Warriors and merchants

I’ve been trying to blog my way through the chapters of my book A Small Farm Future, but I’ve got a bit stuck of late somewhere in the middle of Part III. This was a hard part of the book to write, because I wanted to avoid construing effortless but improbable future utopias of my own devising. The opposite danger is writing an over-generalized account which, when all is said and done, doesn’t amount to saying much more than ‘blow me, this is all really complicated and there aren’t any ideal options’. This is of limited help to the reader, because they already know that.

I think my book errs towards the latter problem, which in my view is the lesser of the two evils for a book of its kind. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to write a more fully realized view of an agrarian localist future, but I think the proper literary form for that would be a novel. Any takers for a swerve into fiction from the Small Farm Future team? Meanwhile, I’ll try to say something in this and subsequent posts about the other chapters in Part III of the book. I’m not going to repeat in detail what’s already written in those chapters, so these posts risk compounding the problem of over-generalization through offering over-generalized summaries of over-generalized book chapters. Life can be tortuous.

In my original draft of the book, there were seven chapters in Part III. I’ve covered two of these already here (Chapters 12 and 13). Two didn’t make the final cut – one concerning welfare and social policy, the other concerning industry and economic production. I intend to address the first of these in a couple of forthcoming posts, while keeping the latter under wraps at least for the time being until I’ve had the chance to ponder it some more. That leaves three other outstanding chapters (outstanding in the sense that I haven’t yet covered them here. Others may judge whether they’re outstanding in any other sense). The first of these is Chapter 14 – Going to Market. In this post, I’m going to say a few words about this chapter.

My basic starting point is the view, long rehearsed on this blog, that it would be good if there were a lot more small-scale farmers oriented to producing food and fibre primarily for themselves and for their local communities. For this to happen, there would need to be access to no-cost or low-cost farmland and associated infrastructure. Candidates for this way of life in the past include any number of so-called ‘primitive’ societies of agriculturalists, the Russian peasantries of the late 19th century analyzed by Alexander Chayanov, and the mountaineers of 18th/19th century Appalachia analyzed by Steven Stoll among many others.

I doubt such Chayanovian societies are going to spring up any time soon in countries of the Global North such as the UK in the context of our emerging climate, energy and political crises, because there are going to be a lot of people chasing limited cultivable land (the opposite of the Chayanovian situation), and there will still be powerful, if declining, political centres like London with large, if declining, amounts of cash floating around. So the challenge as I see it is how to wrest a broadly Chayanovian situation out of these unpromising initial conditions.

The alternative to the ‘vacant’ land of the Chayanovian situation is non-vacant, i.e. controlled land. Who controls it? In an interesting article written some years ago1, the anthropologist Keith Hart argued that historically in the circum-Mediterranean world (and often beyond) it was a battle between these linked dualisms:

city – countryside

merchant – warrior (landlord)

property in money, from water-borne trade  –  property in land

…until, Hart says, “the Romans, in defeating Carthage, made their world safe for landlords for almost another two thousand years” (p.206).

The problem with this is that property in money from water-borne trade can quickly be parlayed into property in land, or in people, as became all too apparent post-1492 when the water-borne traders started building the global capitalist economy of today on the back of the Atlantic slave system.

A postcolonial dream emerged in the 20th century that urbanization and the globalization of trade would finally oust the rural landlord, the warrior, the controller of landed property. You still hear this dream bandied about today, but it seems to me any realistic belief in it died long before Hart was writing in the early 2000s. Which returns us to his dismal duality – warrior landlord or merchant landlord?

On balance, I prefer merchant landlord. This is because there’s a fluidity to money that makes it easier in principle for just about anybody to become a merchant landlord, whereas the rigidity of social status usually makes it hard to enter the ranks of warrior aristocracies. Also, on balance merchants are marginally less inclined towards acting as entrepreneurs of violence, although it’s a close-run thing – in Chapter 14, I track the intimate relationship between money and violence. Often, the worst violence occurs with the onset of monetization, but violence can get along just fine without money at all.

Anyway, in brief my aspiration is to make it so easy to become a merchant landlord that almost everyone can do it. This has three happy consequences. First, it becomes hard to be a landlord over anyone but yourself, thus finally defeating the landlordism that the Carthaginians so carelessly let slip by losing to the Romans all those years ago in Hart’s telling of the tale. Second, it becomes unnecessary to be a merchant, because you’re a landlord – of yourself – and therefore have the means to produce what you need. But for all that, your mercantile orientation means you’re probably not averse to a bit of trade, which is basically a good thing when it’s kept in check by your self-landlordism because it generates a small flow of specialized surplus and goods that makes the life of the self-reliant proprietor a little bit easier (Christopher Dyer makes this point nicely in his book about a rural Tudor merchant John Heritage – simultaneously merchant, farmer and commoner2). Third, the fluidity of money makes it easier for people who might otherwise be stymied by the rigidity of status to attain self-landlordly autonomy, such as women and minority groups.

As I see it, there are two main drawbacks to this model of widespread merchant self-landlordism. First, it’s quite likely that some people will build up assets over time while others will lose them, so there’s a high risk the system will revert to a more normal kind of landlordism, unless steps are taken to prevent it.

Second, while making monetary exchange the basis of the agrarian economy guards against certain bad outcomes, it courts others. Probably most important among them is the danger that the symbolic economy of money over-dominates the actual ecology that local land, air and water can sustain, not least through the linkage a monetary economy implies to an issuing authority that underwrites it and that may have its own ideas about how people ought to tend the landscape.

I don’t think there’s much to be done in the short term about centralized governments carrying on doing their thing as money-issuing authorities, and throwing their weight around in other ways. But in A Small Farm Future, I argue that some rural areas may enjoy a level of de facto semi-autonomy from these political centres. In that situation, actual money would be scarce locally and much economic activity would occur without it changing hands, but the monetary ambit of the centre would work as a kind of shadow economy conditioning local exchange. It would be interesting to flesh out how that might work.

Fleshing out how it might work would also involve wrestling with the other problem of merchant self-landlordism in time becoming just normal landlordism. It’s not hard to devise policies to prevent that, along the lines discussed in some of my recent posts such as death taxes, land value tax and so on. The real issue is whether the rural society I’m describing would structure itself politically in such a way as to make the implementation of such policies likely. To which the answer is, I think, possibly in some places – but more often not.

In places where it doesn’t shake out like that, the most likely alternative will probably be a version of Hart’s warrior landlordism. I suspect this will look less like the stereotype of the medieval warrior overlord, and more like the kind of urbanized imperial-authoritarian populism pioneered by the Romans and updated by various would-be demagogues of the present like Trump, Johnson, Modi and Putin – bread and circuses for the majority citizenry, demonization and expropriation for minorities and those outside the ambit of the state.

I doubt this kind of warrior landlordism will endure because I don’t think it will be able to mediate the contradictions it faces. It may also lack the means to reach into daily life as comprehensively as contemporary capitalist states. So I think there may still be further opportunities for merchant self-landlords to build more renewable and regenerative local economies within and against the structures of the warrior landlord state.

That, at any rate, is the big picture. In Chapter 14, I discuss some aspects of how this might work in terms of local economic action. As I’ve already said, the bigger issue is the politics, and we’ll get to that presently. Meanwhile, I’ll likely be offline for a few days now but I’ll engage with any comments on my return. Ciao.


1. Keith Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’. In Marianne Lien and Brigitte Nerlich (eds). The Politics of Food. Berg.

2. Christopher Dyer. 2012. A Country Merchant, 1495-1520. Oxford UP.

54 thoughts on “Warriors and merchants

  1. Hi Chris –

    Three times I tried sending you a message via your Contact form, but it failed to send each time. Could you please send me an email at jrivermartin at gmail dot com so I may have your email address? I have a small request for you.



  2. As for “utropian” novel, what is wrong with News from nowhere? I re-read it some months ago and found it still quite compelling. I believe neither I nor W Morris can’t understand why there would be only the merchant or warrior options, regardless if there is a shortage of land or not. Communal land ownership seems to have prevailed in many places in the world also in places with very limited land available (such as the Pacific). Communal land ownership has of course also some drawbacks, but in the balance I find that more interesting than a “pure” private ownership regardless if that is accomplished through violence or trade. With communal land “onwership” there can still be household tenure (by and large I am sympathetic to your view on households as a relevant functional unit), but the household can’t sell the land. Whether it should be inheritable or not is an open question. So, while the household can truck, barter and exchange that what it has produced, it can’t do that with the land, seeds and other common properties. I believe this fits well with your republican populism as well as it will be the political body of the community that makes the rules, which of course can differ according to ecological, economic and cultural conditions.

    • I have experienced the remnants of ancient land tenure in Micronesia and now live in Hawaii where I am fairly familiar with pre-contact history. Both these societies were straightforward warlord-landlord types.

      Both had one or more families assigned to small strips of land that allowed them to subsist, but those families were also required by the chiefly classes to produce food and other resources for the classes not directly involved in food production, mainly chiefs, priests and warriors. Here’s a brief description of the system in Hawaii. The Marshall Islands had a similar system.


      • Joe, I guess that is also a question of definition. In my view the fact that there is a ruling class is not really an indiction of warlordism how I understand it, even if the Hawaii situation you describe is coming closer to it.
        I see no inherent reason for why communal land ownership must be linked to feudal stuctures as little as it is doomed to develop into a market society?

        Clearly the risk is there, as with any other construct, that it will develop into an hierarchical society. But I believe the underlying principle of communal land ownership has more safegaurds against it than private land ownership.

        • I’m not against communal land ownership at all, just pointing out that your reference to traditional Pacific societies as an example was inappropriate.

          At first blush, communal land ownership seems to have a lot going for it: division of labor efficiencies, family support structures readily available, mutual defence benefits and land tenure that crosses generations easily.

          But except for communal ownership under the auspices of a religious order, my impression is that communal ownership generally fails due to a combination of free-rider and governance conflicts. And if communal land ownership has significant advantages, I wonder why there are so few examples from history, the great exception being corporate land ownership?

          The history of The Farm in Tenessee is instructive. The Farm started out as a commune, with all assets and income held in common and ended up as an intentional community with the land held by a corporate trust and each family responsible for their own income. During the transition a lot of the residents left.

          Creating somthing like The Farm from scratch would be very hard as it would mean going from a collection of adjacent but privately owned farms to combining land tenure in a corporate trust wherein use of the land is not inherited but governed by trustees. It would take a lot of brave landowners to do something like that.

          But I suspect that any collection of family-owned or family controlled small farms within a fairly small locale will eventually form a close-knit community, including something like a farm village, whether that was the intention or not. It even happens now to a limited degree even under the atomization of global capitalism. Under conditions of extreme localism, it’s almost certain to happen.

          In the future, communities of family farms will be one of the default systems, the other being some form of feudalism. I prefer to avoid feudalism, but even that is better than starving to death.

  3. Communal land secured by farmer-warriors?

    “Unable to make a living, and under the imminent threat of their lands either being grabbed by hacendados or expropriated by the Government, in 1910 farmers, workers and peasants came together to resist them in what was to become the Mexican Revolution. This social movement, spearheaded by farming and peasant leaders, such as Emiliano Zapata, who fought for the restitution of lands to their original owners, sought for democracy and social justice under the banners of “Land and Liberty” and “the land belongs to those who work it with their hands.” …The Mexican Revolution was the beginning of an extensive Land Reform that attempted to fulfill the land rights of peasants and indigenous people…”

    “The aim of the Agrarian Law was to enable land distribution through the conversion of haciendas into ejidos as a type of communal land… Therefore, an ejidatario was granted the rights to use the land but was not given legal ownership, because all ejido land was labeled as National goods. Robles stated that a typical ejido comprised 1822 hectares distributed among 104 ejidatarios. Normally, an ejido of this size would be divided in 134 plots of a maximum of 10 hectares each. The area for human settlements for ejidatarios and neighbors to live in had an average of 9.4 hectares per ejido [32].”

