City of the dead

Time to move onto the next chapter of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle about it, which is Chapter 15 – ‘The country and the city’. I’m probably going to write two or three shortish posts on this topic. In this one, I’ll approach it obliquely with an account of a walk I took last week.

To blow off a few cobwebs, I decided to spend a couple of days hiking a part of the Ridgeway, which has been in use for around 5,000 years and is supposedly Britain’s oldest road. It’s now a national hiking trail, with one end starting in Wiltshire only a few miles east of my home.

Although it’s nearby, the landscape at the starting point is very different from the small, folded hills of brashy limestone on the edge of the Mendips where I live. It’s more open country, with wide valleys and sweeping, chalky downs. The social histories written in the landscape are different too. Where I live is what Oliver Rackham called ‘ancient countryside’, where there were few commons or open fields and many scattered hamlets and private farmsteads, crooked roads, small woodlands and ponds. The Ridgeway country, by contrast, is what Rackham called a ‘planned countryside’ of widely-spaced villages, few, straighter roads and large, regular fields, strongly shaped by the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The walk starts in Avebury, which presents a much older history in the form of a Neolithic henge, less famous than its cousin on Salisbury plain a few miles to the south but I gather no less important in its day. The summer solstice had only just passed when I arrived, and Avebury was still dotted with a straggle of sun worshippers, who’d laced the sarsen stones and ancient trees with gaudy offerings. I can’t say I was a fan, but I doubt the stones and trees take a view on it.

The café was closed after a 24-hour stint serving the revellers, much to the chagrin of the tourists arriving from the car park – an altogether different demographic. There was a National Trust shop, but the only food it had was fudge, that mainstay of the English tourist experience. Luckily, I had a bag of lightweight if unappetizing trail food in my rucksack, so I doused my hat in water from the outdoor tap and began my walk. From the point I left town, I saw barely more than a handful of people over the next two days. And almost all of them were idlers like me – walkers, runners, cyclists – rather than people who were living or working in the landscape.

A major reason for that is water. Since, true to its name, this part of the Ridgeway mostly follows a ridge comprising porous chalk, there are few sources of groundwater along it to furnish reliable supplies. So barring high-energy and high-cost engineering efforts, it’s not a great place to build a house or village. No surprise, then, that most of the settlement in the area is on the bottomlands away from the ridge, often a trek of a mile or more downslope from the trail.

There were, however, a few people living up on the ridge. In occasional places where a minor road transected it with generous parking alongside, I often came across old vans and buses converted for residential use – sometimes deserted, sometimes occupied by young families and alternative-looking types, usually surrounded by a clutter of 25 litre plastic water cans, fire grates and other paraphernalia of life on the road.

As to people working up on the ridge – well, there were just a few. Walking up the long slope out of Avebury to join the trail, a self-propelled sprayer suddenly loomed from a dip in a big field of oilseed rape. My first taste of the Ridgeway was the cloying tug of glyphosate at the back of my nose and mouth – an experience repeated in several of the rape fields I traversed in the next two days, though after that first meeting I tried to time things so the spraying rigs were at the other end of the field when I passed. Still, I doubt I saw more than five tractors or sprayers during the hike. No doubt glyphosate is a great labour-saver.

There may not be many living souls abroad in those fields, but there are plenty of dead ones. The whole landscape is a Neolithic mausoleum. Not just in the now departed hands that made Stonehenge, Avebury and Uffington, but in the actual mausoleums of Wayland’s Smithy and endless other funerary barrows dotting the landscape. At the end of my first day of walking, I spread out my little bivvi tent as inconspicuously as I could behind a bank of hawthorn and lay down to sleep within this veritable city of the dead.

Recent thinking about these Neolithic peoples seems to be that they were agricultural pioneers scattered across a sparsely settled land who were not given to great social stratification. They built sites like Stonehenge collectively as ritual centres to which they travelled from where they lived and worked, often over great distances, and in this way forged social solidarity with each other and with their ancestors.

The situation in the area today seems pretty much reversed. I did make one foray off the trail into a village in the hope of enlivening my food supply. I got briefly lost amidst a thicket of ‘Private – No Public Access’ signs (I’ve long pressed the case on this blog for the virtues of distributed private ownership of farm property – private ownership of all rights to access is more complicated). When I located the village centre the pub was shut. I did come across a ‘Village Store and Post Office’ sign brightly painted on a wall, but the house it belonged to had long since been turned over to a private residence and there was nowhere else to buy food in the village. Most of the picture postcard old thatched cottages in the village seemed to have a couple of fancy cars, Porsches, Mercedes and the like, nuzzling their walls. The main road just outside the village only had a single lane each way, but it was so busy it took me five minutes to cross. The traffic raced north and south, to bigger towns, better shopping and places where a wider cross-section of society lived. But there was, to be fair, one house whose occupants had installed a water tap for passing hikers. I filled my bottles, doused my hat again, silently thanked its inhabitants and headed back up to the ridge, crossing the line of an old Roman road in the process – arrow straight, colonial.

I walked for another day, reaping its thin human harvest of cyclists, runners and tractor drivers. I’d guess that by Neolithic standards the countryside was teeming with people. But considering that southern England is one of the more densely populated parts of our densely populated planet, it didn’t seem so to me. You could easily see more people walking down a single street of my small hometown in a few minutes than I saw over two days on the Ridgeway.

At the end of my second day of walking, I took the bus to the nearest station. I got talking to a man who’d grown up in the north of England but had moved to the southeast for work. His landlord was selling his property, so he was heading over to the next town to find a new place to live. We bade farewell at the station and I took the train home. That cars and trains move a lot faster than people on foot is banally obvious, but it hits you afresh when you’ve been walking for two days and get home on the train in an hour.

And that, I think, is pretty much enough about my little trip. I’ve described it here only because I think it opens up some themes I’ll want to explore in forthcoming posts about the country and the city. Water. Work in the fields and work in the town. Human power relationships and control of the landscape. Transport connections and livelihoods. How we build solidarity with other people, and how we refuse to. How we can get, and keep, a roof over our heads. What things we choose to honour, and where we choose to honour them.

Warriors and merchants

I’ve been trying to blog my way through the chapters of my book A Small Farm Future, but I’ve got a bit stuck of late somewhere in the middle of Part III. This was a hard part of the book to write, because I wanted to avoid construing effortless but improbable future utopias of my own devising. The opposite danger is writing an over-generalized account which, when all is said and done, doesn’t amount to saying much more than ‘blow me, this is all really complicated and there aren’t any ideal options’. This is of limited help to the reader, because they already know that.

I think my book errs towards the latter problem, which in my view is the lesser of the two evils for a book of its kind. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to write a more fully realized view of an agrarian localist future, but I think the proper literary form for that would be a novel. Any takers for a swerve into fiction from the Small Farm Future team? Meanwhile, I’ll try to say something in this and subsequent posts about the other chapters in Part III of the book. I’m not going to repeat in detail what’s already written in those chapters, so these posts risk compounding the problem of over-generalization through offering over-generalized summaries of over-generalized book chapters. Life can be tortuous.

In my original draft of the book, there were seven chapters in Part III. I’ve covered two of these already here (Chapters 12 and 13). Two didn’t make the final cut – one concerning welfare and social policy, the other concerning industry and economic production. I intend to address the first of these in a couple of forthcoming posts, while keeping the latter under wraps at least for the time being until I’ve had the chance to ponder it some more. That leaves three other outstanding chapters (outstanding in the sense that I haven’t yet covered them here. Others may judge whether they’re outstanding in any other sense). The first of these is Chapter 14 – Going to Market. In this post, I’m going to say a few words about this chapter.

My basic starting point is the view, long rehearsed on this blog, that it would be good if there were a lot more small-scale farmers oriented to producing food and fibre primarily for themselves and for their local communities. For this to happen, there would need to be access to no-cost or low-cost farmland and associated infrastructure. Candidates for this way of life in the past include any number of so-called ‘primitive’ societies of agriculturalists, the Russian peasantries of the late 19th century analyzed by Alexander Chayanov, and the mountaineers of 18th/19th century Appalachia analyzed by Steven Stoll among many others.

I doubt such Chayanovian societies are going to spring up any time soon in countries of the Global North such as the UK in the context of our emerging climate, energy and political crises, because there are going to be a lot of people chasing limited cultivable land (the opposite of the Chayanovian situation), and there will still be powerful, if declining, political centres like London with large, if declining, amounts of cash floating around. So the challenge as I see it is how to wrest a broadly Chayanovian situation out of these unpromising initial conditions.

The alternative to the ‘vacant’ land of the Chayanovian situation is non-vacant, i.e. controlled land. Who controls it? In an interesting article written some years ago1, the anthropologist Keith Hart argued that historically in the circum-Mediterranean world (and often beyond) it was a battle between these linked dualisms:

city – countryside

merchant – warrior (landlord)

property in money, from water-borne trade  –  property in land

…until, Hart says, “the Romans, in defeating Carthage, made their world safe for landlords for almost another two thousand years” (p.206).

The problem with this is that property in money from water-borne trade can quickly be parlayed into property in land, or in people, as became all too apparent post-1492 when the water-borne traders started building the global capitalist economy of today on the back of the Atlantic slave system.

A postcolonial dream emerged in the 20th century that urbanization and the globalization of trade would finally oust the rural landlord, the warrior, the controller of landed property. You still hear this dream bandied about today, but it seems to me any realistic belief in it died long before Hart was writing in the early 2000s. Which returns us to his dismal duality – warrior landlord or merchant landlord?

On balance, I prefer merchant landlord. This is because there’s a fluidity to money that makes it easier in principle for just about anybody to become a merchant landlord, whereas the rigidity of social status usually makes it hard to enter the ranks of warrior aristocracies. Also, on balance merchants are marginally less inclined towards acting as entrepreneurs of violence, although it’s a close-run thing – in Chapter 14, I track the intimate relationship between money and violence. Often, the worst violence occurs with the onset of monetization, but violence can get along just fine without money at all.

Anyway, in brief my aspiration is to make it so easy to become a merchant landlord that almost everyone can do it. This has three happy consequences. First, it becomes hard to be a landlord over anyone but yourself, thus finally defeating the landlordism that the Carthaginians so carelessly let slip by losing to the Romans all those years ago in Hart’s telling of the tale. Second, it becomes unnecessary to be a merchant, because you’re a landlord – of yourself – and therefore have the means to produce what you need. But for all that, your mercantile orientation means you’re probably not averse to a bit of trade, which is basically a good thing when it’s kept in check by your self-landlordism because it generates a small flow of specialized surplus and goods that makes the life of the self-reliant proprietor a little bit easier (Christopher Dyer makes this point nicely in his book about a rural Tudor merchant John Heritage – simultaneously merchant, farmer and commoner2). Third, the fluidity of money makes it easier for people who might otherwise be stymied by the rigidity of status to attain self-landlordly autonomy, such as women and minority groups.

As I see it, there are two main drawbacks to this model of widespread merchant self-landlordism. First, it’s quite likely that some people will build up assets over time while others will lose them, so there’s a high risk the system will revert to a more normal kind of landlordism, unless steps are taken to prevent it.

Second, while making monetary exchange the basis of the agrarian economy guards against certain bad outcomes, it courts others. Probably most important among them is the danger that the symbolic economy of money over-dominates the actual ecology that local land, air and water can sustain, not least through the linkage a monetary economy implies to an issuing authority that underwrites it and that may have its own ideas about how people ought to tend the landscape.

I don’t think there’s much to be done in the short term about centralized governments carrying on doing their thing as money-issuing authorities, and throwing their weight around in other ways. But in A Small Farm Future, I argue that some rural areas may enjoy a level of de facto semi-autonomy from these political centres. In that situation, actual money would be scarce locally and much economic activity would occur without it changing hands, but the monetary ambit of the centre would work as a kind of shadow economy conditioning local exchange. It would be interesting to flesh out how that might work.

Fleshing out how it might work would also involve wrestling with the other problem of merchant self-landlordism in time becoming just normal landlordism. It’s not hard to devise policies to prevent that, along the lines discussed in some of my recent posts such as death taxes, land value tax and so on. The real issue is whether the rural society I’m describing would structure itself politically in such a way as to make the implementation of such policies likely. To which the answer is, I think, possibly in some places – but more often not.

In places where it doesn’t shake out like that, the most likely alternative will probably be a version of Hart’s warrior landlordism. I suspect this will look less like the stereotype of the medieval warrior overlord, and more like the kind of urbanized imperial-authoritarian populism pioneered by the Romans and updated by various would-be demagogues of the present like Trump, Johnson, Modi and Putin – bread and circuses for the majority citizenry, demonization and expropriation for minorities and those outside the ambit of the state.

I doubt this kind of warrior landlordism will endure because I don’t think it will be able to mediate the contradictions it faces. It may also lack the means to reach into daily life as comprehensively as contemporary capitalist states. So I think there may still be further opportunities for merchant self-landlords to build more renewable and regenerative local economies within and against the structures of the warrior landlord state.

That, at any rate, is the big picture. In Chapter 14, I discuss some aspects of how this might work in terms of local economic action. As I’ve already said, the bigger issue is the politics, and we’ll get to that presently. Meanwhile, I’ll likely be offline for a few days now but I’ll engage with any comments on my return. Ciao.

References

1. Keith Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’. In Marianne Lien and Brigitte Nerlich (eds). The Politics of Food. Berg.

2. Christopher Dyer. 2012. A Country Merchant, 1495-1520. Oxford UP.

It takes an ecovillage…: some thoughts on ‘Going to Seed’

I enjoyed writing a book review for my last post so much that I’m going to write another one this time around. But whereas last time it was a long review of a very long book addressing itself to a large slice of human history, here I offer you a short review of a much shorter book about the life of a single man.

The man in question is Simon Fairlie, and the book is Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir (Chelsea Green, 2022). Disclosure: I know Simon a little, as I suspect do many people in England with more than a passing involvement in the movement for local, sustainable agriculture – testament either to the still regrettably small corps of people the movement commands, or perhaps more positively to Simon’s tireless efforts in making the case and spreading the word on numerous fronts. I’ve written for Simon’s excellent periodical The Land and there’s an endorsement from me inside his book. So, needless to say, I am not an unbiased observer.

Parts of Simon’s life story were therefore familiar to me as I read his memoir: cofounder of the influential low impact agricultural community, Tinker’s Bubble; land rights activist and rural planning expert; reviver of the fine art of scything; acutely perceptive agricultural thinker, whose book Meat: A Benign Extravagance is still the best-articulated vision of a just and sustainable small farm future I know. Other parts were newer to me: an upper-crust if unconventional childhood, dropping out in the 1960s and joining the hippy trail to India, 1990s road protesting and a brief stint in jail as a member of the Twyford Six (“an unwarranted honorific given the minimal degree of martyrdom we had to undergo”), work as a stonemason high aloft at Salisbury Cathedral – and, generally, a life lived at an angle to mainstream working and living arrangements.

The book has a conventional autobiographical structure, a chronological self-narration from childhood to senior citizen, which surprised me at first. It’s not the kind of thing I’d have expected Simon to write at all. But the payoff from such an acute observer of the world is that his story, from 1950s childhood to 2020s dotage, becomes a deft social history of postwar England (and other places, but mostly England). Throughout, Simon has been drawn to people retaining or creating lifeways that resist or negate the dictates of the conventional economy, and he offers numerous wonderful little vignettes from these various front lines – for example, in his account of the now-defunct seacoaling community inhabiting the beaches near Newcastle that he briefly joined in the 1980s, “an example of an open access commons operating within the shell of a capitalist transaction”.

Simon’s attention to the way such communities form – and the way the powers-that-be try to crush them – elevates the book far beyond the personal into a nuanced appreciation of the cultures of capitalism, making it a fitting complement to the book I previously reviewed. But narrated in the context of an individual life, and with Simon’s trademark salty style, it’s considerably more of a page turner.

I like the telling little details he notices – how, for example, chicken was a luxury food in the 1950s because of its dependence on then relatively expensive arable grain fodder, while grass-fed beef and lamb were more easily available. The implications of such observations for agricultural futures today are large, yet go dismayingly little discussed in contemporary food system debates. Simon’s portrait of the 1950s emphasizes how even a fairly privileged upbringing in one of the most privileged countries in the world at that time involved much closer connection to a relatively renewable local agrarian economy than today. This is worth bearing in mind when making the case for low impact local agrarianism in the teeth of derision from techno-solutionists of the present, who are apt to accuse one of wishing to go back to the stone age, or the middle-ages, or [insert supposedly awful period of past history of choice]. The appropriate response to this is to say that we don’t wish to “go back” anywhere, but a passing appreciation among our critics of the way that the neoliberal extremism of recent years has undermined even the residual local sustainability and food autonomy in many countries, including Britain, in just a few decades wouldn’t go amiss.

There were two related areas of discussion in Simon’s book that left me wanting more analysis from him. The first relates to the relative failure of the timber enterprise at Tinker’s Bubble, which he describes as follows:

“the main reason was that the timber operation was a joint enterprise that required the co-operation of several people … And we hippies, although we wanted to live in a community, actually weren’t too good at working communally. That’s not to say we couldn’t. It was more that most of the time most of the people didn’t want to. A squad of professional soldiers under orders would have achieved in a few days what took us months or even years to get together.

The problem had been apparent from the outset. We started out with communal work days, but it was often difficult to get some people to join in and after about eighteen months these were dropped. Instead we adopted a system where different people took responsibility for different tasks, but not everyone carried out their roles, and the forestry fell behind. By 1999…work was no longer structured around a farm plan. Instead each person was supposed to achieve a land-based income through their own devices…The result was a multiplicity of veg patches…hand tilled with spade and mattock” (pp.221-2)

In this revealing microcosm from a single modern agricultural community, Simon pretty much tells the history of local agrarian societies writ large – working communally where they have to, wrestling to find formal collective work arrangements able to fit around the crooked timber of humanity, but generally preferring to organize agriculture in ways that create personal autonomy over the work regimen and opting where possible for intensive cultivation on an individual or household basis, while leaving collective arrangements for the more extensive, whole-landscape level stuff.

I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but in short I don’t think Simon should blame it on any unique failings among the hippies at Tinker’s Bubble. The contrast with a squad of soldiers under orders is informative. History suggests that it’s usually only under rather special, and perhaps undesirable, forms of hierarchy that it becomes easy to create a readily manageable day-to-day work regimen that’s genuinely collective in form. Contemporary writers too often fall into the trap of supposing this is some particular failing of our modern, selfish individualism. It isn’t.

Simon later moved to Monkton Wyld, another well-known intentional community here in southwest England. He speaks a little more highly of it, but – unlike Tinkers Bubble – he wasn’t involved in the arduous process of establishing its routines, and, as he acknowledges himself, the community doesn’t make its livelihood from agriculture and, when he moved there, was already running along the lines that Tinker’s Bubble eventually adopted, where “each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the community for their performance”.

For me, this raises questions of a kind we recently discussed on this blog that touch upon the second point of interest, namely family and personal relationships. Throughout the book, Simon discusses his sometimes stuttering family and romantic relationships with impressive candour and self-criticism, and occasional raw honesty. Yet I was struck by this passage in which he shares his thoughts about how intentional communities address internal tensions:

“Nothing bodes worse, in my view, than ‘feelings meetings’ called to resolve interpersonal problems or plumb the depths of the communal psyche … Occasionally we get visitors, or prospective members who want to promote this kind of collective narcissism and I’m glad to say they get pretty short shrift from most of our members. ‘Least said, soonest mended’ is not a solution for all ills, but it is the policy to be preferred in the first instance.”

I don’t much disagree, and I likewise tend to shy away from collective over-sharing of emotional introspection. But, indeed as Simon says, ‘least said soonest mended’ isn’t a solution for all ills, and it seems to me that the culture around this in current times – particularly manifested in generations younger than mine or Simon’s – has improved in its recognition that people often do need to talk through their complications with each other in constructive ways, and sometimes need the help of others to do it. This is usually true whether the community of concern is a family, a workplace, a neighbourhood, an intentional community, an ecovillage or a country. My sense of this, somewhat amplified by reading Simon’s book, is that it doesn’t matter all that much which of these levels we’re talking about. The need to address and sometimes redress power relationships and interpersonal tensions is similar at all levels of human interaction.

This is why I’ve come to think that the endless and often fierce arguments about whether families, friendship groups, local or intentional communities, governments, commons, wider publics or statutory agencies are the best form of fundamental organization for a well-functioning society are ultimately futile. I have a slight bias against governments and statutory agencies because I don’t think they’re very good at sharing their feelings constructively and then moving on. But ultimately all these levels of human organization face parallel challenges, and squabbling over which is best serves little purpose. At Monkton Wyld as for every other well-functioning social unit, each person is responsible for their own field of activity, but is answerable to the wider community. And the wider community must also somehow be answerable to each person. Enough said. Time to move on.

In this brief review, I’ve just picked out a few strands from Simon’s rich and informative narrative – I’d warmly commend anyone interested enough to have read this far to get themselves a copy of the book, where they’ll find much more to entertain and inspire them. On its final page, Simon writes:

“I’m not one of those bronzed and wiry septuagenarians who take on challenges like rowing across the Atlantic. I’m pink and fat, and I avoid having to bend down to tie up my shoelaces. Yet despite this corporeal decadence, I can still milk the cows, muck out the yard and mow quarter of an acre of hay in a morning, and I intend to keep it up. I expect to die in bed with my boots on, having been too knackered and drunk to take them off”

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen until those boots have tramped many more miles, and he’s shared more of his acute wisdom and radicalism, and a few more stories, with the rest of us.

Capitalism as religion: on ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’

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

1. Of sacramental capitalism

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

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

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

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

pp.16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Plymouth Rock or Jamestown?

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

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

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

p.308

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

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

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

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

p.594

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

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

4. Plain folks and the stuff they buy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p.588

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. All the way down

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

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

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

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

I think he’s right.

A further note on gender, families and households in a small farm future

This post addresses some questions of household, family and gender relations in a small farm future. I wrote about this in Chapter 12 of my book, and also in this article and this post. But there are some things I’d like to add – partly a few new thoughts, and partly by way of response to points made earlier that I wasn’t able to respond to at the time. So, a brief reprise and reformulation before I move onto other things.

As I see it, for reasons much aired on this website over the years, there will probably be a resurgence of small-scale, household-based farming in the future, and many – but by no means all – of those households are going to be peopled mainly or exclusively by an adult woman, an adult man, and their children. This is not some ethical ideal that I’m advancing as an exemplary model for how farm households ought to be arranged. On the contrary, I hope there will be many different styles and sizes of household. It’s just that I think the structure I mentioned is likely to be quite common in the future, as it has been in the past, unless a lot of political effort is devoted to preventing it – which I doubt will happen, and in my view probably wouldn’t be a good use of precious social resources. Possibly, this structure will seem to offer certain advantages for some of those involved, but it risks disadvantages for others.

One of the disadvantages I’ve feared is that a household farming future of this kind will disproportionately benefit men and disbenefit women. Therefore, I wrote Chapter 12 of my book to address that issue. It was one of the harder chapters to write (and one of the harder ones to cut editorially), and it’s one of the chapters I’m least satisfied with. Happily, all the reviews of the book I’ve seen bar one correctly appreciated that it was a good faith attempt to advance an anti-patriarchal position around family farming.

But, as I see things now, I fear I may have fallen into a so-called framing trap with that chapter, where I too easily accepted key premises of views I don’t share – specifically, that small-scale, family farming is intrinsically patriarchal and that the royal route to gender equality lies in urbanization, modernization and the escape of (female) labour from land-based work.

This is certainly a widely held view. One participant at a discussion I was involved in said bluntly that “small farms are bad for women”. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I put the point to Vandana Shiva when I interviewed her on The Stoa, and she took the alternative view that there are sources of social support for rural women that make them less vulnerable to patriarchal control and violence than their poor urban counterparts.

I also quizzed my friend Saurav Roy on the point, and he wrote this interesting reply (lightly edited by me), which I’ll return to in a later post:

“When I was working in slums in Calcutta, mostly the migrants were coming from Sundarbans because either their crops were failing or fish were dying because salty water would enter their ponds. They would share with me that they came to earn money in Calcutta because the flooding and soil erosion have increased in the last five years, making it difficult for them to farm anything. Moving to a city is not a choice they prefer, as it requires leaving their family behind and the conditions in the city are far less dignified than in the village. That was my first experience of witnessing climate migration before I even read a book about climate migration.

I was doing surveys in these slums to understand their energy needs, kerosene dependency and household earnings. For that, the women would know more than the men, so I would naturally speak to the women. Show up every two weeks to say hi and update surveys. I became more trusted and then women, especially the newly married ones, would say they feel less secure in the slums as there are more experiences of getting groped, molested or raped. As police are not of any help in these neighbourhoods (because people are living there illegally) they can’t really report anything. So the women have to protect themselves, have a man in the house after dark, or especially feel vulnerable when they want to use the toilet. These slum houses rarely have proper doors, so if any drunk person wants to enter at night they could”

Then Saurav cited some evidence hinting at better security (and better nutrition) for rural women in India. Other writers like Manali Desai have emphasized the greater danger of sexual violence against low caste women in rural areas. I guess it’s always hard to generalize, especially in a country comprising nearly 20% of the world’s population. So it’s complicated, but on the face of it I’m not seeing an awful lot of evidence to suggest that rural residence and agrarian lifeways are always the worst option for women (which is just as well, because I think there are going to be increasingly few other options for women, and for men too, in the future).

To generalize yet further, the way I now see things is that patriarchy is a permanent possibility in every kind of society, and it bears little necessary relation to the kind of place people live, the kind of work they do and maybe the exact composition of their households. So I no longer feel a need to defend societies built on small-scale family farming from the specific charge of patriarchy, which is not of course the same as saying that patriarchy is not an issue in such societies. The work of historians like Robert Allen and Emma Griffin has shown that conditions for women in England worsened with the early modern onset of more commercialized farming and subsequently with industrialization, and similar findings have been presented in other parts of the world. Along with their contrary. Again, it’s complicated.

In The Dawn of Everything (which I reviewed here), David Graeber and David Wengrow suggest that “the most brutal forms of exploitation have their origins in the most intimate of social relations: as perversions of nurture, love and caring” (p.208). They use this to analyze exploitation at different social levels, including patriarchal family forms, domestic slavery and forms of political tyranny. If they’re right, then it follows that ending these forms of exploitation must involve redressing the ‘perversions’ they invoke, rather than assuming there’s some particular form or level of social organization such as ‘the family’ where the blame lies.

So what are the perversions? When I wrote my chapter, I was thinking of societies organized around corporate kinship groups such as clans and lineages, where it seems to me the chances of creating patriarchal structures are high – women, and women’s sexuality or ‘honour’, being a group possession that it jealously guards. For that reason, I felt that in societies organized around less ramifying kin structures – nuclear families, say – the risks would be lower. And, reading Graeber and Wengrow’s book, I found it remarkable how many of the archaeological sites they described worldwide across the span of human history, most particularly those they championed as versions of republican autonomy, involved small domestic hearths of the kind that could only accommodate a small group of people of nuclear family type proportions.

Remarkable though that seemed, as I mentioned in my review it wasn’t something Graeber and Wengrow actually remarked on. I can’t help feeling there’s something of a conspiracy of silence around kinship and family forms in the contemporary social sciences, alongside a queasiness in even talking about it in progressive and left-wing circles that leaves the field wide open for the political right to forge what it will out of the concept of ‘the family’.

Whereas kinship studies were once central to anthropology, perhaps too central, they now seem to me too peripheral, to the extent that it’s barely possible to formulate questions about the structuring of kin and gender relations in different kinds of societies at all. A lot of the more recent scholarship on the topic asks instead how we even come to conceive that ideas like gender or family have any meaning at all – which is fair enough, although you can say the same about any form of social identity, including class. Generally, this recent scholarship operates at a level of highfalutin philosophical abstraction that I suspect is quite bamboozling to most ordinary folk, though perhaps some of the ideas find more everyday expression in current controversies about trans identities and rights.

Meanwhile, radical writers tiptoe around the issue. In his stimulating book, A People’s Green New Deal, for example, Max Ajl argues for agrarian reforms that “shatter large capitalist plots into smaller ones workable by non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117) and “break huge farms into units that can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives” (p.144). No quarrel from me there, but Max doesn’t expand on what form these family units might take and how they would relate to wider society. This is probably a wise move to avoid political trouble, but it risks evading issues that ultimately must be confronted.

While I’ve been entertaining notions of restricted family units and restricted proprietorship as a way to overcome the ‘perversions’ of modern patriarchy and power, I think it would be fair to say that a lot of leftwing thought runs in the opposite direction, holding both nuclear family structures and notions of private property, even in the form of distributed petty proprietorship, in special contempt for many modern ills. This was firmly asserted by an online commenter recently who took umbrage at my view that small, family-based households are quite common historically.

The classic text here, and the one my commenter invoked, is Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published in 1884. I have a copy on my bookshelf, which I bought exactly a century later when I was an undergraduate anthropology student. A good deal of Engels’ evidence was culled from the 1877 book Ancient Society by pioneering US anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, with its speculative and now outmoded conception of an original human matriarchy, and its oh-so-Victorian stage theory of human development from ‘savagery’, through ‘barbarism’ and onwards to ‘civilization’.

My commenter asked me if I’d read Engels’ book. A long time ago, I confessed – don’t remember much about it. I took it down from my shelf and weighed it in my hands, pondering whether to reread it. Then I put it back. Screw it – Morgan’s and Engels’ books broke fresh ground in their day, but the fact that radicals are still taking their cue from them nearly 150 years later surely suggests a problem. Things have moved on, I said to myself – and to my commenter. But judging by the apparently parlous state of kinship studies these days, maybe they haven’t. Certainly, the ghosts of Morgan and Engels still stalk social media and liberal dinner party talk about the evils of family and property, while critical scholarship seems to have vacated the scene. It’s the power, the resistance to critique, of exactly these kinds of “as everybody knows and as so-and-so showed long ago” shibboleths that I think always require challenging, and that Graeber and Wengrow’s book helps us to challenge, even if the hot potato of family structures is one they somewhat ducked themselves.

The real source of radical ire is, I think, not so much the nuclear family as a particular version of it all too evident in the Victorian England of Engels’ day. Father as distant patriarch and breadwinner, abroad in the public sphere outside the home. Mother as his subordinate and financial dependent, confined to a somewhat empty domesticity. Children to be inculcated with these virtues through patriarchal discipline. Much policing of boundaries, status aspiration and male sexual hypocrisy.

I have no problem joining the philippics against this kind of family norm, but it’s not so much a depiction of ‘the nuclear family’ as a highly specific version of it, or what might alternatively be glossed ‘the bourgeois family’. Inevitably, a large part of the feminist response to that Victorian modernist reality had to involve women unseating the family patriarch by creating extra-domestic autonomy for themselves, in the workplace, in accessing money and wealth independently, in the public sphere, in female self-actualization. In other words, by connecting themselves and their households to a wider world of material and conceptual possibilities.

On that point at least I agree with my online commenter in his strictures against what he called, shifting the goalposts when I defended small family units as a ubiquitous historical reality, ‘the insular nuclear family’. Well, I’m definitely against insularity. But the issue I tried to raise in my book is that many of the options available to Victorian feminists and their successors for breaking down insular boundaries may be less available in a small farm future, and people – women and men – will be more tied to a household economy. That household economy isn’t inevitably patriarchal, but the resources for contesting its tendencies to patriarchy may have to be different from the ones that drove the feminism of industrial modernity.

Nevertheless, I’m unconvinced that the gains of modern feminism would simply be lost in a small farm future characterized by many restricted-family farm households, nor that the forms of exploitation arising from ‘perversions’ of intimate relations that Graeber and Wengrow invoke would vanish with other kinds of households. What seems to me more important to safeguard against exploitation is rich connection of people and their households to wider social networks. I see this taking a civic republican form, which I will explore in future posts.

At the same time, it mightn’t be a bad idea to revive questions about gender, kinship structure and the forms of household production now unfashionable in the social sciences to ponder how such connections might operate. Consider, for example, the old anthropological nostrum that land-intensive horticultural societies often involve matrilineal inheritance and descent (i.e. children inherit property only/mainly from their mother and maternal line – not to be confused with ‘matriarchy’), whereas land-extensive mobile herding societies often involve patrilineal descent (not to be confused with patriarchy, although in fact the two often go together, as in all those livestock-herding Old Testament patriarchs).

The logic is that it can be hard to be certain who a child’s father is, so in labour-intensive situations with relatively high pressure on land where lineal inheritance matters to people, as one might find in predominantly horticultural societies, there’s something to be said for pragmatically making descent matrilineal. The land extensive situation of herding, on the other hand, involves militarized policing of uncertain boundaries and the fusion and fission of groups according to political and ecological circumstances, lending itself to masculinist and patrilineal ‘bands of brothers’ and rigorous (patriarchal) control over female sexuality.

I did come across a moderately recent research paper arguing somewhat along these lines from a sociobiological perspective concerning the incentives for parental investment in biological offspring. But I’m not sure it’s necessary to invoke evolutionary genetics. Simply the belief that children inherit material substance of social importance from both parents is probably enough.

Anyway, commenters here at Small Farm Future seem willing to boldly go where modern scholarship fears to tread, so I was interested when Joe Clarkson wrote here a while ago here on this very theme:

I have lived in a village where … the many children who didn’t live with their mother usually lived with grandparents or some other biological kin. In this village the culture around gender was pretty conventional except that, due to widespread promiscuity, land tenure was matrilineal. There was little concern about who the actual father of any child might be as it was often impossible to know. Other aspects of land control and chiefly hierarchy were patriarchal.

Given that the small farm future I project is likely to be a labour-abundant, land scarce horticultural one, perhaps there’s a case for shifting towards matrilineal descent? As Joe’s comment indicates, matriliny isn’t entirely a defence against patriarchy, but it may mitigate the worst tendencies towards control of female sexuality.

An interesting question is how quickly kinship systems might change to fit new circumstances. When could we expect to see a matrilineal small farm future taking shape? Alternatively, perhaps people would opt for a more relaxed approach. After all, sex and marriage aren’t the same thing. Maybe a judicious mix of honesty with spouses and sexual partners, good contraception, and/or relative indifference to the importance of biological descent in labour-intensive horticultural societies of the future might be enough to preserve the existing pattern of bilateral descent in more or less nuclear families typical in the Global North into a small farm future. Certainly this pattern, combined when appropriate with supra-household forms of organization such as commons, has operated effectively in many small farm pasts. Restricted bilateral families are quite a resilient social form.

Perhaps my emphasis here upon family-based productive households will be offensive to certain variants of left-wing thought, while the emphasis on a free and easy approach to sex, family styles and inheritance will offend certain right-wing ones. I’m open to debate, but I’m as yet unpersuaded of the virtues of agrarian futures which over-fetishize the family at the expense of politics or over-fetishize politics at the expense of the family. For me, in that middle ground sits the public sphere of civic republican politics.

Anyway, as I now see it there’s no inherent tendency to patriarchy in restricted family household farming models, provided the tendencies towards patriarchy in the wider society of which it’s a part are kept in check. But there are some things worth keeping an eye on. One is avoiding an excessively gendered division of labour in farm work, which may in fact be easier with the more horticultural focus of a small farm society, where there would be less need for the kind of overpowered tractive machinery that seems to draw men in like wasps to a jampot and encourage them to elaborate their metaphors of masculinity around pistons, cylinder capacities and the length of their chainsaw bars. Another is to avoid all those nationalist, militarist and masculinist ideas of defending the family or the motherland. Or, if defence is essential, to be sure it’s women’s work as well as men’s. Yet another, of course, is to maintain full female citizenship rights to inheritance, divorce, education and so on. There are precedents for all this in historic small farm societies.

But maybe there’s a joker in the pack in the form of a ‘big man’ tendency among certain males towards self-aggrandizing patriarchal dominance. In relation to Graeber and Wengrow’s thesis concerning the relationship between household care and political domination, Gunnar Rundgren, another boldly-going Small Farm Future commenter, wrote:

I am not very convinced by the argument that kingdoms are modelled on patriarchal household (family) relationships …. At risk of sounding like a socio-biologist [it’s OK, Gunnar you’re among friends here…]I find the more plausible link being between a dominating male in a band and chiefs, chiefdoms, kingdoms and ultimately empires. The dominant male is not a far-fetched figure, but he is not linked to the household unless you expand the household unit to the band or whatever social unit people were living in.

Would-be dominant men who are not linked to a household that can keep them in check, masterless men, men who are not heorđfæst or ‘hearth-fast’ in the Old English term, indeed can be something of a problem – whether in the form of pillaging men-at-arms at large in certain modern and premodern societies, or men at large on incel subreddits or worse today. My argument, though it’s far from a complete answer, is that if men as well as women are richly connected to a restricted household, which in turn is richly connected to a wider political community, then the possibilities for patriarchal domination are lessened, provided the society in general admits to some narrative of female autonomy.

So in summary: small farm societies are not necessarily bad for women, kinship is a given and can’t be wished away, but large patrilineages and masculinist metaphors of defence and protection are best avoided. Men are best connected through kinship to a caring household (so are women, but that seems to be easier to achieve), and households in turn are best connected to wider networks of social institutions. It’s possible that household care can be perverted into a logic of patriarchal domination, just as can every kind of social institution. But it’s not a given. And there are no particular ‘material’ causes of female oppression that are worsened, or lessened, by the possibility of a small farm future.

A note on land value tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural gentrification Part IV: the internship problem

To complete my present mini-series of posts on rural and agrarian gentrification, I want to talk about what I’ll call the internship problem. This relates to the practice of employing young or new entrant people at low or no wages, usually on the basis – or at least the pretext – that the opportunity gives them experience that will enable them to get more gainful employment in the future.

This practice seems to be proliferating across various job sectors nowadays as part of more general workplace casualization. The problems with it in terms of job security, potential exploitation of the intern and the barriers facing people who can’t afford to work for little or nothing and wish to enter intern-heavy sectors probably don’t need spelling out.

Small-scale farming, which tends to focus on more labour-intensive activities such as horticulture, is an intern-heavy sector. So these problems loom large within it. But there are some complicating factors specific to it that I’d like to broach here, while linking them to my wider present theme of gentrification and a small farm future.

To get into them, consider this:

If you can afford to buy a farm you can afford to pay the minimum wage. Really sick of people underpaying farmworkers in the guise of offering ‘education’

This is my paraphrase remembered from an online comment I came across a while back and can no longer find, from an agrarian Marxist of my acquaintance. Since I don’t have their exact words, it would be wrong of me to name them. And it’s not important anyway – the point is that such sentiments are quite widely expressed. Another example I’ve seen along similar lines (also long vanished from my screen) is this from a trade union in the USA: “If you can’t pay the minimum wage, then you don’t have a viable business”.

What to make of this? To go back to the first quotation, it seems to me that the first sentence isn’t logically true, and fails to distinguish between capital and revenue. It’s all too easy to blow every last penny on purchasing a farm, with no possibility of funding a five-figure annual wage bill out of its yearly business returns. But inasmuch as it may be true in a given case I’d suggest there could be three reasons why a farm owner would seek to pay below the minimum wage. The first is simple miserliness or bad faith, in which case I’m happy to join in the critical chorus and have nothing further to add. The second is what we might call a gentrification scenario in which somebody buys and runs a farm through access to funds that cannot be replenished by the financial returns from the actual farming. The third is that they consider themselves to be genuinely offering education with a financial value factored in.

I want to say a bit more about the second and third scenarios. In many agrarian societies historically and still today, landownership is a route to the accumulation of wealth and other forms of power. The gentry or the gentrifiers are, precisely, the people who own and can afford to own farmland, augmenting their riches as a result. But, to cut a long story short, in more commercial and industrial societies, ownership of farmland is not a source of wealth. Rich people own farmland because they’re rich, they’re not rich because they own farmland. Few people who actually work to produce food and fibre from the land, even if they own it, make a good living from the sale of those products, at any scale. In rich countries like Britain, the main way people try to square this circle via food production itself is by engrossing farms, cutting human labour, mechanizing and trying to gain economies of large scale by producing locally appropriate commodity crops, which are few in number globally, whence many of the problems of the food, farming and wider socioeconomic systems derive.

When a small-scale neo-agrarian farmer of relatively modest means steps into this unpromising reality by buying some land and starting a commercial enterprise (which, here in the UK, they will probably have to do to stand any chance of living on their land and making a go of it) they will not be able to compete on the standard commodity crops with larger scale operators and will typically start a niche labour-intensive enterprise like horticulture (it’s one of the tragedies of the modern world that gardening is ‘niche’). Chances are they’ll discover soon enough that it’s hard to generate enough income to pay for the prodigious amounts of labour they require, which is why the rich countries tend to import fruit and vegetables from poorer countries with different labour conditions, or import cheap labour from poorer countries to meet their horticultural labour needs.

As a result of this impasse, the neo-agrarian small landowner has two main options. One is to stay commercial, but find an even more niche niche in the form of an enterprise that can generate the best net income on a small scale. This will be something like micro salad greens or specialty mushrooms. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this. But it does mean that our would-be radical agrarian once fired up by the idea of sticking it to the man and doing their bit for the new agrarian dawn ends up travelling around ingratiating themselves with the head chefs of all the high-end local restaurants while the Wendell Berry books gather dust on the shelf.

Still, at least this way the small farmer remains solvent. And there’s a lot of picking and packing to do back on the farm, so it’s possible they can create a minimum wage job or two. The chances that their employees will be able to amass sufficient capital from this wage work to purchase their own farm someday are precisely zero, but at least the small farmer is running a ‘viable business’ and can take an honourable seat at the table with the other local bosses and capitalist employers.

The other main option is to stick with Wendell Berry and the original idealism, grow some wheat and potatoes, milk the cow or whatever, and accept that whatever it is that you’re doing it’s not what mainstream folk choose to call a ‘viable business’. Even so, the potatoes don’t grow by themselves and your labour demands remain high. So maybe you’ll rely on family labour or the input of volunteers from the nearby town who are desperate to get their hands in some soil, and this could work pretty well provided you can keep various labour regulation bureaucracies off your back. If your children are helping you, at least they’re probably learning something useful – especially if they go on to inherit the farm.

A hybrid situation is also likely. Chances are, a lot of other people somewhere along on their own neo-agrarian journey will be attracted to your farm. Probably not so much in the early stages when all you have is a bare field and not much clue what you’re doing or why. But as the trees you planted grow, the house you built settles in, and the field and water systems you developed start putting food on the table, after all those years of poorly rewarded work, suddenly your farm might look attractive to other people who want out of the existing ecocidal financial-industrial system. And you too might benefit from having such people on your farm. You can probably offer them a simple but honest roof over their head, some food on their table, companionship, a chance to learn useful skills and a chance to do good work. But you probably can’t offer them the minimum wage, just as you never earned it yourself over the years you were building up your farm.

You might be able to offer them a bit of money, though, along with many of the benefits in kind that accompany a livelihood based on the land. I guess you could call it an internship, although sharing life on the land is more intimate than the average internship – less like an industrial work placement, more like a family or community. But not entirely like one, because the intern is still a sojourner without secure and equal long-term rights to the use of your land.

If the drift of this essay – or indeed this entire blog – hasn’t already made my sympathies clear, let me say plainly that I greatly prefer the agrarian, decommodifying, livelihood-over-income route I’ve just charted, rather than the specialization-monetization-minimum wage route of the ‘viable business’. But if I leave it there, my preferred route has the same defect as the minimum wage one inasmuch as it leaves a large body of people with no prospect of ever getting secure land access. Therefore I think proposals such as mine must be accompanied with distributist policies that cycle the availability of land among many hands and prevent it accumulating among only a few.

In my previous post and in my book A Small Farm Future I addressed this point by suggesting the virtue of death or inheritance taxes such that landed wealth and its associated working capital can be passed from one generation to the next without it concentrating in fewer hands. Since the author of the first quotation I paraphrased above has criticized me for this suggestion along the lines that it still involves trafficking in money, initially I was surprised to discover his enthusiasm for the monetizing approach of the minimum wage. On reflection, perhaps it’s not so surprising. No doubt he’s not content to stop at the minimum wage but more concerned to turn the agrarian world, as Marxists are wont to turn everything, into a clash between accumulated capital and immiserated labour where the immiserated labour wins out in the end. For reasons I’ve previously discussed, and perhaps will address again in the future, I am doubtful of that victory and those terms, so while I share some of the egalitarian spirit of the Marxists, I prefer distributist or agrarian populist approaches combining personal and household livelihood-making within commons and collective frameworks.

If these approaches came to pass any time soon, there would have to be monumental land reform in countries like the UK that made small parcels of rural land easily available at affordable costs to almost anyone who wanted to homestead it (the inheritance tax I advocate would go a long way towards that). In this scenario, the supply of energetic young people anxious to get their hands in the soil and live in a cabin or a caravan on established smallholdings – in other words, the supply of interns – might dry up. But that would be OK. Maybe food, land and other prices would combine in such a way that small-scale commercial farmers in need of extra labour could actually afford to pay for it at last. Though I think it’s more likely that money would still be hard to come by in the countryside and people might have to resort to the family labour route. Anyway, at least the great inequity in access to land would be solved.

But equally if these changes came about, there would also be a large knowledge and skills gap concerning how to do low impact local farming and gardening among the new cohort of smallholders. It’s at this point that I believe it’s necessary to drop the sarcastic scare quotes around ‘education’ in the opening quotation. I think people would still seek internships on other people’s farms, because those people would genuinely be able to teach them useful things. And if, as I suspect, liquid money was still hard to come by on such farms, then the payment would remain similar to some of its present in-kind manifestations – food, accommodation, education.

The advantage of the new situation would be that, with so many farms to choose from and land more readily obtainable, the opportunities for landowners to exploit interns would be small. Obviously, this is an unsatisfying solution for those who like to take their distaste for exploitation with a side of revolutionary class violence. Others may prefer it. But with its swingeing inheritance taxes and other such devices my favoured approach does turn on a politics almost as implausible in present circumstances as revolutionary communism. We will come to how that politics may nevertheless manifest later in this blog cycle.

No doubt one issue with the free and easy world of neo-agrarian internships paid mostly in kind I’ve just sketched is that it doesn’t sit well with the bureaucratic and legalistic orientations to the workplace in modern thinking, and perhaps it’s this that fuels the sarcastic scare quoting of ‘education’ and the talk of non-viable businesses I mentioned above. It’s likely that bottom-up neo-agrarian economies would find ways to part-formalize internships and apprenticeships, as was done in times of old through rural hiring fairs and the like. For the time being, young people are still going in large numbers to universities where they pay tens of thousands of pounds to study subjects that may not prove useful to them down the line, but still offer a job pipeline into corporate employment subsidized in numerous direct and indirect ways by the state. Personally, I’m more inclined to put scare quotes around some of these kinds of modern ‘education’, but I guess for now they retain their cachet as thoroughly formalized, financialized and state-sanctioned forms of learning. Meanwhile bottom-up attempts to formalize horticultural learning in the UK have struggled because of the inability of growers to fund it out of their slim profits. I suspect these trends are set to change.

For our part, we’ve experimented on our holding with various kinds of voluntary, residential, paid-in-cash and paid-in-kind work. Currently we’re homing in on a two-year residential programme with a first year of learning paid in cash and kind and a second year of managing a horticultural business paid by sharing a (large) proportion of the profits. It’s in its early phases, but already seems to be helping people exit from it with tangible benefits in practical and business skills. I’m biased, of course, but I’d say that it’s an education rather than an ‘education’.

The larger direction of travel on our holding is likely to involve further decommodification. I’m thinking of it as a microcosm for the small farm future I’ve written about in general, and perhaps more specifically for the kind of rural community setups discussed in the comments under my previous post (I must acknowledge the leadership of my wife in thinking the practical details of this through far more clearly than I have). The logic of it is that, providentially, there’s a place you may be able to come and live where you can provide for most of the necessities of life by yourself and in community with other people, but where you won’t get paid much, if any, money. On our particular holding, carved out as it has been within part of the present history of the capitalist political economy, that piece of providence has involved a degree of ‘gentrification’ or pump-priming that was not internally generated by the economic activity of the holding itself. In truth, every economic activity that people do rests on pump-priming or providence from their predecessors that is not internally generated by the activity itself, and the modern tendency to forget this is one of the reasons we’re in our present mess. The interesting challenge is to turn the specific rural gentrification of today into a more generalized decommodification tomorrow.

A small farm future – the case for death taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warre and peace: of gifts, government and men with guns

This is the last in a somewhat interrupted series of posts about property rights in small farm futures and small farm pasts, which started here, looked at the idea of work and self-ownership here, considered private property here and common property here. The missing piece in terms of standard definitions of property ownership is public or state ownership.

So here I’m going to address public ownership to complete this part of the blog cycle. But I’m not going to say much about the forms of state ownership emanating from national, federal or local government familiar from everyday modern politics. For one thing, the issues involved in those have been endlessly rehashed in standard political positions concerning the pros and cons of (big) government, and I have little to add to all that. More importantly, I don’t think this modern politics is going to survive in anything much like its familiar present forms as the various challenges of our present and future world begin to bite.

That prompts questions about what state power and public ownership might look like in the future viewed from the centres out – from London or Washington DC, New York or New Delhi, Beijing, Mumbai, Edinburgh, Juba, Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, Los Angeles, Sacramento and so on. But it also prompts questions about what political power and public ownership might look like in the more rural peripheries of these power centres.

My view, which could of course turn out to be wrong, is that the de facto power of the centres to organize life in these peripheries will wane, that more people will be living in many of these peripheries than they presently do, and that it’s in these peripheries that the most important and interesting political and economic innovations of the world to come will occur. So here I’m going to talk primarily about some aspects of ‘public ownership’ around the rural edges of nation-states with waning centralized power. I’ll say more about that waning centralized power in a future post or two.

In thinking about life outside centralized power an easy place to go to is a dystopian sense of ‘anarchy’ in the popular sense of the term – ‘no rule’ is a world of arbitrary violence, might is right and men with guns who will steal your farm or worse, prompting a kind of frontier prepping mentality where the men with guns can be countered only by a gun of your own.

But the men with guns can’t be everywhere all of the time. So maybe what’s more to the point about this anarchic situation is the pervasive potential for violence. This was a point made by early modern English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679):

For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known …. So the nature of Warre, consisteth not in actual fighting ; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE

So ‘warre’ in Hobbes’s archaic spelling isn’t quite the same as ‘war’ understood as those hot moments of actual violence – it is not ‘Battell onely’, but a kind of society in which people accept that the ultimate arbiter is their own and everyone else’s free recourse to force.

In Hobbes’s view – and I suspect most other people’s too – this kind of society is none too pleasant to live in. Constantly watching your back, with poor prospects however big your gun or skilled your gunmanship in view of the pervasiveness of violence, and with no incentives to work with others to build more expansive institutional structures, life in such a society, Hobbes famously wrote, is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”.

People often project this characterization of what Hobbes called ‘the state of nature’ backwards as if he were a historian or anthropologist trying to discern the original human condition. But I think it’s more useful to see the state of nature as a thought experiment, albeit one informed by the events of the English Civil War that was raging as Hobbes wrote. Hobbes addressed himself to the nature of government and how people create political authority at a time when older ideas about divine or royal authority were breaking down and our modern secular age was emerging. To avoid the horrors of the state of nature, Hobbes argued that it was necessary for everyone to give up their free recourse to violence in ‘mutual surrender’ to a ruler, Leviathan, a great centralized authority, who would underwrite the conditions for a peaceful and prosperous civil society. Hence the modern secular idea of the state as a contrivance to keep the peace.

Hobbes offered a dismal choice, then – either war (or at least warre) in the state of nature, or subservience to big government and its excesses. But are the options really that stark? Are there no forms of society that mediate between the state of nature and Leviathan?

Well yes, there are. For starters, there have been the many ‘stateless’, indigenous or what were once called ‘primitive’ societies through history where there was no Leviathan but where people lived for the most part in a state of peace more than warre. The way they achieved this, as argued among others by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in a classic essay on which I’m leaning heavily in this post, was typically through so-called ‘gift’ relations – more or less formalized exchanges of things or people that built social relationships, and effectively built society. These societies were the original anarchist societies in the more positive and political sense of that term – the gift creates peace and circumvents warre from the grassroots, from the bottom up, without any need for top-down rule from the mighty apparatus of the state.

Some people nowadays riff a bit too dreamily for my taste on the nature of such gift societies as an alternative to the brutal calculus of the capitalist marketplace. The very word ‘gift’ brings to mind an enchanting vision of society as something like a giant birthday party or some festive occasion of generous goodwill writ large. But that’s not really how gift societies work, and they can involve their own brutalities. Who you give to, who you receive from and who you host can sublimate, only ever partially, all sorts of possible tensions and hostilities (in this connection perhaps it’s worth noting the shared etymology of words like host (as benefactor), host (as army), hospitable, hostel and hostile). Gift societies might even involve marketplaces and money, or at least resemble them in various respects.

I’ll get into such details later in this blog cycle. But the point remains that these societies have figured out how to avoid the worst consequences of warre without the guiding hand of a centralized state, and this could light a useful path into a future where people might have to do this over again.

I don’t see the use of trying to specify on paper ahead of time exactly how they should go about it, because the details will depend on any number of specific historical and local circumstances. In A Small Farm Future I described some generalities of how contemporary and future post-capitalist societies might confront this issue with reference to the idea of the public sphere, a kind of political playing field where the game of politics is decided by fair rules of argument available to all, and also with reference to civic republican politics, which I’ve discussed in previous posts but will reprise a little in a moment.

Two criticisms have come my way about how I’ve framed this issue. The first from the Marxist perspective of Alex Heffron and Kai Heron, who think my recourse to the idea of the public sphere is a deus ex machina – a ghost in the machine or a kind of get out of jail free card that I invoke whenever my argument runs into trouble. They also describe it as “a painfully naïve, liberal understanding of rights and debate ”.

he second criticism came from Sean Domencic while engaging with a separate but related point I made in a blog comment. Sean also focused on the implicit liberalism of my stance on the public sphere, which he sees as contradicting a republican emphasis on civic virtue. Apologies, by the way, if this all seems an excessively abstract response to the sharper reality with which I began concerning men with guns taking your farm. I’ll try to ground things back in that reality before I’m done.

But first to the criticisms. I think Heffron and Heron’s miss their target. If I’d argued that a public sphere always just naturally arises to overcome political conflict, then the objection that it’s a get out of jail deus ex machina might hold. But I don’t. In fact, I make a more Hobbesian argument: the public sphere is a contrivance that people have to work hard to construct, with no guarantee of success, but does hold some attractions if they pull it off.

A better candidate for a deus ex machina in my opinion is Heron and Heffron’s own approach, with its view that in the fight of oppressed people against the circumstances of their oppression lies an intrinsic process of general human ennoblement that will create political and ecological redemption. They write, “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present”. To me, this seems like a better candidate for a deus ex machina, and one that fails to appreciate how the concerns of the capitalist and anti-capitalist present will be transformed unrecognizably or extinguished altogether by social and environmental forces now in play.

Perhaps there’s more meat to the charges of liberalism laid against me. Few people these days, including me, have many good things to say about liberalism, but I’m willing to stick up to some extent for a liberal political framework that makes space for open political debate. Certainly if confronted with Marxist intellectuals drawing salaries from public universities while freely heralding the violent revolutionary overthrow of the status quo by a working class they view as inherently redemptive, I’d prefer a liberal politics that, however ineffectually, engages the plurality of political views, rather than opting for a totalitarian political sphere in which only a single version of class consciousness gets the floor.

Still, I accept there are problems with liberalism, and I think Sean puts his finger on some of them. You can’t just keep arguing about politics as if the only thing that really matters is the argument itself. Ultimately you need to make political choices about how to live life in common with your fellow citizens, and then implement them. The choices that are made might not suit everybody, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker unless you espouse a strong individualism of the kind associated with liberal and libertarian politics where collective political choices or goods can never trump individual rights.

In his critique, Sean was speaking up for collective political goods against my comment that “I basically see collective political institutions as contrivances, necessary evils to which people must surrender some of their own ‘sacred’ self-sovereignty”. Although there are some wider contexts for that comment, I accept Sean’s criticism and I’ll happily row back from the strong individualism implied in it. But I do want to mention a couple of the contexts for it and press their importance.

Sean will hopefully correct me if I’m wrong but I think we’re both broadly signed up to a civic republicanism in which the citizens of a polity come together to define its common goods by which they will live. I’ve come to this position quite late in my political life and there’s much in the tradition that’s unfamiliar to me, so I beg forgiveness for my probably patchy thinking about it which I hope to correct in the future.

Anyway, a major problem with civic republicanism as I see it is the danger that it curdles into a tyranny of the majority, especially one aimed against less politically empowered social groups (Heffron and Heron missed this aspect of my approach, but it’s possible to find a place for class in a political analysis without making it the sole driving force or the centrepiece). To prevent the tyranny of the majority, I think it’s necessary to have a strong politics of recognition of individuals and potentially of sub-groups (subsidiary republics?) as ends in themselves. It’s easy to slip into the language of individualism in defending this, as perhaps I did, but it’s not quite the same thing.

Another context is the notion of the polity as a contrivance and a necessary evil. I think I was unwise to introduce the notion of ‘evil’ into the discussion, even ‘necessary evil’, because really I don’t think contrivance or acceptance of trade-off is evil in any respect, and certainly no more so than the notion that there’s some pure and ideal form of political community to aim at. In fact, rather less. Possibly where Sean and I may continue to disagree is on how ‘contrived’ republics really are. He has a nuanced, expansive and generous conception of politics grounded in virtue ethics and natural law. I need to educate myself further in this tradition. I’m sympathetic to it, but I think I may find that ultimately it settles on a slightly too naturalistic or ‘given’ idea of political community for my taste, whereas I might prefer to keep the contrivance of it more centre stage.

Let’s now start a slow descent from this high level of abstraction back towards the men with guns.

Thomas Hobbes lacked faith in bottom-up political community-making. Although the term wasn’t used in his day, he feared anarchy (i.e. ‘warre’) and distrusted anarchism as a means to prevent it. I don’t like his solution of a mighty state, and I hold out greater hopes for bottom-up politics than him. But I don’t think these politics are easy and I’m unpersuaded by most of the off the peg versions of bottom-up politics available to us today, such as libertarianism, Marxism and communitarianism.

To me, the libertarian emphasis on individual rights is basically just warre. It’s a warre that may not lead immediately to war if enough people can be repressed or bought off, but it’ll probably go that way in the end. Much the same can be said of liberalism. The Marxist idea that the oppressed will rise up and overthrow the centralized state, repurposing it for general human benefit, has a better track record than many of its detractors think, but still one that could at best be called patchy and at worst murderously tyrannical, which is surely not surprising in view of its totalizing class idealism. Communitarian doctrines that make a special case for some kind of pre-existing ‘natural’ community as the proper basis for politics risk a class idealism of a different sort, but one that runs similar risks.

For me the best candidate is a civic republicanism lifting itself from a state of warre by self-consciously building some common ground for its citizens to stand on. So the most important thing to do is to try to build the public sphere that will make our republics appealing to us and their other citizens (‘other citizens’ most likely being people who relate to us essentially for random reasons of geographical location rather than some natural affinity).

This is a long-term project which may not work out, and where the individual steps are uncertain. I see the challenge as creating a gift society that interpolates between warre and the dubious peace of Hobbes’s Leviathan. I have some ideas about how to do that grounded (naturally!) in small-scale, self-reliant farming. I’ll outline it further in future posts, but essentially I foresee a situation of liberal-urban-capitalist collapse due to a combination of climatic, energy, biotic, economic and political factors, prompting small farm futures grounded in the mix of private and common property I mentioned in previous posts, along with some public property, but most importantly with a public sphere in which the common life necessary to a sustainable small farm future is determined. I have to admit that my ideas on this issue amount to something less than a fully specified political manifesto. Though that seems no barrier to getting elected these days.

So – if men with guns come to take your farm, then it’s probably too late for you to do much about it, even if you have a gun of your own and fancy you can handle yourself. Therefore it’s as well to reflect about how best to stop them coming long beforehand, which involves some knowledge of what’s on their minds.

Possibly they’re bandits and you’re simply out of luck, a happenstance that’s common enough even in our present liberal-capitalist bureaucratic world, though mostly in places distant from its wealthy centres. But maybe the men with guns are soldiers from a distant government, or revolutionary guerillas, or a local militia for whom your face doesn’t fit. In all these cases, there’s a chance that the men with guns won’t come to take your farm, because you’re part of an engaged citizenry that has your back. And this in turn is because the citizenry has defined its common goods, worked out its relations of ownership, debt, gift and obligation, and defined its public sphere carefully over the long term. This, in an admittedly very general sense, is what I mean by ‘public ownership’ in a small farm future.

Hobbes wrote that “covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”. So maybe my argument amounts to no more than countering the men with guns through other men with other guns (or swords). Or maybe it’s an invitation to look more closely at the nature of our covenants to see if we can formulate them in ways more likely to keep the guns in their cabinets. Something to discuss, perhaps.

If the men with guns are from the government, you’ll stand little chance against them at present if they want to make an issue of things. In the future, the odds may be a bit more balanced. The only people in the wealthy countries I’m aware of currently who are really acting out this idea of hostile engagement with government forces in service of a more authentic political community seem to be far right militia types in the USA. Hopefully it’s redundant for me to distinguish myself from their cause. Examples like the Mexican Zapatistas or the Kurdistan Communities Union might furnish more inspiring models. Anyway, as governments wrestle with the increasingly impossible predicaments of our times, it seems to me likely that this space of publics versus governments will become a lot more politically diverse. And that’s the point at which the question of ‘public ownership’ becomes a really live issue.

Sand talking: can indigenous wisdom save the world?

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

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

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

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

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

Indigeneity is a practice and a relation, not a thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indigenous knowledge doesn’t prosper in cities or metropoles

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

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

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

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

Individual people are self-differentiating nodes in a network.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace storied surfaces and bumpy schedules.

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

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

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

Don’t search too hard for sovereignty

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

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

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

Distribute the means to violence

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

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