Doughnut economics

I didn’t intend to break my ‘History of the world’ cycle again, but the good folks of Dark Mountain have just published my review of Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a Twenty-First Century Economist. And since I’m feeling stretched a bit thin between the blogosphere and the farm, I feel the need to curate the hell out of everything I write…So I’m appending my review below (which, as if to prove my foregoing point, attentive readers of this blog may notice borrows a few sentences from an earlier blog post here). Back to the history of the world next time.

There was a bit of toing and froing with drafts of this review, which my editors felt was overly negative in tone. That bothered me a little, because I’d wanted to convey the considerable merits of Raworth’s book in my review as well as my doubts about it. Suddenly, a self-image opened up for me that I’d not much scrutinised in myself previously despite a few past scrapes, in which I figured as just another windy old nay-saying online opinionater, or perhaps the “two-bit greentard” I was once accused of being. Meanwhile, Marc Brazeau keeps sniping at me on Twitter for misrepresenting his views in this recent post, but is so caught up in the process issues around how he thinks I should have checked what I was going to say with him ahead of time that he still hasn’t actually said what the problem is. Ah well, one truth is that you can’t please everybody. And another one for me is that the world seems so replete with bad choices and impossible trade-offs too glibly resolved in contemporary thinking that maybe a bit more windy nay-saying is exactly what we need. I’d certainly apply that critique to some of my own writing as much as to Raworth’s. And I’d definitely, definitely apply it to Brazeau, from what I’ve seen of his ideas. But, memo to self, perhaps I need to stay politer while I’m about it, and be more willing to apply it to myself.

Anyway, enough of this navel-gazing. Here’s the review (expurgated version).

oOo

Book review:
Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist 
(Random House, 2017)
by Kate Raworth

I doubt many people would have betted that this year’s hot new concept for a healthy economy would be that bad food staple, the doughnut. But with the publication of Kate Raworth’s book, it’s come to pass. The idea of the ‘doughnut’ is that there is (1) a lower social limit for human flourishing, beneath which welfare is limited by shortfalls in such things as food, education and housing, and (2) an outer ecological limit for human flourishing, beyond which welfare is limited by overshoot in such things as climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen and phosphorous loading. These two limits constitute respectively the inner and outer rings of the ‘doughnut’, the sweet spot within which humanity must try to remain. I have to confess I’m not greatly moved by the metaphor, which doesn’t seem to go much beyond the truth that individually people can have too little, and collectively they can take too much. And too much of what – is there really a conceptual equivalence between taking too much water or fossil energy, and taking too much health, as Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ diagram (p.51) seems to imply? Whatever the case, she hangs a lot of sensible and lucid analysis off the concept in a genuinely thought-provoking, if for me ultimately unsatisfactory, book.

In the first part of the book Raworth dissects orthodox economic theory, showing how it frames the world in questionable but powerful and largely hidden ways that buttress right-wing, ‘free’ market politics, while silencing other modes of thinking. She places a lot of emphasis on the way that our stories and pictures condition how we see the world, and generally puts this to good use in deconstructing the ideology of mainstream economics – for example in the notorious ‘circular flow’ diagram of Paul Samuelson, founding father of modern economics, which depicted the economy as a kind of frictionless and endless flow of value through society, like water through a closed plumbing system. This ignores the open character of the energetic and biotic systems, with their sources and sinks, to which human economies are mere accessories. Doubtless Raworth’s view that we now need to tell different stories, and draw different pictures, resonates with the Dark Mountain Project.

Raworth characterises the old story of economics as one that unconditionally celebrates markets, business, finance and trade, deprecates the state and ignores households, commons, society, the earth and power. In the new story that she wants to tell, those elements that were ignored or deprecated in the old story are brought centre stage, and old elements like markets, finance and trade are put in service of wider human flourishing, rather than assumed to be unconditionally beneficial.

If that sounds obvious or trite, Raworth nevertheless does a good job of tracing the implications in some depth, using clear, jargon-free language aimed at the non-specialist, but without sacrificing an impressive level of subtlety. It’s refreshing that she talks about power, the systematic inequalities in human/human and human/non-human relationships, something that she rightly says is generally missing in mainstream economics. But unfortunately her description of it lacks depth, and doesn’t go much further than the observation that the wealthy get to shape the economy’s rules in their favour. OK, but who are the wealthy, and how were they able to accumulate their wealth? I get the sense that Raworth operates in a rarefied world of NGO and policymaker high-ups, whose inevitably bird’s-eye and reformist view of the world inflects her book’s gentle equity talk, its judicious commitment to levelling the playing field and its pervasive emphasis on ‘design’ as the solution to contemporary problems (her 21st century economics is, for example, “distributive by design” and “regenerative by design”).

The problem, however, is not that the present global political economy is badly ‘designed’. On the contrary, it’s extremely well designed, locking the majority of the world’s population into specific political relationships which have worked because they’ve convinced sufficient numbers of the relevant people that they have a stake in the status quo. But like every past political economy, the present one will only endure for so long, until a complex of internal and external factors forces radical change – not least in the identity of the ‘relevant people’ who are invested in the status quo. In the present global political economy, the consumers and business leaders of western Europe and North America have had disproportionate ‘relevance’. But it seems likely that in the political economies to come, their relevance will wane – and this will not be a process of ‘design’ but of messy conflict, violence, compromise, happenstance and political calculation.

For sure, the economic story that Raworth wants to tell is a good one to try to feed into this febrile mix. But I don’t think it’ll have much traction without a richer analysis of how politics and power happens. My feeling is that Raworth pulls her punches in analysing the mechanics of power because otherwise she would undermine the basic premise from which her book proceeds – that political problems get solved in smoothly reformist ways by designers thinking (or storytelling, or drawing) at a whole-system level. It’s an appealing view, perhaps especially to high-level policymakers. But I’m not sure it’s a very convincing one. Maybe there’s some truth in the notion that our stories create our realities. But it’s also true that we only find the stories we want to tell out of the realities messily created in the glacial grind of human history.

In recounting her alternative economic story, Raworth freely borrows from preceding heterodox economists like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and Ha-Joon Chang. I’m not sure she adds a great deal to what they’ve already said. So I was a bit surprised to be told on page 44 that her key concept of ‘the doughnut’ is a “radically new compass for guiding humanity” derived from “cutting-edge Earth-system science”. There’s a danger here of the ‘radically new’ story succumbing to one of the pathologies of the old, and insisting over-stridently on its novelty and originality – this year’s must-have concept, rather than just another iteration in the long-established idea of sufficiency. Ah well, there’s nothing wrong with re-presenting old ideas anew if it freshens them up for another generation of readers. But Raworth says little that Herman Daly didn’t say, and say better (if a little more technically), in his 1977 classic Steady-State Economics. In that book, Daly distinguished between the three concepts of ‘service’ (human flourishing, the final benefit of economic activity), ‘throughput’ (the entropic physical flow of resources, particularly non-renewable resources) and ‘stock’ (all the things that are moved in the economy). Perhaps Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept is more memorable, but it’s less precise, and it doesn’t much help elucidate the point that some things deliver more service per stock than others.

The spirit of Daly nevertheless invests the later part Raworth’s book, where she lucidly examines questions of economic growth. Advocates for the ability of the contemporary global capitalist economy to generalise wealth while mitigating environmental impacts through technical innovation make much of the evidence for the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from resource use in the ‘developed’ economies. A good deal of this decoupling turns out to be only relative – in other words, we’re using less resources than we used to in order to deliver a given amount of product (though not necessarily ‘service’ in Daly’s terms), but economic growth is such that we’re still using more resources overall. In some cases, there does appear to be a level of absolute decoupling, ie. a lower total amount of resource use. But Raworth usefully points out that what’s really needed is sufficient absolute decoupling – that is, enough absolute decoupling to bring throughputs back within the safe bounds of her doughnut, which some analysts suggest could, for example, amount to emissions reductions in the ‘developed countries’ of around 10% per annum – vastly greater than is currently being achieved. It seems likely that the ‘developed’ economies can only reduce their resource use at too high an absolute level to stay inside the doughnut. Meanwhile, the only working model available to ‘developing’ economies is to increase their absolute resource use. Raworth succinctly spells out the resulting paradox: “No country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy. And no country has ever ended ecological degradation with one”.

Time, then, for another story? Well yes, but what Raworth offers is mostly just a set of stories-in-the-plural of people doing various positive things. I don’t mean to belittle them. Many of them are genuinely inspiring and uplifting, such as the case of Malawian William Kamkwamba, whose home-made wind turbines brought power to his local community. But Raworth fails to put them into a systemic framework that turns them into a story, rather than simply a collection of stories – a story of how the systemic structuring of contemporary economies and polities can be systemically restructured into something better. And inasmuch as she does have a wider framework, it’s quite a problematic one – based on the notion of both the commons and the state as helpmates to human flourishing. Her text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’, but this doesn’t amount to much more than a technical-sounding gloss to the notion that people sometimes share things. Well, sure they do. And sometimes they don’t. Raworth refers to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who looked carefully at various commons as defined collective usage agreements, but she doesn’t seem to have taken on board Ostrom’s point that commons sometimes work, sometimes don’t and are only sometimes (quite rarely) the best solution to resource husbandry questions. In Raworth’s treatment, there’s a slippage from commons as ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons as ‘free stuff, freely shared’. Take this passage:

The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing (pp.83-4)

One issue that goes unexamined here is the extent to which this highly technological commons, with its solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers, is sustainable in the light of the need for a sufficiently decoupled global economy discussed above. Another is that Raworth confuses the marginal costs of circulation, which indeed in the digital age have now sometimes diminished towards zero, and the costs of creative production, which aren’t necessarily much different than pre- ‘digital commons’ times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good curriculum, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production. No doubt it’s a fine thing, but it’s worth considering its major beneficiaries. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer, delivering a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. Meanwhile, much of what really matters to people as physical, biological beings – such as staple foodstuffs and bulky construction materials – doesn’t enjoy zero marginal costs of circulation, and isn’t usually best produced via commons.

Perhaps Raworth’s wider point isn’t so much about commons in the technical sense of common-pool resource use agreements. Rather, it’s a plea to create economies geared to delivering collective human benefit and to abandon the discredited old notion that the pursuit of individual self-interest somehow delivers collective benefit through the magic of the market – a magic that, if it was ever operative, now seems to be wearing off, fooling only a diminishing band of neoliberal fundamentalists. Raworth isn’t the first person, surveying the global political economy, to think “No, not this”, but then to flounder at the question of “But, then what?”, and indeed she makes a better stab than most at answering that question. However, a more comprehensive analysis is needed of the way that economic and political power works and the complex functioning of the modern state. As it is, her prescriptions involve a rather hopeful, voluntaristic and top-down rhetoric that seems destined to go unfulfilled. Her over-emphasis on ‘design’ rather than politics discussed above is one example of this. Another is the need she identifies to “bring on the partner state” to support commons and local economic regeneration, without analysing why contemporary polities so rarely do this. It surely isn’t just a matter of them choosing the wrong story.

Maybe part of the problem is our fateful modern conviction that the stories we tell have to be upbeat and optimistic – a conviction Raworth endorses, insisting on the need to see a “glass-half-full” future (p.286). It strikes me that this may be more indicative of our problems than the solutions to them. If only we could lay aside the quintessentially capitalist trope of ‘optimism’ that sends us scurrying here and there after positive stories as a kind of pick ‘n’ mix while ignoring inconvenient negativities and acknowledge that we now face potentially insurmountable ‘wicked problems’ that need to be reckoned with rather than ‘solved’, it might be easier to harbour genuine hopes for the future. Raworth herself writes that history has repeatedly demonstrated an association between economic crisis and the rise of xenophobia, intolerance and fascism (p.277). Why insist on a glass-half-full view of the future in the light of this repeated fact? It’s surely preferable to present a sober and systematic unpicking of the mechanics of political power and economic provisioning that can clarify alternative endpoints, than to regale the reader with upbeat stories of how things may just turn out well. At its best, Raworth’s book does some good unpicking. But it still leaves us a long way from home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

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

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

The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Article 51

To begin, a reflection on my previous post (feel free to skip to paragraph 3 if you’re in search of this week’s new material…): perhaps ‘Energy in neo-peasant Wessex’ wasn’t among my best, but at least one way or another it underscored the kind of transitions necessary to create a plausible post-fossil fuel future. I guess I’m agnostic on the likely pace and extent of the unravelling of our contemporary industrial ecology, though I very much doubt it’ll stay fully ravelled. And I’m still unsure of quite how to reckon the intermediate economy. But on reflection it was good to get a healthy dose of pessimism in the comments – perhaps indeed the issue is not so much about personal pessimism as making the case for pessimal strategies. So maybe I’ll have a think about devising a more pessimal energy strategy for Wessex on the basis of some of the interesting comments and links that were posted (I also need to get my head around Tverberg’s analysis discussed a while back by wysinwyg). And perhaps I should apologise to Ruben et al for being overly defensive about my projections – everyone has a special somebody in their lives to whom they get inordinately attached emotionally, and in my case it’s my Excel spreadsheets. Though saying that, the debate inclines me to cut short my numerical projections of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex – most models are pretty much nonsense after all, especially ones like mine – and start focusing on the wider aspects of the issue. But I still have a few more spreadsheets up my sleeve – I plan to blow them all, probably in my next post, in one last, giant bonfire of the numbers.

Talking of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I note that Paul Mason has written an article in The Guardian about the possibility of regional government emerging in a post-Brexit Britain, which actually mentions ‘Wessex’ by name as a regional polity. From Small Farm Future to the The Guardian, and then the world! Or at least a small corner of southwest England. You read it here first.

And talking of Brexit, it appears we now have just 5 days to go before that new world is upon us. I’m not sure if I should really be writing yet another Brexit post right now but it seems a propos at the moment, so I hope I’ll be forgiven one more turn of the crank. And in other important news, I’ve been musing over the issues of neoliberalism, immigration, populism and nationalism that prompted such exciting times on this blog a month or two back. I’ve also just finished reading the German political economist Wolfgang Streeck’s fascinating book How Will Capitalism End?1 which bears on many of these issues. As does Mr Dark Mountain himself, Paul Kingsnorth, in his recent article on ‘environmentalism in the age of Trump’. To write about all this now risks stealing some of my own thunder from the slower historical approach I’ve been planning to take regarding a possible future agrarian populist state. But with Brexit news hot and the works of Streeck and Kingsnorth at my side, I’d like to make a few preliminary points.

There’s a logic of accumulation in capitalist economies which left to its own devices tends to commodify everything, including things that can’t ultimately be commodified, like humans, nature, and money (or ‘labour, land and capital’ – the classic ‘inputs’ of orthodox economics). Governments able to harness some of the awesome wealth-creating power of the capitalist economy can use it to promote social ends and political stability, which involves checking the pure logic of capital accumulation – but it’s not a stable solution, because neither the logic of capital accumulation nor people’s social logics of self-determination are amenable to checking, even if unchecked capital accumulation ultimately undermines the conditions of its own possibility. The turbulent politics of the early 20th century represents one phase of that tension: populist and communist revolutions, fascism, anti-colonial movements, the massive shakedowns of global war, as responses to the first phase of capitalist development. Post World War II, capitalism was reined in with Keynesian welfarism, New Deal regulation, decolonisation and so on – which worked for a while largely because strong economic growth enabled most people to get a piece of the pie. But with the slowing of growth from the 1970s, western governments increasingly faced the problem of how to reward both capital and labour sufficiently to keep the show on the road. The solutions they’ve since followed have essentially been variants on staving off political crisis in the present by displacing it into the future – first by pursuing inflationary monetary policy in the 1970s, then by accruing public debt in the 1980s, and then by fostering private debt in the 1990s and 2000s, a strategy which exploded spectacularly in 2008.

In the later phases of this spiralling debt, governments attempted to get some control of it by creating what Streeck calls ‘consolidation states’ – such as the US under Bill Clinton and the EU’s Eurozone, aided and abetted by various other supra-national organisations – the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank. These consolidation states amount to a growing, globalized, technocratic and anti-democratic form of governance which in some ways return us to the rampant logic of capital accumulation that prefigured the political explosions of the early 20th century.

