Perspectives from Eastern Europe and particularly Russia are so far underrepresented in degrowth debates. Translated from its original Russian, the piece below showcases an interview with a prominent British-Russian academic, Teodor Shanin, discussing degrowth in the Russian context through the lens of agriculture. Accordingly, it enables new audiences to gain an insight into this underrepresented geographical perspective on degrowth.
Interview by Vladimir Emelyanenko. Translated by Oxana Lopatina; edited by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya, Santiago Gorostiza and Riccardo Mastini.
8 April 2016
The global crisis gives a chance for a new model of living to emerge – an economy of degrowth. In an interview with the LavkaGazeta, Teodor Shanin is reflecting on the role that farming can play in the new model of development.
Vladimir Emelyanenko: How realistic are the predictions of some economists, including yourself, that the era of economic growth will be followed by economic degrowth?
Teodor Shanin: Everything grows – trees, people. Growth is natural. However, we often forget that the question is not only about growth, but also about its end. And this particular process cannot be controlled by humanity. We like to think that economic growth makes us more affluent – this idea is pleasing to the ear. However, the sense that the economy is growing while we are not prospering emerged a long time ago. A person also grows constantly, but this growth is finite. Indeed, a capitalist economy is a good way to produce growth, but what comes after?
– But why degrowth? Does it mean the end of growth, a decline of humanity or the civilisation?
No. Simply it turns out that the economy is not the only structure of growth. The theory and practice of growth as a paradigm of progress remain. At the same time, many thinkers realise that, if not today, then tomorrow, a new economic model will emerge. It is sustainable development[i] through degrowth – when the economy is not[ii] based on global trade relations and the availability of mineral resources. Instead, the economy and human life return to the local level, agriculture provides food for the local population, the workday is shortened as a result of the renouncement of excessive production, and disposable objects – as an irrational waste of resources – are eliminated. The priority of degrowth is to renounce excessive production in favour of personal development and the consumption of cultural products instead of material ones.
– Is this not a utopia? If I am not mistaken, this idea was formulated in nineteenth-century Russia by the authors of the concept ‘moral economy’, and the term itself was coined by Leo Tolstoy.
This is not a utopia. Sprouts of this new reality can be seen in the new Russian farming countryside. These sprouts are weak, sometimes they perish, but something germinates. And this ‘something’ deserves an opportunity to develop.
You are right, in old Russia this was called a ‘moral economy’, but the author of the scientific term ‘moral economy’ was Alexander Chayanov[iii] – in my opinion, an underestimated Russian economist of the twentieth century. But Chayanov is only a fraction of a whole movement of agricultural economists, which was smashed in the USSR by the repressions of the 1930s. However, it is more correct to talk not about personalities, not about farming, but about the institution of zemstvo (a system of local self-government in the Russian Empire, which existed from the 1860s until the October Revolution of 1917 – translator’s note), which begot the institution of farming. And it was in Russia where this happened. Zemstvo as an institution of civil society laid the foundation and formed a series of statistical instruments for the scientific estimation of social stratification and its causes. In zemstvos, there was the so-called ‘third element’ – this is the code of a certain social group. The first element was represented by civil servants; the second by landowners and nobility; and the third by intelligentsia – doctors, teachers, priests, retired military personnel. In this environment, a new understanding of the economic and social reality was maturing. It was them who estimated and calculated how the rich grow richer, and the poor, if nothing is changed, are doomed to marginality. This was an entire stratum of Russian scholars, who created and developed a series of methods for evaluating social polarisation – they called this ‘dynamic studies’. Their level has not been attained in most countries of the world even today.
It was Chayanov and Russian agricultural economists who, based on the example of the organisation of living in rural communities, realised that a rational economy moving away from overconsumption and excessive production was the future. Such an approach was organically taking shape in small rural communities – zemstvos – which gradually developed into solid kulak (independent, affluent peasant farmers in the later Russian Empire – translator’s note) farms, and in the USSR into a no less powerful cooperative movement.
