Thoughtstoppers and thoughtstarters

John Michael Greer wrote a blog post a while back on his notion of ‘thoughtstoppers’, which he defined thus:

“a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply.”

One of his main examples of a thoughtstopper is the notion that Donald Trump is a fascist, and I think he has a point. It’s easy to apply the word ‘fascist’ to people as a dismissive epithet that prevents further thought or analysis, rather than opening it up. So, being the kind of person who finds it pretty easy to dismiss Trump as a fascist I think it’s useful to bear in mind the thoughtstopping dangers of doing so and try to offer a more elevated level of analysis. Of course, the same applies to those on the right inclined to accuse left-wingers of fascism, thereby further emptying the term of its residual meaning.

But a problem arises. It seems like Greer’s post has been very successful, and the notion that it’s a ‘thoughtstopper’ to identify Trump with fascism has become so ubiquitous that it’s pretty much become a thoughtstopper itself. There are, after all, some obvious parallels between the political and economic conundrums of the early 20th century and those of the present, and some obvious parallels between politicians of the right then and now in how they seek to articulate them. To deliberately avoid trying to understand present political dynamics by comparing, yes certainly their differences, but also their similarities, with past ones strikes me as another way to keep oneself from thinking.

Greer wrote “it’s absurd, in any but a purely thoughtstopping sense, to insist that Donald Trump is a fascist. Fascism, like Communism, is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and…it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist; he’s an authoritarian populist of the classic sort, which is not at all the same thing.”

The problem is, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, politics isn’t a matter of tight formal definition by authoritative sources that enables you to determine correct or incorrect usage any more than consulting a dictionary enables you to use language ‘correctly’ in its living contexts. Sure, it would be easy to come up with definitions of fascism in its early 20th century guises that the Trump regime clearly wouldn’t fit, but more revealing to trace more genealogically the often surprising ways that political ideologies exert webs of influence, get changed and reconfigured, fade from the scene and then come roaring back.

I’ve made a few attempts to draft a post that does that in the case of the Trump/fascism nexus. It’s not too hard to do in relation to obvious waymarks like extolling physical violence against journalists committed by politicians from his party, or enthusing about the regimes of murderous strongmen abroad and about far-right mobs at home. But I haven’t come up with something that really satisfies me, I’m some distance from the action, and ultimately there’s little I can add to Gary Younge’s despairing comment: “The venality is so baroque, the vulgarity so ostentatious, the inconsistencies so stark, the incompetence so epic and the lies so brazen, it leaves you speechless. His vanity is without guile and the scandals that embroil him without end.”

In other words, the greatest thoughtstopper of all is probably Donald Trump himself – perhaps along with commentators like Greer who seem to think that Trump is a genuine champion of that much-mythologized category, the ‘white working class’. Instead I’d go with Tony Schwartz “About the only thing Trump truly has in common with his base is that he feels every bit as aggrieved as they do, despite his endless privilege.”

So perhaps I should turn my political scrutiny closer to my home in Britain. When newspapers call judges asking for democratic oversight of constitutional decisions “enemies of the people”, MPs write to universities asking for information on curriculum content in controversial topics, and former Conservative party leaders suggest that now might be a good time to start a war with Spain, perhaps I’d be better off attending to the sprouts of fascism in my own country.

Nah, I can’t summon the enthusiasm even for that just now. Tell you what – I’ll go even closer to home and scrutinize my own politics for its fascist content. And as my guide, I’ll draw from Melissa Harrison’s interesting novel All Among The Barley (Bloomsbury, 2018) set in a farm community in 1930s England, which has the incipient rural fascism of that time and setting as a major sub-theme. Harrison writes in an afterword that “in febrile, depression-hit 1930s Britain dozens of…groups, large and small, sprang up in town and country, many with openly fascist agendas and beliefs”. Then she helpfully provides a list of what she calls the ‘murky broth’ of these agendas and beliefs, against which I propose to test myself. It goes as follows:

Nationalism: nope, I think I’m clear on that score.

Anti-Semitism: ditto.

Nativism: ditto again.

Protectionism: well now, here it gets complicated. I do support protectionism, though not of the Donald Trump “I win – you lose” variety. That kind of neo-mercantilism propelled the early 20th century world into war, and much as I oppose aspects of the global ‘freeing’ of markets that followed, I think the latter is better than the former. But better still is local economic protectionism within a wider framework of economic amity – we protect our industry, you protect yours, and then let’s see what friendly economic exchanges might mutually work for us. This approach, however, is incompatible with capitalism – whereas fascism is not.

Anti-immigration sentiment: I shall be writing in more detail about this soon, but a quick summary of my position would be, again, nope – clear on that score.

Economic autarky: yes, count me in – see ‘Protectionism’ above. More generally, I think a fundamental reboot of the economy is needed, grounded in the local potentialities of the land and the environment and building from there. I’m not averse to a little trade and interchange, but I think it needs to be kept on a tight rein.

Secessionism: another complex one. Generally, I’m in favor of localist political arrangements, but I don’t see them as a panacea or an easy way to achieve sustainable human wellbeing (in fact there’s no easy way to achieve that), as I’ve tried to outline in my writings on civic republicanism. Scope for a further post on this, I think.

Militarism: I can generally report a clean bill of health on this one. Uniforms, weaponry and marching tunes don’t stir my blood. But the need for a militia to defend the republic might.

Anti-Europeanism: again, I’m in the clear. If Brexit politics in Britain had been able to articulate a pro-European secessionism I might have supported it, but the subtleties of such a position seem beyond the cadres of idiotic Brextremists that we currently suffer under. In fact, avoiding the petty nationalisms and militarisms that have plagued modern Europe is the main reason why I support pan-European politics, despite its shortcomings. I’d accept that the EU has been its own worst enemy on this front in many ways – though Britain has scarcely been in the firing line, so its anti-Europeanism makes little sense in that context.

Rural revivalism: Yes, by God.

Nature worship: Well, I find it hard to worship anything and I’m fine with that. But if I had to worship something, then ‘nature’ would probably top my list. An issue I need to work through some more, perhaps.

Organicism: this could mean several things beyond a taste for sowing clover-rich grass leys. But when it comes to human affairs, I’d generally count myself out. Yes, everything is connected as part of a vast cosmic mystery. No, this wider truth is not a good basis for organizing human politics. Assume disconnection and build from there.

Landscape mysticism: see ‘nature worship’ and ‘organicism’.

Distrust of big business – particularly international finance: in early 20th century politics this was often a coded reference to Jews, feeding the aforementioned anti-Semitism. For my part, I don’t distrust Jews. But I do distrust big business – particularly international finance.

So, by my reckoning I score 4½ out of 14 on Harrison’s fascist-finding ticklist. Perhaps not enough to count as a person of interest in the enquiry, but not quite in the clear. It just goes to show, as I said above, how political ideologies merge into one another, become reconfigured, and generally can’t be screwed down into tight little definitional boxes. A ‘murky broth’ indeed.

There are a couple of aspects of fascism that Harrison doesn’t deal with so well. The first is that in the early 20th century a big impetus for it was the fear that communism would take hold of the working classes and bring down capitalism – fascism was but the most extreme manifestation of wider attempts to find ways of incorporating the working classes into an anti-communist and pro-capitalist politics. To be fair, Harrison does touch on this in her novel without really paying it much attention. The wider question today on this point is why a politics with many features of the earlier fascisms seems to be resurgent when there’s so little threat of communism or even anything especially leftist in many of the places where it’s occurring. Though perhaps I’m just revealing my own political biases here. After all, some people think Barack Obama is a radical leftist.

The other problem with Harrison’s treatment of fascism is that she seems to think of it as some kind of movement for conservative restoration opposed to social change. She puts these words into the mouth of one of her characters as he discourses against fascism: “we cannot set our faces against change: it don’t do, it never has….we must have change – we must have it! For the past is gone, and that’s just the way of it. Change allus comes, and all that falls to a man to decide is whether he’ll be part of it or not”.

I think this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fascism, which though it drew on nationalist ideologies of deep-seated rural culture and honest peasant toil actually had very little interest in preserving traditional moral economies or any such thing. Despite its organicism and history-mongering it was a movement deeply engaged with the state-industry-warfare nexus in entirely modernist terms. I’m not sure that it ever commanded huge support anywhere, but in troubled times it commanded enough support in some places to take hold and cause endless suffering and misery. I don’t think I’m being too Spenglerian to express the fear that in present troubled times, when the modernist state-industry-warfare nexus is manifestly unraveling, something similar could easily take hold again and do the same. And that, I submit, is a thoughtstarter, not a thoughtstopper.

129 thoughts on “Thoughtstoppers and thoughtstarters

  1. I have always wondered why a person like Greer, who writes sensibly about the predicaments of modern civilization (I especially liked The Wealth of Nature), would even care about politics and the people, like Trump, who infest the political scene more and more with each passing year. Surely he knows that they are helpless to do much in the face of those predicaments. Perhaps, like many of us, Greer just likes the thrill of a stirring political argument, but back when I was reading his column regularly I got the impression he was quite emotionally invested in Trumpism.

    One of the handy things about being a doomer-prepper is that allows one to relegate all of the -isms of the current political scene, with the accompanying emotional sturm und drang, to irrelevancy . They will come roaring back after collapse of course, but between now and then there is not much any -ism can do to alter the predicaments of overshoot.

    I suppose it would be better to endure overshoot’s consequences with pleasant and cooperative liberal democratic humanists, but they certainly couldn’t do much to change the outcome any more than nasty communists or fascists, so, pending a compelling silver bullet from SFF, I don’t put in much political effort anymore other than local community service and voting. You can shame me for my sloth, but you will have to be pretty convincing for it to have much bite.

  2. I will not claim any expertise on fascism, but this link by Jason Kottke to an article by Umberto Eco seems right to me:

    Another list of 14 points.

    Which largely add up in my mind to official, industrial bullying. Trump isn’t much of an industrialist, but then neither were any of the famous fascist front men, as far as I know. But they all travelled with, and did the bidding of industrialists. Trump is certainly a bully. And a talented, charismatic spokesmodel. My current favorite concise definition is ‘narcissist mobster’.

    So Trump probably thinks that he is working solely for himself. Maybe, but there are powerful people who are getting real benefit from what he has been doing, and it would not surprise me to find a core of determined fascists among them.

    I will also not claim any knowledge of John Michael Greer’s psychology, but it seems to me that he’s mad at nice polite liberals. I can’t really fault him for that, but Greer is deeply confused if he thinks that riding Trumpism into that battle will do anything but get him stuck in the mud.

    • Eric, isn’t it strange how differently we see the world… the totalitarians seem to me to be mostly on the left these days, but in polite circles like this one, that issue is carefully skirted.

      item #1: antifa
      item #2: mad Maxine
      item #3: corrupted U.S. election system where democrats are circling their wagons, and Florida’s system has become a joke
      item #4: the farce that is Brexit; utter contempt of the Prime Minister for the democratic system she is supposed to serve
      item #5: corrupt EU (or is it EUSSR now?)
      — need I go on?

      Yeah, totalitarians were once more on the right in some parts, but hey, they are good chameleons. Like the honey badger, they just don’t give a s**t.
      Trump will be gone in a few years. But the rest of that unsavory pack will still be in governance… especially in warm, well paid bureaucracies.

      • You are right, we seem to see the world differently.

        I will preface this by saying that I don’t have a TV, and don’t follow political news, so I miss most of the alarming scandals that get people all worked up.
        So I am not going to argue about politics, because it doesn’t serve any purpose, but I will make a short list in response to yours:

        1. I am agnostic about antifa, having not met any members.

        2. I don’t live in southern California any more, so I haven’t heard much about Maxine Waters lately, except that she recently made a headline with a banking regulation proposal, which I generally favor. My memory of her from the 1980s is that she would occasionally say true things about life in south central Los Angeles.

        3. Yes, the Democrats are thoroughly corrupt. And the 2000 Florida election was made worse by Democrats, but the Supreme Court coup benefitted the Republicans. Even so, to characterize the Democrats as ‘the Left’ is a category error.

        4. Theresa May is a Tory.

        5. I have personally experienced a small finger of EU bureaucracy. It is formidable. But after what they did to Greece, I wouldn’t call the EU establishment ‘the Left’ either.

        • Are you agnostic about the moon landing, not having directly witnessed it? Bah humbug on you.

          Yeah, I keep saying is not about the parties or even right or left. It’s about totalitarians, who have been on both sides of the spectrum.

          Oh, you are missing out on mad Maxine? Check her out on youtube. She’s been inciting the mob to abuse people who are associated in any way with the Trump administration. It’s particularly mindboggling that she actually tells people not to serve folks they don’t like in restaurants and ahem, I assume that includes lunch counters.

  3. I find Greer very hard to read these days – he seems remarkably convinced of his own brilliance and most of his writing reads like slightly condescending missives to somewhat backward students. And he, like many other Trump supporters do seem to have a lot of emotional investment in the man – as do Trumps opponents it seems.

    I heard Russel Brand interviewing Gabor Mate and he commented that Trump was “not an anomaly but a revelation” – that the system (war, big business, arms exports, gerrymandering, buying political influence etc etc) hadn’t changed under Trump, it had simply been made explicit and that was what many of his political opponents found most appalling about him. I thought that was an interesting point.

    I also heard David Harvey interviewed by Chris Hedges and he made the point that as neoliberalism and neoliberal economic policies, which have accelerated economic inequality, environmental destruction etc, have run into problems, not delivered on their public promises, been undone by their own internal contradictions etc, the economic elites that have benefited from neoliberalism have sought allies. Harvey suggests that initially they made common cause with neoconservatives and since 2008 are increasingly allied with far right political parties – so the AFD in Germany has explicitly neoliberal economic policies and Bolsanaro in Brazil has employed economic advisors who (if memory serves and I’d need to listen again to be sure) were involved in some of the world bank structural adjustment programs in South America.

    So yes I think the external forms of political ideas morph but the underlying structures remain and I find them frightening – especially for my children and the world they’ll might be living in in 20 years time.

    • Bruce – thanks for mentioning Gabor Mate; hadn’t heard of him before. He was also interviewed by John Lavitt at The Fix in December of 2017. Very interesting.

      I’d agree that the Donald is more a revelation than an anomaly at this point in time. The political vitriol here in the States has amped up in the last couple years but I don’t imagine its origins come from the experiences of 2016. Others have pointed to the rise of Newt Gingrich in 1995 as a point where partisan politics here went off the rails. Just before that there was rhetoric from Ronald Regan suggesting the mere mention of ‘liberal’ should be relegated to unmentionable status as the ‘L’ word on a par with the ‘N’ word. This transition was noted in England as well:,3604,413624,00.html

      To the point of Chris’ exemplifying whether individual words or phrases are thoughtstoppers or thoughtstarters… I should offer that the former seem to me to result from overuse and confusion while the latter tend to come from more carefully crafted arguments and concepts… narrowly defined and appreciated.

      A quote from a former British PM comes to mind:
      However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results. – Winston Churchill

      • Hi Clem – I hadn’t heard of Gabor Mate either until this week but he seems like an interesting man.

        In the 1980s there was a Conservative Party politician in the UK called Norman Tebbit – not someone I have ever liked but he’s said a couple of things over the years that I’ve found myself in reluctant agreement with – one was that there’s no such thing a multicultural society – his point was that a society was a group of people that shared a culture. I think the vitriol and division in American politics (and society?) are a direct and inevitable result of the prioritising of cultural difference (as opposed to say economic or class concerns) in political discourse which from over here appears to have started in the US with things like the Moral Majority but you’d know more about that than I. The real point is that working to emphasise and widen cultural difference within a society seems almost certain to lead to the failure of the cohesiveness of that society.

        • Interesting thoughts. The footprint of a “society” is something I’ve not chewed on much.

          Not sure the Moral Majority should get much credit (or blame) for the divisiveness of US politics; at least from where I see it. Never fancied myself a part of that constituency even though I do consider myself religious. There is tendency for folk to use the metaphor of a tent when considering whether a particular party here has a winning coalition. And for the most part I’ve not been a long term fan of our defacto two party system. But I have been persuaded at times there is some merit to it – recently bolstered by George Monbiot’s comments about his move to Labour from Green as a practical matter over a philosophical one – (my interpretation).

          The Republican party here has struggled with its TEA party members, while the Democrats are trying to balance their more leftish elements like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren against Blue Dog Dems who cosey up closer to moderate Republicans. These enormous tent sizes do offer the opportunity for folks to rapidly dismiss someone from the ‘other’ tent just because they’re already at a bit of difficulty with some in their own. So in this sense then the overall size of ‘society’ can be seen to correlate with difficulties in governing. Along this line of thought then, perhaps Brexit may offer some favorable results.

          Not sure how Chris’ Civic Republicanism ideas influence this – unless like the Farm Future going Small, CR should seed to work in the realm of Small polities? The ultimate difficulty for me then is a consideration for the whole planet. We’ve only go one of those.

  4. Interesting thoughts Clem about tent sizes, the difficulty of accommodating all those within and the use of the other as a means to do so. I view US politics from a distance which means my view is pretty partial but what I do see the emerging divisions look troubling to say the least.

    I’m a Green Party member but would vote Labour if that offered the best chance of unseating my local MP – I live in a safe Tory seat so I’m free from having to worry about such considerations and can vote Green without worrying my vote didn’t really count – an imperfect democracy it seems to me.

    If there’s a silver lining in the mess that is Brexit it’s perhaps that the oversimplified promises of politicians might now be exposed – maybe that’s a vain hope – more likely we’ll get all sorts of talk of betrayal etc etc. The justifications of politicians are endless – I often wonder, if we had an election in which the whole electorate decided not to vote just how our politicians would explain to us that this was a ringing endorsement of them and their policies – I don’t know how they’d do it but I’m sure they’d try.

    • 🙂 This made me think of something… your pondering about the “whole electorate decided not to vote” … made me wonder, what if a certain proportion of the electorate HAD to vote for the election to be considered valid. Here in the US some states have a requirement that the winner actually tally a majority of votes – and a runoff is held if no one does. How about a system where if less than 50% of registered voters choose to NOT vote then there is another election – and new candidates must be chosen to run. Sounds a bit like a No Confidence vote – but both (all?) candidates get no confidence and you start over.

      Like you, I’m sure the pols would have something to say in any event. Spin is likely not an elective in a poli-sci major.

        • Then we should run with it… we convene a convention to flesh out the idea. Then we form a group – say, the International Democracy Engineering Association. How’s that for an IDEA? 🙂

          • Doesn’t Hungary have something like that? The idea I heard was that if enough voters write in “nobody” then the whole slate needs to be scrapped.

      • But what happens in the meantime, Clem? And what happens if voters don’t turn up for the next election, too?

        In my manifesto, I proposed that every ballot should include a jury’s-choice option (which would be treated as the default). That would allow the electorate to reject all the candidates, without risking endless re-runs.

        However, I do think there’s also quite a good argument for treating abstentions as a vote for the status quo (either an incumbent or their nominee, or a co-opted successor) but that would only work if every ballot did include some kind of ‘none-of-the-above’ option.

        • Malcolm – I agree, a none-of-the-above option is better. This assures the voter actually participates. In fact I’d even go so far as to suggest voters who miss consecutive ballots have their registration lapse. You could rejoin the polity by simply reregistering, but you would need to at least go that far to demonstrate you have some level of investment in the system.

  5. Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately I’m heading off(line) again for a few days – this time to the slightly less exotic location of Brighton on Ecological Land Co-op business. So I’ll respond again in a few days time.

  6. Nice thoughtstarter. My own impression is that the more the elites feed the chaos unfolding in the world, the more they raise the odds of a real fascist/brutally authoritarian leader emerging. After all, it was the chaos of Weimar that allowed Hitler to get a purchase.

    I saw someone speak recently about the antifa thugs as “Sorosjugend.” Another meme that may catch. Brutal authoritarians don’t care about left and right, they are good at changing coats at the drop of a hat.

        • I’ve heard it used by people such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – both public schoolboys, the latter went to Eton. Johnson works is a prominent columnist for the Telegraph and Farage was a city trader – so there are many ways they could be construed as belong to the Elite, the Establishment and yet they can use the term, without specifying who they mean without anyone asking who they mean and without apparently implicating themselves. That suggests to me that its not a term that engenders much by way of a thoughtful reaction.

          As far as I can see its a term used in political discourse as a derogatory way to refer to anyone who might be in a position to propogate a position opposite to the one the person using the term is espousing. That’s a bit long winded. My point is that it’s never defined and it allows people to project onto it any group that they feel is oppressing their interests.

          But if we did define it a bit – say we said the financial elites we then find they’re backing both sides in the political sphere which means no one side can rail against the financial elites without implicating themselves as creatures of said elites – which is why it’s never defined – defining it encourages thought, not defining it encourages an emotional response

          • I’ll go along with Bruce’s usage here. In the US you’re far more likely to now hear the term ‘Elites’ employed disparagingly by Trump’s people when referring to denizens of either coast, of Ivy Leaguers who roam the halls of power, essentially anyone who doesn’t earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow.

            Yes, this is an exaggeration (though not by much) – but the degree to which this is exaggerated is left on the floor when ‘Elite’ is tossed into the conversation. For me, this is exactly the definition of a thoughtstopper.

          • I don’t have a problem with narrowing it down like that except for the need for brevity. Although, when people said the 1% vs the rest, nobody claimed it was not clear enough. Financial elites and their allies works, but elites is brief and people get it. Or the 1%…

            I doubt Farage is among the 1%. So maybe that’s the better term…

            But then, you see, there are plenty of elites among the Eurocrats who would never qualify as 1%. Not rich enough, but powerful enough behind the scenes to make lots of folks miserable. Good points though.

  7. I agree with Joe that at a basic level, thermodynamics and the global trends we are part of will override any isms or tribal labels we might try to use to explain things. The decline is coming, it will just be flavored differently depending on which power base tries to set a course to respond to it. I have acquired a somewhat dispassionate view of the political hurly burly, and focus my attention and energies on personal and local resilience.

    I had followed Greer for a long time, but since his new blog and rather more repetitive and pedantic tone, I seldom visit, though I will say he still sometimes comes up with observations that make me think and reflect on my opinion on things. I’ll go further and say he was very helpful in my seeing the current turmoil from the perspective of the long arc of history and peak resources.

    I think a lot of poorly done debate, discussion, and persuasion is a result of the decline of same. We ( generalizing here) spend far more time in passive media consumption than generations past, and rhetoric, or the trivium as a whole really, don’t seem to be a central organizing concept in the education process. When someone drags out an appeal to authority or a straw man, they aren’t called out quickly or clearly, so it compounds.

    Trump may be a symptom, but he is also an accelerant, and his ability to persuade is proof of the decline in critical thinking overall. I don’t care what label we struggle to classify him under, he is a force for more chaos, a less democratic style of governance, and a less civil public sphere.

    • I did not mean to suggest that they have that particular choice — but there is something in their procedures that makes it possible to reject the offering if the whole thing stinks to high heaven, isn’t there? It’s been a while since I heard about it.

  8. Interesting post. I’m largely in sympathy with it, but wonder if something is missing. I can’t speak for all those who call Trump a fascist, but Greer seems to (deliberately?) miss the point in at least one sense of the employment of the term to describe him: namely, as an emotionally loaded gesture that is actually intended to derail the process of thoughtful engagement with Trump’s political intentions.

    When used in the way, ‘fascism’ is not a reference to a specific political ideology cooked up in the 1930s; in fact, it points to forms of behaviour in politics that are basically intended to exclude any thoughtful engagement with the finer points of an ideology (Trump as thoughtstopper – I liked that), behaviour that instead attempts to martial emotions to create a sense of one authoritative in-group and a host of scapegoated out-groups.

    Sure, when used in this way ‘fascism’ is not labelling an ideology, but that’s the point. Trump is notorious for his dog-whistling rallies and tweets, and the fact that he nearly always plays to his base. One can talk about the political thought behind his policies, but in my experience what emerges is an incoherent mess. Politics also needs to be thought about as a theatrical practice, and labelling a Trump a fascist can be a useful bit of theatre to combat his own theatrical nous. The more serious point about this notion of fascism is that it doesn’t belong on a political spectrum at all; it is instead a corruption of any kind of useful (thoughtful) politics. I have some sympathy with those who argue for the no-platforming of people like Stephen Bannon, who can spout any senseless rubbish they like, because simply having their voices amplified in the public sphere itself constitutes their victory.

    So whilst I rather enjoyed your self-examination, I think that worrying about a specific definition of fascism and its supposed transferability is a little beside the point. Perhaps the invocation of fascism in the way Greer objects to is better considered alongside your concern for the protection of a functioning public sphere in which informed debate can be expected to have some traction with political policy-making.

    • I’m also wary of no-platforming, but I think it’s worth remembering that beyond a right to free speech in public, nobody has an additional right to have their voice amplified above those of others – ‘de-platforming’ sort of implies that people have some kind of a right to a platform in th first place.

      I’d also agree that good speech and bad speech should compete, when good and bad are understood according to intellectual considerations. But it’s speech as gesture that’s at stake here. All speech is gestural to some extent, but when the gesture becomes more important than the content, when the fact of speech becomes more important than understanding what is actually said, I think we have to be prepared to judge it according to different considerations.

    • I’ve been trying to resist your challenge (goading?!) on May and Corbyn, but without success it would seem!

      I don’t want to stand as an apologist for Corbyn, but I am interested in whether a future Labour government might open some more radical possibilities…

      In any event, neither May nor Corbyn would deserve to be labelled fascists if fascism is understood as a kind of gestural politics. One might argue that some Tories (including May) have flirted with it in the past, especially around immigration, but the real target there would have to be UKIP.

      But it strikes me that there is a difference between left and right in Britain at the moment in terms of how they’re treated. Corbyn is often judged according to gestural considerations (the infamous angle of the bow at the cenotaph, the people with whom he has shared a platform in the past) in a way that the Tories never are, perhaps because they are more in line with the established modus operandi of politics in this country.

      Perhaps people are more inclined to look outside the content of speech at its gestural inflection when they feel threatened by the speaker’s words, i.e. as a means of destraction. Meanwhile, in the case of Trump, when gesture is pretty much all there is, supporters like Greer are almost desperate to distract from that and encourage people to think that his words do contain some kind of coherent policy content.

  9. Thanks for the comments. Once again I feel like I’ve come back a little too late in the show to pitch in now, but various things to mull over here – so thank you.

    I’m assuming Vera’s smear of Corbyn refers to the Sarkocy allegations made by Ben Bradley which he later withdrew, apologised to Corbyn and agreed to pay a sum of money to a charity of Corbyn’s choice plus his legal costs rather than face libel action:

    I invite Vera to submit a revised version of her above comment in the light of this, and then I’ll delete the original one. Or failing that I’ll delete the original one – which I see not as censorship but as avoiding libellous falsehoods.

    Still, I’d also be interested to see an analysis of Corbyn’s alleged ‘fascism’ – I can’t imagine what it would look like. Such has been the drift towards neoliberal ideology in recent times that Labour’s 2017 manifesto seems to be regarded as some kind of communism despite being less redistributive than the Lib/SDP one of 1983:

    The Labour figure to watch is probably John McDonnell rather than Corbyn – some of the economic policy development that’s emerging under his watch seems to me pretty interesting for anyone motivated by the kind of concerns I articulate on this site.

    • Not knowing who John McDonnell is I had to look him up. He seems a competent bloke, and not at all a youngster. But apart from his politics and seniority I could not help but notice your final sentence above… and then to ponder on the lyrics to an old children’s song: Old McDonald Had a Farm. which was surely a small farm. 🙂

    • I vaguely know that libel law is different in Britain than in the US, but I am surprised that a mere allusion to a falsehood about a public figure by a reader in one of her comments is somehow legally dangerous for you.

      In addition, there is plenty of “good speech” here on SFF to fight off any unseemly or inaccurate “bad speech”, so there is at least one thing I can agree with Vera about.

      On the other hand, some kinds of “bad speech” present a slippery slope to incessant name calling and ad hominem attacks, which can make blog comment sections totally worthless to read unless it is moderated relentlessly. So far SFF has gloriously avoided that slope almost entirely, something you should be very proud of.

    • Thanks Joe. Yes, not for nothing is Britain known as the libel capital of the world, but I’m also unhappy with the phrase for my own reasons. Always a judgment call…there are very few comments on SFF that I’ve ever unilaterally deleted.

      And thanks Clem. Generally speaking, a downside of Labour people is their inability to take the countryside seriously (and a downside of country people is their inability to take Labour seriously). I doubt old McDonnell ever did have a farm, of any size, but I’m hopeful that Labour will begin to engage more seriously with a sensible agrarian agenda.

      • Your experience with Rural and Labour sounds very much like our experience with Rural and Democrats – which I suppose should not be surprising.

        I notice McDonnell is the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer which raises two questions for me: 1) does the holder of a shadow seat have any official responsibility? and 2) is there a Shadow MP for DERFA?

        • Well, the way it works is that the leader of the largest party not in government appoints a team of MPs as ‘shadow’ counterparts to government ministers who oversee the party’s policy development and act as its key spokesperson on the relevant issues. They have no more official power than any other sitting MP, but the idea is that when there’s an election they’re then ready to step into the official government post – I daresay there may be some official elements to their position, but they have no governmental role.

          Yes, there’s a shadow DEFRA minister – Sue Hayman. The full list is here:

  10. Before we head off in another direction I’d like to puzzle over a thought from above… in scoring up his potential as a fascist, Chris said:

    So, by my reckoning I score 4½ out of 14 on Harrison’s fascist-finding ticklist. Perhaps not enough to count as a person of interest in the enquiry, but not quite in the clear. It just goes to show, as I said above, how political ideologies merge into one another, become reconfigured, and generally can’t be screwed down into tight little definitional boxes. A ‘murky broth’ indeed.

    And I agree with the general notion, especially the ‘murky broth’ dimension. Where I puzzle is the nod of ‘but not quite in the clear’. Does this suggest that to be quite blame free of any fascist contamination that one must score a zero? I can get in line with a concept of discomfort when a society falls under the control of leadership that ticks off all the boxes. But where I get lost is trying to follow the notion where the absolute opposite is the only game worth playing.

    For an example there is the almost forced discomfort of a citizen inclined to Green political ideals who surveys the field and holds her nose to vote Labour only because the Green party has no realistic hope of forming a government. My read is this is exactly George Monbiot’s course. I can imagine the hard core Green establishment is displeased to a certain extent by such a ‘betrayal’… but at what stage does the ‘murky broth’ not offer at least a little sustenance to all, even when disagreeable to some? My answer is once ‘some’ becomes ‘most’. True enough the only person we can really control is the one we see in a mirror. But if we are going to share our own local spaces with hundreds, or thousands of others then there are going to be differences of opinion. This broth idea is really growing on me – for the more ingredients one adds to the broth, the murkier it gets. Boiled water might be pure, but hardly satisfying. Too many ingredients (too murky) and again… not satisfying.

    Visions of the parable of the Stone Soup come to mind. Local agrarianism made manifest.

    • Clem, I agree with you. I wasn’t being all that serious. Just making the point, really, that there are elements of the fascist package as defined by Melissa Harrison like economic protectionism that are beyond the pale in mainstream discussions (albeit only somewhat hypocritically so – eg. in the wealthy countries we protect our job markets from competition by non-citizen job seekers) but not beyond the pale to my way of thinking….while there are other elements of the fascist package that are completely beyond the pale to my way of thinking. Hence the true murkiness of the broth.

  11. Chris,
    A murky broth indeed! I turned to Wikipedia for the following definition of Fascism: “a form of radical authoritarian ultra-nationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition…” The list of characteristics you discussed may outline the details of fascism but it seems to me that the fundamental problem of this ideology could be summed up as “might makes right” or the willingness to use force to maintain authority.

    The willingness to use force to maintain power is socially corrosive. The Drug war in America has lead to mass incarceration of non-violent offenders. America is using legally authorized force to subjugate members of society, often racially biased. The opioid epidemic continues to rage while doctors continue to prescribe these substances because no one seems to be able to reign in the power of the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. Small business is being decimated by venture capitalists who buy companies so that they can extract profits until the companies fail. Bankers write loans for corporate consolidation with money supplied by Central Banks. The power to control finance and capital leads to increasing economic inequality, making it ever easier for those with money to control of government and sway laws that exacerbate social injustice. This too seems to be a form of “might makes right”. Whether a group is willing to use physical force or legal force the outcome is similar; a small group in power trying to maintain control.

    I often think that are really two underlying issues that affect all other issues; lack of intellectualism and health. As the age of the internet and communication has unfolded it is surprising how rapidly people are losing their capacity for intellectual achievement. How can we find workable solutions when an increasing number of people no longer read books or articles of more than a few paragraphs? How do we grapple with complex issues when people are losing the ability to think rationally or speak civilly? This is the behavior Trump exemplifies that I hate the most. His willingness to interrupt, insult, exaggerate, and lie encourages his base of supporters to act the same way.

    Since the Great Recession Americans have seen decreasing funding for public education, a lack of government support for public education, and a lack of newly trained teachers. Where will good public school teachers come from when it costs too much to obtain your college degree and starting pay is abysmally low? Even if people have access to books in the public library or on line, how do we encourage people to read and think more when schools are failing? How do we overcome Trump supporters disdain for facts when he tells them anyone who doesn’t support him is “fake news”?

    My other concern is about the insidious effects of a western diet and chronic diseases. It is likely that our future will require much better physical health if we are going to produce our own food. We need better health to do any kind of farm labor, gardening, or biking and walking for transportation. If people can’t think intelligently, if they suffer from chronic disease, how can we take care of our needs and maintain social cohesion? Education and diet should be taken more seriously because the form the foundation of a healthful society.

    • “the foundation of a healthful society”


      So it seems to me that we need to go another layer deeper into the onion.

      I am agreeing with you about the importance of health care and thoughtful engagement in the civic sphere. But looking at the behavior being rewarded by the society I live in, I don’t see much evidence of a motive to promote a healthful society.

      I believe the question comes back to what we value, and what motives we reward.

      I see mostly greed, with a sauce of fear. I like your characterization of fascism as a species of kleptocracy by brute force. I see that as the path we are headed down, even if we label it with a different ‘ism’.

      • Eric,
        Yes, I agree health is shaped by “what we value and what motives we reward” and no, I don’t see much evidence that society promotes good health. So what makes life worth living and how can we improve our health? How can we change or encourage better values and attitudes?

        I grew up in a small rural community made up of many small family farms. My memories are certainly clouded by nostalgia, but I still think small farm families and small communities can be a healthy place to live and work. Small farmers know the value of hard work, thrift, honesty, and helping one another. It is difficult to get away with dishonesty when everyone knows you!

        I am convinced that people will become healthier when we eat more whole plant based food (pulled fresh from the soil) and less overly processed foods shipped from around the world. I think families are stronger when parents read to their children and start a lifetime love of books. When we spend time reading good books and sharing our views with family and friends it improves our mental health. I think values of thriftiness promote less greed and over consumption. And if we slow down and take time to pause and reflect before we react we can avoid succumbing to all the ‘isms that seem to be flooding social media and news.

      • Jody,
        Yes to that.

        We live in town, so my wife and I only grow a tiny fraction of our daily calories, but I have been sharing our ample crop of Poncirus Trifoliata this year. (Almost) oranges grown unprotected outdoors in Northeast Kansas!

        My favored revolutionary activities are social dancing, and building and riding bicycles for commuting, cargo carrying, and silly fun.

        Neither of those pursuits require any significant investment of money or real estate, and the rewards are much greater than I would have imagined.

        However, I remain puzzled at nearly everyone’s resistance to doing easy, cheap, fun things that will make them happy and contribute to a somewhat healthier community.

        It seems that most people who want to change things think the only way is to be serious and collect a bunch of money. And everyone else is just trying to collect a bunch of money.

        • Eric,
          It’s always hard to understand why others aren’t motivated to change. Just know that you lead by example even if it seems as though others aren’t following. The ONLY thing that matters is if you feel happiness in living your life.

  12. This might better be left at a previous posting, but I’ll leave it here. Ecomodernists need to stay on their toes if they want to keep up.

    From the “Can’t make this stuff up department”:
    Long lasting lights in Bristol. There it is, sitting as it does in the former Kingdom of Wessex and a mere hour’s romp from our favorite Somerset Small Farm… a University giving shelter to the intrepid researchers who’ve had the temerity to wonder if all that spent pee in the local loo might be turned to electricity. Of course it can. Better still – in the shocking prospect of such a process one can clam onto nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in said waste stream. What’s not to like?

    Charge your cell phone with the electricity made from urine? Why not? Local pubs on campus should be all over this. The next time little Harry shows up home after curfew there’ll be no more of this: “Sorry Mum, I couldn’t call, me cell phone battery died.”

    I realize our favorite small farmer from Frome has been on the road a good bit of late, but I still wonder if once he’s had an opportunity to rest up it might next be time for that short road trip over to Bristol to interview the researchers mentioned here. He might even have to try a pint at the pub… setting himself up for a battery recharging – you know, proof of concept and all that. Gives an added dimension to the English meaning for getting pissed.

  13. Thanks for the further comments. The notion of kleptocracy backed by brute force segues nicely into my next planned post on migration, though it may be a while before I can write it.

    I also meant to refer to the discussion above on elites, where I agree with Bruce on the thoughtstopping nature of the term. Chantal Mouffe describes populism as ‘the people against the oligarchy’ … maybe ‘oligarchy’ provides a bit more analytical purchase? Not so sure about the Tebbit point though. No doubt all this word-wrangling can seem like so much fiddling while Rome, or California, is burning. On the other hand, I think the way we choose to narrate our path is partly determinant of the path – though only partly…lapsed Marxist though I am, it’s possible to overdo the idealism of human life as ‘story’.

    And thanks for the links Clem. Those Bristolians are surely taking the piss, as we say in these parts.

    • Maybe Tebbit overstates the case – it’s not as if we are lacking examples of the coexistence of diverse cultures within a wider society. So maybe its more of a case that there needs to a shared culture or other force stronger than those cultural differences in order for a cohesive society to contain multiple cultures. There’s a also the danger within that within a society which is culturally diverse that a particular cultural group (or groups) within that diverse mix will seek to appropriate the common culture to itself – I think this is what is happening in the US (those in the US may well have a much better view of that) – those who oppose Trump see him as undermining American values, the constitution etc. Those who support him say exactly the same thing about the opposition. These are murky waters where I doubt anything I could write would quite capture what is happening. Tebbit may overstate the case (to create a sound bite?) but I still feel there’s a nugget of truth lurking at the bottom of what he said.

      • I’d be a bit more circumspect about how we go about defining notions like ‘different cultures’ within a ‘wider society’. But I agree that these issues are looming large in contemporary politics, albeit often for questionable reasons. Which brings me to my next post…

  14. On “populism” as a thoughtstopper in media discourse:

    “In the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s election, commentators’ tendency to equate the threat of left and right populism at least gestured towards its ideological variety. Since then, populism tout court has become such efficient shorthand for reactionary xenophobia that politicians need only give voice to anti-immigrant sentiment to earn the label—a move that absolves the sober establishment from its deep complicity in wall- and fortress-building.”

    This is from a critical review of Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism at n+1, and it’s outstanding.

    • Thanks for the link, Ernie. I read Mouffe’s book recently – my take on it would be quite a bit more generous than Riofrancos’s, but she certainly makes some good points. Again, some considerations that I’ll try to raise in my next post.

      Meanwhile, the Guardian offers us this handy metric for self-identification on the spectrum of right/left and populist/non-populist:

      Apparently, I’m closest to Pablo Iglesias. I’d be glad to host other confessions/professions.

      • The result of my answers to the quiz put me about half way on a line between Pablo Iglesias and Barack Obama, somewhat on the populist side of the line and halfway into the left side of the spectrum. Will I still be allowed to comment on your posts?

  15. Hmm… Iʻm equally non-populist but well to the left of dear old Barack. I do think Iʻm more of a despicable centrist than the quiz captured, so close to an Obama or Macron, but definitely not as well-dressed.

    • The quiz compared me to Macron – but to his right and somewhat more populist. Having only been on the road through the French countryside to get from London to Brussels I can’t imagine that had any impact.

      Is there any background explaining who the ‘experts’ who posed the questions might be? Two questions (10%) on LGBTQ seems to slant its significance in my mind… but I’m not an expert.

      • Like Chris I’m a near-neighbour to Pablo Iglesias, but on reading the small-print, I discover he’s not the real Pablo, but an avatar, an expert who somehow knew what answers Pablo would give. When added to the fact that the questions no doubt carry a specific ideological baggage, as you imply Clem, I can’t help but think none of us are going to take this to much to heart (though I do share Pablo’s long hair…, not literally of course…)

  16. I took the quiz 6 times and landed within a few bubbles of Obama every time but generally to the left so I’m slightly more liberal and can be more or less populous than him. Since I consider myself a moderate the quiz kind of confirmed that.

    I then played around with the quiz taking it several more times and tried to make my answers line up with Angela Merkels. I could almost get there but typically ended up more populist than her position. After doing this several times I found that the questions 1-10 determine where you land up or down (populist or non populist) and questions 11-20 determine your position right or left (conservative or liberal). If you answer “neither agree nor disagree” to the first 10 questions you will end up on the center horizontal line (the x axis). If you answer the same for the last 10 questions you end up on the vertical line (y axis). So you can hold one position constant and see how your answers shift you either right or left, up or down. Trying to obtain the answers of those people provided makes for an interesting game.

  17. It’s interesting to read everyone’s quiz results. I took it several times and varied my answers slightly (Do I merely “disapprove” or do I “strongly disapprove” of conservatism? Well…it depends.), but I consistently ended up in Bernie Sanders/Pablo Iglesias territory. Comparing the male/female demographic was quite revealing — I expected that female respondents would be more liberal then male respondents in general, but it’s interesting to see that they’re also more populist.

      • I used the buttons just below the grid, Jody, and the display changes instantly for me depending on which demographic I select. Sounds like you might be having a technical problem.

  18. Thanks for the answers and for the exhaustive methodological testings. I suppose it’s not surprising that long-time commenters on this blog align fairly closely with me in the weakly left-populist quadrant – people of other political persuasions usually give up on me in disgust after a while. Still, as some of you say above, I don’t think anyone should take the quiz too seriously. Unlike my next blog post, which will be filled with deadly serious left-populist analysis. However, it may be some time coming, as I’m falling behind with my book writing. A troubling paragraph…go out to clear my head by felling a few trees…then there’s that bit of plumbing to do…and suddenly the day is gone. Repeat next day…

    • Chris,
      Wouldn’t it be lovely if the friends we have made through this comment section were our actual neighbors and we could carry on many long interesting discussions while tending those pesky chores! I always enjoy conversations with the girl I hire to help me in the garden.

    • This quiz placed me next to Viktor Orban, but if I were to design my own political spectrum quiz, I’d place myself somewhere between John Randolph of Roanoke, Jesse Helms, Nicolas Gomez Davila, Wendell Berry, the Unabomber (minus the violent tactics), and Jefferson Davis, but nonetheless I love your blog, some posts more than others, but all in all I really appreciate what you write. The main reason I haven’t been present in the comments section lately is that I’ve been busy and I like your blog so much that I’m afraid of where my time would go if I got started commenting again. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see much reason to think that right-wing people like myself (by which I guess I mostly mean with agrarian sympathies) would “give up on you in disgust.” I think there’s lots in your writing for people like me to appreciate, and I think you’re about as fair and reasonable as one can be that holds those positions I completely reject.

      In the meantime I’ve drafted the first half of two or three e-mail messages to you on various pretty apolitical subjects since we last communicated. I hope to complete one of those soon.

  19. Could a radical leftist have successfully taken the United States any further to the left than Obama did (forcing the vast majority of Americans whole hog into a monolithic, government-controlled medical insurance system, overseeing the redefinition of marriage by unconstiitutional judicial fiat (through the support of his appointees), redefining immigration rules (DACA) by unconstitutional executive fiat…)? If the United States under his presidency went as far to the left as it possibly could have gone without crashing back to the right (e.g. Obamneycare actually getting ruled unconstitutional, Obergefell getting effectively nullified, etc.), how could Obama (or any other president in his place) meaningfully have been any more radically leftist? Do you think he’s any less radical for having lied (at least according to his chief of staff) about his beliefs on marriage during the election? Do you think he’s any less radical for having suggested he didn’t have the authority to do what he did with DACA and suggesting that he would respect the authority of Congress before he pushed DACA through anyway by executive fiat? One’s no less a radical leftist for being deceitful and mild mannered than for having the personality of Trump.

    As for intimidating journalists, mobs, etc., there may have been Jewish mobs in Nazi Germany and Jews that intimidated mainstream German journalists, but in the big picture wouldn’t that be a gross distortion of the trends and the serious threats of the time? In light of stories like this follwoing one, shouldn’t the same be said of associating mobs and journalist intimidation with the right?

    • Hi Eric B.
      I hope you feel better now that you have that off your chest.

      Not sure whether you left the questions above with the intent that someone actually answer them, but as a voting age citizen in the U.S. I would be willing to offer some thoughts if it wouldn’t hurt your feelings.

      On the matter of a mob attacking Tucker Carlson. This is sad thing. We should be able to do better. But I would make a few observations – Mr. Carlson is still alive, his front yard doesn’t have a smoldering cross burned into it. Tucker gets to rebut his attackers himself. Yes, this is still an ugly incident – but held up to the example of others it seems a bit lame.

      • Clem, what other incidents do you have in mind that make the Tucker incident seem lame, particularly what incidents from the Obama-Trump (or even Bush II) era, and particularly in terms of comparable intimidation/potential silencing effect? Anything to compare with the mob rule that overtook Evergreen State College in Washington State a year or so ago following what was effectively mandatory leftist racial politics, for another example? The closest thing I can think of would be the Bundy family incidents in Nevada and eastern Oregon, but I wouldn’t say those incidents involved threatening to intimidate or silence any competing viewpoints or groups. Those incidents were directed pretty strictly at the government.

        • Eric, I’m struggling to understand why a comparative needs to be set within the time boundaries you’ve selected. My original examples would include Kristallnacht and the many incidents of lynching by elements of the KKK here in the States. In both of these examples mobs actually killed innocents. Cross burnings by the KKK often went off without taking lives – but the intimidation and silencing are certainly up front.

          If we must restrict ourselves to recent incidents then I might point to Charlottesville, VA. Here we also have a loss of life, and a rather insipid response by the President.

          But this pointing fingers exercise seems to only extend the pain and suffering. I imagine we might allow the examples issue to escalate to include all sorts of bullying and mob action over time. Where I’ll suppose we are in agreement is that regardless of the political stances of disputants, there should be some limit to how far some group will go; some civil stricture for debate.

          • Presenting Kristallnacht and even more distant history as a proof of what trends and dangers America is facing today is exceedingly lame, especially if being used to discount evidence of threats and dangers from current events like that with Tucker.

            As for Charlottesville, what threats of intimidation or silencing do you see there? Did one right-wing nut-bag killing somebody in Charlottesville do anything to silence the left? Even though the left wasn’t silenced or intimidated in the least, are you suggesting that there was a real threat or danger of the left being silenced or intimidated into submission by that killing, especially by overt white supremacists and neo-Nazis? That argument seems a bit lame, doesn’t it?

            I think a closer look at Charlottesville actually provides further evidence of left-wing silencing of the right by intimidation and by misuse of government powers. Consider that the march was in response to another step in the trend of the left removing statues that represent traditional right-wing principles (like government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed, like living amicably with neighbors that hold different beliefs and customs, like the rule of law, particularly as opposed to mob rule and rulers overreaching their constitutional authority, etc.) How many statues of people that represent left-wing principles (like the government overriding the rights of people that hold government-unapproved values to do business according to their own values) have come down in the last decade or two, particularly at the hands of mobs, and then in appeasement of those mobs haven’t been replaced?

            And then consider that the city government tried to prevent the marchers from being allowed to march but was only overruled at the last moment by a court order. And then the city allowed counter-protesters to gather without a permit and without the city providing safe separation by the police. I don’t mean to say anything about how marches should be handled by governments and police, but clearly there was a double standard. Where are the comparable examples of governments in America trying to silence left-wing marchers? According to the executive director of the Virginia ACLU, “The lack of any physical separation of the protesters and counterprotesters on the street was contributing to the potential of violence. [Police] did not respond. In fact, law enforcement was standing passively by, waiting for violence to take place, so that they would have grounds to declare an emergency, declare an ‘unlawful assembly’ and clear the area.”

  20. On the subject of civic republicanism, I wonder what civic republicanism would mean for issues like gun control, definitions of marriage, abortion, anti-discrimination laws, mandatory maternity leave, laws against spanking of one’s own children, limits on immigration, the degree to which government-defined education is compulsory, the degree to which government-defined medicine is compulsory, etc. However peripheral or secondary you think most of these and other similar issues may be, I believe they’re big-time potential deal-breakers for building any kind of agrarian coalition in most countries of the world. Does your understanding of civic republicanism presume that all these issues would be decided in leftist fashion? Or could it just as well allow for all these issues to be decided in very traditional fashion (at least within English and Amercian traditions)? Is your understanding of CR itself more or less neutral on issues like these?

    • I believe they’re big-time potential deal-breakers for building any kind of agrarian coalition in most countries of the world.

      Not at all. The issues you list will be mostly irrelevant to a small agrarian society. But you are getting at a good point; where there are a wide variety of solutions to the important concerns of peasant farmers, there will be variety in the manner with which those concerns are addressed under civic republican government.

      Civic republicanism is not a new way of organizing a modern nation-state, it is a method that small agrarian communities might choose as an alternative to warlordism or feudalism. In a world where that kind of choice must be made, concerns about “gun control, definitions of marriage, abortion, anti-discrimination laws, mandatory maternity leave, laws against spanking of one’s own children, limits on immigration, the degree to which government-defined education is compulsory, the degree to which government-defined medicine is compulsory,” will be few and far between. Most will be totally irrelevant, but even gun control and immigration will be discussed only in the context of the common defense and physical security of the community.

      A civic republican agrarian community will be concerned with Maslow’s hierarchy of physical needs. Since ways of meeting those needs will always come from the land, the most important issue will always be land tenure, who controls what land (and water). Next in line will be common defense. Those two issues alone will likely take up 95% of a civic republican’s time pondering governance matters, time that will be meager and hard won from time spent in the fields. The other 5% will be taken up with facilitating intra-community trade.

      Peasantry involves too much work just staying alive to waste time on anything but the essentials. One might think that without the heavy hand of government, an agrarian community would be a kind of libertarian paradise. Yes, everyone will be free to do exactly what they want, as long as it’s farm work.

      • I’ll share a couple thoughts in response to both of your (Joe and Chris) comments about CR, but first I should probably admit that despite everything I’ve read on this blog I still don’t have a very clear understanding of what really defines CR. Is CR a form of government? Or is it just as much a spirit with which a people engages its government? Could one look at a government’s written constitution, and assuming the government operated according to that constitution, say whether the government was CR?

        I wonder, for example, if a government that officially discriminated in any way between the sexes (like the US before the 19th amendment, leaving everything else about the US form of government aside for the moment) would by definition necessarily be something other than CR. Or would a government that discriminated between citizens and foreign aliens or any other category of non-citizens necessarily be something other than CR, at least if there were a significant number of people in the non-citizen category. A big part of what I’m wondering is whether I as someone that finds very little common ground with the average leftist (who, on average, isn’t notably agrarian at all) would have to compromise my more traditional values in order to embrace CR.

        I very much agree, Chris, that tax funded and government controlled schools ought to concern people with libertarian/traditional American values at least as much as government controlled medicine. I see two major reasons that they haven’t, however. First, looking at things from an American perspective, I think the 19th century Americans that established government schools foolishly thought they would be able to control the government and the schools through the government to enforce their own values, particularly in opposition to the competing values of the largely Roman Catholic immigrants of the time. I suppose they accomplished their goals to some extent for a time, but it was altogether a devil’s bargain, and they should have foreseen the kind of institutional values that would inevitably overtake their community values (flawed as they were) over time. Secondly, I think people today are just so used to government schools that they don’t realize how contrary to a free people they are, where Americans are less accustomed to overtly government controlled medicine simply because the fascade, at least, of privately controlled medicine was still strong until Obamneycare passed.

        To your point, Joe, that there are a wide variety of solutions to the concerns of peasant farmers, I think talk of solutions confuses the matter. Is defining marriage one way or another a “solution” to any concerns of peasant farmers? Are any educational concerns “solved” simply by determining that the government will or won’t control the educational system? Does deciding whether or not to prosecute certain types of murders “solve” any concerns of peasant farmers? I think talking about solutions implies a fundamental agreement about goals and values. I think we’re accustomed to this language because politicians need to suggest this kind of agreement about goals and values in order to appeal to a majority of voters, and so politicians divert attention from these fundamental differences and focus instead on their supposed skills at achieving common goals, but I think any kind of major changes in our system of government (like whatever would be involved in shifting, whether gradually and suddenly, to CR) won’t be able to avoid the kind of fundamental values differences in the list of issues I gave before. I’m probably about as much of a peasant farmer as anyone in America today (which, granted, isn’t saying much) — I and my family devote a very large percentage of our labor to providing directly for our own family’s basic needs and we make my dollar living selling low-input farm goods — but I would sooner contribute to wrecking any attempts at any peasant farmer-friendly form of government (CR or whatever) rather than make any significant compromises on even a single one of the issues I listed with very few if any exceptions. Would you leftists not feel the same way? For example, if peasant farmer-friendly CR were tied to banning abortion or embracing radical 2nd amendment principles or allowing private businesses to discriminate however they wanted, etc., would you still support it? It’s very hard for me to imagine that any shift in form of government that couldn’t be accomplished by slow creep could happen without facing major disagreement over related values issues?

        • For example, if peasant farmer-friendly CR were tied to banning abortion or embracing radical 2nd amendment principles or allowing private businesses to discriminate however they wanted, etc., would you still support it?

          The short answer is yes. If these issues were decided by my local CR government in a manner totally contrary to my beliefs, I would still have to live with them or leave (something that might be virtually impossible to do).

          But in a world where a surgical abortion is too medically advanced to perform, where there is no such thing as the 2nd Amendment and where discrimination is such an economic luxury that it is unlikely to be codified, I don’t see these kinds of issues being discussed much.

          I see the CR that Chris has introduced as a form of communitarianism, where the best interests of the community are decided by representatives from within the community, who get together to evaluate and decide upon issues that affect the community as a whole. This is different from authoritarianism, where the king and his advisers decide important issues, or libertarianism, where individual freedom is paramount.

          If we imagine belonging to a small community of, say, 4,000 people on 800 farms, some critical measures of communal interest must be decided collectively, while many others are either too theoretical or too minor to matter. Civic republicanism would be a good method of managing the decision making process, but it cannot prevent minorities with being disgruntled with the result. They are just going to have to lump it if they don’t want to leave.

          Modern civilization affords a tremendous amount of freedom by virtue of the wealth it provides to vast numbers of people. It allows people the opportunity find a community of like minded people and avoid people they disagree with. They can do this because it is so easy for the ‘wealthy’ to be mobile. Once that mobility is gone, we will be stuck with the people in a little world no bigger than a day’s horseback ride wide. The fine points of the 2nd Amendment, and a lot of other political issues we argue about, won’t apply.

          • There is a new book out by the junior Senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse: Them: Why We Hate Each Other–and How to Heal

            I’ve not read it, but based on a review I have the impression it speaks to how current turmoil (in particular here in the US) comes from personal disconnections due to technology. Communities and personal belonging to place are suggested remedies (if I have it right).

            If Sasse is onto something here, then Joe too might have a fair read on a good path forward. It isn’t lost on me that if technology is the source of the difficulty, then in a future where our current level of tech it too difficult to maintain we might inadvertently slip into community life. Now to find a way to deal with the bullies.

          • > If these issues were decided by my local CR government in a manner totally contrary to my beliefs, I would still have to live with them or leave

            I was looking at the question from a different angle, though. I was wondering how the CR government would ever come to power in the first place, which raises two kinds of questions: (1) would you support the CR government coming to power if it meant compromising things like in the list I gave above, and (2) would you support the transition to the CR government through the transition period when a lot of those issues that might not be issues in the future were nonetheless still very much issues in the meantime.

            > They are just going to have to lump it if they don’t want to leave.

            Or sabotage the whole system rather than suffer as an oppressed minority, perhaps allying with anyone else with any other sorts of grievances or in the minority on any other issue, including perhaps forces outside the community.

            > The fine points of the 2nd Amendment, and a lot of other political issues we argue about, won’t apply.

            The 2nd amendment (and the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights before that, and I don’t know my English history as well, but I believe also 2nd amendment type rights protected by the late 17th century English Bill of Rights before that) certainly goes back to times when people lived “in a little world no bigger than a day’s horseback ride wide.” I think the less mobile, agrarian society of those times was actually much MORE conducive of concern for basic rights (like those expressed in the US Bill of Rights, including the 2nd amendment) than our current time, when we’re accustomed to forfeiting our rights for access to facebook or airbnb or to get through airport security, etc., etc., and when we’re so dependent on corporations that we’re thinking more about the government constraining the corporations than we’re concerned about the government constraining us, which really isn’t much of an issue anyway, because we’re such complete consumers (and employees) that we’re not hardly doing anything ourselves. Certainly we enjoy material wealth today that people didn’t enjoy 242 years ago, but I sure can’t see saying that we’re freer. Haven’t we sacrificed a lot of freedoms for the sake of and incidentally along with the growth of the economy we have today?

            I can’t even see that we live more in communities of like minded people today than we used to. I think the modern economy allows us to not really live in community at all (or to the extent we do it’s not a community made up of our nearest neighbors), but I think the actual communities that people used to live in engendered common interests that meant people were more of like mind with their neighbors then they people are today.

  21. Hi Eric, it’s nice to have your voice on SFF again, and it’s genuinely gratifying to hear that you like my blog so much despite our considerable political differences – undoubtedly, the ability to converse across partisan political lines is a skill we could all do with better cultivating.

    Your follow-up comments leave me a little less gratified in view of their slightly goading tone and I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass on engaging with them for the most part due to other commitments, but I’ll pick up briefly on a couple of your points.

    In relation to civic republicanism, I wouldn’t presume that republics would define their politics through familiar leftist positions pleasing to my ear, but nor would I presume they’d do so in what you call ‘traditional fashion’, not least because avoiding tradition in the sense of customary or arbitrary authority is a core republican principle – as is uncoerced participation in the political community. So an issue like spanking children would be quite a complicated matter for deliberation. On what grounds might the republic exclude children from the political community, or incorporate their own views on getting spanked into its deliberations? Might the republic deem that meddling in an individual family’s affairs was not a proper object of its politics, or might it deem that invoking patriarchal authority to do as one pleased within one’s family was an example of corrupt self-interest that undermined civic virtue? There isn’t a ‘correct’ a priori answer to such questions, but it’s important to note that civic republicanism isn’t the same as majoritarianism, libertarianism or traditionalist authoritarianism.

    I agree with Joe’s comment that a peasant republic would focus on the essentials and in some ways I find this attractive – it would cut a lot of the crap that detains us in modernist-capitalist politics. But some of what’s detained us in that politics has been stuff like women objecting to the tendency of libertarianism or traditionalism to degenerate into the well-rehearsed tendency of senior men from the ethnic majority to mistake their self-interest for the common good, and how that would play out in a peasant republic does worry me. It’s something I’m writing about at the moment as it happens, so any thoughts are especially welcome. Certainly the republican emphasis on uncoerced participation of the full political community, and not just the self-appointed voices of the powerful seems to me an important thing to try to hang on to.

    In relation to other points, I’d argue that while there can indeed be leftist mobs as well as rightist ones we get closer to fascism when those standing for political office physically attack journalists who question them at press conferences, and when political leaders endorse this.

    And just to dip my toe into choppy waters, an issue that worries me about republicanism when I look at the way it’s played out in the USA, with its stronger republican foundations than most countries, is the apparent tendency of republicanism to devolve into selective libertarianism on certain issues. For example, the view that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” is a perfectly respectable republican idea, but I think a very different one to the notion of minimal limitations on individual arms-bearing and the resulting daily carnage in the US today that seems to me to benefit almost nobody, with the possible exception of arms manufacturers and fee-for-service medics. Likewise, the libertarian horror of tax or social insurance-based healthcare systems which means the USA has poorer healthcare coverage and higher health admin costs than other wealthy nations – while state-mandated education or, say, car insurance doesn’t seem to invite the same opprobrium. Still, we have plenty of political absurdities of our own here in the UK…

    Anyway, I hope to continue the debate…but do please forgive me if my book-writing chores hold me back from the fray. And on that note, I shall have to prioritize responses to public comments on this website rather than private emails. Ciao!

    • I do lament the demise of state militias and its replacement by a large standing army, but you seem to imply that the 2nd amendment doesn’t also fully include “the notion of minimal limitations on individual arms-bearing”. Is there any historical or legitimate legal basis for that implication?

      As to the “daily carnage in the US today” how does the carnage in Minnesota compare to Ontario, for example? Or how does the carnage in Texas compare to Mexico? Or how does the carnage in Atlanta compare to Jamaica? Or how does the carnage today compare to 25 or 50 or 100 years ago when gun control was less, much less, and much much less than it is today? What basis do you have for saying that murder rates (if that’s what you’re referring to) are higher as the “result” of individual arms-bearing freedoms?

      But even if homicide rates were higher in the US as a result of 2nd amendment freedoms (which I don’t see any legitimate basis for saying), do you really suppose that questions of how individuals misuse guns are completely separate from questions of how governments misuse guns. Here’s a quote from a black, Democratic woman, the Mayor Pro Tempore of Durham (which is one of the larger cities in my state): “I believe that state-sanctioned violence causes more harm, and is therefore more dangerous, than non state-sanctioned violence. I believe this is true both because the approval of those in authority and often the general public gives a veneer of acceptability to actions we would otherwise condemn, but also because states have the capacity to spend huge resources equipping and funding people to use force in defense of their interests. The US spends as much on our military as all other countries combined (I believe this statistic includes interest payments on war debt, estimates of the “black box” funding for the secret military intelligence agencies, and the cost of caring for returning veterans). We have the highest police homicide rates in the developed world (…/The_World_Factbook_list_of_devel…) and we incarcerate 25% of the world’s prisoners (I have found stats that range from 22-25%). We should not ignore these facts, or wrongly assume that those who believe that this situation is fundamentally unjust and should not continue are harboring a hatred for police and soldiers. I certainly find a great many of the actions taken by militaries and police forces here in the US and around the world extremely troubling…” I don’t think this was really her point, but my point in sharing that quote is that I think giving up 2nd amendment freedoms, at least if we do so voluntarily, necessarily requires placing trust in government to do things where government has proven itself far less trustworthy even than individuals. Do you not see the trade-offs?

      • Hi Eric, Seems like an argument for we Americans taking responsibility for our own government rather than indulging in an arms race with it. And yes, I own a gun and have used it many times to euthanize animals or to kill them for harvest. I don’t really like guns but they come in handy sometimes. I could probably get along okay without it.

  22. I’m short on time to reply, but regarding CR I’d say it’s a doctrine concerning how to do politics or how to form a political community. It’s also a doctrine of practice grounded in the here and now – so no, a society in which there was government sexism wouldn’t disqualify itself from republicanism on that ground, but it arguably would if it defended its sexism on the grounds that some inherent inferiority of women justified their political exclusion. It’s not an individualist doctrine in the sense that it views society as prior to and formative of the individual. In terms of compromising your traditionalist values, to embrace CR you have to be willing to deliberate with other members of the political community and ultimately to define common goods that you agree to recognize. Part of that deliberation would concern what the proper object of politics is and the extent to which it impinges on your personal values. It would also concern who is actually a member of your political community. Joe is right that there are some overlaps with communitarianism, the difference being that CR doesn’t assume that membership of a given community means there are naturally shared values – and representation raises a host of tricky issues.

    I fear I’ll have to mostly skip the debate on gun control and other issues, except to say that with guns the relevant statistical comparisons are surely with other wealthy countries with substantial internal peace. This paper for example suggests that firearm deaths in the US (homicide, suicide, unintentional and undetermined) are about 10 times higher than in other high-income countries and firearm homicides about 36 times higher . Of course, those rates vary notably by such factors as region, gender, class and race.

    Much as I agree that government violence is a worry, the idea that I can defend against it individually through personal arms seems to me both a practical error (the government will always be better armed than me) and a political error (my sovereignty as an individual is not prior to or akin to government sovereignty). So I’d agree with Michelle that it’s better to take responsibility for one’s government rather than trying to match its capacity for violence.

    • I just want to say thank you for your comments on CR for now. That’s definitely helpful, and I hope to come back to that, especially for the sake of better understanding what CR is and what hope it offers, but for now I want to respond about gun control.

