A small farm future – the case for common property

In my last post, I made the case for private property rights in a small farm future. In this one, I’ll make a case for common property rights (‘commons’). There’s no contradiction because private and common rights usually accompany each other. I’ve written quite a bit about commons in the past, usually from a somewhat sceptical viewpoint – not because I dispute their importance, but because I think they’re too often invoked as a rather fluffy feelgood word to mean ‘people doing good things together’. When we look at agricultural societies, we see that there are certain things they achieve with commons and certain things they don’t, and I think this is informative for the small farm societies we need to form in the future. But I don’t want to lose sight of the ‘people doing good things together’ aspect, which I’ll come to at the end.

In this article, I described the scope of commons in agrarian societies under the rubric of what I called the ‘four Es’: commons are usually extensive (applying to low value and/or diffuse resources), elemental (relating to the wider play of the landscape beyond individual private control, such as controlling fire risk, managing water or shaping the earth), extra (a bonus on top of ordinary economic activities, often with a social welfare function) and/or exclusive (applying to a definite and restricted community).

So in the future small farm communities I’m imagining, I’d expect to see commons around things like firewood gathering, irrigation, flood defence and cattle grazing – but probably not around gardening, cereal cropping, haymaking or milking. Robert Netting and Simon Fairlie have both written about the complex interleaving of private and common rights in traditional European dairying systems along these lines. Broadly speaking, cows were privately owned by individual households and the housing, milking and haymaking for them was likewise undertaken privately, but much of the grazing and cheesemaking was organized as commons. As Simon puts it, “This elegant system paid scant allegiance to ideology – it evolved from the dialogue between private interest and common sense”1. I expect much the same will transpire eventually with future agricultural commons.

Drawing on Robert Netting’s work, commons theorist Elinor Ostrom suggests that commons are particularly suited for agricultural situations where2:

  1. The per acre value of the goods being produced is low
  2. The availability of the goods fluctuates
  3. The possibilities for improving or intensifying productivity are low
  4. A large territory is needed for effective use
  5. Large groups of people are needed for effective capital investing activities

From this list, it’s easy to see why things like gardens and arable fields are rarely organized as commons, whereas woodlands and grazing often are.

I had an interesting if brief discussion on Twitter with @aliceLBPclub about the production of textiles in a small farm future. My feeling is that generally this probably wouldn’t be organized as a commons overall, but – as with Simon’s dairying example – it might have some commoning aspects. Supposing people widely grow a fibre plant like flax. This wouldn’t fit within the commons criteria mentioned above and would most likely be grown on an individual household basis, unless it required special conditions or skills to grow it, in which case things might get interesting. But, as with a crop like wheat (or the cheeses mentioned above), processing it might be more efficiently done in a single large facility serving the community’s needs. By the lights of the criteria outlined above, I don’t think this facility would likely be a commons as such.

Maybe the best model for it would be a cooperative. People pool some of their surplus resources to create the processing facilities in the expectation that they will get some fair share of the final product. Shoehorning a few issues here, inasmuch as the processing involves specialist skills and training, the cooperative might be a guild, in which craft specialists manage the training, conduct and price-setting of their membership in service of the wider community.

A craft guild is a bit different from an agrarian commons in terms of the underlying ecology, but similar in terms of its social structure, which is basically this3:

A commons or guild = a resource + a community + a set of usage protocols

How this works out in practice depends a lot not only on the nature of the resource but also on how the community and the usage protocols are defined. Who’s excluded, who’s included, and what are the rules of the game for those involved? Part of my scepticism about the way commons and guilds are often invoked is that they are not by virtue of their form of organization intrinsically positive, egalitarian or socially beneficial. That’s been their intention and their achievement often enough, but not always.

The classic criticism of agricultural commons is that they promote inefficient use or, worse, overuse that runs down the resource. This, notoriously, was Garrett Hardin’s argument in his 1968 article ‘The tragedy of the commons’. It was also Arthur Young’s argument as he enthusiastically pressed the case for the enclosure of agricultural commons in England in the late 18th century. Young came to regret his enclosing ardour, while even Hardin admitted that what he’d called a commons really wasn’t and is better described as an open access regime where, in contrast to the definition above, there’s no defined community or usage protocols to prevent degradation.

Still, for all the justifiable mud flung at Hardin, the fact is it’s possible for a commons to degrade into an open access regime, or for a situation to default to an open access regime because of the failure to create a commons – a point made forcefully enough by Elinor Ostrom herself. Current examples include the collapse of the world’s pelagic fisheries, and the ever-escalating levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In both cases, the problem seems to be the inability to create a stable community with shared norms around the resource – partly perhaps because when it comes to forming communities, people are creatures of the particular earth, not the fluid skies or waters.

The classic criticism of the craft guild rests at the other boundary of the commons – not an access regime that’s too open, but one that’s too closed. The guild stops operating in service of the community and starts operating in service of itself, creating unreasonable entry barriers, fixing prices and engaging in other such monopolistic forms of anti-social behaviour. In this sense, the rogue guild was one of the forerunners to the modern capitalist corporation – and, ironically, the idea of ‘freeing’ the market was experienced in some quarters as genuinely liberatory.

Now we’ve seen how the story of monopoly capitalism has worked out (summary: not well), a lot of us are looking back to the previous world of commons and guilds as the basis for a better model. And rightly so. But there are a few caveats worth bearing in mind. First, commons and guilds are not in themselves a solution to the problems of transcending capitalism’s world of strange delights. As I suggested above, their organizational form is ethically neutral. The same goes for cooperatives, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere – when they operate in a world that’s systematically organized in the interests of capital, too easily just replicate the structural tensions of that world. The real challenge is to reconstruct communities and economies along more just and sustainable lines. Commons and guilds really come into their own after that work of reconstruction.

But even when they do come into their own – especially when they come into their own – the ways that commons and guilds can fail that I detailed above need to be taken seriously. The story we often tell today is how they were broken top down by the forces of economic accumulation against the will of ordinary people, and it’s partly true. But ordinary people also did some of the breaking themselves as they sought to escape from restrictions that were sometimes less than ideal in practice. Balancing collective, partial and individual interests in relatively self-reliant local communities isn’t easy and needs to be front and centre of ongoing local politics.

The genius of capitalism has been defraying these difficulties of local politics by continually opening up new economic frontiers that sweeten the politics of local community with economic service. That was the achievement of the other main forerunner of modern capitalism, the joint stock company that pooled resources to finance the high-risk, high-return business of overseas maritime adventuring. But that achievement has come at a threefold price. First, the economic service has generally arisen from extracting extra value from people elsewhere – that is, from colonialism of one form or another. Second, it’s often denatured local communities back at the source even as it’s defrayed some of their difficulties. And, third, not only has it started to run out of new frontiers and resources to commodify, it’s also destroyed the ecological integrity of the ones it’s already commodified – hence the interest of people like Elon Musk in opening up places like Mars. So the job of reconstructing local human ecologies becomes especially difficult, because we’ve forgotten how to live without being propped up by other people’s value creation, or because the extraction of value has profoundly damaging effects on the social fabric.

Still, people everywhere are pretty creative at generating new social fabrics and new kinds of mutual aid. So my conclusion is this: grow fibres, pool resources, weave fabrics, build commons, make guilds. But do it carefully and be prepared to unstitch them when they go wrong, which sometimes they certainly will.

As to my opening point about people doing good things together, people will need to develop new agricultural commons of the classic sort in the small farm futures of many places, but in the short-term more malleable and inclusive arrangements will often be in order, as with responses to various emergency situations where defining strict membership criteria and usage protocols isn’t to the point. More fundamentally, I believe the key aspect of commoning as doing good things together won’t lie in the exact boundary definitions of common versus private property, but in the fact that both take their place within a larger collective politics of creating resilient and renewable local societies where people are autonomous and self-possessed actors within larger cooperative networks.

Notes

  1. See Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7, 16-31.
  2. Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, p.63.
  3. Borrowing here from David Bollier. 2014. Think Like A Commoner, p.15.

36 thoughts on “A small farm future – the case for common property

  1. Tangent warning applies to this comment…

    But I was thinking the other day about the difference between moving stuff and moving information, and how that changes the way governance happens. And I still wonder about a situation in which we can move information fairly easily but transporting stuff is way more expensive; I can certainly envision such a future, and suspect that the infrastructure for moving information quickly would be worth maintaining in some form even if we had to use biomass to do it.

    How would that affect the boundaries, or boundedness, of commons?

    I ask this partly as a choral composer who releases work under a Creative Commons license. Even living in a city, it isn’t always easy to get an entire choir together for the “people doing good things together” part of performing a piece of music, but having my music available online has led to more performances than would otherwise be the case (and I care about performances much more than I care about money).

  2. A tangent warning should be applied here as well – so thanks Kathryn for the lead…

    A few thoughts from a different British thinker: https://unherd.com/2021/11/why-i-am-fleeing-to-the-hills/

    XR is mentioned, many topics we’ve debated here, and then a comments section with a lively back and forth.

    What I take to be the central point – one should have the gumption to take actions in line with one’s stated point of view – is something I imagine several of us hanging out here have already taken to heart.

    • I think the “walk your talk” criterion for political legitimacy is way overrated, especially when it comes to a national policy debate. Do people really need to support their stated preferences by living as if those preferences were already established law? Do you have to be a farmer to talk about agriculture policy, or be a firefighter to advocate for fire safety regulations?

