Of cages and hedges

Comments are back on after my return from a brief and computer-less sojourn in the Scottish Highlands. Computer-less, but TV-enabled (the opposite to my usual life on the farm), enabling me to watch endless programs about homesteading in Alaska and, when the mood took me, to keep up with the UK’s fast-developing, eminently predictable and wholly avoidable constitutional crisis over Brexit.

For those with better things to do than following the machinations in Westminster, here’s a quick summary of how Conservative MPs have recently voted.

  • No confidence in Theresa May’s leadership of the party: 117 out of 317
  • No confidence in Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU: 118 out of 317
  • Confidence in Theresa May’s government: 317 out of 317

No, me neither. Meanwhile, Small Farm Future has been engaging in arcane voting procedures of its own in relation to the heated issue of which topic to post on next. And the winner (by a crushing margin) is…the unexpurgated version my article ‘Of cages and hedges’ which has recently appeared in The Land Magazine (Issue 24, pp.56-7, since you asked).

After this post, I’ll post my interview with David Bandurski – author of the book Dragons in Diamond Village, on which my article in The Land was based. Then there’ll be radio silence for a while so I can focus on writing my own book. After that I’ll write a post on property, immigration and boundaries. And that’s a promise.

But first, here’s ‘Of Cages and Hedges’:


The lessons of China’s tumultuous history demand attention from those of us who advocate for more localized, land-based economies as part of the solution to global problems. The only civilization to survive more-or-less intact from antiquity to the present, much of its history was characterized by a relatively stable compact between a property-owning peasantry and an imperial bureaucracy the envy of peasants in other lands[i]. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘modernisation’ sharpened the conflict between social classes, culminating in Mao’s communist revolution and its enforced ‘iron rice bowl’ of rigidly-policed peasant equality and sufficiency. According to political scientist Lynn White, the disasters of Maoist economic policy and political intriguing in the 1950s and 60s created substantial local autonomy – and, more than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao regime, this autonomy fostered a peasant-led, bottom-up economic dynamism that laid the foundations for China’s emergence in recent years as a major global capitalist power[ii].

Land-workers and food sovereignty activists won’t need much convincing that, given the chance, peasants and rural people can create abundant and thriving local economies. But other aspects of China’s rise are more troubling to that narrative. Chen Yun famously described China’s post-Mao economy as a ‘birdcage’, in which the free-flying and prosperity-generating bird of capitalism was kept to its proper bounds by a socialist cage. But the reality is that in modern China the bird has long since flown the cage. This comes as no surprise to Marxists, who’ve always suspected that peasants are really just capitalists or landless wage-workers in disguise. But for agrarian thinkers who want to retain a notion of thriving but stable, non-capitalist rural economies, we somehow need to come up with a better cage.

Another troubling issue is revealed by a look at global farming statistics. Worldwide since 1990, there’s been a decline of 240 million people reported as employed in farming. But looking country-by-country, there’s been an outflow of 448 million people from farming – the majority (311 million) from China, where the proportion of people working in agriculture has declined from 55% in 1991 to 18% in 2017. That implies that there’s been an increase in farm employment elsewhere, and indeed there are 84 countries with a net increase in the number of people in farming totalling 208 million people. The majority of these (161 million) are in sub-Saharan Africa, partly reflecting the strong population growth in that region but also reflecting its poverty[iii]. It’s hard to preach an enticing vision for the peasant way when the majority of people entering it are the poorest on earth, and the majority of people exiting it live in a country that’s hurtling along a capitalist path of self-enrichment.

But a closer look at that capitalist path reveals a more complex story of ‘enrichment’, albeit one that’s familiar in its main details from capitalist paths of enrichment in other times and places. After the rural dynamism mentioned above got the ball rolling, China’s rise as a global economic power was based on export manufacturing industries built on the back of cheap migrant labour from the countryside to urbanizing-industrializing areas. One reason for its cheapness has been China’s household registration system, whereby rural migrants remain classified by their places of origin and are denied access to the superior health, educational, social and fiscal services available to city residents, thereby personally bearing much of the social costs of the industrialization founded in their labour[iv].

More recently, as with other maturing capitalist powers, there’s been a significant shift in Chinese wealth-creation out of industrialization and into financialization – particularly in relation to urban real estate. David Bandurski’s fine book Dragons in Diamond Village traces how this works, mostly via the engaging stories of individual people fighting the corrupt web of city officials, party leaders, village heads and police officers[v]. A distinctive feature of this in urbanizing China that Bandurski analyses in detail is the violent pressure that falls on collectively-held village land as it’s swallowed up by urbanization. These ‘urban villages’ have typically become crowded residential city neighbourhoods housing poor rural migrant labourers – slums in other words – with the original villagers acting as petty landlords under predatory pressure to relinquish their rights to village land and even to their own houses for the purposes of property development or gentrification, with the proceeds pocketed higher up the political food chain.

The plight of the urban villagers may seem a lesser one than that of the rural migrant labour force, and indeed in an interview with me David Bandurski explained that other urban-dwellers were often dismissive of their resistance to state enclosure, assuming that they were doing nicely out of their property rights. But he emphasized the predatory power of the state forces ranged against them, adding “I never understood the need to minimize the suffering of urban villagers by pretending they were sultans in comparison to struggling migrants. But you often heard this. And I think this arises in part from the political stigmatization of self-interest, which is confused with greed.”[vi]

This self-interest/greed nexus is an interesting feature that emerges from the analysis of Chinese capitalism by Bandurski and others. Capitalist development in the west has drawn on powerful but largely fallacious theories that individual self-interest, or even greed, fosters collective wellbeing, stretching right back to Adam Smith’s discussion of the invisible hand of the market in his Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Western capitalist mythology still celebrates the ideology of the little guy, the individual entrepreneur with the great idea, despite the dominance of the actual economy by vast corporate-monopoly enterprises. Bandurski writes contrastingly of China:

“one of the distinguishing features of what has been called “urbanization” in a Chinese context is that the role of the human being is minimized against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vision of the urban. A kind of urban mythology of the city as a place of dynamism and ultimately prosperity. You can see this readily in the propaganda around the city, which emphasizes the modern fabric of the city—the skyscrapers, the monuments, the high-speed rail…on one trip to countryside in Henan I saw how the mosaic scenes outside rural homes had been changed from scenes of nature to scenes of the megacity dominated by an expressway in diminishing perspective running through the center, luxury cars whishing past montages of architecture from Shanghai and Beijing. The caption was always: “Road to Prosperity.” But there were never people in those scenes, any more than in the government’s urban propaganda.”[vii]

Who knows how this will all turn out – but if economist Minqi Li’s analysis is correct, the probable answer is not well. At present, the combination of rising if poorly distributed incomes and the growing authoritarianism of the Xi Jinping regime is keeping the lid on social unrest in China. Bandurski pronounces himself “not very optimistic about the prospects for land rights activism becoming a real political force in China”. Longer-term, though, Li argues that at some point this century China’s dependence on fast economic growth through the terms of trade with its export partners along with its dependence on a prodigious fossil-energy use that’s neither economically nor ecologically sustainable will prompt a major crisis – political, economic and environmental – that will reverberate across China and the rest of the world and probably destroy much of what many people now take for granted about the modern world system[viii].

For westerners like me who’ve grown up in the alternative farming movement, it’s the older pre-revolutionary China that’s loomed largest in our thinking. Books like F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries emphasized the long-term sustainability of China’s labour-intensive, horticultural civilization, influencing western ecological movements like permaculture[ix]. In permaculture circles I’ve heard the adage repeated more than once that “the Chinese have forgotten more about gardening than the rest of the world ever knew”. But sadly it seems that their forgetting may now have matched our ignorance. In David Bandurski’s uncompromising words:

“One of the most basic things to understand about China’s so-called rural population is its clear and increasing remoteness from agricultural life. The vast majority are not farmers at all. Even one, two and now even three generations back they are not farmers. They have little or probably in most cases no agricultural knowledge.”[x]

It’s hard to derive an optimistic message from the familiar stories here of hard-won agricultural knowledge easily lost, enrichment by enclosure, economic maldistribution, short-term money-making at the cost of long-term crisis, and the elusiveness of a gilded rather than an iron cage to contain the spirits of the market. But China still has more people in farming than most industrialized countries, and a history of wrenching social transformation that may yet surprise the world again. David Bandurski mentions that many among China’s rural-industrial workforce still consider the family smallholding as a hedge against economic insecurity, while adding that, “This land isn’t a hedge in the real sense that any sustainable income could probably be derived from it, but only in the sense that it might enable subsistence at the most basic level.”[xi] The challenge as I see it is that the world at large urgently needs to improve its hedges – which may not sound like the right conclusion in view of what we know about the enclosure of the commons, though personally I’m convinced that well-hedged (in every sense) private smallholdings of the kind pioneered long ago in China can still offer one of the more persuasive roadmaps out of the present morass.


[i] Eric Wolf. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Harper & Row.

[ii] Lynn White. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.

[iii] Figures in this paragraph calculated from World Development Indicators: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators

[iv] Hsiao-Hung Pai. 2013. Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. Verso.

[v] David Bandurski. 2016. Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China. Melville House.

[vi] David Bandurski, personal communication.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Minqi Li. 2016. China and the 21st Century Crisis. Pluto.

[ix] F.H. King. 1911. Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. Rodale.

[x] Bandurski, personal communication.

[xi] Ibid.

14 thoughts on “Of cages and hedges

  1. When I hear ‘small farm communities fostering thriving, local economies’, I have a twinge of skepticism, chiefly because of the word ‘local’. The agricultural revolution is interminably linked to the rise of the national market in Britain, and the spread of usable roads, which were created by private turnpike companies in that time. Before then, the economies were local, sure, but not thriving. There would shortages of food in one town, and then the next town over would have an excess of food: even if there is a need for food elsewhere, no one is going to pack up and transport goods across some great distance unless they stand to profit from it. The interconnecting of local markets into a national one was what made town centers and ‘local communities’ thrive.

    Regarding China, the notion that smallholdings are a hedge against economic disaster are certainly true, simply because China’s history is rife with famines. However RE: urbanization, I found a book once (Xin Lu’s “China, China”) that is essentially a westerner’s guide to understanding/working in architecture and city planning in China. Some interesting points: the fickle fascination with city building in China possibly arises from the spiritual importance of rooftop designs and decor, which drives an architectural culture of monumentality, a focus on building ‘crown jewels’ which necessitates large, urban centers and attracts rural workers to those centers to retrain in construction. There is also the matter of Chinese building materials, in antiquity: there were not really any large buildings then, only complexes of many, small structures, hence the grid-like planning of cities we see in very old Chinese cities that long predates the grid city plans of North American cities. I believe this could possibly explain the minimizing of the role of humans in more sprawling urban areas–that is, the notion that the ‘system’ is a sum of infrastructure above all else. Naturally this only explains some small features of Chinese demographics and economics but I think it is a potentially interesting footnote.

    • Thanks for commenting. I disagree with your view that agrarian economies in Britain (or in general) did not (or cannot) thrive prior to full national market integration – depending perhaps on how one defines ‘thrive’. And also on what happens to the surplus of the local economy. True, people in localized economies often welcome roads and marketization, and with good reason – but it’s a double-edged sword, which is destructive as well as enabling. Generally, it’s a much more complex picture than localized = not thriving, national market = thriving.

      Thanks for the comments on Chinese urban aesthetics – very interesting.

      • A double-edged sword for sure. If people were content to survive (I have just enough and I’m happy enough where I am, as I am), the world could be spared the ravages of the desire to thrive (I’m not quite satisfied, I’d like more, to be better off, more comfortably off). Could reining ourselves in via lower ambitions save us, or is this far too simple-minded? Maybe it’s something we’ll have to get used to anyway. Some of my friends from university, like many farmers, are currently earning minimum wage.

      • Chris have you watched , the age of steam , Ruith Goodman , alex langlands , peter ginn , very instructive in how steam railways linked the country together and changed / started new markets for farming / fishermen .
        Ruith ” Internet Pah nothing like the revolution started by the railways “

  2. Chris wrote, “But China still has more people in farming than most industrialized countries…”

    Also relevant to a small farm future:
    “More than 90 percent of all farms in China are less than 2.5 acres, and the average farm size is among the smallest in the world.”

    “How China Plans to Feed 1.4 Billion Growing Appetites”, by Tracie McMillan
    National Geographic, February 2018

    An interesting suburban scene in China, from the National Geographic article:

  3. China like the rest of the world is not looking to the future , growth on a finite planet is suicide , I read somewhere we are burning through two and a half planets resources every year , to bring the rest of the planets population up to western standards would take nine , we have one planet and we must live within its capacity , not on dreams . The biosphere has control of how many people the planet can carry , not the technoutopians .

    • Here Daz, have a look at this:

      Almost a year older than the National Geographic article Steve L linked above (and not nearly as artistic)… but it does a pretty nice job of outlining what the Chinese are up to in regard to feeding their own. Now this may not be a recipe for looking FAR into the future, but it does capture some consideration about the future many of us alive today might come to experience.

      • The reliance on technology is mind boggling , the fragility of that system is one power cut from a lost crop .
        The idea that buying and leasing land in the poorest countries leaves a bad taste in the mouth , how they will get the crops to China when the local populations are starving and rioting will be interesting .
        Last year the international shipping authorities mandated the removal of bunker oil to be replaced by diesel causing shortages at most major ports , refineries are struggling to meet demand the fracking miracle ( blows raspberry ) produces light crude with little heavy diesel producing oil ( plenty of gas / petrol ….. and natural gas = low prices ) and has to be blended with heavy crude which the refineries are not set up to do , I hope to live long enough to see the first sail bulk carrier .

  4. I wonder if destroying agrarian cultures is part of the globalist agenda. In the Czech Republic, almost nobody farms any more… the whole country is covered by yellow rape mostly fed into the fuel economy. What the Marxists-Leninists started, by their expropriation of family farms and turning farm work into a “job,” the post-communist system is finishing off.

    Meanwhile, garlic is being imported large scale from China even though nobody wants it, and the demand for local garlic grows.

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