[OPE] "the demise of the global peasantry"

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Tue May 27 2008 - 20:10:31 EDT

Well, at least in Western Europe, the peasantry largely disappeared as a distinct social class. I mean, the farmers that remain are only one or a few percent of the population, and typically operate on a
capitalist basis. 

In Europe (EU27) there are about 12 million farm operatives, in the USA 3 million farm operatives, and in Japan about 2.3 million farm operatives. FAO data suggest that in 2004, out of a world population of 6.38 billion, the "agricultural population" (living on the land) was 2.6 billion or about 41%. In that mass of 2.6 billion, only about 3% are agricultural wage workers (employees). 

For more data on the urban/rural population split, see e.g. http://www.xist.org/earth/pop_urbancnt.aspx  http://www.xist.org/earth/pop_urban.aspx
According to ILO data, "In 2007, the service sector pulled further ahead of agriculture in contributing to employment in the world. The service sector now provides 42.7 per cent of jobs in the world, whereas agriculture accounts for only 34.9 per cent. Th e industry sector, which had seen a slight downward trend between 1997 and 2003, has continued a rather slow upward trend in more recent years. In 2007, 22.4 per cent of jobs were found in this sector. In 2007, five out of ten people who worked were either contributing family workers or own-account workers".  http://www.ilo.org/public/english/employment/strat/download/get08.pdf

Employment in agriculture as % share of total employment (ILO data, same source)

World  34.9% 
Developed Economies and European Union 3.9% 
Central and South-Eastern Europe (non-EU) & CIS 19.5% 
East-Asia  38.4% 
South-East Asia and the Pacific  43.9% 
South Asia  48.0% 
Latin America and the Caribbean  19.1% 
Middle East 17.5% 
North Africa 32.8%
Sub-Saharan Africa  64.7%

Asia accounts for half of all the new jobs created in the world, and this presumably also involves a very significant process of transformation of peasants into wage earners. 

Marx commented among other things:

But the dependence of the cultivation of particular agricultural products upon the fluctuations of market-prices, and the continual changes in this cultivation with these price fluctuations - the whole spirit of capitalist production, which is directed toward the immediate gain of money are in contradiction to agriculture, which has to minister to the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of successive generations. A striking illustration of this is furnished by the forests, which are only rarely managed in a way more or less corresponding to the interests of society as a whole, i.e., when they are not private property, but subject to the control of the state. http://www.marxfaq.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch37.htm
The moral of history, also to be deduced from other observations concerning agriculture, is that the capitalist system works against a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch06.htm

The question is really in what way this has really been valid - in particular, given that forced collectivisation of the peasantry has typically meant lower productivity, and that a peasant is often vastly more productive on his or her own plot of land. 

Ronald Reagan for example saw superior farm productivity as the proof of the superiority of US capitalism over Soviet socialism - of course he abstracted from differences in social and demographic structure, climatic conditions and soil conditions, and from the fact that US agricultural advances owed quite a bit to European, Latin American and Russian technology. The United States never had any very significant military war fought on its own territory since the civil war, whereas the CIS republics went through two very bloody world wars plus a number of smaller scale armed conflicts, plus famines and epidemics decimating the cream of the working population and wiping out a lot of farmland.
As regards the global picture, Samir Amin comments:

Capitalist agriculture governed by the principle of return on capital, which is localized almost exclusively in North America, Europe, Australia, and in the Southern Cone of Latin America employs only a few tens of millions of farmers who are no longer peasants. Because of the degree of mechanization and the extensive size of the farms managed by one farmer, their productivity generally ranges between 1 to 2 million kilograms (2 and 4.5 million pounds) of cereals per farmer. In sharp contrast, three billion farmers are engaged in peasant farming. Their farms can be grouped into two distinct sectors, with greatly different scales of production, economic and social characteristics, and levels of efficiency. One sector, able to benefit from the green revolution, obtained fertilizers, pesticides, and improved seeds and has some degree of mechanization. The productivity of these peasants ranges between 10,000 and 50,000 kilograms (20,000 and 110,000 pounds) of cereals per year. However, the annual productivity of peasants excluded from new technologies is estimated to be around 1,000 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of cereals per farmer. The ratio of the productivity of the most advanced capitalist segment of the world's agriculture to the poorest, which was around 10 to 1 before 1940, is now approaching 2000 to 1! That means that productivity has progressed much more unequally in the area of agriculture and food production than in any other area. Simultaneously this evolution has led to the reduction of the relative prices of food products (in relation to other industrial and service products) to one fifth of what they were fifty years ago. The new agrarian question is the result of that unequal development. http://www.monthlyreview.org/1003amin.htm


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