In Praise of Peasantry

The Road to Resilience


I imagine that most of us are feeling a good bit of anxiety right now as we head into an important and unique election that could decide the fate of both our democracy and life on this planet as we know it.  The pandemic has now gotten us used to being completely incapable of predicting the future.  All of this has been building for 30 years now so we really shouldn’t be that surprised.  I will allow that the pandemic was not a symptom that many of us expected, and the speed and ferocity of the breakdown of the climate is still hard for us to admit much less accept.  Many blame our current chaos on a breakdown of the moral fiber of the nation, either because we have abandoned traditional religious and cultural taboos or because we have alienated ourselves from our living world.  While most agree that we have lost our way, there is vehement disagreement as to what that way is.

Given those antipodes, it’s really not surprising that we are so polarized at the moment.  It is hard to perceive the truth much less agree on what the world is really about.  It has seemed to me that we really need something solid and reliable that we can orient ourselves to.  Religious fundamentalists have the comfort of certitude, but even many of them are beginning to see that the dominion of the planet that we were supposedly given hasn’t been working out so well.

In this world of smoke and mirrors, we need something to rely on.

Like the oldest indigenous societies on the planet, I think that an orientation to nature is the surest way to anchor ourselves.  Everybody can agree that if you leave home on a cold winter day without your coat, you are going to get cold.  There is simply no way to spin that.  The pandemic is trying to teach us that no matter how much we revolt against or try to deny its existence, it quietly and remorselessly continues to have its way.  It’s trying to tell us that we are not in control, and that is a big comedown for us, the former masters of the universe.

I recently read a book about peasants called Pig Earth by John Berger.  Through a series of short stories, poems, and finally an essay, he tries to convey what it means to be a peasant in a small village in France, and why peasantry is really the foundation of human society.  It’s not something that will immediately attract you.  Peasants don’t reach for the stars, they never achieve power or wealth, and their lives are never easy.  They seldom go more than a few miles from their village and know very little of what goes on in the wider world.  They subsist, which means that they work to have enough and, if there is a surplus, they take care of needs, not whims.  Their lives are always focused on survival through one winter to the next.  It is a simple life:  work the land, tend the animals, bring in and put up the harvest for the winter, and, in the winter months and other idle hours, make and repair the items you need, i.e., clothing, tools, housewares, toys, musical instruments, etc.  Peasants concede the high ground but have their limits.  You may not believe it, but peasants are still the predominant providers on this planet.

I read another book long ago called Villages that describes villages all over the world that existed more or less continuously for thousands of years.  Civilizations and empires repeatedly washed over them and disappeared.  When conquering armies came through, they ran off and hid, and when the armies had taken all they wanted and burned down the rest, and moved on, the villagers came back out, rebuilt and carried on—the very essence of resilience.

The reason I’m going on about this is that I think we know that our resilience lies in what we do to localize the meeting of our needs as much as we can.  In this way, we insulate ourselves from the chaos at large.  It also helps to have a simple existence with little of value to the powerful.  Part of that is having a sharing economy that depends little on money transactions.  The Vashon Time Exchange, the latest time bank on Vashon brought together by the Backbone Campaign, the Tool Library, the Maker Space, the Fixit Café, the Food Bank, and volunteers of all sorts are all features of a sharing economy.

We can’t go back in time and probably don’t want to, but there’s a lot to be said for the peasant lifestyle.  If you like potlucks with homegrown music, helping your neighbors with big or small projects, growing food and/or taking care of animals, or making things you wear or use, you are showing your peasant heritage.  Peasants are survivors and, in this world today, we need survivors.