No easy answers: a response to Alex Heffron and Kai Heron

A change to my published programme, since I’m feeling the need to respond to a review of my book from an avowedly Marxist perspective by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron (henceforth H&H). Their review involves a bit of faint praise for my book, a lot of fusillades against it, and some outrageous distortions of what I actually say.

The sociologist Colin Campbell wrote “It is always interesting for an author to read reviewers’ comments, if only to discover the kind of book reviewers thought one should have written. But then it is also interesting to discover what it is that one should have consulted or discussed at length, yet in the opinion of the reviewer regrettably failed to do”. His words resonated as I read H&H’s review, but this was overlaid with a stranger feeling that in much of their review they were engaging with some other writer altogether, a dastardly fellow with an egregiously conservative agenda hidden beneath his superficial leftism. I’m pretty sure that that writer isn’t me. But perhaps H&H are channelling a doppelganger of mine from some parallel universe. I’ll call him Ejams, the mirror of my name, and we’ll meet him shortly.

First, I need to sketch some grounding assumptions of my book. In the years ahead, I think there will be climate, food, water, energy, material, ecological, political and economic crises that will upend in chaotic ways much of the institutional architecture of our present social world and see a lot of people on the move, many searching for secure farmland to make a living. If you disagree, my book won’t make much sense – but my view is becoming increasingly mainstream, not least on the political left. To mitigate the problems of this world to come, we need to be radically rethinking right now the agrarian, energetic, political and economic basis of our societies as we head into a future whose dynamics remain unknowable in detail. This isn’t easy to do. H&H criticize me for uncertainty and haziness in rethinking humanity’s entire future within one 300-page book. If I claimed certainty or a thorough blueprint I’d be a charlatan, but I hope someday they’ll write the book they think I should have written and make it a better one than mine.

H&H do, however, usefully highlight a deeper reason for my uncertainty. I’m sceptical of progressive-modernist ideologies and I don’t think they’ll be equal to the challenges of the future, or indeed survive them. Broadly, the three main currents of these ideologies are liberal capitalism (progress through private profit-seeking), conservative nationalism (progress through collective national assertion) and Marxism/socialism (progress through collective popular assertion by the working class). My view is a more tragic one: people organize to achieve progress and improvement, but in doing so they encounter insuperable dilemmas and unforeseen consequences of their actions that rarely deliver what they hoped or expected. This view, I acknowledge, leaves me searching rather lamely for sources of social renewal and justice. But I think it’s better to face this squarely, to accept that the renewal may not come as we would like, if at all, and that possibly it will come piecemeal as a poisoned chalice in the face of systemic breakdown and involve a lot of hard work on the farm and in the town hall, rather than clinging hopefully to the familiar modernist bromides of redemption through the market, or the nation, or through popular class assertion.

Although my view is tragic, it’s not nihilistic. I completely endorse the urge for improvement, and of the three progressive-modernist ideologies my sympathies slant heavily to socialism. I don’t share the progressive-modernist underpinnings, but I’d still like to reach out to many on the left who embrace them because we have much in common. I also think the more tragically-oriented peasant or agrarian populist tradition that I articulate in my book contains useful lessons for that project, but – while I’m grateful to H&H for recommending that people read the book – I suspect that many who absorb their broadside against it will conclude it’s scarcely worth the bother. Here, I’ll briefly plead the case that it might be worth the bother in relation to the three main dimensions of H&H’s critique: 1. capital, 2. class and 3. issues of gender, family and interpersonal coercion.

On capital, H&H accurately diagnose that I see the origins of capitalism largely as a product of interstate commercial competition and not so much as a product of rural class relations. My inspiration is more Immanuel Wallerstein than Robert Brenner. That is not at all the same as saying that rural class formation or class relations are unimportant, and I’ll come to that in a moment. But these commercial versus class accents do echo across many of the differences between my position and H&H’s. Frankly, I think they use their class emphasis to give themselves and their politics an easy ride, where the correct class following the correct politics is accorded privileged political agency as post-capitalist liberator. For my part, I don’t think any categories of workers or peasants can exempt themselves so easily from capitalist and state hegemony – but they do and will try, and this is a key plank to the politics in my book.

A different way of thinking about capital is as the embodied resources – which, in low energy agrarian societies, mostly means embodied human labour – in the farmed landscape. There is a lot of this embodied labour, even in apparently ‘simple’ societies, which non-farmers rarely notice. Whether capital is monetized or not, in every farming society, and in foraging societies too, a lot of nuanced attention is paid to who builds the capital, who draws from it and how this changes through time.

But H&H aren’t interested in this, and they scorn the idea that small-scale farmers might manage the complex flow of farm capital partly through commodity production or marketing while mitigating the dangers of market dependence through secure property tenure. A problem that many societies have had to wrestle with is that human collective organization easily generates a lot of capital that degrades the ecological base on which they ultimately rely. This, to say the least, is a major global problem today, and in my book I argue that a promising route for limiting capital formation is creating household-based farming oriented primarily to household needs. But even the most rudimentary household farm has to build some capital and direct its flow. H&H say nothing about how to either generate or limit such capital, and I think this fatally compromises their critique of my approach. In fact, with this omission they unwittingly open the door to the class differentiation they (and I) oppose.

Which brings us to class. One of H&H’s major charges against my book is that I fail to appreciate class differentiation in peasant societies, and they draw attention to various debates about this issue which they say I’ve neglected. In truth, I did cover some of these debates implicitly or explicitly, while trying to keep in mind that general readers of non-scholarly books are less interested in antique Marxist controversies than leftwing intellectuals might think. The most recent of the debates that H&H chastise me for ignoring flared nearly 50 years ago, and one reason I scarcely discuss them is that I’m not convinced of their centrality to the new epoch that’s upon us.

But actually – and this is something H&H completely miss – rural class differentiation and class conflict is key to my discussion in the later parts of the book. True, I don’t broadcast it with bold caps in the way that H&H would perhaps have liked me to, but I’d have thought that a reasonably attentive leftwing reading of my book would have picked up on this all the same. So, to clarify my position: IN THE FUTURE THERE WILL BE MANY SHARP CLASS CONFLICTS OVER ACCESS TO FARMLAND. I can’t foretell their outcome, but the small farm futures I write about in my book certainly won’t occur unless some of them are decided in favour of the cultivating/working classes. In my book I describe in very broad brushstrokes the circumstances in which that may just be possible (which pace H&H, won’t be ‘feudal’).

For their part, H&H want to tie future rural class conflicts to 19th century Eurasian ones and lament that I neglect the touchstone authors who described the latter: Lenin, Kautsky, Chayanov. Will the rural class conflicts of the future I anticipate in my book resemble these ones? Well, yes and no but mostly no, and I make it plain that my book is not about the peasant politics of the past (page 93). H&H make much of Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). As I see it, Lenin’s analysis was excessively concerned to shoehorn relations in the Russian countryside of that time into a Marxian dualism considerably more doctrinaire than Marx’s own, but inasmuch as it genuinely engaged with Russia’s rural scene it was in a context where well established peasantries were seeking leverage within an expanding and industrializing economy under the aegis of a strengthening state. The future situations I’m anticipating in my book, on the other hand, are where newly emerging and socially pre-differentiated peasantries are seeking leverage within a shrinking and deindustrializing economy under the weakening tutelage of a disintegrating state.

Lenin’s thoughts about 19th century Russia are really of little help in this situation. Nevertheless, I agree with H&H that there is potential for rural class differentiation in the neo-peasant societies to come, which is why I devote a lot of attention in my book to the means for preventing it. So it surprises me that on this issue H&H summon my doppelganger Ejams, and suggest he’s an enthusiast for rural landlordism. Smaje, however, most certainly isn’t: I make the avoidance of Ricardian rent key to the whole rural political economy of my book. H&H build their counter case by citing the one sentence in the entire book where I’m less than wholly negative about landlordism, a sentence addressed to a specific context where in fact landlords are pressured by the class power of cultivators, and even there I hedge it with caveats. This feeds my general sense that they have combed the book looking for ammunition rather than seeking more open engagement.

