A review of Yos Santasombat (2008), Flexible Peasants: Reconceptualizing the Third World’s Rural Types. RCSD, Chiang Mai University.


[This review appeared recently in Chiang Mai University’s Sangkhomsat, 20 (2).]

Like many scholars who study contemporary rural society, Yos Santasombat is seeking to define a new type of peasantry. The challenge appears formidable, not the least because, as Yos argues on the first page of this book, “[m]odern industrialized agriculture and global market economies destroy peasant societies” (1). But, fortunately, the destruction is not complete and “peasant societies perpetuate traces of the peasantry’s complex identities and communities” (1). Flexible Peasants: Reconceputalizing the Third World’s Rural Types is a conceptually passionate and ethnographically engaged exploration of these persistent, flexible and counter-hegemonic traces. The book concentrates on northern Thailand–Nan and Chiang Mai in particular– where peasants in very different contexts are shaping new ways of coping with the challenges of modernity.

In his review of the extensive literature on the peasantry, Yos covers considerable conceptual ground: the persistent preoccupation with the peasantry as a primitive “other”; the evolutionary emphasis on transitions to civilisation and development; the relationship between peasant marketing and wider economic systems; the impacts of colonial incorporation and capitalist expansion on rural society; debates between “moral economy” and “rational peasant” frameworks; and the role of the state in rural class formation. Running through much of the discussion is the longstanding debate about the disappearance or persistence of the peasantry, a debate that can be traced back to the radically different views of peasant economy held by Lenin and Chayanov. Yos’ position on this never-ending debate is subtle. As the book proceeds, it becomes clear that he shares, with Lenin and others, the view that commercialisation profoundly disrupts many of the underpinnings of peasant ecology, economy and society. But, drawing on the Chayanovian spirit of flexibility, he rejects the evolutionary view that modern peasants are destined to bifurcate into a class of capitalist farmers and a class of landless proletarians. Rather than worrying too much about whether one system of social and economic organisation will replace another, Yos is more interested in the “dynamics of articulation” between different systems in historically specific circumstances (26).

Yos argues that the contemporary forms of articulation involving the peasants of northern Thailand are characterised by adaptability and flexibility. He rejects romantic and essentialist notions of the peasantry and argues for an approach that recognises both “rural urban inter-penetration and dynamism of different rural types” (30-31). This general approach will be familiar to those with an interest in agrarian transitions, de-agrarianisation and the diversification of rural livelihood strategies. But the model of a “flexible peasantry” proposed by Yos is somewhat idiosyncratic and it needs to be understood in terms of the anthropological and advocacy work he and his colleagues have undertaken at Chiang Mai University. This important body of work, much of it also focussed on northern Thailand, has drawn attention to the importance of local knowledge, communal resource management, ethnic identify and the strategic mobilisation of tradition in pursuit of political empowerment. It is often motivated by an attempt to identify counter-hegemonic elements within rural communities that contest the intrusive power of the modern state and the capitalist market. There is a strong emphasis on empowerment through discourse and on the pursuit of rights. This is why, in Flexible Peasants, Yos argues that materialist understandings of the peasantry, which focus on land and agricultural livelihoods, give insufficient attention to new forms of identify built around symbolic struggles for basic rights. From this perspective, the flexibility of the northern Thai peasantry is primarily–but not exclusively, as I will discuss below–about their ability to creatively assert the importance of local ecological capability and to promote the relationship between cultural diversity and biological diversity: “The rice fields, paddy land and mountain slopes served as laboratories where local knowledge, practice, technology and germplasms have been continuously developed” (31). It is in these specific contexts of flexibility that, according to Yos, the persistent traces of the northern Thai peasantry cohere into three “contemporary identities”: “the forest conservationist, the indigenous person and the genetic manager” (2).

These contemporary forms of peasant identity are explored through a series of ethnographic case studies. The first concerns upland Lua cultivators in Nan province. Yos’ description of the Lua is passionately sympathetic and he places them firmly within the internationally familiar indigenous slot: they have strong communities characterised by exchange labour; village elders are important decision makers; socio-economic differentiation, wage labour and debt is minimal; swidden cultivation is practiced sustainably; fields and fallow are rich in biodiversity; sacred forests are protected; and, perhaps most charming of all, most of them are poor. This sustainable lifestyle is under threat from the Royal Forest Department which is imposing standardised systems of forest classification and implementing a conservationist framework that is blind to the ecological benefits of Lua agricultural practice. Forest regulations restrict the long fallow cycles that underpin local sustainability and Lua farmers are arrested for “illegally” clearing their own farm land. Yos writes that the Lua are “battered into place by more powerful outsiders’ fantasies based upon their labelling them as savages, wild, backward, illiterate, animist, etc., all centered within powerful discourses on development and progress” (63). But the Lua are resilient and they have responded to state oppression in various ways. They have joined protests against the declaration of the national park that would swallow up their land, and they avoid dealing with the Royal Forest Department, even passing up opportunities for employment. Most importantly, they have asserted their own “politics of place” (80), drawing on memories of northern Thailand’s ancient Lua kingdoms and making elaborate offerings to the local tutelary spirit to ritually assert their long-standing rights of residence and resource ownership. As indigenous conservationists the Lua are able to create a new “social space” in which they can “effectively challenge the state” (86).

Similar themes of local resilience and adaptability are pursued in the following two chapters. In Chiang Mai province, Karen leaders promote the ecological benefits of rotational shifting cultivation (rai mul wian) in order to challenge the common stereotype that upland farming results in forest destruction, soil erosion and water source degradation. By building up forms of “symbolic capital” the Karen can “struggle against hegemonic state discourses” (110) and by emphasising ethnicity they can create a “common fabric” (111) for a new identity that overcomes the sense of fragmentation brought about by modernity. In the lowlands of Nan province, farmers have become disillusioned with the economic fluctuations and ecological degradation of commercial monocropping which has been enthusiastically promoted by state agencies. Some are now reverting to more traditional forms of agriculture based on crop diversity and the cultivation of local rice varieties.

