The nature of interaction between traditional agrarian society and the ‘modern world’ has remained a controversial debate amongst anthropologists, sociologists and political theorists. It remains contentious as to whether the dominance of modern values over traditional is desirable; whether the arrival of the market and modern commerce betters or worsens the conditions of rural society and its relationship with the metropol; whether such change is received with apprehension or optimism by the members of rural society. Joel Migdal, for example, puts forth certain arguments proposing the concept of ‘culture contact’—‘that exposure and contact are the causes of change.’ Migdal identifies three reasons suggesting why such change would be likely to occur:
- The benefits of the modern far outweigh the benefits of the traditional.
- The individual is free from severe institutional restraints which would prevent him from making an unimpeded decision.
- Those individuals who select the new are rational and are optimisers, and those individuals who do not accept the modern fail to do so because of “wrong” or nonrational values.’
Most theorists, however, tend to agree that modern society, for good or bad, is clearly encroaching on traditional agrarian society and gradually moulding its values, economic systems and sociopolitical institutions into variants of the modern equivalent.
However, this consensus fails to account for one extremely significant fact: that despite the overwhelming economic, political and cultural dominance of the modern world, traditional agrarian structures continue to persist in various forms: the feudal estates of Third World countries, plantations and latifundismos in Southern Italy and much of Latin America, and so on.
The questions thus arise: why do such traditional social relations persist in spite of the modern impulse? Why do customs and rituals and social codes play such an important part in determining rural society? Why do inefficient labour-intensive technology and archaic labour organisation systems continue to determine the process of economic production? And why do state attempts at modernising rural production continually face defeat and fail to effect conclusive change?
This paper attempts to answer these and other questions through an analysis of two similar anachronistic structures that exist in the contemporary world: the Italian latifondo and the Latin American latifundismo. Both structures are organised in a very similar manner, and an analysis of both presents a holistic picture of their social and economic organisation. The paper begins by describing the administrative structure of the latifondo, and then goes on to suggest that the socioeconomic peculiarities of the enterprise may be at least partially explained by the rational voluntarist behaviour of the landlord, who allows old structures to persist in light of their cultural peculiarity.
In The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, Anton Blok describes the Sicilian latifondo as being ‘in its main features “involutionary”’. Blok invokes this term while alluding to a complex process in which certain structures undergo internalisation and fixity, as suggested by Clifford Geertz in Agricultural Involution. ‘Involution’, according to Geertz, refers to ‘the overdriving of an established form in such a way that it becomes rigid through an inward elaboration of detail’. Blok’s study of the latifondo leads him to conclude that this agrarian enterprise underwent such a process at both the social and the economic level. Before further exploring this process, however, it is necessary to first understand the power structure and organisation of the Sicilian latifondo.
According to Blok, the latifondo was typically leased out to a gabelloto, who in turn hired a number of permanent employees to manage the enterprise. These administrators generally comprised an overseer (soprastante) and a number of field guards (campieri). The overseer was the gabelloto’s ‘man of confidence’ — ‘he dealt with the peasants set to work on the estates and took care of the general protection of the enterprise.’ The campieri assisted the overseer in his work, and ‘constituted a kind of private police force which, in the absence of an efficient formal control apparatus, claimed to maintain law and order in the countryside.’ This hierarchical structure is replicated in Latin American latifundios, as described by Ernest Feder in ‘Latifundios and Agricultural Labour.’
Feder further describes the Latin American latifundismo as being characterised by ‘absentee landlordism’. He asserts that ‘for the rural worker almost every estate owner is an absenteeist, as the bulk of the large estates is managed by administrators’; the latter appearing to be Latin American counterparts of the soprastanti. This administrative structure has several important repercussions for the socioeconomic structural evolution (‘involution’) of the latifondo.
James C. Scott describes ‘involution’ in agrarian enterprises at the economic level as involving ‘the shift to more labour intensive techniques in return for minute, but vital, increments in yield per unit of land.’ Essential to note here is that this shift is likely to occur even while more productive, capital intensive technologies are available. Whereas capital investment in agrarian technologies by cultivators or entrepreneurs could potentially boost agricultural productivity and allow for greater agricultural surplus production in the long run, they prefer instead to intensify the ‘established form’ and concentrate on traditional labour intensive techniques, which are only able to provide a limited return. It is this voluntary adherence to traditional labour intensive technologies in the presence of more productive alternatives that characterises the process of ‘involution’. This peculiar behaviour may be explained in light of the administrative structure of the latifondo as described earlier.
The primary characteristic of indirect management (Feder’s ‘absentee landlordism’) is the administration’s lack of long term goals regarding farm productivity. Such visionary objectives may only exist when the administrator forges strong ties with the land, be they in the form of active involvement of resident owner-cultivators or tenure security for sharecroppers, so that there exists an incentive to incur sunk costs in the present for future gains.
The existing land arrangements, however, left little need to incur such costs. Whereas the owners of the Sicilian latifondo were generally absent from the picture, having leased the land to gabelloti, the latter were merely entrepreneurs who preferred to indulge in conspicuous consumption and refrained from long-term investment. Meanwhile, ‘the Sicilian sharecropping peasant . . . lacked any security of tenure over time.
In fact, his position with regard to employment did not basically differ from that of the landless labourer’, thereby leaving him too with little incentive to undertake productive investment. Consequently, the latifondo characteristically faced a lack of investments from the side of both cultivators and entrepreneurs. The latter . . . engaged in ruthless exploitation of the land and labour rather than undertake long-term investment. As true rent capitalists they “skimmed off the proceeds.” . . . [P]rofits did not return to the land, but instead were used to acquire more land or were spent on urban living.
Finally, the indirect character of management (functioning through the gabelloto-soprastante administrative heirarchy) further impeded institutional change, as the soprastante was allowed to operate only ‘within a strictly limited sphere of action’ and therefore had no jurisdiction (and little incentive) to induce any radical managerial reform. Feder concludes:
Absentee landlordism is a guarantee that customary methods of farming are strictly observed though they may be antiquated. Most administrators are not allowed to introduce changes in the farming pattern, and landlords hesitate to introduce them because this may require changes in the tenure status of the workers. Therefore the high rate of absenteeism is an obstacle to technological progress and improved farming. Management practices cannot improve beyond that permitted by the sparse interest and knowledge of farming of most absentee landlords, and the limited abilities and responsibilities of administrators.
Meanwhile, the status quo suited the gabelloti on various other fronts. For example, ‘[a]ll contracts were arranged with the obvious aim that the gabelloti share only minimally in the risks of production, which largely devolved upon staff and peasants.’ Consequently, the former had little desire to introduce any technological change that may subsequently cause renegotiation of contracts.
At the economic level, therefore, the latifondo continued to function with antiquated technology and rigid management. Instead of evolving, it underwent an ‘involution’ whereby traditional technology, organisation and administration increased in complexity, became more rigid and inflexible, but did not alter in any significant way.
Traditional means of operation were constantly reified and labour effort intensified in an effort to extract the most surplus out of a decadent system. This intensification met little resistance: ‘[n]ot living on the land and even physically separated from it by fixed residence in agro-towns, the peasants could less easily lay claim to it and thereby challenge large landownership’.
Eugen Weber even goes on to question whether such radical action would have any appeal for the peasantry, to whom ‘innovation was almost inconceivable. Routine ruled: the structural balance attained by a long process of trial and error, reinforced by isolation and physical circumstances.’ Such routine ‘connoted not mindless labour but precious experience, what had worked and hence would work again, the accumulated wisdom without which life could not be maintained.’
A similar argument is put forth by James Scott in The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Scott suggests that in opposition to the accumulative preference of urban capitalist society, the primary concern of the peasantry is subsistence. Because of a tendency towards leisure preference and the sheer lack of economic security, Scott explains the peasant’s reverence of custom and tradition as reflections of an ingrained risk-aversiveness developed over the ages. ‘
The safety-first maxim, a logical consequence of the econlogical dependence of peasant livelihood, embodies a relative preference for subsistence security over high average income.’ Scott further argues that ‘this security mindedness make[s] abstract economic sense [and] finds expression in a wide array of actual choices, institutions and values in peasant society.’ It is therefore a vast break from tradition and custom for the peasants to collectivise and attempt to resist the landlord; such instances of organised revolt, as suggested by Scott, are few and far between.
With oppressor and oppressed buying into the structure, it is hardly surprising that the economic ‘involution’ of the latifondo was closely accompanied by a social ‘involution’, which exhibited similar trends towards complexity and inflexibility. Feder argues:
Besides being complex, the social structure of the estate tends to be rigid from the point of view of economic development. . . . An autocratic organisation is well adapted to having orders from above carried out efficiently . . . However, this efficiency is the highest when matters go their usual way, in a routine manner. . . . [W]hile the landed elite has no interest in the peasants’ aspirations and keeps aloof from their world, it is still keenly aware of its obligations to keep the peasants in check and subservient. It can achieve this simply through inaction—as the social structure automatically ensures obedience up to a point—or actively, through coercion, sanctions and total hostility to any peasant organisation.
The peasants’ obedience of tradition thus made the landlords’ job easier; where grievances did arise, they could be ignored, or at worst suppressed, without having to significantly alter the social structure. Blok, for example, suggests that ‘the fragmented occupational structure of the peasant class . . . stifled the emergence of class consciousness and enduring interest groups among the labour force’. This lack of desire and ability to organise collective action was reinforced through the evolution of an entire culture of violence, deriving its roots from the criteria underlying the process of administrator selection. ‘
As a rule, strong men were recruited for this post, from those who were able to “make themselves respected”—inspire fear—among the people of the state as well as outsiders.’ The overseer’s authority was ‘reinforced by strong-arm men, a private police force.’ The post of overseer was sought after by most, because it was permanent, came with various benefits and allowed for tremendous social power.
As the ability to ‘inspire fear’ was a prerequisite to attaining this post, dominating and violent behaviour began to be perceived as desirable. This resulted in the evolution of a social code of honour that laid down strict rules and criteria for the functioning of society; in Sicilian society, this code was known as the mafia. Blok asserts: mafia provided the large estate with its mainstay. . . . [P]hysical violence dominated the social relationships through which the large estates were exploited. In this way mafiosi kept restive peasants in submission, while opening up avenues for upwardly mobile peasants who qualified in the use of violence.
It is important to note that this social code evolved in response to a need to maintain the status quo, and was subsequently complicated and institutionalised till it came to dominate all spheres of life in Sicilian society. This was the social ‘involution’ associated with the latifondo—‘inward elaboration of detail’ of an ‘established’ social need, making it ‘rigid’ and codifying it in social norms.
Although the social rules by which the mafia operated remained for the large part unwritten, similar processes of social involution elsewhere went to the extent of actually transcribing these laws. Scott Anderson’s study of Albania, for example, reveals such a codified set of social norms: ‘[T]he traditional laws and loyalties of the village . . . are spelled out in the kanun . . ., a book of rules and oaths. By the dictates of the kanun . . . one’s primary alliance is to clan and community, not to the state.’
The implications of such socioeconomic ‘involution’ are manifold. At an economic level, it appears that one reason why rural areas appear hesitant to adopt new technology is because of the ‘involutionary’ administrative structure and organisation—new technology means change and change is unpopular with the adminstration; consequently, the enterprise is so structured as to prevent change.
Social codes evolve to complement this process of ‘involution’, becoming codified in the culture of the society and forming a rigid institution which embeds itself firmly in the social structure and becomes more and more elaborate with time. The socioeconomic institutions resulting from this ‘involution’ thereby display increasing complexity and inflexibility, and become extremely resistant to outside pressures.
This further implies that nothing short of revolutionary and committed intervention would be able to significantly alter these institutions. If such intervention is attempted in a half-hearted manner by the state, which is at the best of times completely alien to rural society, it is bound to have only limited success.
Blok describes various attempts by the Fascist government to introduce new agrarian technologies and to implement agrarian reform; as may be expected, the ‘new techniques of cultivation were applied on a small scale’, ‘the Fascist agrarian policy did not promote the development of more intensive methods of cultivation and inhibited the expansion of a more balanced agriculture’, and even after the post-Fascist agrarian reform law of 1950, ‘the type of agriculture that had always characterised the inland region did not substantially change . . ., even though huge funds were allocated for improvement.’
It is testament to the longevity of ‘involutionary’ enterprises that the latifondismo of Sicily ‘manage to survive’ to date. Of Albania, Anderson similarly concludes: ‘Communism never actually modernised Albania, but merely put the old ways, the village ways, in a kind of deep freeze—much as Tito did in Yugoslavia following World War II. The collapse of the state and the national economy has led many Albanians to once again openly embrace the . . . kanun’.
We may therefore conclude that such socioeconomic structures, which at first glance appear to be anachronistic in the extreme and anomalous in the context of contemporary modes of production and social organisation, appear to defiantly face the challenge presented by modern society by undergoing a process of ‘involutionary’ change. This process involves the rigidification and complication of existing structures and a strengthening of the implicit social relationships, making these structures less vulnerable to the advent of commercialisation and state intervention.
Enterprises based on these structures constitute a subculture in the larger society, and codes of social conduct evolve that present an opposition to prevailing legal and social organisation. Attempts by the state to enforce institutional change are unlikely to succeed in the absence of radical and committed reform and a breaking-down of such ‘involuted’ codes—till such institutional reform occurs, it is unlikely that rural society will ‘modernise’ perse.