To find my resting place

So many lines of enquiry left open from recent posts, and so many other things calling me away from my true vocation, which (obviously) is churning out these blog posts… Ah well, patience, patience – we’ll come to them all in the end, I hope. It’s like good old-fashioned British public services – it’s free, so you’ll just have to wait in line and accept what you’re given…

…which on this occasion is a somewhat unfinished post that’s been sitting in the pending tray for quite some time. But I’m going to publish it now in its naked state so I can polish off some other jobs – and if you read it, at least you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like down in the Small Farm Future engine room. The post follows on quite naturally from the last – indeed, perhaps I risk the accusation that I’m over-labouring the same point, even down to picking over the same article by Paul Kingsnorth. If so, apologies in advance – we’ll move on to something different next time.

My broad theme is nationalism, identity, immigration and the places we call home (the title, incidentally, is from a Burning Spear song that I used to listen to a lot. It seems vaguely relevant).

I thought I’d start with a brief bit of my own (migrant) family history by telling the tales of my four grandparents, which I hope will help me illustrate a few points.

My mother’s father was a Yorkshire coalminer who fought in the trenches in World War I, and despite these two risky enterprises lived to a ripe old age. His grandfather had migrated to the South Yorkshire coalfields from Aberdeenshire. His grandfather’s grandfather, born in 1799, ran a smallholding in that part of Scotland and so far as I know was my last direct ancestor whose work life was devoted to farming.

My mother’s mother was the daughter of a Yorkshire miner, some of whose family had migrated there from the coalfields of South Wales. He was killed in a pit explosion along with most of the other men on his shift not long after she was born, and in those pre-welfare state days her mother struggled mightily to raise her four children alone, along with many of the other women of the village widowed by the mine. My grandmother said that if it hadn’t been for the help of the Salvation Army she fears her family would have been destitute.

My father’s father moved from factory work in northwest England to London, where he eventually became a teacher and lay Baptist preacher. Some of his ancestors were East European Jews who had moved to the Netherlands, taken citizenship there (the Netherlands being the first European country to grant citizenship to Jews in 1819) and then migrated to Britain, changing their surname from Smaaje-Halevi to Smaje in the charmingly naïve belief that English speakers would find ‘Smaje’ any easier to pronounce. I think the Judaism pretty much disappeared with the migration and the name change. One of the Smajes married a woman from Somerset, where I now live.

My father’s mother was born to Protestants in Northern Ireland (whose ancestors were no doubt of Scottish or English origin), moving to London after marrying my grandfather. My father grew up in London and my mother met him there after moving from Yorkshire to work in London. When my brother and I were born my parents moved out of London to somewhere they could afford a house, and I grew up in a semi-rural village about thirty miles outside London. After some years of living in London myself, I now live in northeast Somerset, about a hundred miles from where I grew up.

There are five points I’d like to make by way of – I hope not unreasonable – generalisation from that potted family history.

First, I reckon my pedigree as a true blue southern Englishman is probably about as good as most other people of my tribe – which is to say, not very good at all.

Second, in England (and Scotland) probably more than most countries it’s a pretty long time since many people have been working rural land. For those of us who seek a small farm future here, we will not find its workforce by looking among the current stock of farming folk.

Third, as my grandmother’s mother found out, living in a small village among known neighbours doesn’t necessarily make the vicissitudes of life easy to negotiate. The kindness of strangers – in this case, the Salvation Army – can be a boon.

Fourth, people tend to move to where there are opportunities for work. The potential paths are many, but the ones my forebears took are scarcely surprising – from East Europe to the Netherlands, and Britain. From Scotland and Wales to England. From Yorkshire to London. From periphery to core, as historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein likes to put it.

And finally, even though I’ve spent almost all my life living in southern England there isn’t a single patch of earth in this whole wide world where somebody doesn’t have a better claim than me to truly be a local. Maybe that applies to my daughter too, who was born here in Frome. My guess is that it probably applies to the majority of the world’s people.

Seeking what he calls a benevolent green nationalism, in a recent article Paul Kingsnorth had this to say:

“It must be 20 years since I read the autobiography of the late travel writer Norman Lewis, The World, The World, but the last sentence stays with me. Wandering the hills of India, Lewis is asked by a puzzled local why he spends his life travelling instead of staying at home. What is he looking for? “I am looking for the people who have always been there,” replies Lewis, “and belong to the places where they live. The others I do not wish to see.”

That sentence has stayed with me too, because it makes Lewis sound like a total arse – partly because if you spend all your time travelling in search of the authentically rooted it seems to me that you’re kind of missing the point, and partly because of the alt-modern sensibility underlying Lewis’s contempt for the unrooted people – the global majority, wandering mongrels like me and my ancestors, the herd, the untermensch, the plastic people, the unreal people, rootless cosmopolitans. These are some of the names I’ve heard.

We sorely need in the world today some stronger ways of relating people more authentically to place, but for me any doctrine that “does not wish to see” the unemplaced multitudes is a non-starter, and a potentially dangerous one at that. One of the dangers is that after a couple of centuries of state-nationalist propaganda, we’ve become far too ready to connect a love of place or the comforting rhythms of the local to the designs of our emphatically non-local polities.

For example, when asked why he’d volunteered to fight in World War I, the writer Edward Thomas famously scooped up a handful of English soil and said “Literally, for this”. I’d be more sympathetic if he’d said “Figuratively, for this” and then provided some kind of rationale that linked his affinity for the decayed humic residues of the various organisms he was holding in his hand – whose distribution in few cases is limited to England alone – with the machinations of the British imperial government in its contest with Austria-Hungary and other jostling political powers of the world system. But no, the trick of nationalism is to leave such things unsaid, inciting our minds to make strange connections between the local things and people we love and abstract entities like England, empire or state.

Unlike Thomas, my grandfather wasn’t a poet or an author. He was a soldier, a miner and a gardener who rented his allotment and his house. Apparently, he never spoke about the war. I wonder if he would have endorsed Thomas’s sentiments – I believe that many enlisted men did. Or would he have endorsed this alternatively earthy metaphor from the Ed Pickford/Dick Gaughan Worker’s Song:

But when the sky darkens and the prospect is war/ Who’s given a gun and then pushed to the fore / And expected to die for the land of our birth / When we’ve never owned one handful of earth?


Humans are an inherently migratory, patch-disturbing, neophilic species. It’s a fair bet that even among the people “who have always been there”, most of them haven’t been there for all that long, and have lived as they do now for less time still. As discussed on this site recently, even the individuals who are most genetically remote from each other on earth share a common ancestor who lived no more than a few thousand years ago. We’re also an inherently self-conscious species. One of the best reasons I can think of for the need for us to relate more authentically to our local places is that if we don’t there’s a fair chance we’ll soon be screwed, so it makes sense for us to reckon with that fact and act accordingly…

…And one of the best ways to relate more authentically to our local places is to produce our livelihoods from them with a minimum of exotic energy imports. My feeling is that people who are able, self-consciously, to do this are more likely to have a rich sense of emplacement and inherent self-worth that’s uncomplicated by local pride, still less by any kind of “my country, right or wrong” abstract nationalism. Where they live is special and is also nothing special. Exotic people, the foreign-born, are welcome to find a place alongside the local-born if they’re playing the same livelihood game. Perhaps more than welcome – they may bring some new knowledges. As Joe Clarkson observed on this site a while back, trustworthiness in such a society is something that can be earned on the basis of being a provider of food or other materials. Little else really matters.

The state, the political centre, has both nothing and everything to do with this. It has nothing to do with it inasmuch as it has no call on people’s emotional attachments to the places that they live, and to the people that live there. If you wouldn’t lay down your life for an abstraction like the EU, why would you lay it down for an abstraction like England? For your family, for your farm, for your ‘community’…well…

It has everything to do with the state inasmuch as, absenting total civilizational breakdown, the kind of locality society I’m describing can only be delivered by a state that’s centralised at some level and is constituted as the servant of such a society, rather than one that constitutes itself as its master, drawing local legitimacy upwards to its own purposes. Fat chance of that, you might say, and I’d have to concede the scale of the task. But at least it specifies where the work has to be done and the nature of what’s involved. In the wake of Trump and Brexit, I’ve seen too many liberals and leftists rapidly backtracking on their former commitments to multiculturalism, multinationalism, multilateralism, cosmopolitanism and other such standard fare of the left in the hope they can keep the wolves at bay by throwing them some tasty sacrificial morsels from their new-found communitarianism. I think it’s the wrong strategy. The shifting norms won’t keep the wolves at bay, but merely encourage them.

Many nomadic foraging cultures have learned from bitter experience that individual egos need to be kept in check for the greater good of the band as a whole. So a hunter returning to camp never brags about his kill for fear of social reprisal. “Terrible hunting today,” he might say, “Just couldn’t seem to aim straight. All I got was a couple of stringy morsels I’ve left by the fire.” Whereupon the rest of the group rushes to the fire, knowing they’re in for a huge feast. For the hunter’s meat, I’d submit our modern nations. Don’t heft your soil in your hand and use it as a metonym for England. Heft it and say instead well this soil is poor stuff – worse, I’m sure, than the fine soils of your country – but it’s the soil I know best. Maybe there’ll come a time when you’ll feel you have to fight for that poor soil of home. But if that happens, I think you’ll be able to narrate a better logic for your fight than Edward Thomas could for his. Soil is no excuse to go looking for a fight.

I suspect that the imaginary attachment between soil and nation-state affected by the likes of Thomas comes more readily to us modern arrivistes, the people that Norman Lewis does not wish to see. People generally seek emotional attachment to something bigger than their own horizons, and over the last couple of centuries a lot of work has been put into making the nation-state seem the obvious choice to people living sub/urban lives where the groundedness of a productive soil or a known community is missing. It’s possible to overstate this case. Local farming isn’t the only way to have an authentic relationship with the universe, local farmers aren’t necessarily immune from the siren song of nationalism, and not everyone who lives in the city mourns its implicit alienation.

Still, I think there’s a stronger truth to it than will be found rummaging around in the wardrobe of the nation-state to find some benevolent green nationalist clothing. Nationalism is too self-consciously constructed and too wrapped up in the legitimation of centralised political power to proffer benevolence. It’s better to serve the soil and its organisms than it is to serve “this sceptred isle…this England” (interesting that Shakespeare should have put those words into John of Gaunt’s mouth in a play about a changing world where medieval honour is usurped by scheming and statecraft). There are numerous ways to serve the soil that have no connection with political power, and that are available to everyone, whether they’ve “always been there” or not. In fact, if you haven’t “always been there” probably the major way you can start belonging to the place where you live is to start serving its soil. Most likely, that’s how the people who’ve always been there pulled it off when they first arrived.

“How long have you been here?” is a question freighted with well-known political dangers that we seem to be courting once again in the contemporary world. In a local farm society “Would you like to join us for lunch?” is a safer (if not entirely innocent) way of playing status games. But what I’ve said here operates mostly at the level of individuals and communities. I see no role for nationalism, benevolent green or otherwise among them. But I haven’t said anything about immigration and the larger interactions of states and civilisations. Ah well, there’s always the next post. Or more likely one of the ones after that.

Nitrogen wars

In a change to my published programme, I thought I’d engage with a couple of posts on nitrogen recently emerging from the Breakthrough Institute. In fact the issue is quite relevant to my last post, and to the next scheduled one. For more on the regenerative agriculture issue I’ve recently discussed, I’m following the debate over Andy McGuire’s recent blog post with interest. Meanwhile, for more on ecomodernism of the Breakthrough Institute variety, Aaron Vansintjan has just published this nice little critique. Doubtless we’ll take a spin around both these issues here at SFF again in the future.

Anyway, having directed some scepticism of late towards various aspects of the alternative farming movement that I consider myself to be a part of, perhaps it’s time I twisted the other way.  So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.

To begin, let me say that I’m not implacably opposed to the use of synthetic fertiliser in every situation, and I don’t think that a 100% organic agriculture globally is necessarily desirable or perhaps currently feasible. However, I think the narrative presented in the two BI posts is misleading. As is often the case, the sticking points lie not so much in what the posts say as in what they don’t say. I know Christmas is a long way off, but I’m going to lay this out in terms of the ghost of nitrogen past, the ghost of nitrogen present and the ghost of nitrogen future.

The ghost of nitrogen past

Marc Brazeau’s piece reminds us that, prior to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at the start of the 20th century, countries went to war to secure nitrogen for their farmers. He focuses on the international conflicts of the 19th century over the guano islands off South America, with their vast concentrations of richly nitrogenous seabird faeces.

It’s a nice piece in its own terms, but there’s a bigger historical story it omits. Brazeau broaches it, but doesn’t develop it, in this passage,

“The full lower 48 [US states, in the 1850s] was available for cultivation, and yet soil fertility was already a challenge. US agriculture is currently tasked with feeding 325 million citizens while exporting $150 billion worth of food. But in the 1850s, with just 25 million citizens to feed and hundreds of millions of acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, on farms where manure-producing cattle, hogs, and poultry were well-integrated with crop production, US presidents were promising to get tough on guano prices and US business interests were verging on war in the Caribbean over fertilizer.”

For their part, B&B note that:

“During the 19th century, the populations of the United States and Europe were growing at an unprecedented pace — the U.S. population increased tenfold and Britain’s more than tripled…To raise farm productivity, these imperial powers started to import nitrogen-rich guano.”

What’s going on here? Well, the key surely lies in B&B’s phrase “these imperial powers” and in the spectacular US population increase, which wasn’t just a baby boom. In 1803, after defeat in Haiti, Napoleon gave up on his ambitions for an American empire and sold a fair old whack of that lower 48 to the US (another large tranche was subtracted from Mexico in 1848). The US spent much of the succeeding century progressively divesting the original inhabitants of their access to it and during that process, multitudes of European-origin settlers moved in – witting or unwitting foot soldiers of their government’s imperial ambitions. As historian Geoff Cunfer puts it, these pioneers “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”1, because of their intimate connection to the global imperial nexus via their own government’s global ambitions.

Meanwhile in Europe, after Napoleon’s defeat Britain emerged as the dominant imperial and industrial power of the 19th century. With the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, cheap grain from North America (and, increasingly, other places with continental grasslands whose original inhabitants were also violently displaced in favour of export-oriented grain agriculture such as Australia and Central Asia) started flooding into industrialising Britain. The British agricultural workforce dwindled, and the British farmers who managed to survive the resulting agricultural crisis started favouring higher value, non-staple crops2.

All of which is to suggest that the search for cheap nitrogen in countries like Germany, the USA and Britain from the 19th century wasn’t just some inherent truth about the nature of farming and population increase, as the casual reader might surmise from the BI posts. Rather, it was the product of aggressively expansionist imperial-industrial ambitions, fuelled by fears among industrialising powers that lack of food autonomy made them vulnerable to enemies. If that point needs underscoring, perhaps Haber’s other main claim to chemical fame as the overseer of Germany’s successful chemical weapons programme during World War I might help to dramatize it.

Brazeau implicitly accepts this imperialist-expansionist aspect to the politics of agricultural nitrogen, but turns it into a world-historical truism:

“the Roman Empire was largely defined by imperial expansion, in search of fresh sources of nitrogen. They found it in the form of soil which had not yet been exhausted. The whole Mediterranean basin became tasked with feeding the city-state at the heart of the empire. All this is to say that this is not an industrial agriculture problem; clearly, it’s been a central obstacle of civilization for thousands of years. If the problem of nitrogen scarcity could be solved by cover crops and manure, it would have been solved long ago.”

But I think the direction of causality is wrong here, and so is the conclusion. Imperial expansionism sometimes involves a search for cheaper farm inputs, but the search for cheaper farm inputs is not usually the cause of imperial expansionism. And for a long time, in many parts of the world whose polities were not expanding aggressively, the problem of nitrogen scarcity was solved perfectly well by cover crops and manure.

The ghost of nitrogen present

But that was then and this is now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, the fact is there are now 7.6 billion of us living on an ecologically fragile planet who somehow need to eat. The case set out by B&B in favour of synthetic fertiliser and against organic methods is, as they confess, the well-worn one that the lower average yields and higher average land-take of organic farming militates against it as a sustainable solution for contemporary food production.

Again, what strikes me about this argument is the things that aren’t said – four things in particular.

Thing #1. The idea that, as much as possible, we should aim to use less rather than more land for human crops surely commands wide agreement. So suppose you come to the issue afresh and take a look at global agricultural land use. You’d find that by far the largest proportion of the food that people eat is grown on arable land, which constitutes 29% of all agricultural land globally. You’d also find that about a third of this arable land was used to grow livestock fodder. You’d find that a small proportion of food comes from permanent crops, occupying 3% of all agricultural land. You’d find that the remaining 67% of farmland comprises permanent grassland, which produces a very small proportion of the food eaten globally in the form of meat – possibly no more than about 4%3. And you’d find that just over 1% of all this agricultural area was devoted to (formally) organic farming. If you did this, I think you’d probably conclude that the easiest way to reduce the global agricultural land take would be to reduce the amount of permanent pasture, followed by the amount of arable cropland devoted to livestock fodder, in view of the trophic inefficiencies involved. You might also wonder why B&B don’t mention this at all, and why they’re so exercised about the putative inefficiencies of the minuscule organic farming sector rather than the inefficiencies of the enormous livestock sector4.

Thing #2: Another idea that seems to command wide agreement is that it’s good to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ with nitrogen fertiliser, as with many other things. Fertiliser has major upstream (energy) costs and downstream (pollution) costs, so using as little as possible surely makes sense. In their post, B&B go through various options for improving crop fertilisation through such things as better management of cover crops, manure and food waste. They don’t give an overall figure for how much synthetic fertiliser could be saved, but totting up their numbers it looks to me like it might be as much as 80% – though maybe I’ve got that wrong. Even if it’s much less, that’s surely a good place to start for improving agricultural efficiency, rather than targeting organic farming. If the answer to the question ‘how much land should we use for agriculture?’ is ‘as little as possible’, the answer to the question ‘how much organic farming should there be?’ is surely ‘as much as possible’. We live in a world of awkward trade-offs.

Thing #3: labour is a missing variable in the BI posts, but it’s lurking in their shadows. B&B state that traditionally farmers reserved between 25-50% of their land for (not directly edible) N-fixing legumes. These figures seem to trace back to Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book Enriching the Earth5. Smil states therein that traditional Chinese agriculture never devoted more than 10% of cropland to green manures, while in parts of England the corresponding figure was 13% up to 1740 and 27% by 1836. In his definitive contemporary guide to organic farming Nicholas Lampkin argues for a minimum ley of 35%6. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation? Probably a number of things (including yield increase), but I suspect one of them is declining labour availability and increasing mechanisation. In contexts of low food insecurity, low labour availability and high mechanisation, it’s just easier for organic farmers to build fertility with long leys. But there are other options – as in labour-intensive Chinese or historical European agriculture, with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients. Personally, I think more labour-intensive and local agricultures are the right way for agriculture to develop. I accept that other people may disagree. I don’t accept that current levels or trends in agricultural labour inputs should be assumed to be inherently the right ones.

Thing #4:  B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”. But hold on – that’s only true if you assume that farms themselves aren’t wildlife habitats, that wildlife is indifferent to the habitats afforded by organic and conventional farms, that the possibilities for wildlife to move between habitats across farmland is unaffected by farming styles, that increased production or per hectare yields is always desirable, that ‘other purposes’ are more important than organic farming…and many other things besides. All of these points are at least debatable. I keep going back to this excellent brief critique of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument by ecologist Joern Fischer, which to my mind effectively skewers the misplaced certainties of B&B’s one liner. As Fischer’s analysis suggests, while producing as much crop as possible from as small an area as possible using synthetic fertiliser certainly can be an appropriate goal in some situations, it’s an oversimplification to imply that the greater land-take of organic farming inherently limits its claims to environmental benefit7.

The ghost of nitrogen future

What would a future world that dispensed with synthetic fertiliser look like? Scarily profligate, according to B&B. They write: “Since synthetic fertilizer provides nearly 60% of current nitrogen for producing crops, eliminating it without making any other changes would require far more farmland to fix enough nitrogen to maintain production….The world would need to more than double the amount of cropland.”

The italicisation is B&B’s, not mine. Note its nervousness. Isn’t it a little bizarre to assume there would be an international drive so radical as to make global agriculture entirely organic but without making any other changes? In truth, ‘without making any other changes’ seems to be the leitmotif of the Breakthrough Institute’s entire programme, which amounts to the view that people in rich countries can carry on living as they do, people in poor countries will soon be able to live in the same way, and with a bit of high-tech magic it can all be achieved while lessening humanity’s overall environmental impact.

Well, it’s a view – a fanciful one in my opinion, and not one that I’d like to see manifested even if it were possible. But I’d note that it is just a view – one of many different visions about what a good life and a good future might entail. Trying to realise it is a choice that’s open to us. Other choices are also available. What I dislike about the BI posts is the way they implicitly lead the reader to conclude that a synthetic nitrogen future is inevitable and scientifically foreordained, rather than a choice we can make – one with consequences for better and worse, as with all choices.

The alternatives? Well, if we want to talk about inefficient agricultures, the vastly inefficient production of meat (disproportionately consumed by the world’s richer people) is an obvious place to start. I’m not a vegan and I think there’s a place for livestock on the farm and a place for permanent pasture in global landscapes – indeed, I’ve argued the case for it strongly in the past. But the scale of the global livestock industry doesn’t have to be taken as a given. As Fischer suggests, it isn’t incumbent upon humanity to meet every economic demand that arises. After all, the UN has a special rapporteur on the human right to food – it doesn’t have one on the human right to meat. Of course, it’s not fair that only the rich should get easy access to meat. There are various ways to proceed from that point: maintaining or increasing meat production levels is only one of them.

Smaller-scale, more labour-intensive agricultures geared to better nutrient cycling would be another alternative starting place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments here about depeasantisation, urbanisation and livelihoods, not to mention carbon and energy futures, but a large commercial farm that uses synthetic nitrogen and other relatively expensive inputs isn’t intrinsically better than a smallholding that doesn’t. I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit. If the US reined in some of that $150 billionsworth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda), less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide, and could bring many benefits. Moving towards less aggressively expansionist economic ideologies in general certainly seems worth pondering as a route for humanity’s future. You might take a different view – but it would be good if we could at least agree that we’re talking about different views, not the inescapable truths that the BI posts seem to suggest.

Just to crank a few numbers of my own around these issues, I looked at FAO data on current global production of barley, cassava, maize, millet, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, taro, wheat and yams (my calculations are here if anyone would like to probe or critique them). This list probably encompasses most of the world’s major energy-rich crops (oil crops excepted), but scarcely even begins to capture total agricultural productivity. Totting up the total calories produced from them and then dividing that figure by the total calories needed by a 7.6 billion strong humanity at 2250 kcal per day, I find there’s a 43% surfeit over human calorific need from those crops alone. If we then correct the production figure downwards by the 20% that B&B say is the typical organic yield penalty, include a generous 35% organic ley and make a few adjustments for existing organic production and livestock products from the ley, we find that organic production can probably meet around 90% of total human calorific needs just from those 14 crops at existing levels of land-take. That’s just a ballpark, back-of-envelope calculation, but it suggests to me that this ‘organic agriculture can’t feed the world’ trope is a bit overblown. I’m not too bothered about whether it can or not – but I think we’d be better off debating the subjective content of our visions rather than writing them in ways that seek to buttress their historical inevitability or objective truth.


 1. Cunfer, Geoff. 2005. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, p.99.

2. Thirsk, Joan. 1997. Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford UP.

3. A ballpark figure I’ve come up with from FAO data, based on all the cattle, sheep, goat and horse meat produced globally (so possibly an overestimate?)

4. Data in this paragraph from;;

5. Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

6. Lampkin, Nicholas. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, p.150.

7. Actually, Blomqvist has written a longer piece on this specific issue here, which is quite interesting – but not to my mind ultimately convincing that the ‘land sparing’ concept is robust to the kind of criticisms levelled by Fischer.

History crash

My previous post offered a retrospective take on my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ post cycle that I completed a while back. I thought I might now turn to another such retrospective, this time on my recently-completed ‘History of the world’ cycle. So I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the way we think about history, with the help of a couple of books from my recent reading.

JG Ballard’s Crash is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read – a novel about people who are sexually aroused by cars, and in particular by deaths and injuries in car crashes, deliberately orchestrated or otherwise1. It’s a disturbing, semi-pornographic and some might say depraved book, to which a publisher’s reader of the draft manuscript famously wrote “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish”. It’s also, in my opinion, completely brilliant. I can’t imagine what the hell was going through Ballard’s mind in writing it, but for me it touches on two themes relevant to this blog.

The first is that we tend to talk about technology nowadays as if it’s something that’s radically separable from what it is to be a person. So with cars, for example, we might draw up some kind of balance sheet where we say that the advent of the automobile has been positive, because it’s allowed us to get to places quicker and more freely, while acknowledging the downsides – road injuries, air pollution etc. I take Ballard to be saying that this way of thinking is flawed. Cars have changed who we are, and bled into the very fabric of what it means to be a person in the 20th or 21st centuries. So asking if they’re a good thing or not is an incoherent question, because to answer it depends on there being some kind of contemporary human point of view that’s entirely independent of the car itself – and there isn’t. Generalise that to any technology – farming, for example, or a 3KWh/person/day energy economy – and suddenly we’re mercifully freed from all our chatter about backwardness, progress and so on. Of course, it works the same in reverse. We can’t say that people lived at a more unhurried pace in the 19th century before they had cars, so if we only got rid of the automobile then our lives would resemble the unhurried ones of a bygone age.

This all suits me just fine. I’ll admit that Ballard stretches a point with his rather extreme illustration, and that there are clear continuities between what it means to be a person in the 21st century and the 19th, and indeed very much further back than that. Still, I think Crash makes a nicely relativizing move. What are the grounds on which we judge the currents of history or morality? They’re less clear cut than we often like to think. People are always engaged in often mutually exclusive current projects of future history-making (eg. ecomodernists versus neo-agrarian populists) which usually invoke some kind of historical warrant for their choice. But although we can no doubt learn some things from history so long as we’re conscious of the way they’re refracted in our present gaze, these historical warrants are usually quite illusory. What really matters is the current projects.

The second point I derive from Ballard is our tendency to read present tendencies moralistically into the future as utopias or dystopias, which again I take him to be resisting. So for example an ecomodernist might say that if we could only make cars using clean renewable fuel available to all in the future, then truly we can have a great Anthropocene. Utopia. A more traditional environmentalist might say that if we don’t end our infatuation with personal motorised transport, then a grim future of runaway climate change, collapsing ecosystems, choking air pollution and social isolation beckons. Dystopia. I think Ballard is saying ‘Just look around. Utopia and dystopia are already here, depending on how you choose to see them’. Take this passage:

“The entire zone which defined the landscape of my life was now bounded by a continuous artificial horizon, formed by the raised parapets and embankments of the motorways and their access roads and interchanges. These encircled the vehicles below like the walls of a crater several miles in diameter”.

For the protagonists in Ballard’s story this is a world full of beauty, stories, alluring dangers and sex. Utopia. For me, it’s hell on earth – and I used to live there. Dystopia. But I can find beauty, stories, alluring dangers and, er, well maybe sex in less wholly humanised and technological environments. The present global situation is such, I think, that we need to talk about the future more urgently than any generation ever did before, but I still think Ballard is right to warn us away from projecting our desires and fears moralistically into the future. What are we fighting for politically? Whatever it is, it’s not the future but what’s around us right now. Let’s sharpen our focus on the way we want to live right now, rather than trying to transcendentalize it with reference to the past or the future.

The second book I want to mention is Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris2, professor of classics at Stanford University and based on his Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University – so not at all semi-pornographic or depraved, then. Morris offers a grand survey of human history, the sort of enterprise to which of course I’m wholly sympathetic, but to be honest I feel rather more in tune with Ballard’s line of thought than with Morris’s. I’ll concede there are some definite riches within Morris’s pages, but here I’m going to focus on just one aspect of his thinking that it suits me to analyse for my present purpose – essentially his view of historical development, which I find problematic.

When I was a budding student of anthropology at university, an intellectual crime that my teachers were especially anxious to stamp out in us was teleological functionalism. Quite a mouthful, so let me explain if it’s not clear3. ‘Functionalism’ refers to the notion that the forms societies take can be explained in terms of some kind of function that they perform. This approach rode high in early 20th century social science, and there are doubtless some sophisticated forms of functionalism that may still have something to commend them, but generally the approach has fallen by the wayside. ‘Teleological’ refers to a process that is goal-directed through time. So to give an absurd example of a teleological functionalist approach, you might argue that the driving force of human societies has always been the urge to put people on the moon. If you were then asked why societies historically transitioned from foraging to farming, you might say that it was necessary to have a complex division of labour in order to develop craftspeople and other such specialists who would eventually learn to devise spaceships. If you were asked why the Neolithic gave way to the Bronze Age, you might say that learning to smelt bronze was a necessary step on the way to creating the modern alloys that are necessary in order to have spaceflight. And so on. The obvious flaw in this is that you can’t logically invoke a phenomenon as an explanatory factor for societal changes that have not (yet) brought that phenomenon into existence. More generally, social explanations of the kind ‘Social form X occurred in order to make Y possible’ are suspect – unless Y was an explicit intention of the people bringing X about, which is rarely the case in most forms of teleological explanation.

Morris is smart enough to avoid obviously teleological functionalist arguments most of the time, but they shadow his whole thesis and sometimes rise to the surface, as in this passage on ‘Agraria’, the term he borrows from Ernest Gellner to describe inegalitarian, preindustrial farming societies:

“each age gets the thought it needs. In the absence of fossil fuels, the only way to push energy capture far above 10,000 kilocalories per person per day is by moving towards Agraria, where economic and political inequality are structurally necessary, and in the face of necessity, we adjust our values. Moral systems conform to the requirements of energy capture, and for societies capturing between 10,000 and 30,000 kilocalories per person per day, one of the most important requirements is acceptance of political and economic inequality”4

The obvious objection to this is that, while it may be true that in the absence of fossil fuels you can’t push energy capture over the 10,000 kilocalories figure without instituting inequality, there’s no particular reason why you should choose to, and indeed throughout most of the history of our genus nobody did. The fact that in the last few thousand years the amount of energy capture and the amount of inequality have increased are both social facts that demand explanation – the former fact does not explain the latter.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, Morris’s stance erases and effectively validates the ideological processes by which the elites of Agraria formed themselves and created effective ‘acceptance’ of political and economic inequality. I don’t think this was a matter of everybody choosing the right morality to fit their new agrarian circumstances. It was a matter of people jockeying for advantage within the ever-changing constraints that they found themselves in, much as they do now – albeit that over time those constraints do tend to congeal into various enduring ‘common sense’ ideologies such as the equality of all, or the obviously natural differences between noble and commoner. Second, it makes history the servant of some ineluctable dynamic, in this case that of increased energy capture, and it usually throws in an accompanying dose of implicit or explicit moral approbation – it hasn’t all been great, but look at all the wonders civilisation has given us that could never have been achieved in a foraging society! Perhaps we could call it the Pinkerization of history.

To my mind, the world is much more contingent than this. Increasing energy capture is not a historical dynamic, but a byproduct of the will to power and status that aligned in this direction – but could align in numerous other ways. Each age doesn’t get the thought it ‘needs’ – it’s both enabled and constrained by the thought it inherits from its predecessors, it wrestles with their contradictions and the dilemmas of its day, then it hands on the mess to its successors.

So having finished writing my history of the world, I shall be turning to contemplate its future. The author I’d prefer to keep in mind while doing so is Ballard rather than Morris.


  1. J.G. Ballard. 1973. Crash. London.
  2. I. Morris. 2015. Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Princeton.
  3. In the last week, the word ‘teleological’ has suddenly arisen to public consciousness in the UK as a result of our hapless foreign secretary using it to justify his opposition to the EU – Steven Poole provides a neat antidote here.
  4. Morris op cit, pp.83-4.


Three acres and a cow

My title comes from a 19th century English song, which includes this verse…

If all the land in England was divided up quite fair / There would be work for everyone to earn an honest share / Well some have thousand acre farms which they have got somehow / But I’ll be satisfied to get three acres and a cow

…but more immediately, it comes from a great evening of folksong and storytelling I heard recently in which Robin Grey and Katherine Hallewell told – well, not quite the history of the world in 10½ blog posts so much as the history of the fight for access to land by ordinary people in Britain in 11 lovely folk songs. If you get a chance to see the show, I’d thoroughly recommend it (and for those in my neck of the woods, it’s returning to Frome on 10 March). It’s not quite as comprehensive as my recent historithon here at Small Farm Future, but it’s a darned sight more tuneful.

The main aim of this post, though, isn’t to talk about the show so much as to pick up on a couple of themes hanging over from various previous posts and post cycles. In particular, I want to address a point that Ruben made in a comment concerning the need for a sustainable post-capitalist society to produce an agrarian surplus in order to fund a division of labour and thus a viably diverse social order. I want to marry it with what I called my 99/1 test (in which a food-farm system is defined as sustainable if it can persist with 99% of food sourced from within 10 miles of any given retail point and with fossil energy use set at 1% of the current level). Clem suggested a 90/10 test might be more apposite, so I propose to (roughly) split the difference and apply a 95/5 test – though actually in the analysis here I’m going to ignore retail provenance altogether, implicitly assuming that it’s 100% local.

In later posts, I’ll discuss the sociological aspects of what such low energy post-capitalist farm societies might look like. But here I want to revisit my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex analysis and consider what such a society might look like out in the fields. Somewhat like three acres and a cow, as it turns out. Or at least three acres and a quarter of a cow.

I’ve identified two sources for current levels of in-field fossil energy use in British farming. This one reckons it at 17 litres of diesel per hectare per year, and this one at 127 litres – a rather alarming discrepancy. Ah well, let’s take the mean (72 litres) and then reduce it by 95%. That gives us about 3.6 litres of diesel to grow our crops each year on a nominal hectare. I’m going to assume two people working full-time year-round producing a basic range of crops appropriate to the southwest English climate to feed themselves and anyone else they can, given those diesel and labour parameters. And I’m going to assume they’ll be growing organically (no sneaky additional energy embodied in fertiliser). On that basis, what I’d probably do is grow a grass/clover ley which I’d till in with a small 2-wheel tractor and grow potatoes as my main staple crop (in reality I might grow some wheat as well, but my personal experiments with small-scale wheat growing haven’t amounted to much, and I don’t have good local yield figures for such systems). I know tillage isn’t exactly the flavour of the month at the moment and I’ll be talking more about that in my upcoming post on carbon farming, but my feeling is that in a super-low energy situation it’s probably the optimum solution to the equation of land, labour and yield. If you think you could do as well with a no till system, then fine – you can use your diesel for something else…such as hauling around all the compost you’ll most likely be making.

Anyway, so much for the tillage. The rest of my production would be done with hand (or foot) tools (I’m ignoring energy embodied in small tools, and the various bits of agri-plastic I’d undoubtedly be blagging for mulch). Plus whatever animal or human help I could muster. Note that my focus here is on producing a healthy subsistence, and not on high value leafy crops as is the present lot of most small-scale market growers.

OK, maybe I’m pushing the limits here but on that basis I think I could probably cultivate about a quarter of an acre (0.11ha) of potatoes as part of a seven course field rotation with a two year ley. I’d also grow a garden with six 20m beds, including one ley. I’d have a small fruit orchard of a little under 0.1ha, with some grazing beneath the trees. I’d have a 300m2 strawberry patch, a few bee hives, and a few hens. I’d also grow some mushrooms on logs. If that was pretty much the extent of my holding I wouldn’t have enough grazing for a dairy cow, but my orchard and leys would be enough for a quarter of a house cow so I’d share one (and the associated calf meat) with three other farmers. In practice, I’d probably grow a somewhat more diverse mixture of things (rather than, say, 300m2 of pure strawberries), but I think the above will do as an illustrative example.

So there we have it. That little lot should keep me and my beloved busy enough over a year.

If I plug all that into my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex spreadsheet, which has been sitting around looking reproachfully idle on my desktop for many months now, then we get the following expected average yields: about 2 tonnes of potatoes, 4 tonnes of cabbages, 0.2 tonnes of drying beans, 4 tonnes of carrots, 4 tonnes of squash, generally around 100kg of various garden vegetables, 0.5 tonnes of apples, 0.2 tonnes of strawberries, 67kg of hazels, 1250 eggs, 800 litres of milk, 70kg of beef, 10kg of chicken and game, and 25kg of honey. Perhaps a little too much to expect of two people with minimal fossil fuel inputs in an organic system, but I think possibly doable in a well-established and well-managed system. Comments welcome.

Adding up the total land take of the setup I described above turns out a figure of 0.92 hectares (2.3 acres). So if you added some space for a house, outbuildings, tracks, hedges and perhaps a bit of woodland, you’d be close to Robin and Katherine’s 3 acre figure, though sadly you’d only have quarter of a cow.

Setting those productivity figures against recommended yearly intakes across my five chosen nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) the surplus productivity of my two farmworkers varies across the indicators – the surplus is highest for Vitamin A, where they produce enough for the adequate nourishment of 209 souls, and lowest for energy, where they produce enough only for just over 11 people (11.5).

So taking that lowest figure of 11 per hectare as the productive limit of this system and assuming that all arable land is cultivated in this way we find that the system could feed 91% of the current population of the southwest and 75% of the current population of England as a whole. If we extend it into all the farmland currently down to permanent pasture (but not rough grazing) we could feed 310% of the current southwest population and 147% of the whole England population. This excludes the extra potential productivity from rough grazing, domestic gardens and other currently non-agricultural green spaces. In other words, feeding the country in this way is a doddle. The reason it meets nutritional requirements so comfortably in comparison to my previous ‘Peasants’ Republic of Wessex’ exercise is because in the latter case I went with a livestock-heavy system based on the existing balance of grassland and cropland, whereas here I’ve gone for a more George Monbiot-friendly system with minimal livestock. Though, unlike George’s preferred approach to meat, at least my livestock have legs – or one leg, anyway. To be honest, I think the kind of setup I’m describing here would be more likely to occur in low energy future scenarios than the livestock-heavy approach I previously took, though there’d still be a lot of room around the edges of it for domestic poultry, neighbourhood pig clubs etc. There’d probably need to be, since there’s not otherwise much usable fat or oil in this three acres diet. And rather than courting controversy as I did last time around by trying to produce a non-fossil fuel full energy budget for such a society, I’m drawn to the simplicity of this one. Assume 5% of current energy use across all sectors and go figure…

But I’d like to make a couple of brief remarks on how I’d go figure it. Farmers, like everyone else, generally take the easiest option available under the constraints they face. In situations where land is plentiful but labour is constrained (labour constraint being effectively the same as energy constraint) the easy option is meat-heavy pastoralism. In situations where land is constrained but labour is plentiful, the easy option is grain-heavy arable. In situations where both land and labour are constrained, as here, the easiest option would probably look something like what I’ve just described – a meat-light mixed cropping approach with as little arable as you can get away with, which would probably be a lot more than you’d ideally like.

Vaclav Smil writes that no country with an annual energy consumption under 5 GJ/person can guarantee the basic necessities of life to everyone, whereas some societies oriented to egalitarian resource distribution can provide for an adequate life at around 40-50 GJ/person1. If the UK’s total energy consumption was decreased by 95% it would put us at around 4.5 GJ/person.

The 95/5 test would seem to suggest a wicked, twisted road ahead. Maybe it’s too stringent? I’m somewhat agnostic about the shape of humanity’s energy future, but it never hurts to plan conservatively…

In terms of the farming population, two people feeding 11.5 people would give us 17% of the population directly working in farming, but if we calculate it on the basis of present labour norms with those aged <18 or >65 excluded from the labour force, the figure is about 31% in farming. If such a situation came to pass in practice I think we could relax the 18-65 active labourer definition a little, so perhaps we could assume farmers would constitute about 25% of the population – similar to current levels in countries like Iran, Ecuador, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. The current level in the UK is about 2%, though this isn’t really a comparable figure because we export a lot of the responsibility for producing our food to farmers in other countries. Still, if we decided that we should produce all our food in this way, we’d have to start shifting about 23 people out of every 100 from their current employment into farming. Any suggestions as to which job sectors the Ministry of Agricultural Redeployment in the Peasants’ Republic should concentrate on will be gratefully received.

Incidentally, I shall be on internet detox over the weekend so no further comments or responses from me until next week.


  1. Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.358ff.

The supersedure state

I said that I wanted to focus on the shape of possible agrarian, post-capitalist states of the future in my forthcoming writing, so I thought I’d anticipate that here by reproducing my article from the current issue of The Land magazine (Issue 22, 2018, pp.28-30). The editors of that august journal in their wisdom entitled it ‘The human hive’ (and accompanied it with some beautiful woodcut illustrations of an apian nature), but here it goes under my preferred title of ‘The supersedure state’. My next few posts are going to attend to various other items of business – though some of them do bear on this theme – but I thought I’d lay this out now as a kind of organising concept for the things I want to write about agrarian states, which I’ll try to fill out in more detail on this site shortly. So I’ll be coming back to this – but in the meantime, of course I’d welcome any comments. I’m not sure if this is exactly the same version as the one that appeared in The Land, but I think it’s close enough.


The tumult of recent political events in many western countries has brought a new word to the lips of political commentators – populism. Generally, populism and its personification in figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage has been presented in mainstream circles as a dangerous political turn, a threat to the established order of things, and not without good reason. But for those who’d like to replace the present global neoliberal economy with a more local, more equitable and more land-based or agrarian society there are overlaps with populism that raise a few questions – in particular, these three:

  1. ‘Populism’ means a politics of or for ‘the people’, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – so what’s the problem with it?
  2. Are there any fruitful links between the populisms now emerging in contemporary western countries and an older and now largely forgotten politics associated with peasant parties in various countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a politics known as ‘agrarian populism’?
  3. If populism threatens the established order, perhaps that’s no bad thing and represents a political opportunity of some kind – but what kind?

The answer to the first question is that populist positions often involve an over-simplified contrast between ‘ordinary people’ and a scapegoated ‘elite’, which is seen as thwarting the interests of the former – and there are tacit rules of inclusion and exclusion regarding membership in both categories that aren’t politically innocent. In the populist politics of Brexit, for example, ‘ordinary people’ has a nationalist coding that excludes migrants, including long-term residents from continental Europe, especially East Europeans. And the ‘elite’ has a class and political coding that mostly references liberal, urban, left-wing ‘chattering classes’ rather than the chief wielders of economic power.

So the problem with a populist politics of the people is that ‘the people’ is usually a less inclusive term than it appears, and the solution to their problems is usually more complicated than the humbling of the elite that’s proposed. Nevertheless, it might still be plausibly argued that in the present era of neoliberal globalisation, there are elites which organise against the interests of ordinary people, and the latter have not been well served by the game of ping-pong between lookalike politicians that passes for democratic politics. That argument can be taken in numerous directions, some of which might endorse an anti-elitist politics for ‘ordinary people’ without endorsing any of the populisms currently on the table, from Donald Trump’s Republican presidency to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership.

Spooling back a century or so, it becomes a little easier to grasp what a populist politics of ordinary people against the elite meant. In various countries – the USA, Russia, Mexico and India, to name a few – most ‘ordinary people’ were small-scale and typically self-sustaining (or ‘peasant’) farmers, many of whom considered their interests to be in conflict with various political, financial, colonial or aristocratic elites in their home countries, and organised an anti-elitist populist politics of the people accordingly, for example in the form of the US Populist Party, which put up presidential candidate James Weaver in 1892. In the 1920s, economist Alexander Chayanov published key works of the Russian ‘neo-populist’ school, which emphasised the resilient and self-perpetuating nature of the Russian peasant household economy1. The US Populist Party merged with the Democratic Party in 1896 and fizzled out thereafter, partly because US politics ultimately delivered a good deal of what the populists had wanted, albeit not quite in the form they’d wanted it – a greater share for workers in national wealth, but in the form of an urban-industrial workforce and depopulated farmscapes2. For his part, Chayanov was summarily tried and shot in Stalin’s gulag in 1937. Perhaps these two contrasting endpoints for populism in the USA and the USSR symbolise the 20th century fate of agrarian populism in general: squeezed out in the Cold War rivalry between capitalism and communism, neither of which were notably sympathetic to independent peasantries. Even so, agrarian populism has had a complex afterlife through the 20th century and into the 21st, inflecting pro-peasant and anti-globalisation politics represented in figures like Vandana Shiva and in the food sovereignty movement. And there are also various points of crossover here with the traditions of right-wing populism that typically emphasise the local and the rural, ‘indigenous’ traditions over cosmopolitanism, individual independence over state dirigisme, and so on.

I can’t trace here the complexities of these inflections and crossovers – though it’s unfortunate that the eclipse of agrarian populism as a living political tradition obscures the lessons that today’s agrarian activists might infer from it in negotiating those complexities. But to answer my second question above, I’d suggest that, yes, there probably are fruitful connections to be drawn between these populisms old and new – but the issues facing us today aren’t exactly the same as those facing the small farm populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most obvious difference is that there are hardly any small-scale farmers in the ‘developed’ countries any more. Peasant or agrarian populism as a politics of ‘the people’ makes sense when a large proportion of the people are peasants or agrarians. It looks less convincing in a modern urban world where only a small minority of people directly work the land. However, the chances of sustaining this world indefinitely in the face of the numerous environmental crises it’s provoked seem slim, as do the chances of achieving a fair distribution of resources in the neoliberal global political economy that sustains it by systematically rewarding the few at the expense of the many. For these reasons, a contemporary agrarian movement has arisen which has a lot in common with the agrarian populist and neo-populist movements of a century ago, emphasising self-reliant, low impact, low energy, land-based lifestyles, a fair distribution of resources, greater political autonomy and so on – in other words, the kind of world described by the Land’s manifesto on the inside cover of this magazine.

But that movement remains quite small and – compared to the stormy agrarian politics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which toppled numerous empires, aristocracies and colonial powers – it operates in a world where revolutionary thirst for change no longer has much traction. This seems to have prompted a few alternative thinkers among leftists and greens to embrace the ersatz tumults of recent electoral politics in the west such as the Trump and Brexit results as at least some kind of new opening in the moribund politics of neoliberalism-as-usual, and therefore something to be welcomed3. The death of liberalism and globalism in the face of the new populisms has been gleefully embraced by these thinkers as a hopeful sign that a more egalitarian green localism may be in the offing – perhaps in much the same way that Marxists of old used to think that a dose of capitalism was a necessary evil for every society to go through if it was ever to experience the joys of socialism. But the path from right-wing populism to green localism doesn’t seem intrinsically more likely than numerous other possible paths, and though it’s tempting to share in the schadenfreude directed at once sanctimonious centrists in their dismay at the current turn of events, there are some problems with cheerleading the death of liberalism. Chief amongst them is the danger that with the death of a globally-oriented liberalism might come the death of the public sphere, defined as “rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions”4, as seems to be happening under the star of the new populism in countries such as Russia and Turkey. The outlook for an equitable and sustainable agrarian localism is bleak in these circumstances – so maybe defending the liberal public sphere from the Trumps, Putins and Farages of this world is a pressing task for a contemporary agrarian populism.

However, we’re undoubtedly now living through a populist moment in which such figures are at least temporarily ascendant while familiar liberal-global institutions such as the EU appear to be unravelling, so it’s as well to try to plot a course from where we now are to where the contemporary agrarian movement might like us to go. It seems clear that the populist politicians now in power are unequal to the task of their sloganeering: they will not be able to “make America great again” or “take back control”. But perhaps they’ve nonetheless instinctively realised what still escapes the mainstream – that liberal-democratic global capitalism is dead in the water and needs refashioning. Academic political economist Wolfgang Streeck comes to much the same conclusion in his recent analysis of the chronically growing debt, stagnant growth and rising inequality gnawing away at the vital organs of the global capitalist beast:

“Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions, and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies – who…have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to assume a new form. What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum…a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder”5

There are various ways in which this interregnum might get filled, some of them extremely worrisome. But I’d like to suggest how an equitable agrarian populism might step into the breach on the basis of the following four ‘might-come-true’ predictions:

  • National and individual incomes in most of the rich western countries will decrease along with the volume of international trade – a process that in the UK will be hastened by Brexit but is likely to happen anyway. The possibilities for ducking the implications of this scenario through scapegoating are numerous, but there’s a chance that eventually it’ll prompt a more sober reorientation of national and local economies to the more immediate needs of the citizenry.


  • The de jure territorial reach of the central state in the west is likely to remain much as it is now for the foreseeable future, but its de facto power outside its core regions (in England, London and the southeast) is likely to wane as the ratio between public service benefits and tax income becomes ever more unpromising. Weakened governments will retrench around core areas and industries, leading to (semi-)benign (semi-)neglect elsewhere.


  • The returns to large-scale commodity-crop farming and large-scale landownership outside the state cores will diminish to the point of redundancy. Large-scale landownership in these areas will start to become politically and morally risky in the context of impoverished local populations looking to supply their needs from local resources increasingly through non-monetary means.


  • The preceding developments will resist resolution by any singular means – no high-tech solutionism, fiscal windfalls, sweeping political or religious revitalisation movements and so forth. Attempts to organise and provide for regional populations will be predominantly local, piecemeal, experimental, practical and plural, and they’ll enjoy varying degrees of success…


…or to put it another way, something like Detroit may soon be coming to a sleepy English village near you.

If this situation occurs, there will doubtless be scope for numerous elements of our present political traditions to recombine in various more or less successful ways in the changed circumstances, and the same is true of landholding traditions – rentiers and tenants, owner-occupiers, collective property and commons. Streeck is probably right that a single defined social order won’t prevail. Since Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), political scientists have been fond of using apian metaphors for politics, so I’m inclined to do likewise and call what I’m describing here a ‘supersedure state’. In the normal succession of a bee colony, the mass society decides that the ruling queen is no longer fit for purpose, builds some orderly alternative structures, and after a brief power struggle a singular new ruling queen emerges. Supersedure occurs, by contrast, when the existing queen goes missing in action without any orderly alternative structures to replace her. In these circumstances, the workers try to cobble together a new queen out of whatever’s to hand that will best do the job of maintaining the colony, but usually end up producing a smaller, weaker queen. I think our human colonies may likewise see more of such weakened, cobbled-together successor states – ‘supersedure states’ – in the disorderly future that Streeck predicts, and less of the smoothly revolutionary politics of the past. As the Land’s manifesto persuasively states: “Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.” The traditions of agrarian populism seem best suited to creating a modicum of stability, prosperity and justice in this politically weakened, land-oriented aftermath of capitalism – better, at any rate, than obvious alternatives such as neo-feudalism, neo-fascism or revitalising cargo cults seeking to restore capitalism, communism and other modernist nightmares.

However, a network of pluralist agrarian supersedure states probably isn’t the most likely contender for the future shape of the world. If the curve of politics in disparate countries of the world today – the UK, the USA, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, China – is anything to go by, we may be more likely to see ruthless neo-mercantilist international economic competition between countries, fractious distributional conflicts within them, and nationalist-nativist populisms trying to breathe life into all sorts of arbitrary boundaries between people and peoples. This is not an enticing prospect, so perhaps it’s a good idea to address how an agrarian populist future of supersedure states might be wrested from this other mode of populism.

The short answer is a two-pronged approach, the first of which aims to buttress wherever possible any or all permutations of peasant, family-based, small-scale, local market oriented, diverse and high nature-value farming. Historically, this fits comfortably into various populist agendas, agrarian and otherwise, and is the sort of thing readily found in UKIP election manifestoes. The second aims to buttress wherever possible a liberal public sphere, rational-critical debate, small state local democracy based on the power of arguments rather than statuses accruing from membership in closed categories of ‘the people’, ‘the real people’ or ‘ordinary people’, an egalitarian economic localism combined with a plural political internationalism, and so on. These sorts of things won’t be found in UKIP election manifestoes, and doubtless sound a lot more like the old-fangled neoliberal globalism which most populists, with some justification, want to overturn. But the key is the combination of the two prongs. The first without the second creates a reactionary nationalist back-to-the-landism which can conceal all sorts of modernist horrors under the pretence of a romantic peasantism – the ‘Ringing Cedars’ movement in Russia being one contemporary example. The second without the first easily results in neoliberal globalism as usual. Each prong draws on old political traditions. The intention, however, is not to replicate those traditions but, just as with Peter Kropotkin’s idea of creating a new anarchist future out of communal past traditions, to build “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”6.

There’s no inevitability about successfully creating this kind of ‘absolutely new’ politics, but it does seem possible that it will become a more obvious and attractive option than it presently seems as the drawbacks of conventional agriculture and conventional politics of both the mainstream and reactionary-populist varieties make themselves apparent. Admittedly, I’ve barely addressed the numerous difficulties and contradictions that would be involved in making this politics work. But here, in a nutshell, is the opportunity I mentioned in my third question above: the opportunity to create a tolerably prosperous, egalitarian, sustainable future based on an agrarian localism of supersedure states from the political tumults of the present moment.


  1. Chayanov, A. [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  2. Postel, C. 2007. The Populist Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Examples here include green thinkers like Paul Kingsnorth and John Michael Greer, and august voices on the left like the New Left Review.
  4. Calhoun, C. 1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  5. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso.
  6. Kropotkin, P. 1993. Words of a Rebel. Montreal: Black Rose

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 10½: The reckoning

And so we come to the final instalment in my history of the world blog cycle. Thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – it’s been a long haul, but I’ve found it useful to inform my thinking on agrarian futures, and I’ve learned a lot from the comments. Back to normal service on this blog after this, I hope. A full version of the essay is available here.


To continue… I think it’s about time we headed in a different direction. The mulcting of ordinary people described by Goubert for the peasants of 17th century France has being going on long enough around the world in various guises, often in service of top-down notions of ‘development’ that have rarely returned full value to the people it subjects. So maybe it’s time to draw a line under the cargo cult utopia of capitalism with its promise of more ‘stuff’ ever-receding into the future, and explore the other pole of the peasant experience described by Wolf’s narrative of the peasant utopia (p.16). In 1984, Jean-François Lyotard announced the arrival of the ‘postmodern condition’, involving an ‘incredulity to meta-narratives’. Postmodernism soon disappeared into an impenetrable cloud of its own self-reflexivity, but I like the idea of incredulity towards grand abstractions such as ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Unfortunately, as I argued on p.31, it’s hard to do away entirely with universalism in a universalist age. But if we still need universalist categories to work with, I’d suggest they should be as grounded in practical realities as possible. So I’d like to submit for your consideration the peasantry as the universal class – a class that predates capitalism, has coexisted with it, and is most likely to survive it. Because when empires crumble what’s left is gardening – and gardeners are better placed to know the limits of their ecological and economic practice than almost anyone else.

However, the historical narrative I’ve offered here suggests to me that it’s no simple thing to create a sustainable and prosperous peasant society. Such a society has to be wrested from the grip of the state and, beyond the state, from the human will to power – so it therefore needs to be defended from the disintegrative effects of its own internal tensions. And, as I’ve argued here in relation to various examples like frontier peasantries, military entrepreneurs, religious revitalisation movements, nationalist and nativist ideology and the seemingly inherent tendency towards capitalist logics of peasant differentiation in the conditions of modernity that underpin both liberal-democratic capitalism and its communist twin, there’s no reason to assume that peasant societies will necessarily evince any of the characteristics that seem to me prerequisites for a satisfactory long-term human flourishing: ecological sustainability, personal or community autonomy, substantial economic equality, a material practice grounded in the here-and-nowness of self-subsistence. It’s just that it seems to me they’re potentially more likely to do so than any other social arrangement. Henry Bernstein, a fairly sympathetic Marxist critic of ‘agrarian neo-neo-populism’ writes,

“advocates of the peasant way argue that it does not represent nostalgia – worlds we have lost – but that contemporary peasant movements incorporate and express specific, novel and strategic conceptions of, and aspirations to, modernity, and visions of modernity alternative to that inscribed in the neoliberal common sense of the current epoch. This is a plausible thesis…but the principal weakness of the new agrarian question qua the peasant way, as articulated to date, is its lack of an adequate political economy”

It’s a point well-made, though I’d argue that the ‘lack of an adequate political economy’ is a problem that afflicts all the alternatives to ‘neoliberal common sense’, including Marxism, and not just peasant way thinking. In fact, it’s a problem that also afflicts neoliberal common sense, which is precisely the problem. So in future posts I plan to sketch as best I can what a peasant way political economy might look like – in other words, how the human flourishing I mentioned above may possibly be achieved by reconstituted peasantries of a post-capitalist future. But to conclude I’d just like to list in note form some of the things that I think I’ll need to concern myself with in that sketch that have emerged from the historical precis I’ve offered here.

  • A human tendency towards both status ranking and equality
  • A tendency for modes of human organisation to ‘leapfrog’ each other through time
  • A tendency for new forms of centralised political organisation to elicit secondary versions around them
  • A difficult balance between under- and over-development of the division of labour
  • An ambiguity within the centralised state as both predator and benefactor
  • Class distinctions in both city and countryside with which central state actors can ally or organise against
  • Religious or spiritual traditions that cleave either towards or against extant political power
  • The (slender) possibilities for more-or-less autarkic agrarian production in the interstices of centralised political power
  • The possibilities for cooperation as well as conflict within a class or caste stratified agrarian society
  • The enabling effect on agrarian society of alternative ways of life (urbanism, or the public sphere, for example)
  • The numerous geopolitical forms of state power, which are not limited to the nation-state
  • The difficulties of distinguishing sharply between lord and peasant, or between landowner, tenant and labourer
  • The significance of militarised or demilitarised frontiers for economic development
  • The core-periphery geographic structuring of the economy in one or more ‘world systems’
  • The possibilities for stable income/population equilibria (‘high level equilibrium traps’) that limit ‘unnatural’ expansion or technological hyper-development
  • The tendency for economic ‘cores’ to export the responsibility for less remunerative agrarian activities to the ‘periphery’
  • The tendency for extractive ecological linkages from core to periphery
  • The tendency to find ‘reconstituted peasantries’ where centralised polities fail
  • The differentiated nature of peasantries, and the unequal power relations within them
  • The inherent (and growing) tendency towards crisis in the capitalist economy
  • The tendency for capitalist economies to virtualise money, leading to instability
  • The multiple stories we tell ourselves about the nature of the modern – as development, as regress, as the coming-to-history of ‘a people’, as possibility, as despair
  • The tendency for people to avoid overt politics if they can, and seek a quiet life
  • The tendency for virtually all forms of economic production (‘peasant’, capitalist, communist etc.) under the modernist shadow of capitalism to tend towards or revert to capitalist production
  • The need to develop a political economy that’s not based on compound economic growth and the associated drawdown of non-renewable resources
  • The need to learn open-mindedly from the past and to acknowledge that historically people sometimes may have found some better solutions to their problems than we’re currently finding for ourselves – but without extolling the special virtues of those times or wishing ourselves back to them, so much as using them to build what Kropotkin called “an absolutely new fact” for ourselves.

In my upcoming cycle of posts I hope to work through some of these points to provide the best answer I can – which isn’t, I fear, a very good one – as to how we can best confront the ‘wicked problems’ bequeathed us by history to create a more sustainable and widespread human flourishing. Still, the problem with history is that it keeps on happening. Doubtless there’ll be a few more surprising turns before we’re all through.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 10. The current impasse

I’ve just returned from a short but fascinating meeting in Nicaragua on small-scale farming, which I plan to write about soon. But first I want to finish my history of the world. Apologies if the latter has dragged on too much, but we’re in the home straight now, and we’ll be moving on to other stuff soon. As ever a fully referenced version of this essay is here.


By the end of World War II, of the four key modern political doctrines I identified above it was liberal-democratic capitalism and communism that were left standing. Agrarian populism had its moments in post-war decolonisation, while fascism has recurred here and there, usually in diluted forms after the image problem it acquired during World War II. But essentially the end of that war marked the start of the capitalist-communist Cold War death battle, with the USA taking over from Britain in the driving seat of global capitalism and enforcing a global and far from peaceful Pax Americana, which has gradually lost its proselytizing zeal in favour of narrower self-interest.

The capitalist west’s answer to the threat of communism – other than naked military power – was a Keynesian settlement between capital and labour, in which the working class was offered full (male – and then, increasingly, female) employment and rising prosperity in return for political docility. This was quite easily achieved in the thirty years after World War II – the ‘trente glorieuses’ – with prodigious economic growth keeping both the owners of capital and the owners of labour happy. There were a few dissonant voices – environmentalists arguing that the cost of economic growth was ecological damage and the drawdown of non-renewable resources, prophets foretelling the impossibility of endless compound growth, and malcontents bemoaning the absurdity and ennui of a hyper-materialist modernity, but they gained limited traction at best. In the face of such activism it’s often said nowadays that most people aren’t very political and only want a quiet life. That’s true, I’d argue, partly because the liberal-democratic capitalist polities have put a lot of work into ensuring that most people aren’t very political, in particular by systematically dismantling most forms of collective political organisation and ridiculing the very idea of them. “Our place in history is as clock watchers, old timers, window shoppers”, as Billy Bragg nicely put it. Still, whatever the reasons, the ideal of the quiet suburban life in the west is indeed a reality that more activist political forms must confront.

It’s been getting harder to live a quiet life of late, though. The cracks started appearing in the capitalist façade in the 1970s when the stalling of economic growth re-sharpened the contest between capital and labour. Since then, governments in the democratic capitalist west have tried to manage the contradiction through two strategies whose basic outlines, if not their precise details, would have been recognisable to any Axial Age ruler: (1) buy off both the workers and the capitalists by stealing from the future in the form of inflationary monetary policy or building up private and public debt; (2) side with capital by disciplining and casualising labour, breaking unions, offshoring jobs or inshoring low-waged migrant workers, allowing unemployment to rise and curtailing public expenditure on social welfare.

The first strategy has a time limit on it. You can’t live beyond your means indefinitely by mortgaging your future. This was signalled by the 2008 crash, though governments in the ‘developed’ world have struggled to adopt policies likely to prevent a repeat of the experience down the road due to their excessive dependence on the finance industry that caused it. The belt-tightening response of ‘austerity’ policies pursued by some governments – the UK included – punished the poor for the excesses of the rich and brought few benefits to anyone but a wealthy few. Perhaps a bit of Keynesian demand stimulus would have been a better bet, but it would still be unequal to the task of restoring prosperity to a chronically stagnant and indebted economy.

The second strategy nowadays goes by the name of neoliberalism, and is not much different from the logic of the classic capitalist economy as formulated by the likes of Adam Smith, except for Smith and the early economic thinkers the point of capitalism was to augment a country’s prosperity – it was, precisely, about ‘the wealth of nations’ – whereas in the contemporary neoliberal phase, capital assumes an increasingly non-territorial logic which often has the opposite effect of diminishing national prosperities. Smith famously coined the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ which engineered common good out of private selfishness, while his successor to the crown among the classical political economists, David Ricardo, developed the concept of ‘comparative advantage’ to show how national prosperity was augmented when a country focuses on its most remunerative industries (though only when capital flows are restricted and can’t travel the world in search of absolute advantage as they do today, a point that often seems to be forgotten in contemporary encomiums to economic specialisation).

Neoliberalism is effectively the death knell for Smith’s invisible hand and Ricardo’s comparative advantage. Inequality is on the rise in the west, and although this has been offset by the rise of a middle class in a few populous Asian countries the general picture remains one of extreme inequality in most of the world (44% of the rise in real per capita income since 1988 has gone to the top 5% of earners), stagnant growth, irredeemable debt and chronic joblessness. The mechanical automation that deprived blue collar workers of gainful work through the 20th century has been augmented by an electronic automation that’s now likewise depriving white collar workers. Yet ‘work’ in the form of wage labour is still the only realistic route to economic wellbeing available to most people in the capitalist west. The new phenomenon of ‘jobless recoveries’ points, however, to who is actually making the money – not workers, but the owners of capital (for example, in some years after 2008, the entire increase in the US economy went to the highest 0.01% of earners). Increasingly, businesses in the west have financialised and virtualised their operations in accordance with the cycle of decline mentioned earlier, using their money to make more money through a deregulated and ever-proliferating thicket of bewildering financial gerrymandering. Sovereign states no longer have any real purchase on these processes of capital accumulation, but they need to stake a claim to their piece of the resulting pie in order to keep their electorates in the manner to which they’re accustomed.  ‘Government’ has become ‘governance’; ‘democracy’ has become ‘technocracy’. This has led to a waning of political legitimacy for liberal-democratic governments in the eyes of their electorates, as the penetration of private market ideology ever further into the structures of everyday life ceases to feel like the liberating ‘development’ or ‘progress’ of an earlier capitalism and becomes more manifestly dysfunctional and predatory. Neoliberalism has become another ‘prison of nations’, caging the citizenries of nation-states. Hence, no doubt, the nationalist and anti-establishment turn in various recent elections in the west.

But at least in the west it’s still a gilded cage. In many of the countries of the ‘periphery’ that emerged from de facto or de jure colonialism in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, political freedom has not resulted in economic self-determination. Political freedom in itself has been hard enough to negotiate in postcolonial countries inheriting multi-ethnic populaces with historically arbitrary boundaries, weak economies geared to the extractive designs of the old colonial core, and weak, corruption-prone political institutions. The neoliberal turn from the 1970s compounded these problems economically through institutions such as the World Bank, the WTO, the IMF, the EU and – while I’m with the acronyms – the USA, which imposed more ‘imperialism of free trade’, tariff barriers, debt, and structural adjustment programmes based on spurious neoclassical models that gutted the social provision of healthcare, education and other human services and removed agricultural price supports. On the upside, the stain of rank hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty has been slightly ameliorated in recent years through multilateral global commitments, and arguably (only arguably) through agrarian technology in the form of the Green Revolution. But lowering the proportion of people earning a dollar or two a day doesn’t set the bar very high – inequality in general seems as intractable as ever.

Indeed, as I remarked earlier, poverty or ‘underdevelopment’ isn’t something separate from global capitalism in ‘developing’ countries hitherto excluded from the charmed circle of capitalist development, but is integral to the centre-periphery structuring of the global capitalist economy. One of the results of this is that, from a periphery country perspective, neoliberalism in the core looks a better bet than neoliberalism in the periphery. Likewise, cheap undocumented labour from the periphery often suits the designs of capital-owners in the core as a means of disciplining labour. Hence the pressure of global labour migration from periphery to core. At the same time, due to Malthusian fears for the future and the vagaries of global private markets, some of the world’s wealthier countries are reverting to the neo-colonial method of the land grab and directly-controlled plantation agriculture – sometimes to the benefit of the landless and marginalised in the target country, but usually to the detriment of those with a stronger foothold in the local economy.

Still, the issue of economic growth from a periphery country perspective doubtless raises tricky issues for environmentalists and ‘post-capitalists’. In the words of global poverty expert Branko Milanovic, economic growth is:

“the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality….One can hardly over-estimate its importance in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical”.

It is, for sure, no fun at all being a poor person living in a growth-oriented economy that isn’t growing. But objections of the sort Milanovic raises were brusquely, and to my mind quite effectively, dismissed long ago as “crocodile tears from latter-day Marie Antoinettes” by steady-state economics pioneer, Herman Daly: “We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future!….what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor”. It is, in any case, impossible for a growth-oriented economy to grow forever. This is partly because of the destructive effects on the wider planetary ecology which, despite all the talk of ‘decoupling’ growth from resource drawdown, remain stubbornly correlated with economic growth. It’s also because economic growth is not continuously sustainable according to its own economic logic.

All this surely suggests there’s an urgent need to break new ground and start figuring out not only how economies might ‘take-off’ but also how they might ‘land’ in the sense of delivering acceptable human health and wellbeing without seeking to grow their resource take endlessly. There’s a long tradition of heterodox economic thinking that tries to think through exactly this point. I plan to write more about it elsewhere, but in brief I’d say it’s hard to see how this could work without people in the ‘developed’ economies living lives that are considerably less resource intensive. Of the four modern political doctrines I identified earlier, agrarian populism is the only one that seems to me capable of addressing this reality attractively (fascism or feudalism would be less attractive alternatives). But at present this is all rather academic, since nobody with significant power in the world is challenging the growth model. As Wolfgang Streeck drily notes,

“what matters for global oligarchic wealth defence…is control over American politics to ensure, for example, that the American Congress will never agree to a global wealth tax as proposed, among others, by Thomas Piketty. As long as this is certain, it does not really matter who governs with what ambitions in France or Germany”

Streeck doesn’t say much about the shifting momentum of the global economy towards Asia, but it seems unlikely that Piketty’s proposals will play any better in Beijing.

Nearly home now – just a few more pieces in this post-neoliberal jigsaw. The modern world has seen various religious fundamentalisms – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist to name a few. These are often seen as some kind of throwback to the premodern past, but are better viewed as modern phenomena – typically an ‘invention of tradition’ by people excluded from the major circuits of wealth and influence in modern polities who seek revitalisation by a ‘traditionalist’ critique of the modern and a validation of their role. Another developing phenomenon under the pressure of contemporary geopolitics and the neoliberal economic order is the spread of ‘failed’ or ‘warlord’ states – either ones like Somalia or Libya that fail more-or-less endogenously, or ones like Iraq and Afghanistan where the intervention of global and/or regional powers does the failing on their behalf. Likewise, there can be ‘failed regions’ within states, where organised crime and banditry proliferates. All such areas can become potent zones for the export of violence against the wider global system – criminal, terrorist or fundamentalist – potentially with disproportionately destabilising effects. The desert nomads of the Axial Age who railed against the corruption of the great cities of their day might have been at home there.

At the same time, an increasingly large number of people can now count themselves among those left out of the major circuits of global wealth and influence, but religious reaction remains something of a minority taste in the contemporary world. Instead, in the face of the fiscalised and technocratic turn of democratic polities, populist articulations of the interests of the ‘little people’ against elite actors have a growing pull. Hence the trajectory of Russia from communism to oligarchic turbo-capitalism and thence to populist nationalism under the aegis of an ex-communist strongman reining in the oligarchs and the liberal public sphere along with them. Various other countries, including perhaps the UK and the USA, seem to be travelling similar roads, or are poised to. Among the many problems with these populisms is the fact that despite their rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ from global institutions and their spurious, undeliverable promises to spend more on the National Health Service (UK) or revive the coal and steel industries (USA), they offer no more solutions to stagnant growth, inequality, debt and the changing global distribution of economic power than the ‘elite’ liberal capitalism they contest, and have neither the capacity nor the stomach to contest the global neoliberal economy in the face of the further impoverishment of their electorates. With wealth in these two countries (among many others) concentrating into ever fewer hands, it’s maybe not so difficult to see why their electorates went for the populist options of EU exit and a Donald Trump presidency, but it’s harder to see what solutions these choices will deliver.

Many voices across the political spectrum – left, right, green – have united to celebrate this apparent death knell for liberalism, including such august voices on the left as the New Left Review, green gurus like John Michael Greer and, on the right, well take your pick. I think it’s correct to argue that there are different kinds of populism, and attempts to vilify them all as a common threat to the liberal democracy that ‘we’ hold dear are both futile and ill-conceived. On the other hand, though persuasive in many respects, the John Judis position endorsed by New Left Review as a “level-headed antidote to the bien-pensant Atlantic hysteria of the hour” with its “fashionable fear of fascism” seems complacent to me, as does the uncritical endorsement of populisms among many left/green thinkers apparently on the grounds that at least Donald Trump isn’t Hilary Clinton, and at least Theresa May isn’t Jean-Claude Juncker. Even NLR’s own reviewer of Judis’s book says that it’s “difficult to share his nonchalance about our stable political future”. Fascism, nativism or something like them is one very obvious future trajectory for the populism of the moment to take – as the curve of politics in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and India may already suggest. If that seems less likely in the US or Western Europe, it’s surely because of the strength of the liberal public sphere that it’s become so fashionable to deride. In future posts I plan to make a cautious pitch for a certain kind of agrarian populism, one that tries to retain elements of the liberal public sphere that’s so derided by people like Donald Trump and John Michael Greer. That, I think, still makes me a ‘populist’, but not one supportive of any kind of populism. Let me whisper it – there are some things that may be even worse than Hilary Clinton.

A possibly anomalous case in all this is China, probably the country most likely to step into the shoes being vacated by the USA as the leader of global capitalism in the leapfrog race that started back in medieval Europe with the Italian city states. There are those who argue that despite Deng Xiaoping getting the credit for modernising China in the aftermath of Mao’s excesses, the foundations for contemporary China’s capitalist success were laid by Mao with his rural, agrarian focus, which allowed later rulers to build capitalist industry out of small-scale labour-intensive rural industry from the ground up without an urban middle-class to contest for political and economic power.