Hence the inevitable counter-movement of populist nationalisms – Brexit, Trump etc. Streeck is scathing about the EU, particularly the Eurozone, and its anti-democratic, neoliberal character. Various contributors on this blog have argued that the EU is an unreformable vehicle of neoliberalism – a position that I found difficult to dispute at the time and even harder now that I’ve read Streeck. Well then, time for me to swallow my pride as a self-confessed Remain voter, admit the contradiction with my aspirations to a green, localist, populism and throw in my lot with the Brexiteers?

No, I don’t think so. Because, as Streeck also makes plain, the problems that led to the formation of the ‘consolidation state’ aren’t abolished simply by exiting it. The global economy in which Britain is utterly enmeshed now runs on credit, and the elaborate architecture of global fiscal governance has an array of carrots and sticks (mostly sticks) at its disposal to ensure that creditors get their returns. There were no significant voices raised in the Brexit debate, and certainly nothing currently on the political horizon, to suggest that a post-EU Britain will do anything other than play along with those structures. Hardly surprising – who’d want to be the politician at the helm when the cashpoints run out of money? Then again, who’d want to be the politician at the helm as a markedly poorer country tries to struggle on servicing its debts? Well, Theresa May, apparently – though maybe she calculates that she’ll have handed on the baton to somebody like Liam Fox by then. Actually, I think AC Grayling calls it right – someone like Fox would quite happily preside over such a government, because the low tax, low regulation, labour disciplining regime it would need to implement would suit his politics and, in contrast to the majority of ordinary people, it wouldn’t hurt his pocket or those of others in the business oligarchy. But it won’t be plain sailing for a Tory government trying to reconcile the demands of global capital with the demands of local labour – its recent difficulties over national insurance for the self-employed are but a foretaste of what’s to come. Expect much more talk of ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘out-of-touch liberal elites’ (but which liberal elites?) to paper over the contradictions.

So the choice before the British people at the referendum was essentially Yes for neoliberalism or No for neoliberalism. For all the heated rhetoric on both sides about what the (politically) correct choice was, to which I daresay I contributed my own small voice, I’m just not moved by the argument that our votes at the referendum had any great traction on Britain’s dependent incorporation into the global economy.

Well, let me qualify that slightly. I’m certainly not moved by the argument that with Brexit we’ve ‘got back control’ in the sense that we could, theoretically, elect whatever party we please to Westminster. For starters, that argument to me lacks a base plausibility in an electoral system where 16% of the votes (for the Greens and UKIP) translated into 0.3% of the seats – one of those being a Tory defector in the form of the astronomically deluded (in more ways than one) Douglas Carswell. And even that doesn’t begin to capture the irrelevance of backbench or indeed frontbench seats at Westminster to influencing the global political economy, nor to the manifold ideological obstacles to getting anything other than a centre left or centre right party into power. To me, all this ‘getting control back’ rhetoric exemplifies what Streeck breezily dismisses as the ‘voluntaristic illusions’2 in contemporary democratic politics.

No, the only qualification I perceive is that living in the impoverished austerity state of Brexit Britain will be so dreadful that it’ll eventually prompt some kind of radical overthrow of the present political regimen (though, to be fair, that outcome could also have played out had we stayed). Would such an overthrow be a good thing? Well, possibly, but it could also be a very, very bad one – which was kind of my argument in my Dark Mountain piece. I think Brexit may slightly increase the chances of delivering an egalitarian agrarian populist government, but also the chances of an inegalitarian, non-agrarian authoritarian populist government. And so the right choice was…beats me.

Now, I know that use of the ‘F’ word (F for fascism, that is) scares some hares, and I’ll concede that perhaps I overplayed it in my initial responses to Brexit, so I’ll soften up on it and instead invoke the notion of an authoritarian populist alliance between an oligarchic business class and an ‘indigenous’ working-class, of the kind that seems to be crystallising in various countries, including England. This, to my mind, is where the shifting norms around nationalism and immigration are heading in contemporary debate.

