Chapter 29: The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer

Outline of Marx's Analysis:


Analyzing the emergence of the capitalist class, Marx begins in the countryside, where he began his discussion of the genesis of the working class. The expropriation of the rural population made it possible for the landed proprietors to reorganize the countryside, directly or through intermediaries. In some cases, landlords took over supervision of waged workers on their enlarged domains. In most, they hired others to reorganize agricultural production increasing its commercialization, demanding only their share of the surplus-value as rent. The examples Marx gives shows the decreasing control of landlords, per se, and the increasing control of the emerging class of capitalist farmers. Like the capitalist class more generally, in order to emerge as a dominant class, agrarian capitalists had to first gain control over production, independent of the landlords, and second, employ a reorganized labor force to produce a marketable surplus.

As the point of departure of this process in Europe varied enormously, so too did the paths along which the new class emerged. They varied from region to region and country to country. The history in the United States was just as varied, starting from family farming, waged labor and plantation slavery. After slavery was ended by revolt and civil war, small farmers, whether independent or sharecroppers, were slowly squeezed off the land in an ongoing process of enclosure by large-scale capitalist agribusiness, with considerable help from the US government.

The Resistance to Market Forces in American Farming

In the United States, the westward movement of people seeking alternatives to the emerging factories (in Europe and on the East Coast of North America) created a class of independent family farmers linked together in many kinds of community. These farmers were akin to the independent yeoman farmers Marx saw being wiped out in England. Obtaining land by displacing Native Americans, their labor could only be harnessed/exploited by the emerging capitalist system through the market (the manipulation of domestic terms of trade and high interest rates). Such exploitation culminated in the Populist Revolt in the late 19th Century, when millions of American farmers joined together to protest, among other things, the falling ratio of the prices they received for their crops to the prices they paid for their tools, seeds, etc. They also protested the limitation of the money supply to gold—that kept supplies of money limited, prices down and interest rates up—and demanded the monetization of silver.(1)

Throughout much of the following twentieth century, farmers had to struggle against a tendency for the terms of their trade to fall and thus for their situation to worsen.(2) A blues song, “Seven Cent Cotton,” composed in 1927 by Sampson Pittman, dealt with just such a problem: low prices for cotton and high prices for just about everything the farmers had to buy. The song begins: “7¢ cotton and 40¢ meat / How in the world / Can a poor man eat? / Flour up high and / Cotton down low / How in the world / Can we raise the dough?”(3)

Cover of Pete Seeger's album American Industrial Ballads.

Seven Cent Cotton

7¢ cotton and 40¢ meat
How in the world
Can a poor man eat?

Flour up high and
Cotton down low
How in the world
Can we raise the dough?
Clothes worn out
Shoes run down
Old slouch hat
With a hole in the crown
Back nearly broken
And fingers all sore
Cotton gone down
To rise no more

7¢ cotton and 8 dollar pants
Who in the world
Has got a chance
We can't buy clothes
We can't buy meat
Too much cotton
And not enough to eat
Can't help each other
What'll we do
I can't explain it
So it's up to you.
7¢ cotton and two dollar hose
Guess we'll have to do
Without any clothes

7¢ cotton and 40¢ meat
How in the world
Can a poor man eat?

Mule's in the barn
No crop laid by
The corn crib's empty
And the cow's gone dry
Well water low
Nearly out of sight
Can't take a bath
On a Saturday night
No use talkin'
Any man is beat
With 7¢ cotton and 40¢ meat

7¢ cotton and 40¢ meat
How in the world
Can a poor man eat?

Poor are gettin poorer
All around here
The kids comin' regular
Every year
Fatten our hogs
Taken 'em to town
All we get is 6¢ a pound
Very next day
We have to buy it back
40¢ a pound
in a paper sack.

(Pete Seeger,
American Industrial Ballads,
Folkways, 1957. (5251)
Smithsonian/Folkways 1992.
(CD SF 40058))

Other methods of exploitation included debt peonage through which farmers would become indebted to landowners, banks or suppliers and forced to produce commercial crops to pay off their debt. This was the fate of many ex-slaves after the Civil War. For those who escaped imprisonment and de facto slavery (see my commentary on Chapter 28) and were unable to obtain land, they often found themselves “sharecropping” others’ land and trapped in perpetual debt.(4) Others have been subordinated via the modern “putting out” or “contract farming” system, whereby small farm owners sign contracts with food chains or food processing corporations and must follow the methods and instructions of their buyers. In both cases, as in the case of slavery, people’s skills and labor have been manipulated and exploited by capital without this being done through the wage.

Capitalists have not always found it easy to entice or compel American family farmers to produce for the market, and thus expose themselves to exploitation. The traditional American family farm is a complex combination of animal husbandry, vegetable and grain growing, designed from the first to be largely self-supporting. Animal wastes are returned to the soil as nutrients; the animals feed on grain or their byproducts or on fallow pastures being renewed by nitrogen-fixing crops. Drying, butchering, salting, canning and more recently freezing have provided farm families with food the year round. In these circumstances, it is possible for small farmers, if they are not caught by the debt traps of suppliers or bankers, to produce for the market only to the degree that they choose, selling just enough to buy things they cannot produce. In research for his PhD dissertation, Ricardo Salvatore discovered how the refusal of New England farmers to produce hides for even a regional leather market forced East Coast shoe producers to import hides from as far away as Argentina and California.(5) Those farmers who refused to subordinate their production to the market were opting for a certain culture and way of life in which they were working for themselves and their own self-defined needs.

In a process that Marx analyzes with respect to industry in Chapter 25, American agriculture has suffered gradual processes of both proletarianization and centralization. Exploited and then foreclosed, most small farmers have been driven off the land and into rural or urban labor markets. Some, in self-defense, have survived by banding together in farmer cooperatives.(6) Parallel has been the rise of larger, more wealthy farmers and ranchers and their takeover by Eastern or European investment companies. American agribusiness emerged from open range wars, where the stronger stole from the weaker, and from some buying up others' land, often at cut-rate prices from foreclosing banks. The big farms and ranches fenced the land and hired ever more laborers, including cowboys to manage herds and cattle drives-armed cowboys who, sometimes, struck for higher wages." (7) In these ways, the experience of England has been essentially repeated in North America, albeit with some variation.

The period of the Populist Revolt was the last important instance of large and small American farmers combining in a common political cause. Subsequently, the state, through the Department of Agriculture, went out of its way to destroy this alliance by supporting the growth of the American Farm Federation that catered to large farmers and by directing its increasing number of agricultural extension agents to push new technology mainly toward more affluent farmers who could afford the necessary investment.(8) In recent years, the revival of the “farm movement” in response to the latest credit crunches and crises of parity in output and input prices has been supported by those few small farmers who are left, and some large farmers who stand to gain from price supports. This “movement” is on a very small scale in comparison to the Populist Revolt, in large measure because while in 1870 almost 50 percent of Americans still worked the land, today that number has been reduced to 3–4 percent and is still declining.

As its operations and the need for cheap farm labor grew, U.S. agribusiness turned to immigrant labor, both legal—through the Bracero Program— and illegal. By the 1960s, however, field workers (mostly Mexican, or Mexican American) began to form unions, fight for union recognition, higher wages and better working conditions in the central valley of California. They fought in part through strikes and in part through a nationwide grape boycott that mobilized millions of shoppers (mainly housewives) in their support. Many of us who were supporting the resistance of peasants in Southeast Asia to US government counterinsurgency war also lent our time and energy to support that struggle in the American countryside.

The struggles of farmworkers have been commemorated in song. An early one, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” (1948) by Woody Guthrie, lamented the exploitation of immigrant workers. Another, the “Corrido de Delano” or the “Ballad of Delano” by Lalo Guerrero (1916–2005), celebrated the battles of the United Farm Workers in California. The song begins: “In 1965 or 1966, more or less / Our people rose up / In the fields of Delano / Demanding better wages / For working the land.”

Corrido de Delano

Ano del 65, 66 mas o menos
Se levanto nuestra gente
En los campos de Delano
Piediendo mejores sueldos
Por trabajar el terreno.

Estado de California
En el condado de Kern
Se escucharon las palabras,
"Andale paisano! Ven
A ingresar al sindicato;
Nos ira mucho mas bien."

Por que salimos en huelga?
No es pa que el mundo se asombre.
Esto lo decia un joven,
Cesar Chavez es su nombre.
Solo pedimos lo justo
Y la dignidad del hombre.

Estado de California
En el valle San Joaquin
Llamo tanto la atencion
Este famoso motin
Que vinieron senadores
A ver se le hallaban fin.

