seen as an opportunity to reshape rural Ireland along the
English model. Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and the
man most responsible for British government policies in Ireland, was knighted for
his service to the crown during the famine. He was also a graduate of the East India
Company University, a student of Malthus. He argued,
The famine is a direct stroke of an all-wise and all merciful Providence, which laid bare
the deep and inveterate root of social evil [unchecked Irish population growth]. The
famine was the sharp but eectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be eected . . .
God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been oered may rightly
perform its part. (Ranelagh 1994, 117)
During the famine, the British government provided some relief. But, this was
always given reluctantly and provided at levels designed to insure that it would not
interfere with attempts to pull out this root of social evil. Poor relief in Ireland
during the famine consisted of two types: payment for public works and food relief.
In the former, the government instituted a piece rate system of public works payment
which was calibrated to provide sucient income for an average man to survive.
Many people argued that even with healthy men the rates the government used were
too low by at least one-half. But, most of the people on public work relief had been
malnourished for many months. On piece work rates they made only a tiny portion
of the estimated amounts.
When concerns were raised about the level of such relief, Malthusianism and
liberalism proved to be eective counterweights. The Economist magazine argued in
1846, in response to demands that the poor rates be raised to a living wage, that
to pay them not what their labour is worth, not what their labour can be purchased for,
but what is sucient for a comfortable subsistence for themselves and their family . . .
Do they not see that to do this would be to stimulate every man to marry and to
populate as fast as he could, like a rabbit in a warren in other words that to apply this
to Ireland would be to give brandy to a man lying dead drunk in a ditch? (Economist
1846)
The other type of relief was food relief. There was strong pressure throughout
this period by landlords to use the poor laws to evict small holders and cottiers, and
by the government to use the poor laws to reshape Ireland. By 1846, the British
government began to restrict food relief only to those who moved to poor houses. In
1847, the government changed the poor laws to include a provision that insured that
no one could receive relief while they owned more than a quarter acre of land. While
the law never mentioned that cottiers needed to give up their cottages, most
landlords refused to sign the certication of compliance unless both the house and
the last quarter acre were given up as well. The cottiers were left with a terrible
decision: give up their land and rely on poor relief, provided at a level that would
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slow death but not prevent it, or stay on the land and die more quickly. In total,
more than one million Irish died either from starvation or from hunger-related
diseases during the course of the famine and its immediate aftermath, from 1845 to
1851.
In the midst of the famine, Ireland exported close to 300,000 tons of grain to
Britain in both 1846 and 1848, and only slightly less in 1847. It exported 500,000 pigs
in 1846. Despite some calls to end the exports, the government refused to intervene in
the markets to stop them. As The Nation, a Dublin newspaper, reported in 1847
when it appeared that there would be good grain crops that year, And now the thing
for Irishmen to consider is this no people on the globe was ever put to the solution
of such a problem before how to get leave to eat the bread that God has sent them.
It went on to report that shipping Irish grain to the English is termed civilization
and the enlightened spirit of commerce and other respectable names; so that
whoever dies of it may congratulate himself that he is a martyr to the cause of human
improvement and the progress of the species (Killen 1995, 1456).
The government seemed to believe at times that emigration would allow Ireland
to be remade. Over two million people left Ireland during and immediately after
the famine. But emigrating cost money. Some landlords assisted families to
emigrate and there was assistance from various charities to do so. Still the poorest
of the poor could rarely aord to go. The government was asked to assist
emigration but responded that to do so would hurt private initiative, already
responding to the famine by engaging in the business of emigration. The
moderately poor left in droves. The worst o couldnt leave; to a large extent
they stayed in Ireland to die. Nevertheless, it was to emigration that most pointed
when they remarked on the way Ireland was being cleared. As one landlord
reported, Nothing but the successive failures of the potato . . . could have
produced the emigration which will, I trust, give us room to become civilized
(Killen 1995, 1456, Johnson 1994, 51).
