The New Peasantries: Struggle for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization

review by Elizabeth Henderson

In the great cauldron of ideas that stew in our brains, mix Resilient Agriculture with New Peasantries. It may seem far-fetched to bring in peasants, but I urge you to set aside whatever bias you may have about peasants as backwards and primitive, and focus on what you can learn from land-based people who have survived for millennia. After all, organic farming as most of us know it in the NOFA world, grew out of peasant practices in Europe and India. Sir Albert (one of Rodale’s teachers) and Rudolf Steiner (inspiration for Biodynamics) both studied peasant farming, Sir Albert in India and Rudolf in Austria. Most likely, none of the farmers Laura Lengnick interviewed for her book would identify as peasants, yet the practices they use and the changes they are making on their farms to better adapt to climate change follow from the peasant principles and design ideas as delineated by van der Ploeg.

He highlights peasant emphasis on craft, their own talents and capacities, making choices calculated for long-term results instead of quick profits, less cash and more human effort, working closely with nature, using the resources at hand instead of imported inputs or outside financing. “By slowly improving the quality and productivity of the key resources – land, animals, crops, buildings, irrigation infrastructure, knowledge, etc. – and by means of a meticulous fine-tuning of the process of production and a continuous re-patterning of relations with the outside world, peasants strive for and eventually obtain the means for enlarging their autonomy and improving the resources base of their farm units.” Where all too many in our modern world look down on peasants and view peasant work as repetitive and unskilled, van der Ploeg elevates the value of daily work in nature – skill constantly growing through observation and practice. He defines this as co-production – “the ongoing interaction and mutual transformation of man and living nature.” The organic and biodynamic emphasis on the farm as a whole, integrated organism where you reduce outside inputs to the greatest extent possible is a peasant way of patterning.

Most of The New Peasantries is devoted to stories of peasant struggles to avoid control by globalized multinational corporate agribusiness, the forces of what van der Ploeg calls “Empire,” in Latin American, Italy and Holland. No longer does Empire operate by conquest and occupation. Instead, it imposes

sets of generalized rules and parameters that govern specific local practices. These sets of generalized rules represent the core of Empire. As a result, Empire … takes over once relatively autonomous and self-governed local constellations …and reassembles them in a way that ensures controllability and exploitability. In so doing, it eliminates the local, transforming it into a ‘non-place’”.

To illustrate Empire’s ruthless quest for dominance, he recounts the remarkable story of Parmalat’s attempt to foist on the public “Fresh blue milk,” highly processed milk protein that is not fresh and consists of molecules derived from actual milk.

In this era of corporate dominance, many in NOFA will relate to van der Ploeg’s descriptions of peasant distrust of outside interference, their resistance to both industry and government regulation and their constant striving for autonomy, what we would call farmer freedom. In his analysis, peasants concentrate on and sometimes defend fiercely the area that they can control: “…the labor process is a very important arena of social struggle for the peasantry. … Social struggle is also to be seen in the sturdy striving to improve available resources, making small adaptations which together contribute to the creation of better well-being, improved incomes and brighter prospects. Cooperation is often a key mechanism in this respect.” Though his language is often dense, van der Ploeg’s recognition of everyday actions as acts of resistance underlines the significance of all the little tasks involved in growing and distributing food through direct sales. When consumers support our farms, they join in this resistance and together producers and consumers connect with peasant farmers around the world.

In designing our farms and deciding whether to adopt new technologies or marketing approaches, we would do well to examine each new silver bullet with a peasant’s distrust born out of millennia of surviving in hostile environments. In their relations with markets, peasants try to avoid dependency and “to allow for maximum flexibility, fluidity and autonomy.” Trade-offs and compromises are often necessary in the face of the general tendency in the global economy to unequal and deteriorated conditions of sale, rising costs and worsening terms of trade. Like peasants, we may do better having a family member work off the farm, or engaging in more “entrepreneurial” marketing, scaling up to sell to larger stores or processors. In analyzing choices, peasant questions would serve us well – Where does it come from? Where will it lead? What are the costs and benefits? Who will reap the fruit? How to expand the wiggle-room for our own control and autonomy? Success is never guaranteed. In farming there is no tenure. The potential for failure is everywhere. So we must make our decisions carefully with full awareness of pitfalls and unintended consequences.

Combined with Whole Farm Planning, these two books suggest a way to improve decision making on existing farms and training for new farmers. And they offer hope that, as van der Ploeg puts it, “through hard work, cooperation, joint actions and/or overt struggles, progress might be wrought.”