Starting a market garden

I promised a turn to more practical matters, and since the discussions under both my last two posts somehow managed to turn, as all discussions should, from global politics to market gardening, let’s have a think about the latter. Especially because I recently received a query from some start-up market gardeners asking some interesting questions about the business side of it, which struck me as good material to share in a blog post and hopefully elicit some other people’s responses.

But let me start with a preamble on a few of the issues about garden productivity that were being discussed under my preceding posts, and also a comment on my own personal horticultural trajectory.

Simon mentioned in a comment the view of the inestimable Tim Deane that you can grow enough on an acre to fill 25-30 veg boxes per week. That sounds about right to me, on the basis that you’d be producing the fertility elsewhere (so yes, probably halve that for in situ organic production). But it does of course depend on what you grow, and why. Suppose you decided to produce absolutely everything you put in the boxes yourself. Making allowance for paths between the beds, your acre should give you something like 28 metre-wide growing beds each 100m long. And you’d need to produce about 10,000 individual veg items over the year. If you put about 1kg of potatoes in each box, I reckon most small-scale organic growers would need about 10 beds of potatoes – so that’s a third of our space gone already, and we still need to find another 9,000 items!

But never fear, if we put just half of one bed down to swiss chard and another half down to courgettes we can knock out almost as many items from that one bed as from all ten potato beds. And if we grew one full bed of lettuces successionally through the summer, in theory we could probably furnish another 3,000 items, though I think we may struggle to sell them all. Looking at the wholesale organic prices, if we were lucky we could probably make about £100 gross per bed from the potatoes, while the chard/courgette bed would bring in over £1,000 and the lettuce bed more still. Though these leafy beds would require a lot more human labour than the potato beds – assuming that you have a tractor with some kind of potato planting and harvesting kit to go on the back. But if you’re a small organic grower cropping on about an acre, chances are there’s someone else around growing potatoes who has a bigger tractor than you. And they’ll probably be selling bulk retail at 20p per kilo, which would bring your returns down to around £25 per bed if you tried to match them.

Suffice to say, then, that from the high water mark of my enthusiasm to furnish all my customers’ vegetable-related needs from my own sweet labour back in 2007 when I started growing commercially, I have gravitated away from the potato end of the horticultural spectrum in a direction more generously furnished with chard, courgettes and others of their kind. At the same time, however, my political thinking has gone rather in the opposite direction. When I started down this path I burned with the conviction that every town and city should be ringed with market gardens growing produce for local consumption. But the reality of trying to do my bit in implementing that vision has instilled a certain scepticism. While offering sincere thanks to our loyal customers, I must ruefully acknowledge that ultimately there’s a cold logic to the price of labour and the price of diesel which can’t really be averted in present economic circumstances. I got into this because I thought good things would come of communities providing for themselves, not because I wanted to grow exotic salad garnishes at prices to make a market shopper’s eyes water. Hence, I suppose, the journey charted on this blog: from prospecting a future of small commercial farms plying their trade, I’ve become more interested in the path of the substantially self-reliant latter-day homesteader. Luckily for me, there’s currently a great group of people leading on the market gardening side of the farm, with fairly minimal input from me. This leaves me time amongst other things to grow a homestead garden with plenty of potatoes, which are definitely not for sale.

Still, it needn’t be an either/or thing. Currently, Britain imports a large proportion of its vegetables, not because they can’t easily be grown here but because they can’t as easily be grown here profitably – the usual blind logic of capital, which the political events I’ve been discussing recently purport to contest. Well, without rehashing all that, it seems to me that getting into market gardening still isn’t the shortest route to easy street, but things may be looking up a bit for the British small-scale veg grower (and for the British veg buyer, not so much). And, however jaded my feelings about small-scale commercial horticulture, there’s still a case for economic relocalisation through import-substituting local market gardens – not everyone can be a homesteader, after all. So let me make my peace with the cut mixed salad, and proceed to answer as best I can the questions that came my way from the start-up market gardeners (funny, isn’t it, the different moral weighting we place on ‘start-up’ and ‘upstart’). I append below more or less what I wrote in answer to their query.

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  1. What is your average turnover per acre/per full-time employee?

It’s a bit hard to unstitch this from our financial returns, since our business involves vegetables bought wholesale, plus livestock, camping and other bits and pieces. Essentially, we grow vegetables on about 1.5 acres and buy in most of the potatoes, carrots and onions that we sell, plus other items – especially during the late winter and the hungry gap. Year-round I’d guess we average a little over one full-time worker on the market garden, but more labour goes into the garden during growing season of course, when we use a mix of paid, volunteer and our own labour. I’d guess that we clear about £12-14,000 from the market garden. The wholesale purchases don’t in themselves affect the returns all that much, but the middleman aspect of the business probably increases our profits a little – it was ever thus.

 

  1. What is a good (manageable) number of varieties?

As few as possible! (Saves on seed and organisational headaches). But it does depend on business style – are you growing a lot of staple root vegetables with mechanisation or running a more labour-intensive operation focusing on high value summer crops? We’ve moved over time somewhat from the former to the latter, and winnowed down what we grow for commercial sale quite a lot. This year’s plan is as follows (numbers indicate the number of varieties of a crop, and asterisks indicate a major crop in terms of income and/or land take):

*Winter cabbage (5)

Calabrese (2)

*Kale (4)

Cauliflower (1)

Swede (1)

Turnip (1)

Pak choi (1)

Radish (1)

*Leek (1)

*Onion (2)

*Courgette (2)

*Cucumber (2)

*Squash (3)

Carrots (1)

*Celeriac (1)

Celery (1)

*Parsnips (2)

*Beetroot (1)

*Leaf beet (1)

*Chard (1)

*Spinach (1)

Broad beans (1)

*French beans (2)

Runner beans (1)

*Lettuce (11)

*Winter salads (14)

Aubergine (2)

*Tomatoes (1)

Peppers (2)

Physalis (1)

Basil (1)

Green manures (9)

 

  1. Are there any specific varieties you’d recommend to a new business?

It’s hard to say, as so much depends on site, soil and business style. But most small growers make their peace sooner or later with cut winter salad leaves.

 

  1. How do you solve the time of the hungry gap?

A lot of people solve it by only operating from June to December and focusing on high-value summer crops. We operate year-round, but we’ve found that on a small scale the crops you can grow for hungry gap cropping aren’t really worth it for the most part – too much ground occupation for too long, for too small a return (eg. sprouting broccoli). One exception is hungry gap kale, which has cropped well for us. Asparagus is another one we’ve grown, but it’s too high value for sale routes like veg boxes. The last flush of the winter salads in the polytunnels helps bridge the hungry gap. If you have the polytunnel space, there are of course also lots of crops that you can bring through early. But we find that generally it’s not worth it – the extra price you get is cancelled by the extra inputs required, and there are better uses for precious tunnel space. Our main strategy is to rely on the salads and the last gasp of the trusty winter root crops, and to buy in wholesale whatever else we have to (including things like mushrooms) – which in a lot of years is most of it (beware the poorer quality of much wholesale produce, though). It’s not exactly a strategy of peasant self-reliance, but business is business.

 

  1. What are good cash crops?

Salad leaves, lettuces, cut-and-come again leaves…basically, leaves in general and/or anything that has to be harvested by hand by the big guys as well as the small ones. Also, steady croppers that don’t require much input or have many pest problems – beetroot, beans, courgettes, squash etc. And generally summer crops over autumn-winter-spring crops.

 

  1. Are there any unforeseen or regular expenses?

Regular expenses (in time or money): insurance, seeds/starts, seed compost (though we’ve started making some of our own), fuel, water/irrigation, labour, tool/machinery maintenance and the dreaded agri-plastics…and don’t forget the depreciation of machinery.

Unforeseen expenses: well, you can’t always foresee when the tractor or delivery van is going to break down, and it can be darned expensive (and stressful) when it does. Volunteers are also good at breaking tools. And so am I, if I’m honest…

When I discussed this question with the farm crew it led to a lengthy discussion of water sources and irrigation management. I argued the case against putting much emphasis on rainwater harvesting, at least in our climate – probably because I feel subconsciously guilty about not sorting this out better than I have. But what I’d say is that the rain you can easily collect from farm structures is a small proportion of what you need, and even then you’d need an awful lot of storage capacity to make much use of it, and if you’re going to use it for irrigation you’d need somehow to attend carefully to water purity and water pressure. On a small market garden scale, mains water is more practical. On a bigger scale you’d probably want a borehole – but it can be expensive to install. More generally though, it’s worth thinking about surface water management. Keeping it away from crops when you don’t want it is equally if not more important than getting it to them when you do. But ideally you’d also want to hold it up on your farm and make use of it somehow – maybe by using it to grow useful biomass of some kind.

 

  1. Are there any unforeseen regulations to take special note of?

You need to register your holding as an agricultural holding, and also register the business with the local Environmental Health department. You may need to get trading guidance from the Trading Standards Officer depending on your sales methods. Since food is zero-rated for VAT, it may be a good idea to register for VAT so you can claim back on your inputs – it’s kind of a pain either way. You’ll obviously need to register your business structure, whatever it is, for tax purposes. There are a few rules and regulations about water, pesticides and fertiliser to think about – but for an organic vegetable business the regulatory burden is pretty light. There’s sometimes a bit of anxiety around salads.

 

  1. What are your recommended community engagement methods?

I’m not sure I’m a great exemplar here, but here’s a few things – regular open days and/or an ‘open gate’ policy, making the farm available for various community/educational events (albeit with good usage agreements in place), social media (lots of tweets and Facebook posts) and ideally some grounding in the community and community organisations (Transition groups etc.) Getting articles/letters in the local paper can be good. Ditto leaflets around town and on noticeboards. We haven’t found straightforward advertising to be of much use.

 

  1. What valuable initial capital expenses would you put first in a startup?

I guess first you need to decide what kind of operation to run. Large-scale field crops sold year-round pushes you towards heavy mechanisation, which would have to include a lot of tractor-mounted kit all tailored to specific bed/row systems and therefore possibly bespoke and expensive. If you’re doing a lot of your own compost management then a tractor with front-loader or backhoe or mini-digger may be necessary. There’s a lot of moving stuff around so again a tractor/trailer or pickup may be necessary, though perhaps you could just get away with a van. Otherwise, if you’re going more for high value summer crops on a smaller scale you can probably make do with hand tools or hand-held power tools (maybe a rotavator/2-wheel tractor).

Other main startup expenses could include covered space for packing/storing, polytunnels, agri-plastics, irrigation kit and retail publicity.

 

  1. What are your methods for sale?

A veg box scheme involving door-to-door local delivery with two delivery days (Mon & Fri) from June to December (in order to optimise picking) and one delivery day January to May. And also a stall at the Food Assembly on a Wednesday night. Occasional sales at small local festivals in the summer and one-off sales to customers and shops. The key thing for a small market garden is to sell direct to the final customer. Almost all the value that you can get is in the retail price, not the wholesale price.

 

  1. Is organic certification worthwhile?

For a small market garden selling direct to the final customer, no I don’t think so. It would be possible to have a huge debate about the rights and wrongs of organics and certification, but from a purely business point of view for a small direct-sale business, I’d just say the answer is no. However, you do perhaps then need to put a bit more effort into convincing your customers that your growing methods are sound (open days, talks etc.) And I guess you miss out on some of the support and networking opportunities available through membership in the movement.

 

  1. Are there any useful resources you could point us toward?

The Organic Growers Association is good with a lot of practical information and support (you don’t have to be certified organic to join).

The Landworker’s Alliance is good as a union and political body for small growers.

Local grower groups can also be good.

Volunteer labour can be useful – the original and best source is WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). But there are pros and cons that need thinking about.

 

 

  1. If you were to start again is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d get the layout of the garden better organised from the start (tracks, paths, irrigation etc.) Likewise with thinking through the mechanisation. I’d plan the business better in the knowledge that you have to hold on to retail value. And I’d prepare myself better for the fact that the volumes involved – even for a small market garden – are much greater than for a home garden (meaning, among other things, that a lot of things you can do in a home garden you can’t do in a market garden).

Dress like a woman, say sorry like a man, comment like a friend…

There’s just time in my busy current schedule for this brief ‘holding’ post to signal a switch in focus from my last few posts, which have concentrated on the furies of Trump and Brexit. The next few will concentrate on more practical agricultural matters, before I return to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.

But some kind of linking image is called for to signal the switch…and also to fill up some space on the page in order to make this post seem like it’s longer than it actually is. Aha! Here we go, a photograph of my dear wife and business partner, La Brassicata, doing something practical and agricultural – viz. preparing one of our fine new worm composting bins for action. And also, in relation to previous posts, doing something political – viz. dressing like a woman. I guess her already vanishingly small chance of getting a job at the White House has just taken another hit. Shame.

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Attentive readers may have noticed that, for protection, La Brassicata is wearing a chainsaw helmet. It’s the farm’s old one, not the spanking new Petzl helmet that I’ve reserved for my personal use while wielding the chainsaw. Hey, nobody said that patriarchy would be defeated overnight.

Talking of gender issues, I feel the need to do something that men are stereotypically quite bad at – namely, apologising for obvious mistakes. Though, if I flatter myself, I’m not so bad at it around the farm. Especially when La Brassicata has the Skil saw in her hand. Anyway, the apology I need to make is that in the welter of comments that I’ve recently received on this site, a few of them got held up in the moderation queue and escaped my notice. So – sorry to those whose words remained too long unpublished. I’ll do my best to keep a better eye on the comments queue. But if you don’t want to place your faith in me, try not to paste links into comments – that way they find their proper niche in cyberspace more easily.

And, finally, talking of comments, of course it’s a delight for any blogger to see the numbers in their comment column regularly ticking into three figures, so perhaps I should just be grateful. On the other hand, sheer number of comments does not a quality blog make. My instinct is to take a hands off approach to comment moderation and allow people to write more or less what they like, so long as it’s not personally abusive – which has sometimes been a close call of late. On the other hand, I don’t want folks to be put off this site by too many long and angry rebuttals or counter-rebuttals. I have a few rules of thumb, honed through the years, about when I think it’s worth engaging with someone with whom I disagree online and when it isn’t. I’m happy to spell them out if anyone wants, but for now I’ll just say that for me personally there’ve been one or two more ‘isn’ts’ than I’d like creeping onto this site recently – and that I’d welcome other people’s views about how best to go forward from here.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times. There seems to be a rising tide of ‘either you’re with us or you’re against us’ thinking these days, the politics of black and white. I prefer more shades of grey. And on that note, I guess my final comment for now on the Trump-Brexit phenomenon is that I readily acknowledge there were people who voted Brexit and (somewhat less plausibly) Trump out of opposition to neoliberalism and support for localism. Indeed, I seriously contemplated voting Brexit myself for the same reason. However, to suppose that what you voted for is what you’ll actually get seems to me in this instance to greatly underestimate the power of neoliberalism and greatly overestimate the power of liberal democracy.

Addendum and credo

Well, the comments on my last post just keep rollin’. Thanks to commenters new and old for your informative views, and apologies that I haven’t had the time to respond to various points more fully. I take the point Joe Clarkson made – at root, this blog is supposed to be about farming. The trouble is, the shape of farming is driven by politics (we’ll know that agrarian populism has succeeded when and if it’s the other way around…) so inevitably writing about farming involves writing about politics. And politics interests me, so I could write about it endlessly.

But it can quickly become a rabbit hole (easy now, Clem) from which escape is impossible. So here I’m going to make a few closing comments regarding the previous post, answer a few questions posed to me about it in the form of a kind of gnomic political credo, and then leave it at that for now. But do carry on discussing if you wish. Small Farm Future is nothing if not generous with its bandwith. There’s plenty more I’d like to say about politics, populism, migration and the way the world is shaping. But I’ll aim to come back to it later in the year after more on farming, more on the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex and its environs, and more on history.

Meanwhile, I’m halfway through Colin Hines’s new book, Progressive Protectionism, which bears upon much of what’s been discussed. Among other things, Hines berates his fellow lefties and greenies for not embracing sensible anti-immigration policies. What is it with all these radicals at the moment, turning their guns on their colleagues? Splitters! Ah well, Hines argues that “today’s large scale migration is bad for democracy, internationalism and the environment” and hopes that his writing will help convert more ‘progressives’ to that view. The trouble is, the case he makes is weak on several key points. Still, I think there is a case in there somewhere, and I’d like to think about it some more. Though I’m not sure it’s a great time to be making ‘progressive’ cases for immigration control right now, as the shutters come down in the USA on refugees and the president’s own personal basket of deplorables, while Mrs May continues to dither. I’m moved by these words from Kapka Kassabova,

“If you live long enough in the corridor of distorted mirrors that is a border zone, you end up seeing your likeness in the image of your neighbour. Sooner or later, you end up meeting yourself. Which makes it all the harder to tell exactly where the barbarians are: pushing at the gates, already among us, or inside our heads….Is it unavoidable that we would enter an era of building hard borders, again? No – it is only desperately unwise. The reason why new borders haunt us is because we haven’t listened well enough to the stories of the old ones. It is because the barbarians are here, not just among us but inside our heads, tirelessly tweeting hatred.”

And, from the same periodical, another interesting article bearing on the topic of my last post from Sarah Churchwell: ‘It will be called Americanism’: the US writers who imagined a fascist future. Much to mull over – so I plan to simmer down for a while and think about populism, politics and migration while getting back to some farming issues over the next few posts.

In the meantime, in response to various comments on the previous post let me try to lay out briefly where I think I’m coming from politically with a few positioning statements, in which I’ll try to use a minimum of ‘isms’.

  • I think any political position or political programme involves contradictions that are difficult to resolve.
  • I like the idea of people owning their own property and taking responsibility for providing for themselves and their families from it.
  • I like the idea of individual and local self-determination.
  • I don’t think individual people or families can successfully provide for themselves without relying implicitly or explicitly on many other people. Robinson Crusoe was just a story. And even he managed to create a racial hierarchy.
  • I like the idea that people can voluntarily join larger groupings and collectivities of people.
  • I don’t like the idea that people must forcibly join larger collectivities. Unfortunately, it’s unavoidable – we’re born, live and die in wider communities over which individually we usually have minimal influence. And these collectivities shape our thinking.
  • I like the idea that people can buy and sell things with limited interference from the state, especially the closer that the market thereby formed approximates the impossible dream of what economists call a ‘perfect market’. This puts me at odds with some characteristic positions in left-wing thought. It also puts me at odds with contemporary corporate consumer capitalism, a command-and-control economy which has little to do with the ‘free’ market.
  • I like the idea that people can choose the way they want to live their lives, including taking or leaving new technologies, whether material or social.
  • I like the idea of people striving to extend and develop their skills and their knowledge of the world. I also like the idea of people not striving to do that if they don’t want to. I like the idea of figuring out a way in which everyone can pursue or not pursue such goals as they wish. I don’t think that’s easy.
  • I like the idea that people can stay in the same general area where they were born and find an acknowledged place and role there.
  • I like the idea that people can move to a different area from where they were born and find an acknowledged place and role in their new surroundings.
  • I think that if there are strong restrictions on people moving from their natal areas or strong limitations on them remaining in them then the conditions are ripe for tyranny.
  • I think wealth, influence and power tend to accumulate in small sub-sections of society unless positive steps are taken to prevent it.
  • I think wealth, influence and power also tend to accumulate in small sub-sections of the global political order – the system of national states is a system of centres and peripheries.
  • I think small inequalities, small centre-periphery relations, are unavoidable and in some respects enabling. But I think that great inequalities cause much needless suffering, limit human achievement, stem from the self-interest of the few against the many, and are ethically unjustifiable.
  • I think self-interested power tends to disguise itself by staking claims about how it reflects the natural order of things.
  • In western societies, I think power has disproportionately been held in the hands of old white men in every social class. And while I’m hurtling towards membership of that particular category myself day by day, I don’t think it’s a good thing.
  • Power concentrates, by definition, in the hands of ‘elites’. There are different kinds of power and different kinds of elites. Some elites advance their interests by making alliances with non-elite actors against other elites. Generally, I think that ‘business elites’ have had more power than ‘professional’ or so-called ‘liberal’ elites, and their power is currently growing stronger still.
  • I think it’s possible to overstate the extent to which history is driven by class struggle.
  • I think it’s possible to understate the extent to which history is driven by class struggle.
  • I think ‘class’ involves cultural as well as economic components.
  • I don’t think any one class or its members are usually better or worthier than any other, or repositories of some kind of world-historical truth that transcends its enmeshment in the politically immediate. Obviously, that would apply to the ‘middle class’. Obviously, it would also apply to the ‘working class’.
  • I think most complex modern states or polities involve class alliances of some kind which reach beyond the idea of self-interest towards some notion of general interest. But not always by very much, and seldom as much as their proponents think. These alliances are usually quite fragile.
  • I don’t think human societies have a natural tendency to move in any particular political or ethical direction through history. Not even a cyclical direction.
  • I think it’s worth trying to articulate universal principles of human conduct and to seek consensus between people around them whenever possible. I don’t think this can ever work in practice. I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be attempted.
  • I think it’s worth looking sceptically at how all principles of conduct, global and local, work on the ground. What are the gaps between ideal and reality, articulation and implementation? Who wins from them and who loses?
  • I think that political actors who strongly pursue ‘I win – you lose’ strategies run a high risk of ending up either in an ‘I lose – you win’ situation or an ‘I lose – you lose’ situation.
  • I think it’s good for political actors to pursue ‘I win – you win’ strategies where possible, but these are harder to come by than people often think. The next best thing is to pursue ‘I’m doing OK-ish – you’re doing OK-ish’ strategies, which are much under-emphasised in global politics.
  • I think that humanity is squandering its natural capital, that technical fixes probably won’t succeed in getting it off that hook, and so globally we won’t be able to keep on living as we do now indefinitely.
  • I think the best way of resolving all of the points above is by developing local polities with small farm ownership widely available to everyone.
  • I think that that resolution raises a host of virtually insurmountable problems. And so do all the other possibilities, only more so.

Left agrarian populism: a programme

I was aiming to take a January break from blogging, but various whisperings (and the odd shout) in my ear prompt me to put this one out into the ether right now. It’s a bit longer than my usual posts. But on the upside you won’t hear from me again for a couple of weeks after this.

What I mostly want to do on this site over the next few months is resume exploring the alternative world of my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But there’s a case for taking a step back, putting that exercise into a wider context, and laying out something of a programme for the year – especially in the light of some comments I’ve recently received. So that’s what I’m going to do here.

The first comment was from Vera, who took exception to the fears I expressed in my review of 2016, A Sheep’s Vigil, that we may be witnessing an emerging fascism. She also questioned my advocacy for agrarian populism:

“maybe he is not really interested in building an agrarian populist movement — maybe, he is only interested in building an agrarian faux-populist progressively-politically-correct movement. In which case I am out. Maybe it’s time he stopped pussyfooting around and made things clear.”

Well, I’m not sure I can clarify everything in a single post, but it seems worth trying to set out as best I can what I understand left agrarian populism to be and why I support it. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time if their politics lie wholly elsewhere…

Left Agrarian Populism: So then, three key terms – ‘left’, ‘agrarian’, and ‘populist’. The last is much the trickiest. For many commentators, ‘populism’ refers to little more than the unscrupulousness of those politicians who’ll say whatever they calculate will make them most popular with the electorate. We’ve had way too much of that recently, and frankly ‘populism’ has become such a toxic brand as a result that I’m half inclined to wash my hands of it. The reason I don’t is partly because there are historical and contemporary peasant movements I support which fly under the banner of populism, and partly because there’s an important aspect of populism which differentiates it from most other modern political traditions.

Let me expand that last point through some admittedly gross over-simplifications of three such other traditions. First liberalism, which believes that private markets, if allowed free rein, will deliver optimum benefits to humanity. Second conservatism, which believes in defending the established social order and fostering progress through the cultivation of individual character. Third socialism, which believes in organising human benefit on a collective, egalitarian basis through politically-guided planning. There are elements of all three traditions I’d subscribe to, but I can’t wholly identify with any of them. A feature they share is a rather totalising normative vision of what a society should be like and how individual people ought to fit into it, and a willingness to bend the world hard to fit that vision. Populism, by contrast, doesn’t really have a totalising normative vision in this way. It’s a politics ‘of the people’, and all it expects of people is that they’ll do their people-like things: be born, grow up, secure their livelihood, raise families, live in communities, die. That’s pretty much it. I prefer it to the stronger normativity of the other traditions.

But it only takes a moment to realise that things aren’t so simple when it comes to implementing a populist politics. Who are ‘the people’? They’re any number of individuals and groupings with endlessly jostling identifications, hostilities, aspirations and conflicts. ‘The people’ don’t exist as an undifferentiated mass any more than ‘the community’ does in your town. So you can be pretty sure that when a politician says they’re acting in the interests of ‘the people’, they’re really acting in the interests only of certain people, a group that probably includes themselves (and may well not include the group they claim to be acting for). You can be doubly sure of it if they say they’re acting in the interests of ‘ordinary people’, ‘real people’ or ‘the silent majority’.

I think this problem for populist politics is virtually insurmountable in highly monetised, consumerist societies characterized by wage-labour and riven by class, ethnic and national differences. Political movements do arise in these societies under populist banners which purport to represent the interests of ‘the people’, but to my mind their claims are invariably spurious, papering over class, ethnic or other interests. And that, I think, is pretty much where we’re now at in the UK and the USA, among other places.

An aside on ‘political correctness’, the ‘alt-right’ and class. Let me go with that last sentence for a moment before returning to my populist theme. I’ll recruit for the purpose some help from John Michael Greer’s latest blog post, albeit with some trepidation. Its mishmash of half-truths and flat untruths – in which we learn, for example, that the New Left forgot social class was important until a working-class champion by the name of Donald Trump came along and took up the cudgels on behalf of the oppressed, and in which Trump’s appointment of Goldman Sachs executives to his administration somehow becomes evidence not of his own hypocrisy but that of his critics – is truly a document for these post-truth times. In environmentalist circles Greer increasingly seems to resemble some weird kind of alter ego to Trump himself – no matter how superficial, ridiculous or outrageous his pronouncements, his fanbase only seems to grow. Still, there are a few nuggets in his piece that make a good foil for my analysis, so I’ll proceed.

Greer correctly notes that Trump garnered a lot of support from working class voters who felt disenfranchised by politics-as-usual. But he then imputes leftist horror at Trump’s election largely to class hatred from the middle classes against those who put him there. Even Greer can see some of the contortions involved in making such a bizarre argument stick. He tries to shore up the edifice, but what he fails to do – and what he’s consistently failed to do throughout his writings on the 2016 election – is to see that a politician who gains class support and a politician who acts in class interest aren’t necessarily the exact same thing.

The missing ingredient in Greer’s recipe is a concept of ideology – the insight that ideas about society are both systematically structured and selective, and that the relationships between things, words and actions are complex. It’s an insight that social scientists and political thinkers have developed in numerous ways in recent times but we now seem to be in danger of forgetting. Greer could certainly have done with remembering it when he wrote this:

“The Alt-Right scene that’s attracted so much belated attention from politicians and pundits over the last year is in large part a straightforward reaction to the identity politics of the left. Without too much inaccuracy, the Alt-Right can be seen as a network of young white men who’ve noticed that every other identity group in the country is being encouraged to band together to further its own interests at their expense, and responded by saying, “Okay, we can play that game too.””

I mention this because it’s relevant to the issue of ‘political correctness’ that Vera identified in my thinking. Although I deplore the censoriously ‘PC’ excesses of essentially insignificant bodies like student unions in their calls to “Check your privilege!” as much as the next man, or perhaps I should say as much as the next gendered subject, I think the concept of political correctness lacks any real political traction. It stems from the kind of right-wing mythology peddled here by Greer, which posits an equivalence between different ‘identity groups’, all supposedly competing on the level playing field of life. One of the few things I have first-hand experience of is what it’s like to be a straight, white, middle-class man – and I’d have to say that, from where I sit, alt-right politics based around that identity indeed looks to me a lot like ‘playing a game’. I’m not sure that’s always so true for people in other situations.

Somebody wrote this to me in relation to the Greer passage I cited above: “Women, Mexicans, Muslims, and LGBT folks such as myself have been working for many years to be treated fairly and respectfully, something that has been lacking in my lifetime.  None of us in these categories wish to treat “young white men” the way we have been treated.” Quite so. In contrast to Greer, I’d submit that the horror many people feel at Trump’s election arises not out of hatred, but out of fear.

There’s often a fine line between explaining a phenomenon and justifying it. To my mind, it’s a line that despite his occasional distantiating turn of phrase Greer has unquestionably now crossed – his political writing has become little more than an apologia for Trump and the alt-right. But that’s by the by. I want to take my discussion back towards agrarian populism via the issue of class with a final quotation from Greer:

“According to Marxist theory, socialist revolution is led by the radicalized intelligentsia, but it gets the muscle it needs to overthrow the capitalist system from the working classes. This is the rock on which wave after wave of Marxist activism has broken and gone streaming back out to sea, because the American working classes are serenely uninterested in taking up the world-historical role that Marxist theory assigns to them.”

There’s certainly some truth in that – and it’s why left populism appeals to me more than Marxism or socialism as such. Note, though, Greer’s slippage from ‘Marxist activism’ as an unqualified and therefore presumably global phenomenon, to its specific grounding in America (actually, the USA). The tendency to see the USA as a synecdoche for the whole world is a mistake often made by US citizens and by the country’s overseas admirers, but I imagine it’s one that will be less commonly made in the future (when the US president says “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” it does, after all, drop a big hint to the remaining 96% of the world’s population about how to order their own priorities). So, wrenching our gaze momentarily from the USA, perhaps we should ask if there are any countries where socialist revolution has been successful, at least in the short term. Well, it turns out that there are. Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba spring to mind – all countries with large peasant populations at the time of their revolutions.

The story of how Marxism co-opted peasant revolutions – populist revolutions – to its own purposes can’t detain us here. But I want to note that, in contrast to the inherently contradictory populisms of contemporary industrial-capitalist countries, populist politics has made some headway in societies where there are a large number of poor farmers and a small, wealthy elite. Here, populists have sometimes succeeded in clawing back some of the surplus produced by the farmers and appropriated by the elite, and more generally in validating the agrarian lifeways of the farmers as something important and worthy of respect. And I further want to note that, in these countries, there’s been a basis for populism in social class.

Back to populism: So I’d argue that populist politics remains relevant in the many parts of the world where peasantries still exist in significant numbers. I think it may also be relevant in ‘post-peasant’ parts of the world such as Britain, where I live, inasmuch as various looming crises in global consumer capitalism may propel us towards more local, land-based and low energy forms of living. That, in a nutshell, is the ‘agrarian’ part of the populism I espouse. A nice thing about it is the promise it holds out that this local, land-based, low-energy style of life can be a rewarding way to live, even if we have no choice about living it, rather than being a disastrous reversal in the progressive unfolding of industrial modernity.

But it can only be rewarding if everybody has a decent chance to live it. The agrarian populism I espouse is therefore a left populism, for two main reasons. First, even assuming a fair initial distribution of land and resources, through bad luck or bad choices some people inevitably end up less well endowed with the capacity to provide for their wellbeing than others. If these differential endowments are inherited down the generations, then the evidence is pretty clear that before long we’re back with a downtrodden mass peasantry and a small, wealthy elite – which is to nobody’s long-term benefit, including the elite. So a redistributive element is necessary that prevents the accumulation and defence of unearned inter-generational advantage – we can argue about the extent and form of the redistribution, but I don’t see good arguments against the fundamental need for it. Presumably that would be something on which for once John Michael Greer and I would agree.

The second reason is that while there’s something to commend the conservative trope of stand-on-your-own-two-feet-and-don’t-expect-the-world-to-owe-you-a-favour, all of us ultimately depend on numerous other people. We’re not the sole authors of our fates, and we all screw up in ways small and sometimes large in the course of our lives. So I favour an approach to others based wherever possible (though it’s not always possible) on empathy and generosity of spirit rather than censoriousness or status competition.

And that in barest outline is how I’d characterise left agrarian populism. There’ve been places in the past where something like it has prospered for a while, and I suspect the same will be true in the future. I think a lot of human suffering could be avoided if it were to be a norm rather than an exception. But I’m not too optimistic. What seems to me more likely as resource crises bite and the global capitalist economy hits the buffers is a slamming of shutters, a beggar-my-neighbour race for resources and an authoritarian policing of the body politic which seeks to root out any dissent from various nationalist senses of manifest destiny (“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” etc.)

An aside on fascism. In view of various comments I’ve received, including Vera’s, I’d like to clarify my use of the term ‘fascist’ to describe my fears about that kind of future. It’s a word that, I acknowledge, comes with a lot of baggage. And history never repeats itself exactly, so there’s always a debate to be had about the relevance of past events to the future. On the other hand, history contains some useful warnings if we care to heed them. In invoking ‘fascism’, I don’t mean it as a generic term of abuse but as a reference to a fairly specific type of politics: the creation of an authoritarian corporate state grounded in an essentially mythical conception of a unified and exclusive ‘people’, in which various independent bodies that can hold the state to account such as parliaments, judiciaries and media are repressed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the EU, a good deal of the political discourse around Brexit in the UK has been leading in that direction. The lesson I draw from the 1920s and 1930s is that people didn’t take the threat of fascism seriously enough soon enough to prevent the first stirrings of nativism and discrimination – and indeed the kind of alt-right normalisation that Greer is peddling – from later turning into all-out war and genocide. There’s little I can do individually to stop the re-emergence of fascism if that’s the way the world is going, but I can promise to challenge it when I see it.

So when the Daily Mail calls judges ‘enemies of the people’ for deciding that parliament has to debate the Brexit referendum vote (in which, let us remember, 37% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and 35% voted to remain), the word for it is fascism. But my main point isn’t that we’re currently under the thumb of the fascists – it’s that I can’t really see many plausible future scenarios in which President Trump or Britain’s Brexiteers will be able to deliver what many of their supporters thought they were voting for. And those conditions will be ripe for fascism – though I acknowledge that we may get away with mere xenophobic right-wing authoritarianism. I pray that I won’t ever think the latter is the best outcome I can hope for. So let me be clear – I’m not using the word ‘fascist’ out of contempt for people I simply disagree with. I’m using it out of fear for what the future holds, and out of determination to work for something better.

Left agrarian populism, again: That ‘something better’ is left agrarian populism. But perhaps I’ve caught myself in a contradiction here. I emphasised above the actual rather than the normative basis of populist politics. Given that nothing remotely approximating left agrarian populism currently animates western politics except at its furthest fringes, a programme for realising it involves advocating for it normatively as an ‘ought’, a political ideal around which the world needs remodelling. So in that sense perhaps agrarian populism is no less normative or totalising than, say, liberalism. I can think of various ways to try to get myself off that hook – by arguing, for example, that our modern ideologies of progress have warped our thinking away from the honest actuality of making a living from the land, or by arguing that whether we like it or not the gathering crisis of global consumer capitalism is going to deliver us (if we’re lucky) into a world of local self-reliance, to which an agrarian populist politics is best fitted. There’s some mileage in such arguments, but ultimately they’re a bit lame. So maybe I have to argue that when all is said and done left agrarian populism is just a normative political ideology like any other – one that I happen to think answers the puzzles of contemporary human existence better than others, partly indeed because it doesn’t opine normatively too much on how people ought to live other than by saying, well, they do have to live, they have to do that by farming, and their farming should try to screw other people and the rest of the planet as little as possible.

In that sense perhaps my populism is rather impure, drawing on aspects of liberalism, conservatism and socialism. So maybe Vera is right that the populism I espouse is a ‘faux populism’ – though, if she is, then I’d venture to say that all populisms are ‘faux populisms’, since I don’t think there can be any singular, historically fixed or ideologically neutral conception of ‘the people’, still less ‘the people’s will’. All populisms reference other political ideologies. When I wrote about this previously, Tom Smith questioned the extent to which my position was different from socialism. I think it is different in the way it understands the relationship between peasants or farmers, states and historical change. But maybe not all that different – it is a left populism, after all. Suffice to say that it probably has more common ground with socialism than with forms of right-wing populism that consider the concept of ‘political correctness’ to be useful. But I’d hope that at least it lacks the disdain of Marxists and certain other flavours of socialism for peasants and the petit bourgeoisie. In fact, that’s exactly where I see the best hope for a left agrarian populism – as a class movement. The fact that, as I’ve mentioned, there’s virtually no extant peasant or petty proprietor class in western countries is therefore a bit of an inconvenience for my politics. I do have some cards up my sleeve on that front that I’ll lay out in later posts. Though I confess they don’t make for the greatest of hands.

Whatever anyone might think of the case for a left agrarian populism, it certainly won’t get far if it can’t furnish people with their basic needs. So the aim of the vast number-crunching exercise I’ve been undertaking over the past few months in relation to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex has been to check for myself, if for no one else, whether it can. It often surprises me that such exercises aren’t more commonly undertaken by government agencies with the funding to do them properly and the remit to secure the wellbeing of their populace. On that note, I was struck by the reasons Michael gave in a comment under my last post for why such exercises aren’t more routinely undertaken – “too divisive, nationalistic, fear-mongering”. I was also struck by the following passage in Georges Duby’s classic history of the medieval European economy,

“Wherever economic planning existed, it was seen in the context of needs to be satisfied. What was expected of manorial production was that it should be equal to foreseeable demand…It was not a question of maximizing output from the land, but rather of maintaining it at such a level that it could respond to any request at a moment’s notice”1

In that sense my mindset is medieval. The question that interests me is the same one, at whatever scale – can we produce what we need in the next period to see the people through? The modern mindset asks a different question – how can we produce the highest profit from these inputs? In modern society, the bridge between that question and the first one is usually provided, if it’s sought at all, by some kind of ‘implicit virtue’ notion in the tradition belonging to Mandeville’s fable of the bees, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, and Milton Friedman’s ‘capitalism and freedom’. What’s becoming increasingly clear – as other thinkers have long been warning – is that there is no invisible hand, or if there is its designs are forever being thwarted by an invisible foot which, just as the hand works yet another miracle, simply can’t help treading in the next bit of shit up the road.

So my programme for the year, aside from a few digressions and diversions, is to go on asking the question – can we produce enough to see the people through? And once I’ve addressed that as best I can I’ll continue by asking how we might organise ourselves socially and politically to help us do so. That’ll take me deep into the history and the politics of agricultural production and agrarian populism, wherein I hope I might be able to find some more productive ways out of the crises facing us than the dispiriting contemporary populisms of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and their fellow travellers. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll be travelling in fellowship with me. But if not, I hope you get the politics you want from the other paths you tread – so long as it doesn’t involve selfishly trampling over other people. Ach, me and my danged outmoded liberalism…

Notes

  1. Duby, G. 1974. The Early Growth Of The European Economy, Cornell Univ Press, p.92.

A sheep’s vigil

I said I’d swear off blogging for a month, but I thought I’d just drop by to note the appearance on the Dark Mountain Blog of my review of 2016, called ‘A sheep’s vigil’. And, since I’m here, I might as well sketch a little bit of extra context for that piece.

A view I’ve long charted on this site is that people’s health and wellbeing will ultimately best be served by an economy strongly grounded in the productive capacities of their local landscapes. My feeling is that the seismic political events of 2016 – Brexit, Trump etc – have taken us still further from that already remote possibility, and the notion that they represent a move towards anti-elitist localism is illusory. Therefore the overall mood of my analysis is pessimistic. On the other hand, had the gods ordained that 2016 should be the year of Bremain and Clinton, we would scarcely be much closer to my aspirations. So perhaps it could be argued that when the false dawn of 2016 becomes more widely apparent, it’ll turn out at least that these events were staging posts to a more genuine egalitarian localism. Trouble is, from where I stand, I can’t really see it – what comes to my mind instead is a Tom Waits line: “They say if you get far enough away you’ll be on your way back home. Well I’m at the station, and I can’t get on the train”.

So my piece mostly tries to chart what I see as a greater likelihood and a greater danger, that after Theresa May’s Brexit conservative government and Donald Trump’s presidency fail to deliver their undeliverable promises we’ll get something much worse. I got some stick on this site for talking about fascism in the context of the politics of 2016, and I’d concede that leftists do have the bad habit of yelling ‘Fascism!’ as a kind of reflex whenever they encounter resurgent right-wing politics. Still, the whole tenor of political discourse in the UK at the moment (perhaps it’s best if I avoid opining on the US situation, which I’m more remote from) is more proto-fascist than anything I’ve yet seen in British politics during my lifetime, with all its talk of ‘enemies of the people’, the revolt against ‘liberal’ elites, the scapegoating and the ressentiment. To compound it all, as I’ve charted on this blog, various voices among radical greens are, at best, content just to rub their hands at the gory spectacle of it all and, at worst, are cheerleading the slide towards nativism and state corporatism. Shame on them.

But, hey, it’s a new year, and if I can’t find a few rays of sunshine to penetrate the gloom in the salad days of January then I’ll be surpassing even my own championship levels of lugubriousness. So here’s a few positive thoughts, based largely on the books I read during the recent holiday:

Transcendence

I belatedly got around to reading Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s book about Christopher McCandless, who gave all his money to Oxfam, and wandered the western USA before unfortunately dying in Alaska as he sought truth in the immediate and the wild. Most cultures historically have found a place for world-renouncing transcendence and have valued people who seek it. Ours regrettably does not, but there’s no lack of people nowadays who nonetheless feel its pull. The McCandless story has influenced many people – some of whom try to repeat his exact trip and end up needing rescuing from the Teklanika River, or worse. So what’s the moral here? That people find some dumbass ways to get themselves into trouble? Well for sure but I’m looking for positives, remember? So I’d say it’s this: much as our society likes to peddle the myth that everyone wants to be rich and famous, it’s not actually true. But most people are quite suggestible and tend to tread the paths (literal or figurative) where others have gone before. So maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to divert a lot of them to a worthwhile path of transcendence. And the choice we face isn’t between either a six-figure salary in Manhattan or hunting for food in Alaska and dying a lonely death. You could try gardening, for starters.

The over-industrious revolution

I also finally got around to reading Jan de Vries’ article ‘The industrial revolution and the industrious revolution’ – one of the seminal contributions to the ‘industrious revolution’ debate that I’ll be discussing in later posts, and full of implications for sustainable agricultures and societies of the future. One of de Vries’ points is that the industrial revolution of Victorian England didn’t just come down from on high as a result of fossil energy capture and was then promulgated around the world to a grateful populace (which is kind of the ecomodernist version of history). Rather it arose substantially through a series of marginal decisions made by ordinary people living in pre-industrial households about how best to spend their time, with results that they could have scarcely imagined. And the moral of this story for me is the following answer to those who say that the rise of capitalism and its huge amplification in the quantity of material things was bound to happen, and is what everybody wants: no it wasn’t and no they don’t. A short answer, I’ll admit, but one I propose to expand on in due course. The positive message I draw from de Vries is that major historical change can happen from the bottom up without a coordinated political plan. So it’s conceivable that people will come to think that the revolution we’ve had these past two centuries has been a tad over-industrious, and will start finding some other ways of organising their time than wage labour to fund the industrial production of commodities.

Collapse in slo-mo

Next on my reading list was End Game: Tipping Point For Planet Earth? by palaeo-ecologists Anthony Barnosky and Elizabeth Hadly. I’d recommend it as light holiday reading. No seriously. Maybe I just don’t get out enough. Anyway, despite its lack of depth I thought there was a lot of good stuff in the book, and the palaeo-ecological angle comparing present circumstances to past climate change and extinction events was particularly interesting – a useful corrective to the aforementioned ecomodernists’ favourite ecology book, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden.

I didn’t always agree with Barnosky and Hadly, and I was particularly irked by their failure to consider low tech and small-scale rather than hi tech and large-scale approaches to agriculture. Still, in chapter after chapter on population, resources, food, water, pollution, disease and war they lay down a set of sombre markers for the enormity of the challenge facing humanity. The positive message? Oh damn, I’d forgotten about that. Well not, I think, the falsely upbeat final chapter in which the authors get way too excited by the fact that California governor Jerry Brown is interested in their analysis, much as I empathise with the Stockholm syndrome that many of us exhibit when IMPORTANT PEOPLE occasionally choose to listen to us. It’s more about the nature and speed of the impending collapse that Barnosky and Hadly delineate – something that we’ve been batting around a bit in the comments section of some of my recent blog posts. Their analysis leads me to think that there will almost inevitably be blood, war, hunger, and immense human suffering in the years ahead – just as there have been for many in the years behind – but what there probably won’t be, even in some pretty bad ecological scenarios, is an immediate and total collapse of global civilisation. So that’s a comfort, huh?

People are people: I spent new year’s eve at a youth hostel in southern Portugal (it’s a long story), among a mixed crowd of English, Spanish, Portuguese, Australian and Germans, among others. A Lithuanian accordionist played the guitar, and sang cheerful American songs in English, English songs in Lithuanian, and Lithuanian songs in Spanish, I think. The Europeans made fun of the English for trying to pretend that we weren’t really European, and a fine old time was had by all. It made me think that for all the bitter political rhetoric and social media trolling, when people from different countries actually meet and talk to each other they’re often able to find ways to get along.

China sleeps: on new year’s day I came down with a bad cold. The shops were shut and I couldn’t get any Nurofen. Lying groggily in bed I realised to my horror that the only unread book in my possession was one primarily concerned with tax policy in early modern China. Cursing my intellectual pretentiousness – why hadn’t I brought a crime novel like a normal person? – but with few other options, I proceeded to learn more than could be reasonably expected of a man on his sickbed about the long-term machinations of the middle kingdom. A day or two later I saw the news of Donald Trump’s latest online China-baiting. And armed with my newfound knowledge, I took comfort from the fact that while Chinese regimes through history have certainly done their fair share of bullying and strong-arm stuff, they haven’t as a rule tended to go in for quixotic acts of military adventurism overseas or to lash out in revenge for slights – in contrast to, well, just as a wild example, let’s say, hmm, the USA. So that, I think, is another bit of good news as we contemplate the four years ahead.

Rationality: in other news, the former chief economist of the Bank of England has apologised for the bank’s overly pessimistic forecasts concerning Britain’s post-Brexit economic performance. Andrew Haldane said that the bank’s models were based on the assumption that people behaved rationally, but this turned out not to be the case. And the good news here is that Britain’s economy has emerged strong and triumphant in spite of all the doom-mongering over Brexit? No. We haven’t even left the EU yet – it’s far too early to tell. The good news is that senior economists are finally admitting that their models aren’t based on how people actually behave – something that thinkers from other disciplines (like him, and him, and even him) have been telling them for years. Even so, there’s something slightly pejorative about Haldane’s language of rationality and irrationality – maybe the real irrationality here relates to a discipline so fond of building behavioural models that aren’t based on how people actually behave. But perhaps I have to tread carefully here, since – to bring this post full circle – my critique of fascism is based largely on the fact that it’s irrational. I guess what I’d say is that politics is always unavoidably a matter of beliefs and values, and the belief that politics should be based on reason is at least as defensible as any other. That indeed was a key point of my Dark Mountain piece – that a liberal public sphere now has to be defended as a value. Economics, on the other hand, generally purports to be a value-neutral discipline that understands how humans behave. Clearly, however, it doesn’t. And the fact that the news is now out is…good.

Right, well that really is it. Happy new year. See you in February.

A farewell to the year

And so I come to my final blog post of 2016, and what a year it’s been. I’ve been asked by Dark Mountain to write a retrospective of it, which I hope will be up on their website soon. I’ll be offering some thoughts on the larger events of the world in that post, so here I’m mostly just going to offer a few nuggets focused on my specific theme of small-scale farming, and its future.

But first I thought perhaps I should take a leaf out of John Michael Greer’s book and make some predictions for 2017. I got a certain amount of stick on this site earlier in the year for the dim view I took of Donald Trump’s politics, and of Greer’s (deniable) enthusiasm for them. I was told that Trump’s speaking up for the working class, his focus on domestic politics rather than global power politics, and his anti-corporate/neoliberal agenda promised fresh departures. I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m even less convinced now that the president-elect has stuffed his team with Goldman Sachs bankers and assorted billionaires and foreign policy eccentrics, while baiting China and the Arab world.

So my prediction for December 2017: Trump’s presidency will have had a minimal to negative effect on improving the lot of the US working class, a negative effect on international relations and tensions, and a positive effect on the entrenchment of corporate power. Something to reflect on in a year’s time… The history of global power politics suggests that the rise of one power and the slow decline of another, while scarcely going unnoticed, often reaches a flashpoint where the starkness of the reversed fortunes is suddenly revealed, as if unheralded – the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War spring to mind in the case of European history. I predict a future flashpoint in which the supremacy of China over the US is revealed, though probably not in 2017 unless Trump really surpasses himself. I hope he doesn’t – I’d prefer it to happen under a steadier pair of hands in the White House.

Anyway, let’s talk about farming. Back in October I went to the small-scale farming skill share day organised by my Land Workers’ Alliance friend Rebecca Laughton, in association with her interesting research project on the productivity of small farms in the UK. My train was delayed and I turned up late to the event, walking in to the middle of a session on small-scale grain growing just as an audience member asked the session leader what variety of wheat he grew. “Maris Widgeon,” he replied, to audible intakes of breath through the pursed lips of the assembled participants.

I sometimes think that in Britain, more than in most countries of the world, the cause of small-scale farming is, alas, a lost one. So I somehow found it cheering that there are still people around in this country capable of tight-lipped disapproval at the thought of someone growing a variety of wheat that most other people have never heard of.

That event was held at Monkton Wyld, where the inestimable Simon Fairlie and Gill Barron keep a small herd of Jerseys, sell scythes, and run The Land magazine, which celebrated its twentieth issue this year – a small ray of sanity in a crazy world. It was great to have a look around Simon and Gill’s operation, including its traditional small milking yard. As Simon pointed out, there used to be thousands of these around the country. Most are now gone, but as the margins for milk production narrow and the inputs of robotic mega confinement dairies broaden, there are some glimmerings of a return to low input micro-dairying of the kind that Simon and Gill practice. Another reason to be cheerful.

Simon is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance – still probably the best single-volume examination that I’ve read of what a small farm future might entail. And talking of meat, alternative farm guru Joel Salatin has recently been taking on all comers in defending the cause of ‘sustainable meat’ – notably against a New York Times op-ed by James McWilliams called ‘The myth of sustainable meat’, and in a debate here in the UK with, among others, Tara Garnett, head honcho of the Food Climate Research Network.

Salatin makes a lot of good points, and generally gets the better of McWilliams in his response to the NYT article, which recycles the usual weary old shibboleths about the superior ecological credentials of intensive confined meat operations. But on one point I find Salatin evasive. Critiquing McWilliams’ figures for the amount of land needed to finish an animal on grass, Salatin writes that these figures “are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures….Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production.” What he doesn’t say is how many acres an animal needs with these exponentially augmenting space-age methods, and how many acres you’d need to produce the same level of nutrition from exponentially-augmenting space-age technology applied to food crops grown directly for human consumption rather than to forage crops. Because the fact is, there’s a cast iron ecological law of trophic levels which shows you can’t produce as much meat from a given area as you can of vegetable matter.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for livestock on the farm, or that there isn’t a case for scaling up ‘sustainable meat’ – issues that Simon Fairlie looks at in some detail in his book, and that I’ve been looking at in my blog cycle on sustainable farming in the UK. But let’s be honest – except in highly marginal environments, you’re never going to produce human food via the intermediary of livestock with the same land-use efficiency as directly edible crops. Tara Garnett is undoubtedly right that levels of US or UK meat consumption aren’t globally sustainable, however the animals are raised. And in any case, ruminants are a sideshow in global meat production – the real issue is pork and chicken, which compete more directly with humans for cropland.

Western levels of meat consumption may not be globally sustainable, but they could still be locally sustainable. I’ve spent a lot of time this year crunching numbers on a projected future ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ here in southwest England where I live, with a view to comparing it to the imperium of London in the southeast. On the grassy expanses of Wessex I’ve found a role for animals in feeding the populace. But I’m not sure those assumptions will play out so well in the case of Londinium, which I’ll be coming to. My aim has also been to discuss the politics and sociology of a shift to contemporary neo-peasant societies in ‘developed’ western countries. I’ve made much less progress on this than I’d hoped to by now, but hey I’ve got a farm to run as well. And there’s always next year – I hope.

On the upside, my neo-peasant exercise seems to have prompted some wider interest. This has been the year when Small Farm Future went…well, not exactly viral, and maybe not even bacterial, but certainly amoebal, with over 1,100 comments on my posts here at Small Farm Future alone in the course of the year. Some of them weren’t even written by me. So thank you very much to everyone who’s commented, and apologies if pressure of time has sometimes meant that I haven’t been able to reply as fully as you might have liked. I’ve learned a lot from the comments I’ve received, and getting feedback is certainly an encouragement to continue blogging.

Indeed, Small Farm Future was even mentioned in dispatches by an academic study called ‘Is there a future for the small family farm?’, funded by the Princes Trust and with a foreword written by lord somebody of somewhere-or-other, so here at SFF we now have true blue aristocratic pedigree. Admittedly, the mention we got was somewhat backhanded:

Others lament the decline of the small farm in a global context. Chris Smaje, who runs a website called Small Farm Future, writes:  

“From the brief high-water mark of pro-peasant populism in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the possibility of founding self-reliant national prosperities upon independent small proprietors has slowly been eroded through land grabs, global trade agreements and agrarian policies favouring capital intensive staple commodity production over local self-provision, regardless of the consequences for small-scale farmers.” (Smaje, 2015) 

The close association between advocacy of small-scale farming and advocacy of radical organic alternatives to conventional agricultural systems (see Smaje, 2014; Tudge, 2007) often serves, in fact, to keep the size issue on the margins of mainstream debate. This is unfortunate in our view as there is real scope for positive interaction between alternative visions for agriculture and the concern at the challenges facing more conventional mainstream family farms.

Ah well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But I’m not sure it’s lonely voices in the wilderness like mine that are keeping the issue of farm size to the margins of mainstream debate, and I can’t really see how a serious case for small-scale farming as anything other than a minor complement to high input, specialised, large-scale agriculture can be made in the absence of advocating for radical (if not necessarily organic) alternatives to conventional agricultural systems. The report is certainly interesting in its analysis of the role of small-scale farming within the lifecycle of the mainstream farm economy, and in bringing a little (though only a little) data to bear on this under-examined sector. But ultimately I’d have to say that, no, there isn’t a future for the small family farm in the UK unless somebody shouts out for it politically long and loud. What a lucky break for the world it is that Small Farm Future is here to do some shouting for it…

…but not for a month or so. All this blogging of late has left me behind on my farm chores and other writing tasks. So while some opt for alcohol-free Januaries, I’m going for a blog-free one in order to catch up in some other areas of my life. And so…thanks for reading, all the best for 2017 – and I hope to see you again on the comments page sometime around February. Ciao!

Feeding Wessex without fossil fuels

The last time we were in Wessex, I showed that its denizens circa 2039 could probably feed themselves quite comfortably using organic farming methods with 20% of the population concentrating largely on neo-peasant subsistence farming using 40% of existing lowland farmland, and the remaining 80% of the population fed by larger-scale, more cereal staple oriented farming from the remaining 60% of the farmland, plus a bit of upland grazing.

However, as it stands that scenario does depend on a fossil energy-intensive ‘business as usual’ approach on the large-scale farms. It seems worth pondering an alternative, zero fossil energy scenario. Here we begin to exceed even my own generous comfort zone for idle speculation about the future – if there’s no fossil fuel use in Wessex farming in 2039 (or beyond), what might be the social and economic correlates? Probably not one with 80% of the population still happily residing in towns and working as video game programmers, conservatory salesmen or whatever.

Still, I don’t propose to worry about that too much in this post. For now, let’s just consider the farming side of it, and see if we can find another way to power the food production for 80% of Wessex’s population.

That immediately plunges us into a speculative debate about the shape of the future energy mix which could go on until…well, 2039. So here I’m going to curtail it brutally by making the following doubtless highly debatable assumptions. I’m going to assume that there won’t be enough renewably generated electricity to power electric, fuel cell or electro-synthesised hydrocarbon tractors. I’m going to assume that none of the magic, much-touted next-generation or generation-after sources of limitless clean power such as thorium or nuclear fusion have come through. And I’m going to assume that wood methanol isn’t a viable source of agricultural energy, as a couple of people have suggested to me that it might be. The way I read the runes on that one is as follows:

You get about 27 litres of methanol from a tonne of wood, and you get about 3 tonnes of wood from a hectare of managed woodland, so you get about 80l of methanol from a hectare of woodland. Methanol has about half the energy density of diesel. You need about 100l of diesel (so 200l of methanol) to farm a hectare of arable land each year. I’ll assume you need about a quarter of that to farm a hectare of permanent grass, minimally, about as much again to manage the rest of the production and transport economy around food. That works out at about 1.2 million hectares of managed woodland to service 1.8 million hectares of farmland, which would exceed the land area of Wessex by nearly a third (while also neglecting the energy needs of the woodland management). Methanol can be made from other carbon-rich waste, but it seems to me a stretch to think it could be a major agricultural energy source unless anyone can provide some radically more promising figures.

Another suggestion I received was to put aside my West Country obsession with cows and make methane instead of milk from the grass via anaerobic digestion. Now, I’ve always regarded these straight-to-methane schemes as a dastardly vegan plot to deny me the froth I so badly need on my morning cappuccino, but after crunching a few numbers I’ve got to admit that the plan has something to commend it. In fact, the numbers seem to stack up so spectacularly well that I feel I must have made a terrible error somewhere, so let me run through my arithmetic in some detail with the hope that someone can either corroborate it or else point out the error of my ways.

Let’s start by calculating how much energy we need to run our Wessex food system. I’m going to assume that we need 100 litres of diesel per hectare on the farm for arable operations, and 25 litres for grassland management. Then to fuel the entire food economy from farm to fork, I’m going to assume we need another 200 litres of diesel equivalent per hectare (for both arable and grassland) – an assumption loosely based on the emissions scenarios in Tara Garnett’s Cooking Up A Storm. Diesel has an energy content of 38.6 MJl-1. So if we take our 166,000 ha of cropped arable at 300 l/ha diesel and our 795,000 ha of permanent grassland and arable ley at 225 l/ha and multiply that sum by 38.6 MJ we get a total energy requirement of about 8.8 billion MJ (or 8.8 PJ if you prefer).

On the supply side I’m assuming 20 tonnes of fresh silage per hectare1 (or 5.5 tonnes dry matter), grown organically (average conventional yields are more than double that), and 160m3 of biogas per tonne of silage2, with an energy content of about 22 MJ/m3 – so that works out at about 68,000 MJ/ha. If we take a quarter of our permanent pasture – some 223,000 ha – and set it aside for silage as biogas feedstock, that’ll give us 15.1 PJ of energy, which is nearly double our energy requirement. As I understand it, methane-powered tractors are already a reality at engine efficiencies similar or above those of conventional diesel, and though the biogas coming out of the digester needs a bit of refining, the process efficiency is quite high. Embodied energy of plant construction seems to turn out at around 10% of total energy output3, so the overall energy costs seem manageable.

Obviously we need to re-run our food productivity figures in the light of taking out a quarter of the permanent pasture (hopefully rotating cows over it and returning some or all of the digestate to it will keep the silage production sustainable). But since this part of the farm system otherwise produces relatively low-output grass-fed cows, the overall loss of productivity may not be too severe. And so it proves – removing 25% of the permanent pasture for biogas drops the supply/demand ratio for food energy from 1.07 to 0.99, with all the other nutritional ratios remaining >1. An energy ratio of 0.99 is doubtless a bit too close for comfort, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an extra bit of productivity. The lazy way would be to plough some more permanent pasture for wheat – about 22,000 ha or 3% of the total permanent pasture diverted to wheat would restore food energy productivity to the 7% surfeit we were experiencing with fossil diesel (call it 6% to make provision for a ley). But there would be other more elegant, if more labour intensive, ways of doing it. And remember that I’m making a lot of conservative assumptions about yields.

Originally I’d been thinking in terms of biodiesel from oilseed rape as the way we’d have to go in a fossil-fuel free Wessex. That method produces almost, but not quite, as much fuel energy per hectare as biogas from organic silage, but only by devoting a big chunk of precious cropland to the oil crop. And the rape would have to be grown conventionally, using synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, with additional energetic and environmental implications. An advantage of rape is that the meal or press cake from the oil extraction process yields a high energy livestock feed, which partially compensates for the loss of cropland. But rape just doesn’t seem to me to stack up as well as biogas – particularly since it looks like I can keep enough cows to get my cappuccino in the morning and still have fuel to start up the tractor. Another advantage of anaerobic digestion and biodiesel over the photovoltaics we were discussing in my last post is that the basic engineering technologies in both cases seem simpler, which perhaps gives them a better chance of making it through the climacteric as per the previous discussion.

Well, there you have it. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not trying to suggest in this exercise that it would a simple or even a likely thing for a future Wessex to feed itself, especially if it were as energy-constrained as the one I’ve been discussing here. I don’t want to come over all ecomodernist (not that ecomodernists have much time for such down home energy technologies as anaerobic digestion). But my proposition for discussion is that it may be a possible thing.

Notes

  1. See, for example, the Organic Farm Management Handbook, or this.
  1. http://www.biogas-info.co.uk/about/feedstocks/
  1. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/22984/1/UnivBath_PhD_2010_W_Mezzullo.pdf

Waiting for the climacteric: or, the return of the greentard

I left the issue of the agricultural energy supply for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex hanging at the end of my last post. So, in keeping with the infuriating elliptical style favoured on this blog, I propose not to address it in this one. Instead, I want to broach some wider energy-related issues with the help of two acquaintances of this site, before narrowing the scope to agricultural energy in a future post.

The first acquaintance is, sadly, dead, yet so ebullient that his thought is setting tongues a-wagging in environmental circles even now. I refer to the late David Fleming, whose book Lean Logic has recently been published thanks to the excellent editorship of Shaun Chamberlin, and is garnering all sorts of critical plaudits1. There’s a lot of finely crafted stuff in the book, though I must admit that I’m not quite as wowed by Fleming’s thought as many others are. I have a review of the book coming out in the new year so I won’t dwell on all that now. Instead, I just want to mention Fleming’s approach to the concept of the climacteric.

Fleming defines a climacteric as “a stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health or fortune” and goes on to predict an imminent global climacteric in the years between 2010 (the year he died) and 2040, comprising “deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change, a shrinking land area as the seas rise, and heat, drought and storm affecting the land that remains. There is also the prospect of acidic oceans which neither provide food nor remove carbon; ecologies degraded by introduced plants and animals; the failure of keystone species such as bees and plankton; and the depletion of minerals”2.

Phew, well that’s quite a list – though nothing that most of us haven’t heard before, and endlessly debated across the whole spectrum of doom-mongering and boom-mongering. What interests me about it for present purposes is the rather quietist inferences Fleming draws from the concept of the climacteric towards contemporary socio-economic activism. “There is no case for dismantling the market,” he writes, “that will be done for us, all too soon”3. And again, “The task….is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us”4.

Is this way of thinking the declinist mirror to those great 20th century progressive narratives of capitalism and communism which believed in unstoppable, positive climacterics delivered by human agency – whether through free markets or proletarian revolutions – which would inevitably deliver human betterment? If so, I suspect it may prove equally problematic. For one thing, it relies on a finely balanced quantum of crisis: too little, and the status quo ante is soon restored in elite interests until we lurch into the next crisis; too much, and all bets are off as to how humanity fares, or if it even survives as a species. For another thing, how will this balance be achieved? The work that Fleming says will be done for us seems to involve no human mechanisms, no politics, no history, by which humans might act upon the climacteric. This gives the concept a rather religious, millenarian feel – of attending to the end days, when human betterment may come. Through the ages a lot of prophets have thus gathered a flock and instructed them to await a new dawn. They haven’t always been wrong. But they usually have been, and personally I’m not much inclined to throw in my lot with them.

So suppose – just suppose – that humanity found, right now, a source of clean energy of an appropriate magnitude, which enabled us to avert at this eleventh hour the worst consequences of climate change, and to continue on the merry way of our present high energy, growth-oriented global economy. In such circumstances, the sting would be drawn from many features of Fleming’s climacteric. Would it then be a case of ‘job done’ for green politics, another end of history in which humanity could at last settle down and enjoy the fruits of a green capitalism for all? I don’t think so. I think the underlying problems of the capitalist growth model would remain – the deep and intrinsic inequality, the environmental degradations that continued to leak from our actions, the spiritual vacuity. Which is not to say that finding an abundant source of clean energy right now would necessarily be a bad thing.

There are those, of course, who are confident that the search is already over. And that brings us to our second familiar personage. I have to admit that since my jousting with him in the early days of this website, I haven’t been keeping up lately with the-world-according-to-Graham-Strouts. ‘Greentard’ (= ‘green retard’, I think) was one of the kinder, and funnier, insults he tossed my way as I learned, too slowly, that slipstreaming in someone else’s personal furies is bad for the soul. But I have to admit that I did take a peek at one of his recent blog posts, in which he invokes the authority of David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air – another book by a recently deceased author treated to a wide adulation that I can’t fully share. Strouts, like all good ecomodernists, considers the answer to the energy problem to be nuclear power, dismissing renewables as a ‘delusion’. To underscore the futility of renewable energy vis-à-vis nuclear, Strouts cites a table from MacKay’s book indicating the low power per unit land/water area of various renewable energy technologies by comparison with fossil or nuclear energy in the UK. And he includes a strapline quotation from MacKay “I’m not pro-nuclear, just pro-arithmetic”.

Let me digress briefly at this point to explain my misgivings about MacKay’s book. On pp.17-18, MacKay makes two important statements about the approach he takes in it: first, that it’s about physical limits to sustainable energy, not current economic feasibility; and second, that there’s a difference between ‘factual assertions’ and ‘ethical assertions’ and that his book is about facts, not ethics. On the first point, I’d assert (factually? ethically?) that a book which looks only at physical and not economic limits, while no doubt informative, is at best of limited use in making policy decisions about a society’s energy options. Thus, the table on power per unit area that Strouts reproduces conveys absolutely no useful information in itself about energy choices. And on the second point – well, the fact/value distinction can be useful, but it tends to be rather overplayed by ecomodernists and other technophiles lacking a sense that the way people live is always and inevitably cultural and ideological. Before we ask factual questions about energy options we need to ask another factual question, to which there can be no merely factual answer: how much energy is enough?

A further problem arises with MacKay’s fact/value distinction. The number of facts that are potentially relevant to a given issue is almost unlimited, so as MacKay sat down to write his tome he inevitably had to choose which facts he was going to assert and which ones he wasn’t. What was the basis on which he did that? A ‘factual’ one? I don’t think so. In his chapter on nuclear power, for example, he states that “nuclear power’s price is dominated by the cost of power-station construction and decommissioning”5, but he provides virtually no information on what these costs are which might help the reader decide on the viability of nuclear energy. He goes on to describe the amount of high-level nuclear waste in the UK in terms of the number of Olympic swimming pools it occupies (a fact). He continues, “the volumes are so small, I feel nuclear waste is only a minor worry”6 (not a fact). And then we have the “I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic” line – which is also very far from anything resembling a factual assertion. The problem I have here is that when a distinguished scientist sets out their stall by saying that they’ll be dealing in factual, not ethical, assertions, it’s easy to get swept up in this rhetorical trick and be led to believe that ‘the science’ tells us to adopt a particular course of action which the presentation of the data leads us to. But the fact is, it’s impossible to avoid ethical assertions. Much as the ecomodernists with their religious faith in scientism wish to believe otherwise, ‘the science’ never tells us to do anything.

Still, I’m not necessarily against nuclear power on principle as a potential part of the energy mix. I’m just against ecomodernists relentlessly favouring it on the basis of the tendentious use of spurious facts, as in Strouts’ post. Meanwhile, in another corner of the blogosphere there are others also arguing that the search for the magical source of clean energy is over – but for them the source isn’t nuclear, it’s photovoltaics.

Chris Goodall’s book The Switch is a good summary of the case from the PV corner7. One advantage of Goodall over MacKay (other than an extra seven years of hindsight) is that he’s an economist, so he tends to think in terms of £/kWh, which is ultimately the key driver of energy choices. Another advantage is that he thinks in terms of how much energy we should be using – 3kW per person by 2035 (fact!). He’s a bit sketchier than I’d like on some of the technical details, though pretty well informed for all that. But another big advantage is that he takes a global perspective. Being a cloudy country a long way north, Britain is one of the worst places in the world for generating PV energy. However, the ‘average’ person in the world lives less than half the distance from the equator than us benighted Brits. The scepticism about PV expressed by MacKay (and Strouts) may have some force in the UK, but it’s less plausible in most of the rest of the world.

By Goodall’s calculations, the UK would need about 16% of its land area to be covered with PV panels to provide for all our energy needs. Before we dismiss that as an impossibly profligate use of our scenic landscapes, it’s worth bearing in mind that we currently devote 75% of our entire land area to agriculture, a lot of it ryegrass and cereal monocultures, while still failing to feed ourselves by a distance, even though we could if we wanted. Still, it’s no doubt fanciful to suppose that we could or should cover that much of the country in PV panels. Whether that means it’s a good idea to build the Hinkley C nuclear power station to generate about 7% of the UK’s electricity at a build cost in excess of £20 billion, and then pay £92.50 per MWh for the next 35 years is less clear. The Intergenerational Foundation has argued that a PV solution would cost about £40 billion less than Hinkley C overall. For my part, I’d want to ask whether the UK might better spend some of the money earmarked for Hinkley C on trimming 7% from our energy demand. But I fear that the government has tied its hands through its agreements with French and Chinese energy companies (there’s a whole ironic backstory here about Britain’s inability to undertake its own energy projects, and its post-Brexit inability to flex its negotiating muscles, but I’ll pass over it here).

Whatever the ‘pro-arithmetic’ theoretical case for nuclear power, the economic case is looking increasingly thin vis-à-vis PV in most parts of the world, possibly even in Britain. But I’m not sure the nuclearphiles in government or among the serried ranks of the ecomodernists are really that interested in the economics of it. I think for political and ideological reasons that have little to do with arithmetic they’re drawn to mega-projects, the white heat of high technology, big grids and generating installations that require centralised control, and potentially dangerous technologies like nuclear that require lots of regulation, security apparatus and the like.

The advantages of PV are that it’s modular, dispersed, not grid reliant, and increasingly cheap. As Goodall shows in his book, there are numerous outstanding problems with it if it’s to become the global energy supplier of choice, but also numerous emerging solutions to them which could well hold greater promise than the solutions offered by the nuclear industry. In the end, I think it’s likely that globally PV will predominate over other energy technologies despite its unpalatability to politicians and opinion-formers through the fact-based arithmetic of £/KWh. But that’s not the main point I want to make. The main point I want to make is the thought experiment I mentioned above. Suppose that humanity solves the clean energy conundrum one way or another: Will that solution automatically solve the other environmental crises we face? And will it automatically generate equitable societies dedicated to human health and wellbeing?

No, I just can’t see it. But what I can see is the glimmer of a possibility – no more than that – that serious investment in clean energy (PV, mostly) might give us something of a reprieve from the worst of Fleming’s climacteric. And if it does, given that such a small proportion of current global energy use relates to electric power generation where most of the promising renewable technologies are clustered, I’d hope that we’d have to make do with a lot less energy per capita in the wealthier countries than we presently do, otherwise I can’t easily see how we’d create the kind of localised, low energy societies that seem necessary for human flourishing. But in contrast to Fleming, I don’t think any of this will be ‘done for us’. If we want to avoid the worst consequences of his climacteric and if we want to build decent, equitable, abundant societies, we’ll need to do the heavy work ourselves. For me, there’s no waiting for the climacteric – we have to fight for what we want, starting now.

References

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future & How To Survive It, Chelsea Green.
  1. Ibid. p.43.
  1. Ibid. p.103.
  1. Ibid. p.189.
  1. MacKay, D. 2009. Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air, UIT Cambridge, p.165.
  1. Ibid. p.170.
  1. Goodall, C. 2016. The Switch: How Solar, Storage & New Tech Means Cheap Power For All, Profile.

Feeding the rest of Wessex (with a brief digression on World War III)

Let us beat a retreat from the troubling politics of the real world and pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, where all is sweet accord. Though in the light of recent events in the UK and the US, it’s tempting to begin with a little story that just might conceivably link the ghost of Wessex present with the ghost of Wessex future. It goes something like this:

With hindsight, Britain’s exit from the EU turned out to herald its final decline as a major global economic force. Though it had a freer hand to make its own trade deals as an independent country it discovered that (a) outside the privileged bubble of the EU single market and the wider access to global circuits of capital this made available, it didn’t actually have all that much to trade, (b) its most obvious trading partners belonged to large trading blocs with membership benefits it could no longer access, and (c) years of public sector underinvestment and private sector asset stripping left it ill-prepared to compete in the global marketplace. In fact, a similar fate befell other western powers in Europe and North America, albeit for slightly different reasons. But after the brief, transformative Third World War came to an end with the Peace of Beijing brokered through the forceful diplomacy of Russia’s new Tsar, most of the western nations shored up their fragile economies by reinventing themselves essentially as client states to the rising industrial powers of Asia*. Thus, few of them fell quite as far or fast as Britain. Or England to be more precise, in light of the secession of the other UK countries and their integration into the EU. Those secessions created a devolutionary impetus in England that saw the emergence of regional assemblies – initially entirely subservient to Westminster, but with the dwindling willingness and ability of the Westminster government to fund or provide services outside the southeast, the regional assemblies increasingly assumed a de facto local sovereignty. Some of them courted multinational corporations, turning themselves into maquiladora economies that used the income thus generated to contain, barely, the resulting social tensions. For its part, London lost a large proportion of its migrant workers, who sought richer pickings elsewhere – probably just as well, given the increasingly constrained base available for the city to feed itself. It retained something of its lustre as a once-great global city, with a still active, if declining, financial and service sector, giving it a kind of seedy grandiloquence reminiscent of, say, Istanbul, only colder and wetter. In the southwest, the conditions for either the industrial self-abasement of the maquiladora regions or the stately decline of the southeast were lacking – it had little going for it except its rich farmland and the pleasant landscapes visited by an ever-declining number of tourists. But its regional government, building on the example of early-millennium independent Frome, pursued a course of regional agricultural and industrial self-reliance. Not by any means an easy course, and one requiring an enormous mobilisation of its people that necessarily rested on a substantial egalitarianism in access to wealth and resources. But though a few old men would still get drunk in its bars and sing patriotic songs about the greatness of the country’s illustrious history, much as a few old men now still do in, say, Mongolia, few people had time for such conceits and felt more engaged in the intricate business of forging a livelihood in the challenging times of the present. In the context of the post-United Nations fraying of the Westphalian nation-state – what scholars had been calling ‘the new medievalism’ of overlapping sovereignties and autarkic regionalism from as early as the late 20th century – the Wessexers found that if they kept their heads down, avoided meddling in larger national and international power politics, paid a largely symbolic obeisance to London, and complained bitterly to any foreigner they met (especially Londoners) about how desperately poor they were, they were pretty much left alone to get on with the challenging but not unrewarding business of making a living from the land. When, in the late 21st century, the world was hit with the long-anticipated triple crisis of accelerating climate change, spiralling energy prices and capitalist economic stagnation, Wessex was better placed than most parts of the world (including the other UK regions) to try to ride out the storm.

* We’ll dwell more in another post on the North American side of this story. But in brief, as everyone knows, the USA ignored the warnings about the limits of its military power signalled by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and – under pressure from a bellicose Congress – President Kardashian launched a war in three separate theatres that soon backfired spectacularly. By way of reparations, at the Peace of Beijing China imposed on the US the migration of millions of Chinese peasant farmers, political troublemakers and other ne’er-do-wells, referred to collectively as ‘non-capitalist roaders’, each to be allocated up to 160 acres of US farmland as determined by the Homestead (Legal Immigrants) Act, 2062. The Chinese incomers were received with rank hostility by the local population at first, but their love of American political freedoms, their endearing taste for Hollywood movies and American fashions, and their superb farming skills soon helped to thaw relations once Americans had resigned themselves to their diminished place in world affairs. Thus, some 250 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a wholesome US smallholder republic was finally realised, albeit with a greater emphasis on fermented soy products than he’d imagined – an industry with its epicentre in Ohio.

That, clearly, is what is going to happen. But the question is will this future Wessex be able to feed itself? When we were last there we learned that the enlightened rulers of the satellite republic had determined that 40% of its lowland agricultural holdings should be given over to peasant self-provision for a 20% portion of the population who were thus able to feed themselves comfortably using low impact organic methods. That leaves the remaining 60% of the farmland available to feed the other 80% of the population, numbering some 4.9 million souls in 2039. Let’s see how this 80% might fare.

Presently, 68% of lowland farmland in Wessex is permanent pasture, while 31% is arable land – leaving the princely total of 1% for horticulture. At those proportions, I’m worried that my wan Wessex urbanites might suffer from a touch of scurvy, so I’m going to adjust the grass/arable/horticulture proportions to 61/32/6%. In other words, a bit of the permanent pasture becomes cropland. Not all permanent pasture is suitable for cropping, but my guess is that enough of it would be for this adjustment to be feasible.

On the arable lands of the PROW about 3% is devoted to hemp and flax for keeping the urbanites in the latest fashions. On the rest of it, I propose to establish a fairly standard mixed organic rotation comprising 50% grass/clover ley, the remaining 50% being split evenly between winter wheat, winter oats, potatoes, field beans and spring wheat. The grass/clover ley is used for grazing dairy cows.

The horticulture land is split 75/25 between vegetables and fruit/nuts. The vegetables are grown organically, with 30% down to a ley (also used for livestock) and the rest growing a mixture of vegetables in rotation.

In terms of livestock, I’d propose to keep dairy cows on the arable leys and the permanent pasture. Some of them would be fed oats (1,100kg/cow/year) and beans (550kg), yielding an assumed 6,200 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow/ha (I’ve lifted these figures from the Organic Farm Management Handbook). With about 116,000 tonnes of oats produced on about 33,000ha at 3.5 t/ha, and about 83,000 tonnes of beans produced on the same area at 2.5 t/ha, that’ll give us enough feed for about 106,000 cows, with about 25,000 tonnes of beans left over to feed some pigs and laying hens. But, after subtracting the 106,000ha of intensive-organic dairying, there’s still just under 700,000ha of permanent pasture, so let’s raise more dairy cows extensively in the same manner as the neo-peasants, getting 3,300 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow plus calf per 1.2ha. We’ll get some beef from the dairy calves at the same rates as the neo-peasants too.

We’ll also keep pigs and laying hens, mostly on the peri-urban market garden/truck farm sites. We’ll split the remaining beans between the pigs and hens 50/50, and also feed them food waste (we’ll assume that 3% of Wessex’s food production is discarded as waste, which is available for the pigs and hens). That should give us about 12,000 tonnes of pig meat and 227 million eggs.

We’ve also got about 83,000ha of rough grazing where we’ll keep sheep, producing around 80kg of sheep meat per hectare per year, if that doesn’t sound too much? And we’ll have the same amount of sea fish as for the neo-peasants – about 20kg per person per year.

And there you have it – the full nutritional spread for our Wessex non-peasants. Let’s take a look at whether it meets the nutritional needs of the population. This is shown in Table 1, which parallels the corresponding table in my analysis for the neo-peasants.

Table 1: Nutrient Productivity for Wessex’s Non-Neo-Peasant Population

 

x1011

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

Produced 181 1.93 32.4 3.53 11.5 0.22
Required 168 0.89 14.3 1.43 7.14 0.21
Ratio 1.07 2.16 2.27 2.47 1.61 1.05

Holy cow, we’ve pulled it off again! Maybe it’s a bit tight on the energy, so there’d be a case for trimming back the permanent pasture for cropland a little more – or else suggesting those city slickers get their hands dirty on an allotment and grow a few of their own potatoes. But let’s just take another moment to admire our handiwork. With only a minor bit of jiggery-pokery around permanent pasture and cropland, we’ve met the entire nutritional needs of a future Wessex population comprising an extra million people over the present using entirely organic farming methods at modest yield assumptions and without expanding beyond the existing agricultural land take. Cue another round of applause.

I’ve got to admit that the non-peasants have a starchier diet than the peasants, as is shown in the pie chart below – a pie which, for my taste, goes a bit overboard on the pastry and skimps a little on the filling. This diet fails proposition Paul, with 17% of its calories coming from protein but only 33% from fat and the rest from carbohydrates, mostly of the simple rather than the complex variety. I still think it’s not such a bad diet compared with many, but the greater reliance on starchy staples surely sounds a warning note in terms of the capacities of the land. Parson Malthus isn’t quite yet out of his box, but it’s as well to be aware that his coffin lid is rattling. The last Malthusian crisis in the southwest was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – pretty much around the time when the much-derided Reverend (who died here in Somerset) was writing, curiously enough. The problem was solved on that occasion by mass migration to Australia and the USA – two great migrant nations that command the respect of the world for welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free to this very day…or so I’ve heard.

Figure 1: Calorific contribution to the Wessex non-peasant diet by food group

wessex-non-peasant-energy-pie-chart

But there’s an elephant in the room. And this time it’s not capitalism. Well, maybe it is in view of the difficulties Wessex will have in earning foreign exchange. But the real elephant is energy. If 80% of Wessex’s population are going to be fed from 60% of its farmland without working as producers themselves, then farming on this 60% is going to have to be heavily mechanised. At the moment, this is achieved through copious use of fossil fuels. But that may not be possible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex circa 2039 or thereafter. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved by…Gosh, the low battery alarm on my PV system has started to sound! Well, that’s quite enough for one blog post anyway. I’ll tell you the answer to the energy conundrum when the sun comes out again and my electricity supply isn’t likely to cut out at any mome

Why I’m still a populist despite Donald Trump: elements of a left agrarian populism

I’ve been trying to articulate a form of populist politics on this site for several years, in the course of which mainstream media commentators have treated populism as a matter of supreme indifference. But after Brexit and Trump, plus the less seismic rise of left-wing populisms, suddenly populism has become the topic du jour on the opinion pages of the quality press. Seriously guys, where were you? A lot of the analysis has been patchy, involving a mixture of condescension and incomprehension. Meanwhile, we seem to be awash with thunderous epitaphs for liberalism, not least from liberals themselves, which is quite endearing – liberals are almost alone among political ideologists in agreeing with their critics about how awful they are.

