The supersedure state

I said that I wanted to focus on the shape of possible agrarian, post-capitalist states of the future in my forthcoming writing, so I thought I’d anticipate that here by reproducing my article from the current issue of The Land magazine (Issue 22, 2018, pp.28-30). The editors of that august journal in their wisdom entitled it ‘The human hive’ (and accompanied it with some beautiful woodcut illustrations of an apian nature), but here it goes under my preferred title of ‘The supersedure state’. My next few posts are going to attend to various other items of business – though some of them do bear on this theme – but I thought I’d lay this out now as a kind of organising concept for the things I want to write about agrarian states, which I’ll try to fill out in more detail on this site shortly. So I’ll be coming back to this – but in the meantime, of course I’d welcome any comments. I’m not sure if this is exactly the same version as the one that appeared in The Land, but I think it’s close enough.

oOo

The tumult of recent political events in many western countries has brought a new word to the lips of political commentators – populism. Generally, populism and its personification in figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage has been presented in mainstream circles as a dangerous political turn, a threat to the established order of things, and not without good reason. But for those who’d like to replace the present global neoliberal economy with a more local, more equitable and more land-based or agrarian society there are overlaps with populism that raise a few questions – in particular, these three:

  1. ‘Populism’ means a politics of or for ‘the people’, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – so what’s the problem with it?
  2. Are there any fruitful links between the populisms now emerging in contemporary western countries and an older and now largely forgotten politics associated with peasant parties in various countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a politics known as ‘agrarian populism’?
  3. If populism threatens the established order, perhaps that’s no bad thing and represents a political opportunity of some kind – but what kind?

The answer to the first question is that populist positions often involve an over-simplified contrast between ‘ordinary people’ and a scapegoated ‘elite’, which is seen as thwarting the interests of the former – and there are tacit rules of inclusion and exclusion regarding membership in both categories that aren’t politically innocent. In the populist politics of Brexit, for example, ‘ordinary people’ has a nationalist coding that excludes migrants, including long-term residents from continental Europe, especially East Europeans. And the ‘elite’ has a class and political coding that mostly references liberal, urban, left-wing ‘chattering classes’ rather than the chief wielders of economic power.

So the problem with a populist politics of the people is that ‘the people’ is usually a less inclusive term than it appears, and the solution to their problems is usually more complicated than the humbling of the elite that’s proposed. Nevertheless, it might still be plausibly argued that in the present era of neoliberal globalisation, there are elites which organise against the interests of ordinary people, and the latter have not been well served by the game of ping-pong between lookalike politicians that passes for democratic politics. That argument can be taken in numerous directions, some of which might endorse an anti-elitist politics for ‘ordinary people’ without endorsing any of the populisms currently on the table, from Donald Trump’s Republican presidency to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership.

Spooling back a century or so, it becomes a little easier to grasp what a populist politics of ordinary people against the elite meant. In various countries – the USA, Russia, Mexico and India, to name a few – most ‘ordinary people’ were small-scale and typically self-sustaining (or ‘peasant’) farmers, many of whom considered their interests to be in conflict with various political, financial, colonial or aristocratic elites in their home countries, and organised an anti-elitist populist politics of the people accordingly, for example in the form of the US Populist Party, which put up presidential candidate James Weaver in 1892. In the 1920s, economist Alexander Chayanov published key works of the Russian ‘neo-populist’ school, which emphasised the resilient and self-perpetuating nature of the Russian peasant household economy1. The US Populist Party merged with the Democratic Party in 1896 and fizzled out thereafter, partly because US politics ultimately delivered a good deal of what the populists had wanted, albeit not quite in the form they’d wanted it – a greater share for workers in national wealth, but in the form of an urban-industrial workforce and depopulated farmscapes2. For his part, Chayanov was summarily tried and shot in Stalin’s gulag in 1937. Perhaps these two contrasting endpoints for populism in the USA and the USSR symbolise the 20th century fate of agrarian populism in general: squeezed out in the Cold War rivalry between capitalism and communism, neither of which were notably sympathetic to independent peasantries. Even so, agrarian populism has had a complex afterlife through the 20th century and into the 21st, inflecting pro-peasant and anti-globalisation politics represented in figures like Vandana Shiva and in the food sovereignty movement. And there are also various points of crossover here with the traditions of right-wing populism that typically emphasise the local and the rural, ‘indigenous’ traditions over cosmopolitanism, individual independence over state dirigisme, and so on.

I can’t trace here the complexities of these inflections and crossovers – though it’s unfortunate that the eclipse of agrarian populism as a living political tradition obscures the lessons that today’s agrarian activists might infer from it in negotiating those complexities. But to answer my second question above, I’d suggest that, yes, there probably are fruitful connections to be drawn between these populisms old and new – but the issues facing us today aren’t exactly the same as those facing the small farm populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most obvious difference is that there are hardly any small-scale farmers in the ‘developed’ countries any more. Peasant or agrarian populism as a politics of ‘the people’ makes sense when a large proportion of the people are peasants or agrarians. It looks less convincing in a modern urban world where only a small minority of people directly work the land. However, the chances of sustaining this world indefinitely in the face of the numerous environmental crises it’s provoked seem slim, as do the chances of achieving a fair distribution of resources in the neoliberal global political economy that sustains it by systematically rewarding the few at the expense of the many. For these reasons, a contemporary agrarian movement has arisen which has a lot in common with the agrarian populist and neo-populist movements of a century ago, emphasising self-reliant, low impact, low energy, land-based lifestyles, a fair distribution of resources, greater political autonomy and so on – in other words, the kind of world described by the Land’s manifesto on the inside cover of this magazine.

But that movement remains quite small and – compared to the stormy agrarian politics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which toppled numerous empires, aristocracies and colonial powers – it operates in a world where revolutionary thirst for change no longer has much traction. This seems to have prompted a few alternative thinkers among leftists and greens to embrace the ersatz tumults of recent electoral politics in the west such as the Trump and Brexit results as at least some kind of new opening in the moribund politics of neoliberalism-as-usual, and therefore something to be welcomed3. The death of liberalism and globalism in the face of the new populisms has been gleefully embraced by these thinkers as a hopeful sign that a more egalitarian green localism may be in the offing – perhaps in much the same way that Marxists of old used to think that a dose of capitalism was a necessary evil for every society to go through if it was ever to experience the joys of socialism. But the path from right-wing populism to green localism doesn’t seem intrinsically more likely than numerous other possible paths, and though it’s tempting to share in the schadenfreude directed at once sanctimonious centrists in their dismay at the current turn of events, there are some problems with cheerleading the death of liberalism. Chief amongst them is the danger that with the death of a globally-oriented liberalism might come the death of the public sphere, defined as “rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions”4, as seems to be happening under the star of the new populism in countries such as Russia and Turkey. The outlook for an equitable and sustainable agrarian localism is bleak in these circumstances – so maybe defending the liberal public sphere from the Trumps, Putins and Farages of this world is a pressing task for a contemporary agrarian populism.

However, we’re undoubtedly now living through a populist moment in which such figures are at least temporarily ascendant while familiar liberal-global institutions such as the EU appear to be unravelling, so it’s as well to try to plot a course from where we now are to where the contemporary agrarian movement might like us to go. It seems clear that the populist politicians now in power are unequal to the task of their sloganeering: they will not be able to “make America great again” or “take back control”. But perhaps they’ve nonetheless instinctively realised what still escapes the mainstream – that liberal-democratic global capitalism is dead in the water and needs refashioning. Academic political economist Wolfgang Streeck comes to much the same conclusion in his recent analysis of the chronically growing debt, stagnant growth and rising inequality gnawing away at the vital organs of the global capitalist beast:

“Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions, and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies – who…have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to assume a new form. What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum…a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder”5

There are various ways in which this interregnum might get filled, some of them extremely worrisome. But I’d like to suggest how an equitable agrarian populism might step into the breach on the basis of the following four ‘might-come-true’ predictions:

  • National and individual incomes in most of the rich western countries will decrease along with the volume of international trade – a process that in the UK will be hastened by Brexit but is likely to happen anyway. The possibilities for ducking the implications of this scenario through scapegoating are numerous, but there’s a chance that eventually it’ll prompt a more sober reorientation of national and local economies to the more immediate needs of the citizenry.

 

  • The de jure territorial reach of the central state in the west is likely to remain much as it is now for the foreseeable future, but its de facto power outside its core regions (in England, London and the southeast) is likely to wane as the ratio between public service benefits and tax income becomes ever more unpromising. Weakened governments will retrench around core areas and industries, leading to (semi-)benign (semi-)neglect elsewhere.

 

  • The returns to large-scale commodity-crop farming and large-scale landownership outside the state cores will diminish to the point of redundancy. Large-scale landownership in these areas will start to become politically and morally risky in the context of impoverished local populations looking to supply their needs from local resources increasingly through non-monetary means.

 

  • The preceding developments will resist resolution by any singular means – no high-tech solutionism, fiscal windfalls, sweeping political or religious revitalisation movements and so forth. Attempts to organise and provide for regional populations will be predominantly local, piecemeal, experimental, practical and plural, and they’ll enjoy varying degrees of success…

 

…or to put it another way, something like Detroit may soon be coming to a sleepy English village near you.

If this situation occurs, there will doubtless be scope for numerous elements of our present political traditions to recombine in various more or less successful ways in the changed circumstances, and the same is true of landholding traditions – rentiers and tenants, owner-occupiers, collective property and commons. Streeck is probably right that a single defined social order won’t prevail. Since Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), political scientists have been fond of using apian metaphors for politics, so I’m inclined to do likewise and call what I’m describing here a ‘supersedure state’. In the normal succession of a bee colony, the mass society decides that the ruling queen is no longer fit for purpose, builds some orderly alternative structures, and after a brief power struggle a singular new ruling queen emerges. Supersedure occurs, by contrast, when the existing queen goes missing in action without any orderly alternative structures to replace her. In these circumstances, the workers try to cobble together a new queen out of whatever’s to hand that will best do the job of maintaining the colony, but usually end up producing a smaller, weaker queen. I think our human colonies may likewise see more of such weakened, cobbled-together successor states – ‘supersedure states’ – in the disorderly future that Streeck predicts, and less of the smoothly revolutionary politics of the past. As the Land’s manifesto persuasively states: “Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.” The traditions of agrarian populism seem best suited to creating a modicum of stability, prosperity and justice in this politically weakened, land-oriented aftermath of capitalism – better, at any rate, than obvious alternatives such as neo-feudalism, neo-fascism or revitalising cargo cults seeking to restore capitalism, communism and other modernist nightmares.

However, a network of pluralist agrarian supersedure states probably isn’t the most likely contender for the future shape of the world. If the curve of politics in disparate countries of the world today – the UK, the USA, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, China – is anything to go by, we may be more likely to see ruthless neo-mercantilist international economic competition between countries, fractious distributional conflicts within them, and nationalist-nativist populisms trying to breathe life into all sorts of arbitrary boundaries between people and peoples. This is not an enticing prospect, so perhaps it’s a good idea to address how an agrarian populist future of supersedure states might be wrested from this other mode of populism.

The short answer is a two-pronged approach, the first of which aims to buttress wherever possible any or all permutations of peasant, family-based, small-scale, local market oriented, diverse and high nature-value farming. Historically, this fits comfortably into various populist agendas, agrarian and otherwise, and is the sort of thing readily found in UKIP election manifestoes. The second aims to buttress wherever possible a liberal public sphere, rational-critical debate, small state local democracy based on the power of arguments rather than statuses accruing from membership in closed categories of ‘the people’, ‘the real people’ or ‘ordinary people’, an egalitarian economic localism combined with a plural political internationalism, and so on. These sorts of things won’t be found in UKIP election manifestoes, and doubtless sound a lot more like the old-fangled neoliberal globalism which most populists, with some justification, want to overturn. But the key is the combination of the two prongs. The first without the second creates a reactionary nationalist back-to-the-landism which can conceal all sorts of modernist horrors under the pretence of a romantic peasantism – the ‘Ringing Cedars’ movement in Russia being one contemporary example. The second without the first easily results in neoliberal globalism as usual. Each prong draws on old political traditions. The intention, however, is not to replicate those traditions but, just as with Peter Kropotkin’s idea of creating a new anarchist future out of communal past traditions, to build “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”6.

There’s no inevitability about successfully creating this kind of ‘absolutely new’ politics, but it does seem possible that it will become a more obvious and attractive option than it presently seems as the drawbacks of conventional agriculture and conventional politics of both the mainstream and reactionary-populist varieties make themselves apparent. Admittedly, I’ve barely addressed the numerous difficulties and contradictions that would be involved in making this politics work. But here, in a nutshell, is the opportunity I mentioned in my third question above: the opportunity to create a tolerably prosperous, egalitarian, sustainable future based on an agrarian localism of supersedure states from the political tumults of the present moment.

Notes

  1. Chayanov, A. [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  2. Postel, C. 2007. The Populist Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Examples here include green thinkers like Paul Kingsnorth and John Michael Greer, and august voices on the left like the New Left Review.
  4. Calhoun, C. 1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  5. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso.
  6. Kropotkin, P. 1993. Words of a Rebel. Montreal: Black Rose

36 thoughts on “The supersedure state

  1. So pretty much an updated or revised Fields and Factories then? It is hard to see how anything else can be a viable option. Localized/bioregional economies, break of the monopoly on energy, commoning, or how your two pronged approach echoes Kropotkin’s idea of integration. There are quite a few who are reaching similar conclusions (although from different angles, using different words etc). But a plurality is perhaps both desired and necessary.

    Perhaps capitalism will suffocate on it’s own internal contradictions, although there is also the argument that this is what rejuvenates it. But with the current structuring of the world, not to mention the prevailing mentality, tomorrow does look a little bleak regardless of which option we argue as the probable one.

    Miguel Amoros is perhaps rather to the point regarding these subjects. It is from his essay The Rise and Fall of Weak Thought which criticizes the post-modern condition:

    “However, the long-term endeavor is that of confronting the crisis of the idea of Progress, of History and of Reason itself—the crisis of capitalist society—without returning to the fold by succumbing to irrationality or an esthetic of rustic escapism. The symptoms of the historical social crisis must be explained without ever abandoning Reason, which, as Horkheimer says, is “the fundamental category of philosophical thought, the only one capable of uniting it with the destiny of Humanity.” In conclusion, one must pursue utopia, which is nothing but a reason sui generis.”

    • It’s been a while since I read F,F & W – and then in an abridged edition – so maybe I missed the parallel…or unconsciously plagiarised it. I didn’t pick up on the ‘supersedure’ idea in Kropotkin”s thought, but hey ho – as my old prof used to say ‘if you want a new idea, read an old book’.

      Agreed, capital rejuvenates itself through crisis, though the likes of Wolfgang Streeck and Paul Mason incline me to think that this time it may be different.

      Interesting quotation from Amoros – I haven’t come across him before. Must follow up. I agree with the quotation, though the problem, perhaps, is that the small farm future I consider to be a rational response to the crisis of progress, history and reason would be viewed by others as rustic escapism. Part of what I’ve tried to do on this site is articulate why I don’t consider that to be so – but maybe unsuccessfully.

      • “Rustic escapism” is inevitable. Even though energy supplies ebb and society simplifies, the land will always be our main source of food, so people will always work the land. The minimum scale of organizing that work is the single family peasant homestead. I agree with you that there is a strong case to be made that we should go straight to that scale in advance of absolute necessity, but we will indeed ‘escape’ there some day.

        Land is only one of a few things with intrinsic value. One of the others is the means to defend the people working it from predation. How the land will be worked in the future is pretty straightforward, but what form of social organization will evolve to defend the workers of the land is far less certain. Equally murky is any vision of getting from now to then. I hope that SFF will continue to help clarify our foresight.

  2. Excellent three questions, Chris. I would say that your response to the first leaves a lot (of accuracy) to be desired, since in my experience the elites are commonly thought of as neo-con/neo-liberals, Wall Streeters, financiers and other rentiers of all political persuasions, as well as politicians, bureaucrats and shadowy people working in the background to pull strings. (I kinda see the “left chattering classes” as among their enablers, but that could be just me.) I can point to, for example, the Occupy movement’s 99% vs the 1% that was pretty accurate, and broadly inclusive.

    As for inclusiveness regarding the political term people, it has generally meant the adult, potentially-voting population. In other words, citizens of deliberative age. If you think it should include non-citizen migrants, then why not go ahead and make the argument for it?

    I am not looking or pining away for a revolution. Revolutions sucks, in my experience. What I do want is renaissance. (I did not come up with this myself, took it from Colin Tudge.) And in particular an agrarian renaissance. And I would like to add to the spot-on bee analogy the fact that often the bees rear a strong new queen but rather than have her duke it out with the old queen, the supporters of the new queen swarm and take off. Immediate renaissance! 🙂 And an adventure to boot.

    “rational-critical debate, small state local democracy based on the power of arguments rather than statuses” — well said!

    And finally, as I have followed the Anastasia (Ringing Cedars) movement with some sporadic interest, I am curious to know what modernist horrors have emerged amongst them.

  3. Thanks for the further comments. Joe’s point on the intrinsic value of land and of its defence is worth pondering…something I hope to come back to.

    Vera, thanks for flagging the points of agreement. In a British/Brexit context, I’d beg to differ with you on where the main animus has lain. There was a brief moment after 2008 and perhaps with the Occupy movement when the focus was on the financial system and the dysfunctions of capital. Then the Tory/Lib Dem coalition successfully managed to turn the discourse into one of Labour government profligacy (which Labour foolishly allowed them to get away with) and then developed an austerity politics articulated in terms of a conflict between ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘hardworking families’. Then Brexit was pushed essentially by a cabal of hardline neoliberals and Little Englanders, with immigration and Brussels autocracy pressed into service as substitutes for a serious analysis of Britain’s present place in the world and its possible future.

    In relation to inclusiveness, a recurrent theme in the Brexit camp is that the referendum result is sacrosanct – ‘the will of the people’ – and attempts to ensure parliamentary oversight of the negotiations, ie. the sovereign democracy that the Brexiteers ostensibly were fighting for, are dismissed as running counter to this ‘will’. As, often, is the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of the left/middle class (on which topic, more soon). And on the immigration side of inclusiveness, well again I’ll be writing separately about that soon – but I think what’s really bubbling away here is not a sense of formal citizenship in terms of who’s entitled to vote, but a sense of ethno-national identification of the kind that motivates the likes of Richard Spencer to tell Gary Younge that he’s not British: https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2017/nov/06/gary-younge-interviews-richard-spencer-africans-have-benefited-from-white-supremacy (and, for that matter, that animates much white supremacist support for Trump along fairly similar lines).

    In relation to the Ringing Cedars, that I confess was a badly worded sentence. What I meant was that ethno-nationalism is largely a modernist movement associated with various horrors, and one of its modalities is a reactionary back-to-the-landism associated with a romantic peasantism (which usually has little to do with actual peasants). It strikes me that the Ringing Cedars is an example of the latter, but I wouldn’t claim that there are (yet) any ‘modernist horrors’ associated with it so far as I know.

    • Thanks for the explanation. You were thinking more of the politics out there in public, and I more about what I see in the grassroots, it seems to me.

      Back to the land. Hm. So I have been thinking about the back to the landism I know of… in the 70s — mostly hippies and greenies, then the latter day intentional communitarians… again, ecoconscious, anti-authoritarians trying to walk the walk, then between the wars, the people like Nearings (lefties) and Ralph Borsodi, a Georgist and simple living guy, pioneered land trusts… those were precursors of the organic movement, as far as I understand it. That leaves the Anastasia people. The books are New Age gibberish. But they do seem to inspire people to go back to the land; one branch seems to be pretty well allied with permaculture, they simply believe in independent homesteads rather than collectively managed ones (kinda Red Earth Farm vs Dancing Rabbit — neighbors in Missouri). I know a group in Colorado that actually offers homestead-sized land for free to prospective settlers. I understand there is another branch in Russia more or less gathered around Megre (who wrote the books) that is rooted in Russian patriotism. (Some are, I hear, actively looking into Putin’s land giveaways in eastern Siberia. So are some of the Simple folk like Old Believers, and maybe even Amish and Mennonites.)

      I think all these groups were/are to one extent or another influenced by the agrarian romance. I know I am. Weren’t you? 🙂

      In any case, what specifically makes you assume the Anastasia folk are “reactionary”? Maybe you could include your definition while you are at it — I am biased against that word due to, er, its use against people who disagreed with the Marxist-Leninist Party line and dared to think that maybe what the apparatchiks were pushing was not better than what was before… when I was growing up. I would appreciate another perspective.

      • Fair play, I think I’d want to avoid the word after firsthand experience of its Soviet connotations. Indeed, I’ve been called a reactionary myself (in fact, a “twig-munching reactionary”) by this site’s favourite anti-ecological neo-Bolshevik, Leigh Phillips. In leftist circles I guess its meaning is something along the lines of ‘reacting against progress’, but since the notion of progress itself is problematic, I can’t justify it in those terms. Maybe my intent is something like ‘turning towards an ideological notion of a simpler past in relation to present woes without attempting a systematic understanding of the present’. But you’ve convinced me to add it to the growing list of deprecated words here at SFF.

        On the wider point, I wrote about agrarian romance a while back http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=678. Yes, I was influenced by it – and also by Enlightenment rationalism and Counter-Enlightenment romanticism. The challenge is in the synthesis…

        • Love your essay on agrarian romance! 🙂

          “turning towards an ideological notion of a simpler past in relation to present woes without attempting a systematic understanding of the present”

          Mm. Yes, but keeping in mind that sort of analysis is not within the grasp of a large number of folks who nevertheless long to return to the land (in many aspects of the term). The Amish keep on being peasants without a systematic understanding of the present… to them, it is enough that it’s a good life, is community and family oriented, avoids some of the modern pitfalls, and is permeated by the heartfelt spiritual outlook they try to embody.

          Sometimes, sticking with agrarian traditions is enough… especially for people who don’t want to invent a new wheel at every turn — which the modern rat cage forces us to do more and more.

          Oh, btw, I thought of another back to the lander group — the Tolstoyans. Failed miserably. Which is a shame… they ran all on ideals and little on common sense. Just like Tolstoy (re agrarianism specifically).

          • Well, I wouldn’t especially choose to criticise the Amish and other such groups who have long pursued agrarian ideologies as part of a spiritual path (though I wouldn’t necessarily exempt the agrarianism or the spirituality from critique either). Nor would I choose to criticise individual people who opt for a back-to-the-land lifestyle for whatever reasons that make sense to them in their lives. However, if we’re talking about newly emerging, large-scale back-to-the-land movements in contemporary countries then I think it’s reasonable to expect some kind of analysis of why this makes sense in a contemporary political/economic context, and to be a little questioning of purely nostalgic or traditionalist rationales.

            Regarding Tolstoy, his influence on the Doukhobors has always amused me – an actual peasant movement that adopted Tolstoyan ideas and then became exemplary of them.

          • Didn’t know the Dukhobors were somewhat influenced by Tolstoy… looks like he and Kropotkin raised money for their immigration to Canada…

            I was referring to the various Tolstoyan communes in the early 20th century, mostly in Europe. Some in England, I hear.

            Btw, Scott claims that a peasant is someone who is basically trapped within the state (as its exploited serf, more or less). And has his former multiplicity of foraging/cultivation foreclosed on him. In which case… can the state and a free food producer coexist? Considering how predatory (toward farmers) generally food policies are to this day…

            I tend to think that a return to small scale farming makes the most sense on the “health of the soil” front. Whether it makes sense politically, gosh, you got me there. I have heard people actually complaining that they went that route in the 70s and the crash never came and and and… and now their kids are cubicle serfs. Oi.

  4. Interesting article by Aditya Chakrabortty on the rejuvenation of Preston which bears on my theme: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/31/preston-hit-rock-bottom-took-back-control

    I don’t want to make grand claims about these sorts of developments, but it does seem to me possible that as towns and regions weigh up what they’re contributing to the wider polity and what they’re getting back from it, the conditions for supersedure states may start to crystallise.

    And on the concept of ‘supersedure’, a bee-keeping correspondent tells me that I’m getting supersedure and emergency queen replacement mixed up. Looking at a few beekeeping sites online, it seems that some do indeed keep these ideas rigidly separate, whereas others discuss both under the rubric of supersedure. I’m hoping this latter usage is defensible, because the ’emergency queen replacement state’ doesn’t really suit my purposes. Any comments welcome…

    • I’m glad you had a bee keeper make that point. I’m not a bee keeper, but at home on the farm one of my brothers was – so I learned a bit by osmosis… I was aware of how one can artificially requeen a hive as opposed to how its done in nature.

      Significantly to me there is a fairly important difference in the two methods – if the colony raises up one of their own to be the new queen she is a sister. If a queen is introduced by a keeper, she is not related. Now this may or may not be grounds to abandon the metaphor, but from where I sit I really like holding on to the distinction because natural selection can be included in filling out the metaphor going forward. And my proclivity for expanding metaphors has been on display here several times in the past. I make no excuses. [NB, the opportunities for obnoxious punning are vastly increased by using bees too – so for me, what’s not to like??]

      • …but I think both methods of succession are ‘natural’ and lacking in the intervention of the beekeeper. As I understand it, in supersedure proper the old queen doesn’t swarm but stays in the hive for a time alongside the new queen. In emergency queen replacement, the existing queen dies or disappears unexpectedly when there are no new queens in the offing, and the workers have to create a new queen as best they can out of worker cells. I’m hoping to be able to hang on to this latter scenario as an example of one kind of supersedure…

  5. Agree with most of it (we never had much of a peasant populist movement here in Sweden though).

    I think the trick is to find the better way of organizing control (“ownership” in a wider sense), over productive resources and distribution. There are always strong links, coherence, between the way production is organize and the political shape of societies. Of course, this has not only one direction, politics also changes things on the ground. But by and large it is not strange that we have neo-liberal politics when “everything” is for sale.

    • I disagree about the production side. Have we not seen industrial agriculture develop under both neo-liberal, ‘free-market’, economies and command economies? We also see small scale, minimally industrial agriculture preserved in nations, like Japan and Korea, that are otherwise wholly committed to the industrial global market economy.

      I do agree that the way resources are distributed is very much correlated with the political shape of societies, perhaps simply by definition.

      In any case, as industrial agriculture inevitably fails, we are probably in for a period of chaotic reorganization of both agricultural production and the political structures that emerge to manage the distribution of food. We may see a panoply of political structures emerge all over the world, even though horticultural methods trend toward becoming remarkably similar by the necessity of a return to human and animal muscles working soil, planting and harvesting.

    • Thanks for the debate, gentlemen. Gunnar, I think there are few countries that have had much of a peasant populist tradition. The idea of the article was to start thinking about how such a tradition might arise anew in capitalist countries lacking such traditions, but beginning to find themselves in new post-capitalist circumstances that require their invention.

      • how such a tradition might arise anew in capitalist countries lacking such traditions

        There was a story this morning on NPR about US millennials getting into farming (and how difficult it was). These new farmers are less interested in commodity crops and very interested in organic farming, all moves in the right direction. But as hopeful as these few outliers may be, I think any significant trend toward peasant agriculture in developed countries might have to wait for the most powerful motivator of all, hunger.

        The problem with hunger is that although it may one day become great incentive to grow food, it is no substitute for skill. Somehow we have to convince people to learn how to grow food using methods that are inappropriate to commodity calorie production and are economically impossible without ‘free’ land.

        Perhaps we can convince parents and educational powers-that-be that young people need a broad range of horticultural skills just as much as knowledge of math and science? Imagine converting at least half of a school ball field to gardening ‘classrooms’, poultry runs and sheep pasture. Start them out with Nutrient Cycling 101 at the age of seven. Then make sure there is land available for them when they become young adults. One can hope.

  6. Not exactly ‘requeening’ – but there is this story popping up about English salmon from the chalk streams of southern England (and the River Frome is specifically mentioned). So these special salmon have a genetic constitution the scientists speculate makes them in need of greater protection. (BBC news, today, Helen Briggs).

    Curious minds now wonder whether the Mells River (and Edford Brook) are chalk streams – and if salmon venture so far upstream?

  7. On the Doukhobors, the twist in the tale as I recall it is that the Doukhobor leader Verigin spent time in exile in Siberia where he rubbed shoulders with Tolstoyan intellectuals, and was so impressed with their ideas of peasant communism that when he returned home he went about implementing them among his people. Then, when Tolstoy got to hear about the Doukhobors, he was delighted to find an example of a peasantry that apparently was a true embodiment of his ideas about what a proper peasantry was like – hence his assistance in helping them emigrate. Such ironies aside, I think there’s probably much to be learned from the obsession of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia with the peasantry. I’d like to know more about it. I’m reading Turgenev’s ‘Hunter’s Sketches’ at the moment, which I’m finding informative.

    On peasants and the state, for me there are numerous reasons why localised resource husbandry and widespread small proprietorship seems a sensible response to the dilemmas of our age (not just energy crisis as per Clem’s recent post at Gulliver’s Pulse, though that certainly looms large). But the nature of the state is a major impediment…and purely localised polities are not necessarily optimal either. Hence this issue of the state seems to me a critical – and very difficult – one to wrestle with. A society which took food production seriously as part of its educational focus, as per Joe’s ruminations, would certainly be a good start. Streeck’s definition of capitalism as a system which secures its basic reproduction as an ‘unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization’ speaks to the depth of our problems.

    On salmon, thanks for that interesting spot Clem. Though sadly I have to inform you that inspection of the report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42894161) suggests it’s a different River Frome – the one in Dorset, and not the one on my doorstep (not that Dorset is very far away). I understand that ‘Frome’ is derived from an old Celtic word meaning fair or brisk flowing water, so there are a few river Fromes around. Incidentally, the river – and town – name is pronounced to rhyme with ‘broom’ and not ‘Rome’, which catches many people out. The geology around here is limestone rather than chalk (high soil pH, good for cabbages…) No salmon to my knowledge in the rivers Frome or Mells or indeed Egford Brook (gosh Clem, you’re right on it in terms of local topography). In his ‘Tour through the whole island of Great Britain’ in the 1720s Daniel Defoe said that the rivers of the southwest were so replete with salmon that they could never be fished (or polluted) to exhaustion. Sadly, he was wrong. But there are signs of a comeback. And we have otters returning to the rivers, and peregrine falcons returning to the skies (as well as interloping American crayfish and mink to contend with in the river). Small signs of hope…

    • There have been a handful of small communal communities organized in various parts of the US over time and most are now pages in history. The Mormons (Latter Day Saints) would likely be the largest remaining vestige of a community that grew beyond this sort of beginning. The Mormon colonization of Utah and their remaining influence in the state and its government (also very influential in Idaho) might be a model to have a look at from the political perspective. This is not a peasant story writ large, but some agrarian aspects worth note were part of the story early on.

      But there are other communities I think of here in the US – such as the Shakers (see: http://maineshakers.com/ ) ; the Harmonists (see:
      http://www.newharmony-in.gov/about_new_harmony.php
      ) and a small group in eastern Ohio whose history I’d have to dig a bit to find if you’re curious.

      The Amish communities likely serve the best overall peasant-like example one could study on the our shores. Their co-existence with local governments varies from one jurisdiction to another. And the various communities themselves are fairly heterogeneous – to simply employ the appellation “Amish” only hints at what you will find on close inspection. In my travels throughout the Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois states where there are many Amish communities I’ve found it very useful to get quiet and listen to locals if the subject of the Amish comes up. Their acceptance among their ‘English’ neighbors runs from admiration and adulation all the way to downright hostile and malevolent scorn.

      Your mention of falcons returning to your corner of the globe is heartwarming. We have witnessed a similar slow recovery of bald eagles in our corner. I suppose a technophile could gloat that modern methods have pulled us back from the brink. And I’ve a little sympathy for the beginning phase of such an argument… but too often the story continues toward claims that get quickly muddled. One wonders what the falcons and eagles would say if they could speak to us.

    • Well. Tolstoy’s ideas sure got around. Amazing story. I heard they began as Christians, but it sounds like two powerful streams of ideas/lifeways merging. Which is what is needed today, IMO.

      I agree with you that the small farming pattern needs to return, but everything in the system is stacked against it. Where I once roamed amidst the remnants of small peasantry, now endless fields of yellow rape beckon everywhere you look.

      Methinks you will have to revisit your bare cupboard for those true and tried social glues. Maybe there is a door in the back of the cupboard that opens up into a whole new world… when the time is ripe. 🙂

      Btw, I found Monbiot’s book Feral hugely inspiring regarding returning species. Go European beavers! And why the heck won’t they reforest the high hills of Wales? It’s a no brainer, and you can still have some sheep.

  8. Interesting post. I’m appreciating the slippage between ‘state’ as ‘the specific condition of something’ (first sense) and ‘governed political community’ (second sense). When you talk about capitalism as the thing being superseded I wonder if the first sense is more appropriate, as the state is only one element with a role to play in the subsequent society.

    I was thinking about what our dearly departed queen bee might have been. ‘Capitalism’ is too broad a concept on its own. I think of those bees, haunted by the spectre of their queen, and desparate to cobble together a replacement, no matter how inadequate, because they can’t imagine any other way to live. Have we been living in a supersedure state (first sense again) for some time in the West?

    The elites still talk of growth, and productivity, and public services, whilst at the same time acting against the interests of all those things, and making their money out of the thin air of promised futures. There’s a hole where some kind of true value used to be, papered over with PR inspired by the emperor’s new clothes. God knows what ‘true’ value is or was, but if it was our queen bee, then the problem with the supersedure analogy is that it’s ghost haunts attempts to supersede it.

    I suppose I’m wary of the idea of independent family-based peasant farmers as the bedrock of the future. Peasants, sure, but the other stuff… There’s a whiff of ‘homesteading’, ‘pioneering’ about it that just seems to fall in with the old capitalist individualism – getting ‘back to the land’ sounds distinctly regressive.

    ‘New politics’, great, but the bees have got to move on, ditch the whole queen idea and come up with something new. The state (second sense) is key, political community is crucial, and can’t just be left to emerge from a set of independent farmsteads like an ‘invisible hand’. That old ghost definitely needs to be laid to rest.

    • The state … can’t just be left to emerge from a set of independent farmsteads like an ‘invisible hand’.

      If there is no current interest by any state in creating a “set of independent farmsteads” and the time comes when vast numbers of them are required for human survival, do you think that the state will come to its senses and start facilitating their creation?

      Based on the political economies I have observed over the last 50 years or so, I doubt that anything so constructive will happen. If you don’t agree, how do you foresee a modern state, with either new or old politics prevailing, facilitating the creation of large numbers of agrarian peasants?

    • Andrew, it sounds like you’re criticising the post but I’m not quite sure on what basis – I pretty much agree with what you say, which indeed aptly summarises my basic argument. The potentially ‘regressive’ nature of back-to-the-landism and the necessity of finding state forms that mitigate against this is exactly what I’m raising.

      I agree with you that the ghost of politics past will haunt a supersedure state, but I’m pretty comfortable with that. For one thing, the ghost of politics past haunts EVERY new departure, and attempting to repress that rarely turns out well. For another, not everything about our present political order is inimical to a more just and sustainable society of the future. It seems to me that the broad outlines of the contemporary state are likely to persist for a long time to come whether we like it or not, and despite the fact that they fit increasingly badly with the world we now inhabit. My argument here is about accommodation with such realities. Most of the contemporary populisms currently emerging are also attempts to do that, but in my opinion they remain too wedded to the existing structures and offer overly optimistic and simplistic solutions. So as I see it, contemporary states are in crisis, but the supersedure – if it happens – is only just beginning.

      It’s true that capitalism isn’t a ‘state’ in the polity sense of the word, but as an economic system it’s entirely dependent upon polities and an international ordering of polities that are supportive of its structures. As an economic system, I think it’s entering possibly terminal crisis on various fronts, and what happens next will be determined to a considerable extent by how political systems adapt to that. Hence the opportunities, and threats, alluded to in the post above.

      I don’t think states founded on notions of ‘true value’ are a good idea, though it’s something that all states have to reach for – societies founded on the notion that true value resides in the land are a different matter.

      • Thanks Chris, looking back I think perhaps the tone of my comment was more critical than the content – you’re right, I’m not really disagreeing with anything fundamental.

        I do think, though, that politics and economics are being treated a little differently here. The creation of a small farm future is, as you say, an unlikely prospect in many ways from our current standpoint, and yet that is the goal of discussions on this blog – to look at ways of changing many of the fundamentals of our societies in order to get to that goal, and rightly so. It’s a sort of utopian mode of thinking, though if that word appears inappropriate in any way I wouldn’t want to invest too much in it.

        But come to politics, and pragmatism is the order of the day – accommodation with current realities, or trends. Now I agree that a completely blank slate is not worth considering simply for the sake of it, and that aspects of today might be useful tomorrow. But I suppose my point, in as much as I have one, is that a bit of utopian thinking on the politics side is also desirable, indeed necessary, because economic and political regimes are always entangled. I wouldn’t expect you to disagree, but nevertheless the peasant economic regime seems a lot more clearly defined here than the political one at the moment, and yet, for example, a private market in land has many political implications.

        I hope that might go towards answering your question as well Joe. We know we have to get to an agrarian peasant future, without really knowing how. Now present politics is mostly a hindrance, I’ve no quarrel there, but we could also do with thinking through the political community side of this agrarian peasant state as well – it’s just as important. In your comment current politics seems to be a barrier to any kind of visionary future politics, but current economics isn’t a barrier to envisaging a future peasant agrarianism.

    • What??? The “queen” is their mother, she does not “rule” over them. What kinda nonsense is this?

      Every time I hear “we” gotta ditch this or that, and come up with something new, I remember Ishmael (the gorilla philosopher) talking about how the Takers are always ditching traditional ways of doing things that may have issues but ARE PROVEN TO WORK for something new and untried but hey, we’ll cobble it along as we go, we sapientials, right? Cuz we know better! Gah.

      • I guess the apian analogy only stretches so far Vera. I’m not commenting on bees, but on Chris’ use of the absent queen bee as analogous to the failure of capitalism. That’s certainly not a traditional way of doing things that’s been proven to work!

  9. Agree on the two prongs (each of which are quite unfashionable, so unfashionable squared, nice, Chris, thanks!) So we have the vision but, as Andrew alludes to, we don’t know what institutions will get us there.

  10. Thanks for the further comments. I think I’ve failed to clarify my larger purpose here, and my response to Andrew’s original comment probably further muddied the water. So I’ll try to have another go.

    A year and more back, I wrote my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ series of posts, where I showed how small scale local agriculture in the English southwest could feed the future population tolerably in a low energy scenario, albeit with a lot of people working the land. But how would such a situation come about in practice? One possibility is a rapid societal collapse – really, in such a situation, all bets are off, but it’s possible that some kind of ‘peasant’ society might eventually stabilise out of the ruins. But how might it happen in a more orderly, slow-descent sort of way? There have been peasant revolutions and pitched battles between state and peasant armies in various places in the past, but I can’t see that happening in the present situation. What I can see happening potentially is the slow dwindling of the de facto power of sovereign nation-states across their jurisdictions, despite the persistence of their de jure power. And that’s the kind of situation that I characterise above as ripe for a supersedure state. Now, I think Andrew is correct to say that I haven’t defined the political content of these supersedure states, and there’s no reason to think that they will inevitably be egalitarian, pro-peasant or whatever other characteristics I or anybody else might deem desirable. So I agree that more utopian thinking on the political side is necessary (I don’t consider ‘utopian’ to be a pejorative). That’s what I’m hoping to do in my forthcoming writing. But the point of the piece above is to argue that the supersedure state is, as it were, the mechanism, the political shell, in which post-capitalist agrarian states might take shape. The idea of the supersedure state gives a sense of the historical dynamic and the overarching structure – the task now is to fill that in with a plausible account of how successful and sustainable polities might be forged within that shell. That’s what I hope to address in future posts. I’m not overly optimistic that this is what will actually happen, but I think it’s worth at least trying to create a workable narrative of how it might.

    • Yeah, I can see that as a worthy effort. The founding of the American republic was cobbled together from many well-accepted ideas that went before, Locke et al, along with ideas and practices of the Iroquois Confederacy. Unfortunately, there were no floating ideas and practices then embedded in the system that would have pointed the way to economic democracy. The Pennsylvanians tried, but their effort was overwhelmed. Not enough to go on.

      Then there is the idea and practice of federalism that has been overwhelmed everywhere by the voracious appetite for states and empires to centralize everything. The Descent or the Great Unraveling at least promises a return to decentralized units on the model of early Switzerland that I hear the Kurds are trying to emulate. Personally, I am putting my 10 bucks on the Big Cull, orchestrated by Gaia with not inconsiderable help from the psychopaths. Small mixed farms allied with people’s militias is the natural outcome, as well as the resurgence of mixed livelihoods which provide the least laborious ways for humans to provision themselves — cultivation mixed with hunting and fishing, gathering, pastoralism and silviculture.

      • Oh, and I would like to add that we should learn from the Puebloan model; after the disastrous collapse of the Chaco Canyon culture and its grisly aftermath, the culture reconstituted itself as a mixed food economy centered around the pueblos with emphasis on creating a variety of microclimates, and with the role of the “priestly class” considerably reduced. It’s the elite overhead, stupid!

    • Thanks for the clarification Chris. I thought your suggestion on our likely imminent trajectory very plausible, and I can see how that would be a hotbed of various kinds of supersedure state. Funnily enough I was teaching a class about the fifth century in Britain after the end of direct Roman rule, and it put me firmly in mind if this post – political fragmentation, economic retrenchment, and the spectre of the Roman way of doing things haunting most attempts to cope with the situation for most of a century. Maybe I’ll introduce my students to beekeeping…

      I’m certainly happier with supersedure as the pre-existing context for the building of something new, and look forward to your utopian thinking in future posts…

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