Despite the predictions of spreading civilization and Malthus assurances that it
was population and potatoes that caused Irelands rural poverty, the aftermath of
the famine did little to justify that belief. For most of the nineteenth century, Ireland
was noted for both rural poverty and rural depopulation, large swathes of the
country were marked by reduced, but impoverished, populations and dying villages,
as land continued to be accumulated in the hands of fewer and fewer landlords
(Hirsch 1991, Ross 1998, 4850).
Grubby, joyless lives: colonialism, modernity and peasant rusticity
As Europeans spread their power throughout the world, similar attitudes towards
peasants were employed. Colonial rule varied tremendously from place to place and
from colonial master to colonial master. But some general patterns prevailed, at least
for the period of late colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Colonial
powers were driven by a number of imperatives: the need to extend eective control
over subject populations; the need to reconstruct colonial economies to insure they
provided Europe with necessary raw materials, most importantly cotton; colonial
rule was to be paid for by the colonised themselves whenever possible; the colonies
were meant to provide essential markets for European goods; and when it didnt
conict with the other priorities colonial rule needed to provide a civilising example
to the barbarous.
The Journal of Peasant Studies 333
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All of these imperatives aected the way colonial powers approached the
colonised peasantry. In some instances, colonial rulers strengthened peasant control
over land and curbed the demands of landlords either to pacify a restless peasantry
or to allow the peasantry to pay taxes and, thus, the costs of empire. In some isolated
examples, as among cocoa farmers in Ghana, the immediate interests of the coloniser
and the peasantry converged, leading to colonial support for voluntary, small scale
peasant involvement in export agriculture production.
But these instances were rare. More often peasants were forced from their lands
to allow for the expansion of plantation agriculture designed to meet the needs of the
coloniser. But, control over labour in plantation agriculture was a continual
headache. Despite the power of colonial states and elaborate mechanisms developed
to deliver such labour to the plantations and control it once it was there, such control
was never really satisfactory and, often, not very protable. Plantation labourers
almost always struggled perpetually to regain peasant status; from Caribbean slaves
who fought most often and most consistently not just for freedom but for freedom to
engage in peasant agriculture, produce for their own consumption, and market the
excess; to indigo workers in Bijar who simply left the plantations whenever possible
(Schwartz 1992, Pouchepadass 1999, Dubois 2004).
Thus, more often, colonial regimes needed to rely on dierent mechanisms to
gain a surplus from peasant production. The most common means was to charge an
onerous tax on land. These taxes not only provided the income to operate empire but
were also meant to provide a colic of induced labour to treat perceived peasant
laziness. As an ocial in the Belgian Congo remarked in the early twentieth century,
The tax system is not only to reimburse the government in some measure for the
cost of occupying all the territories and of providing protection for the native
population. Taxes also have a higher purpose; which is to accustom the negro to
work (Young 1994, 179).
Perhaps, the most violent colonial strategy for proting from the peasantry was
the regime of obligatory, coerced or forced cultivation. It was used most often and to
most eect for the most important of late colonial commodities, the basis for
European industrialisation: cotton. Coerced cotton cultivation was used widely,
from the Ottoman regime in Egypt to the Portuguese in Mozambique. In all places it
functioned in a roughly similar fashion: set quotas of cotton demanded from peasant
producers to be supplied at set prices. To insure peasants would go to extraordinary
lengths to provide the requisite cotton at bad prices at the expense of peasant
agriculture, draconian levels of supervision and vigilance were created and horric
punishment meted out.
This was, perhaps, carried to its most logical extent in the nineteenth century in
Egypt where Ottoman rulers, in association with European advisors, slowly
transformed Nile valley agriculture from an integrated, if long commercialised,
agricultural system, to one dedicated to the production of commodities for export,
focusing increasing attention as the century advanced on cotton. By the middle of
the nineteenth century, cotton made up 92 percent of Egypts experts and the
government had instituted a system of peasant control seldom matched elsewhere.
As Timothy Mitchell (1988, 3441) describes it,
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century the people of Egypt were made inmates
in their own villages . . . The village was to be run like a barracks, its inhabitants placed
under the surveillance of guards night and day, and under the supervision of inspectors
as they cultivated the land and surrendered to the government warehouse its produce.
