Structures of Resisitance Essay

This essay has a total of 2734 words and 12 pages.

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
contact’—‘that 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’. 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

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

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
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