Against ‘neo-peasantry’ and the desire for self-sufficiency

In 2015, a Guardian article posed the question: is ‘sustainability a dirty word?’ Polling indicated the over-use and redundancy of the term had led to its inherent ‘un-sustainability’, as people began to feel ‘green-washed’ by terms such as ‘eco-friendly, ethical, green, sustainable’. Culturally, the term has come to stand for responsibility regarding the stewardship of the planet and the pursuit of more equitable societies, but in a rush towards ‘ultimate sustainability,’ an even more radical departure emerged within the lexicon – the classification of ‘neo-peasant’. It’s a term that needs further interrogation, because language, meaning and historicity are often the losers in the ‘post-truth’ conundrum surrounding facts and reason.

My research investigates ‘back-to-the-land’ encounters, and the desire of people to be ‘self-conscious about their lives and to shape life with less attention to economic livelihood and more attention to living itself’. (This definition is taken from Rebecca Gould’s work on homesteading in North America – that is, people who grow their own food, build their own homes and try and live close to nature.) This attitude involves a longing to commune with what is seen as a more ‘natural’ lifestyle, alongside a strident desire to take control over one’s needs and wants. As my research has traced, getting away from it all and finding the ‘simple life’ in Australia is a tradition that predates the millennium, and even Nimbin and the 1970s. It follows that ‘neo-peasantism’ is a thoroughly twenty-first-century reconfiguration of a long tradition of finding simplicity and self-sufficiency on the land.

Gould notes that these particular life choices have not been made in a historical vacuum. Rather, ‘back-to-the-land’ types are responding to a social and historical milieu that has long looked at an agricultural life as a solution to pervasive social and economic problems. Gould writes of a certain ‘historical amnesia’ within these traditions, however, whereby each generation attempts to fashion or create their alternative (and often instructional) way of living as a function of an original (read individual) urge or desire for simplicity, do-it-yourself pragmatics and autonomy. It is necessary to examine ‘neo-peasantry’ within a longer history of choice, rights and opportunity, because this response is more than a simple desire to commune with the goats and/or throw-off the shackles of industrialised urban living.

The term ‘neo-peasant’ implies a conscious practice of ‘decluttering’ and ‘simplifying’ by living frugally and self-sufficiently in the ways of traditional agricultural communities that existed in close proximity with what they could produce, scavenge, build and hunt from the land. According to one family in Daylesford, Victoria, neo-peasantry means being involved ‘primarily in the household and community economies and resist[ing] wage-slavery, debt, and the heavily-militarised global economy’. But this implies that ‘neo-peasant’ carries the spirit of peasantry (practised within a specific and highly contextual political and economic positioning).

According to the literature, of which there is plenty, ‘peasants’ are notoriously difficult to define but can be characterised by three general but still contentious characteristics:

  • having a basis in agricultural production
  • having ‘effective control of land’, and
  • having an orientation towards subsistence rather than reinvestment.[1]

For many people, particularly in the west, peasantry has long embodied a thoroughly rural mystique, alongside a mythology of an ‘ancient peasant wisdom’ that idealised country life. The peasantry, in political and anthropological thinking, have also been celebrated at the root of numerous paradigmatic rifts at the core of successive political rebellions, helping fight the shift towards industrialism and, ultimately, modernity.

So what is the problem in drawing on residual images of pre-industrial European and colonial rural society as counter to the systemic effects of industrialisation? Primarily that the idyllic lifestyles of peasants, as informed by romantic sensibilities and modern nationalist imaginations, are now complete anachronisms.

There is a growing wave of back-to-the-land millennials seeking to engage with a slower, more humble, more natural lifestyle that look towards agricultural self-sufficiency – but questions of education and options (often socioeconomic in nature) are pivotal here. Not only does such thinking show a glaring lack of historical reckoning, it also reveals that the modern appropriation of peasantry hides a warped understanding of class, because peasantry was never about romantic walks behind the plow and gleaning fallen fruit.

In lieu of state-based agriculture (and welfare) systems, peasants have long been considered the basis of social organisation and, in situations where individual families (within small communities) are forced to produce almost their entire livelihood locally (in the face of a state that offers you less than nothing),  ‘options’ or other ways of life were never on the agenda. Peasants were seldom afforded education, ownership or even rights. Moreover, not only were peasants unable to transcend their position or status, their very right to farm was often controlled by broader economies and embedded in restrictive relationships of trade and labour.

