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Yesterday's Peasants, Tomorrow's Fascists?

A new book by historian Patrick Joyce explores the lost world of the European peasantry. But, as farmers protest sweep across the continent, what does the future of the agricultural worker look like?

Bartolomeo Sala11 July 2024

Yesterday's Peasants, Tomorrow's Fascists?

There once was a time, not too long ago, when the mere juxtaposition of the words “spectre” and “Europe” evoked images of utopian futures and revolutionary struggles. Now, as the recent European elections made clear, it is no longer the spectre of communism that haunts the dreams of the European bourgeoisie (although the NFP’s narrow victory in the French elections this past week offers a glimmer of hope). Today, it is a whole new class of ghosts threatening to rip up the neoliberal consensus on which the EU rests.

An important prelude to what was to come occurred during last winter’s farmers’ protest, which reached a dramatic peak in February of this year. The latest in a series of inchoate, populist uprisings that seem to rock the EU almost at periodic intervals since its birth, the protests – which ranged from tractors blocking main roads in major cities, to manure being splayed on government buildings, to hay balls being set on fire – were comparatively small in scale. Single protests, however violent or eye-catching in their pageantry, never surpassed a few thousand participants. All the same, they were able to command significant media attention, not least for their pan-European and coordinated character, as well as their virulence and their anti-systemic rhetoric. In doing so they seemed to evoke the peasants’ revolts and jacqueries of yore. Yet far from an inarticulate “cry for vengeance” whose “ambitions are modest: a traditional world in which men are justly dealt with, not a new, perfect world”, as Eric Hobsbawm described those proto-revolutionary struggles, this time the protests were a targeted response to a series of European-wide, environmentally-minded policies and targets meant to curb the disproportionate impact of the farming industry on the environment.

All the same, this didn’t stop commentators from reading the protests along wearily familiar lines. The far right jumped at the chance to stoke the hatred of technocrats in Brussels and various “globalist” enemies (the peasants, and by extension farmers, of course, being the truest and most elemental expression of the volk). In similar fashion, the liberal-left barely batted an eyelid, resorting instead to the age-old trope of the peasant as a dangerous remnant of a bygone age, a perennial bulwark of reaction. I am not here to dispute the politics of the protesters – which, in the vast majority of cases, were obviously regressive. My question is whether the characterisation of them as some kind of dark, primitive force – a manifestation of “L’Europe Profonde”, as Marco D’Eramo calls it in his Sidecar essay – a tenable one? And is this dialectic, which casts them alternatively as salt-of-the-earth or roadblocks in the inevitable march toward progress, in any way useful in helping us think through the challenges and conflicts that any ecological transition will present?

*** 

I come from a place – Piacenza, Emilia Romagna – and a country – Italy – where a connection to this peasant past is still celebrated, even, or especially, on the left. This may seem paradoxical given that Piacenza sits in the middle of the Po Valley, one of the most developed (and polluted) areas of Europe. A bird’s eye view of the city reveals not isolated farmsteads but a tumorous outgrowth, a logistics hub, the size of the city itself. Shards and traces of this rural past – real or imagined – live on. In the language, the local turn of phrases borrows heavily from the now almost disappeared traditional dialect, and the mentality of local people continues to celebrate a muted patience toward misfortune (there are always misfortunes). The region’s towns and their surrounding countryside are now strongholds of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, and the Northern League before them. Yet, I remember summer evenings as a teenager spent on the lookout for the then still numerous festa dell’unità – the popular left-wing fetes created by the Italian Communist Party as a way to bankroll the party’s L’Unità newspaper, and which became coterminous with Emilian identity. Likewise, I can remember the heavy, outsized influence that the Italian Resistance, fought by peasants of my grandparents’ generation in the hills nearby, had on me and my friends while growing up.

I have my qualms about reclaiming this history. After all, as the son of the well-heeled professional class who could afford to pursue degrees in America and England, and who, had my father not passed away when I was little, would have ended up studying with the Jesuits in Milan, I am far removed from this rural past. Still, mine was a childhood spent in the care of maternal grandparents – both peasants born in the 1920s who were able to buy their smallholding thanks to a state-sponsored 50-year mortgage at advantageous rates and to then send their children away to university.

