It’s weird to read what seem like round after round of articles talking up the importance of the potato in shaping modernity (mostly by way of jacking up population numbers). To me, at least, this is old news.
Ten years ago, Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher had a cracking book chapter in Practicing New Historicism called “The Potato in the Materialist Imagination.” It mostly looks at debates in the late 18th and early 19th centuries about potato farming (including such luminaries as Gladstone, William Cobbett, Arthur Young, and of course Thomas Malthus). It was definitely clear then that potatoes allowed you to support a vast population of tenant farmers for fractions of what it cost before, when most peasants ate bread.
The other concern was that compared to bread, the potato was antisocial — there was no structured division of labor, no fusion of foods from different subagricultures (i.e. wheat and eggs). You could just dig them out of the ground and boil them — the first MRE (besides cheese). Greenblatt and Gallagher also focus on how the fears of overpopulation were driven by the production of the potato itself — critics imagined dumb, zombie-like potato people rising up directly from the ground. Unstoppable. Like a tidal wave. “The potato is the root of misery BECAUSE it is the root of plenty.”
It’s worth noting in the context of our current anxieties about food monocultures how, for much of human history, the vast majority of human beings were sustained by a single food item. Bread, potatoes — the assumption was that you would eat one kind of food, which would supply your whole nourishment. This, of course, is what made crop failures and famines so deadly. Potatoes, since they grew underground, were thought to be immune from the usual agents of famine – an invincible wonderfood.
This wasn’t just a problem in England and Ireland. Between Malthus and Greenblatt/Gallagher comes the great sociologist Max Weber. Weber’s first substantial work, written not long before The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, was the lecture “The Nation-State and Economic Policy,” where Weber criticized the wealthy Prussian landowners for systematically replacing the local peasants with immigrant Polish workers. The Polish workers were cheaper largely because they were willing to raise and live on potatoes alone, where the established tenants would not. Potatoes then became the means to establish new relationships of domination in the absence of the traditional set of mutual obligations that governed peasants and landowners in the feudal period.
Weber’s work on the Polish farmers is important because it shows (I think) that he realized that modernity was not only about his legendary middle-class Protestants, so anxious to prove that they are among the elect that they work long after they’ve satisfied their basic needs, but also about these exploited, bare-subsistence workers. Both in their own way exploded social traditions. But while one group came to dominate economic, political, and intellectual life, the other slowly grew, the invisible material substrate, working to feed all of those diligent bourgeois toiling in their vocations.