Famine in Peasant Societies

Famine in Peasant Societies

Famine in Peasant Societies

Famine in Peasant Societies


In this controversial study, Seavoy offers a new approach to the problem of periodic peacetime famine based on the actual behavior of peasants. He maintains that it is possible to increase per capita food production without massive and inappropriate technological inputs. Seavoy shifts the focus from modern development economics to a cultural and historical analysis of subsistence agriculture in Western Europe (England and Ireland), Indonesia, and India. From his survey of peasant civilization practices in these countries, he generalizes on the social values that create what he terms the subsistence compromise. In all of the ages and culture, Seavoy finds a consistent social organization of agriculture that produces identical results: seasonal hunger in poor crop years and famine conditions in consecutive poor crop years. He argues that economic policies have failed to increase per capita food production because economists and government planners try to apply market-oriented policies to populations that are not commercially motivated. Once they understand the subsistence compromise, policy-makers can take appropriate political action.


This book is an analysis of the labor that peasants expend in food production. Only by analyzing the social value of agricultural labor performed by peasants is it possible to understand the social basis of subsistence, and this understanding is absolutely necessary before political policies can be adopted that will increase per capita food production faster than population increase. Without an accurate analysis of subsistence motivation there is only confusion. the purpose of this book is to end this confusion by defining the social and institutional dimensions of subsistence food production so that central governments can take appropriate political action.

Most economists will reject the major conclusion of this book because it indicates that the only effective remedies are political. Politics must take precedence over economics because economists have failed to accurately describe and analyze the food producing capabilities of peasant societies. As a result, economic policies have failed to increase per capita food production faster than population increase. This failure means that the governments of peasant nations must emphasize political action in the term political economy if an assured food surplus is to be produced.

Economic policies have failed because the assumptions and terminology of economics do not apply to subsistence cultures. Economic assumptions and terminology apply only to commercial cultures. Confusion results when economic assumptions and terminology are used to describe and analyze the subsistence social values and supporting institutions of peasant societies.

Only revolutionary political action will transform some peasants into producers of an assured food surplus. the commercial revolution can be managed as it was in Japan, or it can be violent as it was in the Soviet Union, but it is necessary in order to end periodic peacetime famines. Because of their failure to recognize . . .

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