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Agriculture in World History

Author(s):Tauger, Mark B.
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2011)

Mark B. Tauger, Agriculture in World History.? New York: Routledge, 2011. x + 192 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-415-77387-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University (emeritus).

The revival of World History in the liberal arts curriculum has created a demand for serviceable textbooks to guide students (and their teachers) through an otherwise impenetrable thicket of names, places, events, and institutional detail.? Historians have responded to that challenge in two ways.? The first is to impose models (e.g., Marxian, Malthusian, property rights paradigm) as a means of unifying and coordinating the disparate material, an approach that in extreme cases borders on propaganda.? The other is to divide the history into ?themes? exhibiting enough internal coherence to be treated as historical objects in their own right.? As a history of agriculture from its origins in the tenth millennium BC to the present day, the present work exemplifies the second approach.? It is not, however, the history of agriculture an economist-historian would have written.? It has no tables of agricultural output, productivity, or population, does not evaluate the relative importance of efficiency, technological change, and markets in accounting for agricultural change in the long run, and says surprising little about the recent disappearance of farming as a way of life.? In short, the book is not about economic growth; it is about farmers in perpetual confrontation with the physical and the outside world.

The book covers the history of agriculture in all parts of the world where farming has occurred.? It provides thumbnail sketches of the agricultural histories of Europe, East, West, and South Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas.? While a work of such geographical and temporal scope inevitably perpetuates errors of fact and interpretation, the ratio of misinformation to information is happily low.? The author has read widely and intelligently.? The chapter on agricultural developments since the end of the Second World War is particularly good. This vast material encompassed is organized under the rubric of what the author terms a ?dual subordination? to the natural world of flood, drought, weather, and pests, and to the upper classes and authorities that live off surpluses extracted from farmers as rent, taxes, monopoly, and forced labor.? In short, the book is a history of the distribution of agricultural income between its producers and those who live off the fruits of the producers? labor.?

In that history farmers repeatedly find themselves forced by environmental catastrophe, debt, taxation, and simple oppression into forms of dependence requiring them to render their produce to non-farmers.?? Its logic follows from the productivity of farming, which if not exhausted by population growth ? a possibility lightly passed over ? provides surpluses that supply economic support for states and elites.? Traditionally, the power to appropriate agricultural surplus ran through control of the land.?? In some civilizations ownership was vested in the state, which typically took its render in tax; but since large states could rarely effectively administer farming on such a vast scale, actual control typically devolved on officials and local elites, who exploited their delegated authority to undermine peasant property.? At times, this role was played by lenders.?

The history of land ownership is thus conceived as a dialectical process in which rising inequality provokes peasant revolt and government collapse leading to a fresh start that in time degrades to a new phase of inequality and rebellion as the original thrust of reforms exhausts itself in environmental insults and the restoration of the local elite.? In ancient civilizations founders of new dynasties usually intervened to protect peasants from the rapaciousness those elites.? Reforms often involved restoration of land to the peasantry and changing the land tax to make it more bearable and fair.? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they also included tariff protection and agricultural subsidies.? Yet even in the most successful cases, farmers eventually found themselves once again under the thumb of outside predators, in particular oligopolistic agri-businesses and marketing organizations controlling farmers? access to urban and suburban markets for produce.? At the same time, the spread of monoculture based on heavy inputs of pesticides, fertilizer, energy, and antibiotics has not only led to the disappearance of family farms, but increased the vulnerability of surviving farms to environmental shocks.? From this perspective the lives of ordinary farmers, who a century ago constituted the majority of humanity, have been a continuous struggle to survive.

Populist history went out of fashion in the early 1960s, when the focus of economic historians shifted from the history of organizational forms and the distribution of economic opportunity and outcomes to the story of economic growth.? Both stories possess their particular teleology.? Populist history assumed a necessary movement towards social democracy through sustained confrontation between the forces of progress and the vested interests of reaction.? The history of economic growth has been organized around the concept of the production function: a bloodless history of inputs, innovation, and market integration, in which the distribution of the fruits of progress plays second fiddle to the upward march of average income.? Tauger?s book takes us part way back to that earlier tradition.? Removed from the political context that inspired it, that tradition raises the question whether the record supports a cyclical interpretation of the distribution of power and wealth, a wheel of fortune in which an initial phase of relative equality and fairness is succeeded in time by increasing inequality and oppression.? This seems to have been the pattern in early agrarian societies; does it operate in other types?? The question seems particularly relevant to world history, where the record invites one to compare and contrast.
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George Grantham is Emeritus Professor of Economics at McGill University.? He is the author of numerous works on the history of French agriculture, and has been working for the past ten years on a history of the relation between agricultural productivity and agricultural markets in the pre-industrial era.? His most recent article is ?France,? in Harry Kitsikopoulos, editor, Agrarian Change and Crisis in Europe, 1200-1500, Routledge (forthcoming, 2011).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative