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.

It’s not too late, but it’s over: how COP26 changes everything

And so the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has drawn to a close. Time for another break from my present blog cycle for a few thoughts on the implications.

Prior to the meeting the eco-philosopher Rupert Read wrote that he was hoping for a bad outcome because then “we citizens of the world will finally know the truth: that it’s up to us now. Us the people.”

This comment was met with some bewilderment or even anger among climate activists and technocrats. But I knew what he meant, and I agreed. The worst outcome would be if there were some apparently big breakthroughs that prompted unwary journalists and other opinion formers into thinking real movement had occurred and that the powers that be were on the case, only for it to turn out to be just more ‘blah blah blah’ to coin the phrase used by many of the activists at the meeting.

Well, there was certainly a lot of blah blah blah, and few commentators seems to be hailing the outcome as remotely equal to the crisis. Some are opting for a ‘glass half full narrative’ that courts the dangerous middle ground I mentioned (at least we’re now ‘phasing down’ coal and have ‘pledges’ on methane and deforestation etc). But with Bill McKibben, a somewhat more mainstream climate activist than Read, writing “It’s a fairy tale that world governments will fix our climate crisis. It’s up to us” I think it would be fair to say Read got his wish. Professor Kevin Anderson was blunter, saying that at COP26 “world leaders collectively chose to sign a death warrant”.

I’m with Read et al in thinking that governments won’t solve this and it’s up to us. But there’s a problem. What exactly should ‘we’ do? I spent a day in Glasgow at COP26, listening to some understandably angry and emotional youth activists exclaiming that it was they and not the politicos cloistered inside the Blue Zone who were the real leaders, but saying little about what their leadership entailed and how it was going to sort out the climate crisis. In the evening, I went on an Extinction Rebellion march intended to raise a rumpus outside a building where world leaders were allegedly dining, but in the end the police corralled us down a side street far out of earshot of any leaders, where we stood singing a familiar XR song:

People got the power

Tell me can you hear us

Getting stronger by the hour

Power! People! People! Power!

But the most abiding image for me of the event was the cold steel entry grille to the Blue Zone, which was as close as this particular person got to any power, ie. not very. I gather that many of those in possession of the appropriate authorizations to get beyond it didn’t feel much different.

Well, it’s easy to be cynical. The fact is, theoretically it’s not too late to avert average global warming in excess of 1.5oC above preindustrial levels – although it almost is – and there are lots of politicians, scientists, civil servants, academics, activists and others working hard to secure that outcome. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that humanity doesn’t put into the atmosphere brightens the future, so I salute their efforts.

All the same, I don’t think their efforts will be equal to the task, because there’s a large human impediment to it in the structures of political-economic power, for which all the steel grilles, police officers and elaborate entry authorizations in Glasgow stand as a metaphor. Some call it capitalism, or we could speak instead of growthism, developmentalism, various other isms or more generally the idea of ‘progress’ that I discuss particularly between pages 53 and 88 of my book. This article about India’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2070 does quite a good job of examining whether this is a real breakthrough or blah blah blah, but the article’s unspoken assumption that, for the land of Gandhi as for everywhere else, there’s only one path to ‘development’ involving increased energy use, industrialization, urbanization and so forth pretty much gives the game away. Without a different political-economic model to that, it certainly is too late.

But too late for what? Too late to preserve the existing global political economy, certainly. But since this ill serves most people and most other organisms globally, that’s not in itself a bad thing. Perhaps the real problem is that none of the alternatives – like the small-scale neo-agrarianism I advocate – have any real mass traction.

In the face of that reality, a lot of people retreat to familiar forms of modernist politics and find vindication for the flavour they prefer in the COP26 outcome. On the left, there’s a lot of talk assimilating climate change to working-class struggles for justice and against capitalism. A historical problem for the left here is that not many working-class struggles for justice have really been fundamentally anti-capitalist, and the ones that have been have rarely lasted long. While some on the left downplay the likely effects of climate change and preserve top billing for the politics of labour, others invoke climate change as a kind of revolutionary prime mover to kickstart the stalled communist transition. To me, it seems likely that climate change will be a revolutionary prime mover, but the nature of prime movers is that they don’t usually deliver to order on the programmes of older political traditions.

Anatol Lieven neatly satirises this kind of thing in invoking Naomi Klein’s book about climate change, This Changes Everything. He writes that he’s fully in agreement with the title, but “The problem is that among the things it has not in fact changed is Klein’s own ideological priorities, which remain almost exactly what they would have been if climate change did not exist”1.

I’d argue this also applies often enough to those on the left who are switching their allegiance from the industrial working class to indigenous peoples as the subset of oppressed humanity most likely to bring about revolutionary renewal, thereby preserving their conviction that such a world-transforming subset of people actually exists. This idea is getting wider traction because many indigenous people are bearing the brunt of climate breakdown, are often skilled through long cultural practice at political resistance, are in the forefront of further capitalist extractivism, and may have a thing or two to teach about non-capitalist lifeways.

