A Small Farm Future: Some Problems Re-Stated

Ted Trainer has recently published a critical if fairly friendly essay about aspects of my book A Small Farm Future, called ‘Small Farm Future: why some anticipated problems will not arise’. In it, he references Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s critical and considerably less friendly essay about my book. I’d been thinking about responding when I came across an article by Sarah Mock called “I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. I couldn’t do it”. Mock is a former associate of Chris Newman, author of the widely aired essay “Small family farms aren’t the answer”. Also languishing on my to do list has been the idea of writing a response to Col Gordon’s podcast series Landed about regenerative farming in the Scottish Highlands, which I found excellent in almost every respect apart from its oft-repeated refrain that “the small family farm is a colonial concept”.

There’s considerable overlap between these various interventions around what I think are some quite problematic, if commonly held, views concerning individualism, collectivism, property and capitalism, and their implications for a small farm future. So since they’re somewhat a propos to the point I’ve reached in this blog cycle, I thought I’d address this using some of the aforementioned interventions as my cues. As someone who thinks that small family farms probably are the answer (depending a bit on what the question is) it seems worth stating the case for them, which I do below in the form of some bold declarations that I subsequently try to justify. I hope this may clarify key points of agreement and disagreement with the people mentioned above.

1. The small family farm is a resilient and successful socio-economic form. Mock’s essay heralding the demise of the small family farm is but one contribution to a voluminous global literature dating back centuries. Yet such farms keep holding on, or even springing up, in each new generation worldwide. You don’t see articles heralding the demise of the small family firm of carmakers, because such firms are long gone and the prospects for a household to scratch a living by manufacturing and selling cars are zero. Not so for producing and selling food. Hence, I’d suggest the considerable success of the small family farm is worth emphasizing.

There are two main reasons for its persistence. The first is that the forces of capitalization, rationalization, massification and industrialization that have revolutionized most industries, though all too apparent in agriculture too, have been less successful in this sector than most others, essentially because living ecologies are quite hard to commodify. The second is that possession of a small spread of land enables people to extricate themselves at least partially from those same forces of capitalization and massification, and this is therefore a permanently appealing possibility to people who seek autonomy from those forces.

As I see it, these two issues are likely to play out in the future in ways that make small farms much more common than they presently are in the rich countries. Indeed, while Mock is right that the present structure of the economy makes life hard for the small commercial farmer, the writing is manifestly on the wall for that structure, and the economy to come is likely to be more conducive to the small farmer, if not necessarily to the small commercial farmer.

2. The small family farm has worldwide appeal, and is not intrinsically a ‘colonial concept’. Mock claims in her article that the romantic ideal of a small family farm is virtually unique to the USA, but this is patently false. There’s a version of it in pretty much every country in the world. For sure, it’s invariably complicated by often bitter local histories of landlord domination, ethnic strife or colonial oppression, and it’s contested by the modernist lure of urbanism and its projected riches – a lure that, in my opinion, is every bit as romantic and problematic as its agrarian alternatives. In some places, the history of the small family farm is intimately bound up with colonialism, but small family farms are not intrinsically a colonial concept – an idea that would come as a surprise to many small family farmers throughout history in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas operating outside of colonial contexts, or running small family farms within them precisely as a positive and creative response to colonial oppressions.

3. Entrepreneurialism cannot be the bedrock of a just and renewable agrarian economy. Ted Trainer writes:

“Small Farm Future could give the impression that the small farms will be functioning according to institutions and mentalities that prevail today, that is, whereby farmers are independent “business-people” sinking or swimming by selling produce into markets, and are able and keen to accumulate wealth as individual competing mini-entrepreneurs”.

If that’s the impression people take from my book, then I’ve failed badly to convey my true thoughts – but I like to think that an attentive read of Chapter 14 should give the reader pretty much the opposite impression to the one Ted connotes, one that’s actually pretty similar to his own. As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter. To do so requires limiting the play of entrepreneurialism and the flow of capital, though perhaps not snuffing them out entirely.

Sarah Mock, on the other hand, endorses the market entrepreneurialism of new agrarian pioneers working under cooperative and collective arrangements where they “identify market opportunities” and work with “financiers to meet the needs of their customers as well as their partners and employees”. The problem with this is that they thereby submit themselves to precisely the same forces of capitalist rationalization that bear down on the small commercial family farmer. So whereas Mock implicitly brackets small family farmers with large-scale commercial operators and invokes commercial cooperative farming as a viable alternative, the truth is that all three are in the same boat when they operate commercially in generalized commodity markets. A few small family farmers and co-ops might survive in this situation – usually by increasing in size, cutting labour inputs and mechanizing, just as the corporates do – but the real dividing line is between commodity market operators of any kind and farms of any kind that are serving their own or heavily delimited local needs.

As far as I’ve been able to tell from a distance, this failing of the commercialized cooperative seems to have pretty much been the fate of Chris Newman’s Sylvanaqua Farm model – a fate that I predicted here, analyzed further here and that Mock herself critiqued in some detail here. It therefore surprises me that she doesn’t reflect a bit more critically on the difficulties of commercial cooperative farming in her present piece (incidentally, the Sylvanaqua commercial co-op was one of the models Heffron and Heron championed as a superior alternative to the small family farm).

Mock traces her enthusiasm for cooperative models to the pioneering efforts of people of colour in the USA, who “have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored”. For his part, Trainer imputes the ills of the present world to “12,000 years of conditioning to prioritise individualism, competitiveness and aggressive wealth acquisition”. I think a more nuanced reading is required in both cases, as I try to outline under the next two points.

4. People of colour have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored, but have not particularly proven or sought to prove that collective farming systems are superior. People who are subjected to discrimination and enforced poverty have little opportunity to improve their situation except by pooling their skills and what few resources they command – in this sense, I agree with Mock that people of colour in the USA historically have proven the viability of alternative and unfavoured farming systems. In a very different historical situation, Col Gordon makes a similar point about collective forms of subsistence cattle farming in the premodern Scottish Highlands. But in agrarian situations involving less extreme discrimination and impoverishment people typically develop systems that mix cooperative and private/household production, which each have their pros and cons. Such mixed collective/private systems have also been both an aspiration and an achievement of black farmers in the USA. Almost every enduring agrarian society involving collective property also involves private property. So it would be a good idea to stop talking about them as if they’re incompatible, and to home in a little more carefully on the nature of the different property regimes involved – something I’ll elucidate in upcoming essays here.

5. Capitalist societies do not prioritise individualism or competitiveness. Ted’s “12,000 years” reference is presumably to the conventionally reckoned dawn of agriculture, but for now I’m just going to refer to modern capitalism, which is often described as individualistic, competitive and accumulative. I agree with the accumulative bit, and I agree that in a certain sense modern capitalist societies could be described as individualistic and competitive. But this is also quite misleading. Take a walk around one of the city blocks where most people in the rich countries live these days. Look at people’s dwellings – those tiny spaces, those vast sinks of energy, water, food and resources from elsewhere. The people living in them could barely survive a week without relying on a huge network of other people to service them – there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about them, apart from the fact that their occupants often feel lonely and crave more human companionship, which is ‘individualistic’ only in a rather special sense. And most of these people work for huge corporations or public bodies whose modus operandi generally involves eliminating competition, not encouraging it.

6. Many people seek autonomy and a sense of personal, practical competence within a wider community, of the kind that’s possible in a small farm society. Ted Trainer argues that in the future people will need to develop new forms of local cooperation. I agree, although in many ways they will be reinventions of older forms of local cooperation. But in view of the highly collective nature of contemporary capitalist societies just mentioned, I don’t think it will necessarily be so hard to do this.

I think the hardest thing to develop in the small farm societies succeeding our present urban-capitalist ones won’t be the collectivism but the individualism – the jack-of-all-trades practical competence, the sense of making do without being able to call in expert help or cheap, pre-manufactured solutions, the autonomy of everyday decision-making on the farm.

Sometimes, this agrarian individualism gets associated with right-wing attitudes that wrongly scorn the inability of poor people to help themselves (on which, see point 4 above). Yet those who live in low-energy small farm societies know that they absolutely rely on a wider community to prosper. In such societies, there’s a creative tension between individualism, autonomy and personal competence on the one hand and community support and integration on the other. It’s the very lack of individualism in modern capitalist society – our inability to deliver the basic self-care of producing food, clothes and shelter – that many people find so alienating, and that draws them to the ‘romance’ of the small farm. But re-creating that individualism and practical competence isn’t easy.

7. Commons are specific, and delimited. The typical form of collectivism in low-energy small farm societies is a commons – common grazing, common irrigation strategies, common woodland management and the like. I’ll say more about this in another post, but usually commons are specific to particular people and activities and form a relatively small and delimited though important part of day-to-day economic life in low-energy societies. Modern activists have got into very generalized ways of talking about commons – ‘the digital commons’, ‘the atmospheric commons’, even ‘the global commons’ – which may have tactical payoffs but are also quite misleading. There’s often a lot of work involved in low-energy, local societies when people of equal standing and no hierarchical authority structure come together to thrash out collective agreements. So they try to avoid it unless the alternatives are obviously worse.

Also, the specific character of the common resource is important. In a low capital/energy society, it makes little sense for people to graze cattle individually – but it may make sense for them to milk cattle, or make hay, or grow vegetables or cereals individually, and this is often what happens. So when Col Gordon contrasts the early commons-based subsistence cattle economy of the Scottish Highlands with a later private mixed farming economy in the area he’s not really comparing like with like. He nicely shows in his podcasts that the colonization of the premodern Highland pastoral economy by Scottish and English interests themselves resting on a wider colonial project were instrumental in creating a mixed farming economy based on private ownership. This is not the same as showing that the private character of mixed farm tenure is itself a colonial concept.

8. Humans are not ants, and status contests are a real thing in every human society. Here I come to probably my main point of disagreement with Ted Trainer. If I understand him rightly, he thinks a new cooperative human culture without status contests must be created to generate renewable local societies (so do Heffron and Heron). I don’t think this is feasible, though fortunately I don’t think it’s necessary either – but I do agree that cooperation must be emphasized and status contests limited.

One dimension of this that I won’t say much about here is gender relations and patriarchy. Bizarrely, Heffron and Heron characterize my arguments as ‘patriarchal’, whereas every other reviewer who’s commented on this has correctly seen them as anti-patriarchal. Ted considers the whole issue a red herring, because he thinks future cooperative societies will be intrinsically gender equal. I find this a bit complacent, but I hope he’s right that the gains of modern feminism will be sustained and amplified through the troubles to come. However, I don’t think it’ll happen by default, so I make no apologies for making an issue of it in my book.

Leaving gender aside, I do want to make some further remarks about more general tendencies towards status differentiation in human interactions. People have a fine-honed tendency to try to get one over other people, and to try to make themselves the big man (or woman – but usually man) who gathers camp followers around them. It’s kind of ironic that one of the most prominent schools of thought nowadays that seeks to refute this as a basis of social action comprises people who seem happy to call themselves ‘Marxists’. People play the holier than thou game in all sorts of unexpected arenas of human interaction – for example, in claims to being a proper farmer, a real permaculturist or to being especially masterful at mindfully letting go of petty human concerns. I discuss this in Chapter 16 of my book and will come back to it in a future post.

But people also have a fine-honed tendency to try to take others down a peg or two and to contest claims of superior status. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest the anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues there are evolutionary reasons for this hierarchy-equality dualism that stretch into humanity’s deep past. Whether he’s right or not there’s a mountain of evidence from numerous societies spanning human history that people are forever playing games of status aggrandizement and status levelling (including, of course, evidence from modern communist societies).

Ted writes that “Hunter gatherer societies have mechanisms which prevent the emergence of inequality and greedy tyrants”, which is exactly right, but I think this supports my position better than his. These societies need to contrive explicit mechanisms to prevent status differentiation, precisely because humans, while intrinsically social, are not intrinsically collectivist – and hunter gatherer peoples are keenly aware of the problems that arise if they don’t take active steps to stop would-be big men from taking hold. Truly collectivist species – ants, for example – have no need to invent mechanisms that keep their individual members in line.

When I was on a panel a while back with a prominent US farmer involved in a cooperative farm, I asked her if she’d learned any lessons about how to run such a cooperative enterprise successfully. As I recall, she pulled a face and said something along the lines that the more people you work with, the more arguments and obstacles you face. As someone who’s a member of various co-ops myself, I recognized the pain in her face, though I also recognize that co-ops can still be a good idea. She imputed the problems to the selfishness of the modern capitalist societies we live in, but for the reasons I’ve mentioned above I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

So, in summary, I disagree with Ted that selfishness, self-aggrandizement and status conflict won’t be problems in renewable future societies. They’re a problem in every human society. But on the upside, as his example of hunter gatherer societies suggests, this isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem in creating functional egalitarian societies. Indeed, clever societies find ways to make use of people’s status-climbing energies while preventing them from becoming destructive.

Nevertheless, status conflict does need careful attention and management. Cooperatives whose members claim to get along perfectly with no need for conflict resolution are usually riven with implicit tensions that quickly tear them apart – often enough even ones that claim to be based on the collectivist wisdom of older or non-capitalist societies. I think there’s a wider lesson there for the cooperative societies of the future.

9. We need to talk about ‘the family’ part of ‘the small family farm’. I’m not going to do it here, because this essay is long enough already and because to some extent I’ve already done it here and here. But, as with status contest, there’s a need to acknowledge that family relationships are and will likely continue to be a critical part of life, and wise societies try to make the best of their positives while mitigating their negatives.

I think there’s a failure of left-wing or ‘progressive’ thought on this issue that allows the right to run riot with the concept of the family. Many people on the left that I know devote enormous attention to parental, sibling and spousal relationships in their personal lives and yet are scornful of family relationships in their writing and politics.

In his A People’s Green New Deal Max Ajl calls for agrarian reform to break large farms “into units which can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives”, and again talks elsewhere of the need for small plots workable by “non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117 and p.144). He doesn’t expand on these sensible suggestions (and Kai Heron doesn’t press him on them in his interview with Max, despite the strictures against family farming he expresses in his critique of me). Fair enough, maybe – but it does leave some questions open about the shape of family farming in the futures they envisage. Ultimately, analysis of the ‘family’ part of the ‘small family farm’ is necessary, because it’s not going to go away.

10. We also need to talk about states and publics. Again, I won’t say much about this here for brevity and because I’ll be writing about it in future essays. But just briefly, Ted says that I suggest certain problems might “have to be dealt with by “public” means, without detailing how”. This seems a bit harsh, given that I devote some attention in my book to the concept of the public sphere, to civic republican politics and to the concept of the supersedure state. Ted himself talks of “formal arrangements for dealing with problems individually or publicly” – also without detailing how! Regarding Heffron and Heron, he writes that they “do not make clear what they would want but it would seem that the core Marxist principle of eliminating private ownership of the means of production would lead them to advocate state ownership of the farming sector.”

Heffron has certainly advocated for the nationalisation of landownership, so that sounds about right. Personally, I’m not so keen to hand Boris Johnson the keys to my farm, but I doubt Heffron really favours that either. The way Marxist theories of the state generally get around this is to imagine that a working-class revolution will occur in which the state becomes the servant of an uncorrupted people’s will. Right-wing or cultural nationalists also think the state serves an uncorrupted people’s will, but of a different kind and genesis. Ted seems to think something similar, albeit again with a different framing.

I don’t share this viewpoint, and I’m extremely wary of any approach to the state that sees it as a positive manifestation of some unfolding political good. As I see it, supervening political authority is a contrivance and an unfortunate necessity that’s always likely to fail in various potentially unpleasant ways. But it’s not inevitably fated to fail everywhere and at all times. On that slim possibility, I hang my hopes. Such hopes, however, can only ever be realised in practice, by people figuring out the politics in the lived reality of their daily lives. They can’t be written down as a blueprint in a book. In that sense, I could never “detail how” republics can sort out political problems, however many words I’m allowed. Therefore I can’t honestly apologise for not trying.

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.

Commons and households in a small farm future

As I mentioned in my previous post, The Land Magazine recently published a lengthy article from me, ‘Commons and households in a small farm future’. In this post I’m simply going to reproduce the article. The version here is my original draft which is slightly, but not very, different from the one in the magazine. The magazine version is available here. If you download it, you’ll get some nice pictures and a smarter typeface.

Over the next few posts here I’m going to go through various issues raised in the article in a bit more detail. So I’ll be interested in any comments I might receive here regarding specific aspects of the article, but it may be that I respond to them in more detail as I grapple with the relevant aspects in subsequent posts. Since these blog posts are often reproduced on some other websites, let me just reiterate that your best bet for getting a response from me is to comment directly at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk.

In many ways the article in The Land scopes out the territory of Parts III and IV of my book A Small Farm Future – Part III being ‘Small Farm Society’ and Part IV being ‘Towards A Small Farm Future’, in other words, the politics of how a small farm transition may occur. So hopefully it’s a useful preamble to the various posts to come that will focus on these parts of the book.

And so, the article:

It seems likely that the numerous and growing global problems caused by modernization and globalization will devolve into lower energy, less carbon intensive, more labour intensive, more rural and more agrarian ways of life than the ones to which we’re accustomed in the wealthy countries today. In The Land 27 Simon Fairlie sketched a possible human geography for such a world1. In my book A Small Farm Future I sketch, among other things, a possible sociology – in other words, how people might organize their property, social and political relationships2. This article summarizes these aspects of my book, and extends them somewhat in the light of responses to the book and my own further reflection.

In contemplating this future, there’s a rich historical storehouse available from societies of the past and present that have lived in this way and that for convenience I’ll call peasant societies – essentially, situations where large numbers of people spend at least some of their time on small local landholdings where they produce most of their basic needs for food, fibre and other necessities for themselves. This has played out in very different ways in different times and places that are by no means reducible to the stereotype of a miserable hand-to-mouth existence under the thumb of landlords or aristocrats, although regrettably that fate has been common enough. Peasant societies are so various that generalizing about them is questionable.

Still, there do seem to be some recurrent features born of producing a low-energy, partly non-market, local subsistence which are worth pondering as we contemplate the possibility of a similar future for much of humanity. To what extent does the peasant way inherently impose certain kinds of social structure, to what extent can we now exercise different choices over those structures, and how might peasant societies of the future differ from or resemble ones of the past? These are some of the issues I address here, while asking the reader’s forgiveness for a degree of over-generalization. The examples are global, but I don’t presume to speak for the whole world in outlining a possible small farm future – my main focus is the wealthy countries of the ‘west’, and more particularly my home turf of lowland England.

The Commons

One aspect of peasant societies is their collective self-organization. Peasant societies are societies of the commons, a point that people often champion nowadays as a welcome corrective to the present unchecked power of both private interests and the state. And it’s true enough – thorough local cooperation is essential in any low impact agrarian society. But it’s not always appreciated that commons almost always go hand in hand with and are circumscribed by private household production. It’s worth examining how this works in practice.

There are four key aspects of commons, which I call the four ‘E’s’ – commons are usually extensive, elemental, extra and/or exclusive. They’re extensive in the sense that they’re particularly appropriate to situations of diffuse and irregular resources – hunting or fishing rights, forest firewood gleanings and suchlike – where individual ownership or management would be impossible or impossibly inefficient. Where such extensive resources are the mainstay of provisioning, as for example with many foraging societies, the economy can be almost entirely based on commoning with little development of private rights, but in agricultural societies extensive commons are usually a supplement to more intensive household production effectively involving private property rights3.

Commons are elemental in the sense that they often form around the larger elemental features of the landscape – fire, water and earth – that elude household control. For example, Australian aboriginal societies often managed landscapes and fire risk through controlled large-scale burnings organized on a clan basis; various rice-growing communities in southeast Asia created local irrigation associations to organize water flow to the fields; and the open-field systems of premodern England were organized around shared use of draught animals4. But in all these cases, the day-to-day work was undertaken by smaller units of household or individual labour.

Commons are extra in the sense that they can be cleverly organized to squeeze extra productivity out of given resource inputs (for example, through the complex private/commons mix in traditional dairying arrangements, with private ownership over animals, hayfields and milking, but common grazing and cheese-making). In similar ways, common grazing historically enabled people who were otherwise too land-poor to keep animals, therefore operating as a form of redistributive welfare, while some societies organise commons around labour bottlenecks in the production of subsistence staples but not for cash crops. So commons can be ‘extra’ in supplementing or underwriting the returns from the established organization of production5.

Finally, commons are exclusive in the sense that they aren’t a free-for-all available to all comers, this being one of the main ways they avoid Garrett Hardin’s notorious ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which open access leads to ruinous overuse, as in numerous collapsed maritime fisheries where there’s no local community to regulate use and prohibit outsiders. In many peasant societies, to be a commoner is to count for something locally. But the corollary is that the interests of the commoners may not be the same as the common interest. Who’s included, who’s excluded, who gets to decide and the livelihood implications of these decisions are of great importance to the shape of peasant society and the fortunes of those within it.

One thing to be learned from these examples is how essential collective organization is to the functioning of low energy agrarian societies. Another is how difficult it is to organize a successful commons, with the result that commons usually only form when they make practical sense in particular circumstances – not out of some generalized faith in the joys of human collective organization. As I see it, there are four main reasons why it’s difficult to create successful commons, all variants of a wider ‘tragedy’: humans are complex social beings who can and must work collectively with each other, but also can and do find working with each other troublesome.

The first reason is that while it may be true that modern capitalist society has foolishly made selfishness and free-riding the cornerstone of economic action, these traits are sadly not confined to capitalist societies alone, as becomes apparent from a glance through the history of commons and commons failures in non-capitalist societies. Creating structures to protect commons from abuse is costly in human time and energy, and may not be worth it unless other options are worse.

The second point is a more subtle variant of the first. It’s not that most people are inherently selfish or ill-motivated towards collective arrangements, but unless it’s specified very clearly exactly who is responsible for doing exactly what, and the holders of these responsibilities actively embrace them, then the potential for failure is high. The writer Eve Rodsky calls this a ‘CPE fail’, when conception, planning and execution of a task aren’t well enough integrated6. The easiest way to integrate them is to make a single person responsible for the whole CPE of a given task. The larger the number of people with a stake in the CPE, the more work and communicative energy is required to avoid CPE failure. When Oscar Wilde joked “the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” he might equally have been addressing this aspect of commons.

But, third, the reason it takes up so many evenings isn’t just because it’s tricky partitioning out tasks. It’s also because people disagree on fundamental details. When the benefits of collective work – such as sharing a plough team – obviously outweigh the disadvantages, people willingly swallow their differences and find ways to work together. But when it comes to personally assembled and specifically crafted inputs or outputs (on my multi-household farm this includes compost heaps, split kindling, chainsaws, scythes, certain crops and living spaces) the benefits of personal autonomy usually win the day. This is a consistent finding from numerous peasant societies worldwide.

Fourth and finally, coming back to the prospect of evening meetings, when work is organized collectively some people’s voices usually carry more weight than others. This can hold not only in relation to obvious social differences, such as the relative weight accorded to women’s voices compared to men’s, or those with greater political status and authority compared to those with less, but also in relation to individual personalities.

For example, the people who have most aggressively disputed with me my reservations about collective work and insisted on the unqualified superiority of co-operation have (without exception) been men of such abrasive disposition that they can barely compose so much as a tweet on the matter without resorting to aggressive putdowns. It seems ironic in view of their insistence on humanity’s fine-tuned abilities to get along, but I’m not sure it is. The people likely to gain most from collective organization are the ones with the loudest voices who are most practiced in the arts of domination and best able to get others to dance to their tune, perhaps without even realizing that this is what they’re doing (human communities always seem the most beautifully functional wholes from the privileged vantage point of their centre). These are likewise the kind of people who go into politics, or in peasant societies become the self-appointed custodians of the commons. Those of quieter voice face the choice of subordinating themselves to the dominants or spending a lot of precious energies trying to defuse them.

Or, when they’re able, of walking away. Imagine justifying your farm enterprise to the busybodies on your local authority planning board not once or twice during your farming career, but on an almost daily basis. What applies to planning boards also applies to allotment associations, manorial courts or village soviets – the ‘big man’ politics of personal domination transcends the specific colour of the political regime. And so, for all the reasons discussed above, it’s hard to overstress the appeal in peasant societies of autonomy. In societies where physical escape may not be easy, juridical escape is keenly sought – the ideal of ‘three acres and a cow’ of one’s own (or, as one of my correspondents prefers, ‘five acres and a cow and a donkey’).

Household Farming

But this ideal itself is a collective one. People in peasant societies rarely live on a landholding in hermetical isolation. Instead, they usually share a household or a hearth with a small group of other people and work with them to provision the household.

The household basis of the peasant farm raises similar problems to commons – in fact, the hearth is a commons in microcosm. But before looking at the problems, let’s consider the advantages of hearth-based farming, given the present state of the world.

Most importantly, household production is self-limiting in a way that commercial production for wider markets rarely is. The farm household defines its needs for itself, works to meet them, then stops. There is no inherent tendency to increasing production and profit (in fact, ‘profit’ has little meaning on the household farm), and this is important in our present populous world increasingly poisoned by the consequences of such increase7.

Another way of saying this is that the costs and benefits of production are internalized by the farm household. The economic growth from which we supposedly benefit in modern capitalist societies too often comes from the immiseration of other people somewhere else, or the destruction of wild ecosystems and the drawdown of nonrenewable resources. But on the household farm, the heavier work demanded to grow its productivity is work you have to do yourself, and the ecological destruction it wreaks is on land you have to husband. So an important part of the self-limitation of the household farm is direct economic and ecological feedback of a kind that’s sorely missing in capitalist society – there is no incentive to destroy the ecological basis of your own livelihood, nor to immiserate yourself in pursuit of a larger one.

An implication of this household self-limitation is that, although the household farm is inevitably integrated into a wider community in numerous ways, it usually guards its autonomy of labour quite jealously, which is one reason why commons are an extra and often relatively minor feature of the working landscape in peasant societies. The CPE difficulties of a commons are one thing, but so is the loss of labour autonomy it involves. In peasant societies, kitchen gardens and arable fields whose flourishing responds mostly to individual labour deployment are rarely organized fundamentally as commons.

The reader may notice that these virtues of the household farm I’m extolling sound rather like the justifications for private property and private markets invoked in orthodox economics and right-wing politics, with their emphasis on making people bear the consequences of their own actions – reaping the rewards for their industry, and the punishments for their folly. In modern societies where the monopolization of capital in few hands and speculative returns on investment deny most people significant economic autonomy, such arguments for private initiative easily become victim-blaming exercises that see the poor and powerless as the authors of their own misery.

But in certain peasant or household farming societies where people do potentially enjoy such autonomy, there’s a stronger case for centring economic self-responsibility and ecological feedback on people and their households. In these situations, there’s no need for abstract and moralistic political ideologies about individual responsibility and the good life. People create their own institutions, typically a mix of private property and commons, an autonomy-in-community that enables it. It’s no coincidence that China’s post-Mao economic dynamism started with a bottom-up peasant activism later co-opted by the state under the term ‘household responsibility’8.

Household responsibility has been ubiquitous throughout global history, often in peasant societies wholly or largely untouched by the capitalist world. So when the eminent analyst of household farming Robert Netting wrote “Where land is a scarce good that can be made to yield continuously and reliably over the long term by intensive methods, rights approximating those of private ownership will develop”9 we need to look at it through a different lens to the one we use when considering how private property functions in modern capitalist societies.

Capitalist societies are geared to the accumulation of financial capital, which is put into the private hands of a few, whereas in the kind of societies Netting is talking about private property rights are widely distributed in the hands of many household farmers, while ‘capital’ operates more as the specific forms of working capital the household needs to build and maintain the farm and a decent way of life, and transfer it to the next generation. The sense is more usufructuary – the household ‘uses the fruit’ of the land, but doesn’t prioritize financial returns from it or appropriate it as a primarily financial asset.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the persistence of outdated 19th century thinking about ‘primitive communism’ and the recent origins of private property, we’re still saddled with the notion on the left that private property in any form is the root of all evil. But as I discuss in more detail in A Small Farm Future – and indeed as anyone who’s sought planning permission for an agricultural dwelling well knows – private property involves a bundle of distinct rights, some of which can be quite enabling of low-impact smallholding, and some of which remain resolutely within the control of the wider community, with its planning boards or other structures of collective local power.

Retaining such collective rights over land is absolutely necessary for a fair society. But everything depends on who controls them and for what purposes. Usufruct is all very well, but the devil is in the detailed politics of defining and allocating usage rights. Much of the history of peasant societies can be told in terms of the conflicts over these rights, the fight for household autonomy over land, and the danger of losing control of it to more powerful players. I’d suggest this is true pretty much regardless of the flavour that politics takes. Wherever political power is invested – in a village council or soviet, a liberal democracy, an autocratic state purportedly ruling on behalf of ‘the people’, or in a local landlord class – from a peasant perspective there’s an ever-present danger that there will be a ‘big man’ politics associated with it that will remove their autonomy. But in certain perhaps unusual situations the opposite can be true and all of these seats of power can be supportive of peasant autonomy – indeed, many of the premodern agricultural commons in Europe whose loss we lament today arose out of collaboration between local peasant cultivators (usually the better off ones), aristocracies and the state10.

We may soon be entering another unusual situation of this sort where there will be scope for creating peasant autonomies. The immediate precipitating factors will be climate change, energy descent, soil crises, water crises and political crises connected with the inability of capitalist nation-states to deliver expected levels of welfare to their citizenries, all of which are likely to fuel large-scale migration within and between countries, mostly to places tolerably well suited to intensive horticulture. Land will be a scarce good and people will garden it intensively. The emphasis will not be on ‘saving’ labour, but on increasing the productivity, diversity and resilience of local agrarian economies through various means, including intensifying the application of newly abundant labour to the land.

So by the lights of the quotation from Robert Netting above, it’s likely that in these situations property will mostly be small-scale, privately-owned and household-operated. This is particularly so given that most people will lack deep local roots, so the who’s in/who’s out logic of traditional agrarian commons will be ill-suited to the situation. Such commons will develop in time, but in the short-term the commons that really matter for creating fair access to land will be ones that can create access to smallholdings for allcomers. They will have to be apparently paradoxical ‘commons of private property’, allocating cropland equitably to private households in ‘tight’ farming situations where pressure on land is high.

More than one reviewer of A Small Farm Future has commented that ecological and political crisis might as easily result in the authoritarian retrenchment of centralized nation states rather than their eclipse, and that widespread access to land will only be won through class conflict against landed interests. I accept these points, and in fact made them myself in the book sotto voce. Authoritarian retrenchment is likely, but won’t provide stable solutions to present crises, so in many places will probably lose its grip on local affairs and will not endure. Between the smooth power of the centralized modern state and the chaotic lawlessness of ‘collapse’ there’s a wide spectrum of political possibilities. It’s worth contemplating the point on that spectrum involving semi-autonomous, low energy, local, agrarian societies responsible for providing for themselves most of the resources they need for daily life, including their politics.

To achieve such societies there will have to be ‘class’ conflict over access to land, whose result isn’t foreordained. But in most places I doubt it will be the kind of class conflict still often heralded on the left, where the political activism of the most downtrodden somehow generates society-wide revolutionary renewal that unlocks the treasury of capital for all without the need for hard and socially complicated graft in the fields and workshops. Instead, I think we’ll see more localized, more chaotic, more populist reconfigurations as capital melts away, where the interests of the disparate, displaced majority who have no access to land will contest mostly with the interests of the few who hold a lot of it. The ideal outcome for this kind of populism – none too different than for certain strands of libertarian leftism – is that national, ethnic and other such historical identifications will be superseded by a shared socioeconomic interest in accessing ‘land for the tiller’ in new historical circumstances entirely different from the ones that generated older historical identities. If it succeeds, the outcome of this popular conflict for the majority could be successful access to smallholdings and the creation of the kind of peasant society I’ve been describing.

It’s a long shot, I admit. But, as I see it, it’s a shorter one than every other scheme for sustainable and just social renewal. As with all societies, small farm societies of the future will involve numerous tensions and points of conflict, although the ones they face as they wrestle with the decline and death of capitalism are unlikely to be the same as the ones faced by small farm societies that wrestled with its birth and development. Some schools of thought consider peasantries as inherently unstable, apt to differentiate into landowners and labourers, but this conceals a more complex reality and has usually only been true in modern situations of economic growth and capital penetration (and sometimes not even then). The dynamics of new peasantries emerging in situations of economic contraction and capital decline are unlikely to be the same. So in the present world historical moment there’s a good case for addressing ourselves to the challenges of creating small farm societies and keeping them convivial and integrated, without importing too much baggage from the way those challenges played out in past circumstances of capitalist growth and colonial domination.

The F Word

So far, I haven’t said anything about the composition of the households doing the household farming. That’s probably as it should be. It’s not for me to say who other people should choose to share their fields, hearths or bedrooms with. What matters is that people do share them, work together to furnish their household, and stop when the furnishing is adequate.

Nevertheless, it’s noticeable that in many historic peasant societies worldwide, households often comprise an adult female/male couple and their children. In fact, this is also true in the decidedly non-peasant society of contemporary Britain: in 2019, over 80% of the population lived in a ‘family’ (defined as a cohabiting adult couple with or without coresident children, or a lone adult with children), the great majority of them occupying a single household, and the great majority of co-habiting couples being ‘opposite sex’, to use the official terminology11. In modern Britain, and in every other historical society, people participate in and rely upon wider social networks of kin and non-kin than the occupants of their household, but small, kin-based households based predominantly upon opposite-sex adult cohabitation are historically ubiquitous.

I want to be absolutely clear I am not arguing that this or any other given type of household or family structure is historically ‘correct’ and ‘ought’ to be followed, nor that the demands of self-reliant household farming favour any particular type of family structure or gender relations. But it’s still necessary to consider family and kinship relationships in local agrarian societies of the future. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult discussion to have. Even though family relationships are a deep social force and a powerful feature of most people’s lives, when it steps onto the political stage the concept of the family too easily becomes a caricatured hero or villain in a political tug of war.

Broadly, the political right makes a particular version of ‘the’ family the basic building block of a gendered, heteronormative, hierarchical vision of social stability, while the political left opposes all such attempts to make ‘the patriarchal family’ a building block for anything – the definite article in both cases hinting at the simplifications involved. Like another well-known ‘f’ word, ‘family’ is a political F bomb that only seems to accentuate feeling and entrench division.

I take no view as to what ‘the’ family in the household farms of the future should look like, and I’d hope that people will be able to experiment with endless possibilities for creating households and family structures within local farming communities. All the same, however plausible critiques of the “toxic, totalitarian prominence of the couple” and the need for women’s liberation “from the confines of marriage, the family and compulsory heterosexuality”12 might be, it remains true that many people opt for heterosexual coupledom even in highly mobile, marketized and individualistic modern capitalist societies where that choice is far from obligatory. It seems unlikely this will change in less marketized household farming societies of the future with a heavier loading on the household as the key unit of production. So inasmuch as women indeed are confined or oppressed by marriage and ‘the’ family, then gender equity becomes a vital political concern in relation to household farming societies of the future.

But even if people actively try to avoid grounding future local agrarian societies in kin relationships, I think it’s likely they’ll end up reinventing kinship over time. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins defines kinship as “mutuality of being”, where kinsfolk “participate intrinsically in each other’s existence”13. So kinship is about living other people’s lives long-term within yours, participating in the births, deaths and relationships, the joys and sorrows, of your kinsfolk. It doesn’t matter much if these people are considered biological or ‘blood’ kin. It does matter that you eat with them, work with them and/or care for them, and establish a clear, ongoing modus operandi in respect of long-term mutuality.

All of this can apply to non-kin such as friends, neighbours, colleagues or fellow members of an intentional community, but the difference in practice is that people in these categories can usually walk away from the relationship with little cost if they choose. The essence of kinship is that it’s not so easy to walk away. Of course, people do walk away from their families, but the pain of family estrangement that fills the agony columns of the newspapers suggests that usually it’s not easy. Underlying this is a sense that there are affinities between people in kinship roles that should usually be nurtured, that the roles (sibling, spouse, parent etc.) are ultimately more important in society than whatever specific difficulties and tensions may exist between given incumbents, and that the roles extend outwards (to cousins, in-laws, clan fellows etc.), incorporating large numbers of people within a locally meaningful ‘space’ of kinship that organises much social interaction and isn’t easily dispensable.

This kinship space has weakened somewhat in modern capitalist societies where work, residence, neighbours and friends loom larger, although family relationships remain surprisingly robust. In Britain in 2016, 2 million adults received unpaid informal care from other adults, the majority from a parent, spouse or child, and more from women than from men14. One argument is that this is how capitalism offloads costs, and that the government should provide better, less gender-skewed welfare services. Another argument, which isn’t necessarily incompatible with the first, is that caring for other people and specifically for kinsfolk is what people do, involving the mutuality of being that makes us human.

In small farm societies lacking the abundant cheap capital and energy necessary to create the employment, infrastructures, mobilities and bureaucratized welfare services of modern societies, kin networks are likely to be more important. We see this in examples from numerous peasant societies. Historian of medieval England Rosamond Faith remarks “As so much depended on others, peasant farmers could not afford to trust anyone who was not of good reputation”15 – and kin networks provide a handy idiom, shortcut and safeguard for reputation. So it seems to me likely that if local agrarian societies of the future are lacking in this idiom, they’ll soon reinvent it. Kin relations aren’t easily avoided.

Let me reprise my argument so far to get to the main difficulty with household farming. In a climate and energy-challenged future with limited ability to mobilise capital, it’s likely there will be a turn to small-scale farming and horticulture geared to local self-reliance. Given the pressure on cultivable land, it’s likely that the main productive unit will be the household or ‘hearth’. There will also be commons, but these will usually be less significant for the household’s total output than the work it directs itself because of the need to intensify household labour, because of various difficulties with the efficiency of commons in this kind of ‘tight’ farming situation, and because of the desire for autonomy. It’s likely that most households will be organized through kin relations – as indeed have been most households of the small farm past and of the non-farming, urban-industrial present – and it’s likely that many of these kin-based households will be built around a cohabiting woman and man, and their children.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that this is how things ought to be, but how things probably will be. All the same, there are certain aspects of it that may be desirable. One of them is the renewable, self-limiting productivity of the household mentioned above in the face of ecological constraint. Another may be the richness of local relationships. A lot of people lament the loss of ‘community’ in modern life, and the essence of community is non-optional relationships with kin and neighbours (immediate and more distant) that aren’t easily escapable. But the obvious downside of this is the danger of oppressive relationships within the household. This danger attends every kind of household, including ones built around same-sex couples or non-kin intentional communities. So although I’m drawing on gender issues for illustration, the point goes wider. In societies where households loom large as socioeconomic units, so too does the danger of intimate violence within the household.

Still, specifically gendered violence within small farm households is surely a significant concern. The way an oppressively patriarchal family farm works is similar to the way an oppressively dysfunctional commons works. Essentially, conception, planning and execution is split between different people, with the CP largely in the hands of the powerful (men) and most of the E in the hands of the less powerful (women), with the rewards falling inequitably and perhaps also male control operating more generically than just in the organisation of specific tasks.

There have been many ways women have challenged and transformed such patriarchal structures across global history, but the one that gets most emphasis in modern ‘western’ societies is exit, or at least potential exit. Just as people mitigate the potentially oppressive nature of the commons through seeking household autonomy, so have women mitigated the potentially oppressive nature of household relationships through seeking individual autonomy via such things as accessing divorce, education, fertility control, property ownership, financial independence, paid employment, voting rights and human rights.

Obviously, I support these autonomies, but there are some difficulties in realizing them for small farm societies. Without abundant capital and energy, it’s not easy to build the large institutional alternatives to a local household farming society that make them readily achievable. Indeed, avoiding the ecological drawbacks of abundant capital and energy is a principal advantage of a household farming society, but the risk of patriarchal control is high. Another problem is that while household exit from the domination of the commons may be feasible in peasant societies, individual exit from the domination of the household isn’t so easy, not least because it’s hard to generate an adequate livelihood as an individual in a low energy, low capital small farm society.

So safeguarding women’s rights and other rights within households in small farm societies is vital, but also challenging. At the same time, there’s a mirror to this problem – men without households can bring their own challenges in peasant societies where state control is weak. This was explicitly recognized in early medieval English ideas about the heorđfæst: a society where men are mostly ‘hearth-fast’, attached to a farm household, poses fewer threats to the general safety and wellbeing of its members than a society rife with unattached and underemployed men with a point to prove16. Finding ways that both women and men can be attached to a household that cares for them and honours their individuality, while also channelling it, is difficult. But household farming societies haven’t always failed completely in the task historically.

The ghost in the machine: politics as the other half of kinship

Building the basis for creating such caring rather than oppressive low impact, small farm households appropriate to present times is a key challenge. If I can’t claim to have solved it, I plead in my defence that I’m not alone. Patriarchy and other forms of oppression have remained stubbornly alive across all kinds of societies. It would be fanciful to think there are any simple or foolproof solutions.

All the same, there’s a place we can look for mitigating these oppressions. That place is politics. A banally obvious point, perhaps, but I want to suggest a particular kind of politics that could work in a future household farming society as a complement or alternative mode to the kinds of local kinship I’ve just been describing. Kinship looks to erase differences, emphasize commonalities and create a sense of a harmonious social world. This has its advantages, but it tends to bury social power, gender inequalities and other such uncomfortable truths. Political relations in a congenial small farm society would have to act as a counterweight to kin relations, identifying and transforming tensions and differences.

I won’t dwell here on the shape of that politics. In A Small Farm Future I briefly discuss the traditions of civic republicanism as particularly apposite for small farm societies of the future. A key attribute of civic republicanism is the existence of a public sphere, where a citizenry of equal standing tries to resolve issues through reasoned argument rather than the exercise of social power. Recent writings on the possibilities for restorative culture are a less explicitly political version of similar ideas.

A case in point is Eve Rodsky’s discussion about the politics of CPE and its failures that I mentioned earlier. Although I applied her analysis to problems with commons, which it nicely illuminates, Rodsky isn’t writing directly about commons at all but about female-male domestic relationships, where she argues that women usually shoulder a heavier CPE burden for household work than men in ways that men rarely notice or implicitly value. By bringing this hidden labour into the open and renegotiating the domestic workload on the assumption that men’s time is not more valuable than women’s, it can be possible to create a better functioning and less resentment-filled relationship or ‘domestic commons’. But in view of the gendered histories of labour and domesticity, this probably does require a wider public sphere to make reasonable the proposition that women’s time is as important as men’s.

In a thought-provoking essay, Wendell Berry argues that local communities are the necessary intermediary between the alienation of do-as-I-please individualism and the legalistic force majeure of centralized states and their associated publics17. For him, communities provide the firm foundation of local custom and practice on which good social relations – including good gender relations – must be built authentically from the ground up. The problem as I see it is that while this may ideally be true, too often the politics of local community simply replicates the don’t-rock-the-boat politics of household and kinship, conniving at rather than challenging its oppressions. A more transformative idea of local public deliberation is called for, where it’s possible for anyone to say “my voice will be heard, however important you think you are, and however much you’d prefer not to hear it”.

There’s a risk my argument involves a ‘ghost in the machine’, implausibly invoking the public sphere as a stopgap concept to rescue gender relations or other points of social tension from oppressive content in the small farm societies I’m describing. Yet I’d argue that every plausible public politics involves a ghost in the machine, because the essence of politics consists in identifying inherent conflicts or tensions in existing structures and attempting to overcome them with new approaches that inevitably borrow from the ghost of the old, albeit in different contexts (e.g. that if all men are created equal, then perhaps all men and women are created equal too, which was Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering feminist and republican critique of Rousseau). A future challenge lies in trying to retain this sense of differentiated public deliberation in small farm societies, rather than surrendering political autonomy to the notion that communities, classes, market forces, elders or charismatic leaders know best.

So against the conservatism of kinship and community, I propose the public. And against mechanical political approaches committed to the idea of some objective, underlying process like class consciousness or market discipline as the true motor of social progress, I propose only ghosts, with no guarantees that a small farm future will avoid patriarchy or other forms of domination. But then nor, I think, can any other political philosophy plausibly make the same guarantee. As I see it, there’s no machine, but only ghosts to guide our hands in working with the crooked timber of humanity. But ghosts can be powerful, and a patriarchal peasant future isn’t foreordained.

Inheritance

A couple of final points, the first of them geared to grounding the rather abstract discussion from the previous section into a problem of practical politics faced by all societies, but perhaps especially peasant societies. This is the issue of inheritance and intergenerational transfer.

Creating a tolerable livelihood in a low-energy, low-capital society involves learning often supremely difficult foraging, farming and/or craft skills, and acquiring the resources from previous generations to practice them. The main way peasant societies have dealt with this is through children growing up in and learning how to participate in a productive household, and at some point inheriting land and farm property from older generations. The difficulties involved in this are enormous, but the same goes for intergenerational transfer in all societies. Probably the main difficulty with property inheritance is that it tends to reinforce inequalities of wealth and status over time. Through bad luck, bad choices or naked theft, the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on the inheritance of the children. Peasant life historically has too often involved a grim struggle not to slide down the social order into poverty or dependence, and multi-generational strategies for rising up it.

Modern societies have moved some distance from this local politics of family and land, with redistributive centralized welfare states, formally equal citizenries and the engines of industry promising an ever-growing monetized wealth rather than a limited landed one down the generations. But given that the poorest 50% of the global population owns only about 1% of global wealth, while up to a third are physically undernourished, it can hardly be said this modern alternative is working out well. As economic growth falters and the various other crises I’ve mentioned bite harder, the prospects for redistributive, growth-oriented, centralized welfarist states surviving at all seem low18. At some point in this trajectory, the idea of being a hearth-fast smallholder may come to seem a more plausible route to a decent livelihood for most people than hitching one’s fortunes to the sputtering industrial growth engines of the modern central state.

In A Small Farm Future I toyed with ideas like high inheritance taxes as a way of preventing social inequalities, rentier landlordism and the economic effects of historical injustices such as racism from stifling opportunities in societies unable to buy off their populations with the promise of future fiscal growth. Others call for the nationalization of landownership. Such ideas might work where citizenries have collective commitment and a strong faith in the redistributive goodwill of the state. In England today, where corporate/government linkages already represent a land nationalization of a sort, and where radically redistributive governments have been in power for perhaps five out of the last seventy-five years, I wouldn’t personally wish to hand yet more power to the Boris Johnsons or Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world to determine how people might access and use land, nor to any centralized revolutionary politics divorced from the particularities of land stewardship. Various forms of localized co-operativism seem more attractive alternatives, but then we get into the minutiae of who gets to be the gatekeepers of local usufruct discussed earlier. In the face of such uncertainties, peasant farmers historically have often opted warily for the tried and tested routines of family inheritance and private landownership when they can.

Which segues into my final point. The notions of property, family and inheritance often articulated within peasant societies can seem dismayingly conservative. Radical politics in modern urban-industrial societies is usually both more individualist and more collectivist – more individualist in its critiques of family, gender, heteronormativity and the ‘couple norm’ in favour of personal freedom, and more collectivist in its belief that propertyless joint economic endeavour on a mass scale is feasible and liberatory.

I have some sympathies with this politics, especially its individualist elements (I find its collectivist elements unconvincing in view of the problems of CPE failure and ‘big man’ domination). There’s definitely a place for constructive, radical critique of the peasantization process I’ve sketched here. But it would have to venture into territory where existing radical politics in the west seldom dares to go: a future world of probable economic and industrial decline and state contraction, with limited energy availability, widespread migration and ruralization, and the need for many or most people to engage in labour-intensive local food and fibre production finely calibrated to the limited potentialities of the local landscape.

We know that societies of the past have experienced such pressures, and sometimes thrived in the process. Generally, they responded through strong but limited commons, family-based household farming involving bundles of private rights, family inheritance, labour intensification and land intensification. I think it’s worth attending carefully to how and why they did this before assuming there’s nothing we can learn from them in the face of contemporary problems.

Notes

  1. Simon Fairlie. 2020. ‘Cars: an exit strategy’ The Land 27: 12-17.
  2. Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth. Chelsea Green.
  3. See, for example, Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press.
  4. See: Bruce Pascoe. 2019. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Scribe US; Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies. University of California Press; Robert Allen. 1992. Enclosure and the Yeoman. Clarendon Press.
  5. See, among others: Tine De Moor. 2015. The Dilemma of the Commoners. Cambridge University Press; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7: 16-31; Bray op cit;J.M. Neeson. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge University Press; Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press.
  6. Eve Rodsky. 2019. Fair Play. Quercus.
  7. See Netting op cit and Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood.
  8. Lynn White. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.
  9. Netting op cit p.158.
  10. De Moor op cit.
  11. ONS. 2020. Families and Households in the UK. https://www.ons.gov.uk/releases/familiesandhouseholdsintheuk2020.
  12. Sasha Roseneil et al. 2020. The Tenacity of the Couple Norm. UCL Press, pp.7-11.
  13. Marshall Sahlins. 2013. What Kinship Is–And Is Not. University of Chicago Press, p.ix.
  14. ONS. 2019. Living Longer: Caring in Later Working Life. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/ageing/articles/livinglongerhowourpopulationischangingandwhyitmatters/2019-03-15#who-is-providing-unpaid-care.
  15. Rosamond Faith. 2020. The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. Cambridge University Press, p.80.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Wendell Berry. 1992. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. Pantheon, pp.117-73.
  18. Smaje op cit, Part I. For other analyses of the modern malaise, see: Aaron Benanav. 2020. Automation and the Future of Work, London: Verso; Hilary Cottam. 2018. Radical Help. London: Virago.

The Collective, The Individual and the Big Man: A Note on Small Farms, Racism and the Media

The Land Magazine has just published a long article from me in which I sketch some key issues facing small farm societies of the future, anticipating much that I want to say in the remainder of this blog cycle concerning my book A Small Farm Future.

I’ll reproduce the article in my next post and expand on it in future ones. In this post, I’m just going to mention a few points from it, relating them to an issue that seems to have blown up in alternative farming circles in the USA concerning the alleged racism of small-scale family farms, and how media constructions play into this – what I’ll call the Salatin-Newman problem. But I’ll get to that shortly.

1. Household farming and the commons

Societies oriented to local agrarian livelihoods have frequently involved strong forms of collective organisation, but also a strong development of what are effectively private property rights, typically exercised by households comprising closely related kinsfolk practising skilled self-provisioning work individually. This can be upsetting to standard modern political positions, the collectivism offending cherished notions on the right, the individualism and kin structuring offending cherished notions on the left.

In my article, I explain why these jointly collective and individual forms are so frequent and outline some of their advantages – while acknowledging, I hope, the drawbacks too. I suspect these joint forms will figure heavily in small farm societies of the future. I’m open to the possibility there may be better ways to organise things, but to be persuasive I think the proponents of such possibilities need a thorough grasp of why the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual practices has been so frequent historically. Alas, this seems less common than invoking simplistic individual vs collective dualisms and advocating solely for one or other side.

I touched on some of these issues in a post I wrote a little while ago, where I offered some friendly criticisms of the cooperative farming model advocated by Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms.

Sylvanaqua’s response on Twitter was none too amiable, opting for an ad hominem attack on me along the lines that I sounded like a wannabe know-nothing with a permaculture design certificate, before suggesting to a woman who was advocating critical engagement with my position that “You can look for my work and read it, or you can go fuck yourself. Because who are you again anyway?”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced an aggressive and dismissive response from people (men, usually) who espouse egalitarian collectivism in agriculture. Usually, I’ve just shrugged at the irony of folks who can’t even engage in a Twitter exchange without combative putdowns while supposing they can handle the enormously more emotionally demanding reality of genuinely egalitarian collectivism in farming.

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t an irony at all. The people who stand to gain the most from formally egalitarian modes of local collectivism are the ones most skilled at implicitly dominating, bullying, cajoling or bending them to their own purposes where others will have greater difficulty in challenging the appearance of collective harmony. So it’s no surprise that egalitarian collectivism is often favoured by domineering characters – not least within historic Marxist-Leninist regimes where the ‘big man’ style of personal domination can justify itself with respect to the ‘scientific’ trappings of its power, and opponents can be easily dismissed as ‘bourgeois’, ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’ or whatever. The appeal of being able to walk away from this big man style of local domination, of not having to either submit to or waste precious time resisting the dominants, is one reason why more individualist approaches manifest in many agrarian societies. In my article, I trace a few of the implications of that point.

I can’t say whether Chris Newman fits that oxymoronic mould of the domineering egalitarian, and I don’t much care. My point is a wider one. But the tweets emanating from Sylvanaqua do give me the impression of the kind of status-aggrandizing big man micropolitics that so often blights people’s lives in rural places where you can’t just escape by turning your computer off, but you might just escape if you’re able to organise some personal autonomy through property rights.

After I’d submitted my article to The Land, I became aware of various recriminations emerging out of Sylvanaqua – as for example discussed here, here, here and by Sarah Mock here. I’m in no position to judge the various claims and counterclaims, except to say their very existence does seem like prima facie evidence for my basic argument that it’s hard to keep large-scale agrarian cooperatives on an even keel.

Indeed, this point is made by Sarah Mock, formerly of Sylvanaqua, thus: “[a] system of collective agriculture …. requires outstanding interpersonal skills, a deep commitment to shared goals, a thoughtful recruitment strategy and a rigorous onboarding and training curriculum, a strong and healthy internal culture, a bias towards continuous personal growth, and well-established and articulated structures for conflict-resolution that can be accessed and reinforced by each and every member of the group. Collective systems require collective power and an incredible amount of humility and patience from every individual, most especially the leader.”

Aside from the eyebrow-raising idea that genuinely collective systems of agriculture have ‘a leader’, this seems about right to me as a general summation of the challenges these systems face. In my twenty odd years around alternative agriculture, I’ve seen much-touted, supposedly mould-breaking new co-ops and non-profits fail time and again because of these inherent difficulties – often through social conflict between people of goodwill who end up bearing the wider dysfunctions of the food system as a personal burden. To be fair, I’ve seen a few household farms fail too for much the same reason. None of this stuff is easy.

But now imagine yourself in a tight and tough peasant farming situation that places heavy demands on your labour, with little time, energy or capital to spare. I’d suggest that the chances of pulling off the kind of system that Mock describes without conflict or personal domination emerging are minimal. Which is a major reason why local agrarian societies usually work collectively where they have to, but not otherwise. This raises other difficulties, which I discuss in my article and in my book. But the alternative of agrarian cooperatives is no panacea.

2. Is the small farm racist?

Another theme that’s recently emerged around the household vs collective farming duality, particularly in the USA and again with Chris Newman as a key protagonist, is the question of the small family farm model as being effectively racist.

The background to this is Newman’s argument with regenerative grass farming notable Joel Salatin, which is explained in this widely-aired article by Tom Philpott. In a nutshell, Salatin responded to some criticisms of his farming practice from Newman with ad hominem dismissals of the latter’s greenhorn status (well, I know how that feels) followed up with some heavily racist comments.

It’s a sad story of Salatin’s flaws but, in Philpott’s rendering, it becomes something more, with Salatin presented as an archetype of small-scale, regenerative, family farming more generally, his racism a lineal heir of the Jeffersonian smallholding vision and his individualist farming model merely replicating systemic inequities. Newman is presented as the positive to Salatin’s negative – someone who draws from a deeper, anti-racist, collectivist, indigenous tradition.

And so we arrive at this homology:

Salatin – Newman

Jefferson – Indigenous

Racist – Anti-racist

Small family farm – Larger multi farm

Individualist – Cooperative

Politically conservative – Politically transformative

Confirms existing food system – Challenges existing food system

Negative example – Positive example

I think this is problematic for various reasons which I hope to address in future posts. It’s true nonetheless that small-scale farming models have played their part in the history of US racism. If we’re going to point the finger at a president, however, I’d suggest a more telling target than the soft one of Thomas Jefferson is the more ambiguous one of Abraham Lincoln, on whose watch the 1862 Homestead Act was passed. As documented in Paul Frymer’s interesting book Building an American Empire, it was through this (and other) means, that US governments peopled the country in the late 19th century with land-hungry white settlers in ways that ensured white electoral majorities over black and indigenous people, and indeed in ways that helped create ‘whiteness’ as a modern political project in the USA.

There are other cases of racialized small farm settlement as a political strategy on violent colonial frontiers – for example in parts of Latin America, Southern Africa and Australia. But the history of these places is not the history of the world, and farm scale per se is not the decisive factor in them. The agrarian history of political racism in my home country of Britain worked in pretty much the opposite way. Britain’s colonial extension established it as a food-importing metropole, extracted most of its national populace from small-scale farming, and fostered large-scale commercial alternatives at home and abroad. If the small family farm can be represented as a racist institution, then a nodding familiarity with the history of the Atlantic slave system is surely enough to suggest that the large non-family farm oriented to supplying agrarian commodities to metropolitan regions is also a racist institution.

I suspect the dominance of settler-colonial history in folk memory within the Anglophone world, and the global political dominance of the USA, makes it dangerously easy to slide from the racist settler-colonial history of the small farm in the US to some over-generalized notion that small family farms are racist and inherently problematic. Yet there have been generation upon generation of small-scale, kin-based farms in South, Southeast and East Asia, in Africa, in precolonial Europe and in the Americas without the racism implicated in current US discussions of the small single farm model. This alternative small farm history includes African American farmers in the USA in the aftermath of slavery, as discussed in this interesting presentation by Noah McDonald. The notion that the small kin-based farm is inherently tainted by racism strikes me as an ethnocentric and Anglocentric over-generalization of more specific histories.

Perhaps I’m labouring the obvious here: the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. There is intrinsic racism in access to farmland, and most other forms of capital, in the USA and in Britain and other countries too. In my opinion, anyone starting up a small family farm, a large commercial farm or any other kind of land and capital-based operation is well advised to do it thoughtfully in the local historical context of who has had access to land and money and who has been denied that access, and to do their best to transcend that history, even if their best probably won’t be good enough. But the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. Indeed, often enough it’s been aspirational for people denied the possibility of creating one due to racism and other forms of oppression.

I won’t dwell here on the other problematic aspects of the homology I drew out above from Philpott’s article, though I hope to return to some of them. However, as I’ve said previously, whether farmers work in single family operations or in larger cooperatives, it’s unlikely they’ll succeed in redressing the iniquities and inequities of the food system, still less the everyday power dynamics of human interaction, bottom-up through their farm structure. So while I think Chris Newman and Tom Philpott are right to question the transformative potential of the small family farm model within our current political economy, the same doubts hang over the kind of cooperative models they espouse. I’m not saying people shouldn’t experiment with such cooperative models. On the contrary, I’m all in favour of experimentation. I’m likewise in favour of experimenting with family/household farming models. I just don’t think there are good grounds for suggesting that fully cooperative models are intrinsically better than household farming ones. Or for suggesting that either model alone can remedy the deep-seated problems of the food system.

The reason I still advocate for small-scale household farming is mostly because I think it’s best equipped to meet the looming challenges of climate, energy and socioeconomic crises to come, rather than being an intrinsically transformative model in the here and now. On that note, those of us who have white privilege, or class privilege, or rich country privilege, might be wise to look at the example of Thomas Jefferson with a little less self-righteous hindsight and a little more personal discomfort. Jefferson lived in a time of unprecedented social change. He addressed himself in some powerful ways to that challenge, but in the end failed to overcome the contradictions, compromises and bitter legacies of his time – a failure in my view grounded less in the fact that he advocated for small family farms than in the fact he didn’t advocate for them radically enough. In any case, many of us may soon find ourselves likewise living among epochal changes that will bring immense suffering to many people. In fact, we already are. Can we look at ourselves with honesty and be certain that we or the politicians we elect will meet the moral challenges facing us better than Jefferson did? I’m not seeing good grounds for that at present.

3. Farming the media

A problem with the Salatin-Newman imbroglio is the fact that it’s a media event, with all of the pressure for simple and satisfying storylines that entails. Joel Salatin has some interesting ideas about grass and livestock, but he’s never been an uncomplicated hero of the alternative farming movement (as opposed to people writing about the alternative farming movement) or been seen as a significant political theorist within it, and he’s long been criticized within the movement for several reasons – not least that his skills at media self-promotion somewhat exceed his results on the ground.

It now seems the same may apply to Chris Newman. I wouldn’t know. But I definitely think there’s a problem with the way that charismatic personalities appear on the farming scene, scornfully dismiss predecessors in favour of their chosen approach, get themselves amplified in the media and gather disciples around them who loudly squash any questions or criticisms, and then get invoked positively in boilerplate media articles as a shorthand critique for much more complex and ambiguous realities. I’ve seen it so, so many times across numerous dimensions of the farming scene. It’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to strive to do better – and we need to do better than this. In my view, the lesson of the Salatin-Newman problem is not that Salatin was a hero who turned out to have feet of clay and needed replacing with a new hero like Newman, but that it’s better to write about farming without invoking heroes at all.

So, here’s my suggestion: if a farmer has written a book, does a lot of social media, has a lot of articles written about them, or claims to have solved the difficulties that are inherent to farming or the politics of farming, then treat the claims they make or that are made on their behalf with a large pinch of salt. Of course, with a book, a blog and a Twitter account to my name, I thereby implicate myself within this rogue’s gallery of influencers and wannabes. To be honest, I feel a bit too old and tired to qualify as a ‘wannabe’. Except for one thing – there’s a vastly greater historical weight to the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual peasant farming strategies than there is to the mould-breaking claims of a handful of media-savvy present day farmers, and I wannabe a voice as best I can for those tried and tested strategies of innumerable small-scale and peasant farmers down the ages who for the most part never left a script, never had a book to sell, a big idea or a guru to promote, but who I believe have nevertheless still left much from which people today can learn. What I hope to do in the next part of this blog cycle is try to distil some of those lessons for present circumstances.

How capitalism started, and why it still matters

A happy new year to you from Small Farm Future, and as happy as possible a Brexit. I have a busy January ahead, involving various podcasts, webinars and conference papers geared to my book (scroll down this page and you’ll find the itinerary). I also need to do some replanting in our stricken ash woodland and attend to various other farm tasks. So I may not be very active on the blog for a while. But I want to start the year with a post that continues my exploration of themes from my book, in this case lighting on Crisis #9: Political Economy (pp.53-73). These twenty pages are in many ways key to the whole book.

To reprise the title of this post, how capitalism started and why it still matters are important themes I discuss within those twenty pages. Maybe it’s necessary to define capitalism before discussing how it originated, but let me begin by defining what it isn’t. If I grow a crop or make a widget, take it to a market and sell it for money to someone who wants it, that doesn’t inherently make me a capitalist. In fact, capitalism isn’t particularly about markets or selling things. This needs stressing over and over, because powerful narratives to the contrary repeatedly fool us into supposing otherwise.

The clue to the nature of capitalism is in the name – capitalism is about making the biggest possible return on capital investment, and it’s about making this fundamental to the whole organization of society. Sometimes capitalism involves selling things in markets in pursuit of that larger aim, but often the major energies lie elsewhere. The best short definition of capitalism along these lines I’ve come across is from Wolfgang Streeck: a capitalist society is one that “secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation”1.

And so to the first part of my essay title. How did this bizarre way of organizing affairs get started? In an influential article first published in 1976, historian Robert Brenner argued that it started in England – nowhere else – in the late 15th century, when large-scale rural landowners established competitive tenancies for relatively wealthy peasant farmers, incentivizing them to increase the profits and productivity of their farming. This, Brenner argued, was the result of a longer-term class conflict emerging from medieval contests between landlords and peasants that took the unique turn in England of an only partial victory to the peasants. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the victory went to the landlords, whereas in France it went to the peasants, establishing different kinds of agrarian society that were only upended in later revolutions. But in England, says Brenner, and only in England, the stalemate between landlords and peasants produced – quite unintendedly on their part – a monetized, accumulative and self-transforming rural capitalist society.

Brenner’s intervention stimulated much research by agrarian historians of England, and the upshot of their enquiries was, in a nutshell, that he was wrong, and there was no simple competitive dynamic between landlord and tenant farmer – though historians usually give Brenner his due for re-energizing their field of enquiry. Brenner himself incorporated some of this revisionism into his later work, but his original formulation remains better known and more influential2.

One way in which a Brennerite view remains influential is a coarsened popular version whereby our modern capitalist ills in England are imputed to ‘the enclosure of the commons’, when profit-seeking landlords moved to stop peasants from accessing land and producing their subsistence. I’ll talk more about commons when I get to Part III of my book in this blog cycle, but the bottom line is that while the extinction of common rights did sometimes occur at the expense of peasant subsistence, enclosure was a hugely complex process, often involving peasants enclosing their own land, and the more you look in detail at its processes in the English countryside, the less clearly related they seem to the emergence of capitalism3.

All this prompts two questions. First, if capitalism didn’t arise in England through rural class conflict, then where and how did it arise? And second, why does any of this matter today? I’ll attempt a brief answer to the first question, which will lead to an answer to the second.

Very broadly, I’d suggest that capitalism arose, to quote from my own book, “out of a confluence where the great trading empires of Asia connected with the fiscal-military states of Europe and their seaborne empires that brought first precious metals and then plantation produce from the Americas into global circuits of exchange, much of it via the super-exploited labour of enslaved Amerindians and Africans” (p.62).

This alternative approach to capitalist origins was pioneered by thinkers of the left like André Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. A couple of points to notice about it. First, it’s less Eurocentric or Anglocentric than Brenner: capitalism wasn’t the achievement of any single country or region, but resulted from relations between many – albeit relations greatly influenced by colonial domination enthusiastically prosecuted by European powers. Second, unlike the Brenner thesis, this approach makes the role of centralized states key to the emergence of capitalism. Again, despite powerful narratives to the contrary, capitalism has always been a state project – in fact, a project of commercial linkage between states. Brenner wrote an article criticizing this approach and its leading theorists for “neo-Smithian [i.e. commerce-emphasizing] Marxism”. In this, he built on a long left-wing tradition of claiming superior status through greater loyalty to the thought of Karl Marx, and of disdain for left-wing thinkers who look beyond it – a tradition that unfortunately still seems to be with us. But, unlike Brenner’s thesis, the ‘neo-Smithian’ approach now commands more general support among economic historians, leftwing and otherwise, despite ongoing disagreement about the details4.

Anyway, if we go back to English history with this more state-centred view of capitalism in mind, it becomes easier to notice that the Tudor state took steps to protect English peasants from expropriation by aristocratic landlords. This arose less from benevolence than from conflicts between state and aristocracy over command of resources, conflicts that England’s unusually weak aristocracy generally lost. It also becomes easier to notice how the early modern English state was locked in fierce battles with other European states – the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal etc. – to grow its economy through imperial control of wider trade and monetary networks.

I’d argue that capitalism arose more as an unintended consequence of this emerging system of competitive states than as a consequence of rural class conflict in England specifically. A look at the English countryside from the late medieval through the early modern period does show an increasing commercialism across all classes, with more monetization, capitalization and consumerism, and I’m not suggesting this had no bearing on the state’s trajectory towards capitalism. I’d nevertheless argue that the real motor of that trajectory was in the dynamics of the state and its competitors.

Why do these events of many centuries ago and the different explanations for them matter today? Because I think we’re now living in the twilight of global capitalism, arising out of its unsustainable dynamics of capital accumulation and their consequences in terms of energy, climate, soil, water, economics, politics and other things (in other words, all the crises that I discuss in Part I of my book). This forces us to consider how our societies might transcend these unsustainable dynamics, and here the different approaches to capitalist origins push in different directions and lead their proponents to emphasize different issues. I won’t trace these differences in all their ramifications here, but I’ll conclude by homing in on a few of them which seem to me particularly important to frame politically.

It’s often said nowadays that the old divisions between left-wing and right-wing politics are breaking down, which I think is true in many ways. I find class versus state approaches to capitalist development quite helpful in thinking through this reconfiguration.

People drawn to orthodox Brennerite class-based leftism are inclined to protest – too much, in my opinion – about small-scale private property rights, petty commerce, personal economic autonomy and so on, because they regard it as prelude to or generative of capitalism. But this is only likely to be true in situations where these features are being actively coopted by growing, centralized states forging a capitalist world order. The situation we now face is more likely one of state decline, contraction and disintegration – and in those circumstances I would, on the contrary, actively champion opportunities for widespread, accessible, secure, small-scale rural property tenure and petty marketing as critical for the possibilities of a decent life.

There are, alternatively, state-centred thinkers who take a rosy view of the capitalist state’s corporatism and technological prowess, and this usually terminates on both the political left and right in a techno-fixing rearguard commitment to the large-scale corporatist status quo in the face of present challenges – which is why to my eyes the arguments of people like Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Mike Shellenberger, Leigh Phillips, Mark Lynas or Nick Srnicek end up looking pretty similar, despite their different self-proclaimed positionings on a left-right axis.

Then there are people who view capitalist development as a largely malign manifestation of centralized state aggrandizement, and seek more convivial and organically local forms of socioeconomic action – a camp in which I find myself. Touchstone concepts for this way of thinking include individual and local self-reliance, autonomy, liberty, rural/small town revival, petty commerce and (primarily) local mutuality. The right-wing or conservative resonances of these concepts are perhaps obvious, but so too should be the left-wing ones – particularly once we abandon the misguided notion that selling wares at local markets or having decision-making autonomy over farm property are somehow intrinsically capitalist, or that notions of “community, magic, craftsmanship, and enchantment” as discussed by Ernie in this interesting comment are intrinsically conservative or ‘reactionary’. I hope to come back to this in a future post.

Nevertheless, I continue to identify with the political left and so there are aspects of this local autonomism that I consider potentially problematic and in need of checking – namely, accumulated economic privileges between households, families and, ultimately, classes, and other differentials of social power between different kinds of people, perhaps especially between men and women, and between ‘local’ and ‘non-local’ groupings. So, within the limitations of a short and non-technical book, I go to some lengths in A Small Farm Future to address how these problematic tendencies may conceivably be checked within semi-autonomous local societies of the future in the context of contracting centralized states. An important part of this that I broach in Crisis #9 and discuss elsewhere in the book is the need to avoid the inequalities associated with extractive landlordism, to which secure and widespread rights to private property in farmland offer one solution.

In this respect, I share a Brennerite concern about extractive landlordism, which I think is a bad thing – but I don’t think it’s a thing that’s inherently generative of capitalism. So while any just, post-capitalist local politics must address local class formation and conflicts around things like landlordism, the connections between local producers and the larger state are ultimately more to the point in how those class conflicts play out, as analyzed in Part IV of my book5. As per recent discussions on this site, I’d suggest that recourse to an analytical language of class derived from older state/producer formations that have now largely passed into history (‘the peasantry’, ‘the proletariat’, ‘the (petty) bourgeoisie’ etc.) lack coherence unless they’re plausibly linked to the new and unprecedented terrain of state/producer relations that’s emerging in the contemporary world: capital decline, state decay and retrenchment, mass migration, pervasive ecological disruption and so forth. My book presses the view that ‘the peasantry’ may be one of the few such categories to retain some relevance in this emerging world.

I’m wary of political traditions that propose the centralized state as the major safeguard against problems like local landlordism or patriarchy, especially in view of its declining reach. I’m warier still of political traditions that regard the state as an instrument of ‘the people’, or of a sub-set of the people regarded by the tradition as particularly worthy or important, such as ‘the working class’. As I see it, the state is no less, and often much more, capable of acting the rapacious landlord, predatory bandit or chauvinist paterfamilias as any smalltime landholder, and this view colours much of my analysis in Parts III and IV of the book.

But we’ll come to that presently. For now I’ll simply conclude by saying that the difficulties of constructing just societies out of the wreckage of global capitalism in the present historical moment seem virtually insurmountable, but they’re just a little less insurmountable if we can specify accurately the nature of capitalism, its origins and the implications for what comes next.

Notes

  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End, pp.58-9.
  2. Brenner’s contributions and early responses to it are collected in T. Aston & C. Philpin’s The Brenner Debate (Cambridge, 1985). His later work includes Merchants and Revolution (Princeton, 1993). Other assessments, contestations and counternarratives to his earlier writing on English agrarian class structures include Jane Whittle (Ed) Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660 (Boydell, 2013) – especially the essay therein by David Ormrod; Christopher Dyer A Country Merchant, 1495-1520 (Oxford, 2012); J. Blaut Eight Eurocentric Historians (Guilford, 2000); Henry Heller The Birth of Capitalism (Pluto, 2011).
  3. See, for example, Robert Allen Enclosure and the Yeoman (Oxford, 1992); J. Yelling Common Field & Enclosure in England 1450-1850 (Macmillan, 1977).
  4. Robert Brenner. 1977. The origins of capitalist development: a critique of neo-Smithian Marxism. New Left Review 104: 25-93; Immanuel Wallerstein. 1974. The Modern World System; Ronald Findlay & Kevin O’Rourke. 2007. Power & Plenty; Heller op cit.; Blaut op cit.
  5. Neglect of this same issue has, incidentally, been a major rallying point for critics of Brenner: see Blaut op cit.; Heller op cit. This raises some interesting issues that I hope to pursue in future posts – perhaps especially in relation to rural sociologist Max Ajl’s interesting recent writings on war and nationalism.

A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part I

Last week my publisher Chelsea Green hosted a webinar to launch my book and I then spoke about it at the Permaculture Convergence. I’ve struggled a little with the online format, but I appreciated the engaged comments from the audiences at both events who I knew were out there somewhere. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to answer all the questions in the time available, so I thought I’d reproduce the questions here and attempt to answer them, if only briefly. The book contains more in-depth discussion of most of the points raised. I’d strongly recommend buying a copy…

I’ve grouped the questions into these six overarching headings:

  1. Food & farm system economics
  2. Labour questions
  3. Property & access to land
  4. Settlement geography
  5. Politics
  6. Caring for the land

I’m going to work through headings 1-3 in this post, and 4-6 in the next one, which I’ll post in a couple of days.

Food & farm system economics

Q. I have recently been suggesting that the price of food should double – but how do we then ensure that we are not increasing food poverty?

Sounds about right as a minimum. The key is to consider food prices in relation to the price of everything else – land, housing, labour, energy, transport, welfare. For sure, if food prices increased without any other economic adjustments, food poverty would increase. But we need to rethink those other sectors too. That’s something I do, albeit in fairly general terms, in the book. I think we also need to decommodify food production considerably, so that non-commercial, locally self-reliant food production is more of an option for many people, including poor people – ‘recapturing the garden’, as I call it in the book, after Steven Stoll. If we get it right, food poverty and nutritional deficits will decrease.

 

Q. As the current large scale food system has to start internalising its costs, how do you think its affordability would balance out with agroecological production models

A similar question to the previous one, perhaps? My view is that if the existing food system fully internalised its carbon, soil, water, health and pollution costs we’d probably be questioning the affordability of anything other than agroecological production models. At the same time, I want to avoid an overly dualistic ‘mainstream bad – agroecological good’ framing. I argue in the book that farming of all kinds has to confront difficult dilemmas to which there are no perfect solutions.

 

Q. In Covid I’ve reinvented my not for profit company into a local produce wholesaler called Brighton Food Factory, to support small farmers and supply community food projects. Is that a service that small farmers need? To create the bridge from small farmer to food citizen, not just as a consumer but to shorten the supply chain and help people understand the upsides and challenges of local, small farm production?

The way food commodity markets work in my experience is that most of the financial value is captured at the point of retail sale, which is why small-scale farmers tend to sell direct to customers – volumes aren’t high enough to make a living from wholesale prices. But this does mean we spend a lot of time on the retail side of our operations when we could be farming. If other organisations took on the marketing, this could be a boon – but the question is how best to create these collaborative rather than competitive relationships between production and marketing. If your venture is succeeding at that, I’m sure there will be a lot of wider interest.

I think people sometimes over-emphasise the marketing difficulties facing small farm enterprises at the expense of emphasising the difficulties of production in the face of wider economic forces. The key problem facing small farmers probably isn’t a lack of sympathetic people offering to sell their produce. But that said, your points about creating bridges and public understanding do seem vital to me…

 

Labour

Q. If you talk about the global equity and the creation of livelihoods for small scale farmers – how can this be created for small scale farms which (often) heavily depend on volunteer work?

Not that many small commercial farms I know depend heavily on volunteer work long-term, because it can be rather a mixed blessing. But, as I said above, I’m in favour of considerable decommodification, and here ‘volunteer work’ broadly conceived can play various roles compatible with livelihood creation. Generally, small-scale local agrarianism isn’t well suited to generating salaried work, but it is well suited to generating livelihoods. I talk about this quite a bit in the book.

 

Q. Are farm volunteers (e.g. CSAs) included in the 1% who work on the land?

(Note: I mentioned in a talk that about 1% of the UK workforce was employed in agriculture). No, that figure encompasses only salaried and self-employed agricultural workers. So the true amount of work going into the production of food consumed in the UK is higher – not only CSA volunteers and similar, plus home gardeners, but fisherfolk and all the people working abroad whose labour is embodied in the food we import.

 

Q. I know you like to calculate Chris (perhaps your book address this): What is your take on how big a share of the population should/will have to be involved in farming if it is small scale, ecological and based on renewable resources (under European conditions). Or put otherwise, how many people could an empowered small scale farmer produce food for?

Is that you Gunnar? You know me down to a T! Yes, the book does address this for the UK – and the answer is … 15% of the working-age population working directly as farmers, or one farmer per twelve people altogether. As per the previous question, that ignores volunteer and backyard labour and fisherfolk. But it’s based on meeting national food needs entirely, without imports. It also ignores the various rural trades supportive of farming work. Of course, it’s only a rough guess…

 

Q. With the poor response by the general public to Pick for Britain and British Summer Fruits jobs in the face of (the recent) crisis, how realistic is a wider small farm approach and the need for more labour compared to our current industrialised farming practices?

At the moment, not very realistic – though the crisis seems to have changed the narrative about small farm localism a little for the better. But in the longer term I think it’s unrealistic to expect that our current industrialised farming practices will continue. Most of my book is addressed to that tension between the large farm present and the small farm future. I argue that agrarian localism will emerge in the disorder arising from the decline of the current global political economy – though it can happen in various ways, some better than others.

 

Property and access to land

Q. Do you talk in your book about new ways of looking at land ownership?

Yes – especially in Chapter 13 (‘Complicating the Commons: Holding and Sharing the Land’). Though, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. So many of the ‘new ways’ of looking at it that I discuss are actually old ways.

 

Q. Recommoning please!

OK, not a question as such, but a statement. And one that I agree with. But it’s complicated … hence my chapter ‘Complicating the commons’.

 

Q. As someone looking to enter into small scale farming it is clear just how difficult it is to access land in the first place, due to a wide range of factors, not least the price of land. What do you think can be practically done to encourage new entrant farmers, and specifically younger people, into farming, when it is currently so difficult for people to make that transition?

There are various organisations trying to ease routes into farming and people can be quite inventive at finding their way in, but ultimately I agree it’s difficult and the price of land is a major stumbling block. One way or another, there’s going to have to be a major reconfiguration of access to land – I discuss this in Chapter 13, and also in Chapters 17-20.

 

Q. Property developers artificially inflate value of land. Village of Cassington that has allotments at centre of village life is about to lose this invaluable food and community resource for local people as Blenheim Palace estate plans to build housing on the land. What can be done about this sort of situation?

As per my previous answer, I discuss this in some detail in the book – you’ll just have to read it! But I don’t claim to have all the answers and I’ve been unable to go into the issues at the level of deep policy detail, so this is an ongoing discussion I’m interested in having with people.

 

Q. In the UK, many pubs, cinemas, community centres etc have been registered as Assets of Community Value, giving local people the opportunity (although unfortunately not the right) to buy them rather than see them converted into accommodation or other uses for profit. Have any small farms been listed as community assets under the ACV legislation? Could be a great way to protect small farms and a way to exit on retirement if passing on to family members isn’t an option.

Interesting, and not something I’m very familiar with, so I can’t answer the question about small farms and ACVs. My guess, though, would be not many because land inheritance is the norm. I suggest in Chapter 13 that this will need to change, but the wriggle room for achieving this is extremely tight. Currently, the UK planning system generally protects farmland from development, albeit often in cumbersome ways that are obstructive towards a small farm future. But I get the sense that the present government would like to remove planning controls altogether, and this would be more obstructive still.

Some theses on property, immigration, society and culture

In this post, as promised, I’m going to address the following accusation that Vera made of me in a comment late last year:

“One issue you’ve ducked time and again is this: does your locked front door offend your libertarian spirit? Do local laws that prevent squatters taking over your farm offend it as well? And if it happens not to be offended then, then why is it offended by equally firm boundaries of larger units humans organize?”

Elsewhere, Vera wrote “Millions of impoverished international migrants can be a force that can sink a region or a culture, or a whole slew of cultures or even a whole continentful of them, depending. Ask the American Indians.” And in response to my comment that poor international migrants were not the main threat to a smallholder republic she opined: “Maybe the people of Calais and surrounding areas would be able to provide another view. Not of the armchair kind…I vote for leaving the PC talking points aside, and dealing with the real issue. Effective boundaries.”

Along similar lines, except courteously, Jody wrote a longer comment from which the following excerpts hopefully give a flavor:

“I think immigrants seeking asylum should be welcome as long as they contribute and they follow our rules and customs. But what about people who move to my country and have no ability to contribute? What if they require social welfare or medical assistance to support them?….Should we welcome immigrants if they are unable to contribute to the needs of our society?….I’m liberal enough to welcome the freedom of exchange in ideas and culture but conservative enough to not want social disintegration.”

I don’t consider these to be issues I’ve ducked at all, but let me try once again to define my position on them. I’m afraid that my book-writing labors are pretty all-consuming at the moment, so I only have time here to lay down some brief theses before most likely relapsing into silence again for a while (though I have an exciting guest post coming up). The book contains a more in-depth analysis on these points.

On property

#1 I’m broadly supportive of private property rights for householders (including smallholder-householders) in the small farm future I’d like to see. This is for various reasons that I won’t dwell on here, but maybe I’ll just quote this from Robert Netting “Where land is a scarce good that can be made to yield continuously and reliably over the long term by intensive methods, rights approximating those of private ownership will develop”1. I think a good deal of future farming will involve intensive husbandry on scarce land…so why fight the inevitable?

#2 But what exactly is private property? Essentially, it’s an exclusive claim invested in a specific rights-holder to derive one or more benefits from something – in the case before us, land. The ‘one or more’ point is important. Private property usually involves a bundle of rights. My purchase of my farmland in Somerset in 2003 gave me the right to raise and sell off animals and crops from it, to engage in certain types of hunting (but not others) on it, to extract minerals in certain ways (but not others) from it, to abstract water from it (but only in certain ways and up to a certain point), to erect certain kinds of buildings but not others (such as a dwelling) on it, to apply nitrogenous fertilizer to it (but only up to a certain level) and so on.

#3 And what exactly is a private property right? It’s a relation between people in respect of a thing. In this case, that relation places a duty on other people to respect my exclusive claims over my property (for example by not stealing my livestock or placing their own upon it without my permission). It also places a duty on me to respect other people’s claims on my property, for example by not building a dwelling on it or not shooting people who happen to walk across it.

#4 By saying that I support private property rights I implicitly accept that I can enforce my rights against people who infringe them. No doubt we can argue about what such enforcement might reasonably entail, but the principle of enforcement is clear enough. Therefore, my answer to Vera’s second question – do I oppose local laws against squatting on my land – is ‘no’.

#5 Equally, in supporting private property rights and the local laws governing them I implicitly accept that others can enforce their rights in respect of my property. To generalize from that point and the preceding one, I suggest that private property rights are founded in the collective agreement of a political community. No other interpretation makes as much sense to me. Private property is not a natural or sacred right that precedes the living community within which it’s exercised, nor is it founded in my capacity to defend my property through violence, or based in any particular actions I take in respect of my property (other than ones I may have agreed when I assumed the right).

#6 Therefore, I hold my property in trust in relation to the political community that confers my rights of ownership. If the political community decides to change the terms of my rights, I may disagree with its decision but I don’t think I have good grounds for disagreeing with the principle of it deciding. Generally, I think it’s a bad idea for polities to go chopping and changing property rights, since it breeds uncertainty and resentment. But sometimes it may be necessary. It may be necessary in particular because property tends to concentrate over time in fewer and fewer hands. The people that Vera calls squatters may consider themselves rebels unfairly impoverished by property-owning monopolists and thus fighting against unjust laws. I think it behoves property-owners to consider the wider distribution of social benefits in their polity and to take care that it doesn’t grow too unequal – both from considerations of justice and from self-interest, lest the political community dissolves in violence to the benefit of the ‘squatters’ against the property-owners. Note that this possibility of ultimate violence is not the same as saying that property intrinsically begins in violence, even if it sometimes does.

On borders

#7 On to Vera’s third question, which essentially is if I’m not offended by the bounds of private property rights then why am I offended by the bounds of international borders which likewise constrain people’s rights in respect of land? The first point to make is that these two kinds of borders aren’t the same thing. The money that I paid for my land bought me an exclusive right to engage in certain kinds of activity on it. A polity that confers citizenship on an immigrant from elsewhere (or a locally-born resident who reaches the age of full citizenship rights) doesn’t confer on them an exclusive right to do anything – merely a general right to reside within its jurisdiction and to create a life and (usually) a livelihood there consonant with its laws.

#8 Still, I readily recognize the right of a polity to restrict immigration from beyond its borders if its activities don’t impinge in any significant way on the sending polities. Therefore, my answer to Vera’s third question is that I’m not intrinsically opposed to any kind of border control in any situation. But with this caveat: a polity that closes its borders to migrants shouldn’t expect other polities to receive its emigrants, or its investments, or its trade goods or any other interferences in its interests against their wellbeing if it wishes them to honour its border policies.

#9 It seems plain to me that the USA (and the UK, among other countries) fall foul of these caveats. It and the other rich countries have systematically interfered in the economies of other countries to their own benefit, deliberately dismantled health care and welfare policies in other countries in the name of supposedly efficient market restructuring through ransoming those countries’ access to global finance, engaged in geopolitical ‘great games’ that have displaced and immiserated people en masse, and disproportionately produced the greenhouse gas emissions that prompt climate refugeeism (Jason Hickel’s book The Divide is a good overview of these processes). The rich countries will try to prevent reaping the harvest of this immiseration they’ve inflicted on poorer countries by policing borders to keep out people from the latter. Those people – including ones in need of welfare services – will try to outwit them. My sympathies are with those people, until the rich countries stop fomenting the conditions that impel them to migrate. Here’s where I see the most direct parallel between property boundaries and national borders – if you want people to respect the boundaries that you construct, then it’s a good idea not to dump too much on people the other side of your boundary.

On society

#10 Still, whatever the rights and wrongs of international migration, maybe Vera and Jody are right to worry about its possibly ‘disintegrative’ effects. Then again, maybe they’re not. I’ve never concealed the fact that I think the present structure of the global political economy is unjust and unsustainable, so if it disintegrates that may be no bad thing. As I outlined in this blog post, I don’t think mass international migration is the ideal way of bringing sustainable small farm societies into being around the world, but it may be the best realistic shot we have at it. Ultimately, almost everyone in the world today is a lost child of ‘modernization’. A small farm future will require a lot more people living in the countryside and farming small plots than is the case in the rich countries today. I don’t think it necessarily matters hugely where they moved from. It ain’t where you’re from, it’s how you farm…

#11 Granted, it’s a worry how we’ll all feed ourselves in the future. On that score, the fewer people there are in any given area, the better it’ll be…at least for the people in that area. But anyone who deploys that observation as an argument against immigrants for local sustainability should, in my opinion, acknowledge these three things.

  1. ‘Sustainability’ – ie. avoiding ‘disintegration’ – in this instance is basically an argument for sustaining the high-income, high-emissions status quo. That may seem like a good idea to some folks (it doesn’t to me), but it’s probably just kicking the can down the road to future crisis.
  2. It’s also basically an argument from self-interest – ‘me first for the lifeboat, and screw you’. I think people who make the argument need to own that. They need to be able to look a climate change or other kind of refugee in the eye and say “I don’t want you in my country because it suits me to exclude you. I consider my existing lifestyle which I believe you threaten more important than your wellbeing, and since I have a powerful government at my back I win and you lose”.
  3. Projections for the number of climate change refugees in the coming century vary from about 200 million to 1 billion. That’s a lot of people. The places that want to exclude them will need a massive military mobilization to keep them out that will dwarf the $20 billion the US is currently spending on border enforcement. Such a mobilization will probably have ‘disintegrative’ effects of its own on civil society in the excluding country – political polarization, budgets skewed away from human services to military expenditure, gated communities, martial law (see various analyses along these lines in Todd Miller’s book, Storming the Wall2). It will lead to ‘astronomical’ popular anger against the excluding countries among the excluded (, p.117). And it probably won’t succeed ultimately in excluding them.

#12 Therefore it’s hard to know where self-interest ultimately lies. Identifying yourself with a polity that uses everything in its power, including deadly force, to exclude certain kinds of people may not go well for you if the polity ultimately fails to exclude those people, which is probable. Conversely, failing to identify yourself with such a polity may not go well for you if its politics trend increasingly towards extremist isolationism and nativism, which is also probable. Choices, choices. What tips it for me is that I’d like to prevent extremist isolationism and nativism from taking hold. Also, I consider justice a serious matter, not a “PC talking point”. And I think the justice case for accommodating climate refugees and others immiserated by the global political economy is strong.

#13 Consider this also – when Jody writes “Should we welcome immigrants if they are unable to contribute to the needs of our society?” what are the grounds for being so confident around that ‘our’? As the aforementioned Todd Miller points out, a couple of generations back the main climate refugees in the USA were US citizens fleeing the Dustbowl, who were met with indifference, violence and semi-militarized internal borders by other US citizens. What’s the betting that won’t happen again in the face of droughts, supercharged hurricanes and the like? What line does an enthusiast for self-interested migrant control take when they stop being one of the ‘we’ and become one of the ‘them’, even in their own country?

#14 I’ve long identified with forms of populist politics, but I’ve been accused of not being a proper populist on the grounds of not identifying with nationalism and anti-immigration policies. True, I’m not that kind of populist. I’m the kind of populist who thinks that for the most part the people who control the organs of the centralized state and articulate notions of the nation in defence of it aren’t motivated by concern for ordinary people within or without state borders. Think about the Dustbowl. Or the 2008 crash. Or Jacob Rees-Mogg. THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU.

#15 And this, I think, will be the great political conflict of the 21st century. Do you identify with the nation (which is basically just the centralized modernist-capitalist state with its prettiest dress on), or do you identify with the people? How that plays out will determine a lot of things. For my part, I think Vera’s ‘effective boundaries’ will come at a financial, biological and moral cost to people on both sides of those boundaries which is unpayable and will indeed sink whole continents.

#16 Those who identify with the nation typically demonize people from other nations, or even from their own nation, when it suits centralized power. The Dustbowl migrants were dismissed by the LAPD Deputy Chief as a “flood of criminals”. Vera implies, I think, that the several thousand residents of ‘The Jungle’ migrant camp were a threat to local residents in nearby Calais, and that this somehow constitutes evidence for the dangers of allowing global migration. Well, I never went to The Jungle, though I know people who did and returned unscathed. I’ve also had a hand in employing on our farm refugees who spent time at that camp. They were not remotely threatening, and have now found steady employment locally. My reading of the evidence leads me to the view that the camp’s residents were more threatened than threatening, but I daresay penniless, desperate and demonized people confined at borders sometimes do bad stuff: don’t, however, mistake the contingent threats and degradations of the border for the inherent threats and degradations of the people who are waiting at it. As Kapka Kassabova documents at length in her book on the communist and post-communist borderlands of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, the people who benefit most from borders are usually the governments that invest in them, while they bring endless trouble for the people that live around them, permanently or temporarily3.

#17 The food production modelling I’ve undertaken in things like my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ series suggests to me that there are large margins available for sustainable food production relative to current populations. True, climate change and other hazards put a question mark around that longer-term. But that doesn’t seem to be the main motivating factor behind Vera and Jody’s misgivings. Jody seems mostly concerned about funding burdens and migrants not pulling their weight – but the funding burden runs from the countries of origin to the countries of destination, which is what’s impelling the migration in the first place, and migrant selection effects are such that migrants on average invariably pull their weight more than sedants. Vera’s concerns seem to be actuated more by a metaphysical belief in the general importance of boundaries that I don’t share. I’m not saying there’s never a case for boundaries or limits. On the contrary. But just because there’s a case for boundaries in general doesn’t mean that there’s a case for any given one – as I see it, the case is always specific, and almost always contestable, since social boundaries are usually organized to suit some people’s interests against other people’s interests, however much the first group try to naturalize or universalize their case. Or to put it another way, the case for limits has its limits.

On Culture

#18 It’s not ‘culture’ that’s sunk by migration. Culture is inherently hybrid and syncretic. But the people who are the bearers of culture can be sunk if they’re defined out of the political community. That’s what largely happened to Native Americans, eventually. It’s what may happen to climate refugees and other kinds of refugees who are criminalized and demonized on their migrant journeys. Frankly, I think Vera’s parallel between Native Americans threatened by European migrants and contemporary Americans threatened by migrants gets it exactly upside down – the threat runs from the rich destination countries to the impoverished international migrants. But ultimately I think the culture of the rich countries will have to change – less capitalist-culture, less fossil-fuel-culture, more agri-culture. As I said before, the best practical hope I see for that, tenuous though it is, is through disturbances caused proximally by large-scale migration and fundamentally by the insolvable contradictions of the global capitalist economy.

On Implementation

#19 But for those who want to chart another path, I’d suggest ditching high-income urban life and extravagant fossil fuel use immediately in favour of rural subsistence farming. Such societies would be less attractive destinations for migrants and may even stave off the global environmental bads that are impelling mass migration. Win-win. A world of such societies would look more like the one I construed at the start of Thesis #8 where I suggested that they could legitimately erect barriers to people’s freedom of movement. The irony is that I don’t think they’d have to, because in such a world not many people would feel the necessity of moving far from where they originated. I recall one commentator on Resilience.org sneering that my projected ‘Peasant’s Republic’ would require a big wall to be built around it. But on the contrary, it seems to be the capitalist republics and not the peasant ones that are most in need of their ‘big, beautiful walls’.

#20 What a land reform would look like in the USA or the UK that could deliver a small farm future out of present patterns of migration and sedentism is a debate for another day. It would be unprecedented in its geopolitics, but not in its basic structure. Michael Lipton’s book Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs4 lays out in exhaustive detail the various policy instruments that have been tried, often successfully – some more appealing than others. I suggest that it should be reissued, retitled Land Reform in Countries, debated publicly to identify the most appealing policies from place to place, and these should then be implemented before some of the less appealing ones get implemented by default.

#21 But in all honesty I think Vera’s vision for the future will likely hold more sway than mine. There’ll be lots of people ‘defending their culture’, lots of sacrifices by the many for the ‘good of the nation’ whose benefits will curiously accrue mainly to the few, lots more death and misery in the borderlands, lots more political polarization and lots more gated communities at various geographic levels that may become as oppressive to the people within them as without. I think a great deal of this is avoidable, and a great deal of it will stem from essentially self-fulfilling prophecies about the need for ‘effective boundaries’ against threats from without. So I plan to do what I can from my armchair, from my keyboard, from my farm, from my politics and from my humanity to work towards different outcomes. Sadly, I fear that probably won’t be anything like enough.

Notes

  1. R. Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders. Stanford UP, p.158.
  2. T. Miller. 2017. Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security. City Lights.
  3. K. Kassabova. 2018. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta.
  4. M. Lipton. 2009. Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs. Routledge.

China’s urban villages – an interview with David Bandurski

My nose is well and truly to the grindstone with book writing at the moment, so unfortunately I’m not finding much time for blogging. But here as promised is the interview I did with David Bandurski, author of Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) on which my previous post was based. I reproduce the interview below without further comment – it raises some interesting issues and further questions, I think, which hopefully I can develop in the future. Meanwhile, I’d thoroughly recommend David’s book. My thanks to David for finding the time to respond to my questions.

Next up will be the post I promised on migration and property rights – but I fear it’ll be a while a-coming while the book-writing is burning my fingers. Adios.

oOo

CS: There’s a standard historical narrative of economic development with which we’re familiar in the west, essentially of peasant farmers quitting agriculture for industrial wage labour in the city and thereby building all-round prosperity. The same narrative is often applied to contemporary China – depeasantisation, urbanisation, rising prosperity – but your book suggests the underlying reality is more complex. Could you say a little about how much you think events in China conform to or belie the standard urbanisation narrative?

DB: In the standard urbanization narrative as you’ve just described it, the role of the human being is central. But one of the distinguishing features of what has been called “urbanization” in a Chinese context is that the role of the human being is minimized against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vision of the urban. A kind of urban mythology of the city as a place of dynamism and ultimately prosperity. You can see this readily in the propaganda around the city, which emphasizes the modern fabric of the city—the skyscrapers, the monuments, the high-speed rail.

At one point in the book, I talk about how on one trip to countryside in Henan I saw how the mosaic scenes outside rural homes had been changed from scenes of nature to scenes of the megacity dominated by an expressway in diminishing perspective running through the center, luxury cars whishing past montages of architecture from Shanghai and Beijing. The caption was always: “Road to Prosperity.” But there were never people in those scenes, any more than in the government’s urban propaganda.

Even this urbanization has brought prosperity for much of China’s urban population. Yes, they have found industrial jobs in the city, and they have grown wealthier. But in an important sense, tens of millions of these rural migrants have never actually entered and settled in the city. This is because their political identity is as “rural” people, a product of a household registration system that still, to this day, categorizes them on the basis of their home towns, and denies them benefits like education and healthcare in the cities that are their new homes. The people themselves have not urbanized. And this is not just by choice.

CS: Historical studies of rural China have often emphasised the resilience of peasant smallholding in the face of dynastic turmoil – and more recently in the face of the Maoist experiment with collectivism. In your book you describe rural land and people as “the blazing fire in the furnace” of China’s recent ascent – do you see ongoing possibilities for small-scale farming in China’s future, or will it be consumed in that furnace?

DB: The energy unleashed by the rural population is not at all about small-scale farming, in fact. One of the most basic things to understand about China’s so-called rural population is its clear and increasing remoteness from agricultural life. The vast majority are not farmers at all. Even one, two and now even three generations back they are not farmers. They have little or probably in most cases no agricultural knowledge.

But their political status, by virtue of a registration system that ties them to a rural hometown, perpetuates their ruralness. This has real implications in terms of the cost of their industrial labor. Consider that when a labor force is constantly mobile, uprooted, unmoored, it is cheapened. Cities benefit from the labor force, but they don’t need to provide affordable housing for families, or schooling for children. The rural migrants themselves bear these costs, economic and social. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of “left-behind children,” those who stay back in the village to attend school while their parents are off in the city working. The families are broken apart because no way is offered for the children to attend school in the city, at least affordably. There are schools that have opened for migrant children, but these are often unofficial schools in semi-urban areas, very often in urban villages. They are substandard and the parents still must pay.

So when I talk about the “blazing fire in the furnace,” I’m really talking about the way that rural people, and rural land too, have been consumed to advance China’s development.

As for small-scale farming, this is certainly not envisioned as the way forward in China. President Xi recently made a visit to China’s northeast and was pictured in propaganda photos walking through the wheat fields—propaganda very reminiscent of China’s Maoist past. But behind him was a fleet of modern harvesters. So technology and large-scale farming are where China is undoubtedly heading.

CS: Following on from that question, a strong commitment to place, ancestral land and perhaps to farm livelihoods among ordinary people in China emerges from your book, but also the ‘cultural iconography of the home town’ as a convenient fiction supporting the unjust status quo of the household registration system and the ‘Chinese dream’ of party-led economic development. If land rights activism were to successfully wrest more political power and wealth from the state and its clients to the benefit of ordinary people, how do you think things would play out in terms of those various attachments to place and development?

DB: I mentioned earlier that there is very little identification with farming anymore. And when you consider that “rural” people have no such identification going back now two and even three generations, you can see the nature of the problem as fundamentally a political one. I remember one mother in an urban village outside Beijing showing me photos of a trip the family had made to their hometown in Henan. He was a few years old at the time, born in Beijing, and this had been his first trip back. But she said to me: “Just like city kids, he doesn’t know about the countryside.” Something like that. So this idea was deeply engrained in the mother, who herself had been a left-behind child, that her son was somehow not of the city despite the fact that he had known nothing else. They live on the margins, in fact, and even the center of Beijing was a strange and alien place.

I think it is inevitable that the identification with place will fade for children like this. I’m not sure his children will have any deep connection to rural Henan. And many people who have managed to put down roots in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, who have urban registration because they’ve gotten college degrees or bought property, still have connections to rural hometowns, usually more than one. These identities are fluid, in fact. But it is still in the interest of the state to perpetuate the idea of connection to the rural place—primarily because it hasn’t resolved the thorny issue of the registration system.

In my book, though, I am writing a great deal about the sense of identity that the local residents of urban villages in the city have about these places. Their situation is actually very different from that of a lot of rural migrant workers. Unlike the villages in the countryside that have been emptied for much of the year of their populations, these villages have maintained their local populations, and they have in many cases safeguarded their traditions, like the dragon boat races. These are a source of community. And when the very divisive issue of their collective rural land comes into the picture—when, for example, the city government wants to requisition it for commercial development—this sense of community can be a real rallying point for activism.

CS: There are many moving stories in your book of courageous rights activists from different backgrounds coming together and supporting each other. How unified do you consider this movement to be in China across urban/rural, regional and any other relevant dimensions?

DB: I must say I am not very optimistic about the prospects for land rights activism becoming a real political force in China. The situation has even changed dramatically since around 2013. Under Xi Jinping, there is very little space at all for activists to come together. This is exactly what the leadership fear, and it has a lot of tools at its disposal to ensure that isolated movements—within one village, for example—do not achieve scale. It was quite incredible to note around 2011 and 2012 how village land movements across Guangzhou and south China, and even beyond, were linking in various ways, including through social media. You don’t see this in the same way anymore. And this is part of the larger story about the direction China is heading politically.

CS: I found your analysis of the urban villages absolutely fascinating. Two questions on this:

(a) You talk about “a second, deeply rural city” within the urban villages of Guangzhou. Could you say a little more about what you mean by this, and how it manifests?

DB: Yes. I’m talking about the urban villages themselves, which are pockets of rural land—meaning land designated as collective and held by village collectives—in and around China’s cities. In China, while all land technically belongs to the state, there are two types of land ownership: state and collective. State land can be development for urban infrastructure, while collective land is subject to more restrictions. In any case, that’s the simple version.

In many cases, the arable collective land around villages on the outskirts of the city is first expropriated by the city for development, meaning that it is re-zoned, parcel by parcel, as state land and then built up. The original residential area of the village, however, is left alone. And then something fascinating happens. As the village becomes part of this more vibrant urban ecosystem, the local villagers recognize the economic benefit of their position, and they build up their own tenement housing atop their family allotments of collective residential land. So instead of one or two-story family homes, they have four to five-story buildings that they can then rent out to newcomers entering the city. These are generally rural migrant workers. So then the urban village becomes a dynamic space with a kind of double-identity rural population—those local villagers “farming property,” as the above process is called, and very attached to the village community; and those outsiders who find in the city a familiar and affordable rural foothold in the city.

(b) Many of the stories in your book concern the plight of local urban villagers in the face of regeneration, but a casual reader might think that it’s a lesser plight than that of impermanent rural migrants. Do you have any thoughts on this, and more generally on how urban/rural class relations are changing in contemporary China?

DB: This is a really complicated issue, in fact, and is subject to its own mythologies and misunderstandings. Reporting on Xian Village, right in the center of Guangzhou, I would often hear sort of average office workers or taxi drivers disparage the villagers for their selfishness and greediness. The village stood as a near ruin, and eyesore, even though it was home to still to tens of thousands of rural migrants. And people would say: “You know, those villagers are all millionaires.” What they meant was that the land was worth a great deal of money, and much of its land had been requisitioned by the state for what everyone assumed were enormous sums. On top of this, the local urban villagers could draw income from their rental properties. So what were they complaining about? Why were they marching? Why were they causing trouble?

The reality in many cases is that these villages were constantly subjected to predatory actions by the city government, and in many cases city officials and police were working closely with corrupt village leaders. Even if they fared better than the rural migrant workers who were their tenants, these villagers could be cheated out of their shares of land appropriation fees, and if these raised questions about this could be terrorized by local police, officials and hired thugs. In Xian Village, when it came time to demolish the rental properties, the villagers’ primary source of livelihood, there was no transparency whatsoever about this. The villagers were asked to sign contracts that no one in their right mind would sign, subjugating their personal interests to the greater good to the city (which really meant the corrupt village leader and his allies at the city level).

I never understood the need to minimize the suffering of urban villagers by pretending they were sultans in comparison to struggling migrants. But you often heard this. And I think this arises in part from the political stigmatization of self-interest, which is confused with greed. You can see this stigmatization, again, in the very contract the villagers of Xian Village were asked to sign. I talk about that contract in the book.

CS: You mention in your book the importance of rural smallholdings as a hedge against the uncertainty of urban wage labour for rural migrant labourers. I’ve also read of opposition to reform of the household registration system among such labourers for fear that it will break that important link. Do you have any thoughts (1) on the relative quantitative importance of smallholder farming in the contemporary economy, and (2) on sensible reform measures for the household registration system?

DB: Yes, I think many migrant workers do think of hometown land, including housing plots, as a hedge against uncertainty. But this is because their position in the industrialized economy, and in the city, is so precarious by design. This land isn’t a hedge in the real sense that any sustainable income could probably be derived from it, but only in the sense that it might enable subsistence as the most basic level. In the absence of real and substantive reform that can be explained to rural migrants, I think the fear of change will persist. They see a real risk that they could be deprived of their land without being given commensurate protections, like access to healthcare, pensions and such regardless of geography.

As I said earlier, I don’t think smallholder farming is regarded by anyone as having a viable place in the contemporary economy—though I’m certainly not the expert in this area. In 2013, a reform program promised to promote commercially viable larger-scale agriculture, which would mean consolidation of small plots into bigger farms. Reforms would also make the land in the countryside not being used for agriculture more marketable, like land in the city. So it would be easier to develop. There was also talk of ending the registration, or hukou, system. But these things are easier said than done. Implementation will be a long and testy process.

CS: Finally, I found your book a real page-turner despite its potentially dry subject matter, partly because of the stories of individual people that you capture so beautifully. I was wondering if you have any more recent news about any of them – what became of Lu Suigeng, and of rights defenders like Huang Minpeng and He Jieling?

I’m sorry to say that Lu Suigeng, the former village chief of Xian Village, is still whereabouts unknown, and probably enjoying life under an alias of some sort in a sumptuous residence on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Huang Minpeng is still finding meaning and purpose in a kind of buzzing fly existence as a conscientious protester. The last time I saw him, he showed me a small journal he kept of his complaint calls to the city help hotline. It was filled with entry after entry, all roughly the same, chronicling the phone calls he made on a daily basis to lodge official complaints over his own land case, and over other cases in which he came involved. He told me he understood that the process was fruitless, but that he could drive the authorities to distraction, forcing them constantly to log his complaints, and to issue responses. With all the obsessiveness of a field researcher, he saw it as a kind of documentation of the futility and callousness of the system.

The transition from capitalism to feudalism

Historians have spilled a lot of ink on the question of how capitalism supplanted feudalism, but what will happen in the future if by design, default or disaster our present capitalist society is supplanted by a lower energy alternative with more people devoting themselves to the agrarian arts? Will historians of the future be writing of the transition from capitalism to feudalism?

‘Feudalism’ can be a misleading term. Really, it refers to situations of weak political centralisation, parcellized sovereignty and low population density that were uncommon historically and were arguably limited only to parts of Europe and Japan. But people often use it as a shorthand term for more or less any kind of agrarian society, and those of us who advocate a small farm future are often met with the horrified response that it would amount to the return of feudalism or serfdom. Fortunately, these are only two among many of the forms that past agrarian societies took, and they occupy pretty much the least appealing part of the spectrum. Still, the question remains – would the social structure of a small farm future look anything like that of the small farm past, and if so shouldn’t we be worried about it?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that until I get my crystal ball back from the cleaners, but what I can do is offer some wider reflections on the structure of agrarian societies that might at least cast some light on the issue. The historical sociology of the transition to capitalism has been dominated by Marxist thinkers who emphasise the nature of production, energy capture and class relations between the owners of capital and the owners of labour. Illuminating stuff, but what I want to stress here is the nature of agrarian society as a status order (the relevant sociological pioneer here being Max Weber – cue boos and hisses from the Marxists). As I’ll discuss below, and still more in my next post, the interesting thing about this approach is the continuities rather than the differences that emerge across the divide between pre-modern agrarian societies, modern capitalist ones (which are also, of course, agrarian) and most likely the post-modern post-capitalist agrarian societies of the future.

I’ll spare the reader a precis of Weberian sociology, and instead come at my theme obliquely with an analysis of the varna categories bequeathed from ancient Indian thought. This is only by way of exemplification – should you wish to follow up the particularities, the key analysts I’m drawing on are McKim Marriott and Murray Milner1, both summarised in this superb book. Should you wish otherwise I hope you’ll bear with me anyway – I trust the relevance of my argument will emerge, in the next post if not in this one.

The varna categories – priest, king, farmer, servant – are outlined in a famous passage from the Rig Veda:

When they divided The Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers/’people’]; and from his feet the shudra [servants] were born.

When we look at how the varna categories were actually filled in Indian society historically there are various ambiguities, most importantly for my present purposes around the vaishya category, which rather than being a category heavily populated by a mass of farmers in fact is sparsely populated by merchant castes, with farmers mostly occupying the shudra category. I’ll come back to this shortly.

The varna categories replicate a basic structure common to numerous non-industrial agrarian societies (see, for example, David Priestland’s Merchant, Soldier, Sage or Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book), which roughly speaking is:

  • king/warrior/noble
  • priest
  • merchant
  • farmer
  • servant/client/slave/outcast

Of course, these groups interact with each other materially in various ways. In India, as in all societies, material transactions are freighted with numerous social meanings – but perhaps in India more than in most societies. Depending on exactly what’s being transacted, it’s possible to speak very broadly of a kind of ‘hot potato’ or scapegoat way of thinking about transactions there: certain material things typically embody bad qualities, inauspiciousness (or maybe what we’d call ‘sin’ in Western religious traditions), which means that generally it’s good to give, and not so good to receive. Perhaps we can sense an echo of this even in contemporary capitalist society. To be the recipient of a gift isn’t always morally innocent – it can lower your social status with respect to the donor.

So each of the four varna categories has a characteristic transactional strategy associated with it. The king adopts the ‘maximal’ strategy of both giving and receiving extensively (as benefactor and tribute-taker). The priest adopts the ‘optimal’ strategy of giving but not receiving (seeking purity by passing on inauspiciousness and not receiving it). The vaishya (let’s keep it ambiguous for now who the vaishya actually is) adopts the ‘minimal’ strategy, neither receiving nor giving. The shudra (farmer/servant) adopts the ‘pessimal’ strategy of receiving but not giving, putting them at the bottom of the social pile.

Each of the four varna categories also has a characteristic ‘alter ego’, which represents a possibly disreputable version of themselves who in a sense stands outside acceptable society. The alter ego of the king is the bandit, who takes tribute by predatory violence. The king distinguishes himself from the bandit by two possible strategies. One is by legitimating his rule with respect to some kind of sacred authority (hence the close associations between kings and churches or priests), being a generous benefactor of temple building etc. The other is by being a ‘good king’ who protects and nurtures the people. In agrarian societies this amounts to a kind of protection racket, in which the king’s tribute-taking from ordinary people in order to endow his temples and generally act in a kingly manner is at least orderly and regularised, and he offers protection from the arbitrary violence of the bandit. But kings need a lot of tribute for their projects, so it’s easy for their exactions to become itself a kind of banditry and to be seen as such. Hence the numerous Robin Hood style myths – Good King Richard, Bad King John etc.

The alter ego of the priest is the renouncer – archetypically the penniless holy wo/man, the ascetic or the hermit who gives everything away and begs only enough to keep from starving. From this position almost outside society, they can critique its worldliness and corruption and attain great spiritual purity.

The alter ego of the vaishya as farmer is also the renouncer, who aspires to agrarian self-reliance. They don’t need many external inputs to furnish their household, nor do they need to go often to market. The strategy of the self-reliant ascetic, standing somewhat outside society is available to them.

On the face of it, the vaishya as merchant can’t adopt the minimal transactional strategy – after all, they’re buying and selling stuff the whole time. Potentially, and often actually, this is highly compromising to their social status. The ways around it are to act as if trade in mere objects is a trivial matter in which the merchant is not existentially implicated, allowing the cultivation of higher spiritual virtues (Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism would be a westernised version of this). Or else to use the profit to act like a king, and hope to convince people that you really are one.

The alter ego of the shudra is the outcast or untouchable. Receiving but not giving, and especially receiving polluting and inauspicious substances, puts you at the bottom of the heap, and potentially outside the heap altogether.

In terms of status ordering – well, the king is at the top, but in an agrarian society there can’t be many kings and it’s a high risk business. You have to exact a lot of tribute, endow a lot of benefices and fight off a lot of bandit would-be kings. The priest and the renouncer may also enjoy high status of a non-material kind if they can convince other people of their spiritual virtues. The vaishya-merchant is in a risky status position – nobody likes a usurer – but they may have ways of pulling the wool over people’s eyes and adopting a different status. The vaishya-farmer can’t claim much highfalutin status, but can effect a certain haughty independence and homespun honour. But in practice this status is often beyond the ordinary farmer’s means – a more likely result is that they’re a mere client or retainer of a higher ranking patron. Hence the relative lack of farmers in the vaishya category, and their strong showing among the shudras or, worse, in some unfree category – serf, debt-peon or slave. An awful lot of socio-historical drama in agrarian societies turns upon the way people try to augment social status – sometimes as a multi-generational strategy exceeding their own lifespan – according to their inherited potential in these various social roles.

I’m interested in this agrarian status structuring for two reasons. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I wonder if it or something like it are generic to relatively low energy, localised agrarian societies. That would seem to be the case for many pre-modern agrarian societies. So in the event of a post-modern turn to agrarianism, could we expect things to look much different? I’m not drawn myself to the idea of a status order with everyone trying to climb up the greasy pole towards the few high status positions at the top, while seeking at all costs to avoid the miserable and deprecated ones at the base. Therefore, if this status structuring does seem particularly fitted to fully agrarian societies, I’d like to think of some ways to avoid this outcome.

Second, the rise of modernity, capitalism and industry seems to have swept away much of this pre-modern status order, but – as I’ll argue in my next post – much of it has arguably been retained in only a somewhat different guise, which adds further weight to the first point.

For me, the key relation in agrarian society is between the farmer and the king, or to put it in more generalised terms between the ‘citizen’ and ‘the state’. What is it like to be an ordinary person (ie. a farmer, generally speaking, or a tradesperson, in the agrarian economy) as a matter of political experience? The answer that seems burned into the modernist memory as it’s emerged from many pre-modern societies is that it’s pretty grim – the powerlessness of, say, an 18th century Russian serf or a 13th century English villein. But this kind of setup isn’t a given. In varied historical circumstances, it’s possible to distinguish a category of substantially independent small-scale farmers from more dependent categories of client or unfree (peasant/villein/serf) cultivators.

What circumstances? I’d suggest essentially only two. The first is situations of relative geographic isolation from the remit of the state – dwellers of mountains or forests, or occupants of colonial frontiers depopulated by disease or genocidal violence. The second, and for my purposes more interesting, case is when the semi-independence of the cultivator gains explicit recognition by the state and is incorporated into its political culture. Sometimes this arises through the military defeat of state forces by peasant militias – a rare occurrence historically, and one usually associated with a degree of geographical isolation as per the first circumstance. But it can also arise in situations where the state transcends the predatory warrior-aristocracy mode and constitutes itself to some degree in a more mutualistic relationship as part-benefactor of the cultivating classes. There are various examples of this, the most important surely being much of China through much of its imperial and arguably indeed its communist history.

In terms of the varna categories, the peasant as low-ranking, dependent cultivator corresponds with the shudra status – the servant, the client, the inferiorised recipient of the gift. The independent small-scale farmer corresponds with the vaishya status – the non-dependent, ascetic and thrifty yeoman who takes no gifts. If a possible future post-capitalist, low-energy agrarian society were to replicate the status categories of past agrarian societies – which seems to me quite likely, but not foreordained – then the agrarian style that most appeals to me is the vaishya one. It has the added benefit of elaborating status and a secure sense of self around not buying or consuming things excessively, which would be a useful attribute in a low energy society where there was less stuff to buy in any case. In fact, I’d venture to say that a little bit of vaishya sensibility mightn’t go amiss in contemporary capitalist society to help usher us towards something a bit more sustainable – but I’ll say more about that in my next post.

Notes

  1. Marriott, M. 1976. Hindu transactions: diversity without dualism. In Kapferer, B. (Ed) Transaction and Meaning. Philadelphia; Milner, M. 1994. Status and Sacredness. New York.

Comparative disadvantage

When I make the case for greater local self-reliance in agriculture I quite often come across the counter-argument that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food since the early 19th century. This is true, but what’s not so often noted is that we’re now not self-sufficient in different kinds of foods to those we weren’t self-sufficient in 200-odd years ago. Back then we were self-sufficient in most things except for staple grains, whereas now we’re mostly self-sufficient in staple grains while we’re not self-sufficient in most other things, our greatest food-trade deficit being fresh fruit and vegetables.

The reasons for this switch aren’t hard to find. As a result of crop-breeding, mechanisation, the development of artificial fertilisers and other agro-chemicals, along with the EU’s productivist aims and subsidy regimens, cereal productivity nationally, and per hectare or per hour of human labour, is now much greater than it was in the early 1800s. So despite a six-fold population increase since then, we’ve become pretty much self-reliant in cereal grains – though it’s a fragile self-reliance, based to a considerable degree on imported fossil fuels. But the cost of labour and the opportunity-cost of agricultural land is now also much greater, while the relative cost of energy is much lower – all of which mean it’s cheaper to import bulky, labour-intensive products like fruit and vegetables than to produce them domestically as we did a couple of centuries ago.

Wait, scroll back. Did somebody mention the EU? Britain voted to leave that creaking old juggernaut years ago and then struck out boldly on its own, right? The answer to that is yes and no, my friend, yes and no. Yes, we did narrowly vote to leave the EU more than two years ago, but no we haven’t left yet. Instead, we’ve had two years of epic fudging, as the government has tried and largely failed to work out how to leave the EU without tanking the economy, while simultaneously dealing with vast amounts of other fallout, such as the Irish border question. Perhaps I’ll write another post soon that runs the rule over this monumental waste of political energy, but here I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the aforementioned fallout, namely post-Brexit agricultural policy.

The government’s consultation paper Health and Harmony: the Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit set out its post CAP policy thinking, receiving a response from me and, apparently, about 43,999 other people and organisations. I don’t think I was the only one to notice that there was precious little about food or farming in the paper. The government seems to be planning some kind of environmental payments scheme to farmers on a ‘public money for public goods’ basis, but the notorious single farm payment subsidy regimen is soon to be history, with nothing to replace it. This was predicted long ago on this website – not that it was a hard prediction to make.

Well, the SFP was a bad scheme, and it won’t be mourned by many. Though much as folks like to bang on about the way it enriched people who didn’t need enriching and turned farmers into subsidy-junkies, the truth is the real junkies were retailers and consumers grown reliant on rock-bottom farm-gate prices. I won’t further plumb that particular line here, but it’s worth noting the implications of the SFP’s demise. There’s to be no emphasis on national food production or security, instead just a thoroughly neoliberal commitment to making British agriculture globally competitive. Which it probably won’t be across almost all dimensions of food production, with the possible exceptions of things like whisky and smoked salmon. My guess is that in the short-term we’ll see farmers getting out of farming and becoming landscape managers, while retailers and consumers continue getting their cheap food fix by importing more from abroad, regardless of the longer-term consequences – something like the ‘bad rewilding’ scenario I outlined some time ago. Farms will prioritise chasing money for wildlife management and visitor attractions, while we export the responsibility for producing our food to other countries willing to sell on global markets (and possibly less anxious to protect what remains of their own wildlife).

Nothing wrong with all that, according to mainstream economic theory. If each country focuses on what it’s best at producing and imports what other countries are best at producing, then everyone gains – this was all explained long ago by David Ricardo in the theory of ‘comparative advantage’ set out in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817).

Comparative advantage is still routinely invoked as a justification for free trade today, so it remains sadly necessary to explain why it’s a poor foundation for contemporary economies. If investors who are unable to freely put up their capital outside their own country – which was generally the case when Ricardo was writing – wanted to obtain the best possible financial returns, then it made sense for them to invest in their local or national industries with the greatest comparative advantage. But since Ricardo’s day, the entire drift of global financial policy has been to remove the trade barriers that pushed investors to seek comparative advantage, and also to virtualise the economy away from the production of physical things and towards the increase of money itself. So while an English capital-holder today may be better advised to invest in cloth than wine (Ricardo’s original examples) if they want a high return on investment they’re almost certainly even better advised to invest in derivatives on Wall Street. This replacement of comparative advantage by absolute advantage fundamentally changes the economic game in ways that quaint Ricardian theories of international trade are powerless to model.

Meanwhile, national and local governments have numerous responsibilities. Trying to maximise fiscal flows and foreign exchange earnings are certainly among them, but there are many others – the health and wellbeing of the populace, the resilience of infrastructures (including soil health and food security) and so on. Global policymakers nowadays seem to be gripped by a huge Hayekian delusion that all of these things are best secured by hawking them on global commodity markets. Even so, most wealthy countries take steps to protect their agricultures and ensure that their farmland remains productively farmed. You can certainly criticise the way they go about it – as in the EU’s common agricultural policy – on numerous grounds, but the basic motivation behind it seems sound. It’s unusual, and I think ill-advised, for a country to cast out its agriculture as Health and Harmony does in favour of the religious mantra that ‘the market will provide’.

Eighteen months ago I was pilloried on here by a couple of commenters for supporting continued British membership of the EU on the grounds that the latter is committed to neoliberalism. But it seemed obvious then, and it seems even more obvious now, that aside from a few misty-eyed nationalists the main impetus for Brexit within the Conservative Party came from people dissatisfied with the EU because it wasn’t neoliberal enough. The Health and Harmony paper seems confirmatory of this point. A case could have been made for a ‘progressive’ Brexit, but it would be stretching a point to say that that case has even been a marginal part of Brexit politics. In this sense, though I don’t like to use the term, people who supported Brexit for its progressive possibilities strike me as essentially useful idiots for neoliberalism. Though it’s possible, if fortune smiles on them, that they may yet have the last laugh.

In the short term, though, Britain is putting itself at a comparative disadvantage in pursuit of ‘competitiveness’ in the global agrarian economy. It’s worth bearing in mind that agriculture currently contributes less than 1% of Britain’s gross value added economic output, and under any realistic medium-term economic scenario it’s hard to see that increasing in any major way. But Britain could more or less feed itself from its existing agriculture if the government chose to make that a priority. To me, that seems a much wiser option than trying to wring another few million quid from a more ‘competitive’ agriculture.

Meanwhile, another aspect of Ricardo’s economics is looming ever larger. Ricardo supported international free trade because he perceived that in a protected capitalist market landowners would be able to extract economic rent – an excess return over production costs – as a result of increasing food demand. Essentially, he construed a scenario in which labourers did honest work to earn their wage and capitalists did honest work to earn their profit, while landlords pocketed an increasing share of the economic surplus thus generated without lifting a finger.

This dynamic of Ricardian rent has largely been in abeyance for many years in the rich countries. Food prices have been low and rural landownership has rarely been a royal road to wealth. But as industry and economic growth stalls and inequalities widen, the prospect of the economy falling into the grip of landlordism grows. If we extend the logic beyond agricultural land per se, it’s already happened. It’s already happened from a poor country perspective in terms of the extraction of Ricardian rent by rich countries in controlling access to the global economy (this is one reason to welcome exit from the protectionism of EU agricultural policy – but Britain unilaterally falling on its sword in this way probably won’t benefit poor people globally a great deal). And it’s already happened from a rich country perspective in the substantial exit of businesses from matters of production in favour of battling to control the means of circulation – intellectual property rights, branding and so forth. The emergence of a rentier capitalism which has no interest in putting capital to work in service of material improvement (always a minor theme at best in earlier capitalist iterations in any case) has a thoroughly Ricardian resonance.

The way I see this panning out is a period of tricky trade wheeler-dealing that won’t be more economically beneficial to Britain than EU membership was, but may inaugurate a brief honeymoon of cheap, low-quality imported food and possibly improved wildlife habitats at home (we’ll conveniently ignore the consequences for ghost acres abroad). Then as climate change begins to bite in the global breadbasket countries and calculated self-interest looms larger in the global political economy, I think we’ll be in for a major food crisis where it’ll suddenly seem like a good idea for the government to be supporting the local production of food, and where large landowners in possession of lightly-farmed estates may start to feel some class-aligned political heat.

At that point, the government will start casting desperately around for solutions to the self-inflicted problem of its Ricardian nightmare. Luckily, Small Farm Future will be here for it, shining a guiding light that will help it overcome the Ricardian perils of our age with this simple two point plan:

  1. A new protectionist economics, focused around local production for local use. This protectionism won’t be of the tit-for-tat, ‘my country first’ kind being reinvigorated by idiotic politicians like Donald Trump. It will take the form of an internationally agreed, convivial kind of protectionism in which collective strength is gained from individual difference.
  2. A new anti-landlordism economics. But not in the traditional socialist or capitalist manner of alienating people from the fruits of their own work on the land, because the benefits of this ‘globalising’ move will no longer be paying out. In this situation, the most obvious form of anti-landlordism is of the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em variety, in which more or less everyone becomes their own landlord.

The result of this protectionist, anti-landlord economics would look a lot like the small farm future I’ve long promulgated on this blog. What a funny coincidence. Undoubtedly, figuring out how to deliver this future from the unpromising present is a major conundrum. Happily, here at Small Farm Future we have all the answers – and we’ll start revealing them soon. But not just yet. First I have to go and pinch out my tomatoes.