Have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas

I’ll come to the seasonal song of my title in a moment, but let’s begin with another one, courtesy of John Lennon – “So this is Christmas, and what have you done…?”

Well, in 2020 I published a book, wrote 34 blog posts, did my bit to help nurture our little community of 4.5 households on our site through another year, spoke as widely as I could about the need to rethink the global political economy, sat on committees dedicated to widening access to farmland, managed to dodge Covid-19 (while remembering those who didn’t), donated to charity and even managed to grow a little food and fibre on our site – but the truth is that it wasn’t anywhere near enough in the face of the crises we face, and I played pretty much the same role as everyone else in the wealthy countries in overburdening the Earth’s limited capacities. So next year I will have to try harder.

One way I’ll try harder is by taking a few more small steps to increase my food and fibre self-reliance. But first I’m going to take some downtime over Christmas. The other households on our site are decamping to visit their families, and I’ll be here cooking, eating and making merry with mine. I’ll eat food that we grew here on the farm, and I’ll warm myself by the woodstove burning logs from trees that I planted, felled, cut, split and stacked myself. And perhaps I’ll have a glass or two of the beech noyau I made this year, using leaves from trees I planted myself (OK, so the sugar and gin were imported – small steps, remember…)

Family. Autonomy. The simple pleasures of home and farm. It’s my honouring of such ‘petty bourgeois’ things that prompted the only largely negative review of my book that I’ve seen so far, by the Marxist critics I mentioned a couple of posts back. The review badly mischaracterized many of my arguments, but on the upside the petty bourgeois jibe sent me back to the inestimable James Scott, who’s always worth a read. In his essay “Two cheers for the petty bourgeoisie”, Scott writes:

“The petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by public and private bureaucracies …. the desire for autonomy, for control over the working day and the sense of freedom and self-respect such control provides is a vastly underestimated social aspiration for much of the world’s population”1

…and, I’d add, also a vastly underestimated basis for trying to build a tolerable future for ourselves in the face of climate change, resource constraint and political decay.

I’m not really convinced that the concept of the petty bourgeoisie has much traction in analyzing the political challenges and conflicts now facing us. Still, James Scott suggests that the characteristics of unheroic autonomy, freedom and mutuality often attached to notions of the petty bourgeoisie are fundamentally anarchist sensibilities – and on that basis I’m prepared to predict that if the challenges of our times are met successfully through class revolutions of any kind in the future, they’ll most likely be in the form of ‘petty bourgeois’ anarchist revolutions embarrassing to the rigidities of orthodox Marxist class analysis.

Anyway, the review at least provides a useful foil for a few arguments that I aim to unfurl in blog posts next year. One of them concerns the dangers of domination in human relationships of all kinds, not just in families, which was brought home to me rather ironically while my critics were lambasting me with wild allegations about my supposed enthusiasm for the ‘patriarchal family’, just as various non-kin collectivities on my personal radar were aflame with troublesome power dynamics. My critics’ special antipathy to family relationships also rather reminds me of words attributed to the man whose birth I shall shortly be celebrating, alongside my family: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14: 26). Next year, I hope to trace this curious affinity between currents of both Marxism and Christianity and suggest some ways in which it might be wise to try to reconfigure them. The trick is in the tension – but not the dialectic! – between the local and the non-local, the public and the private, the self-critical and the self-honouring.

Another argumentative foil is in trying to think through the field of politics in a future world of supposedly ‘petty bourgeois’ smallholders. This is the field of agrarian populism, where both the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities lie in the fact that so few of ‘the people’ in so many countries today are agrarians. How to reckon with that is a major conundrum – but not one that 19th century-style class analysis is equipped to grasp.

Anyway, we’ll come on to all this next year, I hope. In the meantime, I’m going to count my blessings – the wonderful food, farm and family I have, the other wonderful people and non-human organisms I share the farm with, the wonderful wider communities I’m a part of (including the online ones), and the wonderful reception that my book has (mostly) got. So let me raise a glass to you in this holiday season, wherever you are and whichever kin, non-kin or other beings you’re keeping company with, to wish you peace and (a modest, sustainable and semi-autonomous) prosperity. Thank you for reading this blog. And if Christmas is a thing for you, I hope you’ll have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas. Because next year, there’s work to do…

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton University Press, p.85.

22 thoughts on “Have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas

  1. All the very best to you and yours.

    In late 2019 I took on an allotment, and I am looking forward to including the following in our Christmas dinner:
    – Marina di Chioggia pumpkin
    – salted French beans (two open-pollinated varieties)
    – chard, leeks, celeriac (so tiny! sigh, more water next summer), celery, fennel, broccoli and parsnips that are still in the ground at the allotment
    – blackberry wine (the blackberries were from a park, though, not the allotment)
    – I think we still have some potatoes and/or Jerusalem artichokes in the “cold drawer” (a kitchen drawer meant for pots and pans, which gets a strong draught from outside)
    – the nasturtiums in the back garden are inexplicably still alive (it’s a bit of a sun trap) so I guess we’ll be eating some of those too unless frost gets them between now and then
    – chutney from the previous year’s back garden tomatoes
    – jam

    If I’d planned a little better we could eat some pea shoots too. Another year, I hope. But it’s still not bad for an amateur hobbyist who took on a flooded plot full of weeds.

  2. Following on from my Becher’s Brook-style defence against local deer I’ve discovered I love hedgelaying so much that I might well end up with a maze where our smallholding should be. Yes, have yourselves a very merry Christmas and thanks for all the food for thought.

  3. Yes, a merry Christmas to you too!
    It sounds so cozy at your place.
    And thanks for the holiday wishes, on top of thanks for your year-long effort to keep us informed and amused small-farm wise.

    I will need to look up beech noyau. My wife has expanded her microbe herding from sourdough breads to alcoholic liquids, and she’s always game for new recipes.
    Currently there is pumpkin country wine from the pumpkins we rescued from our neighbors’ porches, and crabapple cider from a tree in the public parking lot downtown.
    On which note, congratulations Kathryn Rose on your harvest, not least the berries from the park.
    “… reap where you do not sow…” since we are on a sort of Biblical theme.

    I am also happy Chris that you are pursuing “‘petty bourgeois’ anarchist revolutions” amid various kin & non-kin relationships. If this is the result of a non-positive book review, then so be it.
    Not to belabor that review, or to be too much anti-intellectual, but I have a strong mistrust for theories put forward by people who don’t spend a fair portion of their time actually moving stuff around in the physical world. If you don’t know how to lift a heavy object, I am probably not much interested in your social theories. As I read those reviewers, the harshest language came from the one who was not a farmer, and the farmer’s website didn’t look any less bourgeois than yours…

    I don’t know about Marxism & Christianity, but if anyone these days were to set up a government according to Leviticus, it would be deemed hopelessly socialist. Marxism & Judaism, maybe.

    Personally, I think Descartes & Christianity is a major issue. Or if not Christianity, the Western social urge away from the material world and toward the world of ideas. A friend told me a joke in response to Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” … “Am what?”
    Another funny response came to me just now: “That’s nice, but don’t you get hungry sometimes?”

    On that note, maybe I will get back to processing those ten kilos of dumpster pomegranates.
    Thanks all!

    • Terry Eagleton is worth a read on Christianity and Marxism; I can’t remember the name, off-hand, of the book I read.

  4. Let’s count our blessings and hope that they far outweigh our misfortunes. Happy New Year to all!

    I enjoyed this post. Family and autonomy are blessings that can only be augmented by a full belly and a warm bed (both those plusses meaning too little to someone without family or autonomy). Food, water, fiber and housing self-reliance are at the core of autonomy. It surprises me that so many can do without a bit of self-reliance, even feel smug about their overwhelming dependence on money and pity those who work hard with their own hands to achieve as much self-reliance as they can. No wonder we have such big predicaments.

    Please do me one favor, though, before the year is out; explain how 0.5 households came into being (and what half a household is composed of).

  5. Wishing all here a Merry and Most Pleasant Christmas and New Year.

    :And I’ll be among the many looking forward to:
    Next year, I hope to trace this curious affinity between currents of both Marxism and Christianity and suggest some ways in which it might be wise to try to reconfigure them.

    Here the Acts of the Apostles may offer some food for thought…

  6. Happy Holidays and merry Christmas to all!
    I am not a Christian but love Christmas anyway, not least for the idea of a savior born homeless in a donkey manger, and announced to shepherds. Oh, and there are all the fun bits of shamanic paganism still extant, from tree worship to flying reindeer. I am not a Marxist and I canʻt say that I love Marxism, but I certainly appreciate its critique of capitalism, power dynamics, and generally sticking up for the little guy in theory anyway.
    Speaking of the little guy, I just got a copy of Ramp Hollow based on a couple of intriguing quotes in your book, Chris. So far I am completely fascinated. Who know there was a possibility that we of the United States might be calling ourselves Appalachians instead of Americans? As my daughter, the budding scholar of empire and colonialism, drily noted it might have been for the best.

  7. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Chris, and to all the folks here in the Small Farm Future orbit.

