On the return of the peasant

The most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of [the twentieth] century, and one that cuts us off forever from the world of the past, is the death of the peasantry.

Eric Hobsbawm

I fear I must disagree with the late Professor Hobsbawm. The death of the peasantry has been much exaggerated, and indeed I think we will see a veritable peasant renaissance in the coming decades. I also think this might be good news, which may surprise some people.

After all, in industrial society we generally regard the name “peasant” as a term of abuse. This is not a new thing, of course; the word “pagan” means much the same thing, as does “villain.” (The people in the picture above were villeins, which is where the word villain comes from.) Peasants are the people at the bottom of the heap. In mediaeval Europe – which is the time and place we generally think of when we heard the word peasant – rich people distinguished themselves by keeping their skin milk-white, thereby demonstrating that they didn’t spend much time out of doors.

But what, after all, is a peasant? I would offer this definition: a peasant is a small farmer, at or slightly above subsistence level, involved in a rural community. Many, many such people are alive today, and as Hobsbawm suggests, they have been numerous since the advent of agriculture back in the Neolithic. Historically, they have been the basis of all civilised societies from Sumer onwards, because civilised people live in cities, and cities are fed by farmers. Which, until quite recently, meant peasants.

Now such a broad definition includes a broad swathe of lived experience. There have certainly been times and places where being a peasant sucked. Serfs, for example, were peasants who were treated as, in effect, property, in as much as they were tied to a certain piece of land, and if the land changes hands so did the serfs farming it.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said about being able to provide for yourself and your family. It can give you a fair degree of de facto independence. If you are part of a community of any size, you also have a fair bit of resilience, including the ability to do some basic division of labour. A very large proportion of humanity has lived this way for the last few millennia. It works.

We don’t hear much about this when we learn about history, because frankly it’s not that exciting. Then again, would you really want to live through the more exciting bits of history? There was plenty of excitement around the career of Genghis Khan, for instance, but you wouldn’t want to have your head cut off, even it formed part of a jolly spectacular pyramid outside the smoking ruins of Samarkand.

Dull history is generally far more pleasant living. Yes, there’s a sameness about milking cows, but you also end up with milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt, all of which are things worth having. The man in the big house may want a proportion of your stuff, but unless he’s an idiot – and I grant you there’s no guarantee of that – he won’t take more than you can afford. The average feudal lord was probably not all that rich compared to his tenants. Yes, there were some very rich lords, but they were the exception; and they tended to live interesting lives, and I’ve already explained the drawbacks to that.

There is, of course, quite a lot to being a peasant. It’s not just farming. A peasant household will generally need to produce, clean and mend its own clothing; provide for its own cooking and heating; take care of its own health; do its own building work; know how to process and store food, in the absence of things like refrigeration. Your neighbours may help out with some of this, but freeloading is not an option in a village context.

However, one thing this way of life definitely has going for it is resilience. A book was published over a century ago by an American agronomist about the farming methods of peasants in various parts of the Far East, with the title Farmers of Forty Centuries, and that title was by no means hyperbole. Moreover, the peasant lifestyle ticks a lot of boxes greenies like me are keen on:

  • you will have to live from local resources, because you probably won’t have the money to import much – importantly, this includes energy;
  • you are likely to have access to fresh locally-produced food and know pretty much everything there is to know about its provenance;
  • you will be careful about any pollution you cause, because you’ll have to live with the consequences yourself;
  • you will much less vulnerable to infectious disease than the people who live in cities – before the advent of modern sanitation, most cities historically relied on immigration from the countryside to maintain their population for this very reason, and as public health services break down this pattern in likely to re-emerge;
  • you will acquire many practical skills and have a more varied working life in consequence;
  • more generally, you will develop an enhanced awareness of nature and natural processes compared to “civilised” living;
  • you may also find that you have more say over your own affairs than you do now, because you will be less dependent on “the system” for your everyday needs.

It is on this basis that I predict a peasant renaissance. Not that peasants ever really went away. You’ll find plenty of them in what we are pleased to call “the developing world,” although more and more of them are being driven off the land so that they can work in clothing sweatshops. That’s not a model that can be sustained forever, and probably not for much longer as the world begins to fragment again and people in the rich nations realise that they have more important needs than cheap trainers.

There is already what one might call a peasant consciousness. Consider, for example, the international organisation Via Campesina which exists to represent the peasant point of view. Relevant also is Chris Smaje’s interesting book A Small Farm Future, whose title says it all. (You can read my review here.) But of course there is a long tradition of this sort of thinking, going back at least as far as William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821).

Should you too, dear reader, consider joining the revolution? Access to land is the issue for most of us. But you can learn a lot of skills even in your back garden or allotment, and it’s not a bad idea to start that learning process while you have the luxury of screwing up without starving to death. Ideally, find people who are already doing these things and learn from them. It also won’t do you any harm to acquire some books – actual dead tree ones – and a few decent tools, while these things are still easy to get.

Maybe one day your grandchildren will thank you for it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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