The Peasantry of the Future

by John Médaille on July 6, 2009 · 22 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire

Irving, TX. In answer to the question, “What do the poor want?” Simone Weil replied “They want you to look at them.” I take Simone’s answer to mean we must look at this poor person or that poor village, and see them in their actual situation. There are any number of people, of various political persuasions, willing to look at “the poor” and at “poverty.” They rarely look at actual poor people, which is just as well since they would not like what they see; what they would see are people with a very different set of values, values that are incompatible with the modern world. This is especially true of the poor peasant. Capitalist and communist alike are willing to do all in their power to ensure that the peasant shall not be poor, but only on the condition that he shall not be a peasant. They both promise to give him valuable things if only he will surrender his values.

This is certainly true of the Quechua-speaking people of the Peruvian highlands, descendants of the Inca empire but for centuries poor peasants living on the margins of the dominant Spanish culture. Having little to steal, Lima had little interest in them. And so they continued in their peasant ways on marginal lands in the mountains.

There were some willing to help. The Marxists, for example. They were more than willing to “improve” the lot of the peasant if only the peasant would become the new Marxist Man. This man had his roots not in the village, but in the National University of San Cristobal with a Maoist philosophy professor , Abimael Guzman, who founded the Sendero Luminoso, “The Shining Path.” The Senderistas unleashed a bloody civil war in Peru that ran from 1980 thru 1992, and brought Peru to the brink of collapse. Although there was some initial sympathy for the rebels, their antipathy to peasant values and their murderous violence against any who resisted, or were even suspected of resistance lost them any support. The villages were caught in between the rebels and the army, with each side abusing and murdering those whom they merely suspected of sympathy with the other side.

The capitalists of Peru were also willing to help, so long as the peasants know their place, that place generally being cheap labor and a marginal existence in the cities. More sophisticated capitalists, like the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto proposed bringing the poor into the modern world by modernizing their property rights. In his popular book, The Mystery of Capital; Why Capitalism Works in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, DeSoto noted the vast amount of capital that the “poor” have in land, tools, and cash, an amount that exceeds the value of the Lima Stock Exchange. However, these values cannot be used as “capital” because the tenures are not formally recognized in law. DeSoto’s solution is to speed up the process of land registration and convert all the titles into Lockean property which can then be used as capital.

The problem is that DeSoto does not recognize the complexity of village titles, which are a combination of communal and family plots. Even the family plots, however, are held through communal acknowledgment of the individual rights. The land is not so much held by the family as for the family. These complex community arrangements pose some problem for a purely individualistic notion of property. Adam Webb notes that the conversion of communal land into individualistic property

Opens up a fault line between those who want to get along and those who want to get ahead. Modern society is arranged to benefit the shrewd and competitive, those who can figure out how to manipulate the new rules of a larger society to their own advantage.
The result is likely to be what they have always been: a few large landowners and a mass of men without property, not to mention the complete destruction of community values.

Adam Webb has looked at the question of values. His first book, Beyond the Global Culture Wars was a masterful look at the clash of values that underlies our current conflicts with other cultures. In his new book, A Path of Our Own; An Andean Village and Tomorrow’s Economy of Values, Webb, a Harvard-trained sociologist, takes the trouble to actually look at an actual village (Pomatambo in the Peruvian highlands) and actually bothered to get to know the people and find out what they want.

We cannot make the mistake of romanticizing the poverty of the villages. Their attachment to values does not preclude a desire for indoor plumbing and electricity. This requires development. But a development that destroys the values of the community is not likely to be real development at all. Indeed, economics cannot be divorced from values, nor efficiency from ethics. Those who sacrifice ethics for “efficiency” will discover that they have created an economy with neither, an economy destined to collapse, and that right soon. Indeed, that is what we are witnessing today. We are required by political correctness to simultaneously proclaim the efficiency of the market and avert our eyes from the massive bailouts and subsidies. But these are nothing new; they are part and parcel of the history of capitalism, as witnessed by the fact that in 1776, Adam Smith devoted 3/4ths of The Wealth of Nations to detailing the incestuous relationship between business and government. The situation has not noticeably improved since Smith’s day. The bailout is a rather regular and recurring feature of capitalism, yet each time we are supposed to be shocked, shocked, and reaffirm our belief in the unaided market alone.

