In this post, I discuss some issues about gentrification, localism and homesteading or neo-agrarianism, following on from my last post and the wider debate I referred to there.
Let’s begin with a word on gentrification, which is usually applied to urban situations where richer people avail themselves of cheaper property prices by moving into poorer neighbourhoods, resulting in rising real estate values over time that price the original inhabitants or their descendants out of the area, and changing its social character in ways more suited to the incomers than the original inhabitants.
As I see it, these trends are significant social problems but their framing as ‘gentrification’ raises some problems of its own, of which I’ll mention three. First, the gentrification narrative implicitly blames the affluent incomers, individualizing them as the source of the economic problems faced by the original inhabitants and thereby diverting attention from structural problems of poverty, inequality and housing access operating within the wider economy and its politics. Second, it also diverts attention from competing interests among the original inhabitants, not least the owners and sellers of property who benefit from rising prices and economic dynamism but figure as silent players in the gentrification story. Finally, it involves cultural conceptions of authenticity and threat – the locally authentic culture of the original inhabitants threatened by the cosmopolitan and inauthentic culture (or personhood?) of the incomers. Such conceptions could do with some further elaboration.
I’ll return to some of these points shortly, but I want to turn now to rural and agrarian gentrification. The urban gentrification picture I just described can apply equally to small rural towns and villages, with the same caveats, but when it comes to back-to-the-land neo-agrarian homesteading it gets a bit more complicated. Everywhere is different, but a common situation in the rich countries today occurs when people liquidate urban properties, enabling them to buy a few acres – with or, often, without a house – in a countryside otherwise dominated by large farms growing input-intensive commodity crops for global markets.
This isn’t the same as urban gentrification for various reasons. While existing large-scale farmers may not make big incomes, they’re often sitting on multi-million parcels of real estate far beyond the means of the homesteaders, and are not necessarily less affluent than them in the straightforward way implied by the gentrification narrative. There are a range of homesteading styles, from ‘hobby farming’ supported by a mainstream high-income job at one extreme (a situation which frankly also applies to many households in the established large-scale farming population) to full-on homestead self-reliance at the other. But the fact that homesteaders do generally change occupation, swapping city income for rural production, makes it a different ballgame to urban situations where the gentrifiers don’t change their employment.
Deurbanizing back-to-the-landers often bring liquid capital with them that may enable them to pump-prime their enterprises and that may set local tongues wagging about their unfair advantage, but what they rarely do is inherit a fully built and functioning farm along with the natal learning about how to run it, so their advantage in this respect is questionable. Another thing they rarely do is get into large-scale commodity crop farming – cereals, oilseeds, intensive stock or dairy farming and the like – preferring more labour-intensive enterprises geared to local markets such as horticulture. In this sense, while their arrival on the scene may seem gentrifying locally it’s arguably de-gentrifying globally, because people in the rich countries long exited from these labour-intensive forms of production and pushed the responsibility for growing such products onto poorer countries with cheaper labour and less finicky labour standards.
All of which is to say this is a complicated matter to the point where the concept of agrarian gentrification probably lacks meaning. I accept there are grey areas, and I accept that the kind of entitled rural sojourners mentioned in a comment under my last post are a thing. All the same, the stereotype of the entitled but hapless urbanite versus the disparaged but salty countryperson needs a bit of unpicking.
Since, as I said above, everywhere and everyone is different, to do so I’m going to colour my story with a few details from my own personal history, while asking the reader’s forgiveness for the self-indulgence. And possibly for any defensiveness – I guess I probably fall on one side of a few lines here that I’m minded to erase.
My two grandfathers were working-class men born shortly either side of Queen Victoria’s death who started – and in one case finished – their careers in those quintessentially anti-localist citadels of Victorian industrialism, the coal mines and the railways. Energy! Motion! You have to go a generation or two further back to find any of my ancestors working the land – as it happens in Scotland and Ireland, before their descendants migrated closer to the metropole in search of greater prosperity. My grandfathers’ children, my parents, were beneficiaries of the postwar expansion of the education system that enabled them to study and gain professional careers in London. When they in turn had children they moved to a large village about thirty miles outside London where they could afford to buy a family-sized house – the place I grew up. There’s no way young parents in their position now could afford such a house there, still less a few acres of farmland. But such things were far from my mind when, prepared by my education, I entered a professional career in and around London myself.
It took me a full ten years to realize that (a) I wasn’t much enjoying my professional career, and (b) such urban-professional careers weren’t a sound long-term bet for humanity anyway. To cut a long story short, my wife and I bought an 18-acre plot of bare agricultural land on the edge of the small market and postindustrial town of Frome in northeast Somerset, about a hundred miles from where I grew up, where we’ve now lived, farmed, raised our kids and homesteaded for the past eighteen years. There’s some arable farming in the area (cereals, maize silage and oilseed mainly) and traditional family dairy farming hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Or at least ‘traditional’ inasmuch as it flowered in Victorian times to meet the demand for fresh milk in London that could now be satisfied from the West Country thanks to the innovation of fossil-fuelled transport, the milk train, served by people like my grandfathers.
In the past eighteen years, Frome has unquestionably gentrified in the normal urban sense of the term I described above. The Poundstretcher shop that used to sell piles of cheap but occasionally useful plastic crap manufactured in China has lately become a series of fancy but short-lived delis and cafés. When we arrived, soymilk latte wasn’t a thing here. Whereas now we’d be spoiled for choice, if we drank the stuff. Alternative therapists abound and house prices have rocketed to the extent that the children of locally-born people certainly couldn’t afford one, with the possible exception of those who’ve turned smart profits from the rising property prices. In fact, the children of non-locally born people can’t afford one either. There was a brief trend recently for baseball caps (now there’s a non-local thing) sporting the slogan Make Frome shit again.
A few years back there was talk of one of the big grocery chains opening a superstore in the town centre. With the kind of irony that often attends such things, a campaigning group called Keep Frome Local that seemed to comprise mostly people who weren’t locally born sprang up to oppose the store, while a rival group called Frome For All that seemed to comprise mostly locally-born people formed to support it. In the end, the superstore wasn’t built, for reasons that had more to do with the company’s commercial priorities than anything that anybody in Frome did or didn’t want.
Around that time I read Lorenzo Cotula’s interesting book The Great African Land Grab? about foreign and corporate land acquisitions in Africa. My one sentence summary of his complex argument: these acquisitions aren’t a good thing long-term, but in the short term they can generate jobs for the poorest and most excluded people locally, so often enjoy a degree of local support. I was struck by how much this argument chimed with the disputations over the supermarket in Frome – asset stripping the local economy, or bringing much-needed jobs?
Anyway, all this is by way of saying, once again, that it’s complicated. Quite a bit of the commentary under my Twitter thread that generated this post made a heavy play for the authenticity, the real grounded localism, of people with a multi-generational presence in a place. And it made fun of we incoming back-to-the-land homesteaders for cosplaying at being local. One commenter wrote that the problem of localism is that it’s mostly “a MOVEMENT, not organic, not humane. It’s a weird centrally planned local system with really odd enforcement motivators. The most popular enforcement idea is that the world is going to collapse and technology will go away and everyone will be forced into localism (but the model and plan that the proponent wants, of course)”.
What to make of that? Well, if a local farmer were to lean down from the cab of his 200hp John Deere on the way to cut maize silage for his robotic dairy – all these technologies vast monuments to economic globalism – and tell me I was cosplaying at being local as I rode past on our veg delivery trike, I’d have to say “you too, mate”. But to be fair, no local farmer has ever done that, and generally we’ve found them to be helpful and supportive of our attempts to tend our ground, notwithstanding acceptable levels of jocularity at our more hapless mistakes. Likewise, not many born and bred locals have said anything to me about not being a ‘real’ local either, at least to my face, although if you cup your ear it’s not hard to hear a little anti-incomer music playing softly in a minor key. In truth, much of the chit chat I’ve heard about being a ‘real’ local person has come from other middle-class incomers, if ‘incomer’ is really the right word. No doubt there are some places and some lines, albeit rarely fixed and certain, that it’s best not to come in across. I’m not sure they apply when you move a hundred miles from your birthplace to a town in one of Britain’s wealthier regions, twenty miles from its fifth largest city.
Ultimately, the only ‘real’ localism is one that can sustain local livelihoods over generations primarily from local use of local land and resources, and this isn’t a game that’s even being cosplayed let alone played by a significant number of people locally or nationally regardless of their take on localism or their sense of their own pedigree, essentially because it’s impossible. But it matters because the collapse of the existing global political economy isn’t an ‘enforcement idea’ but a nailed-on certainty for reasons that I’ve copiously rehearsed on this blog over the last ten years.
These reasons are obvious enough. What to do about it, how to ‘force’ or – better – to ease everyone into localism is less obvious. I suspect the real forcing will come from unfolding circumstances rather than anyone’s model or plan. But I do think the low energy, low capital, labour-intensive way of the homesteader runs a little closer to the kind of localisms we’re likely to get long-term than the models of large-scale, fossil-fuelled commodity farming or superstore boosterism favoured by many people, local and incomer alike.
This is what I meant when I tweeted “it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” in relation to claims of being local. When it comes right down to it, I see ‘localists’ as people working – however imperfectly – to build a sustainable political economy from their local ecological base, and not people who, for example, want to entice a superstore to their town, whatever their local pedigree.
I got quite a bit of pushback on Twitter for my “ain’t where you’re from…” remark. I stand by it in the sense I’ve just described, but I accept that in other contexts maybe it is where you’re from. Local particulars matter, as one commenter put it, and I agree – a localism worth the name does have to pay attention to the social landscape as well as the biogeographic one. But what kind of attention? Do all local particulars always matter? Matter to whom? Uniformly to all ‘locals’? In what contexts? And how exactly do you define ‘local’ geographically and generationally? Would my daughter, who was born here, count as a local? If not, how many generations does it take? Or is it more a matter of accent, class, attitude, or something else?
I think such questions need answers. The importance of local particulars is a reasonable opening gambit, but it needs substantiation. In A Small Farm Future I described the conservative and stratified fox-hunting commons of the English rural scene often presented as a case of timeless traditionalism, but more plausibly reflecting quite recent political battles with definite winners and losers (‘conservative’, incidentally, means something a bit different in the UK to the US … perhaps another important local particular?) Here in Frome, the summer festival is more the province of the incomers whereas the autumn carnival leans more to the long-established locals. Perhaps in time present tensions will be addressed ritually through a mock carnival battle, or some kind of prestation from festival to carnival, just as the Lamelerans I mentioned in my previous post pay ritual obeisance to the ‘lords of the land’.
So yes local particulars matter, but quite a number of the comments under my thread traded rather unreflectively on the local/incomer duality as exemplary respectively of authentic and inauthentic culture. Given the inherently plastic and hybrid nature of human culture, I’d argue that when a notion of local culture that lacks much specific connection to its local ecological base is weaponized defensively in its totality against perceived external threats, alarm bells ought to ring. Such static and unconfident mobilizations of culture or of local particularity lose their vitality, turn moribund and too easily become mere prejudice. This is also precisely what’s happening among the ‘globalists’ with their increasingly shrill trumpeting of global modernity, ‘Enlightenment values’ and progress.
On the localist side of this equation, the emphasis on local cultural particularity often operates as a cipher for more direct conflicts over economic resources or social status that reflect people’s relative power. This relative power often divides less cleanly across local/incomer divides than is implied in gentrification narratives, but in any case I’d argue it’s better to focus directly on the conflicts than to manifest them in sociological archetypes of the local versus incomer sort.
Some of the comments under my thread extolled the self-employed enterprises of locally-pedigreed folk, such as those running plumbing businesses, over and against the enterprises of incoming back-to-the-landers. Others went so far as to extol the eat-or-be-eaten logic of the competitive marketplace as exemplary of a localist economy. This is where, for me, localism becomes globalism. For sure, service trades like plumbing – necessarily local and labour intensive – are one of the few ways that people can earn an honest coin these days without submitting themselves entirely to the corporate machine, and the performance of practical skill in such trades is unquestionably a virtue. But ultimately these trades serve the consumerist household economy whose engines lie very far from the smalltown places we’re talking about. And if we endorse the logic of the competitive marketplace, then we can be sure that sooner or later it will become a non-competitive monopoly marketplace, and the Walmarts of this world will supplant local production for local needs.
So to pushback against the pushbackers, perhaps a little unkindly, I’m tempted to critique the homesteading-as-gentrification argument along similar lines to the critique of an earlier American agrarian populism made by the likes of Charles Postel (The Populist Vision) and Eugene McCarraher (The Enchantments of Mammon). A sour grapes politics, a having your cake and eating it politics of wanting the benefits of commerce, modernity and globalism while vainly trying to preserve local ways and local self-determination from the vast, pitiless and destructive global forces it implicitly rests upon, while directing its ire at potential allies such as back-to-the-landers simply because, well, they’re not from around here.
For McCarraher, the essence of the USA as a colonial and postcolonial country has always been a capitalist ‘errand into the wilderness’ with its eye on the main chance. I think you could say the same for modern global capitalism more generally. Time is nearly up on that errand, the chickens are coming home to roost, and ultimately perhaps it doesn’t much matter if you took your helping of capitalist culture on a more globalist or more localist plate. The future demands of us – all of us – rural localisms more deeply grounded in their immediate ecological base.
So I’d argue it’s better to accept that almost everyone in the world today is the child of a failing globalism and a failing modernity, and then for localists to seek alliances where they can with others in possession of localist visions concerning how to transcend these failures, wherever those people happen to come from originally.
One commenter wrote: “My warning to homesteading Twitter is that you guys are early adopters, the tip of the spear and often times the early adopters are more thoughtful, nuanced and flexible. Close the door behind you! You might not like what comes in after you”.
It’s a thought-provoking point. But my answer is that it’s not going to be possible to close the door behind us because ultimately homesteading is going to be among the most rational of responses to the increasing chaos of our times, and the handful of early adopters are going to become multitudes. Homesteading is not fundamentally a ‘movement’, as the comment I quoted earlier suggested, still less a centrally planned one. Rather it results from the failure of monopoly corporate planning, public and private, and it will grow as that failure grows.
Which brings us to the question of localism and migration, to be discussed in my next post.