Murphy y Kennedy vinieron
A consultar a nuestra gente
Escucharon las demandas
Y se fueron muy conscientes
De que se trata de un pueblo
Trabajador y decente.

Con el estandard hermoso
De nuestra Guadalupana
Va marchando a Sacramento
Nuestra gente mexicana
A luchar por sus derechos.
Dios bendito, a ver si ganan.

Ballad of Delano

In 1965 or 1966, more or less
Our people rose up
In the fields of Delano
Demanding better wages
For working the land.

In the state of California
In Kern country
The words were heard,
"Come on, countrymen, come
Join the union;
We will be a lot better off."

Why are we going to strike?
It is not to frighten anyone.
That's what a young man said,
Cesar Chavez is his name.
We only ask for justice
And for the dignity of man.

In the state of California
In the San Joaquin Valley
This famous movement
Attracted so much attention
That senators came
To see if they could settle it.

Murphy and Kennedy came
To hear our people
They listened to their demands
And went away very aware
That they were dealing with
Hard working and decent people.

With the beautiful banner
Of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Our Mexican people
Go marching to Sacramento
To struggle for their rights.
.Blessed Lord, let's see if they win.

(from Work's Many Voices, Vol. II,
Down Home Music/Arhoolie
Records, (JEMF-111), n.d.

Among the many other musical expressions of such rural conflicts in that period was “Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan. His song, however, was more than an expression of rural revolt; it expressed a whole cycle of social struggles of the late 1960s: the revolt against capitalist work in all its forms. “Maggie’s Farm” could be any farm, factory, office or schoolroom where people were put to work and mistreated. The miseries that Dylan describes are those of all workers: ideas which can’t be realized because work drains away energy, low wages, penalties for the infraction of stupid rules, the blindness of bosses to anything besides their pursuit of profit, their frequent enjoyment of their power over workers, the shadow of the state standing behind them to protect them from workers’ revolt, ideology that hides hypocrisy. Yet, the song reveals the struggle for self-realization despite the oppressions of boring work. It begins: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more / No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more / Well, I wake up in the morning / Hold my hands and pray for rain / I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane / It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.” Just how widely the sentiments of the song rippled, can be seen in its Wikipedia entry.

Cover of Dylan's album Bringing It All Back Home

Maggie's Farm

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more

Well, I wake up in the morning
Hold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more

I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more
No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel, he hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin, if you're havin a good time
And he fines you everytime you slam the door
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more

I ain't gonna work for Maggie's Pa no more
No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's Pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window, it is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands outside his door
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's Pa no more

I ain't gonna work for Maggie's Ma no more
No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's Ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants about man and god and law
Everybody says she's the brains behind Pa
She's 68 but she says she's 54
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's Ma no more

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more
Well, I try my best to be just like I am
But everybody wants you to be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

(Bob Dylan, Bringing It all Back Home,
Columbia Records, 1965. (CS 9128))

Parallels in the Global South

Colonial plantations, on land stolen from indigenous populations, faced resistance and had to resort to many different forms of coerced labor. (9) For the most part, such agriculture produced raw materials for the industries of the colonizing countries, e.g., American, Egyptian or Indian cotton, Caribbean sugar or Vietnamese rice and rubber. See the films Burn and The Mission for vivid portrayals of the colonial period in Latin America. The post colonial period perpetuated plantation or ladifundia forms of exploitation, still based on stealing land from the indigneous people and on driving them into wage labor, or, where they had the power to retain some of their own land, on trying to draw them into market production. Like some American family farmers, many peasant communities have refused to gear their production to the demands of the market. Some, seduced by market income in the past, have withdrawn after nasty experiences of finding their income subject to wild fluctuations in market prices. Periods of downturns in crop prices have shown them that their medium- and long-run income, not to mention their cultural ways of life, are more secure when their production is essentially organized to meet their own needs and only surpluses are offered to the market.

On the other hand, in the post-colonial era, influential commercial producers reacted to such market price instability by demanding considerable state intervention to lessen such fluctuations and stabilize income. In this way new independent governments gained some control over their economies, which had been and continued to be dependent on former colonial trade. Such interventions—such as subsidizing the prices of basic food crops—were long opposed by development economists and foreign governments who wanted to open those markets to their own exports.