Though Australia boasts it has never suffered the discomfiture of a rigid class system that continued to see peasants perform as a rural under-class, those who pay lip-service to the problems of choice and privilege in regards to production should acknowledge that our urbane liberal ideas are built on generations of rural and urban industrial working classes, for whom education and ‘options’ were few and far between. That we have options, such as the ability to try and fail at farming, is a striking counter to both previous generations and the masses of subsistence farmers across the globe for whom there are no alternatives other than subsistence for survival.

So what would the ‘great unwashed’ think of our glib use of the term peasant? Would they be proud we have risen to such a comfortable position that we can choose or not choose to provide ourselves with our basic daily needs in terms of food, shelter, education and family? Or would they feel betrayed by a generation that romanticises the notion of living in close contact with the land, one that conveniently overlooks the inherent ‘wage-slavery’ and stratified economic systems that maintained itself through the labour of farm workers for centuries?

The peasant farmer formed part of a wider community that could only exist in tandem with systems of governance and social organisation. While advocates of twenty-first-century ‘sustainable lifestyles’ embrace the traditional webs of community with a focus on a pooled economy, shared work and material accumulation, and decentralised decision-making and inclusiveness, at the core of modern self-sufficiency is a dilemma: in order to reject a system one must first be a part of it, and the benefits of modern Australia mean the activity of foraging, hunting, preserving, brewing, bartering and fermenting can only operate within a system that does provide for, and protect, the whole. A nation of small self-reliant farms practising simplicity, domesticity and self-production wouldn’t leave many to build the roads and run the hospitals, theoretically ushering in a return to the conditions facing peasantry forced to look after their own well-being, families and communities.

Borrowing, ironically, from the federal government’s moral argument that the mobilisation of the middle-class towards providing their own power through investing in solar panels is going to result in increased tariffs on electricity for the rest (read urban poor), the retreat of urban professionals to the bush to establish an independent way of life finds itself at odds with the needs and realities of a growing suburban underclass that has limited alternatives.

Though I’m sympathetic to the desire to move towards self-sufficiency and self-reliance for many of the same anti-modernity reasons that have seen a growth in dissatisfaction with industrialised capitalism and a desire to find an alternative, it is important to acknowledge the problems of such a trend. As the Sydney Morning Herald observed last year, in a piece titled ‘We might wake up and find the peasants are revolting’, as globalisation cleaves an economic canyon between the poorer working class, and the educated and comfortable, it’s important to recognise historical structures of class embedded in decisions to seek out and look for change, which comes as a privilege and not always a right.


[1] Michael. Kearney, Reconceptualizing the Peasantry: Anthropology in Global Perspective, Critical Essays in Anthropology (Boulder, Colo, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996), 2.

Rachel Goldlust

Rachel Goldlust is a historian and urbanist living on Dja Dja Wurrung country in Castlemaine. She's an Adjunct Fellow at La Trobe University Department of Archaeology and History.

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  1. I suggest it’s too much of a stretch to begin with to write of ‘neo-peasantry’ – ‘A nation of small self-reliant farms practising simplicity, domesticity and self-production’ – as long as self-employed farmers retain their political subjectivity rather than giving same over to the devious movements of capital, I don’t see a problem.

  2. Goldlust’s article is beside the point (and what do her last 3 lines mean anyway?).
    This is because she is fixated on small farms outside the city.
    To read Goldlust, who fails to mention the accelerating climate emergency, you would not think that C02 is at around 410ppm and thus higher than before any species of Homo was on the Earth, that ocean fish are on the way out in plastic-filled seas.

    However the cofounder of permaculture, David Holmgren, spoke here already on October 2016 about “retrosuburbia”:

    Holmgren: localised food production either by householders on traditional 1/4 acre blocks or – where modern 200-400 sqm blocks have been perpetrated – communally on the extensive public grassed recreation areas of modern housing developments are the way ahead.

    The point is to reduce food miles and hence tonnes of C02 per food calorie delivered, something Goldlust does not touch on.

    Not to mention the enormous and vulnerable length of food supply chains in this country: 1/4 of Sydney’s veg. is trucked in from cyclone-threatened Qld, I believe.

  3. “Neo Peasantry” made up of Europeans who want to move out of their capital cities to play experimental games on aboriginal land. The grand Euro-Australian invasion carries on.

