The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Agrarian Labor and Peasantry in the Global South

  • Rémy HerreraEmail author
  • Kin Chi Lau
Living reference work entry

The food crisis, which erupted in 2007–2008 and resulted in catastrophic effects on the peoples of numerous countries of the South, especially Africa, as well as popular rebellions, represent two of the many dimensions of the crisis of the capitalist world system. Other very worrying aspects include socioeconomic, political, ideological, energy, or climatic ones. The food and agricultural dimensions of the current systemic crisis reveal the global failure and deep dysfunctions that characterize the agricultural “model” imposed worldwide by financial capital and transnational agribusiness corporations since the beginning of the neoliberal era in the late 1970s, along with the implementation of the structural adjustment plans (SAPs) in the Global South and austerity policies in the North. For more than three and a half decades, the peasantries of the world have been suffering an intensification of attacks by capital on their land, natural resources, and means of production. These attacks have also been eroding national sovereignty and the role of the state; destroying individuals, families, and communities; devastating the environment; and threatening the survival of huge numbers of human beings across the world.

The dysfunctions affecting the agricultural sectors can be perceived by identifying a series of striking paradoxes. As a matter of fact, approximately three billion people on the planet today continue to suffer from hunger (one-third) or malnutrition (two-thirds), although agricultural productions are greatly exceeding food needs, with an effective overproduction of at least 150%. Furthermore, a huge majority of these people are themselves peasants or living in rural areas: three-quarters of those suffering from undernourishment are rural. Meanwhile, the expansion of the areas for cultivation worldwide is accompanied by a significant decline in peasant populations compared to the populations in the urban areas, which absorb the massive and persistent rural exodus, mainly into growing miserable slums. Moreover, an increasing proportion of land is cultivated by transnational corporations, which do not direct their agricultural production toward food consumption, but rather toward energy or industrial outlets (e.g., agro-fuels). In most countries of the South that are excluded from the benefits of capitalist globalization, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, a relative dynamism of agricultural exports derived from rental commercial crops coexists with increasing imports of basic products to meet food needs. Clearly, and urgently, things must change.

This chapter is an attempt to make sense of how these urgent global problems are manifested in the Global South and the North, and while there are common traits in how global capital goes after profit, the receptions on the ground differ. Hence, it is important for struggles in different parts of the world – affected differently but also sharing related features – to develop a concerted understanding of the problems and prioritize strategies that take heed of the differences and share common visions for the future.

Theoretical and Historical Framework

To begin with, a theoretical and historical framework is needed. Samir Amin proposed a series of analytical elements to answer major questions about the appropriate kind of agriculture (capitalist, socialist, or peasant) to guarantee the objective of food sovereignty; the agricultural productions to be prioritized to reach a development model able to conciliate the improvement in food supply and the preservation of the environment; and the reflection on the resolution of the agrarian question.

He analyzed family agriculture and the differences between North and Global South. In the North (North America, Western Europe), a modern and highly productive family agriculture dominates, supplies these countries’ food demands, and produces exportable surpluses. However, while integrated into the capitalist system, this agriculture does not share a characteristic of capitalism: its labor organization generally requires a reduced and polyvalent workforce. Within the capitalist logic, a significant part of the income generated by farmers – even land owners – is controlled and collected by segments of high capital, implying that their remuneration does not correspond to their productivity. Thus, family agriculture can be assimilated to the status of a subcontractor or an artisan working in a putting-out system, and squeezed between supermarkets, agribusiness, and banking.

In the Global South where peasant families constitute almost half of humanity, the types of agricultural systems vary, with wide differences in productivity among them (from mechanized latifundium to micro parcels, with lands for self-consumption or cash crop exports, etc.). But, taken as a whole, these Southern agricultures – often peasant ones – suffer from a (growing) productivity gap as compared to the North. Most family agricultures of the South are under-equipped, noncompetitive, and destined for subsistence food, which explains the poverty of the rural world or the inefficiency to supply food to cities. But the Southern peasant agriculture is also largely integrated into the local and dominant global capitalist system and their profits are consequently siphoned by dominant capital.

Here, the key question is whether agriculture in the South could be modernized by capitalism. Amin says no, and criticizes the notion of “food security” according to which the Global South should rely on a specialization in cash crop products for export to cover food deficits. It results in disaster, as the recent food crisis has shown. What is necessary is food sovereignty, and a sine qua non is access to land for all peasants, to be considered a goal toward which most struggles in rural areas are oriented.

