Beyond the Classical Debates

The Changing Character of the Peasantry

Family of US migrant in their Mexican homeA US migrant farm worker and his family in their Mexican home. He secured legal resident status in the United States in 1991 as a result of provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Although his wife and children remain resident in Mexico, many other women from his community of origin went to join their husbands in the North and brought up their children there.

In the 1990s, it is quite obvious that it no longer makes much sense to talk about "peasants" in an kind of classical sense — Chayanovian, Leninist or anything else. Peasants as we once thought we knew them have not really survived: most households in contemporary rural societies live from a mixture of livelihood strategies in which farming is seldom the main component. Today’s peasants combine farming with wage labour, and very often other kinds of work too — for example, women in some rural communities in the region of Mexico in which I work produce sweaters and jeans either in small workshops or in their homes, with their children, on contract to big department stores and transnational companies.

Peasant households are frequently economically dependent on money sent back by members working in urban industries, who are again just as likely to be women as men. Some of these industries are offshore manufacturing plants set up by transnational companies in free trade zones. Many peasant households are even more directly involved in migration: a male with older children may work part of the year in another country, people may combine farming with running a small business either at home or abroad. The list of permutations is endless, but the basic principle is clear.

Today’s rural households are seldom full-time peasant farmers or capable of surviving economically by the income farming brings in. This became pretty clear even in Western Europe by the seventies, where people in Germany or France who got EC subsidies as "peasants" generally did their farming at the weekends to supplement their earnings as factory workers. But wherever we are in the world today, the general significance of links between "peasant survival" and off-farm work and migration strategies are fairly clear.

More prosperous Third World farms are often the result of being able to invest migrant earnings in rural production. "Peasant-like" activity even among relatively poor rural people such as the Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca state in Mexico is often something that has been reconstituted through migration. Facing increasing difficulties surviving in their homelands because of population growth and soil erosion, the Mixtecs began to migrate to work on agribusiness farms in Northern Mexico in the 1960s and then began to cross the border to seek jobs in the USA, first in farm work and subsequently in urban contexts.

Contemporary rural livelihood strategies throughout the world now often include international migration and regular work and residence in a foreign country. Individual people pursue a range of occupations through their working lives and sometimes at the same time. This means that it may be difficult for them as well as for us to define their core social identity as a "peasant" identity. Individuals become what anthropologist Michael Kearney has called  "polybians" — by analogy with "amphibians". they can experience a wide variety of social roles — factory worker, small business person, supermarket check-out girl, field worker in commercial agriculture, street trader, cosmetics salesperson ... even drug courier. That means they can identify themselves to others in different ways — drawing on the full complexity of their social and ethnic identities — and also think about themselves and their futures from a variety of perspectives which reflect the way they have been drawn fully into the complex social worlds of late capitalism. So it no longer really makes sense to draw sharp divisions between the urban and rural sectors of society, and it certainly makes no sense at all to identify rural society with the role of the peasant farmer.

These are powerful arguments for saying that we now live in a "post-peasant" world in which classical models of "peasant society" and "peasant economy" are no longer adequate tools of analysis. On the other hand, there are still plenty of people around in the world who continue to define themselves as "peasants" or "country people", irrespective of the fact that their actual modes of livelihood may no longer be those of classical peasant farmers or cattle herders. The powerful social, economic and political forces which are acting to transform rural social worlds are, to some extent at least, being met by efforts on the part of ordinary people to defend or recreate rural lifestyles as alternatives to the lives they are offered in social spaces at home or abroad in which they find themselves subject to discrimination or lack of social esteem. In doing so, they can sometimes draw on new resources not available to earlier generations, such as the global indigenous rights and environmentalist movements.