That long opposition culminated in the trumpeted free-market, neoliberal ideology of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. On every front, the US government pressured foreign governments to "open their markets" and reduce government "regulation." The ideology was that of 18th and 19th Century liberalism: "free markets are the best solution to all economic problems." (10) The actual strategy was merely a variant of colonial force: hammer down all those defenses that local groups had erected to their subordination by multinational capital. During the 1982 debt crisis in Mexico, for instance, the International Monetary Fund demanded the elimination of subsidies supporting the price of the basic food crop, maize, as one condition (among many) for debt rollover. It was accepted and enforced by the Mexican government. The result was a drop in maize prices and a flood of maize imports from the US that convinced many peasants to abandon market-geared monoculture and return to more diverse farming practices designed for local needs. This pattern has been replicated worldwide.

Such neoliberal policies have continued to be pursued by Democratic as well as Republican administrations. A decade after Mexico’s de facto default, the Clinton administration pushed through the neoliberal NAFTA that went into effect on January 1, 1994, an implementation met by the indigenous Zapatista uprising on the very same day. Within a year, the peso went belly-up and that same administration demanded further opening of the Mexican economy to foreign investment and trade as conditions for bailing out speculators. In all these cases, the welfare of both farmers and consumers was subordinated to that of multinational corporations, including agribusiness.

The Use of Inflation in Primitive and Mature Accumulation

Marx’s analysis of the way inflation (a general rise of prices) enriched capitalist farmers in the 16th Century is still instructive in our own period. The utilization of inflation by capitalists to transfer value from waged workers (and others on fixed income) to themselves (the owners of the commodities whose prices are rising) became a conscious policy in the 1940s–1960s, a period in which capitalist macroeconomic policy was dominated by the thought of John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946). Keynes had seen how inflation could be used to undermine real wages in the presence of “money illusion.” Then development economists such as Sir William Arthur Lewis (1915–91) recommended state-generated inflation as a way to increase savings and investment to spur accumulation in the Global South.(11) In some countries, such as Brazil, this was institutionalized, not only with inflation but with differential indexation whereby wages were indexed at a lower rate than capital values.

In the 1970s rapid inflation was the only way capital could undermine real wages, given that, in the late 1960s, nominal wages had grown more rapidly than productivity and undermined profits. Thus, the acceptance by US capital of the quadrupling of oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1974 and again in 1978, in the hope and expectation that hundreds of billions of "petrodollars" would be recycled through Western banks and become available for capital to use against workers.(12) Inflation successfully prevented the rapid rise of real wages and an accelerated fall in the share of profits. However, workers' continued success in raising nominal wages generated accelerating inflation that became, for business, more of a problem than a useful strategy. At that point, policies "attacking inflation" became a euphemism for what were really "attacks on wages."

This points to a basic lesson to be learned from the study of this part of Capital: in his analysis of the period of primitive accumulation, Marx outlines and analyzes then new phenomena, which become established patterns of mature accumulation. We can approach primitive accumulation by looking backward and asking how the mechanisms of capitalist domination became established, but we can also examine the ongoing patterns of accumulation to discover how the same mechanisms have been continually re-employed. Land, for example, is still being enclosed and people continue to struggle against enclosure or to reverse it, seeking the re-establishment of ever larger commons as one vehicle for escaping capitalist domination. Certainly, the structure of the section, two chapters on the emergence of the working class, and three on the emergence of the capitalist class, points to a fundamental point which many Marxists have overlooked: socially speaking, accumulation is an accumulation of classes and the accumulating quantities of money, means of production, commodities, factories, etc., are only moments, or elements, in the social accumulation of the antagonistic social struggles which make up the interactions of those classes.

Recommended Further Reading

Concepts for Review

    landed proprietors
    Populist Revolt
    contract farming
    farmer proper
    production for use
    production for the market

Questions for Review

(An * means that one possible answer to that question can be found at the end of the study guide.)

1. Why does Marx begin his discussion of the emergence of the capitalist class in the countryside?

2. What is the nature of the conflict between the emerging class of capitalist farmers and the landlords?

3. What kind of conflicts between workers and managers do you think might have influenced the pattern of emergence of the capitalist farmers?

*4. With regard to the United States discuss the class status of: the family farmer in the Midwest and West of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the family farmer of the present who contracts his production (say of chickens) to Safeway, the slave plantation owner producing for the English market, the black and white sharecroppers of the post-Civil War period.

