Peasant Societies Research Paper

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By the latter part of the 20th century, most scholars of the peasantry agreed that global capitalism had a disintegrating effect on traditional agricultural societies. What they were at odds over was the issue of how such economies were changed, and the consequences of these changes. Formalists were of the opinion that the capitalist market improved individual well-being by rewarding farmers who adopted new economic behaviors and farming techniques to maximize productive yields and profits (Popkin, 1979). Substantivists contended that the appearance of capitalism had an adverse effect on the traditional value structure and practices in these communities by instituting new classes and outside alliances that undermined the preexisting system at the expense of the common person (Scott, 1977). Marxists argued that capitalism led to the differentiation of formerly integrated peasant societies into fragmented societies composed of competing individual farmers who became either better-off entrepreneurs or poor-wage workers. Or, they argued, if this polarization between two predominant and opposing classes does not occur, then the peasantry as a class, in itself, becomes a stratified, divisive, and unstable class because peasant farmers shift between capitalist and precapitalist relations of production in a transitional economy (Kahn & Llobera, 1981; Stoler, 1985).

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This research paper reviews the major debates on the nature and consequences of globalization and culture change in peasant societies, while speculating on the future of these societies. It is arranged accordingly: First, the origins of this disagreement in the classical literature on Marxism are reviewed. This is followed by a discussion of the successive substantivist versus formalist controversy. Finally, the modes of production debates that overtook and went beyond this controversy are examined and some conclusions are drawn.

Classical Theory and Debates

In the classical literature, scholars investigated the question, first raised by Karl Marx, of whether or not the effects of capitalism would result in the proletarianization and fragmentation of formerly integrated and, largely, self-sufficient peasant societies. Followers of Lenin argued that capitalist penetration would end by destroying and expropriating the peasantry, while Chayanov and his followers contended that, although this may sometimes be the case, it is not necessarily so. Terry Cox (1986) explains that Lenin initially theorized that class differences occurred in peasant societies as a result of the penetration of capitalism. Lenin isolated the rise of capitalism as the root cause of inequality in the peasantries. According to his view, peasant involvement in commodity production led to the unequal distribution of the means of production between households. This began the process of class polarization and the proletarianization of those households with insufficient means of production.

Later, Lenin expounded a twofold explanation to account for varying forms of capitalist differentiations then occurring in the Russian countryside. He theorized that class differentiations occurred, first, through preexisting, internal divisions in the peasantry and, second, as a result of the process of changes already taking place on large-landed estates where peasants were acting collectively as a class on behalf of their own interests. Cox (1986) explains this as follows:

Agrarian Marxists’theoretical heritage was one which, despite hints to the contrary in Marx, tended to assume that inherent in the growth of commodity production in peasant agriculture was the necessary emergence of capitalist farming and, associated with it, the class differentiation of the peasants. (p. 19)

That is, unless farmers consciously resisted such tendencies, capitalism would develop as a result of the growth of commodity production in agriculture. Lenin drew on the existing statistical data on rural inequalities to argue that peasant societies represented a beginning stage in the development of the bourgeois and proletarian classes, but he did not yet mean that the peasantry was being divided into two separate and distinct classes.

Accordingly, differentiation in the peasantry, largely, came about as a result of differences in wealth between households who shared the same means of production or way of life, without regard to their position in the wider stratified social system. In contrast, Chayanov (1966) argued that differentiation seemed to occur among the peasantry in predictable cycles—that is, households were known to be relatively rich and relatively poor at different periods in their life history (pp. 249–250). Therefore, Chayanov minimized inequalities among peasants. He considered inequality to be intrinsic in peasant societies in a natural economy, and not necessarily a threat to the economy or a result of the introduction of capitalism. Yet, when Chayanov conducted his fieldwork, everywhere the peasantries were already involved in the capitalist market economy. Hence, Chayanov failed to recognize that if the peasantry becomes divided by capitalism, they face the danger of becoming a marginalized class of landless laborers or labor pool. With this, Lenin argued that peasants represented a preliminary stage in the development of agrarian bourgeois and proletarian classes. But Chayanov refused to accept this view. He proposed that it was important to distinguish demographic differentiation from capitalist divisions taking place in the countryside. He also thought that it was important to treat distinct types of differentiation with particular methods and theories, and not to confuse them, which, ironically, he did (see Chayanov, 1966, pp. 249–250, 255).

