Peasants vs. Markets

I wrote about Alan Knight’s scholarship here a few days ago and it is so rich a text I know it will be providing me with blog fodder for the next few weeks! His Mexico: The Colonial era also includes a brief rundown of a debate in peasant studies that focused on what effect growing markets have on peasant economies. Specifically, in Mexico the demographic collapse of the native population through disease weakened the old encomienda labor system in which a Spaniard ruler was allocated a native tribe who would be obligated to provide a surplus of food and craft goods. The repartimiento system was also an important compulsory labor service that natives were accustomed to performing from the Aztec times as indian chieftains or caciques would allocate so many laborers to a Spaniard for a certain amount of time. This practice was eventually was outlawed in 1633. But as mines started to be developed in the northern regions and also haciendas, or large agricultural plantations, to serve the growing towns, wage labor began to slowly outpace other forms. It is the growth of this wage labor and market relations against tradition peasant formations that is questioned in the literature. This is the “classic” problem of the historical transition of a self-sustaining peasant economy under the stress of economic mutations.

Wage labor in Mexico in the late 16th and throughout the 17th centuries was one method used to recruit labor to work in a competitive demographic environment. Knight then describes how this phenomenon in Mexico illuminates a wider debate in peasant studies and the study of historical change:

Scholarly battle has periodically been joined between, on the one hand, scholars who tend to see the spread of the market and free labour as heightening peasant exploitation (hence, they suggest, peasants cling to older, paternalistic or pre-capitalist forms, expressive, perhaps, of a ‘moral economy’ and resist the capricious and pernicious penetration of market relations) and, on the other hand, scholars who regard the market, which peasants enter as sellers of both goods and labour, as emancipatory, as freeing peasants from coercive, paternalistic authority, and as permitting them economic advancement, even cultural liberation.

Knight then footnotes the end of this paragraph thus:

The classic debate pitted Scott, Moral Economy, against Samuel L. Popkin, The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (Berkeley, 1979). McCloskey, ‘The Economics of Choice: Neoclassical Supply and Demand’ weighs in for Popkin and berates ‘the baleful influence’ of Scott, Polanyi and Chayanov; his contribution, characteristically bullish but unconvincing, is based on the dubious notion that a rational (neoclassical) economic actor, parachuted into a feudal society (as described by the baleful trio) would make a killing (‘buying low from one set of fools in order to sell high to another’) rather than be killed.

Knight takes the middle path in this debate and simply concludes that “neither side has a monopoly on the truth” and that the history of the rise of agrarian capitalism tends to show that these market forces tend to fracture peasant communities apart. The result can be a new strata of profit-makers such as the yeoman farmers of England, or the kulaks in Russia who create a new class of market-minded producers and owners, though results vary of course from region to region, with many specificities and regional nuances. This “debate” over the winners and losers, the beneficiaries and victims of the breakup of peasant economies in the face of growing markets will of course depend on the sample of data one is researching, its breadth, and the duration of the length of the transition one is studying.

Clearly in the Mexican process the disaster of foreign conquest and disease created the conditions in which the extremely hierarchical and class-stratified society of the Aztecs was almost flattened by the invasion of the Spanish. This would not just be a peasant economy under transition, such as in Vietnam which Scott and Popkin argue over, but an entire society in the process of near-disintegration. An analogy perhaps could be made with the post-Black Death scenario of the late 14th century in Europe, which Robert Brenner sees as the catalyst which induces extremely varying regional reactions by the peasantry and lords (varying reactions which ‘prove’ that varying strengths of class struggle can determine historical directions and trends). To compare the Mexican situation with Brenner’s analysis of Europe is too great a task for this short blog post, but a project that I hope Knight’s book can elucidate as I read more of his work.

To return the ‘debate’ over peasant rationality– Here is James C. Scott describing his own work in an interview:

‘Moral Economy’ was an argument about rational choice, that the problem of peasants was the danger of going under and its consequences were catastrophic; as agriculturalists they choose different crops, planning schedules, soil conditions etc., and spread their bets in a series of prudent economic strategies; they don’t maximize their yield in the way that modern capitalists would, but minimize the danger of going under; my argument was that they also had a whole series of social arrangements that do the same thing – about the sharing of harvests, the forced charity within the village so that big men have to distribute surpluses – so had a set of arrangements that were organized again, not to maximize production but minimize social danger to individuals in the community; these gradually broke down with capitalist markets and the colonial tax systems; …. my book begins with Tawney’s metaphor of the peasantry situation being like a man up to his chin in water so that even a ripple is sufficient to drown him; the title of my book was ‘The Subsistence Ethic and Peasant Politics’ or something like that; then I was convinced by having read ‘Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ by Edward Thompson to use “moral economy” in the title; I think it was a mistake in the long run because it suggested to people who didn’t read the book carefully that I had a series of altruistic peasants who were not operating rationally; underlined by Popkin calling his book ‘The Rational Peasant’

The ensuing debate essentially boils down to neoclassically minded thinkers (and capitalist apologists) such as Popkin and McCloskey accusing their theoretical opponents of “not treat[ing] the dead with due respect.” Peasants, these neoclassical thinkers argue, are rational beings who are going to want to maximize ____ instead of remain content with the status quo. So we have a struggle over competing views of human nature, one in which a peasant or economic actor is ‘free to choose’ among several options, while of course constrained by several variables; the other in which the peasant or economic actor is beholden to tradition, or even subordination and necessity. McCloskey can accuse Scott, Polyani and Chayanov of having a ‘baleful’ influence because these thinkers supposedly strip the economic actor of the ability to choose, to better his life, to make it in the world, a view which is the theoretical foundation of neoclassical economics. In the case of Chayanov, who was eventually shot by Stalin, his view of the peasantry was that the family would only create as much food and crafts as would be absolutely necessary for their own reproduction. There was little production of surplus in order to create for the market and better one’s lot–

I’ll have to do more research on Chayanov’s work but it seems like a fruitful zone of study in light of Brenner? Chayanov saw the difficulty of peasants’ supposed transition into capitalist market economies, which is essentially Brenner’s view as well. I believe that it is this position of peasant intransigeance, which Stalin saw as ignoring the class stratification inside peasant economies (Kulaks, etc) that led to Chayanov becoming an enemy of the state. The peasant question is the stumbling block of the Russian Revolution, and that a theoretical dispute over the peasantry would have such varying responses speaks to the importance this debate holds for theories of history and political struggle as well.

I can only once again thank Alan Knight for foregrounding these debates in his Mexico book–

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