A Small Farm Future – the case for distributed private property

In this post and the next, I aim to lay out some issues about property relations by sketching how they might work in a semi-autarkic rural community or region within a small farm future. My focus is a temperate lowland zone like my home in southwest England, although the general issues apply more widely. Maybe we’re in the territory of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex once again.

What I’m going to sketch is so different from how things presently work in my home patch that no doubt it can easily be dismissed as the kind of idle fancy best left to a post-apocalyptic novel. So the other side of this I want to explore is the forces and the politics that might deliver such an outcome sooner than some might think. But that’s for a couple of posts down the line. First, the sketch.

Some grounding assumptions. In this sketch, we’re in largely post fossil fuel times and easy energy is scarce (in other words, low carbon energy has not seamlessly replaced the world’s present vast reliance on cheap and abundant fossil fuels). Also, the global political economy we know today is on its knees or in the morgue, liquid global capital is scarce and the centralized state is in retreat (see Part IV of my book).

But our region remains reasonably well suited for agriculture, or at least for horticulture. This implies that population pressure on land is high, and a large part of people’s needs – water, food, fibre (for clothing, cordage, firewood and timber), motive energy, medicines and minerals – must be met from local land. In this situation, unlike today, economic activities like food production will seek to squeeze the most they can out of the available water, land and motive energy. And probably out of the available capital too, but there will not be much of that. Squeezing the most out of labour will not be a priority – finding honest work for the multitudes of people locally probably will be.

Another assumption – most people will live in households oriented to meeting most of their own needs. I’m not really concerned for present purposes with the size and composition of these households, though it’s something I’ve previously discussed and hope to reprise again soon. It does seem likely that households will generally be small and comprise close kin, though not always. This has been a really widespread form of household organization worldwide through history. So in my mind’s eye I’m thinking about a society with a lot of small, kin-based households. But the key point for now is that households, whatever their size and composition, are farming mostly to take care of their own needs.

Final assumption – there are exchange relations between households and other local economic actors, but in this sketch we’re going to be agnostic about how they’re mediated. I think it might be through money, either the remnants of the old state currency or some new local contrivance. And there are advantages to that, because moneyless societies can more easily fall prey to status hierarchies, caste systems and the like. Of course, money can also be a dangerous foe to a convivial local economy. But money is not the same as capital, and capital is not the same as capitalism. Let’s recall a piece of Biblical wisdom: it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, but the love of money. More on that another time.

As per this earlier post, productive property can broadly be classified as:

  1. Distributed private property
  2. Monopoly private property
  3. Common property
  4. Public property

These distinctions can be a bit fuzzy in practice, and there are likely to be all sorts of hybrid complexities. But as a rough approximation, I think (1) and (3) will be emphasized and (2) and (4) will be de-emphasized in the society I’m envisaging – pretty much the opposite of the situation that you find in modern capitalist societies. So there will be a lot of upheaval to get from here to there. The extent of the upheaval will depend on cultural and social factors that will vary from place to place, but will also be driven by more invariant factors associated with human ecology in the new circumstances people will be facing.

Controversial opinion though it seems to be in some quarters, in this setup I think a lot – probably most – food production is going to be done by household labour for household needs on small plots that will be de facto or de jure privately owned: gardens, homesteads, smallholdings, micro farms.

There are some economic-y reasons for this. Where energy is cheap, labour is dear, land is abundant and farmers are producing crops for commodity markets (in other words, where the situation is like the North American prairie farming I mentioned in my last post) there are economies of large scale that generate the gigantic, mechanized mega-farms familiar to us today. But where, as in our situation, energy is dear, labour is abundant, land is scarce and farmers are producing crops for their own households there are diseconomies of large scale, or economies of small scale. Labour is highly productive of food/fibre, but adding more labour is not disproportionately more productive. So plots and households are relatively small.

Free riding and transaction costs will also be at play in this society, because they’re at play in every society even if they sound like specifically modern economic jargon best fitted to our selfish, individualistic modern ways. Of course, the manifestations vary culturally, but in every culture there are people who will try to get one over you somehow, and the more people you work with the more time or other resources you have to devote to hammering out arrangements with them. Sometimes you might consider the hammering out to be worthwhile, for any number of reasons that go beyond your immediate needs for food and other goods. But those needs will be quite pressing in the society I’m talking about, so you’ll probably be judicious about your involvement in these extra-curricular activities. Community gardens are a great idea in places where there’s not much community and not much gardening, but you don’t find them so much among communities that garden.

All the same, you’ll probably get involved in some inter-household economic activities. You might, for example, share raising a pig or two with one or more neighbours, because there are often economies of slightly larger scale here (diseconomies of very large scale remain). And the transaction costs and free rider problems of neighbourhood scale are usually not that great. But here we’re still within the realm of private property and private arrangements.

It’s likely, though, that with changing household needs or priorities, you might want to take on more land, or divest yourself of some. A common way of doing this in small farm societies has been by renting land – in other words, by making yourself a tenant. And where there are tenants, there are landlords. In A Small Farm Future, I argued vigorously against landlordism because it’s a royal road to monopoly property, the expropriation and oppression of the smallholder and the capitalization of the economy. That didn’t stop one pair of reviewers presenting me as an apologist for parasitic landlordism. But the fact is, when you depend upon the land for your living but don’t control your access to it, you’re extremely vulnerable – which is where the parasitism kicks in. This is a strong argument for smallholder possession of secure private property rights. If you have good access to land to meet at least your basic needs, you’re in a much less vulnerable position.

Nevertheless, you may still want to adjust the size of your holding to your passing needs year by year. Buying and selling land may be an option, but perhaps an overly drastic one. So, despite my general strictures against landlordism of the parasitic kind – which remain firm – I think there can be a restricted case for a land rental market. In the words of rural sociologist Francesca Bray, “Tenancy is a means of matching land and labour within a community so that resources are not wasted”1.

The key phrase here is ‘within a community’. We can distinguish between a moral economy where people of broadly similar standing devise arrangements to improve their collective wellbeing locally, and a monopoly economy where a small subset of people improve their wellbeing at the expense of everyone else. As I’ve already said, a local economy comprising distributed small-scale private property as its basic building block potentiates the former and safeguards against the latter. All the same, any kind of landlordism is a potential point of tension and demands vigilance by the tenantry.

One of the problems with rented land is that it easily creates free rider problems (the landlord free rides on the tenant’s improvements, the tenant free rides on the longer term wellbeing of the land) so it works best for modular, short-run uses like grazing or arable crops and not so well for the things that would be emphasized in a more intensive small farm future like orchards, dairies and gardens. So on ecological grounds, in the intensive, populated countrysides of a small farm future it’s likely that private owner-occupation will predominate over landlordism, even of the non-monopolistic kind.

Let’s look at what private ownership means a little more formally. Modern conceptions of it draw largely from Roman law, which distinguished between usus (the right held from the wider community to use the land), fructus (the right to appropriate the products or ‘fruit’ of the land to oneself) and abusus (the right to damage or alienate the land). Community-minded people often endorse the first two of these rights – usufruct – but, perhaps understandably, not the last one. If you damage the land’s long-term capacities, or dump pollution on it that affects downstream neighbours, or sell it speculatively in such a way that it’s removed from long-term availability to the wider local community, that can create problems for the community. So this is another point of tension in the system.

As I see it, people oriented to making a long-term livelihood from the products of the land itself (as opposed to the profits to be made from it) are unlikely to abuse it too egregiously, and there are remedies against abusers that fall short of full expropriation. In A Small Farm Future I argued against mere usufruct rights in favour of more inalienable private property, basically because I see usufruct as a back door to monopoly landlordism. My instincts here are kind of bottom up, grassroots and anarchist. If you lack the right of abusus, this potentially puts a lot of power in the hands of the wider community to define abuse in its own potentially self-serving way, and to expropriate you. Who is this community? Through what politics does it decide to exert its powers of expropriation, and how does it then redistribute access to land and livelihood among its members?

Physical escape from community abusus has been one favoured tactic historically to avoid these difficulties. In David Graeber and David Wengrow’s influential recent book I was struck, for example, by their description of scattered homesteading by native peoples in the North American Midwest as a way of avoiding centralizing political power in the immediate precolonial period2, something that their settler colonist successors also tried their hand at. Neither were successful long-term, with the latter arguably being victims of monopoly ownership from the outset.

But where physical escape isn’t possible, people have often sought something like private property rights from the political community as a safeguard against abuse of their capacities for self-creation by the political community. It may seem contradictory, but small farmers have put a lot of effort into making these claims throughout history, suggesting at least that it seemed worthwhile to them. Here we get into some weirder aspects of the moral economy as we orbit close around the mystery of political authority. More on that in another post.

I suppose I could alternatively just stop holding out and throw my lot in with usufruct. If I did, I think it would have to be through a radically participatory civic republican politics of recognition, where absolutely everybody in the community gets an ongoing say in defining its political goods. Which is another transaction cost or time sink, best kept limited to what the community really needs to debate. This in turn might point to the benefits of private property as a way of keeping the debate limited, especially when you unite this concern with the notion of self-possession that I emphasized in my last post.

Another possible form of abusus is sale or the handing on of property to another party. I don’t think such abusus is necessarily abusive, but it does run the risk. One possible ‘abuse’ is inheritance by the landholder’s offspring – potentially abusive inasmuch as due to bad luck, bad health or bad choices property has a habit of concentrating over time in fewer and fewer hands, taking us back to the problem of monopoly private property or abusive landlordism (this is well demonstrated by playing a game of Monopoly, originally called The Landlord’s Game to illustrate the ideas of Henry George, who’s thinking we’ll get to soon, I hope).

So an agrarian society of widely distributed small farm ownership needs to find ways of preventing land from being consolidated and keeping it circulating through the generations within the whole community. I don’t want to wade too far into policy wonkery here. In Chapter 13 of my book I suggested a way of doing this to prevent monopoly landlordism, which (sigh) was criticized by the same people who criticized me for supposedly endorsing monopoly landlordism. Anyway, inheritance is certainly another point of tension in the system where use may become abuse, so one way or another this issue requires attention.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of distributed private property, we can say for sure that it’s not an invention of modern capitalism. It recurs in numerous societies, arguably as far back as the Neolithic3. But it usually goes hand in hand with common property, which I’ll turn to in my next post.

Notes

  1. Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies, p.180.
  2. David Graeber and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything, p.471.
  3. See: Robert Netting. 1992. Smallholders, Householders; Susan Oosthuizen. 2019. The Emergence of the English.

62 thoughts on “A Small Farm Future – the case for distributed private property

  1. Editorial note: intra-household should be inter-household?

    As to your main point about land tenure: the history of human relations unfortunately includes a lot of military contests over who controls the land. I think it is fair to say that if we want to know who controls the land, look to who controls the guns.

    While I agree that your preferred system of smallholder land rights is a very good one, probably the best one, the tendancy for those who have access to coercive force to become free-riding-monopoly-landlords will be hard to counter. And the planet is far too crowded for smallholders to flee to some faraway place where the “state” has no control.

    In these circumstances, whenever the “centralized state is in retreat” decentralized states spring into existence continuously, fight each other for control, and often make the lives of smallholders miserable. Even so, living a life in which joyous abundance, or at least sufficiency, alternates with the misery of scarcity is better than not living at all. Most people lived that way for thousands of years. We can do it again.

  2. Nerdism – semi-autarkic

    Free riders won’t be a problem. When everyone first looks for help at the end of their own short sleeves, people who aren’t pulling their own weight will not be tolerated.

    In a society with little or no money how does anyone accumulate a lot of land ? If your troops aren’t paid what is their motivation ? Will the new usurpers be willing to die for maybe getting fed ? No farmers still equals no food. People who can’t boil an egg are not going to harvest a successful wheat crop.

    The reality is there is no reason to improve rented land unless you know that your improvements will pay off for you. Rented farm land around here is a great example. All the fertility inputs on rented land consist on anhydrous ammonia. Owned land gets cow manure.

    Community based systems are more likely. We have more than enough land to feed ourselves. Why not ‘hire’ help, let out land for community members, etc. to help feed the community that protects us and our interests ?

    • Greg,

      How do you distinguish between “free riders” who don’t want to do the work, and those who simply can’t, through ill health, disability (easily acquired by injury), or lack of competence?

      I don’t refuse to feed my husband because he accidentally dug up some strawberry plants when he didn’t know better. (He’s getting better at plant identification, thankfully.) I don’t refuse to feed my housemate who does much less work at the allotment than my spouse and I do. And when it comes down to it my response to wider community inequality resulting in hunger is to pitch in and grow some vegetables for the soup kitchen at church, too. Our guests are painted as scroungers or illegals or whatever else in the popular press. But they are still human beings and they are still hungry and for me, that means I am called to receive them as guests.

      I think Chris is right that there will always be some people who try to take advantage of others; but I think a greater challenge is that some people’s genuine needs are greater than their households can bear. We don’t do a great job of dealing with this as things stand today, though.

      I am not certain we do have “more than enough land to feed ourselves” when taking into account a growing incidence of extreme weather events, soil erosion, phosphate shortages and so on.

      I think the trick with warfare when money, land, food, and firearms (or at least ammunition for them) are scarce is to destroy your enemies’ food supply while keeping your own secure. Look up the Harrying of the North. Another option is to threaten to do something like that if people don’t comply with your demands. I know I’d rather live under autocratic rule than watch my crops burn, knowing I would starve. People who love power really don’t mind who they kill, and a lot of them are not great long-term thinkers either. So there could well be considerable strife.

      Chris has written before about peasants and migration; for my part, I suspect that just as diversity in horticulture offers some insurance against crop failure, diversity in household production offers some insurance against being caught up in such strife. Livestock can be stolen more easily than forests can; seeds can be hidden more easily than trees can. And for all my aversion to flooding of low-lying areas, a plot with some wetland will be less susceptible to fire. People are crafty and creative, and tend to find ways of being less governable than occupying powers would like. So strife and warfare, while disastrous for those they effect, don’t necessarily spell the end of civilization.

      I think that strife could disappear, or at least de-intensify pretty quickly, if we face a massive global depopulation event, though. (Historians may want to point out why I am wrong.) At that point, land stops being quite so scarce.

      • I agree with Greg on the matter of there being sufficient land available to feed ourselves. And I also agree that most current land rental schemes are not helpful for longer term land quality standards. Where an annual rent agreement exists which allows a renter to draw up a balance sheet where fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, and labor are accounted the same significance as land rent… (the former being temporary or current assets and the latter is only a fixed asset to the landlord and is a temporary asset to the renter) then there will be longer term consequences. Rental agreements can be changed, and landlords can be better stewards.

        I think Chris and I differ a bit in terms of our feelings over landlordism. I imagine there is a continuum of landlord behaviours and values. So at one end there certainly are bad landlords – and I think we owe ourselves and others a crack at changing that reality. But at the opposite pole there can be landlords with strong ties to the land, good stewardship practices, and thus examples for others and resources for those with insufficient means to access land of their own accord.

        I agree with Kathryn on the matter of identifying ‘free-riders’ as different from folk with limitations. Unlike Greg I do imagine the truly onerous free-rider types will continue to pose problems. Like Greg I imagine smaller community groups will help solve the free-rider matter within their own pervue… but outside groups and individuals bent on taking may require more assistance to remedy than a small group can muster. So here I’m echoing Joe’s concerns…

        • There are all ready landlord and tenant laws in the UK which usually come to agreed terms decided by an auctioneer who is involved in agriculture , tenants improvements are taken into account in leaving the property . If they are destroying the farm / fertility they can be given notice to quit .

      • Hi Kathryn,
        It has always been pretty easy to distinguish between the the needy, the lazy, the inept and the greedy.

        I’m not so interested in trying figure out possible dystopian futures. To much depends on the initial starting points and the the ‘boundary’ conditions.

        In physics it is impossible to predict the outcome of the three body collision. With society there are many more than nine factors in play.

        We are probably seeing the start of societal break down now but unlike a frog in a pot of slowly warming water humans are not aware enough to jump out.

        What do you make of a significant portion of the population (1/3 ?) denying the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem when the evidence is all around them ? Or that we have 800,000 dead Americans because they don’t believe that viruses can kill them ? That’s one is kind of obvious too.

        How all that plays out, I don’t know. There are things that I can do to get ready for changes I see coming and there are things that I can’t do anything about. I tend not to worry about the things I can’t do anything about.

        BTW, I wouldn’t give your husband any strawberries.

        • I know a lot of people who need help but either aren’t eligible for or cannot access the social welfare payments which, in the UK, are how we’ve decided to look after the needy. One of the things we do at the food bank is help people make applications; sadly the system is very obviously rigged, and not in their favour.

          I didn’t know climate change denial was as high as a third — a peer selection effect on my part, perhaps. Meanwhile, I’m sure plenty of people who have been killed by COVID-19 did know it could kill them. The problem with both of these things is that it only takes a small number of people to affect the entire system and make life considerably less safe for everyone. I do think media dynamics (including but not limited to social media and tabloids) have a lot to do with the current situation, too; and I’m mindful that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Follow the money and you find out why the media is as it is. That’s just what over-financialisation looks like when it is applied to communications.

          I agree that we can’t predict all that will happen, there are just too many moving parts. But resource scarcity has often led to strife in the past, and I’m not sure I have good reason to believe it will be different this time, so if it does happen I won’t be surprised by it. Even if we do have enough land to grow food for everyone, energy scarcity is a form of resource scarcity. Personally, there’s very little I am willing to do to prepare for that particular outcome that I wouldn’t be doing anyway.

          Part of my commitment to loving my husband ‘for better or for worse’ means that when he messes up I will bear some of the consequences. He didn’t get to eat strawberries from the plant he dug up. Neither did I. But there were several more strawberry plants, so we both got to eat some strawberries. I’m not interested in punishing him for a mistake.

  3. I get a sense here of a discussion you’re having with yourself Chris, as much as with us!

    I’ve tended to pull against too great a degree of individual autonomy in recent comments, sometimes to the extent of misunderstanding your point. This post offers a vision of the kind of small farm society I find more attractive as one pole of your thinking. I would pull out these quotes and put them in relation to one another as follows, posing the main problem and its resolution:

    ‘So an agrarian society of widely distributed small farm ownership needs to find ways of preventing land from being consolidated and keeping it circulating through the generations within the whole community.’

    ‘Who is this community? Through what politics does it decide to exert its powers of expropriation, and how does it then redistribute access to land and livelihood among its members?’

    ‘[The answer:] a radically participatory civic republican politics of recognition, where absolutely everybody in the community gets an ongoing say in defining its political goods.’

    I’m less convinced of the need to avoid the ‘time sink’ of participatory politics, especially if the latter is combined with social activities and celebrations. I certainly would argue against avoiding it by strengthening private property rights beyond usufruct.

    I do, though, think you’re right to highlight the potential dangers of abusus rights. Your worries clearly focus on their misuse at a communal level, but I’d be interested in knowing how you think the right would work at a household level. Would one person within the household hold that right (a person I might provocatively call a ‘head’), or would that right be held corporately by adult members of the household?

    Either way, such rights might offer an escape from communal heavy handedness but might equally, and more likely in my opinion, make a prison of the household, for those members in particular who either don’t hold property rights themselves (and are therefore ‘dependents’) or who want to abstract their own rights from those of their fellow householders for some reason – how would the latter even be possible in a society geared against land as capital?

    My sympathy is thus with community control of abusus, redistribution of land, etc, founded upon a strong participatory politics. I think that would have to go hand in hand with a notional right that everyone in the community could claim for sustenance from the land (a common treasury?) even if the community organised itself practically around small farms and household groups. The point that you consistently make, totally convincingly in my opinion, is the advantages of the small farm as a unit of management, rather than as a unit of property.

    • Thanks Andrew for all that food for thought.

      Property rights held corporately by adult members of the household? Perhaps a household ‘prison’ could be avoided if an individual’s “share” could somehow be interchangeable between households, or pooled together with some members of other households…

      If there’s a notional right that everyone in the community is entitled to sustenance, I wonder how a ‘common treasury’ might achieve this in a Small Farm Future, and how that would relate to notions of ‘charity’.

      • Interesting points Steve. I can understand the idea of shares in usufruct as something transferrable, but I’m not sure how that would work with abusus rights. The latter, as I understand it, apply to specific pieces of land, and the difficulty of transferring or pooling such rights is part of the point of them.

        As for charity, I think I’d prefer Universal Basic Sustenance!

      • If you look at how Europe divided up land each family member had a piece that they handed on , the problem was that each piece for smaller and smaller over the generations as fields were divided amongst the siblings untill each owned a postage stamp and had land scattered al over the countryside , this was finally sorted out by the EU who refused subsidies untill the farms were viable .

        • I think this was also a big problem in Scandinavian countries, which led to a lot of emigration to North America in the 19th century. Large farm families are great for intensifying farm labor, but make the transfer of sufficient land to the next generation very difficult.

          In any situation, including agrarian economies, if the population is to remain stable only two offspring can survive to replace their parents. “Preventing land from being consolidated” may end up being easier than preventing it from being overpopulated (or divided up into tiny parcels that can’t support a single household).

          • It gets even more complicated than simply aiming for two children as replacements for parents. Longevity appears to be on the rise and where once a lifetime of 60 years (three generations alive together) was normal, now “normal” is quickly closing in on 80 (four generations alive together).

            But having pointed that out, I’m not in the negative population camp. How to balance it all then? Where limits occur, each must do with less. Once less it too little then the real fun starts.

          • The assumption here is that all children, or sometimes all male children, tended to receive a portion of the landed inheritance. But practice varied enormously across time and space.

            For example, for some primogeniture has offered a way of maintaining the integrity of a holding, while for others the holding might be divided, but marriage strategies within a range of close relatives ensured that land remained within a wider sense of the family. Many aristocratic families in medieval Europe were very put out when the church limited marriage to outside seven degrees of separation!

            Population levels and the size of farm holdings certainly have no natural or predictable relationship.

  4. Chris,

    Thinking about the life cycle of a small farmer, I can see perhaps a young adult starting out in life possibly combining cultivating some rented land with paid work (Caleb on Clarksons Farm, The Amish) while they save enough to buy their own.

    Possibly with the demands of a young family, renting some land say for cattle or sheep to augment their income.

    When their children cease to be dependant perhaps easing up a bit, possibly letting some of the land they own out either to their now adult children or others before selling up to fund their retirement?

    It seems to me that a mix of renting and buying might suit more people than a ‘freehold only’ model.

    Oh & Kathryn, as an old farmer said to me many years ago, why this obsession with drainage? In a dry summer its the boggy bit that you cant use most of the time that will keep your cattle going

    • I like John’s point about the value in there being a mix of owned and rented land in a community. And even making the point that land within a kin group can be owned by one party and rented by another (parents and children for instance). Where intra-kin based land use agreements are ironed out for all there is hope for better peace and harmony.

      Imagine the family with three children and a farm of sufficient size to support plus or minus 8 people. As the children mature and contemplate their own family building the homestead will not likely support all. If one of the children rents the property and the parent owners share the rent with non-farming members there then exists some sort of fairer distribution of the land’s value among heirs.

      Longer term familial interest in the care and oversight of a piece of land is a very positive thing in my view. Most of the Midwestern states here have some sort of recognition for Century Farms – farms held within one family for at least 100 years. Those Century Farms I’ve been privileged to visit have been exemplary. Here is a link for the Tennessee version:
      https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/farms/heritage/century-farms.html

    • Considering the concentration of land ownership and the high prices for what becomes available, I don’t believe that widespread “distributed private property” farms will result from individuals saving up to buy their own farmland.

      Children renting farmland from parents, in a Small Farm Future, may also be unfeasible if farms are mostly for subsistence and outside jobs are lacking.

      While trying to learn more about “distributed private property”, I found an article yesterday which has a relevant section:

      “Two assumptions therefore stood in the way of Chesterton and Belloc developing a viable means of implementing the Distributist State in a just, equitable, and financially feasible manner. These were, one, the belief that the only way to finance new capital formation is to cut consumption and accumulate the excess of income over consumption in the form of money savings. Given the cost of even simple technology and small plots of arable land, this meant that even after a lifetime of austerity and saving very few people would be able to purchase capital, whether land, simple technology, or a small business.”

      https://just3rdway.blogspot.com/2019/06/chesterton-and-shaw-idea-of-distributism.html

  5. A great treatment of the topic! I’ll be referring others to it.

    The “usufruct-only” argument is a topic I’ve debated others on recently, with the same line of reasoning you lay out. You mention that “small farmers have put a lot of effort into making these claims throughout history”–do you have any recommended reading (either by yourself or others) which provides examples of this?

    This point is especially important: “If you lack the right of abusus, this potentially puts a lot of power in the hands of the wider community to define abuse in its own potentially self-serving way, and to expropriate you.” Many anarchist/socialists I know, in their righteous zeal to destroy the injustices of monopolized private property, have a very rosy-eyed view of the “state” or “wider community”, which as you point out can very easily tyrannize families, individuals, or minorities (of whatever sort) which live within it. This is complemented by the Aristo-Thomist view of the Family as an “incomplete society” which is fulfilled and supported, but not obliterated by, that the society of the State (in the sense of “Polis”, not Nation-State).

    As Rerum Novarum § 13 puts it: “A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society… Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, ‘at least equal rights’; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families, on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.” Among the rights of the Family, Pope Leo XIII puts private property (which is the topic of this Encyclical). This line of reasoning easily gets abused to argue in favor of capitalism, but as you point out, the dynamics of kin-based distributed private property are entirely different. Similar to your treatment of landlordism, the distributist is making careful distinctions that will generally be misrepresented by the contemporary right and left.

    The point about how concentrating all decision-making to the “community” is “a transaction cost or time sink” is also well made. It’s lovely to imagine that a few thousand people in a small town and its surrounding villages will all gather together to make participatory political decisions about property and production, but realistically, either a few small cliques or an administrative bureaucracy will make the lion’s share of the decisions. Subsidiarity in property allows for participation in politics.

    One last point, which perhaps you’ll address later: I think it’s important to consider how /custom/ and /tradition/ can help prevent the tendency of property “concentrating over time in fewer and fewer hands”. Things like the Levitical laws concerning Jubilee and Redemption, which put a customary limit on the concentration of wealth and power, dealing with the problem anew generation by generation, are one example.

    • C“If you lack the right of abusus, this potentially puts a lot of power in the hands of the wider community to define abuse in its own potentially self-serving way,
      Sounds a lot like home owners association’s ! LOL

  6. Thanks for another set of great comments. And thanks for your nerdism sub-editing Greg … I may need to call on you again, there. Likewise for the editing typo, Joe – self-corrected before I saw your comment – honest!

    So, I’ve penned some responses to these comments under different headings below, namely

    Guns
    Households & families
    Landlords
    Free riding

  7. Guns

    The idea that those who control the guns control the land has a lot of plausibility, but is more complicated than one might think.

    Sometimes there’s more than one group who controls the guns, and the tensions between them can benefit those who till the soil. For example, part of the story of how serfs became free peasants and ultimately citizens across Europe emerges from the conflicts between aristocratic and royal houses.

    Sometimes people with less firepower end up winning – various examples spring to mind: Switzerland, Appalachia, Vietnam, Afghanistan. Local militias can defeat standing armies. The Tudor monarchy put down Kett’s Rebellion with the help of Italian mercenaries. If the Westminster government tried to put down a future local rebellion within its jurisdiction with either British or non-British soldiers, I think it might end up losing the war even if it won the battle.

    Nowadays there’s a lot of overlap between those who control the guns and those who control the money , but it hasn’t always been the case and it may not be the case in the future. That could be interesting.

    I’ll get onto this when I get to Part IV, but a situation where the state is in retreat needn’t be one where the state is in complete abeyance, and that has complex implications for who can step in to fill the gap and how they can do it.

    Also, I think it’s worth asking what exactly it is that the people with the guns want. Money or power, we usually say – with some justification. But the more you ponder exactly what claim they’re staking, the weirder these goods become. Often enough, people with guns crave a respect from others that they know their guns can never bring them. So if their desire for respect aligns with the aims of the people working the land, the gun controllers may not be the land controllers after all… This is relevant to the defeat of regional aristocracies by central royal power in Europe. Often enough, kings were not militarily more powerful than nobles, but they still won.

    Beneath all this, perhaps the idea lurks that beyond the niceties of modernity naked force is the real power behind the throne. But ironically, this might be a rather modernist viewpoint which will not weather modernity’s demise very well.

  8. Households and families

    Regarding households and larger political communities, after reading Graeber and Wengrow’s book I see more clearly than I did before that they are basically metaphors of each other without the one having historical precedence or social priority over the other. In ‘A Small Farm Future’ I worried that placing more emphasis on the household than larger political communities (like ‘the state’) would compound the oppression of household members, particularly women. I think I’d now reframe this, and will attempt to do this in another post. While recognizing that households can be patriarchal, I’m now even less inclined than I was in the book to see collective central power in itself as a safeguard against such power dynamics.

    But household members certainly do need to be able to exert their autonomy from household power dynamics. Access to money or capital is one means of doing so – but it’s tricky where that’s scarce. Here is where property rights can be important – as argued, for example, by Bina Agarwal in her writings about rural women in South Asia. Guess I’m going to leave that there for now but will come back to it.

    In terms of seeing households as a unit of management rather than property, I think that could be a useful framing, but then property functions as a way of securing the boundaries of the household as a management unit, while also potentially turning the household into a tyranny – so it’s complicated…

    Speaking as someone involved in both private and collective landownership I might have to agree to disagree with you Andrew about the frustrating time costs of the latter. I do agree with you though that basing collective decision-making around celebrations is a good idea – the more that big political decisions can be assisted by consuming psychotropic drugs in quantity the better, probably.

    And thanks Steve for the distributism link – fascinating account. Looks to me like Chesterbelloc and their contemporaries were a bit hobbled by their dislike of socialism. As I see it, distributism very much IS about redistribution, though not necessarily radical and constant redistribution in service of equality. If you’re not so queasy about being labelled a socialist, then orchestrating land redistribution is a less daunting problem with various historical precedents, some more appealing than others. Any thoughts, Sean?

    Sean, I drafted this before I saw your comment – I’d like to ponder Rerum Novarum § 13 and its implications some more. Any thoughts on this, Andrew? Regarding small farmer rights claims against the state, Andro Linklater’s ‘Owning The Earth’ probably has various examples, if I remember rightly, as does David Graeber’s ‘Debt’ book. Otherwise off the top of my head I can only furnish a list of rather dusty academic tomes:

    Rosamund Faith ‘The Moral Economy of the Countryside’
    E. Fryde ‘Peasants & Landlords in Later Medieval England’
    Michael Lipton ‘Land Reform in Developing Countries’
    Chris Wickham ‘Framing the Early Middle Ages’
    Ellen Wood ‘Peasant Citizen & Slave’

    Perhaps I’ll try to write something about it in due course…

    • First, I’d like to note that I disagree that “households and larger political communities… are basically metaphors of each other without the one having historical precedence or social priority over the other.” They are certainly metaphors of eachother, but I think a lot of clarity is gained by recognizing the historical precedence of the Family and the social fulfillment of the Polis. This is where the Aristo-Thomist tradition (taken up in Rerum Novarum, for example) becomes indispensable.

      —–

      Second, I think there is indeed a conservative style of historical distributism which robs itself of political viability because it is scared of radical politics. I’ve seen this among certain conservative Catholic “distributists” who are essentially American libertarians in disguise. However, I’m not sure it’s fair to equate that to Chesterton, specifically. As he says in /What’s Wrong With the World/:

      “If they are content to have England turned into a beehive and an ant-hill, decorated here and there with a few faded butterflies playing at an old game called domesticity in the intervals of the divorce court, then let them have their empire of insects; they will find plenty of Socialists who will give it to them. But if they want a domestic England, they must “shell out,” as the phrase goes, to a vastly greater extent than any Radical politician has yet dared to suggest; they must endure burdens much heavier than the Budget and strokes much deadlier than the death duties; for the thing to be done is nothing more nor less than the distribution of the great fortunes and the great estates. We can now only avoid Socialism by a change as vast as Socialism. If we are to save property, we must distribute property, almost as sternly and sweepingly as did the French Revolution. If we are to preserve the family we must revolutionize the nation.”

      and as he concludes the same book very beautifully:

      “Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.”

      Importantly, there is an easy way to argue for land redistribution without denying that private property does have a certain sacred, moral inviobility: many of the rich did not acquire their property justly, but through the robbery of wages, usury, and the enclosure and despoilation of the commons. Therefore, redistribution is called for.

      • P.S. The article states that “both Chesterton and Belloc avoided giving any specific means by which the Distributist State [read: Peasant Republic] could be implemented and maintained”, but I could provide plenty of evidence to the contrary.

      • Thanks for that Sean, and thanks for the Chesterton quotations – interesting!

        I’ll be writing more soon about Graeber & Wengrow so perhaps we can pick up this issue of family-polity dynamics again there. As a matter of empirical history I think I might be in disagreement with you on this, but as a matter of political philosophy maybe not so much. I’ll try to better acquaint myself with Thomist thought around this…

        • I look forward to your review of Graeber, and to reading the book myself. Debt was excellent, so I expect Dawn to be likewise. Though it will likely share the same fault: a lack of prescriptive philosophical anthropology.

          This is where the historiography gets divided from the philosophy/theology. While I acknowledge all the evidence of the anthropologists, I also believe in the Garden (which depicts the primacy of the Family) and the Fall (which allows us to see historical man as not entirely “natural”).

          Regarding Thomist thought on Family and State, this is one such primer: https://thejosias.com/2015/06/15/the-end-of-the-family-and-the-end-of-civil-society/ I could come up with some others if you’re interested.

  9. Landlordism

    Just to clarify, (whisper it) I’m not against landlordism per se within the confines of an agrarian moral economy, and I don’t have a great deal of time for all the Marxist hating of kulaks and so forth even though I recognize there is stratification within peasant societies (just not always of a kind that fits neatly into the categories of Marxist class analysis). But I do think extractive monopoly landlordism is a big structural problem, regardless of the qualities of the individual landlords concerned. I agree that family inheritance of farmland has its pluses, but it can also be a burden and it can lock in monopoly landownership. I tried to find a middle way on pp.187-9 of my book. I’d be interested to discuss it further.

    Generally, the present phase of the global economy seems to be erring more towards property rentier mode. I acknowledge the upsides of family property inheritance, but on balance I don’t think it’s great – back to all those Victorian novels about the bitter inter-generational dynamics of inheriting family property, making good marriages and so on.

    John’s remarks kind of sound like the Chayanovian domestic cycle … harder to do where pressure on land is high but yes there’s scope for a mixed owner/tenant moral economy. I can’t help feeling that monetizing it would prevent a lot of problems … but create others. More on that another time, I hope.

    Anyway, I’d be interested to discuss farm succession issues more here. Any book recommendations? My starter for ten is Jane Smiley’s novel ‘A Thousand Acres’ …

    • I tend to think landlords are fine as long as there is sufficient formulation and enforcement of tenants’ rights that the landlords don’t do some kind of rent-seeking exploitation scam.

      I have no idea what that would look like with regards to farmland or farm succession issues, though. The closest thing to it that I’ve any direct experience of is with regards to the allotment model, which has definite advantages and disadvantages. I’ve just agreed to take on an additional half plot; it was one of the worst affected by the floods this summer, and the previous tenant has given up on it (keeping the other half of his plot, which is a bit higher up). The reason it was affected so badly by the floods is that he has been growing on it for seventeen years and never once added back any organic matter; the level of the clay is a good foot lower than the grass paths. Still, I’ll be glad of the extra growing space, and our big plot doesn’t need quite as much work now after a couple of years of composting anything and everything I can get my hands on.

  10. Free riding

    Free riding. Yes, I think ignorant husbands are exempt from this charge, although from a feminist perspective perhaps one could argue that a longer-term historical trend does present itself here…

    The household as the unit of production & consumption does minimize a lot of free-riding problems. But Kathryn makes a good point about people’s differential capabilities. Both families and villages can be quite pitiless places to inhabit in respect of people’s needs for wellbeing. But then so can states and empires.

    Question for debate: once a society meets reasonable expectations for equalizing capabilities, is it possible to then speak of the undeserving poor?

    • Question for debate: once a society meets reasonable expectations for equalizing capabilities, is it possible to then speak of the undeserving poor?

      Cue the little boy in the back row raising his hand, jumping up and down most excitedly…

      The short answer is YES. [it is possible]
      BUT it won’t be easy. Firstly, we have to nail down “reasonable expectations for equalizing capabilities”. There may well be differences in expectations across various habitats – as challenges from the environment will exacerbate some shortcomings but not others. But overall I think we should hope for some sort of positive balance that accommodates those in real need. [yup, now have to define ‘real’]

      Next we have to come to some appreciation of “poor” (deserving or not). If you’ve lived in a hovel and eaten only once a day for the last 10 years, then your definition might be different than mine.

      And finally, so long as we’re at this defining game, what about deserving and undeserving?? And the matter of what to do with the undeserving rich.

      My play? Everyone gets a chance to participate. There are myriad social means (mores, carrots, sticks, shaming, and so forth) to both form expectations around levels of participation and evaluating participants. There should be an element of patience for and nurturing of participants who appear to fall behind. But eventually there may come a point where some participant willfully declines to carry their share or even make an attempt. If their destiny then is poverty… so be it. I get that this is very cold, and not at all what one imagines from lyrics like “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”. But when the cupboard is down to the last can of beans, the undeserving – well, they just don’t deserve.

      On a different perspective, the deserving poor. These neighbors are the angels we should look out for. These are the ones we can sacrifice for and carry through thick and thin. If the cupboard is bare, I will share the last can of beans with the deserving poor.

    • In my experience ‘the undeserving poor’ serves as a rhetorical device to discipline the behaviour of the ‘deserving’ poor, to ensure that the latter seek work and don’t spend too much on things unrelated to keeping body and soul together. Brownie points for good behaviour includes access to as little welfare provision as those in charge can get away with.

      I’m pretty sure we should stop talking about the undeserving poor whatever happens!

      • Those are valid concerns Andrew… but I don’t imagine the solution is to stop talking about it. Sweeping it under the rug doesn’t make the issue go away.

        What does anyone deserve?
        What is poverty?
        How much welfare provision should those in charge be responsible for?
        How much of an individual’s station is the individual responsible for?

        Is there too much wealth? And here I mean in total, as it appears obvious to me there are many at the tip of the distribution with far too much individual wealth. Having too much total societal wealth may be contributing to the issue you raise – the deserving poor being “disciplined” rhetorically for their own choices.

        So here I’m arguing we should treat this difficulty like we might any other challenge before us – systematically tease apart the various aspects. Listen to the various thoughts and opinions… Shutting down the conversation won’t move the needle; and quite the opposite – shutting down the conversation only permits those with objectionable motivations to continue their oppressing ways.

        • Hi Clem, I don’t mean to sweep any discussion under the rug, and I’m happy to keep talking! My comment was directed only at the notion of the undeserving poor as it often manifests in our current very imperfect world, particularly as an integral part of capitalist ideology.

          You ask some very broad questions, and I suppose the answers depend very much on how utopian we are being here. Should we depict society as we feel it should be (on which case I doubt many of us would plot out a role for any poor) or are we talking about fear that the creation of such a better world will be frustrated by the refusal of some to pull their weight?

          Either way, when you ask ‘what does anyone deserve?’ I’m tempted to answer with the Universal Basic Sustenance that I put forward half in jest somewhere else in these comment threads. We’re all dependent on the world for life, and so I think we owe each other the benefit of sustaining each other’s lives no questions asked. Of course that raises a thousand more questions in practice, but the principle is there at least that nobody should starve, dehydrate, freeze or overheat no matter how bone idle.

          I think that gels with Chris’s emplasis on self-possession as well. Read literally, our lives are the one item of private property that each and every one of us possesses at all times, and nobody should have any right at all to expropriate us. Ironically, denying people access to land, the foundation of sustenance, through the institution of private property in land, often puts people’s self-possession at risk.

          • More particularly:

            If I have enough food, and someone else does not, and I can realistically give them food — then the food in my pantry doesn’t rightfully belong to me. I actually believe this now, and try to act accordingly.

            This doesn’t mean I am personally responsible for feeding every one of the people who turn up at our soup kitchen and food bank. I think the idea of that scares a lot of people, and is part of why free rider discussions get so fraught.

            It does mean I am absolutely on the hook for helping with the efforts of the soup kitchen and food bank. It means if we didn’t have a soup kitchen I would be on the hook for organising something. Not feeding people who are hungry when you have food they can eat is straight-up immoral, but that doesn’t mean anyone can or should try to manage these things alone. It’s very much a community effort.

            And part of that effort also involves calling to account the free-riding rich who profit at the expense of our food bank guests. Rentier landlords, over-financialisation of food markets, and that section of the press where advertising pays more than subscriptions are all parts of the current system that I see as deeply flawed, in addition to the replacement of human and animal labour with cheap fossil fuels.

            A society that decides employing people to do work is too expensive, then blames the workers for being lazy or idle or whatever, is a very sick society.

          • Some nice, thoughtful, and engaging replies…

            I’ll begin by taking Steve L’s thought out a bit further – as I particularly like his application of ‘neighbor’ and the Good Samaritan parable.

            For any and all fellow travelers we might meet during our time here there is the prescription to meet them as a neighbor. And giving any all the benefit of the doubt is necessary. So making a determination of deserving must be held until we might answer such questions as there being some unseen physical ailment, or mental illness. Neither of these conditions would meet the ‘willfully declines to carry their weight’ assessment. With this latter diagnosis we get into a criminal behavior in many societal constructs – and even here we may want to apply a bit of restraint, holding out hope that this neighbor can be rehabilitated.

            At what point along a continuum of ‘Evil to Good’ should we allow ‘deserving’ to enter our set of core responsibilities toward our neighbors?

            To Andrew’s notion of Universal Basic Sustenance – I’ll admit some hesitance to fully embrace the notion. I agree there must be a stable and secure safety net to catch and care for all our neighbors as we traverse the difficulties of our time. But once a person, without a mental illness or other ailment for excuse, “willfully declines”, then what are we to do?

            There is this:
            “No man is completely useless; he can always serve as a bad example.”

            Another parable to chew on in this conversation – the Prodigal Son.

        • In Western society, there’s a well-known ‘law’ (or ‘commandment’) about loving your neighbor as yourself. There aren’t any exclusions, to my knowledge, for ‘undeserving poor’. In fact, the clarifications given about who exactly is one’s neighbor made it clear that one doesn’t even have to know the neighbor, in which case it would be impossible to make judgments about how ‘deserving’ the neighbor may be. (Reference: The Good Samaritan parable)

          In a case where somebody “willfully declines to carry their share or even make an attempt,” as Clem described it, the reason could be some unseen physical ailment, or mental illness.

        • Clem, this is quite can of worms you have opened here.

          Too much wealth in concentrated to too few hands causes problems. There has to be concept of ‘enough’. Certainly the very wealthy could afford to pay better wages. But they don’t. That edges them over towards the category of the greedy.

          Another old fashioned rule ( it is not a law or commandment ) is to Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you.

          Universal Basic Sustenance implies that someone else has a claim on my time and effort. Don’t I have an equal claim on theirs ? If it is all going one way it is just not going to work.

          From running a small farm I can tell you that it is a lot of work to provide a year’s worth of food, shelter and clothing. A low energy future will make it much harder. Cutting firewood is heavy work and dangerous even now. We still have an ice house. Anyone up for cutting ice ? There is a hard limit to charity.

          When times are tough we look out for our own, first and foremost. The lazy don’t have much of a chance in that situation. BTW, Sloth is one also of the Seven Deadly Sins.

          Seems like people have been wrestling with these ideas for millennia. I don’t think they have always come up with good answers.

          And just for fun-
          https://getpocket.com/explore/item/how-inequality-imperils-cooperation?utm_source=pocket-newtab

          • Yes Greg – a can of worms indeed.

            I like your point about things all going one way. Sloth being a deadly sin is also worth noting in this conversation.

            And further on to some other assessments we choose to make as we encounter our ‘neighbors’ – the choices we make as individuals needn’t be identical. For the matter of Universal Basic Sustenance there is the minimum, the basic: “nobody should starve, dehydrate, freeze or overheat”

            Beyond this lowest level of assistance there is a whole gamut for charity. And charity is a good thing. But charity, for me at least, works best when it is a voluntary thing. I may choose to assist a physical neighbor – someone I’ve long known before I choose to assist a perfect stranger. This does however stumble in light of the Good Samaritan rubric. But lets return to the spectrum of ‘Evil to Good’… if I choose to help someone I know before (or more than) someone I don’t… that’s on me. If I choose to hurt everyone I meet by refusing to even carry my own bucket, that too is on me. At what point is this latter behavior held as a bad example? As an example of a behavior in need of some intervention?

          • ‘No man is completely useless; he can always serve as a bad example.’

            Well that made me laugh, and I applaud the sentiment!

            One of the main advantages of the principle of Universal Basic Sustenance is surely that it frees us up to take people as we find them. If we can rest assured that the basic sustenance of all whom we meet is guaranteed, then we have no need to engage further should we find their behaviour objectionable.

            The scale of Good to Evil is, I imagine, easy to define at its extremes and a lot mistier in the middle. But, if you’ll permit me a utopian moment, I think committing to the basic sustenance of even those towards the evil end is ultimately worthwhile, especially as I hold out hope that there wouldn’t be that many, proportionally speaking, in a society offering people a life without real poverty.

            Beyond the rarefied air of situations that might call us to take exasperatingly principled decisions, I like the emphasis on neighbours, especially as applied generally to all whom we meet. In a more down-to-earth context it also reminds me of the injunction to ‘good neighborhood’ common to the upland farmers of Britain in centuries past, who were concerned to create their own moral economy around the common management of upland pastures.

            Finally, I’m entirely convinced of the dangerous effects of inequality, and wholeheartedly call for universal mediocrity!

          • There is a old Soviet era joke
            They pretended to pay us and we pretended to work .
            The more states supply goods the fewer people are willing to work for them and when the state takes an unreasonable amount people stop working for each other and work primarily for themselves , even under a communist system .
            Yes there are some that can’t work but there’s a lot that would rather mooch than work , my grandchildren / their friends pay to go to a gym yet expect me to pay them to dig my garden . Digging the garden ain’t cool !
            Then there are the drug addicts , unemployable that spend most of their time thieving or in jail .
            In a pesant economy , people like you and me can only support so many before there has to be a halt called , working hard to keep your own family will be the priority , we will not see our own family starve at the expense of feeding others who will not work will be the norm , the Soviets tried to enforce sharing and starved their farmers ensuring they all starved .
            In times of plenty it’s easy to say I will look after everyone , try working sixty hours a week growing food while others sit around watching , bowl in hand for your efforts .

    • Thanks all for this engaging little debate. I won’t contribute much right now but maybe I can come back to it when we get onto the issue of welfare. For now, I’d concur with much of what Andrew, Kathryn and Steve are saying when it comes to real life and death human suffering – to Andrew’s list on that front, I must add ‘or drown’ in view of horrific recent events in the Channel, and the almost equally horrific insouciance with which the British government and some among the public advocate not saving lives at sea. I think Nesrine Malik writes well about this in this piece, which covers similar ground to some of the viewpoints here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/29/migrants-earn-place-britain-people-channel

      But I also understand where Clem and Greg are coming from regarding less traumatic circumstances in everyday farm societies. Generally, I endorse the injunction to give, but historically gifts almost always come with strings attached, usually ones that make the recipient subservient to the donor. Anyway, I hope to come back to this soon.

  11. Great to see you dashing out replies left, right and centre Chris – I thought you had a farm to run?!

    Regarding households and families, I’m happy to see households and communities as metaphors for one another, especially as they’ve often been used as such historically. In fact I’d strengthen the observation and suggest that their mutual connections are fundamental to understanding both – I think this may have come up before on here, and I suggested the relationship was a dialectical one, understood as mutually affecting rather than a claim to some Marxist mystery!

    Beyond that your response appears essentially to be that ‘it’s complicated’, which I can also (reluctantly!) accept. Perhaps it’s useful to continue to think through household and community in tension – creative perhaps. As for chemically infused participatory politics, I look forward to your post on the Psychedelic Republic of Wessex.

    I’m also interested in the ways that your suggested solution to the threat of monopoly landholding in your book actually limits the scope of abusus rights in any case. Land that, for all intents and purposes, can’t be passed on via inheritance and can only realistically be acquired via a mortgage from a development bank is not really self-possessed private property in the commonly understood sense of these words. All well and good. But why do you prefer market-based approaches to more nakedly political ones? Put another way, why do you trust the board of the bank more than the democratic deliberations of your local community?

    Actually, I wonder if my regular invoking of participatory communal politics is simply too nebulous to offer convincing alternatives. Again, it has been suggested here before that these sorts of discussion might benefit from real-world examples of the kind of grassroots communal politics currently happening in places like Chiapas, Venezuela, Brazil, Rojava, etc. I’m afraid I’ll have to go away and read yet more books.

    Speaking of books, I’m glad to see some early medieval tomes among your suggestions. Interestingly I don’t think there has been enough consideration of the importance of connections between households and wider communities during the period, and in particular the ways that the politics of the kingdoms of the time was often geared to strengthening the patriarchal roles of household heads as much as the positions of kings and their close circles.

    As for Rerum Novarum, I fear Sean and I would disagree substantially. Clearly I would not accept the historical precedence of the family, and I’m not a fan of neo-Thomist natural law. ‘Family’ here has a rather specific meaning, with ‘purposes for which it exists’ that prescribe ‘limits’ that should ‘be not transgressed’. I presume that paramount among those purposes is the procreation of children, and I have often seen such natural law used to justify making a prison of the family for women in particular. Shifting to the Chesterton quote, I’m not surprised that it is the lovingly described girl and her nurturing mother, rather than a boy and his father, that are to be protected at all costs as the bosom of the family.

    I should admit, however, that I’m probably to be counted among the anarchists/socialists with a little too much righteous zeal on my off-days!

  12. A few responses to further comments. To Andrew’s point about having a farm to run, I’ve been laid low by a virus (but not *that* virus) for the last week, so the ratio of keyboard to farm work has climbed alarmingly. It will require some urgent rebalancing soon.

    Regarding Andrew’s land transfer point, as I see it the idea of obtaining or inheriting land with which to furnish the necessities of life over our life course but doing so in a way that gives its due to the wider community of which we’re a part and shows our commitment to that community is very much in keeping with the idea of autonomy-in-community I’m driving at. The market-mediated method I suggest seems to me easier in several respects than dumping all decisions about estate transfer to the mayor’s office or to one of the regular meetings of the citizenry – certainly, I wouldn’t fancy facilitating the latter meeting! But I don’t particularly trust the board of the bank more than the citizen’s assembly – they’re just doing different things, and the former would ultimately be subservient to the latter. But if the latter started messing a lot with individual transactions, I’d start to get suspicious.

    Still, I don’t think we should get too hung up on the monetary aspect of this. Every society has to transfer its accumulated knowledge and capital across the generations somehow. Some do it through initiation rituals, ordeals, secret societies, clan totems and the like. Everything depends on future circumstances and future history, which – as Greg says – is hard to discern. I think we need to think about this kind of thing right now, but without taking the minutiae of it too seriously.

    Behind all this lurks the fact that the kind of societies we’re talking about are not going to be stable rural communities dating back to time immemorial, but most likely ones constructed in emergency circumstances out of relatively recent migrants from near and far. That creates some difficulties, but also clarifies some things. Perhaps that gives a slant to answering Sean’s good question about the role of custom and tradition, which I will ponder.

    On households & polities implicating each other, I will return to this soon.

    To the point about population and farm inheritance, I agree with Andrew that population levels and the size of farm holdings have no natural or predictable relationship, except inasmuch as with future human ecologies probably being a bit more ‘fixed’ in place, population increase over time does imply reduced farm size – which may or may not be a problem, as determined by both cultural and ecological factors.

    Thanks to Clem and Greg for addressing the (un)deserving poor point – kind of relevant to considerations of welfare that I hope to address soon. Historically in many places notions of the deserving poor have been strongly marked by social judgments. Widows with young children and people with long-term local roots often count highly in the deserving categories. Working age men lacking employment, young unmarried mothers and recent incomers often in the undeserving one.

    And thanks Sean for the Thomism reference. I’ve been toying with the idea of re-reading Macintyre’s ‘After Virtue’, but I’m not quite as interested in such abstract philosophizing as I used to be. I like your point about prescriptive philosophical anthropology, though. I agree there’s a need for it, which Graeber skirted in his academic work.

    • A virus at this end too, Chris – nothing unbearable, just a headache, slight fatigue… still able to do our work with Omicronic joy 🙂

  13. In my case: the allotment site is on a floodplain, my plot is in a lower-lying part, and without my previous work hauling literally tonnes of woodchips, the whole thing would be the “boggy bit”. It’s small enough for me to irrigate in a dry summer if I have to, though. Moving the plants to the wettest bit is less sensible.

    If I had more space, and indeed livestock, it might be different.

  14. Best wishes for a quick recovery Chris (and Simon), though I’m afraid I’m rather enjoying your unbalanced blogging to farming ratio at the moment!

    Re Graeber, he did approach conventional philosophical considerations in his book ‘Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value’, if only largely to dismiss them. He characterised his approach to the ontologocal foundations of studying society as one that focuses on actions rather than things, and therefore not really invested in abstract relations between matter and form. Such ‘process philosophy’ always rather appealed to me, when I could get my head round it, although like you it’s not something I’ve paid much attention to for a while now. Anyway, I’ll have to catch up with you and others and read ‘Dawn…’

    • Thanks, Andrew! (I’m actually savouring the ‘slow down’ and ‘pause’ brought on by a mild bug. Enjoying the this thread as well, of course).

  15. Diogenese 10, I’ve heard a variation of that Soviet-era joke in my neighbourhood: Everbody had a job, and no one had much work to do.
    There must have been a grain of truth to it, for certain people at certain times.

    Elsewhere I spotted this – I expect it will be a rollickingly good read, pity it isn’t out until just after Christmas. It’s Simon Fairlie’s next book – a memoir.
    https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/going-to-seed/

    • Book looks good!

      Re Soviet ‘work’ and the work-shy, the main point there must be the great influence that state policies (whether communist or capitalist) have on setting the ground rules and even the definition of ‘work’. The great paradox of work in the global core today is the paramount importance of acquiring money to be able to do anything together with the soul destroying nature of a great deal of what passes for work, especially the proliferation of so-called ‘bullshit jobs’. Attitudes to work are shaped by that, and I don’t think it follows that anyone trying to avoid work is simply attracted by meagre state benefit payments. In any case I imagine there are very few other than the rich who can actually avoid work and lead enjoyable lives. My best to anyone who manages to avoid our modern work regime and make something of it!

        • I should have pointed out that the authors of the linked piece have a list of BS and Non-BS jobs in Table 1. There one finds that Agriculture is a non-BS job.

          I find this amusing on a tangential front, as anyone who has worked with intact adult male cattle might consider their cleanup efforts to be exactly a bull shit job. (sorry).

        • Thanks Clem, an interesting read. I think they’re certainly right to call out the lack of quantitative supporting evidence in Graeber’s book. He always seems much happier following the qualitative road.

          I did get the feeling, though, that two quite different meanings of the word ‘useful’ were at play here. The correlations the authors raised at the end between those who felt their jobs weren’t useful and elements like a desire for recognition and respect from management, or to participate in a more fulfilling way at work, suggest that ‘useful’ was being understood to mean personally useful within the bounds of the employment setting. Graeber’s sense of a person’s perspective on the wider social usefulness of their job doesn’t seem so apparent in the survey data the authors use.

          Nevertheless, lest I be thought too defensive of Graeber, it doesn’t change the fact that the quantitative side of his case remains unproven. The fact that something feels like it should be true is, I admit, a slim basis for accepting it!

    • I’ve read a proof copy of Simon’s book and can thoroughly recommend it. I’ll probably write a post about it in the new year when it comes out.

      Talking of good books, I’m currently reading Tyson Yunkaporta’s ‘Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World’. It’s very thought-provoking and bears much on the issues we’re currently discussing here – guess I’ll write a bit about that soon too.

      To the Soviet jokes I’d add those cases from British Caribbean colonies where slaveholders lamented the laziness and stupidity of their captives working on the plantations while marvelling at their contrasting diligence and industry on their own provision grounds, spectacularly failing to put two and two together. I won’t over-press the implications for my arguments about self-possession, autonomy and distributed private property…

      • Glad to hear you’re reading Tyson’s book, Chris! I’ll look forward to seeing where that leads you.

        If I may add to your reading pile, then I’d highly recommend Vanessa Machado de Oliveira’s Hospicing Modernity. (Some folks may know her work with the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective, where she writes as Vanessa Andreotti.)

        The way that you land on ‘modernity’ in your map of the crises in Part I of your book makes me think that you’ll find fruitful crossover with what Vanessa is doing, and it reads well alongside Sand Talk.

      • It’s probably one of the oldest tricks in the Book of Peasant Resistance, but an old worker here once told me a story whereby he’d witnessed a co-worker commit an offence at work and was subsequently asked by the boss to write a witness statement with the aim that the co-worker be either disciplined or dismissed. This was a quandary as he liked his co-worker more than he liked his boss. What to do?
        He said he did the only thing he could do under the circumstances, and that night after work wrote down his account and signed it, as ordered. But he’d had the gumption to handwrite a letter that was completely illegible (the fact that he only had one arm may have strengthened his case here). Upon handing it in next day, naturally the boss responded with, “What the hell is this? I can’t make out a single word!”
        “That’s my handwriting,” answered our hero, flashing me his Jimmy Durante smile.
        Looking forward to the various book reviews.

  16. Hat tip to Christine for recommending “Sand Talk”. A perspective quite novel and hard to get a grip on to one ensconced in the privileged civilized culture.

    Just finished it, and have mixed feelings about how impactful it may prove to be, or how the needed cultural connection could play out.

    I’m still digesting, but a couple quick takeaways:

    It’s all connections. Indigenous wisdom is about keying in to patterns and cause and effect relationships that are all around but hidden to our dulled and domesticated senses. And working with them, not against them. Holism.

    Civilized cultures destroy indigenous cultures when they make contact and live where the civilized culture has something they want. Tyson offers no solutions to that, and there may be none. As energy inputs decline, and things relocalize, the problem might solve itself.

    Where Tyson lost me was with the descriptions of indigenous abilities to predict events or evoke a cosmology that is tapping in to some web of causation that seemed like he believed them to be “real”. Maybe I’m too science grounded?

    And last- How does one define and determine indigeniety? How long must a population stay in tune with their spot on the planet to be in harmony, in balance, to see the rhythms that they need to dance to?

    In the upper midwest, there are farms that brag when they become century farms, ( farms with the same family ownership for 100 years ) which actually is a feat here, but comes nowhere near to having indigenous connection. We here have been too subsidized by fossil fuels, so are not learning the lessons that mistakes offer us.

    • Where Tyson lost me was with the descriptions of indigenous abilities to predict events or evoke a cosmology that is tapping in to some web of causation that seemed like he believed them to be “real”. Maybe I’m too science grounded?

      Like many things in life there may indeed be some point at which one goes too far (e.g., accumulates too much wealth, eats too much, etc.) For science I imagine a proper grounding is the realization that science will not have all the answers at a given point in time. A question must be asked, a hypothesis capable of being tested must be brought forth… and an experiment designed and conducted to test it. Absent the process science has no way to determine what is or is not real.

      At the same time, however, a science grounded mind may want to ask about the evidence provided by the author. How many predictions were made, and of these how many came to be correct. More than 95%? Or any value down to 50% (or some probability associated with mere guessing and random result).

      To the matter of how long a period of time needs to elapse before one might be indigenous – I’ve no sound data. But I will offer that I can predict the weather for the coming day about as accurately as the meteorologists for the specific field location where I’ve been working these last 20+ years (without referring to their forecasts… but by tracking the signs on the ground). The prairie where I work has a few characteristic ‘tells’ that enable this (and animals will give warnings as well once you know what to watch for). I’ve learned a couple of these from other ‘locals’ and formed a few on my own. (BTW, the most useful ‘locals’ for weather appreciation are those who work outdoors the most… ie, agrarians.)

      Given current usage of indigenous in our modern discourse – I’m not about to describe myself as such. But I think the presence of a family unit on a single site – stewards of the land for a century… they come as close to indigenous as we’re likely to find on most landscapes.

  17. The part of Yunkaporta’s book that I think most bears on my present concerns is the ‘Lines in the sand’ chapter, for example where he writes “…it is strangely liberating to realise your true status as a single node in a cooperative network. There is honour to be found in this role, and a certain dignified agency. You won’t be swallowed up by a hive mind or lose your individuality – you will retain your autonomy while simultaneously being profoundly interdependent and connected” (p.98)

    In an Australian aboriginal context, you probably wouldn’t manifest that in relation to any notions of private property, but in a European or North American one you might.

    Also, thanks Clem for the link to the article about Graeber. Agree with Andrew. It brings some interesting data to bear, but maybe it misses the point somewhat? I wonder how respondents might assess their work in other contexts … or whether there’s been an increase in bullshit jobs as determined by what people think of other people’s jobs, rather than their own…

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