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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note on land value tax

I’ll start this post with a quick shout out to the good folks of Just Stop Oil putting themselves on the line for a habitable future, and seemingly getting noticed less than other recent climate actions of more generalized protest. Indeed, there’s been more coverage in the press of the allegations against my local MP than of Just Stop Oil. If these turn out to be true, it might explain the difficulties of trying to get a meaningful response from his office. What was it XR have been saying about the need to go ‘beyond politics’…?

Anyway, on to the main business of this post: after various digressions, diversions and interruptions, I’m almost at the end of this part of my blog cycle within a blog cycle about property and tenure in a small farm future. My argument, in a nutshell, is that there will be private property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by right-wing and pro-capitalist analysis) and there will be collective and common property in a well-functioning small farm future (but not in the form characteristically advocated by left-wing and anti-capitalist analysis).

One remaining item left standing from discussions here about these matters is the question of land value tax (LVT). The case for this was famously made by Henry George in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty. The basic idea is that the monopoly rent that accrues to the landowner from the fact of their ownership is taxed away. So if you were playing a game of Monopoly (which in fact was originally invented by a Georgist to illustrate the point), you would have to pay back to the bank all the money accrued from the rental income of your properties at the end of each round. Obviously, this would stop anyone from winning or losing the game through the exercise of monopoly rent, and people would have to find other ways to move around the gameboard of life. Which was precisely George’s point.

As I recently said in my analysis of death taxes, I can’t claim any special expertise as a tax analyst, but – far less than death taxes – I’m not a great fan of LVT, and here I’ll try to explain why.

Of all the redistributive schemes that people have dreamed up for levelling inequalities in capitalist societies, LVT is one of the few that often gets the blessing of mainstream capitalist/neoclassical economists. But it hasn’t been widely implemented by capitalist governments. In that apparent paradox lies a truth that really needs to be better known. While the theory of capitalist economics is all about private enterprise and the rewards to innovation, the practice is largely about monopoly rent, without which the system hits the buffers. As cheerleaders for the non-monopolistic profit-seeking that’s supposed to be how capitalism works in theory, mainstream economists like LVT because it’s consistent with this convenient fiction. As managers of how capitalism actually works in practice, governments are less keen because it puts obstacles in the way of normal capital accumulation via monopoly rent.

But arguably not very big obstacles. Nowadays, and much more than in George’s time, monopoly rent is only partly about land and property and is more about intellectual property rights, financial instruments and government contracts. So as a way of redistributing the spoils of capital, LVT is a partial measure at best. But I think we must go further. As Michael Hudson suggests in this interesting article, George himself had no objections to the general workings of the capitalist political economy. He simply opposed one of its most obviously brutal consequences. Karl Marx wrote that George’s programme was “a last attempt to save the capitalist regime”. He was wrong. There have been many subsequent and partially successful efforts to save it. But he was right that it was such an attempt (George never really addressed what happened to the tax revenues once the Monopoly players had paid them back to the bank). And also right, I think, that ultimately the regime will prove beyond saving.

So while the logic of LVT, rightly in my opinion, mitigates against the sheer ownership of land or property allowing the owner to make money, this in itself does nothing to stop the owner from using land as an input to generate and accumulate as much money as possible. No wonder mainstream economists prefer it to, say, income tax, which they see as ‘distorting’ of the full-bore capitalism they tend to regard as the natural order of things. Their enthusiasm should surely raise suspicions among those who don’t regard it this way. LVT is not in itself an especially good way to decommodify or redistribute economic goods.

In agricultural settings, LVT fits readily within the mould of an agricultural improver ideology – the kind I criticized in A Small Farm Future (pp.48-9). Think, for example, of John Locke’s argument that colonial expropriation of indigenous lands in North America was justifiable because Europeans could make them more productive and remunerative. Contemporary applications of LVT are rarely so unjust, but once a land tax has been set at some average level of return in the wider economy, decommodification towards smaller and more localized farm scale would be quite impossible. Within the present framing of the capitalist political economy, LVT sets the capitalist snare that forces ever greater returns on investment, and happily watches it tighten.

In theory, perhaps this could be avoided through tax exemptions on small properties. But I can’t really see how a low input ecological small farm sector could survive long term in a world where the accumulation of liquid capital is otherwise incentivized, and where large-scale owners would be gunning hard to extract returns in excess of their tax bills. Maybe the point of the policy would be to make it impossible for large-scale owners to turn any profit at all. But in that case, levying a profit-incentivizing tax probably isn’t the best policy intervention.

Maybe there’s a stronger case for LVT in urban settings, where property owners can cash out heavily from high property values resulting from local concentration of economic activity, and not from anything connected with their own enterprise. Cleverer people than me could probably determine the implications for tax bases, planning and zoning laws and the gaming of urban/rural boundaries in that scenario. But again, my feeling is that even in this instance LVT is a rather indirect way to try to achieve something that needs to be addressed more directly.

That was certainly the view taken by the aforementioned Karl Marx, another popular writer-activist of the 19th century. While George was agitating for the state to levy a tax to somewhat improve the lot of the working class, Marx was agitating for a more direct approach. This involved the working class taking over state functions and using the leverage thereby gained to radically transform the lot of everyday people. But Marx was pretty vague about exactly how it would do that once the state was in its hands, and in my opinion the words and deeds of later Marxist thinkers and governments haven’t been overly impressive in tackling that question.

So while an LVT might be a slight improvement on the present situation, I can’t get hugely excited about proposals to end human misery either through an LVT charged by the central state or through overthrowing the centralized state to create … another centralized state. To me, the political futurologies of both George and Marx seem rooted in a past era that barely speaks to our present one, with its endogenous state failure and ecological collapse. Which raises the question of what alternative futurology might just see us through these hard times. Since that’s roughly what I address in the later parts of my book I’ll end at this point, poised to get into those issues (though I have a little ground clearing to do in the next couple of posts first).

A small farm future: some lessons from Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Homo symbolicus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Fewer eggs, more baskets

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

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

5. The economy is social

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Of migration and the death zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. The supersedure state

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

9. Mutual aid

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

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

Rural gentrification Part IV: the internship problem

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

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

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

To get into them, consider this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A small farm future – the case for death taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten years of small farm future

I wouldn’t normally be straining myself to get a post out on New Year’s Day, but (checks archive) blow me if today isn’t the tenth anniversary of this blog’s inception. Three hundred and fifty blog posts. Ten thousand comments. It’s quite some wordage. Has it all been worth it? I couldn’t possibly say, but I hope the landmark is enough for me to be forgiven the self-indulgence of a short trip down memory lane.

When I started the blog I was four years into my tenure as the main grower for Vallis Veg, the small local veg box scheme that I’d started with my wife (along with two other people working on the retail side). And I was four years past the last rites on my academic career. In the early years of the box scheme we sent out a printed newsletter to our customers with the boxes every week in which I sublimated my writing aspirations with reflections on the state of the world from my vantage point behind the wheel hoe. When we switched our website over to WordPress and my friend Steve suggested I might write a blog instead of a printed newsletter, smallfarmfuture.org.uk (or, at least, its forerunner) was born.

At the outset, I’d intended the blog essentially to be a replacement for my customer newsletters, but it quickly took on the form of a wider attempt to consider the ecology and the politics of a contemporary human culture and agriculture that, as I saw it, had gone seriously awry. In those early years, I was interested in debating different agricultural systems – especially now that I was working on them in real life rather than absorbing the secondhand wisdom of various alternative agriculture gurus. I also wanted to better understand why it was so difficult to make small businesses geared around renewable local agriculture work. At the same time, and relatedly, we were locked in a battle with our local council to be able to live on the land we farmed. Quite a lot hung on the outcome, in terms of whether my decision to quit a steady, well-paid job would turn out to have been a stroke of insane genius, or merely insane.

Around that time, I read Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline and picked up the vibe of other renegades like Mark Lynas and Mike Shellenberger as they recanted a broadly left-wing, anti-capitalist environmentalism in favour of the kind of ‘green growth’ mainstream sustainability narrative that’s now common coin (at least Brand and Lynas only trumpeted their conversions once – Shellenberger does it with monotonous regularity, though I’m not sure he was ever really in the left-green camp he now repudiates). I found this ‘eco-modernist’ position, as it’s now rather problematically called, unconvincing and superficial, so I started engaging with it on my blog.

