Capitalism as religion: on ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’

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

1. Of sacramental capitalism

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

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

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

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

pp.16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Plymouth Rock or Jamestown?

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

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

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

p.308

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

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

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

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

p.594

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

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

4. Plain folks and the stuff they buy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p.588

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. All the way down

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

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

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

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

I think he’s right.

Household farming and the F word

In my last couple of posts I made the case that, whether we like it or not, there’s a good chance the future for a lot of people is going to involve small-scale farming geared primarily to provisioning their own household. It seems a necessary step from there to say something about the composition of these small farm households, which I did in Chapter 12 of my book A Small Farm Future and with some further, somewhat modified, thoughts about it in this more recent article. Here I’ll provide a brief synopsis.

My starting point is that I really don’t care how people choose to organize their households, either now or in a small farm future. Given the challenges we presently face, I think it’s necessary for us to project forward and think about how to arrange congenial, low-energy, low-capital, job-rich small farm futures. When I do that I find it hard to escape the conclusion that there are going to be a lot of households oriented to self-limiting need satisfaction, but I see no need to take a strong view about their exact composition. This could and probably will encompass smaller or larger intentional communities, religious communities, groups of friends, restricted or larger family groupings and couples – gay, straight or whatever else. I’ve taken it upon myself to project a small farm future, not to produce some social blueprint of appropriate living arrangements as determined by myself.

Nevertheless, when we look at societies of the past and present, certain patterns of relationships and certain kinds of social tensions within households are discernible, and it seems to me worth forearming ourselves with this knowledge as we contemplate a small farm future. Here are some of those patterns and tensions:

  • Households comprising many disparate individuals as voluntary joiners. Actually, this is not a common form historically, though it seems to be held as an ideal in certain quarters today. One of the problems with it is that such households easily disintegrate (easy come, easy go) unless a great deal of attention is paid to maintaining intra-household relationships, which is costly in time. I’ll say more about this a couple of posts down the line.
  • Large collective households of individuals united by religious commitment. These are somewhat less likely to disintegrate. They often have a hierarchical structure creating barriers to dissolution.
  • Large kin-based collectivities which place strong emphasis on the importance of family ‘name’, ancestors, inheritance and/or control of property. These are likely to be intolerant of individual members who transgress these boundaries, with the burden of this falling disproportionately on women.
  • Small, kin-based household units, often comprising no more than an adult female and male and their related children. These are found quite commonly worldwide throughout history, and are not merely some modern ‘bourgeois’ invention. Nevertheless, there’s much variation around this form, both within and between societies, and it’s invariably linked to wider kin structures.
  • In situations where people work together or live together, and yet more in situations where people live and work together, there is potential for repression and violence – economic, emotional, physical or sexual. There is also potential for deep, enriching connection. The potential for repression and violence can operate across many different human dimensions. Gender is a critically important one.
  • Generational succession – the handing on of skills, entitlements and capital endowments such as land – is another critically important issue that household organization ultimately must address itself to.

In my book and my subsequent article I trace a few of the implications of these points. I made something of a distinction in the book between kin and non-kin households, but I’ve come to question its usefulness. In his book What Kinship Is…And Is Not, Marshall Sahlins (that man again…) distances culturally-defined kinship from notions of biological relatedness, emphasizing that kinsfolk are people who participate intrinsically in each other’s existence. Usually there are radiating webs or skeins of kinship that organize local social space into a grid of relatedness and mutuality. So ultimately – and especially in local, low-capital, small farm societies – I suspect community, household, farmstead and kin relations will substantially intersect. If they don’t already do so, people will invent new kin metaphors pushing in that direction. Your kin are the people you live and work with. The people you live and work with are your kin. Perhaps it’s no accident that people in those stable religious communities I mentioned earlier commonly refer to other members as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, or sometimes as ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’.

My basic argument is that, like it or not, substantially kin-based household farming societies will probably emerge in the future, and in situations with limited capital and energy, it will be harder for their members to escape them, which makes the potential for repression and violence within them graver. So I’ve devoted some discussion in my writing to how to mitigate that unhappy outcome. I’m not going to go over that ground again here, though I will say a bit more about some aspects of it in an upcoming post. In any case, we’ve already touched on the issues quite a bit in recent discussions on this blog. As mentioned therein, probably the key to mitigating oppressive household situations is making it both acceptable and possible for people to quit such situations and choose to join other households. But this isn’t so easy to arrange in local agrarian societies lacking the abundance of capital and institutional flexibility of urban-modernist society – which makes it all the more important to focus on the issue. Suffice to say that my writing has not magically solved the problems of household violence, gender oppression or patriarchy. And nor has anyone else’s. But there have been many mobilizations and activisms in numerous societies over time that have changed the name of the game, and the challenge will be to build on them in the future.

