Since the economic, financial, and food crises of 2007, capital’s demand for land and resources has increased enormously. Thus, the injustices and power structures created during the colonial era, largely through the expropriation of land, soil, raw materials and slave labor, and perpetuated in the 20th century in the name of development and globalization, are today being massively expanded – and with them, the imbalances in the international division of labor, as author and activist Rahul Goswami argues in his contribution to BG’s text series “Allied Grounds.”
In the 1920s, artists in the USSR developed an image of the worker that became an art form with its own dynamic that has endured to the present day. This art most often took the form of murals and posters. Its characters were the workers, and the portrayal came to be called heroic realism. The USSR agricultural worker depicted in these posters was often a robust woman, beaming and holding a spade or pitchfork, and just as likely a bountiful sheaf of wheat. It was the time of the New Economic Policy, followed by the Central Five-Year Plans, and the art form of heroic realism allowed Soviet peasants to radiate a down-to-earth optimism, a promise of a better future.
About a decade later, the art form blossomed in China, both before and in the two decades following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Through the medium of posters and murals, Chinese heroic realism also glorified the indomitable worker, whether lifting an iron girder or harvesting a field of grain. In both giant “communist” countries, the art form was visually striking, with bold lines, the use of few colors, a short uplifting textual message, and artistry designed to evoke feelings of patriotism and self-reliance.
Propaganda images of the worker
In the 1940s and 1950s, two artists, one in Mexico and the other in India, took the visual idiom of heroic realism and greatly expanded it, each adapting it to his region. The artists were Diego Rivera in Mexico and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya in India. The styles they developed were, in their time, symbols of the struggles of factory workers and peasants against the inequality and dehumanization that industrialization brought.
It is one of the ironies that soon after the “Green Revolution,” during the early phase of the homogenization of agricultural technology, the state in the “developing world” adopted the visual symbolism of heroic realism, but adapted it for new propaganda purposes. Thus, in the early 1970s in India, the image of the farmer that was printed on posters, put up on billboards, and found in newspaper advertisements was that of a smiling farmer, wearing a regionally appropriate turban or other headgear, sitting proudly in a new tractor, with a full field behind him and an adoring family beside the tractor. Such images were duplicated in many parts of what came to be called the Global South: South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Southeast Asia.
This imagery had nothing to do with the noblesse of the agricultural vocation – bringing grain to life from the fertile soil to feed a people – or with the traditions, hoary with age, that had led to the preservation of seeds, the renewal of soil and the purity of water, the careful observance of growing seasons, the philosophy of sufficiency without disrupting natural cycles. On the contrary, the new agricultural imagery of the 1970s celebrated technology and its application, with the farmer’s role fundamentally changed from bearer of a tradition to consumer of technology.
How did this change come about? One factor is undoubtedly the Anglo-American view of what “developing Asia” and “developing countries” in general experienced after the end of World War II and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. “It was internationally recognized that the peasantry were incipient revolutionaries and, if pushed too hard, could be mobilized against the new bourgeois-dominated governments in Asia,” wrote Robert Anderson and Baker Morrison in “Science, Politics and the Agricultural Revolution in Asia” (1982). “This realization led many of the new Asian governments to join the new British-American sponsored Colombo Plan in 1952, which explicitly aimed to improve conditions in rural Asia as a means of defusing the communist appeal. Rural development supported by foreign capital was prescribed as a means of stabilizing the countryside.”
“Development” – the way the West is going
I remember vividly, as a boy growing up in Bombay (as the city of Mumbai was then called) in the 1970s, the atmosphere of food shortages, rationing, the fear of famine, the fragmentary awareness that people in the West faced none of this because of the success of their agriculture, which in turn was a success of their “development.” There were few government messages of the time that did not mention the dangers of overpopulation, and fewer still that did not claim to address, in one way or another, poverty and its effects. These messages were projected with power and the implications were made clear enough for even young people like me to understand: “India’s people had to be fed, this much crop could only be grown under the direction of a central plan, this plan was guided by science and method (which the Indian peasant did not possess), the adoption of this science and method was the passport to development.”
What was this “development” that was going to guarantee us enough food and (somehow) a way out of poverty? For the youth of India (and, as I would later find out, for the youth of all “developing countries”), development was a fuzzy concept, but always with the idea of a better life attached to it. “The very word ‘development’ has come to sound deterministic – it means the way the West is going.” So wrote Jeremy Seabrook in his introduction to “Asking The Earth, the Spread of Unsustainable Development,” written with Winin Pereira (1990). “What it means in practice and in people’s experience is the increasing penetration of the market into more and more human territory. It means the enclosure of common resources and their transformation into goods and services that can only be acquired through monetary transactions.”
And so it was. The seeds of the staple crops, the grains, legumes, and millets grown by tens of millions of smallholder families throughout the Global South – what Seabrook and Pereira called the “two-thirds world” – were provided by corporations through government-sponsored programs in the 1980s. Until then, farmers had simply exchanged seeds with each other, relying on their communal pool of knowledge and judgment about which variety would work best in their particular growing conditions. Now, pushed by the corporations and supported by the set of policies collectively called “structural adjustment” by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the seeds of food crops had indeed become commodities. Once the very core of the food production cycle, the seed, had been turned into a corporate-owned and priced commodity, it only followed that fertilizers, implements and machinery, farming methods, grain and horticultural markets, and the land itself would become commodities.
The international of capital
This was all part of what came to be known as globalization. As a concept in the 1990s, it was not as inchoate as development, because globalization involved very concrete acts of buying and selling, except that it was the two-thirds world peasant who did the buying (usually with government-loaned money) and the new global seed-grain-and-fertilizer corporations who did the selling. Because of the wave of structural adjustment impositions, especially in South America in the 1980s, corporations involved in the “development” of the two-thirds world were already viewed with much suspicion.
