The vaishya gambit

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news, at least for anyone who’s drawn to read this little Small Farm Future corner of the internet, is that I’ve just signed a contract with the publishers Chelsea Green to write a book, provisionally entitled Small Farm Future (sometimes I surprise even myself with my creative originality…) So you’ll soon be able to gorge yourself on a book-length version of my bloggerly musings. The bad news is that, starting now and for the next year or so, I’m going to have to prioritize the book-writing over the blog-writing. But I’m reluctant to abandon the blog altogether, so my plan is to write shorter, more knockabout pieces (if that’s even possible…) and most likely to turn the blog for the time being into something like a journal of the book writing process – not to give too much of my pearly wisdom away ahead of time, but perhaps to share a few of the knottier issues I’m working on as I go along, in the hope that I’ll get some comments back that will help me unravel them, as I’ve often found in the past.

So welcome, then, to Small Farm Future Mk II – my journal of a book year. But left hanging from my last post is the issue of transactional strategies in pre-capitalist, capitalist and potentially post-capitalist societies that I promised to address. Well, let me get the new style rolling with an experimental crack at dispatching the issue in a briefer, more rough-and-ready and much less thought-through way than I’d have previously entertained.

Most pre-modern societies found a place for asceticism (what I previously called the brahmanic or vaishya strategies) as a social and status role – conveniently, you might say, since there was less stuff to go around. Nevertheless, it was a potential route to high status – monasticism, anchorism etc.

In contemporary capitalist society the ascetic role has more or less disappeared, except perhaps for a few pariah groups who re-enchant lowliness and difference (Rastafari among working class Jamaican men, for example). But the possibilities for the rajanya or kingly role of ‘maximal’ transacting – being a tribute-taker and benefice-giver has greatly expanded in capitalist society. As customers, as citizens with rights and money, we like to throw our weight around. The customer is king, quite literally.

OK, not quite literally. In the Weberian terms introduced in my last post, status is a relatively non-expansible resource. Hence the innumerable ways people wishing to stake high status claims deploy to keep the hoi polloi and their vulgar wealth outside the castle. And hence perhaps some of the dissatisfactions of the consumerist lifestyle, which for all its sparkling wonders never quite delivers the satisfactions it seems to promise.

Unfortunately, I feel I now have to return to the vexed issue of personal environmental action, much as I’d prefer not to. So…you can give up on various rajanya activities (meat-eating, flying abroad etc.) because it’s the right thing to do environmentally, but it doesn’t make much difference to global outcomes because most other people are deeply entrenched in the dominant rajanya strategy, often to the extent that they consider your behavior irrational and, rightly or wrongly, maybe even a questionably brahmanical form of self-promoting status aggrandizement. This is written deeply into our contemporary religion – by which I mean economic theory – which holds that autarky is bad while trade and the trafficking of money is good.

Of course, it may turn out that through your self-denial you stole a march on all those idiots along the lines of John Michael Greer’s ‘collapse now to avoid the rush’ scenario, in which case you can allow yourself full gloating rights. But then your cover is truly blown…and in any case vaishya self-denial is more useful in that instance than self-denial of the brahmanical sort, because it’s only the former that puts bread on the table.

So, my feeling is that it’s too much to ask of most people to make individual ascetic decisions in a society that actively disincentivizes them and provides no cultural mechanisms for validating them as a collective practice. It’s a lot easier, for example, not to eat pork because that is deeply what your people do and are (including those you eat with) than because you disapprove of the intensive livestock industry and wish more people agreed with you.

The easiest way to imagine this changing is through force of circumstance. Thriftiness becomes a value because it has to in situations of economic constraint or environmental distress. But it’s interesting to conjecture about how that would normalize itself as collective cultural practice – partly because it may help us prepare for the inevitable and ease the process.

I raised the specter of ‘feudalism’ in my previous post, and many dystopian visions of the future likewise dwell on some kind of neo-feudalism as the destiny of a post-capitalist or post-fossil fuel future. There’s a political structure to historic feudalism that seems to me quite possible in the future – weakened successor states trying to fill the shell of a declining larger world-system through a kind of regional strongman politics. But the economic structure – a means of controlling labor in a land-abundant, labor-scarce world – doesn’t fit. The most likely scenario is the reverse – a land-scarce, labor-abundant (and politically-fragmented) world where if past history is anything to go by the economic model of choice would most likely be intensive self-worked smallholdings.

There’s a kind of smallholder-householder mentality, still with us to a degree, that has elements of the vaishya style. You fix things up yourself with your own resources, you only sell when the price is right, you avoid showy material forms of status display and so forth. These can be a form of status display themselves, but they can also become a kind of unconscious practice. They’re easier to achieve as a self-employed rural landowner than as a salaried urban dweller. The satisfactions of developing a smallholding – building its structures, creating its fields, planting and tending its woods and gardens – are more physically tangible and socially autonomous than the satisfactions usually available to the urban salaried dweller. You don’t need to invest in some spuriously autonomist notion of yourself as the lonely monarch of your one-acre kingdom in order to tap the make do and mend sensibilities of the vaishya style and find some fulfilment in it.

It may seem that there’s not much difference in practice between personal ethics to “do your bit for the environment” and the kind of collective vaishya style I’m proposing. But I’d argue to the contrary. How to encapsulate it? A practice of political economy rather than a critique of political economy? A style of practice rather than a practice of style? A collective intervention?

This vaishya style is typically dismissed by leftists as a right-wing, petty bourgeois, Poujadist mentality. It certainly can be, but I think the left would do better to start reimagining it as a building block for solidary post-capitalist societies. Otherwise the techno-grandiloquence and the crypto-capitalisms or crypto-Bolshevisms offered by the likes of Nick Srnicek, Leigh Phillips or Xi Jinping are pretty much all the left has to reckon with, which will leave it as the perpetual bridesmaid to capitalism-as-usual. The left as Nick Clegg to a David Cameron political economy. And we know how that turned out.

But where’s the structural basis for this vaishya practice to become an accepted way of being, a social norm, a class? Well, there’s the question. My feeling is that you don’t need to subscribe to an especially apocalyptic view of the future to think that the current multilateral global political order will unravel (it already is – with chronically stagnant growth, rising inequality and rising debt hustling it along its way). In those circumstances I think countries will start looking to shore up agricultural productivity and regional economic development, or else their declining command over their non-core regions will foster it by default (as per my analysis of what I’ve called the supersedure state).

So there’s that. But for various reasons I don’t find it especially persuasive that the world will smoothly reinvent itself as a network of sustainable smallholder republics in this way. On current trends, it seems more likely we’ll pass through a period of grand superpower tussling and delusional nationalist posturing with its scapegoating of immigrants and minorities and its writing-on-the-wall denialism, a politics of farragoes and chumps, a world in which Carl Schmitt’s politics of friend and enemy might emerge triumphant – but for a few islands, perhaps, of Machiavellian republicanism of the kind I outlined in an earlier post. Lord preserve us from a world of small-scale farmers presented as the ‘real people’ of the country.

But although I deplore the turn to rightwing populism in contemporary western politics, it’s perhaps revealing of the lie that was always at the heart of its liberalism. Schmitt was always lurking behind the Rawlsian veil of liberal internationalism underwritten by US power. Democracy, freedom, markets…and then Donald Trump bellowing the deeper verity – “America first!”

So ironically, perhaps the only chance for a truly liberal politics of friends and not enemies now lies in reconstructing a vaishya localism. But perhaps I’m being too pessimistic…?

18 thoughts on “The vaishya gambit

  1. Congratulations on the book deal, Chris! Chelsea Green seems like a perfect fit, and I very much look forward to the end product.

  2. “But the economic structure – a means of controlling labor in a land-abundant, labor-scarce world – doesn’t fit. The most likely scenario is the reverse – a land-scarce, labor-abundant (and politically-fragmented) world where if past history is anything to go by the economic model of choice would most likely be intensive self-worked smallholdings.”

