Sunday, December 20, 2015

Agrarian Revolution: Marxist Sociology & Exemplary Social Science


In the course of reading and research for a bibliography on “philosophy, psychology, and methodology for the social sciences,” I came across an intriguing discussion of a book by Jeffery M. Paige, Agrarian Revolution: Social Movements and Export Agriculture in the Underdeveloped World (New York: Free Press, 1975). Paige’s study is invoked by Harold Kincaid in Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences: Analyzing Controversies in Social Research (Cambridge University Press, 1996) as “an exemplary piece of social science research.”* I was particularly intrigued owing to my professional (such as it is, being an adjunct instructor) and political interest—to put it blandly—in (among other things) Marxism, for Paige is motivated by a Marxist sociological orientation in ascertaining “the primary causes of agrarian behavior, particularly in developing countries,” yet his study is not simply a predictable or banal academic exercise of “doctrinaire Marxism.” As Kincaid proceeds to show us, Paige “modifies the Marxist view at many places” while producing a “sophisticated statistical cross-national study of agrarian revolutions, revolts, and reform movements.”

I am happy to be mistaken, but I think the subject matter of Paige’s research is one that has not appeared (at least directly) to date on this blog. The research, hypothesis and conclusion of Agrarian Revolution well demonstrates how good social science (or good natural science, for that matter) is not constrained by “formalized theories with tight deductive structures” in producing well-confirmed explanations, in this instance, “large-scale macrosociological claims being “backed up with lower-level mechanisms.” In brief, “good [natural and social] science can proceed without theories,” at least “theory” as understood by positivists, including most post-positivists. Kincaid helps us appreciate precisely why we should be perfectly content with “batches of particular causal explanations” sans any formal theoretical edifice. He provides a number of reasons why the absence of theory should not be construed as a fatal flaw, only one of which I cite:

“Confirmation and explanation can proceed without theories. Obviously even singular causal claims can be confirmed without us having access to any very elaborate theory, for we do so constantly in everyday life when we see the rock broke the window or the nail puncture the tire. Moreover, the low-level generalizations that make up much social science do have numerous epistemic ties to other generalizations, specific facts, and so on. Such ties fall short of a deductively closed, axiomatized system, but they nonetheless provide room for cross tests, fair tests, and independent tests—as indicated by the fact that much testing in natural science depends on skills that may not be explicitly described or describable, on piecemeal knowledge, and the like, as Kuhn pointed out. Finally…[as argued earlier], universality and unification are not essential to explanation, hence one main motivation for demanding highly developed theories is misplaced. So the causal accounts produced by the social sciences can provide well-confirmed explanations without providing extensive theories.”

Paige’s primary hypothesis—perhaps not surprising given his sociological background in Marxism—is that “class structure largely determines political behavior in developing countries.” The preface to Agrarian Revolution, however, puts this hypothesis in socio-economic and political context and proffers several reasons why it’s worthy of social scientific examination and “testing.” For many if not most of Paige’s reading public, the specific subject matter is not one they’ll be intimately familiar with, for it focuses

“on the politics of people who draw their living from the land, both those who perform the physical labor of cultivation in the fields and plantations of the underdeveloped world and those share the proceeds of this labor in the form of rent, profits, interest, and taxes. It is also a book about conflict over the wealth produced by the land, the control of the land itself, the political power that makes that control possible, and, in many cases, the survival of one class or another. This conflict is frequently a matter of small bargains and local compromises, but from time to time it explodes into revolutionary movements which engulf whole societies, and it is these agrarian revolutions in the export economies of the underdeveloped world in general and in the cases of Peru, Angola, and Vietnam in particular which are the principal concerns of this book. Although these rural social movements involve extraordinary rather than ordinary political happenings, the politics of revolutionary change, like the politics of everyday life, is shaped by the relationship between upper and lower classes in rural areas. The nature of this conflict and political choices open to both classes are limited by the irreducible role of land in agriculture and by the compelling force of the international market in agricultural commodities. If conflicts between cultivators and noncultivators so often lead to hard choices between repression and revolution, it is because the control of landed property and the exigencies of efficient production leave them with few other alternatives. Both upper and lower agrarian classes use force in economic conflicts not because they have not carefully considered all possible alternatives, but because they have. There is a calculus of force just as orderly and rational in its way as the principles of economics, and despite the passions which surround this violence, it is important to realize that men risk their lives only with the greatest reluctance; when, in Peru, Angola, or Vietnam, they do so, it is usually because their opponents have left them with no other choice.”

Relatedly, we should recall with Paige the geo-political dynamics of the period in question, especially as they involve U.S. foreign policy (as well the behavior of transnational corporations and capitalist investors) in the various regions of the “underdeveloped” world:

“…[I]t is important to note at the outset that this book grows out of the fundamental questions raised by United States involvement in revolutionary movements in the underdeveloped world in general and Vietnam in particular. In Peru, Angola, Vietnam, and many other areas of the underdeveloped world the United States has chosen to side with the landlords and plantation owners against the peasants, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers who took up arms against them. American military alliances, American trained officers, American military aid and equipment, and, finally, American armed forces have been used either singly or in combination, against the peasants of the Peruvian sierra, the contract laborers of northern Angola, and the tenant farmers of the Mekong delta of Vietnam. [….] At minimum, then, this book attempts to raise the question of whether most of us, had we been in the selva of Peru, the jungles of Angola, or the rice paddies of Vietnam, would have supported the landlords or the laborers.”
The historical, socio-economic, and political scene in place, we’ll let Kincaid introduce the specific agrarian economic systems that form the backbone of both Paige’s principal and ancillary hypotheses: 

“The social classes in agrarian systems are of two basic kinds, depending on whether they are composed of cultivators or non-cultivators. Cultivators include sharecroppers, resident wage laborers, peasants with small holdings, and usufructuaries; noncultivators are the landed aristocracy and agricultural corporations. These cultivators and noncultivators in turn fall into different classes depending on the source of their income, in particular on whether their income comes primarily from land, capital, or wages.