For sure, we can debate the pros and cons of different methods to avoid domination in the countryside and build thriving rural societies, and this has been the stuff of agrarian politics worldwide at levels of bewildering practical complexity throughout history. But H&H cut through all that with the single anecdotal example of a farm that’s co-run on cooperative lines by one of them, reportedly with great success. I can’t comment on this particular farm, about which I know nothing, but I can comment on numerous farms, cooperatives, community gardens, small businesses, intentional communities and marriages which I’ve seen fare less well, and almost always for the same reasons: beneath the patina of cooperation, somebody was carrying a burden of unrecognized labour, or there were disagreements over use of shared resources, or there was interpersonal domination.

Anecdotes aside, there’s a vast consultable history of agrarian societies that have carefully and unromantically, though never perfectly, thrashed out workable boundaries between family, private, common and public ownership, and I talk about this in some detail in my book. Here I think H&H should engage with rather than ignore this analysis and put some cards of their own on the table. Their implicit preference for sorting out the agrarian implications of such things as death, inheritance, in- or out-migration, divorce, neighbour disputes or commons disputes simply by talking it all through ad hoc on the farm or collectively in some ill-defined state space is the perfect recipe for creating class differentiation and landlordism over time. If they really want to make the case that it’s possible to create a renewable and harmonious agrarian society long-term on this basis, they need to provide a more nuanced description of how it works in practice.

I confess that my own brief outline of a republican politics of recognition and a public sphere in my book is only another step or two up the ladder of sophistication in this regard, and maybe indeed it’s a deus ex machina as H&H charge. But if so, I think it’s a more specific and promising one than two others that they lean on heavily themselves – unconflicted class identification, and somehow just sorting it all out collectively on or off the farm. H&H object to the concept of the public sphere, but happily invoke the resolving power of ‘democracy’, which seems a pretty similar move – though the difference between them is important, and I’ll discuss it in another essay which will also engage with their objections to ‘genocidal’ political quietism. For now, I’ll just observe that H&H dismiss the republican politics of recognition and the deeply grounded traditions of agrarian organization that I discuss in my book with simplistic and misleading labels: ‘liberal’, ‘petit bourgeois’. This is not an example of the nuanced and specific historical class analysis that Marxism at its best achieves. It’s vulgar determinism and name-calling.

One reason I don’t much engage in detailed class analysis is that it’s impossible to do it prospectively for future scenarios, except in the broadest of outlines that are sketched in my book. But what interests me more than sharp rural class conflicts is what happens after the sharpness has been blunted – how do people implement the peace and deal with the conflicts and frustrations, as well as the joys, of daily agrarian life? H&H have nothing to say about this beyond the exemplary presentation of Heffron’s own farm, I suspect because they’re only really interested in collective conflict, in this case between classes, and not in more particularistic kinds of conflict. In this way, their version of class politics greatly romanticizes the unifying power of class identification. And this kind of class politics has burdened communist history with appalling sorrow, because when the romance of unconflicted class identity sours, as it usually does, the vulgar determinism, the name-calling – ‘petit bourgeois’, ‘kulak’, ‘capitalist roader’ and so forth – incites violence that has more to do with class romanticism than class differentiation. In that respect, I find the Maoist threat lurking within H&H’s review title chilling.

But let me now turn to issues of gender, household, family and interpersonal domination. There’s much more I’d like to say about all this, and I probably will in future posts, but for brevity here I’ll stick to just a few main points.

H&H press my unpleasant doppelganger Ejams into heavy service in this section with some outrageous distortions of my argument. We’re told that Ejams thinks women shouldn’t be permitted to own property independently, that states should restrict family size, that there really are such things as ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’, and that women specifically rather than both women and men should content themselves with modestly furnishing their households. Well, Ejams might think such shocking things, but I can assure them that Smaje most certainly doesn’t. If these arguments truly existed in the book rather than in H&H’s imaginations I would have rightly been pilloried for them by other readers. Perhaps the fact that nobody else has read these absurd ideas into my argument should prompt some self-reflection in the two that have.

Here’s something that I do think: many societies will face tensions in the future between individual economic liberty and the need for households and political communities to orchestrate renewable ecologies, and there’s a danger that these tensions will be resolved to the disadvantage of women. To me it seems better to discuss this openly rather than simply shooting the messengers who draw attention to the problem. Again, while Alex Heffron’s farm may be exemplary in simultaneously achieving individual self-realisation and uncoerced collectivity as well as ecological equilibrium, H&H’s easy recourse to anecdotal examples like this does not suggest to me that they are thinking about these issues at all seriously.

In fact, it troubles me that H&H reserve such special scorn for family relationships, equating them with slavery. Of course it’s true that family relationships can be coercive, which is why I devote attention to this problem in my book. If H&H themselves have suffered from this, they have my sympathies. Alternatively, they might be drawing from a popular genre of radical writing about kinship that somewhat puzzles me – the kind where people in their private lives choose to engage in rich and complex, if often difficult, ongoing relationships with their own parents, siblings, children, or other relatives, to which they devote enormous energy, yet denounce it all as mere slavery and coercion when they’re at the writing desk. Either way, it would be useful for H&H to specify exactly what is coercive about family relationships and exactly how this is avoided in other kinds of relationships. Villages, nations, schools, charities, churches, collective farms, cooperatives, social services departments, children’s homes, trade unions and soviets can be coercive too.

Kinship is a persistent form of human organization that will certainly outlast the present modernist epoch of global politics, whereupon it may start to do more political work. Unquestionably, it has its downsides, which I wrestle with in my book and inevitably fail to resolve. The trap that H&H fall into is in supposing that, once they’ve somehow vanquished kin relations, other social relationships will be free of coercion and domination. It’s all very well to appoint themselves to the umpire’s chair and endlessly denounce me, or rather Ejams, for patriarchy. But eventually they’ll need to get down from the chair and start doing some wrestling themselves.

When they do, since I have no problem with non-family forms of small-scale farming, I’m sure there will be much in their vision that I’ll welcome. I did press the case specifically (but not exclusively) for family farming – but not patriarchal family farming – in my book because I felt the need to twist the stick in the other direction from the kind of prejudices against it on the left that are all too evident in H&H’s review, but I welcome visions for non-family based agrarianism, provided that they (a) address the issues of capital formation, capital limitation and capital flow I discussed above, (b) address the fact that domination in human relationships is not restricted to families and will stalk whatever alternative social relations are proposed, and (c) show an entry-level respect for non-domination by not seeking to prevent people from forming family groups and farming in them should they choose.

Finally, at the end of their review, H&H mention various agrarian institutions and organizations that inspire them, some of which surprise me. For example, they mention La Via Campesina, which has been criticized by Marxists for its ‘upper peasant’ politics – unfairly, in my opinion, but it’s odd that H&H give it a free pass in view of their heavy emphasis elsewhere on peasant differentiation. They also mention the Land Workers’ Alliance – of which I was a founding member – many of whose activists are family-based owner-occupiers of small commercial farms of the kind H&H find so problematic. They mention Sylvanaqua Farms in the USA, so presumably are inspired by its co-owner Chris Newman’s idea of raising US$50 million in private capital on a peer-to-peer basis to democratize farming in his area. Perhaps they could then explain why they have such a problem with my rather similar idea of an inheritance tax collected into local agricultural banking to prevent wealth concentration (and therefore landlordism), effectively a peer-to-peer capital raising scheme geared to transferring farming opportunities democratically from one generation to the next. So indeed, these are impressive organisations. But I’m baffled as to why H&H think they fit their own agrarian politics better than mine.

There are many other issues to contest in H&H’s summarizing of my book, and perhaps at some point it would be good to debate these with them, especially if they could refrain from trying to turn me at every opportunity into my reactionary doppelganger Ejams. But for now I’ll leave it there. I hope I’ve said enough to indicate that my book sees no panaceas in the traditions of small scale and family farming, but does find much to learn from them. And that there are no easy answers to the dilemmas of creating just and renewable post-capitalist societies.

51 thoughts on “No easy answers: a response to Alex Heffron and Kai Heron

  1. This conversation is a good example of the absolute utility I see in Dana Meadows’s “Envisioning a Sustainable World” ( and the deeper point that I take from it: there is a certain, and much more challenging rigor in trying to define and describe positive visions based on what we know of existing reality, than the comparatively easy rigor of deconstructing such proposals. Intellectuals, she says, have conflated critique and rigor, when they are certainly not the same thing.

    Parallel to this is the idea I’ve seen a couple of times of arguing with “a steel man”. That is, rather than the straw man fallacy – or even its closer kin of picking at the weakest point in an argument–I prefer the challenge and creativity of engaging with the “steel man” (or perhaps “steel person”) version of an argument – the strongest possible interpretation permitted by the text. And indeed, rather than attacking said steel person all the same, to try to figure out where the gentleperson’s rusty and jagged and empty spots are, and using one’s intellectual tools to figure out if it might be mended, or if one really does have to throw out the whole unwieldy cyborg at the center of this now hopelessly mixed metaphor.

    Thanks for, true to your farming and intellectual vocations, providing further very important food for thought – and an enlightening, pugnacious, response to that review!

    • And indeed, rather than attacking said steel person all the same, to try to figure out where the gentleperson’s rusty and jagged and empty spots are, and using one’s intellectual tools to figure out if it might be mended, or if one really does have to throw out the whole unwieldy cyborg at the center of this now hopelessly mixed metaphor.

      Oh how I wish I might have said something like this… (though I’d likely have passed over using ‘cyborg’). Especially fond of the notion of using one’s intellectual tools toward mending. Posing a steel person opposite a straw one… also something to chew on.

      As for mixing metaphors…. why not? Build them up, turn them about a little and have a good look. Not liking a particular bit? Edit, rewrite, reimagine it. I see nothing hopeless in the pursuit – just in resigning to failure too easily (or too early). Metaphors can be quite powerful. And imagination is their friend.

      Finally – Jahi… we haven’t seen your thoughts here of late… here’s hoping this isn’t an ongoing rarity.

      • Haha, thanks for the encouragement, Clem. I’m not likely to have the kind of time I… made… to read and comment on blogs as I did when I was an academic, or even my unintentionally brief time as a thinktank director. I hope to engage more deeply and regularly some time in the future, but I fear that time is probably not in the next couple months. Excited to be building something other than ideas and publications these days, but it takes a lot of a different kind of effort! (To see where I’m at these days:

    • Thanks for the Meadows link, Jahi, and for some memorable metaphors to inspire a more collaborative critical spirit.
      I must admit to feeling some gratitude to H&H – Smaje in fighting form is a glorious thing – but am also a bit disappointed that they don’t do a better job. ‘Petit bourgeois’ is a pretty weak hand-grenade.

      • Ha! Well said.

        The only thing I might like more than a ludicrous but apt metaphor or simile would be collaboratively building and mending… ideas, actual objects, relationships…

  2. I read their full review at Spectre, and since I am not a political theorist, I could not grasp what their alternative might be. You’ve been trying ( at least in my view) to envision a “softer” hard landing for western society while staying realistic about demonstrated human behavior and what is at least plausible. A narrow path, to be sure, but worth trying to generate a movement that might make it so.

    While I have not read all the authors you and H&H mention, I have read a bit, and see human nature demonstrated daily, so feel I have some handle on what is realistic and what is wishful thinking.

    Whether we’ll end up in a small farm future as described here, or in a communist arrangement (however that might work, they did not describe how that works) I think it will be determined in no small part by the path between here and there. As has been mentioned here before, there and many timelines where things get quite ugly, and may well close off more egalitarian options for centuries. Let’s not forget that there will still be plenty of weapons and resources and those happy to use them for personal agendas for quite a while.

    It still comes down to human nature, and our record is pretty spotty, to say the least. The enlightenment, and all it implies and has made possible could quite easily fade away. Human interaction, from immediate family to nation state and all in between will forever be at risk from our darker side ( communism’s track record doesn’t look any better than other patterns that I can see ). Trying to envision a land use pattern and social contract ( civic republicanism) that makes it harder for power to concentrate seems reasonable to me.

    As nation states’ ability to govern fades and statelets and autonomous regions develop, a wide variety of supersedure states may well emerge, so maybe we ( well, our descendants) will see which imagined futures actually happen and are desirable to live in.

    Lastly, I was surprised that if they’ve been following your blog, and are familiar with your work, that there was such a disconnect. I may be biased, but it felt like they had quite a large chip on their shoulder.

    • I wouldn’t characterize H&H as trolls. Even though I disagree heartily with much of their critique, it seems pretty clear to me that it was offered in good faith. Speaking of trolls, though, the eco-modernist arch-troll Leigh Phillips caught wind of the review and dropped in to the twitter conversation to heap scorn on H&H as well the journal that published them for deigning to review Chris’s book in the first place. He even dusted off the “you’re just like the Khmer Rouge” bit that Chris handily rebutted last December:

  3. Need a little help… at the end of the review at Spectre there is a brief bio of the authors. Therein is a description of Kai Heron as a “casualized academic”… which might mean a teacher not on a tenure track, a sort of academic casualty??

    Like Steve C – I’ve only read some (and seemingly very little in total) of the authors discussed above. But I do like a well reasoned and insightful debate.

    If no reply from H&H pops up in these pages, but does manifest elsewhere, I hope someone points us to it. And I’ll rest easily knowing Chris will continue to make his case.

  4. I suggest that H&H count up the worldwide historical number of family farms, the number of feudal farms and the number of egalitarian collective farms to get an idea of the probabilities for different farming structures in a post-collapse world. The odds of their preference happening (democratic communist farms) will be found to be close to zero.

    The Small Farm Future vision of our future is plausible and sounds quite enjoyable to me. It will be difficult to pull off, but far more likely than finding everyone living on an early-20th-century style kibbutz.

    Or they could just read Netting (Smallholders, Householders) to understand how traditional subsistence family farming really works. The evolution of political structures has to be grounded in the realities of human reproduction and calorie production/consumption. Family farms have been around for a long time with good reason.

    • Indeed, Alex Heffron’s farm is a self-described “family farm”.

      From the farm’s Facebook page:
      “We’re a small family farm…”

  5. Well, H&H come off as such soft-handed snobs I had to go read their review for myself.

    I am still unclear on how Heffron can be part of a family farm with thoughts that are so disconnected from reality.

    One of their sentences really explained it though:

    “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present. ”

    They are inspecting reality as Marxists, and are seeking the details that will affirm the outcome they consider mandatory. Naturally your book offends them.

    Anyone with a shred of intellectual integrity tries to understand what is happening, and to draw conclusions from that. If your Marxism doesn’t fit with reality, well then, it is a strange choice to continue to describe yourself as a Marxist.

    • lol ,, “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present. ”
      i suggest he looks at food production in the soviet union , up to 90% was grown on family plots outside the cities , they still produce 40% of their own food in the same way , Right now China’s city population lives on food sent from their families farms / garden plots out in the boonies .
      Ivory towers are wonderfull things that insulate from the real world , so are the echo chambers they snype from every now and then .

  6. Wow, well I guess I’m petite-bourgeois.

    I’ll second Steve C above about the sound of chip on the shoulder.
    And Ruben about the sound of “soft-handed snobs”.

    Though to be fair, I have known plenty of rough-handed snobs.

    I read the review.

    Funny, but when I am looking for someone to help me put up a fence, a person’s focus on identity politics and Marxist analysis will not be what I ask them about.

    And how exactly does living the good (or virtuous) life on a “basis in the material conditions of struggle” differ from what they accuse Chris of – suggesting that he would have people “eke out a living rather than to truly live”?

