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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

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

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

18 thoughts on “The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts

  1. Would you prefer comments to each post to be based only on the content of that post?

    I can see a temptation for readers to read the entire essay and make comments about essay content that will appear in later posts.

    • I hadn’t really thought about that. I guess it would make for a more orderly discussion if comments stay focused on the theme of the week, but I don’t mind if people want to engage with other parts of the essay. I suppose I could tidy things up at the end by moving comments to the relevant place.

    • Yep, I’ve never had any difficulties stringing words together. Although I fear that my strings aren’t quite as pretty as Hardy’s.

      I’m heading down Dorchester way to visit a couple of farms in the heart of Hardy country today, as it happens – which means that I may not be able to reply to your other comment concerning markets under my mowing trial post right now. But I’ll come back to it as soon as I can.

        • Very good – but I fear ‘Chris the obscure’ would be more accurate. Still, I’ve come back from Hardy country with a brand new Austrian scythe blade and a bag of precious Maris Widgeon wheat…

  2. I fear that I haven’t justified here as clearly as I should have done why small-scale or ‘peasant’ farming is so important

    Allow me to bang on the energy-underpins-everything drum one more time.

    People need to eat. In very low energy situations they can hunt/gather food or they can grow it or some combination of the two. Food surpluses from these kinds of production are usually small, so very few people can avoid being directly involved in producing food.

    Increasing amounts of additional exosomatic energy allow increasing amounts of food production per person and increasing numbers of people who are able to do other things than grow food. In rich countries, the amount of energy now available for food production, transportation, processing and preparing food, among other activities, is now at its zenith and the corresponding number of people producing food is at its minimum.

    As one who believes that our current energy flux is tightly intertwined with global markets and financial systems, I foresee a great danger that energy availability could be reduced very rapidly if the market or its financial underpinnings suffer from a failure cascade. One can argue about how likely such a failure really is, but if one is to avoid being totally dependent on the high-energy global market for food (and therefore life), one must be able to secure food elsewhere. The most practical place to do so now is on a small farm. There may very well be more important reasons for a return of more and more people to the land as food producers on small farms, but the fact that it will be impossible to do otherwise in the face of reduced energy availability is a pretty good one.

    Having virtually everyone be directly involved in food production has been a universal and long-standing condition of human existence. Rather than shun it, we should welcome its return.

    • That makes sense to me – though there are some other reasons too that I’d like to air when the time comes. It’s interesting, though, how extensive pre-industrial empires could be even in the absence of much exosomatic energy, other than oceanic winds (which I think are of huge historical importance). I guess this has a lot to do with the ability of the few to terrorize the many militarily, which is another big historical problem.

      • It doesn’t surprise me that one first things surplus would get used for is military power, considering the potential energy return on investment.

        I think that the vast majority of the “main issues” that you list in bullet points revolve around how cultures organize to secure food resources, defend what they secure and gather in other people’s resources when they are poorly defended. Add in the issues that revolve around sexual reproduction and just about all the basics of human life (or any animal) are covered; eat, grow, reproduce.

      • Well, there was onshore wind and hydro powering direct mechanical linkage, woody biomass and crop residues in various combustion processes, animal traction (exosomatic with respect to humans) and some other bits and pieces. As I’ve mentioned previously there’s an extensive literature looking at pre-fossil fuel energy use.

        And there’s also an extensive literature looking at conventional agricultural energy consumption. As well as more lightweight, accessible stuff like this:

        http://www.futurelab.net/blog/2007/11/renewable-electron-economy-part-viii1-electric-farm

        I haven’t checked the statistics in that post but direct energy use in conventional agriculture is a tiny fraction of total energy consumption in a wealthy nation. See, for example:

        http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject
        /1301.0~2012~Main%20Features~Energy%20use~201

        In any resource scarcity scenario the relatively small amount of energy used by agriculture will likely be one of the prioritised uses. A good example is what happened in the UK during WWII.

        Re greening agriculture energy use, battery tech is getting a lot more relevant than it was when the rather forward looking post at the link above was written. I’m buying a battery-powered chainsaw this afternoon as they are now genuinely useful as against toys a few years ago.

        I don’t think the challenge is energy availability. I think the challenge is not trashing the planet with what is available. 100% renewable energy supply could still power an environmental mess in other areas. And while renewables are potentially a powerful force for social equity this outcome is by no means guaranteed.

        Looking forwards to reading the other posts in this series, Chris. IMO defining a baseline is always a good start to a project.

        And now back to the concept design for the micro-grid I’m working on at the moment. Interesting project with an integrated renewable energy hub using multiple renewables, thermal and battery storage, lashings of Smart Grid and Internet of Things all supplying a hospitality precinct, some commercial/industrial/agricultural etc If I can get some Machine Learning in the mix while all watched over by machines of loving grace – https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/09/weekend-poem-all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace/245251/ – my work is done 🙂

        • From http://web.mit.edu/dusp/dusp_extension_unsec/reports/polenske_ag_energy.pdf …….

          A projection of food-related energy use based on 2007 total U.S. energy consumption and food expenditure data and the benchmark 2002 input-output accounts suggests that food-related energy use as a share of the national energy budget grew from 14.4 percent in 2002 to an estimated 15.7 percent in 2007.

          Fifteen percent of our US energy use (and growing) is a significant amount of energy even in relative terms, but in absolute terms it is gigantic. It amounts to about 42 million btu per person per year. Most of that energy is used in the form of heat, either burning fuel in diesel engines, for manufacture of fertilizer, or for food processing and cooking.

          While not strictly equivalent (due to conversion efficiency issues), each person’s share of food sector energy use is about 12,000 kWh per year. In an average location (5 peak sun hours), a family of four would need a PV array of about 26 kW to provide the energy required to get their food grown, transported, processed and cooked under our present system of agriculture.

          This kind of energy expenditure is orders of magnitude greater than pre-modern levels and cannot be maintained without either fossil fuels or some other energy system that can replace them.

          A replacement energy system is the core of any ecomodernist plan, but so far there is little evidence that one can be built while simultaneously making dramatic reductions in our use of fossil fuels. My personal view is that we can’t build the full-scale non-fossil infrastructure we need soon enough to prevent major disruptions to industrial civilization even if we do not reduce fossil fuel consumption.

          Heinberg and Fridley have looked at this in detail and figure we need to keep our fossil fuel use going at present rates for a good while longer, but devote much of that use to the renewable energy changeover by diverting it away from the support of current living standards in order to build out renewables, and then permanently reduce our energy use in the rich world by 90% or so.

          That is a slender reed on which to support the future of our civilization. Even Heinberg, in his more recent articles, is coming around to the realization that it’s not likely to happen.

          Another option would be to devote sufficient fossil energy to our current system of food production for as long as possible by allowing other sectors of the economy to whither for lack of energy. This might be possible in a command economy, but it will still mean the end of the global market economy and any semblance of modern living standards. I see little chance that such a thing is possible in the US, but one can always hope. It should be noted that this option keeps people fed but destroys the climate completely.

          All-in-all, the food security prospects of an agrarian peasant look pretty good compared with being a worker in a modern city. As time goes on, I think more and more people will come to the same realization. Small farms are the future.

        • That futerelab link David, without a trace of black humour. Reminds me of the Smog lyric all we need is here on earth, about every other day, from Running The Loping.

      • Thanks for this. I’m enjoying hosting this energy debate between Joe and David. Long may it continue…so long as it doesn’t entirely crowd out the other issues. Joe, I agree with you that access to energy and resources more generally are a critical historical motivator. However, I’d argue that social status is also a critical motivator sui generis – of course, more social status generally means more access to resources, but there are endless historical examples of people pursuing status or cultural ends that expose them to greater risks or reduce their access to resources, and I don’t want to lose sight of that.

    • Hi Chris,

      I’ve embarked upon reading through your essay. I couldn’t stand the anticipatory excitement, so am already a third of the way through. Fascinating, and makes me realise I’ve got a LOT of reading to do!! I’m thinking I might forget this small farming malarky, and in about ten years time I might’ve read through all the referenced works 🙂 I’m willing winter to come so that I can spend some longer nights in front of the fire again with nothing but books.

      Best

      Alex

    • John – well, maybe. It’s long been on my mind. Maybe this cycle of blog posts represents a clearing of the decks as a preparation for such a project…

      Alex – thanks, I’m glad you’ve found it of interest. Having toiled too long over writing it I’m feeling the opposite pull and thinking I need to give up writing and spend more time actually farming… Still, as is often the case in life perhaps it’s a matter of finding a good balance…

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