Structures Of Resisitance

The nature of interaction between traditional agrarian society and the ‘modern world’ has remained a controversial debate amongst anthropologists, sociologists and political theorists. It remains contentious as to whether the dominance of modern values over traditional is desirable; whether the arrival of the market and modern commerce betters or worsens the conditions of rural society and its relationship with the metropol; whether such change is received with apprehension or optimism by the members of rural society. Joel Migdal, for example, puts forth certain arguments proposing the concept of ‘culture contact’—‘that exposure and contact are the causes of change.’ Migdal identifies three reasons suggesting why such change would be likely to occur:
(1) The benefits of the modern far outweigh the benefits of the traditional. (2) The individual is free from severe institutional restraints which would prevent him from making an unimpeded decision. (3) Those individuals who select the new are rational and are optimisers, and those individuals who do not accept the modern fail to do so because of “wrong” or nonrational values.’
Most theorists, however, tend to agree that modern society, for good or bad, is clearly encroaching on traditional agrarian society and gradually moulding its values, economic systems and sociopolitical institutions into variants of the modern equivalent.
However, this consensus fails to account for one extremely significant fact: that despite the overwhelming economic, political and cultural dominance of the modern world, traditional agrarian structures continue to persist in various forms: the feudal estates of Third World countries, plantations and latifundismos in Southern Italy and much of Latin America, and so on. The questions thus arise: why do such traditional social relations persist in spite of the modern impulse? Why do customs and rituals and social codes play such an important part in determining rural society? Why do inefficient labour-intensive technology and archaic labour organisation systems continue to determine the process of economic production? And why do state attempts at modernising rural production continually face defeat and fail to effect conclusive change?
This paper attempts to answer these and other questions through an analysis of two similar anachronistic structures that exist in the contemporary world: the Italian latifondo and the Latin American latifundismo. Both structures are organised in a very similar manner, and an analysis of both presents a holistic picture of their social and economic organisation. The paper begins by describing the administrative structure of the latifondo, and then goes on to suggest that the socioeconomic peculiarities of the enterprise may be at least partially explained by the rational voluntarist behaviour of the landlord, who allows old structures to persist in light of their cultural peculiarity.
In The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, Anton Blok describes the Sicilian latifondo as being ‘in its main features “involutionary”’. Blok invokes this term while alluding to a complex process in which certain structures undergo internalisation and fixity, as suggested by Clifford Geertz in Agricultural Involution. ‘Involution’, according to Geertz, refers to ‘the overdriving of an established form in such a way that it becomes rigid through an inward elaboration of detail’. Blok’s study of the latifondo leads him to conclude that this agrarian enterprise underwent such a process at both the social and the economic level. Before further exploring this process, however, it is necessary to first understand the power structure and organisation of the Sicilian latifondo.
According to Blok, the latifondo was typically leased out to a gabelloto, who in turn hired a number of permanent employees to manage the enterprise. These administrators generally comprised an overseer (soprastante) and a number of field guards (campieri). The overseer was the gabelloto’s ‘man of confidence’ — ‘he dealt with the peasants set to work on the estates and took care of the general protection of the enterprise.’ The campieri assisted the overseer in his work, and ‘constituted a kind of private police force which, in the absence of an efficient formal control apparatus, claimed to maintain law and order in the countryside.’ This hierarchical structure is replicated in Latin American latifundios, as described by Ernest Feder in ‘Latifundios and Agricultural Labour.’ Feder further describes the Latin American latifundismo as being characterised by ‘absentee landlordism’. He asserts that ‘for the rural worker almost every estate owner is an absenteeist, as the bulk of the