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Interview with Martin Diskin

Martin Diskin, professor of anthropology and archaeology, is currently completing a book about the agrarian system in El Salvador. Naomi F. Chase interviewed him for Tech Talk.

Chase:What led you to anthropology?

Diskin: Growing up in New York City I was fascinated by the great wave of Puerto Rican migration in the late 40s and early 50s and later by the various cultural influences I discovered traveling through the Carribean as a merchant seaman on a Norwegian ship. When I discovered in college that I could have a career and make a living studying culture as a systematic phenomenon, traveling, observing human variety and writing about it, it was a revelation.

Chase: You did your field work for your PhD in Mexico?

Diskin: Yes, in the state of Oaxaca. My job, as part of a larger project studying peasant economy, was to look at the ancient marketing system in the Valley of Oaxaca, where hundreds of peasant communities came to central places once a week to exchange the things they specialized in for goods from other communities

Chase: Was it a barter system?

Diskin: No. It was a market system. Cash was used although there were communities that preferred not to have cash intermediate between the exchange of goods. But it was quite modern. People needed cash and the system was well integrated in their daily lives.

Chase: What makes Oaxaca's market system relevant today?

Diskin: There's a lot of discussion today about "perfect markets" like Oaxaca's being the solution for human problems.

Chase: What is a "perfect market?"

Diskin: A self-regulated market where supply-demand mechanisms regulate prices. There's an approach to economics which seeks to create macro-economic policies that eliminate "friction" and reduce the impact of government on setting prices, tariffs and duties. It assumes that the invisible hand of the crowd of buyers and the crowd of sellers engaging each other with perfect information will be excellent for all.

Chase: Isn't that what we used to call laissez faire?

Diskin: Right. It's been pushed very strongly in the United States in the past 12 years. But peasant markets in Oaxaca are as close to perfect markets as you'll find. Nothing in the United States, with very few exceptions, approaches their degree of perfection. But as I learned from my work in Oaxaca, the more "perfect" the market, the more everything is subject to negotiation and bargaining, the more poverty is shared among the participants. You can see it quite clearly when people have to reduce their level of living in order to sell their goods because if they didn't, their competitors would. There's no established price for goods that includes the producer's need to live at a decent level. Since everything could be bargained, the result was that everybody was quite poor. In a developed society like ours, we have accepted the frictions that enter the market as adequate social policy. For example, millions bargain for a dignified style of life for working people. Manufacturers bargain so that their cash flow and their dividend output enable them to sustain themselves. In order to accomplish both of those things from different ends of the scale, certain rules have to be introduced which run directly contrary to a free market. I learned that the much-vaunted perfect market is in fact not very good for people's welfare.

Chase: How has the experience in Oaxaca influenced your work?

Diskin: Living intimately with rural peasant Indians, I saw how anthropology systematically ignores their desperate poverty and the absence of benefits their state could provide. Mexico, with a large wealthy economy, offered many social benefits but they were not extended to people who live in villages. The experience convinced me that the phenomenon of poverty is as appropriate for anthropologists to study, as, for example, certain esoteric questions of kinship or governments in acephalous societies where there are no supreme rulers.Poverty is certainly a regular social institution. People are poor not because systems don't work, but because they do work. Even if you disagree with that, it is systematic enough to merit study. It's ironic that anthropologists will live next to desperately poor people in order to study them but ignore studying their poverty.

Chase: Even considering that poverty is relative, are there societies where nobody is poor?

Diskin: There are societies where the difference between the richest and the poorest is so small that no one perceives that they are poor. I'm talking about very simple societies, like hunters and gatherers whose populations are dwindling very fast. It's hard to believe that there are many of them not strongly affected by modern world economy. But the only societies where everyone lives at some high absolute level are the very rich societies, maybe some of the oil-rich Gulf states where they have very high per capita incomes. But those are sort of flukes, in general I would say the vast bulk of the world's populations lives in substandard fashion.

Chase: Is this a recent historical phenomenon? Do we know whether there were very poor people in Neolithic times?

Diskin: Certain things are known about archeological cultures. For instance, the fertile period of a woman's life was about half what it is now. As a consequence, population growth was much slower. But they did have to cope with enormous nutritional stresses, with epidemic diseases and accidental deaths, so life expectancy was probably half of what it is now. If having half the life expectancy of modern people is a sign of poverty, then they were all desperately poor.

Chase: How does that translate into poverty?

