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Subsistence agriculture - Wikiwand
Actions Shares. Embeds 0 No embeds. In this transition there are governments and banks gambling big money that millennia are not needed before a world-straddling market economy emerges. Subsistence farmers traditionally grow most of what they eat, build the houses they live in from local materials, and make the clothes they wear independently from the marketplace. Their small surpluses go to harvest celebrations, or as tribute to the chief, prince, king, or other leader who provides relief supplies in the event of famine.
Indeed, what is produced by subsistence farmers never even has a market price put on it. But life was good for farmers with access to hoes, plows, unclaimed arable land, and rainfall; in good years there was enough food to support a rapidly expanding population. In better years there was something left over that could be traded for minor luxuries, or offered as tribute to a potentially rapacious warlord.
And so, across the millennia, values, norms, and culture emerged to justify and accommodate the nature of subsistence farming. First was loyalty to kin, and tribute to a feudal leader who maintained the famine socks and organized defense.
The abstract nation-states, citizenship, and market principles of the economists and politicians were yet to be invented as the organizing principle for larger societies. In short, subsistence peasants, while vulnerable to catastrophe, were more independent of the marketplace than we moderns. If markets failed, life on the farm was more uncomfortable, but there was still food to eat, and a place to live. In the modern market though, market failure means that unpaid workers are evicted from their houses or unable to buy food.
Subsistence farmers, when viewed from this perspective, had it quite good as long as land was plentiful and rains came. Marx complained that like potatoes in a sack, no peasant household was much different from any other. Nineteenth century European factories initiated this transition by hiring masses of former peasants to work in textile mills, meat packing plants, mono-crop agriculture, and the other specialized assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution in which skilled workers do a single simplified task, but do it efficiently.
Given that this is such a massive project, it is perhaps surprising that it occurred in many countries in only a matter of decades or a century, rather than the millennia of the first transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agrarian populations. Nevertheless, this transition is not yet over. It is continuing in the third world today, as the subsistence peasants continue to defeat the plans and prophecies of hyper-educated economists, politicians, and planners.
Emerging out of scattered hunter-gatherer communities 8,, years ago, they settled down in fertile river valleys where they raised more human food per hectare than nature had ever produced for their forbearers. As hoe wielding farmers cleared the land, rapid population growth resulted from the increases in food production. Surpluses, though small by modern standards, still eventually supported great empires in places like Ancient Egypt, Rome, China, Europe, and the Americas. But life and culture were similar for the vast majority who remained on the farm, growing and consuming what they needed to eat, building housing, producing clothing, and having children.
In this context, rarely did more than ten or twenty percent of all production enter the marketplace—the bulk of consumption remained on-farm where peasant families, each doing the same thing as the other, continued to resemble that unrevolutionary sack of potatoes which so frustrated Marx. Take a potato out of the sack, and the bag is still a sack of potatoes, just a little lighter. Take a smaller specialized piece out of a specialized machine, and not only is the machine only a little lighter, but it also might not work.
But it is not painless for the peasant whose old way of life is slowly destroyed, family loyalties dissipated, land appropriated, clans disrupted, and replaced too often with life in the urban slums of modern industrial cities. However, following English military victories in , a new way of looking at the land emerged.
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Clan chiefs siding with the British were granted personal title to the clan lands, while at the same time new factories demanded wool, flax, and labor. In this context, expropriation of Scottish peasant lands occurred by hook and by crook across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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Threats of famine pushed former peasants into factory towns where they became the new urban working class. When the bright lights of the labor market were not alluring enough, sheriffs and military often played a prominent role. And as the survivors gained market skills needed in the rough urban environment, they lost subsistence skills and the old way of life: No longer could they grow their own food, or build their own stone houses even had they been so inclined.
And so when the European peasants arrived in North America in the eighteenth century, many left for the nearby forest where it appeared they might resume life as a subsistence peasantry. In fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not only the Scottish peasantry fled to the North American forest, but also English, German, French, and others displaced European peasants.
