Spudman meets the physiocrats

I promised you a respite from ecomodernism and I plan to keep my word. So, tempting though it is to essay a response to Suzy Waldman’s critical Tweets about my last blog post, I shall keep my powder dry for now. At least Suzy raises some genuinely interesting issues: proletarianization, what we want for our kids, and the economic fortunes of Burkina Faso. But if I write anything else about ecomodernism just now, I fear I’ll be sucked into a wormhole from which I shall never escape and spend the rest of my days muttering half-intelligible concatenations of phrases concerning the sparing of land, the budgeting of carbon, the salvation of cetaceans and the harvesting of cherries.

God forbid. So instead I plan to work my way towards answering Suzy more obliquely through Small Farm Future’s autumn seminar series in which I’m going to tell you about my pigs and my potatoes, say something about soil microbial life and – a related area – describe the nature of state formation and the peasant labour process. Then, let’s see now, I want to muse about meat, offer a brief analysis of the history of western economic thought, consider agricultural improvement in 19th century Scotland, and then expand the focus a bit to review the history of the entire world over the last nine million years. Meanwhile, in other news, the SFF office has received an interesting comment about our work on perennial grain crops from intermediate wheatgrass breeder Doug Cattani, and also an interesting comment on ‘land sparing’ arguments from agroecologist Jahi Chappell.

Anyway, all in all we have a packed autumn programme ahead of us – so do please get in, sit down, fasten your seatbelt and hold on. To save time, I may have to piggy-back some of the topics outlined above onto other ones. Indeed, let’s try that now. So today we’ll look at what my potato harvest can teach us about the history of western economic thought.

Farming on the micro-scale that I do, strict economic considerations suggest that I should probably devote myself largely to growing fancy salad leaves to garnish the plates of wealthy restaurant patrons, and then write my screeds about how small-scale farming can solve world hunger as a purely theoretical pursuit. However, some years ago my alter ego Spudman took me aside and pointed out there’s something of a contradiction there. Since then I’ve always tried to grow a little bit of a staple crop every year, usually potatoes, without beating myself up too much about the amount I grow in the face of the pressures for my farm to make money.

This year, my efforts have been especially desultory, as I’ve felt the need to prioritize other things. I bought 50kg of seed potatoes (25kg of earlies and 25kg of main crop), and cleared a total harvest of about 350kg. After so brazenly claiming in recent posts that small-scale farmers can produce higher per hectare yields, I’ve got to admit that this is an embarrassingly poor effort on my part. Naturally, I have an impressive suite of excuses at my command: in view of other priorities and the unpromising economics of small-scale commercial potato production, I didn’t sufficiently fertilise, ridge, weed or irrigate the crop during the hot, dry summer, and then the shaft on my vintage potato spinner gave out mid-harvest, leaving me with a more-troublesome-than-it-seems winter repair job and, most likely, more potatoes still in the ground than would otherwise have been the case, which will no doubt volunteer their presence in future years. Perennial crops, eh – dontcha just love ‘em!

Still, despite so grievously neglecting my charges, by putting my 50kg of seed potatoes in the ground in the spring, I managed by season’s end a sevenfold return on my investment. And that is a pretty magical result, is it not? So, at any rate, thought François Quesnay, whose Tableau économique of 1759 laid the foundations for the school of economic thought known as physiocracy. The physiocrats considered labour devoted to agriculture productive, and labour devoted to industry sterile. Perhaps one could say that the story of my potato harvest endorses their view: put a potato in the ground and it will reward you seven times over or more, put a steel shaft on a potato spinner and the damn thing just breaks. Eventually. Quesnay was also a physician, and perhaps a patriot: his metaphor of the economy was that of a corporeal body sustained by the circulation of things.

Now, I admit there are a number of additional complexities here, but this is a blog post, not a treatise on economic history, OK? Well now, there’s an idea! Let’s try to put the physiocrats into the broader context of the history of western economic thought, as typically conveyed in the ‘historical background’ paragraphs of standard economic textbooks. Or at least as might be conveyed in a first draft of such a textbook, before professional self-censorship intrudes.

