Commons and households in a small farm future

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

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

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

And so, the article:

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

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

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

The Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Household Farming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The F Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inheritance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

1. Household farming and the commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Is the small farm racist?

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

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

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

And so we arrive at this homology:

Salatin – Newman

Jefferson – Indigenous

Racist – Anti-racist

Small family farm – Larger multi farm

Individualist – Cooperative

Politically conservative – Politically transformative

Confirms existing food system – Challenges existing food system

Negative example – Positive example

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Farming the media

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

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

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

From Russia To Love: Engaging with Chris Newman on the small family farm

Continuing my theme concerning peasant farming in this blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, the general focus of this post is how and why revived neo-peasantries might help meet present global challenges.

On page 90 of my book, I lay out three typical characteristics of historic peasant farms:

  1. Most of the work is done by unwaged household/family labour
  2. The capitalization of the farm in terms of buildings, tools, stock etc. is viewed as a long-term endowment, not as an embodiment of liquid capital seeking to maximize profitable return
  3. These factors condition the economic behaviour of the farm’s occupants, which isn’t geared to maximizing net profit

I’ve drawn this from the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov (1888-1937) and his more recent interpreters1. I don’t mention Chayanov by name in the book and I’m not loyal to everything in his thought, but in many ways my book elaborates a Chayanovian vision for present times. As I see it, we need to embed a social economy in the finite needs of a collaborative society of households, rather than allowing an expansionary economy to drive society according to its own logic.

There’s a long history of misunderstanding and antipathy between this kind of Chayanovian peasant populism and other better known political-economic positions, not least Marxism – the regnant doctrine in Russia during Chayanov’s later years. A low point in this respect was Chayanov’s untimely death at the hands of Stalin’s regime and its vulgar, murderous class politics. Mercifully, we later Chayanovians have mostly suffered only textual assassinations from Marxists, but there’s a lot of talking past one another that goes on when Marxists and others on the mainstream left interact with agrarian populists. The same goes for engagement with more centrist/liberal positions.

As is perhaps suggested in the points above, what Chayanovians mean by ‘capital’ or ‘the market’ isn’t really the same as what Marxists or market liberals mean, and this sows much confusion. Chayanov himself didn’t always help matters, for example when he spoke confusingly of peasant ‘self-exploitation’, launching a thousand attempts to assimilate peasant economies to Marxist conceptions of surplus value and the ‘captured garden’ thesis that I discuss on page 93 of my book, and a thousand more attempts by market liberals to turn peasants into smallholding entrepreneurs. At the root of all this lurks a deep assumption that peasant life is both miserable and outmoded, an assumption resting on modernist notions of ‘progress’ that I argued in my previous post are ironically themselves now outmoded. So it’s time, I suggest, to reconsider peasantries and small-scale farming.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to make this case in counterpoint to a couple of recent interventions from Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia, USA – namely in this article entitled “Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer: The Romance of Neoliberal Peasant Farming Blinds Us to Our Collective Power” and in this interesting podcast. Let me say first that I think Newman is a smart agrarian voice, and there’s a lot of common ground between us. I focus on points of divergence here only because I hope that clarifying them might be illuminating.

The first points of divergence come straightaway in the title of Newman’s article. ‘Small family farms aren’t the answer…’ – but the answer to what? Newman makes a powerful case that when individuals buy small plots of private farmland and sell renewably grown produce from them locally through retail routes such as farmers’ markets they make themselves helpless and irrelevant in the face of the mainstream food system, which will defeat them sooner or later, and probably break their backs, maybe their marriages too, into the bargain. I couldn’t agree more – although Newman does start his podcast by saying that his move into farming arose from the stress of his previous white-collar job. So maybe the problem doesn’t lie with specific jobs or job sectors like farming so much as the general economic system into which all job sectors fit, a system that breaks our backs if we step outside it and breaks our minds if we don’t.

But as I see it, the mainstream food system and the more generalized economy of which it’s a part will themselves be defeated sooner or later by a combination of climate, energy, economic, political and other problems that I outline in my book, and in these circumstances I see the Chayanovian small family farm as a potential ‘answer’ to the ensuing crises. It’s not an answer that will just happen by itself. It will need to be fought for. In that sense, I see the present tender crop of small-scale household farmers as useful pioneers in the work to come, especially in their work of self-provisioning rather than in their work of supplying market demand.

So, to my mind, Newman’s future visioning is insufficiently radical. It assumes a persisting liberal-capitalist marketplace that local and community-minded people can colonize by working together. He suggests that if such people in the DC area collectively raised US$50 million they could sort out food provision in the area. I think this underestimates the forces ranged against them, some of which are external to Newman’s vision, such as corporate food players and their government associates who I suspect would happily burn sums far in excess of $50 million in order to defeat upstart localisms. But there are also internal tensions in his vision that threaten to tear it apart (to be fair, there are internal tensions in every economic vision that threaten to tear it apart – so it’s as well to be clear about what they are in each case).

Newman’s subtitle is a gateway to the key tension – “neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”. To my Chayanovian mind, the concept of a ‘neoliberal peasant’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s true that most small farmers (and most people doing every other kind of job) serve the neoliberal economy in one way or another. It’s true, too, that probably the majority of small farmers in wealthy countries are fairly well-to-do folks with some buy-in to the neoliberal status quo and, as Newman rightly suggests, there’s a need to de-gentrify farming by socializing access to farmland so that farming is a viable option for all sections of society. But in setting up a paired dichotomy between (petty) private ownership/neoliberalism on the one hand and collective ownership/community localism on the other, what I think he misses (and he’s not alone in this) is that collective power, collective landownership or commons aren’t intrinsically incompatible with private property. Peasant societies (other societies, too) combine private rights with collective ones – and, as I’ll now argue, in doing so they can be more radically non-neoliberal in a way that better fits present (or at least future) times than Newman’s cooperative model.

So I propose two games. In Game Newman, ordinary local folks pool resources to obtain hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish a cooperative structure with democratic working protocols, leverage its buying power to obtain economies of scale, pay decent salaries to worker-members and start supplying in bulk to local retail outlets.

The way I see this game playing out is firstly in a big financial transfer from the ordinary local folks to land vendors, although that hurdle probably isn’t insurmountable. Things get stickier establishing the working protocols, because flat structures involving lots of people suck a lot of time up in conflict management. Sure, some people claim that everything goes just swimmingly in their own farm co-op, but a working knowledge of agricultural co-ops and of agricultural history suggests to me that this outcome is, at best, very much in the minority. And modelling the social organization of an entire society on best-case scenarios isn’t a great idea.

