No Man's Land

by Artifices

Introduction by Artifice: "The recent farmers' revolt in France and Europe announces the beginnings of struggles in and against the nascent restructuring of the labour/ capital relationship. This restructuring, at the level of the agro-industry, whose main features are decarbonisation, the generalisation of digital technology and the fragmentation of international trade, is disrupting the dynamics at work until now. What we are seeing is a struggle between capitalist fractions seeking to find a place in the sun in a new regime of accumulation, and part of the rural middle class resisting its definitive proletarianisation. As long as these two classes are fighting side by side, under the umbrella of the old fascist agrarian and peasant ideology, no emancipatory perspective can emerge. The key is to identify the point of explosion of these contradictory interests."

Translated by Otto Mattick from the original French

"Economic history, in other words the fundamental history of the species, revolves around the following questions: how much land can still be cultivated? What is the minimum fertility that can be achieved by clearing uncultivated land, in proportion to the amount of labour required for food consumption?
And so on until, in this capitalist age, all available land, from the most to the least fertile, is exploited. The species is too hungry."
– A. Bordiga, Il Programma Comunista, no. 6, 1954.

The agrarian question had disappeared from the political landscape for quite some time. We regularly hear and see in the media the distress of farmers on the brink of suicide, read in the newspapers the stories of their colleagues. But between pressure in favor of agro-industrial development, leftist fantasies about free and independent farming, critique of “productivism”, and Brussels' attempts at green restructuring, ideology perhaps plays an even more significant role than elsewhere in the contemporary agrarian question. The present conjuncture requires clarifications, both to understand the deep roots of this revolt and the broader situation of agro-industry.

The aim of this text is to go beyond the critique of productivism and the refusal of any idea of ecology compatible with the current restructuring, and to refocus the analysis and critique on the capitalist social relations operating in the agro-industrial sector. Historically, Marxists have often struggled when dealing with the “agrarian question”, trapped between the expectation of the inexorable extinction of the small family farm for some, the emphasis on the fetters to this process for others, or the desire to actively eliminate this "reactionary stratum of the social order". It has to be said, however, that this transformation of agriculture has not yet taken place, and small and medium-sized family farms still exist, supported by a century of agricultural policy. However, this cycle now seems to be coming to an end.

So is the small farmer who rents his plot, his farm and his machinery, the owner of his means of production? Is the small farmer who revolts against the market price of milk, which leaves him unable to make a profit, a proletarian? Is the Confederation Paysanne-affiliated organic farmer who wishes to contributes to the “ecological transition”, a reactionary? And the farmer desperate to commit suicide, expressing his distress and atomization, while longing for the traditional family-run business from which he once earned a comfortable income, is he a progressive?


The crisis has been incubating for a long time in French as in European fields. In France, since the milk crisis erupted in 2003 with the forthcoming cancellation of the production quotas introduced in 1984 to prevent overproduction and the resulting drop in selling prices for producers, the entire sector has been following a, not so original, path of deregulation of the previous accumulation model and increasing opening up to international competition. This is what we keep hearing today, from Brazilian soya filled with chemicals banned in France to Ukrainian chicken subsidised to support the war effort through exemption from tariffs1. After the subprime crisis, the central banks adopted a policy of low interest rates, which reduced the cost of debt for farmers overburdened with credit. However, over the last year central bank interest rates have risen again, increasing the same cost for farmers year on year. For some, this increase in the price of debt has been the latest blow to profits. In just a few months, interest paid by farmers on their debts nearly doubled2. Finally, “agricultural income has fallen by 11% in 2023 compared to 2022, and added value, i.e. wealth creation, has fallen by 9%. On top of this, there is the European context, with early warning signs already being felt in Poland, Hungary and Romania, due to Ukrainian cereal imports3”.

The transition from a Fordist model with strong regulation in international trade to the “neo-liberal” model we have known for decades, defined by the free movement of capital, is no secret. What needs to be emphasised is that this revolt is, in a way, rooted in the contours of a future restructuring that is beginning to take shape. Admittedly, it's not there yet – there are many stages between now and then – but its outlines are already visible, both before and during the crisis.

This movement places at the centre of fears and anger the new version of the CAP [EU's Common Agricultural Policy], which promises greening, decarbonisation and regulation. What we need to understand is what this CAP is about, and what agribusiness expects and hopes from it.

