[Marxism] Nod to Historical Materialism in the Economist

John A Imani johnaimani3 at gmail.com
Thu May 15 10:03:25 MDT 2014

Culture and psychology You are what you eat Or, rather, what you grow
to eatMay 10th 2014 | From
the print edition <http://www.economist.com/printedition/2014-05-10>

  Collective farming in more ways than one

THAT orientals and occidentals think in different ways is not mere
prejudice. Many psychological studies conducted over the past two decades
suggest Westerners have a more individualistic, analytic and abstract
mental life than do East Asians. Several hypotheses have been put forward
to explain this.

One, that modernisation promotes individualism, falls at the first hurdle:
Japan, an ultra-modern country whose people have retained a collective
outlook. A second, that a higher prevalence of infectious disease in a
place makes contact with strangers more dangerous, and causes groups to
turn inward, is hardly better. Europe has had its share of plagues;
probably more that either Japan or Korea. And though southern China is
notoriously a source of infection (influenza pandemics often start there),
this is not true of other parts of that enormous country.

That led Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia and his colleagues to
look into a third suggestion: that the crucial difference is agricultural.
The West's staple is wheat; the East's, rice (see
Before the mechanisation of agriculture a farmer who grew rice had to
expend twice as many hours doing so as one who grew wheat. To deploy labour
efficiently, especially at times of planting and harvesting, rice-growing
societies as far apart as India, Malaysia and Japan all developed
co-operative labour exchanges which let neighbours stagger their farms'
schedules in order to assist each other during these crucial periods.
Since, until recently, almost everyone alive was a farmer, it is a
reasonable hypothesis that such a collective outlook would dominate a
society's culture and behaviour, and might prove so deep-rooted that even
now, when most people earn their living in other ways, it helps to define
their lives.

Mr Talhelm realised that this idea is testable. Large swathes of China,
particularly in the north, depend not on rice, but on wheat. That, as he
explains in a paper in *Science*, let him and his team put some flesh on
this theory's bones.

The team gathered almost 1,200 volunteers from all over China and asked
them questions to assess their individualism or collectivism. The answers
bore little relation to the wealth of a volunteer's place of origin, which
Mr Talhelm saw as a proxy for how modern it was, or to its level of public
health. There was a striking correlation, though, with whether it was a
rice-growing or a wheat-growing area. This difference was marked even
between people from neighbouring counties with different agricultural
traditions. His hypothesis that the different psychologies of East and West
are, at least in part, a consequence of their agriculture thus looks worth
further exploration. And such exploration is possible--for India, too, has
rice-growing and wheat-growing regions.

How resilient Asia's collectivist cultures will be as they lose their rural
roots remains to be seen. But the message from Japan, and also from more
recently modernised places such as Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore,
seems to be "quite resilient". For some, Asian values--with their tenets of
solidarity and collective action--are cause for celebration. For others,
they are stifling and a barrier to social progress. But whichever side you
take, if Mr Talhelm is correct they are only "Asian" because, back in the
neolithic, farmers in many parts of that continent found *Oryza *a more
congenial crop to grow than *Triticum*.

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