When we think of history, it is largely based on the activities of a ruling, wealthy or literate elite. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, a very partial view of what happened in the past. They are the protagonists of history only because they’ve been written about, and a large portion of humanity has not been.
For the most part, the history of “civilisation” has been mostly peasantry, people living in a subsistence economy, close to the land with simple technology, and being exploited by a politically active elite – a sustainable arrangement for centuries. This puts a lot of history in a different perspective: ruling elites from pre-industrial times look rather parasitic instead of being the protagonists (sorry to fans of the Once and Future King).
This arrangement has been a constant; no matter how many times the rulers or their political systems changed, the peasant remained, unchanging. But no longer, industrial society has changed that: the proportion of urban dwellers to rural dwellers has changed dramatically, as well as living standards, education and politics.
But this arrangement isn’t sustainable; we have an economy that relies on perpetual growth inflated by finite resources of fossil fuels. If the Earth were infinite with inexhaustible resources, or if we could colonise space, perpetual economic growth wouldn’t be such a problem; we could just carry on expanding our economy indefinitely. The Earth isn’t infinite, and I honestly don’t see anyone colonising Mars or the moon anytime soon.
The future will be sustainable, by accident or by design, and I have a feeling that the “peasant” will be an important factor in this, that countrydwellers and their activities will once again become an important part of how the economy works as it has across history. Hence the title, “The Once and Future Peasant.”
If the economy collapses, we could end up in a neo-feudal world where underpriveleged peasants are exploited by an elite. Or alternatively, communities of “peasants” could self-organise, defending against exploitation and also maintaining today’s useful technology so that we don’t need to return to the hardships that peasants have suffered in the past.
Whatever happens, it will be a matter of choice.