Why I’m still a populist despite Donald Trump: elements of a left agrarian populism

I’ve been trying to articulate a form of populist politics on this site for several years, in the course of which mainstream media commentators have treated populism as a matter of supreme indifference. But after Brexit and Trump, plus the less seismic rise of left-wing populisms, suddenly populism has become the topic du jour on the opinion pages of the quality press. Seriously guys, where were you? A lot of the analysis has been patchy, involving a mixture of condescension and incomprehension. Meanwhile, we seem to be awash with thunderous epitaphs for liberalism, not least from liberals themselves, which is quite endearing – liberals are almost alone among political ideologists in agreeing with their critics about how awful they are.

Well, I can understand the hand-wringing prompted by the waking nightmare of Trump’s impending presidency. Where even to begin? For one thing, it probably means the slim remaining chance of preventing runaway climate change has now gone, leaving only the unedifying hope that the US economy tanks with such terminal speed as to yield lasting emission cuts by default. Then of course there’s the racism, the misogyny, the crypto-fascism. The puzzle for the left lies in understanding how the failure of a right-wing economic project (neoliberalism) seems to have entrenched the power of right-wing governments in the west. Its own ineptitude is part of the problem, but isn’t the whole story. Still, the rise of right-wing populism begets contradictions that I doubt conservative politics will easily overcome in the long-term. And the fact that voters in the world’s largest economy have opted for the kind of protectionism that small economies usually try to invoke to shelter themselves from bigger fish surely indicates we’re entering the endgame of a self-ingesting neoliberalism. What comes next? Populism of course.

But, like fairies, populism comes in good and bad variants. When Trump and the Brexiteers fail to deliver on their promises, as they surely will, a political moment might arise when (perhaps helped with a wave of the wand) there’s a chance to install a left-wing, agrarian-oriented, internationalist form of populism. Or else we may get something far worse than the present. For that reason, I agree with Owen Jones that the left needs a new populism fast. So instead of further adding to the torrent of leftist self-recrimination after Trump’s victory, what I think I can most usefully do is outline what populism is and how it could assume forms that might save us from the bad fairies like Trump. In that sense, I want to take a leaf out of the liberals’ book and engage in a bit of populist self-criticism.

Populism Defined: Five Features of Populism

1. Populism means rule by the people. So there are two key concepts here. First, rule – implying some kind of organised state. Second, people – those who fall under the state’s jurisdiction. Neither concept is at all straightforward. What kind of rule or state, and on behalf of which people? Historically, populist movements have often paid insufficient attention to the nature of the state, and why it’s so difficult to create state structures which truly serve the people. And they’ve paid far, far too much attention to defining ‘the people’ by exclusion: not Jews, not Muslims, not blacks, not immigrants, not the rich, not the poor and so on. These twin failures have led to disappointment, a baleful political culture and a lot of human misery.

2. Populism seeks social and economic stability. The capitalist version of modernity that we now inhabit provides neither, uprooting people from homes and jobs and casting them capriciously across the world as a result of the minute calculus of profitability, and destroying the biosphere’s capacity to sustain us. But stability is always ultimately elusive, and it’s easy for populism to avoid hard decisions about how to retain its chosen lifeways by peddling mythic concepts of past golden ages, restored national pride and the like.

3. Populism is not utopian, or teleological. The politics of modernity, and particularly the mass politics of the 20th century, is characteristically utopian in its tendency to identify with world-transforming keys that it believes will create benefits for all: free markets, the dictatorship of the proletariat and so on. This politics is also characteristically teleological in the sense that it thinks there’s an inevitable historical tendency for these world-transforming keys to become manifest, provided that various obstacles and backsliders can be neutralised. Populism, by contrast, does not espouse world-transforming keys, and does not believe in progress through history to some kind of human perfectibility. It contents itself with the inherited legacy of political and economic institutions and tries to improve them incrementally towards its present, local ends. The upside of this is that it doesn’t cause the devastation associated with utopian politics: revolutionary terror, structural adjustment programmes etc. The downside is that it can be blind to the subtle mechanics of everyday power by which such things as class, gender or ethnic advantage are reproduced. Indeed, it can actively foster them.

4. Populism is a politics of the ordinary, which is unimpressed by extraordinary achievement. Therefore it doesn’t vaunt people who have accrued great wealth, or fame, or expertise and learning. A danger is that this can easily turn into negative forms of anti-elitist politics: anti-intellectual, anti-expert etc. A related danger is that, in view of the human tendency precisely to be impressed by the extraordinary, anti-elite populism ironically tends to fixate around charismatic Caesarist figures who promise to deliver the masses from the elite – Peisistratus or, er, Trump (what was it Marx said about history repeating itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce…a comment in fact directed towards another populist figurehead, Napoleon III?)

5. Populism has a complex relationship with fascism. Fascism can be seen as a kind of populism for the modernist age of mass politics which addresses Point 1 above by defining ‘the people’ exclusively (typically in anti-elitist, nationalist, racist, and/or anti-Semitic terms) and by defining the state in essentialist terms as uniquely expressive of the will of the people, hence opposing attempts to hold the state independently to account by elected politicians, journalists or the judiciary. There are many fascist elements in the current Brexit/Trump ascendancy – for example, the recent Daily Mail headline condemning the judges who ruled that Britain’s Article 50 EU exit-trigger required parliamentary approval as ‘enemies of the people’. However, there is a utopian, world-transforming element to fascism which differentiates it from populism as described in Point 3 above and places it in the stable of utopian modernist politics alongside the likes of socialism, liberalism and neoliberalism. Social scientists have generally described fascism as a response to a modernisation crisis. This seems pertinent to present political circumstances. The problem is, many have assumed that ‘modernity’ is a stable, achieved state. We’re beginning to learn that it isn’t.

Towards a left agrarian populism

I’ll now try to sketch in briefest outline the way that a left agrarian populism of the kind I espouse might orient itself to the preceding points.

1. The people that populism serves are all the citizens of the polity, regardless of political allegiance, class, gender, skin colour, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or any other characteristic. Therefore it’s crucial to defend the liberal public sphere as the space of free political self-expression. There are plenty of people dancing on the grave of liberalism at the moment, while implicitly relying on the freedoms that it gives them. Often, these critics affect a lofty historian-of-ideas posture, correctly pointing out that there’s nothing inevitable or universal, no necessary telos, to a liberal public sphere. But they’re usually silent on what alternatives they favour at the present political juncture – largely, I think, because nothing else is as defensible, however much they try to cover up this truth with flimflam about the class privilege of liberals or a revolt against the elites. The problem with exclusionary populist definitions of ‘the people’ is that it’s a gateway drug to authoritarianism, or fascism, in which anybody becomes fair game as an enemy of the people or the state. I’m looking at you, John Michael Greer, and you, John Gray – get busy defending the liberal public sphere, or someday someone will come for you, and no one will care.

2. The populist economy is grounded in local needs and capacities. The capitalist world-economy undermines local ways of life and is environmentally destructive to the point of human self-annihilation. The only long-term way I see of reining it in is through a move to localised economies which are grounded substantially in the capacities of the local environment to provide for local needs. Therefore my thinking aligns with populist moves to protect local industries and limit the free flow of people and capital around the world, so long as it’s done humanely. Limiting the free flow of capital is much more important than limiting the free flow of people, whereas right-wing populism tends to have it the other way around. Another delusion of right-wing populism, amply exercised by Donald Trump and by the Brexiteers here in the UK, is that ‘ordinary people’ in the US and the UK have been disadvantaged by the global capitalist economy relative to others, the main scapegoats being undocumented migrant workers. The truth is that almost the only people ‘ordinary’ US or UK citizens stand disadvantaged to are the wealthy in their own countries, whose increasing relative wealth should be the proper object of political scrutiny. Against virtually everyone else, they stand in an incredibly privileged position globally.

I thought I’d try to demonstrate this empirically, albeit rather imperfectly, with a graph I’ve derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators dataset. I’ve looked at data from the USA, the UK, Tunisia (which according to the World Bank is the median income country in the world in terms of GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity basis) and Malawi (which is the poorest country in terms of GDP per capita for which I could find income distribution data). I’ve looked at the share of national income each successive 20% of the population, richest to poorest, receives in each country, calculating it as a GDP PPP per capita figure within each 20% group. This is what you see graphed below.


To me, there are two striking features of the graph. First, there’s huge inequality within each country – the richest 20% in Malawi and the USA takes nearly ten times the share of the poorest. And second, there’s huge inequality between countries. The top 20% in Tunisia earn more than the bottom 20% in the USA and the UK, but less than the remaining 80% of the population in both countries. The rest of Tunisia’s population, and the entire population by quintiles of Malawi earn less than the poorest quintiles in the US and the UK. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t poverty or suffering in the USA or the UK. But it does suggest to me that most people in these countries are affluent in global terms. This affluence has been generated historically by capitalist globalisation; they will likely be a lot poorer under localised economic regimes, whereas citizens of poorer countries stand to be relatively richer. This is a good thing, both for equity and for environmental sustainability. But it’s not an easy sell – the right-wing populist line that you’d be richer if it wasn’t for all those immigrants, although basically wrong, is an easier one to peddle, and it conveniently distracts attention from the more salient fact that you’d be richer if it wasn’t for all those other white Americans or Britons who are further up the hugely skewed income distribution. And that you’re probably richer than the global norm. The only way around this I perceive – and I admit it’s a long shot – is to keep banging home these twin points about the skewed international and national income distributions (I mean, Donald Trump as a spokesman for the poor – seriously?), and to emphasise the possible benefits, many of them non-monetary, of working in a localised economy…

3. The populist economy is a producerist economy – what unites the people is work. As mentioned above, there should be no exclusionary definition of ‘the people’ in a locality. What matters is that people work to secure their wellbeing, individually and collectively. This requires that there is work for them to do, and opportunities for them to produce wellbeing: most fundamentally, it requires that there is local land for them to farm.

4. The populist state is judged largely by its capacity to support local producerism. It will not be judged on grandiloquent claims to embody or restore the culture of the nation or the spirit of the people, nor on claims to be able to create great new wealth for the people, especially through forms of local or non-local rent-seeking. It will support pluralist democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary and media.

5. The populist mentality is internationalist. The modern system of nation-states emerged from the Peace of Westphalia, which concluded a series of devastating wars in Europe based on beggar-my-neighbour mercantilist economics, and violent political expansionism among authoritarian royal houses. So while there are good reasons to argue that the nation-state system is past its sell-by date, the distinct possibility of returning to pre-Westphalian politics is best avoided. Therefore, while the new populism might properly emphasise localism and economic protectionism, it won’t do so in a closed-minded or chauvinist manner. It will be open to the exchange of ideas and people, and it will seek international concord to safeguard both economic self-determination and human rights.


That, in outline, is my vision for a left agrarian populism. I hope to flesh it out and work through some of its more obvious problem areas and contradictions in the future. A couple of issues to flag right now: in many ways, perhaps there’s not much to distinguish what I’ve outlined from social democracy or market socialism. The main difference is that it’s not based on notions of improvement or social progress through time, but on securing basic wellbeing in the present. It espouses a liberal public sphere as the best tool to hand for that job. The second issue is that it probably sounds quite utopian, despite my strictures above about populism’s anti-utopianism. Maybe so. I guess the way I look at it, the old adage “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” doesn’t really work in politics. If you want the best, you have to prepare for it – otherwise you’re certainly likely to get the worst. There’s a kind of apocalyptic mentality among many on the left at the moment, which tends to conflate disparate phenomena as signs of an irremediable crisis – climate change, energy crisis, xenophobia, nationalist sabre-rattling, Donald Trump. Well, I’m resigned to the notion that we’re screwed, but I’m blowed if I’ll accept Trump’s presidency teleologically as another unavoidable signpost on the road to hell. A tweet from Dougald Hine – “The spectre that many try not to see is a simple realisation — the world will not be ‘saved’”. I’m easily persuaded by that, but I don’t see much point in doing anything other than trying to save it anyway. The path ahead is not pre-determined, and it’s better to die fighting. Besides, although the skies may be darkening, the eclipse of neoliberalism and the existing global order furnishes certain opportunities…

Postscript: Here’s another graph to think about, in view of some of the discussion below:



48 thoughts on “Why I’m still a populist despite Donald Trump: elements of a left agrarian populism

  1. Nice graph. Illustrates income inequality quite nicely. But income by itself shouldn’t be our sole whipping boy. Cost of living issues matter. Still, the ugliness of inequality has to be kept within sight. With you there.

    Popular vote vs. Electoral College. Perhaps an American twist on elections and Democracy (at least at the top of the ticket) – I bring this up because the recent balloting was very close and even though the result is not disputed, the result is not a clear demarcation of some political mood switch. I agree that JMG’s analysis heralding the death of the left is overblown hyperbole.

    I’m not going to agree so quickly that an administration under the Donald will ultimately doom the planet and our species to NTE in short order. I consider the opportunities we’d begun to fashion toward sensible environmental policy to have hit a bump (perhaps a serious pot-hole) but I don’t imagine this spells the end. Elites and mega-rich folk disproportionately possess seafront property. Once it starts sinking they lose much of their wealth. Not saying the problem is solved that simply, but…

    You mentioned the Treaty of Westphalia. Times were ugly and a path away from the abyss was taken. More recently we as a species have done some other incredibly stupid stuff. And yet we still sit here at our keyboards and consider what else we might try. Trump and Brexit may seem harbingers of doom to some; opportunity to others. In another four to six years I’m guessing we’ll be chewing on something else. I’ll be grateful if by that time I’m still chewing on delicious and nutritious food I’ve been able to grub from the earth without damaging the chance for my decedents to enjoy the same.

  2. Chris, I am so glad you’ve started elucidating your project of agrarian populism. I will be looking forward to more of this; as you know, I am a fan of said project. That said, I have to confess that the article seems thin praise indeed. My sense is that you spend far more time telling people what populism (of your kind) is not, than really diving in and sharing all the stuff that delights you about it. I am wondering now — is that because you are ambivalent about the project itself, or?

  3. https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/80-grossly-distorted-prosperity/

    Is there a better way of measuring prosperity? Well, consider two people who both earn $30,000. Theoretically, their circumstances match. However, if the first has to spend $20,000 on household essentials, leaving him $10,000 to spend as he chooses – whilst the second spends only $5,000 on essentials, leaving him $25,000 for “discretionary” spending – then clearly the second is much more prosperous.

    Clearly this summarises the situation very well, if for example Housing was much cheaper then we could be much more prosperous on a lower income

  4. Thanks for those comments. Glad to hear you’re looking on the bright side, Clem. I could do with a bit of that cheer. It’s true that Trump only got a bare half of the vote – but that in itself is perhaps suggestive of a mood switch?

    On the question of income as an inequality measure, I wouldn’t defend the World Bank data to the death but the GDP measure is calculated on a purchasing power parity basis so in theory different costs of living are accounted for – though in practice I’m sure there are difficulties in cross-national comparisons of this sort.

    Interesting article on NAFTA by Felicity Lawrence which is somewhat corroborative of my arguments: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/18/trump-nafta-us-workers-not-big-losers-mexican-workers-suffer-most

    “You spend far more time telling people what populism (of your kind) is not, than really diving in and sharing all the stuff that delights you about it”.
    Nice point. It partly stems from the fact that there are radically different forms of populism, and in some of them the devil has a lot of the good tunes, so I think there’s a need to tread carefully. But also, yes, perhaps I’m a bit ambivalent, having come to agrarian populism out of socialism as a kind of least-worst option, and facing the considerable problem that in order to have agrarian populism you really need to have some peasants, and they’re few and far between in these parts. Still, there are some things that do delight me about agrarian populism, so your comment is a good provocation to try to lay out a more positive vision.

  5. Chris said:
    – but that in itself is perhaps suggestive of a mood switch?

    I’m not yet persuaded of a sustainable mood switch. I imagine our present system of de facto ‘two party’ democracy to resemble something of a cross cut saw type proposition. You know the job… if you and I are sawing with a cross cut saw we take turns pulling the saw toward our side of the trunk. You don’t push when its my turn to be pulling, but keep the saw blade straight so it doesn’t pinch. If we work together well as a team we can really cut some wood. If not – or worse, if we work at cross purposes – we can wear each other out, wreck the saw, and generally make a mess of things.

    Looking back over the last several decades you can see a back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans in occupying the White House. So one interpretation of the present outcome – it’s the Republican’s turn. The ability of the two parties to work together and compromise (as good cross cut partners should) for the benefit of everyone has really taken a serious turn. If this is the mood switch you refer to, then yes there is a mood switch. But this change has been evident for many years in the rhetoric of the partisans.

    Outright lying and bombastic hyperbole as characteristic elements of the rhetorical flourish seem to be a newer aspect of the current polity. Most unwelcome to my senses. Next I suppose we’ll be putting our candidates into a cage and have them fight to the death. Why not? History repeats itself, no?

    My Grandmother had an expression meant to deal with hard times: “This too shall pass”. I firmly agree with your point above that one does need to assess the situation and get busy with building toward a future that one feels is appropriate. You have to prepare for it.

    When the realities of life here on this little planet come into better focus for the masses, no degree of hyperbolic bombast is going to set things right. The real work of rolling up the sleeves and cooperating at both ends of the saw is what will cut the most wood.

    • Oh, forgot to thank you for pointing to Felicity’s piece on NAFTA. I would pick at a couple of her premises… but in general I do think she has a solid argument. And for what it’s worth I’m not sure anything being contemplated by the incoming administration is going to help matters in a significant way. But if we have no hope, well…

    • I do like your cross cut metaphor. To extend it a little, I think by the time the “realities of life here on this little planet come into better focus for the masses” that log may well be too rotten to be of further use.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts Chris. Personally I don’t think its a puzzle that “the failure of a right-wing economic project (neoliberalism) seems to have entrenched the power of right-wing governments”. I don’t think the Brexit vote or the election of Trump were really a rejection of neoliberalism in any meaningful sense. As its popularly understood our current economic system says we’ll all be made richer by free markets and those benefits will flow to where they are most deserved. Given that most people believe themselves to be better than the average, then the only logical reason they can see why they’re not benefiting as they think they should, is because someone is gaming the system; That may be those terrible liberal elites, or the Chinese with their climate change scam, or socialists who want to tax me for their health care, or… it doesn’t matter.

    Your graph is nice. In fact its sort of shocking that citizens of some of the worlds richest countries can feel so poor – but that’s advertising for you. And it does suggest that getting these people to support a populism that may well see them financially poorer in global terms is a virtual non starter. As someone said to me recently, “some people are so poor that all they have is their money.” If, as seems likely, the affluent west really is that poor, then I think there’s little we won’t do to try to hold on to the money we have and maybe get that little bit more that’s finally going to solve our problems (promise).

    I think I’m feeling a little depressed ;-). My second child is due in January and in truth I feel fearful about the world in which my children will be growing up and which they will inherit. The politics is scary. As Chomsky said recently we’ve tried this sort of thing before and it didn’t end well, but, absent a serious war, the politics is survivable. The environmental situations seems far bleaker and to have (another) US president turn his back on that reality is heartbreaking – perhaps US influence is already waning and this will be less important than I think – as you say none us knows the future and must continue to strive for the future that seems brightest.

    Recently I’ve been struggling through Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. There’s nothing really new in there in terms of setting out the problem or in the technical aspects of the solution. What was interesting to me was where the Pope’s argument was rooted. Often pro-environment positions are presented as utilitarian choices where the costs of action are dwarfed by the costs of inaction. Sometimes an argument is made based on human happiness – how much happier you’ll to be as a peasant in Wessex than as a cyborg in some megacity (I would be). Occasionally you’ll hear mention of morality in the context of species extinction. The Pope’s arguments seemed rooted in a particular understanding, that of the Catholic Church, of what it is to be a human.

    I’m not sure I like/agree with all the conclusions he draws and I need to finish the book and possibly reread it – but it seems like a pre-reformation world view of humankind embedded in a creation which bestows benefits and responsibilities, which doesn’t belong to us and from which we have no right to exclude other parts of the creation, be they fellow humans or other species. Life is not ours to dispense with as we please but a gift in which we are invited to share. When I read Lean Logic by David Fleming I was surprised that, when writing about the slack economy, he made so much of the sheer amount of holiday the Catholic Church imposed on pre-reformation Europe. He made enough of it that I tried to discover if he was himself a Catholic – I couldn’t – but maybe he was hinting at something else.

    I suppose I was open to seeing this thing in Laudato Si because the longer I’ve looked at the environmental problems we face, the deeper the solutions seem to lie. If there is a solution I’m not sure it lies simply in the realm of politics, which after all are simply an expression of our beliefs about the meaning and purpose of human life. Viewed in that way I think that for many people neoliberalism still works just fine.

    • I too have been taking a part-time look at Laudato Si. And now that you mention it, the pre-reformation world view can be discerned. But I would point out that as Pope Francis builds his case he does pull together quite a bit of modern Catholic thinking. My sense for the incorporation of views from a long historical perspective might be to give some attention to a consistence of this religious narrative over human history.

      But I also find myself rereading and turning aspects of this encyclical over in my head. It could do with a wider audience and some additional discussion/debate. Religious views tend to be dismissed very quickly in our secular world – and some with good reason. This one, however, might merit better treatment.

      • I’m glad I’m not the only one with a part time commitment to it ;-). I need to get on and finish it and probably reread it. My impression about how the argument was rooted was just that, an impression. Re-reading might clarify things.

  7. Hi Chris —

    Haven’t had much time to comment recently, but enjoying the blog and commentary immensely, as always.

    Question: do you have the “Re-Blog” option of WordPress intentionally disabled? I could understand if so. But often I long to share your thoughts with my paltry few readers with a quick press of a button, but in a format more substantial than Twitter 🙂

    Will be in touch about some things soon, now that I’m living in the UK as well!



    • Hi Jahi

      Nice to hear from you – hope to meet you sometime somewhere now you’re on these shores…

      Regarding re-blog options, sorry I’m a total computer dummy. If you could tell me where to find the option on the WordPress dashboard I’ll see what I can do.


  8. Well, must say that reading the Owens piece put me in a skeptical mood – hard to take someone seriously to holds to this kind of nonsense: “Clinton was not handpicked by the Democratic party’s elite: she defeated an unexpectedly successful challenge by self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, partly because of his failure to inspire African Americans.” One word: superdelegates. Or as Orwell might have put it, a system where ‘some delegates are more equal than others’ doesn’t need voter fraud or the like in order to achieve its ends. This textbook example of a heavy thumb on the scale only underscores the astonishing rise of Sanders in that he was very nearly able through populist appeal to overcome that built in and very serious disadvantage. Which argues well for the desire for a populist political movement on the Left.

    Regarding Trump – well, Owens is certainly playing his part in contributing to the creation of a chamber-of-fear-and-hate in response this election. I think the first task is to get past this fear, and this piece offers, IMO, a pretty decent approach to that:


    So once, we’re past the fear and are once again able to look at the situation rationally, proposals like yours can be understood and assessed.

    This bit interests me: “my thinking aligns with populist moves to protect local industries and limit the free flow of people and capital around the world, so long as it’s done humanely.” Limiting free flow of people – this sounds a lot like Trumps proposals to enforce the borders. Am I wrong? In other words, are you implicitly agreeing with JMG that the massive influx of undocumented workers into a labor pool puts serious downward pressure on wages, and therefore must needs be restricted? Presumably by controlling the borders of the political entity in question? If this is not what you mean, can you clarify?

    Next, I’d take some issue with this position:

    “The truth is that almost the only people ‘ordinary’ US or UK citizens stand disadvantaged to are the wealthy in their own countries, whose increasing relative wealth should be the proper object of political scrutiny. Against virtually everyone else, they stand in an incredibly privileged position globally.”

    In general, this is a true statement – but the devil, or so it seems to me is in the details. That is, if you ignore cost of living, and you compare the income of a poor Appalachian subsistence farmer to a poor Malawi subsistence farmer, then you are no doubt right – by simple monetary comparison, the former would appear vastly wealthier.

    But in reality, I’m not persuaded that the gap is as large as it appears at first glance.

    This is not to say they are on par – not at all, and that’s where I think the truth of your statement lies. The ‘untruth’ of that statement arrives explicitly in your graph, in the y-axis label, in the form of the word ‘income’ – which is the old trick of imposing Western metrics and then comparing the Western, industrialized situation (in which money is the only form of wealth that matters) to a non-Western, non-industrialized situation in which other factors might usefully be considered.

    In other words, measuring “‘ordinary’ US or UK citizens [against] the wealthy in their own countries” makes perfect sense, but measuring them against “virtually everyone else” needs to be calculated in a somewhat different way.

    Please understand: I’m not saying that we are NOT privileged in comparison – I am NOT trying to make the case that the poor of the world are happier than we or better off than we due to, for example, intangible forms of wealth lost to the West, who must per force make do with monetary measures like income or GDP (although this is certainly a worthwhile and interesting line of thinking to pursue – for example, imagine you offered those wealthiest of the Malawians an opportunity to swap places with the poorest of Americans who are many times wealthier – do you suppose they’d leap at it, as your logic and the graph indicates they *should*?), what I am saying is that the way you’ve presented the situation here may have been simplified to the point of becoming an inaccurate representation (the old line about statistics) – and this quasi-fallacious reasoning then is built upon in your analysis, leading to questionable conclusions.

    Chris, of course you note that this is an ‘imperfect’ demonstration, but I actually think it’s quite important to try to understand the ways in which it is imperfect, since you go on to base much of the argument on it.

    For example, you go on to say “the right-wing populist line that you’d be richer if it wasn’t for all those immigrants, although basically wrong” – well, but what if, for ‘richer,’ we substitute better off, and then look explicitly at the working class in the US. If in fact the economic argument that mass influx of foreign nationals into a labor pool increases immiseration of the existing working class (which your earlier comments seem to suggest you agree with), then doesn’t that right-wing populist line become true? Aren’t the ‘locals’ better off in such a case – and in fact richer? Even if you can go on to argue it’s a local phenomenon and we need to look at the bigger picture? Which I agree we do, BTW. But then I wonder – since this has such localized effects, do we need – the argument that communists were famous for – populism EVERYWHERE so that we don’t have a situation of immiserated peoples stuck in place, and not able to emigrate (legally or not)? Aren’t we just relocated immiseration unless we go populist everywhere?

    At this point, I may just be confusing myself, but I do think there is an innate problem here between your call for localist approaches and the presentation of global inequity.

    • “One word: superdelegates. Or as Orwell might have put it, a system where ‘some delegates are more equal than others’ doesn’t need voter fraud or the like in order to achieve its ends.”

      Can you elaborate on what role you see superdelegates playing in Clinton’s victory, Oz? While I’m not a fan of superdelegates (and voted for Sanders in the primary, as well), it seems pretty evident to me that Democratic primary voters (especially women, minorities, and older voters) preferred Clinton. How else do you explain her double digit win in the primary popular vote count?

  9. Hi Chris.

    While I read this hoping for some clarity, I still can’t say I’m sure what populism is, as surely all the five features used to distinguish it above could be happily adopted by the proponents of current “social democracies”?

    “perhaps there’s not much to distinguish what I’ve outlined from social democracy or market socialism. The main difference is that it’s not based on notions of improvement or social progress through time, but on securing basic wellbeing in the present. It espouses a liberal public sphere as the best tool to hand for that job.” The problem stands here, also. I can’t see how an emphasis on social progress through time is in any way inherent to social democracy (I’m assuming social democracy is meant as equivalent more-or-less with representative democracy), albeit being a central cultural component of many as they stand today. As such, I don’t see how populism, if I even knew what it was exactly, would avoid a similar emphasis.

    Would the political structures look the same? Would we get swept up in a fervour, just to vote every 4 years for yet another unaccountable liar? Interested to know some of the specifics from your perspective, as it’s a Yes to both questions if the walking self-contradiction Labour hack Owen Jones has anything to do with it.

    Minor point on the graph: I suppose it depends on the emphasis and significance placed on relative poverty versus absolute. If the former is under consideration, it can’t quite be interpreted in the manner you would like, as (perhaps apart from Malawi) there’s a remarkable similarity in those intra-country distributions.

  10. There was a time something like the “agrarian populism” you envision actually existed. After the indigenous peoples of North America had been driven from their commons-oriented lands, multiple homestead acts were established in both Canada and the US. While there were many scams that subverted the intention of these acts, they generally did allow anyone who wanted to become an agrarian peasant to do so, regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin.

    Millions of people thereby became homesteaders. In my family, both sets of grandparents were homesteaders in the state of Oregon. After a family bankruptcy in the early 1930s, my mother’s family had to leave a fine brick home in Kansas for 120 acres of sagebrush in Oregon near the Snake River. Their first few years there would make Malawi lifestyles look luxurious. The one great benefit all North American homesteaders had was physical protection by the armies of the national governments.

    But homestead acts were only possible in a so-called “empty world”. I doubt that anything similar could happen until the collapse of the existing order is far enough along that rights to occupy farmland are very muddled. Until then, would be agrarian peasants in most countries, especially developed ones, will almost always be elites, like my family, who purchased 22 acres in Hawaii for $125,000 in 1986. We did get the purchase money from the sale of a house we built with our own hands together with logged-over acreage we had purchased on the cheap and slowly improved in the previous 12 years.

    Some form of agrarian populism will return, as it must when virtually unlimited cheap energy runs out. But when it does, I doubt that it will exist in anything like the well-ordered and protected political space we now enjoy. I wonder if you have considered how agrarian peasants will protect themselves when that protected space can no longer be maintained by national governments?

  11. Thanks for that interesting set of comments & challenges. They seem to split into five categories:

    – Donald Trump & Owen Jones
    – interpreting the income graph
    – populism, capital & people flows
    – populism vs social democracy
    – populism in history
    – religion

    On Owen Jones, all I said was that I agree with him that the left needs to find a new populism, and I still do. I don’t see a need right now to express any opinions about whatever else he’s said. On Trump – Oz, I don’t find the piece you linked very convincing. For me, it reads for the most part like a straw man argument: ‘Trump doesn’t really identify with white supremacist ideology, therefore what’s the problem?’ It’s pretty clear that Trump doesn’t really identify with anything. That doesn’t mean that a Trump presidency isn’t going to be disastrous. Still, I’m glad some of you folks in the US are relaxed about it all – just not too relaxed, I hope.

    On the income graph – Tom, I don’t understand your point. Essentially, I stressed relative poverty within countries and absolute poverty between countries. The rhetoric of right-wing populism is that the established working class in the wealthy countries has lost ground through neoliberal globalisation, with the blame being placed mostly on migrant workers in the wealthy countries and perhaps the shifting balance of economic power from west to east. But the truth is that the global economy continues to reward wealthy countries like the US and the UK disproportionately, and that the distribution of income within these countries, though heavily skewed (albeit not much more heavily skewed than over the past 25 years), is not so skewed relative to poorer countries that the poorest quintiles/deciles of the rich countries experience poverty on a par with those in poorer countries. I wrote above that poor people in rich countries are probably richer than the global norm, and I think this is true. I don’t see the relevance of your point about the similarity of the intra-country distributions.

    But it could be, as Oz suggests, that international income comparisons don’t capture the full meaning of poverty or disadvantage in the different countries being compared. As I mentioned above, since the GDP figure I used is based on purchasing power parity and not just monetary income, in theory this shouldn’t really be the case but I don’t doubt that the correction is imperfect and I accept that it’s quite likely the figures I’m presenting overstate the gap between rich and poor countries. But they’d have to overstate it a hell of a lot to invalidate the inferences I’ve made. In that sense, I disagree with you Oz when you say that the graph leads me into quasi-fallacious reasoning and questionable conclusions. Indeed, you accept that the picture I’m painting is probably accurate. What are the questionable conclusions? I’ve added a time series graph of GDP-PPP per capita for the four countries plus India, China & S.Korea at the bottom of the original post by way of further provocation. But rather than endlessly defending these summary stats, perhaps it’s better for me to ask for someone to convince me I’m wrong by providing contrary evidence that poor people in the US or UK are in a worse or even comparable situation to poor people in poorer countries. Until such time, I’m with Bruce – the rhetoric of contemporary right-wing populism in the US and the UK conceals the fact that the working class in these countries are essentially winners, not losers, in the present global economy.

    On labour flows, I think really what we’re seeing is the deterritorialisation of this global inequity – so, no, I still don’t agree with Greer. Taking an example from Lawrence’s studies of the East Anglian veg industry, there used to be moderately well-paid 9am-5pm work for local working-class people in this industry. Now the work is 5am-9pm, 6-7 days a week, nose to the ground on a picking rig at minimum wage if you’re lucky, and done by undocumented workers who are preferred by the gangmasters because anyone with employment rights would find another job asap. If the government successfully expelled all these undocumented workers, what would happen – a return to better paid, 9-5 work for the local working class? I very much doubt it. Instead, either the same deal for them as for the undocumented, or more likely production shifting to somewhere else where those labour dynamics are more easily replicated. There was a lot of support for UKIP among the local rural working class in East Anglia, but to my mind it’s delusional.

    So in terms of my views on capital and labour flows I can’t claim to have thought this through to my satisfaction, but I guess I’m thinking mainly in terms of limiting capital flow – this could go a long way to focusing production more sustainably around local potentialities, creating work, increasing equity, and preventing the kind of polarised labour geographies fuelling mass migration. I suppose someone could argue that this amounts to reversing downward pressure on wages for local people caused by labour migration if they really wanted to force the parallels with Greer and right-wing populism, but I see it as being more about downward pressure on returns to capital. In such a world there wouldn’t be much mass labour migration because there wouldn’t be much point to it. Ultimately I think it would have to be more a small landowning than a wage-earning world and folks would be a lot poorer – but it would be realistic in the sense that currently we’re paying ourselves more than the planet and more than many of our fellow humans can sustain. I think the chances of achieving it politically are low. But then again I think the chances of achieving the kind of neoliberalism we currently have were low, and the chances of sustaining it are lower still. The implausibility of a political programme isn’t something that especially troubles me – especially when the implausibility arises in good part because of the utopian and teleological cast of our contemporary politics, which is manifestly fraying.

    Tom, on your points about populism vs social democracy I’d beg to differ – there’s only some overlap on points 1 and 5, and even there the emphasis is different. But I concede that I didn’t do a very good job on clarifying the differences. Partly this is because of my own ambivalence around two points: first, there’s much within the socialist and social democratic traditions I value; and second, it’s hard to create agrarian populism without peasants, so though I’m prepared for my thinking to be blue sky, it’s hard to avoid getting drawn back into the mass proletarian politics of the present rather than the peasant politics of a possible future. Anyway, I aim to flesh out a populist vision in future posts, and I hope you’ll continue to prod me into clarifying it. For now, all I’m inclined to say is – imagine a world in which you (and a lot of other people) have an acre or two to produce your livelihood, imagine that this self-sustaining work that you do engages most of your physical, intellectual and spiritual being, and imagine that the politics you engage in builds up from this work to create your livelihood on your land. Those are the base assumptions of a left agrarian populism, and they’re very different from socialism or social democracy. Modern politics tends to be based around celebrating an escape from such circumstances – but ultimately I don’t think we can escape, so we ought to start thinking about how to make the best of it.

    Joe, yes US homesteading is a good example, and then the People’s Party with its zenith in the 1890s. Not sure that present Malawian lifestyles could be described as luxurious by comparison, though. Neo-populism in Russia and Eastern Europe around the same time is another important example. And you’re right that agrarian populist politics tends to be easier when population densities are low. But there are other examples – Mexico, India, early postcolonial regimes in Africa and southeast Asia. None of them unproblematic models for the present, but worth looking at for all that. Yes, I’m thinking about the relation between agrarian populist politics and the contemporary nation-state, and I’ll say more about it in the future. And yes I think it’s difficult. But I discern a few possible silver linings in a mostly cloudy future.

    On religion, it’s interesting to hear about the pope’s encyclical. A lot of people are arguing for a new kind of spiritualism to enable people to re-engage with nature, and also to beat the right-wing populists’ appeals to the emotions. I think it’s difficult and probably dangerous to create anything ex nihilo on this (I find Fleming’s thinking problematic here). Lucky to be a Catholic with a pre-Reformation worldview, perhaps. I prefer the kind of sceptical peasant rationalism I’ve described as ‘vaisya ideology’ in my article ‘Agroecology meets consumer culture’ in the Journal of Consumer Culture.

    • One other point to throw into the mix here, vis-à-vis the wealth gap between rich and poor countries, is that care needs to be taken to define ‘global north’ and ‘global south’ in class rather than geographic/territorial/country terms, since of course the transnational capitalist class – including the dollar billionaire class – also exists in the geographic south. There is a numerically tiny, but incomprehensibly moneyed elite in the global south – a global north within the south as it were. In India, the richest one percent holds more than half the country’s wealth; Mumbai is the sixth most billionaire-rich city in the world, just one spot behind London, at the same time as having an enormous ‘global south’. This class can, and does, ‘hide behind the poor’ (to borrow a title of a Greenpeace India report) in pushing for the conventional globalization and development policies by which they have amassed their wealth.

  12. I’ve very much enjoyed reading your farming posts (like the last one and the many other farm-related ones), and I’ve read all your others (since discovering your blog) as well, but you lost me with the racist, misogynist, crypto-fascist talk. I didn’t vote for Trump, but every time I hear/read stuff like that I’m increasingly inclined to regret not having contributed to his election. Did you see the Jonathan Pie video on Trump’s victory, by the way? I’ll hope for less extremist, inflammatory rhetoric in future posts.

  13. I’m at a loss as to how you can characterize Chris’ post as extremist and inflammatory, Eric. How can you look at what Trump has said and done, both during the election and throughout his adult life, and suggest that it’s inflammatory to refer to him as a racist? White nationalist groups certainly didn’t have any trouble making the connection. Hell, he even inspired David Duke to take another shot at elected office. And misogyny? Do I really need to go there? Or his apparent admiration for the behavior of dictators and despots? It’s not like he’s made a secret of it (so maybe I’d dispense with the “crypto” label, although he does dissimulate somewhat when pressed on such statements), or that he doesn’t clearly possess authoritarian/fascistic tendencies himself. He’s a morally repugnant man, Eric, who repeatedly appealed to ugliness and hate and repeatedly flaunted the norms of civilized society. That’s not to say that everyone who voted for him is just like him, but each and all do bear some moral responsibility for elevating to him to such a powerful position.

    • Gotta say Eric, I’d like to have a peak at the Jonathan Pie piece – you have a link? Because up to now I’d have to go with everything Ernie lists – and perhaps add narcissism as an adjective befitting him due to some of his rants (I know more about ISIS than the Generals… where is his proof for that crack??).

      For me the silver lining to his election is that he’ll have to walk back some of the crap. What he pushes ahead with will be measured closely and tacked onto a record. It will require quite a bit of patience, but in four years he’ll have to run on a record of real actions, not the make believe he used this last time around.

        • I watched Pie’s video about Trump’s win last night (I still can’t say “Trump’s win” without feeling the need to qualify it as an “electoral college win” given the growing magnitude of his loss in the popular vote), and his comments about Trump were certainly right on the money — I particularly liked “shit-spewing demagogue.” I don’t buy his claim that “there’s no doubt in my mind that Sanders would have beaten Trump hands down,” though, and anyone making that claim is assuming facts not in evidence. Sanders definitely had some points in his favor, but he also had some rather big vulnerabilities that could have proven to be insurmountable. Had Comey not intervened, or had the media spent less time talking about e-mails and more time talking about policy differences (or the fact that Trump’s policies statements were so thin that they were virtually translucent), it’s also entirely possible that Clinton would have won. After all, the margins in those key swing states were very, very close. As for the rest of his rant about Clinton being the “she’ll do” candidate and the left bearing responsibility for Trump’s win…well, there’s a grain of truth to some of what he says, but it’s buried under a mountain of hyperbole.

          • Ernie, I just wanted to say that the part (more or less the first half) of the video having to do with the Democrats’ selection of Clinton over Sanders wasn’t what I thought was really relevant in any way to this discussion. The part I think is relevant is what he said about how the left talks to people it disagrees with and particularly how the left and the Clinton campaign particularly was inclined to label all of its opponents deplorables, racists, etc., as if practically everyone that voted for Trump were extreme racists.

  14. Thanks for the comment, Eric. And for the defence, Ernie. I appreciate getting feedback on what I write. But at the same time, I’m committed to writing what I think – the day I hold back saying something because I worry what somebody might think is the day this blog ends. And, as Ernie says, I think those inferences about Trump are pretty defensible. Anyway, we’ll be heading back to Wessex in the next post, where inflammatory rhetoric is banned… I hope you’ll keep reading, and keep commenting.

    • Ack! 😉

      “Freedom of speech is unbecoming in peasants, and is therefore banned,” said the spokesperson for the Kingdom of Wessex on Tuesday. There were sporadic protests as prominent Wessex blogger, Chris S., was dragged off his farm in chains for making disparaging remarks about the reigning monarch.

    • Thanks, Chris. You’ve got a long way to go before I would lose interest in your blog altogether (not that I think you owe me anything or need to cater to me or anything like that.) I’ve hardly ever followed any blogs, but I’ve enjoyed yours immensely, and I still have intentions of going back and re-reading everything you wrote before I discovered your blog, a project with which I’ve only made very limited progress so far. I also certainly don’t mean to suggest that you hold back on writing what you think. While I wouldn’t want you to hold back from writing what you think, I meant to suggest you think a little harder on those particular points, and I also think, for whatever it’s worth, that your best writing is generally that which is most farm-related.

      As to talk of racism, misogyny, crypto-fascism, for all Trump’s obvious faults, those aren’t points where I think he really stands out much at all. Here’s an article specifically about Trump’s alleged racism that I almost entirely agree with:


      I think very similar arguments could be made with regards to misogyny. Certainly I can see faulting Trump as a philanderer and an adulterer, but does that alone make someone a misogynist? With regards to how he treats women and respects marriage, I don’t see a significant difference between him and Clinton or JFK or Martin Luther King, Jr or Strauss-Kahn or…

      As for crypto-fascism, responding here perhaps most directly to Ernie, what’s more fascist than political correctness and the oppressive tactics that go along with that (reaching new heights in this election season, thinking particularly of organized disruptions of Trump rallies, the fire bombing of a Republican party office in my state, false flag spray paintings, etc.)? I think that’s a lot of Jonathan Pie’s point. And who flies in the face of the leading PC fascism more than Trump?

      But even if Trump is all the things you said and notably more so than other politicians, that isn’t so significant unless those things are especially relevant to why Trump won, what can be expected from Trump’s presidency, and, most of all, what the movement that supported Trump represents. Otherwise I’m inclined to = find your comments as inappropriate as Clinton’s comment that everyone that disagrees with her belongs in a unified stereotypical basket of deplorables.

      • Thanks for that Eric. I don’t particularly think that people who voted for Trump are ‘deplorables’, but I probably would label as ‘deludables’ (into which category John Michael Greer seems to slip further with each successive post) those who think Trump is going to improve the lot of the working class, make the world a safer place or strengthen public culture. The post above is the best effort I can muster at the moment to chart why neoliberalism isn’t working (though it’s working better for the US and UK working class than many seem to suppose), why rightwing populism provides some tempting but erroneous alternatives, and why leftwing agrarian populism is, for me, probably the only plausible politics to aim for. In that sense, I think the movement that supported Trump represents a perhaps understandable but nonetheless misguided response to present problems.

        Here in the UK I’ve noted an alarming drift towards authoritarian, quasi-fascist politics, and from this admittedly remote vantage point things seem to be taking a similar turn in the US. I don’t really agree with you about ‘PC fascism’, though I do agree that the right doesn’t have the monopoly on dogmatism and intolerance. To my mind, there’s now a greater threat to freedom of speech and conscience in the west than at any time in my lifetime. But perhaps my fears will prove unfounded.

        Below I’m copying Nils Gilman’s list of the parallels between ‘Trumpism’ and fascism (to which I’d add a taste for grandiose public monuments, such as Mexican-excluding walls). I’m going to try to avoid further debate about the rights and wrongs of Trump, but obviously I’ll read any responses with interest.

        Gilman: “The checklist of characteristics historically associated with fascism reads like Trump’s campaign playbook: (1) blood-and-soil ethno-nationalism; (2) xenophobia; (3) hatred of bankers but sympathy for industrialists; (4) anti-semitism; (5) denial of class antagonism but hostility toward organized labor; (6) loathing for intellectuals and rejection of expertise; (7) scorn for bourgeois norms of civility; (8) a penchant for conspiratorial theories about political adversaries and about history generally; (9) contempt for and cruelty toward the weak; (10) machismo and a sense that women belong in subordinate, traditional roles; (11) disrespect for the rule of law; (12) a cult of the leader; (13) demonization of political adversaries; (14) obsessive concern with community decline; and (15) a sense of violence as a redemptive force.”

        • While Gilman’s list certainly has elements of truth in places (especially because fascism is a loosely and poorly defined concept that has elements of truth just about everywhere in national politics), overall I don’t think his list would withstand any more intellectual rigor than a Play-Doh-centered safe space, and I do think a much more damning list of fascism charges could be ascribed to the politically correct crowd (and I would add Little Sisters of the Poor, the case against Hobby Lobby, Baronelle Stutzman, and the street protests of the election to the list.) As far as any substantive basis for the labels you used, I would challenge you primarily on the first two labels, however, both because the labels aren’t quite so nebulous and because the link about the racism allegations makes a fairly comprehensive case that I think can’t just be ignored.

          • Eric, I don’t think we’re on the same page on this so probably not much point in debating it too much further, but to my mind while what you call “the politically correct crowd” may have authoritarian instincts they just don’t fit any definition of fascism that makes sense to me. I don’t really think Trump does either, but I’m not so sure about some of those around him. Despite the tortuous excuses of the crying wolf article, calling for a “total and complete ban on Muslims entering the US” and accusing Mexico of “bringing their rapists” is good enough for me on the racism front, though if you want to push the point I might go halfway and agree just to call it xenophobia. “I moved on her like a bitch….and when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy” is good enough for me on the misogyny front. Maybe you’re right that JFK and Clinton were no better, just not stupid enough to be recorded saying it.

            I should have said in my previous response, though, that you’re probably right to criticise me for making a strong play on labelling Trump and not really being prepared to follow through with it. I’ll try to keep my invective better targeted in future. Though I’d venture to say that there’s worse-targeted invective than mine out there in social media…

          • Tortuous excuses? I don’t think he excused anything. Neither he nor Jonathan Pie nor I supported/voted for Trump, so what motive would we all have for these alleged excuses? But you say it’s good enough for you to label someone an extreme racist if he said two things you disagree with that aren’t even about race.

          • Eric, just for the record nowhere to my recollection have I ever labelled Trump “an extreme racist”. Nor have I ever alleged that you or Jonathan Pie engage in tortuous excuses. I do think the way that the article you linked excuses Trump’s comments about Mexicans from racism is tortuous, however. Racism is a complex and contested concept, but in my view Trump’s comments about Muslims and Mexicans are most certainly about race, a view that isn’t terribly controversial within the sociology of race and racism. However, I recognise that some might want to work with a more restrictive definition of racism, hence my offer to label Trump xenophobic and leave it there.

          • I must say that I am encouraged by your replies, Chris. Hard to discuss these things peacefully and thoughtfully. Kudos.

            My sense is that throwing around the fascist label is just as unhelpful as the other nasty labels. It quickly turns into pointless ad hominems. I would like to pitch in something about “xenophopbia”. To preserve what you value is xenophobic. Not everybody who wants a piece of land is welcome to take some of yours. If they were allowed, your farm would cease to exist. So I think this too ought to go the way of Godwin’s Law (apart from extreme cases).

            I think Trump is on the side of the view that rejects the globalist notion of people as interchangeable economic units. But after all, America has always had some immigration, so to assume he means a stop is silly, IMO. If you import a small number of people, immigration works. But step over a certain line, and you will have problems.

            Here are a couple of a great vids that illustrate the maths. I was saving them for another time, but what the heck. Since we are talking.



          • Thanks for that, Vera. I think you’re right that the fascist label is problematic in various respects, not least that it draws the discussion into definitions and the politics of demonisation rather than the issues at hand. For that reason, I regret using it to a degree, but then again I’m genuinely fearful of where right-wing populism is taking us and I do see various parallels (though also differences, of course) with the 1930s. But perhaps I should restrict these musings to the UK where I’m better grounded in the politics – I’m a little surprised by some of the responses from US respondents to my comments on Trump, but the fault may be mine in terms of my distance from it. Greer’s bizarre stance on the presidential race first raised my hackles in terms of the wider political issues and from where I sit I still can’t really find many positives in Trump (or in Greer’s position on him). But I don’t really want to prolong the debate on the specific politics & personalities – funny how that always prompts the angriest exchanges, in me as much as anyone. Ah well, I’ll try to look at your vids when I get the time.

  15. I’d be very interested in reading your “Agroecology meets consumer culture” – is it available anywhere online?

    I wasn’t really suggesting that religion per se offered a simple solution to our environmental crises – the chance of any sort of agreement among people of different faiths or different understanding of faith is as remote as agreement among those on different sides of our polarised politics.

    I was interested by what the Pope said not because he was saying it, but because he implied that our problems had very deep roots. I’ve recently listened to a few lectures by Morris Berman who makes much of the deep stories, of which most people are never aware and the rest only dimly, that shape our culture. Human progress might be one such story and it very successfully underpins a consumer culture that fetishizes the new. Quite what sort of progress an Iphone 7 represents relative to Iphone 6 I have no idea – but I do know many many people fear being left behind.

    And I wonder how our ideas about time have shaped that idea of progress. I suspect in a pre-scientific world time was thought of and experienced in a far more cyclical than linear way. How would progress be understood in a world where time was accepted as cyclical? Well that sounds sort of like cosmology so maybe we are skirting around religious understandings of the world – Eek.

  16. Your reference to “the deep stories…that shape our culture,” Bruce, brought to mind a passage from a letter that Gary Snyder wrote to Wendell Berry in 1977 (from Distant Neighbors: The Collected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder):

    “…the best intentions in the world will not stop the inertia of heavy civilization that is rolling on its way. As poets, our politics mostly stand back from that flow of topical events; and the place that we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values.”

    My rudimentary understanding of the Dark Mountain movement is that they’re up to something similar, but I’ve yet to really delve into their work beyond watching a couple of youtube videos and reading the manifesto and a few essays by Paul Kingsnorth.

    Chris’ reference to his essay in the Journal of Consumer Culture piqued my interest, as well, and google led me back to a page here on Chris’ website:


    • Thanks for the link – I shall read asap.

      I’ve just started looking at some of the Dark Mountain stuff – their latest collection is on my Christmas list

    • Hi Ernie

      I just saw the date on that letter and wonder how Snyder would view that passage now. It seems to me that there might have been a time when the writing of Snyder was at least on the edges of the mainstream and the possibility to alter values existed. Now in an age of a globalised media/entertainment industry (parts of which I enjoy) carrying very different values it seems voices such as Snyder’s and Berry’s are even more marginal. Is that to pessimistic?


      • Too pessimistic? I hope it is more pessimistic than necessary. I would agree there are many voices we might wish were more well known in today’s culture. To me culture, like fashion, seems to fluctuate on matters of relevance. So I imagine it is incumbent upon us to keep bringing voices like Berry’s into the conversation (and to keep our own voices civil and engaging so that we ourselves are not dismissed as marginal or trollish).

        Another favorite voice I might mention from time to time is Aldo Leopold. Very nice writer and ecologist. Carl Sandburg is a different sort of voice, but still one who society might do well to hear again now and again.

  17. Smart find of my paper, Ernie. It shouldn’t really be there. But if anyone can’t find it on the site and wants to read it, contact me via the Contact Form and I can email it to you. Perhaps I’ll try to write a blog post that summarizes it without the sociological jargon.

    It’s an interesting discussion re religion, Snyder, Dark Mountain etc. I agree that the problem has deep roots which are cultural/spiritual/religious and not simply political. And I think Snyder and DM are thinking along the right lines. But I haven’t yet come across anything that really convincingly articulates for me a way out of the spiritual morass.

  18. Hello Chris, I hope it’s not quite so wet with you today, as it is with is, but fear it will be. More flooding no doubt. Thanks for this post, as someone with very little knowledge of political theory this is useful. I too would support your left agrarian populism – it’s what I would envisage for this area in the future, and what I will try to prepare for. I would also agree that it is perhaps utopian – but then it’s hard to motivate myself to work for a system that is less than what I believe to be the best. I think for me, what draws me to it is that it allows me to step out of the myth of progress that socialism seems to buy into, which causes a problem for me. Equally so I’d rather work for a left agrarian populism than just accept that we ‘sliding down history’s inevitable decline’ or however it’s put. I don’t doubt things are going to get ugly at times, but it seems imperative that I do my damnedest to try to prepare for a better future that even if not perfect would satisfy basic human needs… Thanks for helping me make sense of the current mess.

    • Thanks Alex. I’m glad you’ve found this of interest. I hope to clarify it further in future posts. Yes, it’s pretty darn wet, huh? 70mm in 2 days here.

  19. Hi Chris,

    Very interesting piece. I’m glad someone’s working this vein – and it’s certainly a relief from all the denial, anger and bargaining reactions to Trump’s election that I’m seeing elsewhere at the moment.

    Since you quote something I posted on Twitter the other day, I ought to clarify a couple of things.

    Firstly, the line you attribute to me was actually a quotation from an anonymous anarchist text which I found via Anna Tsing’s marvellous book, ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’. The full text is here:


    I haven’t read it from beginning to end – and it comes from an anarchist subculture where I’ve been an occasional guest rather than an acclimatised resident – but what appealed to me in the text is what appeals to me in point 3 of your definition of populism, as captured in the other line from it that I posted on Twitter:

    ‘If we don’t believe in a global revolutionary future, we must live (as we in fact always had to) in the present.’

    I thought it was worth pointing this out because the way you’ve quoted me here sets up an opposition between us that feels like it’s based on a misunderstanding.

    I’ve said elsewhere, ‘The planet doesn’t need saving.’ In the talk where I say this, I immediately follow up with before and after images of the Alberta tar sands, just to be clear that this is not a lullaby. My point is not to diminish our sense of the depth of the mess in which we find ourselves, the mess we are making, or the work that is needed, but that the theological language of salvation which has been part of the baggage of environmentalism since at least the 1970s is less helpful than we think it is.

    In the context of your post, to say ‘the world will not be saved’ is not to embrace teleology, but to refuse it. We need a humbler language in which to make sense of the mess in which we find ourselves, one which (apart from anything else) is not so quick to fuse together the fate of a 4.5 billion year old planet with the fate of the current way of living of one-in-seven of its human inhabitants.

    Given the urgency of the situation, I understand that people can get impatient with the kind of questions I’m pursuing – that it might seem dangerously self-indulgent, even – but as I wrote in my own response to the American election:

    ‘though it is not the bravest form of action, and often takes place far from the frontline, I believe the work of sense-making is among the actions that are called for.’


    If things are going to turn out less badly than often looks likely, then among the things that we need are other ways of making sense of our situation. As I wrote at the end of that piece:

    ‘Everyone who said they knew what they were doing has failed. How badly things turn out now, we can’t say for sure. But there is work to be done.’

    You and I are working in different places along the ‘long front’ that Doug Tompkins used to talk about, and I’m sure if we ever get the chance to sit down and have a long conversation – which I hope we will, one day – then we’d find plenty of places where we see things differently. In the meantime, though, it feels a bit unfair to find that I’ve been presented as an exemplar of passivity and defeatism on the basis of someone else’s words that I quoted on Twitter.

    • Dougald, thanks for that considered and eloquent response – there’s nothing in it with which I’d choose to quarrel. I’ve written myself about the problems with ‘solutionism’ and the ‘saving the planet’ concept and indeed I’m happy to see myself as a co-worker on the long front. I don’t think I intended the citation to be so oppositional to you, but re-reading my comments I can see how they appear thus – and also perhaps how they failed to honour the subtlety of the position you’re staking out in your comment. The upside is that they prompted your useful clarification, to which I have nothing really to add – except maybe to say how difficult I find it to steer a course between the narratives of salvation and damnation, both of which I prefer to avoid.

      • Thanks, Chris. And likewise, I’m glad this drew me in to commenting. I’ve been appreciating your work for ages. Sorry we didn’t get chance to meet properly at Base Camp.

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