Major changes in the history of capitalism are achieved through crises. The introduction of military technologies from the 1914-1945 cycle into civilian industry was the precondition for the mass production of goods in the post-war period, particularly fertilisers in agriculture4. Massive investment in machinery, increased productivity and protection from competition. If the crises are the conditions for the future expansion of capital, it is partly because they promote the most efficient among them. When certain technologies begin to spread throughout the value chain, the rate of productivity recovers, and with it the rate of profit. Those who have not been able to generalise these productivity gains will go out of business. This is what is starting to happen today. The largest farms do not want to jeopardise their place in the market to the benefit of other farmers who might be in a better position to meet the new ecological standards, to receive more subsidies and thus to conquer advantageous market positions. The small farmers, on the other hand, are simply fighting against their own demise. Indeed, in a process that calls for massive investment, how can small farmers, already over-indebted, could find the capacity to modernise their operation? One question remains: how these so-called family-run (although we'll see that it's no longer very often the case) farms managed to survive until now until now? How did the process of centralisation of capital not absorb them before? Finally, how could these pseudo-archaic relations of production, in which the owner of the means of production officially exploits no labour force besides his own, and produces virtually no profit, survived until now?

At the turn of the 20th century, French agriculture began to industrialise, with protectionist policies introduced by the Front Populaire5 and pursued by the Vichy government.

At the end of the Second World War, as production technologies had been expanded considerably during the war, agriculture underwent a process of industrialisation. From the 1920s to the 1960s, agriculture was beginning to be absorbed by capitalism, but was only partially restructured in a capitalist manner, characteristic of a still formal subsumption of the mode of production The period opened up by the introduction of the CAP in 1962 put an end to this relative autonomy of rural life. This big push industrialisation, characterised by very strong regulation of prices, output and imports, and a form of state planning of trade on a national scale, combined productivity gains, profit growth and a general increase in living standards. This Fordist regime of accumulation, which lasted roughly from the 1960s to the 1990s, definitively sealed off metropolitan France with the stamp of capitalist social relations and real subsumption, transforming every production process into a capitalist production process.

The CAP's developments since 1992 have followed the same 'neo-liberal' path as everywhere else: deregulation, liberalization and financialization. In contrast to certain approaches, it seems necessary to stress that any form of 'deregulation' remains a form of regulation, and that at no point does the State retreat to the benefit of the market. What we need to understand, to borrow a phrase from some, are the 'institutional arrangements specific to different regimes of accumulation'. The financialisation of agriculture, like that of industry, is not a 'parasite' on an otherwise 'healthy' process based on productive capital. The regime of accumulation that has been in place since the 1970s, and perhaps since 1990 in the agricultural sector, is an institutionalised reorganisation of the production model. The financialisation of production processes should not be understood as a 'predatory' financial capital, opposed to a 'good' productive capital, as has been the norm for decades in left-wing discourse. Rather, it should be seen how it has changed the imperatives of profitability, certainly to favour immediate profit over investment, but also as an integral part to the reorganisation of production since the end of Fordism.

Finally, to return to the CAP, as the press has made clearthe 1960s saw a shift from price guarantees to direct subsidies and an end to price controls from the 1990s onwards. Typically, CAP subsidies now represent on average 80% of farmers' income. They also account for more than 40% of total EU expenditure, by far the largest item in the budget. However, it is important to understand that Europe is at the bottom of the league when it comes to agricultural policy. It is one of the last, or the only, agricultural powers to still promote a directly market-based pricing system and the free movement of international agricultural goods. "All the other major exporting countries have renounced it, in the name of food security and sovereignty, and to protect their farmers' incomes. Brazil, India, Russia, Canada, New Zealand and China. They have all adopted regulatory and protective measures, and have sometimes re-introduced customs tariffs or even bans on exports or imports in order to protect their agriculture6." The United States even goes much further, since it never abandoned its New Deal policy of regulating and protecting agriculture. This could be seen as a form of peripheralization in relation to the global economy, a continent adrift7...

But we must make no mistake. If geopolitical dynamics are at the heart of the current politicisation of agri-food issues, it is in the context of process of overall renegotiation of globalization. The future compromise is being negotiated at both geopolitical and social levels; both between capitalist fractions and between the two fundamental classes of the mode of production.

Moreover, another important characteristic inherent in the history of capitalist accumulation in the agricultural sector is largely under-analysed. The ineluctability of the extinction of the small family farm and its complete absorption into capitalist relations of production has long been the defining issue, in the history of Marxism, of the "agrarian question". Except that the question of transition has been posed in terms of size, i.e. the passage from the "small" to the "large" farm, whereas the term that deserves more attention "family" farming. To put it briefly, despite the marital status of the holdings, small family farms have, in fact, always relied on the more or less unpaid and more or less voluntary exploitation of both women and children. One of the reasons for the perpetuation of small-scale family farming is the extraordinary resilience that this social form has shown throughout history, because the exploitation of the domestic household is almost limitless, when it’s virtually impossible to escape. Secondly, the preservation of these small family farms, in a somehow contradictory way, has long been at the heart of agricultural policies, whether in Europe or the United States. Representing a form of socio-economic reserve, a safety valve in case of unrest through a geographical network of small farms, it has always served, from the State's point of view, to give shape to the preservation of national interests, whether at a strictly food level, or at an ideological level, forming a backbone of authentic, patriotic values, rooted in the idealised hard toil and traditional family structures. That’s the same debate that opposed Lenin, who emphasised the inevitable decomposition of the small peasantry in a more or less "natural" way, against the Russian populists and above all Chayanov, who emphasised the extraordinary longevity of this form of exploitation, while idealising it.

But the end of Fordism implied a new composition of the workforce. The 1970s saw the massive entry of women into the waged labour market. Family forms continued to evolve as a result. The constraint of spending one's life with the same male boss in a rural environment is no longer the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago. So if the experts agree that we are witnessing the end-stage of the small family farm, it is perhaps not so much under the weight of the concentration of capital as under the influence of the disintegration of nuclear and patriarchal family forms.


As we said in the introduction, we also need to take a closer look at the social relationships at play in the farmyards. In their statement in support of the "peasantry", Les Soulèvements de la Terre [The Uprisings of the Earth] not only reproduces the usual leftist clichés regarding the critique of productivism, but also compares farmers to Uber drivers for not really owning their means of production. This comparison, while easy and convenient for a certain kind of political rhetoric, does not hold for a very simple reason. What is the means of production of the platform workers? It’s not, as a matter of fact, the car or the bike, it's the platform itself. Without an algorithm to organise work and connect the restaurants, it's impossible to earn the slightest commission, and it's because they are indirectly employed by the platforms that the delivery drivers are fighting to obtain the corresponding legal status. It's a different story in agriculture: although some farmers are up to their necks in debt, mortgaging their land, farms and tractors, they still own them. The rhetoric comparing them to platform workers is based on their disadvantaged position in the agro-industrial value chains, making them, apparently, subordinated to the large food purchasing groups. Except that a disadvantaged position in value chains does not define a proletarian condition; it is precisely defined in the opposite way, by dispossession. Thus, although an analysis of the various positions in value chains remains crucial understand the structure of the sector and of the current agitation, and thus the potential contradiction between the small and the big farmers, it is in no way constitutive of a proletarian condition. Proof of this is the fact that agricultural workers are manifestly absent from this movement, which is hardly surprising given the fundamentally contradictory interests they and their bosses have. To give an idea of the current trend towards waged labor in the agricultural sector, we should note that the fall from 966,000 workers in 2010 to 758,000 in 2020 is mainly due to the collapse of the family workforce from 207,000 to 91,000 and the disappearance of more than 100,000 farm managers or co-managers. This trend is countered by the fact that more than 170,000 of the sector's workers are now permanent non-family employees, a figure that is tending to rise. If we add seasonal workers, then one person in 3 working in the fields is a waged laborer. Furthermore, as mentioned above, we are witnessing a decline in family labour (mainly women and children), while their working hours are decreasing at a much slower rate which means an increased workload.

Table 1: Change in the agricultural workforce in mainland France between 2010 and 2020
  2010 2020 Change (%)
Number of farms (thousand) 490.0 389.8 - 20.4
        of which sole proprietorships 341.5 227.6 - 33.3
        in partnership           148.5 162.1 9.2
Number of people working permanently on the farm (thousand) 966.3 758.3 - 21.5
        Farm manager or co-manager 603.9 496.4 - 17.8
        Permanent family workforce 207.5 91.5 - 55.9
        Total farm managers and family members 811.3 587.9 - 27.5
        Permanent non-family employees 155.0 170.4 10.0
Volume of work mobilized over the year (thousand FTE)*  739.7 659.5 - 10.8
        Farm manager or co-exploiter 445.8 391.2 - 12.3
        Permanent family workforce 87.1 53.7 - 38.4
        Total heads. co-exploitants and families 532.9 444.8 - 16.5
        Permanent non-family employees 127.9 138.3 8.2
        Seasonal or occasional 78.9 75.6 - 4.1
Volume of work mobilized over the year by type of farm (thousand FTE)      
        On individual farms 327.8 211.3 - 35.5
        On corporate farms 411.9 448.1 8.8
Volume of work carried out by a service provider (estimated thousand FTE)   23.4  
        CUMA 1.0 1.3 26.6
        ETA 10.7 14.8 39.2
        Other type of service provider   7.3  

We also need to look at the structure of incomes in general and by sector. If, as the media repeatedly claim, one in five farm households in France lives below the poverty line, in terms of sectors we can see that this actually means one in four livestock farming households, compared with one in ten cereal and large-scale crop farming households. Income distribution follows the same pattern.

Type of territory by dominant agricultural production Number of farm households Distribution of households Annual standard of living (euros)   Poverty rate
(in %) 1st decile Median 9th decile Ratio 1st/9th (in %)
Beef cattle 11,240 3.3 8,570 18,420 32,800 3.8 25.1
Sheep, goats, other herbivores 15,310 4.5 8,640 18,610 34,590 4.0 25.5
Mixed cattle 30,000 8.9 9,130 19,060 34,460 3.8 22.8
Dairy cattle 19,260 5.7 9,930 20,350 36,400 3.7 19.2
Mixed farming 128,670 38 9,270 21,520 43,190 4.7 19.7
Granivores 30,520 9 10,670 21,750 40,560 3.8 15.9
Fruit crops and other permanent crops 5,860 1.7 8,560 21,760 49,620 5.8 23.3
Field crops 29,510 8.7 11,140 25,780 51,220 4.6 13.5
Viticulture 37,770 11.2 11,270 26,330 58,820 5.2 13.4
Market gardening, horticulture 6,540 1.9 10,230 26,740 64,030 6.3 16.2
Other field crops 18,560 5.5 12,540 28,340 62,250 5.0 10.8
All 338,480 100 9,830 22,210 46,520 4.7 18.1

If we compare these statistics to the demands we hear and see in the movement, the diagnosis seems quite clear: cereal growers and livestock producers do not have the same interests, and no demands are emerging regarding wages or working conditions, even though the number of waged laborers is increasing in the farms. This does not mean, however, that the composition of this movement is uniform. Certain grievances may give rise to common fronts but, as we have already said, some are fighting for their survival, while others are fighting for an even bigger slice of cake. To understand what unites them, we need to understand what is at play in Brussels, with the Green Deal and the drive towards a decarbonised restructuring. All the more so as this movement is in a way European, with everyone addressing their own specifically domestic issues, and at the same time forming a kind of solidarity between the different countries, as they all call for more protectionism and rebel against unfair, especially intra-European, competition.

The 2023 version of the CAP and the Green Deal will not immediately lead to renewed growth, and they do not embody the Keynesian revival that the Left has been waiting for during decades, nor do they provide a way out of the crisis for capital. On the contrary, they can be described as preparatory measures in the face of the coming crisis. On one hand, if the issue of food sovereignty is so important, it is clearly not for the given by the anti-globalisation mantras, but because of the fragmentation of international trade. On the other, the challenge of restoring vanishing growth, of generalising the productivity gains achieved in digital technologies and, above all, from a capitalist point of view, the ever-increasing need to shift away from carbon-based energies, is aimed at opening up new areas for productive revival and mitigating the negative ecological externalities and crises that the system will inevitably face. The coming restructuring, which is beginning to take shape, will fundamentally place the transition away from fossil energies at the heart of its dynamic. The survival of the capitalist mode of production depends on the greening of our economies. This revolt is set against the backdrop of these new European Green Deal policies, and represents therefore the negotiation of the future social compromise that may emerge after the generalised outbreak of the crisis.

On one side, survival demands for small farmers who rely less and less on the nuclear family unit (only 18% of farms are still under marital status), and who are under more or less immediate threat. Considering the total number of farms, which has fallen by around 20% every decade since 1970, the fact that these figures must be adjusted for the concentration of capital and land (the average size of a given farm has risen from 19 hectares in 1970 to 69 in 2020) and the development of corporate forms of farming capable of attracting foreign capital, or the logic of the Green Deal of subsidies for small farms (which clearly targets support for new young farmers, who conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs, ready to introduce the most modern agro-ecological technologies) a entire segment of agriculture is on the brink of extinction, going through a crisis of its own reproduction. In addition, by 2030, half of today's farmers will be retiring, and neither the economic outlook nor succession rights are encouraging people to continue farming. For a whole strata of farmers, this movement potentially represents their last hurrah.

So, at the heart of the struggle in the context of the ecological transition , we have on one hand a part of the movement fighting for its survival and against its final proletarianisation, and on the other a part fighting to maintain its market share.