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While this system of supervision and rapidly escalating punishment for not
tending their elds properly was designed to ensure the production and surrender of
cotton, at its heart was an underlying belief that peasant villagers needed to be
monitored, supervised, and instructed.
In virtually all locations, coerced cotton cultivation created economic and social
disarray. It so devastated peasant agriculture in Mozambique under the Portuguese
that, as peasants reported to Allen Isaacman, Cotton is the mother of poverty.
Isaacman (1996, 69) outlined the assumptions that informed coerced cotton cultivation:
It assumed that suitable land and underutilized labour were abundant. It relied on force
and terror to intimidate reluctant growers. It dismissed African agricultural practices as
backward, destructive . . . Finally it chose to overlook the deleterious eects of cotton
production on food security, often promoting policies that necessarily exacerbated food
shortages. All were intended to increase output to meet the needs of the metropolitan
textile industry.
What is most striking for our purposes about colonial relations with peasant
producers is the rhetoric that was used to justify these actions. Everywhere land
dispossession, excessive taxation, and coerced cultivation were justied in startlingly
similar ways to the arguments used about enclosures and labour in England. Thus,
colonial regimes in Africa justied these actions with arguments, as Isaacman suggests
above, that peasant agriculture was neither ecient nor an eective use of existing
labour. Labour was assumed to be abundant and resistance to these changes believed
to be a function of the backwardness, perversity, or laziness of the African peasant.
Most often, colonial ocials, like those enforcing enclosures in England two
hundred years earlier, insisted on the necessity of such measures for the civilising
mission they argued they were engaged in through their colonial endeavours. This
mission required a habituation to labour. As a Portuguese government commission
in Mozambique explained it in 1899, The state, not only as a sovereign of semi-
barbarous populations, but also as a repository of social authority, should have no
scruples in obliging and if necessary forcing these rude negroes in Africa to better
themselves by work . . . to civilize themselves by work (Isaacman 1996, Mamdani
1996, 14865).
Colonial regimes were not, however, dramatically more coercive in dealing with
peasants than independent non-European countries, many furiously trying to
modernise, in the latter half of the nineteenth century and rst half of the twentieth.
Many of these regimes felt driven by the same imperatives that propelled colonial
regimes; they were also informed by the same misconceptions.
E. Bradford Burns (1980) has argued that Latin America in the nineteenth
century, newly independent from Spanish and Portuguese rulers, was marked by a
generalised cultural conict between a Europeanising elite and traditional and
localised folk. Some of the harsh perceptions of the peasantry in nineteenth century
Latin America were the result of racial or ethnic divisions. Thus, in Guatemala by
the last third of the decade, the elite never seriously attempted to foster the spread of
coee cultivation among a mostly indigenous peasantry. Instead they conscated
land and introduced various forms of forced labour that both drove most Maya to
work on the coee harvest and impoverished peasant agriculture (McCreery 1994,
Cambranes 1996). Impoverished peasant agriculture, impoverished by labour
shortages created by forced labour, heightened elite perceptions of the laziness and
backwardness of the indigenous peasantry.
The Journal of Peasant Studies 335
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In 1899, the ocial newspaper, using Indian and peasant interchangeably,
argued,
The Indian is a pariah, stretched out in his hammock and drunk on chichi, his natural
beverage. His house is a pig sty; a ragged wife and six or more naked children live
beneath a ceiling grimy with the smoke of a re that burns day and night in the middle
of the oor; some images of saints with the faces of demons, four chickens and a rooster
and two or three skinny dogs [etc.]. Yet in this state the Indian is happy. (McCreery
1994, 175)
As this quote suggests, nothing seemed to distress commentators more about
peasant lifestyles in Latin America than the apparent ease with which they contrived
to earn a living and their apparently limited needs. A hundred years earlier, a
colonial ocial in Santo Domingo made much the same argument about freed
blacks. Governor Pedro Catani argued,
The ease with which the masses obtain their subsistence, especially those that live in the
countryside on root vegetables . . . and by hunting wild animals abounding in the
woods . . . makes them forget the labor of cultivation, and live in a perpetual state of
idleness. The excessive number of such freed persons living in the countryside, is one of
the radical vices [leading to] the backwardness of agriculture. (Turitz 2003, 35)
But racial divisions were not always necessary for this cultural conict to occur.
