A further note on gender, families and households in a small farm future

This post addresses some questions of household, family and gender relations in a small farm future. I wrote about this in Chapter 12 of my book, and also in this article and this post. But there are some things I’d like to add – partly a few new thoughts, and partly by way of response to points made earlier that I wasn’t able to respond to at the time. So, a brief reprise and reformulation before I move onto other things.

As I see it, for reasons much aired on this website over the years, there will probably be a resurgence of small-scale, household-based farming in the future, and many – but by no means all – of those households are going to be peopled mainly or exclusively by an adult woman, an adult man, and their children. This is not some ethical ideal that I’m advancing as an exemplary model for how farm households ought to be arranged. On the contrary, I hope there will be many different styles and sizes of household. It’s just that I think the structure I mentioned is likely to be quite common in the future, as it has been in the past, unless a lot of political effort is devoted to preventing it – which I doubt will happen, and in my view probably wouldn’t be a good use of precious social resources. Possibly, this structure will seem to offer certain advantages for some of those involved, but it risks disadvantages for others.

One of the disadvantages I’ve feared is that a household farming future of this kind will disproportionately benefit men and disbenefit women. Therefore, I wrote Chapter 12 of my book to address that issue. It was one of the harder chapters to write (and one of the harder ones to cut editorially), and it’s one of the chapters I’m least satisfied with. Happily, all the reviews of the book I’ve seen bar one correctly appreciated that it was a good faith attempt to advance an anti-patriarchal position around family farming.

But, as I see things now, I fear I may have fallen into a so-called framing trap with that chapter, where I too easily accepted key premises of views I don’t share – specifically, that small-scale, family farming is intrinsically patriarchal and that the royal route to gender equality lies in urbanization, modernization and the escape of (female) labour from land-based work.

This is certainly a widely held view. One participant at a discussion I was involved in said bluntly that “small farms are bad for women”. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I put the point to Vandana Shiva when I interviewed her on The Stoa, and she took the alternative view that there are sources of social support for rural women that make them less vulnerable to patriarchal control and violence than their poor urban counterparts.

I also quizzed my friend Saurav Roy on the point, and he wrote this interesting reply (lightly edited by me), which I’ll return to in a later post:

“When I was working in slums in Calcutta, mostly the migrants were coming from Sundarbans because either their crops were failing or fish were dying because salty water would enter their ponds. They would share with me that they came to earn money in Calcutta because the flooding and soil erosion have increased in the last five years, making it difficult for them to farm anything. Moving to a city is not a choice they prefer, as it requires leaving their family behind and the conditions in the city are far less dignified than in the village. That was my first experience of witnessing climate migration before I even read a book about climate migration.

I was doing surveys in these slums to understand their energy needs, kerosene dependency and household earnings. For that, the women would know more than the men, so I would naturally speak to the women. Show up every two weeks to say hi and update surveys. I became more trusted and then women, especially the newly married ones, would say they feel less secure in the slums as there are more experiences of getting groped, molested or raped. As police are not of any help in these neighbourhoods (because people are living there illegally) they can’t really report anything. So the women have to protect themselves, have a man in the house after dark, or especially feel vulnerable when they want to use the toilet. These slum houses rarely have proper doors, so if any drunk person wants to enter at night they could”

Then Saurav cited some evidence hinting at better security (and better nutrition) for rural women in India. Other writers like Manali Desai have emphasized the greater danger of sexual violence against low caste women in rural areas. I guess it’s always hard to generalize, especially in a country comprising nearly 20% of the world’s population. So it’s complicated, but on the face of it I’m not seeing an awful lot of evidence to suggest that rural residence and agrarian lifeways are always the worst option for women (which is just as well, because I think there are going to be increasingly few other options for women, and for men too, in the future).

To generalize yet further, the way I now see things is that patriarchy is a permanent possibility in every kind of society, and it bears little necessary relation to the kind of place people live, the kind of work they do and maybe the exact composition of their households. So I no longer feel a need to defend societies built on small-scale family farming from the specific charge of patriarchy, which is not of course the same as saying that patriarchy is not an issue in such societies. The work of historians like Robert Allen and Emma Griffin has shown that conditions for women in England worsened with the early modern onset of more commercialized farming and subsequently with industrialization, and similar findings have been presented in other parts of the world. Along with their contrary. Again, it’s complicated.

In The Dawn of Everything (which I reviewed here), David Graeber and David Wengrow suggest that “the most brutal forms of exploitation have their origins in the most intimate of social relations: as perversions of nurture, love and caring” (p.208). They use this to analyze exploitation at different social levels, including patriarchal family forms, domestic slavery and forms of political tyranny. If they’re right, then it follows that ending these forms of exploitation must involve redressing the ‘perversions’ they invoke, rather than assuming there’s some particular form or level of social organization such as ‘the family’ where the blame lies.

So what are the perversions? When I wrote my chapter, I was thinking of societies organized around corporate kinship groups such as clans and lineages, where it seems to me the chances of creating patriarchal structures are high – women, and women’s sexuality or ‘honour’, being a group possession that it jealously guards. For that reason, I felt that in societies organized around less ramifying kin structures – nuclear families, say – the risks would be lower. And, reading Graeber and Wengrow’s book, I found it remarkable how many of the archaeological sites they described worldwide across the span of human history, most particularly those they championed as versions of republican autonomy, involved small domestic hearths of the kind that could only accommodate a small group of people of nuclear family type proportions.

Remarkable though that seemed, as I mentioned in my review it wasn’t something Graeber and Wengrow actually remarked on. I can’t help feeling there’s something of a conspiracy of silence around kinship and family forms in the contemporary social sciences, alongside a queasiness in even talking about it in progressive and left-wing circles that leaves the field wide open for the political right to forge what it will out of the concept of ‘the family’.

Whereas kinship studies were once central to anthropology, perhaps too central, they now seem to me too peripheral, to the extent that it’s barely possible to formulate questions about the structuring of kin and gender relations in different kinds of societies at all. A lot of the more recent scholarship on the topic asks instead how we even come to conceive that ideas like gender or family have any meaning at all – which is fair enough, although you can say the same about any form of social identity, including class. Generally, this recent scholarship operates at a level of highfalutin philosophical abstraction that I suspect is quite bamboozling to most ordinary folk, though perhaps some of the ideas find more everyday expression in current controversies about trans identities and rights.

Meanwhile, radical writers tiptoe around the issue. In his stimulating book, A People’s Green New Deal, for example, Max Ajl argues for agrarian reforms that “shatter large capitalist plots into smaller ones workable by non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117) and “break huge farms into units that can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives” (p.144). No quarrel from me there, but Max doesn’t expand on what form these family units might take and how they would relate to wider society. This is probably a wise move to avoid political trouble, but it risks evading issues that ultimately must be confronted.

While I’ve been entertaining notions of restricted family units and restricted proprietorship as a way to overcome the ‘perversions’ of modern patriarchy and power, I think it would be fair to say that a lot of leftwing thought runs in the opposite direction, holding both nuclear family structures and notions of private property, even in the form of distributed petty proprietorship, in special contempt for many modern ills. This was firmly asserted by an online commenter recently who took umbrage at my view that small, family-based households are quite common historically.

The classic text here, and the one my commenter invoked, is Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published in 1884. I have a copy on my bookshelf, which I bought exactly a century later when I was an undergraduate anthropology student. A good deal of Engels’ evidence was culled from the 1877 book Ancient Society by pioneering US anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, with its speculative and now outmoded conception of an original human matriarchy, and its oh-so-Victorian stage theory of human development from ‘savagery’, through ‘barbarism’ and onwards to ‘civilization’.

My commenter asked me if I’d read Engels’ book. A long time ago, I confessed – don’t remember much about it. I took it down from my shelf and weighed it in my hands, pondering whether to reread it. Then I put it back. Screw it – Morgan’s and Engels’ books broke fresh ground in their day, but the fact that radicals are still taking their cue from them nearly 150 years later surely suggests a problem. Things have moved on, I said to myself – and to my commenter. But judging by the apparently parlous state of kinship studies these days, maybe they haven’t. Certainly, the ghosts of Morgan and Engels still stalk social media and liberal dinner party talk about the evils of family and property, while critical scholarship seems to have vacated the scene. It’s the power, the resistance to critique, of exactly these kinds of “as everybody knows and as so-and-so showed long ago” shibboleths that I think always require challenging, and that Graeber and Wengrow’s book helps us to challenge, even if the hot potato of family structures is one they somewhat ducked themselves.

The real source of radical ire is, I think, not so much the nuclear family as a particular version of it all too evident in the Victorian England of Engels’ day. Father as distant patriarch and breadwinner, abroad in the public sphere outside the home. Mother as his subordinate and financial dependent, confined to a somewhat empty domesticity. Children to be inculcated with these virtues through patriarchal discipline. Much policing of boundaries, status aspiration and male sexual hypocrisy.

I have no problem joining the philippics against this kind of family norm, but it’s not so much a depiction of ‘the nuclear family’ as a highly specific version of it, or what might alternatively be glossed ‘the bourgeois family’. Inevitably, a large part of the feminist response to that Victorian modernist reality had to involve women unseating the family patriarch by creating extra-domestic autonomy for themselves, in the workplace, in accessing money and wealth independently, in the public sphere, in female self-actualization. In other words, by connecting themselves and their households to a wider world of material and conceptual possibilities.

On that point at least I agree with my online commenter in his strictures against what he called, shifting the goalposts when I defended small family units as a ubiquitous historical reality, ‘the insular nuclear family’. Well, I’m definitely against insularity. But the issue I tried to raise in my book is that many of the options available to Victorian feminists and their successors for breaking down insular boundaries may be less available in a small farm future, and people – women and men – will be more tied to a household economy. That household economy isn’t inevitably patriarchal, but the resources for contesting its tendencies to patriarchy may have to be different from the ones that drove the feminism of industrial modernity.

Nevertheless, I’m unconvinced that the gains of modern feminism would simply be lost in a small farm future characterized by many restricted-family farm households, nor that the forms of exploitation arising from ‘perversions’ of intimate relations that Graeber and Wengrow invoke would vanish with other kinds of households. What seems to me more important to safeguard against exploitation is rich connection of people and their households to wider social networks. I see this taking a civic republican form, which I will explore in future posts.

At the same time, it mightn’t be a bad idea to revive questions about gender, kinship structure and the forms of household production now unfashionable in the social sciences to ponder how such connections might operate. Consider, for example, the old anthropological nostrum that land-intensive horticultural societies often involve matrilineal inheritance and descent (i.e. children inherit property only/mainly from their mother and maternal line – not to be confused with ‘matriarchy’), whereas land-extensive mobile herding societies often involve patrilineal descent (not to be confused with patriarchy, although in fact the two often go together, as in all those livestock-herding Old Testament patriarchs).

The logic is that it can be hard to be certain who a child’s father is, so in labour-intensive situations with relatively high pressure on land where lineal inheritance matters to people, as one might find in predominantly horticultural societies, there’s something to be said for pragmatically making descent matrilineal. The land extensive situation of herding, on the other hand, involves militarized policing of uncertain boundaries and the fusion and fission of groups according to political and ecological circumstances, lending itself to masculinist and patrilineal ‘bands of brothers’ and rigorous (patriarchal) control over female sexuality.

I did come across a moderately recent research paper arguing somewhat along these lines from a sociobiological perspective concerning the incentives for parental investment in biological offspring. But I’m not sure it’s necessary to invoke evolutionary genetics. Simply the belief that children inherit material substance of social importance from both parents is probably enough.

Anyway, commenters here at Small Farm Future seem willing to boldly go where modern scholarship fears to tread, so I was interested when Joe Clarkson wrote here a while ago here on this very theme:

I have lived in a village where … the many children who didn’t live with their mother usually lived with grandparents or some other biological kin. In this village the culture around gender was pretty conventional except that, due to widespread promiscuity, land tenure was matrilineal. There was little concern about who the actual father of any child might be as it was often impossible to know. Other aspects of land control and chiefly hierarchy were patriarchal.

Given that the small farm future I project is likely to be a labour-abundant, land scarce horticultural one, perhaps there’s a case for shifting towards matrilineal descent? As Joe’s comment indicates, matriliny isn’t entirely a defence against patriarchy, but it may mitigate the worst tendencies towards control of female sexuality.

An interesting question is how quickly kinship systems might change to fit new circumstances. When could we expect to see a matrilineal small farm future taking shape? Alternatively, perhaps people would opt for a more relaxed approach. After all, sex and marriage aren’t the same thing. Maybe a judicious mix of honesty with spouses and sexual partners, good contraception, and/or relative indifference to the importance of biological descent in labour-intensive horticultural societies of the future might be enough to preserve the existing pattern of bilateral descent in more or less nuclear families typical in the Global North into a small farm future. Certainly this pattern, combined when appropriate with supra-household forms of organization such as commons, has operated effectively in many small farm pasts. Restricted bilateral families are quite a resilient social form.

Perhaps my emphasis here upon family-based productive households will be offensive to certain variants of left-wing thought, while the emphasis on a free and easy approach to sex, family styles and inheritance will offend certain right-wing ones. I’m open to debate, but I’m as yet unpersuaded of the virtues of agrarian futures which over-fetishize the family at the expense of politics or over-fetishize politics at the expense of the family. For me, in that middle ground sits the public sphere of civic republican politics.

Anyway, as I now see it there’s no inherent tendency to patriarchy in restricted family household farming models, provided the tendencies towards patriarchy in the wider society of which it’s a part are kept in check. But there are some things worth keeping an eye on. One is avoiding an excessively gendered division of labour in farm work, which may in fact be easier with the more horticultural focus of a small farm society, where there would be less need for the kind of overpowered tractive machinery that seems to draw men in like wasps to a jampot and encourage them to elaborate their metaphors of masculinity around pistons, cylinder capacities and the length of their chainsaw bars. Another is to avoid all those nationalist, militarist and masculinist ideas of defending the family or the motherland. Or, if defence is essential, to be sure it’s women’s work as well as men’s. Yet another, of course, is to maintain full female citizenship rights to inheritance, divorce, education and so on. There are precedents for all this in historic small farm societies.

But maybe there’s a joker in the pack in the form of a ‘big man’ tendency among certain males towards self-aggrandizing patriarchal dominance. In relation to Graeber and Wengrow’s thesis concerning the relationship between household care and political domination, Gunnar Rundgren, another boldly-going Small Farm Future commenter, wrote:

I am not very convinced by the argument that kingdoms are modelled on patriarchal household (family) relationships …. At risk of sounding like a socio-biologist [it’s OK, Gunnar you’re among friends here…]I find the more plausible link being between a dominating male in a band and chiefs, chiefdoms, kingdoms and ultimately empires. The dominant male is not a far-fetched figure, but he is not linked to the household unless you expand the household unit to the band or whatever social unit people were living in.

Would-be dominant men who are not linked to a household that can keep them in check, masterless men, men who are not heorđfæst or ‘hearth-fast’ in the Old English term, indeed can be something of a problem – whether in the form of pillaging men-at-arms at large in certain modern and premodern societies, or men at large on incel subreddits or worse today. My argument, though it’s far from a complete answer, is that if men as well as women are richly connected to a restricted household, which in turn is richly connected to a wider political community, then the possibilities for patriarchal domination are lessened, provided the society in general admits to some narrative of female autonomy.

So in summary: small farm societies are not necessarily bad for women, kinship is a given and can’t be wished away, but large patrilineages and masculinist metaphors of defence and protection are best avoided. Men are best connected through kinship to a caring household (so are women, but that seems to be easier to achieve), and households in turn are best connected to wider networks of social institutions. It’s possible that household care can be perverted into a logic of patriarchal domination, just as can every kind of social institution. But it’s not a given. And there are no particular ‘material’ causes of female oppression that are worsened, or lessened, by the possibility of a small farm future.

47 thoughts on “A further note on gender, families and households in a small farm future

  1. Interesting!

    I think some of the railing against the nuclear family is misplaced, simply due to unrealistic contemporary expectations of what that family can do. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind; as someone who lacked a stable or cohesive village in childhood, one of the things that strikes me about nuclear families as popularly conceived is that they can be quite an isolated, and therefore vulnerable, unit. But that in turn seems to me to be a product of a somewhat over-financialised family where a breadwinner works for an employer who might not care a jot about local conditions, and perhaps in a context with a more localised economy things will be different…

    …my father in law once told us a story of, when he was a union representative, going around with another union member to visit the house of a worker who had been beating his wife. There was a brief and (I understand) somewhat physical exchange of views, and the beatings stopped. (Knowing what I know of emotional abuse, I’m not sure how much good that did, and my preference for non-violent solutions where possible makes me cringe over this story, but yet it seems to me to be worth something to have a society where you know that if you beat your wife, someone will eventually notice and make an effort to put a stop to it.) That was already in a somewhat globalised economy; the company in question was, I think, a manufacturer of motor cars. In a localised economy, how much more will the wider town and village take an interest in the internal dynamics of household life?

    Further, I think households have probably always had a certain amount of flexibility in terms of shape and size and kinship. Even now, grandma moving in is not unheard of, or having a couchsurfing friend stay with you for a few days that turn into a few weeks, months, and maybe eventually years. I look at the pattern of land ownership on my paternal grandmother’s side of the family and while the individual households are probably best described as nuclear family in style, there is an awful lot of asking one cousin to do this or another aunt to do that. When I look at family history of just about anyone I know, I find that so-and-so was raising the baby that such-and-such bore out of wedlock, or whosit had a “lodger” of the same gender for 50 years and they shared a bed, or the neighbour’s kid turned up one day at the age of 10 and just… never went home again. I’m not particularly a family history buff, but this stuff is all over the place. Families are messy. Perhaps those who object to the nuclear family model hold a more rigid idea of what constitutes a family than I do.

    I’ve mentioned monasteries as an alternative to familial households before, I’m sure. I don’t think we’re all going to go off and join a commune, but I do think that communal living situations of one sort or another will probably emerge (or re-emerge) in places where that makes sense. I welcome this, at least insofar as it gives individuals additional options where their primary family relationships break down.

    You write, “And there are no particular ‘material’ causes of female oppression that are worsened, or lessened, by the possibility of a small farm future.”

    I’m going to grumble a bit about this and say that while I don’t quite disagree, I do think it really depends how things play out. You state that kinship is a given; reproduction has been, also, for the majority of human history. And while historical examples of the rigorous policing of female sexuality are perhaps a social cause of female oppression rather than a material one, I do think that in a situation with less access to relatively safe, accessible contraception, women in general will be at a considerable material disadvantage. Indeed, we don’t need to look very far to see examples of, say, legislation criminalising those who have miscarriages — and while legislation is also not itself a material cause, it certainly affects the material realities of people’s lives, just as the immaterial concept of nation-states means I am more likely to be deported than someone who was born in the UK (all other things being equal; I am also white, and I suspect that a brown person born in the UK might well be at higher risk than I am.)

    So, I don’t think we can brush off (which is not what you are doing) the risks of patriarchy (or any other type of kyriarchy) as social rather than material, because those in power will so often attempt to change the material reality of those they seek to control, in order to preserve or increase the power they hold. This is one of the reasons that I fervently hope that any major collapse will somehow still preserve certain parts of medical knowledge — an IUD is not risk-free by a long way, but their lack of availability would certainly not affect people who can’t get pregnant as much as those who can.

    That said, I agree that there needn’t necessarily be anything inherently anti-feminist about a small farm future. But given our starting place, I do worry, and I think others are right to be concerned about how to order a small farm future in a way that minimises the possibility for patriarchal oppression. I don’t see anything wrong with the question “so, how do we get there from here?” but perhaps one problem is with assuming “there” will be terrible, and not acknowledging the reality of “here”.

  2. Chris,

    Fascinating, I am interested/concerned about how life in a ‘Small farm Future’ might work out for women.

    There is an obvious point that springs to mind, you have opted for land ownership rather than renting. Owning rather than renting clearly ties couples together in a way that renting might not.

    While its not ideal from a farming point of view Colin Wards idea of tenancies that could be easily quit t move on to another might do something to help those trapped in failing or dangerous relationships get out as esaily as possible.

  3. As the transition to a lower energy system unfolds, any sort of societal arrangement will need to deal with the loss of ability to adjudicate injustice and maintain a safety net. Yes, a rural self reliance future is likely, and so this is just one more aspect of self reliance and local management.

    My wife and I did foster parenting for a time ( it was exhausting, and we realized it was too much for us at this stage in our lives) after we moved to our rural setting, and so our eyes were opened to the extent and resulting costs of the health and human services infrastructure our taxes pay for. If you add in the law enforcement and the emergency services, it is a large expenditure of effort ( and money).

    So any potential intervention in domestic strife will undoubtedly have to change, and likely decrease, but this is a fact for any arrangement we might end up with, so I don’t see it as unique or a black mark for a small farm future.

    Kathryn’s example of a nongovernment, rather unofficial way of maintaining norms ( maybe a bit less physical though?) could easily be done without complex written laws, and would likely emerge in each locale spontaneously.

    After reading GW, Sand Talk, and living near Amish for several years, I see that the possibilities are endless and I wonder how much we really will be able to steer a course that maintains some of our current ideas about equity.

    • PS, This last was not to discourage your efforts to grab the tiller and try to head in a promising direction. Something or someone sent all these various cultures on the path they took.

  4. Another aspect is the potential role of “the family as a source of resistance to oppression from outside institutions”, where “the family is a bulwark against the atomizing effects of poverty and legal and political constraints”, and “struggles against outside forces take precedence over struggles within the family.” This was said to be the case for “racial ethnic families”, but “this general line of argument may also apply to white working class families”.

    From an article by Evelyn Nakano Glenn:

    “By focusing on inequality – the economic dependence of women and the inequitable division of labor – some Marxist-feminists see members of the family as divided in their interests, with conflict manifested in a struggle over resources and housework (e.g. Hartmann 1981 b; Thome 1982; for a contrasting view, see Humphries 1977). In this view the conjugal family oppresses women; the liberation of women requires freeing them from familial authority and prescribed roles.”

    “Examination of racial ethnic women’s experiences draws attention to the other side of the coin – the family as a source of resistance to oppression from outside institutions. [3]…”
    “[Note] 3. This general line of argument may also apply to white working class families. However…”

    “Racial Ethnic Women’s Labor: The Intersection of Race, Gender and Class Oppression”
    Evelyn Nakano Glenn
    Review of Radical Political Economics Vol 17(3):86-108, 1985.

  5. But I’m not sure it’s necessary to invoke evolutionary genetics. Simply the belief that children inherit material substance of social importance from both parents is probably enough.

    This whole business of interpersonal relationships is indeed quite complex. And I’m all in favor of simplifying assumptions… but my personal bias is that the field of evolutionary genetics offers us some tools that might increase the amount of light shed by the torch to hand. For instance – DNA analysis can illuminate the assignment of parentage further onto the male side such that “both parents” becomes a more tractable observation (allowing discernment between biological parents and social parents). Genealogical records are made more robust with this technology.

    The history of parental responsibility law is a wellspring of sociological and anthropological evidence that suggests (to me at least) that humans have been very interested in who the father is for quite a long time.

    At the same time it is mindful to realize that evolutionary genetics is itself a discipline under constant reinvention. It is evolving as it were. But all complex matters seem to me to improve with continual interrogation.

    So it may not be necessary (or sufficient) to invoke EG at every turn in the thought process… but neither would it be good policy to dismiss it as not useful.

  6. Interesting post. I recognise that wariness of the family as a power-riven phenomenon among ‘progressives’ that you describe, although I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t only emerge from theoretical ideas about patriarchy. Conservative/liberal policy has often involved pushing the family as an alternative to state and corporate welfare (‘there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and their are families’), so political battle lines can also encourage minimising the role of the family on the Left.

    I think you’re right to emphasise the particularity of the ‘bourgeois family’, and it does seem a bit of a distraction from the rural households that are probably of more relevance to a small farm future. I’m not very familiar with the anthropological literature on paternal and maternal inheritance that you refer to (although it all sounds a little too neat!), but the history I’m familiar with (primarily medieval Europe) would certainly confirm the significance of the inheritance of land to the patriarchal control of women’s sexuality in what we’re fairly land-extensive societies. But whatever the intensity of occupation, I would imagine that cutting the link between biology and the acquisition of land would be one of the most productive ways of limiting scope for patriarchal tendencies in a small farm future – and while we have slightly different perspectives on land ownership, I think your views on the inheritance of land would largely allow this.

    While I appreciate your concerns with the problem of patriarchal control in any family context, and also Kathryn’s additional points above, I wonder whether the elephant in the room here is not so much women, but children (or rather that we should be talking about children as well). The model of patriarchal control is, after all, the control of those not deemed to be full or complete members of society, and parental control of children is perhaps the last socially acceptable form of hierarchy in societies that have otherwise made considerable efforts to reduce and subvert patriarchal and political authority.

    However production and subsistence are organise in a small farm future, and however important the family is within that, it seems to me that the crucial point is how that society views citizenship, and in particular who is responsible for conferring it and educating citizens in their rights and responsibilities. Are families to be nurseries of citizenship, i.e. political entities, and if so what mechanisms need to be a available to prevent abuse?

  7. The most basic family unit in a Small Farm future will be a couple and their children. The next bigger block will include the neighbors who work together.

    I’m not so sure about maintaining the rights that modern feminism has won.

    The world is bumping up against limits of growth and consumption. On top of the pandemic and climate change, working class people in the US have been falling behind economically for the past 50 years. Recently the portion of the population in the middle class has dropped below 50%. Everyone knows something is wrong but can’t identify the problem but they don’t feel the same level of confidence and safety of 30 years ago..

    Media supplies plenty of distractions: click bait, petty grievances, culture wars, LGBTQ issues, the need to buy a uselessly large pickup truck, continuing shopping, etc. Not so much on the big problems facing us all and nothing for solutions.

    The unresolved insecurity seems to be pushing some people towards authoritarianism and longing for the good old days of Father Knows Best.

    One troubling distraction is a fight over a woman’s right to choose whether to have children. Laws banning abortion are spreading in Republican controlled states, which coincidentally have the worst living conditions as measured by poverty, education, health care, gun deaths, etc.

    None of the laws restricting a woman’s right to choose promote birth control ( the simplest way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and abortion), sex education (another good way), nor do the laws make sure the father takes responsibility for his child. Once a woman is forced to carry a pregnancy to term, it is completely on the mother to raise the child, there is no support from the government.

    This is does not lead to a good outcome for anyone.

    Is there is a tendency for men to subjugate women when large parts of their life is out of control ? Lots of things are going to be falling apart on the way to a Small Farm future.

  8. Thanks for the comments. Re Kathryn’s points, yes I think there can be a lot of historical flexibility around family forms, including restricted/nuclear family ones – and it’s the isolation and boundary policing more than the specific form that’s most problematic.

    I agree that monastic/communal living arrangements will probably increase in a small farm future, which I’d broadly welcome. However, I don’t think they get around the power/conflict issues that also arise in families. Monasteries of course have a hierarchical structure, which is one way of minimizing conflict – but then we get back to patriarchy!

    On the issue of ‘material’ causes of female oppression, my own philosophy of social causation is not very materialist in the Marxist sense. Childbearing is obviously a material factor that affects women in unique ways, but what people make of that factor socially is under-determined by the material reality of it. If it’s true that patriarchy is historically ubiquitous and that this is connected to childbearing, then that prompts some interesting questions that social scientists used to ask but seem to have stopped asking more recently. That said, I agree that access to contraception and control over one’s fertility are important.

    To John’s point, it seems to me a bit double-edged. Yes, being tied into long-term ownership structures potentially traps women within problematic family arrangements, but then again so can lacking security of tenure. In my book I discuss Bina Agarwal’s work on the importance of property rights for women in rural South Asia. I think there’s something to be said for alienable property and inalienable, but not heritable, property rights in this sense – touching on some previous discussions, and some to come, as well as Andrew’s points above. Interesting in this context that ‘matrimony’ means being married, whereas ‘patrimony’ means inheritance of land.

    To Steve C’s points, yes I think it’s likely that many existing state functions will be assumed by less formal local arrangements, including family structures, in the future – which has its pluses and minuses. All the more reason to think seriously about how to shape this, especially among those on the left somewhat inclined to dismiss informal/non-state structures.

    And thanks to Steve L for pointing out the other side of this, which indeed gets less airing than it should. Perhaps oppressed people hang on to family structures in the same way they hang onto land access (obviously the two are somewhat related), as a defence against state and other kinds of arbitrary power. There’s certainly been some writing about African-American (in the wide sense) family structures along these lines – e.g. Carol Stack’s ‘All Our Kin’.

    To Clem’s points – I’m not quite sure I understand your first one about DNA analysis. Obviously, nowadays it’s easy to do conclusive paternity tests. But whether using them routinely would be helpful in terms of building marital relationships is questionable? On the wider issue of human kinship and evolutionary genetics, there’s a big discussion to have there but for the time being I plan to stay agnostic. Combining the insights of anthropologists like Boehm and Sahlins might suggest that what’s most important is group culture – essentially, how people construe culturally their collective relationships, including those around sex, childbirth and childcare – rather than individual genetic lineages. Still, I agree that many people in many societies throughout history have been very interested in the question of paternity, so perhaps that leaves the door open to evolutionary genetics?

    To Andrew’s points – I agree the left has made valid critiques of the power relations in families, and left-wing/centrist governments have enacted useful policies to address them when in power. I’m not so sure the left’s done a particularly great job thinking about the family theoretically, though, which is one reason why ‘the family’ has been such easy pickings for the right. IMO if the left continues to minimize the role of family relations in its visions for society, then for the reasons suggested by the two Steves it will increasingly condemn itself to irrelevance.

    Agreed that the unilineal kinship inheritance stuff is a bit too neat, which is one reason why it lost influence. Though IMO the answer is to try to make it more nuanced, rather than abandoning it. Also agree on the need to largely cut the link between biology and inheritance, at least at this particular historical moment in the Global North.

    You raise a good point about the importance of children. In my (longer) first draft of my book I did say a little about this, but I would like to ponder it more, and put it into the context of my forthcoming discussion about civic republicanism. This bears exactly on the point Andrew, and also Steve L raise – how does the polity prevent abuse of individuals in families, and how do families and individuals prevent abuse by the polity? Historically of course, de-emphasizing the role of the family has often involved an unsentimental attitude to childhood, and a tendency to put children to work at young ages, often outside their natal home.

    Finally, to Greg’s points – perhaps I should clarify that it seems to me eminently possible that some of the gains of modern feminism will be lost in the future, but I’m not convinced they’ll be lost specifically because of a turn to small scale farming. Otherwise, I agree with your points about not making mothers bear the full burden of child-rearing, and unresolved insecurity prompting a nostalgia for authoritarian patriarchy – among men, and perhaps among some women too? There seems to be something of a crisis of masculinity at the moment, which figures like Jordan Peterson cash into, unfortunately. But that goes a bit beyond my present brief…

    • Chris.

      I agree that in a post fossil fuel world, feminism may take a hit.
      The practicalities of raising children without the benefits of fossil fuels will restrict what women can do. Also, without birth control, women will lose the ability to control their fertility.
      All of this, regardless of what the attitude of men is.

      • You seem to infer that bringing up children is a chore not a joy .
        After living in the UK and here I have found very few women want to do the ten hour days involved in farming , the sheer bloody graft of the smaller farmers which leaves them crippled by the age of 60 , walk around the weekly market and look at the farmers using walking sticks , limping , and with obvious bad backs , few of any want to spend a couple of hours with an arm up the back end of a cow trying to turn a mal placed calf or all night freezing looking after sheep at lambing time , a very few do and if you have got one it’s golden !!

        • I’m not saying that raising children is a chore (but it can be some times!!!!. I have a child with learning difficulties) but it’s not for everyone. Without contraception, women may find themselves as mothers whether they wanted to or not.

          I guess that subsitance farming is hard work, but going forward, it’s that our going hungry. That’s why people decide that it’s better to get someone else to do all the hard work. And so inequality is born.

  9. Hello Chris,
    “Family values” is a loaded term, dissected well by George Lakoff in his book on political framing.

    “The Family” is a hot topic and the social/cultural role of women is seen with very different eys in different subcultures. Have you read the “Integrated Activism” book by Alexis Zeigler (a small-farm future leader at https://livingenergyfarm.org/)? If I remember correctly he explains the value priorities in North Dakota vs. California that explains why the dakotans are anti-abortion and californians pro-abortion. I have a more californian view on these things.

    I would like to bring in the perspective of the different opportunities for specialized roles on “the farm”. Not everyone is able to/interested in running a farm enterprise as an isolated nuclear family. I suspect that modern farm families are only possible thanks to diesel tractors.
    In many places and ages, the extended owner family would also have a handful staff living at the farm, ranging from dairy girls, horse-men, diggers, etc. (I like the “Book of the Farm” by Henry Stephens, 1852, which has colorful descriptions of all these auxilliaries.) Even in his book on farming written around AD 50, Columella describes the different tasks for oxen-men and slaves on the farm. The farmer was the decision maker and responsible for feeding everybody.
    I think this reflects the different abilities we have regarding how much responsibility we are happy to carry. I know many people who do not want to be a “leader” or a “boss” or a “manager”, but really just want to work and eat and sleep and hang out with friends…

    It is a bit similar to the predecessors to the Benedictine monasteries, where ascetic families lived in proximity and had a few weekly meals together to celebrate and worship. Most families seems to have had “guests”, which I guess was later translated into the “novice”/apprentice system.

    Therefore, my bet would be that the most common configuration will be plots of land, 10-100 acres with 10 people eating together. I hope we can avoid the slave thing…

    Let’s see how it pans out!


    • “I suspect that modern farm families are only possible thanks to diesel tractors.”
      That and farm wives (and farmers) work off farm jobs for health insurance and enough money to make ends meet.

      My dad’s family had a hired man. This farm had rough living quarters next to a hog shed. An old farm we lived on in Connecticut had an ‘apartment’ in the carriage shed. That looks like a common living arrangement 70-90 years ago.

      • Yep , It is said that one man working full time can feed six people pre 1850 , after that productivity came up with better horse drawn machinery , then steam was another step forward , after that the great step forward of gasoline and diesel that now allows 2% of the population to feed the rest , as it stands a lack of diesel fortels the collapse of civilization as we know it .

    • My great grandfather was Wagoner on a estate in Cheshire , his son was dairy man on the same estate untill he volunteered for the first world war ( survived ten men from the estate joined up , three came back ), that changed farming forever .

  10. Hello Chris!

    This is my first time commenting on your blog, having discovered it a few weeks ago. You might remember me as ‘yer wan that tweeted about that feasta interview a few weeks back’.

    I’m super interested in the conversations that are happening here about family, social organiation, and how to avoid worsening oppression during the coming collapse.
    As a queer person, a disabled person, and a woman, I am deeply troubled by the regressive politics that are gaining strength as our big old jenga tower of a global system continues to teeter and topple. I worry about medical care particularly. Birth control access is very imporant! Access to hormonal treatments for my trans siblings is very important! Access to the medications and supports that allow people with disabilities to live lives without pain and – well, disability, are very important! People are doing really good stuff in the hacker space about distributing the means to medical knowledge. Is it too much to hope for every market town to have a community-run chemical lab?

    I do agree with you that the problems of patriarchy are not necessarily WORSE in a small farm future than our current system. Yes the majority of households may be led by a male-female pair, but I still believe there would be room for the diversity people like need to flourish. In small communities without huge power stratifications, people are exceptionally good at minding their own business. Ostracising potential allies is dangerous, after all. Who cares if your neighbours are a family of weird queers? You aren’t going to make a stink about it. You might need to borrow a rake or ask them to mind your chickens.

