I was aiming to take a January break from blogging, but various whisperings (and the odd shout) in my ear prompt me to put this one out into the ether right now. It’s a bit longer than my usual posts. But on the upside you won’t hear from me again for a couple of weeks after this.
What I mostly want to do on this site over the next few months is resume exploring the alternative world of my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But there’s a case for taking a step back, putting that exercise into a wider context, and laying out something of a programme for the year – especially in the light of some comments I’ve recently received. So that’s what I’m going to do here.
The first comment was from Vera, who took exception to the fears I expressed in my review of 2016, A Sheep’s Vigil, that we may be witnessing an emerging fascism. She also questioned my advocacy for agrarian populism:
“maybe he is not really interested in building an agrarian populist movement — maybe, he is only interested in building an agrarian faux-populist progressively-politically-correct movement. In which case I am out. Maybe it’s time he stopped pussyfooting around and made things clear.”
Well, I’m not sure I can clarify everything in a single post, but it seems worth trying to set out as best I can what I understand left agrarian populism to be and why I support it. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time if their politics lie wholly elsewhere…
Left Agrarian Populism: So then, three key terms – ‘left’, ‘agrarian’, and ‘populist’. The last is much the trickiest. For many commentators, ‘populism’ refers to little more than the unscrupulousness of those politicians who’ll say whatever they calculate will make them most popular with the electorate. We’ve had way too much of that recently, and frankly ‘populism’ has become such a toxic brand as a result that I’m half inclined to wash my hands of it. The reason I don’t is partly because there are historical and contemporary peasant movements I support which fly under the banner of populism, and partly because there’s an important aspect of populism which differentiates it from most other modern political traditions.
Let me expand that last point through some admittedly gross over-simplifications of three such other traditions. First liberalism, which believes that private markets, if allowed free rein, will deliver optimum benefits to humanity. Second conservatism, which believes in defending the established social order and fostering progress through the cultivation of individual character. Third socialism, which believes in organising human benefit on a collective, egalitarian basis through politically-guided planning. There are elements of all three traditions I’d subscribe to, but I can’t wholly identify with any of them. A feature they share is a rather totalising normative vision of what a society should be like and how individual people ought to fit into it, and a willingness to bend the world hard to fit that vision. Populism, by contrast, doesn’t really have a totalising normative vision in this way. It’s a politics ‘of the people’, and all it expects of people is that they’ll do their people-like things: be born, grow up, secure their livelihood, raise families, live in communities, die. That’s pretty much it. I prefer it to the stronger normativity of the other traditions.
But it only takes a moment to realise that things aren’t so simple when it comes to implementing a populist politics. Who are ‘the people’? They’re any number of individuals and groupings with endlessly jostling identifications, hostilities, aspirations and conflicts. ‘The people’ don’t exist as an undifferentiated mass any more than ‘the community’ does in your town. So you can be pretty sure that when a politician says they’re acting in the interests of ‘the people’, they’re really acting in the interests only of certain people, a group that probably includes themselves (and may well not include the group they claim to be acting for). You can be doubly sure of it if they say they’re acting in the interests of ‘ordinary people’, ‘real people’ or ‘the silent majority’.
I think this problem for populist politics is virtually insurmountable in highly monetised, consumerist societies characterized by wage-labour and riven by class, ethnic and national differences. Political movements do arise in these societies under populist banners which purport to represent the interests of ‘the people’, but to my mind their claims are invariably spurious, papering over class, ethnic or other interests. And that, I think, is pretty much where we’re now at in the UK and the USA, among other places.
An aside on ‘political correctness’, the ‘alt-right’ and class. Let me go with that last sentence for a moment before returning to my populist theme. I’ll recruit for the purpose some help from John Michael Greer’s latest blog post, albeit with some trepidation. Its mishmash of half-truths and flat untruths – in which we learn, for example, that the New Left forgot social class was important until a working-class champion by the name of Donald Trump came along and took up the cudgels on behalf of the oppressed, and in which Trump’s appointment of Goldman Sachs executives to his administration somehow becomes evidence not of his own hypocrisy but that of his critics – is truly a document for these post-truth times. In environmentalist circles Greer increasingly seems to resemble some weird kind of alter ego to Trump himself – no matter how superficial, ridiculous or outrageous his pronouncements, his fanbase only seems to grow. Still, there are a few nuggets in his piece that make a good foil for my analysis, so I’ll proceed.
Greer correctly notes that Trump garnered a lot of support from working class voters who felt disenfranchised by politics-as-usual. But he then imputes leftist horror at Trump’s election largely to class hatred from the middle classes against those who put him there. Even Greer can see some of the contortions involved in making such a bizarre argument stick. He tries to shore up the edifice, but what he fails to do – and what he’s consistently failed to do throughout his writings on the 2016 election – is to see that a politician who gains class support and a politician who acts in class interest aren’t necessarily the exact same thing.
The missing ingredient in Greer’s recipe is a concept of ideology – the insight that ideas about society are both systematically structured and selective, and that the relationships between things, words and actions are complex. It’s an insight that social scientists and political thinkers have developed in numerous ways in recent times but we now seem to be in danger of forgetting. Greer could certainly have done with remembering it when he wrote this:
“The Alt-Right scene that’s attracted so much belated attention from politicians and pundits over the last year is in large part a straightforward reaction to the identity politics of the left. Without too much inaccuracy, the Alt-Right can be seen as a network of young white men who’ve noticed that every other identity group in the country is being encouraged to band together to further its own interests at their expense, and responded by saying, “Okay, we can play that game too.””
I mention this because it’s relevant to the issue of ‘political correctness’ that Vera identified in my thinking. Although I deplore the censoriously ‘PC’ excesses of essentially insignificant bodies like student unions in their calls to “Check your privilege!” as much as the next man, or perhaps I should say as much as the next gendered subject, I think the concept of political correctness lacks any real political traction. It stems from the kind of right-wing mythology peddled here by Greer, which posits an equivalence between different ‘identity groups’, all supposedly competing on the level playing field of life. One of the few things I have first-hand experience of is what it’s like to be a straight, white, middle-class man – and I’d have to say that, from where I sit, alt-right politics based around that identity indeed looks to me a lot like ‘playing a game’. I’m not sure that’s always so true for people in other situations.
Somebody wrote this to me in relation to the Greer passage I cited above: “Women, Mexicans, Muslims, and LGBT folks such as myself have been working for many years to be treated fairly and respectfully, something that has been lacking in my lifetime. None of us in these categories wish to treat “young white men” the way we have been treated.” Quite so. In contrast to Greer, I’d submit that the horror many people feel at Trump’s election arises not out of hatred, but out of fear.
There’s often a fine line between explaining a phenomenon and justifying it. To my mind, it’s a line that despite his occasional distantiating turn of phrase Greer has unquestionably now crossed – his political writing has become little more than an apologia for Trump and the alt-right. But that’s by the by. I want to take my discussion back towards agrarian populism via the issue of class with a final quotation from Greer:
“According to Marxist theory, socialist revolution is led by the radicalized intelligentsia, but it gets the muscle it needs to overthrow the capitalist system from the working classes. This is the rock on which wave after wave of Marxist activism has broken and gone streaming back out to sea, because the American working classes are serenely uninterested in taking up the world-historical role that Marxist theory assigns to them.”
There’s certainly some truth in that – and it’s why left populism appeals to me more than Marxism or socialism as such. Note, though, Greer’s slippage from ‘Marxist activism’ as an unqualified and therefore presumably global phenomenon, to its specific grounding in America (actually, the USA). The tendency to see the USA as a synecdoche for the whole world is a mistake often made by US citizens and by the country’s overseas admirers, but I imagine it’s one that will be less commonly made in the future (when the US president says “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” it does, after all, drop a big hint to the remaining 96% of the world’s population about how to order their own priorities). So, wrenching our gaze momentarily from the USA, perhaps we should ask if there are any countries where socialist revolution has been successful, at least in the short term. Well, it turns out that there are. Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba spring to mind – all countries with large peasant populations at the time of their revolutions.
The story of how Marxism co-opted peasant revolutions – populist revolutions – to its own purposes can’t detain us here. But I want to note that, in contrast to the inherently contradictory populisms of contemporary industrial-capitalist countries, populist politics has made some headway in societies where there are a large number of poor farmers and a small, wealthy elite. Here, populists have sometimes succeeded in clawing back some of the surplus produced by the farmers and appropriated by the elite, and more generally in validating the agrarian lifeways of the farmers as something important and worthy of respect. And I further want to note that, in these countries, there’s been a basis for populism in social class.
Back to populism: So I’d argue that populist politics remains relevant in the many parts of the world where peasantries still exist in significant numbers. I think it may also be relevant in ‘post-peasant’ parts of the world such as Britain, where I live, inasmuch as various looming crises in global consumer capitalism may propel us towards more local, land-based and low energy forms of living. That, in a nutshell, is the ‘agrarian’ part of the populism I espouse. A nice thing about it is the promise it holds out that this local, land-based, low-energy style of life can be a rewarding way to live, even if we have no choice about living it, rather than being a disastrous reversal in the progressive unfolding of industrial modernity.
But it can only be rewarding if everybody has a decent chance to live it. The agrarian populism I espouse is therefore a left populism, for two main reasons. First, even assuming a fair initial distribution of land and resources, through bad luck or bad choices some people inevitably end up less well endowed with the capacity to provide for their wellbeing than others. If these differential endowments are inherited down the generations, then the evidence is pretty clear that before long we’re back with a downtrodden mass peasantry and a small, wealthy elite – which is to nobody’s long-term benefit, including the elite. So a redistributive element is necessary that prevents the accumulation and defence of unearned inter-generational advantage – we can argue about the extent and form of the redistribution, but I don’t see good arguments against the fundamental need for it. Presumably that would be something on which for once John Michael Greer and I would agree.
The second reason is that while there’s something to commend the conservative trope of stand-on-your-own-two-feet-and-don’t-expect-the-world-to-owe-you-a-favour, all of us ultimately depend on numerous other people. We’re not the sole authors of our fates, and we all screw up in ways small and sometimes large in the course of our lives. So I favour an approach to others based wherever possible (though it’s not always possible) on empathy and generosity of spirit rather than censoriousness or status competition.
And that in barest outline is how I’d characterise left agrarian populism. There’ve been places in the past where something like it has prospered for a while, and I suspect the same will be true in the future. I think a lot of human suffering could be avoided if it were to be a norm rather than an exception. But I’m not too optimistic. What seems to me more likely as resource crises bite and the global capitalist economy hits the buffers is a slamming of shutters, a beggar-my-neighbour race for resources and an authoritarian policing of the body politic which seeks to root out any dissent from various nationalist senses of manifest destiny (“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” etc.)
An aside on fascism. In view of various comments I’ve received, including Vera’s, I’d like to clarify my use of the term ‘fascist’ to describe my fears about that kind of future. It’s a word that, I acknowledge, comes with a lot of baggage. And history never repeats itself exactly, so there’s always a debate to be had about the relevance of past events to the future. On the other hand, history contains some useful warnings if we care to heed them. In invoking ‘fascism’, I don’t mean it as a generic term of abuse but as a reference to a fairly specific type of politics: the creation of an authoritarian corporate state grounded in an essentially mythical conception of a unified and exclusive ‘people’, in which various independent bodies that can hold the state to account such as parliaments, judiciaries and media are repressed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the EU, a good deal of the political discourse around Brexit in the UK has been leading in that direction. The lesson I draw from the 1920s and 1930s is that people didn’t take the threat of fascism seriously enough soon enough to prevent the first stirrings of nativism and discrimination – and indeed the kind of alt-right normalisation that Greer is peddling – from later turning into all-out war and genocide. There’s little I can do individually to stop the re-emergence of fascism if that’s the way the world is going, but I can promise to challenge it when I see it.
So when the Daily Mail calls judges ‘enemies of the people’ for deciding that parliament has to debate the Brexit referendum vote (in which, let us remember, 37% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and 35% voted to remain), the word for it is fascism. But my main point isn’t that we’re currently under the thumb of the fascists – it’s that I can’t really see many plausible future scenarios in which President Trump or Britain’s Brexiteers will be able to deliver what many of their supporters thought they were voting for. And those conditions will be ripe for fascism – though I acknowledge that we may get away with mere xenophobic right-wing authoritarianism. I pray that I won’t ever think the latter is the best outcome I can hope for. So let me be clear – I’m not using the word ‘fascist’ out of contempt for people I simply disagree with. I’m using it out of fear for what the future holds, and out of determination to work for something better.
Left agrarian populism, again: That ‘something better’ is left agrarian populism. But perhaps I’ve caught myself in a contradiction here. I emphasised above the actual rather than the normative basis of populist politics. Given that nothing remotely approximating left agrarian populism currently animates western politics except at its furthest fringes, a programme for realising it involves advocating for it normatively as an ‘ought’, a political ideal around which the world needs remodelling. So in that sense perhaps agrarian populism is no less normative or totalising than, say, liberalism. I can think of various ways to try to get myself off that hook – by arguing, for example, that our modern ideologies of progress have warped our thinking away from the honest actuality of making a living from the land, or by arguing that whether we like it or not the gathering crisis of global consumer capitalism is going to deliver us (if we’re lucky) into a world of local self-reliance, to which an agrarian populist politics is best fitted. There’s some mileage in such arguments, but ultimately they’re a bit lame. So maybe I have to argue that when all is said and done left agrarian populism is just a normative political ideology like any other – one that I happen to think answers the puzzles of contemporary human existence better than others, partly indeed because it doesn’t opine normatively too much on how people ought to live other than by saying, well, they do have to live, they have to do that by farming, and their farming should try to screw other people and the rest of the planet as little as possible.
In that sense perhaps my populism is rather impure, drawing on aspects of liberalism, conservatism and socialism. So maybe Vera is right that the populism I espouse is a ‘faux populism’ – though, if she is, then I’d venture to say that all populisms are ‘faux populisms’, since I don’t think there can be any singular, historically fixed or ideologically neutral conception of ‘the people’, still less ‘the people’s will’. All populisms reference other political ideologies. When I wrote about this previously, Tom Smith questioned the extent to which my position was different from socialism. I think it is different in the way it understands the relationship between peasants or farmers, states and historical change. But maybe not all that different – it is a left populism, after all. Suffice to say that it probably has more common ground with socialism than with forms of right-wing populism that consider the concept of ‘political correctness’ to be useful. But I’d hope that at least it lacks the disdain of Marxists and certain other flavours of socialism for peasants and the petit bourgeoisie. In fact, that’s exactly where I see the best hope for a left agrarian populism – as a class movement. The fact that, as I’ve mentioned, there’s virtually no extant peasant or petty proprietor class in western countries is therefore a bit of an inconvenience for my politics. I do have some cards up my sleeve on that front that I’ll lay out in later posts. Though I confess they don’t make for the greatest of hands.
Whatever anyone might think of the case for a left agrarian populism, it certainly won’t get far if it can’t furnish people with their basic needs. So the aim of the vast number-crunching exercise I’ve been undertaking over the past few months in relation to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex has been to check for myself, if for no one else, whether it can. It often surprises me that such exercises aren’t more commonly undertaken by government agencies with the funding to do them properly and the remit to secure the wellbeing of their populace. On that note, I was struck by the reasons Michael gave in a comment under my last post for why such exercises aren’t more routinely undertaken – “too divisive, nationalistic, fear-mongering”. I was also struck by the following passage in Georges Duby’s classic history of the medieval European economy,
“Wherever economic planning existed, it was seen in the context of needs to be satisfied. What was expected of manorial production was that it should be equal to foreseeable demand…It was not a question of maximizing output from the land, but rather of maintaining it at such a level that it could respond to any request at a moment’s notice”1
In that sense my mindset is medieval. The question that interests me is the same one, at whatever scale – can we produce what we need in the next period to see the people through? The modern mindset asks a different question – how can we produce the highest profit from these inputs? In modern society, the bridge between that question and the first one is usually provided, if it’s sought at all, by some kind of ‘implicit virtue’ notion in the tradition belonging to Mandeville’s fable of the bees, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, and Milton Friedman’s ‘capitalism and freedom’. What’s becoming increasingly clear – as other thinkers have long been warning – is that there is no invisible hand, or if there is its designs are forever being thwarted by an invisible foot which, just as the hand works yet another miracle, simply can’t help treading in the next bit of shit up the road.
So my programme for the year, aside from a few digressions and diversions, is to go on asking the question – can we produce enough to see the people through? And once I’ve addressed that as best I can I’ll continue by asking how we might organise ourselves socially and politically to help us do so. That’ll take me deep into the history and the politics of agricultural production and agrarian populism, wherein I hope I might be able to find some more productive ways out of the crises facing us than the dispiriting contemporary populisms of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and their fellow travellers. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll be travelling in fellowship with me. But if not, I hope you get the politics you want from the other paths you tread – so long as it doesn’t involve selfishly trampling over other people. Ach, me and my danged outmoded liberalism…
- Duby, G. 1974. The Early Growth Of The European Economy, Cornell Univ Press, p.92.