So let me say a word on nationalism, with particular reference to Paul Kingsnorth’s arguments. Outlining his frustration after years of environmental campaigning that seemed to make nary a dent in the course of neoliberal globalisation, Kingsnorth describes his exhilaration at the Brexit and Trump election results – not because they necessarily aligned with his opinions, but because they showed that change was possible: “I suddenly realised that for the last decade I had believed, even though I had pretended not to believe, in the end of history. Now, the end of history was ending”. Drawing on the writing of Jonathan Haidt, he goes on to suggest that the old political binary of left vs right is being supplanted by a new one of globalism vs nationalism, the latter understood “in the broadest sense of the term” as “the default worldview of most people at most times…a community-focused attitude, in which a nation, tribe or ethnic group was seen as a thing of value to be loved and protected”.

Kingsnorth then draws out the obvious parallels between ‘nationalism’ thus defined and the agenda of an environmentalist localism, and more generally with a sense of primal human belonging to place, which he has consistently and eloquently explored in his writing. He acknowledges that the nationalisms we’ve now got are a long way from this vision: “Globalism is the rootless ideology of the fossil fuel age….But the angry nationalisms that currently challenge it offer us no better answers about how to live well with a natural world that we have made into an enemy”. Effectively, then, Kingsnorth sets up two nested ethical binaries – bad globalism vs nationalism, and bad nationalism vs good (place-loving) nationalism.

My take on all this diverges from Kingsnorth’s early in the piece, and then the gap keeps growing. I can well understand the frustrations of a sometime anti-globalisation activist, and had the 2016 votes gone Remain-Clinton it would have been reasonable to think despairingly, ‘same old neoliberalism’. But you don’t need to study much history to realise that the notion of an ‘end of history’ is bunk. Things always change, albeit sometimes distressingly slowly within the course of a human life, so there’s little virtue in supporting change for change’s sake.

More importantly, I think Kingsnorth casts his net far too wide in defining nationalism. True, people have always defined themselves in relation to in-groups and out-groups. But that’s not nationalism. Nationalism, I would argue, is an ideology specific to modern mass societies comprising a multitude of strangers which tries to reconcile the contradiction between a nominal egalitarianism of individual rights with individual subordination to the state, essentially by arguing that the state embodies the collective will of the people. In doing so, it often weaponises other and perhaps older kinds of identity – religion, language, history, the beauty of the nation’s landscape or the tenacity of its peasant farmers – to create a plausible story of who ‘the people’ are. But it’s not fundamentally about these identifications and it doesn’t arise out of them. Nationalism is about creating or shoring up the legitimacy of the modern nation-state, often by co-opting subordinate groups within it such as the ‘genuine’ working-class as against fifth columnists like ‘cosmopolitan liberal elites’. The idea that there’s a common will of the people embodied in the sovereign state isn’t old, but very new. It would have been alien to anyone much prior to the late 18th century. But in the last 200 years, it’s powerfully shaped the would-be nation-states of the contemporary world, which with few exceptions are now utterly wedded to neoliberalism, whether they like it or not.

So I don’t see much leverage for Kingsnorth’s project of relating more authentically to place from within nationalism. The places Kingsnorth rightly wants to enchant are definite, material places – the streets you walk, the fields you work. The places that nationalism enchants aren’t – ‘England’, ‘the fatherland’, ‘the community’. ‘Community’ is a problematic concept, but it does kind of work at a local level: my family, my friends, my neighbours, and other people I encounter regularly – like them or not, they’re part of my world and I have to figure out how to interact with them. I don’t think the same applies to the national community. In fact, I don’t think there is a national community – the nation is just a story that nationalism supplies. True, perhaps there are likely to be a few more shared cultural reference points between me and another English person than with a foreigner (if only because of the historic success of nationalist ideology in shaping a ‘national’ culture), but there may not be, and it’s a tenuous thing to hang a polity on. In that sense, I think Kingsnorth proceeds far too casually from the idea of community to the idea of nations and nationalism – and he’s not alone among influential voices in the environmental movement right now. I understand why many in the movement are seeking a safe harbour from the stormy seas of neoliberalism, but I think they’re mistaken to suppose the idea of the nation will provide it.

