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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Peasant classes in sub-Saharan Africa : an interpretation Meade, Michael Edward


This thesis presents an interpretation of the controversial question of peasant class formation in sub-Saharan Africa. While the long dominance of the functional school of anthropology has resulted in a virtual monopoly of interpretation in studies of African social stratification in favour of tribalism and ethnicity, this thesis suggests, through an attempt to apply in overview the influential definitions of peasants advanced by Kroeber, Redfield and Wolf, that in the age of colonialism and neo-colonialism sub-Saharan African societies may be meaningfully analyzed in terms of the existence of a non-homogeneous peasant class generically similar to that found in pre-industrial Europe, Latin America and Asia. Briefly summarized, the argument and interpretation presented here is, first, that Redfield's definition of peasants which stresses a societal distinction between a cultural "Great Tradition" and a peasant "Little Tradition" applies to sub-Saharan Africa insofar as colonialism and the subsequent post-colonial developments have created a new African bourgeoisie which is differentiated from the peasantry on the basis of such objective criteria as income, education, conspicuous consumption and the assimilation of "Western" cultural norms. Far from withering away with the demise of colonialism in Africa, the process of decolonization and Africanization has greatly strengthened this new class, which may be best described as a state bourgeoisie, internally differentiated into political, military and bureaucratic class categories. Second, Wolf's definition of peasants, which emphasizes the criteria of sociopolitical oppression and economic exploitation resulting in the production of a fund of "rent" through the extraction of peasant labour-power by a group of dominant rulers, has also been found to apply to colonial and post-colonial Africa. Examined under the heading of three class fractions of this non-homogeneous class, a typology based in part on Barnett's model of three types of African peasantries, it is argued that the economic surpluses of African cultivators have indeed been extracted by a group of dominant national and international rulers in the form of peasant labour-power, often forcibly supplied at a price below the cost of its social and biological production. As this thesis attempts to show, the participation of the marginal-subsistence, labour-exporting and cash-cropping fractions of the African peasantry has been a key variable in the process of capital accumulation for all those exercising in Wolf's terms "asymmetrical power relations" over this class: colonial governments, metropolitan firms operating in Africa, white settler communities engaged in mining and capitalist agriculture and, later, the post-colonial African state bourgeoisie.

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