Of grain and gulags: a note on work, labour and self-ownership

I’ll begin with a brief account of how our modern global grain trading system was invented in Chicago in the 19th century, which is maybe a bit of a jolt from the present focus of this blog cycle on the forms of property but hopefully my purposes will become clear.

Prior to the railroad/grain elevator/futures market nexus that began to emerge in the 1850s, prairie grain farmers sold their product in sacks that retained their identity with the source farm through to the point of sale. The innovation of the railroad/elevator system was to create standardized grades of grain that enabled the harvest from individual farms to be amassed together in vast quantities as a fungible commodity like money. The innovation of the futures market was to remove uncertainty about future price fluctuations, essentially by enabling speculators to assume the burden of the risk by betting on movements in grain prices. Before long, the value of the futures being traded greatly exceeded the value of the physical grain in existence.

These innovations called forth vastly more economic activity than previously possible, created a torrent of cheap grain that flooded global markets and pushed farmers in other places out of grain production (and often out of farming altogether), and stimulated the growth of prairie grain farming, while removing from farmers themselves substantial economic autonomy, fostering perhaps a self-interest on their part in the grading of their grain at the margin, but not a more holistic interest in the story of their grain from field to fork. They also pretty much forged the global economy as we know it today (I’ll ignore the meat/livestock side of the story for brevity, but the globalization of meat production was another prong to the same history)1.

How do you feel about this story? I ask because I think it often prompts strong emotions, which divide between two mutually uncomprehending camps (OK, so real life is always a bit more complicated than the dualities we impose on it, but I think this one does neatly organize quite a bit of thinking).

One camp responds positively to the story. Perhaps some of its adherents will concede that not everything that happened was rosy, but consider these downsides remediable without fundamental change to the economic model first forged in Chicago. Some key words or phrases for this camp are efficiency, development, modernization, globalization, progress, technology, labour-saving and back-breaking labour.

The other camp responds negatively to the story, and doubts that the problems created by the global commodity grain economy can be remedied without fundamental change. Some key words or phrases for this camp are autonomy, freedom, craftsmanship, honest work, self-reliance and community. This is the camp I’m in, and I’ve spent way too long in fruitless debate with people who think these qualities are quaint, outmoded, dangerous or outright laughable.

I should note that if we dial back a few more years through prairie history, we’d find in many places mounted, bison-hunting American cultures who were violently usurped by the settler farmers. A few more years still, beyond any European colonial influence, and we’d find forager-horticulturists without horses or bison-based economies. Which is to say that it’s possible to reject a particular historical turn of events without invoking some prior state of grace where all was sweet and stable.

Something to notice about these two camps: in the first, work is negative – ‘saving labour’ is good, ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Whereas in the second, it’s positive – work is craftmanship and self-realization, a part of how you make your mark upon the world and of how you and others judge you.

Another thing to notice: the first camp orients to pooling, generalizing and abstracting things – grain, money and labour can be hugely amassed and take on protean forms that escape particular, local control. The second camp orients to the specifics of food as a source of life and pleasure, and money and work as relatively scarce means of self-realization. It opposes the mass multiplication of these qualities.

Overlaying the familiar modern left-right political duality on the two camps, the first can encompass the full gamut of modernist politics from far left to far right and most points in between, including the neoliberal status quo. The second no doubt sounds ‘conservative’ to some contemporary ears, with its emphasis on self-reliance, personal autonomy and particularistic community, but historically it’s also crossed the left-right divide.

Perhaps instead of trying to shoehorn the two camps into the left-right duality, it’s more illuminating to notice where their tensions arise in respect of it. I find the sociologist Richard Sennett’s distinction between unity and inclusion useful here:

“The Left divided between those who sought to establish solidarity top-down and those who sought to create it bottom-up; the centralized German labour union represented the one approach, the local American workshop the other …. There were … two versions of solidarity in these discussions, the one emphasizing unity, the other inclusion”2

So, on the left, our first camp aggregates labour into classes, and emphasizes the importance of class unity in achieving political goals. Which is fine from my point of view, in some instances. Sometimes, people do amass themselves self-consciously into a class to achieve political goals, and need to act as a unified bloc to achieve them.

But for me this way of thinking gets problematic when it offers itself as a general theory of society and social progress. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made the claim that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” which, I would humbly suggest, is something of an overstatement. Marx and Engels’ politics was grounded in the notion that the landless industrial working classes emerging particularly in the richest countries of their day embodied the most perfectly realized and universalized class consciousness whose victory would bring this history of class struggle to an end. Whereas the executive of the modern state, according to the Communist Manifesto, was “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, people massed as landless labour and with a unified political consciousness arising from this would overturn the bourgeois state and repurpose it for the collective benefit of all, before the state ultimately ‘withered away’ in Engels’ famous phrase.

I find these views contradictory and unconvincing, indeed ironically somewhat ‘bourgeois’ in their obsession with aggregation and progress. But I’m not going to dwell on critiquing them here. Generally, I think this mass modernist mindset across its entire political spectrum has difficulties with or is uninterested in generating a politics of the person as a complex, intentional being set within a wider community and culture. On the far right, personhood is subordinated to the interests of the state or ethno-state. On the far left, it’s subordinated to class identity and the ever-receding promise that once all the bourgeois and counterrevolutionary elements have been destroyed, life will be sweet. Among the capitalist (neo)liberals, it’s subordinated to a similar millenarianism in the belief that if the economy is allowed to aggregate capital and labour as its internal logic dictates, then ultimately everyone will find redemption in the marketplace.

I don’t think the modern history of totalitarianism, gulags, holocausts, state-induced famines, extreme labour exploitation and extractivism bears out the first camp’s dreams. People who still hold to these dreams usually respond to past failures either by denying that they happened, or by saying that the people who suffered in them were beyond the pale and had it coming (that emphasis on unity against the enemy again), or by claiming that these events were distorted misapplications of the true ideology whose redemptive purity still floats above the grubby realities affected in its name.

But let me turn to the second camp. I guess at root I hold to the slightly-but-not-very modernist view that it’s good to honour the complexities and intentions of individual human persons, which are always set within a wider community and culture. This makes property a point of tension in the second camp in a way that it isn’t for the first camp, where individuals have no inherent claim against the aggregative will of states, classes or capital. Those of us in the second camp, however, believe that self-possession, owning one’s self, being an autonomous agent, is critical to human life.

Self-possession implies property in some sense – being able to claim a personal right to generate wellbeing from the world we share with other people and organisms. At one point in their influential new book, David Graeber and David Wengrow endorse societies that “guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life”3 and it seems implicit in their view that this also means people in these societies guaranteed each other the means to an autonomous life, however varied notions of what constitutes a person and what constitutes autonomy might be in different times and places.

But how best to make this guarantee in the face of other people’s claims and the more collective aspects of social life is by no means straightforward, especially for those of us with some kind of leftist commitment to equity of one sort or another. So, for us, how to generate or mediate the social is problematic – which I guess is why I’ve spent a lot of time in my writing worrying about how to relate personhood and self-possession to collectivities like families, commons, communities, publics, classes, and states, without coming up with any ultimately satisfactory answers. In my view that’s probably okay, because I don’t think there are any ultimately satisfactory answers. There are permanent tensions involved in human politics, and these are some of them.

But at least by attending to them one is focusing on the right issues. To use Sennett’s terminology, I think creating inclusivity is a much harder problem than creating unity. But it’s a problem worth tackling, because as I see it insisting on a politics of unity long-term beyond transient political alliances creates more repressive, violent and anti-human societies than ones that focus on inclusivity. There are some radically different ways of trying to create inclusivity, and their fortunes depend on the wider social forces in play at a given place and time. I’ll say more about that in my next post.

A final couple of points. I’ve been criticized over the years by a number of Marxists for my anti-modernist and localist politics, for example by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron who consider my politics “ripe for far-right appropriation” and my vision of agrarian futures as one of merely “ek[ing] out a living” rather than “truly living”. Here is where the camps of aggregative labour versus honest work, of unity versus inclusivity, talk past one another. I stand firm in my vision of a small farm future against Heffron and Heron’s modernizing, aggregating, and frankly very bourgeois view that their version of class politics shines a modernizing light of improvement onto rural lives they arrogantly consider blighted by the particularities of local livelihood and community. One reason I’m a big believer in small farmers obtaining secure private property rights whenever they can is that it helps them avoid getting ‘improved’ out of existence through grandiose and usually ill-fated modernization schemes of the kind Heffron and Heron seem to favour.

As to ‘far-right appropriation’, I simply reject the notion there are prior political unities that anyone can draw lines around and defend against anyone else’s appropriations. The accusation stems from that top-down, imposed conception of supposed ‘unity’. For sure, one can make an issue of localism, culture, particularity and self-possession in ways that could lead to fascist misery. One can also make an issue of class unity and the supposed idiocy of rural life in ways that lead to dead peasants, gulags and communist misery. It’s easy to get into these thin-end-of-the-wedge type arguments, but now more than ever I don’t think they’re illuminating. The political field is changing, and old political demarcation lines offer increasingly poor guidance to the future. But older forms of politics are still relevant, as I will try to show in upcoming posts.


  1. I’m drawing here on William Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis.
  2. Richard Sennett. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. p.39.
  3. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything. p.48.

22 thoughts on “Of grain and gulags: a note on work, labour and self-ownership

  1. Thanks for another excellent post. The story-telling at the beginning is excellent. And I hadn’t heard that the late, great Graeber had a posthumous title; thanks for putting me on to that.

    Your recognition that modernist movements are all aligned in finding their meaning in the unifying fixation (I would use the word “idolatry”) of Class, Nation/State, and Market is well said. Peter Maurin made this point often in his Easy Essays, which perhaps you’d enjoy.

    However, I think there’s a lacuna in the center of your call to a localist/pre-modern/post-Enlightenment politics. All the modernist systems promise some kind of “redemption”, as you note a few times above. Redemption/the Good Life/utopia is an overwhelmingly powerful narrative: untold millions have fought, suffered, and died for it. But your alternative seems to be contained in the line:

    “…how to generate or mediate the social is problematic – which I guess is why I’ve spent a lot of time in my writing worrying about how to relate personhood and self-possession to communities […] without coming up with any ultimately satisfactory answers. In my view that’s probably okay, because I don’t think there /are/ any ultimately satisfactory answers. There are permanent tensions involved in human politics, and these are some of them.”

    No ultimately satisfactory answers on how to mediate personal and social fulfillment? If it’s true, it’s enormously bleak. It’s hard to imagine the neo-peasant uprising charging into battle against the Amazon security drones without a little more holding them together.

    I propose that virtue ethics and the common good is the missing link which binds together the localist politics we’re after. I’m sure you’ve read Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics at some point; I think MacIntyre argues persuasively in After Virtue that this philosophic tradition, broadly conceived, can and must be the foundation of a politics and economics after modernity, i.e., the pursuit of Common Goods (peace, justice, etc, which don’t diminish when shared) through the virtuous life provides the mediation between personal and social fulfillment.

  2. Chris wrote, “Something to notice about these two camps: in the first, work is negative – ‘saving labour’ is good, ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Whereas in the second, it’s positive – work is craftmanship and self-realization, a part of how you make your mark upon the world and of how you and others judge you.”

    My tent is in the second camp, but I would tend to agree with the first camp’s thinking that ‘back-breaking labour’ is bad. Instead of arguing for consolidation and large-scale mechanization, however, I’m an advocate for ‘appropriate technology’ to deal with the repetitive tasks which otherwise harm human bodies.

    A case in point is the widespread small-scale harvesting of paddy rice, wheat, and fodder in India using sickles while squatting in the fields. Alexander Vido introduced scythes to many farmers in India after a doctor there told him, “Many patients suffer from back ache and arthritis of knees from squatting for long hours during field work like cutting grass and harvesting.” The first 30 seconds of this viral video (made by Alexander Vido) shows wheat being cut by Indians while squatting with a sickle, and standing with a scythe.

    Scythe Project in India 2016

    A manual tool, such as a scythe, can be labour-saving at the household scale, increasing personal productivity to free up time for other activities (like education, creative pursuits, family time, etc.)

    • Steve L.

      Thanks for the link to the video. I can’t believe that they were cutting that whole field crouched down! The field was huge!

      But it’s not like a scythe is new tech. I can’t believe that people in India haven’t known about them??????
      But, wow, what a difference it makes. I like the attachment that lays the cut stems in a neat pile.

      • For centuries, scythes have been part of the farming culture in Europe (W. and E.), but they were mostly unknown as a viable option in parts of Asia (where sickles are traditionally used) and Central and South America (where machetes are often used to cut grass).

        When Alexander Vido demonstrated a scythe in Nepal in 2012, agricultural officials there thought it was a new invention. Five years ago, when an Indian company tried to get an importing license for scythe blades (obtained directly from the factory), they hit a roadblock when they found that scythes weren’t on the government’s list of agricultural tools (for determining applicable duties and taxes). Now, the Indian government actually encourages the use of scythes by subsidizing the purchase cost for farmers.

        (I believe I’m still on-topic since scythes and other ‘appropriate technology’ can be very relevant to grain, work, labour saving, efficiency, and self-reliance for small farmers.)

  3. How do you feel about this story?

    I think it’s merely a story… I’ll agree it is a story built upon many specific and indeed important facts. But it is a story that also ignores or sidesteps a handful of other specific and important facts.

    The lands upon which the railroads were built (The Prairie) was at that moment in time the most fertile and expansive of the grain belts open to cultivation by humanity. The tools available to the new farmers of this great prairie were not mere trains, rails, and futures markets, but included a steel plow, relatively mature capital markets where land speculation was very vigorous, and a federal government bent on beating European powers from further intrusions on the continent. One might even argue that the politics of slavery that was boiling over on the continent in the 1850s played some role in how the Chicago miracle had a chance to become the subject at hand.

    International trade (or Intercontinental trade if you like) was not a new phenomenon at the time. Sugar, spices, even human beings as labor devices were floated all over the globe to satisfy the rich and powerful. Prior to grand armadas of ocean going transport there were overland trade routes for millennia which supported trade and allowed producers in one area to compete with producers in other physical locations.

    I suppose this little rant might come from my own personal experience of growing up on this same prairie a bit more than 100 years after the events described. So I’m biased. But more than the mere coincidence of my existence in this place, I’ve been curious about the history and the legacy of the many generations of ‘white’ habitation in the shadow of Manifest Destiny… I’ve been on the floor of the CME, have for over 40 years worked to improve an important commodity traded there, and have worked side by side with other inheritors of this land and the infrastructure built upon it by our ancestors. From this perspective I imagine the tulip markets of the Dutch, the slave markets of the Romans, and even the historic trade routes of Marco Polo might serve as forerunners of the revolutionary trade allowed by the 1850s blooming of the American middle west with rail, commodity trading, and so forth.

    But lets return to Chris’ analysis built upon this “story”… I’ve no serious quarrel with how he sorts out various camps – left and right, rich and poor. But I would suggest many of these human relationships existed prior to 1850, and there were already many centuries of human experience stored up to draw upon – from Persian, Greek, and Roman civilizations and through authors such as Machiavelli, Goethe, and still more ancient religious traditions.

    Perhaps one day someone will hold up the world wide web as some revolutionary human invention that turned civilization on its head – and notions of railroads, grain elevators, steel plows, and cotton gins will seem too antiquated… just another stop along the silk road of world wide development. And when such a story is told, I’m betting there will still be different camps of people, some will be civil and others not so much.

  4. Yes, thanks Chris for an excellent post.

    I’m going to echo Sean. ‘Idolatry’, indeed.

    But “…how to generate or mediate the social is problematic…”

    Sure enough, but I don’t find that fact any bleaker than any of the other brain-breaking work of being human. Mediating the social is real work.
    I prefer digging potatoes.

    But I have also noticed that the work of mediating the social issues among my friends and neighbors and countrypersons only ever seems to be made harder and worse by any ideological overlay. It is always better to deal with the social issues directly, rather than adding some arbitrary political requirements on top of all else.

    This is why I regard our current keyboard Marxists as clever children, and then leave the room.
    Our current (much larger) crop of capitalist pillagers is much more of a problem. The only thing is to hide from them. Unless you are the kind of masochist that enjoys bloody barroom brawls on a Saturday night.

    I will admit that my life has been easy. I am a middle class white man who came of age when it was still easy for an average person to make a comfortable living. I can enjoy manual labor because it doesn’t provide the majority of my sustenance. I have done back-breaking labor, briefly, and I’m not recommending it. Nor do I believe that back-breaking labor is even necessary if the majority of the resources are not being stolen by a few from the many.

    Be that as it may, I am exactly the kind of person who should fit nicely into whatever dominant social/political structure surrounds me, but I never have.
    Fortunately, I learned decades ago the value of keeping one’s mouth shut and head down, and then going and doing whatever the hell I want in full public view, just as if I knew what I was doing. It is shocking how much you can get away with if you just act normal.

    And this is why I view ‘struggle’ as a waste of time. Along with politics and class consciousness. We can work to common goals with our friends and neighbors, no matter what ideologies we each might subscribe to. Helping my neighbor put siding on his barn requires no political beliefs at all.

    Clearly, the trouble starts as the groups get larger.

    Also, I take Clem’s point. It is complicated. And there were/are many different people with many different views.
    But it is well to remember that old bit about how the nature of the tool affects the user.
    Railroads are an excellent example of this.

    Railroads are very effective transportation devices, but the development of the railroads in North America was funded primarily by real estate speculation. The transportation was just a by-product.

    It is manifestly clear that the main purpose of railroad development here was to conquer a continent and to make twelve well-connected families fabulously rich. At least as much money was made from railroads that were never built than from the ones that actually went to work. The farmers and livestock and grain were just an excuse. Necessary to make the scheme work, but ultimately beside the point.

    Maybe I’m agreeing with you here, Clem. The railroads and futures markets are juts tools. Human avarice is the real problem, and as you say, that is very old.

    What is so disturbing about what we have done on this continent though, is how thoroughly we have allowed greed to be the driving factor in our society, and how effectively we have lied about that.

  5. On the banks of the River Eke I honed in on ‘merely ek[ing]’ and ‘truly live’, but probably shouldn’t get hung up on thinking of them like opposites – one good the other less desirable – nor even as points along a scale, but to remember that each can contain the other. Sometimes to eke is to flourish, and vice versa.

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    Sean – I’m happy to endorse virtue ethics and ideas of the common good as the guiding light for a localist politics of self-possession. But instantiating that anywhere in the specifics of daily life is going to throw up endless puzzles and difficulties. I don’t myself see that as bleak – on the contrary, the need for political negotiation and a recognition that nobody gets to have the final word seems more attractive to me than its alternative. But yes I’m definitely up for bringing a dose of Aristotle, Macintyre and others to this table, or stoa…

    Steve – no quarrel from me on that. The issue for me rather is the rhetorical deployment of the concept of ‘back-breaking labour’. At root, I’m not convinced that there was less back-breaking labour in evidence post any of the world’s major ‘labour-saving’ modernization breakthroughs than before – or at least that there is no stable association.

    Clem – I think I may be missing your point. For sure, my little sketch missed out many details, some of which could possibly be regarded as technological or ecological prime movers, while others were social factors intrinsic to the modernizing move itself. For sure, too, the events I described weren’t the first or last time in global history that world system dynamics were changed through aggregation and abstraction – as I said above, my story wasn’t a story of the Fall. But I’m not sure how what you’ve said really changes the points I’m making above. Eric frames the story trenchantly in terms of making greed the driving factor of society and effectively lying about it, which I pretty much agree with. It’s not so much the implied moral turpitude of any individuals in relation to qualities like ‘greed’ or ‘lying’, but of the way that the aggregation and abstraction I described functions as what I call a symbolic economy on page 54 of my book, with new and monstrous effects. As to my story being ‘merely a story’ – well, that I do concede. But, as with many folks these days, I’ve come to think that most of the histories and social theorizing we present and use to generate new histories and societies are ‘merely stories’. I’ll say a bit more about that in my next post.

    Eric – as always I enjoyed your inimitable contribution and memorable phrasing. Leaving the room to the ‘clever children’ keyboard Marxists is a good one! I should probably do that, but keyboard Marxism was the town I grew up in so I find it hard not to go back and tramp its faded streets in melancholy. At the same time, while I agree with you on the upsides of leaving the political ideologies at home while working in the neighbourhood, I do think we’re in a period of fundamental political change globally, and trying to keep track of that is one of the things I still want to do here in case in some small way I can help make it easier.

    Simon – the idea of eking as flourishing indeed is a powerful insight, but not one we’ll sell or even give away for free to proponents of the first camp.

    • Yes, agreed, there will always be puzzles and difficulties, even among dear friends (living in an intentional community myself, I say that from experience!), but I mention the virtues because they at least provide hope for navigating those relationships. Without them, in an era where relativism is assumed, it is impossible to imagine that we could lay a new foundation for politics without our current man-made Deities (the market, the state, the party, etc) remaining in place.

    • “…but of the way that the aggregation and abstraction I described functions as what I call a symbolic economy on page 54 of my book, with new and monstrous effects

      I think the point of contention is really quite minor… I don’t think these are necessarily “new” effects. Monstrous I can see, and Eric’s thoughts are more succinct on the matter.

      We do seem to be a species for whom narrative is a critical component of our communication. And as authors of a particular narrative tend to have an axe to grind (consciously or not) there tend to be biases, cherry picking of facts and feelings. For me then, a story is just a story… a piece of perceived reality used to communicate and perhaps persuade.

      Above I set apart the notion of “new” – sort of like the aphorism – “there is nothing new under the sun”. And there are new things – new technologies like railroads and the internet. But in time those around to employ the new things will likely sort themselves into a couple of camps – some will be civil and others not so much.

      I’m ready to suggest that those who brought us the internet had no notion that someone might design click-bait farms. I think the former were quite civil and the latter not so much

  7. I had to read this one through several times, and I’m still not sure I have the measure of it – don’t get me wrong, it’s a pleasure to read as always, but there are some big things going on here.

    So a binary opposition is being staked out – I too appreciate the way such dualities can organise thinking in productive ways. But I think I’m still trying to figure out exactly what is being opposed.

    Unity is clearly one pole, although what is being unified appears to vary. On one hand there is a unifying of disparate experiences into simplifying (reductive?) ideas, which subvert particularity and present grand visions of the world – the ethos of lumpers I suppose, perhaps we might call it ‘intellectual unity’, not necessarily ‘a bad thing’. This is necessary to but not constitutive of ‘top-down’ political programmes aimed at unity, which are presented here in a very negative way – the assumption appears to be that such programmes are almost guaranteed to end up persecuting those who refuse to be unified, and represent the key threat to human flourishing.

    I’m less clear about the opposite pole to these ideas. Complexity, perhaps, and the autonomy of parts. I have some sympathy with an opposition to top-down political programmes seeking to impose unity – perhaps they are indeed guaranteed to override complexity and stamp out autonomy to some extent. The forever war within the supposed ‘broad church’ of the UK Labour Party comes to mind.

    But I’m really not sure about the position or role of ‘individual human persons’ here. It seems to me that to worry about the way that ‘personhood and self-possession’ relate to ‘collectivities’ such as families, communities, etc, you have to already have defined for yourself the primacy of the former in order for the latter to become problematic. And yet this requires just as much intellectual unity as anything an authoritarian government might draw on, because if everyone is to prioritise their own autonomy, they have to believe it takes precedence over more collective commitments.

    In my experience collective commitments are fundamental to human life, not simply necessary in a utilitarian sense, but ever-present whether you like it or not. Yes, they can be hard to manage and often define the scope of abuse and hierarchy. Yet I don’t think they’ll be escaped though appeals to autonomy because any attempt to achieve autonomy will involve a great deal of (intellectually unifying) social work, if only to define and maintain the distances between people that all will recognise. Self-possession requires a very clearly delineated self if it is to be respected by others.

    ‘Aggregation’, a word that appears here in largely negative contexts, might be worth deeper exploration. After all, Sennett’s definition of ‘inclusivity’ is about ‘bottom-up’ solidarity, and therefore implicitly the creation of autonomy in a collective rather than an individual sense. The difference between this and a top-down programme is perhaps ensuring that complexity and variety maintain an affective relationship with the process of establishing forms of collective unity. Yes, aggregation does involve the submission of one’s personal will to a collective commitment, but is that necessarily a bad thing if one has a say in defining and shaping that commitment, and might ultimately walk away if dissatisfied?

    My apologies for keeping my comment at a rather abstract level. In this case I lack the knowledge to apply it to Chicago and the Mid West prairies. I have a feeling, though, that it would be a fairly simple thing to identify the kinds of unifying ways of thought that motivated the individualism and autonomy of the settler farmers whose lives were overwhelmed by the globalising liberal economy. Simple, yet not something I’ve done, so I should really go away and read another book.

    • Andrew wrote, “if everyone is to prioritise their own autonomy, they have to believe it takes precedence over more collective commitments.”

      If autonomy and collective commitments can coexist in the same self, to varying degrees, then why would one have to always take precedence over the other? What if they are both equally important human needs?

      And can’t I exercise my autonomy by freely choosing some collective commitments? (or by freely choosing some collective to commit to?)

      • That seems fair enough, Steve, but I’d add that the experience and wider recognition of an individual freedom to choose actually requires the collective cultivation, promotion and acceptance of what it means to be autonomous. That in itself is a collective political project, even if it’s one that idolises self-possession or private property.

        The implications of this may emerge more clearly as Chris goes on to talk more about property. My main point in that context is to suggest that private property does not map simply onto notions of individual autonomy, and that attempting to create a situation dominated by these ideas and structures may in fact foreclose and stunt possibilities for aggregation and collectivity that are fundamentally different from the authoritarian forms Chris highlights.

    • Well, much in that blog relies on the perspective of Governor Bradford and his hymn to private property. But as the scion of an established English farming family, whose inheritance funded his weaving career in the Dutch Republic, his interpretation of the colony’s early years isn’t really surprising!

  8. Yes, farmers lost considerable autonomy. They also formed collectively run wheat pools and cooperatives… not unlike industrial workers formed unions. Ultimately these fell apart in the face of megacompany competition, but I like to think they at least mitigated some of the damage of financialisation.

    I suspect the story would look very different if not for the fossil-fuel driven disconnect between the labour required for grain and the output. What might the collectivisation of labour look like without fossil fuels to make industrial monoculture plausible? For that matter, how would the financialisation of grain markets play out in a world in which cheap fossil fuels didn’t come on the scene? In the latter case, well, coal is also a fossil fuel, so railways might not have factored in so heavily, which changes everything. (No reason you can’t have a wood-fired steam engine, but that’s a lot of wood, so the range goes down. No reason you can’t have pedal-powered rail vehicles but someone has to invent them first…)

  9. Apologies for my slow reply to new comments.

    Andrew, your representation of my position seems to differ quite sharply from my intentions, so I fear I haven’t laid it out plainly enough. I don’t subscribe to a libertarian individualism that considers the individual person to be prior to society and their choices to be ethically paramount. A politics of self-possession and/or personal autonomy is, as you say, indeed a collective project and I entirely agree that private property does not map simply onto notions of individual autonomy. Yes, in saying that self-possession matters and that there are difficulties in relating the person to larger collectivities, I am staking a claim that personal autonomy is an important (though not necessarily ‘prime’ or paramount) social fact, which needs to be safeguarded politically, and that this is a difficult thing to do – but that doesn’t mean that wider collectivities are less important or less ‘real’. However, I do think that modernist ‘first camp’ thinking considers personal agency or self-possession less important than the collective political goods that its various forms favour, or indeed often enough entirely unimportant, and I find this problematic.

    You write “Yes, aggregation does involve the submission of one’s personal will to a collective commitment, but is that necessarily a bad thing if one has a say in defining and shaping that commitment, and might ultimately walk away if dissatisfied?” I guess my argument there is that *aggregation* specifically involves *extinguishing* personal will, not merely subordinating it, and this is precisely the problem with first camp, modernist thinking – personal wills get very little say in defining collective commitments in capitalist and communist regimes, and have minimal opportunities for walking away. But both of those things (defining the commitments and potentially exiting from them) loom large in the second camp thinking I endorse, as for example with civic republicanism. What I would say is that in situations where it may be difficult to literally walk away, strong private property rights are probably the best bet for enabling people to figuratively walk away. But I will say more about this a couple of posts down the line.

    Clem – thanks for your clarification. I’ll happily endorse plus ça change, though I’d argue that perhaps sometimes ça change un peu. Gosh, that sounds pretentious 🙂

    John – yes, Hamish and co visited our farm last year and we had a good long chat with them. I’m glad they’re making headway with their project. They seem serious and competent young people and I’m wishing them every success.

    Kathryn – agreed on the enabling power of fossil fuels. Cheap abundant energy makes ecological localism well nigh impossible. Maybe what Alexander Langlands calls ‘the illiteracy of power’ in his book ‘Craeft’.

    • Well, I did say at the top that I wasn’t sure I had the measure of it! Perhaps an unintended consequence of thinking with binary oppositions is an encouragement to go to the extremes – I’ve certainly never considered you a libertarian individualist, but reading back I can see how I’m essentially arguing against that position.

      Clearly ‘autonomy’ will be an interesting thread to follow in the posts ahead, and I look forward to it. I’m still of the view that a non-authoritarian yet collective politics requires more than ‘second camp’ thinking to encompass its possibilities, but I’m happy to wait and see where this is heading. I’ll bear in mind your specific definition of ‘aggregation’ from now on – but I’m still interested in democratic processes of making collective commitments and the significances they should, I think, hold. I must admit I’m starting to wonder now about the ability to walk away that we’ve both lauded above. There are perhaps some important social situations when commitments, once made, have to be kept (including the marking out of private property), else society would indeed atomise. But would that imply the extinguishing of the will in those cases? Idle thoughts for the moment!

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