Nationalism defines membership in the national ‘community’ by criteria of both inclusion and exclusion, which brings us to the questions of immigration that loom so large in the Brexit debate. I’ll gloss over the often complex ways in which nationalist ideologies generate notions of who counts as an undesirable immigrant and who doesn’t. I’ll gloss over too the complex and varied reasons people have for migrating, and the many complex empirical questions over the actual effects of EU (and non-EU) immigration in contemporary Britain: to what extent, for example, do EU immigrants actually bid down the price of homegrown labour, and will their likely absence in a post-Brexit Britain create more secure local employment or, as I suspect, merely alienate it abroad as part of larger secular trends in the neoliberal global economy? Let’s just say that, for good or ill, people in Britain want to see less labour in-migration. What’s the best way to achieve that?

Well not, I think, by ever more vigorous policing of borders. That approach is likely to cost a lot of money for limited results, while inflicting a great deal of human misery (more than 20,000 people have died trying to enter EU countries in the last decade or so3). The issue is reminiscent of the debate over vagrancy in Tudor England. When the roads started filling with homeless folk in search of work, the powers that be responded with increasingly draconian punishments for vagrancy, accompanied by a moral panic about the disreputability of the wanderers. Few considered the effects of government agrarian and economic policies in creating the class of landless labourers in the first place.

The bottom line is this: people try to move away from poverty and towards wealth. In a world where wealth is massively concentrated geopolitically, people will come looking for it no matter what obstacles the wealthier states put in their way. If we want to end mass global labour migration, the best thing to do is to end gross geographic disparities in life chances.

I’ve been accused before of irresponsibly wishing to lower the standard of living in the wealthier countries to the level of common misery experienced by humankind in general in relation to my remarks on immigration. On reflection, I’m happy to embrace that accusation, if I’m allowed a few extra lines of defence. I embrace it because, well, what’s the alternative? Historically, capitalist ideology has justified itself with aqueous metaphors of downward trickling and upwardly rising tides that benefit all. It’s become clear that these are mirages. So the argument against a fair global spread of economic resources then boils down essentially to the devil take the hindmost. I can’t justify that to myself ethically, and in any case I think that road leads to a still deeper mire of global misery.

Here are the extra lines of defence. First, as Streeck shows, the global capitalist economy is bloated with liquidity which we’ve endlessly been borrowing from the future on the basis of an anticipated growth which isn’t going to come. So sooner or later another day of reckoning like 2008 will arrive. Globally, we need to be poorer. Second, as with economics so with ecology – we can’t keep drawing down on planetary resources in the way that we currently are, and the only likely way we’ll stop unless nature forces our hand is if we can’t afford to. Third, if we want to be living any kind of sustainable, localist, nature-adjusted life of the kind construed by Kingsnorth, then we need to dispense with a huge amount of fiscal and fossil capital, and spread out the possibilities for local lifeways globally. Along with capital controls and other ways of keeping money under closer political control we need, in other words, a graduated, global, contraction-and-convergence debt default or jubilee, in which the major losers will have to be the creditors of the capitalist economy. At present, the richest eight people in the world hold equivalent assets to the poorest 3.5 billion4. So here’s my first draft for a global economic plan: take it off them, put it in a sealed vault, and distribute the rest of the world’s assets more-or-less equally among the people of the world. Excess labour migration to Britain, and much else besides, sorted at a stroke. Call it Article 51. OK, so a few details need working out, a few t’s crossed and i’s dotted, the odd implementation question sorted out. But the basic idea is sound, no? And the end result of this I think will not be a common human misery, but actually improved quality of life worldwide.

So in the end I’m not sure that Brexit makes much difference to the unfolding, or unravelling, of the bigger global economic plot. Perhaps I should therefore lay aside my gut opposition to it. I guess it’s just that so far it seems to have fostered more of the ‘angry nationalism’ of which Kingsnorth speaks. I think that might make the unravelling worse.

Notes

  1. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End, Verso.
  2. Streeck, p.187.
  3. Jones, R. 2016. Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, Verso, p.16.
  4. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/top-eight-richest-men-worth-9629700

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

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

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

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

Populism Defined: Five Features of Populism

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a left agrarian populism

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

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

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

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

income-distributions-and-populism

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

populism-and-gdp

 

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?

References

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…

References

  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.

References

  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