A paradigmatic example of the consequences of such rapid demographic growth is the frontiersman Daniel Boone. In his long life , Boone hunted, and cleared farms across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri along with his 13 siblings, 10 children, and more than 60 grandchildren. For a time of course, subsistence farmers like Boone even made it in the rough land markets of Kentucky where he settled in the s.
But like millions of other rural peasants dabbling in the unfamiliar impersonal marketplace with its emphasis on cash rather than the handshakes, Boone was conned by land speculators from the city. Fortunately for him, there was still land left further west in Spanish Missouri, to where he moved his clan in And as in Scotland, the actual profits, and the land itself, slowly but surely made its way into the hands of the newly emerging investors who controlled the government, banks, law firms, and land offices.
Most dramatically, what was in a remote trading village for hunters—Chicago—by was a large modern industrial town, coordinating the production of maize, wheat, lumber, cattle, and hogs across several states. Just like in Scotland, in North America the peasants were slowly but surely moved onward—into factories, production for the market, or further west.
As in Scotland, the movement was facilitated by urban market power in the form of land speculators and bankers—whose eviction notices were backed up by the sheriff. It will be no surprise to readers of Current Intelligence that markets are enormously successful in concentrating and increasing economic productivity. We are very much part of the finely-tuned world in which labor is specialized, and worldwide trade is critical. But even Bono, Thomas Friedman, and Jeffrey Sachs likely have ancestors who in the recent past were such self-sufficient farmers.
In place of subsistence farms are the large corporate and government bureaucracies who use the invisible hand of the marketplace to produce for the world.
The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture
But to say that this happened, is not to say the process was just, nor came without suffering. In pockets of Asia, Latin America and especially Africa peasant clans are still often like those Marx compared to a bag of potatoes: similar to each other, and not particularly suited to a fine division of labor. But like the peasants in Scotland or even Daniel Boone, they resist with the tools of the subsistence peasant: high birth rates, clearing land, reliance on clan loyalty, and demands for relief commodities when crops fail.
The problem is that few development bureaucrats or businessmen see Africa in terms familiar to its subsistence peasantry, i.
Rather they see it in terms of its incapacity to produce for a global marketplace in which land and labor are capital. Thus African development programs are typically about the tools and measures of the marketplace, like trade balances, currency stability, mineral production, agricultural extension, clothing manufacture, and oil. Unseen in such analyses are the subsistence peasants who are effectively invisible because they primarily produce outside the global market.
In this context, they will always frustrate the highest ideals of the development agencies. The way they frustrate the modern marketplace is through the same messiness seen in eighteenth century Scotland, and nineteenth century North America. They have babies who as young men and women eventually push into forest reserves, national parks, and other cash-producing concessions only lightly policed by the central government. And when these traditional strategies no longer work, the survivors demand relief supplies from their patrons, just as surely as Scottish peasants asserted rights to famine relief from patron clan chiefs in the eighteenth century Highlands.
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And perhaps most threatening, when land does indeed run out, the peasantry creates vast numbers of youth who no longer have access to land for a subsistence life, and few market skills of interest in urban labor markets. And ominously, these displaced youth are the targets of extremists seeking to create the militias needed for the type of revolution Marx dreamed of. There are of course advantages to modern neo-classical economic models: They do predict how people embedded in the marketplace respond to incentives.
Today though, the trick is knowing which farmer is embedded in the marketplace, and which in older persistent ways of thinking about economic life. The former will respond to incentives in manners development bureaucrats will understand. But for those still embedded in older subsistence ethics, the bureaucrats encounter people who do not remain at factory benches consistently, hire based on clan loyalties, appeal to personal relationships in the awarding and repayment of loans, lose their land to hucksters, and withdraw from confrontation when working conditions become onerous. Most frustrating for the bureaucrats are the emphases on the age-old method of resistance; especially having more children than the development bureaucrats think economically wise.
And of course when food shortage looms, they look to the new patrons in the aid bureaucracies for relief supplies. Such techniques, whether called peasant stubbornness, resistance, weapons of the weak, or simple laziness are in fact the old means used to resist the intrusion of the outside world into the older world of the subsistence peasant.