    Interesting. I’d love to be convinced of this population density-dependent politico-economic theory. Which “past history” are you referencing? Should I re-read your history of the peasant in 70 pages?

    Also, in this article re-posted on, I noted that David Graeber thinks we’re already in a feudalist society: where the state actively defends the process of extracting tithes and dues from the populace (in fact, that *is* the state). I can’t help but feel that his argument is compelling, for Britain anyway. We live in a mortgage society, enforced through rigorous private property laws. So he seems to have a slightly different definition of feudalism to yours. Or maybe you actually agree?

    Congratulations also on the book project, I’ll be following with interest. You’d better come up with some satisfactory answers, though! If I’m to pay for my reading, I want some nice juicy answers, not endless well-posed questions! 😉

  3. you don’t need to subscribe to an especially apocalyptic view of the future to think that the current multilateral global political order will unravel (it already is – with chronically stagnant growth, rising inequality and rising debt hustling it along its way).

    I just fail to see how the unraveling of the global political order can avoid some pretty apocalyptic consequences. It is going to be very difficult for countries that are closely intertwined in the global market economy to extract themselves from it and become mostly independent economies again, much less with food supplies provided by an agricultural sector dominated by peasant farmers.

    So when stagnant growth becomes negative growth, rising inequality becomes mass penury and rising debt becoming mass bankruptcy, there will surely be a “land-scarce, labor-abundant” population just waiting for something productive to do. Unfortunately, they will all be living in large urban areas and will still be fed by industrial agriculture, which will have its own struggles to endure.

    My fear is that there is no way to move a large population of urbanites, ‘captured’ in place by historical circumstance, out onto large industrial farm acreages and expect them to make a living. The whole prospect of shifting a few people to a small farm future is difficult enough when times are relatively good, but when times are really bad the transition will be like the Chinese cultural revolution, when millions of young people were sent to the country to “learn from the peasants”, except there will be no peasants, just vast acreages of nutrient poor soil, no housing and no one with any idea of how to grow food. Everyone would starve.

    We don’t know how fast “the current multilateral global political order will unravel”. If it happens quickly, the result will surely be apocalyptic. If it happens slowly enough, there may be time for governments to move some people from the city to small farms carved out of industrial acreages, but it will still be a very difficult thing to pull off.

    The time to start transitioning is now. But how? Perhaps we will find the answer in your new book? When it comes out, I will go straight to the chapter that covers the Transition to a Small Farm Future.

    • Come on Joe… you can make suggestions right here, right now. And who knows – if Chris likes an idea he might include it. Being in the comments section of a blog is one thing. Being in a Chelsea Green publication is quite another. 🙂

      • Oh Clem, how can I resist a thrown gauntlet….

        What makes sense is for governments to collectivize many tracts of industrial farmland to use as a communal teaching facilities and reward any interested city people for moving on to the farms. No coercion, but lots of incentives.

        The farms’ mission would be to teach people how to maximize production while minimizing inputs from outside the farm. Once people become skilled low-input farmers, they would be given the option of moving to a production commune or to a subsistence farm of their own. The general goal would be to empty out cities by gradually exporting people and reducing food imports into the cities proportionately.

        The task of reversing urbanization is technically fairly easy, though it is made harder by the current practice of using synthetic fertilizer on industrial farms. But the task of building the political will for such a reversal is going to be virtually impossible until cities have real trouble finding enough work and food for their inhabitants. By then it will be too late.

        Lacking any coordinated government program for an urban to rural transition, one possible alternative tactic would be to utilize the avarice of property developers to prepare the way. We could promote the subdivision of large acreage farmland into small ‘gentlemen farms’, each with their own McMansion, white rail fences, gigantic riding mower and stables for llamas. Since there will be lots of money to be made, it should be easier to do, especially if the environmental community can get behind the ‘secret plan’ and thwart the NIMBYs.

        The ‘secret plan’ is that when things get to the point where the unraveling begins to really bite, there will have been an advance creation of many small farms, each with longtime fallow acreage (augmented with copious amounts of llama poop) and large homes that can be used by multiple families. Just kick out the rich owners and move in lots of new peasants (I’m guessing 20 or so per house, maybe more). These new agrarian peasants will have a very steep learning curve, but at least they will have a place to live and a chance to scrape out a living on land that won’t need fertilizer for the first crop or two.

        That’s the best I can do, so I’m hoping for much better in Chris’ new book.

      • One other point about the transition to agrarian peasantry….It will be thermodynamically expensive.

        I know from personal experience how much physical effort and material resources go into creating a small subsistence farm. When I think of millions of people abandoning the existing built environment of a city and moving to their small farm in the country, I realize that even if the land is free the resources expended on new housing, storage buildings, fencing, animals, land management equipment, and basic utility infrastructure will be enormous.

        In the US, urban migration caused the abandonment of the buildings and infrastructure of millions of small farms so that their land could be consolidated into more economically viable large industrial farms. Not only will that old small-farm infrastructure need to be rebuilt, it will need to be multiplied many times.

        If we wait until energy decline causes the world economy to stop growing and face continuous recession, it will be extremely difficult to find the physical resources to make millions of small parcels habitable and productive enough to feed their occupants. This means that the transition to agrarian peasantry has to happen before it is obvious to political leaders that such a transition is needed. It will take some mighty effective persuasion to convince the powers that be to reverse a trend towards urbanization that has been going on for hundreds of years and which now seems to be working just fine (at least to them).

        It may be that in the rich world there will be no small farm future for the many and only a prescient few will make the move in time. If that turns out to be the case, the consequences are likely to be tragic. Even so, lack of small farms will be just one more addition to a litany of impending tragedies easily ignored by almost everyone.

        • What another man spills… On my doomiest days Joe, that’s exactly my anguish: might not the road to our Small Farm Futures be paved by the Good Intentions Paving Co? Or could the creation of millions of new small farms draw down carbon (let’s say in the long run if we have the time)? Silly or realistic? I hereby get stuck to the point of discombobulation with this conundrum and retreat to the veg patch where I feel I best belong. To take on the weight of doing what’s best for the biosphere (something I recall, Chris, you warned against a few posts ago?) – surely that’s exactly what we should be doing (why do I hesitate with the verb?), in the least thermodynamically ambitious way possible? Wisdom, check! Overconfidence? Check! Hell check!!

          Wracking my brain further in a way Clem might implore, personally doing as much as possible with as little as possible comes to mind; stamping fibrous washers from worn-out shoes; furnishing the compost toilet with cut-up Patagonia organic cotton wipes (I’m unreliably informed Hemmingway did somethingsimilar with Moleskine notebooks. Ah, the tendrils of capitalism get everywhere).

          I’m glad you’re there with the sobering nudges, Joe. And Chris for this endlessly fascinating blog.

          • Reaching for my “implore” button…

            The move from the land to the city (or more properly… just ‘the move from the land’… as cities haven’t absorbed all the lost) has been in process here in the middle of North American for a couple generations now. Signs on the landscape are still discernable – abandoned buildings, scars in tillable fields where homesteads once stood. But all might not be as disastrous as we make it seem. These same landscapes didn’t come with houses and barns, roads and bridges ready built so that settlers could simply “move in”. And the technology to build out the first time – a tech not dependent on fossil fuel – remains. Indeed there are a few newer technologies we inherit (some not totally fossil fuel dependent) that would make a rebuild somewhat easier than for those on the first go round.

            Livestock numbers – at least for food beasts as cattle, hogs, and chickens – needn’t be ramped up… redistribution may serve. Livestock as horses and mules for labor would be in shorter supply as Joe suggests. And allocating land resource to feed the latter livestock sector would take something we are not currently allowing for (though Chris has done some budgeting along this line – so his is a prediction with some merit).

            The scale of the effort – as Joe indicates – will be enormous. And with our larger populations it will be a bigger effort than before. My point though remains – it was done before… we inherit a roadmap (figuratively and literally) and the knowledge our forebears managed it. Easy is for the slackers.

  4. Perhaps it’s due to my ignorance, but there seems to be some mixing of timeframes which makes the issue more difficult for me to untangle. For example, “status display” seems more like a second or third-generation endeavour, after the first generation has exhausted itself with the work of “developing a smallholding – building its structures, creating its fields, planting and tending its woods and gardens.” Perhaps because I am exhausting myself with similar work, the idea of “status display” is among the least (if not the least) of my concerns. I consider it a luxury that personally ranks lower than the (anonymous) luxuries of time spent online and coffee.

    I imagine that THE transition (to whatever) will encompass many lesser transitions, including a transition to a time when status displays mean substantially more than direct involvement with whoever’s in charge. Carrying a firearm in public could be an important status display during such a transition.

    I’m glad to hear that Chris’ work will be getting more exposure.

  5. Congratulations on the book Chris, I hope you have great fun writing it and I look forward to reading it!

    Are you being pessimistic? I want to play devil’s advocate and say possibly…

    But first, I get the feeling that the Vaishya strategy has changed a little since the last post, and has taken on ascetic, self-denying qualities that were previously the sole province of the Brahmanic strategy. Of course, I can see that any strategy that might be characterized as Vaishya in our society today would look self-denying from a consumerist point of view, as there’s only so much one can provide for oneself, and thrift is certainly a virtue worth lauding. However, actively characterising the Vaishya strategy as ascetic might not increase its attractiveness among the gentiles, and in an important sense it’s not ascetic at all.

    I think there’s an important difference between the avoidance of transactional exchanges, as the Vaishya does, and seeking to enter them only as giver, as the Brahman does. In the former case the Vaishya might still have any number of desires, but will seek to fulfil them independently, whereas the Brahman seeks to reduce desire itself.

    Moving on, I wonder if the Rajanya is getting a bad press here. Certainly as king or bandit the strategy might prompt all sorts of criticisms, but as a strategy that involves giving and receiving liberally, I think it has a wider application. I think you’re right to label the consumer Rajanya, because they are networked into societies in which they cannot provide everything for themselves, and so have to receive a great deal, usually by giving money in commercial exchange transactions.

    I see no reason why a small farm agrarian society has to be fundamentally different. The degree to which people provision themselves with various things will increase of course, but it needn’t go to the opposite extreme of cellular independent households. People will still need to belong to networks to obtain things they won’t produce themselves, and any kind of solidary society will include social networks in which giving and receiving are important social acts.

    I’m pretty sure you’ll find that mostly uncontroversial, but I think it demands a different characterization. The goal is surely a healthy balance between Vaishya and Rajanya strategies, perhaps along the lines of a Chayanovan balance between autonomy and dependence, or internal and external resources (I’ve been reading van der Ploeg on your recommendation – excellent book).

    So to return to devil’s advocate, how about we promote a networked Rajanya strategy as well, in which neo-peasants produce a lot of food and other goods, but exchange not insignificant quantities for other goods (material and/or social), either with other peasants producing different things or with non-peasant members of society. Fully Agrarian Luxury Communism anyone?

  6. Congratulations Chris! I’m very happy for you. Please do keep throwing us tidbits; I’ve come to depend on the SFF community to keep up my faith in the better angels and decent (nay, more than decent) conversation. In a pinch I suppose I can do myself the favor of going back into your archives and getting some historical perspective on your argument!
    As for this here discussion of feudalistic status games and gambits, it seems you are answering the question: what kind of gambit/transactional strategy will be best adapted to the resource constrained future looming on the horizon like an extremely slow-moving hurricane (Hawaii in-joke for Joe Clarkson).
    Would you say that our vaisya strategist is also a Jeffersonian land-holding yeoman, or does Jefferson’s yeoman exist in another sort of post-excess future? I guess I’m saying I dig it but I’m still not exactly sure where you are going with this in terms of making the case for a SFF. Does the vaisya strategy imply a self-reliance (as in actually making a living/material production that is not the case with the brahmanical strategy? It is interesting but I’m not quite getting it, I’m afraid.

  7. Thanks for the informative responses (and for the congratulations). A few brief responses:

    Joshua – well, perhaps I should have stressed state structures alongside population density. Robert Netting’s ‘Smallholders, Householders’ is a key reference, but I think the history is pretty defensible depending on how loose one’s definition of ‘feudalism’ is. I agree with Graeber’s characterization of where we’re at, but I don’t agree with labelling it ‘feudalism’. Rentier capitalism isn’t the same thing at all.

    Joe – yes, much to agree with there. Note that ‘you don’t need to subscribe to an especially apocalyptic view of the future’ isn’t the same as saying that an apocalyptic view of the future is misplaced. I’ll come back to issues of the state again in the future.

    Joshua & Joe – a bit of expectation management for the book already. I don’t promise ‘answers’ in the book, partly because the problems are intractable but also because exercises in futurology which claim to have ‘the answers’ are inherently suspect for reasons that I do discuss in the book. I think it’s necessary for present generations to look into the future and contemplate radically different ways of life almost as never before, but I think I’ll be satisfied if I can provide ‘endless well-posed questions’ rather than ‘answers’ as such. That said, I agree that a focus on routes of transition is important, and I do actually have an answer – it’s small farms, OK…

    Steve – granted in times of stress, status considerations do recede (which is perhaps why suicide rates decrease during wars…) or else present themselves in starker terms. But I guess I’m arguing that we somehow need to establish a status order that makes sense as a means to transition and as a post-transition reality.

    Andrew – that’s a very stimulating working through of my analysis, thank you. Much to agree with in it – perhaps the key point is in finding points of balance between the vaishya & rajanya strategies, so that the attractions of the rajanya strategy so loudly proclaimed by contemporary economic theory don’t overwhelm the vaishya strategy. Since we’re presently so advanced down the rajanya route, we somehow need to pull back towards vaishyaism even though I agree it’s a mistake to abandon the rajanya style entirely. So I agree vis-a-vis van der Ploeg’s ‘balances’, though arguably his is a loose interpretation of Chayanov, whose focus was on economies involving minimal market exchange and maximum autarky.

    Michelle – yes Jeffersonianism would be another way to frame it, with the necessary updates. And yes, the vaishya strategy implies a degree of material self-reliance (not necessarily asceticism as such, as Andrew usefully clarifies). What interests me about this whole varna framework is the way it draws attention to transactional strategies and social status, which I think is important – so we’re not just talking about material practice as some kind of obvious, commonsense or externally-generated phenomenon. There are limits to the pertinence of the varna framework, however…

    • Chris – My comment re “answers” was of course a bit tongue in cheek. I guess one approach would be to identify factors that make small farm futures more or less likely: ranging from those that are imposed externally (resource constraints, climate change), to those that can be directed by the state (land tenure systems, financial systems), to those that can be controlled by individuals (understandings of personal “success”, life strategies).

      In relation to the Vaishya categories, they remind me a bit of a diagram in David Holmgren’s latest book “Retrosuburbia”, in which he develops a four-fold typology of ways to spend one’s time, organised along two axes: work/play and monetary/non-monetary. This creates four categories:
      Work+monetary: “Working for the Man”
      Work+non-monetary: “Peasant livelihood”
      Play+monetary: “Consumer paradise”
      Play+non-monetary: “Simple pleasures”
      (This is from memory and is my interpretation, so if it’s of interest, I can pass on the exact original wording) The reader is encouraged to figure out how many hours per week are spent in each of the quadrants.

      These four categories seem to have some overlap with the varna framework. Or maybe it’s just that they’re both four-fold typologies on a similar topic and while being structurally similar they are semantically different. Maybe a combination of the two could yield a 16-fold typology “a la” Jung’s Psychological types?

      • Joshua,
        On my first look at your comment, I read ‘pleasant’ for ‘peasant’. Shows where my interests lie, I guess.

        I do strongly believe that the future is non-monetary. And that the dollar value of an activity is often an inverse measure of its pleasantness.


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