Hence, Chayanov’s research came in for criticism and debate. Kritsman (as cited in Cox, 1986) found fault with Chayanovian theory for failing to place the peasants in the perspective of their wider economy. He argued that the general disintegration of the Russian countryside was a result of the war and revolution that was forcing former proletarians into subsistence farming to survive. He suggests that Chayanov mistook these farmers for peasant households persisting in a natural economy. Kritsman argued that Chayanov did not recognize that the outcome of war was an intertwining of different social and ideological structures, and that the most important question to ask was about how these different structures interact and affect each other. Cox (1986) clarifies that the Russian peasantry represented the petty bourgeoisie mass and the point of research was to distinguish how far this mass retained its basic homogeneity, and how far it was differentiating into discrete classes with different class interests. Alavi and Shanin (1982) put it this way: “Peasantries are new creations and not simply survivals of a pre-capitalist past that are conserved as such, to subserve capitalism” (p. 188). Once peasants become involved in the capitalist market economy, they exist in relation to it because they have lost their precapitalist moorings. According to his adversaries, Chayanov failed to understand the nature of capitalist farming. Rather, he understood capitalist farming, largely, in the same way as he did peasant farming, involving individual family farms using the same social organization and technological machineries, except that capitalist farms employed wage labor. This basic misperception gave rise to other shortcomings in Chayanov’s theory.

Chayanov, inadvertently, supported a view of peasant societies that ignored the forces and relations of production. He stressed the determinant role of natural factors on consumption and labor as opposed to the influence of technological changes that were tied to political, ideological, economic, and social forces of production. Chayanov developed a theory of how different farm machineries could be best used in different and particular sorts of farm communities or social organizations, without first analyzing the effect of the introduction of machinery on peasant farm organization itself (Godelier, 1986; Pfaffenberger, 1988). In other words, his theory was abstract and bore little reference to real social life. He assumed that the sources of change in peasant societies were derived from natural factors, rather than socially constructed factors. This assumption led him, and his followers, to view peasant farming as an independent type of social organization that could survive the onslaught of capitalism. However, Chayanov did not consider how the influence of petty commodity production could slowly transform the relations of peasant farming, giving rise to new forms of exploitation and class interests. Chayanov did not factor into consideration the historical contexts in which peasant societies were situated.

Cox (1986) explains that the development of capitalist class stratification occurs in peasant farm communities when the workers are separated from their means of production. On the one hand, it is the conversion of the peasant worker into the proletariat or the hired laborer. On the other hand, it is the conversion of the means of production into capital (p. 87). However, the democratization or liberalization of capitalism has resulted in all kinds of nonconventional reactions in agrarian societies that do not immediately fit this model. According to Kritsman (as cited in Cox, 1986), for example, class stratification had already begun to develop in the Russian countryside where those carrying out capitalist exploitation were broadly not the strong, but also the smaller peasants possessing the means of production. Hence, the conventional categories of rich, middle, and poor were called into question. Clearly, the middle peasantry cannot be characterized as independent farmers who were neither exploiting nor being exploited in their daily work. Thus, the study of the peasantry is problematic as illustrated by the question of proletarian households with small vegetable gardens, or of determining the accuracy of class boundaries between households.

Cross-culturally, students of the peasantry still grapple with theoretical questions first raised by Karl Marx concerning the direction of social and economic change in precapitalist agricultural societies that have entered into relation with capitalism. The same arguments can be heard in new contexts. Dogmatic Marxists contend that under the capitalist system, the integrated natural economy of the peasantries becomes disrupted. Small-scale landowners either become capitalists or wageworkers who lose their control over the means of production. This polarization process will eventually produce a revolutionary crisis. In contrast, nondogmatic and creative Marxists or Marxist-postmodernists (e.g., Godelier, 1986; Kahn, 1980; Stoler, 1985; Wolf, 1986) counter that there are already various peasant societies in contact with capitalism that do not necessarily fit such a dogmatic model. They declare that there is no singular and universal definition of the peasantry.

Peter Worsley (1984) explains that early Marxists interpreted mode of production theory mechanistically. They saw the economic base of society as giving rise to social relations or the superstructure of society in all of its political and cultural aspects. They did not realize that world capitalism becomes embedded and transformed through preexisting relations of power and dominance. In the third world, these relations were forged early on between the subdued peasantries and their colonial overlords. So, rather than replacing precapitalist modes of production, capitalism dominates and exists side-by-side with them. Early Marxists thought that the working classes, not peasants, were the chief agents of social and economic change in history. But the idea of some amorphous working class being a culture-free economic unit in social history is a myth. Which class will be the vanguard for socialism is a function of the history and resultant social structure of a particular society. What is needed for the study of peasant societies is a dialectical theory that encompasses all of the exploited classes in rural and urban areas, rather than one that rejects segments of them as being counter to the revolution. New revolutionary movements cut across boundaries of class, gender, and culture by forming strategic alliances with other proactive groups who fight for greater equity and justice. They need to be examined and analyzed in the historical context of the actual societies in which they are situated.

