How you gonna keep them down on the farm?

Happy farmers FTW!

I’ve been crazily busy recently, so haven’t been keeping up with the blogs as much as I would like. Trying to catch up recently, I did notice a very interesting piece by Owen Barder (and an excellent response by Duncan Greene, here), on the occasion of World Food Day or some such thing, in which he brought out Sen’s entitlement theory to reiterate that the problem of famine is not one of food availability, but of ability to purchase it. He went on to make an argument that had me virtually punching the air with joy, so long have I been saying something similar:

I am not against investing in agriculture. Better access to existing technologies, and the development of some new technologies, could make a big difference to the lives of farmers in developing countries.  But I am against promoting the romantic idea of happy peasant farmers. Farming in developing countries is an unremitting, unrewarding life…

I too believe that the current policy set for agriculture in development circles is, for want of a better phrase, insane.  The idea that the way to improve the lives of agricultural labour and to improve the agriculture sector is to support small holder agriculture and fund endless ‘livelihoods’ activities which do nothing more than keep people desperately poor but not starving, and which have almost zero growth potential has become the default position among otherwise sane development workers. The single biggest reason, as far as I can tell, is that most development workers have some kind of utopian idea that working for oneself is inherently more rewarding than working for a business. This is pretty much what Barder is railing against as well.

That said, I take issue with the rest of his reasoning, which focuses on industralisation as the way to resolve the issue of subsistence agriculture, the reduction of famine and improvement of the lives of agriculturalists. He argues:

When people leave farms and get jobs in manufacturing their incomes are both higher and more secure. Demand for food in the cities grows; the number of people working in agriculture falls; food prices rise; and the remaining farmers get higher incomes. Rising incomes enable farmers to invest more in irrigation, fertilizer, machinery and seeds. Agricultural productivity rises, not as a consequence of direct efforts to improve agriculture but as the indirect consequence of industrialisation.

Duncan Greene points out the weakness of this argument thus:

…the ‘springboard argument’, namely that countries need to increase productivity in agriculture so that they can then transfer the surplus into industrialization, has a lot more historical foundation than Owen’s ‘just dump agriculture and start building factories’ version.

This is crucial: historically, the observed patterns of the movement away from agriculture in most currently developed countries have not shown that agricultural develops in consequence to urbanisation, but in conjunction with it, and in large part of often predating it. Barder is correct to say that urbanisation is often associated with increasing agricultural productivity but it isn’t because farm workers go to urban areas, but because the patterns of ownership and production that characterise agriculture change in such a way that dramatically change agricultural productivity and create an increasingly large pool of landless labour that has no option but to move to the city and become what Marx termed the ‘latent relative surplus population’ – a group that it’s worth considering in a little more detail.

One of the crucial stages of development of a modern capitalist economy that receives little attention is the change in patterns of ownership that obtain in each sector. An industrial economy is normally built upon a change in patterns of agricultural ownership. Marx recognised this first, demonstrating that in England, it was the movement towards large farms that excluded the mass of the poor from ownership following the enclosures movement that facilitated the development of a modern industrial economy many years later. What he showed in this instance, and what has occurred in varying forms in almost every developed country in the world, was that when a small group of landlords seized either adjacent private landholdings or large tracts of lands for collective use, they developed a large farming operation based on wage-labour, thereby condemning the vast mass of the agricultural workers to landlessness.

This landless group becomes the making of the agricultural sector. An initially large section of them are hired to work on the new large farms formed by means foul and fair; but over time, the size of the landholding and the surplus it generates allows the owners to irrigate, to mechanise and to experiment with different kinds of plot and production with the ultimate outcome that they become able to produce more output with fewer labourers. In other words, productivity increases. The surplus labour no longer needed by the owner is then shunted out and begins to gravitate towards the nearest urban centres driven by the need to somehow earn a living, now that their fallback position of cultivating their small private plot or section of the commons is no longer possible.

This is when they become that ‘latent relative surplus population’ that Marx spoke of, and with whom the modern economist can equate with higher agricultural productivity. They don’t have a great life, often struggling for employment and being visibly underemployed at first, until industrial production begins to pick up the slack in the labour force – a process that is by no means guaranteed simply because agricultural capitalism has taken root. Capitalism obtains in the economy, but how it is expressed in urban and industrial forms is not yet defined. Much more needs to happen before a development process is complete.

The important point out of this explication is not that more labour is moving to urban areas: that can and does happen without any increase in productivity as population growth in agricultural areas is accompanied by stagnating forms of ownership, often favouring smallholdings that eventually can no longer be subdivided. The important issue is rather that productivity increases out of the movement away from the small-farmer model into the large, powerful commercial farming model. It’s not ‘fair’ in that many farmers lose their land in particularly unpleasant ways, even if they are legal. But this redistribution, however it is achieved, seems to be necessary.

This process doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, does it? Well, it isn’t. But that doesn’t make it any less common. Indeed, despite all the study we’ve done of development, we haven’t actually identified any historically tested competing model for developing an agricultural base for a modern economy. Instead, through modern agricultural policies of development, we’re engaged in a massive social experiment whereby we attempt to create a form of development without any losers, letting everyone be their own boss and trying to make very marginal livelihoods into developmental ones. This might be possible, but it would be a historically new form of development, and far more difficult to achieve than one based on new forms of ownership. And the reason behind our pursuit of it is that we desperately want to avoid the dirty reality of development – because the morals of a liberal-left first world perspective are not suited to the reality of a profoundly different milieu – one in which incomes, and concrete material conditions in the medium and long term should be the be all and end all.

Though his rationale is entirely different, this is pretty much what Barder is getting at, by my reading. He wants us to acknowledge that development doesn’t always look like how we’d like it to look. He’s right.

3 thoughts on “How you gonna keep them down on the farm?

  1. Jim

    October 27, 2010 at 2:34pm

    Isn’t redistributive land reform, which dispossessed large landholders and created lots of new small-holders, seen as contributing to growth and development in Taiwan, South Korea?

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 27, 2010 at 2:48pm

    Hi Jim,

    thanks for the comment. The first point to make is that it’s not the size of the holding per se that is important: it’s the use as a commercial farming enterprise. Africa isn’t short of huge landholdings (Daniel Arap Moi’s family, for example, owns huge swathes of land in Kenya), but few are being used in any commercial sense – the urbanisation without major productivity gains in agriculture case.

    The case of Taiwan is a special one I think – Taiwan’s history of colonisation by the KMT meant that the colonising power, still a minority without a homeland to support it, had little option but to pursue a small unit / high value economy to dilute the power of competing interest groups.

    In both cases, Korea and Taiwan, it’s important to note that 1) the large commercial farms were (I believe) left untouched, and continued to provide a spur to agricultural growth; 2) that productivity gains and changes in ownership in the past had already created an urban/industrial workforce, and that the redistribution was therefore increasing productivity again by taking the unused/unproductive large lands and leaving the commercial production as it was; and 3) the infrastructure of agriculture was in place after the years of more concentrated land holdings.

    Where landholdings have always been fractured, the infrastructure, development of mechanised farming lags behind and is much harder to motivate or create.

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 27, 2010 at 3:01pm

    Sorry, Jim, one more point I forgot to make.

    Both Korea and Taiwan scaled down landholding sizes while making their agricultural production far more intensive – this was a response to overall land pressures. In other words, they were pursuing a policy of trying to save land by slimming down larger land holdings and increasing their productivity as commercial enterprises through better use of irrigation and such.

    I need to look at the papers again, but I think that rather than creating smallholders, the policy was to create smaller, more productive commercial farms.

    There’s an old paper about this somewhere in one of the Economic History journals.

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