    I got confused about how H&H were defining “capitalism”. It sounded as if private property ownership fell under their definition. As if “capitalism” is a general purpose swear word. I’m fine with that, but it doesn’t make for a very clear argument.

    I loved the phrase “Disaster Feudalism”

    The bit about there being “nothing unique about the family unit that ensures a long-term stake in the well-being of the farm.” That’s crazy. One word: children.

    When H&H say that “a lot rests on the public sphere” in Chris’ small farm future, I say yes. That is what we do in society. We rest our well-being on the public sphere. Isn’t that why we have societies in the first place?

    As for patriarchy, I haven’t gotten that far in Chris’ book yet, so I don’t know whether he sounds like a patriarchist or not. We’ll see.

    But I will say this: I believe that our species evolved, and lived for much the majority of our time here in communal and egalitarian societies. I believe a social organization of that type, and equitable sharing of wealth is a basic requirement for “flourishing” as humans.

    I am not a Marxist, even though I believe Marx accurately diagnosed much of the evil of the industrial economy. I may believe a bunch of “communist” stuff, but I won’t be called a Communist, because the people who would want to call me that have no idea what they are talking about.

    I believe that our societies need to be equitable to everyone, no matter how they identify themselves, but when I hear talk about repression of minorities, I will nod and ask “But what do you want me to do?”

    And talk of “struggle” just makes me cringe.

    Thanks all.

  7. Thank you all for the supportive comments. I probably shouldn’t have taken the review so seriously but… Certainly, H&H aren’t trolls, though Ernie’s remark that it was a good faith review seems generous. I do feel the need to put on record my objection to some of their more outrageous distortions.

    Nice framing from Jahi … thank you! I’ve certainly been guilty in the past of going for the easy critique, but Jahi’s comment steadies me on the path I now want to follow of building up rather than knocking down wherever I can. If we’re going to build a just and congenial future, there’s quite a bit of knocking down of the present state of things that we’ll need to do, so knocking down things we don’t have to is best avoided. My sense is that a lot of younger people are looking again to Marx, and rightly so given the relevance of much of his thought to present times. It would be a shame, though, if they import into the renaissance all the reasons why Marxism was eclipsed, and I get a definite sense of that in H&H’s thinking … plus indeed the wishful thinking that Ruben mentions. Engaging with ideas of property and kin is kryptonite for some on the left, unfortunately, but it needs to be done. The wishful thinking in my book on how to mitigate their negatives is implausible enough without going into full abolition mode … which if previous communist history is anything to go by might prove a cure worse than the disease.

    Finally, thanks Ernie – well sort of – for the heads up on Leigh Phillips. I also mention the Maoist/Khmer Rouge jibe on p.207 of the book. Leigh’s ability to build an apparently successful career as a public intellectual on the basis of such minimal intellectual engagement is another plumbline measuring the depth of the hole that we’re in.

    • Perhaps “good faith” was, indeed, too generous. Had I written that reply a little later in the evening, after a brief exchange with Kai Heron on Twitter, I probably wouldn’t have gone that far. The exchange was amicable, but it made it abundantly clear that, as his response to your response had already signaled, he’s going to read your book as a defense of “the ‘traditional’ bourgeois family unit” and, more broadly, “bourgeois” politics, no matter what you actually wrote on the pages.

  8. Ernie found Heron’s Twitter reply and provided the link above. And thanks for that. But I’m not much for Twitter, don’t have an account, and not likely to get one. I find the platform problematic on a couple fronts… and the proscription to 140 characters seems to lead my list.

    So there are cutesy little messages one can shout to the world in less than 140 characters. That I can appreciate. But engaging in a meaningful discussion, not so much.

    If a metaphor could serve – the Heron Twitter response seemed to me something like a person with a complaint turning away and muttering under his breath.

    With over 7 billion people living with us on the planet right now we’re not going to find every one of us agreeing on every matter before us. Even tough I like quite a bit of what I’ve read thus far in Chris’ book – most here know I do have my quibbles with some of his views. We can share our disparate opinions and find common ground for some, and agree to disagree on others. That, for me at least, is community. And just like the title Chris chose for this particular post: No Easy Answers.

    If a Twitter response is all H&H have to offer, then I’m disappointed. And if there is no better forum to hand – well, to Chris’ point above… they could write their own book and lay their cards on the table. And imagine the review(s) they might get.

  9. Hey Clem, you can write 280 characters on Twitter now – almost enough for the great American novel! Agree though that debating on Twitter is the pits. And its psychology of likes and retweets is dangerous…

    I’ve tried not to follow further online repercussions, as I’ll probably just get annoyed all over again. My initial interactions with H&H were positive and they seemed to like my writing on the blog … indeed it’s a bit odd as Steve said above that they liked the blog and not the book, because the one feeds directly into the other. I’ve tried to take my leave on amicable terms with them, but I’m too far from them both politically and in basic trust to engage further.

    I think Clem’s point above about agreeing to disagree is extremely important politically, and I’ll be writing more about it presently.

  10. …just to add, the chapter in the book that offended them the most was Chapter 12 (pp.165-172) if anyone wants to take a look and feed back…

    However I look at it, it seems to me it needs a bad faith interpretation to see this chapter as a patriarchal rather than an anti-patriarchal argument. And I think the otherwise very positive reactions to the book bear that out. However, looking at it again, I think I could probably have set out my stall around ‘family’ farming a bit better in the book. I’ll try to do that in a later post. It kind of underscores Jahi’s point – we could have had a constructive discussion about what’s missing or problematic in the argument if we could have started from a good faith engagement.

    And talking of what’s missing … one issue is that we cut, ahem, about 40,000 words out of the original draft MS pretty quickly, so a lot of further explication hit the cutting floor. H&H repeatedly accuse me of not covering this or that issue adequately – they’ll be in need of a timid editor when they come to write their book 🙂

  11. I’ve found this discussion challenging in some ways, as I’m a committed follower of SFF on the one hand, but also have some sympathy with some elements of H&H’s politics on the other (and, it turned out, I already followed one of them on Twitter). Also, I find the new confidence of the Left in the UK encouraging, but in a crowd that seems at times to be dominated by fully automated luxury communists, it’s quote refreshing to find others whose focus is on the revitalisation of agriculture.

    So I find myself agreeing with Chris and with H&H at different points. That said, I do appreciate Chris’s frustration with the way H&H have sought to impose labels on him that he would clearly contest, even if they think he’s missing something. Even so, if there’s even a little good faith available on either side, it would be positive to hope that this encounter does not simply end in two parties going their separate ways despite the agrarian Leftism they share. We need all the alliances we can get!

    I do also think that there are more points of contact between the two positions than is at first apparent, partly obscured by differences in terminology. There is a disagreement over the meaning of ‘capital’, and I think H&H wish to use it in a more restrictive sense, to describe assets that promote the cycles of accumulation that define capitalism – there can be no capital without capitalism. Chris’s definition does seem to hold out the notion of ‘capital’ without capitalism, as developed resources or capacities that enable production. H&H may bridle at this, but at the root, both sides appear to favour farmers who do not seek capital accumulation as an end in itself – i.e. capitalism.

    The disagreement seems to centre more on the dangers of such an attitude emerging among our small farmers of the future. I get the ‘petit bourgeoise’ label used by H&H, it’s a useful shorthand – the idea that a society structured around the guarantee of private property rights and without sufficient regulation will have a tendency to encourage accumulative desires in those who hold such property. But the devil is in the definition, and the way that private property and socio-economic regulation can exist in a kind of ‘dialectical’ relationship (just trying to establish some Marxist credentials…).

    I feel that there could be a really interesting discussion here concerning the nature of landed property in a society in which sale and inheritance are closely regulated, which is what I think Chris is describing. Many capitalists would feel that such ‘restrictions’ empty a lot of meaning from the word ‘property’. Moreover, the nature of the authority that guarantees both the security of landed tenure and the restrictions against its use as a capitalist asset is crucial here – and perhaps understandably vague in the book. It could be some remnant of the kind of state we’re familiar with, but equally it might be some more local or regional entity, far more democratically structured than currently, in which case it might start looking more like the kinds of ‘collective’ entities that H&H have in their sights. None of these details are clear to me (or perhaps any of us?), but discussing them could be incredibly productive.

    Finally, ‘families’. I would disagree with Eric F and instead agree that in theory there is ‘nothing unique about the family unit that ensures a long-term stake in the well-being of the farm’, as long as ‘long-term’ is understood on the scale of one human lifetime, rather than generations – after all, we’ve already established the necessity of regulating inheritance. The traditional husband-wife relationship may be socially sanctified by marriage, but pragmatically it’s a relationship between two people usually not too closely related that has to be worked at over time, so just like most kinds of less conventional relationship. Perhaps Chris should have used ‘household’ rather than ‘family’, to avoid dog-whistling patriarchy to those who might hear it – whatever, I don’t think Chris would be dogmatic about the precise composition of the household, the farming unit so to speak, as long as the commitment is there. The important attribute is the ‘small’ part, surely.

    So plenty of frustrations in this encounter, and some understandable grievances, but also various opportunities to bridge the apparent gaps in my view. There may come a time when all those of similar mind need to stick together…

    • “Perhaps Chris should have used ‘household’ rather than ‘family’…”

      I re-read part of the book last night, and found this clarification from Chris (on page 171):

      “Hence I submit a gender-neutral plea for husbandwomen and husbandmen to build a house, dwell in it and cultivate around it — whether alone, with same-sex or opposite-sex partners, or in groups. Household farming.”

      After re-reading what was actually written in that chapter, and seeing the continued accusations made on Twitter (following the attempted clarifications from Chris), I think I’ve learnt more about H&H than about the views they hold.

      • Looks like you beat me to the punch, Steve — I should have checked back before posting my comment (below). As you say, the Twitter follow-up has been revealing (and deeply disappointing).

      • Good quote Steve.

        Twitter is definitely not the best medium for this kind of discussion, as I think it encourages an obsession with petty points of difference at the expense of larger fields.

        Equally, I think most writing reveals much about the author, who is in some sense inseparable from the views they hold. There might be an opportunity here for building dialogue, and it would be a shame to see it pass.

    • The fact that eco-modernists Leigh Phillips and Matt Huber dropped in to the Twitter discussion around the review to dismiss H&H as, themselves, neo-feudalists who “desire to abandon industrial society” (link below) speaks to your point, Andrew, about shared ground. H&H recognize this to some extent, but the (mis)perceived differences would seem to make any real accord undesirable for them (at least, I should say, for Heron, who’s done most of the tweeting). What I find especially frustrating about H&H’s presentation of these (mis)perceived differences (i.e. that A Small Farm Future amounts to a defense of the traditional, bourgeois, patriarchal family unit, to get all the big, nasty words in there) is that they’re prepared to brush away explicit statements to the contrary in the text, like this one…

      “…I submit a gender neutral plea for husbandwomen and husbandmen to build a house, dwell in it and cultivate around it — whether alone, with same-sex or opposite sex partners, or in groups. Household farming.” (171)

      …which is pretty much exactly what you suggest that Chris, perhaps, should have done in your penultimate paragraph. If that’s not enough for them to, at the very least, extend Chris the benefit of the doubt, I’m really not sure what would be.

      • All good points Ernie, but perhaps the discourse might yet improve. I honestly think dialogue would be the most productive way forward, although I have a lot of sympathy with the difficulties.

  12. Oh, great, a bunch of men discussing patriarchy! Sigh.

    To me, from memory and one reading some weeks ago now, your book did not come across as endorsing patriarchal oppression. A little more recognition that patriarchy still has a lot of power might not have gone amiss (look at, e.g., domestic violence statistics even in the affluent West), but not having a clear solution for a problem is not the same as being in favour of the problem.

    That said — I don’t think large extended families need always be oppressive and patriarchal; and I suspect the ways in which they observably are so under global crapitalism are more to do with the crapitalism part than the large extended family part. This is entirely conjecture on my part, but it seems to me that if the only means of survival/subsistence is engagement with the global market, then anyone who successfully sets themselves up as an intermediary between the market and other workers can oppress and exploit people. In western crapitalism the feminist response to this has been to encourage women to engage directly with the market (moving to salaried or wage labour from “unpaid” but necessary household labour), and I think this has also been driven by increases in cost of living and the shrinking of that part of the middle class where it’s possible to have only one partner take on paid work; but another approach would be to seek greater autonomy from the market for everyone, and this seems to me to be closer to the vision you are aiming for.

    Off on a tangent, here:

    I have only had tastes of this sort of freedom, myself, and only from a position of relative privilege: my spouse earns enough to keep us both in reasonable comfort, leaving me free to work on a PhD, try to build soil (and grow vegetables) at the allotment instead of purchasing all our food from a supermarket, and mend (some of) my own clothes instead of relying on fast fashion. I would certainly have less autonomy than I do now without his support! And yet — if he were to withdraw his support (or die of the ‘rona or something), I would still be left with more autonomy and security than if I did not grow some of my own food and mend some of my clothes. No matter how much money my spouse earns, I cannot eat money. The allotment costs under three figures per year. If I get people to pay me for raking their leaves and taking them away to make leaf-mould (instead of rounding up bags of leaves from the street, which I have been doing this year), the allotment will bring a profit (without me selling the veg, which isn’t allowed). The cost of darning a jumper is tiny compared to buying a new one, even through fast fashion. You could argue that if you add in the cost of my labour, these things are expensive. But doing them isn’t taking time away from some well-paid job or even a minimum wage gig. The market doesn’t value my professional skills all that much.

    It so happens that of the two of us, he has the skills that are more highly valued in the current market, so he does the paid work. That is impossible to untangle fully from the patriarchal system that taught him computer programming and me music. But it doesn’t mean I am oppressed by him: rather, we are both constrained in our choices by the market, and we work together to make the best of our context. Everything we can do to gain autonomy from that market (while engaging enough not to have to make darning needles from scratch, thank you very much, or eat nothing but beans, squash, cabbages and potatoes all winter) gives us *both* greater freedom and resilience.

    I don’t like crapitalism much, as you can probably tell from my silly spelling. But I don’t want to overthrow it; revolutions tend to go badly for a lot of people. Instead I hope to, I don’t know… render it less harmful, less tyrannical, by finding other ways to meet our primary needs. This is worthwhile even if it is only partially successful.

    Perhaps I, too, am simply projecting my own assumptions onto your book. But I still don’t think you were endorsing patriarchy. There is much work yet to do in changing our society to a more equitable one; my impression is that your book was not denying this, but pointing out the context in which we might need to do the work.

  13. Thanks for the interesting discussion. A few comments, mostly by way of placeholders for future blog posts.

    First, thanks Kathryn – a bunch of men talking about patriarchy … ouch, but also yes, quite. A few years back on this blog I was debating golden rice and it was basically a bunch of rich westerners arguing over who cared more about the global poor. It felt wrong, and since then I’ve tried to avoid these kinds of discussions. Inevitably, people see things or fail to see things through the lens of their social positioning, and I’m open to being called out by others when they think I’m doing this, and doing the same myself.

    But I think it’s good to assume good faith rather than a dubious hidden politics, unless the politics are openly dubious – and that was the spirit in which Kathryn has engaged with my writing. Whereas with H&H … well, not so much. So while I think Andrew is right that there are many overlaps in our positions that we could potentially explore, I suspect we may not be destined to explore them with each other.

    Regarding families & households, just as Steve & Ernie say – I think a good faith interpretation of what I actually wrote in Chapter 12 is hard to reconcile with any dog whistle to patriarchal family forms. But there are important complexities about the relationships between families, households and wider politics – and they knock on into complexities about property ownership and welfare. I’ll aim to say more about these things in future posts. In my book I basically argue for land to be surrendered at death and not inherited, in order to prevent hierarchy and landlordism from emerging. That will only happen if people have strong faith in the wider political field that it’s on their side. This seems quite unlikely in the future world that’s upon us, but the whole point of the politics I outline in the book is to construe some situations in which it might be possible. I think H&H have completely missed this.

    Regarding ‘extended families’ (a term I try to avoid, because it implies normative privilege to some more basic ‘non-extended’ unit), the problems I have in mind in relation to patriarchy are castes and patrilineages. There are some big complexities here and again I’ll try to address them in another post. Again, also, I think H&H’s accusation that I’m being ethnocentric on this point misses its target. It’s a serious issue in situations of economic contraction and state weakness, which may be upon us.

    And so … state weakness. Andrew is spot on about the need for a discussion of the political field in which all of this kin, household, farming, capital formation & limitation etc stuff is occurring. I do discuss it in the book, but I think H&H’s intervention underlines the need for more discussion and clarification of it, which again I’ll try to do in future posts. IMO Carwyn Graves’s and Dave Darby’s reviews of my book are more to the point on some of the difficulties here than H&H. I’m keen to get into this issue, but I think it must wait its turn.

    Regarding terminologies, generalization is necessary in social science and political thought, but it’s useful to ask what’s lost from the generalizations we choose and where to draw the lines. If people want to attach the labels ‘bourgeois’ or ‘petit bourgeois’ to my arguments about small scale farming, land dynamics and household composition in the future and thereby dismiss them, well fine – I’ll bid them good day, hope they never attain political power and answer those questions thus: a lot, and somewhere else.

    But one point of self-criticism this brouhaha has raised for me is that I think I should have scoped the nature of the future I was describing in the book a bit more clearly. What I think will happen, or what I’d like to happen? The near future, as the contours of our present world dissolve, or some more distant future where people have worked through some of those contradictions? And other such questions. I do touch on them in the book, but maybe not clearly enough. More posts needed, then…

  14. Just to add, I’m currently reading Eve Rodsky’s very informative book ‘Fair Play’, which seems to be aimed mainly at women in long-term relationships with men, especially ones involving young kids. But I’d thoroughly recommend it to men who are in long-term relationships with women, whether with kids or not. And I’d be interested to know what resonances it might or might not have with people who are in same sex domestic relationships.

    I think Rodsky’s observations about the often hidden inequalities in domestic relationships and the ways to address them also speak powerfully to the issues I discuss in my book about commons and intentional communities – when they work and when they don’t – and all of it is very relevant to this discussion.

  15. There has certainly been quantities of blood spilled over the property question, so it’s a scary one to wade into.
    I have my prejudices, of course, having spent the last twenty years building up a petit fiefdom of leased and owned pastures for the (extended family) ranch, and can expect to spend the next twenty years worrying about making substantial monthly payments on those pasture mortgages and leases. I should mention that the pastures that we have bought have all been from absentee corporate landlords, so there is quite a bit of re-localizing, building local autonomies, and even de-colonization that is happening within my little project of fiefdom building. Mostly our motivation to commit to long-term debt peonage is to forestall the land from being converted into “ranchette lots with sweeping coastal views.”
    What is the property regime that will provide the best outcomes in the long run? Probably it is not fiefdom building. But at this point in time there aren’t many collectives that I would necessarily entrust with making good, sober long-term land use decisions either. So I guess the question is: how do we build those collectives/organizations/public entities that we could reasonably entrust with making sound land use decisions for long-term social and ecological flourishing? I would say that they need to be a lot less patriarchal. A lot less anthropocentric. A lot less capitalist. A lot more egalitarian. A lot more holistic. All that good stuff. Which is something I would also be delighted to spend however many years I have left helping to construct. In my spare time from the fiefdom building. 🙂

    • Thanks for that Michelle. Fascinating.

      Fiefdom building… I have a sense you’re not totally on board with the phrase, but it serves in the moment? Where I imagine your heart is headed is in taking your own values and sweat and approaching conditions on the ground to make a difference. And I have to applaud that. Lead by example.

      Next I’m left to wonder how this vision of local stewardship fits with longer term realities. Who will come next for these parcels of land when Michelle no longer rules the roost?

      I’ve not yet arrived at the page in Chris’ book where he discusses this:
      In my book I basically argue for land to be surrendered at death and not inherited, in order to prevent hierarchy and landlordism from emerging

      Perhaps his discussion around this point is helpful, but at the moment I’m trying to find a path where someone can feel assured the difficulties they struggle through for the land might survive their mortal existence. Children raised on the land and with the tutelage of caring parents seem excellent candidates to accept the responsibility of continued stewardship, no? So I’m less appalled by inheritance than by landlordism. And I’m not convinced the first automatically produces the second.

      • “I’m less appalled by inheritance than by landlordism.”

        A link between them does exist. In the USA, more than half of the cropland is rented. 80% of all rented farmland is owned by non-operator landlords, who benefit more from inheritance than the operator landowners.

        “Non-operator landlords are more likely than operator landowners to acquire land through inheritance. Operator landowners acquired over 50 percent of their owned land through a purchase from a nonrelative, while
        non-operating landlords acquired over 50 percent through an inheritance or gift.”

      • ‘Children raised on the land and with the tutelage of caring parents seem excellent candidates to accept the responsibility of continued stewardship, no?‘

        Maybe. But what if there’s more than one child who wants to take this on, each of them hoping to accommodate their own household on the land the way their parents did? Such issues are likely to put stresses on families long before one or both parents have retired or died. There may be some local opportunity to resolve the issue, or there may not. Equally, an only child may feel pressure to take on their parent’s holding when they’d rather not.

        All these situations could be relieved if land was not automatically inherited, and instead some equitable mechanism found for each aspiring farmer to acquire a holding outside of family politics. The nature of this mechanism? I think this is where the discussion gets interesting…

  16. Did I miss the announcement??
    At the risk of repeating someone… next Wednesday, the 9th of December, there’s to be a web… well – here:

    One of the groups to present is the Ecological Land COOP. One of the board members of the ELC is a scythe bearing chap, a former casualized academic, and now a self-described self-employed writer. He’s been known to haunt this space.

    If the ‘tickets’ bit is off-putting, I’m persuaded it is actually free – (but needs registering?)

  17. An interesting crop of new comments. Just a few more general thoughts:

    Michelle writes: A lot less patriarchal. A lot less anthropocentric. A lot less capitalist. A lot more egalitarian. A lot more holistic.

    Amen to that, and I’m keen to take part in discussions about how to move it forward. All of these are key framings for my book. I guess H&H would probably agree with Michelle’s list too. But when they choose to position me as pro patriarchy, pro capital, pro inequality etc it gets difficult to engage. In any case, as I blog my way through the book in future posts I want to address each of Michelle’s five points.

    Talking of engagement – Andrew, I have a lot of respect for your thinking, but I’m scratching my head a little trying to see the positives in H&H’s review that you do. There’s certainly an interesting discussion to be had about the wider political field, but they kind of close it down with the ‘liberal’ tag. Hopefully I can discuss it with you and others here. Their gender stuff is flagrant misrepresentation, but what to make of the ‘petit bourgeois’ tag? I’m with Michelle in seeing it as a weak hand-grenade, not a useful transhistorical analytical category. But I’d welcome your thoughts.

    Then communism … most successful communist revolutions were delivered by peasantries – not proletarians – but I’d argue their communism usually differed from orthodox Marxist versions, not least in the way that it didn’t consider kinship a ‘bourgeois institution’. Something to discuss?

    Next, to Clem and inheritance. Yeah, I don’t really like the idea of breaking generational links to farmland either, though it’s happened often enough in small farm history. But inheritance does tend to build up inequality over time. So much of agrarian life historically geared to building up a small bequest and dodging the routes to servitude. Meanwhile, something like 30% of land in England is still owned in aristocratic lineages, many descended from the Norman conquerors of nearly a millennium ago (this nugget by the way is from Guy Shrubsole’s book ‘Who Owns England?’ – I’m doing a panel with Guy and Elise Wach on these issues at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January, if anyone’s interested). So … much also to discuss here on how to maintain fairness over generations.

    Thanks Clem for the Ecological Land Co-op shout out. Well there’s an interesting model to debate, perhaps alongside Michelle’s approach. I didn’t have much room to discuss all this in the book, but the relevant discussion is in the section of Chapter 13 called ‘Usufruct and the Small Proprietor’ (pp.185-189). Again, I’d humbly request folks read that section and then make up their own minds as to whether I’m truly a supporter of parasitic landlordism, as some suggest…

    Finally, indeed it’s nice to see you here again Jahi. I hope you’ll visit again when your workload eases!

    • Having looked back at my earlier comment, I think the issue is partly resolved by clarification. I said I ‘got’ the petit bourgeoise tag, but I didn’t mean that I thought it could be used appropriately to describe your argument. There had been a little light scoffing at the use of the term in earlier comments and I simply meant that I found the term meaningful.

      I don’t see it as a transhistorical category, but I think it’s useful as a way of thinking about the grey area between ‘subsistence‘ and ‘capitalist‘ behaviour in a specifically capitalist society, because it raises questions about motivations behind the accumulation and use of resources. At what point does one stop aiming simply to maintain and reproduce one’s household year after year and start to accumulate for accumulation’s sake? When does the logic of sufficiency become the logic of ‘just a little bit more’? In a society that actively encourages the latter it can be hard to maintain the former.

      If society is to continue to guarantee private property in some sense then I think focusing on these questions is important, because an important task, at least initially, will be guarding against the emergence of petit bourgeoise behaviour. In that, I’m agreeing with where H&H focus their concerns, but I think I’m also agreeing with you, as you explicitly propose ways of limiting the treatment of land as a capitalist asset. Are they enough? I don’t know – I’m sure you’d be open to considering additional measures.

      My frustration here is that H&H don’t see such measures as in any way alleviating their concerns, as if the very existence of private property makes a trend towards petit bourgeoisery inevitable, and not amenable to restriction. My own hunch, however, is that the kind of collectives they prefer (and which remain undefined for the moment), might actually look functionally very similar to the regulatory authorities you would need to ensure restrictions on turning land into a capitalist asset.

      So I think that you and H&H are working on similar projects, but in different modes. I think you’re right about H&H shutting down engagement by essentially insisting that you are inevitably trapped by the system you are clearly trying to transcend. It’s a real shame. Equally, I believe that you and they are heading in similar directions, so I’ll keep tabs on their work as well, and see what their collectives are about.

      Incidentally, I think this is the first post I’ve commented on since finishing your book, so let me congratulate you on an inspiring read. I’m looking forward to delving deeper in the coming months!

  18. Andrew, thanks for a thought-provoking and clarifying response. A few comments:

    Agreed, there’s always a danger that ideologies of ‘a little bit more’ will take hold. But this danger isn’t restricted to private ownership, as we surely know from the history of extractive and industrializing communist regimes acting essentially as parasitic meta-landlords. In theory this product was collectively owned by ‘the people’, and of course some of it did ‘trickle down’ again. But product also trickles down in capitalist societies. In my opinion, the trickle is scarcely worth the candle in either instance. What’s really frustrating about H&H is their dogmatism around ‘private bad, collective good’. As I say above, there’s a vast consultable history of small farm societies developing simultaneously private, common and public forms of ownership. The ELC is a contemporary example along similar lines. It’s very important to be discussing the complexities in all of this, and if I were a better man perhaps I’d try to engage with the sort of people who just want to pigeonhole me as a primitivist, peasant romanticist, petit bourgeois or whatever. Sorry to say, I just don’t have the patience. Ultimately, I think all of this becomes less an issue of class or economic ideology and more one of cosmology … though the link between these is important. I broach these issues in Chapter 16 of the book, on which H&H are (‘tellingly’, to use their word) silent. The fact that they dismiss my approach as one where people will be miserably eking out a subsistence living doesn’t suggest to me they’ve staked out a convincing position against the problem of ‘a litte bit more’.

    Talking of petit bourgeois, this is an interesting one as a matter of real, historically-grounded class identity. At one level, for sure we can talk about the stereotype of the petty-minded, penny-pinching, self-interested small-time farmer or shopkeeper. But as I see it, such people aren’t the real culprits behind the capitalist revolution, and much of what’s reprehensible in their worldview comes precisely from their loss and marginalization as a result of it. It kind of touches on recent discussions here about support for Trump vs Biden. It also underlines the need for me to discuss the origins of capitalism and why it still matters – Brenner vs Wallerstein and so on – which probably underlies a big part of the gulf between me and H&H, and I’ll try to do that soon. The debate also touches on the ambiguous role of the state, on which I also hope to comment in more detail in due course.

    Negative stereotypes of the petit bourgeoisie easily miss the numerous ways in which rural and small town folks help and support each other in ways that can be ecologically limiting (and socially supportive, albeit with qualifications). Again, there’s much worth discussing here for those able to move beyond the stereotypes. Looking forward to discussing it more with you!

    To Clem’s point, while I agree with Andrew that inheritance raises many problems, I also agree with Clem’s “Children raised on the land and with the tutelage of caring parents seem excellent candidates to accept the responsibility of continued stewardship”. So I want to highlight the tension there for future discussion.

    • Thanks Chris, much that I can agree with there, and some exciting foreshadowing of things to come!

      Just two points, complementary to your thoughts I think. First, I agree that ‘private bad, collective good’ is an unhelpful dogma, and I would stress again the dialectical relationship between the two. The privateness of property is always in some kind of mutually constitutive relationship with the collective arrangements that guarantee it. So property protected by some form of law and shares held in some form of collective need not be at opposite ends of a spectrum, or even that different from each other.

      Second, I think you’re right to highlight the dangers of wielding the ‘petit bourgeoise’ label as a stereotype, and I would certainly regard that as a misuse of the concept. I find Marxist thinking most interesting when it outlines tendencies, not prophecies. The purpose of the concept should not be to label and persecute, but to highlight possibilities, to allow us to see the dangers that might lie in wait, and so seek to avoid them. Happily, that also seems to be the purpose of this blog!

  19. Thanks to Steve L for the USDA link. I’ve seen similar data in the past, and this one reflects continuing concentrations of land-lordship for US farmland (particularly for grain crops – annuals – which have been subjects of intense discussion here).

    We could in the same vein consider the inheritance of other business enterprises – particularly the smaller and very local shops such as a black smith, cooper, miller, etc. Land as a resource does have its special concerns, but the other issues mentioned above (by Steve L and Andrew) are salient for other business enterprises. Only child, or multiple children with like interest… these family dynamics are real and important – and are issues in family business other than farming. There is considerable research and modeling concerning the transfer of businesses across generations.

    Another social phenomena not yet mentioned here is the jealousy of inherited resource vs. resources earned by oneself. Historical methods of inter-generational resource transfer have also been widely studied. Here there are intrafamilial issues of birth order, and gender that prescribe how heirs are treated. And I’ll agree that these matters can be quite contentious.

    But it is my sense that land-lordship is not caused by inheritance. Any linkages between the two seem to me more facilitated by the ‘a little bit more’ tendency we’ve been mentioning here. Over the course of evolution, nature seems to have favored the security and resilience of those individuals who have procured for themselves and their progeny – just a little bit more. We might have the means to build a society that can quell this natural tendency, but it won’t be simple.

    At a field level, boots on the ground so to speak, I think this matters for the motivations for stewardship principles that are not immediately required for a task at hand. One can plant, care for, and then pull the carrots without going the extra mile to sow a cover crop, or keep the compost coming. Long term care pays off, but long term care isn’t likely coming from someone with a short term horizon.

  20. Thanks for further comments, Clem & Andrew – exactly the kind of debate we need to be having more widely.

    Regarding inheritance, yes it’s (largely) the wider political field within which it’s framed that’s decisive, and the precise details of this are important … another reason why totalizing categories of public & private mislead, as analyzed in my book. All the same, there’s a particular problem with land inasmuch as it’s non-expandable. So in a village small-farming situation, a blacksmith who tries to extract significant economic rent will probably soon find themselves in competition with another one, whereas a landowner or landowning family that builds up a sizeable portfolio of local land will not – or at least not with smaller-scale landowners or cultivators from whom rent can then be extracted. Therefore family inheritance of a blacksmith business is less troubling to economic justice than family inheritance of land.

    The other side of this coin that I touch on only in passing in the book are instances of heritable small-scale family landownership that are preserved as a hedge precisely against the economic rent charged in the wider local or global economy.

    Incentivising good long-term land stewardship is definitely an important issue, and inheritance is one way of trying to do it – though perhaps not the only way. In that connection, an interesting question arises that again I’d like to discuss more in future – have present generations been good long-term stewards of the land, and the Earth? If not, why – and with what implications?

    If anyone would care to share interesting links or reports concerning inheritance of farmland and other economic resources, I’d be keen to see them.

    What I’d give for us to be able to have this kind of discussion more broadly, instead of all the brainless ‘primitivist’ or ‘petit bourgeois’ shutdowns…

    • Land is non-expandable, as Chris says, and farmland ownership has a low turnover rate — only about 2% is being transferred per year in the USA, and only 25% of these farmland transfers are being done on the open market (most change hands though gifts, wills, trusts, and sales to family members).

      American Farmland Trust (AFT) “projected ownership of 40 percent of the 48 states’ 991 million farm and ranch acres will change hands from 2015 to about 2035. Annually, farmland transfers will average only about 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, says AFT. Further, among the acres to be transferred, the majority are likely to change hands via private transactions such as gifts, wills, or trusts, and another 14 percent to be sold between family members. So, AFT says that leaves only about 25 percent being sold in any open market fashion, which translates to well under 1 percent of all U.S. farmland.”

      Because of changes to the federal estate and gift taxes, “There is really a strong disincentive now to transfer any appreciated asset, including farmland, during your lifetime, either by gift or by selling it,” Cosgrove said. That deterrent may provoke a new surge in total farmland owned entities such as trusts, estates, corporations (usually family corporations), versus those owned by individuals or joint tenancy of farm couples. The tally for those entities has risen steadily, virtually doubling from 72,063 in 1982 to 142,370 in 2012, while the total number of farms declined…”

    • Thanks all for such an engaging conversation!
      This is a great service to we far-flung digital public, and very rare on the internet, in my experience.

      This discussion of ownership and inheritance, in my view, cuts to the heart of the dysfunction of our Western world.

      I think all of the views expressed here on this topic are useful, and what they add up to in my opinion, is that we need to develop a better sense of ‘ownership’.

      This is not a small thing.
      What I first imagined was that ownership of land could be more like a leasehold, where the farm family owned the right to use land, but the main title resided with some community or village authority. But we have had all manner of contractual arrangements like that, and all of them are possible to game for personal profit, or cause disputes in transition.

      So I believe what is needed is a change of our minds. We must change our values such that the health of the land and the health of our communities are at least as important as our personal gain. This is possible, and we have evidence of cultures who have succeeded at it. But such a societal mindset is very different from what most of us have now.
      So it strikes me as more of a religious conversion than a legislative project.
      I don’t like the implications of how that could happen, but I am beginning to believe that a major, and doubtless traumatic shift in our minds will be necessary.

      • Thanks, Eric. Fascinating points. I see the issues here as political/economic/legislative but also like you as religious/cosmological. In the book, I try to touch on both areas in chapters 13 & 16 respectively. In the future, I’m hoping to develop the religious/cosmological side of things some more. I only begin to broach them in Chapter 16. Of course, from a certain political perspective all of this is at best mere distraction from class politics and ‘democratic’ collectivism … but it’s not a perspective I share 🙂

        The only thing I’d add is that while I agree people can game higher levels of political authority in respect of individual or family economic entitlement through land, the reverse also holds true – a widespread peasant experience through history. This is an important trade-off that I discuss in the book – especially in the parts that H&H most dislike. For my part, I lack enthusiasm for trying to convince doubters that autonomy from higher political authority at the individual/family/local community level is a serious political object – unless it seems likely that the doubters might gain political power, in which case I’d certainly start to get interested…

  21. Still thinking about households, families, communities; elsewhere I’ve seen talk of Dunbar’s number as some kind of supposed evolutionary limit on how large a village can be before you don’t really know everyone.

    Are there similar conjectures for household size? Is there a size range that works well for household farming, whether kinship based or not? What do we know about household cohesion that households might want to think about in ordering the pattern of their work and lives? And how does viable (or even ideal?) household size interact with access to local markets, and the diversity of said markets?

    There are three people in my household: me, my spouse and our housemate. We live somewhere we can’t easily keep livestock, even hens, so must content ourselves with an allotment for now. But if we had severely limited access to markets where we can purchase what we cannot grow, I would probably want there to be more than three of us to share the labour.

    One of the silver linings of covid-19 has been that we all eat supper together most days now; previously we were lucky to do this even once a week. It has made a real difference to the feel of the household. So I guess I would say that eating together is a good practice for households, and that a household that is too large to eat together may be too large to function as a household: you’re going to get weird internal power dynamics going on. (Which isn’t to say these don’t exist in a household of three or even two, but the chances of being able to talk things through over a baked squash are much higher.)

    I suspect there are no simple answers, that it’s all heavily context-dependent. Maybe a village with a smithy and a weaver and a doctor and a carpenter and a priest can get by with smaller household units than one without those things, even if the smithy and the weaver and so on are also doing some horticulture. So in addition to questions about household size and when a household (good) becomes a dynasty (bad), there are questions about how much specialisation of skill is necessary or optimal. I definitely want to be able to go to the doctor, but I think I’d quite like it if my GP could also grow squashes should she wish to do so.

    I’m just throwing ideas around, apologies if it has all been said and thought before. One of the challenges we’re all facing is that while the world’s problems are big and general and systemic, the solutions will need to be specific and tailored to each context. I still don’t think acknowledging this is any kind of failure.

    • I think my general shtick that there are pros and cons to everything and it’s wise to mitigate the disadvantages of whatever course is chosen applies here. There are tricky power dynamics in large communities, but also tricky ones in small families, and in the book I was just trying to mediate those, rather than developing some perfidious bourgeois family agenda of H&H’s imagining. That said, small family households are ubiquitous in intensive agrarian societies, and I think it’s as well to ponder the fact. I certainly agree that dynasties, corporate groups, lineages, castes etc can be problematic – I argued in the book that their absence generally requires an alternative & quite unified political field – H&H were none too keen on that either, though they seem to draw on it implicitly.

      The above-mentioned Chayanov wrote about peasant household structures in terms of demographic cycles – raising children, households with parents & young children, then new household formation. Perhaps I’ll say some more about that in a future post.

      Bottom line is I agree, no simple answers – as per the title to this post – and the need for experimenting with different household & farming structures. But there are some clues as to what might work when we look carefully at the agrarian past.

  22. Pingback: November readings – Uneven Earth

  23. Dear Chris, I haven’t yet read your book, but only the various articles and discussions around it. But I dare say that I have found someone who is thinking in ways that are very convergent with our network of p2p/commons researchers at the P2P Foundation, which are focused on distributed property formats, commons , generative market mechanisms that support such initiatives, as well as public-commons cooperation protocols. I would very much like to have a conversation about this. I can be reached at, if you have some time and inclination to do this. We are mostly an observatory of actual practices, but we also believe that the new logics of post-capitalist seed forms can tell us a few things about the direction we are moving in. Thus we build successive theoretical understandings based on a database of 20k experiments all over the world.

  24. Pingback: Household farming and the F word - Resilience

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