PEASANTS INTO URBANITES?

The third issue is the peasant in the conventional sense, which the disappearance of the countryside has made into an endangered species. The conventional image to which we refer is that of a tiller of the land, who lives in a village surrounded by fields, and with the help of family labor, produces mainly for subsistence, marketing the surplus in exchange for the few items beyond the ability of the household to produce. How close this image was to the historical reality of so-called peasant societies has always been an issue of contention. Different societies named “peasants” differently, emphasizing one aspect or another of their existence (countryperson, villager, tiller of the land, farmer, etc.). Be that as it may, modernity in its globalization has called into question the reality of the image and the possibility of what it represented, if only with differences in the depth and pace of change in different locations.

The conversion of the peasant into a producer for the market, and, politically, into the citizen of the nation-state, has followed inexorably the appropriation of the countryside into the urban spaces of capital and the nation-state.26 This has been as true of socialist as of capitalist modernization. As we noted above, with reference to Maoist policies, socialist collectivization, too, sought to remake the peasantry in the image of the factory worker and to relocate agricultural labor from the family and the village in state-enforced collective organization. The enforcement was made possible by the hukou (household registration) system, which introduced a caste-like division between the urban and rural populations that is the legacy of collectivization to the present. While the peasantry was “de-peasantized,” the division guaranteed the persistence of agriculture. The present seems set to complete the task by abolishing the distinction altogether as the rural is inexorably drawn into the urban, or is remade in the latter’s image. As the essays by Alexander Day and Pitman Potter suggest, present-day conceptions of the peasant seek to transform both the peasant and agriculture. The proletariat as the model for the peasantry has been replaced by an image of the peasant as successful entrepreneur in the marketplace. And agriculture is reconceived as one more aspect of an economy dominated by the productive relations of capitalism. The increased porosity of the nation-state with the globalization of the political economy further permits, if it does not encourage, the transnationalization of the “peasant.”27

Alexander Day’s discussion in Chapter 4 of the post-1978 Chinese discourses on the peasant shows clearly that neither the naming of the “peasantry” nor the evaluation of its consequences is politically innocent. Recognition of the consequences of capitalism or the city for the countryside does not require surrender to its inevitability or to its self-image of progress. The peasant as the symbol of an alternative mode of existence continues to inspire the search for an alternative to the capitalist transformation of the city and the countryside. Potter’s discussion of disagreements over “property regimes” indicates that the issue remains to be settled among Chinese leaders. More eloquent is the resistance of the peasantry to forced incorporation in the international division of labor, as discussed for China, Latin America, India, and Africa in the essays by Wen Tiejun and Dong Zhenghua, Alejandro Rojas and Fabio Cabarcas, Utsa Patnaik, and Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros.28 The issue in these cases is not just a romantic attachment to the image of the peasant, but the association of the figure of the peasant with essential human needs, chief among them food security.29 Rojas’s argument is particularly interesting in its insistence that even if the peasantry disappears, it is important to preserve “peasant knowledge,” which may be crucial to overcoming the ecological difficulties the world faces. The “peasant,” albeit a very different kind of peasant, continues to stand for an alternative to the surrender of the most basic human needs to corporate agriculture and a new kind of accommodation between the city and the countryside.

 
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