And always it is the same two or three memories, between the bucolic and the macabre, that return: stomping grapes to kickstart the wine fermentation; pulling the entrails from a recently killed chicken; staring at the carcasses of rabbits dripping blood at the back of my grandparents’ house; shocking my older Milanese half-sister, the proud owner of a bunny, by nonchalantly telling her that rabbits are to eat.

The truth is that beyond these well-rehearsed set pieces lie a sea of memories, most involving my grandmother – her hunchback folding her figure in two; her busy, gnarled, callous hands – that now feel utterly unretrievable. If I exercise my memory, I can still see distant glimpses of me and my grandmother shelling bean pods, or sitting at the table as she rolls the pasta dough. Seamus Heaney calls such snippets “memor[ries] of shared closeness that [were] both ordinary and inordinately sweet”. And I guess it was these “moments … taken for granted at the time, but … in retrospect … emblazoned with blessings” that made me particularly receptive to this vanishing peasant culture, and often to a certain left-wing idealisation of it.

By the time I went to high school I had stopped spending most of the time on the farm. And yet, I continued to look for the world I had lost, searching the pages of Carlo Levi, Cesare Pavese, and Pier Paolo Pasolinianti-fascist intellectuals and men on the left whose career was marked by a sustained engagement and love for what Pasolini called, aptly, la civiltà contadina [peasant civilisation]. The height of this romantic obsession was reached during my time in New York, an unconscious reaction, no doubt, to the feeling of having ditched my own at the first occasion; a sense of guilt compounded by the fact that my grandparents both died during my first year away.

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Since then I have sobered up. Much of this obsession for lost worlds and islands of resistance spared from the relentless logic of capitalism I now find patronising and naive – indeed, politically and factually untenable. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a deep affinity to the rural, or that I don’t seethe when I hear people talking about the countryside as some hopelessly conservative and obtuse place we would be better off without.

It was this that drew me to Patrick Joyce’s most recent book, Remembering Peasants, published just as the farmers’ protests were reaching their (largely performative) climax. Perhaps what I was looking for was a form of clarity: the historian’s final, authoritative word on how to think about these worlds that I longed for so intensely and then all but left behind. What I found was quite the opposite – an idiosyncratic, fragmentary account, which weaves family history, anecdote, snippets of primary sources and secondary scholarship, as well as the ekphrasis of individual, poignant photographs, that pays homage to a way of life that we have been busy forgetting, but which described the daily lot of Europeans for millennia. The mode is elegiac, perhaps not the affect we would most closely associate with Marxist social history. That doesn’t mean it didn’t clarify much. Indeed, it helped me to work through a series of questions long present at the back of my mind, but that needed some catalyst to be properly considered.

*** 

Joyce follows John Berger, who writes in the introduction to his great trilogy of novels on the European peasantry, Into Their Labours, of peasants as “a class of survivors” which for the “first time ever … might not survive”. This loss, Pasolini writes, is like “the disappearance of the fireflies”, a sudden, traumatic “anthropological mutation” of the Italian peasantry in all its diversity into a formless mass of consumers at the hand of what he calls “neo-capitalism”. Where Joyce differs from these accounts is that while both Berger and Pasolini were the enraged chroniclers of a process still occurring, Joyce’s is a requiem for a vanishing that has all but over.

Joyce’s first chapter, “The Vanishing”, is long, bleak, taking stock of the “death of the peasantry.” “The urban-dwelling proportion of the world’s population” Joyce writes, “has increased from just over 20 per cent of the total in 1950 to approaching 60 per cent today”, and it’s only destined to increase further. “In Spain,” he writes, “agricultural workers formed just under half the population in 1950. This was reduced to 14.5 per cent by 1980 … and to less than 5 percent of the workforce by 2020”. With the notable exception of England, all the countries of Western Europe followed a similar pattern roughly around the same time. These numbers are even more stark when one realises, as Marco D’Eramo reminds us, that in the face of its outsized symbolical relevance and the heavy subsides it musters (roughly a third of the EU’s total budget), the agricultural sector now contributes a mere 2.5 percent of the Eurozone’s total GDP.

Still, there remains a stigma attached to the peasantry, especially in English. As Joyce shows, the idea, of the peasants as “accursed lot,” harks back to Genesis and the curse that Noah places on Canaan, the son of Ham, who he condemns in perpetuity to be the servant of his sons, Japheth and Shem. It was a story that would come to give ideological justification to mediaeval serfdom, as, later on, it would be used as an origin story for slavery in the Americas. This image of peasants as a silent, long-suffering majority whose role is to bear the weight of other classes persisted well into the twentieth century. To this end, he quotes Ignazio Silone, another communist intellectual and the son of peasants, who in Fontamara describes the order of things as experienced by Abruzzese peasants: “God, the Lord of Heaven … Then come [sic] … Prince Torlonia, lord of earth. Then comes Prince Torlonia’s guards. Then comes Prince Torlonia’s guards’ dogs. Then, nothing at all. Then nothing at all. Then nothing at all. Then come the cafoni [wretched sharecroppers/louts]”. 

For Joyce, being a peasant has as much to do with occupying a specific place in a social order, perceived as natural and ineluctable, as with a mode of production aimed at the reproduction of the family unit and the household. Less a strict economic regime based on subsistence, as in Soviet agrarian economist Alexander Chayanov’s influential definition, the condition of the peasant is one in which farming is something more than simply a business – hence, too, a certain view, shared by Orthodox Marxists, of the peasantry as an archaic pre-capitalist remnant destined to be done away by industrialisation, like “the steam engine smashes the wheelbarrow”. 

From here, Remembering Peasants branches out into a number of unexpected directions. In successive chapters, Joyce discusses how different systems of extraction of peasants’ labour in Europe (feudalism and latifundia in the West; serfdom in the East) gave rise to a way of life based on the commune and a culture of scarcity inimical to capitalist accumulation. He describes the household as “the symbolic as well as the material centre of the peasant economy”, the theatre of ritual as much as backbreaking labour. He illustrates how the peasant’s worldview was impregnated with a deep sense of religiosity, immortalised in countless stories and legends, in which nature is conflated with God, and which in turn gave rise to both pilgrimage and cult. Finally, he writes of how, even as peasants are creatures of patience and suffering whose conservative ideology is premised on a silent adherence to a system that relegates them to the very bottom, their rage has at times spilled over into acts of vengeance and redress: uprisings not aimed at winning freedom but rebalancing a scale that has tipped too far. (To this end, he tells the story of Jakub Szela (1787-1860), a Polish village scribe who in 1846 led peasants in a violent revolt, one still remembered with opprobrium: better to side with the reactionary Habsburg Empire than the nationalist, “nominally” liberal forces that enslaved them for centuries.)

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The final third of the book, “Remembering,” details the ways in which this agrarian past survives in isolated vestiges, or – more often – is memorialised in ways that water down its fundamental “otherness,” turning peasants into nostalgic, chauvinistic myths. This last section mimics the ones that came before, eschewing linear narrative or systematic treatment in favour of an associative, sometimes looping, mixture of anecdotes from Joyce Country – the bit of West Ireland home to the author’s family – as well as testimonies and scholarship from Poland and Southern Italy. Photographs and objects have a privileged position, shards and traces which can be glimpsed but never fully grasped. 

The overall effect is that of a mirror in which I too was able to see the echoes of my childhood, as well as my grandparents’ way of understanding and moving in the world – their habitus, in Bourdieusian terms. What emerges most clearly, however, is just how incommensurable this way of life really was. At the beginning of the final section Joyce mentions the well-known figure according to which “the EU lost 37 per cent of its farms between 2005 and 2020, almost all of which were tiny holdings, less than 5 hectares” – a direct result of Common Agricultural Policy which, by administering subsidies by hectare, promoted the consolidation of farming estates. Yet, if we take seriously his definition of the peasantry as not just as another social class but as almost a civilisation and a world, then what this vanishing really harks back to is a time more like the 1970s, when both Berger and Pasolini were writing about the disappearance of the peasantry. 

***

There is a tendency, common to both far-right and centre-left, that casts farmers as an elemental force at odds with modernity, the bearers of a tradition either to be salvaged or consigned to the ash heap of history. This portrayal, however, only obscures the decisive (and exceedingly obvious) fact that, contrary to the peasants of yore, farmers in contemporary Europe today are thoroughly, if perhaps awkwardly, integrated into the market economy; one more node in an all-encompassing, globalised food network. This is certainly true of the UK, where “the trinity of landowners, capitalist farmers and a larger mass of landless” was already dominant by the mid-nineteenth century. In the last 50 years or so, this market-based agricultural model has become a pan-European feature, particularly in Mediterranean Europe. When farmers take to the streets of Paris, Berlin, and Brussels they do so then less as an offended, trans-historical mass than as individual entrepreneurs, one interest group among many. (That they do so while heavily subsidised and with virtual impunity is what merits the hatred of other groups, climate activists, for instance, who do the same at great personal cost).

