The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 9. The 20th century – four doctrines

And so we come to instalment #9 of 10½ in my history of the world – a rather lengthy one, but the 20th century was a busy old time. As ever, a fully footnoted and referenced version of the essay is here. And just to note, I’ll be completely offline next week as I’m going to a meeting of small-scale farmers from various parts of the world in Nicaragua. I generally try to avoid flying these days, but the prospect of an expenses-paid trip to look at Nicaraguan farms and talk to other small-scale farmers was too much of a temptation, I’m afraid. Normal service here again from 27 November. I’ll try to weight each word I speak during the trip with such a payload of carbon negativity that its associated emissions will be offset by my utterances alone…That’s doable, right? Talking of words, do feel free to debate (constructively) on here in my absence…unless you’ve never posted before, in which case I’m afraid you’ll have to await my return. And on that note, it’s been good to have a few new voices on here recently…so if you’re reading this but haven’t yet commented…go on…

oOo

Let me continue with my chronology by saying that the first part of the 20th century saw the contradictions in the previously-described nexus of capitalist, colonial, modernist, alt-modernist, nationalist and imperial orders transformed in the massive shakedowns of global war and revolution. Pre-modern empires such as Habsburg Austria-Hungary – “the prison of nations” according to Balkan nationalists – along with Tsarist Russia, imperial China and the Ottoman empire came crashing down. To simplify just a bit, there were essentially four main political doctrines contesting for power in this period. First, liberal-democratic capitalism, encompassing both more elitist and more social-democratic variants. Second, communism – and specifically the idea that the industrial wage-earning working-class had a privileged world-historical role to play in overcoming capitalism and installing an egalitarian, socialist, non-market society (which was not how communism turned out in practice). Third, agrarian populism – the idea that the state should focus primarily upon supporting small-scale farmer-proprietors, the backbone of many contemporary societies. Fourth, fascism – a weird amalgam of most of the others, encompassing a mixture of egalitarian workerist ideology with private sector capitalism and state dirigisme, a kind of hyper-development of the nationalist identification between the people and the polity in which ‘the people’ were more or less sublimated within the agency of a neo-imperialist state, a vaunting of the peasant and the countryside as nationalist ideals (rarely a vaunting of actual peasants, who weren’t much moved by fascism) and an often racialized treatment of pariah groups traversing the spectrum from discrimination to genocide – all of which drew in some ways upon the alt-modernist tradition and in other ways represented a politics of ressentiment which was its absolute negation.

A further word on agrarian populism, an almost forgotten idea today but one that had powerful traction in many parts of the world around the turn of the 20th century and one that, in my opinion, sorely needs reviving. In the USA, the People’s Party seriously contested for power in the late 19th century, but quickly fizzled out. Historical orthodoxy on what US agrarian populism stood for has been subject to various revisions over time – in the mid-20th century the populists were commonly dismissed as hayseeds who failed to adjust to the invigorating winds of modernity. By the 1960s, when those winds had soured, historians were treating them as prescient anti-capitalist communitarians, who saw what corporate capitalism had in store for the world and wisely rejected it. In more recent scholarship, the US populists have been portrayed as rural progressive-capitalists who were pretty much on-message with the major trends in the emerging contemporary capitalist order, but just had a more agrarian and ruralist vision for it than the course that history actually took. Certainly, it could be argued that an anti-capitalist peasant populism was never deeply rooted in the USA or Canada because of the historical peculiarities of their settler-colonial ‘American path’ to capitalism that I mentioned earlier. But where does that argument lead? Well, we’ll come back to that question soon.

First, though, another example of agrarian populism – the US’s southern neighbour. The Mexican Revolution was the first of six major ‘peasant wars of the twentieth century’ analysed by Eric Wolf in his classic text (the others being Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba). In Wolf’s analysis, what distinguished these 20th century peasant insurrections was that they weren’t simply reactionary attempts to slough off the capitalist state and ‘turn the clock back’ – they were attempts to find new social forms that overcame the depredations worked by the capitalist world economy on peasant producers. In Mexico, this manifested in a rather complex set of alliances between peasant cultivators steeped in indigenous rural-communal traditions (eg. the Morelos peasants under Zapata), the caudillo cowboy capitalists of Villa’s northern army and its military entrepreneurs (perhaps a modern variant of that age-old archetype, the predatory pastoralist) and a disaffected professional-intellectual class of ‘marginal men’, which in the Mexican case was influenced by the anarchism of Ricardo Flores Magón but elsewhere looked to other sources of inspiration such as communism. The category of the disaffected intellectual seems to me an important player in the new anti-establishment politics of modernity, if I say so myself. I think Marshall Berman analyses it beautifully in the case of Russia in his aforementioned book. But in Mexico, although the convention forces represented by Zapata and Villa effectively won the war, they didn’t win the revolutionary peace. The iconic moment was Zapata and Villa meeting in the Palacio Nacional, having taken Mexico City. Villa, sitting in the presidential chair, allegedly said to Zapata that it was “too big for us”. The peasant revolutionaries had no real plan for controlling the country as a whole, and drifted back to their regional strongholds. In Wolf’s words “final victory rewarded an elite which had created a viable army, demonstrated bureaucratic competence, and consolidated its control over the vital export sector of the economy”. Revolutionary hostilities ended in 1920, and the country fell under the strong-arm rule of the PRI, the ‘Institutional Revolution Party’, right through to the 21st century – a party that retained some vestiges of agrarian populist sentiment and a lot of socialist and anti-colonial rhetoric, but essentially followed a private sector-friendly and in some respects quasi-fascist corporate structure.

The logic of Wolf’s analysis, then, is that peasants – even in their contemporary guise as savvy modernist anti-capitalists – don’t quite cut it as revolutionaries. This was Lenin’s view too, which was roughly that if you leave revolution in the hands of peasants all you’ll get is equalisation of land and the removal of taxes. He wasn’t much more complimentary about industrial workers, considering their typical politics to amount to little more than the ‘trade unionism’ of better pay and conditions. So, for him, you needed party cadres to push revolution successfully beyond these ‘capitalist’ limits towards communism.

