Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fetishizing the Peasant

Peasants into Frenchmen is a classic text in a niche field that hits at the very central problem of modernity: how does a nation convert its population from subsistence farmers into modern citizens? This problem is as old as the concept of citizen itself: it is easy to have a collective identity within a city, and urbanites have formed the early core of states since we have had states, and in many cases a dominating city has gone on to found or anchor empires and civilizations. There's a clear urban bent in history, which makes sense given that cities had the wealth and literacy to devote to writing history.

Outside the city, life for most people, throughout most of human history, has been very much the same: live in a village, grow as much as you can, hope the crops don't fail and the taxes aren't too high and that the neighbors don't raid, and then survive to do it all again next year. There is a simplicity to this, a romanticism, that emerges almost exclusively in urbanites at least three generations removed from having to live like this.

It is seemingly without any knowledge of this history and informed by romantic notions filtered through the modern environmental movement that articles like this are written. Subsistence farmers are, in the strictest sense, "locavores," but very rarely are they so by choice. It is, instead, a lifestyle adopted by necessity, or maintained when they are no seen to be no viable alternatives.

Pushing for development away from subsistence farming, maligned here as the specific failing of USAID programs in Afghanistan, has been the whole project of modernization for the last several hundred years. In The Great Transformation, economist Karl Polanyi documents the century of legal changes it took to provoke small-time farmers in England to give up their farms and take jobs elsewhere. The labor-intensive nature of agriculture has traditionally hindered nations in their attempts to pursue any other path of economic development, whether it be the command systems of Soviet Russia and Communist China or market economies of the West. Encouraging development in other directions is not about trying to destroy what is unique in Afghanistan, but is instead about understanding what the term development means.

No comments: