Of climate crimes, community conflicts and carbon cowboys

I should really be getting back to my blog cycle about A Small Farm Future, but I have a motley assortment of agenda items I feel the need to share in this and the next post. I’ll try to round them off as quickly as I can.

1. Climate crimes

First, I can report that at City of London Magistrates’ Court last week I was duly found guilty of climate protesting, or more specifically of failing to comply with a condition imposed under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1988. I was given a conditional discharge on the grounds of my ‘previous good character’ (previous??), which means that technically I’m unable to boast having a criminal record.

But I do have to pay the prosecution’s costs – a rather eye-watering amount, especially when you consider their case didn’t amount to much more than getting me to say “yes, I was there” and “yes, I did do that”. I only wish my occupations as writer and farmer paid as well by the hour. Suffice to say the generous donations I received on the tenth anniversary of this blog have been well and truly neutralized, and I’m beginning to rue the purchase of that bottle of bubbly in January. Well, y’all know where the donate button is…

It would have been a lot cheaper if I’d simply pleaded guilty, but I don’t feel very guilty. Narked would be a better word to describe my mood after the trial, at least if you’re a Brit of my generation. It wasn’t the verdict itself – always a certainty – so much as the manner of it, which showcased the vast indifference of the court and by extension the state to the climate crisis engulfing us. I was already aware of that indifference, of course. It was the reason for my civil disobedience in the first place. But bearing witness to it in a court on unequal terms when the indifference was directed at me personally gave it a sharper emotional edge than I’d expected.

Anyway, I’ll say more about my supposed crimes and misdemeanours in my next post. Walking out of the courthouse right in the middle of London’s financial district, where a disproportionate number of the real climate criminals go about their business with the full support of the state, suddenly felt a bit on the nose in the circumstances. With my dear wife, who’d come to support me in court and thankfully on this occasion managed to resist the temptation to glue herself to its walls, we searched amidst this besuited miasma of peacocking masculinity, this ossified architectural monumentalism of phallocentric inadequacy, this Potemkin palace of overcapitalized excess, for an eatery whose menu didn’t involve prosecution-level costs for the prosciutto starter alone. Eventually we located a little place down the appropriately named ‘Change Alley’, where I proceeded to treat myself to a beefburger, thus contributing mightily to the problem of global heating, no wait, doing my bit to help sequester historic greenhouse gas emissions, gosh, this is confusing (see below).

2. Community conflicts

In the week prior to my trial I spent a couple of days at my desk trying to prepare my case, for all the good it did. The boredom of this led me into various distractions and temptations, such as slipping the brake on my usually restrained Twitter habit. This is something Martin cautioned me never to do in a comment here a while back. He was right. I think there must be some disequilibrium in the universe creating a Newtonian third law of Twitter engagement with a twist: for every action in the Twittersphere there’s a greater and more irate reaction (though to be fair my Twittering did receive some pretty good notices too). In the rest of this post, I’m going to run the rule over some of this to-and-fro, most of which could be regarded as friendly fire conflicts within the broad community of alternative/renewable agriculture. It’s a truism, of course, that people standing on adjacent ground often make the bitterest enemies. I’ll be interested what the regular commenters here at smallfarmfuture.org.uk make of it.

By far the politest and most congruent exchange was with @GIFTCIC on the matter of county farms, these being farms owned publicly by local governments in England and Wales with the idea of helping new entrant farmers get established, and of keeping land out of speculative clutches. Both ideas are close to my heart, and in view of the way that many local authorities have sold off or neglected their agricultural estate, and of the various crises now tormenting us to which small, locally-oriented farms provide some mitigation, @GIFTCIC’s call for a campaign of government compulsory purchase to revive the county farm estate makes a lot of sense.

It’s the kind of thing I’d write to my MP to support, if it wasn’t for the fact that my MP is currently suspended amidst allegations of sexual, drug and financial offences. Wherein lies a reason I struggle to get too excited about lobbying for county farms. With the vomit stains still spaffed up the wall from the partying at No.10, with backbench MPs spending their time looking at tractor porn or worse, and with magistrates neglecting to listen for even a few minutes to arguments about the necessity to protect against climate change, my personal cost-benefit calculus for pressing the organs of the state to take enlightened agrarian action no longer turns up favourable odds. I’d probably go so far as to say that helping to put more land into government hands right now, or possibly ever, is a risky option.

@GIFTCIC wrote: “We don’t have the luxury of time for anarcho syndicalism to the commons”, which may be so. My take is that we don’t have the luxury of time for any proposal on how humanity can extricate itself from its present predicaments, so we might as well focus our personal efforts on our own favoured approaches and try to support those of likeminded people as best we can. I lay my own hat in broadly anarchist-populist or civic republican attempts to build a new bottom-up politics locally in the shell of the old. Building the county farm estate is no hindrance to that, and possibly a help, but in my opinion probably not a key lever.

My exchange with @PSBaker10 was a bit more conflictual. It appears he’s not a fan of my book and its vision of low input, small-scale agricultures, writing  “To be more than a pipe dream you need projections, ball-park figures. How to realize such a future? Who’d be the farmers, how to train them? Investment costs … major irrigation, polytunnels, subsidies, extension service, insurance for climate shocks. Else – magical thinking!”

Let me just reiterate why I don’t think my description of a small farm future is a pipedream or a case of magical thinking. It’s because it or something like it is probably going to happen whether we like it or not. It might happen in more congenial ways or less congenial ones, and the relative congeniality will not be related to how soundly small farmers have planned their polytunnel investments. It will be related to how the biophysical and socioeconomic shocks unravelling present systems play out. This in turn depends considerably on the nature of the political forces at large in societies of the future. So it’s to these latter that I now devote most of my attention. A small farm future is not an ideal I’m championing, although there are aspects I do try to speak up for. Rather, it’s a coming reality that I’m trying to analyze in order to make the best of it.

@PSBaker10 added: “Not suggesting a detailed plan, but you need some sort of theory of change or framework. E.g. adaptive development based on complexity science … Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos is a good guide. Otherwise it’s just blah blah blah.”

I don’t doubt there’s much to be gained from more detailed thought about all that would be entailed practically and materially in a move to small farm localism, provided we don’t overestimate our predictive powers. Who’d have thought even last year, for example, that my own ramshackle little English farm would be donating spare seeds and old tools to growers in one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions on Earth, before war sawed off its normal supply chains? These kind of shocks are propagating, so for my part I think over-specified attempts at farm planning or political course-plotting themselves exemplify ‘blah blah blah’.

But each to their own. I’m just a lone-hand writer-farmer with no great interest or skill in financial forecasting (even though, strangely, my book has on occasion been right up there on Amazon’s bestseller list for this very topic). Maybe others might weigh in and help build a picture of the small farm business future – a more useful pastime than sniping at me on Twitter, I’d submit. Actually, I’ll be touching on this a couple of blog posts down the line, but at a level of generality that I think befits the huge uncertainties involved.

The only thing I want to add to this particular debate is the suggestion that readers take my projections about such things as three or thirty-three acre farms of the future powered by horses or oxen with a pinch of salt. I just can’t help myself from jumping off the main highway and exploring these old-time byways of small farms with oxen or draught horses. This is for a variety of pressing contemporary reasons, but also as a slightly mischievous counterpoint to the endless newspaper articles about the robotized agrarian techno-cornucopias to come that seem to expect their readers to (a) believe them, and (b) welcome them. In truth, I don’t think it’s so important exactly what form or size these future holdings take so long as they’re providing real food and fibre locally with broadly renewable methods and building local community. The real issue is the politics. Which I concede often does sound like just a load of blah blah blah. Until it suddenly explodes in your face.

3. Carbon cowboys

Finally, my journeyings on Twitter brought me into the firing line of various ardent advocates for regenerative ruminant grazing. Ironically, this was in the context of a thread I wrote making the case for livestock in low impact, renewable agricultures – specifically in the grassland-cropland rotation of ley farming. However, in writing that we will nevertheless need to eat less beef in the future I provoked the ire of various regenerative grazing advocates, who took a distinctly contrary view.

I didn’t particularly want to argue, so I softened my position and said that ‘maybe’ renewable agricultures of the future could accommodate more cattle globally than the present 1.7 billion. But nope, that wasn’t good enough for @soil4climate who insisted there was no maybe about it. When I tried to suggest lightheartedly that ‘maybe’ is the right answer to most questions, this is what came back to me:

“We aren’t interested in appeasing people who don’t understand soil or the essential role of ruminants in restoring it. We’re interesting in removing 300 billion tons of legacy carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into pasture and protein. Cows can do that. Not doubters.”

…a tweet that was liked by some thirty people, most of whom seemed to be beef farmers, perhaps in more ways than one. Well, here’s my last attempt to be conciliatory: in my opinion, beef and ruminant farmers unfairly get it in the neck for climate change/methane emissions and if I were one of them (which I sometimes am, on a very micro scale) I would probably be quite annoyed about it too. However, that doesn’t justify the kind of dogmatic self-righteousness from carbon cowboys – to use Simon Fairlie’s somewhat snarky but apposite phrase – on display in the quotation above.

What a curious world we live in where ruminant agriculture is identified by one vociferous minority as a major cause or even the major of climate change (the veganic argument), while another vociferous minority (the carbon cowboys) identifies it as the major way of mitigating climate change. My sympathies lie closer to the latter, but in truth I think ruminant grazing is neither a major cause of climate change nor a major way of preventing it. And while grazing ruminants on permanent grassland will definitely be a key local livelihood practice in some places, generally it will play only a minor role in the global agricultures of the future. I’ll explain the thinking behind this further in another post. Meanwhile, I plan to go a bit easier on Twitter.

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.

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.

Notes

  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.

Commons and households in a small farm future

As I mentioned in my previous post, The Land Magazine recently published a lengthy article from me, ‘Commons and households in a small farm future’. In this post I’m simply going to reproduce the article. The version here is my original draft which is slightly, but not very, different from the one in the magazine. The magazine version is available here. If you download it, you’ll get some nice pictures and a smarter typeface.

Over the next few posts here I’m going to go through various issues raised in the article in a bit more detail. So I’ll be interested in any comments I might receive here regarding specific aspects of the article, but it may be that I respond to them in more detail as I grapple with the relevant aspects in subsequent posts. Since these blog posts are often reproduced on some other websites, let me just reiterate that your best bet for getting a response from me is to comment directly at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk.

In many ways the article in The Land scopes out the territory of Parts III and IV of my book A Small Farm Future – Part III being ‘Small Farm Society’ and Part IV being ‘Towards A Small Farm Future’, in other words, the politics of how a small farm transition may occur. So hopefully it’s a useful preamble to the various posts to come that will focus on these parts of the book.

And so, the article:

It seems likely that the numerous and growing global problems caused by modernization and globalization will devolve into lower energy, less carbon intensive, more labour intensive, more rural and more agrarian ways of life than the ones to which we’re accustomed in the wealthy countries today. In The Land 27 Simon Fairlie sketched a possible human geography for such a world1. In my book A Small Farm Future I sketch, among other things, a possible sociology – in other words, how people might organize their property, social and political relationships2. This article summarizes these aspects of my book, and extends them somewhat in the light of responses to the book and my own further reflection.

In contemplating this future, there’s a rich historical storehouse available from societies of the past and present that have lived in this way and that for convenience I’ll call peasant societies – essentially, situations where large numbers of people spend at least some of their time on small local landholdings where they produce most of their basic needs for food, fibre and other necessities for themselves. This has played out in very different ways in different times and places that are by no means reducible to the stereotype of a miserable hand-to-mouth existence under the thumb of landlords or aristocrats, although regrettably that fate has been common enough. Peasant societies are so various that generalizing about them is questionable.

Still, there do seem to be some recurrent features born of producing a low-energy, partly non-market, local subsistence which are worth pondering as we contemplate the possibility of a similar future for much of humanity. To what extent does the peasant way inherently impose certain kinds of social structure, to what extent can we now exercise different choices over those structures, and how might peasant societies of the future differ from or resemble ones of the past? These are some of the issues I address here, while asking the reader’s forgiveness for a degree of over-generalization. The examples are global, but I don’t presume to speak for the whole world in outlining a possible small farm future – my main focus is the wealthy countries of the ‘west’, and more particularly my home turf of lowland England.

The Commons

One aspect of peasant societies is their collective self-organization. Peasant societies are societies of the commons, a point that people often champion nowadays as a welcome corrective to the present unchecked power of both private interests and the state. And it’s true enough – thorough local cooperation is essential in any low impact agrarian society. But it’s not always appreciated that commons almost always go hand in hand with and are circumscribed by private household production. It’s worth examining how this works in practice.

There are four key aspects of commons, which I call the four ‘E’s’ – commons are usually extensive, elemental, extra and/or exclusive. They’re extensive in the sense that they’re particularly appropriate to situations of diffuse and irregular resources – hunting or fishing rights, forest firewood gleanings and suchlike – where individual ownership or management would be impossible or impossibly inefficient. Where such extensive resources are the mainstay of provisioning, as for example with many foraging societies, the economy can be almost entirely based on commoning with little development of private rights, but in agricultural societies extensive commons are usually a supplement to more intensive household production effectively involving private property rights3.

Commons are elemental in the sense that they often form around the larger elemental features of the landscape – fire, water and earth – that elude household control. For example, Australian aboriginal societies often managed landscapes and fire risk through controlled large-scale burnings organized on a clan basis; various rice-growing communities in southeast Asia created local irrigation associations to organize water flow to the fields; and the open-field systems of premodern England were organized around shared use of draught animals4. But in all these cases, the day-to-day work was undertaken by smaller units of household or individual labour.

Commons are extra in the sense that they can be cleverly organized to squeeze extra productivity out of given resource inputs (for example, through the complex private/commons mix in traditional dairying arrangements, with private ownership over animals, hayfields and milking, but common grazing and cheese-making). In similar ways, common grazing historically enabled people who were otherwise too land-poor to keep animals, therefore operating as a form of redistributive welfare, while some societies organise commons around labour bottlenecks in the production of subsistence staples but not for cash crops. So commons can be ‘extra’ in supplementing or underwriting the returns from the established organization of production5.

Finally, commons are exclusive in the sense that they aren’t a free-for-all available to all comers, this being one of the main ways they avoid Garrett Hardin’s notorious ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which open access leads to ruinous overuse, as in numerous collapsed maritime fisheries where there’s no local community to regulate use and prohibit outsiders. In many peasant societies, to be a commoner is to count for something locally. But the corollary is that the interests of the commoners may not be the same as the common interest. Who’s included, who’s excluded, who gets to decide and the livelihood implications of these decisions are of great importance to the shape of peasant society and the fortunes of those within it.

One thing to be learned from these examples is how essential collective organization is to the functioning of low energy agrarian societies. Another is how difficult it is to organize a successful commons, with the result that commons usually only form when they make practical sense in particular circumstances – not out of some generalized faith in the joys of human collective organization. As I see it, there are four main reasons why it’s difficult to create successful commons, all variants of a wider ‘tragedy’: humans are complex social beings who can and must work collectively with each other, but also can and do find working with each other troublesome.

The first reason is that while it may be true that modern capitalist society has foolishly made selfishness and free-riding the cornerstone of economic action, these traits are sadly not confined to capitalist societies alone, as becomes apparent from a glance through the history of commons and commons failures in non-capitalist societies. Creating structures to protect commons from abuse is costly in human time and energy, and may not be worth it unless other options are worse.

The second point is a more subtle variant of the first. It’s not that most people are inherently selfish or ill-motivated towards collective arrangements, but unless it’s specified very clearly exactly who is responsible for doing exactly what, and the holders of these responsibilities actively embrace them, then the potential for failure is high. The writer Eve Rodsky calls this a ‘CPE fail’, when conception, planning and execution of a task aren’t well enough integrated6. The easiest way to integrate them is to make a single person responsible for the whole CPE of a given task. The larger the number of people with a stake in the CPE, the more work and communicative energy is required to avoid CPE failure. When Oscar Wilde joked “the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” he might equally have been addressing this aspect of commons.

But, third, the reason it takes up so many evenings isn’t just because it’s tricky partitioning out tasks. It’s also because people disagree on fundamental details. When the benefits of collective work – such as sharing a plough team – obviously outweigh the disadvantages, people willingly swallow their differences and find ways to work together. But when it comes to personally assembled and specifically crafted inputs or outputs (on my multi-household farm this includes compost heaps, split kindling, chainsaws, scythes, certain crops and living spaces) the benefits of personal autonomy usually win the day. This is a consistent finding from numerous peasant societies worldwide.

Fourth and finally, coming back to the prospect of evening meetings, when work is organized collectively some people’s voices usually carry more weight than others. This can hold not only in relation to obvious social differences, such as the relative weight accorded to women’s voices compared to men’s, or those with greater political status and authority compared to those with less, but also in relation to individual personalities.

For example, the people who have most aggressively disputed with me my reservations about collective work and insisted on the unqualified superiority of co-operation have (without exception) been men of such abrasive disposition that they can barely compose so much as a tweet on the matter without resorting to aggressive putdowns. It seems ironic in view of their insistence on humanity’s fine-tuned abilities to get along, but I’m not sure it is. The people likely to gain most from collective organization are the ones with the loudest voices who are most practiced in the arts of domination and best able to get others to dance to their tune, perhaps without even realizing that this is what they’re doing (human communities always seem the most beautifully functional wholes from the privileged vantage point of their centre). These are likewise the kind of people who go into politics, or in peasant societies become the self-appointed custodians of the commons. Those of quieter voice face the choice of subordinating themselves to the dominants or spending a lot of precious energies trying to defuse them.

Or, when they’re able, of walking away. Imagine justifying your farm enterprise to the busybodies on your local authority planning board not once or twice during your farming career, but on an almost daily basis. What applies to planning boards also applies to allotment associations, manorial courts or village soviets – the ‘big man’ politics of personal domination transcends the specific colour of the political regime. And so, for all the reasons discussed above, it’s hard to overstress the appeal in peasant societies of autonomy. In societies where physical escape may not be easy, juridical escape is keenly sought – the ideal of ‘three acres and a cow’ of one’s own (or, as one of my correspondents prefers, ‘five acres and a cow and a donkey’).

Household Farming

But this ideal itself is a collective one. People in peasant societies rarely live on a landholding in hermetical isolation. Instead, they usually share a household or a hearth with a small group of other people and work with them to provision the household.

The household basis of the peasant farm raises similar problems to commons – in fact, the hearth is a commons in microcosm. But before looking at the problems, let’s consider the advantages of hearth-based farming, given the present state of the world.

Most importantly, household production is self-limiting in a way that commercial production for wider markets rarely is. The farm household defines its needs for itself, works to meet them, then stops. There is no inherent tendency to increasing production and profit (in fact, ‘profit’ has little meaning on the household farm), and this is important in our present populous world increasingly poisoned by the consequences of such increase7.

Another way of saying this is that the costs and benefits of production are internalized by the farm household. The economic growth from which we supposedly benefit in modern capitalist societies too often comes from the immiseration of other people somewhere else, or the destruction of wild ecosystems and the drawdown of nonrenewable resources. But on the household farm, the heavier work demanded to grow its productivity is work you have to do yourself, and the ecological destruction it wreaks is on land you have to husband. So an important part of the self-limitation of the household farm is direct economic and ecological feedback of a kind that’s sorely missing in capitalist society – there is no incentive to destroy the ecological basis of your own livelihood, nor to immiserate yourself in pursuit of a larger one.

An implication of this household self-limitation is that, although the household farm is inevitably integrated into a wider community in numerous ways, it usually guards its autonomy of labour quite jealously, which is one reason why commons are an extra and often relatively minor feature of the working landscape in peasant societies. The CPE difficulties of a commons are one thing, but so is the loss of labour autonomy it involves. In peasant societies, kitchen gardens and arable fields whose flourishing responds mostly to individual labour deployment are rarely organized fundamentally as commons.

The reader may notice that these virtues of the household farm I’m extolling sound rather like the justifications for private property and private markets invoked in orthodox economics and right-wing politics, with their emphasis on making people bear the consequences of their own actions – reaping the rewards for their industry, and the punishments for their folly. In modern societies where the monopolization of capital in few hands and speculative returns on investment deny most people significant economic autonomy, such arguments for private initiative easily become victim-blaming exercises that see the poor and powerless as the authors of their own misery.

But in certain peasant or household farming societies where people do potentially enjoy such autonomy, there’s a stronger case for centring economic self-responsibility and ecological feedback on people and their households. In these situations, there’s no need for abstract and moralistic political ideologies about individual responsibility and the good life. People create their own institutions, typically a mix of private property and commons, an autonomy-in-community that enables it. It’s no coincidence that China’s post-Mao economic dynamism started with a bottom-up peasant activism later co-opted by the state under the term ‘household responsibility’8.

Household responsibility has been ubiquitous throughout global history, often in peasant societies wholly or largely untouched by the capitalist world. So when the eminent analyst of household farming Robert Netting wrote “Where land is a scarce good that can be made to yield continuously and reliably over the long term by intensive methods, rights approximating those of private ownership will develop”9 we need to look at it through a different lens to the one we use when considering how private property functions in modern capitalist societies.

Capitalist societies are geared to the accumulation of financial capital, which is put into the private hands of a few, whereas in the kind of societies Netting is talking about private property rights are widely distributed in the hands of many household farmers, while ‘capital’ operates more as the specific forms of working capital the household needs to build and maintain the farm and a decent way of life, and transfer it to the next generation. The sense is more usufructuary – the household ‘uses the fruit’ of the land, but doesn’t prioritize financial returns from it or appropriate it as a primarily financial asset.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the persistence of outdated 19th century thinking about ‘primitive communism’ and the recent origins of private property, we’re still saddled with the notion on the left that private property in any form is the root of all evil. But as I discuss in more detail in A Small Farm Future – and indeed as anyone who’s sought planning permission for an agricultural dwelling well knows – private property involves a bundle of distinct rights, some of which can be quite enabling of low-impact smallholding, and some of which remain resolutely within the control of the wider community, with its planning boards or other structures of collective local power.

Retaining such collective rights over land is absolutely necessary for a fair society. But everything depends on who controls them and for what purposes. Usufruct is all very well, but the devil is in the detailed politics of defining and allocating usage rights. Much of the history of peasant societies can be told in terms of the conflicts over these rights, the fight for household autonomy over land, and the danger of losing control of it to more powerful players. I’d suggest this is true pretty much regardless of the flavour that politics takes. Wherever political power is invested – in a village council or soviet, a liberal democracy, an autocratic state purportedly ruling on behalf of ‘the people’, or in a local landlord class – from a peasant perspective there’s an ever-present danger that there will be a ‘big man’ politics associated with it that will remove their autonomy. But in certain perhaps unusual situations the opposite can be true and all of these seats of power can be supportive of peasant autonomy – indeed, many of the premodern agricultural commons in Europe whose loss we lament today arose out of collaboration between local peasant cultivators (usually the better off ones), aristocracies and the state10.

We may soon be entering another unusual situation of this sort where there will be scope for creating peasant autonomies. The immediate precipitating factors will be climate change, energy descent, soil crises, water crises and political crises connected with the inability of capitalist nation-states to deliver expected levels of welfare to their citizenries, all of which are likely to fuel large-scale migration within and between countries, mostly to places tolerably well suited to intensive horticulture. Land will be a scarce good and people will garden it intensively. The emphasis will not be on ‘saving’ labour, but on increasing the productivity, diversity and resilience of local agrarian economies through various means, including intensifying the application of newly abundant labour to the land.

So by the lights of the quotation from Robert Netting above, it’s likely that in these situations property will mostly be small-scale, privately-owned and household-operated. This is particularly so given that most people will lack deep local roots, so the who’s in/who’s out logic of traditional agrarian commons will be ill-suited to the situation. Such commons will develop in time, but in the short-term the commons that really matter for creating fair access to land will be ones that can create access to smallholdings for allcomers. They will have to be apparently paradoxical ‘commons of private property’, allocating cropland equitably to private households in ‘tight’ farming situations where pressure on land is high.

More than one reviewer of A Small Farm Future has commented that ecological and political crisis might as easily result in the authoritarian retrenchment of centralized nation states rather than their eclipse, and that widespread access to land will only be won through class conflict against landed interests. I accept these points, and in fact made them myself in the book sotto voce. Authoritarian retrenchment is likely, but won’t provide stable solutions to present crises, so in many places will probably lose its grip on local affairs and will not endure. Between the smooth power of the centralized modern state and the chaotic lawlessness of ‘collapse’ there’s a wide spectrum of political possibilities. It’s worth contemplating the point on that spectrum involving semi-autonomous, low energy, local, agrarian societies responsible for providing for themselves most of the resources they need for daily life, including their politics.

To achieve such societies there will have to be ‘class’ conflict over access to land, whose result isn’t foreordained. But in most places I doubt it will be the kind of class conflict still often heralded on the left, where the political activism of the most downtrodden somehow generates society-wide revolutionary renewal that unlocks the treasury of capital for all without the need for hard and socially complicated graft in the fields and workshops. Instead, I think we’ll see more localized, more chaotic, more populist reconfigurations as capital melts away, where the interests of the disparate, displaced majority who have no access to land will contest mostly with the interests of the few who hold a lot of it. The ideal outcome for this kind of populism – none too different than for certain strands of libertarian leftism – is that national, ethnic and other such historical identifications will be superseded by a shared socioeconomic interest in accessing ‘land for the tiller’ in new historical circumstances entirely different from the ones that generated older historical identities. If it succeeds, the outcome of this popular conflict for the majority could be successful access to smallholdings and the creation of the kind of peasant society I’ve been describing.

It’s a long shot, I admit. But, as I see it, it’s a shorter one than every other scheme for sustainable and just social renewal. As with all societies, small farm societies of the future will involve numerous tensions and points of conflict, although the ones they face as they wrestle with the decline and death of capitalism are unlikely to be the same as the ones faced by small farm societies that wrestled with its birth and development. Some schools of thought consider peasantries as inherently unstable, apt to differentiate into landowners and labourers, but this conceals a more complex reality and has usually only been true in modern situations of economic growth and capital penetration (and sometimes not even then). The dynamics of new peasantries emerging in situations of economic contraction and capital decline are unlikely to be the same. So in the present world historical moment there’s a good case for addressing ourselves to the challenges of creating small farm societies and keeping them convivial and integrated, without importing too much baggage from the way those challenges played out in past circumstances of capitalist growth and colonial domination.

The F Word

So far, I haven’t said anything about the composition of the households doing the household farming. That’s probably as it should be. It’s not for me to say who other people should choose to share their fields, hearths or bedrooms with. What matters is that people do share them, work together to furnish their household, and stop when the furnishing is adequate.

Nevertheless, it’s noticeable that in many historic peasant societies worldwide, households often comprise an adult female/male couple and their children. In fact, this is also true in the decidedly non-peasant society of contemporary Britain: in 2019, over 80% of the population lived in a ‘family’ (defined as a cohabiting adult couple with or without coresident children, or a lone adult with children), the great majority of them occupying a single household, and the great majority of co-habiting couples being ‘opposite sex’, to use the official terminology11. In modern Britain, and in every other historical society, people participate in and rely upon wider social networks of kin and non-kin than the occupants of their household, but small, kin-based households based predominantly upon opposite-sex adult cohabitation are historically ubiquitous.

I want to be absolutely clear I am not arguing that this or any other given type of household or family structure is historically ‘correct’ and ‘ought’ to be followed, nor that the demands of self-reliant household farming favour any particular type of family structure or gender relations. But it’s still necessary to consider family and kinship relationships in local agrarian societies of the future. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult discussion to have. Even though family relationships are a deep social force and a powerful feature of most people’s lives, when it steps onto the political stage the concept of the family too easily becomes a caricatured hero or villain in a political tug of war.

Broadly, the political right makes a particular version of ‘the’ family the basic building block of a gendered, heteronormative, hierarchical vision of social stability, while the political left opposes all such attempts to make ‘the patriarchal family’ a building block for anything – the definite article in both cases hinting at the simplifications involved. Like another well-known ‘f’ word, ‘family’ is a political F bomb that only seems to accentuate feeling and entrench division.

I take no view as to what ‘the’ family in the household farms of the future should look like, and I’d hope that people will be able to experiment with endless possibilities for creating households and family structures within local farming communities. All the same, however plausible critiques of the “toxic, totalitarian prominence of the couple” and the need for women’s liberation “from the confines of marriage, the family and compulsory heterosexuality”12 might be, it remains true that many people opt for heterosexual coupledom even in highly mobile, marketized and individualistic modern capitalist societies where that choice is far from obligatory. It seems unlikely this will change in less marketized household farming societies of the future with a heavier loading on the household as the key unit of production. So inasmuch as women indeed are confined or oppressed by marriage and ‘the’ family, then gender equity becomes a vital political concern in relation to household farming societies of the future.

But even if people actively try to avoid grounding future local agrarian societies in kin relationships, I think it’s likely they’ll end up reinventing kinship over time. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins defines kinship as “mutuality of being”, where kinsfolk “participate intrinsically in each other’s existence”13. So kinship is about living other people’s lives long-term within yours, participating in the births, deaths and relationships, the joys and sorrows, of your kinsfolk. It doesn’t matter much if these people are considered biological or ‘blood’ kin. It does matter that you eat with them, work with them and/or care for them, and establish a clear, ongoing modus operandi in respect of long-term mutuality.

All of this can apply to non-kin such as friends, neighbours, colleagues or fellow members of an intentional community, but the difference in practice is that people in these categories can usually walk away from the relationship with little cost if they choose. The essence of kinship is that it’s not so easy to walk away. Of course, people do walk away from their families, but the pain of family estrangement that fills the agony columns of the newspapers suggests that usually it’s not easy. Underlying this is a sense that there are affinities between people in kinship roles that should usually be nurtured, that the roles (sibling, spouse, parent etc.) are ultimately more important in society than whatever specific difficulties and tensions may exist between given incumbents, and that the roles extend outwards (to cousins, in-laws, clan fellows etc.), incorporating large numbers of people within a locally meaningful ‘space’ of kinship that organises much social interaction and isn’t easily dispensable.

This kinship space has weakened somewhat in modern capitalist societies where work, residence, neighbours and friends loom larger, although family relationships remain surprisingly robust. In Britain in 2016, 2 million adults received unpaid informal care from other adults, the majority from a parent, spouse or child, and more from women than from men14. One argument is that this is how capitalism offloads costs, and that the government should provide better, less gender-skewed welfare services. Another argument, which isn’t necessarily incompatible with the first, is that caring for other people and specifically for kinsfolk is what people do, involving the mutuality of being that makes us human.

In small farm societies lacking the abundant cheap capital and energy necessary to create the employment, infrastructures, mobilities and bureaucratized welfare services of modern societies, kin networks are likely to be more important. We see this in examples from numerous peasant societies. Historian of medieval England Rosamond Faith remarks “As so much depended on others, peasant farmers could not afford to trust anyone who was not of good reputation”15 – and kin networks provide a handy idiom, shortcut and safeguard for reputation. So it seems to me likely that if local agrarian societies of the future are lacking in this idiom, they’ll soon reinvent it. Kin relations aren’t easily avoided.

Let me reprise my argument so far to get to the main difficulty with household farming. In a climate and energy-challenged future with limited ability to mobilise capital, it’s likely there will be a turn to small-scale farming and horticulture geared to local self-reliance. Given the pressure on cultivable land, it’s likely that the main productive unit will be the household or ‘hearth’. There will also be commons, but these will usually be less significant for the household’s total output than the work it directs itself because of the need to intensify household labour, because of various difficulties with the efficiency of commons in this kind of ‘tight’ farming situation, and because of the desire for autonomy. It’s likely that most households will be organized through kin relations – as indeed have been most households of the small farm past and of the non-farming, urban-industrial present – and it’s likely that many of these kin-based households will be built around a cohabiting woman and man, and their children.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that this is how things ought to be, but how things probably will be. All the same, there are certain aspects of it that may be desirable. One of them is the renewable, self-limiting productivity of the household mentioned above in the face of ecological constraint. Another may be the richness of local relationships. A lot of people lament the loss of ‘community’ in modern life, and the essence of community is non-optional relationships with kin and neighbours (immediate and more distant) that aren’t easily escapable. But the obvious downside of this is the danger of oppressive relationships within the household. This danger attends every kind of household, including ones built around same-sex couples or non-kin intentional communities. So although I’m drawing on gender issues for illustration, the point goes wider. In societies where households loom large as socioeconomic units, so too does the danger of intimate violence within the household.

Still, specifically gendered violence within small farm households is surely a significant concern. The way an oppressively patriarchal family farm works is similar to the way an oppressively dysfunctional commons works. Essentially, conception, planning and execution is split between different people, with the CP largely in the hands of the powerful (men) and most of the E in the hands of the less powerful (women), with the rewards falling inequitably and perhaps also male control operating more generically than just in the organisation of specific tasks.

There have been many ways women have challenged and transformed such patriarchal structures across global history, but the one that gets most emphasis in modern ‘western’ societies is exit, or at least potential exit. Just as people mitigate the potentially oppressive nature of the commons through seeking household autonomy, so have women mitigated the potentially oppressive nature of household relationships through seeking individual autonomy via such things as accessing divorce, education, fertility control, property ownership, financial independence, paid employment, voting rights and human rights.

Obviously, I support these autonomies, but there are some difficulties in realizing them for small farm societies. Without abundant capital and energy, it’s not easy to build the large institutional alternatives to a local household farming society that make them readily achievable. Indeed, avoiding the ecological drawbacks of abundant capital and energy is a principal advantage of a household farming society, but the risk of patriarchal control is high. Another problem is that while household exit from the domination of the commons may be feasible in peasant societies, individual exit from the domination of the household isn’t so easy, not least because it’s hard to generate an adequate livelihood as an individual in a low energy, low capital small farm society.

