Agriculture employs half the world’s population outside the advanced countries, where only one person in 40 still farms. In the United States, the ratio is one in 50. By prevailing standards of technology, 1.25 billion workers are redundant, and nearly 3 billion people (including their dependants) stand to be displaced. [1] The good news is that Chinese and Indian farmers comprise three-fifths of the world’s total, and have good prospects of eventual integration into the world economy. But that leaves more than a billion people at risk, mainly in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Every great advance in productivity of agricultural in history left in the lurch a superfluous population that was ground up in war. The Carolingian Renaissance of the High Middle Ages brought the horse collar, the steel plow, windmills for swap drainage, and three-field rotation. The Teutonic Knights shifted some of the excess population to the Baltic and Eastern Europe, eradicating the local population in the process. The Crusades absorbed more of the surplus, until the Black Death of the 14th century made people scarce again. The Napoleonic Wars dealt with the peasants made redundant by the agricultural revolution of the 18th century, and World War I repeated the exercise a century later.

In his recent book Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade proposes that humankind has evolved to become more peaceful. On the contrary, the 21st century may produce war casualties on a scale never before seen.

I do not mean to propose a simple theory of war. Nothing foreordains violence as the outcome of economic problems. The United States, Canada and Australia created many more homes for displaced European peasants than the wars of the 19th and 20th century provided graves. Not only Christian America, but communist China and Hindu India have found peaceful means to manage the great transition to city from countryside. But where the bonds of traditional society can be broken only by force, the threat of war on a terrifying scale remains high.

Mexico’s present political crisis is a case in point. The left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has refused to accept defeat in the recent elections, encamped hundreds of thousands of followers in the capital, and formed an alternative cabinet. Because Lopez Obrador controls the police force of Mexico City, where he was governor, he cannot be chased away, leaving Mexico in a predicament of dual power. The impoverished half of the Mexican people have little to lose, leaving Mexico’s long-term prospects doubtful. The United States already has taken in perhaps 20 million economic refugees from its southern neighbor, so many that immigration dominates the political agenda in many states, repeating, as it were, the role the US played with respect to Europe during the 19th century. If the US were to restrict immigration, Mexico’s safety valve would close and the political situation might worsen.

During the 1930s, Mexico’s post-revolutionary leaders imported Josef Stalin’s collective-farm model to keep peasants on the land and out of trouble. [2] This policy left half or more of Mexicans in unrelieved rural misery. Now the lid has blown off the pot.

As Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos told the London Financial Times on September 19, violent crime is the greatest threat to most of Latin America. Caracas is now the world’s most dangerous city, despite (or because of) the populism of Hugo Chavez, just ahead of Sao Paolo. The street price of cocaine has fallen from US$250 a gram in the late 1980s to as little as $50 today despite US-sponsored efforts to suppress coca production, because there are too many farmers. Latin American cities already are in collapse and cannot absorb more people from the countryside. Short of starving out several million farmers in Peru and Colombia, there is no way to suppress cocaine traffic. That is the sort of thing Stalin was happy to do, but not George Bush.

Seventeen million Africans, for that matter, have become economic refugees, Der Spiegel reported recently, and many thousands die in open boats or the desert in their attempt to reach Europe.

No peace agreement ever will emerge between Israel and the Palestinians, I believe, because economics should have dispersed the Palestinian population more than half a century ago. Mechanization of agriculture, rather than Zionist political aims, began displacing the rural Arab population in the 1930s, I observed in another location. The Zionist agency bought farms from absentee landlords, displaced the fellaheen engaged in near-subsistence agriculture, and made the land profitable and productive. From an economic standpoint, that is, the Palestinians were Okies, but with no California to go to. This led to the 1936-39 Arab uprising against the British Mandate and Jewish settlement.

Rather than disperse gradually like other agrarian populations, the Palestinian Arabs became wards of the United Nations after the 1947-48 War of Independence. Their numbers surged because of better medical care and nutrition than they previously enjoyed as well as child subsidies. That is why the 700,000 Arabs who fled or were driven from Israel grew into the 4 million “refugees” registered with the UN in 2002. I place the term “refugees” in quotation marks because in no other case has the third generation following a population transfer retained official refugee status.

Despite the best intentions of Shimon Peres and the Israeli socialists, it seems delusional to imagine that any combination of light industry and tourism will provide a livelihood for a Palestine with 5 million inhabitants (including the non-refugee West Bank population). The Palestinian entity cannot exist without subsidies, and it cannot extract subsidies from the West or from the Muslim world without constituting a military threat. The existential choices for Palestinians come down to dispersal or perpetual war.

This bears on the eccentric behavior of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who took the opportunity of his appearance before the United Nations last week to predict the early appearance of the Mahdi. A third of Iran’s population remains in agriculture, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, but this third produces only a tenth of the country’s gross domestic product. Iran’s farmers and the urban jobless (unemployment officially is estimated at more than 11%) form a hard core of support for Ahmadinejad, that is, a constituency with no prospects and nothing to lose.

Again, I do not propose an economic explanation of Iran’s intransigence on the matter of nuclear-weapons development. It is not Iran’s economic misery as much as the mortal wound this misery deals to traditional society that motivates Iran’s leaders. Islam constitutes the revenge of traditional society against encroaching empires, I have argued (see Sistani and the end of Islam, September 8), and the dissolution of agricultural communities as well as the formation of an immiserated urban proletariat threatens the existence of Islam. Modern Islamism responds not so much to the economic problems as to their expression in the form of a crisis of faith.

The dreadful circumstances of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East set China’s enormous accomplishment in relief. Each year China shifts between 12 million and 15 million people to cities from the countryside – that is to say, it manages migration on the scale of the aggregate African exodus to Europe every year and a half. Nothing like this ever has happened in history, surely not in an orderly fashion. As I wrote last year (China must wait for democracy, September 27, 2005):

In the mere span of five years between 1996 and 2000, China’s urban-rural population ratio rose to 36:64 from 29:71, and the UN Population Division projects that by 2050, the ratio will shift to 67:33 urban. Chinese cities, the UN forecasts, will contain 800 million people by mid-century. By 2015, the population of cities will reach 220 million, compared to the 1995 level of 134 million.

Well over half a billion souls will migrate from farm to city over the space of half a century.

That is both good and bad news for the rest of the world. China’s success demonstrates that peaceful population transfers are neither impossible nor an expression of Western values. But China’s capacity to employ half a billion migrants depends on a ferocious competitiveness in global manufacturing that sets an extremely high threshold for new market entrants. Chinese industry is so efficient that prospective competitors will enter the world market only with extreme difficulty.

Grounds for optimism about the Middle East, Africa and Latin America are thin. The most likely outlet for the surplus population appears to be the same as in the past: war.

[1] See Feeding the World: An Economic History of World Agriculture, 1800-2000 by Giovanni Federico (Princeton University Press 2005).
[2] See Textos Hereticos by Enrique Krauze (1992).

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