Towards the end of Remembering Peasants, Joyce writes of the collectivisation efforts of the Soviet Union and the establishment of kolkhoz. This, he writes, was experienced by the peasants as the imposition of “a new, modern serfdom,” in which the president of the farming commune, the predsyedatel, replaced the former landowner. Ultimately, even if the Soviets were able to wreck the peasants’ traditional mode of production, they were never able to change the peasants’ value system, which saw the otherwise demonised kulak as “the manifestation of the idea of the ‘good peasant’, the independent man”. The dream of the peasant everywhere was not to do away with work and exploitation, but to do away with masters, to become a master of himself.

Such a cult of self-mastery was everywhere in the world of my childhood. I see it in my mother, a successful landscape designer, who made her peasant roots decisive to her sense of self as a businesswoman. I see it in my friends, some of them now small farmers. Indeed, I see it in myself, too. This dream of self-determination even lay at the roots of one the great ideological changes of the last fifty years; the great intuition of the Thatchers and Berlusconis of this world was to say that this dream – a chimaera under capitalism, as any good Marxist knows – was attainable, indeed in almost immediate reach. Never mind that this gave rise to an inefficient, low innovation economic model. Never mind that independence came at the expense of ever-increasing self-exploitation (for a great, heartfelt account of how the struggle to become an “entrepreneur of oneself” leads to death, I recommend José Henrique Bortoluci’s memoir about his Brazilian truck driving father, What Is Mine). Never mind that all of this came at the expense of the environment and exploitation of immigrant cheap labour – the price was autonomy, at last. 

For 30 years, this class of “post-rural” entrepreneurs were the bulwark of Silvio Berlusconi’s political and ideological headlock over the Italian state. The same can be said for other places, too, not least in Britain after Margaret Thatcher’s appropriation of the idea of the country as “a nation of shopkeepers”. These petty entrepreneurs, exemplified by the medium-sized farmer, now find themselves squeezed by financial capital and the vertically and horizontally integrated multinational corporations that rule the food industry, on one side, and the progressive EU technocracy on the other, who impose on them economically unattainable climate targets, partly out of necessity and partly out of their own self-serving agenda. In many cases, they are also supported by smaller producers – subsistence farmers, we could call them – whose number is still substantial, but who are residual in terms of output and, more than anyone, face the prospect of mass retirement in the coming decade. While neoliberalism adopted this strata as its cultural heroes – their own warped version of the Stakhanovite – it was digging a giant hole under their very feet. No wonder they have flocked en masse to the populist right – to Salvini, Le Pen, Santiago Abascal. 

For a Marxist this is neither unexpected nor, perhaps, even unwelcome – think, after all, of Engels and Marx comments on the “the idiocy of rural life”. But this is a harsh and simplistic reading which rests on an optical illusion – one partly shared by farmers themselves – of the real degree of entrepreneurial freedom they possess, and ultimately of their class position. It is not just that farmers are subjected to the “agricultural treadmill” – the imperative of ever increasing yields and productivity that catches framers in a vicious circle of investment in new technologies and economies of scale, often financed by bank loans, and falling prices. The abandonment of subsistence farming and the embrace of ever newer technological advancements brought about by the Green Revolution (e.g. fertilisers, heavy machinery, pesticides, antibiotics) has not only allowed for an intensification of the production process but also the abandonment of a “circular” precapitalist model in favour of an industrial one in which farmers are mere cogs in a machine.

As Pierre Levotin and Jean-Pierre Berlan write, “in 1910 farmers gathered their own seeds from the last year’s crop, raised mules and horses … fed them on hay and grains produced on the farm, and fertilised the fields with the manure they produced. In 1986,” however, “farmers purchase[d] their seed from Pioneer Hybrid Seed Co., [bought] their ‘mules’ from the Ford Motor Company, … and sow[ed] their next corn crop with the help of a revolving loan from Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Co.” And not only that. Farmers are now dependent for their profits and livelihood on industrial corporations that process their food along with ever-stretching logistical and value chains dominated by global firms that drive the price of their produce down or who set it in advance. (For an account of what this means in practice, I recommend Jack Thompson’s “Separating The Weetabix from the Chaff” published by Vittles