Amin differentiates the types of land tenure systems in the South, depending on the ownership status. The first system is land tenure based on private ownership. Since the “enclosures” process in early capitalism in Western Europe, this is seen as the “modern” form of landownership by the “liberal” ideology’s rhetoric and management rationale by making land a “merchandise” exchangeable at market price. Opposing this idea, Amin asserts that it is unsustainable to draw from the construction of Northern modernity rules for the advancement of the peoples of the global South. To change land into private property, the present reactivation of the “enclosures” process involves dispossession of peasants, as in the colonial times. Other forms of regulating the right to use land are conceivable and can produce similar results, avoiding the foreseeable destruction by capitalism.

Land tenure not based on private ownership is the second system, which takes heterogeneous forms and where access to land is regulated by rules derived from institutions involving individuals, communities, and the state. Among these are “customary” rules that traditionally guarantee access to land to all families – but it does not mean equal rights. These rights of use by communities are limited by the state and only exist today in deteriorated forms, attacked by capitalist expansion. Frequently, European colonial powers left surviving customary practices to retain their domination. The same phenomenon is occurring today under imperialist pressures. Popular revolutions in Asia or Africa sometimes challenged this legacy. China and Vietnam (or Cuba in Latin America) constitute unique examples of the success of a land system based on the rights of all peasants within the village. This constitutes equal access to and use of land, with the state as the sole owner and equal land distribution among usufructuary families. Amin examines the evolution of this system based on the suppression of private landownership, up to now, and its ability to resist the attacks it is suffering.

Elsewhere, agrarian reforms implemented by nonrevolutionary hegemonic blocks generally only dispossessed large landowners to the benefit of middle (or even rich) peasants, ignoring the interests of the poor. New waves of agrarian reforms are needed today to meet the legitimate demands of the poorest and landless peasants in India, South East Asia, Kenya, South Africa, the Arab countries, and many parts of Latin America. This is true even for other Southern regions where capitalist private ownership rights have not yet penetrated deeply (or formally), such as in inter-tropical Africa.

This could be done through an expansion of the definition of public property to include land, along with a democratization of the state and the minimization of inequalities. However, the success of these agrarian reforms always remains uncertain because such redistributions maintain tenure systems led by the principle of ownership and even reinforce the adherence to private property. In the dominant discourse, serving the interests of capital and its agribusiness model, a “modern reform” of the land tenure system means privatization, which is the exact opposite of what the challenges of building of democratic and alternative agricultural projects based on prosperous peasant family economies really require. Therefore, the only obstacle to the fast trend of commodification and private appropriation of landownership is the resistance and organization of its victims: the peasants (Amin 2005).

Latin America

João Pedro Stedile examined the forms and tendencies of capital penetration in the agricultural sector in Latin America, and studies the current challenges imposed on peasant movements of this continent and their programs, in particular La Via Campesina. He begins by analyzing the mechanisms through which capital accumulated outside of agriculture has taken control of this sector and concentrated it worldwide in the current phase of financialized capitalism (Stedile 2007).

He elaborates how, due to the current crisis, large Northern corporations fled to peripheral countries to save their volatile capital by investing in fixed assets, such as land, minerals, raw materials, water, biodiversity territories, or tropical agriculture, and by taking over renewable energy sources, particularly productions for agro-fuels. This generated speculative operations in the futures markets and a rise in the prices of agricultural goods traded in the global stock exchange markets, without any correlation to production costs and the actual value of the socially needed labor time.

Stedile then analyzes the consequences of the imposition of corporate private ownership of natural resources on the life and organization of the peasants, with people and states losing sovereignty over food and productive processes. The destructive “model” of capital for agriculture – agribusiness, or “agriculture without people” – brings deep and insuperable contradictions.

With this aim, Stedile defends what could be the main elements of a peasant program that promotes workers’ control, anti-capitalist agricultures, food sovereignty, and environmental protection in the countries of the South. This alternative platform includes: prioritizing policies of food sovereignty and healthy foods; preventing the concentration of private land and nature ownership; diversifying agriculture; increasing labor and land productivity and adopting machines that respect the environment; reorganizing agricultural industries into small and medium scale, controlled by workers and peasants; controlling food production by domestic social forces and prohibiting foreign capital from owning land; stopping deforestation; preserving and disseminating native improved seeds and preventing the spread of genetically modified seeds; ensuring access to water as the right to a common good for every citizen and developing infrastructure in rural communities; implementing a popular energy sovereignty and reviewing current models of transportation; ensuring the rights of indigenous communities; promoting socially oriented public policies for agriculture; universalizing social welfare for the entire population; generalizing educational programs in rural areas and enhancing local cultural habits; changing the international free-trade agreements that function to the detriment of the peoples; and encouraging social relations based on human values built over millennia, such as solidarity and equality – which are the very values of socialism.