    “Formerly, in order to acquire ejidal rights, a candidate needed to have inhabited and been registered in the rural community. A community assembly supported by a technical committee evaluated each request to be recognized as an ejidatario. After three assemblies, each new ejidatario was granted circa 8.8 hectares, varying from one geographic location to the other, depending on the availability of fertile land.”

    “Warman’s [17] studies of the 20th century’s agrarian census observed that, throughout the 60 years of the Agrarian Reform history, 50% of Mexican territory was distributed to 3.5 million ejidatarios among more than 30,000 ejidos.”

    [From the Abstract:]
    “The ejido system, based on communal land in Mexico, was transformed to private ownership due to neoliberal trends in the 1990s… We found that privatization of ejidos fragmented and segregated the rural world for the construction of massive gated communities as an effect of a disturbing land tenure change that has occurred over the last 30 years.”

    Evolution and Collapse of Ejidos in Mexico—To What Extent Is Communal Land Used for Urban Development?
    Schumacher M, Durán-Díaz P, Kurjenoja AK, Gutiérrez-Juárez E, González-Rivas DA.
    Land. 2019; 8(10):146.

  4. I’m not sure I’ve completely grasped this one – perhaps the discussion in the comments will help.

    I’m confused – you seem to be advocating for ‘merchant landlords’ who will ideally not really be merchants or landlords. Also, given that Hart’s scheme works by claiming merchants and landlords as two sides of a dualism, I’m not sure it serves much purpose for what you’re arguing for – you’re essentially collapsing dualism by positing merchant landlords. Finally, the term ‘landlord’ is surely inappropriate if you’re advocating ‘self-landlordism’ – it’s not really what anyone understands by the term, which is surely far more useful as a label for the asymmetyrical relationship between those with assets and those deopendent on them.

    In short, you seem to be advocating for your own small farm future vision (which is compelling) using the terms of several other arguments that don’t seem to apply to what you’re advocating for!

    Regarding the downsides of monetary exchange, I think you understate the implications of ‘the linkage a monetary economy implies to an issuing authority that underwrites it’. The linkage is a fundamental quality of the existence and circulation of money – monetary sovereignty always implies power, and often copetition over power that is not resolved by money, but held in tension and thus reproduced by it. Moreover, it is not only the issuing authority ‘that may have its own ideas about how people ought to tend the landscape’ among other things, but others who are keen to play one authority against another – the place of ‘foreign’ exchange in monetary history is often key and goes back much further than the modern world of global trade and high finance.

    You present a fairly benign view of the effects of money here, which appears to valorise its use to overcome established hierarchies of landlordism. It certainly has been used this way, and may be useful as such in the future, but I fear the ‘monetary ambit of the centre’ working ‘as a kind of shadow economy conditioning local exchange’ would be more like the shadow of Mordor over Middle Earth!

    Finally, it’s good to see some advocates of communal land ownership in the comments. I have the impression that we’ve covered quite a lot of this kind of thing in the past here – I certainly can’t really add anything that I haven’t already said under other posts. But it does seem to be the debate that doesn’t go away, and I think it’s important that both sides are pretty much settled on the importance of small farms as the appropriate units of landscape management. Perhaps you need some kind of index post that draws links to these various discussion together, as your ongoing contribution to the Agrarian Question.

  5. The trick, I think, is finding a means of producing our basic needs (food, fibre, fuel) that is not so wedded to money as it is now.

    Refusing to feed someone because they don’t have enough money to pay for the “cost” of the food (as defined by a financialised market) *is* an act of violence. But this happens because those who grow and process and prepare and move the food are also in a situation where if their contribution to that work doesn’t bring in sufficient profit, they will also starve. So many people have no recourse to anything but systemic violence. I am reminded of this every Sunday when people come to the food bank and we give them food that was, overwhelmingly, produced in the financialised fossil fuel based industrial monocultures that are a large part of why they don’t have enough money in the first place. (The exception: whatever I can harvest from the Soup Garden that week. Sometimes I think it’s more symbolic than anything, sometimes I think at least some part of the hot meal is relatively nutrient-dense and fresh.)

    I don’t know how to fix this, but… I think a small farm future is part of it. I said the other day that some people talk about having “F you money” — the ability to walk away from a bad situation because they have the financial resources to support themselves until something better comes along — but increasingly I am thinking in terms of “F you potatoes”. It’s not just about the actual potatoes of course, it’s also skills and connections and solidarity. This autonomy-within-solidarity interconnectedness is more precarious in the context of my life so far than having a pile of cash would be; but I have a feeling this may not always be the case, and that my version (small though it is!) might be a more honest autonomy than that bought by cash.

    Anyway, today I’m going to harvest some nettles and attempt to make a friendship bracelet.

    • I think it’s a problem of values , someone shuffling paper is thought of more highly than the ones providing the food , making money from money pays well , making money from dirt does not , only in times of hardship do the roles reverse , we live in a crazy world where growing organic food is being seen as racist yet buying from the financialized corporate farming is not ,( the poor can’t afford your produce , you are racist ) at least that is what’s going on in parts of the US .
      Small mixed farms are the only answer for the future but the cost of that food means it will be comparatively expensive .

  6. Several interesting comments here (which should come as no surprise)…

    The term landlord is likely conjuring up many different visions among us. And in a sense it really should. There are millions of landlords; some are nasty and brutish, some very nice and helpful. A VERY common landlord here in the States is an elderly woman, the widow of a farmer. This female, if she is still capable of living independently, is likely quite knowledgeable about the land she rents out. She is likely to be very interested in the proper care of the land so that it provides for her and any heirs she and her late husband may have. If she is past being able to live independently then her financial needs (particularly if there is no familial support) will be most reliant on the rent from the farm. Either way, this type of landlord seldom appears as the Ebeneezer Scrooge type. In deed there is the risk that some shrewd potential tenant(s) might take advantage of her. [NB, tenants exist on a continuum from nasty and brutish to very nice and helpful as well].

    I myself have been both landlord and tenant. I’d like to imagine I’ve been a respectful participant on both sides of the fence. Oh, and not for nothing – I will admit I prefer the landlord side of the fence, as there is a comfort in the security of having some land and not being concerned that access might at some point be denied. Even with this consideration though, tenancy isn’t necessarily a lead to abject poverty.

    A risk often overlooked for a landlord is that a tenant might not treat the land with his/her own expectations.

    Anyway, I am most attracted to land tenure of an owner operator type. But there are so many circumstances where a very capable operator is not the same person as the very capable land owner. Some sort of mutually agreeable relationship can and should develop between two such positioned folk. It may result in a wonderful relationship… and it would still be a landlord and a tenant.

    • There are laws in the UK protecting th land from bad tenants, old laws stemming from pre reformation Catholic ownership thru the times of lord and lady ownership , they are very clear in how the tenant shall use the land , buildings ,fences and such .

    • There’s plenty of both dystopian and utopian fiction around, but I’d love to read something more in the middle; a sort of solarpunk-meets-cottagecore aesthetic perhaps?

      I am nowhere near a good enough writer to even start.

      • There is one book that I like written just after the last world war , it’s his history / growing up around Tewkesbury , born 1906 , he was the first real environmentalist , was part of the BBC ” brains trust ” programme in the late 1940’s most is about countryside and country pursuits , but his description of the self employed / small farmer / fruit growers / cottagers is educational , how England worked before the ” welfare state ” from his perspective . It’s called the Brenham trilogy or A portrait of Elmbury , by John Moore , it is available on Amazon .
        Plus any of the books by Fred Archer tho these are difficult to find .

  7. All the various ways people organize, and the likelihood of steering toward a specific future leaves my head spinning, but I can tell you about transactions here in Western Wisconsin.

    We ( my wife and I) live in an area not suited for large industrial scale agriculture, so there are a lot of small farms, typically run by folks of an alternative mindset from the mainstream. So we are slowly learning how to navigate barter, cooperative projects, gifting, and simply doing what good neighbors do for each other. I can tell you it’s complicated for a person having lived in the money denominated culture for so long prior to moving here, and the rules aren’t written anywhere!

    Much “commerce” occurs in the area that is not captured by tax authorities, economists, or GDP calculators, and it also goes toward growing and strengthening local networks much more than selling a bulk crop to the commodity market. Resilience is slowly growing here, and we hope to get fully conversant in this way of living, as the need to do so will only increase, in my opinion.

    • I had the same experience when I moved to Värmland, a county in Sweden, Nobody wanted to settle the accounts or complete businesses. It was utterly frustrating. But after som years I realised that this is how you build the community with cross-dependencies everybody owes somebody something…..

  8. Back online again with a rich harvest of comments to negotiate – thank you.

    To start in relation to a couple of Andrew’s points, I’m guilty as charged (this time!) that ‘merchant self-landlord’ isn’t a serious analytical category. Really, my intentions were a bit more playful, deriving partly from the difficulties of summarizing in a blog post an already highly summary argument in a whole chapter, as discussed at the beginning of the post. And also wanting to play around with Hart’s formulation.

    Nevertheless, the underlying issues are serious – and they do bear among other things on the ongoing land tenure discussions here that many of you have picked up on. My point of departure in the piece is that we don’t live in a world of our own making, but one that’s already been made for us by that long-term merchant-warrior relationship, so while as Gunnar rightly says there are more options than just being a merchant or a warrior (and I don’t have much quarrel with his outline of collective tenures as a matter of general principle), what I wanted to get at is how thoroughly current options have been conditioned by those roles.

    I’m also implicitly making the point that while there are numerous bad aspects of the world the merchants and warriors made, including monetization/financialization, it’s a mistake to assume we can just jump that ship into the placid waters of some clearly more benign, sociable and/or ‘natural’ non-monetary way of organizing affairs. In my opinion, one or two of the comments here risk making that mistake.

    Perhaps we’ve already debated enough on here in the past about communal tenure (good idea of Andrew’s to provide an index post … another job for me). Still, I’ve found some of the comments above quite clarifying, so I’d like to try to lay down some markers around this again – not least in relation to the interesting example of Mexico’s ejidos raised by Steve L.

    Often, it suits the politically powerful to destroy the collective land arrangements of the less powerful. I think we’re all agreed on that, but this is only one manifestation of collective land tenures and too often the analysis of these tenures begins and ends with it. As I think Joe correctly points out, highly collectivized land arrangements are often not a historical holdout from times predating the depredations of the powerful, but in fact a response to those depredations. Nor are they necessarily optimal from the point of view of those adopting them and again I think Joe is right that they raise numerous free rider and governance problems. Often they break down when those from ‘below’ have other options, as well as when those from ‘above’ try to break them. These breakdowns have various pros and cons for the different protagonists involved, but it’s important to be clear that (i) collective tenures can be a *response* to economic inequality (ii) can involve their own difficult dynamics of power (perhaps Kathryn’s engagements with her allotment association are illustrative?) (iii) can be ended or avoided by the less powerful, perhaps in favour of more private arrangements, for their own good reasons.

    Taking the case of Mexico, bear in mind that the revolution wasn’t ultimately won by the Zapatistas but by protagonists with a much greater commitment to centralized state authority and capitalist development, and the ejido system was introduced quite a bit later to placate ongoing demands for land reform, but on statist terms (land bestowed by the state at its own behest to the people) that many would-be ejiditarios explicitly rejected for this reason, and also in relation to complex local histories of conflict over land. Maybe a parallel would be when indigenous peoples refuse to sign treaties recognizing their sovereignty with nation-states, because they thereby effectively recognize the wider sovereignty of the nation-state. Also, the ejidos often followed or were more or less forced to follow cash-crop production at the behest of local powerbrokers, against the wishes of some of their members. So while it’s true that the ejidos were mostly terminated by neoliberal privatization in the 1990s with bad consequences for many poor Mexicans, there were also many prior attempts to assert private tenure against the ejidos *by* poor Mexicans.

    Which maybe underlines Clem’s point – not all landlords, tenants, owner-occupiers, privatizations or communalizations are the same. Although the pressure on collective tenures from above is a story that absolutely needs to be told, it bothers me that it gets almost all the press and we so rarely hear about the pressure on collective tenures from below, or indeed the pressure *of* collective tenures on those below. I think we risk making some big mistakes if we don’t redress the balance.

    Moving on, to Andrew’s point that I present a benign view of money, well that’s not really my intention and I don’t think a reading of Chapter 14 of my book would support that view. I do resist equations of the form ‘non-monetary economies good, monetary economies bad’, although – again, discussed in my book – the dangers of money accumulating quantitatively beyond social and ecological capacities to contain it is a big problem. Perhaps I need to come back to this whole issue of money in more detail again in the future. I don’t have any easy answers. I agree with Andrew’s nice point about the place of ‘foreign’ exchange – an issue that I think is increasingly pressing upon ordinary people within the creaking structures of the nation state…

    What I would say is that we need to try to develop renewable localized economies worldwide right now, and centralized-monetized states (and empires of foreign exchange) aren’t going to disappear while we try to do it, so if it’s really a Mordor situation (sorry I’ve never read/watched Lord of the Rings, so I’m improvising here) then we’re truly screwed. However, I do have some faith in people’s ability to innovate around the edges of the financialized state, and there are many historical examples of it – including Kathryn’s church and community work in London, the belly of the beast. Whether such things will prove enough is of course debatable. So is the extent to which they can avoid the kind of power dynamics and control of symbolic goods that attend the financialized state. But this still seems to me the best shot…

    Finally, talking of unread works of fiction – well, I’m looking for new writing challenges but you’re all being a bit coy about your appetite for ‘A Small Farm Future – the novel’. Meanwhile I totally endorse the need for a solarpunk/cottagecore fusion, and as part of my research for that project I’d welcome any of your cli-fi recommendations of a utopian, dystopian or somewhere in between character. I don’t read an awful lot of fiction, but I’ve recently read Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s ‘My Monticello’ and Rosa Rankin Gee’s ‘Dreamland’, both of which are at the heavily dystopian end of the spectrum. I’ve got Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry for the Future’ in the inbox. Any other tips?

    Regarding ‘News from Nowhere’ I read about a quarter of it, got distracted by other things and never went back. It didn’t really grab me, but perhaps I should give it another go. I have a lot of time for William Morris generally, although the rather servile status of women in his utopia – or at least in the bit I read – gave me pause. Then again, the dodgy racial and genetic hierarchies in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s women-only utopia of ‘Herland’ also gave me pause. On which note, I’ll take my leave with a literary competition: author, work and page reference please for this:

    “…when we look back at even the most far-sighted utopias of the past, the conventionalism of their assumptions about aspects of life that didn’t endure is often as striking as the paths they illuminate into a new future”.

    • Well, when I googled the quotation it took me right to the page in a book preview, but the page numbers weren’t in the preview. Then I went to get the book to find the page number, but couldn’t find it! I may have left it at my mother’s house in Portland. Anyway, I’m sure your other readers will provide the page number soon.

    • I have little problem with money, as long as we don’t make it the only way for people to meet their needs. My instinct is to say that that situation arises largely because of overfinancialisation (e.g. usury and other forms of rent-seeking), but I could be entirely wrong there. Maybe it arises whenever there are not sufficient checks on crapitalism.

      My focus on other ways to meet my needs is partly because, well, I’m a choral composer by training, and I really don’t have the patience or the stomach for the sort of networking and marketing required to make a career of that. (Not that I absolutely have to make a living just yet, thanks to my spouse’s much more market-friendly skills.) But it’s also out of the conviction that diversity is a resilient strategy, and further, in response to the observation that the quality of what I can grow far surpasses what I can buy — or at least, it does so enough of the time to seem worthwhile. It’s not that money is bad in and of itself. But it sure seems foolish to depend on the money I have coming in today being enough to buy my food (or my fuel, or my clothing and shelter) a year from now. Looking at how rent has gone up in London since I moved here, or how much energy prices are rising at the moment, does honestly make me think potatoes (symbolic or actual) are a good way to spread my risk. The 28 potato plants (plus a few volunteers I decided to allow to live) in the churchyard are doing the same thing for the soup kitchen; that’s one plant a week for seven months, which isn’t nearly enough to feed everyone, but it isn’t nothing, either. In practice, it probably means a potato-based dish some week when the pickings are slim from other sources.

      But a system where land ownership is the only way to be sure your basic needs will be met is also bad. So is a system where you are reliant on other people liking you enough to feed you if you can’t feed yourself for whatever reason (crop failure, getting kicked off your land, disability, drug addiction, whatever). I’m sure if I were in a situation where I had three acres and a cow (or whatever), I would be looking to make a little cash here and there to buy the things that don’t grow well here and put away a bit for a rainy day. (I also know what it’s like to not know if someone will be in the mood to feed me enough, though I don’t generally encounter that situation as an adult. Our food bank and soup kitchen guests do; it’s one of the reasons that we try to offer a very consistent and organised service, and also a reason our service is anonymous, non-referral, and not means-tested.) Of course, as perhaps I’ve just illustrated, having a money-based economy doesn’t mean nobody is reliant on the whims of others or on access to land to get their needs met. It happens all the time, to people who don’t have money. (Of course, to get money it helps if you’re likeable, and skilled, and have access to, say, a decent set of clothes for a job interview… sigh.)

      I like to think that shifting to having many more small farms and much more local production and consumption of food, fuel and fibre would not be the end of money; just that it wouldn’t so often be the largest deciding factor on whether we eat.

    • PS if you write a novel I will read it!

      The thing is, though, that the interesting bit to me isn’t so much what life might be like in a small farm future, as how the heck we get there from here. But “we” is a very large and diverse group of people. I’d enjoy a novel set in England, but I would also want to know about the rest of the world.

      So: maybe a bunch of parallel stories following different households in different places, and projecting forward? Maybe a musician who likes horticulture in a big city; a smallholder in Somerset; a farmer in the Midwestern US; a forester in Japan; a brother in a monastery in Palestine; a sculptor/carver in Iqaluit; a factory worker in Bangladesh; a nurse in Lagos; a soldier in Venezuela; a grandmother in Russia… you get the idea. It will be impossible to get it all right, but the thing about fiction is you don’t have to.