– Is it possible to revive the countryside today based on their experience, for example, through farming?
This experience on its own will not suffice anymore. In the early twentieth century, Russia was leading the world in the field of agricultural economics and sociology. There was no other place in Europe where the advancement of ‘moral economy’ would take such an interesting course as in Russia, and later in the USSR. It is a paradox but Russians tend to claim to be the first and the best in everything, however, when they actually lead the world in something, this remains unnoticed by them. They were so busy promoting communism, and later exploring the space, that did not notice that they had the keys to future development, in which they advanced way further than anyone else. The price they had to pay for such carelessness was the world embracing the Russian experience and moving on, whilst the USSR, through collectivisation, destroyed the institution of zemstvo and the people who represented the elite of the cooperative movement, i.e. the local leaders. Now Russians have to learn farming from those who originally learned it from them. This is the new reality.
– What about the experience of kulaks – will it come back?
I do not think that it is worth bewailing or reanimating kulaks… Although I am convinced that on the genetic level the economic streak of Russians originates from kulaks. But why was agriculture in the USSR inefficient? Because the villagers who best understood the local environment – the climate, the psychology, the patterns of crop rotation or cattle breeding – were kulaks. They were destroyed as a class and as a way of thinking. Meanwhile the agricultural thinking in the world outgrew the farming tradition that had been emerging in Russia and that almost does not exist here anymore. It now needs to be re-learnt.
– But this is exactly what is happening today – our farmers go to advanced farms in Italy, Spain, Germany to learn and bring back experience and technologies.
These people are rather the exception that proves the rule. Note that usually the advanced farmers are former ‘red directors’ (Soviet management and industrial elite who kept their managerial positions in post-Soviet Russia – translator’s note) or members of their teams, the creative elite, doctors or even scientists. City people. Countryside people, on the other hand, send their children to the city, and those who stay do not want to work in farming. They also regard farmers as the bourgeoisie, the new kulaks. Neither do they adapt well to the role of hired farm labour force. What does this mean? The economy of degrowth is very alien to the Russian countryside. The country is still not interested in recognising this thinking – people have not had enough of capitalism yet. Moreover, degrowth is not a product of pure thinking. It is an element of the evolution of capitalism, by which many in Russia are enchanted due to poverty. However, the same as from the enrichment of oil emirs in the Arab world, from Russian oligarchs the population does not receive any oil dividends. The economy is developing poorly because almost no effort is being made to advance other elements of it besides hydrocarbons. Agriculture, farming is exactly that another element of the economy that is needed for sustainable development.
– When will the descendants of kulaks, ordinary countryside residents, see their future not in megapolises but in farming?
I am quite pessimistic, but not entirely. In general, the process of integrating farming is yielding some good sprouts. It is just that there are too few farmers. On elite farms, people are learning advanced technologies – a scientific approach to crop rotation that does not harm the soil, cheese making, growing vegetables and fruits that are exotic for the Russian latitudes – all that forms elements of sustainable development. A different question is – when will these people have the desire to become farmers, if at all? We can only count on the wisdom and patience of the people bringing the ideology of new zemstvos – farms – back. Russia, in my opinion, is not one country, but about forty countries. And this diversity – climatic, ethnic, economic – gives Russia a chance. Some parts of the country are suitable for developing farms, some for community farming, some for growing cranberries and wheat, some for corn and apples, and some for tending herds of sheep or deer by individual farmers or, on the contrary, by revived sovkhozes (state-owned farms in the USSR – translator’s note). Such new kulaks – selective, pragmatic, open to different forms of management as dictated by the climatic conditions and the degrowth economy – will revive the caring attitude towards the land and save Russia.
And if someone comes and proposes a universal plan for Russia’s agricultural development, I am suggesting they should be chased away as a charlatan and a fool. Because in a country like Russia there should be forty of such plans. Or at least twenty-five.
– One of the contemporary ideologists of the concept of degrowth Serge Latouche, professor at Paris-Sud University, prioritises the issue of food production and the restructuring of agriculture from the industrial format to farming households. You started your scientific career with peasant studies – what could you reply to him?
