I’ve only recently come across Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World but I thought I’d take a breather from my present blog cycle by taking a brief look at it. Actually, it’s not really a breather, as many of its themes run close to those I examine in my own book. Yunkaporta offers far more food for thought than I can cover in a blog post, so here I’m just going to pick out a few themes that interest me by way of ten discussion points. Then, in the next two or three posts it’ll be time to wrap up this sub-section of the blog cycle concerning property issues in a small farm future. But they may be a couple of weeks coming because this is a busy time of year for me in the woods.
It’s not the job of indigenous people or indigenous thinking to save your ass.
I’ve seen a few online reviews of Yunkaporta’s book that, referencing its subtitle, complain because its author doesn’t lay out a clear, implementable plan for how indigenous thinking can, in fact, save the world.
As I see it, this objection is precisely the problem that the book tries to combat. Our contemporary global civilization is very attached to complete, debugged, plugin fixes, whether they derive from engineering (“High carbon energy? No problem – here, have this nuclear power station”) or social organization (“Isolated, consumerist anomie? No problem – here, have this indigenous thinking”).
Nope, if indigenous thinking is truly going to save the world it’ll be a long-haul thing in which people learn or relearn how to become indigenous to their local place in locally specific ways. There is no clear, implementable plan. There is just long-term cultural practice.
Indigeneity is a practice and a relation, not a thing
What or who counts as indigenous is a bottomless rabbit hole, and it depends very much on the context. I think Yunkaporta captures these complexities well with light brushstrokes and sparkling examples, like the boy who recites the digits of pi as part of his indigenous practice, the elder who has a new understanding of cane toads that has changed them on his Country, or the notion that chicken wings and curry powder sometimes fit the definition of aboriginal food more plausibly than kangaroo meat.
For the purposes of his book, Yunkaporta says, “an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base. Indigenous Knowledge is any application of those memories as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances” (pp.41-2)
Of course, in some circumstances it would be appropriate to define Indigenous people much more narrowly. In others, perhaps yet more broadly. But I think Yunkaporta’s definition is about the right optic for invoking Indigeneity as a general response to present global problems. There’s a more essentializing politics around who can or can’t claim to be indigenous which can be appropriate in specific political and historical circumstances. But to claim that ‘indigenous thinking can save the world’ surely implies that everybody can access indigenous thought, and can therefore be or learn to be indigenous. Yunkaporta stakes a claim on this ground and in my view rises impressively to the challenge of making it meaningful. In his words, “The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge but in remembering their own” (p.163).
I should note in passing that when the term ‘indigenous people’ is used here in England it’s usually a codeword for ‘white people’. Deliberately or otherwise, it’s invested with a sense of ‘here first’ historical priority that excludes black and minority ethnic people. In settler colonies like Yunkaporta’s Australia, on the other hand, historical priority of course excludes white people, with very different political implications. Which is to say that context matters. And is complex.
Cultures that can adapt and last over time are group efforts aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.
This is almost a direct quotation from page 70 of the book, and perhaps another iteration of the preceding points. It bears reflection.
Indigenous knowledge doesn’t prosper in cities or metropoles
Cities are great. They can be wonderful places to live. They can be real testaments to human skill and beauty. But they suck resources from other places, and they are not sustainable. The same applies to colonial metropoles, and the Global North lifeways that suck resources from the Global South. These modes of living are not aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.
When European colonizers came across the remains of ancient cities in other parts of the world such as Great Zimbabwe, they often couldn’t believe that peoples they considered inferior to themselves could have built them. Thankfully, we now know better. But admission to the rollcall of city-builders, of civilizations, comes at the price of being disbarred from the rollcall of Indigenous people. As Yunkaporta puts it:
the ancient peoples of Zimbabwe who once made cities of stone lived within a civilization, until it inevitably collapsed. This was not an indigenous culture just because its inhabitants had dark skin. Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves. They can never be indigenous until they abandon their city-building culture, a lesson the Elders of Zimbabwe have handed down from bitter experience through deep time (p.70)
I can think of reasonable counter-arguments to this position. But not ones I can subscribe to as easily as to Yunkaporta’s one, unless we abandon the notion that indigeneity means anything at all. And if it does, I must note the radicalism of Yunkaporta’s assertion. People can’t really be both indigenous and ‘civilized’ (or citified). No surprise that this issue has divided indigenous communities in terms of directions for cultural development.
Individual people are self-differentiating nodes in a network.
I’ve been banging on for years about the clunky way we so often deprecate ‘individualism’ and promote ‘collectivism’ (or vice versa) in contemporary society, and I found Yunkaporta’s discussion a breath of fresh air in this respect, albeit a bit light on detail. Here’s my take home: Indigenous people are people who for the most part can competently furnish their own individual livelihood in a day-to-day way and actively seek ways to enhance their autonomy and their difference from other people, while at the same time recognizing and honouring the fact that they’re inherently a part of a wider community of other people, kin and non-kin, with whom they must interact in appropriate ways and only among whom can they realize some of life’s fundamental values.
Linking this to my present writing about property rights, I’d suggest that in a country like the UK and, I suspect, the USA, making this individual-in-community aspect work in culturally appropriate ways that address present problems would probably involve the distributist solution of making securely tenured small farms set within wider local commons widely available. Whereas among Indigenous communities in Australia and elsewhere it probably wouldn’t.
People are equals who respect each other’s points of view, but are cautious with imparting knowledge.
Yunkaporta describes what he calls the “foundational flaw, that Luciferian lie: ‘I am greater than you; you are lesser than me’” (p.35) and generally critiques what he often refers to as ‘narcissists’ or ‘narcissist flash mobs’. I suspect most of us might agree without looking too hard at ourselves and how we might ourselves be a part of those mobs, kind of in the way that most drivers think they have above average driving ability.
As per Christopher Boehm’s work that I mentioned in a recent post, it seems that many indigenous societies have carefully built institutions aimed at defusing the ‘Luciferian lie’, but even then need to work hard on a daily basis not to fall foul of it. I’ve certainly fallen foul of it often enough, in both directions. Modern political ideologies fall foul of it too, built as they often are around an opposition to hostile others who they assume won’t embrace the truth due to delusion or rank bad faith. The notion of respecting other points of view easily sounds like a feeble liberal plea for tolerance. But if you imagine actually living it with the people you interact with on a daily basis, it has different and more challenging implications.
Yunkaporta returns often in his book to the idea of what we might call situated knowledge – particular people know certain things, and are quite choosy about who they’ll share this knowledge with – a hierarchy of a sort. Often this knowledge is of a sacred or spiritual kind, and we moderns are apt to be dismissive of it, preferring to focus on the ‘real’ business of human ecology and human power relationships (shades of the idealism-materialism distinction I recently discussed). Murray Bookchin argued, for example, that such sacred knowledge was a means for elders to retain social control when their waning physical prowess prevented them from asserting their power more directly.
I think this is mistaken, and goes some way to explaining the mess we’ve got ourselves into. Real material practices – creating a livelihood from the land – are essential to human life, but they are not the only things that are essential to human life, and material skill practiced without spiritual wisdom leads us astray. In Yunkaporta’s world, people receive the gift of knowledge when they demonstrate the humility and maturity to use it wisely. An example to be followed?
Sustainable systems must be based on knowledges of a demotic origin.
Yunkaporta explains this far better than I could, so I’ll just quote him – “Sustainable systems cannot be manufactured by individuals or appointed committees, particularly during times of intense transition and upheaval. For those seeking sustainability practices from Indigenous cultures it is important to focus on both ancient and contemporary knowledge of a demotic origin, rather than individual inventions or amendments. That is not to say that all demotic innovations are benevolent. But if you listen to many voices and stories, and discern a deep and complex pattern emerging, you can usually determine what is real” (p.72)
For me, these observations have potentially profound implications that run quite counter to the way we usually implement technologies and politics in the modern world. I won’t dwell on those implications here, although I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts. I’ll just say that, for me, the passage above underlines the fact that we have a big job on our hands to make contemporary societies sustainable. And that a good starting point would be to develop self-reliant small-scale local farming societies.
Embrace storied surfaces and bumpy schedules.
At one point, Yunkaporta comments in passing on the difference between Indigenous experiences of time and that of people “immersed in flat schedules and story-less surfaces” (p.45). This spoke to me as I walked my midwinter holding. Here in wet, warm Somerset, there’s rarely any snow to make good the retreat of summer’s verdant covering, and my graffiti in the landscape – every rutted track or scoured patch of soil, every half-finished or half-decayed project, the scrap wood, the metal, the plastic, above all the plastic – seems like both an unflattering mirror to my own ugliness and a living calendar that drums its fingers impatiently at my laziness.
But for all that, the surfaces of my farm are not flat, and its impossible schedules jostle together in languages of minutes, weeks, years, lifetimes, eons, nevers and always. Everywhere I look, there are stories of what we’ve done and the things that have happened in the near twenty years we’ve been here that other people probably wouldn’t notice. So, though my farm is far from pristine, I take some comfort from Yunkaporta’s words that it’s at least alive. I remember reading somewhere about an Australian aborigine laughing at how white folks fastidiously tried to collect up and hide their rubbish, whereas the aboriginal way was to jettison things and thus inscribe themselves into the landscape – the irony being that white folks can never collect up enough of their clutter to stop it infesting the world, all the while failing to notice that aborigines had written their landscapes at all.
The lesson I take from this is to embrace storied surfaces, bumpy schedules and acts of forgiving.
Don’t search too hard for sovereignty
Yunkaporta has many interesting things to say about how people claim identity and authority, often via entertaining little gems like “African-American visitors are often offended when they drop in on Indigenous centres in our universities and hear us using the term ‘black’ to describe ourselves, when so many of us can no longer scrape together enough melanin to scare off a taxi” (p.63).
Wrangling over such claims to personal identity is often an important and necessary game, but there’s a parallel, and harder, game that might be worth giving more attention to – wrangling over the claims of states and territorial jurisdictions to define us and the limits of our agency. Yunkaporta discusses the way that claims to aboriginal title in Australia must be historically justified in law by reference to the situation at the point of British colonial subjection – and when Indigenous people play that game, they implicitly recognize British sovereignty in the process of claiming their own. I think this speaks to more general questions about the power of states over people which will only loom larger in the years ahead.
I’ll be writing several more posts on themes related to this point. For now, I’ll just summarize them by suggesting it’s unwise to search too hard for political authority in lines on a map or the lines in our minds drawn by those territorial histories.
Distribute the means to violence
A point related to the preceding one, which again Yunkaporta expresses far more concisely and elegantly than I can, so I will leave him with the last word:
in our culture we avoid the unsustainable practice of concentrating violence into the hands of one privileged group, or outsourcing violence to other places so we can enjoy the fruits of it without having to see it. Violence is part of creation and it is distributed evenly among all agents in sustainable systems to minimize the damage it can do (p.202)
I wouldn’t normally be straining myself to get a post out on New Year’s Day, but (checks archive) blow me if today isn’t the tenth anniversary of this blog’s inception. Three hundred and fifty blog posts. Ten thousand comments. It’s quite some wordage. Has it all been worth it? I couldn’t possibly say, but I hope the landmark is enough for me to be forgiven the self-indulgence of a short trip down memory lane.
When I started the blog I was four years into my tenure as the main grower for Vallis Veg, the small local veg box scheme that I’d started with my wife (along with two other people working on the retail side). And I was four years past the last rites on my academic career. In the early years of the box scheme we sent out a printed newsletter to our customers with the boxes every week in which I sublimated my writing aspirations with reflections on the state of the world from my vantage point behind the wheel hoe. When we switched our website over to WordPress and my friend Steve suggested I might write a blog instead of a printed newsletter, smallfarmfuture.org.uk (or, at least, its forerunner) was born.
At the outset, I’d intended the blog essentially to be a replacement for my customer newsletters, but it quickly took on the form of a wider attempt to consider the ecology and the politics of a contemporary human culture and agriculture that, as I saw it, had gone seriously awry. In those early years, I was interested in debating different agricultural systems – especially now that I was working on them in real life rather than absorbing the secondhand wisdom of various alternative agriculture gurus. I also wanted to better understand why it was so difficult to make small businesses geared around renewable local agriculture work. At the same time, and relatedly, we were locked in a battle with our local council to be able to live on the land we farmed. Quite a lot hung on the outcome, in terms of whether my decision to quit a steady, well-paid job would turn out to have been a stroke of insane genius, or merely insane.
Around that time, I read Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline and picked up the vibe of other renegades like Mark Lynas and Mike Shellenberger as they recanted a broadly left-wing, anti-capitalist environmentalism in favour of the kind of ‘green growth’ mainstream sustainability narrative that’s now common coin (at least Brand and Lynas only trumpeted their conversions once – Shellenberger does it with monotonous regularity, though I’m not sure he was ever really in the left-green camp he now repudiates). I found this ‘eco-modernist’ position, as it’s now rather problematically called, unconvincing and superficial, so I started engaging with it on my blog.
These early emphases have now faded somewhat. I’m still interested in farming methods, but I’ve come to the view that the main problem is not how people farm but how people organize themselves economically and politically, and if we get these latter right then the former will pretty much sort itself out in the long term. I’ve also become less interested in commercial agriculture and more interested in non-commercial horticulture, smallholding or homesteading, where online resources are already legion. Plus I’ve found that practical discussions seem too often to degenerate into the “you don’t want to do it like that” space, typically without the discussant troubling themselves enough to find out exactly how and why you are doing ‘it’ like ‘that’. So practical homesteading matters are likely to remain at most an occasional sub-theme here.
As to eco-modernism, my critique of The Eco-Modernist Manifesto co-authored by Brand, Lynas, Shellenberger and others considerably increased my readership, but my interest in engaging with it and indeed in engaging with most of the shouty, finger-pointy argumentation that passes for public intellectual debate these days around eco-modernism and much else besides has considerably decreased. I don’t think it gets us closer to solving contemporary problems, so I’ve tried as best I can (without complete success) to take my writing in different directions. Happily, enough people have found it illuminating for it to seem worth persevering with.
Talking of solving problems, one issue of concern to me on this blog has been our over-easy recourse to solutionist thinking in modern society. This applies of course to mainstream technocratic solutionism of the kind that considers our energy problems soluble via nuclear power, or our food system problems soluble via GM crops or industrially manufactured eco-gloop or whatever. But it also applies in the alternative farming or economics worlds. One part of this blog has involved articulating a scepticism towards off-the-peg ‘alternative’ solutions, whether technological or social. Although I might now frame it a bit differently, I was pleased on this front to get my critical review of perennial grain cropping into a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, somewhat prompted by an unpleasant exchange with an especially combative permaculturist. This was one of three peer-reviewed articles on farming and environmental issues I’ve published since quitting academia for the independent scholar’s garret. I doubt there will be any more.
Then came 2016, the year of the Trump and Brexit votes, widely heralded in certain over-excitable circles as much needed body blows to the complacent liberal capitalist global order. I didn’t think they were. Or, if they were, they weren’t very good ones. Perhaps I spent too much time on the blog dwelling on the politics around this, in particular on how fascist it was. To which the answer has turned out to be certainly a bit. It’s easy to dismiss such events as just the surface fizz of media politics, irrelevant to the deeper beats of nature, climate and energy that are the real drivers of contemporary human affairs and that are more deserving of attention. But as those beats get more disturbed, so does the politics – and ultimately it’ll probably be the politics, that is to say our organizational responses to biophysical crises, more than the crises themselves that will do for many of us.
Anyway, I guess the result of 2016 was to redouble my efforts to find an ‘alternative’ alternative politics and economics to both mainstream orthodoxies and the sham insurgencies of that year. This has been the main focus of the blog since then. It’s not a case of finding the right political economy, cueing the drumroll and then summoning it to save a grateful world. No doubt there will be more Trumps, Farages and Putins, and more neo-Bolshevik aspirants to the crown of world government burnished by the technocratic left. But there may be opportunities for deeper and more plausible forms of grassroots renewal on small farms and in small towns around the margins of this ossified megalo-politics, and my hope is that this blog has contributed in however small a way to clarifying those opportunities.
I wrote a couple of blog cycles in relation to that project. One on the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex where I looked at possibilities for local production of food and fibre in my region, and another on the History of the World in 10½ blog posts where I tried to put the politics into a larger context. Both of these, and many other strands from this blog, fed into my book, A Small Farm Future, published by Chelsea Green in 2020, which has been one tangible product of the blog that’s now out there making its way in the world.
I like to think that acquiring a smattering of scientific and political knowledge from an orthodox mainstream education has protected me from certain excesses typical of the dissenting autodidactic blogger, though perhaps hasn’t immunised me completely. In particular, a background in traditional left-wing and Marxist analysis has helped shape my worldview in ways that I still consider positive, but I find much of the analyses emerging from those traditions today too stuck in the ossified megalo-politics I mentioned to address current issues convincingly.
To my mind, this megalo-politics, and the orthodox educational canon associated with it, hasn’t kept its eye on the ball in relation to the politics appropriate to the current moment, and has badly erred by marginalizing, silencing and ridiculing other traditions and ideas more grounded in immediate material livelihood, the local and the sensory – such ideas and movements, for example, as agrarian populism, Romanticism and distributism. I’ve found myself sort of inventing an alternative political economy for myself along these lines, only to find that I was tapping into rich traditions of thought paralleling my own that previously I’d only dimly been aware of, or didn’t take seriously enough, because orthodox political thought didn’t take them seriously enough.
I’d long sought escape from Marxism and traditional leftism without quite finding a home elsewhere. Looking back on it, I think my book and this blog signal that uncertainty. But I’m now clearer about how to ground an alternative political economy and I hope I can develop that in the future. The stinker of a review my book got from a couple of Marxist bros stung me at the time, not least in its rank unfairness, but now seems almost like a necessary rite of passage into a less totalizing and more engaged worldview. Part of that involves an increasing interest not so much in arguing what the right politics are, but in how to deal with arguing over what the right politics are.
A few years back I wrote a sardonic post about how neither of my career choices – farmer and writer – were wise picks for turning coin, and I light-heartedly added a Donate button to the website to underline the point. It came as a pleasant surprise a couple of months later when somebody actually dug into their pocket and contributed. Since then there’s been a small trickle of donations to the site for which I am most grateful.
I get plenty of requests to place pre-written content for money or to monetize the site through advertising, which so far I’ve resisted (to be fair, most of them are probably just spam). Since I published my book, the contributions have dwindled. So I thought I might just mention that the book hasn’t exactly made me rich. In fact, one of the few jobs I’ve done that’s paid a worse hourly rate than writing this blog is writing my book. The truth is, I’m a very lucky human being and I don’t – at the moment anyway – need people’s cash to keep the wolf from the door. Undoubtedly there are people much more needful of your money than me. But if you’ve found any of my writing over the last ten years helpful or informative in any way, maybe you’ll consider a small donation so that I can at least scrape together a few coins and buy a bottle of something bubbly to celebrate ten years of smallfarmfuture.org.uk.
As to the future, who knows? I have a blog cycle about my book to finish, various other themes to share and a farm and burgeoning farm community to contribute to. Plus a growing anxiety about where humanity is headed. But definitely some good memories from a decade of engaging with other humans on this blog. Many thanks for the comments and debates here, from which I’ve learned a great deal.
The late David Graeber and David Wengrow’s (henceforth GW) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane, 2021) is the newest big book of revisionist global history on the block. I’ve been fighting the urge to write a review of it, but since it illuminates several themes of interest to this blog, what follows is a white flag of surrender to that fine ambition.
When I say The Dawn of Everything is a big book, I mean really big. Several reviewers of my own tome commented with palpable tiredness about how exhaustively argued (272 pages), endnoted (12 pages) and referenced (12 pages) it is, but it’s a mere pamphlet compared to GW’s numbers in this regard (526, 83 and 63, since you asked). I mention this partly to remind myself to say something later in this review about the rights and wrongs of quantification, and partly to dramatize the point that it’s impossible to summarize GW’s book and do any justice to the depth of their analysis, so I’m not even going to try.
What I am going to do is pick out a few themes that chime with my own interests, which, broadly speaking, are how to rethink almost the entirety of the present world political and economic system in the face of profound ecological and social crisis. As is often the way of such things, I’m going to focus a bit more on where I disagree or am uncertain about GW’s analysis than on points of agreement, so I just want to say upfront that their book is a magnificent achievement and a crowning glory for the extraordinary David Graeber before, alas too soon, he left us to join the ancestors.
Although GW’s book defies summary, I’ll offer a quick thumbnail anyway. Standard modern global histories tell us that our genus Homo emerged about 2 million years ago. These hominins of our genus, so the story goes, lived for most of that time in small, egalitarian foraging bands where nothing very interesting happened for multiple tens of thousands of years until men invented agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago. This enabled the accumulation of surplus, the division of labour, social stratification and the emergence of centralized states, culminating in the incredible technological mastery of the last couple of centuries centred around Europe and its offshoots.
This is often told as a story of heroic progress that puts white, agricultural men in the historical driving seat, but often enough the story is inverted, the heroes become villains, and we are called back to a time of innocent, egalitarian, non-racist, non-sexist foraging. This solidifies a seemingly immovable modern duality: upwards to a brighter future or downwards from a brighter past. Progress or a fall from grace, modernity or nostalgia, accelerationism or primitivism. Like GW, I’ve done my best over the years to escape this airless duality, but it’s a struggle. I hope their book becomes an important waymark in its overcoming.
In GW’s revisionist account, a lot of very interesting things happened during human ‘prehistory’ – in particular, playful and transitory experimentation with both egalitarian and stratified forms of society across vast interconnected human landscapes of continental scale. Then women invented agriculture (or, better, horticulture), basically as a niche craft specialization. For a long while nobody took it any more seriously than all the other ways people had of messing around outdoors. But eventually it did, literally, take root across much of the world, creating more populous but smaller, more localized societies that were more inclined to stress their cultural differences from one another. There was no definite relationship between the emergence of agriculture and the emergence of stratified, centralized polities. Historically, both foragers and farmers created large urban centres based on bottom up, relatively egalitarian forms of self-organization, but they also created ones with a parade of emperors, kings and other bigwigs.
We tend to dignify the latter with the concept of ‘the state’, but there’s never really been such a thing as ‘the state’ with a core, enduring set of attributes. Nevertheless, nowadays we do seem to have lost our human capacity for playful experimentation and are ‘stuck’ within a system of stratified, centralized polities. In GW’s words, “There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion” (p.76). Amen to that.
Though their story differs from the anti-heroic version of the standard history, ultimately GW are fighting against similar biases in global histories that they see as too male, too white, too agrarian and too focused on centralized political power. At the same time, they’re underwhelmed by counter-histories concerning the superior mystic wisdom of ancient and indigenous peoples. Theirs is a humanistic tale that paints everybody in every society as creative and confused in the same measure, and perfectly capable of sustained critical reflection about their own society and others they encounter.
I have few quarrels with most of that, though I do think GW get into some tangles as they try to unfurl this argument over the grand sweep of history. Still, there’s an aspect of their grand narrative about the questionable concept of ‘the state’ that I’d like to highlight. Where GW criticize the modern tendency to define ourselves as living within the confines of the state and then cast back through history to locate its origins and the reasons for its successful persistence, I’d extrapolate their critique forwards. All too frequently, people project the trappings of what they understand to be ‘the state’ into the future and ridicule the idea that it may not persist, with jibes like Leigh Phillips’s ‘collapse porn’ shtick. But from GW’s telling, there’s no reason to find ‘collapse’ unlikely. The various elements that define a state regularly get scrambled and recombine in different ways. What historians call Dark Ages are often when centralized power wanes and ordinary people come into their own. So maybe folks should quit the name calling. Maybe we ‘doomers’ are really the optimists?
Of inequality and freedom
A big part of the fizz of human history arises because we’re simultaneously creatures that like to construct pecking orders and status gradations among ourselves, with a taste for attaching ourselves as flunkies to people higher up the heap, and creatures that like to demolish these gradations and emphasize our equality and autonomy. I don’t think the standard historical narratives we tell about ourselves emphasize this point and its oddity enough. When we devise political schemes that only find a place for one of these modalities, they usually soon founder as the other one asserts itself.
In his book Hierarchy in the Forest,Christopher Boehm has argued that the hierarchy/equality duality is an evolutionary legacy – both from our deep ancestry in a great ape lineage given to rigid (male) status ranking, and from our long human gestation in face-to-face foraging societies where egalitarian cooperation was a winning strategy. I find this plausible, based largely on a long period of intensive participant observation fieldwork that I began in about 1982 involving many evenings drinking in the pub, where I’ve found pompous self-aggrandizement and its negation via the fine art of taking the piss to be on display in roughly equal measure. The latter seems necessarily based on small-scale, face-to-face interaction and the micropolitics of gesture and language.
GW invoke Boehm respectfully, before scorning his view of a long egalitarian gestation in face-to-face groups. The truth, as they like to point out, is that we have vanishingly little idea of what people were doing and thinking over most of the 2-million-year history of our genus, so it’s wise to avoid guesswork. But this argument cuts both ways. GW present plausible archaeological evidence that foraging peoples prior to the spread of agriculture (but mostly only just prior to the spread of agriculture) played with status ranking and were part of much larger interacting populations. But this doesn’t prove our ancestors weren’t playing the egalitarian face-to-face band game most of the time through our evolutionary history. Their suggestion otherwise involves its own kind of guesswork. I feel that, as here, a little too often in their book they build some big conjectures on fragmentary evidence.
So to the idea that Paleolithic foraging peoples engaged in building urban hierarchies, I guess my response is ‘OK, but how often?’ GW do not, thankfully, attempt the kind of absurd, evidence-mangling quantifications that the likes of Steven Pinker engage in to prove his notions about the awfulness of the past, but without knowing how often pre-agricultural foragers built mass, status-ranked societies over the last couple of million years it’s hard to assess the weight of GW’s argument.
In the early part of their book, GW critique the whole emphasis of modern political thinking on equality, placing their emphasis instead on freedom. In some ways, their take is similar to the one I’ve been discussing recently under the banner of autonomy or self-possession. But I think they stretch the distinction a bit too far. It’s difficult to be truly autonomous in societies of great inequality, and as GW themselves ably document, societies that emphasize self-possession usually go to some lengths to ensure that inequalities don’t get out of hand. So in important ways freedom and (relative) equality are two sides of the same coin.
GW’s real kicker on the matter of equality comes later in the book when they discuss the unhappy confluence of sovereign power with bureaucracy that generates a good deal of what we understand by the notion of ‘the’ state. Impersonal notions of formal equality – treating people as interchangeable units or tokens of some particular class – is, they say, usually the harbinger of extreme political violence and inequality. Their position seems close to the civic republicanism that I’ve outlined in my own writings. What ultimately matters the most to people is not metrics of social equality but a sense that we’re participants in a political community that takes seriously what we have to say and gives us some leeway to lead the life we choose.
