“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

The awkward class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Where the story takes us

Pervasive, multi-faceted crisis and a cultural inability to deal with it: I’ve now said what I want to say in this cycle of posts about Chapters 1 and 2 of my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m ready to move onto Chapter 3. But first let’s take a breather. If there’s anything in the first two chapters you’d like me to further explain or justify, let me know (preferably by commenting at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk where I’ll be sure to see the comment).

While we’re dawdling here, maybe I’ll say something about stories. On page 54 of my book, I discuss the idea of ‘symbolic goods’, which bears on how human actions arise out of the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is – or, as Clifford Geertz famously put it, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”1. So we’re motivated by stories, and there are different stories we can tell about the same reality. Ultimately, though, factors independent of our stories condition their outcome whether we like it or not, and if we don’t find good ways of incorporating them into the narrative, then eventually the story will crumble.

Chapters 1 and 2 of my book tell a story about how our current modern global civilization has got itself into a mess by disregarding some such factors that complicate its tale of endless self-improvement. In writing them, I drew on a lot of research and evidence that I think make my own story quite robust. Nobody has yet convinced me that the story of these chapters is substantially wrong in its main details (there are some minor points I might now recast), though certainly there are other webs of significance that could be spun, and it’s not impossible I could be convinced that another story is more plausible. Which is why I’m dawdling at this crossroads into Chapter 3, waiting for another storyteller to come along and take me somewhere different…

While I wait, I’d like to mention three, perhaps four, other stories that have come to my attention lately.

The first relates to climate change, and has been spun around a recently published scientific paper suggesting that a stabilization of the Earth’s climate would occur much quicker than previously thought if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions cease2. Not my area of expertise, of course, but my sense of this paper is that it bore quite a lot of other news about the effects of current human emissions which was far from positive. However, the most prominent discussions of it among climate scientists that came to my attention on social media built a story from the climate stabilisation point to ridicule ‘end of civilisation’ doomsters for not keeping up with the science, positioning them alongside climate change deniers for imperilling concerted climate action.

There are two aspects of story-telling that interest me in this. The first is people’s meta-concern with the character of their story as a status claim in its own right, which is ubiquitous in discussions of climate change. My story is optimistic, pragmatic or science-based whereas your story is doomy climate porn or is tantamount to denialism because it lacks hope. No doubt there’s something to be said for addressing the wider effects of our stories on other people, but in my view those concerned about climate change spend too much precious time pointing fingers at other concerned people based on the supposed superior impact of their narrative. Enough. Call things as you see them, take action accordingly, be prepared to discuss and be prepared to be wrong. But don’t waste time plumping the meta-efficacy of your chosen narrative.

The second aspect is that while a few political leaders have stated their commitment to achieving net zero, the fact is we’re not even remotely on a path to achieving it, and new coal mines and fossil power stations are merrily sprouting up around the world. So to take the finding that ‘if we reach net zero, then the climate stabilizes’ as a way to lambast climate pessimism puts a heavier loading on the ‘if’ in that sentence than any real-world trend can bear. There’s a danger here of telling ourselves a nice story, whose protective armour allows us to dismiss other, darker stories when the armour isn’t real.

The second story I want to mention has gradually been taking shape in my mind of late as an identifiable narrative trend. It goes roughly like this: “The old-fashioned practices of industrial agriculture certainly did contribute to many of our contemporary problems, but innovative new forms of skills-intensive and tech-intensive smart agriculture mean that farmers can now feed the world sustainably while removing carbon from the atmosphere and making a lot of money too.” I propose to call this the “smart farming story”. And I don’t believe in it.

There are various entry points into the fallacies of the smart farming story, many of which I’ve covered on this blog over the years. I won’t pursue them here, except to say that if your farming makes you a lot of money then I’m pretty sure it won’t be helping solve our contemporary problems. I’m also pretty sure the money-making won’t last long. I’d propose this alternative: “Don’t worry too much about feeding the world or cutting carbon with your farming. Just try to do what you can to help your area grow as much food and fibre as possible to meet its local needs using whatever techniques you like, provided they use little fossil fuel and make little money”.

The final story or stories is something I was tracking a bit more avidly back in 2016 with the votes in the UK for Brexit and in the US for Donald Trump. In early 2021 both have reached a denouement, though perhaps not an ending, with a whimper in the former case and a bang in the second. The Brexit story involves two versions of neoliberalism, one based inside the EU and the other outside it, the latter mis-sold to the public as a story of nationalist assertion. The touted economic benefits for the people are unsurprisingly failing to materialise, though perhaps some will be happy that our fish are now British. For the rest of us, I’d suggest, the story now has to be about trying to create real popular localism out of the absurdities of Brexit, not a race to the bottom that will benefit only a few.

