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agrarian question

  Refers to the forms in which capitalist relations transform the agrarian sector and the political alliances, struggles and compromises which emerge around different trajectories of change. The founding theoretical text in studies of the agrarian question is Karl Kautsky\'s magnificent book The agrarian question of 1899. Kautsky\'s focus on the agrarian question in western Europe rested on a striking paradox: agriculture (and the rural) came to assume a political gravity precisely at a moment when its weight in the economy was waning. Agriculture\'s curious political and strategic significance was framed by two key processes: the first was the growth and integration of a world market in agricultural commodities (especially staples) and the international competition which was its handmaiden; and the second was the birth and extension into the countryside of various forms of parliamentary democracy. Both forces originated outside the agrarian sector but lent to agriculture its particular political and economic visibility. International competition in grains was driven not only by the extension of the agricultural frontier in the US, in Argentina, in Russia and eastern Europe (what Kautsky called the \'colonies\' and the \'Oriental despotisms\'), but also by improvements in long-distance shipping, by changes in taste (for example from rye to wheat) and by the inability of domestic grain production to keep up with demand. As a consequence of massive new supplies, grain prices (and rents and profits) fell more or less steadily from the mid-1870s to 1896 (Konig, 1994). It was precisely during the last quarter of the nineteenth century when a series of protectionist and tariff policies in France (1885), Germany (1879) and elsewhere were implemented to insulate the farming sector. New World grain exports were but one expression of the headlong integration of world commodity and capital markets on a scale and with an intensity then without precedent and, some would suggest, unrivalled since that period.

Kautsky devoted much time to the Prussian Junkers and their efforts to protect their farm interests. But in reality the structure of protection only biased the composition of production in favour of grains (and rye in particular) grown on the East Elbian estates. Tariffs provided limited insulation in the protectionist countries, while the likes of England, The Netherlands and Denmark actually adopted free trade (Konig, 1994). Protection did not, and could not, save landlordism but was rather a limited buffer for a newly enfranchised peasant agriculture threatened by the world market. The competition from overseas producers ushered in the first wave of agricultural protectionism, and in so doing established the foundations of the European \'farm problem\' whose political economic repercussions continue to resonate in the halls of the European Commission, the GATT/WTO, and trade ministries around the world (Fennell, 1997).

The agrarian question was a product of a particular political economic conjuncture but was made to speak to a number of key theoretical concerns which arose from Kautsky\'s careful analysis of the consequences of the European farm crisis: falling prices, rents and profits coupled with global market integration and international competition. In brief he discovered that: (i) there was no tendency for the size distribution of farms to change over time (capitalist enterprises were not simply displacing peasant farms, indeed German statistics showed that middle peasants were increasing their command of the cultivated area); (ii) technical efficiency is not a precondition for survivorship (but self-exploitation might be); and (iii) changes driven by competition and market integration did transform agriculture but largely by shaping the production mix of different enterprises, and by deepening debt-burdens and patterns of outmigration rather than by radically reconfiguring the size distribution of farms. The crisis of European peasants and landlords in the late nineteenth century was \'resolved\' by intensification (cattle and dairying in particular in a new ecological complex) and by the appropriation of some farming functions by capital in processing and agro-industry (see also Goodman et al., 1987) (see agro-food system).

Kautsky concluded that industry was the motor of agricultural development — or more properly agro-industrial capital was — but that the peculiarities of agriculture, its biological character and rhythms (see Wells, 1996; Mann, 1990), coupled with the capacity for family farms to survive through self-exploitation (i.e. working longer and harder to in effect depress \'wage levels\'), might hinder some tendencies, namely, the development of classical agrarian capitalism. Indeed agro-industry — which Kautsky saw in the increasing application of science, technology and capital to the food processing, farm input and farm finance systems — might prefer a non-capitalist farm sector. In all of these respects — whether his observations on land and part-time farming, of the folly of land redistribution, his commentary on international competition and its consequences, or on the means by which industry does or does not take hold of land-based production — Kautsky\'s book was remarkably forward-looking and prescient.