Such questions of participation were at the heart of political debates in Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries as older forms of royal and imperial rule gave way to a modern politics shaped by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Unfortunately, GW miss the opportunity to get into this when they discuss these two thinkers in the early – and in my opinion, weakest – part of the book. GW have a different agenda, relating to what they call ‘the indigenous critique’, which leads them into a dismayingly superficial contrast between Rousseau and Hobbes as theorists of the original human condition, with Rousseau supposedly detecting a kind of propertyless primitive communism and Hobbes, by contrast, famously characterizing human life in this state of nature as “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”.
The problem is, neither Rousseau nor Hobbes were actually talking about the original human condition, as GW acknowledge without ever really getting out of the tailspin they set up for themselves by suggesting that they were (in fact, they concede, the historical event that most framed Hobbes’s thinking was the English Civil War concluding the same year he published his famous phrase). I hope to say more about the questions Hobbes was asking, probably in my next post, because I think we urgently need to ask similar questions again across much of the world today. I also think we need to find different answers to his ones, but the inspiration of his thinking lies in the way he formulated the problem of how people can form political communities from first principles.
On this point, GW make a great play for their ‘indigenous critique’ idea that such first-principles political thinking in early modern Europe was first crafted by indigenous people from beyond Europe’s boundaries, specifically from North America, as a response to their colonial encounters with Europeans, and this was then adopted by Europeans themselves with the indigenous origins being airbrushed out. Already, this is ruffling feathers among specialists of 18th century European history. Whatever the case, ultimately GW’s stronger contribution is probably their argument that ordinary people everywhere are perfectly capable of producing articulate critiques of the political forms taken by their own and other societies.
Three political forms
Let’s examine those forms. To greatly simplify GW’s analysis, and perhaps to extrapolate them somewhat faithlessly into an analysis of my own contriving, GW argue that there are basically three broad kinds of political society. There are republics, involving bottom-up political self-organisation by ordinary people operating more or less as equals. There are aristocratic ‘house’ societies, involving predatory warrior leaders and petty would-be kings with an unstable power expressed through fighting, gifting, feasting and general rape and pillage. And there are empires, in which the petty kings have grown up into more stable monarchies, usually by combining political sovereignty – that is, a sacred sense of authority – with bureaucratic organization.
GW’s sympathies are with the republics, as mine are, and a big part of their book is concerned to show that people can and have orchestrated them many times worldwide throughout history in the face of the other forms of politics. They’re also concerned to show how the different political forms often emerge through deliberate local differentiation from neighbouring forms (what GW call ‘schismogenesis’). So the house societies of eastern Anatolia emerged as a counter to the urban republics of Mesopotamia, and the egalitarian republics of indigenous, pre-European California emerged as a counter to the house societies of the Pacific Northwest.
All of this I find interesting and plausible. I’m just not sure how easy it really is to form bottom-up, more or less egalitarian republics. Again, I want GW to show us not just that this has happened, but how much it’s happened and what proportion of the people who’ve lived since the Neolithic have enjoyed true republican freedom. This isn’t something that can be quantified precisely from the archaeological record, but I think we have a rough idea. At one point, GW quote political scientist James Scott without demur in his view that “the period from about 3000BC to AD 1600 was a fairly miserable one for the bulk of the world’s farmers” (p.445). That’s a pretty large slice of humanity exempted from the freedoms that GW champion. And I’m not even sure it got much better after 1600.
At issue here is the way different kinds of political power interact. In GW’s Californian example, people chose to forge relatively egalitarian and peaceful non-slaveholding societies in deliberate contrast to the aristocratic, slaveholding house societies of the Pacific Northwest, and apparently did so with considerable success (interestingly, GW say this was accompanied with strong private property rights and the development of money systems within Californian societies that also deliberately avoided agriculture). But my feeling is that such successes are historically quite rare. I suspect that the non-egalitarian violence of house societies is easier to project historically, particularly when it allies with the non-egalitarian violence of empires. This is James Scott’s argument. Ordinary people living under imperial rule got squeezed between the legalized violence of the regime and the predatory violence of ‘barbarian’ peoples in the peripheries of empire.
Still, these forms of power aren’t static, and opportunities lie in their changing realities. Often, emperors are too busy playing with their sacred power behind the walls of their palaces to care too much about what their subjects are doing, so provided the latter pay their taxes and don’t challenge imperial power too directly, life in an empire isn’t always so bad. Likewise, in modern nation states, mini empires of the latter day, a strange nationalist alchemy has turned the sacred power of the emperor into the sacred power of the people themselves, giving ordinary folks a chance to press their advantage – albeit often at the expense of foreigners or enemies within.
House or warrior societies also provide opportunities for advancement for anyone who can project charismatic authority and is good at cracking heads. Or at least for any man. No doubt, there’s a kind of playfulness in a hell-raising, slave-raiding, heavy-drinking, sexually predatory house society of charismatic leaders and their henchmen. But this kind of play is highly gendered, and looks a lot more fun for the ones in charge of the playing than the ones being played.
GW generally present republican societies as more measured, more attentive to the dynamics of power and to the ways power can be corrupted and more focused on distributed power than in the other two political forms, where inegalitarian power ultimately is centred one someplace or someone. Gendered perspectives are a constant undertow in their book, and in some ways republicanism emerges from it as a more ‘female’ political form – more inclusive, connected and communicative. This contrasts with the way that in practice the historical republican tradition in Europe from classical times to the present has so often been militarist and masculinist, perhaps because civic republics have often been embattled enclaves carved out in times of trouble from larger warring polities.
I’m less optimistic than GW about the prospects for people to throw off the shackles of their oppression with a republican politics of freedom because of this embattled history, and because of the difficulties of escaping status inequalities that are underwritten with violence. Nevertheless, GW convincingly show that these difficulties can be overcome in certain situations. It seems possible that the post-capitalist and post fossil fuel world we may now be entering will be one of these situations – what I called in A Small Farm Future ‘supersedure situations’, where people improvise local politics in the face of waning state power. Generally, I think GW understate the advantages held by imperial and royal/warrior power in projecting itself, which is why they keep asking how it is that we got ‘stuck’ with it. They’re still asking this on page 503 of their book, by which time you’d have hoped they’d have an answer. But they do convincingly show that not everyone always gets stuck.
Of gender, households, families … and gardens
In fact, they do sort of have an answer to how we got stuck, in their interesting but rather undeveloped argument that royal and imperial power is modelled after the structure of patriarchal households. As GW see it, this is what gives inegalitarian violence its staying power. What matters isn’t really the king or the patriarch’s arbitrary violence, which ebbs and flows like the weather. It’s the fact that their capacity for violence is contained within a house (or a kingdom, for which the house is a metaphor) where there are ongoing relationships of care between people that gives this capacity its ongoing human force and that can turn violent weather into a stable climate. I’ll note in passing regarding recent discussions on this blog that in GW’s presentation, the kingdom comes after, or is modelled after, the family or the household – so the household gets priority.
I find all this quite persuasive, and it’s changed my views somewhat on points I made in A Small Farm Future about gender and household organization. I don’t recant the overarching analysis I presented there, just the particular spin I put on it. I’ll comment further on that in a separate post. For now, I’ll just note that GW’s argument about the nexus of violence and care only gets us so far in understanding how we get ‘stuck’ with sovereign power, because it merely displaces the question onto how we get ‘stuck’ with patriarchal household organization – a form, they note, that has been widespread historically.
Still, GW show us that on plenty of occasions historically patriarchal sovereign power gets flipped, and not necessarily for any apparent structural reason. It’s as if that more egalitarian, more republican and perhaps more female mode of politics is always there in the wings, awaiting its moment. And that, I think, is an important take home from their book. Never discount the possibility of transforming patriarchal sovereign power.
Another take home from their book, although GW don’t remark on it, is the ubiquity of small, family-based households as a basic unit of social organization. Again and again across their case studies ranging worldwide over human history, they present evidence of small family-based residential units. They choose to emphasize other things, like the way that these small units interact in numerous commons-based formats, and the way that official scripts for what constitutes a family get subverted in practice. These things are worth saying. But they don’t undermine the fact that small, face-to-face, kinship-based household units are so often the building blocks of human societies. The tendency to gloss over this and to de-emphasize kinship in the contemporary social sciences seems to me something of a blind spot that ultimately will need correcting.
GW pave the way for this correction quite nicely here and there – for example when they show how indigenous people in certain parts of North America prior to European colonization opted for scattered family homesteading as a means to escape sovereign patriarchal power, which is not always how the history of American homesteading is presented. But they pull their punches, and their rather weak argument against kin-based social organization – “many humans just don’t like their families very much” (p.279) – succumbs to the problem that many humans just don’t like anyone they have to negotiate social and economic relationships with long-term. Looking at its ubiquity throughout history, it’s tempting to conclude that appropriately sophisticated forms of kinship organization seem to be the best of a bad job in this respect.
GW’s take on kinship has its limitations, but their discussion of gender is more impressive. Their account of farming’s origins as a playful, egalitarian craft specialism of women in their role as expert experimental scientists of the domestic was a particular delight. I found these arguments plausible, although again with something of a surfeit of speculation over evidence. It rings true that people took slowly to farming, and in early agrarian sites like Çatalhöyük avoided certain livestock domesticates because hunting was more fun.
But GW’s view that the Bible’s Garden of Eden story ill fits this narrative surprised me. Surely the idea that Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and bade Adam do the same nicely captures this sense of female knowledge and mastery, and its longer consequences? In truth, I doubt the Eden story involves any memory of what was happening at places like Çatalhöyük. We’re closer today to the era of the Yahwist source for that story than s/he was to the era of Çatalhöyük. I say ‘s/he’ because some have speculated that the Yahwist writer of the Eden story was a woman, and a case can be made that the story is less straightforwardly misogynistic than it’s often presented. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make intelligible a kind of multi-millennial male sulk about the need to stop playing in the woods and assume domestic responsibilities. More on that another time, perhaps. But it leaves us with the same general problem bequeathed by GW’s own enigmatic text: why have we got so stuck with patriarchal household organization, sovereign power, and the state?
Well, while I’m on the subject of idealized gardens, I’d like to suggest GW might have profitably explored the distinction between horticulture and agriculture more fully in pondering this question. They point to many ancient examples of mass urban residence that didn’t ultimately lead to repressive state sovereignty. And they invoke the case of indigenous North America to suggest “it’s simply not true to say that if one falls into the trap of ‘state formation’ there’s no getting out” (p.481), based largely on their analysis of the rise and fall of Cahokia in present-day Illinois from around the 11th to the 14th centuries.
These examples, even the urban ones, generally involve people who were producing their own subsistence either through foraging or mixed horticulture. They didn’t seem to involve worlds with a lot of non-producers, or producers largely dependent on arable grain monocultures and herding. I’m not suggesting these crop choices drove the politics. Maybe it’s the other way around. The people who were able to retain their self-possession were the ones who didn’t get sucked into arable and pastoral dependence. Either way, if this is true people’s options for escaping state sovereignty across much of the world today look bleak. But maybe not impossible with a turn to horticulture and a small farm future?
Idealism and materialism
David Graeber was blessed with the ability to write sophisticated social science in accessible and (almost) jargon-free ways while addressing real world political issues, and The Dawn of Everything is no exception. I’m not going to humiliate myself by taking a deep dive into the underlying social theory of the book and reveal my inadequacies by comparison, but I do just want to venture some closing thoughts on questions of idealism and materialism. It’s a topic of interest mostly just to professional social scientists, philosophers and Marxists, but I hope to show that it may have wider implications in our present political moment as we try to get unstuck.
For social scientists, ‘idealism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived ultimately through the ideas that people have about it, whereas ‘materialism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived through the real underlying material conditions in which people live. Marxist versions of materialism hold that societies progress in determinate ways as a result of internal tensions, and their resolution, grounded in material conditions such as class conflict.
GW don’t have an awful lot of truck with Marxist materialism, inclining towards an idealist sense that social change is driven more by cultural movements than material conditions and conflicts. And they add an individualist element – people are self-conscious architects of their own cultural change, not just automata representing some broad class or cultural type.
I agree with them, and I imagine they’ll get some stick from Marxists for failing to espouse the approved materialism. Well, join the club. My feeling is that Marxists can be quite tolerant of idealist elements when circumstances suit, but as I read GW’s book and thought about the kind of Marxist critiques that have been levelled at me, it occurred to me that it may be time to turn Marxist materialism on its head.
Marxists don’t really like the ‘idealist’ notion that people just self-consciously reconstruct the political cultures they inherit, but those Marxists that have criticized me along ‘collapse porn’ or ‘disaster feudalism’ lines happily operate with the idealist notion that the vast inertial ship of modern fossil-fuelled industrial technology can simply be repurposed for the benefit of the many and not the few. GW’s book has helped me clarify my conviction that it more likely works the other way around. The inertial ship of industrial high technology is a material drag that must be abandoned (I know oil companies are villains, but the energetic-industrial problems we now face don’t arise solely or mainly because of their villainy). We can abandon it if we develop a different politics around food, energy and habitation, which is basically to say a different set of ideas about how we ought to live. Out of this, different material practices can emerge.
In that sense, I endorse GW’s upbeat conclusion that it’s within people’s power to change things and remake their social world – not a power or a social world restricted to particular classes, groups, genders or political ideologies, but one available to everyone. And this, I must stress, is not a ‘liberal’ or still less a conservative position, but a populist republican one, as I shall explore in more detail in another post.
At the same time, there’s another material drag on republican possibilities in our evolutionary predilection for status aggrandizement as well as status equality. So the dangers of arbitrary sovereign power reasserting itself are ever present, as subjects of regimes inspired by Marxist egalitarianism might perhaps attest. It’s probably unwise to bet against new emperors or new patriarchies emerging. All the same, GW give us plenty of inspiration for trying to stop them.
