Persistence of the Peasantry and the Nature of the Modern Age

Kyle J. Anderson_Historiography of the Egyptian Peasant

As promised, here is an example of my work that I want to share with you. Click the link above if you are interested in checking it out. When historians speak of “historiography,” they are talking about the ways that other historians have written about a given subject in the past. For example, whereas early histories of the American Civil War might have focused on Abraham Lincoln’s desire to free the southern slaves because slavery was wrong, later histories have highlighted longer-term cultural trends that gradually led the north and the south in different, antagonistic directions. An historiographical essay studies the changes in how historians portray their subject matter. Smaller versions of these studies are also called “literature reviews.”

The link above is to a literature review studying the ways that historians and anthropologists have written about the subject of the Egyptian Peasant. When I was first sharing this topic with some of my friends in the Economics and Sociology Departments over a couple drinks, they laughed and asked: “Do peasants still exist?” They associated peasants with feudal times (think HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), and assumed that way of life was a thing of the past.

As a household unit that is at once a site of the production of agricultural/durable goods and a site of the consumption of these goods, the “peasant” or “rural small-farmer” mode of social organization is still quite prominent in the parts of the world which were once European colonies,  referred to by some as the “third world.”  Why would my friends–very intelligent people, some of whom worked on issues of International Development–conceive of this way of life as a thing of the past? What does this say about our common conceptions of history and the modern age?

For much of the past three hundred or so years, history has been conceived of by the great thinkers in the Anglo-American and Continental European traditions as a universal history. Influential thinkers like the German Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assumed that history progressed in such a way as to make humans more enlightened, and less repressed and alienated from themselves, over time. And so the barbarians gave way to the feudal lords, who gave way to cultivated bourgeois democrats.

As Europeans came into more frequent and proximate contact with people in other parts of the world (through advancements in naval technology and the development of a mercantile economy), they saw versions of themselves–only past versions that had yet to progress through the “natural” stages of history. The cultural justification of the imperial enterprise (the period from the 1600s to the early 1900s during which European empires dictated political decisions in most of the major ports and cities of the world) was the “white man’s burden” to advance these foreign people through the stages of history into the modern era.

Universal history–and therefore universal modernity–was a fundamental assumption of the colonial paradigm. But trying to study a subject like the rural small-farmers of Egypt on their own terms requires that we abandon the concept of universal history or else risk re-producing the kind of violence that marked the colonial era. Instead of speaking about “modernity” or “the modern age,” I find it more helpful to think about plural “modernities” to accommodate the experiences and consciousness of people like the Egyptian peasants.

What are the implications of a shift from talking about “modernity” to talking about “modernities?” Whenever we are talking about concepts that are associated with western modernity as distinct from the pre-modern era–for example, “Capitalism,” “Secularism,” and “Democracy”–we must located these concepts and their historical and geographic specificity; namely, by recognizing them as relevant for Anglo-America and Continental Europe. People with different histories, in different geographical locations and speaking a different language, will have to translate these concepts into the words, organizations, and institutions that they understand.

Taking this pluralistic approach to modernity explains a lot about developments we see in the world around us. In Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, religious knowledge has become the basis for political deliberation in the public space, complicating the relationship between Secularism and Democracy. In China and Japan, business and state actors collude to monopolize markets and create economic advantage, complicating the relationship between Democracy and Capitalism. These are the realities of the modern age for people in these countries.

2 thoughts on “Persistence of the Peasantry and the Nature of the Modern Age

  1. I wanted to post the comments made by my facebook friends in response to this entry here. I will provide them with anonymity, but it would surely be a waste if viewers of this blog could not see them:

    OldFriend: If your friends were serious, I can’t fathom the amount of hubris that exists in the Econ and Sociology departments of Cornell

    Me: I think the context of the comments is important. We were not having a serious discussion and it was more of a joking/knee-jerk response. But I think those relaxed situations are exactly where the hidden presuppositions behind a lot of thought that the social sciences are based on comes to light.

    OldFriend: Certainly, but the best and worst part about the social sciences is that there is a wide variety of competing ideas. I don’t have more information than your posts, but the idea of PhD’s trying to change social policy without being cognizant of the wider world comes across as dangerous.

    OldFriend: I like the idea of modern pluralism, but that doesn’t mean that all modernity is equal.

    OldFriend: I would rank democracy, by itself, as being not all that important.

    CornellEconomicsGradStudent: I wasn’t there for your quoted conversation, but just my 2 cents in defense of Cornell Economists. The term “peasant” is not very technical and so almost never used in the field – it would be much more common to describe such people via their socio-economic status, level of development of their country (LEDC), geographic location (rural), occupation/industry (agricultural workers) etc. In my personal experience it’s also not a word used commonly in a casual social context in the western world – it carries connotations of haughtiness, feudal tyranny and class condescension. When I hear the word peasant I picture Marie Antoinette shooing away a poor starved woman dressed in a dirt-ridden ruffled blouse and long torn skirt (who is about to return with a guillotine and get her own back, don’t worry. She ain’t no Hollaback girl). I don’t think any Economists, or at least any half-bright ones, would deny that serious poverty is still a problem, and often takes the form of agricultural workers in the countryside who enjoy little social mobility or freedoms. But responding jokingly with the phrase “Do peasants still exist?” may point more to the antiquated nature of the word, and the fact that the institutions of nobility/feudalism under which the traditional notion
    of peasantry thrived no longer exist. I would have reacted similarly to someone telling me they’d hired a ‘jester’ for their son’s birthday party.

    So to sum up- I agree with the notion of modern pluralism, but I think that for the sake of clarity and also so that modern peasants can “own” their own history and experience, perhaps we need another word to describe them. My vote is for ‘Stefanis’. You must admit the idea of a revolution with thousands of the Egyptian rural poor up in arms singing “This shit is Bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.” is priceless. [note: she is special]

    Me: You are correct that you were not there for the conversation and are not one of the economists in question (although I do use your Ph.D. comics post in a previous blog). The reason why the word “peasant” is still appropriate in the context of Arabic-speaking countries is because it is the most common English translation of the appellation they use for themselves, “fellah.” I will push for Stefanis in future conferences on the subject, however.

    As for economists in general, I do not mean to portray them in a negative light. Economists can teach us a great deal, but the impetus for this blog is emphasizing the unique contributions of the humanities disciplines, and in this case, it is the emphasis on particularity over universality that I am trying to bring out. In some ways, the notion that different countries can have different “levels” of development (LEDC) assumes the same kind of universal conception of history that I am talking about in my post.

    CornellEconomicsGradStudent: I wasn’t challenging the appropriateness of the word peasant – I’m sure to those familiar with Egyptian or Middle-eastern studies it makes perfect sense. I was simply explaining why an economist with no NES background might perceive the word differently: that to us the term is more socio-political than scientific (compared to say ‘rural agriculturalists’), and so we’d be understandably surprised at its use.

    The LEDC/MEDC distinction is a rudimentary categorization but sometimes a degree of simplification is required to give abstract scientific models tractability. When speaking more specifically of countries’ actual experiences, there are terms like BRIC, Asian Tigers etc to describe different models of development. In support of “particularity”, I fully agree that there is no one-size-fits-all path of economic progress. Each country develops according to its own unique set of resources, institutional makeup, colonial history, cultural underpinnings, trade relations, and the wider global context it exists in currently. I would never promote a “universal conception of history” by suggesting that Egypt is going to have the same development experience as (a predominantly rural) France did in the 16th Century. However, I’d like to point out (with tongue half in cheek) the irony that forsaking the use of ‘fellah’ in favor of its translation ‘peasant’, derived from the medieval french ‘paissant’, could be seen as doing that. Es-tu d’accord Monsieur? If we are “trying to study a subject like the rural small-farmers of Egypt //on their own terms//” I guess we could start by calling them by the name they call themselves.

    PS: If ‘Stefanis’ gets accepted as a serious term in your field, I’m totally taking credit. This my shit.

    Me: touche. I use the plural “fellahin” interchangeably with “peasants” and “rural small-farmers” in the linked study. I have a penchant for variety in my prose.

    I think we can agree that Economists’ concern with “abstract scientific models” is complementary with Historians’ concern with “particularity.” Yet there is little dialogue among the disciplines at present. Let’s talk, girl.

  2. Pingback: Women in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the Concept of Plural Modernities | Kyle J. Anderson

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