      I liked Ministry for the Future, but I liked your book better.

    • There is also the problem that of you write near-future fiction events sometimes overtake you… late in 2019, an acquaintance of mine finished a draft of a book about a pandemic respiratory virus.

  9. Must confess I was ignorant of what cli-fi stands for. Searched and found quite a list of possibilities. Most of those described lost me by the third or fourth sentence.

    But then I see Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

    Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy is set before and after a great plague kills most of humanity, but the Earth was in trouble well before that. Failure to halt climate change has created an out of control weather system where fierce storms and tornadoes are all to common. The coastlines are flooded, and there’s no seasons anymore: just one long, sticky, miserable summer. Those few who survived the plague scrounge for left-over faux foods (almost everything is soy-based) while dodging genetically modified creatures gone feral, like “wolvogs” and “pigoons”.

    Longer term readers of this blog may well guess they had me at “almost everything is soy-based”. And it is written by Atwood. On the flip side – they’ve suggested the Earth was in trouble. That the Earth even gives a fig one war or the other is too presumptuous. Our habitat may be in trouble, so let’s write about that.

    But once we have a feel of the genre, and the assignment becomes one of creating an SFF based fiction, would it be too crass to riff on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tails and set up a scenario such as a pilgrimage to some low lying island before it finally succumbs to the rising ocean surface? Passengers take turns telling stories… some dream of utopian futures, others tell tales of dystopian drama. Daring commenters here at SFF could pen their own contributions. Obviously mine would have to feature soy in some form or another.

    I hope offering this won’t earn me a ‘coy’ labeling…

    • I’ve read Oryx and Crake; it may be cli-fi but I don’t think it portrays a small farm future, not really.

      • I’ve not read it – so thanks for that. I really wasn’t expecting an SFF meme, more of an example of the genre – perhaps for style perspective. My thought is that an SFF portrayal should come from these hallowed halls.

  10. Regarding further comments:

    First, we have a clear competition winner – congratulations to Joe, not only for getting the right answer, but also for willingly feeding my writerly ego. I will consider an appropriate prize to bestow.

    Regarding a resources page and related thoughts, I appreciate that discussion. I’ve pondered from time to time the idea of producing a more ambitious online magazine and have even had the odd abortive discussion with others about it, but ultimately I think I prefer the freedom of a say-what-I-like-when-I-like blog. I’d be happy to have a resources page and post links others send me, probably mostly from established commenters to be sure I’m not being used as an advertising stooge.

    Saying that, though, makes me realize that there are parts of this website that I haven’t got around to updating for a loooong time, so I might struggle to find the time to for an enhanced version of this site. But following Clem’s line of thought, if people do have ideas for upgrading it – particularly if they can contribute time or even, bringing us right into the present topic, money – then I’m always open to suggestions.

    As per Kathryn’s comment, I think there are other forums that do a better job than I could on the purely technical aspects of gardening and farming. But I’m interested in people’s stories about how and why they produce what they do and how it fits into wider aspects of their lives and communities and the politics of trying to wrest a renewable society out of the present wreckage. Kathryn’s commentaries about her allotment, church and community are a case in point. So I’m open to ways of bringing such stories out. However, I don’t really see myself in a journalist, interviewer or podcaster role. Anyway, I’m always interested in these kinds of discussions.

    Thanks for the various book suggestions and discussions about fictional forms. I like Kathryn’s global suggestion and Clem’s Canterbury Tales update, though I’m not sure I have the skills to pull those off. I’d probably go more for a novelized prequel to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. Aspiring to be a kind of post-apocalyptic Thomas Hardy is challenge enough.

    Regarding the issues of money, tenure and capitalism raised in the post and comments, perhaps we can have another crack at this when we get into discussions around Part IV of the book.

    • Perhaps you could invite people to write some guest blog posts? I note here that you said you don’t see yourself in an interviewer role; but it strikes me that having the same three or four initial questions for everyone might help reduce the labour. So something that starts as a sort of conversation (possibly via e-mail) and then gets edited into a blog post might be good. I’m aware that my ramblings in the comments here on allotments and churches and community are often just that — ramblings, which sometimes veer a very long way off the path before getting anywhere, and sometimes peter out into vagueness.

  11. Thanks Chris, perhaps I shouldn’t have got too wrapped up in your approach to the warrior-merchant dualism – after all, in seeking to dissolve them both into the small farmer you’re doing good dialectical work!

    I’ll also gladly leave the money element for now if you intend to pick it up in a later post. I’m certainly supportive of the idea of people ‘innovating around the edges’. In that spirit, and as a further book suggestion, I’ve just finished reading Octavia Butler’s ‘Earthseed’ novels, ‘The Parable of the Sower’ and ‘The Parable of the Talents’. They are set in a dystopian future (late 2020s, early 2030s), but were written in the 90s, and are notable for having ‘predicted’ the election of a demagogic president with the slogan ‘make America great again’. I think they might be of interest here not because of any portrayal of a small farm future (although the protagonists do set up a small farming community at one point), but because much of it is about innovating a new way of life from the ground up in the midst of a global crisis. There’s much of interest as regards the role of both ‘family’ and more ad hoc communities, and the role of a kind of religious or spiritual dynamic in this is prominent, as is what we might now consider a kind of ecomodernist sense of destiny, although don’t let that put you off!

  12. Some form of exchange tokens will be needed in a SFF. Foreign trade has always taken place. An archeologist friend found a 3000 year old stone chip from an arrowhead that he identified as coming from what is now Kansas (600 miles from here).

    There were a couple local currencies when we were living in New England 30 years ago, Berkshire Bucks and one tied to the value of a cord of firewood in Vermont ( NH?). Now there is quite a list of Community Currencies in circulation. If they could figure out foreign exchange without a central authority 3000 years ago, we can do it again.