It would be interesting to debate these issues constructively, but few reviewers of my book have engaged with this gender and kinship aspect of it. The exception is Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s dismayingly doctrinaire Marxist critique, where they represent my position as pro-patriarchal – by some distance the most absurd of several travesties of my actual arguments they offer. I have no interest in working through their misconceptions, but some interest in the wider politics of their position and its contraries which I discuss a little in my article in The Land. Basically, I think there’s an overinvestment on the political right in a particular conception of ‘the’ family as a patriarchal and heteronormative ideal which seriously underrepresents the diversity of what ‘families’ are, and an almost mirror image underinvestment on the political left that reduces kin relations to the deprecated category of ‘the’ patriarchal family, which also seriously underrepresents what ‘families’ are.

To dwell for a moment on this latter point, kin relations seem to be the social structure that dares not speak its name within certain sections of the left. On his Twitter page, the first word Alex Heffron uses to describe himself is ‘father’. And on social media, I’ve been told, his operation has been described as a ‘family farm’. And yet his review seems to disavow any kin dimension to agrarian politics. I don’t understand this chameleonic shuffling of social and political contexts – a key identifier in one moment, a dangerous irrelevance in another. Other leftist writers I’ve read recently aren’t quite so stark, but nevertheless invoke family relations quite unproblematically in unguarded moments while turning up the scorn when their analytic guns are loaded. Meanwhile, elements of the avant-garde left herald the demise of all constraints of biological sex, gender identification or any human relationships troublesome to individual self-creation.

While I appreciate the desire here to escape conservative narratives that arrogate to themselves the right to determine what ‘the’ family is, I think the inability to treat extant kin relations as an enduringly serious aspect of social organization that demands positive analysis rather than simple censure will increasingly render much of this kind of thinking irrelevant to the political challenges of present times. Modernist society in both its capitalist and communist guises made strenuous efforts to destroy or abolish kin-based social organization during the 20th century when the odds were stacked more in its favour, and signally failed. I think it’s better now to acknowledge that kin relations sensu Sahlins are here to stay – indeed perhaps to amplify – and work to mitigate their downsides, without neglecting their benefits. I’ll say more about that work of mitigation in a forthcoming post.

Renegade projections and the domestic mode of production: for Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

I keep writing prefatory posts before wading into the content from Parts III and IV of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle, for which apologies. I promise this will be the last before I get down to business, although I do believe a little business is transacted below. Anyway, this means I’m going to hold off further discussion of Max Ajl’s important book left over from my last post for the time being.

In this post I want to talk about another writer, and relate his work to the question of a small farm future. The man in question is Marshall Sahlins, among the most distinguished of anthropologists from the latter part of the 20th century, who I only recently realized had died earlier this year.

There’s a small personal backstory to this. Many years ago, Sahlins offered me the opportunity to do a doctorate with him at the University of Chicago. A callow undergraduate, I was almost quaking as I entered his office during my visit to that august institution, like a member of some low-ranking lineage making offerings at the holy shrine of a fearsome ancestor. I guess David Graeber would have been among my cohort had I gone there, just a few years ahead of me, though of course I had no idea at the time who he was. But something about Chicago’s serried streets, the palpable misery of the graduate students and the tribal warfare within the anthropology department put me off. Or maybe it was more my own imposter syndrome at the thought of dwelling among such gods. In any case, Sahlins kindly wrote to me after I’d spurned his offer, wishing me “good luck and good anthropology”.

Well, I feel I’ve had a lot of good luck in my life so far. As to the anthropology, I want to mention Sahlins’s classic book Stone Age Economics, first published in 1972. This has been a touchstone work for me, and every few years I’ve re-read most of it. I went back to it again some weeks ago, but too many pages in my old copy were falling out, and the rest were so laden with penciled annotations from years of reading and re-reading that there was no space to scribe my latest thoughts. So I bought a new copy. The 2017 Routledge edition comes with an introduction from David Graeber, and a cover photo of two elegant stone-age blades – a marked contrast to the original edition’s picture of a dusty and sombre-looking group from the dubiously provenanced Tasaday people, squatting rather miserably in a cave.

Symbolically, the photos represent changing views of ‘primitive’, ‘indigenous’ or foraging peoples that this very book played no small part in effecting. By far the most famous essay in its pages – one of the best-known of all anthropology essays outside the discipline itself – is the first one, ‘The Original Affluent Society’, in which Sahlins goes to some lengths to show that far from living lives of endless misery and toil, as modernist ideologies often proclaim, foraging societies were lightly encumbered with labour compared to large-scale agricultural societies, with plenty of time for leisure and good living.

This argument is such a commonplace today that inevitably the pendulum has started to swing the other way, and various critiques of Sahlins’s thesis have appeared. Whatever. For me, the next three essays in the book, two concerning what Sahlins calls the ‘domestic mode of production’ and then his spellbinding essay on ‘The Spirit of the Gift’, are much the most important ones in the collection. I’ll talk about the gift essay in another post. Here I’ll restrict myself to some remarks about his two essays on the domestic mode of production.

As I (re-)read these essays recently, I was shocked to notice how unconsciously indebted I was to them for some of my arguments in A Small Farm Future. Strange, considering how often I’d read them. Perhaps they’d become so familiar I’d unthinkingly adopted them as my own. Ironically, it seems that the ‘good anthropology’ Sahlins wished for me all those years ago may have manifested largely in me reinscribing for contemporary political purposes some of his own insights about societies supposedly left behind by modernity. I only hope my act of ancestor worship has some modern efficacy.

And so: the domestic mode of production. ‘Mode of production’ is a concept especially associated with Marxist thought, and in his foreword David Graeber says that these essays were “the closest Sahlins ever came to an experiment with Marxist models” (p.xiv). In truth, he didn’t come that close. Which suits me fine – as I see it, Marx is another ancestor who deserve some honour, but no cultish devotion. And on that point, just to say that the only person who responded to my question last time as to whether I should engage with Alex Heffron’s and Kai Heron’s highly charged Marxist attack on my book was one K. Heron, who, to paraphrase, thought not. Yet some of their points in that review are a useful foil to arguments I wish to make, so I will refer to them in passing nonetheless in this and future posts.

Sahlins’s argument about the domestic mode of production is that in so-called ‘primitive’ societies there is a deep structural orientation to production for the needs of the household, which is usually a small unit of closely related kin. Neither ‘the economy’ nor ‘work’ are alienated from the daily practice of household members: the ‘economic’ is a “modality of the intimate” and the disposition and allocation of labour are “in the main domestic decisions…taken primarily with a view toward domestic contentment” (p.69). The household is oriented to meeting its own socially defined needs. There is no inherent tendency to the amplification of production or the accumulation of wealth. It’s precisely these features of household production, together with the immediate feedback the household gets about the ecological consequences of its self-provisioning, that to my mind make it a plausible vehicle for renewable future societies.

I discuss this idea at various points in my book, including on page 267 where I frame it within a populist imaginary of “the ideal citizen…[spending] a good part of their day striving for flourishing and livelihood. The next day, they do the same again, probably in the same way. There’s no higher political purpose”.

Heffron and Heron singled out this passage for some scorn, albeit by hedging it with all sorts of accusations of patriarchy, monotony, debt and market dependence which are not intrinsic to it. But I will take my stand on it. Better a domestic mode of production than Stakhanovite self-exploitation, statist expropriation or implausible, future-obsessed utopias of collective overcoming.

Nevertheless, Sahlins himself speaks rather dimly of this domestic mode – its orientation to mere self-satiation threatening dangerous undershoot, its orientation to itself threatening dangerous social conflict. He makes the point that while households in the domestic mode of production do cooperate with each other, this does not “institute a sui generis production structure with its own finality, different from and greater than the livelihood of the several domestic groups” (p.70) – a point I will return to when I come to discuss commons. For him, in order for the domestic mode of production to become a plausibly functional society, some such ‘greater than’ production structure is needed, and in his view it’s often provided in ‘primitive’ societies by hierarchical kinship structures such as chiefdoms that ramify beyond the individual household and coax additional productivity from them. But chiefdoms are not kingdoms. They have not “broken structurally with the people at large” (p.133). Chiefs remain kinsfolk and are structurally limited by that fact, such that chieftaincies are inherently unstable and prone to crumbling back into their constituent household elements.

In this view, then, chiefdoms don’t arise as it were ‘naturally’ when household production achieves a surplus. They’re inherent to the domestic mode, oriented to creating a surplus out of household production, and represent a tension or a contradiction within the domestic mode of production. Perhaps this is the ‘Marxist’ element to Sahlins’s analysis, since the idea of contradictions powering society is a leitmotif of Marxist analysis. Yet whereas in Marxism the resolution of contradictions drives a society progressively ‘forward’ in history towards improved forms and ultimately to a perfected communism, in Sahlins’s domestic mode of production the contradictions remain static and inherent, a flaw in the jewel of progressive society or, in Sahlins’s words, “a threshold which…was the boundary of primitive society itself” (p.133).

Sahlins did more than most during his career to break down the evolutionary sequence seemingly hard-wired into modernist thought of a historical trajectory from ‘primitive’ society (the very word redolent of an outmoded evolutionism) to ‘feudal’ society and thence to capitalism and (in Marxist thought) ultimately communism. Here, however, I think he somewhat succumbs to it.

I have to assume that Heffron and Heron are still labouring with this discredited evolutionism when they characterize my arguments as ‘feudal’ advocacy for parasitic landlordism, since they cast around for evidence of it in my writing, fail to find any, and then simply assert it on the basis of a meagre harvest from my words. Indeed, the popular notion that any localized, small farm society must somehow be redolent of a bygone ‘feudalism’ remains strong. Yet what generates feudalism is not farming scale or style, nor even economic relations of landlord and tenant (which I strongly oppose throughout A Small Farm Future), but political relations. In future posts I’ll be looking at this politics and explaining why a small farm future might well be neither capitalist, communist, feudal nor necessarily ‘primitive’. There can be other ways of households generating surpluses.