    I found your comment about anarchism to be quite hot tea—it is darkly funny and all too regular for Marxists to be blinded by the private ownership of the land, ignoring what happens ON the land.

    And while I am cheering every human act a government takes in this pandemic, the litany of failures and the sheer amount of bootlicking given to landlords is stiffening my antipathy to Big State.

    The Marxists will say their Big State will be the best yet, fantastic, a great state, but I think they are delusional.

    Besides, collapse waits for no one—and that is perhaps the biggest concern I have about the Small Farm, and Petty Bourgeois, Future. The future is one of climatic instability, which does not favour farmers or states.

    But it suits nomadic shepherds quite well.

    Anyhow, I will be finishing your book in the coming days in front of the tree. Thank you for your good work this year.

  8. Thanks all for the good wishes 🙂

    Gotta congratulate Kathryn for that haul after just a year of allotmenteering.

    The 0.5 households refers to a couple of people who were caught out in different ways by the Covid lockdown so we housed them for a part of the year…

    Marxism sticking up for the little guy in theory … well yeah, but in practice it’s too often stuck up for the Party that claims to represent the little guy, or at least a subset of the little guys – while a lot of the other little guys end up in labour camps or worse. I think contemporary Marxists could generally do a better job of owning that history … which is one of many reasons why it bugs me when they bandy around terms like ‘petty bourgeois’ as easy insults…

    …and, somewhat a propos, a few here may find this article about the petty bourgeiosie vs the big business friendly left of the Leigh Phillips sort of interest: https://inthesetimes.com/article/amazon-gig-workers-labor-rights-antitrust-laws-break-up-uber

    Glad to hear you’re reading Ramp Hollow, Michelle. I’d thoroughly recommend it to everyone who reads this blog – it touches on many themes we discuss. Even Scandinavian swidden farming. I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on it.

    Finally, a historical yes to Ruben’s observation that (mounted) herdsmen are usually best placed to weather times of political uncertainty – like the reivers of the Scottish borders who didn’t bother growing crops because they were too easily burned by their enemies. The population that can be sustained by such an approach is, however, quite low. And therein lies the reason why I think it’s a good idea to try to work towards a small farm future. On which note, peace on earth and goodwill to all wo/men…

    • https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000q9b6
      You might like to listen to this , Mao’s cultural revolution , 40 to 60 million “petty bourgeois “peasants starved to death .
      I can trace my family to the scotish side of the border rievers , then to the scots irish and now to what is derogatary called rednecks that settled in TN ,
      ya know a long history of troublemakers !

  9. Merry Xmas, strong drink, and wood I have cut and stacked myself, will play the principal part in mine, too!

    The deep Marxist distaste for the petty-bourgeoisie amuses me, and they will go through contortions to maintain it. Not the right sort of common people, I suppose. I think it the most admirable of classes – while having a soft spot for foresters and shepherds.

    My family began in the early Middle Ages, c 1000, as petty, went on to become upper, c 1400 then became noble,c 1550 (suitable gifts of money to a king); and now my father, who is a committed, and of course deeply hypocritical, ‘revolutionary Marxist’ – living in a mansion – likes to say that my great-grandfather was ‘just a farmer, you could say a kind of landowner’. Oh irony.

    Apart from pleasure in the rather pretty coat of arms which has come down to us – a tree and five hearts – I am most fascinated by, and deeply respectful of, those first bourgeois ancestors who travelled hundreds of miles from France to Spain to set up shop in a brand new town, at the end of the Dark Ages, and there got down to work in the company of many other masons, carpenters, tilers, tanners wheelwrights, glaziers and innkeepers to build their town, with its own rights and privileges, free of lords.

    I’ll drink to them over any centralised, collectivist, patronising, People’s tyranny -or the great Re-set – any day!

    All the best

    Xabier

    PS Do you know the story of the ‘Battle of the Hams’ from the Spanish Civil War? Revolutionaries turned up at a village famous for its hams, to confiscate them ‘for the People’ in the nearest city. The farmers asked ‘whether the People had made those hams? ‘ fought back, and won.

  10. On the topic of “petty bourgeois anarchist revolutions embarrassing to the rigidities of orthodox Marxist class analysis”…

    Anarchy magazine had an issue in 1964 devoted to “The Land”, in which the following quotation appeared, from David Mitrany’s book “Marx Against the Peasant: A Study in Social Dogmatism”:

    “…while many reformers had shown an interest in the land and some in agriculture, none had taken an interest in the peasant as such—with one exception, Proudhon. His sympathy for the peasant was something unique in the history of Socialism, but it is an exception which strikingly proves the rule. Proudhon, who in general suspected the constricting effects of large economic units, had economic and philosophical reasons for wishing to see each peasant owner of his farm. But when he speaks of this as the means of “consummating the marriage of man with nature”, his very language reveals how much he was moved by the innate attachment of the country man born and bred to the soil and to those who tilled it.”

    https://archive.org/details/sparrowsnest-7093/mode/2up

    The “Proudhon” mentioned in that quotation is of course Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose “Property is theft” slogan refers to property in a different context than his later declaration “Property is freedom.”

    “In the Confessions d’un revolutionnaire Proudhon further explained his use of this phrase: ‘In my first memorandum, in a frontal assault upon the established order, I said things like, Property is theft! The intention was to lodge a protest, to highlight, so to speak, the inanity of our institutions. At the time, that was my sole concern. Also, in the memorandum in which I demonstrated that startling proposition using simple arithmetic, I took care to speak out against any communist conclusion. In the System of Economic Contradictions, having recalled and confirmed my initial formula, I added another quite contrary one rooted in considerations of quite another order—a formula that could neither destroy the first proposition nor be demolished by it: Property is freedom.’ [from Wikipedia]

    Happy Solstice!

  11. Thanks for that, Steve. I’d forgotten – or possibly never knew – that additional context on Proudhon’s famous quote, which I mention in my book. It surely speaks to the complexities of getting to grips with property in anarchist and non-Marxist left-wing thought, and perhaps to the success of Marxism in successfully tarnishing its history with labels like ‘utopian socialism’ or ‘petty bourgeois’.

    …though perhaps to qualify my point above, there’s something to be said for disciplined left-wing political organisation, which is apt to terrify proponents of the corporate status quo (witness the fear and reprisals engendered even by the avuncular soft leftism of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure at the helm of the Labour Party). But when the solution merely institutes a whole other set of grave problems…

    …and thanks also for the other historical contributions. Many things to ponder 🙂

  12. Merry Christmas Chris, and seasonal best wishes to all here!

    I must admit to a little disquiet at all the celebratory petite bourgeoiserie going on here, even if it is exaggerated by a little 2020 de-mob happiness. Perhaps it’s all in the definitions (again), but I would personally see petite bourgeois and anarchist revolution as a contradiction in terms. It’s not that people who might be labelled, or even label themselves, as petite bourgeoise can’t display a sense of ‘unheroic autonomy, freedom and mutuality’; more that such capacities are not limited to such people, and moreover, that (at least in my mind) a petite bourgeoise attitude isn’t limited to them, encompassing as it does something more destructive as well.

    An example. A friend of mine runs a small business in my locality, and has offered me friendship and mutuality at a time when I was in need – I shall remain forever grateful. Nevertheless, at last year’s election he was roused to vote, for the first time in many years, to prevent any possibility of ‘the avuncular soft leftism’ of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, because any vision of the manifold benefits of the better society promoted by Corbyn were obscured by his concern that he might have to pay for some of them through a small rise in Corporation Tax. I do not hold him up as a paragon of the petite bourgeoise, but his attitude in that moment illustrates it nicely I think: he did not seek freedom from government, but the support of a government that would enable him to maintain his own profitability at the expense of any obligations to wider society.

    In contrast, the views that you espouse here do not strike me as petite bourgeoise in any fundamental sense. Your realised vision of convivial self-sufficiency is both attractive and necessary. Equally, I realise that this focus on the petite bourgeoise is probably a minor flurry evoked by the Heron and Heffron review. Nevertheless, a plea: if we have to reclaim label, can we go back to ‘peasant’ please?!

    • Thanks Andrew, a worthy intervention – I’m happy to go back to ‘peasant’, though of course that wouldn’t be enough for the reviewers, who insist on the importance of distinguishing between ‘the’ upper, middle and lower peasantries. That too, I’m happy to talk about, and I’m happy to acknowledge the dangers of Poujadism and its variants within ‘the’ petty bourgeoisie, provided we don’t take all the labelling and generalizing too seriously as trans-historical truths about how people in the relevant occupational and economic categories always inevitably think. As I see it, while there are sometimes revolutions there is never a unified revolutionary subject which is identified with a particular class category, leaving me in a tragic political world peopled by any number of baffling figures such as Tory-voting, semi-anarchist farmers and pharisaical proletarian-mongering family farming neo-Marxists.

      I don’t think any of the waymarks of old-fashioned class analysis concerning ‘the’ peasantry, ‘the’ proletariat or ‘the’ petite bourgeoisie guide us accurately to the politics that will unfold as the various crises that are upon us bite, a point I made in my book (e.g. p.197) and tried to come to terms with throughout Part IV. Of course, the reviewers had no truck with me on this. But for me that only underscored how antiquated and ill-fitted to present times their politics is.

