The moral economy of the farmer, and the problem with profit maximisation

Via Vinay Gupta’s blog, who cites a review of the James Scott 1977 book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia

The review cited is from Faruk Ekmekci:

“Scott complains that approaches to exploitation hitherto have been “too one-sidedly materialistic,” (p.165). Accordingly, his goal is to shed light to the moral/psychological aspects of rebellions and thus fill an important gap in the analyses of exploitation and rebellions, for “the problem of rebellion is not just a problem of calories and income but is a question of peasant conceptions of social justice, of rights and obligations, of reciprocity,” (p. vii).

The key elements in Scott’s analysis are norms of reciprocity in a society and right to subsistence of the members of that society. Scott argues that traditional (pre-capitalist) societies differ substantially from modern (capitalist) societies with respect to these two elements. Traditional societies in general maintain a “subsistence ethic” that prefers safety and reliability to long-run profits (p. 13). This “safety-first” principle leads peasants to favor those institutions that “minimize the risks to subsistence”, although they may claim much of the surplus (p. 55). On the other side, informal relations between the members of traditional societies provide means to secure the survival of individuals. Collaborative family and kinship ties as well as tacit tenancy and citizenship rights and obligations set up “safety valves” that rescue individuals at times of adversity: “a family that is hard-pressed will expect help from others who have fared better and will expect to reciprocate when the situation is reversed,” (p.168). The relationship between the landlord and his tenant are quite paternalistic in traditional societies. The landlord undertakes the risks of cultivation and gives financial assistance to his tenants. The tenant is considered “an inferior member of the extended family” of landlords in these societies (p.186). Thus, tenants under the traditional system “seem willing to put up with its injustices for the compensating security,” (p. 37).

By contrast, Scott argues that commercialization of agriculture and agrarian class relationships in capitalist societies strip the individual from the “security valves” of the traditional ones. In his in-depth analysis of the Burma and Cochinchina cases, Scott demonstrates that the intrusion of capitalist economic system into, and the integration with the world economy of, these regions throughout their colonial administration undermined the subsistence security of the peasantry in five ways: introduction of market-based insecurities which increased the variability of peasants’ income, erosion of the village protection, elimination of the traditional safety-valves, imposition of a fixed charge on tenants’ income, and stabilization of the taxes at the expense of the cultivating class (p. 57). On the one side, elimination of the norms of reciprocity results in the growth of permanent disparities and increases the polarization within the society; on the others side, disregard to peasants’ right to subsistence causes to the marginalization of masses and creates massive penury and hunger. While the new system creates small and privileged labor force, “it eliminates the main source of food for e greater number of landless Javanese. The potential for class polarization and conflict here is ominous,” (p. 211). It is these negative changes in peasants’ lives that undermine the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the peasants, for a peasant whose subsistence hangs on a balance faces not a personal but a “social” failure (p. 189).”

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