They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Do we know what we name?

Do we know what we name?

Do we know what we name by terms such as 'the field' or 'the people'?

By Sara Plaza

It happened while I was trying to understand the last conflicts between the 'farming world' and the government in Argentina and together with Edgardo we asked ourselves the question that gives name to this post. For more than three months, this country has been immersed in a situation that, far from directing towards its solution, seems to move it further away from as time goes by. During this period the main positions have either radicalized or become contradictory. Nobody escapes from discredit and the issue has become so complicated that its already blurred margins have almost disappeared from our sight. In spite of the news we have listened to on the radio and the many articles we have read in the national and international press we still drag a sheer ignorance. However, trying to shake it off we have learnt a few things and keep on trusting our common sense when it comes to interpret certain discourses and to give our opinion about the statements made by some and others with the aim of clear nothing and confound everything. That common sense, that critical spirit that we both have deep–rooted inside, has led us to put a couple of questions and intend several possible answers. As good nonconformist and forever curious people we have tried to understand, in first place, what it was that the whole media named 'the field' and, secondly, whom 'the field' and the government referred to when they talked of 'the people'. In the international edition of the journal 'Le Monde diplomatique', May 2008, you will find a number of articles about the food crisis worldwide and the conflicts in Argentina. In the essay signed by Axel Kicillof the author says that '... the great diversity of situations that distinguish the different characters involved in what is generally and abusively named "the field" –from sowing pools to the neglected rural laborer–', and in the lines written by Hugo Sigman the author suggest the following divisions according to the characteristic of each group:

'... in order to analyze the conflict and find solutions that be to their mutual interest it is necessary the opening of what is called rural sector by differentiating the terms agriculture and livestock in first place. The results achieved by the agricultural sector and by the livestock sector are completely different. With the cereals and their industrial derivatives –oil and biofuels– rising price the farming world has got a high return on its investment despite deductions. However the livestock sector, milk and bovine meet, has obtained a dreadful economic result.

It is also necessary to distinguish between "producers" since they can be big, average and even rural family' economies. Things have gone better for the former and worse for the latter. Another necessary division can be established between regions of agricultural and cattle production: in central areas results have been much better than in marginalized areas, where the return is much lower and costs, transport mainly, are much higher.

If we finally differentiate between agricultural and cattle producers, industrialists (cold stores, milk factories, oil and bio–fuels producers) and traders (particularly exporting companies and silos owners) it is clear that industrialists and traders have monopolized, as a direct consequence of the government policy, part of the profits from agricultural and cattle producers'.

We came across the best definition of 'the people' in the pages of Anna Karenina that I had been reading one month before. Leon Tolstoy outlines wonderfully an argument between Kostantin Dimitrievitch (Levin) and his brother Sergey Ivanovitch in the presence of the former's father in law (the old prince) and a common friend (Kosnichev) regarding the Russian volunteers who, at that moment, were mobilizing to take part in the armed conflict against the Turkish in the Balkans... The whole chapter XV in part VIII is well worth reading, I've only copied here its last lines:

'"Personal opinions mean nothing in such a case," said Sergey Ivanovitch; "it's not a matter of personal opinions when all Russia –the whole people– has expressed its will."

"But excuse me, I don't see that. The people don't know anything about it, if you come to that," said the old prince.

"Oh, papa!... how can you say that? And las Sunday in church?" said Dolly, listening to the conversation. "Please give me a cloth," she said to the old man, who was looking at the children with a smile. "Why is not possible that all..."

"But what was it in church on Sunday? The priest had been told to read that. He read it. They didn't understand a word of it. Then they were told that there was to be a collection for a pious object in church; well, they pulled out their halfpence and gave them, but what for they couldn't say."

"The people cannot help knowing; the sense of their own destinies is always in the people, and at such moments as the present that sense finds utterance," said Sergey Ivanovitch with conviction, glancing at the old bee–keeper.

The handsome old man, with black grizzled beard and thick silvery hair, stood motionless, holding a cup of honey, looking down from the height of his tall figure with friendly serenity at the gentlefolk, obviously understanding nothing of their conversation and not caring to understand it.

"That's so, no doubt," he said, with a significant shake of his head at Sergey Ivanovitch's words.

"Here, then, ask him. He knows nothing about it and thinks nothing," said Levin. "Have you heard about the war, Mihalitch?" he said, turning to him. "What they read in the church? What do you think about it? Ought we to fight for the Christians?"

"What should we think? Alexander Nikolaevitch our Emperor has thought for us; he thinks for us indeed in all things. It's clearer for him to see. Shall I bring a bit more bread? Give the little lad some more?" he said addressing Darya Alexandrovna and pointing to Grisha, who had finished his crust.

"I don't need to ask," said Sergey Ivanovitch, "we have seen and are seeing hundreds and hundreds of people who give up everything to serve a just cause, come from every part of Russia, and directly and clearly express their thought and aim. They bring their halfpence or go themselves and say directly what for. What does it mean?"'

"It means, to my thinking," said Levin, who was beginning to get warm, "that among eighty millions of people there can always be found not hundreds, as now, but tens of thousands of people who have lost caste, ne'er–do–weels, who are always ready to go anywhere– to Pogatchev's bands, to Khiva, to Servia..."

"I tell you that it's not a case of hundreds or of ne'er–do–weels, but the best representatives of the people1" said Sergey Ivanovitch, with as much irritation as if he were defending the last penny of his fortune. "And what of the subscriptions? In this case it is a whole people directly expressing their will."

"That word 'people' is so vague," said Levin. "Parish clerks, teachers, and one in a thousand of the peasants, maybe, now what it's all about. The rest of the eighty millions, like Mihalitch, far from expressing their will, haven't the faintest idea what there is for them to express their will about. What right have we to say that this is the people's will?"

At this point, I imagine that you will be also making some questions and maybe these lines can be of any help and give you a few clues to try a number of answers of your own. It was my intention with this post to share a couple of doubts and the explanations that we found for them among the pages we read from the press and the literature. I consider both of them good sources of information as long as we are able to add a generous dose of critic spirit to them. That way we will be learning to 'judge things reasonably' though we can't yet understand them completely.

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