So concludes this review – and also I think my blogging for the year. Many thanks to commenters old and new for sharing their thoughts with me, which makes writing this blog the continuing pleasure that it is. My apologies for not always finding the time to respond as fully as I’d like. I hope to be back in the new year to finally finish the long-running blog cycle about my book. In the meantime, if you’d like a little more small farm futurology to tide you over, there’s always this and this. So wishing everyone happy holidays, and see you soon, I hope.
In my last post, I made the case for private property rights in a small farm future. In this one, I’ll make a case for common property rights (‘commons’). There’s no contradiction because private and common rights usually accompany each other. I’ve written quite a bit about commons in the past, usually from a somewhat sceptical viewpoint – not because I dispute their importance, but because I think they’re too often invoked as a rather fluffy feelgood word to mean ‘people doing good things together’. When we look at agricultural societies, we see that there are certain things they achieve with commons and certain things they don’t, and I think this is informative for the small farm societies we need to form in the future. But I don’t want to lose sight of the ‘people doing good things together’ aspect, which I’ll come to at the end.
In this article, I described the scope of commons in agrarian societies under the rubric of what I called the ‘four Es’: commons are usually extensive (applying to low value and/or diffuse resources), elemental (relating to the wider play of the landscape beyond individual private control, such as controlling fire risk, managing water or shaping the earth), extra (a bonus on top of ordinary economic activities, often with a social welfare function) and/or exclusive (applying to a definite and restricted community).
So in the future small farm communities I’m imagining, I’d expect to see commons around things like firewood gathering, irrigation, flood defence and cattle grazing – but probably not around gardening, cereal cropping, haymaking or milking. Robert Netting and Simon Fairlie have both written about the complex interleaving of private and common rights in traditional European dairying systems along these lines. Broadly speaking, cows were privately owned by individual households and the housing, milking and haymaking for them was likewise undertaken privately, but much of the grazing and cheesemaking was organized as commons. As Simon puts it, “This elegant system paid scant allegiance to ideology – it evolved from the dialogue between private interest and common sense”1. I expect much the same will transpire eventually with future agricultural commons.
Drawing on Robert Netting’s work, commons theorist Elinor Ostrom suggests that commons are particularly suited for agricultural situations where2:
The per acre value of the goods being produced is low
The availability of the goods fluctuates
The possibilities for improving or intensifying productivity are low
A large territory is needed for effective use
Large groups of people are needed for effective capital investing activities
From this list, it’s easy to see why things like gardens and arable fields are rarely organized as commons, whereas woodlands and grazing often are.
I had an interesting if brief discussion on Twitter with @aliceLBPclub about the production of textiles in a small farm future. My feeling is that generally this probably wouldn’t be organized as a commons overall, but – as with Simon’s dairying example – it might have some commoning aspects. Supposing people widely grow a fibre plant like flax. This wouldn’t fit within the commons criteria mentioned above and would most likely be grown on an individual household basis, unless it required special conditions or skills to grow it, in which case things might get interesting. But, as with a crop like wheat (or the cheeses mentioned above), processing it might be more efficiently done in a single large facility serving the community’s needs. By the lights of the criteria outlined above, I don’t think this facility would likely be a commons as such.
Maybe the best model for it would be a cooperative. People pool some of their surplus resources to create the processing facilities in the expectation that they will get some fair share of the final product. Shoehorning a few issues here, inasmuch as the processing involves specialist skills and training, the cooperative might be a guild, in which craft specialists manage the training, conduct and price-setting of their membership in service of the wider community.
A craft guild is a bit different from an agrarian commons in terms of the underlying ecology, but similar in terms of its social structure, which is basically this3:
A commons or guild = a resource + a community + a set of usage protocols
How this works out in practice depends a lot not only on the nature of the resource but also on how the community and the usage protocols are defined. Who’s excluded, who’s included, and what are the rules of the game for those involved? Part of my scepticism about the way commons and guilds are often invoked is that they are not by virtue of their form of organization intrinsically positive, egalitarian or socially beneficial. That’s been their intention and their achievement often enough, but not always.
The classic criticism of agricultural commons is that they promote inefficient use or, worse, overuse that runs down the resource. This, notoriously, was Garrett Hardin’s argument in his 1968 article ‘The tragedy of the commons’. It was also Arthur Young’s argument as he enthusiastically pressed the case for the enclosure of agricultural commons in England in the late 18th century. Young came to regret his enclosing ardour, while even Hardin admitted that what he’d called a commons really wasn’t and is better described as an open access regime where, in contrast to the definition above, there’s no defined community or usage protocols to prevent degradation.
Still, for all the justifiable mud flung at Hardin, the fact is it’s possible for a commons to degrade into an open access regime, or for a situation to default to an open access regime because of the failure to create a commons – a point made forcefully enough by Elinor Ostrom herself. Current examples include the collapse of the world’s pelagic fisheries, and the ever-escalating levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In both cases, the problem seems to be the inability to create a stable community with shared norms around the resource – partly perhaps because when it comes to forming communities, people are creatures of the particular earth, not the fluid skies or waters.
The classic criticism of the craft guild rests at the other boundary of the commons – not an access regime that’s too open, but one that’s too closed. The guild stops operating in service of the community and starts operating in service of itself, creating unreasonable entry barriers, fixing prices and engaging in other such monopolistic forms of anti-social behaviour. In this sense, the rogue guild was one of the forerunners to the modern capitalist corporation – and, ironically, the idea of ‘freeing’ the market was experienced in some quarters as genuinely liberatory.
Now we’ve seen how the story of monopoly capitalism has worked out (summary: not well), a lot of us are looking back to the previous world of commons and guilds as the basis for a better model. And rightly so. But there are a few caveats worth bearing in mind. First, commons and guilds are not in themselves a solution to the problems of transcending capitalism’s world of strange delights. As I suggested above, their organizational form is ethically neutral. The same goes for cooperatives, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere – when they operate in a world that’s systematically organized in the interests of capital, too easily just replicate the structural tensions of that world. The real challenge is to reconstruct communities and economies along more just and sustainable lines. Commons and guilds really come into their own after that work of reconstruction.
But even when they do come into their own – especially when they come into their own – the ways that commons and guilds can fail that I detailed above need to be taken seriously. The story we often tell today is how they were broken top down by the forces of economic accumulation against the will of ordinary people, and it’s partly true. But ordinary people also did some of the breaking themselves as they sought to escape from restrictions that were sometimes less than ideal in practice. Balancing collective, partial and individual interests in relatively self-reliant local communities isn’t easy and needs to be front and centre of ongoing local politics.
The genius of capitalism has been defraying these difficulties of local politics by continually opening up new economic frontiers that sweeten the politics of local community with economic service. That was the achievement of the other main forerunner of modern capitalism, the joint stock company that pooled resources to finance the high-risk, high-return business of overseas maritime adventuring. But that achievement has come at a threefold price. First, the economic service has generally arisen from extracting extra value from people elsewhere – that is, from colonialism of one form or another. Second, it’s often denatured local communities back at the source even as it’s defrayed some of their difficulties. And, third, not only has it started to run out of new frontiers and resources to commodify, it’s also destroyed the ecological integrity of the ones it’s already commodified – hence the interest of people like Elon Musk in opening up places like Mars. So the job of reconstructing local human ecologies becomes especially difficult, because we’ve forgotten how to live without being propped up by other people’s value creation, or because the extraction of value has profoundly damaging effects on the social fabric.
Still, people everywhere are pretty creative at generating new social fabrics and new kinds of mutual aid. So my conclusion is this: grow fibres, pool resources, weave fabrics, build commons, make guilds. But do it carefully and be prepared to unstitch them when they go wrong, which sometimes they certainly will.
As to my opening point about people doing good things together, people will need to develop new agricultural commons of the classic sort in the small farm futures of many places, but in the short-term more malleable and inclusive arrangements will often be in order, as with responses to various emergency situations where defining strict membership criteria and usage protocols isn’t to the point. More fundamentally, I believe the key aspect of commoning as doing good things together won’t lie in the exact boundary definitions of common versus private property, but in the fact that both take their place within a larger collective politics of creating resilient and renewable local societies where people are autonomous and self-possessed actors within larger cooperative networks.
See Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7, 16-31.
Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, p.63.
Borrowing here from David Bollier. 2014. Think Like A Commoner, p.15.
In this post and the next, I aim to lay out some issues about property relations by sketching how they might work in a semi-autarkic rural community or region within a small farm future. My focus is a temperate lowland zone like my home in southwest England, although the general issues apply more widely. Maybe we’re in the territory of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex once again.
What I’m going to sketch is so different from how things presently work in my home patch that no doubt it can easily be dismissed as the kind of idle fancy best left to a post-apocalyptic novel. So the other side of this I want to explore is the forces and the politics that might deliver such an outcome sooner than some might think. But that’s for a couple of posts down the line. First, the sketch.
Some grounding assumptions. In this sketch, we’re in largely post fossil fuel times and easy energy is scarce (in other words, low carbon energy has not seamlessly replaced the world’s present vast reliance on cheap and abundant fossil fuels). Also, the global political economy we know today is on its knees or in the morgue, liquid global capital is scarce and the centralized state is in retreat (see Part IV of my book).
But our region remains reasonably well suited for agriculture, or at least for horticulture. This implies that population pressure on land is high, and a large part of people’s needs – water, food, fibre (for clothing, cordage, firewood and timber), motive energy, medicines and minerals – must be met from local land. In this situation, unlike today, economic activities like food production will seek to squeeze the most they can out of the available water, land and motive energy. And probably out of the available capital too, but there will not be much of that. Squeezing the most out of labour will not be a priority – finding honest work for the multitudes of people locally probably will be.
Another assumption – most people will live in households oriented to meeting most of their own needs. I’m not really concerned for present purposes with the size and composition of these households, though it’s something I’ve previously discussed and hope to reprise again soon. It does seem likely that households will generally be small and comprise close kin, though not always. This has been a really widespread form of household organization worldwide through history. So in my mind’s eye I’m thinking about a society with a lot of small, kin-based households. But the key point for now is that households, whatever their size and composition, are farming mostly to take care of their own needs.
Final assumption – there are exchange relations between households and other local economic actors, but in this sketch we’re going to be agnostic about how they’re mediated. I think it might be through money, either the remnants of the old state currency or some new local contrivance. And there are advantages to that, because moneyless societies can more easily fall prey to status hierarchies, caste systems and the like. Of course, money can also be a dangerous foe to a convivial local economy. But money is not the same as capital, and capital is not the same as capitalism. Let’s recall a piece of Biblical wisdom: it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, but the love of money. More on that another time.
These distinctions can be a bit fuzzy in practice, and there are likely to be all sorts of hybrid complexities. But as a rough approximation, I think (1) and (3) will be emphasized and (2) and (4) will be de-emphasized in the society I’m envisaging – pretty much the opposite of the situation that you find in modern capitalist societies. So there will be a lot of upheaval to get from here to there. The extent of the upheaval will depend on cultural and social factors that will vary from place to place, but will also be driven by more invariant factors associated with human ecology in the new circumstances people will be facing.
Controversial opinion though it seems to be in some quarters, in this setup I think a lot – probably most – food production is going to be done by household labour for household needs on small plots that will be de facto or de jure privately owned: gardens, homesteads, smallholdings, micro farms.
There are some economic-y reasons for this. Where energy is cheap, labour is dear, land is abundant and farmers are producing crops for commodity markets (in other words, where the situation is like the North American prairie farming I mentioned in my last post) there are economies of large scale that generate the gigantic, mechanized mega-farms familiar to us today. But where, as in our situation, energy is dear, labour is abundant, land is scarce and farmers are producing crops for their own households there are diseconomies of large scale, or economies of small scale. Labour is highly productive of food/fibre, but adding more labour is not disproportionately more productive. So plots and households are relatively small.
Free riding and transaction costs will also be at play in this society, because they’re at play in every society even if they sound like specifically modern economic jargon best fitted to our selfish, individualistic modern ways. Of course, the manifestations vary culturally, but in every culture there are people who will try to get one over you somehow, and the more people you work with the more time or other resources you have to devote to hammering out arrangements with them. Sometimes you might consider the hammering out to be worthwhile, for any number of reasons that go beyond your immediate needs for food and other goods. But those needs will be quite pressing in the society I’m talking about, so you’ll probably be judicious about your involvement in these extra-curricular activities. Community gardens are a great idea in places where there’s not much community and not much gardening, but you don’t find them so much among communities that garden.
All the same, you’ll probably get involved in some inter-household economic activities. You might, for example, share raising a pig or two with one or more neighbours, because there are often economies of slightly larger scale here (diseconomies of very large scale remain). And the transaction costs and free rider problems of neighbourhood scale are usually not that great. But here we’re still within the realm of private property and private arrangements.
It’s likely, though, that with changing household needs or priorities, you might want to take on more land, or divest yourself of some. A common way of doing this in small farm societies has been by renting land – in other words, by making yourself a tenant. And where there are tenants, there are landlords. In A Small Farm Future, I argued vigorously against landlordism because it’s a royal road to monopoly property, the expropriation and oppression of the smallholder and the capitalization of the economy. That didn’t stop one pair of reviewers presenting me as an apologist for parasitic landlordism. But the fact is, when you depend upon the land for your living but don’t control your access to it, you’re extremely vulnerable – which is where the parasitism kicks in. This is a strong argument for smallholder possession of secure private property rights. If you have good access to land to meet at least your basic needs, you’re in a much less vulnerable position.
Nevertheless, you may still want to adjust the size of your holding to your passing needs year by year. Buying and selling land may be an option, but perhaps an overly drastic one. So, despite my general strictures against landlordism of the parasitic kind – which remain firm – I think there can be a restricted case for a land rental market. In the words of rural sociologist Francesca Bray, “Tenancy is a means of matching land and labour within a community so that resources are not wasted”1.
