In this and the next few posts I’m going to continue my engagement, sometimes obliquely, with the school of thought I term eco-panglossianism because it provides a good foil for thinking about several things that need to be addressed in contemplating a small farm future – among others, historical progress, optimism for the future, humanistic philosophy, and the relationship between livelihood and economy. Oh – and the sustainable synthesis of nitrogen compounds, so do keep reading Tom if you’re still looking at my site. After these posts, I’m hoping to spend more time on this site articulating a positive vision for a small farm future, because it saps the soul to engage too much with those stentorian eco-panglossian voices that insist we’ve never had it so good, the future will be even better, the hungry will be fed, and anyone who disagrees must either be an ideologue or an idiot.
There have always been strong contrasts (and sharp arguments) in green thought, in particular between various strands of reformist, techno-fixer or ‘light green’ thinking and varieties of eco-socialism and deep ecology that demand a more thorough reconstruction of the social order to realise their visions. But it’s noticeable that there’s a new level of stridency among the eco-panglossians. I suspect this has to do at least in part with the current ascendancy of a globalizing capitalism, which is deeply scornful of histories other than its own, and full of misplaced triumphalism about its world-transforming power.
Former Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore is one prominent eco-panglossian, who considers environmentalists to have an anti-human mindset and has written that “People support all sorts of nonsense, such as the preservation of subsistence farming, which is romanticised as ‘peasant agriculture’, but in reality this means only drudgery, grinding poverty and a short life.”1
Well, that of course takes us straight into home territory here on small farm future, so in this post I want to engage with these notions of anti-humanism and peasant romanticism by way of a discussion of capitalism, which is a serious weak spot in the eco-panglossian approach. First point: it’s easy to bandy about the charge of ‘anti-humanism’, but if you want to understand alternative viewpoints rather than simply dismiss them, that label doesn’t get you far. I find it hard to think of a political philosophy that isn’t pro-human in some way – it’s just that they differ in their understanding of ‘the human’.
I’ve noticed in my various, usually unpleasant, debates with eco-panglossians that they tend to universalise their own particular values of ‘the human’ into general attributes of humanity, and that they project these values onto history as a story of inevitable human ascent. Thus, to be human is to aspire to more health, more longevity, more peace, more material plenty, more privacy and so on, and human history is the story of how we have gradually accumulated these qualities in ever greater abundance. I don’t think the actual course of human history can bear the weight of this narrative at all, which is something I’ll discuss further in other posts. And though personally I share most of those values myself at least to some extent, a moment’s reflection will reveal that even in modern capitalist societies a lot of people willingly forsake them in pursuit of other goals that are more important to them.
But let us turn to the more important question of peasant agriculture. The eco-panglossians make their contempt for peasant lifeways plain enough. Sometimes it seems to me that it veers close to contempt for peasants themselves, but their reasons are usually couched in the (‘pro-human’) context of wanting to lift peasants out of poverty through the capitalist development of agriculture – a point made by Moore in the article I cited above, and also by Graham Strouts in one of his latest eco-panglossian screeds.
There are two errors in this view. The first is to assume that peasants are an undifferentiated mass, entirely sunk in poverty. But there are 2 billion peasants in the world today, and their situations are not identical. ‘The peasantry’ encompasses landless rural wage labourers, often unemployed or underemployed, among whose number can be found people who are indeed suffering some of the most wretched poverty imaginable. It also encompasses small scale landowners and commercial farmers who can be people of considerable wealth and political influence within their local ambit, and all points in between these poles. This is why Marxists think ‘the peasantry’ is not an appropriate analytical category. In their view, it is always on its way to splitting into a rural proletariat on the one hand and a petty commercial/capitalist class on the other. I don’t really agree with this, but that’s an argument for another time – the basic point is that ‘peasants’ are not all the same, and they’re not all poor. If ‘environmentalists’ romanticise peasant life, as Moore charges, they do not so far as I know romanticise the life of the destitute landless rural proletariat or others on that end of the peasant spectrum.
The second error is the assumption implicit in Moore’s view that peasants are somehow outside the capitalist global world order that has enriched everybody else: they’ve missed out on the capitalist bonanza, and need to get a bit more capitalism into their lives in order to reap the benefits routinely enjoyed by others. Graham Strouts makes the same mistake when he writes that “There may still be billions in poverty whom industrial agriculture has not yet served well” (emphasis added), as if these people’s lives have thus far been untouched by industry or capitalism. These are cardinal errors. The truth is that modern peasants are thoroughly implicated within the mechanisms of the global capitalist economy – destitute rural proletarians more than anyone. There is a huge body of scholarship that examines this. Just to pick a few examples of the tomes I spy on my bookshelf: Peasants and Capital, Peasants and Globalization, Farewell to the Peasantry?, The New Peasantries, Cities of Peasants, The Modern World System, Europe and the People Without History. The eco-panglossian case is undermined by their ignorance of this scholarship, and of these issues.
Capitalism is associated with ‘free’ wage labour, and idealises itself as a system in which with hard work and the entrepreneurial spirit any given individual can achieve all imaginable riches, fame or success. The reality, attested by much historical scholarship, is that capitalism happily engages a wide array of labour regimens, both ‘free’ and unfree. So if we’re going to celebrate the fact that capitalism has delivered the unprecedentedly high life expectancy of 82 in contemporary France (though it’s not entirely clear that it has), then we also need to deplore the fact that it delivered the unprecedentedly low life expectancy of 21 years for a slave in colonial French St Domingue (the current figure for Haiti is about 60). If we’re going to celebrate the fact that capitalism makes it possible for ordinary British consumers to buy prawns in the supermarket, we also need to deplore the fact that it incentivises the Thai prawn industry to use slave labour in getting cheap prawns to the market (quite apart from the sustainability issues around the industry). Likewise, a good deal of scholarship attests to the fact that impoverished peasants today are not lacking in their experience of capitalist economics – on the contrary, they’ve got quite enough of it on their plates. That is why productivist arguments about the need to produce more food in order to feed the hungry wholly miss the point. And it’s also why Graham Strouts is wrong to argue that technological developments leading to higher productivity at lower unit cost are good for the poor. Good for rich peasants, perhaps – but I’ll look at that issue in more detail soon.
It’s worth probing a little more at the dynamics of the capitalist economy in order to clarify why some environmentalists, certainly this one, think that a ‘subsistence’ peasant economy is something worth striving for. So, a problem faced by capitalists and capitalist firms is that unless they’re able to engineer anti-capitalist monopolies they have no control over whether anyone buys their product – they have to sell it on the open market, where price alone is king. All that they can try to control is their production costs, either through technological innovations that enable them to produce more for less, or through methods of labour exploitation with the same result. The eco-panglossians make much of the first strategy, but tend to gloss over the latter. Of course, there’s a global limit to labour exploitation, even neglecting labour’s tendency to resist, because there have to be consumers with the means to buy the economy’s products. Thus, capitalism needs labourers it can impoverish to the limit in order to make cheap products, and consumers (themselves wage labourers) with bulging pay packets in order to buy its products. It needs prawn slaves and prawn consumers, and which category you fall into is largely a matter of luck.
Of course, matters don’t stop there. A firm can’t just invent a cost-lowering machine here or expropriate a group’s labour there and then sit back on its laurels, because other firms are doing exactly the same. To stay in business, the search for surplus value has to be continuous and endless – hence the unprecedented economic growth of the modern age, which has brought virtually everyone in the world into its ambit, and with unprecedented ecological effects. When the economy needs to grow by about 3% annually to avoid recession, the need to find new markets, new forms of surplus value, new resources, is pressing and insatiable.
And that, in a nutshell, is the capitalist global economy – its booms and busts, its revolutions, its pressure upon ecosystems, its immiseration of some people and its extravagant rewarding of others. To me it is inherently unstable, inherently unjust and ecocidal in fact if not in intent. Destitute peasants are not people who haven’t had enough capitalism in their lives, but people who’ve had too much. So would I prefer a world of subsistence peasant producers to one of unstable and vulnerable capitalist wage labourers? Yes, in a heartbeat, if ‘subsistence’ means not scratching desperately each day to earn a bowl of rice but having the land, skills and resources to produce the varied food, clothes, shelter and social interactions that make for a fulfilled life, rather than the empty striving for more substituted by capitalism. Anthropologist Pierre Clastres describes well what ‘subsistence’ can mean in societies of this sort that don’t fetishize accumulation,
“The term subsistence economy is acceptable for describing the economic organization of those societies, provided it is taken to mean not the necessity that derives from a lack, an incapacity inherent in that type of society and its technology; but the contrary: the refusal of a useless excess, the determination to make productive activity agree with the satisfaction of needs. And nothing more”2
I don’t deny that there are many obstacles to realising an agrarian populist vision of fulfilled subsistence in the modern world. But I think the obstacles are less than those faced in realising the utopian dream of the neoliberals and eco-panglossians for a world in which capitalism somehow delivers social justice, spiritual satisfaction and ecologically sustainable plenty for all.
2. Clastres, P. 1987. Society Against The State, Zone Books, p.195.