Peasants and Prices: Some Theoretical Aspects
When peasant production is drawn into the sphere of commodity exchange, and prices acquire a significance they had hitherto lacked in the peasant's economic reproduction, the impact of secular trends in prices as well as cyclical fluctuations become important and require analysis. The phenomena subsumed under 'the drawing of peasant production into the sphere of commodity exchange, are contained in historical canvas which is vast: the disintegrating phase of feudal economy in Europe from the 14th century with the increasing dependence of peasants on the market, the price revolutions of the 16th-17th centuries accelerating peasant social differentiation, and the entire gamut of colonised societies of the third world whose peasantries were forcibly drawn into an exploitative division of labour entailing entry into the orbit of world prices.
Not infrequently, on the basic methods of real extraction of surplus labour from a dependent peasantry in the forms directly of labour, produce or cash, there are superimposed additional features arising from price trends and fluctuations which promote peasant differentiation. Differentiation in the sense of gain to a minority which can take advantage of these trends and fluctuations owing to a better-than-average resource endowment, and loss to the majority, adversely affected by the same circumstances owing to a worse-than-average endowment. Not infrequently again, spontaneous resistance movements have arisen as a reaction to the additional economic distress caused by such secular price trends or cyclical fluctuations.
The analysis of the impact of price-changes on the peasantry, has been undertaken, at the theoretical level, in terms of widely differing conceptual aproaches, leading to correspondingly differing conclusions. It may be of some interest to examine the alternative theoretical approaches, in the light of some actual historical experiences of violent price movements which affected the peasantry. The first part of this paper sets out to discuss critically the Chayanov-Kula approach and to situate an alternative approach, illustrating the argument with reference to a well known event in the history of colonial India: the boom in raw cotton prices during the Civil War in America and its collapse at the end of the War.
Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi