THE RETURN OF AGRARIAN CATASTROPHE THEORY

The world’s peasantries, of course, have not died. Even Hobsbawm had to admit that, at the time of his writing in 1995, the global “regions of peasant dominance”—Africa, South and Southeast Asia, China—“still represented half the human race.”16 The Chinese debate about this is instructive. For China, the best evidence for the possibility that peasants might someday disappear was the official statistic that their numbers had dropped from 849.9 million people in 1992 (roughly 72 percent of the population) to 745.3 million people in 2005 (57 percent).17 But as one senior Chinese agrarian economist warned, in terms of household registration status, China’s agrarian population was really 949 million people in 2005; another 200 million peasants were living a precarious life in Chinese cities without having evolved into officially urban people. Chen Xiwen went on to assert that the vast scale of China’s rural population was historically unprecedented. Chinese elite planners could not find proper precedents for their policy-making anywhere in the past human experience of industrialization. Yet the conviction that they could was damaging the Chinese countryside. Some 20,000 natural villages were vanishing in China every year, as their lands were requisitioned for non-farming purposes, or their inmates were otherwise forced to flee as a result of natural disasters or expropriation for the construction of dams and reservoirs.18

China has never been a “typical” non-Western agrarian society. Compared to another big industrializing country like Brazil, for example, China has a worse ratio of people to available cultivable farmland, lower state investment in agriculture, and far weaker permitted mobilization (so far) of the rural poor to defend their own interests. Yet both China and Brazil have witnessed the growth of urban slums that are characterized by poverty, violence, and repression. Masses of slum-dwelling peasants with few citizenship rights live in such slums, into which they have been driven or enticed. In this sense, China may be regarded as a global trendsetter.

Elite planners and the social scientists who study their work accommodate the formation of these “postmodern” slums by referring to it as “quasi-urbanization” (zhun chengzhenhua in Chinese) or “peri-urbanization” or “de-peasantization.”19 Such terms often merely disguise a failed economic vision. The planners who employ these terms resemble portrait painters who can no longer bring themselves to paint completely idealized portraits of their ugly subjects but remain reluctant to paint their subjects as they really are, warts and all.

Others have not been so reticent. An historical catastrophe theorist, Mike Davis, published a horrifying book in 2006, Planet of Slums, which portrayed the alleged “death of the peasantry” as a nightmare, not as a development ideal. Davis wrote that gigantic increases in urbanization in Africa, Latin America, and Asia were nothing but “over-urbanization” promoted by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs. Periurban poverty was simply “the radical new face of inequality.” It led to a “grim human world largely cut off from the subsistence solidarities of the countryside” yet decoupled from genuine industrialization.20 A tour of multiple hells, Davis’s book compelled its readers to visit such sufferers as the one million poor people who used the tombs of Cairo’s City of the Dead for their “prefabricated housing.” Significantly, Davis proposed parallels between nineteenth-century colonialisms and the contemporary neoliberal globalization that turned rural poor people into urban squatters “surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.”21

Davis’s book takes its place as an event in the more general advance, in the early twenty-first century, of what has come to be known as agrarian catastrophe theory. Simply put, the catastrophe theorists suggest that, by the year 2050, there will be nine to ten billion people on the planet, and it will be necessary to feed them on the basis of less farmland, less water, less energy (at least of the present kind), and fewer chemicals. Among other things, such population increases mean that the global per capita availability of fresh water is likely, in 2050, to be only about one-quarter of what it was in 1950; numbers of underground water aquifers, from the Americas to North Africa to the Middle East to north China, are declining. And from the late 1980s, the global food output increases that exceeded population growth after 1945 have begun to show signs of lagging behind them.22

As Davis suggests, the rates of consumption of resources like grain or rice are affected by changes in class privilege, nationally and globally. The world could support a population of nine or ten billion people in 2050 if those people’s grain consumption rates resemble present-day Indian ones, but only two and a half billion people if all of them consume grain at the rate of contemporary Americans. The presumed link between consumption rates and class privilege is hardly new. At the dawn of the industrial age, a thinker of some importance wrote that the society he knew best was endangering itself by food and clothing consumption rates that it could not sustain; what was needed was for the elite of this society to control themselves better, by practicing greater consumer restraint. The thinker in question, who sounds not unlike the contemporary American catastrophist Lester Brown, was actually Hong Liangji (1746—1809), a Chinese scholar official of the Qing dynasty. In the West, catastrophe theory can be traced back to the Bible; but perhaps its time has arrived.

Land-poor countries that can afford to do so are trying to stave off food supply crises by outsourcing their agriculture. Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and the United Arab Emirates, but also South Korea and China, have bought or leased millions of hectares of arable land in such African countries as Madagascar, Zambia, and Mozambique to allow their agribusinesses to escape the consequences of dwindling farmland and real or potential water shortages at home. Outsourcing has an obvious resemblance to an old strategy of European colonialism. As early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, English advocates of the colonization of Ireland or Virginia saw such colonies as places for crop experimentation and for the export of “people poor and seditious.” Global modernity, as Arif Dirlik has argued, does not necessarily end colonialism so much as “deepen” and “reconfigure” it.23

Agrarian catastrophe thinkers’ grim forebodings raise questions about more than just the future security of the human food supply. Also at stake is the future of a particular dream of convergence among the world’s peoples, a “positivist theory of modernization,” traceable to the eighteenth-century Western Enlightenment. This theory proposed that all civilizations would gradually adopt the same general, rational, scientific, and liberal thought that industrialization required and would see their own future evolution by looking into a Western mirror.24 Just what would happen to those parts of the non-Western world that failed plausibly to see themselves in a Western mirror was left unclear. Western critics of this convergence doctrine, at least in the 1800s, tended to be racists. One London anthropological review in 1865, calling the Chinese people a “naturally non-progressive race,” claimed that they were utterly incapable of rising to Western standards of historical achievement.25

After World War II, the economist Alexander Gerschenkron reinforced the convergence dream by arguing that “backward” countries could industrialize more rapidly than their Western prototypes by borrowing the more “advanced” countries’ technologies. Gerschenkron conceded that the backward countries would need a powerful “ideology of delayed industrialization” to make the pains of industrialization easier to accept, such as “Saint Simonianism” or Marxism.26 Ironically, his own theory about the history-accelerating management of borrowed technology came, in many places, to take on aspects of such an encouraging ideology.

Now, however, innovative economists in China and elsewhere, for example Wen Tiejun, are concluding that the narrow thought of Western agricultural economics cannot guide the future of China’s 50,000 township governments, 700,000 administrative villages, and millions of surviving natural villages. Worse, the faith that it could inhibits a freer Chinese experimentation with new questions and answers concerning the future of farming.27 If this is true, the world faces more than just the challenge of overcoming the global vested interests whose behavior threatens to create food shortages. It also faces the challenge of how to reorient human reasoning about economic development in the aftermath of the rise of the “planet of slums.”

Such a reorientation would obviously call into question the persistence of an arbitrary and prejudiced definition of what is “modern” in human evolution. This definition, as much extraeconomic as economic, predates the industrial revolution. Ever since the 1500s, Western thinking about evolution has usually defined “modern” as being in a necessary opposition to all sorts of exotic nonmodern otherness, variously categorized as primitive, savage, Oriental, static, or underdeveloped. Unindustrialized farm producers with limited educations have, therefore, been readily conflated with aboriginals; both groups are seen as premodern anachronisms. (A French writer named Marie-Helene Lafon illustrated this point perfectly in 2007, when she published a novel about France’s remaining peasants, explicitly referring to them in the novel’s title as “The Last Indians.”)28 The definition could be called an ideology even, in the sense that it confuses empirical truths with normative prescriptions and hides the violence it directs toward peasants behind a front of supposed objectivity.

But such a reorientation would also need critically to examine something else. That would be the nature of the global impact, including its unintended consequences, of a cult of managerialism, the supposed “management sciences.” Ever since the American invention of that remarkable term “scientific management” about the year 1910, the world’s expanding class of industrial and academic managers has had a vested interest in promoting the arbitrary and prejudiced definition of “modern” just mentioned. After World War II, the managers, both in Soviet bloc countries and in capitalist democracies, promoted the gospel of big farms, which were thought to lend themselves better to intensified techniques of farm mechanization that would economize the use of human labor. They had less interest in the obvious fact that people-land ratios differed greatly in Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America from those of the Euro-American developmental ideal.

Big farms are a manager’s paradise. Small farms—especially small farming enterprises that are fragmented enough to allow the distribution of land to as many members of the community as possible—resist managers. They especially resist managers’ passion for standardization, which the industrial revolution generated. Yet even W. Arthur Lewis, the great theorist of dualism, warned that small farms were not, from the view of modern economics, necessarily irrational. Small farmers cultivated the land more intensively than big farmers. They worked harder than hired agricultural workers. And by not requiring managers, they avoided wasteful conflicts between management and its employees.29

 
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