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Peaceful Surrender: The Depopulation of Rural Spain in the Twentieth Century
Published by EH.Net (June 2012)
Fernando Collantes and Vicente Pinilla, Peaceful Surrender: The Depopulation of Rural Spain in the Twentieth Century. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. viii + 202 pp. $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4438-2838-3.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Joan R. Rosés, Department of Economic History and Institutions, Universidad Carlos III.
Not only military history is written by the victors, but also economic and business history. Academic books and articles are mainly devoted to the histories of successful firms, industries, regions and countries. The losers receive much less attention than winners and sometimes are condemned for their reluctance toward economic development and resistance to the adoption of innovations. In sharp contrast, the authors of this book, Fernando Collantes and Vicente Pinilla from the University of Zaragoza, have published many contributions about one of the main losers of modern development: rural areas. It is an empirical regularity that, as a country develops, the countryside loses ground in comparison to cities, in terms of both population and relative income.
This well-written book examines the dramatic process of rural depopulation that took place in Spain during the twentieth century, particularly after the 1950. The aim of the authors is not censoring rural inhabitants for their inaction or indolence but explaining how they have been able to cope with the enormous economic and social changes that accompanied the process of rural depopulation. The book is divided into three main parts. The first provides theoretical, historical and comparative context for rural depopulation. Part two examines the causes for this process. Part three analyzes what happened with rural areas after the depopulation.
As Collantes and Pinilla persuasively argue, there were several forces behind rural depopulation, which often resulted in disparate experiences and outcomes. Urbanization and industrialization were the underlining prime movers of the process of rural change. This is easy to observe since urbanization and industrialization had an obvious parallel in the release of labor from the countryside. Demographic developments also had, nonetheless, their role in rural depopulation. In countries with low demographic dynamism, like the majority of European economies during the twentieth century, massive migrations from the countryside led to an absolute decrease in the amount of rural inhabitants. On the other hand, in countries with substantial natural rates of growth, such as many of today’s developing countries, the movements of labor from rural to urban locations were counterbalanced by birth rates, which implied that rural locations did not depopulate despite their release of labor. To complicate the picture, agrarian economic progress had no clear-cut consequences for rural population. When Smithian economic change takes place (that is, economic growth was based on increasing trade and specialization) rural population doesn’t necessarily decrease as an economy develops (this could be the case of Western Europe’s countryside during the Industrious Revolution). However, when Schumpeterian innovations are implemented in agriculture (particularly the massive adoption of labor-saving innovations like tractors and threshers), the outcome is a decrease of the agrarian workforce and the subsequent release of labor. Finally, access to new consumption bundles (education, cultural amenities, health services and so on) also had a role in the allocation of population between urban and rural locations. So, rural locations with easy access to these amenities could maintain their inhabitants or attract former urbanites looking for a new lifestyle.
In the rest of the book, the authors analyze the Spanish experience with rural depopulation in the light of this general framework. Rural depopulation arrived later in Spain than in other Western European countries due to the lack of “pull” from Spanish industrial centers and the relative productivity improvements of Spanish agriculture prior to 1950. In other words, the income gap between rural and urban locations was not large enough to provoke a rural exodus. The situation was dramatically altered after 1950. Spanish agriculture began to adopt labor-saving technologies which dramatically reduced the workforce required to maintain production. Furthermore, a simultaneous expansion of many non-farm activities in rural areas was unable to cope with the increasing amount of underemployed agrarian workers. As a consequence, a massive rural exodus took place. Despite these economic transformations, and the subsequent substantial improvements in living conditions of rural inhabitants, a large “rural penalty” persisted. Rural inhabitants had less income, infrastructure and services than urbanites. Therefore, many rural locations were unable to attract former urbanites and became (and will remain) practically uninhabited.
There are many reasons to praise this volume. First, the book considers a topic practically untouched in economic history. Needless to say that urbanization and industrialization have received more attention by economic historians specializing in the twentieth century than rural communities and their (mis)fortunes. Second, Collantes and Pinilla do not identify rural population with agrarian activities but consider other non-agricultural activities in the countryside. Reluctance of the countryside to complete depopulation is more related to the development of these new activities than the subsistence of farming, which rapidly declined during the twentieth century. For example, in 1991, only one fourth of the rural employed population in Spain was still engaged in agriculture (p. 124). The failure to understand the diversified nature of rural economies hampers the relevance of many analyses of the European countryside which mechanically associate rural areas with farming. Third, the authors consider several facets of the process including what they label the “rural penalty”; that is, the opportunity cost of living in the countryside instead of cities. As they forcefully argue, the “rural penalty” is not only composed of income differences but also of the differences in labor opportunities and amenities among cities and the countryside. Interestingly, as the economy urbanized, the “rural penalty” grew since services and jobs left the countryside and tended to cluster in the most densely populated locations. And, finally, the book has an underlining comparative narrative. The Spanish experience is not seen in isolation but is considered within a more ample framework. This makes their conclusions relevant not only for Spain’s economic historians but also for all researchers interested in studying the long-run development of rural societies.
Joan R. Rosés (email@example.com) is Associate Professor and Director in the Department of Economic History and Institutions of Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, Spain. He has recently published several papers related to Spanish regional development and the performance of factor markets. His most recent article on the topic (with Juan Carmona) appeared in the European Review of Economic History (“Land Markets and Agrarian Backwardness (Spain, 1904-1934),” February, 2012).
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