The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 6. Capitalism II – Cores and Peripheries

My post last week on livestock seemed to make a slightly larger ripple in cyberspace than my usual offerings. Ah well, it’s an issue that always has legs – unlike the meat alternatives proposed by George Monbiot. The whole kerfuffle about meat in the media last week stemmed from the Food Climate Research Network’s report Grazed and Confused, a title which aptly summarises not only a good deal of the ensuing media debate but also the state of DEFRA officials as they contemplate a post-EU future for British agriculture. Their boss Michael Gove has apparently been talking enthusiastically about ‘sustainable intensification’. Expect a future in which blandishments about ‘eco-friendly’ feedlot beef and ‘sustainable’ electric cars divert us from the truth that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before, which is what actually matters. I’m not sure that the FCRN is keeping its eye on the ball on this one: maybe they should have called their report The Wood for the Trees.

Still, what can I do? Get back to my history of the world, that’s what. But thanks for all the extra comments last time, and apologies for not responding to all of them – non-response is not indicative of ingratitude or lack of interest on my part. Anyway, this week I bring you an entirely non-controversial topic – European colonialism – so nothing much to comment on there, right? I’ll note as usual that a fully referenced version of the excerpt below is available here.


So, back to the main thread of my story: in weighing up capitalism’s historical record, it’s also necessary to reckon with the fact that capitalism has never confined itself to single national economies. Doubtless Stalin did everywhere except Russia a favour when he proclaimed ‘socialism in one country’, but there’s never been ‘capitalism in one country’. In one sense, we can look at this in terms of the kind of ‘ratchet effect’ mentioned earlier. Capitalist states are able to generate and direct more money, and therefore more power, than other ones – than agrarian ones in particular. So states that had sufficient resources and institutional capital to be able to play the same game as the leading capitalist powers (in the early modern world, the Netherlands and England) had an incentive to play catch-up, which they did either by imposing capitalism from above (the aristocratic ‘Prussian path’) or, in places conveniently free of aristocracies, building it from below (the ‘American path’).

The catch-up game is still a very common way of thinking about inequalities in the global economy. For whatever reason, the economies of the early capitalist powers ‘took off’, and all that’s needed now is for the ‘developing’ economies to take off too, and then everyone will be happy (…provided we assume that everyone in the ‘developed’ countries is happy). But another line of argument suggests that the early capitalist powers took off at the direct expense of other parts of the world – an idea pursued influentially in Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of ‘uneven development’, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, and Andre Gunder Frank’s dependency theory. In their different ways all these theories suggest that ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ are two sides of the same coin. The title of one of Frank’s papers – ‘The development of underdevelopment’encapsulates the key idea. ‘Underdevelopment’ isn’t something that exists in the absence of ‘development’, but in its presence. So a key question in this tradition is how international commerce created a capitalist world economy with dominant and subordinate geopolitical components – which is still true today, even as the dominance is shifting towards Asia. Since the 1820s, but never before, the average individual’s economic prospects have been conditioned more strongly by their country of birth than by the economic standing of their parents.

Wallerstein introduced the concept of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ into his analysis of the capitalist world system. Essentially, he argued that there was a geopolitical gradation of labour forms, from the ‘free’ wage labour of the European core, to peasantries and/or tenants in the semi-periphery, through to unfree labour (slaves, serfs) in the periphery, and thence foragers or ‘primitive’ agriculturists in the primal world beyond the capitalist world system. I think this remains a useful way of thinking about the geopolitics of contemporary capitalism. The capitalist economy requires a stratum of wealthy consumers who are able to buy its products (hence the ‘free’ wage labourers of the rich world, who have no means of subsistence except their own labour, but a large purchasing power as a result of that labour). But in order to attain the requisite returns on investment it also has to minimise labour costs – which it achieves where it can by giving workers nothing but their subsistence, if that. The geopolitical manifestation of this contradiction is the well-remunerated consumer-wage-labourers of the wealthy core areas, and the poor labourers of the periphery. This creates strong incentives for workers in the periphery to migrate to the core where it’s easier to become a wealthy consumer-labourer, but a capitalist world system can’t be all core and no periphery if it’s to survive – it requires the tension of centre-periphery relations. At the same time, the need for constantly compounding economic growth in the capitalist economy creates the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ – the need to find ever new arenas for investment. This gives capital enormous transformative power in the periphery through its ability to create geopolitical linkage – for example, turning foragers into fur-traders, or self-reliant horticulturists into purveyors of coffee or frozen asparagus, with profound effects on local social relations. Such developments don’t often change the basic geopolitics of core and periphery, but over the longer historical haul sometimes they do. The capitalist economy is globally dynamic. In the long run, core may become periphery and vice versa.

Thus, the “secret scandal of capitalism”, as David Graeber puts it, is that “at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor”. In the Atlantic world system organised by the early modern capitalist powers of western Europe, the chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas was a key dynamic – bequeathing disastrous long-term consequences across large parts of the African continent and a host of problems in American societies down to the present. The Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams first mooted the idea that the profits of colonial slavery in the Americas opened the way for the industrial revolution in Europe – and his general thesis, if not the precise details of his analysis, have gained considerable acceptance.

Meanwhile in eastern Europe, cereal export production for the lucrative markets of a prosperously capitalist western subcontinent reinvigorated serfdom. That was one extreme of the peasant experience under capitalism, but overall the picture was complex and mixed. In some times and places, peasants left or lost their land and became wage labourers with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. In others, things went in the opposite direction – the destruction of local polities in the capitalist world-system led to a ‘re-peasantisation’ of local labour, a process which some argue is ongoing, even in wealthy parts of the world such as Europe. Elsewhere, the capitalist economy merely co-opted and re-directed the peasant labour process. Whereas before peasants had produced their own subsistence and then provided surplus in the form of crops, money or labour-service to local polities, under the emerging capitalist world-system many peasants continued to produce their own subsistence, while surrendering their surplus to an increasingly globalised economy – often in the form of new cash crops demanded from the core like sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, indigo, rubber and tropical fruits, which were grown either directly as peasant cash-crops, or on plantations whose labour demands articulated with local peasant economies. Clifford Geertz’s influential study of ‘agricultural involution’ in Indonesia is a case in point. Geertz argued that yields of wet rice are enormously responsive to additional labour inputs (in technical terms, the marginal productivity of labour remains quite constant – wet rice is a relatively non-Malthusian crop). With the subsistence needs of a crowded peasant populace thus taken care of, local and European entrepreneurs working through existing channels of political authority imposed an ecologically complementary but economically extractive sugar cash-cropping regimen on the rice-growing peasantry. This, in Geertz’s opinion, resulted in stasis and ‘involution’, a blocked economic ‘take-off’, with the vast surpluses generated by peasant production once again going elsewhere, just as they did in Goubert’s 17th century France. This kind of peasantry remains widespread today, and it’s important to understand the manner of its insertion into the global capitalist economy. It’s all too commonly believed, even among those who ought to know better, that poor peasant farmers in the world today have been “left behind by modernity”. The truth is that ‘modernity’ has them exactly where it wants them.

Britain emerged in the early modern period as the dominant capitalist-colonial power, perhaps symbolised by its victories across far-flung territories in the Seven Years War (1756-63), which has sometimes been called the first ‘world war’. But not long after that, it got itself in a tangle trying to remember whether to be a tax-state or a tribute-state, losing the USA to the first and perhaps the most successful modern anti-colonial revolt. Doubtless the US revolt was successful in part because it was essentially a family argument within a group of colonizers. The second modern anti-colonial revolt was the slave uprising that turned French Saint-Domingue into Haiti, but it proved much less successful – nervous colonial and slaveholding powers played their part in making sure of that.

It’s tempting to think of the emerging USA as its own geographic world-system in the manner of Wallerstein, with wage labour in its northeastern core, peasant labour in its western semi-periphery and enslaved labour in its southern periphery – which is possibly illuminating, provided it’s not turned into an evolutionary sequence from a ‘backward’ south to a ‘progressive’ northeast. Criticisms of slave plantation production on the grounds of the superior efficiency of free labour as well as the inhumanity of human bondage have long been made, not least in the antebellum politics of the USA out of which emerged the civil war between the ‘free’ north and the slave south. But, just as in early modern Europe, the truth is that capitalism has components of both industrial wage labour and colonial commerce – deciding which is the ‘purer’ form is of less consequence than the historical reality of how people chose to operate in their given circumstances. The western ‘semi-periphery’ was another front in the battle between proponents of slavery and freedom, though the modernist or humanitarian credentials of those struggling to keep it free from slavery shouldn’t be overstated. The Free Soil Party gained the support of black leaders like Frederick Douglass, but its call was to salvage the west “for the Caucasian race” – and racially-divided politics of this sort continued to invest agrarian populism later on in US history.

The peasants of the US western semi-periphery weren’t much like the ones of Geertz’s Indonesia, still less those of Wickham’s medieval ‘peasant mode of production’. In historian Geoff Cunfer’s words the pioneers of the plains “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”. Cunfer does, however, emphasise the skill with which they figured out how to farm the prairies, and defends them against what he sees as over-simplified censure for soil erosion and the dust bowl, arguing that this stemmed fundamentally from longer-range climatic cycles. It’s an interesting point when set alongside the US tradition of agroecological critique, which sees the arrival of European farming methods with the settlers as inherently unsustainable and destructive. Cunfer’s view that settlers steeped in European peasant farming traditions were able to devise a workable new agriculture on the prairies within a few decades is suggestive for future peasant adaptation – as, alas, is his analysis of their failure to work out an effective property regime around water use, and their susceptibility to larger order climatic constraint. Not for the first time in this essay, though, the strongest force for change that emerges was the socio-economic linkages these farmers had to the wider world system, and not the immediate ecological circumstances.  What Cunfer is describing here is essentially the ‘American’ path to capitalism mentioned earlier, pursued on a sparsely populated, demilitarised and expanding colonial frontier by settler-colonists of peasant extraction, often attempting more or less self-consciously to escape the Geertzian fate courted by their counterparts in their countries of origin. Or perhaps we could draw a parallel with debates on the origins of capitalism in England – was the prime mover the ‘lords’ of the northeast, the ‘peasants’ of the west, or the ‘merchants’ of the south? Probably all of them. There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, about the numerous logics of peasant production in the colonial and post-colonial Americas – but for the purposes of this essay, regrettably it’s time to move on…

…Because we need to look at those parts of the world where there was apparently no path to capitalist development, ‘American’ or otherwise. There’s a long intellectual tradition in Europe or ‘the west’ which contrasts European ‘development’ with the stasis or backwardness of other places. It goes at least as far back as 18th century Enlightenment figures like Montesquieu, and despite influential critiques of this ‘Orientalist’ tendency in western scholarship it’s alive and well today among numerous writers, including public intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Jared Diamond. But it’s now fairly clear that modern economic dynamism originated neither in England nor in Europe alone (and national boundaries can mislead: even though ‘England’ was an early capitalist player, capitalist relations were much stronger in some parts of England than others). Even if we retain a traditional obsession with the emergence of capitalism as the sine qua non of ‘development’, a more even-handed contemporary scholarship suggests that there were incipient forms of capitalist development in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East contemporaneously in the early modern period. It can’t be denied that Europe in general and England in particular – along with its colonial offshoots in the New World later on – did rise to global dominance, but historians’ answer as to when this ‘Great Divergence’ occurred in the fortunes of Europe vis-à-vis other civilisations such as China keeps getting later, and is often now put towards the middle of the 19th century.

The question of why it was Europe and not China that became the core region of the modern world system has attracted much – some might say too much – attention in recent scholarship in view of China’s apparent technological and economic superiorities. I don’t propose to assess this literature in great detail – attention has focused mainly on themes such as the Dylanesque ‘leapfrogging’ that a divided European culture area of nascent nation-states was able to achieve over the more unified imperial structure of China, the Geertzian ‘land-sparing’ efficiency of Chinese wet rice cultivation that dampened the need for territorial expansion on agrarian/Malthusian grounds, the rational-bureaucratic structure of imperial China that prevented an alignment of social forces towards high-risk overseas adventures, and the superior revenue-raising capacities of European-style royal absolutist tax states, which doubtless are all relevant considerations.

One analysis I do want to examine in this arena because of its wider ramifications is Mark Elvin’s influential book The Patterns of the Chinese Past. Elvin argued that imperial China experienced ‘high level equilibrium traps’ (HLETs) where the relative rates of income and population growth created equilibrium points that prevented the accumulation of surplus capital – the economy is ‘trapped’ in a state which is stable and efficient, but with no inherent tendency to per capita income growth, which is pulled back to equilibrium by a declining rate of income growth relative to population. This is different from a Malthusian or low-level equilibrium trap where population growth pulls down per capita income, though in some respects the two equilibria can look similar – in both, there’s a pool of cheap labour which militates against automation and technical radicalisation. In the case of the HLET, however, we find an efficient, dynamic and differentiated but intrinsically labour-intensive economy. Such a ‘trap’ has been common in global agrarian and industrial history. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries provides a detailed agronomic overview of what an HLET looks like from a peasant farming perspective in China – a book which, interestingly, has been influential in the contemporary western permaculture and alternative agriculture movements. In any case, in an HLET situation an invention that raises labour productivity may have an appealing engineering logic but it won’t get adopted unless it occurs within an economic logic that favours increased labour productivity. That logic was alien to the Qing China of the early modern world, despite its surpassing technical sophistication, but did manifest in parts of Europe for the reasons described above. This doesn’t mean that the Chinese economy was ‘static’ – it was historians of East Asia who originally coined the term ‘industrious revolution’ to capture this different, labour-intensive and more agrarian path towards prosperity – a term later adopted by De Vries to capture an aspect of the rather different ‘western’ development path. In the hands of (Orientalist?) western scholars, more pejorative terms are applied to the ‘Asian’ path – the language of ‘traps’ or of an ‘involution’ reliant on hard manual labour on the farm, which is easily transmogrified into putatively anti-romantic dismissals of small-scale farming in favour of the western path of industrial farming. I’ll come back to this point presently – and use Elvin’s thinking on HLETs in a different context to tracking Europe’s divergence from China. Still, Elvin’s thesis that capitalist development in Europe enabled it to overcome the ‘trap’ of agricultural involution, ultimately giving it the economic and military power to dominate the Asian empires, is certainly thought-provoking.

