Why peasant activism?

I have long been interested in peasant struggles as an historical phenomenon — for example, the causes and outcomes of the peasant rebellions in China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science).  But it is also true that peasant movements are still visible in contemporary politics in a number of countries.  For example, mobilization by peasants and landless workers in West Bengal against the state’s proposed development of a Tata factory led to the project’s relocation to Gujarat (link).  In some instances and issues, peasants and other disadvantaged people come together as a mass organization to press their interests and concerns; in other apparently similar instances they do not.  How are we to understand this variation?

People are generally careful about their active political investments, especially when their choices can lead to serious personal consequences.  Are there good reasons for poor people to form and support organizations that seek strategies for expressing their needs and interests? Should they consider supporting demonstrations, strikes, and protests? What is the likelihood that social mobilization of the poor majorities in India, Egypt, or Brazil might lead to improvement in their daily lives?

A first point is fairly obvious. As a low-income society undertakes policies and strategies for growth, there are choices to be made. These choices have differential effects on different social groups.  And poor people and peasants are often at a severe disadvantage in competing over the terms of these choices within the formal institutions of government.  China’s decision to create the Three Gorges Yangtze River dam system created many winners; but it also created many millions of low-income losers whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in the process (link).  Largescale social and economic change is a time when the stakes are exceptionally high, and having a voice is crucial.

A second point has more to do with the “normal” workings of power in a developing state.  Poor people’s interests are almost always overlooked or undervalued by official power-holders in developing societies — a point made thirty years ago by Michael Lipton in Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (1977). And this is often true even within parties that are ostensibly devoted to the poor, like the Congress Party in India. Corruption by leaders and powerful organizations is endemic, and landlords, business owners, and the military almost always wield disproportionate influence in the corridors of power.  So if nothing is done to disturb this “tilt” in the political system, then the outcomes will be unfavorable to poor people.

Third, it is plain that the organized efforts of under-class people can be powerful. Women’s organizations advocating for environmental protection or property rights for women can push state and national authorities towards policies they would not otherwise have chosen. (Bina Agarwal has documented these processes in India; for example, here.)  Organizations of landless agricultural workers can pressure the state into adopting reforms and programs that provide some relief for their poverty. Mass mobilization is almost the only way to assert the material interests of the people.

Debal Singha Roy considers these issues in detail with regard to rural India in Peasant Movements in Post-Colonial India: Dynamics of Mobilization and Identity. Here is how Roy puts the point:

Social movements have always been an inseparable part of social progression, and through organized protests and resistance against domination and injustice they pave the way for new thoughts and actions that rejuvenate the process of change and transformation in society.  They bring forth for public scrutiny the hard and hidden realities of social dynamics. (8)

So, according to Roy, popular movements — e.g. peasants’ movements — can lead to measurable change in favor of the dispossessed. They do so by making injustice visible to the broader society; pressing effectively for social changes that improve the condition of one’s group; giving voice to segments of society who are almost always invisible to the middle classes; and asserting one’s own agency as a fundamental aspect of being human.  These are all reasons for thinking that social activism and social movements are important.

What about the rest of us? Is activism important in a modern market democracy? Frances Fox Piven argues that these points do indeed apply in modern market democracies as well. In her recent book, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, she lays out this case through a new analysis of American policy history.

This book argues that ordinary people exercise power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed. (kl 23)

Piven’s basic view is that the structural inequalities of property and power in market democracies mean that electoral processes are usually tilted against the interests and concerns of poor and middling people. Electoral competitions are generally won by enough candidates reflecting the interests and world views of the powerful, that the perspectives of the poor and disadvantaged in American society rarely prevail in the statehouse or the Congress.  The exceptions occur, she believes, when poor and disadvantaged people find ways of expressing their interests through avenues that threaten to disrupt “business as usual” — boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and other activities outside of formal politics. Rights of speech and association underlie many of these strategies, and they express a different aspect of democracy. And these in turn depend upon a combination of mobilization and a moment in time when such collective actions have the potential of creating significant disruption — when French farmers block roads to protest milk prices, for example.

So it seems that democracy almost requires a dynamic tension between formal representative politics and informal, nonviolent popular politics. What goes on in the state house needs what goes on in the streets of Madison if outcomes fair to ordinary working people are likely to occur.

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