  4. Hi Rachel, we are that family from Daylesford you mention. We would have been open to being interviewed, even a visit, it’s a pity you only refer to a article as your main reference to us.

    In this writing you attempt to disappear our ancestors. Of course, ‘neo’ locates our ‘fessed up privilege in choosing to be peasant-like, but ‘peasant’ is our heritage, our families, our pre-industrial past prior to the enclosures and the ‘primitive accumulation’ of our ancestral land.

    There is both an everyday intimacy and lived-politic that we’re advancing by championing this term. Our politic goes like this: If people can again have access to land they can produce alternative, land-conscious economies. They can decouple themselves from the giant wrecking ball global economy and potentially live a carbon-positive lifeway. We are modelling this politic every day.

    We don’t deny we’re on Dja Dja Wurrung country, we live that reality. We also don’t deny our own indigenous-peasant past and we draw on it to transition from what we call hypertechnocivility.

    Ultimately, we are neopeasants who apply permacultural principles to our home and community economies to further become accountable mammals of place, and this constitutes our practice of art, our culture making and our corporeal forms of feminism.

    Your article strikes us as another act of urbane violence directed at an imagined and clearly poorly understood target. We question your scholarship.

    1. ‘Your article strikes us as another act of urbane violence directed at an imagined and clearly poorly understood target. We question your scholarship.’

      Obviously, disagreeing with a political perspective or project is not an act of violence. And I would point out that this is a simple online opinion piece – and the author’s first published piece; in my editorial opinion, the author does not need to interview everyone they reference, particularly when they’re using quotes on the public record to critique a broader trend.

      Moreover, this is not the first writer to posit such a political critique. The ‘retreat-to-the-country’ or ‘return-to-the-land’ has long been viewed as a middle-class retreat from the actual reality of political life – that is, a world that’s subjected to war, violence and class struggle.

      You are of course welcome to write a response, which we would be interested in publishing, but it would need to be one less focussed on this author and their scholarship.

      1. Thanks Jacinta, we have written book chapters, articles and numerous posts about how we live and the political and environmental imperatives of why we claim to be neopeasants. The violence lies in Goldlust’s attempt to cut off our ancestral roots from the discussion. Like we have no claim to our own peasant ancestry. This looming admission wouldn’t have occurred should the author had done her research, read our literature and called for an interview. As we are the only people advancing this term in Australia (that we know of), this article is a direct attack on our family and household and the carbon-positive modelling we’re achieving in real terms. Our household is a significant household case study in David Holmgren’s recently published book Retrosuburbia: The downshifter’s guide to a resilient future. Should Overland present a properly researched critique of the material and lifeway we are offering, we’d be happy to read it. In the meantime a pitch for a true insight into neopeasantry in Australia has been sent to Overland. In the spirit of diverse left politics, we hope you accept it.

  5. I hadn’t heard the term “neo-peasantry” before and instinctively I recoil, for the reasons Rachel cites: it’s offensive (to my mind) to equate the romantic, idealistic aspirations of some contemporary Australians to the historical realities the word “peasant” invokes. But, it does seem to me the people I’ve encountered who aspire to sustainability and/or self-sufficiency are aware of and acknowledge their privilege. It also seems to me this is a minority choice, not least because it’s not an option available to all and is viable for very few. A small minority choosing to “drop out” of the broader economic framework isn’t going to affect the status quo substantively.

    1. I think much of the offence that the term “peasant” implies for many people in the modernised West stem from a misunderstanding of what peasants were – a misunderstanding which we have inherited from the feudal upper classes and early industrialists who looked down on peasants.

      Peasants didn’t necessarily lead bad lives. Yes, they were more vulnerable to famine that we are in modern society, but most of the time, they produced what they needed. They subsisted.

      Peasants also didn’t necessarily lead super hard lives either. Yes, peasant labour is more physical than what many people do in modern society, but working hours were generally shorter, people had more balance in their lives, and all the work they did do had intrinsic meaning to their lives.

      At any rate, it should be possible to take the good aspects of peasantry (subsistence) and combine it with a governmental system which provides basic support like medical care and famine relief. This could be done by the state requiring a certain amount of labour and of the harvest as tribute.

  6. Part of the problem here in America is that we are very much dependent on three crops: wheat, corn, and soybeans. Corn moreso than anything. Adding to this is the problem with the monopolies that many of the industries involved in agriculture have: companies like Monsanto, who own many of the patented seeds that contribute to much of the crops that we consume. We might desire to go ‘back to the land’ but in essence we are still very much a part of that industrial food system.

