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

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

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

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

Populism Defined: Five Features of Populism

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a left agrarian populism

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



Communication intercept reveals 21st century cities were alien food project

Well, enough of all that politics. Let’s talk phosphates instead. And cities. And who better to talk about them than Small Farm Future’s favourite agronomist, Andy McGuire? Andy first featured on here back in 2014 when I cast him in the role of the devil. He shrugged off the slight with impressive sang froid (though perhaps that’s only to be expected…) and since then has regularly pitched in on this site with various telling comments. Andy has beaten Leigh Phillips to the podium as our first ever guest blogger here at Small Farm Future after Leigh accepted my offer of a right of reply to my critiques of his overheated onslaught against the green movement. Leigh’s reply never did come my way, but funnily enough he enthusiastically references Andy in his Austerity Ecology book in relation to Andy’s criticisms of the ‘balance of nature’ concept. I’d be interested to hear what Leigh makes of Andy’s thoughts below. Though, on reflection, not that interested – just as well, really, as I doubt I shall ever find out. Anyway, I gather the post below was orphaned from another website, and I thought it deserved to see the light of day. Over to Andy…


Communication intercept reveals 21st century cities were alien food project.

Intercepted communication of Earth Concentration Project leader, 2016, between Outpost Dq12 and exoplanet HD 40307g. Translated to English, NSA technical bulletin 358G.

“Our concentration program is progressing well sir. In fact, their own collective has observed that in 35 years, two-thirds of them will be in CAFOs [closest term we have for this word]. In one of their political entities, the USA, we have over 70% of the human population in our CAFOs”

“Are there any signs of rebellion?”

“Not really. In fact, instead of resisting, they continue to work on how to mitigate the problems of concentration rather than fighting the process.”

“How so?”

“Well, they spend a lot of money on waste management. As you can imagine, they produce large amounts of waste in a small area.”

“How can they live like that?”

“They have engineered elaborate systems of pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities to keep the waste generally hidden from sight. Odors are controlled as well as parasites and diseases.”

“How do they supply the concentrates [probably refers to cities/CAFOs] with food and water?”

“Again, they have developed increasingly complex systems that produce food in rural areas and transport it, often for long distances, to the CAFOs where consumption takes place. Water also, is often piped from distant sources to the concentrates.”

“So they keep their production separate from their waste?”

“Yes. They often get their water from undeveloped areas. The majority of their food comes from areas of low population which have been converted to food production.”

“What about the life forms that inhabited those areas previously?”

“They are mostly gone, with the people in the concentrates replacing the former herbivore and carnivore populations and taking most of the production. And since the populations are so separated from their lands, they have brought in animals into what they call zoos, or aquariums for aquatic species.”

“How do they maintain nutrient levels in food production?”

“They have figured out how to fix nitrogen from their atmosphere. The other nutrients are mined, processed, transported and applied to food fields. As you can imagine, this is all very energy intensive, so they have developed complex energy extraction systems that support this food system.”

“And this is all working?”

“Yes, in general. Some people recognize the problems in our CAFO development, and are pursuing local food production, but this will never be able to feed the population concentrates we have obtained. Some of their scientists have realized that they cannot keep mining phosphorus forever, but the solutions are so drastic that no significant action has been taken.”

“Solutions, what do you mean?”

“Oh, they could disperse, returning to former land densities. That would make recycling of nutrients easier, but also seriously jeopardize our efforts.”

“What’s the risk?”

“Very low according to our analysts. Those in concentrates have become accustomed to their environments and would not now choose, at least voluntarily, the rigors of former generations.

In addition, their now well-developed network allows them to stay preoccupied with the latest trivialities from distant locations. They have portable devices that greatly enhance this effect.”

“Hmm, what else have you done to pacify them, until we reach harvest stage?”

“For added safety, we have infected their main network with trivial entertainment, to divert them from our efforts. This has been very successful, and in an ironic twist, they now call our most successful efforts “viral.””

“”Viral”, hah! What else are they up to?”

“Well, although ecologically the CAFOs are problematic in their import of food and production of wastes, we have observed density-dependent emergence of curious performances.”

“What do you mean?”

“They call it opera. It consists of elaborate vocal representations of stories. The physical equivalent is called ballet. These strange developments are seen only in our CAFOs.”

“Hmmm, let’s get our modelers on that, see where it could lead. Anything else?”

“Nothing else at this time.”

“Right. Keep up the good work.”

From July 20th, 2016. Declassified Jan. 15th, 2175, Earth Dispersion Alliance, Committee on Earth-Alien Relations.



Two tribes

I’m going to take some breaks from my neo-peasant analysis and start weaving in a few other stories. I think they’ll help to build the bigger picture. And I feel like some time off from Excel spreadsheets. So to start with, in this post I’m going to describe my recent weekend among two strange tribes.

The first tribe I visited was holed up for three days at Bristol University, where it was holding a pow-wow called ‘Radical Technology Revisited’. The backstory here involves an influential and eponymous book, published exactly forty years ago in 1976, by a group of countercultural techies gathered around the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales. A fine opportunity, then, for a retrospective on the concerns set out in the book, and the way the world looks now.

Perhaps you can already imagine the demographic of the conference, but let me underline it by noting that Rob Hopkins (b.1968) was invited as a discussant to represent ‘the voice of youth’. I thought he did a good job, and he celebrated the assembled authors for influencing (slightly) younger activists of his and my generation and for not, as he put it, going down the ‘Stewart Brand route’ of ecomodernism as they grew older. It was nicely judged praise, and I’d echo the respect he offered to CAT authors like Peter Harper, whose lively iconoclasm is a refreshing voice in the green movement. But in relation to the Stewart Brand route, after listening to a few of the presentations I’ve got to say that, by God, it’s a close-run thing.

In the transport session, for example, those of us who live in the countryside were invited to raise our hands, and were then ritually humiliated for our carbon-intensive sins. In other sessions, the impetus towards rural self-reliance in the original book was recanted as an ‘Arcadian vision’, while Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network, though setting out clearly some of the tensions around the idea of local food, also opted for the pejorative language of idylls, romance and nostalgia in her characterization of the green and local food movements. In the food session, Martin Ince confidently proclaimed the certainty that nobody actually wants to engage in labour-intensive small-scale farming.

I’ve written before about these ubiquitous, ahistorical and apolitical stereotypes, but permit me to twist the stick once again. If, over several centuries, you remove ordinary people from access to productive land; if you arrange agriculture to produce a small number of commodity crops for distant markets using exotic inputs rather than serving its locality; if you allow food prices and land prices to get so out of kilter that almost nobody can afford to farm, that only rich people can afford to live in the countryside, and that poor farmers globally need to search for paid work wherever the pull of the global economy takes them; and if you impose a car-based infrastructure on the countryside while systematically stripping it of services and public transport, then, yes, it’s probably fair to say that it’s greener to live in the city and that few want to be small-scale farmers. But there’s no reason to accept all that as given. After two centuries of relentless urbanist propaganda, we’ve almost lost even the very language with which we might plausibly set out radical ruralist alternatives. And so people reach for the easy pejoratives of ‘Arcadia’, ‘rural idylls’, ‘romanticism’, ‘nostalgia’ and so on. Meanwhile, the ecological footprint of cities like London exerts an ever-increasing chokehold across the globe, while urbanites congratulate themselves on their ethical ways, and urban dysfunctions proliferate. When can we start talking of urban idylls?

After the conference, I read historian Peter Linebaugh’s pamphlet Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12, which was kindly given to me as a gift by Aaron Vansintjan of Uneven Earth. And then I started reading Eric Wolf’s classic Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Despite the undeniable pull of capitalism’s ‘if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em’ logic, I think critics, journalists and intellectuals have a responsibility to remember the working people – including small-scale farmers – who have also flatly contested it, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Historically, there have been very many of them.

Still, there were a few complicating voices at the conference. Herbert Girardet was one of them, undermining the whole urban idyll argument with the simple, subversive observation that the newly urbanizing masses of India and China increase their carbon footprints by a factor of 4 or 5 over their rural counterparts when they move to the city. He also noted the pull of urbanization in the route out of poverty it offered. To my mind, these comments were about as clear an incitement to think about low-impact rural development as a global strategy as it’s possible to have. But that would involve a truly radical politics and, sad to say, that wasn’t the flavour of this conference. For the most part, it was about as radical as an editorial in The Times. My sense was of a bunch of guys (and indeed they were mostly male) who emerged from their flirtation with 1960s counterculture and the back-to-the-landism of the time into vaguely progressive mainstream careers which have instilled in them the sense of authority to dismiss radical politics as naïve or parochial – words that recurred throughout the conference. Ah well, they’ve probably done more good with the urban car clubs and housing estates they’ve designed than I have by growing a few tons of silly vegetables.

By the end of the first day I was thoroughly riled by what I was hearing, betraying my anger in a comment from the floor that probably made me sound like an idiot. I’m not quite sure why the proceedings got so under my skin. I guess I’m just another imperfect human being, one who’s heard the urban idyll trotted out a few too many times, and one with an aversion to the overconfident authoritativeness affected by people (men, usually) at professional conferences. I guess I’d hoped for something a bit more…radical. Still, I do agree with Peter Harper’s comment that radical green thinkers need to do some maths to flesh out their visions. So we’ll be heading back to neo-peasant Wessex soon…

But meanwhile there was a whole different shout going on down in Devon – Dark Mountain’s annual get together, where I’d been asked to speak to the theme of ‘Land literacy and farming on the edge of extinction’. It was quite a change of scene – more women, more young people, more radicalism. I don’t know how fully signed up I am to Dark Mountain’s manifesto, but I like the fact that the Dark Mountain project at least questions conventional narratives of progress and civilisation in a world of consumption, and confronts the possibility that mere optimism may not be enough to sort our problems. I like the fact too that Dark Mountain is looking for some different stories to tell.

I shared the platform with Cate Chapman (Ecological Land Co-op) and Molly Campbell (a US-based indigenous food activist). Our story in a nutshell was this: me – there’s no single, correct narrative of ‘land literacy’ or farming, there are no silver bullets, and we can neither overcome nature nor merely mimic it in our farming practice, but we need more people in agriculture, more work, and to do that we need to challenge large-scale landownership; Cate – the Ecological Land Co-op is one practical model for how we can go about getting more people into agriculture; Molly – there are traditional food knowledges that are in danger of being commodified just as their bearers are in danger of being obliterated. I thought the session went OK, and covered about as much as was possible in an hour or so, but afterwards someone told me she’d disliked our presentations, and so had everyone else in the audience she’d talked to. “There are lots of people singing in the green valley”, she told me, adding that we’d failed to address the role of art in achieving agrarian change. I didn’t have too much of a response at the time. I’d pretty much had my fill of conferences for the weekend. I had some business to attend to in Wales, and a side-trip planned to Snowdonia, where I often go to give my soul respite. And my soul certainly needed some respite. I made my excuses and left.

The next day I hiked alone into Cwm Llafar – one of the less frequented valleys in one of the less frequented parts of the national park. No one else was there, and no one knew that I was there either, which suited me just fine. The last time I’d been here was thirty years ago, in winter, when I climbed an ice route that weaved up the formidable cliff of Ysgolion Duon at the valley’s head. I must have been a different person then. The route looked terrifying. I’d climbed it with my Chacal ice axes, state-of-the-art technology in the 1980s but, now on permanent loan to my impecunious son, objects of ridicule in his university climbing club for their laughable antiquity. Modern axes are superior, lighter, with clever convexities in shaft and pick. That, I think, is radical technology. That, I think, is progress.

From the head of Cwm Llafar, a steep path breaks right past rocks smoothed by a curtain of gently slipping water to flank the cliff of Llech Ddu up into the subsidiary valley of Cwmglas Bach. Approaching the path, I startled a group of wild Carneddau horses. They cantered away from me, but as they climbed the hillside, a foal detached itself from the group and came galloping back, straight at me. It broke to my right just before it reached me, and then circled curiously. Probably born this year in this same remote valley, it occurred to me that it may never have seen a human being before. I slowly reached out a hand towards it, but it snorted and then wheeled away. Somehow, that encounter quenched my desire to climb my chosen route. I followed the pull of the path for a while, lost it several times and slowed to take in my surroundings, then found the path again and pressed on. Eventually, I located my ridge and started up it.

The climbing was easy, but the rock was greasy, and the route steepened into a forbidding veil of mist. I became uncomfortably aware of the yawning cliff beneath my feet, and the fact that no one knew I was there started to seem less comforting. A dark mountain indeed, with two stories of the future playing in my head. One placed me contentedly in the pub that evening, quietly satisfied with another route well climbed. The other placed my lifeless body at the foot of Llech Ddu with only the horses for company until someone eventually found it. In an anti-Cortesian move, I left my rucksack at the base of a tower on the misty ridge, ensuring that I’d have to turn back at some point. And soon enough I did, leaving the summit for another day and spending a reflective hour exploring these two green valleys where I was all alone.

No, there aren’t nearly enough people singing in the green valley. And if all they’re doing is singing in it, then I’m not for them but for the people who are growing their food. Stories count for little in themselves. What matters is their material consequences. To me, the role of art in peopling the green valley lies somewhere between the minimal and the non-existent. And the same probably goes for radical technology.

A weekend among two foreign tribes, then, followed by a little time to myself. And then I was happy to get back to the farm. On the track our cat had cornered a mouse, and was toying with it, rather unenthusiastically. Knowing I was watching, perhaps she thought I might give her some food and save her the trouble. But every time the mouse tried to scamper away it triggered her predatory instinct, and she went after it. Then the mouse would turn, drawing itself up to its full height (which wasn’t much), and fronting up to its tormentor. For her part, the cat seemed unnerved by its bravery, batting at it only half-heartedly. Eventually the mouse managed to sidle away. The cat trotted off, cultivating an air of dignity. And I went in to the warmth of my hearthside, my family, my tribe.

Requiem for the imperial city

In the early 19th century London was such an unhealthy place that it couldn’t sustain its population through indigenous births and had to rely upon net in-migration. Its death rate has long since declined to a more acceptable level, but today the capital relies as much as ever on in-migration. About 40% of its current population was born abroad. And foreign-born workers in London constitute more than a third of all foreign-born workers in the UK.

Those facts aren’t much, I realise, to build an entire hypothesis on, but I’m going to give it a go. Hell, there are people out there like Stewart Brand and Erle Ellis who’ve worked with less in trying to convince us that urbanisation is an unalloyed positive.

So here’s my alternative hypothesis to their narrative of joyful urbanisation: Some people want to live in the city and some people don’t, but most people want a secure livelihood. Historically, industrialisation and economic development have been associated with urbanism or urbanisation. Cities were job-creators, built around commerce and industry. So people, in search of that secure livelihood, have tended to go to them, temporarily or permanently. Cities were (and are) also resource sinks, drawing in food and other materials from much wider areas. They thus have an imperial aspect – gravitational centres, as it were, that orient their surroundings to themselves. In some cases, the imperialism is quite localised. In others – like London in its heyday, and apparently still today – it can be global in reach. But the nature of the livelihoods available in the post-industrial city seems to be changing. As I mentioned in a recent post, traditional urban sectors such as heavy industry and port functions are now much less labour intensive, and have also become too large to fit into traditional cities like London. In London, manufacturing is still important (mainly now of food products and clothing), but rising up the list are human and city services – domestic personnel, food retail, hospitality, security, transport, construction, landscape services and so on1.

In other words, cities concentrate people, thereby creating many employment opportunities for people to service other people. So there’s a kind of positive feedback loop of self-reinforcing urban concentration. Meanwhile, London as a so-called ‘world city’, with the benefit of political stability and ratcheting property prices, has increasingly become a playground for the global wealthy. At the same time, the possibilities for cheap accommodation in the city are dwindling – the generation-long onslaught on social housing symbolised most recently by the notorious bedroom tax, the curtailment of private renters’ and squatters’ rights, the closure of loopholes such as narrowboat moorages and heavier planning enforcement of ‘shedrooms’. So there’s a massive squeeze on the living conditions and standard of living of the traditional working class, and quite a squeeze too on the situation of relatively poorly paid middle class workers – teachers, social workers, nurses etc.

I have no idea how all this will play out in the future. But that high level of foreign-born workers is intriguing. It seems to me that cities like London are no longer operating in the way described by classical urban sociology – the slow (and often painful) assimilation of successive waves of migrants into the city’s stable demographic fabric (in London’s case, up to the 1970s, successively Jewish, Irish, Caribbean and South Asian for the most part). The present migrants seem a more provisional and footloose phenomenon than the migrants of the past. They are not necessarily there to stay, but there to earn while they can…largely by servicing the settled population, who rely on them even as they moan about them. On that latter point, there’s clearly a class dimension which is at issue in contemporary politics: the jobs done by migrants service wealthier people the most and tend to undercut the work or the work conditions of the traditional working class. Fortunately, here in the UK we have the political maturity to realise that this is due to structural economic and political factors, and can’t simply be blamed on the migrants themselves – oh, wait. Anyway, should London’s economic fortunes decline, or other cities in other places start to beckon harder, or opportunities in their homelands brighten, or today’s referendum propel Britain out of the EU, then perhaps we could expect London’s migrant population to decrease – with interesting consequences, I’d think, for the life of the city.

Meanwhile, I doubt this situation fosters economic resilience or stability for London. And since the population of Greater London constitutes around 16% of the whole UK population – a pretty high main city/total population ratio when set alongside comparable countries – I also doubt it fosters economic resilience or stability for the UK as a whole. But maybe that has some interesting implications. For one thing, although the UK (or at least England) is one of the more densely populated and heavily urbanised countries of the world, once you take London out of the picture, things start to look more spacious. The southwest region of England where I live has nearly 2 million hectares of farmland and a total population of 5.3 million, with only six cities in the region exceeding populations of 100,000 and only two exceeding 200,000 (Bristol is its largest city, and the tenth largest in the UK, with a population of 400,000). Population density here is 2.9 people per hectare of existing farmland – a contrast with London and the southeast, with 7.5 people per hectare of farmland in that region.

Of course, in reality you can’t just ‘take London out of the picture’. But when I advocate for a smaller scale and more localised agriculture I often come across the kind of objection that runs “Well, that all sounds lovely, but I live in London. How are you going to feed us?” As an ex-Londoner myself – and one, moreover, who has benefitted considerably from its overheated economy – I’m quite sympathetic to that question. Especially if it’s phrased open-endedly rather than as a challenge – less an aggressive ‘how are you going to feed us?’, and more a plaintive ‘how are you going to feed us?’ This is something I’m going to look at more closely in my upcoming posts.

Perhaps a more subversive implication of this line of thought would question London’s overdevelopment. Big (or biggish) cities undoubtedly have a role to play in concentrating various administrative, educational and commercial functions, although much of their old commercial-industrial raison d’être has now gone. But do we need a city of 8 million in a country of 63 million? How much of that population concentration has resulted from old patterns of development and the positive feedback loop I mentioned earlier? How many of those wealthy Londoners being serviced by not-so-wealthy migrants can a just and sustainable society afford? There are those who argue that by promoting ease of interaction, large cities display ‘super-linear power scaling with total population’2 – that is, they create economic activity disproportionate to their size. This hypothesis has been strongly disputed, even in its own terms empirically3, quite apart from the question of whether super-linear power scaling is such a great thing anyway when the case for degrowth is mounting. Indeed, others have argued that the fractal pattern of super-sized cities represents an instability in a complex system operating far from equilibrium4. I wonder if these competing perspectives are over-mathematizations. Perhaps in imputing some kind of ordained and intrinsic trajectory to city development they efface the way it emerges from the self-interested policies of states and their elites. Might it be time for policymakers to start thinking about ways of trimming back the hyperdevelopment of large cities like London in service of wider interests?

The situation is different in the growing megacities of the global south, though there are various similarities. One of them is the same basic imperialism that underlies their prodigious growth – a local imperialism of the city bleeding its rural hinterlands, and a global imperialism associated with institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment programs geared to opening markets for global free trade in agricultural commodities (allied with the utter hypocrisy of the US and the EU in continuing to subsidise their own agricultures) gave many peasants and rural poor people few other options. Despite the blandishments of Brand, Ellis and other urban advocates about the advantages of urban residence for poor people in the global south, I still haven’t seen any compelling evidence to suggest that it provides a solid route out of poverty for many, though I’m still open to persuasion. I suspect there may be a historical fallacy here: because urbanisation was associated with economic growth in various historic and contemporary cases (Europe, USA and, perhaps more problematically, China), it’s assumed that urbanisation is a necessary and sufficient condition for development. I’m not so sure. And I think there’s a road not taken here which is worth exploring – endogenous rural development.

But it’s hard to broach such possibilities because of our modernist romance with the idea of the city. In a Twitter exchange, Haroon Akram-Lodhi, whose work I greatly respect, pointed me to Katherine Boo’s amazing book about a Mumbai slum, Behind The Beautiful Forevers as an example of how ‘vibrant’ slum life is. The book certainly shows the ingenuity and tenacity that people in desperate circumstances display in getting by from day to day, which I suppose you could choose to call ‘vibrant’. But to me it also shows the violence, despair, corruption and systematic unfairness of slum life that makes it virtually impossible for all but a lucky few to escape. It’s not that the countryside is necessarily much different. Indeed, in most poor countries rural people are poorer on average than city people. But, leaving aside the question of how valid measures of poverty across the two settings are, it doesn’t follow that moving to the city will improve the lot of the rural poor. I’ve not yet seen convincing evidence for economic acceleration which is intrinsically related to urbanism per se.

Cities have a pretty impressive track record historically of achieving long-term imperialistic control. So I wouldn’t be surprised if places like London and Mumbai carry on their merry way long into the future, controlling the flows of people and resources over large distances, essentially in accordance with the whims of their established elites. But perhaps, if we listen hard, we might just catch a few strains of a requiem playing for them on the horizon of the future. Because what we really need is smaller, tighter cities that are more mutualistically geared to the needs of the wider society of which they form a part. And when it becomes clear, as I think it probably will, that the imperial mega-cities of the modern age are loading the dice against the displaced multitudes of their peripheries, who knows what kind of radical shakedowns of the country and the city might await?


1. http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/migrants-uk-labour-market-overview

2. West, G. and Bettencourt, L. 2011. Bigger Cities Do More with Less: New Science Reveals Why Cities Become More Productive and Efficient as They Grow. Scientific American. 305, 3: 44-45.

3. Shalizi, C. 2011. ‘Scaling and hierarchy in urban economies’. PNAS.

4. Orrell, D. 2012. Economyths, Icon, pp.93-4.


Of boomers and doomers

I suppose this is going over old ground, but I’ve been struck anew recently through various readings and conversations about the nature of techno-utopianism, and the difficulty we seem to have nowadays in breaking out of a boomer-doomer dualism – that is, either the (rather unhistorical) ‘boomer’ notion that human rationality, optimism and ingenuity always overcomes the social, economic and biophysical problems societies face, or the (boldly predictive, and therefore also unhistorical) ‘doomer’ notion that these problems are sure to overwhelm us and destroy civilisation altogether.

One such reading is David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. There are interesting commonalities between his critique of the now dominant aid/development paradigm, and my own critique of ecomodernism within environmentalist thought. Given the different (if overlapping) focus and personnel involved, perhaps this suggests quite a generic ideology of techno-utopianism (TU) within contemporary thinking. Rieff’s book has helped me see its outlines more clearly, so with his help here I’d like to describe briefly some of its key elements. Rieff also has some interesting, if frustratingly vague, thoughts on the possibilities for a peasant-focused development paradigm, but more on that another time.

So here, for your consideration, are seven elements of TU ideology, lightly tossed with a few counter-thoughts of my own:

  1. Ideology: our first characteristic of TU ideology is that it considers itself to have no ideology, but instead merely a pragmatic focus on solving practical problems (such as climate change or extreme poverty) by using whatever methods demonstrably work. Its critics have ideology – they are ideologues, partisans, spoilers, whose critiques reflect their own narrow political agendas – but TU rises serenely above all that. It is, as Rieff puts it, an antipolitics, a political argument for the irrelevance of politics (and particularly for the irrelevance of changing the political status quo) in solving global problems: “Perhaps twenty-first century liberal capitalism’s greatest trick has been convincing the world that it is not an ideology, and as it did so, convincing itself as well”2.
  1. Engineering and medical metaphors: global problems (climate change, extreme poverty etc.) are conceived as dysfunction in complex systems, after the model of a mechanism (a broken machine requiring an engineer to fix it) or an organism (a sick body requiring a doctor to fix it – as in the pervasive metaphor of poverty as a ‘disease’). These metaphors lack a sense of intentionality. Global problems are also the result of people’s deliberate actions.
  1. Science: TU accords a premier role to science in ‘fixing’ global problems – surely no surprise in view of the preceding points, since scientific enquiry is modern humanity’s most successful example of transcending ideology using non-intentional (mechanical and medical/biological) models. To this way of thinking, global problems arise through technique rather than social power: for example, the contemporary poverty of small-scale farmers is seen as resulting from lack of access to agricultural technologies that increase their crop yields (such as GM crops, denied them by ideologues from wealthy countries) and not from the abolition of marketing boards or import tariffs under global free trade rules. As Rieff points out (and as I know all too well myself from my engagements with the ecomodernists) TU’s favourite kind of science is the “inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries not yet in existence [that] are so certain to occur…they can be counted on to address the world’s problems”3.
  1. Optimism: but paradoxically, TU ideology sets itself against pessimism, cynicism and naysaying. Development guru Jeffrey Sachs, for example, has tweeted “Cynicism is biggest obstacle to challenges such as ending poverty and fighting climate change”4. I’d have plumped for issues like war, skewed economic relations, runaway consumerism or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. But no – the real problem, apparently, is cynicism. In many ways, Rieff’s book is an extended diatribe against the rise of a kneejerk ‘optimism’ of this kind which thinks that problems such as hunger and extreme poverty are easily solved through positive thought. Despite the fact that nowadays, in his words, “hope and optimism are often presented as the only morally licit stance for any person of conscience and goodwill to take”, nevertheless “hope can also be a denial of reality and “solutionism” a form of moral and ideological vanity”5. Quite so. The reason I called this optimism ‘paradoxical’ is because it sits ill with the TU emphasis on science. TU cleaves towards science because science has been vastly more successful at comprehending physical and biological relationships (though not ethical ones – that intentionality issue again) than any other form of human knowledge. And it’s achieved this precisely because it doesn’t delude itself with ‘optimism’. Scientists are professional naysayers, rigorously trained in the art of disputing the grounds for all assertions. They don’t talk about the null hypothesis for nothing. And yet when science is transplanted to the ideological plane of solving human social problems, its proponents suddenly want to banish scepticism and enforce a one dimensional ‘optimism’. Pace Sachs, I’m tempted to say that the biggest obstacle to ending poverty or fighting climate change might be what Rieff calls “the bad habit of mistaking the nobility of [our] intentions for the feasibility of [our] goals”6. And the biggest asset is scientific realism, the ability to probe disinterestedly at the drawbacks of any suggested program. Unfortunately, the narrow ‘optimism’ of TU ideology enforces a highly partisan consensus of which programs are ‘realistic’. Thus, carbon pricing is not realistic whereas a worldwide switch to nuclear power apparently is; price floors for commodity crops grown by poor small-scale farmers are not realistic, whereas vertical integration into the value chains of corporate agribusiness is.
  1. Millenarianism: the optimism tic of TU ideology suggests that science isn’t ultimately what it’s about. Indeed, TU seems more redolent of millenarian religion than of science. ‘Science’ is merely the vehicle in TU’s secularized form of millennialism (as trumpet-wielding angels have been in other versions) to bringing about human perfection on earth. Like many millenarian sects, TUs believe redemption is close – Sachs, for example, has spoken of the present generation’s opportunity to end hunger for good and its duty to “heal the world”7. Though TU’s proponents are usually careful to avoid teleology (ie. the notion that future salvation is inevitably destined to happen – see here for example), this usually comes in the form of a weak caveat (‘there are no guarantees’) than any kind of serious countenancing of negative outcomes. I can (and have) offered various speculations concerning the cause of this irrational millennialism in the TU worldview. One of them is that people are deeply imbued with the capacity to wonder and to worship, but in modern times characterised by what sociologist Max Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’ there’s little left for us to worship or feel wondrous about but our own achievements – the problem of “humanism worshipping itself”8. A religious commitment to redemption dies hard, even within entirely secular thought, which is quite capable of coopting science within a millenarian purview.
  1. The power of the individual: perhaps this is a stronger feature of TU ideology in the development/hunger field than in ecomodernist environmentalism. It invests the idea that by being optimistic, by giving money to the right charities, by making the right consumption decisions and by supporting big campaigns like Make Poverty History, the wealthy western consumer is individually empowered to help the poor. Rieff calls this thinking “at best a consoling farce”9 in a world where persistent, structural causes are compounding poverty and inequality. Another dimension of it he touches on is the conviction that the power of individuals to change things is always positive, and always makes the world a better place. But as the contributors to another interesting recent book, Warlords, Inc.10, make clear, this isn’t necessarily so. Economic globalization and climate change, to name but two contemporary forces, are having the effect of weakening many sovereign, national governments in the global south. Into this confusion step warlords, para-states, criminal entrepreneurs, violent fundamentalists and a panoply of other agents whose goals could scarcely be more different from those of democrats, rationalists and egalitarians – and with the considerable advantage that they’re not saddled with any lofty (and costly) ambitions of making the world a better place. If individuals do have the power to remake the world, that in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing.
  1. The failure of government: Rieff deftly charts the shift in the development paradigm, which until the 1970s considered the structuring of the global economy in favour of corporate private enterprise to be part of the problem, but since the 1980s has increasingly seen it as part of the solution. For their part, although the ecomodernists sometimes offer weak support for government as a bulwark against the excesses of the private sector, the structuring of the global economy in favour of private corporate interests is rarely challenged. Indeed, the ecomodernists reimagine corporate agribusiness as a benevolent agent successfully uplifting the poor11, just as Silicon Valley ‘philanthrocapitalists’ like Bill Gates reimagine private philanthropy as a privileged vehicle for ending poverty, without acknowledging the role played by monopolistic rent-extraction of the kind that endows the philanthropy in reproducing poverty and inequality. I find Rieff’s claim plausible that corporate agribusiness is not deliberately malevolent, and is sometimes capable of delivering worthwhile pro-poor innovations. But I also find plausible his critique of the notion that “private business – the most politically influential, the most undertaxed and least regulated, and…the least democratically accountable sector among those groups that dispose of real power and wealth in the world – is best suited to be entrusted with the welfare and the fate of the powerless and the hungry” and I agree with his rueful conclusion that “No revolution could be more radical, no expectation…could be more counterintuitive, more antihistorical, or require a greater leap of faith”12.


So much for TU ideology and its ‘optimism’. What’s the alternative? Not, surely, hopelessness or despair. I think rather just an openness to the idea that some of the problems we currently face (like hunger, and climate change) may not be solvable within the parameters of our current political and economic systems, or indeed may not be solvable at all. Perhaps satisfying technological solutions to such problems will appear without the need for major systemic change. But perhaps they won’t. Let us think freely about all possible eventualities, rather than clinging determinedly to a redemptive narrative of business-as-usual solutionism that aggressively silences dissenters. Nobody can tell what the future holds, but there are good reasons for apprehension. As Rieff puts it, if even some of these apprehensions prove warranted, then the grandiose promises of the development elite (and, I’d argue, of the ecomodernists and techno-utopians more generally) “do not embody hope; they make a mockery of hope”13.

There’s a conservative politics implicit in TU ideology, which is quite comforting to those of us living in wealthy countries where few go truly hungry and where our use of non-renewable resources is out of all proportion to our numbers. This holds that there’s no viable alternative to existing economic and political arrangements, the challenge then being the essentially technical one of raising the rest of the world up to our level of resource use, while making it sustainable at the same time. But it seems to me that that challenge is most likely insurmountable. And in any case there are more satisfying alternatives.

As well as an implicit politics, there’s also an implicit psychology – the idea that people are more appropriately motivated by positive stories about how things will be better in the future if they do x than by negative stories about how things will be worse in the future if they don’t do y. I think this is true and, if I understand the work of social psychologists like Daniel Kahneman14 correctly, it’s pretty hard-wired into the human psyche. Still, Kahneman does imply that our predilection for triumph-against-the-odds narratives has been augmented in capitalist societies, and perhaps – following Rieff – more now than ever.

Both in personal life and in political life I think it’s good to have some optimism, a feeling that problems can be tackled and that things may turn out well. I also think it’s good to have some pessimism, a sober reckoning of the obstacles before us and the possibilities that things may not turn out as well as we’d like. Put the two together and you get the chance of realistic solutions. Either one on their own is less promising. So the ubiquitous notion that we just need optimism, positive stories, baffles me. It seems juvenile. As kids, we love to hear fairy stories and get scared by the awful and apparently inescapable fate the hero/ine faces at the hands of the baddies. But we know that there will be a satisfying redemption in which good will somehow miraculously prevail. Then we grow up and realise that in real life those redemptions don’t always occur. But when it comes to debating future sustainability and social justice, we seem to have entangled ourselves in a fairy tale narrative about optimism, the power of the individual and the redeeming character of science.

I can see plenty of reasons to take a pessimistic view that problems like war, hunger and climate change, independently and additively, will result in a lot of misery in the years to come. I can also see reasons to think optimistically that they can be overcome, or at least tolerably mitigated. But it seems to me that the most promising way of overcoming them is to ditch the techno-utopianism and business-as-usual economics currently dominating mainstream policy. And I’m not very optimistic that that will happen nearly soon enough. Still, life never was a fairy story, huh?

Postscript: though I’ve only just re-emerged from a break in blogging, I shall be silent again for a couple of weeks because…well, let’s just say I’m going on a spirit quest. A commenter at Resilience.org accused me of possessing a ‘deadened spirit’ and to tell the truth I am feeling a little stale, so I’m heading off for a week on a spirit-journey to see if I can catch me a live one…


  1. Rieff, D. 2016. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.208.
  1. Ibid. pp.110-1.
  1. Ibid. p.215.
  1. Ibid. p.10.
  1. Ibid. p.34.
  1. Ibid. p.73.
  1. Ibid. p.29.
  1. Ibid. p.280.
  1. Raford, N. and Trabulsi, A. 2015. Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
  1. For example, Mark Lynas’s oft-quoted comment that Monsanto has done more than the entire organic movement to reduce insecticide use.
  1. Rieff op cit. p.229.
  1. Ibid. p.47.
  1. Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.

Peasantization as modernization – an alternative ecomodernism

I’ve spent – wasted, probably – a fair amount of time on this blog critiquing various techno-fixer scenarios for achieving future sustainability and social justice, most notably that of the self-styled ‘ecomodernists’1. I’m not going to rehash that here, but in this post and the next I’m going to come at the underlying issues from a different angle by reflecting on the question of modernism, which suggested itself to me through a rereading of the late Marshall Berman’s brilliant book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. At issue is the question of whether there’s a way out of the airless dualism in contemporary thought between modern/high tech/progressive/optimistic/positive/rational/urban vs primitive/low tech/reactionary/pessimistic/negative/romantic/rural that so disfigures debates about farming and social futures. Sorry to harp on about it, but I think it’s important. I’ll get back to some more on-farm content after these two posts.

I first read Berman’s book thirty-odd years ago – required reading as it was then for every trendy young cultural theorist – and was reminded of it recently while reading Austerity Ecology by Leigh Phillips, who invoked it in support of his enthusiasm for heroic, large-scale technological modernization. I couldn’t remember much about the book, except a nagging feeling that Berman’s thinking on modernization was a lot more nuanced and ambivalent than Phillips’. Indeed, even the passage from Berman that Phillips cites is quite ambivalent1. And so it proved on a rereading. In fact, it made me wonder if Phillips had really read the book – entertainingly, in view of the sub-theme that’s emerged in my engagements with him over exactly who’s read what, as elaborated by Ruben, my Canadian mole. I suppose I should be grateful to Mr Phillips for drawing me back to Berman – perhaps the price of reading the latter’s exceptionally good book was having to plough my way through the former’s exceptionally, er, not so good one…For reasons I’ll come to in my next post, I should probably try not to annoy Mr Phillips any more than I have to.

Anyway, the thesis I want to develop with Berman’s help is that a future neo-peasant society – relatively labour-intensive, relatively low-tech – of the kind I’ve long advocated involves a modernist vision, notwithstanding the common tendency to dismiss such thinking as backward, romantic or primitivist. Indeed, I think it’s a more supple and sophisticated form of modernism than the modernism of the ecomodernists – but that’s something I’ll pursue further in my next post. Perhaps I erred in my engagements with the ecomodernists by accepting their framing of the debate, allowing them to appropriate the idea of modernism for themselves. If what they’re describing is modernism, my thinking ran, then I guess I’m not a modernist. But here’s Berman’s opening definition:

“To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts. We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern:  from Marx and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.” (pp.13-14)

So that’s modernism, huh? Show me where to sign!

Berman suggests that the great thinkers of the 19th century who first wrestled with the problem of modernization were more subtle and alive to its ambiguities than we are today, when we tend to either embrace it blindly or condemn it out of hand, supplanting open visions of modern life and the possibility that it can be changed to suit contemporary needs and problems with closed and monolithic conceptions of what modernity entails. Quite so. In a long and brilliant chapter that I couldn’t possibly hope to summarize, encompassing the history of St Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s musings on class conflict in the modern city and the 19th century significance of London’s Crystal Palace, Berman draws a distinction between modernism as an adventure and modernism as a routine – more specifically, the social adventure of challenging fixed traditions and cultural conventions on the one hand, and, on the other, the routine of becoming subordinated by those immense and crushing bureaucracies.

In a moment, I’ll try to sketch the implications of this for my own concerns to articulate a small farm or neo-peasant future, but to further that aim I first want to look at another brilliantly-realised part of Berman’s book – his analysis of Goethe’s Faust. Again, I can’t do it – the poem-drama or Berman’s interpretation of it – any justice here, but I want to highlight three of Berman’s points that are relevant to my purposes. First is the notion, personified in the figure of Faust and his pact with Mephistopheles, that modernity is about endless development – development of the self and of personal agency and capacities, and development of society and its capacities. Although the engine of this developmental process in modern capitalist societies is money, capital accumulation, this isn’t the fundamental purpose. Worldly wealth is a recurrent fantasy in many societies, not limited to capitalist ones – to be rich, happy, and influential – but in capitalist societies that alone is not enough. Change and development become goals in themselves – constant change, constant reinvention, constant growth, a constant tearing down of the old and a ringing in of the new.

That process causes suffering. In the poem, Faust’s tragic lover Gretchen comes to grief because ultimately she can’t or won’t transcend the traditional, religious, small-town world from which she comes, a world that takes revenge on her for her temerity in even trying. As Berman puts it, the Gretchen tragedy

“should etch in our minds forever the cruelty and brutality of so many of the forms of life that modernization has wiped out. So long as we remember Gretchen’s fate, we will be immune to nostalgic yearning for the worlds we have lost” (p.60)

Amen to that. But the problem is, our crude 21st century versions of modernism want to subsume every possible critique of modernity into such nostalgic yearning, as if being Gretchen is the only possible alternative to being Faust. I’ve been accused of ‘romanticising’ the past often enough by people I’ve tended to assume haven’t bothered to read what I’ve actually written, but perhaps it’s more that the Faust-Gretchen duality is so deeply ingrained in their thinking that they can only comprehend anti-Faust as pro-Gretchen (yep, I’m looking at you Graham Strouts). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for those happy souls who are content never to stray beyond the comforting confines of that duality, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly say to enlighten them3. But for the more intellectually curious, it’s worth mentioning two other relevant individuals in Faust, Philemon and Baucis – a sweet old couple who live a simple, rustic life in a cottage surrounded by lindens in the land where Faust is conducting his giant engineering projects. In Berman’s words

“They are the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way – in the way of history, of progress, of development; people who are classified, and disposed of, as obsolete” (p.67)

Or, in the words of Goethe’s Faust,

That aged couple should have yielded
I want their lindens in my grip
Since these few trees are denied me
Undo my worldwide ownership….
Hence is our soul upon the rack
To feel, amid plenty, what we lack

That rage at obstinately unmodernizable people or those who speak up for them always feels close to the surface in modernism – and I think the more so in contemporary modernism which lacks the sophistication of its antecedents and which now finds it harder to do as Faust did and quietly arrange to have Philemon and Baucis removed (though it still does a pretty good job). Hence we get all manner of trickery of the kind evident in The Ecomodernist Manifesto and similar works – that, actually, everybody wants modernization, apart from a few romantic intellectuals who are complacent in their own privilege; or that unmodern people engage in unsustainable practices that can’t be allowed to continue; or that although modernization may inflict some temporary hardships upon those accustomed to a different way of life it will ultimately prove to be in their best interests. In my opinion, these are little more than salves to the modernist consciousness seeking its worldwide ownership, but washing its hands of the human cost.

Berman writes that Faust “comes to feel it is terrifying to look back, to look the old world in the face” (p.69) and to me this exactly captures a rage in modernism that troubles me. If we’re relaxed and confident in ourselves, we feel no need to belittle others’ achievements and to exaggerate our own. Nor do we want to be anyone else, because we’re happy enough being ourselves, but we’re open to the possibility of learning new things from other people, including people who some might say are beneath our contempt – for our part, we feel no need to judge. That genre of ecomodernist writing that contemptuously asks which period in history the critics of modernisation wish to return us to misses the point that there is no such period – the point, rather, is that we can open-mindedly learn from other societies, including ones from the past, rather than assuming that they have nothing to teach us and are beneath our contempt. I’d like to think that this view could command widespread agreement as a matter of simple cultural maturity – our way is not the only way – quite apart from the more practical lessons we might learn from the low energy societies of the past as we face an uncertain and quite possibly lower energy future ourselves. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If there’s one thing in contemporary culture I’d like to help change it’s this complacent assumption that primitive/modern is the only necessary lens for observing history – a complacency redolent of modernity as routine, not modernity as adventure, that more open vision of modern life of which Berman spoke.

The widespread tendency nowadays to dismiss non-modern peoples past and present, to impute a misery to their lives that we claim to have transcended, may sometimes have a factual grounding but I think also speaks to an anxiety that for all our restlessness, our endless growth, our appetite for the new and our contempt for the old, we haven’t found what seek, and we are not at peace. Indeed, the whole point of that restless modern urge is that we never can be at peace. Leigh Phillips makes that point explicitly and sees it as a positive – never be satisfied, always demand more – without seeing the psychological cost that our emphasis on constant self-reinvention imposes, and the cost in blood that is paid for it by the Philemons and Baucises of this world (or, if he does acknowledge the latter cost, he imputes the problem to ‘capitalism’ and considers it soluble through socialism, without seeing how the problem moves more deeply within modernization processes which both capitalism and socialism manifest).

The final point to make about Faust, which emerges from the last, is that there is no still centre towards which modernity is reaching, no finally achieved perfection. Again, it’s possible to see a positive side to that, but also an uncomfortable truth that appears to be lost on the ecomodernists – namely, to quote Berman again, that “yesterday’s Fausts may find themselves today’s Philemon and Baucises” (p.79). That indeed is the whole axis of the Faust myth: “Once the developer has cleared all the obstacles away, he himself is in the way, and he must go” (p.70).

Let me now briefly try to pull this together in relation to my thesis that a small farm future is a modernist future. I endorse Berman’s definition of what it is to be modern, a definition that is political and not technological, emphasising a striving for improvement in an ambiguous world full of difficult choices, and in particular the choice of adventure over boring routine or established hierarchy. In some historical circumstances the appropriate modernist choice has been to step away from small-scale peasant farming, and from the boredom and hierarchy it entailed, and that’s probably still true today for some people – though for fewer, I’d submit, than is commonly supposed by many a latter day savant.

For numerous people now living in the so-called ‘advanced’ countries of Western Europe, North America and elsewhere, on the other hand, I’d suggest that the opposite is the case. It is more adventuresome and more ‘modern’ to see that the world is changing, that the trajectory of high-tech liberal capitalism is leading us not only into environmental problems but also to economic and political crises out of which we in the global north are unlikely to emerge unscathed, and that an appropriate modernist response is to embrace this changing order by reaffirming the importance of good land husbandry, a defence of localism and local communities, and an emphasis on the limits to consumption – more adventuresome and more modern at any rate than the bureaucratic modernism-as-routine now lived by so many of us toiling in our offices, working for huge corporate enterprises in jobs whose purpose we’ve forgotten if we ever knew it in the first place, before the fearsome commute home through gridlocked streets to our apartments, where we hope the lights will stay on and the goods will keep flowing once ‘they’ have worked out how to sate our cities’ endless appetite for energy. Of course, it’s not easy for many people to escape that life for reasons both practical and psychological. But nor was it easy for their great grandparents to escape the farm or the conservative forces then holding them in their grip. The modernist adventure is never easy.