Stedile presents some organizational and political challenges for peasant movements, at the local and global levels, in order to face the current disadvantageous balance of power, where global capital is on the offensive to control nature and agricultural goods. Such an analysis results from the experienced realities in Latin America, and from the resistances of these peasant movements against capitalist destructions. And last, he suggests addressing the interests of transnational capital and its control mechanisms by: building a popular, alternative development model of agricultural production managed by the peasants and workers; by transforming the struggle for land into that for territory; developing a technological matrix based on agroecology, free schools in the countryside, training programs at all levels and alternative means of mass communication; and creating opportunities for mass social struggles and building alliances against the class enemies gathering all sectors living in rural areas as well as city workers, nationally and internationally.


With a specific focus on Southern Africa, Sam Moyo studied the peasantries who have suffered attacks under colonialism, post-independence, and neoliberal capitalism. He goes on to outline the perspectives of rebuilding them on the reaffirmation of the inalienability of land rights and collective food sovereignty. His starting point is the desperate situation of most African peasants, who are facing a crisis of social reproduction, food insecurity and insufficient incomes from farming, and their survival strategies despite the state’s withdrawal. Regardless of the diversity of African agricultures, their persistent and generalized failure to increase productivity and supplies as well as to resolve agrarian questions of enhancing the social reproduction of the majority of the peasantries – conceived as elements of democratization and national development – is clear and dramatic.

Centuries of systemic land alienation and exploitation of peasantries’ labor, through unequal integration into the capitalist world system during colonial and post-independence periods, resulted in the underdevelopment of the agrarian systems. SAPs exacerbated extroversion, extraction of surplus value, land concentration, food imports, and aid dependency. Recently, a new assault led by foreign land-grabbing actors dispossessed the peasantry of its lands and natural resources and intensified its labor exploitation. Such accumulation processes undermine the social value of peasant production based on self-employed family labor and self-consumption as well as its ability to adopt technologies and crops to expand low energy-intensive production for its social reproduction. These evolutions, which are driven by financialized capital and agri-business at the expense of marginalized peasantries, fuel local conflicts and accentuate the polarization of agrarian accumulation (Moyo and Yeros 2005).

Moyo presents an overview of the long-run history of the destruction of African food production systems by analyzing the trajectory of primitive accumulation and disarticulation of these agrarian societies. He describes the various phases, forms, and trends of land alienation, dispossession, and incorporation of the peasantries, from colonialism, post-independence developmentalism, to neoliberalism and its re-institutionalized primitive accumulation. He touches upon the current crisis involving land grabbing and “contracted farmers.” Then, he explains the underdevelopment of the agrarian productive forces, using examples from countries of the mal-integrated Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the qualitative changes in the agrarian surplus extraction and its externalization through the unequal world and subregional trade regimes under neoliberalism. Here, the recent global food price and agrarian crisis, especially in the SADC region, as well as South African capital’s hegemony are studied. Moyo assesses the social consequences of such processes on the collapse of basic food consumption and the increase in food-related poverty – except in a few “secure” enclaves – and on the more recent “alternative” strategies within the neoliberal context and the “push” to universalize the commodification of land.

The real alternative is one that supports priorities given to food sovereignty and a sustainable use of resources by autonomous small producers, in which democracy is inclusive and solidly founded on social progress. This requires a range of public policy decisions of restructuring these food systems, including the choices of the basic commodities to be produced in order to satisfy social needs, a redistribution of the means of food production (land, inputs, and water), substantial infrastructural investments, and enhancing the peasantries’ human resources. This task will also include regional integrations. A reorientation of the SADC region’s agricultural policies toward more collective strategies to defend food sovereignty and land rights is needed, in order to reverse the present free-trade and market-based approach of this regionalization.