So, first up, let’s hear it for the physiocrats. Their theories of ‘productive’ agriculture and ‘sterile’ manufacture were laughably misguided – show me the agrarian economy that can anywhere near match the economic productivity of an industrial one – but at least they were among the first to identify a distinctive phenomenon that we can call ‘the economy’, thus paving the way for the prodigious advances achieved by later economists. Indeed, the physiocrats were quickly superseded by Adam Smith, who gets the nod as the founding father of economics through his identification of something called the market, and not silly old agriculture, as the fundamental unit of analysis in the discipline. True, he had some funny ideas about agriculture and domestic trade being the ‘natural’ focus of economic development, in contrast to the ‘unnatural’ path taken in Europe by way of foreign trade, but every hero has an Achilles heel, right?

I suppose we now need to mention one Thomas Robert Malthus in our survey – not, heaven forbid, for his thoughts on population growth outstripping its resource base, which has turned out to be wrong and has earned Malthus a richly-deserved posthumous notoriety down to the present. I mean, OK, those thoughts exerted a big influence on Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection has earned him richly-deserved posthumous celebration down to the present. But the thing is, natural selection doesn’t really apply to humans because we’ve transcended nature through our technological knowhow, as proven by the fact there’ve been no major global Malthusian crises in the whole 200 years since he was writing, which is a very long time evolutionarily speaking. Anyway, the real importance of Malthus was in noticing that the tendency of markets to cycle between booms and busts suggests they don’t always work quite as smoothly as Smith conjectured – and that the job of economics is therefore to try and ensure they do.

Then there’s Ricardo, whose comparative advantage over Smith was his theory of comparative advantage, suggesting pace Smith that foreign trade is important after all. And also his theory of rent, suggesting pace the physiocrats that land rents arose from relative differences in land quality and not from the absolute bounty of land itself. Oh, and don’t forget Bentham, with his ridiculous useful quantification of abstraction and his illegitimately aggregative clever reduction of human values to the fungible, all wrapped up in that appalling famous phrase: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.

We should now perhaps mention some dissident visionaries, like Marx, Chayanov and Veblen. Actually, nah, let’s not. Much more important was the marginalist revolution of the late 19th century associated with the likes of Marshall and Jevons (he of Jevons paradox fame, paradoxically). This pushed Ricardo’s relativization a step further and established the modus operandi of neoclassical economics, which considers the level of prices, outputs and incomes relative to supply and demand. And that pretty much brings us into the era of modern economics, which has merely refined those basic themes of markets, trade, prices and outputs in the context of a modern global world market system that has taken relativization so far that our food prices tumble ever-downwards, and our complex fiscal instruments enable risk to be so relativized that even the poorest people in the developed western economies can now afford to take out sub-prime mortgages safely on modest homes, a privilege that will hopefully soon extend to poor people in the rapidly-urbanizing developing economies. And let us now end our history lesson there, circa 2007, for every history requires its end-point. Sure, some other stuff has happened since, but that’s history, eh? One damn thing after another.

But seriously now, what I find interesting about the historical trajectory that I’ve sketched above with such impartial scholarly acuity is that most of the early economists displayed strong concerns – perhaps you could call them anxieties – about agriculture and its attendant issues: the limits of productivity, the relations between humanity and nature, the effects of land quality and so on. This was gradually sundered from the economic package as we approach the present, until the discipline seemed to become almost wholly absorbed with the matter of price signals.

Another way of framing that historical trajectory in a single phrase might be ‘out of the absolute, the relative’. Indeed, you could probably say that of the social sciences in general. Social scientists of most varieties like to inhabit relations more than things. Not a bad instinct – holism over reductionism, relationality over essentialism, and so on. But I’d argue we now need something of a rebalancing towards the absolute. Not entirely – abandoning the vantage point of the relative is usually a quick route into the intellectual morass, which has swallowed up any number of ‘back to nature’ philosophies and provided endless point-scoring opportunities for those who like to stand on the apparently safe shore of the relative with the death-curse of ‘Malthusianism’ or ‘Stoicism’ on their lips. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a contemporary economics that properly wrestled with the problem of agriculture and environment in the way that the classical economists did?

True, there have been some noble efforts in recent times. The work of people like Georgescu-Roegen and Daly founded ecological economics and placed the presentiments of the physiocrats into the more precise language of energy and entropy. But somehow their efforts haven’t displaced the mainstream metaphor of markets chasing net present value as the central fact of modern life, or of Smith’s myth of the ‘invisible hand’. And though you could probably argue plausibly that this is because Smith’s myth suits the suits who run the world, I think there’s more to it than that. I think the metaphors of market, debt and money so deeply condition our thought, even among those of us inclined to reject them, that we’ve yet to find the cultural language we need to steer our way with sufficient intellectual subtlety between the Scylla of natural absolutism and the Charybdis of net present value, price signals, market efficiency and all the rest.

Smith was remarkably prescient in describing the logic of an economic order that, in 1776 when his Wealth of Nations was published, had scarcely even begun to take shape. The tragedy of the economic discipline he helped found is that it’s been so successful at creating self-fulfilling prophecies, making the world over in the image of its distorted models of it. What we need now is a Smith for our times, someone who can breathe new life into the physiocrats’ metaphor of the biota as a body corporate, with a currency of energy and life, without forgetting what we’ve learned in the interim about the relational character of the (human) world. Which is why (memo to self) I want to remain open to people articulating alternative ‘back to nature’ philosophies of natural absolutes, however dubious I find them intellectually. They’re identifying a real problem in contemporary culture, which we will only overcome if we ruminate on it from many angles. In the meantime, I plan to curate the investment bestowed me by the sun in the form of my potato harvest, to fix the darned potato spinner, and to meditate some more on the economy of water and nitrogen as well as of relative human values.

17 thoughts on “Spudman meets the physiocrats

  1. Jesus, Chris, sure you have been consuming some spoiled rye? I’m going to have study in my spare time to keep up with the range of this piece. But I do wonder if we might want to give Mr. Malthus another 100 years and reconsider his standing.

    • You could be onto something with your spoiled rye theory, Brian…it’d explain a lot of strange happenstances in my life recently…

    • Spoiled rye is one theory… my theory involves lightning rods. I’m persuaded that Chris has built his lightning rod too high toward the stratosphere and as such is catching more than his fair share of spark. Some of this ‘spark’ is good, some not so. The difficulty comes from catching so much that one has quite a time trying to decide which is which (without getting shocked). And of course this sort of thing is what lead our elders to admonish us to be well grounded.

      Just sayin….

      • Hmm, and there was me feeling all proud about the lofty intellectual tower I’d built. Oh well, perhaps I’d better just accept the feedback and write something more grounded next time.

        • …though as an afterthought, Clem, if you were minded to try to work out which bits of the spark you find good and which bits not so, I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts…

          • It appears I’ve left a comment of misdirected content… Brian’s spoiled rye remark was aimed at your offerings (and offering of future offerings – you prodigious bard) while I was suggesting that your largish body of ecomodern debate has attracted a similarly largish body of reply – thus the lightning rod metaphor. Among the replies there are useful comments and some less so. I apologize for any confusion. It would seem a good exercise though to go through it all and summarize.

            So – we should convene a conference on Ecopragmatic Modernism and the Roll of 21st Century Peasantry. The U.N. could sponsor, to be held at the Hague (sorry Chris, an 18 acre holding in Sussex just wouldn’t be large enough). Lightning rods optional.

          • oh, I see what you mean. Yes, indeed – it was ever thus. Should probably just mention that I’m in Somerset (bottom left corner of England), not Sussex (bottom right), just in case you should ever wish to visit…though perhaps by US standards the difference is slight

          • Yeah, that’s my geography of England showing… Somerset, Sussex… hey, they both start with ‘S’. Should have just said Frome.

            To share a bit of Ohio geography – my little farm over here is only a short drive north of London. But enough with the British connections… the farm is in Jefferson Township, Madison County. Other local counties include Franklin, and Hancock; you start to see a pattern.

          • Yeah, Frome works. Pronunciation rhymes with ‘boom’. Can’t say we have such historically resonant place names as your neck of the woods, though we did once host the ‘pitchfork rebellion’ that tried to unseat the king.

          • A pitchfork rebellion – politically active peasants? I understand Monmouth lost his head for the effort.

            Here we had a whisky rebellion. I don’t think anyone lost their head, but am guessing some alcohol poisoning may have occurred.

  2. “Many modern ecological problems are referred to as a tragedy of the commons, a concept developed by Garrett Hardin in the 1960s to describe the overexploitation or despoliation of natural resources.[4] We contend that they are actually associated with the tragedy of the commodity. While an obvious play on Hardin’s concept, this approach offers, we argue, a much more comprehensive and historically appropriate analysis of the drivers of ecological degradation. […]

    The tragedy of the commons theory explains the behaviors of individual actors in given social circumstances. However, it does not address how historical conditions and the socioeconomic system influence individual actors. In other words, the social context is simply taken for granted. The existing social conditions and relations are regarded as ever-present, universal, and permanent. The model neglects to recognize that human interactions and exchanges with ecological systems change through time and are regulated by particular institutional conditions. […]

    Nature is an essential source of use value, or the qualitative usefulness of things. For example, Earth’s biogeochemical systems provide the conditions and means that allow for the production of food. Karl Marx emphasized that under capitalist relations, nature was seen as a free gift; it was not considered as part of wealth.[11] He famously explained this in terms of a “general formula for capital”—whereby capital is understood as the “continuous transformation of capital-as-money into capital-as-commodities, followed by a retransformation of capital-as-commodities into capital-as-more-money.”[12] Even though use value expresses the useful properties of an item or service, it is exchange value, or market value, which knows only quantitative increase and drives capitalist economic activity.

    The way forward, toward a more sustainable world, requires radical changes in the social conditions that have historically shaped the productive and consumption system of capitalism. Collective action must take back public commons and put them in control of the people who most closely interact with them and depend on them for community well-being. In order to be successful, these actions must (in effect) de-commodify nature.

    Commons must be decentralized and democratized, rather than, in the standard neoliberal view, privatized. Farmland and fisheries must be socially organized to advance nourishment and health. Forests must be valued as reserves of biodiversity, clean water, and culture. Economic activities must be embedded within society as a whole and the universal metabolism of the biophysical world, allowing for the continuation of reproductive processes, nutrient cycles, and energy flows that support all life.”


    • Yep, it’s tragic the way Hardin’s tragedy of the commons has misled a generation. I wrote a bit about commons a few months ago on here, and will probably come back to it. While I agree that Hardin’s approach is misleading and there’s a lot to be said for commons, I’m not quite as pro them, and as anti private property, as some in the commoning community…

  3. Time to break some ‘relative’ silence… (this season’s harvest has been a real time vacuum).

    Still looking over the last few offerings here so more quibbles may yet come forth, but at the moment I have to make note of the rather sly dodge at evolutionary processes in the 9th paragraph while discussing Malthus and Darwin. You’ve suggested that natural selection doesn’t really apply to humans because of our technology. Permit me to spin that a little differently.

    Our technology might be seen as mere niche construction. Consider the beaver – she makes a dam and modifies an ecosystem to suit her needs. We humans invent all sorts of things to suit our needs. We are really pretty good at it. We’ve even invented a system of observing and interpreting how all the living creatures on the planet manage to go about their business. But none of our inventions actually ‘transcend nature’. To transcend nature would make us some how super-natural, no?

    And your cutesy poke at 200 years since Malthus wrote being a “very long time evolutionarily speaking”… well, I’m guessing that’s just ‘Clem baiting’ (kudos, it worked 🙂 )

    While I’m still spinning this I would actually offer that humans as a species are more than subject to evolutionary processes and if anything might be classed as the archetypical example of evolution at work. As noted above – we are REALLY good at this niche construction business. Beavers, honey bees, birds, other nest builders and tool users… they’re all pikers in comparison to H. sapiens. We’ve thrown enormous metal objects at the moon and brought them back for heaven sake. Lets see a Bonobo do that! But all the while we’re doing these nifty things we have been forced to live within the physical realities of the universe. We still have genetic mutations within our species, we get sick from germs, and if one hits a concrete sidewalk at several hundred mph without sufficient protection (say from jumping off a tower) the prospect for continued life is rather small.

    Another important aspect of natural selection is the context of the process. We are not at the ‘end’ of the process, but merely imbedded within it. Markets may indeed boom and bust as Malthus noted, but that is not proof that they will ever thus. Why any moment now a better way of determining value and distributing goods around the planet might be discerned. There are quite a few of these REALLY inventive hominids running about trying to do just that. Not an easy nut to crack, granted. But if one were taking odds on whether a marsupial or a hominid would get to the bottom of it first… well, I know where I want to put my money.

    • Clem, I think I mustn’t have made it sufficiently clear that I was writing ironically in that part of the piece, so in fact I agree with you. There are plenty of reasons to take issue with Malthus, but considering his influence on Darwin it kind of amuses me to look at their respective reputations today. The typical modern criticism of Malthus is that progress in human technology has enabled us to keep ahead of resource crises, and this line of argument has advanced so far that implicitly within contemporary economic theory and explicitly within ecomodernist writings associated with the likes of the Breakthrough Institute (telling name…) the idea is being promulgated that there are essentially no biotic limits on human creativity. Both of us agree, I think, that in fact there are…and perhaps that this is no bad thing? My preference certainly is to embrace our inextricable involvement with the rest of the biota, albeit without seeking to sublimate ourselves entirely within it – though, as I argued in the piece above, how to do so isn’t obvious.

      I wasn’t baiting you specifically with my 200 year joke – heaven forbid that I should be so rude! I’d argue that in the human case ‘Malthusian crises’ are always socially mediated and are never purely ‘Malthusian’ – but still, I do find the argument that Malthus has been proved wrong historically to be a little problematic.

      • “… essentially no biotic limits on human creativity.” An interesting phrase. The layers of complexity within it are fascinating. I’ll not quibble whether the hyperbole coming out of the Breakthrough Institute deserves such, but I am curious where we should allocate the credit or blame for the products of our robotic and computer creations (neither having biotic limitations to their being). Ultimately we deserve the credit or blame for what the robots and computers do. And the robots and computers must still exist within the limits of the physical world. They are no more super-natural than we.

        This musing makes me wonder whether I should bring my pitchfork in from the barn and set it by our answering machine. And the next time that little device receives and records a robo-call (usually a politician) I will attack it with the pitchfork and raise a fist in some combination of defiance and kinship to humankind. Biotic limits, no. Pitchfork limits! (then I’ll retire from the field and sip a whisky). Rebel with a cause.

        • Indeed. I think I read a Richard Dawkins piece somewhere suggesting that there was some kind of replicating molecule prior to DNA/RNA which is now lost to posterity, and that perhaps there’ll be a robotic future in which humanity assumes the role of that molecule. So yes, everything is ‘natural’. But the time frame is surely important. In relation to economic theory, Malthus, or the kind of debate I’ve been having with the ecomodernists I think we’re talking in terms of years or decades…a couple of centuries at most, which puts a somewhat different spin on it. And in terms of credit or blame I think we have to articulate our existing human ethical frameworks as best we can. Of course, in the long run it doesn’t much matter, but only because – as Keynes put it – in the long run, we’re all dead.

          • In the long run those of us currently thinking about it are all dead. And if the physicists are right the sun will eventually burn out and then even posterity is in a bad way.

            But my hope is we manage ways to leave behind a habitable, and pleasing place our progeny can call home… the sort of place we’d enjoy if we were to come back this way again. Time scale, like context, matters.

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