Least worst politics

In Parts I and II of A Small Farm Future I build an argument that local, low energy, agrarian societies are probably best placed to meet the challenges of our times, and in Parts III and IV – which I’m now turning to discuss – I examine some of the issues such societies will face and how these societies might emerge out of present global politics.

A few critics of the book – some quite friendly, others less so – have ventured the opinion that the small farm societies I describe have their problems, and that the best-case scenarios I try to construct around them may not come to pass. Well, I agree. To me, it’s a truism that every kind of human society has its tensions, contradictions and difficulties. And it’s a truism too that things may not work out as one hopes. I can’t help treating these criticisms to something of a shrugged “…and your point is?” Maybe their point is there’s some better alternative – but I’m not convinced there is, and my more strident critics didn’t flesh one out.

But perhaps what’s in play is the legacy of modernist politics in its various forms, which have deeply influenced the contemporary world. The conceit of this politics is that social tensions can be definitively resolved, and human betterment secured. Since I don’t subscribe to these notions, I don’t feel much need to claim that the small farm futures I describe will be easily achievable, or will be unproblematic if they are achieved. Still, I think it’s worth devoting a few further words to modernist politics and its legacy.

Broadly speaking there have been three major strands of modernist politics, each identifying a single fundamental key that supposedly drives social order and human progress. In descending order of influence on the modern world, they are:

  1. Market liberalism, or the politics of capitalism (human progress derives from the workings of private market exchange via corporate monopoly)
  2. Nationalism, or the politics of sacred collectivism (human progress derives from the unfolding destiny of the nation or nation-state)
  3. Socialism, or the politics of worker collectivism (human progress derives from the formation of class consciousness among ordinary people/workers and the resulting ‘class struggle’)

These strands have weaker and stronger forms (in the case of the stronger forms, we could identify respectively 1. Neoliberalism or anarcho-capitalism, 2. Ethnic/racial nationalism or fascism, 3. Marxist-Leninism or Stalinism). And there are also various hybrid versions like social democracy.

As I see it, the impetus behind these forms of modernist politics is unlikely to disappear in the future because they speak to fundamental human needs that I’d gloss as the four ‘S’s’ – status, satiation, sociality and spirituality. Any politics that doesn’t allow people to express these S’s probably won’t last long, and the same goes for any politics that doesn’t find ways to rein in their negative consequences. Modernist politics in its various forms tends to vaunt excessively just one or two of the S’s and make them not only the fundamental basis of mass politics but also a logic of unfolding improvement through time. It simultaneously fails to erect countervailing forces to their excesses. And so the contradictions and pathologies mount up, which is why modernist politics is in terminal crisis and decline. Merchant monopolists, patriots and revolutionary proletarians have all tried to implement their modernist heavens on Earth. They have all failed, and now it’s time to sober up.

I think we need to build more rounded alternatives, and this is what I try to do as best I can in A Small Farm Future. But modernist politics has left a godawful mess to deal with – climate breakdown, excess energy dependency, economic and political chaos – much of it the result of trying to implement abstrusely theoretical 18th and 19th century utopias of western political philosophy on the ground worldwide. In the face of this, the responsible thing to do is to call the enormous challenges before us as one sees them without the false optimism of progress narratives, utopian blueprints or single keys to the march of history. But also to identify optimum outcomes, difficulties that may just be possible to transcend, and to take sides in that process where necessary. Instead of the ‘best of all possible worlds’, then, the responsibility is to identify the ‘least bad of all likely worlds’ and the ways it may be realized.

That, in essence, is what I try to do in Parts III and IV of A Small Farm Future. Some folks have called my suggestions therein impractical, while others have called them utopian. Probably, they are impractical, but as I see it less so than all the alternative suggestions I’ve encountered as to how humanity, and indeed the rest of the biota, are going to get through the next century or so with a minimum of misery and bloodshed. I don’t consider my suggestions to be utopian, unless you think that societies geared to creating renewable livelihoods from the air, waters and soils surrounding them are utopian. To my mind, these are about the only forms of society that are not utopian, although the unparalleled human ability to create symbolic systems that overrun real world possibilities afflicts every kind of society, including foraging or small-scale farming ones. But, precisely because they’re not utopian, agrarian localisms do have their difficulties, and it’s these that I’ll try to explore in forthcoming posts.

20 thoughts on “Least worst politics

  1. I’m looking forward to this stretch of your book-related blogging, Chris.

    On the question of utopianism, I still meet people who argue that we *need* utopian thinking, which seems to me to be part of the same thought bundle (or half-thought bundle) as “progress”, “development”, etc. My reaction is to point out, rather grumpily, that “utopia” means “no-place” and the last thing we need is more placeless thinking. In all honesty, it’s not an argument that lands well, as I think it comes across as a piece of obscure etymology, whereas in my reading of things placelessness (and a disregard for the local and the specific) really is at the heart of utopian / progressive / developmentalist thinking, and thus at the heart of the violence of modernity.

    And yet, as I’ve listened harder to people who want to talk in terms of utopia, I’ve realised that there’s something else going on. It has to do with what Mark Fisher characterised as “capitalist realism”, and the endlessly quoted Jameson line about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Essentially, any claim that there might be possibilities for how humans live together and make life work that lies beyond the boundaries of neoliberal realism is experienced by many people, positively or negatively, as utopian. In as much as this is what people are reaching for, then I’m sympathetic to the desire for utopian thinking, yet I want to say that it has to be reformulated in more sober, grounded terms. And that’s something I see you contributing to.

  2. I think I’ve remarked before about the interpersonal realities of even things like being a member of an allotment society…

    This labour seems onerous if we are accustomed to crapitalism’s idea that if you pay for something you get it. The reality with an allotment society is that you pay your membership and plot fees, but there is more to be done than that if you want things to function well.

    Additionally, I think that much of what we experience as optimisation, under crapitalism, is really exchanging money for someone else to take on some inconvenience for us. So I think our definitions of “least worst” need to consider human and ecological externalities. It might be easiest for me to import a huge load of peat for the allotment but that would be a bad move ecologically; it might be easiest for me to use fast fashion for my clothing (I’m 6′ tall and I’m fat, so actually it isn’t, but bear with the example) but that’s pretty disastrous both ecologically and in human rights terms. The least worst options are composting from what I can grow onsite, and either making my own clothes or paying someone nearby to do it. And I make compromises in the form of using the woodchips and manure that turn up for free, the occasional brick of coco coir for starting seeds (though I’m hoping to make my own seedling mix next year), and in taking great care over the not-locally made clothing I do still buy. I don’t see those as the least worst options, but I do see them as steps on the way to getting there.

    For some people, that “step on the way to the least worst” position might be an electric car, but I don’t drive at all; cycling or walking everywhere is perhaps not as close to least worst as I would like to think. But the easiest and cheapest thing by far for me to do is to not start driving in the first place.

    One of my criteria for these steps on the way is to ask myself: if everyone did this, would the world be better than it is?

    But we also need structural changes beyond such individual choices. We need to reframe the narrative of our responsibility for the choices we make. Perhaps more importantly (…and perhaps not, if the narrative is strong enough) we must also hold to account those who make choices with much higher impact.

    And we need to order our communities such that many more people do have these kinds of choices, where not having money specifically isn’t such a threat to survival (…or status, for that matter) that people in their pursuit of it make terrible decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make. I think some of the issues around land tenure are one way to do this, in the way that near-universal employment was in some post-WW2 social democracies (in the UK my understanding was that in many cities the floor to employment standards was to go and get a job working for the local council, and anyone who didn’t offer better pay and conditions than street cleaning would struggle to find workers — I don’t know how accurate this understanding is). I think a Universal Basic Income might be another way for this to happen, though without rent controls it would just be a Universal Landlord’s Income (see Housing Benefit), and “able to administer a universal benefit efficiently and humanely” isn’t where I see most neoliberal governments going, so I remain unconvinced it will ever be relevant.

    But we are human beings and still tend to seek efficiency, so the narrative work and the holding-to-account are still important.

  3. Hello Chris
    Yes, I have my utopian dreams, of a society that valued wood banks and water meadows again, not just for their ecological value, but their economic value and function. We had a society like that, could we have another? No society is perfect, but as you have put it some are more practical than others. I look forward to reading your further musings on the subject while I spend my time slowly putting some of that value back.
    Regards Philip

  4. As you go forward, please consider the importance of social scale in evaluating political options for a small farm future. Some kinds of politics are only appropriate for very large and complex societies and would be irrelevant to small farm communities. For example, market liberalism only gets a functional advantage in societies where resources must be acquired, processed and distributed to large populations over large areas.

    The politics of a small farm family (any family) is usually informal communism, with a dollop of aristocracy added perhaps, depending on the amount of patriarchy/matriarchy in intra-family relations. Family scale politics might survive up to the population of a small eco-village, but might need something more complicated as the population gets bigger. Draw a circle around the perimeter of a small farm society and the size of the circle will place limits on political options.

    But conflicts over those options are going to be accentuated when one kind of politics (that might be appropriate for the scale of modern society) has to prepare itself for a future when another kind of politics makes more sense. The history of revolutionary political change as industrialism grew and populations got much larger is a forboding example of the difficulties involved in adapting politics to big scale changes. It may not be any easier as social scales get much smaller.

    In fact, it may not be possible for the political transition between scale categories to be intentional. As natural forces and manmade disasters force big reductions to social scale, we may just have to wait for an appropriate politics to evolve in these new societies. That would be a little too chaotic for my taste, but politics has always been pretty messy and we may have no choice. I just hope the chaos doesn’t involve a lot of armed conflict, but that may too much to hope for.

    • I like the scale angle Joe brings up. Especially if we include space (land take if you will) to the formula. So we have a population scale and a geographic scale to consider together.

      In the traditional description of a commons the narrative describes a pasture shared by several individuals. A pasture brings to my mind a relatively small parcel in global terms. What if the commons were a river basin?

      [Having lived my entire life in the river basin drained by the Mississippi (and many of its major tributaries) I can attest to meeting fellow river basin commoners (not that any would actually acknowledge such a title) whose political agendas care very little for those far upstream or far downstream. Major flooding will sometimes bring matters in front of most, but major floods, like severe hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes are the sorts of planetary dynamics that obviously demand attention, but reckon little in the day to day decisions of a small farm or a big one.]

      If I stick with the Mississippi for the moment, one could argue it is exclusively a U.S. matter. It impacts folks in more than a dozen states, so a federal interest is obviously needed. Does its use impact any other global polity beyond the States? There is a pretty significant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by discharge from the Mississippi. I’m not aware of any international treaty matters being violated, but at some point the problem gets beyond the orbit of Washington DC. Politically next up on the population/geography scale?

      If we change basins – consider the Thames or the Seine… very high populations, but much smaller catchments.

      The Amazon – enormous catchment, much smaller population.

      The Indus and Ganges, the Yellow and Yangtze… river catchments, population densities, political variation, global impacts. If the Earth is our commons…

        • As I see it, it’s an example of a global-scale open access regime which people are trying, and largely failing, to turn into a global-scale commons, wherein a major and potentially catastrophic contemporary problem lies.

  5. I travelled in what had been East Germany, Poland, Hungary & Czechoslovakia after the Wall came down in the 90’s.

    There was still a peasant / dacha culture and I cant see why we cant re-create it here, I am sure that there are enough people who are interested

    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jul/01/six-chickens-60-families-live-good-life-pandemic-grow-food

    What is needed of course is access to land and the ability to build a home on it.

    Perhaps we need something like the Essex plotlands that Colin Ward wrote about.

  6. Thanks for the comments, and sorry for my silence – indeed as Simon points out, I’ve been busy juggling webinars with Vandana and various other things besides.

    Anyway, a few responses. Dougald puts his finger precisely on my own ambivalences about utopianism. Its disembodied placelessness that betrays its modernism, but also the way that capitalist realism displaces all alternatives into the realm of utopia such that we absolutely need to be dreaming of ‘utopias’ beyond the present order of things, while pointing out the bizarrely utopian character of that order.

    I agree with Kathryn that figuring out what ‘least worst’ politics is in practice is a complex business, involving many hidden aspects and implicit conflicts. The main point of my post was just a waymark for that, to suggest that complexities and imperfections are inevitable and do not rule out any given politics. Perhaps this relates to Dougald’s point – only a bad utopianism assumes there’s a politics of ultimate perfection, and out of this emerges so much of the damage of modernism.

    Another point of agreement with Kathryn is that human relationships involve a lot of work, which is only ever displaced by the availability of cheap and abundant money or energy. Nevertheless, that work can be quite onerous, so societies without much money or energy take steps to minimize it, and this is what generates some characteristic structures of small farm societies. More on that shortly.

    Interesting points from Joe & Clem on scale. I thought of some clever remarks to make about all this yesterday, which I’ve now forgotten… For now, perhaps I’ll just observe that premodern polities were often vast in geographic scale, but organized that political space very differently to modern polities, not least in relation to the realities of local food production. I plan to address this further here soon – Clem’s points about different scales of commons are absolutely relevant. And so are John’s about access to land.

    …but I’ll be working towards all that at a gentle pace in my next few posts…

    • My other go-to example of the relational work necessary for a community to function is the Church of England. Every parish has a Parochial Church Council; lay representatives from the parishes (and their clergy by default) go to Deanery Synod, each Deanery sends clergy and lay representatives to Diocesan Synod and each diocese sends representatives to General Synod. All of this is voluntary for laity, and everything “above” Deanery Synod is optional for clergy. General Synod has three houses: laity, clergy and bishops; for resolutions to pass they need a 66% majority in all three houses.

      In theory it’s a great example of good grassroots representarion, of managing scale sensibly and working toward, if not consensus,at least strong majority agreement. But the result in real life is that people on General Synod are people who have a certain amount of privilege — they have time to go to a *lot* of meetings, including some that take place for a solid week or two of daytime working hours — and even within that, well, the meetings themselves are often boring (“What’s Deanery Synod?” “A bunch of Anglicans waiting to go home.”), so the people who actually do this tend to be people who care very strongly about some of the live issues in how we order our affairs.

      And,of course, that grassroots-up structure isn’t the only governance structure in the C of E. The bishops do have a leadership remit and they are responsible both for the pastoral care of clergy but also for clergy discipline… this can cause problems from time to time.
      And then the whole thing is tangled up with PParliament, which most of the time doesn’t seem to mmmatoccasion very b

      Phone typing broken will try again in next comment sorry!

      • Not sure what went wrong there. But I was saying — the C of E being weird, we also have bishops appointment by the Queen subject to the approval of the Prime Minister. And Parliament can make laws which uniquely affect the Church of England (e.g. the 1928 BCP was not approved by Parliament, so the Church of England still can’t use it, though the Scottish Episcopal Church can, not being an established church), and more recently they made it illegal for the C of E to marry people of the same sex without considerable legislation to sort out first. Sigh.) So, it’s all messy.

        But I think systems like this are almost impossible to design from the ground up (though that doesn’t stop us from trying), and even if they were easy, we don’t have a blank slate to start with: even with huge amounts of disruption we will carry some of our pre-existing values and habits with us into the future. I can imagine different systems developing in different places (especially if transport of goods and people becomes ever more expensive), based on what works in that context. In our engagement with that development we will only rarely be able to design large parts of systems, but incremental changes do add up.

        And so I find myself agreeing with Dougald: as a measure of what people are reaching towards, a utopia can be a very useful concept. After all, not everything that is “not crapitalism” is automatically good.

      • Thanks Kathryn & apologies for not responding sooner. Interesting ruminations – we’ll get to political models as well as religion at some point, where I hope we can discuss this some more.

  7. I’m adjusting my thinking to the four “S’s”. I am certainly familiar with the three “S’s” of shoot, shovel, and shut-up.

    I suppose sociality is a stand-in for community? If so, that one certainly looms large from where I sit. The loss, the diminished structures that brought people together, will be hard to piece together, again. It is the muscle memory of how to be a neighbor, work together, share limited equipment and time, all in a constructive manner that we have to a large degree lost. Without that reconstruction, the politics will be a bit of a mess.

    Which is to say, Chris, that your book just came up for air on my stack of books, and I started it this week. So, pen in hand, I’m ready.

    • Hey Brian, glad to hear I made it to the top of your stack. I’ll be interested to hear your comments.

      Yes, pretty much agree with your comments on community and collectivity. They prompt two thoughts that I explore further in the book, and will also consider in future blog posts. First, the kind of community-building that’s focused around reasonably local and tangible questions such as ‘how do we share limited irrigation water?’ seems to me a more important focus for political work than the kind that’s focused around questions such as ‘how do we make America great again?’ Sadly, questions of the latter kind get more political airtime at the moment. Second, given the difficulties of (re)learning how to work with each other, there’s a lot to be said for not working with each other when we don’t have to – in other words, for finding a place for petty (bourgeois?) proprietorship.

      • there’s a lot to be said for not working with each other when we don’t have to

        Absolutely! The best foundation for good neighborly relations is to minimize dependency (to maximize self sufficiency).

        I think that most people are glad to help a neighbor when they know that the neighbor has done everything possible to avoid asking for help.

        And the corrollary opposite is also true, that we are more willing to forgive harm from a neighbor when they have done as much as they can to prevent it.

        https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall

        Its hard to go very wrong politically if both self-sufficiency and forgiveness are foundational mores of a community. They reinforce each other to great effect. Tempers get short when one or the other is missing.

        • No one there is that doesn’t love a Robert Frost poem ).
          I once asked a friend, a teenager in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict, the clunky question ‘what aspects of human nature did you see during the war?’ People take advantage and they forget, came the reply, which kind of funfair-mirrors Joe’s ‘help one another and forgive – a version from the direst of times, when everyone’s hand might be forced to pick a pocket or two, and worse.

          Back in the tight-knit village in peacetime the commonest refrain I hear is ‘he/she is a relative’, and from what I’ve seen, coping with crises might be more easily taken on the chin among such clans, where some actually spend their working lives and free time only helping others, between beers. But when most of your community is in some way related, wherever animosity isn’t allowed to run rife it appears second nature to get help when needed, to forgive, and to forget. When communities arise in a more ad hoc manner, these characteristics might be harder to come by at first. In both scenarios, I’d say much hinges on cultivating the knack of being content to let a village be your oyster, and do the work.
          Good fences can make good neighbours, and much else besides. I’ve personally always felt a slight unease when siting a fence (slightly less so when laying a hedge) and always this song’s refrain comes into my head:
          We’re building walls,
          They should be bridges.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArtIVt4cv-8

        • Important points both, and again apologies for not responding sooner. Identifying various issues here that we’ll come on to soon…

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