Erebus Wong and Jade Tsui Sit, following Wen Tiejun’s theses, attempted to rethink the problematics of “rural China” in the development of the country in order to argue for rural regeneration as an alternative to a destructive “modernization.” The latter is often reduced to industrialization and the empowering of the state, pursued through several phases from the middle of the nineteenth century to the revolutionary period. It seems to be relevant to reconsider the intellectual heritage of the rural reconstruction movement – active during the 1920 and 1930s but much neglected today – in post-developmental China, where the rural sector has been historically exploited.

To understand the present situation of China’s peasantry – the majority of its population – it is necessary to examine the mechanisms involved beyond the collectivization-liberalization dichotomy. Land is a key issue for China, which has to nourish 19% of the world’s population with 8% of the world’s arable land. In spite of agricultural output, only 13% of its total land area can be cultivated. The explanation is to be found in the fact that land is collectively owned by village communities and distributed within peasant households, who use it mainly for food production to maintain self-sufficiency. Wong and Sit propose a historical overview of China’s modernization to capture the essence of its trajectory in the last 60 years. After 1949, the new regime underwent a period of Soviet-style industrialization, installing an asymmetric dual system unfavorable to the peasantry. However, despite the industrialization strategy, the peasantry has benefited from the radical land reforms.

Nowadays, many peasants are suffering from exploitation and injustice, but a few residual socialist practices subsist, including the legacy of land reforms. In the mid-1980s, the promotion of export-oriented growth generated flows of migrant workers from the rural areas to cities – mostly comprised of surplus labor force from rural households that owned a small plot, without land expropriation. The rural sector took up the cost of social reproduction of labor and served as a buffer to absorb social risks in urban areas caused by current pro-capital reforms. It also revealed its stabilizing capacity by regulating the labor market and reabsorbing unemployed migrant workers in cities during cyclic crises (Wen 2001).

However, mainstream intellectuals support the neoliberal ideology to advocate land commodification. Under the pressures of construction projects led by fiscally constrained local governments and real estate speculators, land expropriation accelerated in the 1990s. About 40–50 million peasants lost their land; the landless appeared in the 2000s, especially after the 2003 law modifying collective arable land legislation and excluding a new generation from land allocation through redistribution. Wong and Sit explain the dangers associated with such evolutions, which weaken the mechanisms of risk management through internalization in rural community, in a time when 200 million peasant migrant workers are living in cities and evolving into the working class. This is why, inspired by Wen Tiejun’s analysis of the agrarian and rural problem of China, they defend collective landownership in rural areas as the most precious legacy of the 1949 revolution.

China’s take-off is largely based on the exploitation of its rural sector. Today, the export-oriented model has become such a path dependency and internal disequilibriums are so deep that China has to make great efforts to switch its trajectory of development to invest into rural society, to guarantee social progress, and to preserve the environment. Solutions for an alternative path could be to reactivate and revalorize the status of the peasantry, to rediscover the pioneering ideas of the rural reconstruction movements, and to support the experiments of rural regeneration currently developed in the country, as renewed and powerful insights, both popular and ecological, to overcome the destructive aspects of contemporary global capitalism.


Utsa Patnaik exposed the political-economic context of the peasant struggles for livelihood security and land in India. She begins by recalling that peasantry and rural workers of the global South are under historically unprecedented pressures today by attacks by capital, especially on the means of securing livelihood, and among them land, in order to control the use of lands for its own purposes, and divert agricultural land for nonagricultural purposes. Such a movement looks similar to that of primitive accumulation in Western Europe of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, but today, the Southern peasantry has nowhere to migrate, except to the slums of the megalopolis. Peasants are now turning from passive resistance to active contestation of global capital domination, transforming them from objects to subjects of history.

She examines the agrarian distress, suicides, and unemployment in India and states that inequalities have increased considerably from the 1990s under neoliberal policies and that the living condition of the masses of the laboring poor today is globally worse – except where positive interventions have taken place to stabilize livelihood. In rural India, this situation results from attempts to take over peasant lands and resources by domestic and foreign corporations, supported by the state. In parallel, unemployment is partly due to the inability to translate higher economic growth without income redistribution into job creation, while purchasing power has been eroded by inflation prices of basic needs for ordinary people, forgotten by the ruling classes’ strategy of submission to financial capital.

The author points out that the main trend observed in the Indian economy – which has two-thirds of its workforce occupied in agriculture – is that the relative share of agriculture, forestry, and fishing in the gross domestic product, especially for crops like food grains, has declined, while that of industry has stagnated, but of services has increased. In a context of trade openness, fiscal contraction, price-stabilization system dismantling, and land acquisition for SEZs, the state has launched an attack on small farmers, in the name of “development” but in fact for the benefit of a small minority of real estate speculators, thus creating an agrarian crisis intensifying into the struggle for land.

As a consequence, small producers have been exposed to the ups and downs of prices, forced to be indebted to money lenders and banks, have lost lands against unpaid debts or even committed suicide. With the implementation of the neoliberal agenda, land ownership concentration is happening at an all-India level and livelihood insecurity is spreading. Therefore, farming is becoming unviable. The author analyzes the ongoing resistances of farmers to land acquisition or to change in land use (setting up extractives). She describes the repression suffered by peasant rebellions, and also the victories won when the state governments have had to withdraw their projects or concede compensations.

Patnaik recalls the economic characteristics of land, which is not produced by human labor, and the implications of its pricing, different from that of agricultural commodities (prices are anchored to amounts of labor used for producing them). Based on market capitalization of incomes, the price of land – in a capitalist system – can vary considerably, depending on its use and the associated yield. Here lies the root of the discontent of farmers, constrained (and cheated) by the state governments to sell their lands at low prices, that is, with compensations far below the profits earned by private investors or speculators, who parcel them for lucrative purposes. One adverse effect, among others, is that the total cropped area becomes stagnant and the growth in output slows down, leading to inflation in food prices and a contraction of demand. The author finally asserts that to think – like the corporates in collusion with the state do in India – that peasants can be treated as dupes is a mistake because they are now aware of their rights and are strongly resisting their exploitation (Patnaik 2011).


Rémy Herrera and Poeura Tetoe studied Oceania, specifically Papua New Guinea. They tried to elucidate the “Papua Niugini Paradox,” that is, the striking coexistence of an alleged “archaic” (i.e., not based on private property) system of landownership – as in most Oceanian insular countries – and the vivacity of the peasants’ resistance against neoliberal capitalism, such as the penetration of FDIs in mining, hydrocarbons and natural resources, including forestry and water. Access to land is a real issue in this country where a majority of the population is still involved in subsistence crops for self-consumption, “customary” rules persist on more than 90% of the soil territory, and the use of land is the source of acute conflicts between transnational corporations, the state and the society.

Herrera and Tetoe examine the people’s attachment to land. European colonization integrated the indigenous people into global capitalism, transforming most of them into small farmers and making them dependent on colonial plantation companies. Despite this tendency, a feature characterizing this peasant society today is the persistence of traditional institutions to defend collective landownership. The authors analyze this connection to land, customary practices and management, and collective ownership of land in a context where land is always the object of desire of private interests and under pressure to be registered and privatized. They also explain the ambivalence in the position of the state, which faces pressures from foreign investors and international donors, to the point that the dominance of traditional collective forms of social organization within the unusual structure of land tenure has not prevented increased exports of minerals, hydrocarbons, and agribusiness products. The protective role of the state over customary land use has only been effective where private interests are not involved and no natural resources have been discovered. Elsewhere, the state has been taking over land to sell the exploitation of all resources. The access to natural resources and their exploitation by foreign firms are being carried out with the support of the state, which articulates this process of land appropriation with the previous ancestral structures of collective landownership, without introducing “free” land markets.

Even though the logic of “ideology of landownership” is gaining ground and many peasants have been receptive to financial compensations, the social structures instead of collapsing have adapted to it. Despite pressures toward individualization of landownership, Papua New Guinean authorities have not succeeded in challenging customary collective landownership. The reason is to be found in the popular resistance by the peasant society against privatization of land, the imposition of modern register for lands, and their management by capitalist laws.

Herrera and Tetoe trace the history of the registration of customary land and the establishment of cadastral systems from the Australian colonial administration to the recent “land reform” component of the SAPs, that has been jointly imposed by the Papua New Guinean state and foreign donors. They affirm the legitimacy of popular mobilizations gathering large sections of civil society (and even of the military) against privatization of customary land as common patrimony and of their revendication for social progress, in one of the countries with the lowest social indicators in the world.

What is defended is the legitimacy of the principle of collective landowning and free access to the peasant community land; what is demonstrated is the possibility of other rules for land use; what is recommended is to maintain the existence of noncapitalist peasant farming. Constraints obliterate the struggles of a people longing to master their collective destiny. The government has little room for maneuver. But an alternative to neoliberalism is required, along with the emergence of a class alliance around the peasantry, to draw a modern development strategy that benefits the people (Herrera and Lau 2015).

Facing the Domination of Financial Capital

All these authors, whichever region they consider, emphasize the general failure of capitalism to solve the agrarian and agricultural issues. The deterioration of the situation of peasant agricultures following the exacerbation of the food dimension of the current systemic crisis of capitalism has confirmed once again the structural inability of such a system to resolve the internal contradictions it has generated since its very origins, not only at the local, national, and regional levels but also worldwide.

Even in the richest countries of the North, where productivity boosted by technological progress is very high and food provision is available for a large majority of the population, the problems experienced by most family agricultures to keep their smallholding farms, maintain their productive activities and work in satisfactory conditions, the problems faced by consumers to master both the variety and the quality of their food as well as the problems encountered by every citizen to conserve natural resources and protect the environment, are exceeding the bounds of the bearable.

The team of European Coordination of La Via Campesina examined the difficulties of European agriculture, which is diverse in its productions and structures, as well as the farmer struggles in this continent. Most of these farmers receive incomes lower than the minimum wages of other professional categories and live under the pressure of repeated sectorial crises due to neoliberal policies and the risk of elimination of their small- or medium-sized farms. While agricultural work is poorly recognized and the environment is threatened, subsidies intended to compensate prices that are often below production costs primarily benefit a minority of large producers and agribusinesses and impose dumping on the Southern countries. The confrontation is not between North and South but between two visions of agriculture: agricultural liberalization versus food sovereignty. The authors demonstrate that a Europe without farmers would not be proof of its development. Things will change only if European farmers and citizens act together, in solidarity with Southern peasant movements, to draw societies out from their submission to transnational firms.

The European Coordination of La Via Campesina explains the common problems encountered by farmers, in spite of their diversities, who are dealing with industrialization and globalization: productivism, disappearance of small farmers, attacks on peasant agriculture by agribusiness, indebtedness, outsourcing of agricultural production, monoculture plantations, dissemination of GMOs, pollution, etc. In the face of such destructions and the inertia of professional organizations defending the interests of dominant economic powers, European farmers have started to resist. The authors describe the evolutions of these struggles, culminating in the emergence of a European farmer movement, connected with civil society and international movements, to propose alternatives, from local-national to globalized struggles: against the concentration of lands by agribusiness, the introduction of GMOs, the appropriation of seeds by seed industrial firms, or neoliberal agricultural policies and rules of international trade promoted by the WTO.

La Via Campesina’s European authors analyze the alternatives opened by the global crisis of the dominant system. According to them, the tasks of the European farmers should be to make food sovereignty (conceived as a right and a duty) the framework of agricultural policies and to build a large alliance of European citizens – producers and consumers – to achieve this goal; to promote a new farming model generating employment, a well-nourished population and respect for the environment; to work toward global food governance; and to participate in international mobilizations for the defense of nature, climate, and biodiversity under attack by WTO free-trade agreements. Grassroots initiatives to relocate food production have multiplied today in the continent.

Finally, the European Coordination of La Via Campesina team concludes that another European common agricultural and food policy is possible, which presupposes deep changes in priorities. The latter should strive to maintain and develop a sustainable and social peasant agriculture, feeding the people, preserving health and the environment, and keeping rural landscapes alive; guarantee peasants decent living conditions thanks to stable and sufficient incomes and recognition and attractiveness of their profession; relocate food when possible; and allocate public supports in priority to productions effectively beneficial for employment and the environment.

In the Global South, where average levels of productivity and mechanization in agriculture are often weaker, the difficulties are more worrying. Today, nearly half the Southern countries have lost the capacity to produce and supply what their people demand and need to eat. Post-independence Africa was self-sufficient for its food provisioning at the beginning of the 1960s but is today a net food importer continent. Even as we highlight it here, around three billion under-nourished persons – mostly poor peasants or landless – are suffering from hunger, while masses of rural families who have lost their lands do not anymore have access to land and means of food production. In most peripheral societies pauperization is spreading, and the living conditions in rural areas – as well as in huge urban slums congested with the rural exodus – are dramatic, that is, simply inhuman and unacceptable.

Clearly identified by all the authors, the common enemy of the people – wherever they may be living (or just surviving), working, and resisting, in the South or in the North – is financial capital, which pushes people deeper and deeper into indebtedness and subjects them to super-exploitation. Despite the numerous, multidimensional, and complex contradictions of the world system, it is precisely high financial capital, in crisis, that has launched a modern conquista, characterized by repeated assaults on all public goods and common heritage of humanity, through a commodification of life including land and the environment, and an attack on livelihood, along with an overexploitation of labor – peasants and workers taken as a whole.

As finance capitalism becomes more barbaric and destructive than ever, the structural problem for the survival of late capitalism is downward pressure on the profit rates. Financialization as an answer creates only a debt-driven economy and the only thing that this system will offer, until it is in its death agony, is the worsening exploitation of labor and life. The peasantries of the Global South will continue to be dispossessed from their land and means of livelihood. The contradictions of the capitalist global system have now become so deep and so unsolvable that the system brinks on collapse. To be able to relaunch a cycle of expansion at the center of the world system, the current systemic crisis must destroy gigantic amounts of fictitious capital and transfer the costs to the global South – to the majority of the world’s population – as well as to the environment.

The present situation does not resemble the beginning of the end of the crisis, but rather the beginning of a long-run process of implosion and collapse of the present phase of financialized capitalism. For humanity to get out of this impasse, radical change is the only hope. This forces us to reconsider the alternatives of social transformation which must be beyond capitalism.

The difficulties are significantly complicated by the choices made by most of the states in the Global South – especially in the so-called “emerging” countries, such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa – in favor of (one of the many varieties of) capitalism. Beyond their recent success in terms of high GDP growth rates and despite their differentiated contents and implications, such pro-capitalist development strategies are illusory and unsustainable.

Converging Peasant Struggles Today

Hence, for the great majority of the people in the Global South as well as in the North, the struggle against deteriorating conditions is at the same time the struggle against processes of the globalization of capitalistic relations spearheaded by financial capital, that is, against capitalism itself. Among the programmatic demands are: agriculture should be withdrawn from the WTO; agro-fuels should be banned; and control of technology, pricing, and market by transnational agribusiness firms should be rejected. Demands put to the state to defend national food sovereignty are legitimate and necessary. But it has to be reckoned that in the era of the hegemony of financial capital, the role of the state is, more often than not, compromised. Global capital has bonded interest blocs across local, national, and international levels. Thus, exerting public pressure for critical policies against the aggression and manipulation of transnational agribusiness is a necessary strategic move for mobilization. While it needs to be stressed that a state’s reason of existence is to protect the society, failing which it might as well not be, the people and the movements need to at the same time actualize all potentials for reduction of their dependency on capital, debt, and the market. This is all the more necessary for peasant and family agriculture. The guiding principle is community’s control over and management of land and water as commons, which must not be allowed to be privatized or commodified. Agrarian reform to redistribute land to the tiller is high on the agenda in most countries in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The struggle is not just for “land,” but also for “territory,” which involves cultural, social, economic reorganization of communal relations to produce and live in a cooperative or collective manner. This necessitates that the “commons” are not objects for control or appropriation still operating in the capitalist logic but focal nodes supporting a different relationship of the community members among themselves and in relation to nature.

Food sovereignty remains at the core of the struggle. To attain food sovereignty, a mode of production other than the capitalist mode of production has to be practiced. This even calls into question national boundaries, for sustainable food production, distribution, and consumption is based on bioregions and watershed systems, rather than the political borders of modern nation-states. What is also called into question is the mode of consumption and circulation with its destructive impacts on nature and value systems of communities that have acquired the wisdom through the centuries to live in sustainable ways. One important insight is the practice of sharing beyond monetary measures that reduce social relations to calculations of gain and loss. The people’s struggles and demands show that in relating to each other, what needs to be envisioned includes modes other than those of capitalistic relations. They also demonstrate the importance of the ecological dimension by recognizing that the current capitalist crisis is at the same time a profound ecological crisis brought about by the extractive industries that exhaust the earth’s resources and contaminate water, land, and air; the industrializations that contribute to global warming and climate change; or the capitalistic systems of food production and supply dependent on petrol as fuel.

Strategies to reduce dependence on or control by finance capitalism are to be devised, ranging from establishing the state’s control over financial capital to the protection of food and livelihood items from price speculation and market manipulation. For the social movements, the paramount task is to defend food sovereignty at the national and local levels. Local self-organization at the grassroots level to place food sovereignty and environmental security as priority and to fend off attempts at manipulation by financial capital requires direct actions innovative in their intellectual and affective dimensions for going beyond the dead end of capitalism. In this connection, we see more and more debates in the social movements on the defense of the commons, re-ruralization, rebuilding of rural and urban communities that practice values different from capitalistic ones – values of reciprocity and communality.

