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.

Can organic farming feed the world?

I discuss various aspects of so-called ‘alternative’ agriculture at some length in Chapter 6 of A Small Farm Future1, and I don’t intend to retrace many of those steps here. But there’s a couple of further things I do want to say in this blog cycle. Here, I’ll focus on organic farming.

On page 125 (and also page 150) of my book I cite a 2007 study by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2, one of whom is Jahi Chappell who sometimes comments here, so I’m hoping he might weigh in with his thoughts on this post. Their paper suggests that organic agriculture based on biological fixation of nitrogen is capable of meeting global food demands without reliance on industrial synthesis of nitrogenous fertiliser (from now on in this post I’m going to use the symbols N to refer to plant-available nitrogen, BNF to refer to biological (or ‘organic’) nitrogen fixation and SNF to refer to synthetic/industrial nitrogen fixation). Interestingly, the Badgley paper also suggest that while organic yields in rich countries are typically lower than their ‘conventional’ counterparts, the opposite is often the case in poor countries, a point to which I’ll return.

Since the publication of my book, I’ve become aware of various papers by Professor David Connor critiquing the Badgley paper, and more generally the notion that it’s feasible to feed the world without SNF. Although I identify with organic/alternative agriculture and have never used synthetic N in my own farming, I don’t take an absolutely purist line about it in relation to the global food system. If SNF is necessary in some circumstances, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Still, SNF is an energy-intensive business requiring a complex industrial infrastructure. Given energy and other constraints in the future, if it turned out we needed SNF at similar levels to the present to feed the world this would be quite a stumbling block for arguments favouring low-energy agrarian localism. So it’s worth considering Connor’s arguments.

The main objection to the possibility of ‘feeding the world’ through organic agriculture based on BNF is that it’s typically lower yielding than SNF-based agriculture. This yield penalty has two components – lower yield acre for acre in the corresponding crops, and the fact that organic agriculture has to build N via rotations with leguminous non-food cover crops that further increase its land-take. Connor argues that the Badgley paper failed to take proper account of this second issue, and therefore overestimated the global potential of organic agriculture.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of that point, I’m going to take a different tack and consider some figures that Connor presents3. He says that 21 Mega tonnes (Mt) of N are fixed annually by cover crop legumes, with the total amount of BNF estimated between 33-46Mt. This contrasts with 113Mt of SNF, giving the measure of the challenge – apparently a major shortfall in the possibility of feeding the world organically.

But let’s take a closer look at these figures, most of which are based on a 2008 paper by David Herridge and co-authors4. I’m going to see if I can find some ways to narrow the discrepancy between BNF and SNF reported by Connor, which at worst is over a fivefold difference in favour of synthetic (113:21). It’s rather a back-of-the-envelope job, and some of the underlying issues are quite complex, so of course I’d welcome any comments or refinements.

The Herridge paper that Connor draws on proposes a larger amount of global BNF than Connor of 50-70Mt, as follows:

Pasture & fodder – 12-25Mt

Rice – 5 Mt

Sugar cane – 0.5Mt

Legume cropland – 21.45Mt

Non-legume cropland – <4Mt

Extensive savanna – <14Mt

 

Connor’s 33-46Mt figure presumably comes from adding legume cropland to the lower and higher bounds of the pasture & fodder figures (21+12=33, 21+25=46), so he’s ignoring the other forms of BNF reported by Herridge. This seems reasonable in the case of extensive savanna, little of which is likely to find its way back into the agro-ecosystem, but not so reasonable in the case of the other, admittedly fairly minor, BNF sources – rice, sugar cane and non-legume cropland. So I propose to incorporate these into the BNF figure. This gives a range of 39-56 Mt BNF, something of an improvement on the worst-case ratio, but still at best only half the SNF figure.

Let’s now look at livestock. According to the FAO, 33% of global cropland is devoted to producing livestock fodder. This is a choice that humans make – in fact, that primarily rich humans make – and I’d suggest not a wise one in view of the energy and other squeezes we face. Therefore, I think we can drop it from our modelling. We need to design a renewable food system that can feed the global population adequately, fitting livestock into it where we can, rather than designing livestock systems to meet the demand for meat which compromise food access and renewability.

I’m not sure quite how to quantify this adjustment, however. Soy is a major fodder crop, and also an N-fixer, so possibly the proportion of global cropland devoted to producing fodder has lower SNF needs? Obviously, some of the N that’s fixed ends up in the fodder and not in the field, although some of that then ends up in manure which may be available as BNF. But I’m not sure how best to adjust for these pathways – and of course there are a lot of non-N fixing fodder crops. So for now I’m going to allocate 33% of SNF proportionately to the 33% of fodder cropland, until someone suggests a better methodology. So that’s 33% of superfluous SNF, which takes us down to 76 Mt SN.

SNF used for boosting the productivity of long-term pastures for livestock is, I’d argue, another superfluous use. I don’t have global figures for this. Rough calculations for the UK suggest that we use about 30% of our SN on pastures. I suspect the figure is much lower in most other countries. I’ll arbitrarily assume that it amounts to 3% globally – further information welcome. This would take total SNF down to 73 Mt.

The next thing to look at is human waste. Each of us excretes about 20g of N per day in urine and faeces – which amounts to a lot of N aggregated across the human population over a year. Here in the UK, we already do a pretty good job of getting this back to the fields, but at quite a high energetic cost in water treatment and transport. One of the arguments in favour of ruralization is that it’s much easier energetically to get human nutrients back into the fields when people are actually living on them (a graver threat to urbanism than many seem to appreciate, especially in relation to phosphate rather than N). Let’s assume we can get 75% of the N contained in global humanure into the fields (again, I’m open to a more refined analysis with this parameter). This shrinks annual global SN to 25 Mt.

Then there are various losses associated with international trade, processing and consumer waste, which could be vitiated in a society based on local food production. I estimate these at a rough and ready 19% on the basis of a paper by Mike Berners-Lee and colleagues5 – admittedly one with a somewhat different focus, so again I’m open to more nuanced clarification. This reduces SN to 20 Mt – about the same as BNF from legume cropland, and much less than is currently fixed by BNF overall.

There are various other ways in which we might nibble away at this remaining SNF figure. For example, we might invest more in plant breeding and crop development to maximize edible matter per unit of N input and increase organic yields, which has scarcely been an agronomic priority in recent times. Or we might increase the N input from wild margins either directly or through livestock intermediaries, or cut back on certain kinds of N-demanding production, or improve crop production through other means like irrigation, or improve N uptake in existing crops. Maybe we could reduce SN by such means to around 10 Mt, down from the initial figure of 113 Mt. The possible fivefold excess of SN over BFN (113:21) may now be reversed (10:56) – perhaps to the extent that it’s no longer wholly implausible to imagine a low-energy small farm future that’s largely an organic one?

A final point. Professor Connor writes:

“My concern is for the resource-poor farmers, especially in Sub Saharan Africa, who overwhelmingly are targets for help and advice to apply organic methods from misguided community organizations based in other countries. Soil fertility is so low there after at least a century of intensive nutrient extraction without replacement that denial of the need for N fertilizer makes the process of agricultural renovation impossible”5

 

This concern seems a worthy one. If the world does still need a modicum of SNF, the people who unquestionably need it most are poor (usually small-scale) farmers in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. Whether those advising these farmers to apply organic methods are ‘misguided’ is another matter, because there’s a long history of poor farmers getting locked into dependency on high-cost inputs like synthetic N, largely to the benefit of those selling the inputs rather than to the farmers. So the advice of movements like Zero Budget Natural Farming in India for poor farmers to farm organically without SNF seems to me well founded. The higher yields for organic farming in poor countries reported in the Badgley paper seemed to arise from the availability of extension and advice helping farmers to manage inputs more systematically. This should surely be the first option to explore in improving yields before moving on to more energy-intensive options like SNF.

But perhaps we can frame this point about nitrogen equity the other way around. Given the grossly unfair distribution of global resources, rich countries should stop trying to squeeze greater productivity out of their own farming systems through profligate (or, perhaps, any) use of SNF, and make SN available at low or no cost to poor farmers in poor countries, should the latter feel the need for it.

 

Notes

  1. Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future. Chelsea Green.
  2. Catherine Badgley et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22: 86-108.
  3. David Connor. 2018. Land required for legumes restricts the contribution of organic agriculture to global food security. Outlook on Agriculture. 47: 277-82.
  4. David Herridge et al. 2008. Global inputs of biological nitrogen fixation in agricultural systems. Plant and Soil. 311: 1–18.
  5. Mike Berners-Lee et al. Current global food production is sufficient to meet
    human nutritional needs in 2050 provided there is
    radical societal adaptation. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. 6: 52.
  6. David Connor. 2018. Organic agriculture and food security: A decade of unreason finally implodes. Field Crops Research. 225: 128-9.

Can the peasant speak?

I’ve now reached Chapter 3, ‘The return of the peasant’, in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m going to linger here for a few posts, even though it’s only a short chapter. I’ll begin at rather an oblique slant to the substance of the chapter by relating a story told to me by my friend P, reproduced here with his kind permission.

This photograph is of P’s grandfather, G, who was born in the province of Karelia, Eastern Finland, in 1889. At this time, Finland was an autonomous duchy of the Russian empire, and Russian Orthodox Christianity was prominent in Eastern Karelia. G’s ancestry in the immediate locality where he was born went back at least three generations, probably more. The subsistence-oriented swidden farming which we were recently discussing here (later transplanted to Appalachia by Scandinavian migrants) was a recent reality in this area. As P puts it, “this was a man whose roots were deep in the place that he came from. His cultural and farming practices were also deeply rooted in this landscape”.

G was the oldest of six children. When his father died in 1911 it fell to him to sort out the inheritance and allot the family land among his kinsfolk. G himself moved a little way from the village and established a new farm. In 1915 he got married, and between 1917 and 1937 the couple had nine children, two of whom died in infancy from pneumonia.

Swidden farming had been actively suppressed by the Finnish government in the mid-19th century as the country’s economy became increasingly connected with the wider world, and the timber resources of its wooded slopes imbued land with a higher monetary value than that represented in the crops of rye and oats that the swidden farmers grew to feed themselves. G’s farming career was built on these old and new foundations. The family grew cereals, vegetables, flax and hay, kept livestock and harvested wild fruits and fish for their own consumption, but also pursued market ventures to stay afloat in the newly monetized local economy.

In 1917, in the aftermath of war and revolution in Russia, Finland became independent and immediately plunged into a brutal civil war between left-wing and right-wing factions. P is unsure how this played out in his grandfather’s life, but there are family memories of famine during this time which were partially mitigated by their access to farmland. A few years after the civil war, a brother of G’s was shot dead by a policeman in a bar. As one of G’s daughters recalled the incident, “Uncle had been able to say ‘don’t shoot’ but the police at the time did not wait for explanations”. G assumed financial responsibility for the child of his slain brother.

In the Winter War of 1939-40, the Soviet Union attacked Finland and overran eastern Karelia. G’s family travelled west as war refugees in a goods train, while G himself packed up what he could from the farm into a horse-drawn cart and walked across the country with it to join them. Among new environs in Finland’s Lutheran west, G’s family and the family of one of his brothers were taken in by a local family in return for farm work. Later, the government allocated them some land in North Karelia to farm themselves. Around this time, G’s oldest son was hit by shrapnel in an explosion and permanently injured. This son’s wife died in childbirth. One of G’s daughters died of meningitis in the crowded home where they were living in exile.

In the Continuation War of 1941-44, Finland – temporarily allied with Nazi Germany – initially pushed Soviet forces out of the country. G and his family returned to their farm in eastern Karelia. The fighting continued. One of G’s daughters worked in civilian support of the war effort, including driving a wagon heroically under enemy fire to resupply frontline troops. Later, she was badly injured in a landmine explosion. As the Continuation War went against Finland, G and his family had to flee west again, using similar methods as before, with G once again walking across the country with a cart loaded with what he could rescue from the farm. After several vicissitudes, the family ended up back at the land they’d been given to the farm in north Karelia in the aftermath of the Winter War.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet-Finnish border was settled, with the family’s original farm and homeland in east Karelia now falling within Soviet territory and permanently lost to them. G continued farming the new land he’d been given in Lutheran north Karelia. The photograph you see was taken in 1950, at the wedding of one of G’s sons. G died nine years later, three years before his youngest daughter gave birth to my friend P in England.

P showed me the picture of his grandfather I’ve reproduced above, before telling me the tale of his life that I’ve related. We agreed that his face seems to hold a sadness, perhaps a grief. Another friend who was shown the picture said that G looked ‘defeated’.  He was, apparently, an untalkative man, and he’s now long dead. He cannot tell us his feelings, and for sure nobody else can either.

But such silences don’t stop us today from expressing our opinions on what peasant farmers like G and others for whom history provides no amplifier must have thought. A common talking point nowadays is that peasant life was and is one of utter misery and backbreaking labour that nobody would ever voluntarily undertake. On page 78 of my book I cite a few authors who’ve worked this particular seam. They’re not hard to find.

But to weigh in with my own voice in the face of G’s silence, I wonder if this is the story he would tell. For sure, there’s relentless work and now-preventable disease in his story (as there still is for too many people today), and there’s heavy responsibility to care for a wider family through uncertain times. But it’s surely worth heeding too the nature of those times. G was one of many who lived his life in the crosshairs of global ‘development’, and who farmed under the ill-starred sign of political forces much larger than their local worlds. A famine caused, as they usually are, by politics and not by ‘natural’ events, the loss and injury of family members to the hostile forces of the state (the army, the police), the loss of natal land beyond an uncrossable modern border, possibly the loss of religious and cultural orientation too, the gnawing uncertainties of war, refugeeism and reliance on strangers, the hard work not only of farming but of establishing a new farm, not once but repeatedly in the face of a changing world. New politics, new borders, new nationalisms, new histories cascading through the early twentieth century. I wonder if it was the strain of these things more than the familiar seasonal cycle of hard work on the farm that we see in G’s sad face.

We’ll never know. An unbridgeable and silent river of history divides our present world from the one that G knew. As I see it, the case for a turn to peasant farming today is about trying to meet the challenges of the present, not about trying to recross that river. But maybe we can meet those challenges better if we’re able to bear witness to the pain that history has caused to peasant farmers like G, and also if we’re able to acknowledge that in their ability to furnish a household livelihood in the face of difficult circumstances we might look to farmers like him as inspirations in the difficult journey that lies ahead for us, rather than as yesterday’s people remembered only in the silence of old photographs.

A small farm future

My book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth is now hurtling on its final trajectory to land on Planet Earth mid-October. To herald the impending event, I’ve set up this new page on the site, which will track the book’s earthly existence, and I’ve posted the new banner above to give a flavour. I have an advance copy in my hands – my thanks to the folks at Chelsea Green for turning my splurge of Word files into such a work of art. For the impatient, there are links on my page for pre-ordering a copy.

Talking of Planet Earth, a recent article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry (henceforth BB) entitled “Local Farming Can’t Save The Planet” has come to my attention. Since I argue at length in my book that, on the contrary, small-scale, locally-oriented farming is probably the only thing that can ‘save the planet’, or at least that can deliver a reasonably congenial life to the majority of the world’s people with minimum impact on wider biological and earth systems, I think it’s worth taking a look at BB’s arguments. Many of these nicely prefigure some major themes in my book, so it seems appropriate to engage with them here.

But before I do, a quick word on grounding assumptions is in order. If you assume that in the coming decades the effects of climate change will be manageable without major socio-economic dislocation, that the global energy economy will transition quickly to low carbon forms without major reductions in supply, that the availability of various other resources such as phosphorus, water and soil will likewise remain basically as at present, and that global inequalities and political instabilities will also fail to wreak any major changes to national and international governance, then I concede that the case for building economic localisms based around small-scale farming is weaker than if you assume otherwise. BB proceed implicitly with those assumptions, which in my view are an implausible extrapolation of current global trends. A good deal of my case for a small farm future is based on a different extrapolation. But let’s keep that in the background for now, and look more closely at BB’s arguments.

They begin their pushback against local food by saying that organic farming is 20-30% less efficient than conventional farming and is “a form of luxury consumption for well off westerners who can afford it”. By less efficient, I assume they mean per acre crop yields are 20-30% lower, which is generally true – at least in the rich countries. There are arguments that this yield gap can be closed, and arguments that it can’t, which I’ll reserve for another day. The biggest problem is that organic farming as it’s presently practiced isn’t the same as “local and small-scale” farming. BB assert that the latter is just as inefficient as organic farming, without citing any supporting evidence. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that small-scale farming in poor countries is more productive in yield per acre than larger farms (the so-called inverse productivity relationship). And there’s also evidence that organic or organic-ish techniques can be more productive than non-organic ones in certain situations, especially in poor countries.

There’s a complex underlying story to all this which I won’t try to unpick in any detail here. But it simply isn’t true that small-scale, local farming is always less land-efficient than ‘conventional’ farming. Nor is yield per acre the only worthwhile measure of efficiency in farming. Among the numerous other ones, the social efficiency of capital and labour deployment are also relevant. The cheapness of energy and the cheapness of capital in the rich countries create a misleading sense of scale efficiency.

A curious aspect of homing in on organics as an inefficient form of farming for the affluent, as BB and many other ‘conventional’ farming advocates do, is that there’s a vastly more inefficient form of farming for the affluent that they ignore – livestock. According to one recent study, the land use efficiency of producing protein from suckler beef is about 3,500% less than from peas (I have some problems with this kind of comparison, but I don’t dispute the fundamental trophic realities underlying it). So if we really want to talk about inefficient land use geared to furnishing the affluent, why don’t we focus first on the land devoted to livestock farming (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: >70%) rather than that devoted to organics (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: 1%)? A suspicion lurks that it might be because criticizing conventional livestock farming doesn’t fit so well with a preconceived ‘alternative farming can’t feed the world’ narrative. In my book, I provide analyses to suggest that alternative farming probably can feed the world – especially if we eat less meat (but not necessarily no meat). Continuing to feed the world is less certain if we carry on with ‘conventional’ farming, extensive meat production and other trappings of the high-energy economy.

A big difference between organic and ‘conventional’ farming is that the latter uses industrially synthesized nitrogenous fertilizer and mined phosphates. I don’t personally take a fundamentalist line against the use of these fertilizers in all circumstances, though it seems to me unwise to suppose that they’ll remain as cheap and abundant in the future as at present. But if we’re talking about the efficiency (in several senses of the term) of the global food and farming system, it’s worth thinking about where those fertilizers would be best deployed. My suggestion would be mostly among poor, small-scale ‘local’ farmers in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America and not so much in the over-nitrified wastelands of rich-country agricultures. The fact that this scarcely happens ought to prompt some questions about the supposed efficiency of the ‘conventional’ global food system. As should the fact that the 20-30% yield advantage of ‘conventional’ vis-à-vis organic farming is bought with an awful lot of fossil energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.

Next in their article, BB say that “not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food” and they cite research that found only 28% of the global population at most could source their staple food requirements from within a radius of 100km. Now, the fact is that more or less every region does have the right soil and climate for growing food of some kind, but it’s true that the present geographical distribution of the world’s population isn’t conducive for many people to source their food locally. If everyone living in London, for example, immediately had to meet their staple food needs from within 100km, they’d starve in short order.

Here we come to the grounding assumptions I mentioned earlier. For some, that fact suggests that localism won’t be a plausible way of providing food in the future. For others, it suggests that living in London won’t be a plausible way of life in the future. Generally, people seek out places with the best economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century those places were often urban, not least because of fossil fuel-enabled state policies that directly or indirectly promoted an unprecedented mass urbanization and a de-localization of agricultural production. This was a profound change to the deeper historical reality that the best economic opportunities are mostly in the places where it’s easiest to grow food and fibre. A mass ruralization in the 21st century and beyond in keeping with that deeper reality seems likely. Unfortunately, de-urbanization will probably be harder to achieve than urbanization. All the more reason to start now and find ways of settling people on small-scale holdings oriented to self-reliance and local production.

As an aside, the food writer Jay Rayner takes a similar line on this point to BB:

What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 20% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happens to be closer to you.

There are numerous unexamined assumptions in this passage, leading us from the fact that, other things being equal, some soils can produce more potatoes than others, to the implicit conclusion that it’s a good idea for people to buy potatoes from places with the best soils for growing them.

I examine these assumptions critically in my book, and I won’t spell them out here. But when BB say that “farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils”, they miss the point that that isn’t the case if you arrange your farming to suit the soil, and if you arrange your settlement patterns to suit the farming. Reverting this long-established geographical reality will likely be the major political challenge of the near future.

And that, I think, remains true notwithstanding BB’s argument that “even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”” Here, BB rather mischaracterise comparative advantage, which is an almost obsolete concept in the modern global economy. It refers to situations where specifically local investors unable to invest elsewhere get the best financial returns when they support local trades that earn the highest returns to capital, regardless of how competitive they are globally. Basically, the concept of comparative advantage highlights the best ways of making money within the constraints of an international economy that no longer exists. Which is why if you want to make money nowadays you’re probably better off investing in wheat futures rather than in growing wheat, even if you live somewhere with the best wheat-growing soils.

But in the actual future to come rather than its present Wall Street version, you might well be better off growing wheat locally instead of investing your hard-won money in far-flung parts of the world in the expectation that more money will return to you. And that will probably require you to be living in a rural area, where there’s some room for you to do it.

The next major part of BB’s argument is a long exposition of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of intensive agriculture for biodiversity reasons – in other words, the view that concentrating farming in intensive, nature-unfriendly ways on as small a land area as possible and thereby leaving more land for wilderness has greater conservation benefits than more nature-friendly but more extensive farming. Here, I’m just going to skate over a complex area with a few brief points.

First, BB simply assume that small-scale, local farming is less intensive than larger-scale farming aimed at more distant markets – but this isn’t necessarily true, as we know from the inverse productivity relationship. This renders moot a lot of their argumentation around the land sparing benefits of non-locally oriented farming, because it doesn’t necessarily spare more land than local farming.

Second, if you’re going to compare specific farming practices that are more or less land intensive, such as synthetic fertilizer based ‘conventional’ agriculture with organic agriculture, you need to include full lifecycle impacts. The smaller land take of synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture may (arguably) be a conservation plus. Not so the climate-forcing effects of fertilizer manufacture nor the eutrophication of watercourses from fertilizer runoff. And farm systems that incentivize farmers to maximize yields have cascading effects that aren’t necessarily beneficial for biodiversity – even at a basic local level such as the various slurry and diesel spillages recently in my own local watershed.

Third, as BB themselves concede, possible land sparing benefits are easily offset by rebound effects. If, for example, you shrink the amount of land needed to meet the demand for rice, then the freed land becomes available for meeting new demands – producing coffee, tropical fruits or golf courses perhaps. BB say that zoning restrictions are therefore needed to protect spared land, and note – rather spuriously – that land ‘marked as protected’ has increased in recent years. But if the wealth-generating and poverty-eradicating potential of the global capitalist economy championed by its advocates manifests, how will this play out long-term? Will the rising middle-class in poorer countries vote to forgo their coffee, fruit and golf in favour of nature reserves? Is that what the electorates in the rich countries have done? The alternative is a hard road that modern humanity may ultimately only travel out of necessity, but it’s one that I think we need to embark on, and it’s among the strongest arguments for local farming. People need to spread out across the landscape and, like other organisms, skim the flows that its ecological base can provide renewably. We need to learn how to do this by living it locally. For this and various other reasons, many ecologists argue that the sparing-sharing framework is a false dichotomy.

BB then turn to health issues, arguing against the view that the modern food system makes us sick on the grounds that we shouldn’t conflate processing with production: “It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such”. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.

Health-wise, BB also weigh in on Covid-19, arguing that “Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on… small farms…the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater.” I’ll leave until another time the complexities that make this a half-truth at best, pausing only to note that the world we live in isn’t some controlled experiment with two separate economies or worldviews – local/extensive and global/intensive – running side by side. Large farms and small farms in their present form are part of the same global political economy, with a singular risk profile that easily turns novel zoonoses into global human pandemics.

Finally, BB argue that “the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity” adding “the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority … telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”

Indeed, that would be so … except that I can’t think of a single advocate for agrarian localism who actually does take the view that less well-off folks “should just buy more expensive food” (perhaps it’s no accident that the copious hyperlinks to supporting literature that pepper BB’s text dry up in this paragraph). Instead, we localistas emphasize the linkages in the global economy that enable it to furnish food at rock-bottom prices (achieved partly, it must be said, by relying on government subsidies and the poorly-paid labour of the numerous ‘less well-off folks’ who toil in the global food system), while simultaneously scouring economic rent from the global poor in the form of property prices, welfare charges, immigration policy, investment policy, labour policy and numerous other tactics.

Contrary to BB, I’d argue that declining food commodity prices in fact have been an extremely mixed blessing (indeed, more of an unmixed curse) to the global poor, by undercutting their capacities for local food autonomy and exposing them to the fluctuations of global commodity markets in which they have no comparative advantage at all. So, yes, food prices should be higher, but only as a necessary part of a wider rebalancing of land, labour, energy, capital, carbon and welfare that mitigates against the present extreme concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the global wealthy, and its destructive effects on the biosphere.

That, in a nutshell, is why I argue local farming can ‘save the planet’. But if you’re looking for more than a nutshell, the fully-referenced, feature-length version will be along soon.