Introduction. The End of the Peasant? Global Capitalism and the Future of Agrarian Society
Arif Dirlik and Roxann Prazniak
This volume issued from the Wall Summer Institute, “The End of the Peasant? Global Capitalism and the Future of Agrarian Society,” held over a week in late June 2008 at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies of the University of British Columbia. The Institute was followed in June 2009 by a weeklong field trip by selected participants to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to witness cooperative efforts in Henan Province, inspired by the efforts of Professor Wen Tiejun of People’s (Renmin) University in Beijing. The conclusions from the field trip were discussed in a daylong workshop at the Advanced Institute for Sustainable Development of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at that university. The Institute discussions, the field trip, and the workshop presentations confirmed the sense of a major transformation of agrarian societies at work globally, reversing radical hopes of the post-WWII years but quite in keeping with long-term developments under the regime of capital. Whether or not this is a cause for optimism or pessimism is entangled very much in attitudes toward the capability of capitalism to solve the problems of its creation. These conflicting attitudes have a history of their own, as Alexander Woodside’s introductory chapter outlines. It remains to be seen whether present uncertainties over the future of agrarian society are merely a replay of the past or products of an unprecedented world situation.
Because of, for the most part, the organizers’ interests and areas of expertise, the transformation of agrarian society in the People’s Republic of China over the last three decades, and the sense of crisis that has enveloped that nation over the last decade, provided the initial impetus for the undertaking. Developments over the last two decades have catapulted the PRC to the forefront of speculation over the future of capitalism and the world economy. The future of agrarian society is part of this speculation. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese leadership has openly recognized the seriousness of what is described as the “three-nong” problem, referring to nongye/ agriculture, nongcun/village, and nongmin /peasant (or cultivator, see below). The regime has made the creation of a “new socialist village” (shehui zhuyi xincun) into one of its top priorities, at least in word. What this means remains unclear, as “the new socialist village” is likely to point to something quite different from the conventional understanding of the “village,” where the village is not so much a unit of agrarian society as it is an integral part of a nationwide urban network. This also has radical implications not only for the understanding of the “peasant,” but for the organization of agriculture.1
The coverage of the undertaking was expanded almost immediately, however, to place developments in China in a comparative perspective but also to get at structural problems that are global in scope. The food crisis of spring 2008 confirmed the validity of these concerns. As Jomo Kwame Sundaram observed in his keynote address for the Summer Institute, the food crisis had many long- and short-term causes, among them price manipulation, but a structural transformation of agriculture was one of the fundamental, long-term reasons exacerbated by neoliberal policies. Different societies are placed differently in the global topography of capitalism. But there is also a great deal of commonality in the problems they face in terms of parallel trajectories of development, as well as increased interdependence in the supply of agricultural commodities. Ironically, what distinguishes China may be the willingness of the regime to recognize the problem and plan for the future, as was observed by Joao Pedro Stedile, a prominent leader of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil who was a participant in the workshop at People’s University.2
We would like to single out here three issues that emerged in the course of the discussions in the various meetings, which also guide the essays included in this volume: the long-term relationship between capitalism and agrarian society, the city and the countryside in the analysis of agrarian society, and the question of the peasant as a social category.