Despite the dubious evolutionary element to his argument, Sahlins himself partially breaks with it throughout Stone Age Economics (and much more so in later writings), as for example when he likens certain kinds of peasant economy to the domestic mode of production of ‘primitive’ economies: “a fragmented peasant economy may more clearly than any primitive community present on the empirical level certain profound tendencies of the DMP…” (p.80)

This argument was strongly influenced by Alexander Chayanov’s populist economic analyses of pre-communist Russian peasantries that had only recently been translated into English at the time of Stone Age Economics. Chayanov, I’ll note in passing, was murdered by Russia’s communist regime in 1937 for thinking wrong thoughts about the peasantry. Luckily, such a fate has not yet befallen me in speaking up for the potentialities of semi-autonomous household production, but Chayanov’s killing is a salutary reminder that the stakes in these discussions can be high. Only a few decades after his death, Russia’s communist regime collapsed, creating a power vacuum filled by a mafia capitalism that many ordinary Russians survived precisely by turning to Chayanovian household production of use values. There are wider lessons here, I think, about how the domestic mode of production might intercede within a ravaged state apparatus in societies of the future.

In Stone Age Economics Sahlins explicitly excluded from his purview this world of modern centralized states supposedly standing on the other side of his threshold of ‘primitive’ societies. Later on, in an essay co-authored with David Graeber, he recanted this stark distinction:

In retrospect, we may well discover that “the state” that consumed so much of our attention never existed at all, or was, at best, a fortuitous confluence of elements of entirely heterogeneous origins (sovereignty, administration, a competitive political field, etc.) that came together in certain times and places, but that, nowadays, are very much in the process of once again drifting apart

David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins. 2017. On Kings. Hau Books. p.22

I agree with this diagnosis. I argue in A Small Farm Future that many of the elements of ‘the state’ that have typified the modern world are, for various reasons, in the process of disintegrating, and for many of us or for our descendants the outcome is likely to be a relatively autonomous world of local household production akin to Sahlins’s domestic mode – which, at its best, may not be such a bad outcome.

Not such a bad outcome, but not in any sense a perfect one. While I think Sahlins somewhat over-eggs the difficulties and contradictions of the domestic mode of production, I believe he does it advisedly to point to the inherent tensions and difficulties that human societies of all kinds experience in constituting themselves, and his analysis therefore works as a counterweight to airily romanticized progressive ideologies such as the ‘collective class struggle’ that Heffron and Heron invoke as, dare one say it, a deus ex machina for overcoming structural difficulties. And Sahlins does it with a gruff admiration for the practical workarounds that people involved in household production worldwide have found historically to these intrinsic difficulties. Whereas the earlier Marx – and Heffron and Heron after him – scorned the political potential of household or peasant societies for their inability to come together collectively, employing the famous metaphor of potatoes in a sack, I offer A Small Farm Future at several levels as an argument that champions those potatoes, botanically and metaphorically, each and every one of them a marvellous but ultimately flawed attempt to solve certain intractable questions of how to exist as one part of something bigger.

Sahlins’s writing wasn’t especially easy for those not steeped in social science, but it had a kind of muscular workaday honesty, sprinkled with wry humour, which always returned to the practicalities of how people in actual historical societies have gone about their business, rather than involving itself in theoretical speculations or projections of idealized futures. A wise course. But, as I argue in A Small Farm Future, the burden of present generations is now to project new futures urgently in the face of the unravelling of the present mode of production, however difficult the task.

In doing so, I see myself as working within the traditions of left-wing (but not Marxist) politics. I don’t particularly want to be a renegade, although I’m less closed-minded than I once was to the possibility that other political traditions might have something of value to say. Indeed, these days I find much leftist writing, including that of a certain review of my book, to be so self-satisfied with its unexamined prejudices – positive and negative – around such things as collective class struggle, the forms of property, the nature of hierarchy or the forms of kinship, that a bit of reneging seems necessary. I don’t suppose my efforts will bear much fruit, but so be it. It’s a long-haul thing.

Talking of long hauls, with hindsight perhaps I didn’t specify clearly enough in A Small Farm Future the different time registers involved in thinking about post-capitalist ecological futures. Joe Clarkson said recently on this site that he was more interested in immediate issues of social transformation because, longer-term, people will figure out their small farm futures somehow – the challenge is the path from now to there. It’s a strong point, and in my book I do make some attempt to address it (more on that in future posts), but in truth I think the immediate transformation is going to involve a thousand kinds of craziness that can’t easily be predicted or allayed, so my focus in the book was to characterize in outline some of the main issues that emerging small farm societies in the interstices of this craziness would have to wrestle with – without attempting any kind of complete blueprint for how they should or would organize themselves. Inevitably, one has to make assumptions about the kind of future world and the kind of future societies one is projecting, and this is always open to challenge. I could probably have signposted this a little better in the book. But overall I stand by that project.

For their part, Heffron and Heron wrote “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present.” So the difference with my project is clear. As me, I’m not especially interested in looking for the contours of an eco-communist future. There are a few aspects of ‘eco-communism’ I might endorse, but I’m doubtful many current struggles against the capitalist present – and certainly few that are framed through Marxist optics – will be especially generative of post-capitalist ecological societies long-term.

Heron is scornful of ‘disaster’ politics and its presentiments of sudden transformative shocks to present social systems. This seems a necessary stance for him to take, because struggles against the capitalist present can only build a worthy long-term politics within capitalism’s own persisting ambit – and this, I think, constitutes a ‘threshold’ of capitalist ideology that Marxism itself cannot cross. This was a theme in Culture and Practical Reason (1976),Sahlins’s next big book after Stone Age Economics, where he provided a sustained anthropological critique of what he saw as the limited bourgeois economism of Marxism (Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production did something similar around the same time). I think this bourgeois economism is apparent in Heffron and Heron’s scorn for peasantries, kin structuring, household production and household use values, and their enthusiasm for ill-defined large-scale collectivisms and state formations.

From Sahlins, I’ll take my stand on the possible, but by no means paradisiacal, domestic mode of production of the future, and on the unlikelihood of generating long-term culture out of short-term conflicts of material interest. I’ll try to fill out the implications of this in future posts, where I hope I can better ground the rather abstract arguments I’ve made here.

Nobody is real: A Small Farm Future meets A People’s Green New Deal

I’ve been reading Max Ajl’s book A People’s Green New Deal. In this and possibly the next post I’ll be comparing a few of its themes with those from my own book A Small Farm Future, which I hope will lay some groundwork for discussions of small farm societies and small farm politics in the rest of this blog cycle1.

I’d warmly commend Max’s book as a thought-provoking, informed and informative contribution. Nevertheless, I think there’s something of a tension in it between a (neo-agrarian) populist perspective and an eco-socialist or Marxist one. I have a few sympathies with the latter, but ultimately I find the former a more plausible and appealing political route into the future. I’m not going to try to review or summarize Max’s book here, so much as try to explore some populist themes with his book (and mine) at my side.

Many political doctrines invest themselves in the notion that there are some kinds of people who are more ‘real’ than others, that they are the privileged possessors of a more authentic political agency, and it’s this dangerous idea (dangerous particularly when it’s associated with arguments about assuming control of the centralized state) that I’ll particularly be exploring in this (I’m afraid rather lengthy) post. Towards the end of it, I’ll explain what I mean by neo-agrarian populism a little more, and why I find it more appealing. But first I’m going to consider some other political traditions and their investments in notions of authentic peoplehood.

Before I do that, I should note that I’m not the only person to pick up on the blending of socialist/Marxist and populist themes in Max’s book. In an interview in ROAR Magazine, Kai Heron asked Max about this very point. Heron, some readers of this blog might recall, co-authored a review of my own book that homed in on its populist elements for a ferocious critique.

In my opinion, the review was none too fastidious about accurate characterization of my arguments, ill-informed about basic concepts such as ‘feudalism’ and seemingly actuated by a doctrinaire old-school Marxism with which I’m out of sympathy. My brief interactions with Heron didn’t suggest much possibility of constructive engagement, so I decided not to debate with him – a decision that remains firm.

But this hasn’t left me entirely satisfied, and I found it hard to read Max’s book without puzzling over the various alignments and non-alignments between me, Max and Heron concerning populism and socialism – for example in the call for a mix of family and cooperative farming that Max’s book shares with mine. So in posts to come I’ll address this via issues I raised in my book like gender, kinship and property rights that Max also touches on in his own volume and that particularly prompted Heron and his co-author Alex Heffron’s fusillades towards me. Whether I’ll respond directly to Heffron and Heron’s criticisms now I’ve reached the relevant part of this blog cycle, I’m not yet sure. Let me know if you think that might be interesting.

For now, though, I’ll stick to my theme of ‘real personhood’ and broach it in relation to a wholly different front in the political war of words.

Real People #1 and #2: the cultural nationalist and the countryperson

Over the years, my writings have gained some engagement from a small subset of people who, like me, are supportive of small farm localism and opposed to capitalist globalization, but from a vantage point quite far to the political right. Usually, our engagements haven’t ended well, and usually the point of no return has been around the issue of migration, on which the right stakes one of its major claims about authentic personhood.

The argument typically goes that large-scale migration is a bad thing, especially large-scale migration prompted by climate change and other crises at a time when we need to ‘look after our own’. How we define ‘our own’ – those real people of whom here I speak – is more often assumed than demonstrated, but usually relies on some form of cultural nationalism grounded in an existing structure of the nation-state supposedly threatened by the incomers.

I’m not going to expend many words on this. National culture is scarcely the fixed thing of the right-wing imagination (see A Small Farm Future, Chapter 18). The threat to culture is an artefact of a view of culture inclined to feel threatened. But even if one accepts these cultural nationalist premises (which I don’t), I doubt juridical and military attempts to prevent large-scale migration will ultimately be successful, and they will redound negatively upon political and cultural life in the places doing the defending. Moreover, the defending is probably unnecessary on livelihood grounds (A Small Farm Future, Chapter 11). And it’s unethical. You have to be a pretty hardened cultural nationalist to turn your back on destitute and endangered refugees from other countries (looking at you, Nigel Farage), especially when the actions and inactions of your own country have played a large part in their destitution.

There is, however, a narrative of migration as cultural threat that’s popular on the left as well as the right – gentrification. In rural and agrarian contexts this can be ecologically flavoured too – how can we possibly retain ‘our own’ sustainable rural culture fitted to local circumstances if it’s perturbed by an endless stream of incomers? Gentrification narratives are heavy with ideologies of ‘real’ personhood: the ‘real people’ of this neighbourhood, town, region etc. as determined by culture, class and/or natality.

I hope to write more elsewhere about rural gentrification. For now, I’ll just say that I’m inclined to see gentrification of all kinds more as an issue of affordable local land or housing – an issue of economic justice – rather than a cultural one. Culturally, in much of the Global North – and indeed in much of the Global South too – the notion that there’s a sui generis sustainable rural culture threatened by the intrusion of incomers from elsewhere usually carries little more weight than parallel right-wing fears of a threatened national culture.

A ruralisation of the global population in the coming years seems to me inevitable, but while I don’t see large-scale migration as intrinsically bad, I don’t think it’s intrinsically good either. As Jahi Chappell said on this site a while back, it would be good if people could exercise a right not to have to migrate. This would involve breaking out of the centre-periphery structuring of the global economy with its highly uneven allocation of wealth and wellbeing that inevitably draws migrants from periphery to centre. I discuss this in Part I of my book, and Max also discusses it extensively in his one, making the case for climate change reparation payments from the Global North to the Global South. I find his case for it within present global economic structures indisputable.

Real people #3: indigeneity

Another much favoured category of real personhood nowadays is indigenous peoples, whose cosmologies and ecological practices are often seen as inspirational for renewable, post-capitalist human ecologies. I too find inspiration in this and briefly discussed it in my book, while Max plumbs the issue more thoroughly in his, most particularly in relation to people in settler-colonial societies who trace their ancestry to a pre-colonial population.

There is, however, a danger of invoking indigeneity generically as something that particular individuals have because of their ancestry and that elevates them above the non-indigenous. Indigeneity as authenticity. This is a simple inversion of modernist-colonial ideology, which typically emphasizes the inferiority of the indigenous culture compared to the modernity of the incomers, while indigenism recuperates the superiority of the indigenous compared to the inauthenticity of the modern.

I think Max courts this danger in his book, and his defences against it aren’t wholly convincing. But at its best his discussion of indigeneity emphasizes the importance of self-determination for indigenous people as modern people with a right “to decide how and with whom they want to live” (p.149) in contexts where that right was historically extinguished by centralized settler-colonial states operating on quite different political principles to their own. Such claims are not made upon the modern state but independently of it, albeit with a necessary recognition of its ongoing reach.

I’m in complete agreement with this. In my own book, I articulate it more generally as a future reality that many people will face worldwide, not just those who are heirs to an obvious indigenous ancestry outside the cultural reckoning of the contemporary state. It’s what I call ‘the supersedure state’, and I’ll come to it later in the blog cycle.

But one of the problems with the idea of a people’s self-determination is that it leaves unsaid exactly how you constitute ‘a people’ and who is the ‘self’ that’s getting determined. There are power relationships, alternative narratives and micropolitics within every would-be ‘people’, perhaps the more so when it inevitably has to organize itself with respect to the power of the modern nation-state. Accepting ‘a’ people’s right to self-determination is a basic prerequisite for transcending the existing power structure, but it doesn’t get you very far in addressing the political questions and conflicts faced by this new political ‘self’. Particularly if it involves resource claims against existing states based on personal identity as ‘indigenous’ or some such claim to meta-state authenticity, there’s much potential for manufacturing conflicted and novel performative identities around such notions of ‘indigeneity’ – as in analyses of ‘the hyperreal Indian’ or ‘the obligatory Indian’2.

As I see it, those novel performative identities are as ‘real’ as any other political identity, but it would be easier to clarify the messy political choices people face in modern societies if analysts stopped implicitly seeing certain people or political identities as more real than others. I encountered this in engaging with Peter Gelderloos’s view that the Standing Rock pipeline protests in the USA were somehow more authentic than the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests originating in the UK along the lines that Standing Rock was a real defence of homeland, conducted by real people authentically grounded in a proper political identity. Max pretty much recapitulates this problematic dualism in his book. I think more plural and conflicted political imaginaries are necessary.

Max’s call for “tremendous investments in high-speed rail” (p.111) also interests me in relation to these questions of indigeneity and authenticity, at both global and local levels. Thinking globally, high-speed rail systems represent an enormous accumulation and concentration of capital that I think are colonial in origin and unachievable by any ‘indigenous’ culture oriented to living renewably from local resources. They also represent an enormous privileging of some people’s and some places’ connectivity at the expense of others.

Thinking more locally, here in England the costs of the government’s flagship new high speed rail project (HS2) have inflated threefold from initial estimates to around £100 billion, while the despoilation of the countryside caused by its construction along with associated quarrying and water drawdown has prompted extensive protests involving wealthy homeowners living alongside HS2’s various sites of extraction and construction, other local residents horrified at the destruction of much loved woodlands and natural habitats (defending their homelands?), eco-activists, left-wing critics of government spending priorities and small state libertarians, while XR has helped create a new ecology of protest linking these various causes. I don’t think older languages of indigeneity or of economic class interest are really alive to these shifting contemporary terrains.

Whether such populist allegiances will prove politically transformative remains to be seen, though the bar for success has been set pretty low by more traditional forms of leftwing and labour organization in contemporary England. I argue in A Small Farm Future that the real test will come with the declining ability of centralized nation-states to provide prosperity, wellbeing and geopolitical structure – in which circumstance, I think any local successes will mostly be plural and populist, rather than indigenous and/or traditionally class-structured.

A whole other side of ‘indigeneity’ is indigenous practices of livelihood-making. In this view, prior to the nexus of colonization, globalization, fossil energy use and capitalist development, indigenous people figured out renewable ways of living from local land and resources that can inspire a more sustainable future. It’s a view I share, particularly if we take a capacious view of ‘indigeneity’. People developed low-impact and low-energy forms of livelihood making everywhere in the world, and the local premodern ‘indigenous’ form should probably be the first place we look for inspiration today – perhaps, as I wrote in A Small Farm Future (p.152), in some places with an overdue dose of postcolonial humility concerning the livelihood skills of indigenous peoples through deep human time.

But some nuance is needed. Biogeographies and population distributions have changed. New crops and knowledges have emerged, while old ones have decayed (I find it hard to imagine, for example, plausible future livelihood-making in the UK without a greater dependence on the potato than in premodern times, or in the Pacific Northwest of North America without a lesser dependence on the salmon). Some people identifying as indigenous have learned ancestral skills of local livelihood-making. So have some people not identifying as indigenous, while there are indigenous people living urban lives who lack knowledge of those lifeways.

The point I’m driving towards is that indigeneity as political identity-making and indigeneity as economic livelihood-making both involve complex, potentially conflicted and changing practices. Fundamentally, indigeneity is more something that people do or create, make or remake, drawing on various pre-existing resources, than something that certain people simply and authentically ‘are’ or ‘have’. So I find it curious that Heron criticizes my book for having “no discussion whatsoever about race and indigeneity”, partly because it’s not actually true, partly because I don’t think one should invoke a generic ‘indigeneity’ without seriously questioning the term, and partly because my book is concerned with little other than indigeneity in the sense of how people worldwide – relatively few of whom, after the tremendous dislocations of modernity, have a good claim to being a ‘real’ local indigene – can learn to create their own sense of indigeneity in a future that Max aptly diagnoses will be one of “world-wandering refugees” (p.41). In such a world, claims to being a real person, an authentic indigene, will usually be at best irrelevant and at worst a status strategy pregnant with the potential for violence.

I don’t think the position I’m charting here is incompatible with the idea that people who identify as indigenous within contemporary settler-colonial states have a legitimate claim to self-determination which shines a spotlight on historical injustice. Nor, however, does this seem to me the most decisive challenge of present times. That challenge lies rather in how those of us who are not ‘real’ indigenous people might aspire to the label.

Real people #4: the proletariat

Now onto a final kind of political authenticity – the vaunting by parts of the left of the landless, waged, working-class (the ‘proletariat’) as the real agents of history. A key ancestor here is Karl Marx, with his insistence that the most exploited people in the most ‘advanced’ capitalist societies of his day, the industrial proletariat, would redeem capitalist society through socialism. This was a much more plausible claim to make when Marx was formulating it around 150 years ago than it is today, but towards the end of his life even Marx began recanting this position and entertaining the possibility of a peasant road to socialism – a smart move, since it turned out that all the major successful communist revolutions of the 20th century were predominantly peasant ones3.

Unfortunately this insight of the older Marx barely percolated into the later Marxist tradition, not least because of the efforts of Vladimir Lenin, father of Soviet communism. In The Development of Capitalism in Russia and other writings, Lenin made three interlinked arguments:

  1. The Russian peasantry was dividing essentially into an upper stratum of would-be capitalist farmers and a lower stratum of increasingly landless rural labourers, thus replicating Marx’s favoured scheme of a dualistic clash between capitalist and proletarian.
  2. The peasantry was incapable in itself of creating a transformational communist society. For this, it required the assistance of the proletariat and revolutionary cadres to take charge of the state.
  3. Forms of left-wing politics that deviated from these and other orthodoxies of Marxism-Leninism were ultimately incorrect, insufficiently transformative, complicit with capitalism and in need of cancellation.

These arguments have had a long afterlife as central tenets of orthodox Marxism, but none of them are terribly convincing. I see the second and third as basically hubristic self-promotion of Leninist doctrine. As to the first, it’s true that in circumstances of novel capitalist penetration and development (so, unlike the circumstances facing people across much of the world in the years to come…) there can be processes of economic differentiation among peasantries. But not just among peasantries. There’s no particular historical justification for Marx’s and then Lenin’s demotion of peasantries as transformational political actors, nor for the vaunting of wage labourers in this ‘real person’ role, supposedly immune to differentiations of their own. Göran Djurfeldt wrote “The postulation of law-like tendencies in the capitalist mode of production in Lenin tends to regress to a Hegelian postulation of essences”, concluding “those who take over the predictions of the classics and attempt to apply them wholesale to contemporary agriculture are engaged in a futile and dogmatic exercise”4.

That conclusion seems all the sounder in 2021 than when it was written forty years ago. Heffron and Heron invoke Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia (published 1899) as if to disprove my argument that small-scale owner-occupier farming might form part of a worthwhile and stable future response to present problems, but to my mind their ahistorical postulation of essentialist categories – ‘‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ peasantries, progressive collective subjects and so forth – speaks more to their own rather fossilized search for authenticity than to any particular defect of my analysis. Perhaps I only have myself to blame for trafficking at all with the language of peasantries and 19th century debates about peasant transitions. Increasingly I’m inclined to think these have virtually no relevance to the agrarian transitions of the future. Again though, if anyone would like me to elaborate on that, do please let me know.

Populism

Notwithstanding Lenin, it’s undoubtedly true that humans of all kinds are extraordinarily gifted at splitting themselves up into disparate and antagonistic groups (Marxists are particularly adept at this – the differentiation of the peasantry is as nothing compared to the differentiation of the Marxists). If we let go of the notion that there’s some category of ‘real’ people with the singular capacity to stitch together a unified and authentic social order – and I think we do need to let go of it – then we’re left with the conclusion that any concept of society or of ‘a people’ is mere contrivance, an artificial construct.

In A Small Farm Future, I embrace that conclusion. Indeed, I argue that probably the only way we’re going to get through the years to come without horrific bloodshed is to effect forms of neo-agrarian populism that elaborate it. ‘Neo-agrarian’ because only a turn to low ecological impact, low-energy, job-rich agriculture serving primarily local needs can adequately address current biophysical and socioeconomic crises – the ‘neo’ referencing the point that, while in many ways these agrarianisms will be inspired by historic or ‘indigenous’ low-impact and low-energy agricultures, they will also have new elements fitted to new times and are not about restoring some notion of a better past.

‘Populism’ because it will be necessary to constitute peoples or ‘a people’ who are in some way unified around neo-agrarian practices out of the disparate constituencies and identities in the contemporary world. There are bad populisms that try to make only some kinds of people representative of the body politic, as in a good deal of the Brexit-mongering we’ve endured here in the UK in recent years. More sophisticated populisms recognize the contrivance involved in constituting ‘a people’, where nobody is any more ‘real’ than anyone else.

The downside of neo-agrarian populism is that hardly anyone in the world today is practicing neo-agrarianism, which makes implementing it an enormously tall order – an object without a subject. The upside is that this absence neatly sidesteps all the debates about who the ‘real’ people are, the authentic agents of history. Nobody is real. Or everybody is. What’s real is how we have to make a material livelihood, and in this people are a lot more constrained by the ecological feedback of the world around them than most currents of modern political thought seem to believe.

There are many openings toward neo-agrarian populism of this kind in Max’s book, but also various points where I think he shies away from the difficulties and compromises involved in trying to constitute ‘a people’ in favour of a more mechanical politics that too easily delivers it via ‘real person’ agency.

These tensions lurk, for example, within Max’s statement that “Marxism where it has been most successful has been able to adopt and rework populist and nationalist vernaculars and demands in the service of revolutionary transformations in the world”, referencing “Lenin’s adoption of some of the rhetoric of Russian populism”. This is all true enough. But Lenin was engaged in a fierce and high-stakes argument against the Russian agrarian populists, just as the agents of liberal capitalism in the US and elsewhere were battling their own local agrarian populisms around the same time.

Lenin and these other avatars of a supposedly progressive industrial modernity won their political battles, as protagonists for the centralization of political power and authority often do, but I don’t think they won the intellectual arguments, and their narrow visions of industrialized progress delivered by strictly delimited classes of ‘real’ people in alliance with centralized and more or less authoritarian states haunt the problems of the 21st century. I think part of the answer to those problems is going to have to be neo-agrarian populisms less dazzled by the idea of material progress, and less fussy about precisely which people it considers to be the true agents of history.

So I agree with Max where he endorses “autonomous thinking about the common life, or communism” (p.54) while believing that such thinking will have to claim a more capacious notion of the common life or communism back from a good deal of Marxist (and, more so, Leninist) thought. Elsewhere Max writes that one has to ask whom one’s friends are and whom are one’s enemies (p.68). I’d hope that neo-agrarian populisms can be friends with various currents of left-wing, socialist and Marx-inspired thinking. Certainly, there’s much I feel friendly towards in Max’s book, and I find his overall framing of the issues facing humanity very largely plausible. On the other hand, I feel little friendship towards the ongoing disdain of certain other leftists for what they see as the miseries of small-scale agrarianism and their taste for authoritarian big-state collectivism. Quite how such alignments and non-alignments play out in future politics is going to have a huge impact on future generations’ experience of the world.

Notes

  1. Max Ajl. 2021. A People’s Green New Deal. Pluto Press; Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future. Chelsea Green.
  2. Alcida Ramos. 1994. The hyperreal Indian. Critique of Anthropology. 14, 2; David Stoll. 2011. The obligatory Indian. Dialectical Anthropology35: 135-46.
  3. See: Eric Wolf. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Harper & Row;Teodor Shanin. 1983. Late Marx and the Russian Road. Monthly Review Press; Kristin Ross. 2015. Communal Luxury. Verso.
  4. Göran Djurfeldt. 1982. “Classical discussions of capital and peasantry: a critique,” in John Harriss (ed). Rural Development. Hutchinson.

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.