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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. I’m not reading ahead, so you may get to it in later posts, but I think that the urban/rural divide is far more relevant to a transition to agrarian peasantism than nationalism or perhaps even capitalism.

    Even if there were no passions of the nationalist patriot, the issue of who controls access to land would still be present. With most political and economic power vested in urban elites, they have effective control of the land, whether by virtue of their wealth or by their political power in determining how land will be used. All rural land use, including food production, is now by permission of the city.

    When capitalism has lost all legitimacy and after the passions of nationalist resource wars have been spent, the struggle over what will happen to the newly poor and desperate urbanites will still be intense. It will be an intra-urban struggle, since cities are where political power will still reside. Will they be allowed (commanded?) to migrate onto small subsistence farms or will that land be allowed to go mostly fallow while they starve to death in the city?

    As Soviet and Chinese history shows, cities can be built without free-market capitalism. And national borders have had little effect on migration to cities. The biggest question looming over modern civilization is how it can be de-urbanized before its cities become death-traps. While nationalism and capitalism might have an impact on our continuing, but vain, attempts at maintaining the status quo, I don’t see either having much to offer to a process of careful de-urbanizing/re-peasanting.

  2. I think thereʻs a number of us in the blogosphere that have said: Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish! to John Michael Greer. Probably all around the same time.
    As tempting as it is to engage with Gothic visions of the comeuppance of cities, Iʻm going to ask if there is a relationship between reconstituted peasantries and the constitution of nationalism beyond the mere synchrony of “Meanwhile…” Iʻve some experience of the former and find it interesting, less so the latter (more something to be endured by any kind of peasant)? Am I missing the connection?

  3. Greer & the Dark Mountain folks do have a bit of that rabid glee (which is nothing more than Nietzschean ressentiment) in what they see as the crumbling of certain structures of modernity. One observation that might be worthy of exploration is that Greer & Kingsnorth do indeed look toward cherry picked historical antecedents through rosy glasses and hold those up to be worth considering as beneficial, a feature of some of the coarser currents of late 19th & earlier 20th C modernist thought, but one which has stayed with us in various guises. This is very, very close to the kind of nationalism on display currently and one reason why I think it is easy for Greer to hold Trump up as some kind of avatar for the coming darkness – Greer may indeed see himself as much the same.

    Problem is, like all nationalisms, there are parts to this that appeal to me. I do want the oligarchical class to fail, I do want cities to get what’s coming, I do want my life choices to mean something as they have largely been in opposition to the tropes of modern capitalist ideology. However, when I step back from that ledge, when I recover my sense of self, I realize that what is happening is a kind of libidinal catharsis that inheres in such thinking. It feels really good to be right! It feels good to have revenge on the so-called elites! But this is nothing more than raw destructive reactionary emotion, ironically the same raw material from which some nationalisms are born. I find it occasionally fulfilling to imagine some apocalyptic visions of a climate in which it may well nigh be impossible for humans to sustain anything like the current level of being and in which there will be much suffering. And while important, this is just the first step. Once we can come to grips with the indeterminacy of capitalism and its attendant destructions (environmental, social and political), it is important to try to do some good rather than wallow in a Dantean, or can we say Hobbesian?, vision of the future.

    I appreciate your willingness to explore solutions.

    • Andrew, damn, you write like a kestrel sings. (I assume they sing? My local hawk (buteo solitarius) does or keens or whatever the right word would be for a sound that pierces your mind like an arrow.)

    • Andrew, thank you for putting your finger on the kind of gross accelerationism that Greer (and to a lesser extent other more economically rigid anticapitalists like James Kunstler or many Naked Capitalism contributors/commenters [though not all]) espouse.

      I feel exactly how you do about elites, catharsis, search for meaning in the vast postcolonial emptiness, but I do not see the (VERY American-oriented) elegy for a history free world or some kind of collapse. Its gross and its bigoted. There’s an old joke about how Black people never want to time travel for obvious reasons – and one can extend that to the weird fetish/nostalgia of the Greerians out there.

      I have been looking for these kind of critiques since I stopped reading Greer about 2-3 years ago and have found very little sadly. Thank you for writing and would love to hear more about it, links, more thoughts, etc. Every time I poke in there and read the comments.. They just gross me out to no end.

      • Thanks for that Jackie. If all these plaudits for Andrew keep piling up, I might just have to offer him a guest spot… Anyway, I hope you’ll keep reading here. Small Farm Future – it’s the only game in town, now that Greer has quit it…

  4. Thanks for those interesting comments. It’s good to hear some critical fellowship against Greer – I was beginning to think there must be some weird cult around him in green circles, with me as the only non-member, in which his one-dimensional political analysis is transfigured as some kind of infallible wisdom. I’ll be writing a little more about this shortly, because I think there are some important underlying issues.

    Regarding Joe’s point, I don’t say all that much about urban-rural issues in the rest of the essay (though I have written about it in earlier posts), but it may still be easier to discuss the issue after the next instalment. I guess what I’d say in brief is I agree that power resides in towns (or, in fact, mostly in capital cities) but power in the form of naked coercion can only do so much – urban power ultimately requires legitimacy, and one of the main ways it does it in modern societies is through nationalism. It would be nice if we didn’t have to go through a(nother) period of resurgent nationalism before we realise (again) how empty it is – sadly, I’m not sure that’s likely. Yep, you don’t need capitalism to build cities – but you do need a surplus and a centralised state. The most likely alternatives I see to peasant populism in building post-capitalist rural society are basically variants of feudalism or fascism. Feudalism is interesting as an explicitly pro-rural, decentralised political ideology…but not a very attractive one for most people. I’ll be arguing in later posts that in order to achieve a peasant populism that delivers us from the fires of fascism or feudalism we’ll need to hang on to a repurposed central, quasi-urban state but without the negativities associated with contemporary ones as handmaiden to a capitalist bleeding of the countryside. Not an easy task.

    Michelle, I’d say that the rise of nationalism in the 19th century around the world pretty much blocked the emergence of autonomous peasantries – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. So it wasn’t mere synchrony. It was perhaps an understandable move back then, when the idea of national industrial ‘development’ was more freshly minted and posed fewer problems in people’s minds than it really ought to do now. I think it’s a less understandable move now, but the idea of a rural farm society is so distant from most people’s political compass that we’re stuck in endless ‘there is no alternative’ scenarios.

    Andrew, thanks for those candid thoughts, which certainly resonate with me. I agree that there are parts of alt-modernism that also resonate – which is why I tried not to be too dismissive of Greer et al’s general projects, even if a lot of his specific political writing is eminently dismissable. Hopefully we can debate the issues further once we get stuck into where all this historical stuff leads in terms of charting the possible polities of the future. Hobbes…interesting – my pitch there is that he’s an overly maligned figure who has some interesting things to teach, but perhaps we can come to that another time.

