Neo-peasantries: from permaculture to permanent agriculture

Over the coming posts I’m going to start slowly moving towards my next big theme: the practice and politics of a neo-peasant agriculture. But first I need to prepare the way with a bit of context, and one context is permaculture. The word is a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, so in that sense seems close to the kind of sustainable farming and society I seek. But it’s also a movement with a distinctive literature and community associated with it, a movement in which my own route ‘back to the land’ was originally forged. Yet now I’m not so sure how much permaculture (the movement) is likely to deliver permaculture (permanent agriculture). I’ve started to think that peasants or ‘neo-peasants’ are a more promising vehicle for permanent agriculture than permaculturists. That at any rate is what I’ll address in this post.

Framing neo-peasant agriculture in relation to permaculture may not be the best way to start this cycle of posts, but it’s uppermost in my mind after a series of readings and interactions recently – Dan Palmer’s interesting article on Christopher Alexander and his ‘challenge to permaculture’; a re-reading of what I think is a very important ‘state of permaculture’ article by Patrick Whitefield; a fascinating article in New Left Review about the enrichment of objects; and, a lively set of exchanges on regarding my letter in Permaculture Magazine, some of which degenerated into the kind of pissing contest that represents the permaculture movement at its doctrinaire worst.

That contest was initiated by Rick Larson, whose opening gambit to me was “My backyard is much more interesting than your simple tilled smallholding” – an assertion I find interesting for several reasons that I’ll come to. Rick’s major beef seems to be that mixed semi-commercial small-scale farming-cum-horticulture of the kind I practice is not the way forwards into a sustainable future, especially in its (in fact, rather minimal) use of tillage. As it happens, I largely agree with him, for reasons that I sketched in my review of Jean-Martin Fortier’s book. On the other hand, I also doubt that the backyard, no-till, perennial-heavy polyculture of the kind practiced by Rick would feature too heavily in such a future either. What I would say in favour of commercial farming is that it helps to concentrate the mind on inputs and outputs. Given that most backyard growers don’t furnish anything even close to their total household food requirements and tend to think of time in the garden as recreational, a spell working in commercial agriculture can be salutary in appreciating what it takes to feed a household, and also on how backyard methods might scale.

Anyway, let me now try to show why I think moving towards a sustainable neo-peasant agriculture may involve plotting a course away from permaculture as it’s typically now understood.

1. The limits of biomimicry

 A typical farm – even a traditional, small, mixed, organic one – doesn’t look much like a natural ecosystem. It thus stands indicted in the eyes of a certain kind of permaculture thinking, because nature provides the gold standard for efficient design.

But, as previously discussed in much more detail on this site, I’ve come to question that ‘certain kind of thinking’, largely as a result of books by two ecologists – Ford Denison1 and Phil Grime2. In brief, Denison argues that organisms are evolutionarily optimised by natural selection in ways that ecosystems aren’t. So there’s no reason to assume that the structure of natural ecosystems necessarily optimises the parameters sought by humans as they design their agro-ecosystems. Therefore, there’s a danger of what Denison calls the ‘misguided mimicry of nature’. The point is not that biomimicry is inevitably misguided. It’s just that there’s no reason to assume that a more biomimetic agroecosystem is necessarily a better or more efficient one simply because it’s mimetic.

Grime shows how organisms conform to different types across the axes of habitat disturbance and resource availability. Natural ecosystems commonly display low disturbance and low resource availability, selecting for more sessile, resource-conserving, stress-tolerant organisms. There’s an intrinsic appeal to mimicking such ecosystems because they’re robust and they get by with few inputs. But they’re also slow-growing, low in output and well defended from cropping and/or predation. By contrast, typical agroecosystems, and also a few natural ecosystems, are high disturbance, high resource setups. Productivity is high, but so are input and management costs.

A perfect solution would be to create an agroecosystem with the best of both worlds – low input, stable, robust, well-defended, but high output. Unfortunately, perfect solutions don’t exist. Both Denison and Grime emphasise trade-offs – if we try to maximise one thing (like food yield) we generally lose other desirable traits (like stress tolerance). As Thomas Sowell put it, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs”. I think this insight needs wider promotion within alternative agricultural circles.

2. Production functions: or, thinking like a celeriac

Take a look at this picture of the recently transplanted celeriac in part of my (no till) market garden (just try to ignore the lupins, comfrey, hornbeam, sunflowers, rhubarb and grasses OK?). Rick Larson calls this a ‘monoculture’. Well, maybe. Given that celeriac occupies only 80m2 (or around 0.1%) of a 7.3ha holding with well over a hundred other introduced species, and it won’t grow on this spot again for at least another six years, I think that’s stretching a point. But call it what you will. I think what’s more interesting is why I, like most commercial growers, generally avoid intercropping at the fine-scale, whereas a lot of backyard permaculture gardeners prefer it.

Small farm monoculture

Rick’s answer is that I’m ‘locked in’ to a detrimental system. To my mind that substitutes easy censure for more careful thought. I think the reason most commercial growers opt for these ‘monocultures’ is because labour is our key constraint – the labour involved in efficient planting, weeding, irrigation and harvesting, and the labour involved in planning crop quantities and rotations. It saves work if you don’t mix the crops up too much. But on a garden scale, space is often a more significant constraint than labour. It makes sense to cram in lots of different plants in a given area, and take advantage of their different growth habits and other properties that enable the gardener to make the most of limited space. Different trade-offs in different situations.

An economist might frame these considerations as a production function, a kind of input-output equation. So the inputs might be things like land area, soil quality, water, compost or fertility, human labour, mechanical or fossil energy inputs and so on. And the outputs might be things like food to eat or food to sell, the pleasure of working hard in the garden, the pleasure of not working too hard in the garden, as well as undesirable or negative outputs – soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water drawdown and so on.

I don’t think there can ever be a single, ‘right’ solution to that production function – not for an individual and not for a society. We can trade-off labour inputs, land area, mechanical energy and so on in endless ways. I think most of us in the alternative farming movement would agree that we need more human input and less mechanical input into farming, but that only puts some vague boundaries around a few parameters.

But what I think is in the minds of the permaculture polyculturists is the notion that there are interactive effects when you put plants together. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere in a debate about polycultures with Patrick Whitefield that was sadly truncated by Patrick’s death. The basic point is that by planting, say, carrots alongside onions you expect to get better total yields, or the same total yields for less work, than if you planted them in separate blocks. But the truth is that the evidence for most of these interactive or ‘companion planting’ effects is poor, or at least highly contextual – something that’s discussed in more detail by Denison in his book and by me in my aforementioned post. And even when there is a demonstrable effect (eg. onions deterring carrot root fly), trade-offs are still in play. Should carrots be planted with onions? Well, it depends on the extent of the fly problem, the balance required between carrots and onions, the costs and efficacy of the deterrence vis-à-vis other deterrent methods, the labour costs, and so on. Is interplanting always preferable to monocropping? I think Patrick got it right when he wrote “any blanket statement…is almost certain to be wrong or at least only right in certain places and at certain times.”

In the excellent article from which I’ve taken that quotation, Patrick offers a mea culpa for the emphasis in his own early permaculture teaching on stand-alone ideas like swales which he taught because it differentiated permaculture from more traditional ways of working the land. I think this is an important insight, and I’ll say more about it below. For now, I’d just like to suggest that trade-offs abound – trade-off free improvements and genuinely interactive effects not already widely practiced by farmers and growers are rare. Rick says he finds the ‘monocultures’ of the kind I practice less interesting than his approach, which is fair enough. Different strokes for different folks. What interests me is whether a given garden polyculture offers any agronomic advantages over single crop rotations – not necessarily the case just because it looks more ‘natural’. The current evidence is weak. My advice to the budding backyard permaculturist would be: experiment with new things by all means, but treat traditional farming systems with some respect. Don’t assume they’re necessarily misguided. Maybe even allow them to challenge some of your assumptions. People have been doing this kind of farming, and thinking about how to do it better, for a very long time.

3. Designing from wholes to parts: or, check out my wineberries!

Designing from wholes to parts is the lesson of the influential design thinker Christopher Alexander, which Dan Palmer has recently argued should be better incorporated into permaculture. Some of the respondents to Palmer’s article argued, correctly I think, that this kind of thinking is already part of the permaculture toolkit – as in David Holmgren’s admonition to ‘design from patterns to details’. But what are the ‘wholes’ we’re thinking about when we do our designs? Typically a house and yard, perhaps a farm or community garden. These themselves are only parts. Few people other than government planners are really planning holistically at landscape-regional-society-wide levels, and for the most part not even them, increasingly subordinated as they are by a neoliberal ideology that claims the best kind of planning is no planning at all (except corporate planning).

Though it’s true that the ‘patterns to details’ message is well known in permaculture, ‘details to patterns’ thinking nevertheless seems to me surprisingly widespread within the movement. On I was criticised for admitting I didn’t have swales, raised beds or forest gardens on my holding – the implication being that they’re so obviously appropriate in every situation that I couldn’t have tried them and was therefore just offering empty criticisms from the outside (the definition of a ‘swale’ in the discussion turned out to be a path where the topsoil is dug out and heaped up alongside – in which case examination of the photo shows that in fact I do have swales on my holding. If the definitions of forest gardens and raised beds are equally fluid, I probably have them too, so perhaps I am a proper permaculturist after all…)

Criticising someone for not having specific landscape features is pretty absurd without detailed knowledge of their land and their thought processes about it, so I don’t think it’s worth wasting time on rebuttals. But I’d like to make a hypothesis about its underlying motivation. Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre argue in an interesting recent article3 that deindustrialisation (ie. the relocation of the mass production of cheap industrial artefacts away from the wealthy countries of the global north) has led to a change in the way that we in these wealthy countries articulate our identities in relation to the things around us. Specifically, we try to imbue things with enriched and particular value, making ‘exceptional objects’ of them. Boltanski and Esquerre trace the rise of practices such as stamp collecting in the 19th century, and the rise of public interest in the trappings of celebrity lifestyle or ‘stylish’ living more generally as a part of this process. These are signified by various rare and special objects and experiences, of the kind endlessly repackaged in TV home makeover shows and the like.

Green or radical-minded people may not have much truck with such things, but it feels to me that the suburban permaculture garden, with its carefully curated polycultures of unusual plants and its special design features recognised only by those ‘in the know’ – the swales, herb spirals, keyhole beds and so forth – are basically involved in these same practices of self-distinction. I’m not saying that they’re entirely lacking in any other rationale. It’s never a bad idea to play around growing backyard vegetables. But it strikes me that such processes of lifestyle distinction are often part of what a permaculture garden is about. Patrick’s admission that he taught about swales because they were ‘different’ seems of a piece with this. My own exemplar is the Japanese wineberry. I planted one on my site around the time I did my permaculture design course, mostly I think because it was the ‘in thing’ (possibly because Patrick enthused about them in his forest garden book, a popular tome at the time). I’m sure there are those who’d hate to be without their wineberries, but I’ve never been able to get too excited about them myself – I’d rather have raspberries or blackberries (but everybody knows about them…) When I see a Japanese wineberry now, it’s a bit like a masonic handshake or a clan totem, a surefire sign that the person who planted it did a permaculture design course circa 1999.

There’s nothing wrong with having a funky garden. But I’m not convinced such gardens will pass the test of permaculture as ‘permanent agriculture’, of provisioning people sustainably and well long-term. Perhaps there might be backyard permaculturists reading this who will holler their dissent. If so, I hope they’ll convince me I’m wrong. To do that, they’d have to provide some plausible information on how much of their yearly calorific, protein and other nutrient intake they furnish for themselves from their garden (by plausible I mean something more specific than saying “a lot”); how much of the fertility inputs and, perhaps, water are furnished from their site; how much of their time they spend working on it, and so on. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of good data out there on this in the permaculture movement. Mark Shepard4, to his credit, has provided some information about productivity on his perennial polyculture farm (or at least on a theoretical perennial polyculture farm), arguing that it outperforms a corn monoculture so much that it’s ‘not even funny’. But, unamusingly, his own figures prove the opposite, as I’ve shown here.

I don’t issue this challenge because I think my own small mixed semi-commercial farm in any way escapes from the same critique. Let us speak honestly – there are vanishingly few people in mainstream agriculture, in alternative agriculture or in backyard permaculture who even approach a ‘permanent’, locally self-provisioning agriculture. At best, we’re playing at being neo-peasants. And I’m not criticising anyone for playing. Play is good. Play is how we learn to do things for real. All I’m suggesting is that we should recognise it for what it is, avoid making exaggerated claims for what we do, and try to play nice with other people so our play builds up instead of knocking down (I’d add that constructive critique can be a worthwhile part of nice play). Play is also context-specific: I think Patrick’s ‘any blanket statement’ comment needs to be taken seriously. Which brings me to the matter of my “simple tillage” criticised by Rick.

We first need to remember that many of the plants which now dominate the human diet are disturbance-adapted, high resource-demanding, weed-susceptible types. That doesn’t mean that tillage is essential for growing them, but it does mean that alternative methods have to mimic what tillage achieves. I’ll assume that permaculturists aren’t going to do that with synthetic fertiliser and glyphosate, and I’ll further assume that they won’t do it by importing compost or manure from offsite, since this only displaces the dependence on tillage to unseen acreages elsewhere. What that basically leaves you with is some kind of permanent fertility-building sward on your holding, which you access via livestock or directly through cutting and composting. Both feasible, if probably less efficient than tilled leys. Maybe it would be possible to go with the Elaine Ingham/compost tea sort of approach, with extremely careful attention to onsite nutrient cycling. I’m not sure, I think the jury’s out on that one. Or, if you live somewhere with a cool, moist, temperate climate, little wind and water erosion and heavy, fertile soils, you might come to the conclusion that a bit of judicious tillage makes sense. I live in such a place, and that’s a conclusion I came to, along with many generations of peasant farmers in this region. Perhaps we’re wrong – but I think somebody who wants to make that case needs to ponder Patrick’s ‘blanket statement’ point and also the various trade-offs involved in the decision. Certainly, everyone I’ve come across locally who grows significant quantities of edible crops without tillage imports some of their fertility, which makes it difficult to wax too purist about the evils of tillage. Ultimately, I’m not (yet) convinced that backyard no-till polycultures which grow only a small proportion of a household’s food can scale up as a generalised permanent agriculture.

4. Playing with the state

Another consideration is that in designing food production systems we often focus on plot-level productivity and neglect the political relations within which plots are embedded – the Green Revolution mistake, which is all too easy to replicate in agroecological thinking. For a backyard permaculture plot in the UK, state policies are fairly indifferent – though they are making it increasingly hard for people to get a backyard plot in the first place. For a small-scale agroecological farm, on the other hand, the policies are mildly hostile. But in both cases, in the UK there’s an enormous fund of wealth, infrastructure and other implicit subsidies that we scarcely notice, many of them derived from the past and present plunder of other people in the world. You’d have to be an ascetically saintly hermit to avoid drawing down on this fund – in fact, I think it’s impossible. So again, while I don’t criticise myself or anyone else for doing so I think we should be aware of it. The situation is different in many past and present peasant societies. There, the state is wholly hostile, predatory, and given to extreme exemplary violence. When people say ‘nobody wants to live like a peasant’ I think the answer has to be ‘well, it depends on the nature of the state they’re involved with’. What will future states look like? What can we do to try to make them supportive rather than destructive of a permanent agriculture? That’s got to be part of the design process. Rick and I are lucky to be able to work with the growing systems we find ‘interesting’. In peasant situations where you have to produce almost your entire livelihood locally in the face of a state that offers you less than nothing, an effective agriculture becomes more important than an interesting one. I’m sure there are things to learn from interesting contemporary agricultures. But I think there are also things to learn from effective old-fashioned ones.

5. Conclusion

 I don’t know if such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ will ever exist. I certainly haven’t seen anything that I’d be happy to apply the label to, though there are some agroecosystems that come close – particularly low input-low output traditional peasant ones. Such traditional societies are often also attuned to the dangers of egocentrism and self-importance, and seek ways to undermine it – which is worth remembering, I think. These traditional agroecosystems don’t look much like many backyard permaculture gardens that I’ve seen in the UK or North America, and they don’t look much like my holding either. I plan to use them as a rough model (though only a rough one) for my outline of a neo-peasant future.

My last post on these matters earned me accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve tried here not to claim to be anything that I’m not, but if I’ve failed I apologise. The longer I’ve farmed, the less certain I’ve become of how best to do it. When it comes to farming skills, I don’t think I’m necessarily the sharpest blade on the power harrow, so maybe Rick and those permaculturists who’ve told me that I’ll ‘never understand permaculture’ are right. But nemesis lurks in even the funkiest of gardens…

Anyway, my challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to advocate for a given type of agroecosystem is this:

  • Can you provide a sufficient account of its input and output costs relative to other systems that you disfavour for you to convince yourself (and, more importantly, others) that it’s unambiguously superior?
  • Can you examine your heart and be sure that there is no ego or self-aggrandizement in your analysis?

I think that’s a tough challenge. I’m not sure I’m equal to it. But I aim to give it a go.


  1. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton Univ Press.
  1. Grime, JP. 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes and Ecosystem Properties. John Wiley.
  1. Boltanski, L. & Esquerre, A. 2016. ‘The economic life of things’ New Left Review, 98: 31-54.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.

Lead us not into temptation: of Trump, Brexit and the wrong kind of populism

I had to recite the Lord’s Prayer at school every day for ten years, and have never spoken it since. But for my sermon today I’d like to elaborate a theme from one of its lines – “lead us not into temptation”.

The temptation to which I refer is voting for populist political candidates. Perhaps that will surprise long-term readers of this blog, who will be familiar with my enthusiasm for agrarian populism. So let me qualify the statement by paraphrasing that hapless British Rail spokesperson from many years ago who justified the company’s inability to deal with inclement weather by saying that the railways were afflicted by “the wrong kind of snow”. What I mean to say, then, is that it can be tempting to endorse the “wrong kind of populism” – the kind of populism with which you disagree, but are inclined to support anyway just in order to shake up a political status quo dominated for too long by what Susan Watkins nicely calls “the cartel parties of the extreme centre”. It’s a temptation that I think is best resisted.

For this reason, I’ve been slightly puzzled by John Michael Greer’s recent posts on the US presidential primaries. I think Greer is a perceptive and thoughtful writer, and though I can’t claim any great local expertise in the matter of US politics, it seems to me his argument is exactly right that Donald Trump’s rise draws from a wellspring of anger among an excluded working class who have borne the brunt of the neoliberal policies pursued by successive Republican and Democratic governments. However, Greer’s posts seem to involve more schadenfreude at the discomfort of established opinion in the face of Trump’s rise than any kind of sober analysis of what a Trump presidency might entail. It seems to me that a man who has gold-plated seatbelt buckles in his private jet is less likely to articulate the frustrations of the excluded classes than to manipulate them. The historical lesson of earlier populisms – not least in the USA – is that a just and radical ‘populism for the people’ has to guard carefully against co-optation by carpetbaggers with more sinister intentions.

Anyway, I have no say in the outcome of the US election so let me leave that thought right there. I do have a say in the forthcoming referendum on a British exit from the EU, where exactly the same dangers present themselves. Therefore I’d like to outline why I’m tempted to vote for Brexit, and why I probably won’t.

So first up, here are my five reasons for wanting to vote out:

  1. Many people in Britain like to hark back to the days when the country was the dominant global superpower. They think that Britain is still an important country in world affairs, whose influence is being diluted by its status as just another EU member. The truth is that Britain is not an important country in world affairs, and the only real global muscle it has comes through its EU membership. This would become swiftly apparent in the event of Brexit, enabling us finally to move on from the legacy of the past and get busy creating a less haughty and self-absorbed society.
  1. Britain’s major earner of foreign exchange is its financial services sector, which is not a positive force in the world and allows us to live beyond our means. It’s quite likely that the sector would take a heavy hit in the event of Brexit, which might allow us to recalibrate our way of life to local possibilities and maybe benefit the wider world too.
  1. Presently, fully half the EU’s entire budget is devoted to an absurd agricultural subsidy regimen. Ordinary, small-scale and family farmers are not the beneficiaries of this regimen and as far as I’m concerned they deserve every penny they can squeeze from it. Nevertheless, the Common Agricultural Policy is a disaster – not the least of its many failings is that it acts as a hugely regressive negative tax that rewards retailers, middlemen, self-righteous consumerism and wealthy landowners. Less than 1% of the UK population are farmers, but around £4 billion of agricultural subsidies are paid out in Britain. This is pretty much the way the British government wants it – it unerringly lobbies for CAP policies which suit the interests of larger-scale and corporate agricultural interests. Nevertheless, as things stand it can claim with some justification that its hands are tied by labyrinthine EU structures. Not so if Britain were fully independent and the government continued doling out billions to a small group of its landowning chums while cutting public services elsewhere. I find it hard to see how such a generous subsidy regimen propping up the agricultural status quo would be politically feasible long-term in a post-EU Britain, and I think that would ultimately be good for smaller-scale farmers engaged in longer term thinking than the subsidy-fuelled inefficiencies of present large-scale agriculture, and probably good for the populace as a whole.
  1. The fallout from Brexit and the straitened circumstances resulting from it would lead to enormous conflict in the Conservative Party. What’s bad for the Conservative Party is usually good for Britain.
  1. The EU is an undemocratic and quite possibly unreformable cabal of corporate interests and unscrupulous power-mongers. So is the UK government to be honest, but at least they’re our unscrupulous power-mongers. Perhaps we can keep a shorter leash on them here at home.

And here are my four reasons for staying in:

  1. Most of my reasons for supporting Brexit turn upon the notion that it’ll act like a good hard slap in the face to puncture our present hysterical illusions and bring us back to earth. But there’s a good chance that in fact it’ll only lead to more and worse hysterical illusions. And if you think that’s not possible, I have only two words to say to you: Donald Trump.
  1. Here are some more two-worders that ought to scare anybody into voting to stay in: Boris Johnson; Nigel Farage; Michael Gove; Iain Duncan-Smith. OK, so the last one’s a three-worder, but that’s the Tory party for you, eh?
  1. To put that last point more discursively, there’s a danger that with another four years of a Conservative Government almost guaranteed, at this particular political juncture a Brexit vote will put power into the hands of a dreadful right-wing rabble who will make the present government seem like the epitome of caring, centrist, compassionate conservatism. George Monbiot and Miles King have written persuasively on the disasters awaiting agricultural and environmental policy in the event of Brexit. Those disasters would likely ramify across all policy areas in a Brexit-rebooted Tory government. Paul Mason put it best – “Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island….So even for those who support the leftwing case for Brexit, it is sensible to argue: not now.”
  1. Finally, much of the public debate about the referendum has turned upon an often borderline racist obsession with immigration. I think there are genuine issues that need to be addressed nationally and internationally about the nature of migration, in service of the migrants’ interests as much (in fact more) than anything else. But they will not be addressed by a post-EU UK unilaterally tightening its border control policies, which I doubt will be effective anyway. And in the meantime, I don’t want to give the slightest ammunition to those who would infer from the size of the Brexit vote some kind of blanket opposition to immigration.


So I think my conclusion is that while it’s tempting to vote for Brexit, I won’t be doing so. I want to play my part in building a proper, egalitarian, producerist populism. And this is a long-term project that will not be helped by jumping on the Brexit bandwagon. So I agree with Mason’s ‘not now’ approach. But his final paragraph highlighting the rise of extreme right-wing and anti-immigration parties in Europe is thought-provoking:

“The EU, politically, begins to look more and more like a gerrymandered state, where the politically immature electorates of eastern Europe can be used – as Louis Napoleon used the French peasantry – as a permanent obstacle to liberalism and social justice. If so – even though the political conditions for a left Brexit are absent today – I will want out soon.”

The reference to the French peasantry has obvious if rather complex resonances with the case for a contemporary agrarian populism – an issue for another post, perhaps. More straightforwardly, I guess it’s a case of wanting to stay in the EU for now in order to build a left-wing populism that will truly give us this day our daily bread, with the possibility of wanting to leave pretty soon in order to deliver us from evil. I might just have to start praying again.


I wrote a lengthy piece about modernism in my last post. Then I drafted another lengthy piece about its critical implications for so-called ‘ecomodernism’, which became so lengthy that it turned into two posts. Then I read over them, and felt – bored.

So it’s probably time to move on from ecomodernism. But there’s a little bit of unfinished business to unfurl in this post before starting on something else. I may even need to spend some time actually farming soon (there’s ewes to lamb and seeds to sow), as well as putting in some research time for my next cycle of posts, so the pace may have to slacken.

Anyway – Unfinished business #1: I got some great feedback to my last post here on SFF, and at and via New York academic Anthony Galluzzo’s site. Constructive, engaged criticism – the blogosphere at its best. I’d argued with the help of the late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air1 that agrarian populism – that is, the localist politics of a neo-peasant small farm movement – is not anti-modern, nostalgic or backward-looking but on the contrary is thoroughly modernist in its willingness to abandon the weight of tradition accumulated through the history of capitalist development, and to chart alternative paths to sustainability and social justice. The criticisms that came back to me mostly hinged on a sense that I was over-extending the concept of modernism and effacing its negatives. Reasonable points, calling me back to my more sceptical pre-Berman take on modernism. But I still think Berman opens interesting ways of seeing how contemporary politics – including the green, leftist and agrarian populist politics with which I’m most engaged – have to develop more subtle narratives about history and human agency than they typically do. I hope to come back to this at a later date.

Unfinished business #2: I received some other interesting feedback recently. In my critical post on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future, I implied that their analysis was more ‘grownup’ than that of Leigh Phillips in the latter’s book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts. Srnicek messaged me back, writing “Thanks for the considered thoughts here”. Phillips also messaged me back, writing: “Twig-munching reactionary”. Then he added “I’m only replying to your ‘critique’ that mine is not a ‘grown-up’ argument”.

It’s a sweet thing when you put a tentative hypothesis out into the world and then get the solid proof of it zinging right back at you, and I should probably rest my case right there. But I’d like to probe just a little more at the world-according-to-Phillips in order to wrap up my ecomodernist theme for the time being. Mr Phillips has been promising for a while to write a refutation of my critical commentary on his oeuvre without, to my knowledge, coming up with the goods, so I hereby invite him to do so in a guest essay that I’ll happily host at Small Farm Future. His writing exemplifies what I consider to be various failings of the techno-fixer and/or ‘ecomodernist’ worldview. I’d like to offer a quick two-part overview.

Part I: Ecomodernism as retro-modernism

It strikes me that ecomodernism and techno-fixer approaches generally find a receptive audience among vaguely left and vaguely green folks who worry (albeit vaguely) about the sustainability of our present civilizational course and are therefore predisposed to be positive about local food, organic farming, renewable energy etc. without looking into the issues too deeply or thinking much about how life might change if such approaches were generalised. Works like the Ecomodernist Manifesto or Austerity Ecology are reassuring to them in their business-as-usual-but-raise-up-the-poor-while-defeating-climate-change-while-we’re-about-it optimism (optimism/pessimism is another problematic contemporary duality in the modernism/primitivism mould). To the uninitiated, ecomodernism reveals itself as a fresh new critique of localism, organics etc.

But it’s not a fresh new critique. As I’ve argued in more detail elsewhere2, the ecomodernist critique of localism, agroecology, energy descent etc is superficial, and the alternative narratives it mobilises are not new but are grounded in older liberal, neoliberal and communist modernisation movements which are now manifestly problematic. They involve a psychological flight from seeking an authentic self in favour of a self-overcoming Übermensch3, they involve a notion of modernity as a solidly achieved state rather than a provisional construct apt at any moment to melt into the air; and they involve, too, the notion of modernity as a one-size-fits-all technological culture to be spread by outmoded neo-colonial and/or Fordist means. In all these ways, I’d argue that ecomodernism is retro-modernism – less alive, less open to the changes and possibilities in the world, less modern, than the localism and the ‘folk politics’ that it derides as primitivist, romantic or backward-looking.

These retro-modernist leanings are disguised to casual readings of the main ecomodernist texts, but are not hard to discern (by ‘disguised’ I don’t mean in a deliberate, conspiratorial way – rather, they figure as an implicit set of unexamined assumptions). The disguised leanings of the ecomodernism associated with the Ecomodernist Manifesto and the Breakthrough Institute are towards neoliberalism (I’ll take the BTI’s professed pro-poor narrative more seriously when it campaigns as vociferously on green boxes as on golden rice). And the disguised leaning of Phillips’ Austerity Ecology is towards Bolshevism.

Part II: Ecomodernism as Bolshevism

Let me illustrate that briefly. Phillips stridently denounces Bolshevism and I don’t doubt that he feels as genuinely opposed to the excesses of the Bolshevik regime as anyone. Indeed, I think ecomodernism in its various incarnations is usually a genuine attempt to reckon with the problems of social justice and sustainability we face in the contemporary world. It’s just that its retro-modernism reconstitutes the problems it’s trying to redress so its solutions become self-undermining. In Phillips’ case, his arguments rest implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, on so many commonplaces of communist/Bolshevik ideology that it seems hard not to locate his analysis within communist retro-modernism, and hard to imagine how a political programme based on it would avoid the excesses of that ideology.

I wrote a more detailed critique of Phillips’ political theory, such as it is, elsewhere4. Here I just want to identify in short form the five main Bolshevik elements I discern in it.

  1. ‘Democracy’ – Phillips invokes democracy as a kind of deus ex machina to right the wrongs of contemporary global governance, but provides no account of what such a democracy would look like, and no account of what the political communities it’s organised within would look like either. This was also a failing in Marx (cf. Berman: “Marx never developed a theory of political community…this is a serious problem”5). The omission haunts the history of communism, and underlies the problem of democracy in places such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, neither of which have ever been conspicuously democratic. In Phillips’ democracy “all economic actions occur as a result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society”6, a strong utilitarianism of the kind which is notoriously ruthless towards minorities and pariah groups. I fear the democracy of Mr Phillips very much.
  1. Global government – But there would be no escaping it, because Phillips aims for a single global socialist government. This would return us to good old-fashioned communist orthodoxy – the orthodoxy of Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Lenin that sought a global communist revolution, before Stalin gave up the ghost with his unambitious ‘socialism in one country’. According to Phillips, a global government is necessary to foster the rational decision-making demanded by the severity of the problems we face – at which point, his democracy really does start to look rather GDR-like.
  1. Big kit – And let it not be said that Phillips’ programme lacks for ambition. He quotes what he calls the “continent-straddling ambition” of the old left, approvingly citing Lenin: “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country”7. You could doubtless argue that breakneck Soviet industrial development brought benefits to an underdeveloped country. You could also argue that indeed it broke a lot of necks – mostly those of peasants, who bore the brunt of the country’s modernization, and in some respects still do. In the face of Phillips’ enthusiasm for what he calls ‘big kit’ solutions to global problems, I find Berman’s a more salutary voice: “Millions of people have been victimized by disastrous development policies, megalomaniacally conceived, shoddily and insensitively executed, which in the end have developed little but the rulers’ own fortunes and powers”8. As energy and climate crises loom, sadly I think we can expect to see many more such grandiose projects, delivering less than they promise, and quite possibly less even than their antecedents achieved, while clothing themselves in a techno-modernist rhetoric that’s contemptuous of humbler, less chancy, more sustainable and less grandiloquent ambitions. Phillips’ writing no doubt gives a foretaste of what’s to come, as does Graham Strouts’ enthusiasm for the idea of Hinkley C as compared to EDF’s unenthusiasm for its actuality.
  1. The working class: Phillips espouses another old-fangled orthodoxy about Marx’s ‘new-fangled men’, which was crude enough in Marx’s own writing and further debased by the Bolsheviks, namely that the proletariat is the privileged historical subject: “the working class is not just the liberator of itself, but of all mankind. It is the universal class”9. But the proletariat that emerges from Phillips’ pages is shallow, censorious, materially-oriented, pleasure-seeking and status-obsessed – basically indistinguishable from the capitalist bourgeoisies it supposedly replaces. Peasants have never really fitted into the ‘universal class’ rhetoric of vulgar Marxists, who generally like to speak for them and tell them what they ought to want: “It takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to be able to romanticise the hard-knock life of the peasant. The peasant would trade places with the gentleman horticulturist – or, more latterly, the Stoke Newington subscriber to Modern Farmer magazine – any day”10. It also takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to ignore the fact that the Bolsheviks built their regime substantially on the back of peasant rebellion and then, believing they knew what peasants really wanted and what was of ‘maximum utility to society’, returned the favour by murderously expropriating them. Peasants are too often written out of history by soi disant sympathisers who don’t want to romanticise them.
  1. The terror: And finally there’s Phillips’ taste for a mode of discourse that deals in archetypes rather than arguments, and sometimes doesn’t seem a million miles away from hate speech. So I, for example, am dismissed as a “twig-munching reactionary” while others figure as an “army of tattooed-and-bearded, twelve-dollar-farmers’-market-marmalade-smearing, kale-bothering, latter-day Lady Bracknells”11. And so on. I suppose there’s a danger of taking this all a bit too seriously, but then what are the implications? That Phillips’ analysis isn’t serious? It seems clear that he thinks it is – in which case I’d have to say that the way he engages his foes is…serious. Hacks with literary skills of this sort did a roaring trade in the 1930s, writing prepared confessions for show trials and anti-kulak posters. I hope they never get anywhere near political power again. If they do, I wouldn’t bet against me finding myself in a court some day confessing my degenerate kulak praetorian fascism. Until then, I plan to call it as I see it. Not everything Phillips writes sounds Bolshevik, but for me there’s a preening, self-regarding character to much of it that’s redolent of historic communist autocracy. It traduces the subtlety and variety of socialist traditions into rigid, bombastic certainties. And if it were to be realised politically, it would make the world a more frightening, more repressive and indeed a less sustainable place. Or, to quote from Anthony Galluzzo’s splendid piece of invective, Phillips uses “a Stalinoid rhetoric of productivism” involving a “cult of quantitative production-technological development and outputs-while reifying (rather than abolishing) the worker”. Quite so. This is old, old wine. Not even the bottles look that new.

But I think I’ve pretty much said my piece. Phillips has been promising for some time to unmask my innumerate arguments, and to provide the evidence to prove I’m wrong (another worrying ecomodernist tic, as if sifting different political philosophies and orientations to what human life is all about is simply a matter of ‘evidence’). He refers to my “blud-und-boden doom-mongering” which particularly intrigues me – I’d very much like to know what I’ve written that invites the Blud und Boden tag. Actually, I doubt Phillips has read much of what I’ve written. I think he just prefers the dualities of the propagandist – if it’s not standard modernist/rationalist fare then it must be anti-modernist/Blud-und-Boden reaction. In my eyes, what he calls my doom-mongering is a positive vision for a just and sustainable neo-agrarian future. Anyway, I’d be interested to read a genuine critique from him. Well, he knows how to contact me. Leigh, the next blog post is yours for the taking…


  1. Berman, M. 1982. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso.
  1. For example here. And here. And here. And here.
  1. cf. Berman op cit, p.42.
  1. ‘From growth economics to home economics’ – available here.
  1. Berman op cit, p.128.
  1. Phillips, L. 2015. Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Zero Books, p.227.
  1. Ibid p.189.
  1. Berman op cit, p.77.
  1. Phillips op cit, p.153.
  1. Ibid, p.252.
  1. Ibid, pp.92-3.

Peasantization as modernization – an alternative ecomodernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, in the words of Goethe’s Faust,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S&W write,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pertaining to peasants

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final post of 2015. And what a year it’s been. We’ve battled with the over-optimism of perennial grain breeders, ecomodernists and perennial polyculture proponents. We’ve been endorsed by George Monbiot, chastised by Tom Merchant, dismissed by the Land Institute, ridiculed by the Breakthrough Institute and publicised by the good folks at We’ve had spinoff articles in The Land, in the august academic journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, at Dark Mountain and at Statistics Views. We’ve even managed to sell some vegetables, raise some livestock, and harvest some wood for the winter. And, despite losing some commenters on this site for our anti-growth pessimism, we end the year optimistic about the growth in the number of comments. We’ve also had our first financial donations to the site (button on the top right, if you’re infused with the Christmas spirit…)

I’d really like to thank everyone who’s visited the site, and even more to those who’ve taken the trouble to comment – especially valued regulars like Clem, Brian, Vera, Ruben, Jahi, David, Andy, John and, um, anyone else I may have forgotten. And that goes for Paul, too, who is with us in spirit. I’ve learned a lot from all of you and I hope you’ll keep visiting. I read every comment on the site, though I’m finding that I don’t always have the time to reply. But I sincerely appreciate the input of everyone who stops by.

Well now, I’ve been cranking out the writing recently and have a few more seasonal offerings for the small farm connoisseur – an article over at called ‘From growth economics to home economics: towards a peasant socialism’ continuing my engagement with Leigh Phillips’ book which, as Brian rightly says, is a gift that keeps on giving. And I think I’ll have a piece next week on the Dark Mountain blog about the COP21 agreement in Paris. I’ll also be at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in, er, Oxford on 6-7 January, talking about peasants among other things. Since peasants are looming rather large in my writing at the moment, and since there are some things that trouble me slightly about the concept, I think I’ll end the year with a few remarks on a peasanty theme.

Earlier in the year, I read the late Daniel Nugent’s book Spent Cartridges of Revolution about the agrarian history of Chihuahua. In it, he made the point that the better off farmers in his study region were happy to embrace the term campesino as a self-identifier, whereas poorer farmers, recoiling from its negative connotations, would never dream of doing so, preferring to call themselves agricultores (farmers). That made me stop to think about my own motivations for identifying with the ‘peasant’ term. Is there an element of pretension involved? Or is it OK for middle-class folks to reappropriate it? Pejorative ethnic and sexual labels have similarly been reappropriated – I’d guess most often by people who for whatever reason don’t feel so hurt by the negative histories of the terms. Still, there’s undoubtedly a class dimension here which shouldn’t be erased. Peasant groups like La Via Campesina and the Landworkers’ Alliance, of which I’m a member, have been criticised on these grounds, and certainly one of the political fault lines in agrarian populism strongly (over?)-emphasised by Marxists is the class tensions between so-called ‘poor’, ‘middle’ and ‘rich’ peasants.

Another problem of course is those negative connotations. It interests me that my fellow speakers at the ORFC from central Europe describe the idea of peasant farming, however remote from contemporary life, as something that provides people with “feelings of existential security, an eternal constant within society”. Whereas in the Anglophone world I’d say the mood is more “thank God we’re not peasants any more – you’re not telling me you seriously want to go back to all that, are you?”, as indeed was the gist of one or two of the comments beneath my recent Resilience piece. So, contrary to the reappropriation position, a counter-argument is that anyone who uses the word ‘peasant’ as part of a vision for the future is immediately hobbling themselves with a whole bunch of unnecessary negative baggage, a point which I can find some sympathy for.

The recent debate between Giorgos Kallis and Kate Raworth on the use of the term ‘degrowth’ covered a lot of similar ground to the preceding point. I can see both sides of the argument, though ultimately I find myself more persuaded by Giorgos. I think there’s a bit too much pussyfooting around trying to find inoffensive terms for ideas that in fact are very radical, and on balance I favour some peasant bluntness in calling a spade a spade while agitating for a small farm future, despite recognising the political risks of doing so.

One problem I have is that I can’t think of another term that’ll do the job. ‘Smallholder farmer’ or small-scale farmer are OK as far as they go, and in fact I’d like to claim the term ‘farmer’ back from the large-scale, mechanised, so-called ‘conventional’ crew for the free use of anyone who so much as grows some pot herbs on an inner-city windowsill. I’d like everybody to ‘farm’ in that sense and assume it a dereliction of civic duty not to do so, much as drink-driving or chucking food in landfill is now sanctioned. ‘Oh, you don’t farm?’ people might say, disapprovingly surveying an empty windowsill in an urban apartment. How I wish. But the problem with the term, especially when it’s applied to existing peasant societies, is the way it smuggles in a commercial premise. A peasant is somebody who first of all produces food and other necessaries for themselves and their family, whereas a ‘smallholder farmer’ is someone who produces cash crops for market, and often rather fancy niche ones. I don’t mind debating the optimum balance between self-provisioning and marketing, but I think it’s critical to hang on to the distinction between the two in order to found more just and sustainable agrarian futures.

So there you have it – a fine Christmas present from you to me would be to furnish me with a serviceable term to replace the P word.

It only remains for me to wish anyone reading this a happy Christmas and new year if such things have meaning for you and – if they don’t – well then, a happy next few weeks until I update this site again probably in mid January with more peerless ponderings on the prospects for promoting peasantries…or whatever other term you may send my way.

Goldilocks in the Highlands: some notes on scaling resilience

A recent visit to the Scottish Highlands prompted some thoughts on several favoured themes of mine: the resilience or otherwise of local economies grounded in small-scale agricultural production, problems of migration as featured in a recent post, and questions concerning ‘modernization’ and economic development. So let’s take a brief tour around the Highlands and their history to help muse on the topic of a small farm future.

Perhaps the first thing a southerner notices on the long drive north is the narrowing of the roads and the thinning of the population. In many of the Highland glens there’s little but shooting estates and a few, very extensively raised sheep. But you don’t need to be much of an expert on Scottish history to know that these places were once more heavily peopled by poor, small-scale, subsistence-oriented tenant farmers, who left the land in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – sometimes willingly, sometimes not, in the process known as the Highland clearances.

It wasn’t as if the life of the poor Highland tenant was a bundle of laughs. As in the better known case of Ireland, when the potato harvest failed the small tenantry suffered, or starved. With population rising in the 18th century and relatively little in the way of industry the region fell into what clearance historian Eric Richards calls a ‘Malthusian trap’1. High wool prices and low land prices in the Highlands relative to the rest of Britain enticed commercial sheep farmers from the south willing to pay higher rents for exclusive, enclosed land than the small tenantry could possibly afford from their mostly subsistence farming. Thus was their fate sealed.

The idea of ‘clearing’ an inefficient peasantry to make way for more efficient large-scale farming has a long pedigree and lot of modern resonance. But a 21st century perspective on farming in the Highlands surely complicates that line of reasoning. After the (usually) self-supporting small tenants came the capitalist sheep farmers, but after wool prices collapsed in the mid-19th century came…not much. For all that we hear about the huge technological strides made by modern agriculture, it seems likely that upland agriculture in the Highlands is producing less now than in the days of the pre-clearance tenantry. Developments in agriculture since the clearances are certainly impressive, but it’s easy to forget how little they’ve overcome the basic dictates of soil and climate which still make the Highlands marginal for arable agriculture.

The small Highland tenantry made arable agriculture work there because they had few other options, which underscores another easily forgotten point – human labour is a farm input like few others for increasing productivity. Doubtless not many of us today would wish for the life of an 18th century Highland tenant, but it’s hard to gainsay what labour can achieve – worth bearing in mind when people say things like “organic farming can’t feed the world”, while invariably assuming existing levels of per hectare labour input.

Another aspect of this is something that I suspect is quite widespread in the larger historical contest of capital and peasantry. Whenever land farmed by primarily subsistence cultivators becomes attractive to primarily commercial farmers, the latter will generally gain control of it sooner or later because of the rents they can afford. So in mixed subsistence-commercial economies (that is, in virtually every peasant economy in the modern world), chances are the peasants have worse land – another point worth bearing in mind when farm productivities are compared.

In view of all of this it’s necessary, I think, to specify ‘efficiency’ very carefully when we compare peasant with commercial agriculture. Richards writes

“The old peasant agriculture was not only palpably less competitive, it was equally a waste of the region’s resources and could not even provide the people themselves with a decent secure livelihood” (p.409)

Yet a few pages later he says,

“more remarkable than the persistence of famine was the sheer survival of so many people in such difficult circumstances: it was tribute to the food value (per pound, per acre, and per man-hour) of the potato, and also to the observable fortitude and communal resilience of the people themselves” (p.416)

On the face of it, these two comments seem rather contradictory. But perhaps they’re not – the peasant agriculture was certainly less fiscally competitive than capitalist sheep farming. In terms of generating income to pay their landlords’ rent, a contemporary noted that the peasant system of farming

“cannot furnish them with the means of paying him one fourth, and in some situations not more than a tenth of the value of his land….and all must be scraped up among the poor, meagre tenants, in twos and threes of silly lambs, hens and pounds of butter” (Richards, p.144)

So it’s easy to understand why the landlords preferred the tenancy of a single large-scale commercial sheep farmer than multiple peasant tenancies. But were the peasants really ‘wasting’ the region’s resources? Only if you consider regional resources not in terms of what food and other produce the land can provide but in terms of what money it can generate, and this indeed was precisely the change in attitude that the clearances were signalling. If you think in terms of the productivity of the land, then I suspect the silly lambs and hens would have it.

In order to consider land resources in purely fiscal terms, it was necessary for the Highlands to be more closely linked to a wider economy, and again this was the larger economic story of the clearances. On the landlord side, the English broke the independence of Highland lords from the wider sweep of the British economy after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 (I say ‘the English’ rather than ‘we English’ because most of my ancestors were still on their way to the metropole from Scotland and Eastern Europe at the time – another migrant story). Economic integration brought money into the Highlands from English industrialists, Scottish colonial adventurers in India, the commercial sheep farmers of northern England and, later on, the world’s super-rich like Andrew Carnegie, seeking picturesque sporting estates.

On the tenant side, a mixed agriculture of cattle and subsistence cropping produced cattle exports in return for supplementary grain, at a much lower level of capitalisation than the sheep farmers furnished. And when the inevitable happened and the mixed cattle/arable lost out to sheep, British integration with its colonies provided destinations for the exiting small tenantry in places as far flung as Nova Scotia and Australia. It also provided destinations as near flung as the Highland coastline, where many landlords attempted to resettle their upland tenants in the guise of commercial fishermen or proletarian labourers in other industrial ventures. But these attempts to industrialise the Highlands very rarely worked. As Richards notes, “In the long run there were secular trends in the British economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions” (p.193).

Scaling resilience

The apparently contradictory notion that the Highland peasantry was both resilient and insecure reflects different ways of scaling resilience. I’d venture to say that, as individuals, the people of a Highland peasant hamlet were probably more resilient than most of us today could dream of, partly because of their practical skills and partly because of their expectations of life. But, as a society, their way of life wasn’t very resilient – they were too close to the margins of subsistence, too under-capitalised, too poorly connected to other, less local resources that might have enabled them to ride out the consequences of a poor harvest.

The result of greater economic integration, however, wasn’t an improvement in their resilience but their elimination – in other words, the familiar course of ‘agricultural improvement’ in which peasantries are replaced by more fiscally productive, but probably less nutritionally productive, methods of farming. According to agricultural improver ideology, because the new farming system and the erstwhile peasants it’s replaced are better linked to a wider and more capitalised economy everyone benefits, including the erstwhile peasants, who are able to find better paid jobs elsewhere in the economy. That was certainly one part of the story of the clearances – especially for those who left the Highlands for the south, or for Canada or Australia.

But Richards states that it took five generations before the reduced population remaining in the Highlands enjoyed better living standards, and not usually through any particular benevolence on the part of the ‘improvers’. How do we scale that at the level of the individual life? Further, he documents the fierce struggles against clearance put up by many among the Highland peasantry. Projecting such struggles forward into the present day when exactly the same arguments for agricultural ‘improvement’ are made, I’d say that it takes a certain level of city-dwelling privilege forgetful of the tribulations of dispossession to be able to romanticise the hard road to economic improvement, or to assume that the uncertain path of proletarianization is one that peasants always willingly embrace2. And in a present day context, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the opportunities for ‘improvement’ available to the dispossessed peasants essentially involved emigrating to relatively unpopulated areas in distant parts of the world where the indigenous inhabitants themselves were in the process of being ‘cleared’.

In 1886, the Crofters’ Holdings Act finally gave security of tenure to many of the remaining small farmers, partly as a result of an emerging public sphere of national communications of the kind Benedict Anderson identified as crucial to the development of nationalism in his influential book Imagined Communities. The public, it turned out, was more sympathetic to the small farmers than it was to the engrossing landowners, to the extent that a mythology of Highland ‘genocide’ has built up around the whole episode down to the present. Richards and other modern historians are properly circumspect about feeding this mythology, but sometimes veer into the contestable territory of improver ideology, as when Richards criticises the Crofters’ Act as a “vindication of the peasant mentality” which fossilised a small farm landscape, entrenched the power of a conservative minority over a progressive majority, and “failed to establish the conditions for economic progress for the crofters” (pp.386-7). While sympathetic to the plight of the peasantry, Richards concludes,

“The critics of Highlands landlords still generally fail to give substance to their denunciations by specifying plausible alternatives for the region in the age of the clearances” (p.418)

Goldilocks in the Highlands

Far be it from me, with no expertise in Highlands history, to propose I can meet that challenge. But I’d like to have a go, not so much as a specific claim about what could have happened in the Highlands in the 19th century, but as a more general claim about alternatives to the standard narrative of ‘agricultural improvement’.

Let me broach the issues by reiterating the point I made above: the problem for the peasantry prior to the clearances was that they weren’t well enough connected to a wider economy to avoid privation, whereas their problem during the clearances was that they’d become too well connected to a wider economy to avoid dispossession. So might there have been a ‘Goldilocks’ level of economic integration – not too little, and not too much, but just the right amount that could have permitted the persistence of a more prosperous peasantry? That may now be an academic question in the case of the Highland clearances, but I don’t think it is in the context of agrarian questions in the contemporary world. For people like me who are sceptical of claims that large commercial farms are necessarily better than small peasant farms on the grounds of either agricultural productivity or social equality, these issues are very much alive. Especially when there are no longer ‘blanks’ on the map to migrate to, and where economic marginalization is now a global experience. Or, to paraphrase Richards, in the long run there were secular trends in the global economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions (which is just about everywhere).

My initial response to the question of a Goldilocks economy is ‘no’. It’s not about the relative geography of economic integration, it’s about class and inequality. Discussing the even more dramatically polarised situation in 19th century Ireland, Richards writes “short of making the land over to the people (which may have been an answer), it is difficult to imagine exactly what a landlord should have done” (p.76).

So in Ireland, making the land over to the people may have been an answer, which reveals the landlord perspective written into the way that Richards construes the Scottish situation. I’m not sure how much of the available cultivable land the peasantry had, but talk of a Malthusian trap seems moot until you know the balance of landlord/tenant holdings. Of course, the landlords were never going to voluntarily extinguish themselves as a class in this way (though eventually they were pretty much extinguished anyway). So in this sense after 1746 they formed a class alliance with wider British landed and capitalist interests against the local small tenantry, who had virtually no legal redress against landlord power. But supposing instead they’d formed an alliance with the tenantry, reformed the structure of landownership, kept most of the non-local capital out and redeployed the existing capital across the farm sector on the basis of a kind of progressive Highland agrarian nationalism. I’m thinking of the sort that would go easy on the tartan and Walter Scott kitsch, and focus more on defending a path of local economic development.

As in the example of the Crofters’ Act, such a development would undoubtedly have reduced the net fiscal returns to landownership, invoked the fury of outside capitalist investors with their eye on the region and prompted the kind of difficult local conflicts between small farm conservatism and the ‘improver’ urge to engross that Richards alludes to. For all these reasons, it’s easy to see why such autonomist economic programmes so rarely succeed. And I acknowledge that in a place like the Highlands even that may not have been enough to solve the problem of the peasantry and capitalise it adequately. But I think it may have been, provided people were prepared to share in solidarity a way of life that was more frugal, but better grounded in the enduring potentialities of the region than the rackety booms and busts prompted by outside money. In less geographically challenging regions, the opportunities are greater.

In that sense, I think the Crofting Act in its broad essentials was probably spot on. And I think we could do with some parallel legislation the world over today, instead of sending capital – and to a lesser extent, people – on all sorts of crazy adventures around the world in the search to maximise returns, at considerable net cost to human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. To do so, I think we probably do need some Goldilocks thinking, because it’s not the way that big, continent-wide states conduct themselves. Scotland’s independence referendum was perhaps an early salvo in the Goldilocks war to come.

We also need class alliances. The landlord-peasant conjunction of 19th century Scotland has long passed into history, but perhaps there’s scope for the contemporary middle and working classes to unite regionally around their declining fortunes in opposition to the rising and internationalising fortunes of the super-rich, as in the Occupy movement’s “we are the 99%” slogan – another tussle that may only be getting started. I can see that kind of alliance going in two broad directions – a defensive and deluded populism seeking riches out of techno-fantasies, boom-time nostalgia and scapegoatism, or a regionalist but non-chauvinist agrarian populism grounded soberly in the capacities of the land and the people living on it to create an enduring sustenance. I aim to back the latter.


  1. Most of the historical information here is derived from Richards, E. (2013) The Highland Clearances, Birlinn. I’ve also consulted Wightman, A. (2010) The Poor Had No Lawyers, Birlinn; and, Davidson, N. (2004) “The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture 2: The Capitalist Offensive (1747–1815)” Journal of Agrarian Change, 4, 4: 411–460.
  1. OK, so this is a playful reverse paraphrase of Leigh Phillips Austerity Ecology, Zero Books, p.252. I think the often fierce historic resistance to enclosure and proletarianization by peasantries rebukes the lazy generalization so often found within agricultural improver ideologies (such as ecomodernism) that peasant farmers always want to quit.

The persistence of the peasantry: further notes on the inverse productivity relationship

Look, I’m really, really sorry. I said I wasn’t going to write another blog post about ecomodernism but – no, no, please don’t go! This post strikes to the heart of what Small Farm Future is all about, and raises some interesting agricultural issues – the fact that it also engages with the ecomodernism debate is almost incidental, really. And I promise some other stuff next up. Just bear with me one last time.

So first a brief summary of my ecomodernism wars to date: the ‘ecomodernists’ brought out their Manifesto in April; I wrote a critique of it that was published on the Dark Mountain website in July; Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute wrote a critique of my critique on Twitter, to which I responded with a follow up essay; to Mike’s hot denial, I described ‘ecomodernism’ as ‘neoliberalism with a green veneer’; Mike came to Britain to help Mark Lynas launch ecomodernism over here, but somehow the veneer slipped off on its journey across the Atlantic, and the two of them found themselves sharing a platform with those well-known environmentalists Owen Paterson and Matt Ridley, much to Mark Lynas’s later regret. Meanwhile, George Monbiot wrote a critical article in The Guardian about ecomodernism, to which Ted Nordhaus, Mike Shellenberger and Linus Blomqvist wrote a critical response. And Mark Lynas exchanged a couple of remarkably polite comments with me. Few dead yet.

But let us now home in on the issues raised by George Monbiot in his Guardian article with which Nordhaus et al (henceforth NSB) take issue, concerning small farm productivity and agrarian development. Monbiot made three main points:

  1. The ecomodernists claim that small-scale farming in poor countries is unproductive, but while its labour productivity is low its productivity per unit area is often higher than larger scale farming
  2. The ecomodernists favour engrossment of small farms and the redeployment of their labour into urban industrial employments, but where those employments are scarce the result is insecurity and underemployment. The advantage of low labour productivity is that where work is scarce and people are many, it can help distribute available income more equitably.
  3. The emerging dominance of Asian economies such as China was achieved by first building up a strong, surplus-producing peasant economy, not by destroying that economy in favour of top-down industrialisation.

The counter-critique by NSB focused largely on point 1, touched a little on point 2, and ignored point 3 altogether. I’ll come back to this. For now, let me quote their counter-critique directly, albeit with some elisions:

“…the relevant comparison is not between small farms and slightly larger ones in poor countries. It is between smallholder farms in developing nations and farms of any size in developed nations….

Yield gaps between farmers in rich nations and those in poor countries are profound. US farmers harvest five times more per hectare than African farmers in maize and more than three times in rice.

….In poor nations, the lack of access to alternative livelihoods for large rural populations is the reason that labor is cheap and relatively high yields can be achieved on very small farms….But any nature and land-sparing vision predicated on this model of agriculture would require maintaining large rural populations throughout the developing world in a state of deep agrarian poverty, with no alternative livelihoods to speak of….This seems to us to be neither a particularly plausible way to reduce human impacts on the environment nor an acceptable future for the billion people today living on less than a dollar a day.”

It’s worth noting in passing the rhetorical sleight of hand in that last sentence, with its implication that everyone living on <$1/day is a small farmer. In fact, a quarter of a billion of them are urban dwellers1, urban hunger is growing along with growing urbanisation2, and research suggests that the $1/day metric underestimates poverty in urban areas where living costs are higher3. But let’s put that down to honest error and move on to the weightier issues raised by NSB’s contention that comparing farm productivities within poor countries is less relevant than comparing them between rich and poor countries.

Now, why is that? Suppose I’m a policymaker in a central African country where more than half the population are small farmers, most of them very poor. Urbanism and industry are weakly developed, most of the country’s foreign exchange coming from mineral exports, cash crops like sugarcane and perhaps a bit of tourism. If I were of a statistically mischievous bent, I might ruefully admit to a visiting American dignitary that my country’s maize productivity was indeed woeful compared to hers and propose to restructure maize production along US lines, with much larger, more mechanized farms. Then I might add that US wheat yields per hectare are lower than China’s, where farm sizes average less than a hectare, and enquire whether she’s planning to subdivide US wheat farms accordingly. Oh, the fun you can have with statistics…

But seriously, why would I care what yields US farmers are achieving compared with those in my country, let alone to those in ‘Africa’? I can only think of two reasons. The first is if it were feasible to transfer the US technology so that my country could achieve similar yields. It isn’t. Soils, climate and hydrology are all different, and so are the possibilities for building the various infrastructures that permit a high input, high output, export-oriented grain agriculture. The very study that NSB cite as evidence for higher yield gaps in poor countries states that closing yield gaps using conventional farming techniques involves ecological trade-offs, which seems contrary to their position. It also involves economic trade-offs, which I’ll examine in a moment.

The second reason involves comparative advantage in the international division of labour. If the USA is better at producing maize and rice, then why not let it get on with that and provide staple grains to feed the world, while my country focuses on its own best economic suit, which wouldn’t be ‘subsistence’ production of grains. But there are multiple problems with this view. For one thing, as I’ve shown elsewhere, on the supply side the world is becoming increasingly reliant on the ecologically precarious semi-arid continental grasslands, such as the US’s breadbasket regions – putting more of our eggs globally into that basket doesn’t seem a good idea.

But, more importantly, the ecomodernists’ strictures against peasant farming as an impediment to economic development gets its causality back-to-front. It’s because of the lack of economic development that poor, small-scale farmers have to rely purely on ‘subsistence’ production. In some cases, the turn to peasant farming arose historically in the context of European colonialism, which broke precolonial states, extracted surpluses for its own economic purposes, and left a long-term legacy of peasantisation and ‘underdevelopment’4. More generally, economic potential is never uniformly distributed, a point the ecomodernists don’t seem to understand. True, it’s not a zero-sum game – it’s possible for every region to ‘develop’ simultaneously. But development is always uneven, always involves core regions and peripheral regions where the strength of the core is predicated on the weakness of the periphery. Typically, peasant farming is a strategy of the periphery, which emerges from those unequal economic relations. This leads to another important point: peasant or ‘subsistence’ farmers rarely produce their livelihoods independently of broader global economic relationships. Indeed, their households typically number people working as local wage labourers or migrant labourers nationally or internationally. In this sense, they provide a subsidy to the more ‘developed’ poles of the global economy. Take a moment-in-time snapshot of the world, and you see wealthy, urban, industrial, ‘developed’ economies set against impoverished, rural, peasant, ‘backward’ economies. Film it as a movie over decades, centuries, millennia, and these ‘developed’ and ‘backward’ economies are revealed as two sides of the same coin, with the impoverishment of the countryside/periphery typically a consequence of urban/core wealth.

Let us return to the choices facing our African policymaker. What do the ecomodernists suggest I do? Enact policies inimical to the interests of small-scale farmers (who, recall, form the majority of my population)? Note that urbanism is associated with wealth, and so promote urbanisation in the belief that it will enrich my population? Again, I’d be getting the direction of causality wrong. What would I do – set up a manufacturing industry to rival China, financial services to rival the UK, an aerospace programme to rival the US? Am I going to borrow money internationally to pump-prime this industrial take-off? That’s been tried before in my region, and it didn’t turn out well. Indeed, the region’s poverty-wracked peasants are the ones now paying the price for that mistake. Perhaps the ecomodernists are suggesting that small farms are better engrossed into corporately-controlled agribusiness enterprises with the erstwhile farmers re-employed as wage labourers? Indeed, the spectre of such ‘land grabbing’ haunts NSB’s text, and the ecomodernists’ writings on agriculture generally. But as Lorenzo Cotula has shown, though not entirely without benefits, corporate consolidation typically exacerbates local inequalities, substitutes local food production with provision of biofuels and other products furnishing non-local, non-food demands, and promotes migration from rural areas into insecure urban underemployment5.

Actually, I don’t think the ecomodernists really are suggesting these things. They’re not development specialists, and they don’t have much of a line on how to improve the lot of extant peasantries. Instead, they’re development theorists of a rather general kind. Their analysis is based on the questionable but vaguely plausible thesis that the modern world achieved net economic benefits through urban and industrial development that got people out of small-scale farming. In the case of the rise of ‘the west’ this was achieved through an immense amount of pain and dislocation, and in particular by transforming dependent European peasantries into independent farmers through mass migration to America and other parts of the world. The ecomodernists want to replicate this time-honoured development path in order to improve the lot of peasantries today, but of course there are no longer any Americas for today’s peasants to go to (or, to put it more strongly, the rise of the west occurred through uneven development enforced by the creation of colonial dependency, but colonialism isn’t or shouldn’t be an option today). In place of America the ecomodernists posit technological improvement, decoupling, narrowing yield gaps, GM crops, nuclear power and all the rest of it. As a strategy for tackling the twin aims of environmental sustainability and social justice I think it’s a long shot – on the first point because I’m doubtful that the favoured technologies will be able to achieve the necessary decoupling, and on the second because, as I’ve already mentioned, in an economic order where development depends upon underdevelopment, it’s difficult to achieve an acceptable universal development.

If not ecomodernism for delivering sustainability and social justice, then what? Well, NSB argue that labour is cheap in poor nations because of the lack of alternatives to agriculture, but it seems to me more plausible to say it’s because of these countries’ peripheral position vis-à-vis global economic cores, in which lack of access to livelihoods other than peasant farming is a symptom rather than a cause. After all, urban and/or industrial labour in these countries is also typified by its relative poverty and labour-intensity relative to the core. So given the improbability of turning themselves into economic cores any time soon, it’s not clear to me why NSB consider labour-intensive non-agricultural work so intrinsically preferable to labour-intensive agricultural work in these places. If I were that African policymaker, in a country where more than half of the people are small farmers, and with a weak urban-industrial orientation to the economic core, I’d be inclined to focus upon rural development and building my domestic market in agricultural products and rural industry. As Monbiot pointed out, this is how China and other Asian countries began the rise that’s now beginning to wrest global economic power from west back to east. It’s an absolutely critical point, and NSB’s neglect of it is a major weakness in their analysis. I’ll say more in a future post on the debates over ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ development paths and the implications of an Asian ‘industrious revolution’. But it seems to me that NSB and the ecomodernists have a rather unilinear view of economic development. The ‘western’ path they want to replicate was only one such route, and one not best suited to delivering the demands of sustainability and social justice in the contemporary world.

But let’s conclude by coming back to the inverse productivity relationship. It’s widely assumed by most parties to the debate that higher small-farm productivities arise from relatively greater per hectare labour inputs on small farms. Positions in the debate then turn on how to interpret the wider implications of that labour intensity. It seems to me that labour intensity is key, but as I’ve argued elsewhere it’s not the only issue. One study, for example, found smaller land parcels had higher per hectare productivity than larger ones cropped by the same households, which may be suggestive of agronomic rather than just economic causalities6. Such agronomic factors – things like intercropping, alley cropping, and non-linear returns to labour intensity spring to mind – haven’t been well investigated. Some of them may be scalable, others perhaps not. Perhaps the model we should hold in mind here is how we tend our gardens compared with how we tend our fields. There are many things the gardener can do to boost productivity, not all of them just scaled to labour input, that aren’t really feasible for the farmer. To increase field-scale productivity, the farmer has to place more reliance on agri-industrial technical innovation than on the homespun subtleties of the gardener’s art. So perhaps if we really want to emphasise land-sparing productivity we should aim to shift the balance from agriculture towards horticulture. Why isn’t that on the ecomodernists’ agenda?

How best to farm has always presented people with difficult and sometimes conflicting problems, and the potential trade-offs are only getting harder with today’s focus on equity, greenhouse gas reduction and biodiversity preservation alongside more traditional issues of land and labour productivity. I’d argue these complex problems aren’t usefully simplified into a binary choice of farming styles, as in NSB’s approach: either high-tech, high labour productivity farming, or low-tech, low labour productivity farming. An economist might produce a series of marginal labour productivity plots whose optimal solution would be quite different depending on how other inputs and outputs were priced – particularly outputs that currently have no price but really ought to, such as greenhouse gas production, nitrate pollution and the like. In Cotula’s words, “there is no one-size-fits-all model of agriculture that works best everywhere and at all times”7.

Indeed. No doubt once we’ve sorted out as best we can the agronomy of sustainable food production, the politics of equitable wealth distribution and the ecology of habitat preservation we could call in the economists with their marginal productivity plots to help us determine these issues of agricultural scale from place to place. The trouble is, there’s an occupational hazard in the dismal science: falling prey to the fairytale paradigms of neoclassical or neoliberal economics which claim to do the politics for us, and perhaps even the agronomy and the ecology too. Here, concepts such as Pareto optimality and the efficiency of gross product maximization create the mythical beast of the ‘perfect market’ which becomes ‘distorted’ by policies favouring farming styles that ‘the market’ would not (and, according to the paradigm, should not) select. This blog post by Jayson Lusk nicely illustrates the kind of tendentious reasoning that results, in which the jargon used to justify an apparently value-neutral technical estimation of farm scale doesn’t quite succeed in concealing the partisanship of the approach and the implicit political agenda in which gross financial product figures as the bottom line that matters most. It’s true, I think, that we advocates of small-scale farming can get a little too excited about the inverse productivity relationship, but I can’t help enjoying the spectacle in posts like Lusk’s of the neoclassical economists squirming as they try to reconcile real world circumstances with their paradigm. How many more times does it need stating that the model of reality doesn’t establish the reality of the model?

I see a parallel between the choices open to our African policymaker and rural policymakers here in Britain. Here too, although the economic cushion is much larger, farmers struggle to get by on the agrarian products of their farms alone and we’re enjoined to diversify into B&Bs, pheasant shoots, industrial lettings and the like. But not all UK farmers are well placed to diversify in these ways, just as not all peasants in poor countries are well placed to become ‘smallholder farmers’ earning hard money through cash cropping in a buoyant local or wider economy. Instead of just accepting today’s penurious global food prices and the concentration of landownership as economic facts of life, I believe the time is right for a thorough rethink of how we allocate rights to food and land globally.

There are no simple solutions, and NSB are right to pose the creation of a prosperous and sustainable agrarian economy as a problem. But their counterpoint of a prosperous and sustainable industrial economy is no more convincing, and it elides the problem of uneven development which constitutes one major reason why peasantries are still with us despite an imminent demise that’s been heralded by ‘modernisers’ of various persuasions for well over two centuries. The ‘western’ path to economic development has enriched many, but it’s impoverished many too in a non-random geographic pattern. It’s also led to ecological meltdown. So while almost everyone would no doubt agree that ‘development’ and ‘wealth creation’ are good things, I think we need a more subtle conversation than the ecomodernists seem prepared to entertain about what ‘development’ and ‘wealth’ might mean in the future. Whether we like it or not, for those of us in the overdeveloped west a future ‘development’ path may involve less wealth. Less wealth doesn’t necessarily have to mean less wellbeing – indeed, the contrary can be the case. But only if we go back to the agrarian economy and rethink it from the ground up.





4. Araghi, F. (2009). ‘The invisible hand and the visible foot: peasants, dispossession & globalization’ in Akram-Lodhi, A. & Kay, C. (Eds ) Peasants and Globalization, Routledge.

5. Cotula, L. (2013). The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System, Zed.

6. Assunção, J. & Braido, L. (2007). ‘Testing household-specific explanations for the inverse productivity relationship’ American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 89, 4: 880-90.

7. op cit. p.73-4.




Telling new stories: from eco-modernism to eco-populism

My last two posts have pretty much brought me to the end of two themes that have loomed large in my recent writing: a political critique of ‘eco-modernism’ and an ecological critique of perennial grain breeding programmes. Time perhaps for a few brief reflections on where that work has taken me, and where to go next.

One thing to notice is that both themes involve critique rather than construction. Perhaps it’s easier to knock down someone else’s narrative than to build a convincing one of your own. So now I want to spend more time building an alternative narrative, which I would summarise as follows: we can best secure equitable and sustainable human livelihoods in the future by building local food economies inspired by (though not slavishly mimetic of) the traditional, small-scale, mixed, labour-intensive, energy-light, peasant farming systems involving appropriate mixtures of locally-adapted annual and perennial herbaceous and woody crops with livestock that have long been practiced in most parts of the world.

I’ll try to expand on that summary in forthcoming posts. Here I’ll just offer a few linking threads from the aforementioned critiques I’ve recently written to the alternative narrative I want to provide.

I previously coined the term ‘eco-panglossianism’ to characterize the ‘ecomodernists’, because the refrain of Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide “all for the best in this best of all possible worlds” pretty much seems to encapsulate their philosophy. Graham Strouts has castigated me for the sneering tone of the term, and though to be accused of sneering by Graham, one of the more abrasive members of the eco-panglossian tribe, is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I suppose he’s right that it is a bit sneery, however apt it may be. The trouble is, until now I’ve not come across another suitable term – certainly not ‘eco-pragmatist’ or ‘eco-realist’, concepts that I don’t believe the eco-panglossians can justly appropriate for their own private use. Happily, the problem is now solved – ‘eco-modernist’ I can live with. For, as I argue in my Dark Mountain piece, the eco-modernists share a lot with the literary modernists who were strutting their stuff more than a century ago – a conception of present times as radically different from all that has gone before; an enthusiasm for cities in general, slums in particular, and a preference for trumpeting fancy new technologies rather than engaging in sober economic analysis; a narcissistic sense of breaking the mould and heralding a new dawn, which then becomes a conservative orthodoxy of its own. The ‘eco-modernists’ seem blissfully unaware of what ‘modernism’ means in the arts and social sciences. In those spheres, modernism is long dead, as indeed is postmodernism. They could learn a lot if they pondered the birth, life, and death of modernism as an intellectual movement. Meanwhile, yes, I’m happy to go with ‘ecomodernism’, so long as it’s OK for me to use the scare quotes without courting the accusation of a residual sneeriness?

Both the ‘ecomodernists’ and the perennial grain breeders (the latter with their promise to ‘end 10,000 years of conflict between humanity and nature’) have something of a weakness for magic bullet technologies that are supposedly going to end our troubles. I’m sceptical. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-technological, but I do dislike the kind of modernist political discourse that’s built up around science and technology in recent times, which tends to substitute an almost millenarian belief in future scientific breakthroughs to solve human problems for political and economic analysis. Perhaps this explains Tom Merchant’s angry resignation from my blog – to him, I think, it’s so obvious that humanity’s techne has already secured a future supply of almost limitless clean energy and health benefits just waiting to be rolled out to the masses, that any argument to the contrary can be dismissed as pessimistic or indeed disingenuous. But for me, the relationship between science, technology and economic ‘development’ in human history is pretty complex – there isn’t a simple historical identity between science and progress. Moreover, as I believe I showed in my Dark Mountain piece, and in previous analyses on this blog, globally we’ve become ever more reliant on fossil fuels and have scarcely even begun to chart serious alternative energy paths. If the political discourse around, say, nuclear power was along the lines of “we’ve got a painful energy transition ahead of us and some tricky issues to solve around agricultural sustainability and biodiversity, and for that reason we may need to start investing more heavily in nuclear power” I think I’d find it easier to go along with it. Instead, as in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, nuclear power is proffered as some kind of trump card, a divine providence, a ticket to a ‘great Anthropocene’. Job done. And these self-styled ‘rationalists’ want folks to believe that they’ve shed religious affectations about a heavenly afterlife?

Well, I guess I’m a bit of a modernist at heart too. Probably like the majority of people in present times – and unlike many who lived in the past – I believe in social progress, in the possibility and indeed the desirability of changing the way we organise things so as to make life better for us and our descendants in the future. Perhaps ironically, though, I think we’ll make more progress in achieving progress if we abandon the idea of progress. In other words, rather than committing ourselves to the relentless and ultimately rather abstract ratcheting implied by our metrics of growth, development, material wellbeing and so on, I believe we’d be better off asking what it is that we fundamentally want to achieve as individuals and societies. Of course, there’s no single answer, but when we do that honestly, many of the arguments about the ‘backwardness’ of peasant farming and the like start to fall away.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Too often, I’ve found myself drawn to debate the ‘efficiency’ of peasant agriculture vis-à-vis modern industrial agriculture. It’s a debate worth having, and an outcome in favour of industrial agriculture is by no means guaranteed, but the framing of the question is wrong. Ultimately, the case for peasant agriculture isn’t decided by policymakers in lofty halls of governmental power on the basis of its relative efficiency. One reason (though only one) why there are still millions, indeed billions, of peasants in the world today is because it’s a life worth living, and people have fought hard to defend it. It’s not an easy life, to be sure, but a good deal of its hardship stems from its susceptibility to the predations of other people living off the back of it, including the coffee-quaffing proponents of global commodity markets. The ‘ecomodernist’ line boils down to the argument that people shouldn’t be peasants because they’re easily exploited. It’s akin to the argument that women shouldn’t go out alone at night because they’re easily raped. In both cases, the onus of responsibility is shifted from perpetrator to victim: if peasants are easily exploited, then why not seek to overcome the exploitation rather than cheerleading their defeat?

A familiar ecomodernist response is that only by moving into wage labour in a capitalist economy based on high levels of energy use is it possible for the rural poor to lift themselves out of poverty. That’s certainly been the main anti-poverty strategy in recent times but it hasn’t worked, or at least it’s worked only for a lucky few in certain favoured circumstances. In the main, rural peasant poverty has merely given way to urban waged (or unwaged) poverty, while fossil energy use has spiralled upwards imperilling rich and poor alike (OK, poor more than rich, to be honest).

We need a different approach. And therefore, I’d argue, we need some new stories about why a recharged peasant agriculture makes sense as a response to the problems of our times. Those stories need to be specific, because ultimately there’s no such thing as ‘the peasantry’ – there are only rural, small-scale farmers, who are usually engaged in various kinds of struggle with bigger economic actors in order to realise their goals. But some have been more successful in those struggles than others, and there are certain common patterns in the kind of struggles they fight, so there’s room for generalization too. Brian Miller wrote a nice blog post recently about the peasantry in his neck of the woods, in the southeastern USA, which emphasized both what these American agrarians were for and what they were contending against. Quite a lot of my writing on this blog has been about what I’m against and this, I think, is a necessary part of the story. But I’d also like to start placing a bit more emphasis on what peasant agricultures can be for, and thence what a globally recharged peasant agriculture might look like. That involves drawing on the legacy of leftwing agrarian populism – an interesting project, I think, in these times of leftwing retreat and dangerous populist demagogues. It also involves refusing to be pigeonholed as romantic, elitist or ignorant about the plight of the poor. Eden, remember, is a myth that belongs more to the modernists than it does to the anti-modernists or the non-modernists.

I’ve often broached the issue of agrarian populism on this blog, but rarely confronted it directly. So maybe the time is now. Or at least soon. An important part of peasant life, which intellectuals and politicos can easily forget, is farming as an actual (and quite difficult) practice. So I’m planning a couple of more practical posts before swinging back towards the general themes of populism, property and the future of civilization as we know it. I’m also planning to complete the Welsh 3000s with Spudboy in the coming week for the second and, I hope, final time in my life, while also starting work on a major writing project, so please forgive me if the blog posts get a bit less frequent for a while.