Lenin and communism: I’ll take that as a cue to bundle up some more 20th century history with a few conceptual issues concerning peasantries. So, one of the numerous embarrassments for 20th century Marxism was that while the master himself had predicted that communist revolution would occur in the most advanced capitalist countries where the arc of history decreed the purest of final battles between capital and labour, in fact all the major communist revolutions of the century were peasant-dominated ones in countries of the semi-periphery. With some, albeit limited, justification, Lenin recuperated the capital-labour clash within the peasantry by defining a stratum of ‘rich’ proto-capitalist peasants, and ‘poor’/landless proto-proletarian peasants in Russia, amongst other places. He also identified the stratum of the middle peasant which, he wrote, “inevitably vacillates” between the capitalist/proletarian interests of the other two. It therefore had to be “neutralised” by the revolutionary proletariat – neutralised, he explained, in the sense of “rendered neutral in the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie”, but without coercion.

With a bit more history at his disposal, Eric Wolf argued on the contrary that in the peasant wars of the 20th century it was precisely the middle peasants who were the most revolutionary class. But, as I’ve mentioned, Lenin wasn’t an enthusiast of peasant revolutions of whatever stripe. His criticism of the left agrarian populists – the narodniki – and their vision of an egalitarian peasant society is instructive,

“The more decisive and complete the success of the peasant revolution, the more speedily will the peasant transform himself into an independent capitalist farmer and wave good-bye to the socialism of the narodniki

As things turned out, the Russian peasantry was ‘neutralised’ more or less in its entirety by Lenin’s successor, and with a great deal of coercion. There are those who argue that this ruthless forced industrialisation enabled Russia to become the powerful modern capitalist country that it is today, which adds a layer of irony to Lenin’s strictures against the narodniki. But it surely wasn’t a surprising development. For all the Cold War duality of the late 20th century between the liberal-capitalist and communist paths, they were both scions of high modernist thought and shared more similarities than differences: an emphasis on disciplined labour, revolutionary breakthroughs, scientific and social progress – including ‘scientific’ leadership of mass society – and large-scale technological solutions. In China, Mao’s (equally ruthless) communism was more grounded in an agrarian productivism of a peasant-dominated countryside – though as Wolf cautions, the Chinese communists weren’t a ‘peasant party’ despite the fact that most of their membership were peasants. Rather, like their Russian counterparts they “were able to harness peasant energies, but for ends never dreamed of by the peasantry”. Though, conversely, Maoist movements have also tended to harness their own energies for dreams of a purified peasantism that were anti-modernist in content but modernist and totalitarian in design. This would apply, for example, to regimes like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. I’d like to think that the ideology of peasantism is capacious enough for me to espouse a version of it without having to expend a lot of energy differentiating my position from the Khmer Rouge, but in case there’s any doubt let me state categorically that I don’t think Democratic Kampuchea is a good model for a peasant republic.

In the event, it was Russian communism that collapsed under the weight of its crypto-capitalist contradictions, whereas Chinese communism after Mao transmogrified into an emerging global capitalist power while retaining its authoritarian regime, which remained nominally committed to communism. Some argue that this was potentiated by the rural-peasant economic focus of Maoism – in which case, do we have to generalise from Lenin’s critique of the narodniki and conclude that all roads ultimately lead to capitalism? I’d argue a qualified ‘yes’ – like a replicating virus, once the capitalist economic machinery is unleashed it ultimately becomes hard for other economic forms to do anything but turn themselves into replicas of it, regardless of the damage it causes to the host. Perhaps the recent capitalist development path of Japan and the so-called ‘Asian tiger’ economies like Taiwan and South Korea, which built industrial societies partly via public sector investment from a platform of support for small-scale farming, further underlines the point.  But the ‘yes’ is qualified – for reasons I’ll examine in a later post.

A relevant contemporary coda to the modernist enthusiasm for technical progress and increasing scale shared by capitalism and communism is the embarrassing fact for them that small-scale farming often out-produces large-scale capitalist enterprises on an acre for acre basis – a finding that, despite the best efforts of Marxist and/or modernist critics to argue otherwise, isn’t completely explicable in terms of peasant self-exploitation in circumstances of economic stress (though it partly is). One of the problems with the ‘inverse productivity relationship’ literature is that ‘productivity’ is measured in different ways – typically farm income or yields of a key staple crop, but rarely human flourishing. Nor are upstream and downstream input costs usually incorporated – fossil energy used, greenhouse gases emitted, nitrate pollution caused. If they were, it’s a fair bet that the inverse productivity relationship would intensify. The truth is that agriculture has been far less amenable to trade-off free efficiency improvements through technological transformation than other economic sectors, and there are good scientific reasons why putting humans at the ecological centre of the small farm pays dividends. It’s still the orthodoxy to decry the ‘inefficiency’ of the small peasant farm relative to the large, mechanised capitalist one, but I’d argue that it’s a less forgivable mistake now than in 1899. Anyway, I suspect small farmers may have the last laugh. I like David Mitrany’s prescient comment from 1951: “Experience would almost suggest that often it is the smallholder and not the capitalist farmer who could best satisfy the Marxist demand for scientific, prolific cultivation”. Unfortunately, contemporary Marxists and capitalists alike still seem a bit too in thrall to Lenin and Kautsky.

Still, I don’t want to discount the benefits of the Marxist tradition in drawing attention to class and other conflicts in the rural or peasant world. Numerous rural populist movements have tended to conceal specific class, gender or ethnic interests. As I’ve previously mentioned, ‘the peasantry’ isn’t a unified category, and it’s important to remain attuned to whose interests are being represented within agrarian populist movements and whose are being sidelined – a point both tirelessly and tiresomely documented by the Marxist analyst and sometime editor of The Journal of Peasant Studies, Tom Brass.

The problem with Brass is that he defines class conflict a priori as effectively the only true basis for human action – so for him any movement or theory that invokes any other motives is by definition a mystification. The mystifications that he especially disdains are anything essential or emotional – love of place, of home, of the rural, of nature, of local culture, or perhaps of what the pioneering anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus called “the mystery of the wheat shaft breaking through the hard crust of earth” – in keeping with the preference for relations over essences or ‘reification’ exhibited by social scientists in general and Marxists in particular, who often seem too busy revelling in the relational dynamics of their grand historical dialectics to revel in the world as it’s experienced. I chose the epigraph from Old Crow Medicine Show at the start of my essay to exemplify this way of thinking – “the land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a hurtin’” and the song from which it comes captures a mode of agrarian thinking that’s critical of its circumstances but fully inhabits the imperfect present in a way that’s alien to Marxism and to most social science. Of course, it’s as well to ask whose interests are being advanced in any particular situation, but reading Brass prompts the question of what kind of life would ultimately satisfy him? My guess is something that would look a lot like the Ecomodernist Manifesto – an egalitarian, urban world of limitless energy, consumer items, scientific marvels, labour-saving devices and mental stimulation, tantalisingly within reach but always just receding from the disappointing present into the achievable perfection of the near future. You’ve got to admire him for spending so much time studying peasants.

Few adopt so dogmatic an anti-populism as Brass, but the same ambience invests a good deal of academic writing about peasantries, particularly in the Journal of Peasant Studies which must surely be one of the few academic periodicals that has been so resolutely dedicated to abolishing the object of its enquiry. Terence Byres, for example, another erstwhile editor of the journal, has written some incisive critiques of contemporary agrarian populism, essentially along the lines that naïve ‘peasant way’ thinking can be insufficiently attuned to the subtleties of class conflict and the insinuation of capitalist economic relations in the countryside. But the problem is that Byres’ subtle understanding of rural class relations is yoked to an unsubtle Marxist teleology in which capitalism seems to be regarded as a necessary and superior, if painful, stage for peasantries to go through before they can exit from its other side, presumably into some kind of socialist utopia of material plenty. So, for example, in critiquing neo-populist calls for rural land reform Byres argues,

“industrial growth….with concomitant shifts of labour from the countryside, has been a crucial means by which rural poverty has been reduced and eradicated historically”

…a statement of orthodox, unilinear pro-capitalism of the kind you’d expect to cross the lips of a Walt Rostow or a Stewart Brand – which just goes to show once again the close affinities between Marxism and capitalism. Still, there’s undoubtedly some truth in the remark – except that it isn’t a radical solution to rural poverty because, as argued earlier, industrialisation conforms to a dynamic of uneven development, turning poverty into a whack-a-mole game of shifting centres and peripheries. Industrial wage labour is certainly one strategy pursued by the rural poor when they can, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward route out of poverty either at the individual or the global level. In a likely future context of slowing economic growth and ecological crisis, neo-populist attempts to understand why poor people stay poor and redress them locally through the structures of agrarian life seem to me well conceived.

So there’s a growth or accumulation fetish in much writing on poverty and development (grow the economy and poverty will ultimately reduce) which is understandable but, I think, increasingly problematic. In this sense, I’d argue that Byres’ critique of agrarian neo-populism for its ahistorical utopianism becomes the epitaph for his own anti-peasant Marxism:

“To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes….one…has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past. They are déjà passé.”

Quite so. The days when it was a good idea to advocate for the capitalist transformation of peasant farming as a route to improved wellbeing and ultimately to socialism, if they ever existed, are now clearly in the past. What’s emerged more strongly since Byres wrote those words is the contemporary food sovereignty movement associated with the international peasant movement La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’) – perhaps what could be called a ‘neo-neo-populist’ movement, with British offshoots in the form of the Scottish crofters’ federation and my own organisation, the Land Workers’ Alliance. Food sovereignty arguably transcends the old debates between populists and Marxists – a new discourse of “growers and eaters” which is “re-envisioning the conditions necessary to develop sustainable and democratic forms of social reproduction. Still, it remains vulnerable to critique at both its less radical and more radical edges. At the less radical edge, it doubtless runs risks of the kind identified by both Lenin and Byres – a successful local agrarianism that gradually turns itself into a landholder-dominated or ‘yeoman’ capitalism, which abandons its sustainable and democratic founding principles. At the more radical edge, it’s perhaps vulnerable to the kind of criticisms levelled by Henry Bernstein against the food sovereignty movement – the implausibility of local, small-scale, low-tech farming feeding the world’s swelling billions who are increasingly located in urban areas dependent on an industrial and globalised agroecosystem. That surely invites a counter-critique: it’s unlikely that the global-industrial agroecosystem will ultimately prove able to feed the urban billions either, with the rather radical implication that perhaps the time has come for governments to pursue de-urbanisation (though maybe not so radical – they did, after all, pursue urbanisation policies at a time when they seemed a good idea, and could presumably do the opposite in changed circumstances). The usefulness of these critiques is perhaps in encouraging the food sovereignty movement to develop wider political and policy frameworks that are more specifically grounded than its founding utopian visions – and in not assuming that local markets are necessarily any more benevolent in and of themselves than distant ones. That’s something I hope to contribute to in future posts that build on the historical analysis offered here.

For their part, the economic founding fathers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx usually avoided explicit utopian visioning, so the utopianism of neoliberals and Marxists alike tends to remain rather hidden, but not absent, as a result. However, even Marx provided a famous utopian image of an achieved communist society:

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

…which, aside from ‘society regulating the general production’, sounds a lot like your average peasant utopia. That passage is from The German Ideology, published in 1845 when Marx was 27 – a hinge point in his thinking according to Louis Althusser, who argued that Marx achieved an ‘epistemological break’ at this point and put aside such whimsies thereafter for a truly ‘scientific’, anti-humanist and structuralist socialism. Althusser’s work was highly influential in its time and was still being inflicted in the 1980s on bemused undergraduates like me, but it hasn’t aged well. Another and almost opposite recuperation of Marx’s later thinking that I find much more attractive has been set out in a fascinating recent book by Kristin Ross about the influence of the short-lived Paris Commune on radical thought. According to Ross, the events in Paris and the rise of peasant  communisms in Eastern Europe led Marx to retreat from his grand Hegelian narratives concerning the dialectical progress of history from peasant to capitalist society and only thence to communism. Instead, she says, he developed a more contingent sense of the possibilities for radical egalitarian government in specific times and places, such as a peasant communism in Russia grounded in traditional peasant communal institutions like the ‘village council’ – the mir or obshina. Ross traces the same idea in the crossover of anarchist and communist thought represented by such figures as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus. A somewhat ‘backward-looking’ contemporary Russian nationalism is also reinvesting these institutions with political meaning, but Ross stresses that in the hands of radicals like Marx and Kropotkin the point wasn’t to fetishise the communal institutions of the past, but to build from them, in Kropotkin’s words, “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”.

The difficulty, I think, is that the conditions in which it’s feasible to build plausible ‘bottom-up’ anarchist-communist societies are unusual, and their chances of longevity are slight – either because they’re annihilated by the stronger forces of the centralised state (as happened with the Paris Commune), or because they succumb to the internal contradictions of their own somewhat hidden power dynamics. Still, Ross’s analysis raises a lot of interesting questions concerning the course that a free, egalitarian peasant society of the future might take.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts – 8. Of reconstituted peasantries and alternate modernities

Continuing with my ‘History of the world’. As ever, the fully referenced version of this essay is available here.

I’m going to come back to the issue of peasantries as the ‘universal class’ at the end of this essay. For now, I’d just like to broach the issue by returning to the question of peasantries under capitalism by way of what the doyen of Caribbean anthropology, Sidney Mintz, called ‘reconstituted peasantries’. Mintz was referring specifically to the rise of peasant farmers in the Caribbean around the edges and in the aftermath of the slave plantation system – people who weren’t originally peasants, but workers in the capitalist world economy (plantation slaves) who turned to peasant farming as the best available option open to them under changing circumstances.

I’d like to submit Mintz’s concept for more generalised use – at points of breakdown in the capitalist world system, peasant production can present itself as an attractive or, at least, as a least-worst option. For those of us who suspect that major breakdowns in the capitalist world system are likely in future, the possibility of a more widespread emergence of ‘reconstituted peasantries’ becomes interesting. If that’s how things turn out, an intriguing question is the extent to which post-capitalist reconstituted peasantries of the future might resemble any peasantries of the capitalist or pre-capitalist past. In other words, is the history of agrarian production and its social structures prior to and during the development of the capitalist world system relevant to its future after capitalism – does agrarian society have a predictable structuring – or have I been wasting my time reading and writing about all this history? The answer will surely depend on how capitalism might end, and what form post-capitalist states might take – questions that remain rather disreputable to mainstream thought, particularly when one starts talking about a future return to peasant farming. But, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s a growing sub-genre of ‘post-capitalist’ writing available. One of the problems with it is precisely that it doesn’t adequately talk about peasants or the contemporary ‘agrarian question’ – what Mazoyer and Roudart call a world agrarian crisis that requires the development of the ‘poor peasant economy’.

In any case, to summarise where we’ve got to in this survey of capitalism, I’ve charted above three main dimensions of capitalist development – agriculture, manufactures and commerce – and given some weighting to commerce in its military-colonial expansionary drive as the main engine of the ‘Great Divergence’ that has made the west the core region of the world economic system over the last two centuries or so. But as well as looking at what actually happened, is it also worth applying some normative judgment to the ‘proper’ course of economic development? Well, we could surely do worse than follow the example of Adam Smith, much feted pioneering theorist of the modern capitalist economy who, among other things, has posthumously donated his name to the eponymous institute much beloved of Margaret Thatcher and succeeding generations of neoliberals, which has done more than its share in spreading the neoliberal doctrine of untrammelled private markets as the solution to all the world’s ills. Smith emphasised the “soft, gentle and amiable virtues” necessary to the commercial society his work foretold, but he argued that such “general security and happiness…afford little exercise to the contempt of danger, to patience in enduring labour, hunger and pain” which he seemingly preferred. He identified a “natural course of things” in which “the greater part of capital…is, first, directed to agriculture, afterwards to manufactures, and last of all to foreign commerce”. He found this ‘natural course’ in the history of China, whereas in Europe he considered the ordering reversed – which he found “unnatural and retrograde”. Buried within the ur-text of capitalism’s impetus to commercialisation and genteel progress, perhaps there lurks a hankering for the more muscular virtues of an agrarian republic?

So let me now trace some of the ways the virulent new capitalist political economy played out across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century ended as it began with many of the world’s people working primarily as small-scale, self-providing cultivators under the weaker or stronger suzerainty of large empires whose rise predated capitalism. But things weren’t the same at century’s end as at the beginning – a globalising capitalist economy had thoroughly penetrated the existing order and dominated it politically through direct or indirect colonial rule. As I’ve already mentioned, in some cases apparently ‘traditional’ lifeways of peasant subsistence were augmented or even created through colonial processes that sapped the economic lifeblood of conquered polities and their peoples, making subsistence cultivation a strategy of last resort. In others, the surplus-producing aspects of peasant production were redirected to the ends of the capitalist world system. There are numerous variants of this capitalist appropriation of peasant surplus production across the modern global economy – including the increasingly demonised and disciplined category of impoverished international labour migrants, many of whom remain connected to a farm and village back home, and may indeed be working in the short-term for low wages in a ‘developed’ country in order to generate sufficient wealth to establish themselves as a landowner or ‘rich peasant’ able to be relatively independent locally of world market forces. So whereas there are those who say that more capitalism is needed in order to end the misery of peasant life, there are also those who seek more peasantism in order to end the misery of capitalist life.

Meanwhile, nationalism took shape on the political stage – essentially a family of doctrines which weaponised differences of language, religion, phenotype or putatively shared culture-history. Such differences had long prompted human conflicts back into antiquity (perhaps with the exception of phenotype). What was different with modern nationalism was the notion that these differences coincided organically with the boundaries of sovereign political states, which were the only legitimate representatives of ‘the people’. With undeniable emotional power, nationalism makes us think that an entity like ‘Britain’ is a natural political unit (or ‘England’ at any rate – oh dear, we’re running into difficulties already). But as Immanuel Wallerstein points out, nationalism is always a case of “First the boundaries, later the passions” – historically, an Angevin polity of England, Wales and western France could plausibly have stabilised itself after Henry II. What then of an immemorial ‘Englishness’?

The genesis of these nationalisms was multi-factorial. I wrote earlier of their gestational phase in the absolutist states of the late medieval period, but they only assumed their contemporary form in the clash between egalitarian Enlightenment rationalism and Counter-Enlightenment romanticism. Bruce Kapferer nicely summarizes the problem raised by this clash and the way that nationalism tries to resolve it:

“Among nation-states formed within the conditions of egalitarian individualism the issue of legitimacy has an enduring problematic specific to it. This is so because the individual autonomy preached as a central part of egalitarianism potentially conflicts with the loss or surrender of this autonomy to others, specifically agents of the state. One resolution, part of the fury of Western political discourse from the seventeenth century on, is precisely the argument that the state embodies the pure spirit of the people and is the guardian of this spirit.”

Other elements of the nationalist package included an emerging biological-racial consciousness of human difference, secularization and the eclipse of religion, and the emergence of mass societies in which people no longer lived in rural face-to-face communities of known others, but large conurbations of strangers – mass circulation newspapers, sports and other 19th century innovations enabled the creation of new ‘imagined communities’ and new ‘invented traditions’, to use the powerful metaphors invoked by two influential theorists of nationalism.

But alongside these efforts to forge a mass common purpose within the exclusive boundaries of the nation, a counter-tradition developed that sought to recuperate the sovereign individual from the tawdriness of the emerging capitalist mass society. The tradition defies easy summary, partly because it’s scarcely unified, but in an interesting recent essay Gopal Balakrishnan calls it a ‘revolution from the right’, involving a “miscellany of opposition to the welfare state, godless Marxism and a more nebulously conceived cultural levelling…a call to true elites to stand their ground against a world-wide revolt of the masses”. Balakrishnan traces its lineages through the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler’s Decline of the West, the ‘Nazi jurist’ Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss. It’s not a tradition, I confess, in which I’m especially well versed or feel comfortable with – and in its cruder variants it’s one that’s easy to dismiss as a kind of disgusted reactionary response to what struck its proponents as the unstoppable rise of the (sometimes racialized) hoi polloi, a kind of counter-modernity to the one described by Berman. Still, I can see that a figure like Nietzsche, for example – with his pronouncements on the death of God and modern disenchantment, on the slave revolt in morals, on the vengeful politics of ressentiment – has important things to say about living in the modern world and the issues of political sovereignty it involves. But I find it all a bit overblown, and if I wanted to ground my politics in a consistent theory of being I think I’d want to look towards cooler philosophies like stoicism or Taoism as a basis for a self-reliant agrarian politics.

Balakrishnan’s ‘revolution from the right’ is important, though – partly because of its influence on the radical right-wing politics of the present and recent past, and partly because of the new crossovers it has with leftist thought on the terrain of contemporary environmentalism, which I’ve been butting up against recently on this blog. From Spengler to John Michael Greer, Heidegger to Paul Kingsnorth, maybe even Nietzsche to David Fleming (or maybe not…), there’s an undertow of Balakrishnan’s right-wing ‘alternate modernity’ as well as an egalitarian leftism in these contemporary radical ecological thinkers. I mention this here not primarily to criticise them for it. I think there’s something in the counter-tradition they’re invoking that’s necessary and largely absent from the left-green politics that’s more comfortable terrain for the likes of me – something that’s easily traduced by crude polemicists of the doctrinaire left as just another iteration of the far-right nature mysticism investing early 20th century environmentalism. Even so, I think Kingsnorth and Fleming’s cautious flirtations with nationalism, and Greer’s (and to some extent Kingsnorth’s) uncritical approbation of Donald Trump as a kind of avatar of Spenglerian decline and/or avenger of liberal-capitalist complacency are problematic. I plan to write more about this soon when I’ve got to grips with it better – meanwhile, I’ve found Balakrishnan’s essay useful for placing this current of contemporary environmentalist thought into a deeper historical context.

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Agriculture and civilisation*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

20170824_103135

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.

Addendum and credo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The tragedy of liberalism: a critique of John Michael Greer

Liberalism gets a pretty bad press these days. That shouldn’t bother me too much – as an ex-Marxist, left-wing agrarian populist now swelling the ranks of the petit bourgeoisie in my capacity as a propertied small-scale farmer, it’s not a political tradition that ought to move my soul. Yet I feel the need to put finger to keyboard and offer a few mild words in its favour in the light of John Michael Greer’s latest gleeful epitaph for liberalism. And – talking of epitaphs – I guess this post stands as an epitaph of my own for taking Greer’s political analysis seriously as anything much more than another iteration in the long and inglorious history of right-wing populism.

Let me outline a few aspects of Greer’s article. He starts by suggesting that liberalism is now in the throes of a terminal decline, after dominating US politics for two centuries. Then he reviews some historical aspects of US liberalism, focusing in particular on the abolition of slavery, the prohibition of alcohol and the improvement of women’s legal status. These, he says, shared a common theme in configuring politics as an expression of values – a new departure in politics, which hitherto had been a more instrumental business of ‘to the victor, the spoils’, in which those who were elected distributed political favours to their supporters. Greer then warns us not to be judgmental about this older and more instrumental approach to politics, because that would involve ‘chronocentrism’ (others call it ‘presentism’) – judging the past by the values of the present.

Greer proceeds to analyse the way that liberalism went about installing its more-or-less egalitarian values with respect to race, gender and class historically within the US state, despite other values-based political challenges from left and right. Then he says that the tacit US policy of allowing unlimited illegal immigration impoverishes “wage-earning Americans” – something that he claims you can’t say “in the hearing of a modern American liberal” without “being shouted down and accused of being a racist”. He postulates that this is because liberalism is dominated by the affluent classes, who “benefit directly from the collapse in wages that has partly been caused by mass illegal immigration”. Ironically, then, a movement that began by advancing values over interests has ended up using values (anti-racism) to mask interests (economic preferment of the affluent over the working class). And this, he says, is its death-knell, because such easily-detected subterfuge destroys the doctrine’s credibility.

Let me work through this. I have to begin by noting that terms like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’ and the like are so accreted with complex and contradictory meanings that it’s very difficult to identify any coherence to them for analytical purposes, a point that Greer himself has expounded as well as anyone. But I think there’s a necessary distinction between ‘liberal’ referring to those who believe in the need for a substantial equality of all people undergirded by the state, and ‘liberal’ (or ‘neoliberal’) referring to those who believe that private markets should be free to allocate goods and services as they will. I won’t cavil at Greer’s history of US liberalism as a basic account of liberalism in the first sense – except in his claim that liberalism involved a novel injection of values into instrumental politics. Because the fact is, going right back to the first complex agrarian civilisations of antiquity, politics has always been about values. The idea that might makes right rarely works for long as a political project. Rulers have always invested their power with a larger sense of legitimacy extracted from the sphere of values, and although that process admits to a certain amount of manipulation (the ‘real’ interests behind the ‘ideological’ smokescreen of values) in truth the interests, the ‘real’, are moulded by the values, the ‘ideological’, emptying the real-ideological distinction of meaning.

Machiavelli’s The Prince was among the first ‘modern’ works of political philosophy. Its cynical view of power – rulers should do whatever works best to prolong their rule – invited almost immediate censure after its publication in 1532, precisely because it advanced interests over values. Actually, Machiavelli was a subtler thinker than his villainous reputation suggests – a large part of his analysis was devoted to political corruption, which he defined as a politics of pure self-interest. J.G.A. Pocock’s influential book The Machiavellian Moment argues that the founders of the independent USA, attuned for obvious historical reasons to the dangers of particular interests overcoming the general interest, framed the politics of the new country in terms of classical ideas of republican virtue lifted from Machiavelli’s ruminations on statecraft1. If it’s true that actual US politics quickly degenerated into the instrumentalism of ‘to the victor, the spoils’, it’s not committing the sin of chronocentrism to say that this was a corruption of the republican ideals of the time.

So prior to 1812, Greer’s take-off point for the rise of US liberalism, politics was every bit as soaked in values as it later was under a liberal guise. Much of Greer’s article is taken up with a discussion of what those liberal values were, but I think a more important point concerns what liberalism has had to say about the form of politics rather than its content. And in a nutshell, that form is – argue your point peacefully, using reason; if you lose, accept that you’ve lost peacefully, with grace; and don’t intrude on things politically that have nothing to do with public wellbeing, such as the private pursuits of the individual that affect no one else. In order to realise that political form a lot of work was needed to create a public sphere where people met as citizens and equals, and could expect even-handed treatment by the state. What united the struggles over slavery, gender, class and race wasn’t the fact that they brought values into politics but that they sought to create a universalist public sphere. And, clearly, some semblance of that public sphere must have been there in the period of supposedly instrumentalist politics Greer identifies prior to the emergence of liberalism – otherwise nobody would tolerate losing an election and not getting their share of the spoils.

Let’s now turn to Greer’s indictment of contemporary liberalism for invoking racism as a cloak for class privilege in the context of immigration. No doubt this occurs, though I suspect more among members of the neoliberal business class whose politics are ‘liberal’ only in a rather restricted sense. But the liberals I think Greer probably has in mind are more of the left-leaning, public sector salariat kind. I’d guess that these folks may be a bit insulated (though for how much longer?) from the kind of market ‘discipline’ that has ravaged the wage-earning working class, and I’d guess too that some of them may be a little unaware of their class privilege. Still, I’m not persuaded by Greer’s argument that such people invoke racism to silence debate about their class privilege. I think they invoke racism because racism is usually worth invoking whenever somebody claims that the immiseration of ‘wage-earning Americans’ has been caused (wholly or ‘partly’) by immigration. I think they invoke it because the real cause of immiseration among ‘wage-earning American’ and illegal immigrant alike is a racialized global labour process that pits different segments of the working class against each other and works against their common interest to unite against economic exploitation – an economic exploitation that has doubtless affected ‘wage-earning Americans’ more than the average liberal, but has also affected illegal immigrants more than the average ‘wage-earning American’. That is the context in which blaming immigrants for the erosion of economic wellbeing tends towards the racist.

It also tends towards the analytically vacuous. For one thing, the racialized globalization of the economy is a neoliberal project, not a project of the ‘liberals’ in the first sense of the term I outlined above who appear to be Greer’s main target. But more importantly, what is Greer actually saying – that liberal politics has failed in practice to deliver liberalism’s highest ideals? Well, no doubt – but the same is true of socialism and conservatism in relation to their ideals, and of right-wing populism too, if it has any. No modern political programme has succeeded long-term in delivering widespread prosperity and economic growth without prompting social conflict and environmental degradation. Highlighting supposed hypocrisy among contemporary liberals does not amount to a persuasive analysis of liberalism’s failings as a political doctrine, or even as a contemporary political movement.

Still, there’s no doubt that liberal politics is in crisis and, for all its partiality and superficiality, maybe Greer’s account does help explain the rise of populist figures such as Donald Trump as an alternative claim on the working class vote. So, given Greer’s empathy for the travails of the US working class, I continued reading his article, waiting for the killer paragraph that would go on to nail the fanciful idea that Trump truly represents the interests of the low waged.

It never comes. Instead, you get this: “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in stark contrast to Clinton, have evoked extraordinarily passionate reactions from the voters, precisely because they’ve offered an alternative to a status quo pervaded by the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism.”

Maybe other people can help me interpret this sentence. Donald Trump certainly offers an alternative to the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism inasmuch as he offers a rhetoric all his own. I don’t suppose you could call it a ‘moribund’ rhetoric either, if only because such proposals as to improve the lot of the working class by building a wall to keep out Mexicans were never alive in the first place. But let’s be clear – a President Trump won’t build that wall. And even if he does, it won’t keep out illegal Mexican migrants. And even if it does, it won’t significantly alter the larger forces in the global economy conditioning the situation of the US working class, which is where any serious analysis aimed at improving that situation has to start. As David Roberts has argued, Trump’s rhetoric is wholly geared to dominating whatever argument he’s embroiled in. It has no referents to real-world policy.

However, I don’t think Greer is just saying that Trump talks a better game than the liberals. In that sentence he seems to be saying that Trump (as well as Sanders) has some kind of actual political programme that will benefit the working class. Donald Trump, champion of the precariat. Seriously?

When I wrote a previous critique of Greer’s fondness for right-wing populism, I was admonished for supposing that he was any more taken by it than by liberalism – rather, I was told, he sees the whole sorry mess as exemplary of the kind of wholesale cultural decline foreseen by Oswald Spengler. OK, but then where are the articles excoriating the decline of US politics across the board? From FDR to Hilary Clinton would be one story to tell. From Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump would be another one just as good. Or bad. For me, Greer’s relentless, one-eyed skewering of liberalism alone from the perspective of a kind of working-class ressentiment places him firmly among the right-wing populists2.

