Household farming and the F word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate justice and a community of communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real people #3: indigeneity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real people #4: the proletariat

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

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

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

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

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

Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Least worst politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Two hundred miles from Hartlepool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.