Time to move onto the next chapter of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle about it, which is Chapter 15 – ‘The country and the city’. I’m probably going to write two or three shortish posts on this topic. In this one, I’ll approach it obliquely with an account of a walk I took last week.
To blow off a few cobwebs, I decided to spend a couple of days hiking a part of the Ridgeway, which has been in use for around 5,000 years and is supposedly Britain’s oldest road. It’s now a national hiking trail, with one end starting in Wiltshire only a few miles east of my home.
Although it’s nearby, the landscape at the starting point is very different from the small, folded hills of brashy limestone on the edge of the Mendips where I live. It’s more open country, with wide valleys and sweeping, chalky downs. The social histories written in the landscape are different too. Where I live is what Oliver Rackham called ‘ancient countryside’, where there were few commons or open fields and many scattered hamlets and private farmsteads, crooked roads, small woodlands and ponds. The Ridgeway country, by contrast, is what Rackham called a ‘planned countryside’ of widely-spaced villages, few, straighter roads and large, regular fields, strongly shaped by the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The walk starts in Avebury, which presents a much older history in the form of a Neolithic henge, less famous than its cousin on Salisbury plain a few miles to the south but I gather no less important in its day. The summer solstice had only just passed when I arrived, and Avebury was still dotted with a straggle of sun worshippers, who’d laced the sarsen stones and ancient trees with gaudy offerings. I can’t say I was a fan, but I doubt the stones and trees take a view on it.
The café was closed after a 24-hour stint serving the revellers, much to the chagrin of the tourists arriving from the car park – an altogether different demographic. There was a National Trust shop, but the only food it had was fudge, that mainstay of the English tourist experience. Luckily, I had a bag of lightweight if unappetizing trail food in my rucksack, so I doused my hat in water from the outdoor tap and began my walk. From the point I left town, I saw barely more than a handful of people over the next two days. And almost all of them were idlers like me – walkers, runners, cyclists – rather than people who were living or working in the landscape.
A major reason for that is water. Since, true to its name, this part of the Ridgeway mostly follows a ridge comprising porous chalk, there are few sources of groundwater along it to furnish reliable supplies. So barring high-energy and high-cost engineering efforts, it’s not a great place to build a house or village. No surprise, then, that most of the settlement in the area is on the bottomlands away from the ridge, often a trek of a mile or more downslope from the trail.
There were, however, a few people living up on the ridge. In occasional places where a minor road transected it with generous parking alongside, I often came across old vans and buses converted for residential use – sometimes deserted, sometimes occupied by young families and alternative-looking types, usually surrounded by a clutter of 25 litre plastic water cans, fire grates and other paraphernalia of life on the road.
As to people working up on the ridge – well, there were just a few. Walking up the long slope out of Avebury to join the trail, a self-propelled sprayer suddenly loomed from a dip in a big field of oilseed rape. My first taste of the Ridgeway was the cloying tug of glyphosate at the back of my nose and mouth – an experience repeated in several of the rape fields I traversed in the next two days, though after that first meeting I tried to time things so the spraying rigs were at the other end of the field when I passed. Still, I doubt I saw more than five tractors or sprayers during the hike. No doubt glyphosate is a great labour-saver.
There may not be many living souls abroad in those fields, but there are plenty of dead ones. The whole landscape is a Neolithic mausoleum. Not just in the now departed hands that made Stonehenge, Avebury and Uffington, but in the actual mausoleums of Wayland’s Smithy and endless other funerary barrows dotting the landscape. At the end of my first day of walking, I spread out my little bivvi tent as inconspicuously as I could behind a bank of hawthorn and lay down to sleep within this veritable city of the dead.
Recent thinking about these Neolithic peoples seems to be that they were agricultural pioneers scattered across a sparsely settled land who were not given to great social stratification. They built sites like Stonehenge collectively as ritual centres to which they travelled from where they lived and worked, often over great distances, and in this way forged social solidarity with each other and with their ancestors.
The situation in the area today seems pretty much reversed. I did make one foray off the trail into a village in the hope of enlivening my food supply. I got briefly lost amidst a thicket of ‘Private – No Public Access’ signs (I’ve long pressed the case on this blog for the virtues of distributed private ownership of farm property – private ownership of all rights to access is more complicated). When I located the village centre the pub was shut. I did come across a ‘Village Store and Post Office’ sign brightly painted on a wall, but the house it belonged to had long since been turned over to a private residence and there was nowhere else to buy food in the village. Most of the picture postcard old thatched cottages in the village seemed to have a couple of fancy cars, Porsches, Mercedes and the like, nuzzling their walls. The main road just outside the village only had a single lane each way, but it was so busy it took me five minutes to cross. The traffic raced north and south, to bigger towns, better shopping and places where a wider cross-section of society lived. But there was, to be fair, one house whose occupants had installed a water tap for passing hikers. I filled my bottles, doused my hat again, silently thanked its inhabitants and headed back up to the ridge, crossing the line of an old Roman road in the process – arrow straight, colonial.
I walked for another day, reaping its thin human harvest of cyclists, runners and tractor drivers. I’d guess that by Neolithic standards the countryside was teeming with people. But considering that southern England is one of the more densely populated parts of our densely populated planet, it didn’t seem so to me. You could easily see more people walking down a single street of my small hometown in a few minutes than I saw over two days on the Ridgeway.
At the end of my second day of walking, I took the bus to the nearest station. I got talking to a man who’d grown up in the north of England but had moved to the southeast for work. His landlord was selling his property, so he was heading over to the next town to find a new place to live. We bade farewell at the station and I took the train home. That cars and trains move a lot faster than people on foot is banally obvious, but it hits you afresh when you’ve been walking for two days and get home on the train in an hour.
And that, I think, is pretty much enough about my little trip. I’ve described it here only because I think it opens up some themes I’ll want to explore in forthcoming posts about the country and the city. Water. Work in the fields and work in the town. Human power relationships and control of the landscape. Transport connections and livelihoods. How we build solidarity with other people, and how we refuse to. How we can get, and keep, a roof over our heads. What things we choose to honour, and where we choose to honour them.
I’ve been trying to blog my way through the chapters of my book A Small Farm Future, but I’ve got a bit stuck of late somewhere in the middle of Part III. This was a hard part of the book to write, because I wanted to avoid construing effortless but improbable future utopias of my own devising. The opposite danger is writing an over-generalized account which, when all is said and done, doesn’t amount to saying much more than ‘blow me, this is all really complicated and there aren’t any ideal options’. This is of limited help to the reader, because they already know that.
I think my book errs towards the latter problem, which in my view is the lesser of the two evils for a book of its kind. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to write a more fully realized view of an agrarian localist future, but I think the proper literary form for that would be a novel. Any takers for a swerve into fiction from the Small Farm Future team? Meanwhile, I’ll try to say something in this and subsequent posts about the other chapters in Part III of the book. I’m not going to repeat in detail what’s already written in those chapters, so these posts risk compounding the problem of over-generalization through offering over-generalized summaries of over-generalized book chapters. Life can be tortuous.
In my original draft of the book, there were seven chapters in Part III. I’ve covered two of these already here (Chapters 12 and 13). Two didn’t make the final cut – one concerning welfare and social policy, the other concerning industry and economic production. I intend to address the first of these in a couple of forthcoming posts, while keeping the latter under wraps at least for the time being until I’ve had the chance to ponder it some more. That leaves three other outstanding chapters (outstanding in the sense that I haven’t yet covered them here. Others may judge whether they’re outstanding in any other sense). The first of these is Chapter 14 – Going to Market. In this post, I’m going to say a few words about this chapter.
My basic starting point is the view, long rehearsed on this blog, that it would be good if there were a lot more small-scale farmers oriented to producing food and fibre primarily for themselves and for their local communities. For this to happen, there would need to be access to no-cost or low-cost farmland and associated infrastructure. Candidates for this way of life in the past include any number of so-called ‘primitive’ societies of agriculturalists, the Russian peasantries of the late 19th century analyzed by Alexander Chayanov, and the mountaineers of 18th/19th century Appalachia analyzed by Steven Stoll among many others.
I doubt such Chayanovian societies are going to spring up any time soon in countries of the Global North such as the UK in the context of our emerging climate, energy and political crises, because there are going to be a lot of people chasing limited cultivable land (the opposite of the Chayanovian situation), and there will still be powerful, if declining, political centres like London with large, if declining, amounts of cash floating around. So the challenge as I see it is how to wrest a broadly Chayanovian situation out of these unpromising initial conditions.
The alternative to the ‘vacant’ land of the Chayanovian situation is non-vacant, i.e. controlled land. Who controls it? In an interesting article written some years ago1, the anthropologist Keith Hart argued that historically in the circum-Mediterranean world (and often beyond) it was a battle between these linked dualisms:
city – countryside
merchant – warrior (landlord)
property in money, from water-borne trade – property in land
…until, Hart says, “the Romans, in defeating Carthage, made their world safe for landlords for almost another two thousand years” (p.206).
The problem with this is that property in money from water-borne trade can quickly be parlayed into property in land, or in people, as became all too apparent post-1492 when the water-borne traders started building the global capitalist economy of today on the back of the Atlantic slave system.
A postcolonial dream emerged in the 20th century that urbanization and the globalization of trade would finally oust the rural landlord, the warrior, the controller of landed property. You still hear this dream bandied about today, but it seems to me any realistic belief in it died long before Hart was writing in the early 2000s. Which returns us to his dismal duality – warrior landlord or merchant landlord?
On balance, I prefer merchant landlord. This is because there’s a fluidity to money that makes it easier in principle for just about anybody to become a merchant landlord, whereas the rigidity of social status usually makes it hard to enter the ranks of warrior aristocracies. Also, on balance merchants are marginally less inclined towards acting as entrepreneurs of violence, although it’s a close-run thing – in Chapter 14, I track the intimate relationship between money and violence. Often, the worst violence occurs with the onset of monetization, but violence can get along just fine without money at all.
Anyway, in brief my aspiration is to make it so easy to become a merchant landlord that almost everyone can do it. This has three happy consequences. First, it becomes hard to be a landlord over anyone but yourself, thus finally defeating the landlordism that the Carthaginians so carelessly let slip by losing to the Romans all those years ago in Hart’s telling of the tale. Second, it becomes unnecessary to be a merchant, because you’re a landlord – of yourself – and therefore have the means to produce what you need. But for all that, your mercantile orientation means you’re probably not averse to a bit of trade, which is basically a good thing when it’s kept in check by your self-landlordism because it generates a small flow of specialized surplus and goods that makes the life of the self-reliant proprietor a little bit easier (Christopher Dyer makes this point nicely in his book about a rural Tudor merchant John Heritage – simultaneously merchant, farmer and commoner2). Third, the fluidity of money makes it easier for people who might otherwise be stymied by the rigidity of status to attain self-landlordly autonomy, such as women and minority groups.
As I see it, there are two main drawbacks to this model of widespread merchant self-landlordism. First, it’s quite likely that some people will build up assets over time while others will lose them, so there’s a high risk the system will revert to a more normal kind of landlordism, unless steps are taken to prevent it.
Second, while making monetary exchange the basis of the agrarian economy guards against certain bad outcomes, it courts others. Probably most important among them is the danger that the symbolic economy of money over-dominates the actual ecology that local land, air and water can sustain, not least through the linkage a monetary economy implies to an issuing authority that underwrites it and that may have its own ideas about how people ought to tend the landscape.
I don’t think there’s much to be done in the short term about centralized governments carrying on doing their thing as money-issuing authorities, and throwing their weight around in other ways. But in A Small Farm Future, I argue that some rural areas may enjoy a level of de facto semi-autonomy from these political centres. In that situation, actual money would be scarce locally and much economic activity would occur without it changing hands, but the monetary ambit of the centre would work as a kind of shadow economy conditioning local exchange. It would be interesting to flesh out how that might work.
Fleshing out how it might work would also involve wrestling with the other problem of merchant self-landlordism in time becoming just normal landlordism. It’s not hard to devise policies to prevent that, along the lines discussed in some of my recent posts such as death taxes, land value tax and so on. The real issue is whether the rural society I’m describing would structure itself politically in such a way as to make the implementation of such policies likely. To which the answer is, I think, possibly in some places – but more often not.
In places where it doesn’t shake out like that, the most likely alternative will probably be a version of Hart’s warrior landlordism. I suspect this will look less like the stereotype of the medieval warrior overlord, and more like the kind of urbanized imperial-authoritarian populism pioneered by the Romans and updated by various would-be demagogues of the present like Trump, Johnson, Modi and Putin – bread and circuses for the majority citizenry, demonization and expropriation for minorities and those outside the ambit of the state.
I doubt this kind of warrior landlordism will endure because I don’t think it will be able to mediate the contradictions it faces. It may also lack the means to reach into daily life as comprehensively as contemporary capitalist states. So I think there may still be further opportunities for merchant self-landlords to build more renewable and regenerative local economies within and against the structures of the warrior landlord state.
That, at any rate, is the big picture. In Chapter 14, I discuss some aspects of how this might work in terms of local economic action. As I’ve already said, the bigger issue is the politics, and we’ll get to that presently. Meanwhile, I’ll likely be offline for a few days now but I’ll engage with any comments on my return. Ciao.
1. Keith Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’. In Marianne Lien and Brigitte Nerlich (eds). The Politics of Food. Berg.
2. Christopher Dyer. 2012. A Country Merchant, 1495-1520. Oxford UP.
A little more in this post about the climate protesting I mentioned last time that recently landed me in the dock, since a couple of folks said they were interested to hear about it. Then back next time to my ongoing blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. Mostly, I want to focus this post on some wider aspects of the protesting that in fact link to the book, but a brief account of the events from a personal perspective will help set the scene, and may be of interest.
Last year, I went to the opening rally of Extinction Rebellion’s August ‘rebellion’ in Trafalgar Square, then joined the march that processed towards Covent Garden. Some wily activists had somehow managed to erect a gigantic, two-storey pink table on the junction at Long Acre, with people locked onto its legs and others perched atop to prevent the police from easily removing it. The site quickly turned into quite a protest party, while the police – almost as quickly – encircled the whole junction, including some of its surrounding shops and cafés. They let people exit the cordon but not enter it, at least so it seemed to me (more about this detail later).
I stayed inside the cordon during the afternoon, dropping into a couple of the cafés for food and drink. At around 7pm the police announced they were making the protest illegal under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, meaning that we needed to disperse. I decided not to do that, and instead sat in front of a protestor who was locked on to a table leg, reasoning that it would take the police longer to remove the lock-ons and dismantle the table if they first had to remove the likes of me.
A police officer engaged with me, warning me of various consequences should I be arrested such as estrangement from my family, a travel ban to the USA, and trouble with my employers. These weren’t terribly disquieting threats, since several members of my family are far more active climate protestors than me, I don’t really need to go to the USA, and while my boss can be an absolute arse sometimes, he is, since I’m self-employed, highly unlikely to fire me.
Anyway, long story short, I was arrested around 8pm and carried off by four officers, losing the odd item of clothing and sustaining a few cuts and bruises in the process, as well as having my feet used as an involuntary battering ram against a bystander, all of which I think stemmed more from police incompetence than ill-will.
Half an hour handcuffed in a van, then booked in at Walworth police station. Mugshots, fingerprints, DNA sample, and seven hours in a cell. Fitful sleep mixed with staring at the Samaritans and drug/alcohol advice messages on the ceiling, thinking about all the misery that must have been contained within those walls. Then release in the small hours of the morning, a chat with the lovely XR support people waiting outside the police station, and stumbling home.
As I’ve written here before, when XR started I was sceptical about it for various reasons that I now consider mistaken, one of which was probably my own implicit fears of confronting authority, mixed with a preciousness about the need for my actions to be entirely within my control in some perfectly theorized and intellectualized moment of political history-making.
Not how it works.
I wrote in A Small Farm Future about the need for communities to carve out spaces of autonomy from the power of centralized states so they can develop viable and renewable forms of local livelihood-making. Well, what we achieved at Long Acre was very far from that, but if someone like me for whom the consequences of arrest are so low can’t even minimally follow through on his own ideas and help to hold the micro-space of a single road junction for a few hours while raising the profile of the climate emergency in the process, then I feel my politics imploding with implausibility. Or else bloating with that political preciousness I mentioned – waiting, always waiting, for the correct political moment that I’ve theorized before deigning to act.
The efficacy of my little escapade in Covent Garden is debatable of course, as is everything that I or anyone else can do to mitigate the challenges of our times – writing books or blogs, growing food, shopping thoughtfully, composting waste, working with relevant organisations, political activism. I think my arrest was reasonably worthwhile in the circumstances, and meaningful at least to me – not least because it was shortly before the key international COP26 meeting in Glasgow, and it seemed to me then (and still now) that if there was a right time to raise a public rumpus about the need for urgent and radical climate action, it was at that particular moment.
Eight months on, as I related in my last post, I was convicted for the Section 14 breach. I represented myself in court, on the grounds that the only way I’d be found not guilty would be if my lawyer identified some obscure legal technicality to exploit, which wasn’t really the point – and I’d still end up paying my lawyer more than the actual fine.
The prosecution called as a witness the police superintendent who’d imposed the Section 14. I thought his case for doing so was weak. Criminal damage (some XR stickers on an ATM). His discussions with some taxi drivers who said they’d like to run us protestors over (taxi drivers, eh?). Graffiti on the pavement (it’s London). A nightclub that was closed on the day of the protest but might have lost business the next day if the protest had continued (it didn’t). Café owners short of business.
On that last point, when I got the chance to cross-examine him I put it to him that if the police choose to seal off an area and stop people entering it, then it’s likely that any cafés inside said area will lose business as a result of that decision. He replied along the lines that the police hadn’t sealed off the area, and were letting genuine customers through their cordon if they could prove they’d booked ahead. Like you do when you’re a tourist in the middle of London and fancy a slice of pizza.
Nah, that area was sealed off.
When it was my turn in the dock, I tried two lines of defence. First, the right to protest. Something I hadn’t realized until recently is that although a public highway is for the use of the public, the law is vague on exactly what that use should be. Protesting on it isn’t necessarily a less legitimate use than driving along it (as one of the refrains at XR protests goes: “Whose streets? Our streets!”). In my opinion, it’s reasonable for the police to have the power to disperse protests to mitigate serious public danger or disruption. But stickers on an ATM, or cafés losing custom when they’re ringed by police officers, don’t strike me as serious public danger or disruption, given the circumstances.
This raises a point of wider political importance. For all the angry voices calling for greater police powers to shut down climate protest, in truth the police haven’t always used – or perhaps have been instructed not to use – the existing powers available to them, I suspect because jails full of scientists, elderly priests, retired community workers and suchlike aren’t a good look, and aren’t that great for public finances either. But once the authorities do have summary powers to limit collective protest, then political liberty is on the line. The lock ‘em up brigade might pause to ponder how much the powers that be care about their own cherished ideals. Those calling for increased state power against the public might end up regretting what they wished for.
Anyway, in court I made a brief case setting my right to protest as enshrined in the Human Rights Act against the superintendent’s overzealous Section 14. Then I moved on to my second, and I think more important, defence of necessity.
If you smash a door down in the normal course of things, you’re liable to be charged with criminal damage. But if a building is on fire and you smash the door down to rescue someone trapped inside, our legal and political systems and our common sense align pretty well in accepting that this is not a crime.
When it comes to climate change the building is definitely on fire, but our legal and political systems are barely capable of locating the door, let alone smashing it (last year saw the highest GHG emissions ever). Often, they prefer to criminalize ordinary folks who try to show them where the door is. What we have here is a collective action problem, in which people find themselves unable to create the cooperative structures they need to assure their own joint self-interest (in other words, we have a tragedy of the commons – a concept that, though badly misnamed, goes quite some way to explaining the climate crisis, even as many thinkers queue up to dismiss it).
One of the problems is that it’s not easy to tie cause (climate change) directly to effect (e.g. human suffering) and to effective actions to alleviate it (e.g. climate protesting). But recent scholarship is increasingly able to relate individual human deaths and suffering from extreme weather events pretty much directly to climate change. And the IPCC’s recent report – signed off by most of the world’s governments – acknowledges for the first time that civic engagement, including protest and civil disobedience, is the foundation for collective action of the kind that’s needed for transformative approaches to climate change. So we’re getting increasingly close to establishing a parallel of this sort:
burning building – smash door – save people
climate change – protest – save people
That, at any rate, was my second line of defence – necessity to protect against a greater harm. I didn’t expect my argument to carry the day. OK, if I’m honest, I suppose I did harbour a kind of Hollywood fantasy with me in the Henry Fonda role, holding the court spellbound with my moral passion and faultless logic. The not guilty verdict would then go down in history as the moment when the tragedy of the climate commons was definitively overturned, and the case of Regina v Smaje would be on everyone’s lips for years to come, which would be especially amusing because nobody would know how to pronounce it (rhymes with rage, since you asked).
OK, so … er … it didn’t turn out quite like that. Magistrates don’t establish case law, so they were pretty much inevitably going to find me guilty. But what they could have done is said yes, we hear your view that the grounds for the Section 14 were weak and that climate protest is important, we hear your argument that our society lacks the institutional structures capable of tackling climate change, and it needs to raise its game to save lives. Regrettably, however, our hands are tied and we’re obliged to find you guilty and award costs against you.
Instead, the senior magistrate cut me off in full flow, said that we’re all concerned about climate change, but that doesn’t explain why I knowingly disobeyed a police officer back in August.
On the contrary, I think it explains it precisely.
If indeed we’re all concerned about climate change, then it seems to me that we’re not concerned about it enough, or not concerned in the right way. The point I was making wasn’t a general one about climate change of the tut tut, isn’t it terrible variety. It was a specific one about how our political institutions, including our courts, are unable to deal with it, which is why the problem compounds and why ordinary folks like me therefore need to challenge these institutions directly. When the magistrate cut me off I think it illustrated the collective action problem I was describing. But I’d still have preferred some indication that he understood the point, or cared.
And so onto cross-examination by the prosecutor, mostly a bunch of questions about the impact of the protest on the local community that I couldn’t honestly answer, so I didn’t. I did answer one question in a way I now regret, assenting to the fact that I’d been at the protest all day and had therefore had a chance to protest, as if after a long day of protesting we can tuck climate change up in bed, kiss it goodnight, and wake up to a cooler morning.
Yes, I did have a chance to protest. But I didn’t have a chance to protest enough, just as we don’t all care about climate change enough. One of the few ways ordinary people have of getting people in power to pay more attention to climate change – not enough attention, but more attention – is to engage in civil disobedience of a kind that might get you arrested. I guess I succeeded in that, at least.
Anyway, as I related in my last post, it was guilty as charged, costs to the prosecution, and then out into the rarefied air of the City of London, where the real climate criminals were heading out to lunch.
Some personal take homes. I have few regrets about this episode. In fact, I feel I can hold my head a little higher. I’m glad we were able to claim some political space in central London and turn the public highway over to non-violent public protest for a few hours – not a huge achievement in the face of what’s needed, but more than nothing. I’m glad I pleaded not guilty, because I don’t think I am guilty in any sense that matters. I slightly regret any disruption we caused to local businesses, though I think the police over-stressed this, and under-stressed their own role in it. Compared to the climate-caused disruptions to come the bad effects of our action were negligible, but I plan to donate a proportion of a day’s income to a relevant local community cause. And I’m glad I went to court, looked the representatives of the state in the eye, and presented a defence I believe in.
All the same, I’ve felt a little down since the trial – maybe something about seeing the indifference of our political institutions to the present emergency up close, and personally embodied. I still believe in the rule of law, even though I think the public needs to test it on a regular basis. But I’m not as respectful of the process as I was before my trial – stand up, sit down, yes sir, no sir, and shut up you’re guilty. I now better understand the arc that other activists have followed: play it by the book the first time around and feel the indifference, express your own indifference the next time, then probably do some jail time. But I’m not sure I want to hurl my body or my bank balance at the immoveable edifice of the state again in that way – unless a larger mass of other people are doing it too. Wherein lies another collective action problem – I’ll put myself on the line and defy the state for our collective benefit only if you will too. Truth is, I don’t think it would take an awful lot more people before things started to shift, though maybe not enough for meaningful global change. But until we somehow break out of this impasse we’re stuck tragically trashing the climate commons without lifting a finger to stop it.
Finally, I’m still hearing people dismissing actions like mine on the grounds that, first of all, it’s easy for a white, middle-class person like me to wrangle with the legal system in this way, and secondly that XR-style climate protesting doesn’t constitute a real anti-systemic movement able to challenge the existing political economy.
On the first point, I suppose it is quite easy for people like me to do such things, which is one reason why I think it behooves us to do them. However, to say that it’s easier for the privileged to take political action somewhat undermines the belief, still prevalent on the left, that true political agency is more or less the exclusive property of the oppressed. Perhaps you could argue that climate issues are too removed from the rigours of daily working-class life, but that doesn’t really wash because the true political agency argument rests on the notion that only the working-class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things.
I’d argue instead that nobody and no specific class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things, that no anti-systemic movements cross some threshold of the ‘real’ through the character of their membership or the character of their analysis, least of all when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions which nobody has yet really succeeded in building any mass collective politics around. I’d argue, too, that there’s no particular virtue in boycotting existing climate protest movements from the conviction that you personally have access to some higher-level political consciousness, though there may be good reasons for boycotting them in practice. I’m not suggesting that issues of voice and inclusivity are irrelevant. Just that there can never be a singular, all-inclusive voice, nor a perfect, unflawed action.
All of which points to the analysis in Part IV of my book about the need for a populist politics of political alliances, grounded in the production of renewable local livelihoods. Hopefully I’ll get to it eventually in this blog cycle. Provided I keep out of trouble.
I should really be getting back to my blog cycle about A Small Farm Future, but I have a motley assortment of agenda items I feel the need to share in this and the next post. I’ll try to round them off as quickly as I can.
1. Climate crimes
First, I can report that at City of London Magistrates’ Court last week I was duly found guilty of climate protesting, or more specifically of failing to comply with a condition imposed under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1988. I was given a conditional discharge on the grounds of my ‘previous good character’ (previous??), which means that technically I’m unable to boast having a criminal record.
But I do have to pay the prosecution’s costs – a rather eye-watering amount, especially when you consider their case didn’t amount to much more than getting me to say “yes, I was there” and “yes, I did do that”. I only wish my occupations as writer and farmer paid as well by the hour. Suffice to say the generous donations I received on the tenth anniversary of this blog have been well and truly neutralized, and I’m beginning to rue the purchase of that bottle of bubbly in January. Well, y’all know where the donate button is…
It would have been a lot cheaper if I’d simply pleaded guilty, but I don’t feel very guilty. Narked would be a better word to describe my mood after the trial, at least if you’re a Brit of my generation. It wasn’t the verdict itself – always a certainty – so much as the manner of it, which showcased the vast indifference of the court and by extension the state to the climate crisis engulfing us. I was already aware of that indifference, of course. It was the reason for my civil disobedience in the first place. But bearing witness to it in a court on unequal terms when the indifference was directed at me personally gave it a sharper emotional edge than I’d expected.
Anyway, I’ll say more about my supposed crimes and misdemeanours in my next post. Walking out of the courthouse right in the middle of London’s financial district, where a disproportionate number of the real climate criminals go about their business with the full support of the state, suddenly felt a bit on the nose in the circumstances. With my dear wife, who’d come to support me in court and thankfully on this occasion managed to resist the temptation to glue herself to its walls, we searched amidst this besuited miasma of peacocking masculinity, this ossified architectural monumentalism of phallocentric inadequacy, this Potemkin palace of overcapitalized excess, for an eatery whose menu didn’t involve prosecution-level costs for the prosciutto starter alone. Eventually we located a little place down the appropriately named ‘Change Alley’, where I proceeded to treat myself to a beefburger, thus contributing mightily to the problem of global heating, no wait, doing my bit to help sequester historic greenhouse gas emissions, gosh, this is confusing (see below).
2. Community conflicts
In the week prior to my trial I spent a couple of days at my desk trying to prepare my case, for all the good it did. The boredom of this led me into various distractions and temptations, such as slipping the brake on my usually restrained Twitter habit. This is something Martin cautioned me never to do in a comment here a while back. He was right. I think there must be some disequilibrium in the universe creating a Newtonian third law of Twitter engagement with a twist: for every action in the Twittersphere there’s a greater and more irate reaction (though to be fair my Twittering did receive some pretty good notices too). In the rest of this post, I’m going to run the rule over some of this to-and-fro, most of which could be regarded as friendly fire conflicts within the broad community of alternative/renewable agriculture. It’s a truism, of course, that people standing on adjacent ground often make the bitterest enemies. I’ll be interested what the regular commenters here at smallfarmfuture.org.uk make of it.
By far the politest and most congruent exchange was with @GIFTCIC on the matter of county farms, these being farms owned publicly by local governments in England and Wales with the idea of helping new entrant farmers get established, and of keeping land out of speculative clutches. Both ideas are close to my heart, and in view of the way that many local authorities have sold off or neglected their agricultural estate, and of the various crises now tormenting us to which small, locally-oriented farms provide some mitigation, @GIFTCIC’s call for a campaign of government compulsory purchase to revive the county farm estate makes a lot of sense.
It’s the kind of thing I’d write to my MP to support, if it wasn’t for the fact that my MP is currently suspended amidst allegations of sexual, drug and financial offences. Wherein lies a reason I struggle to get too excited about lobbying for county farms. With the vomit stains still spaffed up the wall from the partying at No.10, with backbench MPs spending their time looking at tractor porn or worse, and with magistrates neglecting to listen for even a few minutes to arguments about the necessity to protect against climate change, my personal cost-benefit calculus for pressing the organs of the state to take enlightened agrarian action no longer turns up favourable odds. I’d probably go so far as to say that helping to put more land into government hands right now, or possibly ever, is a risky option.
@GIFTCIC wrote: “We don’t have the luxury of time for anarcho syndicalism to the commons”, which may be so. My take is that we don’t have the luxury of time for any proposal on how humanity can extricate itself from its present predicaments, so we might as well focus our personal efforts on our own favoured approaches and try to support those of likeminded people as best we can. I lay my own hat in broadly anarchist-populist or civic republican attempts to build a new bottom-up politics locally in the shell of the old. Building the county farm estate is no hindrance to that, and possibly a help, but in my opinion probably not a key lever.
My exchange with @PSBaker10 was a bit more conflictual. It appears he’s not a fan of my book and its vision of low input, small-scale agricultures, writing “To be more than a pipe dream you need projections, ball-park figures. How to realize such a future? Who’d be the farmers, how to train them? Investment costs … major irrigation, polytunnels, subsidies, extension service, insurance for climate shocks. Else – magical thinking!”
Let me just reiterate why I don’t think my description of a small farm future is a pipedream or a case of magical thinking. It’s because it or something like it is probably going to happen whether we like it or not. It might happen in more congenial ways or less congenial ones, and the relative congeniality will not be related to how soundly small farmers have planned their polytunnel investments. It will be related to how the biophysical and socioeconomic shocks unravelling present systems play out. This in turn depends considerably on the nature of the political forces at large in societies of the future. So it’s to these latter that I now devote most of my attention. A small farm future is not an ideal I’m championing, although there are aspects I do try to speak up for. Rather, it’s a coming reality that I’m trying to analyze in order to make the best of it.
@PSBaker10 added: “Not suggesting a detailed plan, but you need some sort of theory of change or framework. E.g. adaptive development based on complexity science … Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos is a good guide. Otherwise it’s just blah blah blah.”
I don’t doubt there’s much to be gained from more detailed thought about all that would be entailed practically and materially in a move to small farm localism, provided we don’t overestimate our predictive powers. Who’d have thought even last year, for example, that my own ramshackle little English farm would be donating spare seeds and old tools to growers in one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions on Earth, before war sawed off its normal supply chains? These kind of shocks are propagating, so for my part I think over-specified attempts at farm planning or political course-plotting themselves exemplify ‘blah blah blah’.
But each to their own. I’m just a lone-hand writer-farmer with no great interest or skill in financial forecasting (even though, strangely, my book has on occasion been right up there on Amazon’s bestseller list for this very topic). Maybe others might weigh in and help build a picture of the small farm business future – a more useful pastime than sniping at me on Twitter, I’d submit. Actually, I’ll be touching on this a couple of blog posts down the line, but at a level of generality that I think befits the huge uncertainties involved.
The only thing I want to add to this particular debate is the suggestion that readers take my projections about such things as three or thirty-three acre farms of the future powered by horses or oxen with a pinch of salt. I just can’t help myself from jumping off the main highway and exploring these old-time byways of small farms with oxen or draught horses. This is for a variety of pressing contemporary reasons, but also as a slightly mischievous counterpoint to the endless newspaper articles about the robotized agrarian techno-cornucopias to come that seem to expect their readers to (a) believe them, and (b) welcome them. In truth, I don’t think it’s so important exactly what form or size these future holdings take so long as they’re providing real food and fibre locally with broadly renewable methods and building local community. The real issue is the politics. Which I concede often does sound like just a load of blah blah blah. Until it suddenly explodes in your face.
3. Carbon cowboys
Finally, my journeyings on Twitter brought me into the firing line of various ardent advocates for regenerative ruminant grazing. Ironically, this was in the context of a thread I wrote making the case for livestock in low impact, renewable agricultures – specifically in the grassland-cropland rotation of ley farming. However, in writing that we will nevertheless need to eat less beef in the future I provoked the ire of various regenerative grazing advocates, who took a distinctly contrary view.
I didn’t particularly want to argue, so I softened my position and said that ‘maybe’ renewable agricultures of the future could accommodate more cattle globally than the present 1.7 billion. But nope, that wasn’t good enough for @soil4climate who insisted there was no maybe about it. When I tried to suggest lightheartedly that ‘maybe’ is the right answer to most questions, this is what came back to me:
“We aren’t interested in appeasing people who don’t understand soil or the essential role of ruminants in restoring it. We’re interesting in removing 300 billion tons of legacy carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into pasture and protein. Cows can do that. Not doubters.”
…a tweet that was liked by some thirty people, most of whom seemed to be beef farmers, perhaps in more ways than one. Well, here’s my last attempt to be conciliatory: in my opinion, beef and ruminant farmers unfairly get it in the neck for climate change/methane emissions and if I were one of them (which I sometimes am, on a very micro scale) I would probably be quite annoyed about it too. However, that doesn’t justify the kind of dogmatic self-righteousness from carbon cowboys – to use Simon Fairlie’s somewhat snarky but apposite phrase – on display in the quotation above.
What a curious world we live in where ruminant agriculture is identified by one vociferous minority as a major cause or even the major of climate change (the veganic argument), while another vociferous minority (the carbon cowboys) identifies it as the major way of mitigating climate change. My sympathies lie closer to the latter, but in truth I think ruminant grazing is neither a major cause of climate change nor a major way of preventing it. And while grazing ruminants on permanent grassland will definitely be a key local livelihood practice in some places, generally it will play only a minor role in the global agricultures of the future. I’ll explain the thinking behind this further in another post. Meanwhile, I plan to go a bit easier on Twitter.
I enjoyed writing a book review for my last post so much that I’m going to write another one this time around. But whereas last time it was a long review of a very long book addressing itself to a large slice of human history, here I offer you a short review of a much shorter book about the life of a single man.
The man in question is Simon Fairlie, and the book is Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir (Chelsea Green, 2022). Disclosure: I know Simon a little, as I suspect do many people in England with more than a passing involvement in the movement for local, sustainable agriculture – testament either to the still regrettably small corps of people the movement commands, or perhaps more positively to Simon’s tireless efforts in making the case and spreading the word on numerous fronts. I’ve written for Simon’s excellent periodical The Land and there’s an endorsement from me inside his book. So, needless to say, I am not an unbiased observer.
Parts of Simon’s life story were therefore familiar to me as I read his memoir: cofounder of the influential low impact agricultural community, Tinker’s Bubble; land rights activist and rural planning expert; reviver of the fine art of scything; acutely perceptive agricultural thinker, whose book Meat: A Benign Extravagance is still the best-articulated vision of a just and sustainable small farm future I know. Other parts were newer to me: an upper-crust if unconventional childhood, dropping out in the 1960s and joining the hippy trail to India, 1990s road protesting and a brief stint in jail as a member of the Twyford Six (“an unwarranted honorific given the minimal degree of martyrdom we had to undergo”), work as a stonemason high aloft at Salisbury Cathedral – and, generally, a life lived at an angle to mainstream working and living arrangements.
The book has a conventional autobiographical structure, a chronological self-narration from childhood to senior citizen, which surprised me at first. It’s not the kind of thing I’d have expected Simon to write at all. But the payoff from such an acute observer of the world is that his story, from 1950s childhood to 2020s dotage, becomes a deft social history of postwar England (and other places, but mostly England). Throughout, Simon has been drawn to people retaining or creating lifeways that resist or negate the dictates of the conventional economy, and he offers numerous wonderful little vignettes from these various front lines – for example, in his account of the now-defunct seacoaling community inhabiting the beaches near Newcastle that he briefly joined in the 1980s, “an example of an open access commons operating within the shell of a capitalist transaction”.
Simon’s attention to the way such communities form – and the way the powers-that-be try to crush them – elevates the book far beyond the personal into a nuanced appreciation of the cultures of capitalism, making it a fitting complement to the book I previously reviewed. But narrated in the context of an individual life, and with Simon’s trademark salty style, it’s considerably more of a page turner.
I like the telling little details he notices – how, for example, chicken was a luxury food in the 1950s because of its dependence on then relatively expensive arable grain fodder, while grass-fed beef and lamb were more easily available. The implications of such observations for agricultural futures today are large, yet go dismayingly little discussed in contemporary food system debates. Simon’s portrait of the 1950s emphasizes how even a fairly privileged upbringing in one of the most privileged countries in the world at that time involved much closer connection to a relatively renewable local agrarian economy than today. This is worth bearing in mind when making the case for low impact local agrarianism in the teeth of derision from techno-solutionists of the present, who are apt to accuse one of wishing to go back to the stone age, or the middle-ages, or [insert supposedly awful period of past history of choice]. The appropriate response to this is to say that we don’t wish to “go back” anywhere, but a passing appreciation among our critics of the way that the neoliberal extremism of recent years has undermined even the residual local sustainability and food autonomy in many countries, including Britain, in just a few decades wouldn’t go amiss.
There were two related areas of discussion in Simon’s book that left me wanting more analysis from him. The first relates to the relative failure of the timber enterprise at Tinker’s Bubble, which he describes as follows:
“the main reason was that the timber operation was a joint enterprise that required the co-operation of several people … And we hippies, although we wanted to live in a community, actually weren’t too good at working communally. That’s not to say we couldn’t. It was more that most of the time most of the people didn’t want to. A squad of professional soldiers under orders would have achieved in a few days what took us months or even years to get together.
The problem had been apparent from the outset. We started out with communal work days, but it was often difficult to get some people to join in and after about eighteen months these were dropped. Instead we adopted a system where different people took responsibility for different tasks, but not everyone carried out their roles, and the forestry fell behind. By 1999…work was no longer structured around a farm plan. Instead each person was supposed to achieve a land-based income through their own devices…The result was a multiplicity of veg patches…hand tilled with spade and mattock” (pp.221-2)
In this revealing microcosm from a single modern agricultural community, Simon pretty much tells the history of local agrarian societies writ large – working communally where they have to, wrestling to find formal collective work arrangements able to fit around the crooked timber of humanity, but generally preferring to organize agriculture in ways that create personal autonomy over the work regimen and opting where possible for intensive cultivation on an individual or household basis, while leaving collective arrangements for the more extensive, whole-landscape level stuff.
I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but in short I don’t think Simon should blame it on any unique failings among the hippies at Tinker’s Bubble. The contrast with a squad of soldiers under orders is informative. History suggests that it’s usually only under rather special, and perhaps undesirable, forms of hierarchy that it becomes easy to create a readily manageable day-to-day work regimen that’s genuinely collective in form. Contemporary writers too often fall into the trap of supposing this is some particular failing of our modern, selfish individualism. It isn’t.
Simon later moved to Monkton Wyld, another well-known intentional community here in southwest England. He speaks a little more highly of it, but – unlike Tinkers Bubble – he wasn’t involved in the arduous process of establishing its routines, and, as he acknowledges himself, the community doesn’t make its livelihood from agriculture and, when he moved there, was already running along the lines that Tinker’s Bubble eventually adopted, where “each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the community for their performance”.
For me, this raises questions of a kind we recently discussed on this blog that touch upon the second point of interest, namely family and personal relationships. Throughout the book, Simon discusses his sometimes stuttering family and romantic relationships with impressive candour and self-criticism, and occasional raw honesty. Yet I was struck by this passage in which he shares his thoughts about how intentional communities address internal tensions:
“Nothing bodes worse, in my view, than ‘feelings meetings’ called to resolve interpersonal problems or plumb the depths of the communal psyche … Occasionally we get visitors, or prospective members who want to promote this kind of collective narcissism and I’m glad to say they get pretty short shrift from most of our members. ‘Least said, soonest mended’ is not a solution for all ills, but it is the policy to be preferred in the first instance.”
I don’t much disagree, and I likewise tend to shy away from collective over-sharing of emotional introspection. But, indeed as Simon says, ‘least said soonest mended’ isn’t a solution for all ills, and it seems to me that the culture around this in current times – particularly manifested in generations younger than mine or Simon’s – has improved in its recognition that people often do need to talk through their complications with each other in constructive ways, and sometimes need the help of others to do it. This is usually true whether the community of concern is a family, a workplace, a neighbourhood, an intentional community, an ecovillage or a country. My sense of this, somewhat amplified by reading Simon’s book, is that it doesn’t matter all that much which of these levels we’re talking about. The need to address and sometimes redress power relationships and interpersonal tensions is similar at all levels of human interaction.
This is why I’ve come to think that the endless and often fierce arguments about whether families, friendship groups, local or intentional communities, governments, commons, wider publics or statutory agencies are the best form of fundamental organization for a well-functioning society are ultimately futile. I have a slight bias against governments and statutory agencies because I don’t think they’re very good at sharing their feelings constructively and then moving on. But ultimately all these levels of human organization face parallel challenges, and squabbling over which is best serves little purpose. At Monkton Wyld as for every other well-functioning social unit, each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the wider community. And the wider community must also somehow be answerable to each person. Enough said. Time to move on.
In this brief review, I’ve just picked out a few strands from Simon’s rich and informative narrative – I’d warmly commend anyone interested enough to have read this far to get themselves a copy of the book, where they’ll find much more to entertain and inspire them. On its final page, Simon writes:
“I’m not one of those bronzed and wiry septuagenarians who take on challenges like rowing across the Atlantic. I’m pink and fat, and I avoid having to bend down to tie up my shoelaces. Yet despite this corporeal decadence, I can still milk the cows, muck out the yard and mow quarter of an acre of hay in a morning, and I intend to keep it up. I expect to die in bed with my boots on, having been too knackered and drunk to take them off”
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen until those boots have tramped many more miles, and he’s shared more of his acute wisdom and radicalism, and a few more stories, with the rest of us.
Time for a book review to mark the passage of my present lengthy blog cycle about my own little book into its later phases. And so, with the usual caveats about my entirely unsystematic and biased approach to the reviewing business, let us take a look at Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Harvard, 2019). At 799 pages, it makes the 692-page doorstopper from Graeber and Wengrow that I last reviewed seem almost flimsy by comparison. But I have read every page of McCarraher’s tome (well, almost – see below) to bring you its fruits, so take a seat and settle in. This, regrettably, is quite a long review, but on the upside it’ll take you way, way less time to read than the book itself (and if you read it carefully, you may just notice that I provide a useful hack).
1. Of sacramental capitalism
The pioneering sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) popularized the term ‘the disenchantment of the world’ to describe the rationalization, bureaucratization and commodification of society in the modern era, as against the enchanted or sacramental worldview of premodern times where people, organisms and other entities were imbued with otherworldly spiritual significance. The big idea that organizes McCarraher’s book is that Weber was wrong. The thought of modern times, and the capitalist economy that animates it, is itself in McCarraher’s words “a form of enchantment – perhaps better, a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world” (p.5). Enlightenment, capitalism and modernity, says McCarraher, didn’t replace religion. They are religion.
On this point, I fully agree with McCarraher, who does a fine job of substantiating it throughout his book in relation to any number of writers and thinkers. But while he does a good job substantiating it, it’s not the kind of thing that he or anyone else can ever really prove, and I daresay there will be readers more aligned with the Weberian view who will be left cold by McCarraher’s claims that our modern conceptions of capitalism and progress are just another waypoint on humanity’s search for spiritual redemption. There’s a kind of dualism here in contemporary culture with clear, unbridgeable water between the two positions. From my side of it, I’d say you either just get that our fondest notions of progress, instrumental control, technological mastery and capitalist needs satiation are basically forms of spiritual yearning, or … you don’t. Trying to argue it out with the other side is rarely illuminating and usually ends at best with blank incomprehension, and often with mere name-calling.
So I doubt McCarraher’s mammoth tome will have much success converting those who welcome capitalism as a disenchantment of sacramental premodern worldviews and a lynchpin of humanity’s modern betterment and progress. Even so, I don’t think his time was wasted. It’s useful to have a hefty, serious work of scholarship that endorses Romanticism, enchantment, love and communion as ideas to be proudly embraced, rescuing them from the derision of the true believers in the supposedly more hard-bitten notions of secular progress who in his pages unwittingly reveal their own sacramental longings. As McCarraher puts it:
“the Romantic lineage of opposition to “disenchantment” and capitalism has proved to be more resilient and humane than Marxism, “progressivism”, or social democracy. Indeed, it is more urgently relevant to a world hurtling ever faster to barbarism and ecological calamity”
Amen to that. I should say, though, that McCarraher’s pithiest and most stimulating thoughts about the sacramental nature of capitalism come in the Prologue (pp.1-21) to which most of the rest of the book relates almost as a (very long) footnote. Despite the longueurs, I do like the way he catches the religious timbre of so much writing about capitalism, technology and progress – as for example in an 1860 edition of Scientific American that wrote of recent improvements in haymaking technology “Are not our inventors absolutely ushering in the very dawn of the millennium?” (p.137). But maybe it wouldn’t have hurt to have had a bit less of this footnoting and a bit more of a clearly defined intellectual position around why in capitalist situations “our love spoils into a lust for power that mars the development of civilization” (p.12) and how, under capitalism, enchantment becomes misenchantment.
2. Of nostalgic modernism, the technological sublime and Smaje’s law
Still, sprinkled across the pages of his book like adamantine little jewels, McCarraher explores the implications of his prologue in a series of excellent, almost counterfactual propositions about where the Romantic lineage he refers to in the quotation above might have taken us, and perhaps still might, if only we could tame the disenchanted ideology of techno-progress.
For starters, he reclaims the very idea of ‘progress’ for the Romantic lineage along similar, but rather sharper, lines to my own attempts to escape the airless duality of technological progress versus backward-looking nostalgia. Romantics don’t want to respool history and ‘go back’, but we are able to see the negatives in the way modern societies have gone ‘forwards’, a lot of them connected with the capitalist abstraction and accumulation of money (p.14). So it’s not that we’re opposed to progress. Just the present dominant version of it.
The more I read The Enchantments of Mammon the more vividly it underlined an irony I remarked in my own book, that this present dominant version of technological progress is in fact stuck in the past, specifically in the increasingly dated ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment period and the succeeding intellectual culture of the 19th century. The very title of one leading treatise in progress ideology – Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now! – pretty much gives the game away. Despite the considerable insights of founding modernist figures from those periods – Mandeville, Smith, Kant, Marx, Montesquieu and many others – the projects they initiated have revealed their contradictions and are now exhausted. Yet we continue to reinvent them in the face of present problems as if they’re fresh insights without historical baggage.
When the bandwagon of ecomodernism started rolling in the early years of the 21st century, pronouncing the death of ‘traditional’ or ‘romantic’ environmentalism and trumpeting its melding of ecological consciousness with high technology, it successfully presented itself as a bold new vision while quietly filling new bottles with this same old wine. Although he doesn’t talk about ecomodernism as such, a nice feature of McCarraher’s book is that he captures the sense in which future-heralding techno-progress versus present-focused conviviality is not a new debate, its present form going at least as far back as the 19th century and probably much further. And it’s not really about technology, either. It’s more of a religious debate about how you prefer your sacraments – convivially among friends, family and known existing places, in the embrace of small shrines accreted with a weight of local meaning? Or portentously among the heavens, seeking a Promethean unity with the gods that gladly annihilates the solidity of the local and the presently existing?
The hangover that visits some who wake from the Promethean excess of the latter form of sacrament is called neurasthenia – what McCarraher describes as “a feeling of anomie, listlessness and boredom in the midst of unprecedented comfort and abundance” (p.328). It’s easy to dismiss this as a nice problem to have, a ‘First World’ problem. But it may prove a potentially disastrous whole world problem if its sufferers, those with great purchasing power, try to solve it through further cycles of bad consumption and bad politics. Although it’s common in modern culture to pay lip service to the banality of consumerism, we rarely look the downside of unprecedented wealth, comfort and energetic command fully in the eye.
McCarraher cites, for example, Timothy Walker’s ‘Defence of mechanical philosophy’, published in 1831, in which the human mind becomes “the powerful lord of matter” and “machines are to perform all the drudgery of man, while he is to look on in self-complacent ease” (p.137-8). No doubt there’s much to be said for ‘ease’, at least some of the time, but ‘self-complacency’ doesn’t sound so great. Yet it’s an apt term for our contemporary fossil-fuelled civilization as it teeters on the brink of authoring its own collapse while congratulating itself for its neurasthenic achievements and scorning societies of the past.
How have we come to think that self-complacency is a good thing? How have we come to be so proud of what Alexander Langlands calls ‘the illiteracy of power’ in which we can see only the advantages of our automated alienation from the biosphere that sustains us, and none of the disadvantages? Rather than embracing new technologies for their assistance in meeting a priori human ends, we’ve ended up embracing new technologies simply in their own right – a kind of aestheticized “technological sublime” (p.135) so pathological that governments are now reduced to invoking as yet implausible, untried or uninvented technologies to bail us out of climate catastrophe in the next few decades.
What I find depressing is not so much the persistence of the technological sublime into the present but its ubiquity across the political spectrum, from the far right to the far left, where Marxists feature as “the lead-bottomed ballast of the status quo…the middle managers of a consumerist, technological civilization” (p.635). As McCarraher’s painstaking enquiry makes clear, you have to look hard to find progressive thinkers articulating alternative romantic, convivial, human-scale visions of society – and most of them, alas, are forced to waste a lot of their time explaining why they do not in fact wish to turn the clock back to a mythical golden age and why they’re not just misty-eyed conservatives. I’d add, though, that perhaps you don’t have to look quite as hard to find them as you might think from a reading of McCarraher’s book, a point to which I’ll return.
In a bravura section (roughly pp.58-107) McCarraher offers a brilliant critique of Marxism which he shows, for all its strengths, has bequeathed a bad legacy of non-ecumenical scorn for alternative, non-Marxist – particularly romantic – traditions on the left, and an ill-conceived vaunting of the working class and other categories of oppressed people as the only authentic agents of political change. I plan to write separately about this elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here except to say that McCarraher’s critique pivots towards the kind of progressive populist politics I explore briefly in my own book, and which seems to me the most promising route out of humanity’s present predicaments. And I will write more about that in a moment.
For now, I’ll simply say that against the naïve techno-communism of the Leigh Phillips ‘just wait until the working class get the keys to the nuclear power station’ variety, there is no particular sub-group of humanity imbued with some kind of redemptive political authenticity that will save our ass, and nor are there any redemptive technologies like nuclear power that will save our ass either, even if some technologies (probably not nuclear power) will definitely have a role to play in a convivial future.
But a livable future for humanity will have to involve less accumulated power and capital more evenly distributed. That means less material wealth and less command over material resources for the richest portion of humanity than we’re currently accustomed to – although not necessarily less wealth in all the other dimensions of human experience that matter more. But let’s speak plainly – the global rich, which probably includes most people likely to be reading this article, will be materially poorer.
Although McCarraher doesn’t make a central theme of this in his book, nor, to his credit, does he shy away from it. And he usefully excavates various marginalized strands of thought that might inform it, like the Christian socialism of Vida Dutton Scudder and Bouck White, with Scudder’s commitment to “the Franciscan way of poverty, a path of dispossession rooted in a confident, premodern ontology of love” (p.259) and White’s critique of “the modern dread and horror of poverty” (p.294).
I must stress that what I’m talking about isn’t the kind of grinding, malnourished, violent life of poverty that Prometheans often think they’re striving to abolish, while we Romantics tend to see on the contrary as largely a consequence of modern Prometheanism. Instead, I mean a life where the flow of energy and cheap consumer commodities is slower than we’re accustomed to in the Global North and where more of our time must be devoted to furnishing our livelihoods.
On this point, McCarraher provides some useful grist in the dreary poverty wars that rage endlessly between the Promethean and Romantic visions. I’ve lost count of the times somebody championing some favoured example of capitalist high technology as a boon to the poor has angrily denounced the moral repugnance of my position for its connivance with global poverty. Often enough I’ve shot the charge right back. This is what I propose to call Smaje’s law, a variant of its more famous cousin Godwin’s Law: the longer that Promethean techno-modernists and convivial Romantics engage each other online, the more likely it is that someone will profess self-righteous anger at the others’ moral complicity with poverty.
I don’t think it’s a good look for wealthy westerners to invoke the global poor as bargaining chips in their political arguments with each other, so these days I try to avoid falling into the dread grip of Smaje’s law. Albeit a side theme of McCarraher’s book, he provides some useful leverage within its pages for avoiding the dismal oversimplifications involved. And for that I thank him.
3. Plymouth Rock or Jamestown?
I hope I’ve conveyed some of the great strengths of McCarraher’s book. I now want to mention some weaknesses, which I trust won’t detract from an appreciation of the whole.
I’ll begin with a minor one. McCarraher writes beautifully, but at a level of highfaluting intellectual abstraction likely to leave many a general reader cold. There are a lot of sentences like this:
“Indebted to Emerson and Nietzsche and their mythos of the unfettered spirit, Goldman and other cultural radicals draped a bourgeois ontology of power in the exotic raiment of bohemia”
This is fine by me, having served a lengthy sentence in academia’s ivory prison, but I suspect it will limit his readership – which is unfortunate, because I think he has important things to say. Actually, people have said much the same about my own writing, so at least the next time that happens I can say “if you think I’m bad, try reading Eugene McCarraher!”
A more serious stylistic problem is that while McCarraher doesn’t exactly hide his political colours, he treats most of his case material (which, almost exclusively, comprises what highly educated and literate people such as himself have written about the society they’re living in) to a kind of mannered disdain, which left me wondering how he proposes to transcend a misenchanted capitalism. The writer he most reminds me of, and who McCarraher himself invokes quite often as both muse and counterpoint, is Christopher Lasch. Lasch also had a good line in disdain, which he directed voluminously towards the political left, the political right, and most points in between, but in my opinion usually with a clearer underlying politics that holds the attention better. So I must admit I skimmed a few pages in the middle of McCarraher’s book. There’s only so much self-congratulatory bloviation from obscure 1920s New York admen that anybody needs to experience in their lifetime.
Excessive detail aside, McCarraher does provide a rich account of the history of US capitalism, particularly in the crucial late 19th century change from an individualist-proprietorial model to a corporate, managerial and statist one. I liked his mordant analysis of the “double truth” by which the former model is still used as a veil of legitimacy for the latter:
“one truth for the neoliberal intelligentsia and their sponsors – the fabrication of markets and property relations by corporate capital and the state – and another for the credulous mob – the natural and therefore inviolable status of capitalist markets and property”
But, apart from a brief nod in the early chapters to thinkers in 19th century England, McCarraher’s history of capitalism is almost exclusively a history of capitalism in the USA. Given that even this takes him nearly 800 pages, perhaps we should be grateful that he didn’t opt for a global approach. But the lack of wider material does compromise his analysis. In particular, he takes the rather sectarian view that the worm in the bud of the US economy arrived with the Pilgrim Fathers and the contradictions of their ‘covenant theology of capitalism’. He outlines convincingly enough these Puritan contradictions, but a wider view of the emergence of capitalism as a world system encompassing not only such Catholic powers and players as Spain, Portugal, France, the city states of Italy and the merchants of Antwerp but also non-Christian protagonists beyond Europe and the Americas might have usefully complicated his vision.
Even within North America, a glance at the irreligious freebooters of Jamestown – who preceded the Puritans of Plymouth Rock by some years as colonial English founders on the continent – might have called into question McCarraher’s instinct to locate the origins of capitalism in the contradictions of lofty Protestant theology. And, whatever the origins, a feature of capitalism is its viral tendency to force replication of its basic structure with local variation across global geography, religion and culture. It may be true, as McCarraher – quoting pioneering American economist Thorstein Veblen – states, that the US farming yeomen of diverse origins of the 19th and 20th centuries were “cultivators of the main chance as well as of the fertile soil” (p.268), but this surely wasn’t fundamentally because of their religion.
4. Plain folks and the stuff they buy
If there’s not going to be a simple revolutionary redemption from capitalism orchestrated by ordinary working people of the kind that Marxists project, then what alternatives are there for getting off the hook on which the capitalist global economy undeniably suspends us? I’m not sure there’s any really plausible answer to that, but if there is I think it will involve complex, flawed, non-revolutionary transformations of capitalism orchestrated from place to place by broad alliances of different people, including but not limited to ordinary working ones.
In the later parts of his book, McCarraher takes us on an informative sightseeing trip that hints at who some of these people might be and what their alliances might look like. Frustratingly, though, he presents them rather hurriedly, almost as exotica in the manner that a well-informed but world-weary tour guide might (that mannered disdain again!) before ushering us back to our comfortable modernist hotel with a faint aura of disillusionment. This leaves little sense of how the living, breathing people we’ve met could help generate the political traction necessary to improve our world. So here I’m going to try sneaking out of the hotel, revisiting some of the people McCarraher has introduced us to, and giving them a bit more leeway to tell a different story.
One of McCarraher’s targets is ‘plain folks ideology’, which he defines in terms of “white supremacy, patriarchal dominance, small government, antipathy towards cultural and economic elites, and the Protestant work ethic” (p.583). It strikes me that this ideology is quite US-specific, although it has resonances – perhaps, for various reasons, growing ones – elsewhere, not least here in Europe. I’ll accept these traits as at least one core ideology of ordinary working people and do my best to work through it towards something more promising.
I’ve written elsewhere about patriarchal dominance, and briefly above about the Protestant work ethic so I’ll restrict myself to a few remarks about the other three items on the plain folks list. Recently in the US and other countries of the Global North there seems to have been a resurgence of bald, far-right white supremacism and ethno-nationalism, but more moderate identification of ordinary working-class white and majority ethnic people ‘upwards’ with majority elites against minorities is probably still of greater political importance.
This identification is heavily manipulated by elites and the politicians representing them like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, but I’ll avoid the ‘false consciousness’ argument that working people don’t know what’s good for them and support such ideologies against their own best interests. In fact, I’d argue the plain folks’ antipathy to elites is more partial than McCarraher implies, involving a claim to be a part of the elite which, like many such claims, involves denying the existence of its own privilege. Hence, there’s a tendency within ‘plain folks’ thinking to dismiss as liberal wokeism an awareness of the historical advantage accruing even to ordinary working-class people of white or majority ethnicity in the Global North arising from colonial power and its modern versions, which becomes an elitism of its own.
McCarraher himself sometimes succumbs to a version of this – as, for example, when he writes “the New Deal state attempted to temper class conflict, stabilize the business cycle, and promote economic growth, relying primarily on the stimulation of consumption through fiscal policy and military spending” (p.364). It’s as if spending on the US military was merely an economic stimulus package. But really you need to ask what the military was doing, and why.
Anyway, a big question for the future is whether these basically elite narratives of race and nation will continue to temper class conflict by drawing majority working-class people into their ambit, or whether more genuinely populist rebellion against the elites might occur. There’s a strong case for thinking the former is likely, but I’d argue McCarraher gives too little credence to the possibilities for the latter.
As with race, so with class, and the curious appeal of popular conservatism. It’s easy to see why people in the richest strata of society, especially in the Global North, are drawn to conservative, pro-capitalist politics, even if the conjunction of conservatism and capitalism needs some unpicking, because there’s nothing in the least bit ‘conservative’ about capitalism. But it’s not so easy to see the appeal to ordinary working-class people, other than as a crumbs-from-the-table subsidiary elitism of the kind I’ve just described. McCarraher addresses this implicitly in an illuminating passage that I’ll quote at length, where he discusses the mid-20th century conservative agrarian localism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk:
“Weaver and Kirk might have been expected to call for the abolition of corporate capitalism and the revival of family proprietorship. Yet however nostalgic they may have been for the dung-scented air of agrarian integrity, they, along with most other “conservatives”, made a separate peace with corporate business. On this score, they demonstrated the veracity of Corey Robin’s analysis of “the reactionary mind”: that conservatism has been, at bottom, less a concern for the preservation of tradition than “an animus against the agency of the subordinate classes,” a determination that society remain “a federation of private dominions,” especially in the workplace and the family”
There’s quite a lot going on in this passage, and it bears fruitfully on some contemporary political puzzles. I think there remains in the USA, although less than in most other wealthy countries, a taste for ‘big government’ among ordinary, working-class voters who appreciate that only big governments have the power to take on private corporate interests to the benefit of ordinary people. But it’s tempered simultaneously by an understandable scepticism towards big government, partly through the realization that private corporate interests also rely heavily on the power of big government and ultimately command more of its loyalty, and partly through the alienating experience of bureaucratic welfare capitalism, along with a historical sense that bureaucratic welfare socialism is just as bad, or worse.
This leads to some curious political alignments. On the one hand, there are big government neo-Bolshevik left-wingers like Leigh Phillips and his ‘People’s Republic of Walmart’ shtick. You can barely drive a cigarette paper between his position and big government ‘conservative’ neoliberalism, and if you can it’s a paper inscribed with a belief in the redemptive power of the working class and the benevolence of the bureaucratic state that’s naïve even by Marxist standards. On the other hand, you get small government proponents running the gamut from dissimulating neoliberals playing the ‘double truth’ game I mentioned above, to communitarian and populist conservatives, anarchists and civic republican progressive populists like me.
I think big government leftists are backing the wrong horse because of the impossible political contradictions and biophysical conundrums faced by national and global governance. There’s scope for engaging the subtler thinkers among them who don’t immediately dismiss any kind of small government thinking as irredeemably conservative and beyond the pale, but regrettably such thinkers are scarcer on the left than you might expect.
So perhaps it’s more important for we small government romantic progressives to reach out to the conservative communitarians and populists, with whom we share a commitment to McCarraher’s “federation of private dominions” in the workplace, the family and elsewhere. But we also have a commitment to the “agency of the subordinate classes” (among others) and to principles of fairness and justice determined by inclusive political deliberation rather than assumed to exist in the nature of things.
Our challenge is to convince small government populist conservatives and communitarians that the federation of private dominions they favour has more in common with our vision of private autonomy and public good than with the vision of private property held by the corporate sector and the minority wealthy elite, which lacks commitment to genuine, popular private ownership and distributed sovereignty. Building such a populist alliance is a daunting challenge, but it may be more politically effective than trying to engage the traditional big government and class-determinist left to make its well-intentioned but shopworn political convictions fit for present times. Anyway, I haven’t yet given up on the idea that progressive populists could form a powerful alliance with certain kinds of smalltown conservatives and communitarians. Indeed, the time for it seems riper now than at any point in the recent past (I acknowledge, by the way, that the simple duality of ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government I’m using here needs unpicking. More on that another time, I hope, along with some further thoughts on progressive/conservative alliance).
One reason the time is ripe is because while 19th and 20th century populists could be forgiven for thinking that there was little possibility of reviving family proprietorship in the face of corporate state and capitalist power, it’s easier to entertain its revival today. This is my argument in A Small Farm Future,and it’s the creed of a small but growing band of neo-peasants and neo-homesteaders whose political allegiances cut across traditional lines.
I wish McCarraher could have lent some of his weight to that movement, but for all his endorsement of romantic alternatives to techno-capitalism and its techno-communist twin, he just can’t quite escape the urge to disdain them, as with his “dung-scented air of agrarian integrity” remark. This urge gets the better of him in his analysis of US agrarian populism around the turn of the 20th century, whose proponents emerge from his pages as mere smalltown capitalists with nothing to teach the anticapitalists of today: “populism was an alternative model of capitalism, it was never an alternative to capitalism….it has never imagined a fundamental revision of property relations in America” (p.265).
There’s some truth to this, but it’s a charge that any number of jobbing Marxists could have laid, and indeed many have. For someone who’s just taken so much trouble to criticize the progressive, world-redeeming pretensions of Marxism, it’s strange that McCarraher relapses into the same easy critique of populist reformism without probing more deeply at the movement’s radical possibilities. For my part, I’d argue that elements of US populism and contemporaneous movements like distributism did imagine a ‘fundamental revision of property relations’ – a more realistic one than Marx’s – in advocating for the fair distribution of land and in opposing the anti-democratic, corporate accumulation of property.
McCarraher himself mentions how “the lords of finance capital realized with horror” that the populist C.W. Macune’s sub-treasury plan “would place the nation’s monetary policy under…greater democratic supervision…and break the hold of big-city merchants and commercial banks on American farmers” (p.262). Which sounds to me like it could be quite a fundamental revision of property relations. Elsewhere, he gives a sympathetic account of John Ruskin’s non-Marxist communism of “private, nonaccumulative, convivial property” (p.88). Agrarian integrity; sub-treasuries; self-possession; distributed, convivial, nonaccumulative property. It’s as if McCarraher has painstakingly tracked down all the pieces of a jigsaw scattered to the corners of the room by angry modernist techno-progressives and placed them carefully back on the table, only to lose his nerve at the moment of final assembly. The time for a small state, civic republican, progressive agrarian populism – an anti-Mammonism, an anti-Leviathan – is now. McCarraher ably prepares the ground for it in his book. I hope he’ll someday come and join us on it.
I feel like I’ve already criticized McCarraher more than he perhaps deserves, but I just want to flag one final area of weakness. Early in the book, and rightly in my opinion, he castigates critics of consumerism for their “tiresome and largely ineffectual moralism” (p.14). But he never really finds an alternative vantage point from which to analyze consumerism – all that stuff that the plain folks love to buy. So in the end he wavers between joining the moralists – “Consumer culture is a counterfeit beatific vision, a realm of coruscating misenchantment, a corporate atlas for a parodic sacramental way of being in the world” (p.227) – or throwing up his hands in despair: “It would seem that most of “the 99 percent” want to “take back” the American Dream, not awaken from and definitively repudiate it; no depth or magnitude of failure seems capable of occasioning a fundamental reckoning with the futility of the original covenant” (p.670).
If he’d followed through a little more on his own idea that capitalism is a form of religion, and also with the sociology of Max Weber that he invokes at the start of his book, I think he might have come to a more rounded and less despairing view. Perhaps a view – I hate to say it – closer to the one I outline in Chapter 16 of my own book, where I argue that just as new religious movements are forever arising from the foundations of the old creeds to craft a workable orientation to new times, so there are ways of changing the contemporary religion of capitalist consumerism into new forms of practice and new kinds of engagement with the sacred and the worldly.
5. All the way down
Still, McCarraher does a good line in well-judged despair. Badly-judged despair is ten a penny in cultural criticism and achieves very little, but high-quality despair kept well restrained of the kind McCarraher so often achieves in his book can move mountains. Returning to Vida Dutton Scudder, I liked, for example his appraisal of her Franciscan ability “to endure and draw renewal, even joy, from the experience of defeat” which against “the promethean delusion of total dominion over nature and history…sets the diminutive realism of finitude, weakness, and humility” (p.359).
I think we badly need that ability to draw renewal from defeat right now, and to embrace a ‘diminutive realism’ that refuses the illusory promise that capitalism can become a bigger, better version of itself lurking within any number of techno-progressive and eco-socialist manifestos for the future. We need that ability because of what McCarraher calls the militaristic and disciplined aggression of capitalism (p.484), which is hard to defeat with conviviality and localism. It’s more easily defeated with other forms of disciplined aggression of the kind that Marxist movements historically developed. But such a defeat merely replicates the problem.
However, it does seem to me that all these aggressive, big government statist political doctrines sometimes become the authors of their own destruction, creating local spaces for forms of sacramental renewal that are deeper and more satisfying than the misenchantments of modernity can ever be. The onus is to keep the faith through the seemingly endless round of defeats and try to build out from those spaces when they arise.
In the meantime, it’s good to have books like McCarraher’s to help us on the journey. And it’s good to have a serious academic voice that in contrast to the bromides of a Steven Pinker is alive to the depth and enormity of the task. Asking himself how deep the reconstruction of the project of Enlightenment has to go, McCarraher’s answer is an emphatically italicized “all the way down” (p.675).
This post addresses some questions of household, family and gender relations in a small farm future. I wrote about this in Chapter 12 of my book, and also in this article and this post. But there are some things I’d like to add – partly a few new thoughts, and partly by way of response to points made earlier that I wasn’t able to respond to at the time. So, a brief reprise and reformulation before I move onto other things.
As I see it, for reasons much aired on this website over the years, there will probably be a resurgence of small-scale, household-based farming in the future, and many – but by no means all – of those households are going to be peopled mainly or exclusively by an adult woman, an adult man, and their children. This is not some ethical ideal that I’m advancing as an exemplary model for how farm households ought to be arranged. On the contrary, I hope there will be many different styles and sizes of household. It’s just that I think the structure I mentioned is likely to be quite common in the future, as it has been in the past, unless a lot of political effort is devoted to preventing it – which I doubt will happen, and in my view probably wouldn’t be a good use of precious social resources. Possibly, this structure will seem to offer certain advantages for some of those involved, but it risks disadvantages for others.
One of the disadvantages I’ve feared is that a household farming future of this kind will disproportionately benefit men and disbenefit women. Therefore, I wrote Chapter 12 of my book to address that issue. It was one of the harder chapters to write (and one of the harder ones to cut editorially), and it’s one of the chapters I’m least satisfied with. Happily, all the reviews of the book I’ve seen bar one correctly appreciated that it was a good faith attempt to advance an anti-patriarchal position around family farming.
But, as I see things now, I fear I may have fallen into a so-called framing trap with that chapter, where I too easily accepted key premises of views I don’t share – specifically, that small-scale, family farming is intrinsically patriarchal and that the royal route to gender equality lies in urbanization, modernization and the escape of (female) labour from land-based work.
This is certainly a widely held view. One participant at a discussion I was involved in said bluntly that “small farms are bad for women”. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I put the point to Vandana Shiva when I interviewed her on The Stoa, and she took the alternative view that there are sources of social support for rural women that make them less vulnerable to patriarchal control and violence than their poor urban counterparts.
I also quizzed my friend Saurav Roy on the point, and he wrote this interesting reply (lightly edited by me), which I’ll return to in a later post:
“When I was working in slums in Calcutta, mostly the migrants were coming from Sundarbans because either their crops were failing or fish were dying because salty water would enter their ponds. They would share with me that they came to earn money in Calcutta because the flooding and soil erosion have increased in the last five years, making it difficult for them to farm anything. Moving to a city is not a choice they prefer, as it requires leaving their family behind and the conditions in the city are far less dignified than in the village. That was my first experience of witnessing climate migration before I even read a book about climate migration.
I was doing surveys in these slums to understand their energy needs, kerosene dependency and household earnings. For that, the women would know more than the men, so I would naturally speak to the women. Show up every two weeks to say hi and update surveys. I became more trusted and then women, especially the newly married ones, would say they feel less secure in the slums as there are more experiences of getting groped, molested or raped. As police are not of any help in these neighbourhoods (because people are living there illegally) they can’t really report anything. So the women have to protect themselves, have a man in the house after dark, or especially feel vulnerable when they want to use the toilet. These slum houses rarely have proper doors, so if any drunk person wants to enter at night they could”
Then Saurav cited some evidence hinting at better security (and better nutrition) for rural women in India. Other writers like Manali Desai have emphasized the greater danger of sexual violence against low caste women in rural areas. I guess it’s always hard to generalize, especially in a country comprising nearly 20% of the world’s population. So it’s complicated, but on the face of it I’m not seeing an awful lot of evidence to suggest that rural residence and agrarian lifeways are always the worst option for women (which is just as well, because I think there are going to be increasingly few other options for women, and for men too, in the future).
To generalize yet further, the way I now see things is that patriarchy is a permanent possibility in every kind of society, and it bears little necessary relation to the kind of place people live, the kind of work they do and maybe the exact composition of their households. So I no longer feel a need to defend societies built on small-scale family farming from the specific charge of patriarchy, which is not of course the same as saying that patriarchy is not an issue in such societies. The work of historians like Robert Allen and Emma Griffin has shown that conditions for women in England worsened with the early modern onset of more commercialized farming and subsequently with industrialization, and similar findings have been presented in other parts of the world. Along with their contrary. Again, it’s complicated.
In The Dawn of Everything (which I reviewed here), David Graeber and David Wengrow suggest that “the most brutal forms of exploitation have their origins in the most intimate of social relations: as perversions of nurture, love and caring” (p.208). They use this to analyze exploitation at different social levels, including patriarchal family forms, domestic slavery and forms of political tyranny. If they’re right, then it follows that ending these forms of exploitation must involve redressing the ‘perversions’ they invoke, rather than assuming there’s some particular form or level of social organization such as ‘the family’ where the blame lies.
So what are the perversions? When I wrote my chapter, I was thinking of societies organized around corporate kinship groups such as clans and lineages, where it seems to me the chances of creating patriarchal structures are high – women, and women’s sexuality or ‘honour’, being a group possession that it jealously guards. For that reason, I felt that in societies organized around less ramifying kin structures – nuclear families, say – the risks would be lower. And, reading Graeber and Wengrow’s book, I found it remarkable how many of the archaeological sites they described worldwide across the span of human history, most particularly those they championed as versions of republican autonomy, involved small domestic hearths of the kind that could only accommodate a small group of people of nuclear family type proportions.
Remarkable though that seemed, as I mentioned in my review it wasn’t something Graeber and Wengrow actually remarked on. I can’t help feeling there’s something of a conspiracy of silence around kinship and family forms in the contemporary social sciences, alongside a queasiness in even talking about it in progressive and left-wing circles that leaves the field wide open for the political right to forge what it will out of the concept of ‘the family’.
Whereas kinship studies were once central to anthropology, perhaps too central, they now seem to me too peripheral, to the extent that it’s barely possible to formulate questions about the structuring of kin and gender relations in different kinds of societies at all. A lot of the more recent scholarship on the topic asks instead how we even come to conceive that ideas like gender or family have any meaning at all – which is fair enough, although you can say the same about any form of social identity, including class. Generally, this recent scholarship operates at a level of highfalutin philosophical abstraction that I suspect is quite bamboozling to most ordinary folk, though perhaps some of the ideas find more everyday expression in current controversies about trans identities and rights.
Meanwhile, radical writers tiptoe around the issue. In his stimulating book, A People’s Green New Deal, for example, Max Ajl argues for agrarian reforms that “shatter large capitalist plots into smaller ones workable by non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117) and “break huge farms into units that can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives” (p.144). No quarrel from me there, but Max doesn’t expand on what form these family units might take and how they would relate to wider society. This is probably a wise move to avoid political trouble, but it risks evading issues that ultimately must be confronted.
While I’ve been entertaining notions of restricted family units and restricted proprietorship as a way to overcome the ‘perversions’ of modern patriarchy and power, I think it would be fair to say that a lot of leftwing thought runs in the opposite direction, holding both nuclear family structures and notions of private property, even in the form of distributed petty proprietorship, in special contempt for many modern ills. This was firmly asserted by an online commenter recently who took umbrage at my view that small, family-based households are quite common historically.
The classic text here, and the one my commenter invoked, is Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published in 1884. I have a copy on my bookshelf, which I bought exactly a century later when I was an undergraduate anthropology student. A good deal of Engels’ evidence was culled from the 1877 book Ancient Society by pioneering US anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, with its speculative and now outmoded conception of an original human matriarchy, and its oh-so-Victorian stage theory of human development from ‘savagery’, through ‘barbarism’ and onwards to ‘civilization’.
My commenter asked me if I’d read Engels’ book. A long time ago, I confessed – don’t remember much about it. I took it down from my shelf and weighed it in my hands, pondering whether to reread it. Then I put it back. Screw it – Morgan’s and Engels’ books broke fresh ground in their day, but the fact that radicals are still taking their cue from them nearly 150 years later surely suggests a problem. Things have moved on, I said to myself – and to my commenter. But judging by the apparently parlous state of kinship studies these days, maybe they haven’t. Certainly, the ghosts of Morgan and Engels still stalk social media and liberal dinner party talk about the evils of family and property, while critical scholarship seems to have vacated the scene. It’s the power, the resistance to critique, of exactly these kinds of “as everybody knows and as so-and-so showed long ago” shibboleths that I think always require challenging, and that Graeber and Wengrow’s book helps us to challenge, even if the hot potato of family structures is one they somewhat ducked themselves.
The real source of radical ire is, I think, not so much the nuclear family as a particular version of it all too evident in the Victorian England of Engels’ day. Father as distant patriarch and breadwinner, abroad in the public sphere outside the home. Mother as his subordinate and financial dependent, confined to a somewhat empty domesticity. Children to be inculcated with these virtues through patriarchal discipline. Much policing of boundaries, status aspiration and male sexual hypocrisy.
I have no problem joining the philippics against this kind of family norm, but it’s not so much a depiction of ‘the nuclear family’ as a highly specific version of it, or what might alternatively be glossed ‘the bourgeois family’. Inevitably, a large part of the feminist response to that Victorian modernist reality had to involve women unseating the family patriarch by creating extra-domestic autonomy for themselves, in the workplace, in accessing money and wealth independently, in the public sphere, in female self-actualization. In other words, by connecting themselves and their households to a wider world of material and conceptual possibilities.
On that point at least I agree with my online commenter in his strictures against what he called, shifting the goalposts when I defended small family units as a ubiquitous historical reality, ‘the insular nuclear family’. Well, I’m definitely against insularity. But the issue I tried to raise in my book is that many of the options available to Victorian feminists and their successors for breaking down insular boundaries may be less available in a small farm future, and people – women and men – will be more tied to a household economy. That household economy isn’t inevitably patriarchal, but the resources for contesting its tendencies to patriarchy may have to be different from the ones that drove the feminism of industrial modernity.
Nevertheless, I’m unconvinced that the gains of modern feminism would simply be lost in a small farm future characterized by many restricted-family farm households, nor that the forms of exploitation arising from ‘perversions’ of intimate relations that Graeber and Wengrow invoke would vanish with other kinds of households. What seems to me more important to safeguard against exploitation is rich connection of people and their households to wider social networks. I see this taking a civic republican form, which I will explore in future posts.
At the same time, it mightn’t be a bad idea to revive questions about gender, kinship structure and the forms of household production now unfashionable in the social sciences to ponder how such connections might operate. Consider, for example, the old anthropological nostrum that land-intensive horticultural societies often involve matrilineal inheritance and descent (i.e. children inherit property only/mainly from their mother and maternal line – not to be confused with ‘matriarchy’), whereas land-extensive mobile herding societies often involve patrilineal descent (not to be confused with patriarchy, although in fact the two often go together, as in all those livestock-herding Old Testament patriarchs).
The logic is that it can be hard to be certain who a child’s father is, so in labour-intensive situations with relatively high pressure on land where lineal inheritance matters to people, as one might find in predominantly horticultural societies, there’s something to be said for pragmatically making descent matrilineal. The land extensive situation of herding, on the other hand, involves militarized policing of uncertain boundaries and the fusion and fission of groups according to political and ecological circumstances, lending itself to masculinist and patrilineal ‘bands of brothers’ and rigorous (patriarchal) control over female sexuality.
I did come across a moderately recent research paper arguing somewhat along these lines from a sociobiological perspective concerning the incentives for parental investment in biological offspring. But I’m not sure it’s necessary to invoke evolutionary genetics. Simply the belief that children inherit material substance of social importance from both parents is probably enough.
Anyway, commenters here at Small Farm Future seem willing to boldly go where modern scholarship fears to tread, so I was interested when Joe Clarkson wrote here a while ago here on this very theme:
I have lived in a village where … the many children who didn’t live with their mother usually lived with grandparents or some other biological kin. In this village the culture around gender was pretty conventional except that, due to widespread promiscuity, land tenure was matrilineal. There was little concern about who the actual father of any child might be as it was often impossible to know. Other aspects of land control and chiefly hierarchy were patriarchal.
Given that the small farm future I project is likely to be a labour-abundant, land scarce horticultural one, perhaps there’s a case for shifting towards matrilineal descent? As Joe’s comment indicates, matriliny isn’t entirely a defence against patriarchy, but it may mitigate the worst tendencies towards control of female sexuality.
An interesting question is how quickly kinship systems might change to fit new circumstances. When could we expect to see a matrilineal small farm future taking shape? Alternatively, perhaps people would opt for a more relaxed approach. After all, sex and marriage aren’t the same thing. Maybe a judicious mix of honesty with spouses and sexual partners, good contraception, and/or relative indifference to the importance of biological descent in labour-intensive horticultural societies of the future might be enough to preserve the existing pattern of bilateral descent in more or less nuclear families typical in the Global North into a small farm future. Certainly this pattern, combined when appropriate with supra-household forms of organization such as commons, has operated effectively in many small farm pasts. Restricted bilateral families are quite a resilient social form.
Perhaps my emphasis here upon family-based productive households will be offensive to certain variants of left-wing thought, while the emphasis on a free and easy approach to sex, family styles and inheritance will offend certain right-wing ones. I’m open to debate, but I’m as yet unpersuaded of the virtues of agrarian futures which over-fetishize the family at the expense of politics or over-fetishize politics at the expense of the family. For me, in that middle ground sits the public sphere of civic republican politics.
Anyway, as I now see it there’s no inherent tendency to patriarchy in restricted family household farming models, provided the tendencies towards patriarchy in the wider society of which it’s a part are kept in check. But there are some things worth keeping an eye on. One is avoiding an excessively gendered division of labour in farm work, which may in fact be easier with the more horticultural focus of a small farm society, where there would be less need for the kind of overpowered tractive machinery that seems to draw men in like wasps to a jampot and encourage them to elaborate their metaphors of masculinity around pistons, cylinder capacities and the length of their chainsaw bars. Another is to avoid all those nationalist, militarist and masculinist ideas of defending the family or the motherland. Or, if defence is essential, to be sure it’s women’s work as well as men’s. Yet another, of course, is to maintain full female citizenship rights to inheritance, divorce, education and so on. There are precedents for all this in historic small farm societies.
But maybe there’s a joker in the pack in the form of a ‘big man’ tendency among certain males towards self-aggrandizing patriarchal dominance. In relation to Graeber and Wengrow’s thesis concerning the relationship between household care and political domination, Gunnar Rundgren, another boldly-going Small Farm Future commenter, wrote:
I am not very convinced by the argument that kingdoms are modelled on patriarchal household (family) relationships …. At risk of sounding like a socio-biologist [it’s OK, Gunnar you’re among friends here…]I find the more plausible link being between a dominating male in a band and chiefs, chiefdoms, kingdoms and ultimately empires. The dominant male is not a far-fetched figure, but he is not linked to the household unless you expand the household unit to the band or whatever social unit people were living in.
Would-be dominant men who are not linked to a household that can keep them in check, masterless men, men who are not heorđfæst or ‘hearth-fast’ in the Old English term, indeed can be something of a problem – whether in the form of pillaging men-at-arms at large in certain modern and premodern societies, or men at large on incel subreddits or worse today. My argument, though it’s far from a complete answer, is that if men as well as women are richly connected to a restricted household, which in turn is richly connected to a wider political community, then the possibilities for patriarchal domination are lessened, provided the society in general admits to some narrative of female autonomy.
So in summary: small farm societies are not necessarily bad for women, kinship is a given and can’t be wished away, but large patrilineages and masculinist metaphors of defence and protection are best avoided. Men are best connected through kinship to a caring household (so are women, but that seems to be easier to achieve), and households in turn are best connected to wider networks of social institutions. It’s possible that household care can be perverted into a logic of patriarchal domination, just as can every kind of social institution. But it’s not a given. And there are no particular ‘material’ causes of female oppression that are worsened, or lessened, by the possibility of a small farm future.
It seems necessary to knock out a quick post about climate change – not something I’d planned to do right now, though perhaps I should have if I’d kept a closer eye on the news cycle. But with the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on mitigation of climate change just published, it seems somehow apropos. Plus, unexpectedly, I found myself helping out with the Just Stop Oil protests earlier this week, which has brought climate issues and climate activism right back to the forefront of my thoughts.
Other people are better placed than me to give their hot takes (literally, alas) on the content of the IPCC report. As a part-time observer of climate science social media, a full-time proponent of low-input agrarian localism and an almost accidental climate activist, I’m going to restrict myself to a few remarks on some of the report’s wider ripples in those arenas as I see them.
My sense of the professional climate science and climate change world is that people within it have, honourably, been making stark and loud warnings for a long time of the need for rapid and radical change to our modern GHG-emitting ways. But at the same time, some of those voices have been rather dismissive of two forms of rapid and radical change that I believe to be entailed in their analysis – a shift to low-energy agrarian localism, and non-cooperation or disobedience towards fossil-fuel extractive capitalist nation-states.
I find much to agree with in Professor Julia Steinberger’s writings, for example – including a good deal of her analysis in this Twitter thread arising from the IPCC report. And I salute her endorsement of current climate change protesting.
Where I part company with Prof Steinberger is in her view that scientists haven’t been raising the alarm with sufficient urgency until very recently, and that we’re “on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels completely”. Nothing I’ve yet seen has convinced me that we’re remotely on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels globally at current levels of energy use, let alone at levels that give people in low income/low energy countries fair access to resources. This is one of several reasons why I think the future for many people is likely to be lower energy, lower carbon, more localized and more job rich – a small farm future. But elsewhere Prof Steinberger has disavowed the case for low energy agrarian localism. As with much eco-socialism in the Global North, her position errs towards another version of techno-fix business as usual, the ‘electrify the hell out of everything’ mantra.
I’m not opposed to electrifying the hell out of everything, provided that we attend to the upstream and downstream consequences – the fossil fuelled pulse it would involve, the human and resource consequences of mining the lithium and rare earths, the nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste issues – so that this new electrified dawn doesn’t indeed just turn into hell. But, in addition to the fact that it will still involve using less energy, the real problem isn’t the hardware but the software, our cultures of materialism and capitalism. These, ultimately, are what need re-engineering more than our energy technologies. So I feel a bit torn when Professor Steinberger fulminates against those who imply “we should just give up” or who say it’s too late to do anything. I agree we shouldn’t give up and it’s not too late to do anything. But, with hindsight, it seems easy to see that ultimately it was always going to be too late to do anything within a cultural regimen inherently dedicated to endless commodification and the increase of capital. So unless that regimen is brought swiftly to its end, then yes – it probably is too late.
There’s one ‘too late’ that does seem to emerge clearly from the IPCC report. If GHG emissions don’t peak within three years at the latest, it says, then it will be too late to limit global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels by 2100. Of course, if they don’t peak by then, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to take action against climate change. It’ll just be too late to avert the 1.5C warming beyond which human and ecological catastrophes amplify. But I think climate experts sometimes protest too much against the simplifications of popular ‘only x years to save the Earth’ narratives. Time is not on humanity’s side in retaining a congenial climate, and there’s no historic evidence yet that we can rein in GHG emissions (absolute or per capita) in the absence of exogenous shocks to the ordinary functioning of the global capitalist political economy.
This sad truth demands a variety of responses from a variety of people, including small-scale farmers and renewable energy folks. But also people protesting against governments’ ongoing commitment to fossil fuel extractivism, existing and new. In the absence of such protests, governments will think we haven’t noticed the gap between their words and deeds, and be emboldened to barrel onwards towards a catastrophic 3 degrees of warming. For this reason and others, after a slow start I’ve become a supporter of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, and I spent a good part of last week helping with the Just Stop Oil protests in southeast England.
I worked mostly as a driver (I’m confident the smart readers of this blog don’t need me to explain why this is not especially contradictory or hypocritical), dropping off activists at protest sites and collecting them from police stations after they were released from custody. Never in my younger days did I imagine I’d be driving London’s roads in the small hours, checking the mirrors to make sure I wasn’t being tailed by the police, and making smart exits from drop off sites to try to avoid getting arrested myself. Still, these are the times we’re living in – a time when the British government, and for that matter its Labour opposition, has completely lost its moral compass, and when real adults are needed in the room.
Or, more specifically, real young adults. Many of the actions were spearheaded by Youth Climate Action, and I’ve got to say I was greatly impressed by the dedication, integrity and insight of the young people I met on my nocturnal journeys around London, and by young activists like Miranda Whelehan and Xanty who submitted themselves to the usual media bullying from their elders and supposedly betters, and came out on top. The idiotic baiting of Miranda Whelehan by Richard Madeley and Lowri Turner on Good Morning Britain is quite something to behold.
While the home secretary barks for more powers to silence civic protest, in truth the bite of existing powers has not been used to its full extent against climate protestors. My guess is that the cost and propaganda own goal involved in jailing a cavalcade of elderly priests, young graduates and harmless community workers is too high. So at present, the personal cost of arrestable nonviolent direct climate action is not large. Even so, the numbers involved remain disappointingly low and Peter Kalmus’s question ‘What will it take to get people off the sidelines?’ in the face of climate breakdown is to the point.
Of course, there are plenty of people with enough on their plates already, and there’s no dishonour in feeling unable to get involved. But, honestly, the ignorance and complacency of Lowri Turner in that interview with Miranda Whelehan – with her talk about doing the recycling and the need for people to get on with their lives – was truly shameful. If she were half as informed as Ms Whelehan about what ‘getting on with your life’ would look like in a world of 3C warming, she wouldn’t embarrass the airwaves with such blather.
Let me close with a little story prompted by Ms Turner’s comment that “We’ve had a winter without any protests, but as soon as the sun comes out, ooh it’s eco-festival time. And it is a festival, it’s a big jamboree”.
Indeed, it’s been quite sunny lately – during the day. But at night there’ve been people in their eighties blockading oil terminals as the snow has fallen. For my part, I stood alone outside a police station for seven cold night hours until after the dawn in case the young activists inside were released, rather ill-prepared and under-dressed for it because it hadn’t originally been my job. By the end of my vigil, I was shivering almost uncontrollably. It’s not a great deal of suffering to write home about in the larger scheme of what many at Just Stop Oil have gone through, still less for those engulfed by the climate agony that’s upon us. But it was not a jamboree.
The larger point, though, is that I was there, looking out for people I’d never met. Nothing too heroic in that, but the world is full of such small acts of care and kindness between strangers as well as between friends and family, acts that draw from a concern about others beyond the compass of statist politics. If there’s any saving of humanity in the years ahead it will be built from such small acts, and not from the concocted outrage and divisiveness of our contemporary political and media cultures. Perhaps also it will be built out of new forms of civic politics that local networks arising out of climate activism are helping to forge. My time with Just Stop Oil gave me just a glimmer of hope for these possibilities. I fear it will be too little and too late in the face of larger forces, but this is part of my answer to those I was debating yesterday who criticize Miranda Whelehan and Just Stop Oil for having no vision for a post-oil world. The part of the vision that they’re helping to supply is a new non-state politics of care. And that’s important.
I’ll start this post with a quick shout out to the good folks of Just Stop Oil putting themselves on the line for a habitable future, and seemingly getting noticed less than other recent climate actions of more generalized protest. Indeed, there’s been more coverage in the press of the allegations against my local MP than of Just Stop Oil. If these turn out to be true, it might explain the difficulties of trying to get a meaningful response from his office. What was it XR have been saying about the need to go ‘beyond politics’…?
Anyway, on to the main business of this post: after various digressions, diversions and interruptions, I’m almost at the end of this part of my blog cycle within a blog cycle about property and tenure in a small farm future. My argument, in a nutshell, is that there will be private property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by right-wing and pro-capitalist analysis) and there will be collective and common property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by left-wing and anti-capitalist analysis).
One remaining item left standing from discussions here about these matters is the question of land value tax (LVT). The case for this was famously made by Henry George in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty. The basic idea is that the monopoly rent that accrues to the landowner from the fact of their ownership is taxed away. So if you were playing a game of Monopoly (which in fact was originally invented by a Georgist to illustrate the point), you would have to pay back to the bank all the money accrued from the rental income of your properties at the end of each round. Obviously, this would stop anyone from winning or losing the game through the exercise of monopoly rent, and people would have to find other ways to move around the gameboard of life. Which was precisely George’s point.
As I recently said in my analysis of death taxes, I can’t claim any special expertise as a tax analyst, but – far less than death taxes – I’m not a great fan of LVT, and here I’ll try to explain why.
Of all the redistributive schemes that people have dreamed up for levelling inequalities in capitalist societies, LVT is one of the few that often gets the blessing of mainstream capitalist/neoclassical economists. But it hasn’t been widely implemented by capitalist governments. In that apparent paradox lies a truth that really needs to be better known. While the theory of capitalist economics is all about private enterprise and the rewards to innovation, the practice is largely about monopoly rent, without which the system hits the buffers. As cheerleaders for the non-monopolistic profit-seeking that’s supposed to be how capitalism works in theory, mainstream economists like LVT because it’s consistent with this convenient fiction. As managers of how capitalism actually works in practice, governments are less keen because it puts obstacles in the way of normal capital accumulation via monopoly rent.
But arguably not very big obstacles. Nowadays, and much more than in George’s time, monopoly rent is only partly about land and property and is more about intellectual property rights, financial instruments and government contracts. So as a way of redistributing the spoils of capital, LVT is a partial measure at best. But I think we must go further. As Michael Hudson suggests in this interesting article, George himself had no objections to the general workings of the capitalist political economy. He simply opposed one of its most obviously brutal consequences. Karl Marx wrote that George’s programme was “a last attempt to save the capitalist regime”. He was wrong. There have been many subsequent and partially successful efforts to save it. But he was right that it was such an attempt (George never really addressed what happened to the tax revenues once the Monopoly players had paid them back to the bank). And also right, I think, that ultimately the regime will prove beyond saving.
So while the logic of LVT, rightly in my opinion, mitigates against the sheer ownership of land or property allowing the owner to make money, this in itself does nothing to stop the owner from using land as an input to generate and accumulate as much money as possible. No wonder mainstream economists prefer it to, say, income tax, which they see as ‘distorting’ of the full-bore capitalism they tend to regard as the natural order of things. Their enthusiasm should surely raise suspicions among those who don’t regard it this way. LVT is not in itself an especially good way to decommodify or redistribute economic goods.
In agricultural settings, LVT fits readily within the mould of an agricultural improver ideology – the kind I criticized in A Small Farm Future (pp.48-9). Think, for example, of John Locke’s argument that colonial expropriation of indigenous lands in North America was justifiable because Europeans could make them more productive and remunerative. Contemporary applications of LVT are rarely so unjust, but once a land tax has been set at some average level of return in the wider economy, decommodification towards smaller and more localized farm scale would be quite impossible. Within the present framing of the capitalist political economy, LVT sets the capitalist snare that forces ever greater returns on investment, and happily watches it tighten.
In theory, perhaps this could be avoided through tax exemptions on small properties. But I can’t really see how a low input ecological small farm sector could survive long term in a world where the accumulation of liquid capital is otherwise incentivized, and where large-scale owners would be gunning hard to extract returns in excess of their tax bills. Maybe the point of the policy would be to make it impossible for large-scale owners to turn any profit at all. But in that case, levying a profit-incentivizing tax probably isn’t the best policy intervention.
Maybe there’s a stronger case for LVT in urban settings, where property owners can cash out heavily from high property values resulting from local concentration of economic activity, and not from anything connected with their own enterprise. Cleverer people than me could probably determine the implications for tax bases, planning and zoning laws and the gaming of urban/rural boundaries in that scenario. But again, my feeling is that even in this instance LVT is a rather indirect way to try to achieve something that needs to be addressed more directly.
That was certainly the view taken by the aforementioned Karl Marx, another popular writer-activist of the 19th century. While George was agitating for the state to levy a tax to somewhat improve the lot of the working class, Marx was agitating for a more direct approach. This involved the working class taking over state functions and using the leverage thereby gained to radically transform the lot of everyday people. But Marx was pretty vague about exactly how it would do that once the state was in its hands, and in my opinion the words and deeds of later Marxist thinkers and governments haven’t been overly impressive in tackling that question.
So while an LVT might be a slight improvement on the present situation, I can’t get hugely excited about proposals to end human misery either through an LVT charged by the central state or through overthrowing the centralized state to create … another centralized state. To me, the political futurologies of both George and Marx seem rooted in a past era that barely speaks to our present one, with its endogenous state failure and ecological collapse. Which raises the question of what alternative futurology might just see us through these hard times. Since that’s roughly what I address in the later parts of my book I’ll end at this point, poised to get into those issues (though I have a little ground clearing to do in the next couple of posts first).
A couple of people suggested I might write something about the situation in Ukraine and associated events in relation to my thinking about a small farm future. There are two good reasons why I think I probably shouldn’t do that, one not such good reason, and one reason why I should.
The two good reasons are, first, it’s a bad intellectual habit to assimilate every new event as retrospective proof of one’s prior position, and, second, it’s a bad ethical practice to use the death and suffering of multitudes as an excuse to say ‘I told you so’. The less good reason is that I’ve never been to Ukraine and don’t know much about it. It’s less good because, judging by the proliferation of op-eds and hot takes, that’s been no bar to others. Maybe I should join the club?
The reason why I should is simply that when someone suggests I write something about an important topic, the chances of me avoiding it are about the same as a moth avoiding a flame. So I’ll concede at the outset, while trying to keep the contrary reasons in mind. In what follows, I identify nine themes I discussed in A Small Farm Future that seem worth appraising in the light of the war in Ukraine.
First, though, I want to make a point about the strange reversals of history and personal biography. As a left-inclined teenager in the early 1980s, the possibility of nuclear annihilation arising from the conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA in concert with its western allies seemed real. Me and my fellow CND members were routinely pilloried by right-wing politicians and newspapers as at best useful idiots and at worst fifth columnists for the spread of global communism. One of my maths teachers had worked previously in aeronautics and missile design, telling us of his wish to invent a weapon so awful that people would be sure never to use it. At the time, that struck me as a bad civilizational bet. As it’s turned out, I’ve been lucky to live into advanced middle age. But it still strikes me as a bad civilizational bet.
Anyway, there’s surely an irony that the threat now looming of a global war that pits Russia against the west has arisen not from a complacent appeasement of communism, but from a complacent appeasement of a kleptocratic and authoritarian right-wing Russian government pursuing a capitalism largely constructed by the west. The Russian regime has wormed its way deeply into the politics of its western counterparts, and differs from them largely just in its degree of sophistication and lip service to noblesse oblige. With liberals singing another verse of that old song “it shouldn’t be allowed to happen”, and elements of the hard left and hard right converging for different reasons on a more or less qualified support for Russia, not for the first time in my political life I’m looking for the box to tick called ‘none of the above’.
But let me move onto the nine themes from A Small Farm Future that I said I was going to raise, which are as follows:
1. Homo symbolicus
It’s almost a cliché nowadays that the world we experience emerges from the stories people weave about it. But it’s in the nature of clichés to often be essentially true. In A Small Farm Future I discussed this via the notion of ‘symbolic goods’ or a ‘symbolic economy’. Three of the symbolic fictions I discussed in the book were money, the notion of progress and human control of nature (manifested in money … and in energy), and the notion of the nation. All of these are heavily in play in current events. At historical junctures like this, opportunities arise to change the stories we tell about the world, or to entrench them. Often, it’s easier to entrench them. With energy prices spiking alarmingly, various western leaders are talking about going easy on the already easy commitments of the COP26 climate agreements, and have been courting oil states otherwise recalcitrant to their preferred politics like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela in the hope of opening the oil spigot (a recalcitrance that no doubt is possible precisely because they’re oil states). The UK government is licensing further gas and oil exploration in the North Sea and talking about reviewing the case for fracking. An entrenched story of cheap money, cheap energy and cheap politics that may end up entrenching us all.
2. The arable corner: or, don’t put all your eggs in one breadbasket
In Chapter 5 of my book, I analyzed the way that humanity has boxed itself into a corner of overreliance on a handful of arable crops – cereals above all, and also grain legumes and oilseeds. This overreliance also manifests in growing dependence on a handful of breadbasket countries, including Russia and Ukraine, to feed the world. Current events have forced the mainstream news cycle to acknowledge some aspects of this and discover the concept of food security.
But only some aspects. There’s been little questioning about the overreliance on a handful of crops and a handful of breadbaskets in general. The questioning has just focused on the overreliance on Russia and Ukraine – a questioning that, as per my previous theme, involves doubling down on an old arable corner narrative, which goes like this: instead of relying on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented global agriculture we should rely on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented national agriculture.
There are three poorly examined assumptions in this non-radical narrative shift, which I’ll explore under my next three headings.
3. Don’t put all your eggs in one energy basket
Overreliance on Russian fossil energy has, of course, been another recent theme. Overreliance on fossil energy in general, not so much. Indeed, as I mentioned above, far from taking Russia’s off piste lurch from the well-groomed slopes of the global political economy as a hint that we should Just Stop Oil, the main take home message seems to have been that we should just look harder for it somewhere else.
This unshakeable need for cheap and easily available energy is an energy corner, or an energy trap, that parallels the arable corner, suggesting to me that the governments of the world are simply incapable of addressing how we can back out of these corners altogether. But, to stick with agriculture, the energy corner meets the arable corner in the notion that we need to ramp up local grain production, possibly by ploughing more land, using more fertilizer and trimming back fond hopes of nature-friendly farming. Of course, the fossil energy demands of this arable corner push us further into the energy corner. Press Repeat.
4. Fewer eggs, more baskets
An awful lot of global arable cropland, and the energy use associated with it, is devoted to producing fodder for livestock that we don’t need to eat. So if we’re facing a grain and energy squeeze, an easy way to make do with less is to stop using grain and energy for the wasteful feeding of livestock. We can’t necessarily just stop doing that overnight. But we can at least just start debating it and seriously planning for it overnight. And we’re not.
Just to reiterate the position I charted in A Small Farm Future, I’m not arguing for stock-free farming, which I think would be unwise in lower energy systems. I’m arguing instead that we back ourselves out of the arable corner through more diverse and resilient mixed local farming systems where livestock complement rather than compete with the production of crops for human consumption. Fewer eggs, more baskets.
5. The economy is social
I spent some time in A Small Farm Future discussing how the world is imprisoned today by two 18th century ideas: first, if we all selfishly look to our own gain and, second, if we all focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then this brings the greatest benefit to everybody. If there was ever any substance to these ideas, it’s long disappeared under the weight of their numerous downsides.
Those downsides were obvious enough to many people prior to the war in Ukraine. The war has simply furnished further illustrations of them. Here’s two that have passed across my screen:
With the hike in fertilizer and energy prices, a British farmer told a radio interviewer that he was planning not to sow any crops this year, feeling that he would probably make more money by selling his existing stock of fertilizer to other farmers.
Meanwhile, the UNCTAD Rapid Assessment Report on the impact of the war in Ukraine shows high levels of dependence on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports in many African countries, including countries of the Sahara and Sahel already rocked by climate change, state failure and ethno-religious conflicts stoked by global geopolitics, creating in the words of the report “alarm for food security and political stability”.
Ultimately, the logic of specialization and maximizing net present value in a historically unequal world means people are forced to rely for basic food sustenance on players in other parts of the world over whom they have no control and who have no fundamental stake in their wellbeing. We need to update the memo from 18th century economics: if we all selfishly look to our own gain, and focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then a lot of people needlessly suffer – possibly including ourselves in the long run.
The alternative is for people to build local food systems geared to feeding themselves. This requires economic protectionism, which I believe the 21st century economic theory to come will show is a good thing once it’s got over its 18th century hangover, provided the economy is socialized sufficiently to penalize overly self-interested local economic actors.
But that’s another new(s) story that’s yet to emerge from the old.
6. Of migration and the death zone
I mentioned in my book Étienne Balibar’s idea that the world is increasingly divided between ‘life zones’ and ‘death zones’. Death zones are created by climate change, water scarcity, historical conflict, global power politics and 18th century economic theory. Life in the life zones prospers to a considerable degree as a result of death in the death zones. The death zones are proliferating, and people understandably try to move out of them to the life zones. Some of these refugees get a warmer welcome in the life zones than others.
All this was clear enough before the war. Perhaps the war has just further dramatized the fact that it’s hard to be sure where a new death zone may emerge. Which I’d hope might encourage a more welcoming, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ kind of attitude towards refugees. The current distribution of the world’s population is based on the pattern of a capitalist global political economy emerging in a 280ppm CO2 atmosphere. The future distribution will be based on the pattern of local agrarian political economies in a 400++ppm atmosphere. That’s going to mean that people in the future will live in different sorts of places in different sorts of numbers to the present, which implies a lot of human movement. Ultimately, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that movement. But of course they will try, and their efforts will create yet more needless suffering.
7. Fakin’ it: of nationalism … and the news
I discussed in A Small Farm Future the nation as a narrative or symbolic good – and the fact that for every nationalist narrative there are usually various counter-narratives. Such narratives and counter-narratives have, of course, been fundamental to the war in Ukraine and its representations in Ukraine itself, in Russia, in the West, in China, and elsewhere. Some political thinkers – right, left and green – have emphasized the positive aspects of nationalist narratives for improving the world. I expressed my doubts about that in my book.
I’m even more doubtful now. Maybe there was a stronger case for it in a sub 350ppm world trying to find a multilateral way out of colonialism and global war. But I think the dark side of nationalism has always been, as they say, a feature and not a bug. As I see it, the narratives of the nation need to be junked all the way down to the ground – which is a difficult and perhaps impossible thing to do, but, pace Anatol Lieven, a necessary one. It must include, I think, even nationalisms forged in adversity against a larger foe of the kind that have been brewing in Ukraine. It certainly must include imperial manifest destiny nationalisms of the kind that have long animated the USA, western Europe and Russia.
It would be easier to make a case for rebuilding a world of nation-states if some level of basic trust remained in the goodwill of governments and national news sources towards truth-telling and general human betterment. But after the last decade or so of infowars – Putin, Trump, Johnson, Cummings, Brexit, Climategate, Covid, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, deepfakes, you name it – that trust has gone. It’s always struck me how much bureaucratic, police and medical intervention goes without public questioning into establishing the true facts around a single human death. Yet how insouciantly we dismiss the deaths of hundreds, thousands or millions as probably not even real when it doesn’t suit our narrative. Homo symbolicus. Still, there will always be some who stand witness, and I salute them.
8. The supersedure state
I argued in A Small Farm Future that the best option for creating a new congenial agrarianism will be in the gaps that develop in the reach of the modern state. I never suggested this was anything but a hopeful possibility, but even so the war has made me ponder this anew. It’s easy to chafe against the pettifogging restrictions of the overmighty modern state when you live under one, while neglecting its advantages over living in a death zone where the writ of the state doesn’t run. Still, I’m not arguing against the community services and basic peace that states at their best can orchestrate. I’m arguing that increasingly states will be unable or unwilling to orchestrate these things, and we will start to see states operating more often at their worst than their best, as in the present situation. So I’m sticking with my argument: increasingly, the onus will be on people as citizens themselves to build from the bottom up such supportive architecture as they deem they need to live well that has previously been associated with ‘the state’ but that they can no longer entrust to the modern institutions bearing that name. I just hope that most of the rebuilding won’t have to occur out of the ruins of war.
9. Mutual aid
Therefore, I think it’s a good idea to exercise our mutual aid muscles. A grower’s group I’m a part of got a plea for seeds and tools from Ukrainian horticulturists. We got together what we could and our collective offerings were dispatched in a van to Ukraine. It was an easy thing to do and it doesn’t count for much. But hopefully it counts for something. I went to a talk around that time from a Conservative MP who complained about the random generosity of the British public, and the logistical snafus involved in the endless vans strung along highways and border posts between here and Ukraine for the want of a more organized relief effort.
He’s probably right. But it’s the same as the argument about donating to homelessness charities rather than directly to a beggar on the street. The charity will no doubt make better use of the money, but the human connection of giving when someone asks and looking into their eyes goes beyond price. Ultimately, if anything sees us through into the next phase of history it will be human connectedness, not organizational efficiency.