According to Worsley (1984), “Exploited classes are not inherently revolutionary, nor reformist, or anything. What they become is a function of the values and institutions available to them” (p. 232). The concept of class becomes potently meaningful through political and ideological processes that bring about the development of class consciousness and political mobilization. Marx theorized that peasants lacked revolutionary consciousness (were like a sack of potatoes) and, thus, had to be liberated by outside leaders. Lenin thought that class consciousness had to be brought into the peasantries by an outside revolutionary party. In contrast, Rosa Luxemburg (as cited in Bottomore, 1985) argued that “the experience of class struggle creates the conditions necessary for the development of class consciousness and that patronizing the [peasant] proletariat by intellectual elites leads only to weakening, and to passivity” (p. 81). Also, before capitalism entered, peasants already had the makings of class consciousness and were already organizing collectively on their own behalf as their bylaws and customary laws demonstrate.

Contrary to Marx’s description of the poor as being a lumpen proletarian mass who hinder the revolution because they stand ready to take workers’ jobs, the poor are part of the working classes, not marginal to them. Veblen (as cited in Mitchell, 1964) argues that the revolutionary consciousness needed for socialist revolution is often derailed by another working-class revolution of rising expectations and conspicuous consumption. Working classes are already stratified among themselves prior to their entrance into the labor forces, and their internal divisions are intensified in their relationship to capitalist production. The working upper class usually arrests the potential for political activism by luring some activists into its hierarchical ranks to help control the rest of the population by giving them job security and decent wages. From this perspective, the poor become vulnerable to a wide range of astute and powerful influences because they are responding to their poverty in an instrumental manner, not ideologically, because they want to escape their dire circumstances. They pursue their own best interests, as they see them, within the context of their society and culture.

Likewise, models that reduce peasantries to family farms worked by family members who provide for the needs and reproduction of the household, as a unit of production, are inadequate because they fail to account for the wider context in which these families are found. Bernstein (1979) explains that these models are without history. They cannot distinguish between medieval European peasants, whose surplus labor was extracted in the form of rent by feudal lords, and contemporary, third-world peasants who operate in a world that is dominated by global capitalism (p. 422). Models of the peasantry need to take into account the relations between different units of production, between various classes, and of the process of social reproduction as a whole. One model equal to this task is found in articulation theory, which is the study of how different modes of production interact with each other. In Southeast Asia, some anthropologists have employed this theory to separate out the different modes of production and contingent aspects of class, ideology, and culture in modern-day peasant societies. These anthropologists, also, have used articulation theory to study migration patterns of individual family members, and the effects of migration on the local community. Such an approach is able to account for how family members and households use outside monetary and material goods to perpetuate, or transform, rural social relations. This approach will be discussed in greater detail in the next section.

Substantivist-Formalist Debate

By the latter part of the mid-20th century, most of the literature dealing with peasantries emerged out of the widely publicized dispute between the substantivists, represented by James Scott (1977), and formalists, exemplified by Samuel Popkin (1979). This moral economy versus rational peasant debate looked at the interpenetrating structures of capitalism, ideology, and peasants in terms of the relationship between subsistence strategies and peasant rebellions in Southeast Asia. Substantivists argued that peasants live in communitarian villages that work for the common good. Village bylaws and customary laws work against norms of individualism and personal achievement that are characteristic of “Western” capitalist societies. According to this view, landlords and peasants negotiate patron-client contracts that provide farmers with their basic needs for social security. These mutually interdependent relationships, though still unequal, are based on norms of reciprocity that guarantee peasants their subsistence needs. This safety-first maxim, explains Scott, is a logical consequence of peasant dependence on agriculture and embodies the relative preference for subsistence over high-earning wages. However, once this promise to provision the peasants’ basic needs is broken by landlords, the peasants will rebel.

Scott (1977) proposes that the penetration of capitalism into peasant villages will lead to family discord and breaks the traditional landlord-to-peasant bonds because earlier patterns of reciprocity no longer apply. For example, the Green Revolution, which promoted the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and new hybrid varieties of rice and corn and mechanized farming in agriculture, disrupted traditional landlord-to-peasant exchanges and the associated subsistence ethic. Landlords and machine operators no longer needed the support of peasants to legitimate their authority because they could rely on the backing of powerful, outsidestate authorities. They were able to take advantage of farmers who needed cash to live in the new economy. There was no longer a need for local elites to establish a personal bond with those who worked their farms; rather, they could easily shift and choose between personal and impersonal ways of dealing with them. Mechanized farming effectively led to the loss of farmers’ traditional social security system as many became unemployed.

In Southeast Asia, many small farmers were hesitant to adopt the new farm technology and seed crops being promoted by the Green Revolution because they entailed high risk in the face of unreliable weather conditions and outside forces. In order to lessen these uncertainties, peasants help each other to maintain a given level of production, even if they may not be maximizing yields. Subsistence farmers prefer to produce crops for home consumption, rather than for sale on the market. They select traditional seeds that have proven successful, even if they produce less than the high-yield varieties. In like manner, they tend to diversify their risks by multicropping, rather than mono cropping (Scott, 1977, pp. 4, 23). However, Feeney (1983) points out that Scott employed Roumasset’s safety-first model for the study of the family farm. If the risks are too high, the family will take certain steps to ensure their income will not fall below a certain dangerous level. What Scott describes as risk aversion could be interpreted as maximizing behavior. Feeney suggests that a farmer might choose to diversify his crops and plots if there are different types of land on his farm, and such a strategy would end by maximizing his profits. Or the farmer may seek to optimize his profits by working considerations of available family labor into his calculation, in terms of time factors and seasonal variations. Furthermore, when peasants are faced with an unpredictable market where prices are variable and subject to sudden change, they may have more incentive to produce for home use, rather than for sale.

Another model that Scott (1977) uses is Chayanov’s (1966) model. Scott focuses on the provisioning of a secure existence as the stabilizing factor in peasant communities. He argues that so long as peasants’ basic-security needs are met, they will no longer strive for profit. Furthermore, states Scott, “Peasants are not interested in social mobility” (pp. 186–187). However, Chayanov developed his hypothesis that the degree of self-exploitation is determined by a peculiar equilibrium between family demand satisfaction and the drudgery of labor itself, in relation to family farms in a natural economy. He did not place them in their historical context. Chayanov viewed peasant households as a distinct type wherein social differentiation occurred demographically through the fusion and fissioning of families. Yet, he also considered social stratification occurring in peasant societies as a result of such factors as commodity production in relation to the development of capitalism. He stressed the distinction between demographic differentiation and the development of classes due to the penetration of capitalism and stipulated that it is important not to confuse the two kinds of social classes because each type calls for a different theoretical framework (Chayanov, 1966, pp. 249–250).

However, Chayanov’s model, for the study of family farms in a natural economy, begins from the perspective of use value, not exchange value. It is not applicable to the particular communities in Scott’s study because these communities have long been dominated by capitalism. Southeast Asian peasants compete and desire to increase their economic well-being, but the system works against them. Chayanov’s theory is inadequate to the task of explaining underlying motivations and behaviors of peasants living in relation to the wider capitalist economy. Southeast Asian peasant communities have a long history of involvement in production for export under the various earlier colonial regimes and, prior to colonialism, under earlier kingdoms in a wider, maritime-trade economy based on semifeudal, lineage, and tributary modes of production. Paternalistic features of landlord-to-peasant relations are intimately connected to patterns of dominance and exploitation evolved under such traditional settings. This brings Scott’s hypothesis that peasant behavior and reproduction results from their having to meet basic needs into question.

In contrast to the substantivist viewpoint, the formalists, represented by Popkin (1979), hold that peasant society is made up of individuals who pursue their own personal interests. From this perspective, peasants are householdutility maximizers who are motivated by individual rationality in ways similar to individuals in highly developed capitalist societies. They will take risks, and even go against group norms, so long as it is profitable to do so. Traditional peasantries can be highly stratified, as were Confucian villages in Vietnam before the VietnamAmerican war, and individual survival in such instances is not necessarily the concern of the whole community. Also, the articulation of capitalism with the peasantry does not always result from outside penetration; rather, in some cases, it is sought out by local elites who proactively cultivate powerful outside allies to strengthen their positions in power struggles already taking place at the village level. Thus, peasants may have been already disillusioned with their villages before the appearance of capital because traditional norms governing behavior may have been violated. Popkin argues that the Green Revolution or the introduction of capitalist farm inputs can improve the quality of life for many in these traditional villages.

Popkin (1979) examined villages in Vietnam before the fall of Saigon and the rise of communism, arguing that villagers act rationally as self-calculating individuals, not in communion, to avoid risks. If this were not the case, peasants would have worked the land together as a whole group to increase production, rather than as individual farm units. But, at the same time, he recognizes an ecological basis for individual holdings: “Land reallocation is adapted to the environment and decreases the chance of a family loosing all of its land at once in event of inclement weather” (p. 105). Popkin finds that Scott’s thesis of a villagewide social security system does not apply in all cases. In traditional Vietnamese villages, land was divided by rank, and rarely was it awarded to orphans. Peasants actively competed as individuals to increase their personal popularity, which is tantamount to gaining more political sway and power in their villages so as to maintain and accumulate more property. Fiestas in the Philippines and slamatans in Java, Indonesia, are examples of this form of competitive individualism. Hence, traditional village rituals sponsored by local elites serve to protect wealth, not level it. Peasants seek out patrons to provide them with social security, not the reverse, just as patrons are clients, themselves, to more and more powerful patrons. That is, instrumental rationalism is the motive force behind patron-client ties. Another example is the tendency of farmers to have large families to help them tend the land and themselves in their old age. Popkin finds that it is the individuals who manipulate each other for selfish gains who are the instigators of social stratification at the village level. Traditional peasant societies are both open and plural, states Popkin: “More stratification within the village resulted in differential access to and control over the bureaucracy and other ancillary institutions of the market, rather than from the markets themselves” (p. 28).

