A happy new year to you from Small Farm Future. So many things to write about in 2018…especially after getting back from the ninth Oxford Real Farming Conference, the biggest and best yet. The main theme I want to examine this year is the political shape of the state, specifically the agrarian states that I hope in the future may hold some promise for getting us out of the mess we’re currently in. On that note, my article on what I call the ‘supersedure state’ has just been published in the latest issue of The Land Magazine1. I’ll be republishing it on this site soon. At the end of this post, I’ll lay out a brief menu of things I’m going to be writing about here at SFF in the first part of the year, but first I want to anticipate my theme of the agrarian state by offering some further reflections on the concept of ‘the commons’ – which I’ve written about before, but feel moved to address further in the light of some of the presentations I heard at the Oxford conference, and of the interesting interview with George Monbiot in The Land.
Politically and intellectually, it seems like the idea of the commons is gaining traction – probably because the state and the market, its major rivals, have acquired something of an image problem in recent times. Politically, ‘the state’ has become associated with the unresponsive, centrally planned economies of communist regimes, and ‘the market’ with the flagrant inequalities and value-scouring short-termism of contemporary capitalism and/or neoliberalism. Intellectually, the story that’s often told about the commons starts with Garret Hardin’s notorious ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument that resources are over-used to the point of exhaustion in a commons because nobody has an individual interest in preserving them, and proceeds by way of Elinor Ostrom’s counter-analyses demonstrating various successful resource-preserving commons arrangements – some arising spontaneously through community-level agreements – to argue that the commons, rather than the state or the market, is the way forward2.
There’s much to commend these views, but they also involve some over-simplifications. The one that I particularly want to highlight here is our tendency to assume that markets and capitalism are complementary, if not synonymous. But they’re not. Historically, there’ve been plenty of market societies that weren’t capitalist, and plenty of capitalist societies (including our present one) which are not conspicuously market-friendly.
A capitalist society is one that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization3, and only in certain rather unusual circumstances does that manifest in the development of widespread ‘free’, private markets of the kind identified in economic theory. As various thinkers have shown, markets are about exchanging goods through the medium of money, whereas capitalism is about using money to create more money, and one of the main ways capitalists do so is by using political patronage to help them create monopolies that limit market freedom. This is pretty much the situation we’re in today with the food system, and indeed in most other parts of the economy – as the economist Herbert Simon put it, we live in an organizational economy in which most economic transactions occur within corporate or government organisations, not in a market economy where they occur primarily in markets4. If we truly lived in a market economy, there would probably be something like 2 million farms in Britain, rather than the present 200,000.
Now, an attentive reading of Elinor Ostrom’s book suggests not that commons are a widespread and successful way of organising economic production, but on the contrary they’re rare and fraught with difficulty. To cut a long story short, in agricultural settings they usually only work at relatively small scales among groups of people who are relatively poor and who have relatively equal social standing, exploiting relatively extensive resources that are relatively low in value such as woodlands or grazing. People didn’t generally organise pre-capitalist agrarian societies predominantly through commons in the Hardin/Ostrom sense because it would have been a nightmare to do so, and the same is true a fortiori in contemporary society as we search for an alternative, post-capitalist economics. There are those who extend the concept of commons nowadays beyond agriculture into other realms, such as the notion of the ‘digital commons’. I’m not sure how convincing the parallel is, but if indeed there are commons in the digital world they don’t seem a whole lot more influential within it than traditional commons are within agriculture.
This would be a dispiriting conclusion if it propelled us back towards the dualities of state/market or communism/capitalism. But since, as I argued above, there’s nothing intrinsically capitalist about private markets, it doesn’t have to. My argument is that we should develop much more extensive private markets in food. If that happened, we’d find that the landscape would fill with lots of small-scale proprietors, who’d develop commoning arrangements between themselves as appropriate. And if they were supported by the state, this would really help to keep capitalism at bay.
A lot of the people who enthuse the most about commons are the kind of people who are themselves small proprietors, or aspire to be. I think they sometimes see their private ownership of land as a necessary evil in a capitalist society, whereas I’d suggest that it’s a desideratum for a non-capitalist society. Let’s have a look at these lyrics from Dick Gaughan’s song, The World Turned Upside Down, which expresses classic commoning sentiments:
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all
The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
For me, the key phrase here is “sell the earth for private gain”, and I take ‘gain’ to mean ‘unfair advantage’ – what economists call ‘rent’ in the technical sense of a situation in which monopoly control of a scarce, in-demand good enables the controller to name their price, however extortionate. But that isn’t necessarily the situation that obtains if I buy a plot of land and grow food crops on it which I sell at a local market. In that case, ‘property’ just means I’ve bought the right to an income stream from the land that will hopefully enable me to cover my ordinary living costs, just as a plumber does by charging out the costs of their time, tools and skills. Nor does the fact that I ‘own’ the land necessarily mean that I have an unchallenged right to do what I like on it or with it – the wider polity that has accorded me the right to derive income from it might, if it so chooses, forbid me from engaging in any number of damaging activities on it or from passing it on to my children if in so doing that would confer ‘private gain’ or rent. It can persuasively be argued that, in the UK, the state doesn’t intervene nearly enough in the ability of private property owners to extract economic rent, resulting in extravagantly high land prices. But that isn’t intrinsically an argument against private property as such.