The fourth case study chapter proves the most challenging for the approach to flexibility that Yos has constructed. It is the result of a series of re-studies of northern Thai villages that had been previously described, since the 1950s, by Western and Thai anthropologists. All are lowland villages and most of them lie in the agricultural heartland of the Chiang Mai valley. A lengthy appendix contains invaluable village summaries and in the chapter itself Yos examines the main dimensions of transformation. The changes are unsurprising: subsistence production has declined in importance; cash crops and fruit orchards are much more common; exchange labour still exists but wage labour is the preferred form of recruitment; many village households have people working in off-farm occupations; and village land has been sold to outsiders. Overall, the market exerts a strong influence and economic calculations are more individualistic, based on profit and loss. Here, a new type of flexibility comes to the fore. These farmers do not appear to be drawing, in any substantial numbers, on contemporary identities that emphasise forests, ethnicity, indigeneity or biodiversity. Their flexibility seems to be much more mundane: “peasant-workers, agricultural wage-laborer, urban peasants, transmigrant peasants, petty-producers and peddlers etc” (140). Yos is clearly open to these alternative forms of peasant identity and this is reflected, for example, in his emphasis on rural-urban penetration, new strategies of livelihood adaptation and the emergence of different “sub-classes” of peasants. But he seems much more ambivalent about this explicitly modernist array of identities than he does about the more traditionalist adaptations of the Lua, the Karen and the bio-diverse rice farmers in Nan:

Throughout the past 40-year period Thai peasants have been coerced into increasing dependence on external political, economic, technological and cultural forces. We are witnessing the emergence of marginal peasants who are flexible, diverse and self-contradictory in identities and social roles. It’s like being both peasants and labourers at the same time – acting as wage labor in the agricultural sector, being urban peasants, international laborers, small-scale traders, hawkers, etc. The Thai peasantry is being caught in the state of “peripheric capitalism” that now propels them into a path of change not dissimilar to that experienced by the peasantry in Western Europe. Far from being idle receptors of capitalist penetration, however, the peasants are fighting back in various forms under varying socio-political conditions and contexts. (141)

So, it seems that forms of flexibility based on wage labour and market engagement are the result of coercion and external pressure. This type of flexibility gives rise to identities that are marginal and contradictory and seemingly unsustainable. Identity that is authentic and autonomous arises out of “fighting back” – it is a product of resistance. But how the peasants in northern Thailand’s rural heartlands are fighting back is not made clear. The reader is left with a sense of a modern peasantry with an incomplete identity; partial peasants stuck between the forest and the capitalist market.

Flexible Peasants is successful in mapping out what might be called a niche identity. In the highly diverse social, economic and spatial landscapes of northern Thailand there should always be a place for individuals and communities who chose to pursue alternative livelihood paths. As the rural economy develops and diversifies even further, the potential for these alternative niches to flourish will increase. More rural people, like Chusak, the bio-diverse farmer described in chapter 4, will be able to invest their earnings from wage labour into eco-enterprise. Moral and financial support for such initiatives will be guaranteed because they are consistent with middle class and urban desires for a particular style of “traditional” rural livelihood. Since the military coup of September 2006, images of local sufficiency and moderation have been used in an attempt to dampen rural aspirations for economic and political inclusion. Ironically, this anti-democratic promotion of local sufficiency may give the communities that Yos describes some more room to manoeuvre in pursuing their alternative economic visions. Other encouragement may come from international forest-protection initiatives aimed at mitigating climate change. Local communities who can successfully position themselves as forest conservationists may be able to capture a small share of the global carbon market. There are some fascinating paths of alternative rural development opening up, and Yos’ re-conceptualisation of the peasantry in terms of “forest conservationist, indigenous person and genetic manager” has contributed a lot to our understanding of directions that are being pursued in northern Thailand.

However, Flexible Peasants is less successful in re-conceptualising the transformations in mainstream rural society. The scale of transformation emerges clearly in the book. The survey data demonstrates, for example, the importance of wage labour even in the poorest and most remote communities. The economic flexibility of the peasantry is on display. But how this economic flexibility informs contemporary identities is much less clear. I think there are two related reasons for this ambiguity and lack of clarity. First, as I have noted, there is a tendency to tie authentic peasant identity too closely to resistance. As a result identities are selectively described in anti-hegemonic terms. Second, there is a reluctance to acknowledge, except in passing (140-141, 169), the enormous benefits that modernisation has bought to the rural population in Thailand. Yos writes that economic trends over the past four decades have resulted in “little to no improvement in peasant incomes” (116). But in the early 1960s, 96 percent of rural households fell below the poverty line; by 2002 the figure had plummeted to 12.6 percent. In 1960 almost 15 percent of children in Thailand died before they reached the age of 5; in 2007 less than 1 percent died. And in 1960, life expectancy in Thailand was 55; in 2007 it was 71. Much of this improvement in quality of life can be attributed to the provision of infrastructure, the expansion of government services and the proliferation of more productive economic pursuits in the market economy. This has encouraged the formation of new forms of peasant identity based on the desire for more complete integration into administrative and commercial systems, not resistance to them. This rural sentiment for inclusion is what Thaksin Shinawatra tapped into so successfully in his populist electoral campaigns. A political party promoting indigeneity, forest conservation and genetic diversity may attract some niche support but it would pose no electoral threat at all to a Thaksin-esque campaign for local economic development and resource mobilisation.