Finally, Popkin (1979) argues that peasant uprisings do not flare up as a result of violations against a code of ethics that guarantees farmers their subsistence rights. Instead, farmers actively recruit political leaders who will lead them, successfully, in their rebellions. However, Feeney (1983) finds fault with Popkin’s theory of peasant revolution because he fails to explain the underlying motivations of their leaders, who may or may not have ulterior motives (p. 781). Greenough (1983) suggests that both Popkin’s and

Scott’s interpretations of peasant rebellion are based on European assumptions that do not apply cross-culturally. Conversely, Polachek (1983) combines both theories into a slightly different approach. He proposes that competitive frameworks are useful for the study of peasant political coalitions and maneuverings, but, at the same time, revolutionary mobilization plays on peasant cultural ideas of redistributional justice (p. 822). This approach is different than Scott’s theory of unitary consciousness because it considers the notion of rival factions in peasant societies.

Both Scott and Popkin attempted to develop a framework for the study of the peasantry. Scott tried to construct a universal theory of peasant behavior based on a generalized peasant economy. Popkin sought to make institutional rationalism, developed for the study of economic behavior in industrial capitalist societies, fit peasant behavior. Neither theory provides a completely satisfying explanation for peasant behavior. Scott does not take into account that peasants live in different societies with unique cultures and moral economies. He separates out the peasantry as a category for study and falls back on functionalism to explain it. Popkin, in contrast, overemphasized individual rationalism to the exclusion of the moral world in which peasants live. His methodological individualism also sidesteps the dialectical relationship humans have with their society. Nonetheless, both theories point to a more definitive approach because peasants do make rational choices in the context their cultures and moral economies.

By the 1980s, this point of convergence in their theories became well known in anthropological circles. Anthropologists involved in Southeast Asian studies began to take it for granted that peasant societies have their own unique worldviews and cultural traditions, which, in turn, are interconnected with the wider, world capitalist system (Keyes, 1983, p. 854). Views of peasants acting both communally and in terms of their own selfish interests apply, more broadly, to human behavior in general. There is no universal definition of peasant societies. Rather, as Bernstein (1979) explained, new theories were needed to account for the articulation between different units of production, the relationships between various classes, and the wider process of social reproduction.

Current Perspectives

By the 1990s, students of the peasantry had gone far beyond substantivist and formalist frameworks by placing their case studies in local, regional, and global contexts. They were concerned with issues of social and economic transformation in traditional, agrarian societies undergoing capitalization. Yet, even then, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, which caused the demise of communism, some scholars began to question whether theories aimed at discerning the dominant type of production and class structure in peasant society were necessary. Aguilar (1989), for example, criticized writings involved in the articulation of mode of production debates for being guilty of holding a teleological assumption about the end result of capitalism (pp. 41, 47). According to his argument, poststructuralist and neo-Marxist scholars studying peasant societies in Southeast Asia were using a dogmatic and ethnocentric model. Similarly, Hart (1989) found fault with them for “having been far more concerned with what is, and is not capitalist (and/or functional to it) than with understanding the dynamic processes at work in particular settings” (p. 31). Both Hart and Aguilar call for more flexible theories that can be used to study peasants in specific nation-states that have their own unique histories and structures of economic and political power.

However, Aguilar (1989) and Hart (1989) failed to recognize that new structural and neo-Marxist studies were open to the possibility of different cultural economies and societies being based on premises other than capitalist ones. For example, Scott’s (1985) Weapons of the Weak and Ann Laura Stoler’s (1985) Capitalism and

Confrontation in Sumatra’s Plantation Belt, 1870–1979 demonstrate the significance of first determining the capitalist nature of the peasantry under consideration, because it is through the particular peasantry that traditional peasant communities are reproduced and transformed. Scott, looking at the controversial issue of class in a Malaysian farm community, built upon his earlier thesis of a moral peasant economy. He investigated the question of how small farmers organize openly, or covertly, to express their class interests. Scott contends that the moral economy becomes eroded by the infiltration of capitalism. He describes the objective effects of mechanized farming, double cropping, changes in demography, land tenure, and rents by looking at how large-scale cultivators, small-scale cultivators, and landless and tenant farmers interpret them. Scott argues that the Green Revolution, or the post–World War II introduction of new hybrid varieties of rice and artificial inputs together with mechanized farming, had created a situation of increased inequalities between peasants (p. 147). That is, the introduction of capitalist farming destroyed traditional patron-client ties.