The next problem is that although the co-op’s pooled resources enable it to achieve economies of scale like the large corporations with which it’s competing, ultimately just like those corporations it has to pay the bills – including the wage bill – by selling into food retail markets where the profit margins are wafer-thin. To keep up with the competition, it has to look to cost savings – and that wages bill will be among the first places it has to look. So in the end, just like the corporation, the co-op either squeezes more out of its labour force or mechanizes people out of work. This is basically the critique of co-ops in capitalist societies that’s long been made by radicals as diverse as Vladimir Lenin and Murray Bookchin. There’s much to be said for co-ops – I’m a member of a few myself – but they don’t fundamentally escape the economic pressures driving the initial problems they seek to redress, and are therefore prone to failure. Perhaps we could call this the problem of the ‘neoliberal cooperative’, and it’s where Game Newman seems to me quite likely to fail.

In Game Chayanov, ordinary folks likewise pool resources to get hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish whatever minimum cooperative or commons structures are necessary to manage the total landscape effectively (here again, they might easily fail), but then divide much of the land up among individuals or households with strong personal rights to farm it pretty much as they please, with enough land per household to provide largely for its needs but with mechanisms to prevent it concentrating in few hands over time.

This is a classic strategy of peasant societies historically, especially ones minimally coopted by centralized states. Unquestionably, it raises problems of its own, which I’ll come to in later posts. But this kind of small-scale household or family farming is emphatically not ‘neoliberal’. As I see it, Game Chayanov has none of the tendencies towards massification, labour-reduction and profit-seeking of the neoliberal cooperative, which is why for all its problems I think it’s a better model to try to build a fair, renewable, postcapitalist agriculture around.

It’s easy to get dazzled by words like ‘commons’ or ‘cooperative’ into assuming that economic models where such words appear front and centre are somehow more sharing and less capitalistic, more ultimately dedicated to building community cohesion or – if it’s not too schmaltzy – to building love than ones explicitly combining private and common property. But it ain’t necessarily so, and much depends on the larger political and economic field in which these economic models are at play. In a smoothly functioning capitalist economy set within a well-ordered global system of capitalist states, it’s debatable whether the ‘neoliberal cooperative’ or the ‘neoliberal peasant farm’ is preferable. But in the present reality of a failing capitalist economy and an increasingly disorderly system of states, I pin my colours to the Chayanovian mast.

A whole other set of issues that Chris Newman probes in his aforementioned commentaries is the question of race and the ‘whiteness’ of the small farm. We’ll come to that next.

 

Notes

  1. Chayanov. 1925 [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. University of Wisconsin Press; J. van der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants & the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto. Fernwood.

The awkward class

Time to talk about peasants, who I claim in Chapter 3 of my book A Small Farm Future will soon be returning to tend (or create) a small farm near you. Or may in fact include you or your descendants.

This claim is at odds with most of what’s been written about rural trends over the past century or so, along two dimensions. The first is historical: peasants will be liquidated by the march of progress. As Karl Kautsky (quoted on page 246 of my book) famously put it in his ‘agrarian question’ in 1899: “In what ways is capital taking hold of agriculture, revolutionizing it, smashing the old forms of production and of poverty and establishing the new ones that must succeed?”

The second dimension is sociological: internal tensions among small-scale farmers destabilize any coherent notion of ‘the peasantry’ as an enduring entity – an argument usually framed in relation to the separate class interests of ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ peasants. So in the standard view, for reasons both external and internal, peasants are on their way to being something else.

There’s no denying that recent history furnishes evidence for this. Capital has certainly done its share of revolutionizing and smashing peasant agriculture since Kautsky’s day, and plenty of rural class conflict has accompanied the process. But most people heralding the demise of peasantries have been enthusiastic cheerleaders for the process rather than disinterested observers, and it’s possible they’ve enthused a little too much.

On the one hand, Marxists like Kautsky have generally tried to divvy up peasantries into the more comfortable terrain of Marxism’s Ur-conflict between free-flowing capital and free-flowing labour, making landless or land-poor lower peasants over in the image of their preferred revolutionaries, the proletariat. On the other, market liberals have seen peasants as frustrated would-be capitalist entrepreneurs, waiting only for the right moment to escape the stasis of rural society and launch more lucrative careers. Given that the clash between Marxism and liberal capitalism was among the biggest historical scripts of the 20th century, and that peasantries were among the biggest demographic element in the period, it’s hardly surprising that both these forms of peasant-hustling were pretty successful in the short-term. All the major communist regimes of the period were built on the back of peasant participation, and so was a good deal of capitalist development.

Yet while few truly autarkic, pre-capitalist peasantries like the Finnish swiddeners I mentioned in my previous post have survived this 20th century politics, nevertheless small-scale farmers oriented to producing a livelihood directly from the land using low-energy, labour-intensive methods (let’s call them peasants) still haven’t been as comprehensively eradicated as the likes of Kautsky anticipated. Why this is so remains a matter of debate. Perhaps because of a residual peasantness, a grit in the gears of modernization or a light from the past that grimly refuses to die. Or perhaps because modernization has never been quite as successful at organizing economic life as its proponents claim, leaving people to make do with peasant forms of livelihood-making. Or because modernization has been all too successful, extracting what surplus it can from impoverished rural people and then abandoning them to take care of themselves as best they can. Or because impoverished people hedge their bets in the global economy, striving to retain a footing on rural land in case other livelihood strategies fail.

The last three of these four possibilities are basically variants of the same idea, each with a particular political spin. Modern scholarship in the peasant studies field has largely devoted itself to charting this exact terrain, inking the fine detail of the encounter between peasants and capitalist development in any number of specific times and places. Yet for all its achievements, I can’t help feeling that much of this scholarship will become increasingly irrelevant with the profound changes now occurring from climate change, energy descent, nature loss and political-economic crisis. These changes demand an update to Kautsky’s agrarian question, that I’d put like this: in what ways is capital losing control of agriculture and other spheres of production, and failing to revolutionize itself adequately with the result that it’s smashing itself – and what are the new forms of agriculture and production that will follow?

A dissident strand of agrarian populism within peasant studies has kept alive the notion that these new forms might look a lot like older ones – rural, low-capital, labour-intensive, small-scale peasant production as the necessary corrective for a waning urban industrialism. This is often dismissed as mere nostalgia for the past in the face of modern progress, or an ahistorical (‘essentialist’) romanticization of the peasantry as a kind of sui generis category. The sometime editor of the Journal of Peasant Studies, Terence Byres, criticized peasant populism on these grounds in a 2004 article, along lines that are still prevalent within the discipline: “To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes …. One also has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past”.

Yet this becomes its own epitaph. A generation ago it might have been reasonable to dismiss the relevance of peasantries to the economic future, but history has indeed been changing before our eyes. This, as people often say, is the 21st century – and in the 21st century it’s likely that peasantization will become a major trend. This is not, it must be repeated, out of a desire to go ‘back’ to an idealized past but out of a desire to go ‘forward’ to a realistic and tolerable future.

