Of grain and gulags: a note on work, labour and self-ownership

I’ll begin with a brief account of how our modern global grain trading system was invented in Chicago in the 19th century, which is maybe a bit of a jolt from the present focus of this blog cycle on the forms of property but hopefully my purposes will become clear.

Prior to the railroad/grain elevator/futures market nexus that began to emerge in the 1850s, prairie grain farmers sold their product in sacks that retained their identity with the source farm through to the point of sale. The innovation of the railroad/elevator system was to create standardized grades of grain that enabled the harvest from individual farms to be amassed together in vast quantities as a fungible commodity like money. The innovation of the futures market was to remove uncertainty about future price fluctuations, essentially by enabling speculators to assume the burden of the risk by betting on movements in grain prices. Before long, the value of the futures being traded greatly exceeded the value of the physical grain in existence.

These innovations called forth vastly more economic activity than previously possible, created a torrent of cheap grain that flooded global markets and pushed farmers in other places out of grain production (and often out of farming altogether), and stimulated the growth of prairie grain farming, while removing from farmers themselves substantial economic autonomy, fostering perhaps a self-interest on their part in the grading of their grain at the margin, but not a more holistic interest in the story of their grain from field to fork. They also pretty much forged the global economy as we know it today (I’ll ignore the meat/livestock side of the story for brevity, but the globalization of meat production was another prong to the same history)1.

How do you feel about this story? I ask because I think it often prompts strong emotions, which divide between two mutually uncomprehending camps (OK, so real life is always a bit more complicated than the dualities we impose on it, but I think this one does neatly organize quite a bit of thinking).

One camp responds positively to the story. Perhaps some of its adherents will concede that not everything that happened was rosy, but consider these downsides remediable without fundamental change to the economic model first forged in Chicago. Some key words or phrases for this camp are efficiency, development, modernization, globalization, progress, technology, labour-saving and back-breaking labour.

The other camp responds negatively to the story, and doubts that the problems created by the global commodity grain economy can be remedied without fundamental change. Some key words or phrases for this camp are autonomy, freedom, craftsmanship, honest work, self-reliance and community. This is the camp I’m in, and I’ve spent way too long in fruitless debate with people who think these qualities are quaint, outmoded, dangerous or outright laughable.

I should note that if we dial back a few more years through prairie history, we’d find in many places mounted, bison-hunting American cultures who were violently usurped by the settler farmers. A few more years still, beyond any European colonial influence, and we’d find forager-horticulturists without horses or bison-based economies. Which is to say that it’s possible to reject a particular historical turn of events without invoking some prior state of grace where all was sweet and stable.

Something to notice about these two camps: in the first, work is negative – ‘saving labour’ is good, ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Whereas in the second, it’s positive – work is craftmanship and self-realization, a part of how you make your mark upon the world and of how you and others judge you.

Another thing to notice: the first camp orients to pooling, generalizing and abstracting things – grain, money and labour can be hugely amassed and take on protean forms that escape particular, local control. The second camp orients to the specifics of food as a source of life and pleasure, and money and work as relatively scarce means of self-realization. It opposes the mass multiplication of these qualities.

Overlaying the familiar modern left-right political duality on the two camps, the first can encompass the full gamut of modernist politics from far left to far right and most points in between, including the neoliberal status quo. The second no doubt sounds ‘conservative’ to some contemporary ears, with its emphasis on self-reliance, personal autonomy and particularistic community, but historically it’s also crossed the left-right divide.

Perhaps instead of trying to shoehorn the two camps into the left-right duality, it’s more illuminating to notice where their tensions arise in respect of it. I find the sociologist Richard Sennett’s distinction between unity and inclusion useful here:

“The Left divided between those who sought to establish solidarity top-down and those who sought to create it bottom-up; the centralized German labour union represented the one approach, the local American workshop the other …. There were … two versions of solidarity in these discussions, the one emphasizing unity, the other inclusion”2

So, on the left, our first camp aggregates labour into classes, and emphasizes the importance of class unity in achieving political goals. Which is fine from my point of view, in some instances. Sometimes, people do amass themselves self-consciously into a class to achieve political goals, and need to act as a unified bloc to achieve them.

But for me this way of thinking gets problematic when it offers itself as a general theory of society and social progress. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made the claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” which, I would humbly suggest, is something of an overstatement. Marx and Engels’ politics was grounded in the notion that the landless industrial working classes emerging particularly in the richest countries of their day embodied the most perfectly realized and universalized class consciousness whose victory would bring this history of class struggle to an end. Whereas the executive of the modern state, according to the Communist Manifesto, was “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, people massed as landless labour and with a unified political consciousness arising from this would overturn the bourgeois state and repurpose it for the collective benefit of all, before the state ultimately ‘withered away’ in Engels’ famous phrase.

I find these views contradictory and unconvincing, indeed ironically somewhat ‘bourgeois’ in their obsession with aggregation and progress. But I’m not going to dwell on critiquing them here. Generally, I think this mass modernist mindset across its entire political spectrum has difficulties with or is uninterested in generating a politics of the person as a complex, intentional being set within a wider community and culture. On the far right, personhood is subordinated to the interests of the state or ethno-state. On the far left, it’s subordinated to class identity and the ever-receding promise that once all the bourgeois and counterrevolutionary elements have been destroyed, life will be sweet. Among the capitalist (neo)liberals, it’s subordinated to a similar millenarianism in the belief that if the economy is allowed to aggregate capital and labour as its internal logic dictates, then ultimately everyone will find redemption in the marketplace.

I don’t think the modern history of totalitarianism, gulags, holocausts, state-induced famines, extreme labour exploitation and extractivism bears out the first camp’s dreams. People who still hold to these dreams usually respond to past failures either by denying that they happened, or by saying that the people who suffered in them were beyond the pale and had it coming (that emphasis on unity against the enemy again), or by claiming that these events were distorted misapplications of the true ideology whose redemptive purity still floats above the grubby realities affected in its name.

But let me turn to the second camp. I guess at root I hold to the slightly-but-not-very modernist view that it’s good to honour the complexities and intentions of individual human persons, which are always set within a wider community and culture. This makes property a point of tension in the second camp in a way that it isn’t for the first camp, where individuals have no inherent claim against the aggregative will of states, classes or capital. Those of us in the second camp, however, believe that self-possession, owning one’s self, being an autonomous agent, is critical to human life.

Self-possession implies property in some sense – being able to claim a personal right to generate wellbeing from the world we share with other people and organisms. At one point in their influential new book, David Graeber and David Wengrow endorse societies that “guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life”3 and it seems implicit in their view that this also means people in these societies guaranteed each other the means to an autonomous life, however varied notions of what constitutes a person and what constitutes autonomy might be in different times and places.

But how best to make this guarantee in the face of other people’s claims and the more collective aspects of social life is by no means straightforward, especially for those of us with some kind of leftist commitment to equity of one sort or another. So, for us, how to generate or mediate the social is problematic – which I guess is why I’ve spent a lot of time in my writing worrying about how to relate personhood and self-possession to collectivities like families, commons, communities, publics, classes, and states, without coming up with any ultimately satisfactory answers. In my view that’s probably okay, because I don’t think there are any ultimately satisfactory answers. There are permanent tensions involved in human politics, and these are some of them.

But at least by attending to them one is focusing on the right issues. To use Sennett’s terminology, I think creating inclusivity is a much harder problem than creating unity. But it’s a problem worth tackling, because as I see it insisting on a politics of unity long-term beyond transient political alliances creates more repressive, violent and anti-human societies than ones that focus on inclusivity. There are some radically different ways of trying to create inclusivity, and their fortunes depend on the wider social forces in play at a given place and time. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

A final couple of points. I’ve been criticized over the years by a number of Marxists for my anti-modernist and localist politics, for example by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron who consider my politics “ripe for far-right appropriation” and my vision of agrarian futures as one of merely “ek[ing] out a living” rather than “truly living”. Here is where the camps of aggregative labour versus honest work, of unity versus inclusivity, talk past one another. I stand firm in my vision of a small farm future against Heffron and Heron’s modernizing, aggregating, and frankly very bourgeois view that their version of class politics shines a modernizing light of improvement onto rural lives they arrogantly consider blighted by the particularities of local livelihood and community. One reason I’m a big believer in small farmers obtaining secure private property rights whenever they can is that it helps them avoid getting ‘improved’ out of existence through grandiose and usually ill-fated modernization schemes of the kind Heffron and Heron seem to favour.

As to ‘far-right appropriation’, I simply reject the notion there are prior political unities that anyone can draw lines around and defend against anyone else’s appropriations. The accusation stems from that top-down, imposed conception of supposed ‘unity’. For sure, one can make an issue of localism, culture, particularity and self-possession in ways that could lead to fascist misery. One can also make an issue of class unity and the supposed idiocy of rural life in ways that lead to dead peasants, gulags and communist misery. It’s easy to get into these thin-end-of-the-wedge type arguments, but now more than ever I don’t think they’re illuminating. The political field is changing, and old political demarcation lines offer increasingly poor guidance to the future. But older forms of politics are still relevant, as I will try to show in upcoming posts.

Notes

  1. I’m drawing here on William Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis.
  2. Richard Sennett. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. p.39.
  3. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything. p.48.

It’s not too late, but it’s over: how COP26 changes everything

And so the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has drawn to a close. Time for another break from my present blog cycle for a few thoughts on the implications.

Prior to the meeting the eco-philosopher Rupert Read wrote that he was hoping for a bad outcome because then “we citizens of the world will finally know the truth: that it’s up to us now. Us the people.”

This comment was met with some bewilderment or even anger among climate activists and technocrats. But I knew what he meant, and I agreed. The worst outcome would be if there were some apparently big breakthroughs that prompted unwary journalists and other opinion formers into thinking real movement had occurred and that the powers that be were on the case, only for it to turn out to be just more ‘blah blah blah’ to coin the phrase used by many of the activists at the meeting.

Well, there was certainly a lot of blah blah blah, and few commentators seems to be hailing the outcome as remotely equal to the crisis. Some are opting for a ‘glass half full narrative’ that courts the dangerous middle ground I mentioned (at least we’re now ‘phasing down’ coal and have ‘pledges’ on methane and deforestation etc). But with Bill McKibben, a somewhat more mainstream climate activist than Read, writing “It’s a fairy tale that world governments will fix our climate crisis. It’s up to us” I think it would be fair to say Read got his wish. Professor Kevin Anderson was blunter, saying that at COP26 “world leaders collectively chose to sign a death warrant”.

I’m with Read et al in thinking that governments won’t solve this and it’s up to us. But there’s a problem. What exactly should ‘we’ do? I spent a day in Glasgow at COP26, listening to some understandably angry and emotional youth activists exclaiming that it was they and not the politicos cloistered inside the Blue Zone who were the real leaders, but saying little about what their leadership entailed and how it was going to sort out the climate crisis. In the evening, I went on an Extinction Rebellion march intended to raise a rumpus outside a building where world leaders were allegedly dining, but in the end the police corralled us down a side street far out of earshot of any leaders, where we stood singing a familiar XR song:

People got the power

Tell me can you hear us

Getting stronger by the hour

Power! People! People! Power!

But the most abiding image for me of the event was the cold steel entry grille to the Blue Zone, which was as close as this particular person got to any power, ie. not very. I gather that many of those in possession of the appropriate authorizations to get beyond it didn’t feel much different.

Well, it’s easy to be cynical. The fact is, theoretically it’s not too late to avert average global warming in excess of 1.5oC above preindustrial levels – although it almost is – and there are lots of politicians, scientists, civil servants, academics, activists and others working hard to secure that outcome. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that humanity doesn’t put into the atmosphere brightens the future, so I salute their efforts.

All the same, I don’t think their efforts will be equal to the task, because there’s a large human impediment to it in the structures of political-economic power, for which all the steel grilles, police officers and elaborate entry authorizations in Glasgow stand as a metaphor. Some call it capitalism, or we could speak instead of growthism, developmentalism, various other isms or more generally the idea of ‘progress’ that I discuss particularly between pages 53 and 88 of my book. This article about India’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2070 does quite a good job of examining whether this is a real breakthrough or blah blah blah, but the article’s unspoken assumption that, for the land of Gandhi as for everywhere else, there’s only one path to ‘development’ involving increased energy use, industrialization, urbanization and so forth pretty much gives the game away. Without a different political-economic model to that, it certainly is too late.

But too late for what? Too late to preserve the existing global political economy, certainly. But since this ill serves most people and most other organisms globally, that’s not in itself a bad thing. Perhaps the real problem is that none of the alternatives – like the small-scale neo-agrarianism I advocate – have any real mass traction.

In the face of that reality, a lot of people retreat to familiar forms of modernist politics and find vindication for the flavour they prefer in the COP26 outcome. On the left, there’s a lot of talk assimilating climate change to working-class struggles for justice and against capitalism. A historical problem for the left here is that not many working-class struggles for justice have really been fundamentally anti-capitalist, and the ones that have been have rarely lasted long. While some on the left downplay the likely effects of climate change and preserve top billing for the politics of labour, others invoke climate change as a kind of revolutionary prime mover to kickstart the stalled communist transition. To me, it seems likely that climate change will be a revolutionary prime mover, but the nature of prime movers is that they don’t usually deliver to order on the programmes of older political traditions.

Anatol Lieven neatly satirises this kind of thing in invoking Naomi Klein’s book about climate change, This Changes Everything. He writes that he’s fully in agreement with the title, but “The problem is that among the things it has not in fact changed is Klein’s own ideological priorities, which remain almost exactly what they would have been if climate change did not exist”1.

I’d argue this also applies often enough to those on the left who are switching their allegiance from the industrial working class to indigenous peoples as the subset of oppressed humanity most likely to bring about revolutionary renewal, thereby preserving their conviction that such a world-transforming subset of people actually exists. This idea is getting wider traction because many indigenous people are bearing the brunt of climate breakdown, are often skilled through long cultural practice at political resistance, are in the forefront of further capitalist extractivism, and may have a thing or two to teach about non-capitalist lifeways.

All of this is true, but I’m not convinced it gives sufficient leverage to generate a climate-proofed postcapitalist politics. One left-wing critic of mine wrote that my book says nothing about ‘indigeneity’ – kind of true inasmuch as I don’t use that deeply problematic term in it, but kind of untrue inasmuch as the whole drift of the book is against claims to authentic political or other identities of the kind that ‘indigeneity’ involves. I consider these politically disastrous, especially for humanity’s climate-challenged future.

This is especially true since much the most successful claims to indigeneity in the modern world have been nationalist ones along the lines that the government of a defined area serves the needs of a geographically and often ethnically exclusive people. Anatol Lieven, who I mentioned above, argues that because of this very success effective action on climate change must be built around nationalism via notions of consistent identity, individual sacrifice, and historical persistence. While he satirises the left for its vision of a “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse inhabited by diverse but mutually respectful populations” he rather hoists himself on his own petard by calling for “intelligent, far-sighted” versions of nationalism, and not “stupid, short-sighted” ones2. Yeah right, that’s really what you’re gonna get if you invoke the animal spirits of the nation…

You can see how this might pan out in some of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s pronouncements and actions around COP26. On the one hand, he warned of “shortages…movements, contests for water, for food, huge movements of peoples. Those are things that are going to be politically very, very difficult to control”. Meanwhile, his government is trying to figure out how to flout various international laws to turn back from British shores the currently rather small number of boats carrying undocumented migrants, suggesting what kind of reception those huge movements of people in the future are likely to get (but I think he’s right that, ultimately, these movements are going to be politically difficult to control, which has interesting implications). Despite claiming that, regarding climate change, we’re currently “5-1 down at half time”, Johnson also believes we can “build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight” with such things as zero-emission planes allowing us – or at least some of us – to “fly guilt-free” in the future. All in all, less national sacrifice and more nationalist fantasy.

Without a persuasive mass climate politics from either left, right or middle, it’s easy to succumb to despair, as I did for a brief period recently. As I see it, going through a period of despair is better than clinging to false optimism or the boilerplate solutionism of modernist politics. But after the despair the approach I now favour is for people just to do something that they feel called to do. In my case, I think that’s going to be helping build up the human, plant and animal community on my little farm, pushing a distributist land reform politics where I can, carrying on with some writing, and probably calling time on my fledgling career as an environmental protestor.

My wife, whose career in the latter regard has been considerably more distinguished than mine, has come to a similar conclusion, more or less. While she was away blocking motorways and parliaments with Insulate Britain, I followed the news avidly and got myself pretty riled up when I felt the targeting or messaging of the group was wrong. I’ve had some interesting conversations about this with her. She takes the view that we cannot know the efficacy of our actions. There’s a case sometimes for getting over our individual selves and opinions and participating within a wider movement, even when we consider it flawed … and there’s also a case sometimes for not doing that. Either way, she’s increasingly lost interest in the opinion-mongering of those who think they know what should be done or what people should think, including her own. Indeed, there’s quite a bit of blah blah blah beyond the Blue Zone too, which can be problematic in its own way. And if you want my opinion, I think she has a point.

Some conclusions, then. It’s not too late, but it’s over. The global political impasse over climate change does suggest that it’s now down to “us, the people” to address the problem. None of ‘us’ really knows how to do that, but maybe it doesn’t matter. We will do it in a myriad piecemeal ways. Some of those ways, as per Boris Johnson’s remarks, will probably be ugly. I hope that other, prettier ways will supersede them. A fond hope? Probably, but the “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse” that Lieven scorns may not everywhere be quite as far-fetched as he supposes, and I will try to explain why in upcoming posts. So my plan for meeting the climate apocalypse is to keep thinking, keep writing, keep farming and keep being hopeful (but not ‘optimistic’) as best I can. What’s yours?

Notes

  1. Anatol Lieven. 2020. Climate Change and the Nation State, p.120.
  2. Ibid. pp.xvi & xxv.

Property ownership in a small farm future

And so we come to the thorny issue of landownership and property rights in a small farm future, which I discuss in Chapter 13 of my book.

A lot of people I encounter profess complete disdain for the very idea of ‘owning’ land, usually along the lines of the words attributed to Chief Seattle: the earth does not belong to people, people belong to the earth.

Well, I agree. But my interest in landownership is not so cosmological. Less to do with the spirit, and more to do with the stomach. What I want to know is whether it’s OK for me and my folks to fish at this spot in the river, or sow wheat on this patch of land, or take firewood from this part of the woodland. And these are not trivial questions when you need to make a livelihood directly from the land among multitudes of other people, as I believe many or most of us will have to in the future.

It’s this relationship with other people that’s critical, and I believe isn’t as well understood as it should be by critics of the idea of ownership. If I say that I ‘own’ some land, this isn’t fundamentally a claim about my relationship to the land in question. It’s a claim about my relationship to other people in respect of the land – essentially that I have some agreed rights of appropriation in respect of the land that they do not. Fundamentally, property rights are social relations between people. And these relations can be parcelled up in almost endless ways. I may have appropriation rights over fishing a river, but only for certain kinds of fish, or at certain times of year, or if I offer certain gifts to a local dignitary or deity. I may have an exclusive right to plant a field, but not to hunt on it, or dig for minerals on it, or build a house on it, or stop other people from walking over it. In this sense, I think it’s possible to agree with Chief Seattle while still claiming to ‘own’ a piece of land.

So property ownership implies social agreement, even if it’s grudging. If I ask someone not to fish this stretch of river because I own the fishing rights here, I’m implying that both of us are bound by some wider social compact to which we both owe fealty and which by some due process internal to it has accorded me, and not them, the fishing rights. In the absence of that social agreement, ownership means nothing. It’s my word, my fishing rod, or my gun, against theirs.

What is this wider social compact? A word that often springs to the lips is ‘the community’, or some version thereof. In his response to my previous post, Col Gordon discussed the traditional runrig system of Scottish Highland land use in which “the resource base of the land was held communally”. I’m cautious of invoking terms like ‘communal’ or ‘community’ because I think they too often operate as feelgood words that conceal internal politics. Maybe it’s worth substituting a less feelgood word like ‘the government’ to guard against this – “the resource base of the land was held by the government” has a different feel, and in my opinion better captures the messy political realities, even in localized ‘self’-governing situations.

There’s a bad tendency to seek the ‘true’ form of property rights and government by locating it at some historical point of origin. This applies to the founders of modern capitalist ideology like John Locke in their attempts to justify forms of individualism and private property rights. But it also applies to those who justify collectivism as the original human condition. Colonial situations of the kind that concerned both Chief Seattle and Col Gordon are particularly fraught, because the obvious injustice when a private property regime is imposed by force upon a more collectivist one makes the latter seem more original and authentic. This easily obscures the tensions of the prior collectivist system and its own possibly troubled history.

That is not, of course, to say that historical injustices like colonial appropriation of land requires no restitution. But it may mean that achieving the restitution could prove complicated. And this is particularly true if we view property regimes not just as an economic or cultural choice made by given people, but as an ecological strategy followed by people to make a livelihood in the circumstances particular to their time and place. If those circumstances have changed, it may no longer make sense to revert to pre-existing property regimes. This is one of several reasons why I find the idea of solving the problems created by what some call racialized global capitalism by recourse to what some call indigenous land management a bit more problematic than it might appear.

To summarize so far: any claim of ownership or rights to usage over land is a social relation between people which implies a wider political agreement, and it’s probably best not to promote any particular kind of ownership right as inherently superior on the basis of historical origins. Whether we’re talking about fishing a river, the Scottish runrig system and its successors, John Locke’s enthusiasm for private property or Chief Seattle’s scepticism about it, my suggestion is that every possible way that humans have devised to make a livelihood from the land individually or collectively involves problematic inter-human relationships that we can dump in a file called ‘government’. I will try to open up that file in a forthcoming post.

For now, I just want to make a few comments about four broad kinds of property regime around which I’ll organize my discussion in the next few posts.

