Wednesday, August 8, 2018

No ... Is An Island


“From Commune to Capitalism – How China’s Peasants Lost Collective Property and Gained Urban Poverty,” by Zhun Xu, 2018

This short book is an excellent introduction to the recent agrarian question in China, and by extension, to what is happening in the rest of the world to peasants and land.  Xu is a Maoist / Marxist who thinks China is now capitalist, a process he thinks started with the land reform of the early 1980s in China that turned land from collectives to individually farmed plots.  Whether you believe China is completely capitalist or not is actually irrelevant to how he looks at the land question, which is based on his factual analysis. 

From Rural to Urban

One of Xu’s contributions is to look at the land question across the world, not just limiting his analysis to China.  Xu tracks the wave of various forms of land reform and collectivization that occurred in many different countries like Egypt and Mexico after World War I and II, and how that ‘wave’ fell back starting in the 1980s with the advent of the neo-liberal market strategy, a strategy which was partly embraced by the Chinese Communist Party majority.  Mao had advocated collectives, but after his death the majority of the CCP called for a return to individual family farming (the ‘household responsibility system’ - HRS) in 1979.  This transition was completed by 1984.  Xu makes the valuable point that political economy is a ‘world’ system, so not one in which one country, one island or one bloc can survive unchanged.

Xu outlines 3 main approaches to the land question in China – collectivization, individual family farming and capitalist large farming.  Of course as we know, in every country there are bridges between each category, as you only have to track how large family farms in the U.S. are basically contractors for giant agribusinesses.  China’s land was collectivized in the 1950s at a Commune, Brigade and Production Team level.  Land was held in common, worked in common and the benefits were shared in common.  According to his detailed statistical look at the issue, large infrastructure projects, health, education and an increase in production of 2 of the top 3 crops in China all made great strides under collectivization.  At the same time, HRS de-collectivization in the 1980s, while giving a temporary boost to profits and to production, ultimately did not actually do better than collectivization and in certain ways, worse.  Besides production stagnation, major rural infrastructure projects disappeared, schools were shut down and clinics closed.

Xu’s main point is to challenge the CCP (and Western capitalist) assumption that de-collectivization was a., more productive and b., voluntary.  According to his research, it was neither.  This has huge implications for the Marxist strategy towards land reform, as China was the largest recent attempt at collectivization.  To combat the anti-collective view, he especially looks at the pro-privatization research by Justin Lin, published in the American Economic Review.  

In 2008 the CCP leadership encouraged peasants to sell their land to larger capitalist farmers, as the CCP now favors consolidation of landholdings.  This happens under the natural course of capital too, which leads to oligarchy or monopoly in every financial area.  Land consolidation under capital is slower, given the inherent weaknesses of large farming. In China, land leases for 20 and 70 years can be sold, though all land is technically socialized as to its ultimate ownership, based on the Chinese Constitution.  In practice individual landholding in China is becoming a middle step towards large capitalist farms, with the aide of government policy, but on ‘leased’ land.

On the issue of whether de-collectivization was ‘voluntary’ Xu’s statistical studies, first-person visits to Songzi County to interview peasants and a study of CCP and other documents showed that the CCP Central Committee ordered de-collectivization – it was a top-down strategy.  Any rural cadre that wanted to keep their position had to eventually go along, and many found material benefits in doing so.  The only broad democracy in the rural areas was on the Production Team level, while Brigade and Commune were determined by cadre vote only or appointment from above.

Xu discusses the broad issue of ‘laziness’ that collectivization was accused of fostering, and shows it to be a result of bureaucratic stratification or cadre corruption in some Brigades or Communes.  He touches on issues like debt in the Communes, as a segment of farmers never earned enough and had to take interest-free loans from the Commune.  He shows how improvements in seeds, irrigation and ostensible benefits of fertilizer (organic to chemical) in collectivized times helped making the transition to individual household plots look better.  In addition, the CCP raised agricultural prices for a time during the transition.  So the ‘wind’ of HRS was really one powered by 25+ years of collective farming or a hand from above.

In this study Xu does not deal with the Chinese famine in 1959, leaving it unexplained.  This seems to be a big issue.  His allegation that China is now a fully capitalist country is not explained either, though this book certainly shows how granular privatization took hold in the agrarian sector.  He does call for workers and peasants’ power at the base of the society, i.e. a proletarian democracy enlarged from below, but he realizes the impetus is now with the Chinese urban working class, not the peasantry, to accomplish this.

Xu thinks the privatization of land was done to weaken the peasant-worker alliance, as the working class had first resisted similar moves.  In this way, both groups were split from each other, allowing the CCP bureaucracy to ‘divide and conquer.’  As has been seen, the small plots ultimately could not produce enough for whole families to survive.  So HRS privatization became the means by which the countryside provided the cities with millions of rural workers that Chinese export industrialization needed.  This is similar to what happened in Russia during Czarist times, as the villages provided the raw labor for beginning Russian industrialization.  This is presently true all over the world, which is why the land question is intimately related to the labor question. 
Land Use in the U.S. - The majority is animal pasturage, livestock feed, ethanol, landowning families, defense, corporate timberland.

Othis reviews on China or the agrarian question:  “Two Sea Changes in World Political Economy,” “Is the East Still Red?” “The End of the Revolution,” “The Rise of China…,” “The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism,” “The Fall of Bo Xilai...,” “Maoism and the Chinese Revolution,” “China on Strike” AND “Foodopoly,” “A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism,” “Land Grabbing,” “Salt, Sugar, Fat.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 8, 2018

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