Friday, April 09, 2021

Venus Bivar - Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France

Until reading Organic Resistance I had a crude explanation for why it is that the food culture of European countries like France was so much better than we have in England. The reason was, I believed, because the processes of enclosure that took place in England with the development of capitalism lead to the complete defeat of the peasantry and with that, the systematic undermining of rural variations in food. In contrast, I thought, the process had been far less thoroughgoing on the continent, where the peasantry lasted longer and local food prospered, and indeed was protected, into more recent times.

It turns out that I was only half-right. As Venus Bivar's excellent account of the post-war transformation of rural France explains, the process is actually more complex. But also very illuminating for those grappling with the politics of France, the European Union and food itself. We also learn that what characterises French agriculture is not the localised artisanal food holiday makers and second home owners enjoy, it's actually mass produced export food.

Peasant agriculture survived much longer in France. At the end of the Second World War France society was still very rural, with 36 percent of the adult population working in farming (compared to 5.5 percent in the UK). The French government, in close alliance with US foreign policy, drove a programme of rapid industrialisation in the French countryside. Bivar explains that:

Between 1955 and 1975.. the active agricultural population was cut in half, and 40,000 to 50,000 farms disappeared every single year.... the average size of French farms almost tripled, from fifteen to forty-two hectares... By the end of the 1980s, just 6 percent of the active French population was still working in agriculture

The process was "ruthless". Bivar includes enough tragic accounts from farmers and their families who lost out in this process, to make the reader realise that what was taking place in a very concentrated time frame was very similar to the much more elongated process that took place in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the process in France was more than simply the engrossment of farms into larger units. There was a transformation in agriculture itself. Farms became larger, yes. But they also became mechanised, dependent on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and producing crops for the export market. As Bivar summarises:

Farmers lost their land, took on crushing amounts of debt, compromised their health with the application of chemical inputs and left behind their communities - all in the name of modernisation. Technocrats, neo-corporatists farm unions, the EEC, and the Credit Agricole [bank] all worked to further the modernization agenda, and in doing so placed a series of demands and constraints on agricultural France, the most extreme being the near abrogation of property rights.

The enclosure of English agricultural lands had finished by the 20th century. Its industrialisation began in the 19th century, but World War Two was the moment when British farming embraced the internal combustion engine. But British farming spent WW2 providing for an war-economy, while France had no state support or foreign aid. When this came after WW2 ended it came very fast and was very thorough-going. 

Early in Bivar's book there are a couple of remarkable maps, before and after "remembrement" of a small village. The before map, shows what look like medieval strip farming, and the post-map shows these strips joined together in huge fields. The "remembrement" process pictured could easily be mistaken for similar maps made during the English enclosure movement. Essentially this all but destroyed the French peasant food economy. It also destroyed the rural environment. As Bivar highlights:

much of the remembrement that was carried out disturbed the natural systems that had previously managed water and wind. Banks and hedgerows were destroyed while rural engineers implemented massive irrigation and drainage projects: 'Remembrement overturned the old inherited order of the fields, substituting it with the real-world checkerboard of the surveyor.'

So how come French farming today is know for organic, high-quality, low volume, locally produced cheese, wine and bread? The story of this, is another key part of Bivar's book. It is summed up in a fascinating advert that the author includes. It is one that at first glance looks like a modern advert against animal cruelty, highlighting the cramped conditions of animals. Titled "The life of a chicken in 1962" it contrasts battery chicken production with the lives of organic free-range animals. Sadly the whole text of the advert isn't translated, but Bivar gives us the highlights including references to "degeneration" and "civilisation". These words hint at the murky origins of the organic movement in France, lying as they do among far-right and sometimes fascist movements that sought to protect the French nation's purity and defend the interests of farming communities under threat from industrial production. 

In the aftermath of the radical upheavals of 1968, a new generation of leftists entered the countryside and splits within the organic movement, together with growing acceptance of organic food as an alternative to mass produced food transformed the situation. Today organic food is associated with environmentalism, the left (in its widest sense), yet as Bivar artfully explains, this certainly was not the case and the real story is much murkier, going back to the Vichy regime and French antisemitism.