Diskin: Many people die before they can actually realize themselves as full human beings, children for example, and many people are so stunted by severe episodes of malnutrition that even if they reach chronological adulthood, they don't have the full capacity to realize thier innate human capabilities.

Chase: Do we know that they were malnourished then?

Diskin: Skeletal evidence yields a great deal of information about nutrition. That's a complicated problem in archeology because some might contend that it's unreasonable to ask whether people lived 75 years in the neolithic period since nobody did. But given their limited capacity to produce food and the reduced capacity of technology to act as a buffer between people and catastrophe or climatic change, people didn't live as well. Whether that's poverty or not I think is really a social judgement.

Chase: They may have lived better?

Diskin: Qualitatively. They lived in integrated communities where a great deal more time is spent on elaborating culture through memory or allegory, and they had a much more intimate knowledge of the natural word surrounding them. Many people think that is a much better way to live.

Chase: What did you do after your graduate work?

Diskin: I did further research in Oaxaca but I went to a small village where I could be more present in the daily life of the community and get to know individuals in order to ask the qualitative questions you just raised. There was a certain moral center to the village that involved cultivating subsistence crops, maize and beans, and a ceremonial life throughout the entire year. The principles of governance emphasized settling disputes and working to increase the integration of the community. I studied the relation between the production system and the ceremonial system which meshed in such a way that "standard" economic development was stifled. The formation of capital became extremely difficult when you had costly ceremonial consumption obligations. Here you had a real sharing of poverty but a sharing of poverty with a strong moral dimension. Everybody was very poor, living in a place where they were close to a city with rather modern hospitals, they were poor in a country that had a social security system that could protect people who were unable to work, uneducated in a country that had a national school system that functioned fairly well, etc.And, they were in transition. Younger people were beginning to reconsider the traditional system. In El Salvador, which I'm writing about now, people have modernized much more than these Mexican peasant Indians. They're very receptive to the use of fertilizers and all kinds of aids to agriculture. They believe that part of the annual growth cycle is getting credit from the bank. In some respects, they are extremely modern and yet they live in a historic system that has systematically guaranteed that they can't succeed in the terms they've come to believe are success. The distribution of land is so skewed that they don't have access to land that can produce things that yield a profit.

Chase: Is it a tenant-farmer system?

Diskin: There are various forms of tenure. The real poor have access to very little land either by direct ownership, sharecropping, or rental. Since they don't make enough to feed their families, they're required to go to the parts of the country to harvest that have agro-export crops, coffee, cotton, sugar. But for those who require a very large labor force to do the harvesting, it would be disastrous if that labor force came to develop its own interests and had more access to land. There would be less interest in picking someone else's crops. That's how historic systems develop which systematically deprive people of the opportunity to develop their own land or to participate in the agro-export system.

Chase: So what you have in El Salvador is basically a plantation system of very large land holdings.

Diskin: Yes. It's gone through some changes and modernized to a great degree. Now the actual cultivation, preparation, and growing phase is all rather modern. But, in some crops, especially coffee, you need human beings to pick the beans because there's no way of doing it by machine yet. And, you need an army of poor. But the system is very anachronistic if you consider how profoundly authoritarian the government is.The planters manipulate the government to get the legislation and court system they need. This system was firmly implanted in the late 19th century. An agrarian police was created to ensure that everybody had identity cards connecting them to a piece of property. In those days plantations had resident laborers. If a person didn't have a card, they would fine him so many days of free labor. An agrarian judge would assign them to work on a nearby farm, which might even be his own farm, or perhaps his brother-in-law's farm. The system focused intensely on the supression of labor rights in order to help the agro-export system work by reducing labor costs. We saw the results of that system in the 70s and 80s. The country exploded into civil war.

Chase: The implication is then that any large system which is very labor intensive and where the land is owned by few people, has an interest in keeping people poor.

Diskin: That characterizes El Salvador until the present. One can think of a quite different economic pattern that would also yield profit for coffee owners, some system where higher wages were paid, and the capital developed from coffee diversified into manufacturing. The laborers would then have a chance to earn increased family incomes and could become consumers. In fact, that's the sort of standard development sequence that most conventional economists have been advocating for the third world since the 50s. It makes sense. In El Salvador, there are too many people and too little land for everyone to farm. If you could convert this large mass into consumers and still nourish the industrial aspect of the country, you would have a more balanced form of development. That arguement has never appealed to those who own a lot of land because they're afraid of sharing what they own, even though they could probably make more from such a system. It took a war to create some rules which would force them to diversify a little bit. The long-range effects of the Peace Accords that ended the war remain to be seen.

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 11).

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