But maybe a more plausible approach to explaining the ‘great divergence’ would focus less on what didn’t happen in China, and more on what did happen in Europe – not so much in relation to capitalist developments in the countryside of the kind emphasised by Brenner, but the structure of its colonial commerce. The arguments that I find most convincing go something like this: the eclipse of the Roman Empire and the travails of feudalism left the European sub-continent rather behind the game compared to the great empires of Asia, but its internecine conflicts within the shadowed shell of Rome produced a handful of competing, tightly-organised and militarily sophisticated proto-‘national’ polities remote from the main currents of the Asiatic trading world, which enabled them to innovate with new political economies – another case of the historical ‘leap-frogging’ I mentioned earlier. Blocked from commercial expansion eastwards by powerful Islamic states, instead they developed trans-oceanic empires, which were given a considerable boost by the discovery of the New World. Trans-oceanic trade was risky, fearfully expensive and offered only long-term (but potentially spectacular) returns on investment, thus prompting the development of complex new fiscal instruments around risk, debt, state-private partnerships and joint stock organisation which were unknown in the east (Qing China didn’t develop debt finance). David Graeber has argued that the violence of Europe’s colonial-commercial expansion, which at times reached almost demented levels, is explicable in terms of these dynamics of debt in highly militarised societies. Maybe so – or else one might look to the specifics of European racism. Whatever the case, trans-oceanic colonial-commercial conquest fed into Europe’s spiral of capital accumulation and ultimately enabled it to win key confrontations in the east – Commodore Perry in Yokohama, the Opium Wars in China, the East India Company turning the tables on India’s textile industry. ‘The imperialism of free trade’ is often an apposite term.

An important issue in the expansion of European trade is what was actually being traded. Attention often focuses on the ‘preciosities’ of bullion and spices driven by elite demand, but as the economy capitalised itself the incentive was for agriculture in the ‘core’ to focus on higher value products (eg. meat and vegetables) while displacing the production of staples to more peripheral areas such as Eastern Europe (and, later, North America). Again, this can be told as a dark story of peasant dispossession by commercially-oriented landowners – most famously in Britain in relation to the Highland Clearances of a later period – but also as a brighter story of peasant release from the travails of growing the lord’s grain on his demesne in favour of a more remunerative small-scale agriculture. And even in Scotland, though it’s true that sometimes ‘the sheep ate the people’ the ‘modernisation’ of Scottish agriculture is a somewhat more complex tale. Ironically, with the advent of mechanised agriculture and the relative costs of fuel and labour the situation is now reversed, with agriculture in the core dominated by the large-scale mechanised production of staples, and agriculture in the ‘periphery’ contributing more of the high value, labour-intensive products.

Another part of this story concerning the focus of European capitalist trade is the way that elite commodities such as sugar were turned into cheap mass commodities available to ordinary working-class people (and indeed crucial to their changing role within the economy). Champions of capitalism often highlight this ability to furnish high value elite items to ordinary people, but maybe sugar – an environmentally-destructive quasi-narcotic crop with negative health consequences, produced historically by millions of chattel slaves and wage slaves – works as a metaphor for what’s left unsaid in this sunny version of the capitalist vision.

Saving George Monbiot

Since I’m (almost) halfway through my ‘history of the world’ blog cycle, I thought I’d take a halftime break and write about something else this week. Especially since an urgent task has suddenly presented itself to me – the need to save George Monbiot from becoming an ecomodernist. Now, let me start by saying that, week in week out for more years than I care to remember, George has been almost a lone voice in the mainstream British media putting the case thoughtfully and iconoclastically for radical, egalitarian and environmental alternatives to a status quo that’s so fawningly celebrated by the majority of his journalistic colleagues. He’s even publicly endorsed my critiques of ecomodernism. So as far as I’m concerned he has a lot of credibility in the bank, and I’m not one to fulminate against him too much just because I disagree with him over this or that issue. But when it comes to his recent article enthusing about the advent of artificial meat as the welcome death knell for livestock farming…George, you’re scaring me, man.

Actually, I agree with most of the premises in George’s article – the present global livestock industry involves barbarous cruelty to farm animals, is a grossly inefficient way of producing protein and is not, contrary to ‘carbon farming’ claims, a good way of mitigating climate change. However, I don’t agree with his conclusion that we should stop farming animals, for reasons that I’ll set out below and that will also hopefully illuminate some wider themes – including those implicit in a brief Twitter exchange I had with Marc Brazeau, another antsy online ecomodernist, who was effectively challenging advocates of ‘alternative’ farming to put up some quantitative metrics by which to judge their approach or else clear the way for the ecomodernist onslaught represented by intensive conventional arable farming on the grounds of its superior sustainability. Which is pretty much the same as George’s argument.

So to summarise so far, rather than the Spielberg reference of my title, perhaps the strapline for this piece should paraphrase a famous quote from another old film – Flash Gordon, that marvellous bit of 1980s schlock: “George, George, I love you – but I only have fourteen paragraphs to save you from the ecomodernists”. And here they are:

1. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle, weighing up whether it’s environmentally sounder to buy a vegetarian dinner or that big juicy steak, the answer in that context is almost always going to be the vegetarian dinner. I say “in that context” because the choice is already framed by numerous background assumptions, which I’d summarise as the ‘ethics of the shopping aisle’. The ethics of the shopping aisle basically accepts that the consumer is the endpoint of a vast global corporate food system that relies on copious fossil fuel inputs across the entire production chain, and it also basically accepts that this system will continue in the long-term. If you don’t accept those propositions, you might imagine yourself instead living in a farm society in which people are producing their food from a few acres with minimal exogenous energy sources available to them. In these circumstances, you would probably grow crops in a rotation that included ruminant-grazed legume-rich grass leys and make use of the milk, meat, traction and fibre provided by the ruminants. You would probably also keep some poultry and pigs near the house or in the woodlands, to turn waste food, weeds and invertebrate pests into useful food. Almost certainly, you’d produce and eat less meat than we presently do in the UK. But, almost certainly too, you’d produce and eat some meat. I take the view that this omnivorous lifestyle is a better, and more sustainable, one than the vegan lifestyle commended by the ethics of the shopping aisle. Whether it’s better or not, I suspect it may be the best option available to us in a likely low-energy future – a future we’ll land in more easily if we prepare for it now. So I’d be willing to trade off a fair amount of ‘inefficient’ mixed organic agriculture in the present as a lead-in to a likely unavoidable mixed organic agriculture of the future.

2. I’d question his figures a little, but I wouldn’t dispute George’s general point that grazing is much less productive acre for acre than arable farming (although in the mixed organic ley farming described above the livestock add to, rather than subtract from, the productivity). But where is he going with all these figures about superior arable yields? There’s no critique of the productivist assumption that more is always better in his article. “One study,” he writes, “suggests that if we were all to switch to a plant-based diet, 15m hectares of land in Britain currently used for farming could be returned to nature”. But of course there’s no guarantee that it would – it might equally be turned over to car parks, golf courses or second homes. Or it might fuel further population growth, as he implicitly admits by arguing that the existing agricultural area could feed 200 million vegans. History would certainly suggest that rising agricultural productivity fuels population growth. Where’s the evidence that ‘nature’ would be the beneficiary here? There’s no theory of political economy behind George’s analysis to explain why maximising yields per hectare is the optimal agricultural choice.

3. And this sharp differentiation between farmland and ‘nature’ takes us into some murky terrain. As ecologist Joern Fischer has exasperatedly pleaded, people should stop using the simplistic duality of ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ as the key trade-off in choosing between agroecosystems. In some situations it makes sense to increase productivity, in others to decrease it, and in others still productivity isn’t the main issue at all. Is it ecologically optimal to give over large areas completely to wilderness by developing intensive agriculture in concentrated areas, or is it better to create a matrix of less intensive agroecological corridors1? These are complex and context-specific questions. The land sparing/sharing debate echoes the ‘single large or several small’ nature reserve debate of the 1970s, on which Fischer says ecologists wasted a decade of research energy. He fears that we risk the same fate with the sparing/sharing debate. And on this point, George, you’re not helping. As you’ve said yourself it’s not a case of either/or – it’s a case of both/and, and of other things as well.

4. Besides which, the idea that by stopping farming we’re ‘returning land to nature’ is problematic because nature hasn’t left our farms – though I’ll admit that it’s flouncing towards the exit gate on some of them. If you want to appreciate, explore, or get to understand nature as recommended by the Ecomodernist Manifesto, all you need is a magnifying glass and a few teaspoonfuls of soil from the fields (though you’ll have to look harder on the intensive arable farms that George recommends…and if you live in the UK you’ll have to go a long way to find the soya farms he favours). But I don’t think this is the kind of nature George has in mind – there’s a sense at play in his article that there’s something intrinsically superior about a nature that’s uninhabited by humans, probably one with large iconic predatory mammals, than the kind of nature to be found on the average farm. But this, ironically, is surely something of a human affectation – there’s nothing in the fabric of the universe to say that a place that lacks humans is better than one that does not. I’m not against preserving tracts of true wilderness. But how to trade it off against human agroecosystems is not straightforward.

5. Here’s my take on that trade-off, however. A world with more wilderness and a stronger focus on large-scale, input-intensive arable farming is likely to be less stable, less sustainable and less nature-friendly than one with less wilderness and more small-scale, labour-intensive mixed organic farming. People in landscapes of the latter kind are more likely to actually inhabit them, and rely upon them. They therefore have a greater chance of recognising when their activities are having deleterious effects, and doing something about it. People in landscapes of the former kind don’t inhabit them and don’t enjoy this kind of feedback – mostly, they’re tourists, consumers or system functionaries who have less stake in overall system health. They’re shoppers in the aisle.

6. A farm is also a system, whose health needs to be safeguarded. Generally, growing the same handful of arable crops that give maximum yields of protein or carbohydrate year after year is not a good way of safeguarding farm or soil health. There’s a lot to be said for a cropland rotation that includes legume-rich grass leys. And if you grow legume-rich grass leys, then you should really grow some livestock too.

7. Not many people in the contemporary world can truly dwell in the house of ‘nature’ when it’s defined as per George and the ecomodernists as a habitat that isn’t a farm. Not many of us, that is to say, can hope to subsist by hunting and foraging. I don’t dismiss the benefits that we can derive from visiting these wild, not-farm places as tourists or TV viewers, but I don’t see it as a major plank of beneficial interaction with the biosphere for contemporary humanity either. A lot of us can, however, interact beneficially with animals as key species for our self-provisioning with food and fibre – a lot more of us than at present if government policies would only allow it. Many of us could raise bees, poultry or rabbits, and some of us could raise pigs, sheep and cattle. You want to interact with the beauties of nature and the mysteries of the universe? Let me put it like this – my own two most memorable animal encounters of this sort were watching a leopard kill an antelope, and helping birth a lamb for the first time from my small flock of sheep, a lamb that I later ate with friends and family. Both amazing, but one of them an essentially idle tourist spectacle, the other part of an ongoing, life-sustaining practice.

8. Identifying livestock farming as a primary cause of environmental degradation is largely a diversion. The real problems, as George has admirably documented in some of his other writings, are the gross disparities in the distribution of economic resources between people and between countries, and the abundance of polluting fossil energy. This includes the abundance of polluting fossil energy required to produce the synthetic fertilisers that help make the kind of arable yield figures George cites so impressive. Address those two problems, and livestock farming will find its appropriate level as part of our ecological solutions and not, as at present, part of our ecological problems2.

9. It seems rather early to be heralding artificial meat as the solution to our problems. As I understand it, at present it’s not even less energy-intensive than farmed meat. I don’t doubt that eventually it will be – though I hope we’ll keep an eye not only on its full life-cycle costs but also on its cascading social effects so that it doesn’t go the way of driverless electric cars and 3D printing as a cipher of ecomodernist argumentation of the form: “Efficient new technology X shows that time-honoured method Y must now be jettisoned”. George has written some great critiques of ecomodernism along such lines, so I can only think that his article strapline “as the artificial meat industry grows, the last argument for farming animals has now collapsed” was written by some hapless sub-editor, and not by the man himself. Say that it’s so, George!

10. Ecomodernists don’t like the precautionary principle, but I’m personally unwilling to substantially abandon it (just as a precaution, you understand). I’m unconvinced that artificial meat will prove to be the nutritional equal of its (well-)farmed counterparts any more than the margarines of the 1970s proved to be the nutritional equal of butter – and I suspect that people rich enough to buy farmed (or wild) meat will continue to do so, so that poor quality artificial meat will become the preserve of the poor (along with conflicted vegans). The result could be to add further fuel to the fire of the health gap between rich and poor, and with no net reduction of farmland in favour of ‘nature’. It doesn’t have to be that way…

11. I can’t help feeling that for want of any considered analysis of political economy the ecomodernists (and George in his offending article, though not elsewhere in his writings) are constructing a world that, in the unlikely event it works as intended, enables the wealthy few to experience wilderness, country living and proper meat, while the hoi polloi have to make do with various simulacra of the same, which are sugar-coated as ‘modern’, high tech and thus superior. Enough of this. Small Farm Future says cut out the fossil fuels, spread the land and its resources equitably and the livestock issue will sort itself out. Does that make for plausible policy? Well, maybe not for tomorrow, but perhaps for the day after tomorrow, at least in the Jared Diamond sense3. More plausible at any rate than ecomodernist narratives of nuclear-fuelled meat for all. In the meantime, we need to keep the farm skills and the bloodlines going, and stop the ethics of the shopping aisle from undermining proper ways of farming.

12. In moist climates like the UK there is often, to oversimplify, an ecological gradation and temporal progression from high-disturbance/high-nutrient habitats to low-disturbance/low-nutrient habitats. Human agriculture essentially involves trying to hold up that progression – stopping cropland from becoming grassland, and stopping grassland from becoming woodland. It does this because per acre crop yields are higher the closer you are to the high-disturbance/high-nutrient point of the progression – and, as George rightly suggests, crop yield is an important consideration. But it’s not the only one. Other considerations include crop and wild biodiversity, the nutritional properties of the food produced, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the ecosystems in question, and the work and other resource inputs involved in maintaining them. Again to oversimplify, I’d suggest that these considerations generally all point in the other direction, favouring grassland over cropland and woodland over grassland. And ultimately all of these considerations are subsumed into a wider one – what sort of life do we want to lead? It’s a complex set of trade-offs and not one that, in my opinion, lends itself to single and simple resolutions favouring more soya, more artificial meat, more urbanisation and more untrammelled wilderness of the kind George proposes.

13. This brings me to Marc Brazeau’s argument that the food movement should commit to sustainability based on metrics rather than to what he calls “feelings, hand waving and magical thinking”. Well…the notion that we can choose the kind of farms we want and therefore the kind of society we want based on quantitative metrics strikes me as magical thinking of the highest order – magical thinking of the same kind that leads George to proceed from soya yields to pronouncing the death of livestock farming. The questions we should be asking are how can I lead a good and meaningful life, how can I reconcile my answer with the different answers that other people come up with, and how might expected or unexpected future events complicate those answers? The notion that we can devise some kind of correct quantitative answer to these ineffable questions is, frankly, ludicrous – one born from the weird cult of the modern that thinks cost-benefit analysis or lifecycle analysis represents some kind of Solomonic truth. I don’t deny that such metrics have their uses, but not if they’re used to ‘prove’ a preconceived worldview, as I think is the case with both Brazeau’s and Monbiot’s interventions. So my first inclination is not to get caught up in these number wars. But I don’t like to duck a challenge, so let me stick my neck out and suggest a couple of metrics. First, take any contemporary farming method, then reduce its permissible fossil energy use by 99% from its current level and ask if it would be possible to continue farming more or less in the same way. Second, take any contemporary food retail method, then reduce the proportion of items produced more than 10 miles from the point of retail sale to a maximum of 1% and ask if it would be possible to continue farming in the area in more or less the same way. If the answer to either question is no, then my metrics would suggest that the extant farming system is probably not sustainable.

14. So there you have it. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle and want to make the most sustainable choice – maybe listen to George and put that meat back on the shelf, but do try to support your local small-scale mixed organic farmers because someday you might need them. If you’re standing out on your field and want to make the most sustainable choice – don’t listen to George, and get yourself some livestock. If you want to think about food systems in the abstract and are seeking an appropriately precautionary food sustainability metric, I offer you the Small Farm Future 99/1 test. And if you’re George Monbiot – please don’t succumb to the dark side of the force. Go into the wilderness and let the devil tempt you if you must, but come back to us. We need you.

PS. In view of Miles King’s interesting comments below, I added a picture of an experimental wood pasture, Vallis Veg style.


  1. On this point see I.Perfecto et al. 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan.
  2. For an argument along these lines see S.Fairlie. 2016. ‘Meat tax’ The Land 19: 33-6.
  3. J.Diamond. 2013. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Allen Lane.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 5. Capitalism I – Lords, peasants & merchants

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ blog cycle (a fully referenced version of the segment below is available here):

The stage is now set for the next scene in our whistle-stop tour – the emergence of capitalism. But first a quick aside. Enmeshed in a contemporary global capitalist economy as we are, it’s easy to read it back into history as some kind of inevitable culmination of past processes. But there’s no reason to think that our present was foreordained. There’s nothing wrong, I’d argue, with tracing the lineages of modern societies back into the past, as I’ve largely been doing here – so long as we don’t fall into the trap of presuming that those lineages were determined, rather than contingent. Another issue when we come to talk about the ‘global’ capitalist economy is the tendency to hero-worship those parts of the world most to the fore in driving the globalisation – particularly if we’re from those regions ourselves. Hence the question of why Europe or ‘the west’ dominated the development of the modern capitalist world system – perhaps a necessary question, but one that’s overstressed in western thought. Doubtless this is a failing of the history I’ve been serving up here. I’m inclined to justify it on the basis that, well, I’m European, and my main interest is in using some history to help elucidate where my own society might go from here. But when it comes to telling the story of how capitalism came to take over the world, I want to remind myself to proceed with caution and keep my ‘Eurocentrism’ in view. I’ll return to this point shortly.

With apologies duly made let’s get back to my European stamping grounds where the medieval figures of the king, the lord, the merchant and the peasant are waiting to see how I’m going to turn them into capitalists. I suppose first of all I need to define capitalism – a quick definition might be that capitalism is an economic system which compels the owners of capital to reinvest their surplus in order to create more capital, typically earning a 2-3% additional return per annum historically. Doubtless it’s tempting to respond by asking firstly if the owners of capital don’t use it to try to create more capital in every economic system, and secondly if a mere 2-3% return is enough to result in all the profound changes worked upon the modern world that both capitalism’s admirers and its critics allege. To which the short answers are respectively no they don’t and yes it is. A slightly longer answer to the first question is that people throughout the ages have often dreamed of worldly wealth, but not necessarily of limitlessly compounding worldly wealth, and their societies in any case contained ideologically influential critiques of that dream, which limited its reach. Only with the rise of secular priests like Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith was money-making made a transcendent social virtue (and even Smith was pretty torn on that point). A slightly longer answer to the second point is that, over time, the logic of compound growth is such that a 2% return on investment is quite enough to turn mountains into dust, turn peasant cultivators into either slaves or CEOs, and possibly to turn the entire planet into an uninhabitable waste dump.

Let me now offer a lengthier definition of capitalism which is largely paraphrased from the writings of Wolfgang Streeck: capitalism is a ‘progressive’ society (…‘progressive’ in the sense that it aims for limitless growth of economic productivity and prosperity) that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation, and that puts this accumulated capital in the hands of a small minority with the legal privilege through rights of private property to dispose of it as they see fit, though this minority enjoys no other juridical privilege over other members – all are equal before the law.

Not all of the capitalist society so defined would seem strange to a medieval mind – not the private property and not the inequality, though a practical inequality squared with a formal equality might. But most of it would probably seem very strange indeed. So how, in the last half-millennium, did the king, lord, merchant and peasant of the absolutist age become the capitalist, the worker and the government official?

Needless to say, there are numerous explanations whose complexities I can barely touch on here. For simplicity’s sake, I’d suggest that most explanations tend to emphasise the role of one or another of those four medieval types (I suppose I should also nod to a fifth one, the priest, especially in the guise of an ascetic protestant renouncer).

In Robert Brenner’s influential analysis, the key figure was the lord, in England above all, where landowners further pressed the logic of medieval tenures commuted into short-term monetary leases in the context of the feudal crisis, creating pressures towards an income-maximising capitalist agriculture. The flipside of this ‘history from above’ is a ‘history from below’ which tells of the way that the rural poor were stripped of their access to land through the enclosure of the commons, turning them into a landless or near landless mass of rural labourers obliged to work for wages on the increasingly capitalist farm. But the structure of farming in early modern England is often called ‘triadic’ – the third figure in addition to the landlord and the wage labourer is variously called the ‘farmer’, ‘tenant’, ‘yeoman’ or rich peasant, and much contemporary historical writing emphasises their role in changing the nature of agriculture. Marxist orthodoxy sees this class as the newly emerging capitalist ‘bourgeoisie’, escaping from its peasant roots to contest for power with the fading feudal nobility at the expense of a poorer peasantry on its way to becoming a landless proletariat. But when you look at detailed historical studies, it becomes harder to divide people neatly into three distinct classes in this way. The historical record is full of peasants enclosing their own commons, landlords allying with peasants, yeomen allying with or becoming lords, tenants who were also landlords and so on. What seems to have happened in England is that a landowning class “unusually civilian in background, commercial in occupation and commoner in rank” interacted with a land-husbanding or peasant class that didn’t unite against it as a peasantry but became interdigitated with it in endlessly complex ways at the local level. In leftist and alternative farming circles I often hear people say that the ‘landowners’ took the land from the ‘peasants’, and there’s some truth in it. But it’s also true that peasants took the land from each other, and from themselves.

The result in early modern England was the demise of any kind of peasant ‘moral economy’ by the mid-17th century, a slow overturning of legislation limiting middlemen and national market integration and the spread of a larger-scale, fully commercial agriculture better able to ride market price fluctuations – one that made the feeding of the nation indeed an ‘unintended side effect’ of profit maximization in Streeck’s terms. As I’ll detail in a later post, there are in fact circumstances when a smaller-scale agriculture is better able to ride market price fluctuations – essentially when it’s primarily subsistence-oriented – but in early modern England the situation was otherwise. In some respects, the emergence of the triadic structure and of large commercial farms in England represented a crisis for the absolutist state, but the state quickly adjusted, turning itself into an aggressive fiscal-military unit with strong protectionist policies – not the only western capitalist power to build its initial economic strength through economic protectionism.

So much for the agricultural side of capitalist development in England. Another angle focuses on the merchant, and finds the key to capitalist development in his (I’d guess it was usually a ‘his’) transformation from the hated usurer of the middle ages to the heroically world-creating entrepreneur of modern times. Here, perhaps it’s worth distinguishing between the merchant capitalism that created domestic markets in England and other early capitalist powers, and the merchant capitalism of international commerce. Starting with the first, the question is how did the relatively static wealth of the medieval merchant become the vastly transformative liquid capital of a later era? Medieval merchants could be wealthy enough, to be sure – essentially by taking advantage of fragmented markets and poor transport links to pursue the age-old middleman strategy of buying cheap and selling dear in relation mostly to luxury goods. They received both grudging support from the chronically cash-strapped royal houses of the middle ages, as well as frequent repression because of the obvious political threat they posed, and the spiritual threat to Christian ideology around usury (there is, of course, a story to be told here about the oppression of Jews throughout European history). But the accumulation of merchant capital in the middle ages wasn’t central to the ‘collective reproduction’ of society in the way that the accumulation of capital was later to be, because it operated only at the margins of a society in which reproduction was based fundamentally on access to land and its productive potential. Even the physiocrats who, clustering around François Quesnay (1694-1774), arguably constituted the first systematic school of modern economic thought, considered land to be uniquely productive of value, and other forms of economic activity such as manufactures or commerce to be sterile. It was only when the ‘fictitious commodities’ of land, human labour and money were fully marketised that merchant capital could take centre stage as capital, meeting with the capitalist transformation of agriculture in a new economic settlement where agriculture, commerce and industry conjointly reproduced society as Streeck’s ‘unintended side-effect’ of profit maximization.

So part of that new settlement involved the rise of domestic manufacturing and commerce. The growth of manufacturing implies the growth of a market on the demand side for the sector’s products. The dark story to tell here is of an expropriated peasantry, turfed off the land, now forced to purchase the necessities of life from capitalist markets. But there are brighter stories, such as the one associated with the historian Jan De Vries, who raises the idea of an ‘industrious revolution’ in which ordinary households rationally chose to devote themselves to wage labour rather than agrarian subsistence, finding it easier that way to secure their subsistence – and, more than their subsistence, a hitherto unimaginable array of consumer goods besides. Of course, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – in England above all, but not only in England – the industrious revolution became the industrial revolution, when human industrial labour combined with steam power to create consumer societies in the modern mould. Again, some historians tell a dark story of the industrial revolution as a catastrophe for working people, while others tell a brighter tale, a virtuous circle of rising productivity and rising wages. It seems clear that there was little nostalgia for agrarian life in the England of the industrial revolution era among working-class people, but by then the countryside had long been transformed into an arena of capitalist agriculture, so the choice was mostly about what kind of capitalist wage labour was preferable. There’s no doubt that some people (including some working-class people, particularly adult men) benefitted from industrialisation, but I’m not sure that anyone can easily draw up the balance sheet.

To draw up that sheet, you’d have to reckon with something that’s haunted capitalist economies since the industrial revolution – the substitution of human labour by machine labour, which is typically faster, cheaper and less prone to labour disputes. Fellow farmers who own an aged tractor like me might question that last point, but there are those who argue that labour discipline rather than ‘efficiency’ has always been a key to the introduction of new technologies. I for one find this a more plausible tack than orthodox economic theory’s assumption that redundant labour will fit smoothly into another economic niche. The problem of a jobless economy increasingly exercises contemporary economic minds – particularly since automation is now diminishing white collar jobs such as law, medicine and architecture, thereby undermining the old argument that education or social ‘improvement’ is the way to get ahead in the face of a tightening unskilled job market. Indeed, technology nowadays is pushing at the boundaries of what it means to ‘discipline’ human minds or bodies, and posing troublesome questions about the very nature of being human. How that story unfolds will surely be conditioned by global energy futures as well as climate change, though debates on automation and energy seem curiously disconnected. I’d argue that this story isn’t unilineal – a more energy-constrained future won’t necessarily look like a more energy-constrained past. But perhaps that’s better framed as a historical question implicit to this essay: to what extent does energy (and, for that matter, climate) determine social forms?

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 4. Peasantries and the absolutist state

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ cycle of posts (which appears in full, with footnotes and references here), we come to the pre-dawn of the modern age in Europe:

Tracking forwards now over the later middle ages in Europe, one story to be told is the slow erosion of the peasant autonomy that had characterised the ‘Dark Ages’ – not only by the growing power of local lords, but also of royal houses which increasingly brought aristocrats to heel under the aegis of centralised, proto-modern royal absolutist states. Perry Anderson famously describes absolutism as “a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position” involving “a displacement of politico-legal coercion upwards towards a centralized, militarized summit – the Absolutist State”.

In Anderson’s account, the rise of absolutism in Europe followed the ‘feudal crisis’ that began in the 13th century when a combination of over-population relative to agrarian capacity, state fiscal crisis, wars prompted by the declining revenues of warrior aristocracies, and plague convulsed the region – a case of Malthus and the four horsemen, perhaps? In these circumstances, unfree or servile status largely disappeared, often being commuted into money rents, and attempts to shore up the old feudal order were of limited success. Peasant uprisings were common in this period – the revolt in England of 1381 being one example among many. Few of them were fully successful (Switzerland being a notable exception) but perhaps they bequeathed what Rodney Hilton calls “one of the most important if intangible legacies of medieval peasants to the modern world”, namely “the concept of the freeman, owing no obligation, not even deference, to an overlord”.

In some ways this was a contradiction at the heart of absolutism. On the one hand, the exactions and repressions bearing upon the peasantry worsened. But at the same time, centralizing royal power created more of an impetus towards something like citizenship for ordinary cultivators. A serf disaffected with the behaviour of their manorial lord had relatively few options for redress, but that became somewhat less true under absolutist regimes as royal hegemony and royal courts began asserting themselves. Or at least it became less true in western Europe where the nobility was less successful than its eastern counterpart in “clamping” the peasant masses. On the face of it, it probably should have been the other way around – peasants in the west suffered the disadvantage of occupying a more populous region where it was harder to migrate beyond the reach of state or seigneurial power. In Anderson’s account, the difference was the towns – thriving in the west but marginal in the east – and the possibility they held out, even if only theoretical, for escape and a different way of life. In his words, “The typical Western constellation in the early modern epoch was an aristocratic Absolutism raised above the social foundations of a non-servile peasantry and ascendant towns; the typical Eastern constellation was an aristocratic Absolutism erected over the foundations of a servile peasantry and subjugated towns”. In essence, it’s harder to oppress people who have other options.

Not that peasant life in absolutist western Europe was a bundle of fun. Here’s Pierre Goubert’s account of it in the absolutist France of the 17th century:

“The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable”

I often think of this quotation when people say peasant life is miserable. Well, yes it is if you’re being mulcted for every last egg and morsel of cheese by the state. Think about the splendours of Louis XIV’s court, largely built on the backs of the kind of people Goubert is describing here – who I doubt got much from the state in return. More subject than citizen. Think about what their lives might have been like without such exactions. Hence, the vision of peasant utopia sketched by Eric Wolf:

“the free village untrammeled by tax collectors, labor recruiters, large landowners, officials. Ruled over, but never ruling, they also lack acquaintance with the operation of the state as a complex machinery, experiencing it only as a “cold monster””

Those of us who nowadays speak up for the peasant way are routinely derided for our backward-looking romanticism. So it’s entertaining to note in the light of this quotation that backward-looking romanticism is in fact a real peasant trait, based to some extent on actual historical instances – Athens, the early middle ages, the feudal crisis, Switzerland, the pre-servile Russian mir (though medieval peasants also opted for forward-looking religious millenarianism, thus founding a lineage that still thrives today – see, for example, The Ecomodernist Manifesto).

But of course the critics are on firm enough ground in arguing that the historic peasant experience has generally been more like the one described by Goubert. Here, at any rate, we establish two possible paths for peasant political activism to have taken. One was to try to install something resembling as much as possible Wolf’s utopia – a ‘moral economy of the peasant’ involving non-market relationships, whether of a customary patron-client type, or something more radical and egalitarian, as sometimes emerged in medieval peasant millenarian movements. The other was to embrace the struggle for economic power which was opening up in an early modern Europe now largely free of servile labour, comprising aggressive absolutist tax states which held out at least the theoretical possibility for their subjects to become citizens. At the end of this essay I’ll come back to the former possibility – but the main drive in early modern Europe was the latter, in the context of an emerging European state system in which the complex mix of overlapping political entities that had characterized the medieval period was giving way to the sovereign national royal-military state. This system of states was solemnized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which concluded the bitter carnage of the Thirty Years’ War, in which it’s estimated that as many as a third of Europe’s inhabitants died.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 3. From the ancient to the medieval

Continuing my ‘history of the world’ series (a fully referenced version of which is available here), I finished last time by saying we should take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states…

…Well, that would be the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – ‘dark’ if only because of a relative paucity of historical evidence to illuminate them in comparison with what went before. The successor states to the great Axial Age empires were smaller geopolitical units, but the idea that this constituted some kind of civilizational collapse has been subject to considerable debate and revision in recent years, for example in post-Maurya India and in post-Roman Europe. Let me say a little about the latter in particular, as a kind of case study for our times of what a putative ‘collapse’ and a return to more local polities and more agrarian production might look like. Of course, it’s a dodgy business making inferences about the possible future fall of modern London or Washington on the basis of the fall of ancient Rome. But it’s ground we’ve been traversing a little of late in discussions on this site, and when people are confronted with the idea of a ‘return’ to small-scale farming they commonly reach for medieval notions either in order to critique the idea or to express foreboding: a small farm future would be like a small farm past, a return to ‘feudalism’ or to ‘serfdom’.

So let’s start with some terminology. ‘Feudalism’ strictly speaking refers to a situation of so-called ‘parcellized sovereignty’ in which a ruler – typically a politically weak king of a tributary rather than a tax-raising state – grants land (a fief) to a subject, over which the subject has complete jurisdiction, as part of a reciprocal if often unequal bond of loyalty. It was never a common way of organising things in the medieval world, being restricted largely to parts of western Europe and also perhaps to Japan – in both cases where weak successor polities tried to extend their rule within the ruins of a larger empire. ‘Serfdom’ is a type of labour coercion in which a rural cultivator is juridically tied to a particular estate – a widespread but far from ubiquitous arrangement in (mostly European) medieval history. I guess what people really mean by a ‘return to feudalism’ is the possible end of a brief capitalist-industrial modern interlude in global history when landownership and/or direct control of people wasn’t an especially important route to economic or political power (though even in modern societies economic power usually finds its way back to landownership). That may turn out to be the case, but control of land and control of people played out in innumerable ways across medieval history. If there’s to be a ‘new medievalism’ in the future, how that’ll feel will depend an awful lot on what kind of medievalism it is. There have been extensive debates among historians about whether powerful pre-modern states outside Europe – in China, India and the Islamic world, for example – were ‘feudal’, and if not what exactly they were. Some writers talk about ‘the tributary mode of production’ to encompass all pre-modern states built upon agrarian labour, though perhaps this conflates the ideas of tax states and tributary (land rent) states I introduced earlier. So others prefer the idea of a ‘feudal mode of production’ – but this risks in turn making all the rest of the world seem like mere variants of the peculiar fief-based post-Roman successor states of medieval Europe.

Well, I’ll leave that difficulty hanging for a moment and try to make some progress by saying a little more about those European successor states, building on the discussion we had on this site recently about the precariously non-resilient and interdependent nature of civilisations past, present and future. That discussion encompassed an essay by eco-prophet John Michael Greer invoking the loss of wheel-thrown pots in post-Roman Britain as exemplary of the precipitous collapses that can occur when the interdependencies of civilisations unravel. I’ll invoke that example as a motif in the paragraphs below.

The best known grand narrative for the demise of the Roman Empire is that it was weakened from within by the kind of fiscal crises I described earlier and then assassinated from without through invasions by ‘barbarian’ Germanic tribes. More recent revisionist history emphasises the continuity of the Empire into the early middle ages. Partly, it depends on where we’re talking about because the decline of Rome wasn’t monolithic. In Britain – a frontier region, only ever weakly Romanised – the collapse was sudden and dramatic, leaving the country in the hands of warring petty kings and indeed without its wheel-crafted pots (the artisanal products available to the average household declined with the departure of the Romans – I stand corrected on this point relative to my comments some time ago). In Gaul, the Romano-German Franks exercised a strong, imperial, tax-state hegemony, which nonetheless gradually declined in its geopolitical reach as the first millennium wore on, despite rallying points such as the Carolingian period when Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor in 800AD. In Italy, Spain and North Africa, Romano-German rule under groups such as the Lombards, Visigoths and Vandals was weaker and more regionalised – but despite the fracturing effect of events such as the Vandal withdrawal of grain exports to Rome (a situation that was soon reversed), a circum-Mediterranean trading world long persisted into the middle ages as a kind of shadow empire of Rome.

In the east, the Byzantine Empire succeeded the Eastern Roman Empire relatively smoothly, maintaining a strongly centralised imperial tax-state rule despite various ups and downs long into medieval times – probably, as I argued above, because of the peasant-citizen structure emphasised by the likes of Anderson and Wood. In summary, Britain’s post-Roman meltdown is certainly a thought-provoking example for anyone concerned about a contemporary collapse, but a rounded consideration ought to include such places as Gaul, Byzantium and Spain as well. On the other hand, the demise of Rome was largely a political and fiscal crisis – not a crisis of agrarian production, energy economics or climatic change. So there are grounds for thinking that the clouds on the horizon of contemporary civilisation may greatly overtop those that gathered over late imperial Rome. Greer’s general point that people are often almost wilfully oblivious to the contradictions threatening their civilisations seems wise, and has also been made by historians of civilizational collapse like Joseph Tainter – though in general Tainter emphasises collapse in ancient civilisations as an active strategy pursued by people who no longer found large-scale centralised political organisation expedient, in circumstances where it was possible for them to go elsewhere or do something different. “Collapse occurs,” he writes, “and can only occur in a power vacuum. Collapse is possible only where there is no competitor strong enough to fill the political vacuum of disintegration”. In contemplating the future of the 21st century global economy, some may find that a reassuring thought. Others may not.

Certainly there were some ‘vacuums’ around the margins of Europe’s post-Roman successor states in the early middle ages, and they were often filled with what Chris Wickham calls ‘the peasant mode of production’. By this, he means not the stereotypical medieval peasant doing service for a lord but, on the contrary, petty cultivators working on their own account beyond the reach of more-or-less centralised successor states or local lords. Wickham suggests that the early middle ages was a time when such peasants were relatively ascendant, and others have argued along similar lines that after the heavy fiscal burdens placed upon cultivators by Axial Age states such as Rome, the early middle ages was a good time to be a peasant. This idea that the rural working class does better in the absence of lords has recurred often enough through agrarian history in England and elsewhere – as for example in William Cobbett, writing in the early 19th century, of an inverse relation between “rich land and poor labourers” since “Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye, [the labouring people] can get but little”.

Wickham is more cautious – we know almost nothing about what the peasants in his ‘peasant mode of production’ actually thought about their lives. The decline of centralised (Roman) power was generally slow, to the extent that it probably didn’t present itself as an obvious gain (or loss) across individual lives. The discussion on this blog recently about what the lack of specialist wheel-made pots meant to the average English cultivator after the departure of the Romans is a case in point. Was it really a ‘loss’, or did living in a free peasant village come as a liberation, local hand-made pots and all? I think Wickham is right that it’s impossible to say. Still, the point remains that as well as the stereotypically captive serf or villein toiling on the master’s estate in the medieval period there were numerous categories of free peasant – sometimes beyond the reach of seigneurial control in towns, mountains, forests or remote edgelands and sometimes acknowledged as free petty landowners. In this sense, the ‘peasant’ category lacks internal coherence, stretching from people who were virtually slaves to people who were virtually kings, even if their kingdom wasn’t much bigger than a village (to complicate matters, perhaps I should note that in some medieval Islamic polities certain slaves virtually were kings, and also that there was a widespread notion across the medieval world that the ‘social death’ involved in both kingship and slavery brought commonalities to the two roles). And, throughout the middle ages and on into the modern world, peasants contested the terms of their relationships with their social superiors using every means available from crafty wheeler-dealing to pitched battles between standing armies.

I’d like to amplify some of the preceding points by turning my gaze all too briefly away from Europe and towards India – a culture-area that, more than most, has explicitly elaborated the status distinctions of agrarian life as an ideological basis for society at large, in the form of caste thinking. Much has been made of the varna distinctions that first emerged in ancient times, as famously enumerated in this origin myth from the Rig Veda:

When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers], and from his feet the shudras [servants] were born

This warrior-priest-farmer division found an echo in medieval European notions of ‘the three orders’. Less translatable into European terms was the priestly concern over ritual purity, though it’s often argued that this gained a major boost when British colonialism in India sawed off aristocratic rule and created the appearance of a timeless, textually-based Brahmanic ritual dominance over local affairs in which the caste divisions of the self-sufficient village are projected back into immemorial time. But often enough the village is neither self-sufficient nor timeless, representing something akin to Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ in a similar situation of weak state power, in which a ‘dominant caste’ of peasant landowners monopolises local political power, despite lowly ritual status in Brahmanic/varna terms. In a classic article, the anthropologist M.N. Srinivas emphasises the lowly caste status of the ‘dominant caste’ along with their political notability locally. He also notes the commonalities bringing villagers together across caste lines as well as the substantial inequalities dividing them. Without wanting to make over-facile comparisons with Europe, a similar dynamic doubtless occurred within Wickham’s ‘peasant mode of production’ and certainly within the wider ‘tributary mode of production’ within which peasants were to a greater or lesser extent enmeshed. Equality-minded modern people like me tend to think in terms of bald categories like ‘lord and peasant’ or ‘high and low caste’ and see the relationship as entirely antagonistic. There certainly was antagonism, but there was also cooperation, shifting alliances, complex gradations of status across the larger distinctions and different ways of construing the nature of social identity. I plan to develop this point further in another post. I think it’s important.

In early medieval Europe, Georges Duby emphasises the way that the economy was rather statically oriented to household provisioning rather than to the obsession with economic growth of more recent times – which perhaps isn’t surprising since it essentially was a household economy, built around the great manors:

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

However, the ‘needs’ of the manor could be prodigious in the context of a competitively status-oriented aristocratic society and often enough a powerful pressure on magnates to attract and keep retainers. This moved the economy – not, I would say, necessarily ‘forwards’ but at least ‘onwards’ inasmuch as peasant cultivators, working both within and against the grain of seigneurial power, extended the margins of cultivation and the throughput of local markets.

In ideological terms, these developments eventually resulted in an impressive intellectual and political culture of the high middle ages involving notions of corporate identity and religious transcendence – one that was rigidly inegalitarian, albeit admitting to various critiques of the established hierarchy. Much the same was true in India, although kingship was much less ideologically stabilised there, which provides one key for understanding caste and other aspects of Indian history. There are some contemporary writers who see possibilities in medieval religious ideas of transcendence for a modern religious practice able to tame the furies of our capitalist materialism – certainly a thought-provoking, if troublesome, idea.

The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 2. Agriculture & civilisation

It’s time for the second instalment of ten-and-a-half in my history of the world cycle. But first a couple of brief announcements. First, I just wanted to mention that I’m lucky enough to be getting a number of my blog posts replicated on various other websites. But I’m also finding that I’m spending too much time online and not enough working my holding, so I just wanted to mention that I feel the need to prioritise responding to comments here on my own website at Small Farm Future and may not find the time to respond on other sites, much as I’d like to. Apologies about that – but please do feel free to talk to me if you want to at Small Farm Future where I’ll do my best to respond.