But what exactly is it about peasant lifeways that makes them relevant again? Not some essence of unchanging peasantness, but basically three other things. First, rich local traditions in how to farm renewably with little capital or exogenous energy, from which much can be learned today as we face a future with similar constraints. Second, similarly rich local traditions – especially where aristocratic power has been weaker – in the forms of social organization conducive to a thriving agrarian society, from which we can also learn.

On this second point, for all the dismissiveness dished out to we agrarian populists for romanticizing peasantries, ironically it’s precisely the unromantic nature of these peasant traditions that commends them. As described in my book, numerous local farming societies thrashed out social arrangements for optimizing land use, sharing and husbanding resources, delivering welfare and managing intergenerational succession. Typically, these were hardbitten, long-term, real-world arrangements not based in the airy generalities of modern meta-theories like the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or the ‘collectivization of the means of production’. For sure, peasant social arrangements, like all social arrangements, weren’t perfect. And they were often offensive to modernist conceptions of the good life, whether capitalist, socialist or liberal – an issue I wrestle with in Part III of my book.

But whatever else they were, these arrangements are informative for the issues we will face in weathering the small farm future to come – more informative, at any rate, than the dubious verities of capitalism and communism we’ve inherited from modernist thought, as for example in these words of V.I. Lenin:

the peasantry dreamed of equal land tenure and no power on earth could have prevented them, when freed from landlordism and from the bourgeois parliamentary republican state, from trying to realize this dream. The proletarians said to the peasants: We shall help you to reach “ideal” capitalism, for equal tenure is the idealizing of capitalism from the point of view of small producers. At the same time we will prove to you its inadequacy and the necessity of passing to the cultivation of the land on a social basis1

There’s much in this rich passage to which I want to return in later posts. But for now I’ll just suggest that ‘the proletarians’ of 20th century communist regimes signally failed to prove the necessity of cultivating the land on a social basis (as opposed to mixed peasant economies of common and private tenure), and little now remains of their efforts on this front – a point that I think needs more serious analysis than it typically gets from those on the left who still herald the virtues of collective production and the vices of private property. At the same time, profit-oriented private capitalist farming has been ecologically and socially disastrous, and it seems clear that it can’t continue much longer.

Which is why I proclaim the return of the peasant in my book. Possibly I should have avoided the ‘p’ word altogether in view of its heavy historical baggage. But ultimately the baggage must be confronted, whatever words we use. And this brings us to the third relevant aspect of peasant societies, namely their status ordering.

The classical question animating so much of peasant studies, especially its Marxist versions, is how peasantries differentiate into separate status groups or classes in circumstances of capitalist economic integration. But the most urgent agrarian question before us today is the reverse: how non-peasants might aggregate into unified peasantries in circumstances of capitalist economic disintegration. I’m not suggesting there will be no class or status differentiation among future peasantries. On the contrary, I’m anxious to identify ways to prevent it – and a good deal of Parts III and IV of my book is devoted to that task, as I’ll outline in later posts. But here, I’ll just reiterate a simpler point made on page 95 of my book which is a necessary prior assumption for those posts: some people do actually want to be peasants, and in the future their numbers are likely to increase.

Notes

  1. V.I. Lenin The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky quoted in David Mitrany. Marx Against The Peasant (1951), pp.60-1.

Can the peasant speak?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas

I’ll come to the seasonal song of my title in a moment, but let’s begin with another one, courtesy of John Lennon – “So this is Christmas, and what have you done…?”

Well, in 2020 I published a book, wrote 34 blog posts, did my bit to help nurture our little community of 4.5 households on our site through another year, spoke as widely as I could about the need to rethink the global political economy, sat on committees dedicated to widening access to farmland, managed to dodge Covid-19 (while remembering those who didn’t), donated to charity and even managed to grow a little food and fibre on our site – but the truth is that it wasn’t anywhere near enough in the face of the crises we face, and I played pretty much the same role as everyone else in the wealthy countries in overburdening the Earth’s limited capacities. So next year I will have to try harder.

One way I’ll try harder is by taking a few more small steps to increase my food and fibre self-reliance. But first I’m going to take some downtime over Christmas. The other households on our site are decamping to visit their families, and I’ll be here cooking, eating and making merry with mine. I’ll eat food that we grew here on the farm, and I’ll warm myself by the woodstove burning logs from trees that I planted, felled, cut, split and stacked myself. And perhaps I’ll have a glass or two of the beech noyau I made this year, using leaves from trees I planted myself (OK, so the sugar and gin were imported – small steps, remember…)

Family. Autonomy. The simple pleasures of home and farm. It’s my honouring of such ‘petty bourgeois’ things that prompted the only largely negative review of my book that I’ve seen so far, by the Marxist critics I mentioned a couple of posts back. The review badly mischaracterized many of my arguments, but on the upside the petty bourgeois jibe sent me back to the inestimable James Scott, who’s always worth a read. In his essay “Two cheers for the petty bourgeoisie”, Scott writes:

“The petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by public and private bureaucracies …. the desire for autonomy, for control over the working day and the sense of freedom and self-respect such control provides is a vastly underestimated social aspiration for much of the world’s population”1

…and, I’d add, also a vastly underestimated basis for trying to build a tolerable future for ourselves in the face of climate change, resource constraint and political decay.

I’m not really convinced that the concept of the petty bourgeoisie has much traction in analyzing the political challenges and conflicts now facing us. Still, James Scott suggests that the characteristics of unheroic autonomy, freedom and mutuality often attached to notions of the petty bourgeoisie are fundamentally anarchist sensibilities – and on that basis I’m prepared to predict that if the challenges of our times are met successfully through class revolutions of any kind in the future, they’ll most likely be in the form of ‘petty bourgeois’ anarchist revolutions embarrassing to the rigidities of orthodox Marxist class analysis.

Anyway, the review at least provides a useful foil for a few arguments that I aim to unfurl in blog posts next year. One of them concerns the dangers of domination in human relationships of all kinds, not just in families, which was brought home to me rather ironically while my critics were lambasting me with wild allegations about my supposed enthusiasm for the ‘patriarchal family’, just as various non-kin collectivities on my personal radar were aflame with troublesome power dynamics. My critics’ special antipathy to family relationships also rather reminds me of words attributed to the man whose birth I shall shortly be celebrating, alongside my family: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14: 26). Next year, I hope to trace this curious affinity between currents of both Marxism and Christianity and suggest some ways in which it might be wise to try to reconfigure them. The trick is in the tension – but not the dialectic! – between the local and the non-local, the public and the private, the self-critical and the self-honouring.

Another argumentative foil is in trying to think through the field of politics in a future world of supposedly ‘petty bourgeois’ smallholders. This is the field of agrarian populism, where both the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities lie in the fact that so few of ‘the people’ in so many countries today are agrarians. How to reckon with that is a major conundrum – but not one that 19th century-style class analysis is equipped to grasp.

Anyway, we’ll come on to all this next year, I hope. In the meantime, I’m going to count my blessings – the wonderful food, farm and family I have, the other wonderful people and non-human organisms I share the farm with, the wonderful wider communities I’m a part of (including the online ones), and the wonderful reception that my book has (mostly) got. So let me raise a glass to you in this holiday season, wherever you are and whichever kin, non-kin or other beings you’re keeping company with, to wish you peace and (a modest, sustainable and semi-autonomous) prosperity. Thank you for reading this blog. And if Christmas is a thing for you, I hope you’ll have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas. Because next year, there’s work to do…

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton University Press, p.85.

No easy answers: a response to Alex Heffron and Kai Heron

A change to my published programme, since I’m feeling the need to respond to a review of my book from an avowedly Marxist perspective by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron (henceforth H&H). Their review involves a bit of faint praise for my book, a lot of fusillades against it, and some outrageous distortions of what I actually say.

The sociologist Colin Campbell wrote “It is always interesting for an author to read reviewers’ comments, if only to discover the kind of book reviewers thought one should have written. But then it is also interesting to discover what it is that one should have consulted or discussed at length, yet in the opinion of the reviewer regrettably failed to do”. His words resonated as I read H&H’s review, but this was overlaid with a stranger feeling that in much of their review they were engaging with some other writer altogether, a dastardly fellow with an egregiously conservative agenda hidden beneath his superficial leftism. I’m pretty sure that that writer isn’t me. But perhaps H&H are channelling a doppelganger of mine from some parallel universe. I’ll call him Ejams, the mirror of my name, and we’ll meet him shortly.

First, I need to sketch some grounding assumptions of my book. In the years ahead, I think there will be climate, food, water, energy, material, ecological, political and economic crises that will upend in chaotic ways much of the institutional architecture of our present social world and see a lot of people on the move, many searching for secure farmland to make a living. If you disagree, my book won’t make much sense – but my view is becoming increasingly mainstream, not least on the political left. To mitigate the problems of this world to come, we need to be radically rethinking right now the agrarian, energetic, political and economic basis of our societies as we head into a future whose dynamics remain unknowable in detail. This isn’t easy to do. H&H criticize me for uncertainty and haziness in rethinking humanity’s entire future within one 300-page book. If I claimed certainty or a thorough blueprint I’d be a charlatan, but I hope someday they’ll write the book they think I should have written and make it a better one than mine.

H&H do, however, usefully highlight a deeper reason for my uncertainty. I’m sceptical of progressive-modernist ideologies and I don’t think they’ll be equal to the challenges of the future, or indeed survive them. Broadly, the three main currents of these ideologies are liberal capitalism (progress through private profit-seeking), conservative nationalism (progress through collective national assertion) and Marxism/socialism (progress through collective popular assertion by the working class). My view is a more tragic one: people organize to achieve progress and improvement, but in doing so they encounter insuperable dilemmas and unforeseen consequences of their actions that rarely deliver what they hoped or expected. This view, I acknowledge, leaves me searching rather lamely for sources of social renewal and justice. But I think it’s better to face this squarely, to accept that the renewal may not come as we would like, if at all, and that possibly it will come piecemeal as a poisoned chalice in the face of systemic breakdown and involve a lot of hard work on the farm and in the town hall, rather than clinging hopefully to the familiar modernist bromides of redemption through the market, or the nation, or through popular class assertion.

Although my view is tragic, it’s not nihilistic. I completely endorse the urge for improvement, and of the three progressive-modernist ideologies my sympathies slant heavily to socialism. I don’t share the progressive-modernist underpinnings, but I’d still like to reach out to many on the left who embrace them because we have much in common. I also think the more tragically-oriented peasant or agrarian populist tradition that I articulate in my book contains useful lessons for that project, but – while I’m grateful to H&H for recommending that people read the book – I suspect that many who absorb their broadside against it will conclude it’s scarcely worth the bother. Here, I’ll briefly plead the case that it might be worth the bother in relation to the three main dimensions of H&H’s critique: 1. capital, 2. class and 3. issues of gender, family and interpersonal coercion.

On capital, H&H accurately diagnose that I see the origins of capitalism largely as a product of interstate commercial competition and not so much as a product of rural class relations. My inspiration is more Immanuel Wallerstein than Robert Brenner. That is not at all the same as saying that rural class formation or class relations are unimportant, and I’ll come to that in a moment. But these commercial versus class accents do echo across many of the differences between my position and H&H’s. Frankly, I think they use their class emphasis to give themselves and their politics an easy ride, where the correct class following the correct politics is accorded privileged political agency as post-capitalist liberator. For my part, I don’t think any categories of workers or peasants can exempt themselves so easily from capitalist and state hegemony – but they do and will try, and this is a key plank to the politics in my book.

A different way of thinking about capital is as the embodied resources – which, in low energy agrarian societies, mostly means embodied human labour – in the farmed landscape. There is a lot of this embodied labour, even in apparently ‘simple’ societies, which non-farmers rarely notice. Whether capital is monetized or not, in every farming society, and in foraging societies too, a lot of nuanced attention is paid to who builds the capital, who draws from it and how this changes through time.

But H&H aren’t interested in this, and they scorn the idea that small-scale farmers might manage the complex flow of farm capital partly through commodity production or marketing while mitigating the dangers of market dependence through secure property tenure. A problem that many societies have had to wrestle with is that human collective organization easily generates a lot of capital that degrades the ecological base on which they ultimately rely. This, to say the least, is a major global problem today, and in my book I argue that a promising route for limiting capital formation is creating household-based farming oriented primarily to household needs. But even the most rudimentary household farm has to build some capital and direct its flow. H&H say nothing about how to either generate or limit such capital, and I think this fatally compromises their critique of my approach. In fact, with this omission they unwittingly open the door to the class differentiation they (and I) oppose.

Which brings us to class. One of H&H’s major charges against my book is that I fail to appreciate class differentiation in peasant societies, and they draw attention to various debates about this issue which they say I’ve neglected. In truth, I did cover some of these debates implicitly or explicitly, while trying to keep in mind that general readers of non-scholarly books are less interested in antique Marxist controversies than leftwing intellectuals might think. The most recent of the debates that H&H chastise me for ignoring flared nearly 50 years ago, and one reason I scarcely discuss them is that I’m not convinced of their centrality to the new epoch that’s upon us.

But actually – and this is something H&H completely miss – rural class differentiation and class conflict is key to my discussion in the later parts of the book. True, I don’t broadcast it with bold caps in the way that H&H would perhaps have liked me to, but I’d have thought that a reasonably attentive leftwing reading of my book would have picked up on this all the same. So, to clarify my position: IN THE FUTURE THERE WILL BE MANY SHARP CLASS CONFLICTS OVER ACCESS TO FARMLAND. I can’t foretell their outcome, but the small farm futures I write about in my book certainly won’t occur unless some of them are decided in favour of the cultivating/working classes. In my book I describe in very broad brushstrokes the circumstances in which that may just be possible (which pace H&H, won’t be ‘feudal’).

For their part, H&H want to tie future rural class conflicts to 19th century Eurasian ones and lament that I neglect the touchstone authors who described the latter: Lenin, Kautsky, Chayanov. Will the rural class conflicts of the future I anticipate in my book resemble these ones? Well, yes and no but mostly no, and I make it plain that my book is not about the peasant politics of the past (page 93). H&H make much of Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). As I see it, Lenin’s analysis was excessively concerned to shoehorn relations in the Russian countryside of that time into a Marxian dualism considerably more doctrinaire than Marx’s own, but inasmuch as it genuinely engaged with Russia’s rural scene it was in a context where well established peasantries were seeking leverage within an expanding and industrializing economy under the aegis of a strengthening state. The future situations I’m anticipating in my book, on the other hand, are where newly emerging and socially pre-differentiated peasantries are seeking leverage within a shrinking and deindustrializing economy under the weakening tutelage of a disintegrating state.

Lenin’s thoughts about 19th century Russia are really of little help in this situation. Nevertheless, I agree with H&H that there is potential for rural class differentiation in the neo-peasant societies to come, which is why I devote a lot of attention in my book to the means for preventing it. So it surprises me that on this issue H&H summon my doppelganger Ejams, and suggest he’s an enthusiast for rural landlordism. Smaje, however, most certainly isn’t: I make the avoidance of Ricardian rent key to the whole rural political economy of my book. H&H build their counter case by citing the one sentence in the entire book where I’m less than wholly negative about landlordism, a sentence addressed to a specific context where in fact landlords are pressured by the class power of cultivators, and even there I hedge it with caveats. This feeds my general sense that they have combed the book looking for ammunition rather than seeking more open engagement.

For sure, we can debate the pros and cons of different methods to avoid domination in the countryside and build thriving rural societies, and this has been the stuff of agrarian politics worldwide at levels of bewildering practical complexity throughout history. But H&H cut through all that with the single anecdotal example of a farm that’s co-run on cooperative lines by one of them, reportedly with great success. I can’t comment on this particular farm, about which I know nothing, but I can comment on numerous farms, cooperatives, community gardens, small businesses, intentional communities and marriages which I’ve seen fare less well, and almost always for the same reasons: beneath the patina of cooperation, somebody was carrying a burden of unrecognized labour, or there were disagreements over use of shared resources, or there was interpersonal domination.

Anecdotes aside, there’s a vast consultable history of agrarian societies that have carefully and unromantically, though never perfectly, thrashed out workable boundaries between family, private, common and public ownership, and I talk about this in some detail in my book. Here I think H&H should engage with rather than ignore this analysis and put some cards of their own on the table. Their implicit preference for sorting out the agrarian implications of such things as death, inheritance, in- or out-migration, divorce, neighbour disputes or commons disputes simply by talking it all through ad hoc on the farm or collectively in some ill-defined state space is the perfect recipe for creating class differentiation and landlordism over time. If they really want to make the case that it’s possible to create a renewable and harmonious agrarian society long-term on this basis, they need to provide a more nuanced description of how it works in practice.

I confess that my own brief outline of a republican politics of recognition and a public sphere in my book is only another step or two up the ladder of sophistication in this regard, and maybe indeed it’s a deus ex machina as H&H charge. But if so, I think it’s a more specific and promising one than two others that they lean on heavily themselves – unconflicted class identification, and somehow just sorting it all out collectively on or off the farm. H&H object to the concept of the public sphere, but happily invoke the resolving power of ‘democracy’, which seems a pretty similar move – though the difference between them is important, and I’ll discuss it in another essay which will also engage with their objections to ‘genocidal’ political quietism. For now, I’ll just observe that H&H dismiss the republican politics of recognition and the deeply grounded traditions of agrarian organization that I discuss in my book with simplistic and misleading labels: ‘liberal’, ‘petit bourgeois’. This is not an example of the nuanced and specific historical class analysis that Marxism at its best achieves. It’s vulgar determinism and name-calling.

One reason I don’t much engage in detailed class analysis is that it’s impossible to do it prospectively for future scenarios, except in the broadest of outlines that are sketched in my book. But what interests me more than sharp rural class conflicts is what happens after the sharpness has been blunted – how do people implement the peace and deal with the conflicts and frustrations, as well as the joys, of daily agrarian life? H&H have nothing to say about this beyond the exemplary presentation of Heffron’s own farm, I suspect because they’re only really interested in collective conflict, in this case between classes, and not in more particularistic kinds of conflict. In this way, their version of class politics greatly romanticizes the unifying power of class identification. And this kind of class politics has burdened communist history with appalling sorrow, because when the romance of unconflicted class identity sours, as it usually does, the vulgar determinism, the name-calling – ‘petit bourgeois’, ‘kulak’, ‘capitalist roader’ and so forth – incites violence that has more to do with class romanticism than class differentiation. In that respect, I find the Maoist threat lurking within H&H’s review title chilling.

But let me now turn to issues of gender, household, family and interpersonal domination. There’s much more I’d like to say about all this, and I probably will in future posts, but for brevity here I’ll stick to just a few main points.

H&H press my unpleasant doppelganger Ejams into heavy service in this section with some outrageous distortions of my argument. We’re told that Ejams thinks women shouldn’t be permitted to own property independently, that states should restrict family size, that there really are such things as ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’, and that women specifically rather than both women and men should content themselves with modestly furnishing their households. Well, Ejams might think such shocking things, but I can assure them that Smaje most certainly doesn’t. If these arguments truly existed in the book rather than in H&H’s imaginations I would have rightly been pilloried for them by other readers. Perhaps the fact that nobody else has read these absurd ideas into my argument should prompt some self-reflection in the two that have.

Here’s something that I do think: many societies will face tensions in the future between individual economic liberty and the need for households and political communities to orchestrate renewable ecologies, and there’s a danger that these tensions will be resolved to the disadvantage of women. To me it seems better to discuss this openly rather than simply shooting the messengers who draw attention to the problem. Again, while Alex Heffron’s farm may be exemplary in simultaneously achieving individual self-realisation and uncoerced collectivity as well as ecological equilibrium, H&H’s easy recourse to anecdotal examples like this does not suggest to me that they are thinking about these issues at all seriously.

In fact, it troubles me that H&H reserve such special scorn for family relationships, equating them with slavery. Of course it’s true that family relationships can be coercive, which is why I devote attention to this problem in my book. If H&H themselves have suffered from this, they have my sympathies. Alternatively, they might be drawing from a popular genre of radical writing about kinship that somewhat puzzles me – the kind where people in their private lives choose to engage in rich and complex, if often difficult, ongoing relationships with their own parents, siblings, children, or other relatives, to which they devote enormous energy, yet denounce it all as mere slavery and coercion when they’re at the writing desk. Either way, it would be useful for H&H to specify exactly what is coercive about family relationships and exactly how this is avoided in other kinds of relationships. Villages, nations, schools, charities, churches, collective farms, cooperatives, social services departments, children’s homes, trade unions and soviets can be coercive too.

Kinship is a persistent form of human organization that will certainly outlast the present modernist epoch of global politics, whereupon it may start to do more political work. Unquestionably, it has its downsides, which I wrestle with in my book and inevitably fail to resolve. The trap that H&H fall into is in supposing that, once they’ve somehow vanquished kin relations, other social relationships will be free of coercion and domination. It’s all very well to appoint themselves to the umpire’s chair and endlessly denounce me, or rather Ejams, for patriarchy. But eventually they’ll need to get down from the chair and start doing some wrestling themselves.

When they do, since I have no problem with non-family forms of small-scale farming, I’m sure there will be much in their vision that I’ll welcome. I did press the case specifically (but not exclusively) for family farming – but not patriarchal family farming – in my book because I felt the need to twist the stick in the other direction from the kind of prejudices against it on the left that are all too evident in H&H’s review, but I welcome visions for non-family based agrarianism, provided that they (a) address the issues of capital formation, capital limitation and capital flow I discussed above, (b) address the fact that domination in human relationships is not restricted to families and will stalk whatever alternative social relations are proposed, and (c) show an entry-level respect for non-domination by not seeking to prevent people from forming family groups and farming in them should they choose.

Finally, at the end of their review, H&H mention various agrarian institutions and organizations that inspire them, some of which surprise me. For example, they mention La Via Campesina, which has been criticized by Marxists for its ‘upper peasant’ politics – unfairly, in my opinion, but it’s odd that H&H give it a free pass in view of their heavy emphasis elsewhere on peasant differentiation. They also mention the Land Workers’ Alliance – of which I was a founding member – many of whose activists are family-based owner-occupiers of small commercial farms of the kind H&H find so problematic. They mention Sylvanaqua Farms in the USA, so presumably are inspired by its co-owner Chris Newman’s idea of raising US$50 million in private capital on a peer-to-peer basis to democratize farming in his area. Perhaps they could then explain why they have such a problem with my rather similar idea of an inheritance tax collected into local agricultural banking to prevent wealth concentration (and therefore landlordism), effectively a peer-to-peer capital raising scheme geared to transferring farming opportunities democratically from one generation to the next. So indeed, these are impressive organisations. But I’m baffled as to why H&H think they fit their own agrarian politics better than mine.

There are many other issues to contest in H&H’s summarizing of my book, and perhaps at some point it would be good to debate these with them, especially if they could refrain from trying to turn me at every opportunity into my reactionary doppelganger Ejams. But for now I’ll leave it there. I hope I’ve said enough to indicate that my book sees no panaceas in the traditions of small scale and family farming, but does find much to learn from them. And that there are no easy answers to the dilemmas of creating just and renewable post-capitalist societies.

Of scarcity and scale

Let me begin with a quick heads-up on my forthcoming book. It’s been somewhat delayed in the editing, but Covid-19 permitting it’s now slated for publication at the end of October. So please be sure to keep some cash in your piggy bank for the tail-end of the year…

One reason the book was delayed in the editing is because the initial draft grew a little unwieldy and I’ve had to spend time paring it down. There’s just so much to say about smallness, farming and the future! Some of my edits are destined to languish forever on the cutting room floor, perhaps rightly so, but there are a few sections I think deserve to see the light of day. So I’m aiming to publish them here on the blog as a kind of ‘best of the rest’ selection – or, to a put a more positive spin on it, as background reading that fills out in greater detail some of the book’s balder and briefer assertions and analyses.

This post is the first of these selections, lightly edited to fit into the blog format, involving some reflections on farm scale, yield and income. Right now, however, I’m in the thick of the final book edit, so please forgive me if my replies to any comments are more peremptory than normal.

oOo

For numerous reasons, I’ve long argued for a small farm future, where a large proportion of the population work as small-scale agricultural proprietors producing food both for themselves (a crucial point, as I’ll emphasize below) and for market sale. But it has to be said that historically the lot of the small proprietor often hasn’t been a happy one.

Optimal in theory, sub-optimal in practice – in his book Agricultural Revolution in England1, Mark Overton includes an interesting table that enables us to probe this issue. The table presents data from two pre-industrial English grain farms, which are hypothetical but presumably grounded in Professor Overton’s experience as a prominent agricultural historian – a large farm of 100 acres and a small farm of 10 acres:

Farm Productivities
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
Large farm
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 50 1200 4 4800 4800
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 50 900 6.6 5940 5940
3 1 100 10 1000 250 50 700 10 7000 7000
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 50 500 16.9 8450 8450
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 50 200 55.3 11060 11060
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

In Rows 1-5 Overton gives some input/output figures for the large farm under various assumptions of good, normal and poor harvest. In an agricultural economy that’s largely self-sufficient in staples locally or nationally, demand for grain is price inelastic (ie. it stays fairly constant regardless of price, because everybody needs to eat). Because of this inelasticity, in times of dearth the price of grain shoots up disproportionately to the fall in output, meaning that the large farm gets more income in bad harvest years than good ones (compare Row 1, Column 9 with Row 5, Column 9).

The outcome isn’t so happy for the small farmer, shown in Rows 6-10. In the poorest harvest years, s/he produces less grain than s/he needs to consume (Row 10, Column 7), and has to buy in extra grain to eat at the inflated scarcity price, therefore making a net loss (Row 10, Column 9). Too many seasons like that and the farm goes under, forcing the farmer to find some other employment – if they can.

But Overton makes a key and rather hidden assumption. Before it sells any grain the farm household first has to meet its own need for sustenance, which is the same year by year for a given household size regardless of the harvest. Overton allows for this in Column 6, but he makes it the same for both the 100 and 10 acre farms. So the same number of farmworkers in both cases (and the same yields per acre) but on the large farm the same number of workers are applied to an area ten times the size of the small farm, and therefore have ten times the labour productivity.

That’s a reasonable (in fact, conservative) picture of what tends to happen when small-scale farmers with hand tools or draft teams confront large-scale ones with all the paraphernalia of modern fossil-fuelled industrial agriculture. The labour productivity of the latter is vastly greater, and since labour is a major cost driver, this pushes poor small-scale farmers out of staple crop production and into commodity crop or non-farm employment markets where they’re subject to wider market forces, usually to their disadvantage. This is why calls in the rich countries to improve labour-shedding technologies, increase yields and lower the price of food in order to ‘feed the world’ in fact are more likely to starve it.

But I’m not sure Overton’s labour productivity figures present a reasonable picture of preindustrial English agriculture, or situations generally where the large-scale farm has no technology or labour-productivity advantage. Suppose we recalculate Overton’s table assuming that each acre of farmland requires the same amount of human labour applied to it. It then looks like this:

Farm productivities scaled to labor productivity
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net Output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 500 750 4 3000 300
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 500 450 6.6 2970 297
3 1 100 10 1000 250 500 250 10 2500 250
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 500 50 16.9 845 84.5
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 500 -250 55.3 -13825 -1382.5
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

By equalizing the labour productivities in Column 6, the advantage of the large farm has disappeared. Like the small farm, its income turns negative in the poorest harvest years, and its financial returns per unit of labour are exactly the same. In fact, in preindustrial England and in many other places historically the evidence suggests that, if anything, there are diseconomies of large scale in terms of output per acre, so the small farm may be advantageously placed.

There are four points I’d like to draw out from this little exercise by way of conclusion.

First, there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.

Second, one such case has been global agricultural mechanization over the past century or so. If like units of labour earn more or less the same per hour whatever they do, and if there are no diseconomies of increased scale in relation to labour-shedding agricultural mechanization, then small farms producing grain by hand or small machine will be disadvantaged relative to larger farms that are terraformed to the requirements of large machines employing equivalent labour. What seems much less clear to me is that this will continue to be true into the future. In the coming years we’re probably going to have to find low carbon employment for people in their multitudes. In this situation, labour productivity will probably be less important than carbon intensity and gainful employment – and the small farm may be better fitted to that end.

Third, a talking point in mainstream agricultural economics is that ‘free’ markets rather than household or community self-reliance are a better safeguard against hunger. Sometimes that can be true. The exorbitant prices for grain apparent in Column 8 as the yields in Column 3 decline might have been smoothed out with imports of cheaper grain from other parts of the world experiencing grain surpluses.

But there are several grounds for caution here. There’s the problem of dumping I mentioned above, with long-term negative effects on the local economy. There’s the issue that while cheaper grain imported from elsewhere may be welcome when harvests are poor, the exporters are usually price-seekers, not humanitarians. The cheaper grain may not be cheap enough to fully relieve distress – distress arising largely from local social arrangements which wider market dynamics aren’t geared to mitigating. Indeed, speculation on financialized global markets is a driver of food price increases, not a wider market solution to local distress. Finally, in the climate and water-challenged world that’s now upon us, it’s unwise to assume that cheap grain at steady prices will be readily available on the global market. The places that produce most of the grain surpluses are among the ones that are most climate and water challenged – and, as we’ve seen recently, when push comes to shove administrations prioritize production for domestic use, at least for those among their populations they wish to court.

Fourth and finally, inasmuch as farms of any scale might be economically threatened by poor harvests, it seems to me that Overton’s analysis points to two remedies. The first is that the farm household should place a high priority on producing for its own needs in a resilient, pessimal manner so that the net output figures in Column 7 are unlikely ever to turn negative, even in bad years, as a matter of ecological management. The second is that the farm household should aim to be part of a wider community and economy of farm households whose political guardians offer them support so that in bad years the figures in Column 7 don’t turn negative as a matter of political fiat. I think both of these remedies will be necessary in a sustainable and resilient small farm future.

Generally, the point I want to stress is that the bad outcome for the small farmer of the kind highlighted by Overton doesn’t arise from some intrinsic disadvantage of small scale, but from relative labor productivities in the existing globalized capitalist market – which isn’t the only way or necessarily the most sensible way of organizing food production and social wellbeing.

Reference

  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. Cambridge University Press.

 

Ciao Mao?

Apologies for my recent silence on here, not least in relation to the interesting comments at the end of my last post to which I couldn’t find the time to reply. No sooner had I revived this blog from my long book-writing layoff than I was laid low again with various urgent tasks – including a return to the book manuscript for an editorial overhaul. These tasks are ongoing so I fear I may have to disappear again for a while, but I hope more briefly than the last hiatus. And perhaps I’ll show up for a couple of interim posts. After all, another Brexit-fuelled election beckons – and where would British politics be without the next instalment of the widely-celebrated Small Farm Future miniseries: Which-of-these-darned-idiots-do-I-have-to-vote-for-this-time?

But let me sign off with a brief train of thought. Just as I was getting to grips with Julia Lovell’s fascinating book Maoism: A Global History who should appear in my Twitter feed the other day but an old adversary of Small Farm Future, Leigh Phillips, agitating against agrarian labour intensification on the grounds that it was a policy pursued by the genocidal Maoist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. That’s right, folks: in Leigh-world, if Pol Pot adopted agrarian labour intensification, then it follows that those who advocate agrarian labour intensification must support the politics of Pol Pot. By this logic, Leigh’s huge enthusiasm for nuclear power surely reveals itself as mere advocacy for the Gulag…

The only reason I mention this flummery is because it strikes me that the exact opposite thesis is probably more worthy of attention: unless we adopt agrarian labour intensification, the chances of a resurgent Maoism are amplified.

Let me try to put a little flesh on those bones…

Maoism is a virtually incomprehensible political doctrine in the west, and in any case has come to seem a dead letter with the eclipse or collapse of almost all the world’s significant Maoist regimes. But let’s not be too hasty with the obituaries. As with most political ‘isms’ the exact parameters of Maoism are ever fluid and hard to specify precisely, which is why these isms keep reinventing themselves, often in unexpected places. In the case of Maoism, wherever there are poor rural populations who perceive themselves to be oppressed by colonial or neocolonial power and are ready to contest it with violence, then the grounds for it are prepared.

