LI feels like a little note on politics is called for. The comments thread following the dialectics of diddling post made me realize that, just as Bataille divided economics into the “restricted” and the “general”, one could make the same distinction in politics. Mostly, I’ve been arguing under the sign of restricted politics, claiming that the various discourses of the truth are not just contingently located in institutions.
But general politics exerts itself beyond institutions. Nietzsche’s Grosse Politik, with its vocabulary of breeding, no doubt contains the stirrings of fascism – but it also contains a truth. Nietzsche’s great politics is about war. But the war that he describes is not between nations, nor classes, but a war of life style. A war about the living. In this sense, the great politics of the last hundred years has occurred across and around the restricted politics. For example…
For example, the greatest political event of the twentieth century. What was it? Was it 1917? Was it 1989? Was it 1947, the date marking the independence of India? All of these events fall under the sign of restricted politics. But to my mind, surely the greatest political even of the twentieth century was the collapse of agricultural populations across the globe.
How did this occur? I think four factors suffice: the development of the technology of storage; the invention of fertilizer; the mechanization of transport; and the mechanization of the farming process. Since the first Mesopotamian civilizations, a society that relied on livestock and agriculture was a society that was largely rural and peasant. In 1996, according to David Clark, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the world population lived in urban areas.
Now, what is most astonishing about this fact is that it found little expression in the restricted political sphere. Who, in the U.S. the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, India, actually questioned the fourfold technological mechanisms that were driving the smallholder out of existence? Not even the peasant parties proposed the banning of refrigeration, or fertilizer, or tractors – these things just “happened”. Of the great political figures of the 20th century, only one – Mao – engaged in a rearguard battle against this correlate of modernization. After the great disaster of the Great Leap Forward, with its Marxist orientation to industry, Mao began to rethink the end of the peasant base of society – and out of that came such disasters as the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. It is one of the ironies of the fourfold techno-structure that it makes it not only economically, but demographically impossible to support a mostly smallholder economy – for as the cities get larger, the agricultural sector has to get exponentially more efficient, or famine sets to work. According to McNeil’s environmental history of the 20th century, to support the world population at the size it was in 1999 without fertilizer, an area bigger than the size of the Amazon rain forest would have had to have been plowed. And he doesn’t subtract the other elements – take away the road system and the railroads and the better storage facilities, and modern societies would utterly collapse. In other words, urbanization is so much part of the system that the system is not only set up to make smallholding agriculture difficult, economically, but an actually menace to the urbanized populations.
As I said, the collapse of those agricultural populations rarely was presented as a choice any population or government was making. No American president ran on the ticket of radically shrinking the farming population; no Soviet premier proclaimed that policy either. The coordinates were as though set, as though insulated from any politics at all. Instead, secondary issues – price supports for agriculture, or collectivization – were the ones that penetrated the restricted sphere of politics.
Of course, the agricultural population collapse is uneven. In India, for instance, in 1996, only 26 percent of the population lived in urban areas – in China it was 41 percent. But the population flow is inexorably in one direction. But it happens across the capitalist/socialist boundary. In the U.S.S.R., as late as 1929, 80 percent of the population was rural. In 1990, 34 percent was. Agro-industry in the U.S. and collectivization in the U.S.S.R. resulted in the same linking of agriculture to urban populations and the same restructuring of agriculture on industrial lines.
According to David Clark – from whom I get all these figures except the one about the U.S.S.R, which comes from Nicholas Spulber – at the beginning of the 19th century, fewer than 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This was the oldest order. We have all dealt with the effects of its destruction in terms that organize restricted politics. And there is nothing in itself wrong with this. But it is the great politics that is the mover. And it is the effect – the side effect – of the great politics that will set the agenda for the foreseeable future, from the acidification of the ocean to the seizure of the atmosphere by the developed economies.