Reconstructing the Rural: Peasant Organizations in a Chinese Movement for Alternative Development

Hale, Matthew A. Reconstructing the Rural: Peasant Organizations in a Chinese Movement for Alternative Development. Diss. U of Washington, 2013.

This ethnography examines four peasant organizations affiliated with New Rural Reconstruction (NRR), an ongoing alternative development movement in China. NRR consists of a diverse network involving hundreds of organizations, loosely united by the goals of reversing the rural-to-urban flow of resources and "(re)constructing" sustainable, self-sufficient communities based on cooperation among peasant households, supported by agroecological skill-sharing and alternative marketing. While many NRR advocates draw ideas and inspiration from China's Rural Reconstruction Movement of the 1930s, the movement is better understood as a Chinese and postsocialist counterpart to the global wave of responses to neoliberalism associated with the Global Justice Movement (GJM). Both NRR and the GJM could be characterized as predominantly alternativist in their focus on fostering "alternative" economic forms (neither capitalist nor socialist), such as co-ops and "fair trade" networks. Another commonality with NRR is the GJM's revival of "the peasantry" as a central political subject. In contrast with mid-20th century Third Worldism, NRR and the GJM represent the peasantry as primarily oriented not toward modernization, but the defense or revival of traditional lifeways now valued as more sustainable than either capitalist or socialist models of industrial development. I argue that, under present conditions, "success" at reversing the rural-to-urban flow of resources through commercial means tends to require further integration into capitalist processes, both increasing vulnerability to global economic forces and undermining values such as equality, sustainability, and participatory democracy. On the other hand, these values continue to distinguish NRR-affiliated organizations from conventional capitalist enterprises, creating tensions that point toward possibilities of confrontation with their broader social conditions. I thus engage critically with economic anthropology and the interdisciplinary literature on alternative economic forms, peasant cooperation, "culture," and "value(s)." Drawing on a critical return to Marx in light of the failures of 20th century Marxisms, I introduce the concept of "alternativism" and a focus on the tension between alternative values and the capitalist form of commodity value. These innovations contribute to anthropological theory by providing tools for dealing with the post-1960s "epistemic impasse" of global political thought and the post-1990s situation, in which capital seems to be excluding an increasing portion of the peasant and semi-proletarian bodies it continues to dispossess from complete integration into wage relations, which Marx had seen as the fulcrum of capitalist society's self-overcoming

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