We Should All Be Peasants Now

We should all be peasants now.  The phrase keeps returning to me. But what does being a peasant mean and why would I want to live that way? I think about this for a reason.  It seems there has been a new round of colonialism spreading throughout the world. Peasants are being thrown off their land, their commons, in lieu of “investments” and modern agricultural systems, by and for developed countries in preparation of the encroaching food shortages that they say will surely arise from global warming.  They, the developed countries, suggest they can do it better, can grow food better, more effectively and can create stable jobs for the peasants.  The truth is, however, much of the world’s food is actually grown by peasants, for themselves, for neighbors, for trade or sharing, but that is not considered in our western mind solutions to world hunger. I have been thinking about this because the key to our survival, as it turns out, is our soil and healthy ecosystems, the water and adaptable, regional, bio-diverse crops. As it turns out, it is peasant systems, not our western ones, that can best manage the task.  Peasants do not translate everything, all things, into a commodity.  They live close to the ground.  Use what they grow. Live within the limitations of the commons. But still we dismiss them as “poor peasants” and throw them off the commons that are in most need of their care. I think about why we continue to do that, why we must deny them a livelihood, a life. Why they, in fact none of us, can live as peasants and how the very idea has been stripped from our language, our vision, our respect.
Westerners have lived within the paradigm of private property for so long that it has all but defined our relationship to the land and survival.  None, or few of us, have tribal lands, home lands, commons. None of us can understand a sense of place and purpose that defines their life.  Peasants, as they have been, would live in a common, a land before deeds, titles and ownership.  Not all, mind you, but many.  And I suspect this notion of shared space allowed for entirely different relationships to the land, to stewardship, to each other and survival.  Still, we have so long assumed that our western way was better that we have dismissed them as obsolete or, if we are honest, a little sad.  Poor peasants, poor people of “subsistence”. We pity them.  But I think they should pity us. The truth is, we city folks are all serfs, only fancier. We all work for the land owners and pay our way.  Oh we may own our plot, but our goods and services are mostly delivered from far and wide which, in fact, is what separates us from peasants. They may be cash poor but they buy less. They produce the goods and services they require.  And they supply for their needs within the balance of the commons – what it allows, how many it will naturally support. They do not speak stewardship but live it.  We westerners must work for the company store. We must leave our land.  All of us, day laborers for the man.  Which could have worked, I suppose, if it had not been the betrayal — the greed, the indifference, the stealing of the common resources for a privileged few.  Yes, pity us. I try and imagine what being a peasant would be like here, in the states, in my backyard.  I know I can touch really very little of it but more than the life my western mind offers, I lurch towards peasant mind.  I wonder what crops (though my space hardly allows me to call anything a crop) are most nutritious, what the region would allow, require, to feed its humble occupant, on this humble space.  I wonder whether it kale, onions, garlic, dandelions and, tomatoes.  I think of  grain and like a child I make the connection that high nutritional grains are the thing.  I bake with white flour too often and I am silly for it.  I wonder if I should grind my wheat berries for flour.  I think of making flat bread, fermented foods and growing beans. I think of systems, new systems.  Not stuff I can buy or be served by, but ones of and by the small bit of land I have been given.  And once settled on, these foods would serve as my family’s meals and not, specifically or preciously, as a cuisine, as we like to call it. And then I go out for a walk and see all the shops and all the food.  Ohhhh, lavender ice cream and delicious cheeses.  Thai fried tilapia at my new favorite restaurant. I resist and submit in different measures.  And I walk around like Alice down the rabbit hole (and actually tell folks that) because I cannot ever really balance my peasant mind with my western one.  Which is when I return to my backyard and think about being a peasant again or at the very least reclaiming the term.  Not for what I can or will ever be  but for the life it represents.  We should all be peasants now.