With an important election looming in the USA, let’s talk for a change about politics. But since this is primarily a farming blog, I thought I’d approach it obliquely from the agricultural angle of cereal breeding. It’s obvious when you think about it…
Actually, before we even get to the cereal breeding, we need to take a step back and talk about systems of classification. Because to make any sense of things, people inevitably need to divide up their perceptions of the world, grouping like things together. But our taxonomies can rarely if ever capture the complexity of existence perfectly. Anomalous cases, fuzzy boundaries and alternative reckonings abound.
One way these imperfections manifest is in the distinction between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Take two palaeontologists arguing over some fragments of fossil bone. Professor Lumper thinks the small differences between like bones aren’t enough to justify classifying them as belonging to different species, whereas Professor Splitter takes the opposite view. Their argument is potentially endless and irresolvable – unless there’s some agreed objective standard against which to judge their claims. In the case of evolutionary biology, that standard arguably exists in the possibility of tracing descent from a common ancestor, though that’s not going to help the professors resolve this particular dispute.
The advantage of lumping is that it enables us to see big picture stuff, the broader patterning in the world. But push it too far and it becomes overly simplistic, and ultimately vacuous – and the grounds for the lumping can usually be questioned. The advantage of splitting is that you can grasp the fine-grained detail of things. But push it too far and you get lost in pettifogging specifics that prevent an appreciation of deeper underlying patterns.
I’m a lumper by inclination, and I’ll illustrate it here with reference to my aforementioned themes of grain breeding and politics.
First, the grain breeding. I’ve written critically in the past about efforts to breed high-yielding perennial grain crops in temperate climates. I won’t get deep into the issues but, lumper that I am, I think temperate herbaceous food plants basically fall into two categories: high yielding and short lived, or low yielding and long lived. Responding to my critique of their perennial grain breeding work, the splitters at the Land Institute say that every plant has a unique life history, and using artificial selection techniques they’re confident they can develop crops that will be just as high yielding as our present annual cereal crops, but long lived – and therefore more easily managed and less environmentally destructive in their consequences. I think they’ll most likely turn out to be wrong, because there are hard ecological trade-offs (those objective standards, those deeper underlying patterns) that they’re ignoring, which will forever obstruct a low input, low impact, high output agriculture. But, as I argue in my book (A Small Farm Future, pp.110-4), it doesn’t really matter if they’re wrong. In fact, I think an agriculture of lower yielding perennial grains is positively advantageous. So not only do I think they’re wrong, I hope they’re wrong.
Hold that thought a minute while I turn to the second issue. A few years back as Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign started firing up, various commentators (including me) took to debating whether Trump was a fascist. John Michael Greer wrote around that time that the parallel was absurd:
“Fascism…is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist.”
This, of course, is a classic case of splitism, with an appeal to objective standards thrown into the mix in the idea of ‘looking up’ what fascism was. But for better or worse you can rarely close the book just by ‘looking up’ what something ‘is’ in human affairs, even though more scholarly thinkers than Greer have traversed similar ground. Dylan Riley, for example, has written a lengthy essay excavating with great erudition all the many reasons why early 21st century US politics is completely different from the early 20th century European politics that spawned fascism. He’s absolutely correct in every respect. But, meh, he’s a splitter … and Trump is still a fascist.
Actually, let me qualify that. In the light of those earlier discussions and what we’ve seen of Trump and his administration since, I’d say that Trump himself is not a fascist, or indeed in full possession of any structured political thought. But his administration and the wider Republican party seems largely to have become fascist, at least by the lights of this lumper definition supplied by Primo Levi, who knew a thing or two about the subject:
“Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many”1
I concede that the term ‘fascism’ is so widely attached to disparate positions – not least by right-wingers in relation to the left – that it’s in serious danger of succumbing to complete lumpist vacuity (like most political words, in fact). But I think the word, and Levi’s capacious definition, are worth retaining nonetheless to keep in mind the shadowed skeins of thought linking the fascisms of the early 20th century to the fascisms of the early 21st – the common ancestry, if you will.
And so we come to the impending 2020 US election. If Trump is re-elected, then I think I’ll have yet fewer compunctions than I did in 2016 in calling it a vote for fascism. I’ve seen more fully, as I hadn’t yet in 2016, the racism, the self-serving nostalgia, the forced silences, the buttressing of privilege and the naked will to power. In 2016 it was possible to write that liberals were just crying wolf. But it turns out that Trump is a wolf, if only perhaps a mangy outrider of a fiercer pack to come.
But enough has already been written about Trump and fascism. The more interesting question is whether if Biden is elected – as I fervently hope he is – a Democratic administration will also debouch ultimately into fascism. The point I’m making isn’t about the rights or wrongs of the political positions taken by any particular factions or individuals among the Democrats. Rather, it’s a doubt on my part that in a future of climate-induced dislocation, energy and material scarcity, disorderly economic contraction and polarized political mobilization, any regime trying to maintain power in a centralized nation-state, commiting itself to capitalist growth and seeking the assent of the governed will be able to avoid the trappings of fascism in Primo Levi’s sense.
So while perhaps I’m lumping too much here, I think it may prove useful to classify the politics we’re likely to see in the years to come in the ‘west’ or Global North into two kinds: fascist and non-fascist. Unless they change radically, the programmes of most of the mainstream parties currently will probably put them in the former camp (this certainly applies to the paler imitation of US politics going on here in Britain as the main parties increasingly resemble involuted theocracies obsessed with their own internal cosmologies rather than aspiring managers of an ever more unmanageable welfare capitalism).
The story of the non-fascist alternatives is yet to be written. But I don’t think it can be a story of centralized power, plentiful supplies of grain (perennial or otherwise) from breadbasket places like Kansas and cheap low-carbon energy oiling the wheels of locality-busting global commerce. In that sense it seems likely that the hard ecological trade-offs confronted by grain breeders and other architects of the energy supply will shape another hard trade-off that’s emerging in our politics. The story of trying to hold the existing political centre will be a story of fascism, Caesarism, bread and circuses. Whereas the non-fascist story will be one of trying to create livelihoods as convivially as possible, mostly from the local resources – human and non-human – to hand. The splitter in me thinks there could be many different kinds of convivial local society of this sort. The lumper in me thinks that almost all of them will be geared to the basic rhythms of the small mixed farm. And on that note, perhaps I’ll conclude with another line from Primo Levi: if not now, when?