All of this is true, but I’m not convinced it gives sufficient leverage to generate a climate-proofed postcapitalist politics. One left-wing critic of mine wrote that my book says nothing about ‘indigeneity’ – kind of true inasmuch as I don’t use that deeply problematic term in it, but kind of untrue inasmuch as the whole drift of the book is against claims to authentic political or other identities of the kind that ‘indigeneity’ involves. I consider these politically disastrous, especially for humanity’s climate-challenged future.

This is especially true since much the most successful claims to indigeneity in the modern world have been nationalist ones along the lines that the government of a defined area serves the needs of a geographically and often ethnically exclusive people. Anatol Lieven, who I mentioned above, argues that because of this very success effective action on climate change must be built around nationalism via notions of consistent identity, individual sacrifice, and historical persistence. While he satirises the left for its vision of a “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse inhabited by diverse but mutually respectful populations” he rather hoists himself on his own petard by calling for “intelligent, far-sighted” versions of nationalism, and not “stupid, short-sighted” ones2. Yeah right, that’s really what you’re gonna get if you invoke the animal spirits of the nation…

You can see how this might pan out in some of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s pronouncements and actions around COP26. On the one hand, he warned of “shortages…movements, contests for water, for food, huge movements of peoples. Those are things that are going to be politically very, very difficult to control”. Meanwhile, his government is trying to figure out how to flout various international laws to turn back from British shores the currently rather small number of boats carrying undocumented migrants, suggesting what kind of reception those huge movements of people in the future are likely to get (but I think he’s right that, ultimately, these movements are going to be politically difficult to control, which has interesting implications). Despite claiming that, regarding climate change, we’re currently “5-1 down at half time”, Johnson also believes we can “build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight” with such things as zero-emission planes allowing us – or at least some of us – to “fly guilt-free” in the future. All in all, less national sacrifice and more nationalist fantasy.

Without a persuasive mass climate politics from either left, right or middle, it’s easy to succumb to despair, as I did for a brief period recently. As I see it, going through a period of despair is better than clinging to false optimism or the boilerplate solutionism of modernist politics. But after the despair the approach I now favour is for people just to do something that they feel called to do. In my case, I think that’s going to be helping build up the human, plant and animal community on my little farm, pushing a distributist land reform politics where I can, carrying on with some writing, and probably calling time on my fledgling career as an environmental protestor.

My wife, whose career in the latter regard has been considerably more distinguished than mine, has come to a similar conclusion, more or less. While she was away blocking motorways and parliaments with Insulate Britain, I followed the news avidly and got myself pretty riled up when I felt the targeting or messaging of the group was wrong. I’ve had some interesting conversations about this with her. She takes the view that we cannot know the efficacy of our actions. There’s a case sometimes for getting over our individual selves and opinions and participating within a wider movement, even when we consider it flawed … and there’s also a case sometimes for not doing that. Either way, she’s increasingly lost interest in the opinion-mongering of those who think they know what should be done or what people should think, including her own. Indeed, there’s quite a bit of blah blah blah beyond the Blue Zone too, which can be problematic in its own way. And if you want my opinion, I think she has a point.

Some conclusions, then. It’s not too late, but it’s over. The global political impasse over climate change does suggest that it’s now down to “us, the people” to address the problem. None of ‘us’ really knows how to do that, but maybe it doesn’t matter. We will do it in a myriad piecemeal ways. Some of those ways, as per Boris Johnson’s remarks, will probably be ugly. I hope that other, prettier ways will supersede them. A fond hope? Probably, but the “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse” that Lieven scorns may not everywhere be quite as far-fetched as he supposes, and I will try to explain why in upcoming posts. So my plan for meeting the climate apocalypse is to keep thinking, keep writing, keep farming and keep being hopeful (but not ‘optimistic’) as best I can. What’s yours?

Notes

  1. Anatol Lieven. 2020. Climate Change and the Nation State, p.120.
  2. Ibid. pp.xvi & xxv.

A Small Farm Future: Some Problems Re-Stated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insulate Britain: Notes from Back Home

My recent silence on this site is due to the Insulate Britain campaign. I haven’t been involved in it directly, but various friends and loved ones have, including my dear wife. So over the last couple of weeks I’ve not only been trying (not very successfully) to step up into the large hole my wife has left in the work of the farm and the household, but also wrestling mentally and emotionally with numerous issues thrown up by the campaign and events associated with it. In this post I’m again going to break out of my present blog cycle and offer some perspectives on all this. The campaign is ongoing and my head is still in turmoil, so what I offer here is raw in more than one sense.

First, a summary of the campaign. The main idea has been to stop traffic at several points on Britain’s busiest motorway, the M25 London orbital, with activists standing or sitting across the carriageway. If they’re arrested and removed by the police, the idea is to return to the motorway and blockade it again once released until the Government starts addressing their demands. If they’re remanded in custody, the idea is that new activists take their place and blockade again. And so on. Their demands, in a nutshell, are for the Government to take action to insulate all social housing in Britain by 2025 and all other housing by 2030. The logic is that this is among the easiest of ways to deliver decarbonization, and one to which the Government has already substantially committed but failed to follow through. Also that it’s socially progressive in tackling fuel poverty and the annual deaths caused by cold and unheated housing, and that it will create new green jobs.

I think it would be fair to say that the campaign hasn’t been universally popular. Originally, I’d planned to write a post that worked its way critically through the various objections to it, but I’m no longer inclined to do this for reasons I’ll recount below. I do, however, want to address a couple of the objections because there are responses to them that deserve a wider airing.

The first is the oft-repeated point that if climate change activists in the UK really want to make a difference they should go to China and lobby the government there. There are many possible counterarguments to this, but there’s one that’s especially relevant at this particular moment in history. UK activists don’t need to go to China right now, because ‘China’ will soon be coming to the UK to attend the COP26 international climate change conference. What will the Chinese delegation make of attempts by the government of the host country – one of the richest in the world, and one whose per capita consumption CO2 emissions are nearly 30% higher than China’s at present – to pressurize it to take more action on climate change when that government lags even on its own commitments to elementary emissions-reduction measures? If there’s a good time to block the M25 and demand action on insulation, this is it.

The second point is more generic. In falling over themselves to find reasons to condemn the campaign, the press and the legions of keyboard warriors on social media have tried on for size any number of stories of individual people harmed by the campaign in their journeys, and of the alleged hypocrisy of prominent activists in failing somehow or other to practice what they preach. Some of these stories have already proven spurious, while others are no doubt genuine.

But this illustrates the very problem with climate change action. I suspect there’s some Palaeolithic wiring in the human brain that makes us excel at empathizing with specific people and their stories grounded in the here and now, and makes us excel equally at taking people down a peg or two at the merest hint of airs and graces. Sadly, we’re not so good at imagining the narratives that will flow from larger statistical trends, pooled outcomes or probability distributions. The person who didn’t make it to their hospital appointment invites outraged sympathy. The possibility that on current emissions trends there may not be any hospitals to go to a few decades hence doesn’t make it through our narrative filters. Nor do the unnamed many who die each year in their homes with cold, as compared to the vociferous few filling column inches with anger.

That may change. Perhaps Insulate Britain and the numerous other people and organizations raising the alarm over climate change will erode those narrative filters and make the drastic actions on climate change that are necessary feasible. But I’m not seeing evidence for this currently, and we don’t have much time. So a sombre learning for me arising from the campaign – as if, secretly, I didn’t know it well enough already – is that there’s a level of public indifference to the climate emergency, a level of commitment to the status quo, that makes it hard to see how we’ll turn things around in time to escape catastrophe.

Maybe Insulate Britain can be viewed in this respect as the mirror image of the capitalist corporation. The corporation manipulates people by giving them something they want (like an internet connection or a water supply), while its true purpose is to use that convenience to extract value from people and put it in the hands of a few shareholders, where its concentrated power causes untold damage in the wider world. Insulate Britain, on the other hand, manipulates people by giving them something they don’t want (traffic jams), while its true purpose is to use that inconvenience to generate wellbeing for the population at large and spread collective benefit across society.

And yet the public seems to prefer being manipulated by corporations rather than climate pressure groups. True, headlines about ‘the hated mob of eco-anarchists’ are probably more a construction of media moguls representing said corporations than an accurate barometer of public opinion. When the stories of the individual activists emerge – so many of them older women who have given selflessly of themselves throughout their lives to their communities, churches, families and wider society – we might get a better sense of who the true ‘mob’ are and of what kind of voices are most worth listening to in society. Nevertheless, I fear that when the dust has settled and all is said and done, too many people will still oppose the disruption of the protest more than the far greater disruption worked by climate capitalism in ways that will ultimately redound to our collective ruin.

Indeed, there’s another sombre learning here in relation to policing issues. My sources inform me that Insulate Britain’s actions have by and large been policed well and with proportionate force by most of the officers in attendance, although if there ever is a day of climate judgement I believe that Officer No.3032 – aka The Slasher – will be destined for a warm place somewhere down below. But press and public calls for violent ‘zero tolerance’ policing or vigilante counter-action play into the hands of a generalized authoritarianism.

The lesson, I think, is to be careful what you wish for. If you’re successful in your call for greater police power to meet eco-protest with violence, then don’t be surprised if those same powers are used against you in the future, perhaps when you’re protesting at the lack of food or fuel in the shops. Indeed, the current fuel and food supply crisis – caused not by protestors, but by government policies or the lack of them – has already caused far more disruption than Insulate Britain. There is now a palpable air of government failure and the need for citizenries to step up, of the kind I discussed in A Small Farm Future. Wishing for greater physical force in the hands of governments against their citizenries isn’t a smart move in these circumstances.

While all this has been going on and my wife has been away, I’ve been at home, trying to tend the farm and the household as best I can in her absence. I’ve picked apples, made kraut, baked bread, fed the pigs and made porridge for my daughter in the morning before she’s gone to school. And as I did it, a man keeping the fires burning at home while his wife was out fighting for justice, I sometimes raised two mental fingers to the analysts who’ve accused me of advocating for ‘patriarchal’ farming models. Which perhaps is to say that I did it with too much male pride and with too little genuine love. An ego yearning to be heard elsewhere, in protest or in print. Another learning.

The nature of Insulate Britain’s campaign has of necessity been clandestine. I’ve found it difficult not being able to contact my wife, having to find out what she’s up to by following the national news, worrying about the dangers she’s exposed to – perhaps worrying overly, when the lack of news fills the darker spaces of the mind. And I haven’t supported every one of Insulate Britain’s actions, or its messaging. An action where protestors fanned dangerously across the motorway among relatively fast-moving traffic, and failed to own the error, was a particular low point for me. At such times, I’ve felt that Insulate Britain has lost the plot and has got too wrapped up in its own dramatic narrative. But for sure I’ve lost the plot myself at times in the last few weeks.

One reason I’ve lost the plot is that somehow the campaign has prompted me to feel climate change not so much any more as an issue I analyze from my study but as a knot in my stomach, a clenching in my heart. More than ever, I’ve experienced climate change as a grief that’s perturbed my normal mental functioning. And I’ve found it hard bearing that at home alone – in some ways perhaps a harder burden even than the activists working together at the sharp end – though I’ve been fortunate to have friends to share it with. It’s led me to question some of the ways I use my time and my writing, the online debates I engage with and the kind of intellectual arguments I get involved with. There are going to be people denying the existence of climate change or saying that we should redress it with next-generation nuclear energy or working-class revolutionary struggle until the waves close over their heads. I think I need to leave all that behind, resign from those arguments and find ways of embracing emotionally and practically the different course that so far I’ve only charted sketchily through the written word.

Household farming and the F word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate justice and a community of communities

After a rather academic post last time, here I’m going to interleave a more activist one.

I’d been planning to write more about household farming but I’ve been on a brief odyssey away from home which terminated with a visit to XR’s Impossible Rebellion in London – and which also terminated on my part with a night in a police cell. The officers arresting me contrived to yank my shirt off me as they carried me away, before dumping me on the pavement to nurse a few minor cuts and bruises while I unwittingly treated the photographers in attendance to the sight of my somewhat over-capacious middle-aged belly. Dignified it was not, but I’m hoping that if anyone links the scenes back to this blog, they’ll take it as proof positive of the excellent diet available in a small farm future 🙂

To be honest, I’m still a bit too wired after my arrest to settle down and write the intended post about household farming and I’m feeling the need to process recent events a little more. So instead, just a few thoughts prompted by my London trip.

The day began with a rally in Trafalgar Square where a Haitian activist spoke about his country’s founding in anti-slavery revolt and taught us a song from those times whose words, as I recall, were along the lines that there are no mothers or fathers here, only warriors, and we will avenge those of us who are slain. I don’t think I was the only white middle-class person there to shuffle my feet nervously as we sang along, thinking first of all “whoa, not sure I’d quite signed up to that” while also contemplating the unimaginable courage of the Haitian revolutionaries and many others fighting colonial violence orders of magnitude beyond anything in our experience.

But this isn’t some historical beauty contest. It’s about building alliances to achieve political aims now. XR has received quite a bit of criticism since its founding for its alliance-building failures, for its whiteness and middle-classness. So I for one was pleased to hear the voices of many black and minority ethnic people and others in the forefront of oppression throughout the day who were engaging with XR. But inevitably, upon coming home and taking another sip of Twitter poison, I’ve found endless screeds fulminating against XR on all sorts of grounds, not least its need to engage and mobilise black, minority ethnic and working-class activism, and sometimes for the very fact that its activists are ‘middle-class’, as if this is intrinsically disreputable.

I find myself increasingly unimpressed by this onslaught – the bad faith of it from the political right announces itself from miles away, but the bad faith of ‘progressive’ voices more concerned to build paper hierarchies of activist entitlement than practical coalitions of political engagement runs it a close second. As I see it, there’s a contradiction within much leftist thought between a view of oppressed people as the natural aristocracy of anti-systemic politics and a view of the non-oppressed as having some special responsibility to channel the activism of the oppressed. Often enough, whichever of these contradictory strands best diminishes middle-class activism in the case at hand is chosen – perhaps a successful strategy for promoting whatever version of political authenticity the writer wishes to burnish, but not so much for promoting actual anti-systemic politics.

Enough of this. I recently argued that nobody is more or less real than anyone else. True, certain identities and experiences of oppression give people unique insights into the modes and methods of political exclusion. What’s less convincing is to proceed from that to the grand Hegelian step that these insights uniquely ground possibilities for overcoming the political status quo.

In my brief time with XR in London I saw a lot of people from many different social positionings interacting with each other around climate activism – a community of communities seeking common ground. In that sense, I think I saw briefly in outline a version of the populist civic politics that I advocate in my book A Small Farm Future. People who weren’t burying or superseding their positionings or differences but building out from them to other people and figuring out how to ground a new politics out of those interactions.

Doing so in the context of a short-lived street protest is one thing. Doing it in the slower-burning and under-emphasized context of ongoing local XR group activism is harder. Much, much harder still is to do it in the context of building resilient local farm communities in a world where our deepest assumptions about how societies work materially are melting from the ground up. The only thing that might make this easier is its increasing necessity.

The window of opportunity for people to drive that process rather than be unwittingly driven by it is closing fast. With AR6 just out, COP26 drawing global attention to the UK, the government’s next phase in criminalizing protest not yet on the statute book, and with oppressive policing in the UK currently less severe than in most countries in the world, at least for people like me, when I was in London I felt that the onus on me and others like me is high at this particular historical moment to raise our voices around climate change and climate justice as best we can.

There are any number of ways one might do that, of which arrestable action at XR protests is only one. But I’ve run out of sympathy with those who think it’s a good use of their own time to argue that arrestable action at XR protests isn’t one.

More than a few on the left like to dismiss XR by recourse to nothing more than an infamous tweet from the organization repudiating identification with socialism or any other given political creed. The tweet was naively phrased, though I think there may be a populist/civic politics implicit in it that’s eminently defensible. Anyway, I’m kinda tired of this notion that there’s a singular left politics with the only true structural grasp of the forces underlying climate change, an ability to mitigate it and a more plausible political route for implementation than the one that XR is trying. I don’t buy the theory, I don’t buy the empirical politics, in Britain or most other places, and I think it smells too much of sour grapes and self-righteousness. It’s time instead to use our small quanta of individual and collective political power with a bit more humility and uncertainty. But with a conviction to use it all the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real people #3: indigeneity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real people #4: the proletariat

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

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

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

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

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

Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Least worst politics

In Parts I and II of A Small Farm Future I build an argument that local, low energy, agrarian societies are probably best placed to meet the challenges of our times, and in Parts III and IV – which I’m now turning to discuss – I examine some of the issues such societies will face and how these societies might emerge out of present global politics.

A few critics of the book – some quite friendly, others less so – have ventured the opinion that the small farm societies I describe have their problems, and that the best-case scenarios I try to construct around them may not come to pass. Well, I agree. To me, it’s a truism that every kind of human society has its tensions, contradictions and difficulties. And it’s a truism too that things may not work out as one hopes. I can’t help treating these criticisms to something of a shrugged “…and your point is?” Maybe their point is there’s some better alternative – but I’m not convinced there is, and my more strident critics didn’t flesh one out.

But perhaps what’s in play is the legacy of modernist politics in its various forms, which have deeply influenced the contemporary world. The conceit of this politics is that social tensions can be definitively resolved, and human betterment secured. Since I don’t subscribe to these notions, I don’t feel much need to claim that the small farm futures I describe will be easily achievable, or will be unproblematic if they are achieved. Still, I think it’s worth devoting a few further words to modernist politics and its legacy.

Broadly speaking there have been three major strands of modernist politics, each identifying a single fundamental key that supposedly drives social order and human progress. In descending order of influence on the modern world, they are:

  1. Market liberalism, or the politics of capitalism (human progress derives from the workings of private market exchange via corporate monopoly)
  2. Nationalism, or the politics of sacred collectivism (human progress derives from the unfolding destiny of the nation or nation-state)
  3. Socialism, or the politics of worker collectivism (human progress derives from the formation of class consciousness among ordinary people/workers and the resulting ‘class struggle’)

These strands have weaker and stronger forms (in the case of the stronger forms, we could identify respectively 1. Neoliberalism or anarcho-capitalism, 2. Ethnic/racial nationalism or fascism, 3. Marxist-Leninism or Stalinism). And there are also various hybrid versions like social democracy.

As I see it, the impetus behind these forms of modernist politics is unlikely to disappear in the future because they speak to fundamental human needs that I’d gloss as the four ‘S’s’ – status, satiation, sociality and spirituality. Any politics that doesn’t allow people to express these S’s probably won’t last long, and the same goes for any politics that doesn’t find ways to rein in their negative consequences. Modernist politics in its various forms tends to vaunt excessively just one or two of the S’s and make them not only the fundamental basis of mass politics but also a logic of unfolding improvement through time. It simultaneously fails to erect countervailing forces to their excesses. And so the contradictions and pathologies mount up, which is why modernist politics is in terminal crisis and decline. Merchant monopolists, patriots and revolutionary proletarians have all tried to implement their modernist heavens on Earth. They have all failed, and now it’s time to sober up.

I think we need to build more rounded alternatives, and this is what I try to do as best I can in A Small Farm Future. But modernist politics has left a godawful mess to deal with – climate breakdown, excess energy dependency, economic and political chaos – much of it the result of trying to implement abstrusely theoretical 18th and 19th century utopias of western political philosophy on the ground worldwide. In the face of this, the responsible thing to do is to call the enormous challenges before us as one sees them without the false optimism of progress narratives, utopian blueprints or single keys to the march of history. But also to identify optimum outcomes, difficulties that may just be possible to transcend, and to take sides in that process where necessary. Instead of the ‘best of all possible worlds’, then, the responsibility is to identify the ‘least bad of all likely worlds’ and the ways it may be realized.

That, in essence, is what I try to do in Parts III and IV of A Small Farm Future. Some folks have called my suggestions therein impractical, while others have called them utopian. Probably, they are impractical, but as I see it less so than all the alternative suggestions I’ve encountered as to how humanity, and indeed the rest of the biota, are going to get through the next century or so with a minimum of misery and bloodshed. I don’t consider my suggestions to be utopian, unless you think that societies geared to creating renewable livelihoods from the air, waters and soils surrounding them are utopian. To my mind, these are about the only forms of society that are not utopian, although the unparalleled human ability to create symbolic systems that overrun real world possibilities afflicts every kind of society, including foraging or small-scale farming ones. But, precisely because they’re not utopian, agrarian localisms do have their difficulties, and it’s these that I’ll try to explore in forthcoming posts.

“How to kill a billion people” – a note on famine in small farm societies

The quotation in my title comes from a brief online review of my book from someone who clearly wasn’t a fan. I suspect the person concerned didn’t actually read the book, but no matter. For my part, it seems to me quite likely that a billion people or more will die prematurely if we don’t soon implement something like the small farm future that I describe in the book. It’s worth sitting awhile with that contradiction. What an extraordinary moment in history when different people think that either persisting with or not persisting with the regnant political economy might slay us in such unimaginable numbers.

Maybe I’ll come back to that in another post. Here, I just want to make a few points about famine in societies of the past, present and future, building on the analysis from Chapter 10 of my book – famine being, along with its companions war, disease and poverty, among the likeliest contenders for causing the untimely deaths of billions.

So, one of the objections to the idea of an agrarian localist or a small farm future indeed is the notion that they’re prey to hunger or famine in ways that modern societies are not. The term ‘subsistence farmer’ hardly helps, routinely associated as it is with other words like ‘scratching’ or ‘bare’.

This conceals a more complex reality. As I document in my book, ‘subsistence’ farmers have generally been well capable of creating a thriving and diverse livelihood for themselves, and building in safeguards against poor seasons. Indeed, you can make a strong case that small-scale local farming systems are more resilient to famine than the present nexus of large-scale commercial farms and urbanism. Maybe you can make the contrary case too. But the scale of farm operation will make little difference to the famines that will arise in worst-case climate, socioeconomic and strategic scenarios of the future. I see a turn to low-impact, local, small-scale farming basically as our best option now for avoiding those worst-case scenarios, and probably our only option for dealing with their consequences should they occur.

Nevertheless, it’s historically true that small-scale ‘subsistence’ farmers sometimes pooled resources on a larger scale in order to even out the inherent uncertainties of farming, especially in environmentally challenging situations. It seems the Chacoan people of what’s now New Mexico did this from around 700-1200 AD, creating a centralized state that drew various communities into its orbit. The Chacoan state’s main function was redistributive in the face of livelihood uncertainties, and when it could no longer continue to underwrite its people’s welfare they went their separate ways.

Contrast this with Pierre Goubert’s analysis of the peasantry in 17th century France:

The majority of the poor in the countryside farmed only two or three acres, and tried to live off this land completely, which they were more or less able to do as long as the weather was kind and the harvests were good. But they were all forced to find money with which to pay the royal taxes (which went up sharply after 1635), as they had to be paid in coin, as well as to pay seigneurial and other dues. That is why they always had to take their eggs, young cocks, butter and cheese, and the best of the fruit and vegetables to market, or to the neighbouring big house….They could keep little for themselves except what was strictly necessary or unsaleable1

It’s worth bearing in mind that underlying reality when contemplating state formation in early modern Europe and the splendours of its royal courts.

Or consider this report from a citizen of the Dutch town of Limburg in 1790 where trade was limited and farming ‘almost medieval’: “One ate and drank what the farm provided. Because very little could be sold, the farmer had ample to eat”2.

And a final example, running counter to Monty Python’s famous historical thesis, and with some bearing on recent discussions here about the healthiness of animal products: research on ‘Dark Age’ Britain in the aftermath of Roman departure suggests that “an increase in animal protein (including the dairy products that were gained from a greater emphasis on pastoral husbandry) and a concomitant decrease in the proportion of carbohydrates in everyday diets appear to have led to general improvements in health across the board, visible in increases in average height, better dental health, and higher recovery rates from infection”, and hence “the beneficial effect on peasant household economies of the withdrawal of Roman secular and military administration”3.

So against redistributive states like the Chacoan, or the de facto self-reliance of Limburg, perhaps we can counterpose more hunger-prone scenarios fostered by large predatory states – the Romans in Britain and early modern states in Europe among them.

In reality, the distinction is perhaps overdrawn. There were hierarchical elements in the Chacoan state, and there were ubiquitous uprisings and complex social alignments in Europe and elsewhere against the predations of overmighty states that ensured a redistributive aspect. This latter point is important, and I’ll be pressing it in future – predatory states are sometimes willing to extract resources from ordinary people up to the point of rank starvation if they can get away with it, but what often stops them from doing so is the ability of ordinary people to organize politically and make themselves protagonists in the political drama of the state.

My examples so far have all been quite a way back in the past. What of present and recent times? Famine expert Alex de Waal calls the first part of the 20th century “the most dreadful period of famine in world history”4 when modern leaders of various political colours such as Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and (later) Mao Zedong either actively created famines or connived at them in pursuit of their wider political goals. It’s perhaps worth noting that communist leaders like Stalin and Mao particularly inflicted hunger on the peasant classes whose activism was substantially responsible for putting them into power, in pursuit of breakneck industrialization policies dictated by Marxist-Leninist doctrines alien to peasant communism. Such famines of 20th century ‘development’ came on the heels of 19th century famines of colonial capitalism in other parts of Asia and Latin America. So there are good grounds for questioning the notion that famines were banished by modernization.

But more recently the incidence of major famines has declined, leaving us only with the small matter of chronic under-nutrition among possibly billions of people in a world that’s richer in total and per capita terms than ever before. ‘Developed’ or ‘middle income’ countries like Russia and China that experienced major famines in recent times are unlikely to experience them again in the near term, whereas ‘less developed’ countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are on shakier ground. This prompts a narrative that capitalist or industrial development is the vanquisher of famine, and that we need more of it to finally banish it from the global scene.

I think this narrative is mistaken. I also think it rests on a horrifically ends-justify-means view of history that implicitly shrugs off the deaths of past millions as an acceptable cost of modernization. For all that, I’m as happy as anyone to celebrate the decline of major famines in the present. But it’s important to note they’ve declined largely because of an international humanitarian politics that considers famines unacceptable.

In A Small Farm Future I argue that we need to retain that humanitarianism, but I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do so under the auspices of our existing system of nation-states. There are already plenty of signs that this system’s mask is slipping, revealing the beggar-my-neighbour or beggar-my-populace face of the predatory state behind it. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think people are well advised to generate their own subsistence, or, better, to generate local communities that enable them to do so. If we don’t get on top of climate change (another challenge to which the existing system of states appears unequal) perhaps major famines are likely anyway, but if we leave our subsistence in the hands of the existing system of states we may well experience black swan famine events all the sooner and all the more devastatingly.

Of course, if everyone upped sticks overnight and headed to the countryside in search of a more sustainable subsistence (or if some neo-Maoist state forced them to), we certainly would experience famines and various other ghastly outcomes in short order. So the challenge is to see the writing on the wall before it’s too late and move more rationally towards a sustainable agrarianism. Or, as I put it on p.207 of my book, to choose a small farm future voluntarily in the present so as to avoid having a worse one imposed by Maos of the future.

Since we often extol the foresight of business leaders in modern capitalist society, perhaps we might learn from the example of internet billionaire Peter Thiel, who seems to have realized that in the final analysis you can’t eat money and has bought up a large spread of remote New Zealand farmland to safeguard against future uncertainties. Few of us have the means to do that, but what we can do is start working in any number of different ways to try to build a convivial agrarianism within our local communities. It won’t be easy, but if we pull it off then maybe some of us will be able to look back with pride at how we helped avoid killing a billion people.

Notes

  1. Pierre Goubert. 1986. The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge Univ Press, p.87.
  2. Geert Mak. 2010. An Island in Time. Vintage, p.55.
  3. Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English. ARC, pp.34-5.
  4. Alex de Waal. 2018. Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Polity, p.77.

Two hundred miles from Hartlepool

I’m going to interrupt my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future for one post to comment on recent political events in Britain. Where this post ends up in fact is pretty relevant to some of the larger arguments of my book.

The events I’m referring to are last Thursday’s elections in which, among other things, many people across the country voted for their local councils, electors in Wales and Scotland voted for their national assemblies and – most prominent in the news – a byelection in the ‘postindustrial’ northeast English town of Hartlepool that had previously only ever elected a Labour MP opted for the Conservative candidate by a large margin.

That candidate, Jill Mortimer, has been described in the press as ‘a farmer’, but I haven’t seen any descriptions of her farm nor any discussion of agricultural issues around the election. As I’ll relate below, the issues thrown up by this election do seem destined ultimately to devolve towards farming, but only by a roundabout route which I shall attempt to unpick here.

Mortimer’s main electoral pitch seemed to be about creating more local jobs by ‘cutting red tape’. It surprises me that anybody would still buy the line that the lack of jobs in Hartlepool arises from an excess of ‘red tape’, especially when that line is spun by someone from a party that has increased red tape and reduced jobs by exiting the European Union. But Brexit has always been more about political symbology than rational calculation. It’s the Excalibur of contemporary British politics – the true leader in these times of trouble shall be known by the fact they can extract a well-honed Brexit from the recalcitrant stone of Brussels.

Hartlepool was held by Labour in the 2019 election under present Labour leader Keir Starmer’s more left-wing predecessor, the much vilified Jeremy Corbyn – though perhaps only because back then the non-Labour vote was split between the Brexit Party and the Tories, who on Thursday vacuumed up the votes from the now defunct Brexit Party. Since Starmer took over, he’s ruthlessly purged the left-wing elements of the Labour Party (including Corbyn) and gone on a quest for the Holy Grail of electability by trying to recover votes from historically Labour-voting but often socially conservative postindustrial working-class constituencies in the north like Hartlepool, talking tough on immigration, going large on Union Jacks and patriotism and avoiding saying anything at all left-wing that might get him into trouble. It seems to me the byelection result is a straw in the wind for how that will turn out. Over the last few years, the Conservative Party has transformed itself into a right-wing populist coalition of the classic kind, and Starmer’s search for electability through winning back working-class votes via ‘pragmatic’ social democracy seems to me to be destined for failure and many more years out of office for as long as he continues trying to out right-wing populist the right-wing populists.

Eventually, I suspect the contradictions of right-wing populism will undermine it, the Excalibur of Brexit will lose its lustre, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s obvious preference for the billionaires of London over the ‘red wall’ electors of the north will count against him. But by then the last remnants of the centre ground in English politics will probably be gone, perhaps replaced on the one hand by an even more red-toothed and nativist English nationalism, and on the other by whatever political grouping can speak for a more radical and less belligerent alternative. On present performance, that grouping is unlikely to be the Labour Party.

The loss of the centre is so disorienting that old-guard social democrats like Will Hutton are trying to explain the Conservative Party’s success in terms of a new grassroots Keynesian centrism that the left can emulate. Well … I don’t mean to deny the impact that resourceful local politicians can have on creating new jobs and a bit of local buzz, but to enthuse about regional airports, free ports and public-private finance initiatives is to miss the larger structural reasons why Johnson’s billionaires are destined to remain in London, not to mention the large social-ecological reasons why the entire economy is running on empty.

Indeed, for all the chatter at the moment about Hartlepool, I’d suggest that much the most important political event in Britain – in fact, the world – this year will be occurring 200 miles to the northwest, with the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. If the outcome of this meeting is a binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by around 2050, starting right now, then maybe I’ll breathe easy again enough to think it’s worth debating how to create jobs in Hartlepool – though it’s hard to see airports or free ports fitting into such a scenario.

But if, as I fear, no such agreement is forthcoming, then the time is upon us to stop caring about which politicians can best mobilize non-local capital to create new jobs, and to focus on local survival instead. In various talks I’ve given after the publication of my book, I’ve been struck by how out on a limb I seem to be with this view that the climate path we’re currently on will spell the end of the political and economic world we now know – not necessarily because of its direct environmental effects, but because of the knock-on human implications. So I felt a certain grim vindication, hardly satisfaction, when I recently read Anatol Lieven’s book Climate Change and the Nation State, which made much the same point.

It interests me that Lieven, a conservative nationalist with considerably more mainstream gravitas than me, has come to many of the same conclusions that I did in my own book about the shape of future politics – in particular, on the need for what he calls civic nationalism (and I call civic republicanism) where people can find ways to meet the challenges of the climate emergency collectively in their communities. On many points, I fundamentally disagree with him, but in the face of that larger agreement I see little virtue in dwelling on them. The main problem as I see it is that Lieven’s own vision succumbs to the same problem he detects with more leftist versions. Lieven is scornful of greens and leftists who invoke a “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse” of open borders, multiculturalism, intersectionality and so on, which he sees as “ideological luxuries”. But exactly the same could be said of his own view of a nice, civic nationalist apocalypse in which all the contradictions and nasty bits of nationalism have somehow been excised.

The difficulty that both of us – in fact, all of humanity – faces, is that there’s no very obvious politics that can take us from where we currently are in the world (which isn’t that great for multitudes of people) to congenial forms of human society in a world of climate breakdown. To my mind, that doesn’t mean we should give up trying to find it, but I think a certain honesty about how the odds are stacked and a scepticism towards easy optimism and solutionism is called for.

Unfortunately, that easy optimism and the soft pedalling of climate change remains a common tic of contemporary politics. In a review of ecological economist Tim Jackson’s new book, Oliver Eagleton wrote that “environmental theorists” including Leigh Phillips (sic) have raised “serious questions about the practicability of degrowth models … can degrowthers prove the ecological benefits of their agenda justify the risk of plunging millions into poverty?”

The ecological, economic and political illiteracy of Eagleton’s comments is staggering, but this kind of thinking remains standard fare in mainstream political discussion – a world that’s still all about jobs, listening to voters, attracting investors, cutting red tape, growing the economy, investing in the future, positive visioning. A world of getting Brexit done, making America great again, green transitions and finding the Holy Grail.

I think we need to dispense with these emotional props and face the challenges of the future with more honesty. But I’m fearful of what might happen if and when we do, which is perhaps faintly visible in outline in Hartlepool and many of the other election results. On the one side, for all their differences, people like Anatol Lieven, Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer trying to articulate some kind of rational collective politics, and on the other, a nativist politics of friends and enemies where might makes right.

The sliver of hope that I tried to promote in my book is that in the world to come it will probably be more obvious than it is right now that livelihoods must be wrested locally from rural land, and in countries like Britain there are very few people currently who are doing that – which is a problem, perhaps, but also a blessing, because it will be easier to create new peasantries of disparate origins in such circumstances.

So instead of a farmer gaining political advantage by promising to cut red tape and create more jobs, instead of trying to reinvent the industrial past of England’s northeast and reinvent the voter base of the political party that once represented the people who worked in those industries, I think we’d all be better off if we focused on creating more actual jobs in local farming. After COP26, it’ll be easier to say whether those jobs are more likely to arise by design or default.