Four basic agrarian class systems are thus possible. In the first type of system, both cultivators and non-cultivators draw their income primarily from rights to the land than from capital or wages. The most common system of this type is the commercial hacienda or manor. It is an individually owned enterprise which does not depend essentially on power-driven processing machinery or other similar capital investments; its workers typically receive compensation by rights to cultivate small plots of land. In the second type of system, non-cultivators draw their income from the land and workers are paid in wages. Usually these systems involve large estates with little or no power-driven machinery and workers who are either sharecroppers or migratory wage laborers. In the third type, non-cultivators draw their income in large part from capital investments and workers are paid in wages. Plantations owned by a commercial cooperation typify this sort of system. Crops are processed on site by power-drive machinery and workers are more or less permanent residents who are paid in money-wages. In the fourth type, non-cultivators depend primarily on capital and the cultivators depend primarily on land. Prime examples include small family farms or small-holding peasants producing a cash crop and sold to a large agricultural corporation.

Paige predicts that these different economic systems will produce different types of political behavior. To derive these specific hypotheses, Paige looks at how income source affects cultivators and non-cultivators separately. Using those hypotheses he then predicts what happens when those separate behaviors are combined in the four basic class systems.”

For reasons of length and wanting to avoid testing the reader’s patience, we’ll omit the specific hypotheses as they pertain to cultivating and non-cultivating classes and behavior and share the conclusion he draws from them that permits Page “to predict how different class systems affect agrarian political behavior.”

[1.] “When owners depend upon capital and cultivators on wages (as in large plantations), Paige predicts that cultivators will engage in collective action, but action limited to economic issues such as wages and working conditions and action that ends in compromise settlements. Because of their laboring conditions, cultivators will act collectively over economic issues. Owners, however, are economically strong and generally have an increasing pie to divide; moreover, owners are not seriously dependent on political protection by the state, and their workers can legally act collectively over economic issues. Disputes over will thus not be naturally transformed into disputes over political power, and compromise will be the name of the game. (Paige thus argues against Marx here.)

[2.] The small holding system will likewise produce limited challenges to political authority. Cultivators will draw income from the land and sell products in the market. They will thus be risk averse and divided between rich and poor, reducing the prospects for collective action. If collective action over economic issues occurs, it will not involve challenges to political authority nor be long-lived. The commercial class, which owns the factories processing the products from small-holders, does not depend on political protection and is not involved in a zero-sum game. Moreover, the market mediates its relation to small holders, thus minimizing conflict. So small holding systems should result in limited protests over credit, market prices, and the like—what Paige calls a reform commodity movement.

[3.] When both cultivators and non-cultivators get their income from the land, we can expect a more severe conflict. Owners are economically weak, dependent upon the state for protection, and unable to compromise by sharing gains in productivity with cultivators. Cultivators are typically without political rights. This combination of factors means economic disputes cannot easily be settled and will naturally spread to issues about land ownership and property redistribution. However, the cultivators are subject to all the factors that undercut collective action. So cultivator movements should not become revolutionary movements, unless other forces like urban political parties intervene to introduce organization from the outside. So, in Paige’s terminology, ‘revolts’ may occur, but sustained support for thoroughgoing political revolution should be rare.

[4.] Finally, upper-class land income and cultivator income in wages make for the most explosive situation. The upper class is economically pressed, weak, unable to compromise through sharing productivity gains, and dependent on state protection. Cultivators typically are not divided along income lines and have no property to lose in collective action. So economic disputes should be frequent and should quickly become disputes over political authority, since the upper class depends upon political force to maintain itself. Revolutionary movements should thus be most frequent when this class system predominates.”

Kincaid’s succinct discussion of Paige’s evidence, in other words, its “previous research, mostly case studies…; a world study looking primarily for correlations between economic systems and political behavior; case studies of Peru, Angola and Vietnam;” his hypotheses and their ceteris paribus qualification; and the ability to explain away “the most obvious exceptions to his hypothesis” [e.g., Malayan agricultural wage earners who worked on rubber estates and became involved in revolutionary movements], concludes that this compelling (informal) theory of agrarian movements displays the traits of good science: “It exhibits the evidential virtues summarized by independent, fair, and cross tests. Though its laws are qualified ceteris paribus, it confirms those claims by applying testing methods common in the natural sciences. Paige’s theory also seems to have explanatory virtues: it explains by providing relevant causal generalizations. Those causal generalizations, of course, describe tendencies or partial causal factors. Yet Paige’s testing procedures provide good evidence that those tendencies are actually operative.” 

* Kincaid misspells Paige’s first name—as Jeffrey—in both the body of the text and in the bibliography.  

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