  13. And once more thanks for further comments –

    Greg makes a good further point about the need for a resources page here. But it all falls apart here: “…Chris or one of his minions…”. I do sometimes write things like “the staff here in the Small Farm Future office”, but I must clarify that this is no more than desperately sad psychological projection on my part. Still, if any aspiring minions are reading this, I’ll get the human resources department here at Small Farm Future to prioritise their application. Meanwhile, I remain open to suggestions as to how to make this site more useful. And remunerative.

    To Kathryn’s point, I’ve had the occasional guest post on here, though it’s not something I usually do. But it’s an interesting suggestion. Another one to ponder.

    By my count, there are now at least three people not closely related to me who have expressed interest in reading my great unwritten novel, which I suspect already puts it in the bestseller category compared to the average example of the genre. I’ll get to work on it immediately. Or maybe tomorrow.

    Thanks Gunnar for the Morris reference. How to interpret the political stances of past figures is always tricky. I’m not unsympathetic to him.

    And finally in relation to Gunnar and Steve’s points, and referencing Andrew on money, the examples of building open-ended obligation in small communities are interesting. A different example from a couple of generations back in my own family history – relatives who opened a shop in a working class community of which they were a part, just before the depression hit. Debts went unpaid, the shop had to close and the daughter of the shopkeeper recounts how for years afterwards they’d mutter bitterly how much so-and-so still owed them when they passed on the street. Brings to mind David Graeber’s point that shopkeepers in poor areas are usually from an ethnic minority group separate from the majority of customers, and without community loyalties to them – otherwise they’d soon be out of business. Which maybe brings us back to points about money and its corrosive effects? But I’m also thinking about the analyses of people like Steven Stoll, who points out that non-monetary local exchanges are often conditioned within the wider ambit of a monetary economy.

  14. It’s difficult to imagine what humanity’s future might look like based on historic precedents. We have a much higher human population now and we’ve degraded much of our environment by comparison. We rely on much more advanced technology and far fewer numbers of people are skilled in basic self-reliance. We also have a large number of sick or ill people. Over time we’ve weakened the human gene pool because medical and pharmaceutical advances kept people alive that would have died in childhood.
    How all these factors will play out as our global society begins to decline in complexity as a result of less concentrated portable forms of energy is difficult to even imagine. With regard to affordable land, why would we need to pay someone when laws are difficult to enforce? In the US there are over 90 million acres of industrial farmland planted with corn. I live in the Midwestern US agricultural land (Indiana) and there will be hundreds of thousands of acres in my state alone that will go untended once farmers lose the ability to plant them with corn or soybeans. The loss of GMO seeds, the high cost of fertilizer and petrochemicals, the bankruptcies when farmers can’t pay off loans, the lack of heavy equipment to plant, plow, and harvest crops…will quickly result in over growth of weeds and brush. Eighty-five percent of Americans have moved into large cities leaving tracts of agricultural land that may soon become ‘unprotected’ and available for squatting.
    With respect to money….we don’t need money to barter for the things we need and want as long as we have something to barter with. Humans tend to learn quickly when necessity arises. We may to recreate forms of social hierarchy from our memories (assuming we’ve studied history) but ultimately whatever works tends to be adopted.

    • Agree
      The problem is the time between farmers going bust and people turning up with a,shovel to grow their own stuff .

      • That will give wildlife time to repopulate, particularly white tailed deer in my region, providing food for those who hunt. The growth of brush and small trees will provide fuel for cooking fires. Coppicing trees, waddle and dab fencing, small livestock, vegetable gardens, and foraging may become a way of life for people who relocate to farmland that is re-wilding.There are many ways to imagine what our future holds; some are terrifying and some may be an improvement. We really don’t know what the future holds but having any skills that improve self sufficiency should be valuable.

        • Interesting that you pick white tailed deer to repopulate. I’m about 250 miles east of you and in a somewhat similar habitat. We’d be happy to share our white tail population – there are so many that CWD is getting worse here. I wonder how much interaction occurs between the Indiana and Ohio DNRs when setting bag limits for deer?

          What we seem short on are ground nesting fowl like pheasant and quail. Eagles are making a pretty good rebound, wild turnkeys and hawks holding there own (some would like more). Canada geese fit in with the white tails – way too many. Racoons, groundhogs, and muskrats holding their own quite nicely. Skunks and mink seem to be doing fine as well. Coyote numbers might be steady, but they seem to be getting bolder around urban areas – pets go missing.

          Foxes seem to be up right around us, and the rabbits and squirrels would likely vote for a small respite.

          Some of the wildlife recovery is due to better husbandry on the farmed land. Less dangerous pesticides, more cover crops, less tillage, more CRP lands… and yes, more can be done on these fronts. I’m also of a mind that our city cousins could benefit from spending some time in the country and seeing how things work up close and person like.

          • In Indiana property owners don’t need a permit to shoot deer on our property. We just provide notice that we’ve done so. I wonder if this doesn’t help keep the deer population under better control. We still have plenty of deer.
            Interestingly, in my home state of Minnesota land owner/hunters received a tax credit to plant grasses and cover crops on marginal lands that would provide food and habitat for game birds. The hunters also released young birds to jump start the re-population. It has been an incredibly successful program and the game birds are moving out of these areas and rebuilding across the state. And this has brought back wolves.

    • Jody, you write: “Over time we’ve weakened the human gene pool because medical and pharmaceutical advances kept people alive that would have died in childhood.”

      1) People don’t pass their genes on by simply being alive, they have to reproduce, too.

      2) Your description of changes to the gene pool from medical advances as “weakened” is uncomfortably close to eugenics. I believe it is also incorrect: in a changing world, we can’t entirely predict which weird genes, some of which cause acute disease, will turn out to be extremely useful for survival under future conditions (think of e.g. sickle cell disease and malaria). The assumption that reduced infant mortality somehow puts the human race at a disadvantage assumes that conditions are static.