      People who drive cars can still advocate for walkable cities, for example, and on such global issues as climate change (and the need to de-carbonize the energy supply), just about anyone can take a stand, regardless of how they live. At least XR takes a stand and makes some noise. That’s more important than where they go on vacation.

      And for someone who chastizes people for not making dramatic lifestyle changes to support their policy advocacy, it’s pretty cheeky for Roussinos to talk about “fleeing to the hills” when he hasn’t even sold his house yet, much less bought some farmland. Perhaps he’ll report back to us after a few years of being a hill farmer,

      Except, of course, I agree with his prescription that everyone needs to take personal action to adapt to climate change and the other impending catastrophes of modernity. But I would still agree that his proposal for people to get “back to the land” is a good idea even if he just stayed at home in suburbia and wrote blog posts on the subject. Good ideas should be evaluated for what they propose and the reasons given in support of them, not who proposes them. The only real advantage of walking the talk is that it can provide the walker with additional insight and expertise on the subject at hand, allowing them to marshal more persuasive evidence in support of their ideas. But reading numerous good books on the subject at hand may be even better.

      That said, Roussinos has presented a pretty half-baked analysis of what needs to be done to secure the UK’s future. It doesn’t even begin to compare with the work Chris has put in to chart a detailed way foreward. Still, Roussinos has made a good start in thinking things through.

      The comments section after Roussinos’ post was OK, but the best thing about it is that most of the commentors apparently used their real names, which is all too rare. Good for them.

        • Your linked article makes a lot of sense regarding the need for a fair and systemic strategy for reducing carbon emissions, but it still understates the task ahead. The bottom 10% (of wealth distribution) in rich countries are still responsible for far too much carbon emissions even though they generate much less than the top 10%.

          Universal parity in emissions must now be more akin to emissions generated by the very poorest on a world scale. This is because the problem doesn’t just stop at the end of this century. Excess emissions stay in the atmosphere for many centuries, so even a tiny excess from 8 billion people will keep adding up.

          A small farm future would probably do the job, but only if almost all people were doing subsistence farming and producing carbon emissions at levels similar to those by small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa or India. Per capita emissions in rich countries needs to drop almost a hundredfold.

          • Thanks for weighing in on that article, Joe, and I agree that practically all voices in the mainstream media understate the issue.

            As for whether a lack of action on climate change is BS, I try not to think of it in those terms on the ‘per capita’ basis, but do feel more inclined to think in those terms when it comes to in/action from Govts/corps, which in itself can be a route toward passing the buck, if I’m not careful.

    • I kinda agree with you Joe.

      There isn’t anything we can do as individuals to have any real effect on future outcomes. What is going to happen is going to happen and we are all bystanders in a way though very much involved.

      But for some, doing “something” is a way of coping with that reality. If someone feels that gluing themselves to a road is their way of processing the coming upheaval then fair play to them. It won’t change events on a grand scale but maybe that isn’t the point.

  3. With ‘open access’ being distinct from ‘common property’, it seems that common vs. private property is not quite a duality, since common property can be owned by an exclusive group, essentially making it a sort of ‘semi-private’ property.

    If common vs. private property is a duality of opposites, then the yin yang comes to mind, with each half of the pair including some of the other half. Common property has an exclusionary private aspect, while private property involves laws developed and held in common.

  4. Interesting points from Kathryn. Any views? Information certainly can circulate more freely than physical stuff, now more than ever. But I can’t help feeling that a good deal of the talk about open source and digital commons, salted with Stewart Brand’s misquoted “information wants to be free”, plays into the corporate hands that control the circulation of information, while pressurizing us everyday content-creating folks to work for nothing. On the face of it, information doesn’t lead to the kind of open access problems you get with overstocking livestock – or maybe it does. Too many voices, too little structured control of their context? Then there are things like seed saving and plant breeding as information circulation. Many perplexing issues here about what people are prepared to do for love or livelihood, and how we draw the boundaries.

    Thanks Clem for the link to the Aris Roussinos piece (also, have a look here: https://doomeroptimism.substack.com/p/mini-manifestos-part-1). I’d take issue with a few of his points. Continuing to live in the city despite presentiments of future trouble seems to me often less a case of revealed preference than of structural limitation in livelihood-making opportunities – as per the article linked by Simon, which has its resonances even for the relatively well-off middle classes in the rich countries. And plenty of people involved in XR have been much involved in prefiguring alternative economic worlds in other aspects of their lives, though I agree that XR somehow touched a wider supportive public who got behind the message without showing much sign of a deeper radicalism – still, the support has to be a good thing. Also, I appreciate Joe’s kind comment on my futurology – certainly, I don’t think heralding the prospects of a climate change vineyard dividend in the UK quite rises to the challenge.

    Good point from Steve on the yin and yang of private and common property. On page 184 of my book I argue the need to develop collective agreements over private property or appropriation rights. If people could stop viewing private appropriation as inherently a bad thing, I think we’d be in a better place to develop congenial and sustainable societies. At the start of Ch.13 of my book I discuss how some people enthuse about collective landownership while hanging tightly to private residential property. Shades of the debate between Clem & Joe?

    • You write: “a good deal of the talk about open source and digital commons, salted with Stewart Brand’s misquoted “information wants to be free”, plays into the corporate hands that control the circulation of information, while pressurizing us everyday content-creating folks to work for nothing. ”

      I think “information is a public good” is a more helpful framing than “information wants to be free”. I would also differentiate pretty strongly between “information is a public good” and “content creators should not be paid for their work”. That leaves me trying to solve the conundrum of how to get paid for work which, once completed, is not subject to scarcity of supply. This is exacerbated in my case by the friction between my “finished” product (a pdf of a score) and anything accessible to most audiences (a recording or concert). What I won’t do is put my work on e.g. Spotify.

      I suppose the difference between making scores available and making recordings or concerts available is a little like the difference between making seed available and making vegetables available. I’ll have to think about that some more.

      The way information transmission — especially of written information — changed with e.g. the printing press was far-reaching, and I think of ongoing changes in communications to be an ongoing part of the Reformation. While much is or was dependent on technologies like movable type or radio broadcast or indeed the internet, the root of the change from “only clerics and some merchants and aristocrats have much literacy, and this gives them a certain type of power over others” to “we can produce printed material in large enough quantities to make it worthwhile for everyone to learn to read” isn’t dependent on fossil fuels at all. We tend to lump communications in with modern technology, and assume it will go away, but I’m not sure we can actually put the cat back in the bag. The trend I see longer-term is one of increasing decentralisation: compare podcasts to early long-range radio programs, or the various online video platforms to broadcast television in the 1960s, or indeed blogging compared to publishing paper books (particularly before the print-on-demand era). I think zines and samizdat also deserve a mention here. Desynchronisation is also a big factor, and a much newer one in recorded audio and video material than in written material. (The first sound recordings are from the 19th century, though mechanical music boxes date from much earlier.)

      None of this is meant to discount or denigrate cultures with strong oral (rather than written) information traditions. I know musicians who can sightread well, but cannot play by ear. I suspect our resilience is lessened when we rely too much on literacy and what I might term literate ways of knowing, at the expense of oral transmission. (One of the things I like about 21st-century internet culture is that oral transmission is a much more visible thing again, facilitated by networks like Tiktok.)

      Throughout all of this there has been a sort of tug-of-war around control of replication of information: copyright law, DRM, read-only media and so on. Ultimately controlling information replication when you don’t control the means of replication is also expensive, and easier to carry out if you are a monopoly or gatekeeper anyway. Perhaps the real question I am asking around information, then, is not so much around what communications technology is available, but how we organise (or don’t organise) access to whatever comms tech we do have. I’m certain it will be very different than it is now. I’m certainly not getting rid of my deadtree books (at least the ones I love or find useful).

      • I suppose the difference between making scores available and making recordings or concerts available is a little like the difference between making seed available and making vegetables available. I’ll have to think about that some more.

        That’s a pretty fair analogy to my mind. Biggest difference I can see is that seed is not readily copied. One can reproduce seed (copy it) in the case of self pollinated crops and for stably inbred material where the inbred offspring is the progenitor for the market vegetable – but the cost of reproduction (growing plants) ends up being the lion share of the cost to the vegetable grower who will buy the seed. Having a .pdf file of your intellectual property is something very easily copied and easily distributed widely. Copyright for your score is the only method I’m aware of to protect your intellectual property. In the case of the seed – licensing contracts, plant variety protection (PVP), and in some cases patents are the methods employed to protect intellectual property.

        A follow on topic to this idea of protecting an original piece of work is what access do others have to modify the piece and then market their modifications. I’m thinking here of sampling.

        For the seed industry there is also the matter of germplasm resources – who “owns” them, who can employ them to develop new and different seed sources, how are downstream benefits accounted for and shared among participants in the whole effort. Chris has a link to the Agrobiodiversity blog here. There are plenty of resources there for folks who want to dive into the international aspects of germplasm conservation, germplasm use, breeder’s rights, participatory breeding, and so forth. I’ve a hunch if one knew where to look there’s likely something similar for music scoring as well.

        • I usually use a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, which allows people to do whatever they like with my music (even for profit) as long as they attribute me and release any derivative works under the same licence.

          Unfortunately copyright law is complex enough, and oversimplified enough by gatekeepers, that this is honoured more in the breach than anything else. The main sticking point seems to be that people don’t understand that the license I use, which allows them to download a PDF without paying in money, has implications for their performance rights. On more than one occasion I’ve been told that I am “not allowed’ to record a rehearsal of my CC-by-SA music because the singers have copyright in that performance and would each need to give permission; in reality if they want that more standard kind of licence I want them to give me actual money.

          In practice, I cannot be bothered attempting enforcement unless someone is failing badly at attribution, or actively using DRM. This is relatively rare in my subset of the industry.

          What I don’t want to end up in is a situation where a publisher pays me (once, or a very low royalty) for work I have done but then continues to profit from that work for years to come, and in chasing such profits limits access to my work to those who can afford to pay or are unscrupulous enough to steal. This is not to say that publishers shouldn’t be paid for the services they provide; rather that the model they use for getting paid (and in better cases, ensuring their composers get paid) favours people who are already wealthy.

          I’m quite familiar with various forms of derivative works because as a choral composer I usually work with text. Currently the only texts I can set without negotiating copyright are those where the author has been dead for more than 70 years, or those published before a certain year in the US.

          All very tangential! But I do feel that current copyright and IP law is a hindrance to many things that could be good. (Don’t get me started on vaccine patents).

      • I think that most forms of mass communication over the years have needed “State” support in their creation and “roll out”.
        Radio, TV. etc.

        (I’m not sure the printing press was a mass communication invention initially. Transport infrastructure and industrial printing did turn newspapers into mass communication media eventually. Being able to create multiple copies of something, is different to being able to distribute them over a wide geographical area at speed.)

        That “State” creation of these forms of information transfer, meant that the information was one way and controlled by agents of the “State”. Knowledge or information prior to the internet was a form of social control, not a liberation of ideas. Uncontrolled knowledge sharing is a very recent (and shirt lived) phenomenon.

        In a SFF I can’t see any form of mass information existing as the infrastructure to disseminate the information will need a lot of coordination and resources. Even a basic postal service will be very sketchy, if centralised organisation collapses. If some system was maintained, then who would decide what knowledge was being shared. The great thing about the internet is that there isn’t really a limit on content. We can all voice our opinions to the world. That is very different to owning a mass circulation newspaper.

        On intellectual property rights, they only exist as their is a means of recording and enforcing “ownership”. I can’t see any of that in a SFF. If someone comes up with a bright idea, they will need to keep it quiet or expect everyone to just copy it.

        Even in our world of patents, the Wright brothers couldn’t enforce patent rights on their airplane design. (Aerofoils, tail rudder etc) because it was strategically too important and the best way to control an airplane in flight. Every industrialised nation, just ripped off their design.

        • Movable type and Gutenberg’s printing press were revolutionary *because* this made possible communication at a scale that had previously been almost unthinkable. It wasn’t instant, but it was orders of magnitude faster than copying things out by hand, and it absolutely changed the way society worked because the control of information changed significantly. If I had to, I’d say it was a bigger change than the internet.

          No fossil fuels were involved. It was 1440 or so.

          • Hi Kathryn.

            That is true but it is a world away from what we all do on this blog.

            If I wanted to respond to your comments by post (and for everyone else to get a copy), ideas/debates would take an awfully long time!!!!!

            It’s not so much about the speed at which a text can be copied, but the speed at which the copies can be widely distributed.

            I agree that the internet can be a form of social control but it is much harder for “the powers that be” to dictate the narrative. Newspapers tell a particular story virtually unchallenged. Even the comments section
            Is selected/edited.

            We can debate all kinds of “subversive” content on this blog with no censorship.

    • The problem with high tech is equipment failure and obsolescence . We are 30 miles from a major city and are at the end of the dsl line. Every couple years out internet service disappears for a week because the old switches wore out again. Nobody is using dsl anymore so parts are hard to find. And our isp (phone company) is a train wreck.

      Cable and fiber (that’s spelled correctly, BTW) optics are current and up to the minute but they are never coming down our dead end dirt road. They also depend on parts that engineered to fail at some point and will be very difficult to replace in a low energy future.

      Maybe even now, solar power is an ERIO wash when you consider the fossil fuels that are burned to create the panels.

      Biomass is not going to build vacuum tube much less an Intel 4004. And as everyone knows twisted pair copper data lines are a thing of the past.

      Isn’t not walking the talk just BS ?

      • Greg,

        I’m not necessarily talking very high tech, though I do think a lot can be cobbled together from what actually exists, making the next century more about intermittency than collapse of communication networks. I have several devices in my home that can receive radio waves and only one of them was sold as a radio; none contain vacuum tubes.

        Rather, I’m pointing out that moving data (even in the relatively heavy form of paper) is much much easier than moving stuff. I think this has implications for how all kinds of things play out as we lose high-energy rapid transport.

  5. Thanks for the further comments. Interesting and I don’t have much to add, except:

    – maybe Greg’s points about his internet connection work as a microcosm of how things may pan out. More frequent and more serious infrastructure meltdowns like internet crashes or the shops running out of food items (already noticeable here) until the point where people outside a few major centres can’t really build their lives around a reliance on these things, with pretty major implications (supersedure?)…

    – regarding information, I’d say that it’s rarely a public good in the formal economic sense, but there may be certain kinds of information that are so important to social wellbeing that they need to be publicly shared without favour. But also, fresh from reading Tyson Yunkaporta’s ‘Sand Talk’ book about indigenous/aboriginal knowledge, what emerges strongly from that is the great extent to which knowledge in those societies is rigorously controlled – who you are makes a big difference to what you can know. In western or modernist thinking, we’re apt to dismiss that kind of knowledge as mystical hokum of little relevance to ‘real’ life (and I must admit, Yunkaporta’s book is disappointingly vague about material practices of livelihood making), but I don’t find that modernist take persuasive. Anyway, that’s a digression on a digression, but thanks to Kathryn for raising these points. I agree that it’s easy to think of information circulation only in modern high tech terms, and that’s a mistake.

    – on walking the talk, I guess the problem is always where you draw the line. For example, on a personal front I talk a lot about a small farm future, and I’ve established a small farm, so in that sense I’m walking it. On the other hand, there are so many ways in which I (almost inevitably?) rely on aspects of modern life that I suspect won’t endure, so I’m vulnerable to the objection that I’m not walking it, along the ‘I see you’re not too anti-modernist to use a computer’ line of argument. So it’s complicated…

    – finally, on the matter of spelling, this site is happy to host all local vernaculars, but if I spelled fibre any other way I fear I would be lacking all moral fiber as an English person fighting to retain my local heritage 🙂

    • I absolutely can envision Greg’s internet connectivity problems being a microcosm of what happens in future.

      But I also think part of the issue is that under crapitalism, sparsely populated rural areas aren’t worth serving with expensive infrastructure. That could change pretty fast if people really do spread out over the landscape more.

      A lot of the “maybe we can set up a more decentralised equivalent” imaginative communication possibilities also require a certain amount of population density (but not too much).

      Even living in a city I am careful to diversify my supplies and my household is prepared for, at least, a few weeks of widespread loss of power, water, or food. Currently this marks me out as unusual, but not as unusual as this was in, say, 2019. (I’m not saying it would be fun. But I can realistically say we would be OK and we would be able to help neighbours.) I think as infrastructure shocks continue, more people will seek out at least some resilience.

      But I worry about people for whom resilience has already snapped. A lot of church charity work in the city is focused on connecting people with social welfare safety nets that are more and more difficult to access. I think it is becoming apparent to some of us that social welfare is already in some kind of mild supersedure situation. Instead of supporting people for a few weeks while helping them to access benefits or services, we are having to support people much longer term.

      On walking the talk I think there is something to be said for punching up and not down in our criticisms. People who live in London and drive SUVs or even electric cars are demonstrably richer than I am and absolutely should be held to a high standard of behaviour. At the same time, I’m not going to judge a single parent who buys pre-packaged, individually-wrapped, ultra-processed snack foods for their kids. But criticising individuals for not walking some part of their talk seems to me to be a distraction from the reality that our problems are systemic and our adaptations are likely to emerge organically. The “right” kind of consumption is less part of this than the shift from consumer to producer. In my more optimistic moments I think that, like resilient approaches to household economics, will emerge as current approaches to meeting basic needs are subject to further supply shocks.

      • A good point. And being able to identify diseases in other livestock animals is also something important for more and more folks as food production gets more decentralized.

        There is some benefit to having smaller herd sizes and less dense animal populations in production situations. But the skills needed to keep animals healthy and to identify disease when it occurs are complex.

  6. I know I’m a bit more pessimistic but I don’t think that the internet will survive “The Fall”.

    It’s a very complex, layered system. To maintain it involves lots of hi-tech hardware that requires a lot of energy inputs to maintain it. From powering the whole system, running the servers, making the micro processors and all the cabling. In a world of limited available electricity, you can’t eat knowledge.

    On a slight tangent but still related. We’ve got new pylons going up round our way to take the power from the new reactor at Hinckley Point. Made me think of all the old pylons that must have gone up in the 60’s and 70’s. How long do they last before they need replacing? When they need replacing, it will be a huge logistical undertaking judging by the work going into erecting the new ones.

    • You’re right, John, about the complexity of the internet and that the energy needed to run it is huge (and increasing constantly). It is expected that the internet will consume 20% of all electricity production by 2025.

      To put that in perspective, 20% of annual world electicity production is now about 5,000 TWh, which amounts to about 1.7 kWh per person (on earth) per day.

      The amount of physical work that an average healthy adult can produce in an 8-hour day is about 600 Wh, which means that internet power consumption alone would equal the output of three workers for every person on the planet. Three “energy slaves” just for the internet.

      This is why things like the internet cannot exist in a sustainable society and why a small farm future will see communication over long distances revert to carrying letters around. Just about every technology that succeeded the industrial revolution depends on fossil fuels (even very basic technologies like the telegraph). Without fossil fuels, they all go away.

      • Without fossil fuels, they all go away.

        I just don’t see it being that drastic. The move toward wind and solar takes up part of the slack (for now at least). The technology to build out wind and solar is far too reliant on fossil infrastructure for now, but the Dutch were building wind mills long ago with materials to hand, and hydro powered mills are also “ancient” tech that can be repurposed to generate electricity. True, these are VERY small in relation to the current demands we place upon our energy diet. But radio can cover vast distances with very little electrical demand.

        Solar still seems to rely too heavily on tech that could become too difficult far into the future. But that limitation is merely for human constructed artificial solar… Solar in the form of biomass is not tech limited in the same fashion, and progress in the areas of plant breeding and biomass transformation seem most promising. Still not a silver bullet, but helpful and enabling for some level of resilience.

        Human ingenuity is remarkable.

  7. I’m a little late to this one, but wanted to comment on part 2 having done so rather liberally in part 1!

    I think the distinction made here between commons and open access regimes is very important, and can’t be emphasised enough given some prevalent public ideas about commons. Likewise the link between commons and private property is crucial, so much to agree with.

    In terms of our discussion in the last post, commons seems to me to represent the ‘purest’ form of usufruct, in that the ‘politics’ of commons has historically been concerned with preventing any one person from holding ‘abusus’ rights over the common land, and ultimately even denying that such rights exist over it at all.

    It also appears to be a form of property almost completely defined by the management regime of the landholders, always collective to some degree – it simply makes no sense to conceive of commons as units of capital, unless you plan to enclose/privatise it, and thus destroy it.

    It perhaps shows the extent to which people in the global core now think in terms of absolute private property, that the latter has to be actively explained as actually consisting in social rights and obligations, as Chris did in his previous post. That commons likewise consist in rights and obligations is far more obvious, especially as many with any experience of common rights will hold them as use rights attached to a more ‘private’ holding nearby.

    But perhaps for that reason, looked at the other way, commons are less regularly characterised as a species of private property, in that the rights are held by individuals along with the rest of their own holding (like Steve’s point earlier, although I don’t think I’d characterise it as a duality). The ownership of common rights therefore implies the same discussion we had last time about what communal or collective bodies or institutions, larger than the commons and it’s commoners, gets to adjudicate on these issues.

    I won’t cover old ground again, but it’s interesting that many are happier to consider community interest of various kinds when it comes to common land than with ‘private’ land, despite all these connections. Chris may also do this when writing of a guild acting ‘in service of the wider community’ (although I’m not sure if that community is intended to describe only the commoners/guild-people). I also wrote about it a bit in a previous comment on Steve’s Swiss bourgeoisie: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=1873#comment-242160

    As ever, I find the ways that different kinds of property act and develop mutually with broader society very informative, especially when thinking about how we might plan and build within that broader social context. I appreciate that many references to commons in the public sphere end up promoting ‘people doing good things together’ in a kind of open access environment, but I do wonder (hope?) that a notion of the commons (in a kind of ‘earth as common treasury’ form) might inform future politics, focused on those connections between commons managed bottom-up by commoners and their wider community. I’ll end with an article interested in such relationships considered through the figure of Thomas Spence, a man who deserves more attention than he gets! Its author clearly doesn’t have enough to say about small farms, but does at least see them as a good thing, and works through some of the more interesting current voices on a wider sense of commons. https://journals.openedition.org/miranda/9220

    • It also appears to be a form of property almost completely defined by the management regime of the landholders, always collective to some degree – it simply makes no sense to conceive of commons as units of capital, unless you plan to enclose/privatise it, and thus destroy it.

      Andrew, I’m hoping I can persuade you to elaborate a bit on a couple of assertions made there…

      First – that it makes no sense to conceive of commons as units of capital. This I don’t think I have too hefty a quarrel with, but when I consider capital as a resource (neither good or bad on its surface) with which to produce our sustenance, then within the proper bounds of sufficiency and care there seems some justification for considering resources as capital. Capital accumulation beyond sufficiency, and the destruction of a resource are different matters and once they appear then I imagine you and I are on the same page. But to unilaterally oppose the consideration of a natural resource being considered something for production (capital)… I find the sense in that problematic.

      But where I really want to take an opposite view is toward the implication that somehow privatizing a resource will necessarily destroy it. In the right hands I imagine a privatized resource can actually be improved, enhanced, and made to better serve the larger society. Where is the error in that thinking?

      • Thanks Clem. I think your first point is a semantic one. I’m not comfortable labelling a ‘neutral’ productive resource as ‘capital’, as I think the use of the word implies exploitation for private profit, either through involvement in commodity production or as an asset against which to borrow for investment. That may well be a narrower use than you’re comfortable with, but I’m sure that’s no problem as long as we know how we’re each using the word. As you say, we otherwise seem to be on more or less the same page.

        Your second point raises bigger issues. First though, I wouldn’t disagree that ‘a privatised resource can be improved, enhanced and made to better serve the larger society’, but when we’re talking about land, as here, our present distress would suggest that’s not the way it’s panned out in the majority of cases.

        Of course, much depends on what is meant by ‘privatisation’ and, fundamentally, how the process of making land private and using it privately is worked through and validated in wider society. I think the discussion under Chris’s post on private property highlighted these ambiguities nicely, and it’s worth noting that the current sense of full private property rights promoted in the global core is pretty unique historically.

        I am certainly not set against what might be called security of tenure, but I don’t think that has to be secured through a traditional notion of private property defined by the exclusion of as many ‘outside’ interests as possible. Given Chris’s concerns around alienation and inheritance, I don’t think that’s what he’s proposing either.

        From a utopian point of view I’m interested in the relationships between notions of secure tenure and the societies that guarantee it, and the ways that might be found to make that guarantee democratically accountable. I like the Spencean notion of common property (or perhaps better ‘community property’, for the avoidance of confusion) because it combines a recognition of the advantages of bottom-up small scale land management with a guarantee that everyone living in a given area has a stake in the land. That said I’m sure Spence’s Plan needs a bit of tweaking after two hundred years!

      • Just to comment briefly on the first point, maybe using the term ‘capital’ has misleading associations, but we need *some* sense that every society transmits various resources to new generations so that people aren’t starting from nothing, and that these resources sometimes can have fluidity. I think ‘capital’ captures this pretty well (especially since not everyone has access to the capital of the common). There needn’t be an implication that the capital tends to accumulate and concentrate. As I recall, one part of Heffron & Heron’s many confusions in their ‘review’ of my book, was this elision of money, capital & capitalism. But agreed, keeping the commons from being alienated/speculatively liquidized is important.

  8. Late response but:

    Your recognition of the similarity of guilds and commons is well stated! While commons are key to the “farm” side of the small farm future, guilds are key to the “small industry” side. However, a distinction between guild and commons exists in their membership, namely, that a commons tends to include all the peasants in a distinct geographical village, whereas a guild tends to include all the workers /of a particular trade/ in a less distinct geographical city. In either case, there will be difficulties with integrating new members of a village or city (and I’m thinking primarily of climate refugees), but they serve an important role in supporting widespread ownership; how to hold in tension the conserving stability of the guild/commons and solicitude for immigrants and refugees.

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  11. Hello Chris,
    A very late response, but maybe you will see this.

    Thanks for formulating the challenge of living together so well:
    “Balancing collective, partial and individual interests in relatively self-reliant local communities isn’t easy and needs to be front and centre of ongoing local politics.”

    It is a great challenge, and as you say – neither commons nor guilds nor cooperatives nor intentional communities are panaceas to anything. It is possible to device good commons and bad commons, and anything in between.

    I would like to give a book recommendation, maybe you already know of this? “The Invisible Hand?” by prof. Bas van Bavel, of Utrecht University. He has mapped the historical rises and falls of market economies throughout the millennia and found patterns that come back again and again.

    Guilds and cooperatives and unions are ways to *reduce* market power. To make prices *less* flexible and to *decrease* competition.

    Extreme short synopsis of the findings of the book:
    Market economies start out after revolutions, when the old aristocracy is kicked out and everyone is equal.
    After 100 years, 10% of the population owns everything, usually due to luck.
    After another 100 years, 1% owns everything and they use their economic power to get more political power. Buying law changes etc.
    After another 100 years, 10 families own everything, and monopolizes most parts of economic life. The markets have almost disappeared.
    This is a stable configuration and is in place until the next revolution arises.

    Bas van Bavel shows that it has been possible in history to use collective organization to create counter-forces to this general tendency. Typically guilds, cooperatives, unions, political parties.
    It is never clear from the outset who wins each political fight.
    (Just like now, when 10% own everything and are buying political power. )

    Peace,
    Goran

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