Second, talking of my holding I thought it was time for a new header photo, and what better than this recent drone photograph of (most of) my own humble abode, as fine an example of the gentleman-peasant’s farm as you can find in all of, er, northwest Frome. I’m guessing it’s fairly obvious where the boundaries of my holding are. Something that may not be so clear is where my house is – not the residential cluster on the left, which is outside my boundaries, but the unobtrusive buildings towards the right at the end of the track, which took years of bureaucratic wrangling to gain assent for. Such are the vagaries of the English planning system. But how did we get from the Palaeolithic foraging of my last post to the very apogee of mixed agrarianism shown in the picture? I’m glad you asked. To answer it, I need to go to way back when and return to my main historical thread by looking at some of the tensions within…

2. Agriculture and civilisation*

A major one historically is that between tillers and herders. Livestock herding can’t support population densities to match that of arable cropping but it’s easier to do, it’s compatible with a wider set of ecological circumstances, and its characteristic practices – a wandering way of life, horsemanship, defence of ambiguous boundaries against animal and human predators – provide skills that are readily transferable to warfare. Indeed, much of the history of Eurasia can be understood in terms of conflicts between tillers and pastoralists that only ended decisively in favour of the tillers in relatively recent times as a result of their larger surpluses and more stable forms of political hierarchy. As an advocate of a mixed farming, I’d favour splitting the difference and doing a bit of both. But in historical terms mixed farming is quite a modern high-tech method – which is rather ironic in view of the fact that large-scale commercial agriculture in the wealthy countries today has largely reverted to the old-fashioned separation of arable and pastoral.

There are distinctions worth highlighting within pastoralism too. The classic case is that of grassland peoples who are ethnically distinct from their cropland foes – Mongols, Tatars, Huns etc. But in some cases the distinction maps within a given ‘ethnic’ population over time (eg. the probable abandonment of grain farming in favour of pastoralism in Neolithic Britain as a response to climate change and population decline – lessons for the future there, perhaps?) or space (eg. the distinction between pastoral desert nomads and townsfolk in Arab lands). Then there are mountain or forest pastoralists living a largely self-reliant existence beyond the geographical reach of the hierarchical civilisations bearing down on the tillers of the soil (Switzerland furnishes one later historic example). Extending that logic, there’s the paramilitary pastoralism of frontier or outlaw zones, where growing crops is impossible because it invites enemy expropriation – the reivers of the England-Scotland borders in late medieval and early modern times spring to mind. Finally, there’s the special case of the commercial pastoralist, often in the employ of noble or capitalist landowners. I’ll shortly return to some of these historical types.

But getting back to the political centres, and to my chronology, the agricultural epoch eventually brought forth large-scale Iron Age empires in various parts of the world: to name a few, in the circum-Mediterranean, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia; in the Indian sub-continent, the Mauryas; and in China, the Qin and Han dynasties. Smaller and somewhat more mysterious centralised states also arose contemporaneously in the Americas, such as the Olmecs. In the Old World at least, these strong states typically unified large areas through a tripartite and conjoint package of standing army, standard coinage and market trade. This created a set of centre-periphery dynamics which look fairly familiar in the modern world: population growth, population movement (forced or unforced) between periphery and centre, economic growth and rising court and government expenditures.

It’s worth distinguishing between tax and tribute states in the ancient world. Generally, collecting taxes is much more remunerative than taking tribute or extracting rents from land, but more burdensome to organise – so it was only undertaken by states with high revenue costs such as large standing armies or civic administrations. Once established, tax states tend to be stronger, with a more centralised apparatus and fewer tendencies towards fragmenting into regionalised polities. It would be too glib to superimpose a second distinction – between citizen and subject – neatly onto the tax/tribute distinction, but I’d suggest there’s an association. Subjects typically expect little or nothing in return for paying tribute – perhaps at best military protection from other would-be tribute-takers whose rapacity is worse. Citizens, on the other hand, usually expect a whole lot more in return for their payments – services, legal process, perhaps even a say in governance. It’s generally worth asking the question in relation to any particular social actor – am I a subject or a citizen?

In any case, whether we’re talking about strong tax states or weaker tributary ones, the dynamics of territorial, fiscal and population growth created problems for ancient governments of rising state costs that they could only really try to solve in one (or more) of five ways, which again have endured down to the present. They could (first) squeeze the populace harder through tax or other exactions, or (second) expand territorially through conquest, placing the fiscal burden mainly on the conquered – at least until, in time, the conquered too became citizens (one of the problems in the late Roman empire, with its contingents of wandering, militarised Romano-Germans). The disadvantage of these two options is that they involved annoying a lot of people, thus potentially inciting blowback. A third option was various forms of credit or debt finance – essentially, acting as if you have the resources to achieve your ends even when you don’t – a strategy that can work very well, especially if the economy is growing. But eventually debts are almost always called in.

A fourth strategy is to increase economic productivity, but that’s easier said than done. The simplest way to achieve it is by drawing down harder on (often relatively non-renewable) natural resources like soil (or, later, oil), the problem being the potential ecological blowback. An example here is the renowned Vallis Veg grass-mowing trial, which showed conclusively that the medieval scythe was a trade-off free improvement on the ancient sickle, whereas modern mechanised mowing technology involves a less efficient drawdown on non-renewable resources than the scythe. Another problem with Strategy 4 is that, even if initially successful, it tends to prompt population growth and further expenditures which soon bring the original problem around again. The final option is to fiddle about, perhaps by adopting some or all of the other measures in mild form while tightening the government’s fiscal belt, and hoping to keep the resulting tensions in check.

Most of the early civilisations of this so-called ‘Axial Age’ eventually crumbled through their inability to resolve the various contradictions outlined above, perhaps with the exception of China, whose emperors proved for the most part to be highly adept fiddlers down the centuries. In a moment, I’ll consider the consequences of this crumbling, but first I want to look briefly at some other aspects of the ancient empires, beginning with their class structures.

At the bottom end of the scale were various gradations of unfree workers – perhaps a key distinction being between debt peonage, when locals or insiders fell upon hard times (a fate that could happen to almost anyone), and a more juridically absolute chattel slavery, typically applying to people coming in as strangers, often war captives. In his classic account of the transition from ancient to medieval Europe, Perry Anderson identifies the invention of chattel slavery as a new development in the classical societies of both Greece and Rome – but Greece relied more heavily on free peasant farming, whereas Rome depended on the large estate, the latifundium, worked by the gang labour of those enslaved in the empire’s impressive outward drive. So when that drive finally faltered and the Roman empire entered its terminal crisis, the latifundium-based western empire quickly crumbled almost into nothing, whereas the Hellenized eastern empire fared better – its strong tax state and localised small-farm traditions transmogrified into the Byzantine empire, which persisted through various ups and downs for almost another millennium before being carved up by the successor empires of the middle ages. More recent historical research de-emphasises the importance of slave-based latifundia in the west, but so far as I can see doesn’t wholly undermine Anderson’s thesis about the different eastern and western paths.

A parallel dimension of difference between east and west was the relationship between city and country. Rome institutionalised a chronic exploitation of its peasant-soldiers, as described by Tiberius Gracchus: “the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else…they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and…have not a single clod of earth that is their own”. Gracchus’ attempted agrarian reforms in favour of small farmers, the Lex Sempronia Agraria, contributed to his assassination and paved the way a generation or so later for the proto-fascist structure of military strongman, large-scale absentee landownership, urban mass and subjugated peasantry achieved by Julius Caesar, pioneer of the ‘Caesarist’ political tradition that has recurred often enough down the ages. In Athens, Solon’s reforms abolishing debt peonage, and those of his successors in building a democratic polity that limited aristocratic power, were more successful, allowing representation to the voice of the peasant-citizen. Ellen Meiksins Wood has pressed this point further, rejecting the notion that the flowering of classical Athens stemmed from the luxury of its reliance on chattel slavery, which she suggests was limited and marginal to agricultural production. For her, the glories of democratic Athens were essentially the achievement of a free peasant society, and a beacon of possibilities illuminating later ages. But it was eclipsed through a series of conflicts, starting with its defeat in the Peloponnesian war, typically involving alliances between rival monarchical and oligarchical states and its own disaffected aristocracy. So maybe there’s a warning beacon for later ages there too.

Another aspect of the ancient civilisations worth mentioning is their spiritual-philosophical focus. While rulers imposed political order on the ground, thinkers imposed spiritual order in the mind – this was the time of Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Plato and – much later on the scene – Muhammad. The ideas that these figures came up with had many differences, which were quite consequential for the politics of the societies they influenced, but the traditions they founded shared a tendency towards universalising, systemic thought. Typically, they were cosmologies of town and merchant, which sought to break the particular identities of kin-group or place. “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” as Jesus sternly put it.

From this flowed a tension in most spiritual traditions between a structured religious practice with formal institutional trappings which usually validated the political status quo – the religion of church and state – and world-denying renunciative practices which were usually more individualistic or schismatic, transcending and critiquing church-state worldviews. These two poles of religious practice are endlessly malleable and have been reworked according to the designs of numerous groups, classes and social movements down the ages. In the Axial Age civilisations, they often played out in the form of a spiritual and sometimes a material/military clash between a church closely identified with urban aristocratic rule, and renunciative religion associated with the farmers and herders of the rural fringe who took a dim view of urban decadence. This was often expressed in terms of male asceticism and military virtue, and female chastity, especially in view of the pervasive loosening and marketization of social relations in the cities. Think Babylon, Sodom, Gomorrah – or the idea, curious to the religions of city and trader, that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. This tension too has contemporary resonance.

One other feature of Axial Age spiritual thought in the west worth mentioning in passing was the notion that humanity had acquired godlike powers – the Greek myth of Prometheus (‘Promethean environmentalism’ was a forerunner of what now usually goes by the name of ‘ecomodernism’), or the story of Eden in the Book of Genesis (“Behold the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil”, as God put it). Perhaps it seems laughable to us today that these vanished civilisations with their rudimentary technologies should consider their powers divine. Judging by the titles of the books we now write, or our soi disant geological imprimatur of the ‘Anthropocene’, we seem to feel that our Iron Age predecessors jumped the gun, and should have left it to us to do the God stuff. But it’s at this point that Professor Dylan’s admonitions keep coming back to me “…as the present now will later be past…for the wheel’s still in spin…” And so on. These Axial Age philosophical traditions emphasised the hubris of human claims to divinity – a wise counsel even then, I’d argue, and a still wiser one now. So let us leave the overworked seam of human divinity and take a peek at what came after the ‘Axial Age’ states.

* A fully referenced version of this essay can be found here.

The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 1. Origins

So it’s time for the first of my 10½ blog posts detailing the history of the world – essential (?) background reading for my forthcoming effort to lay out the basis for a plausible-ish and sustainable future peasant republic.

Just one further preliminary note on references – I’ve found it too much of a faff trying to mirror the footnotes and references in the full text into each successive blog post, so I’ve just stripped out all the references from the blog posts. You can find a fully referenced version of the entire essay here.


The land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a-hurtin’

Old Crow Medicine Show


1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas. It bequeathed to us its descendants, so the primatologists suggest, a tendency towards (particularly male, but also female) status ranking. Do we need to go that far back into our evolutionary past in order to understand the nature of status competition in contemporary societies? Perhaps it’s a sociological heresy to say so, but I think the answer is quite possibly yes.

For a long time the direct ancestors of our genus were a rather minor lineage in the great ape family, condemned to life on the margins of the vast African rainforests where their betters reigned supreme. But climate change brought the thinning of the forests, a descent from the trees onto more dangerous ground, and powerful selective pressures to develop our intelligence for self-defence. Suddenly, those dumb fruit-eaters of the remnant rainforest didn’t seem quite so clever after all. In this respect, our evolution exemplifies an important process captured by the Nobel-prize winning scientist and leading theorist of biological and social change, Bob Dylan, in a much-cited research paper4 from the 1960s entitled ‘The times they are a-changin’’:

The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

This, indeed, is a recurrent theme through natural and human history. Perhaps something worth pondering as we reflect on humanity’s past successes and our uncertain future – for the wheel’s still in spin and there’s no telling who that it’s namin’.

Anyway, for a few million years our genus Homo and its ancestors mastered the art of foraging and hunting for food, mostly in Africa but with major forays by relatives like Homo erectus and then the Neanderthals and finally modern Homo sapiens across vast swathes of the globe. Humans were widely, if thinly, spread across the land masses of pretty much the entire planet bar Antarctica by about 11,000 years ago (by this time Homo sapiens was the only surviving species of our genus – more by luck than judgment, according to some paleoanthropologists). This primordial colonisation is arguably still one of humanity’s more impressive achievements. Indeed, there’s a view that most of the really important aspects of human history were pretty much done and dusted by the end of the Ice Age. If below I ignore this large sweep of history in favour of the whizz-bang of the last couple of millennia, it’s not because I necessarily think the latter is more important in any cosmic sense – just more important in terms of helping to think through where we go from here.

There is, however, one aspect of humanity’s long hunter-gatherer prehistory which is perhaps of ongoing importance. The characteristic form of social organisation during this period was the small nomadic band. The evolutionary contradiction here is that it’s in any one member of the band’s interests to exert their apelike dominance over the others, but it’s in the collective interests of the band’s membership not to let that happen – hence, the ubiquity in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies of what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls ‘reverse dominance hierarchies’ organised against would-be dominants by the majority of their colleagues. So humans have a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise status orders elevating themselves above their fellows using whatever relatively unexpansive status markers are to hand, and also a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise against them and assert some notion of equality. Political systems, I’d suggest, that push too hard at enforcing only one pole of this inequality-equality dyad don’t usually succeed for too long (though often enough for way too long when measured against the individual human lifespan), and they tend to cause a lot of human misery. So maybe it’s best to let people strut their stuff, but then be sure to take them down a peg or two. That, at any rate, explains the general character of human status dynamics from the perspective of evolutionary ecology. If you’d prefer it served up as a philosophy of being, then perhaps I could offer you Nietzsche’s ‘slave revolt in morals’. As a story of human motivation? Max Weber’s ‘Class, status, party’ is the go-to text. But if you’re pushed for time, Dr Seuss’s story The Sneetches pretty much tells you all you need to know. I’m not sure about the happy ending, though. And one long-term aspect of inequality stressed neither in Seuss’s analysis or in my account here is gender. I aim to write about that separately soon.

Anyway, the relatively egalitarian foraging band lifestyle generally succumbed quite quickly with the emergence of agriculture. Actually, let me complicate that a little. The distinction between foraging and agriculture isn’t as clear-cut as might be supposed, and there was undoubtedly a long prehistory of agriculture-lite habitat manipulation and semi-domestication which formed part of the adaptable toolkits of many foraging peoples stretching far back into the Palaeolithic. But in various parts of the world starting around 10,000 years ago, this take-it-or-leave-it agricultural style gave way to more rigorous crop exploitation – typically of cereals and grain legumes – the so-called agricultural or Neolithic revolution. It generally seems to be thought that the shift from foraging to farming was one of degree not kind, but that this ultimately created a positive feedback loop between population and cultivation intensity. There are plenty of reasons to think that with hindsight this development wasn’t such a great idea, but the fact is that arable agriculture can support vastly more people per acre than foraging – people, moreover, who are invested in specific places because they have to bring the harvest in, and who typically require more finely specified entitlements over land usage. Hence, there are strong affinities between the emergence of agrarian society and the emergence of centralised polities or states.

At this point, ‘history’ begins in the sense that we enter a story of ever-compounding inequality backed by state power. The clan, lineage or ‘big man’ societies often associated with a so-called ‘primitive’ agriculture can organise more people than a nomadic hunting band, and therefore tend to prevail in any conflicts between them – but the kind of political authority they organise is unstable and rarely lasts beyond an individual’s lifetime or the vicissitudes of kin dynamics. However, the agrarian dynamic easily fosters more accumulative regimes of surplus and status extraction which can found hereditary inequality – chieftaincies, aristocracies, kingdoms, empires. It can take a long time for such regimes to emerge out of a primal turn to agriculture but, once they have, secondary versions quickly replicate within their wider geopolitical sphere through a kind of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ ratchet effect. Each successive form can organise ever larger numbers of people which it can direct against its rivals. So it’s not that agrarian societies are ‘better’ than foraging ones in any general sense – it’s just that they’re better at getting more feet on the ground and more hands on sword hilts.  Hence the paradoxical dynamic of agrarianism – sedentary peoples prey to ever-spiralling forms of hierarchy, and producing offshoots of their own societies through a cycle of food surplus production and demographic pressure yielding migratory farmer-colonists able to overwhelm less centralised and surplus-oriented societies. Thus was the fate of foraging peoples sealed as early as the Neolithic in much of the Old World, and not a whole lot later in parts of the New. And so at this point foragers largely fade from my story.

I should, however, nod to the thesis of Pierre Clastres that various foraging societies clung on to their lifeways because they had a pretty good idea of what life would be like in an agrarian society under a centralised state, and didn’t much like the sound of it. Other thinkers have also worked along this grain of the non-inferiority of the foraging life – a minority theme in scholarship, I think largely because of the power of contemporary ideologies of progress (see Section 7). Personally, I wish there was a bit more of the former, and a bit less of the latter. The point is not a full-on romanticism, that everything about the old ways was better than the new. It’s that historical change can involve losses as well as gains, and if we can attune ourselves to them, we might ease our future path.

I should probably also mention that agriculture makes possible much more elaborate divisions of specialised labour than is possible in foraging societies, a point that’s related to the rise of centralised states with their political, military and religious specialists, but not entirely reducible to it. Modern economic theory makes much of the division of labour as the foundation of prosperity, but you can have too much of a good thing. However, a problem with societies that have too little in the way of a division of labour – too little in the way of economic exchange – is not so much their lack of prosperity (which has little meaning for such a society) but their lack of political stability. Finding the Goldilocks zone where the division of labour is ‘just right’ strikes me as a major historical problem, which is all the harder to solve in our contemporary society with the availability of cheap and abundant but-with-strings-attached energy. I plan to discuss this more in a future post.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts

About a year ago I started publishing on this site various projections for how the future population of southwest England where I live might be able to feed itself substantially on the basis of small-scale, relatively self-reliant ‘peasant’ farming – convincing myself, if no one else, in the process that such a ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ might be feasible. The notion that a small farm future of this sort may occur and may even be desirable and worth striving for is, I confess, hardly a mainstream political position. And yet it’s one that I’ve come to, for reasons that I’ve documented here over the years. Essentially, I think that humanity faces a series of interlocking ecological, economic, political, cultural and social crises that, if they’re resolvable at all, are most resolvable through a turn to small-scale, predominantly self-reliant farming. Actually, I see this way of life less as a ‘solution’ to modern ‘problems’ as a non-modern way of being that’s intrinsically less problematic. But I’m anxious to avoid easy dualities – not everything about modernity is necessarily bad, and not everything in a turn to small farm agrarianism would necessarily be good. I’ll say more about that in due course.

The main difficulties in achieving a turn to small-scale agrarianism are not agricultural, but social and political. So I now want to turn my attention away from issues of farm scale and structure towards these socio-political issues. As I started thinking about them, I found myself constantly drawn to history and to what the past may be able to teach us about the possible course of a small farm future. I’m still not really sure whether it does have much to teach us. I said above that a small farm future would be non-modern, but that’s not the same as pre-modern: a non-modern small farm future needn’t necessarily much resemble a pre-modern small farm past. Nevertheless, since the past is the main guide we have to the future, it seems like a good place to start. Originally I planned to write a blog post that was to be sardonically entitled ‘The history of the world in 10½ paragraphs’ (with apologies to Julian Barnes) in which I was going to lay out a few broad historical themes before moving on to examining the socio-political shape of my future Peasant’s Republic. But the task kept growing – there has, after all, been quite a lot of history. Almost before I knew it, it had turned into ‘The history of the world in 10½ blog posts’ – still, of course, without going much further than laying out a few broad themes. So this is what I’m now publishing. The entire c.27,000 word essay is now available from the Publications page of my website, but I’m also going to publish it in hopefully more digestible week-by-week blog-post size instalments over the next couple of months.


It’s probably worth devoting just a few sentences to explaining what this exercise is about and what it isn’t. It’s surely obvious that nobody can really write a ‘history of the world’, however many words or years they devote to it. So I haven’t even tried. What I have tried to do is lay out the main patterns and structures of the past as I see them that I think we have to reckon with today if we’re to wrest a comfortable and sustainable future (which I think will have to be largely a small farm future) from the troubled present. This involves tracing political and economic relationships over large parts of the globe, which partly justifies my title. But I’ve made no attempt to trace human history even-handedly across all times and places. I’m open to comments and criticisms of things I’ve omitted, but if they’re of the form ‘your analysis is wholly lacking in an account of the struggle for self-determination in Mozambique’ my response will be a rather uninterested ‘yep, you got me there’. Challenges to my rendering of the larger structures I discuss will gain more of my interest.

My focus here is mostly on the way that local societies, local farms, local human ecologies, get incorporated into bigger political and economic structures – and conversely how they de-incorporate or resist that process. In general I think de-incorporation is a good idea, and is probably going to happen anyway whether it’s a good idea or not. But I don’t think any kind of de-incorporation or local autarky is necessarily desirable, nor do I think large political structures are necessarily undesirable. For me, the relationship between the state and local human ecologies is problematic precisely because it admits to no easy answers. On reflection, I fear that I haven’t justified here as clearly as I should have done why small-scale or ‘peasant’ farming is so important, but perhaps it’ll be easier to do that in another post in the light of the historical analysis provided here.

Another thing I say little about here, even though it’s the overarching context for the whole essay, is the set of ‘environmental’ problems humanity currently faces in relation to ecological degradation, climate change, energy futures and so on (I’ve written about them fairly extensively elsewhere on this website). This is essentially because I don’t think issues of energy and environment have generally been the fundamental movers of human history in the past (which is not to say they haven’t been important). I suspect they may be prime movers of human history in the future, and one of the problems humanity now faces is learning to acknowledge this novel fact. Joe Clarkson drew my attention to Fred Cottrell’s interesting book Energy and Society, which I might have incorporated more fully here if I’d come across it earlier. Energy capture certainly provides one worthwhile frame on which to hang an account of human history. So perhaps does crop development. These aren’t the frames I’ve chosen here, but that’s not to say that they (along with other aspects of ecological constraint) aren’t crucial factors now facing us. The truth is quite the opposite.

As I wrote the essay, I tried to keep in mind the hope that people other than me might read it, but as per my last post in many ways it’s a rather personal odyssey through my intellectual history, and also a kind of aide memoire for issues I’d like to come back to in the future, so the essay involves a certain amount of personal wrestling with historical issues where I feel the need to work out a position. Which is another way of asking forgiveness for what I fear may seem like various weird digressions in the text. I’ve fretted over this essay, perhaps a little too much, and probably re-edited, cut and pasted it too many times for its own good, so if there are any parts of it that make you think ‘Oh for goodness sake, cut this out and just get on with it’, I’d be interested to hear. If, on the other hand, you feel that way about the entire essay, then there’s no need to contact me – but sorry for wasting your time. For the time-pressed, let me broadcast upfront the main issues I’ve extracted from my historical analysis which I think we need to juggle with in figuring out a just and sustainable small farm future:

  • A human tendency towards both status ranking and equality
  • A tendency for modes of human organisation to ‘leapfrog’ each other through time
  • A tendency for new forms of centralised political organisation to elicit secondary versions around them
  • A difficult balance between under- and over-development of the division of labour
  • An ambiguity within the centralised state as both predator and benefactor
  • Class distinctions in both city and countryside with which central state actors can ally or organise against
  • Religious or spiritual traditions that cleave either towards or against extant political power
  • The (slender) possibilities for more-or-less autarkic agrarian production in the interstices of centralised political power
  • The possibilities for cooperation as well as conflict within a class or caste stratified agrarian society
  • The enabling effect on agrarian society of alternative ways of life (urbanism, or the public sphere, for example)
  • The numerous geopolitical forms of state power, which are not limited to the nation-state
  • The difficulties of distinguishing sharply between lord and peasant, or between landowner, tenant and labourer
  • The significance of militarised or demilitarised frontiers for economic development
  • The core-periphery geographic structuring of the economy in one or more ‘world systems’
  • The possibilities for stable income/population equilibria (‘high level equilibrium traps’) that limit ‘unnatural’ expansion or technological hyper-development
  • The tendency for economic ‘cores’ to export the responsibility for less remunerative agrarian activities to the ‘periphery’
  • The tendency for extractive ecological linkages from core to periphery
  • The tendency to find ‘reconstituted peasantries’ where centralised polities fail
  • The differentiated nature of peasantries, and the unequal power relations within them
  • The inherent (and growing) tendency towards crisis in the capitalist economy
  • The tendency for capitalist economies to virtualise money, leading to instability
  • The multiple stories we tell ourselves about the nature of the modern – as development, as regress, as the coming-to-history of ‘a people’, as possibility, as despair
  • The tendency for people to avoid overt politics if they can, and seek a quiet life
  • The tendency for virtually all forms of economic production (‘peasant’, capitalist, communist etc.) under the modernist shadow of capitalism to tend towards or revert to capitalist production
  • The need to develop a political economy that’s not based on compound economic growth and the associated drawdown of non-renewable resources
  • The need to learn open-mindedly from the past and to acknowledge that historically people sometimes may have found some better solutions to their problems than we’re currently finding for ourselves – but without extolling the special virtues of those times or wishing ourselves back to them, so much as using them to build what Kropotkin called “an absolutely new fact” for ourselves.

If you require any further justification for those points…well, you’ll just have to read my next 10½ blog posts…

In relation to notes and referencing, at the risk of demonstrating my utter unoriginality I decided to reference the essay fairly comprehensively so that I can use it easily as a resource for future writing. I’m publishing the entire essay along with notes and bibliography on the Publications page of the website, and then chopping it up into weekly blog posts with footnotes (but not references) at the end of each post. If you want to chase up a reference, you’ll find it in the bibliography at the end of the full essay on the publications page.

I hope the essay might find some interested readers. I’ve certainly found it interesting to write. The key historical figures in it, ones who lurk forever at the interface between the local human ecologies and larger political-economic structures discussed here, are peasantries – endlessly pitied, exploited, romanticised, derided, expropriated or written off, but unquestionably still here. The essay is dedicated, in more ways than one, to them – though not, I hope, uncritically.

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas.

…well, that’s probably enough for one blog post. We’ll pick up the thread again next week. But if you can’t wait that long to find out what happens next, you know where to look.

Back to the future

Last week I succumbed to a bad habit of mine that I’ve been trying to put behind me – leaving snarky comments on ecomodernist websites. I won’t dwell too much here on the ins and outs of the issues, or on ecomodernism itself – hell, there’s a whole page of this site devoted to that, even if it’s not very up-to-date. In this post, I’d just like to extract a few kernels from the issue that are relevant to my next cycle of posts. But first let me venture a working definition of the creed for anyone who’s lived thus far in blessed innocence of it: ecomodernism typically combines overenthusiasm for a handful of technologies as putative solutions to contemporary problems (typically nuclear power and GM crops), underenthusiasm for any social orders other than capitalist modernity, a fetishisation of both humanity and nature as surpassing splendours each in their separate spheres, questionable evidence-selection to support the preceding points, and high disdain for those who take a different view.

The question I want to address in this post is why I get so easily riled whenever I encounter professions of this faith. Well, I guess I got off to a bad start: my first experience of it was a brush with the absurdly apoplectic Graham Strouts, and then the only marginally slicker Mike Shellenberger. I’d acknowledge that there are less strident voices within the movement who genuinely think it represents humanity’s best remaining shot at escaping the dangers encircling us. And since all the remaining shots available to us seem pretty long ones to me, if the ecomodernists could only concede the likely length of those odds I wouldn’t so much begrudge them their schemes. But – other than being the unfortunate possessor of a bilious personality, perhaps the likeliest explanation for my ire – I’d submit three general reasons as to why ecomodernism gets under my skin.

The first is that I think it suffers from an intellectual phoniness. Not deliberately in most cases, I’m sure. But it reminds me of my time in academia. It reminds me of the kind of student, competent but coasting, who produces an overconfident seminar paper. It’s not that they haven’t done the reading and marshalled some evidence – though not quite as much as they think. It’s not that they haven’t put it together into some kind of logical framework that they genuinely think best fits the data – though not quite as neatly as they suppose. It’s that they haven’t fully inhabited the task. They’ve looked the world in the face, flinched, and written a Powerpoint presentation with a set of facts and bullet points instead. It reminds me, also, of the kind of academic colleague who’s charming and persuasive, who has a good story to tell, who hangs out with the right crowd, who churns out a large quantity of mediocre work which won’t endure but which serves their near-term purposes pretty well. It contrasts with the people who pursue the path of scholarship – meticulous, self-critical and questing after truths, rather than just a tale to tell. I think everyone who does intellectual work should aspire to work of the latter sort, and worry that their actual work doesn’t measure up, worry that it succumbs to the worldly temptations of the former, of being a merely ‘successful’ intellectual. I don’t think ecomodernism worries about this nearly enough to be convincing.

And when it comes to telling stories, ecomodernism has a great one to tell. People really want to hear and believe in it – which means it’s rife with the potential for mischief-making. Essentially, it tells us that there’s nothing wrong with the way that we in the ‘developed’ countries now live – all that’s needed is for us to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation (which can be achieved relatively easily with some technological fixes) and for us to ensure that global resources are better shared among all the people of the world. And along the way it delivers a pleasingly counterintuitive message: some of the things environmentalists have traditionally told us were bad – like nuclear power, GM crops, pesticides, and the expropriation of peasantries – are actually pretty good, and some of the things they’ve traditionally told us were good – like organic farming and photovoltaic or wind energy – are generally pretty bad. It’s not hard to see why this story is so appealing to many people of goodwill living in the overdeveloped countries. All the more reason for its proponents to be sure of the line that they’re spinning and to welcome dissenting voices if they aspire to be scholars rather than spiritual preceptors.

And yet this is so often not the case. I’d better restrict myself to just one small example from one of the articles that triggered my ire recently, Emma Marris’s Can we love nature and let it go?, which involves so much tendentious reasoning in among the odd telling point that I’ll be chasing my tail for page upon page if I fully engage with her arguments. The article makes the familiar pitch for decoupling human consumption from resource drawdown. In Marris’s words, “we must reduce our per-capita and cumulative human footprint”, an appealing goal because “it does not pit the planet’s poor people against its endangered species” and it involves “no grand sacrifices”. And, Marris says, decoupling has already begun: “It took around 25 percent less “material input” to produce a unit of GDP in 2002 as compared with 1980.”

Not much to object to there in principle. No facts I’d seek to dispute. The problem is the ecomodernist story Marris builds around it, because I see a wholly different one lurking in her text – I’ll briefly try to draw it out, with the caveat that I’m doing it in a back-of-the-envelope way to illustrate a point. I’m not offering polished scholarship.

So, taking Marris’s relative decoupling point (she doesn’t distinguish between relative and absolute decoupling), it’s true that there’s been some improved efficiency in resource use. World Bank data, for example, show that between 1980 and 2000 (roughly the timeframe chosen by Marris to exemplify this point) global carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy used declined by about 5%. They did then climb back up so that by 2015 they exactly matched those of 1980, which kind of makes me wonder if Marris’s timeframe was deliberately cherry-picked, but let’s leave that aside. The more significant point is that from 1980 to 2000 actual emissions increased by 27%, and actual gross world product increased by 300%. If we extend the timeframe from 1980 to 2013 (the last year figures are available from the World Bank dataset) then actual emissions increased by 84% and gross world product by 589%.

I’ve played with these figures to construe various future scenarios, but I ran out of time and enthusiasm to put them into any kind of presentable numerical framework. However, I think I’m on firm ground in saying that if we want to achieve some modicum of global equity by 2050 while giving ourselves a shot at keeping climate change under 2oC by following the kind of ecomodernist ‘decoupling’ and ‘no grand sacrifice’ scenario presented by Marris then we’ll probably have to find at least another world’s worth of economic activity in the next thirty years, adding another $80 trillion at a minimum to the existing gross world product of $80 trillion, and we’ll have to do that while decreasing carbon dioxide emissions year on year from now on at a little more than the rate we’ve been increasing them ever since 1980. In other words, Marris’s figures for relative decoupling between 1980 and 2002 don’t even begin to capture the magnitude of that task. Now, I acknowledge that her article is primarily about sparing land for nature rather than climate change as such (though it’s doubtful how much ‘nature’ will survive a rapidly warming world). And, sure, we can project the emergence of trend-breaking new technologies (nuclear power being an ecomodernist favourite, of course). But I’m not seeing evidence that takes these decoupling conjectures out of the realm of wishful thinking. Frankly, it amazes me that someone can invoke data suggesting a modicum of relative decoupling as any kind of harbinger of an adequately reduced cumulative human footprint in a world of ‘no grand sacrifices’ without conceding any plausibility to bleaker visions. This is the phoniness of which I speak. And there’s a lot of it about – philosopher Julian Baggini was at it only last week in this Guardian article.

So let me state as clearly as I can the implications of the story I see written in the margins of the ecomodernist decoupling tale: it will be impossible to avert dangerous global climate change unless the current association between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth is reversed immediately, an event whose likelihood is not suggested by any current evidence. If the solution to global poverty is sought through economic growth in the absence of fast absolute decoupling, then emissions will greatly increase, hastening the onset of dangerous climate change and threatening any anti-poverty gains.

So it seems to me we face a situation in which both absolute greenhouse gas emissions and major global disparities in wealth need to be reduced rapidly, and the familiar tools for achieving this of technological innovation and economic growth simply aren’t up to the task. In these circumstances, I think we need at the very least to start considering some radically different ways of being – including the possibility of people in the richer countries living and farming more like people in the poorer countries. It’s no longer a question of trying “to squeeze more out of less” as Marris puts it – something that in any case we’ve signally failed to do (at best, we’ve squeezed even more out of more). I think it’s now a question of trying “to do different with different”. In fact, ‘doing different with different’ should always be a question – the ecomodernist notion that capitalist modernity is some kind of summit of human achievement (Anthony Warner: “By pretty much any measure you can think of, the golden age is now”) is an ethnocentric fancy. And this is the second reason why ecomodernism makes me angry – its complete ideological closure to doing different with different, which results from a crude and unexamined commitment to the ideology of the modern: for ‘progress’, against ‘romanticism’. Frankly, it annoys me that people trying to articulate agrarian populist approaches to intractable problems of poverty and environmental degradation have to waste so much time engaged in rearguard defences around these points – “No, I don’t think that peasants are all happy in their simple poverty, that we should ‘go back’ to living a simple, preindustrial life” and so on and so on. Worse, under the star of ecomodernism this debate quickly turns into an argument for biotechnology as intrinsically pro-poor – Bt cotton, glyphosate etc. as saviours of the poor. There’s a whole other side to that argument, but it’s a place I’m reluctant to go for fear of contributing to the unedifying spectacle of rich westerners arguing with other rich westerners about which of them is the true champion of the poor. We need to get over ourselves here, and debate how to overcome the scourge of poverty with openness. Moral high country blocks the view.

The third reason for my anger is the David v Goliath nature of the battle. I don’t know anything about the funding of the ecomodernist firmament, but it’s a slick old business, with its thinktanks, TED talks, manifestos and briefings telling politicians, business leaders and the general public pretty much what they want to hear. Contrast that with the mere handful of academics, grassroots groups and lone wolf bloggers like me putting the case for agrarian populism and it feels like a losing battle.

A couple of years ago my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, got a modicum of wider notice and briefly drew me into a minor flurry of online debate, including a comment I left on Ben Heard’s website in response to his statement that the ecomodernists were open to challenging debate. I linked to a couple of my articles in which that debate was joined – to which Heard responded “At a smidge under 5,000 and 5,500 words respectively, I fear you may be writing to yourself rather than an audience. Looks like some interesting discussion therein and if you seriously expect people to read it please, re-cut them with a whole lot more discipline in the writing.”

I only discovered this comment recently. At one level, the hypocrisy of it kind of amused me – my critique was pretty much the same length as the Manifesto, which Mr Heard happily read. Nobody is obliged to read anything, but I’m not sure you can conscionably call for a debate and then duck out of it by retrospectively imposing editorial conditions on your interlocutors. But ultimately, yes, I guess I am pretty much writing to myself, and though I feel honoured to have acquired a small online readership, no doubt my loquaciousness and lack of editorial professionalism limits my reach. Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me. I’ve long been fully resigned to the fact that my words and deeds count for nothing in the world (OK, I’m lying: let me say instead that I’ve recently become partially resigned to it…) I now just want to do the best thinking and writing I can within the limits of my capacities and circumstances. But then I get to thinking that ecomodernism is making the world just that little bit worse, making the solutions to its problems just that little bit more intractable, entrenching those habits of thought and deed which in the end will have to be disinterred and reconfigured that much more laboriously. And that makes me think that I ought to sharpen up my act, follow Mr Heard’s advice and try to make myself as slick as an ecomodernist. Perhaps I should form my own institute – the Breakdown Institute? Well, if anyone wants to give me a steer on this, I’m all ears. And if nobody responds, then I’ll readily embrace the truth of Mr Heard’s words and follow my heart – which I think is to write as I please, for myself, for trying to understand the world as I see it, trying as best I can to be a scholar and not a phony, and (let me admonish myself) focusing on an effort to do good work for its own sake rather than wasting time practicing the arts of rhetorical war in the battle over ecomodernism…

…which is just as well, because next up is my ‘History of the world in ten and a half blog posts’ – an essay considerably longer than the ones that so exasperated the ever-so-busy Mr Heard. Well, I’m pretty sure that ecomodernism lacks persuasive answers to our problems, so I think I need to look elsewhere, at my own pace. And the place to start looking is human history, in case it can turn up anything more promising. I’ll readily admit that past history is a poor guide to the future. Unfortunately it’s the only one we’ve got.

Marris argues that the good thing about her decoupling approach is that it doesn’t rely on “a sudden and unprecedented improvement in our moral character”. An interesting point – did the proliferation of our contemporary environmental problems stem from a sudden and unprecedented degeneration in that character? I don’t think so. So maybe that suggests we might be able to learn some useful things for the future by looking at the past – which is not, of course, a very ecomodernist sort of thing to say. It ought to be.

The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

Environmentalists are hypocrites, right? They condemn all sorts of behaviours like driving cars or taking plane flights in which they themselves indulge, and they want to deny poor people the right to the same luxuries by saying that the economic growth which promises to widen access to such luxuries is unsustainable.

These, frankly, are pretty dumbass criticisms, but environmentalism probably isn’t going to get far until it can somehow transcend them, and they get aired every day – not only by ignorant pub bores, but often by extremely smart people. I didn’t plan to write this post, but in the last week I’ve come across these familiar criticisms by two such smarties – the late Professor Hans Rosling, in this entertaining TED talk from 2010, and global inequality expert Professor Branko Milanovic in his brilliant, but somewhat flawed, recent book Global Inequality1, which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps we could also throw in the Angry Chef from my previous post, who writes along similar lines that “The irony of people questioning what science has done for us whilst typing on a computer, connected to the internet via a fibre optic cable, should not be lost”. I want to address these criticisms partly because they fit neatly into the present narrative arc of this blog. But also because, rather than just trying to absolve myself as a guilty environmentalist, I want to try to turn that familiar critique on its head and go somewhere more useful with it.

The first part of the critique – the hypocrisy of personal complicity with environmental ‘bads’ – is the easiest to combat. Taking the Angry Chef’s example of computers, back in the 1980s I completed an entire university degree without once looking at a computer, whereas today I’d struggle to get through a single day without doing so. That’s not because I’ve changed, but because the world has. Of course, I could choose to take a stand and not use a computer, or a car, or aeroplanes. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve done exactly that. I passed my driving test in 1983, but didn’t actually own a car until 2007 (ironically, when I started running my ‘sustainable’ farming business). At various times and for varying durations I’ve similarly taken stands on flying, meat-eating, TV ownership etc. What difference has it made to the future of the world? Virtually none. Here we have the exact opposite of the free rider problem – let’s call it the oppressed pedestrian problem. In a ubiquitously motorised society, weigh up the personal costs of not driving against the benefits it delivers to the world at large, throw in the question of how much personal complicity affects the truth that motor vehicles are environmentally problematic, and go figure. The problem is structural, not individual. Nowadays I try to respect people who choose to avoid environmentally-negative behaviours, refrain from criticising people who don’t, and focus as best I can on what seems to me more important – the larger social structures that enable or constrain these choices.

Perhaps it’s harder to combat the second part of the critique, as articulated by Hans Rosling in his talk about the lack of access to washing machines among the majority of the world’s people – and more specifically, the majority of the world’s women. Surely, Rosling suggests, environmentalists who have access to one can’t without hypocrisy wish to deny the same access to all the world’s people? Actually it’s not so hard to combat this accusation. Do I use a washing machine? Yes. Do I wish to deny use of a washing machine to the 5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to one? No.

See, that was pretty easy. I do entertain a few caveats about Rosling’s position – the element of technological determinism involved in supposing that gender inequality is overcome by machines, the impact of the collective contexts in which people do or don’t have access to any particular technology, and the over-simplified connections he makes between labour-saving machinery, education and improved income. But, no, I think it would be great if everyone had access to a washing machine. I also think it would be great if nobody was threatened by climate change. There’s certainly a trade-off there, and I’m not persuaded by Rosling’s fond hopes for a decarbonised energy supply that can fund rich-country levels of energy use globally. But that’s another issue. For me, the main problem is that I doubt many of those billions actually will have access to a washing machine any time soon, if ever. So if it’s right to advocate for a better life for the world’s poor – and I think it is – then we need to start thinking afresh about how to do so. I want to broach that in the remainder of this post, perhaps in a rather roundabout way, by reviewing aspects of Branko Milanovic’s book.

