I’d been planning to move on from my present focus on ruralism and urbanism, but since George Monbiot briefly broke cover to launch some fusillades at me on Twitter last week I’m going to ruminate a bit more on the issue in the light of his intervention. I mostly want to focus on the bigger issues that our little war of words raises, rather than the war itself. But a brief personal backstory seems relevant1.
I’ve long argued that the likeliest long-term future for humanity in the face of climate, energy, water, soil and political-economic realities will involve a turn to low-energy, small-scale agrarianism geared to local material needs. This future could be quite congenial or incredibly grim, depending on how it manifests. In my opinion, the sooner humanity takes active steps to manifest it positively rather than ignoring it so it happens by default the more congenial it’s likely to be. I’ve been writing about this in books, articles and – for more than 10 years now – on this blog, which is called Small Farm Future. I haven’t exactly been hiding the nature of my arguments.
When I wrote a critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto in 2015, George enthusiastically embraced it and wrote an article in The Guardian taking on the ecomodernists at the Breakthrough Institute. Among other things, his article made the case for small-scale local agrarianism and invoked the inverse farm size-productivity relationship as a land-sparing argument for it, which in my opinion was a worthwhile avenue to explore. As I mentioned in a recent post, he also endorsed Simon Fairlie’s case for low-energy agrarian localism.
In the years since, he’s drifted ever closer to an anti-agrarian, anti-rural, pro-urban, high-energy, techno-fix ecomodernism, and his recent book about the food system, Regenesis, is a logical culmination of that. Last week he called the case for a small farm future associated with the likes of me and Fairlie “the most self-indulgent proposal I’ve ever seen”. I’m not too sure why he thinks it’s self-indulgent, but there we are. Presumably, he must feel his own erstwhile embrace of local agrarianism was a self-indulgent mistake and he’s now called himself to order with his case for high-energy urban-industrial society.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with people changing their minds. But Monbiot hasn’t to my knowledge fully explained why he now repudiates low-energy agrarian localism. His occasional comments about it in Regenesis amount to little more than caricature, and the ‘self-indulgent’ remark is scarcely clarifying. Since he won’t debate further with me, I can only conjecture what’s going on. I surely must have touched a nerve to get such an aggressive response, and I wonder what’s behind that. In his Twitter comments, Monbiot wrote of me,
when we face real, existential crises that demand urgent attention, you want instead to engineer the biggest human relocation in history …. I’ve tried to address two great and real predicaments as empirically as possible. You propose pointlessly to turn the planet’s productive surface into a giant suburb, while making no attempt to count the environmental costs. Meaning: even you don’t take your vision seriously
Well, it’s true that I refuse to get into environmental cost accounting within his own frame of reference, because if you ask silly questions of the form “Globally, is farming good or bad for nature?” you’re going to get silly answers, however ‘empirical’ they are. Meaning, in other words, that I can’t really take his vision seriously. As to mine – well, I don’t hold out an awful lot of hope that most people in the future will experience a congenial small farm future. But I do think such a future is more likely in the long term, more worth aiming for, and more conducive to the wellbeing of humans and wildlife than the implausible techno-fix he favours. I aim to do some environmental cost accounting on that latter point, on my own terms, in due course.
I’ll say a little more about a small farm future later in this post, and explain why my proposal is not, in fact, “pointlessly to turn the planet’s productive surface into a giant suburb”. It’ll require a certain amount of self-restraint on my part to explain patiently, in the face of such low blows from a celebrated writer, why a small farm future is so very obviously different from a giant suburb future. But I’ll try.
Meanwhile, I’m still puzzling over Monbiot’s silent conversion to ecomodernism. As I’ve said elsewhere, the most generous spin I can put on it is that perhaps he thinks present predicaments are too big and too urgent for us to be messing around with proposals for ruralization, low energy agrarian localism and other such orientations to long-term cultural change.
OK, I get that. Peter Harper has said much the same to me, using the metaphor of a patient in cardiac arrest who at that moment needs their doctor to get to work with the defibrillator rather than pausing to lecture about long-term eating or smoking habits. It’s not a bad metaphor – although there’s a counter-argument I learned when I did a master’s degree in health policy long ago. Many of my fellow students were doctors from Global South countries who were utterly disillusioned by their work in patching people up day after day while the wider forces that made them ill in the first place only seemed to lengthen the queue for treatment. They were doing the degree because they wanted to get out of firefighting mode and gain a wider view of the forces underlying the sickness they were treating in the hope they could make more effective systemic interventions.
Our modern culture is good at heroic, high-tech mitigation of specific and immediate acute problems. It’s not very good at long-term, low-tech cultural adaptation that mitigates against these specific and immediate acute problems from arising. Rescue ecomodernism may be all well and good, but as well as rescuing people it needs to stop the flow of people needing rescue. In my view, anyone who plays the rescue ecomodernism card needs to provide a damn good account of how to step off the rescue treadmill and start building long-term, low-tech adaptation.
Monbiot doesn’t do that in his book, and nor do any of the other ecomodernists I’ve read. Instead, they basically deny that long-term, low-tech adaptation is necessary by embracing a sense of endless upward progress in humanity’s ability to deal with acute problems. In doing so, they draw on the mother myth of modernism, the notion that there is some inexorable force driving humanity to improvement, as a magician draws a rabbit from a hat. This myth has various specific manifestations: technological salvation, market discipline, nationalist progress, government dirigisme, class struggle. Monbiot’s Regenesis invokes most of them, explicitly or otherwise.
I acknowledge that all these forces do move societies. But I reject the notion that they move them forward or upward. In my view, historical metaphors of spatial progress in the passage of history are invariably problematic. One respondent to my Twitter engagement with Monbiot wrote “if you think you can unwind the industrial revolution and subsequent urbanisation then you are truly insane. We cannot and will not ever go back to being a rural, agrarian society living off the local land”. But who said anything about ‘unwinding’ or ‘going back’? And we never stopped being an agrarian society living off ‘local land’. It’s just that few of us now know where that local land is. We ought to.
Given the present world historical moment of profound crisis that the modernist myth of progress has generated and cannot tackle, it surprises me how powerfully it still animates almost all mainstream responses to the crisis. Well, we humans do like to retreat to our old familiar stories. In a fine recent essay, sociologist William Davies complains that “sociology was from the outset over-invested in a lofty vision of modernity, which can in retrospect appear deeply parochial”. Part of this lofty vision is the “claim that modern societies are constantly on the threshold of some great change that will liberate them from the past”, a claim that “turns out itself to be a historical relic, forged in a particular time and place, that continues to constrain our sense of chronology”. Instead of a lofty vision of modernity, Davies offers the grubbier mechanics of imperialism and imperial rivalry as a historical constant predating, animating and most likely outlasting modernity2.
I don’t think the failing applies only to sociology. You can fit the entire corpus of ecomodernism, including Monbiot’s Regenesis, into that parochial modernist sense of liberation from the past. Part of it is a disdain for agrarianism and for farmers and farming, especially low-input, locally oriented ones, who are implicitly identified with a deprecated past. It’s a theme that Monbiot shares with other modernist critics of mine like Kai Heron and Alex Heffron.
This is relevant to Monbiot’s commitment to the notion that modern urbanism is a ‘mathematical reality’ and his ‘biggest relocation in human history’ and ‘giant suburb’ remarks. It’s as if human history has passed through a ratchet or a non-return valve that makes ruralization impossible, whatever food, energy, water or socio-political circumstances might otherwise recommend it. But no such mechanism exists, except in the parochial modernist mind.
When it comes to big relocations, I guess this must be why the ecomodernists say nothing about the enormous relocations involved in the urbanisations of recent times, driven by cheap energy, labour coercion, capitalist growthism, and lofty modernist hubris. This now leaves humanity with one almighty problem of unsustainable biogeography, which I’d argue is very much a ‘real, existential crisis’, and not just maths.
As to Monbiot’s ‘giant suburb’ remark, a suburb is basically a place where rich people go to enjoy their wealth in energetically and spatially profligate and inefficient ways. It’s therefore the antithesis of a smallholder society where people make local livelihoods in energetically and spatially efficient and frugal ways, while attending to the biophysical sustainability of their environs because they’re intimately engaged with it in the course of making their daily living. To me, this is anything but pointless.
In fact, it seems to me more likely that Monbiot’s own vision will devolve to suburban giantism. In Regenesis he paints a picture of urban societies disconnected from an encompassing natural ecology and unconstrained by energetic or economic limits, freeing them to ramify their urban form endlessly. It seems likely to me that such atomized and denatured high-energy industrial societies would bust through planetary boundaries even quicker than our present ones with their tenuous remaining links to ecological constraint.
I concede that the probably inevitable global ruralizations to come do pose enormous challenges. But I can’t help feeling they may actually be less challenging that the realization of Monbiot’s vision. For one thing, given that about 40% of the global population is currently rural, presumably George is going to want to relocate most of those people to the cities to make more room as he sees it for nature – just when city infrastructures are straining with climate change and energy, water and materials scarcities. A lot of that 40% are well-established, and in some cases well-armed, country dwellers who won’t wish to play along. So emptying the countryside won’t be easy.
Deurbanization, on the other hand, runs more with the grain of human desires as city infrastructures flounder. And with the grain of creating a human ecology that’s renewable in the long term because it embeds livelihood-making in the cycles of the natural world, skimming its flows rather than mining its stocks, as would be necessary in a high-energy urban world. In many cases it may not even involve huge relocations, just a reorientation of small towns and cities to more populated hinterlands. What’s certain is that in the future people will move whenever they can towards prosperity, as they have in the past. And it seems probable that in the long-term prosperity will generally be found where people can grow food and fibre locally. As Jason Bradford puts it, ‘the future is rural’3.
Anyway, that’s the ground where I stand: convinced of the need for ruralization and an orderly turn to agrarian localism so that it doesn’t happen by default in a disorderly way; unconvinced by varieties of modernist magic that believe in inevitable or inexorable forms of progress, particularly towards high-energy urban futures; puzzled as to how to deal with what Monbiot rightly calls ‘real, existential crises that demand urgent attention’, but doubtful that the magic modernism he invokes can do so, and determined to face the reality of those crises without such comfort blankets.
I probably haven’t done as great a job here of skirting my war of words with George as I’d have liked. Oh well, I tried – you should have seen the first draft 🙂 I need to give a shout out here to Rupert Read for seeking common ground between us. Maybe that’s still possible. I don’t think I can align with George’s political sociology, but I could potentially align with his industrial food approach as an exercise in rescue ecomodernism. If rural folk weren’t pressed into being subordinate servitors to the city, primarily as food producers, there might be more room for them to serve humanity better by starting to develop renewable local agrarianisms. As discussed in my book A Small Farm Future, in truth I think this is more likely to happen as a result of declining urban-industrial power – of declining imperial power, as per William Davies – when people of necessity start building autonomies in the margins of declining empire. This also just might spare some land for the non-human organisms that Monbiot rightly wants to protect. I suspect post-imperialism will prove more truly ecological than eco-modernism. But I don’t think it’ll be easy.
The practical feasibility of Monbiot’s rescue ecomodernism depends on energy futures and the energetics of industrial food production. Whether it successfully protects wild organisms depends on various sociological and ecological factors. To be honest, I’m sceptical on both fronts but I haven’t yet looked in detail at these more technical aspects of his analysis, largely because I’ve wanted to focus on what I think is the probably more important issue of its questionable sociology. But I hope to look at these other two aspects in due course.
In this post, I aim to pick up where I left off last time with my review of George Monbiot’s Regenesis, mostly in reference to its theme of urbanism (there’s also a bit of housekeeping and an apology at the end).
But first, since it’s kind of a propos, some brief remarks on the trip I took last week, which involved me bicycling from Frome to Chepstow and back, among other things for an enjoyable in-conversation session with eco-philosopher and activist Rupert Read at the Green Gathering (a recording of most of it is here).
Much of the southern part of my route followed leafy cycle tracks repurposed from disused railways, flanked by large arable fields. Then a ride through central Bristol, swerving to miss a strung-out drug user sprawling on the track, took me onto another leafy cycleway through the Avon Gorge – once a place of heavy industry and shipping, but now far too small for the modern incarnations of those trades.
I crossed the Avon on a bridge I shared with the M5 – the first of several motorways entwining my route. These roads feel calm enough when you’re inside a car, but coming suddenly upon them on my bicycle I was shocked every time by the volume of traffic, its furious speed and sound, and the concrete-intensive brutalism of all this inter-city hurry. A sign by the Prince of Wales Bridge later in my trip reported that 25 million vehicles cross it annually. That’s a lot of kinetic energy to pack into three miles of road.
There were Samaritans telephones on all the major bridges I crossed, with their melancholy signage – “Whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to face it alone”. Back by the Avon, the suburb on the other side of the M5 bridge seemed dilapidated. I swerved around Nos canisters, rode through underpasses scattered with fly-tipped garbage and emblazoned with sinister graffiti and then weaved my way through a giant industrial zone of landfill sites, warehousing, sewage works, construction sites and massive wind turbines.
So, a journey from bosky rural byways that don’t quite conceal their industrial cradling, through mostly salubrious city centres and then rougher suburbs housing their workaday servitors, to the new industrial zones that potentiate them, accompanied by the ever-present roar of vehicles and people moving at speed to sustain it all. And gangs, drugs, loneliness amidst multitudes and suicide. Of course, this is only one way of representing what George Monbiot calls the given distribution of the world’s population, but I dearly wish he and others would question its given-ness a little more sceptically, and weren’t so darned pleased about what they see. During my ride, even in the leafy rural parts, it sometimes felt as if the whole fabric of this corner of southwest England was a kind of dysfunctional, ecocidal, industrial machine, sustained by its rushing human functionaries, with only a thin green veneer here and there concealing it.
Anyway, back to George’s book. So far as I know, he hasn’t seriously engaged with critiques of it from the intellectually more thoughtful end of the spectrum, preferring to post online some of the more fetid threats he’s received, which elicit no small number of ‘Go get ‘em, George’ replies from supporters displaying considerable disdain for rural and agrarian life.
And so another skin-deep culture war, benefitting nobody, judders into life. The case for ruralism over urbanism as I see it is simply that the dynamics of climate, energy, water, soil and political economy are going to propel multitudes of people to the world’s farmable regions sooner or later. The question we should really be addressing globally, though regrettably we’re not, is how to manage that process in the most humane and least disruptive way.
One of the best criticisms of my argument for this agrarian localist future that came my way in the wake of my Regenesis review was that it would be energetically costly to establish it. This, I think, is true. But it’s also true of every other proposal to put humanity on a surer long-term footing. The great advantage of agrarian localism is that once its basic structures are established, its recurrent energy costs can be low. Whereas schemes to preserve the urban-industrial status quo invariably have high recurrent energy costs. This certainly applies to George Monbiot’s farm free future, as Steve showed in his calculations under my previous post.
It’s obvious, really, that a proposal to replace sprawling farmland spaces using free solar radiation to energize production with highly concentrated industrial spaces using electricity transformed from other energy inputs by other human industries probably isn’t going to stack up well energetically. George’s vision of manufactured food, like many other ecomodernist schemes, assumes there will be abundant and cheap clean energy at humanity’s command in the future.
It seems to me more likely that concentrated energy will be scarce and pricey compared to the fossil fuelled bonanza experienced by present generations, and it will make no sense to waste it producing food when free solar energy metabolized by plants can do the job. The diffuseness of this solar energy will be a driving force of human biogeography in the future. Today’s world is one of urban concentration built on a legacy of mining energetic stocks. Tomorrow’s will be mostly one of rural de-concentration oriented to skimming renewable energetic flows.
Presently, there is no broad-based politics geared to this emerging reality, certainly in the richer parts of the world with the longest histories of stock-mining and capital-concentration such as southern England. We’re still stuck with the exhausted legacies of modernist politics, with their emphasis on market signals, nationalist symbols or class struggle as the key to redemption. All of these fix their eyes too firmly on capital cities, government machineries, political centralization and hurried inter-city journeys to build the economy. All of them take as a given the centrifugal relationship between countryside and city that I discuss in Chapter 15 of my book, where the countryside works as a basically inferior servitor to the city, albeit dotted with pleasant islands of retreat for the wealthy who’ve made their money in the latter.
As I’ve already said, I think ‘simple energetics’ or simple biogeography are going to redistribute populations away from urban areas and towards rural ones in the future. In England, the countryside will no longer be largely the preserve of the rich. Like it or not, people of many kinds will go to it to seek prosperity. This creates the potential for people to forge local agrarian autonomies and genuinely agroecological culture. But that’s not a done deal just because of the maths of a more populated countryside. It’s possible that cities and their elites will retain their centrifugal pull.
To prevent that happening requires politics of a kind we don’t yet have – a politics where cities serve the countryside and its inhabitants at least as much as they’re served by them. I indicate this diagrammatically on page 210 of A Small Farm Future (Figure 15.1) and discuss it in the last part of Chapter 15 in terms of rural disruptors to the centrifugal pull of the city – disruptors that build local political and economic autonomy, that extricate themselves as far as possible, which means not totally, from long-distance trade and geopolitically-centred bureaucratic rule.
Since, as I’ve said, there isn’t a mass politics around this at present, I’m currently quite supportive of many kinds of initiative where people put themselves in the disruptor role. I’m supportive of rich people buying houses in the country with big gardens, growing their own vegetables and joining community organisations. I’m supportive of impoverished van dwellers parking up in laybys and trying to minimize their housing costs. I’m supportive of farm shops, independent town councils, guerilla gardening, allotment associations, people buying small plots of farmland or woodland and living in caravans on them while they start market gardens or charcoal businesses, people occupying (considerately) disused or misused land, people trespassing on aristocratic estates to (sustainably) pick edible mushrooms, wealthy smallholders, impoverished peasants, wily farmers and so on and so on.
Eventually, all of this will have to coalesce into a new politics of local autonomy and access to land, which I think will have to be a populist politics of alliance. We’ll get onto that in more detail when I move to discussing the final part of my book in this blog cycle. But just as George’s gloop factories require a substrate or a feedstock in order to ferment their new kinds of food, so we require a substrate or a feedstock in order to ferment new kinds of agrarian localist politics. It’s from the low base of our present politics and of people trying to get by in the countryside that we need to start creating it.
There are genuine grounds to worry that the outcomes of this local political brokerage won’t always be congenial. Perhaps they’re balanced by the equally genuine grounds to worry that centralized national politics no longer offers that certainty either. The liberal-democratic firmament of late 20th century politics has almost gone now. It seems likely that, locally, nationally or globally, nobody will be coming to save us – unless there’s some other iteration of the centralized state that I’ve not foreseen to safeguard against the potential tyranny of localism, without becoming a tyranny itself?
Even so, I think it’s worth taking seriously the downsides of a new politics geared around rural disruptors. At the session I did with Rupert Read, somebody raised the issue of the conformism of rural society and the greater possibilities for finding one’s tribe in urban settings, particularly for people with spiritualities, sexualities or other traits at variance with majority assumptions in conservative countrysides. That’s sometimes been true in the past, though it remains a story of the future that’s yet to be written. But instead of further belabouring my take on this point, I’d be interested to see what other people make of it in the comments below (note that to be sure of getting my attention, comments should be posted under the relevant post at Small Farm Future and not at other sites where this post may be syndicated). I’ll try to formulate some further thoughts in the light of anything that comes back to me.
Finally, and talking of posting comments, I recently noticed there were a few comments that had been sitting in the moderation queue undetected by me – some from long established commenters, and one from a new commenter. Please accept my apologies for the oversight. If you do post a comment that doesn’t appear, feel free to nudge me about it via the Contact Form. On the rare occasions when I actively choose not to publish a comment it will be for a reason, and I will contact you to explain what that reason is. So if you post a comment that doesn’t appear and you don’t hear from me, it’s best to assume simple incompetence on my part and act accordingly (it’s probably best to assume simple incompetence on my part in a wide variety of other circumstances, but let us not digress at this late stage in the post). Also, finally, if you include more than one hyperlink in a comment it will automatically be held for moderation as an anti-spam measure. So reference judiciously…
A step sideways from my last two posts about urbanism and ruralism with a review of George Monbiot’s book Regenesis (Allen Lane, 2022) – though it’s kind of a propos, since his book showcases the pro-urbanism and anti-ruralism I’ve been critiquing.
When you read a book with which you profoundly disagree, I guess it’s usually best just to shrug, put it back on the shelf and get on with your work. The hatchet job review is a popular but ignoble genre. Having been the object of one myself I can attest the outcomes are rarely positive, apart perhaps from a warm glow of superiority in the reviewer, which is usually ephemeral.
So I want to tread carefully, particularly because George is a decent human being who’s devoted his considerable talents to making the world a better place and who scarcely deserves most of the mud that’s flung at him. Still, when I gave a talk about my own book at the Food and Farming Literature Festival, Miles King asked for my views on George’s analysis, noting it was the elephant in the room for those like me making the case for agrarian localism. Now that I’ve read the book, I’d have to agree with Miles. If George’s vision comes to pass I think it will, contrary to his own aspirations, represent an alignment between progressive environmentalism and corporate-capitalist interests that will delay further, perhaps catastrophically, the need to create low-input agrarian localisms and ecological culture.
So, given his influence, I feel the need to make the case as best I can for localist alternatives to George’s regenesis. I will try to do it while being mindful of the pitfalls of the hatchet job.
Farmers often get riled by George’s plain dislike of livestock farming, more so by his almost as plain dislike of livestock farmers. He’s now extended the former pretty much to farming in general. But the main problem with his analysis as I see it is the underlying assumptions about human society and ecology. That’s mostly what I’m going to write about here under four headings – urbanism, government, land sparing and modernism – but there are some agricultural puzzles at the heart of the book, and we’ll need to look at those too.
First, it might be helpful to offer a brief thumbnail of the book’s structure. And to give credit where it’s due, it all starts off very well with a nice chapter about the work George does in the orchard he planted in Oxford and the amazing organisms in the soil beneath it, followed by two strong chapters that forensically anatomize the pathologies of the food and farming system in Britain and beyond. Things start to go awry at the end of that third chapter with the case for land sparing, which I’ll come to. But then the book changes direction with three engaging but problematic chapters about various people, mostly in Britain, striving to address these pathologies and improve the existing food and farming system.
These chapters are problematic because, while they’re sympathetic (sometimes overly) to their protagonists and the approaches they’ve taken, they don’t characterize the issues underlying these approaches sharply enough. With one surprising exception, this allows George to set the various approaches up – albeit in the nicest possible way – to fail in comparison to his preferred approach. This is the factory-based fermentation of food to feed humanity, the (also problematic) case for which is laid out briefly in Chapter 7 of the book.
The book then moves to a wrap-up by way of Chapter 8, the most problematic of the lot, which basically elaborates George’s contention that “The pastoral story is one that urban civilization tells against itself without a flicker of disquiet: the shepherds and their sheep are good and pure, while the city is base and venal” (p.216). If only that were true, we’d be a darned sight closer to creating genuinely regenerative and renewable human ecologies than at present, though still a way off. Alas, the opposite is the case.
Anyway, with that in mind, let’s turn to my first problematic theme of the book – urbanism.
George quarrels frequently with arguments for local food throughout his book, but the real clincher as far as he’s concerned is an oft-cited study in Nature Food that found it would only be possible to feed a small proportion of the world’s people from food grown within a 100km radius of their homes, because so many people live in cities far away from the world’s breadbasket regions. In George’s words,
You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of the world’s population and of the regions suitable for farming, the abandonment of long-distance trade would be a recipe for mass starvation (p.146)
Later on, he writes that “most of our food has to be grown, for simple mathematical reasons, far from where we live” (p.226).
Suppose we shifted the focus from the distribution of the population across space to the distribution of money across the population. We might then rerun the first quotation something like this:
You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of global wealth and of occupations suitable for amassing it, policies to radically alter these would be a recipe for mass impoverishment and ruralization.
I doubt George would ever write that second paragraph. But then why write the first? The distribution of the human population towards cities and away from productive farmlands isn’t a matter of simple mathematics but of a complex (though perhaps not that complex) political, economic and social history that you absolutely can argue with, that’s strongly related to the distribution of wealth, and that in any case is beginning to rewrite itself regardless of anyone’s arguments. For reasons that I and others have explored elsewhere, the future is going to be rural. And in that future the places where most people will live will be the ones that are suitable for farming. Not for mathematical reasons, but for ecological and biophysical ones.
That does not, of course, mean it’s a good idea to abandon long-distance food trade overnight, which certainly would result in mass starvation. Happily, no serious proponent of local food does argue that. Nevertheless, it would be a good idea to start rethinking global trade and settlement patterns from the ground up, bearing in mind the coming rural re-exodus from fossil fuelled and capital-fuelled urbanization. I concede it’s a difficult thing to do. So is redistributing wealth. But it’s fundamentally a political and ecological thing to do. Arithmetic has little to do with it.
In Chapter 3, George makes a familiar, and superficial, case against local food – what I’d call the bad-beef-and-heated-greenhouses gambit. As I discussed in my previous post, the main problem is that this gambit considers only the unit carbon costs of high-input systems, not the total costs of such systems compared to low-input local alternatives. I won’t go over that ground again here. The debate, if you can call it that, between localists and global food trade proponents is pretty polarised. Maybe there’s space for some middle ground. Just because localism can’t provide everything it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t provide more. But ultimately I think there’s a parting of the ways between the two visions here. Urbanism and long-distance trade require massive carbon, energy and materials intensive infrastructures that I doubt will be feasible in the long-term within liveable planetary boundaries, so to me the ‘mathematics’ suggests local food production and a migratory exodus to where that’s possible – in other words, to ruralism.
Therefore, it’s worth preparing for a different future and seeking inspiration where it can be found. George mentions the “traditional, benign system of management” practiced by the Maasai (p.80) and the “transformative” nature of the Zero Budget Natural Farming approach in Southern India (p.176). But when it comes to agrarian traditions closer to home, the sympathy dries up – preindustrial rural life in Britain involved “grinding misery” (p.215), “the countryside is neither innocent nor pure. In some places, it is more corrupt than the city” (p.223), “traditionally, rich and diverse diets prepared from fresh ingredients depended (and still depend in some parts of the world) on the near-servitude of the women who cooked them” (p.206).
It’s not that these claims are groundless. But they’re over-generalized nostrums, not analysis, and they work rhetorically to sanitize the modern city, which has plenty of misery, impurity and patriarchy of its own. I’m sure this isn’t his intention, but in George’s telling it’s almost as if a bit of ruralism and agroecology is OK for poor herdsmen and farmers in low-income countries, but ill becomes us wealthy denizens of the urbanized and so-called ‘developed’ countries. As I see it, the lessons of agrarian localism from past and present societies worldwide run very much deeper, and we in the rich countries are probably the ones that most need to learn them.
The lack of deeper analysis about the histories of urbanization and poverty is an odd feature of the book. For all the coruscating vigour of its assault on the existing food and farming system in the early pages, the main policy message is a rather limp ‘there ought to be a law against it’. Indeed, as George points out, often enough there is a law against it, but the law is ignored and unenforced.
Bad governance and self-interested corporate lobbying are every bit the curses George identifies, but this falls a long way short of a structural understanding of the political economy. What is the history that has delivered so many people to the city? What kind of work is keeping them there rather than producing an agrarian livelihood in the countryside? Why are some people so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why are some countries so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why has farming become so ecocidal?
I won’t try to answer those questions here – I provide a brief account in A Small Farm Future. But in failing to address them, I think George builds his proposals on weak foundations. To safeguard the industrial fermentation of food he advocates from corporate capture he calls for strong anti-trust laws, open-source innovation and technology transfer. Which is all great, but it’s scarcely happened in the food system to date and there’s no reason to think industrial fermentation will be different. In fact, there are reasons to think it’ll be worse.
Likewise, George wants to extract people from farming and the countryside to leave more room for nature. But, as he rightly says, “Intensification will spare wild places from farming only if it’s coupled with a strong political commitment to protect or restore them” (p.92). He doesn’t explain what will generate that commitment in a corporatized and urbanized world.
A localist critique of this present world begins by understanding that the price of food and other necessities, the price of human labour, the price of land and housing, the price of energy and the price of money are interrelated in complex ways with the simple result of badly screwing most people on the planet, and screwing future generations and the natural world worse. All serious attempts to make the case for agrarian localism appreciate that these prices, their interrelation and everything entailed in that need a fundamental rethink.
Instead, the tack George takes is to argue that food prices must be kept low so as not to further disadvantage the poor (I’d recommend a look at the writing of Eric Holt-Giménez’s among others for an alternative, perhaps counterintuitive but more plausible argument that low food prices in fact are a fundamental cause of global poverty). With merely anecdotal evidence from a chance encounter with a well-dressed woman and her superficial views (pp.129-31), George is anxious to pigeonhole the local food movement as a form of elitism that’s ignorant about the reality of poor people’s lives. It’s not his finest moment as a political thinker or campaigner.
Probably the key claim in Regenesis is that we need to spare land for nature – that is, concentrate the production of food and fibre on as small an area of high-yielding land as possible so that we can leave as much of the rest as possible for the wild things. A lot of the book’s wider arguments hang on the plausibility of that claim.
How plausible is it? Well, at least a bit. But I question whether George pulls it off sufficiently to bear the weight of his argument. For one thing, there are issues with the supporting evidence. With an intimidating string of research references George claims that farming is the greatest cause of habitat destruction, wildlife loss and extinction (p.90). But on closer inspection, some of these references appear to be arguing that future expansion of farming into hotspots of biodiversity is a major threat, which isn’t quite the same thing. And two of the references seem to be the same one, referenced twice.
A forgivable error, no doubt. But generally, while the near 100 pages of references in the book make for a great resource, I fear they also create the misleading sense that the book’s contentions reflect nailed on certainties in the research literature and not, as is inevitably the case, a personal selection from a more variegated corpus that buttresses a specific line of argument.
An approach that others emphasize more than George is ‘land sharing’ – devising forms of land use amenable both to wildlife and to humans and the organisms they farm. George does make some nods to it (see especially p.91). But I don’t think he characterizes the issues well. Miles King pointed out on this blog a while back that George and many others in the rewilding movement who emphasize land sparing fit into a top-down control school of ecological thought, which I’d caricature as ‘predators good, herbivores bad’. But there are other schools of thought, including the bottom-up argument I’d caricature as ‘plants rule, herbivores and predators follow’, which is more open to land sharing.
This all gets a bit technical and I’ll write more about it another time. For now, I just think it’s worth noting that the science around this isn’t quite as settled as you’d think from reading George’s book. Indeed, there are those who question the whole sparing-sharing duality.
All the same, as you look around most of our urban and agricultural landscapes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’re giving the wild things a hard time. Indeed, it seems we’re in the midst of a mass extinction of geological scale caused by humans, so something has certainly gone badly wrong. But is it just the logic of advanced agriculture, as George implies (p.198)? I’d argue instead that it’s the logic of advanced, fossil-fuelled, grain-based capitalism – and if that’s so it suggests different solutions to George’s one of a vegan, urban-industrial, land-sparing food system in which most people are alienated from the production of their food.
Even if you incline to George’s land-sparing view, I want to point out a remarkable assumption in Regenesis. Effectively, George argues that because all farming causes at least some wildlife loss, then the optimal response is to have no farming. Despite a few weak concessions to land sharing, he doesn’t entertain much possibility for trade-off or compromise – less or better farming for less wildlife loss. Instead, the book proceeds inexorably to its conclusion that humanity must extract itself as far as possible from its day-to-day implication with nature for creating its livelihood. But even if it’s true that all forms of farming are wildlife stressors, it doesn’t follow that a farm free world is the optimum response. It’s a curiously non-ecological argument. Give me Aldo Leopold’s land ethic any day in preference to it – humans are plain members and citizens of the biotic community. Which means trampling over some of its other members. But plainly.
An agricultural puzzle
In most parts of the world, people developed low-input agricultures in premodern or preindustrial times with better ‘land ethical’ claims than we, their successors, can command. These agricultures were marvellously varied, but a common enough approach was mixed ley farming – building soil and fertility with grass and grassland herbs (most importantly legumes such as clover) which were usually grazed by ruminants, then disturbing the soil in some way (for example, ploughing and harrowing) to establish high-output but fertility-draining and soil-draining crops for human consumption, before starting the cycle again.
This is ‘mixed’ farming because it mixes livestock, fodder crops and human crops, and ‘ley’ farming because it involves temporary grasses and herbs, or leys. Livestock in these systems are usually cleverly integrated as tappers and cyclers of nutrients that complement rather than compete with human food production – what Simon Fairlie calls ‘default livestock’ in his brilliant book Meat: A Benign Extravagance.
Many of the problems associated with modern farming that George diagnoses in the first part of Regenesis have arisen from the abandonment of mixed ley farming and other traditional low input agricultures with the advent of synthetic fertilizer, heavy mechanization and long-distance trade for routine food commodities. These jointly potentiated the modern livestock and biofuels industries that compete with the production of food for humans, and with wildlands for non-humans. George critiques these industries in Regenesis, but not the underlying technologies that potentiate them. In fact, these technologies are critical for his own preferred approaches, which surely rings some alarm bells.
He must know about the case for default livestock and mixed organic ley farming, because it’s laid out in intricate detail in Simon’s book, and on its cover there’s a fulsome endorsement from George himself (incidentally, Simon has a review of George’s book in the next issue of The Land which will be worth a read). Yet this case gets barely a mention in Regenesis. Instead, George offers a strange view of organic farming as somehow being about raising lots of livestock to accumulate manure for fertilizer, rather than being about building grazed leys into crop rotations. And he says almost nothing about mixed farming – a notable exception being on p.86 where he writes “So livestock, even when integrated into mixed farming systems…are powerful drivers of ecological destruction” – quite a non-sequitur, because he’s demonstrated no such thing in his preceding discussion. It’s almost as if he’s aware that low input mixed ley systems with default livestock are the Achilles heel of his whole argument, so he brushes them aside.
Actually, he does talk about such systems at some length in his discussions of Iain Tolhurst’s market garden, and Ian Wilkinson’s farming project in Oxfordshire. In the case of Iain Tolhurst (universally known in UK growing circles as Tolly), the complicating factor is that although what Tolly’s doing in effect is mixed organic ley farming, he doesn’t have any livestock. But he does grow leys in his veg rotation, which he then ploughs up in what he calls “a cycle of exploitation and regeneration: break it, mend it, break it, mend it” (p.108).
That’s an apt description of the mixed organic ley farming ethos. In Tolly’s case, on a moderately small modern market garden, it makes sense to do it without livestock, and to use a tractor for managing the ley by mowing, ploughing and so forth. On a preindustrial farm, that work would be done by cattle and/or horses. Which raises a point usually missed in the ‘livestock as inefficient land use’ argument. The flipside is that livestock are a very efficient complement to human labour for managing the larger farmed landscape with a minimum of human effort in situations without fossil fuels or other sources of cheap and abundant energy. In present economic circumstances, as Tolly reports in George’s book, the maths favour relatively fossil-fuel intensive, stock-free market gardening. But maths can change. I suspect mixed farms with default livestock will make a comeback.
Tolly is one of several agricultural and horticultural pioneers whose exploits George examines sympathetically in the middle chapters of the book, but ultimately finds wanting – not always for convincing reasons. The one example where he remains uncritical is the attempt to breed high-yielding perennial grains at the Land Institute in Kansas. He cites this Land Institute link to claim its breeders have achieved perennial grain yields reaching 50-70% of the yields from annual grains. I couldn’t find this figure from the link, but perhaps it’s there somewhere. This Land Institute link from two years ago suggests a figure of 20-30%, which seems more in keeping with the historical trajectory of its breeding work. Given George’s enthusiasm for land sparing, it’s odd that he’s so enthusiastic about such a low-yielding crop. Perhaps, like the plant breeders at the Land Institute, he’s confident this shortfall will be made up in time, bemoaning “it’s ridiculous that this crucial technology has been left to a small non-profit with limited funds” (p.227).
But it hasn’t. There have been many efforts to breed high-yielding perennial dry grains, which have basically all failed for probably insurmountable ecological reasons. For sure, there’s something to be said even for low-yielding perennial grains, and it’s worth having a few institutions working to improve their yields without compromising longevity – provided the prospects and the consequences aren’t oversold. Perhaps the true appeal of perennial grains lies in its business-as-usual economics – a more nature-friendly form of farming but one that doesn’t require more hands in the garden and fits easily within the modernist ‘maths’ of combine harvesters and teeming cities.
Ultimately, of course, Regenesis takes land sparing to the logical conclusion of factory-fermented nourishment. As I see it, there are multiple problems with this. There’s the nitrogen and energy requirements (prodigious amounts of scarce low-carbon electrical energy will be needed to synthesize the gloop, rather than the free solar energy tapped by farmers). There’s the final surrender to corporate interests. There’s the likelihood that rich people will continue to demand proper meat, grains, coffee, tropical fruit and so on, so that the gloop becomes another poverty-entrenching technology like golden rice, with less land-sparing impact than supposed. And there’s the final alienation from nature that will probably undermine the entire point of it. Maybe the upside is that Regenesis opens all these issues up for debate. I just wish its author could have laid the implications out a bit more even-handedly.
Of maths, modernism and grandmothers
But alas I think he’s been carried away by ecomodernism. When I wrote my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto some years ago, George engaged positively with me about it and I’ll always be grateful for the boost he gave my writing back then. But in the years since he’s drifted ever closer to embracing the creed, and now seems largely signed up to it, barring a largely gestural commitment to small-scale farmers and agroecology.
The strongest ecomodernist argument against low-input agrarian localism is that it’s too little too late to address the prodigious global crises of our times. I wrote a while back along these lines that George seemed to have become a kind of ‘last chance saloon’ ecomodernist, embracing big, bold, solutionist technologies out of desperation, because small-scale localism seemed inadequate to the task. I can appreciate the pull of this argument, even though I don’t agree with it. But reading Regenesis makes it clear I was wrong. George now seems to have embraced the ecomodernist credo in its own terms, calling for “bold, complex and holistic” thinking (p.199) which he imputes only to an urban-industrial solutionism he implausibly supposes will eliminate farming altogether. His now hardened, anti-rural, anti-agrarian, pro-industrial technophilia is simply incapable of attaching those labels to low-input, job-rich rural agroecology.
I’ve always felt there’s an irony in the ‘modernism’ of ecomodernism to which its proponents seem oblivious. The word ‘modernism’ doubtless sounds positive to many, but not to everyone. Modernism is the industrial and colonial extermination of pre-existing lifeworlds. It’s Max Weber’s iron cage of rationalization and bureaucracy. It’s a self-conscious and self-important break with a deprecated past. It’s the joyless, accumulative logic of a Thomas Gradgrind or a Captain MacWhirr, the “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” of Marx and Engels. And it’s this, from George Monbiot:
It’s time we became obsessed by numbers. We need to compare yields, compare land uses, compare the diversity and abundance of wildlife, compare emissions, erosion, pollution, costs, inputs, nutrition, across every aspect of food production (p.225)
Readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to a bit of bean counting myself, and I don’t disagree with this in principle. But the world is a complex place, and numbers contain dark powers of oversimplification. Quantifying all these parameters in the way George suggests requires us to make models of vastly complex social and biological worlds that can never be definitive. Numbers can help refine our questions, but they don’t give us unequivocal answers, unless we mistake our models of reality for the reality of our models.