Domingo Sarmiento, before becoming President of Argentina, opined in his famous
work on Argentine culture, Civilization and Barbarism, that the inhabitants of the
pampas were emblematic of barbarism precisely because they felt no pressure to
better their situation, to desire and demonstrate increased wealth (Sarmiento 1868,
1723).
Of course, not all the critics could identify quite so clearly what it was that
disturbed them about peasants. Sometimes they were reduced to a more generalised
exasperation, a restating of Arthur Youngs comment that commoners made him
feel like he had lost a century. As one Venezuelan historian writing in the nineteenth
century said,
The slowness and rusticity of the peasant exasperates me. They are always wrong and it
is impossible that they should ever be rescued from their sad condition of inferior
beings . . . I cannot talk to any of them for more than ve minutes at a time. I can nd
nothing to say to them. (Burns 1980, 39)
Nor were these attitudes restricted to Latin America. In Japan, where
government ocials and a modernising elite had been engaged in ongoing disputes
with peasants through much of the late nineteenth and rst half of the twentieth
centuries, over taxes, the calendar, and such cultural practices as hair knots and
blackened teeth, there was an even more virulent reaction against the peasantry, even
though or perhaps because it was their eciency and hard work that funded
Japanese modernisation. It is hard to nd a more vicious description of peasants or
one that more fully blames the peasants themselves for the poverty imposed on them
than this provided by a Japanese doctor in the 1920s:
There is no one as miserable as a peasant, especially the impoverished peasants of
northern Japan. The peasants wear rags, eat coarse cereals, and have many children.
They are as black as their dirt walls and lead grubby, joyless lives that can be compared
to those insects that crawl along the ground and stay alive by licking the dirt. They may
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walk upright, but most of the time the spirit crawls along the ground. When one is in a
compassionate mood, one feels sorry for them. But . . . every time I come into contact
with their musty, smelly, dull miserable existence, I feel a sense of displeasure and
distaste grounded on a hatred of ugly things. To tell the truth, there are among them,
one feels, people who would have been better o had they not been born. In fact, in my
opinion, the majority of them fall into this category. I dont think these impressions
come from my personal bias . . . . (Hane 1982, 345, Harootunian 2000)
Capturing imagined peasants
As World War II drew to a close, political leaders all over the world were attempting
to put into eect blueprints for the world to be. This was an immense eort in
imagining the future. The leaders of the soon to be victorious allied nations and their
advisors gathered in New Hampshire at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton
Woods Park at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference to construct
the mechanisms designed to oversee the worlds economy, creating the International
Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and
the General Agreement on Taris and Trade. While their focus was primarily on
nancial stability among and the reconstruction of the ravaged industrial economies
of Europe, there was also a clear sign most obvious in the Banks dual title role
that they would soon need to turn their attention to the economies of less wealthy
nations.
At roughly the same time, former colonies in Africa and Asia were rapidly
gaining independence. As both international advisors and national leaders sought to
build modern states out of the debris left to them by colonial masters, they engaged
in another sort of imagining: they imagined peasants and then made policy based on
those often faulty imaginings. Not surprisingly, these new images of peasants seem,
in retrospect, to be startlingly familiar.
These images were drawn from three preoccupations: fostering economic growth
and modernisation in poor countries (often called development), turning peasants
into responsible citizens which would allow for the full development of national
institutions, and preventing peasants from supporting communist uprisings. Luckily,
for the most part, addressing all three of these preoccupations was often felt to
demand similar, or at least complementary, policies.
