Monday, May 03, 2004

return to "civilization"

Internet-less for the last fortnight, I've been blissfully unaware of the world's apparently accelerating progress towards hell in a handbasket -- though a stray Economist back issue on the plane reminded me that it's not just "us": the EU and the WTO are eating it. More apocalyptically, I can hardly bear to read about the torture, obviously only the tip of the quagmire iceberg.

But, thankfully, I have missed most of that, so I will stick to the usual subjects here, drawing your attention to this Economist article on bioprospecting/industrial biotechnology, and Jim Barnett's lastest on Ann Veneman's mad cow lies about her red herring Harvard study. Also, North Dakota may get a ballot measure on GM wheat.

Not that you asked, but in lieu of the internet, I was able to read an actual book: History of the Italian Agricultural Landscape, by Emilio Sereni [bio, review]. Not that I imagine you are particularly interested in this book, or what I think about it, but:

There is an interesting contradiction at the heart of Sereni's thought: he celebrates the march of progress, in the form of an increasingly rationalized agriculture and its attendant productivity increases, even when these obviously cause 1) the proletarianization of the agricultural workforce; 2) the pauperization of the mass of already impoverished peasants, who are converted, in his words, into "surplus population". #1 is, obviously, the source of the contradiction, which is inherent (I would argue) in the technological teleology of marxism: progress, at whatever cost, is desireable, in order to create the revolutionary classes. My problem with this is, first of all, that it doesn't necessarily work: e.g., Sereni argues quite unconvincingly that the proletariat should be credited with the dramatic rationalization of Emilian agriculture around the turn of the century. More to the point, though, is that it is not entirely clear what is so good about this kind of progress. One questions how the "surplus population" -- allegedly created by the absence of such rationalization in Italy's south -- would have benefitted by conversion into a wage labor force, except by thereby acquiring a class consciousness (which Sereni anyway shows that managed to do without the benefit of northern-style industrialization). Instead of explaining how industrialized agriculture would have worked in the south (which it wouldn't anyway, for technical reasons), he ends up demonstrating how botched defeudalization induced the concentration of agricultural landholding (i.e., the precondition for industrial agriculture), which nevertheless went nowhere for social-cultural reasons.

But his data actually imply, contrary to his argument, that a rational allocation of land on small scale could have been economically successful, and would have avoided making an entire population "surplus." (He also ignores the idea of quality entirely, which is understandable, but not, I would argue, a variable that we really want to exclude).

Now whether or not this is "true" I have no idea -- the data do not really permit a conclusion one way or another, and his methodology is, shall we say, quirky. How it would play out in the very different conditions of the Po plain -- his proletarian poster child -- is another question. But these are questions that should be asked, and I do not understand why they aren't. Sereni's perspective is clouded by his odd fetish of squareness (seriously) as a criterion of agricultural rationality; an approach with obvious limitations in the geography of Italy. But the idea of a non-industrial agriculture is elsewhere, maybe everywhere, dismissed without analysis, and that is something that it desperately needs.

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