So, given George’s increasingly visceral dislike of farmers, farming and ruralism, his unwillingness to entertain any middle ground between human and non-human land uses, his conviction that urbanism is a mathematical reality rather than a historical accomplishment, his embrace of modernism’s iron cage, and his influential voice in the media, I fear for where this taste for quantification will lead. I imagine it would be pretty easy for some take-away-the-number-you-first-thought-of bit of modelling to ‘prove’ that the little bit of countryside I’ve lived, worked and dreamed on for the past twenty years would be better off subjected to compulsory government purchase and turned over to rewilding, while the vegetables we grow are replaced by ‘sustainably-sourced’ ones imported from god knows where, and I’m forced to take my chances eating ‘precision’ fermented gloop in the city.
If that were to happen, the bit of land where I live and work would become, literally, the hill I would die on.
For this reason, I think it’s really, really inadvisable for George to write Gradgrindian sentences like this: “The transition is likely to happen, however fiercely the defenders of the old dispensation resist it: it appears to possess an inexorable economic logic” (p.210). It’s inadvisable because there’s no such thing as ‘an inexorable economic logic’, there are just political games with winners and losers – a point the old George Monbiot once understood. And it’s really, really inadvisable because it’s basically an invitation to a form of class war. In that eventuality, I’ll be on the opposite side to George, making common cause with farmers, growers, preppers, hunters and rural dwellers who in other circumstances I might dispute with. But sides, like quantitative social models, reduce the complexities of the world. I hope it won’t come to that. So many farmers are impoverished, demoralized and unfairly scapegoated for society’s wider sins. There are better ways to herald systemic change than this.
Yet in the very chapter where George makes his pitch for farmfree food and incites his war against rural society, he nicely writes an implicit counternarrative that undermines his case. This, I think, is the real crux of the book and the one I want to amplify.
It comes in an amusing section where George takes Michael Pollan to task for his admonition not to eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. He does this by detailing the grim diet of his own grandmother, who he says would be a great-great-great grandmother to most of those alive today (a clever gloss, since his grandmother’s lifetime coincided with two world wars, which surely had some bearing on the unappetizing menus that formed her). Still, I broadly agree with George – there’s no reason in principle not to embrace new foods. But the kicker comes in George’s obvious fondness and nostalgia for what he learned from his grandmother:
She was a tough, skilled and knowledgeable countrywoman, connected to the land, who caught or collected some of her food, and made her meals from scratch….staying with her was the highlight of my school holidays. She taught me to make tiny imitations of insects from scraps of fur and feathers, and use them to deceive fish in the river behind her house …. In August and September, we gathered mushrooms … She taught me to watch, to listen, to name the birds and flowers (p.200-1)
There’s a sense here of a woman emplaced in a natural landscape that she knew and took notice of because she partially provided for herself from it, and of a boy who learned from her how to see and act in it, and how to love it. The irony is that the boy has become a man where that love leads him to negate future possibilities for such emplacement. Future grandmothers raised on industrial gloop will have no parallel knowledge to pass on, spelling yet further danger to the natural world.
There’s nothing wrong with new foods as such, provided they’re nurtured in food cultures that draw the eater into the wider pulse of the local ecology. If they don’t, then the natural world and the humans it supports are in danger – and this is true if we’re talking about tahini from a supermarket jar or fermented gloop from a nearby factory. We don’t need re-genesis, but a de-urbanizing re-exodus to places where we can create such food cultures. The real lesson from George Monbiot’s grandmother, I’d submit, is not the narrowness of her diet but the breadth of her knowledge. Similarly, when George fulminates against petting farms for selling a fantasy image of what actual livestock farming is like, he neglects the possibility that they’re popular precisely because they offer people a sense of real, economic connection to animals and to livelihood-making that has almost been lost, and that his own proposals would finally snuff out for good. I doubt that will lead where he wants.
I’ve written quite a bit on this blog over the years about urbanism, ruralism and the case for deurbanization – the theme of Chapter 15 of A Small Farm Future where this blog cycle has currently lighted. To be honest, I get a bit exasperated about urbanism. It’s not because I’m against city living as such. In an ideal world, I’d like it if everyone could live wherever they damn well pleased and do whatever they wanted.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, and it seems to me that climate, energy, water and waste realities are going to propel a lot of people out of urban living in the coming years. True, city dwellers usually count for more politically than their rural counterparts (voters for US senators may beg to differ), and this is just one of the reasons why it’s likely that governments will strive to keep the urban show on the road for as long as possible. But ultimately you can’t argue with energetic and ecological realities. I fear that if we keep on trying to, things could get ugly, perhaps in cities most of all. So there may be some real cities of the dead in future years, in considerably less enthralling ways than the one I described in my previous post. To avoid such outcomes, there’s a need to get on the case right now and ease the transition to ruralism.
But we’re not doing that for several reasons. For several bad reasons, which is what exasperates me. Here, I’ll outline very briefly five bad reasons why the world is not deurbanizing at it should.
First, it suits economic and political elites to keep as many people as possible corralled in towns, landless and insecurely salaried or unsalaried and ripe for the extraction of economic rent (the rural van dwellers I mentioned in my last post are pioneering refuseniks to this dismal process). But these elites comprise only a small minority. The wonder is that so many people happily embrace the servitude offered them. To a degree the embrace has been rational – governments have kept themselves in business with an urban promise of jam today and more jam tomorrow. But as it gets increasingly hard for them to honour the promise, land in the countryside starts looking like better security than a job in the city. This has profound implications.
Second, the ubiquitously humanized and high-tech environment of the city seems to have bred a kind of magical mindset that human ingenuity can preserve cities and all their conveniences. One critical review of my book said that I offered little succour to the urban masses in the face of contemporary crises. That’s because there’s little I can give. And nor, I think, can anyone else who’s both honest and free of magical delusions. I’d love to wave a wand over, say, Dhaka or (less so) London or Miami and command the waters not to rise and the taps to run, the sockets to thrum with energy and the wastes to disappear forever. But no such wand exists. As suggested in my previous post and others of greater vintage, human habitation is scarcely possible where there’s too little freshwater, or too much seawater, or too much accumulated waste, and not enough cheap energy to manage them. This increasingly will be the reality of much of the world’s urban infrastructure. Rather than invoking magical solutions to future urban problems, I think it’s better to see the writing on the wall and act accordingly.
Third, contemporary culture has acquired an anti-rural cast. It runs so deep that even a mild argument for deurbanization is often treated as if it’s cheerleading for a holocaust. Several times in the past when I’ve made such arguments people have responded in all seriousness with ‘ruralization – what, like the Khmer Rouge?’ To which the answer is no, not like the Khmer Rouge. Does it really need stating that the Khmer Rouge did not exhaust all possible forms of deurbanization? As I see it, people in the future are going to have reason enough to get out of cities on their own account if they can, without anybody holding a gun to their heads.
I suppose, to give this argument the greatest credence it deserves, there’s been something of an affinity between rural self-reliance and crazy authoritarian regimes – North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and maybe more complex cases like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or even de Valera’s Ireland. However, the direction of causality is not usually from rural self-reliance to crazy autocracy, but generally the other way around. If you make yourself a pariah to the wider international community, then rural self-reliance starts to matter. Still, ‘the international community’ is largely just a euphemism for the narrow economic elites I mentioned earlier, and the true face of its great game politics is beginning to reveal itself in the light of events like the war in Ukraine. In the future, it seems likely that crazy autocracies will feature less heavily among the countries pursuing rural self-reliance, while countries displaying prudent rationality will figure more prominently.
Anyway, I have no wish to replace mindless anti-ruralism with a mindless anti-urbanism. But I would like urban folks to appreciate how their consumption and waste footprint extends into the countryside and, due to the fiscal-political power of cities, turns it over to service their needs. If you expect that kind of service from rural people and places, it’s worth asking how you’re serving them in return.
Fourth is the mistaken belief that city living is less ecologically impactful than its rural counterpart. It’s true that a high-energy modern lifestyle lived in the city is usually less impactful than a high-energy modern lifestyle lived in the country, at least when income is held constant, due to economies of scale. But that’s not the relevant comparison, because a high energy modern lifestyle will soon be a thing of the past. A low energy lifestyle is much more congenial in the countryside than in the city. If you don’t believe me, take a job as a nightsoil collector.
Part of the problem is the way that rural life has been warped by abundant cheap fossil energy and the associated car culture. As I related in my previous post, villages that once sported numerous shops and services now have none, and their inhabitants have to drive elsewhere to get them. We need to rejuvenate the economic life of countrysides laid waste by the car.
The mistaken belief in the efficiency of the city parallels the mistaken belief in the irrelevance of local food on the grounds that the carbon cost of transporting food long-distance is low. These low costs are an average per unit cost or a marginal cost. Instead, consider the total cost of feeding cities through long-distance trade. Large, export-oriented and probably monocultural agribusiness establishes to the exclusion of more diverse local livelihood-making in advantageous places for a given product. Transporting the product then relies on a vast network of roads, container trucks, warehouses, offices, ports, gigantic ships, freezers and megastores. With no option but to build these things the incentive is to produce in gargantuan volumes to keep unit costs low.
But in a fossil fuel free local agrarian economy, you don’t need all this. You may choose to raise pasture-fed livestock or tomatoes in heated tunnels (the usual suspects in the case against low impact local food), but you need to produce a lot of other things from the locality too and you can’t afford to be profligate with land or energy. So there probably won’t be an awful lot of high carbon meat or tomatoes. Now let’s calculate the carbon cost of local food.
Finally, there’s an anti-agrarian and purportedly anti-elitist version of the anti-rural ideology, along the lines that nobody wants to farm any more, and/or that it’s all very well for rich westerners to hanker after a homestead, but poor people in the Global South want to get the hell out and move to urban slums where they can achieve a better quality of life. My contrary take is, on the first point, that there are a lot of people worldwide who do want to farm. I meet them all the time, and the main problem they face is the systemic obstacles that keep them relatively poor and landless. The village with its Porsches and Mercedes, the rape fields with their glyphosate rigs, the laybys with their converted vans and buses that I described in my previous post are telling us something about this. It’s not that poor people don’t want to live and work in the countryside. It’s that rich people don’t want them there – except in places where their poorly remunerated labour is required.
Mercifully, the ‘soulful slum’ argument doesn’t seem to be quite as prevalent now as it was ten years ago when it was popularized, with minimal evidence, by the likes of Stewart Brand. I mentioned Brand’s thesis the other day to my son, who’s currently in Bangladesh researching labour and climate migration. He’d been telling me about informants lamenting their need to migrate to town for seasonal work in brick fields rather than staying home to grow rice. When I told him about Brand’s upwardly mobile slum argument he asked me where Brand had done his fieldwork. ‘Dunno,’ I said. ‘San Francisco, I think’. He laughed. Nobody wants to farm any more is a contextless, threadbare nostrum. People do, however, want agency in their work, whether they’re farming or doing something else. The bigger economic story in my opinion is not urban/rural or industrial/agrarian but agency/domination, and this latter transects the other dualities.
If global governments were alive to the nature of the climate, energy and water emergencies upon us, they’d be frantically busy planning how to sensibly and humanely repopulate the countryside and depopulate the cities, how to reform access to land fairly, how to give people skills in renewable horticulture, construction and forestry, and a thousand other things. Sadly they’re not. So currently we have to build from a low base, telling stories about why ruralization is even worth considering (a symptom of the malaise: the spellchecker on my computer is happy with the word ‘urbanization’ but not ‘ruralization’).
Part of that building work requires us to distance ourselves from numerous problematic idealizations of the rural, from Sir Philip Sidney to Pol Pot, which I do in the first part of Chapter 15. To be honest, I’m heartily sick of doing it and we’d be a darn sight closer to tackling contemporary humanity’s numerous present problems if a general anti-ruralism (as opposed to the ruralism for the rich mentioned above) wasn’t so deeply entrenched. I at least try to even up the balance a little in Chapter 15 by distancing myself also from the various problematic idealizations of the urban that disfigure our present age, but attract much less notice.
I’ve now written enough variants on the theme of ‘we mustn’t romanticize the rural … or the urban’ to last a lifetime (especially since there’s nothing wrong with being ‘Romantic’ as such). No doubt there will be those who will scorn the rural or the case for ruralization as bucolic fantasy while believing their analysis to be somehow original or deep-thinking until the cows come home, or more to the point until the waters lap at their thresholds and their taps run dry. So in future, I aim to write more specifically when I can about making ruralization a reality. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’ll happen in an orderly way. So another task is to get a handle on the more disruptive routes it might take. Hopefully, I’ll get to that soon.
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).