This project emerged from a general sense of the urgent importance of tackling climate change, and from a reconsideration of the early Marx’s theory of alienation. In an article published in 2018 I engaged with a Spinozist reading of alienation as loss of objectivity (as opposed to a diminution of some innate substantial personhood). To understand alienation in this way is to reconceive the overcoming of alienation as re-objectification: the reconnection of human beings with the objectivity from which capitalist social relations have sundered them. This includes the development of new “essential powers” (akin to senses) alongside the production of new objects which themselves inspire the development of such powers. In the article, I argue that this dual process is one way of understanding what we mean by “cultural revolution.”
So far, so abstract. What does this have to do with the peasantry and ecology? One obvious way in which humans, historically, have been separated from their own objectivity is via processes of dispossession and enclosure. Separation from the land is a fundamental form of alienation. I thus began to be drawn increasingly to types of writing which enacted or figured forth a non-alienated relationship with the land and the natural world. I started developing notes towards a theory of what I came to call the “earthly” (and noted that whereas “world”, “planetary” and “global” had all been used as adjectival designators for “literature,” earthly was conspicuous by its absence. As John Berger notes in Pig Earth: “The world has left the earth behind it.”). I came to define the earthly as a material joy in natural life in common. Having hit upon this working definition, I was struck when I came across the following lines by Ruth Jennison and Julian Murphet on Rosa Luxemburg’s letters:
These letters, brimming with the most exquisite observations about bird-life and the vegetable regenerations of spring, as well as the music of Beethoven and the abstractions of Hegel, are the late efflorescence of an irreducible knot, between the scientific analysis of capitalism’s debilitating effects on the life of the people, and the romantic conviction of a shared spiritual substance with the natural world. This knot is, precisely, communism—not as a self-consolidating pragmatism, but as a sustaining, ethically underwritten solidarity with the capacity of the working masses to determine their own destiny, within the limits set by an ever-changing ecology of vital forces, value systems, and technologies of the species. (“Introduction,” Communism and Poetry, p. 4)
What I had been calling the earthly was, on this reading, communism by another name!
Yet, gradually, I came to be nagged by a sense that — in some curious dialectical twist — that which on one level promised a more concrete, material rootedness in the earth was simultaneously still too abstract (though the earthly remains something I plan to write more about elsewhere). Of the texts I was reading, those which dealt with working the earth often seemed more “concrete” than those (e.g., the new nature writing) which involved simply some leisurely encounter with it. It was whilst puzzling over these problems that I came across the theory and practice of agroecology; this unexpected encounter struck like a lightning bolt and led to further discoveries. Soon an entire interconnected world of which I’d only previously known fragments emerged into full view: soil health, food sovereignty, degrowth, La Via Campesina, the agrarian question – and, at the heart of it all, the figure of the peasant.
I was immediately struck by just how ambiguous the peasant is: simultaneously a global contemporary and living embodiment of a past that should now be over. The secondary literature on the peasantry and re-peasantization insists almost obsessively on the contemporaneity and modernity of the peasant. It struck a chord with an article I wrote a few years back on the postcolonial intellectual formation of Subaltern Studies, much of whose work is drawn to the figure of the peasant as a stumbling block for ‘Western’ historiographies premised upon narratives of ‘Progress.’ But it was only when I encountered the phrase “peasant modernism” in an important article by Philip McMichael that I was suddenly struck by the productive, paradoxical ambiguity of the term. It wasn’t long before I added a sub-title: “The Cultural Logic of Post-Capitalism” – both a playful nod to Fredric Jameson’s book on postmodernism and a reminder that “modernism” brings with it a whole range of difficult questions (periodisation, representation, core-periphery aesthetics, etc.).
So that’s how my present project came about: “Peasant Modernism: The Cultural Logic of Post-Capitalism.” It aims to identify the impasses of dominant discourses of modernity (on left and right), to explore old and new modes of (aesthetic and political) peasant representation, and to study the grassroots decolonization of intellectual production. Peasant imaginaries, I claim, will be key to any “Green New Deal”.
(Image credit: “Diego Rivera, Triumph of the Revolution, 1926” by Joaquín Martínez Rosado, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)