It is, perhaps, in the rst quest that the most creative imaginings occurred. If
colonial regimes felt that peasants needed to be coerced into more eective labour,
tutored on proper agricultural techniques, schooled to have more needs, or forced
from the land to allow capital to work its magic, newly independent nations often
followed similar policies, often more forcefully. This is not surprising, in that they
were advised every step of the way by experts who had drawn their lessons from
misreading English economic history. One could point to any number of such
experts, but three of the most inuential will help illustrate this point: Sir W. Arthur
Lewis, Walt Whitman Rostow, and Garrett Hardin.
W.A. Lewis was born in Santa Lucia. All of his university education was at the
London School of Economics, where he received his doctorate specialising in
industrial economics, and he taught at the University of Manchester. After the
independence of Ghana, he was an advisor to Kwame Nkrumah, perhaps the most
respected statesman in British Africa. Lewis was an advisor to various West Indian
governments and headed the central bank of Jamaica. He was also the rst director
of the United Nations Special Fund, the precursor to the United Nations
The Journal of Peasant Studies 337
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Development Program, and was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics in
1979. He wrote numerous books and articles, but his most inuential work was a
short article entitled Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour in
1954; it was to this model that the Nobel Committee specically made reference
when announcing the award (Royal Swedish Academy 1979).
Lewis argument in this article is complex and deals with a range of subjects
related to economic growth and the accumulation of capital. It is written from the
perspective of a social democrat who believed in the role of the state in fostering
economic growth and was concerned with the well-being of the majority of the
population in poor countries. Still, the most striking aspect of the article is the
division between a productive, capitalist sector and an unproductive, subsistence
sector. Agricultural areas, he argued, were marked by a few highly capitalized
plantations surrounded by a sea of peasants (Lewis 1958, 408). This sea of peasants,
engaged primarily in subsistence agriculture, was the major source of the unlimited
supply of labour.
Lewis argued that the continued investment of capital was the necessary
ingredient for economic growth and warned against allowing the returns to the
subsistence sector to increase. Capital was drawn to invest by low real wages. These
wages were set by the unlimited supply of labour in the countryside. According to
Lewis (1958, 448), Anything which raises the productivity of the subsistence
sector . . . will raise real wages in the capitalist sector, and will therefore reduce the
capitalist surplus and the rate of capital accumulation. One way to prevent this from
happening, he pointed out, is to prevent the farmer from getting all of his extra
production. He further explained, If the capitalist sector depends upon the peasants
for food, it is essential to get the peasants to produce more, while if at the same time
they can be prevented from enjoying the full fruit of their extra production, wages
can be reduced relative to the capitalist surplus (Lewis 1958, 434). While Lewis was
a bit dismayed at the way his argument was subsequently used by economic
planners, the implications are clear.
Lewis model of a dual economy a productive, modern, capitalised sector and
an unproductive, non-modern subsistence sector from which abundant and cheap
labour needed to be forced both reected and reinforced the dominant approach to
backward economies in the second half of the twentieth century; they were
backward precisely and primarily because of the existence of a peasantry.
Lewis concern about capital investment and his suggestion about its
modernising eects were echoed by Walt Whitman Rostow. Rostows background
perfectly groomed him to encapsulate in one volume all the destructive trends in
development ideology of the late 1950s. His rst works were on British economic
history, reinforcing a prevailing tendency in development ideology that economic
growth could be understood best through an understanding of such history. He
worked for the US Army in Eastern Europe and was a special assistant to both
President Kennedy and Johnson on national security aairs. After his works on
British economic history, he wrote books on Communist China and the challenges to
the United States in Asia. Between 1958 and 1961 he headed the Center for
International Studies at MIT, funded in part by the CIA, and it was there that he
and his colleagues worked out the major points in Rostows major contribution to
imagining peasants. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto
was published in 1960, drawn from a series of lectures he gave at MIT between 1958
and 1960.
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So, the major enunciation of modernisation theory within economics and
perhaps the major inuence on development theory for the next 20 years at least
was written primarily as part of the cold war, a policy document designed to foster
development as a foil to prevent the spread of communism in the Third World, by
someone whose major concern was American security and whose background was in
British economic history. The result is somewhat predictable.
Stages in Economic Growth argues that all developed societies have passed
through similar, roughly equivalent historic stages. It is possible, therefore, to
identify the stage any society or economy was in and to suggest policies designed to
hurry that society along the route to development, culminating in a stage of high
mass consumption. Rostows stages are well known and do not need repeating here.
They were neither surprising nor original, having been borrowed from many
previous works imagining societal development. There are, however, a number of
things about Rostows stages that stand out. First, despite his claim to be an
economic historian, traditional society in his vision had no history. In Stages,
traditional society is marked by a never-ending struggle against scarcity, bound by
ideas and concepts that prevent advancement or change, marked by a long-run
fatalism, and devoid of technology that would assist in accumulation (Rostow
1960, 5).
For development to begin (in Rostows terms the Precondition for Take-o
Stage), society needed to recognise the desirability of change and economic
accumulation. This shift in perceptions would lead to a disintegration of the
traditional society and the construction of modern alternatives. To initiate this shift
in underdeveloped countries an external impetus or shock was required. The
combination of these two ideas the ahistorical conceptualisation of traditional
society and the need for an external shock to jolt them out of their primitive state
led him to argue that colonisation had been a benecial process. The major benecial
external shock provided by colonialism was the development of nationalism and the
construction of national states. In Rostows assessment the destruction of traditional
society required the emergence of new elites, divorced from traditional society and
tied to the new beacon of modernity: the national state. The key to growth was the
ability of the national state to exert control over aspects of the traditional society and
to force agriculture to transfer a signicant measure of its surplus to the state
controlled by these modernising elites (Rostow 1960, 2334).
This needed to be accompanied by changes in the beliefs and world view of those
people encased in traditional society. Most especially, perhaps, they needed to reduce
the number of children they had, needed to value the individual over broader social
connections (except, of course, the national state) and they needed to come to an
understanding of the physical world . . . as an ordered world which, if rationally
understood, can be manipulated . . . (Rostow 1960, 1821).
While Rostows work lacked much of Lewis humanity, both in practice were
used to legitimise policies in poor countries that transferred land and wealth from the
peasantry to elites as long as that elite was entrepreneurial, produced for export and,
most importantly, applied the elixir of capital to the land and to production. In this
schema the biggest enemy was the most obvious purveyor of tradition, the peasantry.
Lewis arguments were persuasive partly because of his erudition, his obvious good
intentions, and the solid grounding in economic theory. Rostows work had none of
this; the success of his argument can be explained only if we understand that it
tapped into prevailing ideas about the stagnant nature of traditional, peasant
The Journal of Peasant Studies 339
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society and its links to continued poverty and unrest in poor countries. The ways in
which these widespread tropes lent credibility to often very unconvincing arguments
can be understood clearly if we turn, briey, to the work of Garrett Hardin.
Hardin, a professor of Human Ecology at the University of California at Santa
Barbara, published a short article entitled The Tragedy of the Commons in 1968.
Published at a time of increased concern, and much hysteria, over population
growth, the article was both crude and amateurish. In it, Hardin attempted to argue
that all access to common property leads to over population. He provided a series of
bizarre examples of this, ranging from the world population levels to parking spaces
in Leominster, Massachusetts; all examples, except the parking spaces, were
hypothetical. In subsequent publications most especially perhaps a short article
entitled Living on a Life Boat in which he elaborated on some of the arguments in
this essay, especially his assertion that poor people should not have the freedom to
breed (Hardin 1974) he made it clear that his central focus was world wide
population growth; like Malthus, he believed the threat stemmed primarily from
poor people and was exacerbated by every act of charity, most especially food aid.
In The Tragedy of the Commons the argument that attracted the most attention
was his discussion of a hypothetical grazing commons in an unspecied undeveloped
region:
Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as
many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably
satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers
of beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of
reckoning, that is, the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a
reality. At that point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates a
tragedy . . . Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own
best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.
Despite the obvious aws, the lack of references to any actual commons (either
existing or historic), and the way the article ignored an abundant literature on the
way commons actually functioned, Hardins assessment of the inherent logic of the
commons clearly struck a chord as did his solution to the tragedy, the enclosure of
the commons through private property. Despite a chorus of academic critiques that
decried Hardins fallacious and simplistic assessment, for decades to follow it was
not uncommon to nd arguments that referred to the way that Hardin had
demonstrated the natural tendency for common resources to be overexploited.
Hardins hypothetical common pasture became all the proof necessary to
demonstrate the inherent superiority of private ownership, the dangers of common
property, and the inability of traditional rural institutions to deal with changing
circumstances; in much the same way that Malthus hypothetical reections on the
propensity of the poor to propagate if not constrained by abject poverty became the
proof necessary for over two centuries of fear of the poor.
What is most striking about most of the literature that shapes the prevailing
notions of peasant society in the latter half of the twentieth century is the almost
complete absence of any real peasants. Even when a real peasant does show up in
the literature, they often turn out to be almost completely imagined.
Timothy Mitchell has a superb discussion about the ways Egyptian peasants got
imagined in both academic and popular literature through the second half of the
twentieth century. One of the most popular and inuential works on Egyptian
peasants was a book published in 1978 by the well known American writer, Richard
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Critcheld. Critchelds Shahhat: An Egyptian was taken by many to be a realistic
portrayal of the life of a young Egyptian peasant. The book depicts a deeply
traditional young peasant coming of age at a time when his village, unchanged for
centuries, is suddenly confronted by modern inuences. It was the story of a young
man and a village driven by uncontrolled passions, the need to satisfy immediate
desires, and irrational violence. But, as Mitchell has pointed out, the village in which
the book is set was far from untouched, having in the course of the last
century undergone almost complete transformation: the loss of its village lands
enclosed in a sugar estate, the destruction of local textile manufacturing, its
subjugation to all the apparatuses of the modern state, and its position at the base of
Theban necropolis, one of the most visited tourist sites in Egypt. Indeed, the hamlet
in which Shahhat himself lived had been built less than 50 years previously. As
Mitchell (2002, 1278) suggests, this blindness to historical transformation is
carefully achieved, in order to have Shahhats story t more closely the expected
image of the rural peasant.
Indeed, Critchelds book is actually largely a pastiche of earlier depictions of
peasants. Most especially it borrows freely, in long sections drawn word for word,
from George Ayrouts 1938 work, The Egyptian Peasant. Ayrout was an Egyptian;
after growing up in Cairo he joined the Catholic Church, and spent most of his
adult life in France, where the The Egyptian Peasant was written. Ayrout wrote the
work without actually returning to Egypt for his research and had spent virtually
no time in the Egyptian countryside. Indeed, as Mitchell points out, Ayrout
also borrowed freely in constructing his image of the Egyptian peasant, from
Gustave Le Bons work on the French masses, Psychologie des foules (Mitchell
2002, 13041).
The works of both Critcheld and Ayrout were widely cited in peasant studies
and both men became expert advisors on peasants. Critcheld, particularly, seemed
to report on peasant issues almost exclusively from areas of intense interest for
American security concerns, from Vietnam, to Mauritius, to Iran, and Egypt.
Ayrout was more xed in Egypt, but the way in which his work was perceived to be
essential in suggesting appropriate means for tying peasants to the state and to the
economy can be gleaned from The Economists review of a new English language
edition of the book in 1963. There is no better book, the magazine assured its
readers, on the magnitude of President Nassers task in rural Egypt (Mitchell 2002,
133).
Tying peasants to the state, xing them in location and in the relationship to
the state, became a central concern in the second half of the twentieth century.
This was not just an economic imperative, but essential as a demonstration of the
authority of the modern state. There are too many examples to explore at any
length here, but two very brief arguments about the necessity to capture
peasants in the market, in the bureaucracy of the state, and in modern society
might suce.