If I had to nominate one single graph to make sense of the present human world, I think it would be the plot of relative gain in real per capita income by global income level over the last thirty years presented by Milanovic on page 11 of his book – the so-called ‘reclining S’ or ‘elephant’ graph, on account of its resemblance to said beast (you can see a version of it here). Essentially, the graph highlights four categories of people who could be termed the paired ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from the neoliberal globalisation of the economy in recent history2. These are, first, the very richest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by nearly 70% over this period (Milanovic shows that, within this group, there’s a sub-set of super-rich ‘global plutocrats’ who’ve done even better). The second category of winners, who’ve done even better in relative terms, is what Milanovic calls the “emerging global middle class” – essentially the increasingly well-off middle-to-high earners in middle income countries experiencing fast economic growth. In practice, virtually all of these people live in China or a handful of other Asian countries. The losers are, first, the very poorest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by less than 20% (arguably it might not have increased much in the absence of globalisation, though I strongly suspect fiscal deregulation hasn’t helped their cause). And second, the poorer people in the high income countries, who while still earning more than the ‘emerging global middle class’ haven’t increased their income at all over the last 30 years, and so have fallen very much further behind the richer people in their home countries. It’s worth bearing in mind that these are relative rather than absolute figures, so they underemphasise the degree of wealth concentration that’s occurred over the period: someone on $1 a day who doubles their income has $1 a day more, while someone on $1,000 a day who doubles their income has $1,000 a day more. Indeed, 44% of the absolute income gain over the last 30 years has gone to the richest 5% of people3.

The elephant graph suggests that the world may be a slightly less unequal place than it was 30 years ago (the global Gini coefficient was 72.2 in 1988 and 70.5 in 2008) – although since inequality was at an all-time high in 1988, another way of saying this, Milanovic cautions, is that “global inequality today is at almost the highest point ever in history”4. This small reduction is almost entirely due to the rise of a hitherto ‘missing’ middle class in a handful of Asian countries such as China – which of course means that inequality within these countries has grown.

Here we have the well-known ‘Kuznets curve’, proposed by the economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s. A country typified by ‘subsistence’ peasant agriculture will have a relatively egalitarian income distribution, but most people will be poor. As a country ‘develops’ by switching to industry, average income increases, but so does inequality. Eventually, however, inequality starts declining through worker organisation, trade unionism, state welfarism and the like. The Kuznets curve seemed to describe pretty well what happened in early-industrialising regions like Western Europe and North America until the 1980s, but the rising inequality indicated in the ‘elephant’ graph since then confounds it. Milanovic talks – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – of Kuznets ‘waves’, whereby countries like China are now going through their first Kuznets curve, while countries like the UK and the USA have started riding a second Kuznets curve. Milanovic discusses various reasons why inequality is now rising and may decline again in the future in these ‘second curve’ countries, though he doesn’t persuade me that this will necessarily happen, and I’m not sure he even persuades himself. It may be better to ditch the Kuznets hypothesis and all the talk of ‘curves’ and ‘waves’ altogether, and instead contemplate the possibility of chronic future inequality.

But let me try to apply the rather abstract results of the elephant graph to some questions of recent history and social policy. Going back to our old friends from 2016, the Brexit and Trump votes, it’s easy to see from the graph why there might have been a level of disillusionment among working-class voters in the UK and the USA about the consequences of globalisation that propelled them towards those particular ‘anti-global’ choices. Lectures about the damage those choices might wreak upon national prosperity probably didn’t wear too well with people who haven’t seen much of the prosperity come their way (obviously voting choices were a lot more complex than that, but I think that assertion is defensible – at least it puts me in the crowded company of many other wise-after-the-event commentators5).

However, the graph also suggests that looming over the shoulders of the relatively poor people in the rich countries are the relatively rich people in the poor countries (who are still poorer in absolute terms than the former, though they’re catching up). The notion that a Trump administration or Britain’s merry band of Brexiteers have either the will or the capacity to reverse the ebb of economic power away from the declining middle and working classes of the west and towards the rising middle classes of Asia seems, for numerous reasons, fanciful.

One thing that emerges strongly from Milanovic’s analysis, though he doesn’t place much emphasis on it, is how geopolitically concentrated the rise of the ‘global middle class’ is, being restricted to a handful of (admittedly very populous) Asian countries. In other words, it looks like the core-periphery structure of the global economy as described historically by world systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein is being replicated. What we’re seeing is less the rise of a ‘global’ middle class as the handing on of an economic leadership baton from the west to southern/eastern Asia, with other regions such as Africa and Latin America remaining more or less peripheral. Milanovic shows that prior to around 1820 what mattered most to a person’s economic life chances was their class, regardless of their nationality: it paid to be ‘well-born’, wherever you were actually born. But since then, location has mattered more than class. So for example almost anyone born in Britain is likely to have better economic life chances than almost anyone born in Zambia. There is, as Milanovic puts it, a ‘citizenship premium’ which advantages or disadvantages you largely on the basis of what passport you’re entitled to hold.

Going back to the Trump and Brexit results, one issue that loomed large in those campaigns was immigration – in the Brexit campaign, for example, around the issue of migrants from poorer East European countries undercutting the economic chances of the struggling British working class. “It’s not racist to talk about immigration” was the mantra du jour.

Well, no it’s not. But one of the things I admire most about Milanovic’s book is the clear-eyed way in which he does talk about it, and the way that in so doing he confronts the great unmentionable of economics – that is, the hypocrisy of supporting the free flow of capital around the world without supporting the free flow of labour.

Now, I got a certain amount of stick on this site around this issue a while back, for example being accused of ‘xenophobia’ for, among other things, my lack of enthusiasm for rigorous immigration control. No, me neither. But anyway, I’m completely with Milanovic on this one. Poorer people in richer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer national distribution of income. Poorer people in poorer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer international distribution of income – but if that’s not going to happen, which seems likely, then they can make a sound ethical argument in favour of migrating somewhere they can earn more. If people in richer countries think migration of that sort is unacceptable, then how can it be acceptable for the (relative) ‘have nots’ in a given rich country to expect redistribution from the ‘haves’?

I can’t see an ethical answer to that question. And indeed the only affirmative answers I’ve seen to it are pretty avowedly non-ethical and implicitly nationalist: it’s OK for poor people in rich countries to expect a better deal from their richer co-nationals, but not OK for poor people in poor countries to expect a better deal from richer foreigners. Situations of ubiquitous economic growth tend to keep such questions at bay, because things don’t seem so bad if everyone is getting richer, even if some are a lot richer than others. But in a likely future of chronically low and maldistributed growth, these distributional conflicts are only going to sharpen. Arguments against global migration from poor to rich countries are ultimately winner takes all or might is right arguments. Such arguments have an obvious appeal to the currently mighty (in which category, globally, almost everyone in a country like the UK fits), but they tend to lose their lustre if the mighty should fall (in which category, looking at Milanovic’s analysis, the UK might well fit in the future). Be careful what you wish for (Milanovic has some ‘compromise’ suggestions for dealing with global migration which strike me as quite sensible – perhaps I’ll look at these in more detail another time).

No doubt the ethical notion that people should cede current riches to the less well-off seems ludicrously idealistic, although it’s a commonplace nowadays to consider other ethical systems, such as those of foraging nomads, where the idea that you should take the lion’s share for yourself and let others go hungry simply because you can is absolute anathema – a sensible strategy, the anthropologists tell us, in uncertain times when you never know who’ll next be sated and who’ll be hungry. Perhaps that’s worth pondering as we confront an uncertain collective global future. As ever, ‘idealism’ is contextual – to me, the ‘obvious’ strategy proposed by my critics of clamping down on new or recent migrants is only obvious in the context of a certain modern mindset that’s best transcended.

Still, that mindset is deeply grounded in our politics, which has rarely been about ethics, except perhaps occasionally in recent times with the thinnest veneer of liberal internationalism. Generally, it’s been about power. I can’t see the rich world willingly giving up its advantages – so I suspect it will yield them slowly and unwillingly. I foresee a future of intense distributional conflict and quite probably war. If that happens, I hope those who’ve justified the current turn of western politics on distributional grounds (like John Michael Greer…) will keep quiet rather than trying to find non-distributional arguments to justify the status quo ante.

Are there any alternatives to this grim scenario? Well, possibly – but Milanovic isn’t much help in locating them. Despite his economic heterodoxy, he returns to the mainstream fold on the question of economic growth, ridiculing the idea of degrowth as a hypocritical fancy of rich westerners and arguing – albeit with the historical evidence in his favour – that economic growth is much the most powerful tool yet found for improving the lives of ordinary people in poor countries. He adds,

““Deglobalization” with a return to the “local” is impossible because it would do away with the division of labor, a key factor of economic growth. Surely, those who argue for localism do not wish to propose a major drop in living standards or a Khmer Rouge solution to inequality”6

Well, speaking personally I’d say certainly not the latter but possibly the former – especially if the drop in living standards falls mainly on the current rich, as Milanovic himself prescribes. One of the problems with his analysis is the rather crude way he contrasts industrial societies with pre-industrial ones as ‘subsistence’ societies, and uses fiscal income interchangeably with ‘living standards’. I don’t want to succumb to too starry-eyed a version of pre-industrial society, but the pre-industrial Britain of the 18th century, for example, was not a ‘subsistence society’ and there are some things that money can’t buy – indeed, there are some things that the pervasive marketization prompted by rising national incomes may jeopardise. This was true in early 17th century northeast England, for example, which experienced the last clearly documented famine in the country – one that afflicted not ‘subsistence’ peasants, but commercial livestock farmers suffering a market crash that made them too poor to afford grain7. Similar pressures afflict poor cash-crop farmers today8. I’m not altogether against the idea of the rural poor quitting peasant farming for something that pays better, but it’s a risky business. Despite the blandishments of ecomodernists and well-paid university professors, the fact is that many of the rural poor keep a foot in subsistence production as a risk-insurance strategy. I don’t think you have to side with the Khmer Rouge to argue that it sometimes ‘pays’ not to seek higher incomes above all else.

Milanovic nicely points out how bad social scientists, including economists, have been at predicting the future, serially succumbing to the fateful temptation to project short-run current trends as long-term structures. But let me put my cards on the table – I think it would be a good idea if people in the rich countries had lower living standards, and people in the poor countries had higher ones. I can’t exactly see how this will happen on the basis of current economic realities, but I’ll conjure with a scenario where those current realities are breaking down.

This involves chronic economic stagnation and debt in western countries of the kind analysed by political economists like Wolfgang Streeck9, the continuing leakage of economic power to Asia and the curveball (or perhaps googly, to use a more Anglocentric metaphor) of climate change and energy crisis renting the fabric of the global economy. In those circumstances, I think a lot of rural peasant cultivators globally will suffer, but so will a lot of urban merchant bankers in the west, and the balance may tip away from the latter and towards the former a little – perhaps to the extent that being a rural peasant cultivator in a country like England starts to seem less crazy than it presently does.

Let me run with that scenario a little further. Suppose that a post-Brexit Britain manages to control its borders, experiences the huge economic slump that obviously awaits it and, in a moment of clarity, sees that its problems aren’t fundamentally the fault of immigrants, the EU, or the Chinese, and that the solutions aren’t to be found in humbling itself before an uncaring global economy. Milanovic writes,

“An interesting question to ask is what might happen if the growth rate decelerated and fell to zero, and the economy became stagnant, but at a much higher level of income than in stagnant preindustrial economies. It is not inconceivable that Kuznets cycles would continue to take place against the background of an unchanging mean income, producing a picture similar to the one we have for pre-industrial economies”10

…which is one of wildly gyrating inequality in response to exogenous shocks. But a conceivable alternative might be what’s termed a ‘high level equilibrium trap’ which I’ll be looking at in future posts – a stable, efficient, dynamic but stagnant economy in which the primary asset is human labour. Managed well, I think this could be the best kind of economy for steering our way equitably, sustainably and resiliently through the future shocks awaiting us. ‘Managing it well’ would involve an attentiveness to resilience rather than to economic growth, an opposition to extremes of wealth accumulation, and a focus on sustainable, labour-intensive local industries. Like peasant farming, for example. I’m not sure it’s an especially likely future outcome. But it’s a possible one, and it’s better than most of the alternatives, which seem to me to cluster around the two possibilities of ecomodernist fantasy-land or internecine nationalist-mercantilist conflict.

But let me round off by returning to Professor Rosling and his washing machines. As I’ve said, the good professor was right that nobody who has access to a washing machine really ought to lecture those who don’t about what consumer items they can or can’t have. But I doubt for all that that what Rosling calls ‘the washing line’ – the level of income at which people can afford a washing machine – is going to encompass a great many more of the world’s people than it presently does, or that the global energy supply will be able to decarbonise at anything like the levels which would be required to greatly lower the washing line while avoiding runaway climate change. I also doubt that the benefits of the washing machine he outlines that accrued to the lucky earlier generations of technology-adopters such as his mother in Sweden – an education instead of hard domestic work, bringing rising income within reach – is going to work the same way for would-be washing machine owners of the future. There are just too many well-educated people chasing too few jobs in an increasingly dysfunctional and stagnant economy. As Milanovic puts it, the difference in skills and abilities between high and low earners in the future is likely to be increasingly small – the main difference being chance and family background11, not washing machines and education.

Another way of putting all this is that economic growth, education and technological development as means of improving the human lot are old stories that are probably going to work less well in the future. Like the ‘science’ discussed in my last post, they’re not bad things in themselves, but if people pin inordinate hopes on them as vehicles for future human betterment I think, increasingly, they’ll be disappointed. Environmentalists have been saying these things for years. However many washing machines or plane flights they personally enjoy, that doesn’t make them wrong. It’s time we started thinking structurally, and stopped shooting the messenger.


  1. Branko Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press.
  1. Though there are some difficulties of interpretation here, highlighted in this critique by Caroline Freund which I only came across as I prepared to publish this post. I’ll have to think about this some more – there are aspects of her argument I don’t find convincing, but some of her points are quite telling.
  1. Milanovic, p.24.
  1. Milanovic, p.253.
  1. Though, once again, the Freund critique puts a different spin on the figures, reverting us to another familiar response to the Brexit and Trump results – an inexplicable desire for economic self-harm, which in some ways is quite encouraging for my general thesis here.
  1. Milanovic, p.192.
  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England. Cambridge University Press, p.141.
  1. Peter Robbins. 2003. Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster. Zed.
  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.
  1. Milanovic, p.58.
  1. Milanovic, p.215.