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John W. Warnock

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What's New in Political Economy

Agriculture and the Rise of Class Society

Is there any need for another book on the food? There are many relatively new books available on corporate domination of the food industry. There are a few quite good books on the history of the development of agriculture. In addition, there is the relatively new movement for change, the food sovereignty movement. It is growing in popular support, and this alternative has been described in the number of books and many articles.

However, none of the existing books, including those with a political economy approach, deal with the fundamental change in human society that occurred with the shift from egalitarian, democratic communities, those based on foraging, hunting and gathering, and swidden agriculture, to the hierarchical, authoritarian societies which became the norm with the "neolithic revolution." The introduction of agriculture as the fundamental means of production led to the development of societies based on social class divisions, gender divisions, imperial systems, and the degradation of the environment.

The food system today

The production and distribution of food today in the western capitalist world system is completely dominated by corporate agribusiness. The farming sector is controlled by the farm supply sector, finance capital, the food processing sector and the food distribution system. The way food is produced is being radically changed by the vertical integration of farms with large capitalist food enterprises. The most recent changes are the most far reaching: the introduction of genetically engineered crops and the narrowing of the gene pool base for animals grown for human consumption.

In addition, research and development of the industry is controlled by corporate agribusiness. This is dominant even in public institutions, such as colleges of agriculture and government-financed research stations. Gone are the days when those in research, whose salaries were paid for by the taxpayers, placed at least some importance on serving the public good. Today research by these institutions in controlled and even jointly financed by corporate agribusiness.

The present food system is completely dependent on an enormous fossil fuel subsidy. By any standard of what is efficient use of energy, the food industry is a disaster. In addition, this new industrial food system produces extensive environmental contamination and greatly contributes to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. One only has to think of the impact of the world animals-for-food regime.

The food system today has become truly international. The move to the free trade free market regime in the 1980s was the product of political pressure from the corporate sector of the economy, including the large food corporations. Now that this world system has been implemented, it is very difficult for any country to adopt an alternative. Think how difficult it has been for the general population and farmers of Europe to try to exclude genetically engineered crops from their food system.

Is an alternative possible?

A number of alternative political economy strategies of food production and consumption have been proposed, including the food security system. However, any move towards an ecological, egalitarian and democratic alternative is faced with the reality of the present world capitalist system. A few alternative models may be developed and introduced on a sub-national basis, but any change in the present economic system requires significant political change. Is it possible for any government to shift direction to a sustainable and just food system? That is the key question.

Today there are three major challenges to the present system of growing food and feeding people. The first is the reality of global warming and climate change. The second major challenge is how to re-establish a system of food production that works with local farming conditions and supports the diversity of food systems necessary for sustainability. How can governments of nation-states introduce and implement policies which run counter to the free trade and free market system that is entrenched? The third major problem is how can we feed the one billion people in the world today who have insufficient food? The present power structures on the international and national level are all firmly committed to the expansion of the present agribusiness system including the widespread introduction of genetically engineered crops and food animals. The model of monoculture, the use of fossil fuel energy to try to dominate and change nature, is the ruling system of world agriculture and the dominant political culture.

The present alternative to these developments is the introduction of the ecological agriculture model promoted by the food sovereignty movement. How could this alternative be implemented?. Is it the best system for those who are trying to make a living farming? Would it be possible to shift the huge subsidies that governments now give to the agribusiness industry to an alternative strategy? How could democratic forces override the power of corporate agribusiness and their political and ideological allies?

The real world today is that of advanced capitalism. It has its roots in the introduction of inequality and hierarchical political and economic domination. This is the system that emerged and replaced the democratic order which had been in place for millions of years of human evolution. The shift in systems came with the beginning of the agricultural revolution. The present capitalist order is a natural outgrowth of the shift to individualism and the introduction of the private ownership of natural resources, beginning with land.

The Roman empire ended the democratic experiments of Classical Greece. Since then the dominant order has been inequality and hierarchical rule by the powerful economic elite. Following the beginning of modern capitalism in the 17 th century, there has been a revival of the movement for democracy. This has been led by the class of people who do not own the means of production but are required to sell their physical and mental labour in order to survive. But the steady push towards democracy has always been met with strong opposition from the privileged ruling classes. They have readily used the power of the state to crush the forces of democracy. Given the enormous power of the state today, including its domination over ideology, the fundamental question has to be: is it possible to re-create a democratic society?

