Agriculture in Human Evolution – by Keith Hart

In his Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754) Jean-Jacques Rousseau was concerned, not with individual variations in natural endowments, but with the artificial inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience that he derived from social convention.

In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free. This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. At some point, humanity made the transition to what Rousseau calls “nascent society”, a prolonged period whose economic base can best be summarized as hunter-gathering with huts. Why leave the state of nature at all? He speculates that disasters and economic shortage must have been involved. In any case, this second phase represents his ideal of life in society close to nature.

The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, of wheat and iron. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions whose culmination awaited the development of political society.

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. (1984:109)

The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a Hobbesian condition, a war of all against all marked by the absence of law. The key difference from Hobbes, of course, lay in Rousseau’s insistence that such conflict was the result of social development, not an original state of nature. He believed that this new social contract to abide by the law was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity. From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages.

The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second, and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy.” (Ibid:131).

One-man-rule closes the circle.

It is here that all individuals become equal again because they are nothing, here where subjects have no longer any law but the will of the master… (Ibid:134).


For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society.  We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency. This subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world.

It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities. (Ibid:137)

Surely the stale odour of corruption that so revolted Rousseau is just as pervasive today. Dictatorship in one form or another has been normal for too long in many parts of the world and we are all compromised by intolerable inequalities of wealth and power. Something has got to give; but our intellectual task today is to envisage a revolution that is universal, not just limited to individual states.

The force propelling humanity to a new relationship with the natural world is the use of inanimate energy sources with machines as converters. From a modern perspective, human history seems to be divided into three periods — our own two centuries of mechanization, the ten millennia when agriculture dominated world production and the vast tracts of prehistory before we settled down on the land. Until very recently all economic activity rested on harnessing the energy stored in plants and animals, including the work of human beings themselves (energy fuelled by consuming plants and animals). Other inanimate energy sources — water, wind, fossil fuels — and machines driven by them made a negligible contribution. The significance of agriculture lies in the change it brought about in the ratio of human to non-human energy deployed in production drawing on animate sources.

Before the invention of agriculture, human beings conserved their own efforts by letting plants and animals do most of the work involved in bringing products to the point of consumption. They moved to the locations where these sources grew naturally, leaving only the tasks of collection and processing to be performed by human labour. People who live this way today (“hunter-gatherers”) allow large spaces to accommodate small mobile bands (generally no more than 1 person per square km); and the food quest does not seem to absorb very much of their time. Marshall Sahlins (1972) has called them “the original affluent society”, rich in leisure because they limit their material wants.

Agriculture is perhaps best thought of as a system of food production in which the growth of plants and animals comes increasingly within the control of human beings. Human work is progressively substituted for natural processes of reproduction. By settling down in one place, human communities are obliged to protect animals and plants from threats to their well-being. The resulting pattern of irrigation, pest-scaring and weeding involves an intensification of labour inputs with diminishing returns. That is, people have to work harder and harder for proportionately less reward. This logic of development through intensification of labour would not be freely chosen by producers themselves; and indeed society came to be polarized between the powerful beneficiaries of this system and those who did most of the work. This lent to agriculture a dynamic of inequality that eventually reduced the bulk of the population in most advanced centres to a life of coercion and servitude (slaves and peasants working under varying degrees of unfreedom). Thus the richest civilizations of the world in the late eighteenth century, Western Europe and China, rested on peasantries that could barely stay alive. Chinese peasants were once compared to people standing in a lake with the water fractionally below their noses: the merest ripple and they drown. This was also the time when Robert Malthus (1798) developed a theory of population for Europe in which life and death were regulated by short-term fluctuations in the food supply.

Because we are used to the neat hedgerows and paddy fields of “civilized” agriculture, it comes as something of a shock to learn that the untidy confusion of so-called “swidden” agriculture (shifting cultivation of plots often undertaken in semi-cleared forest by tribal peoples) conceals much higher levels of labour productivity, since so much of the work involved is left to natural regeneration and the amount of protection required is less (Conklin 1957). When peasants work for absentee landlords, the emphasis is on maximizing yields from the land area owned, regardless of the drudgery involved in its cultivation. It is a long way from the neolithic revolution (the expulsion from the Garden of Eden) to China’s half-drowned peasants. Yet the contrasts of pre-industrial civilization, with splendid urban enclaves erected on the backs of impoverished country-dwellers, are entailed in the origins of domestication. The social forces necessary to bring animals and plants within a sphere of human regulation were also deployed to compel some parts of the population to work harder than their own immediate reward would justify. It took time; but eventually what we take to be civilizations were built on the systematic neglect of the interests of large sections of the workforce.

This argument has obvious affinities with Rousseau’s. Like him, I locate the turning point of human history in agriculture as a mode of production. I also join Marx (1867) in supposing that the mechanization of production holds out some hope for humanity. For the machine revolution introduced the possibility of releasing us all from the drudgery of village life, even if, as Marx showed, its immediate consequence was to make matters even worse for many workers. Nevertheless, increased resort to machines converting inanimate energy sources did reverse the direction of the agricultural regime. Now human beings were able to produce much more for less work; more abundant means have been generated with less back-breaking toil. It is hardly surprising that peasants worldwide have voted with their feet to join the life of greater freedom afforded by machine production in cities. At first, mechanization was almost exclusively an urban phenomenon and slow to penetrate agriculture. In fact people were initially displaced from farming in Britain by horses. Animals also dominated many sectors of transport throughout the nineteenth century, giving rise to the term “horsepower” as a measure of a machine’s strength. Only since 1945 have machines penetrated agriculture in some parts of the world.

The pursuit of human freedom, the idea that society is set on a course of material improvement, the rise of modern personality and of subjectivity itself — all this is supported by the substitution of inanimate energy sources for human labour. Many people live longer now, they work less and consume more, at least the majority of those who have escaped the rigours of traditional agriculture.  But a lot of peasants remain in our world, mostly in Asia and Africa. More than 2 bn people still work in the fields with their hands.


Excerpt taken from: The political economy of food in an unequal world. In Marianne Lien and Brigitte Nerlich (eds.) Politics of Food. 2004, Berg, Oxford 199-220.


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