Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism, Part 2

This post continues with my theses on class, identity, protest, violence and the politics of agrarian localism begun in the previous one. For a definition of terms and acronyms used below, and reference to the people and articles it engages with, see the previous post. Comments welcome!

17. I’ll now turn to the success or otherwise of XR and other climate and social justice campaigns. Ruben suggests the addition of less carbon to the atmosphere is the appropriate criterion to judge climate activism. I think this is very stringent, but not unreasonable. It’s harder to come up with such a singular metric in the case of social justice but perhaps less dollars added to global GDP and to the total income and wealth of the world’s richest people might serve. By these measures, all climate and social justice activism has so far failed. Violent and nonviolent. Middle-class and working-class. White, black, indigenous. Global North and Global South. Governmental, NGO and civic. All of it. There have been many small victories against climate change and capitalism, but no large ones. Perhaps a worthy inference from this is to stop looking for who has epistemic or ontological privilege at protesting climate change and social justice and to frame the question differently.

18. Nevertheless, it’s true that people with OP are, deliberately or otherwise, offloading the consequences of climate change onto people with less of it – women, people of colour, indigenous people, working-class people, the Global South. These people indeed are in the forefront of climate activism in places like Standing Rock and are generating protests and activism which I think other people ought to support and from which they can learn.

19. …but inasmuch as it’s eminently likely that climate change and other crises will prompt widespread social collapse, the fact is that almost everyone will then be in the forefront of climate change activism, even if their activism amounts to no more than trying to save their own skins. Climate change activism is not as good a candidate for OCP-led activism as, say, patriarchy or racism. Indeed, maybe it’s even a candidate for OP-led activism, along the lines that Michelle (jestingly) suggested here a while back – rich white people ought to step up and take responsibility for dealing with their own crap.

20. Whatever the case, unlike Peter I don’t see violent activism in trying to block fossil fuel infrastructure as intrinsically superior to nonviolent activism in, say, trying to block MPs getting into parliament. To my mind, Peter’s view of the activism that’s needed to mitigate climate change is naïve (“climate change is made up of thousands of individual mega-projects like the ones those folks [at Standing Rock and Le ZAD] actually stopped”). This neglects the emergent properties of the political economy which manifest ultimately in Ruben’s outcome measure – more carbon added to the atmosphere, year after year. For this reason, I see the wider implications of the activism of both XR and Standing Rock/Le ZAD as quite similar, and mostly about political spectacle. I’ve got no particular problem with those who prefer violent Standing Rock type activism to nonviolent XR type activism. But I think spending time explaining why the former is superior to the latter is, as Bruce suggested, a waste of time. (Incidentally, I must confess my ignorance about the Standing Rock action, but this account of it gives me a different sense of its success, accommodation with extant power and violence than Peter’s).

21. I will try to push a little more at the idea of the emergent political economy and ontological privilege. As I see it, the extra-human world – the universe, the Earth – enjoys a hard (but not absolute…) ontological privilege over humanity. To anthropomorphize, it doesn’t care if we suffer or die, and it has lots of ways of making us suffer and die. Human culture – its farming, its textiles, its buildings, its medicine and so on – is a form of human OCP articulated against the OP of the extra-human world. And I’m grateful for it. But ultimately I don’t think humanity will be able to overturn this extra-human OP. We need to embrace our lack of privilege with respect to it. People often dismiss this view as ‘Malthusian’, but they’re mistaken. They haven’t done the reading.

22. I espouse a left-wing libertarianism in which all people can enjoy the capability of producing a fulfilling personal livelihood through acting on an ultimately constraining extra-human world, articulating an OCP shared empathically with other people against the world’s immoveable OP.

23. In my view, the best way of mediating this difficult trade-off between the OP of the world and humanity’s OCP, and the best way of organizing social justice in the near future, is by building small farm societies oriented towards local self-provisioning. Here are some of the things that such societies will need if they’re to prosper: the rule of law, widespread access to affordable property including farmland with agreed boundaries, widespread opportunities to generate a personal livelihood, a public sphere of political debate, ‘household responsibility’. Some of these things exist in practice or in theory in contemporary capitalist societies, but they will have to assume different forms in a just small farm future, and will need to be fought for through political activism. I see XR as a vehicle for developing that activism. But it draws me into some difficult judgments. What laws am I willing to break when I believe in the rule of law (although this just got easier now that the British government has itself chosen to deliberately break the law)? What property am I willing to violate when I am a property owner, and am not opposed in principle to private property? These difficulties don’t present themselves to people who believe in a redeeming political violence associated with AOCP.

24. Many people influenced by Marxism and notions of AOCP are apt to dismiss these attributes of small farm societies as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘petty bourgeois’. And they are apt to dismiss the kind of squeamishness I just expressed about the bounds of my activism as indicative of my own bourgeois status. When they do this, they relegate my politics to a mere outcome of my class position. As I see it, the world is more complex than this and its politics isn’t simply reducible to class or OP/OCP conflicts.

25. Concepts like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petit bourgeois’ have no stable meaning, and statements like ‘advocacy for small-scale family farming involves a petit bourgeois worldview’ have no sociological purchase outside specific historical contexts. The same is true of almost all the phrases we deploy to make sociological sense of the world (men, white, middle-class, family, society) but some of them are so well grounded in our everyday experience of the social world that they seem quite unproblematic. This makes them especially treacherous.

26. But suppose the established order is overthrown, and the bourgeois brutes are killed along with concepts like law, property and family in some huge act of redeeming violence. How will the victors organize successful agrarian societies that put food on the table and manage the ecological base renewably? To speak plainly, I think they won’t have a clue. On past form, I think they will resort to meaningless slogans like ‘the common ownership of the means of production’ and ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and then they will screw the hell out of people who do have a clue such as any remaining family farmers or peasantries unfortunate enough to fall within their jurisdiction. And they will screw the ecological base too. Then eventually, after much needless suffering and unrealizable efforts at political redemption, out of this chaos will emerge family farming, mixed private and common property regimes and household responsibility, because this is how you organize a sustainable human ecology against the OP of the non-human world. (See what I just did there: epistemic warranting is everywhere!)

27. So my proposal is to short-circuit these empty spaces of terror, fallacious concepts of AOCP and romantic views of political violence by working to create a socially just small farm future. To achieve this, I think it will be necessary to have a rich, pervasive, republican politicization of everyday life and livelihood that few of us in the contemporary world, regardless of our OP or lack of it, are currently prepared for or have much epistemic privilege in. In its local organizing, I see XR as one of the most promising developments in the political landscape of contemporary Britain that might be a vehicle for that kind of political mobilization. I don’t necessarily think it’s all that promising – just more promising than most of the other things around. Flatpack Democracy 2021 is another promising one.

28. In other words, I think it’s necessary to develop a civic republican politics of community. This politics does not try to erase or discount the social importance of human differentiations – gender, class, race etc. – into some comfortable notion of unconflicted communitas. It acknowledges OP. But it doesn’t consider the social world and political action to be essentially reducible to them.

29. The fact that few people and few communities globally have the skills, mindset and infrastructure to bring about a small farm future easily is an enormous obstacle. But it does have a silver lining – there’s no politics of authenticity, no AOCP, by which responsibility for creating functional agrarian societies can be abdicated to some category of ‘real people’ that our political theology invests with the capacity to bring about the necessary change. The real person is you, and whoever else is living in your neighbourhood. The necessary change is creating a material livelihood from the place where you live, without expecting help from elsewhere. Or moving where you can make a livelihood, and hoping that the people already living there aren’t too invested in a ‘real people’ narrative of their own that excludes you. (In Western Europe and North America there are troubling race and class dimensions to this, because the rural areas where urban people will be moving are usually whiter and richer than urban ones).

30. Joe writes that political protest is futile, and I basically agree. I don’t think XR will have much or any effect on the government’s policies about climate change. The main reason I think XR protests are worth doing anyway is inasmuch as they feed into Points 27 and 28. And, if I could make so bold, I think Joe is interested in these possibilities too on the basis of his long participation on this site and what seems to me an interest on his part in trying to find some kind of politics that will make the hard, climate-induced landings our societies are about to experience softer. His awareness of his OP is an important positive in this respect, I think.

31. Ruben writes “Did your arrest change anything? How difficult it was is not the measure of the impact”. I think this is true as measured by the criteria raised in points 17 and 30. It didn’t reduce carbon emissions, and it didn’t change government policy. I don’t think it’s necessarily true as measured by the criteria raised in points 10, 20 and 28. My arrest and my (admittedly fairly low level) of general participation in XR may have contributed in however small a way to XR’s journey of political self-education and its construction of political spectacle, and it certainly contributed to my own personal journey in learning how to overcome some of my resistances to participating in a republican politics of community. On such minimal margins do we construct our personal political choices.

32. Joshua raises the issue of middle-class buying power as political activism – something that I’ve long been torn over. I agree that there’s agency here, and that downshifting is a good idea. But while I have no problem with individuals focusing on one or the other form of activism, they’re not mutually exclusive. And ultimately, I think this succumbs to the same problem as Peter’s argument about Standing Rock – climate change isn’t made up of millions of individual consumption decisions, and folks can’t stop it by making millions of different ones. It’s made of millions of profit-seeking decisions that are written into the institutional structure of the societies we live in. That structure needs changing. And nobody knows how to do it, whatever their OP.

33. Bruce mentions Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, which is collapsing, while the Home Secretary ponders new curbs on ‘eco-fanatics’. We haven’t yet got to the stage identified by Joe of environmental activists being quietly disappeared into the carceral system, or worse. But that could be where the discourse is drifting – Section 14s being used to pre-emptively stop protest, increasingly repressive policing, lengthy prison sentences mooted for XR protestors, the idea floated that this group of concerned climate scientists, doctors, teachers, farmers, grandparents and young people worried for their future is a ‘criminal organization’. You could be forgiven for thinking that, far from being coopted by the state, XR’s activities might actually be troubling it! Meanwhile many right-wing voices bay for more state violence to be used against XR protestors. But rather than address this fateful drift of ecological breakdown and political repression, there are those on the left who prefer to exhume the corpse of 19th century political theory in order to find XR wanting for its inauthenticity. As I see it, there’s fanaticism from all corners, but less from XR than from most – including from left-wing critics too wrapped up in nostalgic narratives of redemption through class violence.

59 thoughts on “Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism, Part 2

  1. Once again you completely misrepresent my argument. I never say climate change is caused by millions of individual consumer choices. Rather, it constitutes thousands of capitalist megaprojects, all of which must be resisted locally by movements that are also the best suited to develop localized forms of sustenance. I also never characterize Standing Rock as “violent”. They used diverse tactics, and the broader movement led to multiple pipeline projects being cancelled, just as le ZAD blocked the construction of an airport.

    • Peter, I quoted your argument directly! And I don’t attribute to you the view that CC is caused by consumer choices. Pots & kettles spring to mind here. But thanks for engaging anyway…

  2. I’m (re-)reading some of George Orwell’s essays at the moment and stumbled over this (his essay on Kipling): “All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.”

    Isn’t there something in this with regards to your thesis 32 and middle class consumption? It isn’t so much a question of the marginal utility of each individual buy/not buy decision, or even their collective effect. It’s a question of demonstrating a serious intention to accept the practical consequences of the demands climate activism makes. Without it the whole thing is a kind of pantomime (with Priti Patel as the villain we all love to hate), undertaken safely in the knowledge that nothing being demanded will ever actually happen. I know this is raking over old ground, but I don’t see how you can escape it.

    • I’d like to start by nominating Priti Patell for this year’s Best Actress Oscar for her role as ‘Villain’ in the Pantomime that is British politics.

      Really like the Orwell quote – it seems the more things change the more they stay the same.

      Chris ends point 32 saying ‘That structure needs changing. And nobody knows how to do it, whatever their OP.’ and this is undoubtedly true – in part because all the solutions acceptable within mainstream discourse place the maintenance of our way of living at their centre. You could rewrite that Orwell quote and substitute the word ‘coolie’ with ‘the earth’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘species extinction’ and with little editing it would still make sense. And as Orwell rightly suggests our very way of life is incompatible with the outcome we supposedly desire – I think this is often ascribed to a flaw in human nature – that we value the present over the future – but may be human nature is a more mutable thing that we imagine or are allowed to imagine.

      But those structures of which Chris speaks are incredibly powerful. I’ve spent the past 3 years retraining in order to have a livelihood more rooted in my community. Ironically that’s meant that for 3 years I’ve had far less time to actually be involved in said community. But when I qualify and start working what’s the first thing I’ll need – a website – which immediately ties me back into all sorts of ways of being dependant on the ‘coolies’ of the world. And then there’s advertising, peer pressure, infrastructure, sunk costs, economic and business models etc etc

      I think its why I find the idea idea of indigineity interesting – to me it seems a useful idea – it seems to speak to #21, the OP of the Earth itself and how I want to orientate myself in relation to that – and perhaps it serves as a memonic – reminding me to constantly look to see how I can swim against the tide – how can I be, both in my productive and consumptive capacities more embedded in place, less dependant on the ‘coolies’ (both human and non human) of the world.

      In all this perhaps one of the things that XR is doing is pointing out, as best it can and while openly acknowledging that we’re all complicit, the very contradiction that Orwell elucidated.

      I think a lot of this debate about how to go about protesting/resisting etc is rooted in the idea that things can be changed, if only our strategy, tactics, whatever was just right. I think that’s fallacious.

  3. Thanks Chris.

    I especially endorse your point #21.

    But seeing now that there is a controversy, I had a look at:

    I didn’t read very far, but I did see these two bits:

    “…they remained as powerless as the citizens of any democracy”

    “So much for the victories of pacifism.”

    Well, so much for the persuasive power of that particular article.

    Meanwhile, I began thinking that I am not interested in fighting against anything.
    I am not particularly interested in fighting for much of anything either.
    The emphasis on fighting makes me really tired. I would rather make things.

    I might qualify as a pacifist, but I recognize the utility of violence.
    The trouble is the people who use violence, and what they use it for.
    I don’t trust any of them.
    Somehow with peaceful protest, the stakes are lower. There is less danger of a repressive regime springing from a peaceful protest. If that is because pacifism is ineffective, that is fine with me.

    In some ways, especially when talking about carbon emissions, effectiveness is exactly the problem.
    This is why we burn fossil fuels, isn’t it? Because it is effective. Making change in the world.

    I guess Peter Gelderloos isn’t a Taoist.

    This is a place for my favorite quote from The Art of War: “When you oblige yourself to go to war, you have already lost”

    What a losing proposition to need to convince anyone of anything.
    I am much more interested in simply living in accord with my values, as much as possible in the world we have today. With some reflection upon those values to see whether they harmonize with the world

    If we can do this together with our friends, then we are getting somewhere.

    • This has a nice aspect to it Eric… the whole of it I mean. But I do have an angle to trace on the matter of Chris’ point #21.

      From #21 Chris says:
      As I see it, the extra-human world – the universe, the Earth – enjoys a hard (but not absolute…) ontological privilege over humanity

      Maybe semantics, or perhaps my personal bias showing… but I’ve some difficulty granting ontological privilege to the universe or our home planet. They existed prior to us, and I find it difficult to imagine how or why either might care (as you also suggest in the sentence following). But you go on to imagine that these extra-human entities have lots of ways of making us suffer and die. Its seems to me you grant them some sort of agency in the matter. By using a similar tack one should offer that these entities have lots of ways of offering us beauty, protection, health and life. But I think both of these pictures are wrong. They are. We are… and indeed much of what ‘we are’ IS in deference to the realities they present. Do they present these realities “to” us on purpose? Again, this suggests agency, and perhaps my definition of agency differs… but I don’t see the Earth acting specifically for or against us. It follows the physical requirements of the universe. We too follow the physical laws of the universe. To suggest we sometimes bend those laws is a logical mistake. All our niche construction, as fantastic and fanatical as it sometimes seems, still obeys the same fundamental physics that the planets and the universe obey. Thus I don’t see the non-human realm as having some OP that we must cow toe to or be subservient to.

      If we foul our own nest, it is our doing. Climate change occurs as a result of many different operators. When one of these is us, then we do have some agency in attempting to right the ship. When astrological alignments outside our reach cause such changes, we’re in trouble with much less latitude for remedy. A violent or non-violent approach will have little sway.

      Thus I find a smidgen of agreement with the first sentence here:

      We need to embrace our lack of privilege with respect to it. People often dismiss this view as ‘Malthusian’, but they’re mistaken. They haven’t done the reading.

      But the next sentence leaves me wanting a little clarification. What exactly is Malthusian in this context, and what reading is necessary?

  4. “…climate activism in places like Standing Rock”

    As far as I can tell, the Standing Rock protests were primarily about the prevention of water pollution and the defilement of Native American cultural sites (not the climate).

    The Standing Rock victory may be short-lived, pending the results of an Environmental Impact Statement. There are already plans to double the pipeline’s capacity by the end of next year. According to this recent news article from North Dakota, the pipeline never did shut down (while the EIS is being completed), since the appeals court sided with the pipeline company.

    “In July, Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered Dakota Access and its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, to shut down the pipeline and keep it empty for the duration of a lengthy environmental review, estimated to take up to 13 months.

    “Boasberg’s ruling prompted Dakota Access to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and the pipeline operator continued to run oil through the pipeline in the wake of the initial federal court order.

    “In early August, the appeals court issued an emergency stay on Boasberg’s shutdown order, giving the pipeline clearance to continue operating through the lengthy environmental review process.”

  5. Interesting, Chris, that in points 23 and 29 you seem to be moving towards the assertion of farmers having not only OCP but a kind of AOCP. Which is a very farmer thing to assert. We’ve all had that grumble about uppity townies (both right and left-leaning) not knowing what it takes to produce their food. There are, of course, scary implications to that assertion, which are abetted somewhat by your call for civic republicanism.
    Implicit also is an assertion that farmers have a special access to or ability to mediate the OP of the world, which both has some validity, but not absolute validity, as agriculture is so intensely socially and culturally mediated. I would agree that the world has OP but in a Gaian sense, rather than a Malthusian one. And well, elucidated what that difference amounts to will take up way more time than I can spare, as worthy a project as it might be given the care and time you have invested in creating your 33 points. Thank you, much to think about, and learn from.

  6. I am deep into Netting’s “Smallholders, Householders”, which Chris and others have referenced here, and I am struck by the chasm between the smallholder cultures Netting describes and modern civilization, or even the very wide gap between those cultures and the small ‘farm’ neighborhood in which I live. I see no possibility of creating those cultures in my country (USA) nor in almost any rich country. Land tenure and child welfare issues would be just the start of the obstacles. I have yet to see any protest movement devoted to bridging the gap between where we are now and where we really need to be in terms of a smallholder future. Where are the “give me one hectare and a cow” protests?

    And I have my doubts as to whether protest movements are a good training ground for the kind of civic republicanism one would like to see develop in the context of a small farm future. I admit that a great deal of excitement and emotional solidarity develops in people devoted to dramatic collective action, but once the drama fades, either from success or failure, I doubt that the solidarity will remain.

    I would put more emphasis on local community civic organizations and service clubs (or church groups for the religious). Local civic organizations are a tough to create and it’s hard to find enough volunteers for continuous operation but they do create a space in which trust in other members of the community can flourish. Community organizations are a long slog, without much excitement at all, but they have a staying power that is likely to be a better foundation for communities of the future than national or global protest movements.

  7. There’s all sorts of things I’d like to take up here – I’ve started writing this a few times but it rapidly gets out of hand, spilling in all sorts of directions. So…..

    My starting point in all this is that we’re not going to change things – our omnicidal culture and economies will keep going until they can’t – protest movements will be co-opted and people will slide in to doing what’s comfortable because that’s human nature – there was a Jewish police force in the Warsaw Ghetto – when times are tough people do what they think they must and no doubt we’re going to see lots of that…..I also think that the roots of the individual manifestations of the predicaments we face are systemic and global but that to tackle those roots would require acquiring a scale and power that would probably be just as problematic as that to which it was opposed. At the same time I can’t see small scale protest/activism having much impact on those large systemic networks of power – Did the ‘Battle in Seattle’ really change anything? David might have beaten Goliath in the Bible but he’s not done so well since. I don’t know what protest/activism really means, or should strategise to achieve, in light of this.

    For myself I believe that we need to look to being adaptive as best we can and that resilience is best built at the local scale – Joe mentions local community organisations as a basis from which to build. I agree with that in large part but I think much of what currently exists grew from the same culture which grew our current predicaments and so perhaps this is an area in which activism can be useful – XR talks of system change but systems grow from culture and so we need cultural change/evolution. I particularly liked #21 where Chris says “As I see it, the extra-human world – the universe, the Earth – enjoys a hard (but not absolute…) ontological privilege over humanity”. I might remove the ‘but not absolute’ from that statement. I think any localism needs to be built on the foundation of that insight, whether understood metaphorically or in terms of spirits and beings as many First Nation peoples would. Its about right relationship to the sources of our life and places the non-human realms on an equal footing in our deliberations – we might go further and retake our role as hyper-keystone species (see – I can dream can’t I.

    I was going to write something in reply to Ruben’s last comment under Chris’s last post because I wanted to explore idea’s of indigeneity. Ruben suggested that that many of the white inhabitants of North America (and other ex-colonies) are indigenous to north west Europe and the the UK, which probably fits with the dictionary definition. But I’ve lived almost my whole life in the SW corner of the UK and yet I’d have a hard time thinking of myself as indigenous in anything but a very limited sense – I couldn’t even say to what extent I’m genetically related to the original or earliest known inhabitants of this part of the world. More than that I could probably outsource myself to India, live on the beach in Goa and still earn my living in ways familiar to me (and probably have a better quality of life). Much of the culture in which I swim is similarly detached from place – here we all are discussing stuff on the internet rather than with our neighbours. That’s not to say I haven’t roots here or an affection for the landscapes I know and love (although many of my contemporaries are probably far less attached to place than I and my attachments don’t run that deep). But given that detachment of so much of my life from the realities of place what does indigenous mean – and to what extent is this also a problem for some First Nation peoples?

    Gary Snyder talks somewhere about learning to be indigenous in the part of the world he inhabits – something he thought might take at least a few hundred years – but which had nothing to do with skin colour or genetic inheritance. I like this idea and I mean no offence to First Nation people – where they still exist they no doubt have much to teach about how to live in place but learning to live in place, accepting the ontological privilege of the extra-human world, seems to me the only sensible response I can see to the predicaments we face. Can I be more indigenous? And more indigenous today than I was yesterday and can I let my responses to and actions in the world flow from that rather than from more abstract theory?

  8. Thanks Chris – much more to think about!

    ’19. … Climate change activism is not as good a candidate for OCP-led activism as, say, patriarchy or racism. Indeed, maybe it’s even a candidate for OP-led activism, along the lines that Michelle (jestingly) suggested here a while back – rich white people ought to step up and take responsibility for dealing with their own crap.’

    I think the issue here is that any successful anti-patriarchal or antiracist activism will also involve white men with OP taking responsibility for their own crap – patriarchy and racism are literally their problem, i.e. caused by them, and resistance needs OP-led activism amongst other approaches. So I don’t think there’s much of a distinction here. What’s needed is s widening consensus around the destruction of Ontological Privilege, whether one has it or not.

    I’m also rather wary of your extension of OP to the natural world, but as Clem has raised that I’ll hold fire.

    Points 24 to 26 caught my eye though. I sense a little defensiveness around being accused of petit bourgeoisery as a small farming landowner. I can sympathize with this, as such people rarely seem to feature in left-wing visions of oppression and resistance, at least in the industrial West, and can be the target of the suspiciousness you describe. I think this problem needs much more discussion, especially given the popularity of full automation among many young ‘luxury communists’ (and perhaps George Minbiot?) these days.

    One of the roots of this problem lies, in my view, in the status of land as a commodity in our current capitalist society, as it can be treated as both an asset (to produce rent, profit and as a store of value) and as the basis of small-scale provisioning. Whilst you are evidently committed to the latter, the fact that choice between the two is subject to the personal whims of landowners, subject to hardly any collective controls, is a problem (not to mention the common-sense economics that currently pushes landowners towards viewing their land as an asset).

    This tension between socialist collective ownership and management and the more individual focus of household-scale management is interesting, and not easily resolved. Even in a left libertarian framework there must surely be issues around private dominance of the basis of human flourishing. If your campaign is for everone to belong to a farming household, then the issue is only one of distribution, but that would surely be a rather absolute approach, especially given the many other productive roles people may wish to focus on in a small farm future. I’m very interested in this land question – it has gained some traction in recent British politics with Labour’s Land for the Many, and in the cultural sphere with people like Guy Shrubsole and Nick Hayes. But the focus there is on transparency and a more amorphous sense of common investment in the land, not specifically a small farm future.

    As this is a post about campaigning, these issues might best be considered on the light of attempting to pull together a political community invested in an agrarian future from amongst those already committed to left-wing politics, whether through years of service or newly politicised. How might vague concerns about kulaks be assuaged and redirected in the cases of those likely otherwise to be invested in much of your politics?

  9. Gah, so many fascinating comments and too little time on my part to do them justice. But thank you for them. I’ve tried to respond at least passingly to them below.

    But in case people get lost in the territory between this post and the last one, I’m taking the liberty of reposting Ruben’s comment under my previous post below. Then I’ll say a few things about all the comments. Bruce also commented interestingly under the last post here:

  10. Ruben’s comment:


    I suppose I should be flattered you found enough in my comments to respond to so many times, but I am definitely disgruntled to be misrepresented. I think much fault lies with my writing, but I think some also lies with your argument.

    And let me start by saying I am going to say some things that many people find very difficult to hear. 

    What I am not doing is saying that you are a sheet-wearing, cross burning racist. 

In fact, I have every belief that you are a truly good person who has dedicated a great deal of your life to increasing justice and liberation for the downtrodden. I think you are a fantastic thinker and a great doer and a truly important model for the world we find ourselves in.

    So perhaps if I start with my disagreement with your classifications I might be able to get around to the rest of the concerns.

    Ontological Privilege (OP)
    The privilege that comes from your be-ing. Male privilege and white privilege, for example.
    I like it. 

    Ontological Counter-Priviliege (OCP)
    Women, for example, typically have less social power or privilege than men but – precisely for this reason – are in a more privileged position to see the workings of gendered power in ways that are often invisible to men.

    I think this is a disastrous innovation in theory and language. I said Epistemic Privilege. The academy uses Standpoint Theory. 

    Ontological counter-privilege suggests there is a physically manifest privilege descending from subjugation—a privilege of be-ing.
    Epistemic Privilege clearly indicates privileged knowing. If you read the Wiki on Standpoint Theory, there is no whiff of being, just of knowing, of perspective. 

    You correctly describe Epistemic Privilege, but you mislabel it as ontological.

    Absolute Ontological Counter-Privilege (AOCP)
    The idea here is that people with certain kinds of OCP are able to perceive a deeper, more general and more absolute truth about the nature of the (social) world than those without it, and the political activism that this puts them in a privileged position to take enables them – once the fires have died down – to bring about an intrinsically better, less divided, freer, fairer, more advanced or less ideologically deluded society in general than what preceded it.

    I am on record, and have been for many years, as thinking AOCP is total crap. I don’t think there is anything better about women or people of colour that will magically predispose them to be better leaders or stewards of cultures or environments.

    And so it chaps my backside that I said people of colour had epistemic privilege, but you suggested in P9 I think they have AOCP, when in fact I believe their privilege is neither absolute nor ontological. 

    7. Regarding the XR movement, it is a necessary and constructive thing for people with OP who are active within it to be continually reminded of this privilege and to try to learn from OCP critiques of OP. One clue to whether these critiques are well motivated is when they are directed to the specific actions or inactions of people within the movement. Saying that the movement is ‘white’ or ‘middle-class’ is not a specific critique.

    In fact, the fact XR may be white and middle-class is a specific critique, you just missed it because you relabeled knowing as being. A movement that is white and middle-class, by definition cannot know the experience of the poor, the rich, or people of colour, and that lack of knowledge can have specific consequences which I stated and you elided. 

    I think there’s possibly an implicit assumption here that black and working-class people are more authentic or sui generis political actors. Whereas white and middle-class people need to do the reading.

    I said nothing about authenticity, nor did I suggest some unique knowledge. What I said was that many people of colour have knowledge and experience that the WMC typically does not. 

    I also think white people wold be wise to recognize our lack of epistemic privilege concerning protest. Very, very few of us have grown up in a culture with a history of protest, have been schooled in that history, and are participating in ongoing scholarship about success and strategy.

    Yet many people of colour from around the world have exactly that.

    This point is where the rubber hits the road, and why I am upset with the preceding.

    I said:

    As can be seen ad nauseam, white mass murderers are captured alive and fed cheeseburgers, while black men are shot seemingly at random.

    After weeks of rioting against police violence, American police are still just shooting wildly.

    Just not at white people.

    So the reality is that white people can do a lot to ratchet up the tension of protest and conflict. But that tension is going to be released on people of colour.

    That is why it is best for us to be in service of indigenous led protest movements—they are the ones that are going to die, and they should have the chance to decide how and when they want that to happen.

    And you wrote:
    10. Ruben writes that “white people would be wise to recognize our lack of epistemic privilege concerning protest”. I think there’s some truth in that. But the best way of gaining epistemic privilege concerning protest is by protesting. That is what (white) people within XR are doing. They are making mistakes. They are learning. They are engaged.

