Renegade projections and the domestic mode of production: for Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

I keep writing prefatory posts before wading into the content from Parts III and IV of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle, for which apologies. I promise this will be the last before I get down to business, although I do believe a little business is transacted below. Anyway, this means I’m going to hold off further discussion of Max Ajl’s important book left over from my last post for the time being.

In this post I want to talk about another writer, and relate his work to the question of a small farm future. The man in question is Marshall Sahlins, among the most distinguished of anthropologists from the latter part of the 20th century, who I only recently realized had died earlier this year.

There’s a small personal backstory to this. Many years ago, Sahlins offered me the opportunity to do a doctorate with him at the University of Chicago. A callow undergraduate, I was almost quaking as I entered his office during my visit to that august institution, like a member of some low-ranking lineage making offerings at the holy shrine of a fearsome ancestor. I guess David Graeber would have been among my cohort had I gone there, just a few years ahead of me, though of course I had no idea at the time who he was. But something about Chicago’s serried streets, the palpable misery of the graduate students and the tribal warfare within the anthropology department put me off. Or maybe it was more my own imposter syndrome at the thought of dwelling among such gods. In any case, Sahlins kindly wrote to me after I’d spurned his offer, wishing me “good luck and good anthropology”.

Well, I feel I’ve had a lot of good luck in my life so far. As to the anthropology, I want to mention Sahlins’s classic book Stone Age Economics, first published in 1972. This has been a touchstone work for me, and every few years I’ve re-read most of it. I went back to it again some weeks ago, but too many pages in my old copy were falling out, and the rest were so laden with penciled annotations from years of reading and re-reading that there was no space to scribe my latest thoughts. So I bought a new copy. The 2017 Routledge edition comes with an introduction from David Graeber, and a cover photo of two elegant stone-age blades – a marked contrast to the original edition’s picture of a dusty and sombre-looking group from the dubiously provenanced Tasaday people, squatting rather miserably in a cave.

Symbolically, the photos represent changing views of ‘primitive’, ‘indigenous’ or foraging peoples that this very book played no small part in effecting. By far the most famous essay in its pages – one of the best-known of all anthropology essays outside the discipline itself – is the first one, ‘The Original Affluent Society’, in which Sahlins goes to some lengths to show that far from living lives of endless misery and toil, as modernist ideologies often proclaim, foraging societies were lightly encumbered with labour compared to large-scale agricultural societies, with plenty of time for leisure and good living.

This argument is such a commonplace today that inevitably the pendulum has started to swing the other way, and various critiques of Sahlins’s thesis have appeared. Whatever. For me, the next three essays in the book, two concerning what Sahlins calls the ‘domestic mode of production’ and then his spellbinding essay on ‘The Spirit of the Gift’, are much the most important ones in the collection. I’ll talk about the gift essay in another post. Here I’ll restrict myself to some remarks about his two essays on the domestic mode of production.

As I (re-)read these essays recently, I was shocked to notice how unconsciously indebted I was to them for some of my arguments in A Small Farm Future. Strange, considering how often I’d read them. Perhaps they’d become so familiar I’d unthinkingly adopted them as my own. Ironically, it seems that the ‘good anthropology’ Sahlins wished for me all those years ago may have manifested largely in me reinscribing for contemporary political purposes some of his own insights about societies supposedly left behind by modernity. I only hope my act of ancestor worship has some modern efficacy.

And so: the domestic mode of production. ‘Mode of production’ is a concept especially associated with Marxist thought, and in his foreword David Graeber says that these essays were “the closest Sahlins ever came to an experiment with Marxist models” (p.xiv). In truth, he didn’t come that close. Which suits me fine – as I see it, Marx is another ancestor who deserve some honour, but no cultish devotion. And on that point, just to say that the only person who responded to my question last time as to whether I should engage with Alex Heffron’s and Kai Heron’s highly charged Marxist attack on my book was one K. Heron, who, to paraphrase, thought not. Yet some of their points in that review are a useful foil to arguments I wish to make, so I will refer to them in passing nonetheless in this and future posts.

Sahlins’s argument about the domestic mode of production is that in so-called ‘primitive’ societies there is a deep structural orientation to production for the needs of the household, which is usually a small unit of closely related kin. Neither ‘the economy’ nor ‘work’ are alienated from the daily practice of household members: the ‘economic’ is a “modality of the intimate” and the disposition and allocation of labour are “in the main domestic decisions…taken primarily with a view toward domestic contentment” (p.69). The household is oriented to meeting its own socially defined needs. There is no inherent tendency to the amplification of production or the accumulation of wealth. It’s precisely these features of household production, together with the immediate feedback the household gets about the ecological consequences of its self-provisioning, that to my mind make it a plausible vehicle for renewable future societies.

I discuss this idea at various points in my book, including on page 267 where I frame it within a populist imaginary of “the ideal citizen…[spending] a good part of their day striving for flourishing and livelihood. The next day, they do the same again, probably in the same way. There’s no higher political purpose”.

Heffron and Heron singled out this passage for some scorn, albeit by hedging it with all sorts of accusations of patriarchy, monotony, debt and market dependence which are not intrinsic to it. But I will take my stand on it. Better a domestic mode of production than Stakhanovite self-exploitation, statist expropriation or implausible, future-obsessed utopias of collective overcoming.

Nevertheless, Sahlins himself speaks rather dimly of this domestic mode – its orientation to mere self-satiation threatening dangerous undershoot, its orientation to itself threatening dangerous social conflict. He makes the point that while households in the domestic mode of production do cooperate with each other, this does not “institute a sui generis production structure with its own finality, different from and greater than the livelihood of the several domestic groups” (p.70) – a point I will return to when I come to discuss commons. For him, in order for the domestic mode of production to become a plausibly functional society, some such ‘greater than’ production structure is needed, and in his view it’s often provided in ‘primitive’ societies by hierarchical kinship structures such as chiefdoms that ramify beyond the individual household and coax additional productivity from them. But chiefdoms are not kingdoms. They have not “broken structurally with the people at large” (p.133). Chiefs remain kinsfolk and are structurally limited by that fact, such that chieftaincies are inherently unstable and prone to crumbling back into their constituent household elements.

In this view, then, chiefdoms don’t arise as it were ‘naturally’ when household production achieves a surplus. They’re inherent to the domestic mode, oriented to creating a surplus out of household production, and represent a tension or a contradiction within the domestic mode of production. Perhaps this is the ‘Marxist’ element to Sahlins’s analysis, since the idea of contradictions powering society is a leitmotif of Marxist analysis. Yet whereas in Marxism the resolution of contradictions drives a society progressively ‘forward’ in history towards improved forms and ultimately to a perfected communism, in Sahlins’s domestic mode of production the contradictions remain static and inherent, a flaw in the jewel of progressive society or, in Sahlins’s words, “a threshold which…was the boundary of primitive society itself” (p.133).

Sahlins did more than most during his career to break down the evolutionary sequence seemingly hard-wired into modernist thought of a historical trajectory from ‘primitive’ society (the very word redolent of an outmoded evolutionism) to ‘feudal’ society and thence to capitalism and (in Marxist thought) ultimately communism. Here, however, I think he somewhat succumbs to it.

I have to assume that Heffron and Heron are still labouring with this discredited evolutionism when they characterize my arguments as ‘feudal’ advocacy for parasitic landlordism, since they cast around for evidence of it in my writing, fail to find any, and then simply assert it on the basis of a meagre harvest from my words. Indeed, the popular notion that any localized, small farm society must somehow be redolent of a bygone ‘feudalism’ remains strong. Yet what generates feudalism is not farming scale or style, nor even economic relations of landlord and tenant (which I strongly oppose throughout A Small Farm Future), but political relations. In future posts I’ll be looking at this politics and explaining why a small farm future might well be neither capitalist, communist, feudal nor necessarily ‘primitive’. There can be other ways of households generating surpluses.

Despite the dubious evolutionary element to his argument, Sahlins himself partially breaks with it throughout Stone Age Economics (and much more so in later writings), as for example when he likens certain kinds of peasant economy to the domestic mode of production of ‘primitive’ economies: “a fragmented peasant economy may more clearly than any primitive community present on the empirical level certain profound tendencies of the DMP…” (p.80)

This argument was strongly influenced by Alexander Chayanov’s populist economic analyses of pre-communist Russian peasantries that had only recently been translated into English at the time of Stone Age Economics. Chayanov, I’ll note in passing, was murdered by Russia’s communist regime in 1937 for thinking wrong thoughts about the peasantry. Luckily, such a fate has not yet befallen me in speaking up for the potentialities of semi-autonomous household production, but Chayanov’s killing is a salutary reminder that the stakes in these discussions can be high. Only a few decades after his death, Russia’s communist regime collapsed, creating a power vacuum filled by a mafia capitalism that many ordinary Russians survived precisely by turning to Chayanovian household production of use values. There are wider lessons here, I think, about how the domestic mode of production might intercede within a ravaged state apparatus in societies of the future.

In Stone Age Economics Sahlins explicitly excluded from his purview this world of modern centralized states supposedly standing on the other side of his threshold of ‘primitive’ societies. Later on, in an essay co-authored with David Graeber, he recanted this stark distinction:

In retrospect, we may well discover that “the state” that consumed so much of our attention never existed at all, or was, at best, a fortuitous confluence of elements of entirely heterogeneous origins (sovereignty, administration, a competitive political field, etc.) that came together in certain times and places, but that, nowadays, are very much in the process of once again drifting apart

David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins. 2017. On Kings. Hau Books. p.22

I agree with this diagnosis. I argue in A Small Farm Future that many of the elements of ‘the state’ that have typified the modern world are, for various reasons, in the process of disintegrating, and for many of us or for our descendants the outcome is likely to be a relatively autonomous world of local household production akin to Sahlins’s domestic mode – which, at its best, may not be such a bad outcome.

Not such a bad outcome, but not in any sense a perfect one. While I think Sahlins somewhat over-eggs the difficulties and contradictions of the domestic mode of production, I believe he does it advisedly to point to the inherent tensions and difficulties that human societies of all kinds experience in constituting themselves, and his analysis therefore works as a counterweight to airily romanticized progressive ideologies such as the ‘collective class struggle’ that Heffron and Heron invoke as, dare one say it, a deus ex machina for overcoming structural difficulties. And Sahlins does it with a gruff admiration for the practical workarounds that people involved in household production worldwide have found historically to these intrinsic difficulties. Whereas the earlier Marx – and Heffron and Heron after him – scorned the political potential of household or peasant societies for their inability to come together collectively, employing the famous metaphor of potatoes in a sack, I offer A Small Farm Future at several levels as an argument that champions those potatoes, botanically and metaphorically, each and every one of them a marvellous but ultimately flawed attempt to solve certain intractable questions of how to exist as one part of something bigger.

Sahlins’s writing wasn’t especially easy for those not steeped in social science, but it had a kind of muscular workaday honesty, sprinkled with wry humour, which always returned to the practicalities of how people in actual historical societies have gone about their business, rather than involving itself in theoretical speculations or projections of idealized futures. A wise course. But, as I argue in A Small Farm Future, the burden of present generations is now to project new futures urgently in the face of the unravelling of the present mode of production, however difficult the task.

In doing so, I see myself as working within the traditions of left-wing (but not Marxist) politics. I don’t particularly want to be a renegade, although I’m less closed-minded than I once was to the possibility that other political traditions might have something of value to say. Indeed, these days I find much leftist writing, including that of a certain review of my book, to be so self-satisfied with its unexamined prejudices – positive and negative – around such things as collective class struggle, the forms of property, the nature of hierarchy or the forms of kinship, that a bit of reneging seems necessary. I don’t suppose my efforts will bear much fruit, but so be it. It’s a long-haul thing.

Talking of long hauls, with hindsight perhaps I didn’t specify clearly enough in A Small Farm Future the different time registers involved in thinking about post-capitalist ecological futures. Joe Clarkson said recently on this site that he was more interested in immediate issues of social transformation because, longer-term, people will figure out their small farm futures somehow – the challenge is the path from now to there. It’s a strong point, and in my book I do make some attempt to address it (more on that in future posts), but in truth I think the immediate transformation is going to involve a thousand kinds of craziness that can’t easily be predicted or allayed, so my focus in the book was to characterize in outline some of the main issues that emerging small farm societies in the interstices of this craziness would have to wrestle with – without attempting any kind of complete blueprint for how they should or would organize themselves. Inevitably, one has to make assumptions about the kind of future world and the kind of future societies one is projecting, and this is always open to challenge. I could probably have signposted this a little better in the book. But overall I stand by that project.

For their part, Heffron and Heron wrote “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present.” So the difference with my project is clear. As me, I’m not especially interested in looking for the contours of an eco-communist future. There are a few aspects of ‘eco-communism’ I might endorse, but I’m doubtful many current struggles against the capitalist present – and certainly few that are framed through Marxist optics – will be especially generative of post-capitalist ecological societies long-term.

Heron is scornful of ‘disaster’ politics and its presentiments of sudden transformative shocks to present social systems. This seems a necessary stance for him to take, because struggles against the capitalist present can only build a worthy long-term politics within capitalism’s own persisting ambit – and this, I think, constitutes a ‘threshold’ of capitalist ideology that Marxism itself cannot cross. This was a theme in Culture and Practical Reason (1976),Sahlins’s next big book after Stone Age Economics, where he provided a sustained anthropological critique of what he saw as the limited bourgeois economism of Marxism (Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production did something similar around the same time). I think this bourgeois economism is apparent in Heffron and Heron’s scorn for peasantries, kin structuring, household production and household use values, and their enthusiasm for ill-defined large-scale collectivisms and state formations.

From Sahlins, I’ll take my stand on the possible, but by no means paradisiacal, domestic mode of production of the future, and on the unlikelihood of generating long-term culture out of short-term conflicts of material interest. I’ll try to fill out the implications of this in future posts, where I hope I can better ground the rather abstract arguments I’ve made here.

51 thoughts on “Renegade projections and the domestic mode of production: for Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

  1. Extremely thought-provoking post Chris. I certainly have sympathy with your pessimism towards the invocation of ‘implausible, future-obsessed utopias of collective overcoming’, ‘airily romanticized progressive ideologies’, and ‘enthusiasm for ill-defined large-scale collectivisms and state formations’, at least inasmuch as the work of definition and productive application remains to be done. I’m also very struck by your claim that Marxist ‘struggles against the capitalist present can only build a worthy long-term politics within capitalism’s own persisting ambit’ and that this ‘constitutes a ‘threshold’ of capitalist ideology that Marxism itself cannot cross’. This has really got me thinking – it’s not something I want to agree or disagree with at the moment, nor will I resolve that in this comment, but it’s worth marking I think (as is the return of the ‘bourgeois’ slur!).

    For now, I’ll comment on the Domestic Mode of Production, which raises issues for me that we’ve visited before here. I’ve not read Sahlins’ book, so my comments are based solely on your post. The DMP appears to rely for its definition on an identifiable ‘household’ unit to act as the sole object of its own productive labour. This is distinguished from the ‘additional productivity’ coaxed forth by hierarchical chiefdoms. And yet the definitions of both the household and the chiefdom rely on kinship, they are both ‘modalities of the intimate’. Now, in our mind’s eye we might see a household as perhaps a nuclear family whose closely related members pull together, while a chief, perhaps a distant cousin, makes occasional haughty and unwelcome demands, but of course it’s unlikely to be as simple as that. My point is that the DMP appears to assume the household can act as place of productive solidarity, while the place of hierarchy in production is located outside its bounds. This seems to be a rather artificial distinction.

    You suggest that ‘there is no inherent tendency [in the household] to the amplification of production or the accumulation of wealth’. Perhaps not in terms of the inherent evolution you ascribe to the Marxist perspective. But the kin-based context of both households and chiefdoms has historically tended towards a wide variety of ways of extorting more productivity and distributing it unequally, within the household (however defined) as much as beyond it. There is, for example, good reason why the language of fatherhood is commonly found ascribed to figures of authority, whether or not ‘real’ kinship exists.

    In truth, I don’t think it’s possible to create and maintain a society of autonomous households without also doing a lot of social work beyond those households, work that will extort (e.g. tribute) or encourage (e.g. welfare funding) some direction of productivity beyond the household boundary, even if all production takes place at household level. But even if it was possible to create such a society, there’s no reason to think that extortion and unequal distribution wouldn’t simply concentrate inside the household envelope. It’s simply not enough to halt the analysis at this point and invoke ‘inherent tensions and difficulties’ that might be alleviated by ‘practical workarounds’.

    It’s good to see the late lamented David Graeber mentioned in the post. As another ‘descendent’ of Sahlins he is an interesting foil for you, as his more recent thoughts appear to offer a challenge to your arguments here. We will have to wait for the publication of his last book, written with David Wengrow, for the full treatment, but a preliminary essay penned by the two of them ( finishes like this:

    ‘Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.’

    Finally, I want to turn to ‘disaster politics’, as I have some sympathy with criticism of it (or of ‘doomer optimism’ as it appears to have been fluffily rebranded) at the ethical level. Its projections are typically for a time post-disaster, which means they rely on writing off those who don’t survive it – but how can we know who these people will be from our vantage point in the fluid present, and therefore on what basis do we ‘choose’ who’s doomed so that we can plan for the remainder? Alternatively, the projected future may assume very little explicit population loss, and the disaster lies instead in the shaking loose of pre-existing connections and structures. In some ways this is the mirror image of the ‘implausible utopias’ that you condemn – a blank slate full of dispossessed and atomised people waiting to be marshalled in the new order. Either way, the purgative disaster is something of a deus ex machina itself – an unpredictable event or series of events that creates a kind of blank social canvass.

    It is, I think, ethically suspect to plan post-disaster without also planning intra-disaster, so to speak. But let me be very clear here that I don’t see your work in this way, as I think you very clearly engage with the present and the structures of its disintegration – your supersedure state is an interesting way of formulating exactly that, as is talk of building in the interstices of the present. I agree here with the sentiment of some of your comments in the post: what’s required is a vision that does present a radically different future but also that engages with its implications in the present – it doesn’t have to include an explicit road map, that would be impossible, but it must engage with the conditions of the present in some productive way; by definition, this cannot surely cannot include assuming the death or existential dispossession of some part of the earth’s current inhabitants. Equally, harking back to the first part of my comment, I think it will need to work at levels both within and beyond ‘households’, however people choose to define these.

    As ever, my initial comments have something of a critical tone, as I tend to focus on areas where we might disagree. Nevertheless I really appreciate the opportunity that your posts always provide to have a serious discussion about issues of such crucial importance.

    • this cannot surely cannot include assuming the death or existential dispossession of some part of the earth’s current inhabitants

      those who don’t survive it – but how can we know who these people will be from our vantage point in the fluid present, and therefore on what basis do we ‘choose’ who’s doomed so that we can plan for the remainder?

      Humanity is in overshoot. A return to a sustainable population level does indeed mean great numbers of premature deaths, but it is important not to get too fixated on who dies. Planning for the future must incorporate the reality of impending deaths, but also look beyond them to the fate of the survivors and the world they will find themselves in. This is where the basic concept of a small farm future becomes so important.

      The names and faces of the survivors of overshoot are far less important than the physical space they will depend on for their sustenance, hence my lack of concern for pre-planning the politics of farm occupancy. Die-off will involve a very vigorous shaking of the political kaleidoscope; it is almost impossible to predict what we will see when the shaking is done. What will be important is the fundamental resource base available to the survivors.

      Considering the impact we have already had on the planet and the relatively small space for hunting and gathering that remains, small farms will most likely be the core food producing structure of the post-overshoot era, regardless of who occupies them or who the “domestics” might be doing the producing.

      The more small farms we create now, the better for those who must use them later. So, while the politics of the small farm future may be a subject of interesting speculation, it is the politics of creating small farms in the present that is far more important. How to influence the current political landscape so as to transform the agricultural landscape is still a mystery, unfortunately.

      • “The more small farms we create now, the better for those who must use them later. ”

        I would say this even applies on the very smallest scales. When we took on our allotment in late 2019 it had a tumbledown shed with a bunch of tools, and a cold frame, and some fruit trees, and a (very overgrown) grape vine (we think possibly one grown for leaves rather than fruit), and some strawberry plants.

        Writing on the inside of the shed roof suggests it dates from the 1930s or possibly earlier. (The note dated 1941 that says “What next? When next?” is followed by one dated 1947, and I can only imagine someone shooting down enemy planes and thinking “I’m going to have *so much weeding* to do when I get back home”.) It’s not a great shed: I can’t stand up in it, and at some point someone extended it badly, so it leans rather more than I’d like, and we had to repair the roof, and the window has no glass in it. But it keeps the worst of the rain off the tools that were there and the ones we added, and it and the existing perennials meant that when we took on the plot there was a sort of structure already in place. I had a choice between that plot and one with no infrastructure and no obvious edible perennials, and there was really no contest.

  2. Thanks for that Andrew – some quality probing there! I’ll try to address some of your points.

    (1) On the artificiality of the DMP, I’m in two minds. On one level, I think it’s an analytic construct of Sahlins’s own making that he deliberately caricatures to make a point, and his separation of households from wider political society indeed is artificial. On the other hand, I think his point is that this is a ‘real’ point of political articulation in these societies in a way that it really isn’t in other kinds of society.

    (2) I think you implicitly concede the reality of the domestic unit when you talk about wider kin structures ‘extorting’ productivity from it. I’d have thought a more neutral term might suit your framing better. But the concept of extortion is to the point. In the DMPs of Sahlins’s ‘primitive’ societies, the bar is set pretty low for the point where the flow of value out of the household indeed is seen as sheer extortion, and the household or households is/are able to put a stop to it with relative ease. This is less the case in societies where the production of value is less fully circumscribed by the household.

    (3) I agree with you that distribution of value within households in the DMP is unequal, and that it’s not possible to create and maintain a society of autonomous households without also doing a lot of social work beyond those households. The post above is kind of an opening gambit for a wider argument to come along these lines, and so were Sahlins’s essays. I probably didn’t make that clear enough. Nevertheless, I continue to think there are benefits to societies where household units can be substantially autonomous units of production. Here, you also helpfully identify an ambiguity in my post between household production and kin-based production, which I’ll try to address soon – probably in my next post.

    (4) When you say “It’s simply not enough to halt the analysis at this point and invoke ‘inherent tensions and difficulties’ that might be alleviated by ‘practical workarounds’” I’m interested in what you mean by ‘enough’. Let me frame it in terms of your picking up on my point about implausible utopias, which perhaps I could have made more sharply. Actually, I’m in favour of people pushing their political visions to the logical conclusion of an implausible utopia, because it can be quite clarifying. I’m less impressed when this turns into arguments of the form ‘my implausible utopia is better than your implausible utopia’ (MIUIBTYIU), which would be my nine-word summary of Heffron & Heron’s review of my book. But maybe it’s as well to push our political imaginaries in the direction of all too plausible dystopias too. There are some rich pickings here in recent history for anyone who calls themselves a Marxist, and generally I find contemporary Marxists far too neglectful of this. One of the advantages of Sahlins’s DMP analysis is that he makes it quite dystopian, and the ground I’m prepared to stand on is in trying to build a less dystopian DMP future. As I see it, every kind of political imaginary involves inherent tensions and difficulties that can only be worked around practically – this is the field of ‘least worst politics’ that I wrote about in a recent post. Granted, the workarounds may have some utopian directionality to them, but my fear is that if this isn’t ‘enough’ then we quickly revert to the game of MIUIBTYIU.

    (5) In relation to the Graeber & Wengrow passage you cite, I see this as largely consonant with rather than antithetical to my position, for reasons I’d prefer to defer until I’ve further laid out my arguments as promised in point (3) above. But their bold opening duality seems rather absurd to me, not least because egalitarian cities and confederacies are almost invariably sustained by people living in families and households, making their distinction hard to sustain – as I see it the politics of hearth and public react back upon one another. I’d nevertheless concede their point that the intimate is the ground for the greatest structural violence – however, I don’t think ‘the intimate’ is restricted to kin-based domesticity, or to households, so I’m not convinced this critique is especially challenging to my position. I think Graeber framed this better in his Debt book as a more historical & geopolitical point. Historically, there has often been a patriarchal rural household politics that defines itself against the perceived corruption and decadence of the city. Sometimes this politics gets to write the script, as in all those gnarly Biblical patriarchs, and perhaps regrettably right now in Afghanistan, where another one of my anthropological teachers currently seems increasingly trapped in Kabul. I can find space for a little bit of gnarliness, but not too much, which was why I expressed misgivings about ramifying kin networks such as corporate patrilineages in my book. As I recall, Heffron & Heron objected to this too, one reason why I came to the conclusion they were more interested in chalking up kills on the outside of their attack plane than any serious engagement with my arguments. As I see it, rural household politics is at special risk from gnarly patriarchs, but is not defined by them.

    (6) Yet patriarchy and inequality lurk everywhere. A brief anecdote, that may or may not seem illuminating. When my mother was pushing me around London in a pram in the 1960s she occasionally met a group of other mothers in the local park, one of whom was married to an extremely famous Marxist intellectual whose identity it would be wrong of me to reveal. This woman, she tells me, complained rather bitterly about her husband along the lines that “it’s all up the workers and end exploitation in his day job, but he still expects his bloody dinner on the table when he gets home”. When I asked my mother if there was some feminist solidarity between the mothers on the park bench she, a Yorkshire miner’s daughter without a university education, said “oh no, I was far too unimportant and unintellectual for the likes of them”. I find this story quite amusing at several levels.

    (7) Anyway, moving finally to your points about disaster politics, I suppose it could be argued that my analysis is vulnerable to the second prong of your critique – a blank slate full of dispossessed people. But as I see it they probably won’t be ‘waiting to be marshalled’ so much as creating functional societies in the circumstances they find themselves in – which I think will often be local class conflict against landed interest and the creation of small household farming units, as I’ll detail in future posts. But as well as the class conflict I think there may be some communitas in some places. I suspect Heron’s unwillingness to countenance political situations driven by ecological disorder or melting/deabstracted capital has quite a bit to do with his unwillingness to abandon orthodox Marxist class analysis, which would be largely irrelevant to such a situation. And perhaps a fear of anything that smacks of voluntarism or humanism, which likewise gets hard to theorize away in these disorderly situations.

  3. I think that you and Andrew are nerding out on the anthropological / sociological theory and leaving a lot of your readers wondering what you are talking about. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t know a Sahlin from a Stakhanov if one of them bit me on the ass.

    I would ask you to put some of these ideas in short declarative sentences because a lot of this is very inside baseball. Obviously this is your blog and you can write about anything that interests you. But again, I’m not getting a lot of it. Maybe I’m just dim and it could be significant. In a couple sentences, why is this important ?

    While it is interesting to read about a world on some skew plane to ours, I think repairing the 100 year old bottom sieve for my fanning mill will have more impact on my life than any school of social thought that rose out of the turmoil that the fossil fueled industrial revolution created.

    Dysfunction has existed in farm families forever. Judging by the number of beer and liquor bottles in the rafters of the barn, the granary, under the corn crib and in the old farm dump, it was not all smooth sailing here. Closer to home, my mother told about the horse having to bring my grandpa home from the bar because he was passed out in the wagon.

    Problems will continue in a small farm future. But it won’t be the same. We are 100 years down the road from there and societal norms have changed. What do today’s anthro / sociological schools of thought project for a low energy future ?

    What kind of social structure does anarchy lead to ?

    As far as DMP/extortion what happens when I need a nail ? We don’t have any iron ore so I’ll need to buy them. I’ll need to produce more than sustenance to get them. How do those ideas relate to that ?

    If everyone else gets it, just ignore this comment.

    • Greg, apologies – I thought I’d replied to your comment, but it seems to have disappeared.

      So…thanks for the feedback. I always appreciate a steer on what works for people and what doesn’t. I concede that this present post is at one end of the spectrum in terms of nerdy social science. It’s always a juggle, but I’ll try to make the case more clearly in upcoming posts.

      I’m always juggling too whether to work on my local equivalents of your bottom sieve, or to write posts like this. Still, my answer to why it’s important is that soon enough I think a lot of people are going to be reinventing their societies literally and metaphorically from the ground up, and I think the more that we know about societies with structures different to our present ones that in some sense have faced similar issues the better.

      As to your question on what happens when you need a nail – well, it’s a good one and I’ll come to it soon. For now I’ll just say that there’s a spectrum of farming societies from the DMP at one end (largely autonomous household livelihood making) to, say, ones typified by giant prairie farms growing corn for ethanol – the appropriate questions for the latter being what happens when you can’t run a tractor, can’t buy food at the store etc. and my argument is basically we’re a long way too far down that end of the spectrum.

      Your question about what kind of social structure does anarchy lead to is also spot on and I’ll be coming to that too with a little help from, er, Marshall Sahlins.

      Meanwhile, here’s some more on the Stakhanovites:

      Don’t work too hard out there folks!

      But, genuinely, thanks for your comment Greg

    • I struggle with some of the more abstract stuff too, Greg — but I tend to find I enjoy the diversion of the resulting learning, even if it doesn’t always come easily. I think Andrew’s later reply about grounding some of the discussion more by relating it to real-world examples is probably helpful.

      As for why it is important? The social power dynamics of human societies have a huge effect on how people actually live. Getting this stuff wrong, and acting on it, leads to all kinds of strife and hardship. We really aren’t very far away from the sort of abusive extended chiefdoms that treat women as property, for example. We really aren’t very far away from full-blown fascism, either. Understanding how we, as a society, might get there from here is pretty crucial in making sure we end up somewhere more congenial. And where you might get hold of a nail is highly relevant to that: Soviet planned production schemes didn’t provide ready, equal and fair access to basic necessities, and the existence of food banks and soup kitchens (and health insurance…) suggests that free market crapitalism doesn’t do so very well either. We need something better than either of those options, but also better than the feudalism they replaced.

      One of the difficulties, as I see it, is that currently it’s easier for someone to stockpile nails (or whatever) while they’re cheap and then sell them on when people are desperate than it is to organise some way of creating nails without using fossil fuels (I understand this is not that difficult if you can mine the ore but it does turn nails into an artisanal product you buy from a blacksmith, maybe made by their apprentice…). This is a pretty short-term approach which will make life harder for everyone when the industrially-made nails run out, but in that short term it gets a few people very wealthy. I think a lot of the more theoretical discussions here essentially boil down to trying to identify, in advance, which strategies will avoid some kind of “Welp, there are no more nails (or medicines or rubber or roads or whatever) now…” situation.

      I’ve written in a comment on other posts here about my own upbringing in a violent and abusive household; it’s nothing new, and it’s nothing that has been solved by modernity, particularly. Yet I think there is something to be said for acknowledging that violence (or at least power struggle) between household members does exist, if we’re going to argue for a society made up mainly of households, where households are largely autonomous in terms of how they choose to provide for themselves. If you have a sadistic or greedy parent and there isn’t quite enough food, children will go hungry, so, how do we at least mitigate against that in a small farm future? And while modernity has certainly not solved the domestic violence problem, I only need to look at what is happening in Afghanistan or the recent shooting in Plymouth to realise that things in my own upbringing could have been orders of magnitude worse. So: how do we mitigate against that kind of violence?

      The very short version is that like it or not, how society is organised on a social and governance level does have real effects on everyday life, and it’s a good idea to have some idea where we want to go to give us some clues on how to get there from here.

      • Hey Kathryn.
        Thanks for the translation. That is a lot more approachable for me.
        I read your previous comment about your childhood and I’m only sure that I can not imagine what it must have been like. My wife is a psychotherapist and she deals with all kinds of trauma. My job is to be a good listener so she can let go of some of the violence she has witnessed. It is awful. Simply evil. Sorry does not cover it. I hope that you have found some peace and resolution.

        Guys can be jerks. And there seem to be a lot of them. How to fix that is an age old question. When I was younger I thought that All Women Must be Armed was a solution. Since I have learned that abusers were most likely abused at home. How you reach back and fix that, I don’t know.

        Another complex problem is the shape of a future society. Like any complex problem, if you start with a faulty premise you will reach the wrong solution.
        Since making predictions about the future is so difficult wouldn’t it make sense to imagine several sets of initial conditions and run a series of thought experiments and see where they lead.
        A couple easy examples, 1) a kazillion dollars in paper wealth evaporates when the realization finally dawns that you can not have infinite consumption on a finite planet and 2) climate change becomes so severe that it upends infrastructure and agriculture on a massive scale.

