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An alliance with the countryside?

This article is over 19 years, 9 months old
Kevin Ovenden looks at the role of the peasantry
Issue 1793

THE peasantry is a major social class in large parts of the world. Peasants are not simply farmers. Farming in Britain and other advanced capitalist countries is a capitalist enterprise. Most of agriculture is dominated by large landowners who run major businesses, employing workers just as the owners of factories and multinationals do.

But in many less industrialised countries the pattern of agricultural production is different. It rests on peasants, people who in one form or another work a plot of land and have to give over a portion of what they produce to a landowner.

Possibly the majority of the world’s population still live in this way-in India, China, parts of the Middle East and Central Asia and Africa. Certainly over the last 1,000 years most people were peasants. The pace of change in peasant villages is far slower than in towns and cities, where people and technological innovation are more concentrated.

But that does not mean that peasant life has remained static. The spread of capitalism through the creation of a world market has had a major impact on the way of life of even the most remote peasants. It has meant peasant farmers increasingly producing goods which are not sold or exchanged locally.

Instead they enter a vast network of transportation, buying and selling. Between the peasant producer and the consumer stand multinational corporations. They pay as little as possible to the producer and charge what they can to the consumer.

The effects of capitalism are felt in other ways too. The growth of factories, mines and mills in England in the 18th and 19th centuries drew people off the land and into the cities. Similar processes are happening today in ‘developing countries’. Cities such as Tehran, Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Mexico City, Algiers, Cairo, Lagos and Bombay have mushroomed over the last two decades.

According to a UN report last week, 160,000 people move from the countryside to the cities every day in the hope of work and a better life. Big capitalist firms increasingly own the land. The biggest protest movement in the countryside of Brazil is of ‘landless labourers’ rather than settled peasant farmers.

Producing for a world market has left whole peasant villages dependent on the movement of prices of commodities.

These developments have brought greater connections between peasants and workers struggling against capitalist corporations in the cities. They have also deepened divisions on the land. The term peasant has always covered a range of different categories.

At the bottom is the individual family working a plot and totally subordinated to a landowner. Then there are peasants who are able to hire labourers. The richer ones shade into the class of farmers who operate as capitalists-living off the exploitation of workers, or their control of resources.

These divisions mean that peasant struggles have never been as clear cut as confrontations between workers and capitalists. They have often pitted poorer peasants against ‘richer’ peasants. Workers in a factory or office struggle collectively. They do not aspire to own a small part of it. Peasant struggles, on the other hand, are driven by individual producers trying to get control of a piece of land.

So the pattern of peasant uprisings has been an explosion of bitterness against big landlords or representatives of the ruling class, followed by fragmentation. Where these struggles have not been connected to the collective power of workers, the ruling class has been able to contain them.

Now the world market is pushing down the poorest peasants while allowing a few better off ones to enrich themselves and play a local role in the whole global web of exploitation. That has fuelled sharp conflicts on the land and has undermined traditional ideologies of deference.

Modern communications mean many peasant villagers are much more aware of the explosive struggles of workers and the poor in other parts of the world than they were a generation ago. Peasants in some parts of the world also depend on wages earned by family members in the cities.

They still, however, face powerful obstacles to resisting their exploiters. Unlike workers, they are not at the heart of the multinationals that dominate the globe. They lack workers’ collective power to hit the capitalists’ profits directly. And conservative ways of thinking bear down more heavily in the countryside than in the cities.

Globalisation is creating immense suffering for the bulk of the world’s peasants. But, more so than at any time in history, it is creating links between the struggles of the exploited in the cities and the poor in the villages.

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