    I think you fundamentally do not yet “get” epistemic privilege. In this point you again suggest the way to get knowing is by doing.

    The point of epistemic privilege is what you know by be-ing.

It is true, you can get “better” at protesting by protesting (better in quotation marks because I already made clear what I consider to be the measure of success—removing carbon from the atmosphere as one example)

But that isn’t what I said. I said:

    But that tension is going to be released on people of colour…they are the ones that are going to die…That is why it is best for us to be in service of indigenous led protest movements

    You have diminished the insight that thinking about epistemic privilege offers, and as a consequence, you have elided the murderous reactions towards black and brown people.

    So you make the white, middle-class jump to unity. What ties us together? Why, protesting ties us together (or more commonly, class). And so if we protest together, and I protest as much as you, then I have as much knowledge as you do about protesting, and you and I are the same. 

You made the white, middle-class dodge around the epistemic privilege you cannot have and will never have. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a person of culture—or to have been torn from it?

    Get more specific. What does it mean to be Black. How about to be a person of colour, emigrated from one of the Empire’s former dominions?

    What does it mean to be First Nations, and to have genocide, colonization and pandemic be still destroying your people?

    14. Ruben writes “when XR rolls in proclaiming non-violence to be the answer…yes, that is mighty white of them.” But I don’t think XR activists generally proclaim that nonviolence is ‘the’ answer. I think they have signed up to the view that nonviolent civil disobedience is the best way to build a mass movement of climate change activism in present circumstances in contemporary Britain. I agree with that view, whereas in different circumstances I might not. I don’t think it is ‘mighty white’. I’d also note the implicit appeal to black authenticity in the term “rolls in”.

    Perhaps we are having geographic differences in this one. You live in the UK, which I would say is land from which many peoples are indigenous that would now be called white as a general label, though very many of them would self-describe by indigenous names—Welsh, Cornish, Scot, Irish, etc. 

    You have freed various slaves and imported various cheap labourers as your empire contracted, which has created modern racial tension, but I think it is useful to see that the people who are indigenous to the UK are commonly called white. 

    I live in North America, where the indigenous are not white, nor are any other people of colour indigenous to this continent. I live where many areas and nations were never conquered, and who have unbroken culture reaching back millennia. In fact, I have First Nations friends who see Black people as colonizers—they were enslaved colonizers, but nonetheless. 

    So, on the territory that I live on, not only do the First Nations people have far more knowledge of the nuts and bolts of protest than almost any white person, we are also on. their. land. And in many cases, that is not some Social Justice Warrior figure of speech, we actually are just on their land. 

So perhaps our difference about the mighty whiteness of protest behaviour arises from our very different circumstances.

    A final point of low importance, but one that again chaps my backside, I would point out as far as appeals to black authenticity are concerned, that my affinity is with the liberation of First Nations first, and other cultures afterwards. Is that because they are a more authentic Noble Savage? No? It is because they are people who have been most comprehensively screwed over on land I live on. So, not only am I not appealing to black authenticity, I am alert to the erasure of Indigenous people by Black activists. 

    So, the specific action I am critiquing is that you replaced knowing with doing, and therefore replaced something you can never have with something that you can have. This is quite precisely erasing the experience of others. This is a very common thing for white people to do, and as I said, it can have very real consequences for non-white people.

    And let me repeat again that even though this part of your argument is very white, I believe that is due to your lack of epistemic privilege in certain areas. I do not in any way believe you to be a hood-wearing racist. I know you to be profoundly concerned with justice, for all people and for the living world, and I think the project you articulate—and which I am greatly looking forward to in book form—is terribly important.

  11. @Otho
    I can more or less sign up to your thesis. But then I’d want to push it further – “demonstrating a serious intention” is still pantomime. People need to actually live it. But to do that they have to have a realistic capacity to live it. There’s not much point telling people in London not to live a consumerist lifestyle that impacts the global poor when the very possibility of living in London is predicated on it. So it’s necessary to build a practical and a cultural movement that enables and supports people to live out that intention. And as I see it, that involves a movement for a small farm future.

    Yes, much to agree with there. I like your move towards not fighting for or against things, but making things. Unfortunately I think it’s now necessary to fight for that possibility (see ‘movement for a small farm future’ above).

    I agree with your thoughts on the use of political violence. As I see it, any positive use of it for political gain would have to be based on deep and ambivalent moral reflection of a kind I haven’t really seen in Peter Gelderloos’s interventions.

    @Clem …&others
    These points about the OP & OCP of nature & humanity are interesting. I’m not sure I fully buy into my analysis here myself, but I thought it would be interesting to put it out there. It’s probably best if I ponder it more and write about it on a separate occasion. At the root is the need for a more nuanced approach to the constraints imposed upon us by the wider world and how we try to overcome them. You’re right of course that humanity follows the physical laws of the universe, but we don’t – for example – follow the ‘law’ of biology pertaining to the generally linear relationship between size & population of organisms, and in my view we need to address that better than we generally do in public discourse. The Malthus reference is to the likes of Leigh Phillips and Mike Shellenberger who address it badly, I think, by indicting any attempt to invoke natural constraint on human action as ‘Malthusian’. There’s much more of interest to unpick in your thoughts, eg. on agency (and on hegemony in a social science context) but I think I need to leave it there for the time being.

    @Steve L
    Thanks for that info. It contributes to my view that the hard distinctions Peter Gelderloos seeks to make between Standing Rock and XR aren’t really tenable.

    Interesting points that mostly feed into the OP/OCP nature/humanity nexus raised by Clem and that I think I need to address another time. I think the clueless townie trope is a bit overplayed – and the context of civic republicanism is critical. The drift of this argument is hopefully clearer in my book, but I’ll try to return to it here on the blog when I can.

    I think your points about the benefits of local community organisations are sound, but in the present situation maybe they need to be radicalized from without – which an organization like XR may or may not be able to do. I’m thinking kind of ‘Heresville & District Horticultural and Climate Apocalypse Association’.

    Here and in relation to your comment under the previous post, I find much to agree with. Your question about ownership & inheritance models in a small farm future is similar to Andrew’s and I agree is critical. I address this (too briefly) in Chapter 13 of my book and will write some further posts about it soon. I basically agree with your points about both violence and indigeneity and will definitely try to come back to the latter one in another post.

    You write: “the issue here is that any successful anti-patriarchal or antiracist activism will also involve white men with OP taking responsibility for their own crap – patriarchy and racism are literally their problem, i.e. caused by them, and resistance needs OP-led activism amongst other approaches. So I don’t think there’s much of a distinction here. What’s needed is s widening consensus around the destruction of Ontological Privilege, whether one has it or not.”

    Yes, I think that’s basically right and I didn’t push my alternative view very hard because I was aware that this argument is strong. Your point works for me as a criticism of some of Ruben’s arguments. Perhaps he’ll see it as one that works as a criticism of some of mine. Maybe that’ll help us clarify where we disagree.

    To your other points, I’ve picked up on them (albeit I regret only to procrastinate) under the responses to Clem and Bruce.

    I appreciate your kind words about me … before you proceed to nail me to the wall 🙂 . And I appreciate your good faith engagement. I’m sorry if you feel I misrepresented your views. I also feel that you’ve misrepresented mine and have misunderstood my arguments so fundamentally that we will need far more time than either of us likely has to try to work through them. So I will just make a few points.

    Regarding my coinage of ontological counter-privilege you write it “suggests there is a physically manifest privilege descending from subjugation”.

    It doesn’t to me. To me it suggests there is some kind of privilege (which can be and mostly is a privilege of knowing) that arises from certain categories of social being. And this is what Marxism and cognate philosophies have weaponized into a narrative of generalized political redemption achievable only through access to that knowing, unconvincingly in my opinion. You say you don’t subscribe to this intellectually, and that rings true to me in terms of your overt commitments, but you seem to invoke it implicitly in making various underlying appeals to authenticity.

    If a mass popular climate movement emerges in Britain, which it sort of has with XR, then it’s a demographic given that most of its activists will be white. I think you and I can agree that,

    “A movement that is white and middle-class, by definition cannot know the experience of the poor, the rich, or people of colour, and that lack of knowledge can have specific consequences”

    But then it’s my turn to ask for specificity. Take any of the specific actions that white XR activists undertook in the last couple of weeks, and explain to me what those specific consequences of that lack of knowledge had and how it compromised the actions they took. I’m not suggesting that can’t be done – on the contrary, I don’t doubt it can. But I think you do need to make that critique. If you’re content to rest with your generalized critique of the OP of the protestors, I think you drift into the dangerous territory of simply condemning them for their class positioning and here you risk falling in with the right-wing populist critique of middle class liberalism that is currently waxing strongly in the politics of the Global North, and beyond (like the Daily Mail’s endless harping on the middle-classness of XR). You haven’t responded to this part of my analysis but to me it’s important. I appreciate the righteous fire in your belly about (neo)colonial violence, but you risk giving succour to a politics that is in fact intensifying it, apparently on the basis of a social ontology (not an epistemology) of insurmountable social difference that seems to me problematic at numerous levels.

    You then proceed to put words into my mouth that I didn’t say and don’t endorse: “And so if we protest together, and I protest as much as you, then I have as much knowledge as you do about protesting, and you and I are the same.”

    That’s not what I said and it’s not what I think. I agree with you that there can be jumps to unity that enable people with OP to elide the violence underlying their privilege. But when you call this “the” white, middle-class jump to unity (a jump that I’m not actually making where you suggest) you imply that there are no other ones (for example, of the kind that Steve L mentioned with reference to Roxy Manning under my previous post) and to my mind this position that you seem to be taking terminates in a hopeless essentialism and reification of social being and authenticity, which you proceed to invoke against me. I don’t want to argue with you about which of us has a better understanding of how privilege or the lack of it plays for the same reason I don’t want to argue with ecomodernists from San Francisco policy institutes about which of us has greater concern for the global poor. But I’d like to hear the specifics of where you think your critique of white privilege takes you in terms of strategies for mass climate protest in the UK right now. I’m sensing some kind of argument along the lines that black people should lead climate protests and white people should step back from them and act in service of black-led protests because black people intrinsically have greater epistemic privilege concerning protest that isn’t available to white people, regardless of what they do. Hopefully that’s not what you’re actually saying.

    • Your suggestion for community organizations is that “they need to be radicalized from without”. From participating in the kinds of organizations that are relevant to small populations in rural settings, my take is the exact opposite. They need to be radicalized from within (admittedly a hard thing to do in hide-bound small communities), because the surest way to destroy a community organization is to have a bunch of outsiders arrive and take over. Local participants’ resentment is almost certain, regardless of the merits of the outsider arguments and the generosity of their participation.

      Provincialism is probably the oldest and strongest of OPs. It is the root of all tribal affiliation and conflict. It is strong enough to make the separation between groups of people definitive enough that separate languages develop. Race and class are weakling privileges compared with the privilege of coming from a group of people that have lived in the same place for generations. It’s going to be the hardest nut to crack when attempting to create a SFF.

      • My thoughts exactly, Joe, but is there a blind spot? Like yourself, I have moved to live where I’m not native, and in doing so of course contribute to community life – calling it ‘radicalisation from without’ is a bit too grand, but may be not too shy of the mark; it’s not ‘arriving and taking over’. Room for both kinds of ‘the right type’ of radicalisations, I guess. (A human default, I wonder, to want to Goldilocks everything in fits and starts).

    • Chris, not only did I say kind words before I nailed you to the wall, I also said kind words after I nailed you to the wall.

      And I am grateful for your thoughtful and specific response, since, as soon as I pressed ‘Post’ I was afraid you were going to disassemble me into tiny pieces.

      I actually think I came around to a very important understanding towards the end there, that in this case there are very different realities and experiences between the UK, US and Canada, that go far beyond the Eurovision competition.

      I think there are very different realities between a UK XR protest and a US BLM protest.

      I find it a lot harder to imagine the police, or even the local yobs, going out to crack some skulls of colour after an XR protest int he UK, whereas they definitely are after a BLM protest in the US. In the situations where violence is going to be unevenly distributed, I think we must let the future victims set the pace.

      So this aspect of our disagreement may just arise where generalities become specific.

      As I said, it is hard for me to imagine there being a major uptick in racial violence after an XR protest in the UK.

      This means the epistemic privilege people of colour have about the thoughts, actions, patterns, violence and reactions of white people is not relevant, or much less relevant.

      I do still think that there is a much greater chance that people from various cultures have a lot more knowledge of protest than almost any of your average Brit of any class, but certainly the middle class.

      The upper class may have the best knowledge of protest, having suppressed so many of them. 😉

      South Asians, Haitians, people from many parts of Africa, Vietnamese… really, there are people from all over the planet who have intimate, perhaps first person knowledge of protest, rebellion, and insurgency.

      It is hard for me to believe that much of that is being capitalized on, given how much most protests look like banging your head on a brick wall. I think I said that asymmettric power calls for asymmetric tactics—which we do not see in evidence. What we tend to see is the same old tactics that have failed for decades, yet which are still proclaimed to be the only way forward.

      So yes, I think I see that much of my comment applies more to protests in North America, and much less to the XR protests in the UK.

      One point—where I see people with experience. actual lived experience that creates epistemic privilege, you are hearing a plea for authenticity.

      Let me be unequivocal. I don’t believe in any nostalgic, phrenological, biblical or mythical reasons for leadership. I wrote in favour of specific expertise Most Public Engagement Is Worse Than Worthless .

      The thing is that we have built a world that centres whiteness and devalues expertise that does not come from white people. And yet little Uncle Ho managed to send the US empire back home in shame.

      Did Ho Chi Minh do that because he was an Old Asian Sage™? No. No plea to authenticity. He did that because he had actual experience fighting imperialists, and he led an army that had actual experience fighting imperialists.

      To move on to your comment below…

      I think we must be alert to #NotAll____

      Yes, there are plenty of black people who hold mighty white views, and there are plentiful names for those people.
      At this point in history, I would never tell a black person their views are white—and there are plenty of black people who would do it first.

      As someone so versed in statistics you know the appeal to one outlier hides the truth of the data. So there are useful truths in discussing whiteness, even when some of it stings those of us who have already done that part of the work.

      I don’t know how much effort you spent in anti-racism, but it has been a big part of my family’s attention for the past five years—since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

      In that time I have seen a Rubicon on one side of which is #NotAllWhitePeople and on the other side of which is people who may think that specific thing does not apply to them, but know that it generally does apply to white people and that they have plenty of other white attributes they can spend their energy decolonizing.

      So, I would never use white or black to describe viewpoints on small farms. I don’t see any what that would be relevant. On the other hand, Farming While Black may disagree.

      And maybe you missed the recent critique of Joel Salatin, Everything I Want to Do Is Racist.

      I don’t think labelling opinions about perennial grains to be white is likely to be useful. But that isn’t what was being discussed. We were discussing protests which had already been labeled as white.

      As far as the Daily Mail, I can’t really say since I have never been to the UK and barely even read the Guardian Canada.

      But I can easily imagine all sorts of ways that whiteness and middle-classness will impact climate policy—I see that all over Canada.

      The protests become about electric cars and preserving endangered species and not losing the right to ramble or whatever the hell you do over there. Meanwhile the people who are too poor to own cars or go on a ramble and are dying because they can’t afford an air conditioner are not at the policy table.

      It is the old point that if you take care of the needs of the most underprivileged, everybody else is taken care of automatically.


      If there is one thing I will hold onto out of this whole discussion and proclaim it to be Capital W Whiteness, it is a lack of clarity between knowing and being.

      That is because white people are dead below the neck. We live in our heads. We think, we don’t feel.

      Yes, yes, howl of #NotAllWhite____ and yet it remains usefully true.

      Over the years I have found this to be a post I frequently return to: Whiteness and the Three Levels of Identity

      And this is an absolute foundation: Decolonization is not a metaphor

      • I feel like I’m white, both above and below my neck. I also think this, and I’d even suggest I can prove it. For the time being I could be so bold as to suggest I’m not yet dead either above or below my neck. Feelings are valuable, I’ll go there with you. Thoughts can be valuable as well, no?

        Has the question become: Whose thoughts matter? Or, perhaps the issue now before us has morphed into: Whose feelings matter?

        Should computer keyboards now require a color detector… if it detects a white finger it shuts down or otherwise halts the expression of white thought (or expression of white feelings)?

        I am happy to see the Decolonization is not a metaphor link you supplied. Have only skimmed thus far, but seem to feel it will be worth more time. Oops, I meant think.

      • I just read “Whiteness and the Three Levels of Identity”.


        What a pertinent point, collective identity. It will take me some time to ponder.
        Interestingly, I am confident that I share some collective identity with both you and Clem.
        For whatever it’s worth, we share a number of demographic details: race, gender, class, etc.

        This collection does cause me to feel like I can express my opinion in your presence. A feeling, not a thought. More of a hunch than a reasoned conclusion. And even so, I will often disagree with you.
        Yes, I know that collective identity does not require blanket agreement.

        However, I think the article’s author is right. I know that I have often felt the lack of … what? … collective identity is such a good way to express it.

        Because I do have a native culture. But it is a culture that values individuality above just about everything except for personal wealth.

        There is no solidarity in my native culture. My native culture gets called ‘white’, but that strikes me as pretty broad category, though I will not deny being in it.

        But no matter how specific I make my cultural identification, it doesn’t ever seem to carry with it any kind of collective feeling. Except for that brief moment with those SoCal punks in 1980…

        So the author, Tad Hargrave, reveals a really important point.
        But to make a culture that experiences itself as collective, we will need to abandon some of the basic principles that our own native culture is founded on. We will need to back off from the individualism and money grubbing.

        I understand the sense of isolation that causes people to try to assume cultures that have more of a collective feeling.
        I have seen how poorly that works for everybody.

        We need our own culture, but not this one.

        • “We need our own culture, but not this one.”

          We need a better culture, for sure. Not sure about creating separate cultures as a goal. “Our own culture” sounds like something a White supremacist or Black supremacist would promote.

          Roxy Manning (whom I quoted earlier) said that the master’s tools include separation and division. I understand movements away from the dominant dysfunctional culture one is born into, but as I withdraw from the dominant culture, I’m not working toward separation and division. Instead, I have embraced the same goal as Roxy, “to create a world where everyone has the conditions they need to thrive.”

          • Living here in TX there are lots of “white ” cultures from Scotts Irish , Polish ,Russian, German , and just about anywhere else in europe that emigrated to the USA , every one has its own culture foods and language , yes they get on together but they have their own culture and celebrate their own holidays , calling people “white ” is far to much of a wide brush to paint them .
            It is the same with the Hispanics , their cultures depend on which part of the continent they come from there are huge cultural diffrences between Chillians and high mountain Mexicans they hardly speak the same language ! and yes the germans stick together so do the chillians they have their own seporate cultures and celebrate them .

      • Folks, this notion of culture is one that I have found to be very important to the way I think about racism, sustainability, trauma, relationships, nature, and even or especially our small farm future.

        This comment thread is getting pretty skinny, so I am going to make a new comment down at the bottom.

  12. Actually, just one more thought – and a request to commenters for some help.

    Ruben, when you say that my argument is ‘very white’, it strikes me that there are probably some black people somewhere who would be more persuaded by my argument than by yours. This would surely put you in the awkward position of having to tell them that their position is also very white – maybe akin to Joe Biden telling a black man that he ain’t black if he votes for Donald Trump? Perhaps this is another iteration of our dispute about epistemic vs ontological labels. In my view, it’s not what people think that makes them black or white. To suggest otherwise surely commits you to a racial essentialism of the “black people think that…” variety.

    So my suggestion is not to attach labels of ‘black’ or ‘white’ to opinions expressed on this blog. But I’d welcome any thoughts.

    • My thought is probably that while our opinions can be formed by our experience of being black or white or whatever, as labels those terms don’t describe our opinions – I might go further and suggest that using such labels is a device for invalidating opinions so labelled. So I’m uneasy about such labels but part of my uneasyness is that I’m not sure I don’t make similar moves when I encounter the opinions of those I strongly disagree with.

      There was actually lots in Ruben’s post I wanted to engage with because there’s lots of interest there – but only so much time in the day so I’ll pass on those discussions

    • I’m not sure about this, as ‘whiteness’ has also been defined as the set of social capacities that enable the imposition and maintenance of racist power structures. As such, arguments that support or justify these capacities could be usefully described as ‘white’.

      There’s not necessarily any contradiction to hear ‘white’ arguments from BAME people. To invoke our demon of the moment, Priti Patel is guilty of racist attitudes and activities, if upholding and enforcing whiteness, but she also belongs to a racialised ethnic group. That said, using the label is rhetorical shorthand, and I personally prefer several paragraphs of dense argumentation rather then one pithy word – but I may be in a minority!

      • It may well have been so defined but I think it’s unwise to do so. It seems to me that unexamined priviledge is a problem but when you associate it with something which people feel is part of thier identity then they’re more likely to double down in defence of that priviledge than examine it critically. And there are plenty of people out their who’ll help them do that – try watching half an hour of this
        And I think Mr Murray would probably go further, arguing that those power structures have been of net benefit to the world – an arguement that’s easily accepted by those whose priviledge is challenged – and he’s a man with a large (and growing?) audience.

        And look at the journey of Bret Weinstein – a man who had spent much of his life on the political left who now hosts a popular podcast on which many of the guests are critical of the left as currently constituted. Did the tactics used to challenge his ‘white priviledge’ really achieve their stated aims?

        As I say, I’m not saying that OP (to use Chris’s shorthand) isn’t a thing, just that giving it a label such as ‘whiteness’ is likely polarising and such polarisation takes us further from, not closer to, the sort of alliance building and critical thought necessary to actually tackling OP’s effects in the world.

        • I disagree Bruce. The idea that whiteness could ever be a benign part of someone’s identity has to be challenged. Whiteness doesn’t mean anything outside superiority over non-white people. I think you’re right that we’ll see a lot of discomfort and doubling down, but none of these people have ‘legitimate concerns’ worth acknowledging.

          To see Douglas Murray and people like him sitting there safe in his privilege, waxing lyrical over the bliss of conformity, essentially denying that any kind of social oppression really exists, is to see the necessity of challenge, of forcing discomfort. Many people won’t bother with critical thinking on these issues if not discomforted into doing so. Maybe then they’ll be welcomed into the open arms of Murray and his I’ll, but that just highlights the necessity of forceful counter-argument. I don’t think there’s any way round ‘culture war’ in that sense – the real problem is the left aren’t currently very good at it!

  13. My sympathies, Chris, for having to deal with our diverse replies – that’ll teach you to write such thought-provoking posts! Thanks also to you and Ruben for this discussion.

    My own feeling is that Standpoint Theory means pretty much the same thing by Being and Knowing. There is evidently a realm of experience specific to each of us, generated by our own unique perspective, our own particular ‘being’ not directly ‘knowable’ by anyone else. But Knowing in ST doesn’t seem to extend much beyond this, only allowing for people to have some knowledge of other people’s experiences when they have experienced something very similar themselves, or perhaps when several people experience something collectively.

    But that surely ignores the fact that our ‘being’ as humans includes a capacity for empathy – that, in fact, our experience of the world involves an awareness of both ourselves and of other people’s awareness of us. The notion of culture basically describes all the material and imaginative ways through which humans of attempted to ‘know’ both themselves and others. ST appears to suggest that we can only ‘know’ ourselves and by extension those very similar to us.

    Now, it’s also evident that those who benefit from social power often do not bother or, perhaps more often, actively repress empathy with those oppressed by that power. In contrast, the oppressed must empathise with the attitudes of their oppressors as part of their strategies for survival. This is Chris’s OCP, or what I preferred to call Ontological Counter-Insight in a comment under the previous post. But it is insight that arises from relative positioning within power relations, and is not any less open to the empathy of others if they choose to employ it. Encouraging the empathy of the powerful for the weak is surely a foundational aim of protest and resistance, and a necessary part of creating change, unless one would simply prefer to kill the powerful instead.

    The overarching issue in this discussion seems to me to be charting a course between the Scylla of essentialism and the Charybdis of relativism. I think a focus on the importance of power relations in shaping different experiences and a humanist insistence on empathy can do this, enabling both a due reverence for particular insights and a universal capacity for seeing the world differently.

    • Well, Andrew, that comment is mighty white.

      No.. really! I am joking! Honestly…. I just couldn’t resist it. I hope Chris doesn’t ban me for it. Poor impulse control!

      I note that you also are very concerned about the tension between relativism and essentialism. This is not something I am at all concerned about. I am concerned about actual. lived. experience.

      This is not about somebody’s blackity blackness or snowy whiteness. This is about who actually has deep, thorough education and knowledge on the topic.

      We would never suggest you don’t really need to study math, as long as you have empathy for numbers. It is unimportant if you ever went to medical school as long as you have empathy for the sick.

      We want people who have actual experience. And it turns out that people of colour have actual lived experience that white people don’t have, and often can never possibly have.

      So from one’s being in interaction with an environment comes real knowing.

      It is not essentialism or authenticity. It is actual experience.

      And I would invite introspection that when we devalue that epistemic privilege and fret about essentialism, we are actually doing precisely racist work.

      You said something really important here, though I still have quibbles.
      In contrast, the oppressed must empathise with the attitudes of their oppressors as part of their strategies for survival.

      This is almost exactly what I wanted to say to you. My google powers are failing me for a good link right now, but what Black people from the US have said is something like “We know exactly what white people want and need—we have to know in order to survive.”

      I am going to add empathy onto the jumble of feeling, being, and knowing that white people call “thinking”. As I said above, we are dead below the neck—spend some time paying attention to how much you say “I think…” I can’t stop saying it. Even when I say I Feel I am usually talking about thinking.

      Anyhow. Black people don’t say they feel whiteness—they don’t empathize. Empathy does not keep them alive. They say they know what white people want.

      Christian Cooper knew exactly how much risk he was taking and… it played out as from the textbook…the white lady called the cops because he asked her to obey the bylaw.

      Black people don’t feel it, they know what white people want—deference, obedience. They know what they are allowed to wear, where they are allowed to be, how they are allowed to hold their hands and how they are allowed to style their hair.

      White people can feel empathy for someone who has been scrutinized every day of their life. But do I give even a seconds thought to wearing a hoodie out at night? Never. I could never possibly imagine all the ways this shows up in peoples lives. I recently had a friend I have known for several years drop a comment that absolutely kicked me in the gut—I would never have imagined that fine detail of the omnipresence of racism that he has experienced.

      So empathy is important, as you say. But it is not knowing.

      Anyhow, thanks for your patience and thoughtfulness in the comments section. Even for this blog, it has been unusually rich.

      • ‘White’, eh? Guess I had that coming!

        Thanks for your reply Ruben. I’m aware of the dangers of us continuing to quibble over the meaning of ’empathy’ and ‘knowledge’ so thought it might be best to start by highlighting what I think we agree on.

        Yes, as a white man I will never directly experience what it is like to be racialised as BAME every day. I will never have to deal with the effects such oppression would have on my life chances. Any insight I have into this comes not from the necessity of surviving in a racist society, but from listening to those who do, and yes, attempting to empathise with their situations.

        I think we probably both agree on this. The trouble comes from what it implies in terms of subsequent action. I think we also both agree that listening to BAME people when they want to tell us about their oppression is a necessary beginning, but what then?

        I don’t believe many BAME people would actively wish direct experience of their own oppression on white people. So all I have to work with is my capacity for empathy. I’m aware that we’re approaching the point at which I can be accused of whiteness for centering the terms of my own agency here, at the expense of BAME agency.

        However, I am actively implicated in racist oppression because of the many ways in which I unconsciously reproduce it every day. If liberation is to succeed, it needs to make people like me stop and think and change. The only way that’s going to happen is for me to attempt to empathise with those whom I unthinkingly oppress. So I have a role in protest and resistance – my own education and the education of others like me, and more broadly, the building of a more inclusive society in which nobody’s humanity is in doubt. If that future is for all of us then the masters need to help disassemble their own houses.

        It doesn’t speak directly to our discussion here, but I found the following by Paul Gilroy quite inspiring on the building of a new inclusive humanism:

        Shifting gear to XR, I think its middle class and white attributes can be strengths if used to force an awakening on white middle class people of their privilege in evading (for now) many of the symptoms of ecocide, and reconsidering the implications of the comforts they now enjoy.

        • Yes, I agree with everything you say here. And thank you for the Gilroy link.

          As I said, I think there are very different contexts in the UK and US. People we now call white are indigenous to the UK. There is not the same sort of racially-demarcated need for land justice.

          Though of course you could march the lords off to the guillotine and reverse centuries of enclosure. That would be good.

          Naturally the UK does have plenty of racism. I continue to think anti-racism work and protest should be led by POC, as they are the ones that are going to suffer the consequences in dark allies.

          And I continue to think it is foolish to not take advantage of the experience, education, culture and knowledge of history people of colour from many communities bring to the protest movement.

          I want to make sure I am super clear. I don’t think there is anything *inherent* to skin colour that gives people greater knowledge. Nothing essential or authentic.

          But skin colour earns experience, and experience is a real thing. “Experience, education, culture and knowledge of history” are all real things that are not essentialized.

          Even without that… why not?

          As an educated and articulate white man who will be 50 in three months, I am very used to speaking and being listened to. I want to share my wisdom–and to be fair to myself, I do have an unusual perspective in most crowds (less so in this comments section).

          But also, I am just another white man in an unbroken chain of white men stretching back millennia.

          Will the world really be worse without my pearls of wisdom? Will the protests wilt or suffer?

          Do we really think there is anything so special about us that we couldn’t just wait and let a person of colour assume leadership? I bet we can agree that we won’t have achieved equality until people of colour are effortlessly present in all aspects of life, including protest.

          So, we could just ask them to lead us. It would be only a small change, but it is a thing we could do.

  14. Briefly in response to new comments:

    Ruben says,

    “when we devalue that epistemic privilege and fret about essentialism, we are actually doing precisely racist work.”

    whereas I’d suggest that investing in and failing to recognize and challenge racial essentialisms is doing racist work – and such work probably includes situations where people reify their vicarious (empathic?) understanding of the epistemic privilege arising from racialized othering to claim the rhetorical authority of a non-racist position for themselves and position their interlocutors outside it. But I think this part of the argument ends here for me, because arguing with you Ruben about who is being more implicitly racist feels unedifying.

    What I would still like to draw out from you is your position for mass climate protest. Your argument seems to be that it’s impossible for white people ever to gain the epistemic privilege concerning protest that BIPOC people have, and that this fatally compromises the possibilities for them to protest climate policy. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you. In any case, I’m interested to know what kinds of climate protest by what kinds of people you think could be appropriate, if any.

    More generally relating to new comments, I appreciate Andrew’s discussion of empathy – which is important not only in the Du Bois sense of double consciousness but more generally as a necessary complement to specificity as a motor of human interaction and ultimately of human culture – including developing anti-racist or non-racist culture.

    And I think Joe’s comments on radicalization from without and within are smart. Perhaps I’d add a couple of qualifications in the light of them. First, I’d distinguish between ‘provincialism’ as the inferior aping of what’s going on in the capital/core area in order to boost status/seem sophisticated, and ‘insularity’ which is not caring about what’s going on in the capital and doing your own thing. Not many people or communities in today’s world that’s been made over so many times by global modernity are truly insular, but politically conservative affectations of insularity and an overplayed ‘real people’ local-ness can become a tactic to avoid seeming provincial or to gain some kind of cultural capital. I agree this can be a hard nut to crack whichever way you place it. Empathic connection locally in the context of wider political mobilizations (ie. radicalization from within in the context of radicalism in the wider political culture) could be the way to go, but of course has no certainty of success. Also, in a farming context, actually doing some farming and thereby connecting practically with people who have deeper local credentials may open some doors, and is necessary in any case…

    Finally, relating to ‘white’ arguments, I’m not looking to censor things on this site any more than I feel I have to. I see all this kind of stuff – “Priti Patel is white”, “Margaret Thatcher was not a woman”, “I’m politically black”, “your argument is whiter than mine” – as tortuous semantic gerrymandering that has much more to do with the status claims of the people articulating it than achieving any kind of political clarity. But I’ll try to rise above it.

    • I see you have posted again below Chris, and I will follow down there. But I do want to chew on some of this for a while.

      I’d suggest that investing in and failing to recognize and challenge racial essentialisms is doing racist work

      I agree with you entirely.

      I just don’t see any essentialism here. I am working very hard to use precise terms—I think that doing, being, feeling, knowing and empathizing are all completely different things.

      So, I feel like I am saying “These people have specific experience.” and the response I get is “Essentialism is racist.”

      I agree, wholeheartedly, but specific experience is not essentialism.

      Furthermore, I have seen this to be a very difficult thing for white people to understand. I get it maybe 2% of the time. Maybe I am only seeing it here because many of us seem to be white, having a (much-needed and useful) conversation as white people. We do not have the epistemic privilege to see it. We have never needed to see it.

      We probably have it in other ways, like class, with its attendant assumptions about education, wealth, geography. and accents. But the fact that we know exactly when the posh are mocking us does not mean we can hear at all when threat is being introduced to a person of colour.

      Just accepting that we do not have the specific knowledge is very difficult for us. You hear the stories not just in anti-racist discussion but all in #MeToo.
      “He was just joking.”
      “Are you sure she meant it that way?”
      “I think you are being too sensitive.”

      I feel this is very related to the Three Levels of Identity story I posted above. It is perhaps less about white fragility and more that we are just lacking a whole mode of relationship, so we literally cannot hear what other people are hearing.

      and such work probably includes situations where people reify their vicarious (empathic?) understanding of the epistemic privilege arising from racialized othering to claim the rhetorical authority of a non-racist position for themselves and position their interlocutors outside it.</i?

      Are you talking about white people here? They are the ones who would have vicarious understanding (but not knowing).

      Yes, nobody should reify, whether they are melinated or not. Some people definitly seek false authority. Some people seek victimhood.

      But I think those numbers are too small to worry about right, like the proverbial Welfare Queen.

      There are countless actual lived experiences of people of colour that we should listen to. They should not be reified, but they should be respected as the only person who knows that experience, or respected as a member of a small group of people who know that experience.

      They are experts in that way, and should be listened to.

      Empathy is about feeling, not knowing. I don't think there is any vicarious knowing.

      I am speaking here of a knowing in your bones. This is a knowing that cannot be taught, it has to be lived. You can try to tell someone when you think carrots should be harvested, but only when they have worked your fields, with your seeds, in your climate for many crops will they start to have actual lived experience.

      So, I have heard a lot of words, which I can repeat. I can tell you what I have heard from people of colour—mostly Indigenous people from Canada and Black people from the US.

      I can tell you what I have felt as I empathized. What *I* felt.

      And I can tell you my actual lived experience in talking about racism with white people. I can share with you the patterns that I have *experienced*.

      That is all that I have experience of. Very little. I can repeat the words of others, I can try to imagine how they feel, and I can tell you what I have experienced talking with other white people.

      What I would still like to draw out from you is your position for mass climate protest. Your argument seems to be that it’s impossible for white people ever to gain the epistemic privilege concerning protest that BIPOC people have, and that this fatally compromises the possibilities for them to protest climate policy. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

      I will talk about the big picture of protest below your next comment, but here I want to keep trying to be specific.

      I don’t think what we are discussing is epistemic privilege concerning protest. Here is what I think:

      A) People from many communities around the world have actual lived experience with rebellion, protest, insurgency, sabotage etc.

      Some of these people have cultural knowledge that has been developed in those trying times.

      Some of those people are actual scholars that, due to their personal connection to rebellion, have devoted their careers to the study of of these topics.

      So. When I look at video of the recent protests in the US, I see almost nothing as structured as what we see from Hong Kong.

      I think the Hong Kong protestors have actual lived experience that could be taught, as well as cultural practices that could be shared.

      Maybe that is not necessary. Maybe the cultures are too different for Hong Kong tactics to be transferrable. It is ironic that in the US, with such an enormous portion of the population having military service, there is much less coordinated tactics.

      The US has a culture of individualism that I think makes collapse inevitable. Perhaps they are choosing to burn things down because they cannot hold space collectively as happened in Hong Kong.

      So there is nothing inherent to the Hong Kong Chinese that makes them skilled at protesting, it is just practise. Experience.

      B) I don’t think POC have epistemic privilege about protest, I think they have epistemic privilege about *how white people react to challenges*.

      Whiteness and masculinity have some pretty solid patterns of response to challenges to the order of things. POC know those patterns much better than we do, and can also read the micro-signals that white people often cannot see and do not know exists.

      So, when protesting racial issues, it is sure not the white professors who are going to get beaten by the cops. So it should be the folks with more skin in the game that get to set the pace.

  15. Ruben, apologies I somehow missed your follow-up comment to me which was held in the moderation queue because of all the (highly interesting) hyperlinks. I found it somewhat clarifying – thank you.

    Perhaps we can leave aside the issue of UK XR protests where we’ve probably been talking at cross-purposes. The larger issue is the one Joe’s been emphasizing, of how to create a livable world – and creating a livable world has to address racial and other forms of privilege.

    Finding the right language to even discuss those forms of privilege is difficult, since they’re systemically structured, personally experienced and individually modulated. So while I see the dangers I may be courting in some of my comments above in relation to #NotAll_, I see those comments as engaged sociologically, not as an argument from individual exceptionalism.

    Where I particularly want to shine a spotlight both on my own gendered and racialized privilege and on how such privileges figure more generally in trying to create a livable future is in the civic republican politics of agrarian community-building that I’ve espoused. At one point in your comments your position on this seems to be a despairing premonition of racialized genocide, in which the only morally possible position for people of conscience not victimized by it is to bear witness and act in solidarity. As I survey the present world, there’s plenty in it to make me think that premonition is firmly grounded, but I haven’t given up on a republican politics of community – which, to be clear, I don’t think is a “white, middle-class jump to unity” but a necessity to avoid patriarchy, racism and class hierarchy.

    As Michelle correctly diagnosed, I see the personal generation of material livelihood (in other words, household farming) coupled with a (‘liberal’) public sphere as the key possibility now available to us in the contemporary world for achieving that – but the possibility seems slim, so perhaps I need to keep your more despairing counsel closer in mind. In my book, I do talk about the difficulties of realizing such a politics of community in the face of (particularly) gendered privilege and (more implicitly) racialized privilege, but I don’t centre my discussion on this as much as I probably would if I were female or black. If someone who accepted my basic premises as to how the world is shaping were to write a critique of this part of my analysis from a feminist or anti-racist perspective with respect to my backgrounding of gender and race, I think it could be quite illuminating and generative of a sharper republican politics, which is exactly what’s needed…

    Meanwhile, thanks for the debate and thanks for the links, which I’ll try to read in more detail. I was already quite sceptical of Joel Salatin’s agricultural claims … now you’ve fed me so much more to be sceptical about. Thanks also to Andrew for the Gilroy link, which I must also read in more detail but looks extremely informative.

    • So… here we find ourselves.

      Chris, you have asked me a few times about protest—and I think you answered your own question.

      But first I digress:

      In my last stint at university, followed by working with the City of Vancouver Sustainability Group, I think I have built a pretty solid understanding of “sustainability”.

      As I tried to get a better handle on consumerism, I moved into behaviour change, and spent several years, reading, running pilot projects, calling academics, and giving talks and workshops.

      And as it says in the introduction on my website:

      Sustainability + Behaviour Change = A Small and Delicious Life.

      To put that another way:

      We are screwed + We are not going to unscrew ourselves = How then shall we live?

      So, my couple of decades of systems thinking, education and experience has led me to believe our future will hold a great many more small farms. (caveat, climate change may leave the tattered remnants of humanity represented mostly by nomadic pastoralists.)

      I think your ideas of a small farm future are excellent. I think they are utopian.

      Utopian may sound like a pretty big brag, but I have long been tired of vision documents and have suggested we stop planning for the world we want, and start planning for the world we are going to get.

      We are going to get substantial collapse. Our governance and nation-scale infrastructure will not be able to endure. We will face massive disruptions from fire, flood and drought. Climate-forced migrations of people of all skin-colours will ratchet up tensions and violence. Along with disruptions to infrastructure will come disruptions to the banking and shipping industries necessary for the international trade in food. More local industries like trucking and controlled atmosphere storage will inevitably be disrupted.

      This is all going to be very unpleasant to live through.

      Oh yes. Pandemic was inevitable, and more pandemics are also inevitable.

      So, your small farm future is truly utopian. It is literally the best I can hope for.

      The best we can hope for leaves a lot of room for substantially worse than best.

      In Canada and in my lifetime racism is abundant. It was illegal to be gay—sexual orientation was not given protection against discrimination until 1995— and there is still substantial homophobia. Religious bigotry is common. Sadly, racism and religious hate has seemed to increase as the number of people of colour and especially Muslims has increased in Canada. I do think homophobia is going down though.

      In hard times, humans retrench. This is just biological, though it is made worse by culture.

      So, I expect to see a further flowering of hate. More racism, more homophobia, more violence.

      These things are often most vigorous in small towns—the personality of a mayor or pastor or sheriff can do a lot to fan the flames. So for many years I have been very worried about the changes that will come to the communities of a small farm future. Abortion control, loss of women’s rights, and racial and religious violence.

      Some places are going to go backwards. I think this is inevitable.

      And to me, in many ways this is where the fight lies.

      Mother Nature is going to impose a small farm future on us. But she doesn’t care if we are racists, or if we “choose” to model ourselves after The Handmaid’s Tale.

      Small farms are coming, but what modern decencies can we preserve for that time?

      And this is where epistemic privilege comes back in. As a white, male smallholder in community of white, male smallholders, we face no particular frictions. The bank or the lord or the company store or whatever.

      But history has shown that women, POC, and gender or sexuality non-conforming folks can face a great deal of friction—it is just that we don’t see it, or dismiss it, or ask if they are sure it was meant that way…

      To tangent again, back to the bright whiteness of XR…

      White folks tend to think of racism as bad people wearing sheets, and if you hug your kids and don’t wear a sheet then you can’t be racist and furthermore will get very upset at the suggestion you might be upholding or acting racist.

      But Ibram X. Kendi exhaustively points out there are systems—actual systems of finance and law and rules and policies that all interlock to maintain oppression.

      Saying that race doesn’t really play into it is foundational part of system of oppression.

      And so here is XR, coincidentally mighty white, coincidentally saying race doesn’t really play into it…

      Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry are ALL going to play into the small farm future. Will we just coast into it with our existing systems and structures, or are we going to try to tear a few down and build some defences against a few others?


      Anyhow. Let me talk about protest.

      This article came across my feed recently—I will replace dots with spaces to make it past the spam sentinel

      https://www theatlantic com/technology/archive/2020/06/why-protests-work/613420/

      This article is excellent. It is just when you read it with a behaviour change lens, you realize what it is saying is that protest hardly ever works. It quite carefully lays out many different factors that must come together for a protest to “work”, and it is easy to see those factors almost never come together.

      In a searing end to just the first paragraph, they say:
      Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.

      Let’s look at the US fight for Civil Rights. This battle contained some of the most iconic actions of recent history—Rosa Parks, the murder of Emmett Till and three civil rights workers, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and some truly massive marches and protests.

      And it is true, buses, restaurants, swimming pools and drinking fountains are no longer segregated.

      And the black/white wealth gap in the US is $170,000. Black people are murdered with impunity by police and vigilantes. Education and housing remain highly segregated. Hiring and pay are deeply biased. Communities of colour continue to face poisoned water and host landfills and dangerous dirty industries at much higher rates.

      So, the touchstone, the icon, the stand-out example of protest, the US Civil Rights Movement, did not work.

      It didn’t work.

      So let’s think about XR, and define “work”. What would work look like?

      I googled, and apparently XR wants zero carbon emissions by 2025.

      I admire that, because that might actually work–in that if we emit no carbon by 2025, we may be able to cope with the climate disruption that is baked into the cake in such a way that humanity will not go extinct.

      So, full points for reality, which is a truly rare commodity.

