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  • ‘Farewells to the peasantry?’ and its relevance to recent South African debates
  • Henry Bernstein (bio)

In this brief contribution I address, and summarise, more recent work that follows up on the article ‘Farewells to the peasantry?’ in Transformation 52 (2003), and sketch its relevance to South Africa. The article concerned longstanding debate of the social conditions of existence and dynamics of ‘peasants’/‘peasantry’: whether ‘the peasantry’ constitutes a general (and generic) social ‘type’ (entity, formation, class, and so on) applicable to different parts of the world in different periods of their histories, not least Latin America, Asia and Africa today and their processes of development/ underdevelopment, and indeed whether current globalisation spells the final ‘death of the peasantry’ (Hobsbawm 1994) or ‘peasant elimination’ (Kitching 2001). Of course, such debate is simultaneously analytical: how to theorise ‘peasants’?; empirical: have ‘peasants’ disappeared?; and (heavily) normative: is ‘peasant elimination’ desirable? necessary to economic progress? etc.

I argued that those termed ‘peasants’ in the contemporary world are best theorised by investigating their conditions of existence, and reproduction, through the categories of the capitalist mode of production: the social relations, modalities of accumulation, and divisions of labour of capitalism/ imperialism.1 My approach entailed three (connected) steps in relation to (i) the nature of petty commodity production and its tendency to class differentiation; (ii) the specificities of agriculture and how capitalism pushes against both ecological and social constraints on capitalised/‘industrialised’ farming; (iii) how ‘peasants’ in the South and ‘family farmers’ in the North are located in the international divisions of labour of imperialism and their mutations. [End Page 44]

Further elaboration since then has developed the macro-historical framework in terms of world-historical shifts from farming to agriculture (in the era of industrial capitalism from the nineteenth century) to globalization from the 1970s (Bernstein 2010a: Chs 3–5), and the analysis of class dynamics. The key element of the latter is the notion of ‘classes of labour’: ‘the growing numbers … who now depend – directly and indirectly – on the sale of their labour power for their own daily reproduction’ (Panitch and Leys 2001: ix). They might not be dispossessed of all means of reproducing themselves, but nor do they possess sufficient means to reproduce themselves, which marks the limits of their viability as petty commodity producers in farming (‘peasants’) or other branches of activity. Those commonly termed ‘peasants’ today represent different classes: emergent capitalist farmers, relatively stable petty commodity producers, and those ‘poor’ and marginal farmers whose reproduction is secured principally by selling their labour power, the majority in many countrysides in the South (Bernstein 2010a: Chs 6–8).2

(Final) ‘peasant elimination’ in the period of neoliberal globalisation is registered in the views of those who deplore it. For example, ‘relative depeasantization’ has given way to ‘absolute depeasantization and displacement through a wave of global enclosures’ (Araghi 2009: 133–4); globalization represents a ‘massive assault on the remaining peasant formations of the world’ (Friedmann 2006: 462); the globalising ‘“corporate food regime”... dispossess[es] farmers as a condition for the consolidation of corporate agriculture’ (McMichael 2006: 476).3

My position remains that ‘peasant’/‘peasantry’, and cognate terms such as ‘depeasantization’, and indeed ‘repeasantization’, are anachronistic in contemporary capitalism, typically express ideological yearning, and obscure more than they illuminate. My reading of agrarian class dynamics – especially of (differentiated) ‘peasants’/‘small farmers’ – thus makes me sceptical of various populist views, now expressed or updated within an ‘antiglobalization’ perspective. For example, arguments that: the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in Brazil, and comparable social movements elsewhere, represent (mass) ‘repeasantization’ (eg Robles 2001); ‘new peasantries’, exemplifying alternative ways of farming to capitalist agriculture, are growing in significance in both South and North (Van der Ploeg 2008); there is a ‘global agrarian resistance’, an ‘agrarian counter-movement’ able to able to reclaim and reinstate ‘the peasant way’ and ‘revaloriz(e) rural cultural-ecology as a global good’ (McMichael 2006); low-input ‘peasant’ farming can feed the world’s large, growing and increasingly urban population [End Page 45] (Weis 2007).4

How does all this apply to South Africa? Some consider that ‘peasants’ here disappeared in the continuous processes of dispossession of the colonial and apartheid areas. However, the...


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