From Russia To Love: Engaging with Chris Newman on the small family farm

Continuing my theme concerning peasant farming in this blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, the general focus of this post is how and why revived neo-peasantries might help meet present global challenges.

On page 90 of my book, I lay out three typical characteristics of historic peasant farms:

  1. Most of the work is done by unwaged household/family labour
  2. The capitalization of the farm in terms of buildings, tools, stock etc. is viewed as a long-term endowment, not as an embodiment of liquid capital seeking to maximize profitable return
  3. These factors condition the economic behaviour of the farm’s occupants, which isn’t geared to maximizing net profit

I’ve drawn this from the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov (1888-1937) and his more recent interpreters1. I don’t mention Chayanov by name in the book and I’m not loyal to everything in his thought, but in many ways my book elaborates a Chayanovian vision for present times. As I see it, we need to embed a social economy in the finite needs of a collaborative society of households, rather than allowing an expansionary economy to drive society according to its own logic.

There’s a long history of misunderstanding and antipathy between this kind of Chayanovian peasant populism and other better known political-economic positions, not least Marxism – the regnant doctrine in Russia during Chayanov’s later years. A low point in this respect was Chayanov’s untimely death at the hands of Stalin’s regime and its vulgar, murderous class politics. Mercifully, we later Chayanovians have mostly suffered only textual assassinations from Marxists, but there’s a lot of talking past one another that goes on when Marxists and others on the mainstream left interact with agrarian populists. The same goes for engagement with more centrist/liberal positions.

As is perhaps suggested in the points above, what Chayanovians mean by ‘capital’ or ‘the market’ isn’t really the same as what Marxists or market liberals mean, and this sows much confusion. Chayanov himself didn’t always help matters, for example when he spoke confusingly of peasant ‘self-exploitation’, launching a thousand attempts to assimilate peasant economies to Marxist conceptions of surplus value and the ‘captured garden’ thesis that I discuss on page 93 of my book, and a thousand more attempts by market liberals to turn peasants into smallholding entrepreneurs. At the root of all this lurks a deep assumption that peasant life is both miserable and outmoded, an assumption resting on modernist notions of ‘progress’ that I argued in my previous post are ironically themselves now outmoded. So it’s time, I suggest, to reconsider peasantries and small-scale farming.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to make this case in counterpoint to a couple of recent interventions from Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia, USA – namely in this article entitled “Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer: The Romance of Neoliberal Peasant Farming Blinds Us to Our Collective Power” and in this interesting podcast. Let me say first that I think Newman is a smart agrarian voice, and there’s a lot of common ground between us. I focus on points of divergence here only because I hope that clarifying them might be illuminating.

The first points of divergence come straightaway in the title of Newman’s article. ‘Small family farms aren’t the answer…’ – but the answer to what? Newman makes a powerful case that when individuals buy small plots of private farmland and sell renewably grown produce from them locally through retail routes such as farmers’ markets they make themselves helpless and irrelevant in the face of the mainstream food system, which will defeat them sooner or later, and probably break their backs, maybe their marriages too, into the bargain. I couldn’t agree more – although Newman does start his podcast by saying that his move into farming arose from the stress of his previous white-collar job. So maybe the problem doesn’t lie with specific jobs or job sectors like farming so much as the general economic system into which all job sectors fit, a system that breaks our backs if we step outside it and breaks our minds if we don’t.

But as I see it, the mainstream food system and the more generalized economy of which it’s a part will themselves be defeated sooner or later by a combination of climate, energy, economic, political and other problems that I outline in my book, and in these circumstances I see the Chayanovian small family farm as a potential ‘answer’ to the ensuing crises. It’s not an answer that will just happen by itself. It will need to be fought for. In that sense, I see the present tender crop of small-scale household farmers as useful pioneers in the work to come, especially in their work of self-provisioning rather than in their work of supplying market demand.

So, to my mind, Newman’s future visioning is insufficiently radical. It assumes a persisting liberal-capitalist marketplace that local and community-minded people can colonize by working together. He suggests that if such people in the DC area collectively raised US$50 million they could sort out food provision in the area. I think this underestimates the forces ranged against them, some of which are external to Newman’s vision, such as corporate food players and their government associates who I suspect would happily burn sums far in excess of $50 million in order to defeat upstart localisms. But there are also internal tensions in his vision that threaten to tear it apart (to be fair, there are internal tensions in every economic vision that threaten to tear it apart – so it’s as well to be clear about what they are in each case).

Newman’s subtitle is a gateway to the key tension – “neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”. To my Chayanovian mind, the concept of a ‘neoliberal peasant’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s true that most small farmers (and most people doing every other kind of job) serve the neoliberal economy in one way or another. It’s true, too, that probably the majority of small farmers in wealthy countries are fairly well-to-do folks with some buy-in to the neoliberal status quo and, as Newman rightly suggests, there’s a need to de-gentrify farming by socializing access to farmland so that farming is a viable option for all sections of society. But in setting up a paired dichotomy between (petty) private ownership/neoliberalism on the one hand and collective ownership/community localism on the other, what I think he misses (and he’s not alone in this) is that collective power, collective landownership or commons aren’t intrinsically incompatible with private property. Peasant societies (other societies, too) combine private rights with collective ones – and, as I’ll now argue, in doing so they can be more radically non-neoliberal in a way that better fits present (or at least future) times than Newman’s cooperative model.

So I propose two games. In Game Newman, ordinary local folks pool resources to obtain hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish a cooperative structure with democratic working protocols, leverage its buying power to obtain economies of scale, pay decent salaries to worker-members and start supplying in bulk to local retail outlets.

The way I see this game playing out is firstly in a big financial transfer from the ordinary local folks to land vendors, although that hurdle probably isn’t insurmountable. Things get stickier establishing the working protocols, because flat structures involving lots of people suck a lot of time up in conflict management. Sure, some people claim that everything goes just swimmingly in their own farm co-op, but a working knowledge of agricultural co-ops and of agricultural history suggests to me that this outcome is, at best, very much in the minority. And modelling the social organization of an entire society on best-case scenarios isn’t a great idea.

The next problem is that although the co-op’s pooled resources enable it to achieve economies of scale like the large corporations with which it’s competing, ultimately just like those corporations it has to pay the bills – including the wage bill – by selling into food retail markets where the profit margins are wafer-thin. To keep up with the competition, it has to look to cost savings – and that wages bill will be among the first places it has to look. So in the end, just like the corporation, the co-op either squeezes more out of its labour force or mechanizes people out of work. This is basically the critique of co-ops in capitalist societies that’s long been made by radicals as diverse as Vladimir Lenin and Murray Bookchin. There’s much to be said for co-ops – I’m a member of a few myself – but they don’t fundamentally escape the economic pressures driving the initial problems they seek to redress, and are therefore prone to failure. Perhaps we could call this the problem of the ‘neoliberal cooperative’, and it’s where Game Newman seems to me quite likely to fail.

In Game Chayanov, ordinary folks likewise pool resources to get hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish whatever minimum cooperative or commons structures are necessary to manage the total landscape effectively (here again, they might easily fail), but then divide much of the land up among individuals or households with strong personal rights to farm it pretty much as they please, with enough land per household to provide largely for its needs but with mechanisms to prevent it concentrating in few hands over time.

This is a classic strategy of peasant societies historically, especially ones minimally coopted by centralized states. Unquestionably, it raises problems of its own, which I’ll come to in later posts. But this kind of small-scale household or family farming is emphatically not ‘neoliberal’. As I see it, Game Chayanov has none of the tendencies towards massification, labour-reduction and profit-seeking of the neoliberal cooperative, which is why for all its problems I think it’s a better model to try to build a fair, renewable, postcapitalist agriculture around.

It’s easy to get dazzled by words like ‘commons’ or ‘cooperative’ into assuming that economic models where such words appear front and centre are somehow more sharing and less capitalistic, more ultimately dedicated to building community cohesion or – if it’s not too schmaltzy – to building love than ones explicitly combining private and common property. But it ain’t necessarily so, and much depends on the larger political and economic field in which these economic models are at play. In a smoothly functioning capitalist economy set within a well-ordered global system of capitalist states, it’s debatable whether the ‘neoliberal cooperative’ or the ‘neoliberal peasant farm’ is preferable. But in the present reality of a failing capitalist economy and an increasingly disorderly system of states, I pin my colours to the Chayanovian mast.

A whole other set of issues that Chris Newman probes in his aforementioned commentaries is the question of race and the ‘whiteness’ of the small farm. We’ll come to that next.

 

Notes

  1. Chayanov. 1925 [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. University of Wisconsin Press; J. van der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants & the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto. Fernwood.

31 thoughts on “From Russia To Love: Engaging with Chris Newman on the small family farm

  1. It’s not an either/or contest, of course. In some scenarios, cooperatives could be an effective means of unifying the the neo-peasants (as discussed in the previous post). Small family farms, however, may turn out to be the best means of achieving self-provisioning local economies.

    Newman criticizes the romance of peasant farming, while perhaps over-romanticizing what’s involved in working for a farm cooperative.

    “Farmers could follow their passions instead of diversifying… will mean individual farmers are working less and getting paid more… evenings and weekends off, PTO, group health insurance, even retirement… you don’t necessarily have to sell anymore, either; you just get paid a salary…”

    https://heated.medium.com/small-family-farms-arent-the-answer-742b6684857e

  2. Newman tacitly accepts the existence of the global market without any consideration that it might quickly disappear. Within that market there may be some small disintermediation benefit in participating in an employee-owned corporation vs partial ownership of a joint-stock corporation, but I doubt that either model is capable of moving away from the necessity that industrial agriculture sell into that global market.

    And isn’t moving away from commodity agriculture the whole point of small farms and the farm-to-table movement? I think it is, but not because, as most people think, the result will be a supply chain with better food for everyone at prices that are reasonably close to those from commodity ag. The advantage of small farms and local markets is that it gets ahead of a process where, as Chris notes, “the mainstream food system and the more generalized economy of which it’s a part will themselves be defeated sooner or later by a combination of climate, energy, economic, political and other problems”.

    In industrialized countries, there is no government policy for getting food to people without commodity agriculture and private markets. If governments in industrialized countries were a little bit forward thinking and willing to hedge against the possible disintegration of the existing food system, they would do what lots of developing countries do, facilitate local food supplies and the work of small farmers by building permanent markets with durable structures within which local agricultural commerce could more easily thrive. Industrial ag gets plenty of subsidy. Subsidizing the construction of permanent local market places (and even small farms) would be good insurance with a tiny premium cost. Better food would be the cherry on top.

    • While Newman may be competing with products from the global market, his Sylvanaqua Farms project is aiming to continue selling only at the local level (including nearby cities).

      “Our goal is to partner with other farmers, leveraging one another’s resources and expertise to create a co-op that produces enough food – in both quantity and variety – to supply several farmer-owned full-time markets in the Washington, D.C. area.”

      “We want this to become a template for other smallholding regenerative farmers orbiting other cities to follow…”

      https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sylvanaqua/sylvanaqua-farms-food-grown-in-natural-ecosystems

      • I would be delighted if commodity agriculture could segue from conventional high-input methods to regenerative methods. I wish Newman all the luck in the world with his project.

        I do think he has an uphill struggle to create a co-op that can compete directly with existing supply chains into cities. He will need to duplicate everything that existing food chains have been fine-tuned to do for minumum cost: aggregate, process, store, transport, and retail. His co-op will have to have warehouses, processing facilities, a trucking division and a real estate division to manage the stores.

        I sympathize with his frustrations with the financial burden of farmer’s markets on the grower, but I think that it takes extreme disintermediation like farmer’s markets to make a small grower competitive.

        People like going to markets and not just for the food. We need to make the marketing cost to the farmer as low as possible by subsidizing them, especially the physical infrastructure. As existing supply chains simplify or wither away, a subsidy will no longer be needed.