Terry Byres (1996) has suggested that there are three agrarian questions. The first, posed by Engels, refers to the politics of the agrarian transition in which peasants constitute the dominant class: what, in other words, are the politics of the development of agrarian capitalism? The second is about production and the ways in which market competition drives the forces of production toward increased yields (surplus creation on the land in short). And the third speaks to accumulation and the flows of surplus and specifically inter-sectoral linkages between agriculture and manufacture. The latter Byres calls \'agrarian transition\' and embraces a number of key moments, namely growth, terms of trade, demand for agrarian products, proletarianization, surplus appropriation and surplus transfer. Byres is concerned to show that agriculture can contribute to industry without the first two senses of the agrarian question being, as it were, activated, and to assert the multiplicity of agrarian transitions (the diversity of ways in which agriculture contributes to capitalist industrialization with or without \'full\' development of capitalism in the countryside). While Byres\' approach has much to offer, it suffers from a peculiar narrowness. On the one hand, it is focused on the internal dynamics of change at the expense of what we now refer to as globalization. On the other, the agrarian question for Byres is something that can be \'resolved\' (see also Bernstein, 1996). Resolved seems to imply that once capitalism in agriculture has \'matured\', or if capitalist industrialization can proceed without agrarian capitalism (\'the social formation is dominated by industry and the urban bourgeoisie\'), then the agrarian question is somehow dead. This seems curious on a number of counts, not the least of which is that the three senses of the agrarian question are constantly renewed by the contradictory and uneven development of capitalism itself. It is for this reason that we return to Kautsky since his analysis embraced all three dimensions of the agrarian question (something seemingly not acknowledged by Byres) and because he focused so clearly on substantive issues central to the current landscape of agro-food systems: globalization, vertical integration, the importance of biology in food provisioning, the application of science, the shifts of power off farm, the intensification of land-based activities, and the new dynamisms associated with agro-processing (Goodman and Watts, 1997; McMichael, 1996). Of course Kautsky could not have predicted the molecular revolution and its implications or the role of intellectual property rights and so on. But it is an engagement with his work that remains so central.

Kautsky was of course writing toward the close of an era of protracted crisis for European agriculture, roughly a quarter of a century after the incorporation of New World agricultural frontiers into the world grain market had provoked the great agrarian depressions of the 1870s and 1880s. A century later, during a period in which farming and transportation technologies, diet and agricultural commodity markets are all in flux, the questions of competition, shifting terms of trade for agriculture, and subsidies remain politically central in the debates over the European Union, GATT and the neo-liberal reforms currently sweeping through the Third World. Like the 1870s and 1880s, the current phase of agricultural restructuring in the periphery is also marked (sometimes exaggeratedly so) by a phase of \'democratization\' (Kohli, 1994; Fox, 1995: cf. core-periphery model). Agrarian parallels at the \'centre\' can be found in agriculture\'s reluctant initiation into the GATT/ WTO trade liberalization agreement, albeit with a welter of safeguards, and, relatedly, the dogged rearguard action being fought by western European farmers against further attempts to renegotiate the post-war agricultural settlement, which reached its protectionist apotheosis in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) during the 1980s. It is a picture clouded, however, by the strange bedfellows that the CAP has joined in opposition, including environmentalists, food safety activists, animal liberationists, bird watchers, rural preservationists, and neo-conservative free marketeers. All of which is to say that if agrarian restructuring has taken on global dimensions, it is riddled with unevenness and inequalities (and here claims that the agrarian question is \'dead\' appear rather curious). The rules of the game may be changing, but the WTO playing field is tilted heavily in favour of the OECD sponsors of this neo-liberal spectacle. (MW)

References Bernstein, H. 1996: Agrarian questions then and now. Journal of Peasant Studies 24 (1/2): 22-49. Byres, T. 1996: Capitalism from above and below. London: Macmillan. Fennell, R. 1997: The Common Agricultural Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Fox, J. 1995: Government and rural development in rural Mexico. Journal of Development Studies 29: 610-4 4. Goodman, Sorj, B. and Wilkinson, J. 1987: From farming to biotechnology. Oxford: Blackwell. Goodman, D. and Watts, M., eds, 1997: Globalizing food. London: Routledge. Kautsky K. 1899: The agrarian question. London: Zwan (1988). Kohli, A. 1994: A democracy of economic orthodoxy. Third World Quarterly 14: 671-89. Konig, H. 1994: The failure of agricultural capitalism. London: Routledge. Mann, S. 1990: Agrarian capitalism. Durham: University of North Carolina Press. McMichael, P., ed., 1996: Food and agrarian orders in the world economy. New York: Praeger. Wells, M. 1996: Strawberry fields. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.



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