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

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

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

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

Populism Defined: Five Features of Populism

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a left agrarian populism

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

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

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

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

income-distributions-and-populism

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

populism-and-gdp

 

The tragedy of liberalism: a critique of John Michael Greer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

The elephant in the room is capitalism. Maybe.

I’d been hoping to pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, but red tape has been holding me up at the border so it’ll have to wait probably for another couple of weeks. Instead, I thought I’d offer a few top-of-the-head thoughts on Felicity Lawrence’s recent article about agricultural pesticide use in The Guardian – or, more specifically, on some of the under-the-line responses it prompted.

Whenever someone writes an online article about virtually any aspect of the environmental challenges facing humanity, you can pretty much guarantee that underneath it somebody is going to write a comment that closely approximates to this: “The real issue here is human over-population. It’s the elephant in the room that trendy green thinkers don’t want to talk about.” In distant second place you’ll usually find a similar comment about meat eating. And, even less commonly, one about the flying or other carbon-intensive sins of said trendy green thinkers.

These comments doubtless emanate respectively from the childless, the vegan, and the foot-powered, and represent the pharisaical human tendency to elevate whatever behaviours we engage in that we feel are especially praiseworthy to a kind of touchstone status by which we can judge others less virtuous than ourselves. Hovering in the background of such thought is the ever present charge of hypocrisy, as in this recent tweet aimed at George Monbiot’s opposition to fossil fuel extraction: “Hey @GeorgeMonbiot – You PERSONALLY give up all items made or sustained by fossil fuels first, then we’ll talk.”

David Fleming nails this way of thinking especially well when he writes,

“Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights”1

But, more importantly, all the obsessive finger-pointing about individual behaviours neglects the systemic logic which provides their ground. This was Marx’s insight in his critique of the utopian socialists – capitalism isn’t an especially nasty system because capitalists are especially nasty people. Therefore, building some nice factories with pleasant managers won’t solve the problem. The problem is that individual people ultimately have little choice but to respond to the behavioural drivers dictated by the logic of the (capitalist) system – and these drivers, investing a million innocent little decisions, have nasty consequences.

That brings me to my main point: when it comes to pesticide use in farming – actually, when it comes to a lot of things – if we want to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’, it isn’t human population. It’s capitalism.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that, magically, human population halved overnight. I guess the consequences would depend a bit on exactly who it was that disappeared, but maybe not so much in the end. Imagine, for example, that it was the poorest 50% of the world’s population. The effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be slight, but the effect on the food system in the rich countries would probably be pretty significant. In the short term, there’d be no more cheap labour furnishing all the labour-intensive items that we currently outsource – the fruit and vegetables, the flowers, the prawns, the coffee and so on. But the basic agricultural economics of high labour costs and low fuel costs in the rich countries would remain. Pesticide regimens are basically labour-saving technologies in a situation of low energy costs. I can’t see them changing much in the event of a population cataclysm among the world’s poor. Indeed, with the onus now falling on the rich countries to provide their own labour-intensive food commodities in a high labour cost situation, the impetus would be for further mechanisation and probably an intensification of pesticide-dependent farming in order to keep the fruit and veg flowing.

Now imagine that the disappearances mainly affected the world’s richest. The short-term effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be dramatically positive. Longer-term, though, the cataclysm would further impel the economic trajectory that’s already underway, a shifting centre of economic gravity from the north and west to the south and east. The labour-energy balance in these populous southern/eastern countries would shift further towards present rich country norms, prompting labour flight from agriculture and greater pressures towards mechanisation (and pesticisation). The acute labour shortage in the depopulated rich countries would push in the same direction.

So my feeling is that if pesticide-dependent farming is the problem then, no, the elephant in the room is not the size of the human population – it’s the relative value of human and mechanical labour. Since there’s a more-or-less fixed limit to the productivity of the former, but not so much in case of the latter, then the developmental pressure is always to substitute the latter for the former. But only in situations where capital increase is the fundamental bottom line. Marx again: in a non-capitalist market society, money acts mostly just as a medium of exchange. If you make pots and I grow vegetables, it’s convenient for me to buy your pots and for you to buy my vegetables through the intermediary of money. Vegetables become money become pots, commodities become money become commodities, or C → M → C, in Marx’s terms.

With capitalism, though, money is invested in order to produce a commodity, which is sold for money: M → C → M. But if the value of the first M is the same as the second, there’s not much point going to the trouble of turning the first M into C, only to get the same M back again. The logic of the process is really M → C → M’, where M’ > M. And there in a nutshell is the massive transformative power of capitalism: once you unleash the pure logic of M’ > M, anything that stands in its way will ultimately be crushed. That’s why in the average arable field, you’re only likely to see the occasional farmworker driving a massive spraying rig, and not dozens of thoughtful polycultural agroecologists.

For the purposes of this post, I’m remaining agnostic about the pros and cons of modern pesticide regimens. There are those who like to argue that there’s nothing to worry about – mostly by stressing that pesticide levels fall within the range deemed safe by government bodies and by impugning the credentials or agenda of anyone who says otherwise. Presumably, unless they’re shareholders in agrochemical companies, even these folks would agree that it’s not an active virtue to spray our crops with pesticides. But whatever the rights or wrongs of doing it, the crops are going to stay sprayed so long as we make M’ > M the primary logic impelling our economic system.

Coming back to my thought experiment, barring an unprecedentedly massive genocide or natural disaster, that kind of population decrease clearly isn’t going to happen. For sure, there’s a good case for nudging humanity towards lower numbers by using the various small policy levers available. But human population dynamics are a path-dependent and highly complex system which can’t easily be manipulated by wishing things were different. It’s not an ‘elephant in the room’ that, once identified, is easily resolved.

By that logic, you could say the same of capitalism. I think Marx was definitely onto something with his C → M → Cs and his M → C→ Ms, but it now seems pretty clear that some magic solution to the world’s problems is not going to fall from the sky simply through the overthrow of capitalism. Complex problems require complex solutions. There is no elephant in the room. Or else maybe there are many.

Still, I don’t think the shortage of elephants takes us right back to square one. We’ve learned a couple of useful things along the way here. The first is that humans experience the brute facts of nature through the conditioning grid of our culture. That doesn’t mean there’s some kind of law that human culture always overcomes the challenges of the natural world – often enough it manifestly hasn’t. But human culture always mediates those challenges. Which is why I’m pretty sure that whatever shape the problem of human population might have, it doesn’t resemble an elephant.

The second useful thing is that, however complex our problems are, there may be particular pressure points within our cultural mediation of the world where it’s really worth focusing political attention if we want to change things. I think the hard logic of M’ > M is probably one of them.

Notes

  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic, p.5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hunting for the exit

I left the prospect of my long-promised analysis of a neo-peasant future dangling at the end of my previous post. But the first lesson they teach you at blogging school is to hold your readership in suspense so they keep coming back for more. The second lesson they teach you is not to hold them in suspense so much that they decide not to come back at all. So I promise you upon my word that I’ll start the neo-peasant analysis in my next post. In this one I’m going to replicate my review of George Monbiot’s new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? which has recently appeared in The Land (Issue 20). If you’d like to read it all nicely laid out with The Land’s characteristically meticulous aesthetic, then it’s currently available on their website here. But if you’re content with the more homespun approach we take here at Small Farm Future, then it’s all laid out for you just below.

Meanwhile, the grand soap opera of British politics continues apace with more twists and turns than last year’s discarded baling twine. Andrea Leadsom, only recently touted as the Brexiter’s prime minister, fell on her sword to leave the way clear for Theresa May. Leadsom has now been made Secretary of State at DEFRA, the government department responsible for agriculture: perhaps a case of ‘well, you wanted Brexit, now you sort out the mess’. In a characteristically sharp blog post, Miles King sets out the implications. Present indications suggest my prediction of an ecomodernist turn in British agriculture, with the land sparing/land sharing divide set at the 500ft contour, could prove accurate. But I suspect there are plenty more episodes in the drama to come.

Anyway, let me turn my attention to George.

~~~

Monbiot, George. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature. London: Verso.

It’s a poor reflection on the state of our civic culture that George Monbiot stands almost alone among journalists in the mainstream British media as a voice for the radical green left. I doubt it’s easy facing the opprobrium not only of the usual suspects but also the not-so-friendly fire of radicals looking to him for public representation of their own particular agendas. So let me begin by giving credit where it’s due. Monbiot’s new book, a selection of his journalism over the last ten years or so, showcases an immense achievement.

Since everything here was originally an op-ed piece in The Guardian, each chapter is short and pithy, making the book as a whole an easy read. The chapters are arranged in thematic sections, including among others energy, food and farming, the marginalisation and demonization of the weak and powerless (including children), the murky world of right-wing think-tanks and corporate lobbyists, the rise of neoliberalism, and wildlife, or “wild life”, as it’s better framed within the book. This last section is particularly strong. Whereas the tone in other sections is often strident (understandably so – as Monbiot ably documents, there’s a lot to feel strident about), there’s a kind of lyrical transcendence to his wildlife writings that encompasses and transfigures his more straightforwardly political pieces.

The book holds some frustrations, though. One of them is the inevitable downside of its punchy short-form journalism. Every piece stands up well in its own terms, but despite the shape given by the thematic approach it’s disappointing to heft such a weighty tome in your hands only to find that the many fruitful lines of thought that Monbiot opens up often aren’t followed through with the level of detail you’d hope to find in a book-length analysis. More importantly, that lack of detail enables Monbiot to run two different kinds of politics through the book without fully confronting their tensions. These are, respectively, a municipally-oriented democratic socialism and a more rurally-oriented producerism-cum-agrarian populism. Or, to put it crudely in terms of two periodicals that are dear to me, it’s the voice of The Guardian versus the voice of The Land. There’s much to be learned from both voices, but if we’re to answer satisfactorily Monbiot’s question of how we got into this mess – and perhaps more pressingly of how we’re going to get out of it – some further probing is required, because the two politics have different implications.

I’d summarise the democratic socialist story that Monbiot has to tell like this: The landowner ruling class in pre-capitalist Britain had the countryside and its riches pretty much stitched up. With the rise of coal, capitalism and colonialism, rural working people became an urban-industrial working class with little nostalgia for the dependent rural life they’d lost, though to his credit Monbiot takes resistance to enclosure in the British countryside and in the country’s colonies abroad more seriously than most. Urbanised and industrialised working people were instrumental in creating a more inclusive and egalitarian society, and with the enormous economic forces unleashed by fossil fuels and the globalisation of capitalist markets were eventually able to secure for themselves a share of wealth unimaginable to their forefathers in a “great flowering of freedom that has enhanced so many lives since the end of the Second World War” (p.4). But the gains achieved in this statist, meritocratic, Keynesian society stalled in the 1970s. The monetarist doctrines of Milton Friedman and his ilk were waiting in the wings, and with the election of Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in Britain they were politically realised in the ideology of neoliberalism, whose ‘growth at all costs’ mentality now threatens to reduce “the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels…to the same grey stubble” (p.177). Meanwhile, the gap that early capitalist development opened between productive industrialists and parasitic rentiers is narrowing once more. The captains of the neoliberal global economy are parlaying their control of these global marvels into personal riches and a small, exclusive ruling class, at great cost to the majority of the world’s people and to the natural world through the concentration of wealth, the dismantling of public services and the deregulation of business and financial markets. What’s needed, then, is a reversal of this neoliberal trajectory which “if unchecked, will catalyse crisis after crisis, all of which can be solved only by the means it forbids: greater intervention on the part of the state” (p.221).

The alternative producerist-populist narrative shares a good deal with this democratic socialist one, but frames it in bigger and less statist historical terms. It’s glimpsed in Monbiot’s writing when he argues that human freedom and self-actualisation are more important than comfort or the accumulation of material things. So while civilisation may be a good thing up to a point, it’s possible to have too much of it for various reasons. One is that “civilisation is boring” (p.95), stymying and limiting the full use of our mental and physical capacities while remorselessly reducing everybody to its purview: “the oddest insult in the English language [is] when you call someone a peasant,” Monbiot writes. “You are accusing them of being self-reliant and productive” (pp.141-2). Another issue is the environmental cost of servicing the non-self-reliant multitudes forged in civilisation’s image. In various chapters, Monbiot touches on the disproportionate call on global resources made by the wealthy (which includes most of us living in the global north), the difficulties of sustaining it in the face of long-term economic growth and a more equable global wealth distribution, and the life-denying pointlessness of much of our material consumption. Discussing the impossibility of endless growth, he suggests that industrial revolutions prior to the advent of fossil fuels were ultimately unable to sustain themselves, and collapsed. Indeed, the mathematics of compound growth suggest that “salvation lies in collapse” (p.175). He advocates an orderly retreat in the face of this reality before it’s foisted upon us more capriciously, for example by leaving the remaining fossil fuels in the ground to avoid runaway climate change.

The figure who awaits us if we do beat such a retreat is the peasant. Monbiot recognises, as so few do, that provisioning the world’s people adequately and sustainably is more about ownership, about widespread access to the land and its resources, than about the technocratic boosting of high-energy, low-labour agriculture. This is a populist or producerist, a peasant-centred, vision. But here is where the tensions between the social-democratic and the producerist strands of his analysis bite. Essentially, these turn upon whether you address problems in the manner of the rational-bureaucratic planner, asking how best to deliver services to the population, or whether you address them in the manner of the autochton, asking how best to inhabit and thrive in the land you call home.

So for example, in his well-known critiques of upland sheep farming, of livestock farming more generally and of the expansion of agriculture into what he calls “ever less suitable land” (p.97) Monbiot operates mostly in rational-bureaucratic mode, trying to reconcile the competing demands of conservation, food production and sustainability at the level of generalised policy. Much of this analysis is subtle and persuasive, as in his understanding of the disastrous disconnect between farm, forestry and conservation policy afflicting upland farming, and the social history underlying the emergence of an upland peasantry. But a more peasant-centred vision would find scope for mixed upland silvo-pastoralism. Abolishing small-scale farming in these ‘unsuitable’ places which “in the face of global trade…cannot compete with production in fertile parts of the world” (p.97) would not only be another act of enclosure, but – as I’ve argued in an article in The Land (Issue 18) – also an ecologically risky strategy that plays into the hands of corporate agribusiness.

Another case in point is his advocacy for nuclear power and his critique of “deep green” energy production – “Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales; it’s not much use in Birmingham” (pp.166-7). For sure, if we want to leave fossil fuels in the ground while hanging onto some semblance of civilisation in the short term we need large, concentrated sources of energy, and arguably there’s little in the cupboard besides nuclear. For those of us who advocate a peasant or neo-agrarian future, the fact that there are thousands of Birminghams in the world indeed is quite a problem. But it’s also a problem for nuclear advocates, whose favoured technology currently furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. Which is the more plausible strategy – to embrace something like a sixtyfold proliferation of nuclear power within a few short years along with the huge associated and currently unavailable technological changes that would be needed to keep all these Birminghams ticking along as they are? Or to embrace rapid energy descent, that salvational ‘collapse’ which Monbiot himself advocates? His critiques of pointless consumerism further raise the question of how much energy we actually need. He doesn’t provide estimates here, but it would be interesting to hear them – particularly if he spoke them with his wilder voice, the voice of a dweller in the land, rather than that of the rational planner or the urbane Guardian man.

To get out of the mess, I’m sure that we need both approaches. But it’s this wilder voice that I prefer in Monbiot’s writing. I don’t always agree with it, as when he contrasts the ‘linear thinking’ of agriculture with the ‘rambling and responsive’ existence of the forager (p.92) – an over-simplified distinction which effaces the possibilities for a rambling and responsive agriculture, for ‘wildness’ to be articulated within farming rather than against it. Still, Monbiot’s wild voice gets closer to the source of the mess we’re in – and is also much rarer – than the social-democratic urge to blame everything on Thatcher and Reagan, lobby for a return to pre-1980s public provision, and hope that modern technology will banish woes like climate change. The malaise runs very much deeper than that, as Monbiot convincingly demonstrates. In this book, he stands at the doorway of the producerist or agrarian populist vision I believe we need if we’re to create a just and sustainable future. But he doesn’t quite step through. In future books or collaborations I hope he will, because few people are better equipped to articulate it convincingly while retaining the necessary critical edge. In the meantime, what he’s given us here is a passionate, deeply informed and endlessly thought-provoking analysis of our times.  “To seek enlightenment about ourselves and the world around us: this is what makes a life worth living” (p.115). We’re lucky that he’s set himself that goal, and done so much to share it.

A farmer’s guide to Brexit

I promised a Brexit two-parter with a second post on agriculture, so that’s what I aim to deliver. It’s clear that the Brexit issue is going to reverberate for a long time to come, but I think I’d better start pressing the fade button on it for a while after this. Funny how quickly it’s flipped from a slow-burning issue of the disgruntled fringe in both main parties to a fast-burning issue of the disgruntled mainstream. Looking back at my pre-referendum predictions, I thought a Brexit result would cause strife in the Tory party, which it has. What I didn’t predict, though perhaps it’s obvious with hindsight, is that it would also lead to a full-on meltdown in the Labour Party. Compare the way the two parties have handled the fallout: on the right, the smooth and ruthless excision of Johnson and now probably Gove as a threat to Tory ruling hegemony; on the left, a massive and possibly terminal public brawl. Those who see Brexit as an opportunity to reshape our politics for the better, which includes me to some extent, have got their work cut out. I also failed to perceive how, especially outside Britain, many in the heterodox leftist circles where I usually find my inspiration would side with the neoliberals in heralding the Brexit vote as some kind of victory, rather than just another perplexing lurch in the long-term crisis. At issue, I think, are different notions of political sovereignty, on which I’ll have more to say later in the year.

Something that I did predict was the delusional excess currently parading across the country and its political talk shows: Britain is important once again, a great trading nation that now has a free hand to direct the flow of money and limit the flow of people. If the Brexiteers succeed in those dual objectives then it’s game, set and match for neoliberalism in the UK. But I doubt they will, so I feel reasonably relaxed about putting up with the current victory party. It’ll be over soon enough, and then things will get more serious. Perhaps the question is, as David Hare puts it, whether we’ll have politicians who are serious enough to cope with the aftermath.

Anyway, I’m just a humble farmer so let me leave all that aside and say a little about how this might pan out agriculturally. Policy wonkery isn’t really my forte, and neither is accurate prediction, so it seems. But let me hazard a few guesses about the agricultural landscape of a post-Brexit Britain…

The first point to make, along the lines of Tim Lang in this interesting commentary (interesting also for the mixture of wise and foolish comments beneath the article, including the good old vertical farming fallacy) is that food and farming are just about the biggest ticket items within the entire EU but got almost no coverage in the referendum campaign, except obliquely in terms of immigration issues. A case of “let’s quit the EU, and then start figuring out the implications”.

I think those implications are going to be quite troubling for farmers, consumers and Brexit negotiators. But a lot will depend on the shape of the Tory government that takes us out of the EU. My best guess (which on present form probably isn’t a very good one) is that the harder line neoliberalism associated with the Brexiteers will be a more dominant hue in the post-Cameron Tory party. My predictions below are based on that assumption.

A brief statistical interlude – the following three figures are worth bearing in mind: The average annual earnings in the UK are around £25,500; the average annual farmer’s earnings are around £19,500; and, three-quarters of the latter comes from support payments1.

So let me now take a few wild punts on how all this will play out:

Small-scale farmers: plus ça change. Britain has the largest-scale and most straightforwardly market-oriented agriculture of any EU country. After the last round of CAP negotiations, the British government could have chosen to keep basic farm payments for small farmers, cap maximum payments for large ones, and use the CAP framework and other trading mechanisms to support local small-scale farming in other ways. But it didn’t. In that sense, small-scale commercial farmers who are still in business may be Brexit-proofed ahead of the curve. But we also mostly focus on high value niche products which are quite income elastic. So if the post-Brexit economy bombs, then so might we.

Large-scale lowland farmers. Despite all the promises of the Brexiteers, I can’t see basic farm payments lasting much beyond the 2020 election. Their days are probably numbered in the EU too, but here in Britain we won’t be able to afford them, they’re not in keeping with the neoliberal faith, and there aren’t many farmers anyway, so their votes don’t matter much (besides, who else are they going to vote for – Jeremy Corbyn?) On the upside, a lot of that meddlesome EU environmental regulation will probably go too, which will save a bit of money. Expect more dead fish in the River Frome, and in other waterways the length and breadth of the country. Fuel and fertilizer prices, grain prices – ooh, it’s a knife-edge, but I’m sure a lot of the big guys will pull through. The schmooze factor between Big Agri and the Tory government will increase exponentially (expect pedestrian disruption between Nos. 16 and 17 Smith Square due to pavement repairs). But I’m not sure it’ll make much difference in the end.

Big Landowners. In his article Tim Lang takes a gentle sideswipe at George Monbiot for overdoing his CAP-as-a-subsidy-to-the-rich schtick. I’m with Tim on this, even though George is right that the CAP does function as an outrageously regressive negative income tax for wealthy landowners. But George tends to underplay the fact that, within Europe, it mostly functions as a subsidy to consumers and retailers (note earnings figures above). In any case, with Brexit I think the big landowning wing of the Tory party will lose out to the swivel-eyed neoliberals. But I’m not sure how much it’ll care. Tenant farmers are a pain in the backside anyway. Big landowners will most likely line up with all the current ‘getting our country back’ tosh, position themselves as custodians of the timeless English landscape and find other ways to cash in. They’re good at that sort of thing. They’ve been practicing it for, like, a thousand years.

Upland stock farmers. Hard times are in store when the subsidy regimen dies and the winds of neoliberalism blow harder. Ironically, perhaps the New Zealand sheep farmers who suffered in the 1970s when Britain tightened the screws on its EU membership (or EEC as it was then) will return the favour now we’re leaving it. But some of the British upland farmers will survive because, like the aristocracy, the peasantry is adept at hanging on to what it has. The lightening of the regulatory burden may help. So more dead fish, then. Don’t expect much rewilding or watershed management, unless it’s undertaken for free by Mother Nature on abandoned upland farms.

Dairy farmers. The final death knell for medium-scale family dairy farming? And no more generous grants for converting to indoor robotic systems. So a game for giant corporate players. But also perhaps some spaces opening up for low-impact micro-dairying?

Conservation policies and environmental regulation: you’re joking, right? (See Miles King for details).

A national food policy: are you some kind of communist? Read my lips: no centralised planning unless we have absolutely no other option. Which may turn out to be the case (see below).

Energy: I doubt there’ll be enough in the kitty for the new reactor at Hinkley Point, and negotiating with EDF just got harder. I also doubt that the instinctive Tory hatred towards renewable energy of any kind will change much. And now we’re out of the EU we don’t have to ratify that silly Paris climate deal. So I’d predict lots of fracking and open-cast Welsh coal. Probably not enough to keep us ticking over, but there’s a chap called Putin knocking at the door with some excellent deals up his sleeve. They seem a bit too good to be true, to be honest, but surely it would be madness to say no?

Horticulture: now that we’ve got our country back, will British consumers want to buy more British fruit and veg? I’m not so sure. They’ll have their job cut out anyway, because we import most of it from abroad (the EU, principally). And the stuff we do produce is heavily dependent on the kind of footloose migrant labour working long hours in hard jobs for low pay that we’re supposed to be getting rid of. Though a good deal of it is organised by criminal gangmasters who are unlikely to be affected by whatever edicts are issued out of Westminster. But maybe more horticulture jobs will open up for British people. What’s the betting that after further onslaughts on trade unions and labour legislation a good number of Brits will find themselves lying nose-to-stolon on giant picking rigs supplying strawberries for their favoured politicians’ jaunts to the tennis at Wimbledon, and will then vote the Lib Dems in at the next election in order that we rejoin the EU and bring the migrants back? Stranger things have happened. Though not many, to be honest. Anyway, rising fruit and veg prices are a fair bet for the future, turning them into luxury items that’ll be increasingly beyond the means of ordinary people. But that might foment an allotment movement, and once the smell of the veg patch is in people’s nostrils then peasant insurrection is never far away.

An ecomodernist calls: what this all seems to point to is that Britain could become a giant laboratory for ‘land-sparing’ ecomodernism, with its uplands re-wilded by default and intensive, large-scale, grain-heavy farming in the lowlands. Expect Mike Shellenberger to be flying in soon for another meeting with Owen Paterson (will Paterson soon be stalking the corridors of DEFRA once again, or is that just another Bremain scare story?) In terms of the ecomodernist agenda, the roll-out of GM crops in the UK is probably now a foregone conclusion, so we can look forward to the end of weeds and pests and the feeding of the poor and needy. But as I said before, new nuclear is probably off the agenda for the time being until we’ve saved a bit more cash. Mike, could you bring some piggybanks over with you?

Food prices and food policy: In summary, I imagine that we’ll keep churning out the wheat, barley and oilseed rape in the short-term until all our best agricultural soil has been washed into the English Channel (it’s OK to call it that again, right?) But food prices will probably rise, especially for things that require work to grow and actually taste nice: fruit, vegetables, meat and such. And our national food self-sufficiency will probably continue to dwindle, necessitating increased food imports bought with a weaker pound on less advantageous trading terms. As climate change, more populist government and trade protectionism begin to make their influence felt around the world the UK government will suddenly panic about the parlous state of the food supply and appoint a safe pair of hands to pilot a national food security policy – Boris Johnson, perhaps? And as we know from Johnson’s antics to date, anything could happen after that. My prediction is that he’ll target the planning system as a dastardly communistic impediment to free enterprise. The last time the Tories took a look at the planning system they ditched decades-worth of meticulous planning guidance in favour of a short document that they knocked out on the back of a beermat as they walked home from the pub. This time they’ll probably throw out the beermat too. And then, my friend, every acre of these fair isles will be ripe for a sturdy peasant farmer to fight it out with the aristocrats and property developers to take possession. What’s that you say? Who on earth in this day and age has a plan for how Britain could feed itself through peasant farming? Well, I’m glad you asked me that…

Reference

1. Figures from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/averageweeklyearningsearn01 and Wood, Z. 2016 ‘Figures that add up to higher food prices’ Guardian 04.07.16

The Breakdown of Nations

I suppose I have no option but to write about Brexit, adding my own small voice to the torrent of verbiage that’s already been devoted to the current extraordinary events.

There are endless possible questions and implications to be traced. How they’ll play out is anybody’s guess. What does already seem clear is that the Vote Leave campaign was based on a series of lies that have already unravelled, and its soundbite-politician architects have absolutely no clue how to deal with the political, economic and social mess they so carelessly engineered. Maybe some of the present sky-is-falling rhetoric of my fellow remainers will prove in time to be overblown, but as things stand scenarios like the end of Britain’s EU membership, the end of the EU itself, the end of the United Kingdom, the end of peace in Northern Ireland, the end of the UK’s voice in the world, the rise of racism and nativism in Britain and in Europe, the self-destruction of the Labour Party, recession, job losses and major, long-term national impoverishment are all on the cards, if not already happening. That’s a big list of achievements, though not in a good sense, for our electoral representatives to pull off at a single stroke. Many of them were probably inevitable in the longer term anyway, and some of them aren’t necessarily all bad in themselves. “Collapse now to avoid the rush” as some of my pro-Brexit neo-agrarian friends have put it. A considered retreat is one thing, unforced self-destruction quite another. Still, it’s been plain enough for a while that the days of the current global order are numbered and it would be naïve to imagine that the transition to the next one is always going to be smooth. What really matters is what the next order will look like.

It’s tempting to pursue that question along the many convoluted byways of the Brexit issue, but perhaps it’s best if I stick to this blog’s main themes – sustainable farming and the kind of politics that can foster it. In this post, I’m going to focus on the politics. In the next one, I’ll take a closer look at the agricultural implications of Brexit.

I’ve long argued that if we’re to create a sustainable agriculture (and therefore a sustainable culture) a more localised politics is needed, so on the face of it perhaps that ought to put me in the Brexit camp. Certainly, a lot of anti-neoliberal, pro-small farm folk I’ve encountered have pinned their colours to the Brexit mast – but not many of them are actually British. There are some local and some wider dimensions of the EU issue that complicate any simple Brexit = localism equation. It’s worth examining them, because they raise important questions about the politics of a neo-agrarian transition.

To flesh out the local issues, where better to start than my hometown of Frome? In the town elections last year, its denizens chose an independent local party – Independents For Frome – over established national party candidates for every single one of the town council’s seventeen seats. But in the EU referendum, as far as can be inferred from aggregate figures, they voted to remain. A contradiction? I don’t think so. Arguing for a localization of politics doesn’t necessarily mean that politics should only be localized. The trick is to create nested systems in which decisions, arbitration and spheres of influence are appropriately structured at different geopolitical levels – including very broad, global or continent-wide levels. In my vision of a more localised politics, there’s room both for organisations like Independents For Frome and for ones like the EU. Political scientists have been talking for some time of a ‘new medievalism’ in contemporary global politics, by which they mean that the Westphalian system of nation-states is breaking down into a more polymorphous politics of cities, regions, nations, identities, para-statal organisations, supra-statal organisations, trading leagues and so forth, rather like the more politically variegated pre-modern age. By contrast, the Brexit campaign was founded on a conservative, nostalgic, modernist project of reclaiming sovereignty for the nation-state. It’s not a project that I think can succeed, and it’s not one that I support anyway.

I suppose I might have supported it if I felt there was something worth rescuing in the concept of national sovereignty. The EU has its problems, after all – though in the cold light of day the wilder flights of the Vote Leave campaign are beginning to look a bit silly. It wasn’t the EU, it turns out, that was lurking in the park waiting to pounce on unsuspecting women and children, or creeping into your house at night to disorder your CD collection and steal odd socks from your washing machine. And the fact is, Westminster has its problems too. From medieval times, Britain has had very weak traditions of local political autonomy, which is one reason why it once rose to prominence as a global power above other European countries. Like many countries, it has strong traditions of popular radicalism, but more than many countries those traditions have been consistently frustrated by a political elite that has cannily absorbed most of the challenges to its power and kept a more or less continuous grip. The main checks on its power over the last couple of centuries have been the politics of organised industrial labour, the politics of municipal radicalism, the troubled politics of the UK union, and the EU. The first two were eclipsed in the 1980s (the self-destruction of the Labour Party in the wake of Brexit merely being another sad coda to that tale). The EU has now gone, and with it possibly the union. So although the referendum has left some blood on the carpet inside the conservative establishment, it’s also quite possibly delivered it a firmer grip on power than at any time since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Good news if you support the Conservative Party, and its neoliberal, pro-rich policies. Less so if you don’t hold this self-serving political class in high regard, which – bafflingly – seems to be a major point of issue for the Brexiteers. The truth is, Westminster has a crushing, centralising, conservative, undemocratic grip on power – the notion that the referendum is somehow liberatory for a more sovereign and localised politics seems to me very much mistaken.

There are many aspects to that lack of democracy. Some stem straightforwardly from Britain’s political institutions: the monarchy, the House of Lords, first-past-the-post voting, the stifling of municipal independence. Others have broader socio-political causes: inequalities of wealth, landownership and education, the corporate grip on the press and so on. But more important than the notion of democracy-as-voting is democracy as social interaction, the endless frictions, accommodations and slippages between us as individuals and as interest groups in our multiple social roles that constitute a democratic civil society. That’s what needs nourishing if we’re truly to build democracy, and it’s taken a hell of a battering in this referendum campaign.

A lot has been made of the class character of the Brexit debate – the out-of-touch political class, the cappuccino-quaffing, don’t-know-how-the-other-half-lives remain voters (though of course, Boris Johnson et al qualify on both counts there) versus the excluded post-industrial working class who want to take back control of their lives, who want to count for something again. I agree with Frome’s own Guardian man, John Harris, in dismissing what he calls “that lousy old Marxist trope of “false consciousness”, whereby people enthusiastically following the supposedly wrong cause are only a speech or poster away from enlightenment, and a sharp left turn”. But you don’t have to be all that Marxist to question the class mystification involved in the Brexit case for national sovereignty, a point that leaps out at me when I reconsider the work of Leopold Kohr in the light of the referendum.

Kohr’s book The Breakdown of Nations (1957) was one of the early offerings in the green localisation movement that I still consider myself to be a part of. When I read it a few years ago I thought Kohr had some wise things to say. I still do, but looking at this article about Kohr’s book in the context of the UK referendum (thanks to Ruben Anderson for drawing it to my attention) makes me think that we in the localisation movement need to raise our game. “Kohr,” the writer claims, “understood that God made atoms small, that small business invigorated the economy, that only a small number of people created real social change and that virtue came in a small box. He appreciated that we lived in a microcosmos, not a macrocosmos.”

To my mind, that’s a list of non-sequiturs. The size of atoms has nothing whatever to do with the size of polities. We live simultaneously in a microcosmos and a macrocosmos. And so on. Kohr argued that smaller European states have an organic primacy over larger conglomerate polities – Scotland as against the UK, for example. But here he succumbs to the seductive power of nationalist mythology. The myth of ‘Scotland’ has no more intrinsic coherence than the myth of the UK, or the myth of the EU. Consider the divisions between highland, lowland and island; Protestant and Catholic; the class connivance of the lairds with English interests against their tenants after 1746; lord versus subject; Rangers versus Celtic; English versus Gaelic; 45% for independence versus 55% against; 62% for EU membership versus 38% for exit. There is no single, coherent story to tell of authentic ‘smallness’ here that righteously divides the UK from the EU, and Scotland from the UK.

There is a coherent story to tell (though it’s only one of many) of authentically small farms, businesses and communities as parts of larger human and non-human conglomerations. It’s a story I’ve tried to tell on this blog and will continue to do so. It’s a story that can be told within and against the EU, within and against the UK, within and against Westminster. But I think I’d prefer to tell it within the EU, within the UK, and against Westminster. And if the EU has become an unreformable cabal of power-hungry neoliberals, then so has Westminster, with bells on, for at least the last forty years.

Still, what’s done is done. I think the worst (if probably the likeliest) thing now would be a messy compromise, which will leave the Brexit voters feeling cheated of their victory. So – perhaps to contradict my recent post on the perils of right-wing populism – I think what I’d most like to see from here is a clean, hard break from the EU under a Johnson premiership. No access to the single market. The promised brakes on immigration, so long as they’re done with humanity (and, of course, the return of all Britain’s own EU emigrants). It’s not that I vindictively want to see my country and its Brexiteers suffer the full consequences of their actions, but I think without it the lessons won’t be learned. Immigration was never fundamentally the problem. Bureaucratic EU rules were never fundamentally the problem. A declining post-industrial power drifting aimlessly in the sea of neoliberalism was the problem. Alternative economists talk about the ‘addictive’ nature of the mainstream economy, and as many an addict will recount you have to hit rock bottom before you can begin the path to recovery. Perhaps ironically a Johnson premiership in a fracturing, isolated UK under massive trading disadvantages could be the best hope that the long and divisive grip on power by a conservative establishment might finally crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, just at the moment of its apparent triumph.

It’s a high risk strategy, but from where we now stand all strategies seem to me high risk. The risk involved in the one I’m advocating has been identified by Polly Toynbee: “When leavers find there’s no money and no exodus, that it was all lies, where does their wrath turn next?” Already we’re seeing a rise in racist incidents, leaflets circulating with the legend ‘No more Polish vermin’ and so on. When reality dawns on the Brexiteers, we progressive populists have a huge job on our hands to try to shape the succeeding political narrative for the best, and it’s suddenly become a lot more urgent.

So as well as a Johnson premiership, I’d also like to see a resurgent left populism articulating the alternatives. Let other power blocs feast on our vacated place at the world table while we pursue our self-enforced agenda of economic localism, out of which some good could certainly come. I’m not entirely convinced a resurgent left populism will happen – especially in the light of the Labour Party’s abjectly unresurgent behaviour at present – but as long-term readers of this blog will know, I’m ever the optimist. And, luckily for Britain, Small Farm Future is here to guide the country through the morass in its hour of need. Indeed, I’ve just heard that our board of directors has approved in principle the hiring of an extra staff writer to improve our coverage of these weighty issues. All it needs now is the funds to make the appointment. The donate button is, as ever, top right. So a message to any pro-Brexit non-British neo-agrarians reading this: please dig deep. My country needs you. It needs your support. Above all, it needs your foreign exchange.