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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

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.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
  2. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
  3. Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.

Automation and a small farm future

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.

Thinking on a small farm…

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.

  1. Jacobs, A. 2017. How to Think. Currency.
  2. 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]

 

 

Three deprivation narratives

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.

From info-tech to post-capitalism?

Times have been hard of late for us leftists. Despite the fact that a good deal of our tradition’s criticisms of capitalism and modernity have proved accurate, the expected solutions haven’t really come – and when leftist governments have assumed power, they’ve often compounded the problems. New issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and resource squeezes, not to mention feminism, decolonisation and identity politics, have arisen and challenged old leftist certainties. Small wonder that there’s a cottage industry in the publishing world for new leftist books trying to make sense of all these emerging trends.

I’ve tried to keep up as best I can with a selection of these volumes. They vary from the gob-smackingly bad – like Leigh Phillips’ neo-Bolshevik Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts – to the serious and thought-provoking. To my mind, almost all of them suffer from an insufficiently analysed commitment to ‘progress’ and technological solutionism. It’s not that I’m arguing instead for regress and anti-technological, reactionary backwardness…here, you can already sense the narrow straitjacket that leftism (and not only leftism, but most mainstream political thought) throws around the debate over ‘progress’ and technology. We need to do a better job when we talk about these ideas and acknowledge their complexities. Not much chance of that with public intellectuals like Steven Pinker strutting their stuff – what’s this weird modernist obsession with proving how much better life is now than in the past all about?

Anyway, Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future (Penguin, 2015) is one of the better efforts I’ve read among this bad bunch. I still think it suffers from some of the characteristic weaknesses of mainstream leftist thought – and I think it would probably have been better titled Capitalism: A Guide To Our Past – but I’ve come away from it feeling enriched and informed. I’m not going to try to summarise it here, but I do want to review a few of Mason’s points that bear most directly on some of the concerns of this blog.

1. Capitalist crisis: Leftists, and Marxists in particular, have long argued that there are inherent tendencies to crisis within the capitalist economy, basically associated with the contradiction between finding consumers to buy its products and immiserating labour to cut its costs, and with replacing human labour with machinery. These tendencies are genuine, but the capitalist economy has proved much more resilient than the early Marxists supposed in overcoming its crises, essentially by finding ever new arenas (places, people, products) to commodify. It’s possible that the present impasse of the global capitalist economy will prove to be no more than another one of these temporary crises, but there are various signs that it’s more serious than that. In briefest outline, these include the unprecedented reliance on debt-fuelled growth by most of the major ‘developed’ countries, the scouring of value from these countries’ own increasingly immiserated populations, placing more wealth into the hands of an increasingly small global economic elite, the pressures of resource crisis and climate change, and the emergence within many of the major western economies of an impetus towards beggar-my-neighbour trade protectionism of the kind associated with the rhetoric, if not the deeds, of a figure like Donald Trump, with all the attendant 1930s-style dangers of global trade wars turning into global military conflict.

2. Working-class response: Marx himself had a rather naïve, intellectually-driven faith in the industrial working class as the universal historical class that would by itself right the wrongs of capitalism and of previous economic systems. But the more influential Marxist position, associated with someone who achieved actual political power, is Lenin’s critique of the ‘trade union consciousness’ of the industrial proletariat: without party cadres to push them into proper communism, according to Lenin all you get with industrial workers is demands for better pay and conditions. That’s pretty much the same viewpoint as legions of conservative thinkers, except what’s a negative for Lenin is a positive for them – witness, for example, John Michael Greer’s voluminous writings on the ‘wage class’ in the USA and its lack of interest in socialism. Mason, much more convincingly, shows how working class movements across the ‘developed’ world in the 19th and early 20th centuries actually did involve a strong leftist (though rarely Marxist) critique of capitalism, which emphasised education, self-improvement, the dignity of skilled manual work and the rich associational life of an engaged, disciplined, politicised workforce. As the contradictions of early 20th century capitalism began to mount, these movements faltered – destroyed by authoritarian populism and/or fascism, or bought off by social democracy, and ultimately snuffed out by neoliberalism with its destruction of organised labour in the west and its individualisation of economic action.

3. The rise of info-tech. The old leftist project is in ruins, then, but Mason sees new possibilities in the rise of networked information as the currency of 21st century human interaction. In his view, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly, because markets are based on scarcity, whereas information is abundant. Meanwhile, info tech is lowering the marginal costs of production of numerous commodities – including basic physical commodities. The peer production of free stuff enabled by the info tech revolution is growing, enabling people to interact with each other as social beings outside the marketplace. Just as the old idea of the working class as the universal political class dies, a new idea of the well-educated and networked as the universal political class is born. At the same time, traditional forces of capitalist control are attempting to reassert themselves: vast tech monopolies like Google, repressive-authoritarian states and the constant reinvention of indebtedness to entrench exploitation. Hence are the contemporary battle lines between capitalism and post-capitalism drawn.

oOo

I think Mason has some brilliant insights into the story of capitalism and of the left’s somewhat-but-not-entirely futile attempts to understand and challenge it. I’m less convinced by the way he construes the coming conflict between monopoly capitalism and post-capitalist info-tech. I just don’t think he provides anything like a ‘thick’ enough description of future energy and resource prospects, the present structure of commodity manufacture and the nature of the open source or peer production movement to give his claims real weight. So it would be easy to dismiss his analysis as another example of starry-eyed, high tech, 3D-printer-fantasising flummery of the kind that disfigures so much ‘postcapitalist’ writing on the left these days. And indeed, in many ways his approach to the ‘zero marginal cost revolution’ isn’t that different to Kate Raworth’s, which I treated to a fairly peremptory dismissal on this site not so long ago.

But I don’t want to jettison his arguments quite so hastily. This is partly because he has a more nuanced view of info-tech as a contradiction within capitalist production, rather than simply as something that’s going to ride to the rescue of a grateful humanity. And it’s partly because I think his analysis can be reformulated in a more interesting way. So I’m going to conclude by trying to reformulate it.

I’ve long been sceptical of the idea of commons as a fundamentally superior form of economic organisation for the production of food and other key basic commodities (perhaps I’ll try to lay this argument out more systematically in another post). Given the opportunity, I think most people historically have preferred to provide for their household needs themselves as far as possible (which is not to say that commoning arrangements haven’t nevertheless been important in numerous ways). But it does seem to be the case that there’s a thriving ‘digital commons’ of peer-produced, open source free stuff out there in the world of information. I think Mason possibly overstates the significance of Wikipedia, Linux and Android compared to, say, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, but he undoubtedly has a point. So I wonder if there’s some key difference between the world of food production and the world of information production?

I’m not sure – if there is, I think it’s probably around such issues as the production of food demanding ongoing physical work over periods of time that are determined by the rhythms of the natural world and not by the choice of the worker, with rewards demanding that the marginal cost of production is quite low relative to the total cost of production. In the world of peer production of information – a new WordPress widget, for example – the work is more modular, determined by the choice of the worker, and with marginal costs of production quite high relative to the total cost of production. And the social kudos gained from producing the widget is much higher than the social kudos gained from producing, say, a carrot. So there’s that. But I think the main thing that’s going on here is that info-tech peer production is essentially an elite pursuit, only available to those in highly privileged positions within the global political economy, whose ability to produce stuff for free rests upon a lot of other people working hard to service their basic needs. The same might be said of a home veg grower who gives most of her produce away or volunteers at a community garden.

In that sense, the peer production of free stuff is made possible by hidden exploitation within the global political economy, and probably therefore stands in a somewhat less revolutionary position to that political economy than Mason supposes. But I think he’s still right that there’s a possibly terminal crisis afoot in that political economy, and that the networked, educated individual may have a role to play in ushering us towards something else. And this is where his critique may connect up with my conception of the supersedure state that I outlined recently.

Here’s how things may unfold. Conservative forces will try to maintain capitalism-as-usual – debt-fuelled growth, austerity and inequality, ever more draconian immigration control, authoritarian state power, connivance with multinational monopolies and so on. But, despite achieving short-term successes and creating a lot of misery, they won’t triumph everywhere, partly as a result of opposition from Mason’s networked, educated people (among others), partly because of exogenous pressures like energy prices and climate change, and partly because they won’t be able to deliver what capitalist political economies have always ultimately been able to deliver to enough people in previous eras to guarantee their survival – increasing wealth and consumer luxury.  Generally, states will weaken, and civil society will have thrust upon it the responsibility of providing for basic needs.

This will turn out to be a lot harder than many people thought – including networked, educated individuals who discover that securing a steady supply of food, clothing, energy and shelter isn’t as easy as producing a WordPress widget. Nevertheless, their instincts towards open collaboration with strangers, lateral thinking, environmental care and shared space will stand them in good stead when it comes to rethinking community provisioning from the ground up. As per my analysis of the supersedure state, states will gradually retreat towards their core centres and populations, which will be increasingly remote from and inaccessible to the majority of people living within their de facto boundaries. Commercial, cash-crop oriented export farming will start to lose its economic rationale, and this is the point at which new, locality-oriented forms of ‘peer production’ of basic necessities may step into the breach. There will be numerous challenges, false steps and failures, but there may also be interesting models, social innovations and successes.

That, at any rate, seems something to aim at. I don’t think we’ll see the world that Mason would like to see – essentially one of free or nearly free basic necessities, universal basic income and a lot of volunteering, leisure and peer production of info-tech. But I think we might see, at least in some places, a world that’s better than that, based on local work, community self-provision and wider political networks of amity within the increasingly empty and moribund shell of a larger body politic left over from 20th century capitalism. In that sense, it’s a world that may have similarities with the one built by the organised, leftist working-classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s just hope that history doesn’t then repeat itself too much.

History crash

My previous post offered a retrospective take on my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ post cycle that I completed a while back. I thought I might now turn to another such retrospective, this time on my recently-completed ‘History of the world’ cycle. So I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the way we think about history, with the help of a couple of books from my recent reading.

JG Ballard’s Crash is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read – a novel about people who are sexually aroused by cars, and in particular by deaths and injuries in car crashes, deliberately orchestrated or otherwise1. It’s a disturbing, semi-pornographic and some might say depraved book, to which a publisher’s reader of the draft manuscript famously wrote “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish”. It’s also, in my opinion, completely brilliant. I can’t imagine what the hell was going through Ballard’s mind in writing it, but for me it touches on two themes relevant to this blog.

The first is that we tend to talk about technology nowadays as if it’s something that’s radically separable from what it is to be a person. So with cars, for example, we might draw up some kind of balance sheet where we say that the advent of the automobile has been positive, because it’s allowed us to get to places quicker and more freely, while acknowledging the downsides – road injuries, air pollution etc. I take Ballard to be saying that this way of thinking is flawed. Cars have changed who we are, and bled into the very fabric of what it means to be a person in the 20th or 21st centuries. So asking if they’re a good thing or not is an incoherent question, because to answer it depends on there being some kind of contemporary human point of view that’s entirely independent of the car itself – and there isn’t. Generalise that to any technology – farming, for example, or a 3KWh/person/day energy economy – and suddenly we’re mercifully freed from all our chatter about backwardness, progress and so on. Of course, it works the same in reverse. We can’t say that people lived at a more unhurried pace in the 19th century before they had cars, so if we only got rid of the automobile then our lives would resemble the unhurried ones of a bygone age.

This all suits me just fine. I’ll admit that Ballard stretches a point with his rather extreme illustration, and that there are clear continuities between what it means to be a person in the 21st century and the 19th, and indeed very much further back than that. Still, I think Crash makes a nicely relativizing move. What are the grounds on which we judge the currents of history or morality? They’re less clear cut than we often like to think. People are always engaged in often mutually exclusive current projects of future history-making (eg. ecomodernists versus neo-agrarian populists) which usually invoke some kind of historical warrant for their choice. But although we can no doubt learn some things from history so long as we’re conscious of the way they’re refracted in our present gaze, these historical warrants are usually quite illusory. What really matters is the current projects.

The second point I derive from Ballard is our tendency to read present tendencies moralistically into the future as utopias or dystopias, which again I take him to be resisting. So for example an ecomodernist might say that if we could only make cars using clean renewable fuel available to all in the future, then truly we can have a great Anthropocene. Utopia. A more traditional environmentalist might say that if we don’t end our infatuation with personal motorised transport, then a grim future of runaway climate change, collapsing ecosystems, choking air pollution and social isolation beckons. Dystopia. I think Ballard is saying ‘Just look around. Utopia and dystopia are already here, depending on how you choose to see them’. Take this passage:

“The entire zone which defined the landscape of my life was now bounded by a continuous artificial horizon, formed by the raised parapets and embankments of the motorways and their access roads and interchanges. These encircled the vehicles below like the walls of a crater several miles in diameter”.

For the protagonists in Ballard’s story this is a world full of beauty, stories, alluring dangers and sex. Utopia. For me, it’s hell on earth – and I used to live there. Dystopia. But I can find beauty, stories, alluring dangers and, er, well maybe sex in less wholly humanised and technological environments. The present global situation is such, I think, that we need to talk about the future more urgently than any generation ever did before, but I still think Ballard is right to warn us away from projecting our desires and fears moralistically into the future. What are we fighting for politically? Whatever it is, it’s not the future but what’s around us right now. Let’s sharpen our focus on the way we want to live right now, rather than trying to transcendentalize it with reference to the past or the future.

The second book I want to mention is Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris2, professor of classics at Stanford University and based on his Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University – so not at all semi-pornographic or depraved, then. Morris offers a grand survey of human history, the sort of enterprise to which of course I’m wholly sympathetic, but to be honest I feel rather more in tune with Ballard’s line of thought than with Morris’s. I’ll concede there are some definite riches within Morris’s pages, but here I’m going to focus on just one aspect of his thinking that it suits me to analyse for my present purpose – essentially his view of historical development, which I find problematic.

When I was a budding student of anthropology at university, an intellectual crime that my teachers were especially anxious to stamp out in us was teleological functionalism. Quite a mouthful, so let me explain if it’s not clear3. ‘Functionalism’ refers to the notion that the forms societies take can be explained in terms of some kind of function that they perform. This approach rode high in early 20th century social science, and there are doubtless some sophisticated forms of functionalism that may still have something to commend them, but generally the approach has fallen by the wayside. ‘Teleological’ refers to a process that is goal-directed through time. So to give an absurd example of a teleological functionalist approach, you might argue that the driving force of human societies has always been the urge to put people on the moon. If you were then asked why societies historically transitioned from foraging to farming, you might say that it was necessary to have a complex division of labour in order to develop craftspeople and other such specialists who would eventually learn to devise spaceships. If you were asked why the Neolithic gave way to the Bronze Age, you might say that learning to smelt bronze was a necessary step on the way to creating the modern alloys that are necessary in order to have spaceflight. And so on. The obvious flaw in this is that you can’t logically invoke a phenomenon as an explanatory factor for societal changes that have not (yet) brought that phenomenon into existence. More generally, social explanations of the kind ‘Social form X occurred in order to make Y possible’ are suspect – unless Y was an explicit intention of the people bringing X about, which is rarely the case in most forms of teleological explanation.

Morris is smart enough to avoid obviously teleological functionalist arguments most of the time, but they shadow his whole thesis and sometimes rise to the surface, as in this passage on ‘Agraria’, the term he borrows from Ernest Gellner to describe inegalitarian, preindustrial farming societies:

“each age gets the thought it needs. In the absence of fossil fuels, the only way to push energy capture far above 10,000 kilocalories per person per day is by moving towards Agraria, where economic and political inequality are structurally necessary, and in the face of necessity, we adjust our values. Moral systems conform to the requirements of energy capture, and for societies capturing between 10,000 and 30,000 kilocalories per person per day, one of the most important requirements is acceptance of political and economic inequality”4

The obvious objection to this is that, while it may be true that in the absence of fossil fuels you can’t push energy capture over the 10,000 kilocalories figure without instituting inequality, there’s no particular reason why you should choose to, and indeed throughout most of the history of our genus nobody did. The fact that in the last few thousand years the amount of energy capture and the amount of inequality have increased are both social facts that demand explanation – the former fact does not explain the latter.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, Morris’s stance erases and effectively validates the ideological processes by which the elites of Agraria formed themselves and created effective ‘acceptance’ of political and economic inequality. I don’t think this was a matter of everybody choosing the right morality to fit their new agrarian circumstances. It was a matter of people jockeying for advantage within the ever-changing constraints that they found themselves in, much as they do now – albeit that over time those constraints do tend to congeal into various enduring ‘common sense’ ideologies such as the equality of all, or the obviously natural differences between noble and commoner. Second, it makes history the servant of some ineluctable dynamic, in this case that of increased energy capture, and it usually throws in an accompanying dose of implicit or explicit moral approbation – it hasn’t all been great, but look at all the wonders civilisation has given us that could never have been achieved in a foraging society! Perhaps we could call it the Pinkerization of history.

To my mind, the world is much more contingent than this. Increasing energy capture is not a historical dynamic, but a byproduct of the will to power and status that aligned in this direction – but could align in numerous other ways. Each age doesn’t get the thought it ‘needs’ – it’s both enabled and constrained by the thought it inherits from its predecessors, it wrestles with their contradictions and the dilemmas of its day, then it hands on the mess to its successors.

So having finished writing my history of the world, I shall be turning to contemplate its future. The author I’d prefer to keep in mind while doing so is Ballard rather than Morris.

Notes

  1. J.G. Ballard. 1973. Crash. London.
  2. I. Morris. 2015. Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Princeton.
  3. In the last week, the word ‘teleological’ has suddenly arisen to public consciousness in the UK as a result of our hapless foreign secretary using it to justify his opposition to the EU – Steven Poole provides a neat antidote here.
  4. Morris op cit, pp.83-4.

 

Doughnut economics

I didn’t intend to break my ‘History of the world’ cycle again, but the good folks of Dark Mountain have just published my review of Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a Twenty-First Century Economist. And since I’m feeling stretched a bit thin between the blogosphere and the farm, I feel the need to curate the hell out of everything I write…So I’m appending my review below (which, as if to prove my foregoing point, attentive readers of this blog may notice borrows a few sentences from an earlier blog post here). Back to the history of the world next time.

There was a bit of toing and froing with drafts of this review, which my editors felt was overly negative in tone. That bothered me a little, because I’d wanted to convey the considerable merits of Raworth’s book in my review as well as my doubts about it. Suddenly, a self-image opened up for me that I’d not much scrutinised in myself previously despite a few past scrapes, in which I figured as just another windy old nay-saying online opinionater, or perhaps the “two-bit greentard” I was once accused of being. Meanwhile, Marc Brazeau keeps sniping at me on Twitter for misrepresenting his views in this recent post, but is so caught up in the process issues around how he thinks I should have checked what I was going to say with him ahead of time that he still hasn’t actually said what the problem is. Ah well, one truth is that you can’t please everybody. And another one for me is that the world seems so replete with bad choices and impossible trade-offs too glibly resolved in contemporary thinking that maybe a bit more windy nay-saying is exactly what we need. I’d certainly apply that critique to some of my own writing as much as to Raworth’s. And I’d definitely, definitely apply it to Brazeau, from what I’ve seen of his ideas. But, memo to self, perhaps I need to stay politer while I’m about it, and be more willing to apply it to myself.

Anyway, enough of this navel-gazing. Here’s the review (expurgated version).

oOo

Book review:
Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist 
(Random House, 2017)
by Kate Raworth

I doubt many people would have betted that this year’s hot new concept for a healthy economy would be that bad food staple, the doughnut. But with the publication of Kate Raworth’s book, it’s come to pass. The idea of the ‘doughnut’ is that there is (1) a lower social limit for human flourishing, beneath which welfare is limited by shortfalls in such things as food, education and housing, and (2) an outer ecological limit for human flourishing, beyond which welfare is limited by overshoot in such things as climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen and phosphorous loading. These two limits constitute respectively the inner and outer rings of the ‘doughnut’, the sweet spot within which humanity must try to remain. I have to confess I’m not greatly moved by the metaphor, which doesn’t seem to go much beyond the truth that individually people can have too little, and collectively they can take too much. And too much of what – is there really a conceptual equivalence between taking too much water or fossil energy, and taking too much health, as Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ diagram (p.51) seems to imply? Whatever the case, she hangs a lot of sensible and lucid analysis off the concept in a genuinely thought-provoking, if for me ultimately unsatisfactory, book.

In the first part of the book Raworth dissects orthodox economic theory, showing how it frames the world in questionable but powerful and largely hidden ways that buttress right-wing, ‘free’ market politics, while silencing other modes of thinking. She places a lot of emphasis on the way that our stories and pictures condition how we see the world, and generally puts this to good use in deconstructing the ideology of mainstream economics – for example in the notorious ‘circular flow’ diagram of Paul Samuelson, founding father of modern economics, which depicted the economy as a kind of frictionless and endless flow of value through society, like water through a closed plumbing system. This ignores the open character of the energetic and biotic systems, with their sources and sinks, to which human economies are mere accessories. Doubtless Raworth’s view that we now need to tell different stories, and draw different pictures, resonates with the Dark Mountain Project.

Raworth characterises the old story of economics as one that unconditionally celebrates markets, business, finance and trade, deprecates the state and ignores households, commons, society, the earth and power. In the new story that she wants to tell, those elements that were ignored or deprecated in the old story are brought centre stage, and old elements like markets, finance and trade are put in service of wider human flourishing, rather than assumed to be unconditionally beneficial.

If that sounds obvious or trite, Raworth nevertheless does a good job of tracing the implications in some depth, using clear, jargon-free language aimed at the non-specialist, but without sacrificing an impressive level of subtlety. It’s refreshing that she talks about power, the systematic inequalities in human/human and human/non-human relationships, something that she rightly says is generally missing in mainstream economics. But unfortunately her description of it lacks depth, and doesn’t go much further than the observation that the wealthy get to shape the economy’s rules in their favour. OK, but who are the wealthy, and how were they able to accumulate their wealth? I get the sense that Raworth operates in a rarefied world of NGO and policymaker high-ups, whose inevitably bird’s-eye and reformist view of the world inflects her book’s gentle equity talk, its judicious commitment to levelling the playing field and its pervasive emphasis on ‘design’ as the solution to contemporary problems (her 21st century economics is, for example, “distributive by design” and “regenerative by design”).

The problem, however, is not that the present global political economy is badly ‘designed’. On the contrary, it’s extremely well designed, locking the majority of the world’s population into specific political relationships which have worked because they’ve convinced sufficient numbers of the relevant people that they have a stake in the status quo. But like every past political economy, the present one will only endure for so long, until a complex of internal and external factors forces radical change – not least in the identity of the ‘relevant people’ who are invested in the status quo. In the present global political economy, the consumers and business leaders of western Europe and North America have had disproportionate ‘relevance’. But it seems likely that in the political economies to come, their relevance will wane – and this will not be a process of ‘design’ but of messy conflict, violence, compromise, happenstance and political calculation.

For sure, the economic story that Raworth wants to tell is a good one to try to feed into this febrile mix. But I don’t think it’ll have much traction without a richer analysis of how politics and power happens. My feeling is that Raworth pulls her punches in analysing the mechanics of power because otherwise she would undermine the basic premise from which her book proceeds – that political problems get solved in smoothly reformist ways by designers thinking (or storytelling, or drawing) at a whole-system level. It’s an appealing view, perhaps especially to high-level policymakers. But I’m not sure it’s a very convincing one. Maybe there’s some truth in the notion that our stories create our realities. But it’s also true that we only find the stories we want to tell out of the realities messily created in the glacial grind of human history.

In recounting her alternative economic story, Raworth freely borrows from preceding heterodox economists like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and Ha-Joon Chang. I’m not sure she adds a great deal to what they’ve already said. So I was a bit surprised to be told on page 44 that her key concept of ‘the doughnut’ is a “radically new compass for guiding humanity” derived from “cutting-edge Earth-system science”. There’s a danger here of the ‘radically new’ story succumbing to one of the pathologies of the old, and insisting over-stridently on its novelty and originality – this year’s must-have concept, rather than just another iteration in the long-established idea of sufficiency. Ah well, there’s nothing wrong with re-presenting old ideas anew if it freshens them up for another generation of readers. But Raworth says little that Herman Daly didn’t say, and say better (if a little more technically), in his 1977 classic Steady-State Economics. In that book, Daly distinguished between the three concepts of ‘service’ (human flourishing, the final benefit of economic activity), ‘throughput’ (the entropic physical flow of resources, particularly non-renewable resources) and ‘stock’ (all the things that are moved in the economy). Perhaps Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept is more memorable, but it’s less precise, and it doesn’t much help elucidate the point that some things deliver more service per stock than others.

The spirit of Daly nevertheless invests the later part Raworth’s book, where she lucidly examines questions of economic growth. Advocates for the ability of the contemporary global capitalist economy to generalise wealth while mitigating environmental impacts through technical innovation make much of the evidence for the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from resource use in the ‘developed’ economies. A good deal of this decoupling turns out to be only relative – in other words, we’re using less resources than we used to in order to deliver a given amount of product (though not necessarily ‘service’ in Daly’s terms), but economic growth is such that we’re still using more resources overall. In some cases, there does appear to be a level of absolute decoupling, ie. a lower total amount of resource use. But Raworth usefully points out that what’s really needed is sufficient absolute decoupling – that is, enough absolute decoupling to bring throughputs back within the safe bounds of her doughnut, which some analysts suggest could, for example, amount to emissions reductions in the ‘developed countries’ of around 10% per annum – vastly greater than is currently being achieved. It seems likely that the ‘developed’ economies can only reduce their resource use at too high an absolute level to stay inside the doughnut. Meanwhile, the only working model available to ‘developing’ economies is to increase their absolute resource use. Raworth succinctly spells out the resulting paradox: “No country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy. And no country has ever ended ecological degradation with one”.

Time, then, for another story? Well yes, but what Raworth offers is mostly just a set of stories-in-the-plural of people doing various positive things. I don’t mean to belittle them. Many of them are genuinely inspiring and uplifting, such as the case of Malawian William Kamkwamba, whose home-made wind turbines brought power to his local community. But Raworth fails to put them into a systemic framework that turns them into a story, rather than simply a collection of stories – a story of how the systemic structuring of contemporary economies and polities can be systemically restructured into something better. And inasmuch as she does have a wider framework, it’s quite a problematic one – based on the notion of both the commons and the state as helpmates to human flourishing. Her text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’, but this doesn’t amount to much more than a technical-sounding gloss to the notion that people sometimes share things. Well, sure they do. And sometimes they don’t. Raworth refers to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who looked carefully at various commons as defined collective usage agreements, but she doesn’t seem to have taken on board Ostrom’s point that commons sometimes work, sometimes don’t and are only sometimes (quite rarely) the best solution to resource husbandry questions. In Raworth’s treatment, there’s a slippage from commons as ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons as ‘free stuff, freely shared’. Take this passage:

The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing (pp.83-4)

One issue that goes unexamined here is the extent to which this highly technological commons, with its solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers, is sustainable in the light of the need for a sufficiently decoupled global economy discussed above. Another is that Raworth confuses the marginal costs of circulation, which indeed in the digital age have now sometimes diminished towards zero, and the costs of creative production, which aren’t necessarily much different than pre- ‘digital commons’ times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good curriculum, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production. No doubt it’s a fine thing, but it’s worth considering its major beneficiaries. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer, delivering a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. Meanwhile, much of what really matters to people as physical, biological beings – such as staple foodstuffs and bulky construction materials – doesn’t enjoy zero marginal costs of circulation, and isn’t usually best produced via commons.

Perhaps Raworth’s wider point isn’t so much about commons in the technical sense of common-pool resource use agreements. Rather, it’s a plea to create economies geared to delivering collective human benefit and to abandon the discredited old notion that the pursuit of individual self-interest somehow delivers collective benefit through the magic of the market – a magic that, if it was ever operative, now seems to be wearing off, fooling only a diminishing band of neoliberal fundamentalists. Raworth isn’t the first person, surveying the global political economy, to think “No, not this”, but then to flounder at the question of “But, then what?”, and indeed she makes a better stab than most at answering that question. However, a more comprehensive analysis is needed of the way that economic and political power works and the complex functioning of the modern state. As it is, her prescriptions involve a rather hopeful, voluntaristic and top-down rhetoric that seems destined to go unfulfilled. Her over-emphasis on ‘design’ rather than politics discussed above is one example of this. Another is the need she identifies to “bring on the partner state” to support commons and local economic regeneration, without analysing why contemporary polities so rarely do this. It surely isn’t just a matter of them choosing the wrong story.

Maybe part of the problem is our fateful modern conviction that the stories we tell have to be upbeat and optimistic – a conviction Raworth endorses, insisting on the need to see a “glass-half-full” future (p.286). It strikes me that this may be more indicative of our problems than the solutions to them. If only we could lay aside the quintessentially capitalist trope of ‘optimism’ that sends us scurrying here and there after positive stories as a kind of pick ‘n’ mix while ignoring inconvenient negativities and acknowledge that we now face potentially insurmountable ‘wicked problems’ that need to be reckoned with rather than ‘solved’, it might be easier to harbour genuine hopes for the future. Raworth herself writes that history has repeatedly demonstrated an association between economic crisis and the rise of xenophobia, intolerance and fascism (p.277). Why insist on a glass-half-full view of the future in the light of this repeated fact? It’s surely preferable to present a sober and systematic unpicking of the mechanics of political power and economic provisioning that can clarify alternative endpoints, than to regale the reader with upbeat stories of how things may just turn out well. At its best, Raworth’s book does some good unpicking. But it still leaves us a long way from home.

Of bad science and bad SCIENCE: the angry farmer meets the angry chef

The plaudits seem to be piling up for Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating1 by Anthony Warner, better known as ‘The Angry Chef’ for his foul-mouthed assaults on the pseudoscientific pretensions of the alternative health and diet industry. Well, my advocacy for alternative farming has never really been strongly grounded in nutritional considerations, and to be honest I find a lot of the book a pretty convincing takedown of some of the wilder shores of contemporary food faddism. So perhaps I’d be best off focusing on other things. But there are things that trouble me about Mr Angry’s line of argument, which bear on the general themes of this blog, so I’m going to conclude my recent series of critical book reviews with a look at his opus. Because you see, for someone who’s so angry about bad science, there’s a remarkable quantity of bad science in the book. The reason, I think, is because Mr A is less interested in science than in SCIENCE, and the result of this is…bad.

I’ll explain the difference between lowercase science and uppercase SCIENCE towards the end of this essay. But first I want to home in on the chapter of Mr Angry’s book in which he most reveals his penchant for bad science – Chapter 7 in Part II of the book called “When science goes wrong”, which focuses on the Paleo diet.

The Paleo diet idea in brief is that human diets changed radically after the widespread global adoption of agriculture starting around 10,000 years ago. This involved the substitution of energy dense foods based on cereals (and, later, also sugar) for the less carb-heavy fare to which our species and its antecedents had previously been accustomed. According to Paleo diet proponents, the high-energy input and low-exercise output regimen of modern life is associated with many of the chronic diseases of later life that plague us today, because a mere 10,000 years or less of agricultural lifeways has been insufficient for full evolutionary adaptation. There are numerous additional complexities to the Paleo diet idea which are set out in Loren Cordain’s eponymous book2, but that, I think, will have to suffice as a thumbnail sketch.

Trying to sort the chaff from the grain in Mr Angry’s attempted refutation of the Paleo hypothesis, if that’s not an inappropriate metaphor, I hope it’s fair to summarise it by way of the following six points:

  1. The Paleo hypothesis misunderstands evolution, since it assumes that evolution creates “one perfect being at a single point in time and then chug[s] along unaltered as the world changes around it”3. The truth is that “evolution doesn’t stop” – which Mr A supports with reference to the post-agricultural emergence of lactose tolerance.
  1. There were many different Palaeolithic peoples who ate widely different diets, so it’s impossible to determine what ‘the’ Paleo diet should be.
  1. Palaeolithic peoples did, in fact, consume carbohydrates.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis is sexist: its contemporary proponents tend to be men, and their “hypothesised Palaeolithic lifestyle” involving relatively high levels of meat consumption is “likely to appeal to a certain retrograde misogyny – the muscular male hunter bravely wrestling bears, while the women tend the children and pick a few berries”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis romanticises the Palaeolithic period, a point that Mr Angry makes by various characterisations of it such as this: “As a species, we did all of our evolving in the golden age, when men were men and women wore bikinis made of mammoth fur”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis involves a dangerous refusal of expert knowledge, because despite the fact that there’s a grain of truth to some of it and that it has a few academic advocates “in accepting the misunderstanding of science that underlies it there is a real danger of abandoning the tenets of reason. Once you reject the voices of real experts in favour of charismatic advocates with a prettier story, you leave yourself open to packs of pseudoscience wolves.”

What to make of all this? First, I’d draw a distinction between points 1-3, which are at least potentially good scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis, and points 4-6 which are bad scientific objections – in fact, they’re not ‘scientific’ at all. Points 4 and 5 are ad hominem criticisms of contemporary people who espouse the Paleo hypothesis. I have no idea if they’re well-grounded and I don’t really care, because to use the kind of language favoured by Mr A himself, if it’s true that pre-agricultural diets are better for human health then, scientifically speaking, it doesn’t matter a flying f*** what views people espousing such diets take on matters of gender or history.

Point 6 is not so much an unscientific objection to the Paleo hypothesis as an anti-scientific one. For, as Mr A is at pains to emphasise throughout his text, the modus operandi of science, the whole reason for its spectacular success, is that it doesn’t satisfy itself with the ‘expert’ opinions of people in authority, but relentlessly questions received wisdom. For sure, if you want to take an intellectual shortcut on a scientific matter you’re probably better off asking for the opinions of someone who has some relevant scientific qualifications than those of someone who doesn’t. But science proceeds by way of empirical hypothesis-testing, not expert opinion-making, and the glory of it is that ultimately it stands or falls irrespective of anybody’s opinions. The criticisms voiced by the experts Mr Angry cites seem to take aim more generically at the idea of ‘a Paleo diet’ rather than any specific hypothesis underlying it. In any case, his contention that the Paleo hypothesis is rejected by all the experts apart from “a few academic advocates to give it some validity” is rather tendentious. There seems to be a reasonable body of writing in peer-reviewed journals that is broadly supportive4.

So I think we can reject points 4-6 as bad scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis. Kind of weird to find such bad science in a book critiquing bad science, huh? Well, I think Mr A has his reasons, and I’ll come on to that soon.

But first let’s look more closely at the possibly more plausible points 1-3. Mr Angry is on firm ground in arguing that evolution doesn’t create perfect creatures at particular points in time and then stops. That certainly would be a misunderstanding of evolution. But, so far as I can discern, it’s not what proponents of the Paleo hypothesis actually think. Mr A doesn’t provide any references to support his characterisation of the evolutionary theory behind the Paleo hypothesis, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. I think I’m detecting the sweet, dry aroma of straw, shaped into human form.

I’ll come back to evolutionary theory in a moment but, just to pick up on points 2 and 3, here is where we may be getting somewhere. If it turns out that Palaeolithic diets were typically as rich in carbohydrates as contemporary ones (and perhaps more to the point, as rich in simple carbohydrates) then that really would throw a spanner into the Paleo hypothesis. Here, Mr A does cite a paper, which argues that starchy foods were important in the pre-agricultural diet5. But so far as I can tell it doesn’t argue that carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates formed as significant a proportion of the diet as they do today – indeed, other research papers suggest the opposite6. Mr A himself mentions that among adults in the contemporary UK 12.1% of their dietary energy comes from added sugar, and for 11-18 year olds the figure is what he calls a “a genuinely shocking” 15.6%. It’s clearly true that Palaeolithic diets were quite varied and that Palaeolithic people would have sought out sources of carbohydrate when they could. But how many of them regularly consumed sucrose or simple carbohydrates more generally at the kind of levels reported by Mr A for the contemporary UK? My guess would be few, if any. And if that’s so, then there’s surely a prima facie case for the plausibility of the Paleo hypothesis.

Let me now briefly try to reconstruct the rudiments of a plausible Paleo diet hypothesis which is robust to the kind of objections raised by Mr Angry. First, I don’t think it’s scientifically controversial to say that there are widely consumed foodstuffs today that have potentially anti-nutritional or morbid properties as well as nutritional ones – soy, rape (canola), wheat and sugar spring to mind. There are ways of trying to minimise these properties – plant-breeding, preparation methods and dietary diversity among them. But I think it’s plausible to suggest that consumption of the crops I’ve mentioned – all huge global commodity crops – is likely to be higher than in pre-agricultural diets7.

Second, let us consider the nature of disease and exposure to risk factors associated with it. In some cases, diseases and disease-causing agents are experienced as binaries: you either have malaria or you don’t, you were either exposed to asbestos or you weren’t. But in many cases exposure is a continuous variable – for example, high blood pressure is associated with various health problems, but blood pressure is distributed continuously within populations. The point at which we define someone as suffering from the disease of hypertension is essentially arbitrary8. I hypothesise that the same may be true for the negative effects of foodstuffs like sucrose and gluten. Some people are highly susceptible and may display various morbid symptoms at low exposures, while others will be utterly impervious. The rest of us will be strung out along the continuum between these two poles. We won’t, for example, experience morbid symptoms simply by eating a few slices of bread, but if we eat a lot of bread over many years it’s possible that some of us eventually will experience morbid symptoms as a result. So, for example, the notion criticised by Mr Angry that no amount of sugar consumption is safe may be overly alarmist, but isn’t necessarily without scientific foundation. And one of the findings of preventive medicine is that population health is improved more radically if exposure to the risk factor is reduced by a little bit across the whole population than by a lot only among those most susceptible to it9. So even if in some cases (like coeliac disease, for example) there’s a genetic aetiology which isn’t simply distributed continuously, there may still be a case for taking a ‘less is better’ approach.

Third, let us consider the nature of evolution. Organisms, including humans, are born with characteristics substantially inherited from their parents which have usually developed over the evolutionary long haul because they conferred adaptive abilities to cope with the kind of environments the species in question experienced. Often, the kind of environment an organism experiences is similar to that experienced by its parents and ancestors, but sometimes environments change. In these circumstances, stronger selective pressures act upon the inherent variability within the species, favouring those organisms with characteristics that are better suited to the new environment. But, in the short-run at least, natural selection is a blunt instrument, acting only upon relative reproductive success. Therefore, if an organism experiences an environmental change that reduces its adaptive fitness in the post-reproductive phase of its life the selective effect will be slighter (though not, as discussed on this blog a while back, zero). And even in the case of stronger selective pressures, it can take a long time for natural selection to ‘catch up’ with the environmental change by progressively eliminating less adaptive characteristics in the population.

Fourth, let us consider the nature of the historical human diet. I’d hypothesise that it’s evolutionarily adaptive for humans to like and favour nutrient-rich foods such as sugar and other carbohydrates, fat, meat and other protein-heavy food. But in the hunter-gatherer situations that have typified the greatest proportion of our species and its antecedents’ time on earth, these foods were usually relatively hard to come by10. Mr Angry states with appropriate caution that we don’t really know in detail what our Palaeolithic forebears ate, and – as I’ve mentioned – he cites a research paper that suggests carbohydrate was an important part of our diet before agriculture, but doesn’t suggest how important. He also states that “even the evil grains were widely consumed for much of [the Palaeolithic period]”. This time he provides no supportive evidence for this statement, but there are research papers that suggest otherwise11.

One other little notion I’d like to throw into the mix here is the finding that rates of diabetes in societies consuming modern ‘western’ diets seem to be much higher than those of hunter-gatherer societies and others following ‘ancestral’ diets, but rates among people who’ve switched from an ‘ancestral’ diet to a modern western one may be higher still12.

OK, let me try to parlay all that into the Angry Farmer’s own personal Paleo hypothesis, which goes something like this: most ancestral human populations were adapted to diets lower in gluten-containing wheat, sugar and other simple carbohydrates than is typical of the modern western diet. Exposure to higher levels of these foodstuffs in the contemporary western diet is causally associated with various chronic diseases of later life such as diabetes and heart disease. Evolution hasn’t ‘stopped’ with the invention of agriculture – there is likely to be a selective effect favouring people who are less susceptible to such chronic diseases. But the effect is likely to be relatively weak and has not yet had time to eliminate the negative consequences of a cereal and carbohydrate-rich diet. Therefore, to reduce the risk of these disease outcomes it may be prudent for people to reduce their carbohydrate and wheat consumption. Lactose tolerance is another post-agricultural evolutionary adaptation – and one where the selective effect is likely to be stronger than in the case of gluten or carbohydrate tolerance because it confers the ability for whole populations to exploit new pastoralist niches that would be harder to occupy for lactose intolerant people. The weaker selective effect of post-reproductive chronic illness is inoperative in this case. Lactose tolerance is, however, just about the only clearly identified post-agricultural dietary adaptation. As Katharine Milton argues, “We know of few specific genetic adaptations to diet in our species”13. And even lactose tolerance isn’t that widespread across the human species.

Of course, I haven’t proved the Paleo hypothesis here. But I like to think I’ve established that it has a basic scientific plausibility that’s robust to Mr Angry’s objections. Note that it doesn’t depend on any notion that the Palaeolithic was some kind of ‘golden age’, or on a view that evolution creates one perfect being at a single point in time which is then impervious to change. It may turn out to be empirically wrong. But, for his part, Mr Angry furnishes no evidence to suggest that it is.

So why does he go to such lengths to ridicule it, employing such exemplarily bad science along the way? I think it’s because he’s less interested in critiquing bad science per se than in purveying a broader cultural argument. The milder form of this argument is that we shouldn’t get too hung up on our food choices or use them as status symbols. The essential message is: everything in moderation, enjoy life as you go, inject a bit of rationality into your thought and don’t point the finger of blame too much at yourself or other people. My feeling is that humans aren’t that good at rationality and incline quite naturally to symbolic thought, especially with culturally powerful things like food, and to games of status and blame. So I think Mr A has quite a battle on his hands to realise his vision – maybe that’s why he’s so angry. Sir, the angry farmer feels your pain. As a supporter of various lost causes myself, I’m not inclined to be too critical of this mild form of the argument, which strikes me as quite sensible.

But as the book wears on, the argument turns into something much more strident, totalising and, ultimately, pretty weird. Here are a few quotations:

“It is not enough to tackle dietary myths in isolation, attacking each one with competing evidence-based messages. In order to sell sensible, truthful messages, scientific truth itself needs to be made into an idea that sticks”

“To question science is to ignore everything it has done for man, to overlook the astounding progress of the last few hundred years”

“Processed convenience food has set women free, and every time we criticize convenience choices, we are showing our desire to drag women’s bodies and minds away from the workplace and back into the kitchen”

“I will always decry anyone who makes wild insinuations” …. “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”

Here, ‘science’ as a form of rational, critical inquiry is turning into something else – a cultural or ideological proposition that contemporary ‘developed’ society is uniquely desirable and liberatory as a result of the inherent truthfulness of its science, which is now reconfigured in the argument as a unified repository of the good, something that must not be criticised for fear of falling into error. In other words, ‘science’ in this strand of Mr Angry’s presentation has assumed the mantle of religion or the revealed truth of God’s word. My shorthand term for this way of thinking about science is an uppercase SCIENCE, and it has precious little to do with science as a form of critical inquiry. Others refer to it as the ideology of scientism.

And this is all eerily familiar, no? The vaunting of contemporary ‘developed’ society against the inferiority of all other human societies. The religious style of elevating a particular truth claim – SCIENCE – over the putatively inferior, superstitious and relativist claims of its critics. The invocation of an oppressed category of people – in Mr Angry’s case, usually women – as uniquely liberated by the superior qualities of the culture in question, thereby positioning its critics as pariahs, in this case as misogynists. Oh, we’ve been here before – whether it’s diet, golden rice, nuclear power, urbanisation, ‘scientific agriculture’, or simply ‘progress’, the ideology of ecomodernism spreads its slimy tentacles ever wider. It always stakes a claim to speak up for the oppressed, for decency, and for progress, and against false idols like romanticism and relativism. And it’s always struck me as essentially religious in form – never more clearly than in Mr Angry’s exposition. Consider his comment:

“Poor dietary choices do not occur when people are driven by hedonistic pleasure, they occur when people eat without thought, and that will never happen if we engage with and truly love the food we eat”.

To me, this counter-Puritanism looks indistinguishable from the kind of unscientific mumbo-jumbo that Mr Angry spends so much time trying to debunk in his book. You could just as easily, and just as incorrectly, say that you’ll never get lung cancer if you smoke for hedonistic pleasure and truly love the tobacco you puff. As in Raj Patel’s fine book Stuffed and Starved, I think the truth is that we’ve ‘scientifically’ engineered our way to a global diet in which too many people get too much ‘feast food’ (typically the poorer people in the richer countries) and too many people get too little food at all (typically the poorer people in the poorer countries).

Ah well, I like to think I’ve written enough about ecomodernism in the past and have acquired a sufficiently like-minded and discerning readership on this blog not to labour the point of what, to use one of Mr A’s own favoured words, utter dumbfuckery his claims about hedonistic eating or the trans-historical desirability of contemporary ‘developed’ society are. So I’d just like to conclude with a few further thoughts about ‘science’.

At one point in his book, Mr Angry quotes from a speech by John F. Kennedy about the US moon programme in which the president said “space science, like nuclear science and all technology has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man”. And yet there is no sense of this same ambivalence, of cultural contradictions and trade-offs, of paths closed off as new ones open up, in his own thinking about science, which he’s content to describe simply as “the greatest force for progress that there has ever been”. Well, off the top of my head, here are five great anti-‘progressive’ forces in the contemporary world which have all emerged as a result of the progress of science:

  • anthropogenic climate change
  • thermonuclear weapons
  • accelerated biodiversity loss
  • eutrophication of rivers and oceans
  • loss of antibiotic efficacy through prophylactic agricultural use

My guess is that all of them have the potential to imperil human lives at a level orders of magnitude beyond that caused by Gwyneth Paltrow’s half-arsed dietary advice or the Gerson therapy and other dodgy ideas of the kind excoriated by Mr Angry, precisely because of the efficacy of the scientific method in combination with the vastly transformative nature of the capitalist economy. And if one had to choose the single greatest threat to humanity in contemporary society caused by the refusal to heed scientific opinion, it would surely have to be climate change, something that Mr Angry doesn’t mention once. And, seriously, which science-denier is the greater threat – Ms. Paltrow or JFK’s unsurpassably idiotic successor in current occupation of the White House? Ah well, I suppose just because we face major existential threats as a result of our science, there’s no reason to avoid writing books about the minor existential threats we face as a result of our non-science. But I don’t think these should be built up into a closed ideological defence of SCIENCE as an ideology of modernity and inherent progress. Despite the rather toxic debate we’ve got into recently concerning the status of experts in the wake of Michael Gove and Charlie Gard, this doesn’t seem a great historical moment to be extolling scientific progress, the cult of the expert and ‘development’ as virtues. In fact, I think books like Mr Angry’s are part of the problem. Which makes me kind of…angry.

Notes

  1. The Angry Chef. 2017. Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating. OneWorld.
  1. Cordain, Loren. 2002. The Paleo Diet. John Wiley & Sons.
  1. The Angry Chef, op cit. I read the book on an e-reader and regrettably I have no idea how to give page references.
  1. eg. Kuipers, Remko et al. 2012. A multidisciplinary reconstruction of Palaeolithic nutrition that holds promise for the prevention and treatment of diseases of civilisation. Nutrition Research Reviews 25: 96-129; Lieberman, Leslie. 2003. Dietary, evolutionary and modernizing influences on the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. Annual Review of Nutrition 23: 345-77; Lindeberg, Staffan. 2012. Paleolithic diets as a model for prevention and treatment of western disease. American Journal of Human Biology 24: 110-5; Milton, Katharine. 2000. Hunter-gatherer diets – a different perspective. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, 3: 665-7.
  1. Hardy, Karen et al. 2015. The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 90, 3: 251-68.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard, Manon et al. The role of wild grasses in subsistence and sedentism. World Archaeology 38, 2: 179-96.
  1. Rose, Geoffrey. 1993. The Strategy of Preventive Medicine. Oxford University Press.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard et al, op cit.
  1. Zimmet, Paul. 1992. Challenges in diabetes epidemiology – from west to the rest. Diabetes Care 15, 2: 232-52.
  1. Milton, op cit.

Lean Logic

The much-delayed Issue 21 of The Land Magazine has just been published – how did we cope with the waiting? If you search diligently through its pages, you’ll find a review in it by me of David Fleming’s fascinating book, Lean Logic1. Below I’m reproducing a longer version of the review than the one that appears in the magazine.

It may be worth just sketching the back story of the review. Fleming died in 2010 leaving his manuscript incomplete, and it was left to Shaun Chamberlin to pick up the gauntlet and see the work through to final publication – which he did with great aplomb and, I’m sure, no little legwork. Shaun kindly suggested to The Land’s editors that I might be worthy to review the book, and so it was that towards the end of last year the weighty tome landed in my mailbox.

Working my way through the book, I was enormously impressed with much of it, but also troubled by some of it, mostly for reasons that have cropped up recently on this website in debates over populism, nationalism and suchlike. I wrote a perhaps overly bad-tempered review draft, but felt a little embarrassed about it since it was Shaun himself who’d put the book my way. So with some trepidation I sent it to him for discussion. He proved splendidly broad-minded about it, and we had an interesting email exchange about David’s ideas in the course of which Shaun helped me to improve the review greatly from my first effort. Shaun pointed out that we can often agree with 90% of what someone says, yet focus on the 10% where we disagree, and I probably have to plead guilty of that here. I guess all I’d add is that I’ve found that dissonant 10% very informative in trying to think through the left agrarian populist project I’m generally engaged in on this blog…and I’m not sure David needs further plaudits from me in relation to the other 90%. But I hope I’ve managed to convey at least a measure of my admiration for his thinking in my review.

Version II of the review that I submitted to The Land was a rather sprawling effort, and I was asked to cut it by about a quarter. Then as the publication date loomed I was asked to cut it by another quarter – doubtless the real quality material had started rolling into the editorial office by that point… Well, no complaints from me – I have endless respect for Gill and Simon’s editorial nous. But though there’s something to be said for brevity, the result is that over the last few months I’ve produced four different versions of the review and I’ve had to cut out various bits that I’d have preferred to keep in.

So what I’m offering you below is kind of a Lean Logic Review – the Director’s Cut, which combines what I hope are the best features of all the various versions into the definitive text. I hope you enjoy it, because boy have I sweated over each and every one of the 2,000-odd words below.

oOo

The late David Fleming was a maverick economist who left his imprint across British environmentalism from the Green Party to the Transition movement by way of the New Economics Foundation. In Lean Logic, he presents a lifetime’s thinking on how humanity might deal with a coming ‘climacteric’ – an interlocking crisis of climate, energy, water, food and other resources. The master concept is leanness, which Fleming unfurls against the grain of our taken-for-granted approach to the contemporary capitalist economy by reincorporating ‘the economy’ as politics, and ultimately as culture – one culture among many. Thus, from the impressive but dysfunctional culture of contemporary capitalism, Fleming tries to discern the shape that lean cultures of a post-climacteric future might take – diverse, locally-specific, spiritually-oriented, and dedicated to human livelihood as self-creation rather than self-aggrandisement. He pursues the twists and turns of these issues in dictionary format across a sprawling, and decidedly unlean, 672 pages – not always in directions that I personally find persuasive, but always with integrity, thoughtfulness and a dash of humour. It’s an impressive achievement.

The easiest way I can engage with the book in a short review is by identifying four overarching threads. The first is the logic of argument, the rhetorical means by which people try to persuade others of their views – perhaps a subsidiary theme to the book’s larger concerns, but pertinent nonetheless. Advocates for radical alternatives to the status quo commonly find their views marginalised by all manner of rhetorical trickery which excludes them from the narrow centre ground of ‘serious’ opinion. Fleming is at his best in skewering such tactics in a series of brief, aphoristic entries which allow his mordant humour full rein.

The second thread is the use of systems theory to illuminate the worlds that both natural selection and human cultures have built in the past and might build in the future. I’m slightly sceptical about the usefulness of turning such disparate phenomena as animal bodies, transport networks, groups of conspecific organisms, the human economy, ecosystems and the internet into mere exemplars of ‘system’, and Fleming doesn’t always convince me that the systems he discusses (like Gaia, the Earth itself as system) are really ‘systems’, but his writing is invariably stimulating, especially when he turns to human social systems. A case in point is his clever analysis of the way that the increasing complexity in modern society rests on the increasing simplification of roles in its constituent individuals and communities. This makes it more resilient in its current capacity to prevent system shocks, but less resilient in its ability to recover from them.

Fleming’s third thread is devoted to the economics of resilience in the context of the climacteric. There’s some exemplary analysis here, not least in his characterizations of the ‘taut’ – but not ‘lean’ – contemporary capitalist economy and the way its growth ingests the natural capital it depends on, rather than subsisting sustainably from its flow. He contrasts this with more resilient societies historically that have limited or destroyed growth capital so as to preserve the natural resources on which life depends, often through practices that strike the modern mind as inefficient or frivolous. But he also shows how difficult it is to achieve resilience of this kind once the capitalist genie is out of the bottle: in capitalist societies, degrowth too readily means stagnation, recession and unemployment.

So far, so good. But, for me, Fleming’s thought becomes more problematic when he outlines how the ‘lean’ societies of the future might overcome the problems bequeathed by the present. His economic thought, for example, hinges on a strong contrast between market economies and ‘gift’ economies, where the exchange of things builds trust or solidarity in a concentric pattern emanating outwards from households and neighbourhoods. The problem here is partly an over-general definition of ‘market economy’: there have been many kinds of market economy historically, with vastly different consequences. But it’s also that the non-market exchange of things can build status inequality just as much as solidarity, as with patron-client and caste systems. The hankering to transcend impersonal market relations with socially-embedded exchange is understandable, but social embeddedness isn’t always positive. Fleming appreciates this, noting that “all gifts have strings attached” (p.178) and arguing that the market economy “supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of” (p.305). But I think he underestimates its importance, preferring to focus on the possibilities for building harmony rather than hierarchy through non-market exchange. The fundamental problem is not, however, the primacy of market over gift relations but the human will to power, which can happily inhabit both forms.

I’m not sure how troubling status inequality is to Fleming’s project, though, because the politics of Lean Logic are essentially conservative. There’s certainly an upside to this: while the mainstream politics of both left and right have dallied fatefully with market liberalism, it’s mostly been left to conservative thinkers of the kind that Fleming approvingly invokes – Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, Alasdair MacIntyre – to think seriously about community and tradition. Conservative thinking at its best – and much of Fleming’s writing fits this bill – helps us in the difficult task of living well in real-life communities. Perhaps it represents a kind of rugged individualism, in Fleming’s words “of being intuitively sure of who you are” (p.206) and able to deal with conflicts and setbacks without abdicating them to a levelling higher authority.

Amen to that. But the trouble with conservatism is that while it deals well with the random conflicts of life, it has less to say when those conflicts become systemic. For example, Fleming identifies the household – an economy rife with pure, unconditional giving – as a potential model for his preferred non-monetary gift society. But he scarcely mentions gender throughout the book, and doesn’t notice there’s a particular half of the population that disproportionately bears the cost of this unconditional giving. Indeed, he’s rather dismissive of systemic social identities like gender or class as politically significant, and dismissive of equality as an ethical end, arguing that equality is only a cipher for what really matters – community and social capital. There are grounds for arguing precisely the opposite.

When Fleming turns in his fourth thread to questions of culture, the conservatism becomes more problematic. Even here, much of what he writes is dazzlingly good. He has the anthropologist’s knack of making our contemporary culture seem strange, and the mystifying practices of other times and places seem perfectly sensible – as in his excellent analysis of medieval carnival, which showcases his fine judgment of the proper contexts for acting rationally, or spiritually, or playfully. I find his view persuasive that we get this wrong in contemporary western culture – and in this sense, whatever one’s views about a future climacteric, Fleming’s work stands up independently as cultural criticism.

But the concept of culture he finally arrives at in service of a future lean society seems the opposite of that outlined by the influential Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose book2 on carnival Fleming cites. For Bakhtin, carnival exemplifies a ‘dialogic imagination’, forever open to new meanings, messy clashes of diverse people and ideas, contests over authority in which nobody has the last word. Fleming, by contrast, seems to be seeking some kind of single authentic note to ground culture as shared history and destiny. He frames this appealingly in a memorable phrase: “the story of you and the people you know, set in the place you know” (p.199). But it’s all too easy to invert the formulation and define culture by exclusion against the people and places you don’t know. That isn’t Fleming’s intention. Indeed, he warns against overemphasizing place-based identity: “gypsies and ships’ captains are not necessarily prevented from discovering their identity – but their place is the road, or the sea” (p.206). Yet to me this is an inadequate gloss for what happens to the placeless when culture is strongly defined around place.

There are many such stigmatised and often involuntary ‘wanderers’ in the modern world, and I fear a rigid application of Fleming’s ideas would further marginalise them. His intention is otherwise: to replace the rootless nomadism of contemporary capitalist culture with a world of “strong, distinctive local cultures, sharing mutual respect” (p.321). But here I’m with Bakhtin: cultural boundaries are never fixed enough to define separate, distinct, cultures-in-the-plural unambiguously, and ideas of culture and community are always essentially fictions – indeed, the idea of the nation as a fictive community-writ-large of ‘people you know’ only really arose with the emergence of capitalist mass society from the eighteenth century. Fleming approvingly cites Roger Scruton falling into this nationalist trap, construing ‘culture’ as a fictive shared history defined essentially through the exclusion of outsiders (pp.84-5). This is immediately followed with another approving citation, this time from Wendell Berry, which sounds similar in its weighting of the local but actually grounds culture in shared work on the land, not exclusive history. I wish he’d ditched Scruton and developed the implications of Berry, because in seeking a basis for the post-capitalist societies of the climacteric and lighting on the culture of the nation rather than the work on the farm, I fear he’s backing the wrong horse.

What I wouldn’t dispute is the importance of finding an alternative to the present economic path of neoliberal globalisation, and I think Fleming is right to seek it in the local. Given the contemporary decline of public confidence in large-scale state institutions, his preference for what he calls ‘local wisdom’ over top-down government intervention is hardly controversial. But there are dangers. Much as I like Fleming’s sunny discussion of the “fusion of insult and endearment” associated with “love of the place you live in and the play-potential with places which have the misfortune of being somewhere else” (p.303) the local can be much more vicious and divided than that. I’m thinking, for example, of rape in rural India as a high caste strategy to silence low caste dissent in places far away from any rational niceties about the inviolability of the individual or her body3. Or, less traumatically, an experience that perhaps I’ve shared with other readers of The Land: despite our localist or anarchist leanings, a gratitude towards planning inspectors, those functionaries of the rational-bureaucratic state, who decide in favour of our low impact smallholdings against the ‘local wisdom’ of district councillors and residents who wish to prevent them. Indeed, ever since the emerging centralised states of the late medieval or early modern period gradually started defining a sphere of entitled citizenship against the arbitrary privilege of the seigneurial manor, while at the same time reorienting local economies upwards to the larger ends of the state, I don’t think there’s been a single or a simple story to tell about the encroachment of state power into the sphere of the local in western Europe, and this is paralleled in other parts of the world. Fleming knows this, mentioning the “darker side” of localities (p.68). But, as with his approach to non-market exchange, he tends to gloss over it in favour of more positive interpretations.

Still, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Fleming with the happy multitudes of eco-futurologists who regard anything other than determined optimism about humanity’s prospects as an act of bad faith.  It’s plain from his writing that he doesn’t consider a convivial, lean society of the climacteric to be a foregone conclusion. His entry on ‘unlean’ societies is something of a missed opportunity, detouring into a long exposition of Karl Wittfogel’s discredited ‘Oriental Despotism’ hypothesis concerning the ecological causes of repressive autocracy, and his thought sometimes skirts the same deterministic territory. But ultimately he succeeds in going somewhere more useful – to an insistence on political agency rather than technological solutions to ecological problems, on thinking anew about the relationship between local autonomy and state power, and on robustly defending democracy.

Perhaps there’s an issue with the book along similar lines to one that’s emerged from time to time in comments on this blog. To what extent should we focus our politics on the future we’d like to see, or on the future we think we’ll get? Only Miss World contestants and religious millenarians like the ecomodernists are wont to construe a future of peace, prosperity and technology for all as the political telos of the present – leading them, depending on their other attributes, to enter beauty contests, work as analysts at the Breakthrough Institute or write furious blogs about the infidels blocking the stairway to heaven. But it’s not always clear to me whether Fleming is saying ‘this is the world we’re going to get, so you’d better get used to it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get, and here’s how we’ll make the best of it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get – delightful, isn’t it?’, perhaps a generic problem for all of us who fix our sights beyond the political short-term. I guess for me an is doesn’t make an ought.

Still, whatever one thinks of his answers, Fleming consistently asks good questions, with a combination of wit and mature wisdom that often makes his writing soar. The book’s intriguing illustrations and excellent production, for which congratulations are surely due to editor Shaun Chamberlin and the publishers, enhance the effect. For all my misgivings about it, it would have been a shame had Fleming’s death robbed us of his illuminating thought.

Notes

  1. Fleming, David (2016). Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future And How To Survive It, (Ed. Shaun Chamberlin) White River Junction: Chelsea Green.
  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Rabelais and His World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  1. Desai, Manali (2016). Gendered violence in India. New Left Review, 99: 67-83.