      Now, do we think protest will get us to zero carbon by 2025?

      I don’t. See above discussion of civil rights. Or this one just came through a few days ago.

      World fails to meet a single target to stop destruction of nature – UN report

      https://www theguardian com/environment/2020/sep/15/every-global-target-to-stem-destruction-of-nature-by-2020-missed-un-report-aoe

      So I don’t think the XR protests are going to work, and they are icing that cake with some race doesn’t really play into it. 😉

      The one thing from all my behaviour change work that I have come to feel is generally (but not always) good is social proof. People see you doing things differently, and that is important. It also triggers mirror neurons, so they can feel what it would be like if they were to do that thing.

      So that is why I do the small and delicious life. That is why small farm future is so important.

      It is great that XR protests—that is strong social proof. But to what end? At the conclusion of the protests we still need many more farms and many more farmers, and the protest has not grown either number.

      The work is to build the small farm future, and that the greatest protest of all.

  16. Another brief (ish) response to new comments.

    Collective identity, culture, ‘white culture’, capitalist culture, native culture. I ought to have something clever to say about all of this since I’m sort of an anthropologist. “It’s complex” – will that do? Probably not, but it’ll have to for now. I’m aiming to publish a couple of posts in the not too distant that will try to do a better job in relation to the parts of my book where it’s most relevant.

    Ruben, thanks for your comments. Actually, I agree with most of what you say. But I’ll raise a few points. I may not have the time to engage in another round, however.

    I agree with you about the inefficacy of protest, but as I said above success in cutting carbon emissions isn’t fundamentally why I think XR protests are probably worthwhile.

    The whole issue of XR and of me and my family’s involvement in it has been quite an emotional process for me over the last two years. I think perhaps I’m overly defensive of it for this reason. At the same time, much that presents itself as ‘constructive’ criticism of it seems to me anything but – and where I came into this was precisely there, in disputing Peter Gelderloos’s attempts to recuperate authentic protest and position XR outside it. At a certain level, critiquing protest tactics seems to me mostly about the critic’s ego – how can anyone be sure what will turn out best? One positive aspect of XR for me is that a lot of people are protesting, and that’s mobilizing in various ways.

    Regarding the racial dimension, it does seem to me that some of your comments here would hit home harder if I’d been talking about BLM rather than XR. That’s not to say that race isn’t important in XR, but your comments about black epistemic privilege with respect to protest in relation to XR seemed to me curious, and in fact quite essentializing. XR does need to address white privilege. Arguably, it’s done a better job of doing so than, say, the People’s Vote Campaign or the Iraq War protests, which never got the level of critique of XR for their whiteness and middle classness. I’m curious as to why, but as I see it one part of it has certainly been an unholy meeting ground of self-aggrandizing leftism and right-wing populism rising in our present politics, which I don’t think will end well.

    Nevertheless, as you say, there’s a lot of white fragility around unconscious privilege, so it’s good for both me and for XR to be hammered on this point. Just so long as all the other institutional manifestations of it get hammered too.

    Regarding essentialism, I felt that there was essentialism in your comments about epistemic privilege concerning protest, but maybe we were talking at cross purposes there. I find the way you deploy racial terms like white for analytical purposes quite essentialist at times, not least in statements like “white people are dead below the neck. We live in our heads. We think, we don’t feel.” It’s not about the exceptionalism of #notallwhite. For me, this is just an absurd racial stereotype that isn’t even usefully true.

    Much of your wider commentary on the direction the world is taking I find myself in agreement with, sadly. I can even endorse your “stop planning for the world we want and start planning for the world we are going to get” mantra in many ways, but it’s complex and depends on context – sometimes, if you stop planning for the world you want, the world you get gets worse.

    You’re right that numerous dimensions of privilege – gender, sexuality, race, ‘indigeneity’ – will come into play in the turn to agrarian localism. In my book, I suggest the best way to tackle the bigotry might arise precisely through this chaos, through the need for practical livelihood, and through the ‘modern decencies’ you mention – something along the lines of Rebecca Solnit’s ‘paradise built in hell’. I admit it’s tenuous. But I think it makes for a better politics than simply planning for the world we’re otherwise going to get – resource wars, race wars, border walls and so on. Which brings me back to XR, as one of the vehicles for developing that politics.

    • Thank you Chris. I clearly glommed on to “protest” and “whiteness” and ignored the specificity of XR in the UK, which created a substantial distraction.

      White folks almost always need to spend more effort looking at whiteness, so it is not all bad, but I am sure your observation and analysis from actually participating is more accurate than mine from across the Atlantic.

      And I would *really* like to hear about your process and the emotions surrounding engaging with XR, if you could be encouraged to share with us here or as a post.

  17. These two posts and the resultant comments have been a challenge and struggle for me. I am not a sociologist, but a retired engineer that mostly had built infrastructure to gain expertise in. And yet the posts target a central discussion to be having in the search for a path to a (utopian) small farm future. More important, I am coming to think, than crop rotation strategies or soil health. Lots of thoughts swirling in my head right now, but I’ll toss out a few.

    The environment and the various geophysical trends are what they are right now, and as has been mentioned, overall human behavior and the resultant projections aren’t likely to bend much. I resonate with a lot of Ruben’s comments.

    But at least in theory, individuals still have some control over their own path, they have agency. So how is one to act?

    There is just something about human behavior that when there is a large enough social structure, things become less egalitarian, and more coercive and hierarchical. I think there is some sort of emergent behavior/entity that takes over, and will always do so when some threshold is reached, out past Dunbars number.

    I’m of the opinion that individuals and factions trying to shift the collective behavior are pushing a rope, and not the best use of our time and energy. Rather, creating “lifeboat” small collectives, with all the needed resilience and stainable practices, will be a step toward a small farm future and an immediate personal improvement in survival prospects. I recognize that not everyone has the privileged position I do to even take this step, but I can’t save the world, just try to mend my little corner.

    So, protest is trying to nudge the existing power structure to effect larger, widespread change, but I think it won’t have enough impact. I think individual acts toward agrarian patterns might well become cultural tipping points, seed crystals for a phase change, lifeboats template for others to copy, however you want to describe it, but are a better choice.

    The reflexivity loops of a small farm economy/physical arrangement might well create a culture shift that reduces the chances that our descendants are not slaves or serfs.

    And to again acknowledge my (our) place of privilege, we are really just talking about strategies for ( actually a small number of) first worlders who have the time and resources to even be part of this conversation. There are billions with harsh lives who do not have this chance to steer toward a low energy future that is somewhat comfortable. They are in a low energy present, and are of all colors, beliefs and identities.

    • reduces should be increases in my above comment

      The reflexivity loops of a small farm economy/physical arrangement might well create a culture shift that reduces the chances that our descendants are not slaves or serfs.

  18. Thanks to Clem, Eric, Steve and Diogenese, who hooked on to culture and raised fascinating questions. I have found a way to think about it that has become quite central across multiple parts of my life–understanding trauma, sustainability, racism…

    There must be a word or a term for this experience—this piece fits for me, and it fits with everything else, even though they seem unrelated. So, this is a super juicy topic for me, and I look forward to your thoughts.

    First off—the links!

    The Real World of Technology, a lecture series by Ursula Franklin. (again replace spaces with dots)
    www cbc ca/radio/ideas/the-1989-cbc-massey-lectures-the-real-world-of-technology-1.2946845

    I first heard this in 1989, have reread it several times since, and enjoyed rebroadcasts over the years.

    And this summer I listed to it again while gardening and was struck by how foundational Franklin’s work is to my worldview. Please enjoy!

    Franklin says everything is a technology—tools, obviously, and systems, but also language, religions… and culture.

    So, let me define culture:

    Culture is a technology evolving to enhance survival in a place.

    So, culture is how we cope with where we are.
    There are a couple of exceptions to place that I can think of–Jews, and the Roma Travellers, who have both evolved a culture to help cope with displacement. But the vast majority of the world’s cultures are evolving responses to a place.

    Evolving is an important part, as it states culture is not fixed, but it also draws in other aspects of evolution.

    Evolution is usually described something like an adaptation which increases fitness to survive.

    But I think it might be better framed in the negative, or at least the negative must be present—evolution is adaptation that decreases chances of dying.

    Maybe I am making this more confusing than it needs to be. The point I am trying to make is that if something does not decrease survivability, evolution doesn’t care about it.

    So, northerners making cheese from milk is very much adaptive. What style of earrings they wear does not matter to evolution.

    But it does matter to culture. It matters to humans, but less to survival.

    I say less so, but perhaps our anthropologist host could chime in here to say, “It’s complex.”

    This ties in to my behaviour change work. Humans do not have very great conscious cognitive capacity, so we use all sorts of coping mechanisms. On of those is group bonding and identity.

    We can’t change that, short of evolving our brains for another couple million years.

    So, group bonding and identity has proven to be central to surviving in a place. (Jared Diamond would point out the lone counterexample, the Ik.)

    So, Culture is an evolving technology of survival in a place, accompanied with a lot of group identity markers.

    Next link! The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Societies.
    www policyalternatives ca/publications/reports/roots-addiction-free-market-society

    Bruce Alexander ran a famous test called Rat Park, where they gave rats a community, or drugs. The rats without community did a lot of drugs. And if you gave the addict rats a community again, they stopped doing drugs.

    In this essay, Alexander looks at famously addicted peoples, the Scots, Irish and First Nations, and finds massive dislocation. They may have a culture, but they no longer have a place, and they numb the pain with alcohol.

    Incidentally, Alexander’s colleague Gabor Mate works with addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and says that every woman he works with was sexually abused as a child. 100%.

    So, Alexander shows that culture is not just language and gods and group identity markers, it is also place. The relationship with land, with animals and plants and soil and stone…matters.

    And so I disagree here with Eric, Steve and Diogenese, who all in various ways discuss whiteness as a culture.

    Whiteness is all that is left when our culture has been stolen from us.

    A slightly different take is in this article, “White People Have no Culture.”

    www terraincognitamedia com/features/white-people-have-no-culture2018

    And so….

    I am going to wrap up with a facebook comment I made a couple of years ago.

    Here in Victoria BC, we had a bronze statue of Sir John A, MacDonald outside our City Hall. For years it was a point of friction with First Nations people and anti-racists, as Sir John A. was the architect of The Indian Act and residential schools, which was then literally taken as inspiration for South African Apartheid.

    So, Sir John A. knit the new country of Canada together with literal genocide.

    The discussion of removing the statue was raised in a conversation of beginning repair with the Lekwungen peoples. Tempers flared, protests were had, the white supremacists came out. Eventually the statue was removed.

    And I ended up in a conversation with some poor little white kid from the east who worked in a steel mill. I commented on his comment, so when he subsequently deleted it, all of my shining words were lost to history.

    Except my friend Jamaine had cut and pasted one comment. I think it gives a lot of the gist of what I am trying to say here.

    …For white people in North America, the ethnocide is almost complete. This is about destroying our RACE, and reclaiming our ethnicity.

    Let me clear. White people used be something. My people used to be Swedish, and English. I have quite a bit of Norman in my family tree.

    Even saying English is far too broad–it is a very recent label, and it a label that is convenient for the rich war-mongers, but not for people like me, and maybe for you. So, instead of English, we would have been from Sussex, or Dorset.

    That would have been the name of our ethnicity. Along with that name would have come special knowledge of the place; the rivers, the hills, the grasses and trees, and the powerful places. We would have had songs, and prayers. Food, and ceremony and celebration and holiday. Probably we would have had a dash of our own local fashion–the way we wear a hat or a sash, or the style of embroidery on our shirt.

    These are the sorts of things that arise from living in a Place and a Community for several centuries or longer.

    This is our ethnicity.

    And then the capitalists and the lords and war-mongers and elites of all kinds set about destroying our ehtnicity. They pushed us off our lands in clearances, and then into the industrial hell factories. As the cities burst we died by the thousands, and piled onto the emigrant ships for North America.

    That was the ethnocide.

    There are a few places in North America where ethnicity is still visible. The Irish have a shadow of it in Boston. The Amish. Maybe the Ukrainians in the Canadian Prairies. Tiny pockets of Finns, Swedes and Germans throughout the midwest.

    The landlords stole our ethnicity when they stole our land, the place we had lived for longer than their lording.

    In North America, what we were left with was race, and even that took a long time to get created. People like us tend to appreciate our own, even if the colour of our skin is different.

    But the fucking industrialists prefer cheap labour, and so they started playing people against each other. Whiteness was invented for profit, not from us.

    Race is all that was identifiable when everything else has been stolen–the songs, the food, the embroidery; all gone.

    They even killed our gods.

    So white people in North America are walking victims of ethnocide. The Masters stole everything that was precious too us, and shipped us off, disposable. They didn’t care if we lived or died on this continent, as long as we dug a little gold and sent some fur back to Europe.

    The fact we are called white is proof the ethnocide is nearly complete. The colour of our skin is the only way left to identify us. Our voice has no clues. Our clothing is all the same. Our food comes from a box. The only place we can be sure we came from is a white mother.

    John A MacDonald was not my ethnicity. He was a Scot, and Master, to boot. I have no allegiance to him.

    Now, people that still have culture, that still have ties to a place, that still have more or less ethnicity, look at us and can barely contain their tears. They know what has been stolen from us.

    And they want us to have it back.

    So, the First Nations, black people, Asians… I have talked with many people, and they are all sad for us. They wish we had the songs and the gods and the roots in place that the lords stole from us.

    People of colour want us to know the joys of our ethnicity. They know how important it is. You can see them fighting for theirs–and they support us fighting for ours.
    This is what cultural recovery and ancestral healing is about. Slowly trying to rebuild an ethnicity that was stolen from us so long ago–and stolen by people with the same colour skin as ours.

    But as we try to rebuild our ethnicity, it is important to keep our eye on the prize. Racists who display the Norse gods have their heads up their asses. The Gods cannot be claimed, they do the claiming. The Gods were not racist, they had a complete identity of their own, as did everybody else in the world at that time–race didn’t even exist when everybody was from somewhere.

    There is a lifetime of work ahead of you, if you choose to follow this path, and a lifetime of a sweetly deeper connection to your true people, not the people who like to fire you up about the colour of your skin so you can do the work for them. We don’t need any more masters.

    • Ruben emphasized how place is very important to culture and ethnicity. However, many (if not most) people in the Global North obviously don’t live their adult lives in the place they were born. Marriages between people from different places is also commonplace, which further complicates the prospects of identifying and re-connecting with a lost culture and ethnicity.

      I maintain that it would be better to have a new and improved inclusive culture for whoever is living in a place where they have effectively lost the former cultures their ancestors possessed. I see this as a better alternative to trying to recreate a lost culture or ethnicity from another place. Efforts to become more like people in far-away places, for example by celebrating holidays that our parents and grandparents never celebrated, or by adopting certain unusual types of clothing to set us apart, seem contrived and can actually further “the master’s work” of separation and division, as I see it.

      “A sweetly deeper connection to your true people” is not appealing to me, as it sounds like it could be a recruitment slogan for a White or Black supremacist group. Making a deeper connection to the place I live, and to the people who live there, seems good enough for me, without checking credentials or authenticity of whether they are “my true people”.

      • I think we are on our way to a new and improved culture—it is just that it will take us a thousand years to get there.

        And I think you are right, that is better than trying to live in the way our ancestors lived. After all, we are not in our ancestors’ place, so that wouldn’t make much sense.

        But there are a lot of things we are trying to do simultaneously. One of the big jobs of ancestral reclamation is to try to reduce cultural appropriation. See this article for a description of the harm caused by appropriating traditions from other cultures instead of revivifying your own. So, on the way to growing a new culture indigenous to our place, we may need to go through some less optimal stages.

        I hear that ancestral work is not appealing to you, and that a deeper connection seems good enough to you.

        But what if it actually isn’t good enough?

        We know that meat and potatoes alone aren’t good enough.
        We know that not drinking water isn’t good enough.
        We know that not consuming Vitamin C isn’t good enough.

        We know that if you don’t get enough Vitamin D you can get rickets. But now scientists are investigating whether Vitamin D deficiency is part of more severe cases of COVID 19.

        So, your Vitamin D level is not good enough, but COVID is what kills you.

        Anyway, in a culture as derailed by scientism as ours, it is easy for us to focus on what is measurable and dismiss the things that are harder to apply reductionism to.

        Like culture.

        So, humans are social mammals. That means we need physical contact and relationship with a substantial group of other humans.

        There are some heartbreaking studies on this, if you have the stomach for it, using baby monkeys. There are some even more heartbreaking stories from orphanages in the former Soviet Bloc.

        The whole field of attachment is basically saying that this is what humans need. If you don’t get it as a child, you are going to have to learn it as an adult.

        A lack of it is not good enough. You may not die of lack of attachment, but the research shows you will die younger.

        So, I am in something like the Strong Culture Camp. I think we need culture, just like we need Vitamin D and physical touch, and that without it, we are not healthy. Lack of culture may not kill us directly, but it makes us weak and susceptible to many other things—physical illness, mental illness, authoritarianism etc. I think it isn’t good enough.

      • Ruben wrote, “I think it isn’t good enough.”

        Of course, a lack of culture isn’t good enough. But I wasn’t talking about a lack of culture, I was referring to a new and improved culture which can be effectively fast-tracked by those with intention. It doesn’t take the thousand years that Ruben thinks it would take.

        I claimed that making a deeper connection to the place I live, and to the people who live there, seems good enough for me, without checking credentials or authenticity of whether they are “my true people”.

        When I said “seems to be good enough for me” I wasn’t in my head, thinking about the issue and basing my views on various articles. Instead, my views are based on years of rewarding social experiences living in a community where we essentially created a culture of place, in an inclusive way, regardless of the ancestral ethnicities of the individuals, and without the cultural appropriation that Ruben warns about.

  19. I don’t feel I can agree with your view of culture to a great extent Ruben, but wanted to start by thanking you for laying it out like this. It’s very thought-provoking, and the links are also very interesting.

    Ursula Franklin is fascinating, and the idea that cultural media can be described as technologies seems fair enough, especially as her emphasis remains on how they are used by people. At this point your definition of ‘culture’ is still something I recognise, essentially sets of techniques and methodologies through which people communicate with each other, and act with and on one another, in all sorts of different ways.

    However, after this your definition appears to get narrower, and I have trouble with the idea that what you describe should be labelled ‘culture’, and therefore that anything outside it should be seen as a lack of culture. Specifically, your own preferences seem to be for cultural work that builds relationships with specific places, and that can distinguish specific groups one from the other and label them as distinct ethnicities. I have some sympathy with the importance of place, much less with ethnicity l but my main point here is that these are simply examples of cultural work, and do not exhaust its capacities.

    Your definitions often act to separate industrial societies (which lack ‘culture’) from other forms of society, particularly those of ‘indigenous’ peoples (which have ‘culture’). But what, then, do you make of the history of labour organisations, and the building of various forms of solidarity among the working classes of industrial societies? I would see these as forms of cultural work as well. Indeed, ruling classes also do cultural work when they build solidarities around the use of technologies of discipline and control.

    I am very wary of the use of the idea of ‘culture’ in a way analogous to race, which is I think what you are doing when you promote the importance of ‘ethnicity’. The identification of distinct ‘cultures’ or ‘ethnicities’ is deeply implicated in colonial mindsets. The self-definition of First Nation peoples as such has been very important in their articulation of resistance to imperialist forces, and continues to be so; likewise the creation of Black or Indigenous ethnicities. But the extension of such notions in the modern world beyond the anti-colonial context seems to me inappropriate and dangerous. (I think this essay by Balibar ‘Is there a ‘neo-racism’?’ might be pertinent here:

    I’m a historian in the UK, and I’m afraid I don’t recognise any sense of ethnic identity, historic or modern, based in the English counties. More broadly I think our disagreements here will remain considerable, unlike our earlier discussions about race. But there may well be an interesting set of discussions to be had here amongst our little commenters’ community. In that spirit, I wonder if you could answer a specific question: as a white man in North America, why do you see ‘your people’ as encompassing ancestors in England, Sweden and Normandy? Put another way, what is it that you think has been transmitted to you genetically that has any bearing on the cultural creation of your sense of belonging in modern America?

    • Thanks for this Andrew. I appreciate the opportunity to try to polish the rough edges of this idea.

      I hope you can see the sweat on my brow as I labour to articulate something that seems to have few edges and is difficult to test or prove. I am trying to draw in a lot of patterns, that I hope I can build up into a convincing sort of pile.

      You asked But what, then, do you make of the history of labour organisations, and the building of various forms of solidarity among the working classes of industrial societies? I would see these as forms of cultural work as well.

      I agree they are forms of cultural work, but I don’t think they make a culture. These may be things that would be necessary but not sufficient.

      The definition I offered was Culture is an evolving technology of survival in a place, accompanied with a lot of group identity markers.

      Again, I would describe my position as something like the Strong Culture camp.

      The reason I disagree with your example of labour unions is that they do not build survival in place.

      I think I need to be more specific here—I assumed too much meaning would be communicated with the word survival.

      The Aborigines of Australia have songlines that stretch out into the ocean—because the songs predate sea level rise after the last ice age.

      Where I live there was continuous use of village sites for over 10,000 years.

      Where you live there was continuous occupation for millenia, though sadly the end of many of those cultures was not recent.

      So, if the evolving technology of survival is a component of culture, then it is clear industrialized society, including the tiny part of industrialization that is labour unions, does not have a culture. We do not have a system that has evolved for our survival in a place.

      Rather than practices that help us steward over dozens of generations, we have a system that has stripped, denuded, eroded, mined, burned and washed away our places.

      This isn’t a culture, it is a death cult.

      I am going to jump to ethnicity, because it will help build to the point after.

      I think ethnicity is our default setting. I said earlier that Humans do not have very great conscious cognitive capacity, so we use all sorts of coping mechanisms. On of those is group bonding and identity.

      To flesh this out a bit… our brain is embodied; it is in our body. Therefore it obeys all the usual rules our body follows. So, just like we can only lift so much and run so far, we can only think so long.

      With our analytic, conscious brain, we can only think for a few hours a day. Since we need those hours to do important things like work for food and other aspects of survival, we tend to NOT think even when we could, in order to conserve that capacity in case more urgent needs arise later.

      Apologies to all the folks who think they live a rational life, but humans don’t. We are not physically capable. We cannot get the food to our brain and remove waste products from our brain in adequate amounts.

      Again, this is a physical limit. Thinking is physical work, just like digging a posthole.

      The current popular mode is the Triune Brain, named after the three main stages our brain has evolved.

      The Reptilian Brain is our brain stem. This keeps us breathing, and controls Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn responses.

      The Limbic or Mammalian Brain holds memory, emotion, and habits. This is the Subconscious.

      And finally the Neocortex holds consciousness, reasoning, and abstract thought.

      So, since our Neocortex can only get enough food for a few hours work each day, we use the rest of our brain for most of our decision making.

      The book by the academic giant in this field is Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman—though he wrote a book in the 70s called Attention and Effort which I think told us all we need to understand—and it is completely ignored.

      (as a side note, this cognitive capacity is the foundation of my work on behaviour change, and is the reason why most protest does not work.)

      So, we make very few conscious decisions, and we are terrible at understanding why we made decisions.

      What we do is use a lot of rules of thumb to save brain energy. One of the biggest ones is called Satisficing—if something is good enough, we pick it. So, I am hungry, I need to eat, that salad is food, I eat the salad. I could spend a lot of energy trying to pick and choose the best meal option, but we tend to make Good Enough decisions most of the time.

      Another huge choice mechanism is social proof—behavioural copying. You know how periodically there are shocked stories of people walking around a dying person, or driving past an accident, or not helping someone being assaulted—these are examples of behavioural copying.

      We don’t know what the situation is, so we look around for clues. We see other people doing nothing, and it seems fine for them, so we do nothing.

      Now, when we are looking around for people to model, we tend to pick people who seem like us. Men, white, Liverpool fans, Catholics, whatever.

      And to make this cognitve energy conservation even easier, we create group identity markers, like clothing, hairstyles, adornments, etc.

      This in-group dynamic is wired in our bodies. This is not something we get to opt out of.

      Right-wing populists take advantage of this, and use it for evil.

      Left-wing progressives find this idea distasteful. Clearly most progressives are still attached to the Descartes’ incorrect Enlightenment ideas about rationality, which as I described above, is physically impossible.

      But I think there is a likely a bit of old fashioned Puritanism as well—bodies are distastefully physical, unlike the purity of The Mind.

      Anyhow, the right uses our physical reality and wins, the left rejects our physical reality and loses.

      We are wired to seek groups. We can apply a great deal of physical conscious effort to resist that in one or two applications, but we cannot eliminate it from all of our self-identities. It is our biology.

      I am also wary of blending race into ethnicity, though for the reasons described above, it often is.

      But rather than racial, I think it is more accurate to say culture is bioregional. This is an everpresent part we can see in all cultures until the burning of fossil fuels upended history.

      as a white man in North America, why do you see ‘your people’ as encompassing ancestors in England, Sweden and Normandy? Put another way, what is it that you think has been transmitted to you genetically that has any bearing on the cultural creation of your sense of belonging in modern America?

      I see these as my ancestral heritage because my extended family is all Mormon and so I have a very detailed family tree. My uncle learned Swedish so he could follow the trail of my great-grandfather who emigrated to the US. I have spent some time with my genealogy and maps, looking at where my ancestors came from.

      Before I answer the last part, let me mention a bit about how the mechanism of ancestry works.

      In yet another Enlightenment disaster, we tend to think of ourselves as separate and above from nature and the beasts that live within it. Animals are born knowing how to do things, but are too dumb to learn. We are born as blank slates, but use our exalted brains to learn things.

      Both of these things are false. Animals learn, and we are born knowing how to do things.

      I just watched My Octopus Teacher, and then did some googling.

      Octopuses of different species in different parts of the world have been shown to use materials to make armor, like coconut shells and seashells.

      There is no teaching from parent to child with at least some octopuses, so that means the child is born knowing how to make armor. In other words, this knowledge is encoded in their genes.

      Furthermore, the study of epigenetics is showing that our genes can be switched into different states–the experience of previous generations can change how genes will be expressed in offspring.

      So there is clearly a biological mechanism for that may make it possible to inherit adaptations to place.

      Race is actually a super obvious adaptation to place. Dark skin helps people survive in high-sun regions, while pale skin helps in low-sun regions. But epigenetics may help me answer your last question.

      Sorry Colonizers, but I feel more embodied affinity for my Swedish genes than my English (though I have been singing Sea Shanties for twenty years).

      I feel comfortable with snow. There is a sense of rightness to it, even though I dislike cold. I feel good with forest, so I am lucky to be Canadian, and to have grown up in an area that was forested. As we repaganize our holidays, I feel very good in my body, again, a sense of rightness, as we light candles on the tree, and hang sparkling charms to—what?—wish winter away? Attract the light back?
      The Norse believe that Fimbulvintr will precede the end of the world, and that summer will not come for three years. I know this is ridiculous (unless it is just another volcanic eruption that will cloak the sky), but every year I can feel in my bones the fearful prayers for the return of the light.

      But that is about it. I don’t feel I belong in Modern America. I hate it here. I do not belong, in no uncertain terms. The place is without culture, so belonging is impossible.

      I would not belong in Sweden or England either, because I am not Swedish or English. But that is just the reality of the wholesale destruction of culture we have undergone.

      Perhaps my genes have predisposed me to the forest, the snow, and the long winter nights and long summer days. But that is about all I have.

  20. Props to Ruben for opening up a whole new arena of debate – one that veers into territory I plan to discuss more directly in another post. But a few comments.

    As I see it, all human beings everywhere are continually making and remaking place with culture. But maybe they typically do it at different speeds – foraging cultures slowly, farm cultures faster, industrial cultures at breakneck speed. The cultures of modernity celebrate that speed as a cultural positive in itself, problematically IMO. They don’t acknowledge what’s lost along the way, or the biophysical feedbacks that threaten them.

    The anthropologist Hugh Brody (who did much of his work among Canadian First Nation people) nicely makes the point in his book ‘The Other Side of Eden’ that, contrary to the image of nomadic hunters, foraging peoples are usually sedentary, whereas farm cultures are nomadic as a result of their tendency to produce surplus crops and people. Yet it’s striking to me how quickly European farmers created new cultures of place in the Americas and elsewhere. Unfortunately, they were based on an ‘original sin’ of First Nation genocide, and they themselves were overwhelmed by industrialism. They were always colonial artefacts, but I think it’s a mistake to underplay their creativity.

    I think we badly need to remake place and culture in the present world, but – predictably, from the title of this piece – I’m with Andrew and the Steves on the dangers of trying to do so in terms of local authenticity attaching to particular people. A lot of people in England talk about the enclosures and the origins of capitalism as our own original sin, when authentic local culture was erased. I think this is mistaken. It’s true that certain kinds of alienation started flaring in (early) modern times – it’s also true that certain kinds (like serfdom) were extinguished. If a point of original alienation exists in England (I’m not sure that it does), I think we’d have to go a lot further back – maybe to the Mesolithic.

    In terms of the cultural emptiness of ‘whiteness’, I think that’s true – but largely because whiteness means little except as a signifier of blackness in societies where those distinctions matter. And also perhaps in transnational postcolonial situations, such as contemporary Britain where it’s easy to slip into language like ‘Asian’ people having ‘culture’ and ‘white’ people not having it. But these ‘Asian’ ‘cultures’ themselves are full of histories of colonialism, conflict and erasure that can’t be worked into singularities except perhaps in the present context of antiracist solidarities.

    I talk about this a little in my book. I think we need to remake agrarian cultures of place largely in relation to the present and the future. Almost everyone in the world, for better or (most often) for worse, is a child of industrial modernity. For me, the mantra has to be it ain’t where you’re from, it’s how you garden. That isn’t to say where you’re from is unimportant, in numerous ways. But new cultures, with new tensions, will emerge out of those new gardens, if we get the chance to grow them.

    Regarding cultural appropriation, this is another tricky one since as I see it culture is inherently protean, appropriative, lent, borrowed and resistant to neat boundaries. I guess cultural appropriation becomes telling in certain situations of unacknowledged privilege when things are ‘borrowed’ without respect, permission or reciprocity. But I think it’s still worth asking who is wanting to tie culture down, and why.

    • I will look forward to this very much Chris.

      And, to forestall later disagreement about Cultural Appropriation, I will paste in another old facebook comment.

      A good and thoughtful man just posted this:
      “Fiction would be impossible if it didn’t “appropriate” culture.”

      It has been a while since I talked about appropriation, so I responded at some length, and thought I would share that here.
      I have never heard anyone complaining about the idea of fiction regarding cultural appropriation. Minority cultures are very aware that culture moves and is shared.

      The big concern I hear is that the dominant culture has the power to overwhelm minority cultures.

      So, Day of the Dead is a holy holiday for many people. White capitalism is trying to turn it into another way to sell costumes and knick-knacks and booze.

      The history, the traditions, the emotion and the love of this tradition are being washed away by the tide of the dominant culture.

      And you get very sad things, like when an artisan starts to dumb down their art in order to suit the tastes of the dominant culture. The artists need to pay the rent and put food on the table, and the bull in the china shop approach of the dominant culture pressures the artists to actively participate in the destruction of their own culture and traditions.
      That is an example of the sort of concerns I hear about cultural appropriation. Nobody cares about whether we eat tacos, they care about the disrespect and loss of their holy holidays.

      It is difficult for white North Americans like us to understand this, I think, because our culture has been so totally destroyed. We can look back at least to the European land clearances, industrialization, then emigration. Most of us have lost our homelands, our languages, our religions, our traditions and our ancestors.

      We celebrate the fact we don’t know who the fuck we are.

      And so we behave extremely rudely towards people who have not been so destroyed. Here on the west coast, First Nations have a very strong sense of ownership of things we would find ridiculous, like songs, dances, masks, regalia, even names. Imagine a culture in which you must ask permission to use a name. Imagine handing a song down through generations, not as something the family sings around the Thanksgiving table, but as a precious item that you are obliged to steward and defend.

      So, these people tell us that certain things are precious to them, and we act like assholes when we tell them cultures have always appropriated. It is not that we welcomed the destruction of our culture, it is that it happened so long ago we have forgotten it. We have forgotten it, and we have forgotten that things can be important to other people that are not important to us.

      So, when something is important to someone else, but not us, how shall we behave?

      Say your friend borrows your favourite bicycle. You loan it to them with some reluctance, because it is so precious to you. You tell them a story about it, hoping they will deeply understand your relationship with this bike, and will treat it with care.

      And then later in the day, they return your bike, dripping wet, leather saddle sagging, seaweed in the spokes and chain. Someone had set up a ramp on a dock and they just couldn’t resist riding off the jump into the water.

      That would be seriously rude. Very inconsiderate. Probably it would permanently damage your relationship.

      And that is how we are. Various cultures are telling us, “We think it is great you like our food; please, come sit and eat with us. We love to share our sports with you. Feel free to buy this traditional craft.
      But this thing over here is very precious to us, and we don’t want you to ask about it. We are telling you, it is rude to even ask for it, let alone to take it, or disrespect it.”

      And then we mock them, and call them backwards, and take their precious thing and use it to sell cars or soap or beer.

      It is rude, except rude is not a strong enough word. It is narcissistic. It is colonial. It is a rejection that anything can matter unless we say it matters.

      Our world is full of stories. Stories can even be made about nothing as the many seasons of Seinfeld proved. Anybody who thinks they can’t write fiction unless they can appropriate is simply not a good writer.
      So, some people, some cultures are telling us, the dominant culture, that we are shredding what little fabric they have left. They are not so far down the well of loss of culture as we are, and they know culture is still important.

      They are asking us to let them tell their stories, in the manner they find appropriate. They are asking us to allow them to continue to steward that which has always been theirs.

      They are asking us for basic politeness.

    • General and varied comments:

      I also agree with culture as technologies for living in a certain place. But if we use that definition, it is impossible to say that a functioning society has no culture. Any group that manages to stay alive has a culture, including those groups with “white” skin.

      I would also, like Ruben, distinguish between technologies that are related to providing for essential physical needs and those that are primarily aesthetic. Ear rings are not culture, they are fashion. Religion is fashion, too, though obviously more complex and time consuming than ear adornments.

      Thus, I think it makes sense to say something like “agrarian culture”, “industrial culture”, or “hunting/gathering culture”, but not “ear ring culture”, “rock n’ roll culture” or even “Christian culture”.

      Which is not to say that fashion doesn’t brighten one’s life or even provide strong emotional motivations in some people. But fashion is arbitrary in the same way skin color is arbitrary; it can exist in an almost infinite variety of manifestations in cultures that are otherwise the same or even between members of one cultural group.

      Thus, there is a big difference between colonialism and racism. Colonialism is a cultural phenomenon. It is a technology used by one group to get needed resources at the expense of another group. It may be unjust by modern sensibilities (though it has had a long history of just being the way things work) but it makes a kind of sense as a way of obtaining resources. Racism makes no sense at all except as a fashion aesthetic, right alongside sports team fandom and clothing tastes.

      So “cultural appropriation” is a misnomer. It is usually just emotional conflict over cherished fashions. Nobody really cares if one group appropriates another’s technique for irrigating corn fields, though they might care if the corn field itself was appropriated (colonized), but somehow I don’t see using an actor in lederhosen in an American beer commercial as affecting technologies for living in a place. It is just fashion borrowing.

      That’s not to say that dissing another’s taste in fashion by borrowing it and using it ‘improperly’ can’t piss off the folks that cherish their fashion. It’s just simple human respect not to insult others (an almost universal cultural stabilizing principle), but it isn’t colonialism or any other kind of cultural appropriation. It’s just rude, especially if done for money (at least to my taste). Money often has a way of bringing out the rudeness in people; useful as it is, it’s a dangerous cultural technology.

    • Again, much to agree with in Ruben’s comments – albeit with some misgivings on my part about the dangers of totalization. There are tensions and differentiations within cultures and over time. Some people from a given group may jealously guard access to its cultural products, whereas others may not. I don’t think one can simply deride this point as #notall exceptionalism – you need a sociological (or political) account of what kinds of status claims, and to what ends, are being made by all the protagonists within and without the group.

      On the matter of time, I agree with Ruben that we need to start thinking in terms of cultures of livelihood oriented to place over many generations and that modernist culture doesn’t do this, indeed celebrates its very negation in ways that Ruben aptly describes as a ‘death cult’ (it’s interesting that ecomodernists often use the exact same phrase to describe radical environmentalism). However, I’m not sure that any culture has ever fully succeeded in stabilizing itself over dozens of generations – certainly not any farming culture, and probably not any foraging culture. So, along with Steve L, I’d happily set the bar a bit lower. But higher than at present.

      To Joe’s points, I wouldn’t myself make such a radical distinction between aesthetic/religious ‘technologies’ and livelihood-generating ones. Bodily adornments or mutilations and spiritual commitments shape collective identity and orientations to land and livelihood in consequential ways. But in this sense I agree with Ruben on the lostness of modernist culture – when drug-taking is purely hedonistic or ear-rings are purely fashion, when livelihood bears no relation to local potentialities, I think it’s possible to speak of cultural degradation.

      • I think it’s possible to speak of cultural degradation.

        I most wholeheartedly disagree. Degradation in terms of what? We might speak of cultures as more or less maladapted to their environment (only when there is clear evidence of their failure to survive), but when you bring up examples of drug-taking and ear-ring fashion as examples of “degradation” you are entering a realm where relativism must prevail.

        Are you now willing to rank cultures around the world on a scale of least degraded to more degraded? Tell me please, which is the best culture in the world and which is the worst? To speak at all of degraded cultures is to speak the language of cultural imperialism and colonialist justification.

        And how exactly does adornment fashion or religion shape connection to land, and the cultural processes of making a living from it, in “consequential ways”? Is there a real difference between the skill set of a Christian farmer and a Jewish farmer?

        I agree that fashion can have a strong influence on group identity, but I disagree that markers of group identity are relevant to livelihood technology. To go down that road is to allow things like skin color to become a marker of technical ability, something I really don’t think we should do.

        • “when you bring up examples of drug-taking and ear-ring fashion as examples of “degradation” you are entering a realm where relativism must prevail”

          Well, maybe. I didn’t mean so much that those practices themselves are intrinsically degraded (though some modern drug-taking does seem to lead precisely to degradation, in ways that seem atypical of the kind of cultures that Ruben is talking about) as the fact that there is no larger cultural architecture that makes them meaningful. You might argue that those two examples don’t illustrate my point very well, and maybe I’d agree, at least in the case of earrings.

          “Are you now willing to rank cultures around the world on a scale of least degraded to more degraded?”


          “To speak at all of degraded cultures is to speak the language of cultural imperialism and colonialist justification.”

          I’d argue not really when it’s articulated as cultural self-critique. And much that we’ve discussed on this blog over the years involves such self-critique. I’d be happy to drop ‘degradation’ in favour of your ‘maladaptation’, but ‘maladapted cultures’ can and has had equally racist connotations in the hands of people who want to articulate them. My point really was to more or less agree with Ruben about the need for culture to orient to renewable livelihood. Contemporary capitalist culture’s articulation of ‘private vice brings public benefit’ seems to me a badly realised (degraded?) orientation to this end.

          “Is there a real difference between the skill set of a Christian farmer and a Jewish farmer?”

          No – I’m surprised that you interpret my comment in that way. But religion and spirituality as the underpinnings of culture are fundamentally concerned with relations between people and with the natural world in ways that affect how people interact with it. I talk about this a little in my book. I’d argue that most of the modern world religions are basically religions of traders allying with ordinary people in large-scale agrarian empires, and this has been consequential in various sometimes quite subtle ways for anthropocentric orientations to land use. It does seem to me that our inability to think our way out of our contemporary ecological impasse is deeply grounded in culture histories with spiritual and religious roots.

          Regarding markers of group identity in relation to livelihood technology, I guess I was thinking of Pierre Clastres’ point that mutilation marks group membership, and therefore responsibility with respect to specific landscapes and livelihoods, and it’s also a marker of absolute equality, which puts major restraints upon aggrandizing human exploitation of land or aquatic resources.

          Generally, I think you’re interpreting my comments through a very different lens to that of my intentions. But I’ll happily withdraw them if others also interpreted them thus, as I’d hate to be misunderstood.

          • I don’t think I am misunderstanding your comments here, Chris.

            Joe, I think your comment comes down to “To go down that road is to allow things like skin color to become a marker of technical ability, something I really don’t think we should do.”

            So, you are clearly standing against racism. I see you deeply concerned about slippery slopes of labels and assumptions leading us to deeply harmful outcomes.

            Joe, from my perspective, you seem very alert to the harmful outcome—racist harm. But it looks like you are seeking exceptions to disprove the rule. I think this whole conversation—race, cultural appropriations, culture—is extremely fraught, and very difficult, especially for white people.

            So, I would invite you to be generous and loving in your commentary here. Don’t give people a free ride—but there are lots of people in these comments that have kept coming back for hard talk.

            As Chris said if degradation doesn’t work for you, offer another word. I am certainly not married to it.

            But I have argued that cultures are technologies of survival. A cultural evolution that impairs survival is maladaptive. Increasing maladaptation is very bad for survival. The technology has been degraded. But if you don’t like that word, that is totally fair.

            So, what I am hearing is that you are very concerned about the well-oiled slide into racism, and I am grateful for your vigilance.

    • For many years my greatest hope was a massive glacier collapse that would raise sea level a couple of feet overnight and perhaps finally spuyr action.

  21. Wow! What a comment thread! I’ll try to do my bit to make it even longer.

    First a personal experience in which I describe how I glimpsed what indigeneity might feel like:
    I spent my undergraduate years in St Andrews, Fife, and one of the first things I did was to read Richard Mabey’s “Food for Free” and start foraging. I made a few mistakes at first: mistook actual elder (sambucus) for ground elder (aegopodium), chewed on a small piece of arum lily. But over time, I found the plants that were good to eat and started to know where they grew. There is a long footpath in St Andrews following the Kinnessburn up from the harbour mouth climbing gradually into the hills beyond the town. Some parts of the path are more formal, others less so, involving a bit of climbing over walls or through gaps in fences – just enough to give me the tingle of doing something slightly out of the ordinary. That path became my “food highway”, where I could feed my body and relax my mind at the same time.
    It happened one day as I walked out of a forested part of the path and stepped out to cross one of the roads going over the burn. The lime trees I’d just left behind to my right were my favourites, because they had the leaves that tasted “cleanest”, they were a bit glossy, unlike most tilia leaves, and had no fur on them at all. Nettles also grow along that bit of the path. I digress. All of a sudden, my perception of my surroundings changed. I got this feeling that I was walking through a landscape that I was a part of. My feet connected with the soil that connected with the trees and plants around me in a really deep way. Some of the atoms that were in me had previously been in those trees, in that soil, in that burn, in that air. I thought to myself “this must be what it feels like to be indigenous to a place!”
    I had that feeling maybe 5-6 times in four years at St Andrews, in different places. The commonality was this feeling of concrete, material connection. There was nothing “spiritual”, “airy” or “heady” about it. It was grounded, “earthy” if anything. I’m sure it’s to do with the fact that I spent so much time walking and foraging in that landscape with all of my senses awake. I found myself wondering “If that’s what it feels like after 4 years of foraging and pacing a landscape, what would it feel like after 40 years? Going back further, what would it feel like after 4 generations? Or 40?”

    This experience was transformative for me. I am certain that cultivating indigeneity is extremely important in all kinds of ways, good per se and also good for responding to our multiple, overlapping crises.

    How do we develop indigeneity – i.e. a long-term culture of place? And how do we know if we’re going in the right direction? Well, I’ve written elsewhere that there are two ways of finding out if a culture is “permanent”. i) Wait 500 years and see if it has persisted and replicated itself. ii) Apply observation in the present and make an educated guess.

    The permaculture ethics and principles as developed by David Holmgren are a structured way of making that educated guess.

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