Søren Mau says it best when, writing about agriculture’s subsumption by capital, he writes,

farmers are thereby reduced to a kind of subcontractor or “putting out” worker, who might own their means of production but are nevertheless completely dominated by the agrobusiness who provide them with inputs and purchase their outputs … an ancillary in a system of production dominated by input-producing companies on the one hand and distributors, retailers, and food-processing companies on the other. [italics mine]

Of course, there are those who jumped at the chance and profited greatly from the capitalist evolution of agriculture, but this doesn’t change the underlying logic which places an inordinate burden on producers, who not only have to do the heavy lifting but also sustain all the business risk and, as a consequence, are often caught up in a spiral of ever-increasing debt.

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The fat subsidies that the EU pays to farmers are less a hand-out designed to keep an inefficient sector from being wiped out by its competition, than the buttress that keeps the system from imploding. This is also the reason why, for instance, the Dutch government’s 2019 proposed buy-out of intensive livestock farms as a way to offset nitrogen emissions – a policy which sparked what came to be known as the Netherlands’ nitrogen wars – would not have been an unjust compensation for bad actors’ malpractice. Rather, it was to be a massive transfer of taxpayers’ money into the pockets of Rabobank, which, as Eva Galinsky writes, “finances 85% of the Dutch agricultural sector and has around 40 billion euros in loans in the domestic agricultural sector”. 

***

Perhaps then, rather than peasants’ revolts of old, the recent farmers’ protests are the symptom of a capitalist mode of production that has reached a tipping point, busting at the seams under the weight of its own contradictions. There is a chance that this crisis will be superseded by yet another technological revolution that would mitigate the ecological and social costs of farming, maybe even do away with farmers themselves, much like the depletion of soil fertility first denounced by German chemist Justus von Liebig, and that preoccupied Marx toward the end of his life, was superseded by the discovery of synthetic fertilisers. This might indeed be the best possible outcome. As John Berger once wrote,

nobody can reasonably argue for the preservation and maintenance of the traditional peasant way of life. To do so is to argue that they should continue to be exploited, and that they should lead lives in which the burden of physical work is often devastating and always oppressive.

Similarly, no one can romanticise the industrial farmer, either as polluter and as exploiter of often informal, often migrant, labour or as a powerless pawn in a globalised game whose rules are set by capital.

Against the rosiest visions of the techno-optimists and ecomodernists, it is hard to see how any real change could be delivered under the current economic paradigm. While, thanks to the Green Revolution, we have seen astronomical increases in agricultural and economic productivity, and millions lifted out of poverty, we also bear the brunt of the ecological devastation left in its wake – not least the doubling of global meat consumption with its unsustainable environmental footprint and the huge loss of biodiversity and depletion of the soil which together are at the root of so many of our problems. The logic underlying all of this is one of ever-growing profit and extraction with no end. The move today, in places like Southern Europe, is towards ever greater consolidation – bigger firms, 7.5% of the total, already own 70% of the land – accompanied by mass rural exodus, impoverishment, and AirBnb-fication of the countryside. Alongside this, the onus of food production, and the human and environmental costs that conventional farming entails, are further shifted onto a mass of seasonal, irregular workers (which in Italy already make up almost 30% of the total and often work in conditions of quasi-slavery) or are externalised to countries in the Global South (also set to bear the worst consequences of global warming).

“Agriculture” Mau writes, “has a unique status in all forms of societies. Regardless of how small a percentage of GDP it accounts for, or how small a part of the total social labour it requires, agriculture remains the sector in which the most basic necessities of life are produced”. Techno-fixes are as necessary as they are welcome. Experiments in a more sustainable agroecology that do away with some of the pitfalls of conventional farming are happening as we speak, but these remain on too small a scale. Often they are scoffed at, not least by certain leftists. It’s high time then that we shed prejudices that rest on naive, teleological ideas of progress and historical development, a remnant of 19th century optimism, and place agriculture high on the leftist agenda. To do so must involve wrestling the topic away from right-wing demagogues who wish to impose a culture war on farming. The only alternative to the current predicament in which the majority are driven up against a wall to enrich a few global players is a system in which agriculture works for everyone, agricultural workers included.

 

Bartolomeo Sala is an Italian freelance writer and publishing professional based in London. His writing has appeared in JacobinFrieze, & The Brooklyn Rail and is forthcoming in the Literary Review and Gagosian Quarterly.
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