WHEN A political crisis emerges, as it now has in the Mideast, it is easy for attention to narrow -- and to miss larger changes afoot. I contend that behind contemporary political turmoil, the most fundamental change we are witnessing is the politicization of the world's peasantries. This is not obvious from the terms of political discourse. In fact, at the beginning of a new year, world affairs seem to be running in opposite directions.

On the one hand, the power of modern communications means that each people in the world interacts with all the rest far more intimately than ever before. Demonstrators in Beijing and Baghdad carry signs written in English aimed at American TV audiences and World Cup soccer matches command nearly universal attention. Goods, services, capital and labor move across national boundaries on a greater scale than ever before.

But in politics, vigorous efforts to assert local independence -- for example in Canada, or Yugoslavia -- coincide with transnational consolidation. Such a political contradiction is worth thinking about.

Perhaps the explanation is this: that peoples long accustomed to urban and industrial living are responding to economic realities by uniting into more inclusive political units, while newcomers to these aspects of modernity prefer to preserve local differences by gaining (or regaining) political sovereignty.

Thus Western Europe, where the modern style of urban-industrial living got started, is expected to unite more closely in 1992, when sovereign power in matters of trade and finance will perhaps be surrendered to a much strengthened Common Market. But in places where urban-industrial living is newer, an opposite trend prevails. In Eastern Europe, for example, the Warsaw Pact nations have gone their separate ways, and within the U.S.S.R., a dozen or more nationalities are thinking of independence, and some have already declared it.

The trend may be discerned even in Western Europe and North America and is, I suggest, the expression of a worldwide phenomenon: the politicization of the peasantry.

Almost everywhere one looks, ethnic friction and secessionist movements may be spotted.

In Africa and Asia, for example, many of the state boundaries drawn by European colonialists in the 19th century are in peril. As Saddam Hussein has reminded us, Arab aspirations for unity challenge boundaries defined by British and French diplomats after World War I, when they partitioned the Ottoman empire to suit themselves. French Indochina has already split into three sovereign states. India faces secessionist movements in Kashmir, among Sikhs and (more weakly) among Tamils. Sri Lanka is convulsed by a similar ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese. Indonesia, Burma and many African states have to cope with a variety of "tribal peoples" who feel little or no loyalty to the constituted government; Nigeria and Sudan threaten to divide along ethnic and religious lines.

The most conspicuous exception is China, the only imperial state whose subjected nationalities (with the exception of Tibetans) show no particular sign of political restlessness. Presumably that is because urbanism has yet to affect the various hill peoples of the southern borderlands and the Turkic and Mongol pastoralists of the northwest, who maintain traditional forms of life more fully than elsewhere in Asia (except perhaps in the remote Siberian north).

As for Tibet, a long tradition of political independence, closely tied with a distinctive religion, mark it off from the rest of China. And Chinese troops, by occupying the capital of Lhasa, sending the Dalai Lama into exile and finding a few allies among the Tibetans, can control the whole country. In other words, old-fashioned imperialism lives on in Tibet.But just as different regions of China exhibit different social patterns, wide discrepancies also exist within the boundaries of highly urbanized and industrialized countries. Canada is a prime example, since French separatism there reflects the self-consciousness of recent migrants from the Quebec countryside who no longer are content, as their ancestors were, to live on the land and defer to the local priest in most dealings with outsiders. The Canadian bargain was struck in 1774, when the French clergy of Canada, in return for religious toleration, accepted English rule. Soon after, in 1789, revolution came to France and the clergy of French Canada reacted by clinging fast to their new English connection. This bargain eventually allowed the English and Scots to run business affairs in Montreal while the clergy controlled the countryside and kept the habitants good Catholics and loyal Canadians. The resulting balance of power unraveled only after World War II when urban living, secularization and separatist politics all came to the fore among Quebec's French-speaking population.

On the other side of the Atlantic, similar separatist upsurges among newly urbanized and self-conscious nationalities dominated the politics of Europe throughout the 19th century. Embers still remain. In Ireland, nearly two centuries of strife between Protestant and Catholic is still being fought out in the north. On the continent, a vigorous Flemish movement distracts Belgium. Spain has problems with Basques and Catalans. Italy has to deal with separatists, or at least autonomists, from Sardinia and the backward south. Even in France, aspiration for autonomy commands some attention in the Midi. As for Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, they face far more acute internal frictions and, like Canada, may split apart.

The United States is not entirely exempt, even though peasant societies never established themselves within our borders as happened in Quebec. Nevertheless, a few Puerto Ricans, who want independence very badly indeed, are like the separatists of Quebec in thinking that sovereignty is a necessary protection for their culture and separate identity. And a handful of black nationalists differ from other separatists only because they cannot lay claim to a definite territorial base within the borders of the United States where they could expect to exercise full sovereignty. Yet if one looks more closely at the political consciousness of those who subscribe to any of these movements, a rather different perspective emerges -- one that puts them in tune with the tendency towards consolidation across existing national boundaries that prevails among the most urbanized peoples of the earth.

This fundamental convergence becomes clear if one asks the simple questions that always define political identity: Who am I? Who are my fellows? And who are (at least potentially) my enemies or rivals? If one puts these questions to the peoples in Western Europe who are going along with transnational consolidation, and to those who support contemporary separatist movements, you can see that both are in the process of transferring loyalties from a smaller to a larger unit by drawing the boundaries between 'us' and 'them' on a more inclusive basis.