Regarding Trump, I doubt there’s much I can say that others haven’t already said better. The answer to the problems of our times may not be Biden-Harris, but it most certainly isn’t Trump and … that other guy. In keeping with my overall theme for this post, let me just say that I was struck by how very strange was the web of significance that so many of Trump’s insurrectionists in Washington DC had spun for themselves. People who believed themselves to be a part of a revolution were surprised that they were pepper sprayed by the police, or banned from flying home? What happened was serious, but the story that a lot of the protagonists seemed to have built around themselves was fundamentally unserious, as if they were mere actors in a TV show.

To generalize from this to my wider theme, I see this unseriousness, this TV show mentality, everywhere in our contemporary stories about ourselves – from the way we talk about climate change (it’s bad, but not so bad that it’s really going to change our world, ‘if’ we reach net zero), to the way we talk about smart farming (it’s good, so good that it can save our world and make us loads of money too), and even to the way we try to topple governments (it’s wild, it’s patriotic, and then we can fly home for the weekend).

We need some different stories.

Notes

  1. Clifford Geertz. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures, p.5.
  2. Chen Zhou et al. 2021. Greater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect. Nature Climate Change.

Automation and a small farm future

The previous post in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future discussed the section on political economy (pp.53-73). Much as I’d like to dwell on various other issues raised therein, I feel I should probably move on to the next part of the book. But fortunately, having just read Aaron Benanav’s stimulating new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020), an engagement with it in this post enables me to sweep up a few further issues from that section while simultaneously moving on. Always good to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

I did, in fact, cite Benanav’s work in the aforementioned political economy section of my book, but when I was writing it he hadn’t yet published his own one, which I’ve found helpful in further clarifying my thinking. In this and in a later post, I’ll suggest that his analysis strengthens the case I make for a small farm future, even though that’s not a direction he goes himself. But, as I’ll shortly argue, it could be … and maybe it should be.

Let’s start with Benavav’s appraisal of the present global labour market: many fewer people (proportionately) working in agriculture than previously, many fewer people working in manufacturing than previously, many more people in precarious and low paid employment or underemployment in the service sector than previously, and a very small but growing number of people amassing unprecedentedly stupendous wealth.

A common explanation for these trends is the ‘automation theory’ that argues they arise from labour-shedding technological development. This occurred first in agriculture with what Benanav (p.42) calls ‘the major destroyer of livelihoods in the twentieth century’ in the form of agrarian ‘nitrogen capitalism’ (so named because of agri-industrial reliance on manufactured nitrogenous fertiliser, though in truth it involved a suite of fossil fuel-based developments, so perhaps it’s better seen as another variant of fossil capitalism).

Whatever the terminology, it’s refreshing to see Benanav call agrarian industrialisation for what it is – a destroyer of livelihoods – rather than resorting to the usual upbeat euphemisms of ‘labour saving’ or ‘agricultural improvement’. Now that automation threatens livelihoods across a swathe of other employment sectors – including such bastions of white-collar privilege as medicine and law – perhaps it becomes easier to make the case that in agriculture as in other sectors ‘labour saving’ isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But actually, the main thrust of Benanav’s book is a critique of automation theory. If the present stagnation of the global labour market were really caused by automation, he argues, we’d expect to see a spiralling growth in labour productivity, whereas the trend is better explained by falling global manufacturing output that he imputes to industrial overcapacity and underinvestment. This leads to his important claims that, during the 20th century, manufacturing was “a unique engine of economic growth” and that modern governments have found no other ways to sustain growth when manufacturing output has faltered (pp.34-5).

A minor point to draw from all this in relation to my own book is that I largely ducked the question of future technologies in agriculture because too much attention to drones, robots, GM, GPS, vertical farming and all the rest of it seemed something of a diversion, but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this evasion. So I find Benanav’s analysis reassuring in suggesting that these really aren’t the main questions before us. For this reason, I’m not going to discuss in this blog cycle the things I do have to say about automation, ‘progress’ etc. in Chapter 2 of my book, which in any case we’ve discussed at length on this website over the years.

So if emerging technologies aren’t the main question, what is? Benanav’s analysis suggests that the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise, with more and more workers pushed into necessarily labour-intensive and low-paid service industries. Sometimes this involves small-scale family operations competing successfully with large and highly capitalized firms on the basis of involutionary job creation strategies. It also involves industrial corporations favouring monopolistic competition, the asset bubble of financialization and squeezing worker pay and conditions. And it seems likely that these trends represent a limit or endpoint to the present structure of the global political economy that’s inherent to its internal logic, regardless of wider issues like climate change, energy futures or resource drawdown.

The main question, then, is how might the global political economy escape this impasse once we abandon the fruitless idea that the answer lies in technological development? As I see it, there are four main options, three of which Benanav touches on in his book, and one of which (the most promising one, in my opinion) he doesn’t.

First, there’s the possibility that the global political economy will find a way to barrel through the present crisis and restart the growth engine of industrial development. There are, after all, multitudes of poor people globally who would be only too happy to lead lives of industrialised plenty of the kind many of us lead in the richer countries and the richer parts of the poorer ones. As China increasingly takes over the reins of global economic leadership from the USA, developments like its Belt and Road Initiative may provide exactly the kickstart that’s needed. But I think it’s unlikely. China’s industrialization, like the ones of the western powers preceding it, is based on a coercion of labour that’s unlikely to sustain growth long-term and is already displaying the morbid symptoms of late-stage western capitalism. Throw in the effects of climate change and resource crisis, and it’s hard to see the locomotive of global industrialization escaping the siding where it’s currently languishing and getting back onto the main track.

Second, there’s the possibility of ‘our country first’ economic nationalism. On this point, Benanav is surely right to suggest that “a chronically low demand for labour will not be alleviated by tariff barriers or walled borders” (p.65). I’d argue nonetheless that it would probably be a good way to go for the poorest countries experiencing a net outflow of assets in the globalized economy if they were able to make it happen, but economic nationalism operating at large across the world certainly isn’t going to usher in a new cornucopia of surging global growth and prosperity. I guess Brexit Britain has just started a small experiment on your behalf in this respect. You’re welcome.

Third, there’s the possibility of redistributing the product of the global economy more fairly between rich and poor, young and old. To me, this seems ethically right and will probably happen quite widely one way or another anyway if governments don’t act, because too much inequality sustained for too long prompts political movements geared to restitution. But for all its necessity, it seems to me that a fairer redistribution of economic product doesn’t strike to the root of the problem much more than the other possibilities, because it likewise doesn’t provide the means for radically creating more product and transcending industrial overcapacity and low labour demand.

Here’s where Benanav’s analysis gets, for me, most interesting, but also most problematic. There are different ways in which a fairer distribution of product might be delivered politically. The one Benanav explores is a propertyless socialist utopia in which people collectively divide the necessary work of social reproduction between themselves on a fair and democratic basis, devoting the rest of their time to pursuing their personal passions and pleasures.

There’s much I find appealing in his vision, and some of it covers very similar ground to my own discussion of utopias in my book (pp.85-8). Benanav and I agree that it’s not OK to expect subordinated categories of labour to do the hard work of domestic and social reproduction, and nor is it plausible to expect new developments in automation to ride to the rescue and do it for us. The main point of his brief utopian exercise isn’t to provide some fully realized blueprint for the future, but to suggest that it’s possible for us to create congenial lives for ourselves with existing technology in the here and now, rather than waiting for future technological developments to deliver us into a fantasy future world without work. On this point I wholeheartedly agree.

All the same, there are aspects of his utopia that I find either implausible or unappealing. I won’t expound on them at length here because I hope to come back to this in later posts, but in brief I think he puts too much faith in people’s ability to smoothly divvy up the work between themselves and deliver on what’s expected through ill-defined democratic processes. This is all the more problematic inasmuch as Benanav acknowledges there are kinds of work that can’t be widely shared because they require specialist skills (he mentions farming in this connection) and inasmuch as it would be necessary to somehow hold producers accountable if they failed to come up with the goods.

As for the unappealing, the freedoms that Benanav accords people in his utopia seem to me overly individualistic, disconnected and intellectual. His examples include painting murals, learning languages, inventing things and ‘choosing to explore nature’ (pp.91-2) – this being the only mention I noticed in his book of the extra-human ecological world. It all sounds a bit like a university professor dreaming up a quiet suburban retirement for himself, which – as I suggest in my book (p.85) – is essentially what most written utopias are. And I use the word ‘himself’ here deliberately, because there are some interesting gender framings involved in all this. But we’ll come to that in a later post.

Benanav nevertheless contends – correctly in my opinion – that “feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose are what generate the best work” (p.89), yet it seems to me hard to reconcile this with the highly generalized collective divvying up of work and the holding of producers to account that he identifies – a point that, again, I’ll develop in another post. Rather than drifting around in an agreeable but ultimately somewhat vapid and probably unrealisable ‘post-scarcity’ world, I think true autonomy, mastery and purpose arise through experiencing resistances to one’s agency, partly in relation to other people (the points where collective agreements fail) and partly in relation to the necessary practice of creating a livelihood out of the extra-human world of nature, rather than the option of simply exploring it. In both cases, a sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose arises when one feels equal to the challenge, which is usually only possible through an intimate, grounded, personal, local knowledge of the social and natural landscape.

In other words, the fourth way to address the impasse of the present global political economy may be to embrace the possibility – so admirably implied by Benanav throughout his book, but never confronted head on – of creating a labour-intensive, semi-autonomous livelihood through farming, homesteading or gardening largely on one’s own account, within a wider society which is collectively oriented to enabling people to live that way. Agricultural involution of this sort is far more generative of a sense of purpose than creating involutionary service sector jobs, far more compatible with a low or no economic growth society (a point Benanav makes on p.38), and far less ecologically destructive. It would amount to a small farm future – not a panacea, not a utopia, but a plausible goal to aim at. In my forthcoming posts I’ll continue to outline its contours.

How capitalism started, and why it still matters

A happy new year to you from Small Farm Future, and as happy as possible a Brexit. I have a busy January ahead, involving various podcasts, webinars and conference papers geared to my book (scroll down this page and you’ll find the itinerary). I also need to do some replanting in our stricken ash woodland and attend to various other farm tasks. So I may not be very active on the blog for a while. But I want to start the year with a post that continues my exploration of themes from my book, in this case lighting on Crisis #9: Political Economy (pp.53-73). These twenty pages are in many ways key to the whole book.

To reprise the title of this post, how capitalism started and why it still matters are important themes I discuss within those twenty pages. Maybe it’s necessary to define capitalism before discussing how it originated, but let me begin by defining what it isn’t. If I grow a crop or make a widget, take it to a market and sell it for money to someone who wants it, that doesn’t inherently make me a capitalist. In fact, capitalism isn’t particularly about markets or selling things. This needs stressing over and over, because powerful narratives to the contrary repeatedly fool us into supposing otherwise.

The clue to the nature of capitalism is in the name – capitalism is about making the biggest possible return on capital investment, and it’s about making this fundamental to the whole organization of society. Sometimes capitalism involves selling things in markets in pursuit of that larger aim, but often the major energies lie elsewhere. The best short definition of capitalism along these lines I’ve come across is from Wolfgang Streeck: a capitalist society is one that “secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation”1.

And so to the first part of my essay title. How did this bizarre way of organizing affairs get started? In an influential article first published in 1976, historian Robert Brenner argued that it started in England – nowhere else – in the late 15th century, when large-scale rural landowners established competitive tenancies for relatively wealthy peasant farmers, incentivizing them to increase the profits and productivity of their farming. This, Brenner argued, was the result of a longer-term class conflict emerging from medieval contests between landlords and peasants that took the unique turn in England of an only partial victory to the peasants. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the victory went to the landlords, whereas in France it went to the peasants, establishing different kinds of agrarian society that were only upended in later revolutions. But in England, says Brenner, and only in England, the stalemate between landlords and peasants produced – quite unintendedly on their part – a monetized, accumulative and self-transforming rural capitalist society.

Brenner’s intervention stimulated much research by agrarian historians of England, and the upshot of their enquiries was, in a nutshell, that he was wrong, and there was no simple competitive dynamic between landlord and tenant farmer – though historians usually give Brenner his due for re-energizing their field of enquiry. Brenner himself incorporated some of this revisionism into his later work, but his original formulation remains better known and more influential2.

One way in which a Brennerite view remains influential is a coarsened popular version whereby our modern capitalist ills in England are imputed to ‘the enclosure of the commons’, when profit-seeking landlords moved to stop peasants from accessing land and producing their subsistence. I’ll talk more about commons when I get to Part III of my book in this blog cycle, but the bottom line is that while the extinction of common rights did sometimes occur at the expense of peasant subsistence, enclosure was a hugely complex process, often involving peasants enclosing their own land, and the more you look in detail at its processes in the English countryside, the less clearly related they seem to the emergence of capitalism3.

All this prompts two questions. First, if capitalism didn’t arise in England through rural class conflict, then where and how did it arise? And second, why does any of this matter today? I’ll attempt a brief answer to the first question, which will lead to an answer to the second.

Very broadly, I’d suggest that capitalism arose, to quote from my own book, “out of a confluence where the great trading empires of Asia connected with the fiscal-military states of Europe and their seaborne empires that brought first precious metals and then plantation produce from the Americas into global circuits of exchange, much of it via the super-exploited labour of enslaved Amerindians and Africans” (p.62).

This alternative approach to capitalist origins was pioneered by thinkers of the left like André Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. A couple of points to notice about it. First, it’s less Eurocentric or Anglocentric than Brenner: capitalism wasn’t the achievement of any single country or region, but resulted from relations between many – albeit relations greatly influenced by colonial domination enthusiastically prosecuted by European powers. Second, unlike the Brenner thesis, this approach makes the role of centralized states key to the emergence of capitalism. Again, despite powerful narratives to the contrary, capitalism has always been a state project – in fact, a project of commercial linkage between states. Brenner wrote an article criticizing this approach and its leading theorists for “neo-Smithian [i.e. commerce-emphasizing] Marxism”. In this, he built on a long left-wing tradition of claiming superior status through greater loyalty to the thought of Karl Marx, and of disdain for left-wing thinkers who look beyond it – a tradition that unfortunately still seems to be with us. But, unlike Brenner’s thesis, the ‘neo-Smithian’ approach now commands more general support among economic historians, leftwing and otherwise, despite ongoing disagreement about the details4.

Anyway, if we go back to English history with this more state-centred view of capitalism in mind, it becomes easier to notice that the Tudor state took steps to protect English peasants from expropriation by aristocratic landlords. This arose less from benevolence than from conflicts between state and aristocracy over command of resources, conflicts that England’s unusually weak aristocracy generally lost. It also becomes easier to notice how the early modern English state was locked in fierce battles with other European states – the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal etc. – to grow its economy through imperial control of wider trade and monetary networks.

I’d argue that capitalism arose more as an unintended consequence of this emerging system of competitive states than as a consequence of rural class conflict in England specifically. A look at the English countryside from the late medieval through the early modern period does show an increasing commercialism across all classes, with more monetization, capitalization and consumerism, and I’m not suggesting this had no bearing on the state’s trajectory towards capitalism. I’d nevertheless argue that the real motor of that trajectory was in the dynamics of the state and its competitors.

Why do these events of many centuries ago and the different explanations for them matter today? Because I think we’re now living in the twilight of global capitalism, arising out of its unsustainable dynamics of capital accumulation and their consequences in terms of energy, climate, soil, water, economics, politics and other things (in other words, all the crises that I discuss in Part I of my book). This forces us to consider how our societies might transcend these unsustainable dynamics, and here the different approaches to capitalist origins push in different directions and lead their proponents to emphasize different issues. I won’t trace these differences in all their ramifications here, but I’ll conclude by homing in on a few of them which seem to me particularly important to frame politically.

It’s often said nowadays that the old divisions between left-wing and right-wing politics are breaking down, which I think is true in many ways. I find class versus state approaches to capitalist development quite helpful in thinking through this reconfiguration.

People drawn to orthodox Brennerite class-based leftism are inclined to protest – too much, in my opinion – about small-scale private property rights, petty commerce, personal economic autonomy and so on, because they regard it as prelude to or generative of capitalism. But this is only likely to be true in situations where these features are being actively coopted by growing, centralized states forging a capitalist world order. The situation we now face is more likely one of state decline, contraction and disintegration – and in those circumstances I would, on the contrary, actively champion opportunities for widespread, accessible, secure, small-scale rural property tenure and petty marketing as critical for the possibilities of a decent life.

There are, alternatively, state-centred thinkers who take a rosy view of the capitalist state’s corporatism and technological prowess, and this usually terminates on both the political left and right in a techno-fixing rearguard commitment to the large-scale corporatist status quo in the face of present challenges – which is why to my eyes the arguments of people like Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Mike Shellenberger, Leigh Phillips, Mark Lynas or Nick Srnicek end up looking pretty similar, despite their different self-proclaimed positionings on a left-right axis.

Then there are people who view capitalist development as a largely malign manifestation of centralized state aggrandizement, and seek more convivial and organically local forms of socioeconomic action – a camp in which I find myself. Touchstone concepts for this way of thinking include individual and local self-reliance, autonomy, liberty, rural/small town revival, petty commerce and (primarily) local mutuality. The right-wing or conservative resonances of these concepts are perhaps obvious, but so too should be the left-wing ones – particularly once we abandon the misguided notion that selling wares at local markets or having decision-making autonomy over farm property are somehow intrinsically capitalist, or that notions of “community, magic, craftsmanship, and enchantment” as discussed by Ernie in this interesting comment are intrinsically conservative or ‘reactionary’. I hope to come back to this in a future post.

Nevertheless, I continue to identify with the political left and so there are aspects of this local autonomism that I consider potentially problematic and in need of checking – namely, accumulated economic privileges between households, families and, ultimately, classes, and other differentials of social power between different kinds of people, perhaps especially between men and women, and between ‘local’ and ‘non-local’ groupings. So, within the limitations of a short and non-technical book, I go to some lengths in A Small Farm Future to address how these problematic tendencies may conceivably be checked within semi-autonomous local societies of the future in the context of contracting centralized states. An important part of this that I broach in Crisis #9 and discuss elsewhere in the book is the need to avoid the inequalities associated with extractive landlordism, to which secure and widespread rights to private property in farmland offer one solution.

In this respect, I share a Brennerite concern about extractive landlordism, which I think is a bad thing – but I don’t think it’s a thing that’s inherently generative of capitalism. So while any just, post-capitalist local politics must address local class formation and conflicts around things like landlordism, the connections between local producers and the larger state are ultimately more to the point in how those class conflicts play out, as analyzed in Part IV of my book5. As per recent discussions on this site, I’d suggest that recourse to an analytical language of class derived from older state/producer formations that have now largely passed into history (‘the peasantry’, ‘the proletariat’, ‘the (petty) bourgeoisie’ etc.) lack coherence unless they’re plausibly linked to the new and unprecedented terrain of state/producer relations that’s emerging in the contemporary world: capital decline, state decay and retrenchment, mass migration, pervasive ecological disruption and so forth. My book presses the view that ‘the peasantry’ may be one of the few such categories to retain some relevance in this emerging world.

I’m wary of political traditions that propose the centralized state as the major safeguard against problems like local landlordism or patriarchy, especially in view of its declining reach. I’m warier still of political traditions that regard the state as an instrument of ‘the people’, or of a sub-set of the people regarded by the tradition as particularly worthy or important, such as ‘the working class’. As I see it, the state is no less, and often much more, capable of acting the rapacious landlord, predatory bandit or chauvinist paterfamilias as any smalltime landholder, and this view colours much of my analysis in Parts III and IV of the book.

But we’ll come to that presently. For now I’ll simply conclude by saying that the difficulties of constructing just societies out of the wreckage of global capitalism in the present historical moment seem virtually insurmountable, but they’re just a little less insurmountable if we can specify accurately the nature of capitalism, its origins and the implications for what comes next.

Notes

  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End, pp.58-9.
  2. Brenner’s contributions and early responses to it are collected in T. Aston & C. Philpin’s The Brenner Debate (Cambridge, 1985). His later work includes Merchants and Revolution (Princeton, 1993). Other assessments, contestations and counternarratives to his earlier writing on English agrarian class structures include Jane Whittle (Ed) Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660 (Boydell, 2013) – especially the essay therein by David Ormrod; Christopher Dyer A Country Merchant, 1495-1520 (Oxford, 2012); J. Blaut Eight Eurocentric Historians (Guilford, 2000); Henry Heller The Birth of Capitalism (Pluto, 2011).
  3. See, for example, Robert Allen Enclosure and the Yeoman (Oxford, 1992); J. Yelling Common Field & Enclosure in England 1450-1850 (Macmillan, 1977).
  4. Robert Brenner. 1977. The origins of capitalist development: a critique of neo-Smithian Marxism. New Left Review 104: 25-93; Immanuel Wallerstein. 1974. The Modern World System; Ronald Findlay & Kevin O’Rourke. 2007. Power & Plenty; Heller op cit.; Blaut op cit.
  5. Neglect of this same issue has, incidentally, been a major rallying point for critics of Brenner: see Blaut op cit.; Heller op cit. This raises some interesting issues that I hope to pursue in future posts – perhaps especially in relation to rural sociologist Max Ajl’s interesting recent writings on war and nationalism.

Have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

The US election: perspectives from an ear of grain

With an important election looming in the USA, let’s talk for a change about politics. But since this is primarily a farming blog, I thought I’d approach it obliquely from the agricultural angle of cereal breeding. It’s obvious when you think about it…

Actually, before we even get to the cereal breeding, we need to take a step back and talk about systems of classification. Because to make any sense of things, people inevitably need to divide up their perceptions of the world, grouping like things together. But our taxonomies can rarely if ever capture the complexity of existence perfectly. Anomalous cases, fuzzy boundaries and alternative reckonings abound.

One way these imperfections manifest is in the distinction between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Take two palaeontologists arguing over some fragments of fossil bone. Professor Lumper thinks the small differences between like bones aren’t enough to justify classifying them as belonging to different species, whereas Professor Splitter takes the opposite view. Their argument is potentially endless and irresolvable – unless there’s some agreed objective standard against which to judge their claims. In the case of evolutionary biology, that standard arguably exists in the possibility of tracing descent from a common ancestor, though that’s not going to help the professors resolve this particular dispute.

The advantage of lumping is that it enables us to see big picture stuff, the broader patterning in the world. But push it too far and it becomes overly simplistic, and ultimately vacuous – and the grounds for the lumping can usually be questioned. The advantage of splitting is that you can grasp the fine-grained detail of things. But push it too far and you get lost in pettifogging specifics that prevent an appreciation of deeper underlying patterns.

I’m a lumper by inclination, and I’ll illustrate it here with reference to my aforementioned themes of grain breeding and politics.

First, the grain breeding. I’ve written critically in the past about efforts to breed high-yielding perennial grain crops in temperate climates. I won’t get deep into the issues but, lumper that I am, I think temperate herbaceous food plants basically fall into two categories: high yielding and short lived, or low yielding and long lived. Responding to my critique of their perennial grain breeding work, the splitters at the Land Institute say that every plant has a unique life history, and using artificial selection techniques they’re confident they can develop crops that will be just as high yielding as our present annual cereal crops, but long lived – and therefore more easily managed and less environmentally destructive in their consequences. I think they’ll most likely turn out to be wrong, because there are hard ecological trade-offs (those objective standards, those deeper underlying patterns) that they’re ignoring, which will forever obstruct a low input, low impact, high output agriculture. But, as I argue in my book (A Small Farm Future, pp.110-4), it doesn’t really matter if they’re wrong. In fact, I think an agriculture of lower yielding perennial grains is positively advantageous. So not only do I think they’re wrong, I hope they’re wrong.

Hold that thought a minute while I turn to the second issue. A few years back as Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign started firing up, various commentators (including me) took to debating whether Trump was a fascist. John Michael Greer wrote around that time that the parallel was absurd:

“Fascism…is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist.”

This, of course, is a classic case of splitism, with an appeal to objective standards thrown into the mix in the idea of ‘looking up’ what fascism was. But for better or worse you can rarely close the book just by ‘looking up’ what something ‘is’ in human affairs, even though more scholarly thinkers than Greer have traversed similar ground. Dylan Riley, for example, has written a lengthy essay excavating with great erudition all the many reasons why early 21st century US politics is completely different from the early 20th century European politics that spawned fascism. He’s absolutely correct in every respect. But, meh, he’s a splitter … and Trump is still a fascist.

Actually, let me qualify that. In the light of those earlier discussions and what we’ve seen of Trump and his administration since, I’d say that Trump himself is not a fascist, or indeed in full possession of any structured political thought. But his administration and the wider Republican party seems largely to have become fascist, at least by the lights of this lumper definition supplied by Primo Levi, who knew a thing or two about the subject:

“Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many”1

I concede that the term ‘fascism’ is so widely attached to disparate positions – not least by right-wingers in relation to the left – that it’s in serious danger of succumbing to complete lumpist vacuity (like most political words, in fact). But I think the word, and Levi’s capacious definition, are worth retaining nonetheless to keep in mind the shadowed skeins of thought linking the fascisms of the early 20th century to the fascisms of the early 21st – the common ancestry, if you will.

And so we come to the impending 2020 US election. If Trump is re-elected, then I think I’ll have yet fewer compunctions than I did in 2016 in calling it a vote for fascism. I’ve seen more fully, as I hadn’t yet in 2016, the racism, the self-serving nostalgia, the forced silences, the buttressing of privilege and the naked will to power. In 2016 it was possible to write that liberals were just crying wolf. But it turns out that Trump is a wolf, if only perhaps a mangy outrider of a fiercer pack to come.

But enough has already been written about Trump and fascism. The more interesting question is whether if Biden is elected – as I fervently hope he is – a Democratic administration will also debouch ultimately into fascism. The point I’m making isn’t about the rights or wrongs of the political positions taken by any particular factions or individuals among the Democrats. Rather, it’s a doubt on my part that in a future of climate-induced dislocation, energy and material scarcity, disorderly economic contraction and polarized political mobilization, any regime trying to maintain power in a centralized nation-state, commiting itself to capitalist growth and seeking the assent of the governed will be able to avoid the trappings of fascism in Primo Levi’s sense.

So while perhaps I’m lumping too much here, I think it may prove useful to classify the politics we’re likely to see in the years to come in the ‘west’ or Global North into two kinds: fascist and non-fascist. Unless they change radically, the programmes of most of the mainstream parties currently will probably put them in the former camp (this certainly applies to the paler imitation of US politics going on here in Britain as the main parties increasingly resemble involuted theocracies obsessed with their own internal cosmologies rather than aspiring managers of an ever more unmanageable welfare capitalism).