But how was this force to be understood? Harry Magdoff, co-editor of the Monthly Review, was one of those who offered an explanation. “This new phase of globalization has now raised questions about its longer-term significance. One widely accepted theory envisions the erosion of national sovereignty in the centers of capitalism, presumably to be replaced by an international of capital that will make and enforce the rules of international relations,” wrote Magdoff in the introduction to his pamphlet, “Globalization: To What End?” (1992).
The “international of capital”? Note Magdoff’s deliberately provocative use of the term international to underscore the growing alignment between corporations and their financiers, both of the “developed” world and the two-thirds world. Thus, this new international increasingly required new institutions through which to operate. Some of these emerged as industrial interest groups, such as those formed by the world’s largest grain trading companies, which lobbied ministries and food administrations in the Global South to dismantle or weaken their public food distribution systems. Others worked within existing multilateral mechanisms, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union (built commercially on the foundations of the European Common Market), Mercosur and Nafta, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Their efforts were aided in no small measure by the pressure exerted by the “developed” (Western) countries on the governments of the two-thirds world to “lift people out of poverty,” “fight hunger and malnutrition,” “reduce illiteracy,” “improve public health,” “promote job creation,” and “raise living standards.” The Human Development Index was invented so that countries could be ranked: the laggards were admonished to globalize, those that moved up the rankings faster than others were praised. One of the consequences of this coordinated “development” push and pull was that rural districts in country after country began to lose working-age adults, who would normally be active on their farms and orchards, to cities and towns.
The paradox of economic growth and widespread malnutrition
Apart from the obvious change in the primary activity of the country’s labor force, this trend has had consequences that central planners and local administrators alike do not seem to have anticipated. In a commentary for an economics study group (2010), I had written about the rising trend in food prices in both rural and urban India. “This period is significant in the recent history of food price increases in India because it signals the intensification of the factors that led to the retail food price peaks of 2008, which had begun about two years earlier. Some of the most important factors have to do with the rapid pace of urbanization (most visible in non-metro Tier 1 cities) and the steady growth of the food processing and food logistics industries that has occurred alongside the deepening of agricultural commodity markets.”
Four years earlier, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had commented on India’s paradox of economic growth and widespread malnutrition in its report “World agriculture: towards 2030/2050.” “Judging from food intake survey data, the situation has worsened rather than improved, at least in terms of calories consumed per capita, and this phenomenon is fairly widespread, affecting all classes, rural and urban, and those below and above the poverty line.” The report’s authors had commented at the time that the situation in India was “getting worse in rural areas as people have to pay more than before for things like fuel and other basic necessities,” and that rural incomes had not improved at anywhere near the rates implied by the high overall economic growth rates.
The rural farmer, in the microcosm of the village and its agrarian community, had until then been largely insulated from the effects of the monetization of commodities, and especially from the pernicious effects of price inflation, for what he sold was surplus, and the rural household was adept at self-sufficiency. But no longer. By the time India began marching to the drumbeat of international capital in the mid-1990s (its economic liberalization is considered to have begun in 1991), China was already more than 15 years into its economic reform (1978 is generally accepted as the starting point of its period of economic globalization).
Contradictions between capitalist production and ecological processes
The enormous changes sweeping across the landscapes of these two giant Asian countries were most visible in the steady movement of people from villages to cities, in new highways and railways, in river dams and factory enclaves, but also in myriad ecological disasters. Elsewhere in Asia, entire riverine ecosystems, such as those in the middle and lower Mekong basins, have been endangered by the cascade of new dams; vast areas of tropical forest in Indonesia and Malaysia have been cut down – condemning the wildlife that lived there to death – to make way for monocultural palm oil plantations.
For much of the past 75 years, the smallholder farmer of the two-thirds world has defended both the farm and the commons. As the farm became harder to maintain – as the terms of agricultural trade were tilted against him by a macroeconomy based on factories and urban services and biased against informal local economies – and as the commons was fenced off and altered beyond recognition, this individual ecological defender could no longer defend it. “This lies at the root of the contradictions between capitalist production and ecological processes,” Monthly Review had observed in 2015, “for it means that natural inputs to commodity production, such as crops, minerals, fish, trees, and livestock, must be disarticulated from their ecological contexts and rearticulated in a production process governed by intertwined criteria of marketability and profitability.”
What is to be done?
Today, the subjugation of the small farmers of the two-thirds world (the Global South, the former developing countries) to the interests of ruthlessly organized global finance capital has led to the acceleration of what we now call extractivism. This extractivism includes hyper-industrial agriculture – in parts of the most industrialized West, a farmer is no longer needed, as autonomous vehicles tend to genetically modified crops, and drones, guided by satellite GPS, are part of a roboticized mechanism that extends backward from the food retail giants and forward into the homes of urban consumers with their “smart” refrigerators.
Extractivism also includes livestock and deep-sea fishing, large-scale mining, mega-projects such as hydroelectric dams, large-scale solar panel farms, mass tourism, and the maze of giganticized infrastructure required to serve this mammoth movement of materials. All of this has led to the new resource curse, that of land. because every country and territory, no matter how small, has land (or exclusive economic zones, as in the case of small island states), and thus all land becomes a target for the extractivist oligopoly, which has come to be called land grabbing.
Ever since the forces of globalization accelerated their drive to grab as much of the planet as possible, there has been no shortage of credible and authoritative reports – any number of them from the United Nations agencies and the multilateral system itself – identifying the cause of the problem (rampant finance capital) and the solution (a return to local, human-scale economies in harmony with nature’s cycles). What is left then? Only to make the right choice.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de