The key phrase here is ‘within a community’. We can distinguish between a moral economy where people of broadly similar standing devise arrangements to improve their collective wellbeing locally, and a monopoly economy where a small subset of people improve their wellbeing at the expense of everyone else. As I’ve already said, a local economy comprising distributed small-scale private property as its basic building block potentiates the former and safeguards against the latter. All the same, any kind of landlordism is a potential point of tension and demands vigilance by the tenantry.
One of the problems with rented land is that it easily creates free rider problems (the landlord free rides on the tenant’s improvements, the tenant free rides on the longer term wellbeing of the land) so it works best for modular, short-run uses like grazing or arable crops and not so well for the things that would be emphasized in a more intensive small farm future like orchards, dairies and gardens. So on ecological grounds, in the intensive, populated countrysides of a small farm future it’s likely that private owner-occupation will predominate over landlordism, even of the non-monopolistic kind.
Let’s look at what private ownership means a little more formally. Modern conceptions of it draw largely from Roman law, which distinguished between usus (the right held from the wider community to use the land), fructus (the right to appropriate the products or ‘fruit’ of the land to oneself) and abusus (the right to damage or alienate the land). Community-minded people often endorse the first two of these rights – usufruct – but, perhaps understandably, not the last one. If you damage the land’s long-term capacities, or dump pollution on it that affects downstream neighbours, or sell it speculatively in such a way that it’s removed from long-term availability to the wider local community, that can create problems for the community. So this is another point of tension in the system.
As I see it, people oriented to making a long-term livelihood from the products of the land itself (as opposed to the profits to be made from it) are unlikely to abuse it too egregiously, and there are remedies against abusers that fall short of full expropriation. In A Small Farm Future I argued against mere usufruct rights in favour of more inalienable private property, basically because I see usufruct as a back door to monopoly landlordism. My instincts here are kind of bottom up, grassroots and anarchist. If you lack the right of abusus, this potentially puts a lot of power in the hands of the wider community to define abuse in its own potentially self-serving way, and to expropriate you. Who is this community? Through what politics does it decide to exert its powers of expropriation, and how does it then redistribute access to land and livelihood among its members?
Physical escape from community abusus has been one favoured tactic historically to avoid these difficulties. In David Graeber and David Wengrow’s influential recent book I was struck, for example, by their description of scattered homesteading by native peoples in the North American Midwest as a way of avoiding centralizing political power in the immediate precolonial period2, something that their settler colonist successors also tried their hand at. Neither were successful long-term, with the latter arguably being victims of monopoly ownership from the outset.
But where physical escape isn’t possible, people have often sought something like private property rights from the political community as a safeguard against abuse of their capacities for self-creation by the political community. It may seem contradictory, but small farmers have put a lot of effort into making these claims throughout history, suggesting at least that it seemed worthwhile to them. Here we get into some weirder aspects of the moral economy as we orbit close around the mystery of political authority. More on that in another post.
I suppose I could alternatively just stop holding out and throw my lot in with usufruct. If I did, I think it would have to be through a radically participatory civic republican politics of recognition, where absolutely everybody in the community gets an ongoing say in defining its political goods. Which is another transaction cost or time sink, best kept limited to what the community really needs to debate. This in turn might point to the benefits of private property as a way of keeping the debate limited, especially when you unite this concern with the notion of self-possession that I emphasized in my last post.
Another possible form of abusus is sale or the handing on of property to another party. I don’t think such abusus is necessarily abusive, but it does run the risk. One possible ‘abuse’ is inheritance by the landholder’s offspring – potentially abusive inasmuch as due to bad luck, bad health or bad choices property has a habit of concentrating over time in fewer and fewer hands, taking us back to the problem of monopoly private property or abusive landlordism (this is well demonstrated by playing a game of Monopoly, originally called The Landlord’s Game to illustrate the ideas of Henry George, who’s thinking we’ll get to soon, I hope).
So an agrarian society of widely distributed small farm ownership needs to find ways of preventing land from being consolidated and keeping it circulating through the generations within the whole community. I don’t want to wade too far into policy wonkery here. In Chapter 13 of my book I suggested a way of doing this to prevent monopoly landlordism, which (sigh) was criticized by the same people who criticized me for supposedly endorsing monopoly landlordism. Anyway, inheritance is certainly another point of tension in the system where use may become abuse, so one way or another this issue requires attention.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of distributed private property, we can say for sure that it’s not an invention of modern capitalism. It recurs in numerous societies, arguably as far back as the Neolithic3. But it usually goes hand in hand with common property, which I’ll turn to in my next post.
Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies, p.180.
David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything, p.471.
See: Robert Netting. 1992. Smallholders, Householders; Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English.
I’ll begin with a brief account of how our modern global grain trading system was invented in Chicago in the 19th century, which is maybe a bit of a jolt from the present focus of this blog cycle on the forms of property but hopefully my purposes will become clear.
Prior to the railroad/grain elevator/futures market nexus that began to emerge in the 1850s, prairie grain farmers sold their product in sacks that retained their identity with the source farm through to the point of sale. The innovation of the railroad/elevator system was to create standardized grades of grain that enabled the harvest from individual farms to be amassed together in vast quantities as a fungible commodity like money. The innovation of the futures market was to remove uncertainty about future price fluctuations, essentially by enabling speculators to assume the burden of the risk by betting on movements in grain prices. Before long, the value of the futures being traded greatly exceeded the value of the physical grain in existence.
These innovations called forth vastly more economic activity than previously possible, created a torrent of cheap grain that flooded global markets and pushed farmers in other places out of grain production (and often out of farming altogether), and stimulated the growth of prairie grain farming, while removing from farmers themselves substantial economic autonomy, fostering perhaps a self-interest on their part in the grading of their grain at the margin, but not a more holistic interest in the story of their grain from field to fork. They also pretty much forged the global economy as we know it today (I’ll ignore the meat/livestock side of the story for brevity, but the globalization of meat production was another prong to the same history)1.
How do you feel about this story? I ask because I think it often prompts strong emotions, which divide between two mutually uncomprehending camps (OK, so real life is always a bit more complicated than the dualities we impose on it, but I think this one does neatly organize quite a bit of thinking).
One camp responds positively to the story. Perhaps some of its adherents will concede that not everything that happened was rosy, but consider these downsides remediable without fundamental change to the economic model first forged in Chicago. Some key words or phrases for this camp are efficiency, development, modernization, globalization, progress, technology, labour-saving and back-breaking labour.
The other camp responds negatively to the story, and doubts that the problems created by the global commodity grain economy can be remedied without fundamental change. Some key words or phrases for this camp are autonomy, freedom, craftsmanship, honest work, self-reliance and community. This is the camp I’m in, and I’ve spent way too long in fruitless debate with people who think these qualities are quaint, outmoded, dangerous or outright laughable.
I should note that if we dial back a few more years through prairie history, we’d find in many places mounted, bison-hunting American cultures who were violently usurped by the settler farmers. A few more years still, beyond any European colonial influence, and we’d find forager-horticulturists without horses or bison-based economies. Which is to say that it’s possible to reject a particular historical turn of events without invoking some prior state of grace where all was sweet and stable.
Something to notice about these two camps: in the first, work is negative – ‘saving labour’ is good, ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Whereas in the second, it’s positive – work is craftmanship and self-realization, a part of how you make your mark upon the world and of how you and others judge you.
Another thing to notice: the first camp orients to pooling, generalizing and abstracting things – grain, money and labour can be hugely amassed and take on protean forms that escape particular, local control. The second camp orients to the specifics of food as a source of life and pleasure, and money and work as relatively scarce means of self-realization. It opposes the mass multiplication of these qualities.
Overlaying the familiar modern left-right political duality on the two camps, the first can encompass the full gamut of modernist politics from far left to far right and most points in between, including the neoliberal status quo. The second no doubt sounds ‘conservative’ to some contemporary ears, with its emphasis on self-reliance, personal autonomy and particularistic community, but historically it’s also crossed the left-right divide.
Perhaps instead of trying to shoehorn the two camps into the left-right duality, it’s more illuminating to notice where their tensions arise in respect of it. I find the sociologist Richard Sennett’s distinction between unity and inclusion useful here:
“The Left divided between those who sought to establish solidarity top-down and those who sought to create it bottom-up; the centralized German labour union represented the one approach, the local American workshop the other …. There were … two versions of solidarity in these discussions, the one emphasizing unity, the other inclusion”2
So, on the left, our first camp aggregates labour into classes, and emphasizes the importance of class unity in achieving political goals. Which is fine from my point of view, in some instances. Sometimes, people do amass themselves self-consciously into a class to achieve political goals, and need to act as a unified bloc to achieve them.
But for me this way of thinking gets problematic when it offers itself as a general theory of society and social progress. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made the claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” which, I would humbly suggest, is something of an overstatement. Marx and Engels’ politics was grounded in the notion that the landless industrial working classes emerging particularly in the richest countries of their day embodied the most perfectly realized and universalized class consciousness whose victory would bring this history of class struggle to an end. Whereas the executive of the modern state, according to the Communist Manifesto, was “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, people massed as landless labour and with a unified political consciousness arising from this would overturn the bourgeois state and repurpose it for the collective benefit of all, before the state ultimately ‘withered away’ in Engels’ famous phrase.
I find these views contradictory and unconvincing, indeed ironically somewhat ‘bourgeois’ in their obsession with aggregation and progress. But I’m not going to dwell on critiquing them here. Generally, I think this mass modernist mindset across its entire political spectrum has difficulties with or is uninterested in generating a politics of the person as a complex, intentional being set within a wider community and culture. On the far right, personhood is subordinated to the interests of the state or ethno-state. On the far left, it’s subordinated to class identity and the ever-receding promise that once all the bourgeois and counterrevolutionary elements have been destroyed, life will be sweet. Among the capitalist (neo)liberals, it’s subordinated to a similar millenarianism in the belief that if the economy is allowed to aggregate capital and labour as its internal logic dictates, then ultimately everyone will find redemption in the marketplace.
I don’t think the modern history of totalitarianism, gulags, holocausts, state-induced famines, extreme labour exploitation and extractivism bears out the first camp’s dreams. People who still hold to these dreams usually respond to past failures either by denying that they happened, or by saying that the people who suffered in them were beyond the pale and had it coming (that emphasis on unity against the enemy again), or by claiming that these events were distorted misapplications of the true ideology whose redemptive purity still floats above the grubby realities affected in its name.
But let me turn to the second camp. I guess at root I hold to the slightly-but-not-very modernist view that it’s good to honour the complexities and intentions of individual human persons, which are always set within a wider community and culture. This makes property a point of tension in the second camp in a way that it isn’t for the first camp, where individuals have no inherent claim against the aggregative will of states, classes or capital. Those of us in the second camp, however, believe that self-possession, owning one’s self, being an autonomous agent, is critical to human life.
Self-possession implies property in some sense – being able to claim a personal right to generate wellbeing from the world we share with other people and organisms. At one point in their influential new book, David Graeber and David Wengrow endorse societies that “guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life”3 and it seems implicit in their view that this also means people in these societies guaranteed each other the means to an autonomous life, however varied notions of what constitutes a person and what constitutes autonomy might be in different times and places.
But how best to make this guarantee in the face of other people’s claims and the more collective aspects of social life is by no means straightforward, especially for those of us with some kind of leftist commitment to equity of one sort or another. So, for us, how to generate or mediate the social is problematic – which I guess is why I’ve spent a lot of time in my writing worrying about how to relate personhood and self-possession to collectivities like families, commons, communities, publics, classes, and states, without coming up with any ultimately satisfactory answers. In my view that’s probably okay, because I don’t think there are any ultimately satisfactory answers. There are permanent tensions involved in human politics, and these are some of them.
But at least by attending to them one is focusing on the right issues. To use Sennett’s terminology, I think creating inclusivity is a much harder problem than creating unity. But it’s a problem worth tackling, because as I see it insisting on a politics of unity long-term beyond transient political alliances creates more repressive, violent and anti-human societies than ones that focus on inclusivity. There are some radically different ways of trying to create inclusivity, and their fortunes depend on the wider social forces in play at a given place and time. I’ll say more about that in my next post.
A final couple of points. I’ve been criticized over the years by a number of Marxists for my anti-modernist and localist politics, for example by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron who consider my politics “ripe for far-right appropriation” and my vision of agrarian futures as one of merely “ek[ing] out a living” rather than “truly living”. Here is where the camps of aggregative labour versus honest work, of unity versus inclusivity, talk past one another. I stand firm in my vision of a small farm future against Heffron and Heron’s modernizing, aggregating, and frankly very bourgeois view that their version of class politics shines a modernizing light of improvement onto rural lives they arrogantly consider blighted by the particularities of local livelihood and community. One reason I’m a big believer in small farmers obtaining secure private property rights whenever they can is that it helps them avoid getting ‘improved’ out of existence through grandiose and usually ill-fated modernization schemes of the kind Heffron and Heron seem to favour.
As to ‘far-right appropriation’, I simply reject the notion there are prior political unities that anyone can draw lines around and defend against anyone else’s appropriations. The accusation stems from that top-down, imposed conception of supposed ‘unity’. For sure, one can make an issue of localism, culture, particularity and self-possession in ways that could lead to fascist misery. One can also make an issue of class unity and the supposed idiocy of rural life in ways that lead to dead peasants, gulags and communist misery. It’s easy to get into these thin-end-of-the-wedge type arguments, but now more than ever I don’t think they’re illuminating. The political field is changing, and old political demarcation lines offer increasingly poor guidance to the future. But older forms of politics are still relevant, as I will try to show in upcoming posts.
I’m drawing here on William Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis.
Richard Sennett. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. p.39.
David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything. p.48.
And so the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has drawn to a close. Time for another break from my present blog cycle for a few thoughts on the implications.
Prior to the meeting the eco-philosopher Rupert Read wrote that he was hoping for a bad outcome because then “we citizens of the world will finally know the truth: that it’s up to us now. Us the people.”
This comment was met with some bewilderment or even anger among climate activists and technocrats. But I knew what he meant, and I agreed. The worst outcome would be if there were some apparently big breakthroughs that prompted unwary journalists and other opinion formers into thinking real movement had occurred and that the powers that be were on the case, only for it to turn out to be just more ‘blah blah blah’ to coin the phrase used by many of the activists at the meeting.
Well, there was certainly a lot of blah blah blah, and few commentators seems to be hailing the outcome as remotely equal to the crisis. Some are opting for a ‘glass half full narrative’ that courts the dangerous middle ground I mentioned (at least we’re now ‘phasing down’ coal and have ‘pledges’ on methane and deforestation etc). But with Bill McKibben, a somewhat more mainstream climate activist than Read, writing “It’s a fairy tale that world governments will fix our climate crisis. It’s up to us” I think it would be fair to say Read got his wish. Professor Kevin Anderson was blunter, saying that at COP26 “world leaders collectively chose to sign a death warrant”.
I’m with Read et al in thinking that governments won’t solve this and it’s up to us. But there’s a problem. What exactly should ‘we’ do? I spent a day in Glasgow at COP26, listening to some understandably angry and emotional youth activists exclaiming that it was they and not the politicos cloistered inside the Blue Zone who were the real leaders, but saying little about what their leadership entailed and how it was going to sort out the climate crisis. In the evening, I went on an Extinction Rebellion march intended to raise a rumpus outside a building where world leaders were allegedly dining, but in the end the police corralled us down a side street far out of earshot of any leaders, where we stood singing a familiar XR song:
People got the power
Tell me can you hear us
Getting stronger by the hour
Power! People! People! Power!
But the most abiding image for me of the event was the cold steel entry grille to the Blue Zone, which was as close as this particular person got to any power, ie. not very. I gather that many of those in possession of the appropriate authorizations to get beyond it didn’t feel much different.
Well, it’s easy to be cynical. The fact is, theoretically it’s not too late to avert average global warming in excess of 1.5oC above preindustrial levels – although it almost is – and there are lots of politicians, scientists, civil servants, academics, activists and others working hard to secure that outcome. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that humanity doesn’t put into the atmosphere brightens the future, so I salute their efforts.
All the same, I don’t think their efforts will be equal to the task, because there’s a large human impediment to it in the structures of political-economic power, for which all the steel grilles, police officers and elaborate entry authorizations in Glasgow stand as a metaphor. Some call it capitalism, or we could speak instead of growthism, developmentalism, various other isms or more generally the idea of ‘progress’ that I discuss particularly between pages 53 and 88 of my book. This article about India’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2070 does quite a good job of examining whether this is a real breakthrough or blah blah blah, but the article’s unspoken assumption that, for the land of Gandhi as for everywhere else, there’s only one path to ‘development’ involving increased energy use, industrialization, urbanization and so forth pretty much gives the game away. Without a different political-economic model to that, it certainly is too late.
But too late for what? Too late to preserve the existing global political economy, certainly. But since this ill serves most people and most other organisms globally, that’s not in itself a bad thing. Perhaps the real problem is that none of the alternatives – like the small-scale neo-agrarianism I advocate – have any real mass traction.
In the face of that reality, a lot of people retreat to familiar forms of modernist politics and find vindication for the flavour they prefer in the COP26 outcome. On the left, there’s a lot of talk assimilating climate change to working-class struggles for justice and against capitalism. A historical problem for the left here is that not many working-class struggles for justice have really been fundamentally anti-capitalist, and the ones that have been have rarely lasted long. While some on the left downplay the likely effects of climate change and preserve top billing for the politics of labour, others invoke climate change as a kind of revolutionary prime mover to kickstart the stalled communist transition. To me, it seems likely that climate change will be a revolutionary prime mover, but the nature of prime movers is that they don’t usually deliver to order on the programmes of older political traditions.
Anatol Lieven neatly satirises this kind of thing in invoking Naomi Klein’s book about climate change, This Changes Everything. He writes that he’s fully in agreement with the title, but “The problem is that among the things it has not in fact changed is Klein’s own ideological priorities, which remain almost exactly what they would have been if climate change did not exist”1.
I’d argue this also applies often enough to those on the left who are switching their allegiance from the industrial working class to indigenous peoples as the subset of oppressed humanity most likely to bring about revolutionary renewal, thereby preserving their conviction that such a world-transforming subset of people actually exists. This idea is getting wider traction because many indigenous people are bearing the brunt of climate breakdown, are often skilled through long cultural practice at political resistance, are in the forefront of further capitalist extractivism, and may have a thing or two to teach about non-capitalist lifeways.
All of this is true, but I’m not convinced it gives sufficient leverage to generate a climate-proofed postcapitalist politics. One left-wing critic of mine wrote that my book says nothing about ‘indigeneity’ – kind of true inasmuch as I don’t use that deeply problematic term in it, but kind of untrue inasmuch as the whole drift of the book is against claims to authentic political or other identities of the kind that ‘indigeneity’ involves. I consider these politically disastrous, especially for humanity’s climate-challenged future.
This is especially true since much the most successful claims to indigeneity in the modern world have been nationalist ones along the lines that the government of a defined area serves the needs of a geographically and often ethnically exclusive people. Anatol Lieven, who I mentioned above, argues that because of this very success effective action on climate change must be built around nationalism via notions of consistent identity, individual sacrifice, and historical persistence. While he satirises the left for its vision of a “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse inhabited by diverse but mutually respectful populations” he rather hoists himself on his own petard by calling for “intelligent, far-sighted” versions of nationalism, and not “stupid, short-sighted” ones2. Yeah right, that’s really what you’re gonna get if you invoke the animal spirits of the nation…
You can see how this might pan out in some of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s pronouncements and actions around COP26. On the one hand, he warned of “shortages…movements, contests for water, for food, huge movements of peoples. Those are things that are going to be politically very, very difficult to control”. Meanwhile, his government is trying to figure out how to flout various international laws to turn back from British shores the currently rather small number of boats carrying undocumented migrants, suggesting what kind of reception those huge movements of people in the future are likely to get (but I think he’s right that, ultimately, these movements are going to be politically difficult to control, which has interesting implications). Despite claiming that, regarding climate change, we’re currently “5-1 down at half time”, Johnson also believes we can “build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight” with such things as zero-emission planes allowing us – or at least some of us – to “fly guilt-free” in the future. All in all, less national sacrifice and more nationalist fantasy.
Without a persuasive mass climate politics from either left, right or middle, it’s easy to succumb to despair, as I did for a brief period recently. As I see it, going through a period of despair is better than clinging to false optimism or the boilerplate solutionism of modernist politics. But after the despair the approach I now favour is for people just to do something that they feel called to do. In my case, I think that’s going to be helping build up the human, plant and animal community on my little farm, pushing a distributist land reform politics where I can, carrying on with some writing, and probably calling time on my fledgling career as an environmental protestor.
My wife, whose career in the latter regard has been considerably more distinguished than mine, has come to a similar conclusion, more or less. While she was away blocking motorways and parliaments with Insulate Britain, I followed the news avidly and got myself pretty riled up when I felt the targeting or messaging of the group was wrong. I’ve had some interesting conversations about this with her. She takes the view that we cannot know the efficacy of our actions. There’s a case sometimes for getting over our individual selves and opinions and participating within a wider movement, even when we consider it flawed … and there’s also a case sometimes for not doing that. Either way, she’s increasingly lost interest in the opinion-mongering of those who think they know what should be done or what people should think, including her own. Indeed, there’s quite a bit of blah blah blah beyond the Blue Zone too, which can be problematic in its own way. And if you want my opinion, I think she has a point.
Some conclusions, then. It’s not too late, but it’s over. The global political impasse over climate change does suggest that it’s now down to “us, the people” to address the problem. None of ‘us’ really knows how to do that, but maybe it doesn’t matter. We will do it in a myriad piecemeal ways. Some of those ways, as per Boris Johnson’s remarks, will probably be ugly. I hope that other, prettier ways will supersede them. A fond hope? Probably, but the “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse” that Lieven scorns may not everywhere be quite as far-fetched as he supposes, and I will try to explain why in upcoming posts. So my plan for meeting the climate apocalypse is to keep thinking, keep writing, keep farming and keep being hopeful (but not ‘optimistic’) as best I can. What’s yours?
Anatol Lieven. 2020. Climate Change and the Nation State, p.120.
And so we come to the thorny issue of landownership and property rights in a small farm future, which I discuss in Chapter 13 of my book.
A lot of people I encounter profess complete disdain for the very idea of ‘owning’ land, usually along the lines of the words attributed to Chief Seattle: the earth does not belong to people, people belong to the earth.
Well, I agree. But my interest in landownership is not so cosmological. Less to do with the spirit, and more to do with the stomach. What I want to know is whether it’s OK for me and my folks to fish at this spot in the river, or sow wheat on this patch of land, or take firewood from this part of the woodland. And these are not trivial questions when you need to make a livelihood directly from the land among multitudes of other people, as I believe many or most of us will have to in the future.
It’s this relationship with other people that’s critical, and I believe isn’t as well understood as it should be by critics of the idea of ownership. If I say that I ‘own’ some land, this isn’t fundamentally a claim about my relationship to the land in question. It’s a claim about my relationship to other people in respect of the land – essentially that I have some agreed rights of appropriation in respect of the land that they do not. Fundamentally, property rights are social relations between people. And these relations can be parcelled up in almost endless ways. I may have appropriation rights over fishing a river, but only for certain kinds of fish, or at certain times of year, or if I offer certain gifts to a local dignitary or deity. I may have an exclusive right to plant a field, but not to hunt on it, or dig for minerals on it, or build a house on it, or stop other people from walking over it. In this sense, I think it’s possible to agree with Chief Seattle while still claiming to ‘own’ a piece of land.
So property ownership implies social agreement, even if it’s grudging. If I ask someone not to fish this stretch of river because I own the fishing rights here, I’m implying that both of us are bound by some wider social compact to which we both owe fealty and which by some due process internal to it has accorded me, and not them, the fishing rights. In the absence of that social agreement, ownership means nothing. It’s my word, my fishing rod, or my gun, against theirs.
What is this wider social compact? A word that often springs to the lips is ‘the community’, or some version thereof. In his response to my previous post, Col Gordon discussed the traditional runrig system of Scottish Highland land use in which “the resource base of the land was held communally”. I’m cautious of invoking terms like ‘communal’ or ‘community’ because I think they too often operate as feelgood words that conceal internal politics. Maybe it’s worth substituting a less feelgood word like ‘the government’ to guard against this – “the resource base of the land was held by the government” has a different feel, and in my opinion better captures the messy political realities, even in localized ‘self’-governing situations.
There’s a bad tendency to seek the ‘true’ form of property rights and government by locating it at some historical point of origin. This applies to the founders of modern capitalist ideology like John Locke in their attempts to justify forms of individualism and private property rights. But it also applies to those who justify collectivism as the original human condition. Colonial situations of the kind that concerned both Chief Seattle and Col Gordon are particularly fraught, because the obvious injustice when a private property regime is imposed by force upon a more collectivist one makes the latter seem more original and authentic. This easily obscures the tensions of the prior collectivist system and its own possibly troubled history.
That is not, of course, to say that historical injustices like colonial appropriation of land requires no restitution. But it may mean that achieving the restitution could prove complicated. And this is particularly true if we view property regimes not just as an economic or cultural choice made by given people, but as an ecological strategy followed by people to make a livelihood in the circumstances particular to their time and place. If those circumstances have changed, it may no longer make sense to revert to pre-existing property regimes. This is one of several reasons why I find the idea of solving the problems created by what some call racialized global capitalism by recourse to what some call indigenous land management a bit more problematic than it might appear.
To summarize so far: any claim of ownership or rights to usage over land is a social relation between people which implies a wider political agreement, and it’s probably best not to promote any particular kind of ownership right as inherently superior on the basis of historical origins. Whether we’re talking about fishing a river, the Scottish runrig system and its successors, John Locke’s enthusiasm for private property or Chief Seattle’s scepticism about it, my suggestion is that every possible way that humans have devised to make a livelihood from the land individually or collectively involves problematic inter-human relationships that we can dump in a file called ‘government’. I will try to open up that file in a forthcoming post.
For now, I just want to make a few comments about four broad kinds of property regime around which I’ll organize my discussion in the next few posts.
First, there is distributed private property. In this situation, pretty much everyone has access to an (inevitably small) bit of land that they can call their own. As per my discussion above, their rights of appropriation over it probably won’t be total, but they will have substantial day-to-day autonomy with how they organize their affairs in respect of it.
Second, there is monopoly private property. Here, private landownership is concentrated in few hands, whether a hereditary aristocracy, a moneyed class of more porous membership, or a private collectivity like a business corporation. In this situation, those who aren’t part of the land-monopolizing class may have to rent land or buy its products from the monopolists, probably on unfavourable terms by virtue of the latter’s monopoly. This is called ‘economic rent’ or ‘Ricardian rent’, as discussed at some length in my book – the key point being that monopoly control enables the monopolist to squeeze the unlanded beyond what could be sustained in an evenly distributed land allocation.
Third, there is public property. In this situation, property rights are invested in a corporate body that exercises them exclusively, typically nowadays in the form of a state that claims to do so legitimately because of a sovereignty that derives ultimately from the people it rules over.
Finally, there is common property (or ‘commons’). Here the land is owned by no single person or body, nor by a centralized state claiming sovereignty. Instead, appropriation rights are owned by a specific group of people who in theory have equal rights over it, as determined by protocols agreed among themselves (see A Small Farm Future pp.177-8).
Many of our standard political doctrines pin their colours largely to just one of these four forms of property. So for example, neoliberal capitalism favours monopoly private property, socialism in its various forms favours public property, while quite a bit of Chief Seattle inflected contemporary alternative economics thirsts for commons.
I’m going to look in more detail at each of the four types in forthcoming posts, but I’ll say right now that each of them has some obvious drawbacks, and I find it impossible to be enthusiastic about any single one of them as a fundamental basis for organizing society. One drawback shared by most of them is the tendency for control to fall into the hands of a few relatively unaccountable people at the expense of the many, and to operate at an inappropriately large and unresponsive scale.
So I don’t personally favour any single one of these forms of property. But I do have my preferences. Whereas modern capitalist countries like Britain are typically a mix of monopoly private property and public ownership, with a small serving of distributed private property and the tiniest sliver of common property, I favour on the contrary a small farm future comprising a lot of distributed private property, quite a bit of common property, a small serving of public property and barely a sliver of monopoly private property. So pretty much a reversal of the status quo.
When people profess their opposition to ‘private property’ they rarely seem to grasp how utterly different societies of distributed private property are from ones of monopoly private property, nor – given the separability of different kinds of property rights – how extraordinarily totalitarian are societies lacking de facto private property rights in anything.
There’s also considerable contemporary ignorance about the fact that a century or so ago there were powerful currents of political thought opposing the erosion of distributed private property rights through wage labour, industrial work discipline and monopoly capital. In the event, monopoly capital and collective labour politics prevailed during the 20th century, and these older currents of thought faded. But though they lost the political battle in the short-term, they weren’t necessarily wrong. The disasters of 20th century capitalism and communism have delivered us into a historical moment when those older arguments may have some currency again.
The distributists were proponents of one such strand of argument, and Sean Domencic has persuaded me that I’m (more or less) a latter-day distributist inasmuch as I think that widespread ownership of farmland for the production of food and fibre primarily for household and then for wider local use is desirable.
One advantage of distributed farmsteading is that it has a self-limiting orientation towards household need satisfaction rather than an expansionary orientation towards profit or productivity increase. But this requires strong (private) property rights of appropriation, to prevent external pressures for increase.
There’s a second and related advantage that I don’t think is talked about nearly enough nowadays, although it’s a familiar theme on this blog. This is the personal satisfaction of competently furnishing one’s own livelihood through skilled farming, gardening, foraging and craft skills. It’s possible to overdo this point and succumb to questionable ideologies of the rugged individualist sort. But so many people in the world today lack the opportunity, knowledge and skill to provide even the most basic perquisites of daily life, and I believe this is a silent pathology that eats at contemporary society.
Another advantage of local, small-scale, self-provisioning farm tenure is that it makes the ecological harms of one’s farming practices obvious and incentivizes people to avoid them. At the same time, it enables people to tap the economies of small, non-commercialized scale that I mentioned in a recent post.
Finally, as discussed in Chapters 12 and 13 of A Small Farm Future, an advantage of distributed property ownership and personal livelihood production is that it reduces the need for thrashing out agreements with other people over exactly how to go about one’s business. People in the alternative agriculture/alternative economics movements often say that we’re too individualist nowadays and we need to create more collective working structures. This is no doubt true in some ways, but it’s complicated. The more people you have to negotiate work routines with, the more time is sucked into the process and the more precious livelihood autonomy you lose. A nodding acquaintance with the agrarian structures of many non-capitalist and non-modern societies should be enough to show that selfishness, free-riding and general human orneriness are not limited to modern capitalist societies and need to be carefully managed everywhere. One of the easiest ways to do this involves the subsidiarity of undertaking everything that you realistically can yourself.
The main disadvantages of distributed private property are, as I see it, threefold. First there’s the flipside of the point I just made – the danger of an anomic individualism, lack of community feeling or hidden exploitation within the household. We’ve already discussed this at some length here, but no doubt we’ll return to it again.
The second disadvantage is that restricted divisions of labour and value extraction in a distributed small farm society may limit its technological possibilities. There won’t be Boeing 747s, Android Smartphones or even Massey Ferguson 135s in a genuinely distributed small farm society. There may, however, be blacksmiths who can keep a lot of useful local tech going. Given the urgent need to decarbonize, decapitalize and relocalize our political economies in view of present crises, I see this as probably an advantage rather than a disadvantage. But it involves a huge and perhaps impossible readjustment of contemporary horizons.
Finally, a disadvantage of distributed private property societies is that it’s pretty difficult to stop them from becoming monopoly private property societies, thereby losing all of the advantages that I’ve mentioned. I’ll talk more about this in a later post. The ghost of Henry George is stirring.
Ted Trainer has recently published a critical if fairly friendly essay about aspects of my book A Small Farm Future, called ‘Small Farm Future: why some anticipated problems will not arise’. In it, he references Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s critical and considerably less friendly essay about my book. I’d been thinking about responding when I came across an article by Sarah Mock called “I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. I couldn’t do it”. Mock is a former associate of Chris Newman, author of the widely aired essay “Small family farms aren’t the answer”. Also languishing on my to do list has been the idea of writing a response to Col Gordon’s podcast series Landed about regenerative farming in the Scottish Highlands, which I found excellent in almost every respect apart from its oft-repeated refrain that “the small family farm is a colonial concept”.
There’s considerable overlap between these various interventions around what I think are some quite problematic, if commonly held, views concerning individualism, collectivism, property and capitalism, and their implications for a small farm future. So since they’re somewhat a propos to the point I’ve reached in this blog cycle, I thought I’d address this using some of the aforementioned interventions as my cues. As someone who thinks that small family farms probably are the answer (depending a bit on what the question is) it seems worth stating the case for them, which I do below in the form of some bold declarations that I subsequently try to justify. I hope this may clarify key points of agreement and disagreement with the people mentioned above.
1. The small family farm is a resilient and successful socio-economic form. Mock’s essay heralding the demise of the small family farm is but one contribution to a voluminous global literature dating back centuries. Yet such farms keep holding on, or even springing up, in each new generation worldwide. You don’t see articles heralding the demise of the small family firm of carmakers, because such firms are long gone and the prospects for a household to scratch a living by manufacturing and selling cars are zero. Not so for producing and selling food. Hence, I’d suggest the considerable success of the small family farm is worth emphasizing.
There are two main reasons for its persistence. The first is that the forces of capitalization, rationalization, massification and industrialization that have revolutionized most industries, though all too apparent in agriculture too, have been less successful in this sector than most others, essentially because living ecologies are quite hard to commodify. The second is that possession of a small spread of land enables people to extricate themselves at least partially from those same forces of capitalization and massification, and this is therefore a permanently appealing possibility to people who seek autonomy from those forces.
As I see it, these two issues are likely to play out in the future in ways that make small farms much more common than they presently are in the rich countries. Indeed, while Mock is right that the present structure of the economy makes life hard for the small commercial farmer, the writing is manifestly on the wall for that structure, and the economy to come is likely to be more conducive to the small farmer, if not necessarily to the small commercial farmer.
2. The small family farm has worldwide appeal, and is not intrinsically a ‘colonial concept’. Mock claims in her article that the romantic ideal of a small family farm is virtually unique to the USA, but this is patently false. There’s a version of it in pretty much every country in the world. For sure, it’s invariably complicated by often bitter local histories of landlord domination, ethnic strife or colonial oppression, and it’s contested by the modernist lure of urbanism and its projected riches – a lure that, in my opinion, is every bit as romantic and problematic as its agrarian alternatives. In some places, the history of the small family farm is intimately bound up with colonialism, but small family farms are not intrinsically a colonial concept – an idea that would come as a surprise to many small family farmers throughout history in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas operating outside of colonial contexts, or running small family farms within them precisely as a positive and creative response to colonial oppressions.
3. Entrepreneurialism cannot be the bedrock of a just and renewable agrarian economy. Ted Trainer writes:
“Small Farm Future could give the impression that the small farms will be functioning according to institutions and mentalities that prevail today, that is, whereby farmers are independent “business-people” sinking or swimming by selling produce into markets, and are able and keen to accumulate wealth as individual competing mini-entrepreneurs”.
If that’s the impression people take from my book, then I’ve failed badly to convey my true thoughts – but I like to think that an attentive read of Chapter 14 should give the reader pretty much the opposite impression to the one Ted connotes, one that’s actually pretty similar to his own. As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter. To do so requires limiting the play of entrepreneurialism and the flow of capital, though perhaps not snuffing them out entirely.
Sarah Mock, on the other hand, endorses the market entrepreneurialism of new agrarian pioneers working under cooperative and collective arrangements where they “identify market opportunities” and work with “financiers to meet the needs of their customers as well as their partners and employees”. The problem with this is that they thereby submit themselves to precisely the same forces of capitalist rationalization that bear down on the small commercial family farmer. So whereas Mock implicitly brackets small family farmers with large-scale commercial operators and invokes commercial cooperative farming as a viable alternative, the truth is that all three are in the same boat when they operate commercially in generalized commodity markets. A few small family farmers and co-ops might survive in this situation – usually by increasing in size, cutting labour inputs and mechanizing, just as the corporates do – but the real dividing line is between commodity market operators of any kind and farms of any kind that are serving their own or heavily delimited local needs.
As far as I’ve been able to tell from a distance, this failing of the commercialized cooperative seems to have pretty much been the fate of Chris Newman’s Sylvanaqua Farm model – a fate that I predicted here, analyzed further here and that Mock herself critiqued in some detail here. It therefore surprises me that she doesn’t reflect a bit more critically on the difficulties of commercial cooperative farming in her present piece (incidentally, the Sylvanaqua commercial co-op was one of the models Heffron and Heron championed as a superior alternative to the small family farm).
Mock traces her enthusiasm for cooperative models to the pioneering efforts of people of colour in the USA, who “have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored”. For his part, Trainer imputes the ills of the present world to “12,000 years of conditioning to prioritise individualism, competitiveness and aggressive wealth acquisition”. I think a more nuanced reading is required in both cases, as I try to outline under the next two points.
4. People of colour have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored, but have not particularly proven or sought to prove that collective farming systems are superior. People who are subjected to discrimination and enforced poverty have little opportunity to improve their situation except by pooling their skills and what few resources they command – in this sense, I agree with Mock that people of colour in the USA historically have proven the viability of alternative and unfavoured farming systems. In a very different historical situation, Col Gordon makes a similar point about collective forms of subsistence cattle farming in the premodern Scottish Highlands. But in agrarian situations involving less extreme discrimination and impoverishment people typically develop systems that mix cooperative and private/household production, which each have their pros and cons. Such mixed collective/private systems have also been both an aspiration and an achievement of black farmers in the USA. Almost every enduring agrarian society involving collective property also involves private property. So it would be a good idea to stop talking about them as if they’re incompatible, and to home in a little more carefully on the nature of the different property regimes involved – something I’ll elucidate in upcoming essays here.
5. Capitalist societies do not prioritise individualism or competitiveness. Ted’s “12,000 years” reference is presumably to the conventionally reckoned dawn of agriculture, but for now I’m just going to refer to modern capitalism, which is often described as individualistic, competitive and accumulative. I agree with the accumulative bit, and I agree that in a certain sense modern capitalist societies could be described as individualistic and competitive. But this is also quite misleading. Take a walk around one of the city blocks where most people in the rich countries live these days. Look at people’s dwellings – those tiny spaces, those vast sinks of energy, water, food and resources from elsewhere. The people living in them could barely survive a week without relying on a huge network of other people to service them – there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about them, apart from the fact that their occupants often feel lonely and crave more human companionship, which is ‘individualistic’ only in a rather special sense. And most of these people work for huge corporations or public bodies whose modus operandi generally involves eliminating competition, not encouraging it.
6. Many people seek autonomy and a sense of personal, practical competence within a wider community, of the kind that’s possible in a small farm society. Ted Trainer argues that in the future people will need to develop new forms of local cooperation. I agree, although in many ways they will be reinventions of older forms of local cooperation. But in view of the highly collective nature of contemporary capitalist societies just mentioned, I don’t think it will necessarily be so hard to do this.
I think the hardest thing to develop in the small farm societies succeeding our present urban-capitalist ones won’t be the collectivism but the individualism – the jack-of-all-trades practical competence, the sense of making do without being able to call in expert help or cheap, pre-manufactured solutions, the autonomy of everyday decision-making on the farm.
Sometimes, this agrarian individualism gets associated with right-wing attitudes that wrongly scorn the inability of poor people to help themselves (on which, see point 4 above). Yet those who live in low-energy small farm societies know that they absolutely rely on a wider community to prosper. In such societies, there’s a creative tension between individualism, autonomy and personal competence on the one hand and community support and integration on the other. It’s the very lack of individualism in modern capitalist society – our inability to deliver the basic self-care of producing food, clothes and shelter – that many people find so alienating, and that draws them to the ‘romance’ of the small farm. But re-creating that individualism and practical competence isn’t easy.
7. Commons are specific, and delimited. The typical form of collectivism in low-energy small farm societies is a commons – common grazing, common irrigation strategies, common woodland management and the like. I’ll say more about this in another post, but usually commons are specific to particular people and activities and form a relatively small and delimited though important part of day-to-day economic life in low-energy societies. Modern activists have got into very generalized ways of talking about commons – ‘the digital commons’, ‘the atmospheric commons’, even ‘the global commons’ – which may have tactical payoffs but are also quite misleading. There’s often a lot of work involved in low-energy, local societies when people of equal standing and no hierarchical authority structure come together to thrash out collective agreements. So they try to avoid it unless the alternatives are obviously worse.
Also, the specific character of the common resource is important. In a low capital/energy society, it makes little sense for people to graze cattle individually – but it may make sense for them to milk cattle, or make hay, or grow vegetables or cereals individually, and this is often what happens. So when Col Gordon contrasts the early commons-based subsistence cattle economy of the Scottish Highlands with a later private mixed farming economy in the area he’s not really comparing like with like. He nicely shows in his podcasts that the colonization of the premodern Highland pastoral economy by Scottish and English interests themselves resting on a wider colonial project were instrumental in creating a mixed farming economy based on private ownership. This is not the same as showing that the private character of mixed farm tenure is itself a colonial concept.
8. Humans are not ants, and status contests are a real thing in every human society. Here I come to probably my main point of disagreement with Ted Trainer. If I understand him rightly, he thinks a new cooperative human culture without status contests must be created to generate renewable local societies (so do Heffron and Heron). I don’t think this is feasible, though fortunately I don’t think it’s necessary either – but I do agree that cooperation must be emphasized and status contests limited.
One dimension of this that I won’t say much about here is gender relations and patriarchy. Bizarrely, Heffron and Heron characterize my arguments as ‘patriarchal’, whereas every other reviewer who’s commented on this has correctly seen them as anti-patriarchal. Ted considers the whole issue a red herring, because he thinks future cooperative societies will be intrinsically gender equal. I find this a bit complacent, but I hope he’s right that the gains of modern feminism will be sustained and amplified through the troubles to come. However, I don’t think it’ll happen by default, so I make no apologies for making an issue of it in my book.
Leaving gender aside, I do want to make some further remarks about more general tendencies towards status differentiation in human interactions. People have a fine-honed tendency to try to get one over other people, and to try to make themselves the big man (or woman – but usually man) who gathers camp followers around them. It’s kind of ironic that one of the most prominent schools of thought nowadays that seeks to refute this as a basis of social action comprises people who seem happy to call themselves ‘Marxists’. People play the holier than thou game in all sorts of unexpected arenas of human interaction – for example, in claims to being a proper farmer, a real permaculturist or to being especially masterful at mindfully letting go of petty human concerns. I discuss this in Chapter 16 of my book and will come back to it in a future post.
But people also have a fine-honed tendency to try to take others down a peg or two and to contest claims of superior status. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest the anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues there are evolutionary reasons for this hierarchy-equality dualism that stretch into humanity’s deep past. Whether he’s right or not there’s a mountain of evidence from numerous societies spanning human history that people are forever playing games of status aggrandizement and status levelling (including, of course, evidence from modern communist societies).
Ted writes that “Hunter gatherer societies have mechanisms which prevent the emergence of inequality and greedy tyrants”, which is exactly right, but I think this supports my position better than his. These societies need to contrive explicit mechanisms to prevent status differentiation, precisely because humans, while intrinsically social, are not intrinsically collectivist – and hunter gatherer peoples are keenly aware of the problems that arise if they don’t take active steps to stop would-be big men from taking hold. Truly collectivist species – ants, for example – have no need to invent mechanisms that keep their individual members in line.
When I was on a panel a while back with a prominent US farmer involved in a cooperative farm, I asked her if she’d learned any lessons about how to run such a cooperative enterprise successfully. As I recall, she pulled a face and said something along the lines that the more people you work with, the more arguments and obstacles you face. As someone who’s a member of various co-ops myself, I recognized the pain in her face, though I also recognize that co-ops can still be a good idea. She imputed the problems to the selfishness of the modern capitalist societies we live in, but for the reasons I’ve mentioned above I think it goes a lot deeper than that.
So, in summary, I disagree with Ted that selfishness, self-aggrandizement and status conflict won’t be problems in renewable future societies. They’re a problem in every human society. But on the upside, as his example of hunter gatherer societies suggests, this isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem in creating functional egalitarian societies. Indeed, clever societies find ways to make use of people’s status-climbing energies while preventing them from becoming destructive.
Nevertheless, status conflict does need careful attention and management. Cooperatives whose members claim to get along perfectly with no need for conflict resolution are usually riven with implicit tensions that quickly tear them apart – often enough even ones that claim to be based on the collectivist wisdom of older or non-capitalist societies. I think there’s a wider lesson there for the cooperative societies of the future.
9. We need to talk about ‘the family’ part of ‘the small family farm’. I’m not going to do it here, because this essay is long enough already and because to some extent I’ve already done it here and here. But, as with status contest, there’s a need to acknowledge that family relationships are and will likely continue to be a critical part of life, and wise societies try to make the best of their positives while mitigating their negatives.
I think there’s a failure of left-wing or ‘progressive’ thought on this issue that allows the right to run riot with the concept of the family. Many people on the left that I know devote enormous attention to parental, sibling and spousal relationships in their personal lives and yet are scornful of family relationships in their writing and politics.
In his A People’s Green New Deal Max Ajl calls for agrarian reform to break large farms “into units which can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives”, and again talks elsewhere of the need for small plots workable by “non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117 and p.144). He doesn’t expand on these sensible suggestions (and Kai Heron doesn’t press him on them in his interview with Max, despite the strictures against family farming he expresses in his critique of me). Fair enough, maybe – but it does leave some questions open about the shape of family farming in the futures they envisage. Ultimately, analysis of the ‘family’ part of the ‘small family farm’ is necessary, because it’s not going to go away.
10. We also need to talk about states and publics. Again, I won’t say much about this here for brevity and because I’ll be writing about it in future essays. But just briefly, Ted says that I suggest certain problems might “have to be dealt with by “public” means, without detailing how”. This seems a bit harsh, given that I devote some attention in my book to the concept of the public sphere, to civic republican politics and to the concept of the supersedure state. Ted himself talks of “formal arrangements for dealing with problems individually or publicly” – also without detailing how! Regarding Heffron and Heron, he writes that they “do not make clear what they would want but it would seem that the core Marxist principle of eliminating private ownership of the means of production would lead them to advocate state ownership of the farming sector.”
Heffron has certainly advocated for the nationalisation of landownership, so that sounds about right. Personally, I’m not so keen to hand Boris Johnson the keys to my farm, but I doubt Heffron really favours that either. The way Marxist theories of the state generally get around this is to imagine that a working-class revolution will occur in which the state becomes the servant of an uncorrupted people’s will. Right-wing or cultural nationalists also think the state serves an uncorrupted people’s will, but of a different kind and genesis. Ted seems to think something similar, albeit again with a different framing.
I don’t share this viewpoint, and I’m extremely wary of any approach to the state that sees it as a positive manifestation of some unfolding political good. As I see it, supervening political authority is a contrivance and an unfortunate necessity that’s always likely to fail in various potentially unpleasant ways. But it’s not inevitably fated to fail everywhere and at all times. On that slim possibility, I hang my hopes. Such hopes, however, can only ever be realised in practice, by people figuring out the politics in the lived reality of their daily lives. They can’t be written down as a blueprint in a book. In that sense, I could never “detail how” republics can sort out political problems, however many words I’m allowed. Therefore I can’t honestly apologise for not trying.
Nearly twenty years ago, we planted seven acres of woodland on our holding with help from a government grant that stipulated the trees must be native woodland varieties. Among the ones we chose were crab apples, which we planted along the rides and woodland edges because of their growth habit, sourcing the saplings from a nursery specializing in native woodland trees.
As the trees developed, it became clear they weren’t just ordinary crabs – I guess they’d crossed with cultivated varieties to produce large, juicy, dessert-apple type fruits. The fruits were still pretty unappealing to the human palate but not so, I discovered, to the porcine one. Over the years, our pigs have been happy to chow down on them without limit. In the last month or two of their lives, the two pigs I raised this year ate little else.
But since the apple trees are spread around the holding along the rides and it’s not really practicable to let the pigs range at large, this bounty involves us picking or collecting most of the apples for them. Recently, I’ve been going out at least a couple of times every day with a large trug, filling it with the not-quite-crabs, and taking it to the pig enclosure. After a while, a distinctive apple browse line developed on the trees at my 5’10” plus an arm length height. From then on, I contrived various tricks – jumping for apples, shaking them off the high boughs or pulling the branches down with my shepherd’s crook. When my son and his girlfriend visited, she sat on his shoulders and threw apples down from on high, one at a time into the trug.
The pigs went to slaughter this week, and I’m already missing my daily apple-wrangling walks, zinging arms from the nettled brush around the trees included. As rather occasional meat-eaters, the two pigs should keep my wife and I ticking over with chops and sausages for quite some time. As I mentioned in A Small Farm Future (pp.190-1), I think the relatively free-ranging woodland lifestyle of my pigs along with their mixed diet of mostly fresh wholefoods like the crab apples gives their meat a quality you’re unlikely to find in any store-bought pork. But if I were raising pigs commercially and trying to earn a living wage, you can be sure there wouldn’t be much jumping for crab apples in my business model.
There are four wider points I want to draw out from all this.
First, within every human ecology – including every farm – there is almost always some extra bounty available that can increase the flow of food or fibre, but it will probably require additional inputs, often human labour. True, we might have saved ourselves work had we planted the crabs in the pig enclosure from the outset, although we couldn’t have known in advance how bountiful they would prove, and they do other work where they’re sited. Plus, there’s other forage for the pigs in their enclosure – with pigs, the fodder footprint invariably exceeds the fencing one.
Someone cleverer than me might be able to calculate an energy return on investment figure or a kind of counterfactual trophic analysis. If we left the apples, let the birds, rodents, insects or microbes eat them, and fed the pigs on something else, how might the balance of labour input and food output on the farm look then? In the absence of such data, I’d suggest that given the excrement from the pigs who eat the apples and from the people who eat the pigs stays on the farm, and given the improvement in the mental and physical health of the farmer and his family gained from their apple walks, it’s a fair bet that collecting up the crabs brings a positive return. So, whatever the ins and outs of our crab apple story, I think the broader point remains. There is bounty on the farm, but you have to work for it. Those who espouse ‘land sparing’ or ‘intensive’ agriculture will hopefully agree that the labour intensification on my farm enabling me to substitute apples for fodder grown on cropland elsewhere is a good illustration of their point.
But – and this is my second point – while it’s feasible to wander around a smallholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two pigs, it probably isn’t feasible to wander around a largeholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two hundred or two thousand pigs. So there are diseconomies of large scale to the ecological efficiency of the farm’s unbidden bounty.
Still – third point – this kind of ecological efficiency or land-sparing intensification is costly in terms of human labour time, and we seem deeply opposed to labour intensification in modern life, particularly when it relates to farming. Almost uniquely among the sectors of the labour market, in modern times we celebrate when jobs are lost from agriculture, not gained.
The main reason for this is that it’s easier to generate a larger hourly wage in other sectors, and nowadays we tell ourselves a story that a larger wage equates to larger happiness. No doubt there’s some truth in that, although as the fossil-fuelled growth engines of the global industrial economy palpably begin to splutter, it seems destined to be less true of the immediate future than it’s been of the immediate past. But besides all that, it is to a large degree just a story that we tell ourselves. I’m all in favour of the occasional, quietly contemplative, hands-in-pockets country walk but, well, walking the known routes of my farm, trug in hand, to collect apples to feed the pigs to feed me is ultimately more meaningful, and more fun.
Modern society has built a vast cultural edifice of anti pastoral, anti ‘romantic’, pro urbanist myth-making to negate the idea that the rural smallholding life is a meaningful one. Well, I concede that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But plenty of people already see through these myths, and their numbers are only likely to grow as it dawns quite how unappealing the alternative brews on offer increasingly are. How people choose to live and what they value are not fixed on tablets of stone, but respond to the circumstances they experience and the stories they’re told. Both are changing.
Walking around a holding with a trug choosing the right crab apples to deliver to the pigs can be spiritually rewarding, but it’s not especially taxing intellectually or physically. Even so, it’s a task that’s currently beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated of robots. But consider this thought experiment. Suppose a renewably-powered robot is invented that can achieve this task as precisely as you, at a price that you can afford by selling a few joints of pork or other smallholding products. This seems to me an unlikely happenstance, but just suppose. What would you then do? Possibly, you could tend the robot that tended you, but it’s unlikely. With a bit of instruction, most of us can learn how to keep a basic heat engine of the kind you find in an old tractor more or less ticking along, but the engineering involved in such a robot would be quite beyond us.
With this robot, I think we would have created a simulacrum of ourselves that would steal meaning from our lives, while possessing none of its own. And we would mooch around our smallholdings, hands in pockets, envying our busy robots. Or more likely mooch around our urban parks, wondering at the meaning of life and whether this is really all there is.
Or we could forget about labour-saving robots and just go out and pick some freaking apples. Then in our spare time, we could do things like writing blog posts enthusing about the job-creating possibilities of the smallholding life. Or pamphlets anyway.
But, and here I come to my fourth and final point, this latter possibility comes with a necessary precondition. We can only realistically do this if we can exercise substantially autonomous choice over our livelihood-generating and self-provisioning strategies. We can’t do it if we’re under external pressure to raise our output levels and lower our input costs. In other words, we probably can’t do it if we’re under consistent pressure from market or state forces to improve our economic ‘efficiency’ – and, by that token, probably diminish our ecological efficiency. Which is to say that we probably can’t do it unless we have strong proprietorial rights over our smallholdings.
And this brings us to the question of tenure and property rights, which I will be examining in my next few posts.