Structures Of Resisitance 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 contactthat exposure and contact are the causes of change. Migdal identifies three reasons suggesting why such change would be likely to occur: (1) The benefits of the modern far outweigh the benefits of the traditional.
(2) The individual is free from severe institutional restraints which would prevent him from making an unimpeded decision. (3) 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.
Bloks 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 gabellotos 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 (Feders absentee landlordism) is the administrations 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 underwe …