Well, I can understand the hand-wringing prompted by the waking nightmare of Trump’s impending presidency. Where even to begin? For one thing, it probably means the slim remaining chance of preventing runaway climate change has now gone, leaving only the unedifying hope that the US economy tanks with such terminal speed as to yield lasting emission cuts by default. Then of course there’s the racism, the misogyny, the crypto-fascism. The puzzle for the left lies in understanding how the failure of a right-wing economic project (neoliberalism) seems to have entrenched the power of right-wing governments in the west. Its own ineptitude is part of the problem, but isn’t the whole story. Still, the rise of right-wing populism begets contradictions that I doubt conservative politics will easily overcome in the long-term. And the fact that voters in the world’s largest economy have opted for the kind of protectionism that small economies usually try to invoke to shelter themselves from bigger fish surely indicates we’re entering the endgame of a self-ingesting neoliberalism. What comes next? Populism of course.

But, like fairies, populism comes in good and bad variants. When Trump and the Brexiteers fail to deliver on their promises, as they surely will, a political moment might arise when (perhaps helped with a wave of the wand) there’s a chance to install a left-wing, agrarian-oriented, internationalist form of populism. Or else we may get something far worse than the present. For that reason, I agree with Owen Jones that the left needs a new populism fast. So instead of further adding to the torrent of leftist self-recrimination after Trump’s victory, what I think I can most usefully do is outline what populism is and how it could assume forms that might save us from the bad fairies like Trump. In that sense, I want to take a leaf out of the liberals’ book and engage in a bit of populist self-criticism.

Populism Defined: Five Features of Populism

1. Populism means rule by the people. So there are two key concepts here. First, rule – implying some kind of organised state. Second, people – those who fall under the state’s jurisdiction. Neither concept is at all straightforward. What kind of rule or state, and on behalf of which people? Historically, populist movements have often paid insufficient attention to the nature of the state, and why it’s so difficult to create state structures which truly serve the people. And they’ve paid far, far too much attention to defining ‘the people’ by exclusion: not Jews, not Muslims, not blacks, not immigrants, not the rich, not the poor and so on. These twin failures have led to disappointment, a baleful political culture and a lot of human misery.

2. Populism seeks social and economic stability. The capitalist version of modernity that we now inhabit provides neither, uprooting people from homes and jobs and casting them capriciously across the world as a result of the minute calculus of profitability, and destroying the biosphere’s capacity to sustain us. But stability is always ultimately elusive, and it’s easy for populism to avoid hard decisions about how to retain its chosen lifeways by peddling mythic concepts of past golden ages, restored national pride and the like.

3. Populism is not utopian, or teleological. The politics of modernity, and particularly the mass politics of the 20th century, is characteristically utopian in its tendency to identify with world-transforming keys that it believes will create benefits for all: free markets, the dictatorship of the proletariat and so on. This politics is also characteristically teleological in the sense that it thinks there’s an inevitable historical tendency for these world-transforming keys to become manifest, provided that various obstacles and backsliders can be neutralised. Populism, by contrast, does not espouse world-transforming keys, and does not believe in progress through history to some kind of human perfectibility. It contents itself with the inherited legacy of political and economic institutions and tries to improve them incrementally towards its present, local ends. The upside of this is that it doesn’t cause the devastation associated with utopian politics: revolutionary terror, structural adjustment programmes etc. The downside is that it can be blind to the subtle mechanics of everyday power by which such things as class, gender or ethnic advantage are reproduced. Indeed, it can actively foster them.

4. Populism is a politics of the ordinary, which is unimpressed by extraordinary achievement. Therefore it doesn’t vaunt people who have accrued great wealth, or fame, or expertise and learning. A danger is that this can easily turn into negative forms of anti-elitist politics: anti-intellectual, anti-expert etc. A related danger is that, in view of the human tendency precisely to be impressed by the extraordinary, anti-elite populism ironically tends to fixate around charismatic Caesarist figures who promise to deliver the masses from the elite – Peisistratus or, er, Trump (what was it Marx said about history repeating itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce…a comment in fact directed towards another populist figurehead, Napoleon III?)

5. Populism has a complex relationship with fascism. Fascism can be seen as a kind of populism for the modernist age of mass politics which addresses Point 1 above by defining ‘the people’ exclusively (typically in anti-elitist, nationalist, racist, and/or anti-Semitic terms) and by defining the state in essentialist terms as uniquely expressive of the will of the people, hence opposing attempts to hold the state independently to account by elected politicians, journalists or the judiciary. There are many fascist elements in the current Brexit/Trump ascendancy – for example, the recent Daily Mail headline condemning the judges who ruled that Britain’s Article 50 EU exit-trigger required parliamentary approval as ‘enemies of the people’. However, there is a utopian, world-transforming element to fascism which differentiates it from populism as described in Point 3 above and places it in the stable of utopian modernist politics alongside the likes of socialism, liberalism and neoliberalism. Social scientists have generally described fascism as a response to a modernisation crisis. This seems pertinent to present political circumstances. The problem is, many have assumed that ‘modernity’ is a stable, achieved state. We’re beginning to learn that it isn’t.

Towards a left agrarian populism

I’ll now try to sketch in briefest outline the way that a left agrarian populism of the kind I espouse might orient itself to the preceding points.

1. The people that populism serves are all the citizens of the polity, regardless of political allegiance, class, gender, skin colour, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or any other characteristic. Therefore it’s crucial to defend the liberal public sphere as the space of free political self-expression. There are plenty of people dancing on the grave of liberalism at the moment, while implicitly relying on the freedoms that it gives them. Often, these critics affect a lofty historian-of-ideas posture, correctly pointing out that there’s nothing inevitable or universal, no necessary telos, to a liberal public sphere. But they’re usually silent on what alternatives they favour at the present political juncture – largely, I think, because nothing else is as defensible, however much they try to cover up this truth with flimflam about the class privilege of liberals or a revolt against the elites. The problem with exclusionary populist definitions of ‘the people’ is that it’s a gateway drug to authoritarianism, or fascism, in which anybody becomes fair game as an enemy of the people or the state. I’m looking at you, John Michael Greer, and you, John Gray – get busy defending the liberal public sphere, or someday someone will come for you, and no one will care.

2. The populist economy is grounded in local needs and capacities. The capitalist world-economy undermines local ways of life and is environmentally destructive to the point of human self-annihilation. The only long-term way I see of reining it in is through a move to localised economies which are grounded substantially in the capacities of the local environment to provide for local needs. Therefore my thinking aligns with populist moves to protect local industries and limit the free flow of people and capital around the world, so long as it’s done humanely. Limiting the free flow of capital is much more important than limiting the free flow of people, whereas right-wing populism tends to have it the other way around. Another delusion of right-wing populism, amply exercised by Donald Trump and by the Brexiteers here in the UK, is that ‘ordinary people’ in the US and the UK have been disadvantaged by the global capitalist economy relative to others, the main scapegoats being undocumented migrant workers. The truth is that almost the only people ‘ordinary’ US or UK citizens stand disadvantaged to are the wealthy in their own countries, whose increasing relative wealth should be the proper object of political scrutiny. Against virtually everyone else, they stand in an incredibly privileged position globally.

I thought I’d try to demonstrate this empirically, albeit rather imperfectly, with a graph I’ve derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators dataset. I’ve looked at data from the USA, the UK, Tunisia (which according to the World Bank is the median income country in the world in terms of GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity basis) and Malawi (which is the poorest country in terms of GDP per capita for which I could find income distribution data). I’ve looked at the share of national income each successive 20% of the population, richest to poorest, receives in each country, calculating it as a GDP PPP per capita figure within each 20% group. This is what you see graphed below.

income-distributions-and-populism

To me, there are two striking features of the graph. First, there’s huge inequality within each country – the richest 20% in Malawi and the USA takes nearly ten times the share of the poorest. And second, there’s huge inequality between countries. The top 20% in Tunisia earn more than the bottom 20% in the USA and the UK, but less than the remaining 80% of the population in both countries. The rest of Tunisia’s population, and the entire population by quintiles of Malawi earn less than the poorest quintiles in the US and the UK. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t poverty or suffering in the USA or the UK. But it does suggest to me that most people in these countries are affluent in global terms. This affluence has been generated historically by capitalist globalisation; they will likely be a lot poorer under localised economic regimes, whereas citizens of poorer countries stand to be relatively richer. This is a good thing, both for equity and for environmental sustainability. But it’s not an easy sell – the right-wing populist line that you’d be richer if it wasn’t for all those immigrants, although basically wrong, is an easier one to peddle, and it conveniently distracts attention from the more salient fact that you’d be richer if it wasn’t for all those other white Americans or Britons who are further up the hugely skewed income distribution. And that you’re probably richer than the global norm. The only way around this I perceive – and I admit it’s a long shot – is to keep banging home these twin points about the skewed international and national income distributions (I mean, Donald Trump as a spokesman for the poor – seriously?), and to emphasise the possible benefits, many of them non-monetary, of working in a localised economy…

3. The populist economy is a producerist economy – what unites the people is work. As mentioned above, there should be no exclusionary definition of ‘the people’ in a locality. What matters is that people work to secure their wellbeing, individually and collectively. This requires that there is work for them to do, and opportunities for them to produce wellbeing: most fundamentally, it requires that there is local land for them to farm.

4. The populist state is judged largely by its capacity to support local producerism. It will not be judged on grandiloquent claims to embody or restore the culture of the nation or the spirit of the people, nor on claims to be able to create great new wealth for the people, especially through forms of local or non-local rent-seeking. It will support pluralist democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary and media.

5. The populist mentality is internationalist. The modern system of nation-states emerged from the Peace of Westphalia, which concluded a series of devastating wars in Europe based on beggar-my-neighbour mercantilist economics, and violent political expansionism among authoritarian royal houses. So while there are good reasons to argue that the nation-state system is past its sell-by date, the distinct possibility of returning to pre-Westphalian politics is best avoided. Therefore, while the new populism might properly emphasise localism and economic protectionism, it won’t do so in a closed-minded or chauvinist manner. It will be open to the exchange of ideas and people, and it will seek international concord to safeguard both economic self-determination and human rights.

oOo

That, in outline, is my vision for a left agrarian populism. I hope to flesh it out and work through some of its more obvious problem areas and contradictions in the future. A couple of issues to flag right now: in many ways, perhaps there’s not much to distinguish what I’ve outlined from social democracy or market socialism. The main difference is that it’s not based on notions of improvement or social progress through time, but on securing basic wellbeing in the present. It espouses a liberal public sphere as the best tool to hand for that job. The second issue is that it probably sounds quite utopian, despite my strictures above about populism’s anti-utopianism. Maybe so. I guess the way I look at it, the old adage “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” doesn’t really work in politics. If you want the best, you have to prepare for it – otherwise you’re certainly likely to get the worst. There’s a kind of apocalyptic mentality among many on the left at the moment, which tends to conflate disparate phenomena as signs of an irremediable crisis – climate change, energy crisis, xenophobia, nationalist sabre-rattling, Donald Trump. Well, I’m resigned to the notion that we’re screwed, but I’m blowed if I’ll accept Trump’s presidency teleologically as another unavoidable signpost on the road to hell. A tweet from Dougald Hine – “The spectre that many try not to see is a simple realisation — the world will not be ‘saved’”. I’m easily persuaded by that, but I don’t see much point in doing anything other than trying to save it anyway. The path ahead is not pre-determined, and it’s better to die fighting. Besides, although the skies may be darkening, the eclipse of neoliberalism and the existing global order furnishes certain opportunities…

Postscript: Here’s another graph to think about, in view of some of the discussion below:

populism-and-gdp