        Either of those scenarios ( and there must be more) have a dozen different possible outcomes. Do all the proposed outcomes converge on a small set of solutions ?

        Talk to me about simple things like non linear solutions to partial differential equations…

        • I think it’s not so much that all the proposed outcomes converge on a small set of solutions, as that some solutions are resilient to a number of different outcomes or pathways. No matter what’s going on in the world, we’ll still need to eat, so starting with “okay, how do we produce our food, anyway?” is as good a place as any…

    • I get where you are coming from in the low energy future there will not be the time to cogitate they will be too damn busy trying not to starve to death than expounding sociology , only when there is excess of just about everything can higher civilisation exist , that’s why there are no African Beethoven’s or south American Isaac Newton’s , too damn busy surviving . That is our future .

    • There will be a whole lot of used nails that can be re-used for a long time. And miles of steel wire or even car fenders to make into things. Salvage is much easier than new smelting.

  4. Chris, you write: “Yet what generates feudalism is not farming scale or style, nor even economic relations of landlord and tenant (which I strongly oppose throughout A Small Farm Future), but political relations.” I wonder what distinction you make between political and economic relations in this context? (for me they apperar to be the same, or two sides of the same coin.).

    • Hi Gunnar – yes, generally I think it’s a good idea not to make artificial distinctions between politics & economics but sometimes it can be illuminating. What I’m getting at here is that people often call ‘feudal’ any system where poorer small-scale farmers pay some kind of rent or tribute to richer landlords or aristocrats, but this covers such a multitude of different situations that the term loses meaning. I think it’s better reserved for a political situation of a weak central state and a kind of nested hierarchy of political authority around it.

      At the risk of provoking Greg again, Perry Anderson defines it in his book ‘Lineages of the Absolutist State’ as “the juridical serfdom and military protection of the peasantry by a social class of nobles, enjoying individual authority and property, and exercising an exclusive monopoly of law and private rights of justice, within a political framework of fragmented sovereignty and subordinate fiscality, and an aristocratic ideology exalting rural life” and as a “vertically articulated system of parcellized sovereignty and scalar property” (pp.407-8).

      Andrew may have a better informed view!

      Incidentally, just pulling the Anderson book down from the shelf reminds me that he has an interesting chapter on Sweden. Might try to summarize that sometime for your thoughts!

  5. Pingback: Renegade projections and the domestic mode of production: for Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021) | Small Farm Future

  6. About DMP you write, agreeing with Sahlins:

    “There is no inherent tendency to the amplification of production or the accumulation of wealth.”

    As a member of a household, I think I largely disagree.

    I live a pretty comfortable life, thanks to my spouse’s office job. I also consider our current housemate (who I’ve known for about nineteen years and who has lived with us for the past nine) part of our household, though our finances are separate.

    All three of us continually look for ways to improve our comfort and security, our resilience if you will. We rent and cannot install shutters on the south-facing windows, so I hang various shades out of them on hot days and grow beans on a gazebo on the patio (where I can reach up and pick French beans for supper, everyone should have a Bean Cave, it’s great) to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the house. We can’t put in cavity wall insulation so we insulate the loft and single-glazed windows as best we can (and keep the temperature pretty cool in winter anyway — the squashes keep longer that way…). I have put considerable time and energy into learning various horticultural and preserving skills, so that we can hugely expand the variety of food available to us. My current Next Big Project is a custom bicycle frame (I’m not building this myself, I’m getting a local frame-builder to do it) so that I can carry more stuff around, without having to compromise on parts that require more maintenance than I’m willing or able to do regularly. My housemate is currently investigating a leak in the plumbing under the bath, because that’s less disruptive than having the letting agents in to do it; my spouse is cooking dinner from veg we grew ourselves (…and some surplus beans given to us by neighbouring allotment plotholders), and spent the afternoon with me scrumping greengages in a park and making note of the best spots for pears and damsons and sloes to visit next month, even though we can certainly afford to buy vegetables and fruit when we want to. I’ve spent most of the last week preserving: two types of plum wine, umeboshi-style fermented plums, fruit leather, plum jelly, dried plums. (I still have more plums, so chutney is also on the list.)

    It’s fair to say that some of this activity is also because I have a keen sense of the precarity and provisionality of our current financial situation, both in terms of our household’s relationship to crapitalism (if my spouse loses his job we are… potentially in a very bad position indeed), and in terms of the wider political and economic context.

    But even without that sense of impending necessity, I don’t think it’s all that unusual for humans to look at a situation and apply their resources to making it easier or more enjoyable or more comfortable or more secure. My day job, as far as I have one, is choral composing, and the idea that households have no inherent tendency to increase their production sounds a bit like saying there’s no point composing any new music since we already have plenty to sing without getting bored. I mean, I could have just thrown all the plums in the freezer or dehydrator, or made a monster batch of jam (though I had more than would fit in the maslin pan at once so this would have taken ages anyway), or gathered enough to make a couple of desserts and then stopped, but where is the fun in that?

    Now, there are of course limits to this kind of expansion. I can say that the fruit-picking attachment on a long pole has amplified my plum-picking “production” enough that “do I have space for all these plums and time to process them before they go off?” is a bigger limiting factor than “can I reach enough plums to make it worth bothering to pick them?” and so at this stage I am only picking more if they are particularly well-flavoured. I only got into home brewing last summer because I picked a load of blackberries, got them home, and realised the freezer was full and it was far too hot to consider making jam (my imaginary homestead has a summer kitchen for things like this, my rented London house does not). But where we do experience a surplus my instinct isn’t “produce less” but “stop it going off somehow, then give some away, maybe be given something else in return sometime or maybe not”. Do I want to do this at the expense of, say, the longer-term viability of the soil? No, of course not — but the plums I gather in the nearest parks to me fall onto pavement, attract rats and wasps, and eventually get washed down the drain.

    I suppose the question is whether that is an inherent tendency: do I (or does my household) inherently work toward abundance rather than mere sufficiency, or is that a result of the wider context of precarity? I can’t say for sure. But I note, again, that an abundance of existing choral music does not stop me composing more. I also think that even despite the decadence of modernity (in the West, or at least for relatively well-paid people in the West), an awful lot of people do experience lack, scarcity, or precarity in their lives. So even if the tendency to amplification of production and accumulation of wealth is not inherent, but only exists in the context of scarcity or precarity, I might argue that we can still expect households to work toward higher production or higher accumulation if it leads to more security or more enjoyment.

    • Kathryn, briefly, I see your examples as in keeping with rather than countering my arguments above along the lines that “the disposition and allocation of labour are in the main domestic decisions…taken primarily with a view toward domestic contentment”. I’m not arguing that people don’t or shouldn’t try to increase their security or enjoyment, which seems to be what you’re doing with a relatively constant input of labour and other household resources in your examples. What you’re not doing in these examples is radically increasing the potency of your inputs – as might be the case if you were, say, investing in stock markets or property markets. But that’s the drift of the larger economy (hence the 11% real increase in GDP per capita in the UK over the last 10 years, or 100% in China) … which means these wider economies are not DMPs – and, I’d argue, their logic is not based just on amplifying the kind of household flows of value you’re describing but on something quite different.

      • Hmm; I think I wildly misunderstand the context, then.

        I do think individual households often want to get in on rent-seeking if they can, though. I know our landlord charges what he feels is a reasonable rent (and in fairness to him it was well below market rates when we moved in nearly 9 years ago, and hasn’t gone up for 8 years), but I note that he will have a house at the end of our tenancy, in addition to the one he lives in, and we will not. He justifies it to himself in ethical terms by keeping the rent low, and by keeping the letting agents on a short lead, and by reminding himself he may not have a pension when he retires, but… I still see a dude who owns two houses, one of which we have paid for rather a lot of but don’t get to keep. I’m not sure the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) crowd are much different either — the externalities and power differentials are more abstract, but surely they understand that “earning” interest comes from renting spare money (which they by definition don’t need for essentials) to other people (who by definition don’t have enough of their own for whatever it is they are trying to do).

        I think for people who don’t share my abhorrence of certain forms of usury and exploitation, making a profit by rent-seeking doesn’t feel much different than someone else getting a raise at work or me using a fruit-picking pole to gather plums: from their perspective, they are just using the resources they have to make their lives better. Perhaps without heavily financialised markets and laws about shareholder profits, the worst excesses awouldbe more easily avoided; but shareholders are after all human beings seeking their own (short-term?) best interests. That doesn’t mean I think it is impossible to pursue a household’s interests without exploiting others; just that I see much of what I would consider sinful exploitation as the direct result of individual households attempting to increase their wealth or (what they see as) production, and if this behaviour is not inherent it is at least so commonplace that inherence makes no difference.

        What am I missing?

        (NB I am not under the impression that my own choices are free of exploitative dynamics, either. I did not, after all, buy an artisanal, handcrafted fruit picker, though I would like to make one if I ever get around to learning to work with willow. I bought the cheapest one I could find that met my requirements on the Bay of E, and it was delivered to my house by a courier, who was almost certainly underpaid. The thing itself is factory mass-produced, which suggests some involvement of capital, with the worker exploitation and misery that so often comes with that. There is no ethical consumption under crapitalism, but this isn’t even something I *need*, just something that makes my foraging hobby easier. Kyrie eleison. And the cloth bag it comes with is so shoddy that I’ll have to make a new one before next season… at least that, I can have some part in beyond making a purchase.)

        • (And I’m aware of the contradiction between two of my statements: one that I don’t believe it’s impossible to expand a household’s production or wealth without exploiting others, and the other that there is no ethical consumption under crapitalism. Please take the former as a theoretical statement with certain utopian assumptions, and the latter as a description of where we actually are…)

      • Thanks Kathryn. Here we come to the perennial individual vs structural issue that I touch on in Chapter 16 of the book. I do think personal choices matter and I like it when people take a stand on whatever lines they choose not to cross. But ultimately I’m not convinced theories of human nature or character define the logic of capitalism. People are selfish and greedy, yes (including in Sahlins’s ‘primitive’ societies, as documented in his book). They’re also generous and self-sacrificing. What’s most significant IMO is how, when & where the wider social systems of which they’re a part cue these traits.

        • Indeed; we can’t solve the problems inherent in crapitalism by merely asking people to be ethical consumers, especially when we ask that of those most immiserated by that system. I am not suggesting that if the super rich simply thought about the consequences of their actions a bit more, our problems would be solved. I still wish they would do so, of course, but I can’t get there from here.

          It’s been a long time, but I seem to recall Adam Smith having something to say about the necessity of measures to limit the monopolies that otherwise develop. Personal choice matters, but the systemic context influences personal choice to a very large degree.

          So I suppose I would say that in my experience households do generally try to increase their productivity or accumulate wealth (if only to have enough spare capacity to fight off entropy: the bath was leaking, it transpired, because of a bit of push-fit plumbing that had come undone, and I’m sure the landlord appreciates not having to pay a call-out fee for a plumber to come and fix that), but that whether this is inherently exploitative (or damaging to the environment or to those outside the household or what have you) depends in large part on the wider systems in which the household is operating. I still feel like this is subtly different than what you and Sahlins are saying, but I’ll grant that the effect is much the same. I certainly agree that context is important!

          I might also venture that exploitation and abuse of power within households is also dependent, to some extent, on aspects of the wider context: I think domestic violence and abuse are more likely in situations where people cannot leave, or feel they cannot leave, an abusive household. I think these are also more likely in situations of extreme wealth inequality (or maybe status inequality?) and precarity, where expansion of household productivity or accumulation of wealth are more urgent and people are under more stress and might therefore struggle more with emotional self-regulation. (I remember particularly here part of my stepdad’s response to stress being to spend money we didn’t have on status symbol things we didn’t need because then he felt like an important and successful person, and part of my mother’s response to stress being to spend as little as possible because then she felt like a good wife, and how that meant I experienced some pretty serious food insecurity from a young age while my stepdad drove around in a series of very expensive sports cars. It was absurd.) Of course that doesn’t mean abuse is caused by or excused by the wider system rather than by personal choices on the part of people who have agency, and in this area more than perhaps any other I feel we do need a strong morality or culture that condemns abuse. But if we are operating on harm reduction principles, the thing to do is to ensure that the practical ability to leave is protected (so, there has to be somewhere safe to go to, it has to actually be safe, and people need to know about it and be able to get there), and probably also to reduce systemic wealth inequality and precarity (…and maybe status inequality, though I am really not familiar enough with the literature on social status and stress to even know if that makes sense).

        • Thanks Kathryn – some further comments on your latest under the thread with Andrew below.

          Your comments on your mother’s/stepdad’s approaches is fascinating, if also sad and a bit heart-rending. In terms of a sociological optic for it, I’d go back to the pioneering thought of Max Weber. So much of human behaviour is geared to status competition, and the battle to obtain a greater share of this limited good. And it can be done in different ways, and done well or badly, so that often enough indeed it seems at best absurd and at worst pathological.

          Marx, another key sociological pioneer, has important things to say about class formation and class consciousness. But I think Weber gets a bit closer to the heart of human behaviour.

          • Thanks for this; I’m not familiar with Weber’s work but will try to read some.

            I wonder if one of the advantages of organised religion has been an ability to reframe issues of status into issues of piety and devotion, sometimes enabling a greater amount of coordination than would otherwise be possible. Of course, that coordination has been oppressive and imperialist at least as often as it has been helpful; and even within small-beans parish churches, volunteer contributions can easily become very obviously status-driven. (Anecdotally, I have noticed this tendency more in middle-class congregations without a high emphasis on spiritual reflection or development, but anecdotes are not data, and it may simply be a selection effect, where people who are “successful” at playing status games in other areas of their lives do the same thing at church.)

            I keep coming back to ideas around monastic communities as refuges. This has obviously gone wrong many times in history; I wonder if anyone has studied the ways it has been done well, or at least not abusively.

            My childhood experiences of food insecurity, among other associated traumas, are a big part of why I like to be involved in producing at least some of my own food. Which isn’t to say “well, at least there’s a silver lining” (ugh) so much as that the autonomy I work toward now, even in admittedly fairly small ways as a London-dweller with an allotment, represents more to me than the purely utilitarian calculations around how much I might save on my grocery bill.

  7. Greg, I guess I should plead guilty to ‘nerding out’, but I’ve always appreciated Chris’s blog as a kind of crossroads where different ways of seeing collide, probably prompted by the range of his posts, and I do see value in taking a more theoretical view of societies, both past and present. Nevertheless, your comment has reminded me that it’s often useful to make clearer the connections between theory and practice, so I’ll try to do that from now on in my comments (though I can’t promise success!).

    Thanks for your comprehensive reply Chris, it clarifies a lot and promises more, which I look forward to. I think your point 4 calls for a response from me that may touch on some of the others as well, but I’d like to approach it an angle, beginning with the way you characterise the DMP in point 1, as an artificial construct inasmuch as it claims to describe actually existing societies, but also as ‘a ‘real’ point of political articulation’ in those societies.

    I think another way of putting what you’re saying here (although correct me if I’m wrong) is that the DPM, or something like it, serves as a kind of ideological focal point in Sahlin’s ‘primitive societies’. To clarify that, a useful analogy would be the way that the nuclear family serves as an ideological focus in ‘Western’ societies. At a ‘soft’ level it lies behind all sorts of ‘common sense’ notions we carry around with us, so for example we tend to expect people to be living in conjugal partnerships, and for children to be in the guardianship of such partnerships. Our societies are full of families that don’t fit this mould, but which then arouse our curiosity, even if mild, as to what might have happened, or what their history is. At a ‘harder’ level our legal systems make it easy for the biological parents of children to be recognised as their primary guardians, while other family configurations require more bureaucratic effort to obtain recognition. It may take a village to raise a child, as the saying goes, but it would take some effort to get a village recognised as that child’s legal guardian.

    So an ideological focal point basically gives rise to all sorts of ‘norms’ even if it doesn’t describe the actual structure of the society in which it works. It seems to me you’re promoting the DMP as something that would work similarly, this time in the realm of production, and specifically the production of sustenance and shelter. So in a small farm future we need to cultivate the assumption that a household (not a family – point 3 useful here) is primarily responsible for providing its own food and shelter, and that whatever mechanisms are found to create social rules (laws) and encourage their effectiveness should start from the assumption that a household is primarily in control of its own lands and resources, whatever these might be. But, as with the case of the nuclear family, the society in which the DPM acts in this ideological way would not necessarily look like a host of autonomous disconnected households, because as we’ve seen a society is never reducible to the ideological forces that work in them. Does that chime with your thinking on this?

    Turning now to point 4, when I said that I didn’t think it was enough to invoke tensions and workarounds within the household, I had in mind the need to deal with the kinds of problems that maintaining particular ideological claims always creates. In the case of the nuclear family, we’re probably all well aware of the many difficulties people who don’t fit that mould for one reason or another have suffered over the centuries and into the present, and the important role that organised campaigning has played in alleviating these problems and attempting to remove the hard edges of social and legal prejudice (as an aside, I appreciated the anecdote in point 6, but I hope the women involved would be less disadvantaged today as a result of similar campaigns).

    In the case of the DMP my concern is with the problems that would arise from the primary right of households to their own productive resources, inasmuch as relations within those households (whatever form they take – blood relations or not, nuclear family or otherwise) might be dominated by some members over others, through all the various violences of the intimate invoked earlier. It’s clearly in the interests of individual members of these households to be able to form effective solidarities with other people outside their households to work against this kind of problem, in ways that do not prejudice their own claims to sustenance. What that means in practice, I think, is that the ideological force of the DMP needs to be deliberately limited in some way, so that some broader structuring of society has the recognised right to intervene and arbitrate over issues of resource allocation within families. When I say it’s not enough simply to invoke tensions and workarounds, I’m arguing for the necessity of clear mechanisms of restraint on the rights accorded to households in any vision of a small farm future. In that sense I’d see Graeber’s ‘egalitarian confederacies’ as necessary supporting structures to limit the concentration of inequality in the households of which they are composed.

    Finally, I’ve largely bypassed the ‘feudal’ issues in the post and comments above. In medieval studies the f-word is avoided if possible, as it became all things to all analyses. There is still a strong current of Marxist historiography that finds a use for the Feudal Mode of Production (sometimes also called the Tributary Mode), which Chris alludes to above, and in my view rightly calls out as largely meaningless, given the range of situations it is applied to (for example, tax payments to a state and tributary payments to a local warlord can look strangely indistinguishable within the analyses characteristic of this Mode). In the cases of societies formed around some version of the DMP there are obviously interesting questions to ask about the extent to which some degree of productivity should be directed outside households towards common projects, and how much or how little this should involve compulsion of some kind.

    • Edit: there’s a line in my penultimate paragraph that reads ‘resource allocation in families’, which should read ‘resource allocation in households’. Another example of how our current norms linking family with household can work subconsciously!

    • Thanks Andrew. A few thoughts:

      Your nuclear family example is interesting. I probably need to think about it some more. Generally I think I have some uncertainties in these discussions around what ideally I’d like to see happen and what ideally I’d like to see happen given what I think is likely to happen. Also around what’s purely cultural/historical and what’s also driven by external ecological factors.

      Anyway, I agree with you that typically there are unequal distributions of resources within households within the DMP. However, these differ in different DMP societies – they are not simply determined by the existence of the DMP. And they exist in other societies too (I’m less sanguine than you about changes since my anecdote from the 1960s). I’m not convinced that they’re necessarily more acute in DMP societies.

      Nevertheless, I’m supportive of the idea of wider institutional structures to curb the potential excesses within the individual household. This is something we talked about in relation to domestic abuse and violence a few posts back. “It takes a village” etc. not only to raise a child but to educate a household – extreme behaviour can be damped by the wider collectivity. But this usually doesn’t prevent wider chronic inequalities – eg. men generally commanding more power and resources than women.

      Where it gets tricky is in what I think is your implicit assumption that the really problematic issues (inequality or whatever) operate in or are specifically generated within household and close personal relationships and, to use that phrase again, the supra-household level (the state or whatever) works as a deus ex machina that rides in to save the household’s members from each other. I don’t think supra-household politics usually operates like this (there’s been plenty of modern state welfare capitalism that entrenches household inequalities & divisions, typically by gearing itself around employed, married, heterosexual, majority ethnic men). And where it does drive a more egalitarian agenda, I’d question the source of that agenda. I don’t think it comes entirely from on high, and has nothing to do with people’s household-based ideas and motivations. As I said previously, I think households and higher level political centres react upon each other.

      So generally, like you, I worry about injustice in intra-household relations in DMP societies and want to see supra-household institutions to mitigate it. But I’m not sure these institutions can be relied on to do so and, if they do, I’m not sure it can be said that their efficacy derives from some higher realm outside the household that points up the latter’s limitations. I hope to say some more about this a few posts down the line. But basically I think there are some dilemmas here with no easy solutions.

      In practice, though, household members always do have extra-household relationships which can be a source of mitigation (as I mentioned, I think Sahlins was stretching a point to make a point). Also, of course, their household relationships often do a lot of mitigating of extra-household relationships. I’m not sure I’d want to assign inherent primacy.

      I’ll have to read the Graeber & Wengrow stuff. Funny, because it sounds a little bit off kilter with the Graeber & Sahlins stuff. Maybe we need to locate some Wengrow & Sahlins stuff to sort this out 🙂

      • Thanks Chris. I think you’re right to highlight the uncertainty that surrounds these discussions, and the difficulties in how to approach what is basically an attempt to ‘design’ a new future. That said, we’re all seem to enjoy working at this drawing board!

        I tend to agree that inequality of various forms is not necessarily more acute in DMP societies, it’s just that such societies are what we’re discussing here – I don’t hold a torch for another kind of society that would necessarily work better, but I’m keen to explore potential problems here in hope of working through possible paths to resolution.

        Likewise, I’m happy to acknowledge that ‘households and higher level political centres react upon each other’. The relationship is, dare I say it, a dialectical one! There is no guarantee that higher level structures would mitigate abuses in households, but given the possibility that they might do so, it makes sense to ‘design’ them that way at the drawing board – I think that’s something we agree on in any case.

        My reason for highlighting the possible inequalities within households is a response to the idea that the household should be promoted as the primary social institution. Given that primacy, that political advantage, it makes sense to consider how that power might be abused.

        I suppose ultimately, given a dialectical relationship between households and broader structures, we’re looking for a productive balance in which each acts to mitigate the negative tendencies of the other.

      • Thanks Andrew – and also Kathryn above…

        Possibly I haven’t been very clear, even in my own mind, about how to frame this issue – jointly, your comments have been helpful in this respect.

        I think what I’m saying is that whether we like it or not, a small farm future awaits many people. This isn’t particularly something to celebrate, but at the same time it’s worth accentuating the positives where we can – and there are some – rather than consigning small farm visions to the feudal/romantic toxic waste dump. The more we can prepare now for this future the easier it will be, so indeed there’s an element of ‘designing’ a society in play, but the fundamental drivers aren’t really within our control. I’m not optimistic that we *will* adequately prepare, so then it’s a case of least worst politics – trying to ‘design’ out some of the flaws in the social systems that we inherit.

        So with that said, I think I’m on the same page with you Andrew in terms of trying to design the best DMPs we can arising out of present circumstances and pressures.

        As to your cheeky invocation of dialectics – ha! I see what you’re trying to do, but nice try 🙂 If it is a dialectic, it’s a slow one that’s more oriented to keeping things ticking along in the face of inevitably changing ideas and circumstances, rather than one focused on tearing down the social world and remaking it around some dizzily shape-shifting collective subject. Perhaps we could call it ‘slow Marxism’, with the slogan ‘the revolution will be a while – in fact, you may be gone before it comes around.’

        In relation to Kathyrn’s comments – yes absolutely the issue is making it possible for people to walk away from bad household situations, a point I make on p.171 of the book and also in the Land article. The difficulty is that this is harder to do in household farming societies … and there are some advantages to this, but also this big disadvantage. I don’t have any magic answers to this, but I’ll say a bit more about it soon. I agree, though, that this is an area that requires action and ‘design’.

        • I like the “slow Marxism” idea, but then incrementalism always seemed like a better idea to me than revolution, simply because the people who benefit from and are good at leading revolutions are not necessarily the people we want in charge the rest of the time.

          One of the difficulties I think we face (and perhaps Joe who comments here would agree) is that the rate of climate catastrophe may well be outpacing what we can achieve by incrementalism. So revolution (in the sense of rapid change, rather than any long-awaited proletarian victory) will come; where we will end up after that could easily be some kind of small farm dystopia, and will certainly need more small farms than we have now. Figuring out what solidarity and sustainability look like from there will probably be that much harder, but from here, we don’t know exactly what we’ll be working with.

          Which leaves us with a triage problem: how much time and energy do we spend trying to reduce carbon outputs now? How much do we spend trying to ensure our society is prepared for what is to come? How much time and energy do we put into ensuring our households are likely to survive?

          The answers, as ever, depend on context.

        • I love ‘slow Marxism’ – ‘savour the dialectic!’ in truth, I find dialectical thinking very useful when studying history, but in a basic analytical sense – tensions arising from the working through of interdependent social processes – not a determinist evolutionary or necessarily revolutionary sense. Dialectical phenomena are basic to society, I think, and impossible to overcome, although at best they might be guided and altered.

          So I’m with you on a certain degree of ‘incrementalism’, as Kathryn calls it, but I’ll keep plugging for a certain degree of collective super-household action as well, if only to create those broader dialectical relationships with households that keep their less desirable aspects in tension with other social forces, and so offer the potential for ‘progressive’ action when it might be needed.

          Perhaps the deliberate maintenance of particular kinds of tension, which give scope to small-scale ongoing resolutions, comes closer to your sense of tensions and workarounds with which we started. Our differences maybe lie on the degree of emphasis placed on deliberate collective action in those workarounds.

          • Collectively organised multiple-axis action for incremental change is basically the model I favour: work together with different groups to make things better for everyone, a little bit at a time (so we don’t have to tear up what progress we already have).

            But I strongly suspect that, from where we are now, we don’t have time…

            Meanwhile, I wonder if the dangers of being too household-focused are similar to other parochialism-type dangers. They are basically externalities: things that my village might do with a river or stream, if I lived in a village, might negatively affect those downstream; or things that my group of friends might do in the city where we live might affect those on the other side of the world. A great argument for a kind of humble simplicity as part of sustainable living is that there is less of all of this to keep track of. If I mend my summer allotment trousers instead of buying new ones, I don’t have to worry about whether the new ones were made in a sweat shop.

          • Though predominantly household-based farming doesn’t in itself mean that there are no wider collective arrangements. I’ll discuss this in relation to commons soon. Commons & households almost always go together…

    • Thanks for that Simon. Good to see free grazing still alive in the US west. But what a terrible carbon footprint that guy must have – he should sell those methane-belchers and buy himself a Tesla…

    • I really like the comparison, in the video, of guerilla horticulture and guerilla pastoralism, which echoes some of the “but you get a lot more security of calories if you have livestock” discussions we’ve had here.

  8. Hi Chris,
    I see that you live in the UK so you may not be too familiar with Amish. But they seem to be doing the kind of small farm future that you write about and experiment with.

    They are fairly successful and their communities are growing in size and number.

    Maybe their example is useful?

    • Hi Jim, thanks for posting. We’ve touched on the Amish from time to time on this blog over the years, but I certainly wouldn’t claim to have any in depth knowledge about them. Interested of course of further thoughts…

      • Hrmm
        I am unfamiliar with the anthropological literature, but i would have thought there would be a fair amount of work done on them. (if for no other reason than how easy it is to study them.) i live in Ohio and the Amish seem to be doing increasingly well in these parts. And i am starting to think i might have a lot more to learn from them and less to learn from silicon valley tech bros.

        I have read a number of your posts but not your book (yet) so sorry if this is something you have already covered.

        What kind of role do you see for religion in the small farm future?

  9. Thanks for all the comments on this piece. I need to write the next post and do about a million other things besides so I think I’m going to refrain from further comment right now, but I appreciate the interesting and varied perspectives which have all been informative. Just to address Jim’s question, I talk a little about religion in Chapter 16 of the book, and I hope to write a post about it here soon.

    • I am also really looking forward to the post on religion! (Not that I’m an expert, by any means — but I wonder how many other regular commenters here consider their religious faith a core defining part of their life.)

      • Spirituality or religion ?

        It seems like a lot of the traditional religions have trouble with power over issues and abuse.

        I doubt that anyone would comment on a post concerning religion…

        • How would you define the difference between spirituality and religion, Greg?

          Traditional or organised religions do often have trouble with power. I’m not sure we can say that those problems are inherent to religion, though, rather than inherent to power differentials. Similarly, there are abusive or dysfunctional people in many families — that doesn’t mean that families (or other households) are inherently bad. Politicians are also often corrupt, and yet some kind of community governance is still necessary.

          I think the best systems for avoiding abuse in religious contexts involve making sure power isn’t concentrated in or mediated by one person or one small group of people. This is easier said than done, but I can go into some of the steps that the Church of England is taking, if you really want to know.

          • Let me start by saying that I am a recovering Catholic and I don’t have a lot of time to spend thinking through all the ifs, ands and buts of everything. So thanks for asking. It helps me clarify my thoughts.

            I see the difference as more internally driven versus external.

            Spirituality is a diffuse sense that there are some bigger things happening that we are not completely aware of. Kind of a cross between ethics and ‘an anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a policeman to tell him what to do’.

            Religion is a more organized operation with the old white guy in the sky calling the shots. His appointed few make sure the rest of us stay in line. Unless you are Muslim or Hindu, etc. But the basic concept is the same.

            As far as dysfunction in families – It is not universal but is problem often enough to be a real problem. Is power over / abuse a learned behavior or part of some guy’s (usually) genetic make up ? If it is learned, it can be modified. If it is genetic it might take more drastic measures to fix.

          • Greg, I think Catholicism can be quite a bit more top-down and hierarchical than many religions are, even other denominations of Christianity. Maybe that is part of why, on a world wide level, it is so widespread. I am not Catholic and never have been so perhaps my perception is mistaken. (There is, however, nothing in Christian scripture to suggest that God is white!)

            For me, one difference between religion and spirituality is that religion involves defining, within a community context, rules about how to live. These rules are informed by spirituality but do not in and of themselves define it.

            As for abuse, I am less concerned with whether it is learned or genetic (ah, the nature Vs nurture discussion again) than with having communities and systems in place to reduce the incidence, and get people to safety when it does happen. I am against eugenics, which I think any attempt to prevent genetic transmission of an “abuse gene” would quickly turn into — maybe those are not the drastic measures you meant. I think the behaviours and beliefs that lead to people deciding abuse is a good solution to problems are learned very young, though, and learning other ways to behave is something that will take generations. I don’t expect a small farm future to solve this problem, but if we’re thinking about how to significantly change our lives anyway it makes sense to give some thought to not exacerbating it. Meanwhile, I think a lot of the larger and perhaps less direct oppressions and exploitations come from a similar mindset to that of abuse, whether that is people choosing to buy clothing made in a sweatshop, or corporations choosing to act without regard for worker safety or ecological sustainability. People often make bad decisions, and we do it more often when the immediate bad effects hurt someone else, especially if they are strangers far away, rather than us. Insofar as a small farm future is also a future of locally-oriented production and trade, perhaps at least some of that will be mitigated.

    • I usually read one or two Resilience articles every day and have been waiting for subsequent installments of Angus’ historical review (they are not on his own website). While I’m not a big fan of feudal social structure, it did have the advantage of being a sustainable way to organize food production.

      It’s beginning to look to me like the difficulty of unwinding the industrial food system supplying modern countries and creating a small farm future for a wide swath of their populations is insurmountable, so I am hoping that Angus will include a strategy for returning food production to some form of sustainable structure and prove me wrong.

      Chris has clearly described a vision of a sustainable future; what’s missing is the transition. I think Cuba came the closest to figuring it out, but even that example is pretty inconclusive. Zimbabwe showed how not to do it, but neither of those countries presented the same level of difficulty as the UK or the US. If it’s possible at all, transitioning to a small farm future is going to be extremely difficult.

      • Fair enough. In some ways I think right now the vision is more important than the transition, but I appreciate arguments for the contrary case – it’s just that I don’t think anyone can reasonably lay out the detailed politics of the path, which have to be worked out in practice. However, I’m unpersuaded by simplifying modernist assumptions e.g. that the transition will be delivered by the profit motive or the working class. Hence my arguments for a civic republican politics of recognition. Agree with you though that the transition will be at best extremely difficult.

        I’m cautious of the term ‘feudalism’ for the reasons discussed above.

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

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