    1. Well, the whole point of this “neo-peasant” thing is to reject those systems. Peasants are self-sufficient. They produce all of their own food and don’t interact with the market economy. So by definition, if people “go back to the land” as “peasants”, they are no longer part of the industrial food system.

      Of course there are many more people who “go back to the land” simply in the sense of buying a large block of land in the country, but continue to live a modern consumer lifestyle, buying most of their food and household items. These people remain part of the industrial system. But they are not peasants.

      1. To be fair to the ‘Artist as Family’, the only(?) practicing neo-peasants in Australia, it needs to be recognised that they do not actually aim at self-sufficiency. They do opt-out of mainstream economy, expressing disdain for various industries, but their economy includes diverse local trade, air-bnb rental, casual and part-time work, skill sharing, and group facilitation.

        The article mentions that self-sufficiency is an antiquated term and neo-peasants, by definition, explore farming on small land claims – which is Australia is most commonly a 1/4acre block. The relatively small production of this size block creates a need for community who is traded with and the honest recognition that self-sufficiency dismisses the humans need for mutual aid and community support.

        The info I am sharing is from a youtube clip by Happen films:

  7. To the commenter who insisted I don’t publish their comment, but asked me a series of questions without right of reply:

    1. Yes – I have been editor since the start of 2015; before that I was deputy editor since 2010, and thus have been involved in the Overland community for some time, thus the assumption that readers and commenters would be familiar with my name. For those who aren’t, the invitation to submit a piece would surely indicate I am an editor at the magazine, and therefore take responsibility for the piece

    2. Statement two, regarding my lack of scholarship re ideas of violence: there’s no question here so I’m not sure how to respond, but my back immediately goes up when someone mentions ‘world religions’ and ‘no freedom of speech’ in the same sentence. Total red flag.

    3. My use of the term ‘middle-class’ is Marxist: it refers to the relationship to labour, and has nothing to do with income (or inherited wealth, which seems to be your implication)

  8. From my direct relationships with a number of young and aspiring farmers here in Australia and broader research and work in the Australian food movement, I counter the notion that these individuals and groups are involved in a “modern appropriation of peasantry”, but rather see farming as a political act.

    Young farmers, who choose to farm – rather than go into more lucrative industries like law, business or medicine or even take better-paying jobs like waitressing or factory work – they are taking a stand; they are expressing their commitment to the land, to their local communities and to the food movement.

    Farming for many is a vehicle of change – one that enables them to combine social and political activism with environmentalism – to cultivate virtues of civic engagement geared toward alternative modes of production and consumption that are environmentally sustainable and socially just. This is very different to the rise in “foraging, hunting, preserving, brewing, bartering and fermenting” trends, which are in and of themselves small acts of defiance against an industrial food system that has severed food from any meaningful connection to the place and people from which it came.

    And while there may be some increase in back-to-the-lander millennials (is this backed up with data anywhere?) farmers are in fact becoming an endangered species, in Australia and across the globe. The number of farms and farmers continues to shrink and farmers are aging off of the land at an alarming rate. The fact is, we desperately need younger farmers, and we needed them yesterday.

    As far as I know, with the mentioned exception above, none of these new farmers are calling themselves or identifying with the term peasants – nor are they necessarily hoping to emulate the lived-in realities of the peasant-class in other regions of the world. Rather, they are working together towards a food system in which people have the opportunity to choose, create and manage their food supply in ecologically sound and ethical ways from paddock to plate.

  9. so the argument against doing what you can to help alleviate the ecological and economic pressures we face in a way that is simple with visible results, is that a group of people can not re-purpose a word used to describe a way of life similar to but not a beneficial as the life people are modelling for themselves.Yes peasantry has negative connotations stemming from its history but the entire neo aspect of the philosophy is to reinvent this. There is nothing to say somebody cannot build a road or work in a hospital and engage in a form of neo peasantry , yes peasantry could not exist in its previous forms without the governance of the past but if this were a sustainable efficient model we likely would not have moved on to our next cultural evolution just as we are seeing now that the current cultural evolution no longer serves the conditions we will soon face . If you are to believe that engaging in a system that requires constant growth is the best way to stop an over consumption problem i don’t believe you see the same problems these people are trying to combat.

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