For a new politics of ruralization

In this post, I aim to pick up where I left off last time with my review of George Monbiot’s Regenesis, mostly in reference to its theme of urbanism (there’s also a bit of housekeeping and an apology at the end).

But first, since it’s kind of a propos, some brief remarks on the trip I took last week, which involved me bicycling from Frome to Chepstow and back, among other things for an enjoyable in-conversation session with eco-philosopher and activist Rupert Read at the Green Gathering (a recording of most of it is here).

Much of the southern part of my route followed leafy cycle tracks repurposed from disused railways, flanked by large arable fields. Then a ride through central Bristol, swerving to miss a strung-out drug user sprawling on the track, took me onto another leafy cycleway through the Avon Gorge – once a place of heavy industry and shipping, but now far too small for the modern incarnations of those trades.

I crossed the Avon on a bridge I shared with the M5 – the first of several motorways entwining my route. These roads feel calm enough when you’re inside a car, but coming suddenly upon them on my bicycle I was shocked every time by the volume of traffic, its furious speed and sound, and the concrete-intensive brutalism of all this inter-city hurry. A sign by the Prince of Wales Bridge later in my trip reported that 25 million vehicles cross it annually. That’s a lot of kinetic energy to pack into three miles of road.

There were Samaritans telephones on all the major bridges I crossed, with their melancholy signage – “Whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to face it alone”. Back by the Avon, the suburb on the other side of the M5 bridge seemed dilapidated. I swerved around Nos canisters, rode through underpasses scattered with fly-tipped garbage and emblazoned with sinister graffiti and then weaved my way through a giant industrial zone of landfill sites, warehousing, sewage works, construction sites and massive wind turbines.

So, a journey from bosky rural byways that don’t quite conceal their industrial cradling, through mostly salubrious city centres and then rougher suburbs housing their workaday servitors, to the new industrial zones that potentiate them, accompanied by the ever-present roar of vehicles and people moving at speed to sustain it all. And gangs, drugs, loneliness amidst multitudes and suicide. Of course, this is only one way of representing what George Monbiot calls the given distribution of the world’s population, but I dearly wish he and others would question its given-ness a little more sceptically, and weren’t so darned pleased about what they see. During my ride, even in the leafy rural parts, it sometimes felt as if the whole fabric of this corner of southwest England was a kind of dysfunctional, ecocidal, industrial machine, sustained by its rushing human functionaries, with only a thin green veneer here and there concealing it.

Anyway, back to George’s book. So far as I know, he hasn’t seriously engaged with critiques of it from the intellectually more thoughtful end of the spectrum, preferring to post online some of the more fetid threats he’s received, which elicit no small number of ‘Go get ‘em, George’ replies from supporters displaying considerable disdain for rural and agrarian life.

And so another skin-deep culture war, benefitting nobody, judders into life. The case for ruralism over urbanism as I see it is simply that the dynamics of climate, energy, water, soil and political economy are going to propel multitudes of people to the world’s farmable regions sooner or later. The question we should really be addressing globally, though regrettably we’re not, is how to manage that process in the most humane and least disruptive way.

One of the best criticisms of my argument for this agrarian localist future that came my way in the wake of my Regenesis review was that it would be energetically costly to establish it. This, I think, is true. But it’s also true of every other proposal to put humanity on a surer long-term footing. The great advantage of agrarian localism is that once its basic structures are established, its recurrent energy costs can be low. Whereas schemes to preserve the urban-industrial status quo invariably have high recurrent energy costs. This certainly applies to George Monbiot’s farm free future, as Steve showed in his calculations under my previous post.

It’s obvious, really, that a proposal to replace sprawling farmland spaces using free solar radiation to energize production with highly concentrated industrial spaces using electricity transformed from other energy inputs by other human industries probably isn’t going to stack up well energetically. George’s vision of manufactured food, like many other ecomodernist schemes, assumes there will be abundant and cheap clean energy at humanity’s command in the future.

It seems to me more likely that concentrated energy will be scarce and pricey compared to the fossil fuelled bonanza experienced by present generations, and it will make no sense to waste it producing food when free solar energy metabolized by plants can do the job. The diffuseness of this solar energy will be a driving force of human biogeography in the future. Today’s world is one of urban concentration built on a legacy of mining energetic stocks. Tomorrow’s will be mostly one of rural de-concentration oriented to skimming renewable energetic flows.

Presently, there is no broad-based politics geared to this emerging reality, certainly in the richer parts of the world with the longest histories of stock-mining and capital-concentration such as southern England. We’re still stuck with the exhausted legacies of modernist politics, with their emphasis on market signals, nationalist symbols or class struggle as the key to redemption. All of these fix their eyes too firmly on capital cities, government machineries, political centralization and hurried inter-city journeys to build the economy. All of them take as a given the centrifugal relationship between countryside and city that I discuss in Chapter 15 of my book, where the countryside works as a basically inferior servitor to the city, albeit dotted with pleasant islands of retreat for the wealthy who’ve made their money in the latter.

As I’ve already said, I think ‘simple energetics’ or simple biogeography are going to redistribute populations away from urban areas and towards rural ones in the future. In England, the countryside will no longer be largely the preserve of the rich. Like it or not, people of many kinds will go to it to seek prosperity. This creates the potential for people to forge local agrarian autonomies and genuinely agroecological culture. But that’s not a done deal just because of the maths of a more populated countryside. It’s possible that cities and their elites will retain their centrifugal pull.

To prevent that happening requires politics of a kind we don’t yet have – a politics where cities serve the countryside and its inhabitants at least as much as they’re served by them. I indicate this diagrammatically on page 210 of A Small Farm Future (Figure 15.1) and discuss it in the last part of Chapter 15 in terms of rural disruptors to the centrifugal pull of the city – disruptors that build local political and economic autonomy, that extricate themselves as far as possible, which means not totally, from long-distance trade and geopolitically-centred bureaucratic rule.

Since, as I’ve said, there isn’t a mass politics around this at present, I’m currently quite supportive of many kinds of initiative where people put themselves in the disruptor role. I’m supportive of rich people buying houses in the country with big gardens, growing their own vegetables and joining community organisations. I’m supportive of impoverished van dwellers parking up in laybys and trying to minimize their housing costs. I’m supportive of farm shops, independent town councils, guerilla gardening, allotment associations, people buying small plots of farmland or woodland and living in caravans on them while they start market gardens or charcoal businesses, people occupying (considerately) disused or misused land, people trespassing on aristocratic estates to (sustainably) pick edible mushrooms, wealthy smallholders, impoverished peasants, wily farmers and so on and so on.

Eventually, all of this will have to coalesce into a new politics of local autonomy and access to land, which I think will have to be a populist politics of alliance. We’ll get onto that in more detail when I move to discussing the final part of my book in this blog cycle. But just as George’s gloop factories require a substrate or a feedstock in order to ferment their new kinds of food, so we require a substrate or a feedstock in order to ferment new kinds of agrarian localist politics. It’s from the low base of our present politics and of people trying to get by in the countryside that we need to start creating it.

There are genuine grounds to worry that the outcomes of this local political brokerage won’t always be congenial. Perhaps they’re balanced by the equally genuine grounds to worry that centralized national politics no longer offers that certainty either. The liberal-democratic firmament of late 20th century politics has almost gone now. It seems likely that, locally, nationally or globally, nobody will be coming to save us – unless there’s some other iteration of the centralized state that I’ve not foreseen to safeguard against the potential tyranny of localism, without becoming a tyranny itself?

Even so, I think it’s worth taking seriously the downsides of a new politics geared around rural disruptors. At the session I did with Rupert Read, somebody raised the issue of the conformism of rural society and the greater possibilities for finding one’s tribe in urban settings, particularly for people with spiritualities, sexualities or other traits at variance with majority assumptions in conservative countrysides. That’s sometimes been true in the past, though it remains a story of the future that’s yet to be written. But instead of further belabouring my take on this point, I’d be interested to see what other people make of it in the comments below (note that to be sure of getting my attention, comments should be posted under the relevant post at Small Farm Future and not at other sites where this post may be syndicated). I’ll try to formulate some further thoughts in the light of anything that comes back to me.

Finally, and talking of posting comments, I recently noticed there were a few comments that had been sitting in the moderation queue undetected by me – some from long established commenters, and one from a new commenter. Please accept my apologies for the oversight. If you do post a comment that doesn’t appear, feel free to nudge me about it via the Contact Form. On the rare occasions when I actively choose not to publish a comment it will be for a reason, and I will contact you to explain what that reason is. So if you post a comment that doesn’t appear and you don’t hear from me, it’s best to assume simple incompetence on my part and act accordingly (it’s probably best to assume simple incompetence on my part in a wide variety of other circumstances, but let us not digress at this late stage in the post). Also, finally, if you include more than one hyperlink in a comment it will automatically be held for moderation as an anti-spam measure. So reference judiciously…

From regenesis to re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case for agrarian localism

A step sideways from my last two posts about urbanism and ruralism with a review of George Monbiot’s book Regenesis (Allen Lane, 2022) – though it’s kind of a propos, since his book showcases the pro-urbanism and anti-ruralism I’ve been critiquing.

When you read a book with which you profoundly disagree, I guess it’s usually best just to shrug, put it back on the shelf and get on with your work. The hatchet job review is a popular but ignoble genre. Having been the object of one myself I can attest the outcomes are rarely positive, apart perhaps from a warm glow of superiority in the reviewer, which is usually ephemeral.

So I want to tread carefully, particularly because George is a decent human being who’s devoted his considerable talents to making the world a better place and who scarcely deserves most of the mud that’s flung at him. Still, when I gave a talk about my own book at the Food and Farming Literature Festival, Miles King asked for my views on George’s analysis, noting it was the elephant in the room for those like me making the case for agrarian localism. Now that I’ve read the book, I’d have to agree with Miles. If George’s vision comes to pass I think it will, contrary to his own aspirations, represent an alignment between progressive environmentalism and corporate-capitalist interests that will delay further, perhaps catastrophically, the need to create low-input agrarian localisms and ecological culture.

So, given his influence, I feel the need to make the case as best I can for localist alternatives to George’s regenesis. I will try to do it while being mindful of the pitfalls of the hatchet job.

Farmers often get riled by George’s plain dislike of livestock farming, more so by his almost as plain dislike of livestock farmers. He’s now extended the former pretty much to farming in general. But the main problem with his analysis as I see it is the underlying assumptions about human society and ecology. That’s mostly what I’m going to write about here under four headings – urbanism, government, land sparing and modernism – but there are some agricultural puzzles at the heart of the book, and we’ll need to look at those too.

First, it might be helpful to offer a brief thumbnail of the book’s structure. And to give credit where it’s due, it all starts off very well with a nice chapter about the work George does in the orchard he planted in Oxford and the amazing organisms in the soil beneath it, followed by two strong chapters that forensically anatomize the pathologies of the food and farming system in Britain and beyond. Things start to go awry at the end of that third chapter with the case for land sparing, which I’ll come to. But then the book changes direction with three engaging but problematic chapters about various people, mostly in Britain, striving to address these pathologies and improve the existing food and farming system.

These chapters are problematic because, while they’re sympathetic (sometimes overly) to their protagonists and the approaches they’ve taken, they don’t characterize the issues underlying these approaches sharply enough. With one surprising exception, this allows George to set the various approaches up – albeit in the nicest possible way – to fail in comparison to his preferred approach. This is the factory-based fermentation of food to feed humanity, the (also problematic) case for which is laid out briefly in Chapter 7 of the book.

The book then moves to a wrap-up by way of Chapter 8, the most problematic of the lot, which basically elaborates George’s contention that “The pastoral story is one that urban civilization tells against itself without a flicker of disquiet: the shepherds and their sheep are good and pure, while the city is base and venal” (p.216). If only that were true, we’d be a darned sight closer to creating genuinely regenerative and renewable human ecologies than at present, though still a way off. Alas, the opposite is the case.

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s turn to my first problematic theme of the book – urbanism.

Urbanism

George quarrels frequently with arguments for local food throughout his book, but the real clincher as far as he’s concerned is an oft-cited study in Nature Food that found it would only be possible to feed a small proportion of the world’s people from food grown within a 100km radius of their homes, because so many people live in cities far away from the world’s breadbasket regions. In George’s words,

You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of the world’s population and of the regions suitable for farming, the abandonment of long-distance trade would be a recipe for mass starvation (p.146)

Later on, he writes that “most of our food has to be grown, for simple mathematical reasons, far from where we live” (p.226).

Suppose we shifted the focus from the distribution of the population across space to the distribution of money across the population. We might then rerun the first quotation something like this:

You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of global wealth and of occupations suitable for amassing it, policies to radically alter these would be a recipe for mass impoverishment and ruralization.

I doubt George would ever write that second paragraph. But then why write the first? The distribution of the human population towards cities and away from productive farmlands isn’t a matter of simple mathematics but of a complex (though perhaps not that complex) political, economic and social history that you absolutely can argue with, that’s strongly related to the distribution of wealth, and that in any case is beginning to rewrite itself regardless of anyone’s arguments. For reasons that I and others have explored elsewhere, the future is going to be rural. And in that future the places where most people will live will be the ones that are suitable for farming. Not for mathematical reasons, but for ecological and biophysical ones.

That does not, of course, mean it’s a good idea to abandon long-distance food trade overnight, which certainly would result in mass starvation. Happily, no serious proponent of local food does argue that. Nevertheless, it would be a good idea to start rethinking global trade and settlement patterns from the ground up, bearing in mind the coming rural re-exodus from fossil fuelled and capital-fuelled urbanization. I concede it’s a difficult thing to do. So is redistributing wealth. But it’s fundamentally a political and ecological thing to do. Arithmetic has little to do with it.

In Chapter 3, George makes a familiar, and superficial, case against local food – what I’d call the bad-beef-and-heated-greenhouses gambit. As I discussed in my previous post, the main problem is that this gambit considers only the unit carbon costs of high-input systems, not the total costs of such systems compared to low-input local alternatives. I won’t go over that ground again here. The debate, if you can call it that, between localists and global food trade proponents is pretty polarised. Maybe there’s space for some middle ground. Just because localism can’t provide everything it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t provide more. But ultimately I think there’s a parting of the ways between the two visions here. Urbanism and long-distance trade require massive carbon, energy and materials intensive infrastructures that I doubt will be feasible in the long-term within liveable planetary boundaries, so to me the ‘mathematics’ suggests local food production and a migratory exodus to where that’s possible – in other words, to ruralism.

Therefore, it’s worth preparing for a different future and seeking inspiration where it can be found. George mentions the “traditional, benign system of management” practiced by the Maasai (p.80) and the “transformative” nature of the Zero Budget Natural Farming approach in Southern India (p.176). But when it comes to agrarian traditions closer to home, the sympathy dries up – preindustrial rural life in Britain involved “grinding misery” (p.215), “the countryside is neither innocent nor pure. In some places, it is more corrupt than the city” (p.223), “traditionally, rich and diverse diets prepared from fresh ingredients depended (and still depend in some parts of the world) on the near-servitude of the women who cooked them” (p.206).

It’s not that these claims are groundless. But they’re over-generalized nostrums, not analysis, and they work rhetorically to sanitize the modern city, which has plenty of misery, impurity and patriarchy of its own. I’m sure this isn’t his intention, but in George’s telling it’s almost as if a bit of ruralism and agroecology is OK for poor herdsmen and farmers in low-income countries, but ill becomes us wealthy denizens of the urbanized and so-called ‘developed’ countries. As I see it, the lessons of agrarian localism from past and present societies worldwide run very much deeper, and we in the rich countries are probably the ones that most need to learn them.

Government

The lack of deeper analysis about the histories of urbanization and poverty is an odd feature of the book. For all the coruscating vigour of its assault on the existing food and farming system in the early pages, the main policy message is a rather limp ‘there ought to be a law against it’. Indeed, as George points out, often enough there is a law against it, but the law is ignored and unenforced.

Bad governance and self-interested corporate lobbying are every bit the curses George identifies, but this falls a long way short of a structural understanding of the political economy. What is the history that has delivered so many people to the city? What kind of work is keeping them there rather than producing an agrarian livelihood in the countryside? Why are some people so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why are some countries so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why has farming become so ecocidal?

I won’t try to answer those questions here – I provide a brief account in A Small Farm Future. But in failing to address them, I think George builds his proposals on weak foundations. To safeguard the industrial fermentation of food he advocates from corporate capture he calls for strong anti-trust laws, open-source innovation and technology transfer. Which is all great, but it’s scarcely happened in the food system to date and there’s no reason to think industrial fermentation will be different. In fact, there are reasons to think it’ll be worse.

Likewise, George wants to extract people from farming and the countryside to leave more room for nature. But, as he rightly says, “Intensification will spare wild places from farming only if it’s coupled with a strong political commitment to protect or restore them” (p.92). He doesn’t explain what will generate that commitment in a corporatized and urbanized world.

A localist critique of this present world begins by understanding that the price of food and other necessities, the price of human labour, the price of land and housing, the price of energy and the price of money are interrelated in complex ways with the simple result of badly screwing most people on the planet, and screwing future generations and the natural world worse. All serious attempts to make the case for agrarian localism appreciate that these prices, their interrelation and everything entailed in that need a fundamental rethink.

Instead, the tack George takes is to argue that food prices must be kept low so as not to further disadvantage the poor (I’d recommend a look at the writing of Eric Holt-Giménez’s among others for an alternative, perhaps counterintuitive but more plausible argument that low food prices in fact are a fundamental cause of global poverty). With merely anecdotal evidence from a chance encounter with a well-dressed woman and her superficial views (pp.129-31), George is anxious to pigeonhole the local food movement as a form of elitism that’s ignorant about the reality of poor people’s lives. It’s not his finest moment as a political thinker or campaigner.

Land sparing

Probably the key claim in Regenesis is that we need to spare land for nature – that is, concentrate the production of food and fibre on as small an area of high-yielding land as possible so that we can leave as much of the rest as possible for the wild things. A lot of the book’s wider arguments hang on the plausibility of that claim.

How plausible is it? Well, at least a bit. But I question whether George pulls it off sufficiently to bear the weight of his argument. For one thing, there are issues with the supporting evidence. With an intimidating string of research references George claims that farming is the greatest cause of habitat destruction, wildlife loss and extinction (p.90). But on closer inspection, some of these references appear to be arguing that future expansion of farming into hotspots of biodiversity is a major threat, which isn’t quite the same thing. And two of the references seem to be the same one, referenced twice.

A forgivable error, no doubt. But generally, while the near 100 pages of references in the book make for a great resource, I fear they also create the misleading sense that the book’s contentions reflect nailed on certainties in the research literature and not, as is inevitably the case, a personal selection from a more variegated corpus that buttresses a specific line of argument.

An approach that others emphasize more than George is ‘land sharing’ – devising forms of land use amenable both to wildlife and to humans and the organisms they farm. George does make some nods to it (see especially p.91). But I don’t think he characterizes the issues well. Miles King pointed out on this blog a while back that George and many others in the rewilding movement who emphasize land sparing fit into a top-down control school of ecological thought, which I’d caricature as ‘predators good, herbivores bad’. But there are other schools of thought, including the bottom-up argument I’d caricature as ‘plants rule, herbivores and predators follow’, which is more open to land sharing.

This all gets a bit technical and I’ll write more about it another time. For now, I just think it’s worth noting that the science around this isn’t quite as settled as you’d think from reading George’s book. Indeed, there are those who question the whole sparing-sharing duality.

All the same, as you look around most of our urban and agricultural landscapes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’re giving the wild things a hard time. Indeed, it seems we’re in the midst of a mass extinction of geological scale caused by humans, so something has certainly gone badly wrong. But is it just the logic of advanced agriculture, as George implies (p.198)? I’d argue instead that it’s the logic of advanced, fossil-fuelled, grain-based capitalism – and if that’s so it suggests different solutions to George’s one of a vegan, urban-industrial, land-sparing food system in which most people are alienated from the production of their food.

Even if you incline to George’s land-sparing view, I want to point out a remarkable assumption in Regenesis. Effectively, George argues that because all farming causes at least some wildlife loss, then the optimal response is to have no farming. Despite a few weak concessions to land sharing, he doesn’t entertain much possibility for trade-off or compromise – less or better farming for less wildlife loss. Instead, the book proceeds inexorably to its conclusion that humanity must extract itself as far as possible from its day-to-day implication with nature for creating its livelihood. But even if it’s true that all forms of farming are wildlife stressors, it doesn’t follow that a farm free world is the optimum response. It’s a curiously non-ecological argument. Give me Aldo Leopold’s land ethic any day in preference to it – humans are plain members and citizens of the biotic community. Which means trampling over some of its other members. But plainly.

An agricultural puzzle

In most parts of the world, people developed low-input agricultures in premodern or preindustrial times with better ‘land ethical’ claims than we, their successors, can command. These agricultures were marvellously varied, but a common enough approach was mixed ley farming – building soil and fertility with grass and grassland herbs (most importantly legumes such as clover) which were usually grazed by ruminants, then disturbing the soil in some way (for example, ploughing and harrowing) to establish high-output but fertility-draining and soil-draining crops for human consumption, before starting the cycle again.

This is ‘mixed’ farming because it mixes livestock, fodder crops and human crops, and ‘ley’ farming because it involves temporary grasses and herbs, or leys. Livestock in these systems are usually cleverly integrated as tappers and cyclers of nutrients that complement rather than compete with human food production – what Simon Fairlie calls ‘default livestock’ in his brilliant book Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

Many of the problems associated with modern farming that George diagnoses in the first part of Regenesis have arisen from the abandonment of mixed ley farming and other traditional low input agricultures with the advent of synthetic fertilizer, heavy mechanization and long-distance trade for routine food commodities. These jointly potentiated the modern livestock and biofuels industries that compete with the production of food for humans, and with wildlands for non-humans. George critiques these industries in Regenesis, but not the underlying technologies that potentiate them. In fact, these technologies are critical for his own preferred approaches, which surely rings some alarm bells.

He must know about the case for default livestock and mixed organic ley farming, because it’s laid out in intricate detail in Simon’s book, and on its cover there’s a fulsome endorsement from George himself (incidentally, Simon has a review of George’s book in the next issue of The Land which will be worth a read). Yet this case gets barely a mention in Regenesis. Instead, George offers a strange view of organic farming as somehow being about raising lots of livestock to accumulate manure for fertilizer, rather than being about building grazed leys into crop rotations. And he says almost nothing about mixed farming – a notable exception being on p.86 where he writes “So livestock, even when integrated into mixed farming systems…are powerful drivers of ecological destruction” – quite a non-sequitur, because he’s demonstrated no such thing in his preceding discussion. It’s almost as if he’s aware that low input mixed ley systems with default livestock are the Achilles heel of his whole argument, so he brushes them aside.

Actually, he does talk about such systems at some length in his discussions of Iain Tolhurst’s market garden, and Ian Wilkinson’s farming project in Oxfordshire. In the case of Iain Tolhurst (universally known in UK growing circles as Tolly), the complicating factor is that although what Tolly’s doing in effect is mixed organic ley farming, he doesn’t have any livestock. But he does grow leys in his veg rotation, which he then ploughs up in what he calls “a cycle of exploitation and regeneration: break it, mend it, break it, mend it” (p.108).

That’s an apt description of the mixed organic ley farming ethos. In Tolly’s case, on a moderately small modern market garden, it makes sense to do it without livestock, and to use a tractor for managing the ley by mowing, ploughing and so forth. On a preindustrial farm, that work would be done by cattle and/or horses. Which raises a point usually missed in the ‘livestock as inefficient land use’ argument. The flipside is that livestock are a very efficient complement to human labour for managing the larger farmed landscape with a minimum of human effort in situations without fossil fuels or other sources of cheap and abundant energy. In present economic circumstances, as Tolly reports in George’s book, the maths favour relatively fossil-fuel intensive, stock-free market gardening. But maths can change. I suspect mixed farms with default livestock will make a comeback.

Tolly is one of several agricultural and horticultural pioneers whose exploits George examines sympathetically in the middle chapters of the book, but ultimately finds wanting – not always for convincing reasons. The one example where he remains uncritical is the attempt to breed high-yielding perennial grains at the Land Institute in Kansas. He cites this Land Institute link to claim its breeders have achieved perennial grain yields reaching 50-70% of the yields from annual grains. I couldn’t find this figure from the link, but perhaps it’s there somewhere. This Land Institute link from two years ago suggests a figure of 20-30%, which seems more in keeping with the historical trajectory of its breeding work. Given George’s enthusiasm for land sparing, it’s odd that he’s so enthusiastic about such a low-yielding crop. Perhaps, like the plant breeders at the Land Institute, he’s confident this shortfall will be made up in time, bemoaning “it’s ridiculous that this crucial technology has been left to a small non-profit with limited funds” (p.227).

But it hasn’t. There have been many efforts to breed high-yielding perennial dry grains, which have basically all failed for probably insurmountable ecological reasons. For sure, there’s something to be said even for low-yielding perennial grains, and it’s worth having a few institutions working to improve their yields without compromising longevity – provided the prospects and the consequences aren’t oversold. Perhaps the true appeal of perennial grains lies in its business-as-usual economics – a more nature-friendly form of farming but one that doesn’t require more hands in the garden and fits easily within the modernist ‘maths’ of combine harvesters and teeming cities.

Ultimately, of course, Regenesis takes land sparing to the logical conclusion of factory-fermented nourishment. As I see it, there are multiple problems with this. There’s the nitrogen and energy requirements (prodigious amounts of scarce low-carbon electrical energy will be needed to synthesize the gloop, rather than the free solar energy tapped by farmers). There’s the final surrender to corporate interests. There’s the likelihood that rich people will continue to demand proper meat, grains, coffee, tropical fruit and so on, so that the gloop becomes another poverty-entrenching technology like golden rice, with less land-sparing impact than supposed. And there’s the final alienation from nature that will probably undermine the entire point of it. Maybe the upside is that Regenesis opens all these issues up for debate. I just wish its author could have laid the implications out a bit more even-handedly.

Of maths, modernism and grandmothers

But alas I think he’s been carried away by ecomodernism. When I wrote my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto some years ago, George engaged positively with me about it and I’ll always be grateful for the boost he gave my writing back then. But in the years since he’s drifted ever closer to embracing the creed, and now seems largely signed up to it, barring a largely gestural commitment to small-scale farmers and agroecology.

The strongest ecomodernist argument against low-input agrarian localism is that it’s too little too late to address the prodigious global crises of our times. I wrote a while back along these lines that George seemed to have become a kind of ‘last chance saloon’ ecomodernist, embracing big, bold, solutionist technologies out of desperation, because small-scale localism seemed inadequate to the task. I can appreciate the pull of this argument, even though I don’t agree with it. But reading Regenesis makes it clear I was wrong. George now seems to have embraced the ecomodernist credo in its own terms, calling for “bold, complex and holistic” thinking (p.199) which he imputes only to an urban-industrial solutionism he implausibly supposes will eliminate farming altogether. His now hardened, anti-rural, anti-agrarian, pro-industrial technophilia is simply incapable of attaching those labels to low-input, job-rich rural agroecology.

I’ve always felt there’s an irony in the ‘modernism’ of ecomodernism to which its proponents seem oblivious. The word ‘modernism’ doubtless sounds positive to many, but not to everyone. Modernism is the industrial and colonial extermination of pre-existing lifeworlds. It’s Max Weber’s iron cage of rationalization and bureaucracy. It’s a self-conscious and self-important break with a deprecated past. It’s the joyless, accumulative logic of a Thomas Gradgrind or a Captain MacWhirr, the “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” of Marx and Engels. And it’s this, from George Monbiot:

It’s time we became obsessed by numbers. We need to compare yields, compare land uses, compare the diversity and abundance of wildlife, compare emissions, erosion, pollution, costs, inputs, nutrition, across every aspect of food production (p.225)

Readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to a bit of bean counting myself, and I don’t disagree with this in principle. But the world is a complex place, and numbers contain dark powers of oversimplification. Quantifying all these parameters in the way George suggests requires us to make models of vastly complex social and biological worlds that can never be definitive. Numbers can help refine our questions, but they don’t give us unequivocal answers, unless we mistake our models of reality for the reality of our models.

So, given George’s increasingly visceral dislike of farmers, farming and ruralism, his unwillingness to entertain any middle ground between human and non-human land uses, his conviction that urbanism is a mathematical reality rather than a historical accomplishment, his embrace of modernism’s iron cage, and his influential voice in the media, I fear for where this taste for quantification will lead. I imagine it would be pretty easy for some take-away-the-number-you-first-thought-of bit of modelling to ‘prove’ that the little bit of countryside I’ve lived, worked and dreamed on for the past twenty years would be better off subjected to compulsory government purchase and turned over to rewilding, while the vegetables we grow are replaced by ‘sustainably-sourced’ ones imported from god knows where, and I’m forced to take my chances eating ‘precision’ fermented gloop in the city.

If that were to happen, the bit of land where I live and work would become, literally, the hill I would die on.

For this reason, I think it’s really, really inadvisable for George to write Gradgrindian sentences like this: “The transition is likely to happen, however fiercely the defenders of the old dispensation resist it: it appears to possess an inexorable economic logic” (p.210). It’s inadvisable because there’s no such thing as ‘an inexorable economic logic’, there are just political games with winners and losers – a point the old George Monbiot once understood. And it’s really, really inadvisable because it’s basically an invitation to a form of class war. In that eventuality, I’ll be on the opposite side to George, making common cause with farmers, growers, preppers, hunters and rural dwellers who in other circumstances I might dispute with. But sides, like quantitative social models, reduce the complexities of the world. I hope it won’t come to that. So many farmers are impoverished, demoralized and unfairly scapegoated for society’s wider sins. There are better ways to herald systemic change than this.

Yet in the very chapter where George makes his pitch for farmfree food and incites his war against rural society, he nicely writes an implicit counternarrative that undermines his case. This, I think, is the real crux of the book and the one I want to amplify.

It comes in an amusing section where George takes Michael Pollan to task for his admonition not to eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. He does this by detailing the grim diet of his own grandmother, who he says would be a great-great-great grandmother to most of those alive today (a clever gloss, since his grandmother’s lifetime coincided with two world wars, which surely had some bearing on the unappetizing menus that formed her). Still, I broadly agree with George – there’s no reason in principle not to embrace new foods. But the kicker comes in George’s obvious fondness and nostalgia for what he learned from his grandmother:

She was a tough, skilled and knowledgeable countrywoman, connected to the land, who caught or collected some of her food, and made her meals from scratch….staying with her was the highlight of my school holidays. She taught me to make tiny imitations of insects from scraps of fur and feathers, and use them to deceive fish in the river behind her house …. In August and September, we gathered mushrooms … She taught me to watch, to listen, to name the birds and flowers (p.200-1)

There’s a sense here of a woman emplaced in a natural landscape that she knew and took notice of because she partially provided for herself from it, and of a boy who learned from her how to see and act in it, and how to love it. The irony is that the boy has become a man where that love leads him to negate future possibilities for such emplacement. Future grandmothers raised on industrial gloop will have no parallel knowledge to pass on, spelling yet further danger to the natural world.

There’s nothing wrong with new foods as such, provided they’re nurtured in food cultures that draw the eater into the wider pulse of the local ecology. If they don’t, then the natural world and the humans it supports are in danger – and this is true if we’re talking about tahini from a supermarket jar or fermented gloop from a nearby factory. We don’t need re-genesis, but a de-urbanizing re-exodus to places where we can create such food cultures. The real lesson from George Monbiot’s grandmother, I’d submit, is not the narrowness of her diet but the breadth of her knowledge. Similarly, when George fulminates against petting farms for selling a fantasy image of what actual livestock farming is like, he neglects the possibility that they’re popular precisely because they offer people a sense of real, economic connection to animals and to livelihood-making that has almost been lost, and that his own proposals would finally snuff out for good. I doubt that will lead where he wants.

City of the dead, part two

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog over the years about urbanism, ruralism and the case for deurbanization – the theme of Chapter 15 of A Small Farm Future where this blog cycle has currently lighted. To be honest, I get a bit exasperated about urbanism. It’s not because I’m against city living as such. In an ideal world, I’d like it if everyone could live wherever they damn well pleased and do whatever they wanted.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and it seems to me that climate, energy, water and waste realities are going to propel a lot of people out of urban living in the coming years. True, city dwellers usually count for more politically than their rural counterparts (voters for US senators may beg to differ), and this is just one of the reasons why it’s likely that governments will strive to keep the urban show on the road for as long as possible. But ultimately you can’t argue with energetic and ecological realities. I fear that if we keep on trying to, things could get ugly, perhaps in cities most of all. So there may be some real cities of the dead in future years, in considerably less enthralling ways than the one I described in my previous post. To avoid such outcomes, there’s a need to get on the case right now and ease the transition to ruralism.

But we’re not doing that for several reasons. For several bad reasons, which is what exasperates me. Here, I’ll outline very briefly five bad reasons why the world is not deurbanizing at it should.

First, it suits economic and political elites to keep as many people as possible corralled in towns, landless and insecurely salaried or unsalaried and ripe for the extraction of economic rent (the rural van dwellers I mentioned in my last post are pioneering refuseniks to this dismal process). But these elites comprise only a small minority. The wonder is that so many people happily embrace the servitude offered them. To a degree the embrace has been rational – governments have kept themselves in business with an urban promise of jam today and more jam tomorrow. But as it gets increasingly hard for them to honour the promise, land in the countryside starts looking like better security than a job in the city. This has profound implications.

Second, the ubiquitously humanized and high-tech environment of the city seems to have bred a kind of magical mindset that human ingenuity can preserve cities and all their conveniences. One critical review of my book said that I offered little succour to the urban masses in the face of contemporary crises. That’s because there’s little I can give. And nor, I think, can anyone else who’s both honest and free of magical delusions. I’d love to wave a wand over, say, Dhaka or (less so) London or Miami and command the waters not to rise and the taps to run, the sockets to thrum with energy and the wastes to disappear forever. But no such wand exists. As suggested in my previous post and others of greater vintage, human habitation is scarcely possible where there’s too little freshwater, or too much seawater, or too much accumulated waste, and not enough cheap energy to manage them. This increasingly will be the reality of much of the world’s urban infrastructure. Rather than invoking magical solutions to future urban problems, I think it’s better to see the writing on the wall and act accordingly.

Third, contemporary culture has acquired an anti-rural cast. It runs so deep that even a mild argument for deurbanization is often treated as if it’s cheerleading for a holocaust. Several times in the past when I’ve made such arguments people have responded in all seriousness with ‘ruralization – what, like the Khmer Rouge?’ To which the answer is no, not like the Khmer Rouge. Does it really need stating that the Khmer Rouge did not exhaust all possible forms of deurbanization? As I see it, people in the future are going to have reason enough to get out of cities on their own account if they can, without anybody holding a gun to their heads.

I suppose, to give this argument the greatest credence it deserves, there’s been something of an affinity between rural self-reliance and crazy authoritarian regimes – North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and maybe more complex cases like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or even de Valera’s Ireland. However, the direction of causality is not usually from rural self-reliance to crazy autocracy, but generally the other way around. If you make yourself a pariah to the wider international community, then rural self-reliance starts to matter. Still, ‘the international community’ is largely just a euphemism for the narrow economic elites I mentioned earlier, and the true face of its great game politics is beginning to reveal itself in the light of events like the war in Ukraine. In the future, it seems likely that crazy autocracies will feature less heavily among the countries pursuing rural self-reliance, while countries displaying prudent rationality will figure more prominently.

Anyway, I have no wish to replace mindless anti-ruralism with a mindless anti-urbanism. But I would like urban folks to appreciate how their consumption and waste footprint extends into the countryside and, due to the fiscal-political power of cities, turns it over to service their needs. If you expect that kind of service from rural people and places, it’s worth asking how you’re serving them in return.

Fourth is the mistaken belief that city living is less ecologically impactful than its rural counterpart. It’s true that a high-energy modern lifestyle lived in the city is usually less impactful than a high-energy modern lifestyle lived in the country, at least when income is held constant, due to economies of scale. But that’s not the relevant comparison, because a high energy modern lifestyle will soon be a thing of the past. A low energy lifestyle is much more congenial in the countryside than in the city. If you don’t believe me, take a job as a nightsoil collector.

Part of the problem is the way that rural life has been warped by abundant cheap fossil energy and the associated car culture. As I related in my previous post, villages that once sported numerous shops and services now have none, and their inhabitants have to drive elsewhere to get them. We need to rejuvenate the economic life of countrysides laid waste by the car.

The mistaken belief in the efficiency of the city parallels the mistaken belief in the irrelevance of local food on the grounds that the carbon cost of transporting food long-distance is low. These low costs are an average per unit cost or a marginal cost. Instead, consider the total cost of feeding cities through long-distance trade. Large, export-oriented and probably monocultural agribusiness establishes to the exclusion of more diverse local livelihood-making in advantageous places for a given product. Transporting the product then relies on a vast network of roads, container trucks, warehouses, offices, ports, gigantic ships, freezers and megastores. With no option but to build these things the incentive is to produce in gargantuan volumes to keep unit costs low.

But in a fossil fuel free local agrarian economy, you don’t need all this. You may choose to raise pasture-fed livestock or tomatoes in heated tunnels (the usual suspects in the case against low impact local food), but you need to produce a lot of other things from the locality too and you can’t afford to be profligate with land or energy. So there probably won’t be an awful lot of high carbon meat or tomatoes. Now let’s calculate the carbon cost of local food.

Finally, there’s an anti-agrarian and purportedly anti-elitist version of the anti-rural ideology, along the lines that nobody wants to farm any more, and/or that it’s all very well for rich westerners to hanker after a homestead, but poor people in the Global South want to get the hell out and move to urban slums where they can achieve a better quality of life. My contrary take is, on the first point, that there are a lot of people worldwide who do want to farm. I meet them all the time, and the main problem they face is the systemic obstacles that keep them relatively poor and landless. The village with its Porsches and Mercedes, the rape fields with their glyphosate rigs, the laybys with their converted vans and buses that I described in my previous post are telling us something about this. It’s not that poor people don’t want to live and work in the countryside. It’s that rich people don’t want them there – except in places where their poorly remunerated labour is required.

Mercifully, the ‘soulful slum’ argument doesn’t seem to be quite as prevalent now as it was ten years ago when it was popularized, with minimal evidence, by the likes of Stewart Brand. I mentioned Brand’s thesis the other day to my son, who’s currently in Bangladesh researching labour and climate migration. He’d been telling me about informants lamenting their need to migrate to town for seasonal work in brick fields rather than staying home to grow rice. When I told him about Brand’s upwardly mobile slum argument he asked me where Brand had done his fieldwork. ‘Dunno,’ I said. ‘San Francisco, I think’. He laughed. Nobody wants to farm any more is a contextless, threadbare nostrum. People do, however, want agency in their work, whether they’re farming or doing something else. The bigger economic story in my opinion is not urban/rural or industrial/agrarian but agency/domination, and this latter transects the other dualities.

If global governments were alive to the nature of the climate, energy and water emergencies upon us, they’d be frantically busy planning how to sensibly and humanely repopulate the countryside and depopulate the cities, how to reform access to land fairly, how to give people skills in renewable horticulture, construction and forestry, and a thousand other things. Sadly they’re not. So currently we have to build from a low base, telling stories about why ruralization is even worth considering (a symptom of the malaise: the spellchecker on my computer is happy with the word ‘urbanization’ but not ‘ruralization’).

Part of that building work requires us to distance ourselves from numerous problematic idealizations of the rural, from Sir Philip Sidney to Pol Pot, which I do in the first part of Chapter 15. To be honest, I’m heartily sick of doing it and we’d be a darn sight closer to tackling contemporary humanity’s numerous present problems if a general anti-ruralism (as opposed to the ruralism for the rich mentioned above) wasn’t so deeply entrenched. I at least try to even up the balance a little in Chapter 15 by distancing myself also from the various problematic idealizations of the urban that disfigure our present age, but attract much less notice.

I’ve now written enough variants on the theme of ‘we mustn’t romanticize the rural … or the urban’ to last a lifetime (especially since there’s nothing wrong with being ‘Romantic’ as such). No doubt there will be those who will scorn the rural or the case for ruralization as bucolic fantasy while believing their analysis to be somehow original or deep-thinking until the cows come home, or more to the point until the waters lap at their thresholds and their taps run dry. So in future, I aim to write more specifically when I can about making ruralization a reality. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’ll happen in an orderly way. So another task is to get a handle on the more disruptive routes it might take. Hopefully, I’ll get to that soon.

Capitalism as religion: on ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’

Time for a book review to mark the passage of my present lengthy blog cycle about my own little book into its later phases. And so, with the usual caveats about my entirely unsystematic and biased approach to the reviewing business, let us take a look at Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Harvard, 2019). At 799 pages, it makes the 692-page doorstopper from Graeber and Wengrow that I last reviewed seem almost flimsy by comparison. But I have read every page of McCarraher’s tome (well, almost – see below) to bring you its fruits, so take a seat and settle in. This, regrettably, is quite a long review, but on the upside it’ll take you way, way less time to read than the book itself (and if you read it carefully, you may just notice that I provide a useful hack).

1. Of sacramental capitalism

The pioneering sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) popularized the term ‘the disenchantment of the world’ to describe the rationalization, bureaucratization and commodification of society in the modern era, as against the enchanted or sacramental worldview of premodern times where people, organisms and other entities were imbued with otherworldly spiritual significance. The big idea that organizes McCarraher’s book is that Weber was wrong. The thought of modern times, and the capitalist economy that animates it, is itself in McCarraher’s words “a form of enchantment – perhaps better, a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world” (p.5). Enlightenment, capitalism and modernity, says McCarraher, didn’t replace religion. They are religion.

On this point, I fully agree with McCarraher, who does a fine job of substantiating it throughout his book in relation to any number of writers and thinkers. But while he does a good job substantiating it, it’s not the kind of thing that he or anyone else can ever really prove, and I daresay there will be readers more aligned with the Weberian view who will be left cold by McCarraher’s claims that our modern conceptions of capitalism and progress are just another waypoint on humanity’s search for spiritual redemption. There’s a kind of dualism here in contemporary culture with clear, unbridgeable water between the two positions. From my side of it, I’d say you either just get that our fondest notions of progress, instrumental control, technological mastery and capitalist needs satiation are basically forms of spiritual yearning, or … you don’t. Trying to argue it out with the other side is rarely illuminating and usually ends at best with blank incomprehension, and often with mere name-calling.

So I doubt McCarraher’s mammoth tome will have much success converting those who welcome capitalism as a disenchantment of sacramental premodern worldviews and a lynchpin of humanity’s modern betterment and progress. Even so, I don’t think his time was wasted. It’s useful to have a hefty, serious work of scholarship that endorses Romanticism, enchantment, love and communion as ideas to be proudly embraced, rescuing them from the derision of the true believers in the supposedly more hard-bitten notions of secular progress who in his pages unwittingly reveal their own sacramental longings. As McCarraher puts it:

 “the Romantic lineage of opposition to “disenchantment” and capitalism has proved to be more resilient and humane than Marxism, “progressivism”, or social democracy. Indeed, it is more urgently relevant to a world hurtling ever faster to barbarism and ecological calamity”

pp.16-17

Amen to that. I should say, though, that McCarraher’s pithiest and most stimulating thoughts about the sacramental nature of capitalism come in the Prologue (pp.1-21) to which most of the rest of the book relates almost as a (very long) footnote. Despite the longueurs, I do like the way he catches the religious timbre of so much writing about capitalism, technology and progress – as for example in an 1860 edition of Scientific American that wrote of recent improvements in haymaking technology “Are not our inventors absolutely ushering in the very dawn of the millennium?” (p.137). But maybe it wouldn’t have hurt to have had a bit less of this footnoting and a bit more of a clearly defined intellectual position around why in capitalist situations “our love spoils into a lust for power that mars the development of civilization” (p.12) and how, under capitalism, enchantment becomes misenchantment.

2. Of nostalgic modernism, the technological sublime and Smaje’s law

Still, sprinkled across the pages of his book like adamantine little jewels, McCarraher explores the implications of his prologue in a series of excellent, almost counterfactual propositions about where the Romantic lineage he refers to in the quotation above might have taken us, and perhaps still might, if only we could tame the disenchanted ideology of techno-progress.

For starters, he reclaims the very idea of ‘progress’ for the Romantic lineage along similar, but rather sharper, lines to my own attempts to escape the airless duality of technological progress versus backward-looking nostalgia. Romantics don’t want to respool history and ‘go back’, but we are able to see the negatives in the way modern societies have gone ‘forwards’, a lot of them connected with the capitalist abstraction and accumulation of money (p.14). So it’s not that we’re opposed to progress. Just the present dominant version of it.

The more I read The Enchantments of Mammon the more vividly it underlined an irony I remarked in my own book, that this present dominant version of technological progress is in fact stuck in the past, specifically in the increasingly dated ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment period and the succeeding intellectual culture of the 19th century. The very title of one leading treatise in progress ideology – Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now! – pretty much gives the game away. Despite the considerable insights of founding modernist figures from those periods – Mandeville, Smith, Kant, Marx, Montesquieu and many others – the projects they initiated have revealed their contradictions and are now exhausted. Yet we continue to reinvent them in the face of present problems as if they’re fresh insights without historical baggage.

When the bandwagon of ecomodernism started rolling in the early years of the 21st century, pronouncing the death of ‘traditional’ or ‘romantic’ environmentalism and trumpeting its melding of ecological consciousness with high technology, it successfully presented itself as a bold new vision while quietly filling new bottles with this same old wine. Although he doesn’t talk about ecomodernism as such, a nice feature of McCarraher’s book is that he captures the sense in which future-heralding techno-progress versus present-focused conviviality is not a new debate, its present form going at least as far back as the 19th century and probably much further. And it’s not really about technology, either. It’s more of a religious debate about how you prefer your sacraments – convivially among friends, family and known existing places, in the embrace of small shrines accreted with a weight of local meaning? Or portentously among the heavens, seeking a Promethean unity with the gods that gladly annihilates the solidity of the local and the presently existing?

The hangover that visits some who wake from the Promethean excess of the latter form of sacrament is called neurasthenia – what McCarraher describes as “a feeling of anomie, listlessness and boredom in the midst of unprecedented comfort and abundance” (p.328). It’s easy to dismiss this as a nice problem to have, a ‘First World’ problem. But it may prove a potentially disastrous whole world problem if its sufferers, those with great purchasing power, try to solve it through further cycles of bad consumption and bad politics. Although it’s common in modern culture to pay lip service to the banality of consumerism, we rarely look the downside of unprecedented wealth, comfort and energetic command fully in the eye.

McCarraher cites, for example, Timothy Walker’s ‘Defence of mechanical philosophy’, published in 1831, in which the human mind becomes “the powerful lord of matter” and “machines are to perform all the drudgery of man, while he is to look on in self-complacent ease” (p.137-8).  No doubt there’s much to be said for ‘ease’, at least some of the time, but ‘self-complacency’ doesn’t sound so great. Yet it’s an apt term for our contemporary fossil-fuelled civilization as it teeters on the brink of authoring its own collapse while congratulating itself for its neurasthenic achievements and scorning societies of the past.

How have we come to think that self-complacency is a good thing? How have we come to be so proud of what Alexander Langlands calls ‘the illiteracy of power’ in which we can see only the advantages of our automated alienation from the biosphere that sustains us, and none of the disadvantages? Rather than embracing new technologies for their assistance in meeting a priori human ends, we’ve ended up embracing new technologies simply in their own right – a kind of aestheticized “technological sublime” (p.135) so pathological that governments are now reduced to invoking as yet implausible, untried or uninvented technologies to bail us out of climate catastrophe in the next few decades.

What I find depressing is not so much the persistence of the technological sublime into the present but its ubiquity across the political spectrum, from the far right to the far left, where Marxists feature as “the lead-bottomed ballast of the status quo…the middle managers of a consumerist, technological civilization” (p.635). As McCarraher’s painstaking enquiry makes clear, you have to look hard to find progressive thinkers articulating alternative romantic, convivial, human-scale visions of society – and most of them, alas, are forced to waste a lot of their time explaining why they do not in fact wish to turn the clock back to a mythical golden age and why they’re not just misty-eyed conservatives. I’d add, though, that perhaps you don’t have to look quite as hard to find them as you might think from a reading of McCarraher’s book, a point to which I’ll return.

In a bravura section (roughly pp.58-107) McCarraher offers a brilliant critique of Marxism which he shows, for all its strengths, has bequeathed a bad legacy of non-ecumenical scorn for alternative, non-Marxist – particularly romantic – traditions on the left, and an ill-conceived vaunting of the working class and other categories of oppressed people as the only authentic agents of political change. I plan to write separately about this elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here except to say that McCarraher’s critique pivots towards the kind of progressive populist politics I explore briefly in my own book, and which seems to me the most promising route out of humanity’s present predicaments. And I will write more about that in a moment.

For now, I’ll simply say that against the naïve techno-communism of the Leigh Phillips ‘just wait until the working class get the keys to the nuclear power station’ variety, there is no particular sub-group of humanity imbued with some kind of redemptive political authenticity that will save our ass, and nor are there any redemptive technologies like nuclear power that will save our ass either, even if some technologies (probably not nuclear power) will definitely have a role to play in a convivial future.

But a livable future for humanity will have to involve less accumulated power and capital more evenly distributed. That means less material wealth and less command over material resources for the richest portion of humanity than we’re currently accustomed to – although not necessarily less wealth in all the other dimensions of human experience that matter more. But let’s speak plainly – the global rich, which probably includes most people likely to be reading this article, will be materially poorer.

Although McCarraher doesn’t make a central theme of this in his book, nor, to his credit, does he shy away from it. And he usefully excavates various marginalized strands of thought that might inform it, like the Christian socialism of Vida Dutton Scudder and Bouck White, with Scudder’s commitment to “the Franciscan way of poverty, a path of dispossession rooted in a confident, premodern ontology of love” (p.259) and White’s critique of “the modern dread and horror of poverty” (p.294).

I must stress that what I’m talking about isn’t the kind of grinding, malnourished, violent life of poverty that Prometheans often think they’re striving to abolish, while we Romantics tend to see on the contrary as largely a consequence of modern Prometheanism. Instead, I mean a life where the flow of energy and cheap consumer commodities is slower than we’re accustomed to in the Global North and where more of our time must be devoted to furnishing our livelihoods.

On this point, McCarraher provides some useful grist in the dreary poverty wars that rage endlessly between the Promethean and Romantic visions. I’ve lost count of the times somebody championing some favoured example of capitalist high technology as a boon to the poor has angrily denounced the moral repugnance of my position for its connivance with global poverty. Often enough I’ve shot the charge right back. This is what I propose to call Smaje’s law, a variant of its more famous cousin Godwin’s Law: the longer that Promethean techno-modernists and convivial Romantics engage each other online, the more likely it is that someone will profess self-righteous anger at the others’ moral complicity with poverty.

I don’t think it’s a good look for wealthy westerners to invoke the global poor as bargaining chips in their political arguments with each other, so these days I try to avoid falling into the dread grip of Smaje’s law. Albeit a side theme of McCarraher’s book, he provides some useful leverage within its pages for avoiding the dismal oversimplifications involved. And for that I thank him.

3. Plymouth Rock or Jamestown?

I hope I’ve conveyed some of the great strengths of McCarraher’s book. I now want to mention some weaknesses, which I trust won’t detract from an appreciation of the whole.

I’ll begin with a minor one. McCarraher writes beautifully, but at a level of highfaluting intellectual abstraction likely to leave many a general reader cold. There are a lot of sentences like this:

“Indebted to Emerson and Nietzsche and their mythos of the unfettered spirit, Goldman and other cultural radicals draped a bourgeois ontology of power in the exotic raiment of bohemia”

p.308

This is fine by me, having served a lengthy sentence in academia’s ivory prison, but I suspect it will limit his readership – which is unfortunate, because I think he has important things to say. Actually, people have said much the same about my own writing, so at least the next time that happens I can say “if you think I’m bad, try reading Eugene McCarraher!”

A more serious stylistic problem is that while McCarraher doesn’t exactly hide his political colours, he treats most of his case material (which, almost exclusively, comprises what highly educated and literate people such as himself have written about the society they’re living in) to a kind of mannered disdain, which left me wondering how he proposes to transcend a misenchanted capitalism. The writer he most reminds me of, and who McCarraher himself invokes quite often as both muse and counterpoint, is Christopher Lasch. Lasch also had a good line in disdain, which he directed voluminously towards the political left, the political right, and most points in between, but in my opinion usually with a clearer underlying politics that holds the attention better. So I must admit I skimmed a few pages in the middle of McCarraher’s book. There’s only so much self-congratulatory bloviation from obscure 1920s New York admen that anybody needs to experience in their lifetime.

Excessive detail aside, McCarraher does provide a rich account of the history of US capitalism, particularly in the crucial late 19th century change from an individualist-proprietorial model to a corporate, managerial and statist one. I liked his mordant analysis of the “double truth” by which the former model is still used as a veil of legitimacy for the latter:

“one truth for the neoliberal intelligentsia and their sponsors – the fabrication of markets and property relations by corporate capital and the state – and another for the credulous mob – the natural and therefore inviolable status of capitalist markets and property”

p.594

But, apart from a brief nod in the early chapters to thinkers in 19th century England, McCarraher’s history of capitalism is almost exclusively a history of capitalism in the USA. Given that even this takes him nearly 800 pages, perhaps we should be grateful that he didn’t opt for a global approach. But the lack of wider material does compromise his analysis. In particular, he takes the rather sectarian view that the worm in the bud of the US economy arrived with the Pilgrim Fathers and the contradictions of their ‘covenant theology of capitalism’. He outlines convincingly enough these Puritan contradictions, but a wider view of the emergence of capitalism as a world system encompassing not only such Catholic powers and players as Spain, Portugal, France, the city states of Italy and the merchants of Antwerp but also non-Christian protagonists beyond Europe and the Americas might have usefully complicated his vision.

Even within North America, a glance at the irreligious freebooters of Jamestown – who preceded the Puritans of Plymouth Rock by some years as colonial English founders on the continent – might have called into question McCarraher’s instinct to locate the origins of capitalism in the contradictions of lofty Protestant theology. And, whatever the origins, a feature of capitalism is its viral tendency to force replication of its basic structure with local variation across global geography, religion and culture. It may be true, as McCarraher – quoting pioneering American economist Thorstein Veblen – states, that the US farming yeomen of diverse origins of the 19th and 20th centuries were “cultivators of the main chance as well as of the fertile soil” (p.268), but this surely wasn’t fundamentally because of their religion.

4. Plain folks and the stuff they buy

If there’s not going to be a simple revolutionary redemption from capitalism orchestrated by ordinary working people of the kind that Marxists project, then what alternatives are there for getting off the hook on which the capitalist global economy undeniably suspends us? I’m not sure there’s any really plausible answer to that, but if there is I think it will involve complex, flawed, non-revolutionary transformations of capitalism orchestrated from place to place by broad alliances of different people, including but not limited to ordinary working ones.

In the later parts of his book, McCarraher takes us on an informative sightseeing trip that hints at who some of these people might be and what their alliances might look like. Frustratingly, though, he presents them rather hurriedly, almost as exotica in the manner that a well-informed but world-weary tour guide might (that mannered disdain again!) before ushering us back to our comfortable modernist hotel with a faint aura of disillusionment. This leaves little sense of how the living, breathing people we’ve met could help generate the political traction necessary to improve our world. So here I’m going to try sneaking out of the hotel, revisiting some of the people McCarraher has introduced us to, and giving them a bit more leeway to tell a different story.

One of McCarraher’s targets is ‘plain folks ideology’, which he defines in terms of “white supremacy, patriarchal dominance, small government, antipathy towards cultural and economic elites, and the Protestant work ethic” (p.583). It strikes me that this ideology is quite US-specific, although it has resonances – perhaps, for various reasons, growing ones – elsewhere, not least here in Europe. I’ll accept these traits as at least one core ideology of ordinary working people and do my best to work through it towards something more promising.

I’ve written elsewhere about patriarchal dominance, and briefly above about the Protestant work ethic so I’ll restrict myself to a few remarks about the other three items on the plain folks list. Recently in the US and other countries of the Global North there seems to have been a resurgence of bald, far-right white supremacism and ethno-nationalism, but more moderate identification of ordinary working-class white and majority ethnic people ‘upwards’ with majority elites against minorities is probably still of greater political importance.

This identification is heavily manipulated by elites and the politicians representing them like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, but I’ll avoid the ‘false consciousness’ argument that working people don’t know what’s good for them and support such ideologies against their own best interests. In fact, I’d argue the plain folks’ antipathy to elites is more partial than McCarraher implies, involving a claim to be a part of the elite which, like many such claims, involves denying the existence of its own privilege. Hence, there’s a tendency within ‘plain folks’ thinking to dismiss as liberal wokeism an awareness of the historical advantage accruing even to ordinary working-class people of white or majority ethnicity in the Global North arising from colonial power and its modern versions, which becomes an elitism of its own.

McCarraher himself sometimes succumbs to a version of this – as, for example, when he writes “the New Deal state attempted to temper class conflict, stabilize the business cycle, and promote economic growth, relying primarily on the stimulation of consumption through fiscal policy and military spending” (p.364). It’s as if spending on the US military was merely an economic stimulus package. But really you need to ask what the military was doing, and why.

Anyway, a big question for the future is whether these basically elite narratives of race and nation will continue to temper class conflict by drawing majority working-class people into their ambit, or whether more genuinely populist rebellion against the elites might occur. There’s a strong case for thinking the former is likely, but I’d argue McCarraher gives too little credence to the possibilities for the latter.

As with race, so with class, and the curious appeal of popular conservatism. It’s easy to see why people in the richest strata of society, especially in the Global North, are drawn to conservative, pro-capitalist politics, even if the conjunction of conservatism and capitalism needs some unpicking, because there’s nothing in the least bit ‘conservative’ about capitalism. But it’s not so easy to see the appeal to ordinary working-class people, other than as a crumbs-from-the-table subsidiary elitism of the kind I’ve just described. McCarraher addresses this implicitly in an illuminating passage that I’ll quote at length, where he discusses the mid-20th century conservative agrarian localism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk:

“Weaver and Kirk might have been expected to call for the abolition of corporate capitalism and the revival of family proprietorship. Yet however nostalgic they may have been for the dung-scented air of agrarian integrity, they, along with most other “conservatives”, made a separate peace with corporate business. On this score, they demonstrated the veracity of Corey Robin’s analysis of “the reactionary mind”: that conservatism has been, at bottom, less a concern for the preservation of tradition than “an animus against the agency of the subordinate classes,” a determination that society remain “a federation of private dominions,” especially in the workplace and the family”

p.588

There’s quite a lot going on in this passage, and it bears fruitfully on some contemporary political puzzles. I think there remains in the USA, although less than in most other wealthy countries, a taste for ‘big government’ among ordinary, working-class voters who appreciate that only big governments have the power to take on private corporate interests to the benefit of ordinary people. But it’s tempered simultaneously by an understandable scepticism towards big government, partly through the realization that private corporate interests also rely heavily on the power of big government and ultimately command more of its loyalty, and partly through the alienating experience of bureaucratic welfare capitalism, along with a historical sense that bureaucratic welfare socialism is just as bad, or worse.

This leads to some curious political alignments. On the one hand, there are big government neo-Bolshevik left-wingers like Leigh Phillips and his ‘People’s Republic of Walmart’ shtick. You can barely drive a cigarette paper between his position and big government ‘conservative’ neoliberalism, and if you can it’s a paper inscribed with a belief in the redemptive power of the working class and the benevolence of the bureaucratic state that’s naïve even by Marxist standards. On the other hand, you get small government proponents running the gamut from dissimulating neoliberals playing the ‘double truth’ game I mentioned above, to communitarian and populist conservatives, anarchists and civic republican progressive populists like me.

I think big government leftists are backing the wrong horse because of the impossible political contradictions and biophysical conundrums faced by national and global governance. There’s scope for engaging the subtler thinkers among them who don’t immediately dismiss any kind of small government thinking as irredeemably conservative and beyond the pale, but regrettably such thinkers are scarcer on the left than you might expect.

So perhaps it’s more important for we small government romantic progressives to reach out to the conservative communitarians and populists, with whom we share a commitment to McCarraher’s “federation of private dominions” in the workplace, the family and elsewhere. But we also have a commitment to the “agency of the subordinate classes” (among others) and to principles of fairness and justice determined by inclusive political deliberation rather than assumed to exist in the nature of things.

Our challenge is to convince small government populist conservatives and communitarians that the federation of private dominions they favour has more in common with our vision of private autonomy and public good than with the vision of private property held by the corporate sector and the minority wealthy elite, which lacks commitment to genuine, popular private ownership and distributed sovereignty. Building such a populist alliance is a daunting challenge, but it may be more politically effective than trying to engage the traditional big government and class-determinist left to make its well-intentioned but shopworn political convictions fit for present times. Anyway, I haven’t yet given up on the idea that progressive populists could form a powerful alliance with certain kinds of smalltown conservatives and communitarians. Indeed, the time for it seems riper now than at any point in the recent past (I acknowledge, by the way, that the simple duality of ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government I’m using here needs unpicking. More on that another time, I hope, along with some further thoughts on progressive/conservative alliance).

One reason the time is ripe is because while 19th and 20th century populists could be forgiven for thinking that there was little possibility of reviving family proprietorship in the face of corporate state and capitalist power, it’s easier to entertain its revival today. This is my argument in A Small Farm Future,and it’s the creed of a small but growing band of neo-peasants and neo-homesteaders whose political allegiances cut across traditional lines.

I wish McCarraher could have lent some of his weight to that movement, but for all his endorsement of romantic alternatives to techno-capitalism and its techno-communist twin, he just can’t quite escape the urge to disdain them, as with his “dung-scented air of agrarian integrity” remark. This urge gets the better of him in his analysis of US agrarian populism around the turn of the 20th century, whose proponents emerge from his pages as mere smalltown capitalists with nothing to teach the anticapitalists of today: “populism was an alternative model of capitalism, it was never an alternative to capitalism….it has never imagined a fundamental revision of property relations in America” (p.265).

There’s some truth to this, but it’s a charge that any number of jobbing Marxists could have laid, and indeed many have. For someone who’s just taken so much trouble to criticize the progressive, world-redeeming pretensions of Marxism, it’s strange that McCarraher relapses into the same easy critique of populist reformism without probing more deeply at the movement’s radical possibilities. For my part, I’d argue that elements of US populism and contemporaneous movements like distributism did imagine a ‘fundamental revision of property relations’ – a more realistic one than Marx’s – in advocating for the fair distribution of land and in opposing the anti-democratic, corporate accumulation of property.

McCarraher himself mentions how “the lords of finance capital realized with horror” that the populist C.W. Macune’s sub-treasury plan “would place the nation’s monetary policy under…greater democratic supervision…and break the hold of big-city merchants and commercial banks on American farmers” (p.262). Which sounds to me like it could be quite a fundamental revision of property relations. Elsewhere, he gives a sympathetic account of John Ruskin’s non-Marxist communism of “private, nonaccumulative, convivial property” (p.88). Agrarian integrity; sub-treasuries; self-possession; distributed, convivial, nonaccumulative property. It’s as if McCarraher has painstakingly tracked down all the pieces of a jigsaw scattered to the corners of the room by angry modernist techno-progressives and placed them carefully back on the table, only to lose his nerve at the moment of final assembly. The time for a small state, civic republican, progressive agrarian populism – an anti-Mammonism, an anti-Leviathan – is now. McCarraher ably prepares the ground for it in his book. I hope he’ll someday come and join us on it.

I feel like I’ve already criticized McCarraher more than he perhaps deserves, but I just want to flag one final area of weakness. Early in the book, and rightly in my opinion, he castigates critics of consumerism for their “tiresome and largely ineffectual moralism” (p.14). But he never really finds an alternative vantage point from which to analyze consumerism – all that stuff that the plain folks love to buy. So in the end he wavers between joining the moralists – “Consumer culture is a counterfeit beatific vision, a realm of coruscating misenchantment, a corporate atlas for a parodic sacramental way of being in the world” (p.227) – or throwing up his hands in despair: “It would seem that most of “the 99 percent” want to “take back” the American Dream, not awaken from and definitively repudiate it; no depth or magnitude of failure seems capable of occasioning a fundamental reckoning with the futility of the original covenant” (p.670).

If he’d followed through a little more on his own idea that capitalism is a form of religion, and also with the sociology of Max Weber that he invokes at the start of his book, I think he might have come to a more rounded and less despairing view. Perhaps a view – I hate to say it – closer to the one I outline in Chapter 16 of my own book, where I argue that just as new religious movements are forever arising from the foundations of the old creeds to craft a workable orientation to new times, so there are ways of changing the contemporary religion of capitalist consumerism into new forms of practice and new kinds of engagement with the sacred and the worldly.

5. All the way down

Still, McCarraher does a good line in well-judged despair. Badly-judged despair is ten a penny in cultural criticism and achieves very little, but high-quality despair kept well restrained of the kind McCarraher so often achieves in his book can move mountains. Returning to Vida Dutton Scudder, I liked, for example his appraisal of her Franciscan ability “to endure and draw renewal, even joy, from the experience of defeat” which against “the promethean delusion of total dominion over nature and history…sets the diminutive realism of finitude, weakness, and humility” (p.359).

I think we badly need that ability to draw renewal from defeat right now, and to embrace a ‘diminutive realism’ that refuses the illusory promise that capitalism can become a bigger, better version of itself lurking within any number of techno-progressive and eco-socialist manifestos for the future. We need that ability because of what McCarraher calls the militaristic and disciplined aggression of capitalism (p.484), which is hard to defeat with conviviality and localism. It’s more easily defeated with other forms of disciplined aggression of the kind that Marxist movements historically developed. But such a defeat merely replicates the problem.

However, it does seem to me that all these aggressive, big government statist political doctrines sometimes become the authors of their own destruction, creating local spaces for forms of sacramental renewal that are deeper and more satisfying than the misenchantments of modernity can ever be. The onus is to keep the faith through the seemingly endless round of defeats and try to build out from those spaces when they arise.

In the meantime, it’s good to have books like McCarraher’s to help us on the journey. And it’s good to have a serious academic voice that in contrast to the bromides of a Steven Pinker is alive to the depth and enormity of the task. Asking himself how deep the reconstruction of the project of Enlightenment has to go, McCarraher’s answer is an emphatically italicized “all the way down” (p.675).

I think he’s right.

A note on land value tax

I’ll start this post with a quick shout out to the good folks of Just Stop Oil putting themselves on the line for a habitable future, and seemingly getting noticed less than other recent climate actions of more generalized protest. Indeed, there’s been more coverage in the press of the allegations against my local MP than of Just Stop Oil. If these turn out to be true, it might explain the difficulties of trying to get a meaningful response from his office. What was it XR have been saying about the need to go ‘beyond politics’…?

Anyway, on to the main business of this post: after various digressions, diversions and interruptions, I’m almost at the end of this part of my blog cycle within a blog cycle about property and tenure in a small farm future. My argument, in a nutshell, is that there will be private property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by right-wing and pro-capitalist analysis) and there will be collective and common property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by left-wing and anti-capitalist analysis).

One remaining item left standing from discussions here about these matters is the question of land value tax (LVT). The case for this was famously made by Henry George in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty. The basic idea is that the monopoly rent that accrues to the landowner from the fact of their ownership is taxed away. So if you were playing a game of Monopoly (which in fact was originally invented by a Georgist to illustrate the point), you would have to pay back to the bank all the money accrued from the rental income of your properties at the end of each round. Obviously, this would stop anyone from winning or losing the game through the exercise of monopoly rent, and people would have to find other ways to move around the gameboard of life. Which was precisely George’s point.

As I recently said in my analysis of death taxes, I can’t claim any special expertise as a tax analyst, but – far less than death taxes – I’m not a great fan of LVT, and here I’ll try to explain why.

Of all the redistributive schemes that people have dreamed up for levelling inequalities in capitalist societies, LVT is one of the few that often gets the blessing of mainstream capitalist/neoclassical economists. But it hasn’t been widely implemented by capitalist governments. In that apparent paradox lies a truth that really needs to be better known. While the theory of capitalist economics is all about private enterprise and the rewards to innovation, the practice is largely about monopoly rent, without which the system hits the buffers. As cheerleaders for the non-monopolistic profit-seeking that’s supposed to be how capitalism works in theory, mainstream economists like LVT because it’s consistent with this convenient fiction. As managers of how capitalism actually works in practice, governments are less keen because it puts obstacles in the way of normal capital accumulation via monopoly rent.

But arguably not very big obstacles. Nowadays, and much more than in George’s time, monopoly rent is only partly about land and property and is more about intellectual property rights, financial instruments and government contracts. So as a way of redistributing the spoils of capital, LVT is a partial measure at best. But I think we must go further. As Michael Hudson suggests in this interesting article, George himself had no objections to the general workings of the capitalist political economy. He simply opposed one of its most obviously brutal consequences. Karl Marx wrote that George’s programme was “a last attempt to save the capitalist regime”. He was wrong. There have been many subsequent and partially successful efforts to save it. But he was right that it was such an attempt (George never really addressed what happened to the tax revenues once the Monopoly players had paid them back to the bank). And also right, I think, that ultimately the regime will prove beyond saving.

So while the logic of LVT, rightly in my opinion, mitigates against the sheer ownership of land or property allowing the owner to make money, this in itself does nothing to stop the owner from using land as an input to generate and accumulate as much money as possible. No wonder mainstream economists prefer it to, say, income tax, which they see as ‘distorting’ of the full-bore capitalism they tend to regard as the natural order of things. Their enthusiasm should surely raise suspicions among those who don’t regard it this way. LVT is not in itself an especially good way to decommodify or redistribute economic goods.

In agricultural settings, LVT fits readily within the mould of an agricultural improver ideology – the kind I criticized in A Small Farm Future (pp.48-9). Think, for example, of John Locke’s argument that colonial expropriation of indigenous lands in North America was justifiable because Europeans could make them more productive and remunerative. Contemporary applications of LVT are rarely so unjust, but once a land tax has been set at some average level of return in the wider economy, decommodification towards smaller and more localized farm scale would be quite impossible. Within the present framing of the capitalist political economy, LVT sets the capitalist snare that forces ever greater returns on investment, and happily watches it tighten.

In theory, perhaps this could be avoided through tax exemptions on small properties. But I can’t really see how a low input ecological small farm sector could survive long term in a world where the accumulation of liquid capital is otherwise incentivized, and where large-scale owners would be gunning hard to extract returns in excess of their tax bills. Maybe the point of the policy would be to make it impossible for large-scale owners to turn any profit at all. But in that case, levying a profit-incentivizing tax probably isn’t the best policy intervention.

Maybe there’s a stronger case for LVT in urban settings, where property owners can cash out heavily from high property values resulting from local concentration of economic activity, and not from anything connected with their own enterprise. Cleverer people than me could probably determine the implications for tax bases, planning and zoning laws and the gaming of urban/rural boundaries in that scenario. But again, my feeling is that even in this instance LVT is a rather indirect way to try to achieve something that needs to be addressed more directly.

That was certainly the view taken by the aforementioned Karl Marx, another popular writer-activist of the 19th century. While George was agitating for the state to levy a tax to somewhat improve the lot of the working class, Marx was agitating for a more direct approach. This involved the working class taking over state functions and using the leverage thereby gained to radically transform the lot of everyday people. But Marx was pretty vague about exactly how it would do that once the state was in its hands, and in my opinion the words and deeds of later Marxist thinkers and governments haven’t been overly impressive in tackling that question.

So while an LVT might be a slight improvement on the present situation, I can’t get hugely excited about proposals to end human misery either through an LVT charged by the central state or through overthrowing the centralized state to create … another centralized state. To me, the political futurologies of both George and Marx seem rooted in a past era that barely speaks to our present one, with its endogenous state failure and ecological collapse. Which raises the question of what alternative futurology might just see us through these hard times. Since that’s roughly what I address in the later parts of my book I’ll end at this point, poised to get into those issues (though I have a little ground clearing to do in the next couple of posts first).

A small farm future – the case for death taxes

With Russia invading Ukraine and the IPCC bringing out its direst warning yet about the existential threat of climate change, the past week has showcased what’s always struck me as the two most likely ways for the complacent ease of life in the wealthy west to end – geopolitical and strategic conflict, or climate catastrophe. Meanwhile, here at Small Farm Future HQ we’ve been worrying about … taxation.

You might think this is something of a first world problem in the present situation. But that, as I hope to show, is precisely the point – how can the disastrous consequences of orthodox economic growth and its associated inequalities and power politics be overturned in a world predicated on that very orthodoxy?

My aim here is to focus on one small policy redress to that bigger question, briefly explaining the case for death or inheritance taxes that I raised in my previous post, since it prompted a few requests for further explanation. I’ve long argued that if the world survives great power warmongering and eco-apocalypse then the future it faces is most likely a small farm future. Heavy death taxes would be one way to expedite that future, especially if they were accompanied by a suite of fossil energy taxes, finance taxes, gift taxes and capital controls.

I’ll try to explain the logic, but let me preface these remarks by saying that I’m not an economist or a policy wonk. Here at SFF HQ we’re visionaries, ideas people and gardeners, and we prefer to keep our politics at a level of airy generality appropriate to the uncertainty of the present world historical moment. What we’re certainly not is tax experts. Unfortunately, the income earned from our visioning and gardening doesn’t stretch to paying a professional economist, so I offer these remarks in the spirit of the amateur dilettante. Every concrete policy has its pros, its cons and its unforeseen consequences, so I’m open to counterarguments.

Recall that my death tax suggestion arose in the context of arguments about rural gentrification, and the tendency of richer incomers to help fuel price inflation that excludes locals from property. Gentrification is a particular case of what we might more broadly term ‘enclosure’. Actually, enclosure is a term I dislike, precisely because it’s a bit too broad a concept, with a bit too narrow an etymology. But all I’m referring to is situations where the ordinary majority is excluded from a resource by the social power of a minority. The only enduring way to avoid enclosure is to disperse social power (or, as I put it in a recent post about Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk – to distribute the means to violence widely).

I got the sense from some of the anti-gentrification and anti-‘globalist’ folk who’ve pushed back against my arguments that they’re quite happy with the basic machinery of capitalist society and its vaunting of individual property rights. It’s just that they don’t want rich folks muscling in on their hometowns. I’m afraid that’s not how it works. Capitalist societies accumulate and concentrate immense amounts of money, which in this accumulated and concentrated state is a form of social power and latent violence. And it’s in the nature of social power to go where it wants to go, geographically and in every other sense. Capitalism and enclosure, capitalism and gentrification, go hand in hand.

The essence of the death tax I propose is that when somebody dies, their realizable assets – the money and financial instruments they own, and the land and property they own, can’t be automatically passed on to their offspring or other designated heirs. Instead, it becomes the property of the wider community. The effect of this would be (or at least could be) to prevent monopoly rent, extractive landlordism and, in a nutshell, enclosure. It would prevent the inevitable tendency for some people and some families to accumulate vast fortunes over generations that give them an enormous social power disproportionate to other people and to the ability of the biosphere to furnish their demands, and the consequent tendency for others to get pushed into indigence or destitution. Imagine your life as just one or two circuits of the Monopoly board, before everyone starts afresh again at ‘Go’. How would you play it then? The incentive is to put capital to work to generate personal and community wellbeing, not to generate more capital.

I’ll now try to answer briefly some of the questions that were posed to me about this tax, firstly what becomes of the taxed bounty. The answer is that it would (1) be transferred from the dead to the living via a process of political decision-making controlled by the community of the living rather than in accordance with the individual wishes of the dead, and (2) be used to support whatever services and goods the community of the living decides to prioritize. Critical among these is access to farm and forestry land and its products. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

Next question: ‘How long will such taxes exist (once generational wealth is destroyed, what then)? Ideally, the tax would be levied indefinitely down the generations. It’s not a matter of destroying generational wealth, but of handing it on from the dead to the living and distributing it among the living.

Question No.3: ‘Will migration occur towards tax havens?’ Undoubtedly some people will try to evade or game the system. The questions are how many, and can it be prevented? Capital controls could prevent it. In the present world, there are few barriers to the flow of money but many barriers to the flow of people, despite much de facto human movement and many myths about the extent and ease of migration. In the kind of world I’m describing, there would be strong barriers to the flow of money, and this would disincentivize the flow of people – probably without the need for such draconian policies about the actual flow of people as we have today.

The kind of world I’m describing. So now we need to go a little deeper into what kind of world, or at least what kind of society, might opt for heavy death taxes. Thinking first of all specifically about farm succession, suppose you’ve homesteaded an acre or two and raised your kids on your holding. When you die, your holding returns to the patrimony of the wider community. But if one or more of your children and their partners want to keep homesteading it, maybe they get first refusal on the property (I believe Malcolm Ramsay, who used to comment on this site, laid out this idea here a couple of years back. Marty Strange’s writings on family farming in the USA develop similar themes). But your children will need to pay an entry fee or take out a mortgage on the property. Likewise, if someone wants to take on a larger farm to produce for the market. The mortgage would obviously have to be one they could realistically pay off in a homesteading or farming career, meaning that land and housing prices would have to be lower and food prices higher than at present. Generally, this would be no bad thing.

If your children don’t want to take on your homestead, then fine. Somebody else will, and your children can opt for another career. They won’t be stepping into the workplace with a wad of inherited cash, but neither will they face a mountain of student debt and a lifetime of cash transfer to extractive landlords. My guess is that many of the present generation of young adults might prefer the former option. The larger point is that surplus capital pools in rising land values and monopoly property ownership. Small farm societies need to find ways to stop that happening if they’re going to stay small farm societies.

Which brings us indirectly to the final question posed to me about death taxes: who administers the tax and decides how it’s allocated? The easy answer is same as any other tax – the government. Which probably rules it out as a realistic policy proposal any time soon, certainly in Anglophone countries like the UK and the USA. Would you willingly sign away your accumulated assets to Joe Biden or Donald Trump, to Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson? I wouldn’t.

But consider the oligarchic nature of the status quo. You can imagine the op-eds in the papers if a strong death tax were mooted – “the government is trying to steal your kids’ future!” Whereas for most ordinary people the truth is that the government is already stealing their kids’ future, and a well administered death tax would help make that future brighter. Instead, the government offers weak and increasingly unrealizable promises of economic growth in the vain hope of generating more jobs and higher salaries. It offers new forms of technology and entertainment to dazzles us. It offers bread and circuses. Meanwhile the big money accumulates elsewhere, in increasingly few hands.

So for a heavy death tax regimen to work, people would have to have a high level of trust in the government of a kind that’s signally lacking in our present world. For such trust to exist, government would probably have to be relatively small-scale and localized, and to be manifestly a government ruling for and through the consent of the governed, without falling prey excessively to the special or hidden interests of powerful people or schismatic interests. This would probably involve a citizenship-based, democratic republican political and banking/financial system. In such a scenario, not much money would bleed out to tax havens, mostly because not many people would want to engage in such low behaviour and compromise the polity. And people would trust the wider citizenry to look after their children and their descendants, rather than assuming it was their job alone.

Most countries today are a long way from any such scenario and the levels of trust they demand. There’s a kind of Catch 22 situation where it seems necessary to implement heavy death taxes and associated measures to develop strong and sustainable small farm republics, yet these measures are politically unlikely with the absence of precisely such republics. Probably the most likely way small farm republics will emerge in the future is in the same way civic republican government emerged in the past, through the chaotic fracturing of a larger political field.

If that happens, the case for death taxes may lose its force because there may not be much wealth available for accumulation. The situation then could be more akin to communities of ‘subsistence’ cultivators who organize local land access along kinship/clanship lines with no need for the clunky quantifications of money and taxes. But there are latent possibilities for developing landed social control in all human societies, so even in this situation people may see a case for de facto death taxes of some kind. All the more so if people are self-consciously constructing new agrarian republics out of the literal or figurative ashes of the contemporary capitalist world system, carrying with them a sense of political identity forged within that system, but also a knowledge of how the system ultimately failed.

No doubt there are many possible counter-arguments to the kind of death tax I’ve outlined above, and an awful lot of finer-grained questions of detail that I’ll be able to answer just as soon as I have an economist working for me. To close, I’ll just briefly pre-empt two potential objections that some may wish to make. The first is that my death tax proposals are a form of socialism – to which the answer is, no they’re not. The second is that they’re vulnerable to failures of politics – to which the answer is yes they are, just like every other tax and every other concrete policy suggestion.

Rural gentrification Part III: of locals and migrants

My last post concerning rural gentrification led into the wider issue of future migration patterns, which I’ll address briefly here. I haven’t got much to say about it that I haven’t already said either here or in my book but maybe a little repetition is warranted.

As I see it, human movement within and between countries is likely to be a massive reality in the years to come, and the ‘rural gentrification’ trend among contemporary neo-agrarian homesteaders discussed in my previous post is merely a straw in the wind presaging it. Globally, estimates from international agencies suggest that anywhere between 200 million and a billion people could be displaced from their homes and potentially on the move over the next few decades as a result of climate change. Independently and in concert, changing economic realities seem likely to be another large impetus.

At a more granular level, some researchers question such headlines on the grounds that even when prompted by ‘natural’ phenomena like droughts or floods, migration always involves multifaceted human responses that modulate expected scales and directions of movement. Such caveats are always worth bearing in mind, especially when the idea of impending large-scale migration is so routinely used to stoke fear and generate all kinds of political mischief. All the same, in view of the climate, energy, water, soil, political and economic realities before us, I find it hard to imagine that the human world to come won’t involve migrations of a different order.

Initially, much of that migration seems likely to be relatively localized and inter-urban or rural-to-urban. Long-term, it’ll be urban-to-rural. The brute reality is that current global settlement patterns are based on flows of energy, water and money that aren’t sustainable in the long run, so those patterns will change. Given that reality, change wrought by large-scale human migration within but also between countries looks like the least disastrous way that it will happen.

I’ve sometimes been criticized for being ‘pro-migration’ – not least in the Twitter thread that generated this mini-series of blog posts. But in the face of what’s to come, saying that one is pro or anti migration is beside the point. You might as well say you’re for or against the weather. Like it or not, it’s going to happen. The real question is how you respond to it.

To state my position: I’m not especially ‘pro’ migration, but nor am I anti-migrant. In an ideal world, I’d like it if people didn’t routinely have to travel in large numbers far from their homeplace to make a livelihood. So, rather than being pro-migration, I’d describe myself as pro the right not to have to migrate. The challenge is how to make it feasible for the majority of the world’s people to exercise that right. In one of the essays that generated this blog mini-series, Anarcho-Contrarian suggested various income and property tax measures to help keep people rooted to their homeplace. I largely agree with them, but I don’t think they’d be enough to do the job in the present global moment. I’d suggest the following three policies in the wealthier countries, starting tomorrow, might to the job:

  1. A ratchet tax on fossil fuels, perhaps something of the order of an extra 5p per litre of petrol retail per week (that’s about $0.26 per gallon of gas in US units, if I’ve got my sums right) levied across the whole supply chain
  2. A 100% death or inheritance tax above a small cutoff point, say £5,000 (US$6,750) cash or one acre of farmland (farmland is currently selling at about £9,000 per acre in England at present – though another view would be that farmland isn’t currently selling in England)
  3. According rights to national and local governments worldwide to limit the inflow and outflow of capital within their jurisdictions

No doubt there’s scope for a few tweaks to these policies, but without something like them the combination of climate breakdown and the concentration of wealth will be such that a lot of people will be on the move in the coming years in search of a decent livelihood, or even of bare survival. My sense is that a lot of localist objections to in-migrants of various kinds are basically objections to the social and economic hollowing out and decline of place which results more from the flow of money than the flow of people. Certainly, there’s no prospect of reducing the latter without radical change to the former.

But sadly, I doubt such policies will be enacted anywhere. Much more likely is the proliferation of border walls and border militarization of one sort or another (US-Mexico, India-Bangladesh, N/W-S/E Mediterranean etc) the result of which will be a lot of death and suffering on the outer side of the borders and increasing civic degradation on the inner side to the point where in some places it may become debatable whether life is really better on the inside than the outside. And at the end of it all, in history measured by decades or centuries, I doubt it’ll do much to stop the redistribution of the global population that would have happened if the borders had just stayed open. Better to address climate change and capital migration now?

Those of us who live in a rural part of a high-latitude country where the future prospects for food production remain reasonably good can expect to see a lot of in-migration in the coming decades. I don’t doubt this will cause frictions, but I’m not especially sympathetic towards attempts by the existing residents of those places to keep the migrants out. Such residents have been the beneficiaries, albeit not usually the main beneficiaries, of the capital inflows and greenhouse gas emissions fuelling the migration. Those in glasshouses should not throw stones.

The same cliché probably serves yet more so for ex-urban sophisticates with a tendency to disparage the countryside and country folk, if and when they join the exodus from the cities. Get your acre and learn to homestead. Who’s the bumpkin now?

But I don’t want to get too oppositional about this. Anarcho-Contrarian wrote of the “legitimate grudge” that rural people may hold against urban-modernist narratives that tell them “you are not good enough; your place is not good enough” and whose “children and grandchildren were functionally confiscated from them”. I agree, but their children and grandchildren will soon be coming home, and they will not be the same kind of people they would have been had they never left.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided the returnees don’t come back with a sense of innate superiority – which is less likely if they’re returning in the face of urban crises and meltdowns. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with spending some time away from home and learning new things on other stages. Perhaps other societies outside the modern western one have done a better job of melding the so-called ‘great tradition’ of urban literate ‘high’ religious culture with the ‘little tradition’ of rural oral culture. In The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks recounts his alienating high school education that forced ‘great tradition’ culture down the throats of kids grounded in the practicalities of local farming life, his later enthrallment with the world of books that took him to Oxford University as a mature student, and then his return to sheep farming. There’s scope for more people’s lives to take such a course, ideally without each chapter involving such grating disjunctions.

Likewise, the pressure of in-migration to productive rural places may be positive inasmuch as it forces new patterns of more sustainable land use and landownership (ie. small-scale, self-reliant homesteading or smallholding), an argument I propounded in Part IV of A Small Farm Future. There are those who want to frame such changes in terms of class struggle, which may turn out to be the case in some places. But it seems to me unlikely that these class struggles will bear much relation to anything presaged in Marxist thinking about the class conflicts that fuelled the emergence of modern capitalism. A different and more populist lens is required. I aim to write more about it in due course.

So I guess I’m not in step with the two main stories about migration emerging respectively from the political left and right. Or maybe I’m partly in step with elements of each. I dislike the racialized stoking of fears about ‘floods’ of migrants heading from Global South to Global North or from the city to the country purveyed on the right. But migration does seem to me to raise critical social issues. It’s not just a moral panic stoked by the right, and extreme geographic or labour mobility are not intrinsically good things. ‘Floods’ of migrants has the wrong connotations, but the weather and the tides are definitely changing and unless radical policy measures are taken we’re going to see large changes in human population distributions. We’ll probably see them even if they are taken. Managing this well, avoiding individual or out-group blaming and trying to use the changes to generate positive political outcomes are important challenges. Difficult ones too.

Of grain and gulags: a note on work, labour and self-ownership

I’ll begin with a brief account of how our modern global grain trading system was invented in Chicago in the 19th century, which is maybe a bit of a jolt from the present focus of this blog cycle on the forms of property but hopefully my purposes will become clear.

Prior to the railroad/grain elevator/futures market nexus that began to emerge in the 1850s, prairie grain farmers sold their product in sacks that retained their identity with the source farm through to the point of sale. The innovation of the railroad/elevator system was to create standardized grades of grain that enabled the harvest from individual farms to be amassed together in vast quantities as a fungible commodity like money. The innovation of the futures market was to remove uncertainty about future price fluctuations, essentially by enabling speculators to assume the burden of the risk by betting on movements in grain prices. Before long, the value of the futures being traded greatly exceeded the value of the physical grain in existence.

These innovations called forth vastly more economic activity than previously possible, created a torrent of cheap grain that flooded global markets and pushed farmers in other places out of grain production (and often out of farming altogether), and stimulated the growth of prairie grain farming, while removing from farmers themselves substantial economic autonomy, fostering perhaps a self-interest on their part in the grading of their grain at the margin, but not a more holistic interest in the story of their grain from field to fork. They also pretty much forged the global economy as we know it today (I’ll ignore the meat/livestock side of the story for brevity, but the globalization of meat production was another prong to the same history)1.

How do you feel about this story? I ask because I think it often prompts strong emotions, which divide between two mutually uncomprehending camps (OK, so real life is always a bit more complicated than the dualities we impose on it, but I think this one does neatly organize quite a bit of thinking).

One camp responds positively to the story. Perhaps some of its adherents will concede that not everything that happened was rosy, but consider these downsides remediable without fundamental change to the economic model first forged in Chicago. Some key words or phrases for this camp are efficiency, development, modernization, globalization, progress, technology, labour-saving and back-breaking labour.

The other camp responds negatively to the story, and doubts that the problems created by the global commodity grain economy can be remedied without fundamental change. Some key words or phrases for this camp are autonomy, freedom, craftsmanship, honest work, self-reliance and community. This is the camp I’m in, and I’ve spent way too long in fruitless debate with people who think these qualities are quaint, outmoded, dangerous or outright laughable.

I should note that if we dial back a few more years through prairie history, we’d find in many places mounted, bison-hunting American cultures who were violently usurped by the settler farmers. A few more years still, beyond any European colonial influence, and we’d find forager-horticulturists without horses or bison-based economies. Which is to say that it’s possible to reject a particular historical turn of events without invoking some prior state of grace where all was sweet and stable.

Something to notice about these two camps: in the first, work is negative – ‘saving labour’ is good, ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Whereas in the second, it’s positive – work is craftmanship and self-realization, a part of how you make your mark upon the world and of how you and others judge you.

Another thing to notice: the first camp orients to pooling, generalizing and abstracting things – grain, money and labour can be hugely amassed and take on protean forms that escape particular, local control. The second camp orients to the specifics of food as a source of life and pleasure, and money and work as relatively scarce means of self-realization. It opposes the mass multiplication of these qualities.

Overlaying the familiar modern left-right political duality on the two camps, the first can encompass the full gamut of modernist politics from far left to far right and most points in between, including the neoliberal status quo. The second no doubt sounds ‘conservative’ to some contemporary ears, with its emphasis on self-reliance, personal autonomy and particularistic community, but historically it’s also crossed the left-right divide.

Perhaps instead of trying to shoehorn the two camps into the left-right duality, it’s more illuminating to notice where their tensions arise in respect of it. I find the sociologist Richard Sennett’s distinction between unity and inclusion useful here:

“The Left divided between those who sought to establish solidarity top-down and those who sought to create it bottom-up; the centralized German labour union represented the one approach, the local American workshop the other …. There were … two versions of solidarity in these discussions, the one emphasizing unity, the other inclusion”2

So, on the left, our first camp aggregates labour into classes, and emphasizes the importance of class unity in achieving political goals. Which is fine from my point of view, in some instances. Sometimes, people do amass themselves self-consciously into a class to achieve political goals, and need to act as a unified bloc to achieve them.

But for me this way of thinking gets problematic when it offers itself as a general theory of society and social progress. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made the claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” which, I would humbly suggest, is something of an overstatement. Marx and Engels’ politics was grounded in the notion that the landless industrial working classes emerging particularly in the richest countries of their day embodied the most perfectly realized and universalized class consciousness whose victory would bring this history of class struggle to an end. Whereas the executive of the modern state, according to the Communist Manifesto, was “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, people massed as landless labour and with a unified political consciousness arising from this would overturn the bourgeois state and repurpose it for the collective benefit of all, before the state ultimately ‘withered away’ in Engels’ famous phrase.

I find these views contradictory and unconvincing, indeed ironically somewhat ‘bourgeois’ in their obsession with aggregation and progress. But I’m not going to dwell on critiquing them here. Generally, I think this mass modernist mindset across its entire political spectrum has difficulties with or is uninterested in generating a politics of the person as a complex, intentional being set within a wider community and culture. On the far right, personhood is subordinated to the interests of the state or ethno-state. On the far left, it’s subordinated to class identity and the ever-receding promise that once all the bourgeois and counterrevolutionary elements have been destroyed, life will be sweet. Among the capitalist (neo)liberals, it’s subordinated to a similar millenarianism in the belief that if the economy is allowed to aggregate capital and labour as its internal logic dictates, then ultimately everyone will find redemption in the marketplace.

I don’t think the modern history of totalitarianism, gulags, holocausts, state-induced famines, extreme labour exploitation and extractivism bears out the first camp’s dreams. People who still hold to these dreams usually respond to past failures either by denying that they happened, or by saying that the people who suffered in them were beyond the pale and had it coming (that emphasis on unity against the enemy again), or by claiming that these events were distorted misapplications of the true ideology whose redemptive purity still floats above the grubby realities affected in its name.

But let me turn to the second camp. I guess at root I hold to the slightly-but-not-very modernist view that it’s good to honour the complexities and intentions of individual human persons, which are always set within a wider community and culture. This makes property a point of tension in the second camp in a way that it isn’t for the first camp, where individuals have no inherent claim against the aggregative will of states, classes or capital. Those of us in the second camp, however, believe that self-possession, owning one’s self, being an autonomous agent, is critical to human life.

Self-possession implies property in some sense – being able to claim a personal right to generate wellbeing from the world we share with other people and organisms. At one point in their influential new book, David Graeber and David Wengrow endorse societies that “guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life”3 and it seems implicit in their view that this also means people in these societies guaranteed each other the means to an autonomous life, however varied notions of what constitutes a person and what constitutes autonomy might be in different times and places.

But how best to make this guarantee in the face of other people’s claims and the more collective aspects of social life is by no means straightforward, especially for those of us with some kind of leftist commitment to equity of one sort or another. So, for us, how to generate or mediate the social is problematic – which I guess is why I’ve spent a lot of time in my writing worrying about how to relate personhood and self-possession to collectivities like families, commons, communities, publics, classes, and states, without coming up with any ultimately satisfactory answers. In my view that’s probably okay, because I don’t think there are any ultimately satisfactory answers. There are permanent tensions involved in human politics, and these are some of them.

But at least by attending to them one is focusing on the right issues. To use Sennett’s terminology, I think creating inclusivity is a much harder problem than creating unity. But it’s a problem worth tackling, because as I see it insisting on a politics of unity long-term beyond transient political alliances creates more repressive, violent and anti-human societies than ones that focus on inclusivity. There are some radically different ways of trying to create inclusivity, and their fortunes depend on the wider social forces in play at a given place and time. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

A final couple of points. I’ve been criticized over the years by a number of Marxists for my anti-modernist and localist politics, for example by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron who consider my politics “ripe for far-right appropriation” and my vision of agrarian futures as one of merely “ek[ing] out a living” rather than “truly living”. Here is where the camps of aggregative labour versus honest work, of unity versus inclusivity, talk past one another. I stand firm in my vision of a small farm future against Heffron and Heron’s modernizing, aggregating, and frankly very bourgeois view that their version of class politics shines a modernizing light of improvement onto rural lives they arrogantly consider blighted by the particularities of local livelihood and community. One reason I’m a big believer in small farmers obtaining secure private property rights whenever they can is that it helps them avoid getting ‘improved’ out of existence through grandiose and usually ill-fated modernization schemes of the kind Heffron and Heron seem to favour.

As to ‘far-right appropriation’, I simply reject the notion there are prior political unities that anyone can draw lines around and defend against anyone else’s appropriations. The accusation stems from that top-down, imposed conception of supposed ‘unity’. For sure, one can make an issue of localism, culture, particularity and self-possession in ways that could lead to fascist misery. One can also make an issue of class unity and the supposed idiocy of rural life in ways that lead to dead peasants, gulags and communist misery. It’s easy to get into these thin-end-of-the-wedge type arguments, but now more than ever I don’t think they’re illuminating. The political field is changing, and old political demarcation lines offer increasingly poor guidance to the future. But older forms of politics are still relevant, as I will try to show in upcoming posts.

Notes

  1. I’m drawing here on William Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis.
  2. Richard Sennett. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. p.39.
  3. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything. p.48.

Nobody is real: A Small Farm Future meets A People’s Green New Deal

I’ve been reading Max Ajl’s book A People’s Green New Deal. In this and possibly the next post I’ll be comparing a few of its themes with those from my own book A Small Farm Future, which I hope will lay some groundwork for discussions of small farm societies and small farm politics in the rest of this blog cycle1.

I’d warmly commend Max’s book as a thought-provoking, informed and informative contribution. Nevertheless, I think there’s something of a tension in it between a (neo-agrarian) populist perspective and an eco-socialist or Marxist one. I have a few sympathies with the latter, but ultimately I find the former a more plausible and appealing political route into the future. I’m not going to try to review or summarize Max’s book here, so much as try to explore some populist themes with his book (and mine) at my side.

Many political doctrines invest themselves in the notion that there are some kinds of people who are more ‘real’ than others, that they are the privileged possessors of a more authentic political agency, and it’s this dangerous idea (dangerous particularly when it’s associated with arguments about assuming control of the centralized state) that I’ll particularly be exploring in this (I’m afraid rather lengthy) post. Towards the end of it, I’ll explain what I mean by neo-agrarian populism a little more, and why I find it more appealing. But first I’m going to consider some other political traditions and their investments in notions of authentic peoplehood.

Before I do that, I should note that I’m not the only person to pick up on the blending of socialist/Marxist and populist themes in Max’s book. In an interview in ROAR Magazine, Kai Heron asked Max about this very point. Heron, some readers of this blog might recall, co-authored a review of my own book that homed in on its populist elements for a ferocious critique.

In my opinion, the review was none too fastidious about accurate characterization of my arguments, ill-informed about basic concepts such as ‘feudalism’ and seemingly actuated by a doctrinaire old-school Marxism with which I’m out of sympathy. My brief interactions with Heron didn’t suggest much possibility of constructive engagement, so I decided not to debate with him – a decision that remains firm.

But this hasn’t left me entirely satisfied, and I found it hard to read Max’s book without puzzling over the various alignments and non-alignments between me, Max and Heron concerning populism and socialism – for example in the call for a mix of family and cooperative farming that Max’s book shares with mine. So in posts to come I’ll address this via issues I raised in my book like gender, kinship and property rights that Max also touches on in his own volume and that particularly prompted Heron and his co-author Alex Heffron’s fusillades towards me. Whether I’ll respond directly to Heffron and Heron’s criticisms now I’ve reached the relevant part of this blog cycle, I’m not yet sure. Let me know if you think that might be interesting.

For now, though, I’ll stick to my theme of ‘real personhood’ and broach it in relation to a wholly different front in the political war of words.

Real People #1 and #2: the cultural nationalist and the countryperson

Over the years, my writings have gained some engagement from a small subset of people who, like me, are supportive of small farm localism and opposed to capitalist globalization, but from a vantage point quite far to the political right. Usually, our engagements haven’t ended well, and usually the point of no return has been around the issue of migration, on which the right stakes one of its major claims about authentic personhood.

The argument typically goes that large-scale migration is a bad thing, especially large-scale migration prompted by climate change and other crises at a time when we need to ‘look after our own’. How we define ‘our own’ – those real people of whom here I speak – is more often assumed than demonstrated, but usually relies on some form of cultural nationalism grounded in an existing structure of the nation-state supposedly threatened by the incomers.

I’m not going to expend many words on this. National culture is scarcely the fixed thing of the right-wing imagination (see A Small Farm Future, Chapter 18). The threat to culture is an artefact of a view of culture inclined to feel threatened. But even if one accepts these cultural nationalist premises (which I don’t), I doubt juridical and military attempts to prevent large-scale migration will ultimately be successful, and they will redound negatively upon political and cultural life in the places doing the defending. Moreover, the defending is probably unnecessary on livelihood grounds (A Small Farm Future, Chapter 11). And it’s unethical. You have to be a pretty hardened cultural nationalist to turn your back on destitute and endangered refugees from other countries (looking at you, Nigel Farage), especially when the actions and inactions of your own country have played a large part in their destitution.

There is, however, a narrative of migration as cultural threat that’s popular on the left as well as the right – gentrification. In rural and agrarian contexts this can be ecologically flavoured too – how can we possibly retain ‘our own’ sustainable rural culture fitted to local circumstances if it’s perturbed by an endless stream of incomers? Gentrification narratives are heavy with ideologies of ‘real’ personhood: the ‘real people’ of this neighbourhood, town, region etc. as determined by culture, class and/or natality.

I hope to write more elsewhere about rural gentrification. For now, I’ll just say that I’m inclined to see gentrification of all kinds more as an issue of affordable local land or housing – an issue of economic justice – rather than a cultural one. Culturally, in much of the Global North – and indeed in much of the Global South too – the notion that there’s a sui generis sustainable rural culture threatened by the intrusion of incomers from elsewhere usually carries little more weight than parallel right-wing fears of a threatened national culture.

A ruralisation of the global population in the coming years seems to me inevitable, but while I don’t see large-scale migration as intrinsically bad, I don’t think it’s intrinsically good either. As Jahi Chappell said on this site a while back, it would be good if people could exercise a right not to have to migrate. This would involve breaking out of the centre-periphery structuring of the global economy with its highly uneven allocation of wealth and wellbeing that inevitably draws migrants from periphery to centre. I discuss this in Part I of my book, and Max also discusses it extensively in his one, making the case for climate change reparation payments from the Global North to the Global South. I find his case for it within present global economic structures indisputable.

Real people #3: indigeneity

Another much favoured category of real personhood nowadays is indigenous peoples, whose cosmologies and ecological practices are often seen as inspirational for renewable, post-capitalist human ecologies. I too find inspiration in this and briefly discussed it in my book, while Max plumbs the issue more thoroughly in his, most particularly in relation to people in settler-colonial societies who trace their ancestry to a pre-colonial population.

There is, however, a danger of invoking indigeneity generically as something that particular individuals have because of their ancestry and that elevates them above the non-indigenous. Indigeneity as authenticity. This is a simple inversion of modernist-colonial ideology, which typically emphasizes the inferiority of the indigenous culture compared to the modernity of the incomers, while indigenism recuperates the superiority of the indigenous compared to the inauthenticity of the modern.

I think Max courts this danger in his book, and his defences against it aren’t wholly convincing. But at its best his discussion of indigeneity emphasizes the importance of self-determination for indigenous people as modern people with a right “to decide how and with whom they want to live” (p.149) in contexts where that right was historically extinguished by centralized settler-colonial states operating on quite different political principles to their own. Such claims are not made upon the modern state but independently of it, albeit with a necessary recognition of its ongoing reach.

I’m in complete agreement with this. In my own book, I articulate it more generally as a future reality that many people will face worldwide, not just those who are heirs to an obvious indigenous ancestry outside the cultural reckoning of the contemporary state. It’s what I call ‘the supersedure state’, and I’ll come to it later in the blog cycle.

But one of the problems with the idea of a people’s self-determination is that it leaves unsaid exactly how you constitute ‘a people’ and who is the ‘self’ that’s getting determined. There are power relationships, alternative narratives and micropolitics within every would-be ‘people’, perhaps the more so when it inevitably has to organize itself with respect to the power of the modern nation-state. Accepting ‘a’ people’s right to self-determination is a basic prerequisite for transcending the existing power structure, but it doesn’t get you very far in addressing the political questions and conflicts faced by this new political ‘self’. Particularly if it involves resource claims against existing states based on personal identity as ‘indigenous’ or some such claim to meta-state authenticity, there’s much potential for manufacturing conflicted and novel performative identities around such notions of ‘indigeneity’ – as in analyses of ‘the hyperreal Indian’ or ‘the obligatory Indian’2.

As I see it, those novel performative identities are as ‘real’ as any other political identity, but it would be easier to clarify the messy political choices people face in modern societies if analysts stopped implicitly seeing certain people or political identities as more real than others. I encountered this in engaging with Peter Gelderloos’s view that the Standing Rock pipeline protests in the USA were somehow more authentic than the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests originating in the UK along the lines that Standing Rock was a real defence of homeland, conducted by real people authentically grounded in a proper political identity. Max pretty much recapitulates this problematic dualism in his book. I think more plural and conflicted political imaginaries are necessary.

Max’s call for “tremendous investments in high-speed rail” (p.111) also interests me in relation to these questions of indigeneity and authenticity, at both global and local levels. Thinking globally, high-speed rail systems represent an enormous accumulation and concentration of capital that I think are colonial in origin and unachievable by any ‘indigenous’ culture oriented to living renewably from local resources. They also represent an enormous privileging of some people’s and some places’ connectivity at the expense of others.

Thinking more locally, here in England the costs of the government’s flagship new high speed rail project (HS2) have inflated threefold from initial estimates to around £100 billion, while the despoilation of the countryside caused by its construction along with associated quarrying and water drawdown has prompted extensive protests involving wealthy homeowners living alongside HS2’s various sites of extraction and construction, other local residents horrified at the destruction of much loved woodlands and natural habitats (defending their homelands?), eco-activists, left-wing critics of government spending priorities and small state libertarians, while XR has helped create a new ecology of protest linking these various causes. I don’t think older languages of indigeneity or of economic class interest are really alive to these shifting contemporary terrains.

Whether such populist allegiances will prove politically transformative remains to be seen, though the bar for success has been set pretty low by more traditional forms of leftwing and labour organization in contemporary England. I argue in A Small Farm Future that the real test will come with the declining ability of centralized nation-states to provide prosperity, wellbeing and geopolitical structure – in which circumstance, I think any local successes will mostly be plural and populist, rather than indigenous and/or traditionally class-structured.

A whole other side of ‘indigeneity’ is indigenous practices of livelihood-making. In this view, prior to the nexus of colonization, globalization, fossil energy use and capitalist development, indigenous people figured out renewable ways of living from local land and resources that can inspire a more sustainable future. It’s a view I share, particularly if we take a capacious view of ‘indigeneity’. People developed low-impact and low-energy forms of livelihood making everywhere in the world, and the local premodern ‘indigenous’ form should probably be the first place we look for inspiration today – perhaps, as I wrote in A Small Farm Future (p.152), in some places with an overdue dose of postcolonial humility concerning the livelihood skills of indigenous peoples through deep human time.

But some nuance is needed. Biogeographies and population distributions have changed. New crops and knowledges have emerged, while old ones have decayed (I find it hard to imagine, for example, plausible future livelihood-making in the UK without a greater dependence on the potato than in premodern times, or in the Pacific Northwest of North America without a lesser dependence on the salmon). Some people identifying as indigenous have learned ancestral skills of local livelihood-making. So have some people not identifying as indigenous, while there are indigenous people living urban lives who lack knowledge of those lifeways.

The point I’m driving towards is that indigeneity as political identity-making and indigeneity as economic livelihood-making both involve complex, potentially conflicted and changing practices. Fundamentally, indigeneity is more something that people do or create, make or remake, drawing on various pre-existing resources, than something that certain people simply and authentically ‘are’ or ‘have’. So I find it curious that Heron criticizes my book for having “no discussion whatsoever about race and indigeneity”, partly because it’s not actually true, partly because I don’t think one should invoke a generic ‘indigeneity’ without seriously questioning the term, and partly because my book is concerned with little other than indigeneity in the sense of how people worldwide – relatively few of whom, after the tremendous dislocations of modernity, have a good claim to being a ‘real’ local indigene – can learn to create their own sense of indigeneity in a future that Max aptly diagnoses will be one of “world-wandering refugees” (p.41). In such a world, claims to being a real person, an authentic indigene, will usually be at best irrelevant and at worst a status strategy pregnant with the potential for violence.

I don’t think the position I’m charting here is incompatible with the idea that people who identify as indigenous within contemporary settler-colonial states have a legitimate claim to self-determination which shines a spotlight on historical injustice. Nor, however, does this seem to me the most decisive challenge of present times. That challenge lies rather in how those of us who are not ‘real’ indigenous people might aspire to the label.

Real people #4: the proletariat

Now onto a final kind of political authenticity – the vaunting by parts of the left of the landless, waged, working-class (the ‘proletariat’) as the real agents of history. A key ancestor here is Karl Marx, with his insistence that the most exploited people in the most ‘advanced’ capitalist societies of his day, the industrial proletariat, would redeem capitalist society through socialism. This was a much more plausible claim to make when Marx was formulating it around 150 years ago than it is today, but towards the end of his life even Marx began recanting this position and entertaining the possibility of a peasant road to socialism – a smart move, since it turned out that all the major successful communist revolutions of the 20th century were predominantly peasant ones3.

Unfortunately this insight of the older Marx barely percolated into the later Marxist tradition, not least because of the efforts of Vladimir Lenin, father of Soviet communism. In The Development of Capitalism in Russia and other writings, Lenin made three interlinked arguments:

  1. The Russian peasantry was dividing essentially into an upper stratum of would-be capitalist farmers and a lower stratum of increasingly landless rural labourers, thus replicating Marx’s favoured scheme of a dualistic clash between capitalist and proletarian.
  2. The peasantry was incapable in itself of creating a transformational communist society. For this, it required the assistance of the proletariat and revolutionary cadres to take charge of the state.
  3. Forms of left-wing politics that deviated from these and other orthodoxies of Marxism-Leninism were ultimately incorrect, insufficiently transformative, complicit with capitalism and in need of cancellation.

These arguments have had a long afterlife as central tenets of orthodox Marxism, but none of them are terribly convincing. I see the second and third as basically hubristic self-promotion of Leninist doctrine. As to the first, it’s true that in circumstances of novel capitalist penetration and development (so, unlike the circumstances facing people across much of the world in the years to come…) there can be processes of economic differentiation among peasantries. But not just among peasantries. There’s no particular historical justification for Marx’s and then Lenin’s demotion of peasantries as transformational political actors, nor for the vaunting of wage labourers in this ‘real person’ role, supposedly immune to differentiations of their own. Göran Djurfeldt wrote “The postulation of law-like tendencies in the capitalist mode of production in Lenin tends to regress to a Hegelian postulation of essences”, concluding “those who take over the predictions of the classics and attempt to apply them wholesale to contemporary agriculture are engaged in a futile and dogmatic exercise”4.

That conclusion seems all the sounder in 2021 than when it was written forty years ago. Heffron and Heron invoke Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia (published 1899) as if to disprove my argument that small-scale owner-occupier farming might form part of a worthwhile and stable future response to present problems, but to my mind their ahistorical postulation of essentialist categories – ‘‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ peasantries, progressive collective subjects and so forth – speaks more to their own rather fossilized search for authenticity than to any particular defect of my analysis. Perhaps I only have myself to blame for trafficking at all with the language of peasantries and 19th century debates about peasant transitions. Increasingly I’m inclined to think these have virtually no relevance to the agrarian transitions of the future. Again though, if anyone would like me to elaborate on that, do please let me know.

Populism

Notwithstanding Lenin, it’s undoubtedly true that humans of all kinds are extraordinarily gifted at splitting themselves up into disparate and antagonistic groups (Marxists are particularly adept at this – the differentiation of the peasantry is as nothing compared to the differentiation of the Marxists). If we let go of the notion that there’s some category of ‘real’ people with the singular capacity to stitch together a unified and authentic social order – and I think we do need to let go of it – then we’re left with the conclusion that any concept of society or of ‘a people’ is mere contrivance, an artificial construct.

In A Small Farm Future, I embrace that conclusion. Indeed, I argue that probably the only way we’re going to get through the years to come without horrific bloodshed is to effect forms of neo-agrarian populism that elaborate it. ‘Neo-agrarian’ because only a turn to low ecological impact, low-energy, job-rich agriculture serving primarily local needs can adequately address current biophysical and socioeconomic crises – the ‘neo’ referencing the point that, while in many ways these agrarianisms will be inspired by historic or ‘indigenous’ low-impact and low-energy agricultures, they will also have new elements fitted to new times and are not about restoring some notion of a better past.

‘Populism’ because it will be necessary to constitute peoples or ‘a people’ who are in some way unified around neo-agrarian practices out of the disparate constituencies and identities in the contemporary world. There are bad populisms that try to make only some kinds of people representative of the body politic, as in a good deal of the Brexit-mongering we’ve endured here in the UK in recent years. More sophisticated populisms recognize the contrivance involved in constituting ‘a people’, where nobody is any more ‘real’ than anyone else.

The downside of neo-agrarian populism is that hardly anyone in the world today is practicing neo-agrarianism, which makes implementing it an enormously tall order – an object without a subject. The upside is that this absence neatly sidesteps all the debates about who the ‘real’ people are, the authentic agents of history. Nobody is real. Or everybody is. What’s real is how we have to make a material livelihood, and in this people are a lot more constrained by the ecological feedback of the world around them than most currents of modern political thought seem to believe.

There are many openings toward neo-agrarian populism of this kind in Max’s book, but also various points where I think he shies away from the difficulties and compromises involved in trying to constitute ‘a people’ in favour of a more mechanical politics that too easily delivers it via ‘real person’ agency.

These tensions lurk, for example, within Max’s statement that “Marxism where it has been most successful has been able to adopt and rework populist and nationalist vernaculars and demands in the service of revolutionary transformations in the world”, referencing “Lenin’s adoption of some of the rhetoric of Russian populism”. This is all true enough. But Lenin was engaged in a fierce and high-stakes argument against the Russian agrarian populists, just as the agents of liberal capitalism in the US and elsewhere were battling their own local agrarian populisms around the same time.

Lenin and these other avatars of a supposedly progressive industrial modernity won their political battles, as protagonists for the centralization of political power and authority often do, but I don’t think they won the intellectual arguments, and their narrow visions of industrialized progress delivered by strictly delimited classes of ‘real’ people in alliance with centralized and more or less authoritarian states haunt the problems of the 21st century. I think part of the answer to those problems is going to have to be neo-agrarian populisms less dazzled by the idea of material progress, and less fussy about precisely which people it considers to be the true agents of history.

So I agree with Max where he endorses “autonomous thinking about the common life, or communism” (p.54) while believing that such thinking will have to claim a more capacious notion of the common life or communism back from a good deal of Marxist (and, more so, Leninist) thought. Elsewhere Max writes that one has to ask whom one’s friends are and whom are one’s enemies (p.68). I’d hope that neo-agrarian populisms can be friends with various currents of left-wing, socialist and Marx-inspired thinking. Certainly, there’s much I feel friendly towards in Max’s book, and I find his overall framing of the issues facing humanity very largely plausible. On the other hand, I feel little friendship towards the ongoing disdain of certain other leftists for what they see as the miseries of small-scale agrarianism and their taste for authoritarian big-state collectivism. Quite how such alignments and non-alignments play out in future politics is going to have a huge impact on future generations’ experience of the world.

Notes

  1. Max Ajl. 2021. A People’s Green New Deal. Pluto Press; Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future. Chelsea Green.
  2. Alcida Ramos. 1994. The hyperreal Indian. Critique of Anthropology. 14, 2; David Stoll. 2011. The obligatory Indian. Dialectical Anthropology35: 135-46.
  3. See: Eric Wolf. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Harper & Row;Teodor Shanin. 1983. Late Marx and the Russian Road. Monthly Review Press; Kristin Ross. 2015. Communal Luxury. Verso.
  4. Göran Djurfeldt. 1982. “Classical discussions of capital and peasantry: a critique,” in John Harriss (ed). Rural Development. Hutchinson.

“How to kill a billion people” – a note on famine in small farm societies

The quotation in my title comes from a brief online review of my book from someone who clearly wasn’t a fan. I suspect the person concerned didn’t actually read the book, but no matter. For my part, it seems to me quite likely that a billion people or more will die prematurely if we don’t soon implement something like the small farm future that I describe in the book. It’s worth sitting awhile with that contradiction. What an extraordinary moment in history when different people think that either persisting with or not persisting with the regnant political economy might slay us in such unimaginable numbers.

Maybe I’ll come back to that in another post. Here, I just want to make a few points about famine in societies of the past, present and future, building on the analysis from Chapter 10 of my book – famine being, along with its companions war, disease and poverty, among the likeliest contenders for causing the untimely deaths of billions.

So, one of the objections to the idea of an agrarian localist or a small farm future indeed is the notion that they’re prey to hunger or famine in ways that modern societies are not. The term ‘subsistence farmer’ hardly helps, routinely associated as it is with other words like ‘scratching’ or ‘bare’.

This conceals a more complex reality. As I document in my book, ‘subsistence’ farmers have generally been well capable of creating a thriving and diverse livelihood for themselves, and building in safeguards against poor seasons. Indeed, you can make a strong case that small-scale local farming systems are more resilient to famine than the present nexus of large-scale commercial farms and urbanism. Maybe you can make the contrary case too. But the scale of farm operation will make little difference to the famines that will arise in worst-case climate, socioeconomic and strategic scenarios of the future. I see a turn to low-impact, local, small-scale farming basically as our best option now for avoiding those worst-case scenarios, and probably our only option for dealing with their consequences should they occur.

Nevertheless, it’s historically true that small-scale ‘subsistence’ farmers sometimes pooled resources on a larger scale in order to even out the inherent uncertainties of farming, especially in environmentally challenging situations. It seems the Chacoan people of what’s now New Mexico did this from around 700-1200 AD, creating a centralized state that drew various communities into its orbit. The Chacoan state’s main function was redistributive in the face of livelihood uncertainties, and when it could no longer continue to underwrite its people’s welfare they went their separate ways.

Contrast this with Pierre Goubert’s analysis of the peasantry in 17th century France:

The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable1

It’s worth bearing in mind that underlying reality when contemplating state formation in early modern Europe and the splendours of its royal courts.

Or consider this report from a citizen of the Dutch town of Limburg in 1790 where trade was limited and farming ‘almost medieval’: “One ate and drank what the farm provided. Because very little could be sold, the farmer had ample to eat”2.

And a final example, running counter to Monty Python’s famous historical thesis, and with some bearing on recent discussions here about the healthiness of animal products: research on ‘Dark Age’ Britain in the aftermath of Roman departure suggests that “an increase in animal protein (including the dairy products that were gained from a greater emphasis on pastoral husbandry) and a concomitant decrease in the proportion of carbohydrates in everyday diets appear to have led to general improvements in health across the board, visible in increases in average height, better dental health, and higher recovery rates from infection”, and hence “the beneficial effect on peasant household economies of the withdrawal of Roman secular and military administration”3.

So against redistributive states like the Chacoan, or the de facto self-reliance of Limburg, perhaps we can counterpose more hunger-prone scenarios fostered by large predatory states – the Romans in Britain and early modern states in Europe among them.

In reality, the distinction is perhaps overdrawn. There were hierarchical elements in the Chacoan state, and there were ubiquitous uprisings and complex social alignments in Europe and elsewhere against the predations of overmighty states that ensured a redistributive aspect. This latter point is important, and I’ll be pressing it in future – predatory states are sometimes willing to extract resources from ordinary people up to the point of rank starvation if they can get away with it, but what often stops them from doing so is the ability of ordinary people to organize politically and make themselves protagonists in the political drama of the state.

My examples so far have all been quite a way back in the past. What of present and recent times? Famine expert Alex de Waal calls the first part of the 20th century “the most dreadful period of famine in world history”4 when modern leaders of various political colours such as Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and (later) Mao Zedong either actively created famines or connived at them in pursuit of their wider political goals. It’s perhaps worth noting that communist leaders like Stalin and Mao particularly inflicted hunger on the peasant classes whose activism was substantially responsible for putting them into power, in pursuit of breakneck industrialization policies dictated by Marxist-Leninist doctrines alien to peasant communism. Such famines of 20th century ‘development’ came on the heels of 19th century famines of colonial capitalism in other parts of Asia and Latin America. So there are good grounds for questioning the notion that famines were banished by modernization.

But more recently the incidence of major famines has declined, leaving us only with the small matter of chronic under-nutrition among possibly billions of people in a world that’s richer in total and per capita terms than ever before. ‘Developed’ or ‘middle income’ countries like Russia and China that experienced major famines in recent times are unlikely to experience them again in the near term, whereas ‘less developed’ countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are on shakier ground. This prompts a narrative that capitalist or industrial development is the vanquisher of famine, and that we need more of it to finally banish it from the global scene.

I think this narrative is mistaken. I also think it rests on a horrifically ends-justify-means view of history that implicitly shrugs off the deaths of past millions as an acceptable cost of modernization. For all that, I’m as happy as anyone to celebrate the decline of major famines in the present. But it’s important to note they’ve declined largely because of an international humanitarian politics that considers famines unacceptable.

In A Small Farm Future I argue that we need to retain that humanitarianism, but I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do so under the auspices of our existing system of nation-states. There are already plenty of signs that this system’s mask is slipping, revealing the beggar-my-neighbour or beggar-my-populace face of the predatory state behind it. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think people are well advised to generate their own subsistence, or, better, to generate local communities that enable them to do so. If we don’t get on top of climate change (another challenge to which the existing system of states appears unequal) perhaps major famines are likely anyway, but if we leave our subsistence in the hands of the existing system of states we may well experience black swan famine events all the sooner and all the more devastatingly.

Of course, if everyone upped sticks overnight and headed to the countryside in search of a more sustainable subsistence (or if some neo-Maoist state forced them to), we certainly would experience famines and various other ghastly outcomes in short order. So the challenge is to see the writing on the wall before it’s too late and move more rationally towards a sustainable agrarianism. Or, as I put it on p.207 of my book, to choose a small farm future voluntarily in the present so as to avoid having a worse one imposed by Maos of the future.

Since we often extol the foresight of business leaders in modern capitalist society, perhaps we might learn from the example of internet billionaire Peter Thiel, who seems to have realized that in the final analysis you can’t eat money and has bought up a large spread of remote New Zealand farmland to safeguard against future uncertainties. Few of us have the means to do that, but what we can do is start working in any number of different ways to try to build a convivial agrarianism within our local communities. It won’t be easy, but if we pull it off then maybe some of us will be able to look back with pride at how we helped avoid killing a billion people.

Notes

  1. Pierre Goubert. 1986. The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge Univ Press, p.87.
  2. Geert Mak. 2010. An Island in Time. Vintage, p.55.
  3. Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English. ARC, pp.34-5.
  4. Alex de Waal. 2018. Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Polity, p.77.