III Tricontinental Perspectives

Primitive Accumulation and the Peasantry in the Present Era of Neoliberalism with Reference to the Indian Experience

Utsa Patnaik

The proposition that the advanced country constitutes for the developing one a mirror of its own future is not true as regards the fate of the peasantry. The Third World peasantry will not disappear but will resist successfully the current attacks on it. In today’s advanced countries, petty production virtually did disappear as agricultural relations were capitalistically transformed in the course of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “agricultural revolution” preceding and accompanying industrialization. One can question whether the term “revolution” can be applied at all given that capitalist agrarian transformation was accompanied by increasing import dependence for vital primary products. A striking fact of history is the endemic inability of large-scale capitalist agriculture to meet to an adequate extent the needs of expanding industry for wage- goods, raw materials, and energy, hence an endemic inability to maintain Northern living standards without some form of forced or induced trade, both in the past and at present. Today’s advanced countries historically relied heavily for wage goods and raw materials on primary imports from colonially subjugated areas, where slave-based and indentured-labor-based plantation systems were developed to export to Europe the tropical crops that it could never produce. In the Indian case, there was heavy taxation of peasants and direct use of taxes to purchase export goods. These primary imports into Europe, vital for its industrial growth and for diversifying consumption, were the commodity equivalent of taxes and rents wrung from subjugated Third World populations and so represented unilateral transfers, not normal trade. The export of capital from Europe to develop North America and other areas of recent European migrant settlement was also crucially dependent on the balance of payment flexibility imparted by the control over exchange earnings of the colonies. Further, capitalist industrialization inevitably implied rising domestic unemployment as technical change rapidly displaced labor, but because large-scale out-migration took place from industrializing Europe to regions of recent settlement, economic crisis and political tensions at the core of capitalism were defused. Today’s advanced countries exported their unemployment in the past not only through out-migration but also through the export of goods to colonially subjugated markets, inducing deindustrialization in them. I have argued elsewhere that Ricardo’s theory—that mutual benefit for both trading countries necessarily arises from specialization and trade—contains a fatal logical error and represents an intellectual rationalization of an international division of labor that was not voluntarily entered into by today’s Third World countries.1

The historical conditions under which today’s advanced countries industrialized are so specific and indeed unique, that Third World countries cannot possibly replicate them. The unemployment situation these nations face is worse today owing to the ever-falling labor intensity of production, which implies not only jobless growth but also job loss growth in the most advanced manufacturing sectors. Unemployment is endemic to capitalist production driven by technical change in today’s developing countries, but millions of peasants today have nowhere to migrate to and little possibility of absorption into the secondary sector. Large labor-surplus developing economies like India and China, in particular, do not have the choice of seizing entire continents from indigenous inhabitants to export their population increment abroad or of financing their capital formation through transfers from other nations without impacting their own domestic mass consumption. They have to solve their unemployment and livelihood problems primarily through expansion of their own internal market in forms that represent a drastic modification of the classical capitalist paradigm. The unemployment problems of developing nations cannot be solved through standard forms of industrialization, which destroy small-scale production, because in a trade open world, competitiveness demands highly capital-intensive technology with very low or zero elasticity of employment with respect to output.2

The old primitive accumulation of capital concerned seizure of primary resources, including energy resources, from today’s Third World countries and the lone temperate colony, Ireland. A new phase of primitive accumulation of capital is visible today with a renewed thrust from advanced nation corporations to access tropical lands through contract systems formally subsuming the peasantry under capital, or through outright land acquisition. This thrust complements the struggle to control world energy resources. From exclusive reliance on fossil fuels, capital is turning once more to the land to fill energy supply deficits. All this necessarily entails an attack on both the food security and asset possession of petty producers, and it generates bitter resistance from them. This paper briefly documents the developments in India under neoliberal reforms and argues at the end that the peasantry is resisting the attacks on it, with responses that are beginning to turn from passive forms of resistance like suicides to active forms like opposition to acquisition of their land by the government and corporations. These forms have the potential of undermining the political stability of Third World countries. Therefore, democratic governments will be obliged to modify their present uninformed and unwise pursuit of a growth strategy that seeks to imitate today’s advanced nations with no regard to the specificity of their own livelihood and unemployment problems. Alternative strategies that generate livelihoods and genuine development for the majority must necessarily incorporate the preservation of petty production but on the basis of cooperation permitting higher productivity.

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