The difference is in the starting point. If one starts with a national identity, it makes a good deal of sense to join transnational trading blocs. Most of the population eventually benefits from improved economic efficiency. This makes it worthwhile to cooperate with foreigners, despite their troublesome, alien ways.

If, on the contrary, one starts with isolated communities, intensified national consciousness among the common folk (e.g., in Lithuania and Quebec) represents a vast enlargement of the boundaries of political community -- even if it means breaking up imperial structures put together by old-fashioned elites.

To understand the character of the change one must know something about traditional patterns of politics in civilized societies. As recently as 200 years ago, most people were peasants and lived in villages that produced nearly everything they consumed. Outsiders collected rents and taxes, calibrated so as to leave the villagers with a bare subsistence.

Rents and taxes transferred resources from the peasant majority to their rulers and masters, who gave little or nothing in return except protection from outside and perhaps more ruthless (or shortsighted) plunderers. Politics mattered to the peasantry because struggles among landlords and rulers for territorial lordship (i.e., the right to collect rents and taxes) could hurt them badly. Armies habitually killed and burnt their way across the rural landscape, and could destroy a peasant community that happened to get in the way. Ordinary folk tried to keep out of the way, though in moments of desperation, armed peasant rebellions did occur. When successful, such risings swiftly generated new governing elites that behaved like any other.

To be sure, a different sort of peaceable politics existed within the confines of the village itself. Bargaining with the outside world over rents and taxes was often entrusted to a village headman, who also served as tax collector -- thus half betraying his fellows and half protecting them.

The stickiness of customary rents and taxes sometimes allowed peasants to dispose of small surpluses by selling them in town. As a result, urban patterns of buying and selling slowly seeped into the countryside, and, after about 1000 A.D., in the most commercially active regions of Eurasia, rulers and landlords discovered that they could actually benefit by collecting rents and taxes in cash.

Paying monetary rent and taxes in turn required the rural population to sell most of what they produced, and permitted them to imitate their betters by buying some of the things they needed. As specialization became more common, great improvements in productivity resulted. This in turn sustained further intensification of market exchanges and allowed the system to expand rapidly to new ground until, after 1500, it eventually girdled the entire globe.

But village life continued almost as before. Even in places where landlords disappeared or had never existed, merchants in alliance with state officials kept food and other goods flowing from the hinterland for the support of town populations, and, just as before, the peasantry got little or nothing in return.

The fact was that wherever peasant life existed, various legal and administrative constraints systematically favored the urban segments of the population. This was especially true of Communist regimes after 1917, since Marxist ideology required and justified massive industrial investment. Yet whenever the flow of goods and information between town and country becomes intense enough, the disadvantaged peasantry can learn how to organize along new political lines. In doing so, however, they cease to be peasants, for if they are to be effective, ancient village solidarities and local family rivalries have to give way to wider associations.

The most accessible new public identity for peasants, and ex-peasants who have moved to town, is usually defined by a shared language, together with all the customs, habits and traditions it carries. Sometimes religion and language coincide in dividing the peasant and ex-peasant majority from the old ruling classes. This is the case today in Lithuania vis a` vis the Russians, and in Quebec vis a` vis the Protestant majority of English-speaking Canadians.

Sometimes, as among the Shiites of Lebanon and the Sikhs of India, religion provides the sole demarcation between "us" and "them." And sometimes racial, linguistic and religious demarcations coincide in truly explosive fashion, as in South Africa, Caucasia and Soviet Central Asia.

Breaking away from narrow village solidarities in a time when both communications and economic exchanges have become transnational is a particularly perilous process. Ex-peasants have grievances inherited from their disadvantaged past. They want equality with privileged townspeople, and want it right away. In practice, equality can only be achieved by lowering standards of living in the towns for all but the poorest, and this can disrupt economic exchanges and diminish the production of wealth drastically, as the Sandinistas and a good many African governments have discovered.

Moreover, successful political leaders are always tempted to betray their followers in the same way that leaders of peasant rebellions so often did in times past. In our time, betrayal takes the form of creating a new ruling class of bureaucrats whose privileges and monopoly of power can be just as oppressive as old-fashioned landlords and traditional rulers.

Indeed, when revolutionary politicians undertake both to reform society and manage the entire economy, occasions for friction between rulers and ruled multiply enormously. This is the special weakness of communist regimes, as we have recently learned. But anti-communist, nationalist governments, like that of Turkey under Kemal Ataturk (1920-36), suffered from the same problem; and one-party rule, whether officially Marxist or not, runs the same risk of allowing a bureaucratic ruling class to oppress everyone else unmercifully.

Yet there is no going back to traditional rural submissiveness. The vision of freedom, equality and abundance has penetrated very far. And the crumbling away of the age-old subordination of rural villages to urban-based superiors, together with the fumbling search for a new and more equitable basis for civilized society is, in fact, the most important social and political issue of our time.

Separatist nationalisms are one expression of the politicization of the world's peasantries. But other ideologies compete for peasant and ex-peasant support. Indeed, religious fundamentalism and communism are almost as attractive as nationalism, and in ex-peasant societies the future probably belongs to various blendings and combinations of the three.

How such local regimes will fit with the emergent cosmopolitanism of Western Europe and North America remains to be seen. That may well become the principal axis of 21st century politics.

William McNeill, author of "The Rise of the West," is emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago.