Our political saviors: the republicans

Let’s move on from the population debate and ransack the Small Farm Future archives for another controversy to rake over. Ah, how about this one, in which I presented civic republicanism (CR) as a political tradition worthy of consideration for our troubled times (yeah, I wasn’t referring to those republicans). I’d like to try nudging that issue forward a little here – particularly in the light of the criticisms of CR made by Stephen Gey in an article linked by Jody that I finally got around to reading. My thanks to her for drawing my attention to it.

A couple of scene-setting remarks. I don’t have much taste for abstract theorizing about the politically ideal society. But it seems clear that under numerous intersecting pressures the way the world has done politics over the last century or two is changing, and I think it’s as well to try one’s best to influence the changes in positive rather than negative directions in the given circumstances (in that remark alone I reveal my republican sympathies, but let’s leave that thought to lie…) Influential writers within the environmental movement like Paul Kingsnorth and David Fleming (building on the likes of Leopold Kohr) have to a greater or lesser degree assimilated localism to ethnic, ‘tribal’ or communitarian identities – believing that outside contemporary political institutions like the European Union there are forms of more deeply inherent pre-political identity between people which will enable them to forge better political agreements. I think this is a mistake. One of the benefits of CR is that it doesn’t assume political agreements just emerge when you have the correct ‘natural’ community. For republicans, there is no natural community – only ones that emerge out of political deliberation.

Incidentally, on that note I’ve just started reading Pieter Judson’s history of the Habsburg Empire – “the prison of nations” according to the 19th century nationalists seeking to dissolve it. Judson’s argument is that we’ve become too influenced by them and have bought into their narrative of ethnic nations preceding the empire, rather than seeing the way that the empire was in many ways constitutive of the nations. In any case, what interests me about CR is the resources it offers to try to create viable and sustainable successor polities to our present world ‘empire’ of nation-states that are as pleasant to live in as possible under the circumstances we face of increasing ecological, economic and political disorder.

Gey’s fundamental critique of CR is that it insists on defining collective goals for society, and thereby risks creating a tyranny of the majority. What if, when all the deliberation is over, it’s decided that everyone called Chris should be enslaved, or that other more obvious categories should be denied privileges – that women or non-property holders should not be permitted to deliberate, for example? For Gey, CR accords enormous power to the collective polis, whereas liberal or pluralist political theories take a more limited view of government. For them, a society’s ethos can’t be defined by collectively-decided singularities, which threaten to become tyrannical. Theirs is a live-and-let-live approach, where political society is one long argument that’s never resolved except in the meta-agreement that people agree to disagree. Perhaps their strongest emphasis is on limiting the power of arbitrary government.

Gey makes some telling points, but I also think there are problems with his line of argument. For one thing, I don’t see that the problem of excluding minorities is particular to CR. Every political doctrine defines the scope of the political community and potentially draws questionable lines of exclusion around it. Gey was a legal scholar and his piece is especially engaged with CR as articulated by a handful of republican legal theorists in the USA (Cass Sunstein in particular) – but CR is a wider tradition than I think he allows, and in much of it elaborate attention is devoted to the question of full and uncoerced participation in self-government. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), for example, was an early statement of the case for female political participation that was explicitly framed in republican terms against the view that there was a given or ‘natural’ political community comprising only propertied males.

But it’s true that CR doesn’t rest content with a minimalist framework of rules to live and let live by. The collective goals it defines through participation and deliberation are supposed to invest the citizenry’s practice. It strikes me that this is how all societies actually work, even if it’s not supposed to be how they work according to pluralist political theories. But CR certainly makes a stronger play for the idea than most political traditions. And a good thing too, in my opinion. In today’s world brought low by vast economic inequalities, climate change and other environmental degradations, I don’t think the pluralist who says to the republican “You presume to tell me that I must subordinate my particular interests to the wider common interest?” requires any more elaborate answer than “Damn right I do”. True, CR must pay attention to the possibility that notions of ‘the common good’ might mask oppressions of various kinds – but there’s plenty of attention to exactly that issue within its traditions. Its real emphasis is not on grimly enforcing majoritarian decisions of the “enslave all Chris’s” variety, but on developing the citizenry’s consciousness that immediate individual self-interest is usually a worse basis for building a good society than taking a broader society-wide view.

This brings me to Machiavelli (1469-1527) – the key thinker who paved the way for modern CR out of its classical roots. One aspect of Machiavelli’s politics was the need to avoid ‘factions’. For Gey, this republican antipathy to factionalism is another example of its potential tyranny – in a live-and-let-live world, politics is always inherently factional. But the problem with factions for Machiavelli is that they represent private interests, proposing laws “not for the common liberty, but for their own power” (Machiavelli Discourses I.18). Machiavelli calls this tendency to put private goods or interests over public ones ‘corruption’ (so for him ‘corruption’ means something different from our modern fingers-in-the-till sense of the term). Modern liberal political philosophy has come up with all sorts of arguments to suggest that, on the contrary, private interests beget public goods, of which Adam Smith’s metaphor of ‘the invisible hand of the market’ is probably the most famous. But even Smith looked admiringly at republican thought before concluding that it was inappropriate for an emerging commercial society. I think that’s true, but my contention here is that we now urgently need to transcend commercial society and create agrarian societies to which republicanism is better suited. And it’s also that anyone who thinks the ‘invisible hand of the market’ metaphor still usefully explains why government should take a back seat to the pursuit of private interests hasn’t been paying attention.

A few additional thoughts on delivering and living an agrarian republic. I find Machiavelli’s analysis of the ‘tumults’ (popular uprisings) that occur in republics of interest. He thought that in a relatively uncorrupted republic tumults can stave off corruption by preventing factions and re-vivifying political institutions, whereas in corrupted republics they merely accelerate corruption by enhancing factions and prompting violence between them. It interests me to think about some recent ‘tumults’ in western politics along these lines. There are those, for example, who think the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump were re-vivifying moves, and I do understand their logic. But to my mind rather they were signs of a corrupt factionalism that worked against ‘the common liberty’. Indeed, I think they were hyper-corrupt inasmuch as they probably work largely against the interests of many of those who supported them (though maybe less so in the case of Trump, who despite all the populist hue and cry still drew much of his support from wealthy white men). At the same time, I’d have to concede that the alternatives on offer weren’t much less corrupt.

So I’m not sure how much faith I now have in formal political processes in western politics to deliver an uncorrupted republic. In that sense, perhaps I’ve moved closer to a position I associated with David Fleming and criticized a while back in this post. Fleming wrote, “There is no case for dismantling the market; that will be done for us, all too soon” and “The task….is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us”. In the discussion under that post, Shaun Chamberlin wrote that Fleming (whose book he edited) didn’t advocate sitting back and passively observing the demise of the market economy. Rather, he perceived “a far more urgent priority for our action – rebuilding the informal economy of community and culture that he foresees we will have to again rely on after the market economy fails us”. I’d pretty much go along with that, except that – as I said back then in response to Shaun – I think I’d place more emphasis than Fleming on political deliberation in that process and less on culture and religion (leafing again through Fleming’s tome, I see that there are quite a few CR ideas investing it, though he placed less emphasis on them than other concerns).

Culture and religion are important too, though, and I hope to write some more about them soon. Under my last post, Joe Clarkson wrote “I am prepared to be made poor (without making anyone else richer, so don’t volunteer to take my assets) and would welcome the circumstances which would force that condition on me and the rest of the rich world. I hope it happens soon.” To me, this is an excellently republican commitment to civic goals – a regrettably rare one in the contemporary rich world, but one that will probably become more widespread under the impress of events. Somehow it has to become a motivator of individual practice, but I’m not sure that it’s something best thought of under the rubrics of culture, religion or personal ethics. Perhaps it could be seen as a philosophical spiritualism of the kind familiar from Taoism in the east and Stoicism in the west (there are links between Stoicism and CR in antiquity, for example in the thought of Cicero). Or maybe just as the lived reality of republicanism’s collective goals.

But for now, I want to get back to the politics. The way I’d see republican political deliberation potentially emerging in the future is along the lines of what I called the ‘supersedure state’ in this post. It seems to me quite likely that people in many parts of the world will find the tendrils of the liberal-democratic capitalist state slowly withering without any other kind of political force necessarily filling the breach, making it increasingly necessary for them to self-organize by default. In these circumstances, people won’t find themselves a part of some obvious natural community with ready-made customs and procedures. Instead, they’ll be a random agglomeration trying to make things up as they go along in the persisting shadow of the capitalist world-economy. In that situation, I think CR has much to contribute.

Some of Gey’s strongest arguments against CR relate to the difficulties of implementing it in large-scale modern capitalist societies. By his own admission, these diminish the more you approach a smaller-scale, more face-to-face society in which more direct forms of deliberation are possible. In his words,

“by trying to recreate a modern version of the old model of direct democracy, the modern civic republicans end up preserving the bad things about the classical civic republican community – its conformism, inhospitality to dissent, and antidemocratic deference to some unassailable collective ideal such as “civic virtue” – while failing to recapture the old system’s one real advantage – its homey, personal, face-to-face means of identifying and achieving common goals.” (p.815)

This indeed is the kind of situation I have in mind for a future where CR fits the bill. I’d acknowledge the dangers of conformism and inhospitality to dissent that Gey identifies, though as I mentioned earlier I think the CR tradition is more robust to them than he supposed (CR isn’t the same as direct democracy). But I suspect this issue springs so readily to mind because when we think about small-scale agrarian societies we find numerous historical examples of authoritarianism, patriarchy, gerontocracy, caste oppression and other ‘illiberal’ forms of rule. I need to ponder this some more, but I’d like to make a few interim remarks about it.

Arguments for small-scale self-provisioning can’t really avoid being arguments for ‘family farming’. Since families are differentiated by gender and age, it’s necessary to consider both dimensions as potential sites for coercion and domination. And since family farms are differentiated by size, income and land quality, the potential for coercion and domination between farms as well as within them demands attention.

Focusing on coercion and domination within the individual farm, this seems to vary culturally – that is, the forces of coercion and domination are greater in some small farm societies than others in ways that aren’t obviously related to their agrarian character (though perhaps they may be less obviously related…?) But one aspect of agrarianism that does bear on gender and age oppression is the importance of property and inheritance, and therefore by implication local standing – the ‘family name’ – which bears heavily on young people, young women in particular. One reason for this is that status is easily lost, and among poor cultivators that can be economically disastrous, as is all too apparent for example from analysis of medieval peasantries in Europe among whom people were often only a bad harvest, a bout of illness or a questionable investment in land or marriage markets away from servitude.

But that insecurity wasn’t simply a given of agrarian life – it stemmed from extreme seigneurial domination. In more recent times, CR has invested the idea of a republic of property-owning smallholders who are not subject to that kind of domination. The best known of these times in the English-speaking countries are the aftermath of the English Civil War and the aftermath of the American Revolution. In the first case, James Harrington’s Oceana made the CR argument for a republic of smallholders, while in the second the best-known proponent was Thomas Jefferson. But it was the absolutism of Hobbes and the liberalism of Locke that won out in drawing the terms of the political debate in the first case, and the commercialism of Hamilton in the second, presaging the entirely non-republican age of commercial capitalism whose dying days now seem upon us. Republicanism has waned not because it was wrong, but because it lost those old political battles, and was less suited to the societies that emerged in the light of them.

So what really interests me is whether we may be entering another ‘Machiavellian moment’ when smallholder republicanism may, at least in some places, arise as a response to new times and challenges. If it does, I think the small farm futures it’ll bring about could look quite different from some of the small farm pasts that presently inflect our thinking about what small farm societies are like, successfully limiting some of the forms of domination I mentioned above that are often associated with those pasts. But only if we keep the channels of republican deliberation open. And even then, I perceive some serpents in the garden of which I hope to write more soon.

34 thoughts on “Our political saviors: the republicans

  1. During a time of more or less chaotic social transition to the family farm as the basic productive unit of society, there will be a great temptation by some social elements to use raw coercive power as a means of maintaining their lives and their status. That means that a likely “serpent in the garden” is warlordism (and its more chaotic little brother, banditry).

    After the collapse of nation states, civic republicanism might well be the only way to counter the ever-present temptation to take hold of the relative wealth that concentration of power can provide, but it will be very difficult to counter that concentration of power unless there is some opportunity for communities of small farms to organize politically well in advance of a time of dire necessity. I don’t know the best way to facilitate that kind of advance organization, but I think it is imperative that we try.

    Right now, the real power of the state is still concentrated in all the layers of government from the town and county all the way up to the nation. Each of those layers has their own forces for maintaining physical enforcement of law and order. Unfortunately, this means that an attempt at advance organization cannot include any real power of governance outside those layers.

    The only political groundwork people can do now is to make every effort to become engaged in civic affairs. Joining community associations, service clubs, church sponsored voluntary organizations and localnon-governmental organizations are all ways to practice republican organizing and help develop the mutual trust that will be an absolute necessity if people are to work together to shoo the serpents away.

    All those political calisthenics are imperative, but what will be even more important will be the ability to engage with other potential civic republicans from a position of economic integrity. Starving and desperate people will have no time or energy to devote to civic republican affairs and they will be very tempted to join up with anyone who can give them food and shelter, even if it means they will be asked to do things to others that they would normally never do.

    Therefore, the most important thing that people can do to prepare for a time when small farm communities will need to organize is to prepare to be able to feed one’s family when the market economy and government at all levels disintegrate. This means being in a position to be a successful small farmer is first priority. Second priority is civic engagement and laying the groundwork for collective governance.

    These priorities are a lot to ask of someone who is now working full time and living in an apartment in a big city. Even people who live and work in rural communities will find them hard to do. And from my experience, even in a community where lots of people have enough money to set up a small farm (like where I live), it is difficult to get people involved in civic engagement. I shudder to think how difficult it will be to actually make it through the chaotic transition ahead of us and come out on the other side with an independent, self-governing community of productive small farms. There is a lot of work ahead.

    • “… unless there is some opportunity for communities of small farms to organize politically”

      Reminds me of the Grange, which “encourages families to band together to promote the economic and political well-being of the community and agriculture.” Interesting to learn that it was founded as a secret order, with secret meetings. Perhaps this is the type of ‘behind the scenes’ structure needed to prevent or overcome takeover by warlords?


      • Yes, the Grange seems like a very good fit for agrarian civic republicans, but there are apparently no chapters in my state (Hawaii) according to the search on the national Grange web site. It might be the time to get one started here. Thanks for the tip.

  2. even in a community where lots of people have enough money to set up a small farm (like where I live), it is difficult to get people involved in civic engagement.

    Not to mention that those who are trying to make a living farming have no time left for civic engagement!

    We have three more markets, and then we can turn to “civic engagement” and other pursuits. But during market season, it’s push, push, push, just to pay the bills and to have a bit left over to pay the bills all winter. (Even so, we’ll do 9-10 events between November and April, when we go back to two markets a week.)

    Case in point: we just had an election for our three local elected officials. I had to get someone to babysit our market stand long enough to walk to the library to vote, let alone take time to campaign for anyone. Luckily, the “good guys” got in, I think largely because these “good guys” all went through the market and lobbied the farmers to get out and vote! (The “bad guys” knew they didn’t have the farmer vote anyway, and so did nothing to try to win us over. For the record, the “bad guys” are in bed with the realtors and developers, and want to turn farm land into condos.)

    • It’s not going to get any easier when the larger capitalist economy switches from growing to shrinking, unemployment everywhere rises inexorably and debt deflation and other monetary turmoil means default and bankruptcy rates skyrocket.

      The state will retain their levers of political control, girded by the police and the armed forces, but what will they do with them? Perhaps they will be so distracted by the problems of the cities that they will leave small farmers alone to sort out their problems by themselves. They will pay close attention to big farms, since that is where the food for the city comes from, but I doubt that there will be a push by the powers-that-be to reorganize society around independent local groups of civic republican small farmers. The powers-that-be will have their hands full too.

      Perhaps the best we can hope for is that small farmers will be ignored completely by the state. But even if there are enough of them in a given area to organize an independent politics, they will be busier than ever just keeping their individual farms in functional condition. Even if a small farmer tries using the resources of the market economy as little as possible now, it will still be damn hard when those resources disappear.

      These are the good times. You have far more leisure time now (little though it may be) than you will when hard times come, so the time for pre-planning is now, even though it will seem foolish and premature to 90% of the people you talk to about it. I know, because I’ve tried.

      If the state disappears gradually, people will have time to become concerned and cast about for local solutions. If it disappears quickly, prior preparation will become of paramount importance. We’ve got to keep trying to prepare, first for our farm and then for our farming community.

      • Perhaps the best we can hope for is that small farmers will be ignored completely by the state.

        That may be the case while they remain a minority. But as more and more people are forced to supply their own food or starve, it may come down to the local warlord as tax collector, sending his henchmen out to all the farms. Small farming communities better have their self-governance together before that happens!

        I do share your hope that, in the coming climacteric, big governments will lose their power to tax anyone who is not employed by someone else.

  3. Thanks for those comments. Much to agree with in all of them. In the present world, of course, there’s a mix of warlordism, banditry, nation-statist liberal capitalist democracy, authoritarianisms of various kinds and a few tiny flowers of something like CR. Inevitably, the balance will change in the future – nobody knows how, but my punt is on a waning in the reach and power of nation-states and therefore a possible opening for more CR.

    I wish it could be otherwise, but a good part of the CR tradition has been about military defence of the republic. In the past, with relatively equal access to arms among different political actors it was eminently possible for republican militias to defend themselves against bandits and warlord mercenaries. Nowadays non-state actors have little chance militarily against nation-states, except sometimes on their own very local turfs, but that’s partly because the latter have access to high-tech arms supplied by a global arms trade from a few sources. It’d be interesting to speculate how that might change in the future. Still, at present I think Joe is right that the key issues aren’t military so much as about how hard-pressed nation-states deal and are able to deal with their peripheries.

    Jan’s point reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s wisecrack about the problem with socialism is that it ruins too many evenings with meetings. CR doesn’t have to involve laborious direct democracy, but it does need to find ways of achieving uncorrupted deliberation. That’s easier to do in a society where a lot of people are doing the same thing and are relatively independent, such as a small farm society. I like the Grange’s motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”. There would be a lot of political ‘non-essentials’ in a society of small farmers – although my worry there is the forms of domination within the family farm that I discussed above. In my estimation, small farmers historically have been pretty good at organizing in their interests despite their heavy workload – not always so good at prevailing against those organized against them pursuing their own. I agree though that getting a headstart now is a good idea.

    • As Chris and anyone on a small farm knows there are times of the year when extra labour is a must , loaning our your labour and your small farming neighbours loaning theirs and the machinery needed solves the problem and brings with it a comeradery that is hard to break , those that will not join in are automatically dropped from the list of trustworthy neighbours , building a local community of small farmers that help eachother in good times also gives you the ability to know who you can count on in bad , ham radio CB or even a rifle shot would bring your neighbours running .

  4. I wish it could be otherwise, but a good part of the CR tradition has been about military defence of the republic.

    I didn’t include the subject of defense out of deference to the tender sensibilities of your other readers, but defense is a topic that everyone will find important when the power of the state breaks down. Talking about defense now tends to morph into talk about guns, which can become tediously macho, particularly by those who have never really used guns as a tool on a small farm.

    While guns can be important for defense, and most farmers have them, I think community solidarity is even more important. ‘No farm is an island entire of itself’, and if it makes the attempt to be one, it will surely fail. Here’s a scene showing what can happen after the bell tolls (rung by the young boy in the movie “Witness”). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdW1BlDtcyU

    But to even talk seriously about defense requires a certain amount of real, not imagined, insecurity. That insecurity will come soon enough and probably well before armed defense is really necessary, so gun talk can be left for later.

    What will be critical when the time does arrive will be the ability of rapid communication between all the ‘non-island’ farms. My community is concentrating on HAM radio for emergency communications in times of natural disaster, which I think will be perfectly appropriate to times of human disaster (as long as battery power is available).

    OK, that’s my two cents on guns and defense. Since this isn’t a ‘doomer-prepper’ site, I’m willing to leave it at that and never talk about it again (or have I said that before here; I can’t remember).

    • If only “those republicans” felt as passionately about HAM radios and civic virtue, what a fine world we would live in, what excellent deliberations we would have!
      Instead we tend to fall into factionalism, and hyper-factionalism. Perhaps deliberation is a higher skill that shows up here and there in our best moments but we have yet to be able to call it into existence with any consistent competence.
      Except here on SFF of course!

    • What interests me about defense is not so much the doomer/prepper angle of defending the farm from the marauding mob, but of how changing potentials for warfare might change the nature of the state and of relations between states…and also how states orient themselves to low-wealth small-farm peripheries.

      And in answer to Michelle, naturally I’ve been keeping tabs on all polite contributors to this website over the years – those who qualify can expect an invitation soon to join the political elite in my forthcoming small farm republic…

    • Regarding the potential effects of warlords on small farmers, and “how states orient themselves to low-wealth small-farm peripheries”, some parallels can be found in this 2003 FAO report from Afghanistan. Two major issues are water rights infringement and encroachment onto public grazing lands, which are also big issues in the American West (and related to recent armed “standoffs” on public lands there).

      “The 2002-2003 crop season in Afghanistan was the first one planted and harvested in relative peace, after the end of a long period of domestic and international strife and political instability, and also the first one after the long drought that afflicted the country since 1999…”

      “Four fifths of the Afghan population live in rural areas, and most are farmers or farm labourers… The farmer population lives in about 1.06 million farmer households with a mean size of 11.4 people.”

      “Weak law enforcement and the emergence of local (big and small) warlords and “commanders” has led to water rights infringement in various areas… Another similar phenomenon is widespread encroaching of rain-fed cultivation on public grazing lands. While some of this is a piecemeal cultivation of small grazing fields by individual farmers, there are many cases of wholesale encroachment, usually by some local “commander” reclaiming grazing land as his private domain, and putting sharecroppers to grow crops on them. All in all, it is estimated that rain-fed cultivated land has been increased by about 15% in 2002-03 due to this encroachment factor…”

      “In fact, some cases have been ascertained in which a single powerful landlord, usually a “commander”, has many sharecroppers cultivating land in his possession. This may be for instance the case in the wholesale appropriation and cultivation of grassland, or also for the cultivation of poppy (a sector where sharecroppers abound).”

      Agriculture and Food Production in Post-war Afghanistan
      Hector Maletta, Raphy Favre
      Kabul, August 2003

  5. While I am ignorant of the details, there have obviously been thousands of governance schemes that have emerged over the millennia of human group behavior.

    I wondered how other areas of the globe have organized themselves, especially where the Faustian boon of fossil fuels has had less impact. Did a bit of googling, and saw that in India, with the Panchayati system, or Afghanistan, with the Jirga system, or in the Amish Ordnung, humans have come up with a relatively stable governance scheme that is similar, but not the same as recent western models.

    These are just three examples of how culture and environmental conditions have intersected to create a hierarchical structure that works. Any scheme has to be effective enough at defensive protection and extraction of resources, or it will disappear. Empires are cases where an especially effective scheme expands and takes in a (relatively) large area, but once the “empirical overhead” and resource extraction don’t balance, the empire collapses.

    Another luxury that our fossil slaves have given us is the ease of including consent of the governed as a feature we select in fashioning our government. Nice, but may well not going to be on the menu in the future. As you are pointing out, let’s at least try to make consent and equitable outcomes a part of our future.

    Not sure what the intermediate path might be, or how long it will take, but I recently was mulling over this same question.

  6. I agree that civic republicanism sounds like a form of government well suited for small agrarian communities. But I also think that effective government needs access to information, critical thinking, communication, and some form of moral compass.
    People need access to information and transparency of facts to think critically and make decisions. Part of the problem with capitalism today is the lack of transparency (and outright lies) that make it difficult to understand issues and act prudently. We need access to good information in order to make decisions. But people must also be willing to employ effort to think critically.
    I also think to govern themselves with CR people will need good communication skills. Talking to others is a valuable skill. We need to practice it regularly in order to become capable of expressing our thoughts coherently. When we bounce ideas off one another we tend to see alternative ways we might not have thought about. It is also a skill to be able to really listen to another person and hear their views, as opposed to simply waiting to express our own. Developing good communication skills are important for critical thinking.
    No matter what form of government we have I think it will require people with a moral compass. Our philosophy, morals, and ethics shape our ideas of what it means to be a good person, how to treat each other, and what we strive to become as humans beings and as society. Without some sort of moral compass to guide us we are in danger from ‘snakes in the grass’.

      • Indeed. I find the story of the fall from Eden to be highly symbolic. Personally I like snakes, to the disappointment of grade school boys unable to terrorize me with them. The snake is a potent symbol and it would be interesting to expand on this theme alone.

  7. Chris,
    I went back to read your earlier post and I agree with the statements “…I share the high value placed by liberalism and libertarianism on individual rights and freedom (contrast it with arbitrary legal process and a coercive political economy), but I don’t think those principles always supervene over common goods (eg. the freedom to erode away your farm soil in pursuit of short-term profit). And I share with socialism an understanding of the corrosive nature of unchecked private wealth which often has a class structuring, but without the confidence of socialism that class rather than citizenship can act as the motor of restitution, or that equality rather than justice represents a preferred end-state. I also share with parts of the socialist tradition the idea that values are shaped collectively and systematically – that is to say that we’re shaped by ideology.”

    It seems to me that we want a political process or institution that guarantees both personal liberties along with the greater common good. I believe there will always be conflict or tension between the desires for individual freedom and the needs of society. Free to invent humans can be very innovative. But free to exploit humans can be very destructive. How we reconcile these conflicts must certainly form the heart of any political system that seeks the greatest good for the most people as well as the natural world we rely upon.

    It is becoming clearer to me that CR means that we must all participate in politics because only then will we have a chance of having a government that represent the will and needs of a society of people. An unwillingness to become involved because of the distasteful, frustrating, partisanship that has arisen in my country will certainly lead to further erosion of democracy and the rise of authoritarian government. There is too much at stake to be a bystander!

    If we assume that most of the current neoliberal political system will fail along with the economic system that supports it, then discussions of what will replace it seem very relevant. As I consider what you are suggesting, what I think CR offers, may be the expectation that we as the public need form local bodies of ‘government’ that do not rely on elections or authority but rather on consensus. Groups will be local and engaged in activism. People will need to learn to listen and communicate for this to be successful. It seems less important that groups write new constitutions or laws, and more important that we see such political action as necessary in dealing with immediate needs that will result from collapsing social order. It seems that shared fundamental values will likely be our main guidance.
    Is that how you are seeing CR?

    • It seems less important that groups write new constitutions or laws,…

      Perhaps not, but I don’t see how we could get along without Robert’s Rules of Order or something like it. Any form of collective decision making has to have consensus on the structure of the decision making process itself. The simplest one is a requirement for unanimity, but that tends to break down quickly and gives an outlier opinion excessive coercive power.

      If a group is larger than just a few individuals, they have to have a rule book governing their deliberations and decision making. About the only other thing needed is some rule (bylaws) about who gets to joint the group of decision makers. With those two “laws” agreed on, a group can successfully manage its affairs for a long time, getting together regularly to take action as community circumstances change.

      • Check out David Buck’s work on Sociocracy.

        We use a modified form, in which the person with the most information about a situation is empowered to make decisions about that situation. These “stewards” have overlapping responsibilities, and they meet in “circles” of peers to resolve those shared responsibilities.

  8. Thanks for the further comments. I have limited time to respond as I’m cooking Sunday lunch but here’s a few quick thoughts:

    – on Afghan sharecroppers … well, that’s certainly one form of ‘supersedure state’, but not one that I’d like to put forward as an ideal model.

    – on fossil fuels as underwriting the consent of the governed. I’d argue that almost all societies ultimately require the consent of the governed in some sense
    – I’m quite wary of the notion that consent or equality is a modern luxury. But I’d accept that there’s a modern sense of sovereign consent and equality whose radicalism largely differentiates it from agrarian societies of the past. Ironically, it’s accompanied by an unprecedented modern inequality.

    – On the mechanics of CR, I think I’d prefer to leave that for a later post, but thanks for the various ideas and issues raised above which I’ll ponder. One point about CR is that because it explicitly disavows any kind of ‘natural’ community, it almost always arises in changing political circumstances as a reaction to something that’s gone before – it requires some kind of founding covenant or law-giver. Which is one reason why I think it may be appropriate for our times. Maybe here in Britain, for example, we might find that once we’re free of EU ‘tyranny’ shared nationality gives us less commonality of purpose than many supposed. What then? Maybe a republic…especially with the weakening reach of the nation-state

    – And on the Garden of Eden story…well, the classic text here surely has to be Smaje, C. 2008. ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. 2, 2: 183-98.

    I like snakes too – though not so much the venomous ones.

    Right, best get the mutton in. Thanks!

    • – And on the Garden of Eden story…well, the classic text here surely has to be Smaje, C. 2008. ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. 2, 2: 183-98.

      Indeed. And as this is Sunday afternoon, with mutton to prepare, where is there any time for mere modesty?? 🙂

      So rather than mere modesty, allow me to nominate an essay by a Kentuckian of some note – Wendell Berry, whose essay Nature as Measure refers to Eden as a sometime goal of industrial societies (at the expense of Nature as we find it). This essay was published in 2010 and again in a recent anthology of Berry’s efforts: The World-Ending Fire. [snakes only referred to tangentially in the latter]

      • You’re quite right – no modesty on SFF on mutton Sundays. My fig leaf is torn off. But hopefully the dry irony comes through. If not, let me hasten to recommend J. Baird Callicott’s essay ‘Genesis and John Muir’ as much superior to mine…

  9. Great post (to be honest it felt like you’d squeezed two in there somehow), and much to think about and, ever, agree with.

    In particular I think you’re right to be cautious of Gey’s criticisms concerning the tyranny of a majority. I’ve always liked the rather simple idea that CR is bout freedom from domination rather than freedom from interference – in which case any CR worth its name simply would not allow any kind of public vote in which the the losing minority would suffer oppression as a result. The processes of deliberation before voting would need to be robust enough to investigate such possibilities, and citizens would need to have a clear understanding of the nature of power and oppression (which arguably is simply not case today), but that’s just another reason to like it in my opinion.

    For similar reasons, CR might well be of use in avoiding intra-familial oppression on family farms, but here there seems to me to be a tightrope to be walked between the control of a family over its farm on the one hand, and the ability of the citizen body to intervene in the control of the farm in certain circumstances on the other. Getting that kind of balance right is surely crucial to avoiding either familial authoritarianism on the one side or state seigneurialism on the other. Inheritance is a tricky business, but might more usefully be conceived as ‘succession’, so that the explicitly familial connection between one generation and the next can be overruled if necessary.

    I have reservations about building from the ground up without any regard for existing power structures. I can sympathise, but might it not be the case that some kind of ‘entryist ‘ approach to existing institutions could work quite well, especially at levels of local and regional government? (I find it easier to be cynical about the higher level stuff – though the rapid culture change in the British Labour Party has been impressive to witness). I don’t think CR is about ‘values’ as such, but a particular kind of analysis of power relations connected with the promotion of processes of deliberation and democratic decision-making – if this perspective could be imported into local government institutions, we might see some progress…

  10. Thanks for the further comments. A little too hard pressed to comment properly, but I’ll ponder and come back to some of this.

    • While pondering you might also be interested in Suzanne Sherry’s thoughts on CR – she specifically reacts to some of Gey’s points in the article discussed above (and for that matter it seems Gey replied to some of her earlier efforts in his piece). This article is another at >70 pages so if time restricts… scan it for Gey.

      Responsible Republicanism: Educating for Citizenship – Sherry, 1995; available here:

  11. Hope this doesn’t seem like piling on, but another article crossed my screen here recently that I think some here (am looking at you Joe Clarkson) may find interesting:

    The author, Victor Court, is now at U. Sussex and has done some very fascinating work IMHO. Anyone who can cite Erwin Schrödinger without mentioning the cat catches my attention. Also worth some attention – at Victor’s website he has put up some of the datasets he’s worked with (and which a certain small farm futurist might find interesting). Links can be provided if anyone has trouble finding them.

    • I did indeed find it interesting; that’s why I posted a link to it up-thread. Your link is better since it goes straight to the pdf and I am also finding his data set Excel files from his website worth looking at. Thank you.

      • Aha… that explains how it crossed my screen recently 🙁 Glad I could at least add the data files for consideration. Am so impressed with the paper I’m going to add an alert in Google Scholar so I don’t miss more along these lines.

    • I had a quick flick through the paper. When I see selective data usage like charts about lighting efficiency that don’t include LED technology (6b) and thermal generation efficiency for electricity production that ignore supercritical and ultra efficiencies over 40% (6a) I start to wonder about perhaps a tad of confirmation bias. And CHP Steam Rankine Cycle (not mentioned) can hit 80% efficiency on Higher Heating Value including thermal energy sent out.

      Or this could reflect lack of familiarity with energy technology which is probably not ideal for someone such as the paper’s author making sweeping cross-disciplinary statements.

      And statements like this on p9 “similarly electric or gas-fired heating and cooling systems have made domestic and office life bearable in a variety of climates” just reflect the fact that we’ve had cheap fossil fuels for several centuries so we’ve chosen to piss them up against the wall in crappy systems. If we’d continued with the insights developing in the 19th century in building energy efficiency we could have had much better building stock mandated for the last 100 years and needed considerably less in the way of HVAC.

      I’d be a lot more interested in papers like this if they had a crack at what we could achieve WRT conventional economics using very aggressive energy efficiency and renewables instead of repeating tired tropes about fossils and economics. Personally I don’t have a lot of time for conventional economics either as most of it is IMO shamanistic, voodoo nonsense with almost no evidence base, designed to give a sheen of respectability for clearly self-serving wealth structures. But as the current dominant ideology you work with what you’ve got.

      We’ve had cheap fossils for several centuries. We did a poor job IMO of using them to best advantage. That period is coming to an end. Energy systems will look different but I’ve seen nothing conclusive that we can’t maintain an industrial civilisation. I’ve just been on the phone with a system developer looking to supply fixed price thermal energy from one or another renewable. Entirely doable.

      • David –
        You’re confusing me. Figure 6 (a, and b) originally comes from Smil 2008 (see refs in the paper) – with permission. When I look at page 21 in the discussion of figure 6 I don’t see a suggestion that better technologies have not or will not be forthcoming. Footnote 30 at the bottom of page 21 specifically treats the fact the better technologies exist and have not been implemented because less revenue would be earned by the power plants.

        I agree that we can do better. I’ll also agree that our predecessors could have done better in the past. But I don’t agree that this particular article is wrongheaded or manipulating the facts for some nefarious purpose.

        For anyone who isn’t familiar with CHP mentioned by David above, here’s an explainer:

      • I try to stay reasonably agnostic on the possibilities for maintaining an industrial civilization, but since it presently depends overwhelmingly on fossil fuels and is using more and more of them each year despite the immediate problem of climate change and the longer-term problem of depletion, I’d have to say that I’ve also seen nothing conclusive that we *can* maintain an industrial civilization.

        If energy were the only problem we faced, that’d be one thing but there are numerous other ones, of which socioeconomic inequality is a major one – and as you rightly say is woefully treated in conventional economics.

        So while I salute people who are working to mitigate all aspects of our contemporary crises within the confines of existing structures (even people working to reduce fertility in sub-Saharan Africa, despite what others may say of me…) and I’ll readily acknowledge that there is progress on these fronts, to my mind that amounts to less than a convincing case for the sustainability of industrial civilisation. Certainly, though, if energy realities were incorporated into orthodox economic analysis the case would be strengthened…

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