A reimagination of the ways in which human societies produce and consume is the only way out of the catastrophic crisis that humanity is in. Without food sovereignty, i.e., autonomous communal self-management in the production, distribution, and consumption of food, no sustainable, diversified economy or political autonomy will be built. Without reversing the logic of the maximization of profit and the concentration of private ownership, especially that of land and the means of production, no state policy and leadership will be consistent or effective. Without radically questioning the hyperconcentration of power in the hands of high finance, no genuinely substantive democracy, with social progress and participation of the people at all levels and in all the processes of decision-making concerning their collective future, will be possible.

Thus, a key question in front of us is that of subjectivity and agency, i.e., the question of the production of subjectivities by the struggling people themselves in going beyond contradictions that inform their struggles. How can we envisage the classes and masses for this social transformation or revolution? What can be the role of family farmers, small peasants, and farm workers? We know that many progressive movements and leftist thinkers have historically had ideological difficulties to understand the peasantries and political difficulties to build class alliances with them. Yesterday as today, peasant and family agricultures are sometimes stereotyped as being underproductive, inefficient, backward, and condemned to disappear in the very movement toward “development.” “Modernization” is too often conceived as (and reduced to) industrialization, and more recently as extending services, that is, as being antagonistic to maintaining small or medium-sized family agricultures oriented toward self-sufficiency and local demand.

Consequently, and unfortunately, the anti-capitalist nature of family agricultures is unheeded; hence, its potential ability for structural changes and transformation of the societies and economies we are living in is underestimated. In social movements or worker organizations, many leftist theoreticians still feel that peasants are “residuals” of the past, defending corporatist or sectorial interests, and they are not seen as fighting for common objectives convergent with those of other workers and citizens. For this to change, it is necessary to take a radical critique of modernization, where urbanization and industrialization have been presented as progress and development, the violence and plunder of imperialism and colonialism have been concealed or understated, and racism brought in to justify the pillage. Alongside this progress, privileging an anthropocentric exploitation of nature, what used to be the commons are seized from the users, especially food producers in rural and indigenous communities.

In this predatory onslaught on the commons, production, rather than for the reproduction and enhancing of lives, is put into motion for the accumulation of more and more money – capital that seeks to command labor power and take control over every aspect of social life through mechanisms of privatization. Thus, the processes of globalization of capitalistic relations can be seen in a way as the spread of cancerous cells traversing the entirety of social life. Exploitation takes place by subsuming every form of labor into the valorization machine that produces values through the domination of fantasies and desires with an overflowing supply of monetary garb, the symbol of wealth and well-being that is in fact the instrument of the exploitation of life.

Hence, the struggle to recover the commons is to assert the right to autonomous life and self-management for the majority across the wide global spectrum. In the face of the difficult task of offsetting the almost irreversible damages to the very existence of the earth as habitat for humans and other species under global warming, climate change and human-induced catastrophes like the nuclear crisis, farmers, as much as workers or other social sectors, are the protagonists and actors for change. It is a question of alliance of struggles on all fronts, building interdependent and mutual support as well as learning from one another that enhance our capacities for autonomous life and self-management.

Access to land and other resources necessary for the reproduction of life, as commons, is a legitimate right for all peasants, workers, and common people. If food sovereignty is to safeguard modes of autonomous collective self-management, it is necessary to accept the continuation of family agricultures in the foreseeable future in the twenty-first century. If agrarian and agricultural questions are to be solved, it will be obligatory to liberate ourselves from the destructive logics that currently drive capitalism under high finance domination. If the present rules of the imperialist domination of international trade are to be modified, we, peasants, workers, and people of the North and the South, must unite and together face our common enemies – financial capital and its local allies – in order to recreate viable visions, rebuild alternative strategies, and participate in the long arduous road to communism.

This chapter is dedicated to the problems faced by the Southern (and Northern) family agricultures in the current neoliberal era of financial capital domination worldwide, and to the revival of peasant struggles for their social emancipation and legitimate right of access to land and food. Obviously, such struggles also concern all categories of workers and the people as a whole because what is at stake is the challenge to reach food sovereignty and to build our societies, at the local, national, and global levels, on the principles of social justice, equality, and real democracy.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), Centre d’Économie de la SorbonneParisFrance
  2. 2.Department of Cultural StudiesLingnan UniversityHong KongPeople’s Republic of China