  5. Hmm.
    I also keep coming back to Joe’s point about the urban vs. rural. It seems obvious to me that our large cities are only made possible by great flows of energy and wealth that will not continue. I have gotten myself out of the large city that I was born in, but even still I can only look forward to their demise with dread.

    The cities do control how the landscape is used, but at present that doesn’t appear to be a major concern for them. Food production is currently treated as trivial by everyone except the small portion of the population that is doing the producing. The main interests of the urban elite appear to be financial and cultural. Land is treated primarily as a financial asset, and a large chunk of elite attention goes to signaling wealth and power to other elites. Otherwise, the cities are already failing large segments of their populations, it is just failure by degrees, and most urbanites seem to take that as their normal condition.

    With the collapse of cheap energy, a set of elites will doubtless emerge and try to control the countryside, but they will be much constrained in their ability to project power, and will need to live closer to the landscape and population they want to control.
    I have no idea how this will play out, but warlords and peasants seem likely.
    Maybe we need techniques for fostering benevolent warlords.

    As for Trump and Greer, they are both really good examples of whatever thing they are. Greer had been talking about an emerging eco-religion, I wonder if he got tired of waiting and is trying to start one.
    And Trump is not the avatar of anything. He was interesting for as long as he made the corruption of U.S. power visible, but now that he has been engulfed by the swamp, even that bit is gone. But during the campaign, he would tell the truth every now and then and that got people excited. It is telling to see what hopes got pinned on Trump.

    • I can only look forward to (cities’) demise with dread.

      Me too, especially since almost all the rest of my family live in cities. The only silver lining to come with a lot of suffering by city dwellers is that their demise will curb carbon emissions. As nothing else seems to be doing the job properly, that will be a little consolation for those that end up being our future generations.

      I think your thumbnail analysis of the future of the city is spot on, although I have my doubts about the fostering of “benevolent warlords” being very probable at all.

      Warlordism and feudalism are almost the same thing in an agrarian setting. Thousands of years of building castles and walled cities attest to their durability as social structures and those walls weren’t built because of rampant benevolence. I think the very few populations that avoided feudalism were mostly hunter-gatherers in sparsely populated areas away from centers of power.

      If we somehow managed to pre-arrange a democratic and egalitarian agrarian peasant society (an unlikely prospect at best), I have doubts that it would survive the end of the state that arranged for its existence. But the reasons to try for such an arrangement are twofold: 1) while an egalitarian peasant society lasted, it would be a wonderfully sustainable and morally correct way to live; 2) even if it didn’t last the collapse of civilization, the people living on the land would still be living, no matter who controlled their security. Of course any re-imposition of slavery would put a damper on the mood of the enslaved.

      All-in-all, I think “more agrarian peasants, less city” is a good goal to pursue. I think it would do a bit of good and it certainly can’t do any harm.

    • Joe, Eric – thanks for those comments. They’re quite relevant to some of where I’m going after this historical cycle is finished, so I think I’ll hold off responding for now and hopefully come back to this later on. I don’t much disagree with your characterisations of feudalism and warlordism – all I’d add is that there are tensions in feudalism between kings and nobles, and castle-building was often as not a royal project. This remains of potential significance.

  6. Chris, it’s interesting to note that you’re investing both the current U.S. president and present-day nationalism with attributes which are exclusively active – something that’s currently as popular in the mainstream media as the use of the term ‘to weaponize’.
    It is the coin’s flipside, the other bearing the imprint of doomerism: Planet going down, evil people on the rise.

    Of course, pure evil can’t be a voice within the “proper” political spectrum, therefore we welcome it as a demonic force outside of it and feel good shouting it down.

    Those who would like national boundaries (like any other boundary) to be respected are currently being treated as though they’re all ignorant of boundaries’ contingent nature, and would participate in any form of genocide to ensure cleanliness this side of the fence on Tuesday after their party had won the election.

    In your view Trump can’t be a first attempt – moderately successful at best, merely hapless at worst – at giving a voice to the excluded (which is what Greer characterized him as), no, he’s invested with, again, demonic properties.

    Nationalist parties aren’t giving a voice to questions unanswered by those demonizing for their mere existence, no, they’re devil incarnate; Nietzsche, Hitler, Spengler, Trump.

    Sorry if I sound a little cranky. I believe in a flat boundary-less earth about as firmly as I believe in post-capitalism.

    • the imprint of doomerism: Planet going down, evil people on the rise

      I think you mischaracterize doomers. I would use another adjective, one you conditionally attribute to Trump, “hapless”. So a revised saying would be, “The imprint of doomerism, hapless people on the rise”.

      Those of us who are certain of their doomerism may feel some curiosity to see how it all plays out, but I also can’t imagine how anyone could feel good about shouting down people who are, hapless or not, simply manifestations of the onset of civilization’s decay. Unless one believes that civilization really does have a future, any shouting is just a waste of energy.

      For doomers, it’s not like we have a choice and can save the world by electing the ‘right’ public officials. I will admit I will feel some delicious schadenfreude if Trump fails miserably, but still, his success will only speed us to a doom that is inevitable anyway and his failure would offer no redemption for civilization. One’s main effort should be preparing for that inevitable doom, not trying to ‘shout’ people in or out of office.

      So I would offer another “imprint” for the doomerism side of the coin (based on the wisdom of the Bible and a recent US president), “Gird your loins, this sucker’s goin’ down.”

    • Michael, so I write that there’s something necessary in the alt-modernist tradition that’s easily traduced by the left, but that I find aspects of the tradition problematic. You characterise me as saying that the tradition is demonic. I’m not sure where to go from there, except to say that it reminds me of the rather hysterical straw-man construction that Greer increasingly indulges in.

      I’ll be writing more on Trump and nationalism in a couple of future posts, but maybe I’ll just make a few preliminary comments. On Trump, he got 8% of the black vote compared to 88% for Clinton, 29% of the Hispanic vote compared to 65% for Clinton, 41% of those earning under $30k compared to Clinton’s 53%, 42% of those earning $30-50k compared to Clinton’s 51%, and 42% of women’s votes compared to Clinton’s 54%. Sure, Greer keeps banging on about how Trump is giving a voice to the excluded, but where’s the evidence? His voter demographics are basically indistinguishable from those of every other Republican candidate over the last 30 years. As far as I can see, if he’s giving a voice to anyone it’s to alienated middle-class white men. And yes, I’d certainly argue that Trump can’t be a first attempt at giving voice to the excluded because numerous others have preceded him – including the left, broadly conceived, which Greer rather comically doesn’t seem to realise was articulating class exclusion in US politics long before Donald Trump did, and a lot more convincingly in my opinion.

      On nationalism, I’m open to arguments about what a world of respected boundaries would look like, not least because there are various boundaries I’d like to see respected myself. But I’m not really seeing these arguments being made substantively – what I’m seeing instead is pretty much what you do in your comment, a brief and vague assertion that boundaries should be respected followed by a lot of demonising of liberals for supposedly demonising the boundary-seekers. The kind of things I’d like the boundary-seekers to address are: what is the relationship between the boundaries you seek and the centralised state, what is your conception of culture and in what ways do you feel it’s necessary to bound it, and in what ways might older cultural boundary markers of race, empire and economic power complicate the boundaries you now want to demarcate? I’ve tried to address these questions in my writing, but I’m not seeing much of that happening among the nationalist parties and their fellow travellers.

      • Joe, I hereby apologize 🙂 I will reserve the term ‘doomerism’ for your position and not use it to describe manichean worldviews which take delight in propping up political opposition as enemies invested with all that is and could ever be bad in the world.

        Chris, I’m curious: Do these percentage numbers suggest that you think Trump today wouldn’t get reelected?
        And that, more importantely, a purported American Left which you say has more convincingly addressed inequality – did you mean right now, or some time in the past? – would win?

        “…in what ways might older cultural boundary markers of race, empire and economic power complicate the boundaries you now want to demarcate?”

        How about we focus on the brand-new boundary markers and acts of marking by our present-day empire, the EU?

        Then what it does today comes into focus, and all the derogatory comments about those longing for “long lost empires” for once take a backseat.
        And what also becomes apparent is that the Left (you know, the one I’m haplessly rooting for) not only has no voice in that discussion, it has actively been depriving itself of a relevant one and angrily continues to do so to this very day.

        • Michael, you implied that Trump’s presidency was a first attempt to give a voice to the excluded. The figures I cited suggest to me that there are few grounds for arguing that he gained any greater support from people who can reasonably be described as ‘excluded’ than Clinton did – in fact, the reverse. But if you can provide some evidence to support your inference, I’d be interested to hear it. Likewise, my comment that the left has already given voice to the excluded – along with other figures (Abraham Lincoln? LBJ?) – was intended to counter your view that Trump has been the ‘first’ to do so. So I find your questions about who would win a re-contest today irrelevant. Though one thing we’ve learned in recent elections is that voting is volatile, so I don’t think a left victory in such a contest would necessarily be surprising. Indeed, if I remember rightly Greer himself suggested that a Sanders candidacy would probably have defeated Trump.

          Regarding the EU, well again I’m going to be writing more about that soon but in brief I’d agree that a focus on present day EU boundary-marking would be a good idea – one of the things I think it would reveal is that the dominant anti-EU voices in current European politics would like to press the EU’s imperial boundary-marking projects yet further and are completely on-message with its basic logic. However, I think they’re fighting a losing battle by employing old economic and cultural logics in the face of new realities they’re powerless to change. Regrettably, though, there’s plenty of misery in prospect before the battle is over. And probably afterwards as well.

          I’d disagree that the left has deprived itself of a voice in this discussion – I’d argue that elements of the left in Portugal, Spain and Greece in particular have participated in it quite adroitly, and there are signs that the UK left is beginning to catch up. Other elements of the left – well yes, not so much. But political constellations are always messy things.

          • Chris, I think we’re at an impasse here. My reference to a ‘voice of the excluded’ is not the zero-sum concept you’re employing when it comes to political representation.

            Among other things, your strictly historical use of a ‘first’ to me is without meaning in the realm of politics, save for a purely statistical one.

            And that dimension of the political ‘now’ seems to have been lost to a whole generation of leftist thinkers, and have become their repressed, which is its own return.

            If you know your Freud, the form it’s returning in is inevitably unrecognizable for the subject.
            Ranciere vs. Habermas, SJWs vs. Trump.

            Again, I’m arguing in favour of a renewal of the left here, just not the screaming, mouth-foaming, ill-educated kind we seem to have educated the last generations into.
            The right will take care of itself; unlike the left, it always does.

          • Yes, I think we’re at an impasse. I’d agree that chronological priority is a bit meaningless, but I think your use of ‘first’ invites it – I can see few other sensible interpretations of the word in your sentence. Citing the polling numbers is a crude but, I think, adequate rebuttal for Greer’s level of Trump apologetics qua Trump garnering the electoral support of ‘the excluded’. Granted, it’s not up to the job of contesting your much more meta take on what ‘giving voice to the excluded’ means by way of Freud’s return of the repressed, but I find the concept somewhat questionable in its own terms and spurious in the context you invoke. SJWs vs. Trump as a return of the repressed? Hmm, is it worth me trying to explain how problematic I find that line of argument? It’s tempting, but maybe we should just stick with the impasse. Still, perhaps at least we agree on favouring a renewal of the left. However, I don’t agree that the left is any more screaming, mouth-foaming, and ill-educated than other political traditions. In fact, a common criticism of it these days along Lakoff framing lines is that it’s too educated and rational. You can’t win, really. Nor do I think the right will necessarily take care of itself, though I sort of agree that historically it’s usually done a better job than the left. Currently, though, I see it unravelling in numerous ways of its own devising.

        • The fact Michael, that you’d even use such a term like SJW, which is made to deligitimize women, people of color and LGBTQ people who are working for serious adjustments to structural inequality.. Well, it makes all your other highfalutin theoretical words collapse as we all see that your efforts for a better world aren’t about actually making it better for humans, but some gross Hobbesian 28 Days Later post apocalypse.

          • Indeed, the idea of Trump as a ‘return of the repressed’ for ‘SJWs’ is revealing – and, to me, an oddly lop-sided conferral of normativity to the former and agency to the latter.

  7. Hmmm, a pitched argument with Ruben and I merely members of the audience. Political constellations indeed. [I do know where one might find a seriously old olive tree if branches are wanted… thanks Ruben]

    I must have missed Michael’s assertion that Trump is the first to pull for the excluded. But I could suggest there is a certain demographic that Trump and his alt-right cronies (think Steve Bannon) do seem to appeal to, and one which was previously not circumscribed in the terms now employed. This would be the lower to middle class white population in the more rural heartland of the US. Previous attempts to offer inclusion – such as those of the 60s Dems and LBJ were targeted along racial lines. A war on poverty initiated at that time also had strongly racial tones, but where welfare programs may have had heart and some degree of color blindness they ultimately failed to deliver a rescue. [Lincoln’s abolitionist successes – under the light of today’s political winds – seem fascinating when one recalls he was the first Republican candidate to win the White House… and Southern Democrats his fiercest opponents in the effort… so yep political constellations evolve]

    It is also worth noting that the statistics Chris cites reflect a whole nation’s polling… and misses the point that the Electoral College is what counts. Add to this the overwhelming support from a religious right and you start to see the formation of a coalition – a very messy political constellation.

    There was another series of elections held here in the US on Tuesday last. Many of the tea leaf readers are suggesting Trump’s first year has not helped his (or current Republicans in general) overall chances. So whether one wants to hypothesize about whether DT could be re-elected if a vote where held now… I imagine his chances greatly diminished by current events.

    Changing directions for a second – I am fascinated by the discussion of boundaries going on here. The Catalonian question in Spain, the cultural riff between Germany and Greece with regard to fiscal discipline, Brussels as a community of political elites… and I have to confess a rather distant gaze toward these issues (somewhat akin to a Brit’s impressions of nuance in North American culture wars and politics).

    I find myself a boundary conscious sort. And boundaries are a very complex issue – far more complex than a mere mark on a map might suggest. Boundaries, be they personal, political, racial, economic, or geographic. will likely continue to be very significant far into any future we dream of where human beings still exist.

    • Yep, it’s true that Trump polled much higher than Clinton among (white) rural voters. If the assertion was that “Trump was a first attempt in recent presidential campaigns to give a voice to the hitherto excluded category of white rural voters” I’d probably go along with it. That’s a very different claim to saying it was a first attempt at giving a voice to the excluded, for reasons that hopefully I don’t have to explain.

      Going beyond basic voting metrics, I’m interested to hear from those with a less distant gaze than me on US rural issues if the Trump administration has been trying to give a voice to rural people in any concrete policy terms.

      On Europe, I think I’ll hold fire until I write about it in a month or two. Except to say I’m sympathetic to the argument that the EU is an irredeemable neoliberal empire and you don’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, even though I don’t agree with it. But hopefully it’s clear that that isn’t the same as saying that any secessionist movement or anti-EU grouping must intrinsically be worthy of support.

      • Going beyond basic voting metrics, I’m interested to hear from those with a less distant gaze than me on US rural issues if the Trump administration has been trying to give a voice to rural people in any concrete policy terms

        A great question. Coal politics have received some attention, but I don’t imagine they matter any more than to deflect attention from larger issues (as I’ve alluded to earlier). A subject that I do imagine has some gravity is the RFS (renewable fuels standard). This is the program to require blending of renewable liquid fuels with petroleum (read ethanol and biodiesel… but politically here, read corn ethanol). About 3 weeks ago this piece was published:

        Full disclosure, my little farm in Ohio had a corn crop this last summer – so in a real sense this issue does have economic consequences for me (though they are quite small).

        But the complexities around this issue seem to grow about as quickly as a corn plant. On one hand economists can estimate the added value to the commodity price from use of corn to make fuel. On the other hand, farmers can look at the proposed RFS and the economist’s predictions of increased price (and more importantly, the futures market… apologies for beating a dying horse)… and these farmers can (and did) increase the acreage planted to corn which, with a decent weather situation, increases overall supply more than necessary for the RFS… SO – anticipated prices didn’t materialize. And yes, without the RFS there’d likely be a smaller crop. But there is also the matter of changing the rules in the middle of the game. US EPA proposed a roll back of RFS targets (see link) at the end of the summer… after all that corn was standing in the field awaiting harvest.

        The president overruled his own EPA to block the RFS rollback. This does stay true to a promise he made in Iowa during the race.

        To further complicate this issue – can one *really* consider an American farmer, typically a serious capitalist with 6 or 7 digit expenses at risk – a poor white person? They obviously do qualify as rural. But the RFS also creates jobs. Some ethanol plant workers could fit into the demographic outlined earlier. And the RFS does take a stab at globalism… the oil replaced by biofuel isn’t burned and thus not imported from an OPEC source (or pumped out of a US well) and the carbon balance is less affected.

        The corn glut? Glad you asked. Many would argue we should not make fuel with things we can eat. I take the opposite view… so long as we don’t allow anyone to starve so someone else can drive a gas guzzler just because they can afford to. My rationale comes back to flexibility. If you choose to allocate production along end use expectations – using non-food crops like switch grass for fuel – and there is a drought, you can’t eat the switch grass. And the rolled back allocation to a food crop, experiencing the drought, will result in even higher prices still for the resulting food. The poor lose by a wider margin.

        Life on Earth. If it were easy, even the Martians would try it.

      • Audre Lorde is crediting with saying you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. It is patently false. A hammer is useful in both operations, and it does not care who wields it.

        What I think is more apt is to say that you can’t fix power abuse by grabbing power yourself. That capital error of the bolshies has been repeated over and over. John Holloway is a lone voice crying in the desert (of neo-Marxism) on this one.

      • Thanks for that Clem. Very interesting. Any more thoughts on how the Trump project is playing in the rural US would be gratefully received.

        Vera, well yes I’d have to agree with you in terms of a literal interpretation. I’m somewhat inclined to defend Lorde’s maxim in figurative terms, along the lines that there is more than one kind of power. But not enough to pick a quarrel with you over it.

        • There *is* more than one kind of power. But when people talk about grabbing power from the power grabbers, it’s ‘Power over’ they’re talking about, no?

      • “… concrete policy terms” Hahaha.

        I will now take a moment and try to regain my nice polite composure.

        Politics here is team sports, and people vote almost entirely by the colors of the players’ jerseys. Policy does get discussed, but the laws enacted for the last 35 years around here have always seemed to benefit the moneyed elite, whoever the president. Bush Jr. sent me a check for $800 once. I’m not holding my breath for Trump to do anything like that.

        The Trump voters I know are still pretty happy about beating all those liberals that treat them like idiots. The people I know who are actually conservative still hate Trump, but they are slightly relieved at his ineffectiveness. I don’t know anyone who is richer than minor millionaire, and all of us up and down the spectrum seem to have been muddling along for the last year about like we did before.

        Clem is right, farmers may be rural and mostly white, but they are not generally poor. And even in the rural areas they are a minority. The rural working classes mostly drive trucks, or do construction, or repair cars.

        Clem is also correct about the Republicans being the party descended from Lincoln, and the Democrats being the party of secessionist Southern slaveholders. Whenever I reminded anyone of that during 2016, the conversation just kind of drifted off.

        This is way off topic, but since I am agreeing with you so much Clem, this may be your opportunity to try to convince me that corn ethanol is something other than a stock scam for subsidy mining, and that it has a net energy output substantially greater than zero.

        • Thanks for that, Eric. I kind of expected the sort of answer you gave…so it was worth asking my innocent little question.

          ‘Muddling along for the last year about like we did before’ rings true, but I’m still wondering if it’ll turn out that anything significant changed with Trump’s election.

          As I said above in the discussion with Michael, Trump’s polling figures look bang on like every other recent Republican candidate. However he wants to spin those figures, I don’t see the evidence that there’s any kind of new socio-demographic impetus behind Trump. So maybe my initial shock at his election was unwarranted. But perhaps there’s a more overt racial coding that’s significant?

          • Oh, yathink?
            But you know, every time I hear someone call Trump and his followers racist, I feel like the word doesn’t quite fit. The racism is there all right but it’s not the point, it just comes with the fantasy world he sold.

            That fantasy world is one of dominance. It’s very childish – regressive, decadent – this idea that somehow America is going to regain its dominance in the world primarily by just acting like we are dominant. And that dominance is coded white by default (we need a Wall etc. etc.) Well, you don’t have to be white, you can be a junior member of the team even if non-white, as long as you get on board with the fantasy. So it’s not entirely racist in that sense, ’cause you can sign on. But you are signing on to a fantasy of latter-day (white) dominance.
            Anyway that’s how I read the dog-horn (as Alexandra Petri puts it.)

            So I think calling him just another Republican is an insult to some of the finer Republican people I know, who in some respects, some of the time, seem to have a better grasp of the reality principle than some Democrats. Sometimes. And of course Obama sold a fantasy world in 2008 especially, so there’s that, but it was a much nicer fantasy from my point of view. Trump’s fantasy gives me, as a non-white person, the heebie-freaking-jeebies.

        • Why thank you Eric – and not off topic at all:

          This is way off topic, but since I am agreeing with you so much Clem, this may be your opportunity to try to convince me that corn ethanol is something other than a stock scam for subsidy mining, and that it has a net energy output substantially greater than zero.

          Several pieces to puzzle together from where I view it. As stock scam for subsidy mining… it has worn that mantle and may well wear it for a time yet. And though I dislike hiding behind a “Well the other guys are doing it too” argument, I thought I may as well toss it out there. [the other guys being the petroleum industry and their subsidies] Other renewables such as wind and solar are still being subsidized – though so long as energy costs remain high and technology improvements occur it does seem the subsidies for wind and solar should subside. Corn ethanol subsidies should also shrink as technologies improve – but to be honest I don’t look for their waning to match the rate for the other renewables.

          And to the issue of the net energy output being substantially greater than zero… this is a value issue as well as a technical one. Most of the estimates I know of peg the ethanol energy out vs the input energy at 1.5. Not impressive I will agree. Externality calculations would press down on this estimate a bit – but externalities are not held up against its competitors, so I think I’ll stick with a humble 1.5 for the time being.

          The competition takes long stored carbon and introduces it into the atmosphere after burning. Corn EtOH takes atmospheric carbon and recycles it. This is done here in the US, where I will admit we can suck oil from the earth – but much is still imported and the externalities of global oil relocation tend to be overlooked. These particular angles of the externality calculation are some of the industry’s stronger arguments but typically only earn it a few warm and fuzzy glances. Oh well.

          I know I’m sawing a log with a nail file, but I could also offer that within the industrial ag sector of plant breeding there have been investments in corn breeding to make advances on the raw material side. This is happening and it has made some progress. Tipped the needle from 1.5 to 2.0?… well, no, and I doubt it will anytime soon. But there are investments being made, employment being engaged, solutions being sought. And to hook onto a point I made above – that corn is also a food – any knowledge gained in breeding corn for EtOH can benefit corn breeding for food use.

          I won’t pile on the distillers dry grains aspect here unless folks inquire. But to close I do agree with Chris and I think Eric on the grounds that the Trump wagon has not delivered much of substance. I think Eric’s insight: The Trump voters I know are still pretty happy about beating all those liberals that treat them like idiots. The people I know who are actually conservative still hate Trump, but they are slightly relieved at his ineffectiveness. is spot on.

          Where I might offer a suggestion for future ruminating on the fuel/food debate is how we as a species might want to regulate a system so that when resource prices spike there is some safety net to push the dichotomy toward food for the poor vs gas guzzling for the rich. This dichotomy’s existence is not the fault of the corn plant… we started it, and we should manage it.

    • Yes, any drawn boundary is replete with history – ghosts, scars, wounds, racial and ethnic myths, implicit wars hot and cold – as well as on-going political/power disputes. So to talk of boundaries in general (UK vs US even) is almost impossible, or at least would require a very large time commitment to sort out and make conscious and common the implicit histories in whatever boundaries we might be talking about.

      I am no lover of boundaries because, it seems to me, that they must be militarized. And there is no boundary (or other mere idea) worth killing each other over.

      That being said, I do fantasize about being able to limit the migration of retired suburban white sun-seekers with their high resource demands and general placeless-ness into my district, which is a place with a still vital foundation in our native, indigenous culture, atop which is a post-modernist immigrant feral/rural culture – something like a reconstituted peasantry. But I wouldnʻt want to militarize the border over it, even if that kind of (racial) power were feasible. But I offer it as a thought experiment for boundary fans….please see it as a coin with another side, or at least it ought to have another side if we are speaking of reason rather than power.
      Also, of course, as a local farmer, as local farmers do worldwide Iʻm sure, I fantasize about being a little less victimized by global commodity pricing. Perhaps that is the kind of boundary you are interested in, Chris?

      • I fantasize about being a little less victimized by global commodity pricing.

        One would think that global pricing would even out the fluctuations in pricing that would occur with purely ‘local’ markets. If your only market is people in Ka’u, or even the Big Island, the price of beef could go very low in bumper years, with a lot of ‘wasted’ surplus stock to carry over, and through the roof in drought years, with a lot of dead animals to deal with. With a larger market, you may not have a lot of price transparency, but at least you know you can sell pretty much everything you grow.

        The alternative to global markets is to diversify in a local market. When my grandparents were farming in eastern Oregon, they grew many different kinds of crops to average out the vagaries of the market, which was regional in size. They always had their peach orchard and milk sales, but would also plant a wide variety of field crops to stabilize their income. Since they irrigated everything, they rarely had a massive crop failure.

        Every once in while they would take on a crop like alfalfa seed, which if successful had a good chance of high profit margin. Alfalfa seed depended on a high population of either resident leaf-cutter bees or alkali bees for pollination, so success could not be counted on, but if they were lucky they made a lot of money that year. School kids all over the region would dabble in the market for bee-boards (boards with holes drilled just the right size to attract leaf-cutter bees) which they would sell to alfalfa seed farmers to augment their bee population.

        I guess I’m being long-winded about saying that there is an optimum amount of diversification depending on the size of the market. If the market is tiny (or if growing only for one’s family) maximum diversification is required. Only very large markets allow such a thing as monoculture farming.

      • Nicely put, Michelle. Yes, your two examples capture much about the boundaries I’d like to see respected – essentially, relatively autonomous local and regional economies, which would have to involve safeguards against external hot money and speculative rentierism. Additionally, I am a bit sympathetic to low income people in rich countries like the UK who are none too happy about getting sidelined by their counterparts from lower income countries, either as immigrants or competitors in the global economy – though my sympathy is tempered by the fact that said lower income countries have had the same historical experience, and then some, without any great benevolence from the core. A characteristic populist response is to get defensive about immigration, national boundaries and notions of local culture, which I think is a mistake for numerous reasons, some of which you mention. I’d argue that there are genuine cultural boundaries, but as soon as people start trying to fix and defend them as ‘a’ culture, especially by tying them to a given centralised state, they trap themselves in endless futilities, some of them highly malevolent. Far better to focus on securing local economies – culture will then more or less take care of itself, without fixing itself in aspic.

        And also nicely put, Joe. Is there a ‘Goldilocks’ scale for economic resilience between the dangers of purely autarkic individual self-reliance and the dangers of monocultural global markets?

        • Though it would be thought laughably small radius now, I think the optimum scale for a land based market is measured by the distance a horse and loaded cart can travel in a day on fairly level dirt roads, say 20 miles. Canal, lake or sea travel would enable much longer distances. I’ve read that in North American colonial times it was about the same cost to send a ton of freight 30 miles inland from a port city as to send it to Europe.

          This 20 mile land distance is the pre-railroad distance. Rail magnifies land markets dramatically, even if powered by wood. You folks in Europe may always have some rail available in a low energy future, since tracks crisscross everywhere, but the Americas let rail stagnate.

          My island gave up the rail it had about 70 years ago, although we do have a couple of ports. I live about 40 miles away from them and terrain here is mountainous, so my market will shrink to a few miles in diameter. In pre-European-Contact times, nobody lived where I live due to its remoteness from the sea, but they didn’t have horses then as we do now.

          • Thanks for that Joe. Interesting. There are similar figures for the costs of shipping grain from Egypt to Rome and then from the port to the city in imperial times.

      • You can’t have a boundary worth its salt without it being enforced. Saying pretty please to an assaulter ain’t gonna do you any good. And if you don’t want to be victimized by globalism, you gotta have boundaries. Just like you need boundaries that are enforced if you are to hold onto your farm against any squatters that may come along.

        And yes, there are boundaries worth killing each other over. If you are walking down an alley with your child, and a thug drops down on you threatening to kill you both, of course you gotta fight, even unto death if necessary.

        I confess I just don’t get the no boundary people. Everything living has boundaries. The dead, of course, don’t. Maybe that’s the point, killing our civilization via destruction of all sorts of boundaries.

        And as far as I can tell, at least some of the no boundary people care very much about the boundaries around their own communities but play loose and easy with other people’s boundaries.

  8. One would think indeed, Joe Clarkson of Hamakuashire. You’ll get no argument from me on the virtues of diversity. As for my mono crop of cattle, well, it’s what works in the biophysical socio-economic dispensation, for now.

  9. Vera,
    Well if someone were to offer to assault me I’d be perfectly willing to assault them right back. And keep a few items around the house for that unlikely occasion. But it’s ideas that I don’t think worth killing each other over. Sometimes the line between an actual thing and the idea of it can be a little blurry, but there still is a difference, at least practically speaking, most of the time.

    Also practically speaking, I was talking with a friend of mine who runs a large ranch. Under her father’s leadership the family was famous for its verging-on-paranoid enforcement of the ranch boundaries with weapons literally drawn occasionally. And people in the neighboring village, mostly young men wanting to go pig-hunting on the ranch (land leased from the state and therefore essentially stolen from the native people), were always cutting their fences, killing their cows and goats and generally trespassing. Well, under the daughter’s leadership she works with the community of hunters to manage access instead of trying to shut them out entirely and she has a much better time of it. The daughter is pretty tough too, but she’s open to better ways of doing things.

    • To kill over ideas is the province of tyrants (of either political stripe). Behavior, on the other hand…

      I quite agree with your example, which goes with Elinor Ostrom’s idea of graduated sanctions, and working it out where ever possible. But note that does not make the boundaries any less real. In fact, having defensible boundaries is one of the Ostrom principles, without which the whole system of managing the commons properly breaks down and becomes the tragedy of the commons.

  10. On the boundary thing, I have more sympathy with the ‘no boundary’ people, although I’m perhaps more concerned that we might all have to take sides on this (oh the irony), and inevitably start straw-manning each other or talking at cross purposes.

    I do think care is needed with the idea of culture, as it’s often raised either as the justification for political boundaries, or from another perspective as something that should be seen as separate from political boundaries and therefore a realm in which we might still define boundaries without having to support political ones.

    The very idea of culture (and not just ‘a’ culture) actually seems to me to be of a piece with nationalism, which (in)famously concerns itself with ‘imagined communities’. Nationalism supplies the political side and culture the field for everything else (aside from economics) that goes in to defining bounded communities of one kind or another. Economics forms the exception because historically (at least over the last century and a half or so) nationalism has been the other side of the coin to economic liberalism.

    I don’t think it’s possible to talk of cultural boundaries at all, even if you’re careful not to define specific cultures (and actually, one goes with the other, surely?). The kinds of things we think of as ‘cultural’ are so many and varied in their types, so diffuse in their different distributions, that hard boundaries are impossible. Culture is really about connections between people, so we’re looking at hundreds of overlapping and interpenetrating meshes.

    And I certainly agree that boundaries ‘worth their salt’ are consciously enforced. But that’s the point: they’re political for that reason, not ‘cultural’. That means that to be worthy of its salt the politics from which it emerges has to be likewise worthy. So we’re back to trying to define the ‘best’ kind of politics. Michelle’s pig-hunting story seems to me to express some of the more admirable elements of a ‘good’ politics.

    • So my saying no to someone attempting rape and fighting back is a political act? I suppose it can be thought so… but it seems it is a cultural act as well — women in cultures that support mistreatment of women are far less likely to be effective in enforcing their personal boundaries… Just trying to work out your meaning….

      • I suppose I was thinking about the boundaries that people draw around groups rather than personal boundaries. I’m not so concerned about classifying personal assault or defence against it as ‘political acts’ or not, but I’d definitely argue that the definition and enforcement of personal boundaries is a job for politics of some kind.

        When you talk about ‘cultures that support the mistreatment of women’, I think the word ‘culture’ often implies a kind of naturalized state of affairs (though that may not have been your meaning), and opens the door to some people to suggest that assaulting women is an aspect of various attributes of group identification such as ethnicity. That’s why I think the focus needs to stay on political processes, not cultural classifications, which will always in any case tend to simplify and reify fluid social dynamics.

        • I am not sure I am getting you, Andrew. When, for example, we began to fight against smoker abuse of us all by lighting up wherever they pleased, elevators, planes, it was at first a cultural battle, relying on both medicine and personal freedoms for argumentation. Only when the culture turned, were first local regulations and then broad laws enacted that supported what clearly the majority wanted. (Btw, I don’t support laws that forbid smoking in bars, but once politics and bureaucracy enters, they push and push regardless of whether it makes sense.)
          The battle against domestic abuse was at first cultural too, with second wave feminists making a huge dent. And now there is a struggle against verbal/emotional abuse (to pick a topic I am familiar with) where the battle is all cultural because you can’t crack down on crazymaking manipulators (unless they start with hitting or fraud) with laws, nor should you have that option.

          Some people have a saying that the culture leads and politics follows. I have seen that a lot. Where do you disagree? Where am I suggesting that culture is not fluid?

  11. Thanks for this interesting culture/boundaries debate while I was offline over the weekend. I guess my instinct is to sit on the boundary fence. I think it can be useful to think in terms of culture areas and culture histories – often in terms of the way that spiritual or religious ideologies inform the nature of political boundary marking, which isn’t the same globally: Christendom, Islam, Hinduism/Buddhism. But culture is always plural, changing, nomadic, interactive. It’s not some unitary thing that people ‘have’. So I’m unimpressed by the notions of culture typically invoked in nationalist ideology or immigration debates – the ‘clash’ of ‘alien’ cultures etc. That’s not to say that there are no difficulties around immigration, or that ‘culture’ isn’t involved in them at some level. But a ‘clash of cultures’ isn’t an explanation – it’s something that needs to be explained, not least because there are numerous examples of ‘cultures’ that don’t ‘clash’. And these things change over time in response to various different political signifiers. There’s a good article in the latest New Left Review by Régis Debray, of all people, on the difference between ‘cultures’ and ‘civilisations’ and the ways in which they do and don’t mix, which I found very thought-provoking.

    • Yes, but clash of cultures occurs all the time. The personality disordered people have a very different culture, where lying, trickery, manipulation, and other oneupmanship strategies are what garners respect of other personality disordered people, whereas the culture of sane or somewhat neurotic people promotes fair play and honest dealings. Two very different cultures. Do they clash? The evidence is all around us.

      On the other hand, the culture of Moravians and Slovaks is somewhat different, yet we don’t really clash. On the other hand, Scots and non-Scots are not really that different, yet the clash was there from the battle of Culloden and before. Some religious cultures clashed in the past, and don’t clash now. It seems to me that all this is obvious and trivial. I don’t see where the no borders people are coming from at all. I’d like to see them hand the keys to their own estate to some newcomers from parts of the world where the values held practically guarantee some form of culture clash, and see what happens.

      • A problem here, I think, is that ‘culture’ is one of those words – like ‘nature’ – that means too many different things to different people. I wouldn’t myself distinguish between ‘personality-disordered’ and ‘sane’ people on the basis of ‘culture’ so your examples don’t really work for me. Nor would I hand the keys to my estate to anyone I didn’t trust and who I felt had a deep understanding of how it worked, so this example doesn’t quite work for me either. I reckon there would be some people from ‘other’ cultures who I’d be far happier to hand the keys to than some people from ‘my’ culture…though granted on average it might take longer to reach the point of trust with someone from ‘another’ culture and iron out potential misunderstandings. But I’m not sure that’s to the point in terms of the wider issues being debated here. I suspect there may also be a kind of double consciousness issue here in relation to the colonising power of ‘western culture’: somebody migrating to the UK from, let’s say, the Punjab, would probably have a much better idea about how to interact appropriately with an Englishman in England than I would about how to interact appropriately with a Punjabi in the Punjab,

      • Vera, this has moved on a bit since I was last online this morning, but to answer some of your points…

        Keeping in mind Chris’s point about culture meaning different things to different people, it’s interesting that you describe the actions of ‘crazymaking manipulators’ as a culture. I don’t know enough about this, so these are uninformed observations, but given that emotional manipulation is a widespread psycho-social ‘strategy’, albeit varying widely in implication and intensity, I don’t really understand how its use can define a particular culture – especially as the forms it takes presumably vary according to other contingent factors, domestic, economic, etc. But I wonder, is the ‘culture’ label used to describe the regular, repetitive use of this strategy by certain kinds of very unpleasant people? A habitual use, in the libidinal, unconscious urge sense?

        In my experience, ‘culture’ labels are often applied to behaviours that appear habitual. Take your smoking example, something I have more experience with. The ‘culture’ of smoking is often recognised as the host of ways in which it structures a smoker’s life, giving some kind of satisfaction in various regularly repeated situations, both individual and social. Breaking away from those little moments of joy is very difficult at a personal level, and even harder when dealing with communal contexts like smoking in pubs.

        I know these sorts of habits are often described as cultures, and can see the sense in talking of cultural battles, as you describe. But the important point for me is that these battles are not cashes of culture, because not smoking, or not habitually emotionally manipulating, are not themselves habitual acts (or non-acts). What’s happening ultimately is that some people are asking (urging, forcing) other people to actively think about their destructive habits and change their behaviour accordingly. Unconscious stuff is being made conscious.

        As far as I can see this just doesn’t work when you turn to Scots, Moravians, Slovaks or Punjabis. I think the label of ‘culture’ is here again being used to describe things that are assumed to be unconscious – hence when Chris talks about acting appropriately with a Punjabi, he’s presumably talking about acting in a way the Punjabi would expect someone to act – the implication is that Punjabis have a certain specific set of expectations about whatever this situation is. Now, fair enough, we all carry round habitual expectations about how everyday life works – we presumably couldn’t function otherwise. But these are also challenged everyday in countless little ways, as I think you say, but this isn’t culture clash, it’s just life. Most of the time such challenges are a good thing too, as they’re basically how we learn.

        The idea, then, that all these different habits, which apply to all sorts of different situations, and are always changing under daily challenge, as bits of the unconscious are made conscious – the idea that all these can be bundled together to define extensive, uniform, stable ‘cultural provinces’, and that moreover the clashing of the edges of these provinces is something to be avoided and policed, just beggars belief – or it would if so many people didn’t seem to believe it.

        I’m afraid I don’t know any Slovaks or Moravians, but assuming you have firsthand: experience of being one or the other, are you really able to put your finger on any one habitual characteristic that distinguishes all (or even most) Moravians from Skovaks? You say you don’t clash – presumably it’s actually quite fun to interact and explore difference of outlook and opinion, much like life in general really. Could you honestly say there’s any real point in maintaining the formal distinction between the two ‘peoples’?

    • Thanks for the article tip. I’d never heard of Regis Debray. Quite the guy. Aside from being used by the French to troll themselves, it certainly doesn’t feel like American “civilization” won anything, especially with our un-forced epidemic of gun violence and opioid deaths. But his theses around the relationship between culture and civilization are insightful.

  12. How do you define culture? I think it’s a set of habits, traditions, ways of speaking and conceptualizing, ways of dealing with other people, earth, animals, artifacts come into it too… beekepers have their own culture. So do psychopaths. What’s baffling about it?

    As far as I can tell, people on the left are uneasy about the term because one of the left canards is that all cultures are equal, whatever they mean by it. It’s not true about individual humans, and neither is it true about cultures (of any sort). I am all for leveling in a certain sense of the word, but not for lying.

    • For me, lying doesn’t come into it. Different opinions maybe do. Equality is something you can assess between individuals on the basis of some kind of quantifiable criterion, like income. But the equality or otherwise of cultures makes no sense to me. Who’s judging, why are they judging, on what (cultural) grounds are they judging, and what contexts and subtleties might their judgments be flattening? That’s not the same as saying that all ‘cultures’ are equal or that it’s not OK to criticise aspects of other ‘cultures’ (albeit bearing in mind the various caveats above about the problematic drawing of boundaries around ‘culture’). But trying to evaluate one culture in toto against another seems to me a futile exercise, and one that’s usually pre-constructed to serve the agenda of the evaluator.

    • Well, my typing is so slow that this has moved on again from the points I just commented on. I agree with the futility of evaluating cultures as Chris describes, but to focus on your first point Vera, what’s baffling is how you can usefully hope to define all these ‘cultures’ given how much they vary across space and, perhaps more importantly time – not just in the historical sense but in the developments and transformations of lived experience.

      • So do I. As far as I have seen, people who claim all cultures are equal have provided no evidence. Andrew, just because something is slippery to define does not mean it does not exist. To speak of a culture is valid. And culture cannot be reduced to politics. That’s the point I was trying to make.

        My hope for this blog, for example, is that it will be useful in growing a new kind of agrarian culture. Not politics, though perhaps that too, But it’s the agrarian culture that is key, in my view. Just focusing on politics while the cultural work remains undone is a prescription for failure. IMO.

        • I don’t argue that cultures do not exist, only that they are many and varied, and crucially evolving and transforming, and cannot be articulated by simple territorial models. think you’re right that culture cannot be reduced to politics, but I don’t think it can be separated from it either.if culture simply describes ways of doing things, or thinking about things, then whether or not to do or think them has to be controlled by politics of some kind. If culture is habitual them it simply there to be propagated; it’s passive, and must be changed or defended by political action.

          In an earlier comment you referred to political change occurring after cultural change, and appeared to link political change with the setting of rules and laws. I wonder then if our differences are partly semantic: I would give a broader definition to politics, acting with purpose within a group context to alter collective will/behaviour/action, so not only legislative politics but, local politics, parish politics, neighborhood politics. If you’re trying to change culture, then you’re already doing politics.

          Given disparities in geology, climate, hydrology, etc, I don’t suppose this blog will come up with a single agrarian culture that can be reproduced across the world. And speaking as an ignorant urbanite, it often seems to me that the kinds of agrarian regimes required by a small farm future are already clear to many people here, or at least there is concensus on a broad direction of travel. The tricky part is surely the politics, the means to change the current cultures of mass industrial society and direct people’s actions towards creating new local farming cultures. Perhaps we agree on this and are describing it in different ways…

        • Interesting little turn in the debate. I guess my approach on the blog has changed a bit from focusing on sustainable agrarianism to focusing on the political structures that might make sustainable agrarianism possible. While I think it’s possible to talk about ‘agrarian culture’ in some ways separately from politics, and I hope I might do that some more here in future, ultimately it’s the politics that enables or constrains the culture. And at a higher level of generality, as I suggested above, politics is also cultural. In fact, I’d argue that most problems – environmental, agrarian, political -ultimately have cultural or, dare I say, spiritual roots…another reason to suggest that cultures (or maybe I should call them ideologies…) aren’t unitary, but conflictual…

          • The Populists started with culture, and when they wandered into politics, they were wildly successful for a moment, precisely because they laid the cultural seedbed. But then, misreading the signs, they bet heavily on politics and lost. If they had kept on laying the cultural seedbed for another generation, letting the politics follow, I think there is a very good chance they would have won.

            Cultures are not ideologies. Ideologies are collections of ideas. Cultures contain ideas, but they come into being by doing. Cuisines, ways of dressing, local customs, local arts and crafts, local dialects, all that used to be part of culture. And in some parts, still is. The modern medical culture, for example, is very careful about prescribing the correct dress based on the pecking order, they have their own jargon, their own internal “laws” that protect each other when malfeasance occurs, their customs that guide them every day. And it even has its own heretics. Just one example…

            I think I would agree, Chris, that ideology and culture are in constant interplay.

          • Yes, culture as practice is an excellent point. Though one of the big themes in the social sciences has been the way in which structure (or ideology, if you will…) and practice condition each other – eg. Pierre Bourdieu ‘The Logic of Practice’, probably the best of the bunch. So I’d argue that culture-as-practice doesn’t negate culture-as-ideology. However, I agree that it’s a good idea, so to speak, to keep the notion of practice to the fore.

          • Sounds good. I would only like to add something I meant to say ever since you changed the picture at the top of your blog. I fantasize about buying that near barren field to the right of you and doing with it what you did.

            That picture speaks a thousand words! 🙂 How can we make it go viral?

          • Thanks Vera. That field was growing organic cereals until recently, which was kinda cool. But it now seems to have been sprayed with herbicide, which kinda isn’t. Not sure how to viralise the photo, but do feel free to publicise Small Farm Future as you wish…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *