Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Potato, Food of Anarchists

A fascinating bit from The Art of Not Being Governed that I never got around to blogging when I first read it:
In general, roots and tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cassava/manioc/yucca are nearly appropriation-proof. After they ripen, they can be left in the ground for up to two years and dug up piecemeal  as needed. There is thus no granary to plunder. If the army or the taxmen wants your potatoes, for example, they will have to dig them up one by one. Plagued by crop failures and confiscatory procurement prices for the cultivars recommended by the Burmese military government in the 1980s, many peasants secretly planted sweet potatoes, a crop specifically prohibited. They shifted to sweet potatoes because the crop was easier to conceal and nearly impossible to appropriate. The Irish in the early nineteenth century grew potatoes not only because they provided many calories from the small plots to which farmers were confined but also because they could not be confiscated or burned and, because the were grown in small mounds, an [English!] horseman risked breaking his mount’s leg galloping through the field. Alas for the Irish, they had only a minuscule selection of the genetic diversity of new world potatoes and had come to rely almost exclusively on potatoes and milk for subsistence.

A reliance on root crops, and in particular the potato, can insulate states as well as stateless peoples against the predations of war and appropriation. William McNeill credits the early-eighteenth-century rise of Prussia to the potato. Enemy armies might seize or destroy grain fields, livestock, and aboveground fodder crops, but they were powerless against the lowly potato, a cultivar which Frederick William and Frederick II after him had vigorously promoted. It was the potato that gave Prussia its unique invulnerability to foreign invasion. While a grain-growing population whose granaries and crops were confiscated or destroyed had no choice but to scatter or starve, a tuber-growing peasantry could move back immediately after the military danger had passed and dig up their staple, one meal at a time (pp. 195-196).

Planting potatoes is, for Scott, part of an arsenal of agricultural techniques used by certain peoples for “repelling” the state, including planting a large variety of cultivars (which makes the output of agriculturists less “legible” to the state), cultivating “crops that will grow on marginal land and at high altitudes” (like maize), require little attention and/or mature quickly, blend into surrounding vegetation, and are easily dispersed. "Real-existing" anarchists (at least the kind that decides to retain some form of agriculture) have been potato eaters, apparently.

Clearly planting potatoes does not work on its own to repel the state, however. Prussian peasants were dependent on potatoes, but they certainly did not escape the state (but did they escape it more than similarly situated peasants? Or did social structures in Prussia produce peasant subordination by other mechanisms, not necessarily via state violence? Perhaps the land was too flat?). And Scott does not mention this, but the staple crop in the Inca empire was also the potato (and they also grew other crops, like maize, that are state-repelling in Scott’s view, and happened to be situated in the highlands rather than the lowlands; the Inca empire seems to be a big counterexample to Scott’s general argument). So this sort of claim calls out for testing and further investigation: are peoples with the sort of agriculture that Scott describes less likely to have had states (at least in the past) than peoples that did not, beyond Southeast Asia? Why did the Incas manage to create a state in ecological conditions that seem very unfavourable to it, at least in Scott's view? I suppose that it could be the case that there was less “stateness” in Inca lands than we think, but still, a bit puzzling. 

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