What the common front behind such a heterogeneous composition revives is the old agrarian ideology, uniting: “the defense of the importance of agriculture in the national economy and the celebration of the peasantry – associated with small and medium-sized family properties – and a rural world as both symbol and repository of national identity, as opposed to the modern city and the working class – and to the socialism routinely associated with the latter8.” Moreover, today the ideology of some kind of national authenticity makes it possible to unite with all kinds of conspiracy theorists, antisemites and other purveyors of confusion. But we think it's pointless to shout ad nauseam that the movement is fascistic and to understand it only through that perspective. It seems just as vain, like the Confédération Paysanne and others, to rely on the myth of the peasant fighting against “productivism”, wishing to “return” to more rational forms of farming, and vouching for a different relationship with nature and land. Here, the critique of productivism frequently supplants that of social relations9. Instead, we need to look at reality head-on, and see that “farmers are no exception to this massive tendency, thus bringing to light the class struggles within the peasantry itself, a majority of whom are seeking to become entrepreneurs and thus escape the proletarianisation that awaits them, and the other, a minority, who are looking for a way out of productivism, despite the fact that the political influence of the former is stronger than that of the latter. Even if peasants are protagonists in their own history, they tend to forget, as Marx said, that they are the product of that history, and their actions reflect an economic reality into which they are absorbed and from which they do not for a moment consider escaping10.”

At French level, which has its own specific features, Attal's announcements seem to put an end to the movement, at least for the time being, and are consistent with what we have developed here. The government has decided to increase subsidies, in particular to cover delays in CAP payments, and has backed down on the ban on some pesticides. The “big”players in the industry thus managed to secure a break in the application of the new health and environmental standards, allowing them to adapt at their own pace to preserve their leading market position. The “small” farmers, as usual, were completely ignored and, the contradictions within agricultural unionism never broke out,, they were forced to go home and wait for their inescapable proletarianization. But the anger hasn't gone anywhere. The coming years will tell us whether the agony of a whole segment of the agricultural sector can continue in the secrecy of atomization, or whether other forms of protest will emerge.

Our position is that only a class analysis can offer an understanding of the conservative dynamic of this and the future movements, and of their potential for transcending that dynamic. Thus, this potential lies in the explosion of the internal contradictions within the composition of the movement, which would then call into question its very basis.


As we have said, we want to emphasise that this movement is situated within the ongoing transition/restructuring. That's why many future struggles will a priori be directed against ecological measures. The whole point will be to understand how each capitalist ecological measure will constitute a moment of class confrontation, whether based on the carrot or the stick and, in the end, whether it contributes to the mitigation, preservation or consolidation of the domination of capital. No amount of measures taken by capital will overcome its core contradiction with agriculture, i.e.: “the dependence of the cultivation of particular agricultural products upon the fluctuations of market prices, and the continual changes in this cultivation with these price fluctuations — the whole spirit of capitalist production, which is directed toward the immediate gain of money — are in contradiction to agriculture, which has to minister to the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of successive generations11.”

Thus, against any sort of ecological planning which can only be a restructuring of capital, we want to raise the spectre of disaster, of communist disaster. Not disaster communism12 but communism as a disaster. Let's take for example the latest media reports on the farmers' promise to “siege Paris” which pointed out that “in the event of a supply disruption, Paris would only have 3 days of food autonomy13”. If we think that communist insurrection would involve, at the very least, the interruption of logistical chains on a regional scale14, there would be no revolutionary scenario without an urban flight of several million people. We thus understand communism as a disaster when we look reality straight in the eyes, when we recognise the full severity of the revolutionary perspective and the fundamental break that it would bring about15. Yet communism, as a movement that the present state of things, is the only perspective capable of breaking free the human species and thereby achieving an anthropological shift in its relationship to the living.

The communist disaster is like a river bursting out of its banks and wiping out everything in its path:

The huge river of human history also has its irresistible and threatening swellings. When the wave rises, it washes against the two retaining embankments: on the right the conformist one, of Conservation of existing and traditional forces; along it priests chant in procession, policemen and gendarmes patrol, the teachers and cantors of official lies and state-schooling prate.
The left bank is that of the reformists, hedged with “people’s” representatives, the dealers in opportunism, the parliamentarians and progressive organisers. Exchanging insults across the stream, both processions claim to have the recipe to maintain the fast-flowing river in its restrained and enforced channel.
But at great turning points, the current breaks free and leaves its course, “shifting” like the Po at Guastalla and Volano onto an unexpected course, sweeping the two sordid bands into the irresistible flood of the revolution which subverts all old forms of restraint, moulding a new face on society like on the land.16