The story of the non-fascist alternatives is yet to be written. But I don’t think it can be a story of centralized power, plentiful supplies of grain (perennial or otherwise) from breadbasket places like Kansas and cheap low-carbon energy oiling the wheels of locality-busting global commerce. In that sense it seems likely that the hard ecological trade-offs confronted by grain breeders and other architects of the energy supply will shape another hard trade-off that’s emerging in our politics. The story of trying to hold the existing political centre will be a story of fascism, Caesarism, bread and circuses. Whereas the non-fascist story will be one of trying to create livelihoods as convivially as possible, mostly from the local resources – human and non-human – to hand. The splitter in me thinks there could be many different kinds of convivial local society of this sort. The lumper in me thinks that almost all of them will be geared to the basic rhythms of the small mixed farm. And on that note, perhaps I’ll conclude with another line from Primo Levi: if not now, when?

Note

  1. Quoted here. Thanks to Andrew for this excellent reference.

Building regional autonomies for a small farm future

The first talk I’m giving in relation to my new book is at the Northern Real Farming Conference, at 7.30pm on Tuesday (29 Sept). Although I’m not from or in the North, the conference is nevertheless an appropriate launchpad for my book because I suggest in it that in the future people are going to have to furnish their livelihoods more regionally and locally than most do today, and that this is going to involve a lot of rethinking – of agriculture, of industry, of politics and society more generally, and indeed of what we mean when we talk about the local or the regional. There are few better forums for getting going with this rethinking process than a regional farming conference.

My talk is going to be fairly general in its scope. I’m hoping that the audience discussion will add more local colour and detail to it and fit its themes to the specifics of Britain’s north. But I also hope that anyone reading this webpage may do the same in relation to wherever in the world they live, and however they think of their locality and their region. Perhaps, in the comments to this post or elsewhere, this will help to generate some worthwhile rethinking of agrarian localism.

And boy do we need that rethinking! Wider issues like climate change, energy scarcities, economic stagnation and political fragmentation are already reconfiguring our world, but we can only guess at the local adjustments this will demand of us – which makes it hard to know where to put our energies and what kinds of institutions to support and nurture. Often, as a grower and smallholder I feel that I should probably just get my head down and try to produce food in a low impact way. But that alone isn’t going to be enough. Below, I lay out five broad themes (and some more specific pointers) that I’d suggest need addressing everywhere as we rethink regionalism and localism for a small farm future:

  1. Producing for local needs, instead of for commodity markets.
  • in (northern) Britain, this probably means going easier on livestock and cereals, and harder on woodland, horticulture, fertility-building fallows, fibre crops, seeds, medicines and general trades and inputs into farming.
  • it also means entering a steep learning curve on low impact, local farming, involving a thorough rethinking of scale, labour input and agricultural education
  • and it may mean disregarding recent historical land use patterns. Where I live, for example, there’s a strong recent history of dairy farming which partly has to do with the fact that grass grows well here (harking back to the quaint days when that actually mattered…) but also with the fact that the opening of the railways to London created a demand for fresh milk in the capital
  1. Rethinking settlement geography
  • cheap energy has broken the links of mutual service between town, village and countryside. How can we restore them?
  • in the future, we will probably see ruralisation or deurbanisation in the face of new energy, climate and economic realities. Population dispersal is harder to achieve than concentration – how can this be managed?

     3. Rethinking landownership

  • ruralisation may put inflationary pressure on farmland prices to the benefit of existing landowners, exacerbating inequalities
  • this is potentially counterbalanced by the sheer weight of a new rural population of smallholders, perhaps articulating its interests as a class, the weakness of the political centre and the residual influence of liberal rights ideas
  1. Local identities
  • in what ways might local or regional identities help or hinder reconstructing a renewable agrarian localism? (Personally, I’m dubious about most existing identities in this respect, in the North and elsewhere: northern, Yorkshire/Lancashire, East Riding/West Riding, urban/rural, ‘indigenous’ or ‘immigrant’, here first, the ‘real people’
  • almost everyone is a child of a failing economic modernism – can we forge new identities as farmers engaged in creating renewable livelihoods in place?
  • civic republicanism as a political tradition to inform new identity-making, not based on ideas of a pre-existing ‘natural community’. The politics of ‘here we all are’

 5. Wider interactions

  • in a supersedure state situation with semi-autonomy of, say, the north from London, how would relations between region and centre work?
  • and between regions?