On the one hand, poor peasants no longer had a legitimate patron-protector through whom to voice their protests, so they expressed their complaints indirectly. On the other hand, wealthy farmers adopted behaviors derived from the logic of the global market economy, while their authority continued to be based on traditional leadership styles. In other words, the relationship between large-scale cultivators, small-scale cultivators, and landless laborers had become an impersonal one based on capital. While wealthy farmers could still revert to using their traditional power of authority to call upon peasants to do extra work for free, the peasants, being waged workers, could no longer depend on landlords to provide emergency assistance. Although Scott’s thesis was that the Green Revolution transformed peasant societies into capitalist societies, he was opposed to theories of hegemony that depicted them as being dominated by capitalism because they were mystified. Rather, peasants continue to believe in their earlier moral economy and they express this alternative worldview in subtle and covert ways.

Evans Grant (1986) argues that this aspect of Scott’s thesis is his most controversial contribution. Scott argues that the concept of hegemony is institutionalized and embodied in elite values and myths found in bureaucracies, schools, churches, and the media. It does not work its way down, uniformly, to the villages in the countryside. An exception to this is religion, but Scott (1977) explains that religion is selectively reinterpreted from the core to the periphery, and religious interpretations and meanings vary in accordance with the organization of the religious intermediaries (p. 281). Grant states, though, that “Scott has been searching all along for a social basis of a radical subject other than the proletariat who is fatally compromised because he is organically linked to the capitalist class” (p. 20).

Hence, Scott argues that peasants are not reformists sharing the same ideology as the working classes in urban areas, but rather they share the make-up of ideal-typical revolutionaries because they are fundamentally opposed to the values of capitalism.

However, to use Worsley’s (1984) expression, “There are factories without roofs” (p. 14), and capitalism can cover the gap between rural and urban sectors. It could be equally argued that the specific forms of peasant resistance Scott depicts are further evidence of their having been mystified by their new capitalist relations of production. Scott argues that peasants perceive the local owners of capital to be the cause of their circumstances, and for this reason, they are not mystified. But, if they were truly demystified, would not they recognize the unequal and oppressive conditions of the capitalist mode of production? Also, Scott’s peasants are not necessarily made up of two opposing classes; rather, instead, they may be stratified in competition among themselves, although they may simultaneously converge in a wider context as a class in relation to other classes within a national, or international, class system (Ossowski, 1973, p. 89). Scott seems to shuffle his concept of class around as needed. Sometimes he speaks of only two predominant and opposing classes, while at other times he talks of classes stratified into a hierarchy. This makes the question of who is struggling for whom unclear. He cites the destruction of property, tampering with machinery, acts of theft, and killing of livestock as examples of covert peasant resistance (1985, pp. 271, 289–290). Scott questions whether these actions can be considered a collective form of resistance. His conclusion is that they are collective movements because they pave the way for other struggles that can catapult peasants into rebellion (p. 273). However, when an individual peasant machetes a cow, is he really doing it against well-to-do households as Scott claims? Or is he only trying to protect his own land from overgrazing by his neighbor? Are such secret acts of sabotage done by hired thugs, working for local warlords or patron bosses to control peasants in their domain? Also, are peasants themselves, in relation to capitalism, perhaps already involved in manipulative and stratified subclasses at the local levels? If peasants are driven to such extreme acts of violence, not resorted to in the past, is this not indicative that peasants are being mystified by capitalism? The clandestine acts of peasant resistance Scott cites in making his case that they are demystified may also be shown to be similar to passive forms of resistance committed by urban workers.

Scott’s (1977) work raises an old yet relevant question derived from the classical literature on the peasantries: Do peasants form a class “for themselves” as he claims, or are they merely a class “in themselves” as suggested by Karl Marx (1987):

In so far as there is only a local connection between small holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national unity, and no political organization, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through a parliament or through convention. They cannot represent themselves, so they must be represented. Their representatives must, at the same time, appear as their masters, as an authority over them. (p. 332)

Georg Lukacs (1971) defined class consciousness as being introduced to the peasantry by an outside revolutionary party. In contrast, Rosa Luxemburg (as cited in Bottomore, 1983) argued that leaders evolved out of the class struggle, itself, and that it is through such struggle that class consciousness is raised (p. 81). However, the argument also can be made that insofar as peasants exist in a relationship that is subordinate to dominant elites who extract surplus from them, the peasants form a class “in themselves,” but, to the degree that they accept their status, without struggling to change the systemic causes of their grossly inequitable position, they are not a “class for themselves.”