I would want it to be so, but I do not agree with Latouche. I think he represents a radical current of degrowth. His thinking is effective and extraordinary, but to what extent can we expect people of the industrialised world to suddenly and en masse start shifting to a rural lifestyle? I do not believe in this. Today in developed countries a bit over 5% of the population are employed in agriculture. Under certain conditions of degrowth advancement, this number can go up to 8-16%, but no way up to 30% as predicted by Latouche. This would go against the logic of economic and social development.
– And in Russia?
The global economic crisis and the economic sanctions that followed gave a chance to Russian agriculture, and farming in particular. But we need to admit that objectively this is not happening everywhere. A small zone of the Central Chernozem region, to the Volga, a part of the Transvolga region and the plains of the North Caucasus – 14% of the territory so fertile that if you plant a seed it will grow by itself. That is it. Paradoxically, other territories develop through megapolises and their industrial potential. Agriculture, and particularly farming, are at this stage growing only in some regions and in some small urban foci. Why the best agricultural farms are usually adjacent to Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and other big cities or their suburbs? You could say, what does a cow or a goat have to do with a city? But the link is very direct – animal feeds are of course better in the remote countryside, but there is no one to tend the cattle, whilst suburbs imply opportunities for farms and collective agricultural producers both in the sense of labour resources and markets for their farm and agricultural produce.
I am convinced that this link between the city and the countryside is objective. On the other hand, a balance of power needs to be found, and for this the economic potential of agriculture and the desire of people to make a living through peasant labour need to increase.
– If the civilisation remains predominantly urban, what will be the place of farms and farmers in it – an exotic element or a type of economy?
The emphasis needs to be shifted here – from the decline of rural life to a rural economy of sustainable development. And this is not a matter of goodwill or a concept developed by a few smart people. This is a matter of internal processes taking place in various countries, where sprouts of traditional wisdom and modest living exist or have been preserved. Such an understanding of the economy still remains globally peripheral, but originally it was traditional for humanity, which has always aspired for a life in harmony with nature, seen as a subject rather than an object of human activities. These values, though slowly, but are reviving everywhere in the world. However, as soon as economic revival begins, in Russia or the US, it is blocked by rising prices of oil and other primary resources, leaving the countryside with the role of a secondary, tertiary or maybe even backup resource. As a result, the restoration or economic development does not happen, although the world is persistently seeking ways to reach it.
Suggested further readings that might be of interest to degrowthers
Chayanov, A. (1966) The Theory of Peasant Economy. Homewood: Richard D. Irwin, Inc.
Chertkovskaya, E. (2019) ‘Degrowth in theory, pursuit of growth in action: Exploring the Russian and Soviet contexts’, in Towards a political economy of degrowth, London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hamza, A and T. Shanin (2003) Introduction to the Sociology of “Developing Societies”, Monthly Review Press.
Shanin, T. (1997) ‘The idea of progress’, in Rahema, M. and V. Bawtree (eds.) The post-development reader. Zed Books.
Shanin, T. (1983) Late Marx and the Russian road: Marx and the peripheries of capitalism, Routledge, GB. Monthly Review US.
Shanin, T. (1972). The awkward class: Political Sociology of peasantry in a developing society, Russia 1910-1925. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
[i] While from the degrowth perspective the term ‘sustainable development’ is seen as an oxymoron, Shanin uses it (‘устойчивое развитие’) throughout the interview multiple times, which potentially could be explained by the less developed discourse and vocabulary on the topic in the Russian language and/or fewer or less defined negative connotations attached to the term compared to those in English.
[ii] ‘Not’ was added by the translator and is missing in the original text, which is probably a mistake made by the publisher.
[iii] Alexander Chayanov (1888 – 1937), Russian and Soviet economist, sociologist, social anthropologist, globally recognised founder of peasant studies, science fiction author and utopian. Author of the term ‘moral economy’.