In formulating his solutions, Adam Webb draws on Western agrarians and distributists like Wendall Barry, Chesterton, Belloc, Schumacher, and the Mondragón experience, as well as Eastern distributists like Liang Shuming and Mohandas Ghandi. But Webb does fault these thinkers as being too devoted to place and particularity to the detriment of the universally held values that each of these particular places expresses. As he puts it:

The ethos of traditional peasant life is one of no-nonsense self-reliance, austere morality, self-command amid adversity, duty towards kin and neighbors, generosity, hospitality, participation, and the anchoring of one’s livelihood in an atmosphere of decency and fairness. These virtues have been universally valued among peasant folk all over the world. The peasant community and its customs reflected such virtues and created the conditions for people to exercise them.

It is this universality of values that Webb sees as the basis for forming a counterweight to the individualistic (and highly subsidized) globalization that tends to destroy these values. His proposals for capitalizing the resources of the village, both at the communal and individual level, provides for both community and individual enterprises to flourish in an atmosphere that preserves rather than destroys value. Every system of values must have its economic and political expression in order to survive as a living entity, rather than as a mere cultural curiosity. The importance of this task cannot be underestimated.

Half of the world’s population are still peasants. We normally conceive of the task of development as one of rescuing that half of the world from its poverty. But we should stand this viewpoint on its head: the real task is one of rescuing that half of the population who are still capitalists—or trying to be—from their unworkable and unsustainable materialism. It is not the capitalist who will rescue the peasant, but the peasant who stands ready to rescue the world from its no-longer viable capitalism.

Adam Webb has fulfilled Simone Weil’s requirement that one actually look at the poor. He has done extensive work in their villages, and actually listened to what they actually wanted. The result is a remarkable book and a remarkable plan, one that recognizes both the values of communities and the modern potential of building on those values. An economy without values has no future (a point which I feel confident that Benedict XVI will make next week in his new encyclical), and no bailout of whatever size can rescue it. Rather, it will have to be rescued by those who still hold the values upon which a viable economy can be built.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles July 6, 2009 at 8:53 am

If the villgers’ values are what allow them to survive in the harsh environment of the Peruvian highlands, wouldn’t changing their environment by adding modern amenities end up changing their values? I’m curious how Webb thinks that after we’ve changed their environment it will still preserve rather than destroy their values.

avatar John Médaille July 6, 2009 at 10:15 am

Empedocles, It sounds to me that you are assuming that peasant values are too fragile to survive indoor plumbing. I see no reason to believe that, and the success of Mondragon, the Emilian model, and many other examples give me reason to believe that these values are robust enough for even an industrial civilization.

avatar D.W. Sabin July 6, 2009 at 11:36 am

“Peasants rescuing the Capitalist” ehhh? This ought to get some shorts in a twist. One wonders if the “under water” debt holder in their twin vanity , steam showered tract house is any less a “peasant” than the hardscrabble Andeans. This peasant might find it a little harder to rescue the capitalist because they still can’t quite comprehend that they are little more than peasants in a system that turned want into insatiable lust and unsecured debt into an instrument of trade. I know zero is a relatively new concept to we moderns but 0 squared is still zero aint it?

Service Economy Peasantry in the Information Dark Ages….one can shudder a bit at the prospects of rage . No doubt there are any number of operators ready to exploit this rage in a new Shining Path for Suburbia.

avatar Empedocles July 6, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Well what I was getting at was Patrick Deneen’s point about how technology comes to supplant virtue. I’m curious why you think in this case the people will continue to use virtue when they now have technology.

avatar John Médaille July 6, 2009 at 2:16 pm

I think that’s an odd question to ask on an internet blog.

avatar D.W. Sabin July 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Inconsistencies notwithstanding, it would seem to me that technology has not so much supplanted virtue…as in one tool replacing another…. but that virtue is distracted or seduced by the noisiness of modern technology. Virtue remains, somnolent, reduced to memory or actually engaged in modern technology.

avatar Jeremy Beer July 6, 2009 at 4:47 pm

I didn’t know John was going to post about Adam Webb’s new book, which I signed up when I was editor in chief at ISI Books. But note: Adam will be posting here at FPR as a guest editor in a couple of weeks, and he’ll be talking about many of the themes and arguments he makes in A PATH OF OUR OWN. I’m glad that John has started the conversation about that book already. I think it’s an important text for localists to engage. But, of course, I’m not an unbiased observer.

avatar Dave Chirico July 7, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I wonder what FPR would think of Seraphim’s comments at the original site

I’m looking forward to hearing further from Adam Webb.

avatar Jason Peters July 7, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Peters can be seen here attempting in his tripping way to obfuscate things.

avatar Parmenicleitus July 8, 2009 at 12:31 pm

This article raises some very interesting points, and starts out well, but I simply can’t keep my mouth shut knowing it is written by an ardent Catholic. While I have no desire to attack Mr. Medaille’s person, I do find some rather odd incongruities in his thought.


1. Isn’t “the dominant Spanish culture” the same culture that converted these people to Catholicism, most often through force and fear?

2. Didn’t the original contact between Inca and Spanish (and ardently Catholic) Conquistador provide the context for the present marginalization and “peasantry” of these people from the outset?

2. And, ultimately, isn’t offering and/or forcing conversion itself a form of promising to give “valuable things” if only pre-existing values are surrendered?

I think the answer to all three is a very loud resounding “Yes!”

I’m left wondering, now, if the author intends to imply that it’s acceptable to radically alter, and/or destroy, a culture by force as long as it’s done in the name of Christianity, particularly of the Catholic variety. Also, I think any attempt to separate “the dominant Spanish culture” in Peru from its long history of Catholicism, and the latter’s mission to convert the indigenous peoples of the New World, would be, at best, artificial.

avatar Dave Chirico July 8, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Thanks Jason,
Great review- Feel free to continue to obfuscate!

avatar Brennan July 10, 2009 at 11:04 pm


It is quite evident, that for whatever reason, or lack thereof, as I suspect, you are an ardent anti-Catholic.

You of course realize that your concerns are not addressed in Mr. Medaille’s article because it has nothing to do with the points he is making, or the book he is reviewing.

Further, your biased assumptions are incorrect. Allow me to address them.

You start your concerns with admitting to not being able to “keep [your] mouth shut” since Mr. Medaille is an “ardent Catholic”, as it relates to incongruity between his thought (writing), and your apparent concern for what you prefer to lump together as the “dominant Spanish [ardent Catholic] Conquistador”…
1. I’m quite certain that even you can recognize that not all that call themselves a thing are always that in practice. Our Lord Jesus Christ says as much when he states the following in the infamous Sermon on the Mount (I recommend you re-read it in its entirety):

Matthew 7:
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 So by their fruits you will know them.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, 10 but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’
23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. 11 Depart from me, you evildoers.’

So, it seems that those that do evil “evildoers” are not to be considered the Lord’s own; no matter what they thought… The dominant Spanish Conquistadors were in search of gold and land, not spreading God’s goodness. You seem to prefer to blame the aftermath on the Catholic Church, rather than the sinful ones committing the atrocities… While I don’t know if you are Atheist, Agnostic or Protestant, you should note that there are great similarities to the conquest of the North American Indians, by the “dominant Protestant Conquistador” culture. Have no fear, dear Parmenicleitus, they too are enjoying their just rewards…

2. Reference #1 above for the a similar result. However, please note that while the pre-conquered Incas contained immeasurable amounts of gold, they were agrarians, and worked for the common good of their own. They did not have the possessions of Europe.

3. (even though you used another “2″, and since you are so obviously concerned about those that are imperfect, I have righted the wrong)
If your premise was correct, then perhaps the answer is Yes, but only to the “offering” of conversion, however, your premise, and resultant understanding of salvation, is incorrect… No man can “promise” the “valuable things” of conversion. We are mortal and fallible. As for “forcing conversion”, your reasoning skills should help you recognize the folly…

I don’t want to get my hopes up to high, but perhaps now, the “resounding” answers have changed… There has never been a Christian, “particularly of the Catholic variety” (you amuse me…) that has ever forced anyone to convert. The very act of violence would nullify its attempt. There are many that were professed Christians, and even those that were “particularly of the Catholic variety” who would have attempted to force conversion, but no Catholics by practice committed these crimes.

