Rural gentrification Part II: Of localists and homesteaders

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.

Rural gentrification Part I: Of localists and nationalists

I’ve long been meaning to write a post about rural gentrification and associated issues – localism, globalism, nationalism, migration and so forth. Some recent interactions online have prompted me to do it now. It’s a bit out of sequence in my present blog cycle concerning my book A Small Farm Future, since it’s closer to the material I discuss towards the end of the book in Part IV. But anyway…

The spur to writing this originated from two fascinating pieces by Neal Clark and Anarcho-Contrarian in the Doomer Optimism mini-manifesto series. I found much to agree with in them, but then in subsequent discussions on Twitter got to wrangling a little over the use of the term ‘nationalism’ (partly, it turns out, because I’m just not fluent in Twitter-ese).

I wrote a Twitter thread about it which, by my humble standards, went viral, prompting a mountain (or at least a large molehill) of comments, many of which were directly or implicitly critical of my general argument that nationalism is no friend of localism, whereas homesteading possibly is. I couldn’t keep up with the volume of comments, and in any case I don’t find Twitter great for these kinds of discussions. So I’m going to rake over the embers here instead.

Quite a number of the commenters operated with a stark duality – you’re either a globalist or you’re a localist. They peered warily at my localist claims, suspecting that beneath the homespun mask my true globalist colours would reveal themselves. Well maybe. But to me, as I’ll explain below, the globalist-localist duality doesn’t capture the underlying politics very well. Maybe the duality of Wall Street versus Main Street does a better job. Without a shadow of a doubt I’m against Wall Street and I prefer Main Street. But there are different kinds of Main Streets. Some I like better than others, and some of the people out on Main Street I find easier to get along with than others.

It’s the nature of smalltown life that you run into almost everyone who lives there in the end, and you have to find ways to make that work. So just to say that I honestly want to try and make my localism fit as best it can with other people’s localisms. I really don’t want to be arguing with anyone who’s genuinely for Main Street, and I’d far rather be uniting with them against Wall Street. But if there are things we disagree on it’s no use sweeping them under the carpet. Hence this attempt at clarification.

I begin in this post with some comments about nationalism, where the debate began, and then in the next post move onto a discussion of localism and rural gentrification. That’s followed by a post on migration, then I’m going to close this little blog cycle within a blog cycle with some thoughts on rural gentrification and the internship problem, before returning belatedly to my larger present theme by wrapping up the cycle on property.

I’m aiming to publish these posts in fairly quick succession, probably with a couple of days between each one. I’ll quote occasionally in them from specific comments in the Twitter thread, but I’m not going to name anyone from Twitter individually here, or debate with anyone on Twitter itself – I’m happy of course to debate further in the comments under the posts. I’m the last person to explain to anyone else how to navigate their way around Twitter, but if you have time on your hands, you can probably follow much of the discussion out from here.

So – one commenter wrote: “a nation is precisely that land within its borders AND the people who inhabit it AND their shared history together”. But this is to assume what’s in question – how did the borders get determined, why do the people within them feel a particular allegiance with each other, and how do they come to feel that their history is shared?

For sure, I share some political history with somebody living in, say, Kent, simply because we’re under the same government. But if a few medieval battles had turned out differently, I might be living in Angevinia and zipping across the Channel to visit my compatriots in the continental part of the country to the south, while needing to pack my passport when I head east to Kent. If people just accepted this historical randomness of the polities they live under with a shrug, then I don’t think nationalism would be a topic worthy of attention. But if that were the case, I wouldn’t be engaging with people on Twitter with taglines like “America – love it or leave it”.

Nationalism papers over the historical randomness, telling us that what is so had to be so, usually in a way that seeks to make the power of existing politics seem natural. If I’m going to get along with a compatriot in Kent, I’ll need something more than the fact that we share Boris Johnson as a prime minister. Nationalist ideology provides that something more. But it’s a narrative choice. As the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein put it: first the boundaries, then the passions.

Actually, that’s not quite right. The passions come first, but they’re passions for known places, people, practices and landscapes. The genius of nationalism is to take that passion for the known, immediate and local, and breathe life into other places that we don’t know with the same emotional charge by braiding them together into a common story of the nation.

But it’s important to stress that it’s a common story, not the common story. Nations aren’t just born complete unto themselves like a person. They’re actively constructed over time via an awful lot of hard work on the part of historians, poets, novelists, journalists, musicians, artists, politicians, cartographers, soldiers, architects, bureaucrats, sportspeople, drinkers in bars and a whole host of other folk. Traditions are invented and communities are imagined. And most of this inventing and imagining has happened only in the last couple of centuries or so across much of the world. Ennius, a poet from classical times, wrote that he had three hearts – Greek, Oscan and Latin. As historian David Gilmour puts it, “It was romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century – and its more sinister successors – that insisted on a single heart” (The Pursuit of Italy, p.46).

So the passions, the boundaries, the traditions and the communities that emerge aren’t the only ones possible. There are always other dividing lines and alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of a Highlander who explained his decision to vote against Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum on the grounds that people in London didn’t care about Highlanders, whereas people in Edinburgh really hated them. Or of the small community of Christian subsistence whale-hunters in Lamalera described in Doug Bock Clark’s amazing book The Last Whalers, who find the verities of Indonesian nationalism (move to the city, help out in the national development project, get a job in construction or service, get rich, get married, be Muslim) of little help in negotiating the contradictions of technological modernization versus indigenous local identity. Especially where local identity itself is transected by other details of history – the long shadow not only of European colonialism but also of pre-European slaving empires, contemporary clan memberships holding remembrances of past migrations and assimilations, the tension between Islam and Christianity, and so on. These Scottish and Indonesian examples are but two of an endless litany.

Ordinary local people, especially ordinary rural local people involved in cultivating the land, often loom heroically large in nationalist mythmaking. But this rarely works to their own long-term benefit. Usually it’s oriented to the benefit of the political centre as it lards its internationalist and urbanist powerplays with a salty rural legitimacy according to its own needs, not those of the ordinary rural people it self-servingly exalts. In his book Ramp Hollow, historian Steven Stoll describes this nicely in the case of the small-scale white farmers of Appalachia, celebrated by cultured opinion-makers as lusty frontier pioneers at the start of the 19th century, dismissed by their successors in racialized terms as congenital indigents holding up economic progress by the century’s end (incidentally, Stoll notes how Karl Marx deployed parallel evolutionary notions about the absolute inability of small-scale rural cultivators to achieve self-realization, bequeathing a bad legacy to the political left all too familiar today in its endless hostility towards agrarian localism).

As to small-scale black farmers, or black folks in general, in the USA among other countries – well I guess they often get written out of both national(ist) and local(ist) histories altogether, as, for example, in the commenter under my Twitter thread citing the Black Lives Matter signage spotted on a nearby farm as proof that it couldn’t be a real local concern. Or more generally in the whole tradition of southern agrarianism. I’ll take my stand on the possibility that other national stories can be written, like the one Jocelyn Nicole Johnson plays with in her recent dystopian cli-fi novel My Monticello, where Sally Hemings gets her due as a mother of the nation alongside Thomas Jefferson as a father. Race, agrarianism, the south. For every configuration of the nation that anyone tries to mobilise, there’s another one demanding to be heard.

So when one commenter under my thread wrote, “At the risk of being naïvely ahistorical, I think nationalism is just localism scaled up and if it isn’t then it could be” and another replied “Strongly agree. It’s a natural part of the scaling. Globalists denigrate the national because they want that power. The nations stand in the way of their goals” I guess I’d have to say that, with respect, yes this is a bit naïvely ahistorical. Nationalism really isn’t just localism scaled up.

But I agree maybe it could be, and this might be something to aim for. Though if people successfully scaled up localisms of the sort that present political, economic, ecological and cultural crises demand the result would look so unrecognizably different from existing nationalisms that we’d probably need a new word for it. I hope to pursue that issue another time. Although I’m not a big fan of nationalism, one thing I would say is that all that hard intellectual work of nation-building has made modern nations and their populations pretty solid political vessels, which means the future is very unlikely to be ‘feudal’. But more on that anon.

What interests me more for my present purposes is the idea in the last comment I quoted that nations stand in the way of the globalists’ goals. It’s true that a certain kind of globalist of the neoliberal, Wall Street sort does denigrate the national because national governments have local pressures and agendas that militate against simply conniving with that guiding light of Wall Street globalism, the frictionless flow of global finance. And because national governments have the leverage to deliver on those agendas (albeit some more than others, the USA more than most).

Even so, any government that obstructs the frictionless flow of global finance too much risks fierce punishments from ‘the globalists’ that few governments dare contemplate (though in my view they should). So when it comes down to it, national governments usually cleave to the interests of Wall Street more than to those of Main Street – a fact that’s better known to ordinary local people on the Main Streets of poorer countries who historically have derived less implicit benefit from globalism than their localist counterparts in rich countries like the USA. But as the contradictions of the global economy intensify this fact is becoming more apparent in the rich ones too.

The get out strategy that governments often employ in these circumstances is to stoke up a nationalist smokescreen, usually aimed at ordinary people among ethnic or other majorities – ‘make America great again’, ‘take back control’, ‘get Brexit done’ and so on – often served with a generous helping of culture war stuff aimed at stopping ordinary working class people from allying with ordinary middle class people to further their joint local interests against the globalists.

That strategy has been pretty successful of late, but I don’t think it’ll work long-term because it can only paper over its manifest contradictions for so long. Here in the UK, a few cracks are beginning to show currently with a degree of buyer’s remorse among voters in hard-hit post-industrial towns who opted for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s increasingly English nationalist Conservative Party at the last election to ‘get Brexit done’, only to learn that he was quaffing champagne at Downing Street parties while they were diligently observing the Covid lockdowns he’d imposed.

In the words of one headline, “They’re laughing at us”. Yes they are. I strongly suspect that the hapless woke libtards and cosmopolitan elites routinely fingered for their scorn of ordinary people among certain sections of the press and public are laughing at said ordinary people a lot less than Johnson (Eton and Oxford) and his cronies, or for that matter than the very stable genius who recently vacated the White House.

But in the long-term, as the nation-state frays there will be bigger issues to confront than lockdown-busting parties. The question is whether they’ll be met by more organic forms of exclusionary nativism and nationalism from the grassroots, or whether there may be openings for populist alliances between cosmopolitan newcomers to Main Street and its existing denizens around a common interest in localism. I’d like to think the latter. After all, nationalist ideologies invite us to identify with people and places we don’t know. When localists born or made embrace or adopt a particular place to live there’s surely no reason for them to base their localism in an inherent lack of openness to people or ideas from elsewhere.

But whatever the rights or wrongs of it, into this potent and contested space of the local now steps the figure of the gentrifying neo-agrarian homesteader, which I’ll consider in my next post.

A Small Farm Future – the case for distributed private property

In this post and the next, I aim to lay out some issues about property relations by sketching how they might work in a semi-autarkic rural community or region within a small farm future. My focus is a temperate lowland zone like my home in southwest England, although the general issues apply more widely. Maybe we’re in the territory of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex once again.

What I’m going to sketch is so different from how things presently work in my home patch that no doubt it can easily be dismissed as the kind of idle fancy best left to a post-apocalyptic novel. So the other side of this I want to explore is the forces and the politics that might deliver such an outcome sooner than some might think. But that’s for a couple of posts down the line. First, the sketch.

Some grounding assumptions. In this sketch, we’re in largely post fossil fuel times and easy energy is scarce (in other words, low carbon energy has not seamlessly replaced the world’s present vast reliance on cheap and abundant fossil fuels). Also, the global political economy we know today is on its knees or in the morgue, liquid global capital is scarce and the centralized state is in retreat (see Part IV of my book).

But our region remains reasonably well suited for agriculture, or at least for horticulture. This implies that population pressure on land is high, and a large part of people’s needs – water, food, fibre (for clothing, cordage, firewood and timber), motive energy, medicines and minerals – must be met from local land. In this situation, unlike today, economic activities like food production will seek to squeeze the most they can out of the available water, land and motive energy. And probably out of the available capital too, but there will not be much of that. Squeezing the most out of labour will not be a priority – finding honest work for the multitudes of people locally probably will be.

Another assumption – most people will live in households oriented to meeting most of their own needs. I’m not really concerned for present purposes with the size and composition of these households, though it’s something I’ve previously discussed and hope to reprise again soon. It does seem likely that households will generally be small and comprise close kin, though not always. This has been a really widespread form of household organization worldwide through history. So in my mind’s eye I’m thinking about a society with a lot of small, kin-based households. But the key point for now is that households, whatever their size and composition, are farming mostly to take care of their own needs.

Final assumption – there are exchange relations between households and other local economic actors, but in this sketch we’re going to be agnostic about how they’re mediated. I think it might be through money, either the remnants of the old state currency or some new local contrivance. And there are advantages to that, because moneyless societies can more easily fall prey to status hierarchies, caste systems and the like. Of course, money can also be a dangerous foe to a convivial local economy. But money is not the same as capital, and capital is not the same as capitalism. Let’s recall a piece of Biblical wisdom: it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, but the love of money. More on that another time.

As per this earlier post, productive property can broadly be classified as:

  1. Distributed private property
  2. Monopoly private property
  3. Common property
  4. Public property

These distinctions can be a bit fuzzy in practice, and there are likely to be all sorts of hybrid complexities. But as a rough approximation, I think (1) and (3) will be emphasized and (2) and (4) will be de-emphasized in the society I’m envisaging – pretty much the opposite of the situation that you find in modern capitalist societies. So there will be a lot of upheaval to get from here to there. The extent of the upheaval will depend on cultural and social factors that will vary from place to place, but will also be driven by more invariant factors associated with human ecology in the new circumstances people will be facing.

Controversial opinion though it seems to be in some quarters, in this setup I think a lot – probably most – food production is going to be done by household labour for household needs on small plots that will be de facto or de jure privately owned: gardens, homesteads, smallholdings, micro farms.

There are some economic-y reasons for this. Where energy is cheap, labour is dear, land is abundant and farmers are producing crops for commodity markets (in other words, where the situation is like the North American prairie farming I mentioned in my last post) there are economies of large scale that generate the gigantic, mechanized mega-farms familiar to us today. But where, as in our situation, energy is dear, labour is abundant, land is scarce and farmers are producing crops for their own households there are diseconomies of large scale, or economies of small scale. Labour is highly productive of food/fibre, but adding more labour is not disproportionately more productive. So plots and households are relatively small.

Free riding and transaction costs will also be at play in this society, because they’re at play in every society even if they sound like specifically modern economic jargon best fitted to our selfish, individualistic modern ways. Of course, the manifestations vary culturally, but in every culture there are people who will try to get one over you somehow, and the more people you work with the more time or other resources you have to devote to hammering out arrangements with them. Sometimes you might consider the hammering out to be worthwhile, for any number of reasons that go beyond your immediate needs for food and other goods. But those needs will be quite pressing in the society I’m talking about, so you’ll probably be judicious about your involvement in these extra-curricular activities. Community gardens are a great idea in places where there’s not much community and not much gardening, but you don’t find them so much among communities that garden.

All the same, you’ll probably get involved in some inter-household economic activities. You might, for example, share raising a pig or two with one or more neighbours, because there are often economies of slightly larger scale here (diseconomies of very large scale remain). And the transaction costs and free rider problems of neighbourhood scale are usually not that great. But here we’re still within the realm of private property and private arrangements.

It’s likely, though, that with changing household needs or priorities, you might want to take on more land, or divest yourself of some. A common way of doing this in small farm societies has been by renting land – in other words, by making yourself a tenant. And where there are tenants, there are landlords. In A Small Farm Future, I argued vigorously against landlordism because it’s a royal road to monopoly property, the expropriation and oppression of the smallholder and the capitalization of the economy. That didn’t stop one pair of reviewers presenting me as an apologist for parasitic landlordism. But the fact is, when you depend upon the land for your living but don’t control your access to it, you’re extremely vulnerable – which is where the parasitism kicks in. This is a strong argument for smallholder possession of secure private property rights. If you have good access to land to meet at least your basic needs, you’re in a much less vulnerable position.

Nevertheless, you may still want to adjust the size of your holding to your passing needs year by year. Buying and selling land may be an option, but perhaps an overly drastic one. So, despite my general strictures against landlordism of the parasitic kind – which remain firm – I think there can be a restricted case for a land rental market. In the words of rural sociologist Francesca Bray, “Tenancy is a means of matching land and labour within a community so that resources are not wasted”1.

The key phrase here is ‘within a community’. We can distinguish between a moral economy where people of broadly similar standing devise arrangements to improve their collective wellbeing locally, and a monopoly economy where a small subset of people improve their wellbeing at the expense of everyone else. As I’ve already said, a local economy comprising distributed small-scale private property as its basic building block potentiates the former and safeguards against the latter. All the same, any kind of landlordism is a potential point of tension and demands vigilance by the tenantry.

One of the problems with rented land is that it easily creates free rider problems (the landlord free rides on the tenant’s improvements, the tenant free rides on the longer term wellbeing of the land) so it works best for modular, short-run uses like grazing or arable crops and not so well for the things that would be emphasized in a more intensive small farm future like orchards, dairies and gardens. So on ecological grounds, in the intensive, populated countrysides of a small farm future it’s likely that private owner-occupation will predominate over landlordism, even of the non-monopolistic kind.

Let’s look at what private ownership means a little more formally. Modern conceptions of it draw largely from Roman law, which distinguished between usus (the right held from the wider community to use the land), fructus (the right to appropriate the products or ‘fruit’ of the land to oneself) and abusus (the right to damage or alienate the land). Community-minded people often endorse the first two of these rights – usufruct – but, perhaps understandably, not the last one. If you damage the land’s long-term capacities, or dump pollution on it that affects downstream neighbours, or sell it speculatively in such a way that it’s removed from long-term availability to the wider local community, that can create problems for the community. So this is another point of tension in the system.

As I see it, people oriented to making a long-term livelihood from the products of the land itself (as opposed to the profits to be made from it) are unlikely to abuse it too egregiously, and there are remedies against abusers that fall short of full expropriation. In A Small Farm Future I argued against mere usufruct rights in favour of more inalienable private property, basically because I see usufruct as a back door to monopoly landlordism. My instincts here are kind of bottom up, grassroots and anarchist. If you lack the right of abusus, this potentially puts a lot of power in the hands of the wider community to define abuse in its own potentially self-serving way, and to expropriate you. Who is this community? Through what politics does it decide to exert its powers of expropriation, and how does it then redistribute access to land and livelihood among its members?

Physical escape from community abusus has been one favoured tactic historically to avoid these difficulties. In David Graeber and David Wengrow’s influential recent book I was struck, for example, by their description of scattered homesteading by native peoples in the North American Midwest as a way of avoiding centralizing political power in the immediate precolonial period2, something that their settler colonist successors also tried their hand at. Neither were successful long-term, with the latter arguably being victims of monopoly ownership from the outset.

But where physical escape isn’t possible, people have often sought something like private property rights from the political community as a safeguard against abuse of their capacities for self-creation by the political community. It may seem contradictory, but small farmers have put a lot of effort into making these claims throughout history, suggesting at least that it seemed worthwhile to them. Here we get into some weirder aspects of the moral economy as we orbit close around the mystery of political authority. More on that in another post.

I suppose I could alternatively just stop holding out and throw my lot in with usufruct. If I did, I think it would have to be through a radically participatory civic republican politics of recognition, where absolutely everybody in the community gets an ongoing say in defining its political goods. Which is another transaction cost or time sink, best kept limited to what the community really needs to debate. This in turn might point to the benefits of private property as a way of keeping the debate limited, especially when you unite this concern with the notion of self-possession that I emphasized in my last post.

Another possible form of abusus is sale or the handing on of property to another party. I don’t think such abusus is necessarily abusive, but it does run the risk. One possible ‘abuse’ is inheritance by the landholder’s offspring – potentially abusive inasmuch as due to bad luck, bad health or bad choices property has a habit of concentrating over time in fewer and fewer hands, taking us back to the problem of monopoly private property or abusive landlordism (this is well demonstrated by playing a game of Monopoly, originally called The Landlord’s Game to illustrate the ideas of Henry George, who’s thinking we’ll get to soon, I hope).

So an agrarian society of widely distributed small farm ownership needs to find ways of preventing land from being consolidated and keeping it circulating through the generations within the whole community. I don’t want to wade too far into policy wonkery here. In Chapter 13 of my book I suggested a way of doing this to prevent monopoly landlordism, which (sigh) was criticized by the same people who criticized me for supposedly endorsing monopoly landlordism. Anyway, inheritance is certainly another point of tension in the system where use may become abuse, so one way or another this issue requires attention.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of distributed private property, we can say for sure that it’s not an invention of modern capitalism. It recurs in numerous societies, arguably as far back as the Neolithic3. But it usually goes hand in hand with common property, which I’ll turn to in my next post.

Notes

  1. Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies, p.180.
  2. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything, p.471.
  3. See: Robert Netting. 1992. Smallholders, Householders; Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English.

My week of eating locally

Since my book A Small Farm Future makes quite a play for local self-reliance, I thought I should at least temporarily try to put my money (or, more pertinently, my produce) where my mouth is by only eating food produced on my farm for a week. I did this in the middle of September last year, when most of the folks in my household were away on a trip and I thought the exercise would be less distracting. I don’t suggest that by doing so I’ve proved anything much in terms of larger arguments about agrarian localism, but I found the exercise interesting nonetheless, so I thought I’d share a few observations about it here.

I made things easy for myself in various ways:

  • Doing it in September, when the produce is abundant
  • Allowing myself a few off-farm luxury items, provided they didn’t significantly meet my major dietary needs: salt, pepper, cinnamon, coffee
  • Living on a diversely productive small farm

But I made things hard for myself in various ways too:

  • Not preparing ahead of time to furnish things that I could have done with forethought
  • Not orienting my farm production over the years to full self-reliance, albeit that we’re moving increasingly in that direction. And therefore…
  • …having to forcibly deny myself various foodstuffs lying temptingly in the larder or on the plates of some of my fellow farm dwellers

So (note to self) here are some things I’d do differently if I try this again:

  • Grow more wheat ahead of time
  • Brew some beer ahead of time
  • Make some kraut ahead of time
  • Buy a cow ahead of time
  • Be sure that everyone around me is following the same regimen

Here are a few notes on some of the foods that I did (and didn’t) eat during my vigil.

Fat and oil: this was simple, because whenever we cook the lamb or mutton that we’ve raised on our grass we pour off the fat into an ice-cube tray (there seems to be a lot more fat in our home-grown meat than in the stuff you get from the shops) and then freeze it. The fat was great for making my food tastier, though I would have preferred vegetable oil for some things. And I probably used more animal fat during the week than I could sustain year-round at our level of productivity. In the absence of a productive sunflower patch and press, the alternative would probably have to be more boiled or baked food. But, seriously, who wants that?

Starchy staples: also simple – the answer was potatoes. And more potatoes. Which actually was fine – I love potatoes. But I did miss snacking on bread, and felt a vague sense of gastric unease through the week, which eased when I reverted to flour-based products. Perhaps I’m kind of a post-Paleo gluten-bothering farm boy, just that little bit more evolutionarily advanced than all those marrow-suckers out hunting deer on their men’s weekends. Or maybe it’s just a bad idea to abruptly change diet. Whatever, I’m planning to upscale my home wheat-growing in future. I did experiment with eating fat hen seeds (Chenopodium album), which apparently Britain’s prehistoric people ate as a staple – kind of a local version of grain amaranth. My gastric jury is out on that one.

Vegetables: super-simple, since I live on a veg farm. Plenty of onions, carrots, chard, lettuce, green beans, sweetcorn, you name it. An advantage of the diet was that I made better use of this bounty than resorting to the bread bin and the cheese tray. But it was a bit harder to snack on, and required more forward planning – which I’m not very good at (see above). And … if only I’d started a couple of jars of kraut a few days before having this madcap idea.

Fruit: I ate a lot of apples. Snacking between meals on fresh apples worked tolerably well, but didn’t quite hit the spot. Stewing apples for breakfast or dessert with a pinch of cinnamon worked better. I also picked wild blackberries from the hedges and sea buckthorn berries – painful, but delicious. The impetus to go out and seek fruit around the farm was one of the unexpected pleasures of the exercise. But it clarified for me that wo/man probably cannot live happily on fruit alone.

Meat: I usually eat meat about once a week, almost always the pork, lamb/mutton or occasionally chicken that we raise on the farm. I ate a little more during my homegrown week – partly perhaps to boost the tastiness. But also because my family are less enthusiastic than me about offal, so it was a good opportunity to clear some hearts, livers, gizzards and kidneys out of the freezer while the folks were away. If you’re going to kill an animal, Small Farm Future says – make it count.

The freezer of course was a useful resource during the week, locally powered by the sun falling on our PV panels, themselves locally produced in… Anyway, I’m drifting from the main point. In a truly low-energy society, I guess meat would likely be shared around more. The freezer as a killer of community?

I trapped and ate a couple of squirrels during the week, again boosting my meat intake. Since coming to the farm, we’ve planted thousands of trees, including a lot of nut trees. In the last year or so, the squirrels have moved big time into the woodland we’ve generously provided for them, seriously threatening the oaks, hornbeams and beech, while our nut harvest has curiously diminished in the same period. There are interesting underlying issues here about creating wild habitat on the farm, consequently losing crop to the wild creatures moving into the new niche, and then gaining something back by cropping them. I’ve never been that interested in trapping or hunting per se, but – as with most things – I’ve started to get more interested in it as a result of seeing the ecological cycles involved in it right in front of my nose. It’s easier to do this when you’re losing crop, especially to a voracious interloper introduced by human hand from overseas.

Dairy: oh my Lord, I dreamed of butter melting onto warm bread, hot milky coffee and tangy farmhouse cheese (hey, Cheddar is only twenty miles away – that’s nearly local, right?) And I have to confess to an indiscretion here whose details must forever remain a secret between me and my fridge. The use-by date was literally just days away, and wasting food is a crime…

I’ve never raised dairy animals because it’s seemed like too much work in our particular situation of being essentially single household veg growers with other work besides. And don’t say goats – as I just said, I’m a veg grower. But if I were truly gearing myself for food self-reliance I’d embrace dairy, especially within a wider community context.

Nuts: slim pickings on this front (see squirrels, above) and what we did have wasn’t quite ready. But this is definitely a good way to go for the self-reliant farm. Especially if you like eating squirrels – there’s nothing too vegan about nut crops in southern England these days, I’m afraid. Still, while on the subject of nuts, had the harvest and the timing been different, I suppose I could have made some hazel milk for my coffee instead of … [fifth amendment here]

Mushrooms: I’ve cultivated mushrooms from time to time over the years, but never really taken to it. I managed to harvest a couple of wild ones during the week, but the weather was dry and sunny and the fungi had other things on their minds, or whatever intelligence it is that they have down there. Perhaps this suggests a general side-note: there’s plenty of wild food around on the farm if you know where to look and you’re prepared to bide your time.

Beans: there were green beans aplenty, but my modest crop of proteinaceous drying beans wasn’t yet ready. That’s why I ate so much meat. Honest.

Eggs: an egg every day or so from our little flock certainly eased the burden. Served up with a salsa of onions, tomatoes and chillis from the farm, I barely even missed my regular Sunday breakfast croissant. The hens do get some feed bought-in from offsite, so strictly speaking perhaps I shouldn’t have eaten their eggs. Strictly speaking, there’s a lot of things I shouldn’t do…

Alcohol: if I’d planned ahead, perhaps I could have eased my way through the week in a homebrew-assisted haze. But I didn’t. And this lack of forethought was probably the single thing that contributed the most to the healthiness of my homegrown diet.

On the upside, I’d say that it’s surprising how congenial a homegrown diet you can produce without even trying all that hard if you have a small spread available. On the downside, I’d say that it’s surprising how hard it is to break from ingrained dietary habits like cheese and cereals, and how hard it is to focus production on these latter basics unless you’re singularly gearing yourself towards self-reliance. In some ways, the distance that even someone like me who’s well equipped materially and mentally to produce my own subsistence from fully achieving it is something of an eye opener. In my defence, I must point out that the focus of our farm for a good stretch of its existence has of necessity had to be upon proving to other people that it can earn a tolerable income. The challenge I now want to prioritise more strongly lies in proving to ourselves that it can produce a tolerable diet.

Of scarcity and scale

Let me begin with a quick heads-up on my forthcoming book. It’s been somewhat delayed in the editing, but Covid-19 permitting it’s now slated for publication at the end of October. So please be sure to keep some cash in your piggy bank for the tail-end of the year…

One reason the book was delayed in the editing is because the initial draft grew a little unwieldy and I’ve had to spend time paring it down. There’s just so much to say about smallness, farming and the future! Some of my edits are destined to languish forever on the cutting room floor, perhaps rightly so, but there are a few sections I think deserve to see the light of day. So I’m aiming to publish them here on the blog as a kind of ‘best of the rest’ selection – or, to a put a more positive spin on it, as background reading that fills out in greater detail some of the book’s balder and briefer assertions and analyses.

This post is the first of these selections, lightly edited to fit into the blog format, involving some reflections on farm scale, yield and income. Right now, however, I’m in the thick of the final book edit, so please forgive me if my replies to any comments are more peremptory than normal.

oOo

For numerous reasons, I’ve long argued for a small farm future, where a large proportion of the population work as small-scale agricultural proprietors producing food both for themselves (a crucial point, as I’ll emphasize below) and for market sale. But it has to be said that historically the lot of the small proprietor often hasn’t been a happy one.

Optimal in theory, sub-optimal in practice – in his book Agricultural Revolution in England1, Mark Overton includes an interesting table that enables us to probe this issue. The table presents data from two pre-industrial English grain farms, which are hypothetical but presumably grounded in Professor Overton’s experience as a prominent agricultural historian – a large farm of 100 acres and a small farm of 10 acres:

Farm Productivities
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
Large farm
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 50 1200 4 4800 4800
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 50 900 6.6 5940 5940
3 1 100 10 1000 250 50 700 10 7000 7000
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 50 500 16.9 8450 8450
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 50 200 55.3 11060 11060
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

In Rows 1-5 Overton gives some input/output figures for the large farm under various assumptions of good, normal and poor harvest. In an agricultural economy that’s largely self-sufficient in staples locally or nationally, demand for grain is price inelastic (ie. it stays fairly constant regardless of price, because everybody needs to eat). Because of this inelasticity, in times of dearth the price of grain shoots up disproportionately to the fall in output, meaning that the large farm gets more income in bad harvest years than good ones (compare Row 1, Column 9 with Row 5, Column 9).

The outcome isn’t so happy for the small farmer, shown in Rows 6-10. In the poorest harvest years, s/he produces less grain than s/he needs to consume (Row 10, Column 7), and has to buy in extra grain to eat at the inflated scarcity price, therefore making a net loss (Row 10, Column 9). Too many seasons like that and the farm goes under, forcing the farmer to find some other employment – if they can.

But Overton makes a key and rather hidden assumption. Before it sells any grain the farm household first has to meet its own need for sustenance, which is the same year by year for a given household size regardless of the harvest. Overton allows for this in Column 6, but he makes it the same for both the 100 and 10 acre farms. So the same number of farmworkers in both cases (and the same yields per acre) but on the large farm the same number of workers are applied to an area ten times the size of the small farm, and therefore have ten times the labour productivity.

That’s a reasonable (in fact, conservative) picture of what tends to happen when small-scale farmers with hand tools or draft teams confront large-scale ones with all the paraphernalia of modern fossil-fuelled industrial agriculture. The labour productivity of the latter is vastly greater, and since labour is a major cost driver, this pushes poor small-scale farmers out of staple crop production and into commodity crop or non-farm employment markets where they’re subject to wider market forces, usually to their disadvantage. This is why calls in the rich countries to improve labour-shedding technologies, increase yields and lower the price of food in order to ‘feed the world’ in fact are more likely to starve it.

But I’m not sure Overton’s labour productivity figures present a reasonable picture of preindustrial English agriculture, or situations generally where the large-scale farm has no technology or labour-productivity advantage. Suppose we recalculate Overton’s table assuming that each acre of farmland requires the same amount of human labour applied to it. It then looks like this:

Farm productivities scaled to labor productivity
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net Output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 500 750 4 3000 300
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 500 450 6.6 2970 297
3 1 100 10 1000 250 500 250 10 2500 250
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 500 50 16.9 845 84.5
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 500 -250 55.3 -13825 -1382.5
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

By equalizing the labour productivities in Column 6, the advantage of the large farm has disappeared. Like the small farm, its income turns negative in the poorest harvest years, and its financial returns per unit of labour are exactly the same. In fact, in preindustrial England and in many other places historically the evidence suggests that, if anything, there are diseconomies of large scale in terms of output per acre, so the small farm may be advantageously placed.

There are four points I’d like to draw out from this little exercise by way of conclusion.

First, there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.

Second, one such case has been global agricultural mechanization over the past century or so. If like units of labour earn more or less the same per hour whatever they do, and if there are no diseconomies of increased scale in relation to labour-shedding agricultural mechanization, then small farms producing grain by hand or small machine will be disadvantaged relative to larger farms that are terraformed to the requirements of large machines employing equivalent labour. What seems much less clear to me is that this will continue to be true into the future. In the coming years we’re probably going to have to find low carbon employment for people in their multitudes. In this situation, labour productivity will probably be less important than carbon intensity and gainful employment – and the small farm may be better fitted to that end.

Third, a talking point in mainstream agricultural economics is that ‘free’ markets rather than household or community self-reliance are a better safeguard against hunger. Sometimes that can be true. The exorbitant prices for grain apparent in Column 8 as the yields in Column 3 decline might have been smoothed out with imports of cheaper grain from other parts of the world experiencing grain surpluses.

But there are several grounds for caution here. There’s the problem of dumping I mentioned above, with long-term negative effects on the local economy. There’s the issue that while cheaper grain imported from elsewhere may be welcome when harvests are poor, the exporters are usually price-seekers, not humanitarians. The cheaper grain may not be cheap enough to fully relieve distress – distress arising largely from local social arrangements which wider market dynamics aren’t geared to mitigating. Indeed, speculation on financialized global markets is a driver of food price increases, not a wider market solution to local distress. Finally, in the climate and water-challenged world that’s now upon us, it’s unwise to assume that cheap grain at steady prices will be readily available on the global market. The places that produce most of the grain surpluses are among the ones that are most climate and water challenged – and, as we’ve seen recently, when push comes to shove administrations prioritize production for domestic use, at least for those among their populations they wish to court.

Fourth and finally, inasmuch as farms of any scale might be economically threatened by poor harvests, it seems to me that Overton’s analysis points to two remedies. The first is that the farm household should place a high priority on producing for its own needs in a resilient, pessimal manner so that the net output figures in Column 7 are unlikely ever to turn negative, even in bad years, as a matter of ecological management. The second is that the farm household should aim to be part of a wider community and economy of farm households whose political guardians offer them support so that in bad years the figures in Column 7 don’t turn negative as a matter of political fiat. I think both of these remedies will be necessary in a sustainable and resilient small farm future.

Generally, the point I want to stress is that the bad outcome for the small farmer of the kind highlighted by Overton doesn’t arise from some intrinsic disadvantage of small scale, but from relative labor productivities in the existing globalized capitalist market – which isn’t the only way or necessarily the most sensible way of organizing food production and social wellbeing.

Reference

  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. Cambridge University Press.

 

A chirrup for October

Well, it’s been a while since this blog has been graced with any new content. I’d hoped to keep it ticking over while I wrote my book manuscript but the reality was that I just didn’t have the capacity. I’d expected the book writing to be hard work, but I naïvely underestimated quite how draining it would be – not only mentally, but also physically and emotionally in surprising ways.

Anyway, as of Monday the completed manuscript is with the publisher so I thought I’d send out a chirrup into my familiar little corner of cyberspace. The question is, is anyone still out there to hear it? If so, I have a few new blog posts in the offing. But they may unspool slowly, as I need to get out of my garret for a while.

On the upside, there’ll hopefully be a feature-length instalment of Small Farm Future (or something…the title is tba) to look forward to next year…

Do feel free to chirrup back if you’re reading. I’ve missed the SFF community…

Chris

New chapters

Happy new year to you from Small Farm Future – and thanks for the seasonal wishes from various folks on here just prior to the holidays.

My new year’s resolutions for 2019 are … writing, writing, writing. But, regrettably, not so much on this site, I fear. I have an autumn deadline for my book manuscript which already feels looming in view of the work yet undone for it, so I think for the time being new blog posts here at SFF are going to be few and far between.

Happily, various commenters have been keeping the site ticking over in my absence over the holidays with interesting interventions on the matter of John Michael Greer’s erratic course through the firmament of right-wing populism and also on the matter of comparative health care systems. I’d like to comment, but I’m a bit late to the party and…well…y’know…priorities and all. Actually, I started my career as a health policy analyst, and feel lucky that I eventually escaped from it into the more engaging field of agriculture. Still, I agree that health and health care issues are important. There’s even a section on it that I plan to write in my book. When I get around to it… Guess all I’d say right now is that in a private-funded system it’s worth distinguishing between people who actively don’t want to take out health insurance, and those who’d like to but feel they can’t afford it and so, on the balance of the risks, don’t. When I looked at this many years ago, it seemed clear that in the USA the second group was a lot bigger than the first. I suspect it still is.

Despite the impending hiatus, I have a sliver of good news for anyone thirsting for a bit more Small Farm Future to see them through the next few wintry months. Issue number 24 of the incomparable The Land magazine has just hit the news-stands, including an article from yours truly that I’ll reproduce in fully-restored and unexpurgated form here shortly. The article was based around an interview I conducted with David Bandurski, author of the fascinating book Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China so I’ll also publish that interview in full on here soon.

Arguably, that means that I’m already reneging on my promise to Vera at the end of last year to address in my next post this criticism of me that she made: “One issue you’ve ducked time and again is this: does your locked front door offend your libertarian spirit? Do local laws that prevent squatters taking over your farm offend it as well? And if it happens not to be offended then, then why is it offended by equally firm boundaries of larger units humans organize?”

Now, I don’t feel that I’ve ducked this issue at all, and in fact I think I made my position on it pretty clear in the very post to which Vera’s comment was appended. However, I find the blunt clarity of the way Vera frames these questions useful – not least because I think one of the main ways in which the crises of our epoch are going to manifest in the coming years is the contest between what might broadly be termed civic and nationalist responses to global migration. And also because it homes in on the question of property, which is critical. So let me rephrase my promise:

“I promise I’ll address these points in my first post of 2019 that involves entirely new writing”.

It’s just that I’m not yet sure when that will be.

There’s plenty of other things I’d like to write about, not least after returning fresh from another great Oxford Real Farming Conference with my head full of ideas. But I don’t want to break a new year’s resolution as well as a promise all in one post. So that’s it for now.

Wessex and Londinium – the reckoning

I promised a bonfire of the numbers on my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex project in this post. Well, here goes. We shall also be taking a couple of side trips to the city state of Londinium – which, it turns out, is not without its peasant-like aspects – and to the Principality of Wales. So pour yourself a stiff one, pull up a pew, and get yourself some matches to help me light the flame.

First, though, a stop press from the Somerset County Council newsroom. What, you didn’t know Somerset County Council had a newsroom? Shame on you – I’ll have you know that Somerset’s a happenin’ place. And what’s happening, specifically, is that “Somerset County Council and partners across the South West have been working together to seek more power and budgets devolved from central government….in response to the Government’s interest in devolution from Westminster.” I bet those who said that the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex was an impossible dream are feeling a bit sheepish now, huh? Well, let’s have a look at what the County Council has in mind: “The detailed plan aims for higher productivity and better-paid jobs, improved road, rail and broadband links and more homes for the region’s growing population.” Oh.

Well, nobody said Rome was built in a day.

Anyway, back in the make believe world of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I think I’ve shown in previous posts that a population comprising around 20% of predominantly self-supporting smallholders and around 80% non-farmers could feed its expanded population circa 2039 using organic farming methods, powering its agriculture with non-fossil energy – and, more questionably, possibly its society more generally, though only with deep cuts from current levels of usage. I suspect that the 20/80 split is unlikely in reality – I’d guess there would either be a larger or smaller proportion of smallholders depending on the likely future course of agriculture’s negative experience curve. Anyway, it’s a starting position for debate.

The assumptions I made in projecting future food productivity in Wessex were, I believe, quite conservative. I think it would be eminently possible to grow a lot more food by relaxing or otherwise changing some of those assumptions. I worked up a spreadsheet along those lines, which involved plugging in higher confidence limit rather than lower confidence limit productivity averages, and also ploughing up the region’s major arterial roadways and growing apples and potatoes on them instead – which is the kind of thing you can do when you’re the supreme leader of a regional republic, even if said republic is merely a figment of your imagination made manifest in Excel. But, as I recently mentioned, I’ve started becoming a little bored with my plaything – an occupational hazard among narcissistic dictators – so I can’t really be bothered to outline my ‘abundant Wessex’ projections in detail. Suffice to say that if you relax your assumptions about the possibilities for growing more food, then it’s possible to grow more food.

Conversely, I suppose I should also run some projections using yet more stringent assumptions. At the limit, the most stringent assumption is that we’re all screwed and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it – except maybe listen to the earth died screaming on repeat play until a blessed insanity descends. But try putting that in an Excel spreadsheet… An alternative would be to project what our prime minister might call a ‘just about managing’ scenario – or what I, being a glass half-empty kind of guy, would be more inclined to call a ‘we’re all moderately screwed’ scenario. On that score, perhaps we could invoke a recent paper projecting that the impact of climate change in the USA will reduce its agricultural yield to pre-1980 levels by 2050. I’m not sure if anyone’s done a similar analysis for the UK and if it would be sensible to assume similar yield declines. As I say, I’ve fallen a bit out of love with my spreadsheets of late, so I’m inclined just to say that here in Wessex we might be able to feed ourselves in the future very comfortably, quite comfortably, not very comfortably or not at all. There. I’m glad I crunched through all that data in order to push at such far frontiers of new knowledge. If you want me to quantify a ‘moderately screwed’ scenario, you’ll have to twist my arm. Hitting the ‘Donate’ button would help – the lucrative returns for writing this blog seem to have dried up of late. Maybe I’ve been arguing too much.

So, I plan to leave my Wessex peasants and non-peasants there for now. But of course in a world where there’s a Wessex, perhaps we need to ask what of Mercia, what of Northumberland, what, indeed, of Londinium? Well, for the aforementioned reasons I don’t plan on cranking out a whole series of spreadsheets for every UK region, but nor do I want you to leave this post entirely bereft of quantification, so here’s a table ranking seven English regions (I’ve amalgamated the East and Southeast regions, which basically constitute London’s agrarian hinterland) plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland according to available agricultural area per capita. I define ‘agricultural area’ as cropland plus temporary grass, and exclude from it permanent grass and rough grazing – quite a stringent assumption, because there’s a lot of permanent grass in the UK (about 65% of the total agricultural land take) and some of it would be suitable for cropping, though some of it most certainly wouldn’t be.

Table 1: Agricultural land per capita in the UK

Region/Country Hectares agricultural land (excluding permanent grassland) per capita population
Northwest 0.04
Wales 0.08
‘Londinium’ (East + Southeast) 0.09
Northeast 0.09
West Midlands 0.10
Northern Ireland 0.11
Yorkshire + Humber 0.12
Scotland 0.15
‘Wessex’ (Southwest) 0.17
East Midlands 0.19

Source: Derived from http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/06/5559/84

 

I guess you could say the table suggests I’ve been making it easy for myself in construing the agricultural sustainability of my particular region (the southwest), since this has pretty much the highest per capita farmland availability in the whole country. So let’s look at Londinium (aka the East and Southeast regions), which has pretty much the lowest.

The first observation to make is that if we devote 40% of Londinium’s farmland to 20% of its population for the purposes of homesteading, as we did in the case of Wessex, then there are going to be some seriously hungry folk in the smoke. Besides which, I’m figuring that this region will mostly house metropolitan types who couldn’t tell a Gloucester Old Spot from a Wiltshire Horn, and probably wouldn’t much care. I daresay there’d be a little homesteading going on around the margins, but I’m not counting on it – quite literally.

Likewise, we’re going to come up short if we try to grow all the food in the region organically, as a result of both lower organic yields and lower proportionate land areas after correcting for leys. Actually, organic farming does hit its targets for five of my six nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) in Londinium – the exception being the rather important one of energy, where it can only furnish about 60% of total calorific requirements. Not bad for a population of 27 million (again projected to be 20% higher than at present), but not quite good enough (once again, I acknowledge the claims for higher-productivity forms of alternative agriculture, and once again I’m going to sideline them – not because I’m necessarily sceptical, though with some such claims I am a bit, but more because of my preference for under-estimating on the basis of known parameters rather than over-estimating on the basis of unknown ones).

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’ve modelled agrarian production for Londinium along fairly similar lines to the way I did it for the non-peasant folk in Wessex – growing cereals, potatoes and beans on the cropland (but using conventional methods) along with a 25% grass ley. I’ve given over more cropland to growing fruit and vegetables than is currently the case in Londinium in order to prevent any unfortunate outbreaks of scurvy, and I’m raising dairy and beef cows organically on the limited grassland available (there’s a much smaller proportion of permanent grass in Londinium than in Wessex), supplemented with cereal and legume fodder from the cropland. There’s also pork and eggs in the diet, grown essentially from the same sources, and the same ration of fish that was available to the Wessexers. As with Wessex, I’m (controversially) growing grass silage to make methane in order to fuel the food production and distribution system. But I’ve left out of account the energy required to make the synthetic fertiliser – assuming about 150kg Nha-1 and a total energy production cost of 40 MJkgN-1, this amounts to the equivalent of about seven or eight litres of diesel per person per year (not that you’d use diesel to do it). Make of all that what you will – I’m steering clear of any more wrangling over energy futures for the time being.

For information, Figure 1 below shows the overall land use in Londinium and Wessex, comparing present reality to the projected reality of the self-sufficient futures I’m construing in the two cases.

Figure 1: Wessex and Londinium – Present and Projected Land Use

Land use

We now come to the all-important question of whether Londinium can feed itself on the basis of the assumptions outlined above. And the answer is – yes. Next question. Oh, all right – I’ll show you some figures. Table 2 shows, as in my previous such exercises, the ratio of production and requirement for my six nutritional indicators produced in Londinium’s agrarian hinterlands on the basis of the assumptions outlined above (the figures for Wessex shown in previous posts are included for comparison).

Table 2: Production/requirement ratios

Energy Protein Vitamin A Vitamin C Mg Fe
Londinium 1.09 1.59 1.31 3.31 2.00 1.52
Wessex (peasants) 1.10 2.22 5.06 6.24 1.87 1.44
Wessex (non-peasants) 1.00 1.96 2.12 2.47 1.55 1.06

 

So, on the basis of the assumptions outlined here and elsewhere, the neo-peasants of Wessex and their non-peasant counterparts, together with their metropolitan cousins in the neighbouring republic of Londinium all get an adequate diet – though the metropolitan one comes at a higher energetic cost. However, their respective diets aren’t identical. This is indicated in Table 3, which shows the weekly allocation of foods of different kinds to an individual in each of the three cases.

Table 3: Regional diets (kg per person per week)

Peasant Wessex Non-peasant Wessex Londinium
Starchy staples 1.1 4.4 9.8
Vegetables 11.2 3.4 2.4
Fruit 3.3 0.2 0.0
Nuts 0.1 0.0 0.0
Beans 0.2 0.1 0.0
Meat 1.1 0.8 0.2
Milk 9.8 8.0 1.2
Fish 0.4 0.4 0.4
Eggs 0.2 0.0 0.3

 

The three main food groups are (1) the starchy staples, (2) fruit and veg, (3) meat and dairy. Meat and dairy is the most land-hungry form of production in terms of nutritional output for hectares of input, although in all three cases the strategy I’ve adopted is largely a ‘default’ one of fitting livestock production around the edges of producing vegetable matter for direct human consumption, rather than producing livestock in competition with direct production. That’s the case, at any rate, if we assume that the breakdown of cropland and grassland shown in Figure 1 is taken as a given, since you can’t really produce food from grass without the intermediary of livestock. But the crop/grass balance is an arguable assumption – really, this is a moveable feast, and you could turn over some of the grassland to cropland, or else do other things with it such as grow fruit. A couple of points to bear in mind in relation to that vegan argument, though. First, where we’re growing organically, we need generous grass/clover leys, which are conducive to ruminant grazing. And second, I think we need to have some oil and fat in the diet, which in this climate we can only really get from livestock – unless we grow oilseed rape, which I’ve avoided doing in these models.

Notwithstanding those points, there’s a certain convertibility between the three main food groups described above. We can choose to grow fodder crops for ourselves or for livestock, and we can choose to devote cropland to starchy staples or to fruit and veg. The diets of the Wessex neo-peasants and the metropolitans of Londinium are quite divergent in this respect – the neo-peasants get a lot of meat and dairy in their diet (well, actually not that much compared to current levels of US or EU consumption, but as much as they can feasibly produce). Their 10 litres of milk per week also sounds like a lot, but not when you convert it into butter for fat, or into cheese. Likewise, they have a lot of vegetables in their diet, and not much in the way of starchy staples. The Londoners, on the other hand, get little meat or dairy (fat is a problem here) and a lot of starchy staples.

Effectively (and a touch ironically) I think the diets of Wessex and Londinium tend towards what I’d call the two extremes of the ‘peasant way’. The Wessex diet represents the peasant way of abundance, the kind of thing you can do if you have access to adequate land and a light coercive touch from the state. I think I’d possibly be tempted to grow a few more starchy staples and a bit less veg, but essentially this diet strikes me as nutritionally and agriculturally optimal. The garden and the pasture predominate over the field – a good way to eat and a good way to farm. The peasant way of abundance is far from the norm in peasant societies historically, though it’s been more common than those who like dismiss peasant lifeways as a tale of utter misery are usually prepared to admit.

The Londinium diet, on the other hand, represents the peasant way of stress, which is probably closer to the historical norm. The stress factor historically has usually been one or both of: (1) a predatory state, which extracts as much surplus from peasant cultivators as it can get away with, or (2) a Malthusian crisis, in which population outstrips the productive capacity of the land in relation to current technical levels of production (though sometimes an apparently Malthusian crisis is a manifestation of a predatory state, which controls the availability of land). In such circumstances, cultivators necessarily adopt the strategy of producing as much macronutrient-dense food as possible for the minimum input of land and labour – which usually pushes them towards the starchy staples. In the case of Londinium, we have an unprecedentedly dense population, which has resulted from the geopolitics of a globalised and industrialised modern world not at all geared to local food production. Feeding it adequately from local resources is, arguably, doable – but only by pushing pretty hard towards a Malthusian limit. At the moment, such megacities don’t need to provision themselves locally. They typically rely on grain from the continental grasslands and labour-intensive luxuries from the labour-rich, money-poor economic periphery. In the long term, those tactics probably aren’t sustainable – not least because of the outlook for the continental grasslands alluded to in the paper cited above, and also in this excellent piece, another Small Farm Future trailblazer. So perhaps in the future places like Londinium will be reduced to scraping for their supper like any average hard-pressed peasantry.

But another way of looking at it would be that Londinium is probably capable of providing its basic subsistence needs from its immediate hinterlands, which puts it at some food security advantage in these fractiously neo-mercantilist times. I imagine its fortunes will start to decline in the decades ahead, but it seems likely that they’ll stay healthier than those in most of the rest of the UK, which might enable it to do what cities do best and pull in the productivity of less prosperous far-flung lands. Imagine all those beady metropolitan eyes, tired of their bread and gruel, fixed upon the pastures of Wessex where the milk and honey flows. Well, I have a few ideas about how to cope with that which I’ll outline in a future post, but I can’t deny it’s a sobering thought. So perhaps in the meantime we Wessexers should sharpen our pitchforks and summon the Duke of Monmouth’s spirit to our cause.

Well, I’m pretty much inclined to leave my quantitative analysis of Wessex and Londinium there, at least for the time being, though it’s a shame to end on such a conflictual note. There’s a certain London food activist, whose work I greatly admire, who may just possibly be reading this. If she is, and has ideas for brokering a peace between Wessex and Londinium, I’d be delighted to hear from her.

Finally, and talking of Monmouth as I just was, let’s take a short trip across the Bristol Channel and pay a brief visit to Wales. As shown in Table 1, Wales has among the lowest ratios of cropland to population in the UK. On the other hand, it has among the highest ratios of permanent grass (including rough grazing) to population – at 0.49ha per capita it comes second only to Scotland’s whopping 0.88ha, with the highest English region being, you guessed it, Wessex, at a trifling 0.18ha. Recently, I was looking at George Monbiot’s critique of upland sheep farming, in which he has Wales very much in his sights. So I thought I’d look at Welsh food self-sufficiency on the basis of its current agriculture, which on the face of it seems to have a lop-sided focus on low productivity sheep. I’ve taken a figure for sheep meat produced in Welsh abattoirs – which I imagine greatly underestimates the potential productivity of the Welsh sheep industry. I’ve added a rough figure for beef, but ignored dairy on the grounds that it probably relies considerably on imported concentrates. Then I’ve added in all the cropland productivity. And the result of all that is that in calorific terms, Wales could be 61% self-sufficient. Bearing in mind that it’s probably a considerable underestimate, I think that’s an intriguing figure. You could interpret it as supportive of George’s position, or of Simon Fairlie’s view reported on my relevant blog post that there are too many sheep in Wales. Certainly, if you wanted full self-sufficiency for Wales you’d need to find a bit more cropland and probably practice more mixed ley farming as perhaps used to be the case before Wales turned to a more monocultural ovine export agriculture. But given the much-derided low productivity of upland sheep farming, my feeling is that a focus on upland pastoralism may not be such a bad way to go as a key part of a self-provisioning strategy in a relatively unpopulous and mountainous country.

Postscript

I’m providing some additional figures in response to John Boxall’s comment below:

Population Perm Grass Rough Grass Cropland
Northeast 2,596,441 259,000 107,000 222,369
Northwest 7,055,961 540,000 118,000 250,915
Yorkshire and The Humber 5,288,212 339,000 107,000 645,407
East Midlands 4,537,448 285,000 30,000 866,621
West Midlands 5,608,667 397,000 14,000 542,969
East + Southeast (inc London) 22,719,609 562,820 33,650 1,931,717
Southwest 5,300,831 891,000 62,000 882,012
NORTHERN IRELAND 1,800,000 650,414 166,629 48,204
WALES 3,100,000 1,068,814 437,569 89,006
SCOTLAND 5,300,000 1,127,964 3,533,347 592,698

Left agrarian populism: a programme

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…

Notes

  1. Duby, G. 1974. The Early Growth Of The European Economy, Cornell Univ Press, p.92.

Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

Well, I lied to you. I said I was going to write a concluding post on the theme of the commons. But then I realised that this topic is kind of connected to a larger set of issues I’ve been wanting to explore about efficiency, scale, agrarian structures and the like. ‘Kind of connected’ is a useful phrase I picked up from an undergraduate lecture by one of my professors, Paul Richards (author of the brilliant Indigenous Agricultural Revolution…I wish I’d realised then how lucky I was to be taught by him). Paul said that on bad days it felt like the only conclusion he could come to about the world was that everything was kind of connected to everything else in complex ways that he couldn’t quite understand. And ain’t that ever so.

So I’m going to hold off on the conclusion to my commoning theme for a while, and work up to it more slowly and obliquely. Mind you, since introducing a ‘Donate’ button to my blog I suppose I do have a paying public to think about now. Let’s have a look at the account balance, then. Oh. OK, I’ll write what I damn well please…

Now then, Clem commented a couple of posts back on the issue of economies of scale in agriculture, and Brian Miller wrote an interesting post about farm energy and haymaking not so long ago. So let’s bring those themes together. Are there economies of scale in grass-cutting? My friend, I bring you the results of the official Vallis Veg mowing trial.

So, one bright June morning I spent a minute cutting grass with each of the following five increasingly scaled up mowing technologies available to me on my holding:

  1. With my bare hands
  2. With a 25cm hand sickle
  3. With a 50cm scythe (ditch blade)
  4. With a petrol-engine strimmer
  5. With a 5ft pasture topper attached to a 45hp diesel tractor

Only a minute, you say? Well, I’m a busy guy – besides, how long do you fancy pulling out perennial pasture grass with your bare hands?

And here are the results:

Area mown

My scythe isn’t the biggest and it wasn’t at its keenest, nor am I the best scythesman. Then again my tractor/topper aren’t the biggest either. But really there’s no two ways about it, the middle ages (scythe) beats the bronze age (sickle) by a factor of more than 4, and the industrial age (tractor) beats the middle ages by a factor of over 17. Comparing the tractor to bare hands, we could say there’s a labour efficiency factor of at least x132 with modern technology over no technology.

But let’s look at the energy inputs involved. Here I’m assuming a person eats 2,500 calories = 10.5 MJ per day, so I impute a minute’s portion of that daily intake to the operator in each case. Then there’s the embodied energy in the tools and machinery. Doubtless how to figure this in could be debated endlessly, but for simplicity I’ve taken a (probably now dated) standard figure for the per kg energy used in steel manufacture multiplied by the weight of the kit and the fraction of its expected working life devoted to the minute of grass cutting. Finally, I’ve added in the energy contained in the fuel used on the assumption that petrol and diesel contain about 36 MJ/l. I’m neglecting a lot of the other upstream costs of producing machinery and fossil fuel which probably biases the analysis in favour of the powered machinery, but there you go. Like I say, I’m a busy guy.

Here are the results:

Energy used

No surprises that the quicker the method of cutting the more gross energy it uses. The assumptions underlying my energy analysis are on an accompanying spreadsheet available from my Research and publications page. Of course, these assumptions are questionable, but I doubt any plausible set of alternatives would change the overall picture much. I’d be interested to know how a big modern tractor with a more efficient diesel engine would compare with my Ford 3600. Possibly it’d do a better job. On the embodied energy front I doubt that these tractors will still be plying their trade on small farms in forty years’ time as many of the Ford 3600 generation of tractors are, but since fuel use is the major factor, well…I guess one of those beasts could probably cut ten times the area of my rig in the same time, though it’d still probably use more fuel. How about plugging in these assumptions: compared to my tractor setup a big modern rig weighs four times more, cuts ten times more, uses double the fuel, and has a working life of 15 years working 2 days a week.

At any rate, let’s now put the two measures from the previous graphs together in a ratio:

Ratio area-energy

So, when it comes to energetic efficiencies of scale, the accolade goes to…the Middle Ages! Proof at last of what I’ve long argued on this site – a bit of technology is a wonderful thing, but the trick is knowing when to stop. The modern tractor rig assumptions improve the output/input ratio from 21 (my tractor) to 99 – only a little less efficient than using bare hands (110), but still eight times less efficient than the scythe.

OK, now I’m not seriously arguing that modern agriculture should dispense with its tractors and other powered machinery and return to the scythe…though I’m probably prepared to take that argument more seriously than most. Still, I think analyses like this do call into question the terms of the debate about agricultural efficiency or economies of scale. Modern mechanised agriculture has been labour ‘saving’, essentially by turbocharging traditional agricultural practices with the use of non-renewable and polluting fossil fuels. But it’s not especially efficient.

Now, if I were a mainstream economist, I’d probably just look at labour and fuel inputs as (relatively) substitutable factors of production. With agricultural diesel at 50p per litre and the minimum wage at £6.50 per hour the choice of grass-cutting method is a no brainer. I suppose if you figured in a sufficiently high carbon price as an externality it might change the picture a bit, but hey who cares about carbon pricing? Certainly not the governments of the world.

The problem with looking at labour and fuel inputs as substitutable factors of production is that it erases the politics and the history behind that simple 50p/l vs £7.50/hr choice. There’s a political and historical backstory here.

For proponents of agricultural ‘modernization’, the backstory is one of technological improvements releasing a grateful peasantry from backbreaking drudgery on the land (aside: in writings on agriculture, use of the word ‘backbreaking’ is a surefire signal that the virtues of Monsanto or John Deere are about to be extolled). For its opponents, the backstory is one of the deliberate separation of the working class from their means of subsistence on the land so they could be redeployed as industrial wage slaves. In both cases I think the narrative somewhat overstates the coherence of the process, which really emerged long-term from people responding to the more immediate incentives of the 50p/l vs £7.50/hr kind without being overly concerned about what kind of society (whether benevolent or malign) they were ultimately creating – though as David Graeber argues in his excellent tome Debt: The First 5000 Years, such responses themselves emerge from longer-term culture histories concerning money and exchange.

In any case, the modern result of these trends has been the creation of a pretty dysfunctional agricultural economy whose dominant tendencies involve substituting jobs with diesel wherever possible, paying less for food than its costs of production, shoring up the deficit for the lucky few rich farmers with government subsidies, pricing rural land beyond the means of ordinary people and ordinary farmers, and concentrating people in urban areas, where many experience chronic unemployment or underemployment, while the consequences of carbon emissions, soil loss etc are left to future generations to sort out, if they can.

Now, I’m not proposing so simple a solution to this mess as arming the un(der)employed urban masses with scythes and telling them to go cut something down (interesting, if alarming, as that process might be). Or banning tractors. I don’t think there are any simple solutions. But one way to move towards some complex solutions to these complex problems is to start telling some different and, yes, more complex stories about agriculture and its history and economics. And perhaps one of these stories, as per my grass cutting experiment, is to point out that agriculture is not more efficient, but less efficient than it used to be, at least according to one significant measure of agricultural performance. Perhaps you could still say that it’s more labour efficient, but wrapped up in that concept are a whole set of issues about the social organisation of labour, energy futures and so on. We need to be debating those issues openly, rather than erasing them by recourse to spurious notions of efficiency or idle conjectures about the future availability of limitless clean energy. I’m aiming to make my own particular contribution to that debate in this ongoing cycle of posts…