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