Post-war France saw enormous struggles over the country's identity. This led to a turn to the EEC and EU as a solution to rural problems that could not be fixed internally. As Bivar writes:

Throughout the decade, the threat of domestic unrest, precipitated by recurring waves of agricultural protest, loomed large in a nation whose history was famed for its periodic outbursts of rebellion. The Fourth Republic, preoccupied by the war in Algeria, struggled to maintain stability on the home front without diverting precious resources from its military operations. As the colonial situation worsened, the French state grew increasingly incapable of addressing the mounting concerns of its farmers. Accordingly, European integration, and specifically the integration of agricultural markets, grew more and more attractive as a means of assuaging rebellious farmers.

In the aftermath of WW2 the French state created an industrial agricultural system that made the country one of the biggest food exporters in the world. At the same time they destroyed rural communities and traditions. In the vacuum, the far-right was able to fill a political space and in doing so created an organic farming movement that today is celebrated globally. The contradictions of this process however, including the active participation of farmers in rebellious protests, have left a number of fascinating legacies that are brilliantly unpicked by Venus Bivar in this book.

Its a remarkable work that packs a lot in, but remains readable and accessible to the lay reader. It's wouldn't be a bad book to pack for those planning a camping trip to France post Covid. It might not be the first choice to read while sipping French wine and nibbling some local cheese, but it will illuminate the political and economic forces that have shaped the landscape and the food you are munching.

Related Reviews

Isett & Miller - The Social History of Agriculture
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Monday, April 05, 2021

Christopher Isett & Stephen Miller - The Social History of Agriculture

This is an excellent materialist history of agriculture through human history. The authors have taken representative examples from numerous different historical eras and given a excellent general picture of the varied ways that humans have farmed - but their emphasis is on how the social and economic framework of different societies shape agriculture. As such they also look at the way that farming shapes society and vice-versa.

The opening chapters look at pre-capitalist societies. There are excellent overviews of Ancient Roman slave agriculture, Sumerian society and Han China, this is followed by a study of Early Modern farming, with material on Feudal Europe as well as the Inca and Pre-colonial West Africa. These few examples demonstrate that the authors have produced a truly global history. The arrival of capitalism transformed production and also transformed agriculture. The authors note:

Until the arrival of capitalist industry in the eighteenth century, the extraction of rural surplus via the control of land and labour remained at the centre of all economies and their political systems.

Given the approach it is no surprise that the authors focus on class and social relations. Though they do not neglect the nature of agriculture - from technology and equipment, to types of crops and different methods of farming. In fact the transformation of these practices through the interaction between societies, technological development and the rise of capitalism are key to the book. As this passage demonstrates, they shown a keen awareness of the dynamic nature of agrarian communities:

While African peasants met their basic food and fibre needs without recourse to markets, this is not to say they were 'primitive' or 'irrational.' Quite the opposite; our point is that African peasants found ingenious and practical ways to meet their needs without resorting to sales and purchases. With most or even all of their production unaffected by the requirements of market exchange, and thus not subject to cost-cutting pressures, they developed crop rotations that fulfilled their needs directly. They mixed animal husbandry with crops when possible and always engaged in polyculture. They adopted New World crops especially maize and manioc, when these appeared and where they proved suitable. Furthermore, communities endeavoured to provide the basic social conditions necessary to maintain and regenerate families. They compensated for comparatively simple tools and methods by sharing labour and decisions, while providing all members with farmland and access to surrounding resources.

The authors demonstrate how the arrival of capitalism changed these societies. Colonialism and the slave trade forced a complete transformation of society. But where capitalism developed agriculture was a key part of the transformation, shaping how society fed itself but also creating the capital that made capitalism possible.

These changes were marked by resistance and rebellion. The authors note several episodes of rural rebellion, including the French peasant revolts of the 1770s and the 1381 Peasant rebellion in England. The brutal processes that enclosed farmland as capitalism developed are certainly not ignored.