But Greer’s personal politics aren’t the main point I want to stress. Though I don’t think right-wing populism has much going for it, and I’m not persuaded that Spengler’s thought has a whole lot going for it either, I agree that a ‘decline of the west’ of some sort is probably underway. The kind of words that resonate in Greer’s political writings are ones like ‘moribund’, ‘decadent’, ‘shopworn’, and I think these accurately capture something of our contemporary politics. But I suspect that in the future a lot of people will look back nostalgically to our present ‘moribund’ and ‘decadent’ politics. Because what matters more than whether right-wing populism, left-wing populism, liberalism, or any other political doctrine represents the best diagnosis of our times is the relatively safe space of the public sphere in the west within which these politics are debated – a public sphere formed to a large degree in the crucible of liberalism, and one that’s threatened when would-be politicians start suggesting that they may not respect the outcome of elections, or that it’s the ‘real people’ of the country who really matter. Populist critiques of liberalism come ten a penny. More to the point are post-liberal critiques of populism.

Greer writes that the post-liberal politics of the future is going to be a “wild ride”. The metaphor betrays a buried liberal presupposition. A wild ride is the kind of thing you have at a theme park – scary and unpredictable, perhaps, but not truly fearful because you know that ultimately someone with your wellbeing at heart is controlling the parameters, allowing you essentially to be a spectator of your fears. In western politics, that someone has for a long time been the liberal public sphere. But it probably won’t outlive liberalism – in which case post-liberal politics won’t be a ‘wild ride’. It will just be wild, and therefore truly scary. Spectating will not be an option.

Ah well, as Joni Mitchell so perceptively sang, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. And as Bert van den Brink wrote, albeit not quite so lyrically, liberalism involves tensions and conflicts which are “tragic insofar as they confront [it] with the dilemma that in trying to reach for its highest aim – letting the interests of all citizens in leading a good life matter equally – it sometimes cannot but undermine this very aim”3. That is, despite trying to uphold the equivalence of all values, liberalism has to define itself normatively against illiberal political positions. Van den Brink’s point isn’t that liberalism therefore involves contradiction and should be jettisoned. By that logic, we’d have no politics at all – doubtless a tempting prospect for those weighing up the choice between Clinton and Trump, but not ultimately a feasible position to take. His point instead is that we should learn from liberalism’s contradictions and try to create a better politics that’s aware of these predicaments. All political positions, I think, involve tragedy in the sense of plural and irreconcilable moral imperatives. As Machiavelli recognised, the better ones acknowledge their contradictions and make the best they can of them, rather than papering over them in service of particular interests. In contrast, superficial forms of populism represent a kind of political Gresham’s law – bad politics chase out the good. Which is why in the present Machiavellian moment of western politics, this particular left agrarian populist will stand with the liberals for the public sphere and against the Trumps, the Greers and all the other cheerleaders for a simplistic right-wing populism.

Notes

  1. Pocock, J. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton Univ Press.
  1. I can’t claim to have read his oeuvre in its entirety, however. If anyone can point me to a more even-handed political analysis by Greer, I’d be grateful.
  1. Van den Brink, B. 2000. The Tragedy of Liberalism, SUNY Press, p.6.

Watching the watchers

I’ve had a certain amount of negative feedback on my current little exercise in describing a neo-peasant future, not so much here at Small Farm Future but in its wider tracks across cyberspace. Part of the problem seems to be its futurological aspects. Some people are quite certain that the future will be a techno-cornucopian one, with no place for the idea that there’ll be any need, let alone desire, for widespread localised, labour-intensive, land-based husbandry. Others are equally certain that, conversely, runaway climate change, energy scarcity and political collapse will so undermine our civilizational moorings that attempts like mine to plot some kind of stable locality society are futile.

For my part, I’m not so interested in the waiting game implied in either of these scenarios (waiting for somebody clever to come along and save our ass in the first scenario, or waiting around to die in the second). The exercise is based on the notion that we could, if collectively we so chose, organise ourselves into more localised and labour-intensive polities and economies, and that if we did so we might better secure our health and general wellbeing at a lower energetic and carbon cost. Whether that would be enough to save our ass in the long term doesn’t interest me all that much, basically because it goes too far into the realm of futurological speculation. But since more localised polities are, by definition, locally specific, and since they’ve not yet been achieved, it seems necessary to focus on particular places at some point in the future on the basis of a few plausible grounding assumptions, such as projected population size in 2039 in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as per my last-but-one post. I’m interested in discussing what such a polity might look like and what obstacles its emergence faces. I’m not so interested in predicting its likelihood over other possible future scenarios. Ah well, there seem to be enough people around willing to play along with my little conceit to make it worth continuing to flesh it out.

My first task is to consider the productive possibilities of the neo-peasant polity before turning to tougher issues concerning its political and economic gestation. But before doing that in detail I just want to sketch one more bit of context.

In my previous post I looked amongst other things at the maximally extensive margin of productivity in Wessex agriculture, namely ruminants on permanent pasture. Suppose we decided to turn over all of Wessex’s farmland to permanent pasture and feed Wessex’s future 6.3 million people entirely on lamb and mutton. Not that I’m suggesting it would be a good idea – it just gives us a handle on that maximally extensive margin. By my calculations (I’ll explain my underlying assumptions in later posts) farming in this way we would only be able to furnish about 20% of the people of Wessex’s basic calorific requirements. Which actually sounds to me surprisingly high, but of course not high enough to prevent mass starvation.

Let us go to the other extreme, and look at the maximally intensive margin of productivity – which here in Britain would be a potato monoculture. If we aimed to exactly meet the calorific requirements of Wessex’s 6.3 million by growing only potatoes at current average conventionally-grown yield levels (again, not something I’d actually recommend) we could do so using only about 9% of Wessex’s existing farmland (or about 15% if we grew them organically).

Somewhere in the (rather large) gap between those two figures lies the potential for a productive mixed agriculture to feed the people of Wessex. If I were responsible for provisioning myself under no pressures of land availability, I’d focus on growing what I liked to eat and what I liked to farm. And in that case I think my farm would look closer to the sheep/pasture monoculture than the potato one – but I’d have other kinds of livestock, fruit and nut trees and bushes, and some vegetables. I’d probably also grow some potatoes and wheat, but as little as felt necessary for food security and ramping up the easy calories. I have a limited appetite for hand-planting and harvesting potatoes or wheat. With my tractor, on the other hand…

When people talk about the back-breakingly miserable life of the peasant, I don’t think they have this kind of pottering, forest-gardening, allodial, gentleman-peasant sort of existence in mind. Instead they’re thinking of what you might call the tithe-peasant, eking out a living on a small scrap of land grudgingly allocated them by someone more powerful, and who has to produce a considerable surplus in order to pay the latter personage their dues in cash or kind, thus propping up the rest of society on their overburdened shoulders. Historically, there have undoubtedly been more peasants of the latter than the former kind, so one important challenge for a future neo-peasant vision is how to try to tip the balance the other way.

And not only historically – there are many people in tithe-peasant situations today. And there’s also a kind of agricultural mindset that seeks to normalise it: Too poor to eat anything but Vitamin A deficient rice? Then let’s bioengineer Vitamin A into rice. The poor will still be eating nothing but rice, but they’ll no longer get Vitamin A deficiency, and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Those idealists who suggest that we should organise the world such that people can afford to produce or buy a more varied diet ought to check their privilege. “Let them eat broccoli!”, the idealists say. The very idea! (I can never read this four-word argument in favour of golden rice without marvelling at how shamelessly it telegraphs the vastly greater enthusiasm of its proponents for their favoured crop technology than for combating poverty).

For people in the richer world, food choices are usually less stark. But there’s a similar agricultural mindset at work, which prefers to build a whole food system around a handful of major commodity crops (rice, wheat, maize, soya, canola, palm etc.) which can be processed into a myriad of rather appealing and seemingly differentiated products, especially when suitably garnished with additional minor crops. It would be stretching a point to call the consumers in this latter-day global food system tithe-peasants (for one thing the work they now do to earn their food, if indeed there’s work for them to do, usually inclines more towards the mind-breaking than the back-breaking). But the parallel is there.

I also wonder if one aspect of this contemporary agricultural mindset’s normalisation is to stress the healthiness of its limited offerings – carbohydrates and monounsaturated vegetable oils over saturated animal fats and so on. The essentials of nutritional wisdom are quite beyond my own limited areas of expertise, though I take sad solace from the fact that they also seem beyond those of the nutritional experts, who after all were extolling the virtues of trans-fats not so many years ago. I’ve found some of the writings produced by the Weston Price Foundation very thought-provoking in this respect – for example, this one on canola, and this one on dietary fat. It’s work of this kind that lies behind the demanding injunction under one of my earlier posts from a certain commenter going by the name of Paul to see if I could create a localvore, neo-peasant diet in which 65% of the calories came from fat – a requirement that, thankfully, he later reduced to 45%.

Weston Price was a dentist and dental epidemiologist who looked at the effect of switching to modern western eating on people who had previously eaten more ancestral wholefood diets. A Google search of the Weston Price Foundation quickly takes you to a whole mess of hits denouncing the organisation for its quackery, including one called ‘Quackwatch’ which features this article about Weston Price’s work. Read alongside the work of the WPF authors themselves cited above, I found it so full of unsupported generalisations and tendentious reasoning that I contemplated establishing a new online watchdog called ‘Meta-quack’ or ‘Watch-watch’ or maybe ‘Quackback’. Indeed, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning the regnant dietary consensus of a low fat, high carb, veg oil-based diet. Actually, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning just about everything. But, if such a thing is possible, it’s even worse on dietary matters.

Indeed, not only the web. Recently, the National Obesity Council issued a report suggesting that eating saturated animal fat wasn’t necessarily bad for you and eating simple carbohydrates wasn’t necessarily good. Cue widespread outrage, mass resignation from the organisation’s scientific ranks and then, a few weeks later, the results of a big US longitudinal study which was spun by one of its authors as ‘butter bad, vegetable oil good’. The paper is behind a paywall and I can’t get access to it, but looking at the abstract my feeling is that the truth is likely to be very much more complex than that.

I’ve traversed this ground before. To my mind, if you want to untease relationships and causalities in the material world, careful, scientific, empirical study is basically the only game in town. But scientific truths are always provisional and usually take a long time to mature. And science is also always a social practice, and is not therefore immune from the usual noise of people doing their people-like things. So there’s an important distinction to be made between science and scientism – the latter essentially referring to situations where a scientist is willingly wheeled out to justify a simplistic policy prescription on the basis of a simplistic summary of what ‘the science says’. I had personal experience of this on the Food Climate Research Network when I criticised the EU pigswill ban. Somebody jumped on me for my ignorance of ‘the science’ and the potentially dire consequences of feeding swill. I asked him to point me to research that specified the trade-off between the elevated economic risk of swill feeding and the economic cost of alternative food waste disposal and fodder production. No response. I’m still not sure if any such work was done prior to implementing the ban. I certainly haven’t seen any. Still, I expect when swill feeding is eventually permitted once again, as it probably will be, there’ll be no shortage of experts on hand to justify the decision scientifically. I’m inclined to regard confident generalisations about the evils of butter or saturated animal fat with the same degree of scepticism. But I’m interested in hearing other views.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this discussion together with the following seven propositions:

  • In the long-run, we’re all dead. But in the short-run, there’s something to be said for trying to construct more robust locality societies with local food production at the heart of them in order to prolong the life of civilisation-as-we-know-it. We’ll probably have more fun while we’re about it, too.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves sustainably with the suitably-raised animal products we desire, it suggests that we may be approaching a resource squeeze. A crack is opening in Parson Malthus’s coffin.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves with anything but carbohydrate-rich staple foods, then Malthus’s ghost is well out of the ground. In fact, it’s standing in the garden and knocking on the window …
  • …or alternatively it could just be that the garden is much too small and will have to be enlarged at the expense of the bigger gardens owned by richer folk. Then the ghost can be expelled to Zone 4 or 5 where it can graze contentedly for the time being along with the sheep.
  • When the gardens are shared out equally, we can hope that there’s space for a life of pottering silvo-agri-pastoral. In Wessex, we will probably have to grow some wheat and potatoes, though, and worry about that resource squeeze a bit. But let’s try not to go overboard with the arable stuff, because unless you have a tractor it’s back-breaking work. Nobody wants to live like a tithe-peasant.
  • Our silvo-agri-pastoral life will hopefully give us a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and saturated animal fats, with little in the way of simple carbohydrates and vegetable oils. The science says that this is a healthy diet. The science also says that this is an unhealthy diet. For now, I’m going to choose science of the former kind, and keep a close watch on the scientists.
  • Actually, that doesn’t go far enough. I’m going to keep a close watch on the watchers too, like the concerned citizens at Quackwatch. But come to think of it, I guess I’m also a watcher, so somebody ought to keep a close watch on me. And here’s your chance…