Capitalism as religion: on ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’

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

1. Of sacramental capitalism

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

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

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

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

pp.16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Plymouth Rock or Jamestown?

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

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

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

p.308

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

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

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

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

p.594

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

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

4. Plain folks and the stuff they buy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p.588

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. All the way down

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

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

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

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

I think he’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the IPCC to Just Stop Oil: my week of climate politics

It seems necessary to knock out a quick post about climate change – not something I’d planned to do right now, though perhaps I should have if I’d kept a closer eye on the news cycle. But with the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on mitigation of climate change just published, it seems somehow apropos. Plus, unexpectedly, I found myself helping out with the Just Stop Oil protests earlier this week, which has brought climate issues and climate activism right back to the forefront of my thoughts.

Other people are better placed than me to give their hot takes (literally, alas) on the content of the IPCC report. As a part-time observer of climate science social media, a full-time proponent of low-input agrarian localism and an almost accidental climate activist, I’m going to restrict myself to a few remarks on some of the report’s wider ripples in those arenas as I see them.

My sense of the professional climate science and climate change world is that people within it have, honourably, been making stark and loud warnings for a long time of the need for rapid and radical change to our modern GHG-emitting ways. But at the same time, some of those voices have been rather dismissive of two forms of rapid and radical change that I believe to be entailed in their analysis – a shift to low-energy agrarian localism, and non-cooperation or disobedience towards fossil-fuel extractive capitalist nation-states.

I find much to agree with in Professor Julia Steinberger’s writings, for example – including a good deal of her analysis in this Twitter thread arising from the IPCC report. And I salute her endorsement of current climate change protesting.

Where I part company with Prof Steinberger is in her view that scientists haven’t been raising the alarm with sufficient urgency until very recently, and that we’re “on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels completely”. Nothing I’ve yet seen has convinced me that we’re remotely on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels globally at current levels of energy use, let alone at levels that give people in low income/low energy countries fair access to resources. This is one of several reasons why I think the future for many people is likely to be lower energy, lower carbon, more localized and more job rich – a small farm future. But elsewhere Prof Steinberger has disavowed the case for low energy agrarian localism. As with much eco-socialism in the Global North, her position errs towards another version of techno-fix business as usual, the ‘electrify the hell out of everything’ mantra.

I’m not opposed to electrifying the hell out of everything, provided that we attend to the upstream and downstream consequences – the fossil fuelled pulse it would involve, the human and resource consequences of mining the lithium and rare earths, the nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste issues – so that this new electrified dawn doesn’t indeed just turn into hell. But, in addition to the fact that it will still involve using less energy, the real problem isn’t the hardware but the software, our cultures of materialism and capitalism. These, ultimately, are what need re-engineering more than our energy technologies. So I feel a bit torn when Professor Steinberger fulminates against those who imply “we should just give up” or who say it’s too late to do anything. I agree we shouldn’t give up and it’s not too late to do anything. But, with hindsight, it seems easy to see that ultimately it was always going to be too late to do anything within a cultural regimen inherently dedicated to endless commodification and the increase of capital. So unless that regimen is brought swiftly to its end, then yes – it probably is too late.

There’s one ‘too late’ that does seem to emerge clearly from the IPCC report. If GHG emissions don’t peak within three years at the latest, it says, then it will be too late to limit global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels by 2100. Of course, if they don’t peak by then, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to take action against climate change. It’ll just be too late to avert the 1.5C warming beyond which human and ecological catastrophes amplify. But I think climate experts sometimes protest too much against the simplifications of popular ‘only x years to save the Earth’ narratives. Time is not on humanity’s side in retaining a congenial climate, and there’s no historic evidence yet that we can rein in GHG emissions (absolute or per capita) in the absence of exogenous shocks to the ordinary functioning of the global capitalist political economy.

This sad truth demands a variety of responses from a variety of people, including small-scale farmers and renewable energy folks. But also people protesting against governments’ ongoing commitment to fossil fuel extractivism, existing and new. In the absence of such protests, governments will think we haven’t noticed the gap between their words and deeds, and be emboldened to barrel onwards towards a catastrophic 3 degrees of warming. For this reason and others, after a slow start I’ve become a supporter of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, and I spent a good part of last week helping with the Just Stop Oil protests in southeast England.

I worked mostly as a driver (I’m confident the smart readers of this blog don’t need me to explain why this is not especially contradictory or hypocritical), dropping off activists at protest sites and collecting them from police stations after they were released from custody. Never in my younger days did I imagine I’d be driving London’s roads in the small hours, checking the mirrors to make sure I wasn’t being tailed by the police, and making smart exits from drop off sites to try to avoid getting arrested myself. Still, these are the times we’re living in – a time when the British government, and for that matter its Labour opposition, has completely lost its moral compass, and when real adults are needed in the room.

Or, more specifically, real young adults. Many of the actions were spearheaded by Youth Climate Action, and I’ve got to say I was greatly impressed by the dedication, integrity and insight of the young people I met on my nocturnal journeys around London, and by young activists like Miranda Whelehan and Xanty who submitted themselves to the usual media bullying from their elders and supposedly betters, and came out on top. The idiotic baiting of Miranda Whelehan by Richard Madeley and Lowri Turner on Good Morning Britain is quite something to behold.

While the home secretary barks for more powers to silence civic protest, in truth the bite of existing powers has not been used to its full extent against climate protestors. My guess is that the cost and propaganda own goal involved in jailing a cavalcade of elderly priests, young graduates and harmless community workers is too high. So at present, the personal cost of arrestable nonviolent direct climate action is not large. Even so, the numbers involved remain disappointingly low and Peter Kalmus’s question ‘What will it take to get people off the sidelines?’ in the face of climate breakdown is to the point.

Of course, there are plenty of people with enough on their plates already, and there’s no dishonour in feeling unable to get involved. But, honestly, the ignorance and complacency of Lowri Turner in that interview with Miranda Whelehan – with her talk about doing the recycling and the need for people to get on with their lives – was truly shameful. If she were half as informed as Ms Whelehan about what ‘getting on with your life’ would look like in a world of 3C warming, she wouldn’t embarrass the airwaves with such blather.

Let me close with a little story prompted by Ms Turner’s comment that “We’ve had a winter without any protests, but as soon as the sun comes out, ooh it’s eco-festival time. And it is a festival, it’s a big jamboree”.

Indeed, it’s been quite sunny lately – during the day. But at night there’ve been people in their eighties blockading oil terminals as the snow has fallen. For my part, I stood alone outside a police station for seven cold night hours until after the dawn in case the young activists inside were released, rather ill-prepared and under-dressed for it because it hadn’t originally been my job. By the end of my vigil, I was shivering almost uncontrollably. It’s not a great deal of suffering to write home about in the larger scheme of what many at Just Stop Oil have gone through, still less for those engulfed by the climate agony that’s upon us. But it was not a jamboree.

The larger point, though, is that I was there, looking out for people I’d never met. Nothing too heroic in that, but the world is full of such small acts of care and kindness between strangers as well as between friends and family, acts that draw from a concern about others beyond the compass of statist politics. If there’s any saving of humanity in the years ahead it will be built from such small acts, and not from the concocted outrage and divisiveness of our contemporary political and media cultures. Perhaps also it will be built out of new forms of civic politics that local networks arising out of climate activism are helping to forge. My time with Just Stop Oil gave me just a glimmer of hope for these possibilities. I fear it will be too little and too late in the face of larger forces, but this is part of my answer to those I was debating yesterday who criticize Miranda Whelehan and Just Stop Oil for having no vision for a post-oil world. The part of the vision that they’re helping to supply is a new non-state politics of care. And that’s important.

A small farm future: some lessons from Ukraine

A couple of people suggested I might write something about the situation in Ukraine and associated events in relation to my thinking about a small farm future. There are two good reasons why I think I probably shouldn’t do that, one not such good reason, and one reason why I should.

The two good reasons are, first, it’s a bad intellectual habit to assimilate every new event as retrospective proof of one’s prior position, and, second, it’s a bad ethical practice to use the death and suffering of multitudes as an excuse to say ‘I told you so’. The less good reason is that I’ve never been to Ukraine and don’t know much about it. It’s less good because, judging by the proliferation of op-eds and hot takes, that’s been no bar to others. Maybe I should join the club?

The reason why I should is simply that when someone suggests I write something about an important topic, the chances of me avoiding it are about the same as a moth avoiding a flame. So I’ll concede at the outset, while trying to keep the contrary reasons in mind. In what follows, I identify nine themes I discussed in A Small Farm Future that seem worth appraising in the light of the war in Ukraine.

First, though, I want to make a point about the strange reversals of history and personal biography. As a left-inclined teenager in the early 1980s, the possibility of nuclear annihilation arising from the conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA in concert with its western allies seemed real. Me and my fellow CND members were routinely pilloried by right-wing politicians and newspapers as at best useful idiots and at worst fifth columnists for the spread of global communism. One of my maths teachers had worked previously in aeronautics and missile design, telling us of his wish to invent a weapon so awful that people would be sure never to use it. At the time, that struck me as a bad civilizational bet. As it’s turned out, I’ve been lucky to live into advanced middle age. But it still strikes me as a bad civilizational bet.

Anyway, there’s surely an irony that the threat now looming of a global war that pits Russia against the west has arisen not from a complacent appeasement of communism, but from a complacent appeasement of a kleptocratic and authoritarian right-wing Russian government pursuing a capitalism largely constructed by the west. The Russian regime has wormed its way deeply into the politics of its western counterparts, and differs from them largely just in its degree of sophistication and lip service to noblesse oblige. With liberals singing another verse of that old song “it shouldn’t be allowed to happen”, and elements of the hard left and hard right converging for different reasons on a more or less qualified support for Russia, not for the first time in my political life I’m looking for the box to tick called ‘none of the above’.

But let me move onto the nine themes from A Small Farm Future that I said I was going to raise, which are as follows:

1. Homo symbolicus

It’s almost a cliché nowadays that the world we experience emerges from the stories people weave about it. But it’s in the nature of clichés to often be essentially true. In A Small Farm Future I discussed this via the notion of ‘symbolic goods’ or a ‘symbolic economy’.  Three of the symbolic fictions I discussed in the book were money, the notion of progress and human control of nature (manifested in money … and in energy), and the notion of the nation. All of these are heavily in play in current events. At historical junctures like this, opportunities arise to change the stories we tell about the world, or to entrench them. Often, it’s easier to entrench them. With energy prices spiking alarmingly, various western leaders are talking about going easy on the already easy commitments of the COP26 climate agreements, and have been courting oil states otherwise recalcitrant to their preferred politics like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela in the hope of opening the oil spigot (a recalcitrance that no doubt is possible precisely because they’re oil states). The UK government is licensing further gas and oil exploration in the North Sea and talking about reviewing the case for fracking. An entrenched story of cheap money, cheap energy and cheap politics that may end up entrenching us all.

2. The arable corner: or, don’t put all your eggs in one breadbasket

In Chapter 5 of my book, I analyzed the way that humanity has boxed itself into a corner of overreliance on a handful of arable crops – cereals above all, and also grain legumes and oilseeds. This overreliance also manifests in growing dependence on a handful of breadbasket countries, including Russia and Ukraine, to feed the world. Current events have forced the mainstream news cycle to acknowledge some aspects of this and discover the concept of food security.

But only some aspects. There’s been little questioning about the overreliance on a handful of crops and a handful of breadbaskets in general. The questioning has just focused on the overreliance on Russia and Ukraine – a questioning that, as per my previous theme, involves doubling down on an old arable corner narrative, which goes like this: instead of relying on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented global agriculture we should rely on a fossil energy intensive and basically monocrop-oriented national agriculture.

There are three poorly examined assumptions in this non-radical narrative shift, which I’ll explore under my next three headings.

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one energy basket

Overreliance on Russian fossil energy has, of course, been another recent theme. Overreliance on fossil energy in general, not so much. Indeed, as I mentioned above, far from taking Russia’s off piste lurch from the well-groomed slopes of the global political economy as a hint that we should Just Stop Oil, the main take home message seems to have been that we should just look harder for it somewhere else.

This unshakeable need for cheap and easily available energy is an energy corner, or an energy trap, that parallels the arable corner, suggesting to me that the governments of the world are simply incapable of addressing how we can back out of these corners altogether. But, to stick with agriculture, the energy corner meets the arable corner in the notion that we need to ramp up local grain production, possibly by ploughing more land, using more fertilizer and trimming back fond hopes of nature-friendly farming. Of course, the fossil energy demands of this arable corner push us further into the energy corner. Press Repeat.

4. Fewer eggs, more baskets

An awful lot of global arable cropland, and the energy use associated with it, is devoted to producing fodder for livestock that we don’t need to eat. So if we’re facing a grain and energy squeeze, an easy way to make do with less is to stop using grain and energy for the wasteful feeding of livestock. We can’t necessarily just stop doing that overnight. But we can at least just start debating it and seriously planning for it overnight. And we’re not.

Just to reiterate the position I charted in A Small Farm Future, I’m not arguing for stock-free farming, which I think would be unwise in lower energy systems. I’m arguing instead that we back ourselves out of the arable corner through more diverse and resilient mixed local farming systems where livestock complement rather than compete with the production of crops for human consumption. Fewer eggs, more baskets.

5. The economy is social

I spent some time in A Small Farm Future discussing how the world is imprisoned today by two 18th century ideas: first, if we all selfishly look to our own gain and, second, if we all focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then this brings the greatest benefit to everybody. If there was ever any substance to these ideas, it’s long disappeared under the weight of their numerous downsides.

Those downsides were obvious enough to many people prior to the war in Ukraine. The war has simply furnished further illustrations of them. Here’s two that have passed across my screen:

With the hike in fertilizer and energy prices, a British farmer told a radio interviewer that he was planning not to sow any crops this year, feeling that he would probably make more money by selling his existing stock of fertilizer to other farmers.
Meanwhile, the UNCTAD Rapid Assessment Report on the impact of the war in Ukraine shows high levels of dependence on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports in many African countries, including countries of the Sahara and Sahel already rocked by climate change, state failure and ethno-religious conflicts stoked by global geopolitics, creating in the words of the report “alarm for food security and political stability”.

Ultimately, the logic of specialization and maximizing net present value in a historically unequal world means people are forced to rely for basic food sustenance on players in other parts of the world over whom they have no control and who have no fundamental stake in their wellbeing. We need to update the memo from 18th century economics: if we all selfishly look to our own gain, and focus on the things that gain us the most monetarily, then a lot of people needlessly suffer – possibly including ourselves in the long run.

The alternative is for people to build local food systems geared to feeding themselves. This requires economic protectionism, which I believe the 21st century economic theory to come will show is a good thing once it’s got over its 18th century hangover, provided the economy is socialized sufficiently to penalize overly self-interested local economic actors.

But that’s another new(s) story that’s yet to emerge from the old.

6. Of migration and the death zone

I mentioned in my book Étienne Balibar’s idea that the world is increasingly divided between ‘life zones’ and ‘death zones’. Death zones are created by climate change, water scarcity, historical conflict, global power politics and 18th century economic theory. Life in the life zones prospers to a considerable degree as a result of death in the death zones. The death zones are proliferating, and people understandably try to move out of them to the life zones. Some of these refugees get a warmer welcome in the life zones than others.

All this was clear enough before the war. Perhaps the war has just further dramatized the fact that it’s hard to be sure where a new death zone may emerge. Which I’d hope might encourage a more welcoming, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ kind of attitude towards refugees. The current distribution of the world’s population is based on the pattern of a capitalist global political economy emerging in a 280ppm CO2 atmosphere. The future distribution will be based on the pattern of local agrarian political economies in a 400++ppm atmosphere. That’s going to mean that people in the future will live in different sorts of places in different sorts of numbers to the present, which implies a lot of human movement. Ultimately, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that movement. But of course they will try, and their efforts will create yet more needless suffering.

7. Fakin’ it: of nationalism … and the news

I discussed in A Small Farm Future the nation as a narrative or symbolic good – and the fact that for every nationalist narrative there are usually various counter-narratives. Such narratives and counter-narratives have, of course, been fundamental to the war in Ukraine and its representations in Ukraine itself, in Russia, in the West, in China, and elsewhere. Some political thinkers – right, left and green – have emphasized the positive aspects of nationalist narratives for improving the world. I expressed my doubts about that in my book.

I’m even more doubtful now. Maybe there was a stronger case for it in a sub 350ppm world trying to find a multilateral way out of colonialism and global war. But I think the dark side of nationalism has always been, as they say, a feature and not a bug. As I see it, the narratives of the nation need to be junked all the way down to the ground – which is a difficult and perhaps impossible thing to do, but, pace Anatol Lieven, a necessary one. It must include, I think, even nationalisms forged in adversity against a larger foe of the kind that have been brewing in Ukraine. It certainly must include imperial manifest destiny nationalisms of the kind that have long animated the USA, western Europe and Russia.

It would be easier to make a case for rebuilding a world of nation-states if some level of basic trust remained in the goodwill of governments and national news sources towards truth-telling and general human betterment. But after the last decade or so of infowars – Putin, Trump, Johnson, Cummings, Brexit, Climategate, Covid, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, deepfakes, you name it – that trust has gone. It’s always struck me how much bureaucratic, police and medical intervention goes without public questioning into establishing the true facts around a single human death. Yet how insouciantly we dismiss the deaths of hundreds, thousands or millions as probably not even real when it doesn’t suit our narrative. Homo symbolicus. Still, there will always be some who stand witness, and I salute them.

8. The supersedure state

I argued in A Small Farm Future that the best option for creating a new congenial agrarianism will be in the gaps that develop in the reach of the modern state. I never suggested this was anything but a hopeful possibility, but even so the war has made me ponder this anew. It’s easy to chafe against the pettifogging restrictions of the overmighty modern state when you live under one, while neglecting its advantages over living in a death zone where the writ of the state doesn’t run. Still, I’m not arguing against the community services and basic peace that states at their best can orchestrate. I’m arguing that increasingly states will be unable or unwilling to orchestrate these things, and we will start to see states operating more often at their worst than their best, as in the present situation. So I’m sticking with my argument: increasingly, the onus will be on people as citizens themselves to build from the bottom up such supportive architecture as they deem they need to live well that has previously been associated with ‘the state’ but that they can no longer entrust to the modern institutions bearing that name. I just hope that most of the rebuilding won’t have to occur out of the ruins of war.

9. Mutual aid

Therefore, I think it’s a good idea to exercise our mutual aid muscles. A grower’s group I’m a part of got a plea for seeds and tools from Ukrainian horticulturists. We got together what we could and our collective offerings were dispatched in a van to Ukraine. It was an easy thing to do and it doesn’t count for much. But hopefully it counts for something. I went to a talk around that time from a Conservative MP who complained about the random generosity of the British public, and the logistical snafus involved in the endless vans strung along highways and border posts between here and Ukraine for the want of a more organized relief effort.

He’s probably right. But it’s the same as the argument about donating to homelessness charities rather than directly to a beggar on the street. The charity will no doubt make better use of the money, but the human connection of giving when someone asks and looking into their eyes goes beyond price. Ultimately, if anything sees us through into the next phase of history it will be human connectedness, not organizational efficiency.

Rural gentrification Part IV: the internship problem

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

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

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

To get into them, consider this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A small farm future – the case for death taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural gentrification Part III: of locals and migrants

My last post concerning rural gentrification led into the wider issue of future migration patterns, which I’ll address briefly here. I haven’t got much to say about it that I haven’t already said either here or in my book but maybe a little repetition is warranted.

As I see it, human movement within and between countries is likely to be a massive reality in the years to come, and the ‘rural gentrification’ trend among contemporary neo-agrarian homesteaders discussed in my previous post is merely a straw in the wind presaging it. Globally, estimates from international agencies suggest that anywhere between 200 million and a billion people could be displaced from their homes and potentially on the move over the next few decades as a result of climate change. Independently and in concert, changing economic realities seem likely to be another large impetus.

At a more granular level, some researchers question such headlines on the grounds that even when prompted by ‘natural’ phenomena like droughts or floods, migration always involves multifaceted human responses that modulate expected scales and directions of movement. Such caveats are always worth bearing in mind, especially when the idea of impending large-scale migration is so routinely used to stoke fear and generate all kinds of political mischief. All the same, in view of the climate, energy, water, soil, political and economic realities before us, I find it hard to imagine that the human world to come won’t involve migrations of a different order.

Initially, much of that migration seems likely to be relatively localized and inter-urban or rural-to-urban. Long-term, it’ll be urban-to-rural. The brute reality is that current global settlement patterns are based on flows of energy, water and money that aren’t sustainable in the long run, so those patterns will change. Given that reality, change wrought by large-scale human migration within but also between countries looks like the least disastrous way that it will happen.

I’ve sometimes been criticized for being ‘pro-migration’ – not least in the Twitter thread that generated this mini-series of blog posts. But in the face of what’s to come, saying that one is pro or anti migration is beside the point. You might as well say you’re for or against the weather. Like it or not, it’s going to happen. The real question is how you respond to it.

To state my position: I’m not especially ‘pro’ migration, but nor am I anti-migrant. In an ideal world, I’d like it if people didn’t routinely have to travel in large numbers far from their homeplace to make a livelihood. So, rather than being pro-migration, I’d describe myself as pro the right not to have to migrate. The challenge is how to make it feasible for the majority of the world’s people to exercise that right. In one of the essays that generated this blog mini-series, Anarcho-Contrarian suggested various income and property tax measures to help keep people rooted to their homeplace. I largely agree with them, but I don’t think they’d be enough to do the job in the present global moment. I’d suggest the following three policies in the wealthier countries, starting tomorrow, might to the job:

  1. A ratchet tax on fossil fuels, perhaps something of the order of an extra 5p per litre of petrol retail per week (that’s about $0.26 per gallon of gas in US units, if I’ve got my sums right) levied across the whole supply chain
  2. A 100% death or inheritance tax above a small cutoff point, say £5,000 (US$6,750) cash or one acre of farmland (farmland is currently selling at about £9,000 per acre in England at present – though another view would be that farmland isn’t currently selling in England)
  3. According rights to national and local governments worldwide to limit the inflow and outflow of capital within their jurisdictions

No doubt there’s scope for a few tweaks to these policies, but without something like them the combination of climate breakdown and the concentration of wealth will be such that a lot of people will be on the move in the coming years in search of a decent livelihood, or even of bare survival. My sense is that a lot of localist objections to in-migrants of various kinds are basically objections to the social and economic hollowing out and decline of place which results more from the flow of money than the flow of people. Certainly, there’s no prospect of reducing the latter without radical change to the former.

But sadly, I doubt such policies will be enacted anywhere. Much more likely is the proliferation of border walls and border militarization of one sort or another (US-Mexico, India-Bangladesh, N/W-S/E Mediterranean etc) the result of which will be a lot of death and suffering on the outer side of the borders and increasing civic degradation on the inner side to the point where in some places it may become debatable whether life is really better on the inside than the outside. And at the end of it all, in history measured by decades or centuries, I doubt it’ll do much to stop the redistribution of the global population that would have happened if the borders had just stayed open. Better to address climate change and capital migration now?

Those of us who live in a rural part of a high-latitude country where the future prospects for food production remain reasonably good can expect to see a lot of in-migration in the coming decades. I don’t doubt this will cause frictions, but I’m not especially sympathetic towards attempts by the existing residents of those places to keep the migrants out. Such residents have been the beneficiaries, albeit not usually the main beneficiaries, of the capital inflows and greenhouse gas emissions fuelling the migration. Those in glasshouses should not throw stones.

The same cliché probably serves yet more so for ex-urban sophisticates with a tendency to disparage the countryside and country folk, if and when they join the exodus from the cities. Get your acre and learn to homestead. Who’s the bumpkin now?

But I don’t want to get too oppositional about this. Anarcho-Contrarian wrote of the “legitimate grudge” that rural people may hold against urban-modernist narratives that tell them “you are not good enough; your place is not good enough” and whose “children and grandchildren were functionally confiscated from them”. I agree, but their children and grandchildren will soon be coming home, and they will not be the same kind of people they would have been had they never left.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided the returnees don’t come back with a sense of innate superiority – which is less likely if they’re returning in the face of urban crises and meltdowns. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with spending some time away from home and learning new things on other stages. Perhaps other societies outside the modern western one have done a better job of melding the so-called ‘great tradition’ of urban literate ‘high’ religious culture with the ‘little tradition’ of rural oral culture. In The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks recounts his alienating high school education that forced ‘great tradition’ culture down the throats of kids grounded in the practicalities of local farming life, his later enthrallment with the world of books that took him to Oxford University as a mature student, and then his return to sheep farming. There’s scope for more people’s lives to take such a course, ideally without each chapter involving such grating disjunctions.

Likewise, the pressure of in-migration to productive rural places may be positive inasmuch as it forces new patterns of more sustainable land use and landownership (ie. small-scale, self-reliant homesteading or smallholding), an argument I propounded in Part IV of A Small Farm Future. There are those who want to frame such changes in terms of class struggle, which may turn out to be the case in some places. But it seems to me unlikely that these class struggles will bear much relation to anything presaged in Marxist thinking about the class conflicts that fuelled the emergence of modern capitalism. A different and more populist lens is required. I aim to write more about it in due course.

So I guess I’m not in step with the two main stories about migration emerging respectively from the political left and right. Or maybe I’m partly in step with elements of each. I dislike the racialized stoking of fears about ‘floods’ of migrants heading from Global South to Global North or from the city to the country purveyed on the right. But migration does seem to me to raise critical social issues. It’s not just a moral panic stoked by the right, and extreme geographic or labour mobility are not intrinsically good things. ‘Floods’ of migrants has the wrong connotations, but the weather and the tides are definitely changing and unless radical policy measures are taken we’re going to see large changes in human population distributions. We’ll probably see them even if they are taken. Managing this well, avoiding individual or out-group blaming and trying to use the changes to generate positive political outcomes are important challenges. Difficult ones too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the dawn of everything to a small farm future: a review of Graeber & Wengrow

The late David Graeber and David Wengrow’s (henceforth GW) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane, 2021) is the newest big book of revisionist global history on the block. I’ve been fighting the urge to write a review of it, but since it illuminates several themes of interest to this blog, what follows is a white flag of surrender to that fine ambition.

When I say The Dawn of Everything is a big book, I mean really big. Several reviewers of my own tome commented with palpable tiredness about how exhaustively argued (272 pages), endnoted (12 pages) and referenced (12 pages) it is, but it’s a mere pamphlet compared to GW’s numbers in this regard (526, 83 and 63, since you asked). I mention this partly to remind myself to say something later in this review about the rights and wrongs of quantification, and partly to dramatize the point that it’s impossible to summarize GW’s book and do any justice to the depth of their analysis, so I’m not even going to try.

What I am going to do is pick out a few themes that chime with my own interests, which, broadly speaking, are how to rethink almost the entirety of the present world political and economic system in the face of profound ecological and social crisis. As is often the way of such things, I’m going to focus a bit more on where I disagree or am uncertain about GW’s analysis than on points of agreement, so I just want to say upfront that their book is a magnificent achievement and a crowning glory for the extraordinary David Graeber before, alas too soon, he left us to join the ancestors.

Although GW’s book defies summary, I’ll offer a quick thumbnail anyway. Standard modern global histories tell us that our genus Homo emerged about 2 million years ago. These hominins of our genus, so the story goes, lived for most of that time in small, egalitarian foraging bands where nothing very interesting happened for multiple tens of thousands of years until men invented agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago. This enabled the accumulation of surplus, the division of labour, social stratification and the emergence of centralized states, culminating in the incredible technological mastery of the last couple of centuries centred around Europe and its offshoots.

This is often told as a story of heroic progress that puts white, agricultural men in the historical driving seat, but often enough the story is inverted, the heroes become villains, and we are called back to a time of innocent, egalitarian, non-racist, non-sexist foraging. This solidifies a seemingly immovable modern duality: upwards to a brighter future or downwards from a brighter past. Progress or a fall from grace, modernity or nostalgia, accelerationism or primitivism. Like GW, I’ve done my best over the years to escape this airless duality, but it’s a struggle. I hope their book becomes an important waymark in its overcoming.

In GW’s revisionist account, a lot of very interesting things happened during human ‘prehistory’ – in particular, playful and transitory experimentation with both egalitarian and stratified forms of society across vast interconnected human landscapes of continental scale. Then women invented agriculture (or, better, horticulture), basically as a niche craft specialization. For a long while nobody took it any more seriously than all the other ways people had of messing around outdoors. But eventually it did, literally, take root across much of the world, creating more populous but smaller, more localized societies that were more inclined to stress their cultural differences from one another. There was no definite relationship between the emergence of agriculture and the emergence of stratified, centralized polities. Historically, both foragers and farmers created large urban centres based on bottom up, relatively egalitarian forms of self-organization, but they also created ones with a parade of emperors, kings and other bigwigs.

We tend to dignify the latter with the concept of ‘the state’, but there’s never really been such a thing as ‘the state’ with a core, enduring set of attributes. Nevertheless, nowadays we do seem to have lost our human capacity for playful experimentation and are ‘stuck’ within a system of stratified, centralized polities. In GW’s words, “There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion” (p.76). Amen to that.

Though their story differs from the anti-heroic version of the standard history, ultimately GW are fighting against similar biases in global histories that they see as too male, too white, too agrarian and too focused on centralized political power. At the same time, they’re underwhelmed by counter-histories concerning the superior mystic wisdom of ancient and indigenous peoples. Theirs is a humanistic tale that paints everybody in every society as creative and confused in the same measure, and perfectly capable of sustained critical reflection about their own society and others they encounter.

I have few quarrels with most of that, though I do think GW get into some tangles as they try to unfurl this argument over the grand sweep of history. Still, there’s an aspect of their grand narrative about the questionable concept of ‘the state’ that I’d like to highlight. Where GW criticize the modern tendency to define ourselves as living within the confines of the state and then cast back through history to locate its origins and the reasons for its successful persistence, I’d extrapolate their critique forwards. All too frequently, people project the trappings of what they understand to be ‘the state’ into the future and ridicule the idea that it may not persist, with jibes like Leigh Phillips’s ‘collapse porn’ shtick. But from GW’s telling, there’s no reason to find ‘collapse’ unlikely. The various elements that define a state regularly get scrambled and recombine in different ways. What historians call Dark Ages are often when centralized power wanes and ordinary people come into their own. So maybe folks should quit the name calling. Maybe we ‘doomers’ are really the optimists?

Of inequality and freedom

A big part of the fizz of human history arises because we’re simultaneously creatures that like to construct pecking orders and status gradations among ourselves, with a taste for attaching ourselves as flunkies to people higher up the heap, and creatures that like to demolish these gradations and emphasize our equality and autonomy. I don’t think the standard historical narratives we tell about ourselves emphasize this point and its oddity enough. When we devise political schemes that only find a place for one of these modalities, they usually soon founder as the other one asserts itself.

In his book Hierarchy in the Forest,Christopher Boehm has argued that the hierarchy/equality duality is an evolutionary legacy – both from our deep ancestry in a great ape lineage given to rigid (male) status ranking, and from our long human gestation in face-to-face foraging societies where egalitarian cooperation was a winning strategy. I find this plausible, based largely on a long period of intensive participant observation fieldwork that I began in about 1982 involving many evenings drinking in the pub, where I’ve found pompous self-aggrandizement and its negation via the fine art of taking the piss to be on display in roughly equal measure. The latter seems necessarily based on small-scale, face-to-face interaction and the micropolitics of gesture and language.

GW invoke Boehm respectfully, before scorning his view of a long egalitarian gestation in face-to-face groups. The truth, as they like to point out, is that we have vanishingly little idea of what people were doing and thinking over most of the 2-million-year history of our genus, so it’s wise to avoid guesswork. But this argument cuts both ways. GW present plausible archaeological evidence that foraging peoples prior to the spread of agriculture (but mostly only just prior to the spread of agriculture) played with status ranking and were part of much larger interacting populations. But this doesn’t prove our ancestors weren’t playing the egalitarian face-to-face band game most of the time through our evolutionary history. Their suggestion otherwise involves its own kind of guesswork. I feel that, as here, a little too often in their book they build some big conjectures on fragmentary evidence.

So to the idea that Paleolithic foraging peoples engaged in building urban hierarchies, I guess my response is ‘OK, but how often?’ GW do not, thankfully, attempt the kind of absurd, evidence-mangling quantifications that the likes of Steven Pinker engage in to prove his notions about the awfulness of the past, but without knowing how often pre-agricultural foragers built mass, status-ranked societies over the last couple of million years it’s hard to assess the weight of GW’s argument.

In the early part of their book, GW critique the whole emphasis of modern political thinking on equality, placing their emphasis instead on freedom. In some ways, their take is similar to the one I’ve been discussing recently under the banner of autonomy or self-possession. But I think they stretch the distinction a bit too far. It’s difficult to be truly autonomous in societies of great inequality, and as GW themselves ably document, societies that emphasize self-possession usually go to some lengths to ensure that inequalities don’t get out of hand. So in important ways freedom and (relative) equality are two sides of the same coin.

GW’s real kicker on the matter of equality comes later in the book when they discuss the unhappy confluence of sovereign power with bureaucracy that generates a good deal of what we understand by the notion of ‘the’ state. Impersonal notions of formal equality – treating people as interchangeable units or tokens of some particular class – is, they say, usually the harbinger of extreme political violence and inequality. Their position seems close to the civic republicanism that I’ve outlined in my own writings. What ultimately matters the most to people is not metrics of social equality but a sense that we’re participants in a political community that takes seriously what we have to say and gives us some leeway to lead the life we choose.

Such questions of participation were at the heart of political debates in Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries as older forms of royal and imperial rule gave way to a modern politics shaped by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Unfortunately, GW miss the opportunity to get into this when they discuss these two thinkers in the early – and in my opinion, weakest – part of the book. GW have a different agenda, relating to what they call ‘the indigenous critique’, which leads them into a dismayingly superficial contrast between Rousseau and Hobbes as theorists of the original human condition, with Rousseau supposedly detecting a kind of propertyless primitive communism and Hobbes, by contrast, famously characterizing human life in this state of nature as “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”.

The problem is, neither Rousseau nor Hobbes were actually talking about the original human condition, as GW acknowledge without ever really getting out of the tailspin they set up for themselves by suggesting that they were (in fact, they concede, the historical event that most framed Hobbes’s thinking was the English Civil War concluding the same year he published his famous phrase). I hope to say more about the questions Hobbes was asking, probably in my next post, because I think we urgently need to ask similar questions again across much of the world today. I also think we need to find different answers to his ones, but the inspiration of his thinking lies in the way he formulated the problem of how people can form political communities from first principles.

On this point, GW make a great play for their ‘indigenous critique’ idea that such first-principles political thinking in early modern Europe was first crafted by indigenous people from beyond Europe’s boundaries, specifically from North America, as a response to their colonial encounters with Europeans, and this was then adopted by Europeans themselves with the indigenous origins being airbrushed out. Already, this is ruffling feathers among specialists of 18th century European history. Whatever the case, ultimately GW’s stronger contribution is probably their argument that ordinary people everywhere are perfectly capable of producing articulate critiques of the political forms taken by their own and other societies.

Three political forms

Let’s examine those forms. To greatly simplify GW’s analysis, and perhaps to extrapolate them somewhat faithlessly into an analysis of my own contriving, GW argue that there are basically three broad kinds of political society. There are republics, involving bottom-up political self-organisation by ordinary people operating more or less as equals. There are aristocratic ‘house’ societies, involving predatory warrior leaders and petty would-be kings with an unstable power expressed through fighting, gifting, feasting and general rape and pillage. And there are empires, in which the petty kings have grown up into more stable monarchies, usually by combining political sovereignty – that is, a sacred sense of authority – with bureaucratic organization.

GW’s sympathies are with the republics, as mine are, and a big part of their book is concerned to show that people can and have orchestrated them many times worldwide throughout history in the face of the other forms of politics. They’re also concerned to show how the different political forms often emerge through deliberate local differentiation from neighbouring forms (what GW call ‘schismogenesis’). So the house societies of eastern Anatolia emerged as a counter to the urban republics of Mesopotamia, and the egalitarian republics of indigenous, pre-European California emerged as a counter to the house societies of the Pacific Northwest.

All of this I find interesting and plausible. I’m just not sure how easy it really is to form bottom-up, more or less egalitarian republics. Again, I want GW to show us not just that this has happened, but how much it’s happened and what proportion of the people who’ve lived since the Neolithic have enjoyed true republican freedom. This isn’t something that can be quantified precisely from the archaeological record, but I think we have a rough idea. At one point, GW quote political scientist James Scott without demur in his view that “the period from about 3000BC to AD 1600 was a fairly miserable one for the bulk of the world’s farmers” (p.445). That’s a pretty large slice of humanity exempted from the freedoms that GW champion. And I’m not even sure it got much better after 1600.

At issue here is the way different kinds of political power interact. In GW’s Californian example, people chose to forge relatively egalitarian and peaceful non-slaveholding societies in deliberate contrast to the aristocratic, slaveholding house societies of the Pacific Northwest, and apparently did so with considerable success (interestingly, GW say this was accompanied with strong private property rights and the development of money systems within Californian societies that also deliberately avoided agriculture). But my feeling is that such successes are historically quite rare. I suspect that the non-egalitarian violence of house societies is easier to project historically, particularly when it allies with the non-egalitarian violence of empires. This is James Scott’s argument. Ordinary people living under imperial rule got squeezed between the legalized violence of the regime and the predatory violence of ‘barbarian’ peoples in the peripheries of empire.

Still, these forms of power aren’t static, and opportunities lie in their changing realities. Often, emperors are too busy playing with their sacred power behind the walls of their palaces to care too much about what their subjects are doing, so provided the latter pay their taxes and don’t challenge imperial power too directly, life in an empire isn’t always so bad. Likewise, in modern nation states, mini empires of the latter day, a strange nationalist alchemy has turned the sacred power of the emperor into the sacred power of the people themselves, giving ordinary folks a chance to press their advantage – albeit often at the expense of foreigners or enemies within.

House or warrior societies also provide opportunities for advancement for anyone who can project charismatic authority and is good at cracking heads. Or at least for any man. No doubt, there’s a kind of playfulness in a hell-raising, slave-raiding, heavy-drinking, sexually predatory house society of charismatic leaders and their henchmen. But this kind of play is highly gendered, and looks a lot more fun for the ones in charge of the playing than the ones being played.

GW generally present republican societies as more measured, more attentive to the dynamics of power and to the ways power can be corrupted and more focused on distributed power than in the other two political forms, where inegalitarian power ultimately is centred one someplace or someone. Gendered perspectives are a constant undertow in their book, and in some ways republicanism emerges from it as a more ‘female’ political form – more inclusive, connected and communicative. This contrasts with the way that in practice the historical republican tradition in Europe from classical times to the present has so often been militarist and masculinist, perhaps because civic republics have often been embattled enclaves carved out in times of trouble from larger warring polities.

I’m less optimistic than GW about the prospects for people to throw off the shackles of their oppression with a republican politics of freedom because of this embattled history, and because of the difficulties of escaping status inequalities that are underwritten with violence. Nevertheless, GW convincingly show that these difficulties can be overcome in certain situations. It seems possible that the post-capitalist and post fossil fuel world we may now be entering will be one of these situations – what I called in A Small Farm Future ‘supersedure situations’, where people improvise local politics in the face of waning state power. Generally, I think GW understate the advantages held by imperial and royal/warrior power in projecting itself, which is why they keep asking how it is that we got ‘stuck’ with it. They’re still asking this on page 503 of their book, by which time you’d have hoped they’d have an answer. But they do convincingly show that not everyone always gets stuck.

Of gender, households, families … and gardens

In fact, they do sort of have an answer to how we got stuck, in their interesting but rather undeveloped argument that royal and imperial power is modelled after the structure of patriarchal households. As GW see it, this is what gives inegalitarian violence its staying power. What matters isn’t really the king or the patriarch’s arbitrary violence, which ebbs and flows like the weather. It’s the fact that their capacity for violence is contained within a house (or a kingdom, for which the house is a metaphor) where there are ongoing relationships of care between people that gives this capacity its ongoing human force and that can turn violent weather into a stable climate. I’ll note in passing regarding recent discussions on this blog that in GW’s presentation, the kingdom comes after, or is modelled after, the family or the household – so the household gets priority.

I find all this quite persuasive, and it’s changed my views somewhat on points I made in A Small Farm Future about gender and household organization. I don’t recant the overarching analysis I presented there, just the particular spin I put on it. I’ll comment further on that in a separate post. For now, I’ll just note that GW’s argument about the nexus of violence and care only gets us so far in understanding how we get ‘stuck’ with sovereign power, because it merely displaces the question onto how we get ‘stuck’ with patriarchal household organization – a form, they note, that has been widespread historically.

Still, GW show us that on plenty of occasions historically patriarchal sovereign power gets flipped, and not necessarily for any apparent structural reason. It’s as if that more egalitarian, more republican and perhaps more female mode of politics is always there in the wings, awaiting its moment. And that, I think, is an important take home from their book. Never discount the possibility of transforming patriarchal sovereign power.

Another take home from their book, although GW don’t remark on it, is the ubiquity of small, family-based households as a basic unit of social organization. Again and again across their case studies ranging worldwide over human history, they present evidence of small family-based residential units. They choose to emphasize other things, like the way that these small units interact in numerous commons-based formats, and the way that official scripts for what constitutes a family get subverted in practice. These things are worth saying. But they don’t undermine the fact that small, face-to-face, kinship-based household units are so often the building blocks of human societies. The tendency to gloss over this and to de-emphasize kinship in the contemporary social sciences seems to me something of a blind spot that ultimately will need correcting.

GW pave the way for this correction quite nicely here and there – for example when they show how indigenous people in certain parts of North America prior to European colonization opted for scattered family homesteading as a means to escape sovereign patriarchal power, which is not always how the history of American homesteading is presented. But they pull their punches, and their rather weak argument against kin-based social organization – “many humans just don’t like their families very much” (p.279) – succumbs to the problem that many humans just don’t like anyone they have to negotiate social and economic relationships with long-term. Looking at its ubiquity throughout history, it’s tempting to conclude that appropriately sophisticated forms of kinship organization seem to be the best of a bad job in this respect.

GW’s take on kinship has its limitations, but their discussion of gender is more impressive. Their account of farming’s origins as a playful, egalitarian craft specialism of women in their role as expert experimental scientists of the domestic was a particular delight. I found these arguments plausible, although again with something of a surfeit of speculation over evidence. It rings true that people took slowly to farming, and in early agrarian sites like Çatalhöyük avoided certain livestock domesticates because hunting was more fun.

But GW’s view that the Bible’s Garden of Eden story ill fits this narrative surprised me. Surely the idea that Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and bade Adam do the same nicely captures this sense of female knowledge and mastery, and its longer consequences? In truth, I doubt the Eden story involves any memory of what was happening at places like Çatalhöyük. We’re closer today to the era of the Yahwist source for that story than s/he was to the era of Çatalhöyük. I say ‘s/he’ because some have speculated that the Yahwist writer of the Eden story was a woman, and a case can be made that the story is less straightforwardly misogynistic than it’s often presented. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make intelligible a kind of multi-millennial male sulk about the need to stop playing in the woods and assume domestic responsibilities. More on that another time, perhaps. But it leaves us with the same general problem bequeathed by GW’s own enigmatic text: why have we got so stuck with patriarchal household organization, sovereign power, and the state?

Well, while I’m on the subject of idealized gardens, I’d like to suggest GW might have profitably explored the distinction between horticulture and agriculture more fully in pondering this question. They point to many ancient examples of mass urban residence that didn’t ultimately lead to repressive state sovereignty. And they invoke the case of indigenous North America to suggest “it’s simply not true to say that if one falls into the trap of ‘state formation’ there’s no getting out” (p.481), based largely on their analysis of the rise and fall of Cahokia in present-day Illinois from around the 11th to the 14th centuries.

These examples, even the urban ones, generally involve people who were producing their own subsistence either through foraging or mixed horticulture. They didn’t seem to involve worlds with a lot of non-producers, or producers largely dependent on arable grain monocultures and herding. I’m not suggesting these crop choices drove the politics. Maybe it’s the other way around. The people who were able to retain their self-possession were the ones who didn’t get sucked into arable and pastoral dependence. Either way, if this is true people’s options for escaping state sovereignty across much of the world today look bleak. But maybe not impossible with a turn to horticulture and a small farm future?

Idealism and materialism

David Graeber was blessed with the ability to write sophisticated social science in accessible and (almost) jargon-free ways while addressing real world political issues, and The Dawn of Everything is no exception. I’m not going to humiliate myself by taking a deep dive into the underlying social theory of the book and reveal my inadequacies by comparison, but I do just want to venture some closing thoughts on questions of idealism and materialism. It’s a topic of interest mostly just to professional social scientists, philosophers and Marxists, but I hope to show that it may have wider implications in our present political moment as we try to get unstuck.

For social scientists, ‘idealism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived ultimately through the ideas that people have about it, whereas ‘materialism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived through the real underlying material conditions in which people live. Marxist versions of materialism hold that societies progress in determinate ways as a result of internal tensions, and their resolution, grounded in material conditions such as class conflict.

GW don’t have an awful lot of truck with Marxist materialism, inclining towards an idealist sense that social change is driven more by cultural movements than material conditions and conflicts. And they add an individualist element – people are self-conscious architects of their own cultural change, not just automata representing some broad class or cultural type.

I agree with them, and I imagine they’ll get some stick from Marxists for failing to espouse the approved materialism. Well, join the club. My feeling is that Marxists can be quite tolerant of idealist elements when circumstances suit, but as I read GW’s book and thought about the kind of Marxist critiques that have been levelled at me, it occurred to me that it may be time to turn Marxist materialism on its head.

Marxists don’t really like the ‘idealist’ notion that people just self-consciously reconstruct the political cultures they inherit, but those Marxists that have criticized me along ‘collapse porn’ or ‘disaster feudalism’ lines happily operate with the idealist notion that the vast inertial ship of modern fossil-fuelled industrial technology can simply be repurposed for the benefit of the many and not the few. GW’s book has helped me clarify my conviction that it more likely works the other way around. The inertial ship of industrial high technology is a material drag that must be abandoned (I know oil companies are villains, but the energetic-industrial problems we now face don’t arise solely or mainly because of their villainy). We can abandon it if we develop a different politics around food, energy and habitation, which is basically to say a different set of ideas about how we ought to live. Out of this, different material practices can emerge.

In that sense, I endorse GW’s upbeat conclusion that it’s within people’s power to change things and remake their social world – not a power or a social world restricted to particular classes, groups, genders or political ideologies, but one available to everyone. And this, I must stress, is not a ‘liberal’ or still less a conservative position, but a populist republican one, as I shall explore in more detail in another post.

At the same time, there’s another material drag on republican possibilities in our evolutionary predilection for status aggrandizement as well as status equality. So the dangers of arbitrary sovereign power reasserting itself are ever present, as subjects of regimes inspired by Marxist egalitarianism might perhaps attest. It’s probably unwise to bet against new emperors or new patriarchies emerging. All the same, GW give us plenty of inspiration for trying to stop them.

So concludes this review – and also I think my blogging for the year. Many thanks to commenters old and new for sharing their thoughts with me, which makes writing this blog the continuing pleasure that it is. My apologies for not always finding the time to respond as fully as I’d like. I hope to be back in the new year to finally finish the long-running blog cycle about my book. In the meantime, if you’d like a little more small farm futurology to tide you over, there’s always this and this. So wishing everyone happy holidays, and see you soon, I hope.

Of grain and gulags: a note on work, labour and self-ownership

I’ll begin with a brief account of how our modern global grain trading system was invented in Chicago in the 19th century, which is maybe a bit of a jolt from the present focus of this blog cycle on the forms of property but hopefully my purposes will become clear.

Prior to the railroad/grain elevator/futures market nexus that began to emerge in the 1850s, prairie grain farmers sold their product in sacks that retained their identity with the source farm through to the point of sale. The innovation of the railroad/elevator system was to create standardized grades of grain that enabled the harvest from individual farms to be amassed together in vast quantities as a fungible commodity like money. The innovation of the futures market was to remove uncertainty about future price fluctuations, essentially by enabling speculators to assume the burden of the risk by betting on movements in grain prices. Before long, the value of the futures being traded greatly exceeded the value of the physical grain in existence.

These innovations called forth vastly more economic activity than previously possible, created a torrent of cheap grain that flooded global markets and pushed farmers in other places out of grain production (and often out of farming altogether), and stimulated the growth of prairie grain farming, while removing from farmers themselves substantial economic autonomy, fostering perhaps a self-interest on their part in the grading of their grain at the margin, but not a more holistic interest in the story of their grain from field to fork. They also pretty much forged the global economy as we know it today (I’ll ignore the meat/livestock side of the story for brevity, but the globalization of meat production was another prong to the same history)1.

How do you feel about this story? I ask because I think it often prompts strong emotions, which divide between two mutually uncomprehending camps (OK, so real life is always a bit more complicated than the dualities we impose on it, but I think this one does neatly organize quite a bit of thinking).

One camp responds positively to the story. Perhaps some of its adherents will concede that not everything that happened was rosy, but consider these downsides remediable without fundamental change to the economic model first forged in Chicago. Some key words or phrases for this camp are efficiency, development, modernization, globalization, progress, technology, labour-saving and back-breaking labour.

The other camp responds negatively to the story, and doubts that the problems created by the global commodity grain economy can be remedied without fundamental change. Some key words or phrases for this camp are autonomy, freedom, craftsmanship, honest work, self-reliance and community. This is the camp I’m in, and I’ve spent way too long in fruitless debate with people who think these qualities are quaint, outmoded, dangerous or outright laughable.

I should note that if we dial back a few more years through prairie history, we’d find in many places mounted, bison-hunting American cultures who were violently usurped by the settler farmers. A few more years still, beyond any European colonial influence, and we’d find forager-horticulturists without horses or bison-based economies. Which is to say that it’s possible to reject a particular historical turn of events without invoking some prior state of grace where all was sweet and stable.

Something to notice about these two camps: in the first, work is negative – ‘saving labour’ is good, ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Whereas in the second, it’s positive – work is craftmanship and self-realization, a part of how you make your mark upon the world and of how you and others judge you.

Another thing to notice: the first camp orients to pooling, generalizing and abstracting things – grain, money and labour can be hugely amassed and take on protean forms that escape particular, local control. The second camp orients to the specifics of food as a source of life and pleasure, and money and work as relatively scarce means of self-realization. It opposes the mass multiplication of these qualities.

Overlaying the familiar modern left-right political duality on the two camps, the first can encompass the full gamut of modernist politics from far left to far right and most points in between, including the neoliberal status quo. The second no doubt sounds ‘conservative’ to some contemporary ears, with its emphasis on self-reliance, personal autonomy and particularistic community, but historically it’s also crossed the left-right divide.

Perhaps instead of trying to shoehorn the two camps into the left-right duality, it’s more illuminating to notice where their tensions arise in respect of it. I find the sociologist Richard Sennett’s distinction between unity and inclusion useful here:

“The Left divided between those who sought to establish solidarity top-down and those who sought to create it bottom-up; the centralized German labour union represented the one approach, the local American workshop the other …. There were … two versions of solidarity in these discussions, the one emphasizing unity, the other inclusion”2

So, on the left, our first camp aggregates labour into classes, and emphasizes the importance of class unity in achieving political goals. Which is fine from my point of view, in some instances. Sometimes, people do amass themselves self-consciously into a class to achieve political goals, and need to act as a unified bloc to achieve them.

But for me this way of thinking gets problematic when it offers itself as a general theory of society and social progress. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made the claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” which, I would humbly suggest, is something of an overstatement. Marx and Engels’ politics was grounded in the notion that the landless industrial working classes emerging particularly in the richest countries of their day embodied the most perfectly realized and universalized class consciousness whose victory would bring this history of class struggle to an end. Whereas the executive of the modern state, according to the Communist Manifesto, was “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, people massed as landless labour and with a unified political consciousness arising from this would overturn the bourgeois state and repurpose it for the collective benefit of all, before the state ultimately ‘withered away’ in Engels’ famous phrase.

I find these views contradictory and unconvincing, indeed ironically somewhat ‘bourgeois’ in their obsession with aggregation and progress. But I’m not going to dwell on critiquing them here. Generally, I think this mass modernist mindset across its entire political spectrum has difficulties with or is uninterested in generating a politics of the person as a complex, intentional being set within a wider community and culture. On the far right, personhood is subordinated to the interests of the state or ethno-state. On the far left, it’s subordinated to class identity and the ever-receding promise that once all the bourgeois and counterrevolutionary elements have been destroyed, life will be sweet. Among the capitalist (neo)liberals, it’s subordinated to a similar millenarianism in the belief that if the economy is allowed to aggregate capital and labour as its internal logic dictates, then ultimately everyone will find redemption in the marketplace.

I don’t think the modern history of totalitarianism, gulags, holocausts, state-induced famines, extreme labour exploitation and extractivism bears out the first camp’s dreams. People who still hold to these dreams usually respond to past failures either by denying that they happened, or by saying that the people who suffered in them were beyond the pale and had it coming (that emphasis on unity against the enemy again), or by claiming that these events were distorted misapplications of the true ideology whose redemptive purity still floats above the grubby realities affected in its name.

But let me turn to the second camp. I guess at root I hold to the slightly-but-not-very modernist view that it’s good to honour the complexities and intentions of individual human persons, which are always set within a wider community and culture. This makes property a point of tension in the second camp in a way that it isn’t for the first camp, where individuals have no inherent claim against the aggregative will of states, classes or capital. Those of us in the second camp, however, believe that self-possession, owning one’s self, being an autonomous agent, is critical to human life.

Self-possession implies property in some sense – being able to claim a personal right to generate wellbeing from the world we share with other people and organisms. At one point in their influential new book, David Graeber and David Wengrow endorse societies that “guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life”3 and it seems implicit in their view that this also means people in these societies guaranteed each other the means to an autonomous life, however varied notions of what constitutes a person and what constitutes autonomy might be in different times and places.

But how best to make this guarantee in the face of other people’s claims and the more collective aspects of social life is by no means straightforward, especially for those of us with some kind of leftist commitment to equity of one sort or another. So, for us, how to generate or mediate the social is problematic – which I guess is why I’ve spent a lot of time in my writing worrying about how to relate personhood and self-possession to collectivities like families, commons, communities, publics, classes, and states, without coming up with any ultimately satisfactory answers. In my view that’s probably okay, because I don’t think there are any ultimately satisfactory answers. There are permanent tensions involved in human politics, and these are some of them.

But at least by attending to them one is focusing on the right issues. To use Sennett’s terminology, I think creating inclusivity is a much harder problem than creating unity. But it’s a problem worth tackling, because as I see it insisting on a politics of unity long-term beyond transient political alliances creates more repressive, violent and anti-human societies than ones that focus on inclusivity. There are some radically different ways of trying to create inclusivity, and their fortunes depend on the wider social forces in play at a given place and time. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

A final couple of points. I’ve been criticized over the years by a number of Marxists for my anti-modernist and localist politics, for example by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron who consider my politics “ripe for far-right appropriation” and my vision of agrarian futures as one of merely “ek[ing] out a living” rather than “truly living”. Here is where the camps of aggregative labour versus honest work, of unity versus inclusivity, talk past one another. I stand firm in my vision of a small farm future against Heffron and Heron’s modernizing, aggregating, and frankly very bourgeois view that their version of class politics shines a modernizing light of improvement onto rural lives they arrogantly consider blighted by the particularities of local livelihood and community. One reason I’m a big believer in small farmers obtaining secure private property rights whenever they can is that it helps them avoid getting ‘improved’ out of existence through grandiose and usually ill-fated modernization schemes of the kind Heffron and Heron seem to favour.

As to ‘far-right appropriation’, I simply reject the notion there are prior political unities that anyone can draw lines around and defend against anyone else’s appropriations. The accusation stems from that top-down, imposed conception of supposed ‘unity’. For sure, one can make an issue of localism, culture, particularity and self-possession in ways that could lead to fascist misery. One can also make an issue of class unity and the supposed idiocy of rural life in ways that lead to dead peasants, gulags and communist misery. It’s easy to get into these thin-end-of-the-wedge type arguments, but now more than ever I don’t think they’re illuminating. The political field is changing, and old political demarcation lines offer increasingly poor guidance to the future. But older forms of politics are still relevant, as I will try to show in upcoming posts.

Notes

  1. I’m drawing here on William Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis.
  2. Richard Sennett. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. p.39.
  3. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything. p.48.