First, there is distributed private property. In this situation, pretty much everyone has access to an (inevitably small) bit of land that they can call their own. As per my discussion above, their rights of appropriation over it probably won’t be total, but they will have substantial day-to-day autonomy with how they organize their affairs in respect of it.

Second, there is monopoly private property. Here, private landownership is concentrated in few hands, whether a hereditary aristocracy, a moneyed class of more porous membership, or a private collectivity like a business corporation. In this situation, those who aren’t part of the land-monopolizing class may have to rent land or buy its products from the monopolists, probably on unfavourable terms by virtue of the latter’s monopoly. This is called ‘economic rent’ or ‘Ricardian rent’, as discussed at some length in my book – the key point being that monopoly control enables the monopolist to squeeze the unlanded beyond what could be sustained in an evenly distributed land allocation.

Third, there is public property. In this situation, property rights are invested in a corporate body that exercises them exclusively, typically nowadays in the form of a state that claims to do so legitimately because of a sovereignty that derives ultimately from the people it rules over.

Finally, there is common property (or ‘commons’). Here the land is owned by no single person or body, nor by a centralized state claiming sovereignty. Instead, appropriation rights are owned by a specific group of people who in theory have equal rights over it, as determined by protocols agreed among themselves (see A Small Farm Future pp.177-8).

Many of our standard political doctrines pin their colours largely to just one of these four forms of property. So for example, neoliberal capitalism favours monopoly private property, socialism in its various forms favours public property, while quite a bit of Chief Seattle inflected contemporary alternative economics thirsts for commons.

I’m going to look in more detail at each of the four types in forthcoming posts, but I’ll say right now that each of them has some obvious drawbacks, and I find it impossible to be enthusiastic about any single one of them as a fundamental basis for organizing society. One drawback shared by most of them is the tendency for control to fall into the hands of a few relatively unaccountable people at the expense of the many, and to operate at an inappropriately large and unresponsive scale.

So I don’t personally favour any single one of these forms of property. But I do have my preferences. Whereas modern capitalist countries like Britain are typically a mix of monopoly private property and public ownership, with a small serving of distributed private property and the tiniest sliver of common property, I favour on the contrary a small farm future comprising a lot of distributed private property, quite a bit of common property, a small serving of public property and barely a sliver of monopoly private property. So pretty much a reversal of the status quo.

When people profess their opposition to ‘private property’ they rarely seem to grasp how utterly different societies of distributed private property are from ones of monopoly private property, nor – given the separability of different kinds of property rights – how extraordinarily totalitarian are societies lacking de facto private property rights in anything.

There’s also considerable contemporary ignorance about the fact that a century or so ago there were powerful currents of political thought opposing the erosion of distributed private property rights through wage labour, industrial work discipline and monopoly capital. In the event, monopoly capital and collective labour politics prevailed during the 20th century, and these older currents of thought faded. But though they lost the political battle in the short-term, they weren’t necessarily wrong. The disasters of 20th century capitalism and communism have delivered us into a historical moment when those older arguments may have some currency again.

The distributists were proponents of one such strand of argument, and Sean Domencic has persuaded me that I’m (more or less) a latter-day distributist inasmuch as I think that widespread ownership of farmland for the production of food and fibre primarily for household and then for wider local use is desirable.

One advantage of distributed farmsteading is that it has a self-limiting orientation towards household need satisfaction rather than an expansionary orientation towards profit or productivity increase. But this requires strong (private) property rights of appropriation, to prevent external pressures for increase.

There’s a second and related advantage that I don’t think is talked about nearly enough nowadays, although it’s a familiar theme on this blog. This is the personal satisfaction of competently furnishing one’s own livelihood through skilled farming, gardening, foraging and craft skills. It’s possible to overdo this point and succumb to questionable ideologies of the rugged individualist sort. But so many people in the world today lack the opportunity, knowledge and skill to provide even the most basic perquisites of daily life, and I believe this is a silent pathology that eats at contemporary society.

Another advantage of local, small-scale, self-provisioning farm tenure is that it makes the ecological harms of one’s farming practices obvious and incentivizes people to avoid them. At the same time, it enables people to tap the economies of small, non-commercialized scale that I mentioned in a recent post.

Finally, as discussed in Chapters 12 and 13 of A Small Farm Future, an advantage of distributed property ownership and personal livelihood production is that it reduces the need for thrashing out agreements with other people over exactly how to go about one’s business. People in the alternative agriculture/alternative economics movements often say that we’re too individualist nowadays and we need to create more collective working structures. This is no doubt true in some ways, but it’s complicated. The more people you have to negotiate work routines with, the more time is sucked into the process and the more precious livelihood autonomy you lose. A nodding acquaintance with the agrarian structures of many non-capitalist and non-modern societies should be enough to show that selfishness, free-riding and general human orneriness are not limited to modern capitalist societies and need to be carefully managed everywhere. One of the easiest ways to do this involves the subsidiarity of undertaking everything that you realistically can yourself.

The main disadvantages of distributed private property are, as I see it, threefold. First there’s the flipside of the point I just made – the danger of an anomic individualism, lack of community feeling or hidden exploitation within the household. We’ve already discussed this at some length here, but no doubt we’ll return to it again.

The second disadvantage is that restricted divisions of labour and value extraction in a distributed small farm society may limit its technological possibilities. There won’t be Boeing 747s, Android Smartphones or even Massey Ferguson 135s in a genuinely distributed small farm society. There may, however, be blacksmiths who can keep a lot of useful local tech going. Given the urgent need to decarbonize, decapitalize and relocalize our political economies in view of present crises, I see this as probably an advantage rather than a disadvantage. But it involves a huge and perhaps impossible readjustment of contemporary horizons.

Finally, a disadvantage of distributed private property societies is that it’s pretty difficult to stop them from becoming monopoly private property societies, thereby losing all of the advantages that I’ve mentioned. I’ll talk more about this in a later post. The ghost of Henry George is stirring.

A Small Farm Future: Some Problems Re-Stated

Ted Trainer has recently published a critical if fairly friendly essay about aspects of my book A Small Farm Future, called ‘Small Farm Future: why some anticipated problems will not arise’. In it, he references Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s critical and considerably less friendly essay about my book. I’d been thinking about responding when I came across an article by Sarah Mock called “I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. I couldn’t do it”. Mock is a former associate of Chris Newman, author of the widely aired essay “Small family farms aren’t the answer”. Also languishing on my to do list has been the idea of writing a response to Col Gordon’s podcast series Landed about regenerative farming in the Scottish Highlands, which I found excellent in almost every respect apart from its oft-repeated refrain that “the small family farm is a colonial concept”.

There’s considerable overlap between these various interventions around what I think are some quite problematic, if commonly held, views concerning individualism, collectivism, property and capitalism, and their implications for a small farm future. So since they’re somewhat a propos to the point I’ve reached in this blog cycle, I thought I’d address this using some of the aforementioned interventions as my cues. As someone who thinks that small family farms probably are the answer (depending a bit on what the question is) it seems worth stating the case for them, which I do below in the form of some bold declarations that I subsequently try to justify. I hope this may clarify key points of agreement and disagreement with the people mentioned above.

1. The small family farm is a resilient and successful socio-economic form. Mock’s essay heralding the demise of the small family farm is but one contribution to a voluminous global literature dating back centuries. Yet such farms keep holding on, or even springing up, in each new generation worldwide. You don’t see articles heralding the demise of the small family firm of carmakers, because such firms are long gone and the prospects for a household to scratch a living by manufacturing and selling cars are zero. Not so for producing and selling food. Hence, I’d suggest the considerable success of the small family farm is worth emphasizing.

There are two main reasons for its persistence. The first is that the forces of capitalization, rationalization, massification and industrialization that have revolutionized most industries, though all too apparent in agriculture too, have been less successful in this sector than most others, essentially because living ecologies are quite hard to commodify. The second is that possession of a small spread of land enables people to extricate themselves at least partially from those same forces of capitalization and massification, and this is therefore a permanently appealing possibility to people who seek autonomy from those forces.

As I see it, these two issues are likely to play out in the future in ways that make small farms much more common than they presently are in the rich countries. Indeed, while Mock is right that the present structure of the economy makes life hard for the small commercial farmer, the writing is manifestly on the wall for that structure, and the economy to come is likely to be more conducive to the small farmer, if not necessarily to the small commercial farmer.

2. The small family farm has worldwide appeal, and is not intrinsically a ‘colonial concept’. Mock claims in her article that the romantic ideal of a small family farm is virtually unique to the USA, but this is patently false. There’s a version of it in pretty much every country in the world. For sure, it’s invariably complicated by often bitter local histories of landlord domination, ethnic strife or colonial oppression, and it’s contested by the modernist lure of urbanism and its projected riches – a lure that, in my opinion, is every bit as romantic and problematic as its agrarian alternatives. In some places, the history of the small family farm is intimately bound up with colonialism, but small family farms are not intrinsically a colonial concept – an idea that would come as a surprise to many small family farmers throughout history in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas operating outside of colonial contexts, or running small family farms within them precisely as a positive and creative response to colonial oppressions.

3. Entrepreneurialism cannot be the bedrock of a just and renewable agrarian economy. Ted Trainer writes:

“Small Farm Future could give the impression that the small farms will be functioning according to institutions and mentalities that prevail today, that is, whereby farmers are independent “business-people” sinking or swimming by selling produce into markets, and are able and keen to accumulate wealth as individual competing mini-entrepreneurs”.

If that’s the impression people take from my book, then I’ve failed badly to convey my true thoughts – but I like to think that an attentive read of Chapter 14 should give the reader pretty much the opposite impression to the one Ted connotes, one that’s actually pretty similar to his own. As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter. To do so requires limiting the play of entrepreneurialism and the flow of capital, though perhaps not snuffing them out entirely.

Sarah Mock, on the other hand, endorses the market entrepreneurialism of new agrarian pioneers working under cooperative and collective arrangements where they “identify market opportunities” and work with “financiers to meet the needs of their customers as well as their partners and employees”. The problem with this is that they thereby submit themselves to precisely the same forces of capitalist rationalization that bear down on the small commercial family farmer. So whereas Mock implicitly brackets small family farmers with large-scale commercial operators and invokes commercial cooperative farming as a viable alternative, the truth is that all three are in the same boat when they operate commercially in generalized commodity markets. A few small family farmers and co-ops might survive in this situation – usually by increasing in size, cutting labour inputs and mechanizing, just as the corporates do – but the real dividing line is between commodity market operators of any kind and farms of any kind that are serving their own or heavily delimited local needs.

As far as I’ve been able to tell from a distance, this failing of the commercialized cooperative seems to have pretty much been the fate of Chris Newman’s Sylvanaqua Farm model – a fate that I predicted here, analyzed further here and that Mock herself critiqued in some detail here. It therefore surprises me that she doesn’t reflect a bit more critically on the difficulties of commercial cooperative farming in her present piece (incidentally, the Sylvanaqua commercial co-op was one of the models Heffron and Heron championed as a superior alternative to the small family farm).