Turning to Indonesia, Stoler (1985) investigated the conditions that promote the formation of a class-for-itself and supra-class movements that unite peasant groups. She critically examines the historical documents dealing with Sumatra’s plantation belt from a bottom-up perspective. Before global capitalism, Indonesia came under the influence of the tributary mode of production in partnership with India, then China, and later the Middle Eastern Islamic empire, the latter of which overrode India and China as a tutelary power. Muslim traders sought to win the allegiance of Indonesian princes who ruled the peasantry that supplied them with surplus wealth. Stoler suggests that it was through this background that the Dutch colonizers moved. They worked, directly, under the auspices of local princes to extract the islands’ rich natural resources for export to Europe. However, she stipulates, the Dutch empowerment of preexisting hierarchical figures and structures of authority was a process that was shaped not so much by colonial design as in reaction to local movements coming up from below (p. 6). Issues of contestation and change, not institutional stability and cohesion as the hegemonic colonial discourse would have it, instigated the development of capitalism in Indonesia.

Take Java, for example, where peasants—due to their economic situation—had no other recourse than to produce crops for export, while they remained in their villages living in relation to a larger state apparatus held in place by a layer of indigenous civil servants. In other words, Java’s culture was subtly subverted. In contrast, Deli was made up of labor settlements owned by the companies who ran them. In these settlements, masters and workers left most of their cultural baggage behind, as new relationships of hegemony were formed. Java and Deli illustrate two divergent conditions in the relations of production, which gave rise to two distinctly different types of labor movements. In Java, collective resistance movements were organized under the umbrella of religious organizations. In Deli, to the contrary, largely, individual acts of labor protests evolved out of the context of a plantation economy that enforced gender-specific policies of recruitment, wage payment, and job allocations that, effectively, worked against the formation of traditional collective action. On company-owned plantations, opportunities for mass organization and protest were negated because workers were frequently moved from place to place, intentionally set apart from one another. It is no wonder, states Stoler (1985), that “ties between workers were short-lived and not conducive to collectively planned and sustained action. Assaults, on the other hand, by individual or a handful of workers usually required little planning or long term cooperation” (p. 85). Hence, labor protests on plantations did not emerge as a struggle between clearly defined classes but, rather, as fragmented acts of resistance. Daily confrontations between laborers and their bosses represent the different ways in which sublimated class interests were expressed along gender, ethnic, and racial lines.

The Japanese colonization of islands, however, brought in new conditions and possibilities for these peasants to address felt wrongs. For example, the Japanese, largely due to the miserable circumstances of plantation workers, decided to allow the workers to cultivate small plots of land to feed themselves and reproduce, in order to work for the occupational forces. This started a new “squatter movement” where peasant families began to settle down on small farms around the peripheries of large plantations. Stoler (1985) argues that this movement actually was a form of mass protest, but it had its own repercussions (p. 97). The Japanese took advantage of peasants by taking their produce and forcing them to produce more than they would otherwise. After colonialism, the conditions on the plantations did not really change. For example, there was no real change in the working conditions or productive relations on the Deli estates (p. 45). There was not much difference between the quality of life of an indentured worker and a wage worker. In other words, there was no transition from a precapitalist system to a capitalist system. Stoler explains that it is through the loopholes in recruitment polices that precapitalist, unpaid forms of labor exaction are continued and maintained (p. 209). Unlike in the past, however, when the plantation estates had to ensure the reproduction of their laborers’ subsistence needs, contemporarily, the availability of a large, landless labor pool of temporary workers, beyond the skeleton crew, has freed companies from providing them with social security. That is, farming communities at the margins of large plantations are not operating in terms of a production mode that is contrary to that of the plantation economy. These farmers are not part-time peasants and part-time proletariats; rather, they are an intricate part of the plantation estates. They are a preexisting part of a preexisting economic and social system that has already been subsumed into the logic of the capitalist reproduction of the plantation economy.

Similarly, in the Philippines, students of the peasantry have been involved in a long debate over the direction of agrarian change. Benjamin Kerkvliet (1977, 1990) takes us back to the beginnings of the early American colonial regime in the Philippines, at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, peasantries were steeped in patron-client relations that were uniquely negotiated out of local colonial conditions. The relationship between landlords and peasants was an unequal one, but because it was flexible and enabled peasants in time of urgent need to obtain aid from their landlords, it was acceptable. Peasants needed their landlords and landlords depended on them to legitimate their power and authority over local resources, by working the soil. Peasants could opt for alternative courses of action if their landlords treated them unfairly. They could collectively negotiate better working conditions or move on to new places where other landlords promised to protect them. In short, there was a system of checks and balances. But this traditional feudal mode of production changed with the coming of the Americans, and the imposition of the capitalist mode of production. The once symbiotic relationship between landlords and peasants was transformed into an impersonal relationship. Kerkvliet (1977) argues that this change caused peasants to rebel to regain earlier patronclient ties (p. 25).

