Ciao Mao?

Apologies for my recent silence on here, not least in relation to the interesting comments at the end of my last post to which I couldn’t find the time to reply. No sooner had I revived this blog from my long book-writing layoff than I was laid low again with various urgent tasks – including a return to the book manuscript for an editorial overhaul. These tasks are ongoing so I fear I may have to disappear again for a while, but I hope more briefly than the last hiatus. And perhaps I’ll show up for a couple of interim posts. After all, another Brexit-fuelled election beckons – and where would British politics be without the next instalment of the widely-celebrated Small Farm Future miniseries: Which-of-these-darned-idiots-do-I-have-to-vote-for-this-time?

But let me sign off with a brief train of thought. Just as I was getting to grips with Julia Lovell’s fascinating book Maoism: A Global History who should appear in my Twitter feed the other day but an old adversary of Small Farm Future, Leigh Phillips, agitating against agrarian labour intensification on the grounds that it was a policy pursued by the genocidal Maoist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. That’s right, folks: in Leigh-world, if Pol Pot adopted agrarian labour intensification, then it follows that those who advocate agrarian labour intensification must support the politics of Pol Pot. By this logic, Leigh’s huge enthusiasm for nuclear power surely reveals itself as mere advocacy for the Gulag…

The only reason I mention this flummery is because it strikes me that the exact opposite thesis is probably more worthy of attention: unless we adopt agrarian labour intensification, the chances of a resurgent Maoism are amplified.

Let me try to put a little flesh on those bones…

Maoism is a virtually incomprehensible political doctrine in the west, and in any case has come to seem a dead letter with the eclipse or collapse of almost all the world’s significant Maoist regimes. But let’s not be too hasty with the obituaries. As with most political ‘isms’ the exact parameters of Maoism are ever fluid and hard to specify precisely, which is why these isms keep reinventing themselves, often in unexpected places. In the case of Maoism, wherever there are poor rural populations who perceive themselves to be oppressed by colonial or neocolonial power and are ready to contest it with violence, then the grounds for it are prepared.

There are a lot of places like that in the world today, and Maoism is far from a dead letter in many of them. There are set to be more such places in the future, with rural poverty and ever more nakedly coercive neocolonial power set to be augmented. So I wouldn’t bet against future Maoist insurgencies… Indeed, more sophisticated thinkers than Phillips such as his Verso stablemates Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann in their Climate Leviathan raise the spectre of future ‘Climate Mao’ regimes arising on the back of climate crisis and other perturbations in global politics, to which such regimes have ready-made answers…

…ready-made, but pretty unappealing – at least I can agree with Phillips on that. So for those of us who’d rather not see a return of Maoism, what is to be done? You get a sense of Phillips’ answer from the subtitle of his first book – “A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff”. Via a shopworn reading of Karl Marx on the necessity of capitalism prior to socialism, Phillips cheerleads the present global capitalist economy as the precursor to socialist prosperity for all. Probably, he and his chums at the Breakthrough Institute genuinely believe this shtick, though their strident scorn for anyone who questions if it’ll really turn out so well does make me wonder if they protest a little too much. Radical-sounding but business-as-usual and corporate-friendly plays well to many galleries.

Yet if it doesn’t turn out so well, then the conditions for Climate Mao are ramped up another notch. We know these plotlines – further global inequality, further rural immiseration, further Ricardian landlordism and rentier capitalism, further climate breakdown, further political militarization. And, for reasons copiously discussed on this site over the years, there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t turn out so well.

An alternative, also copiously discussed on this site, is a more local, non-growth oriented, sustainable, agrarian and – yes – more labour-intensive (creating more green, low-carbon jobs is a good thing, right?) human ecology. The consequences would be globally redistributive and effectively anti-colonial, taking a lot of the heat out of the preconditions for Maoist insurgency. And possibly some of the heat out of the atmosphere too.

To put it another way, if you’d prefer to avoid harsh dystopias of involuntary rural simplicity in the future of the Pol Pot variety, then there’s a good case for working up some gentle utopias of voluntary rural simplicity right now, and trying to implement them. Inevitably, they’ll involve more people spending more time working in the garden. For many us, that isn’t such an appalling prospect, so long as there isn’t somebody alongside us there holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for incorrect thought. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what it feels like metaphorically when you engage with Mr Phillips…

Finally, a housekeeping point. I’m happy to receive individual communications via the Contact Form on matters of particular or private interest, with replies at my discretion. But if you’d like to debate or contest something I’ve said in a blog post and get a reply from me, please post it as a public comment on my Small Farm Future site, and I’ll do my best. Thank you. And ciao for now.

14 thoughts on “Ciao Mao?

  1. As you know, I live in the same town as Leigh Phillips, and I patiently engaged with him for a good long while.

    But then my patience ran out and his idiocy just makes me angry.

  2. “So for those of us who’d rather not see a return of Maoism, what is to be done”

    Perhaps any inclinations toward ‘Maoizing’ (or any other centralizing/power-over ideology for that matter) could be effectively countered with ideas drawn from Leopold Kohr (and his students like EF Schumacher), such as the value of ‘disunion’ and the ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy. I’ve frequently thought that we moderns tend to assume ‘bigness,’ if we think about it at all, as not only a natural state but one toward which we gravitate in our thinking. Certainly here in the US, the 10th amendment – which reserves all powers not explicitly granted to the national government to the states and/or people – is the least popular among politicians whose nature tends to be to seek ever more power and consolidation.

    And of course, when it comes to agriculture, this was expressed most succinctly and famously by Earl Butz’ ‘Get big or get out.’ Look at the mess we have on our hands as a result.

    Kohr thought the problem was ‘bigness’ itself, politically expressed as ‘union’ vs ‘disunion’.

    It seems to me that a political economy explicitly based out of Kohr’s ideas about the evils of bigness would not only facilitate ”a more local, non-growth oriented, sustainable, agrarian and – yes – more labour-intensive human ecology’ but also serve as a bulwark against centralizing ideologies such as any resurgent Maosim.

    In explaining some of the unexpected advantages of ‘disunion’ (what he called Kleinstaaterei), Kohr used this whimsical yet quite serious example:

    “The unionist will say that the time when hundreds of states existed was dark and that wars were waged almost continuously. That is true. But what were these wars like? The Duke of Tyrol declared war on the Margrave of Bavaria for a stolen horse. The war lasted two weeks. There was one dead and six wounded. A village was captured and all the wine drunk which was in the cellar of the inn. Peace was made and $35 paid for reparations. The adjoining Duchy of Liechtenstein and the Archbishopric of Salzburg never learned that there had been a war on at all. There was war on some corner of Europe almost every day, but they were wars with little effects. Today we have relatively few wars, and they are for no better reason than a stolen horse. But the effects are tremendous.”

  3. For many us, that isn’t such an appalling prospect, so long as there isn’t somebody alongside us there holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for incorrect thought.

    …OR holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for fresh tomatoes, veges, and other fruits of our labor (labour??) At some point there needs to be some sort of protection against the cowardice of gun toting marauders who care not for the simple ways of an agrarian path. In this I’m not so much afraid of Mao or Pot’s legacies as I am of neighbors who would might take advice from Mexican drug cartels… arm themselves to the teeth, and spit in the eye of duly elected representatives. Along the lines of the Golden Rule (where he with the gold makes the rules) there is ‘he with the guns makes the rules’. How quickly might all swords be turned to plow shares, and all spears to pruning hooks? And who will keep the peace?

    Until such time as you can spare a little time, we’ll keep the hearth warm. Having Ruben here to patiently engage with for a good long while should be very refreshing. 🙂

    • agteed ,
      people will have to be in the garden it will be intresting for them to actualy do some hard work , this is a intresting piece .
      ” These trends coincide with a decline in musculoskeletal strength among young men: In a 2016 study, the average 20- to 34-year-old man could apply 98 pounds of force with a right-handed grip, down from 117 pounds by a man of the same age in 1985. ”
      1985 aint 1900 though there are no numbers for then, the men i grew up with in the 1950’s were tough and strong .

    • There was a famous battle in the Spanish Civil War between small farmers and Anarchists (or Communists, I’ve forgotten which) who wanted to expropriate their hams and chorizos, etc, for ‘The People. Quite a fight!

      On the hole, you know, the ruthless people with guns and numbers on their side do tend to win and set the agenda.

      (Excellent blog, new to me, thank you! I would like to see towns surrounded by market gardens, or at least orchards, to a depth of 3 miles or so – as they often once were in Britain, London certainly if you look at the old maps…..)

  4. Thanks for these.

    Bad luck, Ruben. Vancouver, right? Lovely city. Hope it’s big enough for you both…

    Oz – I’m sympathetic to the Kohr line, but with reservations. I think he sugar coats quite what ‘small state’ violence can be like and was like historically, especially in the hands of local potentates from whom there’s no escape, or of multi-territorial aristocracies who hold local peasants in complete contempt. The world indeed has fragmented politically quite considerably since Kohr was writing, and not always in good ways – Yugoslavia, Sudan etc. Still, I agree that keeping small farm consciousness local is a good way of avoiding Maoist cooption.

    Clem/Diogenese – yep, use it or lose it, better start workin’ that hoe! Agreed that protection from marauders is a good idea – though as in my vaishya posts of some time back, the problem is when farmers look to aristocratic protection from marauders only to find that the aristocrats ARE the marauders. Which is where republicanism, citizen militias etc. come in. Of course, from the perspective of certain global peasantries the marauders are the global wealthy or the rich capitalist powers – hence the appeal of Maoism, or at least of its revolutionary rhetoric.

    BTW I’m probably going to be offline now for a few days, but will check back in soon.

    • The example Kohr cites is charming, amusing and misleading.

      I’m descended from a Spanish family of knights (old Kingdom of Navarre) who for some 5 centuries or more were tasked with defending rural areas from bandits in general, aggressive clans on the other side of the border and bigger invasions – it was very nasty and brutal, with few periods of peace. A bit like the Howard family in Northern England.

      If they failed, the farmers and their women got raped, robbed, murdered and the farms burned down.

      In defending them, we got an awful lot of blood on our hands – which I’m proud of as it was in a rather good cause. But oh, how terrible to contemplate those centuries of low-level but savage violence!

      Before that, they had to deal with raids from the Muslim Caliphate in Andalucia: there were no olive trees of great age in that region, because the Muslim armies pulled up or mutilated all the trees as they came through: they killed adult males, and enslaved women and children taking them back to Cordoba and the cities of the South.

      It took the great battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 to put a stop to all that after 5 centuries of terrible struggle and regular devastation.

      Quite frankly, we do not know how lucky we are.

  5. Well, given the behaviour of the current UK Government \i now realise where all those Trotskyites who tried to take over the Labour Party in the late 1970’s went

    At this rate we will end up with a revolution on our hands quite soon

  6. Hi Chris,

    With regard to your last point, if you got any messages from a group called Nori, that was due to me. They recently had Ted Nordhaus on their carbon removal podcast, and at the end they asked for people who might have a strong anti-ecomodernist message. Given your writings, I figured you would be a better degrowther to have on than Monbiot, so I emailed them recommending you. They’ve also had lots of permaculturalists and the Land Institute on, and I figured you could give some arguments for when and where annuals can be effective.

    You are a better man than I for engaging with Nordhaus and Philips. According to Philips, not having cheap air travel and tomatoes in the winter would be cruel eco-austerity. I can say, I’ve been fine the last few winters living off cabbage, broccoli sprouts, and sweet potatoes

  7. This is excellent – more on this please! I’ve been slowly thinking away a premise for a (yet another) book idea, that contrasts a dystopian climate Maoism against a more peaceful (but hopefully not facile) agrarian utopia (truthfully not read anything about Mao since GCSE history – but spent a lot of time this year further investigating Nazi Germany, GDR and communist Russia).

  8. Pingback: City of the dead, part two - Resilience

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