    • “Newman tacitly accepts the existence of the global market without any consideration that it might quickly disappear. ”

      ‘We’ have ten years?
      “ . . . our best estimate is that the net energy
      33:33 per barrel available for the global
      33:36 economy was about eight percent
      33:38 and that in over the next few years it
      33:42 will go down to zero percent
      33:44 uh best estimate at the moment is that
      33:46 actually the
      33:47 per average barrel of sweet crude
      33:51 uh we had the zero percent around 2022
      33:56 but there are ways and means of
      33:58 extending that so to be on the safe side
      34:00 here on our diagram
      34:02 we say that zero percent is definitely
      34:05 around 2030 . . .
      we
      34:43 need net energy from oil and [if] it goes
      34:46 down to zero
      34:48 uh well we have collapsed not just
      34:50 collapse of the oil industry
      34:52 we have collapsed globally of the global
      34:54 industrial civilization this is what we
      34:56 are looking at at the moment . . . “

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxinAu8ORxM&feature=emb_logo

      • I think Arnoux is overstating the rapidity with which the EROI of oil will decline. On a global basis, there is still a lot of low-extraction-cost oil out there, mostly in the Middle East, Russia, Venezuela and North Africa.

        The Hubbert Curve will prevail, but it’s not going to be over in ten years just from depletion. Relative oil prices will surely rise significantly regardless of what happens, but a really rapid collapse in oil production is likely only from factors unrelated to depletion, like war, financial crisis, or pandemic.

        And then, if oil really does get too net-energy poor to extract, there is always coal-to-liquids (shudder).

  3. I believe you mix the scenario of today and the scenario of a post-capitalist future in this piece. The description of how cooperatives are forced by market imperatives to cut costs etc in Game Newman is accurate and I have made the same analysis. But that assume that the current economic system is still in place. However, when you come to Game Smaje/Chayanov you seem to describe a situation where the market forces are no longer forcing peasants into the kind of self exploitation, and competition among each other they are engaged in now. In that way the comparison is not really fair or meaningful.

    I was also critical to Newman’s article for not being radical enough, and wrote an article about it, https://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2019/08/towards-landscape-diet-and-communal.html

    In my analysis the organisation of the market, or the “non-market” is as important as the organization of the mode of production and questions of ownership. In the article, I write:
    “The suggestion by Chris Newman is in that perspective a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough as it doesn’t challenge the producer-consumer divide and the notion that food is mainly a commodity to be sold. It doesn’t address that farming is about environmental and social stewardship as much as production.

    We need to break away from the idea, that there is something like a fair and free market. Some believe that markets where independent farmers can sell their stuff to consumers represent an ideal; that it is by the interference by governments or big corporations that free markets become corrupt. But free markets are never fair, powers are never equal, capital will be accumulated by some and not by others. The forces of competition are by themselves as much a problem as government rules and big corporations´ monopolist tendencies. This doesn’t change by the creation of cooperatives. Exchange of goods is of course unavoidable and not a bad thing per se, but a competitive market is not the only tool for this to take place. There were reasons for why, in earlier times, markets were almost always regulated in supply, quality and prices. For agriculture products this is particularly important.”

    • Essentially, markets without measures against monopolies and large corporations are not free markets at all.

      (But neoliberal rhetoric says they are, and ignores Adam Smith. Sigh.)

    • Gunnar,
      Yes, I agree that the primacy of markets in the production and use of material goods is a problem.

      Exactly this: “food is mainly a commodity to be sold”

      I will not claim any insight or expertise about how to structure any alternative, but I have made one observation that helps clarify our problem:

      Money is really expensive.

      Unless you are very near the source of money creation, it is nearly always cheaper to meet your material needs directly rather than by earning and spending money. Money is always controlled by some central power for their own purposes, so for the common citizen it is always an advantage to trade their labor directly for goods or services rather than using money as an intermediate.

      The only trouble with this in practice, is that we are so steeped in money that it takes a long time to explain it to anybody. And even though I might be able to work a few hours for my friend and get all the tomatoes I can use, both my friend and I still need to collect some money for those other things like taxes and utilities.

      Getting out from under our money mindset is a long process. But a good beginning is to stop asking how we can make more (or enough) money, and start asking how we can get by with less money.

  4. “Newman’s subtitle is a gateway to the key tension – “neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”.”

    Well, those are fine words. But: what collective power do we actually have against rent-seeking oligarchs? They are happy to replace our labour with fossil fuels despite the costs. They own enough of the land to not be significantly impacted by its degradation, or at least they think this is true and by the time they find out it isn’t, it will be too late. And they will always find someone who is desperate enough to be willing to be exploited for a subsistence wage.

    We only have collective power as labourers if there is a sufficient shortage of labour for anyone to care.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I’m not suggesting there’s no role for cooperatives, and indeed using cooperative structures to retain retail value makes sense for small farmers within present circumstances. However, I do think it’s worth reiterating the important distinction between private/commons arrangements and commercial cooperatives, and the underlying points people are making about decommodification. Seems to be a hard debate to have – not here, but in other fora…

    Thanks for your article Gunnar – an interesting read. I disagree with you about the mixing of scenarios, though. For sure, it would be easier to get a sympathetic hearing for Game Newman than Game Chayanov from a bank, but the point is it’s possible to raise grassroots finance in order to buy land – and there are then different options for what you do with the land, how you organise people on it, and what happens to the food that’s produced from it. It’s true that it’s hard to fully decommodify food production in contemporary capitalist societies, but there are choices along the continuum.

    • For buying land, I’m wondering about something along the lines of what the building societies once were: a group of people pooling their money in order to buy land and build houses on it. At the end of it everyone had their own house. It wouldn’t take a lot of alteration for that to be applied to farmland.

      • Can anyone suggest such resources or networks in the US? I would appreciate connecting with folks who are looking to pool ‘grass roots finance’ to jointly acquire land which would be both individually and collectively managed as Chris suggests in “Game Chayanov”.

        • Can’t help in the case of the US, I’m afraid, though I’d be interested to hear about existing networks there too. Here in the UK I’m involved in a couple of projects somewhat along these lines.

        • The organization “Agrarian Trust” works to put US farmland into “agrarian commons”.

          “Each Agrarian Commons is a locally governed land-holding entity that acquires farmland and leases the land back to farmers for over 99 years. Each lease is designed to be affordable, provide equity-building for the farmer, and enforce regenerative agricultural practices as well as good ecological stewardship. Each farm within an Agrarian Commons must also benefit the local community through local food production and other community connections.”

          They have a list of resources and guides for land access:

          https://agrariantrust.org/resources/accessing-land/

        • The organization Greenhorns “works to promote, recruit and support the next generation of farmers,” and they have a list of resources:

          https://greenhorns.org/resources-list/

          Another resource could be the Foundation for Intentional Community, which has a large international directory of communities including some at the formation stage and some farms. Their website is ic dot org.

  6. Thanks Chris, I guess I’m going to have to go read some Chayanov since I seem to be playing some version of his game.
    As Steve L points out it is not an either/or thing, depends on the situation and the problem that needs to be solved at the moment, such moment being of varying durations. Co-ops can be horribly dysfunctional and a huge waste of time, or a joy and inspiration.
    Thank your for invoking love – because it is something like love that makes a business work whether it be a co-op or a small independent farm. We don’t think enough about how that kind of love is brought into being and maintained.

  7. The basic reason the powers that be will fight tooth and nail to stop pesant farming and small communities and run us into total collapse is simple , taxes , local ,state and national , ya can’t tax people swaping labour or commodities or growing their own ,they call it a black market , less than a century ago property was sold on the town hall steps for inability to pay tax at pennies on the dollar , try not paying land taxes and see how long you remain the owner !

    • It takes a pretty complicated governmental structure like we have now to require money as the only medium of exchange. Eventually, the powers that be (warlords, feudal aristocrats, republican community associations) will need to collect taxes as they did long ago, as shares of the farmer’s production.

      Up until the last few centuries, most people went long periods spending little or no money. Even in the 19th century USA, it was common for tradespeople or even doctors to accept farm products as payment for services. Those days will soon return.

      • Yup but countries will not accept chickens , my property taxes equal a full grown steer , TPTB WILL take everything you have got for back taxes and unroll that drain is gone peasant farming is impossible .
        IMHO there should be no taxes on property / land it it gel in trust for the next generation , not some moneygrubing county clerk making sure there are jobs for the boys , somewhere between two fifths and half the “working ” population work for some form ” government entity ” this is not sustainable .

  8. Thanks for further comments. Agree Michelle on co-op pros & cons and the power of love! Also agree with Joe above on the difficulties of overcoming extreme market intermediation – which I see not as an economy of scale but in many ways as a diseconomy of upscaling and a dysfunction of underpriced fossil energy.

    Thanks also for the comments on money, taxes, markets and financial pooling. All good stuff to which I plan to return when I reach Part III of the book.

    Finally, just to mention a change to my stated programme – I’m going to turn to Part II of the book in my next post, with the aim of picking up some of the themes I’ve left hanging later on.

  9. Chris,
    Two comments on Newmans article.
    The most obvious one from a UK perspective is the success of ‘producer’ co-ops in Europe in bringing their members produce to market, rather than dealing via merchants with their own interests.

    The other one of course and I speak from having seen it in West Wales in the 70’s is that would be small farmers need to be prepared, trained and have enough money so they can create a viable business/livelihood. We dont want the sector to be where you go to fail.

  10. Thanks for a thought-provoking post Chris. I think get the importance of the distinction you’re making between Game Newman and Game Chayanov, but I fear there may be something of Gunnar’s point about mixing scenarios in my question, so I’ll try to be precise.

    I’m interested in the provision of produce to people that aren’t farmers. In Game Newman such people acquire farm produce through the ‘usual’ neoliberal market places, with all their sub-‘free’ inequalities. In Game Chayanov, I get the impression that there aren’t supposed to be any non-farmers, only direct producers, but realistically that’s not going to be the case – even the small farm future you modelled in your book had only a minority of the working population farming.

    So if the farmers in Game Chayanov are not simply isolating themselves from the surrounding non-farmers, what range of possibilities do you see for the provisioning of non-farmers? And how might we attempt to begin to realise such possibilities in the here and now, within yet against the neoliberal marketplace? I realise this is not a simple question!

    Commenters above made a strong case for publicly funded local markets, but even if these became attractive alternatives to supermarkets, as ‘free’ markets they would set farmers competing against each other. The alternative is some kind of more regulated exchange. Perhaps some kind of negotiated affair between farmers’ coops and local consumer coops, which isolates both from predatory neoliberal markets? I hope their might be a whole range of possible answers to this question, and I’d love to hear some!

  11. Thanks for those comments John & Andrew. You’re engaging in the kind of debate we should be having, but some of the wider responses to my post leave me feeling jaded about further engagement. Still, since it’s home turf here, I’ll attempt a reply.

    My take on producer or worker-owned cooperatives is that yes there’s a lot to be said for them but no they’re not intrinsically in themselves a model for a renewable post-capitalist economy. Decommodifying the economy systemically, building local capacities to provide for local needs, and learning about which forms of social organization work locally to achieve these ends through experimentation may all help to build such a model, and cooperatives can definitely be a part of that provided people are willing to acknowledge the shortcomings (and the shortcomings of every other form of social organization). But I fear that not enough people are willing to do that self-critically, and the loudest voices will prevail.

    I take Andrew to be questioning whether there is something ineluctably corrupting about monetized markets (kind of Eric’s point too, I think), such that the objections I’m lodging against cooperatives will ultimately apply to a market-integrated independent peasantry too. To which I think the answer is possibly yes. A ‘pure’ Chayanovian peasantry is fundamentally autarkic, with minimal integration into monetized markets and – as important – centralized states (more on that in my next post). Inasmuch as land becomes commoditized, I’d agree that it’s then likely the writing will be on the wall for Chayanovian games. In that sense, Gunnar and Andrew have a point.

    Nevertheless, in the short term I think orchestrating household access to cropland for self-provisioning is more promising than worker co-ops supplying existing markets because the former creates more market optionality, and market optionality is what’s needed to transcend the grip of capital. Market optionality for farmers is more important than the universality of farming as an occupation, which I don’t consider desirable. In the longer term, I see a tricky balancing act or set of trade-offs between commodification, state power, local power-brokering, and farmer autonomy for a Chayanovian game to work out. Here’s where I think the decommodified farmer/consumer co-ops that Andrew mentions could work. It’s a long shot, but in Parts III & IV of my book I examine how such scenarios might unfold, which I see as something to aim for.

    Anyway, I guess I’ll come back to this again if and when I get to Parts II and IV in this blog cycle. In the short-term, I think we need to spend accumulated capital wisely on setting up a more renewable future, and on this point I’d suggest that people with both goodwill and money prioritize using it to buy farmland, ringfence it from the market and get people on it who are going to provide primarily for themselves.

    • I’d suggest that people with both goodwill and money prioritize using it to buy farmland, ringfence it from the market and get people on it who are going to provide primarily for themselves.

      Several years ago, I was chatting with Nate Hagens after one of his stimulating lectures about our prediament and I asked him whether he knew of any wealthy people (from his days working in finance) who were aware of our situation and willing to support alternatives, at least on an experimental basis. He assured me that there are plenty of wealthy people who see the necessity for a much lower energy and resource consumption paradigm and that he hoped some grand experiments in alternatives would be coming along soon. As yet, there are none that I know of. Perhaps they are happening under the news radar, but I doubt it.

    • Thanks for this Chris, it clarifies a great deal. You offer wise advice for those with goodwill and money, although as I possess only the former I’m not sure I can follow it! Moreover as a non-farmer I remain interested in what might be achieved in terms of organising ‘consumers’ (starting by getting rid of that label!) in the development of mutually supportive and provisioning relationships with small farmers.

      Incidentally, I meant to comment briefly before on that aspect of Game Chayanov requiring ‘mechanisms to prevent [land] concentrating in few hands over time.’ As I see it, this is another area that might prompt us to think about the collective institutions through which societies in a small farm future might govern themselves. Clearly this relates to the status of land as a thing to be owned, exchanged and inherited (or not, as the case would more likely be), and how this could be managed. It raises some interesting questions: what kind of local authority would mediate and litigate these issues? In what ways would it be accountable? How would its decisions be enforced? Perhaps your upcoming posts on the state will prove more appropriate for such questions.

  12. There are a handful of initiatives I’m aware of along the lines mentioned by me and Joe, but nothing approaching a movement at the scale required. Models based on pooling multiple small-scale investments may be preferable to rich benefactor models – the Ecological Land Co-op with which I’m involved in the UK or Terre de Liens in France are examples, but they’re not (at least not yet) Chayanovian games. There’s quite a lot of community land purchasing going on in different ways around the UK, but again the resulting land use very rarely involves self-reliant smallholding.

    To Andrew’s points, yes I’ll certainly be trying to cover these issues regarding inheritance, state power, land concentration etc. in upcoming posts, so I hope you’ll pitch in here with your thoughts. As ever, a complex question involving multiple trade-offs and difficulties.

  13. Things have moved on to the next post, but just going to toss this out there. I struggle to keep up on dissecting the various nuances of human/land use possibilities and optimal strategies for dealing with our political nature in order to minimizing the bad.

    So for now, I kind of mentally merge Chris’ analogy of the absconding scenario with Greer’s admonition to embrace dissensus. In other words, all should strive for the model they think will survive/thrive and be least likely to bring out the dark side, but let Darwin sort out the winners and losers. So as decline/collapse creates power vacuum and opens niches, all kinds of replacements will of necessity evolve, and there will be room for all to make a go of it. We can only hope that some least bad ones like a small farm future take root.

    • Yes, I’d go along with that – though I want to look carefully at the ‘Darwinian’ sorting. Would this be the outcome of calm discussion about the pros and cons of different systems, or of who shouts the loudest and/or mobilises the most supporters? Perhaps in the long-term the latter must give way to the former. Or perhaps not. I hope to write a little more about this soon. I’d like to think that polite discussion of different models ought to be on the table, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

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