The book in outline

This will be a popular trade book covering the history of food production for human beings. It will feature relatively short essays on each major topic. Coupled with this will be breaks in the text of two pages each featuring a current type of ecological food production in Saskatchewan by commercial farmers. A single family or business will be the focus of one page covering their production and marketing system with an adjoining photo of the farmers and their operations. The focus will be on how farming can be done at this time in a sustainable and ecological way. The purpose of these sidebars is to illustrate the fact that a serious alternative is already present.

The book will trace the movement of humans beyond the hunting and gathering stage of development to horticulture, the crops and animals chosen for domestication, the beginning of class society, and the revolution which came with the introduction of irrigation and plow agriculture. In contrast to almost all other books on farming and food, there will also be a focus on pre-capitalist value systems.

One of the major changes in the area of food production was the shift from communal ownership of land to private ownership and control of land. With this came the intensification of the patriarchal family system. Farmers were now men, who owned the land. The wives and children of lower class small farm families worked very hard on the family farm. Women who were of the upper classes were basically moved into the house, were expected to produce male heirs while maintaining the household, but were excluded from any status as farmers or owners. They were transformed into dependent non-citizens.

As soon as farming practices improved and farmers could produce a surplus over and above what was needed for their own reproduction, a class system developed. The economic surplus produced by farmers was seized by new ruling classes. A number of these early systems will be briefly examined.

A radical change in food production and distribution came with the introduction of capitalism and the use of fossil fuel energy. Capitalism demanded the system of private and individual ownership of land and resources. Farming fundamentally changed with the shift to the production of food as commodities for sale in the market. Food distribution was based on ability to pay. The capitalist system of food production was introduced during the mercantile capitalist period (1600-1750) and was transferred around the world through the imperialism and colonialism of the western European countries and their state-supported corporations. With the inclusion of the countries and communities of the global South, food production became an international system.

The introduction of the capitalist system of food production, based on production by individual farming household units, occurred over a long period of time. Large land owners were allied with the ruling classes of the day. Everywhere, peasants and small farmers undertook political struggles of resistance. But over time small food producers, representing a large percentage of the world's population, all faced defeat. The political state provided strong support for capitalist development and corporate agribusiness. The ruling classes ruled the system.

The introduction of fossil fuels transformed the food system. Fossil fuels were used to replace human labour and animal power. The domination of agribusiness over producers has been greatly enhanced by the scientific revolution of food production. As capitalism advanced, food and beverage corporations demanded uniformity of production in order to reduce costs and maximize profits for private investors. The remaining individual commercial farms and their operators became cogs in the vertically integrated system.

In the twentieth century the successful working class social revolutions in Russia and China and a few other countries led to new approaches to the production of food. In most of these state socialist countries, the land was nationalized, a return to the democratic pre-capitalist system. In many ways these governments supported and copied the dominant industrial model of food production that existed in the capitalist countries. But in other ways they introduced radical changes to the social structure of farming. Almost all of these experiments have been reversed. Few know that there was actually strong resistance in most of the former state socialist countries to the political demand of a return to private, family farming. The innovations and experiences of this period are excluded from all the mainstream books on food and agriculture. But they demonstrated that there was a viable alternative to the dominant capitalist system of food production.

The conclusion will show that a clear alternative exists. But this system will not be implemented until there is a political revolution. The food crisis demands a new democracy.

Rough Outline:


I. The beginning of agriculture
II. The creation of a surplus and class society; city and hinterland III. Mercantile capitalism IV. The capitalist revolution V. The experiment of socialist alternatives VI. The capitalist food system today VII: Problems with the dominant system VIII. Are there alternatives? Saskatchewan examples of alternative farming
  1. Organic family farm operations
  2. Churchill Park Greenhouse operation
  3. Commercial free range poultry operations
  4. Market gardening for local markets - is commercial organic possible?
  5. Cattle - free range, no chemicals, commercial herding
  6. Commercial ecological hog farms using traditional systems
  7. Co-op farms are still possible
  8. Integrating pasture, animals and cropping
  9. The successes of the PFRA
  10. Community pastures
  11. Swift Current agricultural research

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