The Undocumented Migrant Agricultural Labor Experience
11 September 2009
It is fall and harvest time in the northern hemisphere — a time for “wintering in” — and the more northerly one finds oneself in the northern hemisphere, the earlier that fall comes. In Norway, fall comes early indeed, and in the fjord country of western Norway a cooler and wetter fall follows a cool and wet summer. But when the sun comes out, it still feels warm, and we had a beautiful fall day in Sand i Ryfylke.
The apples and the plums were ready to harvest at my aunt’s house, so my sister and I filled container after container with plums, and filled a wheelbarrow with apples. Norway is not known for its agricultural produce, but what fruit is grown in Norway during the very short growing season can be very sweet. The length of Eidfjord, immediately north of here, is filled with cherry trees, and this makes for a beautiful drive in the spring when they are in bloom, or makes for plentiful cherries available at roadside stands later in the summer. The best strawberries I have ever had in my life were small and sweet berries from my aunt’s garden right here in Sand i Ryfylke.
It is fascinating to see agriculture in the fjord country, which is confined to a small strip of land between the waters of the fjord and the steep rock wall behind. It is an unforgiving land to farm, no doubt, but farm it the Norwegians do, and it is one of the pleasures of driving along the fjord to look across at the opposite side and see the farms extending from the water’s edge, cultivating every available inch of soil, right up to the rocky walls of the fjord.
There is a palpable satisfaction in work that provides a visible result of one’s labor. This is a satisfaction largely absent in industrialized society, and this is probably much more of a problem than is generally realized. Much of the anomie and alienation of industrialized society is the result of what Marxists call alienated labor. It is also said that the agricultural proletariat is among the most miserable of creatures, and there is that famous quote from Marx about the idiocy of rural life, yet the harvesting of food not only provides the satisfaction of a visible result of one’s labors, but one also has the satisfaction of eating as a result of one’s labor — an essential form of satisfaction and a conditio sine qua non of continued existence.
What would constitute non-alienated labor? Part of the relative “success” of the term “alienated labor” is its immediate intuitive appeal. A well-chosen word or phrase can go a long way toward explaining the success of an idea or a theory. “Alienated labor” is such a well-chosen phrase. It is difficult to even conceive of its opposite — what would we call it? Integrated labor? The labor of self-efficacy? Labor integral with life? All are awkward circumlocutions. Marx contrasts the alienated labor of the factory system of production with the guild system, but this is another of Marx’s historical fantasies tinged with hypocritical nostalgia (as with the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic” production relations discussed in Globalization and Marxism). The guild system was as abusive as the factory system, if not more so. No amount of sentimentalism can change this.
Of course, what is all important is how one goes about obtaining a rewarding experience of harvesting one’s own food. If one is in fear of starvation, there would be little pleasure and much anxiety in the process. From the comfortable perspective of industrialized society with its plentiful food it can be a pleasant hobby to engage in some backyard farming for the pleasure of watching one’s vegetables grow and enjoying the novelty of eating one’s own produce. Food production thus becomes an option, even a luxury, rather than a necessity. Which just goes to show you how industrialized society radically reversed patterns of human activity going back to the Neolithic agricultural revolution. Hunting, too, has become an option or a luxury, thus overturning an even older pattern of human existence. Nothing, even the most elemental experiences of life, have been left untouched by the Industrial Revolution.
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