When Plants Farm Themselves

From the Series: The Naturalization of Work

Photo by College of DuPage Newsroom, licensed under CC BY SA.

Soybeans, the agricultural miracle of South America, have created a new class of wealthy farmers throughout eastern Paraguay. While farming soy involves long, hard days and great personal and financial risk, many farmers describe the soy boom as though it were the beans themselves that do most of the work. “Soy is miraculous,” I have heard during interviews with farmers, and “as long as soy keeps working, we’ll keep planting it.” There might be setbacks, pests, droughts, and variable commodity prices, they told me, but if the past two decades were any indication, soy was not yet exhausted and would keep them going. In doing so, soy farmers’ self-description resonates with the neo-vitalism now popular in the social sciences, as well as skepticism about human exceptionalism.

Those in the midst of a resource boom often describe their companion commodities in these vitalist terms. But most striking is the sharp contrast in Paraguay between this way of talking about soy and another common refrain, articulated by those excluded from the boom: soy kills. This statement is layered with stories of economic hardship, displacement, repression, land concentration, and environmental destruction. Yet what I want to focus on here is the way in which the statement “soy kills” is also a comment on the waning of a particular understanding of human labor as the primary life force behind agriculture. From the perspectives of both soy farmers and their impoverished neighbors, in other words, soy’s vital force entails a transference from human life and labor into plants, offering insight into the relationship between neoliberalism and the profusion of nonhuman workers in places like rural Paraguay.

Most of those who complain that soy kills were once subjects of a twentieth-century land reform that mobilized labor in the opposite direction. Seeking to colonize its eastern forests and spur agricultural production, the Paraguayan government promised land to all (and only) male Paraguayan citizens who were willing to work the soil and start a farm. Following a standard Lockean script for imagining frontier property, the government invited campesinos to find “unused” land and rewarded them with land titles for any so-called improvements that they introduced to their plots. In this way, land accrued value to the extent that men labored on it, and men themselves accrued not only property but also recognition by the state and inclusion in a national development narrative.

Most of these small farms were built around labor-intensive crops like cotton and tobacco, as well as subsistence gardens. But soy is quite a different beast—highly mechanized, capital-intensive, and generally more profitable when spread over larger and larger stretches of land. Its arrival in Paraguay spurred rapid land concentration in what were once smallholder communities. This gave it a certain fame in the literature on primitive accumulation and land grabbing, which plays primarily on the relationship between farm size and labor units. Here, “soy kills” came to mean “soy diminishes human labor in the abstract” by concentrating land and replacing laborers with machines.

In this sense, “soy kills” is continuous with an older way of understanding the relationship between labor and value as a kind of life force. That tradition begins with Adam Smith’s (1994, 361) understanding of productive labor as a metaphysical substance that “fixes and realizes itself in some particular subject or vendible commodity, which lasts for some time at least after that labor is past.” This notion was taken up by Karl Marx (1976, 342), who wrote that capital (including machinery) is “dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” The only major distinction between this older way of conceptualizing productive force and the new one expressed to me by soy farmers is that life as labor was specifically human. Marx insisted on this point using the famous distinction between men and bees, an image that returned in the 1970s as people began to worry about factory automation in the United States (e.g., Braverman 1974). Soy farmers, however, think that plants can do this work too.

For campesinos, as labor power in agriculture moves from people to plants, human life seems to diminish, and not only in the abstract. Agricultural labor for campesinos is not just a living, but a qualified form of living. Despite some of the mathematical reductionism in the literature on land redistribution, most land reforms are not merely about redistributing human bodies and hectares of soil: they are about producing politically specific living subjects. The Paraguayan land reform did not just produce self-sustaining humans, but Paraguayan men and families, citizens capable of expressing the country’s sovereignty over its territory. Soy farmers are not, by contrast, uncaring about human life beyond their own. Many are deeply invested in the Green Revolution motto about “feeding the world.” The difference is that theirs is a care for human life in the abstract, a globalized bare life that specifically denies the national difference that campesinos hold dear.

There is much that could be (and has been) said about the problems with the redistributive land reforms of the Cold War, whose beneficiaries now see the naturalization of work as a kind of death. Here, I have only hinted at the way that gendered and ethnic nationalism combined with environmental destruction to produce the communities now under threat. But the children of those pioneers are right to see something insidious in the way that their bodies have become surplus to new territorial configurations, where the production of wealth no longer appears to require humans—or, at least, doesn’t require them.


Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital, Volume One: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Penguin. Originally published in 1867.

Smith, Adam. 1994. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library. Originally published in 1776.