Hsiao-Hung Pai is having none of that: “The Chinese ruling class is not short of supporters in the West. Certain Orientalist apologists in the Western media – for instance, British journalist Martin Jacques – have embraced the party rhetoric of China developing ‘on its own terms, with its own rules’”. This, she says, is ‘blatantly untrue’, and her work documents the way that China’s recent economic miracle has been built to a considerable degree on the tried-and-tested method of squeezing a surplus out of the peasantry, who are bureaucratically prevented by the household registration system from enjoying the fruits of their own exploited labour. When Ecomodernist Manifesto co-author Mike Shellenberger multiply-tweeted his disdain for my pro-peasant critique of his magnum opus, he wrote “efforts to keep people in villages oppressive”. So I find it quite ironic that this, precisely, has been the strategy of the world’s fastest-growing capitalist power. The question for contemporary agrarian populists such as me is whether we can ‘keep people in villages’ without compelling them to stay there. As I’ll argue in a later post, I think the only way we can keep people in the village is by not compelling them to be there, but that in itself doesn’t take us far in answering the question.

Here though, I think China does present some worthy historical lessons. Pai is probably right that we shouldn’t overdo the ‘Asian path to capitalism’ shtick, but what interests me more is the Asian pre-capitalist path – particularly in the context of Smith’s critique of Europe’s ‘unnatural development’. Looked at from the perspective of the emergence of capitalism and colonialism in the early modern world, maybe it makes sense to talk about the ‘involution’ or ‘equilibrium traps’ that ‘blocked’ parallel developments in Asia. But looked at from the perspective of the godawful mess created by capitalist and colonial ‘development’, it seems to me that a touch of agricultural involution here and a dash of high level equilibrium trap there would be no bad thing at all. For me, the question is how to create a ‘world system’ involving tolerably prosperous and stable agrarian livelihoods, without too much self-overcoming, too much reaching beyond itself for counter-productive ‘development’.

So as I see it humanity now faces a choice. We can continue extolling the virtues of ‘development’, pin our hopes on a rapid decarbonisation of the energy system while retaining something like present levels of energy usage, and imagine that a further iteration of the capitalist economy will somehow overcome the grinding poverty that afflicts so many people in the world today. Or we could take the view that the forms of development offered by this ‘modernism’ have failed. They haven’t increased the efficiency of agriculture or industry, they’ve merely increased the speed with which non-renewable resources are drawn down. They haven’t abolished poverty, but in fact are predicated on its constant re-invention. And, for all my appreciation of Berman’s thinking on the excitement of modernity, I don’t think they’ve provided satisfactory accounts of what modern life is all about. They’ve merely provided endless distractions and projections of a better future built from the never-quite-satisfactory present, which do little more than celebrate ‘progress’ for progress’s sake – as in Leigh Phillips’ panegyrics for a dismal-sounding future of ‘growth, progress, industry and stuff’. There are other thinkers who provide much more sophisticated defences of the amplifying material basis of contemporary capitalism than Phillips, but this scarcely negates the fact that there are better ways of construing social life than a gigantic potlatch.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 9. The 20th century – four doctrines

And so we come to instalment #9 of 10½ in my history of the world – a rather lengthy one, but the 20th century was a busy old time. As ever, a fully footnoted and referenced version of the essay is here. And just to note, I’ll be completely offline next week as I’m going to a meeting of small-scale farmers from various parts of the world in Nicaragua. I generally try to avoid flying these days, but the prospect of an expenses-paid trip to look at Nicaraguan farms and talk to other small-scale farmers was too much of a temptation, I’m afraid. Normal service here again from 27 November. I’ll try to weight each word I speak during the trip with such a payload of carbon negativity that its associated emissions will be offset by my utterances alone…That’s doable, right? Talking of words, do feel free to debate (constructively) on here in my absence…unless you’ve never posted before, in which case I’m afraid you’ll have to await my return. And on that note, it’s been good to have a few new voices on here recently…so if you’re reading this but haven’t yet commented…go on…


Let me continue with my chronology by saying that the first part of the 20th century saw the contradictions in the previously-described nexus of capitalist, colonial, modernist, alt-modernist, nationalist and imperial orders transformed in the massive shakedowns of global war and revolution. Pre-modern empires such as Habsburg Austria-Hungary – “the prison of nations” according to Balkan nationalists – along with Tsarist Russia, imperial China and the Ottoman empire came crashing down. To simplify just a bit, there were essentially four main political doctrines contesting for power in this period. First, liberal-democratic capitalism, encompassing both more elitist and more social-democratic variants. Second, communism – and specifically the idea that the industrial wage-earning working-class had a privileged world-historical role to play in overcoming capitalism and installing an egalitarian, socialist, non-market society (which was not how communism turned out in practice). Third, agrarian populism – the idea that the state should focus primarily upon supporting small-scale farmer-proprietors, the backbone of many contemporary societies. Fourth, fascism – a weird amalgam of most of the others, encompassing a mixture of egalitarian workerist ideology with private sector capitalism and state dirigisme, a kind of hyper-development of the nationalist identification between the people and the polity in which ‘the people’ were more or less sublimated within the agency of a neo-imperialist state, a vaunting of the peasant and the countryside as nationalist ideals (rarely a vaunting of actual peasants, who weren’t much moved by fascism) and an often racialized treatment of pariah groups traversing the spectrum from discrimination to genocide – all of which drew in some ways upon the alt-modernist tradition and in other ways represented a politics of ressentiment which was its absolute negation.

A further word on agrarian populism, an almost forgotten idea today but one that had powerful traction in many parts of the world around the turn of the 20th century and one that, in my opinion, sorely needs reviving. In the USA, the People’s Party seriously contested for power in the late 19th century, but quickly fizzled out. Historical orthodoxy on what US agrarian populism stood for has been subject to various revisions over time – in the mid-20th century the populists were commonly dismissed as hayseeds who failed to adjust to the invigorating winds of modernity. By the 1960s, when those winds had soured, historians were treating them as prescient anti-capitalist communitarians, who saw what corporate capitalism had in store for the world and wisely rejected it. In more recent scholarship, the US populists have been portrayed as rural progressive-capitalists who were pretty much on-message with the major trends in the emerging contemporary capitalist order, but just had a more agrarian and ruralist vision for it than the course that history actually took. Certainly, it could be argued that an anti-capitalist peasant populism was never deeply rooted in the USA or Canada because of the historical peculiarities of their settler-colonial ‘American path’ to capitalism that I mentioned earlier. But where does that argument lead? Well, we’ll come back to that question soon.

First, though, another example of agrarian populism – the US’s southern neighbour. The Mexican Revolution was the first of six major ‘peasant wars of the twentieth century’ analysed by Eric Wolf in his classic text (the others being Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba). In Wolf’s analysis, what distinguished these 20th century peasant insurrections was that they weren’t simply reactionary attempts to slough off the capitalist state and ‘turn the clock back’ – they were attempts to find new social forms that overcame the depredations worked by the capitalist world economy on peasant producers. In Mexico, this manifested in a rather complex set of alliances between peasant cultivators steeped in indigenous rural-communal traditions (eg. the Morelos peasants under Zapata), the caudillo cowboy capitalists of Villa’s northern army and its military entrepreneurs (perhaps a modern variant of that age-old archetype, the predatory pastoralist) and a disaffected professional-intellectual class of ‘marginal men’, which in the Mexican case was influenced by the anarchism of Ricardo Flores Magón but elsewhere looked to other sources of inspiration such as communism. The category of the disaffected intellectual seems to me an important player in the new anti-establishment politics of modernity, if I say so myself. I think Marshall Berman analyses it beautifully in the case of Russia in his aforementioned book. But in Mexico, although the convention forces represented by Zapata and Villa effectively won the war, they didn’t win the revolutionary peace. The iconic moment was Zapata and Villa meeting in the Palacio Nacional, having taken Mexico City. Villa, sitting in the presidential chair, allegedly said to Zapata that it was “too big for us”. The peasant revolutionaries had no real plan for controlling the country as a whole, and drifted back to their regional strongholds. In Wolf’s words “final victory rewarded an elite which had created a viable army, demonstrated bureaucratic competence, and consolidated its control over the vital export sector of the economy”. Revolutionary hostilities ended in 1920, and the country fell under the strong-arm rule of the PRI, the ‘Institutional Revolution Party’, right through to the 21st century – a party that retained some vestiges of agrarian populist sentiment and a lot of socialist and anti-colonial rhetoric, but essentially followed a private sector-friendly and in some respects quasi-fascist corporate structure.

The logic of Wolf’s analysis, then, is that peasants – even in their contemporary guise as savvy modernist anti-capitalists – don’t quite cut it as revolutionaries. This was Lenin’s view too, which was roughly that if you leave revolution in the hands of peasants all you’ll get is equalisation of land and the removal of taxes. He wasn’t much more complimentary about industrial workers, considering their typical politics to amount to little more than the ‘trade unionism’ of better pay and conditions. So, for him, you needed party cadres to push revolution successfully beyond these ‘capitalist’ limits towards communism.

Lenin and communism: I’ll take that as a cue to bundle up some more 20th century history with a few conceptual issues concerning peasantries. So, one of the numerous embarrassments for 20th century Marxism was that while the master himself had predicted that communist revolution would occur in the most advanced capitalist countries where the arc of history decreed the purest of final battles between capital and labour, in fact all the major communist revolutions of the century were peasant-dominated ones in countries of the semi-periphery. With some, albeit limited, justification, Lenin recuperated the capital-labour clash within the peasantry by defining a stratum of ‘rich’ proto-capitalist peasants, and ‘poor’/landless proto-proletarian peasants in Russia, amongst other places. He also identified the stratum of the middle peasant which, he wrote, “inevitably vacillates” between the capitalist/proletarian interests of the other two. It therefore had to be “neutralised” by the revolutionary proletariat – neutralised, he explained, in the sense of “rendered neutral in the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie”, but without coercion.

With a bit more history at his disposal, Eric Wolf argued on the contrary that in the peasant wars of the 20th century it was precisely the middle peasants who were the most revolutionary class. But, as I’ve mentioned, Lenin wasn’t an enthusiast of peasant revolutions of whatever stripe. His criticism of the left agrarian populists – the narodniki – and their vision of an egalitarian peasant society is instructive,

“The more decisive and complete the success of the peasant revolution, the more speedily will the peasant transform himself into an independent capitalist farmer and wave good-bye to the socialism of the narodniki

As things turned out, the Russian peasantry was ‘neutralised’ more or less in its entirety by Lenin’s successor, and with a great deal of coercion. There are those who argue that this ruthless forced industrialisation enabled Russia to become the powerful modern capitalist country that it is today, which adds a layer of irony to Lenin’s strictures against the narodniki. But it surely wasn’t a surprising development. For all the Cold War duality of the late 20th century between the liberal-capitalist and communist paths, they were both scions of high modernist thought and shared more similarities than differences: an emphasis on disciplined labour, revolutionary breakthroughs, scientific and social progress – including ‘scientific’ leadership of mass society – and large-scale technological solutions. In China, Mao’s (equally ruthless) communism was more grounded in an agrarian productivism of a peasant-dominated countryside – though as Wolf cautions, the Chinese communists weren’t a ‘peasant party’ despite the fact that most of their membership were peasants. Rather, like their Russian counterparts they “were able to harness peasant energies, but for ends never dreamed of by the peasantry”. Though, conversely, Maoist movements have also tended to harness their own energies for dreams of a purified peasantism that were anti-modernist in content but modernist and totalitarian in design. This would apply, for example, to regimes like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. I’d like to think that the ideology of peasantism is capacious enough for me to espouse a version of it without having to expend a lot of energy differentiating my position from the Khmer Rouge, but in case there’s any doubt let me state categorically that I don’t think Democratic Kampuchea is a good model for a peasant republic.

In the event, it was Russian communism that collapsed under the weight of its crypto-capitalist contradictions, whereas Chinese communism after Mao transmogrified into an emerging global capitalist power while retaining its authoritarian regime, which remained nominally committed to communism. Some argue that this was potentiated by the rural-peasant economic focus of Maoism – in which case, do we have to generalise from Lenin’s critique of the narodniki and conclude that all roads ultimately lead to capitalism? I’d argue a qualified ‘yes’ – like a replicating virus, once the capitalist economic machinery is unleashed it ultimately becomes hard for other economic forms to do anything but turn themselves into replicas of it, regardless of the damage it causes to the host. Perhaps the recent capitalist development path of Japan and the so-called ‘Asian tiger’ economies like Taiwan and South Korea, which built industrial societies partly via public sector investment from a platform of support for small-scale farming, further underlines the point.  But the ‘yes’ is qualified – for reasons I’ll examine in a later post.

A relevant contemporary coda to the modernist enthusiasm for technical progress and increasing scale shared by capitalism and communism is the embarrassing fact for them that small-scale farming often out-produces large-scale capitalist enterprises on an acre for acre basis – a finding that, despite the best efforts of Marxist and/or modernist critics to argue otherwise, isn’t completely explicable in terms of peasant self-exploitation in circumstances of economic stress (though it partly is). One of the problems with the ‘inverse productivity relationship’ literature is that ‘productivity’ is measured in different ways – typically farm income or yields of a key staple crop, but rarely human flourishing. Nor are upstream and downstream input costs usually incorporated – fossil energy used, greenhouse gases emitted, nitrate pollution caused. If they were, it’s a fair bet that the inverse productivity relationship would intensify. The truth is that agriculture has been far less amenable to trade-off free efficiency improvements through technological transformation than other economic sectors, and there are good scientific reasons why putting humans at the ecological centre of the small farm pays dividends. It’s still the orthodoxy to decry the ‘inefficiency’ of the small peasant farm relative to the large, mechanised capitalist one, but I’d argue that it’s a less forgivable mistake now than in 1899. Anyway, I suspect small farmers may have the last laugh. I like David Mitrany’s prescient comment from 1951: “Experience would almost suggest that often it is the smallholder and not the capitalist farmer who could best satisfy the Marxist demand for scientific, prolific cultivation”. Unfortunately, contemporary Marxists and capitalists alike still seem a bit too in thrall to Lenin and Kautsky.

Still, I don’t want to discount the benefits of the Marxist tradition in drawing attention to class and other conflicts in the rural or peasant world. Numerous rural populist movements have tended to conceal specific class, gender or ethnic interests. As I’ve previously mentioned, ‘the peasantry’ isn’t a unified category, and it’s important to remain attuned to whose interests are being represented within agrarian populist movements and whose are being sidelined – a point both tirelessly and tiresomely documented by the Marxist analyst and sometime editor of The Journal of Peasant Studies, Tom Brass.