      As far as the study you cite, I see far too many problems with the methodology to think its conclusions are remotely fair. One huge problem is disregarding how much the United States has in common with other countries in the Americas besides just Canada and ignoring all those comparisons. Compared to the rest of the countries in the Americas, the United States has one of the lowest homicide rates of all. Argentina (5.94), Brazil (29.53), Mexico (19.26) all have higher homicide rates than the US (5.35). In fact, of the 50 countries in the the Americas (including the Caribbean) only Aruba (1.93), Cuba (4.99), Martinique (2.78), Greenland (5.31), Canada (1.68), and Chile (3.46) have lower homicide rates.

      Further, the states that are nearest and most similar to Canada, namely Maine (1.7), New Hampshire (1.1), Vermont (1.6), Minnesota (2.4), North Dakota (2.2), Montana (3.5), and Washington (2.9), all have homicide rates quite comparable to Canada (1.68, ranging between the provinces up to 4.69 in Saskatchewan, excluding the even higher rates in the territories). It’s notable that Vermont, the only state in the union never to have required a permit to carry a concealed handgun (due to state constitutional proscription) and arguably the least gun controlled state in the country, has a homicide rate even slightly lower than Canada. Surely there’s no reconciling these facts to the conclusion that differences in gun control are a major factor in, let alone chiefly responsible for the differences in homicide rates between the US and Canada (or other countries included in the study you cited)?

      To respond to your and Michelle’s further points, I’m not advocating any kind of “arms race” with the government. If every man were to freely choose to own a regular military style rifle (consistent with the context provided in the 2nd amendment) and maybe a back-up, plus a handgun that could be carried on an everyday basis, that would pretty well provide for the spirit of the 2nd amendment, I think (besides guns for hunting, farm use, collecting… all valid uses, too, but beside the point here).

      As far as “taking responsibility for our government” what does that even mean, particularly as it relates to homicides (and perhaps deaths caused by governments, especially armies but also police)? “Taking responsibility for our government” seems like the real practical and political error, but individuals can, with the use of guns, take responsibility for themselves and their families and their neighbors instead of fostering the kind of dependency and top-down government that’s responsible for a death rate from WWII alone that the current US homicide rate wouldn’t add up to in half a millennium (In other words, the global death rate from WWII was more than 500 times the US homicide rate.) Of course, there are many other important ways that have little or nothing to do with guns in which we should also seek to take responsibility for ourselves and our families and our neighbors rather than fostering government dependency, but those things tend to correlate with individual gun ownership (displacing government controlled medical care, displacing government controlled education, etc.), and that’s no coincidence.

      But there’s also another important way in which guns do practically limit state-sanctioned violence. Yes, governments will always be better armed than individuals (although that wasn’t necessarily true as recently as the Second Boer War, for example, and there may come a time when that again won’t necessarily be true), but ISIS, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine prove how susceptible governments are to resistance movements armed with little more than small arms, at least initially. The February Revolution in Russia that brought down the Russian Empire was accomplished with little more than small arms, as have other comparable revolutions/coups. So the idea that governments can maintain control of people against their will by superior firepower isn’t supported by the historical facts at all, particularly not when the people have small arms.

      • Thanks for that Eric. Once again I’m too pressed to respond fully, but you make some interesting points. The choices involved in any type of statistical comparison imply an underlying theory. I’m not sure what the underlying theory is in making the Americas the comparative field – possibly historical cultures of colonial violence? If so, I think you may have a point, though it’s a bold step to generalize it across two continents plus the Caribbean. I’m not very convinced by your Canada/North USA comparators, but I’d accept that the underlying issues aren’t *just* about gun control in the sense of legislation, since this interacts with wider cultures of violence or arms-bearing.

        Regarding personal arms vs government arms my point on the practicalities was intended to be historically specific – ie. I think that somebody in the USA today who considers their personal arms to give them leverage against the government is deluding themselves (though there are strange cases like the Bundys…) but I agree with you that this isn’t always and everywhere true, and it seems to me worth thinking about how that might play out in future scenarios of state retreat. I also agree with you that the tremendous historic (and ongoing) violence of what you call top-down governments (liberal-capitalist nation-states?) isn’t a good advert for them – though the examples you give of what happens in spaces evacuated by the state like Isis and Libya aren’t terribly cheering either. So it seems to me that it’s a good idea not to focus on the guns so much as on how to foster better political outcomes in non-state spaces…which brings us back to civic republicanism.

        • That’s another point where I suppose you and I differ: even if CR would be something both of us would desire and prefer, I don’t see any hope in politics-first approaches. Here’s something from my e-mail drafts folder that I started to write to you in response to a link you shared on this blog many months ago:

          I’m especially tempted to respond to Freyfogle’s second to last paragraph (Cussed Individualism) [did I mean chapter — I’d have to look it up again], which I think really gets at the heart of where you and I would differ, even though I think we have a tremendous amount of agreement. I think Freyfogle’s conclusion is extremely weak, and I feel like I could easily disprove it, but I also suspect you might challenge me on the points I would make. I may not make it happen, but I’d love to try to write a fairly comprehensive response and hear your feedback and challenges to my thinking. I very much side with Berry and what Freyfogle calls the “typically American commitment to small government, local autonomy, private property, and the preservation of liberties…” and I believe those values are very much the friend of the small farm renaissance, especially when compared with the real world alternatives.

        • I think that somebody in the USA today who considers their personal arms to give them leverage against the government is deluding themselves .
          Why people in France with yellow jackets are royaly screwing up government

      • Quite a lot of thoughtstarting going on here. Eric, as a ‘leftist’ I’m certain to find much to disagree with, but I am genuinely interested in some of the issues you’re flagging up, and happy enough to admit that answers aren’t always simple.

        I’m a little confused by the following: ‘individuals can, with the use of guns, take responsibility for themselves and their families and their neighbors’. What do you mean by ‘taking responsibility’ here; what are the guns actually supposed to do for family and neighbour? I suppose I’m asking what kind of situation you conceive in which advocating on behalf of family and neighbour is better accomplished at the point of a gun rather than in some form of de-weaponised public forum.

        Your comments also seem to imply an essential antagonism between individual and government. Regardless of how realistic this is or is not right now, surely such a situation represents the ultimate failure of any kind of democratic government. The goal of any vision of a future society (setting aside how we get there) must surely be to collapse that antagonism, to create a situation in which government and the creation of community mean essentially the same thing. Some form of CR seems to offer that. But holding on to the idea that taking responsibility requires the employment of a gun iimplies that you see nothing but a continuation of that antagonism between individual and government, and surely cuts off the possibility of anything else?

        • Here (in the link below) is one example of “taking responsibility” from my neighborhood. I certainly don’t believe that there aren’t other ways to take responsibility besides with guns, but as I already noted, these different ways of taking responsibility and of eschewing dependency and institutional/government control tend to go together, and I don’t think we can undermine 2nd amendment principles without undermining the common foundation of other important related principles as well. Appreciation for the 2nd amendment and homeschooling (taking educational responsibility) and opposing government controlled medical care (preferring medical responsibility) and producing one’s own food (taking agricultural responsibility), etc. all commonly go together, because they all proceed from the same foundation.

          • Ironically I can’t view the link because the EU is enforcing the General Data Protection Regulation on my behalf – I’m in half a mind to agree you for that reason alone!

            But only half. From a first principles point of view, it is possible to take responsibility collectively for defence, medication, education, and food production. To submit to collective organisations in which one has a real role is not to give up freedom. Or rather, it means giving up freedom from interference, but it enables freedom from more insidious forms of unaccountable oppression, and it broadens the scope of what can be achieved.

            Beyond the broad principles of CR, I don’t know what forms such organisation could take, and I’m sure it will need to be very different from current governmental structures in many respects, but it’s still ‘government’, and is surely worth pursuing.

          • Andrew, what do you mean by “giving up freedom from interference”? I don’t think I understand your point there, but I’ll try to reply in the meantime anyway. I suppose I’m not opposed to submitting to voluntary collective organizations in which one has a real role. However, I think that “voluntary” qualifier is critical, and in our present situation I think the potential for voluntary collective organizations is commonly greatly exaggerated.

            What comes to mind are the small-scale, more or less organic farmers that use division of labor as an excuse to focus narrowly on the most profitable crops while continuing to support and depend on a radically different, highly industrialized agriculture for most of their diet, feed for their livestock, etc., as if a little local-organic window dressing on a mostly industrialized agriculture were the answer to the problems of industrialized agriculture, and as if specializing in the most profitable crops, while waiting for someone else to take on all the more challenging crops/foods and provide those foods fairly cheaply and conveniently were the path to holistic agricultural reform. I don’t mean to criticize gradual efforts in the least, but I do mean to deride the false hope of what Wendell Berry described as “the large-scale solution to the large-scale problem, which is so dear to governments, universities, and corporations, [which] serves mostly to distract people from the small, private problems that they may, in fact, have the power to solve.”

            The two problems I see in hopes for collectivism, especially presently at the margins of the mainstream economy, are (1) inaction as we wait for unrealistic hopes of collective action that will never happen, and (2) accepting collective action that is hardly any different from the results of completely blind, mainstream consumerism, but thinking it’s substantially different because we’re far enough removed from the action that blind consumerism basically still rules the collective.

            If we can avoid those two pitfalls I’ve got nothing against voluntary collectivism, but I think the potential for voluntary collectivism (thinking especially about agriculture but assuming there would be close parallels in other spheres) is greatly exaggerated, especially for those of us in industrialized countries today, and the best available real world answers generally consist mostly of actions that are “private and small. Or they are so initially.” (quoting Berry again)

          • Eric, I meant to refer to intervention by government agency in some form or other in one’s life; more or less objectionable from libertarian and perhaps some liberal points of view, but I would think acceptable if one has an active role in determining the powers and capacities of one’s government.

            But seriously, what’s the alternative? Without collective organisation and regulation of some form or other we would live in a truly atomised world. Good working relationships with your neighbours will only get you so far, there will be a broader social and political context of some form (I know of no historical example – above a pretty minimal population density – where that is not the case), and shaping that collectively is more appealing to me than relying on various alternative unaccountable forms of authority – ‘strong men’, ‘elders’, etc.

            The ‘voluntary’ aspect of collective engagement is an interesting point. CR relies on active political engagement that is voluntary in the sense that one seeks to exercise one’s own will in shaping collective goals, and that the process of shaping such goals should seek to avoid coercion. However, the alternative – not engaging but being subject to collective decisions all the same – is not a very attractive choice!

            Your two ‘pitfalls’ are perhaps both related to engagement in this sense – sitting back and waiting is not an attractive option.

  23. Hmm…Eric, we do seem to have a fundamental disagreement on what government is: you seem to see it more or less as an alien occupying force of faceless bureaucrats, whereas I see government as a bund of doofuses more or less like myself, working in a ossified and wrong-headed system, tending to make bad decisions based quite often on petty personal conflicts, but mostly kind of well-intentioned unless you, you know, poke them with a stick. And then there are the politicians who tend to be the vainest and most self-regarding creatures on earth but usually not overly bright.
    The scariest people I ever met in government, loosely speaking, were a pair of DC lobbyists for the agricultural chemical industry who looked like they had been partaking of the products in some unholy manner and were not actually alive, just upright. Yikes, scary just to think of them again.

  24. Eric,
    I don’t have time to read the all of the comments that you made and other’s replies but I did catch this statement and I happen to agree. “I very much side with Berry and what Freyfogle calls the “typically American commitment to small government, local autonomy, private property, and the preservation of liberties…” and I believe those values are very much the friend of the small farm renaissance, especially when compared with the real world alternatives.”

    I am a fan of Wendell Berry’s writings. I agree with and admire his form of conservatism, which aligns more with conservationism. I believe in personal freedom as long as it coexists with responsibility and accountability. I agree that local governments are more closely aligned with the people they serve. But a I also see a benefit in larger centralized government. For example in passing national legislation such as the clean air and water acts. It required Federal government intervention to prevent abuses by Eastern coal mining companies who controlled access to local jobs and commodities making it difficult for the local people to prevent coal companies from polluting the environment and destroying their health. Federal labor laws prevented the coal companies from making people work in unsafe conditions. They forced them to provide heath care benefits. We wouldn’t need a Federal government if all companies took care of their workers and protected the health of the environment communities depend upon. But there are numerous examples of what happens when companies and business owners become greedy and corrupt.

    I believe the main problem with any form of monopoly be it in business or government is that when power and authority become concentrated in the hands of a few it too often becomes corrupted. It seems to me that larger society of people must have a way of coming together to prevent such concentration of power from corrupting. We must have ways to collaborate and cooperate as groups of varying size in order to prevent the concentration of wealth of power from damaging our society. Sometimes we must come together in very large groups (such as a Federal government) to control companies whose powers are also very large! I think this is what Berry was writing about. This is what populism and conservatism are trying to do. But I also see how conservatism seems to favor authoritarianism or religious ideology because if a small group cannot secure agreement it will try to maintain control with violence. This is just another form of abuse of power.

    If we as a people are going to govern our own lives we need to have open, honest communication. We need to be honest with ourselves, with our family and friends, with the people that we do business. We need to ensure that our interactions with each other and with others in various groups follow some form of ethical behavior. Laws are simply a coded form agreed upon behavior. Our culture, our laws, our government, our politics should support everyone’s needs to live their life. The problem I see today is that our government and corporate business do not support families and communities, rather they support the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. If people want to take back control over our lives and livelihoods we need to communicate with civility in the hope of finding common ground. If we as smaller units of society can establish the necessary communication that allows us to live together in peaceful coexistence, then perhaps we can also create the government at larger scale to once again serves the greater, common good.

  25. I want to share this excerpt from Zach Montgomery’s 1886 book Poison Drops in the Federal Senate, especially in response to Andrew’s that government interventions might be more “acceptable if one has an active role in determining the powers and capacities of one’s government,” and also to just generally question how civic republicanism might deal with questions like these, especially on a smaller scale, like Joe’s suggestion of 4000 people living on 800 farms. This would also present an example of where there wouldn’t seem to be any tension between “small government, local autonomy, private property, and the preservation of liberties” and any of the issues Jody raised (like pollution from corporations.)

    “…name for us two of the very best, purest, most intelligent, highly-educated, and reliable men of your acquaintance. Let them be men of your own religion, and belonging to the same political party as yourself. In a word, let them be two men to whom, in preference to all others in the world, you would be willing to entrust the guardianship of that beautiful little girl of yours, should it please God to take you and her mother away from her during her years of childhood. Now, these two friends of yours, whom we shall call A and B, we shall take it for granted, are the very best material to be found in that great mass of voters who control by their votes the destinies and shape the character of the public-school system as it exists in your city.
    “Now, suppose these two model men and neighbors should some day come to your house and address you thus: Mr. C, we are informed that you are the father of a bright, beautiful, and intelligent little girl, now about seven years old–just the proper age to begin her education. We feel quite anxious that she should be properly educated, and, to tell you the plain truth, we are afraid that if we leave the matter entirely with you her education will be neglected. Now here is what we propose to do. We propose that we–your two best friends–together with yourself, shall all enter into a written contract, binding ourselves during your daughter’s minority to contribute annually a certain percentage upon the assessed value of our property, which shall constitute a fund for the education of this, your little girl. But it must, at the same time, and in the same contract, be stipulated that it shall at all times be in the power of a majority of us three to select the teachers and the school books for your child. Should you, against the wishes and without the consent of a majority of us, take your child away and send her to some other school, you must agree to forfeit–should we choose to exact it–not exceeding twenty dollars for the first offence, and not less than twenty dollars for each subsequent repetition thereof. You must also agree and bind yourself in advance not to withhold your assessment, even should you withdraw your child from the school of our selection, because we should in that event need the money for the education of other children.
    “Now tell us, good reader, could you ever consent, while living and in the possession of your reasoning faculties, to entrust such a power as this over your infant child–girl or boy–to any two men in existence? Would you not spurn such a proposition as the above with indignant scorn, come from what source it might? We may here remark, in passing, that it surely could not better the matter should these supposed friends and neighbors, in consideration of this proposed outrageous betrayal of your parental trust, even offer to perpetuate a similar wrong against their own children by turning over to you, the insulted father, a corresponding share in their parental authority. And yet, good reader, this miniature picture which we have just drawn of the public-school system presents that system in its very best possible aspect; because we have represented you, the father as still allowed to retain in your own hands one-third of that parental jurisdiction and control which the God of nature requires you to exercise over your child, while the other two-thirds are to be entrusted to two of the very best men in the whole community.”

    • I don’t see why you are disconcerted by public education. The same issues of cost and lack of control affect private schools. If you don’t like either of those options, you are free to home school your children.

      If your concern is about being forced to pay taxes for something you don’t want to use, or have your tax money spent on things you don’t like, then you’re just in the same boat as every other taxpayer. Any kind of collective action requires resources and one way of getting them is taxation.

      No one is 100% satisfied by everything that taxes are used for. Since even spouses argue about how to spend money, some dissatisfaction will remain no matter how small and intimate the group collecting a tax and spending it.

      Even if there were no taxes at all and every collective effort was funded by freely given donations, there will be conflict over whether that effort is truly worth doing, not only within the group making the decisions about how to spend the donations, but by everyone affected by the project in any way.

      The only way to avoid these kinds of conflicts is to do nothing, which is not a viable program for sustaining life. Since conflict is inevitable, we develop a way to minimize it and mitigate it. It’s called government.

      • Joe, here are a few quotes in answer to the question of why state schooling is so disconcerting.

        “A public school system, if it means the providing of free education for those who desire it, is a noteworthy and beneficent achievement of modern times; but when once it becomes monopolistic it is the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has yet been devised. Freedom of thought in the middle ages was combated by the Inquisition, but the modern method is far more effective. Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them then to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist. Such a tyranny, supported as it is by a perverse technique used as the instrument in destroying human souls, is certainly far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past, which despite their weapons of fire and sword permitted thought at least to be free”
        J. Gresham Machen

        “Government is not the creator but the creature of human society. The Government has no mission from God to make the community; on the contrary, the community should make the Government…Noble races make their governments; ignoble ones are made by them.”

        “We cannot go beyond the consumer society unless we first understand that obligatory public schools inevitably reproduce such a society, no matter what is taught in them.”
        Ivan Illich

        “Teachers who are preparing students for jobs in ‘tomorrow’s world,’ without reference to the local community or community anywhere, need not be surprised if their efforts are not enthusiastically affirmed by parents who are, after all, living in today’s world.”
        Wendell Berry

        “I teach how to fit into a world I don’t want to live in. I just can’t do it anymore.”
        John Taylor Gatto

        “The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the millions of careers devoted to tending them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my central proposition: the mass dumbness which justifies official schooling first had to be dreamed of; it isn’t real.”

        “Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy–these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent on one pretext or another.”

        “We suppress genius because we haven’t figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.”

        “Our mistreatment of children is not mitigated by our interest in ‘reforming’ the institutions into which we put them. We will not have better children by having better day care centers, schools, and jails.”
        Wendell Berry

        • You seem to think that any collective effort to influence the development of children is tyranny, but leaving that effort only to the child would let most children starve or fend for themselves in a Dickensian world of indifferent adults. I can’t believe that you mean children should fend for themselves as soon as they can walk and talk.

          “Of course not”, you might say, children can be set on the path to being free and well-integrated adults by their loving parents without any oversight by the community at large. But this assertion presumes that there is no possibility of parental tyranny, something I have seen in abundance.

          There are many functions of schools other than education, but introducing young people to a world far wider than just the knowledge of their parents is one of them. Is it this prospect that disconcerts you so much?

          Without going through your quotes on education one by one, I can only say that most of them are ludicrous. That Machen would prefer a child being tortured on the rack to attending a public school is just a tad hyperbolic, and that Gatto could pursue a teaching career for thirty years before suddenly coming to the conclusion that his teaching was destructive is amazing.

          But topping the list is your last quote from Wendell Berry, who seems to think that children would be better off without any supervision other than by…..who? Their parents? Themselves?

          Parents can’t help but provide a facsimile day care center, school, and a place of, if not incarceration, at least restraint of willful behavior. I see no reason why a group of parents can’t get together to cooperate and better provide the same services collectively. Once they do they have… a day care center, a school and a ‘jail’. These parents getting together to periodically evaluate the functioning of the institutions they have created to make them work better makes perfect sense, but according to Berry that would be the useless process of ‘reforming’ them.

          Collective human institutions that perform the functions of child care, education and restraint of anti-social behavior have existed throughout human history, starting with tribal hunter-gatherers, and we have always taken care to influence the maturation of children with them. How could we not? Even a flock of chickens has social structures that perform these functions. To assert, like Berry, that none of these ‘institutional’ services should exist in human society is just silly.

        • Eric B. –
          I’m not sure how childhood education is organized in North Carolina, but here in Ohio a parent has several choices in the matter of their child’s education. There are the mainline public schools, parochial or private schools, charter schools, online schools, and home schooling. And of course a committed parent can hybridize their child’s experience by combining – for instance sending a child to the mainline public, but also having the child attend their church’s Sunday school (or their temple’s Sabbath school), or it not of any particular faith the parent can assist in the child’s formation by working with them at home (home schooling lite).

          Charter schools and the online system here in Ohio have not faired well in the public eye. And I have the sense you would argue the same for other systems (except home schools if I’m reading you correctly). The State of Ohio does have some financial involvement in the local schools, but most of the control and financing is controlled at the local level. Parents who are displeased with the education system then have several alternatives. Participate in the local school through the PTA, run for school board, pull your child and home school, choose a private school you agree with… In a sense then, if you are unimpressed with one alternative then pursue another. At some point you have to take responsibility for your child’s education.

          Regardless of your choice in your own child’s education, you will be expected to pay taxes in support of the mainline public system. Your rights as a taxpayer then are to get involved in the school district’s politics if you are dissatisfied with what is going on. If you don’t get involved, but stand on the side and complain you end up being just another part of the problem.

          If your thought is that children don’t need schooling of any sort, then the two of us stand on opposite sides of a great abyss. And I feel truly sorry for you.

          • Wondering how best to educate children is probably one of the most ancient thoughstarters out there, as it should be. If you’re at that juncture Eric, I sympathise. The wife and I have two of our own (Erik Three and Emma Six) ready to embark on the wider socialising stage of childhood with other children and adults for most of the day! As I’m sure you will have, we’ve considered home schooling, the local options, moving to another city or country to check out something like Waldorf education (in the hope that a closer contact with the outdoors will do them the world of good), plus we’ve devoted time to reading the Google previews of various books on regular schooling, deschooling, unschooling. I also watched a very popular Ted video about how mainstream schooling can destroy kids’ creativity. It can become a headache.
            I’ve been a teacher myself, briefly, but didn’t feel suited to it as a vocation and I’m not particularly enamoured with mainstream education. I think Chris’s take on a way ahead is sensible: between the two extremes of guiding the child (parental or polis), look to the spaces between. Fine minds have enriched the world following all kinds of far from ideal starts in life. You could say it was the making of them. Of course, you want the best for your own, and it’s perhaps only natural as a concerned parent to strive for something better than the standard fare. That said, I aim to be getting involved with my own children’s education as far as I can – I would like them to experience more time outside during the school day, for example, hence I’m looking to jump aboard the Forest School bandwagon in the hope I can, ahem, add value to the school day. No answers, only trade-offs; to shoulder the responsibility for all of their education myself would be a recipe for disaster I believe. I’d be too short on time, too short on knowledge. I didn’t even go to school the day we did history, indeed I sometimes feel I could take them aside and tell them all I know in about an hour and a half. And that’s on a good day. I think they actually teach us more than we teach them, too. Good luck.

        • Sorry, I hadn’t realized there was a pre-existing Eric.
          Henceforth, I will use my last initial too.

          I am interested in this debate about education, not least because I hated school. I went to school in a wealthy Southern California suburb that had the money to provide a good quality classroom experience with teachers who were decently paid, not tremendously overworked, and for the most part genuinely cared about the students. And I was good at it, but by the time I was 7, it was clear that the main purpose of school was not my edification, but social control.
          So I wanted out, and it took another 1.5 times that age before I felt like I could get away with that. Though the pressure eased considerably when I finally had the resources to get myself to the beach without having to ask somebody for a ride.

          Even still, I learned some very useful things. I will name two or three here. I learned that the majority of ALL human interactions are about social control. It was not limited to the classroom. My parents, my church, my friends, and everyone I met, were all applying pressure to get me to behave in a way that best suited their aims. I also learned that keeping entirely to myself was not a solution to this problem.

          Occasionally some of my friends or my parents would take my interests into that equation. And I was lucky to have been born into a class and culture and skin color that made staying out of prison fairly easy.

          It became clear that “Freedom” doesn’t exist, and anyone making a claim to it is best treated as a swindler or a fool or both. The few times I felt “Free” turned out to be illusory and fleeting. Did this stifle my creativity or ‘genius’? Maybe, but nobody cares about that but me, and I am fine with it.
          But the most important thing I learned was the value of not drawing attention to one’s self. Once you master this, you can do nearly anything you want no matter the regime you are subject to. I believe that this, together with a few good friends and a library card will get you just about all you need.

          As for how best to handle the education and socialization of children, I agree it is a hard problem. I understand that my solution will not suit everyone, but it is simple, elegant, and available to all; I didn’t have children.

          • Thanks for the helpful self-identification, Eric F! I must admit, when both you and Eric B were commenting a while back I was puzzled at first by how diverse and multi-layered the thinking of this ‘Eric’ seemed to be…

            And thanks for the interesting thoughts. I agree that much interaction is about social control…though social control isn’t always entirely a bad thing…

            And I agree that not having children does simplify some of the dilemmas around education – though if you take the view that the polis has some responsibility for education, it doesn’t remove them entirely.

  26. Eric, thanks for opening up some interesting thoughtstarters and thanks to others for contributing. I plan to write something about education in another post soon so I’ll hold fire on that one for now, except to say that the two extreme positions are (1) children are the property of their parents, to be treated as the latter please, or (2) children are the property of the polis, to be treated by the latter as it pleases. I don’t myself favor either extreme. Historically, civic republicanism has inclined strongly towards (2) – as I said before, its philosophy isn’t libertarian or individualist. But I’m not an advocate for some historically ‘pure’ form of CR…which in any case would cut against CR’s ‘start from where we are’ principles.

    On the matter of political philosophies I like Michelle’s take, which rings true to me in terms of the daily grind of politics. But I think there’s also a more malign face to the modern state which Eric rightly identifies – though I’d argue that the people who really bear the brunt of it are mostly not those of us living in the USA or Western Europe and I can’t get too enthusiastic about some of the petty grumblings about liberty I hear in these countries (the freedom to keep buying incandescent light bulbs, for example).

    To address some of Eric’s further points about CR, how it can come to power is a good question – and the answer is usually at points of political breakdown or crisis (Solon in Athens, the Florentine republic, the English Civil War, the US revolution etc.) It’s not a slowly accreted political tradition – it requires a foundational moment, and sometimes (like Solon) a foundational person. For me, one reason it fits present times is because I think we’re at a point of political breakdown, or soon will be.

    Another of Eric’s questions is what happens if you as an individual don’t like the upshot of the republic’s deliberations. Well, one aspect of old-fashioned republican thought is that in so doing you’d be displaying factional interest and therefore corruption, a lack of civic virtue. This is one reason why republics emphasized public education along the lines of ‘give me the boy and I’ll show you the man’…so that it would be almost unthinkable to, for example, refuse militia service. Personally I’d want to soft-pedal on that because it’s less fitting for modern times, though I wouldn’t dismiss it entirely. Another way of answering would be to say that in a republic deliberation is ongoing, so it’s always possible for you to keep pressing your cause. But let’s assume that you keep losing the argument and conclude that it’s hopeless trying to persuade others of your view. What then? I’m no great shakes as a political theorist, but maybe it’s worth thinking about how other political traditions deal with such dissent. In a pure libertarian state you could just get on with whatever you wanted to do, but as Andrew implies I think in that situation your rifle would probably get a lot of use and I can’t see many situations in which that politics would be stable or attractive to many people. In a state of customary authority there would be minimal tolerance for your dissent, unless you were able to turn yourself into the customary ruler. In a liberal state, you could get on with what you wanted to do provided you followed due process and probably didn’t mess too much with other people’s projects. A non-authoritarian socialist state would probably look quite a lot like CR, except CR wouldn’t necessarily concern itself with equality of outcomes or entitlements quite so much. A nationalist or communitarian state would probably be pretty similar to one of customary authority.

    In all these cases, I guess there’d be a degree of tolerance for mavericks, depending on the nature of their heterodoxy, but also a range of possible sanctions against them. I agree with Eric’s point (if I may paraphrase) that communities of practice (eg. a rural small farm society) engender common interest, making it easier for people to get along (and possibly also easier to do politics if everyone’s a more or less self-reliant cultivator because there’s a bit less politics that needs doing – maybe Joe’s point, or if not his then perhaps Thomas Jefferson’s). But I’d also observe (along with Clem) that such communities can be full of bullies, vicious gossip and narrowly-defined pecking orders which can make life a misery for those who don’t fit in if they can’t go somewhere else (‘going somewhere else’ is of course sometimes a possibility for the dissenter, though it raises various other questions). So generally I’m in favor of a rule of law which doesn’t assume that there’s an implicit community consensus, that’s impartial with respect to the status of any particular claimant against it and to which nobody is excluded from helping to form – which perhaps would be a nutshell definition of CR.

    • Chris, when you say civic republicanism has historically inclined strongly toward considering children the property of the state, what historical examples are you thinking of? And are there noteworthy counter-currents within the history of civic republicanism on that point, too?

      And, especially from my point of view as someone that struggles to understand the differences between these political terms, it seems that it would be helpful to differentiate more clearly between some of these systems of governance and the policies towards which they’ve been historically inclined. Is there anything about civic republicanism, for example, that would be strictly incompatible with extreme libertarianism, on the one hand, or extreme collectivization/centralized decision-making, on the other hand? Does the C in CR necessarily imply a large degree of collectivization? Or does the C just refer to a degree and quality of participation by the people at large in the political process?
      Does CR basically just define the process whereby government decisions are made without prescribing the sorts of decisions a government should make (including the degree to which individuals have the freedom to make decisions for themselves versus forced collective decision-making)? Sorry if I’m failing to grasp basic points that should be clear to me by now.

      But as long as I’m repeating basic questions that you’ve probably already answered and that I probably should have understood by now, is CR potentially compatible with both direct democracy and representative democracy or just one of the two (or is it something altogether different from both)? And would you say CR is necessarily at odds with government rules and structures that limit the will of the majority (like, for a couple examples, the ability of 41 of 100 Senators in the US Senate to block passage of legislation or the requirement that legislation be passed by two separate chambers that represent the people in slightly different ways)?

      • Eric, probably the most extreme example of republican polis-centered thinking and education would be ancient Sparta, with its minimal family life, collective militarized education, communal eating and so forth. Most other currents of republican thought, especially modern ones, are more relaxed. But most, though not all, of these currents still tend to emphasize some kind of public education or more generally the creation of a shared narrative about what citizenship is. Where republicanism differs from individualism or libertarianism is in its view that the individual is not prior to society and able to contract in or out of it as they wish, but rather is constituted socially. Different versions of republicanism are more or less sympathetic to ideas of individual rights or sovereignty, but republicanism is not in general sympathetic to the idea that individual rights are prior to or supervene over the community or ‘civic virtue’.

        As I understand it CR is more about, as you put it, the degree and quality of participation and about defining processes more than outcomes. But it puts a lot of emphasis on uncoerced participation by citizens as political equals in the political process – so nowadays it would be hard to justify political outcomes like the disenfranchisement of women or ethnic minorities in republican terms. Republicanism usually seeks to define the ambit of political decision-making ie. it asks ‘what is it that we need to agree upon in order to create a functional and sustainable political community?’ so the degree to which individuals are free to make decisions for themselves is always an important republican question, but not one with any fixed answer. CR needn’t imply a large degree of collectivization in the communist sense of public ownership or strong equality of access or outcome. But it’s not really compatible with large discrepancies of wealth because this buys political influence and therefore corrupts republican decision-making – so a lot of republican thinking has been concerned with limiting excessive private influence and the formation of oligarchies.

        CR is potentially compatible with both direct or representative democracy, while being aware of the dangers of both. I’d say that it’s different from simple majoritarianism in that it emphasizes uncoerced participation by all citizens, so it would treat the strong enforcement of non-unanimous views with considerable suspicion. But there’d be something amiss with a republic that continually flouted the considered opinion of the majority of its citizens.

        Maybe this quotation from page 1 of Iseult Honohan’s book ‘Civic Republicanism’ will be of interest:

        “Republican politics is concerned with enabling interdependent citizens to deliberate on, and realize, the common goods of an historically evolving political community, at least as much as promoting individual interests or protecting individual rights. Emphasizing responsibility for common goods sets republicanism apart from libertarian theories centered on individual rights. Emphasizing that these common goods are politically realized sets republicanism apart from neutralist liberal theories which exclude substantive questions of values and the good life from politics. Finally, emphasizing the political construction of the political community distinguishes republicans from those communitarians who see politics as expressing the pre-political shard values of a community”

  27. Educating children is indeed a throughtstarter! I particularly wanted to respond to Simon’s comment about raising children.
    Having raised three sons to adulthood here are a few of my thoughts and observations.
    -Children are grazers when it comes to taking in information. They do better when allowed to choose what interests them. But even passive opportunities to ingest information help in their learning. Things like wall posters, laminated place mats for the table, a book shelf for library books that routinely change…all provide opportunities. They don’t even realize they are being fed information!
    -Read books to your kids at bed time and they will be better readers.
    -encourage creativity with blank notebooks, coloring books, pens, pencils, paints etc.
    -Find time to do arts and crafts projects together. I kept a large tote of misc. art supplies in the closet and a large plastic table cloth. The kids loved it when they could “do art”.
    -School will go better if you take time to look at and discuss their school papers as soon as they bring them home. Kids love to show someone what they’ve done. If we take time to look they will continue wanting to share with us.
    -Math will be easier if parents can demonstrate the skills. Starting young show your kids you can still add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Some children learn better by watching someone work a math problem rather than reading how to do it or listening to an explanation.
    -Play games that require thinking. Young kids love to play games while riding in the car. “I see something red…”, the alphabet game, etc.

    I think parents need to interact with children as often as possible. Once kids start school we have less and less time together (unless you are home schooling). So avoid using the T.V. or computer to occupy young kids attention. Once kids get hooked on electronic media it is difficult to get back their attention. Cell phones, computers, T.V. should be limited to a few hours a day at most. Educational videos are better than cartoons.

    If we help our children to enjoy learning and provide them with the skills to think critically and communicate with others, they will probably do just fine in any education system.

    • Thanks for that, Jody. It sounds like we’re singing from the same carol sheet.
      One thing about parenting, before even becoming one, that alarmed me, was that most parents I knew both had to get back to work when the baby was still just months old, in order to afford to live and pay for childcare. I fortunately managed to avoid that situation, and so did my wife, and it’s been a joy that has quickly passed. Thinking ahead, I can’t begin to imagine the experiences of the world that today’s children will have to live through. I’m not optimistic about that, hence I felt it essential to give them a good start with a stable, comfortable, loving household, hopefully keeping any chance of early trauma at bay. The grim future will ask a lot of people. I hope mine will stay well-balanced enough to face it with fortitude and stay strong and useful.
      The other thing I bear in mind is more of a calmative. They say don’t be afraid let children get bored sometimes; give them nothing to do, though the style today seems to be to super-stimulate the child, partly I believe due to a fear – in some places grounded – that the streets aren’t safe to let them run free. That’s a shame, a tragic failure on many levels. But back to the boredom bit, personally I recall the perfect place to be bored was at school, staring out the window, a not unpleasant ennui. I expect mine will go with the flow, and any way we couldn’t afford an alternative approach like Waldorf, though I can tell them the basics of gardening in tune with the phases of the moon etc.
      Electronics, technology. I wish the mobile phone had never been invented, and I haven’t had a TV since last millennium, though when the laptop is in view of the children, they’ll drop everything to beg for a cartoon. We occasionally give in. They’d sit there all day if we let them, probably turn them into the next Tarantino. Instead, the old hand-turn projector comes out at night, a Hungarian antique on its last legs with a gently humming transformer inside that kicks out a little heat, and the frames get wound along one by one. An old man in the village recently repaired it for us after I gave up (he said the bulb had gone!) They love that just as much.
      I like what you do for work Jody – the soilmaker. Of all the jobs, that’s a good thing to create. I admire you for it. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

      • Simon,
        It sounds like you have a wonderful family. There is no better start to life than growing up among people who love and care for each other. The hardest thing about raising young children is the fear that they will be injured or hurt. Today we even fear for their future as adults. There are no guarantees, but I think as long as our children know we will always be there to help they will have the courage to face each day the best they can…as we all must do.
        Thank you for your kind thoughts. I enjoy my work too.

        • Thanks Jody. I meant to add that I hadn’t really given much thought to the osmotic process of kids soaking up knowledge, as they are wont to do, for which wallcharts and the like do help, as you pointed out.

          • I also wanted to tell you that you shouldn’t give too much worry about your children being on the computer. Even though we were strict about the time our kids were allowed to play computer games they grew up and eventually spend more time on computers than I think is good. But I have been very surprised at how adept they are with computers. My middle son is in a class where he is learning to program self driving cars. One never knows where our paths will take us.
            I enjoyed your comment below about your village life.

  28. Thanks for these various thoughts on education. I’ll be writing a little about education in my book draft soon … I’d therefore been thinking of drafting a blog post about it, but I’m not sure I’m going to get round to it. Still, if anyone has any further thoughts, do feel free to post them here. What should the education of children focus on, and who should do it? How about adults, especially young adults – what is the function of college? The balance between abstract or symbolic thought, and practical skills, between knowledge and wisdom? And supposing a small farm future with less liquid wealth than in rich countries today, what realistically might education look like?

  29. Further thoughts on education? I hope this doesn’t make you sorry you asked:

    Education as a community project – (does it take a village?)

    Certainly a human baby can learn quite a bit on her own recognizance. But before a child is capable of living independently she has to learn some fundamentals of communication with those around her. Language, and non-verbal communication skills then must be developed. Social skills are also needed unless the child is to leave the nest and pursue a fully independent life – such as a hermit. So, first teachers will be parents or guardians and close family. Babies and very young children seem to soak these lessons up unless there is some medical complication to prevent it.

    The degree of exposure to other humans (society at large) will set the expectations for how much further training (or education) will be necessary. And at this point society begins to inherit a modicum of interest (and responsibility) for the specifics of these expectations. The more intimately one engages with others the more ‘others’ have an interest in making these engagements acceptable. If our task is to place a child’s educational path and commitment on a continuum from extremely limited societal involvement to extremely immersed within society then the degree to which society might expect to participate will increase from the former to latter.

    A primary education then should encompass the three R’s, and as much as possible do so in a safe and fun environment. Parents can easily serve to accomplish this. But even at this early stage there is room for society at large to have some say in the detail. Whether parents or others play the role of teacher, the child must assume the mantle of learner. And while many may take their lessons together, the learning is ultimately an individual enterprise.

    It seems to me subject matter is the most contentious of the expectations brought to bear in education (from the vantage point of society’s interest). Subjects such as the arts, history, STEM, physical fitness, health, language(s), and civil matters all compete for time and attention in the process (faith or religion might be considered within civil matters or separately and calls into consideration parochial vs public environments when schooling is done outside the home). The further along a child goes in her progression the more she should take responsibility for her learning and the choices about subject matter.

    Another contentious issue would be the length or breadth of a sort of compulsory education. Is there some basic standard that all members of society should be expected to master? I have plenty of suggestions – but I’ve learned over time that my own minimums are not widely shared. And I’ve made a little peace with this. I have chosen to migrate toward those with stronger skill sets and avoid those with weaker preparation. I try to make exception for folks with disabilities. However, if you’re capable but too lazy to make the effort don’t look to me for sympathy.

    Credentialing. For me society should have some latitude to set a minimum; a basic or primary education. Secondary education then can be seen as preparation for next steps. A preparatory education would be built to enhance the basic skill set so that the student can prepare for future educational pursuits. Vocational training can be taken in the place of preparatory training. But in order to matriculate to either of these options one should have demonstrated success at the primary level – and thus earned a credential of some sort. Following a secondary effort, one should demonstrate proficiency to earn a second credential. I’d balk at hiring a plumber who can show me his pipe wrench but not a certificate of successful training in the field of plumbing.

    College (or University). By this point I imagine society has less and less immediate interest. And I have the sense my opinion on this is not so widely shared either. Once a child has mastered a primary and secondary education he or she should be an accomplished learner. He can flip burgers, turn a wrench, plant a carrot… earn a living and participate in society. If he has other ambitions he can consider a post-secondary education. But this should require a certain degree of investment by the prospective student. And I don’t limit ‘investment’ to only the financial sense of the word. Choice of subject matter at this point gets very fluid. Responsibility for learning falls to the student. Here is the library, there are the faculty… knock yourself out. You don’t have to be here. If you make bad choices, you will have a bad result. If you make good choices, you can earn another credential. [in pursuit of still more credentials one might hang out at the University for quite a stretch. And though coy and perhaps TOO cute, the abbreviation Ph.D. really can be interpreted as Piled Hirer and Deeper]

    Paying for post-secondary education is a whole other matter. Society’s participation in financing post-secondary education seems to be all over the board – historically, and politically. And these are waters I’ll avoid for the moment.

  30. I had a similar thought to Clem – careful what you wish for.
    I’m sure you’ve got it all worked out Chris, by and large. What I can add from my vantage point in a small rural village in a post-communist country is that almost every adult is a jack of all trades. People here are exceptionally handy, which only enhances resilience. For example, in a settlement of about 700 now (it’s diminishing 1-2 per cent per year, though a few younger people have moved in to work locally in forestry, nature conservation (to a lesser degree), the national park (iffy at the moment, with a freeze on recruitment and redundancies rumoured) or the village sawmill. Many others are tradespeople or work for the local council, in the village, for the village (picking litter, pruning trees, making bridges, growing cucumbers and peppers, slaughtering pigs, mulching waste, planting fruit trees, clearing the stream – you get the picture). There seems to be a fluidity to what people do – one month they’re working for the village, the next mixing concrete for a tradesman. This is in part down to the insecurity of employment, the upshot being that people learn lots of useful things working in unison with their close neighbours. It doesn’t satisfy everyone of course, but it does improve a person’s handiness.
    From what I’ve seen of old school textbooks, from decades ago under the communist system, one thing pupils were taught was working knowledge of the kinds of objects they’d be using in their daily lives: a carburretor, a transistor radio, a slide projector. How do these things work, and how can they be taken apart, fixed or improved upon? Consequently, ‘make do and mend’ is sort of inculcated into people. You don’t then throw away a kitchen scale to buy another when it fails to work, instead you take it apart and find out why it isn’t functioning, then try to fix it. If you can’t fix it, maybe someone else can, or has the spare part you need, or else you are the one that ends up with the spare parts as any object past its useful life is cannibalised for materials. These are carefully stored by type, and if times get very bad, the owner can always raid the store to sell the family aluminium, say, or even better, copper or stainless steel. Scrap yards pay a kilo value.
    This all reduces consumerism. The out of the way location of the village also plays a role here, as no one really wants to spend most of the day catching several bus just to pick up a new toaster. OK, we have Amazon now, but even so, old habits die hard, and I can say that – internet shopping aside – if anyone wishes to be cured of their consumerist tendencies, if you can somehow live an inconvenient distance from convenience stores, you’re halfway there.
    Food growing knowledge usually gets passed on over the garden fence.
    So in a small tucked away place, because of the character of the people and some of the artifacts (machines) they have inherited or made for themselves, if you need something planing, sawn up, fixed, tiled, put a roof over, distilled, hafted, plumbed, conserved, mown, butchered, welded – the basics of day to day survival, of eating, looking after land and keeping a roof over your head, you’ll find someone within walking distance who can help, but who might not necessarily have a certificate to show for it. Furthermore, you can’t help but soak up these ‘country’ ways yourself. When I came here I was the kind of person who tiled a roof the wrong way round. Today I’m putting the finishing touches to a spiral staircase. Cack-handedness begone!
    I differ from Clem in that, if someone does turn up with a wrench to fix my water pipes, it would likely be another villager and I wouldn’t expect that they would have a qualification (though they might), but I would trust that they know more about it that I do and the outcome will be fine. If not, then it becomes a story, possibly even a saga. Obviously for bigger jobs – a gas boiler or more expensive, modern tech, you’d call a specialist.
    You may be reading this thinking, well, sounds just like Frome. If so, I’m pleased for you – your house will be up in no time:) I came here from London, so my knowledge of the UK today may be skewed. But I get the feeling a similar group of handy people might be found in a maker/fixer cafe, which is equally useful but requires someone to have the gall and the money to open up a premises, insure it, advertise, and hope needy people who care about fixing things will flock in. It’s more tied into the system, and a gamble for someone as a business venture.
    So I vouch for some kind of a practical make do and mend education. Break out the hammers!

    • Thanks for this Simon, it appears you’re living in a special place. And the rural landscape where my father grew up might be compared to it – right down to the declining population level.

      I differ from Clem in that, if someone does turn up with a wrench to fix my water pipes, it would likely be another villager and I wouldn’t expect that they would have a qualification (though they might), but I would trust that they know more about it that I do and the outcome will be fine. If not, then it becomes a story, possibly even a saga. Obviously for bigger jobs – a gas boiler or more expensive, modern tech, you’d call a specialist.

      Long ago in my younger days I would take on some plumbing repairs – minor things like a faucet replacement, installing a pressure tank or the filter system on the line from the well. And at home growing up it was well known within the community who you could look to for various skills such as plumbing or welding. And with word of mouth recommendation there was no requirement for certificates. As a small farm future is the main thrust of the thinking in these parts then I will agree there is strong argument to be made for community resilience where:
      “the upshot being that people learn lots of useful things working in unison with their close neighbours”.

      A few things come to mind influencing my approach now. In the very litigious times we’ve come to inhabit here one is often forced to consider risks that are shared and in many senses not informally shared. If you have a mortgage on a home there will be requirements for homeowner’s insurance. Some homeowners policies can require certain kinds of parameters around repair and maintenance activities. It does come down to the scale of the project as you point out. But I know of many cases, especially where more expensive properties are concerned, where tradecraft work was the subject of intense disagreements. Unions, local government shops, independent contractors, the handyman neighbor…. these have various interests to protect or defend. Credentials in these situations become more relevant.

      The list of home improvement or repair projects that I’m likely to take on these days has shrunk relative to what I’d attempt years ago. I still have plenty of tools, but have taken the capitalist retreat to compare the cost of hiring the work out to the opportunity cost of trading my time (or what I can earn in the time needed). On the one hand I feel embarrassed to admit this, while at the same time I can make the case that wider society actually accrues some small benefit if I stick to my knitting and invest my time where my skills are better used. There are trade offs.

      • Those are all important considerations too. I was coming at it at a dash this morning, considering the average homeowner/village dweller’s perspective from here. Like yourself, once I would not hesitate to hire a hand around the home when I had a salary more than enough to cover the work. But in London things seemed to be getting tighter, for example paying someone to deliver and hang a door on a weekend following another break-in to my flat cost 800 pounds (including new lock). The locksmith knew that my insurance should cover it, and everyone’s a winner. But then insurance rises, the cost of living rises, while pay rises weren’t keeping up. Now, with time on my hands embedded in a village, I’d hang a door myself, or get a neighbour to help, though I may be one winter away from quitting fiddling with a temperamental water pump.
        Perhaps a more localised set-up can dispense with some of the complexities that are normal to many homeowners, including things like insurance, 24-hour emergency locksmiths and the like. If a place is safe because everyone has the others’ back, perhaps that can be expected, perhaps I’m being too idealistic again.

        • (Perhaps should’ve spelled out that the replacement door’s value was 60 pound, MDF between plywood… it got me thinking anyway:)

  31. Clem, Simon – no regrets about asking. Thank you for your respective, and very different, responses. I think I’m going to refrain from commenting further, but I’ll muse on the interesting points you’ve raised. Further comments still welcome…

  32. As it relates to the small farm renaissance, there are a couple points I’d especially like to contribute to the discussion of education.

    For some very basic context, from 1820-1850 the percentage of the US workforce in “farm occupations” dropped from 72% to 64% of the workforce. And at the same time tax-funded schools started to become commonplace in America. The first tax-funded high school apparently opened in 1820. In 1827, Massachusetts, a state which I’m sure would have had a relatively lower percentage of farmers than the national average, became the first state to offer free tax-funded schools to everyone through all grades. The first compulsory attendance law was passed in 1851, also in Massachusetts. So the beginning of tax-funded schooling coincided pretty closely with the beginning of dramatic shifts in industrialization and urbanization and the decrease (at least in percentage terms) of the farm population, and these trends coincided similarly in other parts of the world. I don’t think it was any coincidence, though; I think these trends fed one another, and I think they continue to feed one another, which is to say tax-funded schools are currently hindering and undermining the small farm renaissance.

    Children, especially school age children, were an asset on the small farm (and in a lot of other home-based family businesses). My children are hugely helpful on our small farm. In contrast, children basically just add extra costs for the factory worker, especially if the father and mother are both working and would have to provide for day-care otherwise. So compulsory tax-funded schools both rob small farms of an asset and subsidize employment in the industrial economy. Allowing farm families to home school, especially if families are allowed to home school in ways most compatible with farming, largely eliminates the historical cost of compulsory schooling on farm families (although the standardization of modern schooling and the social stigma of home schooling remain burdens), but tax-funded schools are just as much of an indirect subsidy to the industrial economy as ever. Choosing to live a small farm lifestyle where one could much more easily avoid the need for professional schooling doesn’t save the small farmer any money on schooling but probably only adds costs (books, etc.) that would otherwise be paid by taxpayers.

    There are lots of government programs (including especially social programs) and policies that are disproportionately advantageous to the relatively more active participants in the industrial economy, and all those disproportionate advantages have the effect of tipping the balance in the direction of the industrial economy and of undermining the small farm economy.

    I think it’s important to note, too, how little time is really necessary for the average home schooled child to learn to read and write and do math at the level of the average student in state-run schools, and most of that time is time that the student can spend reading and writing and practicing and learning on his own, i.e. not time demanded of the parent. (Of course, that’s relatively less true at first and relatively more true as the child gets a little older.) If one subtracts school bus time and other transition times, lunch and snack times, time spent disciplining misbehaving students in the classroom, time spent helping the stragglers in the class catch up with the rest of the class, time spent on fun activities with little or no educational value, time spent trying to give children some physical activity or time outside… even the highly time-inefficient tax-funded schools aren’t spending that much time really teaching students the basics of reading, writing, and math. But wasting lots of time (and doing things for children that they could do just as well and probably much better at home with their families) does accomplish that very important goal of the tax-funded schools: tax-funded babysitting for the children about which the society tells the parents they can feel good while they give themselves more fully to the corporate-industrial economy as employees and consumers.

    And then there’s the question of what’s taught in tax-funded (and other similar styles of) schools: children learn to obey orders, to get with the system, even when the system is ridiculous. They learn not to question the system. (Any thoughtful consideration of the system would completely ruin the child’s motivation to do all the stupid and pointless things schools ask children to do.) They learn to chase after worthless prizes, to want what the system tells them they should want. They learn to value white collar pursuits (what they spend all their time doing) above any and all forms of manual labor. They learn practically nothing independently but learn to participate in activities and lessons that are all fed to them. In short, students learn to tolerate all the things and behave in all the ways necessary to being good consumer and employees in a centralized economy.

    • Eric B,
      Lots to agree with in your comment but I wanted to make a few comments as it relates to American public schools. Middle class American families pay for many of the costs of public education on top of tax payments. Teachers increasingly report that they are forced to buy school supplies like paper and pencils. Parents pay for book rentals, which by high school can be many hundreds of dollars a year. Parents pay for their children to be on sports teams or in music programs. Parents are constantly asked to help with fund raising and volunteering. The list goes on. So public school was hardly free or paid by the tax payer!

      Another problem is that property taxes no longer go to pay for public schools and other public services as they were once intended. Many states take property taxes into the State general tax fund and the legislature decides how much is given back to the counties and cities for public services such as schools. When State budgets were bad after the Great Recession many legislature’s used the money to pay for State budget short falls and left public schools hanging. Police and Fire Dept.s are not treated quite as badly.

      There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of Republicans to abolish liberal education. Starting under President G. Bush his “no child left behind” policy has been used to force standardized testing and other requirements onto schools or they lose their funding. But none of these initiatives are paid for by the Federal government. Schools are not given extra funding so schools have been left trying to pay for the extra costs out of an ever-shrinking budget. This has resulted in consolidation of smaller schools into larger ones. Many rural communities have lost their public school and their children are bused hours to a larger consolidated school. The justification is that small schools are no longer cost effective. But even larger consolidated schools are struggling financially and school teachers are paid extremely low salaries making it very difficult to pay off the required college education. Enter school vouchers.

      What Republicans want is to eliminate liberal education. They want to issue vouchers for parents to send their children to private “Christian” schools that are not regulated by liberal minded State Education Boards. Wealthy families also support school vouchers because they can then send their children to private schools. This is likely why Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos supports school vouchers.
      So even though I agree with you on many of the points you make above, for some families in America public education is the only way their children will get an education. This is why I continue to support public education. But I do not support mandated school curriculum and other unfunded mandates that make life more difficult for small community schools. I think smaller local schools with more freedom to decide how to best educate their children (with the involvement of parents) is better for small farm communities. I like the idea of small schools country schools. I see this already happening in families who home school and pool their resources with other families to “home school” them as a group.

      • Jody:
        I like that you bring up the changes in what is being paid for at public schools. There has been quite a bit of change over the course of my life – indeed over the course of my adult life where my wife and I were educating our children.

        We chose parochial schools, but even before formal schooling began we read to our children, worked with their speaking (English language skills such as vocabulary, grammar, even handwriting) and raised them to have a decent work ethic (chores around the house for example). We were motivated to prepare our children to get the most from the somewhat expensive investment in education that we were embarking on. I would pause here to also offer that both my wife and I have graduate degrees and come from nuclear families where educational achievement was always emphasized. And I might also include that the both of us grew up on small farms and knew how to assist with farming chores from very early in our development.

        Enter a time where we are full into three children in a private system, the only tax support for the system was to support special needs children who were not supported (because of space) at the public school. We were paying taxes to support all the public school system(s) and not having any say in what the system wanted to do – essentially taxation without representation. Not that the law would not allow it, but the reality on the ground was that “You don’t participate, why does your opinion count”. But at the end of the day, it was our choice to “not participate” by using ‘their’ school system.

        Locally there was a very contentious ballot issue concerning a tax levy to help support sports teams and music programs. Note that the particular teams and music programs were extra-curricular and occurred outside the mandated school day. These activities were run by school faculty who wanted the extra pay associated with them. I have always supported school levies… up to this particular one. Outside of the parochial school system if we wanted our children to participate in sports or music we had to pay for these activities as well. Enough of us made enough of a case to push the levy into trouble. Eventually we’ve now come to a point where fewer non-academic ‘extras’ are indeed subsidized in our local districts. I have no issue paying for the public schooling, and I also sympathize when the funding for real necessities (teachers buying supplies) is insufficient. But at some point I actually come around to an element of Eric B.’s concern. Enough is enough.

        One of my sisters-in-law has just retired from teaching in a public school. I should nominate her for sainthood. The situations she has had to dean with burden the soul. Many of the difficulties stem from parental neglect. Some of the issues relate to poverty – but this is far too small a contributor in the larger sense. Many parents expect to ship their little difficulties out into the system for someone else to take care of. And the rest of us pay for it.

        Even with these reservations and complaints, I am in favor of a concept for public education. I hear Eric’s complaints, but they come to me through the medium of our advanced system of electronics (computers and the internet). Until such time as our resources become too limited to support the technologies around us I will employ them. So here I what to echo Joe Clarkson’s rather erudite notions from earlier in this string where he suggests that at some future point in time where all our gizmos are no longer feasible, we’ll in all likelihood fall back to a reality where simple will be the limit. And then ‘who pays’ will be more like a memory of ‘who paid’.

    • Nothing but agreement, except for the issue of which is the cart and which is the horse.

      Schools are a reflection of an industrial economy that has little need for human farm work. They are not “hindering and undermining the small farm renaissance” any more than any other aspect of an industrial economy. People go to places where there is an opportunity to make a living. Unfortunately, small farms are not one of them and haven’t been for a long time, hence the continuing migration to cities.

      And yes, public schools are mostly day care facilities for urban kids with a little education on the side. An industrial civilization has to free up adult time for doing ‘important’ work other than child care. I don’t see any other way that urban life can be managed and still afford both parents the opportunity to engage in paid work, work they might sometimes even enjoy doing.

      Children don’t have to be taught by schools to be consumers, they live their whole lives following in the footsteps of their urban parents. There is no form of education that allows a person living in a city to be other than a consumer, so I don’t see how the public school system is at any particular fault. Hypothetically, public schools could teach kids to be self-reliant small farmers or hunter-gatherers, but where would those kids go when they finished their education?

      Despite its irrelevance to an industrial economy, I think there is a great deal of interest by young people in small farm life, perhaps because it is a truly ‘authentic’ life, far more directly connected to the provision of human necessities than urban work. But as long as vast numbers of energy slaves enable food to be produced and transported to cities very cheaply, very few people will be really needed on farms, much less small farms. Small farms are now just luxuries for the wealthy and a dire necessity for the rural poor who happen to have inherited some land. I am in the former category (though both my parents were in the latter until well after WW2).

      I think we will come to a time when almost everyone lives on a small farm again, but I don’t see any government policies to that end ever happening until it becomes difficult to support cities with industrial agriculture. Much of the discussion here on SFF has centered around the question of how those policies can be brought into existence prior to absolute necessity. So far, not much in the way of answers.

      • I think tax-funded schools and the corporate-industrial economy are mutually reinforcing, both pulling each other, so to speak. But although tax-funded schools and the industrial economy grew together quite closely, I think history shows that tax-funded schools grew ahead of the industrial economy, i.e. the growth of tax-funded schooling greatly exceeded what would have been expected from simply a “reflection” of the already existing industrial economy, and yet it wasn’t until the industrial economy was foreseeably on the horizon that there was much of any interest in tax-funded schools at all. It certainly wasn’t as if consumer society outgrew the farm population and then established tax-funded schools; the establishment of tax-funded schools began in earnest when farmers were still the overwhelming majority of the country.

  33. Homeschooling (and unschooling) could play a major role in a small farm future. Take away the babysitting and compulsory aspects of modern schools, and add perhaps a little more parental involvement, and most of what’s learned at school can be readily learned elsewhere. Schools could exist as supplemental resources for anyone interested in more specialized subjects, such as advanced mathematics and foreign languages (assuming there is still a demand for such knowledge).

  34. Thanks for the ongoing education debate. I’m reading it, but not in much position to contribute at the moment. Except in answer to Joe’s:

    “Much of the discussion here on SFF has centered around the question of how those policies can be brought into existence prior to absolute necessity. So far, not much in the way of answers.”

    Sir, I am cut to the quick.

    Truth be told, I think we’re in the realm of what I believe are called ‘super wicked problems’ to which no true answers can be found. However, I think there are better and worse ways of trying to formulate answers and I feel committed to trying to formulate the better ones as I see them, and therefore to keep flogging this dead ol’ horse…

    • In The Realm of Super Wicked Problems – sounds like this could be a good title for a J K Rowling effort. Our little wizards of Hogwarts need to step forward.

      But bemused fantasy aside it turns out there actually is some scholarship centering on super wicked problems. Color me surprised. One example of such come as far back as 2012:

      This piece takes a look at path dependency literature with a view to especially deal with global climate change. And the authors do specifically mention farmers (though only once in a 30 page txt):

      This could include farmers who can sell carbon offsets by changing to lower-emissions agricultural practices (e.g.,
      planting in a way that does not require tilling).
      (pg 145)

      In this particular mention they are not focused on small farms, but they do discuss behavior change and politics – so not too far afield from matters brought up here.

  35. Just found this post and though no time to read all the comments, thought I would add in to the original questions posed. I did argue a bit for a Trump-fascism connection on Greer’s blog, but would acknowledge it is not – yet at least – the strongest connection. I would stick with the more obvious descriptors: corrupt, lying, racist.

    But I see fascism as an axis (loaded word warning!) between state capitalism and corporations. And corporate America, while putting up with Trump so far, is not sold on him. He is way too unstable and risky, and too prone to scold them for making decision based on profits. He also has unleashed a torrent of social democratic activism in the country which is determined to do more than just defeat Trump. I personally decided to re-enlist in the Democrats after decades elsewhere to see if we can make a go of that, but that’s a huge digression for another day.

    But getting back to fascism, I think the biggest question is whether the details of 1930s era fascism need to be held to strictly, or was that just one variation on a broader theme. The same issue comes up when dealing with that other big word, genocide. Since I don’t think anybody gets to decide on their own what these terms mean, there will always be ambiguity.

    • Yep, interesting points. I guess I’d say that capitalist economies are pretty good at finding ways of working with different political regimens, even if they’re not obvious bedfellows at first. I’m not sure that the fascists of the 30s were ideal material for the accumulative designs of the capitalists, but they helped address aspects of the economic crisis, albeit at an appalling cost. So I wouldn’t altogether jettison the economic parallels yet. But yep, I’m happy to go with your other epithets for the time being.

  36. Prompted by the ‘policies in answer to problems’ conversation, one of the problems in the rural village raised every autumn here is the amount of garden refuse being burnt by the villagers. This casts a pall over the village and particulates the otherwise clean air (particularly annoying when the fires are stoked with the odd bit of plastic every now and again). Some afternoons you can hardly see across the road.
    One reason behind the practise is that large walnut trees in almost every garden (ie hundreds of them) shed piles of leaves that the old-timers regard as toxic owing to their detrimental allelopathic effects on surrounding vegetation. Burning them is what people here have always done. But the village council recently talked among themselves to decide how to stamp it out and encourage folks to compost instead, or else use the new ‘green refuse’ collection truck (a profligate use of truck fuel with hardly anyone using a service they have to pay for). The council’s plan might have worked except that no one would want to implement it as it would discomfort them no end (imposing a fine on an old pauper) and most likely alienate a neighbour or relative who’d broken the new rule. In such a tight-knit, long-settled community, the mayor, born here also, would have his whole world on his case had he gone ahead with the new policy. A characteristic of such a community is there can be few secrets – word gets out and quickly spreads. In the week or so following the ‘news’ of the new idea, the burning intensified, creating a giant communal smoke signal from the village elders that was perhaps saying: we don’t have the energy to turn compost, so we don’t turn, we burn.
    Autumn is now winter, these local politics have blown over. Globally, it’s not even a firestorm in a teacup. But considering the swingeing policies desperately needed worldwide, even these village tea leaves don’t bode well. I don’t envy the policy makers, I’m grateful for the conversation, and like many of us I imagine, I continue to fix my focus almost relentlessly on what I can do from the bottom up. In this particular instance, some education wouldn’t have gone amiss, but unfortunately that conversation was shied away from.

    • Turning compost can be quite the task – certainly not the first effort an elder will want to tackle of a morning. And the walnut aspect adds to the importance of finding some sort of remedy.

      Leaf burning in my corner of the planet is not allowed any longer, more for fear of causing a fire and property damage (though the smoke is obviously #2 on the list of complaints). I compost my leaves, but can imagine a time when this will no longer seem like something I want to pursue. The leaf burning ban has been in place long enough here for it to have some teeth. Those who don’t want to compost leaves (more than 90% along our road I’d guess) can have them hauled away and either a contractor or a government entity will do the composting. Collecting and hauling are paid for by the leaf holders… so I save a little coin by doing the composting (though the value of the compost is far more significant than the savings). Here one can buy compost from the contractor – likely made from leaves they paid to have hauled away. You have to love capitalism.

      Perhaps more onerous a problem for the planet in general was a comment I heard from a young homeowner setting up his place down the road from us. He didn’t want to plant any trees on the lot because then he’d have to deal with the leaves. I didn’t know where to start. Perhaps next summer when the temps are getting pretty significant I might invite him down to the house and we could enjoy a beer in the shade of one of our big maple trees. And if the tomatoes in the garden are looking top notch I could casually observe that compost from leaves is a pretty special ingredient. But all that supposes I could tear him away from his phone long enough to make the initial invitation.

      Oh well.

      • I hope you find your moment, Clem. You never know, should the hawk and the dove happen to swoop down from the trees as you are enjoying the beer together, your neighbour might start planting trees like there’s no tomorrow.
        I like the bumper sticker ‘compost happens’.

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