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The Erosion of Rural Life
by Louis Proyect
22 May 2002 21:30 UTC
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(This is an excerpt from a very important article that unfortunately 
is not online. I urge one and all to track down the print journal and 
read it in its entirety.)

Race and Class, May, 2002

The Soul Of Man Under Globalism

By Jeremy Seabrook

[Jeremy Seabrook is the author of, among other books, In the Cities 
of the South (Verso, 1996) and Freedom Unfinished: fundamentalism and 
popular resistance in Bangladesh today (Zed, 2001). His Globalisation 
and Local Cultures will be published by Zed later this year.]

There are many macro-economic accounts of globalisation, but we 
rarely learn how it affects the psyche and sensibility of lives 
uprooted and radically reshaped by the penetration of their world by 
the market economy. This essay is an attempt to convey the common 
subjective experience of people all over the world as they enter the 
global market. It shows how, once they do so, the path they will 
follow is predictable. The market generates immediate and obvious 
benefits, while longer-term losses are deferred. The freedoms 
bestowed by the market obscure the forfeit of deeper liberties. The 
people of the South may pursue the western way of wealth, but the 
possibility that everyone in the world will attain the same degree of 
affluence is remote, for at least two reasons. One, that the 
accumulation of wealth is attended by growing inequality and, two, 
that the transformation of the planet required to bring this about 
probably exceeds its capacity to bear it.

In many parts of the world, people are still entering the market 
economy for the first time or, at least, are coming into more direct 
contact with its compulsions. For some, this is no longer a 
consequence of migration from farms and villages to urban areas. The 
market economy thrusts itself into their lives, whether they want it 
or not. Sometimes it happens violently, as when the natural resources 
of traditional cultures - forest-dwellers or slash-and-burn 
cultivators - are enclosed and taken for an omnivorous market. For 
others, it takes place by stealth, as has occurred with millions of 
subsistence fanners through the industrialisation of agriculture. The 
Green Revolution, with its hybrid high-yielding seeds, and the 
chemical fertilisers and pesticides these required, created hybrid 
societies, neither truly rural nor urban, as an ancient peasant 
psyche collided with an invasive industrialism.

The erosion of rural life all over the planet, and the movement to 
cities has been a matter of dispute since the time of early 
industrialism in Britain. There has been continuous, and unresolved, 
argument over how far industrialisation raised the living standards 
of the people, particularly of the generations who were the first to 
experience it. E. P. Thompson pointed out, in his Making of the 
English Working Class, that the early nineteenth century saw the 
final abandonment of the values of an older moral economy - the 
notion of the 'just price' fell into decay, as did the idea of a wage 
determined by social or moral sanctions as opposed to the operation 
of free market forces. Thompson asserts that, even if it can be 
statistically proved that the real income of industrial workers rose 
between 1790 and 1840, they may still have felt the non-economic 
losses - the uprootings and migrations, the impersonality of 
industrial relationships, the hostile environment of raw city slums - 
were more important; indeed, so traumatic that they could scarcely be 
compensated for by any rise in wages.

This argument is important, for it recurs in the contemporary world, 
although in a slightly different form. The question of the one-way 
movement of people from country to city has been framed in the 
context of the attraction of the city, its job opportunities and 
'bright lights', against the declining power of poor farmers and the 
degradation of rural life. The seductions of the town are invoked to 
'prove' the revulsion against traditional country life and custom of 
the young, who cannot wait to leave home and take up residence in the 
nearest city slum. That this is happening, and at an accelerating 
rate, is undeniable. But how decisions to depart are arrived at is 
more complicated than any sudden revelation of the wonders of city 
life. In the slums of Dhaka, Mumbai and Jakarta, most people say they 
prefer life in the city for the simple reason that, in the city, they 
do not go hungry. If they had been assured of sufficiency in the 
village, they would never have thought of leaving. As for the 
brightness of lights, country people are rarely so foolish as to 
believe that these are likely to provide them with sustenance. They 
leave a ruined subsistence for the sake of survival.

Of course, since the time of early industrialism, the iconography of 
wealth and the technology which diffuses it worldwide, have advanced 
spectacularly. The festive logos of transnational fizzing over the 
polluted night skies of the world's megacities serve as material 
evidence of the lure of the towns. But this gaudy attraction only 
masks less visible pressures on the life of the countryside - the 
cheating of farmers by middlemen, the pressures of declining 
productivity and falling income, the degradation of village life. 
Since farmers must bring their crop to market as soon as it is 
harvested, they have no option but to sell when the price is at its 
lowest; whereas those with warehouses and godowns can afford to wait 
until prices rise before they release goods on to the market.