Keith Hart worked for the World Bank, organising the creation (in his own
words) of Papua New Guinea. He then worked as an African and Asian
development specialist for US AID. His book, The Political Economy of West
African Agriculture, was published in 1982 and quickly received favourable
attention. His central point was that the major problem facing West African
economies was the prevalence of a peasantry, insuciently coerced into producing a
surplus for the market. As he succinctly expressed it, Agricultural intensication
The Journal of Peasant Studies 341
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means getting people to work harder, and that undertaking usually requires
coercion. Here I paraphrase his discussion of the major problems facing West
African states:
Decolonization left the successor regimes with a problem that is still poorly understood
namely, howto build modern nation-states when the bulk of the production remains in the
hands of small farmers . . . The prime need is for large, capital intensive projects that
substantially raise the productivity of the labour force eectively controlled by the state
apparatus. Nothing can beat a big irrigation scheme from this point of view. The
requirements for capital planning, water control, and managerial supervision make
government central to such schemes . . . The next best thing is to organize the farmers in
such a way that they must pass over a portion of their product to the government. These
initiatives are normally called co-operatives. (Hart 1982, 834)
Writing at roughly the same time, Goran Hydens discussion of the problems
with the Ujamaa villagisation scheme under Julius Nyerere in Tanzania outlined the
perceived challenges in an even starker fashion. He argued that the diculty in
Tanzania did not stem from Nyereres ill-conceived plan to x villagers in proper
villages so that they could begin to use tractors, but rather because the Tanzanian
peasantry were uncaptured by the state. Despite his sympathy for peasant
producers and the economy of aection which he suggested was the basis for social
relations in rural Africa, Hyden (1980, 9) argued that, The road to modern society
has been completed at the expense of the peasantry and through most of the
industrialised world, the history of the peasantry is a closed chapter. Hyden went
on to suggest,
Socommonis this situationinSub-SaharanAfrica that is not anexaggerationtoclaimthat
the principal structural constraint to development are the barriers raised against state
action by the peasant mode of production. To subordinate the peasant to the demands of
state policies is a controversial task that all regimes in Africa face . . . In order to
appropriate surplus product from the peasant more eectively there is no other way
than. . . to make himproduce more than for his own domestic needs. Exploitation in this
sense of the word is inevitable in the African societies if they are to develop. Such has been
the road to progress in all other societies. (Hyden 1980, 31)
The melancholy of peasants
Two hundred years after Arthur Young was campaigning for agricultural change in
rural England, the arguments seem to have changed little. Peasants need to be
subjugated to the interests of the state, incorporated into capitalist agriculture, made
to produce more and to produce it more eectively, or need to give way to capital.
That incorporation needs to be accomplished so as to wring from them an increased
surplus and, in the process, turn them into something else. Despite all the evidence to
the contrary, they continued to be portrayed as unchanging, irrational and ornery; a
threat not just to economic development but to modernity and its companion, the
modern state. This threat is rehearsed a thousand times in literature on peasants,
retold in new but surprisingly familiar fashions, decrying their idiotic wretchedness
and proclaiming their unsuitability for the modern world. In the words of Roger
Bartra (1997, 17), talking about Mexican peasants, because they are survivors of a
period that must not return (they cast) a long shadow of nostalgia and melancholy
over modern society.
In the context of this long history during which peasants have been blamed for a
litany of modern aictions, the continued existence of peasants is not just surprising;
342 Jim Handy
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it is almost miraculous. Given this context, the decision by hundreds of thousands of
agricultural producers recently organised into LaV a Campesina around the
world to proclaim their existence as peasants with pride and to declare their intention
to use their collective wisdom to construct an alternative vision of the world is an act
of immense courage (Desmarais 2007, 1957).
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Jim Handy is Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan and former director of
the International Studies Program. He is the author of Gift of the Devil: a history of
Guatemala, revolution in the countryside: rural conict and agrarian reform in Guatemala, 1944
1954, and numerous articles. He is currently working on a book entitled The menace of
progress.
Corresponding author: Email: jim.handy@usask.ca
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