Consider the alternative of a propertyless world in which the land indeed is a ‘common treasury’. Perhaps I’d like to use the land in my environs to produce clean water and energy and to grow some food for myself. Perhaps you’d like to build a road through it, making it easier for you to commute to a bigger town where you earn your salary as a commodity broker. Imagine if every single land or resource use decision had to be thrashed out individually within your ‘community’. Having spent more of my life than I care to recall in community meetings trying to agree on – well, just about anything – I do wonder if people who call for commons as a general way of organising everyday life have ever actually tried it. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s witticism about socialism: the trouble is, it takes up too many evenings.
In his recent writings, George Monbiot argues for a land value tax, with the revenue thus gained being divided, after paying for public services, between communities which then set up democratic structures to manage its dispersal5. I agree that this is a good idea, subject to the nature of the democratic structures and the difficulties of forging a meaningful consensus at the level of the ‘community’. George gives various examples of how private property can deliver community benefits, especially when the planning process is participatory. I think he’s right, but for me it’s a stretch to call this a ‘commons’ – really, we’re talking about local determination of fiscal residues from the revenues of a larger centralised state, which has already top-sliced money for public goods, and mostly about collective private benefit from private ownership. I’d prefer to think of it as a reinvigorated public sphere within a society of private property right-holders. It’s something I’d endorse, particularly if the ‘public’ we’re talking about is one that’s substantially oriented to self-sustenance on the basis of local land and natural resources, with strong oversight from a centralised state at higher and lower geopolitical levels to defend public interest over private property rights, and also private interest over public appropriation. But I don’t think it helps to call it a commons or to suppose that it’s something radically different from an economy grounded in the state or the market. Because if you do, you tend to obscure or even scorn what you most need to develop – widespread private property rights, strong local markets, and a centralised state oriented to public wellbeing by regulating both.
One other thought on this. If you develop such a social order, you’ll get a lot of small local businesses and not so many large corporations. Is that what you’d want? A century ago, there were more firms manufacturing cars in France alone than there are in the whole world today. Today, there are only two manufacturers of large airliners in the world, and two major computer operating systems (OK, three, maybe four). Some might talk about economies of scale, though I’m not convinced that this is the only reason these huge monopolies have emerged. But there are also diseconomies of scale in the way that humanity shapes the world to fit its mega-monopolistic ways . Much of the technology that we take for granted today (but maybe don’t need) might not survive in a true state-market political economy of the kind I’m describing, rather than in our present organisational political economy. Perhaps that’s no bad thing?
Anyway, how to conjure such a state-market political economy out of our present mess is the main thing I want to focus on in my upcoming writing. Not that I necessarily have any brilliant ideas for snapping my fingers and making it happen. But there are a few lines of enquiry I want to pursue. Some of them take me back to the debates I was having here at Small Farm Future about this time last year in the thick of the Brexit-Trump imbroglio. I think it’s about time I – cautiously – picked up a few of those threads again. Cautiously, but maybe also quickly – I’ve already prepared a retrospective on Mr Trump a year on and I fear that it may be rendered obsolete either by the 25th amendment or the global consequences of his argument with Mr Kim Jong Un about the size of their, er, buttons. But let me at least try to cultivate an aura of calm. All in good time. So what I’m planning to offer readers in the first part of this year in addition to ruminations on the agrarian state is posts on the size of my garden, the number of cow legs I can reasonably manage, some juggling with an olive branch, a bracing dip into the deep waters of anthropological theory and Mesopotamian history, some brief trips to India, Cuba, Oxford and Alt-America, a wrecker’s guide to system theory, that perennial favourite of this site – energy futures and societal collapse – and a few tips on fencing, though possibly not of the kind you’d imagine in a blog ostensibly devoted to farming. At the same time, I’m trying to focus on a larger-scale writing project, so it’s possible my posts will be less frequent than they have been recently. But I hope you might stop by here and have a read or – still better – leave a comment…though please note that if you’d like me to reply it’s best to leave your comment at Small Farm Future and not at the various other waystations of cyberspace to which my posts sometimes migrate. À bientôt.
- C. Smaje. 2018. The human hive. The Land 22: 28-30.
- G. Hardin. 1977. ‘The tragedy of the commons’ in G. Hardin & J. Badel (eds) Managing the Commons, W.H. Freeman; E. Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, Cambridge UP.
- See more detailed discussion here
- H. Simon. 1991. Organizations and markets. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 5, 2: 25-44.
- eg. 2018. ‘Reclaiming the commons’ The Land 22, 12-15.