The problem with Brass is that he defines class conflict a priori as effectively the only true basis for human action – so for him any movement or theory that invokes any other motives is by definition a mystification. The mystifications that he especially disdains are anything essential or emotional – love of place, of home, of the rural, of nature, of local culture, or perhaps of what the pioneering anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus called “the mystery of the wheat shaft breaking through the hard crust of earth” – in keeping with the preference for relations over essences or ‘reification’ exhibited by social scientists in general and Marxists in particular, who often seem too busy revelling in the relational dynamics of their grand historical dialectics to revel in the world as it’s experienced. I chose the epigraph from Old Crow Medicine Show at the start of my essay to exemplify this way of thinking – “the land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a hurtin’” and the song from which it comes captures a mode of agrarian thinking that’s critical of its circumstances but fully inhabits the imperfect present in a way that’s alien to Marxism and to most social science. Of course, it’s as well to ask whose interests are being advanced in any particular situation, but reading Brass prompts the question of what kind of life would ultimately satisfy him? My guess is something that would look a lot like the Ecomodernist Manifesto – an egalitarian, urban world of limitless energy, consumer items, scientific marvels, labour-saving devices and mental stimulation, tantalisingly within reach but always just receding from the disappointing present into the achievable perfection of the near future. You’ve got to admire him for spending so much time studying peasants.

Few adopt so dogmatic an anti-populism as Brass, but the same ambience invests a good deal of academic writing about peasantries, particularly in the Journal of Peasant Studies which must surely be one of the few academic periodicals that has been so resolutely dedicated to abolishing the object of its enquiry. Terence Byres, for example, another erstwhile editor of the journal, has written some incisive critiques of contemporary agrarian populism, essentially along the lines that naïve ‘peasant way’ thinking can be insufficiently attuned to the subtleties of class conflict and the insinuation of capitalist economic relations in the countryside. But the problem is that Byres’ subtle understanding of rural class relations is yoked to an unsubtle Marxist teleology in which capitalism seems to be regarded as a necessary and superior, if painful, stage for peasantries to go through before they can exit from its other side, presumably into some kind of socialist utopia of material plenty. So, for example, in critiquing neo-populist calls for rural land reform Byres argues,

“industrial growth….with concomitant shifts of labour from the countryside, has been a crucial means by which rural poverty has been reduced and eradicated historically”

…a statement of orthodox, unilinear pro-capitalism of the kind you’d expect to cross the lips of a Walt Rostow or a Stewart Brand – which just goes to show once again the close affinities between Marxism and capitalism. Still, there’s undoubtedly some truth in the remark – except that it isn’t a radical solution to rural poverty because, as argued earlier, industrialisation conforms to a dynamic of uneven development, turning poverty into a whack-a-mole game of shifting centres and peripheries. Industrial wage labour is certainly one strategy pursued by the rural poor when they can, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward route out of poverty either at the individual or the global level. In a likely future context of slowing economic growth and ecological crisis, neo-populist attempts to understand why poor people stay poor and redress them locally through the structures of agrarian life seem to me well conceived.

So there’s a growth or accumulation fetish in much writing on poverty and development (grow the economy and poverty will ultimately reduce) which is understandable but, I think, increasingly problematic. In this sense, I’d argue that Byres’ critique of agrarian neo-populism for its ahistorical utopianism becomes the epitaph for his own anti-peasant Marxism:

“To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes….one…has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past. They are déjà passé.”

Quite so. The days when it was a good idea to advocate for the capitalist transformation of peasant farming as a route to improved wellbeing and ultimately to socialism, if they ever existed, are now clearly in the past. What’s emerged more strongly since Byres wrote those words is the contemporary food sovereignty movement associated with the international peasant movement La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’) – perhaps what could be called a ‘neo-neo-populist’ movement, with British offshoots in the form of the Scottish crofters’ federation and my own organisation, the Land Workers’ Alliance. Food sovereignty arguably transcends the old debates between populists and Marxists – a new discourse of “growers and eaters” which is “re-envisioning the conditions necessary to develop sustainable and democratic forms of social reproduction. Still, it remains vulnerable to critique at both its less radical and more radical edges. At the less radical edge, it doubtless runs risks of the kind identified by both Lenin and Byres – a successful local agrarianism that gradually turns itself into a landholder-dominated or ‘yeoman’ capitalism, which abandons its sustainable and democratic founding principles. At the more radical edge, it’s perhaps vulnerable to the kind of criticisms levelled by Henry Bernstein against the food sovereignty movement – the implausibility of local, small-scale, low-tech farming feeding the world’s swelling billions who are increasingly located in urban areas dependent on an industrial and globalised agroecosystem. That surely invites a counter-critique: it’s unlikely that the global-industrial agroecosystem will ultimately prove able to feed the urban billions either, with the rather radical implication that perhaps the time has come for governments to pursue de-urbanisation (though maybe not so radical – they did, after all, pursue urbanisation policies at a time when they seemed a good idea, and could presumably do the opposite in changed circumstances). The usefulness of these critiques is perhaps in encouraging the food sovereignty movement to develop wider political and policy frameworks that are more specifically grounded than its founding utopian visions – and in not assuming that local markets are necessarily any more benevolent in and of themselves than distant ones. That’s something I hope to contribute to in future posts that build on the historical analysis offered here.

For their part, the economic founding fathers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx usually avoided explicit utopian visioning, so the utopianism of neoliberals and Marxists alike tends to remain rather hidden, but not absent, as a result. However, even Marx provided a famous utopian image of an achieved communist society:

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

…which, aside from ‘society regulating the general production’, sounds a lot like your average peasant utopia. That passage is from The German Ideology, published in 1845 when Marx was 27 – a hinge point in his thinking according to Louis Althusser, who argued that Marx achieved an ‘epistemological break’ at this point and put aside such whimsies thereafter for a truly ‘scientific’, anti-humanist and structuralist socialism. Althusser’s work was highly influential in its time and was still being inflicted in the 1980s on bemused undergraduates like me, but it hasn’t aged well. Another and almost opposite recuperation of Marx’s later thinking that I find much more attractive has been set out in a fascinating recent book by Kristin Ross about the influence of the short-lived Paris Commune on radical thought. According to Ross, the events in Paris and the rise of peasant  communisms in Eastern Europe led Marx to retreat from his grand Hegelian narratives concerning the dialectical progress of history from peasant to capitalist society and only thence to communism. Instead, she says, he developed a more contingent sense of the possibilities for radical egalitarian government in specific times and places, such as a peasant communism in Russia grounded in traditional peasant communal institutions like the ‘village council’ – the mir or obshina. Ross traces the same idea in the crossover of anarchist and communist thought represented by such figures as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus. A somewhat ‘backward-looking’ contemporary Russian nationalism is also reinvesting these institutions with political meaning, but Ross stresses that in the hands of radicals like Marx and Kropotkin the point wasn’t to fetishise the communal institutions of the past, but to build from them, in Kropotkin’s words, “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”.

The difficulty, I think, is that the conditions in which it’s feasible to build plausible ‘bottom-up’ anarchist-communist societies are unusual, and their chances of longevity are slight – either because they’re annihilated by the stronger forces of the centralised state (as happened with the Paris Commune), or because they succumb to the internal contradictions of their own somewhat hidden power dynamics. Still, Ross’s analysis raises a lot of interesting questions concerning the course that a free, egalitarian peasant society of the future might take.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts – 8. Of reconstituted peasantries and alternate modernities

Continuing with my ‘History of the world’. As ever, the fully referenced version of this essay is available here.

I’m going to come back to the issue of peasantries as the ‘universal class’ at the end of this essay. For now, I’d just like to broach the issue by returning to the question of peasantries under capitalism by way of what the doyen of Caribbean anthropology, Sidney Mintz, called ‘reconstituted peasantries’. Mintz was referring specifically to the rise of peasant farmers in the Caribbean around the edges and in the aftermath of the slave plantation system – people who weren’t originally peasants, but workers in the capitalist world economy (plantation slaves) who turned to peasant farming as the best available option open to them under changing circumstances.

I’d like to submit Mintz’s concept for more generalised use – at points of breakdown in the capitalist world system, peasant production can present itself as an attractive or, at least, as a least-worst option. For those of us who suspect that major breakdowns in the capitalist world system are likely in future, the possibility of a more widespread emergence of ‘reconstituted peasantries’ becomes interesting. If that’s how things turn out, an intriguing question is the extent to which post-capitalist reconstituted peasantries of the future might resemble any peasantries of the capitalist or pre-capitalist past. In other words, is the history of agrarian production and its social structures prior to and during the development of the capitalist world system relevant to its future after capitalism – does agrarian society have a predictable structuring – or have I been wasting my time reading and writing about all this history? The answer will surely depend on how capitalism might end, and what form post-capitalist states might take – questions that remain rather disreputable to mainstream thought, particularly when one starts talking about a future return to peasant farming. But, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s a growing sub-genre of ‘post-capitalist’ writing available. One of the problems with it is precisely that it doesn’t adequately talk about peasants or the contemporary ‘agrarian question’ – what Mazoyer and Roudart call a world agrarian crisis that requires the development of the ‘poor peasant economy’.

In any case, to summarise where we’ve got to in this survey of capitalism, I’ve charted above three main dimensions of capitalist development – agriculture, manufactures and commerce – and given some weighting to commerce in its military-colonial expansionary drive as the main engine of the ‘Great Divergence’ that has made the west the core region of the world economic system over the last two centuries or so. But as well as looking at what actually happened, is it also worth applying some normative judgment to the ‘proper’ course of economic development? Well, we could surely do worse than follow the example of Adam Smith, much feted pioneering theorist of the modern capitalist economy who, among other things, has posthumously donated his name to the eponymous institute much beloved of Margaret Thatcher and succeeding generations of neoliberals, which has done more than its share in spreading the neoliberal doctrine of untrammelled private markets as the solution to all the world’s ills. Smith emphasised the “soft, gentle and amiable virtues” necessary to the commercial society his work foretold, but he argued that such “general security and happiness…afford little exercise to the contempt of danger, to patience in enduring labour, hunger and pain” which he seemingly preferred. He identified a “natural course of things” in which “the greater part of capital…is, first, directed to agriculture, afterwards to manufactures, and last of all to foreign commerce”. He found this ‘natural course’ in the history of China, whereas in Europe he considered the ordering reversed – which he found “unnatural and retrograde”. Buried within the ur-text of capitalism’s impetus to commercialisation and genteel progress, perhaps there lurks a hankering for the more muscular virtues of an agrarian republic?

So let me now trace some of the ways the virulent new capitalist political economy played out across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century ended as it began with many of the world’s people working primarily as small-scale, self-providing cultivators under the weaker or stronger suzerainty of large empires whose rise predated capitalism. But things weren’t the same at century’s end as at the beginning – a globalising capitalist economy had thoroughly penetrated the existing order and dominated it politically through direct or indirect colonial rule. As I’ve already mentioned, in some cases apparently ‘traditional’ lifeways of peasant subsistence were augmented or even created through colonial processes that sapped the economic lifeblood of conquered polities and their peoples, making subsistence cultivation a strategy of last resort. In others, the surplus-producing aspects of peasant production were redirected to the ends of the capitalist world system. There are numerous variants of this capitalist appropriation of peasant surplus production across the modern global economy – including the increasingly demonised and disciplined category of impoverished international labour migrants, many of whom remain connected to a farm and village back home, and may indeed be working in the short-term for low wages in a ‘developed’ country in order to generate sufficient wealth to establish themselves as a landowner or ‘rich peasant’ able to be relatively independent locally of world market forces. So whereas there are those who say that more capitalism is needed in order to end the misery of peasant life, there are also those who seek more peasantism in order to end the misery of capitalist life.

Meanwhile, nationalism took shape on the political stage – essentially a family of doctrines which weaponised differences of language, religion, phenotype or putatively shared culture-history. Such differences had long prompted human conflicts back into antiquity (perhaps with the exception of phenotype). What was different with modern nationalism was the notion that these differences coincided organically with the boundaries of sovereign political states, which were the only legitimate representatives of ‘the people’. With undeniable emotional power, nationalism makes us think that an entity like ‘Britain’ is a natural political unit (or ‘England’ at any rate – oh dear, we’re running into difficulties already). But as Immanuel Wallerstein points out, nationalism is always a case of “First the boundaries, later the passions” – historically, an Angevin polity of England, Wales and western France could plausibly have stabilised itself after Henry II. What then of an immemorial ‘Englishness’?

The genesis of these nationalisms was multi-factorial. I wrote earlier of their gestational phase in the absolutist states of the late medieval period, but they only assumed their contemporary form in the clash between egalitarian Enlightenment rationalism and Counter-Enlightenment romanticism. Bruce Kapferer nicely summarizes the problem raised by this clash and the way that nationalism tries to resolve it:

“Among nation-states formed within the conditions of egalitarian individualism the issue of legitimacy has an enduring problematic specific to it. This is so because the individual autonomy preached as a central part of egalitarianism potentially conflicts with the loss or surrender of this autonomy to others, specifically agents of the state. One resolution, part of the fury of Western political discourse from the seventeenth century on, is precisely the argument that the state embodies the pure spirit of the people and is the guardian of this spirit.”

Other elements of the nationalist package included an emerging biological-racial consciousness of human difference, secularization and the eclipse of religion, and the emergence of mass societies in which people no longer lived in rural face-to-face communities of known others, but large conurbations of strangers – mass circulation newspapers, sports and other 19th century innovations enabled the creation of new ‘imagined communities’ and new ‘invented traditions’, to use the powerful metaphors invoked by two influential theorists of nationalism.

But alongside these efforts to forge a mass common purpose within the exclusive boundaries of the nation, a counter-tradition developed that sought to recuperate the sovereign individual from the tawdriness of the emerging capitalist mass society. The tradition defies easy summary, partly because it’s scarcely unified, but in an interesting recent essay Gopal Balakrishnan calls it a ‘revolution from the right’, involving a “miscellany of opposition to the welfare state, godless Marxism and a more nebulously conceived cultural levelling…a call to true elites to stand their ground against a world-wide revolt of the masses”. Balakrishnan traces its lineages through the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler’s Decline of the West, the ‘Nazi jurist’ Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss. It’s not a tradition, I confess, in which I’m especially well versed or feel comfortable with – and in its cruder variants it’s one that’s easy to dismiss as a kind of disgusted reactionary response to what struck its proponents as the unstoppable rise of the (sometimes racialized) hoi polloi, a kind of counter-modernity to the one described by Berman. Still, I can see that a figure like Nietzsche, for example – with his pronouncements on the death of God and modern disenchantment, on the slave revolt in morals, on the vengeful politics of ressentiment – has important things to say about living in the modern world and the issues of political sovereignty it involves. But I find it all a bit overblown, and if I wanted to ground my politics in a consistent theory of being I think I’d want to look towards cooler philosophies like stoicism or Taoism as a basis for a self-reliant agrarian politics.

