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Landlessness and Political Violence I


What do the Vietnam War, Arab Spring and Boko Harum all have in common?

They were all caused in part by landlessness. Rural cultivators not having land is one of the most politically destabilizing forces in the world today.

The basic idea comes from a classic of 1970’s macrosociology, Jeffery Paige’s Agrarian Revolution. Paige did a statistical analysis of rural insurrections worldwide, and found that the areas where small farmers owned their own land were far more stable than where farmers were landless.

He referred to small cultivators who own their own land as peasants. These are small family farmers. They own their own land, maybe have a few animals and the tools necessary to take care of small- to middle-sized farms.

He referred to small cultivators who are landless as rural proletariats. Because rural proletariats have no land, if they want to farm, they have to work for someone else. A migratory harvest worker going from farm to farm with a crew in a truck bringing in crops is a standard example.

Paige argued that peasants who owned their own land would be absolutely apolitical, and would stay out of social conflicts of all sorts. Rural proletariats would be politically active – and would be available to join whatever political movements are out there. In the 1970’s, this was Marxist groups. Nowadays, movements of ethnic mobilization such as the Taliban have entered the mix. What was the logic behind this prediction?

1. Peasants Own Land and Have Something to Lose. Rural Proletariats Have Nothing So They Can Take More Risks. If your land means everything to you, why would you want to risk getting in trouble with the authorities, and losing the one thing that really matters to you?

2. Peasants Have to Take Care of Their Farm. They Can’t Just Disappear to Go Off Fighting. Rural Proletariats Can Go Anywhere So Long as Who They Are Fighting for Is Keeping Them and Their Families Fed. People who have farms they don’t want to lose have to take care of their crops when they need taking care of. For peasants with rice paddies, this can mean nearly constant cultivation, filling and draining the paddies and weeding the rice. In a temperate climate, farmers need to be around in spring to plow and plant and in early fall to bring in the harvest.

For an example, think of George Washington’s problems fighting the American Revolution. The Continental Army was all made of up landed yeoman farmers who had farms at home to take care of. The American Revolution started in Lexington and Concord in April. That was fought by a small force. When the British retreated to Boston, farmers from all over Massachusetts came to join the Continental Army. Note that this was in May after the crops had been planted. All through the summer, the Continental Army kept the British besieged in Boston, incapable of leaving.

In the fall, what happened? There were massive desertions from the Continental Army as the yeoman farmers all went home to bring in their harvests. The British saw that Washington’s forces were depleted. They came out of Boston and attacked. Washington had no choice but to retreat into New York State.

Peasants are a fickle basis for an army. In contrast, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and FARC in Colombia were able to mount more enduring campaigns because they recruited landless rural proletariats who had no reason to go home.

3.Peasants Live Isolated from Each Other While Rural Proletariats Have Close Relationships of Friendship and Solidarity. When you own a family farm, this means you live in a farmhouse surrounded by a decent amount of land. The neighbors are far away because your land and their land are both between your houses. You mostly do your work with the members of your family. Your family is who you see.

When you are a rural proletariat, you typically have a crew of people you work with. Maybe they are the other employees on the farm. Maybe they are the people on your picking crew who ride with you on the truck from place to place.

One consequence of living with and working with the same people over and over is that you tend to become friends. They have claims on you. You have claims on them. There is now such a thing as peer pressure. What your friends think about you matters – just the way it does for high school students.

Let’s imagine a neighbor of a peasant were to face a threat from a large landowner or an authority. That neighbor doesn’t mean much to the peasant. No skin off anyone’s nose if the neighbor has a hard time. The peasant him or herself is not likely to come to the neighbor’s assistance.

It is different when the victim is a member of your own crew. You see this person all the time. You talk to this person all the time. You have gone drinking with this person many, many times. You care about this human being. If your friend is in trouble, of course, you come to his assistance. What kind of person would you be if you let a friend get worked over?

So rural proletariats stand up for each other. Peasants don’t.

4. Peasants Compete With Each Other. Rural Proletariats Cooperate With Each Other. The worst enemy of a peasant is often his or her next door neighbor. Peasants, if they are going to be rich, need more land. If you want that land to be part of the farm you already have, that means you are going to have to take land from one of your neighbors be it on the north, south, east or west. You know this and they know this. Your neighbors also have expansion plans. Many of those expansion plans go right through you. Heaven for you is when your neighbor has economic problems. He may have to sell land, and you have the cash to buy. Heaven for your neighbor is when you have economic problems. You may have to sell land at fire-sale prices, which is just what your neighbors want.

It does not help that peasants need to have other farmers fail to get good prices. If you as a farmer have a bumper crop, but all of your neighbors and everyone else in the world have bumper crops as well, prices will be rock bottom. You will be lucky to recuperate your costs. What you want is for you yourself to have a bumper crop and all of your neighbors and distant rivals to have crop failures. Then you have a ton of goods to sell, and because the goods are scarce, you can get top dollar for every crateful. So, peasants are always rooting for their neighbors to fail.

Paige notes that peasant villages are notorious for internal disputes and lawsuits. Going to court over inheritances or boundaries is very common. People move walls in the middle of the night to take a little more of the borderlands for themselves. Disputes over everything can last years and years. Social relations in peasant villages can be poisonous.

The motivations of rural proletariats are completely different. When one loses, all lose. When one gains, all gain. If a grower wants to cut the payments to a harvester because he claims she is putting stones in her basket, that is a threat that could be used against anyone. If you defend the right of full payment for baskets for one picker, you defend that right for all. Likewise, if one harvester gets aggressive and demands a higher payrate, that is a higher rate that will apply to all. Rural proletariats are quick to understand the concept of teamwork. If they work together, they all benefit.

What does this imply for social conflict?

If one peasant were to ask another to join a social movement, that other peasant is going to be reluctant to help out. “Why is this guy trying to get me in trouble with the authorities?” The second peasant would be just as happy to have the first one stick his neck out, get thrown in jail, and then have his land go up for sale when he loses his harvest.

Crews of proletarianized workers in contrast are natural revolutionary squads or platoons. They are used to standing up for each other. They will take risks for each other in battle. They will do what it takes to see the whole group gets taken care of.

Note that Paige was probably subtly wrong on one detail. There is no law that says these crews of revolutionary proletariats will necessarily join left wing groups.

They might all sign up for a death squad instead.

Or they might all sign up for an Islamic fundamentalist group.

Or they might join a tribal warlord as ethnic fighters.

Or they might join a comandante as mercenaries.

The bottom line is they are a fighting group. They will fight for whatever cause or leader promises them a better life.

Peasants don’t fight. Landless cultivators fight.

If you want to see less fighting in the world, give rural people their very own land.

Note that this essay says nothing about the Vietnam War, Arab Spring or Boko Harum. Expect more on that in future essays.

For readers who want to read the great man in the original, see Jeffery Paige’s 1978 Agrarian Revolution. Glencoe, Free Press.

For a good history of the American Revolution, see Bruce Lancaster’s American Revolution.

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