    For people within families, reliant on the family system, and at a power disadvantage – it is worrying, you’re right. I used to be a disability support worker, and intervening when people with disabilities were abused by their carers (usually family members) was part of my training. It never sat well with me that the solution was to support the carer to be less abusive by educating them and removing as much stress from the family system as possible. It explained the current regression in human rights protections though – stress and uncertainty is causing violence and domination.
    And knowing that that intervention works – isn’t that a note of hope? When we remove some of the stress on family systems (through something like relief care, and stronger social bonds), violence within those systems go down. That’s an easy enough thing for a community to do, whether the person abused is a child or a vulnerable adult. This community intervention model may directly contradict my point about queer families living in peace, but perhaps I can hope for a world where abuse is unacceptable and harmless oddness is ok.

    I think a part of this conversation has to be the freedom of people rejected or badly served by one family to leave to join or form another family, and that’s why queer acceptance is a very relevant thing to think about. There’s good evidence that in many places over many times, queer people were deeply loved and valued members of the community and the family, whatever those families looked like. Social norms have to be flexible enough to accommodate people who exist, have some social power, and can’t be ostracised en masse after all.

    Knowing the stories of LGBTQ+ people in the past who were able to function as full and respected members of their societies really helps me think beyond the narratives of family = patriarchy, rural = regressive. Forgive me for the link spam, but from a wonderful queer history podcast,
    Albanian sworn virgins, a traditional Albanian custom that allowed someone assigned female at birth to assume a male gender role and become the head of a household: https://queerasfact.podbean.com/e/albanian-sworn-virgins/
    The Crow warrior and leader, Bíawacheeitchish, or Woman Chief, who had four wives: https://queerasfact.podbean.com/e/biawacheeitchish-woman-chief/
    Rosa Bonheur, famous 19thc painter and open lesbian https://queerasfact.podbean.com/e/rosa-bonheur/
    Golden orchid societies, which allowed chinese women to form households together https://queerasfact.podbean.com/e/golden-orchid-societies/
    We’wha, a third-gender indigenous American person who was deeply respected for their crafts skills https://queerasfact.podbean.com/e/wewha/

    And that’s just a selection! The history of queer people is often dark, but there’s still enough light to steer towards a brighter future, I hope.


  11. Hello Aife, it’s good to hear your voice here. Thanks also for the other new comments. I’ll try to respond soon, but may not have the time for a day or two.

  12. A quick response to a few points from new comments.

    Thanks Aife for your thought-provoking comment. I’d be interested to hear more about the distribution of knowledge in the hacker space you mention. And your comment is a reminder for me to write a long-promised piece about health and social care in a small farm future.

    Another point underscored by your comment is that even in our present high tech & high capital times, a lot (most?) care is delivered by household or family members, a trend that’s only likely to increase. So yes to supporting carers, and trying to diminish the stress on them and therefore on the cared for. Yes also to your point that support for carers reducing violence is a sign of hope.

    I think you’re right that in small, relatively unstratified communities people can be good at minding their own business and making space for what you call ‘harmless oddness’. The worry of course is the opposite potential for self-appointed local custodians of acceptable ‘morality’ to run riot. I’m not convinced that a turn to household farming necessarily pivots to the latter, nor that larger-scale modern societies are exempt from it, but certainly I feel there’s an onus to prepare the way for the former outcome and safeguard against the latter.

    On that front, yes to the possibilities for leaving a problematic family and joining/starting another one. Though I’d want to make the same point about bureaucratic institutions taking on such quasi-family roles, like children’s homes. So my vote is for pluralism – but sometimes hard to achieve in practice.

    Turning to Goran’s comment, the point about diesel potentiating farm families (and indeed farming) is astute. Partly why I’ve increasingly come to focus on gardening/homesteading. I agree that some people don’t want to take on leadership and/or entrepreneurial burdens. The danger here is that the structure of farm family + workers becomes the model for patron-client or patriarchal relations. So there’s a need for workers to be properly honoured, while the patron also gets their due. This is a live issue on my farm which, ironically in view of my household farming shtick, is currently home to six other people outside my immediate family. Perhaps I will write more about that in the future. The key here has to be relatively easy access to land and housing.

    To John & Diogenes’s points, while bearing and feeding small babies is obviously something that biologically only women can do, raising children is not, and the value put upon these things vis-à-vis other activities is entirely a social choice. So it’s interesting to me if the argument is that association with child care explains female oppression – because you have to ask why.

    I’ve noticed a move to embrace certain kinds of gendered assumptions or traditional gender roles, and ideas like ‘radical monogamy’ in homesteading circles. It’s potentially problematically conservative, but also potentially not. Another interesting arena.

    • I guess that what I am saying is that, for women, having the ability to chose when, how many, (if any children) is a “liberating”. Without birth control, in a SFF, this will become difficult.

      The biological fact that men can walk away at the point of conception, where as women can not, creates inequality.
      (Societies try and create structures to restrict the male ability to “walk away”)

      Without contraception, women would find it difficult to have multiple sexual partners and not become a parent. Men have this option.

    • This is a live issue on my farm which, ironically in view of my household farming shtick, is currently home to six other people outside my immediate family.

      Interesting choice of pronoun – ‘my’. I’d have thought ‘our’ might better serve in referring to the farm. ‘My shtick’ works well – as she has her own shtick…

      Yes, it’s a quibble – and I’m too often guilty of such. But in the present conversation I wonder whether a simple oversight of inclusion isn’t a tiny piece of the overall difficulty.

  13. Hello Chris,
    I am very interested in hearing more about how you setup the arrangement with additional people on your (plural 😉 farm! Looking forward to a post about this.

    In July, me and my wife will move out to a small farmlet, where we will have housing capacity for more people, and we are now looking for tried and true arrangements.
    We will not really have excess land on our property, but there seems to be accessible land nearby.
    I know of the wwooffing scene, our sons have done that, but I think I prefer longer term collaborations.
    Any advice from any of the commentariat and pointers to other successful approaches are welcome!

  14. Another quick response to new comments.

    John – your argument makes intuitive sense to a lot of people, but I’m not entirely convinced by it. It’s as if men are classified as an r/ruderal species and women as a K/stress tolerator species … but men/women/they/we (gotta cover myself pronoun-wise!) in fact are all the same species. So it’s worth asking why women mighn’t also just walk away from their children (in fact, some do). And if there’s an argument from biology as to why generally they don’t, then perhaps the same argument applies to men. Abandoning a woman to raise a child alone probably isn’t a great evolutionary bet for a man, and is probably selected against, normally. But there are certain cultures of connivance with it. Maybe Clem might wish to chip in here with some evolutionary genetics? If not, perhaps I’ll share my thoughts on chimpanzee testicles sometime. Because everyone has an opinion on that weighty matter, right?

    Clem – I’d politely suggest you may be overthinking this. ‘My’ because ‘our’ would have been ambiguous, and because there are situations where I prefer not to speak for others. But for the avoidance of doubt, the farm is owned jointly and equally by my wife and me. And therein you’re absolutely right that this is a piece of the overall difficulty, since nobody else has a direct long-term stake in it. Of course, we could relinquish ownership, but then we get into the collective/commons problems recently discussed here. Watching this dynamic play out on my/our/this farm and in my reading of agrarian history convinces me that over-simple collectivist solutions that propose to overcome the problems of ownership by one/few with ownership by all/none are misplaced.

    Goran – my best wishes to you for your project. I’m hoping to write in more detail at a future point about the people living on or using our land but I can summarize it briefly here and offer a few pointers. The categories of people living or working on our land over the years have included:

    short-term residential volunteers
    longer-term non-residential local volunteers
    part-time residential & non-residential employees
    small private allotment growers
    an educational cooperative, mostly offering opportunities to young people with learning difficulties or in trouble at school
    various people with some form of housing need to whom we’ve offered land space or accommodation
    paid apprentices
    profit-sharing workers
    campers and other short-term paying visitors

    My general advice is to err on the side of written down agreements rather than arrangements by informal chat, to err towards generosity to others but to value your own work and time in making agreements and in your work on the site, to assume that arrangements will be harder to make work than you think, especially with newcomers, to practice non-violent communication skills and voicing of issues, and to ignore bureaucracy as much as is prudent and possible. Perhaps I don’t need to add that I say all this in the light of the fact that I/we have failed to heed all of this advice to my/our cost in the past.

    • Abandoning a woman to raise a child alone probably isn’t a great evolutionary bet for a man, and is probably selected against, normally. But there are certain cultures of connivance with it. Maybe Clem might wish to chip in here with some evolutionary genetics?

      Abandoning a woman to raise a child alone can be the result of many different circumstances; some wilful, some not. Going off to fight to defend the homeland and being killed… or any other sort of premature death one can consider unintentional. Being a cad and walking away from responsibility is different matter.

      In the line of the unintentional abandonment there is also the difference in genetic potential – for example a genetic disorder causing a early demise. Where warfare or accidental death is a cause the evolutionary genetics (at least on the male line) shouldn’t be impacted. Where genetic matters are present of course there may follow evolutionary impacts.

      Where an otherwise healthy male walks away there may be both cultural and evolutionary consequences for himself and his offspring.

      Harems – not necessarily male abandonment, but certainly divergent in regard to male contribution to raising offspring – is another case that can be tracked both genealogically and with DNA to perhaps have a peek under the evolutionary coverlet.

      Something else mentioned here briefly (steve c I think) is foster parenting. Adoption also plays in this space – as does mixed family parenting. These forms of family life modify the genetic relationships such that some sort of ‘control’ in a study of evolutionary signals is also possible. Along this line there is a rich literature studying identical twins raised apart.

      As our overarching concern here at SFF is often inspected from a global perspective, the object of actually working within the confines of a an individual small farm will necessarily realign emphases. Think globally, act locally, if you will.

      So next:

      Watching this dynamic play out on my/our/this farm and in my reading of agrarian history convinces me that over-simple collectivist solutions that propose to overcome the problems of ownership by one/few with ownership by all/none are misplaced.

      Agreed. And while a “my/our/this” is certainly a clumsy construction (and not where I was wanting to go), there is the associated difficulty of changing perspectives (global to local) or emphasis (general to specific).

      • It just occurred to me – while not in line with male abandonment – there is another male attribute that could be examined sociologically and ecologically, and that is birth order. First born sons where inheritance favors them will have life resources later brothers will not [even without inheritance as a factor, first borns have advantages as they appear in the family with no sibs to share parental attention until the next offspring comes along].

        In societies where marriages are arranged there will be other impacts on evolutionary genetics.

        None of these variations would be simple to investigate, but when has complexity ever stood in the way of an ambitious graduate student?

        • From what history I remember it seems that first born take everything is a invention of the Norman conquest , Saxon law spread goods out amongst all siblings , male and female . So does European law .

          • from:

            In Scotland, certain types of property descended exclusively to the eldest son in the Scottish Lowlands even before the Norman conquest in 1066. (thus not a Norman invention)

            And this:
            There is also evidence that in Schleswig Holstein, leaving the estate to the eldest son and giving only monetary compensation to his siblings was the prevailing practice since around the year 100.

            This particular Wikipedia piece is relatively long, but if you’re into this sort of thing it is quite revealing.

            But none of this really dictates how things should be done in the future. Where these patterns of succession and inheritance matter to this conversation is how recipients of favor can have an advantage (financial or otherwise) which might in turn benefit their fertility and ultimately their relative ‘fitness’ [there is an unintended pun there… though the fitness of relatives is often a very salient matter]. I’ve no thought to how there might be some genetic element which can influence birth order – so these birth order effects would seem purely cultural (environmental). But using covariant analyses with demographic data could help tease apart such effects and still make DNA and evolutionary genetics worth pondering.

    • Hi Chris.

      I’m not really looking at it from a behavioural/biological or social angle really.

      As pointed out in The Dawn Of Everything, there are lots of options/variations the we humans adopt in terms of our social relations. I think that relations are more social constructs than biological pre-wired.

      But, there is an inherent “inequality” when it comes to procreation. It’s true that women can abandon unwanted children (and some do). But not until 9 months have passed. Men can “move on” straight from the point of conception. Women can not. Walking away from a child you have been carrying for 9 months is a different order of magnitude than (for a man) saying goodbye after a one night stand.

      Contraception has helped to level up the playing field and given women choices that just were not their 100 years ago.

      • It takes two to tango , accept in the case of rape , both are responsible for conception , yes women deal with the results but the word NO solves the problem , only sixty or so years ago sex was only entered into after the marriage vows were taken and a stable relationship entered , that mostly worked .

        • “only sixty or so years ago sex was only entered into after the marriage vows were taken and a stable relationship entered , that mostly worked .”

          True. Society came up with rules to try and rebalance the “inequality”.

          But what if you want to have sex before marriage?
          It’s a “freedom” that is so common now, that we take it for granted. But without the availability of contraception, the “social rules” will begin to creep in again.

          • With freedom comes responsibility.

            Also – taking things for granted is not a particularly sound (or responsible) policy.

          • @Clem.

            “taking things for granted is not a particularly sound (or responsible) policy”

            True, but I think we in the “West” are all guilty of that.

  15. On a slightly different topic, I read an interesting article recently, about the need for individuals in the UK to grow their own food. I’ve tried to set up a link to the article, but it keeps failing, so I’ve cut and pasted the relevent paragraph below.

    “having an allotment ought to be a public right, and we could see legislation go through parliament, which would enact upon parish, district and county councils, so that anyone wanting an allotment can get one in three months, rather than going onto a six year waiting list. This would necessitate a compulsory leasing (not compulsory purchasing), and it should be a public right to be given access to a piece of land to feed your family.”

    I like the idea. It’s a good first step to facilitating people to transitioning to a SFF.

    The plots could be increased in size over time, with people being allowed to build a small dwelling on their plot. There would be no inheritance, with plots being reallocated when the present occupier has “passed on”. Their is no issues with allotments being passed on to offspring as far as I am aware?

    • Allotments are indeed a good model for some of getting from where we are now to a small farm future. They are not really small farms, though: my allotment plots combined total less than a tenth of an acre, livestock are not allowed, and — crucially — allotments are very often (currently) located on land that is not suitable for housing, often because of flooding.