Balakrishnan’s ‘revolution from the right’ is important, though – partly because of its influence on the radical right-wing politics of the present and recent past, and partly because of the new crossovers it has with leftist thought on the terrain of contemporary environmentalism, which I’ve been butting up against recently on this blog. From Spengler to John Michael Greer, Heidegger to Paul Kingsnorth, maybe even Nietzsche to David Fleming (or maybe not…), there’s an undertow of Balakrishnan’s right-wing ‘alternate modernity’ as well as an egalitarian leftism in these contemporary radical ecological thinkers. I mention this here not primarily to criticise them for it. I think there’s something in the counter-tradition they’re invoking that’s necessary and largely absent from the left-green politics that’s more comfortable terrain for the likes of me – something that’s easily traduced by crude polemicists of the doctrinaire left as just another iteration of the far-right nature mysticism investing early 20th century environmentalism. Even so, I think Kingsnorth and Fleming’s cautious flirtations with nationalism, and Greer’s (and to some extent Kingsnorth’s) uncritical approbation of Donald Trump as a kind of avatar of Spenglerian decline and/or avenger of liberal-capitalist complacency are problematic. I plan to write more about this soon when I’ve got to grips with it better – meanwhile, I’ve found Balakrishnan’s essay useful for placing this current of contemporary environmentalist thought into a deeper historical context.

The return of the peasant: or, the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 7. Capitalism, the state and historical progress

Continuing with my history of the world…

Earlier, I characterised the emergence of capitalism in relation to the transformation of the four medieval figures of the lord, the peasant, the merchant, and the king. But I haven’t yet said anything about the king – except in relation to the strengthening of royal houses under absolutist state-forming enterprises which prefigured capitalist development. By the time the star of capitalism was rising, kings had largely lost their medieval role as military strongmen. And as we enter the early modern epoch, the idea of royal sovereignty in the form of an embodied individual – the monarch – started giving way to something more figurative, the fertile but troublesome idea of the sovereignty of the people. Classics of early modern political philosophy such as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan enable us to peek under the bonnet and watch the workings as the king was thus turned into the modern state. So, likewise, I’ll interpret the question of the role of the ‘king’ in capitalism more figuratively in terms of the role of the state.

The basic point is that despite our contemporary post-socialist tendency to counterpose ‘the market’ of the capitalist economy with ‘the state’, capitalist development has always been a state project, albeit in partnership with private actors. Without the state, there’d certainly be no capitalism, and probably not even all that much of a ‘market’ in the sense of places where people come together to buy and sell goods. The commercial ventures of early European capitalism both within and beyond the subcontinent’s borders were joint public-private efforts. Their success made countries like Britain and the Netherlands the richest tax-states the world had yet seen. An important feature of them was that state exchequers no longer functioned as the essentially private booty of warrior aristocracies but were redirected towards the aggrandisement of the state as a more organic national body. It’s not necessary to succumb to the delusion that capitalist states held the wellbeing of all their constituent people in equal regard in order to acknowledge this broad difference between a modern state grounded in the idea of the sovereignty of the people and a medieval one grounded in the idea of the sovereignty of the monarch. But whatever the rights or wrongs of the early modern capitalist states, it does seem to me that all the potential jockeying between lord and yeoman, yeoman and labourer, merchant and lord and so on implicit in my preceding account could easily have gone in directions that would have interrupted the smooth progress of capital accumulation. The fact that it didn’t testifies to the importance of the state in mediating between these various factions in the interests of capital.

So to summarise, when it comes to deciding who among our cast of medieval characters – the king, the lord, the peasant or the merchant – was the prime architect of capitalism, my inclination is to let the historians keep arguing among themselves, and say with a shrug ‘all of the above’. But if I were forced to choose, I’d go for the merchant, with a little help from the king. Perhaps this makes intuitive sense inasmuch as one thing we can surely say about contemporary capitalism compared to its medieval forerunners is that ‘the market’ looms much larger in the former, and markets are what merchants are all about, right? Well, yes – except that under capitalism ‘markets’ in the medieval sense (traders selling their wares in a market square, or middlemen clinching hard-wrung business deals in harbour-front warehouses) have lost ground to vast vertically- and horizontally-integrated corporate enterprises whose very modus operandi is, with the collusion of the state, to defeat competition and destroy the market.

Now, as I mentioned above, one of the main ways that champions of the capitalist economy justify it is in terms of the stuff it produces – the wonderful panoply of consumer goods and technological marvels that it makes available to ordinary people. And two of the main ways that its critics counter this argument are by suggesting, first, that this wonderful panoply is socially dysfunctional, and, second, that it’s environmentally unsustainable. But a third criticism is that it’s economically unsustainable in its own terms. Going back to the definition of capitalism on p.18, I want to note that the driving force of the system is capital accumulation, which secures the reproduction of society only as an ‘unintended side-effect’. The incentive in a capitalist economy is to accumulate capital in whatever way is easiest, and only in certain special circumstances does that involve manufacturing goods, improving the technical efficiency of goods production and spreading the resulting stuff generously among ordinary people.

Consider William Cronon’s history of Chicago. In the 1830s the city was a fur-trading post of the early capitalist kind – a merchant capitalist enterprise linking foraging peoples of the world system’s outer periphery to the international clothing market. By the 1850s, the fur was mostly gone and Chicago was in its agrarian-industrial phase, using technological developments in transport and storage to link its prairie hinterlands with global markets for meat and grain. Part of this package in the 1850s included the invention of futures markets by the Chicago Board of Trade to help ease the flow of trade in agrarian commodities afflicted by ecological uncertainty. By the 1870s, Chicago was trading about $200 million in actual grain, but $2 billion in grain futures markets where the actual price of grain and the ecological factors affecting the crop no longer mattered. In this virtualisation of the productive economy, the debt state was (re)born in its modern guise – and at what a rate! Karl Marx described capitalism as a process of M → C → M’ (money is turned into commodities, which in their turn are transformed into more money than you started with). But why bother with that troublesome middle ‘C’ if it becomes easier simply to turn money into more money? Well, here’s one reason: Giovanni Arrighi argues that the status of the world’s leading capitalist country has passed from the city-states of Venice and Genoa, to the Netherlands, then to Britain and latterly to the USA. In each case, the period of decline was marked by a growing financialisation in which physical trade or manufacture was supplanted by a virtual economy – a process that seems far advanced in the declining capitalist powers of Britain and the USA today. So maybe there’s a case for keeping the market real. And for remembering that capitalism isn’t fundamentally about ‘the market’ in the sense of furnishing the goods and services that people want, although sometimes it does have that side-effect.

But I’m running ahead of my chronology once again. So a final point about the emergence of capitalism – it had some kind of relation to science, technology and the notion of ‘progress’. But what kind? A common self-conception in the west often conflates various political, economic and intellectual strands into an indissoluble nexus: democracy and political freedom, capitalism, economic efficiency, increasing scientific knowledge and engineering skill, rational enquiry – all flying under the banner of ‘progress’. This particular assemblage came together in the French Enlightenment of the 18th century and has been a pretty immoveable part of the furniture of western thought ever since. According to Immanuel Wallerstein, only a few decades prior to the French Revolution the argument that historical change was desirable and generally moved in a positive direction would have seemed ridiculous to most people, whereas after the Revolution and through to the present the reverse has become true – hence such contemporary panegyrics to modernity as the Ecomodernist Manifesto with its tendentious claim that “humanity has flourished in the last two centuries”. I guess it depends what you mean by flourishing. Certainly, there are a lot more of us than there were two centuries ago. Then again, there are more people suffering malnutrition today than even existed in 1800.

So it’s important, I think, to question the narrative of progress empirically, but it’s even more important to question its generative logic. One of the hallmarks of the modern epoch is its tendency to think that there’s a singular logic to history, usually described with a spatial metaphor. So, according to various modernist schools of thought, history moves ‘forwards’ (progressives), ‘backwards’ (romantics), in circles (Spenglerians) or dialectically (Marxists). I don’t think any of these assertions are wholly true, though doubtless they all capture something of value. The progressive view of history, that it moves ever ‘forwards’, is much the most pervasive in our culture – with the pernicious result that it becomes difficult to suggest there’s anything of value in past ways from which we could learn in the here and now without being indicted for wishing to ‘turn the clock back’. To me, the motion of history seems more multiple, pulling apart the ‘progressive’ nexus of capitalism and Enlightenment: capitalism isn’t intrinsically related to democracy or political freedom, and the pursuit of reason (scientific, technical or political) isn’t always ‘progressive’. But there does seem to be a certain kind of mechanistically reductionist thinking (which I don’t necessarily mean pejoratively) that emerged in Europe coterminously with the rise of capitalism, modern science, and ideas of rationality and social progress as part of the same cultural assemblage. Clearly there are linkages between these phenomena, but I think they’re complex and not simply co-determined – and I’m inclined to pretty much leave that thought there, except for a couple of remarks.

First, the physical and biological sciences in the Enlightenment and the preceding ‘Age of Reason’ made such great strides by looking for hidden, universal patterns in the relations between things that thinkers in the social and political sciences have consistently been in thrall to reductionist, scientific universalism ever since – with results that, by comparison, vary from the disappointing to the disastrous, prompting various counter-movements against universalist reason. But second, on the other hand, one of the features of the modern epoch has been the emergence of a public sphere involving “rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions”. This has been quite consequential for the way that notions like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are construed in contemporary thought, but is also consequential politically – for example, in the mobilisation of middle-class English people (women, especially) against colonial slavery in the 18th century. This wasn’t necessarily the decisive, still less the only, reason for the abolition of slavery, and it’s common to dismiss the significance of such ‘chattering classes’ and their bourgeois concerns for decency – much the same is true today when it comes to issues like climate change and the Transition Towns movement (in both cases the issue turns on the linkages between public culture and private consumption, respectively of sugar and carbon). Though I share this critique of the public sphere up to a point, my feeling is that it can easily slide into complacency, or indeed connivance, regarding the diminished prospects in the absence of a strong public sphere for an information society that can hold power to account, for activism, free association and critical inquiry. Perhaps the modern public sphere has the same function in a virtual realm that the town had for medieval peasants in a physical one – a space unorganisable by coercive power which is therefore able at some level to hold it to account. And while the ‘coercive power’ that I refer to certainly encompasses the kind of formal state power that historically has so often been directed against peasant society from without, it also refers to the more diffuse kinds of power that operate within peasant society – seniors against juniors, men against women, families against individual members threatening their ‘name’, and whole networks of traditional authority operating both independently of and in concert with external power dynamics. My main focus in this essay is on recuperating a version of small-scale, local agrarian society as a vital force for the future prosperity of the world, but the version that I want to recuperate also requires defences against the negative tendencies intrinsic to such a society.

In one way or another, then, the various correlates of capitalism, modernity and ‘progress’ involve political tensions between the universal and the particular. So perhaps more important than the spurious notion of objective historical ‘progress’ is the idea of progress that animates modern thought. In an earlier post, I enthused about the late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, not least for the way it captured the excitement prompted by the concept of the ‘modern’ – the concept of ‘progress’, effectively – for a vast swath of humanity of humble origins who for the first time were able to conceive of themselves as world-historical agents. I was taken to task by various people, not least New York academic Anthony Galluzzo, for falling under Berman’s spell and endorsing his conception of modernity. Anthony – who I confess knows far more than I do about modernist literature and culture – drew my attention to Perry Anderson’s critique of Berman, and registered his own displeasure with Berman for what he saw as a complicity with modernity’s destruction of the non-modern, the violence of ‘progress’ in the face of the non-progressive.

Now, I probably shouldn’t get too side-tracked into this debate here but it raises issues that are relevant to my theme. To my mind, Berman isn’t guilty of a simplistic teleology, a narrative of ‘modernity as progress at all costs’ – rather, he’s interested in tracing some of the new ways in which an idea of ‘the modern’ enabled non-elite people to construct a sense of agency or self-determination in their lives. And in this I think he gets the better of the exchange with Anderson, who has a more elitist and teleological sense of historical progress as a complete overcoming of the disappointing and alienated present: “the vocation of a socialist revolution”, says Anderson, “would be neither to prolong nor to fulfil modernity, but to abolish it”, thereby betraying an ironically modernist urge for radical renewal, rather than a more workaday juggling with the potentialities of the here and now. But perhaps there’s also a paradox in my position inasmuch as ordinary people don’t actually need to conceive of themselves as world-transforming historical agents until they’re enmeshed in a world-transforming historical ideology like modernity. I’d argue that convincing responses to the problems of a given social order do have to be dialectical, subsuming the form of the ideology that they’re striving to overcome. So if the notion of ‘progress’ is the problem, then we need to progress beyond progress! The most promising way of doing so that I can see is via an agrarian self-determination shorn of any ideas about epochal ‘progress’ or ‘regress’. But to achieve it we need a modernist sense of world-historical agency, of collectively bringing something better into being – a better future which is better because it’s not directed to future betterment but because it enables self-realisation in the here and now.

To try to pull together my rather abstract message from the last few paragraphs with a specific example, perhaps I could invoke Roger Scruton’s conservative elegy for the “hard won consolations of the English yeoman farmer” in his book News From Somewhere. There’s much about Scruton’s characterisation of a self-reliant and deeply-rooted local farm community that rings true and would doubtless resonate with agrarian people in other parts of the rural world – a small-c ‘conservative’ world regardless of the more activist political conservatism that Scruton wants to justify from it. But what’s missing from it is the ghost of class conflicts past that delivered this particular version of yeoman England. The difficult job for a modern agrarian populism is to reckon with the reality of contemporary rural life rather than trying to dissolve it, while at the same time remembering that it has a specific history, only one of many possible histories, in which some people’s interests and visions were effaced. It’s easy not to remember this – as, for example, in Robert Macfarlane’s essay on the eeriness of the English countryside, which doesn’t once mention its historical class politics. Well of course it’s eerie – it’s full of defeated ghosts! In the early 19th century, William Cobbett developed a conservative-rural-radical vision for an economy of local self-reliance in the countryside that nevertheless cast a pitiless eye over the exclusionary rural class alliances that immiserated farm labourers, while delivering the world of the yeoman farmer. It’s scarcely been bettered since – certainly not by Scruton, or by other contemporary representations of the ‘countryman’. Ah well, at least we have The Land magazine.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this long analysis of capitalism and the development of the early modern world system together by asserting the following “six things they don’t tell you about capitalism”:

  1. Capitalism isn’t about free wage labour
  2. Capitalism isn’t about political freedom or democracy
  3. Capitalism is achieved by centralised states, not decentralised markets
  4. Capitalism isn’t about science, technology or ‘progress’ – at least, not in any simple sense
  5. Capitalism wasn’t the unique achievement of Europeans
  6. Peasants are the universal class – probably

I hope that the first five points, counterintuitive though they are to the usual stories we tell about capitalism, will make sense on the basis of what I’ve written thus far, even if they might not command your agreement. The sixth may need some further explanation.

Addendum: I’m appending a picture of some soybeans. Clem will explain why below…