By Anyang’ Nyong’o
Agrarian scholars have always had healthy controversial debates regarding what happens to peasants in capitalist society when capital fails, or is somehow slowed down, in penetrating peasant agriculture and transforming it into a robust economy for producing commodities for the market. Several things may happen.
Peasants may just be ignored, keeping on to live on subsistent family farms which produce largely for family consumption and tangentially for peripheral markets that earns them little money for family expenses such as buying clothes, paying school fees, travelling and quite often improving the quality of their homes.
In many ways, this is what goes on in most parts of Kenya where peasant agriculture is threatened by famine every now and again when the rains fail or the floods wipe off whatever family produce and wealth has been accumulated or stored for some time.
Alternatively, peasants may be brought in as commodity producers whose earnings are largely dictated by the capitalist enterprises for which they produce the commodities. These enterprises may be privately owned or run by State corporations. The logic is the same; the peasant remains largely what Prof Samir Amin once called “a proletariat working at home”!
In other words, in these circumstances, the peasant is really no different from the labourer employed in a factory; he works essentially for a wage for which he periodically surrenders the products of his labour to the sugar, tea or coffee factory.
From his earnings, the proletariat working at home, like the subsistent peasant farmer, hopes to get enough money to meet all family needs. But unlike the subsistent farmer, he may not be producing enough food for family consumption. Hence, apart from other needs, he has to buy food from the market for family sustenance.
The proletariat working at home lives under double jeopardy. When the prices of agricultural commodities go down, it is unlikely that the prices of other things that he or she needs for family sustenance will equally go down.
Hence the value of his labour power is very frequently inversely proportional to what he earns for working for the factory. Unlike the factory labourer, he is rarely in a position to bargain for his earnings through labour union mechanisms: he or she is an extremely vulnerable human being in this world of commodity production and exchange.
With the full liberalisation of the Kenyan economy in a world where substitutes for our beverages in the world market provide viable alternatives to these exports of ours, there is little likelihood that the prices that we earn will appreciate in any big way in the future.
Moreover, when consumers abroad are squeezed in terms of the diminishing value of their wages in their own countries, there is little likelihood that they would buy beverages like tea or coffee in growing quantities before they buy the foods that they really need. Similarly, there are one thousand and one diverse sources of sugar in the world.
And Kenya does not really have a comparative advantage in producing sugar in the competitive world market. Unless and until we begin producing our sugar for industrial use at home we shall put our sugar peasant farmers in an extremely precarious position. They may cease being a proletariat working at home and become an underclass threatened by famine and perpetual poverty.