No doubt there’s a fine line between my argument for peasantisation as modernisation and a nostalgic, conservative hankering after old hierarchies and old certainties – but nevertheless there is a line, and to me it’s a pretty clear one. Berman helps elucidate it in his analysis of how Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed the Bronx, where he grew up,

“So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “traditional” and “pre-modern” institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself….the so-called modern movement has inspired billions of dollars’ worth of “urban renewal” whose paradoxical result has been to destroy the only kind of environment in which modern values can be realized. The practical corollary of all this…is that in our city life, for the sake of the modern we must preserve the old and resist the new” (pp.295-318)

As in our city life, so in our country life. There was a time when the tractor over the horse, the bulk tanker over the milk churn, or whatever other examples you care to choose, seemed and probably were a liberation. But I don’t think it’s possible to be so complacent about the inflow of new agricultural technology and the outflow of agricultural labour any more. A peasant modernism isn’t against new technology, but it’s not necessarily for it either, and it may often default to older ways of doing things – more human labour, less power-hungry machinery – as a more modern response to our problems.

So if peasant modernism isn’t necessarily for new technology (the tendency to conflate modernisation with mere technological improvement is a mistake that Berman effectively criticises) then what is it for? Well, I guess every political ideology has some kind of future utopia in mind which usually looks…pretty boring. For the techno-fixers and ecomodernists it’s a workless society of urban, wealthy, plugged-in Eloi, drifting around in pursuit of their leisured interests. For a peasant modernist it’s a life lived close to the land and the rhythms of the natural world, a life of hard work sometimes sure enough, but also of human community and folk songs around the fire. In both cases, the adventure of struggling to realise the vision is maybe more appealing than the vision itself. But as I see it, the peasant modernist vision has more intrinsic appeal – there are endless, engrossing ways of improving small farms and the small communities of which they’re a part, whereas post-work utopias evince the same problem that Hannah Arendt detected in communist utopias – “the futility of a life which does not fix or realise itself in any permanent subject that endures after its labor is past” (p.128).

Incidentally, Gene Logsdon has written a nice essay recently which makes similar points to the ones I’m making here, but without the sociological theorising. Perhaps I could learn something there. Logsdon writes,

“One of the prejudices about artisanal, small-scale food farmers is that they are “going back” to the land. The truth is, they are going forward to the land. For several generations now the older people in our preponderantly urban population have handed down to their children an image of farming based on experiences that date back to the early 1900s. The hard life they described…got imbedded in the subconscious minds of urbanites even though they know it isn’t true anymore.”

Well said – although I think there are different resonances between North America, Western Europe, and so-called ‘developing’ countries today around this point. Still, perhaps an implication of Logsdon’s argument is that ecomodernism is a form of retro-modernism, attempting to solve old-fangled problems (the hardscrabble life of the small farmer) by old-fangled methods (labour-shedding, energy-intensive technological development). Of course, the life of the contemporary small farmer isn’t easy. But my point is that it’s modern – and usually more so than that of their salaried urban counterparts.

Still, I acknowledge various difficulties in my peasant modernist vision. One is how to realise or generalise it. Earlier strands of modernist thought have offered pat answers to achieving their own utopias – Marx’s notion (also espoused by Phillips) that there is an inherent tendency to self-overcoming within capitalism located within the working class, or the strange notion so intricately elaborated by capitalist (‘neoclassical’) economists that free markets deliver what everybody wants, or the even stranger notion elaborated by the ecomodernists that heaven is to be found in a world of urban residence, nuclear power and GM crops. None of these neat resolutions strike me as convincing – but that leaves the problem of how to take hold of the machinery of modernization and create a neo-peasant world out of it. Here I agree with Berman and other writers in the anti-folk politics or anti-small is beautiful tradition like Srnicek and Williams or, hell, maybe even Leigh Phillips, that local particularisms need some kind of meta-local political context to succeed – a context best delivered by agrarian populism in my opinion, though that’s hardly an answer in itself. The other major problem – which is not specific to neo-peasant modernism, but is shared by all modernist utopias – is how to retain the positive force of all that restless striving, self-development and adaptability to change that’s part of the modernist way, while transcending its destructiveness, its anti-humanism and its troublesome tendencies towards change for change’s sake. I confess that I don’t have any simple answers. I don’t think there are any simple answers. But I’ll do my best to grapple directly with these problems in some future posts.


  1. My main writings on this are a critique of the ecomodernist manifesto, along with a follow-up essay, a piece for Statistics Views on ecomodernist approaches to energy and poverty, an essay concerning ‘peasant socialism’ by way of a critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology, a piece about the climate deal in Paris, and my recent essay on Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future.
  1. “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” Berman, M. (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, London: Verso. Cited in Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & The Collapse Porn Addicts, Winchester: Zero, p.255.
  1. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=864

Does Goldman Sachs care if you raise chickens? Some thoughts on accelerationism

“Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens” according to political scientist Jodi Dean, quoted by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (henceforth S&W) in their recent book, Inventing the Future1. And if that title doesn’t sufficiently telegraph S&W’s line of argument, perhaps their subtitle ‘Postcapitalism and a world without work’ will help, as will the insistent demands imperiously inscribed on the book’s cover: “Demand full automation – Demand universal basic income – Demand the future”.

In other words, it’s the kind of book that probably ought to be complete anathema to me. And in some ways it is. But actually I find myself in agreement with a good deal of what S&W have to say. It’s a serious, grownup book about the challenges now facing progressive politics – the kind of book that Leigh Phillips should have tried to write instead of penning fatuous putdowns to the green movement2. By contrast, S&W’s diagnosis for the mess we’re in seems to me spot on in many ways. But I think they lose their way when they try to provide solutions. It’s plain that they don’t know much about farming or about the history of agrarian populism. I’d like to think that if they corrected this – perhaps through a long chat with a farmer over a hard day’s shared work, like the one I recently had processing and salting down my recently-slaughtered pig (not sure what Goldman Sachs’ line is on suids) – we might find a surprising amount of overlap in our thinking.

The points at issue are important, I think, if we’re to create the kind of moral/ethical polities that Steve Gwynne raised in the comments on my recent post about commons – polities of the kind I think are necessary to achieve just and sustainable societies. So let me whizz through a few aspects of S&W’s analysis in order to lay some foundations for that project.

S&W perceptively analyse the demise of the implicit postwar capital-labour deal in the richer countries (essentially, full employment in return for political docility). What we’ve experienced more recently isn’t just more economic downturns but a fundamental reconfiguration of the labour market – the growth of an insecure ‘precariat’, the emergence of ‘jobless recoveries’ where economic upturns fail to generate new jobs, and the development globally of non-capitalist labour markets. I was pleased to note on the latter front that S&W don’t fall for the familiar ecomodernist fancy that the growth of slums is a positive sign of ascent from rural peasant misery towards urban middle-class plenty – in their view, slums represent “a dual expulsion from the land and from the formal economy” (p.96). Quite so.

These changes have complex causes, but S&W devote considerable attention to the rise of neoliberal ideology as one important factor. They point to neoliberalism’s origins among rather marginalised and unorthodox economic thinkers in Europe and the USA from the 1920s onwards, and show how the neoliberals brought their agenda into the political mainstream as a result of careful, strategic, long-term thinking which came to fruition after the global economic crises of the 1970s. Their argument is that contemporary capitalism in its neoliberal guise wasn’t an inevitable outcome of the modern political economy, which I think is true…but only inasmuch as capitalist economies have hitherto been restrained by non-capitalist considerations such as the ties of community, or nation, or ideas about economic relations as the servant to social wellbeing. Neoliberalism by contrast is the pure logic of capital, capitalism with its gloves off, albeit dressed up in many disguises about how the marketization of every sphere of life will bring wider benefits to all. So although it’s true that the neoliberal turn in the global economy wasn’t foreordained, nevertheless it was a clear developmental possibility latent within the more circumscribed capitalist economies prior to the 1980s neoliberal take-off.

S&W’s prescription for transcending neoliberal capitalism also has its strengths. Unlike Leigh Phillips, they’re not the kind of nostalgic, backward-looking socialists who still believe that the working class is uniquely placed to liberate all humanity from capitalist oppression, emphasising instead contemporary political struggles as populist struggles (which is refreshingly open-minded for writers still operating largely within traditional leftism). “Why do we devote one-third of our lives in submission to someone else?” they write of modern employment, thereby knocking on the front door of a populist critique of wage labour and concentrated property ownership. But then they turn away from it, developing what I struggle to call anything other than a technofantasy of a leisured world without work, where human Eloi are freed to pursue projects of self-realisation such as experimenting with their gender and sexual identity through new medical technologies in a world without Morlocks, whose role is performed by machines using limitless clean energy (S&W, p.2).

I won’t dwell here on why limitless clean energy and the complete automation of work seems a fantasy to me, because I’ve already written about it elsewhere. Perhaps I’ll just note in passing that S&W’s description of the technologies that are going to make human work redundant are thinly described – driverless cars are mentioned frequently, agriculture, construction and the various mechanical arts which presumably would be needed to keep the machines in order scarcely at all. More interesting to me is S&W’s conviction that nobody really wants to work, and their policy proposal for a universal basic income (UBI) so that people can live a sufficiently abundant life without actually having to.

S&W’s analysis of UBI is interesting – they make the point that it’s been seriously on the table in government policy discussions at various times and places, and that it’s affordable with a bit of judicious juggling of government finances, mostly involving increasing the tax burden on the wealthy. They also argue that the UBI would have to be set sufficiently high that it didn’t just act as an implicit subsidy to business. Personally, I’m sceptical that it would be possible to set it high enough in societies where large numbers of people wanted to avail themselves of the possibilities it provides to avoid work – with one important exception that I’ll come to soon. But then I’m also sceptical of S&W’s assumption that people actually do want to avoid work. I think what people mostly want to avoid is the subordination involved in working for someone else, and the repetitive emptiness of excessive work specialisation – dimensions of work that have been considerably augmented with the rise of the neoliberal global economy. Various writers have recently tried to recover the value of skilled practical work, of pitting yourself against the objective resistance of the natural world to human desires, whether that involves fixing a broken engine or bringing in a wheat harvest3. S&W are having none of it. In a typically overdrawn duality they say “In the end, the choice is between glorifying work and the working class or abolishing them both” (p.126). I don’t see it that way. To my mind, there are endless possibilities between glorification and abolition.

What seems to annoy S&W about reconfiguring work as craft is that it involves all the usual bugbears to their version of progressive thought, bugbears they summarise as “the small-scale, the authentic, the traditional and the natural”, a form of “folk politics” with the “guiding intuition that immediacy is always better and often more authentic, with the corollary being a deep suspicion of abstraction and mediation” (p.10). For S&W, on the other hand, “There is no authentic human essence to be realised, no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations, no organic wholeness to be achieved” (p.82).

Actually, I pretty much agree with that last sentence – my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott’ drew similar inferences from the source material of the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis4. And yet I still have what S&W would call ‘folk political’ tendencies in identifying with the small-scale, local and traditional. Again, I found myself agreeing with a good deal of S&W’s critique of ‘folk politics’ in contemporary leftist and anti-capitalist movements. But that was partly because their critique didn’t seem applicable to the kind of peasant agrarian populist politics I espouse. “They don’t mean me,” I thought, as they laid into folk politics for its “fetishisation of local spaces, immediate actions, transient gestures, and particularisms of all kinds” (p.3), objections that to my mind have little bearing on the particularisms of my daily practice as a farmer and the generalities of my political activism around agrarian populism. But it soon became apparent that, yes, they did mean me. Partly at issue is S&W’s criticisms of the local food movement, which I’ve already examined elsewhere and won’t further dwell on here, except to say I think their grasp of the issues is superficial and their critique naïve. But the more general problem is that S&W want to set up an opposition between ‘the immediate’ and ‘the mediated’, and to find the former wanting.

I don’t myself find this dualism terribly illuminating, and I want to try to transcend it. Let me invoke as my witness someone whose grasp of capitalism was certainly very mediated. In a famous passage in The German Ideology, Karl Marx wrote,

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

It interests me that three of Marx’s four examples refer to subsistence or self-provisioning activities. Anyone who seriously tries hunting, fishing or cattle-raising will find that they do in fact need to put some hours in and become ‘accomplished’ to succeed – all involve complex social relations, technologies and knowledges. They are not unmediated. But at the same time such activities do evince a kind of simplicity, and a testing of oneself against natural boundaries, that aren’t to be found in the kinds of ‘mediated’ city work or modern self-realisation that I think S&W have in mind when they refer to the mediated. And I want to hold on to that simplicity. Not because I’m baffled and frightened by the bewildering complexity of the modern world and want to retreat to some imagined simpler past as a comfort blanket – that, it’s true, is one historic manifestation of populism, understandable but unfortunate, with its tendency to blame outsiders and follow projects of historical, religious or moral purity. Let us call it Nigel Farage populism. The point I want to make is that, actually, the diversely productive self-provisioning and post-prandial philosophising imagined by Marx, mediated though it is, is a relatively simple and a relatively satisfying way to live. Is there not a danger of over-complicating the basic rhythms of human life?

Not according to S&W. In their critique, for example, of folk-political public campaigns to disinvest in dodgy banks, they say this neglects what they call “the complex abstractions of the modern banking system” (p.44). This seems an unfortunate turn of phrase when what we learned in 2008 is that, actually, the banking system is less complex and less abstract than the bankers and economists had thought, as complex fiscal abstraction ran aground on the hard reality of demands for actual purchasing power. But let me admit that I know very little about the banking system. I’m sure a knowledgeable person could convince me that it is quite complex, and that simplistic populist critiques of bankers don’t get us far. But their arguments would have to be…complex. Is it not rather simplistic to argue, as S&W do along with many defenders of the economic status quo, that populist anger with the banks is simply ‘simplistic’, without further elaboration?

There are too many of these extravagantly drawn dualisms in S&W’s thinking: “The choice facing us is…either a globalised post-capitalism or a slow fragmentation towards primitivism”5. Why? To my mind, such Procrustean oppositions do little more than buttress the dreary conservatism that so much self-avowed modern or progressive thought now inclines to: “Oh, you’re against mechanised agricultural intensification are you? Well I’d like to see you taking on a woolly mammoth with a pointy stick!”

S&W write,

“Whereas folk-political approaches lack an enticing vision of the future, struggles over modernity have always been struggles over what the future should look like: from the communist modernism of the early Soviet Union to the scientific socialism of postwar social democracy, and on to the sleek neoliberal efficiency of Thatcher and Reagan” (p.70).

OK, well let me ask you which of these visions for your future you find most enticing:

(a) living in a modest but comfortable house with a generous vegetable garden and access to meadows and pastures in the vicinity of a small friendly town with many like-minded people

(b) living in a society organised according to the principles of scientific socialism

(c) living in a society organised according to the principles of sleek neoliberal efficiency

Perhaps I’m stretching a point but S&W seem incapable of construing any political possibilities other than embracing technological acceleration, universalism (and precisely whose universalism, given that there is no human authentic human essence, no harmonious unity etc.?) and the imperative to expand and extend. They argue that only projects of this kind can lead to emancipation from capitalism, whereas folk politics is doomed to failure because it can’t reckon with the abstraction and global reach of capital. I’m inclined to propose a counter-thesis: projects of technological acceleration, post-work self-actualisation, restless self-improvement, simple universalism and anti-authentic mediation are potentially radical, liberatory and anti-capitalist but are so close to regnant capitalist ideologies of liberation from limits and self-overcoming that they will almost certainly be swallowed up by the existing order they set out to challenge – as indeed has mostly been the case with avant garde movements in modernism. Agrarian populist projects of self-provisioning, far from being what S&W call “freedom at the expense of abundance, represented by primitivist dystopias” (p.109) offer enticing visions of abundance, which are neither primitivist nor nearly as dystopian as the Eloi-vision of S&W. We do not have to choose between either Antonio Sant’Elia or John Zerzan.

But an agrarian populist vision for the future undoubtedly faces several difficulties. One of them is how to mediate (that ‘m’ word again) the focus on localism with the need to generalise it politically – the issue that Steve Gwynne and I were touching on in our discussion around the notion of the commons. I like S&W’s distinction between folk-politics and populism inasmuch as the latter seeks to build a common language and project – precisely what I hope I can contribute to in my own political writing and activism in groups like La Via Campesina. I also like their ideas about a universal basic income in this respect. Imagine a UBI programme fostered by a government that supported localism and small-scale farming – the budget might not stretch to what today would seem a very generous allowance, but in a context where a large number of people were producing a large number of their needs for themselves, it may not have to. For that to happen, though, a thorough reform of landownership would be required – an issue that, surprisingly, S&W don’t mention at all.

In summary, does Goldman Sachs care if you raise chickens? No, of course it doesn’t if you raise chickens, just as it doesn’t care if you withdraw your labour as an individual miner or farm labourer by way of political protest. But if we raise chickens as part of a political movement, then I think it’ll start to care, just as it or at least the political and economic establishment care when trade unions are able to use the power of labour as a collective political weapon. S&W teach us that new political projects take time to build, and that they have to be strategic. I have little interest in their own particular political project, but I take heart from their analysis that – possible political or ecological meltdowns notwithstanding – it may be feasible to build in time a strong global agrarian populist movement that changes the face of contemporary politics.


  1. Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso.
  1. Phillips, L. (2015). Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts. Winchester: Zero.
  1. Eg. Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman, London: Penguin; Crawford, M. (2009). The Case For Working With Your Hands, London: Penguin.
  1. Smaje, C. (2008). ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2, 2: 183-198.
  1. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/

Worst trade union of the year award: a Small Farm Future special

The year, I know, is scarce begun, and yet already I feel able to offer you three strong contenders for this new annual award from the small farm future stable, culled from my recent trip to the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Now, trade unionism gets a bad press these days, and I have to admit that for all its associations with progressive leftism, the movement has mined a rich historic seam of small-minded conservatism and unenlightened self-interest. Still, you only have to look at what happens in the absence of trade unions to appreciate their importance – for example, in food journalist Felicity Lawrence’s sobering reports about the criminal exploitation of migrant labour in British agriculture. Or, talking of mining as I just was, an example from my own family history: my great grandfather, killed with sixty other men by a methane explosion in a Yorkshire pit during the pre-unionised days of the late 19th century. The mining company stopped his pay at the moment of his death. My grandmother said it was only the Salvation Army that kept her widowed mother from penury.

For all the demonization of the traditional working-class trade unions, it’s the white collar unions – the British Medical Associations and Law Societies of this world – who really put the ‘con’ into trade union conservatism. But perhaps the recent, narrowly-averted strike by junior doctors signals another step along the slow path of middle-class proletarianization being worked even upon the medical profession by the magic of neoliberal capitalism. The really powerful trade unions now left after the eclipse of blue and white collar power are not really ‘trade’ unions at all, but organisations that shore up landownership and the forms of cultural and social capital through which privilege is quietly reproduced. I was grateful to get a window into their world in and around my time at the ORFC.

And so, without further ado, I now present to you my shortlist for the worst trade union in the world award. First up, let’s hear it for the Duchy of Cornwall, as represented at the ORFC by its Secretary, Mr Alastair Martin. If you’re not up on your British constitutional history, the Duchy was founded by Edward III in 1337 to provide an income to his son and heir. And it’s still doing the business 700 years later for the present heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and six other members of his immediate family, in the form of a 135,000 acre portfolio of prime British real estate, mostly west country farmland.

Now I must admit, apparently unlike the majority of my fellow Brits I’ve never had much time for the royal family. Parasites. Feudal relics. All that bowing, scraping and toadying. Please. Still, despite his dodgy letters to the government, I suppose I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Charles, whose heart seems to be in the right place on various matters and who enjoys something of a reputation as a do-gooder. So it was salutary to be reminded by Mr Martin that the primary purpose of the Duchy is to furnish its incumbent with cold, hard cash.

Well, fair play to the man – as an advocate of agrarian proprietorship I have no problem at all with the idea of furnishing the necessities of life from a piece of land. But, as an egalitarian-minded one, I do have a bit of a problem if those pieces of land are distributed too unevenly. I mean, I don’t want to go overboard – I don’t subscribe to the notion that everybody always has to have exactly the same. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a reasonable distribution would allocate no more than nine times more resources to the richest than the poorest. And let’s further assume that – as a result of his obviously superior intelligence, charm and good looks – Charles takes his rightful place in the upper echelons of this hierarchy, with the remainder of these fair isles allocated to its 64 million populace according to a rough bell curve, such that the richest 4% of the population, like Charles, each have a Duchy of Cornwall sized 135,000 acres to play with, whereas the poorest 4% have to scrape by with a measly 15,000 acres each. As pragmatic a compromise between modest egalitarianism and the natural differentiation of the human tribe as one could possibly imagine, don’t you think? And, on that basis, a few simple calculations reveal that the British populace would require something a little shy of 3 trillion square kilometres of land for their lebensraum – or around 21 times more than the entire land surface of the planet.

Get outta here, Charles – you’re a leech on the face of the earth.

Mr Martin made the further point that much of the Duchy’s land was farmed by tenants who could concentrate on the business of farming without the troublesome burden of landownership weighing on their minds – a liberation that he considered made them more efficient. But I’d venture to reframe his point thus: if you have no secure tenure to fall back on you’ll probably try to maximise your short-term income any darned way you can. And that, in a single sentence, pretty much encapsulates the emergence of capitalism, which arguably started right here in merrie England for exactly that reason – converting secure customary tenures into short-term fiscal leases created an upwards ratchet upon agricultural output. The rest, as they say, is history – and not one that ultimately turned out too well for the power of the monarchy and the wider aristocracy. And yet here they still are, the royal duchies and all the rest, owning land all over the place – a trade union of undeserving landowners. Parasites, as I said earlier. Feudal relics.

Next up, the National Farmers’ Union, as represented at the ORFC by Guy Smith, NFU vice-president. I’ve got to tip my hat to Mr Smith for straying from the safety of the Oxford Farming Conference across the road and daring to enter the lion’s den of the Oxford Real Farming Conference where he was given a predictably rough reception. To adopt a cricketing metaphor, when a batsman is facing a hostile attack it’s best to keep it simple, which was perhaps what was on Mr Smith’s mind as he dead batted every question like Faf du Plessis weathering an over of Moeen Ali teasers. Whereas Faf’s defensive measure of choice is a forward prod to silly mid-off, Mr Smith protected his stumps with the heavy bat of consumer demand, arguing that while there may indeed be many things wrong with the food and farming system, there’s nothing that farmers can do about them and there’s no alternative but to give the consumer exactly what s/he wants. Presumably the NFU policy favouring maize silage for anaerobic digestion emerges from this same public clamour. Certainly, the last time I was abroad on my local high street I heard shoppers talk of little else.

‘Consumer demand’ seems to be a clinching gambit for a lot of people these days about the sad reality of the way the world is, regardless of our fondest wishes. It’s not one that I personally find very convincing for several reasons that perhaps I’ll spell out in another post – but more importantly for my present purposes it’s surely not one that any self-respecting trade unionist should find convincing. How would it sound if a trade unionist said “sure, we’d all like safer working conditions in this mine/higher wages in this factory etc. but consumer demand being what it is the market will never bear it”. The whole point of being a trade unionist is that you organise politically in order to change what the market will bear in the direction of your favoured policies. I’m not the first to suggest that supposedly ‘free’ markets are essentially creations of monopoly capital working in concert with the state in support of the former’s interests (as George Monbiot likes to point out, you can tell a lot from the fact that DEFRA is headquartered at 17 Smith Square, and the NFU at 16 Smith Square). Nor am I the first to suggest that the NFU basically represents the interests of larger scale, wealthier farmers. I get the sense of a powerful and exclusive trade union busily organising in its members’ interests not to change the market in order to preserve policies which suit it very well. Helplessness in the face of consumer demand is a veil of economic power.

Some of Mr Smith’s other remarks were equally informative. Against the charge that contemporary farming practices were damaging soil he referenced Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the US dustbowl. The extent to which the dustbowl really was a result of farming practices is debatable, but let’s just go with the logic of Mr Smith’s position – farmers have been wrecking soils for at least 80 years, so why should anyone start caring now? Finally, Mr Smith mentioned his pride in the barn owls living on his farm, and reckoned that the government ought to pay him £500,000 for each one. Er, why? I’ve always done my best to counter the crude and unfair stereotype of the farmer as subsidy-junky, but you’re not helping Mr Smith, you’re really not helping…

The third and final contender is Oxford University – well, let’s extend it to Cambridge University too. As I walked among the university’s dreaming spires in the course of the conference, various among the younger generation within my extended family were waiting to hear whether they’d received an offer to study there. The key variable for success, as it proved, was whether they’d received a private education. And it doesn’t just apply to my family – only 7% of people in Britain are privately educated, whereas 44% of Oxford’s students are. It seems an Oxbridge education unlocks the door to the upper echelons of public and private sector power in the UK: only 1% of the UK public is educated there, but its graduates comprise 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs and 33% of BBC executives. Talk about a closed trade union shop…

And the winner is: Hold your horses, hold your horses. In true awards ceremony style I’m going to keep you on tenterhooks by handing out the runner-up prize first. And that prize goes to…Oxford and Cambridge universities. Unquestionably a cancer within British society which narrows the perspective and the representativeness of key institutions and builds an inherent conservatism into them, nevertheless I have to concede that these universities do leave the door of their closed shop oh so very slightly ajar to new blood from the lumpen masses. True, it’s mostly window dressing…but there’s good research being done by good people at these places. And so I’m happy to concede that they’re the best of the bad bunch on show here.

We now come to the gold and silver positions. At first I was minded to award the gold to Mr Smith. After all, Oxbridge and the Duchy of Cornwall are only doing what comes naturally to them – defending inherited privilege, just as they’ve always done. But you, Mr Smith, are a trade unionist. You’re supposed to be representing farmers. Perhaps you’re even supposed to be representing agriculture. Why not offer an enlightened vision of the role it can play in delivering a just and sustainable world, instead of hiding behind the false god of consumer demand in order to promote a self-serving conservative agenda?

But on reflection I’ve decided that Mr Smith only merits silver…probably. Because if there’s one single thing that stands in the way of that just and sustainable agrarian future it’s the structure of landownership in this country, and the near impossibility for most people of owning what the great Dick Gaughan calls one handful of earth. To be fair, aristocratic landownership is only one part of the problem, but it’s emblematic of the pernicious death grip that money and privilege always have over real estate. That grip needs to be loosened before there’s the remotest possibility of achieving the small farm future that I believe is needed to achieve sustainability and social justice, so I hope that the gold medal I hereby award to the Duchy of Cornwall will go some way to helping loosen it. Step forward Mr Martin. Unless…well, I said that the Duchy of Cornwall only probably merits gold because, under questioning by small-scale market gardeners and land rights activists, Mr Martin said that the Duchy might consider making land available for small, alt-ag concerns. So if it donates, let’s say, 120,000 acres freehold to around 6,000 would be farmers, Small Farm Future is prepared to be magnanimous and downgrade the Duchy’s award to silver or bronze.

Before I close, and while I’m in the business of parading this cast of shifty characters across the halls of disrepute, perhaps it’s appropriate that I turn the spotlight a little closer to home. For although I’m scarcely a landowner in Prince Charles’s league, nevertheless I have a stake in property, not least my humble eighteen acres of finest Somersetshire, which most likely puts me in serious kulak territory. And while I refuse to yield to the scantily-mortgaged denizens of multiply-zero valued townhouses as they grumble about access to the countryside, I’m all too aware of what an extraordinarily privileged position I’m in compared to the majority of the world’s labourers and farmworkers. If there were truly effective unions organising the wretched of the earth, I suspect that many of us here in the UK would have a lot of rethinking to do about our expectations of the world.

Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015

A belated happy new year from Small Farm Future. I’ve been off the farm (and blessedly computer-free) for quite a while over the holidays, most recently at the ever-informative Oxford Real Farming Conference. So I have a lot of farm work and a lot of writing and blogging to catch up on. The former is going to start asserting its priority over the latter, so please forgive me if the blog posts become a bit more sporadic. If in the coming weeks you should need to fill that Small-Farm-Future-shaped hole in your life – a problem no doubt shared with aching multitudes – you could always feast your eyes on my Dark Mountain piece about COP21.

But moving swiftly on, I want to start the new year by mourning a loss at the end of the old one. Early in 2015 I commemorated the sad death of Patrick Whitefield, whose writing and teaching greatly influenced me. I now want to mark the passing at the year’s end of another good man, whose work has likewise left its mark.

I only knew Sid briefly, in the course of what turned out to be a short and rather ill-fated sojourn as a graduate student in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. I suppose I was in awe of him as something of an icon of American anthropology (I think the ecumenical conception of ‘America’ in Sid’s work permits the term ‘American’ in this case, when I’d otherwise want to resist the colonization of the term by the USA, which after all is only one of many American countries). But, as various obituaries have rightly stressed, for someone of his standing he was remarkably genial and free of egotism, and my interactions with him and with his thinking were one of the few unalloyed positives I took from my time in Baltimore.

Probably the best way for me to honour Sid here is to share some thoughts on why his work still matters to me in the different life I’ve chosen as a small-scale farmer and small-scale farming activist. At the time early in his career when anthropology still inclined towards the study of supposedly authentic and pristine ‘non-modern’ or ‘tribal’ societies, Sid chose to focus on the Caribbean, the decidedly non-pristine crucible and forerunner for our modern world system. To understand the small world of the Caribbean, Sid had to understand much bigger worlds – Africa, Europe, and the Americas more generally – in their interactions with it. And he had to understand them historically, still quite a novel approach in the functionalist-dominated anthropology of the time, though perhaps less so in the US than in Europe. So his work was painted on a vast historic canvas, for which he used the tools of Marxist structural and economic analysis, but (unlike many Marxists) without ever losing sight of the actual people living the structures of history. His writings like Worker in the Cane and The Birth of African-American Culture were theoretically sophisticated, but also moving and intensely human accounts of the way that people made sense of the hand dealt them by history, and the way they tried to make the most of it too, even when the hand was as unpromising as the one typically dealt to Africans in colonial America, and to many of their descendants today. In contrast to the abstruse Marxist and post-Marxist social theorising which were the stock-in-trades of much of my anthropological education, Sid was exemplary in his ability to use clear, simple language to convey sophisticated ideas, while maintaining a steady, sympathetic gaze on ordinary people as they went about making history through living their lives. I wish I could better follow his example.

Sid was probably best known for his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. It launched a thousand imitations about the role of this or that commodity in shaping the world as we know it, few of them with the erudition of the original. As Sid documented in his book, the importance of sugar in the development of globalization and global capital is hard to overestimate – shaping the fortunes of people on three continents and fostering many facets of modern public culture in the development both of slave plantation agriculture and of opposition to it. It’s easy to forget how recent these events are. I remember Sid mentioning that as a young anthropologist he’d met an old man in Puerto Rico who had been born a slave. Slavery itself is still with us today in illicit forms, of course, but even full-blown slave societies are less than two lifetimes distant.

I guess the brute historic facts of Atlantic chattel slavery are implicit in my thinking about small farm futures, because they dramatize in extreme form what strikes me as integral to capitalist globalization – an inhumane privileging of profit over people, which insinuates itself in barbaric forms wherever the agents of capital accumulation can get away with it, most often in colonial or neo-colonial situations. True, chattel slavery was abolished and its abolition in some ways reflected the emergence of a universalist humanitarianism which has been a mostly positive force in the modern world. True, too, that a localist agrarian world isn’t necessarily an egalitarian one. But the development of American plantation slavery contemporaneously with the development of the ‘Enlightenment values’ that so many people seem anxious to defend today as exemplary of a western developmental superiority over the ‘barbarism’ of others strikes me as an adequate rebuke to such hubris, and illustrative of what naked power gets up to behind its many veils. The prospects for achieving a sustainable, egalitarian small farm future perhaps seem pretty slim – it’s just that, for me, the prospects for achieving any other kind of sustainable, egalitarian future seem slimmer still.

Another aspect of Sid’s work that I find relevant to my present concerns, albeit a bit tangentially, is his writing on the ‘reconstituted peasantries’ of the Caribbean, and on Caribbean societies more generally as reconstituted creole societies, creating new, functional American wholes out of their European and African parts (his 1974 book Caribbean Transformations is the key text here). Just as Caribbean peasantries and Caribbean societies were post-modern responses to modernity in one of its most horrifying manifestations, so I think we need reconstituted peasantries and reconstituted societies in many parts of the world today as a post-modern response to modernity in its less immediately horrifying (at least for the fortunate denizens of the world’s wealthier countries) but therefore more insidious forms of globalized capitalist commodity agriculture and contemporary consumerism.

When I went to Jamaica in 1989 under Sid’s tutelage I wanted to study ‘peasant consciousness’ among small-scale farmers involved in both subsistence production and commodity sugar production, as a result of what with retrospect strike me as a set of rather arid and over-theoretical Marxist concerns, while armed with absolutely no knowledge at all about how people actually farmed. It’s probably best to draw a veil over my brief and hapless efforts to be an anthropological fieldworker (a book by one of Sid’s students who enjoyed a rather more successful academic career than me – Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Peasants and Capital – is worth a look as an example of the kind of good anthropology to which I aspired, and perhaps sort of still do). But in recent years, I’ve become a fieldworker in the more direct sense of having spent time actually working as a farmer in my field, and I’ve also come back to the issue of peasant consciousness – in particular, as manifested in the balance between personal or community self-provisioning and commodity production as a critical global question for contemporary times, even if it’s not one that is yet being widely asked.

I haven’t kept up with Sid’s more recent work on the anthropology of food – from what I’ve seen, his intellectual productivity stayed with him to the last – and I have to admit that I don’t think his work provides any simple answers to my current questions about peasant consciousness. Indeed, I don’t think there are any simple answers to it. One of the nice things about being an academic – even a politically-engaged, Marxist-oriented academic – is that you can eschew the activist’s tendency to propound simple solutions to complex problems. There’s plenty of activist posturing within academia, but Sid’s specific, engaged, humane work floats serenely above it, offering not answers but at least the possibility of better historical understanding, and better questions.

As I said of Patrick last year: rest in peace, Sid, and thanks for what you gave us.

Voting with their feet: some questions for the experts

Jahi Chappell recently copied me into an interesting Twitter exchange with Erle Ellis of the Breakthrough Institute (and one of the signatories of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which I’ve criticised in various posts1) about the global exit from small-scale farming. His tweet also elicited responses from Haroon Akram-Lodhi, professor of international development at Trent University and co-editor of the excellent Peasants and Globalization, and from Rachel Bezner Kerr, a development sociologist at Cornell.

Ellis wrote ‘Opportunities of smallholder agriculture are so limited- people moving to cities are voting with their feet’. Akram-Lodhi appeared to agree: ‘People leave smallholder farming because it does not offer a livelihood. If it did, fewer would’, while Bezner Kerr argued ‘Current policies support industrial large-scale farms so yes, many farmers give up, but can change!’, a point echoed by Jahi in his responses.

As an advocate of small-scale farming in both rich and poor countries to help address our multiple problems, I’m in Jahi’s camp on this one. But I’m under no illusions about what life is like generally for poor small-scale farmers around the world. It’s hard to disagree with Ellis that the opportunities for small-scale agriculture are limited, so if people are ‘voting with their feet’ it’s hardly surprising. Still, there are various aspects of the ‘voting with their feet’ narrative that I’d question. I’m not an expert in these matters, but since Jahi’s tweet referenced a number of people who most likely are, I’ve framed these doubts in terms of five questions to the experts. I sincerely hope somebody who knows about these things might take the trouble to reply – I’ll be very grateful if they do, because these are questions I’ve long wondered about.

Before the questions, a few facts and figures. As shown in the graph below derived from the World Bank’s world development indicators2, in 1966 only 36% of the world’s 3.4 billion people lived in urban areas, whereas in 2014 53% of the world’s 7.3 billion did so. So, as has been widely remarked, we’ve moved from a majority-rural to a majority-urban world, the crossover occurring in 2007-8. But as the graph also shows there are more people living in the countryside now than ever before. In fact, the current rural population of 3.4 billion is about as many people as lived in the whole world in 1966. Still, there’s no doubting the growing importance of the urban: there are 2.7 billion more people living in urban areas now than in 1966.

Urban-rural residence




Now to the questions…


Question 1: How many foot-voters are there?

So the urban population has grown by nearly 3 billion over the last 50 years. But how many of these people actually fall into Ellis’s category of ex-rural foot voters? To answer that, we’d firstly need to rule out everyone actually born in urban areas through natural increase who therefore had no vote to make, a number that I’d imagine has increased considerably over the past few decades. I think we’d probably also need to rule out people who have stayed put in a countryside that has urbanised around them – a significant development in China, I believe, where (along with India) the sheer number of people drives a lot of the global demographic statistics. These folks may love their newly urbanised countryside or they may loathe it, but either way I’m not sure we can simply say they’ve ‘voted with their feet’. Then there are people who’ve moved to urban areas through compulsion – forced out by dam projects, land grabs, nature reserves and the like. If they ‘voted’ then there was only one tick-box on their ballot paper. And there are a lot of people living temporarily in urban areas while retaining a footing in the countryside – either short-term, maybe seasonal, work in the city before heading home to the family farm, or long-term urban residence with a view to returning to farm when they’re older and richer. These people may be ‘voting with their feet’ in some respects, but not in others. They’re hedging their bets with complex, mixed strategies of economic activity. How do they figure in the urbanisation statistics, and how do we count their vote? Despite all of the above, there are doubtless still a lot of erstwhile small farmers around today who at some point in their lives have said ‘screw this’, quit farming, and moved permanently to the town. What I’d like to know is, how many?


Question 2: Where do the foot-voters go?

I’d also like to know where the foot-voters go. People often seem to think in terms of migration to mega-cities like Mumbai, Manila or Lima, but most people don’t live in these places. In fact, presently only 22% of the world’s population lives in cities of more than a million people2. As I understand it, the definition of ‘urban’ used in the urban/rural definition is a settlement of 10,000 people or more. So how many of the foot-voters are going to small towns near their former rural homes, and what are the implications of this for the kind of livelihoods they seek?


Question 3: How do the foot-voters fare?

Presumably the foot-voters must have a strong sense that a permanent move to the town will make them enduringly better off. After all, to completely abandon a footing on the land, however precarious, is to deny themselves a potential source of income. My feeling is that there’s a lot of bet-hedging and rural-urban to-and-froing going on that’s obscured in the ‘foot voting’ narrative. And I suspect that a good many of the full-on foot-voting farm-abandoners are relatively well off folk who’ve got something lined up for themselves in the town. But I’d be grateful if someone could confirm or disprove this line of thinking by pointing me to some good research evidence.

I’d also be grateful if someone could point me to some good evidence on social mobility in large city slums. It seems to be a heinous crime these days to romanticise rural or peasant lives, and yet we do it so insouciantly with regard to the urban. In his book Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand writes “let no one romanticise what the slum conditions are…but the squatter cities are vibrant…everyone is working hard and everyone is moving up” which strikes me as about as romantic an appraisal of life in a slum as it’s possible to write. But are they ‘moving up’? Where’s the evidence? Brand provides none. You’d expect Gordon Conway – eminent hunger expert and author of One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World? – to do a better job of marshalling some decent evidence one way or another. But what he actually does in that book is recount the plot of a novel in order to make the claim that permanent rural-urban migration is a route out of poverty. I came across a study of rural-origin rickshaw-pullers in Dhaka that suggests otherwise3, and another one of Bangalore slum residents suggesting likewise4. But I’d like to gain a better sense of the evidence overall. The foot-voters presumably hope for greater income and maybe for upward social mobility. To what extent are their hopes realised?

I’d imagine some methodological difficulties present themselves in answering that question. It seems commonplace nowadays to define poverty in terms of metrics like ‘$1 per day’. But I’m not entirely sure how these metrics are constructed. I believe the majority of the ‘<$1 per day’ poor are rural residents, but if by ‘a dollar’ we mean hard cash in hand I suspect that urban residents may need more hard cash crossing their palms in order to maintain a given standard of living than their rural counterparts. Any comments?

I’d guess that many of the foot-voters judge their options more realistically than the rather Dick Whittington-esque, rags-to-riches implication of the foot-voting narrative. It’s not that they leave the farm because they think they’ll ‘move up’ in the city. It’s that they think they’ll be slightly less dirt-poor in the town than on the farm, which is probably true…


Question 4: Why do the foot-voters still exist?

Foot-voting creates an image of individuals making individual decisions, but surely there are wider systemic forces involved? Presumably, foot-voting occurs mostly when there is strong economic growth creating good urban employment opportunities, the urbanization and the foot-voting being consequences of the growth and not prime movers of it. And in places where there isn’t strong economic growth, well then… But maybe someone could point me to the evidence…

If I’m right, then the curious thing is that there’s been prodigious global economic growth for centuries and yet there are still millions of small farmers in the countryside, apparently ready to ‘vote with their feet’. Perhaps there’s a problem here with the ‘foot voting’ narrative in its voluntarism and finalism. Is it simply a matter of small farmers uniformly now deciding that they’d like to quit farming and move to the city, thus soon bringing down the final curtain on small-scale farming? Well, Aesop was writing about the town mouse and the country mouse over 2000 years ago and it seems we’re still playing out that narrative. Have small-scale farmers been “left behind by modernity”, to quote Erle Ellis’s Breakthrough Institute colleague Mike Shellenberger, so that they need to move to the city where they can catch a bit of modernity for themselves? The truth is, almost everywhere, rural labour has long been thoroughly organised by the dictates of the global economy. So I suspect that people in the countryside who feel ‘left behind’ and who want to ‘vote with their feet’ may find themselves working against the grain of an economic system that pretty much wants them where they are and may not do a very good job of accommodating them off the farm – unless times are good and, for now at any rate, it needs their labour in the city. I did a quick analysis of World Bank data for just eight (admittedly quite populous) countries5 and found that they had a total of nearly 400 million rural people living below the national poverty line. Do the world’s cities have enough room to accommodate people who might ‘vote with their feet’ in those kinds of numbers?

Perhaps. Maybe the foot-voters are also foot-soldiers in a global agrarian transition, which is going to see ‘developed’-country levels of agricultural employment (low) and ‘developed’-country levels of urbanisation and GDP per capita (high) spread worldwide? I somehow doubt it, but I’d be interested in other people’s views.


Question 5: What about the but(t)-voters?

Let me put it another way. Over the past two or three hundred years globally there’s been a succession of enclosures, clearances, land grabs, migrations, forced proletarianizations, green revolutions, structural adjustment programmes and goodness knows what else, all with the aim or the result of getting people out of small scale farming. And yet there are more people living in the countryside now than ever before and still million upon million of poor small-scale farmers. So what is to be done about all of these people who seem to be voting with their butts, or voting “but…”, or wanting to vote with their feet but lacking the opportunity to do so? The dominant idea seems to be another helping of the same medicine – more proletarianization, more land grabs, a ‘doubly green revolution’ and so on. An alternative might be to accept that the world’s economy is structurally incapable of absorbing the entire global population into the ranks of the prosperously waged, and to focus instead on making life just a little bit easier for those impoverished small-scale farmers that Mike Shellenberger says have been ‘left behind’. So my final question for the experts is what policy changes do you think could be made to even up the ballot paper a little and make life easier for the millions of people who remain small-scale farmers?

Erle Ellis is widely quoted as an enthusiast for the concept of the Anthropocene – emphasizing the geological scale upon which humans have altered planet Earth. If I understand his arguments correctly, he says that we don’t face natural limits because humanity has the ability to change the parameters of the ‘natural’. And yet here he is, apparently saying that people are leaving the small farm as if there’s nothing that can be done about it, as if it’s some kind of implacable force of nature. I don’t buy it.



  1. http://dark-mountain.net/blog/dark-thoughts-on-ecomodernism-2/; http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-10/ecomodernism-a-response-to-my-critics
  1. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators#
  1. Begum, S. and Sen, B. (2005) ‘Pulling rickshaws in the city of Dhaka: a way out of poverty?’Environment and Urbanization, 17, 2: 11-25.
  1. Krishna, A. (2013) ‘Stuck in place: investigating social mobility in 14 Bangalore slums’ The Journal of Development Studies, 49, 7: 1010-28.
  1. China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and South Africa. See http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators#