The tragedy of the climate commons and one way I tried to fight it

A little more in this post about the climate protesting I mentioned last time that recently landed me in the dock, since a couple of folks said they were interested to hear about it. Then back next time to my ongoing blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. Mostly, I want to focus this post on some wider aspects of the protesting that in fact link to the book, but a brief account of the events from a personal perspective will help set the scene, and may be of interest.

Last year, I went to the opening rally of Extinction Rebellion’s August ‘rebellion’ in Trafalgar Square, then joined the march that processed towards Covent Garden. Some wily activists had somehow managed to erect a gigantic, two-storey pink table on the junction at Long Acre, with people locked onto its legs and others perched atop to prevent the police from easily removing it. The site quickly turned into quite a protest party, while the police – almost as quickly – encircled the whole junction, including some of its surrounding shops and cafés. They let people exit the cordon but not enter it, at least so it seemed to me (more about this detail later).

I stayed inside the cordon during the afternoon, dropping into a couple of the cafés for food and drink. At around 7pm the police announced they were making the protest illegal under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, meaning that we needed to disperse. I decided not to do that, and instead sat in front of a protestor who was locked on to a table leg, reasoning that it would take the police longer to remove the lock-ons and dismantle the table if they first had to remove the likes of me.

A police officer engaged with me, warning me of various consequences should I be arrested such as estrangement from my family, a travel ban to the USA, and trouble with my employers. These weren’t terribly disquieting threats, since several members of my family are far more active climate protestors than me, I don’t really need to go to the USA, and while my boss can be an absolute arse sometimes, he is, since I’m self-employed, highly unlikely to fire me.

Anyway, long story short, I was arrested around 8pm and carried off by four officers, losing the odd item of clothing and sustaining a few cuts and bruises in the process, as well as having my feet used as an involuntary battering ram against a bystander, all of which I think stemmed more from police incompetence than ill-will.

Half an hour handcuffed in a van, then booked in at Walworth police station. Mugshots, fingerprints, DNA sample, and seven hours in a cell. Fitful sleep mixed with staring at the Samaritans and drug/alcohol advice messages on the ceiling, thinking about all the misery that must have been contained within those walls. Then release in the small hours of the morning, a chat with the lovely XR support people waiting outside the police station, and stumbling home.

As I’ve written here before, when XR started I was sceptical about it for various reasons that I now consider mistaken, one of which was probably my own implicit fears of confronting authority, mixed with a preciousness about the need for my actions to be entirely within my control in some perfectly theorized and intellectualized moment of political history-making.

Not how it works.

I wrote in A Small Farm Future about the need for communities to carve out spaces of autonomy from the power of centralized states so they can develop viable and renewable forms of local livelihood-making. Well, what we achieved at Long Acre was very far from that, but if someone like me for whom the consequences of arrest are so low can’t even minimally follow through on his own ideas and help to hold the micro-space of a single road junction for a few hours while raising the profile of the climate emergency in the process, then I feel my politics imploding with implausibility. Or else bloating with that political preciousness I mentioned – waiting, always waiting, for the correct political moment that I’ve theorized before deigning to act.

The efficacy of my little escapade in Covent Garden is debatable of course, as is everything that I or anyone else can do to mitigate the challenges of our times – writing books or blogs, growing food, shopping thoughtfully, composting waste, working with relevant organisations, political activism. I think my arrest was reasonably worthwhile in the circumstances, and meaningful at least to me – not least because it was shortly before the key international COP26 meeting in Glasgow, and it seemed to me then (and still now) that if there was a right time to raise a public rumpus about the need for urgent and radical climate action, it was at that particular moment.

Eight months on, as I related in my last post, I was convicted for the Section 14 breach. I represented myself in court, on the grounds that the only way I’d be found not guilty would be if my lawyer identified some obscure legal technicality to exploit, which wasn’t really the point – and I’d still end up paying my lawyer more than the actual fine.

The prosecution called as a witness the police superintendent who’d imposed the Section 14. I thought his case for doing so was weak. Criminal damage (some XR stickers on an ATM). His discussions with some taxi drivers who said they’d like to run us protestors over (taxi drivers, eh?). Graffiti on the pavement (it’s London). A nightclub that was closed on the day of the protest but might have lost business the next day if the protest had continued (it didn’t). Café owners short of business.

On that last point, when I got the chance to cross-examine him I put it to him that if the police choose to seal off an area and stop people entering it, then it’s likely that any cafés inside said area will lose business as a result of that decision. He replied along the lines that the police hadn’t sealed off the area, and were letting genuine customers through their cordon if they could prove they’d booked ahead. Like you do when you’re a tourist in the middle of London and fancy a slice of pizza.

Nah, that area was sealed off.

When it was my turn in the dock, I tried two lines of defence. First, the right to protest. Something I hadn’t realized until recently is that although a public highway is for the use of the public, the law is vague on exactly what that use should be. Protesting on it isn’t necessarily a less legitimate use than driving along it (as one of the refrains at XR protests goes: “Whose streets? Our streets!”). In my opinion, it’s reasonable for the police to have the power to disperse protests to mitigate serious public danger or disruption. But stickers on an ATM, or cafés losing custom when they’re ringed by police officers, don’t strike me as serious public danger or disruption, given the circumstances.

This raises a point of wider political importance. For all the angry voices calling for greater police powers to shut down climate protest, in truth the police haven’t always used – or perhaps have been instructed not to use – the existing powers available to them, I suspect because jails full of scientists, elderly priests, retired community workers and suchlike aren’t a good look, and aren’t that great for public finances either. But once the authorities do have summary powers to limit collective protest, then political liberty is on the line. The lock ‘em up brigade might pause to ponder how much the powers that be care about their own cherished ideals. Those calling for increased state power against the public might end up regretting what they wished for.

Anyway, in court I made a brief case setting my right to protest as enshrined in the Human Rights Act against the superintendent’s overzealous Section 14. Then I moved on to my second, and I think more important, defence of necessity.

If you smash a door down in the normal course of things, you’re liable to be charged with criminal damage. But if a building is on fire and you smash the door down to rescue someone trapped inside, our legal and political systems and our common sense align pretty well in accepting that this is not a crime.

When it comes to climate change the building is definitely on fire, but our legal and political systems are barely capable of locating the door, let alone smashing it (last year saw the highest GHG emissions ever). Often, they prefer to criminalize ordinary folks who try to show them where the door is. What we have here is a collective action problem, in which people find themselves unable to create the cooperative structures they need to assure their own joint self-interest (in other words, we have a tragedy of the commons – a concept that, though badly misnamed, goes quite some way to explaining the climate crisis, even as many thinkers queue up to dismiss it).

One of the problems is that it’s not easy to tie cause (climate change) directly to effect (e.g. human suffering) and to effective actions to alleviate it (e.g. climate protesting). But recent scholarship is increasingly able to relate individual human deaths and suffering from extreme weather events pretty much directly to climate change. And the IPCC’s recent report – signed off by most of the world’s governments – acknowledges for the first time that civic engagement, including protest and civil disobedience, is the foundation for collective action of the kind that’s needed for transformative approaches to climate change. So we’re getting increasingly close to establishing a parallel of this sort:

burning building – smash door – save people

climate change – protest – save people

That, at any rate, was my second line of defence – necessity to protect against a greater harm. I didn’t expect my argument to carry the day. OK, if I’m honest, I suppose I did harbour a kind of Hollywood fantasy with me in the Henry Fonda role, holding the court spellbound with my moral passion and faultless logic. The not guilty verdict would then go down in history as the moment when the tragedy of the climate commons was definitively overturned, and the case of Regina v Smaje would be on everyone’s lips for years to come, which would be especially amusing because nobody would know how to pronounce it (rhymes with rage, since you asked).

OK, so … er … it didn’t turn out quite like that. Magistrates don’t establish case law, so they were pretty much inevitably going to find me guilty. But what they could have done is said yes, we hear your view that the grounds for the Section 14 were weak and that climate protest is important, we hear your argument that our society lacks the institutional structures capable of tackling climate change, and it needs to raise its game to save lives. Regrettably, however, our hands are tied and we’re obliged to find you guilty and award costs against you.

Instead, the senior magistrate cut me off in full flow, said that we’re all concerned about climate change, but that doesn’t explain why I knowingly disobeyed a police officer back in August.

On the contrary, I think it explains it precisely.

If indeed we’re all concerned about climate change, then it seems to me that we’re not concerned about it enough, or not concerned in the right way. The point I was making wasn’t a general one about climate change of the tut tut, isn’t it terrible variety. It was a specific one about how our political institutions, including our courts, are unable to deal with it, which is why the problem compounds and why ordinary folks like me therefore need to challenge these institutions directly. When the magistrate cut me off I think it illustrated the collective action problem I was describing. But I’d still have preferred some indication that he understood the point, or cared.

And so onto cross-examination by the prosecutor, mostly a bunch of questions about the impact of the protest on the local community that I couldn’t honestly answer, so I didn’t. I did answer one question in a way I now regret, assenting to the fact that I’d been at the protest all day and had therefore had a chance to protest, as if after a long day of protesting we can tuck climate change up in bed, kiss it goodnight, and wake up to a cooler morning.

Yes, I did have a chance to protest. But I didn’t have a chance to protest enough, just as we don’t all care about climate change enough. One of the few ways ordinary people have of getting people in power to pay more attention to climate change – not enough attention, but more attention – is to engage in civil disobedience of a kind that might get you arrested. I guess I succeeded in that, at least.

Anyway, as I related in my last post, it was guilty as charged, costs to the prosecution, and then out into the rarefied air of the City of London, where the real climate criminals were heading out to lunch.

Some personal take homes. I have few regrets about this episode. In fact, I feel I can hold my head a little higher. I’m glad we were able to claim some political space in central London and turn the public highway over to non-violent public protest for a few hours – not a huge achievement in the face of what’s needed, but more than nothing. I’m glad I pleaded not guilty, because I don’t think I am guilty in any sense that matters. I slightly regret any disruption we caused to local businesses, though I think the police over-stressed this, and under-stressed their own role in it. Compared to the climate-caused disruptions to come the bad effects of our action were negligible, but I plan to donate a proportion of a day’s income to a relevant local community cause. And I’m glad I went to court, looked the representatives of the state in the eye, and presented a defence I believe in.

All the same, I’ve felt a little down since the trial – maybe something about seeing the indifference of our political institutions to the present emergency up close, and personally embodied. I still believe in the rule of law, even though I think the public needs to test it on a regular basis. But I’m not as respectful of the process as I was before my trial – stand up, sit down, yes sir, no sir, and shut up you’re guilty. I now better understand the arc that other activists have followed: play it by the book the first time around and feel the indifference, express your own indifference the next time, then probably do some jail time. But I’m not sure I want to hurl my body or my bank balance at the immoveable edifice of the state again in that way – unless a larger mass of other people are doing it too. Wherein lies another collective action problem – I’ll put myself on the line and defy the state for our collective benefit only if you will too. Truth is, I don’t think it would take an awful lot more people before things started to shift, though maybe not enough for meaningful global change. But until we somehow break out of this impasse we’re stuck tragically trashing the climate commons without lifting a finger to stop it.

Finally, I’m still hearing people dismissing actions like mine on the grounds that, first of all, it’s easy for a white, middle-class person like me to wrangle with the legal system in this way, and secondly that XR-style climate protesting doesn’t constitute a real anti-systemic movement able to challenge the existing political economy.

On the first point, I suppose it is quite easy for people like me to do such things, which is one reason why I think it behooves us to do them. However, to say that it’s easier for the privileged to take political action somewhat undermines the belief, still prevalent on the left, that true political agency is more or less the exclusive property of the oppressed. Perhaps you could argue that climate issues are too removed from the rigours of daily working-class life, but that doesn’t really wash because the true political agency argument rests on the notion that only the working-class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things.

I’d argue instead that nobody and no specific class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things, that no anti-systemic movements cross some threshold of the ‘real’ through the character of their membership or the character of their analysis, least of all when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions which nobody has yet really succeeded in building any mass collective politics around. I’d argue, too, that there’s no particular virtue in boycotting existing climate protest movements from the conviction that you personally have access to some higher-level political consciousness, though there may be good reasons for boycotting them in practice. I’m not suggesting that issues of voice and inclusivity are irrelevant. Just that there can never be a singular, all-inclusive voice, nor a perfect, unflawed action.

All of which points to the analysis in Part IV of my book about the need for a populist politics of political alliances, grounded in the production of renewable local livelihoods. Hopefully I’ll get to it eventually in this blog cycle. Provided I keep out of trouble.

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.

Sand talking: can indigenous wisdom save the world?

I’ve only recently come across Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World but I thought I’d take a breather from my present blog cycle by taking a brief look at it. Actually, it’s not really a breather, as many of its themes run close to those I examine in my own book. Yunkaporta offers far more food for thought than I can cover in a blog post, so here I’m just going to pick out a few themes that interest me by way of ten discussion points. Then, in the next two or three posts it’ll be time to wrap up this sub-section of the blog cycle concerning property issues in a small farm future. But they may be a couple of weeks coming because this is a busy time of year for me in the woods.

It’s not the job of indigenous people or indigenous thinking to save your ass.

I’ve seen a few online reviews of Yunkaporta’s book that, referencing its subtitle, complain because its author doesn’t lay out a clear, implementable plan for how indigenous thinking can, in fact, save the world.

As I see it, this objection is precisely the problem that the book tries to combat. Our contemporary global civilization is very attached to complete, debugged, plugin fixes, whether they derive from engineering (“High carbon energy? No problem – here, have this nuclear power station”) or social organization (“Isolated, consumerist anomie? No problem – here, have this indigenous thinking”).

Nope, if indigenous thinking is truly going to save the world it’ll be a long-haul thing in which people learn or relearn how to become indigenous to their local place in locally specific ways. There is no clear, implementable plan. There is just long-term cultural practice.

Indigeneity is a practice and a relation, not a thing

What or who counts as indigenous is a bottomless rabbit hole, and it depends very much on the context. I think Yunkaporta captures these complexities well with light brushstrokes and sparkling examples, like the boy who recites the digits of pi as part of his indigenous practice, the elder who has a new understanding of cane toads that has changed them on his Country, or the notion that chicken wings and curry powder sometimes fit the definition of aboriginal food more plausibly than kangaroo meat.

For the purposes of his book, Yunkaporta says, “an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base. Indigenous Knowledge is any application of those memories as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances” (pp.41-2)

Of course, in some circumstances it would be appropriate to define Indigenous people much more narrowly. In others, perhaps yet more broadly. But I think Yunkaporta’s definition is about the right optic for invoking Indigeneity as a general response to present global problems. There’s a more essentializing politics around who can or can’t claim to be indigenous which can be appropriate in specific political and historical circumstances. But to claim that ‘indigenous thinking can save the world’ surely implies that everybody can access indigenous thought, and can therefore be or learn to be indigenous. Yunkaporta stakes a claim on this ground and in my view rises impressively to the challenge of making it meaningful. In his words, “The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge but in remembering their own” (p.163).

I should note in passing that when the term ‘indigenous people’ is used here in England it’s usually a codeword for ‘white people’. Deliberately or otherwise, it’s invested with a sense of ‘here first’ historical priority that excludes black and minority ethnic people. In settler colonies like Yunkaporta’s Australia, on the other hand, historical priority of course excludes white people, with very different political implications. Which is to say that context matters. And is complex.

Cultures that can adapt and last over time are group efforts aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.

This is almost a direct quotation from page 70 of the book, and perhaps another iteration of the preceding points. It bears reflection.

Indigenous knowledge doesn’t prosper in cities or metropoles

Cities are great. They can be wonderful places to live. They can be real testaments to human skill and beauty. But they suck resources from other places, and they are not sustainable. The same applies to colonial metropoles, and the Global North lifeways that suck resources from the Global South. These modes of living are not aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.

When European colonizers came across the remains of ancient cities in other parts of the world such as Great Zimbabwe, they often couldn’t believe that peoples they considered inferior to themselves could have built them. Thankfully, we now know better. But admission to the rollcall of city-builders, of civilizations, comes at the price of being disbarred from the rollcall of Indigenous people. As Yunkaporta puts it:

the ancient peoples of Zimbabwe who once made cities of stone lived within a civilization, until it inevitably collapsed. This was not an indigenous culture just because its inhabitants had dark skin. Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves. They can never be indigenous until they abandon their city-building culture, a lesson the Elders of Zimbabwe have handed down from bitter experience through deep time (p.70)

I can think of reasonable counter-arguments to this position. But not ones I can subscribe to as easily as to Yunkaporta’s one, unless we abandon the notion that indigeneity means anything at all. And if it does, I must note the radicalism of Yunkaporta’s assertion. People can’t really be both indigenous and ‘civilized’ (or citified). No surprise that this issue has divided indigenous communities in terms of directions for cultural development.

Individual people are self-differentiating nodes in a network.

I’ve been banging on for years about the clunky way we so often deprecate ‘individualism’ and promote ‘collectivism’ (or vice versa) in contemporary society, and I found Yunkaporta’s discussion a breath of fresh air in this respect, albeit a bit light on detail. Here’s my take home: Indigenous people are people who for the most part can competently furnish their own individual livelihood in a day-to-day way and actively seek ways to enhance their autonomy and their difference from other people, while at the same time recognizing and honouring the fact that they’re inherently a part of a wider community of other people, kin and non-kin, with whom they must interact in appropriate ways and only among whom can they realize some of life’s fundamental values.

Linking this to my present writing about property rights, I’d suggest that in a country like the UK and, I suspect, the USA, making this individual-in-community aspect work in culturally appropriate ways that address present problems would probably involve the distributist solution of making securely tenured small farms set within wider local commons widely available. Whereas among Indigenous communities in Australia and elsewhere it probably wouldn’t.

People are equals who respect each other’s points of view, but are cautious with imparting knowledge.

Yunkaporta describes what he calls the “foundational flaw, that Luciferian lie: ‘I am greater than you; you are lesser than me’” (p.35) and generally critiques what he often refers to as ‘narcissists’ or ‘narcissist flash mobs’. I suspect most of us might agree without looking too hard at ourselves and how we might ourselves be a part of those mobs, kind of in the way that most drivers think they have above average driving ability.

As per Christopher Boehm’s work that I mentioned in a recent post, it seems that many indigenous societies have carefully built institutions aimed at defusing the ‘Luciferian lie’, but even then need to work hard on a daily basis not to fall foul of it. I’ve certainly fallen foul of it often enough, in both directions. Modern political ideologies fall foul of it too, built as they often are around an opposition to hostile others who they assume won’t embrace the truth due to delusion or rank bad faith. The notion of respecting other points of view easily sounds like a feeble liberal plea for tolerance. But if you imagine actually living it with the people you interact with on a daily basis, it has different and more challenging implications.

Yunkaporta returns often in his book to the idea of what we might call situated knowledge – particular people know certain things, and are quite choosy about who they’ll share this knowledge with – a hierarchy of a sort. Often this knowledge is of a sacred or spiritual kind, and we moderns are apt to be dismissive of it, preferring to focus on the ‘real’ business of human ecology and human power relationships (shades of the idealism-materialism distinction I recently discussed). Murray Bookchin argued, for example, that such sacred knowledge was a means for elders to retain social control when their waning physical prowess prevented them from asserting their power more directly.

I think this is mistaken, and goes some way to explaining the mess we’ve got ourselves into. Real material practices – creating a livelihood from the land – are essential to human life, but they are not the only things that are essential to human life, and material skill practiced without spiritual wisdom leads us astray. In Yunkaporta’s world, people receive the gift of knowledge when they demonstrate the humility and maturity to use it wisely. An example to be followed?

Sustainable systems must be based on knowledges of a demotic origin.

Yunkaporta explains this far better than I could, so I’ll just quote him – “Sustainable systems cannot be manufactured by individuals or appointed committees, particularly during times of intense transition and upheaval. For those seeking sustainability practices from Indigenous cultures it is important to focus on both ancient and contemporary knowledge of a demotic origin, rather than individual inventions or amendments. That is not to say that all demotic innovations are benevolent. But if you listen to many voices and stories, and discern a deep and complex pattern emerging, you can usually determine what is real” (p.72)

For me, these observations have potentially profound implications that run quite counter to the way we usually implement technologies and politics in the modern world. I won’t dwell on those implications here, although I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts. I’ll just say that, for me, the passage above underlines the fact that we have a big job on our hands to make contemporary societies sustainable. And that a good starting point would be to develop self-reliant small-scale local farming societies.

Embrace storied surfaces and bumpy schedules.

At one point, Yunkaporta comments in passing on the difference between Indigenous experiences of time and that of people “immersed in flat schedules and story-less surfaces” (p.45). This spoke to me as I walked my midwinter holding. Here in wet, warm Somerset, there’s rarely any snow to make good the retreat of summer’s verdant covering, and my graffiti in the landscape – every rutted track or scoured patch of soil, every half-finished or half-decayed project, the scrap wood, the metal, the plastic, above all the plastic – seems like both an unflattering mirror to my own ugliness and a living calendar that drums its fingers impatiently at my laziness.

But for all that, the surfaces of my farm are not flat, and its impossible schedules jostle together in languages of minutes, weeks, years, lifetimes, eons, nevers and always. Everywhere I look, there are stories of what we’ve done and the things that have happened in the near twenty years we’ve been here that other people probably wouldn’t notice. So, though my farm is far from pristine, I take some comfort from Yunkaporta’s words that it’s at least alive. I remember reading somewhere about an Australian aborigine laughing at how white folks fastidiously tried to collect up and hide their rubbish, whereas the aboriginal way was to jettison things and thus inscribe themselves into the landscape – the irony being that white folks can never collect up enough of their clutter to stop it infesting the world, all the while failing to notice that aborigines had written their landscapes at all.

The lesson I take from this is to embrace storied surfaces, bumpy schedules and acts of forgiving.

Don’t search too hard for sovereignty

Yunkaporta has many interesting things to say about how people claim identity and authority, often via entertaining little gems like “African-American visitors are often offended when they drop in on Indigenous centres in our universities and hear us using the term ‘black’ to describe ourselves, when so many of us can no longer scrape together enough melanin to scare off a taxi” (p.63).

Wrangling over such claims to personal identity is often an important and necessary game, but there’s a parallel, and harder, game that might be worth giving more attention to – wrangling over the claims of states and territorial jurisdictions to define us and the limits of our agency. Yunkaporta discusses the way that claims to aboriginal title in Australia must be historically justified in law by reference to the situation at the point of British colonial subjection – and when Indigenous people play that game, they implicitly recognize British sovereignty in the process of claiming their own. I think this speaks to more general questions about the power of states over people which will only loom larger in the years ahead.

I’ll be writing several more posts on themes related to this point. For now, I’ll just summarize them by suggesting it’s unwise to search too hard for political authority in lines on a map or the lines in our minds drawn by those territorial histories.

Distribute the means to violence

A point related to the preceding one, which again Yunkaporta expresses far more concisely and elegantly than I can, so I will leave him with the last word:

in our culture we avoid the unsustainable practice of concentrating violence into the hands of one privileged group, or outsourcing violence to other places so we can enjoy the fruits of it without having to see it. Violence is part of creation and it is distributed evenly among all agents in sustainable systems to minimize the damage it can do (p.202)

Pig apples: or, why small farmsteads are efficient and effective

Nearly twenty years ago, we planted seven acres of woodland on our holding with help from a government grant that stipulated the trees must be native woodland varieties. Among the ones we chose were crab apples, which we planted along the rides and woodland edges because of their growth habit, sourcing the saplings from a nursery specializing in native woodland trees.

As the trees developed, it became clear they weren’t just ordinary crabs – I guess they’d crossed with cultivated varieties to produce large, juicy, dessert-apple type fruits. The fruits were still pretty unappealing to the human palate but not so, I discovered, to the porcine one. Over the years, our pigs have been happy to chow down on them without limit. In the last month or two of their lives, the two pigs I raised this year ate little else.

But since the apple trees are spread around the holding along the rides and it’s not really practicable to let the pigs range at large, this bounty involves us picking or collecting most of the apples for them. Recently, I’ve been going out at least a couple of times every day with a large trug, filling it with the not-quite-crabs, and taking it to the pig enclosure. After a while, a distinctive apple browse line developed on the trees at my 5’10” plus an arm length height. From then on, I contrived various tricks – jumping for apples, shaking them off the high boughs or pulling the branches down with my shepherd’s crook. When my son and his girlfriend visited, she sat on his shoulders and threw apples down from on high, one at a time into the trug.

The pigs went to slaughter this week, and I’m already missing my daily apple-wrangling walks, zinging arms from the nettled brush around the trees included. As rather occasional meat-eaters, the two pigs should keep my wife and I ticking over with chops and sausages for quite some time. As I mentioned in A Small Farm Future (pp.190-1), I think the relatively free-ranging woodland lifestyle of my pigs along with their mixed diet of mostly fresh wholefoods like the crab apples gives their meat a quality you’re unlikely to find in any store-bought pork. But if I were raising pigs commercially and trying to earn a living wage, you can be sure there wouldn’t be much jumping for crab apples in my business model.

There are four wider points I want to draw out from all this.

First, within every human ecology – including every farm – there is almost always some extra bounty available that can increase the flow of food or fibre, but it will probably require additional inputs, often human labour. True, we might have saved ourselves work had we planted the crabs in the pig enclosure from the outset, although we couldn’t have known in advance how bountiful they would prove, and they do other work where they’re sited. Plus, there’s other forage for the pigs in their enclosure – with pigs, the fodder footprint invariably exceeds the fencing one.

Someone cleverer than me might be able to calculate an energy return on investment figure or a kind of counterfactual trophic analysis. If we left the apples, let the birds, rodents, insects or microbes eat them, and fed the pigs on something else, how might the balance of labour input and food output on the farm look then? In the absence of such data, I’d suggest that given the excrement from the pigs who eat the apples and from the people who eat the pigs stays on the farm, and given the improvement in the mental and physical health of the farmer and his family gained from their apple walks, it’s a fair bet that collecting up the crabs brings a positive return. So, whatever the ins and outs of our crab apple story, I think the broader point remains. There is bounty on the farm, but you have to work for it. Those who espouse ‘land sparing’ or ‘intensive’ agriculture will hopefully agree that the labour intensification on my farm enabling me to substitute apples for fodder grown on cropland elsewhere is a good illustration of their point.

But – and this is my second point – while it’s feasible to wander around a smallholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two pigs, it probably isn’t feasible to wander around a largeholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two hundred or two thousand pigs. So there are diseconomies of large scale to the ecological efficiency of the farm’s unbidden bounty.

Still – third point – this kind of ecological efficiency or land-sparing intensification is costly in terms of human labour time, and we seem deeply opposed to labour intensification in modern life, particularly when it relates to farming. Almost uniquely among the sectors of the labour market, in modern times we celebrate when jobs are lost from agriculture, not gained.

The main reason for this is that it’s easier to generate a larger hourly wage in other sectors, and nowadays we tell ourselves a story that a larger wage equates to larger happiness. No doubt there’s some truth in that, although as the fossil-fuelled growth engines of the global industrial economy palpably begin to splutter, it seems destined to be less true of the immediate future than it’s been of the immediate past. But besides all that, it is to a large degree just a story that we tell ourselves. I’m all in favour of the occasional, quietly contemplative, hands-in-pockets country walk but, well, walking the known routes of my farm, trug in hand, to collect apples to feed the pigs to feed me is ultimately more meaningful, and more fun.

Modern society has built a vast cultural edifice of anti pastoral, anti ‘romantic’, pro urbanist myth-making to negate the idea that the rural smallholding life is a meaningful one. Well, I concede that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But plenty of people already see through these myths, and their numbers are only likely to grow as it dawns quite how unappealing the alternative brews on offer increasingly are. How people choose to live and what they value are not fixed on tablets of stone, but respond to the circumstances they experience and the stories they’re told. Both are changing.

Walking around a holding with a trug choosing the right crab apples to deliver to the pigs can be spiritually rewarding, but it’s not especially taxing intellectually or physically. Even so, it’s a task that’s currently beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated of robots. But consider this thought experiment. Suppose a renewably-powered robot is invented that can achieve this task as precisely as you, at a price that you can afford by selling a few joints of pork or other smallholding products. This seems to me an unlikely happenstance, but just suppose. What would you then do? Possibly, you could tend the robot that tended you, but it’s unlikely. With a bit of instruction, most of us can learn how to keep a basic heat engine of the kind you find in an old tractor more or less ticking along, but the engineering involved in such a robot would be quite beyond us.

With this robot, I think we would have created a simulacrum of ourselves that would steal meaning from our lives, while possessing none of its own. And we would mooch around our smallholdings, hands in pockets, envying our busy robots. Or more likely mooch around our urban parks, wondering at the meaning of life and whether this is really all there is.

Or we could forget about labour-saving robots and just go out and pick some freaking apples. Then in our spare time, we could do things like writing blog posts enthusing about the job-creating possibilities of the smallholding life. Or pamphlets anyway.

But, and here I come to my fourth and final point, this latter possibility comes with a necessary precondition. We can only realistically do this if we can exercise substantially autonomous choice over our livelihood-generating and self-provisioning strategies. We can’t do it if we’re under external pressure to raise our output levels and lower our input costs. In other words, we probably can’t do it if we’re under consistent pressure from market or state forces to improve our economic ‘efficiency’ – and, by that token, probably diminish our ecological efficiency. Which is to say that we probably can’t do it unless we have strong proprietorial rights over our smallholdings.

And this brings us to the question of tenure and property rights, which I will be examining in my next few posts.

How I grew, and lost, a rainforest

And so I’ve come to the end of my posts concerning Part II of A Small Farm Future and I shall soon be moving onto Parts III and IV, which are the ones that have generated most of the discussions and disputations over the book. I include this post by way of a deep breath, reflecting back on the ground we’ve recently covered and forward toward what’s to come.

Let me begin by reprising the tale of our woodland here at Vallis Veg, which I’ve previously discussed here, among other places. Between 2004 and 2007 we planted seven acres of young saplings on our site, which have now grown into some pretty hefty trees providing numerous benefits – constructional timber, firewood, food, wildlife habitat, wind protection and recreation among them. I’ve discussed before the debate about whether it’s better to allow natural regeneration, or to force the issue by planting saplings, as we did. In any given situation there can be arguments either way, with the balance of them perhaps usually favouring the low input natural regeneration route.

But I’ve come to think of this debate as rather pointless. Given the human dominance of the farmed landscape, what really matters is the decision to opt for trees. If you take the natural regeneration route, you’ll probably lose several years of potential tree growth – which could be significant for humans on our short-run timescales, but not really significant on forest time. In our woodland, wild trees and herbaceous understory plants that we never designed into the system ourselves are beginning to make their presence felt. In a few decades, I don’t think it will have mattered much to anybody but ourselves during a few head-start years how the trees came about. Aside from the possibility that climate change will get the final word, soon enough the only thing that will matter is whether the people who are stewarding the land after us suffer the woodland to continue or not.

Campaigning eco-journalist George Monbiot makes a good case for reconsidering parts of Britain’s woodland cover as rainforest, a resonant word that might make us re-evaluate the way we think about our trees. He defines rainforest as forest wet enough to support epiphytes such as mosses. In the same article, he goes on to make a slightly less good case for preferring natural regeneration over tree-planting on various grounds, including the notion that a plantation “takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest”.

So let me present to you Exhibit A – a tree we planted that’s now encircled with epiphytic moss. And Exhibit B, a view of part of our woodland shot from behind Vallis palace that I’d suggest arguably does at least ‘resemble’ a natural forest. Reader, I grew a rainforest in fifteen years!

I don’t want to go out of my way to annoy George, but I can’t resist also presenting Exhibit C – ovine silvo-pasture. But, talking of livestock, let’s go back to Exhibit A. What is that unsightly gouging in the soil around my moss-encircled rainforest tree? That, my friend, is the work of two pigs I’m currently raising. Which perhaps is problematic, at least if you follow the advice of my fellow Chelsea Green author Steve Gabriel in his interesting book Silvopasture. Steve argues that the rooting of pigs too easily disturbs the soil around trees, threatening the long-term survival of the trees to the extent that pigs are not a great choice for agroforestry livestock, despite their woodland origins.

It’s not my intention to pick a quarrel with Steve, who I’m sure knows a great deal more than I do about agroforestry systems. In the case of my own particular system, I usually raise two pigs over six months out of every two years in about two acres of mixed woodland, grassland and cropland with supplemental feeding, which I think keeps the habitat pressure relatively low. Even so, it’s possible that the depredations of the pigs seen in Exhibit A will prove lethal in the medium term to that tree (the pigs seem to home in on particular trees and grassland patches, leaving others undisturbed). So perhaps I will be guilty of destroying a rainforest not long after growing it, though the likely death of its ash trees seems a weightier matter, and one that’s beyond my control.

But I can’t summon an awful lot of anxiety about the pig damage. People have learned a lot in recent times about the intricate complexities of old growth forests and the extraordinary symbioses between their plants, fungi, animals and microbes. But I fear this too easily generates a misplaced snootiness about younger growth woodlands and the simpler, more aggressive interactions they contain, where trees have the role of what forester Peter Wohlleben calls ‘street kids’, prematurely left to fend for themselves in a risky, live fast die young lifestyle.

Wohlleben himself shows in his book The Hidden Life of Trees that even in the absence of human intervention the road to old age for a tree is strewn with dangers, with most never making it. And why in any case should the absence of human intervention be a relevant datum? Humans, like pigs, play the ecological role of patch-disturber, holding up ecological succession and introducing greater mosaic diversity into the landscape. This is not in itself an ignoble role, even if the number of people and the number of pigs in the world today has made us more than ‘patch’ disturbers. Organisms that cause trees to grow or not to grow and cause them to fall before their time are another part of woodland ecology.

Simon Fairlie wrote a fascinating chapter in his wonderful book Meat about the trade-offs between grassland and woodland in agriculture that he called ‘The struggle between light and shade’. This speaks to an open question in our farming systems that we can never quite get right – how much patch disturbance and how much succession, how much labour input and how much nature’s way, how many perennials and how many annuals, how much grass, how much woodland, how much cropland? As my pigs root among the trees, I’m conscious that this question is forever open – and I’m only one of the protagonists in it, who doesn’t necessarily get the final word.

But as I turn my attention in forthcoming posts to the more political and social aspects of farm systems, I want to interpret the ‘struggle between light and shade’ more metaphorically. So much of our thinking invests itself in totalizing dualities. Right versus wrong, good versus evil, truth versus error, ‘science’ versus ideology, righteousness versus sin, or light versus shade. As I prepare to wade into the partial and messy world of human affairs and opinions, in which I hold some pretty firm ones of my own, I want to pause for a moment in the forest’s dappled glades that the pigs have opened up. Neither right nor wrong, neither light nor shade. This is not a vapid argument that the ‘middle ground’ is always best. Perhaps it’s just an argument for a bit of intellectual patch disturbance, to follow the pig’s way, without pre-commitment to the benefits of either light or shade.

Automation and a small farm future

The previous post in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future discussed the section on political economy (pp.53-73). Much as I’d like to dwell on various other issues raised therein, I feel I should probably move on to the next part of the book. But fortunately, having just read Aaron Benanav’s stimulating new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020), an engagement with it in this post enables me to sweep up a few further issues from that section while simultaneously moving on. Always good to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

I did, in fact, cite Benanav’s work in the aforementioned political economy section of my book, but when I was writing it he hadn’t yet published his own one, which I’ve found helpful in further clarifying my thinking. In this and in a later post, I’ll suggest that his analysis strengthens the case I make for a small farm future, even though that’s not a direction he goes himself. But, as I’ll shortly argue, it could be … and maybe it should be.

Let’s start with Benavav’s appraisal of the present global labour market: many fewer people (proportionately) working in agriculture than previously, many fewer people working in manufacturing than previously, many more people in precarious and low paid employment or underemployment in the service sector than previously, and a very small but growing number of people amassing unprecedentedly stupendous wealth.

A common explanation for these trends is the ‘automation theory’ that argues they arise from labour-shedding technological development. This occurred first in agriculture with what Benanav (p.42) calls ‘the major destroyer of livelihoods in the twentieth century’ in the form of agrarian ‘nitrogen capitalism’ (so named because of agri-industrial reliance on manufactured nitrogenous fertiliser, though in truth it involved a suite of fossil fuel-based developments, so perhaps it’s better seen as another variant of fossil capitalism).

Whatever the terminology, it’s refreshing to see Benanav call agrarian industrialisation for what it is – a destroyer of livelihoods – rather than resorting to the usual upbeat euphemisms of ‘labour saving’ or ‘agricultural improvement’. Now that automation threatens livelihoods across a swathe of other employment sectors – including such bastions of white-collar privilege as medicine and law – perhaps it becomes easier to make the case that in agriculture as in other sectors ‘labour saving’ isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But actually, the main thrust of Benanav’s book is a critique of automation theory. If the present stagnation of the global labour market were really caused by automation, he argues, we’d expect to see a spiralling growth in labour productivity, whereas the trend is better explained by falling global manufacturing output that he imputes to industrial overcapacity and underinvestment. This leads to his important claims that, during the 20th century, manufacturing was “a unique engine of economic growth” and that modern governments have found no other ways to sustain growth when manufacturing output has faltered (pp.34-5).

A minor point to draw from all this in relation to my own book is that I largely ducked the question of future technologies in agriculture because too much attention to drones, robots, GM, GPS, vertical farming and all the rest of it seemed something of a diversion, but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this evasion. So I find Benanav’s analysis reassuring in suggesting that these really aren’t the main questions before us. For this reason, I’m not going to discuss in this blog cycle the things I do have to say about automation, ‘progress’ etc. in Chapter 2 of my book, which in any case we’ve discussed at length on this website over the years.

So if emerging technologies aren’t the main question, what is? Benanav’s analysis suggests that the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise, with more and more workers pushed into necessarily labour-intensive and low-paid service industries. Sometimes this involves small-scale family operations competing successfully with large and highly capitalized firms on the basis of involutionary job creation strategies. It also involves industrial corporations favouring monopolistic competition, the asset bubble of financialization and squeezing worker pay and conditions. And it seems likely that these trends represent a limit or endpoint to the present structure of the global political economy that’s inherent to its internal logic, regardless of wider issues like climate change, energy futures or resource drawdown.

The main question, then, is how might the global political economy escape this impasse once we abandon the fruitless idea that the answer lies in technological development? As I see it, there are four main options, three of which Benanav touches on in his book, and one of which (the most promising one, in my opinion) he doesn’t.

First, there’s the possibility that the global political economy will find a way to barrel through the present crisis and restart the growth engine of industrial development. There are, after all, multitudes of poor people globally who would be only too happy to lead lives of industrialised plenty of the kind many of us lead in the richer countries and the richer parts of the poorer ones. As China increasingly takes over the reins of global economic leadership from the USA, developments like its Belt and Road Initiative may provide exactly the kickstart that’s needed. But I think it’s unlikely. China’s industrialization, like the ones of the western powers preceding it, is based on a coercion of labour that’s unlikely to sustain growth long-term and is already displaying the morbid symptoms of late-stage western capitalism. Throw in the effects of climate change and resource crisis, and it’s hard to see the locomotive of global industrialization escaping the siding where it’s currently languishing and getting back onto the main track.

Second, there’s the possibility of ‘our country first’ economic nationalism. On this point, Benanav is surely right to suggest that “a chronically low demand for labour will not be alleviated by tariff barriers or walled borders” (p.65). I’d argue nonetheless that it would probably be a good way to go for the poorest countries experiencing a net outflow of assets in the globalized economy if they were able to make it happen, but economic nationalism operating at large across the world certainly isn’t going to usher in a new cornucopia of surging global growth and prosperity. I guess Brexit Britain has just started a small experiment on your behalf in this respect. You’re welcome.

Third, there’s the possibility of redistributing the product of the global economy more fairly between rich and poor, young and old. To me, this seems ethically right and will probably happen quite widely one way or another anyway if governments don’t act, because too much inequality sustained for too long prompts political movements geared to restitution. But for all its necessity, it seems to me that a fairer redistribution of economic product doesn’t strike to the root of the problem much more than the other possibilities, because it likewise doesn’t provide the means for radically creating more product and transcending industrial overcapacity and low labour demand.

Here’s where Benanav’s analysis gets, for me, most interesting, but also most problematic. There are different ways in which a fairer distribution of product might be delivered politically. The one Benanav explores is a propertyless socialist utopia in which people collectively divide the necessary work of social reproduction between themselves on a fair and democratic basis, devoting the rest of their time to pursuing their personal passions and pleasures.

There’s much I find appealing in his vision, and some of it covers very similar ground to my own discussion of utopias in my book (pp.85-8). Benanav and I agree that it’s not OK to expect subordinated categories of labour to do the hard work of domestic and social reproduction, and nor is it plausible to expect new developments in automation to ride to the rescue and do it for us. The main point of his brief utopian exercise isn’t to provide some fully realized blueprint for the future, but to suggest that it’s possible for us to create congenial lives for ourselves with existing technology in the here and now, rather than waiting for future technological developments to deliver us into a fantasy future world without work. On this point I wholeheartedly agree.

All the same, there are aspects of his utopia that I find either implausible or unappealing. I won’t expound on them at length here because I hope to come back to this in later posts, but in brief I think he puts too much faith in people’s ability to smoothly divvy up the work between themselves and deliver on what’s expected through ill-defined democratic processes. This is all the more problematic inasmuch as Benanav acknowledges there are kinds of work that can’t be widely shared because they require specialist skills (he mentions farming in this connection) and inasmuch as it would be necessary to somehow hold producers accountable if they failed to come up with the goods.

As for the unappealing, the freedoms that Benanav accords people in his utopia seem to me overly individualistic, disconnected and intellectual. His examples include painting murals, learning languages, inventing things and ‘choosing to explore nature’ (pp.91-2) – this being the only mention I noticed in his book of the extra-human ecological world. It all sounds a bit like a university professor dreaming up a quiet suburban retirement for himself, which – as I suggest in my book (p.85) – is essentially what most written utopias are. And I use the word ‘himself’ here deliberately, because there are some interesting gender framings involved in all this. But we’ll come to that in a later post.

Benanav nevertheless contends – correctly in my opinion – that “feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose are what generate the best work” (p.89), yet it seems to me hard to reconcile this with the highly generalized collective divvying up of work and the holding of producers to account that he identifies – a point that, again, I’ll develop in another post. Rather than drifting around in an agreeable but ultimately somewhat vapid and probably unrealisable ‘post-scarcity’ world, I think true autonomy, mastery and purpose arise through experiencing resistances to one’s agency, partly in relation to other people (the points where collective agreements fail) and partly in relation to the necessary practice of creating a livelihood out of the extra-human world of nature, rather than the option of simply exploring it. In both cases, a sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose arises when one feels equal to the challenge, which is usually only possible through an intimate, grounded, personal, local knowledge of the social and natural landscape.

In other words, the fourth way to address the impasse of the present global political economy may be to embrace the possibility – so admirably implied by Benanav throughout his book, but never confronted head on – of creating a labour-intensive, semi-autonomous livelihood through farming, homesteading or gardening largely on one’s own account, within a wider society which is collectively oriented to enabling people to live that way. Agricultural involution of this sort is far more generative of a sense of purpose than creating involutionary service sector jobs, far more compatible with a low or no economic growth society (a point Benanav makes on p.38), and far less ecologically destructive. It would amount to a small farm future – not a panacea, not a utopia, but a plausible goal to aim at. In my forthcoming posts I’ll continue to outline its contours.

History deep, prospect wide

There’s one other theme from the Introduction to my book that I want to raise in this cycle of posts before moving on to Part I.

But first, maybe it’s relevant to my theme to take a quick look at wider news. I heard they had an election over in the USA, but it seems all isn’t yet settled and there are competing narratives about the result and its implications. Was the Democratic victory fraudulent or bona fide? (Clue: the latter). Did the left of the Democratic party nearly lose the election for it, or help push it over the line? Was the Trump presidency a strange anomaly or a harbinger of future political turbulence? Is the onus on ‘liberals’ to understand why so many people voted for Trump, or on ‘conservatives’ to understand why so many more didn’t? Is Trumpism destined to live on in the hearts and guns of the now semi-mythical ‘white working class’ – or is it actually a project of the white middle class, or some other group? And, if implemented, will Biden’s climate policies be able to change the game, or will they meet an impossible trade-off between fossil-fuelled capitalism and climate-induced degrowth?

Closer to home here in the UK, a Biden presidency may spell the end of the no deal Brexit brigade’s ascendancy. Expect a last minute trade deal on disadvantageous terms with the EU trumpeted as a great victory, through which the remaining vital organs of British capitalism will be carved up between larger global players – perhaps with the UK itself as a political entity the ultimate casualty. Meanwhile, with the Northern Independence Party forming and opposition growing within the Labour Party against its lurch to authoritarian centrism, the supersedure state of which I speak in Part IV of my book may be upon us sooner than I thought.

Ah yes, so finally on the news front … my book. It was briefly riding as high as about #7,000 on the Amazon bestseller list, which I’m told isn’t bad going at all. See the My book page for some online resources (including how not to buy it from Amazon), recent reviews and other exciting news about said tome. And do please consider writing an online review, especially if it’s positive.

So … I’ll be watching with interest to see how the various narratives described above unfold, while hoping that the US (and the UK) will emerge from their present imbroglios without irreparable damage. But now I want to turn to another case of divergent narratives that I broach in the Introduction to my book.

On page 7 I write “Throughout the world, there are long and complex histories by which people have been both yoked unwillingly to the land and divested unwillingly from it”. These histories fuel many different and often competing stories about land, food and belonging, but also a kind of modern historical forgetfulness about the complexity of human relationships with land (and water) through time.

I argue throughout the book that it’s necessary to overcome this forgetfulness, and recover the stories of land and loss that lie behind it in all their complexity and dissonance. Without this, I doubt we’ll be able to make wise decisions that will really work locally about the many pressing issues we face today. We’d probably resort instead to superficial morality tales that have long outlived their usefulness drawn from an (also superficial) grasp of history. And such tales are legion. Here in England, they include the notion that enclosure spelled the end of peasant agriculture, that industrialization ultimately liberated people from poverty, and that this industrialization was some endogenous process of modernization and development that had nothing to do with England’s colonial exactions elsewhere in the world.

I’d hope people reading my book would come away from it with a sense that such stories are oversimplifications that no longer serve us. But the book makes limited headway in telling better historical tales, largely because I only had so many pages to play with and the world is a large and complex place. But those deeper tales do need to be told. Carwyn Graves’s interesting review of my book from a Welsh perspective is a good example of how one might begin that telling.

In the meantime, I’d suggest – to paraphrase a recent British prime minister – that “no history is better than bad history”. In other words, given the unique set of problems people presently face, it’s as well to try to be as open-minded as possible about how to solve them rather than drawing on bad historical analogizing to close off particular approaches. Here are some common examples of the kind of bad analogizing I have in mind:

  • This country/region won’t be able to feed itself in the future, because it never did in the past
  • A small farm future would be unpleasant because the small farm past was
  • There have been people in the past who were happy to quit peasant farming, so nobody will be happy to take it up in the future
  • Nobody will renounce mass consumer society for a small farm future of simple living in the future, because in the past people opted for the former over the latter
  • Technology will solve people’s present problems because it solved people’s past ones
  • Any future attempt to create local agrarian autonomy will be crushed by centralized states, as in the past
  • Positive change will be led by the downtrodden, because past experience shows they’re the ones who truly appreciate how the present system works

I’m not saying that such statements will inevitably turn out to be wrong. I’m just saying that they might turn out to be wrong, and a superficial analysis of past analogues to our contemporary questions is a poor guide to how they will, in fact, turn out.

One of the defects of the historical analogizing I’m criticizing is that it’s ill attuned to dissonance, contradiction and competing narratives. So while, for example, it’s true that Britain has long been a net importer of food, throughout this time there have been people arguing that it can and should largely feed itself. They weren’t necessarily wrong, they just lost the political argument. Maybe their successors will be luckier. Perhaps there are implacable forces in history, but I suspect not as many as at first it seems when so many people jump on the bandwagon of the ‘had to happen’ on the flimsy evidence of the ‘did happen’. The past could have led to a different present. The present may lead to a future beyond our current imaginings.

So let your history run deep, and your horizons scan wide. Next up: Part I.

Both hands now – an introduction to ‘A Small Farm Future’

Today I’m going to begin my cycle of posts commenting on, expanding and perhaps occasionally qualifying the analyses in my book A Small Farm Future.

You have bought your copy by now, right? Ah well … far be it from me to tell you what to do with your hard-earned cash. Suffice to say that I’m not planning to summarise or repackage what’s in the book, so if you haven’t read it or aren’t an old hand on this blog, some of these posts may be a little mystifying in places. Others, though, should work as standalone pieces. One way or another, I hope you’ll find something of interest and perhaps some things worthy of debate within them.

I’m going to work my way through the book roughly in page order. The book starts with ‘The Civet’s Tale’, which I sketched in order to make the point that, almost invariably, the choices we make have downsides as well as upsides, perhaps in agriculture more than in most areas of life (and, unfortunately or otherwise, agriculture is at the root of all those other areas of life).

Another way of putting this, following on from my previous post, is that after only death and taxes (in fact, before taxes), a certainty in life is trade-offs. Arguing this puts me in the company of mainstream economists, whose discipline proceeds largely from the concept of opportunity cost or decision-making in circumstances of scarcity. There are those – often on the political left, my own political home turf – who insist that such notions are a conceit of our capitalist economic system, which manufactures an artificial scarcity. Along similar lines there are those in agriculture, both alternative and mainstream, who insist that there’s a ‘right’ way you can farm – out of which flows abundant produce, social harmony, a handsome income to the farmer and all other good and wholesome things1. Well … don’t get me wrong … honestly, I’m with the left, and I’m with the agrarian renegades. But on just a few significant points I’m also with the mainstream economists and the sceptics of cornucopia. As I see it, Harry Truman’s yearning for a one-handed economist is rightly destined to go forever unfulfilled. Perhaps this shelfie of some of the books that particularly influenced the approach I took in my own book illustrates the point – try to reconcile the arguments in all this lot.

On pages 1-3 of my book I try to thread a way through arguments from left and right, from ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’, about decision-making under circumstances of constraint – arguing that in the present world-historical moment this points to many more people than at present turning to an agrarian life. The rest of the book, and indeed this blog, is premised on working through those implications.

Although I share a trade-off based starting point with mainstream economic thinking, there are a couple of ways in which my analysis departs from it. One of them is that I’m open to the idea that ‘scarcity’ and ‘abundance’ are not analytical absolutes but in many ways are just words we attach to certain kinds of feelings (and there’s an underlying psychology to those feelings that I examine at various points in the book, particularly Chapter 16). The things humans need are both scarce and abundant, and the best place most of us can be for getting the measure of those twin truths is on the farm, where we have to build a livelihood in their shadow.

Another way I depart from mainstream economics is that, as I see it, only a few of these trade-offs are quantitative ones that can be expressed through the medium of money. Whereas it’s a commonplace of contemporary culture to say that arguments for a small farm life or for economic localism are romantic and fanciful, I argue in the book that the real romanticism in contemporary culture, the real fantasy, is our views of money, capital and trade as the solution to our problems, as the measure of our wellbeing and as a meaningful claim against the world. In this respect, anyone who says that my book is a nostalgic evocation of past rural worlds that are now inevitably lost to us either hasn’t read it or has badly misunderstood it.

But we’ll come back to money and markets presently. For now, I’ll conclude by highlighting a few of the trade-offs that I examine in the book, not many of which are ‘economic’ ones in the usual sense of the term.

So as I see it (and as I explain in more detail in my book), you can’t usually or easily:

  • Produce more food or fibre from a given area without creating more work for somebody, or more pollution, or more stress on wild organisms, or all of those things.
  • Introduce ‘improvements’ into a society that aren’t experienced as degradations for some people – thereby calling into question singular narratives of universal social ‘progress’
  • Develop new crop varieties that involve significantly less labour input and less environmental impact, but yield as well or better than older varieties
  • Create globalized networks of profit-seeking trade without degrading human and non-human ecologies somewhere
  • Create collective forms of human organisation without creating interpersonal conflicts
  • Dismantle collective forms of human organisation without creating other interpersonal conflicts
  • Build and populate cities without energetic and social costs
  • Surrender a sense of personal autonomy without spiritual cost

Some of these issues we’ve already discussed at length and picked over on this blog, but in the posts to come I’ll try to lay them out (alongside other issues) afresh once more to fill in some of the gaps in the book and round out its analyses. I hope you’ll join me.

Note

  1. On this point, see this recent comment to an old blog post of mine and my reply … further comments on this welcome.

An alternative agriculturist’s guide to science

To begin, just a heads up on a couple of new things on the site. First, I’ve posted on the My Book page advanced comments about my forthcoming book that have come in from a number of interesting thinkers. It’s nice to get such positive notices. Currently, I’m pretty busy gearing up for the book launch on 15 October (21 October in the USA) and I’ll be devoting some blog posts to the book thereafter.

Also, an interesting comment has come in concerning my house rules on the About page, to which I replied here. I don’t promise to debate my rules with all comers, but I think the issues in this instance are thought-provoking, so I (cautiously) welcome further comments.

And now to work with a few thoughts on science and alternative agriculture, inspired partly by this article and partly by the themes explored in Chapter 16 of my book (“From religion to science (and back)”). I’m not going to engage systematically with either source, but instead just use them as points of departure for a few remarks concerning the need as I see it for many of us in the alternative agriculture movement to develop a more nuanced approach to science.

Let me start by invoking a distinction I made some time ago between what I call ‘science’ and ‘SCIENCE’. Lowercase ‘science’ is the everyday, generally unglamorous work that scientists do in laboratories, field study sites and the like, where they use carefully-formulated techniques to tease out the relationships between entities in the biophysical world. A vital aspect of ‘science’ in this sense is that the people engaged in it – almost uniquely in human discourse – have developed rigorous procedures for conceding when they’ve got things wrong and the evidence doesn’t support their contentions. Science involves rigorously self-critical scrutiny. There are arguments about the wider philosophical commitments involved in doing science of this sort, but for my part I have very little quarrel with ‘science’ as I’ve described it here – if you want to figure out what’s going on in the biophysical world, it’s pretty much the only game in town.

By the way, you don’t really need to be a scientist to do science. A lot of growers and farmers do ‘scientific’ experiments all the time. Being amateurs, farmers usually lack both the resources and the expertise to do science of sufficient rigour to meet the quality criteria necessary to contribute to the professional scientific record, but we can still usefully inform our practice with some rudimentary knowledge of scientific methods and a healthy dose of self-critical scepticism.

It’s this self-critical scepticism that’s missing from the other kind of science, which I call uppercase SCIENCE. SCIENCE is a political claim that the human world should be organized in a particular way on the basis of ‘scientific principles’ or what ‘the science’ tells us to do, or other formulations of that sort (some people call this scientism). It’s in play when, for example, someone counterposes ‘scientific’ agriculture (good) with peasant agriculture (bad). SCIENCE isn’t really about science and can claim little or no warrant from the work that scientists do. Sometimes advocates of SCIENCE are scientists (who, after all, are only human) but its loudest advocates are often non-scientists wishing to invest their beliefs with a patina of authority.

Indeed, SCIENCE has a strong hold on our imaginations because science has been spectacularly successful in comprehending and intervening in the biophysical world. So it’s not surprising people want to warrant their social or political beliefs in its name. But you might as well claim a warrant from God, for whom in fact SCIENCE is a modern substitute. The reason that science has been so successful is precisely because it isn’t SCIENCE.

It would be easy to detail the many ways in which scientific work has too easily become a stooge of large-scale, corporate-dominated SCIENTIFIC agriculture in the modern world, and on these points I largely agree with the article I linked above. But I’d like to look at the flipside of this in alternative agriculture, which I’d argue stalks this passage in the same piece:

It is ironic that would-be scientists insist on seeing new discoveries and work printed in peer-review literature because they really have no understanding what they are asking. Pioneers have no peers and certainly no peer publications to publish their work. When Bruno suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, he was put to death by his peers. Galileo was threatened with torture by his peers for suggesting the same thing.  …. Peer review is actually political review, designed to determine whether the work alienates the monopoly…Are non-astronauts peers of astronauts? Are non-presidents peers of presidents? Are non-pioneers peers of pioneers? I say. No. Pioneers have no peers except other pioneers. The emphasis on peer review should be secondary to results in the field. It is in the field that farmers, gardeners, and landscape “doctors” are either made or broken.

The only part of this passage I really agree with is the last sentence. Like shopkeepers, farmers have no fundamental need for scientific evaluation of their practice because the criteria for judging results in the field (or the shop) rest in their own hands. Unlike the work that scientists do that absolutely requires external validation (let’s call it peer review), the only validation a gardener or a farmer really needs is their own – “this works for me” (hence the usefulness of farmers being their own scientists to check as best they can that it does actually work for them).

So why might farmers seek scientific evaluation of their practice? Undoubtedly, often for a number of good reasons, but also sometimes I think for a less good one – they want it validated by something with a powerful social cachet. The problem is, as soon as they look to science for validation of their practice rather than as a means for self-critical engagement with it, they’re doing SCIENCE, not science. And, all too often, such SCIENCE works as a thoroughly unscientific social status claim – follow what I do and don’t question it, because my work has been proven to be SCIENTIFIC.

I’ll concede that there’s quite a lot of this SCIENCE in the world of professional science, though the institutional practice of science as self-critical inquiry usually ferrets it out in the end. But what I want to warn against here is the dangers of succumbing to the siren song of SCIENCE in the world of alternative agriculture. I’m not going to name names or give specific examples. I’ve done it in the past, and I don’t want to rake over old antagonisms again. Instead, I offer this five-point checklist that I hope might help alternative agriculturists avoid the temptations of doing SCIENCE rather than science. And, just to be clear, yes I need to learn from it myself.

  1. Welcome nay-sayers. Nay-saying is why science has achieved so much. You think outcome x results from practice y? Great, but perhaps you’re wrong and somebody who’s questioning you might put you on a better track. There’s no need to be browbeaten off your chosen path by nay-sayers, but every reason to listen and maybe learn from them instead of simply nay-saying their nay-saying. Nay-saying can be beautiful!
  2. A complex, real-world practice like farming or gardening involves innumerable variables that are extremely difficult, costly and time-consuming to tie down scientifically. And there are places where science can’t really go, at least not yet. So it’s OK to farm by hunches and intuitive results. A lack of scientific warrant for your practice doesn’t necessarily mean it has no virtue. But it might mean it has less virtue than you thought, and it’s as well to be alive to that.
  3. Farming can be context-specific. Person A seeking farm outcome B in place C might hit upon some novel and elegant solution D which they believe should be practiced more widely. However, if person E seeking farm outcome B or similar in place G implements solution D on the basis of a superficial applicability, there’s a good chance it won’t work out so well. In these circumstances, it’s tempting for person A or their followers to fault person E, but that’s probably not the first place to look in order to understand where things went wrong.
  4. Please don’t, just don’t, compare yourself to Galileo and berate others for ignoring your peerless originality. It’s true that the institutional structures of scientific validation are conservative, and a downside of this is that false negatives do occur, with the odd Galileo slipping through the net and failing to get the hearing they deserve. Regrettably, though, there are many, many more people who consider themselves to be latter-day Galileos but, um – how can I put this delicately? – actually aren’t, and an upside of scientific discourse is that it filters out most of these false Galileos and saves the rest of us a lot of time.
  5. To put this another way, there’s an enormous danger of hubris in considering oneself a pioneer whose only peers are other pioneers. If you consider yourself to be pioneering new ways of farming or gardening, I’d suggest that your peers are neither other pioneers nor scientists but ordinary, common or garden farmers and gardeners like me, along with innovators of the past who slowly worked out the tried-and-tested methods we’ve inherited. If you’re truly onto something that they can’t appreciate, well, too bad for them. The world will probably catch up eventually – as when the Vatican finally admitted that Galileo was right in, er, 1992. So I’d urge you to do your pioneering with humility and a measure of self-doubt, using the scepticism of others to inform further reflection and improvement. If you can do this, then, truly, you’re a scientist, whether or not you have the PhD to prove it. And this is a rare and precious thing. SCIENTISTS, on the other hand, are ten a penny.

Finally, despite directing my comments here towards alternative agriculture, let me concede that they apply all the more forcefully to mainstream agricultural discourse and its numerous idols of the moment – vertical farming, industrial eco-gloop and so on. False Galileos are everywhere.

Outside the hive

Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a big novel of ideas about humans and the natural world that will keep me thinking long after turning the final page. Here I just want to pick up on one among many of its themes and offer a few brief reflections on it, perhaps as the final curtain to the present trio of posts on collapse.

In response to an episode of (male) violence between strangers, followed by a linked episode of (male) domestic violence, Powers puts this thought into the mind of one of his protagonists: “Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.”

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits wrote “It’s hard not to feel that something slightly antihuman has crept into the philosophy”. Maybe the quotation above is a case in point (and there’s much else in the book that one could use to prosecute Markovits’ view).

But I’d like to press a different line of reasoning. Is humankind deeply ill? I’m not sure that’s so when we think about our species as an aggregate of its individuals. Certainly, there are some ill or alienated people among us who cause a lot of damage. But maybe that’s true of other species. In one study of a seagull colony, almost one in four chicks were eaten by adult birds, the majority by just four individual gulls – one of whom ate his own offspring while allowing a chick he’d stolen and brought back to his nest to survive. Seabird colonies seem rather like human slums, with the majority flocking together because that’s what they need to do to get by, but thereby making themselves vulnerable to predatory violence.

Maybe we’ll get somewhere different if we think about illness at the collective level. The constant refrain of cultural critics down the ages is that present society has lapsed into a sick, decadent or fallen state. And the pushback is often something along the lines of Markovits – that this is an anti-human, or misanthropic or elitist position that maligns the ordinary struggles of everyday people. This kind of trick is often pulled by ‘eco-modernists’ and other peddlers of business-as-usual porn – that theirs is the pro-human position, while any wider cultural critique is mere nihilism or misanthropy. However, the point of cultural critique isn’t to wallow in nihilism, but to diagnose the source of the malaise in order to improve the human condition. So, for me, to talk of humanity’s deep illness isn’t necessarily anti-human. I read the line in Powers’ novel as an invitation to human improvement. And an urgent one, as earth systems collapse around us, threatening our own wellbeing and that of other species.

Yet when I think about how to overcome that human illness and the perturbation in earth systems that it’s causing, I come to a different endpoint to Powers’ character on the matter of healthy intelligences. Because it strikes me that the malaise lies precisely in the way that we have made ourselves over into a hive culture.

The collective intelligence of humanity is that of the social ape, not the hive insect. Maybe the life history that most fits us to thrive is creating our livelihoods as competent, generalist individuals working within small collectivities – families, bands, settlements. Those in turn may be part of larger culture areas, with shared languages and cosmologies and their own inherent ideological tensions, but the arrow of life’s activities is directed at the local specifics of wresting a personal livelihood alongside others in the community.

Yet when I think about modern life, the metaphor of the hive of social insects presents itself. I don’t want to over-press it, because clearly there are differences and the mechanisms aren’t the same. But we’ve created a world with a ruling caste of queens and drones who determine the parameters of our hive, and a multitude of dependent workers who enact it, who are unable to exist independently of it, but who derive small individual benefit from it beyond the fact they no longer have the capacity to exist outside it. Among the social insects, and particularly among the worker majority, that patterning so far as we know seems to create no tension because, genetically and biologically, that’s what they’re built to act out. But it’s not entirely what humans are built to act out, and it strikes me that a lot of our illness (metaphorical and probably actual) – so much frustrated desire, so much ressentiment – may stem from this mismatch between what we’re built to do and what we actually do. Inasmuch as humankind is ill, maybe it’s because we’ve tried to fit ourselves into a collective intelligence, into a hive mind, where we scarcely belong.

Perhaps this too is why so much of the wider biological world has become ill as a result of the human hive. Powers recognizes this elsewhere in his novel: “That’s the scary thing about men: get a few together with some simple machines, and they’ll move the world.” When I lived for a time in the rainforests of British Columbia I was struck by how much of their old growth extent had been levelled by people with fairly rudimentary technologies by today’s standards – manual saws, winches, logging roads – long before the industrialized destruction of chainsaws, forwarders and feller-bunchers had been invented. The secret of that destruction was human social organization, not technological development, and the secret of the social organization was preventing people from making a competent personal livelihood in their own backyards. The militarized, masculine, hive discipline of the logging camp and its analogues is a not a healthy intelligence for humankind.

Again, the pushback against such views always addresses the benefits that humankind has brought to itself through its vast collective organization – modern health and wealth, the plethora of consumer goods on which our contemporary culture dotes, and all the rest of it. But I think we need to stop looking at ourselves in the mirror of the past and liking what we see so much, instead addressing the dramatically dangerous trade-offs that our modern hive intelligence poses for us in the here and now. More importantly, I think we need to address the possibility that a world of human autonomy outside the hive might suit us better.

I was struck by this when I read Maarten Boudry’s response to the critique of his anti-localism article that I published in my last post. Boudry wrote,

“Now of course you can try to satisfy consumer demand in radically different ways (e.g. artificial meat), but you can’t just IGNORE the demand. I get the distinct impression that, in @csmaje’s ideal future, we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live.”

It surprises me to read such dismissiveness about a supposed future where “we won’t be able to choose what to eat, nor where to live” when so few of “us” in the present world have such choices. But, more importantly, Boudry seems to be assuming that consumer demand is something that just bubbles up sui generis, with economic systems arising to meet it and thereby making “us” happy. I struggle to see this as much more than a delusion from a limited vantage point within the capitalist hive – one that insists we must admire only the intricate architecture within, rather than looking at the bigger world outside, and its universe of different possibilities.

In my forthcoming book, I provide a somewhat less admiring appraisal of the capitalist hive, and an alternative narrative about the search for human self-possession and autonomy that might make us seek a different habitat from choice as much as necessity. So I reject Boudry’s implication that I seek to coerce people into my ‘utopia’ (oh well, at least he didn’t mention the Khmer Rouge). I think people can easily find fulfilling localisms for themselves, given the opportunity. Nor, I suspect, will consumer demand lead in the future quite where Boudry thinks. The two main businesses in which I have some involvement – a small, local market garden and a small campsite – have been inundated with customers since the Covid-19 outbreak as a result of the fracturing of the larger economic structures it caused. In the short-term, that fracturing may or may not diminish, but in the long-term I think it will prove the merest tremor to the changes that are afoot. ‘Consumer demand’ will follow.

For these reasons, I think I absolutely can ignore consumer demand in its present incarnation. Instead, let me herald producer demand. Let everyone occupy their 1.6 acre share of global farmland, then raise as much (non-artificial) livestock for meat as they possibly can, should they wish. It’ll turn out to furnish them with much less meat than the average North American or Western European currently eats, but the living animals will do a lot of other useful work on the farm. And I’m not sure the producers will be significantly less happy than the average consumer in today’s world. The difficulty is the transition from today’s consumerism to that future producerism, not the lure of the producerist endpoint.

The journalist Rafael Behr writes in a different (but related context):

“People are perfectly able to understand the concept of a painful trade-off because they occur in life all the time. All but the most privileged minority are forced to choose between what they want and what they can afford. All but the most selfish among us understands the need sometimes to suppress selfish impulses in favour of duty towards others. There are only a few who find that concept challenging.”

I might go further and argue that accepting painful trade-offs can make us happy, and part of our contemporary illness is in supposing otherwise – often at the behest of the few who think that selfish impulses lead to collective benefit (there’s a whole sub-theme here on virtue versus vice as the motive force of collective intelligence that we could pursue through intellectual history from Bernard Mandeville to E.O. Wilson – but let’s leave that for another day).

Boudry calls future producerist visions of the future such as mine a ‘pipedream’. He’s probably right. As I see it, every positive vision of the future now is more or less a pipedream, certainly including his notion that we should “retreat to a smaller area and “decouple” from the landscape, so that we can give as much land as possible back to nature”. All I’ll say here is that there are increasing numbers of people who have started to look outside the hive and find pipedreams like mine more appealing than pipedreams like Boudry’s. This is just as well, because I think the future is more likely to look like my pipedream than his.

Well, perhaps I’ll say just one more thing. There’s a gender dimension to this discussion that I haven’t highlighted, but I think is interesting. The violence investing the moments of Richard Powers’ novel was male, and so perhaps is the violence that’s invested the construction of our contemporary human hive. Powers’ ‘healthy, collective intelligences’ of colonies and hives, on the other hand… Well, it’s only a thought.