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.


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.


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

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

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

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


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

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



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.


  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…

Sheepwrecked or wheatwrecked? Towards a Wessex pastoral

In my last post I began setting out a vision for a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England (or the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as I’m calling it). My starting assumption is to keep agricultural land use roughly the same as it presently is, which relative to the rest of the country means there’s more permanent pasture for ruminant grazing and less cropland for arable and horticultural production. That prompts me to briefly hit the ‘Pause’ button on the neo-peasant vision, and to think – ruminate, even – a little more about livestock.

A loose confederation of animal welfare activists, human health activists and environmentalists have popularised the view that globally we need to produce less meat and livestock, and it’s not a view I’ll quarrel with for the most part. If you look at the world from a global land use perspective, the way humanity produces meat is scandalously cruel, polluting, bad for our health and inefficient. On the other hand, if you look at a given small agricultural land parcel from a local self-provisioning perspective, as my Wessex neo-peasants will be doing, then including livestock is a no-brainer from an efficiency point of view, and possibly from a health and pollution point of view too. Simon Fairlie has set out all the issues in great detail and with no little aplomb in his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, so I won’t dwell on them here. Essentially, everything turns on adopting what Simon calls ‘default’ livestock strategies – that is, using livestock to complement rather than compete with the production of food for direct human use on the farm.

In the case of animals like pigs and chickens, the default strategy is fairly obvious and makes perfect sense unless you’re a DEFRA bureaucrat – get them to eat waste human food and thus get a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. In the case of ruminants like cows and sheep, the issue is more complex. Ruminants eat grass, which humans can’t eat directly, and in that sense are default animals par excellence (so long as they’re not sneakily boosted with grains and legumes). But you don’t get a whole lot of meat (or milk) per hectare of grass. In some situations – upland grazing, for example – you might be inclined to accept whatever meagre gifts the grazing offers (but then again, you might not – see below) because although you don’t get much meat per hectare you’ll get a lot more of it, for less work, than any other food you might try to produce there. Actually, that point also holds true for lowland organic farming. If you’re not fertilising your crops with exotically-produced synthetics, you’ll probably need to build a generous amount of temporary grass-clover ley into your crop rotation, which won’t produce any food for you in itself. So getting some ruminants in to graze your ley commends itself as a default livestock strategy, which adds to your productivity. Nevertheless, you might come to the view that there is too much grass and too many ruminants in your farming system overall, and seek to adjust those parameters downwards.

But why would you come to that view? I can think of seven possible reasons, and here I’m going to whizz through them briefly by way of an introduction to my neo-peasant theme.

1- Animal rights: you might take the view that it’s wrong to domesticate animals, keep them in captivity and then kill them in accordance with your own personal agenda. It’s a view that I grudgingly respect, but don’t share. It’s also a view that has had virtually no plausibility in any historic peasant society anywhere (India included, albeit in interesting ways), which perhaps is worth bearing in mind. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s an essentially ethical stance which is independent of my present theme of farm system productivity. Therefore I’m merely going to acknowledge it as a consideration and move on.

2- Human health: you might take the view that animal products are bad for human health, saturated animal fat having been a particular whipping boy in this respect in recent years. I’m going to come back to this issue in another post, so I’ll leave it hanging for now. It’s worth mentioning though that in northerly climes such as Britain there have been no local sources of dietary oil or fat other than animal ones until the very recent advent of oilseed rape (canola) as an arable break crop.

3- Carbon emissions: ruminants, notoriously, are significant emitters of methane as a result of the extraordinary fermentation vats contained in their digestive tracts, and have therefore been regarded as climate change culprits. But then again, unlike tilled cropland, permanent pasture can be a net carbon absorber. But then again, well established permanent pasture is typically in carbon equilibrium, or worse – finding uses for it other than the slim returns from ruminants would probably be more climate-friendly. But then again, including a few ruminants in a default peasant livestock silvo-pasture system could well be one of those more climate-friendly uses. And so the debate rages on. My personal summary of the issues would be this: the science of soils, woodlands, grasslands, ruminants and carbon is bafflingly complex, but what seems clear is (1) It’s a bad idea to clear established wild forest or grassland in order to grow fodder for animals (probably human animals included), and (2) Climate change is a huge global problem because we have an unprecedentedly high-energy global economy based overwhelmingly on the combustion of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, not because small-scale farmers keep ruminants on existing grassland. Next.

4, 5, & 6- the Monbiot critique: They’re coming thick and fast now. 4 is biodiversity. 5 is ecosystem services. 6 is land use preferences. I’m lumping them together because these all feature in George Monbiot’s influential critique of what he memorably calls the ‘sheepwrecked’ British uplands. In a nutshell, Monbiot’s argument is that excessive grazing of sheep in the British uplands has created a treeless and ecologically impoverished wasteland of poor soils, rough grasses and heather which is dreary to look at, provides slim pickings for wildlife, and contributes to flooding downstream by quickly releasing surface water runoff rather than holding it up, as a diversely treed natural landscape would. Compounding these considerable disadvantages, in Monbiot’s view, is the fact that upland sheep farming is so unproductive, being largely propped up by farm subsidies. In his words, “Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity”1.

I’m sympathetic to the Monbiot critique, but not yet 100% persuaded by it. Taking his quotation, I’d  begin by observing that agriculture in its entirety is so befuddled by economic perversities that few sound inferences are possible when comparing the money values of any given agricultural commodities. But what that import-export disparity most strongly suggests to me is that the people of Wales like to eat more meat than their local landscape can sustainably provide – which is fairly typical of people in wealthy countries, and is not a failing of the upland sheep industry per se. If the people of Wales, like the people in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, had to furnish their requirements for meat (or, more to the point, for fat) from their own local resources, then we can be pretty sure that there’d be a lot of sheep in the uplands. Or, to put it another way, the apparent ‘unproductiveness’ of upland sheep farming may be an artefact of how you go about comparing farm systems.

We can push that last point in several directions. For one thing, it’s worth mentioning that much upland sheep farming isn’t geared primarily to producing meat but to producing purebred bloodstock, which are integrated with meatier lowland breeds in a variety of ways that increase the efficiency and resilience of sheep farming in Britain as a whole. In that sense, it’s misleading to look at upland sheep farming in isolation. A more holistic view reveals an efficient default livestock system – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’2 – operating nationwide that optimises the agricultural potential of the country’s different landscapes.

Or perhaps we might ponder at more length the putative ‘failure of productivity’ that Monbiot detects in the Welsh meat trade imbalance. In Britain (and presumably in Wales too) we eat around ten times more chicken and pork meat than sheep meat. Chickens and pigs are fed mostly on crops from arable farms that could otherwise be serving human needs. We also eat around three times more cattle meat than sheep meat, and there’s more arable-based concentrate in cattle diets than in ovine ones. So in default livestock terms, upland sheep meat is arguably more, not less, productive than these non-default counterparts.

To press the point further, I’m inclined to question whether the ‘productivity’ of land is relevant to the issue of its agricultural ‘wrecking’. There’s no doubting the far greater agricultural productivity of the North American grasslands (or for that matter the East Anglian flatlands) than the Welsh uplands, but could we not say that these places are ‘wheatwrecked’ or ‘cornwrecked’ in the same way that the British uplands are ‘sheepwrecked’? And surely a case could be made that New Zealand is also sheepwrecked, even if it produces lamb at lower carbon and dollar prices, given that it had no resident mammals of any kind prior to European colonization? In his book Feral, Monbiot describes his disappointment in moving from the overpopulated English lowlands to the wild Welsh uplands, only to find his new home much less wild than he’d anticipated – a landscape, in fact, moulded by human agriculture for almost as long as the lowlands. Much of Monbiot’s critique of the contemporary agricultural practices and policies compounding the problem is (quite literally) on the money, but I think the intuitive appeal of his rewilded upland anti-pastoral draws in good measure from a set of somewhat naïve homologies: mountain:lowland – wild:tame – beauty:ugliness – good:bad. As James Rebanks points out in his book The Shepherd’s Life, visitors to the mountains are often oblivious to the human landscape generations of its inhabitants have made – or if not oblivious, then perhaps actively hostile to its putative poverty, destructiveness and inefficiency. This is the same argument that’s always used to clear peasants off the land. There are many forms of enclosure, and some of them point towards the abolition of agriculture to benefit the wilderness rather than the ‘improvement’ of agriculture to benefit society. What’s usually lost along the way is local appreciation of agricultural carrying capacity. In the globalised modern world, preserving our local wildernesses usually equates to wrecking a wilderness somewhere else that’s lower in the global pecking order.

I can see the force in the argument that it’s better to wheatwreck the prairies than to sheepwreck the Welsh uplands because at least the prairies are feeding a lot of people. Thus speaks the voice of the rational-bureaucratic planner, of whom I wrote in my recent review of George’s new book. But I still prefer the voice of the autochton: if there’s wrecking to be done, it’s best to wreck your own habitat for your own food, because otherwise there’s little chance of bringing the wreckage under long-term control. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems probable that the semi-arid continental grasslands – a basket into which humanity has been cramming an increasing proportion of its collective eggs in recent decades – may well become agriculturally wrecked soon enough. Wiser, I think, to look first at one’s own local agricultural resources.

Still, what’s surely better than wrecking is trading off the various potentialities of the uplands – for meat (and the other nine useful products derived from sheep), for wildness, for biodiversity and for watershed management. I don’t see that this is a case for either sheep or watershed management, either sheep or biodiversity. But I’d appreciate input from anyone reading this who has more expertise than me in these matters3. One study I’ve read suggests that planting small strips of trees on upland slopes can reduce flood peaks by 40%, an approach that’s surely compatible with upland sheep husbandry in a silvo-pastoral system4. I’d like to see the Monbiot critique develop in this direction: assuming a national or sub-national food economy that’s largely self-sufficient, and will probably therefore have to take advantage of upland sheep and upland grass, but assuming too the need for sensible, whole-systems thinking about wildlife and watershed management, what kind of mixed land use policies best commend themselves in the uplands?

That’s a lot of assuming, of course. Current government policy does not assume national food self-sufficiency or holistic wildlife and water management. Instead, it crowds shoddy (to coin a pastoral term) new-build houses onto lowland floodplains and supports a dysfunctional agricultural subsidy regimen whose major beneficiaries are not upland sheep farmers but mostly consumers and retailers, secondarily large-scale landowners, with active farmers coming well down the list. Writers like Rebanks show how upland sheep farming communities in Britain come about as close as we currently have to a peasantry. And if there’s a battle for political influence over upland land use between the upstream peasantry for grazing rights and the downstream urbanites for flood abatement and rambling rights, it’s pretty obvious who’s likely to win. But in the long term I think we’ll need to devote some effort to protecting our uplands for farming and protecting our lowlands from farming. The Monbiot critique is a good starting point for more holistic land use policy, but it’s only a starting point, and it’s a bit too black and white.

7- Meat for Mr Malthus: well-raised meat is a concentrated source of good nutrients, and many people like to eat it in preference to most other things. But it’s a land-hungry way of producing human nutrition. So if a society discovers that it’s struggling to produce the meat it wants from the land it has available, this can act as a useful early warning that resource limits are looming. There are all sorts of ways of responding to the signal, some better and some easier than others – limiting meat access just to the wealthy, trimming back human population, applying more human labour to more intensive forms of livestock husbandry, hoping for technical innovations that will produce more meat on less land, increasing the proportion of cropland relative to pasture or rangeland, increasing the total amount of farmed land (perhaps through colonial land-takes) and so on. I think a sensible approach is to treat it as a warning shot across the bows and downsize. People often make the point that Britain is not self-sufficient in food, as if this is some fact of nature. The likelihood is, despite its unprecedentedly large present population, Britain could easily be self-sufficient in food if that was something that we collectively wished to prioritise. We are nowhere near any kind of Malthusian crisis (though climate change could force a rapid reassessment…and of course our present enormous agricultural footprint has imposed a Malthusian crisis on other species).

Still, I doubt we could easily be self-sufficient in food at current levels of meat consumption. So perhaps the time has come for us to trim back, proportionately or absolutely, our permanent pasture (and the ghost pasturages we use in other countries) and tie it more specifically into mixed organic farming systems which primarily grow crops for direct human needs. In a relatively closed agricultural system, there are always going to have to be short run adjustments between cropland and pasture, and it’s no disaster for us here in Wessex (and the other wealthy countries of the world) to eat a bit less meat. This does raise interesting questions about localism, agricultural specialisation and land use efficiency: the wet and grassy west of Britain was exchanging meat for grain long before the absurdly amplified trade imbalances of the present global agrarian system. I’d argue that a neo-peasant agriculture probably has to trade off a degree of land use efficiency for local self-reliance, though it’s worth pondering that equation in detail – how local? how efficient? how self-reliant? Too much emphasis on land use efficiency at supra local levels leads to sheepwrecked mountains and wheatwrecked plains.

At least here in the claylands of Wiltshire and Somerset there are traditions of more localised pastoral farming to draw on, as described by the disapproving John Aubrey in the seventeenth century,

Hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milk the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milk meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions. These circumstances make them melancholy, contemplative and malicious4

Sounds good to me. Arable farming indeed is the agriculture of hard labour – of landowning elites and overworked, politically powerless, malnourished workers. Most likely, modernity and globalisation have only bought a temporary reprieve from that historic truth. Give me Abel over Cain, milk meates and coole braines over inventive tillers.

So ultimately I think I’d opt for the omnivore’s argument over the vegetarian’s: the problem isn’t that there are too many ruminants; it’s that there are too many people. Probably the best (the most humane) long-term way of solving this problem is to allocate agricultural land fairly among the existing population, and let individuals figure out for themselves how best to balance their taste for meat with their desire for enough food on the table, and their desires and needs to reproduce. Such, at any rate, might be the policy framework adopted by the enlightened rulers of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.


All that has taken us a long way from my point of departure, which was asking how much permanent pasture it’s appropriate to have on a lowland neo-peasant farm, and how much mountain grazing it’s appropriate to have in the uplands. And the answer I’ve come to is this: as much as possible, subject to the needs for sufficient calories to feed the population, for holistic landscape management, and for space for wildlife and biodiversity. How marvellous that someone’s finally come along and cleared that issue up once and for all, huh?



  1. Monbiot, G. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess, Verso, p.121.
  1. See eg. Walling, P. 2014. Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain, Profile.
  1. One issue that I’d like clarification on is the relative balance between sheepwrecking and natural biogeography to explain the treeless uplands. I notice on my forays to Snowdonia how at higher elevations the few straggling rowans hunker in sheltered streambeds, while stands of ash, hawthorn and other species grow more abundantly lower down, despite the presence of sheep throughout.
  1. Jackson, B. et al. 2008. The impact of upland land management on flooding: insights from a multiscale experimental and modelling programme. Flood Risk Management, 1: 71-80.
  1. Quoted in J.H. Bettey, 1977. Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, Moonraker Press, p.16.

The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

My previous post introduced the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, a future polity in the west of England where about a fifth of the working population are engaged in producing their own agrarian subsistence. In this post, I aim to start filling in a few details of what this might look like.

Let’s begin with a bit of geography and demographics. My state of Wessex encompasses the present English counties of Wiltshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall (which as was pointed out under my previous post, scarcely corresponds with the medieval state of Wessex, or even with Thomas Hardy’s 19th century update. This is just one of my many departures from tradition – I don’t call it ‘neo’-peasant for nothing). The present population of Wessex is 5.3 million, which constitutes about 10% of England’s population, and about 8% of the UK population as a whole. So far as I can discern, the Office for National Statistics provides future population projections only as far forward as 2039, and only at country, not regional, level. It projects a population increase for England of about 10 million (20%) between now and 2039, comprising roughly half natural increase and half in-migration.

Let’s assume that the ONS predictions prove accurate and apply the 20% increase to Wessex. This yields a 2039 Wessex population of 6.3 million, which I’m going to use for my baseline population. And I’m going to define working age as 18-65. ONS figures suggest that currently 57% of the total population fall into this age group nationally – and again I’m going to apply this to my Wessex figures, yielding a pool of about 3.6 million working adults in my future Wessex. It seems likely that the ratio of working to total population in 2039 will be higher than now, but this is just one of several areas in which I’ll try to load the dice slightly against my analysis so that the results seem plausible rather than over-optimistic, so I’ll keep the figure at 57%.

Assuming as per my previous post that 20% of my Wessex population are self-subsisting, neo-peasant farmers, that gives us a total of just over 710,000 Wessex working adult peasants in need of a farmstead, with an additional 550,000 dependents (children or retired parents) to provide for. I’m now going to wave my magic wand and abolish the Duchy of Cornwall along with a few other feudal landholding relics in order to provide homesteads and farmsteads for my modern peasants on a little over 40% of the existing agricultural land in the Wessex lowlands. Then I’m going to divide this land area up (on average) into 10 hectare (25 acre) holdings, each of which will be allocated to ten working neo-peasants and their dependents. Alternatively of course, it would be possible to divide it up into 1 ha holdings at a peasant apiece. But I prefer to think in terms of a 10 ha holding with certain tasks shared, and certain ones conducted privately by individuals and families. Not dissimilar to many peasant societies, in fact, including historic Wessex. I’ll talk some more about the social dynamics involved as this exercise unfolds.

Another past practice I’d like to revive is that of the agricultural apprenticeship – or of being ‘in service’ in the older parlance. The idea of agricultural service now has negative and inegalitarian resonances, though the work of historians like Peter Laslett (The World We Have Lost) suggests that it was often more benign than might be supposed. Anyway, I’m thinking of it more as a kind of apprenticeship in the modern mould, or possibly as a form of WWOOFing, in which young people could learn farming skills and get a feel for whether the neo-peasant life was for them, perhaps backed up by some appropriate labour legislation to keep everyone honest. So let’s throw in a couple of apprentices on each 10ha holding.

Now, as per some of the comments under my previous post, I’m thinking of these 10ha peasant holdings as geared essentially to furnishing the food and fibre its residents need, not for cash-cropping. So it’ll be necessary for some of the residents to earn money off the holding. Let us assume that the 10 adult neo-peasants on the holding are living as five couples, with one member of each couple working full-time on the holding, and the other member working a quarter time with the rest of their time earning money off the holding. Let us further assume that the children and retired folk on the holding contribute one full-time equivalent portion of labour between them (something that will vary in practice over the demographic cycle). And then of course we have our two apprentices. So in total that gives us ten full-time equivalent workers on the holding, and twenty mouths to feed – which amounts to half a hectare or just over one acre per person.

Joe Clarkson, who objected to one of my earlier forays into the issue of redistributing agricultural land for reasons that I still don’t really understand, wrote “Your suggestion of one acre per person cannot be serious. Are you really going to show us how a family of four can live on four acres of “average” land? One third would be non-agricultural, one third would be rough pasture and only one third would be arable, and that’s without a place to live and roads to get to each parcel. Your division of the Duchy of Cornwall into 20 acre farms is closer to the mark.” So let me now answer, ornery soul that I am, yes – I am going to show you (or at least attempt to persuade you) how a family of four in the southwest can live off about four acres of agricultural (not ‘average’) land, or at least how twenty people and ten workers can live off 10 hectares (whether it’s four off four, or twenty off twenty is basically irrelevant). And then I’m going to show you how the other 80% of the population can live off the rest of Wessex’s farmland.

But to do that, we first need to look more closely at Wessex’s farmland. Current agricultural land use in Wessex and in England as a whole is shown in Figure 1, which is derived from DEFRA’s regional statistics. Unfortunately, there are some significant internal discrepancies with these statistics, and nor are they comparable with the more detailed land use breakdown DEFRA offers at a national level since the latter is UK wide, whereas the regional statistics are for England only. I did write to the DEFRA official responsible asking for clarification, but got no reply. Probably, she’s too busy working with her new boss Andrea Leadsom on dismantling the entire edifice of British agriculture. Anyway, the figure below gives us some rough figures to work with, and it’ll have to do.








The figure shows that, compared with England generally, Wessex has proportionately less cropland, slightly less rough grazing and a lot more permanent pasture. I’m going to take the rough grazing out of the reckoning, treat is as a proxy for the uplands (which in the southwest refers to the big moors of Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps to parts of the hillier areas such as the Mendips), and deal with it in another post. As a starting point, I propose to keep Wessex’s cropland and permanent pasture proportions pretty much as they are. In a sense, that’s an arbitrary decision. Historically, the boundary between cropland and grassland has varied through time in response to circumstances. But there are various reasons why I’d like to aim at something like the current level. For one thing, I don’t want to give ammunition to the ecomodernists by suggesting that in a neo-peasant scenario we’d need to start ploughing up grassland in order to feed ourselves. And for another, that’s something that I think indeed is best avoided. It’s possible to overegg the argument that grass/ruminant farming is climate friendly, but sparing permanent pasture from the plough whenever possible seems a wise course of action on both carbon and biodiversity grounds. And since the moist, temperate climate here in Wessex is especially well suited to growing grass, there’s a lot to be said for the grass/ruminant option, particularly in a self-subsistence situation where, at this latitude, there are essentially no options for producing fat other than animal-based ones. The downside of grass/ruminant farming is that it’s not a very efficient way of producing human food on a nutrients per hectare basis – but again that helps to load the dice a little against my analysis, which is no bad thing.

A couple more bits of dice-loading: I’m going to assume that one in every 20 of my 71,000 ten hectare holdings produces nothing. This builds in a margin for such things as seed-saving and raising breeding stock, as well as perhaps making allowance for the odd stereotypically lazy peasant. I’m also going to aim to grow all the food in Wessex organically, which means its farming is likely to be less productive on a per hectare basis, other things being equal. I’ve always farmed more-or-less organically myself and I’m supportive by inclination of the organic movement. But not zealously so. I don’t have a problem in principle with the use of synthetic fertilisers and other non-organic amendments, but I’m inclined to think that they should be used as a method of last rather than first resort, when it feels necessary to push the envelope of productivity after all available biotic avenues have been explored.

So to recap: my future neo-peasant Wessex has a population of 6.3 million (up from today’s 5.3 million). Twenty percent of its working-age population plus their young and elderly dependents live on a little over forty percent of its farmland. The adult neo-peasants devote about two-thirds of their collective labour to subsistence activities on the holding, using organic farming principles by default, with some extra help from apprentices and the young and old. The rest of their time is spent on income generation off the holding. And, on average, the land use on productive holdings (one in twenty aren’t directly productive) corresponds roughly with existing land use in Wessex, with ruminants on permanent grassland somewhat over-represented relative to the country at a whole.

So that, I hope, sets the scene for looking in more detail at what happens on the ten hectare neo-peasant holding. And I’ll turn to that question soon. But first we need to clear a couple of other issues out of the way, which are raised by the emphasis on grass/ruminant farming.

Of Wessex and Londinium: a tale of two city-states

From the furies of Brexit, let me turn to a saner and more achievable political project: restructuring Britain into a neo-peasant society. Actually I think the one may lead to the other. Isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing? I’ve long felt that many of our political and environmental problems can best be tackled by means of a more peopled and localised agriculture, but I’ve never been able to dream up any plausible mechanisms for driving such change in contemporary society, other than bleak end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it type scenarios. But now, thanks to that friend of the peasantry Boris Johnson and his merry band of Brexiteers, some real possibilities are emerging. Though whether they’re distinct from those bleak end-of-civilisation type scenarios remains to be seen.

Anyway, we’ll come to all that. What I want to do in this post is pick up the threads of the discussion about mega-cities in general and London in particular that I left hanging a few weeks ago. If a government emerged that was strongly committed to small-scale agriculture I think it would be entirely possible for it to organise the nation’s farming accordingly and provision large cities with its products. But that’s not the way the modern world has gone. It was on the cards at the moment of decolonisation in various countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the carrot of western-style development and the stick of western-style economic domination conspired against it. And when all’s said and done there is something of an affinity between urbanism and the agricultural status quo of heavily mechanised grain farming. So although it would be possible to ruminate on how to feed London’s 8 million from a world of encircling smallholdings, the idea doesn’t really inspire me.

Instead, what I propose to do is consider the possible shape of regional neo-peasant agricultures in England, and of one such regional agriculture in particular. When I first started thinking about this not so long ago it seemed like an appealing mental exercise, though not one that carried much political weight in the real world. But since then we’ve had Britain threatening to quit the EU, Scotland threatening to quit Britain, London threatening to quit England, the Labour Party threatening to quit itself, and all manner of other intrigue besides. In short, in the present moment of British politics everyone is threatening to quit everyone else if they don’t like them. So the secessionist implications of my analysis, which only recently seemed entirely far-fetched, are suddenly in step with the zeitgeist. What I’m going to focus my analysis on, then, is a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England. Let us call it the state of Wessex. And I’m going to contrast it with various agricultural possibilities in the east and southeast, or Londinium as I will call it in order to capture the deep history of that city’s status as a greater or lesser centre within a larger imperium. As a sometime dweller of both Wessex and Londinium, I have to admit that my political sensibilities were mostly forged in the latter. But I hereby disinherit myself from it and throw my lot in with the neo-peasants of Wessex. Of course, many of my fellow Wessexers probably hanker more after the lifestyle of the contemporary Londoner than the kind of neo-peasant west country vision that I’m about to outline. If so, my message to them, one fully in keeping with the politics du jour, is: screw you. I’m perfectly happy for Frome to secede from the rest of the southwest if it has to. And as for those uppity east-side Fromies, they can take a hike too if they don’t like what I have to say…

In the light of the Brexit result, no one can surely claim any longer that people won’t voluntarily surrender their short-term wealth and wellbeing in service of larger aims, long a bugbear for any kind of contemporary peasant or agrarian populist activism. So let me push the Brexit experiment a stage further, and now formally announce the division of southern England into the Peasant Republic of Wessex and the Euro-imperium of Londinium. We could set up a border checkpoint in, say, Chippenham, announce a brief amnesty period in which people on either side of the border are permitted to migrate freely across it, and then settle down to observe the two-way traffic. What a fascinating sociological exercise that would be…

Anyway, let me now start putting a few parameters around my suggestion of a neo-peasant Wessex. When I’ve undertaken exercises like this before to construe a rebooted, smaller-scale agriculture, I’ve generally still thought in terms of commercial farming, albeit a more peopled one, furnishing the necessities of life for the wider population. But when I think about what prevents me from making my own holding both more productive and more ecologically benign, it’s the lack of human labour and/or the impossibility of securing the right kinds and quantities of labour (or, to put it another way, the impossibility of securing the right price for my products relative to the price of labour) when running the operation commercially that trips me up the most. I also think that the skill-set required of a sustainability-minded commercial farmer is a highly specialised and unusual one. There are far more people capable of doing a good job growing for themselves with sustainability in mind than there are who’ll do a good job growing for others in that way. So I think I agree with Ralph Borsodi, who others have mentioned on this site (I have to confess I’ve not yet read him – hopefully I’ll put that right), that it’s generally best for the smallholder not to rely on selling their produce.

At the same time, I’m not really in favour of a society comprised entirely of self-reliant smallholders. Looking at it in world-historical terms, I’m happy to go with the notion that the division of labour and the specialisation of agriculture isn’t any kind of existential advance on the life of hunter-gatherers or ‘subsistence’ agriculturists. But looking at it in terms of my already rather left-field advocacy for peasant-style living here in England in 2016, I think proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society face the problem that such a life would be deeply impoverished by any reasonable contemporary standard. While much that passes for wealth in the present world seems to me spurious and I consider a materially simpler life to be desirable, I don’t think those truths are best served by demanding that everyone grow their own parsnips. Another problem faced by proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society is that no such society has ever existed – but that’s something I’ll look at in further detail in a later post. Where this leads for now in terms of my neo-peasant exercise is making an essentially arbitrary judgment about how many self-reliant ‘peasants’ and how many commercial ‘farmers’ there might be, albeit that the categories admit to some overlap. And my answer is (at least provisionally, I haven’t yet finished crunching the numbers) – around 20% of working age (18-65) adult ‘peasants’, which would put my neo-peasant society on a par with countries such as Poland, Mexico and Iran. Though I’m open to other suggestions…

I’m going to reserve discussion of all the social, political and economic implications of my neo-peasant Wessex for later. For now, I just want to focus on what a neo-peasant agriculture might look like on the ground. What would it produce, how would it produce it, and would it be enough to feed the population? Anybody going about an estimation of this sort needs to make a lot of assumptions and plug in some plausible productivity data. I’m going to outline a lot of these assumptions in detail in my upcoming posts in the hope that somebody or other might read and challenge them, thus helping me improve my estimates. But I’ll mix a few jokes in with the stats, just to make it worth your while ploughing through it all. If even the prospect of my rapier wit doesn’t enthral you, I’ll aim to write a summary analysis when it’s all done and dusted so you can get to the bottom line without wading through the detail.

My general bias is towards underestimation rather than overestimation. I think there’s a tendency in the alternative farming movement to be overly optimistic about what we can produce, and I prefer to be the pessimist who gets a pleasant surprise than the optimist who gets a nasty shock. So if you think my estimates are too low, I won’t be too bothered (though I’d still be interested to hear from you). If you think they’re too high, that’s more of a concern.

My baseline data comes from DEFRA’s ‘Agriculture in the English regions’ dataset. My personal definition of the southwest is limited to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, whereas official classifications also include Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset – counties with a higher population density (252 people per km2 as compared to 183, since you asked) and also arguably a more eastward-oriented arable agriculture historically. But there you have it, I can’t unpick the data, so I’ll just have to make do with my six counties of Wessex. When it comes to Londinium, I’ve amalgamated the southeast and the east regions as part of its hinterlands, encompassing Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Bucks, Oxfordshire and Berkshire – which luckily for those resource-guzzling city-slickers encompasses a decent chunk of the best agricultural and horticultural land in the country.

But that’s probably enough for one blog post. I hope you’ll visit me again soon and let me introduce you to the people, food and farmsteads of Wessex.