The American colonizers brought capitalism. They utilized landed and official elites to promote their American business interests. This empowering of local elites provided additional legitimization of their authority. Hence, landlords could change the terms of agreement between themselves and their peasants, and they could relinquish their pledge to provide social security to those who worked the land. In time, peasants became transformed into tenants and wageworkers, sharing similar work conditions, and began to organize to protect their own interests. Kerkvliet (1977) suggests that peasant unions were formed to reestablish traditional patron-client bonds (p. 25). However, Nadeau (1999) argues that peasants sought not so much to return to the past as to proceed forward in the context of capitalist relations of production by unionizing, much like workers in the early-20th-century United States had done. They tried to promote their own interests in the face of their newly formed competition, property owners, who also were the local political officials. Their efforts can be seen not so much as an attempt to realign patron-client ties as to contract better conditions of employment.

In the United States, union workers struggled for better working conditions from owners of property, the latter of whom resorted to tactics within the strictures and confines of their culture to retaliate against or negotiate with them. In Cagayan Valley, organized peasantries faced landed officials who were further solidified into power by outside colonial powers. For example, the American colonizers sent military and paramilitary forces to suppress peasant rebellions at the local levels. They armed landed elite warlords with monetary and military might that was superior to that of the peasantries who were struggling to create a structure of support for themselves. Kerkvliet (1977) argues that the working class in Manila opposed joining forces with the peasants because they thought themselves to be the vanguard of the revolution, rather than the peasants (p. 265). Another possible explanation, however, is that labor divisions taking place within the ranks of the working classes in the cities and the countryside came about as a result of their fiercely competing against each other for immediate, short-term gains, rather than their long-term interests as a class in and for itself.

Going a step further, Willem Wolters (1983) questioned whether Ferdinand Marcos’s 1972 declaration of martial law was able to change the pattern of Philippine rural politics into class-based parties, as it claimed to do (p. xi). One of the government’s justifications for instituting martial law was to replace the personalized system of politics by a well-organized authoritarian system. Wolters, alternatively, suggests that the Philippine state is not structured along traditional patron-client lines; rather, traditional relations have been changed into new types that do not correspond to the traditional model. There continues to be patron-client ties between the president and upper-class

politicians, and between these politicians and local brokers who bring in the votes, but the relationship between local elites and peasants is no longer one of mutual reciprocity. Wolters explains that these new relations between the political bosses and peasant voters are grounded on specific short-term, instrumental, impersonal transactions (p. 228). They are completely different from the multifaceted and dyadic relations that bonded landlords and tenant farmers in the past. Rather, into the 21st century, capitalistoriented landlords try only to outwit tenant farmers, and make a profit from them, while tenants, without any viable means of income, are still thinking in terms of a subsistence economy.

Wolters (1983) explains that patron-client relations do not form a unifying state structure in the Philippines; rather, they are a structure tied in to wider processes of state development. He argues that in the Philippines and, by extension, Southeast Asia, relatively unified countrywide classes, complete with a degree of class consciousness and organization, have not yet appeared. However, this question of whether or not peasants are self-consciously aware of their own class interests remains contentious. Philippine peasants have organized themselves on their own behalf. This has been demonstrated in our previous discussion on peasant rebellion in Luzon (Kerkvliet, 1977, 1990). Other examples include, but are not limited to, the 1986 people-power movement that overthrew the Marcos regime (Bonner, 1987; Poole & Vanzi, 1984) and the progressive, basic Christian community movement (McCoy, 1984; Nadeau, 2002).


Articulation of modes of production theory for the study of peasant societies came under widespread attack after the fall of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s. Mode of production theory was faulted for being irrelevant and overly deterministic in terms of the end result of capitalism being socialism, and then communism. Also, critics claimed that this general theory lacked a concept of individual agency. However, late 20th-century theorists, using a mode of production approach, addressed newly emerging issues of agrarian and social change. They conducted fieldwork and examined pertinent changes occurring in actual communities with unique configurations of culture, resulting from local interactions that existed in relation to global capitalism. It is not that their critics were incorrect in calling for more progressive theories to account for questions of individual agency and contingent issues of gender, ethnicity, culture, and class. Rather, they failed to also recognize the importance of looking at rural communities, historically and contextually, in relation to the changing modes of production around which they are oriented.


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