*5. Under what conditions was it possible for the emerging capitalist farmers to benefit from 16th Century inflation? How was that different from the Keynesian or Lewis use of inflation in the post WWII world? What conditions had to be met for the strategy to work?

6. How sensitive do you think people are today to the effects of inflation on the value of their wages? Do you think many people understand that the war on inflation is actually a war on wages? Why or why not? Is an understanding of the impact of inflation on real wages enough to undermine its usefulness for that purpose?

7. Under which circumstances does it make sense to call farmers "capitalists" and under which to call them "workers?"

8. Imagine yourself in the position of a peasant with enough land to survive on. Under which conditions would you be tempted to produce for the market? Under which conditions might you be willing to reorient all your production for the market? What do you imagine might be the benefits of these acts? What would be the dangers?


1 On the agrarian Populist Revolt in the United States, see the following works: John Hicks, The Populist Revolt, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1931; C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, New York: Oxford University Press, 1963; Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Movement: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, New York Oxford University Press, 1978; Robert Klepper, The Economic Bases for Agrarian Protest Movements in the U.S., 1870–1900, New York Arno, 1978; Bruce Palmer, "Man Over Money": The Southern Populist Critique of American Capitalism, Chapel Hill: University of Northern Carolina Press, 198o; Donna Barnes, Farmers in Rebellion: the Rise and Fall of the Southern Farmer's Alliance and People's Party in Texas, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984. For an allegorical treatment of the populist battle for the monetarization of silver, see Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Chicago, IL: George M. Hill Co., 1900. You can also re-examine the 1939 film version, but its makers changed Dorothy’s magical shoes from silver (symbolic of free silver) to ruby (looked better on the screen) and thus obfuscated a main point!

2 This problem with relative prices deserves two further comments: 1) the ratio has sometimes been quite consciously manipulated by policymakers to exploit farmers, the most notorious case being the Stalinist government in the Soviet Union that wielded the “scissors” against peasants; 2) concern with just such problems on an international scale was raised by the Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch (1901–1986) and others who argued that the raw material exporting Global South as a whole was chronically faced with falling terms of trade.

3 For one rendition of this song, and for the rest of the lyrics, see Pete Seeger, American Industrial Ballads, Folkways, 1957 (5251), Smithsonian/Folkways, 1992 (CD SF 40058). Others, but not Pete’s, are available on YouTube.

4 See Edward Royce, The Origins of Southern Sharecropping, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1993.

5 Ricardo D. Salvatore, "Class Struggle and International Trade: Rio de la Plata's Commerce and the Atlantic Proletariat, 1790–1850”, University of Texas at Austin, PhD dissertation, 1987. The problem of controlling a hide-producing proletariat reappeared in the Pampas, where fiercely independent gauchos only killed wild cattle for hides when they needed money.

6 See the discussion of cooperatives in my commentary on Chapter 13.

7 See Ruth Allen, Chapters in the History of Organized Labor in Texas, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1941.

8 On how the alliance between small and large farmers was irretrievably broken with help from the Department of Agriculture, see Grant McConnell, The Decline of Agrarian Democracy, New York: Atheneum, 1969.

9 See Marx's comments on the attitudes of freed slaves in Jamaica, cited in my commentary on Chapter 10.

10 Of course, markets have never been free, neither then nor now, but are carefully organized to benefit those capitalists with the most clout in shaping trade policies.

11 See W. A. Lewis’s classic article on development and the use of inflation against the working class: “Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labor”, Manchester School, May 1954, pp. 139–191. On Keynes and “money illusion,” see his General Theory, 1936. For a class analysis of the dynamics of inflation politics in Brazil, see Nathan Dudley, “Worker Struggle and Wage Compression: The Rise and Fall of Indexation in Brazil”, University of Texas, MA thesis, May 1988; and Conrad Herold, “Working Class Struggle and the Brazilian Debt Crisis”, University of Texas, PhD dissertation, 1994.

12 US negotiators let OPEC know that it would not oppose increases in oil prices. When European governments sought to form a "buyers' cartel" to manipulate demand against OPEC's manipulation of supply, the US government refused to go along. See V. H. Oppenheim, "Why Oil Prices Go Up: The Past: We Pushed Them", Foreign Policy, no. 25, Winter 1976-1977, pp. 24-57.