      All of this generates some predicaments for me: I’m more for Corbyn than for Starmer, let alone for Johnson, but I’m also for the instinctive generosity, autonomism and self-reliance found among many small town ‘petty bourgeois’ Tory-voting types. So when I’m assimilated to the latter by Marxists seeking an impossible politics of purity, it’s quite easy for me to wear it as a badge of honour. Nevertheless, like Scott, I’ll only give two cheers for ‘the’ petty bourgeoisie, pretty much for the reasons you’ve identified, and I appreciate your comment for raising an appropriate caution. All the same, Scott’s essay brilliantly excavates something that for me is politically promising in a category that potentially encompasses a good deal of humanity and which has been endlessly sold short by too many on the left.

      • Labels do manufacture both good and ill. I recall a discussion of lumping and splitting here not to long ago.

        I like Andrew’s anecdote above about his small business buddy… it resonates in my neighborhood as well. Those close to hand, with faces we recognize and stories we can easily appreciate… these are the people we’re most likely to assist in their need. But some similar soul, far off and not likely to ever cross our path – well – let their neighbors pull them through.

        Might this attitude succeed as a partial explanation of how some labels have difficulty fitting?

        Brexit, Trump, Globalism… ignoring or downplaying externalities – these issues seem to play local interests against the wider world. Actually, I’ll propose here that ‘wider world’ really needn’t apply only to the whole of the planet. The local interests of residents in a region as small as Wessex will vary. Thus one could ponder just how small a local jurisdiction need be.

  13. As the ‘big island’ in Hawaii is exploding from Kilauea again I’m concerned for the residents there – Michelle among them.

    As a mutant of the COVID virus is exploding in the southeast of England (another big island) I’m concerned for the residents there as well.

    In this little corner of the world where I live we have our own toils and troubles. Less newsworthy, to be sure; but difficulties still. Calling upon our better angles seems most appropriate at this holiday season.

    • Thanks for thinking of us, Clem, we are all ok here. Bit of an ash cloud but the eruption seems to be contained in the caldera so far so nothing too worrisome.

  14. Thanks Chris, I take your point about a common blind spot on the Left, and I think you’re absolutely right to insist on complexity. I find some of the most compelling thinking on the Left emphasises the intersection of different influences, demands and histories in each individual – a perspective that can’t help but admit that their are no inevitabilities in a particular class ‘position‘. I’ve not read Scott’s essay, but I’ll track it down on your recommendation.

    Interesting thoughts, Clem, on the ‘wider world’. Perhaps, in a world where so much is globalised, we have little choice but to accept terms of reference across vast distances. But given the chance to remake the world, at what scale might we set the limits of mutual concern and aid? I suppose the practicalities of a small farm future would emphasise the (bio-)regional scale, and yet the flourishing of a common humanity remains a potent vision, one I doubt any healthy society could (or should?) ultimately repress. Here’s to our better angels!

  15. Hi Chris, looking forward to next year’s posts. On Marxism and Christianity, or Marxism and spirituality, I’ve found the below of interest, in case they may be of use. Apologies for any redundancy!
    – Marx, Marxism and the Spiritual
    https://www.routledge.com/Marx-Marxism-and-the-Spiritual/Chakrabarti-Dhar-Kayatekin/p/book/9780367859770
    – The Enchantments of Mammon, by Eugene McCarraher (a radical Christian, probably in the Ivan Illich vein)
    https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674984615
    early summary version here: https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/re-enchantment/articles/we-have-never-been-disenchanted
    good review here: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/06/capitalism-as-religion
    good interview here: https://www.thenation.com/article/capitalism-religion-eugene-mccarraher-interview/
    – ‘Value, Enchantment and the Mentality of Democracy: Some Distant Perspectives from Gandhi’ by Akeel Bilgrami
    http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/Gandhi_0.pdf
    (Bilgrami’s notions of “radical sectaries of the West” and “secular re-enchantment”, and McCarraher’s related, praising discussion of left romantics, should be of special interest)
    – Revolutionizing Spirituality: Reflections on Marxism and Religion
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/40403838?seq=1
    – A recent issue of Plough Magazine, ‘Beyond Capitalism’
    https://www.plough.com/en/subscriptions/quarterly/2019/summer-2019-issue-21

    Cheers!

    • Thanks Alex. Some interesting reading there by the looks of things. You’re the second person in one day to recommend the McCarraher book on here, so I guess that’s another one I have to add to the reading list!

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