However I wasn't entirely convinced by the authors' framing of capitalist development and agriculture. The repeatedly argue that, in various parts of the world, agricultural societies tended to be inoculated against urban areas. So they argue in the Early Modern Period,

The peasants of France, then, raised output by devoting extra labour to the fields but had to contend with the demands of urban landowners and seigneurs. The peasantry provided the towns with textiles and foods but did not purchase items in return. 

But while the relationship between town and country might not have been equal in terms of material exchange. It certainly was not one way. Here I think that the authors overlook the dialectical relationship between the two. Historical accounts make it clear that there equipment and basic necessities were bought from urban merchants - salt or iron for instance. Chris Harman also points out, that:

At a minimum, the towns – and not just the large cities, but the many smaller towns – provided a market for the output of the improving farmers and some of the inputs that made improvement possible. These inputs were not necessarily just physical: also of importance was the spread of knowledge about how improvement was possible. One contributing factor to the economic advance of Bohemia in the century before the Thirty Years War was the circulation of books detailing the most productive agricultural methods.

As in their early chapters the authors explore the varied agriculture that arose globally with capitalism. There is a brilliant section on plantation slavery and it's relationship with emerging Atlantic capitalism, as well as studies of countries as varied as China and Japan, Russia, France and many areas of South America (including Cuba). These are all fascinating and I will return repeatedly to them when I need a quick summary.

The authors argue that the arrival of capitalism is the outcome of the class conflict between lords and peasants in feudal Europe. This application of the Brenner thesis, is, in my view incomplete and lacking in nuance (see this review for instance). However this theoretical limitation does not distract from the wider achievement of this book which is a significant contribution to our understanding of human history and agriculture. I highly recommend those interested read it together with Mazoyer and Roudart's book.

Related Reviews

Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Zabinski - Amber Waves
Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Namina Forna - The Gilded Ones

In her afterword, Namina Forna describes her first novel as an "examination of patriarchy". In contemporary fantasy writing this isn't as unusual as it might have been ten or twenty years ago, but this extraordinary young adult novel is much more than a book that places women centre of the story in a patriarchal male society. This is a novel intended, as Forna explains, to turn fantasy conventions upsidedown, but also to allow young black readers to see themselves in a novel. In a recent interview in the Guardian Forna explained that as a young woman and "Black Lord of the Rings fan" when she saw the films "no one on screen looked like me". 

Deka, the young woman hero of the story, grows up in a village were she is the most dark-skinned of the inhabitants. Her mother, now dead, was not a local and living with her father she has always been an outsider. As she approaches puberty she has to partake in a blood ceremony that will allow her to become an adult member of the village. If she bleeds red she'll grow up, if gold, she'll be declared a demon.

Deka bleeds gold. To her shame and the repudiation of the village she is declared unwanted. Disowned and then tortured and killed by the villagers and her father, she resurrects again and again. Like other "demons" she cannot easily be killed permanently. Eventually she is rescued and alongside others like her finds herself being trained at a special school in the capital where the emperor wants her to fight the deathshrieks - monsters that threaten the country.

This first book of a trilogy sets the scene well. Deka learns about herself, and her skills and discovers friends and enemies among other "demons". She also learns that the deathshrieks aren't the mindless monsters that she's been led to believe. There is a little bit of Harry Potter here - Deka goes to a special military school where she feels completely outside, both in terms of background and knowledge. But this is no pampered idyll. She is quickly forced to rely on friends as well as her wits, to survive and learn who she really is.

The book explores important themes in ways that don't feel imposed from outside. Sexism, oppression, violence against girls and women, as well as questions of race and skin colour are handled subtly. Ultimately this is a cracking feminist adventure story, that doesn't treat the young reader as a fool. That said, the issues that are raised, from young women going through physical and sexual changes to issues of social ostracism and racism are essential to the story. Some readers might find some of the themes challenging - there is quite a bit of gore! 

Reading this I felt enormously hopeful. I don't remember how old I was before I read a book that had a gay or lesbian character, let alone a young adult novel. While I wouldn't pretend that 21st century publishing is completely transformed, it is nice to know that young black and LGBT+ readers in 2021 will read at least some novels and find themselves inside.

Related Reviews

Novik - Uprooted
Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman