From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

I discuss the idea that humanity has boxed itself into what I call the ‘arable corner’ in Chapter 5 of A Small Farm Future, and in this post I’m going to draw out some implications of that discussion.

The idea behind the ‘arable corner’ (perhaps I should have called it the ‘grain corner’) is that we’ve become over-reliant on a handful of arable/grain crops – 75% of global cropland is devoted to just ten crops, of which six are cereals and two grain legumes. And now it seems like we’re boxed in, because it’s hard to discern how to wean ourselves off them.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these crops. One reason we grow them in such abundance is that they meet our needs so well. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Boxing ourselves into the arable corner isn’t great for human health, for livestock health, for ecosystem integrity or for socio-political wellbeing, as I document in Chapter 5. Here, I’ll reflect briefly on how we got into this mess, and how we might escape it.

Our key arable crops are all pretty much short-lived annuals, quickly producing seeds that pack a heavy punch of energy and protein to help the next generation get started – and it’s upon this inter-generational generosity in the plant tribe that humanity has built its civilizations. As I wrote a while back, were it not for this ecological quirk, we probably wouldn’t be facing many of our present intractable problems.

Some of these problems stem precisely from the annual habit of our arable crops, so one approach to solving them – on which I’ve previously written, and discuss a little in my book – is attempting to perennialize these crops. I’m not convinced this will work biologically. And if it does, I’m not convinced it’ll get us out of our socioeconomic predicaments. Nor do I fully understand why it’s presented as a more ‘natural’ way of farming compared with, say, breeding annual grains for fast, high yield, which is much more consonant with their life history. But I’m all in favour of experimentation – I just don’t think the perennializing folks should call the adoption of annual crops a ‘mistake’ in human history, as they sometimes do.

Going way back, perhaps even beyond the origins of Homo sapiens, people have understood that early successional ecosystems involving habitat disturbance and high plant nutrification are propitious environments for human provisioning, and they found numerous ingenious ways to push things in that direction. The swiddening that I mentioned in my last post is but one example. I think these are better regarded as elegant solutions to people’s contemporary problems rather than ‘mistakes’ – but it nevertheless seems unlikely that we’ll solve today’s problems in the same way, by doubling down on habitat disturbance and nutrification.

So if I’m proposing neither annual arable as usual nor perennial arable as an alternative, then what? I’ll come to that in a moment. But first I want to sketch a little social history around the arable corner. The old-time orthodoxy of the human turn to farming was that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to sow and resow cereals, then settled down into sedentary villages to grow them, producing such a surplus of food and therefore people that occupational specialization became possible, and thence quickly thereafter the emergence of complex states that kickstarted humanity on its journey to all the benefits of modern civilization.

But newer scholarship as outlined by James Scott in his book Against The Grain suggests that much of this is wrong. Sedentism preceded grain domestication, which was only one of several flexible strategies of self-provisioning along the continuum of foraging and farming that stretches much further back into the human past than the putative ‘origins’ of agriculture within roughly the last 10,000 years. And grain domestication predated the emergence of complex states by several millennia. When complex grain-based states did emerge, the ordinary people commanded by them were generally worse off – worse off in their nutrition and health status, and worse off in their susceptibility to violence, economic exploitation and enslavement.

It’s true that by the time the early states got going, alternative games were almost up – population pressure and declining options for foraging impelled people towards arable, as per the old orthodoxy. But in the hands of Scott and similar authors this can be rendered as a tale of loss, not progress: “planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a monocropped field”1.

Scott argues that the architects of the early states such as Sumer were able to capture or ‘parasitize’ this arable sedentism, making its farmers the subject citizens of their hierarchical apparatus. Initially this required various forms of direct coercion to prevent people fleeing from drudgery and subjection but when population pressure on land passes a critical point, direct coercion can turn economic or legalistic, merely depriving the working class of the right to be independent cultivators.

The main counterviews to such negative appraisals of central state power within our modern system of states turn on either amplifying the productivity or mitigating the inequality orchestrated by the state, or both, so that even the humblest citizen might live like the kings of the past. But I think the jury is now in on this. Amplifying productivity has generated deep ecological problems. Inequalities remain stark and stubborn, and the most thorough attempts to remedy them have failed to endure and have involved numerous coercions of their own.

So maybe it’s worth looking for answers elsewhere. To my mind, a key hunting ground raised in Scott’s account is those long millennia of sedentary mixed cereal cultivation preceding the emergence of centralized states. Likewise, it seems there were long periods in British history of mixed sedentary cultivation during the Neolithic without state centralization. Even more interestingly in the British case, this was succeeded by greater status differentiation and centralization in the early Bronze Age, before reversion to more dissipated household-based organization thereafter2. There are similar examples from many other parts of the world – although predatory would-be states were often waiting in the wings in many of these cases, and were sometimes able to strike when conditions favoured them. But they didn’t necessarily endure, and what I find especially tantalizing in these examples is that there seemed to be supra-local political organization without centralized statehood.

And this is essentially the approach that I think commends itself today, partly by force of circumstance and partly by choice. Growing annual grains locally, predominantly on garden scales, along with a wide range of other annual and perennial, dryland and aquatic food and fibre crops in small-scale guilds that limit the ecological destructiveness of any one crop. Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.

This links to another phrase I coin in my book – the recaptured garden. Elites and centralized states have often creamed off as much surplus as they possibly can from ordinary people – and one way they’ve maximized the return is by making ordinary people responsible for their own welfare, not least by making them grow their own food. Historian Steven Stoll calls this the ‘captured garden’3. Again, a modernist response is that people shouldn’t have to do this. Specialist farmers should release us from this captivity by growing our food for us, and governments should ensure that everybody has a tolerable income to pay for the necessities of life. Ask an average farmer or an ex-farming slum dweller in an average country of the modern world about their income and see how well that’s going.

I argue instead for reclaiming or recapturing the garden for ourselves. Globally, governments have at best a patchy record for freeing people from economic misery, and to this day a lot of people try to hang on to small patches of land as a risk-spreading strategy in the face of state hostility or indifference. Again, partly through force of circumstance and partly through choice I think people will need to press harder upon this recapturing, because governments will be increasingly unable to offer alternatives.

So, to escape the arable corner, the forms of state coercion associated with it and the ecological problems it creates I argue that our best chance is by becoming our own arable farmers, or rather mixed-arable gardeners, and by recapturing our gardens and the politics of our households from centralized states. I hope to fill out some of the details of this in future posts.


  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
  2. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
  3. Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.

Swidden as politics

I’m now turning to Part II of my book – ‘Small Farm Ecology’ – in my present blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. So far, this has been the part that’s prompted least comment, except for a few asides along the lines of ‘yeah well, everyone knows that small-scale agroecological localism is the best way forward’. Perhaps that’s a good sign, and the path ahead is less crooked than I’d thought. Or maybe I just move in small circles.

Whatever the case, there are still some issues from this part of the book that I’d like to explore in further detail in my next few posts. I begin Part II by discussing the ecology of agriculture which, I argue, is pretty similar whether we’re talking about mainstream, so-called ‘conventional’ agriculture or alternative, so-called ‘ecological’ agriculture. In both cases, humans push the land productivity envelope, essentially through habitat disturbance and nutrification that supports high-yielding, early successional crop plants – the (somewhat questionable) upside of this being easy calories (and other nutrients – but mostly calories) for us, the downsides being the destruction of wild habitats and more work for people to do (or possibly for their machines or for other people that they subordinate).

There are ways we can try to remediate these trade-offs, but on a planet inhabited for the foreseeable future with multiple billions of people I don’t think there are any magic bullet ways to overcome it so that we can simultaneously feed ourselves, go easy on the farm work and make room for all our fellow organisms. But what we can do is look at long-established agricultural systems for inspiration as to how it’s possible to manage human nutrition, labour input and habitat integrity in the long term. And I would emphasise that it’s inspiration and not replication that I’m talking about, because the issues we’re facing today aren’t necessarily the same as the ones facing the architects of those older systems.

One such system is swidden (‘slash and burn’) farming, which we were discussing here recently in relation to Scandinavian examples but is better known as a practice of ‘subsistence’ cultivators in tropical forests. Swidden is a long-fallow system in which trees in a patch of woodland are felled and burned, crops are grown for some years in the resulting fertile soil, and then the patch is left for many more years to revert to secondary forest before the cycle is repeated. Academic scholarship historically viewed swidden as a destructive and ‘primitive’ practice – kind of a step up from hunting and foraging, but still ‘backward’ compared to more intensive field agriculture.

This view has been re-evaluated more recently, with classic swidden revealed as an eminently sustainable and ecologically subtle practice (I say ‘classic’ swidden to distinguish it from the contemporary practice of newcomers in forest areas burning trees to establish new field systems under the impress of external pressures – also confusingly called swidden sometimes, and much less sustainable). The re-evaluation has called into question the evolutionary mentality of the earlier scholarship, where the presentation of foraging, swidden, field system farming and mechanized farming as a sequence unfurling through time represented another misleading legacy of the modernist-progressivist mindset that still mars so much contemporary thought in its concern with how we must move ‘forwards’ in technological intensity and never ‘look back’.

Instead, the newer thinking about swidden presents it not as an activity frozen in past time but as an active choice made by its practitioners in their contemporary circumstances, for various reasons.  Sometimes these are to do with optimizing labour inputs and crop outputs, which is worth bearing in mind on both sides of the debate about biomimicry in agriculture when people say things like “no one is fertilizing the rainforest”. In fact, people kind of are, or at least parts of it, and have long coaxed a subtle productivity from it through long-term human management, albeit without negating the aforementioned ecological truth that food output requires work input.

But the choice of swidden that interests me most for my present purposes is when it’s adopted as a way to avoid being caught in a political net of constant productivity gain and, ultimately, state centralization and ‘modernization’. So swiddeners aren’t necessarily ‘backward’ people who failed to ‘develop’ (those modernist-progressivist metaphors again). Sometimes they’re people with a pretty good idea what progress and development involve, and have chosen to avoid it.

Swidden itself is a practice that only works in specific biomes and within specific human ecologies. In southern England where I live it would be a really bad idea nowadays to try to burn down woodlands as a prelude to growing crops – and the trees wouldn’t burn anyway. But I still think it’s worth seeking inspiration from swidden, not necessarily as agronomy but as politics, specifically as a politics of autonomy. So for those of us who live in rural areas, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what would be happening in our localities and how different the farming might look like if we were cultivating most of our livelihoods from the local landscape. Actually, it’s an even more interesting exercise for those of us who don’t live in rural areas.

Generally, the answer will be that instead of no crops or very few, there would be many, all eminently suited to the locality and to people’s needs within it – and there would probably be more heavily-managed tree crops in most places, making landscapes a little more swidden-like. In a sense, Part II of my book merely extrapolates this general point. In such a scenario, there would be many things we’re now accustomed to that we’d have to do without, or at least have less of. But some of them might be quite welcome: less political domination, less coercive labour markets.

One of the advantages of swidden as a politics of autonomy in places where it’s ecologically possible to practice it is that people living semi-transiently in dense and extensive woodland regions usually have many options for evading the exercise of state power, whereas somebody living as I do on a field on the edge of a market town in southern England doesn’t (perhaps the seven acres of woodland we planted when we first got onto the site was an act of subconscious desperation in this respect – though in fact even the limited privacy it’s afforded has been useful in numerous ways).

But that last sentence needs qualification. I argue in Part IV of my book that many of the world’s present centralized states may of necessity be withdrawing the flow of goods and welfare that they presently orchestrate across their entire territories. This could unfold in some troubling ways, but Part II of the book is kind of the happy interlude where I show that, in theory at least, it’s eminently possible for people to provide a satisfactory welfare for themselves locally. In the next few posts I’ll expand on this.

From Russia To Love: Engaging with Chris Newman on the small family farm

Continuing my theme concerning peasant farming in this blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, the general focus of this post is how and why revived neo-peasantries might help meet present global challenges.

On page 90 of my book, I lay out three typical characteristics of historic peasant farms:

  1. Most of the work is done by unwaged household/family labour
  2. The capitalization of the farm in terms of buildings, tools, stock etc. is viewed as a long-term endowment, not as an embodiment of liquid capital seeking to maximize profitable return
  3. These factors condition the economic behaviour of the farm’s occupants, which isn’t geared to maximizing net profit

I’ve drawn this from the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov (1888-1937) and his more recent interpreters1. I don’t mention Chayanov by name in the book and I’m not loyal to everything in his thought, but in many ways my book elaborates a Chayanovian vision for present times. As I see it, we need to embed a social economy in the finite needs of a collaborative society of households, rather than allowing an expansionary economy to drive society according to its own logic.

There’s a long history of misunderstanding and antipathy between this kind of Chayanovian peasant populism and other better known political-economic positions, not least Marxism – the regnant doctrine in Russia during Chayanov’s later years. A low point in this respect was Chayanov’s untimely death at the hands of Stalin’s regime and its vulgar, murderous class politics. Mercifully, we later Chayanovians have mostly suffered only textual assassinations from Marxists, but there’s a lot of talking past one another that goes on when Marxists and others on the mainstream left interact with agrarian populists. The same goes for engagement with more centrist/liberal positions.

As is perhaps suggested in the points above, what Chayanovians mean by ‘capital’ or ‘the market’ isn’t really the same as what Marxists or market liberals mean, and this sows much confusion. Chayanov himself didn’t always help matters, for example when he spoke confusingly of peasant ‘self-exploitation’, launching a thousand attempts to assimilate peasant economies to Marxist conceptions of surplus value and the ‘captured garden’ thesis that I discuss on page 93 of my book, and a thousand more attempts by market liberals to turn peasants into smallholding entrepreneurs. At the root of all this lurks a deep assumption that peasant life is both miserable and outmoded, an assumption resting on modernist notions of ‘progress’ that I argued in my previous post are ironically themselves now outmoded. So it’s time, I suggest, to reconsider peasantries and small-scale farming.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to make this case in counterpoint to a couple of recent interventions from Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia, USA – namely in this article entitled “Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer: The Romance of Neoliberal Peasant Farming Blinds Us to Our Collective Power” and in this interesting podcast. Let me say first that I think Newman is a smart agrarian voice, and there’s a lot of common ground between us. I focus on points of divergence here only because I hope that clarifying them might be illuminating.

The first points of divergence come straightaway in the title of Newman’s article. ‘Small family farms aren’t the answer…’ – but the answer to what? Newman makes a powerful case that when individuals buy small plots of private farmland and sell renewably grown produce from them locally through retail routes such as farmers’ markets they make themselves helpless and irrelevant in the face of the mainstream food system, which will defeat them sooner or later, and probably break their backs, maybe their marriages too, into the bargain. I couldn’t agree more – although Newman does start his podcast by saying that his move into farming arose from the stress of his previous white-collar job. So maybe the problem doesn’t lie with specific jobs or job sectors like farming so much as the general economic system into which all job sectors fit, a system that breaks our backs if we step outside it and breaks our minds if we don’t.

But as I see it, the mainstream food system and the more generalized economy of which it’s a part will themselves be defeated sooner or later by a combination of climate, energy, economic, political and other problems that I outline in my book, and in these circumstances I see the Chayanovian small family farm as a potential ‘answer’ to the ensuing crises. It’s not an answer that will just happen by itself. It will need to be fought for. In that sense, I see the present tender crop of small-scale household farmers as useful pioneers in the work to come, especially in their work of self-provisioning rather than in their work of supplying market demand.

So, to my mind, Newman’s future visioning is insufficiently radical. It assumes a persisting liberal-capitalist marketplace that local and community-minded people can colonize by working together. He suggests that if such people in the DC area collectively raised US$50 million they could sort out food provision in the area. I think this underestimates the forces ranged against them, some of which are external to Newman’s vision, such as corporate food players and their government associates who I suspect would happily burn sums far in excess of $50 million in order to defeat upstart localisms. But there are also internal tensions in his vision that threaten to tear it apart (to be fair, there are internal tensions in every economic vision that threaten to tear it apart – so it’s as well to be clear about what they are in each case).

Newman’s subtitle is a gateway to the key tension – “neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”. To my Chayanovian mind, the concept of a ‘neoliberal peasant’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s true that most small farmers (and most people doing every other kind of job) serve the neoliberal economy in one way or another. It’s true, too, that probably the majority of small farmers in wealthy countries are fairly well-to-do folks with some buy-in to the neoliberal status quo and, as Newman rightly suggests, there’s a need to de-gentrify farming by socializing access to farmland so that farming is a viable option for all sections of society. But in setting up a paired dichotomy between (petty) private ownership/neoliberalism on the one hand and collective ownership/community localism on the other, what I think he misses (and he’s not alone in this) is that collective power, collective landownership or commons aren’t intrinsically incompatible with private property. Peasant societies (other societies, too) combine private rights with collective ones – and, as I’ll now argue, in doing so they can be more radically non-neoliberal in a way that better fits present (or at least future) times than Newman’s cooperative model.

So I propose two games. In Game Newman, ordinary local folks pool resources to obtain hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish a cooperative structure with democratic working protocols, leverage its buying power to obtain economies of scale, pay decent salaries to worker-members and start supplying in bulk to local retail outlets.

The way I see this game playing out is firstly in a big financial transfer from the ordinary local folks to land vendors, although that hurdle probably isn’t insurmountable. Things get stickier establishing the working protocols, because flat structures involving lots of people suck a lot of time up in conflict management. Sure, some people claim that everything goes just swimmingly in their own farm co-op, but a working knowledge of agricultural co-ops and of agricultural history suggests to me that this outcome is, at best, very much in the minority. And modelling the social organization of an entire society on best-case scenarios isn’t a great idea.

The next problem is that although the co-op’s pooled resources enable it to achieve economies of scale like the large corporations with which it’s competing, ultimately just like those corporations it has to pay the bills – including the wage bill – by selling into food retail markets where the profit margins are wafer-thin. To keep up with the competition, it has to look to cost savings – and that wages bill will be among the first places it has to look. So in the end, just like the corporation, the co-op either squeezes more out of its labour force or mechanizes people out of work. This is basically the critique of co-ops in capitalist societies that’s long been made by radicals as diverse as Vladimir Lenin and Murray Bookchin. There’s much to be said for co-ops – I’m a member of a few myself – but they don’t fundamentally escape the economic pressures driving the initial problems they seek to redress, and are therefore prone to failure. Perhaps we could call this the problem of the ‘neoliberal cooperative’, and it’s where Game Newman seems to me quite likely to fail.

In Game Chayanov, ordinary folks likewise pool resources to get hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish whatever minimum cooperative or commons structures are necessary to manage the total landscape effectively (here again, they might easily fail), but then divide much of the land up among individuals or households with strong personal rights to farm it pretty much as they please, with enough land per household to provide largely for its needs but with mechanisms to prevent it concentrating in few hands over time.

This is a classic strategy of peasant societies historically, especially ones minimally coopted by centralized states. Unquestionably, it raises problems of its own, which I’ll come to in later posts. But this kind of small-scale household or family farming is emphatically not ‘neoliberal’. As I see it, Game Chayanov has none of the tendencies towards massification, labour-reduction and profit-seeking of the neoliberal cooperative, which is why for all its problems I think it’s a better model to try to build a fair, renewable, postcapitalist agriculture around.

It’s easy to get dazzled by words like ‘commons’ or ‘cooperative’ into assuming that economic models where such words appear front and centre are somehow more sharing and less capitalistic, more ultimately dedicated to building community cohesion or – if it’s not too schmaltzy – to building love than ones explicitly combining private and common property. But it ain’t necessarily so, and much depends on the larger political and economic field in which these economic models are at play. In a smoothly functioning capitalist economy set within a well-ordered global system of capitalist states, it’s debatable whether the ‘neoliberal cooperative’ or the ‘neoliberal peasant farm’ is preferable. But in the present reality of a failing capitalist economy and an increasingly disorderly system of states, I pin my colours to the Chayanovian mast.

A whole other set of issues that Chris Newman probes in his aforementioned commentaries is the question of race and the ‘whiteness’ of the small farm. We’ll come to that next.



  1. Chayanov. 1925 [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. University of Wisconsin Press; J. van der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants & the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto. Fernwood.

The awkward class

Time to talk about peasants, who I claim in Chapter 3 of my book A Small Farm Future will soon be returning to tend (or create) a small farm near you. Or may in fact include you or your descendants.

This claim is at odds with most of what’s been written about rural trends over the past century or so, along two dimensions. The first is historical: peasants will be liquidated by the march of progress. As Karl Kautsky (quoted on page 246 of my book) famously put it in his ‘agrarian question’ in 1899: “In what ways is capital taking hold of agriculture, revolutionizing it, smashing the old forms of production and of poverty and establishing the new ones that must succeed?”

The second dimension is sociological: internal tensions among small-scale farmers destabilize any coherent notion of ‘the peasantry’ as an enduring entity – an argument usually framed in relation to the separate class interests of ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ peasants. So in the standard view, for reasons both external and internal, peasants are on their way to being something else.

There’s no denying that recent history furnishes evidence for this. Capital has certainly done its share of revolutionizing and smashing peasant agriculture since Kautsky’s day, and plenty of rural class conflict has accompanied the process. But most people heralding the demise of peasantries have been enthusiastic cheerleaders for the process rather than disinterested observers, and it’s possible they’ve enthused a little too much.

On the one hand, Marxists like Kautsky have generally tried to divvy up peasantries into the more comfortable terrain of Marxism’s Ur-conflict between free-flowing capital and free-flowing labour, making landless or land-poor lower peasants over in the image of their preferred revolutionaries, the proletariat. On the other, market liberals have seen peasants as frustrated would-be capitalist entrepreneurs, waiting only for the right moment to escape the stasis of rural society and launch more lucrative careers. Given that the clash between Marxism and liberal capitalism was among the biggest historical scripts of the 20th century, and that peasantries were among the biggest demographic element in the period, it’s hardly surprising that both these forms of peasant-hustling were pretty successful in the short-term. All the major communist regimes of the period were built on the back of peasant participation, and so was a good deal of capitalist development.

Yet while few truly autarkic, pre-capitalist peasantries like the Finnish swiddeners I mentioned in my previous post have survived this 20th century politics, nevertheless small-scale farmers oriented to producing a livelihood directly from the land using low-energy, labour-intensive methods (let’s call them peasants) still haven’t been as comprehensively eradicated as the likes of Kautsky anticipated. Why this is so remains a matter of debate. Perhaps because of a residual peasantness, a grit in the gears of modernization or a light from the past that grimly refuses to die. Or perhaps because modernization has never been quite as successful at organizing economic life as its proponents claim, leaving people to make do with peasant forms of livelihood-making. Or because modernization has been all too successful, extracting what surplus it can from impoverished rural people and then abandoning them to take care of themselves as best they can. Or because impoverished people hedge their bets in the global economy, striving to retain a footing on rural land in case other livelihood strategies fail.

The last three of these four possibilities are basically variants of the same idea, each with a particular political spin. Modern scholarship in the peasant studies field has largely devoted itself to charting this exact terrain, inking the fine detail of the encounter between peasants and capitalist development in any number of specific times and places. Yet for all its achievements, I can’t help feeling that much of this scholarship will become increasingly irrelevant with the profound changes now occurring from climate change, energy descent, nature loss and political-economic crisis. These changes demand an update to Kautsky’s agrarian question, that I’d put like this: in what ways is capital losing control of agriculture and other spheres of production, and failing to revolutionize itself adequately with the result that it’s smashing itself – and what are the new forms of agriculture and production that will follow?

A dissident strand of agrarian populism within peasant studies has kept alive the notion that these new forms might look a lot like older ones – rural, low-capital, labour-intensive, small-scale peasant production as the necessary corrective for a waning urban industrialism. This is often dismissed as mere nostalgia for the past in the face of modern progress, or an ahistorical (‘essentialist’) romanticization of the peasantry as a kind of sui generis category. The sometime editor of the Journal of Peasant Studies, Terence Byres, criticized peasant populism on these grounds in a 2004 article, along lines that are still prevalent within the discipline: “To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes …. One also has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past”.

Yet this becomes its own epitaph. A generation ago it might have been reasonable to dismiss the relevance of peasantries to the economic future, but history has indeed been changing before our eyes. This, as people often say, is the 21st century – and in the 21st century it’s likely that peasantization will become a major trend. This is not, it must be repeated, out of a desire to go ‘back’ to an idealized past but out of a desire to go ‘forward’ to a realistic and tolerable future.

But what exactly is it about peasant lifeways that makes them relevant again? Not some essence of unchanging peasantness, but basically three other things. First, rich local traditions in how to farm renewably with little capital or exogenous energy, from which much can be learned today as we face a future with similar constraints. Second, similarly rich local traditions – especially where aristocratic power has been weaker – in the forms of social organization conducive to a thriving agrarian society, from which we can also learn.

On this second point, for all the dismissiveness dished out to we agrarian populists for romanticizing peasantries, ironically it’s precisely the unromantic nature of these peasant traditions that commends them. As described in my book, numerous local farming societies thrashed out social arrangements for optimizing land use, sharing and husbanding resources, delivering welfare and managing intergenerational succession. Typically, these were hardbitten, long-term, real-world arrangements not based in the airy generalities of modern meta-theories like the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or the ‘collectivization of the means of production’. For sure, peasant social arrangements, like all social arrangements, weren’t perfect. And they were often offensive to modernist conceptions of the good life, whether capitalist, socialist or liberal – an issue I wrestle with in Part III of my book.

But whatever else they were, these arrangements are informative for the issues we will face in weathering the small farm future to come – more informative, at any rate, than the dubious verities of capitalism and communism we’ve inherited from modernist thought, as for example in these words of V.I. Lenin:

the peasantry dreamed of equal land tenure and no power on earth could have prevented them, when freed from landlordism and from the bourgeois parliamentary republican state, from trying to realize this dream. The proletarians said to the peasants: We shall help you to reach “ideal” capitalism, for equal tenure is the idealizing of capitalism from the point of view of small producers. At the same time we will prove to you its inadequacy and the necessity of passing to the cultivation of the land on a social basis1

There’s much in this rich passage to which I want to return in later posts. But for now I’ll just suggest that ‘the proletarians’ of 20th century communist regimes signally failed to prove the necessity of cultivating the land on a social basis (as opposed to mixed peasant economies of common and private tenure), and little now remains of their efforts on this front – a point that I think needs more serious analysis than it typically gets from those on the left who still herald the virtues of collective production and the vices of private property. At the same time, profit-oriented private capitalist farming has been ecologically and socially disastrous, and it seems clear that it can’t continue much longer.

Which is why I proclaim the return of the peasant in my book. Possibly I should have avoided the ‘p’ word altogether in view of its heavy historical baggage. But ultimately the baggage must be confronted, whatever words we use. And this brings us to the third relevant aspect of peasant societies, namely their status ordering.

The classical question animating so much of peasant studies, especially its Marxist versions, is how peasantries differentiate into separate status groups or classes in circumstances of capitalist economic integration. But the most urgent agrarian question before us today is the reverse: how non-peasants might aggregate into unified peasantries in circumstances of capitalist economic disintegration. I’m not suggesting there will be no class or status differentiation among future peasantries. On the contrary, I’m anxious to identify ways to prevent it – and a good deal of Parts III and IV of my book is devoted to that task, as I’ll outline in later posts. But here, I’ll just reiterate a simpler point made on page 95 of my book which is a necessary prior assumption for those posts: some people do actually want to be peasants, and in the future their numbers are likely to increase.


  1. V.I. Lenin The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky quoted in David Mitrany. Marx Against The Peasant (1951), pp.60-1.

Can the peasant speak?

I’ve now reached Chapter 3, ‘The return of the peasant’, in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m going to linger here for a few posts, even though it’s only a short chapter. I’ll begin at rather an oblique slant to the substance of the chapter by relating a story told to me by my friend P, reproduced here with his kind permission.

This photograph is of P’s grandfather, G, who was born in the province of Karelia, Eastern Finland, in 1889. At this time, Finland was an autonomous duchy of the Russian empire, and Russian Orthodox Christianity was prominent in Eastern Karelia. G’s ancestry in the immediate locality where he was born went back at least three generations, probably more. The subsistence-oriented swidden farming which we were recently discussing here (later transplanted to Appalachia by Scandinavian migrants) was a recent reality in this area. As P puts it, “this was a man whose roots were deep in the place that he came from. His cultural and farming practices were also deeply rooted in this landscape”.

G was the oldest of six children. When his father died in 1911 it fell to him to sort out the inheritance and allot the family land among his kinsfolk. G himself moved a little way from the village and established a new farm. In 1915 he got married, and between 1917 and 1937 the couple had nine children, two of whom died in infancy from pneumonia.

Swidden farming had been actively suppressed by the Finnish government in the mid-19th century as the country’s economy became increasingly connected with the wider world, and the timber resources of its wooded slopes imbued land with a higher monetary value than that represented in the crops of rye and oats that the swidden farmers grew to feed themselves. G’s farming career was built on these old and new foundations. The family grew cereals, vegetables, flax and hay, kept livestock and harvested wild fruits and fish for their own consumption, but also pursued market ventures to stay afloat in the newly monetized local economy.

In 1917, in the aftermath of war and revolution in Russia, Finland became independent and immediately plunged into a brutal civil war between left-wing and right-wing factions. P is unsure how this played out in his grandfather’s life, but there are family memories of famine during this time which were partially mitigated by their access to farmland. A few years after the civil war, a brother of G’s was shot dead by a policeman in a bar. As one of G’s daughters recalled the incident, “Uncle had been able to say ‘don’t shoot’ but the police at the time did not wait for explanations”. G assumed financial responsibility for the child of his slain brother.

In the Winter War of 1939-40, the Soviet Union attacked Finland and overran eastern Karelia. G’s family travelled west as war refugees in a goods train, while G himself packed up what he could from the farm into a horse-drawn cart and walked across the country with it to join them. Among new environs in Finland’s Lutheran west, G’s family and the family of one of his brothers were taken in by a local family in return for farm work. Later, the government allocated them some land in North Karelia to farm themselves. Around this time, G’s oldest son was hit by shrapnel in an explosion and permanently injured. This son’s wife died in childbirth. One of G’s daughters died of meningitis in the crowded home where they were living in exile.

In the Continuation War of 1941-44, Finland – temporarily allied with Nazi Germany – initially pushed Soviet forces out of the country. G and his family returned to their farm in eastern Karelia. The fighting continued. One of G’s daughters worked in civilian support of the war effort, including driving a wagon heroically under enemy fire to resupply frontline troops. Later, she was badly injured in a landmine explosion. As the Continuation War went against Finland, G and his family had to flee west again, using similar methods as before, with G once again walking across the country with a cart loaded with what he could rescue from the farm. After several vicissitudes, the family ended up back at the land they’d been given to the farm in north Karelia in the aftermath of the Winter War.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet-Finnish border was settled, with the family’s original farm and homeland in east Karelia now falling within Soviet territory and permanently lost to them. G continued farming the new land he’d been given in Lutheran north Karelia. The photograph you see was taken in 1950, at the wedding of one of G’s sons. G died nine years later, three years before his youngest daughter gave birth to my friend P in England.

P showed me the picture of his grandfather I’ve reproduced above, before telling me the tale of his life that I’ve related. We agreed that his face seems to hold a sadness, perhaps a grief. Another friend who was shown the picture said that G looked ‘defeated’.  He was, apparently, an untalkative man, and he’s now long dead. He cannot tell us his feelings, and for sure nobody else can either.

But such silences don’t stop us today from expressing our opinions on what peasant farmers like G and others for whom history provides no amplifier must have thought. A common talking point nowadays is that peasant life was and is one of utter misery and backbreaking labour that nobody would ever voluntarily undertake. On page 78 of my book I cite a few authors who’ve worked this particular seam. They’re not hard to find.

But to weigh in with my own voice in the face of G’s silence, I wonder if this is the story he would tell. For sure, there’s relentless work and now-preventable disease in his story (as there still is for too many people today), and there’s heavy responsibility to care for a wider family through uncertain times. But it’s surely worth heeding too the nature of those times. G was one of many who lived his life in the crosshairs of global ‘development’, and who farmed under the ill-starred sign of political forces much larger than their local worlds. A famine caused, as they usually are, by politics and not by ‘natural’ events, the loss and injury of family members to the hostile forces of the state (the army, the police), the loss of natal land beyond an uncrossable modern border, possibly the loss of religious and cultural orientation too, the gnawing uncertainties of war, refugeeism and reliance on strangers, the hard work not only of farming but of establishing a new farm, not once but repeatedly in the face of a changing world. New politics, new borders, new nationalisms, new histories cascading through the early twentieth century. I wonder if it was the strain of these things more than the familiar seasonal cycle of hard work on the farm that we see in G’s sad face.

We’ll never know. An unbridgeable and silent river of history divides our present world from the one that G knew. As I see it, the case for a turn to peasant farming today is about trying to meet the challenges of the present, not about trying to recross that river. But maybe we can meet those challenges better if we’re able to bear witness to the pain that history has caused to peasant farmers like G, and also if we’re able to acknowledge that in their ability to furnish a household livelihood in the face of difficult circumstances we might look to farmers like him as inspirations in the difficult journey that lies ahead for us, rather than as yesterday’s people remembered only in the silence of old photographs.

Where the story takes us

Pervasive, multi-faceted crisis and a cultural inability to deal with it: I’ve now said what I want to say in this cycle of posts about Chapters 1 and 2 of my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m ready to move onto Chapter 3. But first let’s take a breather. If there’s anything in the first two chapters you’d like me to further explain or justify, let me know (preferably by commenting at where I’ll be sure to see the comment).

While we’re dawdling here, maybe I’ll say something about stories. On page 54 of my book, I discuss the idea of ‘symbolic goods’, which bears on how human actions arise out of the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is – or, as Clifford Geertz famously put it, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”1. So we’re motivated by stories, and there are different stories we can tell about the same reality. Ultimately, though, factors independent of our stories condition their outcome whether we like it or not, and if we don’t find good ways of incorporating them into the narrative, then eventually the story will crumble.

Chapters 1 and 2 of my book tell a story about how our current modern global civilization has got itself into a mess by disregarding some such factors that complicate its tale of endless self-improvement. In writing them, I drew on a lot of research and evidence that I think make my own story quite robust. Nobody has yet convinced me that the story of these chapters is substantially wrong in its main details (there are some minor points I might now recast), though certainly there are other webs of significance that could be spun, and it’s not impossible I could be convinced that another story is more plausible. Which is why I’m dawdling at this crossroads into Chapter 3, waiting for another storyteller to come along and take me somewhere different…

While I wait, I’d like to mention three, perhaps four, other stories that have come to my attention lately.

The first relates to climate change, and has been spun around a recently published scientific paper suggesting that a stabilization of the Earth’s climate would occur much quicker than previously thought if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions cease2. Not my area of expertise, of course, but my sense of this paper is that it bore quite a lot of other news about the effects of current human emissions which was far from positive. However, the most prominent discussions of it among climate scientists that came to my attention on social media built a story from the climate stabilisation point to ridicule ‘end of civilisation’ doomsters for not keeping up with the science, positioning them alongside climate change deniers for imperilling concerted climate action.

There are two aspects of story-telling that interest me in this. The first is people’s meta-concern with the character of their story as a status claim in its own right, which is ubiquitous in discussions of climate change. My story is optimistic, pragmatic or science-based whereas your story is doomy climate porn or is tantamount to denialism because it lacks hope. No doubt there’s something to be said for addressing the wider effects of our stories on other people, but in my view those concerned about climate change spend too much precious time pointing fingers at other concerned people based on the supposed superior impact of their narrative. Enough. Call things as you see them, take action accordingly, be prepared to discuss and be prepared to be wrong. But don’t waste time plumping the meta-efficacy of your chosen narrative.

The second aspect is that while a few political leaders have stated their commitment to achieving net zero, the fact is we’re not even remotely on a path to achieving it, and new coal mines and fossil power stations are merrily sprouting up around the world. So to take the finding that ‘if we reach net zero, then the climate stabilizes’ as a way to lambast climate pessimism puts a heavier loading on the ‘if’ in that sentence than any real-world trend can bear. There’s a danger here of telling ourselves a nice story, whose protective armour allows us to dismiss other, darker stories when the armour isn’t real.

The second story I want to mention has gradually been taking shape in my mind of late as an identifiable narrative trend. It goes roughly like this: “The old-fashioned practices of industrial agriculture certainly did contribute to many of our contemporary problems, but innovative new forms of skills-intensive and tech-intensive smart agriculture mean that farmers can now feed the world sustainably while removing carbon from the atmosphere and making a lot of money too.” I propose to call this the “smart farming story”. And I don’t believe in it.

There are various entry points into the fallacies of the smart farming story, many of which I’ve covered on this blog over the years. I won’t pursue them here, except to say that if your farming makes you a lot of money then I’m pretty sure it won’t be helping solve our contemporary problems. I’m also pretty sure the money-making won’t last long. I’d propose this alternative: “Don’t worry too much about feeding the world or cutting carbon with your farming. Just try to do what you can to help your area grow as much food and fibre as possible to meet its local needs using whatever techniques you like, provided they use little fossil fuel and make little money”.

The final story or stories is something I was tracking a bit more avidly back in 2016 with the votes in the UK for Brexit and in the US for Donald Trump. In early 2021 both have reached a denouement, though perhaps not an ending, with a whimper in the former case and a bang in the second. The Brexit story involves two versions of neoliberalism, one based inside the EU and the other outside it, the latter mis-sold to the public as a story of nationalist assertion. The touted economic benefits for the people are unsurprisingly failing to materialise, though perhaps some will be happy that our fish are now British. For the rest of us, I’d suggest, the story now has to be about trying to create real popular localism out of the absurdities of Brexit, not a race to the bottom that will benefit only a few.

Regarding Trump, I doubt there’s much I can say that others haven’t already said better. The answer to the problems of our times may not be Biden-Harris, but it most certainly isn’t Trump and … that other guy. In keeping with my overall theme for this post, let me just say that I was struck by how very strange was the web of significance that so many of Trump’s insurrectionists in Washington DC had spun for themselves. People who believed themselves to be a part of a revolution were surprised that they were pepper sprayed by the police, or banned from flying home? What happened was serious, but the story that a lot of the protagonists seemed to have built around themselves was fundamentally unserious, as if they were mere actors in a TV show.

To generalize from this to my wider theme, I see this unseriousness, this TV show mentality, everywhere in our contemporary stories about ourselves – from the way we talk about climate change (it’s bad, but not so bad that it’s really going to change our world, ‘if’ we reach net zero), to the way we talk about smart farming (it’s good, so good that it can save our world and make us loads of money too), and even to the way we try to topple governments (it’s wild, it’s patriotic, and then we can fly home for the weekend).

We need some different stories.


  1. Clifford Geertz. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures, p.5.
  2. Chen Zhou et al. 2021. Greater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect. Nature Climate Change.

Automation and a small farm future

The previous post in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future discussed the section on political economy (pp.53-73). Much as I’d like to dwell on various other issues raised therein, I feel I should probably move on to the next part of the book. But fortunately, having just read Aaron Benanav’s stimulating new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020), an engagement with it in this post enables me to sweep up a few further issues from that section while simultaneously moving on. Always good to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

I did, in fact, cite Benanav’s work in the aforementioned political economy section of my book, but when I was writing it he hadn’t yet published his own one, which I’ve found helpful in further clarifying my thinking. In this and in a later post, I’ll suggest that his analysis strengthens the case I make for a small farm future, even though that’s not a direction he goes himself. But, as I’ll shortly argue, it could be … and maybe it should be.

Let’s start with Benavav’s appraisal of the present global labour market: many fewer people (proportionately) working in agriculture than previously, many fewer people working in manufacturing than previously, many more people in precarious and low paid employment or underemployment in the service sector than previously, and a very small but growing number of people amassing unprecedentedly stupendous wealth.

A common explanation for these trends is the ‘automation theory’ that argues they arise from labour-shedding technological development. This occurred first in agriculture with what Benanav (p.42) calls ‘the major destroyer of livelihoods in the twentieth century’ in the form of agrarian ‘nitrogen capitalism’ (so named because of agri-industrial reliance on manufactured nitrogenous fertiliser, though in truth it involved a suite of fossil fuel-based developments, so perhaps it’s better seen as another variant of fossil capitalism).

Whatever the terminology, it’s refreshing to see Benanav call agrarian industrialisation for what it is – a destroyer of livelihoods – rather than resorting to the usual upbeat euphemisms of ‘labour saving’ or ‘agricultural improvement’. Now that automation threatens livelihoods across a swathe of other employment sectors – including such bastions of white-collar privilege as medicine and law – perhaps it becomes easier to make the case that in agriculture as in other sectors ‘labour saving’ isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But actually, the main thrust of Benanav’s book is a critique of automation theory. If the present stagnation of the global labour market were really caused by automation, he argues, we’d expect to see a spiralling growth in labour productivity, whereas the trend is better explained by falling global manufacturing output that he imputes to industrial overcapacity and underinvestment. This leads to his important claims that, during the 20th century, manufacturing was “a unique engine of economic growth” and that modern governments have found no other ways to sustain growth when manufacturing output has faltered (pp.34-5).

A minor point to draw from all this in relation to my own book is that I largely ducked the question of future technologies in agriculture because too much attention to drones, robots, GM, GPS, vertical farming and all the rest of it seemed something of a diversion, but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this evasion. So I find Benanav’s analysis reassuring in suggesting that these really aren’t the main questions before us. For this reason, I’m not going to discuss in this blog cycle the things I do have to say about automation, ‘progress’ etc. in Chapter 2 of my book, which in any case we’ve discussed at length on this website over the years.

So if emerging technologies aren’t the main question, what is? Benanav’s analysis suggests that the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise, with more and more workers pushed into necessarily labour-intensive and low-paid service industries. Sometimes this involves small-scale family operations competing successfully with large and highly capitalized firms on the basis of involutionary job creation strategies. It also involves industrial corporations favouring monopolistic competition, the asset bubble of financialization and squeezing worker pay and conditions. And it seems likely that these trends represent a limit or endpoint to the present structure of the global political economy that’s inherent to its internal logic, regardless of wider issues like climate change, energy futures or resource drawdown.

The main question, then, is how might the global political economy escape this impasse once we abandon the fruitless idea that the answer lies in technological development? As I see it, there are four main options, three of which Benanav touches on in his book, and one of which (the most promising one, in my opinion) he doesn’t.

First, there’s the possibility that the global political economy will find a way to barrel through the present crisis and restart the growth engine of industrial development. There are, after all, multitudes of poor people globally who would be only too happy to lead lives of industrialised plenty of the kind many of us lead in the richer countries and the richer parts of the poorer ones. As China increasingly takes over the reins of global economic leadership from the USA, developments like its Belt and Road Initiative may provide exactly the kickstart that’s needed. But I think it’s unlikely. China’s industrialization, like the ones of the western powers preceding it, is based on a coercion of labour that’s unlikely to sustain growth long-term and is already displaying the morbid symptoms of late-stage western capitalism. Throw in the effects of climate change and resource crisis, and it’s hard to see the locomotive of global industrialization escaping the siding where it’s currently languishing and getting back onto the main track.

Second, there’s the possibility of ‘our country first’ economic nationalism. On this point, Benanav is surely right to suggest that “a chronically low demand for labour will not be alleviated by tariff barriers or walled borders” (p.65). I’d argue nonetheless that it would probably be a good way to go for the poorest countries experiencing a net outflow of assets in the globalized economy if they were able to make it happen, but economic nationalism operating at large across the world certainly isn’t going to usher in a new cornucopia of surging global growth and prosperity. I guess Brexit Britain has just started a small experiment on your behalf in this respect. You’re welcome.

Third, there’s the possibility of redistributing the product of the global economy more fairly between rich and poor, young and old. To me, this seems ethically right and will probably happen quite widely one way or another anyway if governments don’t act, because too much inequality sustained for too long prompts political movements geared to restitution. But for all its necessity, it seems to me that a fairer redistribution of economic product doesn’t strike to the root of the problem much more than the other possibilities, because it likewise doesn’t provide the means for radically creating more product and transcending industrial overcapacity and low labour demand.

Here’s where Benanav’s analysis gets, for me, most interesting, but also most problematic. There are different ways in which a fairer distribution of product might be delivered politically. The one Benanav explores is a propertyless socialist utopia in which people collectively divide the necessary work of social reproduction between themselves on a fair and democratic basis, devoting the rest of their time to pursuing their personal passions and pleasures.

There’s much I find appealing in his vision, and some of it covers very similar ground to my own discussion of utopias in my book (pp.85-8). Benanav and I agree that it’s not OK to expect subordinated categories of labour to do the hard work of domestic and social reproduction, and nor is it plausible to expect new developments in automation to ride to the rescue and do it for us. The main point of his brief utopian exercise isn’t to provide some fully realized blueprint for the future, but to suggest that it’s possible for us to create congenial lives for ourselves with existing technology in the here and now, rather than waiting for future technological developments to deliver us into a fantasy future world without work. On this point I wholeheartedly agree.

All the same, there are aspects of his utopia that I find either implausible or unappealing. I won’t expound on them at length here because I hope to come back to this in later posts, but in brief I think he puts too much faith in people’s ability to smoothly divvy up the work between themselves and deliver on what’s expected through ill-defined democratic processes. This is all the more problematic inasmuch as Benanav acknowledges there are kinds of work that can’t be widely shared because they require specialist skills (he mentions farming in this connection) and inasmuch as it would be necessary to somehow hold producers accountable if they failed to come up with the goods.

As for the unappealing, the freedoms that Benanav accords people in his utopia seem to me overly individualistic, disconnected and intellectual. His examples include painting murals, learning languages, inventing things and ‘choosing to explore nature’ (pp.91-2) – this being the only mention I noticed in his book of the extra-human ecological world. It all sounds a bit like a university professor dreaming up a quiet suburban retirement for himself, which – as I suggest in my book (p.85) – is essentially what most written utopias are. And I use the word ‘himself’ here deliberately, because there are some interesting gender framings involved in all this. But we’ll come to that in a later post.

Benanav nevertheless contends – correctly in my opinion – that “feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose are what generate the best work” (p.89), yet it seems to me hard to reconcile this with the highly generalized collective divvying up of work and the holding of producers to account that he identifies – a point that, again, I’ll develop in another post. Rather than drifting around in an agreeable but ultimately somewhat vapid and probably unrealisable ‘post-scarcity’ world, I think true autonomy, mastery and purpose arise through experiencing resistances to one’s agency, partly in relation to other people (the points where collective agreements fail) and partly in relation to the necessary practice of creating a livelihood out of the extra-human world of nature, rather than the option of simply exploring it. In both cases, a sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose arises when one feels equal to the challenge, which is usually only possible through an intimate, grounded, personal, local knowledge of the social and natural landscape.

In other words, the fourth way to address the impasse of the present global political economy may be to embrace the possibility – so admirably implied by Benanav throughout his book, but never confronted head on – of creating a labour-intensive, semi-autonomous livelihood through farming, homesteading or gardening largely on one’s own account, within a wider society which is collectively oriented to enabling people to live that way. Agricultural involution of this sort is far more generative of a sense of purpose than creating involutionary service sector jobs, far more compatible with a low or no economic growth society (a point Benanav makes on p.38), and far less ecologically destructive. It would amount to a small farm future – not a panacea, not a utopia, but a plausible goal to aim at. In my forthcoming posts I’ll continue to outline its contours.

How capitalism started, and why it still matters

A happy new year to you from Small Farm Future, and as happy as possible a Brexit. I have a busy January ahead, involving various podcasts, webinars and conference papers geared to my book (scroll down this page and you’ll find the itinerary). I also need to do some replanting in our stricken ash woodland and attend to various other farm tasks. So I may not be very active on the blog for a while. But I want to start the year with a post that continues my exploration of themes from my book, in this case lighting on Crisis #9: Political Economy (pp.53-73). These twenty pages are in many ways key to the whole book.

To reprise the title of this post, how capitalism started and why it still matters are important themes I discuss within those twenty pages. Maybe it’s necessary to define capitalism before discussing how it originated, but let me begin by defining what it isn’t. If I grow a crop or make a widget, take it to a market and sell it for money to someone who wants it, that doesn’t inherently make me a capitalist. In fact, capitalism isn’t particularly about markets or selling things. This needs stressing over and over, because powerful narratives to the contrary repeatedly fool us into supposing otherwise.

The clue to the nature of capitalism is in the name – capitalism is about making the biggest possible return on capital investment, and it’s about making this fundamental to the whole organization of society. Sometimes capitalism involves selling things in markets in pursuit of that larger aim, but often the major energies lie elsewhere. The best short definition of capitalism along these lines I’ve come across is from Wolfgang Streeck: a capitalist society is one that “secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation”1.

And so to the first part of my essay title. How did this bizarre way of organizing affairs get started? In an influential article first published in 1976, historian Robert Brenner argued that it started in England – nowhere else – in the late 15th century, when large-scale rural landowners established competitive tenancies for relatively wealthy peasant farmers, incentivizing them to increase the profits and productivity of their farming. This, Brenner argued, was the result of a longer-term class conflict emerging from medieval contests between landlords and peasants that took the unique turn in England of an only partial victory to the peasants. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the victory went to the landlords, whereas in France it went to the peasants, establishing different kinds of agrarian society that were only upended in later revolutions. But in England, says Brenner, and only in England, the stalemate between landlords and peasants produced – quite unintendedly on their part – a monetized, accumulative and self-transforming rural capitalist society.

Brenner’s intervention stimulated much research by agrarian historians of England, and the upshot of their enquiries was, in a nutshell, that he was wrong, and there was no simple competitive dynamic between landlord and tenant farmer – though historians usually give Brenner his due for re-energizing their field of enquiry. Brenner himself incorporated some of this revisionism into his later work, but his original formulation remains better known and more influential2.

One way in which a Brennerite view remains influential is a coarsened popular version whereby our modern capitalist ills in England are imputed to ‘the enclosure of the commons’, when profit-seeking landlords moved to stop peasants from accessing land and producing their subsistence. I’ll talk more about commons when I get to Part III of my book in this blog cycle, but the bottom line is that while the extinction of common rights did sometimes occur at the expense of peasant subsistence, enclosure was a hugely complex process, often involving peasants enclosing their own land, and the more you look in detail at its processes in the English countryside, the less clearly related they seem to the emergence of capitalism3.

All this prompts two questions. First, if capitalism didn’t arise in England through rural class conflict, then where and how did it arise? And second, why does any of this matter today? I’ll attempt a brief answer to the first question, which will lead to an answer to the second.

Very broadly, I’d suggest that capitalism arose, to quote from my own book, “out of a confluence where the great trading empires of Asia connected with the fiscal-military states of Europe and their seaborne empires that brought first precious metals and then plantation produce from the Americas into global circuits of exchange, much of it via the super-exploited labour of enslaved Amerindians and Africans” (p.62).

This alternative approach to capitalist origins was pioneered by thinkers of the left like André Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. A couple of points to notice about it. First, it’s less Eurocentric or Anglocentric than Brenner: capitalism wasn’t the achievement of any single country or region, but resulted from relations between many – albeit relations greatly influenced by colonial domination enthusiastically prosecuted by European powers. Second, unlike the Brenner thesis, this approach makes the role of centralized states key to the emergence of capitalism. Again, despite powerful narratives to the contrary, capitalism has always been a state project – in fact, a project of commercial linkage between states. Brenner wrote an article criticizing this approach and its leading theorists for “neo-Smithian [i.e. commerce-emphasizing] Marxism”. In this, he built on a long left-wing tradition of claiming superior status through greater loyalty to the thought of Karl Marx, and of disdain for left-wing thinkers who look beyond it – a tradition that unfortunately still seems to be with us. But, unlike Brenner’s thesis, the ‘neo-Smithian’ approach now commands more general support among economic historians, leftwing and otherwise, despite ongoing disagreement about the details4.

Anyway, if we go back to English history with this more state-centred view of capitalism in mind, it becomes easier to notice that the Tudor state took steps to protect English peasants from expropriation by aristocratic landlords. This arose less from benevolence than from conflicts between state and aristocracy over command of resources, conflicts that England’s unusually weak aristocracy generally lost. It also becomes easier to notice how the early modern English state was locked in fierce battles with other European states – the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal etc. – to grow its economy through imperial control of wider trade and monetary networks.

I’d argue that capitalism arose more as an unintended consequence of this emerging system of competitive states than as a consequence of rural class conflict in England specifically. A look at the English countryside from the late medieval through the early modern period does show an increasing commercialism across all classes, with more monetization, capitalization and consumerism, and I’m not suggesting this had no bearing on the state’s trajectory towards capitalism. I’d nevertheless argue that the real motor of that trajectory was in the dynamics of the state and its competitors.

Why do these events of many centuries ago and the different explanations for them matter today? Because I think we’re now living in the twilight of global capitalism, arising out of its unsustainable dynamics of capital accumulation and their consequences in terms of energy, climate, soil, water, economics, politics and other things (in other words, all the crises that I discuss in Part I of my book). This forces us to consider how our societies might transcend these unsustainable dynamics, and here the different approaches to capitalist origins push in different directions and lead their proponents to emphasize different issues. I won’t trace these differences in all their ramifications here, but I’ll conclude by homing in on a few of them which seem to me particularly important to frame politically.

It’s often said nowadays that the old divisions between left-wing and right-wing politics are breaking down, which I think is true in many ways. I find class versus state approaches to capitalist development quite helpful in thinking through this reconfiguration.

People drawn to orthodox Brennerite class-based leftism are inclined to protest – too much, in my opinion – about small-scale private property rights, petty commerce, personal economic autonomy and so on, because they regard it as prelude to or generative of capitalism. But this is only likely to be true in situations where these features are being actively coopted by growing, centralized states forging a capitalist world order. The situation we now face is more likely one of state decline, contraction and disintegration – and in those circumstances I would, on the contrary, actively champion opportunities for widespread, accessible, secure, small-scale rural property tenure and petty marketing as critical for the possibilities of a decent life.

There are, alternatively, state-centred thinkers who take a rosy view of the capitalist state’s corporatism and technological prowess, and this usually terminates on both the political left and right in a techno-fixing rearguard commitment to the large-scale corporatist status quo in the face of present challenges – which is why to my eyes the arguments of people like Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Mike Shellenberger, Leigh Phillips, Mark Lynas or Nick Srnicek end up looking pretty similar, despite their different self-proclaimed positionings on a left-right axis.

Then there are people who view capitalist development as a largely malign manifestation of centralized state aggrandizement, and seek more convivial and organically local forms of socioeconomic action – a camp in which I find myself. Touchstone concepts for this way of thinking include individual and local self-reliance, autonomy, liberty, rural/small town revival, petty commerce and (primarily) local mutuality. The right-wing or conservative resonances of these concepts are perhaps obvious, but so too should be the left-wing ones – particularly once we abandon the misguided notion that selling wares at local markets or having decision-making autonomy over farm property are somehow intrinsically capitalist, or that notions of “community, magic, craftsmanship, and enchantment” as discussed by Ernie in this interesting comment are intrinsically conservative or ‘reactionary’. I hope to come back to this in a future post.

Nevertheless, I continue to identify with the political left and so there are aspects of this local autonomism that I consider potentially problematic and in need of checking – namely, accumulated economic privileges between households, families and, ultimately, classes, and other differentials of social power between different kinds of people, perhaps especially between men and women, and between ‘local’ and ‘non-local’ groupings. So, within the limitations of a short and non-technical book, I go to some lengths in A Small Farm Future to address how these problematic tendencies may conceivably be checked within semi-autonomous local societies of the future in the context of contracting centralized states. An important part of this that I broach in Crisis #9 and discuss elsewhere in the book is the need to avoid the inequalities associated with extractive landlordism, to which secure and widespread rights to private property in farmland offer one solution.

In this respect, I share a Brennerite concern about extractive landlordism, which I think is a bad thing – but I don’t think it’s a thing that’s inherently generative of capitalism. So while any just, post-capitalist local politics must address local class formation and conflicts around things like landlordism, the connections between local producers and the larger state are ultimately more to the point in how those class conflicts play out, as analyzed in Part IV of my book5. As per recent discussions on this site, I’d suggest that recourse to an analytical language of class derived from older state/producer formations that have now largely passed into history (‘the peasantry’, ‘the proletariat’, ‘the (petty) bourgeoisie’ etc.) lack coherence unless they’re plausibly linked to the new and unprecedented terrain of state/producer relations that’s emerging in the contemporary world: capital decline, state decay and retrenchment, mass migration, pervasive ecological disruption and so forth. My book presses the view that ‘the peasantry’ may be one of the few such categories to retain some relevance in this emerging world.

I’m wary of political traditions that propose the centralized state as the major safeguard against problems like local landlordism or patriarchy, especially in view of its declining reach. I’m warier still of political traditions that regard the state as an instrument of ‘the people’, or of a sub-set of the people regarded by the tradition as particularly worthy or important, such as ‘the working class’. As I see it, the state is no less, and often much more, capable of acting the rapacious landlord, predatory bandit or chauvinist paterfamilias as any smalltime landholder, and this view colours much of my analysis in Parts III and IV of the book.

But we’ll come to that presently. For now I’ll simply conclude by saying that the difficulties of constructing just societies out of the wreckage of global capitalism in the present historical moment seem virtually insurmountable, but they’re just a little less insurmountable if we can specify accurately the nature of capitalism, its origins and the implications for what comes next.


  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End, pp.58-9.
  2. Brenner’s contributions and early responses to it are collected in T. Aston & C. Philpin’s The Brenner Debate (Cambridge, 1985). His later work includes Merchants and Revolution (Princeton, 1993). Other assessments, contestations and counternarratives to his earlier writing on English agrarian class structures include Jane Whittle (Ed) Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660 (Boydell, 2013) – especially the essay therein by David Ormrod; Christopher Dyer A Country Merchant, 1495-1520 (Oxford, 2012); J. Blaut Eight Eurocentric Historians (Guilford, 2000); Henry Heller The Birth of Capitalism (Pluto, 2011).
  3. See, for example, Robert Allen Enclosure and the Yeoman (Oxford, 1992); J. Yelling Common Field & Enclosure in England 1450-1850 (Macmillan, 1977).
  4. Robert Brenner. 1977. The origins of capitalist development: a critique of neo-Smithian Marxism. New Left Review 104: 25-93; Immanuel Wallerstein. 1974. The Modern World System; Ronald Findlay & Kevin O’Rourke. 2007. Power & Plenty; Heller op cit.; Blaut op cit.
  5. Neglect of this same issue has, incidentally, been a major rallying point for critics of Brenner: see Blaut op cit.; Heller op cit. This raises some interesting issues that I hope to pursue in future posts – perhaps especially in relation to rural sociologist Max Ajl’s interesting recent writings on war and nationalism.

A Small Farm Future – seasonal update

I wasn’t planning to write another pre-Christmas post, but a few items have come across the editorial desk which I want to share.

First, I’m excited to be doing a webinar on 27 January along with Vandana Shiva and Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm (and author of Farming While Black) – further details TBA. I’m also recording a podcast early in January with Ben Trollinger of Acres USA, running a panel at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on delivering a small farm future at 12 noon GMT on 11 January, doing a guest session on the Surviving the Future course on 13 January, speaking at the RIHN symposium on 15 January and at the NOFA-New Jersey conference on 31 January. Further details likewise TBA – do check the My Book page of the website. I’ve just updated it, but sheesh it’s a fast-moving field!

I have various other things going on in the background too in January, possibly even some farm work, so I may not get around to doing much blogging. But I’ll try to knock out the next post in my present series where I blog my way through my book sometime in early January. Then I hope to see you on the other side!

In other news, Jura has sent me this picture of his Christmas preparations, referencing a discussion we had on here some time ago. Or else search online for ‘Polish Christmas traditions’ or ‘carp in the bath’.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re eating, my best wishes for the holidays and a happy new year.

Have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas

I’ll come to the seasonal song of my title in a moment, but let’s begin with another one, courtesy of John Lennon – “So this is Christmas, and what have you done…?”

Well, in 2020 I published a book, wrote 34 blog posts, did my bit to help nurture our little community of 4.5 households on our site through another year, spoke as widely as I could about the need to rethink the global political economy, sat on committees dedicated to widening access to farmland, managed to dodge Covid-19 (while remembering those who didn’t), donated to charity and even managed to grow a little food and fibre on our site – but the truth is that it wasn’t anywhere near enough in the face of the crises we face, and I played pretty much the same role as everyone else in the wealthy countries in overburdening the Earth’s limited capacities. So next year I will have to try harder.

One way I’ll try harder is by taking a few more small steps to increase my food and fibre self-reliance. But first I’m going to take some downtime over Christmas. The other households on our site are decamping to visit their families, and I’ll be here cooking, eating and making merry with mine. I’ll eat food that we grew here on the farm, and I’ll warm myself by the woodstove burning logs from trees that I planted, felled, cut, split and stacked myself. And perhaps I’ll have a glass or two of the beech noyau I made this year, using leaves from trees I planted myself (OK, so the sugar and gin were imported – small steps, remember…)

Family. Autonomy. The simple pleasures of home and farm. It’s my honouring of such ‘petty bourgeois’ things that prompted the only largely negative review of my book that I’ve seen so far, by the Marxist critics I mentioned a couple of posts back. The review badly mischaracterized many of my arguments, but on the upside the petty bourgeois jibe sent me back to the inestimable James Scott, who’s always worth a read. In his essay “Two cheers for the petty bourgeoisie”, Scott writes:

“The petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by public and private bureaucracies …. the desire for autonomy, for control over the working day and the sense of freedom and self-respect such control provides is a vastly underestimated social aspiration for much of the world’s population”1

…and, I’d add, also a vastly underestimated basis for trying to build a tolerable future for ourselves in the face of climate change, resource constraint and political decay.

I’m not really convinced that the concept of the petty bourgeoisie has much traction in analyzing the political challenges and conflicts now facing us. Still, James Scott suggests that the characteristics of unheroic autonomy, freedom and mutuality often attached to notions of the petty bourgeoisie are fundamentally anarchist sensibilities – and on that basis I’m prepared to predict that if the challenges of our times are met successfully through class revolutions of any kind in the future, they’ll most likely be in the form of ‘petty bourgeois’ anarchist revolutions embarrassing to the rigidities of orthodox Marxist class analysis.

Anyway, the review at least provides a useful foil for a few arguments that I aim to unfurl in blog posts next year. One of them concerns the dangers of domination in human relationships of all kinds, not just in families, which was brought home to me rather ironically while my critics were lambasting me with wild allegations about my supposed enthusiasm for the ‘patriarchal family’, just as various non-kin collectivities on my personal radar were aflame with troublesome power dynamics. My critics’ special antipathy to family relationships also rather reminds me of words attributed to the man whose birth I shall shortly be celebrating, alongside my family: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14: 26). Next year, I hope to trace this curious affinity between currents of both Marxism and Christianity and suggest some ways in which it might be wise to try to reconfigure them. The trick is in the tension – but not the dialectic! – between the local and the non-local, the public and the private, the self-critical and the self-honouring.

Another argumentative foil is in trying to think through the field of politics in a future world of supposedly ‘petty bourgeois’ smallholders. This is the field of agrarian populism, where both the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities lie in the fact that so few of ‘the people’ in so many countries today are agrarians. How to reckon with that is a major conundrum – but not one that 19th century-style class analysis is equipped to grasp.

Anyway, we’ll come on to all this next year, I hope. In the meantime, I’m going to count my blessings – the wonderful food, farm and family I have, the other wonderful people and non-human organisms I share the farm with, the wonderful wider communities I’m a part of (including the online ones), and the wonderful reception that my book has (mostly) got. So let me raise a glass to you in this holiday season, wherever you are and whichever kin, non-kin or other beings you’re keeping company with, to wish you peace and (a modest, sustainable and semi-autonomous) prosperity. Thank you for reading this blog. And if Christmas is a thing for you, I hope you’ll have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas. Because next year, there’s work to do…


  1. James Scott. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton University Press, p.85.