There are a lot of places like that in the world today, and Maoism is far from a dead letter in many of them. There are set to be more such places in the future, with rural poverty and ever more nakedly coercive neocolonial power set to be augmented. So I wouldn’t bet against future Maoist insurgencies… Indeed, more sophisticated thinkers than Phillips such as his Verso stablemates Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann in their Climate Leviathan raise the spectre of future ‘Climate Mao’ regimes arising on the back of climate crisis and other perturbations in global politics, to which such regimes have ready-made answers…

…ready-made, but pretty unappealing – at least I can agree with Phillips on that. So for those of us who’d rather not see a return of Maoism, what is to be done? You get a sense of Phillips’ answer from the subtitle of his first book – “A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff”. Via a shopworn reading of Karl Marx on the necessity of capitalism prior to socialism, Phillips cheerleads the present global capitalist economy as the precursor to socialist prosperity for all. Probably, he and his chums at the Breakthrough Institute genuinely believe this shtick, though their strident scorn for anyone who questions if it’ll really turn out so well does make me wonder if they protest a little too much. Radical-sounding but business-as-usual and corporate-friendly plays well to many galleries.

Yet if it doesn’t turn out so well, then the conditions for Climate Mao are ramped up another notch. We know these plotlines – further global inequality, further rural immiseration, further Ricardian landlordism and rentier capitalism, further climate breakdown, further political militarization. And, for reasons copiously discussed on this site over the years, there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t turn out so well.

An alternative, also copiously discussed on this site, is a more local, non-growth oriented, sustainable, agrarian and – yes – more labour-intensive (creating more green, low-carbon jobs is a good thing, right?) human ecology. The consequences would be globally redistributive and effectively anti-colonial, taking a lot of the heat out of the preconditions for Maoist insurgency. And possibly some of the heat out of the atmosphere too.

To put it another way, if you’d prefer to avoid harsh dystopias of involuntary rural simplicity in the future of the Pol Pot variety, then there’s a good case for working up some gentle utopias of voluntary rural simplicity right now, and trying to implement them. Inevitably, they’ll involve more people spending more time working in the garden. For many us, that isn’t such an appalling prospect, so long as there isn’t somebody alongside us there holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for incorrect thought. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what it feels like metaphorically when you engage with Mr Phillips…

Finally, a housekeeping point. I’m happy to receive individual communications via the Contact Form on matters of particular or private interest, with replies at my discretion. But if you’d like to debate or contest something I’ve said in a blog post and get a reply from me, please post it as a public comment on my Small Farm Future site, and I’ll do my best. Thank you. And ciao for now.

The International Day of Peasant’s Struggle – some notes from the farm

A happy International Day of Peasant’s Struggle to you. Talking of which, I’m still struggling away trying to write my book about peasants while the rest of the farm crew are up in London protesting about government inaction on climate change, which means I’m having to do a bit of proper work as well for a change – all reasons why this blog is wallowing in the doldrums at the moment.

So here are just a few nuggets to keep it ticking over for the time being. I’m hoping normal service will resume in the autumn.

In the book draft, I’d been penning a few critical thoughts concerning Emma Marris’s take on ‘post-wilderness’. Then I went out to do some farm chores, one of which was removing old shreds of plastic mulch littering the place. Under almost every one, I found a nest of ants mightily pissed off at the disturbance and the consequent need to move their precious eggs. Post-wilderness. What to make of it all, I can’t say.

Prior to the post-wilderness section, I crafted some thoughts on future energy scenarios, which prompted me to finally read this paper by Victor Court that Joe and Clem linked on here a while ago. My thanks to them for doing so, it’s a real cracker – not least because it connects up various issues of interest to me, including the matter of perennial crops in the context of r and K selection. An excerpt from the paper:

“the [principle of maximum entropy production (MEP)] provides the explicit criteria linking selection at the individual level with emergent and directional properties at higher levels of organization such as communities and ecosystems … there are three different MEP selection pressures at work during the development of an ecosystem. The first maximizes the rate at which entropy production increases through successional time, which, initially at least, is achieved via rapid colonization of species with fast individual/population growth rates called ‘r-selected species.’ The second selection component of MEP is for maximum sustained entropy production during maturity. This is achieved via maximizing biomass and structural complexity, which necessarily involves longer-lived, larger, slower-growing organisms named ‘K-selected species.’ The third selection component is for stress-tolerating species extending the effective mature phase and postponing retrogression of the ecosystem. Thus, given the existence of ecological disturbance in the landscape, the MEP theory leads to the prediction that there should be long-term co-existence of r- and K-selected species, a directional transition from r- to K-selected species during succession, and increasing predominance of K-selected species in ecosystems with longer disturbance return times.”

To my mind, this is suggestive of the hard trade-offs I hypothesized between productivity and longevity in temperate perennial grain crops and the unpromising options for artificial selection to create a win-win across those dimensions. Maybe it’s also suggestive of (1) an energetic basis to that elusive idea, an emergent property of ecosystems, which ecologists I’ve debated with on here like Ford Denison and Andy McGuire treat with great skepticism, and (2) a similar dynamic in human societies and civilizations when a new and abundant source of energy is tapped – from the high energy throughput, high entropy ‘r’ phase to the low energy throughput lower entropy ‘K’ stage. In that respect, perhaps we can expect a small farm future that will resemble aspects of the small farm past, unless and until it’s disturbed by the discovery or creation of new energetic stocks.

Meanwhile, I’m currently reading David Montgomery’s book Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who’s read it.

I’m also continuing to ponder my comment policy in the light of recent discussions on this site here and here, and also in the light of events in the wider world – especially the mass murder of people in New Zealand on the grounds that they were Muslim, by a murderer who invoked some of the same Islamophobic tropes that I’ve tolerated up to now on this site. Then again, he also invoked various environmentalist tropes, prompting some people (not in good faith, IMO) to identify him with an eco-terrorism of limits and boundaries. If anyone feels they have insights in these murky waters I’m (probably) interested to hear them…

Moving on, the blog post I’d most like to write at the moment but don’t have time to do properly is one about commons, and in particular the need to go beyond an Ostrom vs Hardin duality. I’ve recently seen a few posts and tweets suggesting that it’s wrong to even mention Hardin on the grounds of his racism, eugenicism and general wrongheadedness (hmmm, back to the comments policy issue…) But a true grasp of Ostrom’s work and that of other analysts of common pool resource regimes surely involves appreciating that successful CPRs are successful precisely inasmuch as they recognize the dangers of a Hardin-style tragedy and take well-crafted steps to avoid it. Trying to erase Hardin from polite discussion is about as sure a way of realizing his presentiments as I can imagine. More on that at some point soon, I hope.

Finally, our friend Adam Tooze – star of the this recent post guest-written by Michelle Galimba – has penned an interesting article in the LRB essentially arguing that Trump’s USA is gearing up for a gloves-off superpower showdown with China that constitutes a break with the narrative of globalization since the 1990s, but not with the longer-term reality of a US-led world political order, to which the globalization model now stands as a threat. What has ended, according to Tooze, is any claim on the part of the US that it has a wider, benevolent political model to share with the world. Or as some old TV celeb has-been recently put it, “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first, America first”. Hey, I think Professor Tooze must have been reading Small Farm Future.