I enjoyed writing a book review for my last post so much that I’m going to write another one this time around. But whereas last time it was a long review of a very long book addressing itself to a large slice of human history, here I offer you a short review of a much shorter book about the life of a single man.
The man in question is Simon Fairlie, and the book is Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir (Chelsea Green, 2022). Disclosure: I know Simon a little, as I suspect do many people in England with more than a passing involvement in the movement for local, sustainable agriculture – testament either to the still regrettably small corps of people the movement commands, or perhaps more positively to Simon’s tireless efforts in making the case and spreading the word on numerous fronts. I’ve written for Simon’s excellent periodical The Land and there’s an endorsement from me inside his book. So, needless to say, I am not an unbiased observer.
Parts of Simon’s life story were therefore familiar to me as I read his memoir: cofounder of the influential low impact agricultural community, Tinker’s Bubble; land rights activist and rural planning expert; reviver of the fine art of scything; acutely perceptive agricultural thinker, whose book Meat: A Benign Extravagance is still the best-articulated vision of a just and sustainable small farm future I know. Other parts were newer to me: an upper-crust if unconventional childhood, dropping out in the 1960s and joining the hippy trail to India, 1990s road protesting and a brief stint in jail as a member of the Twyford Six (“an unwarranted honorific given the minimal degree of martyrdom we had to undergo”), work as a stonemason high aloft at Salisbury Cathedral – and, generally, a life lived at an angle to mainstream working and living arrangements.
The book has a conventional autobiographical structure, a chronological self-narration from childhood to senior citizen, which surprised me at first. It’s not the kind of thing I’d have expected Simon to write at all. But the payoff from such an acute observer of the world is that his story, from 1950s childhood to 2020s dotage, becomes a deft social history of postwar England (and other places, but mostly England). Throughout, Simon has been drawn to people retaining or creating lifeways that resist or negate the dictates of the conventional economy, and he offers numerous wonderful little vignettes from these various front lines – for example, in his account of the now-defunct seacoaling community inhabiting the beaches near Newcastle that he briefly joined in the 1980s, “an example of an open access commons operating within the shell of a capitalist transaction”.
Simon’s attention to the way such communities form – and the way the powers-that-be try to crush them – elevates the book far beyond the personal into a nuanced appreciation of the cultures of capitalism, making it a fitting complement to the book I previously reviewed. But narrated in the context of an individual life, and with Simon’s trademark salty style, it’s considerably more of a page turner.
I like the telling little details he notices – how, for example, chicken was a luxury food in the 1950s because of its dependence on then relatively expensive arable grain fodder, while grass-fed beef and lamb were more easily available. The implications of such observations for agricultural futures today are large, yet go dismayingly little discussed in contemporary food system debates. Simon’s portrait of the 1950s emphasizes how even a fairly privileged upbringing in one of the most privileged countries in the world at that time involved much closer connection to a relatively renewable local agrarian economy than today. This is worth bearing in mind when making the case for low impact local agrarianism in the teeth of derision from techno-solutionists of the present, who are apt to accuse one of wishing to go back to the stone age, or the middle-ages, or [insert supposedly awful period of past history of choice]. The appropriate response to this is to say that we don’t wish to “go back” anywhere, but a passing appreciation among our critics of the way that the neoliberal extremism of recent years has undermined even the residual local sustainability and food autonomy in many countries, including Britain, in just a few decades wouldn’t go amiss.
There were two related areas of discussion in Simon’s book that left me wanting more analysis from him. The first relates to the relative failure of the timber enterprise at Tinker’s Bubble, which he describes as follows:
“the main reason was that the timber operation was a joint enterprise that required the co-operation of several people … And we hippies, although we wanted to live in a community, actually weren’t too good at working communally. That’s not to say we couldn’t. It was more that most of the time most of the people didn’t want to. A squad of professional soldiers under orders would have achieved in a few days what took us months or even years to get together.
The problem had been apparent from the outset. We started out with communal work days, but it was often difficult to get some people to join in and after about eighteen months these were dropped. Instead we adopted a system where different people took responsibility for different tasks, but not everyone carried out their roles, and the forestry fell behind. By 1999…work was no longer structured around a farm plan. Instead each person was supposed to achieve a land-based income through their own devices…The result was a multiplicity of veg patches…hand tilled with spade and mattock” (pp.221-2)
In this revealing microcosm from a single modern agricultural community, Simon pretty much tells the history of local agrarian societies writ large – working communally where they have to, wrestling to find formal collective work arrangements able to fit around the crooked timber of humanity, but generally preferring to organize agriculture in ways that create personal autonomy over the work regimen and opting where possible for intensive cultivation on an individual or household basis, while leaving collective arrangements for the more extensive, whole-landscape level stuff.
I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but in short I don’t think Simon should blame it on any unique failings among the hippies at Tinker’s Bubble. The contrast with a squad of soldiers under orders is informative. History suggests that it’s usually only under rather special, and perhaps undesirable, forms of hierarchy that it becomes easy to create a readily manageable day-to-day work regimen that’s genuinely collective in form. Contemporary writers too often fall into the trap of supposing this is some particular failing of our modern, selfish individualism. It isn’t.
Simon later moved to Monkton Wyld, another well-known intentional community here in southwest England. He speaks a little more highly of it, but – unlike Tinkers Bubble – he wasn’t involved in the arduous process of establishing its routines, and, as he acknowledges himself, the community doesn’t make its livelihood from agriculture and, when he moved there, was already running along the lines that Tinker’s Bubble eventually adopted, where “each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the community for their performance”.
For me, this raises questions of a kind we recently discussed on this blog that touch upon the second point of interest, namely family and personal relationships. Throughout the book, Simon discusses his sometimes stuttering family and romantic relationships with impressive candour and self-criticism, and occasional raw honesty. Yet I was struck by this passage in which he shares his thoughts about how intentional communities address internal tensions:
“Nothing bodes worse, in my view, than ‘feelings meetings’ called to resolve interpersonal problems or plumb the depths of the communal psyche … Occasionally we get visitors, or prospective members who want to promote this kind of collective narcissism and I’m glad to say they get pretty short shrift from most of our members. ‘Least said, soonest mended’ is not a solution for all ills, but it is the policy to be preferred in the first instance.”
I don’t much disagree, and I likewise tend to shy away from collective over-sharing of emotional introspection. But, indeed as Simon says, ‘least said soonest mended’ isn’t a solution for all ills, and it seems to me that the culture around this in current times – particularly manifested in generations younger than mine or Simon’s – has improved in its recognition that people often do need to talk through their complications with each other in constructive ways, and sometimes need the help of others to do it. This is usually true whether the community of concern is a family, a workplace, a neighbourhood, an intentional community, an ecovillage or a country. My sense of this, somewhat amplified by reading Simon’s book, is that it doesn’t matter all that much which of these levels we’re talking about. The need to address and sometimes redress power relationships and interpersonal tensions is similar at all levels of human interaction.
This is why I’ve come to think that the endless and often fierce arguments about whether families, friendship groups, local or intentional communities, governments, commons, wider publics or statutory agencies are the best form of fundamental organization for a well-functioning society are ultimately futile. I have a slight bias against governments and statutory agencies because I don’t think they’re very good at sharing their feelings constructively and then moving on. But ultimately all these levels of human organization face parallel challenges, and squabbling over which is best serves little purpose. At Monkton Wyld as for every other well-functioning social unit, each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the wider community. And the wider community must also somehow be answerable to each person. Enough said. Time to move on.
In this brief review, I’ve just picked out a few strands from Simon’s rich and informative narrative – I’d warmly commend anyone interested enough to have read this far to get themselves a copy of the book, where they’ll find much more to entertain and inspire them. On its final page, Simon writes:
“I’m not one of those bronzed and wiry septuagenarians who take on challenges like rowing across the Atlantic. I’m pink and fat, and I avoid having to bend down to tie up my shoelaces. Yet despite this corporeal decadence, I can still milk the cows, muck out the yard and mow quarter of an acre of hay in a morning, and I intend to keep it up. I expect to die in bed with my boots on, having been too knackered and drunk to take them off”
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen until those boots have tramped many more miles, and he’s shared more of his acute wisdom and radicalism, and a few more stories, with the rest of us.
Time for a book review to mark the passage of my present lengthy blog cycle about my own little book into its later phases. And so, with the usual caveats about my entirely unsystematic and biased approach to the reviewing business, let us take a look at Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Harvard, 2019). At 799 pages, it makes the 692-page doorstopper from Graeber and Wengrow that I last reviewed seem almost flimsy by comparison. But I have read every page of McCarraher’s tome (well, almost – see below) to bring you its fruits, so take a seat and settle in. This, regrettably, is quite a long review, but on the upside it’ll take you way, way less time to read than the book itself (and if you read it carefully, you may just notice that I provide a useful hack).
1. Of sacramental capitalism
The pioneering sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) popularized the term ‘the disenchantment of the world’ to describe the rationalization, bureaucratization and commodification of society in the modern era, as against the enchanted or sacramental worldview of premodern times where people, organisms and other entities were imbued with otherworldly spiritual significance. The big idea that organizes McCarraher’s book is that Weber was wrong. The thought of modern times, and the capitalist economy that animates it, is itself in McCarraher’s words “a form of enchantment – perhaps better, a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world” (p.5). Enlightenment, capitalism and modernity, says McCarraher, didn’t replace religion. They are religion.
On this point, I fully agree with McCarraher, who does a fine job of substantiating it throughout his book in relation to any number of writers and thinkers. But while he does a good job substantiating it, it’s not the kind of thing that he or anyone else can ever really prove, and I daresay there will be readers more aligned with the Weberian view who will be left cold by McCarraher’s claims that our modern conceptions of capitalism and progress are just another waypoint on humanity’s search for spiritual redemption. There’s a kind of dualism here in contemporary culture with clear, unbridgeable water between the two positions. From my side of it, I’d say you either just get that our fondest notions of progress, instrumental control, technological mastery and capitalist needs satiation are basically forms of spiritual yearning, or … you don’t. Trying to argue it out with the other side is rarely illuminating and usually ends at best with blank incomprehension, and often with mere name-calling.
So I doubt McCarraher’s mammoth tome will have much success converting those who welcome capitalism as a disenchantment of sacramental premodern worldviews and a lynchpin of humanity’s modern betterment and progress. Even so, I don’t think his time was wasted. It’s useful to have a hefty, serious work of scholarship that endorses Romanticism, enchantment, love and communion as ideas to be proudly embraced, rescuing them from the derision of the true believers in the supposedly more hard-bitten notions of secular progress who in his pages unwittingly reveal their own sacramental longings. As McCarraher puts it:
“the Romantic lineage of opposition to “disenchantment” and capitalism has proved to be more resilient and humane than Marxism, “progressivism”, or social democracy. Indeed, it is more urgently relevant to a world hurtling ever faster to barbarism and ecological calamity”
Amen to that. I should say, though, that McCarraher’s pithiest and most stimulating thoughts about the sacramental nature of capitalism come in the Prologue (pp.1-21) to which most of the rest of the book relates almost as a (very long) footnote. Despite the longueurs, I do like the way he catches the religious timbre of so much writing about capitalism, technology and progress – as for example in an 1860 edition of Scientific American that wrote of recent improvements in haymaking technology “Are not our inventors absolutely ushering in the very dawn of the millennium?” (p.137). But maybe it wouldn’t have hurt to have had a bit less of this footnoting and a bit more of a clearly defined intellectual position around why in capitalist situations “our love spoils into a lust for power that mars the development of civilization” (p.12) and how, under capitalism, enchantment becomes misenchantment.
2. Of nostalgic modernism, the technological sublime and Smaje’s law
Still, sprinkled across the pages of his book like adamantine little jewels, McCarraher explores the implications of his prologue in a series of excellent, almost counterfactual propositions about where the Romantic lineage he refers to in the quotation above might have taken us, and perhaps still might, if only we could tame the disenchanted ideology of techno-progress.
For starters, he reclaims the very idea of ‘progress’ for the Romantic lineage along similar, but rather sharper, lines to my own attempts to escape the airless duality of technological progress versus backward-looking nostalgia. Romantics don’t want to respool history and ‘go back’, but we are able to see the negatives in the way modern societies have gone ‘forwards’, a lot of them connected with the capitalist abstraction and accumulation of money (p.14). So it’s not that we’re opposed to progress. Just the present dominant version of it.
The more I read The Enchantments of Mammon the more vividly it underlined an irony I remarked in my own book, that this present dominant version of technological progress is in fact stuck in the past, specifically in the increasingly dated ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment period and the succeeding intellectual culture of the 19th century. The very title of one leading treatise in progress ideology – Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now! – pretty much gives the game away. Despite the considerable insights of founding modernist figures from those periods – Mandeville, Smith, Kant, Marx, Montesquieu and many others – the projects they initiated have revealed their contradictions and are now exhausted. Yet we continue to reinvent them in the face of present problems as if they’re fresh insights without historical baggage.
When the bandwagon of ecomodernism started rolling in the early years of the 21st century, pronouncing the death of ‘traditional’ or ‘romantic’ environmentalism and trumpeting its melding of ecological consciousness with high technology, it successfully presented itself as a bold new vision while quietly filling new bottles with this same old wine. Although he doesn’t talk about ecomodernism as such, a nice feature of McCarraher’s book is that he captures the sense in which future-heralding techno-progress versus present-focused conviviality is not a new debate, its present form going at least as far back as the 19th century and probably much further. And it’s not really about technology, either. It’s more of a religious debate about how you prefer your sacraments – convivially among friends, family and known existing places, in the embrace of small shrines accreted with a weight of local meaning? Or portentously among the heavens, seeking a Promethean unity with the gods that gladly annihilates the solidity of the local and the presently existing?
The hangover that visits some who wake from the Promethean excess of the latter form of sacrament is called neurasthenia – what McCarraher describes as “a feeling of anomie, listlessness and boredom in the midst of unprecedented comfort and abundance” (p.328). It’s easy to dismiss this as a nice problem to have, a ‘First World’ problem. But it may prove a potentially disastrous whole world problem if its sufferers, those with great purchasing power, try to solve it through further cycles of bad consumption and bad politics. Although it’s common in modern culture to pay lip service to the banality of consumerism, we rarely look the downside of unprecedented wealth, comfort and energetic command fully in the eye.
McCarraher cites, for example, Timothy Walker’s ‘Defence of mechanical philosophy’, published in 1831, in which the human mind becomes “the powerful lord of matter” and “machines are to perform all the drudgery of man, while he is to look on in self-complacent ease” (p.137-8). No doubt there’s much to be said for ‘ease’, at least some of the time, but ‘self-complacency’ doesn’t sound so great. Yet it’s an apt term for our contemporary fossil-fuelled civilization as it teeters on the brink of authoring its own collapse while congratulating itself for its neurasthenic achievements and scorning societies of the past.
How have we come to think that self-complacency is a good thing? How have we come to be so proud of what Alexander Langlands calls ‘the illiteracy of power’ in which we can see only the advantages of our automated alienation from the biosphere that sustains us, and none of the disadvantages? Rather than embracing new technologies for their assistance in meeting a priori human ends, we’ve ended up embracing new technologies simply in their own right – a kind of aestheticized “technological sublime” (p.135) so pathological that governments are now reduced to invoking as yet implausible, untried or uninvented technologies to bail us out of climate catastrophe in the next few decades.
What I find depressing is not so much the persistence of the technological sublime into the present but its ubiquity across the political spectrum, from the far right to the far left, where Marxists feature as “the lead-bottomed ballast of the status quo…the middle managers of a consumerist, technological civilization” (p.635). As McCarraher’s painstaking enquiry makes clear, you have to look hard to find progressive thinkers articulating alternative romantic, convivial, human-scale visions of society – and most of them, alas, are forced to waste a lot of their time explaining why they do not in fact wish to turn the clock back to a mythical golden age and why they’re not just misty-eyed conservatives. I’d add, though, that perhaps you don’t have to look quite as hard to find them as you might think from a reading of McCarraher’s book, a point to which I’ll return.
In a bravura section (roughly pp.58-107) McCarraher offers a brilliant critique of Marxism which he shows, for all its strengths, has bequeathed a bad legacy of non-ecumenical scorn for alternative, non-Marxist – particularly romantic – traditions on the left, and an ill-conceived vaunting of the working class and other categories of oppressed people as the only authentic agents of political change. I plan to write separately about this elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here except to say that McCarraher’s critique pivots towards the kind of progressive populist politics I explore briefly in my own book, and which seems to me the most promising route out of humanity’s present predicaments. And I will write more about that in a moment.
For now, I’ll simply say that against the naïve techno-communism of the Leigh Phillips ‘just wait until the working class get the keys to the nuclear power station’ variety, there is no particular sub-group of humanity imbued with some kind of redemptive political authenticity that will save our ass, and nor are there any redemptive technologies like nuclear power that will save our ass either, even if some technologies (probably not nuclear power) will definitely have a role to play in a convivial future.
But a livable future for humanity will have to involve less accumulated power and capital more evenly distributed. That means less material wealth and less command over material resources for the richest portion of humanity than we’re currently accustomed to – although not necessarily less wealth in all the other dimensions of human experience that matter more. But let’s speak plainly – the global rich, which probably includes most people likely to be reading this article, will be materially poorer.
Although McCarraher doesn’t make a central theme of this in his book, nor, to his credit, does he shy away from it. And he usefully excavates various marginalized strands of thought that might inform it, like the Christian socialism of Vida Dutton Scudder and Bouck White, with Scudder’s commitment to “the Franciscan way of poverty, a path of dispossession rooted in a confident, premodern ontology of love” (p.259) and White’s critique of “the modern dread and horror of poverty” (p.294).
I must stress that what I’m talking about isn’t the kind of grinding, malnourished, violent life of poverty that Prometheans often think they’re striving to abolish, while we Romantics tend to see on the contrary as largely a consequence of modern Prometheanism. Instead, I mean a life where the flow of energy and cheap consumer commodities is slower than we’re accustomed to in the Global North and where more of our time must be devoted to furnishing our livelihoods.
On this point, McCarraher provides some useful grist in the dreary poverty wars that rage endlessly between the Promethean and Romantic visions. I’ve lost count of the times somebody championing some favoured example of capitalist high technology as a boon to the poor has angrily denounced the moral repugnance of my position for its connivance with global poverty. Often enough I’ve shot the charge right back. This is what I propose to call Smaje’s law, a variant of its more famous cousin Godwin’s Law: the longer that Promethean techno-modernists and convivial Romantics engage each other online, the more likely it is that someone will profess self-righteous anger at the others’ moral complicity with poverty.
I don’t think it’s a good look for wealthy westerners to invoke the global poor as bargaining chips in their political arguments with each other, so these days I try to avoid falling into the dread grip of Smaje’s law. Albeit a side theme of McCarraher’s book, he provides some useful leverage within its pages for avoiding the dismal oversimplifications involved. And for that I thank him.
3. Plymouth Rock or Jamestown?
I hope I’ve conveyed some of the great strengths of McCarraher’s book. I now want to mention some weaknesses, which I trust won’t detract from an appreciation of the whole.
I’ll begin with a minor one. McCarraher writes beautifully, but at a level of highfaluting intellectual abstraction likely to leave many a general reader cold. There are a lot of sentences like this:
“Indebted to Emerson and Nietzsche and their mythos of the unfettered spirit, Goldman and other cultural radicals draped a bourgeois ontology of power in the exotic raiment of bohemia”
This is fine by me, having served a lengthy sentence in academia’s ivory prison, but I suspect it will limit his readership – which is unfortunate, because I think he has important things to say. Actually, people have said much the same about my own writing, so at least the next time that happens I can say “if you think I’m bad, try reading Eugene McCarraher!”
A more serious stylistic problem is that while McCarraher doesn’t exactly hide his political colours, he treats most of his case material (which, almost exclusively, comprises what highly educated and literate people such as himself have written about the society they’re living in) to a kind of mannered disdain, which left me wondering how he proposes to transcend a misenchanted capitalism. The writer he most reminds me of, and who McCarraher himself invokes quite often as both muse and counterpoint, is Christopher Lasch. Lasch also had a good line in disdain, which he directed voluminously towards the political left, the political right, and most points in between, but in my opinion usually with a clearer underlying politics that holds the attention better. So I must admit I skimmed a few pages in the middle of McCarraher’s book. There’s only so much self-congratulatory bloviation from obscure 1920s New York admen that anybody needs to experience in their lifetime.
Excessive detail aside, McCarraher does provide a rich account of the history of US capitalism, particularly in the crucial late 19th century change from an individualist-proprietorial model to a corporate, managerial and statist one. I liked his mordant analysis of the “double truth” by which the former model is still used as a veil of legitimacy for the latter:
“one truth for the neoliberal intelligentsia and their sponsors – the fabrication of markets and property relations by corporate capital and the state – and another for the credulous mob – the natural and therefore inviolable status of capitalist markets and property”
But, apart from a brief nod in the early chapters to thinkers in 19th century England, McCarraher’s history of capitalism is almost exclusively a history of capitalism in the USA. Given that even this takes him nearly 800 pages, perhaps we should be grateful that he didn’t opt for a global approach. But the lack of wider material does compromise his analysis. In particular, he takes the rather sectarian view that the worm in the bud of the US economy arrived with the Pilgrim Fathers and the contradictions of their ‘covenant theology of capitalism’. He outlines convincingly enough these Puritan contradictions, but a wider view of the emergence of capitalism as a world system encompassing not only such Catholic powers and players as Spain, Portugal, France, the city states of Italy and the merchants of Antwerp but also non-Christian protagonists beyond Europe and the Americas might have usefully complicated his vision.
Even within North America, a glance at the irreligious freebooters of Jamestown – who preceded the Puritans of Plymouth Rock by some years as colonial English founders on the continent – might have called into question McCarraher’s instinct to locate the origins of capitalism in the contradictions of lofty Protestant theology. And, whatever the origins, a feature of capitalism is its viral tendency to force replication of its basic structure with local variation across global geography, religion and culture. It may be true, as McCarraher – quoting pioneering American economist Thorstein Veblen – states, that the US farming yeomen of diverse origins of the 19th and 20th centuries were “cultivators of the main chance as well as of the fertile soil” (p.268), but this surely wasn’t fundamentally because of their religion.
4. Plain folks and the stuff they buy
If there’s not going to be a simple revolutionary redemption from capitalism orchestrated by ordinary working people of the kind that Marxists project, then what alternatives are there for getting off the hook on which the capitalist global economy undeniably suspends us? I’m not sure there’s any really plausible answer to that, but if there is I think it will involve complex, flawed, non-revolutionary transformations of capitalism orchestrated from place to place by broad alliances of different people, including but not limited to ordinary working ones.
In the later parts of his book, McCarraher takes us on an informative sightseeing trip that hints at who some of these people might be and what their alliances might look like. Frustratingly, though, he presents them rather hurriedly, almost as exotica in the manner that a well-informed but world-weary tour guide might (that mannered disdain again!) before ushering us back to our comfortable modernist hotel with a faint aura of disillusionment. This leaves little sense of how the living, breathing people we’ve met could help generate the political traction necessary to improve our world. So here I’m going to try sneaking out of the hotel, revisiting some of the people McCarraher has introduced us to, and giving them a bit more leeway to tell a different story.
One of McCarraher’s targets is ‘plain folks ideology’, which he defines in terms of “white supremacy, patriarchal dominance, small government, antipathy towards cultural and economic elites, and the Protestant work ethic” (p.583). It strikes me that this ideology is quite US-specific, although it has resonances – perhaps, for various reasons, growing ones – elsewhere, not least here in Europe. I’ll accept these traits as at least one core ideology of ordinary working people and do my best to work through it towards something more promising.
I’ve written elsewhere about patriarchal dominance, and briefly above about the Protestant work ethic so I’ll restrict myself to a few remarks about the other three items on the plain folks list. Recently in the US and other countries of the Global North there seems to have been a resurgence of bald, far-right white supremacism and ethno-nationalism, but more moderate identification of ordinary working-class white and majority ethnic people ‘upwards’ with majority elites against minorities is probably still of greater political importance.
This identification is heavily manipulated by elites and the politicians representing them like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, but I’ll avoid the ‘false consciousness’ argument that working people don’t know what’s good for them and support such ideologies against their own best interests. In fact, I’d argue the plain folks’ antipathy to elites is more partial than McCarraher implies, involving a claim to be a part of the elite which, like many such claims, involves denying the existence of its own privilege. Hence, there’s a tendency within ‘plain folks’ thinking to dismiss as liberal wokeism an awareness of the historical advantage accruing even to ordinary working-class people of white or majority ethnicity in the Global North arising from colonial power and its modern versions, which becomes an elitism of its own.
McCarraher himself sometimes succumbs to a version of this – as, for example, when he writes “the New Deal state attempted to temper class conflict, stabilize the business cycle, and promote economic growth, relying primarily on the stimulation of consumption through fiscal policy and military spending” (p.364). It’s as if spending on the US military was merely an economic stimulus package. But really you need to ask what the military was doing, and why.
Anyway, a big question for the future is whether these basically elite narratives of race and nation will continue to temper class conflict by drawing majority working-class people into their ambit, or whether more genuinely populist rebellion against the elites might occur. There’s a strong case for thinking the former is likely, but I’d argue McCarraher gives too little credence to the possibilities for the latter.
As with race, so with class, and the curious appeal of popular conservatism. It’s easy to see why people in the richest strata of society, especially in the Global North, are drawn to conservative, pro-capitalist politics, even if the conjunction of conservatism and capitalism needs some unpicking, because there’s nothing in the least bit ‘conservative’ about capitalism. But it’s not so easy to see the appeal to ordinary working-class people, other than as a crumbs-from-the-table subsidiary elitism of the kind I’ve just described. McCarraher addresses this implicitly in an illuminating passage that I’ll quote at length, where he discusses the mid-20th century conservative agrarian localism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk:
“Weaver and Kirk might have been expected to call for the abolition of corporate capitalism and the revival of family proprietorship. Yet however nostalgic they may have been for the dung-scented air of agrarian integrity, they, along with most other “conservatives”, made a separate peace with corporate business. On this score, they demonstrated the veracity of Corey Robin’s analysis of “the reactionary mind”: that conservatism has been, at bottom, less a concern for the preservation of tradition than “an animus against the agency of the subordinate classes,” a determination that society remain “a federation of private dominions,” especially in the workplace and the family”
There’s quite a lot going on in this passage, and it bears fruitfully on some contemporary political puzzles. I think there remains in the USA, although less than in most other wealthy countries, a taste for ‘big government’ among ordinary, working-class voters who appreciate that only big governments have the power to take on private corporate interests to the benefit of ordinary people. But it’s tempered simultaneously by an understandable scepticism towards big government, partly through the realization that private corporate interests also rely heavily on the power of big government and ultimately command more of its loyalty, and partly through the alienating experience of bureaucratic welfare capitalism, along with a historical sense that bureaucratic welfare socialism is just as bad, or worse.
This leads to some curious political alignments. On the one hand, there are big government neo-Bolshevik left-wingers like Leigh Phillips and his ‘People’s Republic of Walmart’ shtick. You can barely drive a cigarette paper between his position and big government ‘conservative’ neoliberalism, and if you can it’s a paper inscribed with a belief in the redemptive power of the working class and the benevolence of the bureaucratic state that’s naïve even by Marxist standards. On the other hand, you get small government proponents running the gamut from dissimulating neoliberals playing the ‘double truth’ game I mentioned above, to communitarian and populist conservatives, anarchists and civic republican progressive populists like me.
I think big government leftists are backing the wrong horse because of the impossible political contradictions and biophysical conundrums faced by national and global governance. There’s scope for engaging the subtler thinkers among them who don’t immediately dismiss any kind of small government thinking as irredeemably conservative and beyond the pale, but regrettably such thinkers are scarcer on the left than you might expect.
So perhaps it’s more important for we small government romantic progressives to reach out to the conservative communitarians and populists, with whom we share a commitment to McCarraher’s “federation of private dominions” in the workplace, the family and elsewhere. But we also have a commitment to the “agency of the subordinate classes” (among others) and to principles of fairness and justice determined by inclusive political deliberation rather than assumed to exist in the nature of things.
Our challenge is to convince small government populist conservatives and communitarians that the federation of private dominions they favour has more in common with our vision of private autonomy and public good than with the vision of private property held by the corporate sector and the minority wealthy elite, which lacks commitment to genuine, popular private ownership and distributed sovereignty. Building such a populist alliance is a daunting challenge, but it may be more politically effective than trying to engage the traditional big government and class-determinist left to make its well-intentioned but shopworn political convictions fit for present times. Anyway, I haven’t yet given up on the idea that progressive populists could form a powerful alliance with certain kinds of smalltown conservatives and communitarians. Indeed, the time for it seems riper now than at any point in the recent past (I acknowledge, by the way, that the simple duality of ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government I’m using here needs unpicking. More on that another time, I hope, along with some further thoughts on progressive/conservative alliance).
One reason the time is ripe is because while 19th and 20th century populists could be forgiven for thinking that there was little possibility of reviving family proprietorship in the face of corporate state and capitalist power, it’s easier to entertain its revival today. This is my argument in A Small Farm Future,and it’s the creed of a small but growing band of neo-peasants and neo-homesteaders whose political allegiances cut across traditional lines.
I wish McCarraher could have lent some of his weight to that movement, but for all his endorsement of romantic alternatives to techno-capitalism and its techno-communist twin, he just can’t quite escape the urge to disdain them, as with his “dung-scented air of agrarian integrity” remark. This urge gets the better of him in his analysis of US agrarian populism around the turn of the 20th century, whose proponents emerge from his pages as mere smalltown capitalists with nothing to teach the anticapitalists of today: “populism was an alternative model of capitalism, it was never an alternative to capitalism….it has never imagined a fundamental revision of property relations in America” (p.265).
There’s some truth to this, but it’s a charge that any number of jobbing Marxists could have laid, and indeed many have. For someone who’s just taken so much trouble to criticize the progressive, world-redeeming pretensions of Marxism, it’s strange that McCarraher relapses into the same easy critique of populist reformism without probing more deeply at the movement’s radical possibilities. For my part, I’d argue that elements of US populism and contemporaneous movements like distributism did imagine a ‘fundamental revision of property relations’ – a more realistic one than Marx’s – in advocating for the fair distribution of land and in opposing the anti-democratic, corporate accumulation of property.
McCarraher himself mentions how “the lords of finance capital realized with horror” that the populist C.W. Macune’s sub-treasury plan “would place the nation’s monetary policy under…greater democratic supervision…and break the hold of big-city merchants and commercial banks on American farmers” (p.262). Which sounds to me like it could be quite a fundamental revision of property relations. Elsewhere, he gives a sympathetic account of John Ruskin’s non-Marxist communism of “private, nonaccumulative, convivial property” (p.88). Agrarian integrity; sub-treasuries; self-possession; distributed, convivial, nonaccumulative property. It’s as if McCarraher has painstakingly tracked down all the pieces of a jigsaw scattered to the corners of the room by angry modernist techno-progressives and placed them carefully back on the table, only to lose his nerve at the moment of final assembly. The time for a small state, civic republican, progressive agrarian populism – an anti-Mammonism, an anti-Leviathan – is now. McCarraher ably prepares the ground for it in his book. I hope he’ll someday come and join us on it.
I feel like I’ve already criticized McCarraher more than he perhaps deserves, but I just want to flag one final area of weakness. Early in the book, and rightly in my opinion, he castigates critics of consumerism for their “tiresome and largely ineffectual moralism” (p.14). But he never really finds an alternative vantage point from which to analyze consumerism – all that stuff that the plain folks love to buy. So in the end he wavers between joining the moralists – “Consumer culture is a counterfeit beatific vision, a realm of coruscating misenchantment, a corporate atlas for a parodic sacramental way of being in the world” (p.227) – or throwing up his hands in despair: “It would seem that most of “the 99 percent” want to “take back” the American Dream, not awaken from and definitively repudiate it; no depth or magnitude of failure seems capable of occasioning a fundamental reckoning with the futility of the original covenant” (p.670).
If he’d followed through a little more on his own idea that capitalism is a form of religion, and also with the sociology of Max Weber that he invokes at the start of his book, I think he might have come to a more rounded and less despairing view. Perhaps a view – I hate to say it – closer to the one I outline in Chapter 16 of my own book, where I argue that just as new religious movements are forever arising from the foundations of the old creeds to craft a workable orientation to new times, so there are ways of changing the contemporary religion of capitalist consumerism into new forms of practice and new kinds of engagement with the sacred and the worldly.
5. All the way down
Still, McCarraher does a good line in well-judged despair. Badly-judged despair is ten a penny in cultural criticism and achieves very little, but high-quality despair kept well restrained of the kind McCarraher so often achieves in his book can move mountains. Returning to Vida Dutton Scudder, I liked, for example his appraisal of her Franciscan ability “to endure and draw renewal, even joy, from the experience of defeat” which against “the promethean delusion of total dominion over nature and history…sets the diminutive realism of finitude, weakness, and humility” (p.359).
I think we badly need that ability to draw renewal from defeat right now, and to embrace a ‘diminutive realism’ that refuses the illusory promise that capitalism can become a bigger, better version of itself lurking within any number of techno-progressive and eco-socialist manifestos for the future. We need that ability because of what McCarraher calls the militaristic and disciplined aggression of capitalism (p.484), which is hard to defeat with conviviality and localism. It’s more easily defeated with other forms of disciplined aggression of the kind that Marxist movements historically developed. But such a defeat merely replicates the problem.
However, it does seem to me that all these aggressive, big government statist political doctrines sometimes become the authors of their own destruction, creating local spaces for forms of sacramental renewal that are deeper and more satisfying than the misenchantments of modernity can ever be. The onus is to keep the faith through the seemingly endless round of defeats and try to build out from those spaces when they arise.
In the meantime, it’s good to have books like McCarraher’s to help us on the journey. And it’s good to have a serious academic voice that in contrast to the bromides of a Steven Pinker is alive to the depth and enormity of the task. Asking himself how deep the reconstruction of the project of Enlightenment has to go, McCarraher’s answer is an emphatically italicized “all the way down” (p.675).
I’ll start this post with a quick shout out to the good folks of Just Stop Oil putting themselves on the line for a habitable future, and seemingly getting noticed less than other recent climate actions of more generalized protest. Indeed, there’s been more coverage in the press of the allegations against my local MP than of Just Stop Oil. If these turn out to be true, it might explain the difficulties of trying to get a meaningful response from his office. What was it XR have been saying about the need to go ‘beyond politics’…?
Anyway, on to the main business of this post: after various digressions, diversions and interruptions, I’m almost at the end of this part of my blog cycle within a blog cycle about property and tenure in a small farm future. My argument, in a nutshell, is that there will be private property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by right-wing and pro-capitalist analysis) and there will be collective and common property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by left-wing and anti-capitalist analysis).
One remaining item left standing from discussions here about these matters is the question of land value tax (LVT). The case for this was famously made by Henry George in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty. The basic idea is that the monopoly rent that accrues to the landowner from the fact of their ownership is taxed away. So if you were playing a game of Monopoly (which in fact was originally invented by a Georgist to illustrate the point), you would have to pay back to the bank all the money accrued from the rental income of your properties at the end of each round. Obviously, this would stop anyone from winning or losing the game through the exercise of monopoly rent, and people would have to find other ways to move around the gameboard of life. Which was precisely George’s point.
As I recently said in my analysis of death taxes, I can’t claim any special expertise as a tax analyst, but – far less than death taxes – I’m not a great fan of LVT, and here I’ll try to explain why.
Of all the redistributive schemes that people have dreamed up for levelling inequalities in capitalist societies, LVT is one of the few that often gets the blessing of mainstream capitalist/neoclassical economists. But it hasn’t been widely implemented by capitalist governments. In that apparent paradox lies a truth that really needs to be better known. While the theory of capitalist economics is all about private enterprise and the rewards to innovation, the practice is largely about monopoly rent, without which the system hits the buffers. As cheerleaders for the non-monopolistic profit-seeking that’s supposed to be how capitalism works in theory, mainstream economists like LVT because it’s consistent with this convenient fiction. As managers of how capitalism actually works in practice, governments are less keen because it puts obstacles in the way of normal capital accumulation via monopoly rent.
But arguably not very big obstacles. Nowadays, and much more than in George’s time, monopoly rent is only partly about land and property and is more about intellectual property rights, financial instruments and government contracts. So as a way of redistributing the spoils of capital, LVT is a partial measure at best. But I think we must go further. As Michael Hudson suggests in this interesting article, George himself had no objections to the general workings of the capitalist political economy. He simply opposed one of its most obviously brutal consequences. Karl Marx wrote that George’s programme was “a last attempt to save the capitalist regime”. He was wrong. There have been many subsequent and partially successful efforts to save it. But he was right that it was such an attempt (George never really addressed what happened to the tax revenues once the Monopoly players had paid them back to the bank). And also right, I think, that ultimately the regime will prove beyond saving.
So while the logic of LVT, rightly in my opinion, mitigates against the sheer ownership of land or property allowing the owner to make money, this in itself does nothing to stop the owner from using land as an input to generate and accumulate as much money as possible. No wonder mainstream economists prefer it to, say, income tax, which they see as ‘distorting’ of the full-bore capitalism they tend to regard as the natural order of things. Their enthusiasm should surely raise suspicions among those who don’t regard it this way. LVT is not in itself an especially good way to decommodify or redistribute economic goods.
In agricultural settings, LVT fits readily within the mould of an agricultural improver ideology – the kind I criticized in A Small Farm Future (pp.48-9). Think, for example, of John Locke’s argument that colonial expropriation of indigenous lands in North America was justifiable because Europeans could make them more productive and remunerative. Contemporary applications of LVT are rarely so unjust, but once a land tax has been set at some average level of return in the wider economy, decommodification towards smaller and more localized farm scale would be quite impossible. Within the present framing of the capitalist political economy, LVT sets the capitalist snare that forces ever greater returns on investment, and happily watches it tighten.
In theory, perhaps this could be avoided through tax exemptions on small properties. But I can’t really see how a low input ecological small farm sector could survive long term in a world where the accumulation of liquid capital is otherwise incentivized, and where large-scale owners would be gunning hard to extract returns in excess of their tax bills. Maybe the point of the policy would be to make it impossible for large-scale owners to turn any profit at all. But in that case, levying a profit-incentivizing tax probably isn’t the best policy intervention.
Maybe there’s a stronger case for LVT in urban settings, where property owners can cash out heavily from high property values resulting from local concentration of economic activity, and not from anything connected with their own enterprise. Cleverer people than me could probably determine the implications for tax bases, planning and zoning laws and the gaming of urban/rural boundaries in that scenario. But again, my feeling is that even in this instance LVT is a rather indirect way to try to achieve something that needs to be addressed more directly.
That was certainly the view taken by the aforementioned Karl Marx, another popular writer-activist of the 19th century. While George was agitating for the state to levy a tax to somewhat improve the lot of the working class, Marx was agitating for a more direct approach. This involved the working class taking over state functions and using the leverage thereby gained to radically transform the lot of everyday people. But Marx was pretty vague about exactly how it would do that once the state was in its hands, and in my opinion the words and deeds of later Marxist thinkers and governments haven’t been overly impressive in tackling that question.
So while an LVT might be a slight improvement on the present situation, I can’t get hugely excited about proposals to end human misery either through an LVT charged by the central state or through overthrowing the centralized state to create … another centralized state. To me, the political futurologies of both George and Marx seem rooted in a past era that barely speaks to our present one, with its endogenous state failure and ecological collapse. Which raises the question of what alternative futurology might just see us through these hard times. Since that’s roughly what I address in the later parts of my book I’ll end at this point, poised to get into those issues (though I have a little ground clearing to do in the next couple of posts first).
I’ve only recently come across Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World but I thought I’d take a breather from my present blog cycle by taking a brief look at it. Actually, it’s not really a breather, as many of its themes run close to those I examine in my own book. Yunkaporta offers far more food for thought than I can cover in a blog post, so here I’m just going to pick out a few themes that interest me by way of ten discussion points. Then, in the next two or three posts it’ll be time to wrap up this sub-section of the blog cycle concerning property issues in a small farm future. But they may be a couple of weeks coming because this is a busy time of year for me in the woods.
It’s not the job of indigenous people or indigenous thinking to save your ass.
I’ve seen a few online reviews of Yunkaporta’s book that, referencing its subtitle, complain because its author doesn’t lay out a clear, implementable plan for how indigenous thinking can, in fact, save the world.
As I see it, this objection is precisely the problem that the book tries to combat. Our contemporary global civilization is very attached to complete, debugged, plugin fixes, whether they derive from engineering (“High carbon energy? No problem – here, have this nuclear power station”) or social organization (“Isolated, consumerist anomie? No problem – here, have this indigenous thinking”).
Nope, if indigenous thinking is truly going to save the world it’ll be a long-haul thing in which people learn or relearn how to become indigenous to their local place in locally specific ways. There is no clear, implementable plan. There is just long-term cultural practice.
Indigeneity is a practice and a relation, not a thing
What or who counts as indigenous is a bottomless rabbit hole, and it depends very much on the context. I think Yunkaporta captures these complexities well with light brushstrokes and sparkling examples, like the boy who recites the digits of pi as part of his indigenous practice, the elder who has a new understanding of cane toads that has changed them on his Country, or the notion that chicken wings and curry powder sometimes fit the definition of aboriginal food more plausibly than kangaroo meat.
For the purposes of his book, Yunkaporta says, “an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base. Indigenous Knowledge is any application of those memories as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances” (pp.41-2)
Of course, in some circumstances it would be appropriate to define Indigenous people much more narrowly. In others, perhaps yet more broadly. But I think Yunkaporta’s definition is about the right optic for invoking Indigeneity as a general response to present global problems. There’s a more essentializing politics around who can or can’t claim to be indigenous which can be appropriate in specific political and historical circumstances. But to claim that ‘indigenous thinking can save the world’ surely implies that everybody can access indigenous thought, and can therefore be or learn to be indigenous. Yunkaporta stakes a claim on this ground and in my view rises impressively to the challenge of making it meaningful. In his words, “The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge but in remembering their own” (p.163).
I should note in passing that when the term ‘indigenous people’ is used here in England it’s usually a codeword for ‘white people’. Deliberately or otherwise, it’s invested with a sense of ‘here first’ historical priority that excludes black and minority ethnic people. In settler colonies like Yunkaporta’s Australia, on the other hand, historical priority of course excludes white people, with very different political implications. Which is to say that context matters. And is complex.
Cultures that can adapt and last over time are group efforts aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.
This is almost a direct quotation from page 70 of the book, and perhaps another iteration of the preceding points. It bears reflection.
Indigenous knowledge doesn’t prosper in cities or metropoles
Cities are great. They can be wonderful places to live. They can be real testaments to human skill and beauty. But they suck resources from other places, and they are not sustainable. The same applies to colonial metropoles, and the Global North lifeways that suck resources from the Global South. These modes of living are not aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.
When European colonizers came across the remains of ancient cities in other parts of the world such as Great Zimbabwe, they often couldn’t believe that peoples they considered inferior to themselves could have built them. Thankfully, we now know better. But admission to the rollcall of city-builders, of civilizations, comes at the price of being disbarred from the rollcall of Indigenous people. As Yunkaporta puts it:
the ancient peoples of Zimbabwe who once made cities of stone lived within a civilization, until it inevitably collapsed. This was not an indigenous culture just because its inhabitants had dark skin. Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves. They can never be indigenous until they abandon their city-building culture, a lesson the Elders of Zimbabwe have handed down from bitter experience through deep time (p.70)
I can think of reasonable counter-arguments to this position. But not ones I can subscribe to as easily as to Yunkaporta’s one, unless we abandon the notion that indigeneity means anything at all. And if it does, I must note the radicalism of Yunkaporta’s assertion. People can’t really be both indigenous and ‘civilized’ (or citified). No surprise that this issue has divided indigenous communities in terms of directions for cultural development.
Individual people are self-differentiating nodes in a network.
I’ve been banging on for years about the clunky way we so often deprecate ‘individualism’ and promote ‘collectivism’ (or vice versa) in contemporary society, and I found Yunkaporta’s discussion a breath of fresh air in this respect, albeit a bit light on detail. Here’s my take home: Indigenous people are people who for the most part can competently furnish their own individual livelihood in a day-to-day way and actively seek ways to enhance their autonomy and their difference from other people, while at the same time recognizing and honouring the fact that they’re inherently a part of a wider community of other people, kin and non-kin, with whom they must interact in appropriate ways and only among whom can they realize some of life’s fundamental values.
Linking this to my present writing about property rights, I’d suggest that in a country like the UK and, I suspect, the USA, making this individual-in-community aspect work in culturally appropriate ways that address present problems would probably involve the distributist solution of making securely tenured small farms set within wider local commons widely available. Whereas among Indigenous communities in Australia and elsewhere it probably wouldn’t.
People are equals who respect each other’s points of view, but are cautious with imparting knowledge.
Yunkaporta describes what he calls the “foundational flaw, that Luciferian lie: ‘I am greater than you; you are lesser than me’” (p.35) and generally critiques what he often refers to as ‘narcissists’ or ‘narcissist flash mobs’. I suspect most of us might agree without looking too hard at ourselves and how we might ourselves be a part of those mobs, kind of in the way that most drivers think they have above average driving ability.
As per Christopher Boehm’s work that I mentioned in a recent post, it seems that many indigenous societies have carefully built institutions aimed at defusing the ‘Luciferian lie’, but even then need to work hard on a daily basis not to fall foul of it. I’ve certainly fallen foul of it often enough, in both directions. Modern political ideologies fall foul of it too, built as they often are around an opposition to hostile others who they assume won’t embrace the truth due to delusion or rank bad faith. The notion of respecting other points of view easily sounds like a feeble liberal plea for tolerance. But if you imagine actually living it with the people you interact with on a daily basis, it has different and more challenging implications.
Yunkaporta returns often in his book to the idea of what we might call situated knowledge – particular people know certain things, and are quite choosy about who they’ll share this knowledge with – a hierarchy of a sort. Often this knowledge is of a sacred or spiritual kind, and we moderns are apt to be dismissive of it, preferring to focus on the ‘real’ business of human ecology and human power relationships (shades of the idealism-materialism distinction I recently discussed). Murray Bookchin argued, for example, that such sacred knowledge was a means for elders to retain social control when their waning physical prowess prevented them from asserting their power more directly.
I think this is mistaken, and goes some way to explaining the mess we’ve got ourselves into. Real material practices – creating a livelihood from the land – are essential to human life, but they are not the only things that are essential to human life, and material skill practiced without spiritual wisdom leads us astray. In Yunkaporta’s world, people receive the gift of knowledge when they demonstrate the humility and maturity to use it wisely. An example to be followed?
Sustainable systems must be based on knowledges of a demotic origin.
Yunkaporta explains this far better than I could, so I’ll just quote him – “Sustainable systems cannot be manufactured by individuals or appointed committees, particularly during times of intense transition and upheaval. For those seeking sustainability practices from Indigenous cultures it is important to focus on both ancient and contemporary knowledge of a demotic origin, rather than individual inventions or amendments. That is not to say that all demotic innovations are benevolent. But if you listen to many voices and stories, and discern a deep and complex pattern emerging, you can usually determine what is real” (p.72)
For me, these observations have potentially profound implications that run quite counter to the way we usually implement technologies and politics in the modern world. I won’t dwell on those implications here, although I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts. I’ll just say that, for me, the passage above underlines the fact that we have a big job on our hands to make contemporary societies sustainable. And that a good starting point would be to develop self-reliant small-scale local farming societies.
Embrace storied surfaces and bumpy schedules.
At one point, Yunkaporta comments in passing on the difference between Indigenous experiences of time and that of people “immersed in flat schedules and story-less surfaces” (p.45). This spoke to me as I walked my midwinter holding. Here in wet, warm Somerset, there’s rarely any snow to make good the retreat of summer’s verdant covering, and my graffiti in the landscape – every rutted track or scoured patch of soil, every half-finished or half-decayed project, the scrap wood, the metal, the plastic, above all the plastic – seems like both an unflattering mirror to my own ugliness and a living calendar that drums its fingers impatiently at my laziness.
But for all that, the surfaces of my farm are not flat, and its impossible schedules jostle together in languages of minutes, weeks, years, lifetimes, eons, nevers and always. Everywhere I look, there are stories of what we’ve done and the things that have happened in the near twenty years we’ve been here that other people probably wouldn’t notice. So, though my farm is far from pristine, I take some comfort from Yunkaporta’s words that it’s at least alive. I remember reading somewhere about an Australian aborigine laughing at how white folks fastidiously tried to collect up and hide their rubbish, whereas the aboriginal way was to jettison things and thus inscribe themselves into the landscape – the irony being that white folks can never collect up enough of their clutter to stop it infesting the world, all the while failing to notice that aborigines had written their landscapes at all.
The lesson I take from this is to embrace storied surfaces, bumpy schedules and acts of forgiving.
Don’t search too hard for sovereignty
Yunkaporta has many interesting things to say about how people claim identity and authority, often via entertaining little gems like “African-American visitors are often offended when they drop in on Indigenous centres in our universities and hear us using the term ‘black’ to describe ourselves, when so many of us can no longer scrape together enough melanin to scare off a taxi” (p.63).
Wrangling over such claims to personal identity is often an important and necessary game, but there’s a parallel, and harder, game that might be worth giving more attention to – wrangling over the claims of states and territorial jurisdictions to define us and the limits of our agency. Yunkaporta discusses the way that claims to aboriginal title in Australia must be historically justified in law by reference to the situation at the point of British colonial subjection – and when Indigenous people play that game, they implicitly recognize British sovereignty in the process of claiming their own. I think this speaks to more general questions about the power of states over people which will only loom larger in the years ahead.
I’ll be writing several more posts on themes related to this point. For now, I’ll just summarize them by suggesting it’s unwise to search too hard for political authority in lines on a map or the lines in our minds drawn by those territorial histories.
Distribute the means to violence
A point related to the preceding one, which again Yunkaporta expresses far more concisely and elegantly than I can, so I will leave him with the last word:
in our culture we avoid the unsustainable practice of concentrating violence into the hands of one privileged group, or outsourcing violence to other places so we can enjoy the fruits of it without having to see it. Violence is part of creation and it is distributed evenly among all agents in sustainable systems to minimize the damage it can do (p.202)
The late David Graeber and David Wengrow’s (henceforth GW) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane, 2021) is the newest big book of revisionist global history on the block. I’ve been fighting the urge to write a review of it, but since it illuminates several themes of interest to this blog, what follows is a white flag of surrender to that fine ambition.
When I say The Dawn of Everything is a big book, I mean really big. Several reviewers of my own tome commented with palpable tiredness about how exhaustively argued (272 pages), endnoted (12 pages) and referenced (12 pages) it is, but it’s a mere pamphlet compared to GW’s numbers in this regard (526, 83 and 63, since you asked). I mention this partly to remind myself to say something later in this review about the rights and wrongs of quantification, and partly to dramatize the point that it’s impossible to summarize GW’s book and do any justice to the depth of their analysis, so I’m not even going to try.
What I am going to do is pick out a few themes that chime with my own interests, which, broadly speaking, are how to rethink almost the entirety of the present world political and economic system in the face of profound ecological and social crisis. As is often the way of such things, I’m going to focus a bit more on where I disagree or am uncertain about GW’s analysis than on points of agreement, so I just want to say upfront that their book is a magnificent achievement and a crowning glory for the extraordinary David Graeber before, alas too soon, he left us to join the ancestors.
Although GW’s book defies summary, I’ll offer a quick thumbnail anyway. Standard modern global histories tell us that our genus Homo emerged about 2 million years ago. These hominins of our genus, so the story goes, lived for most of that time in small, egalitarian foraging bands where nothing very interesting happened for multiple tens of thousands of years until men invented agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago. This enabled the accumulation of surplus, the division of labour, social stratification and the emergence of centralized states, culminating in the incredible technological mastery of the last couple of centuries centred around Europe and its offshoots.
This is often told as a story of heroic progress that puts white, agricultural men in the historical driving seat, but often enough the story is inverted, the heroes become villains, and we are called back to a time of innocent, egalitarian, non-racist, non-sexist foraging. This solidifies a seemingly immovable modern duality: upwards to a brighter future or downwards from a brighter past. Progress or a fall from grace, modernity or nostalgia, accelerationism or primitivism. Like GW, I’ve done my best over the years to escape this airless duality, but it’s a struggle. I hope their book becomes an important waymark in its overcoming.
In GW’s revisionist account, a lot of very interesting things happened during human ‘prehistory’ – in particular, playful and transitory experimentation with both egalitarian and stratified forms of society across vast interconnected human landscapes of continental scale. Then women invented agriculture (or, better, horticulture), basically as a niche craft specialization. For a long while nobody took it any more seriously than all the other ways people had of messing around outdoors. But eventually it did, literally, take root across much of the world, creating more populous but smaller, more localized societies that were more inclined to stress their cultural differences from one another. There was no definite relationship between the emergence of agriculture and the emergence of stratified, centralized polities. Historically, both foragers and farmers created large urban centres based on bottom up, relatively egalitarian forms of self-organization, but they also created ones with a parade of emperors, kings and other bigwigs.
We tend to dignify the latter with the concept of ‘the state’, but there’s never really been such a thing as ‘the state’ with a core, enduring set of attributes. Nevertheless, nowadays we do seem to have lost our human capacity for playful experimentation and are ‘stuck’ within a system of stratified, centralized polities. In GW’s words, “There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion” (p.76). Amen to that.
Though their story differs from the anti-heroic version of the standard history, ultimately GW are fighting against similar biases in global histories that they see as too male, too white, too agrarian and too focused on centralized political power. At the same time, they’re underwhelmed by counter-histories concerning the superior mystic wisdom of ancient and indigenous peoples. Theirs is a humanistic tale that paints everybody in every society as creative and confused in the same measure, and perfectly capable of sustained critical reflection about their own society and others they encounter.
I have few quarrels with most of that, though I do think GW get into some tangles as they try to unfurl this argument over the grand sweep of history. Still, there’s an aspect of their grand narrative about the questionable concept of ‘the state’ that I’d like to highlight. Where GW criticize the modern tendency to define ourselves as living within the confines of the state and then cast back through history to locate its origins and the reasons for its successful persistence, I’d extrapolate their critique forwards. All too frequently, people project the trappings of what they understand to be ‘the state’ into the future and ridicule the idea that it may not persist, with jibes like Leigh Phillips’s ‘collapse porn’ shtick. But from GW’s telling, there’s no reason to find ‘collapse’ unlikely. The various elements that define a state regularly get scrambled and recombine in different ways. What historians call Dark Ages are often when centralized power wanes and ordinary people come into their own. So maybe folks should quit the name calling. Maybe we ‘doomers’ are really the optimists?
Of inequality and freedom
A big part of the fizz of human history arises because we’re simultaneously creatures that like to construct pecking orders and status gradations among ourselves, with a taste for attaching ourselves as flunkies to people higher up the heap, and creatures that like to demolish these gradations and emphasize our equality and autonomy. I don’t think the standard historical narratives we tell about ourselves emphasize this point and its oddity enough. When we devise political schemes that only find a place for one of these modalities, they usually soon founder as the other one asserts itself.
In his book Hierarchy in the Forest,Christopher Boehm has argued that the hierarchy/equality duality is an evolutionary legacy – both from our deep ancestry in a great ape lineage given to rigid (male) status ranking, and from our long human gestation in face-to-face foraging societies where egalitarian cooperation was a winning strategy. I find this plausible, based largely on a long period of intensive participant observation fieldwork that I began in about 1982 involving many evenings drinking in the pub, where I’ve found pompous self-aggrandizement and its negation via the fine art of taking the piss to be on display in roughly equal measure. The latter seems necessarily based on small-scale, face-to-face interaction and the micropolitics of gesture and language.
GW invoke Boehm respectfully, before scorning his view of a long egalitarian gestation in face-to-face groups. The truth, as they like to point out, is that we have vanishingly little idea of what people were doing and thinking over most of the 2-million-year history of our genus, so it’s wise to avoid guesswork. But this argument cuts both ways. GW present plausible archaeological evidence that foraging peoples prior to the spread of agriculture (but mostly only just prior to the spread of agriculture) played with status ranking and were part of much larger interacting populations. But this doesn’t prove our ancestors weren’t playing the egalitarian face-to-face band game most of the time through our evolutionary history. Their suggestion otherwise involves its own kind of guesswork. I feel that, as here, a little too often in their book they build some big conjectures on fragmentary evidence.
So to the idea that Paleolithic foraging peoples engaged in building urban hierarchies, I guess my response is ‘OK, but how often?’ GW do not, thankfully, attempt the kind of absurd, evidence-mangling quantifications that the likes of Steven Pinker engage in to prove his notions about the awfulness of the past, but without knowing how often pre-agricultural foragers built mass, status-ranked societies over the last couple of million years it’s hard to assess the weight of GW’s argument.
In the early part of their book, GW critique the whole emphasis of modern political thinking on equality, placing their emphasis instead on freedom. In some ways, their take is similar to the one I’ve been discussing recently under the banner of autonomy or self-possession. But I think they stretch the distinction a bit too far. It’s difficult to be truly autonomous in societies of great inequality, and as GW themselves ably document, societies that emphasize self-possession usually go to some lengths to ensure that inequalities don’t get out of hand. So in important ways freedom and (relative) equality are two sides of the same coin.
GW’s real kicker on the matter of equality comes later in the book when they discuss the unhappy confluence of sovereign power with bureaucracy that generates a good deal of what we understand by the notion of ‘the’ state. Impersonal notions of formal equality – treating people as interchangeable units or tokens of some particular class – is, they say, usually the harbinger of extreme political violence and inequality. Their position seems close to the civic republicanism that I’ve outlined in my own writings. What ultimately matters the most to people is not metrics of social equality but a sense that we’re participants in a political community that takes seriously what we have to say and gives us some leeway to lead the life we choose.
Such questions of participation were at the heart of political debates in Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries as older forms of royal and imperial rule gave way to a modern politics shaped by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Unfortunately, GW miss the opportunity to get into this when they discuss these two thinkers in the early – and in my opinion, weakest – part of the book. GW have a different agenda, relating to what they call ‘the indigenous critique’, which leads them into a dismayingly superficial contrast between Rousseau and Hobbes as theorists of the original human condition, with Rousseau supposedly detecting a kind of propertyless primitive communism and Hobbes, by contrast, famously characterizing human life in this state of nature as “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”.
The problem is, neither Rousseau nor Hobbes were actually talking about the original human condition, as GW acknowledge without ever really getting out of the tailspin they set up for themselves by suggesting that they were (in fact, they concede, the historical event that most framed Hobbes’s thinking was the English Civil War concluding the same year he published his famous phrase). I hope to say more about the questions Hobbes was asking, probably in my next post, because I think we urgently need to ask similar questions again across much of the world today. I also think we need to find different answers to his ones, but the inspiration of his thinking lies in the way he formulated the problem of how people can form political communities from first principles.
On this point, GW make a great play for their ‘indigenous critique’ idea that such first-principles political thinking in early modern Europe was first crafted by indigenous people from beyond Europe’s boundaries, specifically from North America, as a response to their colonial encounters with Europeans, and this was then adopted by Europeans themselves with the indigenous origins being airbrushed out. Already, this is ruffling feathers among specialists of 18th century European history. Whatever the case, ultimately GW’s stronger contribution is probably their argument that ordinary people everywhere are perfectly capable of producing articulate critiques of the political forms taken by their own and other societies.
Three political forms
Let’s examine those forms. To greatly simplify GW’s analysis, and perhaps to extrapolate them somewhat faithlessly into an analysis of my own contriving, GW argue that there are basically three broad kinds of political society. There are republics, involving bottom-up political self-organisation by ordinary people operating more or less as equals. There are aristocratic ‘house’ societies, involving predatory warrior leaders and petty would-be kings with an unstable power expressed through fighting, gifting, feasting and general rape and pillage. And there are empires, in which the petty kings have grown up into more stable monarchies, usually by combining political sovereignty – that is, a sacred sense of authority – with bureaucratic organization.
GW’s sympathies are with the republics, as mine are, and a big part of their book is concerned to show that people can and have orchestrated them many times worldwide throughout history in the face of the other forms of politics. They’re also concerned to show how the different political forms often emerge through deliberate local differentiation from neighbouring forms (what GW call ‘schismogenesis’). So the house societies of eastern Anatolia emerged as a counter to the urban republics of Mesopotamia, and the egalitarian republics of indigenous, pre-European California emerged as a counter to the house societies of the Pacific Northwest.
All of this I find interesting and plausible. I’m just not sure how easy it really is to form bottom-up, more or less egalitarian republics. Again, I want GW to show us not just that this has happened, but how much it’s happened and what proportion of the people who’ve lived since the Neolithic have enjoyed true republican freedom. This isn’t something that can be quantified precisely from the archaeological record, but I think we have a rough idea. At one point, GW quote political scientist James Scott without demur in his view that “the period from about 3000BC to AD 1600 was a fairly miserable one for the bulk of the world’s farmers” (p.445). That’s a pretty large slice of humanity exempted from the freedoms that GW champion. And I’m not even sure it got much better after 1600.
At issue here is the way different kinds of political power interact. In GW’s Californian example, people chose to forge relatively egalitarian and peaceful non-slaveholding societies in deliberate contrast to the aristocratic, slaveholding house societies of the Pacific Northwest, and apparently did so with considerable success (interestingly, GW say this was accompanied with strong private property rights and the development of money systems within Californian societies that also deliberately avoided agriculture). But my feeling is that such successes are historically quite rare. I suspect that the non-egalitarian violence of house societies is easier to project historically, particularly when it allies with the non-egalitarian violence of empires. This is James Scott’s argument. Ordinary people living under imperial rule got squeezed between the legalized violence of the regime and the predatory violence of ‘barbarian’ peoples in the peripheries of empire.
Still, these forms of power aren’t static, and opportunities lie in their changing realities. Often, emperors are too busy playing with their sacred power behind the walls of their palaces to care too much about what their subjects are doing, so provided the latter pay their taxes and don’t challenge imperial power too directly, life in an empire isn’t always so bad. Likewise, in modern nation states, mini empires of the latter day, a strange nationalist alchemy has turned the sacred power of the emperor into the sacred power of the people themselves, giving ordinary folks a chance to press their advantage – albeit often at the expense of foreigners or enemies within.
House or warrior societies also provide opportunities for advancement for anyone who can project charismatic authority and is good at cracking heads. Or at least for any man. No doubt, there’s a kind of playfulness in a hell-raising, slave-raiding, heavy-drinking, sexually predatory house society of charismatic leaders and their henchmen. But this kind of play is highly gendered, and looks a lot more fun for the ones in charge of the playing than the ones being played.
GW generally present republican societies as more measured, more attentive to the dynamics of power and to the ways power can be corrupted and more focused on distributed power than in the other two political forms, where inegalitarian power ultimately is centred one someplace or someone. Gendered perspectives are a constant undertow in their book, and in some ways republicanism emerges from it as a more ‘female’ political form – more inclusive, connected and communicative. This contrasts with the way that in practice the historical republican tradition in Europe from classical times to the present has so often been militarist and masculinist, perhaps because civic republics have often been embattled enclaves carved out in times of trouble from larger warring polities.
I’m less optimistic than GW about the prospects for people to throw off the shackles of their oppression with a republican politics of freedom because of this embattled history, and because of the difficulties of escaping status inequalities that are underwritten with violence. Nevertheless, GW convincingly show that these difficulties can be overcome in certain situations. It seems possible that the post-capitalist and post fossil fuel world we may now be entering will be one of these situations – what I called in A Small Farm Future ‘supersedure situations’, where people improvise local politics in the face of waning state power. Generally, I think GW understate the advantages held by imperial and royal/warrior power in projecting itself, which is why they keep asking how it is that we got ‘stuck’ with it. They’re still asking this on page 503 of their book, by which time you’d have hoped they’d have an answer. But they do convincingly show that not everyone always gets stuck.
Of gender, households, families … and gardens
In fact, they do sort of have an answer to how we got stuck, in their interesting but rather undeveloped argument that royal and imperial power is modelled after the structure of patriarchal households. As GW see it, this is what gives inegalitarian violence its staying power. What matters isn’t really the king or the patriarch’s arbitrary violence, which ebbs and flows like the weather. It’s the fact that their capacity for violence is contained within a house (or a kingdom, for which the house is a metaphor) where there are ongoing relationships of care between people that gives this capacity its ongoing human force and that can turn violent weather into a stable climate. I’ll note in passing regarding recent discussions on this blog that in GW’s presentation, the kingdom comes after, or is modelled after, the family or the household – so the household gets priority.
I find all this quite persuasive, and it’s changed my views somewhat on points I made in A Small Farm Future about gender and household organization. I don’t recant the overarching analysis I presented there, just the particular spin I put on it. I’ll comment further on that in a separate post. For now, I’ll just note that GW’s argument about the nexus of violence and care only gets us so far in understanding how we get ‘stuck’ with sovereign power, because it merely displaces the question onto how we get ‘stuck’ with patriarchal household organization – a form, they note, that has been widespread historically.
Still, GW show us that on plenty of occasions historically patriarchal sovereign power gets flipped, and not necessarily for any apparent structural reason. It’s as if that more egalitarian, more republican and perhaps more female mode of politics is always there in the wings, awaiting its moment. And that, I think, is an important take home from their book. Never discount the possibility of transforming patriarchal sovereign power.
Another take home from their book, although GW don’t remark on it, is the ubiquity of small, family-based households as a basic unit of social organization. Again and again across their case studies ranging worldwide over human history, they present evidence of small family-based residential units. They choose to emphasize other things, like the way that these small units interact in numerous commons-based formats, and the way that official scripts for what constitutes a family get subverted in practice. These things are worth saying. But they don’t undermine the fact that small, face-to-face, kinship-based household units are so often the building blocks of human societies. The tendency to gloss over this and to de-emphasize kinship in the contemporary social sciences seems to me something of a blind spot that ultimately will need correcting.
GW pave the way for this correction quite nicely here and there – for example when they show how indigenous people in certain parts of North America prior to European colonization opted for scattered family homesteading as a means to escape sovereign patriarchal power, which is not always how the history of American homesteading is presented. But they pull their punches, and their rather weak argument against kin-based social organization – “many humans just don’t like their families very much” (p.279) – succumbs to the problem that many humans just don’t like anyone they have to negotiate social and economic relationships with long-term. Looking at its ubiquity throughout history, it’s tempting to conclude that appropriately sophisticated forms of kinship organization seem to be the best of a bad job in this respect.
GW’s take on kinship has its limitations, but their discussion of gender is more impressive. Their account of farming’s origins as a playful, egalitarian craft specialism of women in their role as expert experimental scientists of the domestic was a particular delight. I found these arguments plausible, although again with something of a surfeit of speculation over evidence. It rings true that people took slowly to farming, and in early agrarian sites like Çatalhöyük avoided certain livestock domesticates because hunting was more fun.
But GW’s view that the Bible’s Garden of Eden story ill fits this narrative surprised me. Surely the idea that Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and bade Adam do the same nicely captures this sense of female knowledge and mastery, and its longer consequences? In truth, I doubt the Eden story involves any memory of what was happening at places like Çatalhöyük. We’re closer today to the era of the Yahwist source for that story than s/he was to the era of Çatalhöyük. I say ‘s/he’ because some have speculated that the Yahwist writer of the Eden story was a woman, and a case can be made that the story is less straightforwardly misogynistic than it’s often presented. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make intelligible a kind of multi-millennial male sulk about the need to stop playing in the woods and assume domestic responsibilities. More on that another time, perhaps. But it leaves us with the same general problem bequeathed by GW’s own enigmatic text: why have we got so stuck with patriarchal household organization, sovereign power, and the state?
Well, while I’m on the subject of idealized gardens, I’d like to suggest GW might have profitably explored the distinction between horticulture and agriculture more fully in pondering this question. They point to many ancient examples of mass urban residence that didn’t ultimately lead to repressive state sovereignty. And they invoke the case of indigenous North America to suggest “it’s simply not true to say that if one falls into the trap of ‘state formation’ there’s no getting out” (p.481), based largely on their analysis of the rise and fall of Cahokia in present-day Illinois from around the 11th to the 14th centuries.
These examples, even the urban ones, generally involve people who were producing their own subsistence either through foraging or mixed horticulture. They didn’t seem to involve worlds with a lot of non-producers, or producers largely dependent on arable grain monocultures and herding. I’m not suggesting these crop choices drove the politics. Maybe it’s the other way around. The people who were able to retain their self-possession were the ones who didn’t get sucked into arable and pastoral dependence. Either way, if this is true people’s options for escaping state sovereignty across much of the world today look bleak. But maybe not impossible with a turn to horticulture and a small farm future?
Idealism and materialism
David Graeber was blessed with the ability to write sophisticated social science in accessible and (almost) jargon-free ways while addressing real world political issues, and The Dawn of Everything is no exception. I’m not going to humiliate myself by taking a deep dive into the underlying social theory of the book and reveal my inadequacies by comparison, but I do just want to venture some closing thoughts on questions of idealism and materialism. It’s a topic of interest mostly just to professional social scientists, philosophers and Marxists, but I hope to show that it may have wider implications in our present political moment as we try to get unstuck.
For social scientists, ‘idealism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived ultimately through the ideas that people have about it, whereas ‘materialism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived through the real underlying material conditions in which people live. Marxist versions of materialism hold that societies progress in determinate ways as a result of internal tensions, and their resolution, grounded in material conditions such as class conflict.
GW don’t have an awful lot of truck with Marxist materialism, inclining towards an idealist sense that social change is driven more by cultural movements than material conditions and conflicts. And they add an individualist element – people are self-conscious architects of their own cultural change, not just automata representing some broad class or cultural type.
I agree with them, and I imagine they’ll get some stick from Marxists for failing to espouse the approved materialism. Well, join the club. My feeling is that Marxists can be quite tolerant of idealist elements when circumstances suit, but as I read GW’s book and thought about the kind of Marxist critiques that have been levelled at me, it occurred to me that it may be time to turn Marxist materialism on its head.
Marxists don’t really like the ‘idealist’ notion that people just self-consciously reconstruct the political cultures they inherit, but those Marxists that have criticized me along ‘collapse porn’ or ‘disaster feudalism’ lines happily operate with the idealist notion that the vast inertial ship of modern fossil-fuelled industrial technology can simply be repurposed for the benefit of the many and not the few. GW’s book has helped me clarify my conviction that it more likely works the other way around. The inertial ship of industrial high technology is a material drag that must be abandoned (I know oil companies are villains, but the energetic-industrial problems we now face don’t arise solely or mainly because of their villainy). We can abandon it if we develop a different politics around food, energy and habitation, which is basically to say a different set of ideas about how we ought to live. Out of this, different material practices can emerge.
In that sense, I endorse GW’s upbeat conclusion that it’s within people’s power to change things and remake their social world – not a power or a social world restricted to particular classes, groups, genders or political ideologies, but one available to everyone. And this, I must stress, is not a ‘liberal’ or still less a conservative position, but a populist republican one, as I shall explore in more detail in another post.
At the same time, there’s another material drag on republican possibilities in our evolutionary predilection for status aggrandizement as well as status equality. So the dangers of arbitrary sovereign power reasserting itself are ever present, as subjects of regimes inspired by Marxist egalitarianism might perhaps attest. It’s probably unwise to bet against new emperors or new patriarchies emerging. All the same, GW give us plenty of inspiration for trying to stop them.
So concludes this review – and also I think my blogging for the year. Many thanks to commenters old and new for sharing their thoughts with me, which makes writing this blog the continuing pleasure that it is. My apologies for not always finding the time to respond as fully as I’d like. I hope to be back in the new year to finally finish the long-running blog cycle about my book. In the meantime, if you’d like a little more small farm futurology to tide you over, there’s always this and this. So wishing everyone happy holidays, and see you soon, I hope.
I keep writing prefatory posts before wading into the content from Parts III and IV of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle, for which apologies. I promise this will be the last before I get down to business, although I do believe a little business is transacted below. Anyway, this means I’m going to hold off further discussion of Max Ajl’s important book left over from my last post for the time being.
In this post I want to talk about another writer, and relate his work to the question of a small farm future. The man in question is Marshall Sahlins, among the most distinguished of anthropologists from the latter part of the 20th century, who I only recently realized had died earlier this year.
There’s a small personal backstory to this. Many years ago, Sahlins offered me the opportunity to do a doctorate with him at the University of Chicago. A callow undergraduate, I was almost quaking as I entered his office during my visit to that august institution, like a member of some low-ranking lineage making offerings at the holy shrine of a fearsome ancestor. I guess David Graeber would have been among my cohort had I gone there, just a few years ahead of me, though of course I had no idea at the time who he was. But something about Chicago’s serried streets, the palpable misery of the graduate students and the tribal warfare within the anthropology department put me off. Or maybe it was more my own imposter syndrome at the thought of dwelling among such gods. In any case, Sahlins kindly wrote to me after I’d spurned his offer, wishing me “good luck and good anthropology”.
Well, I feel I’ve had a lot of good luck in my life so far. As to the anthropology, I want to mention Sahlins’s classic book Stone Age Economics, first published in 1972. This has been a touchstone work for me, and every few years I’ve re-read most of it. I went back to it again some weeks ago, but too many pages in my old copy were falling out, and the rest were so laden with penciled annotations from years of reading and re-reading that there was no space to scribe my latest thoughts. So I bought a new copy. The 2017 Routledge edition comes with an introduction from David Graeber, and a cover photo of two elegant stone-age blades – a marked contrast to the original edition’s picture of a dusty and sombre-looking group from the dubiously provenanced Tasaday people, squatting rather miserably in a cave.
Symbolically, the photos represent changing views of ‘primitive’, ‘indigenous’ or foraging peoples that this very book played no small part in effecting. By far the most famous essay in its pages – one of the best-known of all anthropology essays outside the discipline itself – is the first one, ‘The Original Affluent Society’, in which Sahlins goes to some lengths to show that far from living lives of endless misery and toil, as modernist ideologies often proclaim, foraging societies were lightly encumbered with labour compared to large-scale agricultural societies, with plenty of time for leisure and good living.
This argument is such a commonplace today that inevitably the pendulum has started to swing the other way, and various critiques of Sahlins’s thesis have appeared. Whatever. For me, the next three essays in the book, two concerning what Sahlins calls the ‘domestic mode of production’ and then his spellbinding essay on ‘The Spirit of the Gift’, are much the most important ones in the collection. I’ll talk about the gift essay in another post. Here I’ll restrict myself to some remarks about his two essays on the domestic mode of production.
As I (re-)read these essays recently, I was shocked to notice how unconsciously indebted I was to them for some of my arguments in A Small Farm Future. Strange, considering how often I’d read them. Perhaps they’d become so familiar I’d unthinkingly adopted them as my own. Ironically, it seems that the ‘good anthropology’ Sahlins wished for me all those years ago may have manifested largely in me reinscribing for contemporary political purposes some of his own insights about societies supposedly left behind by modernity. I only hope my act of ancestor worship has some modern efficacy.
And so: the domestic mode of production. ‘Mode of production’ is a concept especially associated with Marxist thought, and in his foreword David Graeber says that these essays were “the closest Sahlins ever came to an experiment with Marxist models” (p.xiv). In truth, he didn’t come that close. Which suits me fine – as I see it, Marx is another ancestor who deserve some honour, but no cultish devotion. And on that point, just to say that the only person who responded to my question last time as to whether I should engage with Alex Heffron’s and Kai Heron’s highly charged Marxist attack on my book was one K. Heron, who, to paraphrase, thought not. Yet some of their points in that review are a useful foil to arguments I wish to make, so I will refer to them in passing nonetheless in this and future posts.
Sahlins’s argument about the domestic mode of production is that in so-called ‘primitive’ societies there is a deep structural orientation to production for the needs of the household, which is usually a small unit of closely related kin. Neither ‘the economy’ nor ‘work’ are alienated from the daily practice of household members: the ‘economic’ is a “modality of the intimate” and the disposition and allocation of labour are “in the main domestic decisions…taken primarily with a view toward domestic contentment” (p.69). The household is oriented to meeting its own socially defined needs. There is no inherent tendency to the amplification of production or the accumulation of wealth. It’s precisely these features of household production, together with the immediate feedback the household gets about the ecological consequences of its self-provisioning, that to my mind make it a plausible vehicle for renewable future societies.
I discuss this idea at various points in my book, including on page 267 where I frame it within a populist imaginary of “the ideal citizen…[spending] a good part of their day striving for flourishing and livelihood. The next day, they do the same again, probably in the same way. There’s no higher political purpose”.
Heffron and Heron singled out this passage for some scorn, albeit by hedging it with all sorts of accusations of patriarchy, monotony, debt and market dependence which are not intrinsic to it. But I will take my stand on it. Better a domestic mode of production than Stakhanovite self-exploitation, statist expropriation or implausible, future-obsessed utopias of collective overcoming.
Nevertheless, Sahlins himself speaks rather dimly of this domestic mode – its orientation to mere self-satiation threatening dangerous undershoot, its orientation to itself threatening dangerous social conflict. He makes the point that while households in the domestic mode of production do cooperate with each other, this does not “institute a sui generis production structure with its own finality, different from and greater than the livelihood of the several domestic groups” (p.70) – a point I will return to when I come to discuss commons. For him, in order for the domestic mode of production to become a plausibly functional society, some such ‘greater than’ production structure is needed, and in his view it’s often provided in ‘primitive’ societies by hierarchical kinship structures such as chiefdoms that ramify beyond the individual household and coax additional productivity from them. But chiefdoms are not kingdoms. They have not “broken structurally with the people at large” (p.133). Chiefs remain kinsfolk and are structurally limited by that fact, such that chieftaincies are inherently unstable and prone to crumbling back into their constituent household elements.
In this view, then, chiefdoms don’t arise as it were ‘naturally’ when household production achieves a surplus. They’re inherent to the domestic mode, oriented to creating a surplus out of household production, and represent a tension or a contradiction within the domestic mode of production. Perhaps this is the ‘Marxist’ element to Sahlins’s analysis, since the idea of contradictions powering society is a leitmotif of Marxist analysis. Yet whereas in Marxism the resolution of contradictions drives a society progressively ‘forward’ in history towards improved forms and ultimately to a perfected communism, in Sahlins’s domestic mode of production the contradictions remain static and inherent, a flaw in the jewel of progressive society or, in Sahlins’s words, “a threshold which…was the boundary of primitive society itself” (p.133).
Sahlins did more than most during his career to break down the evolutionary sequence seemingly hard-wired into modernist thought of a historical trajectory from ‘primitive’ society (the very word redolent of an outmoded evolutionism) to ‘feudal’ society and thence to capitalism and (in Marxist thought) ultimately communism. Here, however, I think he somewhat succumbs to it.
I have to assume that Heffron and Heron are still labouring with this discredited evolutionism when they characterize my arguments as ‘feudal’ advocacy for parasitic landlordism, since they cast around for evidence of it in my writing, fail to find any, and then simply assert it on the basis of a meagre harvest from my words. Indeed, the popular notion that any localized, small farm society must somehow be redolent of a bygone ‘feudalism’ remains strong. Yet what generates feudalism is not farming scale or style, nor even economic relations of landlord and tenant (which I strongly oppose throughout A Small Farm Future), but political relations. In future posts I’ll be looking at this politics and explaining why a small farm future might well be neither capitalist, communist, feudal nor necessarily ‘primitive’. There can be other ways of households generating surpluses.
Despite the dubious evolutionary element to his argument, Sahlins himself partially breaks with it throughout Stone Age Economics (and much more so in later writings), as for example when he likens certain kinds of peasant economy to the domestic mode of production of ‘primitive’ economies: “a fragmented peasant economy may more clearly than any primitive community present on the empirical level certain profound tendencies of the DMP…” (p.80)
This argument was strongly influenced by Alexander Chayanov’s populist economic analyses of pre-communist Russian peasantries that had only recently been translated into English at the time of Stone Age Economics. Chayanov, I’ll note in passing, was murdered by Russia’s communist regime in 1937 for thinking wrong thoughts about the peasantry. Luckily, such a fate has not yet befallen me in speaking up for the potentialities of semi-autonomous household production, but Chayanov’s killing is a salutary reminder that the stakes in these discussions can be high. Only a few decades after his death, Russia’s communist regime collapsed, creating a power vacuum filled by a mafia capitalism that many ordinary Russians survived precisely by turning to Chayanovian household production of use values. There are wider lessons here, I think, about how the domestic mode of production might intercede within a ravaged state apparatus in societies of the future.
In Stone Age Economics Sahlins explicitly excluded from his purview this world of modern centralized states supposedly standing on the other side of his threshold of ‘primitive’ societies. Later on, in an essay co-authored with David Graeber, he recanted this stark distinction:
In retrospect, we may well discover that “the state” that consumed so much of our attention never existed at all, or was, at best, a fortuitous confluence of elements of entirely heterogeneous origins (sovereignty, administration, a competitive political field, etc.) that came together in certain times and places, but that, nowadays, are very much in the process of once again drifting apart
David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins. 2017. On Kings. Hau Books. p.22
I agree with this diagnosis. I argue in A Small Farm Future that many of the elements of ‘the state’ that have typified the modern world are, for various reasons, in the process of disintegrating, and for many of us or for our descendants the outcome is likely to be a relatively autonomous world of local household production akin to Sahlins’s domestic mode – which, at its best, may not be such a bad outcome.
Not such a bad outcome, but not in any sense a perfect one. While I think Sahlins somewhat over-eggs the difficulties and contradictions of the domestic mode of production, I believe he does it advisedly to point to the inherent tensions and difficulties that human societies of all kinds experience in constituting themselves, and his analysis therefore works as a counterweight to airily romanticized progressive ideologies such as the ‘collective class struggle’ that Heffron and Heron invoke as, dare one say it, a deus ex machina for overcoming structural difficulties. And Sahlins does it with a gruff admiration for the practical workarounds that people involved in household production worldwide have found historically to these intrinsic difficulties. Whereas the earlier Marx – and Heffron and Heron after him – scorned the political potential of household or peasant societies for their inability to come together collectively, employing the famous metaphor of potatoes in a sack, I offer A Small Farm Future at several levels as an argument that champions those potatoes, botanically and metaphorically, each and every one of them a marvellous but ultimately flawed attempt to solve certain intractable questions of how to exist as one part of something bigger.
Sahlins’s writing wasn’t especially easy for those not steeped in social science, but it had a kind of muscular workaday honesty, sprinkled with wry humour, which always returned to the practicalities of how people in actual historical societies have gone about their business, rather than involving itself in theoretical speculations or projections of idealized futures. A wise course. But, as I argue in A Small Farm Future, the burden of present generations is now to project new futures urgently in the face of the unravelling of the present mode of production, however difficult the task.
In doing so, I see myself as working within the traditions of left-wing (but not Marxist) politics. I don’t particularly want to be a renegade, although I’m less closed-minded than I once was to the possibility that other political traditions might have something of value to say. Indeed, these days I find much leftist writing, including that of a certain review of my book, to be so self-satisfied with its unexamined prejudices – positive and negative – around such things as collective class struggle, the forms of property, the nature of hierarchy or the forms of kinship, that a bit of reneging seems necessary. I don’t suppose my efforts will bear much fruit, but so be it. It’s a long-haul thing.
Talking of long hauls, with hindsight perhaps I didn’t specify clearly enough in A Small Farm Future the different time registers involved in thinking about post-capitalist ecological futures. Joe Clarkson said recently on this site that he was more interested in immediate issues of social transformation because, longer-term, people will figure out their small farm futures somehow – the challenge is the path from now to there. It’s a strong point, and in my book I do make some attempt to address it (more on that in future posts), but in truth I think the immediate transformation is going to involve a thousand kinds of craziness that can’t easily be predicted or allayed, so my focus in the book was to characterize in outline some of the main issues that emerging small farm societies in the interstices of this craziness would have to wrestle with – without attempting any kind of complete blueprint for how they should or would organize themselves. Inevitably, one has to make assumptions about the kind of future world and the kind of future societies one is projecting, and this is always open to challenge. I could probably have signposted this a little better in the book. But overall I stand by that project.
For their part, Heffron and Heron wrote “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present.” So the difference with my project is clear. As me, I’m not especially interested in looking for the contours of an eco-communist future. There are a few aspects of ‘eco-communism’ I might endorse, but I’m doubtful many current struggles against the capitalist present – and certainly few that are framed through Marxist optics – will be especially generative of post-capitalist ecological societies long-term.
Heron is scornful of ‘disaster’ politics and its presentiments of sudden transformative shocks to present social systems. This seems a necessary stance for him to take, because struggles against the capitalist present can only build a worthy long-term politics within capitalism’s own persisting ambit – and this, I think, constitutes a ‘threshold’ of capitalist ideology that Marxism itself cannot cross. This was a theme in Culture and Practical Reason (1976),Sahlins’s next big book after Stone Age Economics, where he provided a sustained anthropological critique of what he saw as the limited bourgeois economism of Marxism (Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production did something similar around the same time). I think this bourgeois economism is apparent in Heffron and Heron’s scorn for peasantries, kin structuring, household production and household use values, and their enthusiasm for ill-defined large-scale collectivisms and state formations.
From Sahlins, I’ll take my stand on the possible, but by no means paradisiacal, domestic mode of production of the future, and on the unlikelihood of generating long-term culture out of short-term conflicts of material interest. I’ll try to fill out the implications of this in future posts, where I hope I can better ground the rather abstract arguments I’ve made here.
I discuss the idea that humanity has boxed itself into what I call the ‘arable corner’ in Chapter 5 of A Small Farm Future, and in this post I’m going to draw out some implications of that discussion.
The idea behind the ‘arable corner’ (perhaps I should have called it the ‘grain corner’) is that we’ve become over-reliant on a handful of arable/grain crops – 75% of global cropland is devoted to just ten crops, of which six are cereals and two grain legumes. And now it seems like we’re boxed in, because it’s hard to discern how to wean ourselves off them.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these crops. One reason we grow them in such abundance is that they meet our needs so well. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Boxing ourselves into the arable corner isn’t great for human health, for livestock health, for ecosystem integrity or for socio-political wellbeing, as I document in Chapter 5. Here, I’ll reflect briefly on how we got into this mess, and how we might escape it.
Our key arable crops are all pretty much short-lived annuals, quickly producing seeds that pack a heavy punch of energy and protein to help the next generation get started – and it’s upon this inter-generational generosity in the plant tribe that humanity has built its civilizations. As I wrote a while back, were it not for this ecological quirk, we probably wouldn’t be facing many of our present intractable problems.
Some of these problems stem precisely from the annual habit of our arable crops, so one approach to solving them – on which I’ve previously written, and discuss a little in my book – is attempting to perennialize these crops. I’m not convinced this will work biologically. And if it does, I’m not convinced it’ll get us out of our socioeconomic predicaments. Nor do I fully understand why it’s presented as a more ‘natural’ way of farming compared with, say, breeding annual grains for fast, high yield, which is much more consonant with their life history. But I’m all in favour of experimentation – I just don’t think the perennializing folks should call the adoption of annual crops a ‘mistake’ in human history, as they sometimes do.
Going way back, perhaps even beyond the origins of Homo sapiens, people have understood that early successional ecosystems involving habitat disturbance and high plant nutrification are propitious environments for human provisioning, and they found numerous ingenious ways to push things in that direction. The swiddening that I mentioned in my last post is but one example. I think these are better regarded as elegant solutions to people’s contemporary problems rather than ‘mistakes’ – but it nevertheless seems unlikely that we’ll solve today’s problems in the same way, by doubling down on habitat disturbance and nutrification.
So if I’m proposing neither annual arable as usual nor perennial arable as an alternative, then what? I’ll come to that in a moment. But first I want to sketch a little social history around the arable corner. The old-time orthodoxy of the human turn to farming was that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to sow and resow cereals, then settled down into sedentary villages to grow them, producing such a surplus of food and therefore people that occupational specialization became possible, and thence quickly thereafter the emergence of complex states that kickstarted humanity on its journey to all the benefits of modern civilization.
But newer scholarship as outlined by James Scott in his book Against The Grain suggests that much of this is wrong. Sedentism preceded grain domestication, which was only one of several flexible strategies of self-provisioning along the continuum of foraging and farming that stretches much further back into the human past than the putative ‘origins’ of agriculture within roughly the last 10,000 years. And grain domestication predated the emergence of complex states by several millennia. When complex grain-based states did emerge, the ordinary people commanded by them were generally worse off – worse off in their nutrition and health status, and worse off in their susceptibility to violence, economic exploitation and enslavement.
It’s true that by the time the early states got going, alternative games were almost up – population pressure and declining options for foraging impelled people towards arable, as per the old orthodoxy. But in the hands of Scott and similar authors this can be rendered as a tale of loss, not progress: “planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a monocropped field”1.
Scott argues that the architects of the early states such as Sumer were able to capture or ‘parasitize’ this arable sedentism, making its farmers the subject citizens of their hierarchical apparatus. Initially this required various forms of direct coercion to prevent people fleeing from drudgery and subjection but when population pressure on land passes a critical point, direct coercion can turn economic or legalistic, merely depriving the working class of the right to be independent cultivators.
The main counterviews to such negative appraisals of central state power within our modern system of states turn on either amplifying the productivity or mitigating the inequality orchestrated by the state, or both, so that even the humblest citizen might live like the kings of the past. But I think the jury is now in on this. Amplifying productivity has generated deep ecological problems. Inequalities remain stark and stubborn, and the most thorough attempts to remedy them have failed to endure and have involved numerous coercions of their own.
So maybe it’s worth looking for answers elsewhere. To my mind, a key hunting ground raised in Scott’s account is those long millennia of sedentary mixed cereal cultivation preceding the emergence of centralized states. Likewise, it seems there were long periods in British history of mixed sedentary cultivation during the Neolithic without state centralization. Even more interestingly in the British case, this was succeeded by greater status differentiation and centralization in the early Bronze Age, before reversion to more dissipated household-based organization thereafter2. There are similar examples from many other parts of the world – although predatory would-be states were often waiting in the wings in many of these cases, and were sometimes able to strike when conditions favoured them. But they didn’t necessarily endure, and what I find especially tantalizing in these examples is that there seemed to be supra-local political organization without centralized statehood.
And this is essentially the approach that I think commends itself today, partly by force of circumstance and partly by choice. Growing annual grains locally, predominantly on garden scales, along with a wide range of other annual and perennial, dryland and aquatic food and fibre crops in small-scale guilds that limit the ecological destructiveness of any one crop. Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.
This links to another phrase I coin in my book – the recaptured garden. Elites and centralized states have often creamed off as much surplus as they possibly can from ordinary people – and one way they’ve maximized the return is by making ordinary people responsible for their own welfare, not least by making them grow their own food. Historian Steven Stoll calls this the ‘captured garden’3. Again, a modernist response is that people shouldn’t have to do this. Specialist farmers should release us from this captivity by growing our food for us, and governments should ensure that everybody has a tolerable income to pay for the necessities of life. Ask an average farmer or an ex-farming slum dweller in an average country of the modern world about their income and see how well that’s going.
I argue instead for reclaiming or recapturing the garden for ourselves. Globally, governments have at best a patchy record for freeing people from economic misery, and to this day a lot of people try to hang on to small patches of land as a risk-spreading strategy in the face of state hostility or indifference. Again, partly through force of circumstance and partly through choice I think people will need to press harder upon this recapturing, because governments will be increasingly unable to offer alternatives.
So, to escape the arable corner, the forms of state coercion associated with it and the ecological problems it creates I argue that our best chance is by becoming our own arable farmers, or rather mixed-arable gardeners, and by recapturing our gardens and the politics of our households from centralized states. I hope to fill out some of the details of this in future posts.
James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.
The previous post in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future discussed the section on political economy (pp.53-73). Much as I’d like to dwell on various other issues raised therein, I feel I should probably move on to the next part of the book. But fortunately, having just read Aaron Benanav’s stimulating new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020), an engagement with it in this post enables me to sweep up a few further issues from that section while simultaneously moving on. Always good to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
I did, in fact, cite Benanav’s work in the aforementioned political economy section of my book, but when I was writing it he hadn’t yet published his own one, which I’ve found helpful in further clarifying my thinking. In this and in a later post, I’ll suggest that his analysis strengthens the case I make for a small farm future, even though that’s not a direction he goes himself. But, as I’ll shortly argue, it could be … and maybe it should be.
Let’s start with Benavav’s appraisal of the present global labour market: many fewer people (proportionately) working in agriculture than previously, many fewer people working in manufacturing than previously, many more people in precarious and low paid employment or underemployment in the service sector than previously, and a very small but growing number of people amassing unprecedentedly stupendous wealth.
A common explanation for these trends is the ‘automation theory’ that argues they arise from labour-shedding technological development. This occurred first in agriculture with what Benanav (p.42) calls ‘the major destroyer of livelihoods in the twentieth century’ in the form of agrarian ‘nitrogen capitalism’ (so named because of agri-industrial reliance on manufactured nitrogenous fertiliser, though in truth it involved a suite of fossil fuel-based developments, so perhaps it’s better seen as another variant of fossil capitalism).
Whatever the terminology, it’s refreshing to see Benanav call agrarian industrialisation for what it is – a destroyer of livelihoods – rather than resorting to the usual upbeat euphemisms of ‘labour saving’ or ‘agricultural improvement’. Now that automation threatens livelihoods across a swathe of other employment sectors – including such bastions of white-collar privilege as medicine and law – perhaps it becomes easier to make the case that in agriculture as in other sectors ‘labour saving’ isn’t necessarily a good thing.
But actually, the main thrust of Benanav’s book is a critique of automation theory. If the present stagnation of the global labour market were really caused by automation, he argues, we’d expect to see a spiralling growth in labour productivity, whereas the trend is better explained by falling global manufacturing output that he imputes to industrial overcapacity and underinvestment. This leads to his important claims that, during the 20th century, manufacturing was “a unique engine of economic growth” and that modern governments have found no other ways to sustain growth when manufacturing output has faltered (pp.34-5).
A minor point to draw from all this in relation to my own book is that I largely ducked the question of future technologies in agriculture because too much attention to drones, robots, GM, GPS, vertical farming and all the rest of it seemed something of a diversion, but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this evasion. So I find Benanav’s analysis reassuring in suggesting that these really aren’t the main questions before us. For this reason, I’m not going to discuss in this blog cycle the things I do have to say about automation, ‘progress’ etc. in Chapter 2 of my book, which in any case we’ve discussed at length on this website over the years.
So if emerging technologies aren’t the main question, what is? Benanav’s analysis suggests that the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise, with more and more workers pushed into necessarily labour-intensive and low-paid service industries. Sometimes this involves small-scale family operations competing successfully with large and highly capitalized firms on the basis of involutionary job creation strategies. It also involves industrial corporations favouring monopolistic competition, the asset bubble of financialization and squeezing worker pay and conditions. And it seems likely that these trends represent a limit or endpoint to the present structure of the global political economy that’s inherent to its internal logic, regardless of wider issues like climate change, energy futures or resource drawdown.
The main question, then, is how might the global political economy escape this impasse once we abandon the fruitless idea that the answer lies in technological development? As I see it, there are four main options, three of which Benanav touches on in his book, and one of which (the most promising one, in my opinion) he doesn’t.
First, there’s the possibility that the global political economy will find a way to barrel through the present crisis and restart the growth engine of industrial development. There are, after all, multitudes of poor people globally who would be only too happy to lead lives of industrialised plenty of the kind many of us lead in the richer countries and the richer parts of the poorer ones. As China increasingly takes over the reins of global economic leadership from the USA, developments like its Belt and Road Initiative may provide exactly the kickstart that’s needed. But I think it’s unlikely. China’s industrialization, like the ones of the western powers preceding it, is based on a coercion of labour that’s unlikely to sustain growth long-term and is already displaying the morbid symptoms of late-stage western capitalism. Throw in the effects of climate change and resource crisis, and it’s hard to see the locomotive of global industrialization escaping the siding where it’s currently languishing and getting back onto the main track.
Second, there’s the possibility of ‘our country first’ economic nationalism. On this point, Benanav is surely right to suggest that “a chronically low demand for labour will not be alleviated by tariff barriers or walled borders” (p.65). I’d argue nonetheless that it would probably be a good way to go for the poorest countries experiencing a net outflow of assets in the globalized economy if they were able to make it happen, but economic nationalism operating at large across the world certainly isn’t going to usher in a new cornucopia of surging global growth and prosperity. I guess Brexit Britain has just started a small experiment on your behalf in this respect. You’re welcome.
Third, there’s the possibility of redistributing the product of the global economy more fairly between rich and poor, young and old. To me, this seems ethically right and will probably happen quite widely one way or another anyway if governments don’t act, because too much inequality sustained for too long prompts political movements geared to restitution. But for all its necessity, it seems to me that a fairer redistribution of economic product doesn’t strike to the root of the problem much more than the other possibilities, because it likewise doesn’t provide the means for radically creating more product and transcending industrial overcapacity and low labour demand.
Here’s where Benanav’s analysis gets, for me, most interesting, but also most problematic. There are different ways in which a fairer distribution of product might be delivered politically. The one Benanav explores is a propertyless socialist utopia in which people collectively divide the necessary work of social reproduction between themselves on a fair and democratic basis, devoting the rest of their time to pursuing their personal passions and pleasures.
There’s much I find appealing in his vision, and some of it covers very similar ground to my own discussion of utopias in my book (pp.85-8). Benanav and I agree that it’s not OK to expect subordinated categories of labour to do the hard work of domestic and social reproduction, and nor is it plausible to expect new developments in automation to ride to the rescue and do it for us. The main point of his brief utopian exercise isn’t to provide some fully realized blueprint for the future, but to suggest that it’s possible for us to create congenial lives for ourselves with existing technology in the here and now, rather than waiting for future technological developments to deliver us into a fantasy future world without work. On this point I wholeheartedly agree.
All the same, there are aspects of his utopia that I find either implausible or unappealing. I won’t expound on them at length here because I hope to come back to this in later posts, but in brief I think he puts too much faith in people’s ability to smoothly divvy up the work between themselves and deliver on what’s expected through ill-defined democratic processes. This is all the more problematic inasmuch as Benanav acknowledges there are kinds of work that can’t be widely shared because they require specialist skills (he mentions farming in this connection) and inasmuch as it would be necessary to somehow hold producers accountable if they failed to come up with the goods.
As for the unappealing, the freedoms that Benanav accords people in his utopia seem to me overly individualistic, disconnected and intellectual. His examples include painting murals, learning languages, inventing things and ‘choosing to explore nature’ (pp.91-2) – this being the only mention I noticed in his book of the extra-human ecological world. It all sounds a bit like a university professor dreaming up a quiet suburban retirement for himself, which – as I suggest in my book (p.85) – is essentially what most written utopias are. And I use the word ‘himself’ here deliberately, because there are some interesting gender framings involved in all this. But we’ll come to that in a later post.
Benanav nevertheless contends – correctly in my opinion – that “feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose are what generate the best work” (p.89), yet it seems to me hard to reconcile this with the highly generalized collective divvying up of work and the holding of producers to account that he identifies – a point that, again, I’ll develop in another post. Rather than drifting around in an agreeable but ultimately somewhat vapid and probably unrealisable ‘post-scarcity’ world, I think true autonomy, mastery and purpose arise through experiencing resistances to one’s agency, partly in relation to other people (the points where collective agreements fail) and partly in relation to the necessary practice of creating a livelihood out of the extra-human world of nature, rather than the option of simply exploring it. In both cases, a sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose arises when one feels equal to the challenge, which is usually only possible through an intimate, grounded, personal, local knowledge of the social and natural landscape.
In other words, the fourth way to address the impasse of the present global political economy may be to embrace the possibility – so admirably implied by Benanav throughout his book, but never confronted head on – of creating a labour-intensive, semi-autonomous livelihood through farming, homesteading or gardening largely on one’s own account, within a wider society which is collectively oriented to enabling people to live that way. Agricultural involution of this sort is far more generative of a sense of purpose than creating involutionary service sector jobs, far more compatible with a low or no economic growth society (a point Benanav makes on p.38), and far less ecologically destructive. It would amount to a small farm future – not a panacea, not a utopia, but a plausible goal to aim at. In my forthcoming posts I’ll continue to outline its contours.
Apologies that this blog has become essentially dormant of late. I’d hoped to keep it ticking over while I wrote my book manuscript and perhaps try out some of my ideas for the book on it – as with my previous post – but the reality is I’m not finding the time to write both a book and a blog while simultaneously trying to lead an actual biological existence not confined to a 15 x 9 inch screen. Hopefully I’m in endgame with the book manuscript and this blog will spring into life again in the autumn. Meanwhile, I’m happy to keep this little corner of the internet pulsing by bringing you another book review from a valued contributor to Small Farm Future, Clem Weidenbenner. It sounds like the book Clem’s reviewing is one I ought to read as I try to thread the argument of my own book through mountains of vehemently-held and conflicting opinions. Sadly I’m now in book overload, both in the reading and the writing of them, so it’ll have to wait awhile. But my thanks to Clem for this rendering of its core:
Thinking on a Small Farm
Our benevolent host has long advocated for small farms and in many postings here at SFF has offered political approaches as means to empower them – or at the very least to not actively stand in their path. And the community of commenters here at SFF have also shared thoughts and interests along these lines. Brexit, Populism and the ascent of Trump, negative features of colonialism, causes and fallout from the financial crisis a decade ago – these subjects fascinate and invigorate lively debate here at SFF and among society at large. When matters as these stir up emotion and enflame the passions of disputants the level of discourse may descend to levels of counterproductive infighting. What course might we adopt to steer away from trash talk, insult, and invective? How might we share and discuss disagreements with a view to find common ground, or if not common ground at least some level of common understanding?
Alan Jacobs offers some thoughts on these questions. In his book How to Think1, Dr. Jacobs takes a stab at what we, as a society, might attempt on behalf of thinking, thinking together, and respecting our fellow thinkers. The hubris of the title aside, Alan’s effort here is a modest attempt to call for listening as much as for thinking. Engaged listening. Reflection. Community participation in the act of thinking.
At 156 pages, this text is decidedly shorter than Adam Tooze’s Crashed (reviewed here at SFF back in March by Michelle Galimba). For those familiar with Dr. Jacobs very capable writing style this book will not disappoint. He flows from one point to the next. He outlines examples and offers footnotes for those wishing to dig further into the subjects at hand. He does make a nod to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow2 (which one might consider a book about ‘How We Think’) – but I wish he’d developed the contrast between his and Kahneman’s efforts a bit more. For instance, one might retitle Jacob’s book ‘How We Should Think’.
Alan explicitly moves thinking from the singular effort of an individual to the collective effort of a group. Almost a ‘We think therefore we are’ to riff on Descartes. Well, not exactly – for in How to Think Dr. Jacobs does get to offering advice on how to participate in collective thinking; how to cultivate habits that prevent bad behavior while participating in collective thinking. This may be the strongest asset for the effort. And in terms of Thinking on a Small Farm, for the community where local agricultural pursuits can survive and prosper, there is plenty here to take hold of and mull over.
I do have a quibble (hard to believe, right?). In making a point about an idea offered by Scott Alexander, Jacobs writes the following sentence, “Since Alexander wrote that initial post, an article has appeared based on research that confirms his hypothesis.” (page 73). I’d have preferred he use ‘supports his hypothesis’ instead. If we’re going to think together and think with a scientific method, we might want to test hypotheses – toss them if they deserve being tossed and accept them so long as data to hand support their being accepted. ‘Confirms a hypothesis’ goes too far.
In a sentence – Nice little book, brief, engaging, and valuable.
Jacobs, A. 2017. How to Think. Currency.
Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Other titles one might take a look at:
Forni, P. M. 2011. The Thinking Life. St Martin’s Press [also a smallish tome, more focused on civility, a bit preachy – but quick and full of tasty bits]
Levitin, D. J. 2016. A Field Guide to Lies. Dutton. [twice the size of the former, good introduction to critical thinking, timely help in discovering the misdirections or mistakes offered by others]
I’ve been reading Lynn T. White’s book Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change (Routledge, 2018). I couldn’t honestly recommend it as a light bedtime read, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. Here I just want to reflect on the case of a rural migrant mentioned by White thus:
“A twenty-five-year-old legal migrant from Henan to Suzhou explained in 1994 why he was so much more productive on the delta: “We used to spend three months doing farm work, one month celebrating the Spring Festival, and eight months in idle time every year.” Now he was a restaurant waiter, working fourteen hours each day, seven days a week – but receiving 400 yuan (about US$50 a month, which was four times his previous Henan wage). When asked whether he thought he was working too hard, he replied with great eloquence….“No, it is better than sitting idly by watching people in cities getting rich. The conditions here are not bad at all. Color TV, electric heating, free meals – these are great. What I like most here is that I can take a shower every day. I was not able to take a bath during the entire winter at home. It would be too cold to do so in the river.” (p.354)
This example poses some potentially awkward questions for those like me who advocate for a small farm future – for more Henan and less Suzhou, so to speak. Could I look this man in the eye and tell him that he should have stayed on the farm? My answer to that, emphatically, is no.
But I think the implications of what he said are worth pondering. The first reason he gave for leaving the farm draws from a relative deprivation narrative – why molder away in rural poverty while city people make so much more money? The last reason he gave draws from an absolute deprivation narrative – back home, he couldn’t even take a shower during the winter!
This individual story fits easily into the dominant narrative of our times – people naturally seek prosperity, and when the opportunity arises will therefore move from countryside to city, and also from poorer countries to richer ones in search of it. Good luck to them – so long as the national and international economies are structured the way they are, I have zero sympathy for the anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing populism, and little sympathy for left-populist peasant romanticism either.
But if you aggregate this one man’s journey across the global billions, urban and rural, who share his impoverished starting point, I can’t see this strategy of wealth-through-urbanization-and-economic-growth working. For one thing, while the global economy is certainly capable of lifting millions of people out of poverty in some places – China foremost among them – I don’t think it’s structurally or physically capable of doing it adequately everywhere. If, like me, you number among the top few hundred million in global wealth then that may not concern you much. Possibly it doesn’t concern a man like the Henan waiter either. And much as I’d like to think that such persistent inequalities would prompt the poor into political action to achieve a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, the fact is this only happens in historically unusual circumstances, as occurred in early 20th century China.
If economist Minqi Li, whose book China and the 21st Century Crisis (Pluto, 2016) I’m currently ploughing my way through (it’s another bedtime no-no, I’m afraid), is to be believed, these circumstances are also likely to occur in the mid-21st century, and will probably result in the end of the global capitalist order. Let me throw in another China book while I’m at it – David Bandurski’s Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance in Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) – a much better candidate for bedtime reading, which shows vividly why somebody like this waiter may get richer in the city but will always be watching other people get richer still. Having corresponded recently with David (more on that anon), he pronounces himself pessimistic about the opportunities for resistance in Xi’s China. Time will tell.
Quite apart from the limited economic capacity of the global political economy to lift adequate numbers of people out of poverty, the other side of it is the limited environmental and energetic capacities to do so. If you aggregate the single migrant journey from Henan to Suzhou I’ve described here among all those similarly lacking in the food, shelter, comfort and entertainment that many of us take for granted, the consequences will quite simply be environmentally catastrophic and untenable long-term unless you buy into ecomodernist fantasies that it’s all manageable through nuclear power, GM crops and the like. So here we come to a third deprivation narrative – contemporary people pursuing eminently justifiable and personally rational goals deprive others, most especially future generations, of the opportunity to do likewise.
The only way I see out of this morass is to detoxify the first and third of these deprivation narratives while focusing relentlessly on the second. I’d like to think that it should be possible for everyone in the world to have safe and comfortable shelter (including access to tolerably warm bathing water) and an adequate diet (I’m not so sure about the color TV…or the free meals: isn’t there a capitalist story doing the rounds that the latter are a myth?) But to achieve that sustainably so that future generations don’t go without I think we’re going to have to let go of the relative deprivation story, the “people in cities getting rich”, by sharing the wealth around much more fairly.
Well, it’s a plan – and it’s been tried before, notably in China by one Mao Zedong. The aforementioned Minqi Li seems to be among the cohort that’s reevaluating Maoism positively, for example analyzing Mao’s Cultural Revolution as an attempt to “save the revolution” through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.18). Personally, I struggle to justify the enormous destructiveness, misery and cruelty of it in those terms, when it seemed to be at least as much about saving the power of Mao Zedong through the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. I find Lynn White’s analysis more interesting – in his view, the disasters of Mao’s Great Leap Forward followed soon after by the power vacuum created by the Cultural Revolution fostered considerable local economic autonomy in China from the 1960s, and it was this bottom-up economic dynamism rather than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao government that laid the foundation for the country’s transformation into today’s huge industrial-capitalist power (I do find Li’s prognosis for how that transformation is likely to end in tears quite convincing, however).
So no, I’m not too keen on Maoist solutions to economic inequality. My preference is for agrarian populist solutions to it – which essentially means getting more people into farming and paying them better for it. Low economic returns to agriculture have often been a historical fact, but they’re not intrinsically an economic one. Still, the questions remain – is such a populist solution likely to occur, and how could it happen? My answers to that are ‘no’ and ‘with great difficulty’, but it’s the only solution that strikes me as likely to be successful long-term, so the long march back to Henan-with-hot-showers is the one I want to devote my thinking to. White and Li’s books have helped me to see that a little more clearly, though still through a glass darkly. I’ll try to elucidate it more in future posts.