These early emphases have now faded somewhat. I’m still interested in farming methods, but I’ve come to the view that the main problem is not how people farm but how people organize themselves economically and politically, and if we get these latter right then the former will pretty much sort itself out in the long term. I’ve also become less interested in commercial agriculture and more interested in non-commercial horticulture, smallholding or homesteading, where online resources are already legion. Plus I’ve found that practical discussions seem too often to degenerate into the “you don’t want to do it like that” space, typically without the discussant troubling themselves enough to find out exactly how and why you are doing ‘it’ like ‘that’. So practical homesteading matters are likely to remain at most an occasional sub-theme here.

As to eco-modernism, my critique of The Eco-Modernist Manifesto co-authored by Brand, Lynas, Shellenberger and others considerably increased my readership, but my interest in engaging with it and indeed in engaging with most of the shouty, finger-pointy argumentation that passes for public intellectual debate these days around eco-modernism and much else besides has considerably decreased. I don’t think it gets us closer to solving contemporary problems, so I’ve tried as best I can (without complete success) to take my writing in different directions. Happily, enough people have found it illuminating for it to seem worth persevering with.

Talking of solving problems, one issue of concern to me on this blog has been our over-easy recourse to solutionist thinking in modern society. This applies of course to mainstream technocratic solutionism of the kind that considers our energy problems soluble via nuclear power, or our food system problems soluble via GM crops or industrially manufactured eco-gloop or whatever. But it also applies in the alternative farming or economics worlds. One part of this blog has involved articulating a scepticism towards off-the-peg ‘alternative’ solutions, whether technological or social. Although I might now frame it a bit differently, I was pleased on this front to get my critical review of perennial grain cropping into a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, somewhat prompted by an unpleasant exchange with an especially combative permaculturist. This was one of three peer-reviewed articles on farming and environmental issues I’ve published since quitting academia for the independent scholar’s garret. I doubt there will be any more.

Then came 2016, the year of the Trump and Brexit votes, widely heralded in certain over-excitable circles as much needed body blows to the complacent liberal capitalist global order. I didn’t think they were. Or, if they were, they weren’t very good ones. Perhaps I spent too much time on the blog dwelling on the politics around this, in particular on how fascist it was. To which the answer has turned out to be certainly a bit. It’s easy to dismiss such events as just the surface fizz of media politics, irrelevant to the deeper beats of nature, climate and energy that are the real drivers of contemporary human affairs and that are more deserving of attention. But as those beats get more disturbed, so does the politics – and ultimately it’ll probably be the politics, that is to say our organizational responses to biophysical crises, more than the crises themselves that will do for many of us.

Anyway, I guess the result of 2016 was to redouble my efforts to find an ‘alternative’ alternative politics and economics to both mainstream orthodoxies and the sham insurgencies of that year. This has been the main focus of the blog since then. It’s not a case of finding the right political economy, cueing the drumroll and then summoning it to save a grateful world. No doubt there will be more Trumps, Farages and Putins, and more neo-Bolshevik aspirants to the crown of world government burnished by the technocratic left. But there may be opportunities for deeper and more plausible forms of grassroots renewal on small farms and in small towns around the margins of this ossified megalo-politics, and my hope is that this blog has contributed in however small a way to clarifying those opportunities.

I wrote a couple of blog cycles in relation to that project. One on the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex where I looked at possibilities for local production of food and fibre in my region, and another on the History of the World in 10½ blog posts where I tried to put the politics into a larger context. Both of these, and many other strands from this blog, fed into my book, A Small Farm Future, published by Chelsea Green in 2020, which has been one tangible product of the blog that’s now out there making its way in the world.

I like to think that acquiring a smattering of scientific and political knowledge from an orthodox mainstream education has protected me from certain excesses typical of the dissenting autodidactic blogger, though perhaps hasn’t immunised me completely. In particular, a background in traditional left-wing and Marxist analysis has helped shape my worldview in ways that I still consider positive, but I find much of the analyses emerging from those traditions today too stuck in the ossified megalo-politics I mentioned to address current issues convincingly.

To my mind, this megalo-politics, and the orthodox educational canon associated with it, hasn’t kept its eye on the ball in relation to the politics appropriate to the current moment, and has badly erred by marginalizing, silencing and ridiculing other traditions and ideas more grounded in immediate material livelihood, the local and the sensory – such ideas and movements, for example, as agrarian populism, Romanticism and distributism. I’ve found myself sort of inventing an alternative political economy for myself along these lines, only to find that I was tapping into rich traditions of thought paralleling my own that previously I’d only dimly been aware of, or didn’t take seriously enough, because orthodox political thought didn’t take them seriously enough.

I’d long sought escape from Marxism and traditional leftism without quite finding a home elsewhere. Looking back on it, I think my book and this blog signal that uncertainty. But I’m now clearer about how to ground an alternative political economy and I hope I can develop that in the future. The stinker of a review my book got from a couple of Marxist bros stung me at the time, not least in its rank unfairness, but now seems almost like a necessary rite of passage into a less totalizing and more engaged worldview. Part of that involves an increasing interest not so much in arguing what the right politics are, but in how to deal with arguing over what the right politics are.

A few years back I wrote a sardonic post about how neither of my career choices – farmer and writer – were wise picks for turning coin, and I light-heartedly added a Donate button to the website to underline the point. It came as a pleasant surprise a couple of months later when somebody actually dug into their pocket and contributed. Since then there’s been a small trickle of donations to the site for which I am most grateful.

I get plenty of requests to place pre-written content for money or to monetize the site through advertising, which so far I’ve resisted (to be fair, most of them are probably just spam). Since I published my book, the contributions have dwindled. So I thought I might just mention that the book hasn’t exactly made me rich. In fact, one of the few jobs I’ve done that’s paid a worse hourly rate than writing this blog is writing my book. The truth is, I’m a very lucky human being and I don’t – at the moment anyway – need people’s cash to keep the wolf from the door. Undoubtedly there are people much more needful of your money than me. But if you’ve found any of my writing over the last ten years helpful or informative in any way, maybe you’ll consider a small donation so that I can at least scrape together a few coins and buy a bottle of something bubbly to celebrate ten years of smallfarmfuture.org.uk.

As to the future, who knows? I have a blog cycle about my book to finish, various other themes to share and a farm and burgeoning farm community to contribute to. Plus a growing anxiety about where humanity is headed. But definitely some good memories from a decade of engaging with other humans on this blog. Many thanks for the comments and debates here, from which I’ve learned a great deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of inequality and freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three political forms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of gender, households, families … and gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idealism and materialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A small farm future – the case for common property

In my last post, I made the case for private property rights in a small farm future. In this one, I’ll make a case for common property rights (‘commons’). There’s no contradiction because private and common rights usually accompany each other. I’ve written quite a bit about commons in the past, usually from a somewhat sceptical viewpoint – not because I dispute their importance, but because I think they’re too often invoked as a rather fluffy feelgood word to mean ‘people doing good things together’. When we look at agricultural societies, we see that there are certain things they achieve with commons and certain things they don’t, and I think this is informative for the small farm societies we need to form in the future. But I don’t want to lose sight of the ‘people doing good things together’ aspect, which I’ll come to at the end.

In this article, I described the scope of commons in agrarian societies under the rubric of what I called the ‘four Es’: commons are usually extensive (applying to low value and/or diffuse resources), elemental (relating to the wider play of the landscape beyond individual private control, such as controlling fire risk, managing water or shaping the earth), extra (a bonus on top of ordinary economic activities, often with a social welfare function) and/or exclusive (applying to a definite and restricted community).

So in the future small farm communities I’m imagining, I’d expect to see commons around things like firewood gathering, irrigation, flood defence and cattle grazing – but probably not around gardening, cereal cropping, haymaking or milking. Robert Netting and Simon Fairlie have both written about the complex interleaving of private and common rights in traditional European dairying systems along these lines. Broadly speaking, cows were privately owned by individual households and the housing, milking and haymaking for them was likewise undertaken privately, but much of the grazing and cheesemaking was organized as commons. As Simon puts it, “This elegant system paid scant allegiance to ideology – it evolved from the dialogue between private interest and common sense”1. I expect much the same will transpire eventually with future agricultural commons.

Drawing on Robert Netting’s work, commons theorist Elinor Ostrom suggests that commons are particularly suited for agricultural situations where2:

  1. The per acre value of the goods being produced is low
  2. The availability of the goods fluctuates
  3. The possibilities for improving or intensifying productivity are low
  4. A large territory is needed for effective use
  5. Large groups of people are needed for effective capital investing activities

From this list, it’s easy to see why things like gardens and arable fields are rarely organized as commons, whereas woodlands and grazing often are.

I had an interesting if brief discussion on Twitter with @aliceLBPclub about the production of textiles in a small farm future. My feeling is that generally this probably wouldn’t be organized as a commons overall, but – as with Simon’s dairying example – it might have some commoning aspects. Supposing people widely grow a fibre plant like flax. This wouldn’t fit within the commons criteria mentioned above and would most likely be grown on an individual household basis, unless it required special conditions or skills to grow it, in which case things might get interesting. But, as with a crop like wheat (or the cheeses mentioned above), processing it might be more efficiently done in a single large facility serving the community’s needs. By the lights of the criteria outlined above, I don’t think this facility would likely be a commons as such.

Maybe the best model for it would be a cooperative. People pool some of their surplus resources to create the processing facilities in the expectation that they will get some fair share of the final product. Shoehorning a few issues here, inasmuch as the processing involves specialist skills and training, the cooperative might be a guild, in which craft specialists manage the training, conduct and price-setting of their membership in service of the wider community.

A craft guild is a bit different from an agrarian commons in terms of the underlying ecology, but similar in terms of its social structure, which is basically this3:

A commons or guild = a resource + a community + a set of usage protocols

How this works out in practice depends a lot not only on the nature of the resource but also on how the community and the usage protocols are defined. Who’s excluded, who’s included, and what are the rules of the game for those involved? Part of my scepticism about the way commons and guilds are often invoked is that they are not by virtue of their form of organization intrinsically positive, egalitarian or socially beneficial. That’s been their intention and their achievement often enough, but not always.

The classic criticism of agricultural commons is that they promote inefficient use or, worse, overuse that runs down the resource. This, notoriously, was Garrett Hardin’s argument in his 1968 article ‘The tragedy of the commons’. It was also Arthur Young’s argument as he enthusiastically pressed the case for the enclosure of agricultural commons in England in the late 18th century. Young came to regret his enclosing ardour, while even Hardin admitted that what he’d called a commons really wasn’t and is better described as an open access regime where, in contrast to the definition above, there’s no defined community or usage protocols to prevent degradation.

Still, for all the justifiable mud flung at Hardin, the fact is it’s possible for a commons to degrade into an open access regime, or for a situation to default to an open access regime because of the failure to create a commons – a point made forcefully enough by Elinor Ostrom herself. Current examples include the collapse of the world’s pelagic fisheries, and the ever-escalating levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In both cases, the problem seems to be the inability to create a stable community with shared norms around the resource – partly perhaps because when it comes to forming communities, people are creatures of the particular earth, not the fluid skies or waters.

The classic criticism of the craft guild rests at the other boundary of the commons – not an access regime that’s too open, but one that’s too closed. The guild stops operating in service of the community and starts operating in service of itself, creating unreasonable entry barriers, fixing prices and engaging in other such monopolistic forms of anti-social behaviour. In this sense, the rogue guild was one of the forerunners to the modern capitalist corporation – and, ironically, the idea of ‘freeing’ the market was experienced in some quarters as genuinely liberatory.

Now we’ve seen how the story of monopoly capitalism has worked out (summary: not well), a lot of us are looking back to the previous world of commons and guilds as the basis for a better model. And rightly so. But there are a few caveats worth bearing in mind. First, commons and guilds are not in themselves a solution to the problems of transcending capitalism’s world of strange delights. As I suggested above, their organizational form is ethically neutral. The same goes for cooperatives, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere – when they operate in a world that’s systematically organized in the interests of capital, too easily just replicate the structural tensions of that world. The real challenge is to reconstruct communities and economies along more just and sustainable lines. Commons and guilds really come into their own after that work of reconstruction.

But even when they do come into their own – especially when they come into their own – the ways that commons and guilds can fail that I detailed above need to be taken seriously. The story we often tell today is how they were broken top down by the forces of economic accumulation against the will of ordinary people, and it’s partly true. But ordinary people also did some of the breaking themselves as they sought to escape from restrictions that were sometimes less than ideal in practice. Balancing collective, partial and individual interests in relatively self-reliant local communities isn’t easy and needs to be front and centre of ongoing local politics.

The genius of capitalism has been defraying these difficulties of local politics by continually opening up new economic frontiers that sweeten the politics of local community with economic service. That was the achievement of the other main forerunner of modern capitalism, the joint stock company that pooled resources to finance the high-risk, high-return business of overseas maritime adventuring. But that achievement has come at a threefold price. First, the economic service has generally arisen from extracting extra value from people elsewhere – that is, from colonialism of one form or another. Second, it’s often denatured local communities back at the source even as it’s defrayed some of their difficulties. And, third, not only has it started to run out of new frontiers and resources to commodify, it’s also destroyed the ecological integrity of the ones it’s already commodified – hence the interest of people like Elon Musk in opening up places like Mars. So the job of reconstructing local human ecologies becomes especially difficult, because we’ve forgotten how to live without being propped up by other people’s value creation, or because the extraction of value has profoundly damaging effects on the social fabric.

Still, people everywhere are pretty creative at generating new social fabrics and new kinds of mutual aid. So my conclusion is this: grow fibres, pool resources, weave fabrics, build commons, make guilds. But do it carefully and be prepared to unstitch them when they go wrong, which sometimes they certainly will.

As to my opening point about people doing good things together, people will need to develop new agricultural commons of the classic sort in the small farm futures of many places, but in the short-term more malleable and inclusive arrangements will often be in order, as with responses to various emergency situations where defining strict membership criteria and usage protocols isn’t to the point. More fundamentally, I believe the key aspect of commoning as doing good things together won’t lie in the exact boundary definitions of common versus private property, but in the fact that both take their place within a larger collective politics of creating resilient and renewable local societies where people are autonomous and self-possessed actors within larger cooperative networks.


  1. See Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7, 16-31.
  2. Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, p.63.
  3. Borrowing here from David Bollier. 2014. Think Like A Commoner, p.15.

A Small Farm Future – the case for distributed private property

In this post and the next, I aim to lay out some issues about property relations by sketching how they might work in a semi-autarkic rural community or region within a small farm future. My focus is a temperate lowland zone like my home in southwest England, although the general issues apply more widely. Maybe we’re in the territory of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex once again.

What I’m going to sketch is so different from how things presently work in my home patch that no doubt it can easily be dismissed as the kind of idle fancy best left to a post-apocalyptic novel. So the other side of this I want to explore is the forces and the politics that might deliver such an outcome sooner than some might think. But that’s for a couple of posts down the line. First, the sketch.

Some grounding assumptions. In this sketch, we’re in largely post fossil fuel times and easy energy is scarce (in other words, low carbon energy has not seamlessly replaced the world’s present vast reliance on cheap and abundant fossil fuels). Also, the global political economy we know today is on its knees or in the morgue, liquid global capital is scarce and the centralized state is in retreat (see Part IV of my book).

But our region remains reasonably well suited for agriculture, or at least for horticulture. This implies that population pressure on land is high, and a large part of people’s needs – water, food, fibre (for clothing, cordage, firewood and timber), motive energy, medicines and minerals – must be met from local land. In this situation, unlike today, economic activities like food production will seek to squeeze the most they can out of the available water, land and motive energy. And probably out of the available capital too, but there will not be much of that. Squeezing the most out of labour will not be a priority – finding honest work for the multitudes of people locally probably will be.

Another assumption – most people will live in households oriented to meeting most of their own needs. I’m not really concerned for present purposes with the size and composition of these households, though it’s something I’ve previously discussed and hope to reprise again soon. It does seem likely that households will generally be small and comprise close kin, though not always. This has been a really widespread form of household organization worldwide through history. So in my mind’s eye I’m thinking about a society with a lot of small, kin-based households. But the key point for now is that households, whatever their size and composition, are farming mostly to take care of their own needs.

Final assumption – there are exchange relations between households and other local economic actors, but in this sketch we’re going to be agnostic about how they’re mediated. I think it might be through money, either the remnants of the old state currency or some new local contrivance. And there are advantages to that, because moneyless societies can more easily fall prey to status hierarchies, caste systems and the like. Of course, money can also be a dangerous foe to a convivial local economy. But money is not the same as capital, and capital is not the same as capitalism. Let’s recall a piece of Biblical wisdom: it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, but the love of money. More on that another time.

As per this earlier post, productive property can broadly be classified as:

  1. Distributed private property
  2. Monopoly private property
  3. Common property
  4. Public property

These distinctions can be a bit fuzzy in practice, and there are likely to be all sorts of hybrid complexities. But as a rough approximation, I think (1) and (3) will be emphasized and (2) and (4) will be de-emphasized in the society I’m envisaging – pretty much the opposite of the situation that you find in modern capitalist societies. So there will be a lot of upheaval to get from here to there. The extent of the upheaval will depend on cultural and social factors that will vary from place to place, but will also be driven by more invariant factors associated with human ecology in the new circumstances people will be facing.

Controversial opinion though it seems to be in some quarters, in this setup I think a lot – probably most – food production is going to be done by household labour for household needs on small plots that will be de facto or de jure privately owned: gardens, homesteads, smallholdings, micro farms.

There are some economic-y reasons for this. Where energy is cheap, labour is dear, land is abundant and farmers are producing crops for commodity markets (in other words, where the situation is like the North American prairie farming I mentioned in my last post) there are economies of large scale that generate the gigantic, mechanized mega-farms familiar to us today. But where, as in our situation, energy is dear, labour is abundant, land is scarce and farmers are producing crops for their own households there are diseconomies of large scale, or economies of small scale. Labour is highly productive of food/fibre, but adding more labour is not disproportionately more productive. So plots and households are relatively small.

Free riding and transaction costs will also be at play in this society, because they’re at play in every society even if they sound like specifically modern economic jargon best fitted to our selfish, individualistic modern ways. Of course, the manifestations vary culturally, but in every culture there are people who will try to get one over you somehow, and the more people you work with the more time or other resources you have to devote to hammering out arrangements with them. Sometimes you might consider the hammering out to be worthwhile, for any number of reasons that go beyond your immediate needs for food and other goods. But those needs will be quite pressing in the society I’m talking about, so you’ll probably be judicious about your involvement in these extra-curricular activities. Community gardens are a great idea in places where there’s not much community and not much gardening, but you don’t find them so much among communities that garden.

All the same, you’ll probably get involved in some inter-household economic activities. You might, for example, share raising a pig or two with one or more neighbours, because there are often economies of slightly larger scale here (diseconomies of very large scale remain). And the transaction costs and free rider problems of neighbourhood scale are usually not that great. But here we’re still within the realm of private property and private arrangements.

It’s likely, though, that with changing household needs or priorities, you might want to take on more land, or divest yourself of some. A common way of doing this in small farm societies has been by renting land – in other words, by making yourself a tenant. And where there are tenants, there are landlords. In A Small Farm Future, I argued vigorously against landlordism because it’s a royal road to monopoly property, the expropriation and oppression of the smallholder and the capitalization of the economy. That didn’t stop one pair of reviewers presenting me as an apologist for parasitic landlordism. But the fact is, when you depend upon the land for your living but don’t control your access to it, you’re extremely vulnerable – which is where the parasitism kicks in. This is a strong argument for smallholder possession of secure private property rights. If you have good access to land to meet at least your basic needs, you’re in a much less vulnerable position.

Nevertheless, you may still want to adjust the size of your holding to your passing needs year by year. Buying and selling land may be an option, but perhaps an overly drastic one. So, despite my general strictures against landlordism of the parasitic kind – which remain firm – I think there can be a restricted case for a land rental market. In the words of rural sociologist Francesca Bray, “Tenancy is a means of matching land and labour within a community so that resources are not wasted”1.

The key phrase here is ‘within a community’. We can distinguish between a moral economy where people of broadly similar standing devise arrangements to improve their collective wellbeing locally, and a monopoly economy where a small subset of people improve their wellbeing at the expense of everyone else. As I’ve already said, a local economy comprising distributed small-scale private property as its basic building block potentiates the former and safeguards against the latter. All the same, any kind of landlordism is a potential point of tension and demands vigilance by the tenantry.

One of the problems with rented land is that it easily creates free rider problems (the landlord free rides on the tenant’s improvements, the tenant free rides on the longer term wellbeing of the land) so it works best for modular, short-run uses like grazing or arable crops and not so well for the things that would be emphasized in a more intensive small farm future like orchards, dairies and gardens. So on ecological grounds, in the intensive, populated countrysides of a small farm future it’s likely that private owner-occupation will predominate over landlordism, even of the non-monopolistic kind.

Let’s look at what private ownership means a little more formally. Modern conceptions of it draw largely from Roman law, which distinguished between usus (the right held from the wider community to use the land), fructus (the right to appropriate the products or ‘fruit’ of the land to oneself) and abusus (the right to damage or alienate the land). Community-minded people often endorse the first two of these rights – usufruct – but, perhaps understandably, not the last one. If you damage the land’s long-term capacities, or dump pollution on it that affects downstream neighbours, or sell it speculatively in such a way that it’s removed from long-term availability to the wider local community, that can create problems for the community. So this is another point of tension in the system.

As I see it, people oriented to making a long-term livelihood from the products of the land itself (as opposed to the profits to be made from it) are unlikely to abuse it too egregiously, and there are remedies against abusers that fall short of full expropriation. In A Small Farm Future I argued against mere usufruct rights in favour of more inalienable private property, basically because I see usufruct as a back door to monopoly landlordism. My instincts here are kind of bottom up, grassroots and anarchist. If you lack the right of abusus, this potentially puts a lot of power in the hands of the wider community to define abuse in its own potentially self-serving way, and to expropriate you. Who is this community? Through what politics does it decide to exert its powers of expropriation, and how does it then redistribute access to land and livelihood among its members?

Physical escape from community abusus has been one favoured tactic historically to avoid these difficulties. In David Graeber and David Wengrow’s influential recent book I was struck, for example, by their description of scattered homesteading by native peoples in the North American Midwest as a way of avoiding centralizing political power in the immediate precolonial period2, something that their settler colonist successors also tried their hand at. Neither were successful long-term, with the latter arguably being victims of monopoly ownership from the outset.

But where physical escape isn’t possible, people have often sought something like private property rights from the political community as a safeguard against abuse of their capacities for self-creation by the political community. It may seem contradictory, but small farmers have put a lot of effort into making these claims throughout history, suggesting at least that it seemed worthwhile to them. Here we get into some weirder aspects of the moral economy as we orbit close around the mystery of political authority. More on that in another post.

I suppose I could alternatively just stop holding out and throw my lot in with usufruct. If I did, I think it would have to be through a radically participatory civic republican politics of recognition, where absolutely everybody in the community gets an ongoing say in defining its political goods. Which is another transaction cost or time sink, best kept limited to what the community really needs to debate. This in turn might point to the benefits of private property as a way of keeping the debate limited, especially when you unite this concern with the notion of self-possession that I emphasized in my last post.

Another possible form of abusus is sale or the handing on of property to another party. I don’t think such abusus is necessarily abusive, but it does run the risk. One possible ‘abuse’ is inheritance by the landholder’s offspring – potentially abusive inasmuch as due to bad luck, bad health or bad choices property has a habit of concentrating over time in fewer and fewer hands, taking us back to the problem of monopoly private property or abusive landlordism (this is well demonstrated by playing a game of Monopoly, originally called The Landlord’s Game to illustrate the ideas of Henry George, who’s thinking we’ll get to soon, I hope).

So an agrarian society of widely distributed small farm ownership needs to find ways of preventing land from being consolidated and keeping it circulating through the generations within the whole community. I don’t want to wade too far into policy wonkery here. In Chapter 13 of my book I suggested a way of doing this to prevent monopoly landlordism, which (sigh) was criticized by the same people who criticized me for supposedly endorsing monopoly landlordism. Anyway, inheritance is certainly another point of tension in the system where use may become abuse, so one way or another this issue requires attention.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of distributed private property, we can say for sure that it’s not an invention of modern capitalism. It recurs in numerous societies, arguably as far back as the Neolithic3. But it usually goes hand in hand with common property, which I’ll turn to in my next post.


  1. Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies, p.180.
  2. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything, p.471.
  3. See: Robert Netting. 1992. Smallholders, Householders; Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English.