      • I liked the idea of allotments being a good first step for anyone who wants to give it a go.

        No. They aren’t small farms, but running a small farm without prior experience seems like a tall order to me. I would suggest that not many are ready to make that leap. But an allotment may be more manageable for some.

  16. Apologies for not responding to recent comments. A bit too much going on IRL. Perhaps I’ll come back to evolutionary genetics, harems and foster parenting on a future occasion.

    Just to say that I broadly agree freedom comes with responsibility, albeit with some caveats I hope to analyze soon. I also agree it takes two to tango. So I’d argue that if an unwanted pregnancy is irresponsible, the fault doesn’t lie only with the woman. Linking to John’s point, is it the inescapable biology of pregnancy and childbirth that historically has subordinated women in this respect, or does female subordination have other causes that manifest in control of sexuality, pregnancy etc.? Or a bit of both? Or neither?

    • I think that there are lots of “inequalities”.
      Inequalities of strength.
      Inequalities of intelligence.
      Inequalities in manual skills.
      Inequalities in using a bow and arrow.
      Inequalities in charisma.
      Inequalities in social intelligence.

      It’s how societies manage those inequalities that matter. Do we try and create “equality” and share out our abilities or do some people push home their advantage?

      I have only ever lived in a time/place (UK) where women are second class citizens. It hard to imagine a society that is truly egalitarian. The Dawn Of Everything showed that perhaps such societies have existed, but I’m not overly optimistic that in a SFF equality would prevail.

      I don’t want to bang on too much about women/men and babies but as a final thought.
      As a man, having children has ment that I have not gone through any major bodily changes. I watched my partner go through some pretty significant changes during pregnancy and beyond. To the point where she was basically unable to function without the aid of others. (I experienced sleepless nights at most. There isn’t any activity that I have done in my life that required me to be cared for for months, excluding accidents)

      For women, having the choice (freedom) to chose when/if they go through with all these changes is something that is critical to the “equality” of the sexes.
      Never mind the health risks associated with being pregnant.

      Choosing celibacy isn’t very liberating and having children can seriously get in the way of other plans.
      I just don’t see men having to make the same choices.

  17. Well playing devils advocate .
    Perhaps to say contraception has allowed the male to have his cake and eat it , no longer taking the chance that the partner gets pregnant with all that entails , fun without responsibility , a kind of misogyny .

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  19. Late to the party, but a few thoughts:

    1. I applaud and share your desire to promote and safeguard the dignity of women. As you rightly note, misogyny and sexism are always a possibility in any social order. However, I think that your conception of feminism is simply far too liberal, i.e., the idea that achieving female autonomy ought to be done by providing both genders the individual, atomized “rights” of an abstract ungendered “citizen.” Have you read Illich’s “Gender”? It’s an absolutely essential starting point on this topic. Your quote, “Father as distant patriarch and breadwinner, abroad in the public sphere outside the home. Mother as his subordinate and financial dependent, confined to a somewhat empty domesticity. Children to be inculcated with these virtues through patriarchal discipline. Much policing of boundaries, status aspiration and male sexual hypocrisy” sounds as if it comes from his book. You are entirely right to note that this is not the family in any traditional sense, but the “bourgeois family”. However, rather than merely reacting against the conservative, emaciated family unit of the 1950s, Illich points to the complementary gendered worlds of countless peasant societies that came before. Your proposal that “men are best connected through kinship to a caring household (so are women, but that seems to be easier to achieve), and households in turn are best connected to wider networks of social institutions,” is certainly affirmed in his analysis

    2. You seem to suggest that the “loose” sexual mores of our era are worth preserving, or at least not worth combatting, lest female purity become an object of obsessive tyrannizing. You also noted the story of the urbanized women in the slums being more likely to them be groped, molested, and raped. This points to an important divide in feminist discourses: is the goal of feminism to make women legally/socially equivalent to men or to protect women from systemic sexist violence? In my view, these injustices—physical and sexual abuse—should be at the center of any genuine feminism, and a serious attempt to curb these injustices requires communal policing of sexual morality, which ought to be equally, or even more severely, applied to men. Unsurprisingly, I’ll point to the natural law tradition as a good common ground for discussion of sexual mores: sex, procreation, and marriage may not be the same thing, but many, perhaps most, agrarian societies have recognized that they work best together.

    3. Just a small note on word choice: you made reference to “…all those livestock-herding Old Testament patriarchs…” It’s these men (and their wives), revered as Saints, that Christians like myself are primarily thinking of when we use the word “patriarchal,” which means something like “the rule of a loving father in analogy of God the Father”. It has a positive connotation! Of course, I’m familiar with the left/feminist usage of the same word to mean something like “systems of oppressing women”–while the reality of sexism/misogyny it refers to is very real, the insistence on the phrase is often a point of unnecessary division.

    • Thanks for that Sean. Despite coming from different intellectual and ethical backgrounds I think we agree on a lot, but some differences remain!

      I agree with you that the way individual rights are articulated in contemporary society is problematic, but I’m probably less troubled than you by liberalism and individual rights conceptions per se (though I do have some issues with them myself). This is a discussion I’d welcome having with you in more detail at some point, but probably not just yet!

      I remain reasonably open minded at the moment on normative/ethical questions about the structuring of kin, family and sexual relationships. I think I agree with you that they do need some structuring, and I can also see some merits in the argument typically institutionalised in traditional agrarian societies that sex, marriage and procreation work best together. However, I’m also open to a counter-argument along the lines of ‘works best for who?’ Maybe there’s a case for going directly to an emphasis on trust and honesty, rather than to the social institutions regarded as best for generally instantiating them. On the other hand, there may also be a case, as you imply, that in the long run qualities like trust and honesty do have to be embodied institutionally. To me, this is a tricky one.

      Regarding biblical patriarchs, it’s certainly not my wish to use needlessly divisive language. You’d know better than me, but I’d think of saints as figures who came a bit later in biblical and church history, and who were involved in good works for church and community, often suffering for it. The real crux of my argument is about whether pastoralist societies have affinities with masculine domination and ‘ownership’ of women and children. If you take a biblical story like that of Abraham, who sold his wife to another man in return for some livestock and nearly killed his son to honour his divine ‘father’, it’s not a great look to my eyes as a contemporary model for being a good husband and father. No doubt it’s possible to read the story metaphorically with more positive implications, but for me the suspicion lingers that this is a real representation of ideas about adult male dominance in an ancient pastoralist society. I wouldn’t seek to generalize it in religious terms to any take on Christianity or Judaism. What interests me more is whether it may be generalizable to certain kinds of pastoralism.

      • Generalizing about human pastoralism history from one source seems fraught.

        Kazakh life ways on on the Asian steppe following horses, Sami reindeer herders, Maasi cattle herders… all these and others can provide additional pastoralist cultures to explore gender relationships in.

        I wouldn’t seek to generalize it in religious terms to any take on Christianity or Judaism.

        And so long as we’re being respectful of religious groups we should add Islam to the list above – as Abraham (Ibrahim) was a patriarch in their story as well.

        • Some fair points there, although in my defence I wasn’t basing the arguments about pastoralists purely on Bible stories, but on the (now somewhat disfavoured) wider anthropology of pastoralism. I’m not, however, arguing that pastoralism as such is inherently patriarchal…

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