Mock traces her enthusiasm for cooperative models to the pioneering efforts of people of colour in the USA, who “have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored”. For his part, Trainer imputes the ills of the present world to “12,000 years of conditioning to prioritise individualism, competitiveness and aggressive wealth acquisition”. I think a more nuanced reading is required in both cases, as I try to outline under the next two points.

4. People of colour have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored, but have not particularly proven or sought to prove that collective farming systems are superior. People who are subjected to discrimination and enforced poverty have little opportunity to improve their situation except by pooling their skills and what few resources they command – in this sense, I agree with Mock that people of colour in the USA historically have proven the viability of alternative and unfavoured farming systems. In a very different historical situation, Col Gordon makes a similar point about collective forms of subsistence cattle farming in the premodern Scottish Highlands. But in agrarian situations involving less extreme discrimination and impoverishment people typically develop systems that mix cooperative and private/household production, which each have their pros and cons. Such mixed collective/private systems have also been both an aspiration and an achievement of black farmers in the USA. Almost every enduring agrarian society involving collective property also involves private property. So it would be a good idea to stop talking about them as if they’re incompatible, and to home in a little more carefully on the nature of the different property regimes involved – something I’ll elucidate in upcoming essays here.

5. Capitalist societies do not prioritise individualism or competitiveness. Ted’s “12,000 years” reference is presumably to the conventionally reckoned dawn of agriculture, but for now I’m just going to refer to modern capitalism, which is often described as individualistic, competitive and accumulative. I agree with the accumulative bit, and I agree that in a certain sense modern capitalist societies could be described as individualistic and competitive. But this is also quite misleading. Take a walk around one of the city blocks where most people in the rich countries live these days. Look at people’s dwellings – those tiny spaces, those vast sinks of energy, water, food and resources from elsewhere. The people living in them could barely survive a week without relying on a huge network of other people to service them – there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about them, apart from the fact that their occupants often feel lonely and crave more human companionship, which is ‘individualistic’ only in a rather special sense. And most of these people work for huge corporations or public bodies whose modus operandi generally involves eliminating competition, not encouraging it.

6. Many people seek autonomy and a sense of personal, practical competence within a wider community, of the kind that’s possible in a small farm society. Ted Trainer argues that in the future people will need to develop new forms of local cooperation. I agree, although in many ways they will be reinventions of older forms of local cooperation. But in view of the highly collective nature of contemporary capitalist societies just mentioned, I don’t think it will necessarily be so hard to do this.

I think the hardest thing to develop in the small farm societies succeeding our present urban-capitalist ones won’t be the collectivism but the individualism – the jack-of-all-trades practical competence, the sense of making do without being able to call in expert help or cheap, pre-manufactured solutions, the autonomy of everyday decision-making on the farm.

Sometimes, this agrarian individualism gets associated with right-wing attitudes that wrongly scorn the inability of poor people to help themselves (on which, see point 4 above). Yet those who live in low-energy small farm societies know that they absolutely rely on a wider community to prosper. In such societies, there’s a creative tension between individualism, autonomy and personal competence on the one hand and community support and integration on the other. It’s the very lack of individualism in modern capitalist society – our inability to deliver the basic self-care of producing food, clothes and shelter – that many people find so alienating, and that draws them to the ‘romance’ of the small farm. But re-creating that individualism and practical competence isn’t easy.

7. Commons are specific, and delimited. The typical form of collectivism in low-energy small farm societies is a commons – common grazing, common irrigation strategies, common woodland management and the like. I’ll say more about this in another post, but usually commons are specific to particular people and activities and form a relatively small and delimited though important part of day-to-day economic life in low-energy societies. Modern activists have got into very generalized ways of talking about commons – ‘the digital commons’, ‘the atmospheric commons’, even ‘the global commons’ – which may have tactical payoffs but are also quite misleading. There’s often a lot of work involved in low-energy, local societies when people of equal standing and no hierarchical authority structure come together to thrash out collective agreements. So they try to avoid it unless the alternatives are obviously worse.

Also, the specific character of the common resource is important. In a low capital/energy society, it makes little sense for people to graze cattle individually – but it may make sense for them to milk cattle, or make hay, or grow vegetables or cereals individually, and this is often what happens. So when Col Gordon contrasts the early commons-based subsistence cattle economy of the Scottish Highlands with a later private mixed farming economy in the area he’s not really comparing like with like. He nicely shows in his podcasts that the colonization of the premodern Highland pastoral economy by Scottish and English interests themselves resting on a wider colonial project were instrumental in creating a mixed farming economy based on private ownership. This is not the same as showing that the private character of mixed farm tenure is itself a colonial concept.

8. Humans are not ants, and status contests are a real thing in every human society. Here I come to probably my main point of disagreement with Ted Trainer. If I understand him rightly, he thinks a new cooperative human culture without status contests must be created to generate renewable local societies (so do Heffron and Heron). I don’t think this is feasible, though fortunately I don’t think it’s necessary either – but I do agree that cooperation must be emphasized and status contests limited.

One dimension of this that I won’t say much about here is gender relations and patriarchy. Bizarrely, Heffron and Heron characterize my arguments as ‘patriarchal’, whereas every other reviewer who’s commented on this has correctly seen them as anti-patriarchal. Ted considers the whole issue a red herring, because he thinks future cooperative societies will be intrinsically gender equal. I find this a bit complacent, but I hope he’s right that the gains of modern feminism will be sustained and amplified through the troubles to come. However, I don’t think it’ll happen by default, so I make no apologies for making an issue of it in my book.

Leaving gender aside, I do want to make some further remarks about more general tendencies towards status differentiation in human interactions. People have a fine-honed tendency to try to get one over other people, and to try to make themselves the big man (or woman – but usually man) who gathers camp followers around them. It’s kind of ironic that one of the most prominent schools of thought nowadays that seeks to refute this as a basis of social action comprises people who seem happy to call themselves ‘Marxists’. People play the holier than thou game in all sorts of unexpected arenas of human interaction – for example, in claims to being a proper farmer, a real permaculturist or to being especially masterful at mindfully letting go of petty human concerns. I discuss this in Chapter 16 of my book and will come back to it in a future post.

But people also have a fine-honed tendency to try to take others down a peg or two and to contest claims of superior status. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest the anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues there are evolutionary reasons for this hierarchy-equality dualism that stretch into humanity’s deep past. Whether he’s right or not there’s a mountain of evidence from numerous societies spanning human history that people are forever playing games of status aggrandizement and status levelling (including, of course, evidence from modern communist societies).

Ted writes that “Hunter gatherer societies have mechanisms which prevent the emergence of inequality and greedy tyrants”, which is exactly right, but I think this supports my position better than his. These societies need to contrive explicit mechanisms to prevent status differentiation, precisely because humans, while intrinsically social, are not intrinsically collectivist – and hunter gatherer peoples are keenly aware of the problems that arise if they don’t take active steps to stop would-be big men from taking hold. Truly collectivist species – ants, for example – have no need to invent mechanisms that keep their individual members in line.

When I was on a panel a while back with a prominent US farmer involved in a cooperative farm, I asked her if she’d learned any lessons about how to run such a cooperative enterprise successfully. As I recall, she pulled a face and said something along the lines that the more people you work with, the more arguments and obstacles you face. As someone who’s a member of various co-ops myself, I recognized the pain in her face, though I also recognize that co-ops can still be a good idea. She imputed the problems to the selfishness of the modern capitalist societies we live in, but for the reasons I’ve mentioned above I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

So, in summary, I disagree with Ted that selfishness, self-aggrandizement and status conflict won’t be problems in renewable future societies. They’re a problem in every human society. But on the upside, as his example of hunter gatherer societies suggests, this isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem in creating functional egalitarian societies. Indeed, clever societies find ways to make use of people’s status-climbing energies while preventing them from becoming destructive.

Nevertheless, status conflict does need careful attention and management. Cooperatives whose members claim to get along perfectly with no need for conflict resolution are usually riven with implicit tensions that quickly tear them apart – often enough even ones that claim to be based on the collectivist wisdom of older or non-capitalist societies. I think there’s a wider lesson there for the cooperative societies of the future.

9. We need to talk about ‘the family’ part of ‘the small family farm’. I’m not going to do it here, because this essay is long enough already and because to some extent I’ve already done it here and here. But, as with status contest, there’s a need to acknowledge that family relationships are and will likely continue to be a critical part of life, and wise societies try to make the best of their positives while mitigating their negatives.

I think there’s a failure of left-wing or ‘progressive’ thought on this issue that allows the right to run riot with the concept of the family. Many people on the left that I know devote enormous attention to parental, sibling and spousal relationships in their personal lives and yet are scornful of family relationships in their writing and politics.

In his A People’s Green New Deal Max Ajl calls for agrarian reform to break large farms “into units which can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives”, and again talks elsewhere of the need for small plots workable by “non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117 and p.144). He doesn’t expand on these sensible suggestions (and Kai Heron doesn’t press him on them in his interview with Max, despite the strictures against family farming he expresses in his critique of me). Fair enough, maybe – but it does leave some questions open about the shape of family farming in the futures they envisage. Ultimately, analysis of the ‘family’ part of the ‘small family farm’ is necessary, because it’s not going to go away.

10. We also need to talk about states and publics. Again, I won’t say much about this here for brevity and because I’ll be writing about it in future essays. But just briefly, Ted says that I suggest certain problems might “have to be dealt with by “public” means, without detailing how”. This seems a bit harsh, given that I devote some attention in my book to the concept of the public sphere, to civic republican politics and to the concept of the supersedure state. Ted himself talks of “formal arrangements for dealing with problems individually or publicly” – also without detailing how! Regarding Heffron and Heron, he writes that they “do not make clear what they would want but it would seem that the core Marxist principle of eliminating private ownership of the means of production would lead them to advocate state ownership of the farming sector.”

Heffron has certainly advocated for the nationalisation of landownership, so that sounds about right. Personally, I’m not so keen to hand Boris Johnson the keys to my farm, but I doubt Heffron really favours that either. The way Marxist theories of the state generally get around this is to imagine that a working-class revolution will occur in which the state becomes the servant of an uncorrupted people’s will. Right-wing or cultural nationalists also think the state serves an uncorrupted people’s will, but of a different kind and genesis. Ted seems to think something similar, albeit again with a different framing.

I don’t share this viewpoint, and I’m extremely wary of any approach to the state that sees it as a positive manifestation of some unfolding political good. As I see it, supervening political authority is a contrivance and an unfortunate necessity that’s always likely to fail in various potentially unpleasant ways. But it’s not inevitably fated to fail everywhere and at all times. On that slim possibility, I hang my hopes. Such hopes, however, can only ever be realised in practice, by people figuring out the politics in the lived reality of their daily lives. They can’t be written down as a blueprint in a book. In that sense, I could never “detail how” republics can sort out political problems, however many words I’m allowed. Therefore I can’t honestly apologise for not trying.

Pig apples: or, why small farmsteads are efficient and effective

Nearly twenty years ago, we planted seven acres of woodland on our holding with help from a government grant that stipulated the trees must be native woodland varieties. Among the ones we chose were crab apples, which we planted along the rides and woodland edges because of their growth habit, sourcing the saplings from a nursery specializing in native woodland trees.

As the trees developed, it became clear they weren’t just ordinary crabs – I guess they’d crossed with cultivated varieties to produce large, juicy, dessert-apple type fruits. The fruits were still pretty unappealing to the human palate but not so, I discovered, to the porcine one. Over the years, our pigs have been happy to chow down on them without limit. In the last month or two of their lives, the two pigs I raised this year ate little else.

But since the apple trees are spread around the holding along the rides and it’s not really practicable to let the pigs range at large, this bounty involves us picking or collecting most of the apples for them. Recently, I’ve been going out at least a couple of times every day with a large trug, filling it with the not-quite-crabs, and taking it to the pig enclosure. After a while, a distinctive apple browse line developed on the trees at my 5’10” plus an arm length height. From then on, I contrived various tricks – jumping for apples, shaking them off the high boughs or pulling the branches down with my shepherd’s crook. When my son and his girlfriend visited, she sat on his shoulders and threw apples down from on high, one at a time into the trug.

The pigs went to slaughter this week, and I’m already missing my daily apple-wrangling walks, zinging arms from the nettled brush around the trees included. As rather occasional meat-eaters, the two pigs should keep my wife and I ticking over with chops and sausages for quite some time. As I mentioned in A Small Farm Future (pp.190-1), I think the relatively free-ranging woodland lifestyle of my pigs along with their mixed diet of mostly fresh wholefoods like the crab apples gives their meat a quality you’re unlikely to find in any store-bought pork. But if I were raising pigs commercially and trying to earn a living wage, you can be sure there wouldn’t be much jumping for crab apples in my business model.

There are four wider points I want to draw out from all this.

First, within every human ecology – including every farm – there is almost always some extra bounty available that can increase the flow of food or fibre, but it will probably require additional inputs, often human labour. True, we might have saved ourselves work had we planted the crabs in the pig enclosure from the outset, although we couldn’t have known in advance how bountiful they would prove, and they do other work where they’re sited. Plus, there’s other forage for the pigs in their enclosure – with pigs, the fodder footprint invariably exceeds the fencing one.

Someone cleverer than me might be able to calculate an energy return on investment figure or a kind of counterfactual trophic analysis. If we left the apples, let the birds, rodents, insects or microbes eat them, and fed the pigs on something else, how might the balance of labour input and food output on the farm look then? In the absence of such data, I’d suggest that given the excrement from the pigs who eat the apples and from the people who eat the pigs stays on the farm, and given the improvement in the mental and physical health of the farmer and his family gained from their apple walks, it’s a fair bet that collecting up the crabs brings a positive return. So, whatever the ins and outs of our crab apple story, I think the broader point remains. There is bounty on the farm, but you have to work for it. Those who espouse ‘land sparing’ or ‘intensive’ agriculture will hopefully agree that the labour intensification on my farm enabling me to substitute apples for fodder grown on cropland elsewhere is a good illustration of their point.

But – and this is my second point – while it’s feasible to wander around a smallholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two pigs, it probably isn’t feasible to wander around a largeholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two hundred or two thousand pigs. So there are diseconomies of large scale to the ecological efficiency of the farm’s unbidden bounty.

Still – third point – this kind of ecological efficiency or land-sparing intensification is costly in terms of human labour time, and we seem deeply opposed to labour intensification in modern life, particularly when it relates to farming. Almost uniquely among the sectors of the labour market, in modern times we celebrate when jobs are lost from agriculture, not gained.

The main reason for this is that it’s easier to generate a larger hourly wage in other sectors, and nowadays we tell ourselves a story that a larger wage equates to larger happiness. No doubt there’s some truth in that, although as the fossil-fuelled growth engines of the global industrial economy palpably begin to splutter, it seems destined to be less true of the immediate future than it’s been of the immediate past. But besides all that, it is to a large degree just a story that we tell ourselves. I’m all in favour of the occasional, quietly contemplative, hands-in-pockets country walk but, well, walking the known routes of my farm, trug in hand, to collect apples to feed the pigs to feed me is ultimately more meaningful, and more fun.

Modern society has built a vast cultural edifice of anti pastoral, anti ‘romantic’, pro urbanist myth-making to negate the idea that the rural smallholding life is a meaningful one. Well, I concede that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But plenty of people already see through these myths, and their numbers are only likely to grow as it dawns quite how unappealing the alternative brews on offer increasingly are. How people choose to live and what they value are not fixed on tablets of stone, but respond to the circumstances they experience and the stories they’re told. Both are changing.

Walking around a holding with a trug choosing the right crab apples to deliver to the pigs can be spiritually rewarding, but it’s not especially taxing intellectually or physically. Even so, it’s a task that’s currently beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated of robots. But consider this thought experiment. Suppose a renewably-powered robot is invented that can achieve this task as precisely as you, at a price that you can afford by selling a few joints of pork or other smallholding products. This seems to me an unlikely happenstance, but just suppose. What would you then do? Possibly, you could tend the robot that tended you, but it’s unlikely. With a bit of instruction, most of us can learn how to keep a basic heat engine of the kind you find in an old tractor more or less ticking along, but the engineering involved in such a robot would be quite beyond us.

With this robot, I think we would have created a simulacrum of ourselves that would steal meaning from our lives, while possessing none of its own. And we would mooch around our smallholdings, hands in pockets, envying our busy robots. Or more likely mooch around our urban parks, wondering at the meaning of life and whether this is really all there is.

Or we could forget about labour-saving robots and just go out and pick some freaking apples. Then in our spare time, we could do things like writing blog posts enthusing about the job-creating possibilities of the smallholding life. Or pamphlets anyway.

But, and here I come to my fourth and final point, this latter possibility comes with a necessary precondition. We can only realistically do this if we can exercise substantially autonomous choice over our livelihood-generating and self-provisioning strategies. We can’t do it if we’re under external pressure to raise our output levels and lower our input costs. In other words, we probably can’t do it if we’re under consistent pressure from market or state forces to improve our economic ‘efficiency’ – and, by that token, probably diminish our ecological efficiency. Which is to say that we probably can’t do it unless we have strong proprietorial rights over our smallholdings.

And this brings us to the question of tenure and property rights, which I will be examining in my next few posts.

Insulate Britain: Notes from Back Home

My recent silence on this site is due to the Insulate Britain campaign. I haven’t been involved in it directly, but various friends and loved ones have, including my dear wife. So over the last couple of weeks I’ve not only been trying (not very successfully) to step up into the large hole my wife has left in the work of the farm and the household, but also wrestling mentally and emotionally with numerous issues thrown up by the campaign and events associated with it. In this post I’m again going to break out of my present blog cycle and offer some perspectives on all this. The campaign is ongoing and my head is still in turmoil, so what I offer here is raw in more than one sense.

First, a summary of the campaign. The main idea has been to stop traffic at several points on Britain’s busiest motorway, the M25 London orbital, with activists standing or sitting across the carriageway. If they’re arrested and removed by the police, the idea is to return to the motorway and blockade it again once released until the Government starts addressing their demands. If they’re remanded in custody, the idea is that new activists take their place and blockade again. And so on. Their demands, in a nutshell, are for the Government to take action to insulate all social housing in Britain by 2025 and all other housing by 2030. The logic is that this is among the easiest of ways to deliver decarbonization, and one to which the Government has already substantially committed but failed to follow through. Also that it’s socially progressive in tackling fuel poverty and the annual deaths caused by cold and unheated housing, and that it will create new green jobs.

I think it would be fair to say that the campaign hasn’t been universally popular. Originally, I’d planned to write a post that worked its way critically through the various objections to it, but I’m no longer inclined to do this for reasons I’ll recount below. I do, however, want to address a couple of the objections because there are responses to them that deserve a wider airing.

The first is the oft-repeated point that if climate change activists in the UK really want to make a difference they should go to China and lobby the government there. There are many possible counterarguments to this, but there’s one that’s especially relevant at this particular moment in history. UK activists don’t need to go to China right now, because ‘China’ will soon be coming to the UK to attend the COP26 international climate change conference. What will the Chinese delegation make of attempts by the government of the host country – one of the richest in the world, and one whose per capita consumption CO2 emissions are nearly 30% higher than China’s at present – to pressurize it to take more action on climate change when that government lags even on its own commitments to elementary emissions-reduction measures? If there’s a good time to block the M25 and demand action on insulation, this is it.

The second point is more generic. In falling over themselves to find reasons to condemn the campaign, the press and the legions of keyboard warriors on social media have tried on for size any number of stories of individual people harmed by the campaign in their journeys, and of the alleged hypocrisy of prominent activists in failing somehow or other to practice what they preach. Some of these stories have already proven spurious, while others are no doubt genuine.

But this illustrates the very problem with climate change action. I suspect there’s some Palaeolithic wiring in the human brain that makes us excel at empathizing with specific people and their stories grounded in the here and now, and makes us excel equally at taking people down a peg or two at the merest hint of airs and graces. Sadly, we’re not so good at imagining the narratives that will flow from larger statistical trends, pooled outcomes or probability distributions. The person who didn’t make it to their hospital appointment invites outraged sympathy. The possibility that on current emissions trends there may not be any hospitals to go to a few decades hence doesn’t make it through our narrative filters. Nor do the unnamed many who die each year in their homes with cold, as compared to the vociferous few filling column inches with anger.

That may change. Perhaps Insulate Britain and the numerous other people and organizations raising the alarm over climate change will erode those narrative filters and make the drastic actions on climate change that are necessary feasible. But I’m not seeing evidence for this currently, and we don’t have much time. So a sombre learning for me arising from the campaign – as if, secretly, I didn’t know it well enough already – is that there’s a level of public indifference to the climate emergency, a level of commitment to the status quo, that makes it hard to see how we’ll turn things around in time to escape catastrophe.

Maybe Insulate Britain can be viewed in this respect as the mirror image of the capitalist corporation. The corporation manipulates people by giving them something they want (like an internet connection or a water supply), while its true purpose is to use that convenience to extract value from people and put it in the hands of a few shareholders, where its concentrated power causes untold damage in the wider world. Insulate Britain, on the other hand, manipulates people by giving them something they don’t want (traffic jams), while its true purpose is to use that inconvenience to generate wellbeing for the population at large and spread collective benefit across society.

And yet the public seems to prefer being manipulated by corporations rather than climate pressure groups. True, headlines about ‘the hated mob of eco-anarchists’ are probably more a construction of media moguls representing said corporations than an accurate barometer of public opinion. When the stories of the individual activists emerge – so many of them older women who have given selflessly of themselves throughout their lives to their communities, churches, families and wider society – we might get a better sense of who the true ‘mob’ are and of what kind of voices are most worth listening to in society. Nevertheless, I fear that when the dust has settled and all is said and done, too many people will still oppose the disruption of the protest more than the far greater disruption worked by climate capitalism in ways that will ultimately redound to our collective ruin.

Indeed, there’s another sombre learning here in relation to policing issues. My sources inform me that Insulate Britain’s actions have by and large been policed well and with proportionate force by most of the officers in attendance, although if there ever is a day of climate judgement I believe that Officer No.3032 – aka The Slasher – will be destined for a warm place somewhere down below. But press and public calls for violent ‘zero tolerance’ policing or vigilante counter-action play into the hands of a generalized authoritarianism.

The lesson, I think, is to be careful what you wish for. If you’re successful in your call for greater police power to meet eco-protest with violence, then don’t be surprised if those same powers are used against you in the future, perhaps when you’re protesting at the lack of food or fuel in the shops. Indeed, the current fuel and food supply crisis – caused not by protestors, but by government policies or the lack of them – has already caused far more disruption than Insulate Britain. There is now a palpable air of government failure and the need for citizenries to step up, of the kind I discussed in A Small Farm Future. Wishing for greater physical force in the hands of governments against their citizenries isn’t a smart move in these circumstances.

While all this has been going on and my wife has been away, I’ve been at home, trying to tend the farm and the household as best I can in her absence. I’ve picked apples, made kraut, baked bread, fed the pigs and made porridge for my daughter in the morning before she’s gone to school. And as I did it, a man keeping the fires burning at home while his wife was out fighting for justice, I sometimes raised two mental fingers to the analysts who’ve accused me of advocating for ‘patriarchal’ farming models. Which perhaps is to say that I did it with too much male pride and with too little genuine love. An ego yearning to be heard elsewhere, in protest or in print. Another learning.

The nature of Insulate Britain’s campaign has of necessity been clandestine. I’ve found it difficult not being able to contact my wife, having to find out what she’s up to by following the national news, worrying about the dangers she’s exposed to – perhaps worrying overly, when the lack of news fills the darker spaces of the mind. And I haven’t supported every one of Insulate Britain’s actions, or its messaging. An action where protestors fanned dangerously across the motorway among relatively fast-moving traffic, and failed to own the error, was a particular low point for me. At such times, I’ve felt that Insulate Britain has lost the plot and has got too wrapped up in its own dramatic narrative. But for sure I’ve lost the plot myself at times in the last few weeks.

One reason I’ve lost the plot is that somehow the campaign has prompted me to feel climate change not so much any more as an issue I analyze from my study but as a knot in my stomach, a clenching in my heart. More than ever, I’ve experienced climate change as a grief that’s perturbed my normal mental functioning. And I’ve found it hard bearing that at home alone – in some ways perhaps a harder burden even than the activists working together at the sharp end – though I’ve been fortunate to have friends to share it with. It’s led me to question some of the ways I use my time and my writing, the online debates I engage with and the kind of intellectual arguments I get involved with. There are going to be people denying the existence of climate change or saying that we should redress it with next-generation nuclear energy or working-class revolutionary struggle until the waves close over their heads. I think I need to leave all that behind, resign from those arguments and find ways of embracing emotionally and practically the different course that so far I’ve only charted sketchily through the written word.

Household farming and the F word

In my last couple of posts I made the case that, whether we like it or not, there’s a good chance the future for a lot of people is going to involve small-scale farming geared primarily to provisioning their own household. It seems a necessary step from there to say something about the composition of these small farm households, which I did in Chapter 12 of my book A Small Farm Future and with some further, somewhat modified, thoughts about it in this more recent article. Here I’ll provide a brief synopsis.

My starting point is that I really don’t care how people choose to organize their households, either now or in a small farm future. Given the challenges we presently face, I think it’s necessary for us to project forward and think about how to arrange congenial, low-energy, low-capital, job-rich small farm futures. When I do that I find it hard to escape the conclusion that there are going to be a lot of households oriented to self-limiting need satisfaction, but I see no need to take a strong view about their exact composition. This could and probably will encompass smaller or larger intentional communities, religious communities, groups of friends, restricted or larger family groupings and couples – gay, straight or whatever else. I’ve taken it upon myself to project a small farm future, not to produce some social blueprint of appropriate living arrangements as determined by myself.

Nevertheless, when we look at societies of the past and present, certain patterns of relationships and certain kinds of social tensions within households are discernible, and it seems to me worth forearming ourselves with this knowledge as we contemplate a small farm future. Here are some of those patterns and tensions:

  • Households comprising many disparate individuals as voluntary joiners. Actually, this is not a common form historically, though it seems to be held as an ideal in certain quarters today. One of the problems with it is that such households easily disintegrate (easy come, easy go) unless a great deal of attention is paid to maintaining intra-household relationships, which is costly in time. I’ll say more about this a couple of posts down the line.
  • Large collective households of individuals united by religious commitment. These are somewhat less likely to disintegrate. They often have a hierarchical structure creating barriers to dissolution.
  • Large kin-based collectivities which place strong emphasis on the importance of family ‘name’, ancestors, inheritance and/or control of property. These are likely to be intolerant of individual members who transgress these boundaries, with the burden of this falling disproportionately on women.
  • Small, kin-based household units, often comprising no more than an adult female and male and their related children. These are found quite commonly worldwide throughout history, and are not merely some modern ‘bourgeois’ invention. Nevertheless, there’s much variation around this form, both within and between societies, and it’s invariably linked to wider kin structures.
  • In situations where people work together or live together, and yet more in situations where people live and work together, there is potential for repression and violence – economic, emotional, physical or sexual. There is also potential for deep, enriching connection. The potential for repression and violence can operate across many different human dimensions. Gender is a critically important one.
  • Generational succession – the handing on of skills, entitlements and capital endowments such as land – is another critically important issue that household organization ultimately must address itself to.

In my book and my subsequent article I trace a few of the implications of these points. I made something of a distinction in the book between kin and non-kin households, but I’ve come to question its usefulness. In his book What Kinship Is…And Is Not, Marshall Sahlins (that man again…) distances culturally-defined kinship from notions of biological relatedness, emphasizing that kinsfolk are people who participate intrinsically in each other’s existence. Usually there are radiating webs or skeins of kinship that organize local social space into a grid of relatedness and mutuality. So ultimately – and especially in local, low-capital, small farm societies – I suspect community, household, farmstead and kin relations will substantially intersect. If they don’t already do so, people will invent new kin metaphors pushing in that direction. Your kin are the people you live and work with. The people you live and work with are your kin. Perhaps it’s no accident that people in those stable religious communities I mentioned earlier commonly refer to other members as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, or sometimes as ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’.

My basic argument is that, like it or not, substantially kin-based household farming societies will probably emerge in the future, and in situations with limited capital and energy, it will be harder for their members to escape them, which makes the potential for repression and violence within them graver. So I’ve devoted some discussion in my writing to how to mitigate that unhappy outcome. I’m not going to go over that ground again here, though I will say a bit more about some aspects of it in an upcoming post. In any case, we’ve already touched on the issues quite a bit in recent discussions on this blog. As mentioned therein, probably the key to mitigating oppressive household situations is making it both acceptable and possible for people to quit such situations and choose to join other households. But this isn’t so easy to arrange in local agrarian societies lacking the abundance of capital and institutional flexibility of urban-modernist society – which makes it all the more important to focus on the issue. Suffice to say that my writing has not magically solved the problems of household violence, gender oppression or patriarchy. And nor has anyone else’s. But there have been many mobilizations and activisms in numerous societies over time that have changed the name of the game, and the challenge will be to build on them in the future.

It would be interesting to debate these issues constructively, but few reviewers of my book have engaged with this gender and kinship aspect of it. The exception is Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s dismayingly doctrinaire Marxist critique, where they represent my position as pro-patriarchal – by some distance the most absurd of several travesties of my actual arguments they offer. I have no interest in working through their misconceptions, but some interest in the wider politics of their position and its contraries which I discuss a little in my article in The Land. Basically, I think there’s an overinvestment on the political right in a particular conception of ‘the’ family as a patriarchal and heteronormative ideal which seriously underrepresents the diversity of what ‘families’ are, and an almost mirror image underinvestment on the political left that reduces kin relations to the deprecated category of ‘the’ patriarchal family, which also seriously underrepresents what ‘families’ are.

To dwell for a moment on this latter point, kin relations seem to be the social structure that dares not speak its name within certain sections of the left. On his Twitter page, the first word Alex Heffron uses to describe himself is ‘father’. And on social media, I’ve been told, his operation has been described as a ‘family farm’. And yet his review seems to disavow any kin dimension to agrarian politics. I don’t understand this chameleonic shuffling of social and political contexts – a key identifier in one moment, a dangerous irrelevance in another. Other leftist writers I’ve read recently aren’t quite so stark, but nevertheless invoke family relations quite unproblematically in unguarded moments while turning up the scorn when their analytic guns are loaded. Meanwhile, elements of the avant-garde left herald the demise of all constraints of biological sex, gender identification or any human relationships troublesome to individual self-creation.

While I appreciate the desire here to escape conservative narratives that arrogate to themselves the right to determine what ‘the’ family is, I think the inability to treat extant kin relations as an enduringly serious aspect of social organization that demands positive analysis rather than simple censure will increasingly render much of this kind of thinking irrelevant to the political challenges of present times. Modernist society in both its capitalist and communist guises made strenuous efforts to destroy or abolish kin-based social organization during the 20th century when the odds were stacked more in its favour, and signally failed. I think it’s better now to acknowledge that kin relations sensu Sahlins are here to stay – indeed perhaps to amplify – and work to mitigate their downsides, without neglecting their benefits. I’ll say more about that work of mitigation in a forthcoming post.

Our household farming future

Back to the blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future with a little more about household-based farming.

A couple of posts back Greg Reynolds suggested I might write some short declarative sentences about my case for household farming, which struck me as a good idea. So here’s my best shot at it.

  • To reiterate my basic position, I think we face a future of high climate, water and land/soil stress, lower energy and capital availability, and socioeconomic/political turbulence and contraction. In these circumstances, I think farm societies will emerge that are strongly based on smallholder households devoting much or most of their attention to the intensive cultivation of small land areas for meeting their own food and fibre needs.
  • This is not my vision of an ideal society – it’s just what I think a feasible human ecology will look like in probable future circumstances. As I see it, there could be better or worse kinds of household farm society, and in future posts I’ll discuss some of the possibilities for creating better ones within the framework of what I’ve called ‘least worst politics’ – in other words, how people can try to make the best of the challenging circumstances to come. But I’m not going to get into that here. In this post, I’m just going to lay out why I think we’ll see household farm societies in the future.
  • Where there are global commodity chains supported by cheap energy and cheap capital, producers tend to concentrate on a handful of highly processable and transportable crops (mostly cereals, grain legumes and oil crops). This enables them to maintain profitability through seeking economies of large scale (large farms with few workers and a lot of energy and capital-intensive infrastructure). Where the writ of these commodity chains doesn’t (any longer) run and/or where energy/capital are not cheap, producers tend to concentrate on a wide range of food and fibre crops that can provide a full and agreeable diet and other household necessities (clothes, constructional materials, medicines) locally. In doing so, they optimise on per area and per water yield through economies of small scale (small farms with many workers and with low energy and capital inputs). Relative prices of processing, transport, labour and energy are such that the optimal customers for this produce are the people who produced it, ie. the household, with other local households second in line – except that they in turn will be incentivized to produce for themselves. So in this situation, household-based production will likely predominate.
  • In this latter situation, money will be harder to come by and market/retail commodities more expensive. People will try to limit market expenditures to things they really need and can’t easily produce for themselves. As I recall back-to-the-land guru John Seymour putting it somewhere, in self-reliant rural communities money is too scarce for people to waste on things like food and clothes they can produce themselves for nothing. So more non-monetary household resources (especially time, learned skills and land) will be devoted to producing these things.
  • In the future, there will probably be a lot of population movement towards and therefore population pressure upon areas where the combination of climate, soils and water makes them propitious for growing food crops. Such a view is often dismissed as ‘Malthusian’, but as I show in my book (pp.17-21) and as other people like Giorgos Kallis (Limits, Stanford 2019) have also shown, it really isn’t. Whatever the label, regrettably I think it’s unlikely that this re-sorting of the global population will be achieved without lethal human conflicts, but barring the distinct possibilities of really disastrous climate change or nuclear conflict it should ultimately be possible to feed the redistributed global population adequately, or even well. Analysis of diverse situations worldwide, including premodern/precolonial ones, suggests that the dominant form of human ecological adaptation to situations of continuous cultivation on scarce land is small household-based production predominantly for own use, notwithstanding endless local variations on exactly how this manifests in practice (aside from my A Small Farm Future see, for example: Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, 1965; Bray, The Rice Economies, 1986; Netting, Smallholders, Householders, 1993; van der Ploeg, Peasants and the Art of Farming, 2013).
  • With heavy pressure on land, local agricultures outside the humid tropics (if indeed these stay humid and habitable long-term) will have to place considerable emphasis on producing nutrient-dense crops for direct human consumption, with perennial crops and livestock as supplementary. Historically, farming situations of this sort have lent themselves to small household-based forms of organisation, and it seems likely the same will be true in the future.
  • There are economies of small scale in farm societies where availability of land, capital and energy are limiting factors. There are economies of large scale where these are not limiting factors. But prospects in most places point towards the former. Some people shrink from the idea of household-based farming, and prefer to think in terms of more collective or cooperative larger-scale farming. In many ways this is a false dichotomy, because cooperative structures are baked into any feasible farm society. Nevertheless, the day-to-day reality of most farms will probably be based around households or ‘hearths’, usually quite small in size – a point I’ll further explain in future posts. To argue contrariwise, it would probably be necessary to show that there are diseconomies of scale to small household-based farming as compared to larger scale cooperative farming under situations of land, capital and energy scarcity. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
  • In the longer term, these changes will probably be accompanied by changes in political ideologies which, especially with fresh historical memories of the disasters of modernity and global capitalism, might emphasize things like local self-regulation (ecological and political), frugality, personal-livelihood-within-community and a cautious approach to merchants, credit and financial connectors, which will reinforce commitments to household-based farming.
  • Nevertheless, the difficulties and contradictions involved in simultaneously being an individual person and also a member of a household, a family and a wider community are unlikely to disappear.
  • Distinctions between home gardening, homesteading/smallholding and ‘proper’ farming will probably be more fluid in household farming societies of the future. The idea of providing for yourself and your household, of being involved in food production at some level, will be a norm – there will be more producerism and less consumerism. People will also take local community provisioning and service to community seriously, more seriously than they generally do today, but a good deal of that will be filtered through ideas of community as an enabler of individual and household capabilities.

What I haven’t addressed here is the nature of the households doing the household farming and their internal structure. But there’s always the next post…

Climate justice and a community of communities

After a rather academic post last time, here I’m going to interleave a more activist one.

I’d been planning to write more about household farming but I’ve been on a brief odyssey away from home which terminated with a visit to XR’s Impossible Rebellion in London – and which also terminated on my part with a night in a police cell. The officers arresting me contrived to yank my shirt off me as they carried me away, before dumping me on the pavement to nurse a few minor cuts and bruises while I unwittingly treated the photographers in attendance to the sight of my somewhat over-capacious middle-aged belly. Dignified it was not, but I’m hoping that if anyone links the scenes back to this blog, they’ll take it as proof positive of the excellent diet available in a small farm future 🙂

To be honest, I’m still a bit too wired after my arrest to settle down and write the intended post about household farming and I’m feeling the need to process recent events a little more. So instead, just a few thoughts prompted by my London trip.

The day began with a rally in Trafalgar Square where a Haitian activist spoke about his country’s founding in anti-slavery revolt and taught us a song from those times whose words, as I recall, were along the lines that there are no mothers or fathers here, only warriors, and we will avenge those of us who are slain. I don’t think I was the only white middle-class person there to shuffle my feet nervously as we sang along, thinking first of all “whoa, not sure I’d quite signed up to that” while also contemplating the unimaginable courage of the Haitian revolutionaries and many others fighting colonial violence orders of magnitude beyond anything in our experience.

But this isn’t some historical beauty contest. It’s about building alliances to achieve political aims now. XR has received quite a bit of criticism since its founding for its alliance-building failures, for its whiteness and middle-classness. So I for one was pleased to hear the voices of many black and minority ethnic people and others in the forefront of oppression throughout the day who were engaging with XR. But inevitably, upon coming home and taking another sip of Twitter poison, I’ve found endless screeds fulminating against XR on all sorts of grounds, not least its need to engage and mobilise black, minority ethnic and working-class activism, and sometimes for the very fact that its activists are ‘middle-class’, as if this is intrinsically disreputable.

I find myself increasingly unimpressed by this onslaught – the bad faith of it from the political right announces itself from miles away, but the bad faith of ‘progressive’ voices more concerned to build paper hierarchies of activist entitlement than practical coalitions of political engagement runs it a close second. As I see it, there’s a contradiction within much leftist thought between a view of oppressed people as the natural aristocracy of anti-systemic politics and a view of the non-oppressed as having some special responsibility to channel the activism of the oppressed. Often enough, whichever of these contradictory strands best diminishes middle-class activism in the case at hand is chosen – perhaps a successful strategy for promoting whatever version of political authenticity the writer wishes to burnish, but not so much for promoting actual anti-systemic politics.

Enough of this. I recently argued that nobody is more or less real than anyone else. True, certain identities and experiences of oppression give people unique insights into the modes and methods of political exclusion. What’s less convincing is to proceed from that to the grand Hegelian step that these insights uniquely ground possibilities for overcoming the political status quo.

In my brief time with XR in London I saw a lot of people from many different social positionings interacting with each other around climate activism – a community of communities seeking common ground. In that sense, I think I saw briefly in outline a version of the populist civic politics that I advocate in my book A Small Farm Future. People who weren’t burying or superseding their positionings or differences but building out from them to other people and figuring out how to ground a new politics out of those interactions.

Doing so in the context of a short-lived street protest is one thing. Doing it in the slower-burning and under-emphasized context of ongoing local XR group activism is harder. Much, much harder still is to do it in the context of building resilient local farm communities in a world where our deepest assumptions about how societies work materially are melting from the ground up. The only thing that might make this easier is its increasing necessity.

The window of opportunity for people to drive that process rather than be unwittingly driven by it is closing fast. With AR6 just out, COP26 drawing global attention to the UK, the government’s next phase in criminalizing protest not yet on the statute book, and with oppressive policing in the UK currently less severe than in most countries in the world, at least for people like me, when I was in London I felt that the onus on me and others like me is high at this particular historical moment to raise our voices around climate change and climate justice as best we can.

There are any number of ways one might do that, of which arrestable action at XR protests is only one. But I’ve run out of sympathy with those who think it’s a good use of their own time to argue that arrestable action at XR protests isn’t one.

More than a few on the left like to dismiss XR by recourse to nothing more than an infamous tweet from the organization repudiating identification with socialism or any other given political creed. The tweet was naively phrased, though I think there may be a populist/civic politics implicit in it that’s eminently defensible. Anyway, I’m kinda tired of this notion that there’s a singular left politics with the only true structural grasp of the forces underlying climate change, an ability to mitigate it and a more plausible political route for implementation than the one that XR is trying. I don’t buy the theory, I don’t buy the empirical politics, in Britain or most other places, and I think it smells too much of sour grapes and self-righteousness. It’s time instead to use our small quanta of individual and collective political power with a bit more humility and uncertainty. But with a conviction to use it all the same.

Renegade projections and the domestic mode of production: for Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

I keep writing prefatory posts before wading into the content from Parts III and IV of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle, for which apologies. I promise this will be the last before I get down to business, although I do believe a little business is transacted below. Anyway, this means I’m going to hold off further discussion of Max Ajl’s important book left over from my last post for the time being.

In this post I want to talk about another writer, and relate his work to the question of a small farm future. The man in question is Marshall Sahlins, among the most distinguished of anthropologists from the latter part of the 20th century, who I only recently realized had died earlier this year.

There’s a small personal backstory to this. Many years ago, Sahlins offered me the opportunity to do a doctorate with him at the University of Chicago. A callow undergraduate, I was almost quaking as I entered his office during my visit to that august institution, like a member of some low-ranking lineage making offerings at the holy shrine of a fearsome ancestor. I guess David Graeber would have been among my cohort had I gone there, just a few years ahead of me, though of course I had no idea at the time who he was. But something about Chicago’s serried streets, the palpable misery of the graduate students and the tribal warfare within the anthropology department put me off. Or maybe it was more my own imposter syndrome at the thought of dwelling among such gods. In any case, Sahlins kindly wrote to me after I’d spurned his offer, wishing me “good luck and good anthropology”.

Well, I feel I’ve had a lot of good luck in my life so far. As to the anthropology, I want to mention Sahlins’s classic book Stone Age Economics, first published in 1972. This has been a touchstone work for me, and every few years I’ve re-read most of it. I went back to it again some weeks ago, but too many pages in my old copy were falling out, and the rest were so laden with penciled annotations from years of reading and re-reading that there was no space to scribe my latest thoughts. So I bought a new copy. The 2017 Routledge edition comes with an introduction from David Graeber, and a cover photo of two elegant stone-age blades – a marked contrast to the original edition’s picture of a dusty and sombre-looking group from the dubiously provenanced Tasaday people, squatting rather miserably in a cave.

Symbolically, the photos represent changing views of ‘primitive’, ‘indigenous’ or foraging peoples that this very book played no small part in effecting. By far the most famous essay in its pages – one of the best-known of all anthropology essays outside the discipline itself – is the first one, ‘The Original Affluent Society’, in which Sahlins goes to some lengths to show that far from living lives of endless misery and toil, as modernist ideologies often proclaim, foraging societies were lightly encumbered with labour compared to large-scale agricultural societies, with plenty of time for leisure and good living.

This argument is such a commonplace today that inevitably the pendulum has started to swing the other way, and various critiques of Sahlins’s thesis have appeared. Whatever. For me, the next three essays in the book, two concerning what Sahlins calls the ‘domestic mode of production’ and then his spellbinding essay on ‘The Spirit of the Gift’, are much the most important ones in the collection. I’ll talk about the gift essay in another post. Here I’ll restrict myself to some remarks about his two essays on the domestic mode of production.

As I (re-)read these essays recently, I was shocked to notice how unconsciously indebted I was to them for some of my arguments in A Small Farm Future. Strange, considering how often I’d read them. Perhaps they’d become so familiar I’d unthinkingly adopted them as my own. Ironically, it seems that the ‘good anthropology’ Sahlins wished for me all those years ago may have manifested largely in me reinscribing for contemporary political purposes some of his own insights about societies supposedly left behind by modernity. I only hope my act of ancestor worship has some modern efficacy.

And so: the domestic mode of production. ‘Mode of production’ is a concept especially associated with Marxist thought, and in his foreword David Graeber says that these essays were “the closest Sahlins ever came to an experiment with Marxist models” (p.xiv). In truth, he didn’t come that close. Which suits me fine – as I see it, Marx is another ancestor who deserve some honour, but no cultish devotion. And on that point, just to say that the only person who responded to my question last time as to whether I should engage with Alex Heffron’s and Kai Heron’s highly charged Marxist attack on my book was one K. Heron, who, to paraphrase, thought not. Yet some of their points in that review are a useful foil to arguments I wish to make, so I will refer to them in passing nonetheless in this and future posts.

Sahlins’s argument about the domestic mode of production is that in so-called ‘primitive’ societies there is a deep structural orientation to production for the needs of the household, which is usually a small unit of closely related kin. Neither ‘the economy’ nor ‘work’ are alienated from the daily practice of household members: the ‘economic’ is a “modality of the intimate” and the disposition and allocation of labour are “in the main domestic decisions…taken primarily with a view toward domestic contentment” (p.69). The household is oriented to meeting its own socially defined needs. There is no inherent tendency to the amplification of production or the accumulation of wealth. It’s precisely these features of household production, together with the immediate feedback the household gets about the ecological consequences of its self-provisioning, that to my mind make it a plausible vehicle for renewable future societies.

I discuss this idea at various points in my book, including on page 267 where I frame it within a populist imaginary of “the ideal citizen…[spending] a good part of their day striving for flourishing and livelihood. The next day, they do the same again, probably in the same way. There’s no higher political purpose”.

Heffron and Heron singled out this passage for some scorn, albeit by hedging it with all sorts of accusations of patriarchy, monotony, debt and market dependence which are not intrinsic to it. But I will take my stand on it. Better a domestic mode of production than Stakhanovite self-exploitation, statist expropriation or implausible, future-obsessed utopias of collective overcoming.

Nevertheless, Sahlins himself speaks rather dimly of this domestic mode – its orientation to mere self-satiation threatening dangerous undershoot, its orientation to itself threatening dangerous social conflict. He makes the point that while households in the domestic mode of production do cooperate with each other, this does not “institute a sui generis production structure with its own finality, different from and greater than the livelihood of the several domestic groups” (p.70) – a point I will return to when I come to discuss commons. For him, in order for the domestic mode of production to become a plausibly functional society, some such ‘greater than’ production structure is needed, and in his view it’s often provided in ‘primitive’ societies by hierarchical kinship structures such as chiefdoms that ramify beyond the individual household and coax additional productivity from them. But chiefdoms are not kingdoms. They have not “broken structurally with the people at large” (p.133). Chiefs remain kinsfolk and are structurally limited by that fact, such that chieftaincies are inherently unstable and prone to crumbling back into their constituent household elements.

In this view, then, chiefdoms don’t arise as it were ‘naturally’ when household production achieves a surplus. They’re inherent to the domestic mode, oriented to creating a surplus out of household production, and represent a tension or a contradiction within the domestic mode of production. Perhaps this is the ‘Marxist’ element to Sahlins’s analysis, since the idea of contradictions powering society is a leitmotif of Marxist analysis. Yet whereas in Marxism the resolution of contradictions drives a society progressively ‘forward’ in history towards improved forms and ultimately to a perfected communism, in Sahlins’s domestic mode of production the contradictions remain static and inherent, a flaw in the jewel of progressive society or, in Sahlins’s words, “a threshold which…was the boundary of primitive society itself” (p.133).

Sahlins did more than most during his career to break down the evolutionary sequence seemingly hard-wired into modernist thought of a historical trajectory from ‘primitive’ society (the very word redolent of an outmoded evolutionism) to ‘feudal’ society and thence to capitalism and (in Marxist thought) ultimately communism. Here, however, I think he somewhat succumbs to it.

I have to assume that Heffron and Heron are still labouring with this discredited evolutionism when they characterize my arguments as ‘feudal’ advocacy for parasitic landlordism, since they cast around for evidence of it in my writing, fail to find any, and then simply assert it on the basis of a meagre harvest from my words. Indeed, the popular notion that any localized, small farm society must somehow be redolent of a bygone ‘feudalism’ remains strong. Yet what generates feudalism is not farming scale or style, nor even economic relations of landlord and tenant (which I strongly oppose throughout A Small Farm Future), but political relations. In future posts I’ll be looking at this politics and explaining why a small farm future might well be neither capitalist, communist, feudal nor necessarily ‘primitive’. There can be other ways of households generating surpluses.

Despite the dubious evolutionary element to his argument, Sahlins himself partially breaks with it throughout Stone Age Economics (and much more so in later writings), as for example when he likens certain kinds of peasant economy to the domestic mode of production of ‘primitive’ economies: “a fragmented peasant economy may more clearly than any primitive community present on the empirical level certain profound tendencies of the DMP…” (p.80)

This argument was strongly influenced by Alexander Chayanov’s populist economic analyses of pre-communist Russian peasantries that had only recently been translated into English at the time of Stone Age Economics. Chayanov, I’ll note in passing, was murdered by Russia’s communist regime in 1937 for thinking wrong thoughts about the peasantry. Luckily, such a fate has not yet befallen me in speaking up for the potentialities of semi-autonomous household production, but Chayanov’s killing is a salutary reminder that the stakes in these discussions can be high. Only a few decades after his death, Russia’s communist regime collapsed, creating a power vacuum filled by a mafia capitalism that many ordinary Russians survived precisely by turning to Chayanovian household production of use values. There are wider lessons here, I think, about how the domestic mode of production might intercede within a ravaged state apparatus in societies of the future.

In Stone Age Economics Sahlins explicitly excluded from his purview this world of modern centralized states supposedly standing on the other side of his threshold of ‘primitive’ societies. Later on, in an essay co-authored with David Graeber, he recanted this stark distinction:

In retrospect, we may well discover that “the state” that consumed so much of our attention never existed at all, or was, at best, a fortuitous confluence of elements of entirely heterogeneous origins (sovereignty, administration, a competitive political field, etc.) that came together in certain times and places, but that, nowadays, are very much in the process of once again drifting apart

David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins. 2017. On Kings. Hau Books. p.22

I agree with this diagnosis. I argue in A Small Farm Future that many of the elements of ‘the state’ that have typified the modern world are, for various reasons, in the process of disintegrating, and for many of us or for our descendants the outcome is likely to be a relatively autonomous world of local household production akin to Sahlins’s domestic mode – which, at its best, may not be such a bad outcome.

Not such a bad outcome, but not in any sense a perfect one. While I think Sahlins somewhat over-eggs the difficulties and contradictions of the domestic mode of production, I believe he does it advisedly to point to the inherent tensions and difficulties that human societies of all kinds experience in constituting themselves, and his analysis therefore works as a counterweight to airily romanticized progressive ideologies such as the ‘collective class struggle’ that Heffron and Heron invoke as, dare one say it, a deus ex machina for overcoming structural difficulties. And Sahlins does it with a gruff admiration for the practical workarounds that people involved in household production worldwide have found historically to these intrinsic difficulties. Whereas the earlier Marx – and Heffron and Heron after him – scorned the political potential of household or peasant societies for their inability to come together collectively, employing the famous metaphor of potatoes in a sack, I offer A Small Farm Future at several levels as an argument that champions those potatoes, botanically and metaphorically, each and every one of them a marvellous but ultimately flawed attempt to solve certain intractable questions of how to exist as one part of something bigger.

Sahlins’s writing wasn’t especially easy for those not steeped in social science, but it had a kind of muscular workaday honesty, sprinkled with wry humour, which always returned to the practicalities of how people in actual historical societies have gone about their business, rather than involving itself in theoretical speculations or projections of idealized futures. A wise course. But, as I argue in A Small Farm Future, the burden of present generations is now to project new futures urgently in the face of the unravelling of the present mode of production, however difficult the task.

In doing so, I see myself as working within the traditions of left-wing (but not Marxist) politics. I don’t particularly want to be a renegade, although I’m less closed-minded than I once was to the possibility that other political traditions might have something of value to say. Indeed, these days I find much leftist writing, including that of a certain review of my book, to be so self-satisfied with its unexamined prejudices – positive and negative – around such things as collective class struggle, the forms of property, the nature of hierarchy or the forms of kinship, that a bit of reneging seems necessary. I don’t suppose my efforts will bear much fruit, but so be it. It’s a long-haul thing.

Talking of long hauls, with hindsight perhaps I didn’t specify clearly enough in A Small Farm Future the different time registers involved in thinking about post-capitalist ecological futures. Joe Clarkson said recently on this site that he was more interested in immediate issues of social transformation because, longer-term, people will figure out their small farm futures somehow – the challenge is the path from now to there. It’s a strong point, and in my book I do make some attempt to address it (more on that in future posts), but in truth I think the immediate transformation is going to involve a thousand kinds of craziness that can’t easily be predicted or allayed, so my focus in the book was to characterize in outline some of the main issues that emerging small farm societies in the interstices of this craziness would have to wrestle with – without attempting any kind of complete blueprint for how they should or would organize themselves. Inevitably, one has to make assumptions about the kind of future world and the kind of future societies one is projecting, and this is always open to challenge. I could probably have signposted this a little better in the book. But overall I stand by that project.

For their part, Heffron and Heron wrote “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present.” So the difference with my project is clear. As me, I’m not especially interested in looking for the contours of an eco-communist future. There are a few aspects of ‘eco-communism’ I might endorse, but I’m doubtful many current struggles against the capitalist present – and certainly few that are framed through Marxist optics – will be especially generative of post-capitalist ecological societies long-term.

Heron is scornful of ‘disaster’ politics and its presentiments of sudden transformative shocks to present social systems. This seems a necessary stance for him to take, because struggles against the capitalist present can only build a worthy long-term politics within capitalism’s own persisting ambit – and this, I think, constitutes a ‘threshold’ of capitalist ideology that Marxism itself cannot cross. This was a theme in Culture and Practical Reason (1976),Sahlins’s next big book after Stone Age Economics, where he provided a sustained anthropological critique of what he saw as the limited bourgeois economism of Marxism (Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production did something similar around the same time). I think this bourgeois economism is apparent in Heffron and Heron’s scorn for peasantries, kin structuring, household production and household use values, and their enthusiasm for ill-defined large-scale collectivisms and state formations.

From Sahlins, I’ll take my stand on the possible, but by no means paradisiacal, domestic mode of production of the future, and on the unlikelihood of generating long-term culture out of short-term conflicts of material interest. I’ll try to fill out the implications of this in future posts, where I hope I can better ground the rather abstract arguments I’ve made here.