Allow me to provide a quote:
“I wish your Your Majesty to understand the motive that moves me to make this statement is the peace of my conscience and because of the guilt I share. For we have destroyed by our evil behaviour such a government as was enjoyed by these natives. They were so free of crime and greed, both men and women , that they could leave gold or silver worth a hundred thousand pesos in their open house..So that when they discovered that we were thieves and men who sought to force their wives and daughters to commit sin with them, they despised us. But now things have come to such a pass in offence of God, owing to the bad example we have set them in all things, that these natives from doing no evil have turned into people who can do no good.. I beg God to pardon me, for I am moved to say this, seeing that I am the last to die of the Conquistadors.” Mansio Serra Leguizamon

avatar John Médaille July 11, 2009 at 11:43 am

The dominant culture of Peru was Spanish Catholic, and in regards to the natives, more Spanish than Catholic. I don’t think it is a matter of being pro or anti Catholic, but of merely describing the situation correctly.

avatar Parmenicleitus July 11, 2009 at 3:03 pm


Thank you for responding.

You wrote: “It is quite evident, that for whatever reason, or lack thereof, as I suspect, you are an ardent anti-Catholic. ”

I have plenty of reasons to be *un*-Catholic, and un-Christian, really, (but not necessarily agnostic or atheist, either. I bet that frazzles your brain a bit) but I am anti-deception as much as I’m able.

Brennan: “You of course realize that your concerns are not addressed in Mr. Medaille’s article because it has nothing to do with the points he is making, or the book he is reviewing.”

Really? To provide a sense of some context regarding the long history of Peru, (not to mention the similar contexts of many of the peasants in “third world” countries), is not addressing Mr. Medaille’s points? Interesting. I would have thought that those “communists” and “capitalists” as well as the peasantry made an appearance within the context of Peru’s violent history.

Brennan: “1. I’m quite certain that even you can recognize that not all that call themselves a thing are always that in practice. Our Lord Jesus Christ says as much when he states the following in the infamous Sermon on the Mount (I recommend you re-read it in its entirety)”

Jesus (if he even existed) sure said mouthfuls, didn’t he? But is it up to *your* interpretation of these ambiguous words to decide who is Christian and who is not? This seems a big problem for “Christianity” because Christians can’t decide who is Christian, who is Christian enough, or who is an outright heretic. It wasn’t all that long ago that Mormons weren’t considered “christian” by other Protestants, if they do now at all. Do Catholics, being the “Universal” Church by its very definition, consider all Christian sects to be “Christian?” I doubt it. So, even within “Christianity” there seems to be a long past of confusion and incoherency. By the way, what about those Jesus quotes regarding the “timber in one’s own eye” and “judge not…?”

Look. These Conquistadors considered themselves wholly Catholic, regardless of your hermeneutic. Their stated mission was to bring civilization and the word of God to the New World, not just to seek gold. You, sir, artificially attempt to separate what was more likely than not, a combination of influences we know as the Spanish Conquistador.

Brennan: “You seem to prefer to blame the aftermath on the Catholic Church, rather than the sinful ones committing the atrocities…”

No. But I don’t simply, and conveniently, separate the being Catholic from actions committed, horrible or otherwise, by those whose social environment strongly incorporated the tenets of Catholicism, in order to remove responsibility from Catholicism. Given your seemingly extreme binary thought processes, should I conclude that the Catholic Church is responsible for all the “good” done in those areas, while having of none of the “bad”? Hardly. Besides, I’ve never heard of a single instance where the Church turned down a single shekel rendered from the natives in Peru or elsewhere.

Brennan: “3. (even though you used another “2″, and since you are so obviously concerned about those that are imperfect, I have righted the wrong)”

OK. So typos are now considered part of the Catholic criteria for argumentation, rather than the arguments themselves? That’s really funny! Seems pretty petty to me.

And I mentioned “perfection” where? I don’t even believe in perfection, as it is an incoherent concept. Why would I use such a term? Besides I thought that the ‘Perfect’ was the whole raison d’etre for the Church from the get-go. It’s in the business of, or for, the “Perfect”.

Brennan: “I don’t want to get my hopes up to high, but perhaps now, the “resounding” answers have changed… There has never been a Christian, “particularly of the Catholic variety” (you amuse me…) that has ever forced anyone to convert. The very act of violence would nullify its attempt.”

You’ve obviously never heard of Charlemagne, then, and Constantine, who made life utterly miserable for pagans until they finally disappeared? Oh, you are right, in the case of the former the Saxons were indeed given a “choice.” Convert or die. But no one was technically “forced,” right? Oh yes, these weren’t Christians and they definitely didn’t aid in building up the the Church. Let’s not even get into the persecutions of other Christians during the early days such as the ‘Gnostics’ or even the very concept of ‘heresy’ itself.

avatar Parmenicleitus July 11, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Mr. Medaille-

Thank you for your brief comments.

I simply think it is artificial to separate the “Spanishness” of the Conquistadors, and their descendants, from their being Catholic. Their society was inundated with Catholicism through and through, and inseparable from Catholicism.

avatar Brennan July 11, 2009 at 11:55 pm


You are welcome for my reply.

I am afraid that your slant of historical knowledge is greatly influenced by the Protestant/Catholic tensive relationship. Accuracy can be wanting at times. Your understanding of true Catholic teaching appears skewed as well. I am not “frazzle[d]” as you suspect, merely frustrated with people who bash Catholicism out of ignorance, and then elevate their ignorance in public forum to infect others with equally base pride.
Mr. Medaille’s point was to express his satisfaction with Mr. Webb’s newest book; and to re-iterate that: “The result is a remarkable book and a remarkable plan, one that recognizes both the values of communities and the modern potential of building on those values. An economy without values has no future”.
Your “rather odd incongruities” were based solely on your ardent anti-Catholicism, and resulted in the bashing of Catholicism, not Mr. Medaille’s goal.

avatar Parmenicleitus July 12, 2009 at 2:59 am

Dear Brennan-

You accuse me of being “skewed” and “inaccurate” yet provide no evidence for my being so. Hmmm. So, am I now to believe that not only are typos are held as Catholic criteria for basic reasoning, but ad homs , no matter how subtle, are held to be “good” criteria for reason?

Brennan wrote: I am afraid that your slant of historical knowledge is greatly influenced by the Protestant/Catholic tensive relationship.”

Whatever that means…But, really, I couldn’t care less, in approximately 99.9% of contexts, about the bickering between Protestants and Catholics. Neither of them are representative of the place I’m coming from.

Brennan wrote: “Your understanding of true Catholic teaching appears skewed as well.”

No. I simply don’t irresponsibly separate the purported core “teachings” from the real lives those who profess the faith of Catholicism. They are not separable and I couldn’t attempt such a separation with good conscience. People, Christian and otherwise, are known by their deeds, not what they profess, no matter how highfalutin those professions may tickle our subjective fancy. Are you ultimately advocating a “if it feels good, do it” mentality?

Oh. It’s not simply the transcendentalism of Catholicism I reject, it’s pretty much *all* transcendentalist theologies and ideologies. I see this transcendentalist virus, as a matter of course, as ultimately as a violence toward, and incompatible with, the wild variety of places…Whether or not this is a stance of “base pride” is irrelevant. If Aristotle’s view that we should conduct our investigations “from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature” is considered by you to be base pride (sinful) then so be it. You can judge me to your heart’s desire…I, simply take his method to heart, even if it ultimately distances me from him…

avatar Derek Wall July 15, 2009 at 4:54 am

This is an excellent and very interesting article…thank you!

There is a document here which fits in with this notion of peasant property which you may find of interest.

In another part of Peru the indigenous people have won a battle to stop the government giving their land to oil corporations, they are very brave and well organised people….you can see their website here

avatar Howard September 4, 2009 at 2:32 pm

De Soto doesn’t understand the more complex and family oriented nature of property in peasant lands? Are the CC&Rs and “homeowners associations” of modern suburbia any less complex? Surely the lawyers who came up with those could write a legal structure for peasant property that reflects the culture.

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