The purpose of a volume such as this one is not just to chronicle and illustrate a historical teleology but also to make some slight contribution to the imagination of alternatives to it—unless we are convinced that the world at hand is the best of all possible worlds and talk of alternatives is merely a form of intellectual mischief. The contemporary preoccupation with alternatives on a wide range of fronts may be taken itself as manifestation of a sense of crisis. The crisis of agriculture is foremost among the many crises that we face. There is no single alternative appropriate to all of the societies discussed here, not to speak of the many more that are beyond the purview of this volume. The same forces may be compelling changes globally, but what effect they have locally is a product of their interactions with the circumstances of concrete localities. As the problems differ, they also demand different solutions. To ignore this is to fall in with the universalist self-images of neoliberal capitalism, or to fall back on the similarly informed universalist prescriptions of an earlier socialism.
But neither should local particularities be allowed to conceal the forces at work globally. Local interactions have been at work all along. We need also to uncover what is novel about the forces that are giving them a new power and direction, for the same tendencies would seem to be at work globally, regardless of local variations due to social, political, and cultural circumstances. The problems of China and Bolivia may be quite different, but they also have a commonality: the disappearance of the countryside under the force of a relentless urbanization, itself empowered by the global motions of capital. The disappearance of the countryside evacuates rural populations into urban areas, while opening up rural areas to more efficient modes of production, which inevitably under the hegemonic corporate paradigm favors size and corporate management over small-scale family farming. The result is more evacuation. Local differences are not inconsistent with parallel trajectories, as the following statement suggests:
For most peasant farmers in Mexico, Asia has always seemed literally and figuratively a world apart. But when Uthai Sa Artchop of Thailand described how transnational corporations sought to patent and control their varieties of rice seed, Mexican peasants realized that the Thais’ rice was their corn. When Indonesian farmer Tejo Pramono spoke of how remittances from sons and daughters working in Hong Kong and the
Middle East subsidize a dying countryside, Mexican farmers thought of their own
relatives forced to migrate to the United States.30
Commonalities are not restricted to such parallel developments. As the market dependency that “de-ruralizes” agrarian societies becomes globalized, societies around the world face critical new risks. Rural areas no doubt may flourish with increased access to urban markets, as some economists argue (as one of the participants in the Institute, Ashok Kotwal, did). But the globalization of agrarian products brings with it new uncertainties and risks. Dependency on long-distance urban markets makes rural livelihood subject to fluctuations in demand in faraway places and other unforeseeable contingencies.31 The commercialization of production most importantly creates uncertainties in access to food, as food production is commercialized and subject to global circulation like any other agricultural commodity. The disappearance of peasant farming in a country like China leaves commercial farming as the most likely outcome (discussed in Chapter 7 by Dong Zhenghua). Urban encroachment on farmland (through communications requirements and real estate development) reduces already meager arable land. On the other hand, agricultural activity is “exported” as China obtains land in Africa and South America to supply food needs, and maybe even to compete on the global food market. The ecological consequences of this activity are highly uncertain. So are the social consequences. Already, the provision of male workers to urban development has depleted villages of adult males, with debilitating consequences for both family and village structure. Such separation, needless to say, also takes place on a global scale. The “de-peasantization” of the countryside is accompanied inevitably by the “peasantization” of the city and the burdens it imposes on urban management and sustainability. For now, as Mike Davis has argued, rural population has no choice but to pour into growing slum populations around the globe. Some countries like China have managed to avoid slum growth through social controls, as well as the legacies of organization that enable self-organization among migrants. That, too, presents new challenges to urban governance.32 Advocates of globalization cannot have it both ways. The globalization of the economy brings in its wake the globalization of its problems, which have acquired serious dimensions with the urbanization of agrarian societies.
Given these circumstances, efforts to resolve these problems can no longer be restricted to the defense of agrarian society, but need to confront issues across the full spectrum of the urban-rural nexus. This is indeed the case with social movement organizations such as Via Campesina. Responding to critics who view “peasant mobilization” as nostalgic reaction to “modern society,” Philip McMichael has written that organizations like Via Campesina seek to transcend “conventional peasant politics, reframing its ontological concerns via a critique of neoliberalism, and reformulating the agrarian question in relation to development exigencies today.”33 The exigencies that have received the greatest attention from contemporary rural social movements include massive destitution in the countryside and its extension into city slums, ecological issues raised by urbanization as well as the commercialization of agriculture, the dangers of genetically modified crops, the plight of women and indigenous peoples, breakdown of social institutions, cultural dissolution, and, as keys to the solution of all of the above, food sovereignty and the right to land.34 Many of these, it needs to be underlined, are problems not just of the countryside but also of the city—and the global political economy of which it is at once producer and product. The resolution of these problems at their most fundamental will require overhauling the global political economy and the direction it has taken with the globalization of neoliberal technocratic principles.
If decline is reversed and the countryside once again is recognized as the crucial location for the solution of not only rural but also urban problems, it will likely have a spatial organization quite unlike that of the village or the individual family farmer. The peasant, too, is not likely to resemble any social subject associated with that term. To say what the outcome may be in either case would be difficult. The only thing possible to say with some certainty presently is that the subjection of the countryside to the rule of the neoliberal market economy is likely to produce more of the problems that threaten welfare not only in the countryside but also in the city. People’s struggles to overcome this threat quite appropriately have brought together urban and rural activists united in a single struggle, which draws its inspiration from long-held beliefs in the countryside as a source of welfare and contentment but promises an alternative future that is very much refracted through the realities of the present. Top-down projects of “the ecological city” or “rubanisation,” referred to above, are also most likely to be successful only in alliance with these struggles from the bottom, and not against them in accordance with the dictates of placeless global capital.