So safeguarding women’s rights and other rights within households in small farm societies is vital, but also challenging. At the same time, there’s a mirror to this problem – men without households can bring their own challenges in peasant societies where state control is weak. This was explicitly recognized in early medieval English ideas about the heorđfæst: a society where men are mostly ‘hearth-fast’, attached to a farm household, poses fewer threats to the general safety and wellbeing of its members than a society rife with unattached and underemployed men with a point to prove16. Finding ways that both women and men can be attached to a household that cares for them and honours their individuality, while also channelling it, is difficult. But household farming societies haven’t always failed completely in the task historically.

The ghost in the machine: politics as the other half of kinship

Building the basis for creating such caring rather than oppressive low impact, small farm households appropriate to present times is a key challenge. If I can’t claim to have solved it, I plead in my defence that I’m not alone. Patriarchy and other forms of oppression have remained stubbornly alive across all kinds of societies. It would be fanciful to think there are any simple or foolproof solutions.

All the same, there’s a place we can look for mitigating these oppressions. That place is politics. A banally obvious point, perhaps, but I want to suggest a particular kind of politics that could work in a future household farming society as a complement or alternative mode to the kinds of local kinship I’ve just been describing. Kinship looks to erase differences, emphasize commonalities and create a sense of a harmonious social world. This has its advantages, but it tends to bury social power, gender inequalities and other such uncomfortable truths. Political relations in a congenial small farm society would have to act as a counterweight to kin relations, identifying and transforming tensions and differences.

I won’t dwell here on the shape of that politics. In A Small Farm Future I briefly discuss the traditions of civic republicanism as particularly apposite for small farm societies of the future. A key attribute of civic republicanism is the existence of a public sphere, where a citizenry of equal standing tries to resolve issues through reasoned argument rather than the exercise of social power. Recent writings on the possibilities for restorative culture are a less explicitly political version of similar ideas.

A case in point is Eve Rodsky’s discussion about the politics of CPE and its failures that I mentioned earlier. Although I applied her analysis to problems with commons, which it nicely illuminates, Rodsky isn’t writing directly about commons at all but about female-male domestic relationships, where she argues that women usually shoulder a heavier CPE burden for household work than men in ways that men rarely notice or implicitly value. By bringing this hidden labour into the open and renegotiating the domestic workload on the assumption that men’s time is not more valuable than women’s, it can be possible to create a better functioning and less resentment-filled relationship or ‘domestic commons’. But in view of the gendered histories of labour and domesticity, this probably does require a wider public sphere to make reasonable the proposition that women’s time is as important as men’s.

In a thought-provoking essay, Wendell Berry argues that local communities are the necessary intermediary between the alienation of do-as-I-please individualism and the legalistic force majeure of centralized states and their associated publics17. For him, communities provide the firm foundation of local custom and practice on which good social relations – including good gender relations – must be built authentically from the ground up. The problem as I see it is that while this may ideally be true, too often the politics of local community simply replicates the don’t-rock-the-boat politics of household and kinship, conniving at rather than challenging its oppressions. A more transformative idea of local public deliberation is called for, where it’s possible for anyone to say “my voice will be heard, however important you think you are, and however much you’d prefer not to hear it”.

There’s a risk my argument involves a ‘ghost in the machine’, implausibly invoking the public sphere as a stopgap concept to rescue gender relations or other points of social tension from oppressive content in the small farm societies I’m describing. Yet I’d argue that every plausible public politics involves a ghost in the machine, because the essence of politics consists in identifying inherent conflicts or tensions in existing structures and attempting to overcome them with new approaches that inevitably borrow from the ghost of the old, albeit in different contexts (e.g. that if all men are created equal, then perhaps all men and women are created equal too, which was Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering feminist and republican critique of Rousseau). A future challenge lies in trying to retain this sense of differentiated public deliberation in small farm societies, rather than surrendering political autonomy to the notion that communities, classes, market forces, elders or charismatic leaders know best.

So against the conservatism of kinship and community, I propose the public. And against mechanical political approaches committed to the idea of some objective, underlying process like class consciousness or market discipline as the true motor of social progress, I propose only ghosts, with no guarantees that a small farm future will avoid patriarchy or other forms of domination. But then nor, I think, can any other political philosophy plausibly make the same guarantee. As I see it, there’s no machine, but only ghosts to guide our hands in working with the crooked timber of humanity. But ghosts can be powerful, and a patriarchal peasant future isn’t foreordained.

Inheritance

A couple of final points, the first of them geared to grounding the rather abstract discussion from the previous section into a problem of practical politics faced by all societies, but perhaps especially peasant societies. This is the issue of inheritance and intergenerational transfer.

Creating a tolerable livelihood in a low-energy, low-capital society involves learning often supremely difficult foraging, farming and/or craft skills, and acquiring the resources from previous generations to practice them. The main way peasant societies have dealt with this is through children growing up in and learning how to participate in a productive household, and at some point inheriting land and farm property from older generations. The difficulties involved in this are enormous, but the same goes for intergenerational transfer in all societies. Probably the main difficulty with property inheritance is that it tends to reinforce inequalities of wealth and status over time. Through bad luck, bad choices or naked theft, the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on the inheritance of the children. Peasant life historically has too often involved a grim struggle not to slide down the social order into poverty or dependence, and multi-generational strategies for rising up it.

Modern societies have moved some distance from this local politics of family and land, with redistributive centralized welfare states, formally equal citizenries and the engines of industry promising an ever-growing monetized wealth rather than a limited landed one down the generations. But given that the poorest 50% of the global population owns only about 1% of global wealth, while up to a third are physically undernourished, it can hardly be said this modern alternative is working out well. As economic growth falters and the various other crises I’ve mentioned bite harder, the prospects for redistributive, growth-oriented, centralized welfarist states surviving at all seem low18. At some point in this trajectory, the idea of being a hearth-fast smallholder may come to seem a more plausible route to a decent livelihood for most people than hitching one’s fortunes to the sputtering industrial growth engines of the modern central state.

In A Small Farm Future I toyed with ideas like high inheritance taxes as a way of preventing social inequalities, rentier landlordism and the economic effects of historical injustices such as racism from stifling opportunities in societies unable to buy off their populations with the promise of future fiscal growth. Others call for the nationalization of landownership. Such ideas might work where citizenries have collective commitment and a strong faith in the redistributive goodwill of the state. In England today, where corporate/government linkages already represent a land nationalization of a sort, and where radically redistributive governments have been in power for perhaps five out of the last seventy-five years, I wouldn’t personally wish to hand yet more power to the Boris Johnsons or Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world to determine how people might access and use land, nor to any centralized revolutionary politics divorced from the particularities of land stewardship. Various forms of localized co-operativism seem more attractive alternatives, but then we get into the minutiae of who gets to be the gatekeepers of local usufruct discussed earlier. In the face of such uncertainties, peasant farmers historically have often opted warily for the tried and tested routines of family inheritance and private landownership when they can.

Which segues into my final point. The notions of property, family and inheritance often articulated within peasant societies can seem dismayingly conservative. Radical politics in modern urban-industrial societies is usually both more individualist and more collectivist – more individualist in its critiques of family, gender, heteronormativity and the ‘couple norm’ in favour of personal freedom, and more collectivist in its belief that propertyless joint economic endeavour on a mass scale is feasible and liberatory.

I have some sympathies with this politics, especially its individualist elements (I find its collectivist elements unconvincing in view of the problems of CPE failure and ‘big man’ domination). There’s definitely a place for constructive, radical critique of the peasantization process I’ve sketched here. But it would have to venture into territory where existing radical politics in the west seldom dares to go: a future world of probable economic and industrial decline and state contraction, with limited energy availability, widespread migration and ruralization, and the need for many or most people to engage in labour-intensive local food and fibre production finely calibrated to the limited potentialities of the local landscape.

We know that societies of the past have experienced such pressures, and sometimes thrived in the process. Generally, they responded through strong but limited commons, family-based household farming involving bundles of private rights, family inheritance, labour intensification and land intensification. I think it’s worth attending carefully to how and why they did this before assuming there’s nothing we can learn from them in the face of contemporary problems.

Notes

  1. Simon Fairlie. 2020. ‘Cars: an exit strategy’ The Land 27: 12-17.
  2. Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth. Chelsea Green.
  3. See, for example, Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press.
  4. See: Bruce Pascoe. 2019. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Scribe US; Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies. University of California Press; Robert Allen. 1992. Enclosure and the Yeoman. Clarendon Press.
  5. See, among others: Tine De Moor. 2015. The Dilemma of the Commoners. Cambridge University Press; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7: 16-31; Bray op cit;J.M. Neeson. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge University Press; Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press.
  6. Eve Rodsky. 2019. Fair Play. Quercus.
  7. See Netting op cit and Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood.
  8. Lynn White. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.
  9. Netting op cit p.158.
  10. De Moor op cit.
  11. ONS. 2020. Families and Households in the UK. https://www.ons.gov.uk/releases/familiesandhouseholdsintheuk2020.
  12. Sasha Roseneil et al. 2020. The Tenacity of the Couple Norm. UCL Press, pp.7-11.
  13. Marshall Sahlins. 2013. What Kinship Is–And Is Not. University of Chicago Press, p.ix.
  14. ONS. 2019. Living Longer: Caring in Later Working Life. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/ageing/articles/livinglongerhowourpopulationischangingandwhyitmatters/2019-03-15#who-is-providing-unpaid-care.
  15. Rosamond Faith. 2020. The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. Cambridge University Press, p.80.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Wendell Berry. 1992. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. Pantheon, pp.117-73.
  18. Smaje op cit, Part I. For other analyses of the modern malaise, see: Aaron Benanav. 2020. Automation and the Future of Work, London: Verso; Hilary Cottam. 2018. Radical Help. London: Virago.

The Collective, The Individual and the Big Man: A Note on Small Farms, Racism and the Media

The Land Magazine has just published a long article from me in which I sketch some key issues facing small farm societies of the future, anticipating much that I want to say in the remainder of this blog cycle concerning my book A Small Farm Future.

I’ll reproduce the article in my next post and expand on it in future ones. In this post, I’m just going to mention a few points from it, relating them to an issue that seems to have blown up in alternative farming circles in the USA concerning the alleged racism of small-scale family farms, and how media constructions play into this – what I’ll call the Salatin-Newman problem. But I’ll get to that shortly.

1. Household farming and the commons

Societies oriented to local agrarian livelihoods have frequently involved strong forms of collective organisation, but also a strong development of what are effectively private property rights, typically exercised by households comprising closely related kinsfolk practising skilled self-provisioning work individually. This can be upsetting to standard modern political positions, the collectivism offending cherished notions on the right, the individualism and kin structuring offending cherished notions on the left.

In my article, I explain why these jointly collective and individual forms are so frequent and outline some of their advantages – while acknowledging, I hope, the drawbacks too. I suspect these joint forms will figure heavily in small farm societies of the future. I’m open to the possibility there may be better ways to organise things, but to be persuasive I think the proponents of such possibilities need a thorough grasp of why the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual practices has been so frequent historically. Alas, this seems less common than invoking simplistic individual vs collective dualisms and advocating solely for one or other side.

I touched on some of these issues in a post I wrote a little while ago, where I offered some friendly criticisms of the cooperative farming model advocated by Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms.

Sylvanaqua’s response on Twitter was none too amiable, opting for an ad hominem attack on me along the lines that I sounded like a wannabe know-nothing with a permaculture design certificate, before suggesting to a woman who was advocating critical engagement with my position that “You can look for my work and read it, or you can go fuck yourself. Because who are you again anyway?”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced an aggressive and dismissive response from people (men, usually) who espouse egalitarian collectivism in agriculture. Usually, I’ve just shrugged at the irony of folks who can’t even engage in a Twitter exchange without combative putdowns while supposing they can handle the enormously more emotionally demanding reality of genuinely egalitarian collectivism in farming.

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t an irony at all. The people who stand to gain the most from formally egalitarian modes of local collectivism are the ones most skilled at implicitly dominating, bullying, cajoling or bending them to their own purposes where others will have greater difficulty in challenging the appearance of collective harmony. So it’s no surprise that egalitarian collectivism is often favoured by domineering characters – not least within historic Marxist-Leninist regimes where the ‘big man’ style of personal domination can justify itself with respect to the ‘scientific’ trappings of its power, and opponents can be easily dismissed as ‘bourgeois’, ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’ or whatever. The appeal of being able to walk away from this big man style of local domination, of not having to either submit to or waste precious time resisting the dominants, is one reason why more individualist approaches manifest in many agrarian societies. In my article, I trace a few of the implications of that point.

I can’t say whether Chris Newman fits that oxymoronic mould of the domineering egalitarian, and I don’t much care. My point is a wider one. But the tweets emanating from Sylvanaqua do give me the impression of the kind of status-aggrandizing big man micropolitics that so often blights people’s lives in rural places where you can’t just escape by turning your computer off, but you might just escape if you’re able to organise some personal autonomy through property rights.

After I’d submitted my article to The Land, I became aware of various recriminations emerging out of Sylvanaqua – as for example discussed here, here, here and by Sarah Mock here. I’m in no position to judge the various claims and counterclaims, except to say their very existence does seem like prima facie evidence for my basic argument that it’s hard to keep large-scale agrarian cooperatives on an even keel.

Indeed, this point is made by Sarah Mock, formerly of Sylvanaqua, thus: “[a] system of collective agriculture …. requires outstanding interpersonal skills, a deep commitment to shared goals, a thoughtful recruitment strategy and a rigorous onboarding and training curriculum, a strong and healthy internal culture, a bias towards continuous personal growth, and well-established and articulated structures for conflict-resolution that can be accessed and reinforced by each and every member of the group. Collective systems require collective power and an incredible amount of humility and patience from every individual, most especially the leader.”

Aside from the eyebrow-raising idea that genuinely collective systems of agriculture have ‘a leader’, this seems about right to me as a general summation of the challenges these systems face. In my twenty odd years around alternative agriculture, I’ve seen much-touted, supposedly mould-breaking new co-ops and non-profits fail time and again because of these inherent difficulties – often through social conflict between people of goodwill who end up bearing the wider dysfunctions of the food system as a personal burden. To be fair, I’ve seen a few household farms fail too for much the same reason. None of this stuff is easy.

But now imagine yourself in a tight and tough peasant farming situation that places heavy demands on your labour, with little time, energy or capital to spare. I’d suggest that the chances of pulling off the kind of system that Mock describes without conflict or personal domination emerging are minimal. Which is a major reason why local agrarian societies usually work collectively where they have to, but not otherwise. This raises other difficulties, which I discuss in my article and in my book. But the alternative of agrarian cooperatives is no panacea.

2. Is the small farm racist?

Another theme that’s recently emerged around the household vs collective farming duality, particularly in the USA and again with Chris Newman as a key protagonist, is the question of the small family farm model as being effectively racist.

The background to this is Newman’s argument with regenerative grass farming notable Joel Salatin, which is explained in this widely-aired article by Tom Philpott. In a nutshell, Salatin responded to some criticisms of his farming practice from Newman with ad hominem dismissals of the latter’s greenhorn status (well, I know how that feels) followed up with some heavily racist comments.

It’s a sad story of Salatin’s flaws but, in Philpott’s rendering, it becomes something more, with Salatin presented as an archetype of small-scale, regenerative, family farming more generally, his racism a lineal heir of the Jeffersonian smallholding vision and his individualist farming model merely replicating systemic inequities. Newman is presented as the positive to Salatin’s negative – someone who draws from a deeper, anti-racist, collectivist, indigenous tradition.

And so we arrive at this homology:

Salatin – Newman

Jefferson – Indigenous

Racist – Anti-racist

Small family farm – Larger multi farm

Individualist – Cooperative

Politically conservative – Politically transformative

Confirms existing food system – Challenges existing food system

Negative example – Positive example

I think this is problematic for various reasons which I hope to address in future posts. It’s true nonetheless that small-scale farming models have played their part in the history of US racism. If we’re going to point the finger at a president, however, I’d suggest a more telling target than the soft one of Thomas Jefferson is the more ambiguous one of Abraham Lincoln, on whose watch the 1862 Homestead Act was passed. As documented in Paul Frymer’s interesting book Building an American Empire, it was through this (and other) means, that US governments peopled the country in the late 19th century with land-hungry white settlers in ways that ensured white electoral majorities over black and indigenous people, and indeed in ways that helped create ‘whiteness’ as a modern political project in the USA.

There are other cases of racialized small farm settlement as a political strategy on violent colonial frontiers – for example in parts of Latin America, Southern Africa and Australia. But the history of these places is not the history of the world, and farm scale per se is not the decisive factor in them. The agrarian history of political racism in my home country of Britain worked in pretty much the opposite way. Britain’s colonial extension established it as a food-importing metropole, extracted most of its national populace from small-scale farming, and fostered large-scale commercial alternatives at home and abroad. If the small family farm can be represented as a racist institution, then a nodding familiarity with the history of the Atlantic slave system is surely enough to suggest that the large non-family farm oriented to supplying agrarian commodities to metropolitan regions is also a racist institution.

I suspect the dominance of settler-colonial history in folk memory within the Anglophone world, and the global political dominance of the USA, makes it dangerously easy to slide from the racist settler-colonial history of the small farm in the US to some over-generalized notion that small family farms are racist and inherently problematic. Yet there have been generation upon generation of small-scale, kin-based farms in South, Southeast and East Asia, in Africa, in precolonial Europe and in the Americas without the racism implicated in current US discussions of the small single farm model. This alternative small farm history includes African American farmers in the USA in the aftermath of slavery, as discussed in this interesting presentation by Noah McDonald. The notion that the small kin-based farm is inherently tainted by racism strikes me as an ethnocentric and Anglocentric over-generalization of more specific histories.

Perhaps I’m labouring the obvious here: the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. There is intrinsic racism in access to farmland, and most other forms of capital, in the USA and in Britain and other countries too. In my opinion, anyone starting up a small family farm, a large commercial farm or any other kind of land and capital-based operation is well advised to do it thoughtfully in the local historical context of who has had access to land and money and who has been denied that access, and to do their best to transcend that history, even if their best probably won’t be good enough. But the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. Indeed, often enough it’s been aspirational for people denied the possibility of creating one due to racism and other forms of oppression.

I won’t dwell here on the other problematic aspects of the homology I drew out above from Philpott’s article, though I hope to return to some of them. However, as I’ve said previously, whether farmers work in single family operations or in larger cooperatives, it’s unlikely they’ll succeed in redressing the iniquities and inequities of the food system, still less the everyday power dynamics of human interaction, bottom-up through their farm structure. So while I think Chris Newman and Tom Philpott are right to question the transformative potential of the small family farm model within our current political economy, the same doubts hang over the kind of cooperative models they espouse. I’m not saying people shouldn’t experiment with such cooperative models. On the contrary, I’m all in favour of experimentation. I’m likewise in favour of experimenting with family/household farming models. I just don’t think there are good grounds for suggesting that fully cooperative models are intrinsically better than household farming ones. Or for suggesting that either model alone can remedy the deep-seated problems of the food system.

The reason I still advocate for small-scale household farming is mostly because I think it’s best equipped to meet the looming challenges of climate, energy and socioeconomic crises to come, rather than being an intrinsically transformative model in the here and now. On that note, those of us who have white privilege, or class privilege, or rich country privilege, might be wise to look at the example of Thomas Jefferson with a little less self-righteous hindsight and a little more personal discomfort. Jefferson lived in a time of unprecedented social change. He addressed himself in some powerful ways to that challenge, but in the end failed to overcome the contradictions, compromises and bitter legacies of his time – a failure in my view grounded less in the fact that he advocated for small family farms than in the fact he didn’t advocate for them radically enough. In any case, many of us may soon find ourselves likewise living among epochal changes that will bring immense suffering to many people. In fact, we already are. Can we look at ourselves with honesty and be certain that we or the politicians we elect will meet the moral challenges facing us better than Jefferson did? I’m not seeing good grounds for that at present.

3. Farming the media

A problem with the Salatin-Newman imbroglio is the fact that it’s a media event, with all of the pressure for simple and satisfying storylines that entails. Joel Salatin has some interesting ideas about grass and livestock, but he’s never been an uncomplicated hero of the alternative farming movement (as opposed to people writing about the alternative farming movement) or been seen as a significant political theorist within it, and he’s long been criticized within the movement for several reasons – not least that his skills at media self-promotion somewhat exceed his results on the ground.

It now seems the same may apply to Chris Newman. I wouldn’t know. But I definitely think there’s a problem with the way that charismatic personalities appear on the farming scene, scornfully dismiss predecessors in favour of their chosen approach, get themselves amplified in the media and gather disciples around them who loudly squash any questions or criticisms, and then get invoked positively in boilerplate media articles as a shorthand critique for much more complex and ambiguous realities. I’ve seen it so, so many times across numerous dimensions of the farming scene. It’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to strive to do better – and we need to do better than this. In my view, the lesson of the Salatin-Newman problem is not that Salatin was a hero who turned out to have feet of clay and needed replacing with a new hero like Newman, but that it’s better to write about farming without invoking heroes at all.

So, here’s my suggestion: if a farmer has written a book, does a lot of social media, has a lot of articles written about them, or claims to have solved the difficulties that are inherent to farming or the politics of farming, then treat the claims they make or that are made on their behalf with a large pinch of salt. Of course, with a book, a blog and a Twitter account to my name, I thereby implicate myself within this rogue’s gallery of influencers and wannabes. To be honest, I feel a bit too old and tired to qualify as a ‘wannabe’. Except for one thing – there’s a vastly greater historical weight to the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual peasant farming strategies than there is to the mould-breaking claims of a handful of media-savvy present day farmers, and I wannabe a voice as best I can for those tried and tested strategies of innumerable small-scale and peasant farmers down the ages who for the most part never left a script, never had a book to sell, a big idea or a guru to promote, but who I believe have nevertheless still left much from which people today can learn. What I hope to do in the next part of this blog cycle is try to distil some of those lessons for present circumstances.

What’s in a number?

Chapter 11 of A Small Farm Future is predominantly a number-crunching exercise showing that Britain could feed a population of 83 million people using organic farming methods with locally generated fertility when yields are generally assumed to be 10% lower than the lowest bound of current organic crop yields, and with minimal fossil fuel use on-farm. The kind of analysis I did will be familiar to readers of this blog who followed my posts about feeding the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, but in this case I applied the analysis to the whole country. I didn’t apply it to the whole world, however, and this is where I need your help (see below).

The basic take-home message of the analysis as I see it is that it’s possible for Britain to feed itself even with these stringent assumptions about population, yield and energy. So barring major climate tipping points or socio-political meltdown (both of which are possible, of course), I don’t believe that our food supply problems are ones of basic ecological carrying capacity. This is consistent with various mainstream studies, though not with the narrative that only capital-intensive, hi-tech, output-maximizing agricultures are capable of feeding us. Other organisms, if they’re capable of such thought, might take the view that their food supply problems are one of basic ecological carrying capacity as a result of human encroachment, but that’s another issue that I address elsewhere in the book – and, in passing, below.

I chose the population figure of 83 million – around 17 million more than the present UK population – on the assumption that Britain will be a destination for climate refugees in the near future. I plan to write more on this topic soon, but for now I’ll just underline my previous observation: even with a considerably enlarged population, Britain can feed itself with low impact and low yield methods. At the enlarged population of 83 million, this would involve a land take of 0.4 acres per person, with some slack in the system but with more land than presently devoted to cropping rather than grass. It’s tight. It involves potatoes. But it’s doable.

In the course of my analysis in Chapter 11, I mentioned that the agriculture I was proposing would require something like 15% of the working-age population to work directly as farmers (and more to serve the farm workforce indirectly). This number got picked up by various readers and reviewers and – as generally seems to be the way with bold quantification – prompted a certain amount of comment.

I think 15% is defensible, but to some degree I plucked it from the air on the basis of various assumptions that could be questioned, so I certainly wouldn’t defend it to the hilt. Arguably, the true number might be more. Conceivably, it could be less – though I doubt it. But what are the implications? What’s in a number?

One implication, I think, is that my analysis is sociologically plausible in the grand scheme of things. If it had turned out that the ratio of workers to consumers was close to or greater than one, then I would have had to conclude it’s impossible to feed ourselves with low impact methods, but I don’t believe this to be the case. As I mention on p.161 of my book, the 15% figure would put Britain in the company of countries such as Tunisia, Mexico and Ukraine today. There’s no strict comparability between what’s happening in these countries now and the kind of future scenario I’m describing. I make the comparison really just to suggest that 15% is not some outlandishly implausible figure.

People often point to the low proportion of the British labour force employed in agriculture (around 1%, currently) as if it’s an impressive historical achievement, rather than a source of past and probably future pain. But it does need noting that the true labour force involved in producing the country’s food and fibre is much higher, because we export the responsibility to grow labour-intensive products abroad, or else import from abroad temporary labour in those sectors, and this isn’t captured in the 1% figure. If you throw in all the processing, logistics and retail jobs that exist in the present food system but probably wouldn’t in a more self-reliant small farm future, then the 15% figure might start looking quite run of the mill. Indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post, it’s likely we’ll soon be in a situation where a lot of people will be looking for work to feed themselves at a time when many of the employment sectors that people have come to rely upon in modern society to provide for their needs will be contracting. So a plausible response to my analysis in Chapter 11 might be – “Just 15%? Couldn’t it be more?” The good news is, yes it could.

If 15% of people worked as farmers, that means on average that around one in six adult workers you know would farm, and the majority of families would probably have a personal connection to agriculture. It’s interesting to speculate how that might affect the standing of agriculture in society. One suggestion that’s come my way is that its standing would remain low, and the 15% would be dominated by the other 85%. It’s certainly possible, but I’m not sure it’s a matter of the simple numbers. There have been many societies historically with much higher proportions of people working directly in farming where the social standing and political opportunities of the farmers are low. But an interesting aspect of the epoch of modernity – manifested especially in the politics of populism – has been the idea that as citizens, individuals or humans, we are all of equal standing. It will be interesting to see how that issue plays out in the turbulent politics that are upon us.

One criticism I’ve received concerning this analysis is that showing how Britain can feed itself – even with numbers swelled by climate migration – is all very well, but it doesn’t prove that we can feed ourselves with local low-impact methods worldwide. On page 153 of my book, I give some reasons why the British case may not be wildly unrepresentative of the global one, but the criticism is a reasonable one all the same. I took the view that it was hard enough – and the assumptions were heroic enough – even to do a Britain-wide analysis. Trying to do a worldwide one would have been a step too far.

But maybe I can call on some external help in this regard. Greg Reynolds recently jotted some thoughts here about farm productivity from his US experience, and it looks like Jan Steinman might have some Canadian data up his sleeve. The main spirit of Chapter 11 was not fundamentally about me showing that the world could feed itself sustainably but about inviting people to think about their localities or regions and address their food sustainability for themselves. So … if anybody would care to do that – in whatever way they deem appropriate – I’d be delighted for them to send me their results via the Contact Form. I can’t promise that I will publish them or necessarily do anything with them, but if some sufficiently interesting analyses come my way I will try to make something of it.

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, I’ve received some semi-aggressive feedback along the lines of “It’s absurd for you to think my locality could be food self-reliant. I live in a city/desert”. Aside from noting that interesting final conjunction of words, my first blush response to this has usually been something along the lines of “Well, I’m sorry to hear that but, er … that’s not fundamentally my problem”. Ultimately, though, it is my problem as much as it’s anyone’s, and this is why I built a margin for climate migrants into my modelling for Britain. To be blunt, if your own modelling suggests your present local population couldn’t easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present high numbers. If, on the other hand, your modelling suggests your present local population could easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present low numbers.

A final observation. I’m writing this post on a sunny late May evening in the first spell of dry weather we’ve had after three cold, wet weeks. For two days, all day long and well into the night I’ve heard the distant whine of tractors in neighbouring fields busy playing catchup making silage. When they’re done, I know what the fields will look like – shaved bare as a skinhead’s pate from boundary fence to boundary fence.

When I think about my own site, with its mix of woodland, rather underused grassland, its small extent of heavily cropped gardens, its houses and outbuildings, I’ve sometimes felt guilty that we’re not maxing out the productivity like our neighbours. On the other hand, when you step from those fields into ours, the first thing you notice at this time of year is the sudden birdsong and the buzz of insects. You notice the large number of people living, working or playing on the site. You might notice the large diversity of its products – in addition to the meat and wheat furnished in such quantity by the surrounding fields, there’s wood for building or burning, fruit and nuts, a proliferation of vegetables, and quite a bit of wild food too. We could, if necessary, ramp up the per acre food productivity a little, especially if we brought more people onto the site to live and work. And we could probably do it without compromising too much on the birds and insects. But I don’t feel too guilty because, as I said above, I think Britain can feed itself well with low impact, low energy and low yield methods. The main problems lie elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

The sheep sacrifice

Continuing my amble through my book A Small Farm Future, my next stop in Part I is Crisis #7 – Land (pp.43-51). There’s a specific aspect of this that’s topical at the moment here in the UK, so I’ll begin with that and work my way towards a more general conclusion that’s implicit in the book.

With a no deal Brexit looming and the Government’s farm subsidy regimen shifting towards payments only for delivering ‘public goods’, it looks like hard times may lie ahead for many commercial farmers in the UK, none more so than for upland livestock farmers. The UK is by far the EU’s largest sheep producer, and about a third of its production is exported, the great majority to other EU countries. So sheep farmers (primarily in the uplands) face a double blow of contracting markets and contracting farm support. I’m not sure exactly how that will play out, but maybe with farmers shooting a lot of next year’s lambs. I hope none of them end up shooting themselves.

The decline of the upland livestock industry will be celebrated by many in the (re)wilding movement, for whom Britain’s ‘sheepwrecked’ mountains have become the iconic example of misplaced agrarianism at the expense of wilderness. Without the intensive grazing pressure of sheep, the argument goes, the mountains would regain their tree cover, with numerous benefits for biodiversity, as well as lowland flood abatement. And instead of eking out a marginal economic existence as farmers, the people of the uplands could then earn better rewards as custodians of the rejuvenating wilderness and workers in the consequently growing tourist industry.

The rewilders surely have a point. Sheep stocking in the uplands is at a high level historically and there’s much to be said for reducing it and creating more complex silvopastoral upland landscapes. Arguably, this would more closely resemble the farmed upland landscapes of the past, when the mountain valleys would also have had a greater diversity of arable farming, horticulture and local crafts and industries, much of it devoted to local needs. What changed was less an enthusiasm among upland farmers to cram the hills with sheep than the dictates of central government policy, in the UK as in many other countries, which has generally pushed farmers to focus upon the single most advantageous and remunerative crop in their area to the exclusion of almost everything else. There’s a danger that by design or default (re)wilding will figure as another top-down policy prescription imposed from afar, without connecting to local histories of mixed land use geared to feeding people locally.

This touches on debates about so-called ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ that I discuss under Crisis #7 in the book. Behind them lies a wider philosophical question of human ecology: which is preferable, a world of domesticated and urbanized humans experiencing unpeopled wilderness only as visitors and sojourners, or a world of rather wilder humans making modest livelihoods in rural spaces? And perhaps behind them too lies a matter of practical ecology sparked by the classic ecological question of why the world is green – that is, are plant-rich terrestrial landscapes preserved from the depredations of herbivorous animals top-down by predator control of the herbivores, or bottom-up by plant defences against herbivory?

I won’t dwell on all that here, but essentially I’m in the bottom-up camp. Share land, wild ourselves by learning to live in place, and don’t over-fetishise predators because plants can more or less take care of themselves. Still, in the short term I daresay that erstwhile farmers in the uplands will make a better living working as tour guides than they ever did as shepherds. In the present economy, herding people always pays better than herding livestock. But while they might be making a better living – and while some, I’m sure, will genuinely take to tourist work – I’m not convinced that many upland folks will be making a better livelihood, in the sense of participating in a way of life that’s deeply structured to the sustaining possibilities of the local landscape. And this, ultimately, is what seems most likely to endure. The present collapse of tourism due to Covid-19 is surely only the harbinger of a larger and longer collapse in the possibility that the wider economy can keep infusing places with wealth greatly beyond their local means.

For sure, people gain from participating in the wider economy and the services it provides. Doubtless there are few who would want to renounce all of it in what Emma Marris (who I quote on p.27 of my book) calls the ‘grand sacrifices’ involved in turning our backs on our contemporary high-energy, high-throughput society. But that society isn’t quite as paradisiacal as is often supposed, especially for those with a less advantageous place within it. And, however paradisiacal it is, it’s in any case unlikely to survive the numerous crises that I outline in Part I of my book.

Therefore, I think many of us certainly will need to make sacrifices. So perhaps it’s as well for us to ‘sacrifice’ in the original sense of the word – to make sacred. An awful lot of contemporary thought makes sacred urban, fluid, high-energy consumer culture. It’s time to put this romanticism aside. We now need to find ways to come to terms with both the opportunities and the constraints within local agroecosystems like the forgotten silvo-arable-pastoral systems of upland Britain, thereby making them sacred.

But with the sacred comes the profane. So we also need to think through the difficulties of small farm localism, just as the romantics of urban modernity need to think through the difficulties of their own vision. As to whether continuing with present high-energy, urbanizing, monoculturalizing trends involves more sacrifice than low-energy, decentralizing, landscape diversifying trends, it really depends on what you consider to be sacred.