Once in the town, it is always possible to find work. In Barisal, an 
overblown country town of about 400,000 people in the south of 
Bangladesh, thousands of former farmers have found employment, 
renting and driving cycle-rickshaws. They can be seen, waiting on 
every pot-holed street-corner, at the bus stand, close to the river 
terminal, standing in rain and sun along the main roads. The 
vehicles, with their coloured plastic canopies and painted panels, 
are curiously dainty, even picturesque, objects. Yet each delicate 
carriage represents measureless pain; the experience of lost land and 
ruined livelihood. No one would take up such arduous and uncertain 
labour if there were an alternative. The stringy bodies of the 
drivers, many of them young men prematurely used up with work, speak 
of demands on human energy with which no one can keep pace. Indeed, 
the dispossessed come to resemble the land they have forfeited: they 
cannot maintain their energy any more than they could keep up with 
the fertiliser and pesticides for the earth they tended.

Land was lost because a dowry had to be found for the marriage of a 
sister or daughter. Land was lost because the rich took advantage of 
the illiteracy of the owners to cheat them of it. Land was lost 
because it was mortgaged at a time of sickness. Land was lost because 
it had to be divided between too many heirs. Land was lost because it 
became waterlogged, saline or unproductive as a result of 
developmental projects nearby. Land was lost because money was 
required to pay an agent for a job in the Gulf. Land was lost for the 
sake of the children's education - that wager that sets continuous 
harvests against the regular income from secure employment in 
government or private service.

But there is always a job in the town. Labour is always required to 
push carts, to break bricks, in transport, on construction sites, as 
guards and security personnel in private houses or places of 
employment, to sell fruit and vegetables, to offer roses to 
transients in five-star hotels. Women and children can work as 
domestic labour or at brick-breaking, or make festival decorations or 
paper bags at home. 

Women are needed to service hungry male exiles, a peacock-blue cloth 
spread on a wooden bed in a dim windowless room. If that fails, work 
can be created - credit for a handful of overripe bananas, a tray of 
combs, some chewing gum or cigarettes; selling newspapers at the 
traffic lights, plastic goods, toys; mending cycles, umbrellas, 
shoes; in small workshops making metal goods, repairing engines and 
machines. Boys crouch over ornamental grilles in a fountain of blue 
and gold sparks on the sidewalk. Children collect and sell firewood, 
plastic, cloth; they can carry bags at bus stands and railway 
stations. They recycle all kinds of garbage in cities in which 
nothing is wasted but their own skinny bodies. But there is always 
the promise of a daily income.

And those too frail or too weak for work, beg. Even the grudging 
streets are not empty of compassion. The men with features or hands 
worn away by leprosy, the elderly women sent to beg in the park to 
augment the family income, the young woman whose body is a torso on a 
wheeled platform, and who propels herself by chappals which she wears 
on her hands, the mothers with their crumpled babies in grubby 
bonnets on the river terminal, the disabled children abandoned at the 
bus station, are usually fed by stallholders or by passing strangers 
who throw coins on to the jute sack spread on the pavement. There is 
always something to sustain those at the edge of destitution.

The freedoms bestowed by the market economy are tangible. But they 
depend upon a continuously rising disposable income which enables 
people to keep pace with the necessary goods and services enclosed 
and commoditised within it. If the market frees people from the 
anxieties of traditional subsistence and ancient arts of eking out a 
living, the maintenance of that freedom requires uninterrupted 
economic growth. And, as we have seen in our time, this necessity for 
growth may subvert some of the very freedoms for which the market is 
celebrated: the consequences of economic 'success' involve serious 
social and environmental costs which confront the 'advanced' 
economies at every turn. If the intangibles of well-being which E. P. 
Thompson spoke about in the early industrial period were subsequently 
allowed to lapse, these issues have been raised again in our time, in 
the form of the social and human costs elided in the years of 
economic euphoria.

In the early stages of entering the market economy, the gains are 
usually clear and seem significantly to outweigh any losses. It is 
the objective of the managers of the global economy to play down the 
latter; indeed, by ingenious accounting-systems, to make them 
invisible. They prefer to dwell only upon the emancipatory power of 
the market. This is dangerous, as is dependency upon any other 
fragile ideological construct which risks, at any moment, coming into 
collision with direct - and discontinuing - experience. When the 
market economy falters and contracts, whenever it is inflected by 
technological change, people who lose income become angry and 
resentful, in ways which they do not in subsistence economies. Of 
what use is it to curse a spoiled harvest, a late frost that ruins 
the crop, rains that fail to arrive when the fields are ready for 
planting? The market, being a human-made artefact, is perceived to be 
within human control, whereas everyone knows that the vagaries of 
climate are not susceptible to our will.

And what rich possibilities the market economy offers to new migrants 
to the city, particularly to those who receive, occasionally for the 
first time in their lives, cash-money (as they call it in Bangladesh) 
for their labour! With what sense of liberation and wonder do they 
discover that the money in hand can procure the food, clothing, 
housing and other necessities of life, when, until this moment, they 
had laboured under a burning sun, ankle-deep in water in the 
paddy-fields, constantly scanning the skies for signs of advancing 
storms and inspecting leaves and stalks for pest or blight. The first 
thing the city offers is shelter against nature and its 
unpredictability. Indeed, people feel they are out of reach of its 
sometimes cruel power. All you have to do is pass over the price of 
the goods you want to a shopkeeper, and you will receive whatever you 
ask for. The ease, the absence of effort -market transactions banish 
what was once our own labour to a distant and unseen elsewhere.

To move into the market economy is to pass an invisible frontier into 
another country, where everything, at first sight, represents clear 
improvement and progress. What can be easier than buying? Who ever 
needs instruction in shopping? As the rice cascades into the scales 
from the worn shiny scoop, the money you have earned gives you 
permission to forget the effort required for its cultivation. And 
then, to make clothes at home was always laborious and time-consuming 
for women, and the end product always appeared rough and improvised. 
When there are so many cheap and colourful garments in the local 
market, why waste time stitching and mending shabby home-made things? 
Indeed, the very words 'home-made', instead of meaning a guarantee of 
freshness and self-reliance, take on an aura of faint but 
unmistakable shame.

The fabric of the city itself, the sights and sounds, speak of 
variety and diversity which strike the psyche of peasants and 
country-people with the shock of a revelation. So much is going on! A 
rich and simultaneous tumult of activity, of excitement, of energy. 
They did not realise how poor they were until they saw it made 
material: what stares at them out of the glittering imagery of the 
riches of the city and the kaleidoscopic confusion of its streets is 
a growing awareness of their own impoverishment.

It takes some time before the first disadvantages appear and, even 
then, they do so only at the margins, as minor irritants in the 
journey of discovery which this epic transhumance of humanity has 
been. First of all, the money earned, the daily wage, is always 
insufficient for necessities or, more mystifyingly, for what have 
become necessities since farm and village were left behind. The 
actual power of the money you hold always lags behind what it 
promises. Money in hand always appears substantial; only, when set 
against prices, it seems to melt away. It dawns upon newcomers that 
survival within the market imposes different burdens from those 
demanded by subsistence survival.

Of course, many of the skills that came with them from the 
countryside can be used in the city. The men, who came first, found 
lodgings in shared rented rooms; three or four from the same village 
living together in the feral loneliness of a tin-and-bamboo slum 
house or a crumbling tenement in the old city. When it is time for 
their families to join them, they want to build their own houses. In 
the village, wood, bamboo and woven bamboo panels, palm-leaves, clay 
and cow dung were always available, and houses could be constructed 
for next to nothing. In the city, each bamboo stave, each rectangle 
of corrugated metal, every plank of wood, every sheet of polythene 
and plastic is rigorously costed. What is more, the only places in 
which people are permitted to build (or, rather, are not prevented 
from building) are those required for no other purpose. This usually 
means dangerous terrain - an unhealthy area of marshland susceptible 
to flooding, beside railway tracks and polluted ponds, on arid rocky 
land exposed to sun and desiccating summer winds. Drinking water may 
have to be bought or carried long distances. And even this land 
belongs either to some government department or to private 
individuals; or ownership may be disputed, the subject of long court 
battles. The unsafe site will not, however, prevent slumlords from 
demanding protection money, or stop unelected gangs from regulating 
the lives of the people. The police, too, must often be paid, simply 
to allow residents to remain in peace.

Despite all this, new settlements are appearing all the time; if no 
longer in the central areas of the town, then on the outer edges 
where amenities are non-existent and from where transport to places 
of work is costly and slow. But still they persevere and, one day, 
they go to the bus stand to meet their families, with their battered 
cases and trunks and the few articles they have brought from home, 
after tearful farewells to mothers and aunts and grandparents whose 
eyes followed them until the bus had disappeared over the bumpy road, 
behind the last cluster of trees shading the devastated landscape. 
And the newcomers look with the same wonder at the soaring buildings, 
the treeless concrete, the tangled skein of wires above the city 
streets that carry light and voices through the air; and they fall 
silent at the recognition that this is now to be home.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 05/22/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

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