Self-Sufficiency and Individualism

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A central tenant of the American spirit and indeed even the U.S. constitution is the principle of individualism that promotes individual freedoms and interests over governmental institutions or the interests of the greater society. Related to the principle of individualism, is the personal obligation to be self-reliant in order to be free of state and social institutions that are believed to tend towards totalitarianism and socialism. With rising global populations that require greater food supplies, coupled with developmental incentives in every country to raise the standard of living with the same finite resources, issues of global capacity have been used in order to argue for more state control.

While smallholders have been assumed to be stagnant and homogenous traditionalists, or as Marx has infamously suggested, comparable to sacks of potatoes. On the contrary, however, Netting argues that smallholders continuously adapt to changing circumstances and are neither dependent on subsistence consumption or wage labor. Instead, “smallholders the world around emphasize their freedom to chart their activities and goals independently, to be their own bosses” (Netting, 332).  As such, smallholders as individuals seek to improve their lot in life through the effective use of limited resources by their own efforts, skills, knowledge, and management abilities. Smallholders do participate in wage labor and market exchange, but they also insist on providing part of their own subsistence when possible, such as the Embu of Kenya who “view a good farmer who grows enough… to feed the family… without relying on income from wage labor to purchase goods that could be grown at home” (Netting, 84).

At the level of the individual household, there is considerable differences  in wealth and property that is based on the capability of each smallholder to make the most of their limited resources. It is generally understood that their small plot of cultivated land and individual abilities forms the means of productions through which smallholders can improve the fortunes of their household. However, smallholders do appear to be risk-averse as well, preferring to ensure a reasonable livelihood and the long term security of their household, rather than seeking to get rich quick through riskier ventures. Their farming system also maintains a high level of productivity in an ecologically sustainable manner in order to protect their investment through on- and off-farm labor, in-depth knowledge of their microenvironment and with little to no costly external inputs. To the extent that smallholders are able to provide for their own sustenance without depending on wage labor or external inputs, they demonstrate a greater resilience against negative economic and political changes. “When labor and property rights are combined, and when the farm household organizes and schedules its own skilled activities as an independent enterprise, the relations of production are not those of alienation” (Netting, 331).

Therefore, while the development of a market economy with opportunities to take part in wage labor and commodity exchange is welcome in smallholder communities as additional strategies to improve their financial standing, they also remain committed to maintaining the means of production in order to provide for their own household at the most basic level. The way of life of the smallholder may not be one of luxury, but it adheres to the American values of self-sufficiency and individuality without requiring strictly hierarchical subordination or environmental compromising.

The American Context:

Review of Relevant Literature: