Warre and peace: of gifts, government and men with guns

This is the last in a somewhat interrupted series of posts about property rights in small farm futures and small farm pasts, which started here, looked at the idea of work and self-ownership here, considered private property here and common property here. The missing piece in terms of standard definitions of property ownership is public or state ownership.

So here I’m going to address public ownership to complete this part of the blog cycle. But I’m not going to say much about the forms of state ownership emanating from national, federal or local government familiar from everyday modern politics. For one thing, the issues involved in those have been endlessly rehashed in standard political positions concerning the pros and cons of (big) government, and I have little to add to all that. More importantly, I don’t think this modern politics is going to survive in anything much like its familiar present forms as the various challenges of our present and future world begin to bite.

That prompts questions about what state power and public ownership might look like in the future viewed from the centres out – from London or Washington DC, New York or New Delhi, Beijing, Mumbai, Edinburgh, Juba, Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, Los Angeles, Sacramento and so on. But it also prompts questions about what political power and public ownership might look like in the more rural peripheries of these power centres.

My view, which could of course turn out to be wrong, is that the de facto power of the centres to organize life in these peripheries will wane, that more people will be living in many of these peripheries than they presently do, and that it’s in these peripheries that the most important and interesting political and economic innovations of the world to come will occur. So here I’m going to talk primarily about some aspects of ‘public ownership’ around the rural edges of nation-states with waning centralized power. I’ll say more about that waning centralized power in a future post or two.

In thinking about life outside centralized power an easy place to go to is a dystopian sense of ‘anarchy’ in the popular sense of the term – ‘no rule’ is a world of arbitrary violence, might is right and men with guns who will steal your farm or worse, prompting a kind of frontier prepping mentality where the men with guns can be countered only by a gun of your own.

But the men with guns can’t be everywhere all of the time. So maybe what’s more to the point about this anarchic situation is the pervasive potential for violence. This was a point made by early modern English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679):

For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known …. So the nature of Warre, consisteth not in actual fighting ; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE

So ‘warre’ in Hobbes’s archaic spelling isn’t quite the same as ‘war’ understood as those hot moments of actual violence – it is not ‘Battell onely’, but a kind of society in which people accept that the ultimate arbiter is their own and everyone else’s free recourse to force.

In Hobbes’s view – and I suspect most other people’s too – this kind of society is none too pleasant to live in. Constantly watching your back, with poor prospects however big your gun or skilled your gunmanship in view of the pervasiveness of violence, and with no incentives to work with others to build more expansive institutional structures, life in such a society, Hobbes famously wrote, is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”.

People often project this characterization of what Hobbes called ‘the state of nature’ backwards as if he were a historian or anthropologist trying to discern the original human condition. But I think it’s more useful to see the state of nature as a thought experiment, albeit one informed by the events of the English Civil War that was raging as Hobbes wrote. Hobbes addressed himself to the nature of government and how people create political authority at a time when older ideas about divine or royal authority were breaking down and our modern secular age was emerging. To avoid the horrors of the state of nature, Hobbes argued that it was necessary for everyone to give up their free recourse to violence in ‘mutual surrender’ to a ruler, Leviathan, a great centralized authority, who would underwrite the conditions for a peaceful and prosperous civil society. Hence the modern secular idea of the state as a contrivance to keep the peace.

Hobbes offered a dismal choice, then – either war (or at least warre) in the state of nature, or subservience to big government and its excesses. But are the options really that stark? Are there no forms of society that mediate between the state of nature and Leviathan?

Well yes, there are. For starters, there have been the many ‘stateless’, indigenous or what were once called ‘primitive’ societies through history where there was no Leviathan but where people lived for the most part in a state of peace more than warre. The way they achieved this, as argued among others by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in a classic essay on which I’m leaning heavily in this post, was typically through so-called ‘gift’ relations – more or less formalized exchanges of things or people that built social relationships, and effectively built society. These societies were the original anarchist societies in the more positive and political sense of that term – the gift creates peace and circumvents warre from the grassroots, from the bottom up, without any need for top-down rule from the mighty apparatus of the state.

Some people nowadays riff a bit too dreamily for my taste on the nature of such gift societies as an alternative to the brutal calculus of the capitalist marketplace. The very word ‘gift’ brings to mind an enchanting vision of society as something like a giant birthday party or some festive occasion of generous goodwill writ large. But that’s not really how gift societies work, and they can involve their own brutalities. Who you give to, who you receive from and who you host can sublimate, only ever partially, all sorts of possible tensions and hostilities (in this connection perhaps it’s worth noting the shared etymology of words like host (as benefactor), host (as army), hospitable, hostel and hostile). Gift societies might even involve marketplaces and money, or at least resemble them in various respects.

I’ll get into such details later in this blog cycle. But the point remains that these societies have figured out how to avoid the worst consequences of warre without the guiding hand of a centralized state, and this could light a useful path into a future where people might have to do this over again.

I don’t see the use of trying to specify on paper ahead of time exactly how they should go about it, because the details will depend on any number of specific historical and local circumstances. In A Small Farm Future I described some generalities of how contemporary and future post-capitalist societies might confront this issue with reference to the idea of the public sphere, a kind of political playing field where the game of politics is decided by fair rules of argument available to all, and also with reference to civic republican politics, which I’ve discussed in previous posts but will reprise a little in a moment.

Two criticisms have come my way about how I’ve framed this issue. The first from the Marxist perspective of Alex Heffron and Kai Heron, who think my recourse to the idea of the public sphere is a deus ex machina – a ghost in the machine or a kind of get out of jail free card that I invoke whenever my argument runs into trouble. They also describe it as “a painfully naïve, liberal understanding of rights and debate ”.

he second criticism came from Sean Domencic while engaging with a separate but related point I made in a blog comment. Sean also focused on the implicit liberalism of my stance on the public sphere, which he sees as contradicting a republican emphasis on civic virtue. Apologies, by the way, if this all seems an excessively abstract response to the sharper reality with which I began concerning men with guns taking your farm. I’ll try to ground things back in that reality before I’m done.

But first to the criticisms. I think Heffron and Heron’s miss their target. If I’d argued that a public sphere always just naturally arises to overcome political conflict, then the objection that it’s a get out of jail deus ex machina might hold. But I don’t. In fact, I make a more Hobbesian argument: the public sphere is a contrivance that people have to work hard to construct, with no guarantee of success, but does hold some attractions if they pull it off.

A better candidate for a deus ex machina in my opinion is Heron and Heffron’s own approach, with its view that in the fight of oppressed people against the circumstances of their oppression lies an intrinsic process of general human ennoblement that will create political and ecological redemption. They write, “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present”. To me, this seems like a better candidate for a deus ex machina, and one that fails to appreciate how the concerns of the capitalist and anti-capitalist present will be transformed unrecognizably or extinguished altogether by social and environmental forces now in play.

Perhaps there’s more meat to the charges of liberalism laid against me. Few people these days, including me, have many good things to say about liberalism, but I’m willing to stick up to some extent for a liberal political framework that makes space for open political debate. Certainly if confronted with Marxist intellectuals drawing salaries from public universities while freely heralding the violent revolutionary overthrow of the status quo by a working class they view as inherently redemptive, I’d prefer a liberal politics that, however ineffectually, engages the plurality of political views, rather than opting for a totalitarian political sphere in which only a single version of class consciousness gets the floor.

Still, I accept there are problems with liberalism, and I think Sean puts his finger on some of them. You can’t just keep arguing about politics as if the only thing that really matters is the argument itself. Ultimately you need to make political choices about how to live life in common with your fellow citizens, and then implement them. The choices that are made might not suit everybody, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker unless you espouse a strong individualism of the kind associated with liberal and libertarian politics where collective political choices or goods can never trump individual rights.

In his critique, Sean was speaking up for collective political goods against my comment that “I basically see collective political institutions as contrivances, necessary evils to which people must surrender some of their own ‘sacred’ self-sovereignty”. Although there are some wider contexts for that comment, I accept Sean’s criticism and I’ll happily row back from the strong individualism implied in it. But I do want to mention a couple of the contexts for it and press their importance.

Sean will hopefully correct me if I’m wrong but I think we’re both broadly signed up to a civic republicanism in which the citizens of a polity come together to define its common goods by which they will live. I’ve come to this position quite late in my political life and there’s much in the tradition that’s unfamiliar to me, so I beg forgiveness for my probably patchy thinking about it which I hope to correct in the future.

Anyway, a major problem with civic republicanism as I see it is the danger that it curdles into a tyranny of the majority, especially one aimed against less politically empowered social groups (Heffron and Heron missed this aspect of my approach, but it’s possible to find a place for class in a political analysis without making it the sole driving force or the centrepiece). To prevent the tyranny of the majority, I think it’s necessary to have a strong politics of recognition of individuals and potentially of sub-groups (subsidiary republics?) as ends in themselves. It’s easy to slip into the language of individualism in defending this, as perhaps I did, but it’s not quite the same thing.

Another context is the notion of the polity as a contrivance and a necessary evil. I think I was unwise to introduce the notion of ‘evil’ into the discussion, even ‘necessary evil’, because really I don’t think contrivance or acceptance of trade-off is evil in any respect, and certainly no more so than the notion that there’s some pure and ideal form of political community to aim at. In fact, rather less. Possibly where Sean and I may continue to disagree is on how ‘contrived’ republics really are. He has a nuanced, expansive and generous conception of politics grounded in virtue ethics and natural law. I need to educate myself further in this tradition. I’m sympathetic to it, but I think I may find that ultimately it settles on a slightly too naturalistic or ‘given’ idea of political community for my taste, whereas I might prefer to keep the contrivance of it more centre stage.

Let’s now start a slow descent from this high level of abstraction back towards the men with guns.

Thomas Hobbes lacked faith in bottom-up political community-making. Although the term wasn’t used in his day, he feared anarchy (i.e. ‘warre’) and distrusted anarchism as a means to prevent it. I don’t like his solution of a mighty state, and I hold out greater hopes for bottom-up politics than him. But I don’t think these politics are easy and I’m unpersuaded by most of the off the peg versions of bottom-up politics available to us today, such as libertarianism, Marxism and communitarianism.

To me, the libertarian emphasis on individual rights is basically just warre. It’s a warre that may not lead immediately to war if enough people can be repressed or bought off, but it’ll probably go that way in the end. Much the same can be said of liberalism. The Marxist idea that the oppressed will rise up and overthrow the centralized state, repurposing it for general human benefit, has a better track record than many of its detractors think, but still one that could at best be called patchy and at worst murderously tyrannical, which is surely not surprising in view of its totalizing class idealism. Communitarian doctrines that make a special case for some kind of pre-existing ‘natural’ community as the proper basis for politics risk a class idealism of a different sort, but one that runs similar risks.

For me the best candidate is a civic republicanism lifting itself from a state of warre by self-consciously building some common ground for its citizens to stand on. So the most important thing to do is to try to build the public sphere that will make our republics appealing to us and their other citizens (‘other citizens’ most likely being people who relate to us essentially for random reasons of geographical location rather than some natural affinity).

This is a long-term project which may not work out, and where the individual steps are uncertain. I see the challenge as creating a gift society that interpolates between warre and the dubious peace of Hobbes’s Leviathan. I have some ideas about how to do that grounded (naturally!) in small-scale, self-reliant farming. I’ll outline it further in future posts, but essentially I foresee a situation of liberal-urban-capitalist collapse due to a combination of climatic, energy, biotic, economic and political factors, prompting small farm futures grounded in the mix of private and common property I mentioned in previous posts, along with some public property, but most importantly with a public sphere in which the common life necessary to a sustainable small farm future is determined. I have to admit that my ideas on this issue amount to something less than a fully specified political manifesto. Though that seems no barrier to getting elected these days.

So – if men with guns come to take your farm, then it’s probably too late for you to do much about it, even if you have a gun of your own and fancy you can handle yourself. Therefore it’s as well to reflect about how best to stop them coming long beforehand, which involves some knowledge of what’s on their minds.

Possibly they’re bandits and you’re simply out of luck, a happenstance that’s common enough even in our present liberal-capitalist bureaucratic world, though mostly in places distant from its wealthy centres. But maybe the men with guns are soldiers from a distant government, or revolutionary guerillas, or a local militia for whom your face doesn’t fit. In all these cases, there’s a chance that the men with guns won’t come to take your farm, because you’re part of an engaged citizenry that has your back. And this in turn is because the citizenry has defined its common goods, worked out its relations of ownership, debt, gift and obligation, and defined its public sphere carefully over the long term. This, in an admittedly very general sense, is what I mean by ‘public ownership’ in a small farm future.

Hobbes wrote that “covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”. So maybe my argument amounts to no more than countering the men with guns through other men with other guns (or swords). Or maybe it’s an invitation to look more closely at the nature of our covenants to see if we can formulate them in ways more likely to keep the guns in their cabinets. Something to discuss, perhaps.

If the men with guns are from the government, you’ll stand little chance against them at present if they want to make an issue of things. In the future, the odds may be a bit more balanced. The only people in the wealthy countries I’m aware of currently who are really acting out this idea of hostile engagement with government forces in service of a more authentic political community seem to be far right militia types in the USA. Hopefully it’s redundant for me to distinguish myself from their cause. Examples like the Mexican Zapatistas or the Kurdistan Communities Union might furnish more inspiring models. Anyway, as governments wrestle with the increasingly impossible predicaments of our times, it seems to me likely that this space of publics versus governments will become a lot more politically diverse. And that’s the point at which the question of ‘public ownership’ becomes a really live issue.

66 thoughts on “Warre and peace: of gifts, government and men with guns

  1. I wonder if one answer to the problem of autonomy/individualism vs subservience to larger hierarchical structures might be subsidiarity: the idea that every task of society should be undertaken by the smallest group that can perform it.

    I think that “every task of society” is something that does need some kind of public sphere, with some broad agreement on what constitutes the common good; otherwise it isn’t every task of society, just every task I personally feel is worthwhile, and the externalities will fall hard on those most disadvantaged by circumstance or disempowered by denial of full personhood. Every task of society has to include things like me feeding my neighbour who cannot garden due to ill health, helping my other neighbour put a barn up, releasing some in the community from food production at some times so that they can study medicine, getting together the resources for a printing press or a chapel or a library.

    I might extend subsidiarity to some kind of ecological impact assessment, too, and a thorough exploration of all the dependencies involved. The ecology we all know here, I think. The dependencies… “one person” can harvest 400 acres of monoculture hybrid pesticide-dependent wheat using a tractor, but in reality the production of that wheat also involves all the workers who made the tractor, probably a mechanic for same, the mining and pesticide industries and associated transport, and so on; and the farmer may or may not break even. At that point, maybe a small scale heirloom landrace planting between rows of trees (or even on an allotment), harvested with a hand-made scythe, actually requires a smaller number of people to be involved, even if it does require far more hours of manual labour per calorie. It is certainly a smaller outlay of capital.

    Men with guns will run out of ammunition eventually in a low-energy future, at which point I’ll still know which plants are edible and which will kill them and even some of the medicinal ones. Unfortunately, having access to firearms doesn’t automatically confer on someone the sort of thoughtfulness that suggests maybe they shouldn’t shoot the person who knows this stuff. Ho hum. I can’t say it doesn’t worry me, but I agree with you that being part of an engaged citizenry (or at least community) that has your back is the best defence.

    Meanwhile, the men with guns from the government are already coming for you if you’re deemed the wrong sort of person — as in this example of a community fighting back against the Home Office.

  2. Anyway, a major problem with civic republicanism as I see it is the danger that it curdles into a tyranny of the majority, especially one aimed against less politically empowered social groups

    ‘Curdles into’… a fine image. And while I appreciate the notion, it occurs to me that there really isn’t a solution in the sense that following any count of hands there will be those on the losing end who can then claim tyranny by the majority. Super majority rules help a bit, but still fail. Consensus best alleviates, but how often will any group of three or more find consensus in the most difficult situations? Phrases of late such as “elections have consequences” merely sidestep the core issue – some will ultimately be on the outside and faced with complicated decisions where their “outsider nature” is a serious issue for them.

    On a separate point – men with guns (or swords)… Yes, these are ugly in nature whether sported by governments or by bandits. We have (rightly I think) often signaled here that men with capital can also assault others. But it doesn’t end there either. Men with data, men with influence, and all other sorts of “power” can wield these improperly and cause harm. There is even a necessity to determine what eventually is a harm; a public (majority) decision to build a park on a plot of ground may harm the current holder of the property. Thus the notion of ‘the greater good’.

    Complications all around. When I find myself in a minority I too often have trouble reconciling where ‘the greater good’ is served. True enough my own personal hubris is often to blame, but not always. The majority can be mistaken. Time should work this out. That time heals all wounds, and time wounds all heals is some solace, but notions of tyranny from the majority still occur.

    I most like the notion of a community wherein one feels the neighbors have their back. A bit like a card game – you win some you lose some. Trust your neighbor, but cut cards.

    • I’m less worried about the literal swords. My spouse is a fourth dan in a Japanese defence art, he knows how to disarm someone who has a sword, and has probably put in more hours of practice at it than people who were trained to use guns. Making humans into weapons, without the use of (cheap energy) explosives, is labour-intensive.

      Power differentials will always exist to one extent or another. Consensus gets more unwieldy the larger the group gets; perhaps this is another argument for subsidiarity, where tasks are undertaken by the smallest possible groups of people?

  3. But the men with guns can’t be everywhere all of the time .
    ( Here we are all ready in low level anarchy .)
    That is very true we have seven deputies in this county , farm theft is rife , from rustling cattle to thefts of fuel , batteries to entire tractors going missing , chances of catching them in the act are low but not unknown and if a owner manages to stop theft they move to another country when it gets too hot , there is all ready a ” jungle telegraph ” bringing armed men to help , some seem to think it’s not a real problem when a $1000 steer is stolen , they change their mind when they find out it’s their food that’s being stolen .

  4. Hi Chris, thanks for a thorough engagement with my critique on this subject!

    First, I want to address some abstract, foundational, and definitional points, namely, the “state of nature” and the “common good”.

    Regarding the “state of nature”, it doesn’t really matter whether Hobbes was offering a “thought experiment” or an “anthropologist’s discernment of the original human condition”. If either a thought experiment OR an anthropological observation is meant to provide clarity about politics and the human condition (which Hobbes proposes to do), then it cannot ignore any fundamental realities about politics and the human condition. Yet Hobbes does exactly that. In the words of Jeffery Bond, “If we wish to investigate the heart of Thomas Hobbes’ political teaching in the Leviathan, there is no better place to look than Hobbes’ conception of war. After all, although Hobbes denies that there is any summum bonum, a greatest good toward which all our pursuits and actions are hierarchically ordered by nature (p. 70), he does posit a greatest evil, namely, the war of all against all which characterizes the state of nature (p. 231)… For Hobbes, the peace established by the political art is not, as it was for the ancients and the medievals, the end toward which men are directed by nature which is necessary for the fulfillment and perfection of their being; rather, peace is to be sought because it is the absence of war, which absence allows men to pursue their relentless quest for gratification of one desire after another (p. 70).” (“War in the Hobbesian State – Sovereignty’s Justification and Limit”)

    In other words, Hobbes makes a paradigm-shifting all-encompassing philosophical claim without openly acknowledging that he is doing so. The only reason this doesn’t feel strange to us moderns, when reading Hobbes, is that his philosophy has come to inhabit and define the political world in which we live. The claim he makes is, again, that there is no “summum bonum” other than the avoidance of war (or, warre). But the avoidance of war is a negative definition, defined exclusively by the dangers and perils which afflict one’s body, personal desires, and material possessions; when flipped around to the positive definition it can only mean that either “health and wealth” or “negative/liberal/individualist freedom” are the greatest goods of human life.

    This leads to the point about “common goods” (and I’m afraid you are quite wrong on this point!). Your definition of common goods–“that which the citizens of a polity come together to define, and by which they will live”–is a restatement of the social contract of liberalism, which follows logically from the Hobbesian philosophy discussed above. Rather, the common good, in the classical natural law tradition, is Peace and Justice, considered absolutely and objectively. To explain what that means, I’ll quote one of my own Easy Essays, summarizing the Aristotelian view:

    “/Private goods diminish when shared. Common goods do not diminish when shared./

    Bread is a good, because it serves the human need for food. But if two people share one loaf of bread, they each only get half.

    On the other hand, a joke is a common good which serves the human need for fellowship and social life. But when someone tells a joke, the enjoyment of the joke doesn’t diminish. It can be spread to many without being divided into smaller pieces.

    /Common goods are better than private goods./

    A joke, however, is only a pleasant good. True common goods are honorable goods, things like peace, justice, and truth. When the truth is shared, it does not become less true. When peace is shared, it doesn’t get divided into pieces—every individual who shares in the common good enjoys total peace.

    Because of this, common goods are obviously better than private goods. “It is honorable to attain a good for one man, but it is better and more godlike to attain a good in which many can share (cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1094b)” (Waldstein). Another difference is while private goods find their fulfillment in us, we find our fulfillment in the common good. Peace, truth, beauty, and goodness exist for their own sake.”

    So there is an insurmountable divide between the Aristotelian view and that of Hobbes: the former accepts the existence of objective non-material common good in which humans find fulfillment, the latter accepts only the material (explained either in terms of possessions or psychological satisfaction) private goods of human life.


    Second, having explained those definitional differences on the speculative level, allow me to apply them to the practical, namely, the problem of contriving the political community, the dichotomies of modern politics, and the problem of the tyranny of the majority.

    You stated that, while sympathetic, you may find that the Aristotelian conception of the Polity (a word which I use interchangeably with “State”, but I will use here to clarify that I not referring to modern centralized nation-states) settles “on a slightly too naturalistic or ‘given’ idea of political community for my taste, whereas I might prefer to keep the contrivance of it more centre stage.” In some sense, everything hinges on this point. If objective common goods are real, as argued above, then it follows that the nature of Polity is ‘given’ (either by reality, Nature, the gods, or God–all somewhat interchangeable terms used in the classical tradition). On this view, it is not up for debate whether or not a group of people want the common good to be the purpose of their polity; rather, the only definition of a true polity simply is a political community ordered towards the common good. If the peasants of Wessex came together and declared the ultimate purpose of their polity to be defending their livelihood or conquering their enemies or making money or writing great books or maximizing their pleasure, they would simply be confused, and they would probably end up establishing a Tyranny (the perversion of a Polity, in which the rulers serve private gain rather than the common good) instead.

    Now there is some sense in which a political community involves contrivance, or (to use the classical term), “positive law”: Will there be a king, a council of elders, or a direct democracy? Will private parties be allowed after dusk in the public park? Are unmarried men allowed to wear beards? There is no “natural law” answer to any of those questions, of course, yet they will all need an answer. However, the questions of positive law all happen within the limits of the natural law, which leads nicely to the next point: the tyranny of the majority.

    Liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, claims to help prevent the tyranny of the majority. Obviously, its track record (e.g. colonialism, slavery, segregation, eugenics, abortion, euthanasia) is dubious, and all the Marxist critiques of liberal rights (what’s the value of rights for a person, or a class, systematically too poor to exercise them by acquiring an attorney and taking the matter to court?) are compelling. In addition, I would argue that liberalism, by its conception of both property and the individual, vitiates the best structures that exist to prevent the tyranny of the majority. First, liberalism’s conception of absolute private property is the justification for capitalism, because it refuses to put any theoretical limits on one’s individual right to property; this wears down distributist arrangements of property, both conceptually and materially. I think we could agree that widespread ownership, both in reality and in legal recognition, is an excellent bulwark of liberty. Second, liberalism’s conception of the individual is Hobbesian/individualistic, which leads naturally to the centralized State. As I argued in the blog comment you linked (and I would love to see you respond to this point about escaping the narrative of Progress!): “Thus, liberal regimes appeal to a “neutral” public sphere about things that “everybody can agree on”, namely, individualist freedom and material wealth. These two promises form the foundation of Progress, as liberal capitalist society attempts to create 1) an ever-expanding plethora of personal legal freedoms (always for the individual, never for a community) and 2) an ever-increasing “freedom” from the constraints of nature, through techno-industrial growth.” Both of these dynamics–individualist legal freedoms and technological domination of nature–require the further centralization of civic life and the hollowing out of subsidiary institutions (such as the Family, the Village, the Commons, Associations of Work (Guilds) and Worship–all of which the natural law tradition would argue that the State is not allowed to eliminate), subsidiary institutions which play a crucial role in protecting the liberty of minorities. (On this point, I’m drawing heavily on Deneen’s /Why Liberalism Failed/, an excellent book devoted to this topic.) None of this is to say that civic rights are bad or unnecessary, but that they should be enacted outside of the toxic framework of liberalism.

    Finally, you mentioned at least two dichotomies of modern politics: regarding discourse, you juxtaposed “liberal politics that, however ineffectually, engages the plurality of political views” and “a totalitarian political sphere in which only a single version of class consciousness gets the floor”; based on Hobbes framing, you juxtaposed anarchic/bottom-up politics with the top-down/Leviathan. I don’t think either are particularly helpful. The point about discourse would hold if all acts of scientific and moral speaking were simply an assertion of an opinion (a modern dilemma MacIntyre calls “emotivism”), but if Truth and Goodness are real, then political rights and duties around speech should encourage the pursuit of Truth and Goodness, neither protecting all speech, no matter how false and harmful (the liberal/libertarian approach) nor entrusting public discourse exclusively to the state (the Leninist/totalitarian approach), which is also capable of being wrong and wicked.

    The dichotomy between stateless-ness and Leviathan is slightly different, as I think the former is closer to reality than the latter: the centralized Leviathan model of the State can be dismissed because it doesn’t accord with nature: human /don’t/ form a State to escape Warre, nor do they do as atomized individuals, but rather through subsidiary civic life (as discussed above). However, while I admire the anarchist perspective for understanding the reality of (some) order arising through a network of voluntary societies, this is a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of Polity ordered towards the common good. There does need to be some authority, who will rule in a top-down manner when necessary, to adjudicate the often conflicting claims of individuals and communities within the subsidiary framework. (I would argue this often existed in a nascent form even in primitive gift societies, given that most (perhaps all?) were organized around central figures like “Big Men”, elders, chieftains, patriarchs/matriarchs.) In summary, bottom-up anarchic/voluntary order and top-down authority are both necessary for a flourishing and peaceful Polity.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

    • Just as an aside: thank you for the elucidation of the connection between a common good (which is not diminished by sharing) and the common good (in classical natural law tradition, Peace and Justice; in what I was taught in highschool, what is beneficial for most or all members of a society).

      One thing that is clear to me is that where no “official” hierarchical authority exists, an unofficial one — often unjust and self-serving — will emerge. If there are rules and procedures, there will always be loopholes and people who abuse them for gain; but without such rules and procedures the poor suffer even more.

    • Thanks for that Sean.

      My quibble in this matter arises from your need to compare common goods directly to private goods so that you can find one superior to the other.
      To a hungry person, peace, truth, beauty, and goodness are still desirable – but a loaf of bread, even half of one, is more top of mind.

      Naturally we should be about securing matters for all so that hunger is not top of mind… that poverty, oppression, disease, and other ills are dealt with for everyone so that the common goods can be enjoyed.

      On the thought experiment side of this – peace breaks out globally… all spears turned into pruning hooks. No one is in danger of being shot, stabbed, or strangled. Peace is shared in all corners by all members of the human family. A fantastic common good, no? But is the common sharing felt the same by all? The sick and lame, the hungry? For these latter the sharing of private goods – medicine, food, etc will improve their experience of the common good.

      In sum then I guess I’m arguing there isn’t really a need to find one good somehow ‘better’ than the other.

      Otherwise I really liked the explanation.

      • Thanks for the kind words Clem. Allow me to offer a clarification which might make my argument event more satisfying:

        Common goods are more perfect/objectively good /in themselves/ than private goods. However, rather than a choice between two mutually exclusive goods, in which you can only choose one, private goods are /ordered towards/ common goods, so that they are a “nested hierarchy” in which you can have both.

        For example, let’s take a situation where two families work together on some farmland, having agreed to slipt the produce equally. When stick to that agreement, they participating in justice (a common good) and getting enough food (a private good) at the same time. But if one family falsely accuses the other of not working hard enough and takes all the produce for itself, then they are violating justice /by/ depriving the other family of what they are owed. The amount of private goods (food) stays the same in both cases, but the presence or absence of the common good makes all the difference.

        (It’s also important to note that justice doesn’t always depend on voluntary contracts. For example, if a poor worker chose to work on another’s farm for less than a living wage, even if he voluntarily agreed, it would still be unjust because natural law demands that laborers be paid a living wage (the argument for why this is so is laid out in Rerum Novarum no. 44). This is a great example of why natural law philosophy provides a bulwark against the potential injustice of man-made economic systems.)

        So the reason why common goods are better is because they are higher up on the hierarchy of goods. If everyone was participating in perfect peace and justice, then everyone would also be getting the food and shelter they need. In other words, the way that private goods are arranged depends on the common good, not vice versa.

        • I think your clarification slips in the attempt to make this more clear.

          If everyone was participating in perfect peace and justice, then everyone would also be getting the food and shelter they need.

          Until a hurricane, a drought, a virus, fire, or other calamity intervenes. I can imagine all sorts of contexts where, given a choice, many will prefer what we are defining here as a private good over a common good. There may still be an argument that in theory the common good is still better, but you can’t eat a theory.

          Further – where common goods are in short supply (times of war, injustice, and so forth) there are still private goods. By sharing our private goods thoughtfully we may lead the unjust back into peaceful relationship and thus restore some common good.

          One might also argue that not all private goods are made equal. An axe might only be used by one person at a time, but carefully employed it will still be an axe and can be shared time and time again. Unlike the loaf of bread which can only be eaten once. With the logic of making the axe a better private good because it is not ‘used up’ a different one might turn the “better” argument with the observation that you can’t eat the axe… but if you eat the bread and live – you can fashion another axe.


          To another point you brought up –
          For example, if a poor worker chose to work on another’s farm for less than a living wage, even if he voluntarily agreed, it would still be unjust because natural law demands that laborers be paid a living wage.

          What if I were to define the effort made for ‘less’ as a gift? Or perhaps it is seen as an inducement to win further access to work. Or one might argue the poor worker chooses this assignment in order to learn the skills needed to go out on his own at some future time. There is value in learning on the job – not immediately reflected in the wage at the time. For me the most significant part of your example is the choosing. A worker who freely chooses (voluntarily agrees) a course of action is not to my mind treated unjustly (unfairly perhaps, but not unjustly). His chosen course may keep him whole for the near term so that he may come upon a better future.


          • Speaking of context, I think the low wage employment example depends very much on the context of the choice. A choice to work for an unfairly low wage or starve because no other work is available isn’t really an unconstrained choice. The choice to profit by the exploitation of another’s work is, on the other hand, undertaken by someone who already has some power in this situation.

          • A choice to work for an unfairly low wage or starve because no other work is available isn’t really an unconstrained choice.

            I don’t agree. I am sympathetic – it is NOT a nice situation to be in… but there is choice. Actually there are likely several choices – but none we’d want to countenance if better options were available. But in our hypothetical there don’t appear to be any better options on the table.

            My earlier point was that in certain contexts we will choose our path at odds to what we might in better circumstances. Hierarchies in this way can be seen as context dependent. In the face of a severe storm, shelter may take precedence over food. Private goods might take precedence over common goods.

            The human condition frequently throws bad situations at us. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts come to mind. In an emergency situation we are often forced to choose between options we’d rather not.

            I do agree with the second half of your assertion – that profiting from someone else’s difficult situation is unfair (is it unjust?).

          • The rain, it rains upon the just,
            And also on the unjust fella,
            But mostly on the just, because
            The unjust stole the just’s umbrella.

          • Certainly, in some cases a decision to work for less than a living wage is not unjust; if it is a gift, or a learning experience, or whatever. (Though if learning is included, is it really “less”?)

            Still, in any such circumstance, the rest of a “living” wage has to be coming from somewhere, or somebody will be going hungry.

            I think it makes all the difference in the world as to whether the situation the worker finds themselves in (where working for less than a living wage is the best of the bad options available) is the fault of his employer or of society’s employers in general. In short, if the offer is “work for me for pennies a day or work for the other guy for pennies a day or starve; between us we’ve rigged the political situation so that there are no other options” injustice is being done. In that case, the workers are basically slaves. Slaves always had a choice too; they could resist and be killed. But that doesn’t make the situation just.

  5. To paraphrase Sean Domencic, “Natural law demands… perfect peace and justice”. As if any of these concepts exist outside collective human decision. And that’s the whole point: how to decide what “natural law”, “perfect peace” and “justice” mean to any particular society. Some things society can decide, like maximizing evolutionary fitness, can be determined by looking at material circumstances (the real world), but whether they are “good” in an ethical sense is entirely dependent on collective decision.

    What is true is that survivors get to make the decisions, write the history and the ethics. Let’s figure out a way to survive the men with guns first, then we can worry about perfect peace and justice. Figuring out how to “long endure” is every society’s summum bonum, seemingly followed immediately by figuring out how to best convert or kill the infidels, i.e. those who have a different take on “natural law”.

  6. Thanks for the comments. If I don’t dash something off now it’ll probably have to wait a few days, so please forgive me if the thoughts below are rushed or ill considered. I’ll try to work my way through some aspects of Sean’s lengthy and stimulating responses – hopefully this will pick up some of the points made by others too.

    So … I’m not going to go out of my way here to defend Hobbes’s philosophy – I don’t think my own arguments depend on it for the most part. But Sahlins does remark that Hobbes’s arguments are nowadays often subjected to ‘nasty, brutish and short’ caricatures, and I fear you drift close to this at times, Sean (as does Jeffrey Bond, judging by the passage you cite). Scholars like Richard Tuck provide something of a corrective.

    One thing I would say, though, is that Hobbes was writing towards the end of a violent period in European history, marked by several brutal wars where the slaughter was augmented by the fact that their protagonists were convinced natural justice was on their side – so I find his scepticism about this understandable in the circumstances, and I disagree with you that he ignored fundamental realities about politics and the human condition. It’s arguable that on the contrary his philosophy was based in taking these realities very seriously.

    But let me move onto your discussion of private and common goods. My first blush take here is that your examples don’t bear fundamentally on the private/common distinction. The more salient distinction seems to be between material needs like food and communicative acts like jokes or political argument and status. Bread may be produced by highly collectivized forms of human organization, but ultimately it inevitably has to be eaten by an individual human organism, meaning that whatever one eats another can’t. But that doesn’t make it inherently a private good. I’ve argued elsewhere that it does often make sense for bread to be produced and eaten privately, but not out of some claim that private goods are superior to common ones – in fact, rather the opposite.

    Communicative acts on the other hand aren’t used up privately by an individual. But I disagree that these acts can simply be described as ‘common goods which serve the need for fellowship and social life’. Jokes, for example, are very often made at the expense of a person or a class of persons – perhaps the rich and powerful, but often the weak and powerless. Generally, jokes are pretty complex interventions in social tensions between different people or classes of people – perhaps challenging them, perhaps reinforcing them … rarely just ‘common goods’.

    In your comment, I think you proceed too hastily from your private/common distinction to the superiority of the latter, and then to the objective and unarguable priority of a summum bonum common good. I don’t dispute that there are non-material common goods in which people find fulfilment, nor that ideas like peace, truth, beauty and goodness capture the nature of some of these goods. I’m not so convinced that they’re simply ‘objective’, or if they are I don’t think that human political consciousness can ever encompass their objectivity – one reason why people disagree about them and get into wars.

    I’m not much of a political philosopher or theorist, but possibly my grounding around the previous point is Stoic rather than Aristotelian – a point to discuss, perhaps? Or for Greg, if he’s reading, to call time on?

    A couple of remarks now about liberalism and civic republicanism. ‘Liberalism’ can mean an awful lot of different things, and there are parts of your critique of it that I agree with, and other parts where I think you cast your net a little too widely. Anyway, key point – you write:

    “Your definition of common goods–“that which the citizens of a polity come together to define, and by which they will live”–is a restatement of the social contract of liberalism”

    I disagree. Liberalism excludes any notion of ultimate values or what kind of life binds a community in common – and I agree that’s problematic. But my definition does not do that. It doesn’t, however, assume that all of those values are objective external facts that are not up for debate. Rather, it emphasizes that they’re realized historically, in particular circumstances (kind of Joe’s point, I think).

    But I think in places you rather overdo your critique of liberalism, with potentially problematic consequences. For example, I don’t think you can reasonably lay the blame for slavery and colonialism at the door of liberalism – some distinctly non-liberal regimes were well in on that act, and the main conclusion I’d draw from this sorry chapter is that people can justify all sorts of heinous acts in the name of more or less any political doctrine with the expenditure of a little intellectual labour. Which leads into the point you make about Marxism. Yes, Marxists can rightly point to the failures and hypocrisies of liberalism, but as I see it the failures, hypocrisies and immense slaughter worked historically by Marxists committed to the idea of an objective and redemptive class positioning points to the grave problems of constructing a supposedly objective political sphere where the nature of the common good is not up for debate.

    There are various other things you raised that I’d like to address, but I should probably move now to wrapping up. Basically, I agree with your critique of progress narratives and techno-industrial growth – whether these were a consequence of ‘liberalism’ as such we can perhaps leave to debate another time. I’m not particularly minded to defend liberalism, at least any more than I already have. But I don’t see that there’s a mutually exclusive choice between liberal-capitalist wealth accumulating techno-progress ideology on the one hand and an objective natural law concept of common good on the other, with only the latter capable of underwriting ideologies of community, care, ecological wellbeing and local sufficiency.

    Put another way – Sean, you and I seem to agree on many aspects of what a just, sustainable and virtuous society might look like (including Kathryn’s point, subsidiarity), but seem somewhat more at loggerheads about our respective philosophies undergirding it. Which maybe prompts some questions about what is more important, and why?

    So I’m arguing against Leviathan, against men with guns, against neutralist liberalism and against Marxism in favour of civic republican ‘gift’ societies (details TBA) founded in open rather than closed discourse about the historical realities of their times – which in the future are likely to involve extremely challenging changes in climate, energy, water, biotic, political and economic realities, demanding great efforts to build and protect local communities, economies and ecologies.

    Finally, another question that interests me: in Sean’s example of the two families working together to provide food, I’d be interested in any thoughts on the scenario where one family accuses the other one of not working hard enough not falsely but accurately, or even more so on the scenario when a case could be made either way, without simple resolution. Suppose further that the people in each family basically liked each other and accepted that nobody was fundamentally ill-motivated, but just couldn’t settle on a common narrative around a few points of difference.

  7. Fascinating discussion here. I sense an opportunity to wax speculatively and offer grand claims! I’m particularly interested in the debate between Chris and Sean, one which Sean helpfully characterises as:

    ‘an insurmountable divide between the Aristotelian view and that of Hobbes: the former accepts the existence of objective non-material common good in which humans find fulfillment, the latter accepts only the material (explained either in terms of possessions or psychological satisfaction) private goods of human life.’

    I don’t know if Chris would accept the characterisation, but he does appear to identify with the Hobbesian side when he says ‘I think it’s necessary to have a strong politics of recognition of individuals … as ends in themselves’ (although the bit I cut out of that sentence, about groups, may soften the identification!).

    The common ground here appears to me to be the coming together of people in deliberation and resulting resolution, and the issue of contention is where the binding substance of those resolutions can be found. For Sean, it is located in a structured natural order that pre-defines the common good, and the task is to embody that good collectively as far as is possible. For Chris, perhaps, it is ultimately located in individual goods, personal desires, even if there is a recognition that the collective nature of our existence will always require that individual goods are trimmed through compromise.

    Perhaps there is a middle way. What if the goodness of common goods exists not in the structure of the universe nor in their nearness to a synthesis of private goods, but in the act of deliberation itself? What if reasons for doing anything ultimately stem from mutual recognition and engagement? Polity in its broadest sense, as political structure, is not a necessary evil, but simply necessary if any kind of ‘good’ is to be defined at all. But that structure can be fluid, it doesn’t necessarily require force-backed hierarchies nor ‘naturally’-justified institutions to police its members.

    I therefore gravitate towards Chris’s perspective at his less individualistic. I agree that ‘the public sphere is a contrivance that people have to work hard to construct, with no guarantee of success, but does hold some attractions if they pull it off’. More than that though, I would argue that the ‘public sphere’ is actually the fundamental ground of any kind of ‘success’ where this is defined by some sort of good. ‘Common good’ is essentially a tautology and ‘contriving’ it is the meaning of life!

    • Fluid. Yes.

      Necessarily fluid? Very likely.

      Our predecessors took their turns at working these matters out. At each point in time those present had only their own imaginations and the record of (or the memory of) solutions/results or their predecessors. So we have inherited a very long record – indeed perhaps one so long and complicated that we must even proffer disputable claims about the meaning of said record.

      Perhaps we need to inject some more of our own imaginations?

      As we work through our differences we should keep in mind that we ourselves are predecessors, and sometime down the road our followers will have an opportunity to judge our thoughts and decisions. These same followers – in many cases our own children and grandchildren – will be dependent upon the habitat left to them.

      Thanks Andrew, Chris, Sean, Kathryn and Joe…

  8. Sean defined “common good” as “Peace and Justice, considered absolutely and objectively.” It seems to me that such a definition cannot be imposed on people from outside their society. The citizenry defining its common goods, as Chris puts it, seems to be necessary for a workable and enduring arrangement.

    “Natural law” is routinely disregarded and flouted, until enough people realize that something’s wrong and something needs to be done about it. The caste system in India is one example, and so is the de facto caste system of inequality that’s ongoing in Western society.

  9. Sean and Chris have previously mentioned hierarchies and if I can do so briefly I’d like to submit a thought about how a family might model both one sort of hierarchy and contribute to possible models beyond an immediate biological family set…

    One child may find herself alone with parents (first born for instance) and as such have nearly all interactions with adults (parents, aunts, uncles, grand parents). Another newborn may find himself born into a situation with a sibling – one still learning the rules of the road. Sharing the attention of care givers is a life lesson that anticipates living within hierarchies. Modeling how our care givers themselves participate in their own hierarchies is significant for our development. Further along in one’s life course – where each of us in this conversation find ourselves – we can still learn something of how to participate within groups. But we also have a responsibility to model good behaviors for the younger ones among us. As they might not be reading and writing with us in this moment – they should have that opportunity at some point… and I’m hopeful they’ll find our ruminations worth their time.

  10. Pingback: Warre and peace: of gifts, government and men with guns – Olduvai.ca

  11. Just quickly in relation to a couple of Andrew’s points, the politics of recognition derives from the thought of Charles Taylor, who’s basically a contemporary republican thinker, and not a liberal or social contract theorist. Civic republicanism, especially modern civic republicanism, has its own account of individual autonomy, freedom from the domination of others, and free participation as citizens which isn’t reducible to liberalism or individualism just because it addresses itself to freedom and rights. I haven’t been clear enough about this in past writings, for various reasons. But I don’t think republicans need to be fearful of talking about individual agency and rights lest they’re mistaken for liberals.

    I don’t accept Andrew’s characterization of my position in terms of finding common ground around individual goods and personal desires, although I do think these are important so as to avoid domination. Any republic that wishes to endure, perhaps especially ones to be built out of the wreckage of contemporary capitalist society, will need sophisticated ways of addressing citizens not as a homogenous bloc for whom living the republic’s values and common goods is unproblematic, but as autonomous citizens with an ongoing involvement in deliberating those values and goods and responding in complex ways to the results. I agree with Andrew that deliberation itself is an important good – an eminently republican position! – and with Clem that deliberation has a history. This is all at an angle to contemporary capitalist politics, but in the face of climate, energy, biodiversity and socioeconomic shocks, to my mind it becomes one of the few plausible ways of retaining recognition.

    As I said above, I think attempts to build (re)public(an) political spheres can easily fail. The most likely kind of politics in the future in that eventuality would probably look like something conjured from the pen of Carl Schmitt – a politics of friend, enemy and domination (and guns).

    • Thanks for the clarifications Chris – I admit I worried that I was describing something of a straw man when describing your position, and I agree that the relationship between autonomy and collective goods is a difficult one to parse – frustrating considering how much it may promise a desirable future.

      I need to read more about republican thought. From a historical point of view I’ve found much of interest in the influences of republican thought on some of the revolutionaries of mid seventeenth-century England, but I would like to know more, especially of more recent thinkers.

      I’d happily hear more about your ‘public ownership’ as well. You admit only a general sense here, and your references to the long-term nature of the project suggest that you’re not convinced much of specific substance can be said before the actual processes of deliberation in communities begins to work it all out. Perhaps. I’ve always been rather keen on speculative world building though – it’s always good to have a vision to guide future action, and you are the creator of the Peasants Republic of Wessex after all! I’d be interested to know your thoughts – you seem happier making more concrete suggestions about land ownership than you are about the political structures that will support it.

      One feature of ‘progressive’ republican history that appears in both its Classical and early modern iterations is the promotion of an agrarian law that limited the size of landholdings people were allowed to own, although none of that history resulted in its successful implementation as far as I can tell. Nevertheless, inspiration for an insurgent republican politics?

      • Thanks. I also need to read more on civic republicanism. I find it accords most closely with my current thinking but it doesn’t always gel with me immediately – I think because, as Sean rightly points out, it and parallel traditions have been effectively sidelined by the more mainstream forms of modernist politics I’ve grown up with.

        Your comment about me being happier making more concrete suggestions about land ownership than about the political structures to support it has got me thinking. It’s true, but I want to ponder some more why it’s true. Perhaps you’ve pushed me into trying my hand at a bit more speculative world building…

  12. In a Jan 29 comment above Malcolm said:

    In short, if the offer is “work for me for pennies a day or work for the other guy for pennies a day or starve; between us we’ve rigged the political situation so that there are no other options” injustice is being done.

    I agree – a serious injustice is being done. I can’t quite get to slavery there – but this may only be a result of images of slavery that reside between my ears.

    Where I want to go next with this thought string is who ‘owns’ the nature of this injustice. Merely the employers of that society – those immediately involved in rigging the situation?? Or would others, such as ourselves, who are not immediately culpable but at the same time are not working to stop this violence – are we not somehow guilty in our reticence? Being less guilty may sooth some souls, but I imagine we owe our neighbors a bit more than that.

  13. At the risk of taking the conversation on a tangent, what sorts of opinions exist among us on the concept of minimum wage?

    Here in the States the subject gets fairly heated at times, and I’ve seen some arguments from opposite sides that aren’t easily dismissed out of hand. This topic may cease to be as serious in a SFF, but until we get there we will be living with it.

    As a bit of background I’ll offer that I worked for the minimum wage a couple times in the very distant past. My first paid work came on the farm where I grew up – earning money from the vegetable stand I worked with my family. So it wasn’t until I was driving that I worked off the farm and those part-time efforts were typically minimum wage positions. I was still in school, not paying for all my needs. Imagine this a bit like the fellow earlier in the thread – still learning and in most every way just like others in my situation at that time. Being a ‘wage slave’ never entered my consciousness. Some of those jobs were actually nice positions – flexibility of hours, good people to work with, good experiences. At the same time, none of these were careers – something to keep body and soul together for a lifetime.

    My point in brief then… a minimum wage can be a good thing or a sad thing depending on the context.

  14. Clem, it seems to me that you’re attempting class analysis, making great hay of the complexity of context (rightly in my view), but perhaps not putting your finger as firmly as you might on the distribution and nature of power in the relationships you’re describing.

    I would suggest that the key element in any employment in which the worker agrees to a certain wage is the general fixity of that agreement thereafter. Whatever reasons the worker has for taking that employment, be they more or less of their own making, the worker has little scope to improve their wage because the employer has control of the wage account and has little reason to want to increase it at the expense of profit directed elsewhere. Indeed, the worker has no real say in the direction of any of the profit created through their work, whether into wages or investments in the business of one kind or another.

    This, I suggest, is unjust because it relies upon maintenance of the superiority of the employer over the employer, achieved ultimately through recourse to employment law and it’s enforcement: the employer retains control of the income of the business even though they do not do all the work that keeps it running, while the workers who do provide that work do not get a say.

    Now, you might invoke various situations in which an employer is more open to worker input, more open to negotiating wages regularly. But these would generally be personal whims on the part of the employer, who otherwise remains protected by law if they choose to withdraw that openness.

    A minimum wage is only really necessary in societies in which governments desire to maintain the status quo around employers’ power and control, but want to ensure that the profit motive doesn’t lead to a workforce depleted through poverty and malnutrition. Whether minimum wage work is a good thing or a bad thing at the level of individual experience depends, as you say, on context, but that context is defined only according to individual needs. A broader context, always present whether the individual worker is necessarily aware of it, is the maintenance of employer superiority.

    • I think you intended “employer over employee” –

      But you could help me out some if you would dig into this thought a little more.
      perhaps not putting your finger as firmly as you might on the distribution and nature of power in the relationships you’re describing.

      There would be no need for a minimum wage anywhere, in any society, or any polity, if everyone made their own way independent of everyone else. So long as this is not the case – i.e., someone is not able to make their own way, provide for their own needs, then said person will of necessity find themself dependent upon another for their needs. Children of course should find this care in their parents/guardians, but in other relationships this dependency begets a certain power relationship. It needn’t be an onerous relationship, but just as a parent is by nature in a more “powerful” position relative to their offspring, so too an employer to an employee. A worker who finds her own work (needs no employer) is thus in a stronger position than the worker who does not find his own work but must reply upon another to provide him opportunity.

      In the situation you mention regarding which member of an employment situation does the work… this seems to me quite specific and thus a contextual matter:
      the employer retains control of the income of the business even though they do not do all the work that keeps it running, while the workers who do provide that work do not get a say.

      This would certainly be one hypothetical situation. Another would be a partnership where one partner has a managing role. Both partners are employees of the partnership, but one has greater power as the managing partner. Both are working for the good of the partnership (theoretically), and their partnership agreement should spell out how each is remunerated. Some partnerships are wonderful, others not so much. Context.

      There are government interventions around all sorts of interpersonal work relationships. Piece work – where an employee is paid per unit of work (productivity, widgets assembled for example) is commonly prevented (and in many ways leads to minimum wage legislation). Slavery is commonly prevented (though sadly not always – even today). Commission work – earning a percentage of sales for instance is directly dependent upon productivity… now there is gig work… and the list goes on. Unless one works for themself they will of necessity work with another and a power relationship will exist. The nature of an individual working relationship can be onerous or synergistic and beautiful. Context.

      For me, the most significant matter in a polity where a minimum wage law exists is the level of the minimum. Within a community where the cost of living is a relatively stable figure then one minimum could make sense. In another geography where the cost of living is much higher, then the minimum should likewise be higher. Where employers outsource work to other geographies in order to pay lower wages then an onerous situation develops.

      Power relationships between people are going to exist. Helping one another deal with the difficult ones will always be with us, and won’t always be the government’s responsibility.

      • Thanks Clem (and your’re right about the typo).

        ‘So long as … someone is not able to make their own way, provide for their own needs, then said person will of necessity find themself dependent upon another for their needs.’

        Let’s start with this, a truism, which I accept. However, while I also agree that this frequently does, at the moment, beget a power relationship between employer and employee ‘who does not find his own work but must reply upon another to provide him opportunity’, I don’t think that this need necessarily be the case or that we should desire it to be the case. Dependency does not have to beget hierarchy, especially when the employer’s ability to provide opportunities is often itself the result of advantageous relations to wealthy kin and to the protection provided by property law.

        There currently exist ways in which workers attemnpt to ameliorate these injustices. Ideally unions work to create a place from which workers might bargain for better pay and conditions – to force the employer to negotiate away some of their superiority. A current ‘progressive’ reform in the business world is to have worker representation on management boards, so that the employer-employee relationship is a little bit more democratic. Neither of these is a complete fix, and their effectiveness varies according to context of course.

        More broadly, though, if the mutual dependency of all involved in an enterprise is recorgnised, then methods of democratic management seem to be me to be the only progressive way forward. What that means in practice would vary according to context – e.g. I don’t deny the utility of executive officers, suitably accountable of course – but I do think businesses of whatever form would be best viewed as the common property of all involved in running them.

        One of the more difficult situations in today’s world in which to push this idea would be, I think, that of a small business (like a small farm), in which a worker’s boss might also be encountered regularly in social (or even family) situations, subject to other more emotive connections. The staking out of a deliberately formal democratric sphere at the heart of the business might well be fraught, but no less necessary for all that.

        I seem to have moved away from the minimum wage now, but perhaps I’m speaking to your final point: ‘Power relationships between people are going to exist. Helping one another deal with the difficult ones will always be with us, and won’t always be the government’s responsibility.’ I agree with the final clause, but I would argue that ‘dealing with them’ should mean making hierarchies as flat and unneccessary as possible.

        • I think we’re getting a bit closer here –

          But I’m still at odds over this:
          Dependency does not have to beget hierarchy, especially when the employer’s ability to provide opportunities is often itself the result of advantageous relations to wealthy kin and to the protection provided by property law.

          The example you cite is a specific context. My sense is you consider property law providing a sort of advantageous situation for an employer? How so?

          However, rather than saw back and forth over property rights, I’m curious how you imagine dependency doesn’t beget hierarchy? Hierarchy in and of itself needn’t be an evil. On the matter of relationships I think we’re on the same front where hierarchical relationships lead to oppression or onerous outcomes. But where relationships are not deleterious, what harm results from hierarchy? Benevolent leaders are a good, no?

          • Regarding property, I had in mind the kind of situation in which an employer brings money or other capital to a business and uses that advantage to claim a superior management position within it – my reference to property law was a vague gesture to the structure of a society that had enabled the employer (and perhaps their family) to accumulate disproportionate wealth and/or property in the first place. You’re right, it represents only one kind of business context, though a common one in the world of SMEs I think.

            On hierarchy I wonder if we’re about to begin some semantic wrangling. I have, I think, seen people distingiush between hierarchies of power and hierarchies of knowledge, by which the former refers to superiority of opportunity to decide for both oneself and others, and the latter to the advantages that come with expertise and experience.

            My attitude would be to resist hierarchies of power while encouraging the benefits and productive use of hierarchies of knowledge. Decision-making, at a general level, is surely best done according to open deliberation in which all involved have input and are happy with the process by which a decision was reached. That process might well include greater weight given to those deemed more knowledgeable in the context to which the decision pertained.

            However, one would, I think, call oneself lucky if experiencing a ‘benevolent’ time under the leadership of a ‘leader’ ruling through exercise of power. The problem arises when such a leader sours, at which point one might wish one had mechanisms available to flatten the hierarchy.

          • “I’m curious how you imagine dependency doesn’t beget hierarchy?”

            I’m going to jump in here and say that I am in many ways utterly economically dependent on my spouse, and yet I do not consider him to be in a hierarchical relationship over me. And he would be horrified to be in such a position, even if benevolently. Neither is he purchasing my labour with his financial support.

            This is possible partly because we have made a solemn commitment to each other’s wellbeing — forsaking all others — such that what is good for me is by definition good for him, and vice versa. We each bring our respective gifts, for better or worse. The outworking of this is not always straightforward, because sometimes we have conflicting needs that require creative or flexible resolutions. But if I am asking for something expensive or unusual, my question isn’t “do you allow me to do this?” but rather “can we afford to do this? How would me doing this impact you in ways I may not have considered?”

            Marriages vary of course, and households as a practical economic option continue (we do in fact have a housemate, largely for economic reasons, though friendship and mutual care do get a look in, thankfully). But it is not only possible for economic dependence to not lead to hierarchy, but also rather wonderful.

          • To Kathryn – yes, I agree that a good committed adult relationship needn’t have any hierarchical issues AND they are likely much stronger where such issues don’t exist. And it may be somewhat unfortunate that in US tax law “dependents” as members of family units are defined as they are (for spouses especially). I had used an example of children earlier. For many years at least a child is very dependent upon parents or other adults. And I don’t think it too onerous to allow that a parent holds a higher position relative to their child.

            To Andrew – nice distinction between hierarchies of power vs. experience/knowledge. I can’t speak for the SMEs you are familiar with, but some of the small businesses I’ve either worked for or worked with have some of the best employee/employer relationships – as much because of their need to be good citizens in their community. Reputation is about how you treat your employees as much as it is how your product or service stacks up in the marketplace.

            Another angle to pursue in the realm of a minimum wage discussion is dealing with free riders.

          • Perhaps children are a good example of where hierarchies of experience and knowledge might be employed to good effect, although being a parent I have to admit the issue of power in the relationship is not exactly clear cut.

            Kathryn paints a great picture of a partnership in which dependency (in its broadest sense) goes both ways and resources are essentially treated as if held in common regardless of who is directly responsible supplying them. Of course, that intensity of relationship is of a rather special kind, and I suggest that more businesslike relationships would require some additional social buttressing if they were to pursue democratic management.

            Reputation is an interesting form of buttress, and no doubt important. Nevertheless, its effectiveness surely depends on the moral economy in which a business is situated – e.g. what is actually expected of a ‘well run’ business when times are hard? Moreover I don’t think a commitment to good internal relations is too solid if it is made primarily to satisfy the external gaze.

            I’m interested Clem, what would you say was exemplary about the employer/employee relations of the SMEs of which you approve? Was there a sense among employees that they had a stake in the company and if so how was that generated? Or was it more a case of sympathetic personnel management by those at the top?

            Either way, and however benign existing hierarchies might be at any given moment, it would surely be an improvement to the condition of all involved if their mutual dependency within the enterprise was recognised through genuinely democratic organisational structures, so that nobody has to fear for what might happen if a ‘good’ boss goes bad.

          • Thanks for this debate. The woods are still calling me so I may not be able to add anything much here for a week or two.

            Andrew’s approach makes a lot of sense to me, except that in highly competitive markets one of the few things that a business might be able to control is its labour costs – perhaps by forcing greater productivity, or by automating and laying people off. Possibly there is segmentation of the market where in some sectors output is improved by having a happy, respected workforce, whereas in others workers are treated as expendable drones. One feature of contemporary times seems to be the encroachment of the latter style into white collar/professional sectors previously immune from it. But unless the issue is addressed at the level of the economic system, I don’t think worker democracy in itself will get much traction.

            Fixing it at the level of the system would involve removing economic efficiency as the business bottom line – I discuss this on pp.200-204 of my book (you guys are jumping ahead!). Best political structure for this IMO is again a civic republic … and the best business structure would probably be something akin to a guild. I think you’d need a pretty active civic politics to prevent the guilds from becoming another monopoly, though.

  15. Interesting question & responses regarding a minimum wage. As it happens, I plan to touch on this in a post soon – probably the one after next. So I’m listening…

  16. Thanks for the reply, Chris. I’d like to first address your most interesting question by further explaining the method/epistemology of the classical tradition and then conclude with a return to some of the important distinctions I am defending.

    First, why is it we agree about so much politically, but find ourselves diverging on the theoretical underpinnings? I would suggest that we actually share our first principles fairly well, /and/ that we are using the same method, but that we’ve followed two different (though interrelated lines of thought) which arrive at roughly the same destination.

    To clarify, if my argument appears to “proceed too hastily” from one distinction to another, it is because I am attempting to briefly summarize a 2,500-year-old tradition. These distinctions are not part of the “system” or “ideology” of any one particular philosopher (even Aristotle!), they are philosophic abstractions based on the common observations of reality in which thinkers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Cicero, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas all shared. They are not propositions which were arbitrarily proposed and accepted, but conclusions which (the tradition argues, or perhaps more accurately, discovers) follow logically from the first principle of Truth (“a ≠ ~a”) and the empirical observation of reality (note, this isn’t limited to the scientific method, but inclusive of non-measurable, but still definable, sensible realities (a method related to modern ‘phenomenology’)).

    Put another way, the classical philosophic method begins with sense perception and inductive reason, followed by discourse and deductive reason. The justification for the first step has to be accepted as a first principle: if we don’t accept that our perceptions provide some view of reality, or the principle of non-contradiction, then we have to abandon rationality all together. The justification for the second step is that we are social creatures (a concept which can be derived from the first step): just as one doesn’t have time to experience the whole world, so one incorporates other peoples’ experience of reality, nobody has time to /think/ about all of reality, so by engaging in traditional philosophy, one can be “caught up to speed” with logical distinctions and abstractions that might have taken longer than a lifetime to realize.

    As suggested above, I think you yourself employ this method: you’ve come to the conclusion that subsidiarity, solidarity, property ownership, household economics, friendship, the virtue of liberality (gift-giving), agriculture based on natural limits, and civic life are ‘natural’ to humans, or in other words, that they are good for individual flourishing (aka “happiness”/eudaemonia) and necessary for the flourishing of human society (aka “the common good”). How did you get there? First, you rejected the ideological approach, that is, subordinating your understanding of human nature to a Procrustean ethical-anthropological proposal (such as liberal autonomy, national glory, or class struggle). Second, by making common sense observations about what a good human life generally entails (basic needs, family/kinship/marriage, and personal fulfillment, perhaps meaning virtue—more on the last point in a moment), recognizing how our system fails to consistently or sustainably to obtain these goods (as you do in Part 1 of the book), and then gradually coming to the conclusions listed above by the continued process of observing reality. Again this isn’t always a matter of the scientific method (you can’t “test” political theories, though historians and anthropologists come close—and you’ve delved heavily into their observation); for example, one learns about the nature of friendship by having and observing friends, and abstracting the common qualities thereof. Then by making conceptual distinctions, to avoid using words equivocally, one arrives at definitions of these realities.

    I think you’ve done this excellently with regard to the economic and ecological aspects of human nature, but that you have done less admirably with the political and religious aspects of humanity. To be clear, I’ve learned a great deal from you regarding the former, and I don’t pretend to have any particularly good insights in the latter: rather, I’ve been convinced by the arguments of the classical tradition on these topics and want to share their compelling arguments. Part of what makes them so convincing is that they synergize so well with the principles we already agree on, and it is a conviction derived from the Principle of Non-Contradiction that all of Reality (or “Creation”) has an abstract logical coherence.

    All that to say, there are more expansive arguments for these distinctions, but I do believe they are inescapable conclusions. I think we can all agree upon them based simply on the principle of non-contradiction and our “common sense” experience of reality, even though (like any abstract concept) they aren’t immediately obvious. I’m happy to defend them against objections, which I will now do:
    Re Private v Common Goods:

    We agree that “there are non-material common goods in which people find fulfilment, [and] that ideas like peace, truth, beauty and goodness capture the nature of some of these goods.” However you state that “I’m not so convinced that they’re simply ‘objective’, or if they are I don’t think that human political consciousness can ever encompass their objectivity”. On this point, we must note that “objectivity” can be said in at least two ways. In one sense, things are objective if their nature is dependent only on that which is necessary (Nature/God/etc) rather than that which is contingent (humans). In the second sense, objectivity can exist in the mind of a person who grasps the truth or obtains knowledge of a thing’s nature, thus we sometimes say that a such a person is an “objective observer”. So we can speak of “peace” and “truth” as objective realities, but we can agree that many individuals who say these words use them ignorantly or maliciously without understanding their nature. However, “abusus non tollit usus” (“the abuse a thing does not negate its proper use”), so we should seek to know and speak of these transcendental realities, namely, peace, truth, goodness, beauty.

    Re Liberalism, Civic Republicanism, & Social Contract Theory:

    You say that your definition does not describe liberalism. But you said next that your definition “doesn’t assume that all of those values are objective external facts that are not up for debate. Rather, it emphasizes that they’re realized historically, in particular circumstances.” My above point on the “objectivity” may clarify our position here, so maybe we would already agree. The reason your original definition seems to imply liberalism is you suggest that the citizens define their own common good. Like I stated in my above comment, there’s a lot of questions of “positive law” which citizens must “realize historically”. However, the contention of those who disagree with liberalism/social contract theory, in support of the classical tradition, is this: that (abstracted from, and to be applied to, any historical context) the purpose of a polity is to achieve the common good (peace and justice, objectively understood). A further conclusion is that this will require the practice of the natural virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage) among the citizens, and that this should be supported by various laws, rights, duties, and customs. Again the tradition I’m promoting argues this as a universal conclusion, not a “good idea” that I propose we voluntarily enact via social contract.

    I would propose here that my comment about the “insurmountable divide” between the classical and modern view of the common good (and more broadly: of reality itself) holds true, so I think that a Charles Taylor-inspired civic republicanism which attempts to thread the needle between the two is doomed to failure, or rather, to nest itself within one or the other. I agree entirely that public discourse and civic participation are essential parts of realizing the common good, but I think these insights are contained more harmoniously and comfortably within a classical view that recognizes the common good as objective (I would point here to critiques of relativism which argue that a lack of a principle of objectivity, as understood above, have helped justify the totalitarian ideologies of recent history).

    Re Hobbes:

    I agree that his context offers a partial explanation, but I disagree that we should let him off the hook for bad philosophy. It’s rare that the limited observation of the extenuating circumstances (the English Revolution) of a thing (politics) provides a well-rounded perspective. Furthermore, I think the critique of Hobbes, with which I align, has an accurate view of his underlying principles. (To be clear, I’m keenly aware of the context, as I did my thesis on how John Milton played a similar role in the development of liberalism.) Scholars who emphasize that he maintains premodern motifs in his writing are missing the point: no one transitionary figure of modernity invented the dominant narrative of Progress, Enlightenment Rationalism, Social Contract Theory, or Capitalist Materialism, etc, ex nihilo, but by inserting/asserting anthropological suppositions within a language general dominated by older forms. Locke does similarly with “natural law” language which he repurposes. The opening chapters of After Virtue (and of Deneen’s book) make this argument much more persuasively at greater length.

    Re Stoics and Aristotelians
    I don’t see this dichotomy shining much light, though I’d be happy if you took a full-throated Stoic position, since the Stoic tradition is extremely committed to natural law theory and contributed significantly to its development!

    Re Jokes
    We should distinguish between simple jokes (a pleasant common good, which I use by way of example to demonstrate the non-division of common goods generally) and back-biting or mockery, which are a perversion thereof. I bring this small point up as an example of the clarifying conceptual distinctions which the classical method relies on.

    • While the first four books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (which begins with the question of how we know things) are foundational on this topic, they are rather dry; so rather I want to quote the always witty words of Chesterton on the subject. The following is from Chapters 6 and 7 of “The Dumb Ox”, his famous biography of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which make a great argument for the classical method as the “philosophy of common sense”:

      “So much is familiar; but what is not even now realised is that not only the practical politics, but the abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality: to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox: a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind…

      “Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.”

    • Unfortunately, humans are fallible. Despite the human aspirations of pure objectivity, differing interpretations can exist regarding “justice” and other common goods. Chris wrote, “I don’t think that human political consciousness can ever encompass their objectivity – one reason why people disagree about them and get into wars.”

      The context of this blog post about property rights and public ownership has to do with “waning centralized power” in the “rural peripheries” with a potentially major influx of people into these peripheries.

      In a “scenario when a case could be made either way, without simple resolution” (as Chris put it), then how is this arbitrated? Who decides the “true” interpretation?

      And who decides who is to be the decider? (This is not merely a rhetorical question.)

      To avoid “a state of warre”, Chris suggested “self-consciously building some common ground for its citizens to stand on”, where *the citizenry* defines its common goods and works out its relations of ownership, debt, gift and obligation.

      I’m interested to hear Sean’s suggestions to avoid a state of warre in such a context, with specifics about who decides.

      • There’s a modern(ist) temptation to try to propose an ideology which will “end history” and solve all the problems of fallible, sinful/selfish human beings forever.

        I don’t claim that natural law politics is offering that. Rather, natural law is the common ground within which rational debate can begin. There will always be many different interpretations, especially when applied to more and more particular situations, but fortunately a lot of the difficult theoretical thinking has already been done, and we can continue to draw on that traditional wisdom.

        The question of “who decides? Who interprets?” is always going to be “the people in charge.” But if we follow the modern assertion that Power is pure potency, which has no determinate teleology or inherent order, then it’s much easier for tyrants to use power for private gain. If we accept the classical tradition (which again, I think all serious inquiries into truth are based upon), then Power has a purpose which is not subject to whoever is in charge, and we have a stable ground on which challenge existing power structures while also maintaining well-ordered hierarchies.

        I agree with Chris that citizens will have construct their social order, but I propose an addendum: that they ought to construct it based as closely upon reality as they can manage. If they do a half-decent job at constructing a public square which is genuinely ‘commensurable’ between citizens (unlike that of modern ideology) by being true to the reality in which we all share, then they will return to the natural law tradition, one way or another.

  17. To Andrew and the comment where this comes from:
    I’m interested Clem, what would you say was exemplary about the employer/employee relations of the SMEs of which you approve? Was there a sense among employees that they had a stake in the company and if so how was that generated? Or was it more a case of sympathetic personnel management by those at the top?

    Looking back over what now seems a very long time I might give specific examples of some SMEs I’ve either worked for or worked with and for which I still harbor some memory (if not some respect). Several family farms come to mind (and these days several of these farms are corporations – just the fact of the matter). To wit, all but a few of these farms are larger than 500 acres in size and thus not eligible here for consideration as small farms… but in the US today they would be recognized as medium to small.

    The family angle is front and center. Most have a couple generations active in the work, and where a third generation is actively working it is most likely an elderly member acting mostly as advisor, temporary laborer, and capital asset holder. [an earlier debate here about land as capital will be sidelined for this comment – but I do wish we’d get back to that discussion]. Other capital to include equipment, livestock, operating funds, and experience on the land.

    As noted above, parents and offspring naturally follow a certain hierarchy – at least for a child’s formative years. Within a generation (sibs) there also tends to be a hierarchy based to some degree on birth order and gender. These relationships are NOT set in stone, various families having their own ‘personalities’. However, the general trend would be for sons to be more involved in physical labor than daughters, and first borns more than subsequent children. These generalizations may have some footing in cultural history but there are some practicalities expressed here as well. Eldest children have a length of experience in the operation that their younger sibs can’t overcome unless the elder sib leaves. Time won’t be punished for this preference. Where gender matters is less about capability and experience than cultural expectation. Facility for certain tasks (e.g., livestock management or crop care – think Cain and Abel) will frequently matter. Attitude comes to matter over time as well. Hierarchies will emerge.

    Farms (farm family operations, being associated with the land) very rarely ever move. Community relationships then tend to matter very much. Even where a very significant portion of the farm production is moved out of the community as cash crop or livestock sold – and in a very real sense neighbors then are commercial competitors – the need to belong and hold the respect of neighbors is very significant. It is one thing to be able to milk a cow, and quite another to hold one’s tongue when gossip flies. Your big sister might teach the former, but Grandma will likely teach the latter.

    We’ve also discussed Century Farms here, and I’ve had the pleasure of know a handful up close. Not a one I’m aware of is always peaceful and sanguine. But for me the truest test comes when circumstances are toughest. And of the examples I can attest to the ability of the family to weather difficulty often involves some degree of community support. All this then to suggest that reputation matters. [thus for Andrew’s observation: Moreover I don’t think a commitment to good internal relations is too solid if it is made primarily to satisfy the external gaze. I’d agree, but this isn’t why reputation has historically come to be valued in the first place]

    If I turn or gaze toward town, to the non-farm SMEs, I still see reputation making a very significant impact on success. There was a local butcher at home who had a very successful business. He had a remarkable reputation. When the business passed to his son, the reputation was squandered (as much for trying to satisfy the external gaze) and the business faltered. This was not solely due to mismanagement – there were headwinds that even the elder might not have weathered… but lessons ignored hastened the outcome.

    Hierarchies continue to exist, and they will change with time as well. I can see where some will push back against the existence of hierarchies. Where those with seats of privilege abuse their position then some correction will be necessary. Squashing the hierarchy might be one solution. But fixing the broken part would seem to me a quicker way. Either way, if abuse occurs there will eventually be some reckoning. Time heals all wounds, and wounds all heels.

    To Chris’ Feb 1 comment –
    Much to agree with there. Workers as expendable drones – many paragraphs possible on that!

    • Thank you for laying all that out Clem, it’s very though-provoking and to be honest I’m still thinking it through, but I need to post something or risk being left behind as the conversation moves on!

      You focus very much on the family business, which, as Chris notes in his comment, makes this about more than just business – but perhaps that’s the point. People connected through family have a more complex stake in their common enterprise by virtue of that fact. So when you talk about hierarchies you’re not only talking about the employer/employee relationship – in fact I’m not sure how relevant the latter is to understanding what you describe.

      Nevertheless, it’s interesting to think through the family farm as a business, and my own approach here is to ask whether that can inform ideas about what we might work towards changing in the future. Your examples offer a lot of scope to hierarchies of knowledge/experience, in which age/generation are viewed as important determinants of what people might bring to the table and education looms large, which all seems fair enough to me. I’m not clear, though, on how decisions are made – to which the reply might be which decisions, at what point – context!

      At a general level we might conceive of any kind of significant decisions that affect day to day life on the farm – who makes them, and how? Does experience confer an executive role? Does the ‘capital asset holder’ have greater weight? Are we moving closer here to situations in which the hierarchies you describe are experienced as the wielding of power, prompting resentments and tensions? To choose one specific example, succession on family farms is, I believe, often a cause of heartache.

      My thoughts here turn to possible alternatives that play to the democratic ethos I explored earlier. For example, would family farms benefit from being run as if each was a trust and the family members the board of trustees? That would take away the need for one person to be asset holder and the negative consequences that might flow from that, while the making of big decisions would require the democratic deliberation of the board. Worker democracy!

      You also set much store by reputation within face-to-face communities, and I’ve no doubt that your judgement of its contemporary importance is right. Perhaps this might sit beside Chris’s emphasis on the need for systemic change if changes in the individual business units are to succeed and persist. The very notion of success needs redefining here if we’re to move away from enterprises mired in competition and the profit motive. But whatever replaces it, I’m sure there will be an significant role for the maintenance of standards across communities and beyond – this also calls to concerns aired on here about the public sphere and perhaps Chris’s civic republican structures.

      But before this all gets too large scale I want to come back to the individual family farm and to some speculation on possible futures. If the farm is conceived as a trust (a word with resonant implications) then more emphasis is placed on the farm as the thing that endures, rather than the family – as long as the trust is passed on it hardly members whether the trustees are related to one another.

      But let’s acknowledge that, whatever the nature of their relationships, this is more than just a business for our trustees (or put another way, that our current conception of a hierarchically ordered business with its managers and its workers is woefully inadequate). Let’s replace the boardroom table with the dining room table, the heart of the farming household, and rather than an ageing asset-holding patriarch let’s conceive of all our trustees as at once both hosts and guests, hosting each other and hosted by the farm.

      Perhaps it would be productive to think about cultivating a kind of democratic hospitality in this context – an acknowledgment that all members of the farming household have far more at stake here than just business, but also that, like businesses, they would benefit from formalised fora for decision making. Hospitality faces outwards as well as inwards, providing the essence of community cohesion, and so we might also conceive a role for structured practices of democratic hospitality to inform wider community relations, the working out of common goods and, yes, the building of good reputations in working towards them.

      Anyway, I think we agree that hierarchy is ever present, at least potentially. You, I think, are minded to approve where such hierarchy doesn’t necessarily have negative effects, whereas I’m interested in ways of ensuring that it doesn’t by finding ways of flattening it where possible. We are, I think, both concerned with similar visions of the end result.

      • A family and a business – whether a farm or a bookstore – does present special circumstances. Short of time to dig into all of Andrew’s points, but I will speak to these:

        At a general level we might conceive of any kind of significant decisions that affect day to day life on the farm – who makes them, and how? Does experience confer an executive role? Does the ‘capital asset holder’ have greater weight? Are we moving closer here to situations in which the hierarchies you describe are experienced as the wielding of power, prompting resentments and tensions? To choose one specific example, succession on family farms is, I believe, often a cause of heartache.

        Regardless of generation, gender or capital possession, in my experience most family farms will work with one person making final decisions. But various aspects of the work may well be distributed among the members, and within one’s area of expertise a much wider breadth of decision making tends to be granted. Here in the States the law will prescribe some relationships, primarily in the form of business formation, tax liabilities, licensing and so forth. So a trust, an S corporation, a partnership, or even an association can be set up for a farm. These structures will of necessity have some individuals named to certain roles. These officers will have civic and legal responsibilities where the government is involved. Thus an officers ‘skin in the game’ makes it logical for them to also take the ultimate responsibility for decisions.

        But regardless of official titles, the day to day work that goes on needn’t resemble a military hierarchy with officers strictly following lines of rank.

        If three brothers are dispatched to pick up hay bales and driving the tractor is the most desired part of the effort, it might be left to them to work out who drives and when. If they don’t find a way to work this out among themselves it will go to a higher authority (and given that with Dad in town on business, the next authority being Grandpa… and Grandpa’s decision will be for him to drive… well, more reason to strike a deal).

        Succession is indeed a very stressful matter – for the family bookstore as much as for a farm. Books have been written on this. There is a lot to be said for working together and living together, but longer term business survival can bring heartache. This is not a certainty, but it is certainly a concern.

        • Thanks again Clem. Not really much to add this time, except again to note that if ‘skin in the game’ can be distributed among the household to begin with, then ‘striking a deal’ becomes the modus operandi, and hopefully acts to take the stress off any one individual, as well as reducing potential for abuses of power.

  18. Thanks for those rich and thought-provoking comments, Sean and Clem.

    Sean, I’m at least somewhat open to being persuaded by you about natural law thinking, but I need to consider it more thoroughly. I aim to have a re-read of Macintyre and other relevant sources this year and come back to this when I’ve done so, so I’ll keep your comment here as a reference point for a later conversation. I like your excerpt from Chesterton, though while I readily accept that modern(ist) philosophies emerge from some peculiar points of view, often grounded in immediate circumstances, that require their inheritors to thread some difficult needles, I’m not entirely convinced that ancient philosophies were exempt from these problems. My main interest in political philosophy is whether it can provide any useful guidance for contemporary people steeped in liberal-modernist traditions to navigate the wreckage caused by those traditions. In that sense, I think Joe and Steve’s ‘how will this work in practice in the here and now, or in the near future’ questions are to the point. With Andrew pressing this point too, this feels like something for me to work some more on. So definitely a debate to be continued…

    The striking thing about Clem’s example is that his corporation is a family – so while it has to adjust itself to the demands of business, its ends are not reducible to business. I discuss this point about family farming in Chapter 3 of my book. Obvious links here also to civic republicanism and some of the other philosophical points we’ve been discussing.

    • Yes, the discussion here so far seems to be very abstract, theoretical and about the distant future. How, for example, are you working at organizing the politics of your neighborhood in Wessex, right now?

      Or, how would you suggest that I go about organizing the small farms and large ranches, say the 100 closest properties, around my little farm here in Hamakua? If national, state and county governments retreat or fail, we’ll need to do something. How best to prepare for that day, given the politics we have now and the politics we’ll need? Can it even be done?

      • A very practical question…

        In my comments above I spoke of family farms as business units, and I’m guessing half of my experience of small farms in a community is based upon the community I grew up in. I’ve not lived in that community for over 45 years now, but can stay abreast of some of the changes as two of my brothers still live there.

        In another community (where my father grew up) I have a large cohort of kin, and the family has lived there over a hundred and twenty years. Traveling in that local geography with a cousin of my own age we pass various properties and he can relate who farms there now, who used to when his father and mine were growing up, and so forth. The living memory of place permeates relationships to an extent that fascinates me.

        I’ve been engaged in ag research for over four decades (far from ‘home’ – where I was raised), with the latter half of that primarily in one geography. I can share stories about who farms which pieces, how various seasons impacted what we were able to accomplish, and who to go to if you have a particular need or question.

        All that to offer that within a place there is a remarkable wealth of knowledge in lived experience. Something Wendell Berry would recognize immediately.

        how would you suggest that I go about organizing the small farms and large ranches, say the 100 closest properties, around my little farm here in Hamakua? If national, state and county governments retreat or fail, we’ll need to do something. How best to prepare for that day, given the politics we have now and the politics we’ll need? Can it even be done?

        My suggestion for the immediate future – take stock of the 100 closest properties… who works that ground, how long have they been there, what sorts of skills are present, is something missing (butcher, baker, black smith, etc)? What sorts of conflicts lie beneath the surface which may poison convivial and harmonious relationships? Where I grew up, mending fences often meant more about personal relationships then going to the barbed wire with a pliers.

        And finally, I believe that yes – it can be done. We may be a difficult species, but we are resilient and creative. Perhaps it won’t be pretty, but some of us will endure.

        • Creating a demographic and food / skills resource database of one’s community is a good idea. I am president of a local community association and I will query the board of directors about such a project. Our paid membership is only about 10% of the association area’s population, but we have a contact list which covers about a third of the people living here. We might also be able to survey crops and livestock from aerial and satellite photos.

          Social relationship mapping might be a little more difficult .

          • If you really want to dig into it, the USDA tracks crop production through surveys on a county level – these include major and minor crops and livestock. Theses data are even broken down to number of businesses (farms) unless the number is too small [done to protect identity].

            I don’t have a link to hand, but if you have any trouble finding one, let me know. [see Census of Agriculture USDA]

      • Eat together with your neighbours regularly. Work on projects together. Look at which voluntary organisations in your area already perform some kind of mutual aid, and join in.

        • People do that already, including regular exchanges of food between households and lots of community projects. But the smallest unit of formal political organization here is the county (population 200,000); there is no municipal government. The county is still small enough that anyone can get easy access to their representative on the county council or even their state representative. Despite the usual grumbling about taxes, most people think our local government is OK.

          But organizing for a time when that county government fails is very difficult. About 10 years ago, I handed out a skills questionnaire at a community association general membership meeting, prefacing the handout by detailing the reasons why we might want to know each other’s trade and craft skills for a time when we might have to rely entirely on each other. I got none back.

          So, my experience here in a small rural setting is that it’s likely that there will be little enthusiasm for organizing a pre- or parallel government as long as existing local government functions normally. If and when it fails, I hope there will be time enough for an ad hoc process of organizing a community governmental structure. I suspect that in those circumstances people will create structures that are very similar to those they are already familiar with, such as an elected council, mayor and so on, just at a smaller scale.

          But my question to Chris was genuine. If he or anyone else is actually preparing political groundwork for a time when existing governments fail, I would really like to know how they are doing it. I am glad to start the process up again. In the meantime I’ll see how much background data we can gather.

          PS And I don’t mean organizing a “weekend militia”, whereby men with guns get together and practice their shooting and other combat skills in preparation for “preserving liberty”. Maybe that kind of thing is strictly a US phenomenon, but we have far too much of that already.

          • Here is an article pre-print link for a piece that reviews some history of corporations, some potential mechanisms to limit corporate abuses [coops and anti-trust are discussed] as well as some suggestions for corporate regulation going forward.


        • Here is an article directly related to what we are discussing here (including eating together). It is about the “pre-liberal” social structures that allowed the Indian farm revolt of 2020 to succeed. The kinds of religion-based norms, local customs and bottom-up control of social and economic activities are rapidly fading away in modern economies, to which most moderns would say “good riddance”, but we will probably have to reinvent them to return to a small farm future.


      • Joe wrote, “How would you suggest that I go about organizing the small farms and large ranches, say the 100 closest properties, around my little farm”.

        How about organizing a simple cooperative that would provide for some current needs? For example, a biodiesel coop could purchase (wholesale) and store biodiesel for the use of local members. An existing organization like this, with a voting membership and elected board of directors (including treasurer and secretary) could quickly adapt to larger roles during a crisis.

        • I like that notion Steve… here in the US there are tax benefits for CO-OPs (when registered). Of course a group needn’t actually register with the government if the long run view is that ‘the government’ with which one registers doesn’t have a long term future of its own.

          A purchasing CO-OP could go beyond the example for biodiesel (and for my money, the CO-OP could actually build the infrastructure to make biodiesel and or ethanol for liquid fuels). But other resources could also be brought under a CO-OP umbrella. The organizing and running of the CO-OP would give those involved experience – experience that stands to make the eventual transition somewhat less difficult.

        • Coops are a good idea for organizing, for sure, and my family was in a food purchasing coop here many years ago, but I worry about how much they will detract from overall community solidarity. Purchasing coops are direct competition to the small businesses in any town. It would be nice to avoid undercuting the local grocer, bakery, feed store and hardware store, especially if they are owned by local families (which most of them are here). Now that online purchasing is undercutting physical stores everywhere, I would hate to think that a purchasing coop would be the coup de grace for a local business. Most of the coops that would make sense, fencing supplies, human food, animal feed, even fuels, would be in direct competition with a family-owned local business.

          The current situation in my local town is a gradual transition away from businesses that serve the surrounding community to businesses that serve tourists. Honokaa, population 2,300, has one hardware store and a dozen restaurants. I don’t wish those tourist-oriented businesses ill, but when I look at the pictures of “main street” from 100 years ago I can see dozens of businesses that served the local community then and which longer exist. I wish that weren’t the case. We’re going to need those kinds of businesses again as the global economy starts shrinking and disintermediating. I want to keep the few we still have.

          • I suppose one way forward would be to encourage veg growers, bakers, etc to form producers’ coops and then for communities to form purchasing coops committed to buying wholesale from their local producers. That way you could screen the whole thing off from the ‘free’ market, and prices could be set in negotiations between the community coop and the producers’ coops that were sympathetic to local conditions. It would take considerably more organising though, not necessarily a bad thing. Chris has mentioned guilds a few times – I’d be interested to know more of what he has in mind.

          • Joe said that a biodiesel coop “would be in direct competition with a family-owned local business,” but does this objection hold water when emergency preparations and resilience (with some redundancy) are goals, and the producer (not just the reseller) is also local? (Growing your own food, by the way, is a form of competition with a local business.)

            There’s a local biodiesel producer, only 50 miles from the town of Honokaa, producing over 5 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

            I think it will be near impossible to sign up most of one’s neighbors for real involvement in an organization, unless there are appreciable benefits that meet some current needs (not just hypotheticals).

            A biodiesel coop seems like an easy example for a local amenity, whereby tractors could be fueled without ever involving a drive into town. The fuel in storage would provide some resilience during emergencies.
            Two storage tanks, refilled whenever one becomes empty, would provide additional redundancy (resilience).

            Having the neighbors organized and cooperating in something like this would surely have additional benefits during crisis situations.

  19. Apologies for not responding to this debate. I spent a few days offline.

    Just briefly, while I appreciate that my focus might seem a bit abstract I don’t think distinguishing between abstract political principles and practical local political action is especially to the point. True, as political disorder multiplies few people are going to prioritize pulling the Nicomachean Ethics or Leviathan off the bookshelf. Nevertheless, they will of necessity be wrestling with the issues addressed in such books and I honestly think that one of the best political actions I personally can do right now is draw attention to those issues as best I can.

    Regarding more practical and local political actions, the one that I’ve been most involved with and that I think is probably most important is a politics of access to farmland and of decommodifying farmland for small-scale locally-oriented new entrant farmers. The other thing I’d emphasize is generalized community-building – what are the main social tensions and sources of factionalism in my area, and how might they be de-escalated? I’m fortunate to live near Frome, whose town council have been prioritizing this under the auspices of the Independents for Frome (my friend Peter Macfadyen’s book ‘Flatpack Democracy’ is worth a look). Whether it’s enough is another matter. I think Joe is right that people won’t form the necessary political institutions until they have to, which may be problematic.

    In relation to land use, in Wessex and in many other parts of the rich world local land use is mostly geared to the fossil fuel intensive production of commodity export crops in a depopulated countryside whose residents in the main have little involvement or knowledge of food and fibre production. Checking in with the human skill base is a good idea – perhaps the question being to what ends those skills might be put in times of political disruption, hence the need to build community. Here in Frome, there’s a bit of local food mapping going on. But the main problem is repurposing land use for the appropriate production of local food and fibre.

    I’ve written a bit about co-ops previously, for example in relation to Chris Newman and his Sylvanaqua Farm project. Another cautionary tale further back in US history is the Farmer’s Alliance and the People’s Party. I’ll aim to write a bit more about this in due course.

    Likewise I’ll aim to write some more on liberalism. Thanks for linking the article about the farmer’s movement in India, Joe. I found it interesting, but perhaps as much for what it didn’t confront as what it did – especially given India’s modern history. Liberalism gets it in the neck a lot, including from me, but maybe there’s a case of you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone that’s worth exploring.

  20. Much too quiet here at the moment. Forgive me if I toss something on the table to stir the pot…

    Chris penned a manifesto for Doomer Optimism (linked earlier I think – but if you have trouble finding it here, page your favorite search engine for Chris Smaje and Doomer Optimism)…

    To follow onto some thinking of other doomer optimists one can listen to the podcast or check out the transcript here:
    Transcript of Currents 049: Ashley Colby & Jason Snyder on Doomer Optimism


    Something I’d never come across before – Game B… and you can see more about that here: game-b (append the www. at the front and an .org at the end)

    Thoughts anyone?

    • I’m not impressed with Game B. A blockchain monetary system might effect a disintermediating of the financial system, but blockchains still depend on a fully functional high-energy modern civilization. Because of that, blockchains are totally dependent on a plethora of intermediaries. They only provide the illusion of disintermediation.

      The kind of disintermediation that has staying power is moving hand to mouth, i.e. being the producer/gatherer and consumer of one’s essentials. Local intermediaries that are very close by, such as the dairy, the butcher and the blacksmith, are about much intermediation as most people should need in their daily lives, but every once in a while a train, barge or ship might come by and deliver a few extras from distant intermediaries (not quite sure about the train, but I’ll leave it in there).

      As far as “doomer optimism” goes, I agree that activity is better than the paralysis of despair, but if that activity produces stuff like Game B, count me out. I get the impression that Ashley, Jim and Jason are not thinking through the limitations of the earth’s human carrying capacity on technological sophistication.

      Experimentation is good, but the experiments should be geared toward what can be sustained in a world where humans are within carrying capacity. That means no fossil fuels to temporarily boost human populations and per-capita activity. That means a human economy powered like it was before fossil fuels, wood world. If A, J & J can build a blockchain by starting with a stack of cordwood, I’ll pay more attention.

      • I’m not convinced the human footprint will ultimately devolve into a wood world. Ships and barges – buckboard wagons, and even steam engine trains/tractors/trucks… up to a point where habitats can be maintained. Metal working, ceramics and glass, fermentation, weaving, and even printing are industries our future selves are likely to have available.

        I also have a different take on experimentation. I agree experimentation is good – in fact I don’t imagine a human society devoid of any experimentation. Children experiment… its a crucial part of who we are. But where I
        part ways is where I perceive you want experimentation to have limitations:
        but the experiments should be geared toward what can be sustained in a world where humans are within carrying capacity

        My rationale here is that carrying capacity itself has been (and may continue to be) something we can modify, something we can increase. Obviously any increase in capacity does have to measure up under the restraint(s) of longer term sustainability.

        I’ll admit I’ve a very feeble appreciation for blockchain tech and whether it might have a future in fossil fuel free world. Blockchain is a direction I personally won’t be doing any experimenting at this time (holding off judging that I might at some point change my mind).

        Jordan’s writing (and YouTubing) concerning the Civium Project likely includes lots of paths that won’t peter out in the long haul either. But I’ll be taking a closer look to see whether there might be some nuggets worth a closer peek.

      • If blockchain currencies were actually useful for what they say they are — anonymous, secure payments — then the porn industry would be using them. My understanding is that this is… not what is happening. Meanwhile, nobody can eat bitcoin any more than they can eat dollars or pounds or yen; and if the markets in which we engage are reliant on cheap transport and energy, money of any sort — crypto included — simply won’t stretch as far.

        Train tracks, if they can be maintained, would be rather lovely for draisine transport where waterways aren’t available, or perhaps horse-drawn trams.

    • Yes, apologies for the quietness. A bit too much going on offline at the moment. But I promise you some new content soon. May have to hold off looking at Game B for the moment, as it’s all I can do to stick to Plan A and get some blog posts out.

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