      • I wasn’t thinking of eugenics, but I recall reading a paper that stuck with me. https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/05/01/evolution-says-youre-weaker-and-more-disease-prone-than-your-ancestors I also get a chuckle when my husband, who is very near sighted, will say that had he been born before eye glasses were invented he would have been food for some large predator.
        Humans have advanced in so many forms of technology that changes our ability to survive when natural selection, if still operative, would have selected for our removal. lt also seems to me that our diets, lifestyle, and exposure to toxins is making us more prone to illnesses.
        It just seems to me that once we stop using fossil energy and are forced to do more hard, physical labor there will be many people who simply are too unhealthy to keep up the work necessary to survive.

        • Oh, for sure there will be a lot of people whose bodies don’t cope well with having to do physical toil. Whether they will be more than those whose health will be improved by a more active and less industrial lifestyle is another question, of course; the disease burden of driving everywhere instead of walking, and of eating hyper processed food, is certainly significant.

          But people unable to quite manage on their own, and indeed people who are profoundly dependent on others for daily activities like eating, dressing, and toileting, have always existed. We can and should choose to look after one another as best we can, though. Our ancestors did, at least some of the time, or I wouldn’t have been able to inherit my nearsightedness.

          Additionally, even if some of the technology we currently use for medical care becomes unobtainable, we know so much more now! We know about botulism and we know much more about waterborne illness like cholera and airborne diseases like measles. We know a bit about about crop rotation, and the symptoms of and remedies for scurvy. Ceasing to use fossil fuels does not have to mean losing that knowledge.

          Of course, the ancient Romans had plumbing; I don’t know what their cholera rates were like. Corrective lenses also pre-date fossil fuels. So does vaccination. And figuring out about scurvy.

          None of this is to say that technology will save us. Even now, we all die sometime, and some of us die young despite the best care that modern medicine has to offer. Further, I agree that the transition away from fossil fuels is going to be rough. It already is rough for huge numbers of people, though. A good place to start might be asking how we can look after those who are already vulnerable.

  15. Since fiction and writing are topics dear to my heart, I’ll break out of my usual lurking for once and make a comment. You can also add me to the list of people who’d be happy to buy a copy of a SFF-based novel.

    When you asked for recommendations, the first book to come to mind for me was Will Bonsall’s Through the Eyes of a Stranger. I’ll admit I haven’t gotten around to it and have only read his non-fiction, which I liked a lot, but this sounds like the quintessential SFF-style novel. I think Wendell Berry has some rural-focused fiction along the same lines too?

    John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia would be another obvious candidate, even if it’s more urban-focused. It’s also more of a teaching tool and worldbuilding exercise than a “proper” novel IMO, but should still be interesting if you haven’t read it.

    On a related note, the whole “deindustrial” subgenre Greer helped kickstart should have some good reads too, even if it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of quality. Joel Caris’ magazine Into the Ruins ran for four years, now followed by Nathanel Bonnell’s New Maps magazine, and there’s also the various post oil anthologies edited by Greer.

    There’s also James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand series. I have some serious misgivings about many of his political stances, but from what I remember the first book was pretty decent, and it’s also heavily informed by a post-Peak Oil rural sensibility.

    The last one off the top of my head would be Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. That one’s more mainstream cli-fi dystopia, though.

    Most of these are US-focused, so it’d be interesting to see a story with a British perspective instead. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing something deindustrial myself, set in Norway, but I haven’t found an idea I’m happy with so far.

    If you do write it, I hope the worldbuilding elements won’t overshadow the characters and conflict too much. Again, that was an issue with Retrotopia, and it did affect my enjoyment of the story even if it was intentional.

    As always, thank you for all your work on the blog and your writing in general.

  16. Further fiction tips appreciated, thanks Kim. And thanks to Jody for a vision of a (re)wilded (mid)west. Not really convinced about the weakened gene pool point over the timeframes we’re talking, and the politics around that can get pretty dark, but I agree we’re ill prepared for the challenges to come. Seems like there’s plenty of room for homesteading the US mid/west, provided water and climate stay amenable – though with the likelihood of climate migrants arriving from points south, it might get more crowded. As David Graeber (again) argues, barter is a rare and dangerous form of economic exchange. I suspect people will find ways to reinvent money or credit, or else more ritualised forms of exchange.

    • An interesting research paper on genetics and disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7240856/ After completing the Human Genome Project, medicine has reached the point where doctors believe they can customize personal treatment for our illnesses. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are all related to genetics and provide the for-profit US medical establishment ample opportunity for profits.

    • “or else more ritualised forms of exchange”

      I gave someone a black raspberry plant last year and now nearly every time I see him he wants to give me a courgette or some rosemary or whatever else.

      I let the black raspberry go, rather badly, this year, and I will have a *lot* more plants to dig up from the back garden to make it into a garden rather than a bramble patch. A couple will go to the allotment to replace the ones that I transplanted last year right before a flood (they drowned). After that… well, the temptation to slot some of them in amongst the brambles in a local park is pretty strong, they are clearly vigorous.

  17. It might be of interest to people to know that Manda Scott is currently running a fiction writing course; Thrutopia https://thrutopia.life/
    I’ve been on the sessions and I’ve started a piece of writing about a sff! Theres even a SFF group in the forum section of the course 🙂 writing is quite time consuming g though. Definitely a winter pastime Haha. It has been interesting to map someone’s journey out of the military industrial complex. Theres a flipping back and forth between our real life and the fictional life I’m imagining.

    This is the working doc if anyone wants something to read. I think you can comment on the doc too.

    Right a novel Chris! I was thinking to try and serialise on patron to fund the writing- I don’t have the platform but you probably do Sir Smaje!

    • I don’t have the platform or the spelling apparently lol.
      Write that novel. Its the right thing to do. :-))

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Alice. And for the links – I’ll take a look. Not sure how much of a platform I have for a novel, but I guess sometimes you’ve just gotta write what you write, huh?

      • Absolutely. Just go for it. It’s the party at the end of late stage capitalism, all bets are off, no need to hold back any longer. Right the novel, do the expressive dance, tell everyone you love them. Etc etc

  18. Have you read Will Bonsall’s novel, Through the Eyes of a Stranger? He has spent lots of time imagining a low energy future and how it might look. I really enjoyed visiting his future land of Esperia. I’m not sure if he takes our human flaws seriously enough, though.

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